Thursday, April 29, 2010

#CAFB Food Blogger Project Day 4: "Sort Of" Pad Thai

So a few days ago, Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon from the Austin American Statesman paid us a visit to talk to us about the food blogger project, just in time to sample one of our more, um, daring recipes we made this week.

Jorge interviewed us on camera and took some shots of us cooking our dish for the night, which was probably your average run of the mill day for him, but for us it was pretty exciting and somewhat nerve-
wracking. The final cut of the video should be out early next week and we will definitely be posting in on the site. (Everyone should check out my mad knife skills, courtesy of the knife skills class Han got me for my birthday...)

Well so far all of our recipes have stayed pretty true to the original dishes, mainly because we were able to get key ingredients that we needed from our stash, such as rice and flour. Today, we posed a question of what happens when you don't get everything you need and you need to make some rather drastic substitutions?

Case in point: families who receive supplements from the Capital Area Food Bank gene
rally don't get any rice noodles (although understandably so...). So what's a recently-immigrated Asian family to do if they want some pad thai?

We looked at the ingredient list and thought that, while some suspension of disbelief might be necessary, we just might be able to make a half-decent pad thai dish out of everything.

  • 1/2 package of Spaghetti (cooked)
  • 1 can of mixed vegetables
  • 1 can of mushrooms
  • 2 eggs
  • Oyster sauce
  • Fish sauce
  • Sugar
  • 2 cloves garlic (minced)
  • 10 leaves basil (from our garden)
  • 1 tbsp Canola oil
  • 1/4 cup dry roasted peanuts, crushed
At this point, I'd like to make a quick note that oyster sauce and fish sauce are both very common Thai ingredients and we are working under the assumption that these are ingredients a recently-immigrated family would keep stocked.

Anyways, the first step we did was to heat the canola oil in a wok for a minute or so. Break the eggs into the wok and scramble lightly until mostly cooked. Add the minced garlic and mix. Mix in the spaghetti and stir fry until the egg is mixed in well. Add in the mushrooms and
vegetables and keep mixing!

Next comes the actual seasoning. Many Thai dishes have three common ingredients, each with its own distinct flavor - sugar (sweet), oyster sauce (savory), and fish sauce (umami??)

Together they combine to make the distinctly "Thai" flavor that you may recognize, and the ratio of the three can really make a big difference in the way the dish tastes. Try and experiment til you find a combination you like!

As for us, we generally like it heavy on the fish sauce, with about 3 or 4 "globs" of oyster sauce, and about a tablespoon of sugar. Just dump the ingredients right on the dish and keep stir-frying until it's dissolved.

Lastly, tear up the basil leaves and mix in to the pad thai. If you happen to have some bean sprouts lying around, you can add them here too. Sprinkle the crushed peanuts on the dish and you're ready to serve.

The result? Something that looks absolutely nothing like pad thai! But in total honesty it tasted pretty good. For sure the spaghetti in place of rice noodles was pretty weird, and of course our distaste for canned vegetables has already been well documented, but the mushrooms were actually pretty good, and if we had added some chicken or shrimp, I think this definitely could have been something.

Check back soon for our final post for the project!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

