I haven’t done any food blogging in a while, but the Shutdown is in day 8 or 9 or something and I suspect there are people who are looking at their bank accounts and starting to get worried. Not just about mortgages or school payments, but about the act of getting a decent meal on the table tonight.

It’s a problem that women (let’s face it, mostly women) have faced throughout history. Down through the generations, the centuries, the millennia, they’ve faced down the challenge of getting something reasonable on the table in hard times. You can, too. In fact, depending on your pantry, my beans on toast will run you about $5 to feed a family of four, comfortably. And it will give you a head start on tomorrow’s meal.

Shopping/pantry list:
1 lb. bag of dried white beans (whatever is cheapest)
Olive oil
1 bundle swiss chard

In the morning, rinse and pick through the beans to make sure there are no rocks. Mix together in a large bowl (I like my red speckleware for this) 1 gallon of water (16 cups) and 3 T of salt. Stir the water until the salt is dissolved and then pour the beans in. Put it to one side, noting the time. You’ll need to take it out after about 8 hours.

Now make bread.

If you don’t know how to make bread, it’s not hard. It’s really not. Making amazing, fall-down, to-die-for French bread is hard — I’ve been cranking out two or three loaves a week for 20 years and I don’t make that kind of bread. But an everyday loaf requires very little genius. I will do a post on how to make a great load at some point, but the internet is full of ways to make bread. You can do a no-knead method that takes a full day, Alton Brown’s most-of-the-day loaf, or you can go to Craig’s List and get a second hand bread machine for $20. There are about 50 listed on my city’s page right now.

And yes, making bread is a skill. But if you’re furloughed, you have time. Learn this skill and save yourself a lot of money — flour is almost always cheaper than bread.

Once you beans have soaked for 8 hours, drain and rinse them. Then put them into a pot and cover them with cold clear water. If you have it, add a bay leaf, thyme, half an onion, or some other aromatic that you love. Bring the water to a boil, lower to a simmer, and cook until the beans are done. This varies a lot depending on the bean, so start checking at about half an hour. Taste test at least four beans each time you test because they cook at different rates some times. It may take three or four, in dire cases. Start early in the afternoon.

Once the beans are tender, drain them in your sink. (Really thrifty cooks will save the bean water. I’m not telling you to do it, I’m just saying that they do.) Take about half the beans and put them into a snaptop in the fridge. You’ll eat them later in the week.

Take the warm half that you still have in front of you and put it into some machine to mash them up. A food processor is best for this, but a blender will do. If you don’t have a blender, put them in a bowl and grab a potato masher. If you don’t have any of these things, borrow them from a friend.

Before you mash the beans, though, add a few large glugs of olive oil, a hefty three-finger pinch of salt, and a bit of water. Now, mash the beans into a smooth paste. Think hummus. Once you’ve achieved that consistency, add minced garlic. Taste. Is it good? If not, add more salt, oil, and garlic, in small amounts, until it is good.

You can also add any other flavorings that may be hanging around in your pantry. Dried oregano or thyme. Fresh basil or parsley from your garden. Lemon juice. My daughter likes lime juice in it. Those jarred roasted red peppers you bought for that tapas party last summer? Excellent addition. That onion-bacon jam that your weird aunt gave you for your birthday? It’s fantastic with this. (And, yes, I’m the weird aunt who gives onion-bacon jam to people for their birthdays.)

Set that to one side. Now take your swiss chard and chop it up into narrow ribbons about as wide as your little finger. Cut the stems a little smaller — maybe as wide as a pencil. Dump them into a big bowl of cold water (my red enamelware again). Swish them around and let them sit while you put a skillet on the stove. Add about 1/16 of an inch of olive oil to the bottom of the pan and get it warm (not hot). Then add the dripping mess of greens from the bowl into the warm oil. It will spit and sizzle but not too loudly. If it’s loud enough to be alarming, turn the heat down. If you have to strain to hear the sizzle, turn it up slightly. Add a generous pinch of salt.

Use tongs to toss the greens in the warm oil. This is mildly tricky, because no matter how big your skillet is, there are always more greens in a bunch than fit comfortably in a skillet. This irritating fact is actually deliberate — the greens will wilt down to a fraction of the volume very quickly. So slowly and patiently turn the greens over and over, don’t mind if you spill a few. Your honey will clean up the stove because you’re cooking. Keep turning as the greens start to glisten darkly and begin to wilt. Keep turning. If you bought rainbow chard or ruby chard, the water in the pan will turn a shocking shade of pink. Once the chard is limp and reduced to a pile of luscious shreds, you need to add some garlic. How much garlic is up to you. One clove is fine. One head is fine.

