Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction [CNF]

Grainews: First We Eat: Saying Farewell with Apple Crepes


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.


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


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.


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


chili paste

Aromatic sesame oil



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


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


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


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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Grainews: First We Eat: Reclaiming Our Peasant Heritage


Yesterday I walked home from morning coffee at my neighbour Sharon’s house, my passage closely observed by a leggy Black Angus calf. She bounced up to the barbed wire fence, her head high as she gave my dog and me the once-over. Jake stopped in his tracks, uncertain what this til-now-predictable creature was up to. “Nothing,” I told him. “She’s just curious. Like you. Let’s go home.”

At home, a pot of beef stock simmered, made from bones harvested from that calf’s cousin, and I had plans for some chuck and round, the meat also harvested from my neighbour’s herd – a pot of beef stew, enriched with a generous glug of decent red wine

Beef stew made with red wine was the essence of subsistence cooking for French farmers who were perhaps foragers, perhaps cattle farmers, perhaps grape growers or vinters. But call that same stew by its true name – boeuf Bourgignon – and serve it in a bistro or fancy white-tablecloth resto, and what was simple peasant fare is appropriated – and priced to match – for the upscale diner who perhaps can’t cook it for herself.

The whole idea of stew sounds unremarkable, I agree. It can be. I have eaten my share of beef stew tough enough to go walkabout in the pasture, with glue-y characterless gravy. But it’s just as easy to make a great stew as to make that boring pedestrian plain-Jane-do-we-have-to-eat-this-stuff-again version. So what rescues beef stew from ignominy? What makes it a yum-worthy dish?

Just a couple things: good ingredients and good technique.

Get good beef. Get some bones, too. Make stock: simmer it for at least 12 hours. It is essential. Yes, you can use canned or packaged stock, and yes, you could get away with making beef stew with chicken stock. But at a price. That beefy bubbling potful of liquid covering oven-browned beef bones and caramelized vegetables is the heart of the dish. While the stew simmers, the house will fill with layers of flavour, and the finished dish will taste rich, incredibly beefy and unctuous. Definitely yum-worthy.

The wine needs to be good enough to drink, but I would never pour a name brand fancy-ass bottle of Pinot Noir or Burgundy or Cab Sauv into my stew pot. I would use an entire bottle – cheap and cheerful Chilean Merlot, for instance – saving a single glass for myself as the pot simmers.

As to technique, use a couple pans. Sauté the bacon, onions and garlic, transfer them to a heavy pot, then pat the beef dry. Working in small batches, salt it, brown it well, deglaze the pan with some of that wine, and pour the whole shooting match into the pot. Add the rest of the bottle and a few ladles of stock. Cover. Simmer until tender. Peek and stir from time to time. It really is that simple.

Put some spuds and root veg into the oven to roast. Fry some wild or cultivated mushrooms and add them to the pot at the last minute. Sit down, fill your glasses. First we eat, then we thank the cook, the calf, the farmer.

Boeuf Bourgignon

You can add a dab of tomato paste to the pot, but I prefer the unadulterated flavour of wine and beef stock. Serve with roasted potatoes and root vegetables and a simple salad with a sharp vinaigrette. Serves 8

6-8 slices bacon, chopped

2 heads garlic, sliced

2 onions, chopped

olive oil for the pan

3-5 lb.  stewing meat, cubed and patted dry

salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste

1 bottle red wine

4 sprigs fresh rosemary, minced

1 t. dried thyme

1 t. dried basil

4-6 c. beef stock

sliced mushrooms (rehydrated dried wild or fresh cultivated)

oil or butter and garlic (for the mushrooms)

minced fresh parsley

Fry the bacon until almost crisp, add the garlic and onions, and cook for about 10 minutes. Transfer to a brazier or heavy ovenproof casserole. Re-heat the sauté pan, add a drizzle of oil, and enough beef to almost cover the bottom of the pan. Season with salt and pepper. Turn the meat as it browns. Transfer the browned meat to the pot, add a splash of wine to the sauté pan, deglaze it, and tip the scrapings and liquid into the pot. Cook the meat in multiple batches to avoid crowding the pan, repeating until all the meat is browned and in the pot. Add the rest of the wine, herbs, and enough stock to cover everything nicely. Bring to a boil, cover with parchment and a lid, and cook on low for several hours, until tender.

