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.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Cooking Poor:
White sauce, creamed vegetables

The French refer to White Sauce, which I wrote about here, as a “mother sauce” because it provides the foundation for a host of variations. If you’re living poor, it’s a miracle for stretching food that costs only pennies. Your grandmother knew it. If you’re lucky, your mom knew it, too.

These days, white sauce isn’t something home cooks whip up regularly for weekday meals. More’s the pity. So-called creamed dishes—meats, leftovers, and particularly vegetables added to a basic white sauce—make great comfort food. They can be served as a side, or as a main dish spooned over rice or slices of toast. Excellent “living poor” food that makes your leftovers and vegetables go twice as far.

Unadulterated white sauce has a particular affinity for cooked vegetables, which reveal unexpected flavours when the two come together. Root vegetables like carrots or turnips become less aggressive and develop a pleasant sweetness. Scalloped potatoes (sliced potatoes and onions baked in white sauce) are their own brand of delicious. Equally good, if less fancy, are cubed, cooked potatoes added directly to the sauce—useful to know when you’re down to just a few shrivelling spuds. Green and yellow vegetables like peas, beans, celery, corn, and squashes undergo subtle transformations that reveal new sides to their character. Spinach and chard loose any residual bitterness and turn comfortingly rich. Anything in the cabbage family can be creamed, including broccoli, as can boiled white or yellow onions.

All that’s required for creamed vegetables is a quantity of white sauce and a quantity of cooked vegetables. The basic recipe for white sauce gives one cup, but it can be doubled endlessly. The vegetables should be cubed or sliced, not too thinly, and cooked simply by steaming or boiling. Combine the two in the pot you use to make the sauce and keep warm over low heat so the mixture doesn’t boil.

It often happens that when you add the vegetables, the sauce becomes a little too thick. Thin it with small amounts of milk, which can be cold, to bring it to the desired consistency.

A favourite creamed dish of mine is cabbage. Cabbages are a vegetable of choice when you’re living poor, at least here in Canada, because they’re inexpensive, filling, and nutritious. What’s more, they grow everywhere, ship easily, require minimal refrigeration, and keep for ages—qualities we should look for in our supermarket produce in order to slow the destruction of planet Earth. Reducing the harm done when money exchanges hands is one of the guiding principles of living poor.

Here’s my gussied-up version of creamed cabbage, the one I use when serving guests.

Creamed Cabbage

4 tbsp butter
4 tbsp flour
1-3/4 cups hot milk
1/2 tsp salt
freshly cracked pepper
1 small or 1/2 large head cabbage
buttered breadcrumbs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Shred cabbage, place in a large, heavy-bottomed pot, add a little water, and steam, covered, for 20 minutes. Drain and transfer to a casserole.

Make a white sauce of the butter, flour, milk, salt, and pepper. Season well with freshly grated nutmeg. Pour over the cabbage, cover with buttered breadcrumbs, and bake until bubbly and golden brown.

Next: White Sauce variations

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Cooking Poor:
Basic White Sauce

It has been said that one of the most subversive things you can do these days is grow your own food. Supermarket chains, and the food processing and shipping conglomerates that support them, don’t want you raising your own crops. They can’t make money from it. Heaven forfend consumers should also be producers. With a small plot of land—say, the size of a suburban backyard—your beets, potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, tomatoes, beans, squashes, and herbs cost virtually nothing but the time devoted to their cultivation. A kitchen garden deprives global food corporations of the only crop they harvest: money.

Living poor, especially in the city, you probably don’t own a patch of arable land despite being a person far more likely to cultivate it than the urban landowners who do. The kitchen garden “movement” is a great conscience-easer for the middle-class and wealthier, but is meaningless and insulting to the poor.

A more attainable way to give the finger to greed is to learn to cook your own food from scratch. Not the “seared Kobe beef with pancetta lardons and tarragon-balsamic vinegar reduction” cooking worshipped by pretentious urban foodies, but real home cooking, whose foundation is economy.

As with most of what used to be called the domestic arts, basic cooking skills are viewed as optional by many foodie dabblers. They either mistake expensive ingredients and exotic products for solid technique, or protest that learning somehow interferes with creativity, or are simply undisciplined frauds wearing the borrowed colours of a professional chef.

I’m alarmed at times by the number of people I know who don’t know how to mash potatoes, cook rice, steam vegetables, roast fowl, make stock, and a host of other fundamental kitchen skills. Without those skills, you wind up paying to have someone else prepare your food, either by purchasing processed approximations of the real thing or by supporting the hugely wasteful restaurant industry.

I’ve been preparing my own food and feeding households on a limited budget for years. I’ve already written a few food-themed articles in this blog, and am now beginning to realize I should incorporate more. Living poor and eating well is something I’ve spend decades practising. The time has come to share the fruits of my experience.

Good, practical cooking is largely a question of creating variety out of a small number of staples combined with fresh, unprocessed ingredients. One of the essentials to achieving this is knowing how to make White Sauce.

Foodies balk whenever I say White Sauce, preferring the la-dee-dah term, béchamel, unless, of course, they’re so far misguided by snobbery that their noses crinkle at the very thought of pre-nouvelle cuisine. They’re wrong in any case. Béchamel is a white sauce variation, not the thing itself.

White Sauce is a combination of milk, butter, and flour that produces a medium-thick, pleasantly mild sauce that serves as a sort of culinary blank slate for all sorts of foods and flavours. For budget-limited cooks, it is the “extender” par excellence, and for that reason alone deserves its place as one of the foundations of home cooking.

