Tag Archives: locavore; sustainable food; prairie food; Saskatchewan food; dee Hobsbawn-Smith; Canadian cuisine;

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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Please Pass the Crackers

Grainews

June 2021.

Don’t you wish you could have your buddies over for a bit of a boogie? Miss those chances to hang out and drink wine (sangria, mojitos, local ale, iced herbal tea, ginger lemonade, iced coffee)? Or just hang out? Yep. Me too. I miss parties. I miss hanging out. I miss visits. I miss shared meals. Who knows when we’ll be able to celebrate like that again as we move into our second year of COVID lockdown. Soon, right? Soon.

Back in the day, we threw some dandies. A birthday bash for Dave a few years back was notable, not only because Dave actually allowed me to have a party for him – he is an introvert who treasures his privacy – but because friends came from multiple provinces. And there was our wedding party. If you are fortunate, you’ve attended such a loving expression of joy and friendship as we had with our friends; the gods bless a crowded house to mark a marriage.  Our annual bonspiel on the lake happened on New Year’s Day for the seven years we had the lake until it dried up, and was the ideal mid-winter pick-us-up-and-give-us-a-good-cuddle, the perfect antidote when the thermostat dipped too deeply into the minus range. Nothing like hot cider lakeside, along with some crazy-fool friends willing to join you in sliding frozen articles down the ice, followed by chili and cookies and camaraderie indoors to take off the nip in your cheeks.

So what are we using as antidote to the chill of loneliness, overwork, or simply isolation, these bubble-days? What has taken the place of those crowded houses? The blue drone of the television screen. Maybe too much wine. Too many snacks.

I for one am thoroughly sick of screens. I’d happily live without endless reruns and the bottomless pit of second-rate series and movies available on streaming services. And those viewing snacks have caught up with me. Yes – the chocolate mousse and flourless chocolate cake on special occasions, the chocolate bars, chocolate-covered ginger, chocolate-covered almonds, and chocolate-drizzled popcorn on all the everyday occasions. So I’ve upped my exercise regime. (What is it they say – we eat to live? Is that it? Or do we live to eat? I vacillate between the two.)

In any case, the best cure for the blues, and for the blue screen of the computer and TV, is movement. That is one thing I can do alone, without feeling let down or isolated, that will actually make me feel better. A walk, gardening, run, a second round of Frisbee with the dog. Then when the dog and I nap in the afternoon, I feel justifiably ready to let myself drop off. And when I snack, I gotta give up – or at least rein in – those chocolate bombs. So when my sister found this great cracker recipe and sent it to me with notice of my brother-in-law’s rave review, I made the crackers, thinking of more healthful snacking. And less blue screen. So first we eat some of these yummy crackers, and then it’s time to get outside.

Stella Parks’ Knockout Knockoff Carr’s-Style Whole Wheat Crackers

This recipe comes from seriouseats.com, posted by award-winning American pastry chef Stella Parks. You may agree with Parks and me that Carr’s whole-wheat crackers are the best in the known universe. Grainy, nutty, a hint of sweet – they’re the perfect foil to cheese, nut butters, olive tapenade. I used Saskatchewan-grown Red Fife flour. Use a scale for most accurate measurement if you have one. Thanks to Chef Parks.

Makes about 60 2” crackers

1/3 cup (55 g) wheat germ

1 cup + 6 Tbsp. (160 g) whole wheat flour

1/3 cup (70 g) sugar

¼ tsp. (1 g) kosher salt (less if using table salt)

¼ tsp. cream of tartar

¼ tsp. baking powder

¼ tsp. baking soda

6 Tbsp. (85 g) unsalted butter, cold, cubed

1/3 c. + 2 Tbsp. (100 g) buttermilk or kefir (not milk + lemon juice)

Set oven to 350 C. Line a baking sheet with parchment. Spread the wheat germ on the tray and bake for 3 minutes, or until toasty.

Combine the wheat germ with the remaining dry ingredients in the work-bowl of a food processor or in a bowl if you are working manually.  Blitz to blend. Add the butter and blitz into finely textured powder. Add the buttermilk and pulse just to blend.

Turn onto a floured counter and roll out thinly (about ¼”), flouring surfaces of counter and dough as needed. Dock the dough at regular intervals with the tines of a fork to minimize excess rising. Cut into 2” squares with a large, floured blade. Transfer to the baking sheet with an offset spatula or the knife blade. Bake for 15-18 minutes, depending on how brown you like your crackers. Cool on the tray and store in a tin at room temperature.

