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Hand-made

Grainews

May 2020. Before the pandemic, I spent an afternoon at my neighbour Sharon’s house, teaching her how to make pasta. Her house is about 100 years newer than mine, and has fewer eccentricities, like the small ceramic tiles covering the only work surface big enough for rolling out pastry, tiles painstakingly installed by my late dad in one of his periodic re-dos. Those tiles catch flour in the grouting crevices, but they are perfect for hot pans straight from the oven. Sharon and I drank wine and told stories as we cooked, although Sharon stopped talking, her lips set in concentration during her first effort at feeding a strap of dough into the pasta maker. When she caught the first handful of noodles as they emerged from the cutter, she sighed in relief and resumed telling me about her donkeys.

I first made pasta at a tiny nouvelle cuisine restaurant where I worked during the 1980s in Calgary. I experimented with adding all kinds of vegetable purees and herbs to the dough, although Calgary diners back then were just not ready for garishly pink beet-stained pasta, although they liked the saffron version, yellow stains that bled across the dough like paint on a canvas. In my own restaurant in the 1990s, we bought fresh pasta after learning we just couldn’t keep up with making our own. Since then, fresh pasta is a made-at-home event.

A food processor is best for combining the dough. For rolling and cutting, use a machine attachment for your countertop mixer, a hand-crank pasta machine like my Italian beauty (if you are willing to jury-rig it a bit to keep it from wiggling about as you crank the handle) or a knife and rolling pin (but only if you use doppio, or “double zero” Italian-style flour, which is super-finely ground flour, but make sure you choose a grade milled specifically for pasta, not bread or cake). I use all purpose flour when I make pasta and roll it in my stainless steel Imperia. Good Italian-made pasta makers are easily ordered online.

Judging by the state of the nation’s grocery shelves, we all have flour in our houses, so between bouts of feeding your sourdough starter and shaping loaves, cranking out some noodles is a good use of time. Like bread-making, the end result is something that offers succour as well as sustenance. And truly, there’s nothing like a fresh bowl of pasta dressed in butter and Parmesan cheese, or in a Bolognese that spent hours in the oven.

But if you quail at the time outlay, consider: if you amortize the time spent making (an hour, but half that spent letting the dough rest) with the time spent cooking (2 minutes, maybe less, depending on thickness), fresh pasta begins to look like an ideal supper for folks confined to home with an appetite and time to put in. So let’s get to it. First we eat, then tell me what’s new with you in your socially distant home.

Hand-made Pasta

Pasta is made of only a few ingredients. Weighing those ingredients is the best choice for the most consistent texture: flour can be compressed or aerated, and eggs vary in size. The more often you make pasta, the sooner you can make it intuitively, by feel, like an Italian nonna. Until then, weigh your ingredients, including the liquid. Makes about 500g, enough for 2 – 4 servings

300g all purpose flour

salt to taste

3 large eggs

2 large egg yolks

water as needed to bring the egg volume to 185g

Aerate the flour and salt in the food processor for a couple spins, then add the liquid. Mix until blended. The texture should form a rough ball. If it is pebbly or sandy, add water, a spoonful at a time. If it sticks to the bowl, add a little more flour. Turn out on the counter and knead, but not like you knead bread. Use smaller motions and only pinch over a bit of the dough at a time, almost like pleating, then turn the dough a few degrees and repeat. Knead for 8 – 10 minutes, until smooth and supple. Wrap well and let rest at room temperature for half an hour.

Dust the pasta with flour, ground semolina or rice flour to minimize sticking. Divide into 4 or 6 pieces, keeping the extra pieces wrapped up so they don’t get too dry. Flatten one piece with the heel of your hand, dust again, then feed it into the pasta maker’s aperture, set at its widest opening. Lay the dough on the counter and fold the two ends to meet in the middle. Turn it 90 degrees. Flatten the leading end with the heel of your hand before feeding it into the aperture. Send it, flattened narrow end first, through the aperture a second time, still set at the widest setting. Repeat the fold and roll 4 times, dusting with flour as needed.

Advance the aperture by one click. Pass the dough through twice, flouring as needed, but do not fold it in between. Advance the aperture again, and roll through twice. Cut each piece in half when it gets too long to handle. Continue rolling until the dough is thin, perhaps stopping at the second-last setting.

Let stand uncovered on a floured countertop or floured tea towel for 15 – 30 minutes, until the top surface is almost leathery, then turn over and dry the other side. Put a pot of water on to boil and salt it very generously.

