Saoto.

CAT.I sat on the couch all day with my cat and season two of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, sick in the belly and the head, the latest victim of the illness that’s decimated my office this past week. I ate buttered saltines because we were out of bread for toast, and I was too lazy to put on pants and boots and go outside. I ate oranges, because I thought they’d make me feel better, but then I ate too many of them.

I’ve been tinkering with a version of a soup particular to two countries colonized by the Dutch, which happened to be the perfect soup for today, and for days like these when the rain is relentless and your playlist is just one feeling-sorry-for-self song after another and even Andy Samberg can’t break through the fog of flu season in your head. It’s from Suriname, though there’s something very similar (soto ayam) in Indonesia. It is often served with a bowl of rice on the side; if you’re serving more than four, a side of rice would stretch the dish to serve more people.

The simmering broth is fragrant and soothing, all ginger and citrus, with a floral touch from the coriander. The flavours reveal themselves in moments, like waves rolling in and then back, every bite a little bit different from the last but comforting all the same; it’s salty and briny and just a little bit sweet. It will fog up your windows and you will sweat when you eat it and you will feel better, but not heavy. It’s somewhere between a bowl of laksa and bowl of chicken noodle soup, and all the work is in the beginning, so you can spend the rest of the afternoon with your cat and Jake Peralta and your sad playlists.

Lemongrass and lime leaves freeze well, so when you find them, grab a whole bunch and keep them in your freezer for days like these.

Saoto soup from Suriname.Saoto

(Makes four servings.)

  • 1 large sweet onion, such as Walla Walla, halved
  • 1 head garlic, halved cross-wise
  • 3-inch knob of ginger, peeled and sliced
  • 3 tbsp. peanut or canola oil
  • 3 lbs. bone-in skin-on chicken thighs
  • 1 tbsp. coarse salt
  • 1 tbsp. coriander seeds
  • 2 tsp. cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp. black peppercorns
  • 6 fresh or frozen lime leaves
  • 2 stalks lemongrass, trimmed and halved lengthwise
  • 1 stalk celery, cut into three pieces
  • 3 tbsp. fish sauce
  • 14 oz. (398 mL) can coconut milk
  • 2 cups finely chopped green cabbage
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 lime, zest and juice
  • 1 tsp. ground turmeric
  • 4 thai bird or other hot chilies, finely chopped
  • 4 handfuls fresh bean sprouts
  • 2 scallions, finely chopped
  • 8 oz. rice vermicelli (about 1/2 package)
  • 4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and halved
  • Celery leaves
  • Sambal oelek or other chili paste

Heat your oven to broil. Place the onion, garlic, and ginger on a sheet pan, and place under the broiler until blackened in parts, about five minutes.

Meanwhile, salt chicken thighs. Heat oil in a Dutch oven or other large, heavy pot over medium-high heat. When oil shimmers, brown the thighs a few at a time. Drain the oil from the pot.

Heat a second burner. Over high heat, in a cast iron or other heavy pan, toast coriander seeds, cumin seeds, and peppercorns until browned and fragrant, tossing regularly, about three minutes. Set aside.

Cut a large square of two layers of cheesecloth, at least eight inches by eight inches. Onto this, place your lime leaves, lemongrass, celery pieces, charred onion, garlic and ginger, and toasted coriander, cumin and pepper. Fold the ends of the cheesecloth over, then roll the bundle tightly and secure with kitchen string.

Place the Dutch oven or heavy pot back on the heat, and add eight cups of cold water. Place the chicken thighs and spice bundle in the pot, add fish sauce, then partly cover. Reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer gently for two-and-a-half to three hours, occasionally skimming the top with a spoon. If it boils, remove the lid and reduce the heat; you want the broth to remain as clear as possible.

Remove chicken and spice bundle. Shred the chicken, discarding the skin and bones (you can make another stock out of the bones, if you’re feeling thrifty). Return the chicken to the pot with the coconut milk and cabbage. Bring heat up to medium, and simmer for up to five minutes, until cabbage is tender. Add lime juice and zest, and turmeric. Taste, adjusting the seasonings to your preference. Add cilantro.

Prepare vermicelli according to package instructions, then divide evenly between four large soup bowls. Add handfuls of bean sprouts and a sprinkle each of chilies and scallions. Ladle chicken and broth into bowls, then nestle two egg halves into each bowl of soup. Top with celery leaves and sambal oelek or other chili paste, and serve with quartered fresh lime and additional fish sauce.

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A cheap person’s guide to buying groceries in expensive times.

Hi, I'm unhinged.

