TL;DR We take a look outside of our privileged lives to derive inspiration from Food Stamps. This recipe actually fails from an unreliable resource and proves the importance of testing in recipe development! We discuss a food stamps, get down to a food stamp grocery list available in our research, food budgeting, and some innovative pasta techniques in this post.
Final Recipe: SNAPasta with 3-Ingredient Tomato Sauce and 3 Ingredient White Bean Salad (…see a pattern here?)
I grew up privileged and I often take it for granted. I never had to worry about where my next meal was going to come from. While my mom would nag me about saving money and appreciating the value, I was more than fortunate that I didn’t have to really worry about it. The saddest fact is that the question “Where or what should I eat for my next meal?” has caused me so much stress compared to the real life dilemma of “Where is my next meal coming from?” that many people around the world still face.
Food has remained an integral part of our lives even before our evolution to Homo Sapiens. At the beginning of civilizations, we started as hunter and gathers where food was almost synonymous with life. Over time, food techniques improved and the spice trade opened a world of variety. Food’s place in society strengthened as food became an extravagance and entertainment for the rich, but simultaneously hunger remained for the poor. During the time of the Roman Empire, food was a major concern: the goddess Annona of grain was popularly worshipped and food took a important place in politics. A large political element was the subsidization and, for periods, free distribution of bread and grain to the population–a shot-term solution that grew over time linking itself to the fall of the Empire. During the industrial revolution, the world’s civilization took a great leap in effective production. But still, as then and today, hunger remain an important concern. (Thank you Food in History.)
This isn’t a political blog, but it is an important issue to think about: the rising demands of SNAP (food stamp program in the US) likened to that of the Roman Empire. Certain models are just not sustainable and couple that fact with the amount food waste and it’s easy to see the problems that need solving. Yes, there have been major advances and some great reductions in the hungry population, but we haven’t finished yet.
If you are even more far removed from this issue than I, food stamps are vouchers given from the government to households in the low income bracket. One in five children receive food stamps in the US and that is where we headed for our inspiration today. On a budget, what can we create? Can we bring a bit of culinary craft to this lifestyle?
We start with our budget. This is the first post where money actually lays the grounds of our inspiration, but quickly there are other restrictions to note: restricted equipment (I can’t pull out a Sous Vide) and restricted time (working multiple jobs won’t allow me for a lot of time in the kitchen). The average SNAP benefit for a single individual in California is $151.44 for a month.
With the budget in mind, I needed to understand what were the ingredients I would be able to utilize. I drafted a list of sample meals and the ingredients before heading to Haggen to get the prices. My full calculation can be found here: Inspiration From Food Stamps
My goal with this budget was to create a plan that a) fits into a budget, b) covers the main food requirements, and c) can still be exciting. Coming under budget was not a priority given we are using food stamps. Food budgets like the one above can be really useful, not only in gaining a financial understanding but also in helping to reduce time spent shopping (unless you are like me and walk around grocery stores as a hobby).
The meal I am choosing to develop for is dinner given that breakfast is often a quick bite, lunch is on the job, but dinner is usually the time where there is more time and family would come together to eat (maybe not that often anymore.) Given my research, I was able to define what ingredients I would be restricted to for my dinner.
When I think of a great meal for cheap, I think Pasta. The high grain portion means that you can get plenty of calories for a cheap price, and yet, you can still make a great meal from it. I also recently read some great pasta techniques that I was ready to try out.
- Presoaking leads to reduced cooking time: to cook properly, Pasta needs to rehydrate and activate the starch. Presoaking allows for the hydration and then can be stored until ready to use. Soak for 90 minutes to hydrate. Coolest part is that using a flavored liquid will add flavor to your pasta
- Use less water: the popular myth of using a large amount of water is false. Using less water and stirring works just as fine. You’ll waste less water and gas/electricty
- 1-2 minute boil: with the pre-soak, all you need is a 1-2 minute boil depending on on preference between al dente or well done. Add salt to the water to reduce stick and flavor.
- Roasting pasta: 20 minutes at 350 degrees will expand the flavor spectrum of your pasta adding deeper, nuttier, flavors. I love the roasted flavor so I’m really excited to see how this turns out.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Take leftover cheese or a cheese rind and start soaking in some water with a bouillon cube. This will be the liquid we soak our pasta in order to get a lot of flavor used limited ingredients–specifically, we can cut down on the use of meat for this meal and still get a lot of the flavor or chicken and cheese! Roast the spaghetti in the oven for 20 minutes. Let it cool and then soak the pasta into the liquid for 90 minutes.
You need to build a sauce from scratch because the tomato sauces were too expensive. The sauce itself can be a myriad of things: build up from canned tomatoes, do a simple butter + garlic sauce, or do a cheesy + herb sauce. But you have to build it from scratch. Also, don’t make it too strong given that we should have nutty, flavored noodles! I think a butter garlic or a last minute cheesy herb mix-in could be a great fit here. Salt + Pepper.
Flavor: part will depend on the sauce that is chosen, nutty pasta, chicken flavor
Aroma: mainly the sauce (garlic vs herbs)
Mouthfeel: creamy and warm
X-factor: SNAP budget with elegance
I’m a big fan of taking a fork, swirling it in the spaghetti, then plating in the middle of the plate while removing the fork (example). Minimalistic and elegant, but obviously this will be for fancy plating and you might need more pasta for your meal. Top with any herbs or cheese that might be leftover. Maybe make a circle around the pasta with leftover sauce or oil.
