Tag Archives: Canadian cuisine

Canadiana, Part IV: Asparagus

Grainews

July 2022.

This year, May arrived suddenly, without fanfare, but with enough warmth for bare arms. Like many prairie gardeners relieved to finally – and abruptly – exit winter, I spent the sunny first day of the month cleaning up my garden beds.

To my delight, I found furled red knobs in the rhubarb patch, and sprigs of chives and green onions taking in the sun. As I raked and tidied and turned the compost, I mourned again the lost pop-up springtime bravery of my asparagus bed – the 2011 flood that had surrounded our home took my garden, the garden my mom and grandmother had planted and tended for decades.

These days, the asparagus patch, black currants, strawberries, and raspberry canes are buried beneath the berm that surrounds and protects our house. I now garden in raised beds and containers, which pose a whole new set of challenges in extremely hot and dry summers such as last year’s. Maybe this year, if my time and energy allows, I’ll dig a new bed, banish the quackgrass, and plant some asparagus crowns.

In the meantime, I wait patiently for local asparagus to arrive at the farmer’s market.

Asparagus is not a good keeper, so cook it the same day as you buy it. If it has to wait in the fridge for a day or two, stand it upright in a shallow glass of water. Prior to cooking, thick spears may require peeling, but thin stalks do not. Just bend the bottom ends, and they will snap off where the stalks turn fibrous.

Simultaneously grassy and sulphurous, asparagus stalks are a great finger food, and deserving of their own course at the table. Let everything else wait while you enjoy them – their season is so short, so sweet. How to dress up your spring fling is up to you and the degree of flash you want to inspire. Here are a few suggestions.

Instead of steaming, try roasting or grilling asparagus. Pop them onto a hot grill, and turn several times. They just take minutes, so don’t go far!  Oven-roasting – a single layer on a parchment-lined tray – is almost as quick in a very hot oven. In either case, oil lightly before cooking, then season with salt, pepper, and a drizzle of lemon juice as soon as they emerge from the heat.

For high flash value that’s good with champagne or a grassy Sauvignon Blanc as party food, wrap raw asparagus spears individually in slices of prosciutto. Up your game by adding a smudge of Boursin, herbed goat cheese, or a thin slice of Jarlsberg inside the packets before you roll them up. Roast quickly in a single layer in a hot oven. Drizzle with lemon juice just before serving.

Asparagus has a natural affinity for butter and eggs – what doesn’t? – and the licorice notes of tarragon or anise seed. To keep with the finger food motif, make a tarragon-blasted Bearnaise sauce, the classic brunch accompaniment. Add poached eggs and English muffins topped with bacon or smoked salmon, and you’ll hit a home run, albeit in knife-and-fork outfielder’s territory. Or combine the flavours in a tart, quiche-style, or in an omelet.

For a simpler, quickie version, crack a pinch of anise seed in a mortar and add to browned butter along with minced chives, lemon juice and zest, and drizzle over asparagus, poached egg optional.

Other flavour matches for asparagus include smoky-salty smoked salmon or BBQ/smoked pork, and mushrooms, especially meaty, musky morels. The spears also pair well with potatoes, and high-mountain Alpine cheeses like Emmenthal, Gruyere, and Compté. Lots of possibilities with those variants!

Toasted almonds chopped and sprinkled on asparagus spears in olive oil are also delicious. If you have any meat juices left over from a succulent roast, combine it with some good chopped black Nicoise olives and a squeeze of lemon juice, then spoon the mixture over cooked asparagus. Yum. Lots of choices, so short a season. First we eat, then we tend the garden.

Asparagus with Korean Peanut Sauce

Serve this dish alone or with jasmine rice, or with grilled salmon or pork. Serves 4.

1 lb. asparagus

1/3 c. sunflower oil, divided

salt + pepper to taste

¼ c. lemon juice + zest

¼ c. orange juice + zest

1 tsp. grated ginger root

1 Tbsp. light soy

1 Tbsp. roasted sesame oil

1 Tbsp. minced cilantro or chives

hot chili paste to taste

1 c. chopped toasted peanuts

Preheat the oven to 400 F or turn on the grill to medium-high. Brush the asparagus lightly with oil, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Combine the remaining oil with all other ingredients except the peanuts. Cook the asparagus for 5-7 minutes, depending on thickness, turning as needed. Dress immediately with the vinaigrette and top with the nuts. Serve warm or hot.

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Canadiana, Part III: Rhubarb, a Spring Tonic

Grainews

June 2022.

Few ingredients say “Canada” – or spring – as insistently as rhubarb. Rhubarb thrives in cool climates and is among the first plants to emerge in spring. My Mom has a rhubarb patch, like most prairie gardeners. She can’t keep up with it once it hits its stride, so I am the lucky beneficiary. The broad but inedible leaves are big enough to shelter entire families of runaway bunnies gone bamboo, and its pink stalks gleam like love grown wild. Astringent and biting, rhubarb is the ultimate spring tonic, arriving just as we tire of roots and long for shoots.

Technically a vegetable, rhubarb forms a virtual bridge from winter to spring, and thence into early summer. But think of it as a bridge between sweet and savoury too: simmered rhubarb makes good chutney, flavoured with ginger, dried fruit, apple or pear, citrus and onion, a bit of hot chili. This makes it a hot date for curries, spring rolls, or meats such as pork, beef, duck and salmon. Alternatively, use simmered rhubarb as a starting point for a lime-and-ginger-enhanced vinaigrette.

In the sweet kitchen, many cooks find rhubarb’s tart nature easier to bear in the company of less demanding fruits. Try mixing cooked rhubarb with raw strawberries, or with apples or pears, or apricots and peaches later in the season. But in spite of its acid bite, the taste of rhubarb is surprisingly mild, so don’t overwhelm it. Spearmint and lemon thyme are good herbal accents, if sparingly used.