If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s thinking the worst and preparing for disaster. I will overreact to the most non-threatening stimuli, which is what makes me such an excellent marriage partner, parent, and employee. The little one made Lego characters of our whole family from a kiosk in the mall, and mine is the only one who looks alarmed. “It looks just like you!” Thanks.

Depending where you live, groceries are going up for a variety of reasons. Here in Canada, we’re affected by a number of issues, including the California drought and our plummeting dollar. The symbol of the insanity that is our cost of groceries right now is the ten dollar cauliflower; this trendy ingredient is now more expensive than a cello-wrapped package of twelve chicken thighs, and people are pissed.

If you’re ordinarily a tense person and you’re on a budget, you may be inclined to panic.

BUT WAIT. DON’T. And let me tell you, if I am telling you not to panic, you should not.

“But Emily,” you might say. “I saw the Lego you. You look unhinged.” That is true, and generally an accurate depiction of me, but when we’re talking about groceries, a few things are also true.

Yes, many common ingredients are now very expensive and things seem bleak and terrible. As someone who always feels this way, let me reassure you: There are things you can do to get through the winter without blowing your budget or losing your mind.

Side note: There are also very good cook books you can buy to inspire you. Ahem.

Secondary side note: I have tips for the Farmer’s Market too, but I’ll save those for another day this week. Stay tuned.

Think about what’s in season locally

Right now, in British Columbia where I live, apples, cabbage, pears, rosemary, sage, turnips, and winter squash are all in season (source: BC Association of Farmer’s Markets). You can find lists of what is in season in your area online, or pop by your local Farmer’s Market and see what local folks are selling. Potatoes, onions, and carrots that have been in cold storage since the fall are also affordable, depending on where you shop.

Root vegetables, tubers, and squashes are all very reasonable in winter. They make excellent gratins, stews, and soups, which is what you need to be eating right now anyway. It’s cold outside. Squash soup will make you feel good.

Where you shop matters

If you learn nothing else from me, let it be that you should not buy all of your groceries in one place. Is that annoying and occasionally time consuming? Well, yeah. But so are most things in grown-up life, and at least if you have to go to four different places to buy groceries, you’ll earn yourself a long-term sense of what things should cost (or at least, what to never buy full price).

This is a fairly obvious point, but then you find yourself at Save-on-Foods not saving money on any foods and I hope at that moment you think to yourself “WHAT WOULD EMILY DO?” because what Emily would do is haul ass out of that supermarket post haste. I buy my produce at farm markets and A&L or Kim’s Market (both on Broadway in Vancouver) where the prices mean the food turns over quickly and is always fresh.

Convenience is expensive. So it goes.

Try something new

Okay, so lettuce is out of the question because it’s five dollars a head. You don’t get to have lettuce right now (it sucks, but spring is around the corner and then we’ll all eat butter lettuce until we burst). Try ong choy (sometimes labelled “water spinach”) or yu choy; these Chinese greens are abundant in Asian markets and generally very reasonable. Don’t know what to do with them? As a rule, anything stir fried with garlic and chilies or garlic and sesame oil is delicious; if you’re not convinced, check the Google.

Don’t have a market that sells Chinese greens nearby? Make something new out of something familiar – onions have many main-course applications, including soups, bread puddings, or egg dishes; celery can be braised, thinly sliced and served as a salad with green apples, or turned into soup. Carrots can do anything. Garlic? Surprisingly versatile.

Reconsider your meat budget

A lot of the same people complaining about the cost of vegetables are still happily serving meat as a main. I love meat, but I don’t love not having wine money, so we build meals that aren’t focused on protein a few nights a week and we’re surviving just fine, even the diabetic among us.

Tofu, canned fish, peanuts, eggs and pulses (chickpeas, lentils, split peas, beans) will fill your protein requirements in budget-friendly ways; the price of a bunch of broccoli is a lot easier to take once you toss a few costly proteins out of your cart. Some of the non-grain grains, like buckwheat and quinoa, are good sources of protein and are often pretty cheap in bulk or on sale.

Check your flyers and loyalty programs

I load apps (PC Plus, Shoppers Optimum, etc.) on my phone with coupons every Thursday or Friday to save on canned veggies and fish, condiments, and dairy products, which helps me plan my meals for the week around what’s on sale. If it’s not on sale, we don’t get to have it that week. There’s always something on sale, though. Always.

Check the freezer section

And the canned veggies section. There are usually deals to be had here, especially on store-brand products. What is the difference between No Name and regular frozen spinach? Price. Frozen and canned foods are more nutritious than fresh, out-of-season fruits and veggies in the produce section, which I told you to avoid anyway. Get away from there. Too expensive.

