Saturday, April 18, 2015

The SNAP challenge: Here's the REAL way

A lot of people are poking gentle fun at Gwennyth Paltrow's attempt to create what she considers a reasonable diet from the SNAP allotment of $29 a week. Her recipes do look rather tasty. They are also impractical.

Look, I'm not the kind of person who derives cheap pleasure from insulting Hollywood celebrities. The low, catty remarks seen here are not my style. I admire Paltrow's expressions of support for working women. Don't mock her: Mock the Marie Antoinette-types who gravitate toward the GOP. An affluent woman whose heart is in the right place beats an affluent woman with no heart at all.

That said: Paltrow's diet doesn't offer much in the way of calories. Her plan serves up 1000 calories a day. Laborers in Auschwitz got 1700 calories a day.

Paltrow bought seven limes and a head of lettuce. Ridiculous. Poor people don't buy limes, and they rarely buy lettuce.

Poor people do not buy food based on the kind of nutritional concerns that matter to the people in Paltrow's world. Desperate Cookery requires one to think very differently from the way successful people in Hollywood think.

If you are poor, calories are good. Fat is good. Carbs are good. Sugar is good. Meat protein is glorious. Your job is to get as many calories, fats, carbs, sugars and dead animal chunks into your body as you can, for the least amount of money.

I know these things because I am poor myself, and have often had to feed two or three people on roughly $29 a week. Let's be clear: I'm not talking about $29 per person, which was Paltrow's challenge. I know how to feed three adult human beings for that amount total.

(Plus the dog. Bella ate meat every day. In fourteen years, there were only one or two days when she had to make do with rice cooked in bouillon.)

First and foremost: You need to plan your shopping strategy the way Ike planned the Normandy invasion. Be thorough; be thrifty. Every penny counts. Seriously: If you can save nine cents on pasta, save the nine cents.

If you're poor, middle class gorcery stores are not for you. If you live in California, what you want are stores that cater to Hispanics. Does the sign feature a sombrero or a cactus? Are customers greeted with a blast of loud mariachi music? Welcome home!

If Store A has a special on veggies and Store B, a mile away, has a special on meat, walk that mile and shop at both stores. I said walk. Use a backpack.

What you are looking for, first and foremost, are specials on these items: Chicken, potatoes, onions, rice.

Avoid bagged rice. Hispanic markets usually have binned rice that you scoop up and bag yourself, for less than 50 cents a pound.

Keep an eye out for specials on potatoes in ten pound sacks. Remember, you'll probably have to carry those potatoes with you as you walk a mile to get your chicken. Still, if you can get ten pounds for under three bucks, you've done well. Occasionally, stores have incredible deals -- ten pounds for $1.50 or thereabouts.

You're also looking for a bag of onions for a good price. Maybe two bucks.

Look for the cheapest prices on corn tortillas and salsa. Paltrow would have you make salsa yourself from fresh ingredients. Home-made is wonderful, but unless you find some specials (study the marked-down veggies), you'll probably do better to look in the cold foods section for pre-made salsa in plastic containers.

Home-made tortillas save money and taste great, but they do take time.

Your best friend is the humble chicken. Boneless breast meat is great, but don't buy it unless the price is very low -- two bucks a pound or under. Often, you are better off buying whole chickens. Low-end stores often have sales on whole chickens --  roughly a buck a pound.

So let's say five, six, seven dollars for your chicken. That's a feast.

You'll also want some cheap veggies. For poor people, this usually means carrots (unpeeled), Italian squash, canned corn (or on the cob, when in season), frozen or canned peas, or cabbage.

First night: Roast chicken with mashed potatoes. Simple and superb.

It is nice but not necessary to stick a lemon (or an orange or a lime) inside the chicken as it cooks. Swipe the citrus fruit from someone's tree. (Californians have plenty of opportunities.) Do not buy the fruit: Not enough calories to justify the price. Learn to recognize fresh rosemary that you can scoop up for $0.00.

