Sunday, December 18, 2011

Food, Glorious Food

I love all things food: planning, cooking, eating, discussing. Where does this come from? I know people who gag at the thought of eating anything green and would rather write punitive sentences on a blackboard with squeaky chalk (how dated is that?) than eat something new or unusual.

Parents have a lot to do with it.  When I was growing up mealtime often held surprises, especially on weekends when Mom and Dad would introduce a new or unusual recipe. There was something about a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon that would inspire Dad to buy a bag of clams, and whip up his specialty, Manhattan clam chowder. Then there was the first time they made Cuban black bean soup, replicating a meal they'd enjoyed on a trip to Puerto Rico. It was rich and hearty, garnished with chopped hard boiled egg and onion. A fresh lemon slice lay on the bottom of the bowl, a wonderful tart surprise that added zest and character to the soup when discovered. Oh, and the paella! We would make paella from scratch, a family affair because the chopping and dicing and sauteing was labor intensive. My parents weren't wealthy, so the saffron was a big deal and I have no idea how they came up with the chorizo.

Moules Frites at Leons de Bruxelles
And that's continued with my family. An appreciation for good food has been passed on to my kids who have always, even when young, appreciated flavor and texture. When they were 10 and 12 we went on a very special trip to France, celebrating my parents' 40th anniversary.  The only (and I mean only) place the children wanted to eat was at Leons de Bruxelles, a chain that serves buckets of mussels any way you like 'em, accompanied by a pile of crisp french fries (moules frites). It was almost frightening, how many mussels they could tuck away.

Now that we're on a fixed income, I've created a personal challenge. It goes something like this. First, there's a budget. According to the USDA, the October 2011 average moderate weekly cost to feed two people was $130.00. This is well above the thrifty level of $89 and comes to just under $20/day. My challenge is to match this amount. But there's more, which has to do with quality.  The meals have to be fresh, healthy and delicious, so most processed foods are excluded. I'm not a big fan of them anyway, but have been known to fall back on a jar of spaghetti sauce or a can of Progresso soup. And trust me, I'll never make my own tomato paste and think the convenience of store-bought chicken stock is a bargain.

Here are a few strategies:
  • Review supermarket flyers and shop the specials. This week Publix has fresh salmon on sale for $7.99/pound, which is a really good deal. We love salmon, so that's on the meal plan.
  • Get multiple meals out of one.  This is easier to do with a family of two, when that roast chicken easily turns into chicken salad or soup and marinara sauce can be doubled and frozen.
  • Plan ahead. Know what you're going to buy and how much it will cost.
  • Don't skimp on quality. If you need to buy saffron, go ahead and do it. Just know that another meal is going to compensate for the luxury.
  • Know what you're spending.  I'm setting aside $130 each week that is just for groceries. It isn't used for paper or cleaning products or anything else you might find in the supermarket.
  • I rarely shop with coupons, preferring to buy the almost always less expensive supermarket brand. I'll use coupons for products I regularly use, but that's about it. Shopping the specials and BOGOs are usually a better deal.
  • Breakfast and lunch is included in the budgeted amount, but I don't really plan them. I just know I need to have the goods on hand to throw them together. Dinner is really where my head is at.
Here's an example of a low-cost but delicious and healthy meal I made last night.  It was split pea soup, and the recipe was modified from one I found in The Eat-Clean Diet Cookbook by Tosca Reno. It's a great collection of recipes I just discovered a couple of months ago and is well illustrated. Here's the modified recipe:


  •  2 cups dried split peas
  • 12 cups water
  • 4 bay leaves
  • Sea salt
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large onion, peeled/chopped
  • 4 ribs celery, trimmed/chopped
  • 3 large carrots, peeled/chopped
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme
  • 1/2 lb cubed cooked smoked ham steak
  • Lemon wedges
  • Cover dried peas in large saucepan with 12 cups water. Add bay leaves and sea salt. Cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes. Drain in a colander and set aside. 

