Wal Mart

You might think it’s a sign of Armaggedon when the Walmart logo appears on this web site, but you’ll understand in a minute.

It’s rare when I get a chance to show off a guest blogger, but even more rare when the guest blogger wants to stay anonymous. When this person sent this to me, I couldn’t resist sharing it. Even though the person wishes to stay anonymous, it’s definitely one of the better pieces I’ve read in a while, and I’m proud to share it with you.

The subject matter is timely, as we’ll be discussing this story in our next episode (the annual Halloween edition – in production right now).

Wal-Mart
by Anonymous

Wal-Mart. The name alone causes the localvores and supporters of small business shutter. They’re too big, they’re too cheap. They drive small business out of business. They pay too little and apparently treat their employees too poorly. The negatives are great. Truth be told, one of my first jobs in high school was working at Wal Mart in Southern Oregon, in the Shoe Department. It was a crappy job, but in high school there isn’t really a lot of better options. After leaving Wal-Mart for college I think I can safely say I shadowed their doorstep about a dozen times in fifteen years (I used to love buying my fishing license there, don’t ask).

Then a couple years back they started making small changes. I’d read in the news that they were to start buying / selling local produce, a move I was notably conflicted about. See, I love shopping at the local (hip) grocers like Trader Joes, Whole Foods and Raley’s / Bel Air here in Sacramento. These stores, for whatever reason, are ‘nicer’ than discount grocers. Right? I mean, the aisles are wider, the prices aren’t that expensive and the food is fresher. Right? Well, maybe not.

Fact is Trader Joes buys in bulk from national brands and rebrands the product under their own name, or they contract with producers to make products especially for them. The veggies and fruits? Well, turns out they’re not as local as I wish they were (especially here in NorCal). Whole Foods, for all their great organic and healthy options, does a better job at supporting local business, but the bulk of what they carry seems to be common and pricy. Other local chains are equally expensive, but really offer little for the extra money spent. Sure, there are specialty items in all of these stores that are truly better than you’ll find in discount chains, but for the average family that is short on time and cash, 95% of the items found at any of these stores are the same as items found elsewhere, for cheaper.

All this brings us back to Wal-Mart, literally. Recently I’ve made some life changes that have seen much of my disposable income less disposable. I’ve had to make significant changes in the way I live, but believed firmly that I could still eat the way I’d grown accustom to these last five years or so. It was with a great deal of hesitation that I made my way to the Wal-Mart nearby and grabbed a shopping cart – I had never used a shopping cart before at Wal-Mart, this act alone was a big step. I started in the bath area, picking up the necessary toiletries, then moved on to the grocery part of the store. I was surprised to see some organic eggs, local milk and a hefty frozen veggie section with a lot of organic options. The bulk of what I buy is likely the same as the bulk of what you buy: bread; cheese; milk; eggs; chicken; beef; Cheez-Its; Flour; Sugar; Spices; Canned chiles; Produce. I was a bit dismayed, actually, that I found everything I was looking for. I mean, I’d come to buy food for the week and had a dinner menu that consisted of chile rellenos; braised chicken and leeks; roasted whole chicken; soup and even the buffalo wings recipe from Dude Food. I found everything – and I mean everything – I needed for the week, right here at Wal-Mart. And the price? Shocking.

I’m cooking for a family of four (two adults, two teenage boys). The grocery & toiletry (and pet) bill for the week? $175. Take away the non-food items (roughly $40) and that equals $1.88 per plate for 72 meals (3 meals per day; four plates per meal; six days worth). Now, this is without any discount coupons or real effort to compare prices – I mainly shopped for the brands I knew.

Here’s a couple caveats to consider. First, while the produce is mostly procured regionally, the meat is not. This bothers me a bit, as in an ideal world I would support more local ranchers, but given the point of the exercise is to cook as much good food at home for as little money as possible, local meat just isn’t an option at this time. Also, there just aren’t any local bread options here – or locally roasted coffee. Granted, if you have the time and ability, they do have all the ingredients needed to make your own bread at home, and you can always roast you coffee at home for about $6 per pound.

Would I rather shop at the local Co Op or specialty market? Yes, yes I would. But like so many families in America today, the bottom line really needs to be the bottom line. Until our own personal economy changes, the luxury of buying from local producers and independently owned grocers just isn’t going to be a reality. I know, just by listening to NPR and seeing the news, that my story isn’t unique. I find myself in a situation where I have more time than money and am making the choices to feed a family the best meals possible for as little money as possible. With that in mind, I applaud the moves Wal-Mart has made in the past couple years. I still dislike so many things about them and won’t buy non-grocery store items here when possible, but on this alone they are providing options for families that are healthy and affordable. Really, there is no longer any excuse for a family to eat unhealthy anymore – no reason except laziness and a lack of curiosity to learn to make good food at home. It’s easy, it can be a learning and bonding experience for the whole family and you might just add a few precious years to yours and your kids’ lives.

