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Mike, Julie & Willem Day 7: Plantain Fritters

Plantain fritters! I wish I would have figured this out on Monday. Then again, best that I didn’t – the house smelled like mini donuts and the Stampede all day. They were fantastic. And easy to make. They brought out the banananess of the plantains – as fritters, they tasted more of bananas than I think bananas would have. And they held up to the heat – when you bit into one, it wasn’t mush.

I love that this week I was forced to make my acquaintance with something that has been available to me for most of my life, and yet I never bothered getting to know. I still have enough left to take a stab at a curry next week.

Which, ahem, brings me to a small confession. I assumed that since we started on Monday, Sunday night we’d be wrapping up the project. It makes sense, doesn’t it? But then en route to CharCut last night, where I had booked a seat at their communal table for Meat Sundays, at which this particular Sunday they promised to make a 15 kg poutine, I got an email titled: three more meals and you’re home free!

Um. Whoops? We’re supposed to keep going from the hamper until Monday noon? Maybe I didn’t read the instructions thoroughly. (Try to hide your shock.)

At any rate. I didn’t bail out on going for poutine, since I had already signed up. We went. And yes, I enjoyed it. It was good food with good friends around a table of happy (verging on ecstatic) people. It was nice to see cheese again, but I had been eating my share of potatoes this week anyway.

And really, I haven’t had my eye on the finishing line throughout this project, because that’s not the point. Yes, it wraps up today, but I can’t say I’m excitedly looking forward to dinner (to sum up the gist of the aforementioned email: I imagine many of you are looking forward to dinner tomorrow when you can eat whatever you want! That’s right after your lunch tomorrow you are all free of the Hampers!) because really, all of the participants in this were always free of the hampers. We’re not homeless, nor struggling. We didn’t worry all week that we can only access the food bank once per month, and what we might do when this stash runs out. This has been a learning experience, but I still can’t say I know how a food bank client feels, or that I’ve truly walked a mile in their shoes. Some participants have said this week was fun, but I doubt anyone actually utilizing the food bank would share that sentiment.

So. I won’t be going out for a celebratory dinner tonight. I’ll use up the rest of my hamper, along with the (comparably vast quantities of) ingredients already in my kitchen. I’ve already gone and bought a couple bags of food to give back to the food bank (remember-Husky covered the cost of the extra food for all our hampers). I’m going to continue on in some way, cutting my food spending drastically – for the next month at least only buying fresh produce and milk. (And toilet paper. Hard to make that from scratch.) I’m going to shop from my cupboards instead of from the store, and make do with what I have, which is clearly not that difficult.

I’ll try to pursue new sources of fresh produce for the food bank wherever I can (a portion of the new Ramsay community garden?), and contribute easy recipes (hopefully even compile a cookbook) because that’s what I can do to help. And I’ll focus more energy on being happy for what I have and less thinking about what I’m in the mood for. And I’ll definitely eat more plantain fritters.

Plantain Fritters

Thanks to Gourmet for walking me through this.

1 cup all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp. sugar (white or brown)
1 tsp. baking powder
pinch salt
1/2-3/4 cup water
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3 ripe plantains

1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
canola oil, for cooking

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add the water and egg and whisk until the batter is smooth.

Peel plantains and cut on a slight diagonal into 1/2-inch pieces. Heat a half inch of oil in a heavy skillet or pot until hot, but not smoking. Dip the plantains in the batter to coat them and fry in batches (don’t crowd them) until bottoms are golden, about 45 seconds, then turn over and fry until other side of each is golden, 30 to 45 seconds more. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Stir together the sugar and cinnamon in a shallow bowl.

While still warm, toss each batch in sugar mixture until coated. Serve warm.


June 7, 2010 at 1:58 pm 1 comment

Mike, Julie & Willem Day 6: A new way to make French fries.

Of course we ate more than just fries today, but this was the meal most worth reporting. I haven’t been too creative today – I’ve got more deadlines than usual, and am stretching myself as thin as my food hamper. (Thinner, even – we aren’t at risk of running out of food anytime soon. We are running short on options, though. Tomorrow – more plantains!)

