Ultimately, it came down to the dairy case.
That’s where my attempt to spend $5 or person or less on a dinner that would abide by the philosophy of the slow food movement — “food that is good for those who eat it, good for farmers and workers, and good for the planet” — would be deemed a success, or a failure.
I was having five people over that night as part of Slow Food USA’s $5 Challenge, so my budget was $30. I had been to two farmers markets and my own garden, had calculated the costs of my pantry ingredients down to the rice, olive oil and nickel’s worth of salt I’d be using. All I had left to buy were eight ounces of butter and a pint of cream.
Slow Food USA president Josh Viertel’s words were echoing in my ears; “I want people to be curious about the story behind their food, and for the food to align with their values,” he had told me when I interviewed him about the challenge last week. So as I approached the dairy case, mindful of the facts that my own values call for me to buy organic dairy products, that they are usually (although not always, depending on store sales) more expensive than non-organic, and that I had a mere $4.43 left to spend, I had one burning question:
Could I afford organic?
Before I answer, let’s back up.
After talking with Viertel, I knew the challenge for me would be to meet the challenge while sticking to my regular shopping habits; for meat, produce and dairy, I shop mostly at farmers markets during the prime growing season, leaving Whole Foods Market on P Street for other staples. (No Zipcar trips to Costco or those warehouse wholesalers in Northeast.) While it’s true that studies have shown that farmers markets aren’t necessarily more expensive generally than supermarkets, I’m not so sure such a study would hold up in DC.
I had meat, not dairy, on the brain when I started. That is, I wondered from the outset if I should make a vegetarian meal, given that the humanely raised meat from small farmers that I prefer to buy would probably be my most expensive ingredient. Given that the recipe standard is a half-pound per person, and the least I’ve seen any cuts of meats go for at farmers markets is $5 a pound, that could potentially eat up half the cost of the dinner, or more. So instead of depending on some centerpiece roast or the like, I started thinking about dishes that could rely on a small amount of meat for flavor. This is how more and more health- and environmentally conscious people have been eating anyway, and I’m trying to be one of them.
I started at the FreshFarm Market by the White House on Thursday, hoping I’d find a decent price on bell peppers so I could stuff them with a combination that could include a pound or even less of meat. For an appetizer, FreshFarm co-founder Ann Yonkers, whom I had spied at the market, suggested an onion tart, but when we picked out gorgeous oval-shaped sweet onions from Blueberry Hill and put them on the scale, they clocked in at about $10. No go. But I did score seven beautiful red bell peppers for just $1.50 a pound, or $4 total (this was when I thought six people were coming over, before one canceled). And after passing over $9-a-pound ground lamb, Ann pointed me to a pound of beautiful ground pork for $5 from Fertile Plains. The stuffed-pepper plan was on track.
Deputy editor Bonnie Benwick suggested a cheaper-than-cheap appetizer: farinata, an Italian-style chickpea pancake similar to the Provencal specialty known as socca. But I didn’t have chickpea flour, and couldn’t find it at the Whole Foods on Friday evening. I texted two of my three favorite gluten-free food writers (Carol Blymire and Erin Hartigan, since Shauna James Ahern is on the West Coast), figuring between the two of them they might have some. No such luck, but Carol, mensch that she is, volunteered to pick some up at the Takoma Park Co-op near her house and bring it on down to me at the 14th/U market the next morning. (It was $2.39 for a five-cup bag, and I would be using just a cup.)
Carol and I conferred at market. I ended up getting a big butternut squash from Kuhn Orchard for $5.95, plus a half-pound of kale at the McCleaf stand for $1.50 to bulk up and add something healthful to that pepper stuffing. I decided to swap out a pound ($5) of spicy Italian sausage from Truck Patch for the ground pork I had bought the day before, figuring the peppers could use the extra oomph, especially if I needed to reduce the amount.
When Carol seconded my notion that it wasn’t exactly feeling like peach season anymore, I bought eight Smokehouse apples from Kuhn for $7.85. I’d bake tarte tatin.
As soon as I got home, I plugged it all into a spreadsheet, along with all the pantry items I planned to use — including a can of fire-roasted tomatoes I would bake those stuffed peppers on/in. But I still needed to buy butter and cream. And when I did a quick online check of their prices, I knew I was going to have to make some tradeoffs. I could be over by about $3. The options I considered:
1. Take out the squash (and therefore, the soup course).
2. Take out the sausage and stuff the peppers with more rice or maybe beans (made from dried).
3. Reduce the apples in the tart from eight to five.
4. Lose virtually all the butter by making baked apples with no crust instead.
I decided on a combination of options 2 and 3: I’d reduce the sausage and the apples, saving the remainder for another use and knocking some of the price off my total. I wasn’t excited about compromising the tarte tatin, especially after watching the inimitable Dorie Greenspan go through the method on her great new iPad app, which I reviewed last week. But I had to do something.
On the way to the supermarket to get the cream and butter, I stopped by my community garden plot, figuring I’d pick some herbs and hot peppers but little else given the fact that recent rains had done in my tomato and squash plants. Then I got a nice surprise: plenty of kale was still coming up, so I picked most of it, saving me another $1.50. (I suppose I could have spent hours figuring out how much the garden items cost me, but since most of them were either started from seed or as tiny plants, and they had given me many meals since, their cost had become infinitesimal.)
