Saffron milk.

Saffron milk

My friend Seti says that to “activate” saffron, you grind a little bit of it with a pinch of sugar, then steep it in hot water until the colour deepens. Then you can use the liquid whenever you make rice, or whatever you want to make taste like saffron. She brought me saffron back home with her from Iran, and this is the first saffron that has gone instantly yellow for me, like tiny droplets of yellow food colouring but fragrant. The Trader Joe’s stuff now seems like orange sawdust in a little jar, six dollars for nothing and I’ve got eighteen US dollars’ worth.

It seemed like it was worth a lot more before I knew how well saffron could bloom, and how little of it you’d have to use if you used the good stuff. Everything is fine until you learn there’s something better. Maybe I should have ground the Trader Joe’s stuff down with a bit of sugar. I didn’t know how well that could work.

We’ve finished our first full week of Kindergarten even though I am pretty sure this just happened, but what do I know? On the first day, that just-recently-a-baby and I stopped at Starbucks for hot chocolate on the way in, both of us chattering all the way about the things we’re looking forward to: reading books, writing books, fighting bad guys, flying on planes, and getting big enough for bigger adventures.

I took this week off of work, partly because I wanted to concentrate on a bit of writing in a quiet apartment for once, but mostly because we have yet to sort out the details around Kindergarten drop-off and pick-up, and because the teachers ease the kids into school, gradually increasing the number of hours they’re in the classroom until they get to a full day, even the daycare kids for whom “full days” have always meant days longer than our work-days. “Gradual entry should be optional!” I exclaim to everyone but also no one in particular. I am talking to myself.

So I’ve been walking two little boys to Kindergarten, mine and his friend who are a month apart in age and who is like a cousin or brother because they’ve been together, always for long days, since they were barely sentient. We cut through a park and on the way we stop at a pond and look at the ducks, and then they pick things up off the ground that I ask them not to, and then I shout at them for throwing things at the ducks.

I listen to the other moms with their sweet, calm voices around their children who are surely as infuriating as mine is, as I think most children can be, and I practice their tones but when I do it, it always comes off a little condescending. In the yellow light that tints these fall mornings, both kids sort of glow, their fair hair almost ginger, the bright colours of their little boy clothes somehow over-saturated. I try not to talk too much.

“Stop throwing crap at the ducks!” I have already come down with a cold.

To make saffron milk, take a pinch of saffron, just what you can grab with the tips of your thumb and forefinger, and grind it into your palm with the thumb of your other hand until the strands crumble into little pieces. Good saffron has a smell a little bit like sweet pepper, and reminds me a bit of anise, not because of its fragrance but because of the way both are sweet and bitter at the same time.

Saffron milk is an old-fashioned Dutch cold remedy, though the Dutch had trading posts in India for over 200 years so it’s likely that merchants there were influenced by Ayurveda and the medicinal use of saffron milk to improve sleep, reduce inflammation, and to strengthen the baby’s heart during pregnancy.

Dutch mothers are said to be patient people. I like the idea that someone has figured out parenting and is doing it right, somewhere. It makes me feel like anyone could do it.

Add your bits of saffron to a saucepan with a cup and a half or so of milk, and about a teaspoon of honey. Natural health proponents suggest drinking warm milk and honey as a sleep aid, as both are sources of tryptophan. What science says about this is kind of a downer, of course, but there is something soothing about a warm mug in your hands nevertheless.

Bring the milk to a boil over medium heat, whisking quickly for maximum frothiness. Remove the pot from the heat, and pour the whole thing into a mug or two teacups. It makes about twelve ounces, or the amount of a tall Starbucks latte. This is enough for one or two people.

When you sip your saffron milk, do so with your eyes closed. Think about little golden boys, and the way they shine now, the way they are like sunflowers stretching toward the yellow morning light. Do not think about those blue shadows stretching out behind them, where you stand, fretting, worrying about the time. They call out to the ducks, and the ducks swim away faster as their voices rise to be heard.

“Come on, boys. We have to go,” you say. And you hurry them along.

saffron_milk

 

General Tso’s Chicken + Cookbook Giveaway

I have been kind of obsessed with General Tso’s Chicken since last spring, when I sat in my dark living room and watched The Search for General Tso on Netflix, and on an empty stomach. I think General Tso’s is the kind of thing that is a phenomenon in the US; in Canada we have our own interpretation of “Chinese food” – did you know that Ginger Beef was invented in Calgary, Alberta? Anyway, it looked delicious and I needed to get into it right away. I wish I could see people doing yoga and react with the same sense of urgency.

