Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction [CNF]

Grainews: First We Eat: Sourdough’s Mysteries

Grainews

Gluten and wheat intolerance has been on my family’s radar for decades. My sister Lee gave up eating all wheat-based foods in her early twenties after a childhood and teenager-hood filled with bellyaches and gastrointestinal distress. Fifteen years ago,  my own body started to experience similar negative reactions to bread. But according to food writer and historian Michael Pollan, bread is both the product and the enabler of civilization, the bedrock food of many countries. Bread shortages have led to riots and wars. So bread was not something I was willing to let go of lightly.

Bread-making has changed from its peasant origins. Between the original flour, water and salt that made the first loaves and modern industrially-produced bread lie what Pollan says are as many as 37 additives. Agreed, white bread is cheaper to produce and less perishable, made with mass-produced roller-milled flour instead of stone-ground whole-grain flour. But it’s also less nutritious. So the big bakeries fortified breads by adding vitamins, minerals, dough conditioners, stabilizers, amino acids, preservatives. Do those additives upset my gut?

In my own kitchen, I switched to making and eating only sourdough bread made with local organic flours after my own evidence convinced me that somehow, sourdough bread was easier on my belly than store-bought. But I had no proof of why. So I looked around for clarification.

In “Air,” Episode 3 of his Netflix series, Cooked, Pollan turns his analytical mind to the most ephemeral of the elements in his exploration of bread-making. Air adds gases and other flavours as well as lightening bread’s texture. Gluten is the balloon that contains the bubbles of gas and air in bread.

Why can I eat sourdough? I read studies showing that sourdough bread’s slow fermentation process reduces the amount of FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols), types of carbohydrates that are present in bread but are not well absorbed in the small intestine and cause bloating and flatulence. But Pollan suggests that just as important is the long slow fermentation inherent to sourdough bread-making. Fermentation is key to health: wheat is hard to digest. That long fermentation allows bacteria to fully break down wheat’s carbs and gluten strands and releases its minerals for easier absorption.

Using commercial yeast gives bread a faster lift but overlooks the rest of fermentation’s role. With no breakdown of carbs and gluten, that bread is harder to digest.

I feel vindicated. And I keep baking. Sourdough bread is the most satisfying food in my kitchen. I went back to my battered copy of Tartine by Chad Robertson and kept at it, varying what I had to to suit my circumstances.

Ask your artisan baker for a cupful of starter (or make it yourself.) Then get out the bread knife and the butter. First we eat, then we talk about bread.

Sourdough Bread

For best flavour, use locally raised flours. (I use Red Fife flour for no more than half my total flour.) Makes 2 loaves

1 c. starter

milk or water as needed

flour as needed

3 1/2 c. all-purpose flour

1/2 c. whole wheat flour

2 T. kosher salt

warm water or milk to form a dough

Put your starter in a clean jar or glass/ceramic bowl. Leave the bowl or jar on the counter for a day, uncovered.  For the next 3 days, add 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup milk or water morning and evening. Discard half of the mix each time or it will become the monster that ate Pittsburgh. Transfer half the starter to a clean jar and refrigerate as your new mother.

Put the remaining starter in a mixing bowl. Add flours, salt, and water or milk. Mix to form a dough, by hand or machine. Knead until soft, smooth and supple. Return to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise in the fridge until doubled in bulk.  Every half hour, use one hand [dipped in water] to pull the dough from the bottom of the bowl to the top, working all the way around the bowl. Be patient. This stage could take a day in the fridge. If you leave the bowl on the counter, it could be 4 hours.

Turn out the dough and gently shape it into a round, pulling it taut. Dust with flour and cover with a kitchen cloth. Let rest for 40 minutes.

Cut in half with a pastry cutter. Gently shape into two taut rounds or oval logs. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Dust with flour and cover. Let rise for 4 hours at room temperature.

Preheat oven to 450°F. When you turn on the oven, put an empty pan on the lowest rack and fill it with water.

Slash oval loaves across the top in parallel lines with the tip of a sharp knife. Slash round loaves on the sides in curving Cs or a square. Spray the dough with water. Immediately slide the bread onto the upper racks of the oven. Bake until crusty and baked through, about 30 minutes, depending on the size  of the loaves.

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Learning to Love Eggplant

Grainews

Like many Canadian children, my early experience of eggplant was anything but remarkable. My mom, a staunch Prairie cook, first encountered eggplant on her travels to Europe as a young mother with an Air Force husband. On her return to Canada, she did her best: she grew or bought globe eggplant, sliced them, dredged the rounds in flour, fried them and put them on the table unadorned. Undercooked, they were woody, chewy, entirely unappealing.

I didn’t learn to love eggplant until I was a young adult, living in Calgary where I met eggplant of varying pedigrees. At dim sum, we ate thin wands of eggplant, skin-on, stuffed with shrimp and pork; in the Pekinese palace, sweetened with hoisin sauce beside duck. In the Middle Eastern bistro we loved, it was baba ganouj, slightly chunky, succulent and smoky, with pita to mop it up. My European chef friends introduced me to moussaka, the Greek classic, and to Italian eggplant Parmigiana. Years later, my favourite chef from Naples taught me to suffuse cooked eggplant batons with a spice-and-herb dressing balanced between hot and sweet. Then I met the glory that is Indian eggplant, seasoned with cumin, ginger, coriander, turmeric, star anise, fennel, anise.

