Archive for October, 2011

About that squash pie.

Let me begin by quoting my blogging idol Jennifer Hess, of Last Night’s Dinner, who devotes an entire page to the question, Where are the recipes?

My belief is that cooking is not a science – it’s a craft. And while there are standard ways of executing this technique or that, I simply don’t believe that there is a “right” or “wrong” way of preparing a particular dish.

To this I’d like to add that most people, myself included, are driven more by the need to put food on the table than to chase a recipe around town all day, fetching ingredients that will eventually come together in a Special Dish. I love special dishes, but day in and day out, the real question is, What can I make with things I have around the house?

Hence, the story of the savory squash pie.

It came to pass that I had two winter squash — an acorn from the Giant that was neither here nor there, and an evocative pear-shaped stripey thing from Erica the Veggie Girl that I later determined was a Red Kuri.

And on the passing breeze a mention of savory pie.

An idea thus germinated, off I went to Google in search of recipes, not so much to follow but to inspire. Not so much to define the end product but to paper the countertops while I rummaged around in the frig, the freezer, the pantry for compatible ingredients. I am not a strict constructionist.

An overly alliterative piece called the Sweet & Savory Sides of Squash suggested roasting to bring out the flavor of the squash. Excellent. I hacked open my beauties, dug out their seeds with an ice-cream scoop, and plunked them face down on a cookie sheet. When the recommended 45 minutes stretched to 75 in the course of a Skyping session with my daughter, the squash was rather mushier than I had anticipated but flavorful indeed.

A recipe for Butternut Squash Pie with Hazelnuts from Whole Foods provided a reasonable framework — i.e., basic proportions and an oven temperature — so I printed it out, set it on the counter and took to ignoring the parts I didn’t want. A frozen whole wheat pie crust? Quel horreur, not to mention I didn’t have one. I whipped up a one-crust batch using my basic vodka pie dough recipe, deleting the sugar and substituting cornmeal for 1/2 cup of the flour. I passed on the whole wheat, but feel free; garbanzo or nut flour might be nice too. Mix, chill, roll, freeze, partially bake.

Sauteed onions sounded good, so caramelized was better, sliced very fine. I was happy too that my squash was mush, not the called-for cubes, because my vision of this pie was not the chunky, plaid-shirt kind shown on the website. Neither was it Thanksgiving custard, but somewhere in between — a rough-textured compote, dry enough so a slice would hold its shape, moist but not puddingy. I ran the squash mush through a food mill, using the coarsest disk, then (because it seemed watery) microwaved it for a random 4 minutes.

So far so good. I tossed in the caramelized onion bits, an egg, a big handful of grated cheese (Parmigiano not at hand, I used the assortment of slabs and dried-out heels languishing in the refrigerator door) and a couple of slugs of white wine and olive oil.

And then collided with the complete and total absence of bread in the house. Did I really need a cup of bread crumbs? A reasonable facsimile was found in the freezer in the form of two frozen green corn tamales. Crumbled, in they went.

By now my pie crust was partially (eh, 2/3rds) baked and ready to receive the squash-onion-egg-tamale mixture. Hazelnuts sounded fabulous, but not as the recipe had them, baked in the pie where they were sure to get soft and un-nuttily translucent. This I cannot bear (except in a chestnut stuffing), so instead the nuts got minimally chopped, toasted in a pan and sprinkled on top to much, much better effect, along with scads of coarsely ground pepper. Bake at 400 degrees for about half an hour.

Can you or I replicate it exactly, harmonizing again the corn-husk steamed masa with oak-smoked paprika, onion caramel etc? Probably not. It’s enough 1) that it happened once and was enjoyed by a small, appreciative crowd, and 2) it serves as an example of how to carry on.

How to carry on, for example, when what one has in the house is this Miyazaki-esque batch of parsnips. Answer: cut it into sticks and toss with carrots and whatever other root veggies are lying around (I had a handful of cherry-sized turnips), olive oil, sea salt, a few sprigs of fresh thyme.

It helps to have things around the house that can be brought into service at a moment’s notice, lending a certain je ne sais quoi. I keep a few cans of coconut milk on hand as well as capers, lemons, limes, mustard, garlic, fresh ginger (keeps forever in the freezer), Siracha.

