Emily Wight loves beets, kale, and turnips. She also loves fried chicken and cheeseburgers. That’s not contradictory—and neither is eating well without spending a lot of money.
Six years ago, the home cook started a blog called Well Fed, Flat Broke after graduating from UBC with a creative writing degree. She’s just released her first book, Well Fed, Flat Broke: Recipes for Modest Budgets and Messy Kitchens (Arsenal Pulp Press, $24.95).
On the line from her East Vancouver home, Wight explains that although she’s not as financially strapped as she used to be (she works in communications and her husband in health-care administration), her family must still watch their food budget.
“We rent in Vancouver and have a three-year-old in daycare and we’re still paying our student loans,” she explains. “In Vancouver, even when you’re doing a little better, it’s still tough. I think that’s the reality for a lot of people, especially young families, students, and even older people looking at retirement.”
In her book, Wight notes that while it’s not impossible to live frugally in Vancouver, “what you save in money you often lose in time.” The overall tone is this: do the best you can in the kitchen, and don’t beat yourself up about it.
“Think of a balanced diet in weekly terms—you’ll get everything you need in seven days, so don’t spend every day trying to fit everything in,” she writes. Wight defines a meal as “anything that will satisfy and sustain you” and admits that for her, that includes eating a big bowl of “over-buttered, over-salted popcorn for dinner at least once a month”.
However, she also makes plenty of healthy, interesting, and inexpensive meals—the kind you can whip up in one pot (so there’s less to wash) when you’re tired and hungry after work. Inexpensive, of course, is the key here. While Wight supports buying organic produce and ethically produced eggs, her resources are limited.
“Organic isn’t always a priority, but we do care quite a bit about ethical meat and seafood, so that’s where I’ll throw my money,” she explains to the Straight. “Telling people they have to eat organic all the time is defeating, because it makes you feel guilty if you can’t do it,” she adds, noting that as an alternative, she buys lots of in-season veggies. “I’ve resolved to do better when I’m better off, which I always assume will come someday,” she writes in the cookbook.
She also tries to factor health concerns into her cooking but cuts herself some slack here, too. For example, she knows that using dried beans instead of canned ones reduces her family’s risk of BPA exposure, but she’s made her peace with canned beans for the convenience and health benefits she gets from eating beans, period.
Her attitude makes for a very forgiving cookbook, with recipes that are approachable not only because they’re easy to make but because they’re offered without judgment. Steeped in Vancouver’s cultural diversity, the dishes are eclectic, incorporating Indian spices, kimchi, and other global condiments. Since she can’t afford to travel much and having a toddler makes eating out challenging, these recipes help liven things up. “It keeps us from feeling stuck,” she says.
So what’s for dinner at her house? On a weeknight, it could be peanut soba noodles with kale or Sizzling Chili Noodles—Wight’s take on Peaceful Restaurant’s fiery dish made with fresh Shanghai noodles, baby bok choy, and a whole lot of garlic and sambal oelek sauce. A mild tomato-based curry with baked eggs is “the kind of thing you might want to eat after a weekend of too much beer and cheese”. Pantry kedgeree is “one of those weird English dishes” that’s comfort food for Wight; the simple fried rice incorporates a can of smoked herring, frozen peas, chopped hard-boiled eggs, and Indian spices.
Beans and other legumes are an inexpensive source of protein, and Wight’s recipes include lentil sloppy joes and lentil tacos with avocado cream—a mash of avocado with Greek yogurt and cumin to stretch the expensive fruit. Her go-to “cheap work lunch” is tuna salad with celery and black-eyed peas, which she makes a big batch of to take to the office over the course of the week.
And then, of course, there are the treats, including peanut butter bacon fat cookies. That’s right—thrifty Wight saves her bacon fat and uses it in these cookies: “The slightly smoky, porky taste of the fat makes peanut butter taste peanut-butterier,” she writes.
After all, her book isn’t just about eating cheap. “I’ve tried to make food that’s delicious and you can really enjoy,” she explains by phone. “It’s delicious, but it also happens to be cheap. So if you’re broke, at least you can look forward to a meal that will sustain you and nourish you and make you feel good.”
Wight will be launching her book at a free event on April 19 at Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks. See one of her recipes from Well Fed, Flat Broke below.
Lentil Sloppy Joes
Sloppy Joes are total kid food. They’re also perfect for adults slogging through jobs, parents who just can’t cope with all of this right now, and people who have been looking forward all week to spending Friday night on the couch, balancing a plate of comfort food on their thighs while binge-watching Netflix. And these are so healthy, you don’t even need to bother with a side salad. Joes go well with chocolate milk and/or weekend-quality red wine. Serve open-faced, on toasted buns.
1 cup (250 mL) dried green, brown, or French lentils
1 bay leaf
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
1 small onion
4 Tbsp (60 mL) olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
½ lb (250 g) mushrooms, finely minced (or whizzed until almost puréed in a food processor or blender)
1 tsp (5 mL) smoked paprika
1 tsp (5 mL) ancho or other chili powder
½ tsp (2.5 mL) ground mustard
½ tsp (2.5 mL) ground cumin
½ tsp (2.5 mL) ground black pepper
½ tsp (2.5 mL) dried thyme
5.5-oz (156-mL) can tomato paste
2 Tbsp (30 mL) apple cider vinegar
1 Tbsp (15 mL) honey
Salt, to taste
- In a pot over medium heat, simmer lentils and bay leaf in 2 cups (500 mL) lightly salted water until tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Drain, then set aside. Discard bay leaf.
- Meanwhile, in a heavy-bottomed pot such as a Dutch oven over high heat, sauté celery, carrot, and onion in olive oil until glistening, then cover, reduce heat to medium, and cook for 10 minutes.
- Remove lid, add garlic, and cook until mixture is caramelized and reduced by two-thirds, 15 to 20 minutes. The longer you cook this, the sweeter it will get.
- Add mushrooms and cook until moisture has mostly dissipated and bottom of pan is dry.
- Add spices, thyme, and tomato paste, stir until combined, then add cooked lentils. Stir in 1 cup (250 mL) water, apple cider vinegar, and honey. Cook until mixture begins to bubble.
- Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Serve over toasted hamburger buns.
Yield: 4 servings.
Adapted from Well Fed, Flat Broke: Recipes for Modest Budgets and Messy Kitchens (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2015) by Emily Wight. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.