Tag Archives: food writing

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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Root vegetables and taking root

Grainews

December 2021.

All month I’ve been pestering Mom for stories. You’d think I was five again. But no. Truth is, we’ve been in closer proximity than usual. She’s recovering from glaucoma surgery, which has eliminated lifting, bending over, or carrying anything heavier than a supper plate. So I am at her house, lifting, bending over, and carrying. It’s amazing how often we do those things without even noticing. Putting on your shoes, for instance. First you bend over to put on your socks. Oh. No, you put your feet up on a chair and call your daughter over to help you. Then you bend over to pick up your favourite shoes. Oh, maybe not. Then you bend over to pull those dogs onto your feet and tie them up. Ooops. You get the picture. Mom is wearing slippers, laughingly threatening to arrange for a private valet permanently.

Mom’s most recent stories have been about winter, and winter holidays. Our family was poor, just another hardworking farm crew, so winter holidays to Cuba were never part of the gig. Prairie winters have always been harsh, and those days, it was even harder with the absence of electricity. In winter, Mom drove old Mart the horse to school in the cutter and unhooked him before turning him into the school’s barn with his halter on, the bridle hanging under her coat in the schoolroom to keep the bit warm. And come the festive season, my grandparents and mom and my auntie and all their local rellies would drive in the cutters to Mrs. Mike’s, my widowed great-grandmother, for turkey dinner. She would cook all day, then sit back with a glass of homemade rhubarb wine while her daughters-in-law cleaned up her leavings in the kitchen.

Like my grandmother and my mom, Mrs. Mike was a very good cook, but nothin’ fancy. Holiday meals were what you’d expect from a prairie cook – roast turkey and root vegetables, mashed potatoes, pie, steamed pudding, fruitcake. Squash never made it onto her holiday table, but carrots, you bet.

Now I love a good turkey or roasted chicken as well as the next hungry woman. But there are times when I think I am a changeling, at least in a culinary sense. I’d rather eat South Asian food than anything else. You know, food featuring those warm high-C spices – cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves. And a vegetable-heavy feast that might include rogan josh (Kashmiri lamb),but for me the heart of the table are the vegetables: dahl (stewed lentils with ginger), chole (curried chickpeas), basmati rice, aloo gobi (cauliflower and potatoes with tomato and garlic), bartha (smoked pureed eggplant), palak paneer (spinach and fresh cheese), garlic naan (flatbread), and pakoras (vegetable fritters) with cilantro chutney. That’s my last supper right there. My sons have it in writing.

I’ll share those recipes in the coming year. Meanwhile, a lovely way to introduce South Asian flavours is to add an Indian pickle to your table. My favourite is carrot pickle, and in years like this, when I have many pounds of homegrown carrots in my fridge, gifts of homemade carrot pickle are economical and delicious.

In a family committed to homemade gifts, food is often the medium that makes the rounds at our present exchanges. This is a hot-pack pickle that must be refrigerated, so include a note to that effect when you share it, whether at a Diwali, Eid, Kwanzaa, Hannukah, or Christmas feast. However we celebrate the rebirth of life and return from the dark, first we eat.

Carrot Pickle

Store this pickle in the fridge to let the flavours develop and use it to garnish curries, scrambled eggs, roast pork, smoked or roasted salmon, canapés, and grain dishes. Mustard oil adds a distinctively pungent, spicy note. Buy it at South Asian groceries. If you can’t find it, substitute your best extra virgin olive oil.

Makes 1 quart jar

1 lb. carrots, julienned, raw or lightly steamed                                              

1 head garlic, peeled and thinly sliced                                                            

ginger root to taste, thinly sliced       

1 ½ tsp. kalonji (black onion seed), optional                        

1 tsp. fenugreek                                                         

1 tsp. anise seed                                                         

½ tsp. coriander seed                                     

¼ tsp. cumin seed                                                      

1 tsp. mustard seed                                                                            

½ tsp. cracked black peppercorns                                                                                         

2 lemons, juice and zest                                                                                             

½ c. apple cider vinegar                                             

mustard oil as needed

Wash and sterilize the jar. Pack the carrots into the jar, using a pair of chopsticks or skewer to make the job easier. Combine all remaining ingredients except the mustard oil in a small pot and bring to a boil, then pour over the carrots. Top up with oil so that all the carrots are covered, then put on a snug lid and refrigerate for several weeks before using.

