Tag Archives: Canadian culinary classics

Grainews: First We Eat: Patience, and Please Pass the Marmalade

Grainews

My eldest son and I were out for lunch with my elderly mother yesterday, all of us slurping pho at my son’s favourite noodle joint. Mom is recently widowed. “Your father’s mind was like a laser,” she said, “and mine is set on real-time motion.” I glanced at my son with a sudden flash of insight: he and I are both quick-witted, and notoriously impatient with people whose mental functions take a second longer to hit send. Dad had been frustrated with most people all his life: was this revelation of his mind-set part of the reason behind that frustration?

My dad was an electrician-turned-farmer who should have spent his life designing airplanes and bridges: late in life he designed and stitched together multi-dimensional containers and holders of all sorts from fabric – saddlebags, knife kits, tool wraps – and seemed most himself while drafting and building prototypes for some new idea. I wondered about my paternal grandfather, Bill. He had designed tapestries for LaFrance Textiles, combining mathematics with an artist’s aesthetic. I hadn’t known him: had he too been quick-witted and short-tempered? No, my mom responded – my grandfather had been a quiet, soft-spoken man, long on thinking and short on words, but invariably patient.

We spent the rest of the afternoon completing Mom’s city errands with her, and my son was careful and attentive, shortening his long stride to match Mom’s hesitant walk, giving her his arm for support.

Three decades ago, my friend Phyllis gave me a sampler she had embroidered. It shows a cannon blasting one word – “NOW” – below the line, “Please grant me patience”. How well she knew me! That sampler has adorned my office all these years, and poems have been written about my shortage of this particular attribute.

But I can tell you that although I have learned patience, my innate nature is still to get ‘er done quick-like. Like my son, I have learned to adapt my pace when I am in companionship with someone else whose life is wired at a different speed. But I can still hear that cannon ball explode in my head: “NOW!”

Cooking, quilting and childrearing do teach a human being patience. All three involve transformation that takes place over time.  At this time of year, making marmalade is a classic example of that transformation and the varying degrees of patience it requires.

Purists will choose bumpy bitter Seville oranges from Spain to make into marmalade, but grocery stores in the small city I live close to mostly don’t stock Seville oranges when citrus season rolls around, so I have learned to make marmalade from other citrus, solo or as blends – although I always add lemon juice and zest to help set the natural pectin present in citrus.

Purists may also peel the fruit, separate the segments from the membranes that divide them, and squeeze out all the juices from the membranes before wrapping them in cheesecloth with any pits. The pits and membrane will go into the pot with the chopped peel and segments, but get fished out for discard near the end; the resulting marmalade will be sparkling-clear. I have done this from time to time, but  if you want, you can skip a couple steps, as I mostly do, and simply cut up the oranges and cook them. Like me, you will end up with marmalade that is not clear but cloudy. The good news is that it tastes just as good no matter how long or short on patience you are. As for Mom, neither she nor my eldest son make or eat marmalade. (Whenever I made it in the past it was strictly for me and Dad.) So first we eat, and then we can debate the merits of clarity versus obfuscation. Oh yeah, and patience too.

Marmalade

Mix up the types of citrus depending on availability, your palate and preferences.  I am partial to grapefruit in the mix.

This makes 8-10 half pint (8 oz.) jars

2 lb. oranges (Seville, blood, navel, tangerines)

1 lemon, zest and juice

6 cups water

4 lb. white sugar

1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, paste scraped out and reserved

Slice the oranges thinly, then quarter them. Combine the oranges, lemon juice and zest, water and sugar in a large heavy-bottomed pot. Bring to a boil, then add the halved vanilla bean and paste. Cook the mixture over medium high heat until it reaches 223 F on a candy thermometer. Alternatively, check for set by placing several small saucers in the freezer: spoon a bit of marmalade onto one plate and wait to see if it congeals. If it stays loose and runny, keep cooking the marmalade. Once the marmalade is thickened, ladle it into sterilized jars and process in a boiling water bath.

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Grainews: First We Eat: Freezers in a Frozen Land

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There’s no way to avoid having a freezer if you live on the Canadian prairies, especially if you live rurally – canny cooks who live in town have freezers too, but it’s not as urgent as it is for rural residents. Winter in particular makes a freezer an ironic necessity. (I have in some winters used my deck as an outdoor freezer, locking down tubs of stock or cooked pinto beans with weights in boxes to keep carousing barncats away. But that’s another story.)