General Tso’s Chicken is not served at dim sum, which is how we most often enjoy Chinese cuisine, and though it appears on the occasional take-out menu, it’s never in the combos (we’re a Dinner for 2 B family, with its chicken chow mein and red saucy sweet-and-sour pork). For too long, there was no opportune time to get to know the General. No time, that is, until this past Saturday.

Thanks to Food Bloggers of Canada and Clarkson Potter, I was offered the opportunity to review a copy of food writer Kian Lam Kho‘s cookbook, Phoenix Claws and Jade TreesIn order to fulfill my part of the deal, I was tasked with preparing a dinner with a few of the dishes from the book. To get a sense of the variety of recipes, I read the whole thing in a single evening, shouting excitedly at Nick about all the wonderful things we would get to have once he cleaned the kitchen and figured out how to get me eight pounds of nontoxic pottery clay (Beggar’s Chicken, page 314).

This book is beautiful. The writing is clear and well-paced; the photos are stunning and often demonstrate multiple steps in a single collage. Everything about it says “cooking Chinese cuisine unlike anything you’ve seen on a North American take-away menu is easy and fun and you should do it right now. Right now!” And while I can’t speak to the ease of obtaining the ingredients just anywhere, in Vancouver it was only as challenging as deciding which T&T to go to (Renfrew & 1st Avenue won out – free parking).

Within an hour, I had gathered all of the ingredients to prepare six recipes from the book for a Mid-Autumn Festival feast for three friends. The ingredients were very affordable. I think I spent $53 on the entire meal (including a very cheap and sort of embarrassing rosé), and we had leftovers for two days.

We had:

  • General Tso’s Chicken (page 174, recipe below)
  • Red Cooked Lion’s Head, a braised pork meatball with water chestnuts and greens (page 198)
  • Mapo Tofu,  a mix of beef and tofu with chili paste and fermented beans (page 211)
  • Black vinegar and garlic vinaigrette (page 327 served over steamed yu choy that I had chilled before serving)
  • Cucumber salad with garlic (page 336)
  • Spicy lotus root salad with Szechuan pepper, chilies and cilantro (page 338)

There were so many intriguing dishes in this book, and a good mix of challenging dishes to prepare when you’ve got the time and quick, straightforward recipes you could make on a weeknight or for company.

The best thing about this book, at least for me, is that most of the recipes are designed to make two servings: this way, I can make enough for Nick and I for a weekend lunch or weeknight dinner, or make a dinner party of multiple dishes without going overboard on quantity. I also love that so many of the dishes are so inexpensive to make; the Mapo Tofu, for example, called for a quarter-pound of ground beef and two dollars’ worth of tofu.

Once you build a pantry of some of the book’s more frequently used ingredients, you can make the recipes quickly and cheaply. I’ve already used the Szechuan chili paste from the Mapo Tofu twice more since Saturday. It brings boring old steamed broccoli or scrambled eggs to LIFE.

My dinner guests were split on their favourites – one liked the Red Cooked Lion’s Head: “I’ve never had this dish before,” she said, “but the flavour reminds me of something similar I might have eaten as a child.” Another was quite keen on the black vinegar and garlic dressing, which I’ll agree is incredible, especially for how simple it is.

I fell in love with the Mapo Tofu, a dish I have been fond of for my whole life in Vancouver – this version was so simple, but so perfectly spicy and salty and balanced. And General Tso’s Chicken? It’s not too sweet, with a lot of garlic and a little bit of vinegar and heat: in short, it’s everything I hoped it would be.

General Tso’s Chicken

Makes two servings.