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Chameleon cooking

Grainews

December 2021.

I’ve been benched. Perhaps you recall that last month’s column mentioned Mom’s and my west coast holiday, specifically meeting a salmon fisher in Steveston. That morning we worked our way up and down the wharf, admiring the spot prawns and salmon despite having neither pans nor stovetop. We moved slowly, but not just to soak in the ambiance while accommodating Mom’s elderly gait. The day before, I had been struck, knocked down, and driven over by a ponytailed man riding a motorized scooter, a two-wheeler bigger than a Vespa but smaller than a Harley. Months later, I am still limping, and our dog Jake hasn’t had a run since before my accident. It turns out that soft tissue trauma in a foot takes almost as long to heal as broken bones. Who knew?

As a result, before mealtimes I head to the living room to elevate my damaged limb and apply heat while I sip a glass of wine. In the kitchen, Dave is cooking. I am grateful. But I’ve learned to get out of the way instead of offering advice – we work in different ways, at different speeds, and my gratitude is purest when I refrain from “helping”.

When we met almost fourteen years ago Dave fed me sausages and sauerkraut for my first supper in his apartment. Since then, his repertoire has increased. He makes a mean meatloaf; a good Bolognese sauce enriched with dried figs, apricots, and prunes; and some terrific baked pasta. In the sweet kitchen, he whips up the occasional tea-loaf spiked with dark chocolate and Earl Grey. But although beans and lentils aren’t really his thing, I had a craving for pork and beans, so I asked him to make this simplest of all lentil dishes.

Canada is the world’s leader in producing and exporting lentils, with ninety-five percent grown in Saskatchewan. Lentils are superfoods, nutty, earthy, and yummy as well as high in protein and fibre. There is evidence that humanity has been eating them for millennia, from the Euphrates river valley 8000 years ago to Egyptian tombs at Thebes, and ancient frescos show the making of lentil soup. Half the world’s lentils are consumed in India, but they are also popular in Spain, the Middle, East, and France. Here in North America, we were slower to adopt the lentil, but with the advent of the Second World War, meat shortages convinced many cooks of the virtue of lentils.

This red lentil dish, cousin to the old staple of pork and beans, is a changeable chameleon. Vary the vegetables. Chop them finely or leave ‘em large. Make it thick with extra veg and call it a stew. Add coconut milk and shredded greens and serve beside coconut rice, or thin it with additional stock to serve as soup. Add minced sausage or not, as you please.

I have chosen South Asian fused with Spanish seasoning for this version, but you can go elsewhere: make a Thai curry (add green, red, or Panang curry paste, honey, lime juice, coconut milk, and lemongrass, with toasted peanut garnish); a Middle Eastern tagine (add pomegranate molasses, sumac or saffron, cumin, dried fruit, and preserved lemons); or a Latin-esque lunch (add coriander, fennel seed, chili powder, tomato, oregano, a bit of dark chocolate, and cilantro garnish). Of course you can use different types of lentils or cooked beans, but red lentils cook in the same timeframe as most vegetables, making this a prompt and practical one-pot peasant dish that sustains and delights. So first we eat, and then we can chat about other chameleon dishes.

Red Chameleon Lentils

Do not add salt or acid until after the lentils are cooked.

Serves 6

2 Tbsp. olive oil

4-6 cloves garlic, minced

1 Tbsp. minced ginger

1 onion, minced

2 cups chopped assorted vegetables (carrots, mushrooms, celery, bell pepper, zucchini, cabbage)

2-4 links sausage of your preference, diced or sliced (optional)

1 Tbsp. sweet paprika

½ tsp. smoked paprika

1 Tbsp. curry powder or garam masala

1 cup red lentils

8 cups chicken stock

2-4 Tbsp. lemon juice

salt and pepper to taste

2 cups shredded greens (beet tops, chard, arugula, kale, spinach, cress, mustard greens)

Heat a heavy-bottomed pot and add the oil. Add the garlic and ginger, stirring. Add the onion. Sauté until tender, about 10 minutes. Add the remaining vegetables and sauté for several minutes, using the mushrooms as a benchmark – when they are wilted, add the optional sausage. Sauté until the sausage is cooked, then stir in the spices to toast for a couple minutes. Add the lentils and stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cover snugly. Cook for 20 – 30 minutes, or until tender. Season to taste with lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Stir in the greens. Serve hot.

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Farmers and fishers

Grainews

October 2021.