Attach the cutter. Move the crank to the cutter mechanism and position the dough so it lays flat and feeds though smoothly. Crank, catching the noodles as they emerge from beneath the cutter. Lay them on a tea towel dusted with flour. Repeat with the other pieces. Cook for 1 – 2 minutes in boiling salted water. Taste to determine when the noodles are just cooked through, or al dente. Remove from the pot using tongs, not by dumping the noodles and water through a strainer. Toss in sauce and serve immediately.

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Comfort

Grainews

April 2020

April 2020. Dave and I live rurally. Just us, our dog Jake, housecat, and the barn cats. But there are the birds who visit our feeders. And the deer that graze at dawn and dusk just south of our house. The coyotes lurking. And the porcupines that stop by some nights, usually about midnight. But we keep the glass between us, so there’s no danger of breaking our social distancing compact. It’s good to see them clambering into our deck chairs, or picking up spilled birdseed, singing some incomprehensible versions of 1960s ballads to each other.  They will doubtless stop coming by once we start spending our evenings outdoors, but I like that they feel at home enough to occupy our chairs in our absence.

All those animals notwithstanding, it sometimes it feels like we are far from the madding crowd – a good thing – and other times, the crowds seem to jostle right up our long driveway and make themselves comfy too.  That jostle is life right now. Even though we are under pandemic lockdown, even though we are used to spending most days with just the two of us, the ghosts of thousands of Covid-19 victims from around the globe feel too close for comfort.  I don’t fear them. But I am not ready to join them, and I want them to rest more peacefully.

It’s been awhile, this isolation. We are praying, as everyone is, for wellness on the planet, a flattening of the curve, a drop in infections, for no more deaths, for a resumption of life as it was. But life will never be the same. This virus has made sure of that.

So what do we do?

We comfort one another. We go about our lives as best we can. We practice kindness and calm. Comfort includes cooking. Many of us have bursting pantries, stockpiles of groceries to stave off the threat of illness. Feed yourself. Feed your family. Cook food you love. Pour the wine. Steep the tea, make the coffee. Bake your favourite chocolate and ginger coffeecake, your best braises, all the beloved recipes that are marked up with spatters of love in your cookbook or indelibly imprinted on your memory. Make extra. If you can do so safely, drop some off – but honouring social distancing, and no contact! – to the porches of friends and neighbours, to elders who are shut-ins, to friends who don’t cook as much as you or who don’t have a bursting pantry.  Feed people. And as you bake or braise or broil, remember that stirring the pot with love is another way to flatten that curve. It’s love that is going to get us through. Not panic. Not hoarding. Not bullying or pointing fingers.

So spread around some love. My favourite breakfast right now as spring tiptoes toward us is a muffin that is endlessly adaptable.

This recipe began as a cake, my beloved auntie’s favourite carrot cake that she made for her family’s and friends’ birthdays in and around the Bay area of California. It is one scrumptious cake, loaded with butter, nuts and coconut, topped with cream cheese icing. The kind of cake that makes a baker’s name as a baker. Then I took a few liberties with it to make it less cake-y. Less butter, less sugar, swapping some of the all- purpose flour for whole wheat.

These days I use barley flour mixed with spelt flour, but it’s just fine made with wheat flour.  Paper liners for your muffin cups are advisable when using barley flour, because the muffins are crumbly. I sometime add an extra egg to help with the cohesion, but you don’t have to.

These muffins freeze well, and can be dressed up with cream cheese icing if you want them to masquerade as dessert one late evening as you watch another solo round of Netflix. Be well. Be calm. Be kind. Be good to each other. First we eat. Then we heal the planet.

dee’s Morning Muffins

Take on changing this recipe to suit your own preference. Like blueberries best? Use them instead of cranberries and chopped dates.

Makes 14

2 large eggs

½ cup melted butter or vegetable oil

½ cup brown sugar

3 cups coarsely grated carrot, apple or pear

1 ½ cups milk, orange juice, buttermilk or alternate milk

3 cups flour (a mix of barley, spelt, wheat, or any one)

1 Tbsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 tsp. ground ginger

½ tsp. ground allspice

¼ tsp. ground cloves

½ cup dried cranberries

1 cup chopped dried dates

Set the oven at 375 F. Line muffin cups with parchment liners.

Mix together the wet ingredients in a large bowl. Stir in all the dry ingredients and mix gently with a large spatula. Spoon into muffin cups. Bake for 22 minutes. Best served warm with butter and company.

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Food fit for humans and canine friends

Grainews

Our golden retriever, Jake, is lying at my feet, waiting for me while I write. He won’t let the clock slip past eight AM in midwinter without getting up and nudging me. Sure enough, on the stroke of eight he’s beside me, his beautiful head in my lap, insisting we get moving. Time to get outside, throw a ball and run around.