Every evening, Dave rummages through the freezer, looking for something sweet. Inevitably, it means that the next time I go looking for something in the freezer, I have to re-order my arrangement, restoring brown beans with brown beans, red tomato sauce with red tomato sauce, chicken breast with chicken thighs. It’s more than – worse than, or maybe better than – a habit. It’s the result of decades of working with food. Or maybe it’s just that I like grouping things. My painter friend Sarah-jane is much more compulsive about grouping than I, and she just shrugs and blames her Montessori preschool education. Myself, I think my own culprit is maybe overexposure to Sesame Street. But reasons and causes aside, I do like order in my kitchen, including the freezer.

Scratch cooks depend on freezers. Where would we stash the backup of the things that are too labour-intensive to make often, the things we make in triplicate because it’s really not three times the work? You know – the lasagne, the moussaka, the potstickers, the smoked ribs, the second helpings of Moroccan-style braised lamb shanks? So the freezer really is our best labour-saving device. Really. Who is going to make chicken stock every time they roast a bird? Far better to freeze the carcass – and the next, plus the remains of the chicken thighs and drumsticks – and then make one large pot of stock, freezing it in one-liter tubs for convenience in making soups and braises and sauces and risotto. No freezer? No stock. No stock? No… well, you get the picture.

I never quite manage to empty the freezer, as I have previously chronicled, but the fact that it’s full means I have a world of possibility when I want to make supper. So let’s go rummage, but first we eat before we re-organize its contents again.

Potstickers

Potstickers are aptly named – beware. Use this filling to make potstickers, but it also makes great burgers. Maybe you want to double the mix and freeze some burgers against another day’s dinner? If your pantry does not contain dried Chinese mushrooms, simply omit them. Makes about 60 potstickers

filling:

1 onion, finely minced

1 carrot, grated

1 parsnip, grated

1 cup finely shredded cabbage

1 Tbsp. minced garlic

1 Tbsp. grated ginger root

3 dried black Chinese mushrooms, rehydrated and slivered, stems discarded

2 lb. ground turkey or pork

2 Tbsp. minced cilantro

1 Tbsp. light soy sauce

1 Tbsp. fish sauce

2 Tbsp. minced green onions

½ tsp. hot chili paste

1 egg

 

casing:

2 packages won ton wrappers

oil for sautéing

 

dip:

2 Tbsp. hoisin sauce

1 garlic clove, minced

1 tsp. minced fresh ginger

1 Tbsp. lemon juice

1 Tbsp. light soy sauce

hot chili flakes or paste to taste

water to thin to dipping consistency

Mix the ingredients in a mixing bowl. Mix well. Trim the corners off the square wonton wrappers to make them round. Cover wrappers with plastic to keep them from drying out. (Fry the corner trimmings for a terrific salad garnish!) Put one wrapper on the palm of your hand and spoon some filling onto the centre. Set the dumpling on the counter and fold the wrapper up from the bottom in pleats, covering as much of the sides of the dumpling with wrapper. Place flat wrapper side down on a tray dusted with cornstarch. Continue to make dumplings to use all the filling. Freeze in a single layer, and transfer into freezer bags once solid.

To cook, remove potstickers from the freezer and heat a sauté pan on moderately high heat. Add enough oil to lubricate the pan. Add some frozen potstickers in a single layer. Sauté until well browned (check by picking up one and inspecting the underside). Add water to a depth of about ½”. Cover with a snug lid and cook until the water evaporates and the dumplings are cooked through, about 7 minutes. Remove the lid and cook uncovered if the water takes too long to evaporate. Immediately use a metal spatula to free the potstickers from the pan before they stick. Clean the pan before cooking the next batch. Serve with dip.

 

 

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Feeding Our Elders

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Last month an elderly friend called me, wondering if I could help him and his wife cope with food for a couple weeks. They were living in assisted living after he’d had a stint in the hospital, but both were anxious to get back into their own home, a move scheduled for several weeks after our conversation. He thought that having good meals would smooth their transition and give them one less thing to fret about as they re-adjusted to life at home.

At the time I’d been fretting about my mom, a recent widow, wondering how she – sick of cooking after decades of feeding kids and husband – would respond to her new culinary regimen. To my surprise, Mom has grabbed the bit and run free, cooking and eating exactly what she likes whenever she feels like it, abandoning a lifetime of structured meals and regimented mealtimes. I’d been afraid she would abandon the kitchen and dwindle, but her appetite resurfaced, robust and eager to relish her favourite foods. It was the perfect metaphor for her approach to her new life.

So my worries on her account were needless, and I was able to turn my hand to cooking for our elderly friends. I was glad that they would be at home again, but I had a different set of worries about them: would they be safe? Would they be comfortable and competent feeding themselves? And what about after my help ended? How would they get their groceries? What support services had they arranged?