The main thing is to fool around.

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What is the definition of poverty in Pennsylvania?


A yearly income of $10,890 for one person, $22,350 for a household of four.

Clearly, the formula used by the Census Bureau to define poverty grossly understates the real needs of families. Established in 1964, with four modest revisions, the formula sets the poverty level at approximately three times the cost of a “thrifty food basket.” Developed by American economist and statistician Molly Orshansky, this was a meaningful threshold back when when the average family used about one-third of its income for food, but it hasn’t kept pace with the times.

Today the costs of housing, child care, health care and transportation render the food-basket formula hopelessly out of date and dangerously low.The Census Bureau is taking baby steps to revise this one-size-fits-all formula, but it can’t happen fast enough.

Meanwhile, there are those in our government who propose cutting food stamps by $127 billion over the next ten years. Food stamps (AKA the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) put food on the table for more than 45 million Americans this year, more than half of them children. Without SNAP, those millions would have gone hungry and faced serious nutritional and other health issues. Even with SNAP, it’s tight.

Who among us foodies, busy fancying up our mac and cheese with truffles, can imagine what it’s like to live on the food budget of the average food stamp recipient? That’s $31.50 for the week, $1.50 per meal. The hotdog and cola pictured above cost $1.5 at Costco.

Welcome to the Food Stamp Challenge, a personal opportunity to experience the challenges of a food-stamp recipient for one week. There have been many versions of the FSC over the years, and many heart-wrenching news stories written, but I like the one sponsored organized by Jewish Council for Public Affairs and other faith-based anti-poverty advocates because it ties the challenge to action. This Food Stamp Challenge asks participants to spend only $31.50 on food for the week of October 27 through November 3 — and ask their member of Congress to take the challenge with them.

Interested? Here are the Participation Guidelines

1. Each person can only spend a total of $31.50 on food and beverages during the Challenge week – this translates to $4.50 per day, or $1.50 per meal.

2. All food purchased and eaten during the Challenge week, including fast food and dining out must be included in the total spending.

3. During the Challenge, eat only food that you purchase for the project. Do not eat food that you already own (this does not include spices and condiments).

4. Avoid accepting free food from friends, family, or at work, including food at receptions or coffee in the office

5. Please keep track of receipts on food spending and take note of your experiences throughout the week.

6. Share your Food Stamp Challenge by writing an op-ed for your local newspaper, blogging, sharing a reflection on the Fighting Poverty with Faith website, advocating for feeding programs, and more.

7. Donate the additional money you would have spent on food during this week to a local food bank or anti-hunger advocacy organization (optional).

Coward and food-lover that I am, I can’t honestly promise that I’m going to do this myself. If I do, you will be the first to know. I can tell you, though, I never forget that for me the challenge is an option, not a necessity. 

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Home Sweet, Hungry Home

Reading PA Tops Poverty List, ran a story in the New York Times this week.

Reading, a struggling city of 88,000 … has earned the unwelcome distinction of having the largest share of its residents living in poverty, barely edging out Flint, Mich., according to new Census Bureau data. The count includes only cities with populations of 65,000 or more, and has a margin of error that makes it difficult to declare a winner — or, perhaps more to the point, a loser.

Back home from serving another dinner at the homeless shelter in Reading, just around the corner from this exquisite mural, I feel the need to put the Times story in perspective. Because numbers don’t tell the whole story.

But first, the numbers. 41.3% of 88,000 people means that 36,000 of my neighbors don’t have enough money to make ends meet. (In Pennsylvania, poverty is defined as $22,000 for a family of four. How many ends can you meet at that rate?) Thirty-six thousand poor people is way too many, but ten times that many — 362,000 people — live in Philadelphia, which has 25% poverty. Even Detroit — my home town and the poster child for failed cities — has fewer people living in poverty (268,000) than Philadelphia. So our number is huge and terrible, but when we’re talking about poverty in the United States, it’s not a very meaningful statistic.

Myriad community and social service organizations do heroic work to ameliorate the city’s problems — Opportunity House, Berks Women in Crisis, Greater Berks Food Bank, United Way, Salvation Army, Goodwill, churches. Moreover, our obvious distress has prompted a lot of thought about how we got into this situation and some creative action to fix it.

