Monthly Archives: December 2021

Root vegetables and taking root

Grainews

December 2021.

All month I’ve been pestering Mom for stories. You’d think I was five again. But no. Truth is, we’ve been in closer proximity than usual. She’s recovering from glaucoma surgery, which has eliminated lifting, bending over, or carrying anything heavier than a supper plate. So I am at her house, lifting, bending over, and carrying. It’s amazing how often we do those things without even noticing. Putting on your shoes, for instance. First you bend over to put on your socks. Oh. No, you put your feet up on a chair and call your daughter over to help you. Then you bend over to pick up your favourite shoes. Oh, maybe not. Then you bend over to pull those dogs onto your feet and tie them up. Ooops. You get the picture. Mom is wearing slippers, laughingly threatening to arrange for a private valet permanently.

Mom’s most recent stories have been about winter, and winter holidays. Our family was poor, just another hardworking farm crew, so winter holidays to Cuba were never part of the gig. Prairie winters have always been harsh, and those days, it was even harder with the absence of electricity. In winter, Mom drove old Mart the horse to school in the cutter and unhooked him before turning him into the school’s barn with his halter on, the bridle hanging under her coat in the schoolroom to keep the bit warm. And come the festive season, my grandparents and mom and my auntie and all their local rellies would drive in the cutters to Mrs. Mike’s, my widowed great-grandmother, for turkey dinner. She would cook all day, then sit back with a glass of homemade rhubarb wine while her daughters-in-law cleaned up her leavings in the kitchen.

Like my grandmother and my mom, Mrs. Mike was a very good cook, but nothin’ fancy. Holiday meals were what you’d expect from a prairie cook – roast turkey and root vegetables, mashed potatoes, pie, steamed pudding, fruitcake. Squash never made it onto her holiday table, but carrots, you bet.

Now I love a good turkey or roasted chicken as well as the next hungry woman. But there are times when I think I am a changeling, at least in a culinary sense. I’d rather eat South Asian food than anything else. You know, food featuring those warm high-C spices – cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves. And a vegetable-heavy feast that might include rogan josh (Kashmiri lamb),but for me the heart of the table are the vegetables: dahl (stewed lentils with ginger), chole (curried chickpeas), basmati rice, aloo gobi (cauliflower and potatoes with tomato and garlic), bartha (smoked pureed eggplant), palak paneer (spinach and fresh cheese), garlic naan (flatbread), and pakoras (vegetable fritters) with cilantro chutney. That’s my last supper right there. My sons have it in writing.

I’ll share those recipes in the coming year. Meanwhile, a lovely way to introduce South Asian flavours is to add an Indian pickle to your table. My favourite is carrot pickle, and in years like this, when I have many pounds of homegrown carrots in my fridge, gifts of homemade carrot pickle are economical and delicious.

In a family committed to homemade gifts, food is often the medium that makes the rounds at our present exchanges. This is a hot-pack pickle that must be refrigerated, so include a note to that effect when you share it, whether at a Diwali, Eid, Kwanzaa, Hannukah, or Christmas feast. However we celebrate the rebirth of life and return from the dark, first we eat.

Carrot Pickle

Store this pickle in the fridge to let the flavours develop and use it to garnish curries, scrambled eggs, roast pork, smoked or roasted salmon, canapés, and grain dishes. Mustard oil adds a distinctively pungent, spicy note. Buy it at South Asian groceries. If you can’t find it, substitute your best extra virgin olive oil.

Makes 1 quart jar

1 lb. carrots, julienned, raw or lightly steamed                                              

1 head garlic, peeled and thinly sliced                                                            

ginger root to taste, thinly sliced       

1 ½ tsp. kalonji (black onion seed), optional                        

1 tsp. fenugreek                                                         

1 tsp. anise seed                                                         

½ tsp. coriander seed                                     

¼ tsp. cumin seed                                                      

1 tsp. mustard seed                                                                            

½ tsp. cracked black peppercorns                                                                                         

2 lemons, juice and zest                                                                                             

½ c. apple cider vinegar                                             

mustard oil as needed

Wash and sterilize the jar. Pack the carrots into the jar, using a pair of chopsticks or skewer to make the job easier. Combine all remaining ingredients except the mustard oil in a small pot and bring to a boil, then pour over the carrots. Top up with oil so that all the carrots are covered, then put on a snug lid and refrigerate for several weeks before using.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary

Chameleon cooking

Grainews

December 2021.

