Slow life for slow food?

I apologize in advance. This post will probably come out a bit on the rambling side. I’m currently reading Slow Food Nation by Carlo Petrini. I was reading the book when I was at Camros last Friday and the cover caught the eye of another customer, a woman who turned to me as I was leaving and half jokingly said “you need a slow life to be able to eat slow food.” All I was able to say then was “not really.” I could also have said, “but you are having slow food right now”. I could have tried to define it better. I could have blurted out what Petrini means by slow food – food that is good (healthful and delicious), clean (produced in sustainable ways), and fair (for both consumers and producers). In other words, rediscovering real food. But the comment got me thinking of a common misconception about food. That cooking and eating better food is somehow restricted to those who have time and money. Depending of the context, this assessment is not completely off the mark. In Food Inc, Robert Kenner follows a working class latino family in the US that has to rely on fast food of the worst quality to be able to make do with the little they have. We follow them into a grocery store where one of the children is denied a request for fruits because they cost too much. They buy soft drinks instead. None of it is done out of ignorance. The father is ill with diabetes, the mother knows that their diet might have been the cause but she feels powerless to change. They feel that fresh fruits and home cooked meals are out of their reach. Sensitive to the plight of families like that, victims of the large subsidies that benefit the fast food industry, some organizations began to call for the creation of urban vegetable gardens in particularly vulnerable neighbourhoods. I’ve recently heard of one such group in California that will plant a vegetable garden in someone’s backyard, providing all the tools and training in the first year for a family to grow their own vegetables. They start out with vegetables that are easy to grow and need little care and eventually the family becomes responsible for the garden.

But although there are many issues regarding access of real food in North America and increasingly in other parts of the industrialized world, most of the people I hear making the argument that they have neither time nor money to be able to eat better are middle class, often young professionals. People like the woman at Camros. And before I go on a rant on how it isn’t true, that I can do it on my student income, and that I have no time either, and that most of the meals I make are made from scratch in less the half an hour, I just wanted to reflect on what statements such as “you need a slow life to eat slow food” can tell us about how far we have come from our roots.

One of the saddest effects of the popularization of fast food and the aggressive marketing of industrialized food as more convenient is how quickly the average person has lost touch with real food – i.e. the whole ingredients that make any food culture – but also the basic skills to transform those whole ingredients into a meal. Despite the recent success of cooking shows, making a meal from scratch is now considered a feat reserved to particularly talented individuals. That’s sad. Particularly when cooking simple meals can be a lifesaver, particularly among those who have to eat on a budget. Yes, because bulk food such as rice, beans, cornmeal, seasonal fruits and vegetables as well as other grains and legumes, are not the staples around the world for no reason – no only are they healthful but also cheap. Processed food is “value-added food”, i.e. not as cheap as it may seem. For the price of a McDonald’s meal – and also the time that it would take us to walk out, order, sit, and eat the meal – I can make enough rice with lentils to feed Alan and I for at least 2 meals, possibly more. That’s why I find programs like The Edible Schoolyard so important. It teaches kids life-saving skills. Being able to not only grow your own food if need be but also how to use simple ingredients to feed yourself is a crucial skill. It will mean that they won’t have to choose food that they know is making their families sick just because they can’t see another option.

On the relationship between hunger & obesity, see this article from the NYT from today, March 15th.

Challenge of the week

Last week Alan and I ended up eating out a lot, which is not good for either our wallets or our health so this week our challenge is to only eat food we prepare ourselves. Although I love to cook, that’s primarily because I love to eat and try new things so getting me to eat out is not a very difficult feat. Like anybody else, I don’t always feel like cooking when I get home at the end of a long day so when Alan turns to me and says “do you want to go to The Bowl?” I can’t really say no. The danger lies in allowing that to become a habit and before you know, you haven’t cooked for days and have actually forgotten how wholesome a homecooked meal made from the freshest ingredients can actually be. So this week is an attempt to reset the system and get back to eating at home most of the time rather than occasionally.

Having said all of that, I have to say the week didn’t start all that well since I wasn’t all that inspired when I went to the market on saturday and ended up not buying much. That has meant a few trips to the local stores and a lot of creativity with leftovers.

Quinoa TaboulehFor today I made a meal out of the quinoa tabouleh I made on the weekend by adding some lima beans to it. I was going to add some tuna but forgot to buy them… For dinner I’m having a bit of the leftovers, some hummus, and some kefir for dessert.