 

They assured me they had suitable support in place for their return. As for food, their preferences fairly closely matched how I cook for Dave and me – a modified Mediterranean diet, with lots of vegetables and olive oil, and fish on a regular basis. So it would be a fairly simple task to feed them. The biggest challenge was choosing dishes that would keep gracefully in the fridge for a couple days, then reheat well.

So I gave them a succession of salads, sourdough breads, braised dishes my foodie friend Gail has always called “stewy bits”, and for variety, some lovely Saskatchewan fish – pickerel braised with tomatoes, capers and olives; roasted steelhead smeared with local mustard and Canadian maple syrup. One day I decided to make cornbread, a wonderful breakfast dish and midday snack with honey and butter. To honour the cook’s rule of doubling down on labour, I reserved some to use for stuffing some farm-raised chicken breasts.

My mom had made cornbread as an after-school snack for me and my siblings when we were small, so I made extra into muffins and delivered them to her, wondering if she would remember and recognize the flavours. Well, of course she did, and launched into a reminiscence of life on Vancouver Island and her garden there. Amazing, how food triggers such strong memories. As for my elderly friends, they loved the cornbread, and the stuffed chicken as well, especially after I told them the story of school snacks. So first we eat, and then we can talk about your favourite afterschool snack as a kid.

Skillet Cornbread

Pull out your favourite black cast iron pan for this bread. Save leftovers to use as stuffing for chicken. Serves 6-8

1 ½ cups cornmeal

2 ½ cups all purpose flour

¾ cup sugar

salt to taste

3 Tbsp. baking powder

1 tsp. ground allspice

¼ tsp. hot chili flakes

2 eggs

1 cup corn kernels

2 cups milk or buttermilk

½ cup melted butter or vegetable oil

Set the oven to 375°F. Lightly butter and flour a 9” cake pan or cast iron pan, or line a muffin pan with papers. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl. Combine the rest of the ingredients in a separate bowl, then add to the dry ingredients. Mix just to blend, then gently pour into the prepared pan or muffin cups. Smooth the top and bake about 35 minutes, less for muffins, until set and golden. Serve warm with butter, honey optional.

Cornbread-stuffed Chicken

Serves 4

1 ½ cups cornbread

1 egg

4 green onions, minced

4 chicken breasts or thighs, boneless, skin on

olive oil to drizzle

salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375°F. Crumble the cornbread. Whisk the egg and add to the cornbread with the green onions. Loosen the chicken skin to form a pocket. Tuck stuffing under the chicken skin and drizzle with oil, then season to taste. Roast the chicken pieces, turning once or twice, until juices run clear, about 40 minutes for breasts, longer for thighs, depending on size. Remove from heat. Let stand 5 minutes, then slice across the grain and serve.

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Apple Pie for a Snow Day

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Another grey winter day, with the wind howling from the east and snow drifting across the yard and our long driveway, means we are snowbound. A snow day! Yay! What better thing to do but bake? An apple pie, say. Apples are the fallback fruit of winter, and a pie is what all apples dream of becoming.

Some people think that baking is alchemy, and that bakers are magicians. It’s true that bakers are born, not made. It has to do with the hands. A baker is born with hands tender enough to cradle a baby, as sweet-talking as a lover’s, stealthy enough to coax cookies into creation, and speedy enough to have biscuits shaped and baking before their baking powder has time to blink and rebel against rising. In the hands of a baker, flour, butter and eggs are transformed in the heat of the oven from the mundane makings of breakfast into magical components that are 99 percent inspiration and one percent mingled devils’ and angels’ breath.

Bakers are a rare breed. For many, the memory of a beloved grandmother in a flour-dusted apron is the closest they’ve come to knowing an angel. For the rest, finding a baker amongst us is an event to be celebrated. In this particular instance, it was a Facebook post by my friend Amy Jo Ehman, whose name may be familiar to many Grainews readers as a former columnist and very fine foodie. (Recently we both contributed poems to a new anthology Life of Pie: prairie poems and prose, edited by Ivan Sundal and Myrna Garanis, published by Rolling Pins Press. Betcha: all about pie! Gotta love it.)

AJ had posted a photo of one of her pies on Facebook. Truth is, she’s famous as a pie-maker, and her emails frequently mention pie-making. Her photo, the pie’s juices bubbling out of the lattice crust, sent me to the kitchen to make two, one for us, one for her. Baking pie for AJ, the best pie-maker I know, is a gift I like to give her. No one bakes for bakers. No one cooks for cooks. The intimidation factor looms too large, a cloud across the sunny face of sharing. What could you possibly cook for a chef? Or bake for a baker? Invitations to dinner are rare, usually framed in a slightly guilty gilt edge – I didn’t know what to make for you that is good enough. Like AJ, I always reply – I’m just glad of the invitation to share.

We have different hands, different styles. AJ’s pie pastry is flaky, made with butter and lard, meant to melt away. Mine, a brisée made in a classic French style, with butter, is crisp, meant to contain, then shatter between the teeth. She uses a pie plate, builds a lattice like a grapevine’s trellis to contain her strawberries and rhubarb. I make a freeform galette on a baking sheet, juices and specks of ginger and nutmeg escaping over the top.

The difference arises from the type of fat used, and the method used to incorporate the fat into the flour. Using lard mixed with butter, and leaving the bits of fat in large-ish blobs the size of fingernails, makes a flaky structure. Using butter, cut into mealiness, followed by a smearing action called fraisage, makes brisée liquid-proof while still tender. Both types have their advantages. And their heroes. So slice the pie. First we eat, then we try our hand at making other types of pastry.

 Apple Galette

This is a rustic free-form tart with one crust and lots of fruit. It is baked on a cookie sheet, not in a pie plate. Serves 6-8

1 recipe of your favourite pastry

8-10 firm tart apples (Gala, Granny Smith, Jonagold, Fuji)

½ cup brown sugar

½ tsp. grated nutmeg

½ tsp. ground cinnamon

a handful of raisins or dried cranberries (optional)

¼ cup butter, divided

1 egg

2 Tbsp. cream

2 Tbsp. white sugar

Roll out pastry into a 16” round. Place the round on a parchment-lined baking sheet with a bit of a lip. Let the pastry rest, lightly covered with plastic wrap, while you proceed with the fruit. Set the oven at 375°F, and position the rack in the centre of the oven.

Peel, core and slice the apples. Mix with the brown sugar, spices and dried fruit. Heat half the butter in a sauté pan. Add the apple mixture and cook over medium-high heat until the apples soften, about 15 minutes. Pour onto a tray and let cool.

Tidily heap the fruit in the centre of the pastry, leaving a 1”- 3″ border of pastry uncovered by fruit. Fold and pleat the outer edge of the pastry over the apples, making an enclosing lip of pastry. You should have a small section of apples in the centre that is uncovered. Distribute the butter in small bits on the apples that are exposed. Mix together the egg and cream, and brush the ensuing eggwash onto the pastry. Sprinkle the entire thing sparingly with the white sugar. Bake until browned, about 35 minutes. Serve warm.

 

 

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Birthday Markers

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I was born on my dad’s twenty-second birthday while he and my mom lived in northeastern France. My dad was in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and at the time he was stationed at the fighter jet station called 2 Wing, near St. Avold. Mom and Dad waited for many months for Dad’s very junior seniority to improve enough to allow them a house on the PMQs, or personnel married quarters, on the base. Meanwhile, they lived in the small French town of Berig. Mom spoke German, which was helpful in the district of Alsace-Lorraine – the area had changed hands multiple times, passing from French to German possession and back as wars and their victors determined the area’s newest allegiance. By the time my parents arrived in the late 1950s, the region was again French, after being returned to France after the end of the Second World War. But both French and a German dialect called Alsatian were spoken by most residents, and the area’s cuisine had a distinctly Germanic flavour that underlay the French sensibility of fresh, local and seasonal.

“Once a week a van came through the town, delivering a full case of wine, picking up the empty case, at every house,” Mom recalls. “The wine was from the Moselle district, famous for its whites. Another van came regularly too, with smoked and cured pork sausages – like salami – never fresh. Cattle were too valuable to be eaten – I remember seeing oxen in the fields, pulling ploughs. We got frozen chicken – flown in from Canada, probably, because England was still pretty strictly rationed back then – at the PX (the Post Exchange) on the base. But we bought our fruits and vegetables ‘on the economy’ (Air Force slang for the local shops), at the Friday night street market. It was lit by gaslight, and was very pretty – eggplants and peppers and spuds all in stacks, and bunches of fresh herbs.”

Dad was often away on training exercises in Sardinia, and Mom, who would have three small children by the time they returned to Canada, made friends with the locals. Their landlord made schnapps form the local yellow Mirabelle plums, and Mom would receive a small glass of schnapps each time she went downstairs to pay the rent. She recalls that local women drank it with a sugar cube between their teeth, but the men took it straight up. At the pub she would often see the publican’s son, age twelve, holding a glass of wine and smoking, his big dog lounging on the floor at his feet. She remembers one evening at a birthday celebration, a group of workmen in heavy boots occupied the booth across from them in a café, a big pot of soup on their table. When Dad popped the cork from the Alsatian crémant he was opening, the cork flew and landed in their soup. Laughter ensued.