I guess that’s the point of this story. We as a country need to eat ‘better’ – not more. We need to eat meals together. We need to create something at home that bonds us, not just allow each member to float on his or her own island. Cooking at home, eating at home is the best way I know how.

Other Tidbits . . .

Soda
I hate soda. Well, I hate the abuse of soda in our homes. If your family goes through a lot of soda or root beer, do you know you can make your own at home for dirt cheap? Engage with your teens and get them to help make root beer from extracts. You can control how much sugar you add (or even the use of sugar substitutes) and the end product is enjoyable and fun for everyone. You can typically make five gallons of root beer for under $15 – roughly $0.28 per 12-ounce bottle. For more information, just look to your local homebrew store (for home beer & wine making).

Chicken Stock
I cannot believe how many people I know that love roasted chicken, love chicken stock, but for some reason can’t figure out how to make chicken stock for free at home. Sure, it’s only “a couple bucks” for chicken stock off the shelf, but that’s still a couple bucks! Here’s a tip. Next time you buy a whole chicken to roast at home (olive oil, salt, pepper, 400 degree oven, 1 hour – done), take out the neck (tip: buy whole chicken with the giblets inside) and add it to a small pot of water, then boil for about an hour. There you go, you now have your very own chicken stock – perfect for soup, gravy and stews.

Chickpeas

Last month, in the midst of my suspicions that many of the farmers selling produce at our local farmers market were not actually growing a lot of the produce they were selling, I had a pleasant discovery. Gonzaga Farms from Lindsay, new to the market, brought a handful of items that we had not seen available at the market since we started shopping there. Among the various pepper varieties (some hot and some not) were massive bushels full of pods, looking very similar to snap peas.

Katrina immediately pointed to the sign above the plants. “Chickpeas” it said. We looked at each other in silence for a second before she asked “Should we?” I gave her my customary look for “Fuggetaboutit” and away we went with two large bushels for $5. I gave the purveyor my card and asked him some customary questions about his farm – as I’ve been doing to every new farmer I meet there. But unlike most farmers I’ve asked at that market,, this guy seemed real, believable, truthful in the greatest sense of the word. I trusted that he grew these. And a quick Google search when I returned home proved the farm’s legitimacy.

Also known as a garbanzo bean or indian pea (among other names), the chickpea is very high in protein, and is said to have roots dating back 7500 years. Having only eaten garbanzo beans dried or rehydrated all these years, we were excited to finally find them fresh. We were excited to open one of the pods and taste what was inside.

Wait a minute. They’re green? Who knew? So we tasted a couple, and they were pretty fantastic. It tasted like a freshly picked green pea – just firmer, nuttier, and pastier. But it’s not what I was expecting. I’d only ever had white garbanzo beans. Were these too young to eat? Why aren’t these white?

An education was in order, and an education is just what I received when I returned home. As it turns out, chickpeas come in various varieties. There are white chickpeas, which we’ve been used to eating, and green chickpeas. The flavor of these green chickpeas were a lot closer to a fresh sugar snap pea than that of the white garbanzo we’ve been making hummus with for years.

However, the question still remained. Why do they call them chickpeas?

Now it makes complete sense.

A text to my friend Chef Nathan Lyon, host of “Growing a Greener World” and “A Lyon in the Kitchen” was in order. Of all of the people I know, no one can bring out the best from fresh produce. I had no idea how to prepare these, and I certainly didn’t want to do the wrong thing and ruin them, especially considering the amount of work it took to shuck these things from their pods.

The texts went something like this:

[me] Nathan, I just scored some fresh chickpeas from the Farmers Market. Not sure what to do with them. Green hummus? Should I dry them first?

[nathan] Dude.

[me] Thanks. Appreciate your help.

[nathan] Fresh in a salad, or lightly cooked. Treat them like fresh peas.

So that’s exactly what I did. Lightly poached in a tablespoon of unsalted butter over low heat, these green protein-rich nuggets made good company for grilled pork chops and roasted beets one night, and alongside roast chicken and potatoes another.

