January 21, 2011

Not Eating Local


When we came back from Europe in September, things were tight. After three and a half weeks of vacation, we pretty much drained our bank account. That, combined with J no longer being on scholarship meant we were living on a budget. We were forced to make a big shift in our eating habits.


No more local or organic food. Also, we decided to eat vegetarian since we couldn't afford the good, humanely-raised meat and fish. This made for an interesting season of eating. If you've been following this blog for a while, you probably know that for the past two years we've focused on eating as much local food as we can, and supporting local farmers and producers. What we didn't buy at the farmers' market, we usually found at Planet Organic grocery store. In September, this pattern changed. I got to know my local Save-On Foods very well. I planned meals around cheap vegetables, grains and proteins. I started to really pay attention to how much my food costs. The only fruits we ate were bananas and the apples that were 99 cents a pound. I started buying frozen vegetables, and thanks to my sister-in-law we discovered the joys of Costco, where we bought cheap quinoa, almonds, raisins and rice.


I have mixed emotions about these changes. I know that when you buy food directly from the farmer of producer, you're paying the real price, unlike in the grocery store. I really miss shopping at the farmers' markets, being able to buy locally-grown and pressed Canola oil at $10 a botttle, a $7 basket of B.C. apples and $4 bunches of fresh swiss chard. I miss connecting with my community, and actually knowing the people who've raised or made the food I put in my body.

But unfortunately, shopping that way is a privilege, and until our food system changes it will stay that way. We always justified our large food bills with the fact that food is very important to us, and we can afford it because we don't pay for other things, like a car or cable tv. I still believe that's a good reason, and that local food is within reach of many more people if they change their spending habits. I'm sure in the future we can go back to the market for at least part of our grocery list, but right now it's just not possible.


On the other hand, I don't find myself wanting in our daily meals. We still cook good food, and the photos in this post, all from meals and desserts we made last fall, prove that. I love bean, tofu, lentil and egg dishes, which have been a familiar presence on our weeknight table. Knowing how to turn cheap ingredients into healthy, tasty meals is an important skill, one I'm glad I'm learning. In the coming weeks, I hope to share some of the recipes and resources I've discovered.


One of our challenges in keeping our grocery bill down is our restricted diets. As a couple with celiac disease and lactose intolerance, we're not typical grocery customers. Soy milk, gluten-free cereal, wheat-free soy sauce and gluten-free bouillon cubes all regularly find their way into our cart. Of course it would be cheaper to buy "regular" versions of these foods, but it's something we have to get used to.

The luxury of buying foods in bulk is also something I always thought I could rely on. It probably doesn't seem like a luxury to you, but it sure does to me now. When the bins and scoops could be contaminated with gluten, I can't take the risk with most bulk foods. Buying dried beans, dried fruit, nuts and grains in packaged bags is far more expensive.


Another challenge was finding good snacks. You know, something you can just go into the kitchen and grab when you feel like nibbling. Crackers are great, but packaged gluten-free crackers and cookies are usually not in our budget. I like to have healthy, fruit-filled muffins on hand for a snack, but when I bake them they tend to disappear in a flash. So usually the snack is a rice cake with peanut butter and honey or a piece of fruit. Not bad, and definitely cheap. But man, I am getting so sick of rice cakes that feel and taste like styrofoam. I'm resolved to find a new, cheap and delicious snack in 2011. Even if I have to bake my own crackers. I've done it before.


Speaking of baking, it's usually what people complain about the most when they have to go gluten-free. Honestly, I really enjoy gluten-free baking, especially with all the great new cookbooks out there. But gluten-free flours are not cheap, especially since you usually have to buy several different kinds to be successful (unless you rely on a mix). But for me these ingredients are worth it, and since I don't bake every day or necessarily every week they last me a long time. I used to love having all-purpose and whole-wheat flour on hand to bake with whenever I wanted to, and even though I require many more types of flour now, it still feels great to have them available when I get the urge to bake.