Despite its appearance on so many stages, eggplant is not an easy vegetable to know. It is round, oval, or elongated; black, purple, white or green, hiding its inner nature within an innocently simple shape. In the cook’s hands, a wide array of choices arise. Braise? Grill? Smoke? Fry? How best to celebrate its nature? At its worst, undercooked eggplant is woody and boring. At its best, cooked to tender and soft, eggplant boasts an unctuous, melting texture and subtly earthy taste. It just takes a bit of know-how.

Shape dictates cooking method. Use the tiny egg-like ones for stuffing or baking whole. Any eggplant can be grilled and served with a vinaigrette; any eggplant can be cooked whole on the open flame, then peeled, chopped and seasoned; or diced and braised, maximizing its tendency to absorb flavours.

Be warned that the spongy eggplant will soak up all the oil in a pan and beg for more! No matter the method, cook eggplant to well-done and soft. For a layered classic, start by grilling or oven-roasting lightly oiled slices, turning once when the slices are brown. Then stack up with other ingredients and sauce.

Alternatively, season those cooked slices with salt, pepper, mint, cumin, malt vinegar, garlic, coriander, smoked paprika, a drizzle of honey, a generous pour of olive oil, good enough to eat standing up in the kitchen, even better a day later. Now that’s something even my Mom would love. So first we eat, then we compare notes on our fave eggplant dishes.

Moussaka

For a richer dish, before baking top with a thick béchamel sauce enriched with nutmeg, Parmesan and feta cheese. For a lighter finish, simply sprinkle with feta.

Serves 8-10

4 large globe eggplants

½ c. all-purpose flour, for dredging

2-3 T. olive oil

2 lb. lean ground lamb or beef (optional)

1 large onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 bell peppers, diced

2 zucchini, diced

2 bay leaves

1 cinnamon stick

4 whole allspice

½ tsp. ground nutmeg

4 c. diced tomatoes

1 c. dry white wine

4 T. tomato paste

kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper

2 c. crumbled feta cheese

2 T. minced fresh parsley

Peel the eggplant and slice it into ½-inch slices. Lightly coat with flour, shaking them in a plastic bag and discarding the excess. Line a baking sheet with parchment and place the eggplant on the baking sheet in a single layer. Drizzle with oil and bake at 375 F until brown, about 15 minutes, turning once. Remove the eggplant from the oven and set aside.

Heat a heavy sauté pan. Add the oil, then brown the meat. Add the onion, garlic, peppers, zucchini, bay leaves, and sauté to tender. Add the cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, tomatoes, wine and tomato paste. Simmer, covered, for 35 minutes, or until thickened. Remove the bay leaves. Season with salt and pepper.

Spoon a thin layer of sauce to cover the bottom of a 9” x 13” casserole. Lay half the eggplant slices on top of the sauce. Sprinkle with half the feta cheese, half the remaining sauce, the rest of the eggplant, then sauce, then the rest of the feta. Bake for 30 minutes, or until hot. Let stand for 10 minutes before slicing. Garnish with parsley.

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: In Good Company

Grainews

 We arrived for a preliminary visit at the farm in June 2010, a month ahead of our move-in date. Over-anxious? Eager? Yes, both, but mostly we came early to help my aging parents move out – into a bungalow in a nearby town – and to paint the old farmhouse we were moving into.

I drove from Calgary with my eldest son and my miniature schnauzer. Dave drove from Regina. We all stayed across the road from my parents’ farm, with Ken and Sharon, already friends, and destined to become even closer once we actually settled. A few days passed doing the hard work of getting my parents established in what had been my grandparents’  “town house.” Then we cleaned the old farmhouse, and we bought paint: sunny yellow, to magnify the high prairie light, with red for trim. I’d learn soon enough that such a red required multiple coats to get it just right.

I stashed the cooler I’d hauled along while Dave called in the troops – writers and artists he’d met and maintained friendships with since his days as Writer in Residence at the Saskatoon Public Library. They were people I’d met already too, at readings, and at writing retreats and workshops. Together we’d built quinzhees, shared meals, read early drafts of new work, made music. I’d been welcomed into the community. So it felt okay to invite them to a work bee that included home cooking.

The day of, most of the gang arrived, but one carful of city friends got lost en route and called from somewhere else, they weren’t sure where. But they were at a corner, and could see the road signs, so I explained the ups and downs of rural roads – township and range, and how to interpret their numbering. Eventually they arrived, cheerful and still game to paint.  I told them about the countless times I’d arrived with a carful too – kids, cats, dogs – from Calgary, to visit the parents, invariably late in the afternoon or evening as the light was fading, but back in pre-cellphone days, and before road signs numbered each intersection, when all I had to guide me were the crossing points of the hydro line across the south field and a dimly remembered sense of rightness – surely this must be the right road? Sometimes it was, sometimes not. Once I’d driven in circles at moonrise with hungry kids and wailing kittens distracting my highway-fogged brain almost past bearing, hoping to stumble across a stretch of road I recognized, an intersection, a length of fence. Fortunately, I’d finally looked up and found the hydro lines, in the right field, at the right fence, only a few minutes from waiting grandparents.