While restoring my faith in our Farmers Market, it helped write another chapter in my life as a foodie. I try to make every day a learning experience when it comes to food. I make it a personal goal to try to taste new things, learn more about food each day. Experiences like these are enriching, and takes me further away from the processed, artificial food items being manufactured and eaten by Americans more and more each day.

Why are destinations like Applebee’s, Chili’s, and The Olive Garden more popular than fresh food stands?

It makes me feel sorry for those people not able or willing to experience food like the fresh chickpea. This is a food item that has been around 7500 years, and not until now am I getting around to experiencing it fresh from the plant.

It makes me wonder what’s around the corner, what’s next. It’s that anticipation that gives me hope, keeps bringing me back, and confirms that I’m doing the right thing by devoting my life to food.

episode 64 :: so long, farmers market

Three years ago, Katrina and I discovered our local farmers market which had just opened. On our very first visit there, I brought along my iPod and recorded our experience, asking questions along the way. I asked where they were from, what they grew at their farm, how large the farms were, and how on earth they were able to sell enough produce to justify a 4-hour drive to and from Buena Park.

As I started to suspect after a while, some of them were lying. Not only were they lying about where the food we were buying from them was from, but the fact that many of them didn’t even grow it. And all of that “No Pesticide” stuff? Pure nonsense. As it turns out, you can ask all the questions in the world. The key is keeping the bullshit filter on high.

In what I can only sum up as a swift kick to the balls, it was a total let-down to watch a recent undercover news report from our local NBC affiliate that featured one of the farmers I’d been suspecting of selling produce he didn’t grow for a long time. Our farmers market is riddled with false claims, but ours is not the only farmers market with this problem. It’s wide-spread. This was not the kind of thing I needed to see after coming home from another stellar trip to Sonoma/Napa.


Listen to episode 64

In this episode:
• My numbers are way down. Time to step it up.
• How I overcame not being able to bake
• Farmers Market fraud – I feel so . . . so . . . used! [watch the report here]
• Sean Paxton’s new show “The Homebrewed Chef” on The Brewing Network
• Michelle Obama wants restaurants to show some culpability. Who’s she kidding?
• The makers High Fructose Corn Syrup would like a name change. Who didn’t see that coming?
• Re-visiting the audio from our first farmers market visit
• Sonoma/Napa re-cap
• Don’t miss Duskie Estes from Zazu Restaurant on The Next Iron Chef, October 3rd

Music in this episode from Stereophonics. You can buy the song in the iTunes store or from the band’s official web site.

Chilled Corn & Coconut Soup with Shrimp and Basil

If you’re ever having a conversation with someone and need an indication that the conversation has run its course, that you’ve run out of things to talk about, wait until someone brings up the weather. When the well of topics has run dry, someone will inevitably start talking about the temperature of the air, or the amount of rain or snow you’re getting (or lack thereof).

Take this recent conversation I had with one of my neighbors for example:

“Hey, how’s it going?”
“Great.  How are you guys doing?”
“Fine.”

[insert long awkward silence here]

“So, how about this weather?”
“Yeah, crazy.  Hot enough for ya?”

But being foodies, we have one thing in our arsenal of conversational skills that few do — a recipe to share.

Thus, “Hot enough for ya?” quickly becomes “Yeah, this is the perfect time to make [insert dish here]” and the conversation quickly takes a turn for the better. You become the most interesting man or woman in the world and, as an added bonus, you get a chance to share your passion for cooking with others.

While Summer might be winding down throughout the country, we’re still faced with quite a few hot spells here in Southern California before Fall becomes official. And as the last remnants of the opulent Summer corn crop find their way into our baskets, we get a chance to turn “Hot enough for ya?” into “Dude, try this amazing chilled soup.”

When I first made this soup, I had not tasted it before. In fact, I had no idea what was even in it. I saw a picture on a blog somewhere from a restaurant where this creamy corn chowder was being poured table-side into a bowl containing shrimp.

Shrimp and corn, as we all know, is the best hookup since Ben met Jerry. So the idea of adding coconut milk, which also goes well with shrimp, was a no-brainer. And the added element of basil would put this soup somewhere in the neighborhood of Thai flavors. And that is never a bad thing.

It’s a pureed soup. So after cooking it, allow the the soup to cool down completely.  As I’ve said many times before, blending hot soup is never a good idea.  The soup will be served chilled anyway, so what’s the rush?  In fact, this is a perfect soup to make the day before you actually intend on eating it. An overnight stay in the refrigerator just makes this soup that much better.