Throughout the fall, J and I lamented the loss of delicious meats and cheeses, especially the ones we devoured in Austria, France and Denmark. We wished we could afford to visit Paddy's Cheese and the Italian Centre more often. We stretched foods to make simple meals like stir-fry with silken tofu, corn and scallions. We fondly recalled the days of homemade meatballs with spaghetti and salads of beautiful, butter-soft local mixed greens. But not only did our thriftiness save us money, it also helped us discover some fantastic new recipes and good habits. It will be interesting to see what our grocery bags will look like in 2011.

January 15, 2011

Smørrebrød and Rygeost


Scandinavian food culture is not well-known in North America. You rarely see restaurants advertising Swedish, Danish or Norwegian food. I'm sure there are many reasons for this, but it definitely isn't because Scandinavia has no food culture. In fact, what's sometimes called "nordic" or "northern" food is currently wowing diners and critics at Rene Redzepi's Copenhagen restaurant, Noma. Chef Redzepi catapulted to fame when Noma was named the best restaurant in the world by San Pellegrino in 2010. Although we spent one day in Copenhagen on our trip to Denmark in August, it didn't include a visit to Noma (big surprise). But having visited Denmark twice, it looks to me like their food culture is alive and well.



One thing you see everywhere In Denmark is delicious open-faced sandwiches called Smørrebrød. They are made of thin slices of square, dense rye bread and whatever kinds of toppings you like. My Danish uncle, Eigil, makes these sandwiches to take to work for his lunch every day. He even has a special lunch box for them. It's a small plastic box with four little compartments to fit four different kinds of smørrebrød. How cute is that?


It's a very small box. You might be thinking, how can that be his whole lunch? But apparently, this rye bread, though it's thin, is so dense and fibrous that it's extremely filling. So two slices is plenty.


You can put all different kinds of things on these sandwiches. I've eaten them with pickled herrring, hardboiled eggs, tiny shrimp, mayonnaise, mustard, pickles, jam, and cheese.

There is lots of great cheese in Denmark. When we were there we ate soft, creamy blue cheese, logs of aged goat cheese, sharp, old cheddar from Ireland, and a Danish specialty called smoky cheese, or ryegost. (Danish is a difficult language to read unless you know a few rules. For example, y is pronounced like the french "u" and g's are silent. So ryegost is pronounced ru-euh-ost.)


Ryegost is a soft cheese that's very easy to make at home. We went to buy some from friends of Eigil and Lucy, an elderly couple who make it at their farmhouse. They don't sell it much anymore and they don't advertise it at their farm. But years ago they used to sell 50 to 100 cheeses every weekend.


Here's how Lucy described to me how you smoke the cheese: Put some hay in a bucket and place a metal pipe full of nettles above the bucket to keep the fire under control. Put the cheese on a kind of mesh grille over the bucket. Light a fire in the hay. The smoke will go up through the nettles to the cheese. It leaves it with a beautiful burnished brown top and a delicious, subtle smoky flavour. Right before you eat it you can sprinkle whole cumin seeds on top if you like, which Eigil loves. Smoky cheese is fantastic with all kinds of topping combinations. Eigil suggested:

mustard and pickles

butter and jam (funnily enough, there's no word for jam in Danish so everything is called marmalade)

pickled beets





Smørrebrød, and smoky cheese, isn't quite as good without the rye bread, but I still found it delicious eaten on rice cakes and great gluten-free bread we found. I also tried it with hummus, avocado, and tomato which is fantastic.

I'm sure Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia is alive with food traditions I have yet to discover. Maybe some day we'll see more Swedish bakeries and Finnish cafes opening in Canada.

January 11, 2011

The Little Red Kitchen in 2010


2010 was a year of travel. We are lucky people around here, we really are. We got to explore new parts of the world, and I even had a glorious ten-day trip home. Along the way, there were wonderful meals, amazing ingredients and lots of fun cooking.

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January - On my too-quick trip to Calgary, I ate what remains one of the best meals of the year: supper at Farm with Gina.


