Back to... routine? School? Basics? Work? All of the above for you?
Here comes the Labour Day weekend, summer's last hurrah, and unless you're retired or eccentric enough to fall outside such cultural responses, a certain amount of dread fills our boots this time of year as we gear up for the juggernaut crunching too much everything into too little time. That includes keeping ourselves fed.
Last weekend's storm didn't help the feeling that we have to trade the simplicity of summer for the weight of things to come, but to heck with that.
First off, grab the barby, portable or otherwise, or your picnic kit and get out and enjoy at least one meal outdoors this weekend. Note I didn't use the term al fresco.
Yes, it's Italian, but Italians never use it to refer to outdoor dining like North Americans do. In fact, if you're going to Italy, I hope you don't have to use it at all, for it pretty much translates as "in the cooler," meaning just what we do when we say it in Canada — in jail, prison, Sing Sing. (In Italy, you might want to try all'aperto or all'aria aperata instead when you want to dine outside.)
Given the labourious regime just around the corner, to keep you in the cool in the kitchen, rather than "in the cooler," here are three easy-peasy fundamentals:
1. Go for flavour. Simple ingredients that taste fabulous can enhance a meal in a hurry or turn a school lunch into a feast. The Dirty Apron Cooking School in Vancouver did culinary boot camps for kids and teens one year and they were amazed to discover what kids liked when they were literally guided by their own tastes. Goat cheese, for one. A little of that or some high-powered tapenade can transform an ordinary sandwich or salad into a miracle.
2. Go fresh or go home. For years Costco memberships have been a consumer badge of honour. Don't get me wrong. I totally get that when you have a family it can make a sense to shop in quantity. But for one or two people in a household? Come on. Buying "super-sized" groceries, especially fresh produce, meat and dairy, usually leads to waste — waste of money, waste of food, waste of time. Better to take a tip from the way Europeans think of clothes: better to have a few really good quality elements you can mix and match from, rather than a pile of junk. In the food zone, translate that to buying what you need as you need it, with point No. 3 in mind.
3. Quality counts major. To start, see the recipe below and the point above. When you're in the kitchen and trying to keep life and time commitments simple, it usually means using simple recipes, so every ingredient counts. This, of course, is anathema to our consumerist culture where the rule is buy, buy, buy — the more the cheaper, the better, so going for quality over quantity becomes an interesting political exercise as well.
And quality doesn't necessarily mean expensive. A recent CBC report on breaking the "starving student" syndrome said one Vancouver student budgeted $100 for groceries and $20 for coffee a month, but learned her spending was closer to $250 and $50. Spending $250 a month on groceries might sound expensive, but it isn't compared to buying meals in restaurants or even delis.
So let's see how to harness these fundamentals. For one, try grilling a whack of veggies, this week, any week. Not only will it remind you of those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, you can refrigerate them for days of fast, healthy eating. (Dieticians are always pointing out we need to eat more veggies! And we do.)
With a little practice, you'll perfect perfectly caramelized, grilled veggies that are much less expensive and less oily than their commercial counterparts. Potato wedges or chunks of squash; green and red peppers; eggplant or sweet potato slices are all excellent candidates.
Simply place all your slices or chunks in a bowl, drizzle over a good vegetable oil (we like olive oil), rub the oil over the veggies with your hands, then grill over medium heat for golden brown outsides and soft, delicious insides. Make sure you turn them frequently so they don't get too dark. These are great for a party platter, too. If you want to jazz them up, drizzle over an oil/vinegar combo with some fresh chopped basil or marjoram, or try a Nonna Pia's reduction, before serving.
Another easy-peasy back-to-work-school-routine tip is the recipe below. In Alberta, we called it 5-cup salad, but now people call it "ambrosia" and so it is. It's so delicious it makes you smile and it takes, like, five seconds to make. Another plus: this dish keeps well and it's versatile — a 10 as a dessert, a salad, a side dish or lunch.
You might want to make a double batch, especially if you have kids at home, because everybody dips into it early and often. We've even had if for brekkie with a fresh croissant — it's got enough gusto to fuel you for hours in the days ahead.
Happy eating as you sail back to basics! Stay cool…
5 cup salad
- 1 cup commercial sour cream
- 1 cup canned mandarin orange segments (drained)
- 1 cup flaked or shredded coconut (not toasted)
- 1 cup pineapple tidbits (drained)
- 1 cup miniature marshmallows
Combine and refrigerate overnight, or at least eight hours.
NOTE: The old adage “use only the finest ingredients” is always wise but in a simple recipe like this one, it’s especially smart. In this recipe sour cream is key, so go for the good stuff. Avalon Dairy in Burnaby makes a good one. But Vito Dairy on Palm Avenue also in Burnaby, makes an even better one — the bacterial culture does all the work so no thickeners are needed. You can usually find it at delis that specialize in Polish, Ukrainian or other Eastern European foods. Great on perogies, too.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who wishes summer holidays were 10 months and regular life was two.