Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction [CNF]

First We Eat: A Chicken in Every Pot

Grainews

July 2021.

I buy my chickens from a local farmer. She sells me eggs, too, blue, brown and white ovoids so beautiful they can’t help but taste better than commercial eggs. Each winter, my farmer sends me a note when she is ready to order her chicks, and I guess how many birds I think we plan to consume in a year. Big birds, that is – roasters, double Ds, you might say if you were inclined to categorize by cup size. I ask for larger birds because the ratio of meat to bone is higher. From one bird, I expect to feed the two of us, plus Mom, four, five or even six meals, plus whatever I make with chicken stock from the bones as a beginning point.

Each summer, I drive to the farm and collect my butchered birds, along with the livers, hearts, and gizzards. We have chopped liver spread; our dog Jake has simmered gizzards and hearts. I spend all afternoon and evening cutting up and freezing birds in bags – all thighs, all breasts, all drums, all wings – so my winter and spring cooking is decided by cut, which in turn determines cooking method. Then I brown the carcasses in the oven and make a huge potful of stock, which I also freeze, money in the bank to a cook. 

The birds my farmer raises are delicious. They eat well, get plenty of air and exercise, and have a good, chicken-y life, with bugs and grasses to peck and breezes to ruffle their feathers. I’ve been eating birds raised off the grid for much of my adult life. Underlying my visits to my farmer’s yard is my memory of my Gran raising birds, and her butcher day, here on the farm where Dave and I now live. My Gran was good with her hatchet, but I will never forget seeing headless birds like avian Ichabod Cranes careening about the yard as they ran towards their deaths. The pungent smell of scalded feathers prior to plucking hung on all day, made worthwhile by the canned chicken that Gran put up, cellar shelves lined with quart sealers.

According the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, poultry is the second-most-popular meat on the planet, just behind pork. But studies of diet during the pandemic show that home cooks have turned more often to poultry than any other protein source, mostly because of its versatility. My husband Dave has lost count of the number of ways we eat chicken, but his favourite is still fried chicken, which I make once or twice a year. So first we eat, and then we debate our top bird dishes.

Brined Fried Chicken

Method matters: brining chicken, pork, and turkey is a solid-gold way to ensure a juicy, tender result; and meticulously dredging the pieces in flour, egg-wash, and crumbs protects the chicken from the oil.

Serves 8

½ cup kosher salt

1/3 cup sugar

2 cups water

1 quart buttermilk

1 head garlic, peeled and smashed

a handful of fresh thyme

several sprigs of fresh rosemary

1 Tbsp. whole peppercorns

2 Tbsp. sweet paprika

1 roasting chicken, cut into 4-oz pieces (off the bone is best)

3 cups flour (barley, wheat, or spelt)

salt and pepper to taste

1 Tbsp. sweet paprika

1 tsp. dried thyme or basil

1 egg

2 cups milk

4 cups panko breadcrumbs

oil for the pan

Combine the salt, sugar and water in a pot and bring to a boil. Stir until all crystals are dissolved. Cool thoroughly. Add the buttermilk, garlic, thyme, rosemary, peppercorns, and paprika. Mix well. Transfer to a large zippered plastic bag, add the chicken pieces, seal, and refrigerate for 8-12 hours.

Remove the chicken from the brine. Discard the brine. Pat dry the chicken and let stand on a baking sheet so it will not be stone cold when you cook it. Set the oven at 325 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment.

Stir together the flour, salt, pepper, paprika and herbs on a baking tray with a lip. Mix together the egg and milk and put it in shallow pan.  Put the breadcrumbs in a shallow tray or large plate. Arrange the three containers in a row on the counter: flour, egg-wash, crumbs. Set one empty parchment-lined tray next to the crumbs.

Dredge several pieces of chicken in the flour, coating each thoroughly, then shake off the excess. Dip each thoroughly in the egg wash, then in the crumbs. Arrange on the tray in a single layer. Repeat until all the chicken is coated. Clean your hands often as you work.

Pour 2” of oil into a large cast iron frying pan and heat the pan until the oil sizzles when water is flicked onto it, about 340 F. Use tongs to place a piece of chicken skin-side down in the oil – it should sizzle. Add as many pieces as comfortably fit in a single layer. Cook until nicely browned, 5-7 minutes, then turn to colour the second side, about 3-5 minutes. Remove the cooked chicken to the second tray. Repeat until all the chicken is cooked. Keep the tray of fried chicken in the oven while the rest is frying. Serve hot.

