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

“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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Kitchen Kids 1

Grainews

January 2021. The knife was small, with a curved tip and serrated blade. As knives go, it looked safe. But that didn’t prevent my anxiety the first time I put it into my child’s hand. He was four, and stood on a sturdy chair. He used that knife to saw up carrots and celery, spuds, an apple. Then, his mouth full of apple slices, he grinned like he’d won a medal. That was thirty-one years ago. That boy now towers over me, and in his hands, knives dance the fandango.

My parenting philosophy has always been that everyone needs to be self-reliant, which includes being able to swim and feed themselves. So we were regulars at the pool, and I taught my kids to cook. Truth is, my approach to kids cooking might seem draconian. “A knife?” some ask, aghast. “You let your four-year-old use a sharp knife?” Yes, of course. We learn by doing. Just make the experience as fun and safe as you can.

The element of fun is crucial. So is patience, and letting go of expectations. In a child’s exploratory hands, a dish will be reinvented. This is a child, with no experience or basis for comparisons. Be kind. And forget about what you have witnessed on TV cooking shows.

But beyond learning how to use that knife, culinary literacy begins with conversation, then shopping and putting away what they helped buy. Kids eat what they have had a hand in selecting.

When you decide it’s time for your kids to join your home’s kitchen brigade, plan ahead. For the first forays, pick days free of other plans. Ask your child to choose a recipe they would like to try, one new dish at a time. Little ones can smash and peel garlic, wash greens, grate cheese, core apples, peel carrots and spuds, slice vegetables, stir liquids and whisk with vigour. Older kids can start with scrambled eggs, vinaigrette, salad, French toast, quesadillas, stir fries, soup, stew, muffins.

Screen the recipe for suitability. It’s unreasonable to attempt a 4-star dish before your kid can slice carrots. Write a list of missing ingredients, together, then take your kid shopping if that’s feasible, or make sure the ingredients are available for the chosen day.

Make sure your kitchen is ready to use, pots and counters clean. Clear the counter. Young cooks spread out over every available inch. Remind them that “M is for Mother, not Maid,” and teach them to clean up after themselves in the kitchen.

Set house rules for stove, oven and microwave use. Make sure your child knows how to turn everything on and off. Go over safety rules, including hand-washing hygiene. Model best practices by using the right tool for the job.

Expect the process to take much longer than you want it to. Children move slowly, especially when doing something new or unfamiliar. Don’t pressure your child to rush. If there is a deadline, choose another day.

Assign one job at a time. Resist the temptation to take over. Your child will learn more by doing than watching. Bite your tongue. Do not issue a barrage of directions.

Don’t visibly flinch when your child picks up a knife. Make sure the knives are sharp; dull knives, requiring more force to do the job, are much more dangerous. Give children under nine a small serrated knife, preferably with a curved tip.

Be patient. Voice your appreciation for the child’s willingness, work ethic and results.

Then eat and wash up together. Ask your child what they think of the finished dish, and discuss what could be different the next time. Ask them, “What next?” and make a date. First you eat, then you do it all over again. Eating is mandatory: cooking should be too.

Chicken, Lemon & Wild Rice Soup

This Maurice Sendak-inspired soup is a happy blend of a Greek classic with Canadian ingredients, and makes a delicious soup that can be endlessly tweaked depending on the ingredients on hand. Serves 4-6

2 Tbsp. olive oil                                            

2 Tbsp. grated fresh ginger root                

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 onion, minced                                            

1/2 cup white wine, optional

1 cup minced fresh green beans, cabbage or carrots                              

1/2 cup cooked white beans                                  

1/2 cup cooked basmati or wild rice         

2 cups diced cooked chicken          

4 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock                              

2 lemons, juice and zest                              

4 Tbsp. minced parsley

salt and hot chili flakes to taste

In a heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil and sauté the ginger, garlic and onion until tender, adding small amounts of water as needed to prevent browning. Add the wine, bring to the boil, then stir in the raw vegetables, cooked beans, rice, chicken and stock. Cover, bring to the boil and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until tender. Add the lemon juice, zest, and parsley. Add salt and hot chili flakes, and more lemon juice if needed to balance the soup.