When facing a particularly prolific rhubarb plant, make buckwheat crepes, galettes, chutney, tarts and jams, crisps and cobblers, buckles, muffins and sweet loaves. And pie. Rhubarb was known for generations as “pie plant”, and makes stellar pie, especially when paired with strawberries and/or apples and cranberries. Stewed with sugar and perhaps another fruit, served with heavy cream, it’s called a fool. Try rhubarb slushies, made with stewed and frozen rhubarb mushed up in ginger ale. Add ice cream for a refreshing float. Or simmer and strain sweetened rhubarb seasoned with cinnamon, allspice, cloves, peppercorns, and ginger. Give the syrup to your favourite bartender, or use the resulting syrup to make an old-style non-alcoholic shrub, a surpassingly springlike refreshment.

Regardless of what you plan, choose firm ruby stalks for the best colour. The colour will fade during cooking, but returns if you partially simmer the stalks, whole or sliced, and leave the rhubarb to finish softening in its own liquid. Peeling or not peeling depends on the thickness and fibre of the stalks. Adding the minimum of honey, maple syrup or sugar to tame its astringency helps rhubarb keep its shape, as does cutting it into longer lengths or leaving it whole during cooking, without stirring.

Whatever direction you go with this prairie favourite, remember there’s no place like home. Rhubarb holds pride of place in Prairie kitchens. So first we eat, then keep that fork. There’s pie. Or cobbler. Or crisp. Or buckle.

      Rhubarb Berry Buckle

      Nothing says SPRING! as loudly as rhubarb. This spectacular stresuel-topped coffee cake

      does indeed buckle a bit after baking. Garnish each serving with optional simmered fruit

      compote and whipped cream. Serves 12

      streusel topping:

¼ cup softened butter

¼ cup brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

½  tsp. ground cinnamon

3/8 cup flour

½ cup rolled oats

batter:

1 cup flour

1 tsp. baking soda

¼  tsp. salt

½ cup unsalted butter

1 cup sugar

3 eggs

1 tsp. vanilla

1 lemon, zest only

1 ½ cups yoghurt or sour cream

1 cup berries

1 cup chopped rhubarb

¼ cup minced crystallized ginger

fruit compote and whipped cream for garnish

To make topping: Combine ingredients and mix together by hand. Set aside. Preheat oven to 375 F. Lightly butter a 9” springform pan or 2 loaf pans.

Combine flour, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. Use a countertop mixer to cream butter and sugar in a large bowl. Add eggs, vanilla, and zest. Mix until combined. Add half the dry ingredients and mix until combined. Add half the yoghurt or sour cream and mix until combined. Repeat with remaining dry ingredients and yoghurt/sour cream, finishing with a bit of flour.

Stir half of the berries and rhubarb and all of the ginger into the batter. Spread batter into pan(s). Top with remaining berries and rhubarb. Crumble streusel on top. Bake for 60 minutes or until cake springs back when lightly touched in center. Slice and serve warm with whipped cream and compote.

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Canadiana, Part II: Nanaimo Bars

Grainews

May 2022.

I lived in Vancouver in my twenties. Yaletown didn’t exist yet, other than as hulking rows of empty warehouses to be bicycled past quickly. Granville Island was an industrial wasteland, the Fairview Slopes didn’t slope anywhere, and False Creek was still a reclamation project. Elsewhere in town, the Ridge Theatre became known as the city’s repertory theatre, home to second run and art-house films. It showed midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, classics like Casablanca, and weeks-long series by Kurosawa and Hitchcock.

Going to the Ridge was a one-screen double-bill trip. The popcorn dripped with butter, and the concession stand’s most famous offering was Nanaimo bars from The Lazy Gourmet, owned by Susan Mendelsen and her then-partner, Deborah Roitberg. Susan started selling the bars to pay her way through a social work degree. Since then, The Lazy Gourmet has celebrated over 40 years of catering in Vancouver. Susan’s first book, Mama Never cooked Like This, was a joyful celebration, including Nanaimo bars. Susan included the recipe in her Expo 1986 cookbook as well, sealing its fate as a Canadian classic.

The Nanaimo bar, a 70-year-old Canadian dainty, has cracked the bastion of “old-money” food, the New York Times food pages. In 2019, writer Sara Bonisteel called it “a geological cross section… Its base is sedimentary…[with] a buttery silt… yellow buttercream… on the brink of liquefaction. And its top crust of chocolate… thaws like the Arctic tundra.”

Scholar L.L. Newman, who exhaustively researched the history of the Nanaimo bar, learned that the sweet was first mentioned in print in the 1947 Vancouver Sun, likely developed by a member of the Nanaimo Hospital Auxiliary, and published in that group’s 1952 community cookbook. It appeared in The Sun again in 1953, where it was also called “London Smog”, in a recipe contest under the paper’s “Edith Adams” moniker. It was most likely a mill town recipe, having first appeared in Nanaimo and across the Georgia Straits in Milltown. It has become an iconic Nanaimo bakery item that lures tourists to explore the city’s “Nanaimo bar trail” in pursuit of the best bar.

Prairie cooks had a similar sweet, also called “London Smog,” that appeared on dainty trays at midnight suppers and wedding lunches. Prairie cookbook author Jean Paré included Nanaimo bars in the first book of her long-running Company’s Coming series, 150 Delicious Squares. From Drumheller to Nova Scotia, the Nanaimo bar appeared under pseudonyms like Mabel’s Squares and Victoria Specials in cookbooks and on home tables.