On our painting date, our friends finally found us, and we spent two days painting the house together. I cranked up my parents’ barbecue, left behind for the occasion, and fed us all.

My fallback salad dressing then, as now, was a vinaigrette-style Caesar dressing. After we cleaned the paintbrushes, I spooned it over salad greens and a glorious mishmash of grilled vegetables, sausages, chicken thighs, salmon and steaks. During this past winter, I’ve used the same dressing on roasted cauliflower, roasted Brussels sprouts, roasted squash, roasted onions, roasted peppers, roasted asparagus, roasted eggplant, and occasionally on a variety of salad greens. It feeds artists, writers and farmers with equally openhanded generosity on all manner of food, so make lots. First we eat, then we store the extras in the fridge for tomorrow.

dee’s Caesar Salad Dressing

When you make your Caesar, add fruit in season – orange segments and pomegranate seeds in winter; watermelon and grapes in summer. Serve on salad greens to suit, add grilled or roasted vegetables, grilled salmon, scallops, steelhead, flank steak, or chicken thighs. Add grated cheese and your choice of croutons. My son likes to add one soft-boiled egg per person to the salad plates.

Makes about 1 litre, and keeps well in the fridge. Serves a crowd.

1 T. grainy SK or Dijon mustard

1 head garlic, minced

1 3-oz. tin anchovies [and oil], mashed or pureed

1/3 c. capers, chopped

4 T. lemon juice

2 c. olive oil [or a mix of sunflower and olive]

2-4 T. Worcestershire sauce

8 T. red wine vinegar

½ t. hot chili paste

Combine the mustard, garlic, anchovies, capers and lemon juice. Whisk in the oil, stir in the remaining ingredients. Taste and adjust the balance to suit your palate: it should be sharp and pungent for best results.

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Let Us Eat Cake

Grainews

Cake is an important part of my family’s birthday rituals. When I was a kid, Mom made birthday cakes that contained coins wrapped in wax paper – for her five kids, but also for my dad, but always chocolate for him, and no coins.

I began to bake as a youngster, and in later years, as a chef, restaurateur and caterer, I made many cakes. My small restaurant in Calgary had a name for good desserts, among them one I dubbed “the Queen cake,” a luscious chocolate angel food filled with fruit and chocolate whipped cream. It became the favourite of my youngest son, who requested it each year for his birthday. (This year, he made his first ever for himself and his partner. Still his fave.) Back in the day, my eldest son begged me through a catechism of ever-changing-but-always-chocolate cakes that peaked with a five-layer extravaganza – a cake that took me three days to make and assemble. (“Never again!” I told my son.) So I thought everybody celebrated with cake.

My marriage ended in 2000, and a year later, I took up with a wonderful man. My birthday arrived. My new man brought me books, jewelry, clothing, wine, glorious presents I opened after a home-cooked dinner. But no cake. I was surprised by how deeply disappointed I felt, and my sweetie was appalled at the oversight, and my response. But I hadn’t mentioned it, and he – a diabetic – didn’t have any attachment to cake. So no cake. He hustled out next day, and bought cake, but it wasn’t the same. (The relationship didn’t last. Not the cake’s fault, although sometimes a critical thing’s absence brings home other lacks. )

I learned. Early on in our relationship, I told Dave that I wanted cake on my birthday – even last year, when I marked 60 years on the planet. Fortunately, the cupcake craze has stuck, and my non-baker Dave happily brings home cupcakes when we require cake not made by moi.

Over the years, I have acquired a wide cake repertoire, and am happy to make cakes for special occasions, especially when my friends and extended family will consume the leftovers. Because my sister and I have wheat intolerances, some of my fave cakes are flourless or low-flour: angel food cake; flourless chocolate torte; nut torte filled with citrus mousse; cornmeal and nut torte  flavoured with lots of lemon and cardamom, and totally outrageous with simmered apples, pears or quince and whipped cream.

When I first met Winnipeg’s favourite dessert, the schmoo cake, it didn’t take me long it realize it too could be flourless or close-to-flourless.  I adapted my angel food and my torte recipes, added a salted butterscotch sauce, and wowee, I fed my father and family schmoo cake for this year’s annual wintertime joint birthday party. Here it is. First we eat, then we weigh the merits of other celebratory sweets.

Schmoo Cake with Salted Butterscotch Sauce

Wowee Winnipeg! This is a dynamite cake with a murky past. Here’s my version, adapted from a blend of my angel food cake and flourless nut torte. If you wish, eliminate the flour and up the nuts to 4 cups.

Makes 2 9” spring-form pans; serves a crowd.

Cake:

12 whole eggs, separated

1 ½ c. white sugar, divided in half

¼ t. cream of tartar

1 t. vanilla extract

1 c. all purpose flour

1 ½ t. baking powder

2 c. finely chopped toasted pecans

 

Filling and topping:

3  c. whipping cream

Icing sugar to taste

 

Butterscotch sauce:

1 ½ c. brown sugar

1 c. whipping cream

2 T. salted butter

A pinch of kosher salt

 

Set oven to 325 F.

For the cake, beat yolks and half the sugar with the cream of tartar until thick, pale yellow and tripled in volume. Add the vanilla. Set aside.

