March 2021. I am so pleased to announce that my eighth book, Bread & Water: Essays, will be published in Fall 2021 by University of Regina Press. I will put up cover art as soon as I get it. Thank you to the great team at U of R PRess; they are a dream to work with, and I am honoured and humbled that they are giving voice to my new work.
Monthly Archives: March 2021
March 2020. I’m standing in my auntie’s orchard on a mild afternoon, the temperature about 18 C. In Canada, it’s deep winter, but here in California, the citrus trees have bloomed, and the fruit is ripe.
It’s a tough gig, being a grower on the Canadian prairies. We make jokes about the harsh weather – “But it’s a dry cold!” – but in reality some of us are pretty chuffed that we manage to grow anything at all.
Of course, we can’t grow everything. If I had my druthers, my little piece of prairie would be blessed with a kinder, gentler, more Mediterranean climate. I’d grow grapes, sweet cherries, olives, dates and figs, eggplant, all kinds of citrus. Lemons, grapefruit, limes and oranges fresh from the tree are an intoxicating thing. Just as intoxicating is the aroma of their blossoms before the tree produces fruit. O my.
Dozens of songs have been written about the lemon, from “Blind Lemon Blues” by Lead Belly to Prince’s “Lemon Crush”. In literature, too, lemons lead the citrus firmament – D.H. Lawrence waxed rhapsodic about lemons like innumerable stars in his 1921 travel book, Sea and Sardinia. But nothing but the doing of it captures the total coolness of strolling outside and twisting a fresh lemon free from the tree. As I said, the Mediterranean.
Citrus is an undeniably Arabic influence. Groves of bitter, or Seville, oranges, and other citrus were planted by Arabs carrying Islam into Europe. Flavours bequeathed by the Arabs to the cuisines of the Mediterranean include saffron, sweet-sour agrodolce sauce, brilliant on grilled fish, and preserved lemons. This is to fresh lemons as powdered and crystallized ginger is to a fresh hand of ginger – recognizably the same flavour, but not interchangeable. Fresh lemons are a brightener of flavours without equal – almost always, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice elevates a dish. But preserved lemons are transformed into condiment, losing their acidic rasp to the mellowing influence of salt.
So here it is – how to preserve lemons, then what to do with them. First we eat, then a glass of wine as we discuss the merits of moving to the Mediterranean.
- dee’s note: I flew home safely. A week later, planes were grounded, airports closed, and the pandemic closed in.
Preserved lemons are a classic Mediterranean condiment. They are wondrous added to prawns, grilled fish, stews or tagines, roasted potatoes, bowls of lentils or chickpeas, grain salad, vinaigrette. Makes 1 pint
2 Tbsp. kosher or pickling salt
4 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick, broken
1 tsp. coriander seeds
¼ c. melted honey (optional)
Quarter washed lemons ¾ of the way down the fruit, leaving the quarters attached at the stem end. Stuff each with 1 tsp. salt. Pack into jar, peel side up, squishing well with a spoon to get the juices flowing. Sprinkle each layer with coriander seed, cinnamon sticks and bay leaves. Add honey, and if needed, extra lemon juice to cover. Cover and age in the fridge for a month before using.
Chicken with Olives and Preserved Lemons
Called a tagine in Morocco, a stew is a stew by any other name. You can swap the chicken for large cubes of lamb shoulder or cross-cut shanks; just extend the cooking time. For added complexity, add a pinch of saffron. Serves 6-10
6 chicken thighs and drums, bone in
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 head garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. chopped ginger (optional)
1 red pepper, chopped
1 tsp. anise seed, cracked
1 Tbsp. sweet paprika
1 Tbsp. ground cumin
2 Tbsp. ground coriander
½ cup chopped parsley
4 cups chicken stock
1 cup sliced green olives
1 stick cinnamon
2 Tbsp. pomegranate molasses or brown sugar
1/3 cup finely sliced preserved lemon, zest only
1 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1 bunch green onions, minced
salt and pepper to taste
Brown the legs, skin side down, in a heavy pan until most of the fat is rendered out. Set the meat aside. Add the onion, garlic, ginger, red pepper and spices. Sauté until tender. Add the parsley, stock, olives, cinnamon, pomegranate molasses or brown sugar and lemons. Bring to a boil, return the meat to the pan, reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until chicken is cooked and tender, about 90 minutes, longer as needed. Stir in the vinegar, salt and pepper. If the juices are too thin, bring to a boil uncovered, until sauce consistency. Garnish with green onions. Serve hot with roasted vegetables, cous cous, tabbouleh or mashed spuds.