On the side, serve with vegetables as we need their nutrition.
The saddest of sad days is when a recipe fails. Let this post serve as a reminder of the importance of recipe testing.
You might be thinking: “What happened?” Let me walk you through our SNAPasta misadventure.
Food insecurity is a topic that I am deeply passionate about, and I was very excited to start working on this recipe. I wanted to keep costs as low as possible, and still create a delicious and nutritious meal.
For pasta, I bought a $1 box of fettuccine. The trick to making wallet-friendly recipes is to 1) Take advantage of economies of scale, and 2)limit the number of ingredients. Following rule #2, I adapted a simple 3 ingredient pasta sauce recipe I found on the internet (is this cheating?), and doubled the serving size to make some extra for later.
Let’s talk about nutrition. We have vitamins and fiber from the pasta and tomatoes/onions. I think we need some protein. A bean salad is cheap and super easy to make. Rule #3 of wallet-friendly recipes: cook the foods that save you time. Time = money. If a recipe is super cheap but requires 6 hours of work? Not worth it. Anyways, for the bean salad. we are going with a simple 1, 2, 3 of a can of canellini beans, onion, and lime juice. The can of beans was $1, the onion was a little piece from the onion I bought for the pasta sauce, and limes were on sales for $0.10 at the grocery store. #ka-ching!
I was curious to see and try the roasted pasta. I’m fairly skeptical about the soaking. Okay, let’s get started.
I roasted the pasta according to instructions from Ideas on Food, 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Well, I actually only roasted for 10 minutes. Given my history with the smoke-detector, I had a hunch half way through the roasting, and decided to check on the pasta. AND THANK THE FOOD GODS I DID. Because the pasta had turned a medium brown. See the unroasted pasta on the left for contrast?
Skepticism growing, I nevertheless continued on with the recipe. The brown pasta did not smell like it was burnt, instead, it smelled like toast. I thought that I was able to salvage it, or maybe that the soaking would do it some good.
Soaking: I wasted a good chicken bouillon and 5 cubes of cheese on the soaking. After a full 90 minutes of soaking, I taste tested a noodle, pretty much no flavors were imparted. Did I do this wrong? I melted the bouillon in hot water, tossed in the cheese, and the roasted pasta. In fact, the soggy pasta looked pretty gross sitting on the counter.
Time check: I spent 3 minutes dissolving the bouillon cube, 1 minute slicing up the cheese, and another minutes assembling. If the point of the soaking was simply to cut back on cooking time, I might as well just cook dried pasta the regular way.
Boiling: I boiled water and dumped in the soggy pasta. It took 3 minutes to cook, but it was hard to tell when the pasta was done. Just to test different versions of this recipe, I then boiled some toasted, non-presoaked pasta. Disaster. The pasta took forever to boil, and all the strands snapped in half as the noodles slid into the pot.
Taste test: Both the toasted versions of the pasta were extremely rubbery. I tested the non-toasted regular pasta, and it was fine. Toasting seems to be the culprit. However, there IS a nutty taste to the roasted pasta, so that part is at least correct.
I understand that food blogs have somewhat of an unreliable reputation, and now, I can see why. I don’t believe that the writers of the “toasted and soaked” pasta really tested their recipe! I revisited the original page, and saw that a reader had commented “…developed an unappealing rubbery texture, sort of like Cup o’ Noodles.” There was no reply to the comment.
Dear readers, how does the saying go again? In every cloud there is a silver lining? Well in this recipe, there are two. Two super easy, super low cost recipes for you to take. And those are the 3-Ingredient Tomato Sauce and 3 Ingredient White Bean Salad.
3-Ingredient Tomato Sauce – I adapted this from Marcella Hazan’s recipe. The only difference is that I left in the onions instead of discarding at the end. The following recipe makes enough sauce for 2 boxes of pasta!
- Take 1 large can of crushed tomatoes – 28 oz
- Add 1 stick butter
- And one large onion – cut into large pieces
- Add salt
- Bring to a boil and then simmer for 45 minutes
- Taste: Sweet, sour, creamy, rich
3-Ingredient Bean Salad – Literally takes 3 minutes to make
- Take 1 can cannellini beans (rinsed)
- Add in 2 Tbsp diced onion (small dice)
- Add in juice for half a lime
- Salt to taste
- Optional: I had a few leftover radishes, so I chopped them up and tossed them in. Radishes are like 99c for a whole bunch!
- Taste: Fresh, zesty, spicy from the onion, soft and creamy from the bean
So simple, so easy. I devoured that bean salad like a fiend.
The final plate…
Post Game Analysis
- Have a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to recipes from the internet
- Less ingredients = more savings!
- Sometimes the simplest meals can taste really good
- I’m deeply saddened at my waste of pasta
- I’m really disappointed as well that the research didn’t hold up. Interestingly enough I couldn’t find too much information other than that source which should’ve raised some flags. Staged recipes are frustrating.
- Great come back though! Taking the one failure you created two new dishes that also fits into the SNAP budget