Early fall, and I am on a holiday with Mom, revisiting the foods, places, and faces of her youth. Mom is a retired dryland farmer, and like me, she misses the ready access to fish and seafood that we enjoyed during our earlier coastal life while Dad was in the Canadian Air Force. So on this west coast vacation, we eat west coast fish every day – wild sockeye salmon, halibut, tuna, spot prawns, ling cod, rockfish, sablefish.

At Farquharson Farms, a market garden in the Comox Valley where my then-thirty-something Mom was a field boss in the mid-1960s, the farm’s 192 acres are now a waterfowl habitat. A few miles north, Mission Hill Meats has transformed into Gunter Brothers Meat, run by the grandsons of Harry Gunter; Mom worked for Harry five decades ago, delivering meat weekly up-island to Sayward and Kelsey Bay and providing cooking tips to the young wives on her route. We take a beach tour, revisiting Miracle Beach and Kin Beach, where back in the day we gorged on oysters, clams, and salmon, all caught by our family.

But you can’t recapture your youth. Mom is visibly disappointed that the small coastal towns she knew so well have changed, more perhaps than she has. So we leave the past behind and take the ferry to the mainland to visit our family.

On the Steveston wharf south of Vancouver, a dozen fishing boats are tied up. The fishers use ice to display their catch of gleaming silver and coral, the signature colours of salmon and spot prawns indigenous to the coastal waters.

Mom and I stop to chat with Steve Lewis, aboard the F.V. Evening Breeze, a 42-foot fishing vessel. I am curious about the parallels, if any, between fishing and farming. I learn that five years ago, Lewis, his wife, Michelle, and their son would sell 100 whole fish a day at the wharf, all frozen at sea when caught. This week, during a 9-day stint at the Steveston wharf, they only sold 31 fish on Sunday, and 30 on Saturday, despite 30,000 people passing through the wharf over the weekend. “People aren’t spending like they used to,” Lewis tells me. “We’re hoping it’s just Covid, but last year was better than this year.  And it doesn’t help that some fishers thaw their fish and sell it as fresh. We only sell frozen.”

Lewis was born into a Campbell River fishing family, and has been long line fishing for 50 years. The salmon fishery around Dixon Entrance, between Haida Gwaii and Alaska, where he holds his license, was open only briefly during August and September. Lewis’s halibut license allows fishing between March and November.

Like farming, getting into the fishery on a commercial level is costly. License renewal is $750/year, but its initial purchase – when available from another fisher – is worth $100,000 to $200, 000 for salmon, and almost a million dollars for a prawn fishery license, if you can find a fisher ready to sell up. Plus there’s the initial outlay of up to $500,000 for a boat, radar, sounders, fish sonar, computers, programs to map the sea-bottom and draw it in 3-D, insurance, and wharfage fees, plus power to keep the heaters going in the winter.

Like the dairy industry, the Canadian fishery is governed by quotas, with the added risk of storms, icy ocean water, short fishing seasons, depleting stocks, climate change, a decline in home cooking, and a public misinformed that buying fresh and farmed is better than frozen and wild. When I ask Lewis if he’s going to stick with the fishery, he wryly says, “We’ll stay in business. I hope our son will finally say dad I want the boat. One of us has got to get off – I did that with my dad.” Listening, I think of all the farmers I know with a younger generation leaving for easier lives off-farm. And I wonder all over again, who will feed us? So first we eat, then we talk about how to save the oceans and farms.

Dorothy Caldwell’s Roasted Salmon

This beautifully balanced dish relies on the extra fat from the mayo and the sweet-tart vinegar to enhance wild sockeye salmon’s richness. If you don’t have umeboshi plum vinegar, substitute Japanese-style rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar with a bit of honey. Thanks to my friend Dorothy for sharing. Serves 6-8

1 boneless side of wild sockeye salmon, 2-4 lb.

½ cup mayonnaise

2 Tbsp. umeboshi plum vinegar

1 medium minced red onion

1 tsp. mustard

½ tsp. smoked hot paprika

1 lemon, juice and zest

salt and pepper to taste

a handful of minced herbs – chives, parsley, thyme, tarragon, cilantro

Preheat the oven to 400 F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the fish on the prepared tray, skin side down. Mix together remaining ingredients except herbs and slather on the fish. Roast uncovered until just done, about 12-15 minutes. Sprinkle with herbs, then serve.

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Making the most of a tough tomato harvest

Grainews

October 2021.