February 2021. My palate tips to sour, as opposed to my husband, who prefers sweet stuff. I am not sure I can draw any conclusions, but it makes for interesting small talk while we drink our morning coffee. So as a certified sourpuss, I was thrilled to recently read about Alchemist Vinegar, artisanal vinegars made by Paul Poutanen, owner of Tippa, a distiller in Okotoks, Alberta. I promptly ordered a sampler and am awaiting its arrival. I love vinegar, and six open bottles occupy prime real estate on the butcher-block beside my stove. They offer testament to more than a passion for salads and things sour. Acid is one of the cornerstones of the balancing act – seasoning a dish with salt, acid, heat, sweetness, even fat, to bring its flavours into harmony.
Many of the vinegars on my caddy are Canadian – wine, balsamic and sherry, malt and cider. What they have in common is acetic acid, that nose-tickling, assertively pungent waft of acid that increases in strength when it is heated. Vinegar is made from alcohol, with specific proportions of specific bacteria that need warmth and oxygen to metabolize the booze into acetic acid and water. Along the way, the bacteria live on the surface of the liquid, forming a thick, slimy, yucky film known as the “mother.” (Winemakers and vinegar makers live in an uneasy truce if they are neighbours, and often the vinegary is located far from the winery to minimize the possibility of the mother consorting with the young wine, with predictably sour results.)
Some of my bottles hold self-infused vinegars – my own fruits, berries and herbs stuffed into jars of cider or wine vinegars. My favourite infused vinegar is vanilla-flavoured: cut open two vanilla pods, scrape out the seeds and add both seeds and pods to a bottle of mild vinegar. Cover and let infuse for at least a month, then use sparingly, for flavour accents as well as acidity. Malt vinegars, made from cereal grains and sprouted barley, carry distinct reminders of their beer base, well exemplified by Spinnaker’s Gastro-pub vinegars. Apple cider vinegar has an unmistakable orchard fruit note, like that made by Okanagan Vinegary Brewery.
Two Canadian wine-based vinegars that I love have achieved cult status, each made in a winemaking region. The boutique winemaking Venturi-Schulze family of Cobble Hill, near Victoria, has produced Canada’s first balsamic vinegar since 1970. Just as is in Italy, the grape juice is simmered and reduced, then aged in a series of wooden barrels – acacia, ash, oak, cherry and chestnut – in a solera system similar to that used in sherry-making, with the evaporated portion called “the angels’ share.” Michelle Schulze, step-daughter of patriarch Giordano Venturi and daughter of former micro-biologist Marilyn Schulze Venturi, told me years ago that vinegar-making requires even better grapes than those used in wine-making because such reduction highlights any weaknesses. The Italians of Modena, the birthplace of balsamic, say that balsamic vinegar is not made for your children, nor for your grandchildren, but for your children’s children’s children. This balsamic is subtly wood-scented, darkly sweet, overlaid with mellow acids. Dole it out, drizzle it on ice cream and as a finish for intensely flavoured sauces, pour it into tiny digestif glasses at the conclusion of a meal.
Made in Niagara, Minus 8 is similar to icewine, as it too is made from grapes that are not harvested until the temperature drops to -8C, and barrel-aged in a solera sherry-making style. This vinegar has a woodsy nose, its sweetness counterweighted by assertively balanced acid. The house website lists several other vinegars: you might want to try IP8, Dehydr8, Veget8 or L8Harvest.
Soon I’ll have a few more bottles of vinegar on the caddy. But first we eat, and then we compare notes on your favourites.
A gastrique is a quick and simple sauce, a reduction, highly flavourful and on the sharp side, that is based on caramelized sugar and vinegar enhanced with optional spices. Think of it as a digestif, and drizzle on grilled or roasted fish or meats that are rich and in need of sharp flavours that cut to the bone.
¼ cup white sugar
1 whole star anise or ¼ tsp. cracked fennel/anise seed
2/3 cup white wine
2-3 Tbsp. good (but not exceptional) vinegar
Black pepper and salt to taste
In a shallow sauté pan over high heat, dissolve the sugar in 4 Tbsp. water with the star anise or seeds, stirring. Once the water evaporates, caramelize the sugar without stirring, about 3-5 minutes. Slowly add the wine and reduce by half the volume. Add the vinegar and reduce again by one-third. Season to taste. Use hot on grilled or roasted foods.
February 2021. Let’s start over. Yes, we are still in the grip of a pandemic. But there’s hope, and food is part of it. To reboot, here’s the first in several parts on culinary essentials – the balancing act of salt, acid, heat and sweet. Today, salt. Like many cooks, I keep an array of salts on my butcher block.
Historically, salt has been used to make political statements: in 1930, Mahatma Gandhi led a nonviolent march against the British tax on salt in his efforts to free India from British rule. Salt became the symbol of protest against colonial oppression as he led a 241-mile walk to the salt mines in Dandi, on the Arabian Sea.