Back in 2009, when the news came out that Reading was the poorest city in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and sixth in the nation, my friend Steve Glassman and I established the Rebuilding Reading Poverty Commission. Hundreds of concerned citizens got involved — but only after we promised not to create another report that would sit on a shelf collecting dust. Dozens of passionate volunteers worked together for more than a year, putting together a different kind of report — an action plan aimed at realistic goals in four broad categories: economic development, housing, education and policy and governance.

Obviously it was no silver bullet, but some of our recommendations have borne fruit — in programs, policies and subtle shifts in thinking. There is a glimmer of awareness that the city can’t go it alone, and that the fortunes of the more affluent suburbs are inextricably linked to the urban core. Policy makers are beginning to acknowledge that the Hispanic majority is not going away and indeed, might be cause for celebration and opportunity. There are immensely creative private and non-profit initiatives such as the Reading Roots Urban Farm, a permaculture enterprise that sustainably grows salad greens, microgreens, herbs, flowers, and garden plants.

And there are glorious exceptions. Lauer’s Park Elementary, the poorest elementary school in the poorest city in the United States, has just emerged as the only school in Pennsylvania to achieve 90/90/90 status. Ninety percent of its students are minority, 95% qualify for Free and Reduced-Price Meals, and 91% scored proficient in math on state tests.

My beautiful city has a lot going for it, but like dozens of cities in Pennsylvania and thousands throughout the United States, Reading is fundamentally unsustainable. Mayor Tom McMahon says we’re the canary in the coalmine — a harbinger of what’s to come for other cities like ours with a  shrinking tax base and increased demand for public services.

Because with all those people not making ends meet, who’s left to pay taxes? Our sewer mains cracked during the big September rains, spewing toxic garbage into the Schuylkill River. Bridges cracked in the earthquake. And education? No help from the governor. Governor Corbett’s savage $1 billion plus cuts to basic K-12 education fall disproportionately on the poor. Reading loses $19 million in education funding this year — more than $1,000/student in in a city where 91% of the district’s 18,000 students qualify for Free and Reduced-Price Meals (FARM). Three miles away, a more affluent district has lost $112/student.

City Hall has made a difficult situation even worse by adopting an adversarial relationship with landlords and businesses. Businesses wishing to establish themselves here are dissuaded by the mountain of fees, permits, delays and other impediments thrown in their path. Good landlords who follow the rules and maintain their properties in tip top shape are treated like such pariahs that they take their investments elsewhere. From those  left behind, holding mortgages that may well be under water, the city is extracting an additional 20.4% property tax increase. Not much blood left in this stone.

City Hall has done its part, as have the major employers — Lucent, Dana Corporation, Baldwin Brass — who have upped and left us. But Reading’s current situation is not their fault alone. Neither is it the fault of the poor who now make up close to half of the population, or the middle class who have abandoned ship. As Cornell West is busy pointing out, if the War on Poverty were real, we would actually be spending money on it. Instead, we’re stuck here here in the vortex of “market forces,” racism, recession and failed economic policies.

According to David Rusk, former mayor of Albuquerque and one of America’s foremost champions of regional strategies, it’s not so much economic policy but housing, education and transportation policy that has for three decades incentivized the middle class to move out to the suburbs, leaving the cities as warehouses for the poor.

Jambalaya for dinner at Opportunity House.

Reading has rebuilt itself before and I devoutly believe it will do it again. Once upon a time, the Reading Railroad — yes, the one on the Monopoly board — was the biggest company in the world. We were the stocking capitol of the world, then — when manufacturing went south and offshore — we became the Outlet Capital of the World. The city is full of smart, loving, creative people who are passionate about our city, and working hard to make it work.

But to save Reading and cities like it, we have to match our local efforts with regional strategies that can overcome growing fiscal disparities, concentrated poverty, and urban sprawl. We have to have jobs and lots of them — decent, family sustaining jobs, not minimum wage jobs or those that rape the land and leave it poisoned for generations. We have to have funding for infrastructure development and the education of our children. Otherwise — while the superrich get richer — a lot more people in Reading and Berks, including those who currently have jobs and who imagine they’re safely within the middle class, will fall into poverty.

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