Getting Over Myself

Rejection is a real downer.

You try not to get your hopes up, but there you are, breath held, anticipation building, excitement held in check by nothing more than a tiny, niggling bit of self-doubt.

You think, because you’ve made it to the next step in the process, you must be in the running.  You brush other important things aside because you want to place all of your focus on this particular possibility.

And then the email, or the phone call, or the letter comes.  “Thank you for your interest in X position.  We had many qualified candidates.  Unfortunately, you were not chosen.  Best of luck in your future endeavors.  Please check back for other opportunities that may fit your interests.  Sincerely, Nameless Faceless Person.”

You try not to let it, but it gets you down.  You feel, for lack of a better term, deflated.  Unwanted.  Unqualified.  And that’s especially hard when you’re trying something new.  When you’re trying to make a name for yourself in a new industry.

So that’s why I’ve been a bit of an absentee blogger the last few weeks.  I’ve been wallowing, questioning my ability as a writer, as a storyteller, as a photographer, as a home cook.  Wondering if this rejection spoke to a larger issue.  If a professional doesn’t like what I produce, then is it worth anybody’s time and effort to read what I put out there?  I’ve been hiding.

Continue reading “Getting Over Myself”

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We have chickens

About a month ago, we completed construction on a chicken coop.

I decided when we moved to this house that we needed to try our hand at raising chickens.  We have a little over an acre of land, and the back portion is fenced separately from the rest of the back yard.  It is in that area that we have our vegetable garden and tiny infant apple orchard.

We eat eggs regularly – for breakfast, for lunch, for dinner – and I use them for baking and cooking when we’re not eating them straight up.  We go through a dozen eggs every few days.  That gets expensive when you’re paying $4 a dozen for farm-fresh organic eggs from free-range chickens.  I figured if we had our own source for these little orbs of deliciousness, we’d eventually save a little money.  Not to mention the great lessons for the kids about caring for livestock and understanding where food comes from.

Continue reading “We have chickens”

>Risk. And a Recipe for Charred Chard Pizza

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Friends, I need your help.
I’m at a bit of a crossroads, and I’m not sure what to do.
I feel a little bit like I’ve spent the last twelve years of my life holding my breath.
Don’t get me wrong – personally I’m happier than I’ve ever been.  I love my children, I love my husband, I love our family.
Professionally, however, I’m stuck.  
Twelve years ago, I went through a bit of a life crisis.  I was in graduate school, studying theoretical linguistics and working toward a master’s degree in phonetics.  I spent my days teaching college freshmen the basics of language and parsing vocal recordings of some of the last speakers of an ancient form of Mixtec.  In the midst of all of this, I suffered a bit of a personal betrayal, and a good portion of my idealistic academic belief system flew out the window.  I no longer cared about knowledge for knowledge’s sake.  All I could think about was getting as far away from that world as possible.  

The world was an ugly and lonely place, and I wanted something steady and reliable to counteract that reality.  I wanted a paycheck and a roof over my head.  I craved stability.  I didn’t want to postulate or theorize anymore.  
So for six years, I worked in retail management.  And for six years after that, I worked in non-profit fundraising.  And I did a good job.  But it wasn’t my passion.
Three weeks ago, I did a scary thing.  I took a risk for the first time in a really long time.  I gave notice at my current job without having anything lined up to take its place.  I was able to do this because of the stability I have in my personal life, but it’s still a little bit frightening.
You see, taking risks is not something I do very well.  I’ve been taught my whole life to hedge my bets, to always have a backup plan.  Not knowing what I want to do when I grow up?  At 36?  With two small children? Is terrifying.
Do you watch Parenthood? I had a chance to catch up on this past Wednesday’s episode this morning, and I found myself (once again) identifying with Lauren Graham’s character.  She’s working as a bartender, and goes to talk to the owner about becoming a manager in the hopes that it will help stabilize her life.  She, too, is trying to figure out what she wants to do when she grows up.  
At the same time, she has written something that she feels pretty good about, and wants her romantic interest (Jason Ritter’s character, who also happens to be her daughter’s English teacher) to read it.  She gets up the courage to take it to him, but at the last minute tries to chicken out because she’s not sure it’s good enough.  He convinces her to let him read it, and she reluctantly leaves it with him, all the while muttering self-deprecating things under her breath.  
When he returns it to her, she immediately launches into an apologetic diatribe, assuming he’s going to give her some generic praise, but in the end is going to reveal that it’s no good. 
This is where I felt like I was watching myself.  Watching this woman squirm, automatically assuming that nothing she does is quite good enough, always afraid that she’s not quite going to measure up.  I know that feeling.  I know that fear of wanting to try something new, but not knowing how or where to start.  
And when he reveals that he loved it, and he calls her a playwrite?  I cried.  The look of shock and surprise and disbelief on her face was priceless.  And then to watch it melt into relief and maybe even a little bit of pride? I hope to have that reaction to someone’s praise one day.  
I hope to find that one thing that I’m good at that also fulfills me on some base level.  
And I’m working on it.  You’ve probably noticed, if you read this blog on a regular basis, that I’m passionate about food and feeding my family well.  And that I’m also interested in encouraging others to do the same.  And that I like to write about it.
Not sure how to translate that into a job, or a career, but there it is.  I’m taking the plunge.  I’m putting it out there in the universe, and hoping that I’ll figure it out soon.  I’m hoping that the risk pays off in the end.
As for you, friends?  Positive thoughts would be helpful.  Good vibes sent my way would be appreciated.  I feel really good about this decision, but I’m also really nervous about what the future holds.  And in case I haven’t said it recently – I really do value each and every person who reads this blog.  Your feedback and comments make my day.  And if you read and don’t comment?  That’s okay too – I’m just glad you stopped by.
As for the food – I’m still cooking and still sharing that with you here.  In fact, here’s a yummy pizza we had the other night.  I had some lovely rainbow chard from our produce box that I needed to use, so I shredded it up and put it on top of the pizza.  And it was wonderful.  Letting it get a little too brown (charred chard) made it even better. 