#CAFB Hunger Project: Lessons Learned

We are a little over half way through our week of meager eating. Even though we are not sticklers to the food pantry menu, it is incredible what we have already learned thus far. There is so much we take for granted everyday. I've also learned a lot about myself and what I am willing to sacrifice in the name of taste. Food is a delightful pleasure, and when I am not able to enjoy it, I would just rather not eat. It has been difficult to change my mentality from "live to eat" to "eat to live." Here are a few other take-home-messages:
  • This may be obvious, but food = brain power. When whatever available is unappetizing, or if I make a conscious effort to not spend money on lunch, I make the incredibly poor choice of not eating at all. I don't notice an energy crash or stabbing hunger pains. Instead, the world feels like it is in slow motion and my reaction time is greatly reduced. My concentration sucks, and I become moody and mean. Not a great combination. I have to make a conscious effort to eat, for health and mood sake. Definitely a newly adopted "eat to live" mentality.
  • Frozen veggies are SO much better than canned veggies. The difference is surprisingly noticeable. Of course fresh produce trumps them all, but I will take microwaved frozen green giant over mushy canned peas any day!
  • That being said, canned mushrooms are delicious! They retain their firmness and flavor quite well. I guess some veggies just can better than others.
  • Beggars CAN be choosers. I will always take advantage of free food. But since this year, we have made a resolution to eat sustainably, cutting out factory farmed meat all together. We were at a baseball game with a free buffet, but without any veggie options. Ordinarily, I would've bought something else (nachos and cheese pizza anyone??). But in the spirit of this project, I tried to make do with what was available. I made a delicious potato-chip burger, complete with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, cheese, ketchup and mustard. It was yummy, I didn't even miss the protein. The chips added a nice crunch and texture.
  • It is very difficult, if not impossible to eat organic sustainable meat on a limited budget. It's as simple as Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Until your basic nutrition and hunger needs are met, who cares about the welfare of animals? You are going to make your dollar stretch as far as possible, regardless of the hidden costs. Unfortunately, the $8 terraburger is no match for Mickey D's dollar value menu.
  • Eating nutritious, well-balanced, and healthy meals takes practice with this diet. As you may have noticed, most of our recipes have been loaded with carbs. I'm sure it becomes easier to expand your repertoire. It is even harder with our "no-factory-farmed-meat" rule. Seafood is expensive. So is any organic meat. With a vegetarian diet, it is hard to get your protein. It's too bad the food pantry doesn't give out tofu! We have been relying on eggs, beans, and mushrooms for protein.
  • Variety is a luxury. We ate congee every morning for 4 days, and got quite sick of it. That was only 4 days!! As foodies, we really appreciate variation in our diet. I know some people like eating cereal every morning, but we are not those people. I try not to eat the same thing more than two days in a row.
  • We've had to get creative with our leftovers. I made mashed potatoes for dinner one night. The next day Justin made potato, egg, and cheese breakfast tacos, with some barbecue sauce. I added some wasabi and green onions to it for lunch as a side to my (non-food pantry) salmon. We finished off the potatoes, but had we had anymore, I was considering making it into a a chilled potato soup. Ah the possibilities!
  • There needs to be policy changes around food and nutrition in our country. Who can blame anyone for choosing a super-sized value meal (subsidized by government money for corn and ranching) over a spring salad that costs exactly the same?? What are our children eating for school lunches? A few things I remember from my teaching days are: frito pie, pizza, corndogs, nachos, and processed/packaged PB&J on white crustless bread. Keep in mind that for many kids, this is their only solid meal of the day. Full of fat, carbs, sodium, and sugar. As a testament to this, I gained 15lbs while teaching, from eating those lunches (oreos and chips for snacktime didn't help either... but that's what the parents brought!) and I lost that weight after moving to Austin and changing my diet. No wonder we have such round kiddos these days.
  • Major kudos to CAFB for providing nutrition education to families. Kids are picky eaters, and when you are trying to make ends meet, you don't exactly have the time or resources to get creative with making kid-approved healthy meals. I had one student who ONLY ate McDonald's, no joke. He refused all other food, threw his lunch away every day. Granted he had autism, and his parents just didn't know what to do. To make sure he ate, they gave in to his demands everyday. This was a huge financial drain on the family, not to mention nutritionally unacceptable. What else can you do? Thank you CAFB for your cooking classes and outreach to teach these families healthy alternatives.

Monday, April 26, 2010

#CAFB Food Blogger Project Day 3: Cong You Bing (Scallion Pancake)

So a quick announcement: we just got word that the Austin American Statesman is coming over to our house tomorrow to film a piece on the food blogger project. I think they're going to interview us and maybe film some shots of us cooking. Ack! Gotta clean...

Anyways, today's dish is somewhat of a dim sum classic, known in Chinese as cong you bing, and known in English by many names -- green onion pie, scallion pancake, etc. -- mainly because it's hard to really describe what's going on here that actually sounds appealing.

