Monthly Archives: April 2021

“Mother” soup


April 2021.

Before the polar vortex returned and the morning thermometer read -40 C, I spent some time splitting birch for the wood stove in the kitchen. We live in a house that’s over one hundred years old, and my mom thinks that it was originally assembled from two grain bins bolted together; three steps lead down from those two rooms to the kitchen. Each room has its own temperature and climate, and walking through the house is like entering and departing adjoining countries, each with its own warm or chilly welcome.

On days like that, the big kitchen is not warm unless I keep the fire bustling in the wood stove and have pots on all four burners of the gas stove, located at opposing ends of the kitchen’s long acreage. My upstairs studio can be hot in summer and chilly in winter, with its south-facing wall of glass. So too the sunroom, faced on three sides with glass windows, but busy nonetheless, containing Dave’s office, our dining table, my orchids, herbs, fig tree and desert succulents, but it’s made bearable in deepest winter by a little gas fireplace that the cat loves. My studio and kitchen are my favourite rooms all the same. The warmest room, to my surprise, is often the centrally located living room, where the internal conversations of thousands of books on our shelves generate sparks and fire.

Well, okay, maybe that’s not the real reason, but it sounds better than the pragmatic scientific facts. The facts, just the facts, are hot air rising from the kitchen up those three steps, the living room’s high number of doorways – five – and the presence of a bamboo-bladed ceiling fan that circulates air from one room to the next. And the sunlight. The living room too faces south, and on high winter afternoons, curling up with a book in the big armchair while the sunlight induces a snooze is a brilliant way to get through the cold snap.

Of course another good way to survive the cold is to cook. I’ve been spending a lot of time in the kitchen, and I recently asked Dave to give me a list of what he’d like to eat. Generous man, he immediately asked why. “I love all your cooking, sweetie,” he said. “I want to stay out of the rut,” I said. “If I keep track of what I’ve made and you give me that list, I’ll be less likely to repeat myself.”

This of course triggered a long conversation about the joy of leftovers and of eating favourite dishes regularly. But the truth is that every cook falls into a rut. Having a list of ideas to offset creative dry spells, as I used to when I ran my Calgary restaurant several lifetimes ago, is like walking from one room into another, a pandemic-sized metaphor for travel. Dave asks for Japanese ramen and curry bread, pad thai, Korean fried chicken, a swathe of Italian pasta, French classics like duck confit, bouillabaisse, and leek and potato soup. But he asks for the cold version – vichyssoise – ignoring the fact that leek and potato soup appears regularly on our table, albeit in disguise. Want North African chickpea soup? Add chickpeas, cumin, ginger, paprika, cilantro, preserved lemon. Want cheese and cauliflower? Yep, stir ‘em in. Want clam chowder? You got it. Coconut curry? Add coconut cream, fish sauce and kaffir lime leaves, maybe a bit of peanut butter.

Leek and potato soup is the mother soup of all soups. And on this bitterly cold day, I want all the calories I can cram into the pot, so I add grated cheese, chopped roasted cauliflower, leftover roast chicken, and a drizzle of cream to the pot. Antidote to the polar vortex? Maybe not. But it fuels us, and brings pleasure to a bitter day. First we eat, then we plan a post-pandemic vacation somewhere warm, with bamboo fans and sand.

dee’s Mother Soup

French cooks are used to the idea of “mother sauces”, basic sauces that are embellished with a host of ingredients, changing names as they change their stature. This soup works the same way – make it plain or add what embellishments you fancy. I use a hand-held immersion wand to puree half the soup, relying on the potatoes to serve as self-contained thickening agent.

butter or oil for the pan

1 head garlic, minced

1 leek or onion, minced

1 tsp. dried thyme

½ cup white wine (optional)

4-6 potatoes, cubed

6-8 cups chicken stock

salt and pepper to taste

cream to taste

Heat the oil or butter in a heavy pot, add the garlic and sauté until fragrant but not coloured. Add the leek or onion and sauté until tender. Add the thyme and wine, then stir in the potatoes, stock and seasoning. Cover and simmer until tender. Puree half the soup to thicken it. Garnish as preferred.

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Food and “family”


April 2021.