Gandhi was right about salt’s value. “Salt of the earth” or being “worth one’s salt” imply rock-solid value, and salt is a traditional gift to celebrate friendship and a new home. However, according to food scientist Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, excess salt is implicated in digestive system cancers, may cause loss of bone calcium and exacerbate chronic kidney disease. But we need it, as Gandhi knew. A daily gram of salt is vital for our blood plasma, where sodium and chloride ions balance potassium and other ions in our cells. In the kitchen, salt enhances the aroma and taste of food, modifies flavour by countering bitterness or acidity, and is a preservative. We source salt from the sea and inland: water evaporates, leaving the mineral behind.
Maldon salt, from Essex, in southeastern England, has been sourced from the same spot for a century. Its costly, recognizable large flakes are crunchy flavour bombs, ideal on baked goods, caramel ice cream, roasted meats, fish and vegetables. Packaged without anti-caking additives, it tastes mild and pure.
Iodized table salt includes traces of potassium iodide, good with thyroid function. (The thyroid governs the body’s heat production, protein metabolism, and development of the nervous system.). Table salt contains anti-clumping additives to keep the salt flowing in humid conditions. It has a bitter, tinny, metallic finish.
Unrefined sea salt, called sel marin or sel gris (grey salt), is minimally processed in Guerande, Brittany. The seawater’s salinity increases as it is “herded” through channels into successively shallower pools called oeillets. Surface salt crystals are raked off by hand by paludiers (salt harvesters). Moist and gray, its complex taste is due to traces of magnesium chloride, potassium, magnesium, copper and clay particles. The degree of saltiness varies.
Fleur de sel (flower of salt) is considered the finest, most delicate salt from Guerande, where paludiers rake off the fine flakes, which are air-dried in wicker baskets. This expensive mild connoisseur’s salt is good on finished dishes. Finer-textured than sel gris, think of it as a condiment more than a salt.
Pink Hawaiian sea salt is coloured by added clay rich in iron oxide.
Pickle-makers choose pickling salt, an additive-free coarse salt that does not turn pickling brine cloudy.
Kosher salt is iodine-free, additive-free, traditionally used to draw out blood and impurities in meat during the koshering process. It is slightly coarse but flaky, and is ideal for daily cooking. It is milder, so you may need to use more. Kosher salt is my day-to-day go-to.
Korean and Japanese salts are moist, like sel gris, but are a mixture of sizes of crystals. Creamy white and fairly salty, a little goes far.
Rock salt, mass-produced for use on roads and sidewalks, can be used in old-fashioned ice cream makers (on the ice, not the cream) to drop the temperature and hasten the freezing process. Use one part salt to five parts ice.
So let’s eat first. Don’t forget the salt.
Salted herbs are a Quebecois staple, a smart preserving method for gardeners faced with winter nipping down their herb beds each year. The types of herbs you use depend on what you grow: my current batch includes basil, oregano, parsley, chives, thyme, tarragon and a wee bit of sage and rosemary. Add minced celery leaves, kale, spinach or chard if you like, or even minced carrot. This only works with fresh herbs, not dried, so mark your calendar for next summer or fall. Good in sauces and gravies, soups, gratins, risottos, etc. Keeps for several months in the fridge.
Makes 1 quart
1 cup minced basil
1 cup minced thyme
1 cup minced parsley
1 cup minced oregano
1 cup minced tarragon
1 cup minced chives
¼ cup minced rosemary and/or sage
½ cup kosher salt
Mix together and transfer to a glass jar. Cover and store in the fridge for a week before using. Keep refrigerated.
January 2021. When my Millennial kids were young, on the last Friday of each month I showed up at school early, having first made a trip to the recycling centre to return our household’s flotsam. “Noon dismal,” my kids called it, that early discharge. We made it into a family ritual by going out for Vietnamese pho, the modest cost usually covered by what I had pocketed at the recycling centre. I figured it was a good lesson in the tangible upside of recycling, but it also gave my boys an early and lasting fondness for food from another culture.
Eating out was a rarity in our household, reflective of my job as a chef, and of the era: a recent study reported by Dalhousie University shows that 64 percent of Millennials ate home-cooked meals while growing up, down considerably from the 94 percent attributed to those born before 1946, but more than Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2012), 55 percent of whom were raised on home-cooked meals.
Since the pandemic, 60 percent of Canadians regularly cook at home, which anyone in charge of their family’s weekly shopping trip is aware of – shelves bare of flour and yeast, denuded fruit and vegetable bins in grocery stores attest to our hands-on habits of late. Home cooking is enjoying the biggest surge in decades, with even Millennials and Gen Z adults swerving from their habits of buying meal kits and pickup/takeout to wielding a knife from time to time. So, parents, the question becomes this – how to involve the kids in caring about food?