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“Mother” soup

Grainews

April 2021.

Before the polar vortex returned and the morning thermometer read -40 C, I spent some time splitting birch for the wood stove in the kitchen. We live in a house that’s over one hundred years old, and my mom thinks that it was originally assembled from two grain bins bolted together; three steps lead down from those two rooms to the kitchen. Each room has its own temperature and climate, and walking through the house is like entering and departing adjoining countries, each with its own warm or chilly welcome.

On days like that, the big kitchen is not warm unless I keep the fire bustling in the wood stove and have pots on all four burners of the gas stove, located at opposing ends of the kitchen’s long acreage. My upstairs studio can be hot in summer and chilly in winter, with its south-facing wall of glass. So too the sunroom, faced on three sides with glass windows, but busy nonetheless, containing Dave’s office, our dining table, my orchids, herbs, fig tree and desert succulents, but it’s made bearable in deepest winter by a little gas fireplace that the cat loves. My studio and kitchen are my favourite rooms all the same. The warmest room, to my surprise, is often the centrally located living room, where the internal conversations of thousands of books on our shelves generate sparks and fire.

Well, okay, maybe that’s not the real reason, but it sounds better than the pragmatic scientific facts. The facts, just the facts, are hot air rising from the kitchen up those three steps, the living room’s high number of doorways – five – and the presence of a bamboo-bladed ceiling fan that circulates air from one room to the next. And the sunlight. The living room too faces south, and on high winter afternoons, curling up with a book in the big armchair while the sunlight induces a snooze is a brilliant way to get through the cold snap.

Of course another good way to survive the cold is to cook. I’ve been spending a lot of time in the kitchen, and I recently asked Dave to give me a list of what he’d like to eat. Generous man, he immediately asked why. “I love all your cooking, sweetie,” he said. “I want to stay out of the rut,” I said. “If I keep track of what I’ve made and you give me that list, I’ll be less likely to repeat myself.”

This of course triggered a long conversation about the joy of leftovers and of eating favourite dishes regularly. But the truth is that every cook falls into a rut. Having a list of ideas to offset creative dry spells, as I used to when I ran my Calgary restaurant several lifetimes ago, is like walking from one room into another, a pandemic-sized metaphor for travel. Dave asks for Japanese ramen and curry bread, pad thai, Korean fried chicken, a swathe of Italian pasta, French classics like duck confit, bouillabaisse, and leek and potato soup. But he asks for the cold version – vichyssoise – ignoring the fact that leek and potato soup appears regularly on our table, albeit in disguise. Want North African chickpea soup? Add chickpeas, cumin, ginger, paprika, cilantro, preserved lemon. Want cheese and cauliflower? Yep, stir ‘em in. Want clam chowder? You got it. Coconut curry? Add coconut cream, fish sauce and kaffir lime leaves, maybe a bit of peanut butter.

Leek and potato soup is the mother soup of all soups. And on this bitterly cold day, I want all the calories I can cram into the pot, so I add grated cheese, chopped roasted cauliflower, leftover roast chicken, and a drizzle of cream to the pot. Antidote to the polar vortex? Maybe not. But it fuels us, and brings pleasure to a bitter day. First we eat, then we plan a post-pandemic vacation somewhere warm, with bamboo fans and sand.

dee’s Mother Soup

French cooks are used to the idea of “mother sauces”, basic sauces that are embellished with a host of ingredients, changing names as they change their stature. This soup works the same way – make it plain or add what embellishments you fancy. I use a hand-held immersion wand to puree half the soup, relying on the potatoes to serve as self-contained thickening agent.

butter or oil for the pan

1 head garlic, minced

1 leek or onion, minced

1 tsp. dried thyme

½ cup white wine (optional)

4-6 potatoes, cubed

6-8 cups chicken stock

salt and pepper to taste

cream to taste

Heat the oil or butter in a heavy pot, add the garlic and sauté until fragrant but not coloured. Add the leek or onion and sauté until tender. Add the thyme and wine, then stir in the potatoes, stock and seasoning. Cover and simmer until tender. Puree half the soup to thicken it. Garnish as preferred.

