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Slow Food $5 Challenge, Julia Child Style

julia child way to cook value mealWhen Slow Food USA issued their $5 Meal Challenge, I pledged to participate right away. I love a real food cooking challenge! I hesitated which way to go with the meal. I could test myself to be as local as possible, or as cheap as I could get. As I often do in times of culinary indecision, I considered WWJD? What Would Julia Do?

Mrs. Child, with her easy-going and fun-loving manner in the kitchen often guides me. Her cookbooks are the backbone for our holiday roast bird among many other staple cooking methods. While a few of her recipes seem dated now, most are so classic that they stand the test of time.

The spirit of Julia told me to cook a hearty meal for friends. It should include at least a few courses to mimic a value meal. I was inspired to finally try her pastry dough and apple tart whose picture I so often admired.

Alex and I drew up a menu from Julia Child's The Way To Cook for our regular Friday night dinner date with another family. The backyard abundance of pepperoncini peppers became modified Feta Peppers as an appetizer. We knew meat would be a cost prohibiter so we chose Braised Lamb with Beans to stretch the protein. Alex, the bread baker of the family, had never used her French bread recipe so we chose Hard Rolls to accompany the stew. The meal concluded with Julia's Free Form Apple Tart.

Considerations

  • We amended the challenge right off the bat by changing the date of our dinner to avoid an existing conflict. Slow Food is hoping most participants cook their value meals on September 17.
  • We counted the three children in our calculations as equal eaters because as Horton the Elephant reminds us, "a person's a person, no matter how small."
  • But the kids didn't actually eat full servings so there was a large adult-sized serving of lamb and beans, two rolls and a few peppers leftover.
  • We used lamb stock that we made from an about-to-be-trashed carcass we reclaimed from Alex's parents. Equivalent homemade stock in the store is outrageously priced and wouldn't fit in our budget, though bouillon cubes would fit in the price per meal. I believe that Julia Child would agree with Michael Ruhlman that water is better than cheap bouillon. In the end we decided to charge ourselves nothing for the lamb stock, which is exactly what it cost us.
  • A post is coming soon about adult beverages from one of our fellow diners, Mark. The kids drank Snowville creamery milk which slides in under the $5 mark at $0.36 per 6 ounce serving.
  • I indicated where we used organic and/or local items.
  • I counted our backyard produce and egg as organic (though it isn't certified) and priced it at farmer's market value for organic goods. If I had counted home-raised ingredients as free, another 39 cents drops off each person's meal.
  • Alex rendered lard from the lamb scraps. Instead of using the vegetable shortening called for in Julia's tart dough, I substituted the free lamb lard. You can't taste it in the tart but the texture of the pastry is lighter than any I've ever made. We have an additional 1.5 cups of lard left for future meals.
  • Calculations do not include alcohol consumed while cooking, a tradition Julia Child championed. ;)

Reflections

I usually give little attention to food cost because cooking and eating are my hobbies and life's work. I see no reason to skimp. As it turned out, with just a little planning, our meal cost only $4.44 per serving.

lamb and bean stew value mealThis challenge forced me to take every penny into account. At first I was disheartened as I started to price out meat. We wanted to buy from local purveyor Bluescreek Farm Meats (and now figure we could have) but the price per pound for what we wanted was too much. I realized that if all other ingredients were simple and portions were controlled adequately, we could easily have a filling meal.

I do wish I had sprung for a bit of salad on which to serve the peppers. They were lovely as hand passed appetizers, but I left the meal wishing for some more freshness. In hindsight (we never know exactly how much of something we're going to use, even when following recipes), our budget would have allowed for a simple green salad.

Other than cost analysis, it would be interesting to run a calorie and nutrient comparison with a typical fast food value meal. I attempted this with a nutrition calculator but it was having a bad day and not wanting to cooperate. I know our meal was high in fat and calories. I'm also certain the beans contributed a lot of fiber and vegetables in the dishes added vitamins. Because no preserved food was used in our recipes, the sodium content is undoubtedly lower than a drive thru meal.

The night following the Julia Child dinner, we cooked for 10. Our menu was roast Bell & Evans chicken (20.56), roast organic potatoes (5?), organic onion (1), backyard steamed green beans (free or 5), and baked apples (5). Add another 5 bucks for incidentals like herbs, oil, and spices, and without even trying, we created another meal under $5/serving.

Upon reflection, I realize that many of the meals my family eats are Real Food Value Meals. The cost of some meats and some processed foods we use like alcohol and cheese do raise the price significantly. We are lucky to be able to indulge in these frequently. Some of our consumption practices like bulk buying, access to a vehicle to shop at three different stores, and investing in a garden and deep freezer might not be available to some low income families who rely on fast food value meals regularly. On the other hand, the power of restaurants to negotiate prices and buy in bulk must equal what we can do at home. The promise of low cost real food is definitely there.

I challenge all my readers to participate in the Slow Food USA $5 Meal Challenge. Take the pledge and cook on September 17 or leave a comment about your favorite low cost real food meal.

Cost Calculation (based on 7 servings)

Lamb and Beans 3.5# halal lamb shoulder (from Mediterranean Imports) - 17.96 1.5# organic onion - 2.19 1 cup box red wine - 1.28 1/4 cup olive oil - 0.40 1 tablespoon salt - 0.03 1 teaspoon organic fresh ground pepper - 0.03 1/2 teaspoon fresh organic backyard rosemary - 0.10 (farmer's market price) 1 1/2 cup chopped organic backyard tomato - 1.20 (farmer's market price) 2 1/2 cups homemade lamb stock - 0.0 4 cups cooked organic great northern beans (from 2 cups dry) - 1.26 3.48/serving

Stuffed Peppers 1/4 cup Bulgarian feta (from Mediterranean Imports) - 1.47 1/3 cup sour cream (subbed greek yogurt) - 0.83 1 backyard egg yolk - 0.33 (farmers market price) 1 teaspoon salt - 0.01 1/2 teaspoon organic fresh ground pepper - 0.01 1 teaspoon Worcestershire - 0.20 4 drops Sriracha hot pepper sauce - 0.10 1 pint organic backyard pepperoncini peppers - 1.00 (farmers market price) .56/serving

Free-form Apple Tart 3 low-chemical Ohio Paula Red apples - 1.00 1/4 cup organic cane sugar - 0.10 1 1/2 cup organic all purpose flour - 0.43 (from King Arthur Co-op) 1/2 cup cake flour - 0.38 1/4 teaspoon salt - 0.01 6 ounces Ohio Amish butter - 1.16 1/4 cup lamb lard - 0.0 .26/serving (made 12 servings)

Hard French Rolls 2 1/2 teaspoon yeast - 0.05 1/4 teaspoon organic cane sugar - 0.01 1# bread flour - 0.71 (from King Arthur Co-op) 1 Tablespoon local rye flour - 0.20 2 1/4 teaspoons salt - 0.02 0.14/serving

Total: 4.44/serving