I’ve been benched. Perhaps you recall that last month’s column mentioned Mom’s and my west coast holiday, specifically meeting a salmon fisher in Steveston. That morning we worked our way up and down the wharf, admiring the spot prawns and salmon despite having neither pans nor stovetop. We moved slowly, but not just to soak in the ambiance while accommodating Mom’s elderly gait. The day before, I had been struck, knocked down, and driven over by a ponytailed man riding a motorized scooter, a two-wheeler bigger than a Vespa but smaller than a Harley. Months later, I am still limping, and our dog Jake hasn’t had a run since before my accident. It turns out that soft tissue trauma in a foot takes almost as long to heal as broken bones. Who knew?

As a result, before mealtimes I head to the living room to elevate my damaged limb and apply heat while I sip a glass of wine. In the kitchen, Dave is cooking. I am grateful. But I’ve learned to get out of the way instead of offering advice – we work in different ways, at different speeds, and my gratitude is purest when I refrain from “helping”.

When we met almost fourteen years ago Dave fed me sausages and sauerkraut for my first supper in his apartment. Since then, his repertoire has increased. He makes a mean meatloaf; a good Bolognese sauce enriched with dried figs, apricots, and prunes; and some terrific baked pasta. In the sweet kitchen, he whips up the occasional tea-loaf spiked with dark chocolate and Earl Grey. But although beans and lentils aren’t really his thing, I had a craving for pork and beans, so I asked him to make this simplest of all lentil dishes.

Canada is the world’s leader in producing and exporting lentils, with ninety-five percent grown in Saskatchewan. Lentils are superfoods, nutty, earthy, and yummy as well as high in protein and fibre. There is evidence that humanity has been eating them for millennia, from the Euphrates river valley 8000 years ago to Egyptian tombs at Thebes, and ancient frescos show the making of lentil soup. Half the world’s lentils are consumed in India, but they are also popular in Spain, the Middle, East, and France. Here in North America, we were slower to adopt the lentil, but with the advent of the Second World War, meat shortages convinced many cooks of the virtue of lentils.

This red lentil dish, cousin to the old staple of pork and beans, is a changeable chameleon. Vary the vegetables. Chop them finely or leave ‘em large. Make it thick with extra veg and call it a stew. Add coconut milk and shredded greens and serve beside coconut rice, or thin it with additional stock to serve as soup. Add minced sausage or not, as you please.

I have chosen South Asian fused with Spanish seasoning for this version, but you can go elsewhere: make a Thai curry (add green, red, or Panang curry paste, honey, lime juice, coconut milk, and lemongrass, with toasted peanut garnish); a Middle Eastern tagine (add pomegranate molasses, sumac or saffron, cumin, dried fruit, and preserved lemons); or a Latin-esque lunch (add coriander, fennel seed, chili powder, tomato, oregano, a bit of dark chocolate, and cilantro garnish). Of course you can use different types of lentils or cooked beans, but red lentils cook in the same timeframe as most vegetables, making this a prompt and practical one-pot peasant dish that sustains and delights. So first we eat, and then we can chat about other chameleon dishes.

Red Chameleon Lentils

Do not add salt or acid until after the lentils are cooked.

Serves 6

2 Tbsp. olive oil

4-6 cloves garlic, minced

1 Tbsp. minced ginger

1 onion, minced

2 cups chopped assorted vegetables (carrots, mushrooms, celery, bell pepper, zucchini, cabbage)

2-4 links sausage of your preference, diced or sliced (optional)

1 Tbsp. sweet paprika

½ tsp. smoked paprika

1 Tbsp. curry powder or garam masala

1 cup red lentils

8 cups chicken stock

2-4 Tbsp. lemon juice

salt and pepper to taste

2 cups shredded greens (beet tops, chard, arugula, kale, spinach, cress, mustard greens)

Heat a heavy-bottomed pot and add the oil. Add the garlic and ginger, stirring. Add the onion. Sauté until tender, about 10 minutes. Add the remaining vegetables and sauté for several minutes, using the mushrooms as a benchmark – when they are wilted, add the optional sausage. Sauté until the sausage is cooked, then stir in the spices to toast for a couple minutes. Add the lentils and stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cover snugly. Cook for 20 – 30 minutes, or until tender. Season to taste with lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Stir in the greens. Serve hot.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary