Hunger Awareness Week: Whole grain pasta with chickpeas and caramelized tomato sauce.

A well-stocked pantry has saved my butt on more occasions than I can count. Being able to open a cupboard and see a few simple things that could equal dinner is something I don’t take for granted – it’s a reassuring thing, and a luxury for many. Whether it’s because payday is too far away or I’m just too lazy to get to the market over the weekend, pantry meals warm my home and filled my belly most weeks, and have for my whole life.

When choosing non-perishable items to donate to the food bank, try to select nutritious items to fill the pantries of those with diverse dietary needs.

  • Fifty per cent of food bank users are families, including children; consider donating kid-friendly items like granola bars, breakfast items like oatmeal or other hot cereals, sugar-free applesauce, or peanut- or gluten-free items for school lunches.
  • If 20 per cent of people who use the food bank are seniors, consider seniors’ health issues (diabetes, heart disease, hypertension): select low-sodium canned goods, low-sugar or sugar-free canned or pureed fruits, lean proteins including peanut butter and legumes, whole grain and gluten-free pastas, and high-fibre grains and cereals.
  • For families with babies and young children, consider donating baby food, infant formula, or diapers in a range of sizes (not just newborn). Nursing mums need nutrition too – fortified cereals, canned fish (especially sardines, salmon, herring and mackerel), low-sodium canned soups and stews, and parboiled grains can be beneficial, especially for parents who are pressed for time.

Pasta with caramelized tomato sauce and garlic.A pantry with a few staples you’ll use again and again can go a long way to making you feel secure. Today’s recipe is an easy one – it’s comprised of stuff you probably already have, and it’s hearty enough to feed a family of four to a comfortable degree of fullness. It’s kid-friendly, at least at my table. It’s also suitable for people with diabetes, and it reheats well for lunch at work the next day.

Whole wheat pasta with chickpeas and caramelized tomato sauce

(Makes four servings.)

  • 1 lb. whole-wheat or other whole-grain pasta, such as penne or rotini
  • 19-oz. (540 mL) can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, sliced
  • 1/2 tsp. red chili flakes (optional)
  • 5.5-oz. (128 mL) can low-sodium tomato paste
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Parsley to garnish

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and add pasta. Cook according to package instructions, about 11 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a large pan over medium heat. Add onion, and cook for two minutes, until just translucent. Add chili flakes (if using) and garlic. Cook until onions and garlic have just turned golden, another three minutes. Add tomato paste. Stir constantly to keep the paste moving around the pan and cook until colour deepens and butter seems to have disappeared, four to six minutes.

Before draining the pasta, reserve about two cups of cooking water. Drain pasta, and add pasta and chickpeas to the pan. Stir, then add water half a cup at a time until sauce has loosened and coats the noodles thoroughly. Taste, adjusting seasonings as desired. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

Crafty macaroni and cheese

Crafty macaroni and cheese.

Sometimes you just want to eat the food you grew up with, the kind of stuff that hearkens back to a time when cheese was powdered and that was okay. Remember when Parmesan cheese came in its own plastic shaker and was shelf-stable? I think it was made of nylon.

I have always loved macaroni and cheese, and for most of my life macaroni and cheese was something that came in a box. It never would have occurred to me to make it from scratch until a few years ago. When I moved out of my parents’ house and into my first “apartment” (translation: dank basement suite with limited natural light and a permanent damp smell), I was broke all the time and would maximize my calorie intake in the days before payday by cooking up a box of macaroni and cheese (remember when it cost less than a dollar?) and eating the whole thing super fast, then laying face-down on the couch, uncomfortable, to digest for the rest of the evening as though I were a snake that had just swallowed an antelope.

It was an attractive time.

It felt horrible, but it was oddly comforting. When I was a kid, even though we always had Costco cases of macaroni and cheese in the cupboard, it was a total treat, especially if you got it for dinner which almost never happened. I loved macaroni. And in my formative years, macaroni and cheese was always, ALWAYS orange.

Orange sauce.

When you make macaroni and cheese from scratch, it is mostly not orange, even when you use orange cheese. And while grown-up, from-scratch homemade white mac-and-cheese is extremely delicious, it is more like comfort food to me when it’s orange. But macaroni out of a box is the opposite of comfort food these days; when I eat it now, I feel … gross. But you know what’s orange? Carrots are! Also they are healthy, so you can pretend that’s why you’re using them.

