How a Mango Saved Dinner or Suggestions for a Well Stocked Pantry

One of the biggest challenges I've faced since moving to Jamaica has been adjusting to the way in which we receive our pay. If you are fortunate enough to have a regular job with a regular salary (like Mo and I currently do) then you most likely get paid once a month. Yup, a MONTH. And it likely comes at the end of the month. So budgeting takes some skill and a lot of practice and well, sometimes it just doesn't go the way you had planned or thought you had planned. Such was this month with some unexpected car expenses and a barrage of school field trips for Shine and so on and so on.  (Yes, I think we fall into that category of highly educated struggling middle class family living paycheck to paycheck...but that is a post for another day...this one is about mangoes...)

Meal planning this week required a five loaves and two fishes kind of miracle as I scanned our sparse wares. The reality is we had plenty of food even though our pantry looked bare. In fact we had a week of pretty phenomenal meals and here is why:

1. I believe in growing your own food. Even if it is just a basil plant on a window sill...get some seeds and grow something. We have a balcony that we have filled with a random assortment of plants both intentional and unintentional. Currently we have growing: parsley, callaloo (leafy green), cho-cho (chayote squash), peppermint, what we think is hibiscus (birds love to bring/discard their lunch to our place), rosemary, scallion and sage. Admittedly, we have been rather negligent when it comes to tending our little garden and really only the strong survive, but it's something. And this week we had a lovely meal of baked potatoes topped with sauted callaloo, fresh herbs, tomatoes and tofu cream. Which brings me to my next two suggestions...

2. We adore root vegetables. They are cheap and they seemingly last forever. When we go to the market they are our staple purchase and a pound of potatoes (sweet or Irish) will hang around for a month or more if stored in a cool, dry place. Plus they are starches and so they are filling, meaning a little goes a long way in a meal.

3. I always have a block of tofu in the fridge. I know, I know! Soy! The once healthy now evil food. However, I still believe in its health benefits when you purchase the organic, non-gmo variety. It is super versatile. (Make it savory or sweet, cream it for a rich sour cream effect, crumble it for a feta effect, saute, fry it, bake it...etc.) Keeps well. And again, it's filling.

4. I buy dried beans. Sometimes I think it's just the artist in me because I love the variety of colors and shapes that the beans come in. I also think it has something to do with the way the beans (or peas as they are called here) are big wooden barrels with shiny silver scoops. The whole aesthetic just gets me. And I won't lie, I love to send the scoop deep down into the barrel and hear the shooshing sound that ensues. When I get them home, I love transferring them to the glass mason jars both for the clinking sound of dried bean against glass and because they look so pretty sitting in my cupboard. They will last indefinitely stored this way and while it does take some advanced prepping to use them for meals, it's worth it. We had a delish curried lentil, sweet potato, raisin, mangoey thingy that I poured over some quinoa and served up with some thawed roti I forgot was in the freezer. Shine declared it, "The best meal ever!" And I admit to being particularly proud of this one because...

5. I almost always incorporate fruit in the meal. We always have a stash of dried fruit in the house, even if it's just the humble raisin. Much like #4, dried fruit lasts indefinitely, tastes good, is kid-friendly and makes an ordinary meal extraordinary. What would have been a pretty bland (and brown) meal of lentils, potatoes and grain was flavorful and fun because it had bright orange chunks of fresh mango in it and little bites of sweet deliciousness with each raisin. It happens to be mango season right now and our apartment complex happens to be home to a significant number of mango trees so it just meant a trip down to the yard to find a mango ripe enough for dinner. Again, refer to #1...and if you can't grow your own fruit, at least invest in the dried variety. You will be happy you did!

6. I'm big into grains. Paleo-schmaleo...I like grains and seeds posing as grains (quinoa). They are dried and so keep like the beans and fruit...forever. They look nice (#4), they are filling, they taste good and they are appropriate for dinner, lunch AND breakfast! I like to mix and match them. Sometimes I make a quinoa, oat, barley porridge topped with flaxseeds and honey which is heavenly!! Other times I will make a rice and bulgar pilaf with walnuts or almonds. Which brings me to #7...

7. Along with the dried fruit stash is the assorted nut stash. (yeah, that sounds weird...) I always have on hand walnuts, almonds, cashews and peanuts. They are a good source of protein, add a flavorful crunch to any meal and are just fun to eat. You can also soak them and then either sprout them or blend them into a nut-butter or vegan cream.

8. I stick things in the freezer and then forget about them. Remember that roti mention in #5? Well, there was also half a bag of edamame stuck behind the ice cube trays which inspired last night's Japanese style meal. I tossed the remaining edamame into a pot of boiling water and unearthed a bag of dried seaweed from the cupboard (all things dried are good and seaweed is one of those super foods that we aren't always in the mood for but really turn boring staples into a world class meal). It was a sushi with a side of edamame kind of night. The only problem was that I had the seaweed, the rice, the scallion and some scrambled egg but that would be some pretty eh sushi. Then I remembered, "Mangoes!". I told Song to get her shoes and off we went on a mango hunt. One of our neighbors was in the yard with his daughter and offered to climb a tree for us. We returned upstairs with a giant mango and sat down to a really simple yet nourishing and delicious meal.

My experience with meal planning this week reminded me to 1. be creative in the kitchen and 2. rely more on real, living foods. While I am passionate about healthy eating/nutrition/local produce/etc., my hectic schedule often finds me looking for simple, convenient ways to make meals. I sometimes fall short of my healthy eating ideals and we eat grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner. However, dinners this week took the same amount of time as any other week and if not pleasant just for the sake of their variety, they were also pleasant because I really did feel like I was producing a miracle!

So, the moral of the story is: If you have a well stocked pantry and a few mangoes, you can eat like royalty even on a tight budget.