But check this out – yesterday I followed a trail of bread crumbs (fry grease?) to an old Cooks Illustrated post about French fries (this is what happens when I’m supposed to be working) – it seems they burned through about 50 lbs of potatoes to come up with this method, wherein cold potato is set in cold oil in a pot and then brought to a boil together, much like you’d do when boiling potatoes (in water). The crazy part is – there’s apparently less oil in these cold-start fries than in traditional ones. I don’t understand why, but I never did that well in science. And I ditched chemistry for bio.

I’ve been dying to get in the kitchen and try something new, which has been difficult with the dwindling hamper on our dining room table. But I have potatoes! I have oil! I have salt! Giddy-up.

With fries like this, you need a good wobbly homemade mayo. And hey! I have eggs! I have oil! It’s clearly a sign.

So – you can go to see the original recipe at Cooks Illustrated, but it does seem a little wordier than I think it needs to be. (Not suggesting I know more than Cooks Illustrated, of course. But I did streamline it a little.) I didn’t measure my oil, nor my potatoes. I didn’t use bacon fat (although that does seem worth a try, don’t you think?). I cut two potatoes (unpeeled) into even sticks and put them in a pot, and covered them with canola oil. I did as I was told and covered the pot to bring it to a boil, which did indeed take about 5 minutes, but then I took the lid off (there’s condensation there – you don’t want that in your oil) and let it bubble away. It was odd, like I was boiling potatoes, only with oil. I didn’t wait to give them a stir though-I did so at about 10 minutes. Not sure what the difference is.

Anyway, in about 20 minutes they were beautiful and golden, and I took them out to drain on paper towels and showered them with salt. They had a lovely texture.

And mayo. I’ll send you over to Delicious Days – they have a wonderful tutorial.

June 5, 2010 at 10:35 pm 6 comments

Mike, Julie & Willem Day 5: Day-glo Mushroom Helper

What kind of wine does one pair with dayglo powdered cheese? WHAT, THERE’S NO WINE IN MY HAMPER? I didn’t think of that.

Ah well, it’s a working weekend for me anyway. Best to just hunker down with my Oreos and forget that it’s Friday night. And it’s sunny out. Let’s not talk about that.

Dinner tonight was not as thrilling as last night’s. Mike actually got into the mission and came up with the idea to use sauteed mushrooms, which are meaty-like, in the package of generic Hamburger Helper. W stuck to Cheerios.

As I sat glumly eating my salty orange mushroom pasta it occurred to me that PEOPLE ACTUALLY BUY THIS STUFF. It’s imported by Wal-Mart. They sell it in their stores. It isn’t eaten exclusively by people who have no choice – many folks out there actually go shopping and spend their own dollars on this.

Maybe they’re all eighteen? I remember when Mike and I first moved out I lived for a good couple years on Pop Tarts, Eggo Waffles and Hamburger Helper Cheeseburger Macaroni – all the stuff we weren’t allowed to have growing up. So then I started to grow out.

And yes, it’s cheap. So are beans. And rice. And barley. And a thousand or so other real meals I can price out in my head in the same ballpark as Hamburger Helper.

I have to cut this post short – I’m crashing down from my Oreo high.

June 4, 2010 at 7:52 pm Leave a comment

Mike, Julie & Willem Day 4: Eggs in Pipérade

I thought I might actually lose some weight this week. Ha! Instead I’ve become hooked on peanut butter toast, those chewy-salty peanut granola bars, and Oreos with 2% milk. When your very best choices are the snacky things, you tend to go a bit overboard. Or I do, anyway.

Damn you, Mr. Christie. You make good cookies.

I’ve been running on fumes this week. (Literally-I haven’t managed a shower in two days.) I haven’t been keeping up with the conversation here or at the Week in Their Kitchen blog as much as I’d like to. Today I didn’t have much time to spend trying to figure out what to do. I thought it was going to be a can of soup night. But I pulled out the thickly sliced zucchini and mushrooms in tomato sauce I made earlier in the week, thinking I’d put it on pasta. But it was so nice and chunky… I warmed it in a little baking dish, made some wells with a spoon into which I cracked a few eggs, and baked it. The eggs are tiny – rolling around in their styrofoam egg container with the expiry date hand-written on it in marker. I wonder if they are from someone’s backyard chickens?