Veggies.

This is a very simple dish, and I make it quite saucy so that I can add stuff if I feel like it – adding a 28 oz. can of hominy (drained and rinsed!) makes this kind of amazing – or so that I can plan ahead and have leftovers that reheat well. Add whatever you want – even chopped up hot dogs, if that’s what you like. I won’t judge. (How could I?)

Big pot of cheesy noodles.

Macaroni and cheese

(Serves four to six.)

  • 2 carrots
  • 1/2 onion
  • 3-4 cloves garlic
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 1/2 cups uncooked macaroni
  • 3 tbsp. butter
  • 3 tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. yellow mustard
  • 1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 2 1/2 cups shredded aged white cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream (optional)
  • Salt

Over high heat, bring carrots, onion and garlic to a boil in about two cups of water with a bay leaf and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Reduce heat to medium, and simmer until carrots are soft, 15 to 2o minutes. Remove bay leaf, pour contents of pot into a blender, and blend. Set aside.

Cook macaroni in salted boiling water according to package instructions.

Meanwhile, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add flour and whisk to combine. Add mustard, whisking again, then add the carrot mixture. Add Worcestershire sauce, paprika and pepper and simmer – whisking occasionally – until thickened, four to six minutes. Add cheese, stirring to melt. Add cream, if you feel like it – not mandatory, but it gives the sauce a richer, silkier taste. Add any additions – such as hominy, cooked sausage, roasted veggies, or whatever. Taste, adjusting seasonings as needed.

Add cooked macaroni, stir well to coat, and serve.

Also, if you live anywhere between West Van and Langley, enter this week’s giveaway! Not a ton of entrants, so your odds are good.

Making rainbow pasta at Project Space.

On East Georgia here in Vancouver, just up the block from Phnom Penh, a lot of little art spaces are starting to appear beside the lot of little restaurants I have long enjoyed. One of these is Project Space, a bookshop/art studio/everything-space run by the fabulous folks behind OCW Magazine, who have kindly published my words over the past five or six years.

For the past few days (and tomorrow), Project Space has been home to Summer School, a series of free classes hosted by artists Erin Jane Nelson and Ming Lin. So, because I’m there any time someone wants to combine art with something I can eat, today I went back to school.

The class was led by Ming Lin, who taught us to make rainbow pasta. Natural dyes are a passion of Lin’s, and food is an obvious medium for the exploration of these.

Making pasta is easy. For this class, we poured three cups of all-purpose flour into a pile on the table. We dug a well into the centre of the pile, and cracked an egg into it. We added salt, beat the egg gently in the well, then added about one tablespoon of puréed vegetables – either spinach, beet, or carrot. We’d then continue stirring, this time gradually folding flour into the the mix. When the dough began to form a ball, we’d pull it from the well and knead it, incorporating more flour until the dough was firm but pliable and no longer sticky. The dough went into the fridge for 15 to 20 minutes.

The same pile of flour lasted three rounds of this, and I ended up with three colourful balls of pasta dough, each time re-piling the flour, adding egg and salt, stirring, then adding a spoonful of purée.

After resting in the fridge, the dough was ready to be rolled. At this point, I’d recommend the use of a pasta roller, unless you have the upper-body strength of someone over the age of eight. I do not, but no machine was available, so I rolled my pasta out with an empty wine bottle. Though the idea is to get your sheet of dough as thin as possible, mine was thicker than if I had run it through a pasta machine, which made the boiled noodles thicker and chewier than I prefer. But that’s okay.

Some people trimmed their pasta into long strips. That’s how I did mine, as fresh strands of pasta tossed with browned butter and grated Grana Padano combine to form one of those perfect, simple dishes we ought to make more of. Others were more creative (and patient), and attempted to fold their pasta into bow-ties and penne.

Our teacher cut hers into tiny squares perfect for a pot of soup.

I ended up with a pile of purple and orange noodles, enough for two people to enjoy a small plate of pasta each. I boiled it for about three minutes, then tossed it in a pan with butter and cheese and chopped fresh chilies, and then scattered parsley over top.

