Eating well in these hard economic times

Andreae Prozesky cheaps out.

At first, I didn’t pay much attention to this whole global economic downturn business. If anything, I felt kind of privileged to not have the burden of wealth hanging over me. It became a bit of a joke around the Food Nerd labs. “Oh heavens, our precious retirement funds, all gone! Oh, wait, we’re writers—we don’t have retirement funds. We don’t have any funds! Ha ha ha ha!” Somehow, it seems a lot funnier after that bottle of cheap, screw-top wine. But I stand by my belief that economic collapse is a lot easier to take when you don’t have a house to lose or a car to pay for or money to fall back on. You hardly even notice the change.

Until you go to the grocery store. This isn’t really a cheap-groceries town as it is, and things ain’t getting any cheaper, even though the cost of the gas that drove the prices up in the first place has dipped way down (figure that one out.) To add insult to injury, it seems everything at the Liquor Corp has gone up too. Shouldn’t booze be subsidized now, when we need it the most? We’ve still got a good, oh, four long, hungry months before the first local foods start appearing at the farmers’ markets and roadside stands, and before any good foraging can begin (although I’ll be the first one out there with my fork when the dandelions come up, let me tell you).

What on earth is a Food Nerd to do?

“More is more” is the downturn-era refrain shouted from the greater Stavangerdeen area, but buying groceries by the flat only works if you’re actually going to use what you buy. That tin of artichoke hearts the size of my head may seem like a bargain, but I know how much mayonnaise and Parmesan I’d need in order to convert all those hearts into creamy, delicious dip before they went funny. And just how flavourless would that club pack of curry powder be by the time I got halfway through it? Never mind getting out to the megashops if you’re among the city’s carless child-luggers. Practically impossible, potentially dangerous, and almost certainly unpleasant.

Clipping coupons is a smart little exercise, but most of the coupons I’ve found are put out there to promote some corporate food guy’s super-packaged insta-food. If I were looking for a discount on frozen dinners, I’d be in luck, but try finding coupons for stuff like carrots and apples and chickpeas and flour. Nobody cares about the promotion of carrots unless they’re in tetra-pack soup form. So in order to save a few bucks, I’d have to buy things that are twice as expensive as the ingredients would be to make them. I’m no math whiz, but that just sounds stunned.

Not that there aren’t bargains to be had. You know those giant slabs of cheddar and mozzarella cheese in the dairy section of the grocery store? In my carefree, college years I used to look at those with disgust, asking, “Who the hell eats that much cheddar cheese?” Well, carefree college Andreae, you’re lookin’ at her. In the mirror. Ouch. And those slabs of cheese go on sale every other week, it seems, for about half price. If you’ve got the freezer space and the elbow grease to grate them up and freeze them, you’ll keep yourself in macaroni for a good while. Grated cheese makes better grilled cheese sandwiches, too. Grated mozzarella freezes fine and makes for quick pizza-makery too, if that’s your style. I wouldn’t freeze good, expensive cheese, but if you’re going to put it in a sauce or grill it until bubbly anyway, chances are that you’ll never notice the difference.

Should you want to, say, squeeze a vegetable into your recessionista diet, might I suggest the freezer aisle? I don’t usually hang around the freezer aisle, but after having a look at what passes for a fresh vegetable right now, I’m thinking of setting up camp there. While I’m not totally down with eating frozen green beans from Belgium, they seem like a sensible alternative to their half-rotten, slimy “fresh” cousins from Chile or California or wherever they’re sliding in from this week on their black Styrofoam sleds. I know we’re supposed to be eating with the seasons, but sometimes a girl just needs a pile of green beans, you know? Interestingly enough, I did manage to find a coupon for those, in the little pamphlet that came with my canning jars last fall. Go figure.

Painful as it is to have to hold myself back from buying the big-ticket grocery items I so enjoy, I’m pretty lucky to be buying groceries at all. It could be worse, and often has been. Chins up folks, and visualize those dandelions. Spring is not far off.

Eating well in these hard economic times

Take your culinary cues from people are used to making something tasty from humble ingredients. A whole lot of people get by on lentils and beans. In the Middle East they eat brown lentils and rice stewed with cumin and garlic and topped with caramelized onions; in India they turn red lentils into deliciously spiced dahl; in Mexico refried pinto beans are a staple. And, if you’re from around here, your nan probably has a great recipe for split pea soup. Pick a spot on the map and find out what they do with beans there.

If you find nice-looking veggies on sale, buy what you can afford, stuff yourself, and then freeze what’s left. Most vegetables are best blanched before freezing: boil a big pot of water, dump your cleaned, trimmed veggies down in it, cook for about three minutes, then take the veggies out and plunge them into ice-cold water. Drain, bag, and freeze. There’s a chart with info on freezing specific vegetables here: tinyurl.com/brqncf

Want a taste of the good life? Start hitting events like cultural awards ceremonies, book launches, and art openings. Any launch or opening should have some eats on the go, but keep a sharp eye out for anything with government or corporate sponsorship; they have real catering budgets, which means mini-quiches and sausage rolls, baby. If you’re the type to feel guilty for showing up at an event and not buying the thing being celebrated, avoid the book launches and go for the art gallery hoo-haws. In these hard economic times, nobody expects you to drop hundreds or thousands of dollars on a painting or photograph, but they can’t fault you for wanting to observe a bit of beauty. Take in some art, and walk away with some inspiration in your soul and some gouda in your belly.

Send your questions, comments, and frugal suggestions to dreae@thescope.ca