Marinade

  • 2 tbsp. Shaoxing cooking wine
  • 1 large egg white
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. ground white pepper
  • 1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 3/4-inch cubes

Sauce

  • 3/4 cup chicken stock or water
  • 1/4 cup Shaoxing cooking wine
  • 2 tbsp. Chinkiang black vinegar
  • 1 tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1 tsp. hoisin sauce
  • 2 tbsp. tapioca starch
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 4 cups vegetable oil
  • 3/4 cup tapioca starch
  • 3 tbsp. minced garlic
  • 1 tbsp. minced fresh ginger
  • 1/4 cup dried red chilies
  • 1 tbsp. roasted sesame oil
  • 1 tsp. sesame seeds, toasted
  • 2 tbsp. thinly sliced scallion greens

In a medium bowl, whisk together marinade ingredients. Add the chicken cubes, and, using your hands, work the marinade into the meat so that all pieces are well-coated. Set aside for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix sauce ingredients together in another bowl. Set this aside too.

Put the tapioca starch into a bowl.

In a wok or Dutch oven, heat the vegetable oil to 375°F, or until it shimmers. Dredge the chicken pieces through the tapioca starch until well-coated. Working in batches, fry chicken pieces in the hot oil until golden brown, four to five minutes. Remove chicken with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with paper towels.

Pour off all but two tablespoons of the cooking oil, then return your wok or pot to the stove and add the garlic and ginger, cooking for about 30 seconds; do not let these burn. Add the chilies and cook for another 30 seconds. Give the sauce mixture a quick stir, then add this to the wok or pot and cook for about a minute, until the sauce has thickened. Return the chicken to the wok or pot and toss the pieces in the sauce. Add the sesame oil, then toss again.

Garnish with sesame seeds and scallions. Serve with rice and a cold salad.

The giveaway

To win a copy of Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees from Clarkson Potter, leave a comment below describing your favourite Chinese dish. You can leave comments until 11:59 PST on October 2; on October 3, I’ll put all the names in a hat and draw a winner. The winner will be notified by email on October 3.

Please note that this giveaway is for Canadian readers only; watch redcook.net after September 14 for information on giveaways for American readers.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for free. However, I really like the book and would buy it for myself if it wasn’t offered to me first. No one pays me money for my opinions, which is probably for the best.

Aruba: One Happy Island.

We took a break this summer, from almost everything. I’ve been plugging away at a proposal for my next project, and it’s mostly done (except for all the second-guessing and self-doubt and despair); the rest was just reading and cooking and working on some new recipes. And though we couldn’t/still can’t really afford it, we escaped for a couple of weeks to Aruba to give the kidlet a vacation and do a bit of culinary research.

It might be the best thing we’ve ever done, because it might have been the most necessary thing we’ve ever done. The brain needs breaks, stretches of passivity where it just takes stuff in and doesn’t critique or react. I have spent so long critiquing and reacting, managing the busyness of just being an adult in 2016. I know that we are not supposed to talk about being busy, because busyness is a sign that we’ve failed to set our priorities or manage our time or some fixable thing, but I am in that stage of life where this is how it is. And so we wandered around Aruba, tanning our skin, filling our bellies, and resting our brains.

Now, I am no expert, having only been once to Aruba and only recently. But I have fielded enough questions about this wonderful place that I thought perhaps you might be interested in what we did and ate and saw. With a grain of salt, as always, here is my perspective.

Where we stayed

We stayed in Noord, in the Del Ray Apartments, which was just far enough from the stretch of tower hotels around Palm Beach and the port at Oranjestad – it was quiet, there were grocery stores and locally owned restaurants nearby, and it was dark at night with no noisy tourists outside. The best thing about Aruba is the wind: it is very windy, so that there is not very much noise. If your hair is like mine, it will look just awful all of the time, but if I’m being honest it never looks all that great anyway. The wind is nice. It cools when it’s very hot, and it’s consistently very hot there as it is pretty much a desert. There are cacti.

We wanted something with a kitchenette to cook breakfast or fry croquettes, and some privacy so that we’d have evenings to ourselves once the little one was in bed, and it was perfect for us. There was a pool, and it was clean, and the people who worked there were nice, even arranging a rental car for us when we decided it was time to drive off and explore. Renting a car was inexpensive. We were the only Canadians, and there were no Americans – lots of Spanish-speaking South American and Dutch-speaking European families. In short, it was nice to meet people from new places and try to plow through the language barrier to find out what they were planning to eat, see and do on the island.

There are all-inclusive hotels, if you prefer that sort of vacation, but the island is safe and small enough that you can explore most of it in not too long and you should. There’s so much more to it than just the hotel strips (and the food is much better away from there anyway).

