Hunger Awareness Week: Slow cooker borscht.

Food bank use in Canada is 25 per cent higher now than it was before the first recession hit in 2008. One of the reasons for this is that many typically reliable or well-paid jobs, especially blue-collar jobs, have disappeared. Another is that wages, especially for what blue-collar jobs or less skilled labour roles remain, have not increased with the cost of living. Particularly vulnerable populations, such as the elderly or those on disability, have also been affected by inflation and corresponding lack of increase in benefits. In addition to providing emergency food hampers, many food banks provide additional services.

People who turn to food banks often need other types of assistance. Food banks have responded and many now provide advocacy and supports such as:

  • providing skills training such as food preparation skills,
    helping people to search for jobs and transition into employment,
  • raising community awareness about hunger and poverty,
  • assisting with the search for safe, affordable housing,
  • helping people find good quality, affordable child care,
  • providing referrals to other social agencies and support services.
    (Source: Food Banking in Canada)

One of the major barriers to cooking healthy meals at home is time. The logistics of poverty are often time-consuming, particularly as the cost of living in urban centres increases; to afford housing, people often live a long way from where they work or from the services they need to access. Many people rely on public transportation which, particularly in Vancouver, is only reliable in urban centres; the farther you get from the city, the bigger a hassle it can be to get to where you need to go on public transit.

Spending all day in transit can sap the enthusiasm for dinner-making from even the most devoted home-cook. The allure of convenience foods is strongest in those moments when even a pantry meal feels impossible, particularly when you need to feed other people (especially small children, who are not known for their patience or empathy).

For people who are pressed for time, crock pot recipes can be a life-saver. You can purchase an inexpensive, good quality slow cooker at department stores, but you can also find gently used slow-cookers online for pretty reasonable prices on sites like Craigslist or Kijiji. Mine holds about six quarts, which I find handy as it makes enough for dinner and for leftovers, which I can freeze or take to work for lunch.

The following recipe for a slow-cooker borscht is ideal for people for whom time is in short supply. I like to brown the meat and assemble the ingredients the night before, then put everything in the cooker in the morning before I head out the door.

It’s warming and hearty, and it makes generous use of inexpensive but nutrient-dense vegetables like beets, carrots and cabbage. And it makes a lot of it, so you can pack it into containers and reheat it whenever you need a bowl of something warm. Use cheap cuts of beef, like chuck, shank, or brisket, or omit the meat entirely (in that case, just add the butter straight to the Crock Pot).

Slow-cooker borscht

(Makes six servings.)

  • 3 tbsp. butter
  • 1 lb. cubed stewing beef (such as chuck or brisket) or beef shank
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 2 lbs. beets, peeled, trimmed and diced
  • 1 lb. waxy potatoes, such as red or Yukon Gold, diced
  • 4 carrots, peeled and cut into one-inch pieces
  • 1/2 small head of red cabbage, cored and thinly sliced
  • 7 garlic cloves, divided
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 5.5-oz. (128 mL) can tomato paste
  • 2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar, divided
  • 1 tbsp. coarse salt
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • Sour cream and fresh or dried dill, to garnish

Melt butter over medium-high heat and add beef. Brown on all sides, and then pour into the slow cooker.scraping the pan as you do so as not to waste any of those good flavours.

Add onions, beets, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, and six smashed garlic cloves to the cooker. Add the bay leaf.

In a large bowl, whisk together the tomato paste, one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar, salt, pepper, and six cups of water. Pour this mixture over beef-and-veggie mixture.

Cook for eight to 10 hours over low heat.

Before serving, mince remaining clove of garlic and add the remaining tablespoon of apple cider vinegar. If using beef shank, remove meat from pot and shred it off the bone using the tines of a fork, then return meat to the pot and discard bones. Taste, adjusting seasonings as needed.

Serve with toasted bread and a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of dill.

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