When the meat is done, simmer uncovered until the sauce thickens. Sauté the mushrooms with oil or butter and garlic, and stir into the pot. Serve garnished with parsley.




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Grainews: First We Eat: Reimagining Comfort Food


So there I am one afternoon, lying on the couch and staring out the window. The sky is blue and glazed with ice; drifts of fresh snow lie in shadows across the fields and pastures. Once I get out there on my skis, my blood pounding through my veins and arteries, I’ll enjoy it. It’s true, but I never quite believe it until it happens. At my feet, my dog Jake is dancing around, convinced his time to play in the snow is about to begin. Eventually I concede, strap on my skis, and we go for a glide around the fenceline.

When we get back, it’s time to get supper started – I had plenty of time on the couch to decide what I wanted to cook. Once the winter settles in for the long haul and the calendar page is turned, my body starts looking for solid-state fuel to power me through skiing and running and long cold nights. Risotto is one of my go-to favourites.

Risotto, a savoury rice “pudding” from the Veneto region of Italy and one of the great comfort carb dishes, is traditionally made with polished short-grain Italian rice – arborio, carnaroli or vialone nano – and in the Veneto, is typically served all’ onda, or loose, its sauce flowing like waves. In other parts of Italy, the finished effect is thicker, the stock more absorbed.

But in search of denser calories, more nutrients and a slower, longer release of energy, I have returned to whole grains for my risotto – hulled barley, and wheat’s cousin, farro (also called emmer). Both of them require precooking. Be warned, though: if you accidentally use spelt, another cousin of wheat, instead, you’ll be simmering it for several hours, and it may emerge from the pot still crunchy. I limit my spelt usage to its ground form, which I add to breads, muffins, crisps and cobblers, but in small amounts, because it is lower in gluten than wheat.

When you shop for farro, you may find whole grain, semi-pearled or pearled, each serving up increasing degrees of processing that shorten the cooking time. Hulled barley, like the Saskatchewan-grown purple barley I used in making today’s recipe, requires a couple hours of simmering in plenty of water (or a short cycle in your pressure cooker), while pearl barley has had its hull and its bran layer removed so that all that remains is the central starch core. It cooks to tender within half an hour. Pot barley is somewhere in the middle of those two, and is much toothier than pearl barley. Back in my restaurant days, I made barley risotto with pot barley, and added cooked bulgar for added texture and flavour. These days, I prefer hulled barley’s nuttier taste, and manage the long precooking stage by using a crockpot (while cross country skiing!) that doesn’t require tending.

So the lesson is to avoid procrastinating. Put the barley on to simmer, get out there and ski, then settle down at the table. First we eat, then we’ll move on to a round of grappa and a civil discussion.

Barley Risotto with Butternut Squash and Thyme

This classic dish should be uncomplicated and colourful. It relies on perfect produce, treated gently. Endless variations that follow the seasons are possible: in spring, the first asparagus and candied salmon; in early summer, peas with prosecco and mint; in the fall, roasted bell peppers, fennel and tomatoes with the last basil; in winter, braised short ribs and rosemary, or shredded roasted chicken thighs and frozen corn kernels with dried tarragon. Please yourself. Grill or roast some sausages to serve alongside.

Serves 4-6 as a side

4 T. olive oil

1 onion, minced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 c. diced butternut squash

2 carrots, diced

1 bell pepper, diced

3 c. cooked hulled barley

1 T. minced fresh thyme

½ c. dry white wine

6-8 c. chicken or vegetable stock, heated, or as needed (depending on how ‘wavy’ you wish)

salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste

2-4 T. cool butter or whipping cream, optional

½ c. finely grated parmesan cheese

½ c. fresh parsley, minced

Heat the oil in a shallow pan and add the onion and garlic. Cook over medium heat until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the squash, carrots and bell pepper. Cook for about 5 minutes, then add the wine, stir, and cook until the wine’s aroma has dissipated and the liquid is mostly absorbed. Add stock in 1-cup increments, stirring each addition until it is almost all absorbed. Season to taste. Stir in butter or cream, then add the cheese and parsley. Mix well and serve immediately.