What we ateAt Zeerovers

My favourite thing to do anyplace is go to the local supermarket and buy everything interesting or different, and so we did that. Aruba is part of the set of islands that comprise the Dutch Caribbean, and so there were wonderful Dutch cheeses and meats to select from the deli, and croquettes and bitterballen in an astonishing variety of flavours from the freezer section. They had European yogurts, American junk food, Indonesian spices, South American produce and the freshest, most wonderful local seafood. Aruba itself doesn’t have much of an agriculture industry (again, desert), but the seafood is impeccable. If you can stay somewhere with a barbecue, pick up some of their big fat shrimp and grill them whole; marinate a red onion in a bit of vinegar to serve alongside and you’ll never eat better.

ZeeroversThe fish counter at Super Food Plaza in Noord offered freshly fried local fish and cold Balashi beer – do not pass that up. Zeerovers in Savaneta was another favourite – buy your seafood by the pound, order every side dish, and feed your shrimp shells to the gulls and the fish in the water below the pier.

Some of the highlights were a mix of Dutch favourites and local specialties; one thing I can’t stop thinking of was the keeshi yena we ordered at The Old Cunucu House. Keeshi yena is a local creole dish of chicken stuffed cheese. The chicken is stewed with spices, capers, dried fruit, and cashews, then spooned into a dish lined with strips of Gouda, then covered and baked until the cheese is melty.

Od CunucuWe visited Bright Bakery a few times for pastechis (a local, empanada-like pastry), fish croquettes, and sweets. My favourite pastechi was the “chop soy” version filled with cabbage, onions, and shredded chicken. The cheese balls – actual deep fried balls of cheese – were magical, and the macaroons were heaps of toasted coconut in a puddle of brown sugar, butter and cinnamon.

We were driving one day and smelled Fermins BBQ from the car – we followed our noses were not disappointed. The prices were good, the chicken was smoky and delicious, and the ribs were excellent. More cold beer. Endless cold beer.

Lindas Dutch PancakesFor the little one, Linda’s Dutch Pancakes & Pizzas was perfect – I don’t want to admit to how many chocolate-covered pannekoeken he ate; the sandwiches made a cheap, filling lunch.

Restaurant Indo offered Indo-Surinamese cuisine, with a particularly impressive rijsttafel, a Dutch feast via Indonesia where many small dishes are served with rice and condiments. Order the rijsttafel and add chicken liver sambal – it’s small, so get two if there’s more than a couple of you dining. Even if it seems like a lot of food, don’t miss out on bara, savoury Surinamese doughnuts made with split black lentils and Indian spices and served with chutney.

There are innumerable Chinese restaurants that also happen to be bars – it Rijsttafelwould have been a very different trip if we were child-free, so if you’re curious, don’t hesitate to stop in. We visited one and were delighted to find our food came with a bottle of mayonnaise (probably for the Dutch). Nick ordered roast chicken, and it came with what we thought was gravy but actually turned out to be a warm, thin peanut sauce that was surprising and hard to stop dipping my finger into. We might have preferred to stick around for rum drinks afterward, but travelling with a four-year-old is not conducive to enjoying cocktails late into the night.

If you’re driving, there are loads of little snack stands – they sell a range of things, from sandwiches and pastries to fruit smoothies and cold drinks, but they’re worth checking out if you’re thinking you’d like a bite to eat and want to avoid the usual fast food chains.

Fermins BBQ

What we loved

IMG_3889Arashi beach. Spotting herds of wild goats just, like, chilling wherever. Feeding one particularly obstinate donkey at the donkey sanctuary. Feeding the Shetland pony at Philip’s Animal Garden. Feeding the fish at Zeerovers. Icy rum and tonics on the balcony at our hotel after an early purple sunset. Iguanas! Eavesdropping on American conversations at Palm Beach, where we pretended we were guests of the Holiday Inn so we could use their deck chairs and towels and order buckets of Balashi to where we sat. The colourful houses, especially in Savaneta and San Nicolas. Frozen blue cocktails. The platter of Dutch deep-fried snacks at The Paddock in Oranjestad our first afternoon in Aruba.

Aruba offered us a reasonably priced getaway (summer is off-season for the island), and a trip that was family friendly, totally relaxing, and exactly what we needed. If you go, let me know – I’ll insist you pick me up a couple of boxes of hagelslag and some fancy aloe vera.