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Please Pass the Crackers

Grainews

June 2021.

Don’t you wish you could have your buddies over for a bit of a boogie? Miss those chances to hang out and drink wine (sangria, mojitos, local ale, iced herbal tea, ginger lemonade, iced coffee)? Or just hang out? Yep. Me too. I miss parties. I miss hanging out. I miss visits. I miss shared meals. Who knows when we’ll be able to celebrate like that again as we move into our second year of COVID lockdown. Soon, right? Soon.

Back in the day, we threw some dandies. A birthday bash for Dave a few years back was notable, not only because Dave actually allowed me to have a party for him – he is an introvert who treasures his privacy – but because friends came from multiple provinces. And there was our wedding party. If you are fortunate, you’ve attended such a loving expression of joy and friendship as we had with our friends; the gods bless a crowded house to mark a marriage.  Our annual bonspiel on the lake happened on New Year’s Day for the seven years we had the lake until it dried up, and was the ideal mid-winter pick-us-up-and-give-us-a-good-cuddle, the perfect antidote when the thermostat dipped too deeply into the minus range. Nothing like hot cider lakeside, along with some crazy-fool friends willing to join you in sliding frozen articles down the ice, followed by chili and cookies and camaraderie indoors to take off the nip in your cheeks.

So what are we using as antidote to the chill of loneliness, overwork, or simply isolation, these bubble-days? What has taken the place of those crowded houses? The blue drone of the television screen. Maybe too much wine. Too many snacks.

I for one am thoroughly sick of screens. I’d happily live without endless reruns and the bottomless pit of second-rate series and movies available on streaming services. And those viewing snacks have caught up with me. Yes – the chocolate mousse and flourless chocolate cake on special occasions, the chocolate bars, chocolate-covered ginger, chocolate-covered almonds, and chocolate-drizzled popcorn on all the everyday occasions. So I’ve upped my exercise regime. (What is it they say – we eat to live? Is that it? Or do we live to eat? I vacillate between the two.)

In any case, the best cure for the blues, and for the blue screen of the computer and TV, is movement. That is one thing I can do alone, without feeling let down or isolated, that will actually make me feel better. A walk, gardening, run, a second round of Frisbee with the dog. Then when the dog and I nap in the afternoon, I feel justifiably ready to let myself drop off. And when I snack, I gotta give up – or at least rein in – those chocolate bombs. So when my sister found this great cracker recipe and sent it to me with notice of my brother-in-law’s rave review, I made the crackers, thinking of more healthful snacking. And less blue screen. So first we eat some of these yummy crackers, and then it’s time to get outside.

Stella Parks’ Knockout Knockoff Carr’s-Style Whole Wheat Crackers

This recipe comes from seriouseats.com, posted by award-winning American pastry chef Stella Parks. You may agree with Parks and me that Carr’s whole-wheat crackers are the best in the known universe. Grainy, nutty, a hint of sweet – they’re the perfect foil to cheese, nut butters, olive tapenade. I used Saskatchewan-grown Red Fife flour. Use a scale for most accurate measurement if you have one. Thanks to Chef Parks.

Makes about 60 2” crackers

1/3 cup (55 g) wheat germ

1 cup + 6 Tbsp. (160 g) whole wheat flour

1/3 cup (70 g) sugar

¼ tsp. (1 g) kosher salt (less if using table salt)

¼ tsp. cream of tartar

¼ tsp. baking powder

¼ tsp. baking soda

6 Tbsp. (85 g) unsalted butter, cold, cubed

1/3 c. + 2 Tbsp. (100 g) buttermilk or kefir (not milk + lemon juice)

Set oven to 350 C. Line a baking sheet with parchment. Spread the wheat germ on the tray and bake for 3 minutes, or until toasty.

Combine the wheat germ with the remaining dry ingredients in the work-bowl of a food processor or in a bowl if you are working manually.  Blitz to blend. Add the butter and blitz into finely textured powder. Add the buttermilk and pulse just to blend.

Turn onto a floured counter and roll out thinly (about ¼”), flouring surfaces of counter and dough as needed. Dock the dough at regular intervals with the tines of a fork to minimize excess rising. Cut into 2” squares with a large, floured blade. Transfer to the baking sheet with an offset spatula or the knife blade. Bake for 15-18 minutes, depending on how brown you like your crackers. Cool on the tray and store in a tin at room temperature.

