Monday, September 19, 2011

Reclaiming the Value Meal

Once upon a time in Rome, they decided to put up a McDonald's.

This isn't news, I know.  McDonald's is everywhere.  It's quick, it's cheap, and as much as we might not like to admit it, those golden arches hold something of a psychological comfort for the homesick- or at least jet-lagged and mildly lost- American traveler.

But imagine what it was like to live in Rome and walk by that McDonald's for the first time.  We're talking about Italy, where good food is practically a religion.  Not just the quality of it, but the time and care people invest in preparing it and enjoying it with friends and family.  Opening a McDonald's in Rome is like opening one of those Las Vegas quickie wedding chapels in...well...Rome.

It was in protest against this very event that the Slow Food movement was born.  If you haven't heard about Slow Food, it's exactly what it sounds like: an alternative to fast food that promotes local culture and flavor, and it now has over 100,000 members in 132 countries.

This past weekend, the US chapter put out a challenge to "reclaim the value meal" by cooking and sitting down to enjoy a meal with friends and family at a cost of no more than five dollars per person.  There's been a lot of hype in the media lately about how tough it is to eat healthy on a budget.  We're constantly bombarded with statistics about how the less money you earn in this country, the more likely you are to suffer from obesity and all its accompanying health problems, like heart disease and and type two diabetes.  What kind of a world are we living in where the poor people are overweight?  Seriously?

So, on Saturday night I took the challenge, along with Krisha, my foodie partner-in-crime, whose super power is her Whole Foods employee discount, and we made a delicious dish of mustard-maple tofu (I know, it sounds really weird, but I was pleasantly surprised), along with a salad featuring sliced almonds and sunflower seeds for extra protein.  The bill for the two of us came in at just under $10.

The secret to non-soggy tofu?  Fry it, then bake it.

This particular dish turned out to be corn-free completely by accident.  Which, I think, goes to show that it might be easier to get the health results we want not by changing what we eat, but by changing how we eat, and letting the rest fall into place on its own.

It's almost impossible to find a frozen dinner that's good for you; even the "healthy" kind.  Even the "organic" kind.  Because, when you get right down to it, you're still eating something that was conceived out of a demand for convenience, with everything else being secondary.  And very often, you don't actually save money at all.  What's more expensive?  Five microwavable chicken Parmesan meals, or the ingredients for five sandwiches?

What I found great about the $5 Challenge wasn't the money, but the rules that the meal had to be home-cooked and you couldn't eat it alone.  There was a lot of buzz on the internet in the days leading up to the challenge, and one Twitter user asked which of a list of ingredients he should forego in order to keep on budget, to which the Slow Food USA account answered that he should use all the ingredients and invite more people to dinner so his budget could grow.  What a great idea!

My challenge to you:  Next time something in your fridge is on the brink of going bad, don't admit defeat and throw it away.  Invite someone to dinner.  You won't have wasted your money, and you might just have a nice time.


- 1 cup maple syrup
- 6 tablespoons dijon mustard
- 1-2 tblspns balsamic vinegar
- 2 pounds tofu
- 1/2cup flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1 teaspoon tumeric
- 1 teaspoon basil
- 1 teaspoon thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon onion powder


1. Slice each block of tofu into 8 pieces.
2. Wrap tofu slices in a dish towel, and leave it to dry out for 30  minutes.
3. Preheat oven to 350.
4. While tofu is drying, mix together flour and spices in a small bowl, then mix together maple syrup, mustard, and vinegar separately.
5. Cover the bottom of a frying pan with canola oil, and place over medium heat.
6. Coat tofu slices with spiced flour, and fry them in the oil until golden brown, about five minutes on each side.
7. Place fried tofu in a shallow glass baking dish, and cover with marinade.
8. Bake for 30 minutes, until marinade is bubbly and thick.

Serves 4.

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