Every Student Should Know…how to pack a lunch!

This seems like an easy one. Most of us have been packing our lunches since those little brown bags in elementary school, which wielded great bargaining power as candies, sandwiches, and desirable fruits were bargained mercilessly. Before I was old enough to pack my own lunch with any sort of efficiency or health factor, my mom packed plenty of ingenious lunches. Leftovers heated up in a thermos was a particular favourite of mine, which included homemade beef stroganoff, spaghetti, fried rice, and baked chicken. My little brother was more into peanut butter and honey sandwiches, while my older brother was pretty fond of traditional meat-and-cheese sandwiches. The duties of lunch making were, as with most kids, assumed as soon as we were physically capable and we’ve been making them ever since. Now, some people take lunch very seriously, and others like to skim right over it. I decided that it was a necessary skill that deserves a post after watching a young university gentleman hack open a can of corn niblets with a pocket knife, and proceed to drink the contents, then finish it all off with a slice of processed cheese. Yeah, you would consider this an emergency post if you too had witnessed that.

One of the things about being in university, or any school for that matter, is that classes tend to follow right on the heels of each other, with stuffed backpacks bumping into each other as sloshes of coffee and blurry eyed students navigate the hallways. The thing about having classes in a very organized string, is sometimes it’s easier to pay attention at certain times than others, and it seems to pretty directly correlate with blood sugar levels (okay, and coffee). For example, I have a Friday schedule that quite efficiently has me in lectures from 9:30am to 5:30pm with no breaks. This means I get on my shuttle in the morning at 7:45, I get shuttled for 45-60 minutes (which involved mostly listening to CBC podcasts and keeping my eyes closed), I have a short amount of time to prepare for my first class (read notes), and then I am blinking hard and cradling my coffee mug for the first hour of the day. Not my most alert, but hey, I’ve been up for a few hours and still have breakfast and coffee on my side. I really hit my stride for my 10:30-11:30 class, which is good because it’s hour 1 of physics, and if you don’t have your eyes open those vectors really get mixed up. Hour 2 of physics is where it all starts to get blurry. Afraid of social alienation if I break out the garlic sausage or pesto chicken sandwich or strong squash curry, I start thing about food around 11:35. The rest of the day is a single blur until 5:30, which is when I chow down on my lunch as I wait for the 6:15 shuttle. What would be better than waiting all day to stuff my face right before I head home? Proper snacks. That is the key to a good lunch. We don’t always have time to sit down and have a big dish of leftovers, so I think it is key to a have a variety of little bites that all add up to a generous, filling lunch. Hey, you might even get a better grade because you can hear your prof, not just the growl of your stomach.

So, let’s summarize some great lunch ideas, list style:

1) Veggies and Dip. This one seems obvious, but is great because a) it’s easy to whip out in a class and snack quietly on (in that case, go easy on the carrots or save them for later) b) the dip makes it surprisingly filling and c) it’s an easy way to put more veggies in your diet. I like to go with classic dippers that travel well, such as carrots, celery, radishes, cucumber spears, zucchini spears, and thinly sliced yams. The dips I make ahead of time, like on my Sunday food prep day, and freeze in containers so I can just grab a container in the morning and have it defrosted by lunch. This makes sense for food safety, as some of the dips I love have dairy in them, plus they act as an edible ice pack for the rest of my lunch. The dips I favour are mostly bean-based, partly for economics but mostly for taste. I soak my beans overnight, then cook up a ton of them at one time, so I can freeze the leftovers. I’ve included a recipe for my favourite white-bean hummus below, but I also love traditional chickpea hummus, curried hummus, and tex-mex red kidney bean dip.

2) Yogurt and Granola. I love having go-to lunches that aren’t dependent on the contents, or lack there of, in my fridge so I can have just as good lunches on Friday as I have on Monday, even though the Saturday grocery shop hasn’t quite happened yet! Granola is super easy to make yourself, with an added bonus of being cheaper, personalized, and packaging free. I’m a big fan of cinnamon/cardamom/ginger type spices, so I’m working on a recipe to include in my next post! I simply pack a little baggy of granola (which I just wipe out and use the next day to cut down waste) and a well sealed container of yogurt. Check the seal on your containers by filling them with water, completely drying the outside, then turning them upside down. Does water come out? Reserve that container for sandwiches, and save yourself a backpack full of sticky yogurt.

