Tag Archives: garden

Nuts About Spuds

May 2020. As a dedicated spudnut, I save potatoes for next year’s seed. This year I planted Pink Fir Apples, Amarosas, Kennebecs, German Butterballs, Linzer Delikatess, Yukon Golds, Norlands and Purple Vikings. When I dig the first crop, it’s a sign that we’ll be eating spud dishes of all sorts: boxty, champ, shepherd’s pie, colcannon, kugel, latkes, Parmentier, rosti, scalloped, pavé, spudnuts, frites, Anna, bubble and squeak, gnocchi, croquettes, duchesse, chips.

First grown by the Peruvian Incas, potatoes were transported to the Old World in1570 by the Spanish Conquistadores as part of the cultural appropriation that accompanied invasion. But the new vegetables were reviled by Europeans fearful of their nightshade family tree, with cousins including eggplant and tomatoes, but also deadly mandrake and belladonna, and so were grown initially as animal fodder.

It took advocates like Antoine-August Parmentier to make spuds acceptable. Parmentier was a socially conscious chef and medical officer who also enforced smallpox vaccination among Napoleon’s troops. He became a staunch advocate for potatoes after he survived on them in a Prussian prison camp during the Seven Years War (1756-63). He later planted potatoes on his estates near Paris: to create potato cachet, he posted guards during the day, but removed the guards nightly so Parisians could “steal” the plants to grow in their own gardens. His influence endures in French dishes bearing his name as indicators that they contain potatoes. In an ironic moment of food history, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the royal gardens, the Tuileries, were converted to potato fields.

Potatoes migrated to North America in the 1770s. American inventor Ben Franklin attended a “potato feast” cooked by Parmentier for the French king, Louis XIV, who wore a potato flower boutonnière. Franklin subsequently carried seed potatoes home. His colleague, Thomas Jefferson, served as American Minister to France, and one of his slaves, James Hemings, studied to be a chef while they were in Paris. Later, at the White House, Hemings served finely cut potato pieces cooked in hot oil. Et voila: French fries.

It’s amazing that the potato is even eaten in Ireland after the Potato Famine of 1845-51. At that point, Irish Catholics could not own or lease land, so were reduced to tenant farmers and poverty, eating one variety of potato, the Lumper; the Corn Laws made wheat unaffordable, and dairy, fish and cattle were exported en masse to England. But an ecological disaster made a bad situation worse. A plant pathogen, Phytophthora infestans, wiped out the Lumper crop, turning tasty taties into rotting slime. A million Irish died of starvation and a million more fled, mostly for The New World. Thus my potato-loving paternal ancestors became settlers in what would be known as Treaty 3 Territory, the Between the Lakes Territory, Upper Canada, or southern Ontario.

In what became known as Alberta, Daniel Harman, agent for the Northwest Trading Company, mentioned in his journals the harvest of the first potatoes seeded in 1810 near Dunvegan. Forty-three years later, the potato chip was invented in Saratoga Springs, New York. A chef, George Crum, irked when railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt sent back his potatoes for more cooking, thinly sliced the offending potatoes, fried them in oil, and sprinkled the resulting chips with salt. Vanderbilt loved them, triggering our continuing affair with potato chips.

But potatoes have better uses than chips. As my feisty Irish granny was fond of saying, spuds are best served plain, with a few added ingredients – hence latkes, boxty, pommes Anna, or champ. So first we eat, then we’ll swap recipes.

Hedgehog Potatoes

This is one of those deceptive dishes that elevate its few ingredients. It’s also good for practicing your knife skills. Choose uniform oval potatoes – yellow-fleshed are best – of similar size. Make extra! These reheat well, uncovered, in a medium-hot oven. Serves 6

6 potatoes

2 heads of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

chopped chives for garnish

sour cream for garnish

Set the oven at 350 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut off a thin slice of each potato to make a flat surface. Set the potato on its flat side and use a large sharp knife to make parallel cuts across the potato at regular intervals. Do not cut all the way through. Insert a garlic slice into each cut. Repeat with the rest of the potatoes. Transfer the potatoes to the baking sheet. Drizzle with oil, then season with salt and pepper. Bake for an hour, more if needed, basting at intervals. Serve with garnishes.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary

Grainews: First We Eat: The Lake

Grainews

Dave is mourning the passing of the lake that almost surrounded our house for seven years. It covered fifteen acres at its peak, in fact a large slough, but ‘lake’ dignified what was a difficult situation. And now he mourns its loss.