Nanaimo bars are indicators of the era’s faith in newly emerged processed imported foods: Bird’s custard powder, Baker’s chocolate, Fry’s cocoa, Graham crackers, Tropic coconut. With ingredients like that, it’s hard to make the case for Nanaimo bars as a Canadian classic, but as Margaret Fraser of Canadian Living once wrote, we know that at some point a Canadian cook came up with it. So first we eat, then a brisk walk – those bars are rich!

Susan Mendelson’s Nanaimo Bars

Adapted from The CanLit Cookbook, compiled by Margaret Atwood in 1987. I recently made these as a birthday gift for my nephew. Susan will forgive me for doubling the cocoa, deepening the custard centre, and sprinkling Maldon salt on top! Makes 1 8” x 8” pan/ 36 squares.

Layer 1:

½ cup butter

¼ cup sugar

1 egg

1 tsp. vanilla

2 Tbsp. cocoa

2 cups graham cracker crumbs

1 cup shredded coconut

½ cup chopped nuts

Layer 2:

3/8 cup butter

¼ cup + 2 Tbsp. milk or cream

3 cups icing sugar

3 Tbsp. custard powder

Layer 3:

4 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, chopped

2 Tbsp. butter

a sprinkling of flaky salt (Maldon)

Line an 8” x 8” pan with enough parchment that it hangs over by 2’ on all sides.

Combine the butter, sugar, egg, vanilla and cocoa in a double boiler over simmering water. Whisk well until it thickens, then add the  crumbs, coconut and nuts. Mix well, and pack firmly into the pan, pressing down with the back of a spoon. Chill for 15 minutes.

Cream the butter in a mixer, then add the milk or cream and mix well – it will look curdled. Scrape down, then add half the icing sugar and the custard powder. Mix on slow to combine. Add the remaining icing sugar, blend to combine, then beat on high speed for 3 minutes until fluffy. Spread over the bottom layer, smoothing with a small palette knife. Chill for 15 minutes.

Melt the chocolate and butter over simmering water or in a microwave on 75 percent power for 1 minutes. Stir well, then smooth over the second layer. Sprinkle scantly with salt and chill.

Remove the square as a whole from the pan by lifting the parchment and placing on a cutting surface. Slice into small squares with a large knife, cleaning it under hot water in between slices.

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Southeast Asian II: Thai Panang Curry

Grainews

April 2022.

When talking about Thai food on Parts Unknown, the late Tony Bourdain said, “It was like discovering a colour I never knew existed before. A whole new crayon box full of colours.” Bourdain loved Thailand, and had the means to visit it repeatedly. Lucky man. But his life was tougher than we could see on our TV screens. I am grateful for his books and TV shows, some of which are on YouTube.

I have not yet been to Thailand. I would love to ride in a tuk tuk – “a golf cart crossbred with a rickshaw,” said Bourdain as he approached the Night Bazaar in an episode of A Cook’s Tour set in the city of Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. I want to wander the bazaars, eat street food, revel in the warm air laden with moisture, the smells and scents and sights of the tropics.

Northern Thai cuisine resonates with my palate because its components emphasize hot, sour, sweet, bitter, and salty. Other contrasts include texture – soft/crunchy – and temperature – cold/hot. Bright fruit like mangoes add vibrancy and sweetness.

Here are a few distinctive ingredients for those Thai moments. Look in the Asian produce section of your grocery, or in an Asian market. As a last resort, try online shopping and mail-order shipping, but it’s high-risk for anything fragile and fresh.

Coconut milk and coconut cream add their unmistakable notes to sauces, rice, and soups.

Ginger root and its cousin, galangal, add richness, pungency, underlying spiciness, and a suggestion of citrus. Ginger is as aromatic as it is flavourful. Mince or grate it on a medium rasp and leave the threads behind.

Jasmine and sticky rice are both short-grained, similar to arborio, which you can substitute in a pinch.

To cook rice noodles, thin or wide, soak in boiling water for about 5 minutes, then add to the finished dish. Rice noodles disintegrate when reheated.

Thai fish sauce is the same as Vietnamese, made from fermented small fishes and used as a salt condiment added at the end of cooking. It adds irreplaceable umami.

Dried shrimp or shrimp paste add another form of salt underwritten by a hint of the sea.

Some herbs such as cilantro and spearmint (use spearmint, not peppermint), and others may be similar to what you already grow or purchase, such as holy basil or lemon basil. Grow them yourself – they all are generous and easy to grow in season – or buy fresh.

Makrut (formerly known as kaffir) lime leaves add an intensely herbal citrus aroma that is irreplaceable. Buy them fresh or frozen, not dried. Look online for several good mail-order sources as a last resort. Triple-bag the leaves and store in the freezer. My fave.

Lemon grass, too, is herbal and citrusy. Buy dense stalks and discard the tough external leaves, bottom, and top. Mince, smash, or use bruised larger pieces that can be easily removed in infusions and broths.

Tamarind is sweet and tart, its paste messy to separate from its pits, so I buy a good tamarind chutney at my favourite South Asian store.

First we eat Panang curry, then we talk about how to make other good curry pastes.

Panang Curry

Use turkey, chicken, fish, shrimp, tofu… It’s true that Mae Ploy makes good Panang and Massaman pastes, much quicker and easier than building a paste from scratch. But here’s the full Monty. Serves 6

Curry paste:

3 Tbsp. soy

1 Tbsp. chili powder

4 Tbsp. fish sauce

1 Tbsp. dried shrimp paste

2 Tbsp. sweet paprika

1 Tbsp. ground coriander

1 Tbsp. ground cumin

1 or 2 hot red chillies

½ tp. ground cinnamon

1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg

1/8 tsp. ground cloves

Sauce and protein:

1 Tbsp. vegetable oil

1 small onion, minced

6 cloves garlic, minced

¼ cup minced or grated ginger

¼ cup tomato paste

4 makrut (kaffir) lime leaves

4 boneless chicken thighs or breasts, cubed

2 bell peppers, cubed

2 tins coconut milk

2 Tbsp. tamarind paste

the juice of 1 or 2 limes

salt to taste

Garnish:

fresh cilantro, holy or lemon basil, or spearmint leaves

chopped peanuts

Combine all the paste ingredients and set aside. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the onion, garlic and ginger. Saute, then stir in the tomato paste and curry paste. Mix well and sauté, stirring, for several minutes. Add the lime leaves, chicken, peppers, and coconut milk. Cover and simmer until tender. Season to taste with tamarind paste, lime juice, and salt. Garnish and serve with jasmine or coconut rice.