Empowering your child to make good choices by talking about food – who grows it, how it fuels the body, the differences between healthy and junk food – will help them learn to make better choices in self-care. Start by instilling exercise as a habit. Appetites will bloom. Beyond that, here’s how you can approach the subject. Keep it Simple, Sweetie: KISS.
KEEP IT SIMPLE.
* New ways to present old favourites can open new possibilities. Not too weird, and the ingredients should be recognizable. Or not: you can always hide less-than-favourite foods in other dishes. For instance, add grated zucchini to a frittata or crispy fried fritters.
Buy raw foods rather than packages, whole fruit rather than cans or processed junk foods. If it’s in the house, it will get eaten, so simply minimize temptations and avoid lecturing. But if you don’t have something – potato chips, say – in the house, you and your child will eat fewer potato chips and you won’t have an argument about what to eat at snack time.
INVESTIGATE OTHER CUISINES.
* When it is again safe to dine out, take your children to restaurants for different flavours and textural exposure. Be curious. Cook unfamiliar foods. Kids won’t eat adventurously if parents don’t. Visit ethnic markets and the library. Look online to figure out how to make things like salad rolls, then do it together. Come spring, take your kids to the garden or help them seed herbs and carrots in pots.
Until it is safe to attend cooking classes, there are many online lessons. Watch Jacques Pépin make two types of omelettes on YouTube, for instance, then go to the kitchen and copy him.
What you eat is what your kids eat. Do not cook down to kids or cook a “kids’ meal.” Do not buy into “I don’t like it because it is green/white/purple.” Insist that everyone try everything once or maybe twice. Our house rule was always that you couldn’t form an opinion if you hadn’t tried at least a few bites. So first we eat, and then we debate the merits of live versus virtual cooking classes.
Salad Rolls with Dip
Everyone loves noodles. These are fat-free and tenderly delicious. Makes about 12 rolls
Hoisin, peanut or oyster sauce dip:
¼ cup hoisin sauce, oyster sauce or peanut butter
2-3 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 Tbsp. minced cilantro
1 Tbsp. garlic, pureed
1 Tbsp. ginger root, pureed
½ tsp. hot chili paste
soy sauce or salt to taste
½ cup water
1 lb. cooked chicken, BBQ duck or pork, finely sliced
1 bunch cilantro, minced or whole leaves
2 cups cooked fine-textured vermicelli-shape noodles (rice, bean thread or wheat)
2 tbsp. pureed garlic
2 tbsp. pureed ginger
1 bunch green onions, sliced
1 package rice paper sheets in dried rounds
warm water for soaking the sheets
To make the dip, combine its ingredients and adjust to taste.
For the rolls, combine the pork, cilantro, noodles and seasonings in a bowl. Mix well.
One sheet at a time, immerse the rice sheets in a bowl of warm water. When pliable, lay flat on a smooth-textured kitchen towel.
Place the filling on the lower third of the sheet. Tuck in the edges and roll up. Repeat until all filling is used up. Serve cold with a dip.
January 2021. The knife was small, with a curved tip and serrated blade. As knives go, it looked safe. But that didn’t prevent my anxiety the first time I put it into my child’s hand. He was four, and stood on a sturdy chair. He used that knife to saw up carrots and celery, spuds, an apple. Then, his mouth full of apple slices, he grinned like he’d won a medal. That was thirty-one years ago. That boy now towers over me, and in his hands, knives dance the fandango.
My parenting philosophy has always been that everyone needs to be self-reliant, which includes being able to swim and feed themselves. So we were regulars at the pool, and I taught my kids to cook. Truth is, my approach to kids cooking might seem draconian. “A knife?” some ask, aghast. “You let your four-year-old use a sharp knife?” Yes, of course. We learn by doing. Just make the experience as fun and safe as you can.
The element of fun is crucial. So is patience, and letting go of expectations. In a child’s exploratory hands, a dish will be reinvented. This is a child, with no experience or basis for comparisons. Be kind. And forget about what you have witnessed on TV cooking shows.
But beyond learning how to use that knife, culinary literacy begins with conversation, then shopping and putting away what they helped buy. Kids eat what they have had a hand in selecting.
When you decide it’s time for your kids to join your home’s kitchen brigade, plan ahead. For the first forays, pick days free of other plans. Ask your child to choose a recipe they would like to try, one new dish at a time. Little ones can smash and peel garlic, wash greens, grate cheese, core apples, peel carrots and spuds, slice vegetables, stir liquids and whisk with vigour. Older kids can start with scrambled eggs, vinaigrette, salad, French toast, quesadillas, stir fries, soup, stew, muffins.