In a clean bowl, beat the egg whites and the remaining sugar – added slowly – until stiff peaks form.

Stir together the flour, baking powder and pecans. Fold into the yolks, then fold in the whites. Divide among the two pans. Bake for 55-60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool completely.

Whip the cream and icing sugar to taste. Slice each cake in half. Place one half on a flat plate, add whipped cream, a second layer of cake and cream, then third and fourth layers of each. Cover outside with whipped cream. Chill.

For the butterscotch sauce, combine all ingredients except salt. Bring to a boil. Simmer until the sugar is completely dissolved. Add a pinch of salt. Transfer to a jar. Let cool before using to generously garnish each slice of cake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Sausage-making

Grainews

Sausages used to be the great unmentionable, made from things no one wanted to know about, never mind eat. But although they began as the thrifty butcher’s way of using up trimmings, sausages have gone uptown.

Making your own sausages, like anything homemade, means the cook controls everything, from the selection of meats, salt and spices to the amount of fat.

Begin at the butcher’s. I buy pork trim, cut it up myself, and grind it as well. If you don’t have a meat grinder, ask the butcher to grind it medium or coarse, or a mixture, if you like a coarser-textured link. It doesn’t have to be just pork, although German and Alsatian pork sausages are justifiably famous. I like to make sausages from pork, turkey, chicken, lamb, beef, or game, but often add ground pork to the mix, especially with game, which is extremely lean. (Hunters take note: the butcher will need your animal’s provenance, so take along the tag – or the information on it – when you take your game to the butcher to be ground.)

Order pork fat from the butcher as well. Old-style sausage-masters will tell you that the best sausages are made with 25 percent fat – for tenderness, mouth feel and flavor. But I drop that figure and add other ingredients – apple, pear, carrot, onion, leek, peppers, mild cabbage – without sacrificing any of those critical elements to keep my sausages’ fat content manageable.

Buy casings too. Natural pork casings are carefully washed intestines, if you must know. Synthetic casings are sometimes available, but really, do you wanna do that? Back in your own kitchen, thaw the casings.

Add salt and seasonings to the meat and fat. Some cooks find that sautéing, roasting or grilling any vegetable additions makes a milder sausage. Please yourself. If you are grinding your own, cut ingredients so they fit in your meat grinder’s feeder tube. Season and chill the mixture overnight before grinding it all. Next day, add ice, cold beer, wine or juice, or ice water to help the mixture develop a sticky texture.

Put the casings into a bowl of water, using a clothespin to clamp one end of a casing onto the edge of the bowl. Remove the clothespin and hold the casing open under running water. Use shears to sever a length several feet long. Re-pin the new end to the bowl, and drain the detached piece.

(To store unused casings indefinitely, drain well and add several large handfuls of kosher salt. Mix, wrap and refrigerate or freeze.)

Sauté a few patties and taste for seasoning. When the blend is balanced to your taste, set up your stuffer with the right size of “horn.” Slide the casing onto the horn. Yes, you can make jokes.

Like some stage productions, stuffing sausage is a four-hander: one person fills the hopper and runs the controls; the other uses both hands to pack the sausage as it fills. Leave a few inches empty at the beginning of the casing so you can tie it off later. Decide on a sausage length, and twist the casing as it fills or afterwards, to create separate sausages, alternating directions, three complete turns each time, to ensure the whole thing doesn’t unravel like a Slinky losing its kinks.

Use a large needle or hatpin to prick any air bubbles as the casing fills, and leave some room at the end. Knot both ends. Repeat. When you are done, don’t wait for dinner. Strike up the grill to celebrate. And congratulations. You have just contributed to an enduring culinary tradition. First we eat, then we talk about how many other ways there are to season sausages.

Turkey Apple Sausages

These sweet links are great with arugula salad, lentils, grainy mustard and crusty rolls. Serve with lightly chilled rosé or German beer.

Makes about 24 sausages

2 lb. white/dark raw boneless turkey

½ lb. pork fat, diced

2 tsp. curry powder or Chinese 5-spice

1 lemon, zest only

2 T. minced fresh thyme

2 T. minced chives

2 T. kosher salt or to taste

black pepper and hot chili flakes to taste

4 apples, peeled, diced and sautéed

¼ c. cooked black beans, chopped

½ c. cold water or white wine

12’ hog casings, as needed

Dice the meat and fat. Combine all the ingredients except apples, beans and water/wine, mixing thoroughly. Chill, Grind. Add remaining ingredients. Test for seasoning before stuffing sausage casings.

Cook on the grill, in a hot oven or under the broiler until the juices run clear, about 8-10 minutes, depending on the size of the sausages.

 

 

 

 

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Winter Greens

Grainews

In winter, when arugula and other salad-ish greens travel thousands of miles, have been contaminated with E. coli or are too costly to be borne with good grace, I turn to sturdier greens for warm salads and robust vegetable dishes.

Mustard greens, or flowering gai lan, a Chinese form of broccoli, are assertive and blend well with strong tastes. When I want a faceful of flavours, I steam gai lan, drain it, and add a couple tablespoons of good marmalade diluted with orange juice to the pan just as the vegetables are nearly done. No marmalade? Use plum or sour cherry preserves and lemon juice.

