Thinking Outside the Box, Literally

Life is full of clichés and the one about breakfast being the most important meal of the day is one that holds true. Breakfast boosts lagging blood sugars and fuels us for the day. Given the fact that this is the first food we feed our starving bodies and brains, it would make sense to choose something really nutritious. That’s another reason why I don’t serve breakfast cereal often.

“What do you eat for breakfast then?”

Around here we have very loose ideas of what breakfast food should be. So we’ll eat whatever is around that fills and fuels us for the day. Here is a list of some non-typical weekday breakfasts we might eat to start the day:
-egg fried rice
-pasta with butter and garlic or pesto
-frozen dumplings
-bean and cheese quesadilla
-leftovers from last night’s dinner. This could be just about anything: pasta, noodles, pizza, soup, stir fry, steak and potatoes. Anything.

But we also eat some typical breakfast foods:
-frozen homemade waffles, pancakes or muffins
-French toast
-eggs, omelettes
-homemade granola or muesli with yogurt
-hot cereal (not the instant kind): any combination of oats, barley flakes, quinoa flakes, triticale flakes…

And I’ll round out the breakfast with milk, fruit and sometimes even veggies or a fruit and yogurt smoothie.

“How do you find the time to make breakfast?”

Honestly, boiling up some water for pasta or stir frying rice and eggs takes about as much time as putting the kettle on and making a Bodum-full of coffee.

You get the idea. Pretty much anything goes as long as we have a balanced meal (yes, including all the proverbial food groups) and avoid falling into the clutches of highly processed breakfast cereal. Can your household do without cereal? Think outside of the cereal box and strip away your notion of what breakfast food should be and you’ll come up with a ton of new, quick, more-nutritious-than-cereal alternatives to start your day.

Soup Makes Friends

“Ginger tea makes friends.” ~James Barber

James Barber, the Urban Peasant, got it right. Sharing a hot pot of ginger tea draws people in and opens conversations. A lovely way to make new acquaintances.

For me it was soup.

Last year our son’s elementary school was soliciting silent auction items for a fundraiser. When schools are on the crackdown for cash, they’re pretty happy about any kind of donation: food, gift certificates for stores, services, restaurants. I don’t like canvassing for donations so I couldn’t see myself doing that. I had squeezed out a few knitted items to donate. I desperately wanted to donate something unique, creative and meaningful. Then I came up with an idea for a personal service: The Soup of the Month Club.

For one year, I would deliver soup once a month to the Soup of the Month Club household. It would be made entirely from scratch and catered to the food preferences of the recipients using seasonal, local ingredients whenever possible. In our fast-paced, busy lives, it’s hard to find time to slow down, cook and share a meal. I wanted to create a time, even though it would be only once a month, where parents wouldn’t have to worry about what to make for dinner and the family could sit down, share a nourishing meal and build community around the table.

So I submitted my auction item, not knowing if anyone would be interested since it’s not the run-of-the-mill donation. I was pleased that there were bidders! The winning bid was made by a family of four who lives just a few blocks away.

I was ecstatic that I was able to help the school raise some funds and that I could provide a family in our own neighbourhood with a nutritious meal once a month. Little did I know that our family would be forging a strong relationship with this family.

Over the year we’ve come to know and love the family I supplied soup to. I’ve discovered that we’re on the same wavelength about a lot of parenting, community and food issues. At the kitchen table, we’ve shared many a deep conversation about community building, politics and of course, food. And we’ve shared many, many laughs.

Amazing what kinds of friends you can make with a few pots of soup.

(The weather this June, as well as last June, has been dismal. One shouldn’t be making wintery soup at this time of year. But you just can’t help it.)

June Soup of the Month: Lentil Soup
2 tsp. olive oil
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 medium potatoes, diced
4 medium carrots, diced
4 ribs celery, diced
1 1/2 cups mixed lentils, rinsed
6 cups broth
2 cups water
2/3 cup puréed tomato
6 stems thyme
2 bay leaves
Salt, pepper
A handful of parsley, chopped

In a large pot, heat olive oil over medium-high heat, add onions and sauté until translucent. Add garlic and stir until fragrant.
Add potatoes, carrots and celery and sauté for a few minutes.
Add lentils, broth, water, tomato purée, thyme and bay leaves and bring to a boil. Turn down heat and simmer until lentils are soft and veggies are tender, about 35 to 45 minutes. Add a bit of water or broth if the soup thickens too much.
Fish out the thyme and bay leaves. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with a good sprinkle of chopped parsley.

Makes about 8 servings

Picking up where we left off

Here we are, twelve years after our first post on VanEats. Twelve years of celebrating food and life adventures. And what an adventure it’s been: Roland and I married, became parents, changed careers, travelled, cooked and ate. Mostly with a mini-epicurean in tow. So life took over and we took a long hiatus from VanEats. The world outside our own little vortex has changed exponentially during our break. The blogosphere has exploded. Social media is everyone. And the world of food blogging has evolved beyond all expectations.