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Grainews: First We Eat: Fowl Suppers


We gathered at my parents’ house on a mild autumn evening, clucking over Mom and Dad’s recent renovations, sipping Dad’s homemade wine, letting our appetites build for the fowl supper. Our neighbour Ken commented on the line-up he’d witnessed en route. “Halfway down the street and around the block,” he claimed.

I was disinclined to believe him – this was a small Saskatchewan town, a bedroom community of Saskatoon, after all, with a population of 1,500. Surely its residents had better things to do on an autumn Sunday evening than line up for a turkey dinner. But Ken was proven right when we drove over to the community hall, and we took our places in the line-up. In the days following, I would learn that nearly 1,000 tickets were sold.

We have been attending this annual dinner with our family and neighbours ever since we moved to rural Saskatchewan in 2010. In the years when I felt cranky, I misheard it as “foul supper,” and in others, with yellow leaves filling my eaves and rain barrel, I heard “fall.” Regardless of pronunciation, fowl suppers are a prairie harvest tradition, usually held under the auspices of churches and volunteer community groups, with women dishing up and washing up in the church kitchen the day of, and women cooking and baking in their home kitchens for days in advance.

The suppers may have begun as fund-raisers, but became events unto themselves, even when times were tough: Nellie McClung mentioned fowl suppers in her 1916 book, In Times Like These, and the Grande Prairie Northern Tribune ran a notice in its 19 October 1933 issue: “Don’t forget the old-time fowl supper at the United Church on Oct. 25, 6 to 8 o’clock, concert following.” Nowadays you’re more likely to find such a reminder on Kijiji or Facebook, and modern MLAs are hopping on the bandwagon by hosting fowl suppers for constituents – albeit at considerably steeper ticket prices than the cash my family coughed up for the small-town meal we attended, which was mercifully untouched by political speechifying.

Regardless of which small town you find yourself in, the fowl supper menu is changeless and most of it is homemade: turkey, stuffing, gravy, mash, rutabaga, carrots, salad, buns, and pie. Pie, glorious pie, in all manner of flavours, including – this lucky year – homemade butter tarts. As I picked up a plate of apple pie and added a tart to my plate, I observed many others doing the same thing, usually with a grinning glance around. The presence of Ontario-born butter tarts on a prairie groaning board is a small indicator of our mobile population: I’ve eaten them in Newfoundland, too, as a partner to figgy duff following a traditional Jigg’s dinner.

Fowl supper tables are communal, so when we sat down, I was elbow-to-elbow with a stranger, who promptly introduced himself before tucking into his spuds and turkey. Several tables over, I saw some good friends, our nearby neighbours, but they were deep in conversation with their tablemates, so visiting waited until we’d all eaten our pie. As I munched, I recalled the bartering power commanded by butter tarts in the bidding wars that accompanied school lunchtime in my childhood. A butter tart could get you anything, but who’d want to trade it away?

These tarts are in my battery of “best presents” that I draw from when I start making edible gifts for the holidays. Make plenty: they freeze well. So first we eat tarts with a pot of tea, and then we visit.

Lemon Maple Cranberry Butter Tarts

Here’s my adaptation of my Southern Ontario grandmother’s classic. Makes 2 dozen 3” tarts or 4 dozen small tartlets.


2 c. flour

¾ c. butter

salt to taste

½ c. ice water, more as needed


½ c. butter

½ c. brown sugar

¼ c. corn syrup

½ c. maple syrup

the juice and grated zest of 1 lemon

2 eggs

½ c. dried cranberries

1 t. vanilla

Pastry: combine flour, butter and salt on the counter until mealy. Add the water and mix gently, then smear “fraisage” once. Form into a disc and chill before using. Set oven at 400 F. Roll out pastry and cut circles to fit muffin pans or tart pans.

Filling: heat the butter and sugar until the butter melts, stirring. Combine the remaining ingredients and add the butter-sugar blend. Mix well, spoon the filling into the pastry-lined cups and put the tins onto baking sheets to catch any spills. Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 375 F and bake another 10-15 minutes. Cool in the pan.


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Grainews: First We Eat: Holiday Dining


I visited my sister and brother-in-law in the Toronto area for Thanksgiving this year, the first time, perhaps ever, that I wasn’t home to cook the feast for my favourite holiday. But even though I wasn’t in my home kitchen, food played as large a part as usual.