By now you are wondering – why this trail of memories? Memories are what remain of my father, who unexpectedly passed away in October. I served two kinds of soup at his wake, when my husband Dave lifted a glass of schnapps as he offered a toast to Dad’s memory. Dad’s and my joint birthday this month is my first in my life without him. So here’s a toast to fathers everywhere. First we eat, then we pop the cork. I hope the cork lands in your neighbour’s soup pot.

Carrot and Coconut Cream Soup with Anise and Ginger

For a light soup that is driven by its vegetable nature, use water or vegetable stock; chicken stock adds weight and birdlike flavour. Vary it by adding other root vegetables, and after pureeing the finished soup, garnish if desired with chopped roast pork or chicken, or add some shrimp sautéed with garlic and anise seed.

Serves 4
1 onion, minced
1 Tbsp. butter
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. grated fresh ginger

1/2 tsp. anise seed, cracked

1/2 tsp.  finely grated orange zest

1/4 tsp. cracked fennel seed

1/2 tsp.  sweet smoked paprika

6 large carrots, peeled and sliced thinly
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock

kosher salt to taste

1 Tbsp. fish sauce

1 cup coconut milk
2 Tbsp. finely minced fresh cilantro

1/2 lime, juice only

Combine the onion and butter in a large heavy pot. Add the garlic, ginger, anise, orange zest, fennel and paprika.  Cook over medium-high heat, adding small amounts of water as needed, until tender, about 10 minutes.

Add the carrots and stock, stir well and cook over medium heat, covered, for 30-40 minutes, stirring often, until tender. Puree. Add the salt, fish sauce, coconut milk, cilantro and lime juice. Serve hot.

 

 

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Pigtails, or Everything But the Oink

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Pork has influence far beyond the table. Words invoking pork have made their way into everyday life, from football’s autumn pigskin classic at your favourite stadium to pork-barreling politicians looking for re-election. Of course, electors will be choosing a pig in a poke, and then must make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Even music is infiltrated by pork, as with the Pork Belly Futures, a well-educated Toronto-based blues band.

For a long time, pork was a poor family’s meat. Even now, it is the most widely consumed meat on the planet. Statistics Canada’s records show that Canadian farmers produced 14 million pigs for consumption in 2019 on over 8,000 farms. (In 1991, over 29,000 farms were raising porkers for supper.) That’s still a lot of sausage and ham, with 41 percent of those animals raised in western Canada.

Around the globe, pork is king, eaten in a wider variety and range of styles and shapes than any other meat. German cooks simmer smoked pork hocks with sauerkraut, and French cooks add a variety of pork products – sausages, hocks, smoked chops – to cassoulet. In Spain, the haunch of the black Iberian pig is converted into incomparable jamone, cured with salt, air and time into a supple and delicious staple that is as popular in Spain as its Italian equivalent, prosciutto, is in Parma. Chinese cooks velvetize pork with cornstarch, soy and sometimes a splash of sherry, then add it to stir-fries. Hot dogs are the ballpark staple, bacon and eggs is a diner classic, and barbecue specialists slow-smoke ribs or pork butt, converting it after hours of slow cooking into messily magnificent pulled pork sandwiches garnished with coleslaw and soft buns. Canadian cooks love peameal-coated back bacon or ham in split pea soup, and nearly everyone everywhere loves waking to the smell of frying bacon.

As the meat of many cultures and classes, pork is a good example of frugal “tail to nose” eating. Nothing is wasted on a pig. Parts of pigs are cured, salted, smoked, stewed, chopped, stuffed, brined, rolled, roasted, pickled, grilled, barbecued, braised, broiled and fried. Even its trotters, or feet, are consumed, as are its ears. Insulin for diabetics has been derived from pig products, pigskin becomes gloves and footballs, and good-natured cooks take a little ribbing if they ham it up or mutter, sotto voce, about “when pigs fly” and capitalist pigs who bring home more than their share of the bacon

A pig in a poke refers to a con dating back to the Middle Ages in Europe when meat was scarce. Unscrupulous itinerants would misrepresent a live cat or rat in a poke (a bag) as a suckling pig, and the buyer would pay accordingly, only to learn of the mistake after the bag changed hands. Fortunately for us cooks, modern pork is no pig in a poke. If you, like me, are lucky enough to have a smokehouse in your neighbourhood, you know the pleasure of smoked pork – ham, sausages, pork hocks, chops. It’s my favourite meat. So first let’s eat, then we can debate the merits of our favourite smokehouses.

Ham with Black Mission Fig Glaze

If you’re lucky enough to have a local smokehouse, get your ham there.

