In re: Take back the $5 value meal

Slow Food has put forth a challenge for September 17:

THE CHALLENGE: This September 17, you’re invited to take back the ‘value meal’ by getting together with family, friends and neighbors for a slow food meal that costs no more than $5 per person. Cook a meal with family and friends, have a potluck, or find a local event.

WHY: Because slow food shouldn’t have to cost more than fast food. If you know how to cook, then teach others. If you want to learn, this is your chance. Together, we’re sending a message that too many people live in communities where it’s harder to buy fruit than Froot Loops. Everybody should be able to eat fresh, healthy food every day.

HOW TO GET INVOLVED: Sign up for the challenge! You can cook a meal with friends and family, find a local event, or host your own event. When you sign up, we’ll send you $5 cooking tips.” (To sign up or read more visit Slow Food)

Since I am out of the country right now and figured I wouldn’t be able to make a meal on the correct day figured I’d give it a go in advance a couple weeks ago.  $5 a person gets a lot easier if your doing it for larger numbers than two people or if you plan on a couple of meals, but I figured it could still be done pretty easily.

So with that partially in mind I put some dried chickpeas in some water to soak overnight one evening.  [If your used to working with canned chickpeas/garbanzo beans, you gotta start using dried.  Not just because they are cheaper, they are better and while they do take some forethought, its not much and cooking them takes some time but no effort – just get in the routine and you won’t be bothered.]  So anyway, the dried beans actually got two nights soaking  in the fridge, no worries, still come out fine, were not being real fussy here.  No mater how many times I toss the dried little beans into a container, I have a hard time remembering how much they swell up after soaking, so usually I have to go fetch another container after a few hours if I put them in small container.

So fast forward to two nights later, get home from work and decided that we should put the beans to use, making some falafel and some hummus.  The first thing I did was get some dough going for pita bread, a really simple bread to make and that doesn’t need too much time.  I made them using half white and half whole wheat flour, yeast, water, salt and a bit of olive oil.  Knead, let rise for at least an hour and then roll out into pitas, let those rest and finally bake on a pizza stone.  With the pita dough rising I turned to the beans.

The falafel will get fried of course and the beans for those don’t get pre-cooked, the hummus needs the beans to cook so I fill a pot with water and bring it to a low boil with the beans and then drop the heat and cook for a bit (45 mins? didn’t pay too much attention honestly).  Hummus is so easy (if you like the stuff and buy it pre-made, you gotta start making it yourself – its easy, amazing and to stick with the theme here…cheap), my version basically throw in a little garlic, some cumin, some paprika (smoked is good), some salt, some lemon juice, tahini and olive oil and  pulse in a foot processor adding water or olive oil depending on what your going for texture wise (you can also use a blender for a less textured creamy version – one I personally like, but others don’t seem as keen on).  The hummus will improve as the flavors blend so put it in the fridge overnight if you got time, or in my case while you make the falafel.

Speaking of the falafel, they are also pretty simple, I put in the food processor: the soaked chick peas, garlic (you can use a lot), some onion, a bunch of fresh parsley or cilantro or both, cumin, ground coriander, a bit of cayenne,  lemon juice, salt, a bit of baking powder and a bit of flour.  After getting it well combined in the food processor let it rest in the fridge for 20 mins or so, I fry it up (usually a shallow fry for me which results in more patty like shapes)  I use a small doser (the things that look like ice cream scoops – great tools for the cook who cant have too many gadgets) to quickly make a whole bunch, dropping them from the doser straight into the skillet I use to fry them up.

To serve the whole thing I serve some chopped up veggies as toppings to make a pita, say chopped tomatoes, onion, some chopped parsley or cilantro if you didn’t use it up already, some sliced banana peppers (we had a bumper crop in the garden, actually all the veggies were from the garden except for some lettuce, so those kept the cost down – not sure if thats cheating – I guess it kinda is, but I you could get away with just using a couple items), chopped cucumber and lettuce (you can do anything though, pickled veggies or a cabbage slaw are great), and then some kind of sauce, either a thinned out tahini sauce, which is pretty traditional or one of my favorite the ubiquitous mayo/yogurt combo sauce (the white sauce in the bottle found at falafel shops around a lot of Europe) made with a mixture of the two plus some garlic.

At the last minute I popped the rolled out pita into the hot oven and in about 3-4 minutes had amazing fresh pita, filled with all of the above and a some more for dipping in hummus.  So yeah, if you bought all the veggies I discussed above and some other things it would definitely get potentially expensive, but if you pick and choose you could get a nice selection of toppings/salad (or if you had more people say 4, you could easily buy a ton of veggies to top them off / make a salad for $20 total).  Of course I didn’t factor in the spices in my meal cost as well although if you did a fractional cost of the price of them from Penzy’s they don’t amount to much and you could simplify your seasoning and they would still be great – probably just garlic, salt, pepper and say cilantro would work for making some tasty falafel.

There are plenty of creative ways to make a $5 dinner as I’ve been reading on some other folks blogs, and you can easily get some meat in that $5 meal as well unlike the above meal, the key is of course to remember that you don’t need 12 oz or more of steak a person and using the meat to flavor other components is a great way to stretch it.  Also buy at those ethnic markets, they aren’t wasting their money on advertising and are very competitive on price – even if you not making Indian, Asian or Mexican food, they can be a great source for affordable ingredients.  So hopefully a whole bunch of folks are getting in on the challenge and figuring out that you don’t need a large corporation involved to create great, affordable value meals.

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