Monday, September 16, 2013

And He Built a Crooked House...

The mall experience is something I avoid whenever possible. Rare’s the time I find what I’m looking for. But last Saturday, I donned my biking gloves and knapsack and headed over to the St-Laurent Shopping Centre.

I had three items on my list: ink for my printer, new jeans, and a new pair of sneakers.

St-Laurent is as horrible as any other mall. It’s an expressionist nightmare where no corridor proceeds in parallel with any other. Entrances and exits, or the escalators up and down, seem to recede as you approach them. The only thing that’s missing for a truly Kaligari-esque experience are looming shadows on the walls, and that’s only because the weirdly artificial light casts no shadows at all.

It’s a house of mirrors, too. Halls that led you to the shoe store yesterday today deposit you outside the food court—Heinlein’s And He Built a Crooked House made manifest.

The Printwell service counter is conveniently located just inside a southern entrance. I approve of Printwell. They exist to screw the system, filling up your printer cartridge for a fraction of the cost of a replacement. My old bird’s been going for a couple of years now thanks to them.

I dropped my cartridge off, and was told it would be ready in about a half an hour, time to pick up jeans and sneakers. I know my jean size (30-34) and my shoe size (12), so it seemed a simple matter of finding what I needed on the shelves.

I started with the sneakers. All my life, I’ve favoured canvas running shoes. They’re comfortable, cheap, and practical. I’m a jeans and T-shirt kind of guy, so they don’t look out of place. And they’ve been around forever. Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine devotes a whole chapter to them. Besides, fashionable footwear angers me. I want function over branding. I’m not vain enough to think a logo magically transforms me into something that I’m not.

St-Laurent has seven shoe stores, four sporting goods stores, and two department stores—more than enough to find a pair of size twelve canvas runners. I like high-tops, but I’m not that fussy; ordinary low cuts are fine.

Could I find what I was looking for? Not a chance. I added a mile or so of wear to my already worn-out sneakers traipsing through the mall, checking every one of those thirteen stores. Only three had canvas sneakers. The offerings at Payless Shoes had quilted padding and cost 3x what I paid the last time for unquilted ones. Footlocker had Converse, but the sales person shook his head when I enquired about size twelve.

I felt a glimmer of hope at SportCheck, where they had both Converse and size twelves. The glimmer faded when I asked price: sixty-five dollars. “You’re paying for the name,” the clerk said sympathetically when I pointed out the shoes were made of canvas, rubber, and a little bit of foam.

If I’m paying for a name, that name had better be along the lines of Stradivarius or Fabergé, not something as supremely inconsequential as eight letters in a circle on the ankles of my running shoes!

Sneakers off the list, I attacked the jeans. Besides the two department stores, St-Laurent boasts eighteen clothing retailers, including two that specialize in jeans. The plethora of choices offered was staggering: boot cut, straight cut, classic cut, slim fit, comfortable fit, high waist, low-riders, button fly, zipper... Some were even ordinary denim blue. But the only choice that mattered—30-34—was nowhere to be found. Not in one of twenty stores.

I couldn’t believe it. There I was, in a temple to commerce, in a day and age where economic pundits and other lackeys of the über-rich prattle on about competition and consumer choice, and not one single competitive price or useful choice was to be found.

Angered at this sham of “giving consumers what they want”, and disgusted by the propaganda that supports it, I went back to Printwell, paid a reasonable price for my unbranded black ink, and left.

Outside, the sun cast comfortingly real shadows on the ground.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Cooking Poor:
Making yoghurt at home

If your reaction to the subject of this article is Ew, I don’t like yoghurt, then go away. I’ll be preaching to the choir.

Yoghurt is miracle. Milk plus some bacteria equals one of the oldest treats known to mankind. While I’m sure it’s terribly good for you, as so many claim, what matters most is that it’s delicious and keeps for weeks. I may use coffee to kickstart my brain, but it’s that morning bowl of yoghurt that makes my days worth facing.

If you embrace the principles of “living poor,” making yoghurt at home fits right in.