Toss the garlic with the greens for about 30 seconds. Then add about 2 tablespoons of whatever vinegar you have in the house. I like cider vinegar for this, but wine or flavored vinegars are fine, too. Toss some more. Taste it. Does it taste good? If not, add more garlic, oil, vinegar, or salt until it does.

Now, you can serve the bean spread on fresh bread or on toast. You can serve the greens on the side or even on the bean spread. Either way, you have a whole meal for about $5.

Tomorrow, what to do with those leftover beans.

Variety at school

  And here’s why I need to pack variety.  I know she has time, that last snack box came home empty.  This one?  I added carrots because she was standing there in the morning asking for carrots.  What did she eat?  The turkey/tortilla rolls.  That’s it.  And she told me she didn’t like the things in it today, I shouldn’t put them in again.  I pointed out that everything she hadn’t eaten either she’d eaten yesterday, or asked for today, so she ate the rest on the way home.  Or most of the rest, her brother begged at least half the carrots.

I have another new tactic.  When I go to pick her up, I bring an apple for everyone, and we all munch them on the way home.  Note: I need to bring a bag for cores.  I tried bringing a snack for when we get there one day, but I don’t think she needs it.

Now here’s my next problem:  What do I feed them for lunch?  Lunch is now later than it was, because at lunchtime we’re still walking home.  I think I need stuff I can pull out of the fridge.  Pasta salads or something.  I’m so used to just saying ‘well, what are we in the mood for?’  Yay for mommy-transitions. :P

First Snack of School

  So Cynthia has half days for the first month, and doesn’t need to take a lunch.  She does need to take a snack.  We were advised to send ‘one item to eat and one item to drink’.  This is good and all, but what on earth do I send, that I can be sure will be what she needs at snacktime?  She has yogurt and granola for breakfast, so that means what she really needs at snack is vegetables, but veggies are not filling.  So I went the ‘overdoing it’ route, and sent in a couple bites of everything.

We have here a… roughly 3×5″ box.  I didn’t measure before it left this morning.  It contains a 2×3″ (I guess?) turkey sandwich, a small tomato cut to fit the box, a slice of cheddar cut into a heart, and a few sugar snap peas.  She can eat what she likes, I’ll see what comes home.

It worked pretty well.  I have cheddar flowers and hearts in a box in the fridge, and watermelon hearts and flowers in another box.  I don’t know how the watermelon will work, it might get drippy.  The sandwich is the size of a piece of bread folded in half, I squared it and ate the curves.  It was fun, this morning’s prep was fast (I did the hearts and flowers over the weekend), and Cynthia was thrilled.

Now I just have to figure out what to feed her after school!

So, you know how some people, when they are nervous, especially about something they can’t affect, take all their anxiety and squish it into something they can affect? That’s me. And the Child starts Kindergarten on Tuesday and I’ve spent the summer obsessing about school lunches.

Hearthwife is much more sane than I am and has merely thought about school lunches (see her post below), but I’m happy to know I’m not the only one obsessing. There’s a XX article on Slate, a food safety article on the NYTimes, and, of course, there are the BentoMoms. BentoMoms are crazy. Not bad-crazy but still way past what I’m willing to do. I mean, I’ll obsess but there will never be radish mice in my daughter’s lunchbox.

Growing up, I’d buy my little red and white carton of tepid milk, but ate the peanut butter on Wonder bread sandwich my mom stuck into a brown paper bag every day. I know there was more in the bag than just the sandwich, but I don’t remember the details, except that she used to buy those Frito Lay Variety Snack Packs. This is weird because I don’t remember ever liking anything in those packs. I do remember a lot of horse trading around the lunch table.

This is, of course, all anathema in modern helicopter parenting. Kids are trained never to share or trade food because of allergies. Parents are exhorted to send in whole grain bread and fruit, not Wonder and Doritos. (Maybe I liked Doritos?) And peanuts are just verboten anywhere there are children, it seems. (My friend T. has words to say about this.)

And, of course, there won’t be disposable brown lunch bags for my little one. I bought (at great expense) a set of stainless steel containers made by the irritatingly named LunchBots company. The containers are actually quite awesome — large ones for sandwiches, divided ones for everything else, and small round ones for GORP and yogurt and hummus and dips. Best of all? Dishwasher safe.

Nor will she be buying milk in those narsty little cardboard-ish cartons that never opened cleanly and always made the milk taste like wax. It’s not an option at her school. So I bought a Klean Kanteen (what is it with these brand names?) and she’s asked for iced raspberry tea.