Screen the recipe for suitability. It’s unreasonable to attempt a 4-star dish before your kid can slice carrots. Write a list of missing ingredients, together, then take your kid shopping if that’s feasible, or make sure the ingredients are available for the chosen day.
Make sure your kitchen is ready to use, pots and counters clean. Clear the counter. Young cooks spread out over every available inch. Remind them that “M is for Mother, not Maid,” and teach them to clean up after themselves in the kitchen.
Set house rules for stove, oven and microwave use. Make sure your child knows how to turn everything on and off. Go over safety rules, including hand-washing hygiene. Model best practices by using the right tool for the job.
Expect the process to take much longer than you want it to. Children move slowly, especially when doing something new or unfamiliar. Don’t pressure your child to rush. If there is a deadline, choose another day.
Assign one job at a time. Resist the temptation to take over. Your child will learn more by doing than watching. Bite your tongue. Do not issue a barrage of directions.
Don’t visibly flinch when your child picks up a knife. Make sure the knives are sharp; dull knives, requiring more force to do the job, are much more dangerous. Give children under nine a small serrated knife, preferably with a curved tip.
Be patient. Voice your appreciation for the child’s willingness, work ethic and results.
Then eat and wash up together. Ask your child what they think of the finished dish, and discuss what could be different the next time. Ask them, “What next?” and make a date. First you eat, then you do it all over again. Eating is mandatory: cooking should be too.
Chicken, Lemon & Wild Rice Soup
This Maurice Sendak-inspired soup is a happy blend of a Greek classic with Canadian ingredients, and makes a delicious soup that can be endlessly tweaked depending on the ingredients on hand. Serves 4-6
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. grated fresh ginger root
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, minced
1/2 cup white wine, optional
1 cup minced fresh green beans, cabbage or carrots
1/2 cup cooked white beans
1/2 cup cooked basmati or wild rice
2 cups diced cooked chicken
4 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 lemons, juice and zest
4 Tbsp. minced parsley
salt and hot chili flakes to taste
In a heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil and sauté the ginger, garlic and onion until tender, adding small amounts of water as needed to prevent browning. Add the wine, bring to the boil, then stir in the raw vegetables, cooked beans, rice, chicken and stock. Cover, bring to the boil and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until tender. Add the lemon juice, zest, and parsley. Add salt and hot chili flakes, and more lemon juice if needed to balance the soup.
December 2020. Pandemic or not, worrying about food is part of the zeitgeist, especially for those of us who feel responsible for others – our elderly friends and relatives, new moms with a babe in arms, immune-compromised cousins, kids at university or on a tight budget. Dropping off a meal is still one of the best ways to administer a long-distance hug. But even as we debate whether or not – and how – we will celebrate our holidays, our daily bread and sharing is still a necessity.
So how do we safely share food with friends or family outside of our immediate bubble? After your gift of grub is cooked and cooled, transfer it to a washable food container or wrap it carefully in foil or plastic. Delivery needs to be contactless – wearing your mask, set the packet on a neutral spot like a bench or table at least two meters from your friend or beloved. Then send those virtual hugs along when your gift is picked up.
If you have received a gift of food, set it on an empty counter and transfer the food to your own plates or bowls. Refrigerate or store the food. Wash the emptied container, then wash the counter and your hands. When you eat that gift, your “thank you” will reach your benefactor, no matter the distance.
What food to share depends only on what you have on hand and what your beloved might enjoy. If you have it in your head to give dinner instead of seasonal treats, then homemade pizza is a great idea. It’s easy to make multiples in whatever size suits, and extras can be frozen. And it’s just so much better than anything store-bought or even picked up from a pizzeria. Pizza is one of those things that I never buy. You won’t either.
If you grew tomatoes last fall – or know a gardener who did – you might have made some roasted tomato sauce for the freezer part of your pantry. It’s an indispensable staple, hands-down the best instant sauce. It’s not too late to make some now: even out of season Roma tomatoes from far, far away make a roasted tomato sauce that outshines anything premade.
If you are delivering a pizza, underbake it marginally so that your beloved friend can reheat it without compromising the quality, and keep the arugula garnish on the side.