First off, you’re manufacturing something yourself rather than paying someone to do it for you—in this case, the dairy industry. The people who profit when you buy processed milk products at the supermarket aren’t dairy farmers, but stockholders invested in supermarket chains and the food conglomerates supplying them. While we can’t avoid the dairy industry when it comes to basics like milk, butter, and cheese, we can give it the finger by making yoghurt at home.

Secondly, the environmental damage caused by unnecessary processing of foods is reduced every time you make a product marketers would have you thinking it’s easier, or better, or faster, or simpler to buy—yoghurt, especially flavoured yoghurts, being a classic example.

Making yoghurt is no trouble at all, and litre for litre costs the same as milk. Where I live, a container of supermarket yoghurt comparable in flavour to what I make at home costs four times what I pay for the equivalent amount of milk.

Yoghurt enthusiasts on the Web have their hearts in the right place, but may be doing a disservice because of their excessive emphasis on getting temperatures perfect. There are thousands of articles out there telling you to heat the milk to such-and-such a precise temperature, then let it cool to such-and-such another precise temperature, then let it incubate at yet another precise temperature.

Bollocks! In thirty years of making yoghurt, I have never touched a thermometer. Here’s the skinny on how to make real, no-fuss, no-worry yoghurt.

Pour any quanitity of milk you like into a thick-bottomed pot. Heat, stirring contantly, until it begins to foam. Reduce the heat and simmer for two minutes, still stirring constantly. Milk has an awful tendency to boil over.

Remove the pot from the element and let the milk cool until it passes the baby-bottle wrist test, typically half an hour.

Pour the milk into a clean bowl and stir in a tablespoon or so of your last batch of yoghurt. If you’re making yoghurt for the very first time, buy a small container of good, unflavoured commercial yoghurt and use a tablespoon of that instead.

Cover the bowl with a lid or plate, and set it in the oven with the oven light turned on. Leave for 12 hours.

Voilà! A bowl of yoghurt, ready to be cooled. I usually pass a whisk through it a couple of times to incorporate any whey (the clear liquid that rises to the top) before transfering it to a smaller pot for storage in the fridge.

The consistency of homemade yoghurt is a little runnier than commercial offerings, which often use lecithin, egg-white powder, and other thickeners. Why, I do not know. Extending the product, maybe, so manufacturers can squeeze another dollar out of a litre of milk? At any rate, the 2-minute simmering evaporates excess water from the milk and ensures a thick, unctuous, honest yoghurt.

The flavour is generally better than bought yoghurt, and you can increase the tanginess by letting the yoghurt incubate longer. I like a good, “bright” yoghurt, and have found 12 hours to be just about right.

The essence of living poor, cooking poor, is summed up by making yoghurt at home. It costs less than buying, it robs food conglomerates of inauthentically-generated profit, it contributes to the well-being of the Earth by reducing wasteful and destructive over-processing, it diminishes the carbon footprint of shipping, and it tastes fantastic. How perfect is that?

Friday, August 9, 2013

Cooking Poor:
Whole wheat quick breads

Bread. I adore the stuff no matter what form it comes in. I’ve often said a bread and water diet would present no hardship for me, provided the bread were good.

When you’re living poor, bread really is the staff of life, a superb source of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, complex carbohydrates and dietary fibre. All of which is secondary to the fact that bread is filling, something that’s important when you’re trying to spend the least amount of money possible on food.

In the broadest terms, bread is nothing more than flour or meal mixed with liquid to make a dough, then heated. Every culture in the world makes bread in some form or another, whether it’s French baguettes, Jewish challah, Mexican tortillas, Lebanese pita, or Indian nan.

For most North Americans, bread means a yeast-risen loaf—basically, the stuff you buy in plastic bags at the supermarket. The problem there, of course, is that you’re paying an industry to make something that you could be making yourself, and the cheap offerings, like Wonderbread, simply don't deliver the flavour and nutrition of an honest loaf.

