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

Grainews

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: 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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Grainews: First We Eat: Learning to Love Eggplant

Grainews

Like many Canadian children, my early experience of eggplant was anything but remarkable. My mom, a staunch Prairie cook, first encountered eggplant on her travels to Europe as a young mother with an Air Force husband. On her return to Canada, she did her best: she grew or bought globe eggplant, sliced them, dredged the rounds in flour, fried them and put them on the table unadorned. Undercooked, they were woody, chewy, entirely unappealing.

I didn’t learn to love eggplant until I was a young adult, living in Calgary where I met eggplant of varying pedigrees. At dim sum, we ate thin wands of eggplant, skin-on, stuffed with shrimp and pork; in the Pekinese palace, sweetened with hoisin sauce beside duck. In the Middle Eastern bistro we loved, it was baba ganouj, slightly chunky, succulent and smoky, with pita to mop it up. My European chef friends introduced me to moussaka, the Greek classic, and to Italian eggplant Parmigiana. Years later, my favourite chef from Naples taught me to suffuse cooked eggplant batons with a spice-and-herb dressing balanced between hot and sweet. Then I met the glory that is Indian eggplant, seasoned with cumin, ginger, coriander, turmeric, star anise, fennel, anise.

Despite its appearance on so many stages, eggplant is not an easy vegetable to know. It is round, oval, or elongated; black, purple, white or green, hiding its inner nature within an innocently simple shape. In the cook’s hands, a wide array of choices arise. Braise? Grill? Smoke? Fry? How best to celebrate its nature? At its worst, undercooked eggplant is woody and boring. At its best, cooked to tender and soft, eggplant boasts an unctuous, melting texture and subtly earthy taste. It just takes a bit of know-how.

Shape dictates cooking method. Use the tiny egg-like ones for stuffing or baking whole. Any eggplant can be grilled and served with a vinaigrette; any eggplant can be cooked whole on the open flame, then peeled, chopped and seasoned; or diced and braised, maximizing its tendency to absorb flavours.

Be warned that the spongy eggplant will soak up all the oil in a pan and beg for more! No matter the method, cook eggplant to well-done and soft. For a layered classic, start by grilling or oven-roasting lightly oiled slices, turning once when the slices are brown. Then stack up with other ingredients and sauce.

Alternatively, season those cooked slices with salt, pepper, mint, cumin, malt vinegar, garlic, coriander, smoked paprika, a drizzle of honey, a generous pour of olive oil, good enough to eat standing up in the kitchen, even better a day later. Now that’s something even my Mom would love. So first we eat, then we compare notes on our fave eggplant dishes.

Moussaka

For a richer dish, before baking top with a thick béchamel sauce enriched with nutmeg, Parmesan and feta cheese. For a lighter finish, simply sprinkle with feta.

Serves 8-10

4 large globe eggplants

½ c. all-purpose flour, for dredging

2-3 T. olive oil

2 lb. lean ground lamb or beef (optional)

1 large onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 bell peppers, diced

2 zucchini, diced

2 bay leaves

1 cinnamon stick

4 whole allspice

½ tsp. ground nutmeg

4 c. diced tomatoes

1 c. dry white wine

4 T. tomato paste

kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper

2 c. crumbled feta cheese

2 T. minced fresh parsley

Peel the eggplant and slice it into ½-inch slices. Lightly coat with flour, shaking them in a plastic bag and discarding the excess. Line a baking sheet with parchment and place the eggplant on the baking sheet in a single layer. Drizzle with oil and bake at 375 F until brown, about 15 minutes, turning once. Remove the eggplant from the oven and set aside.

Heat a heavy sauté pan. Add the oil, then brown the meat. Add the onion, garlic, peppers, zucchini, bay leaves, and sauté to tender. Add the cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, tomatoes, wine and tomato paste. Simmer, covered, for 35 minutes, or until thickened. Remove the bay leaves. Season with salt and pepper.

Spoon a thin layer of sauce to cover the bottom of a 9” x 13” casserole. Lay half the eggplant slices on top of the sauce. Sprinkle with half the feta cheese, half the remaining sauce, the rest of the eggplant, then sauce, then the rest of the feta. Bake for 30 minutes, or until hot. Let stand for 10 minutes before slicing. Garnish with parsley.