Serves 8-10

5 lb. ham

½ onion, thinly sliced

2 cups chicken stock

8 black mission figs

4 cloves garlic, sliced

3 strips of orange zest, about ½” x 2” each

2 Tbsp. tahini

2 Tbsp. olive oil

1/3 cup maple syrup

1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard

salt and pepper to taste

 

Set oven at 350 F. Score the ham’s rind in diamonds at 2” intervals. Place the ham, scored side up, on top of the onion slices in a shallow roasting pan with sides. Pour the stock around the ham with the figs, garlic and orange zest. Bake uncovered for 2 hours.

Remove the ham from the pan and turn up the oven to 400 F. Pour the stock into a sauté  pan, straining out the onion slices, figs, garlic and orange zest, and put them in a bowl or food processor. Add the tahini, oil, syrup and mustard to the solids. Puree, then set aside 1/3 cup of the puree.

Return the ham to the roasting pan and slather the rest of the puree over the scored ham rind and into the crevices. Return the ham to the oven for 10-15 minutes, glaze side up.

Meanwhile, add the reserved puree to the stock and mix well. Bring to a boil and reduce the liquid by half, to the thickness of gravy. Season to taste. Carve and serve the ham with the sauce on the side.

 

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Edible Gifts for Any Season

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Last fall, when we bought a lamb for the freezer from a local shepherd, he tucked some extra livers into our box. “You’re a chef,” he said, “I know you’ll know what to do with them and they won’t go to waste.”

He was right: our gift bags to our friends last year included ramekins filled with savoury lamb liver paté, perfect with the sourdough bread, chutney and crackers I’d already made for the project.

But here it is three weeks until Christmas. Yikes! How did that happen? The holiday season does creep up on little stocking feet. Don’t panic. Instead, spend a bit of time in your kitchen this month, making some simple gifts that will be appreciated.

What matters most in life are not things, but emotions and experiences. Neither can be wrapped in tissue or tied in a ribbon. A handmade present symbolizes our efforts to make tangible those untouchable things, and the effort they take reflects the best of us at our core. Food makes memories. Ask anyone, at any age, about events that matter or people they love, and odds are good that food is an integral part of the story.

Some kitchen gifts are best started now. Others really are last-minute affairs that can be assembled moments before you change into your party clothes and head out the door.

You may have the ingredients for these gifts already on hand. All you need to do is change their state. Cooking is chemistry, and changing states is a simple matter sometimes—water into steam, sugar into caramel. As in a good fairy tale, the time spent in transformations is sometimes what counts most dearly, not the cost of the makings. And that is what gives the most modest of kitchen gifts their value. Just add ribbon.

Vanilla Vinegar is best with shellfish, roasted beets, carrots and asparagus. Start with good vinegar – white wine, apple cider, champagne. Split 2 or 3 vanilla beans lengthwise, scrape the seeds from the pods, and add them and the pods to the vinegar. Cover and age for a month.

Mixed Olives with Herbs are good anywhere and anytime. Buy good Kalamata, oil-cured or green olives and drench them in olive oil, garlic, hot chili flakes, a sprinkle of herbes de Canada, cracked fennel seeds, lemon zest and pepper.

For Herbes de Canada, mix together dried thyme, lavender, summer savoury, rosemary, parsley, basil, fennel seed, marjoram, sage in any proportion that fits your palate.

Chocolate-Coated Dried Apricots and Ginger require only white and dark (or milk) chocolate. Melt the chocolates separately. Line a baking sheet with parchment. Dip each piece of fruit or ginger halfway into one or the other melted chocolate, then lay it flat on the parchment. Chill. For a frill, dip a fork into the other colour of melted chocolate and wave it over the already-dipped fruit. Chill again.

Rooibos Chai is delicious South African herbal tea spiked with whole cloves, cardamom and cinnamon. For each cup of leaves, add 2 broken cinnamon sticks, a broken star anise, 12 green cardamom pods, 12 whole cloves and 15 allspice berries. For a traditional black chai, substitute 1 cup Darjeeling tea leaves for the rooibos.

Togarashi is a Japanese blend of chili pepper, black pepper, dried orange peel, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, hemp seeds and crumbled nori (dried seaweed). It’s good on scallops, salmon and in wine as a steaming medium for mussels.

Chevre Dip is what my friend Gail calls ‘kitchen crack’, and addictive it is. Buy good chevre, then puree it with olive oil, fennel seed, garlic, black pepper, basil, thyme, parsley, chives, lemon juice and zest, a bait of whipping cream.

The list of good homemade edible gifts is long: sourdough bread, chocolate and almond caramel bark, brioche or challah, paté, sausage, cookies, crackers, preserves. First we eat, then we’ll rummage through your pantry to see what we can whip up. Happy holidays.