Make one dish

Partly because I’m lazy and partly because I have to feed a small child, I am not making multiple dishes on a weeknight. We will have a curry and a rice. Or a stew and some bread. Or a big pile of cheesy pasta with veggies hidden inside. But I am not making three things for a kid to reject and not eat. I only have the energy for one battle per night, and Nick handles tooth-brushing and pajamas.

Make one dish and stretch it. Are you making pasta? Add some chickpeas. Are you making fried rice? Shred some carrots and cabbage into it and fry up a couple of eggs. Make omelettes or a big frittata. Make a curry with squash or potatoes and dissolve some red lentils into it. Blend everything that’s wilting in your crisper into a creamy soup. Make one nutritious thing, and enough of it to make leftovers for lunch, and that’s plenty.

Especially in North America, we have this weird idea that we need to have a meat, a starch, a vegetable, and maybe a salad at every meal. This weird idea gives me hives. In my wallet.

Boost flavour with condiments

Try kimchi – it’s magical and probiotic and makes everything (including your poops) better. Mustard, hot sauce, fish sauce – these will elevate the humble potato or dollar bag of noodles into something worth serving to company and/or Instagramming. Condiments are cheap, used sparingly, and last forever in your fridge or pantry.

Anything with strong flavours will go a lot farther – I buy small amounts of aggressive cheeses, lots of canned oily fish (mackerel, herring, sardines), the occasional cured meat, interesting vinegars, and fresh herbs and put them with very modest ingredients, like eggs, frozen corn, stale bread, or canned tomatoes and dry pasta. I never run out of coconut milk, spices, pickles and capers, or olive oil. Bright-flavoured ingredients make even the simplest dish feel special.

Be adventurous

Now is as good a time as any to branch out and try something new, whether that new thing is a green vegetable you’ve never heard of or a total revamping of what you’re willing to consider a meal. Unless you’ve got specific marching orders from your doctor, the rules of dinner are flexible and up to you, and if you say that your family is having soup and grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner, well, I say they’ll probably love it.

We’ll get through this. We always do.

Do you have money-saving tips? Did I miss anything? Please tell me!

 

The Gallery.

His gross old chair.Note: I found this one in my backlog of TERRIBLE DRAFTS and thought this one was okay enough to not just delete outright. And now, even though it’s nearly a year old, I’m sharing it so it doesn’t die in the “kill your darlings” fire I intend to start in my drafts folder after my second glass of red this evening. (RIP Dry January. Who was I kidding anyway?)

Your place was a bar in the old Student Union Building, a place with sticky tables and floors that might never have been washed. It was renovated in 2012, long after you stopped going, but at 5:00 on a Friday on the last day of classes, the vinyl benches were all split open the way they’d always been.

You could always go back and find it just as you’d left it, more or less.

More, because it got dirtier and your table was more readily available as the place seemed less busy.

Less, because every year the patrons got younger, to the point where you couldn’t tell how old they were, because everyone under 22 looks 14 now. The beer was less cheap, and better tasting. They started putting art on the walls.

And maybe they always had art on the walls, but you wouldn’t have known that then because you were always looking for him in that chair by the railing where he’d sit, hunched over his beer. You never looked anywhere but at him, furtively, and then back down at your drink, or at your phone as you counted down to the very last moment you’d need to leave to get to class on time.

You’d meet him before class and then sometimes just not show up, and your grades were terrible then but you knew even then that no employer ever asks for your transcript. Student loans were paying and you were beholden to no one. You’d never be able to afford grad school anyway. And he was so cute.

IMG_0707The story of your life together began in that dank little bar, and every time they kicked you out you swirled right back the next day. It was like the place had a current and you got swept up in the swell.

Once you were done with that place you’d roll out together, like the tide. You’d go to Toronto, maybe. Montreal, for sure.

Instead, you took an administrative position on that same campus, and every time you’d walk by your old place on your way to get a bagel at lunchtime you’d look for him, hoping to see him in that chair.

Every year, hoping became less rational. He was at his own grown-up job, beholden to bosses and clients and other adults. You’d ask him to ditch it for the day, or to cut out early and meet you there, but he wouldn’t. He couldn’t. It was stupid to ask.

UBC Gallery LoungeEverything now is rent and daycare and earth tones and trying to remember to pay your phone bill on time. You’re not caught up in currents, now; you’ve drifted a long way upstream, to a place where the weeds grow so tall that sometimes it’s hard to see into the distance.

You went back for one last beer, and they checked your ID and looked in your purse before they’d let you in. “I’m so old,” you laughed as they did the math on your age. “It’s the last day of classes and we have to check everyone,” they said.

