All of a sudden, being a sensible gourmet makes sense

The coronavirus has taken our world by storm. There has been little time to react and it will take more time to adapt. In a matter of days, our economy and societies have undergone an acid test like they had not in a long time. Important questions, many of them existential, have had to be asked. Perhaps, the most personal and intrusive one is to decide what is essential and what is non-essential, and by what, the question really has come down to who is and is not essential. This one is rather traumatic, because for many it has meant that they lost their jobs, part or all of their income, with all the implications about their livelihoods, security, sense of purpose and future.

Those who know me know that I look at many things through Maslow’s pyramid of needs. To me, the current troubled times that we are going through and how people cope -or not- with it, is very much the same as revisiting Maslow’s pyramid. Until a few months ago, the world economy seemed to run on all cylinders and although a recession seemed to be overdue, as one tends to happen every decade or so, there was very little that indicated that the economy would slow down drastically. The stock markets where like a fun fair. Then, everything freezes over. The topic of essential vs. non-essential sent us right back to the pyramid. All of a sudden, the lower layers of the pyramid took precedence. Physical security and security of food and shelter became obvious again, and the more superficial matters had to step back a bit.

Not only did many household budgets take a painful hit, store shelves were often scarcely filled. This pandemic has shown that our economic model is really built around quantitative growth and abundance, but should conditions change drastically, it is not as agile and resilient as we may have liked to think all this time, especially when nobody really wants to have inventories. Empty shelves did not remain empty for just a couple of days but it took more like a couple of weeks for some products to reappear in satisfactory quantities, and some items have hardly reappeared at all even a couple of months into this crisis. Shelves were empty, and yet farmers dumped their products, in particular dairy farmers literally pouring milk down the drain. An outrageous food waste has been taking place, in a time where food banks are overwhelmed and can get enough to help the ones in need. There is some thinking to do about connecting the links of the value chains, because it shows very little value and does not behave like a chain, either.

The small pop-and mom shops actually did rather well in this mayhem. They adapted quickly to ensure social distancing. They took orders for pick up and for delivery, and actually prepared them without errors. Most of all, they showed no disruption of supplies. The small meat store had meat and the baker had bread. They may be a bit more expensive than supermarkets, but the value of not wasting time and risking contamination to find only half of what is on your shopping list outweighs the slight price uptick. Grocery chains did not perform anywhere this level of service. At least, here I am talking about the part of the world where I live. Online ordering, pick and delivery have been subpar, and that is for those who actually were able to set up something. Orders were incorrectly filled and even after so many weeks, it is rather cumbersome.

A look at what flew off the shelves is quite revealing and a confirmation of our revisiting Maslow’s pyramid. Remember the trendy times from before the Corona Wars? Yes, it feels like an eternity but in fact it was not that long ago. When it came to food, many of us had been convinced that the good old-fashioned foods that previous generations, all the way back to the early times of agriculture, had become about irrelevant, that farming was going to be revolutionized, mostly by people without any background in agriculture. Cows were farting and that was unacceptable to some billionaires, as clearly the debonair ruminants were up to kill us with their gasses. I wrote my thought about that in previous articles. We had to give up animal products altogether. Sure. Then, the virus came and we stopped flying around in planes, we have to work from home and forget about morning and evening commute, our factories had to shut down and our energy use dropped dramatically. Then, all climate monitoring showed the same thing: greenhouse gasses emissions dropped significantly and the quality of our air improved, and all of that with the same numbers of cows and farm animals. Understand me well, some animal farming systems will need to change dramatically to adapt to a climate friendly approach of agriculture. We were supposed to all become vegetarians and vegans, and yet the most striking thing I could see in grocery stores was that meat, dairy and eggs were about all gone. People hoarded the recently forbidden fruit and apparently were proud to do so. With most of the staple animal products gone, what was left in the stores, then? Well, the sections with plant-based animal products surrogates were still aplenty even though the shelf space for those is usually rather small. No shortage of soy- and pea protein burgers, but no ground beef. No butter except the fancy expensive more “natural” ones, but plenty of margarine on the shelves. No milk today, but lots of soy and almond milk. No regular eggs, but no shortage of the expensive ones produced with special feed, supposedly healthier for us. On the protein side, consumers left massively the higher layers of Maslow’s pyramid, forgot the trendy products and hypes of all sorts to rush back to the basics.