Preparation is easy: Rub the skin of the chicken with salt, pepper, garlic and any appropriate spices you may have. Cook very, very low for four or more hours. I don't care about crispy skin, but others do. How do you know when the bird is done? What you are looking for is the ability to rotate the drumstick freely, which tells you that the meat inside is incredibly juicy. The "low and slow" method of cooking means that you don't have to be very careful about cooking times.

At the same time, whip up some mashed potatoes. If you're serving three people, five potatoes of varying sizes should suffice. (You can mix real potatoes with the boxed stuff, but don't tell anyone.) Do not use real butter; nobody will taste the difference. Poor people buy large tubs of the cheapest spread available, and they make it last.

Use the chicken juices to make a gravy -- a thick, stick-to-yer-ribs gravy, made with a roue (flour and oil) and some milk. You may want to toss in spices and a bit of onion.

Behold, the first night's bounty: Chicken and potatoes with thick, savory gravy -- perhaps with a side dish of carrots (one carrot per person, cooked in oil). This meal is wonderful. If this is the last meal I have in this life, I shall die a happy man.

Unless the bird was tiny, you'll surely have enough meat left over for chicken tacos the next night. Make these with a can of refried or black beans, some cubed potatoes crispy-fried in oil with onion, and some of that salsa we talked about earlier. Swankpots will top these tacos with sour cream and cheese. If you have those items, great -- but go easy. You have to make these luxuries last.

Reserve some chicken meat to make up a small pot of chicken-and-rice for the dog. This concoction, which offers more meat protein than do most fancy kibbles, would keep my dog well-fed for several days.

At this point, most people would toss out the chicken carcass. Wrong!

Put the carcass (including skin and all of the icky bits) into a big pot of water (but not too much water). Bring to a boil, then let it simmer for thirty minutes to an hour. This makes a wonderful, useful broth. Use a strainer to separate the broth from the bones, then rinse the carcass under cold water. You'll discover leftover bits of meat that you didn't know were there. Carefully pick these off and set them aside in a bowl: You'll be surprised at how much meat you were about to toss out.

(That bird died to keep you alive, and you dishonor the creature if you waste any part of its sacrifice.)

The third day is soup day.

Make the soup with broth, little bits of chicken, an onion or two, a cup of rice, a small handful of pasta, a bit of roue, and whatever veggies (fresh, canned, frozen) you may happen to have in the house. The pot will grow to a respectable size. Serve with bread, toast, or grilled cheese sandwiches. Yes, this soup is thick and starchy: Dr. Atkins would have hated it. But it fills you up and keeps you going, and it tastes good.

The next day, you'll have leftover soup for lunches.

Now buy another chicken and start the process all over again. You probably won't need to buy the other ingredients.

On the seventh day, serve pasta (cost: $1) topped with canned sauce (cost: $1). If you have some pork or beef to put into the sauce, thank the powers above. Serve with some sort of veggie and maybe some garlic toast.

Other "poor foods" include home-made chili over pasta or potatoes followed by chili-drenched hot dogs the next day. Also consider beef stroganoff (made with ground beef -- easier and cheaper), shepherd's pie, jambalaya, and breakfast-for-dinner. (Make pancakes from scratch. Cheaper than Bisquick.)

One of my favorite poor foods is frittata. You can get fancy-schmancy with frittata ingredients, but all you really need is frozen spinach, onion, a little cheese if you have it, and maybe some tomato on top. (Consider growing your own tomatoes and squash.) Any leftovers in your fridge -- even potatoes -- can slip into a frittata. For the dairy, you can use powdered milk as needed. (Powdered milk is an important weapon in the arsenal of Desperate Cookery. Real milk often sours before you can use it all, and Desperate Cooks hate to waste even a single molecule.) Avocados on top are wonderful, but they can get pricey.

Some would suggest ramen for lunches. Maybe, but I hate that stuff. I prefer a bowl of pasta noodles served in a spartan "sauce" composed of nothing more than oil, butter, spices and parm (if you have it). A sprinkling of peas won't hurt. For an Asian equivalent, try sobe noodles in a sauce made of chicken broth, a scoop of peanut butter, soy sauce, garlic and ginger. (Actually, regular spaghetti noodles also work in that dish.)