 

Caramelized Pecans

These nuts are dynamite snacks, pizza topping, salad garnish, accompaniment to a glass of red wine. Don’t be tempted to sample them straight out of the pan– that melted sugar is hot enough to seriously burn your mouth. Also yum on flatbread, salad, grain dishes or with a glass of bubbly. From my first cookbook, Skinny Feasts (Whitecap, 1997).

Makes about 2 cups

2 c. pecan halves

2 T. unsalted butter

2 T. sugar

1/2 t. ground star anise

1/2 t. cayenne

salt to taste

 

Put the nuts into a colander or strainer and pour boiling water over them. Drain well, then place nuts and all ingredients in a sauté pan. Cook over medium-high heat for about 7 minutes, stirring well, until the nuts are dark and glossy. Spread them out in a single layer on a tray or plate to cool.

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Grainews: First We Eat: Soup, Beautiful Soup

Grainews

When my sweetie caught a cold recently, he asked me to stop in at our favourite Chinese restaurant and bring home some hot and sour soup.

“Are you kidding me?” I said. “No way. I’ll make you some.”

Next time you slurp some of this Szechuan soup at your fave joint, look at it closely. It’s actually pretty simple to make: diced protein, vegetables, and maybe noodles in a good broth bolstered with some heat and some acid – chili of some sort, and lemon juice or a pleasant vinegar.

Soup has come to mean many odd, disconnected things, including slang for nitroglycerine, especially used, says the Oxford dictionary, for blowing up safes. “In the soup” means to be in difficulty; “soup and fish” is Cockney rhyming slang for fancy evening dress. All of this from the French, and that from a Late Latin term for “sop”, a piece of bread soaked in water, broth or wine. Strange are the ways of the English language.

In the kitchen, soup means a collection of foods cooked in liquid. Larousse Gastronomic, the reliable workhorse of culinary definition, devotes twenty pages to soups, among them cold pureed blend of leek and potato (vichysoisse), and chowder, made in a pot (chaudiere) on a French fisherman’s schooner. But just to complicate things, chowder can be a thick white soup in New England or a thin red broth in Manhattan.

In any case, the healing and nurturing attributes of soup are universal. Soup has the mythic power to heal broken hearts and cracked bones, to thaw skiers’ frostbitten noses and to mend, like Time, all wounds, as per the wondrous qualities of apocryphal Jewish grandmothers’ chicken soup, Japanese miso soup or Chinese hot and sour soup.

To a cook, the soup pot is as varied as this week’s fridge contents. The temptation always looms, though, to empty the entire vegetable drawer into the soup pot. Such cluttering with odd’n’ends is a death knell to the best soup, which needs focus and direction, translated into a finite number of ingredients. Add ’em all and the pot veers off into uncharted territory, its boundaries undefined and its character unstable or unstated. The other side of the coin is the ease with which soup accepts last-minute lineup changes and substitutions. Slide onions in for leeks, use carrots for roasted red peppers, yams instead of Yukon Golds.

To my mind, the best soups arise from cold-weather cooking, when the slow simmer fills a chilly home with a blanket of comfort. When it’s too cold to venture outdoors, scenting winter like my skittish cat at the door, wanting out but shy of the weather; too dark too early and for too many hours… these are prime soup-making conditions.

Don’t fret. Soup is an all-day proposition. Most soups cook inside an hour while delivering the same comfort as your Great-aunt Tilly’s ever did, but with a reduced degree of difficulty, perfect for those days when the dog, the boss, the kids, the weather, are not as you would like them to be. Soup is an undemanding companion, seeking only to warm and restore, asking nothing in return. Baby, it’s cold outside. Snuggle up to a hot stove. First we eat some soup, then we can put some records on.

Squash, Pear and Parsnip Soup with Maple Croutons

Puree this soup into a smooth and velvety texture, or leave it chunky. Make the croutons just before serving to avoid eating them all in advance! From my first cookbook, Skinny Feasts (Whitecap Books, 1997).

Serves 6-8

1 T. butter

1 leek, sliced

4 medium carrots, sliced

4 medium parsnips, sliced

4 T. ginger root, minced

1 ripe pear, peeled and sliced

1 t. dried oregano

½ c. dry white wine

1 large butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cubed

6 c. chicken stock

2 oranges, juice and zest

1 t. lemon juice

4 T. honey

a dash of Tabasco or hot chili paste

salt to taste

1 T. minced fresh oregano or chives

1 T. whipping cream

 

croutons:

3-4 slices crusty French bread, cubed

butter for the pan

a drizzle of maple syrup

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed stock pot. Add the leek, carrots, parsnips, pear and ginger, and cook until tender without colouring. Mix in the dried oregano, wine and squash. Add the chicken stock and simmer until all is tender. Puree. Adjust the balance with orange juice, lemon juice, honey and hot chili paste and salt. Stir in the reserved orange zest, fresh oregano or chives, then serve, drizzling each portion with a teaspoon of heavy cream.