The sun is almost up, a cascade of violet and rose in the eastern sky, enough light for me to feel Jake and I will be safe despite the coyotes that live nearby. As I toss Jake’s tennis ball down the lane a few minutes later, I start thinking about his breakfast. I’ve been thinking about dog diets a lot for the past six months, ever since he went on a diet. Jake is what’s called “an easy keeper”. When Dave asked me to explain the term, I ended up telling him the story of my first pony, a fat Appaloosa gelding who got fatter just by looking at the grass growing on the far side of the fence.  So an “easy keeper” requires fewer calories than the norm. Tough luck, Jake! Jake too has been neutered, and that slows his metabolism somewhat, our vet explained six months ago when we first discussed his foursquare solid shape. What we needed to do was reduce his calories.

Since then, Jakie has dropped twenty-five pounds, and I am learning about caloric density in foods. His fave snacks are now carrot bits and blueberries, bell peppers and snap peas.  Same as mine – except that I get chocolate on demand as well. Fortunately, he loves them all – or else his appetite makes them all equally appealing – and we always have plenty of fruits and vegetables on hand, including, especially in winter, the crucifers – broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and all the cabbage-y cousins. For some reason I had always thought that the crucifers were on the verboten list for dogs (that list also includes grapes, onions and chocolate). But no, says my vet/animal nutritionist, although large amounts of cabbage and dogs can be an uneasy alliance beset by gassy vapours. So when I roast some winter vegies, including cauliflower and peppers – Jake gets some too, although his will not be dressed in olive oil. Extra calories, right?

The long and short of it is that I plan to cook Jake’s meals eventually and eliminate our reliance on processed dog food. I cook anyhow, right? A dog’s diet can be pretty simple, and I’d rather not feed our retriever the pulses included in some brands that studies have linked to heart disease in some breeds, including retrievers. So it will be grains – millet, brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, and wholegrain breads and pasta – lean roasted chicken or fish, yoghurt, bits of cheese, and fruits and veg. That’s a tidy overlap with how Dave and I mostly eat. And before you ask, he will get a vitamin and mineral supplement.

The production of commercial dog food (“kibble”) in North America began about 100 years ago. Before that, dogs ate much as their human companions did. It didn’t take long before pet-food companies began to make noises about the unwholesomeness of table scraps as dog food. It was a marketing ploy. My vet/animal nutritionist assures me that Jake will thrive on home-cooked meals, just like we do. In fact, the biggest challenge will be to not overfeed him, as home-cooked food is more calorie-dense than most kibble and canned dog foods. So Jake will have to get used to eating less. Except, of course, for the vegetables and fruit I feed him for added vitamins, variety, fiber, bulk and – yes, admit it, good taste.  All the same reasons we humans love our vegetables! So first we eat – but before we eat, we feed our animals. Then we can talk more about what to feed Jake and his canine cousins.

Roasted Winter Vegetables

If you are feeding your dog and counting calories on Fido’s behalf, you may wish to roast a separate pan of vegetables without oil or onions/garlic for your mutt. Regardless of who will eat this, cut everything into similar sizes to ensure even cooking.

3 carrots, peeled and sliced

½ onion, sliced

1 head garlic, peeled, cloves left whole

¼ head cauliflower, cut into florets

12 brussels sprouts, halved

1 bell pepper, diced

yellow or white turnip, peeled and diced (optional)

olive oil to taste

salt and pepper to taste

Toss all the ingredients in a large bowl, then spread evenly on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Roast uncovered at 375F until tender, stirring several times.

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Grainews: First We Eat: Patience, and Please Pass the Marmalade

Grainews

My eldest son and I were out for lunch with my elderly mother yesterday, all of us slurping pho at my son’s favourite noodle joint. Mom is recently widowed. “Your father’s mind was like a laser,” she said, “and mine is set on real-time motion.” I glanced at my son with a sudden flash of insight: he and I are both quick-witted, and notoriously impatient with people whose mental functions take a second longer to hit send. Dad had been frustrated with most people all his life: was this revelation of his mind-set part of the reason behind that frustration?

My dad was an electrician-turned-farmer who should have spent his life designing airplanes and bridges: late in life he designed and stitched together multi-dimensional containers and holders of all sorts from fabric – saddlebags, knife kits, tool wraps – and seemed most himself while drafting and building prototypes for some new idea. I wondered about my paternal grandfather, Bill. He had designed tapestries for LaFrance Textiles, combining mathematics with an artist’s aesthetic. I hadn’t known him: had he too been quick-witted and short-tempered? No, my mom responded – my grandfather had been a quiet, soft-spoken man, long on thinking and short on words, but invariably patient.