You guys. I can’t believe how good this was. It was brilliant. I am so adding this to my regular repertoire, and not even changing it when I have access to more ingredients.

I’ve made eggs in Pipérade before – with peppers, tomatoes and garlic – but I don’t recall it being quite this good. Perhaps it was the time the vegetables had to spend in the fridge.

It was simply a zucchini, package of mushrooms (and OK – an onion – only because it was on the countertop on Monday and Mike unknowingly chopped and tossed it in, thinking it was with the rest of the stuff) and a shake of dehydrated garlic (one of my three spice choices) sauteed in a skillet with some canola oil. I poured a can of the plainest tomato sauce overtop and let it simmer, then it spent a few days in the fridge. Once the eggs were cracked in, they took about 15 minutes to bake in a 400ºF oven. Wowzah.

We ate it on toast, which was part of the appeal – I’m a fan of bread dragged through thick tomato sauce – and this was almost sloppy-Joe-esque, only better. And what a great, cheap, meatless meal – like eggs on toast for grown-ups. So long as you have tomato sauce, it could be made from any number of wilting veggies.

Speaking of. I know the Calgary Food Bank has become a sort of dumping ground for produce that is unsellable and often on the verge of composting itself. Plenty of companies (generously?) donate what’s garbage to them to the food bank, much of which is on the verge of unusable or already slimy – I’ve seen staff and volunteers out back, sorting through heaps of compost, opening packages to dump out the contents and filter out the plastic packaging. They really don’t need to be spending time and resources sorting through garbage so that whatever is compostable makes it into compost instead of into landfill.

So while we’re collectively eye-rolling over plantains and mushrooms and expired coleslaw (which is dated May 25th, but I ate again tonight, and it was just fine) I’m glad that some of this is being used – clearly plenty of it is perfectly edible, despite its poor aesthetics. We consumers like our produce to be plump and fresh with nary a blemish.

Which brings me to the topic of food waste. It’s something I’ve wanted to address for awhile – I have plenty to say on the subject, but for now I want to toss it out there for you to comment on. Every month, residents of Toronto toss out 17.5 million kilograms of food. (I’m sure statistics for Calgary are similar.) About a third of food purchased in the UK is thrown out every year – that translates to about $19.5 billion in Canadian dollars. Part of the problem is best-before and use-by dates on packaging, which isn’t regulated by any governing body and so determined by the manufacturers, most of whom undoubtedly would like to see a faster turnover of their product. Part of the problem is planning, and ease of accessibility, and sheer volume of food we all keep in our kitchens. And buying more instead of using what we have.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

June 3, 2010 at 8:15 pm 2 comments

Mike, Julie & Willem, Day 3: Creamy Mushroom Rotini

You know what I love about this experience? The reminder that there is SO MUCH FOOD in the kitchen even when we’re convinced that there’s not a thing in the house to eat. If all I had was a styrofoam package of sad-looking mushrooms, milk and dry pasta in the cupboard, I’d order in.

But wait – before I get to the mushroom rotini, I have a confession. W had an apple today.

He has been wondering why he can’t have any apples. He’s ecstatic over the sudden surplus of packaged cereal bars, so he’s not suffering. He can’t wait to have Kraft Dinner, especially with hot dogs(!). But he’s accustomed to eating a few apples and pears per day, including a bowl of apple slices at bedtime. It feels odd to tell him he can’t have any fruit. We have no bananas, no smoothies, no dried apricots. I’ve tried to explain why, but his 4 year old mind isn’t quite grasping the concept.

Of course, clients of the food bank likely have to explain to their kids with some regularity why there isn’t enough or they can’t have the foods they want.