Drained peas and bay leaves
  • Heat olive oil in a large heavy pot (dutch oven) over medium heat. Add onion, celery and carrots. Saute until onion is translucent.
  • Add chicken broth, 2 cups of water, peas, thyme and bring to a boil.
Bring to a boil
  • Add the ham, reduce heat and cover. Simmer for about 1 1/2 hours. Remove bay leaves
  • Remove about two cups of the soup and place in a blender. (try to avoid the ham chunks, but it's fine if a few end up in the blender) Blend until smooth and add back to the soup.
  • Serve in soup bowls. Squeeze fresh lemon juice on each bowl of soup. 
  • Serve with french bread or garlic toast.
Dinner is served!
This made at least 4 or five servings, so now you know what I'm having for lunch today!

Are you interested in joining me on this cost-controlled culinary journey? I'd love to hear how you manage your food budget - let me know.

Bon Appetit!

    Friday, December 9, 2011

    What's bugging you?

    Bill and I will celebrate 40 years of marriage in June. Imagine that!

    Together we've endured personal challenges and tragedies and celebrated successes. We survived the Raising of Teenagers, which coincided with the Uprooting of Family to Move Overseas. We've climbed great heights (literally) in the Grand Canyon, where I learned of Bill's fear of heights. We've navigated the Amazon Jungle and learned to ski at somewhat advanced ages.

    But the latest challenge blind-sided us.

    Living together 24-7 takes a certain skill set with which we were unequipped.

    Bill beat me to the "at home" punch, having retired a couple of years ago. He developed his own routine, which I kind of had an idea about, but wasn't sure. I knew it involved daily trips to one or more supermarkets, as he planned meals each day. I suspected he took a nap each afternoon (evidence: messed up pillows on bed) and didn't shower until right before I came home from work (evidence: wet hair).

    So I invaded his world, and needed to be careful about not screwing with his routine.


    Not surprisingly, I have opinions about certain things like household planning and personal hygiene. I think it's especially important to get up and get dressed, say before 9:00 am. I also think it's important to have a meal plan for the week and shop only once, thus saving on gas $$, not making last minute impulse purchases, and knowing what time and resources are needed for the evening meal. And I don't understand naps at all. I like to save it all up for night time.

    Here's what's happened. I've pretty much taken over the meal planning/cooking and I think he's OK with that. In fact, I think he's relieved. We still share some of it, but for the most part it's my gig. And I love to cook good food, and missed doing so when he was handling it, so this is working out well.

    I've found that sometimes the day does get away from me, and it's 2:00 or so before I get into the shower. How does this happen? I'm not sure, but I'm working on it, 'cause I feel like I'm falling down the slippery slope of slovenliness when it does. (I think those days may have something to do with this blog...)

    About naps? I gave up on that with Bill a long time ago. His metabolism is foreign to me. I could no more sleep in the afternoon (unless sick or depressed) than fly to the moon. But he loves his naps and they make him a happier person.

    But there's something else.

    For the past 40 years one or both of us have worked, so we shared maybe 14 hours a day, and around 8 of them were spent sleeping. The remaining 6 were easily consumed by the miscellany of daily life - child rearing, chores, creating and consuming meals. You know - the stuff lives are made of.

    And now we've discovered we have little irritating habits that annoy each other.
    Some background: It's important to understand that we (me especially) are masters at passive aggressiveness. I may have even perfected it into an art, so you might never know whether a slammed kitchen cabinet is unintended or a backdoor punctuation of my pissy mood. Sarcasm is my next best weapon, and has been used to great and hurtful effect. Bill, on the other hand, simply retreats into solitude when he's bothered by me or anything/one else. It takes real effort to get at the source of his malcontent. 

    This Thanksgiving when the kids were home, Julie was talking about how she has the same tendency. I'm sure she learned it from me. Anyway, she said she's been making a real effort to be open and honest about what's bothering her, and enjoys not being annoyed all the time. How novel! I liked the concept.