In essence, it's fried dough, with onions and salt, and when made correctly, is darn delicious. The recipe below, though, is a somewhat modified version, slightly different than what you will get at Chinese restaurants. This is actually something College Justin used to make all the time, particularly because it was tasty and inexpensive. The ingredients are simple:
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup chopped green onion
  • 1 egg (beaten)
  • water
  • salt
  • oil
You will also need some kind of flat surface, like a cutting board or a clean countertop. Also this is incredibly messy so be sure to wash your hands often and remove any jewelry.

Start out by pouring the flour into a big bowl. Pour about 1/4 cup of water in the bowl and start mixing. A flour dough will start to form. Form as much clay into a ball as you can, about the size of a ping pong ball.

Flatten the dough on the surface and mix in a little bit of the egg. This is when it starts to get really messy. Once the egg is mixed in, add flour to the dough until it is dry. Add water and flour to the ball until it is about the size of a squash ball (that may or may not help - roughly 1.5" in diameter).

Flatten the dough again and mix in about a tablespoon of the green onion until it is completely meshed into the dough. Dust with some flour on both sides and repeat the entire process creating pancakes until the flour and green onions run out.

Next heat up some oil in a frying pan, and fry the pancakes for about 1-2 minutes on each side until fully cooked. Once each pancake is finished place on a paper towel to dry. Sprinkle some salt to taste and enjoy.

Now as I said this is something I used to make all the time. In fact this is probably the first time since college that I've made it, in a time when both money and nutrition value had little meaning to me. This time around I made about 10 pancakes, and Han and I literally just ate that for lunch and nothing else.

The other day I talked about how hard it is to eat healthily on a budget because the cost of fresh produce is so cost ineffective. Along the same line, it's very cheap to make food that still tastes pretty good, despite having little to no nutritional value.

Back in humanity's hunter/gatherer days, salt and fat were pretty rare and our bodies needed to get them whenever it was possible. As such, to this day, our bodies are pre-programmed to crave these things, even though they are both widely available and very inexpensive.

As delicious as it is, cong you bing is pretty much nothing but salt and fat (and carbs). It's generally served as a side dish, but after today, I can definitely see how someone might choose to eat this and nothing else for an entire meal or maybe even an entire day.

I think this might be part of the reason why it seems almost all cultures have some sort of fried dough dish -- doughnuts, churros, Indian fry bread, etc. People in every country have hunger issues, and it makes sense that they may try to feed themselves in the most inexpensive yet satisfying ways possible for them.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

#CAFB Food Blogger Project Day 2: Garlic Fried Rice

At the Hunger Awareness Project kickoff meeting last week, Lisa Goddard, the Online Marketing Director at CAFB, said that she had no real ideas on what to expect out of the food bloggers this week, and she liked that. She said that each face who comes into the Capital Area Food Bank has a completely different story, from the homeless man living on the street, to the mother of three who, although still fully employed, still just needs a little something extra to fill her pantry because she's unable to do so on her own means.
We're a few days into the project and I continue to be amazed as to the different stories that are emerging out of everyone else's experiences who are also on the project (Check out the other blogs as well, if you haven't gotten a chance already). Many of the bloggers, such as Something to Chew On and Austin Farm to Table, are diving full on into the hunger experience, eating nothing but stuff from the sample list for an entire week. As for us, we kind of made the executive decision to work with the list kind of like a Top Chef challenge. We want to produce some reasonably tasty Asian-inspired dishes made largely from the sample list with a few low-cost additions. The reason for this is, first, because we're much more familiar with Asian cooking than any other kind. But also our hope is that maybe (just maybe) a family who takes from the CAFB regularly who might be a little weary of Hamburger Helper and spaghetti marinara might somehow stumble upon these recipes and eat some dishes they might not normally get to eat.