So today we went to the opening of the Hillhurst-Sunnyside Farmers’ Market – a tough place to go and not buy anything – and were chatting with Kris Vester (from Blue Mountain Biodynamic Farm) at his stall. W eyed a basket of organic apples and asked if he could please have one. He hasn’t had an apple in days. I looked at Kris, who knew about the project. “If I give him one it won’t count, right?” he offered. Technically, yes. But who’s to say that the child of a food bank client couldn’t be offered an apple from a kindly farmer? And really, denying a 4 year old an apple is not going to help get any point across here. It would be a little ironic, wouldn’t it?

So W had his apple. I bought a fresh tangle of greens and a bunch of chocolate mint for my sister, picked up a bag of organic barley flour and a dozen beautiful eggs from Kris’ mom (for next week) and we went back home for dinner empty-handed.

I had to cook up the remaining (and rapidly declining) 4 packages of mushrooms, which were like clowns coming out of a Volkswagen. I sliced and cooked up two batches in my cast iron skillet with a generous drizzle of canola oil, salt and pepper. (I would have loved to add a blob of butter, but got a pound of stick margarine that I can’t bring myself to eat or serve my family. I can’t believe they still manufacture this stuff. It’s a block of trans fat. I’ll spare you the rant.)

Anyway. I cooked the mushrooms until they released their moisture and then started to brown, then sprinkled a spoonful of flour overtop, tossing it around to coat the mushrooms. I poured in 2% milk until it bubbled, adding a splash more at a time as it thickened. As I did this, I boiled some rotini, then dumped the drained pasta into the mushroom pan and added plenty of pepper.

It was good. Mike was in heaven. (W was not a fan.) Had I been making this under my own authority I’m sure I’d have added herbs and cheese – I love the reminder than plain food is delicious. I should know this, but I still get caught up in the herbs and spices and other additions.

So my McGyvering has been successful; but I’m a food writer. I wonder how many people would be able to do the same with what they have.

I’ve offered in the past to compile a cookbook for food bank clients, a collection of simple recipes using ingredients commonly found in food bank hampers. Often there will be a surplus of uncommon foods (read: plantains) that people have little experience preparing (last week it was eggplant) and sometimes the staff at the food bank winds up looking for easy recipes online to pass out to those on the receiving end of such. I offered help in that regard too – perhaps in the form of an ingredient-du-jour handout or element of the website? But this all assumes that people are interested in recipes.

Not all food bank clients have the time or interest in cooking – many just need to eat. This is not at all a criticism of those who use the food bank – not everyone in general has the motivation to learn how to cook. Or to actually do it. Thus the crazy popularity of convenience foods, grated cheese, pre-diced potatoes and the like. And it seems to me those going through crises might be even more strapped for time and energy than most.

We could, of course, turn our attention to the bigger problem – and the structural solutions – but people use food banks for a variety of reasons, and there will always be people in need. A number of you have asked what I think is the best thing to donate, based on this experience. I’ve only been at it a few days – and what clients get in their hampers varies greatly, even within the same day. I’ve always been inclined to contribute beans and raw ingredients, but healthy prepared foods seem like a better idea- so people don’t wind up with pancake mix and no syrup or Helper with no hamburger.

I may myself start buying multivitamins for children, just to cover their bases if they do need to live on largely empty calories. (Which, it must be said, many well-to-do children are doing as much of.) It said in our debriefing that vitamins wouldn’t be necessary, as all hampers are nutritionally balanced. As great a job as they’re doing at the food bank (and they really are, especially considering the fact that they rely on donations, without government support), I beg to differ. Lots of plantains, mushrooms and coleslaw (or whatever has been donated on any particular day) is a good thing, but not varied enough to be considered perfectly balanced.

Of course it might be according to the Canada Food Guide, which classifies those bubblegum pudding cups in the same category as milk and cheese…

June 2, 2010 at 11:11 pm 2 comments

Feeling empty in the fruit bowl.

W is wondering why he can’t have any apples.

He’s ecstatic over the sudden surplus of packaged cereal bars, so he’s not suffering. He can’t wait to have Kraft Dinner, especially with hot dogs(!). But he’s accustomed to eating a few apples and pears per day, including a bowl of apple slices at bedtime. Dark red delicious apples, to be precise. It feels odd to tell him he can’t have fruit. We have no bananas, no smoothies, no raisins and dried apricots. I’ve tried to explain why, but his 4 year old mind isn’t quite grasping the concept.