We spent the rest of the afternoon completing Mom’s city errands with her, and my son was careful and attentive, shortening his long stride to match Mom’s hesitant walk, giving her his arm for support.

Three decades ago, my friend Phyllis gave me a sampler she had embroidered. It shows a cannon blasting one word – “NOW” – below the line, “Please grant me patience”. How well she knew me! That sampler has adorned my office all these years, and poems have been written about my shortage of this particular attribute.

But I can tell you that although I have learned patience, my innate nature is still to get ‘er done quick-like. Like my son, I have learned to adapt my pace when I am in companionship with someone else whose life is wired at a different speed. But I can still hear that cannon ball explode in my head: “NOW!”

Cooking, quilting and childrearing do teach a human being patience. All three involve transformation that takes place over time.  At this time of year, making marmalade is a classic example of that transformation and the varying degrees of patience it requires.

Purists will choose bumpy bitter Seville oranges from Spain to make into marmalade, but grocery stores in the small city I live close to mostly don’t stock Seville oranges when citrus season rolls around, so I have learned to make marmalade from other citrus, solo or as blends – although I always add lemon juice and zest to help set the natural pectin present in citrus.

Purists may also peel the fruit, separate the segments from the membranes that divide them, and squeeze out all the juices from the membranes before wrapping them in cheesecloth with any pits. The pits and membrane will go into the pot with the chopped peel and segments, but get fished out for discard near the end; the resulting marmalade will be sparkling-clear. I have done this from time to time, but  if you want, you can skip a couple steps, as I mostly do, and simply cut up the oranges and cook them. Like me, you will end up with marmalade that is not clear but cloudy. The good news is that it tastes just as good no matter how long or short on patience you are. As for Mom, neither she nor my eldest son make or eat marmalade. (Whenever I made it in the past it was strictly for me and Dad.) So first we eat, and then we can debate the merits of clarity versus obfuscation. Oh yeah, and patience too.

Marmalade

Mix up the types of citrus depending on availability, your palate and preferences.  I am partial to grapefruit in the mix.

This makes 8-10 half pint (8 oz.) jars

2 lb. oranges (Seville, blood, navel, tangerines)

1 lemon, zest and juice

6 cups water

4 lb. white sugar

1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, paste scraped out and reserved

Slice the oranges thinly, then quarter them. Combine the oranges, lemon juice and zest, water and sugar in a large heavy-bottomed pot. Bring to a boil, then add the halved vanilla bean and paste. Cook the mixture over medium high heat until it reaches 223 F on a candy thermometer. Alternatively, check for set by placing several small saucers in the freezer: spoon a bit of marmalade onto one plate and wait to see if it congeals. If it stays loose and runny, keep cooking the marmalade. Once the marmalade is thickened, ladle it into sterilized jars and process in a boiling water bath.

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Grainews: First We Eat: Freezers in a Frozen Land

Grainews

There’s no way to avoid having a freezer if you live on the Canadian prairies, especially if you live rurally – canny cooks who live in town have freezers too, but it’s not as urgent as it is for rural residents. Winter in particular makes a freezer an ironic necessity. (I have in some winters used my deck as an outdoor freezer, locking down tubs of stock or cooked pinto beans with weights in boxes to keep carousing barncats away. But that’s another story.)

Every evening, Dave rummages through the freezer, looking for something sweet. Inevitably, it means that the next time I go looking for something in the freezer, I have to re-order my arrangement, restoring brown beans with brown beans, red tomato sauce with red tomato sauce, chicken breast with chicken thighs. It’s more than – worse than, or maybe better than – a habit. It’s the result of decades of working with food. Or maybe it’s just that I like grouping things. My painter friend Sarah-jane is much more compulsive about grouping than I, and she just shrugs and blames her Montessori preschool education. Myself, I think my own culprit is maybe overexposure to Sesame Street. But reasons and causes aside, I do like order in my kitchen, including the freezer.

Scratch cooks depend on freezers. Where would we stash the backup of the things that are too labour-intensive to make often, the things we make in triplicate because it’s really not three times the work? You know – the lasagne, the moussaka, the potstickers, the smoked ribs, the second helpings of Moroccan-style braised lamb shanks? So the freezer really is our best labour-saving device. Really. Who is going to make chicken stock every time they roast a bird? Far better to freeze the carcass – and the next, plus the remains of the chicken thighs and drumsticks – and then make one large pot of stock, freezing it in one-liter tubs for convenience in making soups and braises and sauces and risotto. No freezer? No stock. No stock? No… well, you get the picture.