The student paper had said this place was closing because once the new student union building was built this place wouldn’t relocate – the furniture was too crappy, and this generation of students wanted a different kind of experience. Craft beer. Better food. The kind of thing you’d want too, most of the time. So The Gallery was dying.

You’ll be married seven years this year. You wonder if the end of this place is an omen. You think you hope it’s not.

The appeal of The Gallery and that time was that you never had to think too hard about any of it, those reckless days and nights you spent ignoring your better judgment and persuading him against his. You’d never have imagined you’d be sighing at him over his loud eating, or the unfolded laundry, or another broken mug “because can you maybe try being careful?”

IMG_0708They’d moved the tables around, so your spot didn’t really exist anymore but you still looked for him. You had texted him to say that you were going, hoping he’d be feeling sentimental enough to leave work early and join you. The tables were filthy, and the floors still so gross, and in every straightforward way it was as you remembered it. But in subtle ways your place was already gone.

There were no pizza bagels. You didn’t know the music they were playing. There seemed to be a lot of young men named Brody.

He wasn’t there.

Maybe it never was yours. You try to remember if it really was, or if it only became your place because you needed somewhere to house your ghosts. It’s a lot easier to leave your youth behind if you can feel like it’s still living on somewhere without you, and that you could visit it for a beer if you wanted on some rainy Friday afternoon.

Maybe what you remember is a feeling and you’d need to be 23 to feel it again. Twenty-three is much better in hindsight. You forget how often it felt like you were drowning.

You finish your beer and say goodbye, though you aren’t sure to what. You’ll think about that later. For a moment everything felt endless again and you could go anywhere. It wasn’t a strong current, but you let it take you home.

We used to be young.

 

Gezellig, and a spot of mustard.

Mosterdsoep (Dutch mustard soup)

January is always a month of catch-up, a chilly, cloudy month when all of a sudden the bills are bigger than you thought they’d be and the deadlines you ignored in December are here, now, with projects not as straightforward as you assumed they’d be when you hastily agreed to them during the holiday season’s drinky haze. January is uncomfortable, a time for confronting excesses of every kind, including enthusiasm. Which is why we need gezelligheid.

Gezellig” is a Dutch word that doesn’t really have an English translation. Similar, in ways, to the more well-known Danish concept of “hygge,” what it means, sort of, is something along the lines of warm coziness or comfortable happiness. Pouring yourself into a pair of fleece pajamas and slumping into a heap of blankets and pillows with a cup of milky tea and a book? Gezellig. The way your favourite café or bookstore or brewery glows warm and golden against the black dampness of a January evening? Gezellig. Thick socks and Wes Anderson movies and knit scarves and slow dancing and Rufus Wainwright and the way that vanilla sugar cookies make your kitchen smell as they bake? Gezellig.

A bowl of homemade soup in the yellow light of your dining room with a small person whose hands dimple when his fingers flex to tear a hunk of bread apart, and who pauses after every third bite to get up from his seat and hug you? Gezellig.

It’s the little things that, when taken in sum, are everything. It’s that feeling where you can’t imagine going anywhere, because why would you leave? Gezelligheid is the exact right thing to embrace when it’s January and you just can’t even with any of this other stuff.

The recipe that follows is for Dutch mustard soup, a thing that is wonderful in the way that Polish dill pickle soup is – until you try it, you won’t understand why it should even exist. Traditionally this is thickened with both flour or cornstarch and egg yolks. To make it just slightly healthier, I’ve replaced the flour with a potato and added a couple of extra yolks; the result is something between vichyssoise and avgolemono, but with mustard, and it’s delicious.

Mosterdsoep (Dutch mustard soup)

(Makes 4 servings.)

  • 2 slices bacon, sliced into lardons
  • 2 cups sliced thinly sliced leek (from about two leeks, white and light green parts only)
  • 1/2 pound starchy potato, (such as Russet) peeled and diced
  • 1 garlic clove, smashed
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1 tsp. coarse salt
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 2 tbsp. grainy Dijon mustard*
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1/2 tsp. yellow curry powder

In a Dutch oven or other heavy pot over medium-high heat, brown bacon until crispy, about four minutes. Scoop the bacon from the pot and onto a plate lined with paper towel. Pour off all but two tablespoons of the rendered bacon fat; if less than two tablespoons remain, make up the difference with a bit of butter.

Add leeks and quickly stir to coat in the fat. Add the potato and garlic, and then the chicken stock, scraping the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon as you do. Add salt, and bring the liquid in the pot to a boil; reduce to medium, and simmer until potatoes are tender, about ten minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk together sour cream, egg yolks, mustard, curry powder, and two tablespoons of cold water. Set aside.