Other categories that showed an amazing comeback are flour and pasta. What a change of heart! Here, too, consumers went back to the basics. Baking and cooking have been among the most popular activities during the pandemic lockdown. What happened to carbs and gluten? Weren’t they supposed to be the incarnation of all evils? Weren’t they supposed to make us fat and sick, to a point where self-proclaimed sometimes questionable dieticians and marketers worked really hard to convince us to not buy any of those staple products but instead choose for the much more expensive gluten-free alternatives that would fill their pockets? Well, not only the pasta, flour and baking sections in the stores were desperately empty because the staples products were back in favour, but the amazing part was that the shelves with gluten-free and other carb-alternative diet products were left about untouched. Flour is back, and so is bread and baked goods because 1) they are fun to make, 2) they are cheap to make and 3) they are good for you, of course with moderation that is. That is the stuff I am advocating in this blog. It seems that the pandemic has made many people see the many advantages of preparing food yourself. Baking and cooking are so much more than just that. They are an act of love and they are a unique way of connecting people and generations. This is what we are witnessing here. The need for social contact and love, the second layer from the bottom in Maslow’s pyramid is as popular as the bottom layer about basic physical needs. Baking is just a trip back to grandma’s kitchen. It is a reminder of our childhood and the atmosphere of grandma’s kitchen and the complicity that it brought around the stove. It is a reminder of the happy moments of tasting warm dough and making a mess with chocolate cream. In the current uncertain times, it is a safe haven where love and comfort bring us a badly needed protection from a harsh reality.

But the journey into nostalgia is not only limited in the kitchen. The poorly agile supply chain to large grocery stores and empty shelves showed that food supply is not a given. This has not gone unnoticed and if baking and cooking are popular right now, so is gardening. People transform their lawns into veggie gardens and those living in apartments buy and grow herbs, tomatoes or strawberries in pots on balconies to find some sense of food security. Empty shelves and long distances bring a reflection of where food should be coming from. There is a renewed attention for local food production, this time not some much as a trendy phenomenon, but for food security reasons, which in turn is becoming trendy. As usual with such issues, the conversation is more about a philosophical “we-should” approach but nobody really addresses the important part, which is how to make it work financially and for the local producers to be competitive, especially when many consumers are going through a violent financial crunch. Other questions would be to figure out who the farmers would have to be and where they should farm, as there used to be a lot of farming around cities, but the farms got bought, paved and developed in the past, so they will never come back. Urban farming could be a possibility, but so far, except some fancy expensive greens or massive subsidies, urban farms hardly survive. As someone who has a garden, I can tell you that growing your own food has advantages. I do not have to worry about residues, as I do not spray any chemicals. I also can tell you that the cost of a seed is much lower than buying produce from a store, but the untold reality about gardening is that to have a garden, you need to buy one and that if you look at it from an economic point of view and were to calculate your cost as if it were a commercial operation, you will have to include the price of the land on which you have your garden. Nonetheless, gardening is a great hobby. Personally, I find it very soothing to work the ground and take care of the plants with nobody around. It probably feels like a bubble or a cocoon and I can imagine that this is also part of the renewed interest about gardening.

Join me and so many others and become a sensible gourmet yourself. It makes life so much more enjoyable!

Copyright 2020 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

 

My Christmas dinner

If any posting can illustrate the theme of this website, this would be the one. Our Christmas dinner was delicious, rather quick to make, nutritious and gentle on the wallet, too.

For me, as for many people, the Christmas dinner is something special. I certainly want to keep it that way. So, here is what I prepared.

To start, I made a dish of smoked salmon.

Smoked salmon buckwheat

Smoked Pacific salmon with mini buckwheat galettes and yogurt dill dressing

I chose a smoked Sockeye salmon. I like its delicate texture (in my opinion much nicer than Atlantic salmon) and its regular and diffuse fattiness (also much nicer than Atlantic salmon that tends to be a bit of white and red stripes, which I don’t like so much). I served the fish with mini buckwheat pancakes, a variation from Brittany’s “galette de blé noir”, or “galette de sarasin”, together with a sauce made of yogurt, lemon juice, shallots, dill and vodka. It was a great combination, simply delicious. To accompany this dish, I served a medium dry white wine from my own vineyard, called Bacchus. It’s a bit similar to a Sauvignon Blanc.

To follow, I prepared a “Magret de Canard” (duck fillet) with a sauce made of cherries, shallots, Port wine, honey and Balsamic vinegar.  The cherries came from the batch I canned this summer (see my previous post). The duck and this sauce are a wonderful combination.