Then I went to Safeway. Organic butter was $4.99 a pound, fully $2 more than non-organic, and organic cream was $3.99 a pint, 80 cents more than the non-organic. Even with my kale savings, I couldn’t swing it.
So I checked at Whole Foods, where the difference between the two types of dairy was slighter -- the butter and cream prices were a little lower in general, actually — but the organic stuff would still put me over my budget. I spied the 365 Everyday brands, with the butter at $2.99 and the cream at $2.59, and when I read the little line that promised that the milk came from cows that had never been given bovine growth hormone, the subject of much concern among some scientists, I put them in my cart. They weren’t organic, but they were better than most industrial dairy products for that reason alone.
When I talked with Josh Viertel the other day, he said that more than anything, Slow Food wants the challenge to get people to think about their food and where it comes from. When I had asked him whether it would be better for most people doing the challenge to be able to hit the $5 mark, or for most to miss it, he said, “My hope is that most people can, and that they also notice something that makes it hard.”
That’s absolutely what happened to me. I came under budget, my friends enjoyed the dinner (nobody thought it seemed skimpy in the least, but all were glad wine wasn’t included in the dollar limit), and I got a chance to spread the word about not just the $5 Challenge, but the thinking behind it.
Red Peppers Stuffed With Sausage and Kale
This is an economical way to serve a group, using a small amount of meat to season the stuffing of a hearty yet relatively lean dish.
MAKE AHEAD: The stuffing mixture can be made, cooled and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days before making the dish.
From Food editor Joe Yonan.
12 ounces kale, washed thoroughly
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 medium onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
8 ounces spicy Italian sausage, casings removed
⅓ cup uncooked arborio or other short-grain rice
28 ounces low-sodium canned crushed tomatoes with juices, preferably Muir Glen brand fire-roasted tomatoes
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
¾ cup water
6 medium or large red bell peppers (about 2 1/2 pounds total)
¼ cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves, chopped (optional)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Have a baking dish at hand that’s large and deep enough to hold 12 bell pepper halves.
Strip the kale leaves from the stems, and save the stems for another use. Cut the kale into thin slices.
In a large saucepan over medium heat, heat the oil until it starts to shimmer. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have started to soften, about 2 or 3 minutes. Add the sausage and kale and cook, stirring to break apart the meat, until the meat browns and is cooked through and the kale has thoroughly wilted, about 3 or 4 minutes. Use a spoon to break up any clumps of sausage.
Add the rice and about ½ cup of the crushed tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the water, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat until the liquid is barely bubbling around the edges. Cover and cook until the rice has absorbed the liquid and has plumped, about 18 to 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, cut the peppers in half, starting close to the stem. Remove and discard the seeds and ribs, but leave the stems as intact as possible (for presentation).
When the filling is ready, remove it from the heat and divide it equally among the cavities of the peppers, packing them loosely. Pour the remaining crushed tomatoes into the baking dish. Arrange the peppers, filled sides up, on top of the tomatoes. Cover with aluminum foil and bake until the peppers have softened, 45 minutes to an hour.
Uncover; drizzle with the oil and sprinkle with the mint, if desired. Serve hot, with some of the tomatoes and juices from the pan.
Butternut Squash Soup With Sage
This smooth soup has a velvety texture; besides making it so much easier to discard the peel, roasting the squash adds extra nuttiness to the flavor.
MAKE AHEAD: The squash can be roasted and the flesh scooped out and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days, or the squash flesh can be frozen for up to 6 months before making the soup. The soup can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week or frozen, without the cream, for up to 6 months.
From Food editor Joe Yonan.
1 large (3- to 4-pound) butternut squash
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
1/2 cup loosely packed sage leaves, finely chopped
4 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth (may substitute water)
Kosher or sea salt
1 cup chilled heavy cream
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Have a rimmed baking sheet at hand.
Prick the squash with a fork all over its skin, then lay the squash on the baking sheet. Roast until the skin has softened and a knife inserted in the flesh goes in easily, about 1 hour.
Remove the squash from the oven and let it cool slightly. Cut it in half lengthwise, through the stem, and scoop out and discard the seeds. Scoop the rest of the flesh into a bowl and discard the skin.
In a 2-quart or larger pot, heat the oil over medium heat until the oil starts to shimmer. Add the onion and garlic and cook until they start to soften, about 2 or 3 minutes. Add half the sage, reserving the rest for garnishing the soup, and cook for a few minutes, then add the squash flesh and the broth. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low or just enough so the liquid is barely bubbling around the edges. Cover and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring once or twice, to bring all the flavors together.
While the soup is cooking, use a balloon whisk or hand-held electric mixer to beat the cream in a deep bowl, until it barely forms soft peaks.
Remove the soup from the heat. Use an immersion (stick) blender to puree until smooth. Season with salt to taste.
Divide among individual bowls. Top each portion with a dollop of whipped cream and a sprinkle from the remaining chopped sage. Serve hot.
Now, for those of you shopping geeks out there curious at how everything added up, here’s the breakdown:
|Butternut squash soup||Butternut squash||$5.95|
|Chickpea pancake||Chickpea flour||$0.48|
|Chicken stock concentrate||$0.31|
|Stuffed peppers||Red peppers||$3.43|
|* From garden|