3) Hardy Salads. By hardy salads, I’m not only referring to filling salads, but also salads that hold up well to storage over a period of time. Pre-making a green salad is tough, though doable, as you have to be very cognoscente of the fact that lettuce wilts like nobody’s business. If you love your green salads, I recommend putting all the “extras” (strawberry slices, carrots, cucumber, proteins, radish etc) on the bottom with the lettuce on top, then nestling a container of your dressing and a container of your “crunchies” (croutons, sunflower seeds, toasted almonds etc) so everything stays fresh and happy. Because the weather is cooling down and I like to have things ready ahead of time, lately I have been enjoying salads like green bean, potato, and root veggie slaw because I can make containers of it at the beginning of the week and grab it on my way out the door, without worrying about having a separate dressing or anything else I might forget. It saves time, and provides something filling and flavorful throughout the day. Another great salad, is this warm lentil salad, which is also great at room temperature: http://easypi.blogspot.com/2010/12/winter-welcome-back.html.

4) Strategic Leftovers. At the beginning of the week, I always think about items I can cook at dinner that you be great in lunch later. Roasting a whole chicken is fantastic, because you have enough leftovers to use as sandwich meat for at least half of the week (other great roasted meats are pork roast, roast beef, and baked ham). When I am putting away other leftovers, like pasta or casseroles, I take the extra couple of minutes to put it in containers the right size for my lunch, so I can just grab a stack of containers in the morning when I’m in a rush and can’t be bothered to spoon things from a larger container into a smaller container.

Okay, so now time for the white bean pesto! First of all, if you are going to use dried beans, you have to cook them. I do recommend using dry beans because not only are they super cheap, they have a superior texture to canned. You might trick yourself into thinking it is tough to prepare dried beans because of the time factor, but it’s the easiest thing in the world if you just have them simmering away on the stove while you get other tasks done (physics homework or laundry, for example). If you have the foresight to remember to soak the beans, they have the best texture if you soak them overnight, then rinse them right before you are going to use them. If you didn’t remember, no worries, I usually pour a kettle of boiling water over them and let them sit for as long as possible while I prep the other ingredients (usually an hour), then I rinse them and fill the pot up with fresh water. To cook the beans, you should fill the pot you are going to cook the beans in with the soaked (or just dry) beans, and fill it with water to cover the beans by a good two inches. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat, then simmer the beans until tender, adding fresh water as needed if it gets low. The cooking time will vary with the freshness of beans, but expect them to take anywhere from 1-2 hours. Just pop over and check one to see if it is tender to bite.

If you are going to be cooking beans, I say you might as well cook more than you need because it doesn’t take any longer to cook 6 cups then it does 1/2 a cup if you have a nice big pot. I freeze any extras in little baggies, then add them to soups, salads, refried with lime juice and cumin, and rolled into a burrito with butternut squash. I fell in love with these little white beans the first time I prepared them, they are just a great creamy texture to add to so many foods!

White Bean Pesto

I like to triple this recipe and keep plenty in the freezer in 1 cup portions to bring to school. It is also a great dip for a party, easy, quick, and simple enough to appeal to everyone.

1 1/2 c dried cannellini beans or white navy beans (alternative: 1 can, drained)
1/2 c Greek yogurt
1/4 c fresh basil
3 Tbsp basil pesto (check out my almond pesto recipe!)
2 cloves garlic
2 Tbsp lemon juice
zest of 1 lemon
1/4 tsp salt
3 Tbsp olive oil

1) If you remember, soak your beans overnight. Regardless of soaking, cook beans by bringing them to a gentle boil, then reducing to a simmer for 1-2 hours until tender. Rinse and cool if you have a glass blender (don’t want any temperature shock smashing the glass!).
2) If you have a large blender, put all the ingredients into the blender except the oil and pulse to combine. Drizzle in oil through the top and blend until smooth. If you have a magic bullet, split all the ingredients between two cups and blend. Take breaks to shake vigorously so everything gets mixed.
3) Taste your dip, and adjust the flavour according to your preferences. Feel free to add more garlic, lemon, or pesto!
4) Use within 3-5 days of making, or freeze in small containers.


Every Student Should Know…how to meal plan!

