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.
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.