Category Archives: Culinary

Grainews: First We Eat: Holiday Dining

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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

Grainews

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

Brine:

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.

Madeleines

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

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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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Grainews: First We Eat – Baking with Shon

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When Mom learned that Dave and I were going to spend two weeks writing at Wallace Stegner House in Eastend, she said, “Make sure you say hi to Shon and Steve. They’re good folks.” So, soon after our arrival, I parsed the village’s streets, looking for evidence of potters. When I found a front yard decorated with pottery, I climbed the steps and knocked. Continue reading

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Grainews: First We Eat – Taking Stock

Grainews

Our globe tracks a circular route around the sun, and life often mimics that pattern. As does culture. Skirts go up and come down, narrow lapels and three buttons come in and out of style, high-waisted pants unaccountably return to favour from darkest Siberia. And crafts too, come in and out of fashion.

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Grainews: First We Eat – On Not Counting Cookies

Grainews 

I started baking at six, the same age I first climbed onto a horse. I was too short to mount a tall gelding unaided, and in the kitchen, I didn’t realize that what I wanted to make first – cookies – were among the most challenging of any sweet. Continue reading

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Grainews: First We Eat – Mating Rituals

Grainews
Dave and I celebrated a significant anniversary recently. We’d met in Banff, at a writing retreat. During that two-week span, he’d flirted shamelessly, held my chair, chatted me up, sat with me at meals, taken me swimming and to dinner, everything but serenaded me. For that, we waited ten years, and then it was an unlikely pair of romance experts who sang: porcupines. Continue reading

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Grainews: First We Eat – I am a runner

Grainews

I am a runner. When the weather allows, I run with my friend, Amy Jo Ehman, along the riversides and bridges of Saskatoon when I’m not scudding through the sand and gravel of our rural roads. Last fall, I ran my first ten-k trail race as a family event, with my youngest son and his partner, and in May, while those two run the marathon, I’ll run in the Vancouver Marathon’s 20-k half-marathon race.

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Grainews: First We Eat -Freezer Archaeology

Grainews

I was sitting at my neighbour Sharon’s kitchen counter on a Sunday morning, enjoying our weekly coffee. My puppy, Jake, fussed at my feet, his manners strained by my insistence on a “Down-stay,” so I didn’t hear what Sharon had said, just held out my empty mug for a refill and shrugged. Sharon, who has known me for nearly thirty years, poured more coffee and repeated her words. Continue reading

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