I have decided that to go with the “back-to-school” atmosphere swirling around the September air, I will do a series called “Every Student Should Know…”. I am constantly surprised by how many people around my age don’t know the first thing about food, and how tentative they feel about attempting to prepare food. There is something intimidating that has been built up about food culture, and it’s a pity because there really isn’t much to preparing your own food. Honestly, you just have to get the ingredients, follow the recipe, and acquire a few useful skills along the way. Will you be able to tell when a steak is cooked to medium-rare the first time you make one? Probably not, that’s why it’s worth it to invest in a thermometer, particularly if you are a novice cook. Will you make a few mistakes along the way? Definitely, but for the most part, unless you’ve burnt something beyond recognition, it just takes a bit of effort and common sense to save most of your creation. And if you lose your creation, it’s not the end of the world; the only thing that might acquire a bit of damage is your ego and a couple dollars. Most of all, you just need to relax, plan ahead, and follow a recipe. It really is that simple, I promise.

Let’s get back to that planning ahead concept. Students are always pitied, by themselves and others, for being in a constant state of broke. I know that feeling at the end of the year, when you hand over your debit card and grit your teeth, hoping that it will go through and save you the embarrassment of having to put your groceries back. At the same time though, students are known to be major consumers of pre-prepared dinner food and bought lunches. At the university-student-centric grocery store I shop at here in Montreal, I watch dozens of frozen pizzas, packaged cookies, lunch meats, boxed pasta mixes, and frozen dinners pass through the till. In one of my two hour classes we get a mini-break of ten minutes to eat, and I watch as every single break dozens of people run to the cafeteria and return with muffins, fruit salad, and packaged yogurt. Despite the poor quality most of this food is (think trans-fats, shortening, high sodium, nitrates…), it is also expensive. Even if people buy lots of fresh produce or prepare their own food, I also see a lot of people having to throw out food that goes bad or spoils in the fridge. Knowing exactly what you have in your fridge and only buying what you know you can eat before it goes bad will save a lot of money.

Now that I’ve made a plea to your wallet, you should also consider the health aspect. Now, we are assuming you are going to school to do well. In order to do well, on a basic, physiological level, you need three things: sleep, fuel, and movement. These three all complement each other, which we’ve been told since our first gym class: we move, so we get hungry and eat, we move, so we get sleepy and sleep, we sleep so we get energy, we move because we have energy…you get the idea. While I know how easy it is to drop one, or two, or all of these aspects when exam season hits like a storm, and sometimes you just have to pull that all-nighter or stay in the library for twenty straight hours. What you can do though, is plan ahead so you don’t get caught exhausted with no food, having not been outside or seen the gym in the last month. There are some obvious things, like keeping up on your school work so you don’t have to cram. A less obvious solution for some, is to meal plan. Keeping food under control in times of high academic demand will absolutely make you feel and perform better. The brain is a pretty simple organ, and it quite simply will just work better if you are eating well and getting enough sleep.

How does one go about meal planning? First of all, ideally you want to be able to get all your food for the week in one trip. Stopping by the grocery store everyday is a huge time suck, and can tempt you to by ready-to-go foods that you can make quickly for that night. This means sitting down with three sheets of paper and a stack of cookbooks or your computer. On one sheet of paper, you are going to write out the meals for the week. Sunday to Saturday, break the meals down into the main ingredients that you will need to purchase. Use your computer or cookbooks to find recipes or get inspirations for meals. I personally find it easier to start the plan with the proteins, then filling in the grains and vegetables afterwards. For example, I always cook a chicken on Sunday’s so I can have leftover chicken meat in lunches for the week. On Wednesday, there is usually some chicken that still needs to be used up from lunches, and I don’t want it to go bad, so Wednesday I make a meal that uses leftover chicken, like a pasta dish or frittata. I look for places to use lower priced, less processed meats, like a whole chicken or tough beef cuts, so I can enjoy the higher quality meats at a lower price. From your seven-day dinner plan, you can make your grocery list. I add a few lunch items, such as cucumber, tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes for salad, depending on the season. I find that my lunches are pretty much exclusively leftovers, whether they be in a sandwich or in a dish to reheat, so I don’t worry about including lots of lunch items on my grocery list.