For a printable recipe of this Charred Chard Pizza, click here.

>Some food-related stuff

>I’m headed out of town tomorrow afternoon for FoodBlog South, so I thought I’d leave you with some food for thought before I go. 

  • There was an open letter to area chefs in our local paper’s food blog the other day.  I thought it was interesting, but what I found especially interesting were the responses from a couple of local chefs.  I think it’s fascinating that food has become such a point of contention in our society.  As someone who has had visions of opening the next great restaurant or bakeshop, I can only imagine the struggles restaurateurs and chefs must face.  Chefs are artists – their pallet composed of flavors and aromas and textures.  They study and train for years to perfect techniques that yield some of the most decadent and divine dishes you’ll ever digest.  Unfortunately, they also have businesses to run, and that sometimes means catering to the masses.  Sometimes, the majority of a restaurant’s patrons aren’t going to order the sweetbreads or the butter-poached kidneys, or even the asian melon soup.  I’m an adventurous eater, and offal intrigues me, but most restaurant goers are looking for something familiar with which to whet their appetites.  I think there’s a healthy balance in today’s restaurant scene.  Enough to satisfy the adventurous eater, while still appealing to those people who are just looking for a good burger.  What do you think?
  • I’ve been doing the Eat Right America 28-day challenge for three days now.  So far I’ve lost about 3 pounds.  My goal was not necessarily to lose weight, but I thought those of you who are interested in that sort of thing would like to know.  There are some things that I really like about the plan, and there are some things that I have some concerns about.  I plan to write more about this next week, but in the meantime, I wanted to share the following recipe.

 Broiled Flounder with Soy Quinoa and Broccoli

Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Yields: 4 servings

Ingredients
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons dried minced onion
1/4 teaspoon dried minced garlic
6 flounder filets
1 cup quinoa, rinsed
1 cup broccoli florets
1 carrot, diced
vegetable oil spray

  1. Begin by mixing soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger, vinegar, onion and garlic.  You can certainly use fresh ginger, onion and garlic in this recipe – I would have had I had them on hand.  I’m still in the midst of my pantry cleanse, and am trying to use up some of this stuff.
  2. Spray a foil-lined baking sheet with vegetable oil spray.  Lay the flounder filets on the pan, and use a pastry brush to brush them with the soy sauce mixture.  Place them in the oven under the broiler and broil for 8 minutes, or until edges begin to curl.  Keep a close watch on them so they don’t burn.
  3. Cook the quinoa according to package instructions.
  4. Place a small amount (a couple of tablespoons) of water in a saute pan over medium heat.  Add the broccoli and carrots.  Allow to cook until broccoli is bright green and carrots begin to soften.  Pour the remaining soy sauce mixture into the pan.  Add the quinoa and stir to combine. Remove from the heat.
  5. Serve the cooked fish over the quinoa mixture. 
  6. Enjoy!
  • I’m going to be guesting over at Frosting for the Cause on Saturday.   I’ll be in Birmingham that day (learning all about how to make this blog the best blog it can be), and I won’t be able to tell you about it then, so I’m telling you about it now.  The idea is that 365 bloggers will come together over the course of 2011 to help raise funds and awareness for cancer research.  I don’t know one person in my life who hasn’t been affected by cancer in some form or fashion, so it was a no-brainer for me to be a part of this great effort.  If you’re a food blogger, I urge you to do the same.  Cancer sucks.
Obviously, I’ll probably be giving myself a pass on the diet challenge this weekend while I’m at FoodBlog South.  I expect there will be some really great food there, and I’m not one to deprive myself when offered great food.  I’ll jump back on the wagon on Sunday, though.  I promise.

