Sunday, March 27, 2011

Lessons in Frugality

Hello. I've been away. No, that's not true: I've been riveted to the images broadcast on the 24-hour news channels. I'm sure you've all been glued to the television, the radio or any other form of media of late. Videos of Japan and Libya are fascinating in a horrific way. My sigh of relief upon learning my friends and family in Japan were all accounted for and well was quickly followed by a gasp at the thought of 'what now?' I've been holding my breath ever since, wondering if I can accommodate everyone in my small apartment should they decide to all flee to Canada. I haven't really been in the mood to write about food. And yet, the turmoil in the Middle East and the nuclear threat in Japan keep bringing back thoughts of food to my mind.

It all seems quite far away now, but the wildfire that has spread across North Africa began as food riots in Tunisia and Algeria. Bare shelves in Japanese grocery stores and warnings of radioactive contamination of vegetables and milk will probably translate into increased food imports as the country clears away the debris, and begins reconstruction. To top it all off, the price of basic foods is already slated to spike in June. I have few notions about economic principles, but it seems to me that it is inhumane that the cost of a basic necessity such as food can be speculated on the stock market. Is it so crazy to expect that food be traded at a fair price for the producers, while still being readily accessible to all and everyone? Until such a day comes around, short of taking to the streets and staging a food riot, we will have to make our lunch money stretch out as far as it will go.

Reduce food waste
One way to stretch your food budget is to reduce food waste. North Americans have lost the quaint habit of purchasing only enough food for the next few days, and have instead taken a shine to buying in bulk. While bulk purchases of dried goods can translate into oodles of savings, it is false economy to  buy a week's worth of produce, especially since close to half of it ends up in the garbage. I admire people who manage to plan a week's menu, buy only the groceries necessary for said menu, and actually stick to it.
Somehow, I think most of us do not fit in that category. I tend to write up a concise list of what I need, yet I always come home with lots of other things I want. Luckily for me, I do not plan my week's menu, so I can always accommodate my whims. I do try to buy small amounts of fresh foods, preferring to return to the market or grocery store a few times a week.
Although I realise that not everyone has the leisure to browse store shelves daily, it is important to shop wisely: buy only enough of a highly perishable food that can be consumed within the next few days. Some fruits (such as pears, peaches, avocados, bananas, and even tomatoes) are best purchased slightly under-ripe and left to ripen on the kitchen counter; when buying these fruits, choose them at various stages of ripeness, so that some are ready to eat immediately, and others will be ready for later in the week.

Store wisely
In most cases, buying fresh makes all the difference. And by 'fresh' I mean 'really fresh', as in 'just picked a few hours/days ago' and not 'looks fresh, but has been on the move for the past 8 weeks' (storage vegetables and fruits are the exceptions to the rule). Short of buying directly from the grower -not always an option in winter and early spring- there are ways to make produce last longer. The David Suzuki Foundation (happy birthday David!) has a handy guide on how better to keep the produce you buy.
Basically, fruits and vegetables should be kept in separate areas of the fridge. Some fruits should never see the inside of the ice box: strawberries; unripe bananas and avocados; tomatoes; rock hard peaches, plums and nectarines, ideally, would all be kept on the kitchen counter. However, bananas and avocados will keep for an unbelievable length of time in the refrigerator once they have reached peak ripeness (the banana's peel may blacken, but its flesh will remain unblemished for about a week or two. It can also be frozen for later use in smoothies, but if you want bananas for baking, you will need to let them get overripe before freezing.)
Onions, garlic and potatoes should never be kept in the refrigerator: they need to be in a cool, dark place, which often translates into the cupboard beneath the kitchen sink -do not store your cleaning products there, they should be out of reach of little hands! Instead clear out the space to make way for an ad hoc root cellar.

Keep it under wraps
A lush bowl of fruits on the kitchen table looks lovely, but it isn't always the best way to store your fruits: apples get mealy; oranges go mouldy; and the whole thing becomes a seething mass of fruit flies come summer. Apples remain crisp when kept in the crisper drawer of the fridge. Oranges and other citrus fruits also fare better when refrigerated, and benefit greatly from being kept in a sealed plastic bag. Some fruits are best enjoyed at room temperature; however, if your melons and strawberries are fully ripe before you are ready to eat them, pop them in the chiller, just make sure you take them out at least a half hour before eating them -watermelon might be the one exception, as it is truly refreshing eaten cold on a sweltering day.
Leafy greens should always be kept unwashed, in a plastic bag, in the fridge's vegetable drawer. If the greens are really dirty or sopping wet, give them a good wash, spin them dry, and wrap them in a tea towel, before placing them in the plastic bag. Washed greens should be consumed within days of purchase.