Like most of us, Dave and I have been binge-watching movies. High among my all-time favourites is The Godfather I, II and III. I particularly admire the attention that director Francis Ford Coppola pays to food, making it integral to many pivotal “family” scenes.

We enter the tragedy at Connie Corleone’s wedding, rich with lasagna, big platters of antipasti, a wedding cake as big as a church, and tumblers full of red wine, although Mafia foot soldier “Fat” Clemenza guzzles wine from a jug. In a later scene after an outburst of violence among the city’s gangster clans, Clemenza teaches Michael Corleone, Connie’s youngest brother, played by Al Pacino, how to cook a good sausage and meatball ragù because you never know when “you might have to cook for twenty guys.” Later, Clemenza reminds an associate about life’s priorities after executing a traitorous colleague: “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”

Oranges serve as a metaphor for death. Patriarch Vito Corleone, played by a puffy-cheeked and mumbling Marlon Brando who steals every scene he’s in, clutches a fruit vendor’s bag of oranges when he is gunned down. Soon after, Vito’s short-tempered eldest son, Santino, played by James Caan, says to his brutal brother-in-law, Carlo, at a family meal, “We don’t discuss business at the table.” Then in an Italian restaurant where Michael is planning to shoot a crooked cop and the gangster kingpin who ordered the hit on his father, the cop is eating veal and the gangster is drinking wine, but Michael is visibly reluctant to break bread with men he hates and plans to kill. Oranges reappear when Vito is playing in the garden with his grandson. Vito quarters an orange, puts the peel in his mouth and pulls a face at the little boy, who screams in fear. Vito suffers a fatal heart attack moments later.

In The Godfather II, young Vito Corleone, played at a whisper by a gorgeous Robert de Niro oh my, loses his job to nepotism when the local don brings his do-nothing nephew to the grocery story where Vito works. Vito turns down his boss’s guilt-laden offer of a box of groceries, and brings his wife one perfect pear that he centres on his family’s modest dinner table.

In The Godfather III, Michael’s nephew, Vincent, makes gnocchi with his cousin, Mary, Michael’s daughter, breaking incest taboos even as he does a credible job of shaping the gnocchi. And Michael’s most memorable line –  “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in” – is delivered at a kitchen counter crowded with food and wine, his sister Connie and nephew Vincent listening as thunder and lightning emphasize the point. Cannoli makes a return too, when Connie murders her scheming godfather, Don Altobello, with a gift of poisoned cannoli, which he eats during the opera in which Michael’s son Anthony makes his debut.

Food, food, food. Popcorn won’t cut it – I can’t resist eating pasta whenever I immerse myself in The Godfather, and carbonara is one of my favourites. So put the movie on pause. Like Coppola, first we eat – with the family.

Linguini Carbonara

With so few ingredients, quality makes all the difference. Use really fine bacon or pancetta, and buy a wedge of Parmesan reggiano – or grana padano, less costly and just as delicious. Some cooks add softly scrambled egg – suit yourself.

Serves 3-4

1 lb. dried linguini (or 2 lb. fresh)

8 slices good bacon, cubed

olive oil for the pan

6-8 large cloves garlic, minced

½ onion

½ tsp. dried thyme or basil

½ cup white wine

2 cups peas

1 cup whipping cream

lemon juice to taste

salt and pepper to taste

olive oil for the pasta

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, with extra for garnish

minced parsley or chives for garnish

If using dried pasta, start the pot of water boiling and get the pasta cooking. If using fresh, get the water boiling, salt it and keep it hot.

Sauté the bacon in a sauté pan, then add oil if needed and fry the garlic until golden Add the onions and cook until tender, slowing the heat and covering with a lid to keep the onions from browning. Add the thyme or basil and wine, reduce by half and add the peas and whipping cream. Add a bit of lemon juice, salt and pepper.

Cook the fresh pasta now if that’s what you are using.

Drain the cooked pasta. Toss with a bit of olive oil and a couple spoonfuls of parmesan. Add the rest of the cheese to the sauce and stir in, then serve the pasta and sauce. Garnish with parsley or chives and extra Parmesan.

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In my grandmother’s kitchen


April 2021.