Sui choy, Nappa or Savoy cabbage are my go-to for tender, mild cabbage. They cook the same as cabbage, but are tender and slightly higher in water content. For a milder flavour, choose baby bok choy.

For more European flavours, I turn to chard, kale or Brussels sprouts.

The Brussels sprout makes an annual winter appearance, but is often ignored as being “too cabbage-y”. Far better to find it in late autumn at a farmers’ market, when you can appreciate its garish Martian-spaceship design of balls clinging to a stalk. But by midwinter, you will only find the bulbs, those perennial keepers, in the supermarket. Like its cabbage cousins, this mini head loves the company of pork, but is reduced to sulphurous fumes if overcooked. Brussels sprouts are utterly divine roasted. Quarter or halve each head, roll in good olive oil with salt and pepper, and roast in a single layer on parchment-lined paper until slightly charred, turning once or twice. Next best is to thinly slice the little buggers, and quickly fry them with bacon, onions and garlic until tender, adding small amounts of water to create steam. Add a drizzle of cream if you like.

Think of chard as two vegetables – the dense stalk and the soft, pliable leaf. Fold each leaf in half lengthwise along the stalk, cut the stalk out, chop up the leaf and set it aside. Chop the stalk and sauté it with onion and garlic. Add the chopped leaves, a bit of water, a handful of dried cranberries, and quickly cook until the leaves wilt. Then add some toasted chopped pecans and maybe a bit of Parmesan or chevre, and toss it on linguini. It’s a riff on a classic Catalan combo of greens with nuts and raisins, so vary it however suits your pantry.

Kale soup shows up from Portugal north to Scandinavia, nearly always partnered with pork, sausages or ham, and dried beans. Be sure to cut out and discard the thick central rib from large leaves. Kale doesn’t reduce its volume as much as other greens, so one bunch is enough to add to the pot. Kale can be braised or stir-fried, but it is dense, and takes awhile to become tender. Be patient. Otherwise, soup is a convenient vehicle. Kale  too is delicious roasted, so separate the leaves, toss them in seasoned olive oil and spread them out on a tray to roast until crispy.

They tell me that winter will end eventually. This year I am not so sure. But until we can pick our own arugula and romaine again, these sturdy greens will sustain us. So first we eat, then we peruse the seed catalogues.

Winter Greens in Coconut Milk

Any sturdy greens will work in this mellow Thai-style dish: my favourites are gai lan, followed by Nappa cabbage. Serve with plain or coconut rice or finely-textured noodles, or as an accompaniment to curries, grilled meats or fish. As with any stir-fry, have all the ingredients sliced and measured before you begin to cook.

Serves 6 as a side dish

1 T. sunflower oil

½ onion, finely sliced

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 T. grated ginger root

4 kaffir lime leaves (use the zest of a lime if you can’t find lime leaves)

½ red bell pepper, julienned

1 coarsely grated carrot

1 tsp. finely minced jalapeno or to taste

½  head sui choy or Nappa cabbage, julienned, or gai lan, left whole

1-14 oz. tin coconut milk

1 tsp. shrimp paste, optional

1 T. fish sauce or chopped anchovies

1 T. honey

the juice and zest of 1 lime

salt and hot chili paste to taste

minced cilantro for garnish

Heat the oil in a large sauté pan, then add the onion, garlic, ginger, lime leaves, bell pepper, carrot and jalapeno. Cook over high heat, stirring, until the vegetables are tender and transparent, about 5 minutes, adding small amounts of water to prevent browning. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Cook, stirring, until the greens are tender. Cook a few extra minutes to reduce and thicken the liquid if desired. Garnish and serve.

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Grainews: First We eat: Cooking on a Winter-Weather Shoestring

Grainews

The view out my window is relentlessly white. Deep snow has collected across the yard, and the temperature is hovering around -30°C, as it has for the past week. The forecast for the coming week is no better. The roads are rotten. I’ve used up the coffee cream and eaten all the oranges.

Winter weather means that this week’s cooking must be from the pantry, with no spontaneous trips to town. But even when the pantry looks scant, we can find an onion, a carrot, a can of beans, a few spuds. Peasant food? Absolutely. Those peasants, my grandparents among them, were hardy folk – and simple dishes based on vegetables and grains with a modicum of meat kept them hale and strong.

Yes, but – you might say – there’s nothing special about squash. Nothing sublime about onions. Nothing redeeming about root veggies.

Maybe not. But it’s all in what you do with them: simplicity is the mother of inventive cooking, and sideways thinking is a sure sign of a cook accustomed to using few ingredients.

Here are a few ideas for cooks on a winter-weather shoestring.

Sauté sliced ham or bacon in a pot, add garlic, onions and carrots generously seasoned, then add wedges of cabbage. Add white, black or pinto beans, cover with water or stock, and let the magic happen under a lid. Later, add a smoked pork hock or a sausage or two, et voila! Cassoulet for many!

When a sack of onions is the sum total of your pantry, make onion soup. Start with a vegetable stock made with onions, carrots, garlic, potatoes, herbs and water. Let it simmer while you don your swimming goggles and slice a prodigious heap of onions for the soup. Sauté the onions and an entire head of garlic, and add pinches of dried Mediterranean herbs and the dregs of last night’s wine before you tip in the stock. Thickly slice a loaf of bread, drizzle each slice with olive oil, top with a spoonful of onions from the pot and maybe a bit of cheese, then broil the croutons before floating them in the soup bowls.