War contributes to the transportation and appropriation of goods around the globe. For instance, tomatoes were among the plants and animals that ended up in Europe in the unequal exchange of goods, disease, slavery, land theft, and genocide between New World and Old, beginning in 1492 and culminating in1650, called the Columbian Exchange. This event led to the emergence of some remarkable Mediterranean dishes, many centering on the tomato, and making them among the world’s most popular fruit for home gardeners like me. My tomato-growing is bittersweet, knowing the history of the plants.

Tomatoes are fragile. A frost warning for tonight means that I will cover the fruit still hanging on the vine. Not that there’s a lot – this summer has been as disastrous for tomatoes as it has been for most other crops.

I planted thirty plants – among them Black Krim, Sungold, Marzano, Early Girl, Sweet Million, Brandywine, Whippersnapper, yellow-striped Green Zebra, and heritage beefsteak, plus five “mystery plants” purchased from tomato maven and author Sara Williams at her annual Tomatoes for Tanzania sale in Saskatoon.  Because we were flooded in 2011, and my mother’s and grandmother’s garden was eventually covered by a berm that encircles the house to keep ensuing (perhaps unlikely) floods from drowning our old house, most of my gardening takes place in containers and raised beds. The tomatoes inhabit a funky assortment of receptacles adjacent to the herb bed on the north side of the house. They get sun, shade, shelter. I had hopes of a bumper crop.

At her sale, I asked Williams for some tips. On her advice, I made eggshell tea to from crushed eggshells to aid in calcium absorption and reduce the risk of the dreaded blossom stem end rot.

Then the heat dome inflated over western Canada. A heat wave that lasted most of the summer set in, and my tomato plants, by then setting blossoms, began to look stressed. On days that hit upwards of 30C, it became impossible to keep the plants’ water level on an even keel.

A harvest vastly smaller than I expected – albeit with very few incidences of blossom stem end rot – meant that I had to go looking for additional fruit to feed my tomato habit. (Each fall I like to make roasted tomato sauce – more on that in a minute – and my paternal grandmother Doris’s southern Ontario sweet and spicy tomato chili sauce, dynamite with eggs and grilled pork. That recipe another time.)

Fortunately, my mom’s neighbour operates a bustling market selling homegrown vegetables, canned goods, and baking. She had bags of green tomatoes – beefsteaks, she thought. Now I have tomatoes ripening in my kitchen, bananas strategically placed on each tray to facilitate the process. In a week or two, I expect to make roasted tomato sauce for my freezer; I save the smaller tomatoes for use in our daily salads.

This sauce is money in the bank for a busy cook – it is ready RIGHT NOW, needing only thawing, as the best-ever pizza sauce, pasta sauce, soup base, and all-purpose ingredient in any dish requiring tomato sauce, from Bolognese to butter chicken.

Last fall, and again this summer, that tomato sauce featured prominently in al fresco pizza suppers enjoyed in the shade of the maple tree. Having the sauce in my freezer meant that my prep time was reduced, allowing me to enjoy a glass of wine with our friends. After more than a year of isolation, those pizzas symbolize the beauty and collegiality of the table, antidote in small part to the violence of how tomatoes came to European cooks. So first we eat. Then we pour another glass of wine and debate ways to grow the best tomatoes.

Roasted Tomato Sauce

This “oven-queen’s special” minimizes splatter and mess while producing a sauce bursting with fresh tomato flavour. One “quarter sheet” baking pan (about 13” x 18”) makes 6-8 cups of sauce. For Tomato and Lovage Soup, sauté minced lovage and add to the sauce, thinning with stock as needed. Vary endlessly.

3 lb. ripe tomatoes, halved or quartered depending on size

1-2 onions, minced

1 head garlic, peeled

olive oil to drizzle

salt and pepper to taste

Set the oven at 375 – 400 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Arrange the tomatoes in a single layer on the pan. Sprinkle the onion and garlic on top. Drizzle with olive oil to taste, then sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Roast for about 45 minutes, or until the tomatoes are collapsed, charred nicely along the edges, and cooked thoroughly. Transfer in several batches to a food processor and blitz briefly, leaving the sauce a bit chunky. Freeze in whatever volume seems useful to you: in my 2-person house, I use 2-cup containers.

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Hot Summer Cooking

Grainews

September 2021.