When making your grocery list, it is very useful to cluster items in their food groups. All the vegetables together, all the fruit together, etc. I also get my meat, vegetables, nuts, and coffee from the market, so I split my list into “grocery store” and “market”. Make sure your list is realistic- if you have to many items and limited storage, you may have to end up throwing out perishables. On the other hand, if you underestimate how much food you will eat, you might end up turning to convenience foods or going out when you come home and find the fridge empty. After a week of meal planning, I find you will pretty easily be able to tell how effective your portioning was, and can adjust accordingly. We are self-regulating animals after all!

Okay, so now you have a plan and grocery list. We’ve hit the third blank sheet of paper, and this is one of the most important ones that will save you lots of time. This is your weekly prep sheet. If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, or have any notion of how one is run, you will realize that the restaurant only runs smoothly and gets orders out if all the prep work is done ahead of time. It is the key to getting food on the table fast. For most meals, there is generally a component of chopping, washing, drying, and peeling. If you can just do all the chopping at the same time, you will save yourself the time of having to chop and wash everything right before you cook it, and you will only have to wash your knife and cutting board once. Yes, I know that nutrients start to naturally degrade in some fruits and vegetables are chopped, but to be honest when you are coming home from a long day of classes in the middle of mid-term season, those trace nutrient losses are worth the time you save. I also find that one of the main things that holds up a meal is the cooking of grains and other carbohydrates. For this reason, if I know I’m having rice or barley or quinoa or potatoes that week, I tend to cook them ahead of time, and have them cold in the fridge. To heat them up, I either thrown them in a gratin dish with some vegetables with parmesan on top so they can bake while I do a bit of homework before dinner, or I toss them quickly in a pan to heat them up and get a bit of a crunch going. I love having pasta that has been cooked to al dente ahead of time so I can just quickly heat it up in it’s sauce (that I usually make ahead of time too) or bake it with delicious bread crumbs and grate cheese on top.

So, that is meal planning in a nutshell, it is the key to being able to make your own food without it being a big, stressful deal. Sure, it’s fine to have some spontaneous meals and moments (I’m thinking of cookies made at ten o’clock on a Tuesday night, fresh bread and butter with veggies for dinner, and other non-meals), but in the long run planning ahead will make your life a lot easier, especially when you are busy. Happy planning!

Roasted Almond Pesto and Almost Settled

After a couple weeks or so of disarray, chaos, and sweat (why so humid here?!) we finally have an apartment that is starting to feel settled in. The textbooks are lining the shelf just inches above my head, the notebooks have been cracked open, the periodic table of elements shower curtain has assumed its rightful place, and Sebastien is happily doing some preemptive calculus in his little office corner. On the menu for me this semester, there is way-too-much physics, calculus, nutrition fundamentals, and management theories. Some of my courses from two years of microbiology transferred, but there is still a solid couple of semesters to catch up on. Looking like a heavy one, and for entering a dietetics program, I am actually only in one singular nutrition course for the whole year! Well, I will have to make the most of that one call to food. Shouldn’t be hard, seeing as my desk is backing onto my kitchen…

Living in Montreal, despite the unaccustomed humidity, has continued to show us new things everyday. My poor, swollen feet are adjusting to the volume of walking associated with city life, which has been a great way to see the city. In the first few weeks, we’ve made sure we do a couple of sightseeing things before the work volume gets too crazy. We spent a really nice afternoon up Mont-Royal, checking out the view of Montreal and getting some moderate exercise by walking while ~200 people sprinted past us up the stairs for their weekend workout. We watched a street show in Vieux-Montreal, which was a funny mix of comedy, music, and audience participation. We watched an inordinate number of firework shows from our deck, which look pretty magical over the lights of the city. We have also become regulars (aka we’ve gone thrice in three weeks, we’ll see if it turns out regular!) at Jean-Talon Market. For all avid market goers, you’ve probably heard of Jean-Talon. I was looking at stalls and pictures and blog posts and articles about the market for the months leading up to my move here, so the build up was quite significant. Despite my high expectations, Jean-Talon delivers.

To get to Jean-Talon, we can take the BIXI bikes, which are completely awesome. If you haven’t heard what BIXI is, it’s a bicycle service that has seemingly hundreds of stops around the city, where you can pay for a year pass and get a little key that you insert into the bike, then the bike pops free of it’s lock. You now have a forty minute turn to bike to your destination, where you can just insert the bike into a free lock. This is so great, because you don’t have to worry about getting your bike/tires/seat stolen while you are off somewhere, and you can bike to the beautiful Jean-Talon market, then take the subway home when you are loaded down with bags.