Today's recipe is probably not one that's unfamiliar to any of you: garlic fried rice. Once again, the ingredients are mostly taken from the sample list of items visitors to the Capital Area Food Bank may receive:
  • 4 cups of white rice
  • 1 can of mixed vegetables (any mix will do, but we used peas and carrots)
  • Any protein that is available (chicken, pork, beef)
In addition, we are adding the following, which might already be available in many kitchens or at most would cost a few dollars at the grocery store:
  • 2 cloves garlic (minced)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 cup chopped green onions
  • Soy sauce
  • Salt and pepper
  • Oil
The first step is the heat up a big wok or any large frying pan (with high sides, if possible) with a tablespoon of oil. Break the eggs open and scramble. Once the egg is mostly solidified, mix in the garlic, followed by the rice. As an aside, Mama Ren insists that the rice you add should be as old as possible to fully maximize the flavor of the rice. I will add that freshly cooked rice seems to work just fine and rice that is over 3 days old should probably be thrown out for safety's sake.

Stir-fry the rice and eggs until everything is hot (should be about 5 minutes depending on how cold the rice was initially). Next add in bite-size pieces any pre-cooked protein and stir fry for 2 minutes.

(Just like the congee, this dish goes great with whatever you have, leftover rotisserie chicken, pork chops, whatever.)

Drain the mixed vegetables and add them in as well, mixing while you add. Add in some soy sauce (to taste, although adding too much may make the rice soupy) and add salt and pepper (also to taste). Lastly add in the green onions and stir fry for another minute. Let sit for 5 minutes while the sauces absorb into the rice and it's ready to serve.

We make this dish a lot because it is fun to make and there is a lot of room for creativity. Sometimes we like using some green curry, other times we'll mix in some oyster sauce, fish sauce, and fresh basil for more of a Thai twist. But in almost all instances we like to use fresh vegetables, whatever we have lying around. Sometimes in a pinch I've used frozen vegetables, but this was the first time we've used canned vegetables and it was a pretty noticeable difference. Even as someone who is pretty adamant about the importance of eating vegetables with every meal, for a split-second I wondered if I should leave the canned vegetables out of the recipe.

This brings to light something which, in my mind, is a key issue in hunger awareness. Even if you are provide enough food for you family in terms of sustenance, it is simply not cost-effective to make the choice to eat healthy.

If we were making this dish like we normally do, I would have added in some bell peppers, celery, some broccoli, and maybe some carrots, but that would have increased the cost of the dish by about five times. Even just adding one fresh vegetable ingredient might double it.

A few weeks ago in the Austin Chronicle, Belinda Acosta wrote an article about the ABC show "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" that pointed out the fact that it's somewhat unfair to lambast middle Americans for making poor food choices when in reality it's not that feasible economically:

"[W]hen it comes right down to it, it's more profitable to create processed, unhealthy food than food that is good for the American people. When a person of limited means is trying to decide between a bundle of fresh broccoli and a bag of processed food that only requires the addition of a cheap cut of meat or pasta to feed a whole family, what do you think the logical choice is?"

With this in mind, it makes it all the more impressive that the Capital Area Food Bank boasts one of the largest fresh produce distributions in the country. The Fresh Food for Families program distributes an average of 30 pounds of food to more than 3,600 families each month.

When it comes right down to it, my distaste for canned vegetables might be seen as just me being overly picky. But it is quite the blessing that so many families, thanks to the CAFB, actually get to make that choice.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Day 1: Skipping lunch

Hi there, Han here. I am not a big lunch-eater. I tend to have whatever Justin makes for breakfast, and bring a few snacks with me to nosh on during the day in lieu of an actual lunch. As a graduate student, my time is limited, and whatever break I take for lunch, comes out of my own time. I would much rather eat at my desk at my research job and get paid for that hour, then go somewhere to eat. Even microwaving something quick is too much effort in my book. My nutrition probably suffers because of this, but I do try to bring healthy, easy snacks.