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In my grandmother’s kitchen

Grainews

April 2021.

Dave and I live in my grandparents’ house in rural Saskatchewan. Back in the day it was a three-room farmhouse, the long narrow kitchen its beating heart, the other two rooms chilly and dark – heated only by the wood stove and illuminated by kerosene lanterns. Electricity came in the 1950s, when the local farmers formed a co-operative to string the wires across all their farms, but they were sparing in its use.

Gran was a canny cook, frugal, simultaneously fierce and gentle. I have fragmented memories of her holding a hatchet, a chicken in its dying Ichabod Crane moments lurching – headless – around the yard. She put up those birds in quart sealers, packing white and dark meat on the bone into the jars and simmering them in her canning pot. On our visits from airbases across the country, I would tiptoe down the steeps basement stairs, fumbling through the cupboards to find the right jar among the plenty that lined the shelves – chicken, dill and mustard pickles, peaches and pears, plums, jams, applesauce.

Her garden was a haven on hot afternoons. The rows of corn and raspberry canes were ideal for hide and seek. In the strawberry patch, I would drop to my knees and forage while my brothers leaped among the plants like jack rabbits.

My grandfather slaughtered a steer each autumn, its carcass twirling on a hook in the back reaches of his garage, blood setting under his fingernails as he and my dad used a saw and scimitar to take the beast apart like a jigsaw puzzle. Gran and Mom wrapped and froze the meat, some of the brown packages invariably making their way home with us in a cooler to take up residence in our own freezer. There was a smokehouse, too, with a small hatch to feed the fire, and I remember sausages and slab bacon, smoked pork hocks and chops, and densely textured smoke-kissed ham unlike anything on store shelves. Nowadays whenever I walk into a good smokehouse, its fragrant air careens me back to my childhood.

Gran’s cooking was simple, relying on what they grew themselves, augmented in summer by cases of peaches, apricots, plums, pears and apples from the Okanagan fruit truck. In winter, cabbages, beets, carrots and onions filled wooden bins and boxes of sand in the basement. Her bread was made with flour from the mill in town, from grain my grandfather and other local farmers had grown and harvested. She kept a crock of starter on the counter, and her pancakes and breads were alive with its deep, fermented, bubbling laughter. For dessert, she made date squares, apple kuchen, apple pie, apple strudel – I have an indelible memory of our hands almost touching through the windowpane of finely rolled strudel dough – and cookies, sometimes gingersnaps that bit back, sometimes big, soft raisin cookies.

The house remembers them both, but especially her. It isn’t haunted, not in the spooky way that TV shows like to portray, but in a deeply rooted presence, a sense of reassuring repetition, and in our matching culinary ethos, as well as in the way my face is slowly tilting toward the etched planes of hers when I look in the mirror in what had been her bedroom.  There are much worse things than growing older in my grandmother’s shadow.

Beet and Cabbage Borscht

At cooking school in Vancouver in the early 1980s, I learned to make a version of this earthy soup that my grandmother would have barely recognized, with shredded duck, garnished with a profiterole stuffed with duck paté. It struck me as odd until I remembered my grandfather hunting ducks, and my grandmother frying duck and chicken livers, then grinding them up with fried onions to make a rich spread that we smeared on her sourdough bread and dipped into our borscht.

Feeds a crowd.

4 slices bacon, diced

olive oil for the pot

8 cloves garlic, minced

1 onion, diced

2 cups diced beets, raw or cooked

2 cups finely shredded cabbage

½ cup diced carrots

½ cup diced celery

2 Tbsp. herbes salées (salted herbs) or ¾ tsp. each dried basil and thyme

8 cups chicken stock

2 cups diced potatoes

1 lb. shredded cooked meat, your choice, optional

salt and pepper to taste

Garnishes:

minced fresh dill or chives

sour cream or yoghurt

chicken liver paté

crusty bread

Heat the oil in a stock pot, add the bacon and sauté until the fat is released. Add the garlic and onion, and sauté until fragrant and half tender. Add the remaining vegetables, stir and sauté for several minutes, then stir in the herbs, stock and potatoes. Simmer, covered, until tender. Add the optional meat and heat through, then balance with salt and pepper to taste. Garnish and serve.