A Post about Everything, Nothing and Cheese

I apologize in advance for the randomness of this post.  I’ve had a few things that I’ve wanted to talk about lately, and just haven’t had the time to sit down and do so.

So, now that I have your attention, here goes.

A couple of weeks ago (or maybe it was just last week, I’m not sure), I posted these Pear Crespelle, and I mentioned that I’d made the ricotta cheese from ingredients I had at home.  An anonymous commenter requested that I post the ratios of the recipe, so I’m going to do that at the bottom of this post.

In other, somewhat related news, I’m starting a 28-day diet challenge tomorrow.  The funny part about it is I’m not supposed to eat cheese while I’m participating.  So, I made cheese for this post, but I’m also giving up cheese in this post.  Sometimes life is just funny that way.  Don’t worry, I don’t plan on giving up cheese for good, but I do want to try this Eat Right America diet to see what it’s all about.  Throughout the challenge our local Harry’s Farmers Market is offering recipes, store tours, guest speakers, lectures and cooking classes to compliment the stages of the challenge. The whole point is to increase the number of nutrient-dense foods in your diet.  I’ll be blogging bits of the challenge here, so if you’re interested I’ll let you know how it goes.

Another thing we’ll be cutting back on is animal proteins.  As such, I wanted to go ahead and share some information with you about this steak you see pictured here.  It was delicious.  Really, really delicious.  That is all.

For real, though.  If you live in Georgia, I suggest you look into White Oak Pastures Beef.  If our family is going to eat beef in the future (and we will, I can guarantee it), then it will come from this farm or from one like it. Pasture raised, grassfed cattle that are humanely handled.  It may be more expensive (let’s face it, it IS more expensive), but it’s worth it to know where it comes from and how it is raised, handled and processed.

Did you watch the Golden Globes last night?  Did you see Claire Danes win for her role as Temple Grandin in the film of the same name?  Did you know that Temple Grandin helped design the animal handling and processing facility at White Oak Pastures?  Well, now you do.  Cool, huh?

Okay, onto the cheese recipe.

Ingredients
1 gallon of whole milk
2 tsp. citric acid, dissolved in 1 cup cool water
1 tsp. salt

Begin with a gallon of whole milk and some citric acid.  I’m showing the rennet here (the small bottle on the right) because I have used it in making ricotta before, but I didn’t use it here.  In the past I’ve had a hard time getting the curds to form, and have added the rennet (about 1/8 tsp diluted in 1/4 cup water) to help with that process.  Today it wasn’t necessary.

Dissolve 2 teaspoons citric acid in 1 cup water and add it to 1 gallon of milk in a saucepan, stir to combine.   Add 1 tsp. salt.  Turn the heat to medium-low and stir to prevent scorching.  Heat milk to 165-170F (I don’t use a thermometer, I just look to see if the curds are forming).
It will begin to look like this.  You can see the curds separating from the whey here. Continue heating to 190-195F and turn the heat off.  Let sit for 10 minutes or so.
Line a bowl with cheesecloth.
Remove the curds from the whey using a slotted spoon and place them in the cheesecloth-lined bowl.
Allow the whey to drain from the curds.
Refrigerate and enjoy!

>Snow Day Musings

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I think I’ve mentioned before that I live in Georgia.  If I haven’t, well then now you know.  I live in Georgia. 
Well, I live in an idyllic little suburb of Atlanta to be exact.  Where we currently have 5 or 6 inches of snow on the ground, accompanied by about 1/2 to 1 inch of ice.  According to the local news, driving conditions are “treacherous.”
We’re southerners.  We (and by we, I mean the state department of transportation) don’t really have the equipment to handle this sort of thing.  So, we hunker down and make the best of it. 
School and work have been canceled for three days now, and we have been hesitant to get out in our cars.  The kids have enjoyed the impromptu vacation, and I have to admit that my husband and I haven’t been complaining too much, either.  Cabin fever hasn’t really gotten to us.  Not yet, anyway.  