Pasta-making was a pleasant diversion, and a reminder that a small amount of effort can yield delicious results. Why not dawdle over a bit of dough the next cloudy day and treat yourself to something simple and delicious? I hope it rains tomorrow, as I’d like to purée some chilies for a batch of dough and see what happens. What’s your perfect pasta? I’d love your tips and recipes. Bonus points for butter and cheese, obviously.

Kasha varnishkes.

I like clutter. I like my visual field to be jam-packed with stuff that sparkles or is brightly coloured or that I can look at and instantly conjure some memory of some time or place, whether real or fictional – I’m beginning to wonder how many of the things I remember actually happened and how many I invented or just read. In the recklessly unencumbered pre-baby era, Nick and I would spend many of our weekends flitting from brunch to thrift stores and flea markets, picking through piles of junk to find what we believed to be treasures. I once joked to my friend Dan that it wouldn’t be a big deal for us to move cross-country, as everything we own could be replaced in thrift stores when we got there. He agreed, which should probably be kind of insulting. I mean, some of our stuff is from Ikea, so it’s not all junk … right?

Among the beer steins and vintage “art,” one of my favourite things to discover among the rubble was cookbooks, especially the kind from the 70s and 80s with their deliciously terrible food styling and orange-tinged photography. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t buy the 1987 edition of Vogue Entertaining when I saw it at the VGH Thrift Shop for $13 – the jellied salads! The all-brown buffet of “Indian food!” The palm fronds in crystal vases! (Side note: That this is one of my biggest regrets speaks either to a total lack of ambition or a history of unapologetically not giving a shit. I can’t decide which is worse.)

One of my favourite cookbook finds to date came from the Cloverdale Flea Market, where we spent one sunny afternoon searching for more beer steins, kitten art, and light-up statues of Jesus. In a pile in the back of one man’s trailer, I found a collection of six paperback books on “international cuisine,” which continues to delight all these years later. My favourite is the book on Jewish cookery, which does not contain a recipe for matzo ball soup, but which boasts recipes for both Cantonese Chicken and Chicken Chow Mein.

Not knowing a lot about Jewish food, this book has been my introduction to a cuisine that only seems to get airtime in December and April. And while I have yet to follow a recipe to the letter, a few recipes have been jumping-off points. One of these, for kasha varnishkes, is an excellent (if not beautiful) dish (“delicious and nourishing beige noodle mush” is a pretty accurate description) that uses pantry staples for a cheap starch alternative.

Buckwheat is one of those super-healthy things you’re supposed to eat to lower cholesterol. It’s high in fibre, it’s cheap, and it’s quite tasty. And it has diverse applications – Food52 has a compiled a pretty thorough list. You can find roasted buckwheat groats, also known as kasha, at natural foods stores and Eastern European delis and groceries. Kasha varnishkes are lightly sweet, thanks to the onion and apple, and are best served alongside sausages or roast meats and pickles, or with veggies for a full and hearty meal. You can use vegetable stock to make it vegetarian-friendly.

Kasha varnishkes

(Serves four as a side-dish.)

  • 6 tbsp. butter, divided
  • 1/2 cup roasted buckwheat groats
  • 1 egg
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1/4 lb. small egg noodles, such as spaetzle
  • 2 cups chopped apple, diced to about 1/2″
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, melt two tablespoons of butter and stir in apples and onions. Cover, cook ten minutes, then remove lid and reduce heat to medium. Stir frequently for 20 to 30 minutes, until apples and onions have caramelized and shrunk down considerably.

Meanwhile, heat three tablespoons of butter in a pot over medium-high heat. In a bowl, stir buckwheat and egg until thoroughly combined. Pour into pot, stirring to keep groats from sticking together. Keep stirring until egg is cooked and appears dry. Add garlic, then chicken stock. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until liquid is absorbed and groats are fluffy, about 15 minutes.

In another pot, bring 2 1/2 cups of water to a rolling boil. Add noodles, and cook until just al denté (refer to cook time on package). Drain.

Stir cooked groats and drained pasta into the apple and onion mixture, add an additional tablespoon of butter, stirring to coat. Taste, adjusting seasonings as needed. Stir in parsley, and serve immediately.

Mushroom and butter bean ragù

By mid-morning, there was chaos. The baby has been sick and only seems able to comfort himself by wailing, though he will pause briefly for food – but only briefly.