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The Big Cheese

Grainews

October 2020. Life in a pandemic takes its toll in many ways. One of the noticeable changes is how we spend our leisure time. No trips this year – not that I was actively planning, and not that I go often, but I’d love to see Europe again. I want to see Asia, too, and Australia, Africa, South America, more of North America. But not under these conditions. Not now. But the whole travel thing is complicated by my unwillingness to be the proverbial exploitative tourist. I do not want to take advantage of people.

So I’ve been reading instead, notably American humourist Calvin Trillin’s Tummy Trilogy. I adore his wicked humour as he tootles across the continent with the longsuffering Alice, and I howl every time I read about the next hotsy-totsy “La-Maison-De-La-Casa-House” restaurant he skewers. It’s a great way to do a little “on the road-ing” without leaving the safety of my ancient schlofbonk in my upstairs studio. Then for a change of pace and tone, I turn to foodie flicks and Bourdain reruns. (Check your library or online: Big Night; Julie & Julia; Babette’s Feast; Mostly Martha; Ratatouille; Like Water for Chocolate; Tampopo; Eat Drink Man Woman; Soul Food; The Wedding Banquet.)

But mostly I’ve been cooking. It’s been my cure for stress, trauma, and day-to-day worry for decades. This morning, for instance, I was suffering from anxiety about a pair of feral kittens who were born in our barn this spring. Last week their loving mama took them on a hunting lesson, then she got hunted. Now the kittens are orphans, stranded halfway down our driveway, sheltering in a stand of aspens, afraid to venture home. I fear for them. Coyotes hunt close by, as do red-tail hawks and great horned owls. The kittens won’t be coaxed and they are too wild to pick up. So I feed them. Then I go back to my kitchen and cook. Today I plan to make grilled Gruyere cheese sandwiches for lunch. Or maybe we’ll have fondue made with Gruyere for supper instead. Last week we had Margherita pizza topped with Gruyere. And corn quesadillas with the last of the summer vegetables and grated Gruyere. A Gruyere and new potato omelet for brunch. French onion soup with extra Gruyere. Lamb burgers topped with…

You bet there’s a theme. I received a big – I mean BIG – block of very good Gruyere from a friend who was passing through town a couple weeks ago. (We visited safely, in a park, a picnic at arm’s length. Then she hauled this enormous piece of cheese from her cooler and went on her way.) We’ve been eating Gruyere-everything ever since.

You might, in a generalized way, call it “Swiss” cheese, but Alpine or high-mountain cheeses include Franco-Swiss Gruyere; Swiss Emmenthal and Appenzeller; French Cantal, Beaufort (a type of Gruyere) and reblochon; Italian Fontina, Asiago and Gordo; and Norwegian Jarlsberg. They are made in summer, when the cows graze in high-elevation meadows. The milk is made into big wheels of cheese that often have holes from carbon dioxide generated during the cheese-making process. In general, all are dense, sweet, nutty, cave-aged – and slightly crystalline as they age. Gruyere is one of more than 180 European cheeses that have Protected Designation of Origin (DOC) status, so its production is strictly limited, and contained within a geographic region and to particular methods of production.

These cheeses are all yummy. Feed the kittens, download that movie or your favourite Bourdain episode, and melt some cheese. First we eat, then we talk about Meryl Streep as Julia Child. Great casting… and by the way, the kittens found their own way safely home to the barn.

Classic Alpine Cheese Fondue

Use a single type or a traditional mixture of Alpine cheeses – Gruyere, Appenzeller and Emmenthal – and add non-traditional ones – Asiago and Jarlsberg – to taste. Allow 1/4 lb. cheese per person. Add exotic flavour agents like truffle-infused oil before serving if you like. Set out a range of garnishes to suit your palate: sliced raw or cooked vegetables, crusty bread cubes, sliced ham or sausages, pickles and olives, chutneys and savoury relishes. Don’t ignore la religiouse, the crust on the bottom of the pot; for many, it’s the best bit of fondue.