Although we don’t have sleds and snow equipment, we made do with a trash can lid and the top to the kids’ sandbox.  It doesn’t seem to bother our 5-year-old.  He just loves the thrill of flying down the hill in our backyard and crashing feet-first into the fence. 
And our 11-year-old dog is like a puppy again.  He loves running full-tilt around the yard, kicking up snow behind him, burying his nose in snow drifts and finally flopping sideways onto the ground in a heap.  I think he’d stay out there all day if we’d let him.
Even the baby got in on the sledding action.  Sort of.  He seems content just to be outside with us, watching the action.
At one point yesterday we bundled everyone up and took a little walk to check out the neighborhood.  The streets were a little slushy and icy, so we didn’t go far. 
This one seems happy enough to just eat the snow.  It’s relatively clean, I suppose.  And he knows now to look out for the yellow snow.  Important life skills every child must learn.

While I did go to the store over the weekend for milk and eggs, I was determined to stick to my pantry clean-out plan.  As such, I’ve gotten pretty creative over the last couple of days while we’ve been snowbound.  Some of my experiments have been successful, while others have been less so.  For instance, making dulce de leche with fat-free sweetened condensed milk?  Success.  Making cheese with powdered milk?  Less so.  I mean, you can do it, but you really shouldn’t. 

Like every good southern girl, I had some stone-ground grits in the pantry.  So, on night one of “Snowpocalypse 2011”, we had pot-roast hash over creamy grits with poached eggs and raw kale chips (more on those later).  Not bad for a pantry/leftover meal.
Night two brought pizza (and yes, I did use the powdered milk cheese-like substance, but I also used some provolone slices and goat cheese I had in the fridge).  The mushrooms and peppers were from my produce box, and the tomato sauce was made from some canned tomatoes I had in the pantry.  Pizza crust recipe here. (I used half whole-wheat and half AP, and I subbed whey for the water that the recipe calls for).
My friend Rachel, who writes Time for Good Food, shared yesterday that as a child, snow days always meant her mama would make something decadent and fudgy.  Her homage to this tradition was to make these boiled peanut-butter cookies. My decadent indulgence was these fudgy brownies topped with dulce de leche caramel (recipe at the bottom of this post).
So, the moral of this story is that being stuck inside on snow days doesn’t have to mean subsisting on white bread and hot-dogs (as the scenes of empty grocery store bread shelves would have you believe).  So what if the pizza guy isn’t delivering (and thank goodness he’s not – these roads are TREACHEROUS I tell you) – you can make your own pizza.  And while snow ice cream is a special treat for some, you can also make some delightful chocolate treats to go along with it.
 Dulce de Leche Caramel
prep time: 2 seconds
cook time: 20 minutes
yields: enough to frost this pan of brownies
Ingredients
2 cans sweetened condensed milk
  1. Empty cans into a heavy-bottomed saucepan
  2. Place pan over medium-low heat
  3. Cook, stirring constantly (for real – keep stirring, or it will burn) and scraping the corners of the pan periodically, until it becomes a light caramel color and has thickened significantly.
  4. Remove from heat and pour over brownie recipe of your choice.

>A Toast to All of You

>It has been an interesting and remarkable year.

I could use this post to talk about my favorite recipes from the past year.   Like this Shepherd’s Pie.

Or my first attempt at making sausages at home.

Instead, I’m going to spend some time looking at some of the changes that have occurred in my own life, and some of the remarkable things other people have done over the past year. 
When I first started this blog, back in January of 2010, I had a one-month-old baby at home, a 4-year-old in pre-K, I was on maternity leave from my part-time job, and I was living in a completely different house.  I was frustrated with the amount of money that were (un)able to save, and, by proxy, with the amount of money that we were able to give.