Be creative with left overs
My sweet heart has an aversion to left-overs, so we make an effort to cook only enough for a given meal. This feat isn't always feasible for everyone: I myself tend to lean towards massive soups and stews (they only seem worth the effort of making in ginormous batches!) I usually freeze extra portions as soon as they are cool enough, so they'll be at the ready for a quick meal on a busy day. However, sometimes there are tidbits left over; these I keep for a solitary lunch, or recycle into a completely different dish (sometimes it ends up in the next batch of soup, others as a pizza topping.) Very rarely, it goes directly in the compost bin.

Follow your nose
And eyes: by law, most packaged foods are required to have an expiry or use-by date printed on their wrapping. However, not everything goes off the minute its stated time runs out. Your nose and eyes are reliable tools for checking if the food has turned to the dark side. You can often stretch a food's lifespan by a few days, even weeks.
Anything that smells remotely different should be chucked out, and green fuzz is a clear sign that something is bound for the compost heap, but you'd be surprise how long yoghurt  is willing to hang around in the fridge for...

Grow your own food
I can't stress enough how economical growing your own food is. And nothing tops the self-satisfaction one gets from saying 'I grew it myself.' Even if we're talking about sprigs of herbs. You don't even need a large garden to get growing: a sunny window sill, or even a balcony in part-shade is enough for a few pots of herbs, salad, and a tomato. You can even grow sprouts in a dark cupboard.

Bon app'!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Dragging Feet

I've been feeling quite contrary lately. Like a pouty child who got a chocolate cake instead of vanilla and cherry cake with pink sprinkles. A tad overindulgent, I must admit. But I can't help but feel like I am channelling all this disruptive energy that is roiling around the world. As I slowly woke up to news of earthquake and tsunami in Japan this morning, I was emerging from a restless dream of which I remember nothing, except for the feeling of angst and tension.

I'm hoping to distract my distraught mind by reminiscing about the doughnuts I made on Tuesday. I didn't post the recipe earlier because I was hoping to uncover another recipe from my piles of notes, but since that one remains elusive as of yet, here is my friend's mother's recipe. These pillows of fried dough have kept my friend and me busy and content many a summer day during our childhood. They are really easy to make, and not just for Fat Tuesday. I actually whipped up a batch, in my pyjama, just in time for brunch.

Les Beignets de Marie-Paule
Makes about two dozens

135g/ 1 cup flour
60g/ ¼cup sugar
1 egg
1g/ ¼ tsp baking powder
45g/ 3Tbs milk
oil for frying
icing sugar, for garnish

Sift together the flour, baking powder and sugar.
Beat egg with the milk, and slowly mix into the dry ingredients.
Mix just to barely combine all the ingredients.
Do not over-work the dough, or the doughnuts will be tough.
The dough will be rather soft and sticky. Form into a loose ball, wrap in cling film, and leave to rest in the refrigerator for at least 20 minutes.
In the meantime, heat enough oil in a large pot or pan. You only need 3cm/ 1" of oil to fry up the dough. The oil should be at about 175'C/325'F: if you do not have a candy thermometer to measure the oil's temperature, use a bamboo skewer or chopstick. When the oil is at the right temperature for frying, a steady stream of small bubbles should emerge from the chopstick when you stick one end in the oil.

On a well floured surface, roll out the chilled dough to a 5mm/ ¼" thickness.
Cut out the dough into desired shape: I usually cut the dough into strips; each strip is then cut into rough diamonds with a slit. By pulling one end of the diamond through the slit, you get something that looks like a braid.
Slip a few pieces of dough into the hot oil. Leave to cook until golden brown (1 to 2 minutes), before flipping them over to colour the other side.
Remove dough from oil with a slotted spoon, and drain off excess oil on a paper towel.
Sprinkle with icing sugar.
Serve warm.

Bon app'!

Je suis désolée, mais il s'est avéré que la traduction me sape trop d'énergie. J'essaierai de me reprendre un peu plus tard, quand j'aurai la tête à ça.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Road Is Paved...

As I am typing these words, it is snowing outside. It's hard to believe that we are two weeks away from the official start of Spring. Yet, deep inside I am smiling: all is well, more snow is expected, meaning that my yearly snow-dump-sometime-around-my-birthday is back, after a two-year absence. I was practically holding my breath, crossing my fingers and toes that the world had not gone so completely askew that I would have to do without my birthday snowstorm. I'll take any sign that Mother Nature is still following her course. Even a few flakes.