Serves 4

1 clove garlic, halved

1 lb. grated cheese, a mixture

1 Tbsp cornstarch

1 1/2 cups dry white wine

Garnishes and dippers:

a drizzle of herb-infused olive oil or truffle oil, optional

crusty bread

vegetables

ham, kielbasa or other cooked sausage

Rub the garlic along the inner surface of a fondue pot.  Toss the cheese and  cornstarch together. Heat the wine in a heavy-bottomed pot to just below boiling point. Add a handful of cheese, whisking well, and add more as each handful melts. Stir until homogeneous. Transfer to fondue pot or small individual bowls. Serve warm with preferred garnishes and dippers.

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MFK & Me

Grainews

September 2020. I’ve been thinking rather a lot about M.F.K Fisher. That is unsurprising – she’s been one of my food-writing writing candles in the night for decades, ever since I read her small and elegant book, A Cordiall Water. I went on to acquire everything Fisher wrote, including her wartime response to food-rationing, How to Cook a Wolf, and her grief-imbued The Gastronomical Me, which along with her culinary evolution records the illness and suicide of her beloved second husband.

But beyond those early influences are the more recent: of course this column’s title, “First We Eat” is a Fisher-ism, one that perfectly ascribes the primary importance of food. I am also hip-deep in writing a Master’s thesis about Fisher and her one-sided literary relationship with an older man, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, author of The Physiology of Taste, which Fisher translated in 1949. He was a provincial French lawyer with a profound interest in things scientific and all things culinary, and he was a survivor of the French Revolution. He died in 1826, a year after he self-published his one and only book. When Fisher undertook her translation, she was a rising literary star, with several books under her belt, mostly written in the intensely personal essay form that she became famous for and which has become the staple of the food writing genre she is credited with originating.

Fisher had the gift of insight and the skill of observation, which she hitched to her perpetual curiosity about people. In this way she was like Brillat-Savarin, whom she called “the Professor” (as he did himself, for his pleasure in once being mistaken for an august elder academic).

Brillat-Savarin is nowadays remembered chiefly for several of his aphorisms, most famously among them, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are”. But his book is more than a collection of witticisms. He thought widely – about food, its actions within the human body, about science, about the nature of being human, and like Fisher, he was a close observer of humanity.

In one of my favourite anecdotes from his book, Brillat-Savarin describes his trip on horseback in 1793 during the Reign of Terror, the most terrifying days of the French Revolution, to visit the local Representative, a certain Monsieur Prot, to ask for a safe-conduct paper in an attempt to avoid prison and certain execution by guillotine. During his visit, he had the presence of mind to take advantage Madame Prot’s love of music, and it was at her behest that he left the house with head still firmly attached and papers in hand. But as telling was his response en route to the Representative’s house: stopping at an inn, he spotted game birds and a hare roasting on the kitchen spit, and told himself, “Providence has not completely deserted me after all. Let us pluck this flower as we go by; there’s always time left for us to die.”

In her footnote on the scene, Fisher writes, “He does not say that they were a typical pair of newly arisen politicians in a most unsavoury government… He does not say that Madame had bad manners… He does not say that she was a wrinkled old singing teacher… He does not say that he used her… And as for the dinner… it is everything admirable about a man with his back to the wall who can yet dine and drink and sing with gaiety as well as good manners.”

Even so. First we too eat, even with our backs to the figurative but isolating wall of Covid-19, and as we observe the long-drawn-out American election process. Today, we share a delicious chicken schnitzel embellished with lemon caper sauce. I wish you gaiety and good manners as you dine.

Chicken Schnitzel with Lemon Caper Sauce

I like Japanese panko crumbs for their texture, but any dry crumbs, not too coarse, will do. Add a salad dressed sharply in vinaigrette and a good bottle of white wine. Serves 2

2 boneless chicken breasts

salt and pepper to taste

¼ cup flour

1 egg

¼ cup milk

1 cup bread crumbs

olive oil for the pan

¼ cup butter

1 lemon, juice and zest

2 Tbsp capers

2 Tbsp chopped parsley

Put the chicken in a plastic bag and use a meat mallet or the base of a small pan to pound it flat and even. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Put the flour in a shallow bowl, mix together the egg and milk in a second, and put the crumbs in a third. Dip the chicken pieces in flour, then egg mix, then coat them in the crumbs.