Baking beautiful, whole wheat loaves is an activity I do regularly, but I won’t lie: It’s a lengthy process that ties you to the kitchen for a couple of hours, and it’s a skill that takes practice. Well worth it, but even we dedicated bakers need alternatives to yeast-risen breads for those times when we want a simple, no-fuss loaf.

So-called “quick breads” are breads leavened with baking soda or baking powder instead of yeast. Other than Irish soda bread, which is sui generis, they require sugar in some form or another in order to produce a good texture, or “crumb”, as bakers call it. Consequently, most quick bread recipes you come across are quite sweet and fall into the dessert category, like zucchini bread or date-and-nut loaf. While delicious, they’re not as useful dietarily as regular yeast breads. For example, you wouldn’t want to make a tuna sandwich on banana bread.

I made it a project of mine some years ago to come up with a quick loaf that could stand in for yeast bread and be as suitable dripping with marmalade as bracketing a tomato sandwich. The following two recipes are the fruits of my labours. Despite their seeming similarity, each produces a distinctly different loaf. The one with corn syrup has the sturdier crumb of the two and a faint sweetness that brings out the flavour of the whole wheat. The molasses loaf has a slightly denser crumb with a paradoxically more delicate texture. The molasses does not predominate, but adds complexity and richness. Both toast beautifully—an essential quality in any useful bread—and both make great sandwiches.

A couple of baking tips:
    Always sift your dry ingredients, no matter that many cookbooks swear it isn’t necessary. Aside from ensuring even distribution of the flour and leavening agent, sifting loosens and aerates the flour, which benefits every kind of baking.
    When a recipe calls for buttermilk, which is expensive, put a tablespoon or so of vinegar in the measuring cup, then fill it to the desired measure with milk. Let sit for five minutes to sour.
    When a recipe calls a sticky liquid, such as molasses, along with oil, use the same measuring cup for both, and measure the oil first. Afterwards, the sticky stuff will pour out cleanly, leaving only a small drop at the lip.
    Do not overbake. Ever. Dry baked goods are nearly always the result of overbaking, not an inferior recipe.

Whole Wheat Quick Bread #1

1-1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup corn syrup
1/4 cup vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 9-1/2 x 5 inch loaf pan or equivalent.

Sift together the flours, baking soda, salt, sugar, and baking powder. Make a well in the middle.

In another bowl, mix together the buttermilk, oil, and corn syrup. Pour into the well. Stir just enough to combine. Transfer the batter to the loaf pan.

Bake 45-50 minutes. Turn the loaf out onto a wire rack and cover with a damp cloth while it cools.

Whole Wheat Quick Bread #2

2 cups whole-wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1-1/2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup molasses
1/4 cup vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 9-1/2 x 5 inch loaf pan or equivalent.

Sift together the flours, baking soda, salt, sugar, and baking powder. Make a well in the middle.

In another bowl, mix together the buttermilk, oil, and molasses. Pour into the well. Stir just enough to combine. Transfer the batter to the loaf pan.

Bake 40-50 minutes. Turn the loaf out onto a wire rack and cover with a damp cloth while it cools.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

My excellent neighbours—an object lesson

I want to hold myself up as an object of ridicule and humiliation. I would also like to hold myself up as an object lesson.

We were having a heat-wave the summer John and James and I moved into our apartment. The next-door neighbours had—have—a swimming pool. I didn’t know them; I could only see them over the fence, splashing about in their oasis of turquoise bliss.

I’m big on sharing and hard on hoarding, and it seemed unconscionable to me, during one of Ottawa’s filthy heat waves, not to offer us escape from the swelter and humidity. I judged them harshly, those people I didn’t know, and wrote an article, Swimming pool communist, in which I painted them in shades contemptuous and damning. I accused them of being bourgeois, hermetic, smug, and insensitive to the reality of Vanier, which is mostly Franco slum.

Three years have passed, and for three years, that momentary eruption of heat-induced name-calling has been sticking in my craw. Communist is an article I should never have written, at least not with our neighbours as the springboard. I was so very wrong to judge them.