I’m already ready to go back.

Aruba - landscape

Tempeh with tomatoes and eggplant.

tempeh with tomatoes and eggplant

If you like ratatouille, I think you’ll be into this. It’s got all that deep tomato flavour, but with a touch of smoke and a bit more texture, thanks to the tempeh, and the flavours are sweet and sour and spicy all at once. It also comes together in about half an hour, so it is in many ways a perfect cloudy summer day dish, nourishing and flavourful but not a huge pain in the ass to pull together on a weeknight.

Tempeh is a fermented soy product that originated in Indonesia, where it’s very popular in Bali – the soybeans are bound together by a mold that sort of resembles the white rind on a wheel of brie. It’s a living food that’s very high in protein and fibre, and it’s got a mild flavour and firm texture that has allowed me to pass it off as chicken nuggets to some of our less discerning family members. Tempeh is often found near the tofu in the market; if you can’t find it, you can use extra firm tofu.

If you’re in Vancouver, check out Tempea Foods tempeh, which is made locally and often available at the Vancouver Farmer’s Markets. I am in love with this product (I don’t get paid to say that, so it’s earnest).

For the recipe that follows, if you’re not able to find tamarind paste, use cooking molasses. If you’re not able to find lime leaves, use the zest and juice of an additional lime. Look for fresh lime leaves in Asian grocery stores or in the Asian ingredients section of your market’s produce section; you can often find dried or frozen lime leaves in Asian markets as well.

An aside: Why The Name ‘Kaffir Lime’ Is Wildly Offensive To Many.

IMG_6540Tempeh with tomatoes and eggplant

(Makes four servings.)

  • 3 tbsp. canola or vegetable oil, divided
  • 2 shallots, roughly chopped
  • 6 garlic gloves
  • 1″ (2.5 cm) piece ginger, peeled and sliced
  • 1 stalk lemongrass
  • 3 tbsp. brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp. sambal oelek
  • 1 tbsp. tamarind paste
  • 1 tbsp. fish sauce
  • 1 tsp. ground turmeric
  • 1 lime leaf
  • Zest and juice one one lime
  • 7 oz. (200 g) block tempeh, cut into inch-wide squares
  • 1/2 lb. (225 g) Japanese eggplant, halved lengthwise and cut into inch-wide pieces
  • 1 1/2 lbs. (680 g)  tomatoes, quartered lengthwise and then widthwise into 8 pieces
  • 1 tsp. coarse salt
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup toasted cashews
  • Finely chopped scallions, for garnish

Heat one tablespoon of oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add the shallots, garlic, ginger, and lemongrass, and cook – stirring occasionally – until browned and slightly charred in places, about three minutes. Pour this mixture into a blender.

To the blender, add brown sugar, sambal oelek, tamarind paste or molasses, fish sauce, ground turmeric, lime leaf (if using), and lime zest and juice. Blend until pureed. Set aside.

Add the pan back to medium-high heat and add another tablespoon of oil.

Cook the tempeh for about two minutes per side, until browned and charred in places. Remove tempeh to a plate lined with paper towel.

Add the final tablespoon of oil to the pan. Cook the eggplant in a manner similar to the tempeh – until browned and charred in bits. Another two minutes.

Add the tomatoes to the pan, and add the tempeh back. Reduce heat to medium. Add the reserved blender mixture. Add salt and pepper. Stir the mixture together and cook – stirring occasionally – until the tomatoes and eggplant have expressed most of their liquid and the sauce has thickened, another 10 to 12 minutes. The mixture should resemble a chunky tomato sauce.

Stir cashews into the pan, and then sprinkle with scallions. Serve over rice.

 

 

Rhubarb sauce with rosemary.

My parents have always had a rhubarb plant in the backyard; I think the plant originated with my grandparents, but I can’t be sure. I like the idea that it might have, but it could just as easily have come from Art Knapp’s Plantland, a nursery we’d sometimes go to where you could ride in golf carts to pick up infant cherry trees and the stubby shrubs that divided every suburban home from the one beside it.

We always had rhubarb pie, rhubarb crisp, rhubarb and dumplings, and, if we were lucky, rhubarb sauce, which was best over vanilla ice cream, but also worked pretty well as a pancake topping.