Like many rural residents, Dave and I live surrounded by trees and shrubs: the double windbreak planted by my grandfather in the 1940s – caraganas, Manitoba maple, and linden – with ornamental crabapples, lilacs, blue spruce, white paper birch, fruit trees, highbush cranberry, columnar aspens added since. I love our trees. In the tough climate we live in, they offer protection from wind and sun for us and the birds. In an old house devoid of air conditioning, I am extra grateful. In fact, our favourite dining room is outdoors, sheltered from the wind and shaded by a maple.

My cooking style shifts in hot weather, as does when I cook: morning, before the heat, making a “cold supper”, as Dave calls it. His taste runs to deli classics, like egg salad, tuna salad, potato salad. Mine runs to white or black bean salad, chickpea salad, lentil salad, all of which improve as they stand in the fridge for several days.

Beans take time to cook, so I cook extra: it’s faster to thaw the extras than to cook a new batch. Use home-cooked beans, not canned, for the best texture, flavour, and control of salt content. Do not pre-soak your beans or lentils, as the practice strips out the nutrients. Just cover them in plenty of water, add a snug lid, and simmer without adding any salt, which toughens them and lengthens their cooking time. How long to cook a bean depends on the age of the bean: the older the bean, the longer the cooking time and the more water needed. This makes a convincing case for not hoarding! Best to buy the new crop – we do live in a country that produces massive amounts of beans and lentils (mostly for export and as livestock feed), after all. When you find a local grower, or if you grow them yourself, buy the new crop and compost whatever you have left in your cupboard jars. As a rotational crop, pulses kick nitrogen back into the soil; as a dietary staple, lentils and beans and chickpeas are high-protein and high-fibre, low-fat, and low on the glycemic index, thus ideal for managing blood sugars.

During cooking, don’t let your beans boil dry – nothing rescues a burnt bean. It’s important to remember that there’s no such thing as an al dente bean. If it’s at all crunchy, not only will it give you gas, but its vital nutrients will not be available to your body for uptake. So cook beans until they are tender, as long as it takes. Some types of lentils are tender within an hour, and my favourite beans, great northern white, are usually tender within a couple hours, while chickpeas can take considerably longer. (If you have a pressure cooker, use it now.)

When you make a bean or lentil salad, think of the four pillars of seasoning: salt, acid, sweet, heat. Add generous amounts of olive or another flavourful oil, salt, and vinegar or citrus juice to the dressing. I also add grated carrots, roasted vegetables, minced onions or chives, minced fresh herbs, mustard, something sweet and flavourful (liquid honey, maple syrup, pomegranate molasses), and often, some spices I like – roasted and ground cumin and coriander, smoked or sweet paprika. Of course you can add cooked, flavourful meats – smoked ham or ham hocks, for example – but remember that beans are a protein, so any meat should serve primarily as a flavour agent.

Vary the seasoning to suit your mood and the type of bean. Make enough vinaigrette that the beans and their accompaniments are taking a bath, then remember to stir the whole mess several times while it stands in the fridge making friends of its ingredients. It keeps, so make enough for a few days’ suppers. Add fragile garnishes when you serve. So first we eat under a shady tree, then we can compare notes on our best beans.

Black Bean Salad with Totopos and Watermelon

Totopos are crispy bits of corn tortilla, fried in oil until crispy, an ideal garnish for a black bean salad. Make extra – they tend to get gobbled up. Serves 6-10

2 -3 cups cooked black beans (refer to cooking tips above)

1 cup grated carrot

½ cup minced chives or green onions

½ cup minced fresh basil

½ cup minced fresh cilantro, a bit saved for garnish

½ tsp. smoked paprika

1 Tbsp. sweet paprika

2 Tbsp. Lea & Perrins

½ cup olive oil

½ cup red or white wine vinegar

2 Tbsp. mustard

2 Tbsp. maple syrup or pomegranate molasses

salt and pepper to taste

Garnishes:

2 cups diced watermelon

1 cup crumbled feta cheese

2 cups totopos (1 6” corn tortilla per person, diced and sautéed in olive oil until crisp)

Combine all ingredients except the garnishes. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Mix gently, refrigerate for several hours, stirring several times, and garnish at time of service.

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High Summer Ice Cream

Grainews

August 2021.

I love ice cream. I am not alone. In my immediate family, Dave and Mom perk up like hungry pups whenever we stop at our favourite ice cream joint. A 2019 survey reveals that twenty-five percent of Canadians eat ice cream two or three times a month, making us solid contributors to its global consumption, a love that generated over $65 billion (US) in sales in 2020.