On most days, I have gotten into a habit of bringing these snacks with me to class/work: Lara bar (or Luna bar), trail mix, piece of fruit, diet coke, and chocolate (what can i say... I'm a stressed out woman!) On Thursdays, I go up to a high school to do individual therapy with students as part of my practicum. This involves the rare day of the week where I must dress like I'm older than 15, and carry a bag that isn't a backpack. Yesterday morning, I forgot to transfer my prepackaged snacks from my backpack to my grown-up-bag. Alas, I found myself at lunchtime, without any food, and not even my diet coke. What to do? On a usual day, I'd probably head to Subway and spend the $5 on something quick. But in the spirit of this project, I opted to truck along on an empty stomach. The afternoon passed by quickly, and I made it back home around 4 p.m. It had been 8 hours since I last ate, and my body had made it past grumbling hunger to the "I'm so hungry that I don't even feel hungry anymore" stage. I ate something, but don't even remember what I ate because I was so fuzzy headed. What I do remember is the absolutely foul mood I was in. I was so cranky and emotional, for no particular reason at all. It took me a few hours and snacks to get back into a decent state of mind. The whole afternoon/evening was disorienting and not enjoyable.

This was just one day of skipping lunch. Now imagine the countless number of people who do this every day. There are so many children whose only solid meal each day is lunch at school. They are expected to make it through the afternoon, using their brains, and then go home and do homework, without the chance to eat a filling dinner. How can they realistically function without the necessary brain food? When I was teaching, the mother of one of my students told me that her secret to staying thin was that her only meal of the day was dinner. The rest of the day, she would cook for her children, but not eat any herself. It amazed me then, and it astonishes me now. Not merely the fact that she had to live like this, but also her ability to joke about her circumstances as a weight loss plan. She has to take care of 3 young kids, go to work, and maintain her sense of humor, all on one meal a day... WOW. I couldn't even smile after skipping 1 meal! For me, hunger is temporary-- the few minutes before dinner, the week of doing a blogging project, the hours between breakfast and dinner. For so many others, hunger is perpetual. Let's not forget that when we eat our next meal.

#CAFB Food Blogger Project Day 1: Congee

So as Han wrote about earlier, we are participating in a food blogger project with the Capital Area Food Bank. The idea is to spread awareness of hunger issues by experiencing some of the same issues first hand.

At the kickoff meeting we talked about some of the options that are available for those who are in need of food assistance. Families can receive one bag per month, filled largely with unperishable or canned foods, such as canned vegetables, dry carbs, cereals, etc. And families can also receive food stamps that can help supplement their pantries as well.

This week we will be eating meals prepared largely with ingredients that families would receive in a monthly bag, with a few additions that could be purchased rather inexpensively with food stamps.

When we first decided to sign up for this project, we pretty knew one of the first dishes we would prepare is congee. Congee is known by a lot of different names, depending the ethnicity of restaurant or household, jook or xi fan just to name a few, but the dish is almost always the same: rice porridge.

Now, if you've never had it before, it probably sounds strange or maybe a little disgusting. But if you grew up in an Asian household it probably evokes warm feelings of breakfast nostalgia.

There are a number of reasons why I thought this would make a perfect dish to start off the project:
  1. It's a very authentic dish. Some of the other stuff we will try to make later on this week will no doubt need some artistic licensing due to the available ingredients, but this is a long-standing tried and true recipe.
  2. It's very inexpensive. Just one cup of dry white rice can make as many as 8 servings. And it's very filling to boot.
  3. It's easy! Seriously, no Chinese cooking experience is needed. I guarantee.
As I stated, the main ingredient in this dish is rice, which is a common item that families can receive as part of their monthly bag. In addition, we also add some fresh ginger and green onions, both of which total to about a dollar.

The first step to preparing congee is to soak the rice. In a big pot (bigger than you think you might need) put 1 cup of white rice and 10 cups of cold water. Let that soak for about 30 minutes with no heat.

Next turn on the heat and bring the water to a boil. Once the water is boiling turn the heat down to low, slice the ginger (about a thumb) with a vegetable peeler and add it to the water. You can also just leave the ginger in bigger chunks if you don't want to actually eat the ginger and just want some for flavor.

Now another reason why this ended up being a pretty good dish for this project: At the food bank we also learned that families will sometimes also receive portions of meat. This can vary from month to month from whole chickens to ham hocks. Part of the beauty of congee is that it goes well with almost any type of ingredient. If you would like to add in some fresh uncooked chicken, beef, or pork, go ahead and add it in now so that the meat will cook and the flavors will soak into the rice.