If you have a squash languishing in the cupboard, dice it, sweat it with onion, garlic and olive oil, then stir in arborio rice and vegetable stock for a rewarding risotto.

Alternatively, combine the diced squash with a handful of split peas, star anise or fennel seed, cumin, grated fresh ginger, sautéed onion and stock. A dollop of honey and a pinch of salt bring it all into harmony.

Lentils in the cupboard mean quick-cooking high-protein dishes like mulligatawny, the yummy self-thickening soup of Indian origins. The formula is simple and easily adapted to whatever produce is in your fridge: onions + garlic + ginger + oil + veggies + Indian spices + lentils + fruit + water = soup. Garnish the finished soup with yoghurt and toasted coconut.

Pasta works well with a handful of broccoli, garlic and onion, a generous drizzle of olive oil, a smattering of hot chili flakes, and the last of the Parmesan. Add cooked lentils or beans, and it becomes pasta e fagioli, an Italian peasant classic.

Use grated raw yams, sweet potatoes or common potatoes with red, white or yellow skins and flesh for latkes.

If the flour jar is full, make pizza. Top it with roasted slivered root vegetables (carrots are especially good; parsnips are very sweet) or roasted mushrooms or eggplant, leftover chicken or roast lamb, a bit of cheese. Slices of grilled onion add a sweet, charred note. Fold the filling within a small round of dough and pinch the edges closed for a crusty calzone.

That’s supper on a shoestring. First we eat, then we talk about goin’ to town.

Golden Vegetable Latkes

This works best with raw potatoes: choose red-skinned, yellow-fleshed, purple or sweet, and add grated carrot as well. Children will drown these in syrup; adults might prefer a compote of simmered cranberries, apple or pears with yoghurt on the side. Serves 2-4

1 lb. sweet potatoes, potatoes or root vegetables, peeled and coarsely grated

2 carrots, grated

½ onion or a handful of green onions, minced

1 tsp. dried basil

a handful of chopped parsley

salt and hot chili flakes to taste

1-2 eggs

3-4 Tbsp. cornstarch or flour

Combine ingredients. Heat a well-seasoned cast iron pan, then lightly oil the pan. Scoop the mixture into the pan, pressing each scoop flat into a patty. Cook for several minutes on medium heat until brown, then flip to cook the second side. Place the finished patties on a baking tray in a warm oven while you cook the rest.

 

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Saying Farewell with Apple Crepes

Grainews

I learned recently that my culinary mentor, Madeleine Kamman, died in July 2018. At the time, the event went unnoticed. But when I got word, the news flattened me.

Madeleine was the tigress who taught me to trust my palate, who set my benchmarks. She valued methods, flavour principles, terroir, the ineffable link between place and taste. Her intensive hands-on cooking classes, market tours and restaurant outings in France did more to make a discerning cook out of me than the formal classes and apprenticeship that preceded it. Her seven books, among them The Making of a Cook, occupy prime real estate in my library.

She was a fierce feminist, a historian, Michelin-trained. Her high standards and remarkable palate were prized by her protégés, but viewed warily by some of her male counterparts. Her schools – in France, the Napa Valley, Boston – were attended by chefs looking to benefit from her grad-school-level master classes.

On the trip to France in 1985 to attend her cooking school in Annecy, indelible memories formed. Madeleine in the market, her nose crinkling as she examined a cluster of berries. Madeleine showing me how to butterfly a veal loin, caramelize fruit, reduce a sauce. Madeleine peering at my nine-month-old son in the high-spring sunlight, telling me that ratatouille was an ideal food for a child his age. Madeleine in a Chanel suit, chastising her coterie of North American students – me among them – for our informal clothing, totally unsuitable, she insisted, for the elite restaurants where we were to dine.

When I was not in class, my then-husband and I wandered the narrow streets in the old quarter, across footbridges, beside canals and creeks. We found the crepe maker’s cart beneath a plane tree.

He ladled a spoonful of batter onto a metal disc and smoothed it, flipped it, then folded the crispy circle in half, then quarters that he secured in a parchment round. From a steaming small pot, he scooped fat apple slices. Another pot held chocolate ganache, and a ceramic bowl was heaped with whipped cream.

He handed the first paper-wrapped cone to my husband, the cream and chocolate tangled skeins across the cinnamon-flecked apples. Thirty seconds later, a second cone materialized. We sat down on the bench, licked chocolate and cream from our hands, tucked warm apple into our son’s mouth, and bit into the crepes, leaning out past our knees as you do when things are messy and juicy and drippy in a good, cheerful, street-foodish kind of way.

In deep winter, those apple crepes make the most of the slim pickings we have on the fruit shelves in the prairies. I think of the unquenchable Madeleine every time I make them. So first we eat, and then we mourn her passing.

Buckwheat Crepes with Apples

Adapt this by using pears instead of apples, peaches in summer, with dried fruit as you fancy. The crepes will keep a week in the fridge. Batter: about 20 8” crepes. Filling: about 8 crepes.