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Let Us Eat Cake

Grainews

Cake is an important part of my family’s birthday rituals. When I was a kid, Mom made birthday cakes that contained coins wrapped in wax paper – for her five kids, but also for my dad, but always chocolate for him, and no coins.

I began to bake as a youngster, and in later years, as a chef, restaurateur and caterer, I made many cakes. My small restaurant in Calgary had a name for good desserts, among them one I dubbed “the Queen cake,” a luscious chocolate angel food filled with fruit and chocolate whipped cream. It became the favourite of my youngest son, who requested it each year for his birthday. (This year, he made his first ever for himself and his partner. Still his fave.) Back in the day, my eldest son begged me through a catechism of ever-changing-but-always-chocolate cakes that peaked with a five-layer extravaganza – a cake that took me three days to make and assemble. (“Never again!” I told my son.) So I thought everybody celebrated with cake.

My marriage ended in 2000, and a year later, I took up with a wonderful man. My birthday arrived. My new man brought me books, jewelry, clothing, wine, glorious presents I opened after a home-cooked dinner. But no cake. I was surprised by how deeply disappointed I felt, and my sweetie was appalled at the oversight, and my response. But I hadn’t mentioned it, and he – a diabetic – didn’t have any attachment to cake. So no cake. He hustled out next day, and bought cake, but it wasn’t the same. (The relationship didn’t last. Not the cake’s fault, although sometimes a critical thing’s absence brings home other lacks. )

I learned. Early on in our relationship, I told Dave that I wanted cake on my birthday – even last year, when I marked 60 years on the planet. Fortunately, the cupcake craze has stuck, and my non-baker Dave happily brings home cupcakes when we require cake not made by moi.

Over the years, I have acquired a wide cake repertoire, and am happy to make cakes for special occasions, especially when my friends and extended family will consume the leftovers. Because my sister and I have wheat intolerances, some of my fave cakes are flourless or low-flour: angel food cake; flourless chocolate torte; nut torte filled with citrus mousse; cornmeal and nut torte  flavoured with lots of lemon and cardamom, and totally outrageous with simmered apples, pears or quince and whipped cream.

When I first met Winnipeg’s favourite dessert, the schmoo cake, it didn’t take me long it realize it too could be flourless or close-to-flourless.  I adapted my angel food and my torte recipes, added a salted butterscotch sauce, and wowee, I fed my father and family schmoo cake for this year’s annual wintertime joint birthday party. Here it is. First we eat, then we weigh the merits of other celebratory sweets.

Schmoo Cake with Salted Butterscotch Sauce

Wowee Winnipeg! This is a dynamite cake with a murky past. Here’s my version, adapted from a blend of my angel food cake and flourless nut torte. If you wish, eliminate the flour and up the nuts to 4 cups.

Makes 2 9” spring-form pans; serves a crowd.

Cake:

12 whole eggs, separated

1 ½ c. white sugar, divided in half

¼ t. cream of tartar

1 t. vanilla extract

1 c. all purpose flour

1 ½ t. baking powder

2 c. finely chopped toasted pecans

 

Filling and topping:

3  c. whipping cream

Icing sugar to taste

 

Butterscotch sauce:

1 ½ c. brown sugar

1 c. whipping cream

2 T. salted butter

A pinch of kosher salt

 

Set oven to 325 F.

For the cake, beat yolks and half the sugar with the cream of tartar until thick, pale yellow and tripled in volume. Add the vanilla. Set aside.

In a clean bowl, beat the egg whites and the remaining sugar – added slowly – until stiff peaks form.

Stir together the flour, baking powder and pecans. Fold into the yolks, then fold in the whites. Divide among the two pans. Bake for 55-60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool completely.

Whip the cream and icing sugar to taste. Slice each cake in half. Place one half on a flat plate, add whipped cream, a second layer of cake and cream, then third and fourth layers of each. Cover outside with whipped cream. Chill.