Here’s what you’ll need to make this soup, and send the hot weather packing until next year:

4 ears of corn, husked and cleaned
4 cups of chicken broth (homemade, preferably)
2 shallots, minced
1 small leek (white part only), chopped
1 cup coconut milk
8 large shrimp, cooked and chopped into 1/2 pieces
4 leaves fresh basil, chopped

Put the corn into a stock pot with the chicken broth, shallots, and leek, and bring to a low simmer over medium heat. Reduce heat to low, cover pot, and continue to simmer for 20-25 minutes or until kernels are able to be pierced easily with a fork.

Transfer corn to a large bowl with a pair of tongs, and allow to cool for about 10 minutes. In the meantime, take the broth off the heat.

Using a sharp knife, take the corn kernels off the cob.  Reserve 1/4 cup of kernels and set aside, putting the rest back into the broth.  Add 1 cup of coconut milk, and over medium heat bring the soup to a low boil.  Remove the pot from the heat, take the cover off of the pot, and allow the soup to cool for 45 minutes to an hour.

In batches, puree the soup until completely smooth.  Taste the soup, and season with salt if necessary.  Put the pureed soup in the refrigerator until cold, about 4 hours or longer.  Soup can be refrigerated overnight (even better).

To prepare the shrimp, devein them, then cook them in their shells by either steaming, boiling, or baking them.  That part is entirely up to you. Just make sure they’re cooked. Allow the shrimp to completely cool. When ready to serve, place 2 tablespoons of chopped cooked shrimp, 2 tablespoons of corn kernels, and a pinch of basil into the bottom of the bowl and pour soup over shrimp. Garnish with more shrimp, corn kernels, and chopped parsley.

dude food :: episode 4 :: potato skins

With apologies to TGI McFunster’s, the potato skin is an incredible denigration of one of our greatest food gifts.  Potatoes have nourished humans for hundreds of years, an in some parts of the world even provided a cure for hunger. Regardless, potato skins are on the menu this time on Dude Food.

I know it’s been around for over 20 years, but the potato skin plays right into the hands of the whole Atkins craze. I don’t know why else we’d bake these beautiful things, slice them in half, carve all the good stuff out, just to fill the empty cavity with meats and cheeses. But that’s what we’re doing today. And we’re doing it in style.

In 12 quick minutes, you’ll learn how to make your own potato skins. Trust me, it really doesn’t get much easier than this.

episode 63 :: fast food nation

Most of us have a deep, dark secret. Sooner or later, for whatever reason, we cave in and eat a little junk. Even though we know it’s the wrong thing to do, we do it anyway. Whether it’s a craving, or a desperate act of curing your hunger and the only option is fast food, we do it.

The question is, when you do finally go to the dark side, where do you go exactly?

I’m joined in studio once again by my friend Don, who has a few dark secrets of his own. It all comes out this week, along with a bottle of Saison we’re sharing together from Odonata Beer. And as an added bonus, we’re even having a little contest.

Take our fast food trivia quiz, and send your answers (in order, please) to phil [at] mylifeasafoodie.com.  The first person to answer all of the questions correctly will win a bottle of this fine beer. It’s my gift to you, so you can wash that taste of fast food sin out of your mouth.


Listen to episode 63

In this episode:
• Odonata Saison left me speechless (outside of the repeated use of the word “dude”)
• The egg recall could possibly set the egg business back many years
• Does Don have a secret Food Network crush that we don’t know about?
• Fast Food confessional
• Dan Patrick might be a foodie
• Fast Food Trivia Quiz (email your answers and win a bottle of Odonata Saison)
• Master Chef might wash away the sins of Hells Kitchen
• Andrew Zimmern on Nightline
• Ludo Bites featured on CNN Money
• Going to the OC Foodie Fest? Meet Don & Katrina there!

Don’t forget to join the My Life as a Foodie Facebook group. Twitter makes me feel like a 10-year old girl, and I hate that.  I might not last there much longer.

Music from this episode from Breaking Benjamin.  Buy their music from the band’s web site or from the iTunes Store.

Cantaloupe Sorbet

It’s Christmas morning, 2008. My wife and I are finishing exchanging gifts with one another when she slides a big bag my way. “You didn’t ask for this, but I thought it would be fun.”

Normally the words “You didn’t ask for this” mean certain horror to men before opening any gift. They’re usually reserved for items purchased from the most heinous area of any retail outlet – the clearance shelf of the men’s section in a department store. Money clips, wallets, cuff links, tie racks, shoe shining kits, and the always dreaded three-in-one grooming kit — because nothing says “Merry Christmas” like a nose hair trimmer.