If you must go the boxed mac-n-cheese route -- we all do it, and don't pretend otherwise -- get the store brand for 50 cents a box. Mix two boxes. Stir in butter, milk and real cheese if you have it. Again, peas won't hurt. If you have bread crumbs, use that as a topping and bake for ten minutes.

And that, my friends, is how you feed three people for roughly thirty bucks a week. I am not skinny, and neither was my dog.


Gareth said...

Beans, rice and corn tortillas.

Stephen Morgan said...

You list a large number of things I've never seen, and some I've never heard of. What is "Italian squash"? Tacos? I've actually heard of tacos, on American TV, but I've never seen one in the wild.

Since the Tory government came in I've been worse of to the tune of about £30 a week, and the biggest problem is certainly not food, but extraordinary expenditures. Which, in total, aren't very extraordinary. New clothes, new shoes, replacement parts for bikes, repairs, so on. Each one a small and rare expenditure, together a large and regular drain.

Walking to the other end of town to save a bit of money requires time I might not have and a pair of shoes I can wear for walking without making my feet bleed or show through the holes.

When it comes to food, vegetables and especially rice are a waste. Not suitable for sustaining your physical or psychological needs. Nice sweet fruit like apples, yes.

Cheese sandwiches. Steamed potatoes with baked beans. Beans on toast. Biscuits. A full English as often as possible, sometimes more than once a day.

To quote Orwell:

"Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread."
-- The Road to Wigan Pier, Chapter 6

The More things change, eh? The whole chapter could easily be about either of our countries today, other than the fact that neither of our countries currently use shillings.

Joseph Cannon said...

I never saw that Orwell quote before, but it makes sense. Italian squash is zucchini, one of the most popular veggies in America.

Tacos and burritos are easy, and I know that you can get tortillas at Tescos inexpensively. Grill some chicken (fresh or leftover) in oil with a sprinkling of chili powder. And some chopped onion. Place this on a flour tortilla or a corn tortilla. If you use corn, that's a taco. If you use flour, it's a burrito. Tacos are served open-faced and eaten by hand gently folded in the middle. (REAL tacos us soft corn tortillas, but many gringos use hard shell tortillas.) Burritos are larger and folded up and eaten with a fork, especially if you ladle a mexican sauce and some cheese over the whole thing.

You need only a dab of meat in a taco. (You can also use pork or beef, but the chili powder is mandatory.) Also include any combination of the following ingredients: Refried beans, black beans, rice, guacamole (smushed up avocado), shredded lettuce, bell peppers, chiles, chopped tomato, black olives, sour cream, cheese, green onion, regular onion, cilantro, avocado, corn, roasted corn. In my household, we include fried potato, but that is not common.

Some sort of taco sauce or salsa is mandatory. The end result should be somewhat wet and runny. And spicy and tasty.

You can fancy up this sort of food to serve to guests or you can keep things cheap in order to stretch your budget. That is the beauty of Mexican food. Even the cheap variants taste good.

(Oh: There are also fish tacos. But that's a different recipe involving cabbage and a special sauce.)

Anonymous said...

Wow, Joseph, I thought I was a frugal cook but you take the cake. You even got the powdered milk! The taste takes some getting used to but it's always there, it doesn't go stale, and it makes a convenient protein additive to anything.

Prices are indeed much better at the Supermercado than at the Safeway. Some place turnips and rutabegas are cheap--Safeway prices them like exotic delicacies.

You didn't say much about beans or exotic grains. With a pressure cooker it becomes much easier to take advantage of grains like lentils, barley, wheat berries, millet, split peas, and about a zillion kinds of dried beans. Pressure cookers can be found at thrift stores missing parts like handles, weights, or gaskets. Check the manufacturer website for parts. (And get an experienced pressure cooker user to instruct you in its use!)