Remove the pot from the heat and purée using an immersion blender. If you don’t have an immersion blender, let this cool for about ten minutes, and, working in batches, blend until smooth in a regular blender.

Return the mixture to the heat and bring it all back up to a boil.

Remove the mixture from the heat, and, working quickly, pour the sour cream mixture into the pot in a thin stream while whisking constantly, so as not to allow the eggs to scramble. Taste, adjusting seasonings as needed; you may not need to add additional salt, as mustard is generally salty enough on its own.

Serve topped with reserved bacon, a dollop of additional sour cream, Maggi seasoning (if you’ve got it), and chopped fresh chives or scallions. Crusty bread for sopping is essential.

*If you can find it, use Zaanse Molen Dutch mustard; if not, Maille’s Thick Country Mustard (or something like it) is a good substitution. In Canada, get President’s Choice Old Fashioned Dijon mustard at any Superstore or Loblaw’s – it’ll run you about two dollars. Can’t find any of these? Mix one tablespoon of grainy Dijon with one tablespoon of regular Dijon. 

Swarni’s tofu bhurji.

Between right now and the last time I posted here, I wrote 32 drafts of posts I either forgot about or decided were terrible and then sort of thought “whatever, I give up, I AM TERRIBLE,” and then ate my way into a new pants size. The timing of the new Adele record was ideal because it hit me right at peak-wallow, and let me tell you, you do not want to read the Hello-inspired blog post I considered somewhere around the third week of December.

(For your and Nick’s benefit, I ate every last one of those feelings, many of them on crackers and with glasses of very cold white wine.)

But things are looking up. I’ve reignited my relationship with MyFitnessPal, which means I – once again – have a handy, non-human place to direct my contempt. I haven’t eaten cheese in four days, which has been hard but necessary. And I got a few work-appropriate sweater-dress/leggings outfits for Christmas and they’re making the bloat a lot easier to hide in this lumpy post-holiday interim.

And I have a few new recipes, including this one from my lovely, wonderful friend Swarni whom I bother every day at work. Swarni is an essential member of the office potluck team, and a harsh critic of any Indian food brought into the office that isn’t up to her exacting standards. She brought a big dish of her tofu bhurji in for a holiday potluck in mid-December and it was so good that I spent the rest of last month haranguing her for the recipe.

I ended up adapting the recipe a little bit, as Swarni gets her spices ground fresh when she’s in India and so they’re more potent than mine; I also use a bit of turmeric for more of an eggy colour. It’s a very mild dish and good for children (even mine, praise Swarni!), but if you like things spicy, a little (or a lot of) hot sauce works well here.

Tofu bhurji is perfect for weeknights, and January when we have no money and pretty much just fridge scraps with which to feed ourselves. I’ve used butter here, but you could easily turn this vegan by simply replacing the butter with a bit of oil. It’s a bit like scrambled eggs, in the end, but with none of the fart taste that so often accompanies a poorly scrambled egg. It’s magic, and it’s not cheese which, just this once, is a very good thing.

Swarni’s Tofu Bhurji

(Makes two to four servings.)

  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1 tsp. minced fresh ginger
  • 1 small tomato, seeded and chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 tsp. Madras or other yellow curry powder
  • 1 tsp. coarse salt
  • 1/2 tsp. garam masala
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • 1 lb. (454 g) medium-firm tofu, drained and patted dry
  • Cilantro

In a large pan over medium-high heat, melt butter and stir together onion, jalapeño pepper, and ginger. Cook for about a minute, until the pepper brightens in colour, then reduce heat to medium-low. Stirring regularly, cook for seven to 10 minutes, until veggies have softened and turned golden.

Meanwhile, mash tofu with a potato masher, or use your hands to crumble it until it resembles curds of scrambled egg. Set aside.

Add tomato, garlic, curry powder, salt, garam masala, cumin, and turmeric to the pan and cook for another three to five minutes, until the liquid from the tomatoes has mostly disappeared and the contents of the pan resemble a soft paste.

Add frozen peas, and cook for another three to five minutes, until the water from the peas has mostly disappeared.

Add the tofu to the pan, and mix well. Partially cover the pan and cook for another five to seven minutes, stirring occasionally. The pan should be mostly dry on the bottom, and the tofu should be evenly coated in spices.

Taste, adjusting seasonings as needed. Stir in chopped fresh cilantro, and serve with a blurp of your favourite hot sauce and rice or warm roti bread. Would even be good on toast, come to think of it.

And Happy New Year! I hope your 2016 is delicious and everything you hope and want and need it to be.