Magret de Canard aux cerises

Duck magret in shallot, honey, Port wine, balsamic vinegar and cherry sauce, with a side of Sarladaise potatoes and Brussels sprouts

On the side I served Pommes de Terre Sarladaises, which is a specialty from the Perigord region. They are potatoes sauteed in duck fat. Next to that, I served Brussels sprouts, also sauteed in duck fat. Absolutely delicious. The wine I chose was a Pinot Noir from my vineyard, too. It’s a full-bodied, smooth, velvety wine that paired quite well with the duck.

As a dessert, I had a special request from my wife. She wanted a chocolate babka, which is a kind of brioche with a swirly chocolate filling. I had never made any before. It turned out really well. The swirling could have been a bit more swirly and the streusel a bit more evenly distributed, but the taste was just perfect.

Babka sliced

Chocolate babka

Although the babka requires some preparation, it leaves plenty of free time between the steps and, unless you keep staring at the oven for the hour the babka takes to bake, you will have free time for other activities. The fish dish and the duck dish took about 40-45 minutes to make. The total cost of this meal per person came to around US$5.00, not counting the wine, which I make anyway. A restaurant would charge at least 10 times this amount, and quite a bit more just because it was Christmas, and even more because I named the dishes in French.

Wines Christmas 2019

Bacchus on the left, Pinot Noir on the right

So there you have it: a superb gourmet dinner for a very affordable price that anyone can make.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Why I can fruit and freeze veggies

The story is a bit similar to the one I wrote about deli. It is partly about quality and partly about money.

20191208_092239It is always great to buy produce at the high of the season. Fruit and veggies are plentiful, so you can get them fresh, ripe and cheap, especially if, like me, you go to the producer directly. Freshness and ripeness are quite important. Only at that stage, produce will contain the highest levels of nutrients. Just like with my story about the deli, it is also important to find a producer that does not pump the veggies with lots of water and fertilizers, because then all you get is a dilution of nutrients and you end up buying more water than you should. Also, the produce tends to spoil faster. Perhaps, the best place I can find the right quality is from my own garden. I water my plants but not with the sole purpose of boosting the growth to get more pounds but to allow the plants to grow harmoniously. I compost all food scraps and that compost goes in my garden. I look for the optimal combination of yield and quality. In my garden, I try to produce more than we can eat in the high season so that I can preserve the surplus, either by freezing, which I do mostly with vegetables, or by canning, which I do mostly with fruit. I suppose that I also could make jams but I do not have much of a sweet tooth. I do make compote of rhubarb, though, which I freeze for later, as my rhubarb produces like crazy in the summer. I hope for you that you have the opportunity to taste produce that you can harvest at the top of ripeness and eat the same day. Nothing beats that. For me the top is with strawberries. The ones from my garden are not particularly big but how fantastic they taste! The stuff I find in stores just does not seem to handle the logistics from producer to store very well and they are loaded with water. I had stopped eating strawberries altogether until I moved here and started my own garden.

I am also lucky to have orchardists as neighbours and I like to buy their fruit especially when they are so ripe that they start to show some little defects that do not sell very well. There is nothing with the taste, on the contrary, but they show some browning and spots, so the orchardist, sells them at a discount. That is when I buy a large quantity of fruit for canning. At first, I thought that canning was complicated but actually it also can be done in the oven, which saves a lot of the problems of dealing with boiling water. I can do 12 cans at a time in my oven, so it goes rather quickly. For all my winter needs, it just takes a couple of days of chaos in the kitchen but it worth the “hassle”. I can enjoy tasty sweet fruit all winter long, until the new season arrives because unfortunately, in the winter, the fruit that I can buy around here is not very tasty. It is expensive and often hardly ripe, or it has ripened artificially, but that does not give the same taste and the same nutrients as naturally ripened fruit. I hardly eat any banana anymore. Yet, I love bananas, but the stuff they sell around here is really sad. The bananas are usually green and they hardly turn yellow as they seem in a hurry to turn all brown and the taste is weird. I remember eating fully ripened bananas in Hawaii and that was something else. Oranges vary a lot in quality and more than half the time, they just taste dull and woolly, so I also gave up on them, except for one brand of heirloom oranges from California. I was a bit suspicious that the heirloom concept might be a bit of a marketing scam but it is not. Those oranges are really great but they are available only for a short period. Grapefruit are usually more constant in quality and that is almost the only fruit that I buy in stores nowadays. Even apples and pears are a bit sad in the winter time.

