Day 5 of the SNAP Hunger Challenge!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

By Chef Terri

Today was...not at all easy.

As I said, I had my wonderful friends ben and Nadja in from Champaign last night, and I woke up fairly late in the morning. They had a craving for Ethiopian food, so we headed out right away to Demera, my favorite place in the city. I had been really set on sticking to the challenge though, so off we headed with my partner and my roommate...and my PB&J. It was really not fun (for most of us, I assume) to sit there and not eat while they all scooped up delicious bites and my stomach rumbled. But the conversation was great, the people were better, and at least I got some free smells out of the deal!

Lunch was kind of a hastilly cobbled together affair. Half a cup of salsa, 3 oz of tortilla chips, a tomato, and a one ounce hunk of cheddar cheese was enough to fill my belly up this time. It was actually kind of nice to be able to munch idly on the tortilla chips while I read my book, lazing on the couch with my partner. It struck me then how many activities I engage in on a regular basis that center around, or at least involve, food. I go out to eat with friends a lot, sharing many plates of different foods, passing them around and telling stories. When I go to the movies, there is ALWAYS popcorn. If I'm spending a lazy afternoon reading, I love to have some animal crackers and a cup of tea. When I was reading, I realized I hadn't had my daily cup, and that had contributed greatly to my headache and overall sense of annoyance. One large cup of tea later, I was feeling much better than when I initially embarked on this blog post.

During the hunger challenge, I've had to change the way I socialize a lot. It would feel really isolating to me after a long period if I had to keep turning people down for meals out, or couldn't invite people over for a home cooked meal. In some communities/groups, SNAP is already a somewhat stigmatized label, something that people take to mean that you are lazy, or somehow couldn't manage to make ends meet through the good old American concept of "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps." I cannot stress enough that the people I have met through my work who are on SNAP, the friends and family I have had that have spent time on SNAP, are NOT lazy. They are not reaching for a handout. This is a supplemental program designed to help people that are in serious need. I'm so grateful that it exists, because without it, some people I love very much would be faced with some (even more) frightening choices. There have been brief periods in my life that I could be defined as "food insecure" (something one in six people in Cook County share), and without the safety net of SNAP, I could have gone without food.

My roommate and my partner went out to the local pub for dinner, thankfully sparing me the unpleasantness of having to watch them eat and sip my water. I used a little bit of culinary know how to make myself something rib sticking and filling for dinner, even though I wasn't particularly hungry. I knew that since I was going out to spend time with friends later, I'd want the food in me now. By caramelizing the onions, I was able to change their flavor a bit, make them very sweet, which was a complement to the nutty brown rice and the bright spinach.

1 T of oil
1/2 C of thinly sliced onions
3 T of water
1 1/2 C of precooked brown rice
1 C of spinach

Over low heat, cook the onions until golden brown and sticky (approximately 20-30 minutes). Splash 3 the water in to the skillet to scrape up any of the tasty brown bits from the bottom of the pan and add the rice until just heated through. Pile the spinach on top and stir to incorporate. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

By not continuing to cook the spinach after adding it to the hot rice, I allowed it to retain some of its crispness and all its bright green color. The caramelized onions were a different shade of brown than the rice, which added some variety to my bowl as well. Eating on a very limited budget is challenging, but this dish provided a lot of color and texture and flavor for very little money or time spent in the kitchen.