Now it’s time for us to pick up where we’ve left off. We present to you, VanEats at Home.

While we haven’t been food blogging, we’ve been more involved with the food world than ever before. We devote a lot of our time to cooking, learning about where our food comes from, growing our own food and teaching our child and others about food literacy. It’s a luxury we are blessed with and hope that we can share it with readers.

VanEats at Home focuses on our daily food life from our trials and tribulations as new food gardeners to the fantastic things we cook to food in our community. You’ll notice a trend towards eating locally and sustainably and towards cooking from scratch. You’ll find more words, stories and recipes than photos (we leave beautiful food photography to the pro’s) as we channel our energy into developing a dialogue about our everyday love affair with food.

Pull a chair up to our table and settle in for a nibble.

Irrational Make-over

I have an irrational bias: cereal. Boxed breakfast cereal. Highly processed, overpriced boxed breakfast cereal. I don’t like it.

I understand that families are time challenged in the morning and rely on quick, straight-out-of-the box breakfasts. Cereals make the promise of containing “18 essential nutrients” but I’m not convinced. Because cereal is so highly processed, they actually have to add back the nutrients that get processed out of the grains they started with. Kind of counterproductive in my opinion. And then there are the cereals with the extra added bonuses like sugar, colour, artificial flavouring, artificial aromas, etc.

As a result, I don’t buy cereal often. And when I do, I read labels and look for whole grain, lower sugar, lower sodium varieties. And I feel guilty for feeding into the cereal manufacturing vortex.

The other day I had a bit of a dilemma. I wanted to make crispy rice squares, the first time in probably 6 or 7 years. I bought a package of organic crisp rice cereal. OK, it’s organic, low in sugar, made from brown rice but I still felt guilty about supporting big food processors. I also felt guilty knowing that they processed the bejeezies out of rice to make the perfectly uniform crisp rice bits (don’t think that those are individual rice grains all puffed up–they’re not!). And of course the marshmallows are purely processed, good-for-nothing high-fructose corn syrup. I need to just let my hair down and live a little.

I am deeply sorry to disappoint the Rice Krispie purists out there but I’m going to be the party pooper. I made crispy rice squares with a healthy, sophisticated angle…replaced some of the cereal with toasted oats, dried mango and toasted almonds. I served these up to the boy to great relish. I served them up to the neighbour kids who inhaled them with glee. Serve them up to your gang and see if anyone notices.

Crispy Rice Squares (Made-over)
1/4 cup butter
200 grams marshmallows
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups toasted rolled oats
1/2 cup chopped dried fruit
1/2 cup chopped toasted nuts
3 cups crisp rice cereal

Line an 8” or 9” square pan with foil and butter well. Set aside.
In a large pot, melt butter over medium heat and continue to heat until solids start to brown and butter smells nutty. You will notice the butter sizzle as the water cooks away. Just before the butter browns, it will form a fine froth. I am being totally facetious using brown butter but it adds a certain je ne sais quoi. If you don’t care for this, just melt the butter.
Remove the pot from stove and add marshmallows. Stir until they are completely melted. If the pot cools down too much, return it to low heat and keep stirring.
Add vanilla and stir well to combine.
Add the rest of the ingredients and stir well to coat all the dry ingredients.
Pour into prepared pan. Grease your hands with more butter and press mixture firmly.
Let cool to room temperature and cut into 9 or 16 squares.

“I don’t like salmon.”

“I don’t like salmon.” 

I look up from the book I am reading and glare across the table at Roland. “What do you mean you don’t like salmon?”

“I don’t like it. It’s flavourless. It’s dry. I only like canned salmon.”

For a moment I thought I had fallen in love with the wrong man. Almost the same sinking feeling I had when, once upon a time, I was in a long-term relationship with a guy that didn’t like garlic.

“Oh, you just haven’t had GOOD salmon cooked PROPERLY,” I remedied.
 How could a fish eater not love salmon? It bursts with flavour (compared to mild white fish like sole or cod). It’s tender and moist (when you don’t overcook it). It’s sustainable and local and exceedingly healthy. The best way to turn things around was to cook it often and cook it well.

Over the years, I’ve cooked salmon in countless ways: steamed, grilled, roasted, poached, chowdered, in fishcakes. With and without sauce. Hot and cold. You name it. I’ve managed to wear Roland down and his appreciation for salmon has increased considerably.

You can imagine my surprise when one drizzly, early Spring morning at the Farmers Market, he handed me a brochure. “I think we should join.” It was for a community supported fishery for local, wild salmon.

“I thought you didn’t like salmon!” I blurted aghast.

“Well, I don’t like it much but this is such a good idea. I guess I could learn to like salmon more.”