Of course, clients of the food bank likely have to explain to their kids with some regularity why there isn’t enough or they can’t have the foods they want.

It seems to be a bit of a crapshoot – over breakfast Mike read aloud Michelle’s story in the Herald this morning – in her hamper there was a bag of spinach, 3 oranges, 5 apples, a bag of baby carrots and a caesar salad kit besides the mushrooms, plantains and iceberg lettuce. And hers was for a single person with no kids. I never thought I’d be envying someone for their apples. Of course it always depends on what’s there on the day of the pickup – even so, we were there on the same day, just a couple hours before she was. On the other hand, I read about someone else getting Lucky Charms, and I’m thankful for my plain Cheerios.

Breakfasts and lunches have been easy – there has been a lot of Cheerios, peanut butter toast, eggs on toast and for our picnic today, peanut butter sandwiches, cereal bars and fruit snacks. I was happy to see two healthy granola bars (above) in the mix – one made exclusively out of seeds, nuts and honey – tough on the teeth (it seemed old) but filled the gap quite nicely.

This afternoon I made a big bowl of Ichiban salad with some of the coleslaw and the one package if generic Ichiban noodles – generally I make this with sliced almonds, but instead I toasted the dry noodles in the toaster oven and it was just fine. The dressing was oil, vinegar, sugar and just a little shake from the seasoning packet.

June 2, 2010 at 3:18 pm Leave a comment

Plantain Chips! Who knew?

I had the great honour/pleasure/good fortune of interviewing Barbara Kingsolver a year or so ago (when her book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle came out) and she said one thing in particular that stuck in my mind: we all have a childlike approach to dinner, she said. As it comes to be mealtime we think, what do I feel like having for dinner, rather than, what do we have? She was referring of course to eating locally and seasonally, but it certainly applies here. We’re so accustomed to deciding on dinner based on our moods and cravings.

Yesterday I was panicked at the prospect of getting through a dozen plantains. Today at 5 o’clock, as I made plantain chips, I thought – aren’t we lucky to get to sit around the table and enjoy such a dinner together, even if it’s not something we might have gone and chosen ourselves.

And really, I’m glad to have been pushed out of my comfort zone. The boys were out front kicking the ball around. Some neighbours stopped to chat. I brought out some freshly cooked and salted plantain chips. Everyone munched and chatted, and the plantains became a conversation piece. In how many countries of the world would this have been considered a feast?

Their presence also made me consider any immigrants who use the food bank and are happy to see something familiar in their bins. They might pick up a box of Kraft Dinner or cotton candy Jell-O and ask the same: “what the hell do I do with this??” Really, I want to be more familiar with cooking plantains than with Jell-O.

Ben considered himself lucky to get Top Dogs for dinner. We turned the TV on to the news and coincidentally a commercial came on for them as I was slicing plantains. Ben, watching it, suddenly turned and asked, “what’s for dinner?”

“Those,” I said.


Then he walked over to the table and asked, “what’s with all the candy?”

Ali, Ben and Emily came for dinner tonight before soccer, and we had hot dogs topped with baked beans on peppered hoagie buns, and coleslaw (our ingredient freebies include oil, vinegar and sugar, so I shook some up in a jar) and plantain chips. I like that there is enough here to accommodate a few extra for dinner. I imagine kids who are clients of the food bank might like to be able to invite their friends to stay for dinner once in awhile.

Plantain chips are quite delicious – sweeter than potatoes but not quite sweet potato-esque, they remind me, flavour-wise, of raisins. The secret is to slice them as thinly as you can, then cook them in hot canola oil (I heated a half inch until hot but not smoking) until deep golden. Drain on paper towels and shower with coarse salt.

My chef friend says they’re great in a curry. I can’t wait to try it. Just as soon as I have access to coconut milk and rice.

June 1, 2010 at 7:22 pm 1 comment

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