I don’t know why we had rhubarb; it’s not an easy fruit to feed to kids, and yet I recall eating it from the beginning, or as close to the beginning as I’m able to remember. It’s sour and stringy, and some years are worse than others, but every spring it turned up in my mom’s pots and pie plates, sweetened with white sugar and apples, and sometimes with strawberries. It didn’t matter if the rhubarb wasn’t good that year – Mom just added more sugar. Maybe that’s what I saw in it?

There’s less rhubarb in my life now, as I can’t just pop into the back yard and pull a few stalks out of the garden as I need them, though I did scope out my mother-in-law’s plant on the weekend with moochy intent – it wasn’t ready. Now if I want rhubarb, I need to pay for it. Fortunately, they had it at the farmer’s market this past weekend. I didn’t buy quite enough for pie or cobbler or crisp, but I did grab enough to stew into sauce; this one is a little sweet, a little savoury, and great with rich, fatty Greek yogurt and a few flecks of black pepper and bee pollen, if you’re into that sort of thing.

The rosemary is what makes this; a little goes a long way, and the end result tastes the way spring feels, especially those first few warm rays of morning sunlight through your kitchen window after it’s rained for weeks and weeks.

Rhubarb sauce

(Makes about 2 cups.)

  • 1 lb. rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
  • 1/2 cup honey*
  • 1/2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1/4 tsp. ground black pepper

In a covered pot over medium-low heat, simmer rhubarb and honey for ten minutes, or until rhubarb has expelled most of its liquid.

Remove lid, and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, until sauce has thickened to the consistency you desire; I like a slightly chunky sauce.

Add rosemary and pepper, and simmer for a minute or two, and then spoon it into a jar and use as needed. Keeps for about a week in the fridge; if you end up making extra, it’s wonderful baked into muffins instead of applesauce.

*You may have to sweeten this to taste, depending on the rhubarb you get. Taste as you go, but keep in mind you may need up to 2/3 cup of sweetener per pound of rhubarb and this will vary from plant to plant and year to year. 

 

Maggi meatball soup.

Maggi meatball soup started out as “groentesoep met balletjes,” or Dutch vegetable soup with meatballs, which I guess it still kind of is? It kind of is. Maggi, the shorthand name for Maggi-Würze, is a sweet, soy-based seasoning sauce Dutch people (and not just Nick) use in abundance, whether a dish needs it or not. It’s actually a rather international thing – Maggi sauce spans continents, and is used everywhere from the Netherlands to the Philippines, from Germany to Pakistan. It’s sweet, very salty, and keeps forever without needing to be refrigerated, and it’s great for seasoning meatballs.

This soup is somewhere between Italian Wedding and plain old chicken soup, with soft, tender meatballs, noodles and veggies in a clear chicken broth. If you are like my mother-in-law, you would serve this with soft, buttered buns and thin slices of deli ham and Gouda; if you are like me, you will retrieve half a loaf of grocery store garlic bread from the depths of your freezer and then burn it under your broiler while you eat half a bag of pre-dinner chips and lose 15 minutes Googling Maggi’s origin story. If you are like my four-year-old, you will drown three handfuls of goldfish crackers in the broth and claim it is too hot to eat long after your small bowl of soup has gone cold.

Anyway, this is good with whatever you want to serve it with, but it’s best with soft white bread in some fashion.

IMG_1872Maggi meatball soup

Meatballs:

  • 1/2 lb. extra lean ground beef
  • 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tbsp. Maggi seasoning sauce
  • 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped

Soup:

  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 carrots, quartered lengthwise and then chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, quartered lengthwise and then chopped
  • 1 shallot, chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 2 tsp. coarse salt
  • 2 tsp. yellow curry powder
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 6 cups low-sodium or homemade chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup fine egg noodles
  • 1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves, roughly chopped

In a large bowl and using your hands, mush together meatball ingredients until well mixed. Form meatballs about half an inch (1.25 cm) in diameter; you should end up with about 40. Set these aside.

In a large pot over medium-high heat, add oil, carrots, celery, shallot, and garlic, and cook for about two minutes, until colours have brightened and everything’s coated in oil. Add salt, curry powder, and the bay leaf, and cook for another minute or two, until the curry is fragrant and starting to stick a little bit to the bottom of the pot. Add stock.