Veggies I prefer to freeze than canning. I find that they keep more of their crispiness that way but that is my personal preference. From my garden, I freeze green beans, peas, zucchini, parsley and basil mostly. I also freeze the juice of one of the varieties of grapes that I have in my vineyard, as those are just as good as tale grapes. For the rest I make wines, which is also a delicious way of preserving grapes. Those are a treat for the winter time, because just like for fruit, the vegetables that are off season come from further away and have lost some of their freshness. As for my potatoes, onions, shallots and garlic, they do fine in my basement and I can enjoy them all through the winter.

It takes some time, but as I have mentioned earlier, once you have learned how to do it, it does not take all that much time and it is really worth it. It is worth it in terms of quality and taste, but it is also worth it in terms of money because, everything that I preserve for the winter is really cheap when I buy it in the high season, and of course even cheaper when it comes from my garden.

And once again, preserving produce is a great combination of a healthy and nutritious diet; it saves money and reduces the amount of food that is wasted. The triple bottom line wins again!

© 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Why I make my own deli

There are several reasons and they all fit in the theme of this website. The main reason, though, has to do with quality. I got tired of buying deli at the supermarket and just after a couple of days, the product would become slimy and sticky, not the good kind of sticky if there is any such thing. Next to being sticky, the deli would also have an unpleasant sour smell. I am sure you know what I mean. Since I do not like to waste any food, I would eat it but there would not be much pleasure. Not everyone has the same sense of self sacrifice, as I have been told in a number of occasions. Who knows how much deli ends up in the landfill for quality reasons? The problem is the way deli is made in an industrial process. The meat is soaked in brine and it contains way too much water, salt and other stuff that have nothing to do in meat, such as nitrite for instance. It is not because pigs are more or less pink that pink should be the natural color of pork deli. The natural color is a dull grey-brown, which is probably not as appealing as pink to ignorant consumers, so they get sold things they should not buy.

The second reason is that such poor quality deli meat is rather expensive. That means the added water, salt, sugar and cheap fat are very well sold. I can make similar deli for at least half the price. It contains nothing weird, but the nicest thing is that it has a much longer life. Even after a week my deli is still dry and it does not smell bad. That what’s great about not adding water: bacteria do not multiply as quickly. So, as you can see, making my own deli save me money, is healthier and eliminates the risk of me throwing away something that I am not sure if it still is safe after a couple of days.

In the meantime, I also have found a pap-and-mom store that makes artisanal deli the old-fashioned way and that has the same qualities of having the natural color, having a long life and that does not taste salty, sugary or watery. That way, I can buy deli types that I do not know how to make, and the other great thing is that their prices are very similar to the industrial deli that supermarkets sell. Their value is way better.

Just anything else cooking, making deli is rather easy and rather quick to make. Of course, like for everything else, there is a learning curve, but it is not rocket science. It is a much better use of anyone’s time than checking every 20 seconds in vain if someone sent you an email or a text message. And nothing beats the taste of home-made hams, patés, rillettes and sausages from pork, chicken, duck or fish!

Pâté Rillettes

Rillettes on the left, Pork pâté with hazelnuts, prunes and Armagnac on the right, served with homemade bread

© 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Food wasted is money wasted

Since it has been making headlines in the mainstream media for some time, you must have heard about it. It is estimated that about a third of all food produced in the world is not eaten and wasted. Recently, I was reading that Canadian households throw about half the food they buy in the garbage. This is bad economics. Here are simple figures to make my point.

You might remember the campaign a few years ago about the challenge of making $5 meals. Those were the days of the Great Recession of 2008 when some people discovered that economy is not always up and economic hardship made them realign their priorities. But time goes by and with economic recovery, being money-savvy has become boring again and who does still care about the $5 meal challenge today? You can see in the text of my Gallery page that all the great dishes I photographed cost even (much) less than $5, so not much of a challenge if you actually can cook and have a good sense of money. So, I will take $5 for a meal per person and with two meals a day that will be $10 per day per person.

Over a year that is $10 x 365 days = $3,650 dollar in food per person

Let’s take the world average of a third of food wasted: $3,650/3 = 1,217 dollars thrown away in the garbage per person per year.

If you take a household of two persons, that is $2,434 wasted per year. For a household of four, that is $4,868 per year. In the shameful case of the Canadian average of 50% (apparently, American and Australian households do not do much differently than the Canadians), these numbers become respectively $3,650 and $7,300 per household per year.