“We have errands,” my sister said soon after my arrival. “First, to the butcher’s.” Aha! One of my favourite errands! In my neck of the woods, a trip to the butcher’s means walking into a German smokehaus, the air redolent of pork and beef kissed by woodsmoke and time. But my relatives live in an Italian enclave, to their delight – both are opera lovers, and my sister has learned to speak Italian, and converses with the shopkeepers in their native tongue. So we visited her Italian butcher.

The shop was sparkling clean, and the selection of local meats looked inviting. After I chose some lamb shoulder for a tagine, the clerk brought out the real reason for our errand – a turkey roll, a tidy oval wrapped in netting. With only the two of them at the table, my rellies had given up on whole turkeys decades ago. Inside the netting, my sister explained, the boneless breast was rolled around olive paste made from black oil-cured olives. Was it in a spiral, I inquired, but she was unsure, even though the same butcher has been rolling and stuffing bird breasts for her for a dozen years. “Some years yes,” she explained, “some years not.”

Other stops included an Italian bakery, an Italian grocery, the farmers’ market, and finally, an Italian trattoria. My arms loaded with treviso, grana padano, espresso, carnaroli and fresh herbs, I gratefully realized I’d be eating the Italian version of local all week, from proscuitto and arugula pizza to porchetta.

On Thanksgiving, my sister roasted the turkey roll after we took a long riverside walk to exercise our apetites. When she pulled the roll from the oven along with all the vegetable dishes we’d created, the carving revealed this year’s olive paste in more a random stuffing than a pinwheel – not enough olive paste for my taste, even with the extra my sister had applied to the roll’s exterior to keep the lean meat moist. It was delicious, yes, but sometimes more really is better.

On reflection, my preference has tipped back to porchetta, the classic Italian roast made with pork that inspired my sister’s paler copycat. One advantage of a pork shoulder – composed of many muscle groups – over a turkey breast is that you can jam and cram your flavourings into cracks and crevices without thought of creating a pinwheel or not. Another advantage is that pork, lean as it has become, is still more luscious than breast of turkey. Fortunately for me, my sister agrees that some things are best in their orignal form. Next time they visit, I’ll roast porchetta. But first let’s eat, then perhaps another walk – to make room for leftovers.

 Piccolo Porchetta

A traditional porchetta means the whole porker, roasted on a spit. This smaller-scale shoulder roast delivers the same lush result in the oven. Serves 6-8

3-5 lb. pork shoulder butt roast, boneless

salt and freshly cracked pepper

1 head garlic, chopped

1 t. cracked fennel seed

2 t. chopped capers

2 lemons, zest only

1 T. chopped fresh rosemary

½ c. oil-cured olives, pitted and chopped, optional

potatoes and root vegetables

1 head garlic, in whole cloves

olive oil

Lay the pork shoulder on a flat surface, peeling back the seams to expose crevices and crannies, or butterflying it open. Season the meat with salt and pepper. Mix together all the other ingredients, then smear the mix over the exposed surfaces and into all available crevices. Roll up the roast, tie it with butcher twine and wrap it in wax or parchment paper. Refrigerate overnight. Next day, remove the meat from the fridge and preheat the oven to 375 F. Put the meat in a shallow roasting pan. Chop the potatoes and root vegetables, then roll them and the garlic in oil and season to taste before adding them to the pan. Cook uncovered for 1 hour, then reduce the heat to 350 C and roast for another 90 minutes or more, until the pork registers an internal temperature of 150 F. Let the roast rest at least 15 minutes or more, depending on size, before carving.




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Grainews: First We Eat: The Lake


Dave is mourning the passing of the lake that almost surrounded our house for seven years. It covered fifteen acres at its peak, in fact a large slough, but ‘lake’ dignified what was a difficult situation. And now he mourns its loss.

Our lake arrived suddenly and unannounced in April 2011 with the flood that inundated much of the province of Saskatchewan. We’d been in residence at what we’d named Dogpatch for less than a year, and we didn’t yet have a sense of the strategies that any resident of an old house in a rural setting can tell you are de rigueur.