Bring the pot of soup to a boil, then reduce heat to medium. Drop the meatballs into the pot, stirring gently, and let these simmer for 10 minutes.

Add egg noodles,. and cook for another five minutes or until noodles are al denté.

Taste the soup. Adjust salt to taste. Add lemon juice, and parsley, remove the bay leaf, and then serve.

The cheap person’s guide to the farmers market.

I’ve given a couple of talks lately about farmers markets and how to shop for local, organic produce on a budget – here’s the gist of it, or (more realistically) the bulk of it, since I tend to wander off on tangents and forget myself and my main points midway through every presentation.

From June to part-way through October, there’s a farmers market a short walk from my building, conveniently beside two playgrounds, and they have coffee. Last year, after the market’s pilot year but before its second, my neighbours and I in Mount Pleasant wrote letters to the Vancouver Farmers Market and the city asking to have it return, emphasizing its value. The market came back, and it will come back for a third year this spring.

Living in a (sometimes unfriendly) city means that we don’t always engage with our community or interact with our neighbours in positive, mutually gratifying ways: people are annoying and stinky and inconvenient because we’re all, often, annoying and stinky and inconvenient to each other. We’re not forced to see or hear each other, because cities are busy and people are anonymous and everyone’s just trying to get going or get home.

The benefit of city living, for me, is that my world is simultaneously very big and very small. I have everything I need, but I never have to leave my neighbourhood. The farmers market, then, is less about an errand and more community interaction.

I still buy some of my food, mostly produce, at the farmers market.

This may seem counterintuitive, or at the very least … off-brand? But I think it’s important for people to know that even if you’re on a budget, you can still go to your local farmers market.

Here’s how.

Be ruthless, and do not waver

I take a different approach to my farmer’s market shopping than my regular grocery shopping: I have a firm budget (in cash), but no plan. I like to see what’s available, what’s new and in season, and what’s interesting and sort of create a strategy around that. So, for example, if I have $20 and I see some good-looking greens, some heirloom tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, or something interesting I haven’t thought about in a while like kohlrabi or parnsips, I’ll pick them up and then plan my meals for the week around what I buy at the market and supplement with pantry items or staples I always have on hand. But I don’t exceed my budget, no matter how pretty the other produce is.

Being firm on dollars can be tricky because it’s so hard to turn stuff down. Everything is so beautiful and fresh and alluring – you just want to take it all home with you! At least, this is my problem – I’m basically a bear two weeks before hibernation, but all the time.

Bringing a finite amount of cash also makes me really think about what I can or will use – there’s no sense buying anything you’re going to end up throwing out. Be honest with yourself: even if the turnips are beautiful, does your family like them? Are they just going to go soft in your crisper, and then get tossed? We must all acknowledge that sometimes our loved ones will disappoint us.

Look at my eggplants. (Eggplants is not a euphemism.)

A photo posted by Emily Wight (@emvandee) on

 Look for bargains

Are you able to use what you buy right away? Some vendors will have bruised or otherwise priced-for-immediate-sale produce – if you’re ready to can, freeze or eat the produce right away, there’s great value to be found here.

A risky move that sometimes pays off? Head to the market in the 30 minutes or so before it wraps up for the day. Some vendors aren’t booked to sell at other markets that week, and they’ll want to get rid of what they have rather than drive it back home. Sometimes there will not be much left, but sometimes you’ll get a deal, especially on things like greens, herbs, and soft fruits that don’t keep well.

The best way to open yourself up to deals is to be willing to try anything. You may not find a good deal on the most popular items – the heirloom tomatoes, the berries, the stone fruit – but you may be able to get a pretty decent price on something less widely desired, especially root veggies, hardy greens, and some melons.

Treat produce the way you’d treat costlier protein.

It’s true, a single bunch of carrots priced at $3.99 seems like a lot; farmer’s market pricing can be a turn-off for a lot of people. Remember the cauliflower fiasco? Sometimes it does seem a bit ridiculous that these things should cost so much, but it’s also weird that we don’t regard produce more highly.

It’s true that I buy less when produce is expensive, but I also do more with it. You can roast carrots in a low oven for about an hour and they’ll turn meaty. You can make cauliflower a main dish with a bit of pasta, a simple lemon-butter sauce and a handful of nuts. Look at farmer’s market produce as the kind of thing you’d build a meal around, and treat it like steak – only buy what you will definitely use, and then cook it with care.