Now, almost a year later, I’m working full time, the baby is a year old, the pre-Ker is in Kindergarten, and we’re settled in to a completely different and unique living situation. 
And we’re happy.  
My husband and I made the decision back in May of this year to sell our house and move in with my mother.  I know, you’re all probably thinking we’re crazy.  Or broke.  Or maybe a little bit of both.  But neither of those things is the case (okay, maybe the crazy part – but just a little bit).  
It just made sense for all of us.  The kids would have their grandmother close by, we would all have a larger support network, and it would be financially beneficial for everyone involved.
So, here we are, in our strange little suburban commune, living our strange little suburban life.  And, strangely, we’re happier than we’ve ever been. 
In an effort to celebrate other folks who do things just slightly differently than the rest of the world, and are doing it well and happily, I’m going to share some of my favorite people and sites from around the blogosphere.  These are people who I admire for the way they have chosen to use their voice.  Hopefully I’ll have the courage and the wherewithal to do some good with my own voice in the future.
  1. All of the Austin Food Bloggers who participated in the Hunger Awareness Blog Project.  This was an eye-opening series, and I’m hoping we can do something similar here in the Atlanta area this spring. 
  2. There are a number of real mamas out there writing about feeding their families real food.  The one I’ve become most closely acquainted with recently writes For the Joy of Food and is married to one of my childhood friends.  I’m looking forward to getting to know her better in the new year, and also picking her brain on baking bread from home-milled grains.  Additionally, I’ve begun reading Modern Alternative Mama.  I like her because she not only writes about what she feeds her family, she also gives meal plans and budget plans to help you on your way to achieving a realistic real food diet for your own family.  I would also place Megan from Stetted in this same category.  I found her when we were both participating in Foodbuzz’s Project Food Blog competition, and immediately felt a connection to the things she was writing about (she’s also one of those Austin Food Bloggers I mentioned up there in number one).
  3. I liked this post from Tomayto Tomaaahto.  It was her third entry in the Project Food Blog competition, and it unfortunately resulted in her being eliminated.  I thought it was very brave and ballsy to use an opportunity like this to make a statement about hunger – she even set up a donation website so that the rest of us can get involved.
  4. This post by Linda over at Salty Seattle that explores the slaughter and processing of chickens at a small sustainable farm in Washington State made me want to go out and kill and eat some chickens.  And I mean that in the least creepy way.  If that’s even possible.
  5. And finally, on a non-food related note, the Salwen Family, who wrote The Power of Half, based on their decision to sell their house and give away half the proceeds to charity.  I know these folks personally, and they are remarkable.  What I like especially about the book is that they don’t expect that everyone will sell their house and give up half the proceeds.  They simply ask that we look at what we have or what we do and think about something that we could give up half of.  I mean, I could certainly redirect half the time I spend online, or half the money I spend on lunches out during the week toward other more worthy endeavors.  Couldn’t we all?
So, a toast to all of these wonderful people, and to everyone else who is making a difference in their own way.  And a toast to all of you who read this little blog on a regular (or irregular) basis.  I have so enjoyed sharing our food journey over the past year, and I relish the thought of doing more of the same in 2011.
Cheers!

>Light

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As I was sitting in a line of cars at a stoplight today, contemplating the ingredients I needed to purchase at the store to make this pizza, I was confronted by the stark reality of hunger and homelessness.
There, in my warm car, with the radio in the background, I was struck by the sight of a young couple on the side of the road.  They could have been anyone – you, me, our neighbors.  The were a little dirty, a little ragged, but they weren’t that different from anyone else you might pass on the street.  She was  quite pretty, sitting off to the side, holding a sign that said “Traveling folk, hungry and broke.  Every little bit helps, even a smile.”  He was standing closer to the line of traffic, with a sign that read, “Mama said there’d be days like this.”  
As we sat there, those of us warm and safe in our cars, I started to see windows go down, and hands reach out with folded bills, waving toward the couple.  The young man would walk over, smile, say a couple of words and take the offered funds.  I sat there wishing I had a few dollars to give them.  I watched the exchanges, and I smiled as he walked in front of my car, hoping it would count for something.  As the light turned green, and I drove on, I realized I was crying – tears streaming down my face.  They were tears of sorrow for the couple and for their circumstance, but they were also tears of joy and thankfulness for my own family and our circumstance.  
Don’t think I wasn’t struck by the irony of the situation.  There I was, wondering whether I should stop at Kroger for mozzarella cheese and just use the domestic parmesan I had at home, or drive the extra distance to Harry’s for buffalo mozzarella and Parmigiano Reggiano, while at the same time this couple sat wondering where their next meal was going to come from.   

Last week I had the privilege of participating in a virtual progressive holiday dinner party called  Share our Holiday Table along with 70 or so other bloggers in an effort to raise awareness and funds for Share our Strength.  That event has come to an end, but that doesn’t mean that Share our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign is over.  If you are like me, and find yourself with a little bit extra this holiday season, consider donating to this worthy cause.  There are so many families who are struggling – to keep the lights on, to pay their bills, to put gas in their cars.  And yes, there are millions of families struggling to feed their children.  
In light of what I’d just encountered, I chose to go the less expensive route and stop into Kroger for some fresh domestic mozzarella.  While I was there, I found some white mushrooms that had been marked down to $.99, so I bought those too.
One of the things that Share our Strength does is teach families how to cook healthy meals on a restricted budget.  I attended a volunteer orientation for their Cooking Matters program about a month ago, and I was struck by the care and planning that has gone into the curriculum for the courses that they offer.  They don’t just give people meal plans and send them on their way, they take the time to explain why one ingredient is better than another (even if it might cost a bit more).  For instance, they explain that buying whole wheat pasta instead of regular pasta will save you money in the long run, even if it costs more right now.  Why?  Because you don’t have to eat as much of it to feel full – it stays with you longer, because it takes your body more time to process.  And it contains more nutrients.  So even if it costs $.50 more per box, you’ll be able to stretch that box much further than you would a box of pasta made with non-whole-wheat flour.
This pizza I made for dinner tonight is a great example of that.  It has a whole-wheat crust, fresh tomato sauce, and uses a small amount of flavorful cheese and pepperoni.  For two pizzas, the cost was less than $9.  And we had leftovers.  Even Little Caesar’s is more expensive than that.