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Vinegar

Grainews

February 2021. My palate tips to sour, as opposed to my husband, who prefers sweet stuff. I am not sure I can draw any conclusions, but it makes for interesting small talk while we drink our morning coffee. So as a certified sourpuss, I was thrilled to recently read about Alchemist Vinegar, artisanal vinegars made by Paul Poutanen, owner of Tippa, a distiller in Okotoks, Alberta. I promptly ordered a sampler and am awaiting its arrival. I love vinegar, and six open bottles occupy prime real estate on the butcher-block beside my stove. They offer testament to more than a passion for salads and things sour. Acid is one of the cornerstones of the balancing act – seasoning a dish with salt, acid, heat, sweetness, even fat, to bring its flavours into harmony.

Many of the vinegars on my caddy are Canadian – wine, balsamic and sherry, malt and cider. What they have in common is acetic acid, that nose-tickling, assertively pungent waft of acid that increases in strength when it is heated. Vinegar is made from alcohol, with specific proportions of specific bacteria that need warmth and oxygen to metabolize the booze into acetic acid and water. Along the way, the bacteria live on the surface of the liquid, forming a thick, slimy, yucky film known as the “mother.” (Winemakers and vinegar makers live in an uneasy truce if they are neighbours, and often the vinegary is located far from the winery to minimize the possibility of the mother consorting with the young wine, with predictably sour results.)

Some of my bottles hold self-infused vinegars – my own fruits, berries and herbs stuffed into jars of cider or wine vinegars. My favourite infused vinegar is vanilla-flavoured: cut open two vanilla pods, scrape out the seeds and add both seeds and pods to a bottle of mild vinegar. Cover and let infuse for at least a month, then use sparingly, for flavour accents as well as acidity. Malt vinegars, made from cereal grains and sprouted barley, carry distinct reminders of their beer base, well exemplified by Spinnaker’s Gastro-pub vinegars. Apple cider vinegar has an unmistakable orchard fruit note, like that made by Okanagan Vinegary Brewery.

Two Canadian wine-based vinegars that I love have achieved cult status, each made in a winemaking region. The boutique winemaking Venturi-Schulze family of Cobble Hill, near Victoria, has produced Canada’s first balsamic vinegar since 1970. Just as is in Italy, the grape juice is simmered and reduced, then aged in a series of wooden barrels – acacia, ash, oak, cherry and chestnut – in a solera system similar to that used in sherry-making, with the evaporated portion called “the angels’ share.” Michelle Schulze, step-daughter of patriarch Giordano Venturi and daughter of former micro-biologist Marilyn Schulze Venturi, told me years ago that vinegar-making requires even better grapes than those used in wine-making because such reduction highlights any weaknesses. The Italians of Modena, the birthplace of balsamic, say that balsamic vinegar is not made for your children, nor for your grandchildren, but for your children’s children’s children. This balsamic is subtly wood-scented, darkly sweet, overlaid with mellow acids. Dole it out, drizzle it on ice cream and as a finish for intensely flavoured sauces, pour it into tiny digestif glasses at the conclusion of a meal.

Made in Niagara, Minus 8 is similar to icewine, as it too is made from grapes that are not harvested until the temperature drops to -8C, and barrel-aged in a solera sherry-making style. This vinegar has a woodsy nose, its sweetness counterweighted by assertively balanced acid. The house website lists several other vinegars: you might want to try IP8, Dehydr8, Veget8 or L8Harvest.

Soon I’ll have a few more bottles of vinegar on the caddy. But first we eat, and then we compare notes on your favourites.

Spiced Gastrique

A gastrique is a quick and simple sauce, a reduction, highly flavourful and on the sharp side, that is based on caramelized sugar and vinegar enhanced with optional spices. Think of it as a digestif, and drizzle on grilled or roasted fish or meats that are rich and in need of sharp flavours that cut to the bone.

Serves 4

¼ cup white sugar

1 whole star anise or ¼ tsp. cracked fennel/anise seed

2/3 cup white wine

2-3 Tbsp. good (but not exceptional) vinegar

Black pepper and salt to taste

In a shallow sauté pan over high heat, dissolve the sugar in 4 Tbsp. water with the star anise or seeds, stirring. Once the water evaporates, caramelize the sugar without stirring, about 3-5 minutes. Slowly add the wine and reduce by half the volume. Add the vinegar and reduce again by one-third. Season to taste. Use hot on grilled or roasted foods.