The cat needs her nails done but won’t sit still for it, and if she’s not hanging off the seat of my pants by her claws she’s attempting to bury her wet food under the mat in the hall or scratch holes into the garbage bag that’s waiting to go out to the bin. When I finally got the baby down for a nap I came out to find the cat licking my sandwich.

“You’re all a bunch of jerks!” I yelled at no one in particular, and foraged a lunch of stale Bugles and a glass of white wine that may have been sitting out on the coffee table since last night. I glared at the cat but she has made it clear that apologizing to me is beneath her.

Six weeks ago I joined the Learn to Run clinic at the local Running Room, partly to get back into shape. It was not a great idea because I don’t enjoy running – what’s the point unless you’re being chased? It means rushing out of the house on Monday evenings after Nick gets home from work, and we end up eating dinner late while having to juggle laundry and any mess left over from the weekend. I usually dread it but tonight I couldn’t wait to go. These past few days I have come to understand why someone might go out for a pack of cigarettes and just not come back.

So, you know. There are highs and lows. And sometimes there is enough time in the day to linger over the stove, and some days dinner comes together in a few hasty minutes after the kid goes down for the night. Tonight was one of those hasty nights, and I’m calling the result a ragù even though it contains no meat and did not simmer for very long at all – I loaded it up with the kind of things that make it feel like it simmered long (oaky wine, soy sauce, mushrooms, Parmesan cheese), but it was only 15 minutes, while the pasta cooked. I don’t think anyone’s going to argue with me today.

If you can’t find canned butter beans, use one cup fresh or frozen lima beans or any other canned white bean.

Mushroom and butter bean ragù

(Serves 4.)

  • 3 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 2 carrots, finely chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 lb. mushrooms, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup oaked white wine, such as Chardonnay
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 14 oz./398 mL can diced tomatoes
  • 1/2 lemon, zest and juice
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1 14 oz./398 mL butter beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 lb. fettucine

In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, sauté shallot, carrot, celery, and garlic in olive oil over medium-high heat until vegetables have begun to sweat. Add rosemary, red pepper flakes, smoked paprika, black pepper, and mushrooms, and cook until mushrooms have released their moisture, about two minutes.

Add wine and bay leaf, scraping the bottom of the pot to ensure no bits have stuck to the bottom. Reduce heat to medium, and simmer until liquid has reduced by half, one to two minutes.

Add tomatoes, lemon zest and juice, Parmesan cheese, and soy sauce. Simmer another five minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add fettucine, and cook according to package directions – five to seven minutes – until al denté (or cooked to taste).

Add butter beans to the ragù, and continue to simmer until fetuccine is cooked. Drain pasta, and add to the ragù. Stir well. Taste, adjusting seasonings as needed. Add parsley, and serve.

Rich, hearty meat sauce.

With the exception of a four-hour period last Friday during which I managed to score an excruciating, now-peeling sunburn from sitting on a patio during lunch, this part of the world has been slow to summer. Which is just as well, because I’ve recovered most of my appetite, and after Paris the taste I’m looking for is unctuous. Unctuous like long-roasted meat, and like the sauce around it, so rich with that slowly melted fat that coats your mouth and the inside of your belly, leaving you full and sleepy.

I went with Grace (and Claude, but that is a story for another time) to a restaurant in Paris called Bistroy Les Papilles where we were brought just such a dish. Three steaks of pork belly were served in a tomato sauce filled with navy beans, thyme, and fresh spring vegetables; the pork had been cooking long enough that most of the fat found itself in the sauce, so that the meal was deceptively rich. I succeeded in eating only a small plateful, though it was a satisfying plateful.

It’s not really possible during the week to cook a slab of pork belly until it melts down into and plumps several pounds of white beans, not when one has to go to a place of business and complete tasks each day – I do have a slow-cooker but it’s the kind that sets things on fire. It is possible to mimic that unctuousness on a weeknight at home; the secret is to use good-quality meat, a combination of pork fat and olive oil, and a cheaterly handful of minced mushrooms. Top with cheese.

This sauce is easy, but it’s not slimming. The point is comfort (as my point so often is), and this is one of those dishes you could serve to company some rainy night, even on the weekend. It’s layered, and tastes as though it cooked for much longer than it did. The cinnamon adds balance to the meatiness, so if you are unsure about it, just add a little bit and see what you think.

Meat sauce for pasta

(Serves eight.)