She could buy lunch. But she can’t buy lunch on Tuesday and bring it on Wednesday. Either she’s always on the lunch program or she always packs. (I pack a snack either way.) To be wholly honest, I don’t have any faith at all in what the school system thinks in healthy, so she’s packing. There’s free breakfast available to all children but, again, I won’t let her eat that when she could have a healthy breakfast at home, around our table, with both parents.

At some point I’ll do a more thoughtful post on the issues around children’s nutrition, income, free lunches/breakfast, and the very serious issues around that. It’s particularly pertinent because of May’s school. I’ll even do a post on the Chocolate Milk Issue. Not today though.

May is a much bigger girl than Cynthia (Hearthwife’s kindergartner) and she will be having a much longer school day. My lunch-to-pack list includes a lot more calories and particularly more protein. What’s more, May’s really distract-able and tends not to eat unless reminded. (If I don’t remind her, she has a low-blood-sugar meltdown.) So I’m probably going to be packing as much oomph, calorically, into each bite I send.

But… I don’t want to get her into the habit of eating high-calorie foods, because she’s lovely and slim now but I’m not, nor is her father. She’s fighting a a genetic battle here and I want to make sure her brain gets wired the right way, not the wrong way. But short lunch times, long school days, and a very tall sturdy girl all combine to create a bad situation.

All of that said, she’s already picked her first-day-of-school menu. A lamb sandwich with goat cheese, arugula, and roasted red peppers; carrots and hummus; a granola bar; yogurt; raspberry iced tea. I’m going to spend the whole damned weekend cooking, it sounds like.

School lunch

Some time ago, I got worried about school lunches, and immersed myself briefly in bento blogs.  Then stuff happened.  Then I got back from vacation, and realized I have very little time to figure this out!  Actually it’s not so bad as all that, because the Kindergarteners in my city ease into things, having half days until October.  I still need to send a snack, but that’s different.  Not only that, but I keep expecting to get rules of some kind.  No nuts, no peanuts, no chocolate milk, no soup, no… I don’t know what they would forbid, and that worries me.  So, I’m testing portable food.  And thinking very hard.  Here are some things I’m thinking.

  • Omelettes:  I saw in some bento lunches, very very thin omelettes rolled up tight.  Taste test = happy.  I can’t roll them as tightly, partly because I lack practice, and partly because I put in minced green pepper too.  Cheese helps the roll stick together, the shape makes it easy finger food, and I found that by using a pastry brush I can get enough butter for flavour in the pan without overwhelming it.  Slightly labor-intensive for a weekday morning, but if I keep the minced pepper and grated cheese on hand, it takes barely longer than a sandwich.  In my small pan, I think 2/3 egg per roll works perfectly, which looks like a reasonable size for a 5 year old, but we’ll see.  The pepper in this, by the way, is not a veggie serving, just a flavouring.
  • Sliced veggies:  This is obvious, of course, but I need to remember to cut things up as I buy them, so I can just grab them and dump them in the lunches.  Fruit is tougher, it mostly ought to be cut up that morning.  Oh, and cooking veggies too, and be steamed fast in small quantities if they’re already cut.
  • Sandwiches:  I hope they allow nut butters.  Combine with jam, or bananas.  Also cucumber/mint (if it’s in a cool box, I make those with mayo), hummus/red pepper, and various things I haven’t thought of yet.  Sandwiches are slightly complicated due to children deconstructing some types more than others.
  • Beans:  With Cynthia, I’m lucky.  She’ll just eat canned beans by the bowlful.  If I run out of protein ideas, there’s always that.  Nathaniel won’t, but he doesn’t need the lunches yet.
  • Jerky: I actually like making jerky, when I get to it, and the kids love it.  Definitely not an everyday thing, or even every week, but a reasonable thing to have in the rotation.
  • Marinated chicken:  My current theory is, freeze small containers in marinade, thaw and cook the day before.  I’ll need to cook several lunches’ worth at once though, I just can’t deal with piles of itty bitty containers in the freezer.
  • Frozen corn and peas:  Instant vegestarch.  They can keep other things cold while they’re thawing, too!
  • Pasta in parmesan:  Both kids love this.  Can be combined into pasta salad, or put in its own corner, it’s all good.
  • Bread of course:  In sandwiches, or just as bread & butter.  I sometimes freeze risen but uncooked buns, with cheese and meat and veggie filling.  Sort of like an instead calzone, except more bread than filling.  If I can find a filling combination which my kids will eat, that will rock. :P  No matter how much they like what I put inside, once it’s inside they don’t seem to want it.
  • Cheese:  Again, this works if the box is cold.  I do have boxes with freeze-packs in the lids, but the boxes are a bit too tall and narrow to be convenient.  They work best for mixed things like pasta/quinoa salad, or stir-fry.

