Based in London, Ontario, Canada, Wendy Haaf has been a freelance writer for more than 20 years.
While she specializes in the topic of health, Wendy says that she's written about everything from starting babies on solids to a new system for controlling artificial limbs that incorporates machine learning technology.
Recently, Wendy says she's learned about local food culture and regional specialties in different communities across Canada for a series of columns on places people might consider moving when they retire.
How often do you write about food?
As someone who writes a lot of health-related stories and content, I’ve written quite a bit on topics like heart-healthy eating patterns, easy hacks for making healthier meals, and how to incorporate more fiber into your diet.
I love interviewing dietitians — most of them get into the profession because they’re enthusiastic about food, not because they want to tell people what not to eat. Getting paid to trade cooking tips and pore over recipe sites feels a bit like I’m getting away with something!
Do you ever travel for food?
My husband and I don’t choose destinations solely based on food, but to us, trying local dishes is one of the best parts of visiting an unfamiliar place.
We like visiting local grocery stores to see what’s available to locals, and to pick up a few basics for breakfast or lunch. Other people jot down the attractions or sites they visit while on holiday — I carry a travel diary, but use it to record restaurant names, and what we ate.
Do you grow your own food?
I don’t enjoy gardening, although if I had to choose between flowers and vegetables, I think only the latter are worth the work involved.
I did plant a vegetable patch for a few years, and despite my brown thumb, reaped huge harvests of Swiss chard and green tomatoes. I actually found figuring out what to do with all the excess a lot of fun: I don’t know if I would ever have tried green tomato chutney or roasted green tomato salsa otherwise. There’s nothing like being able to step out the back door and pick a colander full of fresh microgreens.
But, keeping a garden stopped being practical when our vacation schedule always seemed to conflict with planting season, and I was devoting more time to my business.
Do you enjoy budget-friendly meals?
Healthy and budget-friendly describes our cooking style pretty well. We eat a lot of bean- and legume-based dishes, for instance. I also make big batches of marinara and enchilada sauce and freeze portions, which significantly cuts prep time for dishes like stuffed shells and eggplant Parmesan.
Favorite restaurants or food travel destinations?
Most of our favorite restaurants over the years have been fairly small, family-run affairs, and our current top two picks, one Vietnamese and one Thai, are no exception.
Many of the most memorable meals we’ve had in our travels have been in out-of-the-way places -- a quirky one-person snack bar in Cinque Terre we ducked into during a downpour; fresh-from-the-oven spinach pide in a working-class lunch bar in Istanbul; sharing vegetable tagine and couscous with a family in Fez who invited us into their home; a personal pintxos tour of tiny bars crowded with locals in Bilbao; and a neighborhood restaurant in Rome that served a to-die-for risotto.
We’ve had incredible food in every country we’ve visited, but Sicily was a stand-out: every meal — save just one — was among our best-ever.
Does being a writer make you enjoy or appreciate food more?
Good writers are observers who notice and pay attention to sensory details to help make stories come to life on the page. Does that mean we enjoy or appreciate food more than the average person? I don’t know.
Do you have any favorite food books or cookbooks?
I have a 30+ year-old copy of Jane Brody’s Good Food Book: Living the High-Carbohydrate Way that is so well-used that it’s in pieces. It completely changed what and how I cook. Her recipes aren’t just healthy — what we’d now call plant-forward — they’re delicious.
I also use lots of recipes from heart-smart cookbooks by Anne Lindsay and Bonnie Stern, and some by Rosie Schwartz. All three are Canadian treasures, and I’ve interviewed Rosie so often that when I call her about a story it feels like catching up with an old friend.
I also have a few of Robin Robertson’s and Kathy Hester’s cookbooks: I discovered both of them while looking for vegan recipes for family get-togethers (two of my kids became vegan as adults). Now, I use them regularly because nearly every time I try one of their dishes, it turns out to be a keeper.
Do you have any favorite cooking shows or food writers?
I’m not that interested in shows featuring chefs — give me a good home cook. When my kids were small, I used to joke that I’d be more impressed with Iron Chef if contestants had to concoct a meal out of random refrigerator scraps, with a judging panel featuring one kid who can’t stand foods that touch on the plate, and another who gags at the sight of tomato sauce.
My son got us hooked on a British show on Netflix called the Big Family Cooking Showdown, which was a delightful binge-watch — lots of fabulous fare with roots in countries like India and Jamaica, plus a sweet, supportive vibe. We also enjoyed both the Great British Baking Show and its Canadian counterpart.
With all of the reading I do for work, I don’t devote as much time as I might like to following and reading food writers. However, I became a big fan of Shayma Saadat (aka @SpiceSpoon), a Toronto-based chef and food writer after interviewing her for a story. Her cooking style — which she calls Silk Route cuisine — is an appealing mix based on her Afghan, Pakistani and Persian heritage.
Any favorite kitchen essentials?
Even relatively inexpensive coffee beans make great coffee in our grinder/drip combo. I love our big, indestructible wok — the longest-surviving kitchen utensil we own — and a big flat cleaver I use nearly every day for tasks like smashing and chopping garlic.
We’re latecomers to cast iron cookware, but the Lagostina skillet we recently bought on sale to try making socca quickly became a must-have tool.
And while we’re still experimenting with our big pandemic purchase — an Instant Pot — being able to cook dried beans without soaking in under an hour and produce a big batch of steel-cut oatmeal or polenta hands-free seems like sorcery.
Where do you turn for great food, or food inspiration?
My hundreds of saved Facebook posts, and a long list of websites including My Heart Beets and the The Soulful Cook. And if we feel like a break from meal-planning and grocery shopping, we order a meal kit delivery for a week, and my husband takes over the kitchen at dinnertime.
That’s not the only time he cooks — for one, he makes Pad Thai that’s head and shoulders above even the very best restaurant versions I’ve eaten.
What do you snack on when you're on deadline?
I don’t really have a specific snack or routine when I’m on deadline. Even if I have a story to finish, I take a break at about 4:00 p.m. and start dinner; it gives me a mental break, and even if I’ve accomplished nothing else that day, we’ve had a decent meal. There’s something very satisfying about that, and about feeding other people.
One of the biggest perks of freelancing, especially when our kids were growing up, has been having the luxury of being home to cook dinner every night.