For tomorrow, I’m thinking of using some of the radish salsa I made on the weekend as the basic seasoning for a rice and chickpea salad. I’m cooking some brown short grain rice and I’ll mix it with a can or chickpeas and the radish salsa (I have nearly 2 cups of it left). That should take care of lunch tomorrow and the next day at the least.

I’ll update this post as the week progresses in case anyone is interested.

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By the way, I’ve been thinking about creating a blog dedicated exclusively to food and food-related issues. I’m not sure yet. I’ve also decided to move this blog to a self-hosted space, which will give me more flexibility. We’ll see…

Easy dinner

Easy dinner: North African Couscous Soup

I wasn’t very inspired when I got home today and the pantry was a bit on the bare side but I also didn’t want to go shopping. So I started browsing my new favourite cookbook and came across this recipe for North African Couscous Soup. The main ingredients? Celery (or fennel, carrots, zucchini), 1 cup couscous, and a bit of tomato paste. Check, check, check. Seemed too simple to pass. In less than half an hour I had a super tasty meal with enough leftovers for at least another couple of meals. I didn’t take a picture but here’s the recipe:

North African Couscous Soup

3 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 red onion, small, minced
½ cup celery or fennel, finely chopped
1 tablespoon Za’atar (or 2 tsp ground cumin)
1 cup couscous, preferably whole wheat
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 liters vegetable stock or water
salt & freshly ground pepper

Directions

1. Put the olive oil in a large saucepan with a tight-fitting lid over medium-high heat. When hot, add the onion and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 2 minutes. Add the za-atar and sprinkle with salt & pepper. Stir constantly to keep the spices from burning and cook until just fragrant, about a minute. Add the couscous and continue stirring and cooking until the couscous begins to toast and darken, 2-3 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste until it is evenly distributed and begins to colour, another minute or two; then add the stock and stir to dissolve the tomato paste.

2. Bring the soup to a boil, then turn the heat down to low, cover, and cook without disturbing until the couscous is plump and tender, 5 to 10 minutes. Taste, adjust the seasoning, and serve.

Print version here

Indulgence

I have heard many admit that they don’t have the energy (or the confidence) to cook themselves a meal they could find in a fine (often fancy) restaurant. They may do it for guests but not for themselves unless it is a special occasion. My problem is that I’m too impatient. I can’t wait until a special occasion presents itself to make something a little bit more elaborate for dinner. Sometimes it isn’t even that elaborate but it’s just something that you may eat at a French restaurant but not something you’d consider attempting. The truth is that I like nice food but as a graduate student, can’t really afford to eat at really nice places. So I’m left to trying to make it myself.

Tonight’s meal was inspired by some wild leeks I found at the market. At the fishmonger’s I came across some wild scallops and bought them without really knowing how I’d make them. Once I got home, a quick search at The Google got me some tasty suggestions: Wild Leek and Parsley Risotto and Pan-seared Scallops with Butter Herb sauce. The ingredients were simple enough and I had most of them at hand: scallops, parsley, a good white wine, vegetable stock, unsalted butter… The result?

scallops.jpg

The picture was terribly over-exposed but you get the idea. It was simply divine. Alan moaned throughout the meal and we speculated that something like this would probably cost about a hundred dollars for the two of us (with wine) at a nice restaurant. Oh, the wine was a nice Wolf Blass Sauvignon Blanc. Now we’re off for an ice cream…

Lunch tomorrow

Curried carrot salad with quinoa and plain yogurt

Yummy homemade lunch

This was adapted from a recipe originally published in Bon Appétit and which I came across in one of my favourite food blogs. The original recipe uses carrots only but since I wanted to make it into a meal in a bowl, I decided to add some quinoa. So this is my version:

Ingredients

* 1 cup plain yogurt
* 2 large green onion, chopped
* 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint (I probably used closer to 1/4 cup)
* juice of 1 lemon
* 3/4 to 1 teaspoon curry powder (I used closer 2 tsp)
* 4-5 small carrots, peeled, coarsely grated
* 1/4 cup dried currants
* 1 cup quinoa (I used half red and half white quinoa)

Preparation

Cook the quinoa in 2 1/2 cups of water, set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, grate the carrots, mix the first five ingredients, and once the quinoa is cool enough, mix everything in a bowl and add a bit of salt and pepper to taste.

Note: it yields enough salad for 4-6 people