Buckwheat crepe batter:

½ c. all-purpose flour

2 T. buckwheat flour

3 eggs

1 c. milk

¼ c. melted butter

salt to taste

additional butter for the pan

Stir together the flours, then whisk in the eggs. Slowly stir in the milk, then strain. Rest the batter for 30 minutes. Whisk in the butter and salt. Heat an 8” cast iron or well-seasoned sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add a bit of butter, melt it, then ladle 1 T. batter into the pan. Swirl to spread it. Cook for 1-2 minutes. Flip and cook for another 30 seconds. Transfer to a plate. Repeat. Stack crepes on the plate.

Ganache:

¼ c. chopped dark chocolate (I like Lindt)

¼ c. whipping cream

Melt on medium power in the microwave, stirring once or twice, about 3 minutes. Stir well, adding more cream if too thick.

Apple filling:

2 c. apple cider

½ c. sugar

1 c. water

1 lemon, orange or lime, zest and juice

2 whole star anise

1 tsp. whole allspice

2 slices fresh ginger root

1 stick cinnamon

1 sprig fresh rosemary

1 tsp. peppercorns

8 whole cloves

4-6 apples, peeled and sliced

¼ c. dried sour cherries or cranberries

Combine all ingredients except the fruit in a pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the syrup has acquired flavour and spice. Strain, discarding the solids. Add the fruit, cover with parchment paper and a snug lid, and gently cook on medium heat until tender, about 20 minutes, depending on degree of ripeness. Remove the fruit, and reduce the liquid’s volume to about ½ cup, of syrup consistency.

To serve, spoon the fruit into each crepe. Top with syrup and ganache. Garnish with whipped cream or ice cream. Serve immediately.

 

 

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Spaghetti Easterns

Grainews

It’s a wintry morning in Calgary, where I am visiting my son and his partner. We are bundled up, standing in line. Even though the chinook is blowing in, the morning is raw, and I am grateful I didn’t make any assumptions and underdress. It’s still deepfreeze prairie winter.

The restaurant’s door opens at 11 AM sharp, and the thirty people in front of us are quickly ushered to benches, chairs and stools. My son reassures me that it won’t be long, that the turnover is fast. I’ve been here before, even though neither my son nor I like line-ups.

When I peer in through the front windows a few minutes later, bowls and plates already sit in front of several happy diners. Chopsticks and spoons are deployed. I can’t hear the sound effects, but I can imagine them, because I have made those noises myself – slurping, sighing, lip-smacking, the noises deserved by good food.

When I return to our spot in the queue, we pass the time by discussing Tampopo, Juzo Itami’s famous “Spaghetti Eastern” movie about a noodle maker in Japan. This wildly funny 1986 movie sendup of “spaghetti Westerns” involves a stranger who rides into town (in a truck), then sticks around to help a widow learn to make better noodles for her shop.

My appetite is stoked by the time my son’s name is called. We’ve waited outside maybe forty minutes; this restaurant, Shiki Menya, serves ramen, pale yellow wheat noodles and the broth-style soup that contains them. A line forms outside its door every day because the noodles and broth are not only scrumptious, but hand-made. Daily. When they run out, the door closes. We sit; we consult; we order. Soon it’s us who are smacking our lips, sighing and slurping. Then we leave, so others can do the same.

At home, I dig around in my library and online, reading up on the noodles and its eponymous broth, then head to the kitchen, curious to see if I can reproduce the textures and flavours that made me so happy.

The short answer: yes, and no. Intrepid home cooks can approximate ramen’s slick texture by adding baked baking soda to an egg noodle dough, but trust me, some things really are best left to the specialists. Best to make the stock and buy the noodles: readymade ramen – not the dry packaged kind with a little packet of salty seasoning that sustains university students on a tight budget, but fresh ramen – or fat wheat udon or Shanghai noodles, or even soba (buckwheat noodles), any of which are usually available at grocery stores. In a real pinch, spaghetti will work.

Ramen’s rich broth is often made from pork bones, but miso, chicken or fish stock can be used as well. What else shows up in the bowl? Char siu (braised or barbecued pork belly). Negi (Spring onion). Soft tamago (soft-boiled egg). Menma (fermented bamboo shoots). Mustard greens, pea shoots, micro-greens, spinach. Aromatic sesame seeds or oil, peanuts or cashews. The whole, extraordinarily greater than the sum of its modest parts, is enough to make a grown woman go weak in the knees. So first we eat, and then we decide if we should have more.

Dee’s Eastern Noodle Soup

Chinese char siu is pork roasted with a tangy, often-sweet sauce. The Japanese version is pork belly too, braised or roasted. Why pork belly? Fat content, which translates into lusciousness in eating. Use this braised version in your own “spaghetti eastern” bowls of ramen.