That’s all it takes. So first we eat, and then we can make plans for a meal together after the pandemic. Be careful out there. Feed your family and friends and yourself well this season.
dee’s Pizzeria Pizza
Spread out the work over the day to make assembly a quick job. Makes 4 rounds or 2 large rectangles
1 tsp. yeast
1 tsp. sugar
1/2 cup warm-to-hot water
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. dried thyme or oregano
2 cups warm water, more as needed
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Roasted tomato sauce:
3 lb. ripe Roma tomatoes
2 onions, sliced
1 head garlic, peeled and sliced
2 Tbsp. olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 head garlic, peeled and sliced
2 onions, sliced
1 bell pepper, diced
8 mushrooms, sliced
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup sliced sausage or salami, optional
2 cups grated cheese (Gruyere, cheddar, asiago, Fontina)
2 cups arugula, optional
Combine the yeast, sugar and water. Let stand for about 5 minutes until it is puffy. Add the flour, salt, herbs and remaining water. Mix until the dough is smooth and elastic. Add the oil to the bowl, swirl it around to coat the sides and bottom, and roll the dough so its entire surface is oiled. Cover the bowl and refrigerate the dough to rise until doubled in bulk or until needed.
Set the oven at 450 F. Lay the tomatoes in one layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet, spread the onions and garlic over top, drizzle with the olive oil and add salt and pepper to taste. Roast until the tops are charred and the vegetables are tender, about an hour. Remove from heat and coarsely chop in a food processor.
Heat the oil in a sauté pan, then add the garlic and onions. Fry until half-done, then add remaining vegetables and optional meat. Cook over high heat for several minutes.
Remove dough from the fridge, cut in half or quarters, and shape into 4 thin flat rounds or 2 large rectangles, working with oiled hands directly on top of parchment-lined baking sheets. Let rise while you prepare the toppings.
To assemble the pizza, preheat oven to 450 F. Spoon ½ cup of sauce onto each pizza shell and spread thinly, then add layers of vegetables, sausage and cheese on top. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until nicely browned. Let cool before slicing, then top with arugula.
November 2020. My family recently marked the first anniversary of my Dad’s death. I miss him. He and Mom lived fairly close by, and Dave and I visited them weekly for movie night with our dog Jake, sometimes with dessert in hand. Like a good chocolate, Dad had a soft heart within a crusty exterior. Chocolate was one of his favourite foods: his standing request for dessert whenever I consulted him was “Anything as long as it’s chocolate.” By which he meant dark chocolate, of course.
When we were kids, my home-cooking hero mother had a limited repertoire of desserts, but many were made with dark chocolate to suit Dad’s chocoholic tastes. His favourite was chocolate cake in a square pan; after supper Mom cut it into nine, three by three, enough for the seven of us plus seconds for Dad, and in his lunch the next day.
The chocoholic gene caught up with me as an adult. I love a tart lemon dessert, but chocolate rules, so I eat good dark chocolate every day – bolstered by my dentist’s advice decades ago, that chocolate really was the best choice if I was going to eat sweets. (It doesn’t get stuck in my teeth like toffee does.) Plus I’ve read that dark chocolate (containing a minimum of 70% cacao) contains flavanols, which are potent antioxidants. A 2018 test at Linda Loma University in California involved subjects eating dark chocolate before and after a brain scan. In the post-chocolate scans, researchers observed increased activity in functions like T-cell activation, cellular immune response and in genes involved in neural signaling, which translates to positive effects on mood, memory, stress levels and inflammation. As well, it reduces blood pressure and cholesterol. Medical and dental endorsement – double yay! Wowee, Dad was smart.
Desserts I’d make for my Dad if he were still walking the planet include a very adult flourless dark chocolate pudding/cake, salted caramel chocolate tart, and chocolate angel food cake topped with dark chocolate cream. And this intensely flavoured sourdough chocolate cake, which utilizes the discard from making bread. Dad would have loved this cake. So first we eat, then we discuss the many merits of quotidian chocolate as a lifestyle. I’ll get you those other chocolate recipes another day, I promise.
Sourdough Chocolate Cake
When I couldn’t visit friends willing to adopt my sourdough starter extras and couldn’t stand the idea of tossing out the discard when I made bread, I went hunting for ways to use up my excess starter. This is adapted from a recipe I found on the King Arthur Flour website. Yes, it has two toppings. Make both. Makes one very rich 9”x13” cake
1 cup sourdough starter (or discard)
1 cup milk
2 cups all purpose flour
1 ½ cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil or melted butter
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 ½ tsp. baking soda
¾ cup cocoa
2 tsp. instant or espresso coffee powder
2 large eggs
3 cups icing sugar, sifted
½ cup butter
¼ cup plain yoghurt or buttermilk
2 tsp. instant or espresso coffee powder
1 Tbsp. hot water
1 cup finely chopped dark chocolate (or chips)
½ cup whipping cream, more as needed
Combine the starter, milk and flour. Mix well, then cover and leave out on the counter for 3-4 hours. (If you leave it overnight, you may need to feed it a spoonful of flour next morning if it looks depleted.)
