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.

Crock pot membrillo (quince paste).

Country road, quince standMy friend Eileen bought a cute little house on a country road and planted quince trees. Perhaps not anticipating how prolific the trees would be, or how heavy the fruit, she planted four of them, four different varieties, and then recently took to Facebook to advertise the couple of hundred pounds of fruit she was looking to get rid of. For CHEAP.

Quince is a very dense apple-pear-type thing, and you have to cook it – it’s inedible raw. It’s got a musky, almost floral taste – a little rosy, a little appley, a little bit something else. It has a firm core that’s hard to cut through, and fuzz on its skin you have to wash off. If you’re in North America, you’re mostly relegated to getting it through friends, from abandoned orchards, or some Farmer’s Markets (if you are very lucky). It is very high in pectin.

Years ago, I got my hands on a few pounds of quince for something like $7 per pound. The market only had maybe ten pounds of them for the whole season, and because scarcity makes me irrational I bought as many as I could afford and then hoarded the jam I made out of them until a bunch of jars of it went bad in the back of my fridge when someone else opened and forgot about them.

The worst thing about marriage is when the other person lets your jam go bad without telling you. Just lets it happen. It’s still so hard to believe.

Quince haulThis time, with Eileen’s quinces, I was no less greedy but the price was much better and I was better prepared. Also, many of them were still green, and so they’ve been ripening in batches, four or five pounds at a time, and so I’ve been processing them at a leisurely pace, putting up a few here and a few there and barely breaking a sweat.

This is, in part, thanks to my trusty old Crock Pot.

The very best use for quince is a jammy paste the Spanish serve with cheese at breakfast and at tapas. It’s called membrillo, and it’s thick and sticky and garnet-red, and the process for making it is pretty straightforward but also quite time-consuming. I don’t have one million hours to peel and core and stir and stir and stir. Even if I did, I am profoundly lazy and as such, am always looking for the easier way of doing something.

The standard membrillo recipe calls for, at minimum, a ratio of two pounds quince to one pound sugar. You can add spices like cinnamon or vanilla, or strips of lemon peel, but you don’t have to.

If you were to make this on the stove, you would peel and core the quinces, add water, and cook until quinces are tender. Then you would puree them. Then you would cook them and their liquid down until a thick paste formed. Hours upon hours would pass, and this might satisfy a younger version of yourself but not this version, with her arthritic hands and arms and ill temper.

Shortcuts. Let’s take the easy way out. For this particular shortcut,  your best bet is a slow-cooker and a food mill fitted with your finest grinding disk. No food mill? A fine-mesh sieve will also work, but it will be a lot more work.

First, wash and halve your quince. For whatever weight of quince you prepare, add half the amount of sugar by weight. So, if you have five pounds of quince, use two and one-half pounds of sugar. Pour this over, and toss to coat fruit.

Slam your slow cooker lid down on the thing, set the cooker to low, and let ten hours pass. Overnight is nice. Your place will smell so good in the morning.

Get your canning stuff ready, if you plan to can. You can also freeze it.

The quince will start out yellow-peeled and white-fleshed, and by morning will have turned a winy kind of red. Working a couple of pieces at a time, process your quince halves through the food mill into a large non-reactive pot, such as a Dutch oven. Strain any remaining liquid into the pot as well, and turn your burner on to medium.

Cook until the paste has thickened and the mush appears to pull away from the the sides of the pot as you stir; the texture and consistency will be somewhat like apple butter; same idea, really. How long this takes depends on how much liquid remains in your slow-cooker; you will likely cook the paste down on the stove, stirring occasionally, for an additional 20 to 60 minutes. Some varieties of quince, like pineapple quince, may release more liquid and take longer to cook down. The colour will be a very dark red you might have a hard time believing at first.

Spoon quince paste into sterilized jars, run a knife around the edges to remove any large air pockets, and process for 20 minutes.

