On Frugal Feasts and acts of good food heroics

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Our most recent Frugal Feast took place, by coincidence, the weekend before NRDC announced the winners of its fourth annual Growing Green Awards, recognizing outstanding leadership in sustainable agriculture. So I thought it was a great opportunity to connect some important dots.

First, a few words on Frugal Feasts. What started last fall as a bit of an experiment is now a regular monthly dinner organized around the idea that buying real, nutritious, and sustainably-produced ingredients and cooking them at home is a surprisingly affordable way to eat deliciously, in good company, and do a bit of good along the way. The rules are simple: balanced meals from ingredients that strive towards organic, local agriculture, are low on the food chain, and cost no more than $5 bucks a head. 

Sound far-fetched? We've been surprised too, but our track record says it all: eight delicious Feasts to date and each host has come in within budget. Turns out, by not putting meat at the center of a menu and gathering a group of 10 or so friends, $5 a person gives you all the budget you need to buy fresh and organic grains, beans, fruit, and veggies.

So here’s how our May Feast turned out:

Our hostess, Hitomi, prepared a Japanese-themed Feast which, like her, was both beautiful and elegant. Cooking for 12 people, she had a budget of $60 to work with. Two Feasters had to cancel last minute, but 3 of us (including yours truly) got lucky enough to take home large doggy bags, so she found herself well within the $5 per head budget.

Her splurge item? Bundles of local asparagus from the farmers market, which Hitomi said proved the Frugal Feast concept in her mind: with a meal made of all vegetarian ingredients, she had plenty in her budget to go for it. If you’ve been to Union Square lately, you understand why the asparagus was so hard to resist. Here’s what it looked like just last week:


Hitomi's full menu was as follows: 

  • Tofu-miso dish
  • Osekihan (festive red rice)
  • Asparagus with gomayogoshi (black sesame sauce)
  • Potato and carrot kinpira
  • Kyuuri (cucumber) Salad
  • Moyashi (bean sprout) salad
  • Spinach with sesame
  • Edamame salad with miso dressing

So we arrived and saw this:

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Not bad, huh?


A few days later, one of my favorite good food thinkers, Mark Bittman, posted an excellent column arguing once again that one of the most impactful things we, as individuals, can do to reduce our environmental impact is eat less meat. Since he does it so well, I’ll just go ahead and let him speak for himself:

“I could go on and on about the dangers of producing and consuming too much meat:  heavy reliance  on fossil fuels and phosphorous (both in short supply); consumption of staggering amounts of antibiotics, a threat to public health; and the link (though not as strong as sugar’s) to many of the lifestyle diseases that are wreaking havoc on our health.

Here’s the thing: It’s seldom that such enormous problems have such simple solutions, but this is one that does. We can tackle climate change without inventing new cars or spending billions on mass transit or trillions on new forms of energy, though all of that is not only desirable but essential.

In the meantime, we can begin eating less meat tomorrow. That’s something any of us can do, with no technological advances. If personal choice enacted on a large scale could literally save the world, maybe we have to talk about it that way. We could be heroes, like Bruce Willis in “Armageddon,” only maybe the sacrifice is on a more modest and easier scale. (You already changed your light bulbs; how about eating a salad?)”

“We could be heroes.” That’s a pretty powerful message.

In fact, it will take many acts of heroism, big and small, to turn around our broken agricultural system. This will mean everything from reducing our meat consumption to growing markets for producers raising meat and growing crops sustainably to pushing conventional farms to clean up their act. Here at NRDC, we're working to do all of the above.

But some of the real heroes of this effort are farmers like Gabe Brown, NRDC's 2012 Growing Green Awards winner in the Food Producer category, who has successfully transformed his North Dakota cattle ranch into a model of ecologically integrated agriculture, growing a highly diverse mix of crops and using innovative grazing practices that build up healthy soils. You can read more about Gabe and his ranch, in his own words, here.

They are businesspeople like George Siemon, CEO of Wisconsin-based Organic Valley and NRDC's 2012 Growing Green Award winner in the Business Leader category, who has spent more than two decades organizing organic farmers, securing fair pay for their crops, and building market demand for organic foods.

And advocates like Andrea Northup, winner in the Young Food Leader category, who is transforming school lunches in 200 schools throughout Washington, D.C. by connecting them with local farmers.

And organizers like Lucas Benitez and Greg Asbed, founders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and winners of our first ever Growing Green Award in the Food Justice category. Lucas and Greg have shined a spotlight on the plight of Florida tomato farmworkers and created a blueprint for farmworker justice that includes groundbreaking farm labor standards, fair farmworker wages, and labor rights education—a Fair Food Agreement now signed by ten multi-billion dollar national companies.

These leaders are living proof that we can grow and eat food that is both good for us and respects workers, animals, and our planet. They're the individuals whose businesses we aim to support through Frugal Feasts and whose ideas are at the heart of our monthly meals.

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Which brings me back to salad eating as heroism. Salad can sound kind of boring. Hitomi proves it’s anything but.

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So I say, be a hero, host a Frugal Feast! And if that Feast involves salads, I highly recommend some of Hitomi’s.

Tofu-miso dish

2 Negi (Japanese onions) or leeks, thinly sliced
Vegetable oil
1/2 cup light miso paste
2 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp mirin
1/2 cup vegan dashi (see recipe below)
Tofu, cut into 1/2 inch dice

Sauté leek in oil over medium heat
Combine miso, sugar, mirin and dashi in bowl
Once leek is soft, add miso sauce and cook until slightly reduced
Add tbsp of butter (optional, but makes it oh so good)
Add tofu and warm through, then serve!

Osekihan (festive red rice)

3 cups sweet sticky rice
1/2 cup azuki beans
1/2 tsp salt

Wash rice several times, until water runs clear
Soak rice overnight (or at least 1 hour)
Drain rice at least 1 hour before you plan to cook it
Wash azuki beans, boil with 2 cups of water, then simmer for 30 min.
Drain beans, but reserve liquid
When liquid is cooled, add water to make 3 cups
Put rice, water and beans into heavy bottomed pan, bring to boil then lower heat and simmer for 20 min.
Keep lid on and steam for 20 min
Top with gomashio (salted sesame seeds)

Asparagus with gomayogoshi (black sesame sauce)

Cut asparagus into 2 inch pieces
Cook quickly in salted water and blanch in cold water to preserve color, drain well

Roast 3 tbsp black sesame seeds until toasted and fragrant
Grind in mortar with 1 tbsp sugar until powdery
Add 2 tsp mirin and 2 tbsp soy sauce
Mix sesame sauce with asparagus

Potato and carrot kinpira

Slice cucumbers into 1/4 inch slices and massage about 1 tsp of salt. Put salted cucumbers in colander and put the colander in a bowl. Place in refrigerator for about 15 minutes to drain excess liquid. (Drain water from bowl).

Mix 1/2 tbsp sesame oil and 1tbsp of soy sauce, then toss with cucumbers.Mix in slightly ground sesame seeds. Place in refrigerator until ready to serve.

Moyashi (bean sprout) salad

Large amount of bean sprouts, blanched in boiling water and dipped in ice water, then strained.

Grind 2 tbsp toasted sesame seeds. Mix 1 1/2 tbsp of sugar, 2 1/2 tbsp soy sauce, about 2 tbsp vinegar, and 1 tbsp of sesame seeds.

Cut 2 celery stalks and one carrot into thin matchstick strips. Mix bean sprouts, celery, carrots, and soy sauce mixture together. To with additional tbsp sesame seeds and keep in fridge until ready to serve.

Vegan dashi

Dashi is usually made with dried bonito and kombu. To make a vegan version, replace the bonito with dried shitake mushrooms (you can make it with just kombu, but the shitake adds a nice depth and earthiness).

Place a 12 inch strip of kombu and a few good quality dried shitake mushrooms in about 8 cups of water. Leave overnight, then bring to low simmer and take out kombu and mushrooms.

Spinach with sesame

Loose spinach leaves (with some stem)

Blanch spinach quickly, rince in ice wash and then squeeze out as much water as possible (I usually do this several times).

Toast about 2 tbsp of sesame seeds. Mix 1 tbsp soy sauce, 1 tsp sake, 1/2 tbsp sugar and drizzle of sesame oil . Mix soy mixture and toasted sesame seeds with spinach. Serve at room temperature.

Edamame salad with miso dressing

Shelled edamame, 1 fuji apple, peeled, cored, and cubed, and 1 carrot cut into matchstick strips.

Finely chopped red onion. Fresh cilantro, torn.


Mix 1 1/2 tbsp miso (light miso) with 1/2 tsp grated lemon zest, 2 tbsp fresh squeezed orange juice, 1 tbsp olive oil, and 1/2 tsp grated ginger. 


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"The quality of our lives depends on the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe."  - Gabe Brown