White Sauce Recipe

1 cup of milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon salt*
*If your butter is salted, reduce this quantity by half

Begin by heating the milk, either in a double-boiler until steam starts to rise off the surface, or for 1 minute in the microwave.

While the milk is heating, melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Do not let the butter brown.

When the butter’s melted, reduce the heat to low and stir in the flour and salt. Let the roux, as the flour and butter mixture is called, cook for 1 minute, then remove it from the heat until the milk is ready. Do not let the roux brown.

Return the heat to medium and set the saucepan back on the burner. Using a whisk, incorporate the hot milk into the roux a little at a time, whisking constantly so the two blend together smoothly.

Continue cooking and stirring until the sauce achieves a medium-thick consistency. Do not let it boil, as this imparts an unwanted sweetness. I use a wooden spoon for the last bit of stirring because it’s easier to keep the sauce from sticking to the bottom and sides of the pan.

Season with a few twists from the peppermill and, for a wonderfully pleasant flavour that marries beautifully with all sorts of foods, a small grating of nutmeg.

That’s it. Perfect white sauce, ready for whatever use you can think of.

In my next food-related article, I’ll discuss some of the things you can do with our marvellous culinary blank slate.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Living poor, Part II:
Spend less, do less harm

I wrote in my blog post June 24 that money is the lifebood of civilization. We cannot function without it.

In any large-scale social grouping, two attributes, paradoxically opposed, are needed for survival: self-sufficiency and cooperation. We have to be able to accomplish some tasks on our own, and to work together to accomplish others. Money provides a framework for achieving both. Self-sufficiency comes from financial independence—the ability to buy what one needs—and cooperation in the form of income-earning work. It’s all conceptual, of course, illusory. Real self-sufficiency is making everything you need yourself and raising your own food, while true cooperation happens for no other reason than there’s need. Without money, few of us are truly self-sufficient, and without a steady paycheck, few of us prepared to work in needful joint endeavours.

This is not to cast aspersions, but rather to underline why money is essential. The notion of “value”, transferable between goods, services, and labour through the use of symbolic tokens, eases the burden of self-sufficiency and provides an incentive for cooperation.

No, we cannot do without money. And yet...

– the produce you buy at the supermarket is shipped from half a world away, creating a huge carbon footprint; most of it is grown as destructive monoculture crops; chemical pesticides, fertilizers and significant water diversion were likely involved; underpaid and unprotected migrant workers or impoverished native populations were used to harvest it

– the clothing you purchase was almost certainly made in a sweatshop

– the gasoline you fill your tank with on the way to work pollutes the atmosphere; wars are fought to keep the oil it comes from flowing

– money from the pills you buy enriches companies who manufacture deadly chemicals that enter the biosphere; the same companies then turn around and sell you drugs to treat the diseases they have caused

– the house you’re paying too much for—or selling for too much—inflates the cost of real estate, impoverishing millions and dooming many to homelessness

– the electricity you burn through comes from dirty, coal-fired generators, unsafe nuclear plants, and land-destroying damns

– the insurance premiums you pay on your hourse, your car, your belongings are invested in corporations that operate without regard to human rights, safety, or dignity; the environment is treated with the same contempt

– the treat you give yourself for being a wage-slave—a resort holiday on some impoverished island—adds to global warming when you fly there and come back, and furthers the social inequity endemic to poor nations

And that’s just what happens when you spend money. For many, earning it has consequences equally as dire. Flipping burgers at a fast-food joint contributes to the epidemic of obesity afflicting North America and encourages destructive land-use policies. Working for a financial institution means you’re helping those without a conscience play with capital—buying, selling, investing—wrecking lives and the environment without a second thought. Your factory job depends on manufactured obsolescence. Your farming job requires you to plant and harvest crops that have been modified so that the seed can’t be collected and you have to pay each year for something nature gives for free. Your teaching job demands that you train worker drones to feed the maw of finance rather than instructing students to become mature and thinking members of society.

If money is the lifeblood of civilization, then we must conclude that, at present, the blood is poisoned. Virtually every time we spend it, we are doing harm somewhere, and the hours we put in earning it are scarcely less damaging. There is no escaping; we must earn and spend in order to survive, yet doing so incurs a host of evils which, if left unchecked, threaten to destroy the Earth.

“Living poor”, as I have come to call my way of life, is not intended as a solution. It is not a cure. It is a response, an individual commitment not to worsen things, to minimize the damage done by money. It is a decision to devote oneself to real productivity and fruitful pursuits. It begins by valuing one’s social, creative, intellectual, and spiritual aptitudes higher than a paycheque, thereby enabling a life of conscience, not expedience. The choice is hard since it means limiting expenditures, forgoing convenience, overcoming laziness, and acquiring skills the poor the world over practise to survive.

Living poor need not be all-or-nothing; taken to extremes it risks fanaticism. Rather, it’s a guiding ethos, best described by questions: Am I learning to survive with less and still feel full? Am I maximizing the utility of everything I buy? Am I sharing what I can, even it it means I have to tighten up my belt? Am I seeking entertainment in the company of others, not expensive toys? Can I ask for help in need, knowing that I give it freely?

Living poor, as I see it, is taking on the role of conscientious objector in a war that’s being waged against the Earth and all humanity. The poor are not responsible for plundering the globe and spreading misery to every hemisphere. The poor don’t waste. The poor don’t wage imperial wars. The poor don’t despoil the environment. Furthermore, the poor know how to share. The poor know how to sacrifice. The poor know how to work together. Joining them by learning to get by with next to nothing will not stop the war, but it minimizes harm and announces that you won’t partake in something that runs contrary to conscience.