Their names are Carole (accent on the last syllable) and René. They’ve lived in the same lovingly-maintained house for thirty-five years with never a thought of flipping it for profit. They’ve weathered the changes inflicted on Vanier by the city of Ottawa, from working-class quarter to crackwhore ridden slum. Not just weathered, but adapted to with humour, grace, and understanding. René’s been in roofing and construction since forever. Carole embodies everything the archetypal version of a mother, now a grandmother, should be. Their marriage had some rocky patches, but they persevered, as couples used to do, and now they complete each other in a partnership to warm the heart.

I properly met Carole the first time at a yard sale. I’d been looking for a sink strainer, one of those slotted plastic inserts you tuck in a corner of the sink to collect vegetable peelings and whatnot, that have inexplicably vanished from the store shelves. Lo and behold, there on a table on their lawn was the very thing for which I'd been hunting. Carole and I exchanged a few words in French and English, which is pretty much the norm in linguistically schizophrenic Vanier, where anglophones are anglophone but francophones are fluently bilingual. The nature of the object I was buying prompted kitchen talk, whence Carole and I discovered a shared love of baking.

I don't recall who took that first plate of cookies or slice of pie next door, but soon enough, sharing and comparing what we whipped up in the oven turned us into real neighbours. Carole invited me to help make doughnuts for some little-league hockey blow-out; I showed her the secrets of perfect pie pastry. One thing led to another, and soon enough, Carole, René, and I were friends.

They are a couple who exemplify decency, generosity, and open-heartedness. They are as comfortable asking for neighbourly help—say, cat-sitting—as they are offering it: the propane barbeque I so love in the summer was a gift, someone's rusting piece of junk restored to working order by René. They fix, recycle, and re-use everything. What they no longer have use for, they offer first to neighbours before donating to the Sally Ann. Not for them the Brave New World mantra of consumerism, “Ending is better than mending.”

(You haven't read BNW? Go back to school! Oh, right. . . they don’t teach it in school anymore. How convenient for our corporate masters.)

There’s something wonderfully, almost magically, anachronistic about Carole and René. René goes bowling twice a week. Carole still hangs her laundry on the line, winter and summer. She kvetches about being a widow during hockey season. He rolls his eyes when she makes him come with her to Fabricville. He recycles old metal. She makes quilts—gorgeous quilts—for newborns at the Children’s Hospital and army veterans. They enrol their grandkids in soapbox derbies. Soapbox derbies! Who even knows what those are anymore? And they do everything together. Carole’s as handy with tools as René is with the washing.

Two years ago, René built a covered porch for Carole, a place for her to sip her tea, quilt, and watch the world go by. I’m often invited to sit with her. We’ve got a system going that beats telephones and texting. When she wants me to come over, she stands at her back door and rings a little crystal bell she picked up god-knows-where. The tinkling’s my signal that it’s time for tea and chatting. René, leery of the eccentricity at first, himself now rings from time to time—always way too long—and grins from ear to ear when, summoned, I appear.

So go on, laugh at me. Call me names. Accuse me of hypocrisy. I deserve it. I’m always holding forth about not judging people till you know them, yet three years ago I looked across a fence at people I had yet to meet and damned them publicly, or as publicly as blogs that no one reads allow. I could not have been more wrong, either in the making or the substance of my judgment.

When you look across a fence, be it real or virtual—a border or a shallow strip of muddy water or an economic difference—don’t judge the people on the other side until you get to know them.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Cooking Poor:
White sauce variations

In my last post, I discussed creamed vegetables, which are a delicious way to make your vegetables go further. Flavour is everything when you’re living poor because ill-prepared or tasteless food has a dampening effect on one’s spirits. The difference between living poor and living in poverty is that the former emphasizes living, while the latter emphasizes deprivation. Attitude is everything. Whether you’re poor by choice or circumstance, extracting the best from everything you buy brings satisfaction, pride, and even joy.