This is the first in a series of posts that explores cooking healthfully on a restricted budget.  The hope is to show that even people who have limited funds can afford to feed their families quality food without relying on overly processed mixes or fast-food restaurants.  The cost breakdowns are based on what my local grocery store is currently charging for a particular ingredient.  For instance, below you’ll see whole-wheat flour as an ingredient.  A 5 lb. bag of whole-wheat flour costs approximately $3 at my grocery store.  There are about 20 cups of flour in a 5 lb. bag, so to figure out how much 2 3/4 cups of flour would cost I divided 20 by 2.75, which was about 7.3.  I then divided 3 by 7.3, and came up with about .4, or 40 cents for 2 3/4 cups flour.

I know that this is more trouble than many people are going to want to go to on a Friday night after a busy week.  The point is to show that it can be done, if you choose to take the time.  I managed this after a full day at work, with two small children playing at my feet.  My husband was stuck in typical Friday afternoon rush-hour traffic, so it was just me and the kids until he got home around 6:45.  At that point, we all piled in the car and ate pizza and then drank hot chocolate while we drove around and looked at Christmas lights.  It was an inexpensive evening, but it was quality family time and I felt good about what we were eating (well, except maybe for the hot chocolate).

As we drove around, eating our pizza and happily pointing out the twinkling light displays, I couldn’t help but notice that there were fewer this year than in years past.  Whether it’s because people are trying to conserve energy or funds, I don’t know, but I suspect it’s more the latter.  We did pass a number of houses with lines of cars out front, evidence of holiday parties in full swing.  And we glimpsed quite a few lit Christmas trees peeking through parted drapes.  The celebration and the true meaning of the season continue, even if the lavish light displays have been downsized.  What I thought about most as we traveled the neighborhood streets was that couple, and the displays of generosity I’d witnessed sitting in my car in front of a different set of lights earlier in the day.  And I was thankful.

Whole wheat pizza dough
prep time: 10 minutes
rest time: 15 minutes
bake time: 5 minutes, then 10 minutes
yields: 2 12-inch crusts
Ingredients
1/4 cup water ($.0)
1 package or 1 Tablespoon instant yeast ($.50)
2 3/4 cup whole-wheat flour ($.40)
1 Tablespoon sugar ($.01)
1 teaspoon salt ($.01)
1 Tablespoon oil ($.10)
1 cup warm water ($.0)
Total cost: $1.02

  1. Preheat oven to 425F
  2. Combine 1/4 cup warm water and yeast and set aside for 5 minutes or so.
  3. Combine Flour, sugar and salt
  4. Add 1 cup water, oil and yeast mixture. Stir to combine.
  5. Turn dough out on floured surface and knead until dough forms a smooth, elastic ball
  6. Divide dough in half, form two balls, and cover with a damp cloth.  
  7. Let rest for 15 minutes or so while you prepare the rest of your ingredients.
  8. Roll dough out on a floured surface until it is 12-inches in diameter and 1/4 inch thick
  9. Bake for 5 minutes on a lightly greased cookie sheet, just until crust starts to bubble
  10. Top with sauce and toppings of your choice, and bake directly on oven rack for 10 minutes more.

Tomato sauce
prep time: 0 minutes
cook time: 10 minutes

Ingredients
1/2 pint grape tomatoes ($1.50)
1 carrot, grated ($.30)
1/4 medium onion, diced ($.25)
1/4 cup water ($.0)
pinch salt
Total cost: $2.05

  1. Combine tomatoes, carrot, onion and salt in a saucepan over medium heat
  2. With a fork or a potato masher, crush the tomatoes
  3. Cook mixture until tomatoes start to release their liquid
  4. Add water.  Using the fork or masher, mash the mixture until it is well combined and relatively homogeneous
  5. Remove from the heat