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Salt

Grainews

February 2021. Let’s start over.  Yes, we are still in the grip of a pandemic. But there’s hope, and food is part of it. To reboot, here’s the first in several parts on culinary essentials – the balancing act of salt, acid, heat and sweet. Today, salt. Like many cooks, I keep an array of salts on my butcher block.

Historically, salt has been used to make political statements: in 1930, Mahatma Gandhi led a nonviolent march against the British tax on salt in his efforts to free India from British rule. Salt became the symbol of protest against colonial oppression as he led a 241-mile walk to the salt mines in Dandi, on the Arabian Sea.

Gandhi was right about salt’s value. “Salt of the earth” or being “worth one’s salt” imply rock-solid value, and salt is a traditional gift to celebrate friendship and a new home. However, according to food scientist Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, excess salt is implicated in digestive system cancers, may cause loss of bone calcium and exacerbate chronic kidney disease. But we need it, as Gandhi knew. A daily gram of salt is vital for our blood plasma, where sodium and chloride ions balance potassium and other ions in our cells. In the kitchen, salt enhances the aroma and taste of food, modifies flavour by countering bitterness or acidity, and is a preservative. We source salt from the sea and inland: water evaporates, leaving the mineral behind.

Maldon salt, from Essex, in southeastern England, has been sourced from the same spot for a century. Its costly, recognizable large flakes are crunchy flavour bombs, ideal on baked goods, caramel ice cream, roasted meats, fish and vegetables. Packaged without anti-caking additives, it tastes mild and pure.

Iodized table salt includes traces of potassium iodide, good with thyroid function. (The thyroid governs the body’s heat production, protein metabolism, and development of the nervous system.). Table salt contains anti-clumping additives to keep the salt flowing in humid conditions. It has a bitter, tinny, metallic finish. 

Unrefined sea salt, called sel marin or sel gris (grey salt), is minimally processed in Guerande, Brittany. The seawater’s salinity increases as it is “herded” through channels into successively shallower pools called oeillets. Surface salt crystals are raked off by hand by paludiers (salt harvesters). Moist and gray, its complex taste is due to traces of magnesium chloride, potassium, magnesium, copper and clay particles. The degree of saltiness varies.

Fleur de sel (flower of salt) is considered the finest, most delicate salt from Guerande, where paludiers rake off the fine flakes, which are air-dried in wicker baskets. This expensive mild connoisseur’s salt is good on finished dishes. Finer-textured than sel gris, think of it as a condiment more than a salt.

Pink Hawaiian sea salt is coloured by added clay rich in iron oxide.

Pickle-makers choose pickling salt, an additive-free coarse salt that does not turn pickling brine cloudy.

Kosher salt is iodine-free, additive-free, traditionally used to draw out blood and impurities in meat during the koshering process. It is slightly coarse but flaky, and is ideal for daily cooking. It is milder, so you may need to use more. Kosher salt is my day-to-day go-to.

Korean and Japanese salts are moist, like sel gris, but are a mixture of sizes of crystals. Creamy white and fairly salty, a little goes far.

Rock salt, mass-produced for use on roads and sidewalks, can be used in old-fashioned ice cream makers (on the ice, not the cream) to drop the temperature and hasten the freezing process. Use one part salt to five parts ice.

So let’s eat first. Don’t forget the salt.

Herbes Salées

Salted herbs are a Quebecois staple, a smart preserving method for gardeners faced with winter nipping down their herb beds each year. The types of herbs you use depend on what you grow: my current batch includes basil, oregano, parsley, chives, thyme, tarragon and a wee bit of sage and rosemary. Add minced celery leaves, kale, spinach or chard if you like, or even minced carrot. This only works with fresh herbs, not dried, so mark your calendar for next summer or fall. Good in sauces and gravies, soups, gratins, risottos, etc. Keeps for several months in the fridge.

Makes 1 quart

1 cup minced basil

1 cup minced thyme

1 cup minced parsley

1 cup minced oregano

1 cup minced tarragon

1 cup minced chives

¼ cup minced rosemary and/or sage

½ cup kosher salt

Mix together and transfer to a glass jar. Cover and store in the fridge for a week before using. Keep refrigerated.