Note: Massaman Curry (a corruption of “Muslim” and originating with 17-century Muslim trading history in southern Thailand) offers an early example of fusion cooking – Thai food influenced by Malay and Persian/Indian cuisine. To the Panang paste, add sparing amounts of ground spices such as star anise, coriander, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, bay leaves, minced lemongrass, and turmeric, along with toasted and ground cashews, peanuts, or peanut butter. It’s best with red meats.

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Southeast Asian I: Vietnamese pho

Grainews

April 2022.

We are so fortunate in Canada to have arrivals from around the globe to teach us about seasoning our tables. Lucky for us, food is one of the best tools for welcoming people and sharing experiences. The foods of Southeast Asia – Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam – are worlds apart from what those of us of European extraction grew up with. Learning to utilize ingredients and tastes from across the globe will undoubtedly make us all better cooks and maybe even better global citizens.

Stocking our Vietnamese pantry has become easier since 1975-76, when Canada welcomed 6,500 of the many Vietnamese refugees who fled the region’s deteriorating conditions after the Vietnam War. A few years later, as the situation in Indochina worsened, Canada accepted 60,000 Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian refugees. According to the 2016 Canadian Census, of over three million arrivals from South and Southeast Asia, over 240,000 Canadians claim Vietnamese origins.

Vietnamese food is dairy-free and subtly seasoned. In your Asian aisle or market, stock up on nuoc mam (fish sauce), a salty and pungent sauce derived from dried anchovies that serves as a salt condiment, like soy sauce in Chinese cooking. Store it in the fridge. Also buy dried rice noodles in several thicknesses, plus hot chili paste, ginger, star anise, fresh limes. Fresh herbs like mint, basil and cilantro can almost be thought of as greens, used by handfuls.

You may recall from a previous column that back in the day my boys looked forward to the early dismissal from school that we all called “noon dismal.” It wasn’t just busting loose from class that my sons relished. They also liked the associated field trip to the recycling depot, followed by lunch at our favourite Vietnamese restaurant.  That experience from an early age helped shape their wide tastes in food. Both my boys, now adults, love the slurpy soups and rice noodle dishes with the subtle-to-heated seasoning of Southeast Asia, in particular the coat of many colours that is Vietnamese pho. First we eat a bowl of soup, and then we can talk about other ways to season the pot.

North Vietnamese Pho

In situ in northern Vietnam, pho is traditionally made with beef, often slow-cooked tendon, for really beefy taste. But my boys and I fell in love with pho made with chicken, so here’s another chicken noodle soup for your cold-weather pantry. The broth is subtly seasoned with ginger, star anise and cinnamon. The soup’s internal garnishes are noodles, vegetables, and the protein can vary – here I use poached chicken. The rice noodles are best added the day you plan to eat the soup because they deconstruct if they sit in leftover broth overnight. If all you have is linguini, by all means swap it in, but the texture will be different. Don’t forget the table garnishes; they are crucial. Optionally make it more south Vietnamese by adding curry paste at the beginning, and coconut milk and peanut butter at the end. Serves 4

Broth:

2 quarts chicken stock

4 whole star anise

2 cinnamon sticks

oil for the pan

2 large onions, sliced

6-8 slices fresh ginger

1 head garlic, peeled

1-3 hot chiles, optional

Soup:

3 large chicken breasts, skinless and boneless

salt to taste

½ lb. medium-width dried rice noodles

3 small bok choy, quartered

3 large carrots, thinly sliced on the bias

1 cup chopped broccoli

1 cup chopped cauliflower

¼ cup nuam mam (fish sauce)

the juice of 2 lemons

Table garnishes:

lime wedges

hot chili paste

fresh cilantro leaves

fresh mint or Thai or holy basil leaves

mung bean sprouts

hoisin paste, optional

soy sauce, optional

Heat the stock with the star anise and cinnamon in a large pot. Lightly oil a sauté pan and heat it, then add half the sliced onion and all the ginger, garlic and optional chilies, and sauté until well browned. Transfer the aromatics to the poaching liquid. Cover and simmer for an hour. Strain and discard the solids.

Salt the chicken to taste, then add to the broth. Cover and poach at an active simmer until cooked through, about 20 minutes. Check for doneness, and cook additionally if not yet done. When the chicken is cooked through, remove, cube into bite-size pieces, cover with a ladle of broth, and keep warm.

Bring about 4 cups of water to a boil. Put the rice noodles into a large bowl and cover with the boiling water. Let stand for about 5 minutes, or until soft, pulling them apart as they soften. Drain.

While the noodles soften, add the vegetables to the broth and cover. Simmer until as tender as desired. Add the chicken, noodles, nuoc mam, lemon juice and salt to taste. Ladle into bowls. Pass around the table garnishes for each diner to add to taste.

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South Asian Favourites: Part III, Vegetables Front & Centre

Grainews

March 2022.