Set the oven at 350 F. Butter and flour a 9”x13” cake pan. Mix together the sugar, oil or melted butter, vanilla, baking soda, coca and coffee powder. Add the eggs, one at a time. Stir in the activated starter, mixing well. Turn into the pan. Bake for 30-40 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan.
To make the glaze, put the icing sugar in a medium bowl. Combine the butter, and yoghurt or buttermilk in a pot over medium heat. Dissolve the coffee powder in the hot water and add to the butter mix. Heat to just shy of a boil and add to the icing sugar. Mix well to knock out any lumps. Immediately pour evenly on the cake in the pan. It will set as it cools.
To make the icing, combine the chocolate and cream in a glass bowl. Heat on medium power in the microwave for 2 minutes. Stir gently to combine; heat for another 30-40 seconds if necessary to melt the chocolate. Slowly stir in extra cream to thin to spreading consistency if necessary. Spread evenly on the glazed cake-top.
October 2020. Life in a pandemic takes its toll in many ways. One of the noticeable changes is how we spend our leisure time. No trips this year – not that I was actively planning, and not that I go often, but I’d love to see Europe again. I want to see Asia, too, and Australia, Africa, South America, more of North America. But not under these conditions. Not now. But the whole travel thing is complicated by my unwillingness to be the proverbial exploitative tourist. I do not want to take advantage of people.
So I’ve been reading instead, notably American humourist Calvin Trillin’s Tummy Trilogy. I adore his wicked humour as he tootles across the continent with the longsuffering Alice, and I howl every time I read about the next hotsy-totsy “La-Maison-De-La-Casa-House” restaurant he skewers. It’s a great way to do a little “on the road-ing” without leaving the safety of my ancient schlofbonk in my upstairs studio. Then for a change of pace and tone, I turn to foodie flicks and Bourdain reruns. (Check your library or online: Big Night; Julie & Julia; Babette’s Feast; Mostly Martha; Ratatouille; Like Water for Chocolate; Tampopo; Eat Drink Man Woman; Soul Food; The Wedding Banquet.)
But mostly I’ve been cooking. It’s been my cure for stress, trauma, and day-to-day worry for decades. This morning, for instance, I was suffering from anxiety about a pair of feral kittens who were born in our barn this spring. Last week their loving mama took them on a hunting lesson, then she got hunted. Now the kittens are orphans, stranded halfway down our driveway, sheltering in a stand of aspens, afraid to venture home. I fear for them. Coyotes hunt close by, as do red-tail hawks and great horned owls. The kittens won’t be coaxed and they are too wild to pick up. So I feed them. Then I go back to my kitchen and cook. Today I plan to make grilled Gruyere cheese sandwiches for lunch. Or maybe we’ll have fondue made with Gruyere for supper instead. Last week we had Margherita pizza topped with Gruyere. And corn quesadillas with the last of the summer vegetables and grated Gruyere. A Gruyere and new potato omelet for brunch. French onion soup with extra Gruyere. Lamb burgers topped with…
You bet there’s a theme. I received a big – I mean BIG – block of very good Gruyere from a friend who was passing through town a couple weeks ago. (We visited safely, in a park, a picnic at arm’s length. Then she hauled this enormous piece of cheese from her cooler and went on her way.) We’ve been eating Gruyere-everything ever since.
You might, in a generalized way, call it “Swiss” cheese, but Alpine or high-mountain cheeses include Franco-Swiss Gruyere; Swiss Emmenthal and Appenzeller; French Cantal, Beaufort (a type of Gruyere) and reblochon; Italian Fontina, Asiago and Gordo; and Norwegian Jarlsberg. They are made in summer, when the cows graze in high-elevation meadows. The milk is made into big wheels of cheese that often have holes from carbon dioxide generated during the cheese-making process. In general, all are dense, sweet, nutty, cave-aged – and slightly crystalline as they age. Gruyere is one of more than 180 European cheeses that have Protected Designation of Origin (DOC) status, so its production is strictly limited, and contained within a geographic region and to particular methods of production.
These cheeses are all yummy. Feed the kittens, download that movie or your favourite Bourdain episode, and melt some cheese. First we eat, then we talk about Meryl Streep as Julia Child. Great casting… and by the way, the kittens found their own way safely home to the barn.
Classic Alpine Cheese Fondue
Use a single type or a traditional mixture of Alpine cheeses – Gruyere, Appenzeller and Emmenthal – and add non-traditional ones – Asiago and Jarlsberg – to taste. Allow 1/4 lb. cheese per person. Add exotic flavour agents like truffle-infused oil before serving if you like. Set out a range of garnishes to suit your palate: sliced raw or cooked vegetables, crusty bread cubes, sliced ham or sausages, pickles and olives, chutneys and savoury relishes. Don’t ignore la religiouse, the crust on the bottom of the pot; for many, it’s the best bit of fondue.