But with Katrina, it’s much different. She knows me better than anyone, and always gets her most creative around the holidays. So, to no surprise, she’d purchased something for me that I undoubtedly would never have purchased for myself – an ice cream attachment for my KitchenAid mixer.

Mind you, it’s December so the idea of making ice cream is quite a few months away, but I’m excited at the possibilities. Enter the unseasonably warm month of May the following year, and I was off to the races. Chocolate Chip, Vanilla, Mint Chocolate Chip, Rocky Road, a special Christmas ice cream with peppermint and chunks of candy cane, and a soon-to-be cult classic: Strawberry Vanilla (featuring fresh chunks of Farmers Market strawberries).

Any chance I was given to use fresh fruit from our Farmers Market, I’d make an ice cream or dessert.  So when Katrina recently asked me to try making a sorbet, it was a dessert request made to order.  I had not attempted a sorbet yet. Most of what I’d been making required heating milk, cream, and eggs to create the base of the ice cream. Once I read a few of the sorbet recipes, I was shocked how easy it sounded.  I’d been running before crawling all this time.  It couldn’t get easier.

Sorbet requires nothing more than pure fruit juice, and sometimes (not always) the addition of a simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water).  The only difficult part about this project was going to be deciding on which fruit to use.  That turned out not to be difficult at all.  Right now, there are cantaloupes everywhere.  And the best part about using melons for sorbet is that almost all of the flavor is in the juice. In fact, around 85% of the actual melon is water.

Two cantaloupes made it home, along with our weekly bounty of other goodies.

Enter my juicer – another gift from Katrina that I’ve owned for over a year and have yet to use, until now.  I know I’d need one eventually, and had grandiose plans to make an assortment of fruit “noodles” for a molecular cooking project that hasn’t taken shape yet because of other things on my plate (thank you, Dude Food).

My disdain for juicers goes back to my last year in college. I was living with my brother, and he came home one day out of his mind with hope. “Our lives are about to change!” he said. The ever influential Jack LaLanne came out with his own juicer, accompanying recipe book, and a “Life Plan” that my brother bought hook, line, and sinker.

I swear, I’m convinced old man LaLanne could sell ice cubes to an Eskimo, and throw in a recipe book to sweeten the deal. All he’d have to say is “These aren’t just ice cubes – they’re life cubes!” Then he’d drop and do 120 push ups until you threw up from exhaustion.

I sat in horror as my brother, his girlfriend, and a mutual friend of ours came home with bags of produce, which they proceeded to juice, and juice, and juice.  They concocted these mortifying cocktails that looked less like vegetable juice than they did murky river water. And the yield from the vegetables was so low, it made me wonder if they were using the thing properly. It was sad to see so much “pulp” being discarded. There were piles of pulp – the integral fibrous part of the vegetable that we need to make things run smoothly. While they gulped down their “vitamin rich” drinks, I did my best to chew on the remains of the day. But that pulp had no flavor.  The life had been squeezed from them.  I told my brother that I thought this was unspeakably evil, and that I wouldn’t be joining them. This, I was convinced, was a waste of money – not to mention perfectly good vegetables.

Anyway, back to the sorbet.

I was shocked at how much juice came pouring out of these melons. I only needed 3 1/2 cups of juice, and got that after one and a quarter melons. While I juiced, I made the simple syrup.  Once the syrup cooled, I mixed it with the juice and placed the container of juice in the freezer to get it as cold as possible.  My KitchenAid ice cream maker attachment had been sitting in the refrigerator for a full 24 hours, so it would be ready to roll the minute the juice was cold enough.

Once the juice cooled, I hooked the attachment up to the mixer, added my cantaloupe soup to the bowl, and turned it on the lowest speed.  I let it churn for 20 minutes until the consistency was smooth and slushy.  The first taste of this was knee buckling. It was pure melon, nice and sweet, and I knew once it completely froze it was going to be a winner. I packed it into a plastic container, and dropped it off for an overnight slumber party in the freezer with the chickens and pork bellies.  I’m sure that was one hell of a party.

It’s delicious, and there’s no question that I’m hooked on this. Strawberries are still in season. They just might be next.

Recipe:
3 1/2 cups of juice from fresh cantaloupe or melon
Simple Syrup (1 cup sugar dissolved in 1 cup of water, brought to a boil, then cooled)
Chill in refrigerator for 8 hours (or freezer for 2 – DO NOT allow this to become frozen)
Place in your ice cream maker and follow the directions from your manufacturer for sorbet