Hello, kind krafters,
I’d like to share with you some winter month tips for cooking when you’re on a budget with a taste for takeout and you're a student with twenty readings a week.
The defining taste of takeout for me is umami, or savoriness. Pizza? It has cheese and tomatoes – both the ultimate in savory taste. One way I replicate that umami-ness outside of takeout is with anchovies. Personally, I buy the anchovy paste in a tube because convenience, but the anchovies in a can are a dollar less and work just as well. Make sure to decant the anchovies into an air-tight jar and use within a week, or freeze in ice trays for longer storage. Another option is fish sauce. Certain Thai brands only use anchovies and salt, and these last forever in the fridge. The price does vary. For vegans, miso, dried and ground mushrooms, and yeast products (Vegemite, Marmite, and nutritional yeast) work similarly. Another important umami factor is salt. I love eating summer/fall tomatoes with just salt sprinkled on top. Salt brings out savoriness intensely. Under-salting is not an option if you want that flavour profile. Tomatoes themselves are full of umami. Cooking them down or roasting them brings out the sweetness as well as that savoriness I’m always looking for.
A commenter on my farmer’s market post brought up that canned food is often the only choice for many people. I agree that it is, and in fact, it's a better choice in the winter over much of the “fresh” produce we have in Halifax. By February, the beefsteak tomatoes or green peppers in the supermarket are tasteless and lacking in nutrition. You are better off – taste-wise and nutrition-wise – with canned tomatoes. I would go for unsalted, peeled, and a processing origin within North America. I’ve found canned tomatoes made closer to their selling destination taste fresher. I also advocate for seasonal eating, but having an informed choice is important for those who have limitations on theirs. If you’re cooking beans, adding in a few chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (my favorite canned food) is the only way to do it.
In terms of canned fish, if you’re thinking of health, I would choose mackerel over tuna. However, when it comes to fish during the winter in Nova Scotia, a whole mackerel can go for 2$ in certain fish markets and supermarkets. I have also seen mussels for as low as 2$ a pound in supermarkets. Both foods are easy to cook. Baked and broiled over some veg or marinated in vinegar and pan-fried, mackerel is a source of Omega 3s comparable to salmon – plus it’s wild, more sustainable than farmed salmon and carries less heavy metals. (Canned mackerel also makes the best fish cakes.) Mussels are another great source of Omega 3s, zinc, iodine and other essential minerals. Farmed mussels are easy to clean and need only a dash of butter/oil, water, and a ton of garlic cloves to be fantastic.
I know it’s popular to tout the virtue of how fresh frozen vegetables are, but I’m skeptical. For these vegetables to be processed frozen, they are trucked off to a specific processing plant. I don’t know many farmers who have vegetable processing plants in their backyard. Just something to keep in mind. It's an alternative to canned food, although not necessary. But, come winter, frozen veg is on sale for six months! Like frozen fruit in the summer months, supermarkets regularly mark frozen veg down to 2.99$ and 1.99$ during the winter. The variety included are broccoli, squash, brussel sprouts, corn, beans, peas, carrots, cauliflower, etc. I would focus on buying vegetables that you won’t or tend not to use up quickly. Squash is a fresh and locally available produce during the winter, and can be cut up, roasted and eaten throughout the week. Use is another consideration. Most frozen veg don’t do well outside of stews, stir-frys and braises, but you can get away with roasting a few like green beans.
This is another item that supermarkets price down in the winter. Mushrooms have tons of umami. Some are turned off by how mushy they get when cooking. Because mushrooms retain so much water, they should be cooked on a hot, dry pan. Adding spices while the mushrooms are drying out gives them a milder, toasted flavour. You can also add the spices towards the end for a stronger profile. In my opinion, mushrooms and cauliflower are the best bulking agents after onions. While onions (just bulk) and cauliflower (creamy bulk) have their benefits, mushrooms add a heftier, meat-like bulk. Whether you’re vegan or testing out Meatless Monday, you could do worse than try a ground mushroom or marinated Portobello mushroom burger or a mushroom Bolognese, like the one below.
Here’s something you can cook while you’re in the kitchen, finishing up the last of your readings.
Twenty Readings Tomato Sauce
2 tbsp of oil
1 yellow onion, diced
2 anchovies*, OR a tsp of Marmite/Vegemite OR 1/3 cup of nutritional yeast
1 package of white button mushrooms, diced OR half a frozen packet of broccoli, roughly chopped
1 28oz can of peeled tomatoes, unsalted if possible
1 tbsp + 1 tsp of salt, divided