I moved to Vancouver from rural Saskatchewan when I turned 18, landing in an Edwardian house with two roommates on the East Side. I’d grown up on my Germanic mother’s honest meat and spuds, but the West Coast was a popular destination for immigrants, and I lucked into a South Asian enclave – shops and restaurants selling gorgeous clothing, fabric, ingredients, and foods. I was a student, money was tight, and I took to the cuisine like I’d been born to it. Part of the attraction was the warm spices – cumin, cloves, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon. Part was the emphasis on vegetable-forward food. I learned to fill my pot with lentils, basmati, and chickpeas, my glass with lhassi, my cup with chai.

The attraction hasn’t faded. I have been fortunate in learning from chefs and cooks who know more than I about the food of this vast subcontinent.

Jyubeen and Mittal Kacha took the long road from Mumbai to Canada, and after a brief foray in Swift Current, now run a small restaurant in Saskatoon called Urban Spice. Equal parts cumin, coriander, and courage brought the couple to Saskatchewan. What Jyubeen wanted was small town life for his wife and kids. “It’s safe. People know each other,” he observes. “We didn’t want a big city hustle.”

Jyubeen, who cooked professionally in India and attended cooking school in New Zealand, served stints as a flight services caterer in Mumbai, a Disney Cruiselines waiter, and a hotel supervisor at England’s Heathrow Airport, before arriving in Toronto to polish his food and nutrition skills at George Brown College. He creates elegant and flavourful food; Mittal works front of house.

His lamb korma is a succulent blend of onions, cashews, cream and the trinity of coriander, cumin and mustard seed, its complexity enriched with a double handful of spices (look for it in my previous column!). Palak paneer is rich and nuanced, pureed spinach, onions, and spices mellowed by house-made fresh cheese. Aloo gobi sparkles up cauliflower and potatoes with fresh ginger and cumin; dal tadka is lentils brightened with mustard seeds and curry leaves. Like the Moghul Emperor Akbar’s favourite dish, navratan, made with a mix of nine vegetables and fruits in honour of “nine jewels in the court” (nine wise advisors), this cuisine is polished. First we eat, then we move on to Southeast Asia.

Palak Paneer

Jyubeen’s version can be made with palak (spinach), mustard greens, amaranth, chard, or other greens. The creamy paneer is spooned into the spinach mixture at the last minute, where it melts into the sauce. Serve with basmati rice. Serves 4.

paneer:

3 cups milk

1 cup whipping cream

6 lemons, juice only

onion sauce:

2 Tbsp. butter, vegetable oil, or ghee

1 tsp. cumin seed

1 tsp. mustard seed

2 bay leaves

2 onions, minced

4 cups (2 – 3 large bunches) fresh spinach leaves or chard, stalks cut out and chopped, leaves reserved

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 Tbsp. minced ginger root

salt to taste

½ tsp (2 mL) turmeric

1 tsp. ground coriander

1 tsp. mild paprika or chili powder

2 tomatoes, chopped

2 tsp. garam masala

the juice of 1 lemon

spearmint and cilantro leaves for garnish

To make the paneer, bring milk and cream to a full boil. Add lemon juice and let stand for ten minutes. Place a sieve above a large bowl and line the sieve with a clean kitchen cloth or several layers of cheesecloth. Pour the mixture through the sieve, discard the whey and transfer the full sieve sitting on the emptied bowl to the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

To make the sauce, heat the butter, oil, or ghee in a sauté pan and add the cumin, mustard and bay when the pan is hot. Cook for a minute over medium-high heat, then add the onion.  If using chard, cut out the stalks, chop up, reserving the leaves. Add stalks to the pan. Sauté for five to ten minutes. When they soften and begin to colour, season sparingly with salt.

Add the garlic and ginger, turmeric, coriander, paprika or chili powder and tomatoes. Reduce the heat, mix well, stir in a little water to prevent sticking, and add the garam masala. Cook on medium-high heat until tomatoes soften and sauce thickens, about 30 minutes. Add a little water to thin to sauce consistency and puree using an immersion wand or food processor. Keep warm.

Wash the greens leaves, drain but do not spin dry, then puree in a food processor with just the water that clings to the leaves.  Add the puree to the onion sauce, bring to a boil and adjust the seasoning with salt and lemon juice. Take the paneer from the fridge and use two teaspoons to scoop it into the sauce. Heat through, stirring very gently. Serve garnished with spearmint

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South Asian Favourites: Part II, Learning to Love Lamb

Grainews

March 2022.

My Saskatchewan-raised mom never served lamb while I was growing up.  She hadn’t eaten it as a child or young woman, and as a result, I didn’t learn to love lamb until I was in my thirties and living in Calgary. Sheep have been a presence in Alberta since the late 1800’s, when thousands of black-faced Merinos were herded north from Montana to Cochrane. The woolly newcomers proved hardy and adaptable to the Alberta climate. In fact, sheep ranchers and cattle ranchers had regular disagreements about grazing rights; the cattle ranchers claimed that sheep grazed the grass too closely to the soil, leaving nothing for other animals. In other parts of the world, sheep were frequently sent to graze in forests as a natural fire preventative. But in Alberta, the legislature of the time enacted a controversial bill that limited sheep grazing in Alberta, prohibiting the animals from the southern international border to as far north as the Bow River in 1884.

Nowadays, dozens of breeds of sheep graze Alberta’s hills and flatlands from Peace River to Pincher Creek, and to a lesser extent across the rest of western Canada, including several breeds of “hair” sheep. These breeds, including Barbados Black-bellied, Dorper, and Katahdin, are lanolin-free. Lanolin is what gives lamb and mutton its characteristic taste and aroma, and without wool or lanolin, the meat is noticeably milder.