Once the water is at a low simmer, let it cook for 90 minutes, stirring regularly. Be sure to monitor the consistency after about 60 minutes: if it seems too thick, go ahead and add more water.

With about 10 minutes to go, if you have either already cooked meats, like leftover chicken, or maybe some fish, go ahead and add it now. When the meat is hot and cooked, the dish is ready to be served. Top with some chopped green onions for added flavor.

We ended up making a big pot of this a few days ago and have been eating it for breakfast every day. As I said earlier, this is a great dish for families because just one cup of rice makes several servings. Han and I are just two people, and so while it certainly has been cost effective to eat like this, I'm a man who really likes to have a lot of variety, especially for breakfast.

I think in the short time that we've participated in this project so far, this is the first lesson I've learned: variety is a luxury that I have taken for granted. I love congee, but it's been harder getting up in the morning knowing that I'm going to be eating the same old stuff I ate yesterday.

Seems like a silly thing to whine about, right? People who are truly hungry are probably just happy to get anything at all. As much as I grumbled about having to eat congee again for breakfast, I got to go to Wahoo's for lunch today, but at least this time I got to appreciate being able to make that choice.

P. S. Be sure to check out the other bloggers participating in this project:

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hunger is UNacceptable

The food blogging community in Austin is incredibly welcoming and collaborative. This week's blogging project is another reason why I am so grateful to be part of this community. We are working with Capital Area Food Bank to cook, eat, and blog for a week from a bag of food that is typical of what the food bank distributes to a family in need. The goal of this project is to create our own "hunger stories," to experience first hand some of the struggles so many families face in trying to feed their families healthy, nutritious, and delicious foods with limited means. As compassionate Chinese-American foodies, we jumped at the opportunity to put our own spin on this challenge. Hopefully while learning a bit more about ourselves and hunger in the process. Our goal is to make deliciously affordable Asian-fusion cuisine from our bag of groceries, with minimal addition expenditure.

This evening, we had the opportunity to tour the warehouse and learn a bit more about the organization and structure behind feeding 300,000 people each year. This food bank is really quite amazing: floor to ceiling boxes of donated food, loading docks that accommodate vehicles of all sizes, 6000 volunteers annually, the second largest food bank distributor of fresh produce in the country, and 23 MILLION pounds of food distributed in the last year alone. The landscape of hunger is changing, with unprecedented numbers of families reaching out for help, many of them middle class. Hunger is a growing reality.

Justin and I have different visions for this project, he will focus on the logistics, recipes, and economics, whereas I will focus on the process, reflections, and ego aspects of this experience. Together, we will try to duplicate what this experience might be like for a young Chinese couple, possibly recent immigrants to this country, trying to reproduce the familiar flavors of home with our available ingredients. This is not too far from my childhood reality. I was born in China, and joined my parents in the U.S. when I was 5. My parents struggled financially, as my dad was a graduate student, my mom worked a labor job, and both sets of grandparents lived with us. We were a family of 7, sharing a 2 bedroom graduate housing apartment, on 1 income. Needless to say, it was a difficult time for us. However, we were able to scrape by on careful budgeting, a small community garden plot, and yes, donated food. I don't remember ever going hungry, and I thank the generosity of our community for it. My childhood gives depth and meaning to this project. I have no idea how my parents were able to do it so deliciously. But I am so thankful that they did.

After our visit to the food bank, we went to the grocery store to pick up our necessary essentials, to duplicate what we might find in a typical bag. Here is what we came home with, at around $13. A few of these products would have been included in our bag, such as the rice, spaghetti, and canned vegetables. The rest are assumed to come out of a food stamp (or "snap" as I learned it is officially called) budget. Our goal is to keep our total additional expenses under $20, and cook our dinners for a week from that budget plus the food bag. We will also be making a trip to the Asian supermarket for affordable accompaniments to our staple meal items, because as I told Justin, no self-respecting Chinese person will substitute dill pickle for traditional pickled cabbage in our congee. Stay tuned for day 1, officially beginning tomorrow!