Swarni’s pork and cabbage

Yesterday was Guru Nanak’s birthday, which my friend Swarni told me about at work because she thought I’d like to take the kidlet and maybe Nick to visit a gurdwara, donate a dollar, and eat an Indian meal. This is a thing anyone can do, and Swarni says we can bring Tupperware for leftovers but the idea of being the greedy white lady with the Tupperwares mooching food from the Sikh temple kitchen is mortifying. She thinks I’m silly.

It was a quiet day at the office, and so we took a couple of extra coffee breaks and Swarni talked about her late father, and about her faith, which is a weird thing to discuss at the office but if you can get over things being weird and just listen, you can learn stuff. Anything you can learn without Google will make you better, I think, and if not better then at least a little wiser.

I want to learn everything, and am starting to understand how much less I have to talk to do that.

And so we talked, and we ate most of a box of Toffifee that Seti brought in, and then Swarni finally shared her recipe for pork and cabbage, a thing I’ve been begging her for but which she repeatedly waved me off about.

“It’s not much of anything,” she’d say. “My dad always made it, and he invented it.”

“Put it in your cookbook,” she said.

It’s not much of anything, and that’s why it’s so amazing. It’s just a few simple ingredients, and they’re cheap, and it doesn’t cook long, it’s got a depth of flavour you don’t always get in easy weeknight dishes. This one’s a keeper.

She said I could share the recipe with you. She says you can make it with chicken instead of pork, or with mushrooms and peas instead of cabbage, or with a can of puréed spinach. She says it’s best with bone-in pork chops, so you can pluck the bones out of the pot at the end of the meal for a nibble. I haven’t tried those other ways, but we do what Swarni says if we know what’s good for us.

I made this with the intent to pack the leftovers for lunches, and there were no leftovers. The little one gobbled his up, and Nick had two big helpings. I served it with brown rice, but white rice will do just fine. I was going to make raita, but got lazy. A few slices of apple made a perfect accompaniment.

Swarni’s pork and cabbage

(Makes 4 servings.)

  • 3 tbsp. butter
  • 1 onion, trimmed, halved lengthwise, and sliced
  • 1 tsp. coarse salt
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 1 heaping tablespoon minced fresh ginger
  • 2 tbsp. tomato paste (look for a low- or no-sodium version)
  • 2 tsp. Madras (yellow) curry powder
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 lb. pork tenderloin, cubed
  • 1/2 tsp. garam masala
  • 1 lb. savoy cabbage, cored and thinly sliced
  • Cilantro

Add butter, onion and salt to a Dutch oven or other heavy pot and sauté over medium-high heat until onions have just begun to soften, about two minutes. Add garlic and ginger, cook for another minute, then add tomato paste and curry powder. Add half a cup of water. Stir to combine.

Add the pork to the pot, and stir to coat the pork in the spice-tomato mixture. Reduce heat to medium, cover the pot, and cook for 15 minutes.

Remove the lid, and add the garam masala. Cook for an additional two minutes.

Add the cabbage, stirring to coat in the sauce mixture until just wilted, another three or four minutes. You don’t want the cabbage to be limp and mushy – it should retain some of its toothiness and crunch.

Sprinkle with a handful of chopped fresh cilantro, and serve over rice.

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 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!

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I win for biggest beet.

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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.

One-dish baked chicken and rice.

chicken and rice

If December was about coming undone, January is about putting ourselves back together (and lying to MyFitnessPal). We stole a whole day to ourselves yesterday, turned our ringers off and did laundry and made messes and ate Alphagetti on the couch in our pajamas and it was exactly what we needed. Today life returned to normal, and work was work and not an unending candy buffet. Everything is as it was, only now nothing really fits right and we’ve got to somehow pay all those bills we put off until after Christmas.

Part of putting ourselves back together is eating simply. After a month of rushing and driving and spending and feasting and drinking, all I want is to not feel like I am dying after eating a meal. At least for now. Simple, single-dish dinners that mostly prepare themselves are what will get us through this rainy post-holiday decompression phase (and, with any luck, back into our pre-Christmas dress sizes).

Happy New Year. I hope you’re easing into 2015, cozy, and eating something nice.

One-dish baked chicken and rice

(Makes 4 to 6 servings.)

  • 4 tbsp. olive oil, divided
  • 8 chicken thighs
  • 2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, finely chopped
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 3 tsp. fresh thyme, chopped and divided
  • 2 cups basmati or other long-grain white rice
  • 2 1/2 tsp. coarse salt, divided
  • 1 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 lemon, zest and juice
  • 4 cups low-sodium or homemade chicken stock

Preheat your oven to 375°F. If you have a large pan or Dutch oven, use this. If not, a deep 9″x13″ pan will work just fine.

Rub chicken thighs with oil, and season with 1 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Set aside.

Over medium-high heat, sauté your carrots, celery, and onion in olive oil for two to three minutes, until the veggies just begin to soften and their colours turn bright.

Add the garlic and 2 teaspoons of thyme, cook another minute, then add the rice. Stir to coat the rice in the oil mixture. Add remaining salt and pepper. Stir again.

Add lemon zest and juice and stock to the pan. Taste, and adjust your seasonings as needed.

Nestle the chicken thighs into the rice mixture, sprinkle with remaining thyme, and bake, uncovered, for  50 to 60 minutes, until chicken is cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F, or until you find the juices run clear when you cut into a piece of chicken with a sharp knife.

Let rest for ten minutes before serving.