My family and I are not alone in our lamb love affair. Lamb consumption in Canada is on the rise, reflecting the changing nature of Canada and a growing population of new arrivals arriving from many regions that have an ensconced tradition of lamb consumption. This gives cooks a wide window of how to season lamb: the classic dictum of “What grows together goes together” is a good guide. Rosemary, lavender, thyme, and oregano flourish on southern European hillsides, where lamb is prized, so use any or all. Mediterranean cuisines from both sides of the sea feature lamb: Greek lamb is simply rubbed and roasted with lemon, oregano, olive oil and garlic; North African lamb tagine can be spiked with dried apricots and cumin. Olive tapenade or garlic aioli with smoked paprika are delicious with rosemary-scented lamb burgers. Spices, coconut milk and makrut (kaffir) lime leaves, or cumin, coriander, turmeric, and the other warm spices of the curry palette reflect lamb’s presence in the diets of the Middle and Far East.

To find locally-raised lamb, read the menu at your favourite restaurant and ask who supplies the kitchen, visit independent butchers or farmers’ markets, and browse the internet using key words like “local lamb” and your province’s name. When possible, order direct from the producer. First we eat, then we discuss what to serve with lamb.

Lamb Korma

Mumbai-born chef Jyubeen Kacha adds ground cashews as a thickening agent that adds mouthfeel to this lush braise. If you are not a lamb fan, substitute turkey legs or chicken thighs. Like most braises, this dish reheats well. Serve with basmati rice and naan. Serves 6.

2 Tbsp. butter, vegetable oil or ghee

1 tsp. cumin seed

1 tsp. mustard seed

2 bay leaves

kosher salt to taste

2 onions, minced

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 Tbsp. minced ginger root

½ tsp. turmeric

1 tsp. ground coriander

1 tsp. chili powder

2 tomatoes, chopped

2 tsp. garam masala

3 cups stock (chicken, beef or vegetable)

3 lb. lamb shoulder, cubed

kosher salt and pepper to taste

½ cup whole-milk yoghurt (optional)

½ cup finely ground cashews (optional)

the juice of 1 lemon

spearmint and cilantro leaves for garnish

Heat the butter, oil or ghee in a sauté pan and add the cumin, mustard and bay. Cook for a minute over medium-high heat, then add the onions. Sauté for five to ten minutes. When they soften and begin to colour, season sparingly with salt.

Add the garlic and ginger with a pinch of salt, turmeric, coriander, chili powder and tomatoes. Reduce the heat, stir in a little water as needed to prevent sticking, and add the garam masala. Cook on medium-high heat until sauce thickens.

Add the stock and meat. Season with salt and pepper to taste and bring to a boil. 

Cut a circle of parchment paper the same diameter as the pot and place it snugly directly on top of the liquid and meat, then cover securely. Reduce heat to a simmer.  Cook for 2 hours or until tender.

Remove lid, stir well, and boil briskly to thicken if the sauce is too thin.

Add the optional yoghurt and cashews and reheat gently. Adjust seasoning with lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot with mint leaves or cilantro as garnish.

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South Asian Favourites: Part I, Pakoras

Grainews

February 2022.

When I told her I thought I was a changeling, my mom laughed out loud. “With those eyes? Those cheeks? That chin? You are the spitting image of your aunt Lila.”

It’s true. In the mirror, I see my family staring back, just as when I look at my sons, I see my dad’s face. There’s no doubt that we are related. I recall taking my youngest son, still a babe in arms, and his brother, then four, out for noodles in our favourite Vietnamese restaurant. A stranger stopped at our booth as we ate our pho. “Your children are your clones,” she said, laughing. “You all three look so alike.”

My sons and I still eat pho together. We have flavours in common too, separated only by the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea. My boys lean towards southeast Asian ingredients, while I cook South Asian (Indian) dishes as my go-to.

That makes all three of us culinary changelings. While we like foods in the Euro style, we love cumin, ginger, garlic, coconut milk, mint, lime, coriander, basil. These seasonings are common to the cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam, and parts of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

One gift I gave this past Christmas was my own garam masala, the personalized spice blend I make to use in Indian dishes. How? Cumin seed, coriander seed, fennel seed, shelled green cardamom pods, peppercorns, mustard seed, anise seed, whole star anise, fenugreek, stick cinnamon, whole cloves and allspice, all dry-roasted and ground, then mixed with sweet paprika, chili powder, and turmeric. But listen up: garam masala is easy to make in bulk, but share it with spice-loving friends, as ground spices go stale more quickly than whole.

In fact, that tip – start with whole spices – is extra-important when making the foods of South Asia. It doesn’t mean that you have to roast and grind spices each time you cook, but if you do make your own garam masala instead of using commercial curry powders or spice blends, your food will have so much more flavour!

Masala means spice mixture. It applies to chai, or tea. Chai masala is the perfect conclusion to an Indian meal, although I drink it beforehand too. This blend of black tea steeped with milk and whole spices – cinnamon sticks, cracked green cardamom pods, cloves, nutmeg, star anise – can season panna cotta, ice cream or crème caramel, or it can be ground, with or without the tea, for use in cheesecakes and spice cakes, poaching liquids and beverages, tarts and cookies.

The next few columns will serve some favourite South Asian dishes, starting with a vegetarian appetizer that we have been known to eat for supper all on its own. Pakoras are fritters served with chutney. Once you make pakoras at home, you will have an indelible benchmark of quality to evaluate any you eat at restaurants. First we eat fritters, then we discuss spices.

Vegetable Pakoras with Mint Chutney

Bound with chickpea flour and buttermilk (or coconut milk if you are vegan), the vegetables in pakoras can vary: some restaurants use mostly potato, an inexpensive choice, to which I add cauli and carrots, peppers, zucchini, and sometimes cooked and chopped chickpeas. Makes many.

