Our Office Potluck: Slow Food $5 Challenge

valentine, ecard

Slow Food’s $5 Challenge is this Saturday, September 17th! Can you take back the “value meal?” We decided to give it a try in advance to let you know what our challenges were and give you, dear Ecocentric reader, some ideas for cheap dishes. The $5 per/person guidelines were a little intimidating to some of us, though others said, “no sweat!” Since this was a potluck, our plan was for each person to create a dish that would feed a small portion to at least 5 people for $5 or less. Tuesday the 13th we gathered together in our conference room for what turned out to be one of the best potlucks ever hosted in the GRACE conference room. Here’s how everyone did:

Our Stars:

Morgan – Veggie Flatbread, $5

Morgan actually shopped with a single $5 bill. That was all she had. No buying a whole thing of cheese for $6 and only using a chunk of it. She took that $5 to the Union Square Farmers' Market for veggies, Trader Joe’s for pizza dough and Whole Foods for a very clever scoop of feta from their salad bar! Her thoughts on the process: “Challenging, time-consuming, need to plan.” But she accomplished the challenge and her flatbread was delicious!

Leslie – Pasta Ramatuelle, $5

Leslie kept the cost down on this family recipe by purchasing ‘seconds' heirloom tomatoes from the Union Square Farmers' Market. This is a great tip – often farmers' stands feature bins filled with bruised produce at reduced cost (in this case, a mere $1.50/lb of heirlooms – a steal)..  The produce isn’t bad, and is often at its peak ripeness. This dish is also vegan, and Leslie says she has tried adding cheese or nutritional yeast in the past, but thinks it’s best without anything to undermine the simple fresh flavor of tomatoes, basil, garlic, olive oil, salt and pasta. It feeds quite a few people and if serving as a main dish, she would definitely have extra money for sides and dessert at a dinner party.

Tami – Eggplant Frittata, $8.46

Tami doesn’t usually cook, but she could have fooled us! The eggplant was cut thin and used as the “crust” in this dish that could  easily have been served as a main entree for 4 people. That would have left  her with $2.88/person for side dishes and even a dessert. We cut it up into small wedges and fed lots of people at our potluck. Tami shopped at her conventional grocery store, where she was able to find organic and cage free eggs for 3.99 – she used 6 of them and had leftovers for another meal. She said she wasn’t daunted by this $5 challenge at all!

Joey – Blueberry Pie, $10+

She was planning a very $5 potluck dish, but couldn’t find okra. So – two pints of non-organic blueberries were $10 and a few more ingredients brought the total to at least $12. The pie was huge and we were able to feed at least 8 people with this pie but ultimately, Joey knows she can greatly improve upon the cost of her recipe. More planning needed!

Rich – Ba Bao Tsai, $15

Rich’s big bowl of “Eight Precious Vegetables” (it was actually 8 types of tofu with mushrooms and peanuts) was enough to feed about 20 people. Rich planned this dish carefully and didn’t feel constrained by the dollar limit. Rich says, “If you stretch your imagination and you can stretch your dollar!”

Jen – Chai Rice Pudding, $1.50 + home ingredients

This came up for many of our dishes… we had some of the ingredients at home, so do they count? We know that not everyone has the money to stock their pantry with staples, but Jen had rice, milk, sugar and spices at home… she bought some raisins and crystallized ginger to spice things up and made a dessert to easily feed 5 people.

Robin – Local Apples, Cheese and Crackers, $10

Robin is a busy woman and lives in one of upper Manhattan’s food deserts, so when she got home Monday night after her local and limited grocery store closed, she thought she wouldn’t be able to participate. But she ran out to our local mid-town Food Emporium for treats. Somewhat surprisingly, she came back with enough local (though not organic) apples, cheese and crackers from NY state to be a nice appetizer for our crowd.

Dawn – Vegan Caramelized Onion and Ground Cherry Pie, $6.25

This pie was beautiful and while it was accidentally vegan (goat cheese was too expensive), it also tasted delicious. Dawn was able to shop at her local coop where the prices in general are lower and the produce is often local and organic. Shopping at a coop if you have one nearby will always help you save when you are trying to purchase sustainable ingredients.

Katie – Summer Squash Medley, < $5

Katie joined a CSA in May and is still reaping the benefits weekly. She had an abundance of squash, onion and some homemade herb butter on hand to make this a tasty addition to our potluck. We know that not everyone can pay for a CSA upfront, but when you can you are able to cook for the week and freeze the extras for the winter too.

Our takeaway:

We found that most people used a few ingredients they already had at home, especially olive oil and spices. Finding local, sustainable and organic options here in NYC is, in general, pretty easy with the abundance of farmers' markets and coops, but there were still a few people who only had access to conventional grocery stores with limited organic options. Time was also a major factor – this probably can’t be stressed enough.

Our conclusion?

$5/person can be done and it can be done deliciously! We are strongly considering price caps for future potlucks because we actually found that the dishes were more diverse and interesting than usual. While this first time might not have been as easy for everyone, with some practice and more planning, we think we can make it a happen on a regular basis.