Ice cream may have originated in China prior to 1000 AD, then travelled into India in the sixteenth century via Afghanistan, a famous East-West crossroads. In the western world, it likely originated in Italy (from points east). The first written recipe appeared in England in Mrs. Mary Eale’s 1718 cookbook. Ice cream cones were a big hit at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, in wafer cones that likely originated with an Italian immigrant.

Homemade ice cream is not difficult, and machines to mix it are widely available and affordable. First, get hip to some science. Cream and milk, frozen, is a hard mass; adding sugar softens it, but also drops the temperature at which ice cream freezes to well below the freezing point of water. Adding fat and protein – in egg yolks and cream – keeps ice crystals small for a creamy texture. Mixing air into the mixture as it freezes impairs the formation of ice crystals, making ice cream less icy-textured, so it feels light on the scoop and easy on the mouth. For a silkier texture, a home cook can add corn syrup, or replace some whipping cream with evaporated, powdered, or condensed milk.

Some ice creams, like Italian gelato, are unstirred and have no air, giving them a dense mouth-feel. Indian kulfi is milk cooked down to densely creamy consistency before being frozen.

Sorbet – simple sugar syrup with egg whites added for textural support – is often infused with fruit juice or puree. (Whole fruit or fruit pieces are icy-hard tooth-crackers when frozen.) Sorbet is usually stirred, like ice cream. Its cousin, granita, is made with minimal scraping with a fork, for a grainy, ice-shard texture.

Ice cream’s flavours start at vanilla, but I always get stuck at chocolate and caramel. Others like berries, tea infusions, herbal highnotes, and fruit purees. So hold off on the trip to town. First we eat some ice cream. Then we can exchange recipes.

Vanilla Ice Cream & Variants

To venture beyond “plain vanilla”, flavour this with the spices that make up gingerbread cookies and cake. Or add chocolate ganache (melted chocolate and cream), caramel, or toasted chopped nuts and rum. Makes about 4 cups.

1½ cups whipping cream

1½ cups whole milk

4 egg yolks

½ cup white sugar

2 tsp. vanilla extract

In a heavy pot, heat the cream and milk. Whisk the egg yolks and sugar in a large bowl. Pour in the slightly cooled liquid, whisk well, then return to the cleaned heavy pot. Place over medium heat and cook gently, stirring with a wooden spoon. Do not boil. Cook until lightly thickened – it should coat a spoon and leave a clear line when a finger is drawn across the spoon’s back. Remove from heat, strain, then cover with plastic wrap placed directly on the custard surface. Cool, then chill. Make ice cream as usual per the ice cream maker’s instructions.

Variants:

Gingerbread Spice:

2 whole star anise

1 cinnamon stick

2 whole cloves

6 whole allspice                     

½ nutmeg

Add to the milk and cream. Heat to a simmer, and steep for 20 minutes before straining. Continue as instructed.

Cinnamon Mocha:

½ lb. semi-sweet, white, or milk chocolate, chopped

¼ cup strong coffee or espresso

1 tsp. cinnamon

Melt the chocolate on medium power in the microwave, about 2 minutes. Add with the coffee and cinnamon to the heated cream-milk mix. Stir well. Continue the recipe as instructed.

Burnt Orange Caramel:

1 cup white sugar

¼ cup cold water

2 twigs fresh rosemary

zest of             2 oranges

1 cup orange juice

1 cup heavy cream

1 Tbsp. butter

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the sugar and water. Stir well to dissolve, then heat to boiling. Brush down sugar crystals from the side of the pot to prevent re-crystallization. Add the rosemary and the orange zest and cook the syrup over high heat until it begins to brown. Shake the pan or turn it if hot spots develop and cause uneven colouring, but be very careful; the heat is approaching 300°F. Allow the caramel to cook until it is dark amber in colour, then stand well back and cautiously add the orange juice. IT WILL SPLATTER. Immediately stir well to re-dissolve, then stir in the cream. Return to the heat and boil for 5 minutes, to reduce and thicken. Strain and store in the fridge. To use, reheat gently, stirring. Make the ice cream and stir in the caramel just as the ice cream sets up, or serve warm on the side, preferably with grilled pineapple spears.

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First We Eat: A Chicken in Every Pot

Grainews

July 2021.