March - J and I went to Vancouver together for a few days to see Nixon in China at Vancouver Opera. There was lots of good food, including doughnuts at the Granville Island Market, hummus and shawarma at Nuba, Tacos at Bandidas Taquiera, and deep-fried mars bars at The Templeton Diner. The trip also included a fantastic visit with an old friend. To top it all off, Nixon in China was the most exciting and engrossing opera we've seen. They're doing it at the Canadian Opera Company this season so if you're in Toronto I definitely recommend it.


May - we went to Toronto for a culture festival with our Buddhist group for an absolutely amazing weekend. I stayed in Toronto for about a week to visit friends. Food highlights included Bi-bim-baap in Koreatown and another visit to my favourite chocolate shop.


July - My sister got married in Halifax. Not only was I the maid of honour, I also made 8 vegan wedding cakes. I was so happy to visit my hometown for the first time in two years. Bud the Spud fries, breakfast at Mary's Place, a trip to the best market ever, walking on the waterfront, lots of family time and wedding planning = some of the best fun I had all year and an absolute honour. The cakes were a hit, the wedding was fantastic, and the whole trip was amazing. I also had a wonderful meal at a favourite Halifax restaurant, Jane's On the Common, with a great friend.


August - I was off to Europe to join J for almost a month of vacation. In a year full of amazing travel, this trip was epic. A chance for J and I to explore on our own and completely relax. We also got to spend time with family who we connect with all too rarely. Many, many memorable meals and food experiences, from sausages in Vienna to macarons in Paris and smoky cheese in Denmark. I still haven't shared any stories from Denmark here but believe me, it's an amazing country.


December - It turned out our European adventures were far from over. To cap off the year, my grandmother offered us a completely unexpected Christmas trip to Rome with my family. What an incredible way to end an amazing year of travel. Being back in Europe so soon was such a treat, not to mention visiting Italy for the first time and spending the holiday with my sister, mom, grandmother, and my sister's in-laws. I want to write about Rome in more detail soon, but eating there made me love Europe and its food traditions even more.


Here in Edmonton there were some new restaurant discoveries. In my too-short career as a restaurant reviewer, we found a few favourites in 2010, especially The Bothy, Wildflower, Famoso Pizza, Sushi Wasabi and the Red Star Pub. If you love food and you live in Edmonton, you should visit these places. Some modest, some high-class, they all know what they are doing and they do it very, very well. (I'm not sure what's happening food-wise at the Red Star these days, since chef Daniel Costa has moved on to open his own downtown restaurant, Corso 32. Though I haven't visited yet, it looks like his humble, homespun Italian food with bold flavours has found a gorgeous new home.)

Despite all the life-changing travel and wonderful meals, the biggest thing that happened to me in 2010 was not a trip, but a different kind of food discovery. In July I was diagnosed with celiac disease, and the way I eat will never be the same.


Sometimes I still have to stop and remind myself that deliciously stretchy, gluten-filled breads are no longer an option for me. As much as I've accepted my new reality, when I stop to think about it, it still feels strange. I guess when you love food so much, you just don't expect to ever have such restraint in your diet. But when I think a little bit more, I realize it's not such a bad situation. I'm grateful I'm now so much more aware of my health, and I feel a lot better overall. Over the past five months, I've had so much fun experimenting with gluten-free baking at home, and discovering some gems in Edmonton's gluten-free dining scene. Most of all, I think of all the amazing foods I CAN eat. I am so grateful for cheese, one of my favourite foods (if only it wasn't so damn expensive!). As a vegetable lover, I'm so happy I can still eat them all the time. I could go on all day, but the point is, it's important to be grateful for what you have.

Over the coming months, I'm hoping to chronicle the gluten-free dining scene in Edmonton a bit more. Diet restrictions combined with lack of funds have meant we are dining out far less than we did before, but I have discovered some great gluten-free foods around town and I'd love to share them with you.

Here's to 2011! I plan to keep eating well and most of all, sharing food with the people I love.