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Chocolate & Cooking for One

Grainews

May 2021.

After Dad died last year, Mom started giving things away. It was as if his absence triggered her awareness of her own mortality and her dwindling need for stuff. She gave pots and pans to my eldest son, vases to my cousin, Dad’s unopened bottles of Scotch to her cousin, tools to my brothers, wine glasses to me, the case of unopened cans of tomato soup that only Dad had liked to the food bank.

Dad had always bought multiples of everything, and he’d liked shopping, had been the grocery-goer for years. In various kitchen drawers and cupboards, we found extra freezer bags, light bulbs, batteries, serving utensils, bottles of condiments. Maybe the extras were a result of years of farm living; run out of light bulbs forty kilometers from town, and the house stays dark for awhile. Run out of chocolate chips or butter, and the absence of cookies could trigger a palace revolt.

Mom’s diet started to change as well. Dad had never cared for rice, but had sworn by meat and potatoes on a daily basis. Now she enjoys “rabbit food” salad every night for supper, basmati or sticky rice, and good bacon from our local smokehouse for breakfast as often as she pleases. When we go to town, we routinely stop for rice noodles at a small Thai place. She eats shrimp every chance she gets, and pork and beans whenever I cook some – Dad’s gut had rebelled at legumes, so she’d gone without lentils and beans for decades. Mom waited until her eighties to eat exactly whatever and whenever she likes, with no one to please but herself, a novel experience for a woman of her generation, married sixty-five years to a strong-willed husband.

Mom has always been a feminist beacon to me, despite her traditional role in their marriage. She always worked outside the home, always assumed that my sister and I would do whatever we wanted to do with our lives, just as our brothers would. When one of us became a scientist and the other a chef, she was not surprised. She’s proud of the fact that all of her kids are good at what they do as adults.  Competence matters to her. As she ages, her increasing difficulty with hand tools as her arthritis worsens is a source of frustration. But she copes. She does less chopping of vegetables, eats pre-made chicken skewers instead of cutting up a bird, uses garlic and onion powder instead of smashing fresh cloves and mincing onions.

I am grateful to be living close by, so I can visit regularly for movies, tea and our ongoing cribbage skirmishes, and to drop off food from my kitchen. I cook every day, and cooking for three requires no more effort than cooking for two – it’s cooking for one that is difficult. My dietary drop-offs have taught me that Mom doesn’t like eggplant or curry, but like me, she loves chocolate, Boursin, pastries, crusty sourdough, fruity desserts. “Good eats,” she comments happily after a meal she particularly enjoys. I enjoy hearing her say, “I had one of your excellent muffins for breakfast today” during our daily phone conversations. She taught me how to cook. I’m happy to feed her. So first we eat this dessert that requires very little chopping, and then we can compare notes on our favourite uncomplicated desserts.

Mocha Chocolate Pudding

Pudding only seems childish until you start eating it. Then it seems the height of grown-up, especially if each spoonful is part pud and part whip. To go nondairy, make it with soy or almond milk and a spoonful of coconut oil, and garnish with nondairy sorbet. This keeps well in the fridge for several days. Serves 8

6 oz. best-quality dark chocolate, chopped or broken

2/3 cup dark brown sugar

3 Tbsp. cocoa

3 Tbsp. cornstarch

¼ tsp. kosher or sea salt

1 cup coffee cream

3 large egg yolks

2 cups whole milk

2 Tbsp. butter, softened

1 tsp. vanilla extract

¼ cup strong hot coffee, espresso or coffee liqueur

whipped cream, crème fraiche or ice cream for garnish

8 chocolate-coated espresso beans for garnish

Melt the chocolate over simmering water or at moderate power in a microwave, stirring. Cool slightly.

Put the sugar, cocoa, cornstarch and salt in milk a heavy-bottomed pot. Whisk in the cream, then add the yolks and milk. Whisk well. Add the melted chocolate. Whisk well, then heat to a boil. Pass through a strainer. Stir in the butter, vanilla and coffee. Transfer to ramekins. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for several hours. 

Garnish each portion with a dollop of whipped cream, crème fraiche or ice cream. Top with a chocolate-covered espresso bean and serve.

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Kindness & Corned Beef

Grainews

May 2021.