We went from dryland to nearly drowned within a week, as the winter’s large snowmelt met an unexpectedly high water table, gift of a very wet summer and fall. Water over a meter deep in places covered the low-lying driveway, swamped the fields south, west and east of the yard, drowned the contents of the pole barn, and knocked at the house, lapping twenty feet from the front door.

Fortuitously, our cars were parked at the outside edge of our long driveway – that half-kilometer now an impassable stretch of water – so we did have wheels once we reached the road. But getting in and out was interesting. Our good neighbours, Ken and Sharon, did us the biggest in a long list of helping hands over the years, and gave us the use of an ATV.

For almost a year, as we awaited the rebuilding of our flooded road, we splashed through the adjacent field on board the ATV, hauling in groceries, computer parts and paper, dog food, kitty litter, wine, beer. On a dark, cold or rainy night, surrounded by mosquitoes, there was nothing pleasurable about that trip except for its end – and the carolling of the coyotes a few hundred meters away.

Eventually, in an amazing feat of winter engineering, the driveway was built up into a causeway, with front-end loaders breaking through meter-thick ice to build the foundation. A berm went up around the house as well, burying the well-tended garden beneath its protective shoulders.

But outweighing all these challenges was the sheer beauty of the new ecology that engulfed our land. Shore birds, water birds, boreal tree frogs, cattails, bullrushes, black snails, muskrats, dragonflies – we were suddenly in a birder’s paradise. On my daily walks, I learned to identify a dozen species of water fowl, among them grebes, coots, canvasbacks, teals, pintails, buffleheads, ruddy ducks, and mergansers; and shore birds that included avocets and killdeer by the dozen. Occasionally a blue heron or pelican showed up, and Canada geese by the multitude.

We were forewarned. Within weeks of the lake’s arrival, I’d called Trevor Herriot, a Saskatchewan naturalist. “Lakes come and go on the prairie,” he said. “In eight or ten years, it’ll be gone again.”

Sure enough, it’s gone. But the raised beds we built after the garden drowned have borne a wondrous crop. And for that, and for the memory of all those birds, we are grateful. So before embarking on our annual autumn yard cleanup, first we eat – new-crop vegetables made into pickles as addictive as any dessert.

Shon’s Jardineria

The best pickles ever, from my Eastend friend Shon Profit’s prodigious kitchen. Hot-packing and stuffing the full jars into the fridge without processing makes a crisp pickle with a dense bite. Processing softens the end result somewhat. Yield: 2 x 2 L + 8 pints


5 c. white vinegar

5 c. rice wine vinegar

10 c. water

¾ c. salt

1 c. white sugar

¾ t. ground turmeric

Dry spice:

for 2 L jar:                                                       for 1 pint jar:

1 T coriander                                                   ½ t. coriander

1 T mustard seed                                             ½ t. mustard seed

1 T cumin seed                                                ½ t. cumin seed

1 t. fennel seed                                                1/8 t. fennel seed

1 T. peppercorns                                              ½ t. peppercorns

½ t. hot chilli flakes                                        a pinch hot chilli flakes

Seasonings [in each 2 L jar; reduce amount to taste for pints]:

1 lime, rind in strips, flesh in 1/8s

1-2 whole hot peppers

6 peeled garlic cloves

6 batons ginger root cut in narrow strips 3” long

Your choice of raw vegetables [cut in batons to length]:

carrots in several colours

zucchini in 2 colours

beans in several colours

cauliflower florets

white/yellow & purple onion wedges

Bring brine to boil & keep hot. Measure spices into hot sterile jars. Drop in seasonings. Pack in vegetables, softest textures first, packing with a pair of chopsticks for a tidy vertical look. Add carrots last to line outside and fill gaps. Either refrigerate for 4-6 weeks before eating or process in canner.

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Grainews: First We Eat: Reasons for Cooking

On a Friday over lunch after our weekly trip to the farmer’s market, I asked Mom what her favourite desserts were. Her 82nd birthday was rolling around soon.  I’d already decided on the main course – cioppino, Mom’s favourite fish dish.  It’s a tomato-broth-based, Italian-derived fisherman’s stew that’s been part of our family’s repertoire since the mid-60s, when, Lila, Mom’s sister, moved to the San Francisco Bay area. (Simple, simple.  Make a big potful of an herb-scented tomato sauce rich with garlic, leeks and onion. Add a variety of sliced or diced fish and shellfish to the hot broth.  Frozen fish is fine.  Don’t overcook anything.  Serve with crusty bread to mop.  And napkins.)

