Covid19

I went to the Asian grocery store to get my pantry staple hulking bag of rice. I ran out late last year and have gone without rice for too long. While at the Asian market, Mom got me so spun up about this virus, we quickly grabbed random greens, some noods, miso paste. While debating over the choices of miso, an old Asian gramps standing by the miso paste let out a big cough and it concluded our miso debate. We were in such a frenzy to get out that halfway to the car, I realized we didn’t get the hulking bag of rice. I went back in for round two. I’ve had rice daily since. Glorious.

Moral of the story – Eat rice, not animals.

How I inadvertently cut my food costs

In short:

  • Savings come from eating less processed everything. Besides saving money, it’s also more nutrient dense.
  • Cooking is effort. Eschewing processed foods has made food taste better with less effort. Also it’s my choice to be as lazy as our willingness to eat whatever I make. Boiled everything!
  • I acknowledge my privilege of not living in a food desert.

In tracking annual spending for the past four years I’ve observed that my lifestyle changes have led to a year over year trend of decreased food expenses.

2016201720182019
Dining Out$3,325.60$2,246.28$1,218.38$679.95
Grocery5,750.654,679.306,135.936,195.33
Total$9,076.25$6,925.58$7,354.31$6,875.28

Considerations:

  • Travel dining was counted as a travel expense rather than dining out or groceries. If I were to assume dining out and groceries at a conservative estimate of $100 a week, had we been home, below would be the adjusted totals.
    • 2016: 1 week on travel; total would have been around $9,200
    • 2017: 7 weeks on travel; total would have exceeded $7,600
    • 2018: 3 weeks on travel; total would have exceeded $7,700
    • 2019: no travel; no adjusted total
  • I counted everything as best as I could. A coffee at a gas station goes in the dining out category.
  • Big data fudge – I lost four months of 2019 data so I doubled the four prior months. Being creatures of habit, I don’t think it was far off. Dining out once a month and groceries are practically the same week after week.
  • Assuming three meals a day, our average per meal cost in 2019 was $3.15 a meal. This includes the grand total of all meals eaten out, in, takeout, and with friends.
  • For reference: USDA Food Nutrition Services Cost of Food at various Expense Tiers I fall in the Moderate Cost plan.

The biggest difference in reductions came from dining out. We spent over $3,000 in 2016 and this year, it was under $1,000. That’s an evening at French Laundry. Hopping off the hedonic treadmill of processed foods and generous servings of salt, oil, and sugar have made me enjoy food more. And I’ve slowly shifted my social activities to focus more on fun things to do rather than just sitting and eating.

Cooking does not have to be hard or time consuming. Devote as much or as little time as you’re willing to eat whatever you churn out. It is in your hands. I’ll admit, some of the stuff I make we don’t always like. Or I make it on repeat once too many times. We eat it anyway. I balance my willingness to cook with my willingness to eat. When I’m not willing to make multiple dishes that week for variety, we eat the same meal day after day. When I’m craving something akin to takeout Chinese, I’ll put in extra effort and make a few dishes. Example of minimal effort: I microwaved a whole head of cabbage and peeled the leaves and ate it. Food prep time was as much as microwaved popcorn. I highly don’t recommend this recipe.

I will acknowledge that if one lives in a food desert this is much more challenging. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by organic markets, farmers markets, international markets, you name it. Not a full on food desert, but I spent some time in middle-of-nowhere Kentucky years ago, where fresh produce was cabbage, carrots, celery, and onions week after never-ending week. One time, they had eggplant. I was over the moon. It’s do-able, but pretty sucky.

Finally, knowing there are a myriad of mixed messages about the connection between diet and health, I don’t want to get too into this, but I’m going to make two assumptions: processed food is less nutrient dense and it is detrimental to our gut microbiota. Given that, this is a healthier way to eat. Health is priceless.

Moral of the story: Outsourcing your food preparation is expensive. Eating whole foods like grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, is relatively affordable.

Hotpot is back!

Nabe weather

Truth is, I never put away the electric hotplate from our living room where I made hotpot daily last winter. It just sat on our coffee table like a Christmas tree that I decided wasn’t worth the effort of putting away and taking back out in a few months. The hotplate became a sort of coaster or trivet. And now, it is back to serving its life purpose. To warm my belly with piping hot vegetables.

Apple Picking

I went apple picking during Labor Day weekend. They had Jonagold, Red and Golden Delicious, Gala, and Mutsu. I like Golden, Jonagold, and Mutsu. I am okay with Reds and I dislike Galas. Galas are cloyingly sweet, and soft and mealy. Jonagolds have a good hard crunch and some tartness. Goldens also have a slight pleasing tartness. I do eat the cores now, which incidentally makes them much easier to slice. I take the seeds out though because I don’t like chewing on them.

Homemade Nut Butter

I was about to buy one of those fancypants high-speed blenders (Vitamix) just so I could try making nut butters at home. Fortunately, in all that research for blenders, I learned that food processors would work too so I tried that.