March has definitely come in roaring like a lion, what with all the unrest and revolutions in the Middle East. I feel kind of silly writing about food and snow, whilst ignoring the turmoil. However, I will mention the subject because some of you must have heard how the events in Libya may affect future prices of food. It is the sad reality that our modern dependence on imported produce renders our food subject to price hikes due to the cost of fuel. The price of basic foods has already been steadily increasing over the past few years, because of disastrous crops; weather woes; financial meltdowns; and so many other events that are seemingly beyond our control.

Like large farms switching from food to cash crops for ethanol. I don't want to go into a political rant, but it makes my blood boil to think that perfectly good land is being used to produce car fuel instead of feeding living beings. Which is why I cannot stop stressing the importance of supporting small farmers, by buying local produce at farmers' markets (or even at the supermarket), through a CSA partnership, or through the purchase of fairly traded products. By supporting them, we give them the means to continue tending to the land.

Things to look for in March:
Local apples are usually available until early April, but I find that their quality starts to wane before then. Of course, my opinion is based on the fact that I prefer super crisp apples. It's a good time to stock up on apple sauce and other apple-y before they are gone for good. Chunks of peeled and cored apples can be frozen for smoothies and pies.

Beets, Endives, and other winter stalwarts
It never ceases to amaze me how farmers manage to produce such a beautiful array of vegetables that keep throughout the winter. Although, I know that many amongst us are starting to get antsy in anticipation of spring vegetables, let's sit still for a minute and think about this awesome notion: if we all made an effort, tweaked our eating habits a bit, we would be able to eat abundantly, and quite well, pretty much with nothing but local vegetables. (Fruits are another issue altogether...) Beets; rutabaga; turnips; onions; carrots; potatoes; endives will be around for a while yet, at least until the first outdoor greens arrives.

Maple Syrup
This delight is contingent on the spring thaw, so whether or not we will see the new harvest in March will depend on Mother Nature. However, if you feel up to dabbling in a little syrup making, you can probably start tapping your trees right away, up until the buds break. 
According to Euell Gibbons, many trees other than the sugar maple can be tapped to produce a delightful syrup. Birch syrup is actually quite lovely, if difficult to find. You will probably have to try your hand at sap collecting if you want to try it. By the way, Mr Gibbons' book Stalking the Wild Asparagus is an absolute must-have if you are at all interested in foraging for wild foods: he only writes about what is tasty, not merely edible, and gives recipes and tips on how to eat your wild crops. While the book contains precise drawings, you will also need a photographic guide to find your way around, Peterson Field Guides and the Audubon Society's guides are highly recommended.

Wild Treats
It doesn't quite feel like it where I live, but it is just about open season for foraging. If you are lucky enough to live in an area where the snow and ground has thawed -ambient temperatures aside- you can start digging for dandelion greens. You read right: dig for greens! I love dandelions, but I know that many do not like its bitterness. However, the immature leaf buds are a tasty, if somewhat messy, treat that can be harvested as soon as the ground has thawed out enough to root around in. Just look for bare spots in the lawn (left-over leaves from last year might still be hanging about), and start digging! The gnarly knot of unopened leaves is as mild as dandelions will ever get, and can be eaten raw in a salad or cooked in a bit of butter.
I obviously can't see through the snow, but I know that my stand of wild garlic is inching its way up.  Other wild foods are also making their move towards the light, so keep your eyes peeled: so many tasty bites are pushing their way up through the slush and mud, you just need to be around to harvest them.
One last word on foraging: don't think that you need to go to the countryside or even in the woods to reap a bushel of wilderness. Lots of wild things can be had even in cities, 'wild' simply refers to plants that have escaped cultivation.

Dates of Note
March 8 is International Women's Day, but also happens to be Mardi Gras this year. Why not put on a Fat Tuesday Feast for the women in your life this Tuesday?
March 24 is David Suzuki's 75th birthday! Surely a locally sourced toast for this eco-warrior par excellence is in order.
March 26 marks the fourth year of Earth Hour. Even though turning off the lights for one hour is a purely symbolic gesture, it is still a powerful gesture. While the Canadian government's lack of environmental action is despairing, my (and many other) local government has been a yearly participant in Earth Hour. These same local governments have also taken it upon themselves to green up their policies and practices. Perhaps yours will too.

Bon app'!

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