I started with about five pounds of quince, and ended up with just over two quarts of finished paste.

Serve on bits of bread with creamy goat’s cheese, or with an aged, nutty cheese like Manchego. Definitely have wine with it. The good stuff, the kind that comes in a bottle. And definitely invite a friend to share it, maybe one you don’t see very often, like your friend Eileen.

Slow-cooker cabbage rolls.

I love cabbage rolls, but for years have not made them for the same reason I never make lasagna; I hate the requirement to boil a pot of water and cook each leaf before I can even get started. It sucks and I always burn myself and so I make stuffed peppers or stuffed squash instead. But then one day my mother-in-law told me that “the Ukrainian ladies told me you just put the whole cabbage in the freezer and then defrost it so you don’t have to boil it.”

I don’t know who the Ukrainian ladies are or even if I remembered the context of her statement correctly, but let me tell you – it works.

Cabbage rolls steps

Cabbage rolls just got easier to make. I much prefer forethought to effort, if I have to choose one over the other, and anything that I can do to save myself time and that also makes it so I can eat more cabbage rolls is something I am going to do over and over again. I keep re-reading that sentence and I am not convinced it even made sense but I stand by it.

I don’t pre-cook any part of these because I don’t have time to even do laundry so I am not going to take a lot of unnecessary extra steps for a weeknight dinner now that The Voice is back and every episode is two hours long.

There you go. There.

Also, it’s getting chilly again and the Crock Pot is the ultimate defense against the cold; there is something wonderful about coming in from the rain to a home that already smells like dinner. I put everything into the pot the night before and then throw it in the fridge; I just pull the food out in the morning, turn the Crock Pot on and let it go all day so it’s almost like dinner is a freebie. FREE CABBAGE ROLLS. It all just feels so right.

Morning matters.

Slow-cooker cabbage rolls

  • 1 head of green cabbage, such as savoy or Taiwanese
  • 1 large onion
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 stalks of celery
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1/2 cup packed fresh parsley
  • 1 lb. lean ground beef
  • 1 lb. ground pork
  • 1 cup uncooked long-grain white rice
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
  • 2 1/2 tsp. Kosher salt
  • 2 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp. dried savoury
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 cups beef stock

Okay. So. The night before you want to roll your cabbage rolls for the following night’s dinner, put the cabbage in your freezer. When you wake up the next morning, take the cabbage out of the freezer and put it in a colander in the sink and let it defrost. Your mileage here may vary – my apartment tends to be on the warm side, so mine defrosted just fine; if you are unsure whether you can get your cabbage defrosted in time, start even earlier, and just let it defrost in the fridge over a day or two.

Meanwhile, finely chop your onion, carrots, celery, garlic and parsley. You can do this in the food processor if you’re feeling kind of lazy. I was. Put everything in a bowl, then scoop half out and put it into a different bowl. Set aside.

Add your beef, pork, rice, eggs, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, salt, paprika, savoury, and pepper to the first bowl. Mix thoroughly. You can do this a day ahead as well, just cover and refrigerate until you’re ready to use.

In the other bowl, add the crushed tomatoes and the beef stock. Taste, and season with additional salt and pepper to taste. Again, feel free to make this ahead of time and set it aside.

When you’re ready to roll, pour about a cup of the sauce mixture into the bottom of the Crock Pot. Cut the core out of your cabbage and discard it. Peel the leaves off, and cut out the thick part of the centre rib. Place a few tablespoons of your meat mixture into the top of the leaf, then roll it up, folding the sides in as you go. Place each roll into the pot as you go, ladling sauce over top as you complete each layer.

I ended up with about 20 cabbage rolls, which is too many to eat all at once but they freeze very well.

When you’re finished, pour the remaining sauce over top, cover with the lid, then either refrigerate until you’re ready to make these (if you’re doing it the night before), or cook them right away. Set your slow cooker to low, and cook for ten hours.

Serve with pickles.

Cabbage rolls with pickles