Dave and I live in my grandparents’ house in rural Saskatchewan. Back in the day it was a three-room farmhouse, the long narrow kitchen its beating heart, the other two rooms chilly and dark – heated only by the wood stove and illuminated by kerosene lanterns. Electricity came in the 1950s, when the local farmers formed a co-operative to string the wires across all their farms, but they were sparing in its use.

Gran was a canny cook, frugal, simultaneously fierce and gentle. I have fragmented memories of her holding a hatchet, a chicken in its dying Ichabod Crane moments lurching – headless – around the yard. She put up those birds in quart sealers, packing white and dark meat on the bone into the jars and simmering them in her canning pot. On our visits from airbases across the country, I would tiptoe down the steeps basement stairs, fumbling through the cupboards to find the right jar among the plenty that lined the shelves – chicken, dill and mustard pickles, peaches and pears, plums, jams, applesauce.

Her garden was a haven on hot afternoons. The rows of corn and raspberry canes were ideal for hide and seek. In the strawberry patch, I would drop to my knees and forage while my brothers leaped among the plants like jack rabbits.

My grandfather slaughtered a steer each autumn, its carcass twirling on a hook in the back reaches of his garage, blood setting under his fingernails as he and my dad used a saw and scimitar to take the beast apart like a jigsaw puzzle. Gran and Mom wrapped and froze the meat, some of the brown packages invariably making their way home with us in a cooler to take up residence in our own freezer. There was a smokehouse, too, with a small hatch to feed the fire, and I remember sausages and slab bacon, smoked pork hocks and chops, and densely textured smoke-kissed ham unlike anything on store shelves. Nowadays whenever I walk into a good smokehouse, its fragrant air careens me back to my childhood.

Gran’s cooking was simple, relying on what they grew themselves, augmented in summer by cases of peaches, apricots, plums, pears and apples from the Okanagan fruit truck. In winter, cabbages, beets, carrots and onions filled wooden bins and boxes of sand in the basement. Her bread was made with flour from the mill in town, from grain my grandfather and other local farmers had grown and harvested. She kept a crock of starter on the counter, and her pancakes and breads were alive with its deep, fermented, bubbling laughter. For dessert, she made date squares, apple kuchen, apple pie, apple strudel – I have an indelible memory of our hands almost touching through the windowpane of finely rolled strudel dough – and cookies, sometimes gingersnaps that bit back, sometimes big, soft raisin cookies.

The house remembers them both, but especially her. It isn’t haunted, not in the spooky way that TV shows like to portray, but in a deeply rooted presence, a sense of reassuring repetition, and in our matching culinary ethos, as well as in the way my face is slowly tilting toward the etched planes of hers when I look in the mirror in what had been her bedroom.  There are much worse things than growing older in my grandmother’s shadow.

Beet and Cabbage Borscht

At cooking school in Vancouver in the early 1980s, I learned to make a version of this earthy soup that my grandmother would have barely recognized, with shredded duck, garnished with a profiterole stuffed with duck paté. It struck me as odd until I remembered my grandfather hunting ducks, and my grandmother frying duck and chicken livers, then grinding them up with fried onions to make a rich spread that we smeared on her sourdough bread and dipped into our borscht.

Feeds a crowd.

4 slices bacon, diced

olive oil for the pot

8 cloves garlic, minced

1 onion, diced

2 cups diced beets, raw or cooked

2 cups finely shredded cabbage

½ cup diced carrots

½ cup diced celery

2 Tbsp. herbes salées (salted herbs) or ¾ tsp. each dried basil and thyme

8 cups chicken stock

2 cups diced potatoes

1 lb. shredded cooked meat, your choice, optional

salt and pepper to taste


minced fresh dill or chives

sour cream or yoghurt

chicken liver paté

crusty bread

Heat the oil in a stock pot, add the bacon and sauté until the fat is released. Add the garlic and onion, and sauté until fragrant and half tender. Add the remaining vegetables, stir and sauté for several minutes, then stir in the herbs, stock and potatoes. Simmer, covered, until tender. Add the optional meat and heat through, then balance with salt and pepper to taste. Garnish and serve.

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