Now, the Jean-Talon market itself is abundant. That is definitely the word I would use to sum it up. There are 9 butcher shops, 4 cheese stalls, 9 food services, and ~64 fruit/vegetable stalls (literally, I counted). The vegetable stalls include some of the best corn I’ve ever had, massive bags of carrots, bouquets of lavender, beautiful heritage tomatoes, hundreds of apples, and huge bundles of basil for $5. The butcher shops are our new source for organic anti-biotic free meat, and every week we get a whole chicken, a couple of sausages, and then an optional third meat (so far: pork tenderloin, chorizo, and this week’s pork shoulder roast). We load up on fresh veggies, maple syrup, and finish off with a popsicle or samosa for the road. It’s a great Sunday morning outing, which is followed by a big brunch, lots of coffee, a stint of homework, then food prep for the week and a roast chicken dinner. For now, while the weather is nice, Sunday mornings for me consist of sitting on the deck with my cup of chai and business textbook while Sebastien bikes around with the McGill bike club. All-in-all, Sunday is fast becoming my favourite day of the week.

Now, in time I will give you my recipe for roast chicken (hint: it’s part of a certain series I’m running…), but for now I’m going to tell you exactly what I did with that $5 bundle of basil, because you bet that was the first thing I bought. The containers of basil you buy from the supermarket are so dinky, so when I saw these guys at the market, my brain was screaming PESTO, PESTO! I mean, who doesn’t love pesto? It’s green goodness that is great spread on sandwiches, in salad dressing, on pasta, in quiche, rubbed on chicken, and pretty much everywhere else. I think it smells so good, if it was socially acceptable I would aspire to design a pesto perfume. The only thing that makes me cringe about pesto is the pine nuts. Don’t get me wrong, pine nuts are totally delicious (world’s best mac n’ cheese topping), but they are freeze-the-bank call-long-distance-to-bemoan-about-it-with-your-mother expensive. Crazy expensive! For the volume of pesto I enjoy, I simply can’t justify the pine nut cost (plus we are not sure if Sebastien is allergic to them, so why take the risk), so I do the sensible thing: I substitute roasted almonds. Roasted properly, until the skin is crackle-y and the aroma fills the house. These little beauties make great substitutes, and I promise will not hinder your product at all. If you can afford the pine nuts, of course I would encourage you to use them, because they are just delicious. However, this is kind of a student version of pesto, so the budget has to be cut somewhere!

So, here is my modified pesto recipe! Make it while the basil is still a-plenty.

Roasted Almond Pesto
This recipe is for 2 cups of basil, which I thought was a pretty reasonable amount that a person would buy. It doubles, triples, and halves well, so adjust to your amount of basil!

1/2 c almonds
2 c fresh basil, packed
1/2 c finely grated romano cheese
1/2 c olive oil
4 cloves of garlic

1) First of all, it is very important to roast the almonds to get a lot of flavour out of them. This can be done two different ways: in the oven, or on the stove top. On the stove top, heat a bit of oil in a cast iron skillet OR heat up a dry non-stick pan, and add the almonds. Toast them on medium heat until they are fragrant and the skins begins to crackle. For the oven method, preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Spread the almonds out on a baking sheet and roast them 10-15 minutes, until they are fragrant, crunchy, and crackling!

2) Next step is to thoroughly clean your basil! Often when you get basil from the market, the roots are still attached or there’s a dirt plug, so making sure the dirt is all removed will prevent that crunchy rock texture that no one wants in their basil. Fill a large pot with water and place all the basil inside so it gets in every nook and cranny, and rinse until the water runs off clean. Dry (don’t worry about getting it totally dry, your going to mash it up anyways).
3) Now it’s food processor time!! If you are lucky enough to have one, go over and kiss it then proceed to make pesto with ease by first adding the almonds and pulsing until they are fine. Then add your basil and chop it right up. Add the rest of the ingredients, except for the olive oil, and pulse until it looks smooth and free of garlic/almond chunks. Add the oil in a drizzle through the top until it’s smooth and beautiful and pesto-y. If you have a blender, like me, you are going to do the same thing in the same order, but make sure to stop and stir the blender often, for it is much easier to miss a large piece of garlic or almond in the blender. It works fine, just make sure you check the consistency often!