A good idea indeed. Community supported agriculture is based on a model where farmers or food producers are paid at the beginning of a season so that they can invest the money into their food production, whether it’s for their farm or in this case, to outfit a fisherman’s boat and equipment. This guarantees some income security and that they are paid fairly for their food. What share members get is an entire season of fresh, local, sustainable food and knowledge of exactly how and where their food is produced or procured. A win-win situation for producers and consumers.

We took the brochure home, thought about it for a day and hardly hesitated to sign up. I had been wanting to include more fish in our diet, especially a fatty fish like salmon that includes high amounts of brain and heart healthy omega-3’s. What often held me back from buying more fish, though, was not knowing exactly where and how it was caught. Now I would know that ethically, this salmon would be caught sustainably and would not deplete delicate fish stocks.

When we got our first e-mail that the boat was going out and we’d soon be getting our first salmon of the season, we paced and anticipated as though we were waiting for the birth of a baby. When our pick up day finally rolled around we piled into the car and hurried to the dock. We beamed as we picked out our first CSF sockeye. The boy posed with the gleaming fish more than half his height. I posed with my lips ready and puckered to kiss the fish. We were ecstatic to support a fisherman who is doing his best to make a living by fishing sustainably to feed others.

We rushed home to quickly cut the salmon into steaks and steep it in a gingery, sweet, savoury marinade before gently grilling it. We sat down to a memorable, delicious dinner knowing that all in the food chain was well.

“I like salmon now. Really, I do.”

Spicy Glazed Salmon
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger, about a 1″ cube
1 clove garlic, minced or grated
1 tablespoon honey or maple syrup
1 1/2 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons chipotle in adobo sauce, minced
1 lb. salmon steaks or fillets

In a shallow dish, combine ginger, garlic, honey or maple syrup, soy sauce and chipotle. Stir well to combine.
Coat salmon pieces with marinade and let rest in refrigerator for 30 minutes or up to 2 hours.
Grill salmon over medium-high heat until done to your liking, about 4 minutes each side. Alternatively, roast the salmon in a preheated 450 degree F oven for 10 minutes for every inch of fish.

Makes 4 servings

Flemish Asparagus and a Glass of Cava

There are celebrities, then there are celebrities. Real celebrities. The people in your life that are not necessarily famous but shine brighter than any Hollywood star. I’m lucky to have folks like that in my life. People I can embrace and soak in all their generous energy and grace.

My sister-in-law is one of those celebrities. She’s one of those people that gives endlessly, asks for little and is grateful for every moment. A true star in every sense. Because we don’t live in the same city, time with her is precious and we can never have enough time to fit in all the things we want to do together.

We did, however, have a chance to sit down to lunch late last spring…in Antwerp. Belgium. Two sisters who live a continent and an ocean apart. How often does this opportunity arise? We had to celebrate with a plate of Flemish asparagus and a rosy glass of cava. Perfect food for celebrities.

Flemish Asparagus
1 bunch of asparagus, trimmed
2 hard cooked eggs, finely chopped
1/3 cup unsalted butter
1 or 2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
Salt, pepper

Lightly steam asparagus to your liking. If you are lucky enough to get your hands on white asparagus, you’ll need to cook them longer until they’re very tender.
In the meantime, melt the butter in a small saucepan over low to medium heat. 
Once your asparagus is plated, add the hard cooked eggs to the butter and warm gently. Season the butter mixture with parsley, a squeeze of lemon juice, salt and pepper.
Adorn the asparagus generously with the egg and butter sauce, garnish with paprika if you like and serve right away. Cava optional but highly recommended.

Serves 2 as a meal, 4 as a side dish

“Hello Rhubarb. Pleased to meet you.”

I didn’t grow up knowing rhubarb. I imagine that it simply was not something my family new anything about. I remember reading about rhubarb in my teens and thinking, “Oh, why would one bother eating something so tart and stringy? Meh.” I wasn’t really intrigued, the way I was with artichokes or sushi or Indian food, none with which my family was familiar either.

As a young adult I ventured out to Ontario to complete a year-long internship program in a small town. It wasn’t really a small town, but being a “big city gal,” I felt stifled in this small city. I truly believe, though, that everywhere you go, there is something charming and lovely that you come across. It was hard to find this something charming. The house I rented was lovely–about 90 years old with stained glass windows. And the southern Ontario thunderstorms were grand. But I was still waiting for something to really charm me.

Then one day in the cafeteria I spotted little dishes of rosy rhubarb crumble. And I was intrigued. I bought a dish with my hard-earned, measly stipend and tucked in. My tastebuds jolted with the tart, herbal aroma of the rhubarb, cut gently with chunks of sweet apple and soothed by the crumbly brown sugar topping. I was hooked. How could I have missed out on this all my life?

I’m making up for lost time now. Rhubarb is one of the first signs of Spring and hails the promise of longer, warmer days and a plentiful growing season. I scoop up great armfuls at the market and at our community garden and transform it into culinary delights to enjoy now and later in the year.

Sometimes later acquaintances make for lifelong friends.