My neighbor Sharon gave me half a beef brisket last week. She and her husband had taken a steer to the small local abbatoir for slaughter, and were generous in sharing after the animal had been butchered. I decided that whatever I made, they’d receive some back for their kindness.

Brisket, as you know, is the chest, the meat lying around the breastbone. It is heavily threaded with muscles and connective tissue, positioned as it is between the chuck, or shoulder, and the shank. It can be divided into two parts, the flat – a flattish, lean part from close to the ribs, with a nice fat cap – and the point, or deckle, a thicker piece with good marbling. Like the chuck and shank, brisket requires long, slow cooking to become sublimely tender pot roast or corned beef or barbecue. Should I braise it? Or brine it? Or smoke it to make pastrami? Yum.

I settled on making corned beef, which is a week-long process, with the bulk of time spent brining. You might recall from my recent column on salt that brining is a common practice for cooks. Brine – salt mixed with water – magnifies the ability of salt to penetrate meat for the purpose of imparting seasoning while killing bacteria and enhancing juiciness by plumping up the meat at a cellular level.

Brine used in this context needs sugar. Not only does it kick up the flavour but it also dials back the harsher side of salt. I use white sugar for corning beef, but any form of sweetener will work – honey, brown sugar, molasses, maple syrup – each contributing its own flavour to the dish. Then there are the aromatics – the herbs and spices that boost the flavor profile. I add a bit of “pink salt” as well. Based on vegetable-sourced nitrite, pink (or curing) salt keeps the meat pink and adds a characteristic flavour while preventing botulism, particularly vital in making air-cured sausages. You can find it at sausage-makers and some butcher shops.

Bring the brine to a boil to dissolve the salt and sugar, but also to let the herbs and spices infuse the liquid. Cool and chill it before you add the brisket. This keeps the meat safe from spoilage. Refrigerate the brisket for five to seven days to allow the brine to penetrate to the centre.

Next time I am gifted with a brisket, I will brine and slow-smoke it with a dry rub to make pastrami, then I’ll give some back to my friends. While you’re at it, remember to share with your neighbor who doesn’t cook so much anymore. First we eat, then we can talk about other undervalued cuts of beef.

Corned Beef

A 5-6 pound slab of corned beef serves a crowd. Leftovers make stellar sandwiches, especially layered with Emmenthal or Gruyere and sauerkraut to make Reubens, sautéed in butter.

Brine:

1 gallon water

2 cups kosher salt

½ cup white sugar

5 tsp. pink salt

1 head garlic, peeled

2 Tbsp. pickling spice

1 whole star anise

½ tsp. fennel seed or anise seed

5-6 lb. beef brisket (half a whole brisket)

Braising liquid:

oil for the pan

1 onion, coarsely sliced

1 head garlic, peeled and sliced

2 large carrots, coarsely chopped

2 tbsp. pickling spice

1 bottle ginger beer, ale or white wine

6 cups water or stock (chicken, turkey or vegetable)

Vegetable garnish:

green cabbage, in wedges or slices

carrots, sliced

potatoes, cut in even pieces

yellow turnip, peeled and cut in even pieces

To make the brine, combine half the water with all remaining ingredients, bring to a boil and stir until the salt and sugar dissolve. Cool, then chill. Transfer to a container that will hold the meat and fit in the fridge. Add the remaining (cold) water and the meat. Put a plate on top of the meat to submerge it, and cover snugly. Refrigerate for 5-7 days, turning the meat daily.

Remove meat from the brine, rinse and pat dry. Let stand at room temperature while you prepare the braising liquid.

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed braising pot. Add the vegetables and sauté until golden. Add the spices, liquid and brisket. Add additional liquid to just cover the meat. Bring to a boil. Cover snugly with parchment paper right on the surface of the meat and liquid, then with the lid of the pot. Cook on slow heat for 3 hours, or until tender. Replenish the liquid if its level drops. Add the vegetable garnish and cook for 30-45 minutes, or cook the vegetables separately as preferred.


Remove the meat from the liquid and let it stand 10 minutes, loosely covered, before carving. Serve with vegetables and spoonfuls of braising liquid.

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Food & “Family”

Grainews

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, 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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“Mother” soup

Grainews

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”

Grainews

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

Grainews

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

Garnishes:

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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Bread & Water: Essays

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.

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Preserved lemons and ageless aunties

Grainews

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

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

6 lemons

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.

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