Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Writing for the Food Pantry

Thank you everyone for your feedback on my last post! You’ve given me a lot to think about. In particular, Sonya reminded me that there is already a ton of cooking information readily available on the internet, including this noteworthy website, which is a solid base of information for almost anyone who wants to learn about cooking.

Almost. But I’m actually not looking to cater to the nine-tenths of the population who would most benefit by this resource. They are already well taken care of by the internet, Alton Brown, and a bazillion cookbooks.

When I think about who I would like this project to be for, the first person who comes to mind is my husband. Back when he was in college, before I knew him, Chris spent a period of some months subsisting on frozen chicken patties. And a weekly McBurger. And not much else. It wasn’t for lack of access to a kitchen that he ate such a horrifying diet; it was due to a lack of money, and a total lack of knowledge of what to do with the little money that he had.

Instead of those chicken byproducts, I could imagine for the same price Chris returning from his weekly shopping with potatoes, dry beans, cheese, and a different vegetable each week, say carrots, or cabbage. Add to that some cooking oil, salt, and pepper, and suddenly it looks like the start of some real meals, and not some wretched prison diet.

The website comes pretty darn close to being what Chris needed. But the thing that stops me from just suggesting that the Food Pantry website put a link there and call it a day is that so many of the recipes call for things like dry white wine, or a food processor, or having multiple types of oil in your cupboard. Someone with a lack of cooking knowledge won’t know that they can make substitutions for expensive ingredients or contraptions.

These are the guidelines that I am using when writing for the food pantry:

1. Recipes and articles that suggest the most inexpensive, widely available, nutritious, and whole ingredients possible. This does include canned goods, but I am avoiding anything canned or packaged that contains more than one ingredient or that goes by a brand name.

2. Recipes and articles that suggest the most inexpensive and widely available kitchen hardware.

3. Recipes that take a minimum of time to make (with the exception of foods that can be cooked in advance and stored).

4. Recipes and articles that suggest food storage as a means of saving time and effort. For example, information on freezing cooked beans or chopped vegetables, coupled with recipes that use these prepared foods.

5. Recipes that are wide open for substitutions of ingredients, such as soups.

I do need to pay a visit to the food pantry to see what they have in abundance. I have reason to believe that I’ll see a lot of canned tuna and canned beets. Alas, the pantry is only open when I am at work, so it may be a while before I have the opportunity.

If anyone reading this knows of any sources of cooking information that already cover these bases, I would very much like to know! The closest I have found, so far, is this awesome little cookbook written by a scout for her local food bank. (She started the project by doing a tally of what was on the food bank's shelves, and spent many hours testing the recipes. What an amazing young woman!) I will ask Steve to include some sort of links section in Franklin’s food pantry website to connect readers up to this sort of thing. And if it turns out that somewhere out there is a database that already contains what I’m after, I’ll happily pass that along to Steve and turn my attention to other projects! I am much too lazy to reinvent the wheel.

The following is a sample of what I have written and photographed so far:

Cooking Dry Beans

Beans that you cook yourself are cheaper and are lower in salt than canned beans.

Dry beans take a while to cook, but they are highly nutritious, and high in fiber. Beans are great when added to soups, stews, and casseroles. Cooked beans can be frozen for use later, so it makes sense to cook a lot of them at once and then freeze them.

To cook dry beans, follow the directions on the bean bag. Different sorts of dry beans have different soaking and cooking times. When the beans are soft enough to eat, but not yet falling apart, drain the water. You can then either add the beans to a recipe right away, or store them in a plastic box or bag in the freezer.

Frozen beans stick together, so you will need to either freeze them in small quantities, or pry them apart when you want to use some for cooking. A butter knife works reasonably well for breaking off frozen beans.

Beans can be kept frozen for months at a time. Use frozen beans just as you would use drained canned beans.

Chicken Bean Stew

½ lb boneless chicken
2 cups frozen beans (or one or two drained cans of beans)
2 carrots (or other vegetables)
2 sticks celery (or other vegetables)
1 tbsp flour (optional)
1 tsp cumin
1 tbsp oil
1 bullion cube plus two cups of water (or two cups of chicken or veggie stock)
Cooked rice (optional)
Black pepper
Salt (optional)

Cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces. Coat with the flour and cumin, and brown it in the oil. (The flour is optional - it is there to thicken the sauce.) Dice the carrots and celery, and toss them in the pot. (Other veggies can be used here, instead, such as onion, potato, kale, etc., and exact quantities aren't important.) Add the water and bullion (or chicken stock), bring to a boil, and simmer five or ten minutes, until the chicken and veggies are cooked. Add the beans, and heat until everything is bubbly and delicious. Season with salt and pepper. Eat as-is, or over rice. Serves three to six people, depending on how much rice you serve it with.

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