Redskin Peanut Butter

It was so easy to make in the food processor and I’m glad I’ve found a new use for this kitchen tool. It took a matter of minutes to blitz peanuts into a jar of peanut butter and it’s actually smoother than the kind I get from Mom’s.

In terms of cost savings, I’m not so sure. It takes a whole lotta nuts to make a jar of nut butter. Maybe two cups of nuts become one cup of nut butter? For the effort, cleanup, etc. I highly recommend just buying the stuff. For the customization, smoothness, flavoring, experimentation, go for it.

For my next batch I plan to make a frankenstein nut butter. All the nuts and maybe even some seeds mixed into one. I have pecans, walnuts, cashews, almonds, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and peanuts. A nut allergy nightmare.

The food in New Orleans, LA

The one thing I’d heard over and over from multiple sources about New Orleans was the food there is AMAZING. I put it on my list of places to visit for the creole, etouffee, gumbo, fried anything, beans and rice, and on and on. Then after I started eating plant-based, I wrote it off. So when I visited last week, I really had managed expectations despite what I’d heard about it being some kind of food mecca.  I thought I’d for sure have to duck into some greasy junky Chinese restaurant to find a plant-based meal.  I seriously entertained the idea of looking for a Panda Express. But holy moly was I utterly wrong about that.  NOLA has the best (plant-based) food I’ve had in all my travels since I started eating plant-based. They have plenty of restaurants (way more options than I can find in DC) and they’re all knocked-it-out-of-the-park excellent and the ones I had were all within a 5 mile walkable or transit-able distance.

Even if you don’t eat totally plant-based, you’re going to love this food. It’s just good food period. Here’s what they served.

  • A well-thought menu, with well-crafted dishes.  Not a burger patty made with rice or quinoa slapped between a hamburger bun. Not a salad minus the cheese.  Not some afterthought of side dishes slapped together.  It has cooked beans or lentils.  It incorporates fresh vegetables and whole grains.  It’s not overly fried or salted or made with unrecognizable composites and called “chick’n”.  It’s real food made with real ingredients.
  • Hearty and filling food.  The portions are generous enough for me to say “I’m full and satisfied” at the end of the meal.  And let’s just say I’ve had enough people gawk at me as I take seconds or thirds to recognize that I have a very healthy appetite.
  • Tasty and fresh ingredients made with plenty of flavorful spices enough to inspire me or give me new ingredients to experiment with when I cook again.  And it’s also flavors I don’t make at home.  It’s new and interesting to me.

These places I went to in NOLA all fit the bill.  I wanted to take them all home with me and I miss them now even as I reminisce.

These first two on my list I declared as “my favorite” “number 1” “this is the place to go if you only get one meal in NOLA” each time I ate at each place.  So it’s a toss up.  I ate at both places, one after the other, on my last day before catching the flight home.

Sweet Soulfood
Sweet Soulfood

Walking in here, you’re hit with a steam sauna of flavor. They cook everything fresh and it steams up the little diner. Everything is plant-based and it’s all so hearty and delicious, I wanted everything. Their portions are generous enough to fill me up. The dishes are made with fresh ingredients and they have rotating daily specials. This meal’s daily special was the barbecue cauliflower. I love their jambalaya and cornbread. They do use some vegan sausages for some dishes, like the jambalaya, but it’s not heavy-handed and you will find bay leaves in the food because they actually cook with real seasonings. So good! I’m going to be saying that a lot here.

Good Karma
Good Karma
This place is such a hippie-dippie-coffee-tea-organic-plant-based-gluten-free-namaste-yoga-hang-out-and-relax kind of cafe. Seriously, it’s connected to a yoga studio. Their food is phenomenal and I said that every time I dug into their daily soup and veggie special. It’s inspired me to cook with lemongrass, galangal, and lime juice more, though I doubt I could create any of these dishes. I need this restaurant in my life. The food is incredibly warm and delicious. I think we ate here for four meals.

Seed
Seed
This place is a lot more fancypants then the first two places. They have table service. They also serve cocktails. The nice thing about NOLA is I can order a bourbon drink before noon and it’s perfectly whatever. Also, it was so good I noted the mix: Buffalo Trace, lemon juice, and hot sauce. I will definitely make that at home. This is also an all plant-based restaurant, but the options lean a tad more vegan-junk-food. Fried seitan nuggets for example. However, you can get hearty non-junky things too like gumbo and etouffee. Wonderfully warm and flavorful.

Green Goddess
This place is not entirely plant-based but they have multiple vegan entrees and they’re all well done and satisfying. It’s conveniently located in the French Quarter and if it were located here in DC, it would easily be one of my favorite places to eat. In NOLA though, with all those other places competing, this one is just okay. I have to give them credit for well-designed dishes though, beans, rice, vegetables all freshly prepared.