For the butterscotch sauce, combine all ingredients except salt. Bring to a boil. Simmer until the sugar is completely dissolved. Add a pinch of salt. Transfer to a jar. Let cool before using to generously garnish each slice of cake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Sausage-making

Grainews

Sausages used to be the great unmentionable, made from things no one wanted to know about, never mind eat. But although they began as the thrifty butcher’s way of using up trimmings, sausages have gone uptown.

Making your own sausages, like anything homemade, means the cook controls everything, from the selection of meats, salt and spices to the amount of fat.

Begin at the butcher’s. I buy pork trim, cut it up myself, and grind it as well. If you don’t have a meat grinder, ask the butcher to grind it medium or coarse, or a mixture, if you like a coarser-textured link. It doesn’t have to be just pork, although German and Alsatian pork sausages are justifiably famous. I like to make sausages from pork, turkey, chicken, lamb, beef, or game, but often add ground pork to the mix, especially with game, which is extremely lean. (Hunters take note: the butcher will need your animal’s provenance, so take along the tag – or the information on it – when you take your game to the butcher to be ground.)

Order pork fat from the butcher as well. Old-style sausage-masters will tell you that the best sausages are made with 25 percent fat – for tenderness, mouth feel and flavor. But I drop that figure and add other ingredients – apple, pear, carrot, onion, leek, peppers, mild cabbage – without sacrificing any of those critical elements to keep my sausages’ fat content manageable.

Buy casings too. Natural pork casings are carefully washed intestines, if you must know. Synthetic casings are sometimes available, but really, do you wanna do that? Back in your own kitchen, thaw the casings.

Add salt and seasonings to the meat and fat. Some cooks find that sautéing, roasting or grilling any vegetable additions makes a milder sausage. Please yourself. If you are grinding your own, cut ingredients so they fit in your meat grinder’s feeder tube. Season and chill the mixture overnight before grinding it all. Next day, add ice, cold beer, wine or juice, or ice water to help the mixture develop a sticky texture.

Put the casings into a bowl of water, using a clothespin to clamp one end of a casing onto the edge of the bowl. Remove the clothespin and hold the casing open under running water. Use shears to sever a length several feet long. Re-pin the new end to the bowl, and drain the detached piece.

(To store unused casings indefinitely, drain well and add several large handfuls of kosher salt. Mix, wrap and refrigerate or freeze.)

Sauté a few patties and taste for seasoning. When the blend is balanced to your taste, set up your stuffer with the right size of “horn.” Slide the casing onto the horn. Yes, you can make jokes.

Like some stage productions, stuffing sausage is a four-hander: one person fills the hopper and runs the controls; the other uses both hands to pack the sausage as it fills. Leave a few inches empty at the beginning of the casing so you can tie it off later. Decide on a sausage length, and twist the casing as it fills or afterwards, to create separate sausages, alternating directions, three complete turns each time, to ensure the whole thing doesn’t unravel like a Slinky losing its kinks.

Use a large needle or hatpin to prick any air bubbles as the casing fills, and leave some room at the end. Knot both ends. Repeat. When you are done, don’t wait for dinner. Strike up the grill to celebrate. And congratulations. You have just contributed to an enduring culinary tradition. First we eat, then we talk about how many other ways there are to season sausages.

Turkey Apple Sausages

These sweet links are great with arugula salad, lentils, grainy mustard and crusty rolls. Serve with lightly chilled rosé or German beer.

Makes about 24 sausages

2 lb. white/dark raw boneless turkey

½ lb. pork fat, diced

2 tsp. curry powder or Chinese 5-spice

1 lemon, zest only

2 T. minced fresh thyme

2 T. minced chives

2 T. kosher salt or to taste

black pepper and hot chili flakes to taste

4 apples, peeled, diced and sautéed

¼ c. cooked black beans, chopped

½ c. cold water or white wine

12’ hog casings, as needed

Dice the meat and fat. Combine all the ingredients except apples, beans and water/wine, mixing thoroughly. Chill, Grind. Add remaining ingredients. Test for seasoning before stuffing sausage casings.

Cook on the grill, in a hot oven or under the broiler until the juices run clear, about 8-10 minutes, depending on the size of the sausages.

 

 

 

 

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Winter Greens

Grainews

In winter, when arugula and other salad-ish greens travel thousands of miles, have been contaminated with E. coli or are too costly to be borne with good grace, I turn to sturdier greens for warm salads and robust vegetable dishes.