To assemble the pizza

  1. Spread thin layer of sauce on par-baked crusts
  2. Top each crust with 1 oz. of parmesan cheese ($.50 per pizza, total $1.00)
  3. Slice 8 oz. mozzarella cheese very thin, and space evenly on pizzas ($3.50)
  4. Top with 17 slices of turkey pepperoni (I actually used some homemade pepperoni that I had in my freezer, but turkey pepperoni works just as well – cost for turkey pepperoni: $.75).
  5. Thinly slice 4 mushrooms and spread evenly over top of the pizza ($.30)
  6. I added thinly sliced red pepper to my pizza, which would add another dollar or so to the cost if you chose to do that.
  7. Bake at 425F for 10 minutes, or until cheese is brown and bubbly and edges of crust are brown and crisp.
While this is quite a bit more work than stopping at Little Caesar’s or Papa John’s, it is certainly better for you, and slightly less expensive.  The total cost was just under $9, and it fed four people dinner tonight, and there’s enough for a couple of us to have leftovers for lunch tomorrow.   That’s $1.50 per meal per person.  And I had it ready in just under an hour. 

>Hello darkness, my old friend

>

While I love Autumn for its cooler temperatures and bright warm colors, the shorter days coupled with the time change make natural-light photography a challenge.  

You may have noticed (all few of you who read on a regular basis) the dearth of posts over the last week.  You can attribute this to the fact that (a) I’ve been busy with work and other such matters, and (b) I’ve been terribly disappointed with the state of the pictures I’ve been taking. 
I considered buying a flash for my camera, but the thought of spending upwards of $400 on a speedlight was more than I could stomach.  
So, being the resourceful and frugal gal that I am, I started doing some research on the ol’ interwebs to see what other folks were doing.  I started with Marc over at norecipes.com.  He’s got a handy little faq page on his site, where he answers such questions as “What kind of equipment/software do you use for your photos?”  He claims to use a $10 Ikea table lamp with a rice paper shade to difuse the light.  The bulb is a 40W Satco flourescent 5000k bulb.  
I also ran across this tutorial at instructables for a lightbox made from an Ikea hamper.  I started seeing a pattern – Ikea = cheap, practical photography accoutrement. 

Luckily, I work about 5 miles from the Ikea here in Atlanta, so I ran down there one day on my lunch break and picked up a couple of lamps and a white cloth storage box.  I also picked up a couple of bulbs, but I ended up having to replace them with a couple of 40W daylight spectrum compact flourescents that I found at Home Depot. 
Lights draped over base of storage box, before the addition of the freezer paper backdrop
I wound up not using the shades on the lamps, and I used the folding base of the box to hang the lights from, using their cords to hook over the edge of the base.  The cloth bottom of the box has a zipper opening, and I was able to run the cords through the zipper opening to keep them out of the way.  
Box on window seat with freezer-paper backdrop
Ultimately, I wound up taking a long piece of freezer paper and taping it to the top and back of the box  (in front of the lights) to create a more diffuse light, and to create a smooth, crease-free backdrop.
Fresh whole-wheat pasta waiting to be incorporated into chicken-noodle soup
I’m really enjoying the results.  The light is very crisp, and the clarity of the photos is remarkable.  It does limit the possibilities for composition, but it’s a good solution for now.
Testing out a vertical orientation
I have found that it works best sitting on a lower surface.  I tried it on the kitchen counter at first, and was not as pleased with the results as I was when I put it on the window seat in the kitchen.  Being able to shoot from slightly above the subject makes quite a difference.
Chicken-noodle soup and crusty bread
 I shoot with a Canon EOS Rebel XSi, using a compact-macro 50 mm lens.  I think this setup would work with a point and shoot camera, though.  I tried it on both an automatic setting (without flash) and on manual, and both worked quite well.   
All in all, it cost about $50 to make, which is certainly better than $400 for a flash.  While the results might not be as good as they would be if I had a speedlight, they’re definitely better than trying to take pictures in the dark.
Enjoy!

>Hunger

>

I’ve been thinking on this for a while.  Thinking, praying, debating, whatever you want to call it – I’ve been doing it for months (even years) now.
I don’t really know what to do with it or where I’m going with it, but I feel like I need to write about it.
I have become peripherally involved with an organization called Share our Strength, and they have a mission to end childhood hunger in America by 2015.  That’s a pretty big goal, but I don’t think it’s unattainable.  I’m trying to help where I can – I started by committing to donate a portion of the proceeds from this blog to them  I also took their No Kid Hungry Pledge and am brown bagging it on November 10.
This Thursday, I’m attending Caketails for a Cause at Bloomingdales in Lenox Mall here in Atlanta, which benefits Share Our Strength’s Great American Bakesale initiative.  I’m also signed up to participate in their holiday potluck-style blogathon called Share our Holiday Table this December.  Additionally, I’ve signed up to take a volunteer training course with our local Operation Fronline (now known as Cooking Matters) affiliate.
 
