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Grainews: First We Eat: Learning to Love Eggplant

Grainews

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moussaka

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

Serves 8-10

4 large globe eggplants

½ c. all-purpose flour, for dredging

2-3 T. olive oil

2 lb. lean ground lamb or beef (optional)

1 large onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 bell peppers, diced

2 zucchini, diced

2 bay leaves

1 cinnamon stick

4 whole allspice

½ tsp. ground nutmeg

4 c. diced tomatoes

1 c. dry white wine

4 T. tomato paste

kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper

2 c. crumbled feta cheese

2 T. minced fresh parsley

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

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

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

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Let Us Eat Cake

Grainews

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schmoo Cake with Salted Butterscotch Sauce

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

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

Cake:

12 whole eggs, separated

1 ½ c. white sugar, divided in half

¼ t. cream of tartar

1 t. vanilla extract

1 c. all purpose flour

1 ½ t. baking powder

2 c. finely chopped toasted pecans

 

Filling and topping:

3  c. whipping cream

Icing sugar to taste

 

Butterscotch sauce:

1 ½ c. brown sugar

1 c. whipping cream

2 T. salted butter

A pinch of kosher salt

 

Set oven to 325 F.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Sausage-making

Grainews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turkey Apple Sausages

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

Makes about 24 sausages

2 lb. white/dark raw boneless turkey

½ lb. pork fat, diced

2 tsp. curry powder or Chinese 5-spice

1 lemon, zest only

2 T. minced fresh thyme

2 T. minced chives

2 T. kosher salt or to taste

black pepper and hot chili flakes to taste

4 apples, peeled, diced and sautéed

¼ c. cooked black beans, chopped

½ c. cold water or white wine

12’ hog casings, as needed

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Winter Greens

Grainews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter Greens in Coconut Milk

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

Serves 6 as a side dish

1 T. sunflower oil

½ onion, finely sliced

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 T. grated ginger root

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

½ red bell pepper, julienned

1 coarsely grated carrot

1 tsp. finely minced jalapeno or to taste

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

1-14 oz. tin coconut milk

1 tsp. shrimp paste, optional

1 T. fish sauce or chopped anchovies

1 T. honey

the juice and zest of 1 lime

salt and hot chili paste to taste

minced cilantro for garnish

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

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Grainews: First We Eat: The Lake

Grainews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shon’s Jardineria

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

Brine:

5 c. white vinegar

5 c. rice wine vinegar

10 c. water

¾ c. salt

1 c. white sugar

¾ t. ground turmeric

Dry spice:

for 2 L jar:                                                       for 1 pint jar:

1 T coriander                                                   ½ t. coriander

1 T mustard seed                                             ½ t. mustard seed

1 T cumin seed                                                ½ t. cumin seed

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

1 T. peppercorns                                              ½ t. peppercorns

½ t. hot chilli flakes                                        a pinch hot chilli flakes

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

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

1-2 whole hot peppers

6 peeled garlic cloves

6 batons ginger root cut in narrow strips 3” long

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

carrots in several colours

zucchini in 2 colours

beans in several colours

cauliflower florets

white/yellow & purple onion wedges

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

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Grainews: First We Eat – Gifts for Aging Parents

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I recently spent a considerable amount of time perusing old photographs as I edited a vanity-press family history book written by my mother. When I showed Dave the wedding photo of my parents – taken sixty-three years ago – he confessed he would not have recognized the young and handsome couple in the image. He’s only known my folks for ten years; this year, my parents will both turn eighty-two. Continue reading

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Grainews: First We Eat – I am a runner

Grainews

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

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