Make maple butter croutons for garnish by sautéing diced bread in butter to crisp. Drizzle with maple syrup and caramelize to brown. Serve on the soup.

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Grainews: First We Eat: Mom’s New Reasons to Love a Farmer’s Market

Grainews

We’ve finished our coffee, and I am helping my mom into my car for our weekly trip to one of the local farmers’ markets. She has her green corduroy tote-bag over one arm, her purse holding its little zip-up change purse on the other, her favourite feathered hat on her head, her cane in one hand. From where we live, it’s a short drive to one of several small-town markets, plus several of varying size in the nearby city of Saskatoon. If I ask, she’s quick to tell me what she wants to buy today.

Back in the day, Mom was a farmers’ market vendor, selling her farm-grown produce, and later, dozens of styles of practical fabric goods, from farriers’ aprons and gun wraps to saddlebags and berry bucket holders. She could tell you all the good reasons to shop locally and buy from a farmer, reasons that remain as true and self-evident now as they were when Mom was a spry sprat of fifty: keep your cash in your community; fresh-picked food is fresher and more nutritious; local food is unprocessed, seasonal, diverse, and delicious even if it isn’t durable enough to ship to Delaware.

But Mom and Dad are in their eighties now, and they no longer sew or keep a garden. Nor does Mom bake the dozens of loaves of bread she made weekly when I was a kid growing up with my four siblings.

Mom’s reasons for going to the market have changed, and now include the social and sensory elements that as a busy farmer and mother, she never really had time to appreciate back then.

Today, I know our trip through the market will be slower than if I was there on my own. Mom will stop in front of each and every booth and table. “What do we have here?” she’ll say, even if we were here a week ago. Then she’ll scrutinize the wares as closely as any French-born chef. When samples are offered, as they often are, she tries everything, scrunching up her nose at pungent breakfast radishes, smacking her lips over fresh Okanagan apricots from the fruit truck. Then she’ll ask the vendor how sales are, how the weather is, how the bees are keeping, how the farm is doing. Eventually she’ll ask the baker if there are raisin tarts today, and the gardener for more of the yellow plum tomatoes she enjoyed last week.

When it’s time to pay, she will set down her walking stick and her tote bag, get out her wallet and her coin purse, and count out loonies and quarters and dimes. She laughs when I tell her I always feel like I’m getting something for free if I can pay for it with coins. Sometimes a few nickels escape, and I scuttle around on the grass at her feet, looking for them as if they were the Holy Grail. Eventually her coin purse will be stowed, her expanding totebag safe on her arm, and we will move on to the next vendor. There’s no rushing her, and I have accepted that it’s pointless to think I should want to. I am hanging out with my mom, and that’s a good way to spend my day.

I’ll be older eventually, and I’ll want my boys to take me to the market, too. I’ll still want to cry over the perfect peaches, smell the inveterate sugar junkie’s fix of caramelized cinnamon buns, admire the impossible pink blush on new-crop apples. And I won’t want anyone rushing me, either.

Summer Market Garden Salad

Salad as supper during summer is dependent on the garden – or the farmers’ market. Don’t try to get the whole garden into the bowl. Be selective: several salad greens, a fruit or berries, a seasonal vegetable or two, and a protein, maybe left over or cooked in advance or on the grill. And olives, of course, and a handful of fresh herbs. Then instead of making a vinaigrette, choose a good oil – I am partial to olive, but you may like Canadian-made camelina or cold-pressed canola oil – and an even better vinegar. Make it pretty on the platter or toss it all together.

Arugula

Red leaf romaine or other greens

Radicchio leaves, torn or chopped

Olives

Grilled chicken wings, steelhead trout, chickpeas, soft/hard-boiled eggs or tuna

Sweet bell peppers, diced

Cooked potatoes, cooled and cubed

Sugar snap peas, steamed and cooled

Watermelon, diced

A handful each of tarragon, chives, cilantro, basil, parsley

Olive or other good oil

Fruit-infused, balsamic or sherry vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

 

Arrange all ingredients on a platter and drizzle with oil and vinegar. Season to taste and serve.

 

 

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Sourdough’s Mysteries

Grainews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sourdough Bread

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

1 c. starter

milk or water as needed

flour as needed

3 1/2 c. all-purpose flour

1/2 c. whole wheat flour

2 T. kosher salt

warm water or milk to form a dough

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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