3 cups chickpea flour                                                           

1 jalapeno, seeded and minced, optional

1 Tbsp. minced fresh mint or cilantro                               

salt to taste

1 Tbsp. homemade garam masala or curry powder

1 Tbsp. olive oil                                                        

½ tsp. lemon juice                                                                

2 cups             buttermilk, more as needed

3 large potatoes, julienned

1 onion, thinly sliced

1 zucchini, shredded

1 bell pepper, cut in strips

½ cauliflower, small florets

1 Tbsp. minced garlic

1 Tbsp. minced ginger root                                     

vegetable oil for pan-frying

Mint or Cilantro Chutney

Stir together the dry ingredients, then add the liquids. The batter should be fairly loose. Add the vegetables and seasonings. Mix only until blended.

Pour oil to a depth of ½” into a wide, shallow heavy-bottomed pan. Heat to 350F. Check for heat by carefully splashing a few drops of water into the oil: when it sizzles immediately, the oil is hot enough. Set a paper-lined tray close by.

Using a pair of spoons, drop spoonfuls of batter carefully into the hot fat from as close to the surface as possible to avoid splashing. Do not overcrowd the pan; a single layer, with room between the fritters, is ideal to maintain an even temperature. Use spring-loaded tongs to turn each fritter once as it becomes golden. Cook on second side, then remove to the tray. Serve hot with dip.

Fresh Mint or Cilantro Chutney

Serve with pakoras, curry, seafood and lamb dishes. Makes about 2 cups.

1 cup packed cilantro or mint leaves, stalks discarded

4 green onions

½ cup flatleaf parsley

1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped, or hot chili paste to taste

2 garlic cloves, peeled

2 slices ginger root

¼ cup lemon juice

1 tsp. garam masala

3 Tbsp. sugar

salt to taste

½ -1 cup water or orange juice

Puree solids in food processor, then add liquid.

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Becoming a Better Cook II: Umami

Grainews

January 2022.

The four tastes – sweet, salty, sour, bitter  — underpin every dish we eat. Smart cooks reach routinely for a bit of honey, a smidgeon of salt, a splash of lemon, or a drop of bitters to balance a dish, and fat too, like butter, oil, or whipping cream. Asian and Latin cooks add pungent spicy-hot chilies. Add the taste bomb called umami [pronounced oo-MA-mee], and the result is food so lick-smackingly yummy that my mouth wants to get up and sing of its own accord.

Umami the word and the concept are Japanese, translated variously as “savoury,” “essence,”  “deliciousness,” “especially satisfying,” or, most poetically, “more-ishness.”

Umami is best known as the dominant ingredient in the flavour-enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG). It is the leading culprit in the infamous Chinese Restaurant Syndrome of flushed face, elevated heartrate, and nausea, although, according to the Mayo Clinic, and food scientist Harold McGee, toxicologists have concluded MSG is a harmless ingredient for most people.

But umami refers to the taste of glutamates that naturally occur in a wide variety of foods, including fermented and aged foods like Worcestershire sauce, Parmesan and Roquefort cheeses, soy sauce, anchovies, Marmite, dried mushrooms, and fermented fish sauce. Add them routinely to your food for an extra blast of yum. As well, if you eat aged beef, cured meats like prosciutto, stinky old cheese, or miso soup, or if you drink good red wine, you experience umami pretty much in a pure form.

Umami dates back to 1907, when a Japanese chemist discovered that kombu seaweed formed crystals of glutamate – an abundant amino acid – for a taste neither sweet, sour, salty or bitter, but savoury, rich and meaty. He christened the new taste umami; in Japanese, umai means delicious, and mi  means essence. Naturally, there was money to be made, and in 1909, a Japanese company began making and selling MSG made from wheat protein. Then another scientist reported finding umami in the dried bonito tuna flakes used to make dashi (broth); and between 1950 – 1970, more forms of umamai were found in mushrooms, sake, shellfish, wine, and beef broth.

But we often use the terms “taste” and “flavour” interchangeably (“The vanilla ice cream tastes good” and “I like the salty flavour of clams”), so umami and the other tastes may seem complicated. It helps to remember that “taste” generally refers to stimuli directly affecting the tongue, and “flavour” is taste plus aroma. To put it simply, taste happens in the mouth, aroma happens in the nasal cavity, and flavour happens when the two sensations meet in the brain.

There are other flavour/taste complications. Some things, like cranberries, red wine, coffee, and black tea, contain tannins, sometimes so astringent that mouths go all puckery. Substances containing capsaicin, the searing chemical in chile peppers, cause a burning sensation. Substances sensed as cooling are found in menthol or camphor (cloves); as well, research into fat has revealed a potential taste receptor that responds to foods rich in fat. All of this complicates what originally looked like the simple act of balancing a dish. So in comparison, it’s easy to speak umami’s language even with your mouth full. If first we eat, then we say, “Yum! That tastes more-ish!” we just had a blast of umami.

Umami Meatloaf

When I began reading about umami two decades ago, I realized that I had instinctively relied on umami for much of my professional cooking career. My meatloaf is a good example. Serves 8 with leftovers.

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

6 garlic cloves, minced

1 onion, minced

1 Tbsp. paprika

½ tsp. smoked paprika

8-10 mushrooms, minced

1 tsp. dried oregano

½ tsp. dried thyme

1 red bell pepper

2 eggs

2 lb. lean ground beef

1 lb. ground pork

1 cup fine bread crumbs

3 Tbsp. soy sauce

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce

½ cup minced parsley

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Set oven to 350 F. Heat the oil, add the garlic, sauté, then add onions and paprika. Sauté for about 5 minutes, then add the mushrooms and sauté another 3 minutes. Add the thyme and oregano. Let cool.

Put the bell pepper into the flame of a gas stove or under a broiler. When it blackens, transfer it to a bowl, cover, and let steam a few minutes. Peel and discard the skin and seeds, then mince.

Combine all ingredients. Mix gently by hand. Line a sheet pan with parchment, manually shape the loaf directly on the pan, and place in the oven. Bake 1 hour, or until internal temperature registers 140F. Let rest 15 minutes before slicing.