I buy my chickens from a local farmer. She sells me eggs, too, blue, brown and white ovoids so beautiful they can’t help but taste better than commercial eggs. Each winter, my farmer sends me a note when she is ready to order her chicks, and I guess how many birds I think we plan to consume in a year. Big birds, that is – roasters, double Ds, you might say if you were inclined to categorize by cup size. I ask for larger birds because the ratio of meat to bone is higher. From one bird, I expect to feed the two of us, plus Mom, four, five or even six meals, plus whatever I make with chicken stock from the bones as a beginning point.

Each summer, I drive to the farm and collect my butchered birds, along with the livers, hearts, and gizzards. We have chopped liver spread; our dog Jake has simmered gizzards and hearts. I spend all afternoon and evening cutting up and freezing birds in bags – all thighs, all breasts, all drums, all wings – so my winter and spring cooking is decided by cut, which in turn determines cooking method. Then I brown the carcasses in the oven and make a huge potful of stock, which I also freeze, money in the bank to a cook. 

The birds my farmer raises are delicious. They eat well, get plenty of air and exercise, and have a good, chicken-y life, with bugs and grasses to peck and breezes to ruffle their feathers. I’ve been eating birds raised off the grid for much of my adult life. Underlying my visits to my farmer’s yard is my memory of my Gran raising birds, and her butcher day, here on the farm where Dave and I now live. My Gran was good with her hatchet, but I will never forget seeing headless birds like avian Ichabod Cranes careening about the yard as they ran towards their deaths. The pungent smell of scalded feathers prior to plucking hung on all day, made worthwhile by the canned chicken that Gran put up, cellar shelves lined with quart sealers.

According the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, poultry is the second-most-popular meat on the planet, just behind pork. But studies of diet during the pandemic show that home cooks have turned more often to poultry than any other protein source, mostly because of its versatility. My husband Dave has lost count of the number of ways we eat chicken, but his favourite is still fried chicken, which I make once or twice a year. So first we eat, and then we debate our top bird dishes.

Brined Fried Chicken

Method matters: brining chicken, pork, and turkey is a solid-gold way to ensure a juicy, tender result; and meticulously dredging the pieces in flour, egg-wash, and crumbs protects the chicken from the oil.

Serves 8

½ cup kosher salt

1/3 cup sugar

2 cups water

1 quart buttermilk

1 head garlic, peeled and smashed

a handful of fresh thyme

several sprigs of fresh rosemary

1 Tbsp. whole peppercorns

2 Tbsp. sweet paprika

1 roasting chicken, cut into 4-oz pieces (off the bone is best)

3 cups flour (barley, wheat, or spelt)

salt and pepper to taste

1 Tbsp. sweet paprika

1 tsp. dried thyme or basil

1 egg

2 cups milk

4 cups panko breadcrumbs

oil for the pan

Combine the salt, sugar and water in a pot and bring to a boil. Stir until all crystals are dissolved. Cool thoroughly. Add the buttermilk, garlic, thyme, rosemary, peppercorns, and paprika. Mix well. Transfer to a large zippered plastic bag, add the chicken pieces, seal, and refrigerate for 8-12 hours.

Remove the chicken from the brine. Discard the brine. Pat dry the chicken and let stand on a baking sheet so it will not be stone cold when you cook it. Set the oven at 325 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment.

Stir together the flour, salt, pepper, paprika and herbs on a baking tray with a lip. Mix together the egg and milk and put it in shallow pan.  Put the breadcrumbs in a shallow tray or large plate. Arrange the three containers in a row on the counter: flour, egg-wash, crumbs. Set one empty parchment-lined tray next to the crumbs.

Dredge several pieces of chicken in the flour, coating each thoroughly, then shake off the excess. Dip each thoroughly in the egg wash, then in the crumbs. Arrange on the tray in a single layer. Repeat until all the chicken is coated. Clean your hands often as you work.

Pour 2” of oil into a large cast iron frying pan and heat the pan until the oil sizzles when water is flicked onto it, about 340 F. Use tongs to place a piece of chicken skin-side down in the oil – it should sizzle. Add as many pieces as comfortably fit in a single layer. Cook until nicely browned, 5-7 minutes, then turn to colour the second side, about 3-5 minutes. Remove the cooked chicken to the second tray. Repeat until all the chicken is cooked. Keep the tray of fried chicken in the oven while the rest is frying. Serve hot.

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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: Feeding Our Elders

Grainews

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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