1 clove garlic, halved
1 lb. grated cheese, a mixture
1 Tbsp cornstarch
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
Garnishes and dippers:
a drizzle of herb-infused olive oil or truffle oil, optional
ham, kielbasa or other cooked sausage
Rub the garlic along the inner surface of a fondue pot. Toss the cheese and cornstarch together. Heat the wine in a heavy-bottomed pot to just below boiling point. Add a handful of cheese, whisking well, and add more as each handful melts. Stir until homogeneous. Transfer to fondue pot or small individual bowls. Serve warm with preferred garnishes and dippers.
September 2020. I’ve been thinking rather a lot about M.F.K Fisher. That is unsurprising – she’s been one of my food-writing writing candles in the night for decades, ever since I read her small and elegant book, A Cordiall Water. I went on to acquire everything Fisher wrote, including her wartime response to food-rationing, How to Cook a Wolf, and her grief-imbued The Gastronomical Me, which along with her culinary evolution records the illness and suicide of her beloved second husband.
But beyond those early influences are the more recent: of course this column’s title, “First We Eat” is a Fisher-ism, one that perfectly ascribes the primary importance of food. I am also hip-deep in writing a Master’s thesis about Fisher and her one-sided literary relationship with an older man, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, author of The Physiology of Taste, which Fisher translated in 1949. He was a provincial French lawyer with a profound interest in things scientific and all things culinary, and he was a survivor of the French Revolution. He died in 1826, a year after he self-published his one and only book. When Fisher undertook her translation, she was a rising literary star, with several books under her belt, mostly written in the intensely personal essay form that she became famous for and which has become the staple of the food writing genre she is credited with originating.
Fisher had the gift of insight and the skill of observation, which she hitched to her perpetual curiosity about people. In this way she was like Brillat-Savarin, whom she called “the Professor” (as he did himself, for his pleasure in once being mistaken for an august elder academic).
Brillat-Savarin is nowadays remembered chiefly for several of his aphorisms, most famously among them, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are”. But his book is more than a collection of witticisms. He thought widely – about food, its actions within the human body, about science, about the nature of being human, and like Fisher, he was a close observer of humanity.
In one of my favourite anecdotes from his book, Brillat-Savarin describes his trip on horseback in 1793 during the Reign of Terror, the most terrifying days of the French Revolution, to visit the local Representative, a certain Monsieur Prot, to ask for a safe-conduct paper in an attempt to avoid prison and certain execution by guillotine. During his visit, he had the presence of mind to take advantage Madame Prot’s love of music, and it was at her behest that he left the house with head still firmly attached and papers in hand. But as telling was his response en route to the Representative’s house: stopping at an inn, he spotted game birds and a hare roasting on the kitchen spit, and told himself, “Providence has not completely deserted me after all. Let us pluck this flower as we go by; there’s always time left for us to die.”
In her footnote on the scene, Fisher writes, “He does not say that they were a typical pair of newly arisen politicians in a most unsavoury government… He does not say that Madame had bad manners… He does not say that she was a wrinkled old singing teacher… He does not say that he used her… And as for the dinner… it is everything admirable about a man with his back to the wall who can yet dine and drink and sing with gaiety as well as good manners.”
Even so. First we too eat, even with our backs to the figurative but isolating wall of Covid-19, and as we observe the long-drawn-out American election process. Today, we share a delicious chicken schnitzel embellished with lemon caper sauce. I wish you gaiety and good manners as you dine.
Chicken Schnitzel with Lemon Caper Sauce
I like Japanese panko crumbs for their texture, but any dry crumbs, not too coarse, will do. Add a salad dressed sharply in vinaigrette and a good bottle of white wine. Serves 2
2 boneless chicken breasts
salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup flour
¼ cup milk
1 cup bread crumbs
olive oil for the pan
¼ cup butter
1 lemon, juice and zest
2 Tbsp capers
2 Tbsp chopped parsley
Put the chicken in a plastic bag and use a meat mallet or the base of a small pan to pound it flat and even. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Put the flour in a shallow bowl, mix together the egg and milk in a second, and put the crumbs in a third. Dip the chicken pieces in flour, then egg mix, then coat them in the crumbs.
Heat the oil in a sauté pan, then fry the chicken in medium-high heat, turning once. When cooked through, transfer the meat to plates and keep warm in the oven.
Wipe the crumbs from the pan. Add the butter. When it foams, add the lemon juice and zest, capers and parsley. Spoon over the chicken and serve immediately.