Our lake arrived suddenly and unannounced in April 2011 with the flood that inundated much of the province of Saskatchewan. We’d been in residence at what we’d named Dogpatch for less than a year, and we didn’t yet have a sense of the strategies that any resident of an old house in a rural setting can tell you are de rigueur.

We went from dryland to nearly drowned within a week, as the winter’s large snowmelt met an unexpectedly high water table, gift of a very wet summer and fall. Water over a meter deep in places covered the low-lying driveway, swamped the fields south, west and east of the yard, drowned the contents of the pole barn, and knocked at the house, lapping twenty feet from the front door.

Fortuitously, our cars were parked at the outside edge of our long driveway – that half-kilometer now an impassable stretch of water – so we did have wheels once we reached the road. But getting in and out was interesting. Our good neighbours, Ken and Sharon, did us the biggest in a long list of helping hands over the years, and gave us the use of an ATV.

For almost a year, as we awaited the rebuilding of our flooded road, we splashed through the adjacent field on board the ATV, hauling in groceries, computer parts and paper, dog food, kitty litter, wine, beer. On a dark, cold or rainy night, surrounded by mosquitoes, there was nothing pleasurable about that trip except for its end – and the carolling of the coyotes a few hundred meters away.

Eventually, in an amazing feat of winter engineering, the driveway was built up into a causeway, with front-end loaders breaking through meter-thick ice to build the foundation. A berm went up around the house as well, burying the well-tended garden beneath its protective shoulders.

But outweighing all these challenges was the sheer beauty of the new ecology that engulfed our land. Shore birds, water birds, boreal tree frogs, cattails, bullrushes, black snails, muskrats, dragonflies – we were suddenly in a birder’s paradise. On my daily walks, I learned to identify a dozen species of water fowl, among them grebes, coots, canvasbacks, teals, pintails, buffleheads, ruddy ducks, and mergansers; and shore birds that included avocets and killdeer by the dozen. Occasionally a blue heron or pelican showed up, and Canada geese by the multitude.

We were forewarned. Within weeks of the lake’s arrival, I’d called Trevor Herriot, a Saskatchewan naturalist. “Lakes come and go on the prairie,” he said. “In eight or ten years, it’ll be gone again.”

Sure enough, it’s gone. But the raised beds we built after the garden drowned have borne a wondrous crop. And for that, and for the memory of all those birds, we are grateful. So before embarking on our annual autumn yard cleanup, first we eat – new-crop vegetables made into pickles as addictive as any dessert.

Shon’s Jardineria

The best pickles ever, from my Eastend friend Shon Profit’s prodigious kitchen. Hot-packing and stuffing the full jars into the fridge without processing makes a crisp pickle with a dense bite. Processing softens the end result somewhat. Yield: 2 x 2 L + 8 pints

Brine:

5 c. white vinegar

5 c. rice wine vinegar

10 c. water

¾ c. salt

1 c. white sugar

¾ t. ground turmeric

Dry spice:

for 2 L jar:                                                       for 1 pint jar:

1 T coriander                                                   ½ t. coriander

1 T mustard seed                                             ½ t. mustard seed

1 T cumin seed                                                ½ t. cumin seed

1 t. fennel seed                                                1/8 t. fennel seed

1 T. peppercorns                                              ½ t. peppercorns

½ t. hot chilli flakes                                        a pinch hot chilli flakes

Seasonings [in each 2 L jar; reduce amount to taste for pints]:

1 lime, rind in strips, flesh in 1/8s

1-2 whole hot peppers

6 peeled garlic cloves

6 batons ginger root cut in narrow strips 3” long

Your choice of raw vegetables [cut in batons to length]:

carrots in several colours

zucchini in 2 colours

beans in several colours

cauliflower florets

white/yellow & purple onion wedges

Bring brine to boil & keep hot. Measure spices into hot sterile jars. Drop in seasonings. Pack in vegetables, softest textures first, packing with a pair of chopsticks for a tidy vertical look. Add carrots last to line outside and fill gaps. Either refrigerate for 4-6 weeks before eating or process in canner.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary