It isn’t often that a master’s thesis has the makings of a bestseller, but after Leanne Brown’s student project appeared on the social networking site Reddit, traffic to her own website jumped from 80 to 50,000 people a day.
“I thought it was hackers,” Brown said, “but it was wonderful, people writing to say this means so much and it will help me personally.”
The object of their desire was a cookbook of sorts, which offered recipes for great-tasting meals at low cost while emphasizing the importance of cooking skill over expensive ingredients. Brown had come up with the project to address the issue of food insecurity — the 46 million Americans on SNAP (formerly food stamps) who must eat on $4 a day.
She had planned to use her degree in the relatively new field of food studies to work for a nonprofit, but the overwhelming response to her thesis convinced her otherwise. One Kickstarter campaign later and Brown had a print run of 40,000 books and a two-month, multicity tour.
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“Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day” (Workman Publishing, $16.95) has the distinction of being a cookbook meant for people who may not be able to afford a cookbook. So for each book purchased, one is given to someone in need.
A partnership with Access Wireless helps get the book in the hands of low-income individuals nationwide while nonprofit organizations that purchase books to distribute to clients receive a discount on bulk orders. The original project is still available as a free download at leannebrown.com.
While she acknowledges she is no nutritionist, Brown insisted that the food taste good and that the book look as beautiful as any other modern cookbook. “There is a huge amount of information about how to eat on a budget, but a lot of those (sources) are so focused on the bottom line,” Brown said. “They don’t take into account how things taste.” Poverty should not mean a lack of pleasure, she said.
I tested a few of her recipes. The beef stroganoff brought back delicious childhood memories, and the recipe for peanut sauce is one of the best I’ve found. I poured the sauce over broccoli and coconut rice as directed in one recipe and used the remainder the next day as a dipping sauce for veggies. Brown includes breakfast, lunch and dinner options in the book as well as snacks, desserts and more.
Each recipe includes per-serving and total cost estimates, which Brown calculated by using prices from four grocery stores in a mixed-income community in New York. She emphasizes the importance of tailoring the recipes to fit your particular budget and taste. If you don’t eat meat, you can sub in tofu. If you don’t have chickpeas on hand, use pinto beans.
When she first began turning her project into a book, she tried to create meal plans, but she quickly realized how limiting that may be for families already struggling with so little time and resources. So this cookbook, she says, is also a strategy guide designed to teach readers the power of cooking. “I wanted to empower people, not just have them following directions,” she said.
In addition to recipes, she offers tips on seasonal food shopping, buying in bulk, kitchen equipment and ways to make the most of leftovers. She also gives pointers on how to accumulate pantry items, spices and other higher cost foods over time.
“People on SNAP are going though hard times. I want food not to be a terrifying, awful struggle,” Brown said. “I want people to eat well and believe that they deserve to eat well.”
A former classmate of mine likes salads with a little kick. For inspiration, I turned to panzanella, a classic Italian bread-and-tomato salad. Here, old hard bread soaks up tomato juice and dressing for a super-flavorful and filling salad. You can toss in any vegetable or fruit, as long as it’s juicy. Bell peppers or carrots won’t work so well, but peaches, grapes and zucchini all do. If you don’t like spicy salads, feel free to seed and stem the jalapeño to remove its fierce heat, or replace it entirely with garlic or shallot. Serves four as a side.
2 small field cucumbers or 1 English cucumber
2 medium tomatoes, chopped salt and pepper, to taste
4 slices day-old bread
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus a few drops for the pan
1 jalapeño, finely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped tomato salt and pepper, to taste juice of 1 lime
Can add chopped fresh herbs, fruit, red onion or vegetables as desired
If you’re using field cucumbers — usually cheaper than English — peel them to remove the tough skin. (A little leftover peel is not a problem.) For English cucumbers, there’s no need to peel.
Reserve about 2 tablespoons of the chopped tomatoes to use in the dressing, but throw the rest of the tomatoes and all of the cucumbers into a large bowl. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper; the salt helps draw out the juices. Toss the vegetables and set aside.
Place a small saucepan over medium heat and add a few drops of olive oil. Add the jalapeño and sauté until it sizzles and smells good, about a minute, then add the rest of the chopped tomato and a tablespoon of water. Cook until the tomato juices release, another two minutes. Sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper.
Once the water has evaporated, turn off the heat and dump the jalapeño-tomato mixture on your cutting board. Chop it up very finely, then throw it back into the pan — with the heat off — with the lime juice and 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Stir to combine, taste, and add salt and pepper as needed.
Chop or tear the bread into bite-size pieces, then toast it in a skillet over medium heat, tossing occasionally, until the bread chunks are toasty on all sides. Alternatively, just toast full slices of bread in a toaster and tear them up afterward, or skip the toasting if the bread is already super-hard.
Add the bread and dressing to the vegetables and stir to combine. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper once more. Let the salad sit for a few minutes so that the bread can soak up the juices, then serve.