Satsumas
Satsumas
Ok, not a restaurant, but easily our favorite food in New Orleans. They’re a local in-season fruit and they are so juicy, sweet, easy to peel, and thirst quenching. We walked or took the trolley 3 miles each way to get these at a local grocery store three times for a total of maybe seven dozen satsumas. At first glance they don’t look all that great. Green tangerines. I expected them to be sour. But nope, they were awesome little fruits. I think my favorite thing to do whenever I travel is visit grocery stores and local markets.

So in short, New Orleans is a food mecca. It’s dirty, it’s gritty, it rained every dang day we were there. But the food. Man! The food! It can only come from a city with so much love you can taste it.

Cava

Not to be mistaken with their sit down table service restaurant, Cava is like the Chipotle of Mediterranean cuisine. It’s a fast casual place that dishes up bowls of food with mix and match combinations of rice, lentils, salad greens, hummus, vegetables and on and on. It’s about $10 for a bowl and while I still prefer Mom’s Naked Lunch, this came in a close second. I really enjoyed the crunchy salad mix they had (Splendid/Supergreens) and the lentils and hummus made it filling. Would I come back? Do I recommend? Sure and sure!

Grain of salt: I have been having difficulty finding proper meals dining out and I’m probably not the best judge of restaurants anymore. But I really thought it was good and I have a coworker who says she and her boyfriend eat here at least once a week! That must count for something right?

Also I forgot to get a picture before I dug in. It looked like a bowl of greens and vegetables.

Back to CA

We just got back from another visit to California as I mentioned earlier. Two visits within a year. That’s a first for me – anywhere. This second visit was to attend a wedding. By the way, my fave part of the wedding might have been the bride and groom’s choice of wedding bands. They were fashioned out of leaves from a tree in her backyard and they lasted not too long beyond the first half of the reception. For folks who aren’t jewelry wearers, it’s perfect. While there, we hit up our favorite places to eat and this time around, maybe because we’d just visited several months earlier, a lot of the places were just okay. Ippuku, I’m looking at you. And also like in the case of Chez Panisse, their vegetable entree left me still hungry. I needed more food. Cancun Taqueria was tasty and filling. I’m not sure, I think the food in the area is losing its sparkle for me. Again, maybe it’s because we had it too frequently having gone twice within a year’s time whereas before we’d only visit once every 3 years or so. So this time we ate out less frequently and made some food from the farmers market and those turned out to my favorite meals. Beans, random mushrooms we don’t get back home easily (maitake, chanterelles), fennel, dandelion, kale, fresh zucchini. Fennel grows everywhere in that region. It’s a weed! A tasty weed. Well, so’s dandelion. So my favorite place to eat there is now the farmer’s market.

Beans!

I bought about 20 lbs of beans at a little market in California. They’re all beans I’d never heard of like Black Valentine.
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Or Snowcap.
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So far, I’ve cooked Hutterite Soup, Tiger Eye, and Flor de Mayo beans. The Hutterite is a very light white bean. It has a delicate skin so a good amount of it breaks up in the soup and makes it creamy. The Flor de Mayo has the thickest skin of the three. Almost like kidney beans. The Tiger Eye is good for it’s chewy starchy texture. Almost like a waxy New England potato. I love that sort of texture.
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Chaia

I met a friend for lunch at Chaia in Georgetown. It’s a little taco shop that sells vegetarian food. The nice thing is, it’s in Georgetown which is kind of fun to go to sometimes. It’s all fancy and whatnot. The not nice thing is, it’s in Georgetown which means it’s expensive and it was. Their tacos are tiny. I’ve said this before, getting full off plants requires bigger food portions. Plants are mostly low calorie density foods. Volume is necessary. I think I probably already eat bigger portions than many anyway. At least by my and many of my friends observations. I eat a lot of food to feel satiated. So $15 for lunch that felt more like a mini snack doesn’t make me want to go back. I hate leaving a meal feeling hungry and unsatisfied, regardless of price point. If you serve it up, call it a meal, it had better fill me up. Plus, I hate vegan food that’s poorly designed. Aside from the too small portions, it was basically mushrooms in a tiny corn tortilla. Zucchini in a corn tortilla. Where are my pulses? Where’s the protein? Where are the greens? And I don’t mean a few sprouts for garnish. No wonder omni’s think vegans are weird and starving. If I had that regularly, I would be! So yeah, I haven’t been eating out much lately and it’s because there’s not much out there. Portions are too small (regardless of price point). Macros are wrong. Some are chock full of processed nonsense (what the hell is chick’n?!). Eating out for me is a way to get meals that I can’t get at home. Lately, every time I eat out, I leave thinking I make better. Maybe I’ve just grown accustomed to my own food. And it’s just as well. The reason why a lot of restaurant food tastes better is because it’s full of salt, oil, and sugar. And while I enjoy the dishes in the moment, they make me feel like shit afterwards. And I’m usually still hungry. Actually, one little side bonus of not eating out as frequently, it’s a moneysaver. $120 per week to feed two people, which is actually probably on the high side, but if I’m not eating out, I splurge on whatever I want at the produce aisle.

So in short, I left hungry and dissatisfied and don’t plan on going back.