Another thrift store or flea market item would be used mason jars--the ones with nicked lips that have been discarded as unsafe for canning. If you have some of those you can buy the big cans of beans and hominy and tomato sauce at the supermercado and when you open one you store the unused portion in your fridge.

Stephen Morgan said...

Is "fish taco" a euphemism? If so, is "special sauce" a euphemism?

There's no Tesco near my house, but I expect I could find some sort of flatbread, probably a naan or pitta bread. Never had it, but I think I could get it. Nonetheless I don't like any sort of hot stuff, let alone a lengthy list of herbs and spices I'm not familiar with. Simple food without excessive tastes is better. Fish and chips. Sausage cobs. Cheese sandwiches. Potatoes and beans. Any combination of bacon, eggs, mushrooms, fried tomatoes, baked beans, fried bread, toast, sausages, white pudding, brown sauce and bovril.

There's a reason the expression is "meat and two veg", not "meat and horrible maizen flat bread and a never-ending cocktail of exotic spices".

"Then there are the various ways of cooking potatoes that are peculiar to our own country. Where else do you see potatoes roasted under the joint, which is far and away the best way of cooking them? Or the delicious potato cakes that you get in the north of England? And it is far better to cook new potatoes in the English way — that is, boiled with mint and then served with a little melted butter or margarine — than to fry them as is done in most countries."
-- "In Defence of English Cooking", George Orwell

Joseph Cannon said...

Fish tacos are a real thing, Stephen. If ever you are in L.A., look for a chain called Rubios.

If need be, make your own tortillas out of flour or masa. Instructions online.

susan said...

This is phony baloney. SNAP stands for SUPPLEMENTAL NUTRITION assistance program. Understand my highlighted words. The program is intended to be supplemental--not supposed to be what you will spend for food for the entire month. Many single people like me never got the entire 200 a month allotment (give or take a few dollars) because of pensions and employment. I currently get 16 a month and probably won't be eligible for too much longer since I have finally started regular part-time employment that could lead to regular full-time.

So let's stop with the beans and rice diet crap because that is not what the SNAP program is about. I ate perfectly normal food with my allotment and supplemented my diet out of pocket. Just like most people with SNAP benefits.

prowlerzee said...

Susan, there are plenty of cash-poor people who need to stretch food dollars, so this is not a phony topic! My neighbor often needs me to pick up stuff for her and she relies on large non-brand loaves of wheat bread, luncheon meat and bananas....she gets lettuce when she can. I've also stood in church lines to pick up some potatoes and cabbage, etc, for her.

Good stuff, Joseph, but I can add a few tidbits. Buy the real butter and the smallest size milk. To mash potatoes, boil them in half water, half milk. Drain most of the liquid off but reserve enough to mash the tender potatoes with. They are creamy and hot this way and you only need one or two small pats of butter....superb!

Also, cook your meat or veggies in oil with one pat of butter for flavor and browning. You can make butter last a long while.

Incidentally, at G mart and some other places you can get 5 or 6 limes for a dollar! Limes are much cheaper than lemons.

And even at Safeway, their manager specials on meat mean you can get steak, pork, and other meats for half off or more. You just have to be very strict and, as you say, only go to certain stores for sale items.

Aldi's has very cheap eggs and a few other good deals. Eggs are the most versatile! Omelets and soups feed you very well.

Even if your milk goes sour you can add it to corn meal blends for awesome corn cakes.

Feeding one person has its own challenges, so freezing portions and leftovers is key.

Parmesan is a good cheese where a little goes a long way....and it keeps. Cabbage and cauliflower keep for a long while likewise. Try bulking pasta with cauliflower and add just a little parm and butter. Very filling and yummy.

Joseph Cannon said...

Susan, I think you misunderstood the nature of my post. I wrote to demonstrate the ways in which poor people stretch every food dollar. I said nothing about where the dollars come FROM.

I myself have never applied for food stamps.

William said...

This brings back memories of my wonderful childhood. We were poor but not in debt and manage to save some money to buy a suburban house. My mother cooked New England food similar to your examples it was very good. Our 3 room (family of four) cold water flat in Cambridge MA was $25 in 1955.