Heat the oil in a sauté pan, then fry the chicken in medium-high heat, turning once. When cooked through, transfer the meat to plates and keep warm in the oven.

Wipe the crumbs from the pan. Add the butter. When it foams, add the lemon juice and zest, capers and parsley. Spoon over the chicken and serve immediately.

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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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Grainews: First We Eat: In Good Company

Grainews

 We arrived for a preliminary visit at the farm in June 2010, a month ahead of our move-in date. Over-anxious? Eager? Yes, both, but mostly we came early to help my aging parents move out – into a bungalow in a nearby town – and to paint the old farmhouse we were moving into.

I drove from Calgary with my eldest son and my miniature schnauzer. Dave drove from Regina. We all stayed across the road from my parents’ farm, with Ken and Sharon, already friends, and destined to become even closer once we actually settled. A few days passed doing the hard work of getting my parents established in what had been my grandparents’  “town house.” Then we cleaned the old farmhouse, and we bought paint: sunny yellow, to magnify the high prairie light, with red for trim. I’d learn soon enough that such a red required multiple coats to get it just right.

I stashed the cooler I’d hauled along while Dave called in the troops – writers and artists he’d met and maintained friendships with since his days as Writer in Residence at the Saskatoon Public Library. They were people I’d met already too, at readings, and at writing retreats and workshops. Together we’d built quinzhees, shared meals, read early drafts of new work, made music. I’d been welcomed into the community. So it felt okay to invite them to a work bee that included home cooking.

The day of, most of the gang arrived, but one carful of city friends got lost en route and called from somewhere else, they weren’t sure where. But they were at a corner, and could see the road signs, so I explained the ups and downs of rural roads – township and range, and how to interpret their numbering. Eventually they arrived, cheerful and still game to paint.  I told them about the countless times I’d arrived with a carful too – kids, cats, dogs – from Calgary, to visit the parents, invariably late in the afternoon or evening as the light was fading, but back in pre-cellphone days, and before road signs numbered each intersection, when all I had to guide me were the crossing points of the hydro line across the south field and a dimly remembered sense of rightness – surely this must be the right road? Sometimes it was, sometimes not. Once I’d driven in circles at moonrise with hungry kids and wailing kittens distracting my highway-fogged brain almost past bearing, hoping to stumble across a stretch of road I recognized, an intersection, a length of fence. Fortunately, I’d finally looked up and found the hydro lines, in the right field, at the right fence, only a few minutes from waiting grandparents.

On our painting date, our friends finally found us, and we spent two days painting the house together. I cranked up my parents’ barbecue, left behind for the occasion, and fed us all.

My fallback salad dressing then, as now, was a vinaigrette-style Caesar dressing. After we cleaned the paintbrushes, I spooned it over salad greens and a glorious mishmash of grilled vegetables, sausages, chicken thighs, salmon and steaks. During this past winter, I’ve used the same dressing on roasted cauliflower, roasted Brussels sprouts, roasted squash, roasted onions, roasted peppers, roasted asparagus, roasted eggplant, and occasionally on a variety of salad greens. It feeds artists, writers and farmers with equally openhanded generosity on all manner of food, so make lots. First we eat, then we store the extras in the fridge for tomorrow.

dee’s Caesar Salad Dressing

When you make your Caesar, add fruit in season – orange segments and pomegranate seeds in winter; watermelon and grapes in summer. Serve on salad greens to suit, add grilled or roasted vegetables, grilled salmon, scallops, steelhead, flank steak, or chicken thighs. Add grated cheese and your choice of croutons. My son likes to add one soft-boiled egg per person to the salad plates.

Makes about 1 litre, and keeps well in the fridge. Serves a crowd.

1 T. grainy SK or Dijon mustard

1 head garlic, minced

1 3-oz. tin anchovies [and oil], mashed or pureed

1/3 c. capers, chopped

4 T. lemon juice

2 c. olive oil [or a mix of sunflower and olive]

2-4 T. Worcestershire sauce

8 T. red wine vinegar

½ t. hot chili paste

Combine the mustard, garlic, anchovies, capers and lemon juice. Whisk in the oil, stir in the remaining ingredients. Taste and adjust the balance to suit your palate: it should be sharp and pungent for best results.

 

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