Mustard greens, or flowering gai lan, a Chinese form of broccoli, are assertive and blend well with strong tastes. When I want a faceful of flavours, I steam gai lan, drain it, and add a couple tablespoons of good marmalade diluted with orange juice to the pan just as the vegetables are nearly done. No marmalade? Use plum or sour cherry preserves and lemon juice.

Sui choy, Nappa or Savoy cabbage are my go-to for tender, mild cabbage. They cook the same as cabbage, but are tender and slightly higher in water content. For a milder flavour, choose baby bok choy.

For more European flavours, I turn to chard, kale or Brussels sprouts.

The Brussels sprout makes an annual winter appearance, but is often ignored as being “too cabbage-y”. Far better to find it in late autumn at a farmers’ market, when you can appreciate its garish Martian-spaceship design of balls clinging to a stalk. But by midwinter, you will only find the bulbs, those perennial keepers, in the supermarket. Like its cabbage cousins, this mini head loves the company of pork, but is reduced to sulphurous fumes if overcooked. Brussels sprouts are utterly divine roasted. Quarter or halve each head, roll in good olive oil with salt and pepper, and roast in a single layer on parchment-lined paper until slightly charred, turning once or twice. Next best is to thinly slice the little buggers, and quickly fry them with bacon, onions and garlic until tender, adding small amounts of water to create steam. Add a drizzle of cream if you like.

Think of chard as two vegetables – the dense stalk and the soft, pliable leaf. Fold each leaf in half lengthwise along the stalk, cut the stalk out, chop up the leaf and set it aside. Chop the stalk and sauté it with onion and garlic. Add the chopped leaves, a bit of water, a handful of dried cranberries, and quickly cook until the leaves wilt. Then add some toasted chopped pecans and maybe a bit of Parmesan or chevre, and toss it on linguini. It’s a riff on a classic Catalan combo of greens with nuts and raisins, so vary it however suits your pantry.

Kale soup shows up from Portugal north to Scandinavia, nearly always partnered with pork, sausages or ham, and dried beans. Be sure to cut out and discard the thick central rib from large leaves. Kale doesn’t reduce its volume as much as other greens, so one bunch is enough to add to the pot. Kale can be braised or stir-fried, but it is dense, and takes awhile to become tender. Be patient. Otherwise, soup is a convenient vehicle. Kale  too is delicious roasted, so separate the leaves, toss them in seasoned olive oil and spread them out on a tray to roast until crispy.

They tell me that winter will end eventually. This year I am not so sure. But until we can pick our own arugula and romaine again, these sturdy greens will sustain us. So first we eat, then we peruse the seed catalogues.

Winter Greens in Coconut Milk

Any sturdy greens will work in this mellow Thai-style dish: my favourites are gai lan, followed by Nappa cabbage. Serve with plain or coconut rice or finely-textured noodles, or as an accompaniment to curries, grilled meats or fish. As with any stir-fry, have all the ingredients sliced and measured before you begin to cook.

Serves 6 as a side dish

1 T. sunflower oil

½ onion, finely sliced

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 T. grated ginger root

4 kaffir lime leaves (use the zest of a lime if you can’t find lime leaves)

½ red bell pepper, julienned

1 coarsely grated carrot

1 tsp. finely minced jalapeno or to taste

½  head sui choy or Nappa cabbage, julienned, or gai lan, left whole

1-14 oz. tin coconut milk

1 tsp. shrimp paste, optional

1 T. fish sauce or chopped anchovies

1 T. honey

the juice and zest of 1 lime

salt and hot chili paste to taste

minced cilantro for garnish

Heat the oil in a large sauté pan, then add the onion, garlic, ginger, lime leaves, bell pepper, carrot and jalapeno. Cook over high heat, stirring, until the vegetables are tender and transparent, about 5 minutes, adding small amounts of water to prevent browning. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Cook, stirring, until the greens are tender. Cook a few extra minutes to reduce and thicken the liquid if desired. Garnish and serve.

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Grainews: First We Eat – I am a runner

Grainews

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

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Grainews: First We Eat -Freezer Archaeology

Grainews

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

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