Then there are things I haven’t tested yet.

  • Quinoa Quiche:  You ought to be able to dump a bit of cooked quinoa into a quiche, making it slightly less unhealthy.  It’s also possible that you could take strips of quiche and roll them up in tortillas.
  • Burritos:  I haven’t made these in a while, not since Cynthia was able to eat them rolled up.  I should see whether she appreciates them.

Then there are the extras, which are mostly plots so I can eat sugar.

  • Thin pancakes, rolled up with or nutella or jam.
  • Fruit leather, cut with mini cookie cutters so that I can eat the extra.
  • Crispy treats, with brown rice puffs or 7-grain puffs and peanut butter.  (My husband laughs at me for trying to make rice krispie treats healthy.  But I can barely eat the normal ones, they’re sweeter than candy.  I’m just trying to make them taste better!)

This is the first time I tried to write down any of this, so obviously I haven’t gotten everything in my head, never mind all the stuff which ought to be in my head.  But I’d love other ideas!

Pancetta starts with P

This month’s Charcutepalooza challenge was curing bacon or pancetta. I split the difference and chose the pancetta recipe but without the rolling. The fresh bacon / belly I had in my freezer was a pretty small amount – the wrong shape to roll it up into a pretty spiral. It’ll taste the same anyway. And it wound up fairly pretty and round:

pancetta slice

Apparently I should have removed the skin before curing – at least if I was going to roll it up into a cylinder which now has a curved, hard, skin on the end. Oh well. Lesson learned for next time. And there will be a next time. YUM.

I was saving my last few parsnips from the winter farmshare this season for one of my favorite dishes starring parsnips. Conveniently, it also needs pancetta. I first found a version of this recipe from Martha Stewart. (I know, I know.. but it’s tasty, and simple.) Martha obviously doesn’t serve this to kids in pre-k, or have the same sense of humor as I do, though, so she ignores the great alliteration potential – Pasta with Parsnips, Parmesan, Pancetta, Pepper, and Parsley. I made both the 5 year old and the other grownup laugh by pairing it with Pink grapefruit juice. “Mommy, why did you make grapefruit juice? That doesn’t start with P.” “Ah. But what color grapefruit did it come from?”

pasta with parsnips, parmesan, pancetta, pepper, and parsley

The first project in Charcutepalooza, the one I read about just as it was happening, was duck prosciutto. Take a duck breast, cover it in salt for a day, then hang it to dry for a week, and you’re done. So I headed to Sherman Market, picked up a duck breast from New York State, and gave it a try.

I wasn’t particularly afraid to start making the duck prosciutto. After all, I’ve tried salting cod before, and this wasn’t so different, plus the weather cooperated. I didn’t even check that I knew where our cheesecloth was before I stuck the duck breast into the salt in the fridge overnight. (And then I didn’t. Know where it was, that is. Did you know that a “turkey stuffing kit” from the supermarket contains a cheesecloth bag, twine, and bits of metal that make adequate hooks to hang up a piece of meat to dry?)

What it turned out I was somewhat afraid of was eating the duck prosciutto. You see, it’s supposed to turn firmer after a day dehydrating in the salt, and then firm up as it turns into a cured meat product hanging in a cool space for a week. And it *seemed* different – but I’ve never eaten duck prosciutto, nor have I eaten anything I’ve cured that wasn’t also meant to be cooked before eating.

Then I decided that it looked a bit like bacon, with the nice red color, the gorgeous strip of fat on one side..the not-so-thin slices I was able to make… So our first taste of the duck prosciutto was fried up bacon-style, to go along with a little french toast. Tasty, and cured-tasting like bacon. Not too crispy because I like my bacon to taste meaty anyway. But still, not the most exciting texture, and not worth buying a duck breast and then watching it cure for a week, either.

So. I had to convince myself it was really cured. A little more poking, a little more prodding, a small nibble from my husband and I , and we proclaimed it safe to eat. (Also, tasty. Pretty intense flavor, and very smooth and silky.)

For lunch I ate this salad, with some generous slices of duck proscuitto without further cooking, beets, potatoes, and tiny greens grown in a greenhouse in Westport MA, and a little vinaigrette.

I’m still here.

duck pancetta salad


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