Another way of looking at the impact on household budget is to take the share of the food budget in the entire household budget. In Western countries, food represents roughly 10% of the household budget. Then, it is easy to see that 50% food waste represents 5% of the household income, and a third would represent 3.3% of the income.

Just as in my previous article about cooking in which I presented a calculation of how much money cooking can save you, you can see how much money you can save by not wasting food. That is free money that you can use to pay your mortgage or anything else useful to make your life better now or for the future.

These two examples, cooking at home and not wasting food, save literally thousands and thousands of dollars per year to your household, and the amazing thing is that this is YOUR money. You can make it work for you or join the legions of people struggling financially because of poor sense of home economics. This is easy money to keep on your bank account. All it takes to save this money is just some sense of organization in the kitchen and a bit of discipline.

After reading the article about the poor Canadian performance (I live in Canada), I did my own estimate of how much food I throw away, and I got to a figure less than 1%! Next to that, I compost all food scraps and I use the compost in my garden where I grow my own produce, which also saves me money and it is all produce free from any chemical whatsoever!

And when it comes to food waste, there is of course the issue of waste at the level of restaurants and retailers. Don’t hold your breath too much. I have heard about this problem for about 50 years and it clearly has not improved all that much despite the active communication campaigns when the issue makes the media headlines. I recently read that the US retailers Kroger and Walmart were re-evaluating their “ugly produce” concepts as they notice that consumers prefer to pick the pretty ones, which sounds like they might give it up. So much for social and environmental responsibility that we always hear so much about. When it comes to the $$$, then it is a different tune. There is a reason why there are different quality grades and why people make the choices they make. It is called market and price. It is also about knowledge and perception. it is also about store ownership. I can tell you this: when I was a kid, I used to go with my father on the market. We made sure that we would never throw anything away and that all our products would be sold by the end of the day. It required sensible planning and also the proper commercial thinking, which sometimes included to adjust the pricing on slow days. Money always talks to customers. it also talks to business owners. Trust me when it is your money that is in the business, you look at it quite differently than when it is someone else’s.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Cooking is an act of love

Often, I get the feeling that a lot of people resent cooking. Personally, I love it.

Cooking is not very difficult. There are plenty of recipes that can be done successfully by about anyone. Like everything else, there is a bit of a learning curve but it does not need to take long to be able to prepare decent meals without much effort.

Cooking does not take as much time as many people believe. Within 30 to 45 minutes, anyone can make a great dinner and I mean a great dinner. The trick is mostly about using time efficiently by getting started and preparing some parts of the meal while others are already cooking. Are those 30 to 45 minutes really that horrible? I think not. Just think about how much time it takes to go out for dinner and back, especially if you take into account waiting times and travel. Are 30 to 45 minutes watching lousy TV programs or spending that time on so-called social media giving away your personal information to third parties that do not care for you? Just do the math and compare. Then, you will see that cooking at home actually saves you time and provides you with a better quality of life than passively staring at a screen.

A great advantage of cooking is that you know what you put in the food, well that is if you cook from scratch. When it comes to what is in your food, there is a rather simple truth: the one preparing the meal decides what is on your plate. You will be the one in charge if you cook. If you buy your food already prepared, clearly it is someone else who will have decided for you and you will have no control, and they might not have your best interest at heart, either. When it comes to food preparation, the secret ingredient for great food is love. That is why grandma’s meals tasted so good. These meals were not prepared by a machine or a stranger, but by someone who wanted to make you happy. That is the difference.

Cooking is an act of love. It is something you do for your loved ones and when you cook you want to give a smile on their faces. Of course, like all things love, it is not a given and it requires some work, but it is fun work. The more love you put in the food, the tastier they find it. Also, if you put much or any love in the food, they will notice, too. Cooking is not about gender. Men can cook. I do and you should ask my wife and all the guests that I have invited home what they think. Cooking does not make men impotent and neither does it influence their sexuality. Only morons spread that kind of nonsense.

Another advantage of cooking is that it saves you a lot of money. With the kind of food I cook (see my gallery), I come down to about making meals 10% of what I would be charged in a restaurant, and I do not even include taxes and tip in this calculation. At the end of the year and depending on how large your family is and how often you choose to cook instead of eating out, you can save thousands of dollars that can go to your mortgage instead of for other more useful purposes. Here is a simple calculation: if cooking your own meals saves you $50 per week compared with eating out, and you do that 50 weeks a year, the total savings will be $50 x 50 = $2,500 per year!

Cooking your own meals increases your financial security level. That is worth a little work.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.