 All of that to say, I think this is an important problem.  One that I want to do something about. 

I don’t want this post to become political, as I tend to avoid volatile subjects on this blog.  I mean, I write about food, not politics or social issues.  However, when those things collide, sometimes you have to take a stand.
The reality of the situation is there are millions of children in this great country of ours who are hungry.  Children who were brought into this world without a choice, but who deserve a chance at a happy and healthy life. 
And the parents, guardians, caretakers of those children deserve an opportunity to learn how to provide an environment that will foster that happy and healthy life.
Last year, I took some time off from work so that I could spend time at home with my oldest child while he recovered from open heart surgery.  During that time, my husband and I lived on his income alone.  Just out of curiosity, I did some research (this was during the health-care debates that were at the forefront of American politics at the time) and discovered that we weren’t too far above the cutoff for being eligible to receive Medicaid benefits for our children.
Now, we’re fortunate to have health-care through my husband’s job (and through mine, now that I’m working full-time again) so this research was purely to satisfy my own curiosity.  However, the research into Medicaid led to a similar inquiry regarding food stamps.
I’m going to take a moment here to insert a disclaimer.  I am not going to advocate for or against government sponsored social programs on this blog.  I am taking a purely observational point of view here.  The reality is that there are millions of Americans receiving these benefits (35.5 million per month in 2009, according to the statistics on the Share our Strength website), and I believe the only way for the programs to be successful (and for people to eventually graduate from them, which I would hope would be the goal) is for someone to take the initiative to teach people how to survive, and even thrive, within the limitations of the system.
This means teaching people how to use the resources that they do have to purchase the most healthful foods that they can, and then showing them how to prepare those foods within the time limits that they face due to their work schedules, children’s activities, and transportation limitations.
I recognize that it also means making sure that those people have access to affordable fresh food options in their neighborhoods, which means working with grocers, food distributors, and local growers and farmers to ensure that access.  This is not a problem that will be solved in one day. 
The maximum food-stamp (or SNAP as it is called now) benefit available for a family of four is $680 in Georgia.  Now, this gets quickly reduced depending on your actual income, how much you pay for rent, how much you pay for child care and so forth.  I’ve looked at a number of different sources (from other blogs, to Share our Strength, to the state family services site), and from what I can find the average is about $4 per day per person.  So, for a family of four, this would be about $480 per month.
I did find it interesting that the government expects that you will use 30% of your residual income (after taxes, rent, childcare) to supplement your food-related buying – they don’t expect you to be solely dependent on the program.  Whether this ends up happening is another matter altogether.
I plan to do a series of posts focusing on healthy cooking and eating on a restricted budget.  This will include sourcing inexpensive kitchen equipment to make the job easier, since I don’t expect that those people feeding their families on a food-stamp budget have access to a Kitchen-Aid mixer with a meat-grinder attachment or to a food processor.  It occurs to me that many of these folks might not even have knives or pots and pans.  It’s possible that some of them don’t even have access to a fully functioning kitchen, so that poses another challenge altogether. 
Additionally, I’m issuing a challenge to other Georgia food bloggers to join me in January for a week of meal planning and execution on a food-stamp budget.  This has been done in other parts of the country (I know that a number of bloggers in Austin, TX participated in a Hunger Awareness Blog Project back in April of this year), but I don’t believe we’ve done it here.  If someone has already done something like this, well then let’s do it again.  The goal here is to show how difficult it can be to feed a family healthfully on a restricted budget, but to also show that it can be done (because I believe it can).
What I’d eventually like to see happen through all of this (my dream, if you will) is for small communities of like-minded people to come together to help end hunger in their own neighborhoods.  It used to be if your neighbor was hungry, you went down into your cellar and brought up a can of beans and some potatoes (or whatever you might have had extra) and you shared it with him.  It’s time that we got back to those days – the days when we saw someone in need and did something about it.  I live in one of the most affluent areas of metro-Atlanta, and yet our local food pantry is constantly putting out emergency calls for donations.  Rather than relying on government programs to solve the problem (and again, I’m not advocating for or against, I’m just saying it can’t be the only answer), we have to start helping each other.  I believe it takes individuals reaching out a helping hand to other individuals to truly make a difference. 
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.  And, if you are an Atlanta-area or Georgia food blogger (or even in a neighboring state) and would like to join me in a Hunger Awareness Blog Challenge in January, let me know.