April 2015

Teri Vlassopoulos


Well Fed, Flat Broke

I had a baby girl in January, and in the lead up to her birth, I often thought of cramming the freezer with ready-to-eat meals. I half-heartedly followed through, mostly freezing leftovers that I might have otherwise accidentally left languishing in the fridge before tossing out. After the baby was born I was grateful for those dregs: tubs of butternut squash soup and mushroom risotto, ready-to-bake peanut butter cookie dough, the last few slices of my husband's birthday cake. When making lunch was an impossible task, defrosting soup in the microwave was remarkably restorative.

One reason why I didn't feel too badly about not cooking ahead of time was that we were lucky to have help around us in those early days. There was a seemingly endless supply of baked goods (the Christmas season meant everyone, including non-bakers, came bearing something sweet) and a few actual meals as well. The other reason why I didn't exert myself in my last trimester was because, I assumed, once I got into the rhythm of my new life, once the stream of visitors died down, I would simply cook for all of us myself. And while it hasn't been necessarily "simple," it is essentially what I'm doing now.

Little tiny humans with floppy necks and strong lungs are intimidating, especially when you've had no experience with them before, and despite my baby's sweet disposition, the thought of leaving the house with her in the middle of winter, on my own, with a healing C-section incision, was daunting at first. But a short walk to the grocery store around the corner was entirely doable. I could load the basket under her stroller with food for dinner, which I did, and it felt good. It still does. Even just the act of planning a meal was enough to make me feel like myself again.

But what to make? In the past few years, I fell into the mentality that if I was going to cook something, I had to do it the right way, or at least the rightest way possible in a home kitchen. Homemade pasta, homemade bread, homemade pizza. I still want to cook like this, but it's not currently amenable to having a newborn. My stash of quick and easy recipes was getting boring, so I started flipping through Well Fed, Flat Broke: Recipes for Modest Budgets and Messy Kitchens by Emily Wight.

Wight lives with her husband and toddler in beautiful, but increasingly expensive, Vancouver. She started Well Fed, Flat Broke as a blog to document how she feeds herself and her family in a pricey locale, with a few other constraints -- her husband has Type 1 diabetes and her son, typical of most two-year-olds, is picky. Both she and her husband work full time as well, and time is at a premium. So the book was full of the types of recipes I was looking for (relatively easy, inventive, economical) and I've probably cooked more from it than any cookbook in the past few months.

The dishes I've made multiple times tend to be variations of others and easily adaptable: broccoli with tofu and peanuts served over rice or peanutty soba noodles with kale; cauliflower mac and cheese studded with hazelnuts or cauliflower orrechiette with almonds. There's a kind of short-cut method for moussaka (i.e. no eggplant, thinned out Greek yogurt instead of béchamel sauce), and while it was quick and easy to make, I missed my more involved version. But overall, Well Fed, Flat Broke is charming and useful -- a combination I'm grateful for.

Cookbooks work well when you have a newborn (so do Lydia Davis stories) -- you can read them in the tiniest of stolen moments, and since you don't have to remember narrative details, you can pick up where you left off with long stretches of time in between. Even before I was back to cooking, I was reading cookbooks, and David Lebovitz's My Paris Kitchen was perfect for that. The book, first of all, is gorgeous and full of moody hued pictures of Paris and the food made or ingredients used by Lebovitz in his tiny apartment in the city: slabs of French salted butter, pitchers of iced rosé, well worn pans stuffed with duck confit or baked Provençal vegetables.

Despite the beautiful photos and layout, anyone who has followed Lebovitz over the years knows that he doesn't romanticize life in France. "Paris syndrome" is an actual psychological disorder that occurs when a person can't reconcile the idealized version of Paris with its grittier reality, and he does his best to dissuade anyone from excessively dreamy views. His memoir, The Sweet Life in Paris, published about five years ago, detailed the multiple obstacles he faced when he moved from San Francisco to Paris, and many of those anecdotes find their way again into the pages of this cookbook. My Paris Kitchen is maybe what The Sweet Life in Paris should have been to begin with. His anecdotes about being shamed for not having the right amount of change or his occasional flub of the French language work better as side bars and headnotes within a cookbook than they did in a standalone memoir where recipes were more of an afterthought. And because Lebovitz is a master blogger, he has perfected (and played a large part in creating) the formula of story followed by related recipe, which parlays well into My Paris Kitchen. The short texts interspersed among the recipes were the perfect length for me to read while alternating between feeding, changing, and calming a newborn.

Lebovitz is also happy to embrace the changing cultural face of Paris and makes sure to incorporate it into his recipes. It would be disingenuous to focus only on classic French food when the city has obviously changed over the years. He admits to learning about Indian food via the Indian quartier by the Gare du Nord, and his recipe for merguez meatballs comes from the large North African community in the city. And given that France doesn't have much of a snacking culture, the majority of the appetizer recipes are adapted from other cultures that have settled into the country. But of course the book does have classics -- croque-monsieur, coq au vin, steak frites, duck terrine. Lebovitz started off as a pastry chef, so there is no lack of classic French desserts either, like financiers, madeleines, crème brûlées. I'm not sure how classic duck fat cookies are, but there's a recipe for them too.

My problem, of course, is that I can't cook as much from the book as I'd like to. Even with tips on how to simplify a cassoulet, it's still a complex recipe spanning three pages of the book. Similarly, the madeleines are prefaced by two pages of tips to make the buttery biscuit with a perfect hump in its centre. So while I may not be in a position to host a dinner party and serve individual soufflés, it's a pleasure to read about them anyway, and to know that the recipes will be there written in Lebovitz's patient and occasionally sardonic voice, waiting for me try them out when I'm ready.

Teri Vlassopoulos lives in Toronto. More of her writing can be found at http://bibliographic.net.