Braise:

2 lb. pork belly

6 c. pork stock or chicken stock

1 c. soy sauce

1 c. sake

¼ c. brown sugar

2 onions, coarsely chopped

1 head garlic, peeled and bruised

1 bunch green onions, chopped

2″ ginger, chopped

1 carrot, chopped

 

Soup broth and flavourings:

Pork braising liquid

Soy sauce

miso

chili paste

Aromatic sesame oil

 

Garnishes:

Sliced broiled char siu

Negi (spring onion), minced

Soft tamago (soft-boiled egg)

Menma (fermented bamboo shoots)

Mushrooms, raw or sautéed

Mustard greens, pea shoots, micro-greens, spinach

Toasted peanuts

Corn

Cooked wheat noodles (ramen, udon, Shanghai) or soba (buckwheat noodles)

Set oven at 300 F. Roll pork belly into a cylinder, tie with kitchen twine and set aside. Combine all braising ingredients in a heavy pot and bring to the boil. Add the pork, then reduce to a simmer. Cover the contents snugly with a piece of parchment paper, then with a lid. Cook in oven for 3-4 hours, or until tender. Leave cooked pork in liquid overnight in fridge. Next day, remove the pork belly from the liquid and slice. Sauté or broil each slice for a yummy nice caramel-edged effect, or reheat the slices in some of the broth.

To make the soup, heat the braising liquid, then add flavourings, garnishes and cooked noodles to suit appetite and palate. Serve immediately.

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Grainews: First We Eat: Fish on the FLatland

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We didn’t eat much fish when I was a kid, just the occasional trout my grandfather reeled in from the North Saskatchewan River, and East Coast cod on Fridays. Not until we arrived on Vancouver Island did I learn to love fish, especially West Coast sockeye salmon, although the act of fishing struck me as boring. “A good excuse for doing nothing,” I heard my grandfather describe it in later years. By then I’d begun to appreciate why a hardworking dryland farmer might appreciate the opportunity to sit quietly on the bank of a river and watch the fishing line play out across the water.

We have more choices these days, even if we don’t go fishing. Fishermen bring whitefish, pike, walleye and pickerel to market from northern lakes, and Saskatchewan’s Diefenbaker Lake is home to Wild West’s farmed steelhead.

Farming fish is an ancient practise – symbiotic, low intensity, low impact – that originated when carp or tilapia swam in flooded Asian rice fields and Aztec canals. “There is rice in the fields, fish in the water,” read a line carved on a Thai stone tablet 700 years ago.

This ancient idea feels contemporary, and necessary. In a time when one in ten people around the globe faces chronic hunger, in a time when wild fish stocks are poisoned or depleted, farming fish simply make sense. But not just farming fish: farming in a closed-loop system: as described by the Oxford dictionary, aquaponics is “a system of aquaculture in which the waste produced by farmed fish or other aquatic creatures supplies the nutrients for plants grown hydroponically [in sand, gravel or liquid], which in turn purify the water.”

In the late 1980s, Lethbridge College became interested in aquaponics, and in past decades, a number of prairie businesses have dipped their lines into the aquaponics business as well: Greenview Aqua-Farm, founded in 1994 near Delacoeur, Alberta, by several Chinese-Canadians longing to re-create their childhoods; in 2007, near Nobleford, Alberta, Klaas Dentoom’s Current Prairie Fisherman Corp. began farming tilapia; Mark McNaughton has been raising tilapia in a converted hog barn at MDM Aqua Farms, east of Three Hills, since 2000; and around 2010, Leo Josephson, a retired teacher, set up an aquaponics farm west of Saskatoon, selling the resulting tilapia and tomatoes at local farmers’ markets. “Fish farming isn’t so different from conventional farming,” Mark told me back in 2012, “just in a different medium.”

Among the most recent are Aqua Terra Farms in Okotoks, and Deepwater Farms in southeast Calgary. Deepwater’s water and fish waste from tanks of Australian barramundi sustain crops of arugula, watercress, kale, pac choi and mizuna, which appear on Calgarian restaurant menus. In late November 2018, Deepwater’s owners launched a crowdfunding campaign to expand the urban farm and increase production, with a goal of making fish and greens available to the public as well.

It’s a good thing. I still don’t eat enough fish, no matter how often the food cops nag about fish’s high perch on the food nutrient ladder. Having more local sources will make it easier. Now that the fish are biting, first we eat, then we can sit down to a neighbourly chat.

Roasted Steelhead or Tilapia with Walnut Sauce

Based loosely on muhammara, a classic Turkish relish, this sauce has migrated throughout the Middle East. It’s dynamite on nearly any type of roasted or grilled fish, grilled meats, or as a resplendent solo star appetizer. Make extra to use the next day on simple grilled bread. From my book, Foodshed: An Edible Alberta Alphabet (TouchWood Editions, 2012).

Serves 4

Sauce:

¼ lb. walnut halves

¼ c. diced tomato

2 T. pomegranate molasses

1 t. toasted and ground cumin

1 T. honey

1/2 t. sumac, optional

1 lemon, juice and zest

1 garlic clove, minced

¼ c. olive oil

2 T. walnut oil

4 T. minced cilantro

salt and hot chili flakes to taste

 

1 1/2 lb. steelhead or tilapia fillets

olive oil for drizzling

salt and pepper

 

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Bake the walnuts on a baking sheet for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool thoroughly, then chop with a knife. Stir together all the sauce ingredients and set aside.

Increase the oven temperature to 450 F. Lay the fish fillets in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet with a lip. Lightly oil and season the fish. Roast uncovered until the fish is just cooked through, about 10 minutes per inch of thickness. Remove from heat, garnish with sauce and serve.

 

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