Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Taking on the Hunger Challenge

The United Way of King County Hunger Challenge asks this week if you can "eat breakfast, lunch and dinner spending only $7 a day for five days. That's the reality for people who rely on food stamps"

That $7 is the rate for a single person; the budget is progressively larger for two to eight persons. The Hunger Challenge allowed only salt and pepper as a freebie in the rules, so what was really on the front burner for me this week was extra virgin olive oil and spices. I had to factor those essentials into my meals.

Sure, I can cook up a big pot of beans but then what? I spiked the oatmeal with a big pinch of cinnamon, so what does an ounce of cinnamon cost? I'm no spendthrift, but having to think about how much a bowl of oatmeal costs really does drive home the point that I would have to be much more aware than I usually am about where my food dollars go and the choices I have to make.

I got an interesting response from a friend who considered the $7 a day rule and didn't bat an eyelash. To her credit, she's always been quite frugal about most everything, even with the project manager-type job she has. I like to eat out a lot, as well as cook at home, so I had to think a bit more about how to do this challenge.

First, of course, I would not eat out or order take-out this week. Second, what kind of dishes could I make that would stretch easily? The recipe that follows is one example how I could do that stretch. I shopped at my usual nearby markets including Safeway, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods and a fruit stand that are all walking distance if you're into urban hiking.

Since I live within walking distance of a WF, my ongoing personal challenge is to find the best stuff I can regularly afford there. This past week, as usual, I headed to the bulk bins. Oatmeal, brown rice and dried Great Northern beans ranged in price from approximately 89 cents to $1.69 / lb. Oatmeal for breakfast, brown rice to go with the beans or practically anything else, and dried beans to cook up and throw into dishes.

Flipping through the small stack of cookbooks I have, the Sicilian Corkscrews with White Beans caught my eye. It's from "The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper" (By Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Sally Swift, 2008), a collection of recipes, wit and wisdom from the renowned public radio show for people who love to eat. Pasta and beans with cheese; this dish can be stretched easily and tastes even better the next day. Here's the recipe annotated with what I used and approximate prices for each ingredient.

  • 8 oz. pasta (half a box of Barilla Plus penne on sale at Safeway, $1.00)
  • 6 T. good tasting extra-virgin olive oil (WF 365 brand, 95 cents)
  • Half a large red onion, sliced in thin half-rounds (part of a TJ's packaged onion trio, 66 cents)
  • 6 garlic cloves, fine chopped, (from a WF packaged trio, 83 cents.)
  • 3 tight-packed tablespoons Italian parsley ( from a bunch at Safeway, 33 cents)
  • 2 T. tomato paste (25 cents)
  • A half-teaspoon Tabasco sauce (10 cents)
  • 3 cups of Great Northern beans (the recipe uses canned but I used the dried beans I had cooked the day the before, 67 cents)
  • A quarter to a third cup of fresh grated Parmegiano-Regiano (the luxury item from WF that provided a ton of flavor, $2.50)

The recipe calls for cooking the onion, garlic and parsley in extra-virgin olive oil. Next, add the beans, tomato paste and salt and pepper to taste. Stir it up and you're done with the beans.

Next, cook the pasta in salted water ("The water should taste like the sea," Kasper wrote.) and reserve a cup or more of the pasta water when done. Then add the cooked pasta to the beans. Add about a cup or more of the pasta water to complete making the sauce. Finish with grating the cheese into the pan and stirring to combine.

This recipe made four servings. I could see, however, that I could stretch it by adding more of the salted pasta water and tomato paste. I could probably get away with adding the other half of the box of pasta I cooked as well as more beans and still get good flavor.

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