Once you’ve mastered white sauce—and mastered is really too strong a verb for something so easy—you have at your disposal a foundation for endless variations to accompany meat, poultry, and fish. Overall, when living poor, flesh is a terrible economy and should be avoided. However, when you do come across specials in the supermarket freezer, it makes a wonderful treat, even if the quality is usually not Grade A. That’s where the art of saucing comes in.

You’re really only limited by your imagination when it comes turning white sauce into a delicious partner for other foods. The French have all sorts of fancy names for the variations: Mornay for cheese sauce, Forestière for mushroom sauce, etc. I prefer the common, descriptive English names, which make the sauces sound more down-to-earth and accessible to home cooks. There’s probably a bit of reverse snobbery involved, too.

Here are four suggestions for things you can do with white sauce to get you started.

Cheese Sauce: Add 3/4 - 1 cup of full-flavoured, grated cheese(s) to 1 cup of white sauce. Season with a pinch each of cayenne pepper and dry mustard. White sauce brings out the flavour of cheese and lets you get the most out of those plastic-wrapped rectangles sold in supermarkets.

Aside from being a classic accompaniment to cauliflower, which is inexpensive and can be grown locally throughout most of North America—two qualities always to watch for in your food—cheese sauce is fabulous over meat loaf.

Mushroom Sauce: Also called mushroom gravy. Add 3/4 cup of chopped raw mushrooms to 1 cup of white sauce and heat gently over low heat for 10 minutes. Season with generous gratings of nutmeg; mushrooms love nutmeg.

Mushrooms have practically no nutritional value, so they’re best kept off the menu when you’re living poor. However, the deliciousness of mushroom sauce justifies their occasional purchase, especially since the quantity is small. Also, I'm not sure why raw mushrooms produce a better flavour than cooked—it seems to break culinary common sense—but they do.

Mushroom gravy is the perfect sauce to serve with oven-broiled chicken (recipe below).

Egg Sauce: Increase the quantity of milk in the basic white sauce recipe by 1/3 cup. Add two chopped, hardboiled eggs and season with a splash of Tobasco. The Tobasco adds no heat, and its flavour is essential to the sauce.

Egg sauce is one of the great comfort foods, and is the sauce of choice to go over salmon loaf (recipe below), an oft-overlooked traditional poor-man’s food.

Parsley Sauce: Add 1/3 -1/2 cup chopped curly parsley to the white sauce and let it warm for a few minutes. Aside from being excellent with fish, parsley sauce over plain, boiled potatoes is a real treat.

Curly parsley should be part of every economical kitchen. It’s inexpensive to buy, and can even be grown in a pot indoors. It keeps for ages in the refrigerator, and is a great herb for rounding out the flavour of dishes that “seem to be missing something”. Plus it’s loaded with iron.

Don’t make the foodie mistake of thinking Italian flat-leaf parsley is superior to curly parsley. Italian parsley has a pepperiness that’s works with some dishes, but is entirely inappropriate for others. Both are delicious, but real cooks, as opposed to Food Network junkies, know when to use which.

Oven-broiled Chicken

3 - 4 lb chicken
3 tbsp oil
freshly cracked pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cut the chicken into parts. Lightly oil a shallow baking dish; glass is best, I find. Rub the chicken pieces with the remaining oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place the chicken skin side up in the oiled dish and bake until just done, approximately 30 - 45 minutes. Do not under any circumstance overcook.

For whatever reason, this simple way of doing chicken is the best. I find it preferable to roasting a whole chicken. The skin is crispy, the flavour rich and honest, and the flesh nice and moist.

Salmon Loaf

3 tins salmon, drained
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
4 tbsp soft butter
1 tbsp chopped curly parsley
1 onion, diced fine
salt and pepper
Worcestershire sauce
2 eggs, slightly beaten

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mix all the ingredients in a bowl with your hands. Pat into a buttered loaf pan (again, I find glass is best). Set the loaf pan in 1 inch of hot water in larger pan and bake 30 - 35 minutes. Let the loaf rest a few minutes before slicing.

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Missives from the Edge by Peter Schaffter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.