  • 6 strips bacon, chopped
  • 3 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 cup celery, finely chopped
  • 1 cup carrots, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 lbs. good quality ground meat (I like a combination of beef and venison or pork, but you could use just beef if that’s what you have)
  • 1/2 lb. mushrooms, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup dry red wine
  • 1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 cup beef stock
  • Salt to taste
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley

Brown bacon in a large pot over medium-high heat. Remove from pot to a plate lined with paper towel using a slotted spoon.

Add olive oil, followed by the onion, celery, and carrots. If the veggies are cooking too quickly, reduce heat to medium, and cook until soft and lightly golden, about ten minutes. Remove from pot to a plate using a slotted spoon. If you reduce the heat, put it back before the meat goes in.

Add meat, mushrooms, and garlic, breaking the meat up with a wooden spoon as it cooks. When meat has browned, add back vegetables and deglaze the pan with the wine. Add crushed tomatoes, oregano, pepper, basil, and cinnamon, and then beef stock. Stir to combine, and then taste. Depending on your bacon and stock, you may or may not need to add salt. Let simmer over medium-low heat for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Before serving, add parsley. Serve over pasta with additional parsley for garnish, and a sprinkling of cheese.

For us, this is enough for dinner and leftovers, and for a bit to put in the freezer for dinner another night. It is better the next day. And if you live nearby, you will need it tomorrow because it will still be raining. If you are a cat, the birds will tease you relentlessly as they hide in the branches of the tree just outside your window. Right now we all need our share of meat sauce.

Rapini and sausage with white beans and orecchiette

When we found out that Nick has diabetes, we were  lucky in that we were already eating mostly pretty well, most of the time, cheese and butter and cream aside, and that we didn’t have to make significant dietary changes. I threw out one stale half-bag of poor-quality elbow macaroni that I might have bought at Walmart that dark year I was an intern and had to have three roommates in a basement suite where the front door only kind of locked and where when it rained the water ran into the suite right over the electrical panel. We weren’t going to eat it anyway.

The only thing I really miss now that Nick is restricted is having pasta as a default – not being able to serve up a big plate of refined white carbs when I don’t feel like putting in a real effort, which can happen a couple of times a week, means adapting to a new kind of laziness. And the difference between pasta and something like, say risotto or sushi, which is also white and low on the glycemic index, is that pasta tends to last a couple of meals so you get that good blood-sugar spike a couple of days in a row. Fine for me, shakes and comas for him.

He can still have a small amount of pasta, of course. What he can have is likely what would be considered a normal portion size. And when you get down to comparing labels and noting the varying levels of carbohydrates, the rice pastas and whole-wheat pastas and gluten-free pastas are all similarly bad news carbohydrate-wise; a plate of the whole-wheat stuff is going to affect Captain Diabetes the same way that a plate of the delicious semolina stuff will.

So we adapted. Instead of a big plate of pasta, we have a big plate of stuff with pasta in it if there isn’t enough time to devise a huge and clever feast, or if the idea of opening a cupboard is too daunting to even consider. Here is one of those meals. It calls for blanching, which may qualify as a step that’s too daunting, but it’s really nothing. I promise.

Rapini and sausage with white beans and orecchiette

(Serves four.)

  • 1 lb. rapini, chopped
  • 1 cup uncooked orecchiette pasta
  • 1 lb. spicy Italian sausage, casings removed
  • 3 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 2 tbsp. tomato paste
  • 1 19 oz. can white beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 lemon, zest and juice
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Drop chopped rapini in, and boil for two to three minutes until wilted and brightened in colour. Remove rapini from water, reserving liquid, and plunge into a large bowl of icy water. Set aside.

Return the pot to the heat and bring water back up to a boil.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Cook onions until translucent. Add garlic, then crumble sausage into the pan. Stir with a wooden spoon, breaking the meat up as you go. Add red pepper flakes and tomato paste and continue moving the meat around the pan.

When the water has come to a boil, add pasta and boil until al denté, about eight minutes.

Drain and then add rapini to the pan, stirring to coat in pan juices. As pasta finishes cooking, add beans and lemon zest and juice, then add pasta. Reserve some of the pasta water in case the pan becomes too dry.

Add parsley and cheese. Taste, and adjust seasonings as needed. Serve with additional cheese.