“Cupcakes and berries with whipped cream,” Mom said in response, “or black forest cake,” (which is chocolate cake with cherries and whipped cream).  A theme had emerged.  I went home and rummaged my recipe file.  I decided on a trio, so everyone could have a choice (and more than one!): vanilla madeleines; red velvet cupcakes, devil’s food cupcakes.

Madeleines are made with a sponge cake batter. They are baked in dainty scalloped indentations, a shape meant to honour pilgrims, in a pan called a plaque. Well, pilgrims: that’s all of us, travelling through life. Muffin pans look plainer but work just fine if you don’t have the fancy scalloped pan.

When I was a little kid, Mom had shown me how to measure and sift, how to cream butter and sugar, how to shape cookies.  Later, she taught me to start spuds in cold water and green vegetables in boiling, how to roast a piece of beef, how to fry an egg.  She had no time or patience for anything fussy, but she did know the mechanics, if not the science, of cooking.

At the time, home cooking was still the norm. It should still be. I believe we owe it to ourselves to be able to feed ourselves. And we owe our kids the knowledge of how to feed themselves. It’s like swimming – a necessary life-skill. But it’s more than that: cooking gives me control over what I ingest. It’s the simplest and most effective form of control over our diets we have.

Another of the great things about being a good cook is that I can feed myself and my best beloveds.  And I don’t mean just knocking off batches of homemade granola for breakfast or tuna salad sandwiches for lunch.  Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those things – in fact, they are both staples in our home.  But I mean stuff I really want to make and eat – stuff I see in restaurants or online, and think, “Hey, let’s have that for supper!” (And usually at a fraction of the cost, and without the hassle of driving to town.)  You may find cupcakes – or madeleines – at the local bakery or farmer’s market, but this is a simple dish made the better for being homemade.  One of the greatest pleasures of cooking is observing someone I care about enjoy what I have created.  And sharing the meal.  So first we eat cake.  Then we open the presents.  Happy birthday, Mom.


This is made like a sponge cake batter. Chilling the buttered pan, then the batter-filled pan, ensures a higher rise, as does baking on a preheated baking sheet.  Madeleines really are best the same day they are baked, best warm, in fact; so make and chill the batter in advance, but don’t bake them until after your main course is eaten.

Makes 12 3½” madeleines

2 T. + ½ c. melted salted butter

2 large eggs

½ c. sugar

1 t. vanilla extract

2/3 c. flour

1 t. baking powder


Brush a madeleine pan with half the 2 T. butter.  Chill and repeat.  Chill.  If you don’t have a madeleine pan (plaque), line a full-size muffin pan with parchment cups, or butter and chill a mini-muffin pan.

Beat the eggs, sugar and vanilla on high speed for 5 minutes.  Sift the flour and baking powder.  Thoroughly fold the dry ingredients and remaining butter into the egg foam. Use two spoons or a piping bag to fill the pan’s indentations with batter.  Chill for an hour.

Place a baking sheet on the middle rack of the oven, then heat the oven to 425 C.  Remove batter-filled pan from fridge and put the chilled pan on the hot baking sheet in the oven.  Bake for 8 minutes for 3 ½” madeleines; briefer for 1 ½”; about 8-15 minutes for cupcakes, depending on size.

After you take the pan from the oven, use a small knife to remove them from pan.  Invert and serve warm.  These are good with a glaze (icing sugar mixed with coffee; icing sugar and lemon or orange juice; icing sugar, vanilla extract and water) or with whipped cream and fruit compote. Do as Marcel Proust and dip them in tea the morning after.





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Grainews: First We Eat – Gifts for Aging Parents

I recently spent a considerable amount of time perusing old photographs as I edited a vanity-press family history book written by my mother. When I showed Dave the wedding photo of my parents – taken sixty-three years ago – he confessed he would not have recognized the young and handsome couple in the image. He’s only known my folks for ten years; this year, my parents will both turn eighty-two. Continue reading

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