    So when I realized that Bill's habit of leaving used toothpicks around the house (I know: EW) made me want to scream, I tried the new approach. "You know, I hate picking up your toothpicks. Would you please throw them away?"  And guess what? He said "Sure - no problem."  Eureka! It works!

    By the way, these are awesome toothpicks*
    It not only works, it's contagious.  The other day I was cleaning out the refrigerator and pantry and had filled the trashcan to overflowing.  Bill walked in, saw it and said " do that a lot and it really bugs me."

    And I thought - he's absolutely right. I know he'll empty the trash, so I just keep jamming stuff in there til the top won't shut.  No more.

    (Do you think he knows I do that dishwasher thing too?  That's when you open it to put in a dirty dish, realize everything is clean, and shut it quickly, leaving it for the next person to empty. I just wish there were a way to make that green light go on again. Is it just me?)


    So what's this all about? We're learning to live with each other (with great thanks to Julie), something we haven't done full-time, in 40 years. Old dogs/new tricks: lots of fun!

    *Here's what's great about the toothpicks, aka Doctor's BrushPicks.  They have a tiny little brush on one end for whooshing between your teeth. It actually feels good! (Just don't leave them lying around)

    Wednesday, December 7, 2011

    Please explain why healthcare is linked to employment....

    Why should the level of my healthcare, and its cost to me, be employer-based?

    If I were a conspiracy theorist (some days I have that tendency) I could easily think that employer sponsored health insurance was a corporatist plan to keep employees tethered to jobs.  I might imagine that this linkage makes workers less mobile; less likely to move from job to job in search for the most rewarding position, the perfect fit for them.

    I might even think that support for this crazy theory is found in the widespread corporate opposition to single payer (read "portable") healthcare.  Taking it one baby step further, I could imagine that describing single payer healthcare as socialism, is a carefully crafted scare tactic designed to keep us exactly where we are.


    If, on the other hand, I did some research, I'd find that while it's true that employer sponsored health insurance limits worker mobility, and forces many to stay in jobs they would otherwise drop like bad habits, this system started during World War II, to offset wage controls. Companies couldn't offer competitive wages, but they could provide healthcare benefits. This was hugely successful and the process was cemented in 1954 when the IRS decided that employer-paid health insurance premiums were tax exempt.

    Game. Set. Match.

    Another reason the very appealing conspiracy theory doesn't hold water is that corporations aren't especially thrilled with escalating insurance costs. They are either forced to cover the increases to compete in the recruitment marketplace or pass them along to employees, who take a dim view of pay cuts.

    In fact, there's a sad little chart on the first page of this report, produced by the Kaiser Family Foundation. It shows that between 2001 and 2011, health insurance premiums for the average family increased 113% from $7,061 to $15,073. Holy Moly!  Employers and employees have shared the increase, and neither are happy. At the same time, incomes have dropped significantly: Median family income in the US has decreased 7% since 2000, after adjusting for inflation.

    I challenge anyone to convince me that in the US, where we often outspend other industrialized nations in healthcare by 2:1  or more, with outcomes that are the same or worse, but seldom better, our employer-based healthcare system is worth salvaging. Apparently we spend about 18% of GDP on healthcare and no other country approaches that level of spending. I dug up some info from 2009, provided by PBS, when we were only spending 16% of  GDP on healthcare. The chart below lists countries in ascending order of World Health Rank (according to the World Health Organization):

    The US was 37th in World Health Rank, yet we spent well above the others. The only country that came close to our spending is Canada at 10.1 % GDP. (And you know how we feel about Canadian healthcare.) But hey, at least we're well ahead of Turkey!

    Our healthcare costs more than anywhere else, the quality is only slightly above average, we have millions of uninsured and underinsured in our country, neither employers nor insureds are happy with with the situation.

    So....who, in this whole mess of employer-linked healthcare insurance, benefits from the status quo?