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Kitchen Kids 2

Grainews

January 2021. When my Millennial kids were young, on the last Friday of each month I showed up at school early, having first made a trip to the recycling centre to return our household’s flotsam. “Noon dismal,” my kids called it, that early discharge. We made it into a family ritual by going out for Vietnamese pho, the modest cost usually covered by what I had pocketed at the recycling centre. I figured it was a good lesson in the tangible upside of recycling, but it also gave my boys an early and lasting fondness for food from another culture.

Eating out was a rarity in our household, reflective of my job as a chef, and of the era: a recent study reported by Dalhousie University shows that 64 percent of Millennials ate home-cooked meals while growing up, down considerably from the 94 percent attributed to those born before 1946, but more than Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2012), 55 percent of whom were raised on home-cooked meals.

Since the pandemic, 60 percent of Canadians regularly cook at home, which anyone in charge of their family’s weekly shopping trip is aware of – shelves bare of flour and yeast, denuded fruit and vegetable bins in grocery stores attest to our hands-on habits of late. Home cooking is enjoying the biggest surge in decades, with even Millennials and Gen Z adults swerving from their habits of buying meal kits and pickup/takeout to wielding a knife from time to time. So, parents, the question becomes this – how to involve the kids in caring about food?

Empowering your child to make good choices by talking about food – who grows it, how it fuels the body, the differences between healthy and junk food – will help them learn to make better choices in self-care. Start by instilling exercise as a habit. Appetites will bloom. Beyond that, here’s how you can approach the subject. Keep it Simple, Sweetie: KISS.

KEEP IT SIMPLE.

* New ways to present old favourites can open new possibilities. Not too weird, and the ingredients should be recognizable. Or not: you can always hide less-than-favourite foods in other dishes. For instance, add grated zucchini to a frittata or crispy fried fritters.

Buy raw foods rather than packages, whole fruit rather than cans or processed junk foods. If it’s in the house, it will get eaten, so simply minimize temptations and avoid lecturing. But if you don’t have something – potato chips, say – in the house, you and your child will eat fewer potato chips and you won’t have an argument about what to eat at snack time.

INVESTIGATE OTHER CUISINES.

* When it is again safe to dine out, take your children to restaurants for different flavours and textural exposure. Be curious. Cook unfamiliar foods. Kids won’t eat adventurously if parents don’t. Visit ethnic markets and the library. Look online to figure out how to make things like salad rolls, then do it together. Come spring, take your kids to the garden or help them seed herbs and carrots in pots.

STRENGTHEN SKILLS.

Until it is safe to attend cooking classes, there are many online lessons. Watch Jacques Pépin make two types of omelettes on YouTube, for instance, then go to the kitchen and copy him.

SAME SAME.

What you eat is what your kids eat. Do not cook down to kids or cook a “kids’ meal.” Do not buy into “I don’t like it because it is green/white/purple.” Insist that everyone try everything once or maybe twice. Our house rule was always that you couldn’t form an opinion if you hadn’t tried at least a few bites. So first we eat, and then we debate the merits of  live versus virtual cooking classes.

Salad Rolls with Dip

Everyone loves noodles. These are fat-free and tenderly delicious. Makes about 12 rolls

Hoisin, peanut or oyster sauce dip:

¼ cup hoisin sauce, oyster sauce or peanut butter         

2-3 Tbsp. lemon juice                                                          

1 Tbsp. minced cilantro                                           

1 Tbsp. garlic, pureed                                                          

1 Tbsp. ginger root, pureed                                    

½ tsp. hot chili paste                                                           

soy sauce or salt to taste

½ cup water                                                                                                 

Salad rolls:

1 lb. cooked chicken, BBQ duck or pork, finely sliced

1 bunch cilantro, minced or whole leaves

2 cups cooked fine-textured vermicelli-shape noodles (rice, bean thread or wheat)

2 tbsp. pureed garlic

2 tbsp. pureed ginger

1 bunch green onions, sliced

1 package rice paper sheets in dried rounds

warm water for soaking the sheets

To make the dip, combine its ingredients and adjust to taste.

For the rolls, combine the pork, cilantro, noodles and seasonings in a bowl. Mix well.

One sheet at a time, immerse the rice sheets in a bowl of warm water. When pliable, lay flat on a smooth-textured kitchen towel.

Place the filling on the lower third of the sheet. Tuck in the edges and roll up. Repeat until all filling is used up. Serve cold with a dip.

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