You wouldn’t leave a roast in the fridge to wither and die and then throw it out – think about produce the same way. You’ll eat more, and waste less.

(If your produce does manage to wither, don’t throw it out! Make stock. Even if you freeze your limp veggies for later.)

Keep your fridge and cupboards stocked with cheap staples

According to the UN, 2016 is the year of the pulse – as such, it’s definitely a good time to stock up on things like lentils, chickpeas and other legumes, many of which we grow in Canada and North America. These will stretch your produce a lot further when you combine them in salads, curries and stews, and even pastas.

I also like to make sure I have a good variety grains (noodles, rice, etc.) and proteins on hand – local tofu, canned fish, seeds and nuts, and cured meats that add a lot of flavour but that you can use sparingly and at a low cost. I’m also a big believer in flavourful condiments; steamed broccoli is steamed broccoli, but steamed broccoli tossed with a chili oil and some fermented black beans or hoisin sauce? Now your broccoli is the star of your plate. Add a few chickpeas and a generous scoop of rice? Yes.

Ask questions

What issues matter to you? Do you care if fruit is organic or GMO-free or picked by people who are paid a living wage? Ask about that stuff. I like to know where the farm is, when they picked the produce, who picked the produce. If I find someone I like, I ask whether they offer bulk buying programs like CSAs. On the rare occasion I’m looking for something in particular, I ask them if they’ll have it and when I can expect it.

What else should you ask about? Find out what the vendor would be buying and turning into dinner this weekend and this week. If you see something interesting and you’re not sure what to do with it – ask!

The people who grow ingredients often have some pretty good recipes as well. This is my favourite way to maximize my dollar and keep from getting stuck buying the same old things. The best thing about the farmers market is getting to talk to the actual producer. There are no stupid questions at the farmers market!

I win for biggest beet.

A photo posted by Emily Wight (@emvandee) on

Don’t just go for produce

The farmers market is a great place to check out meat producers and local fisheries. If you’re limiting your meat consumption, this is the easiest way to find ethically sourced animal protein; just keep in mind you may blow your whole $20 on a couple of small items.

However. The farmers market is often a gateway to a whole new world of cheaper good quality animal proteins; check out the bulk buying programs the meat vendors offer, or the community supported fishery shares your local fishmonger might have available. By committing to a relationship with a vendor for a larger purchase or a season (or more), you may find that costs will be lower once you get away from day-of-market pricing.

This approach assumes you’ll have the money up-front. If you don’t, and this is something you want to do, head to the market and get a sense of pricing, then grab contact info for later on. You may be able to purchase larger quantities later in the year, once you’re better able to afford or store it.

An aside: We really have to do better in the way that we talk about food and farmers markets.

For some people, the farmers market will seem or will really be impossible, for any number of reasons. Some places don’t have farmers markets, especially not in all seasons. Some people work on weekends and can’t get to them. For some people it’s not simply a matter of budgeting – for some people, the budget is inflexible and must stretch a lot farther in places where fresh produce is expensive, and sometimes planning a meal around some fancy carrots is a tall order.

Often, the way that we talk about food and farmers markets and how anybody should spend their money ignores the realities of a lot more people than we realize, and in turn alienates them. It’s hard to care if that head of cabbage is organic when you’re not sure if you’ve got bus fare for the week ahead; better to buy the cheaper cabbage than to not buy produce at all.

Food prices, quality and accessibility are political issues and, like all issues in our modern political landscape, they’re also very polarizing and people have a lot of opinions. On the one hand, you should be thoughtful about most of the food you’re putting into your body. On the other hand it’s just food, and food should never be exclusive.

Go to the farmers market because you want to, because it’s a thing that’s happening in the community you are a part of. If you buy one small bell pepper or bunch of Swiss chard – or nothing at all – it feels good to know what’s growing, and to talk to the people who grow the food we eat.

Look for farmers market associations in your area, and find out what they suggest in terms of shopping on a budget – different organizations may have different priorities, but I’ll bet most of them encourage their vendors to offer some items at a discount for people who have smaller budgets.

And if nothing else? Go for the coffee. It’s always good, no matter which one you go to.