Umami-rich Ingredients:

As a starter kit, buy Asian fish sauce, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, canned tomatoes, Parmesan, Marmite, and dried shiitake mushrooms.

Umami is also present in:

vegetables and nuts: dried peas and legumes, mature potatoes, tomatoes, red bell peppers, squash, walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds;

sea vegetables: kombu, arame, wakame, dulse, nori, kelp;

mature meats and poultry: long-cooked duck or turkey; braised tougher cuts of beef like brisket, shank, chuck; pork, cured pork products like Spanish jamon, Italian prosciutto, and bacon; veal and venison; organ meats; all slow-simmered protein-based stocks;

eggs, dairy products; goat and sheep cheeses; older, complex cheeses: brie, gouda, emmenthal, cheddar, hard aged cheeses like Parmesan, blue-veined cheeses;

grains: corn, rice, fermented and slow-rising sourdough breads;

shellfish, cephalopods, cold-water high-fat fish: anchovies, herring, sardines, tuna, salmon, trout, monkfish, sea bass; pickled, dried or cured fish; oysters, scallops, mussels, clams, shrimp, crab, squid, octopus;

fermented pickled fruits and vegetables: kosher dills, sauerkraut, kimchi, poi, pickled ginger, umeboshi (pickled plum);

soy and soy products: soy sauce, tempeh, miso, fermented bean paste;

mushrooms, fungi, truffles: the deeper the colour, the more umami, thus portobellos, morels and porcini have high umami, oysters, chanterelles and cremini have medium, and enoki and button have very little; dried have more umami than fresh; but white truffles have more umami than black;

condiments: fermented fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup (loaded with umami tomatoes), tomato salsa;

fermented, brewed, and distilled booze: older, earthier wines; fortified wines like sherry, port, Madeira; sake, beer, whisky.

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Becoming a Better Cook, Part I: By the book

Grainews

January 2022.

My son recently served me a meal of spatchcocked (butterflied) chicken. It was sensational, crisp and juicy. “Butterflied is the only way I roast a whole bird any more,” he told me.

Then I watched as he made brownies. His recipe was more complex than mine, and he spent longer on the process. They were addictive, moist in the middle. Better than mine.

That good food and my son’s attentiveness reminded me that good science makes better cooks. It also reminded me of professional cooking school in Vancouver back in the early 1980s, when one of my chefs chastised me. “You are asking the wrong question at this point, mademoiselle,” he said. “For now, ask how, not why. ”

But how and why in the kitchen are inextricably linked to becoming a better cook. So here are my Top 10 + 1 “how and why” food books, in random order. First we eat, then we read, and eat again.

  1. The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, by J. Kenji López-Alt.

A doorstopper loaded with photographs and high-results recipes, dense with practical applied science from an MIT engineering geek who loves cooking.

  • The New Making of a Cook, by Madeleine Kamman

The bible, starters to sweets, for a generation of professional chefs. Kamman, a Michelin-trained chef, blended science with an impeccable palate and technique.

  • The New Best Recipe, by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated

Cook’s Illustrated tests a dish’s variables sixteen ways to Sunday to make the best possible version. A valuable, food-splattered resource, also starters to sweets.

  • Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, by Deborah Madison.

The best vegetable-based book ever written. Creative, accessible, and just bloody delicious.  

  • CookWise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed (The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking with over 230 Great-Tasting Recipes), by Shirley O. Corriher

A gold mine from a food-and-science geek. “What This Recipe Shows” explains each dish’s ingredients, techniques, and culinary/scientific principles.

  • Tartine Bread, by Chad Robertson

Artisanal sourdough bread demystified: the complexities of exceptional breads with character, crumb, and crust. Learn to think in ratios and buy a good scale.

  • Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn

Clear details and ratios for making the best links. Now you really need that scale.

  • The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Process From Around the World, by Sandor Katz

From kraut, kimchi and kombucha to sourdough, this book will get you bubbling your own bacteria.

  • Batch: Over 200 Recipes, Tips and Techniques for a Well-Preserved Kitchen, by Joel McCharles and Dana Harrison

Canning, dehydrating, fermenting, cellaring, salting, smoking or infusing, organized by individual ingredients with myriad ways to transform each.

  1. Salt Heat Acid Fat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat

Cook by the four tastes. Quirky illustrations and exuberant language.

11. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, by Harold McGee.

Hardcore science from a food geek. No recipes.

Roasted Butterflied Chicken

From The Food Lab by J. Kenji López-Alt. Butterflying equalizes the cooking time needed for breast meat and legs. Serves 4

1 whole chicken, 3-4 lb.

1 tsp. kosher salt for dry-brining plus more for roasting

1 Tbsp. olive oil

freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place the bird breast side down on a cutting board. Use poultry shears or kitchen scissors to cut alongside the backbone from the poke’s nose up to the neck. Repeat on the other side of the backbone. Remove and reserve the backbone for stock-making.

Flip the bird over. Firmly press down on the breastbone with the heel of your hand. You should hear or feel it crack as the bird flattens. Tuck each wing tip under the breasts.

Loosen the skin by running your hand between the skin and breast meat, starting at the base of the breast.  Rub 1 tsp. kosher salt all over the meat under the skin. Place on a rack on a baking sheet and chill, uncovered, overnight if time allows.

Preheat oven to 450 F. Position an oven rack in the centre of the oven.

Dry the chicken skin and meat under the skin with paper towels. Rub oil all over the skin and meat. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

Centre bird on a rack on top of a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. Roast uncovered until the thickest part of the breast closest to the breastbone registers 140 F and the joint between thigh and drum registers at least 160 F.

Remove from the oven. Let rest for 10-15 minutes before carving.

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