I never quite manage to empty the freezer, as I have previously chronicled, but the fact that it’s full means I have a world of possibility when I want to make supper. So let’s go rummage, but first we eat before we re-organize its contents again.

Potstickers

Potstickers are aptly named – beware. Use this filling to make potstickers, but it also makes great burgers. Maybe you want to double the mix and freeze some burgers against another day’s dinner? If your pantry does not contain dried Chinese mushrooms, simply omit them. Makes about 60 potstickers

filling:

1 onion, finely minced

1 carrot, grated

1 parsnip, grated

1 cup finely shredded cabbage

1 Tbsp. minced garlic

1 Tbsp. grated ginger root

3 dried black Chinese mushrooms, rehydrated and slivered, stems discarded

2 lb. ground turkey or pork

2 Tbsp. minced cilantro

1 Tbsp. light soy sauce

1 Tbsp. fish sauce

2 Tbsp. minced green onions

½ tsp. hot chili paste

1 egg

 

casing:

2 packages won ton wrappers

oil for sautéing

 

dip:

2 Tbsp. hoisin sauce

1 garlic clove, minced

1 tsp. minced fresh ginger

1 Tbsp. lemon juice

1 Tbsp. light soy sauce

hot chili flakes or paste to taste

water to thin to dipping consistency

Mix the ingredients in a mixing bowl. Mix well. Trim the corners off the square wonton wrappers to make them round. Cover wrappers with plastic to keep them from drying out. (Fry the corner trimmings for a terrific salad garnish!) Put one wrapper on the palm of your hand and spoon some filling onto the centre. Set the dumpling on the counter and fold the wrapper up from the bottom in pleats, covering as much of the sides of the dumpling with wrapper. Place flat wrapper side down on a tray dusted with cornstarch. Continue to make dumplings to use all the filling. Freeze in a single layer, and transfer into freezer bags once solid.

To cook, remove potstickers from the freezer and heat a sauté pan on moderately high heat. Add enough oil to lubricate the pan. Add some frozen potstickers in a single layer. Sauté until well browned (check by picking up one and inspecting the underside). Add water to a depth of about ½”. Cover with a snug lid and cook until the water evaporates and the dumplings are cooked through, about 7 minutes. Remove the lid and cook uncovered if the water takes too long to evaporate. Immediately use a metal spatula to free the potstickers from the pan before they stick. Clean the pan before cooking the next batch. Serve with dip.

 

 

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Apple Pie for a Snow Day

Grainews

Another grey winter day, with the wind howling from the east and snow drifting across the yard and our long driveway, means we are snowbound. A snow day! Yay! What better thing to do but bake? An apple pie, say. Apples are the fallback fruit of winter, and a pie is what all apples dream of becoming.

Some people think that baking is alchemy, and that bakers are magicians. It’s true that bakers are born, not made. It has to do with the hands. A baker is born with hands tender enough to cradle a baby, as sweet-talking as a lover’s, stealthy enough to coax cookies into creation, and speedy enough to have biscuits shaped and baking before their baking powder has time to blink and rebel against rising. In the hands of a baker, flour, butter and eggs are transformed in the heat of the oven from the mundane makings of breakfast into magical components that are 99 percent inspiration and one percent mingled devils’ and angels’ breath.

Bakers are a rare breed. For many, the memory of a beloved grandmother in a flour-dusted apron is the closest they’ve come to knowing an angel. For the rest, finding a baker amongst us is an event to be celebrated. In this particular instance, it was a Facebook post by my friend Amy Jo Ehman, whose name may be familiar to many Grainews readers as a former columnist and very fine foodie. (Recently we both contributed poems to a new anthology Life of Pie: prairie poems and prose, edited by Ivan Sundal and Myrna Garanis, published by Rolling Pins Press. Betcha: all about pie! Gotta love it.)

AJ had posted a photo of one of her pies on Facebook. Truth is, she’s famous as a pie-maker, and her emails frequently mention pie-making. Her photo, the pie’s juices bubbling out of the lattice crust, sent me to the kitchen to make two, one for us, one for her. Baking pie for AJ, the best pie-maker I know, is a gift I like to give her. No one bakes for bakers. No one cooks for cooks. The intimidation factor looms too large, a cloud across the sunny face of sharing. What could you possibly cook for a chef? Or bake for a baker? Invitations to dinner are rare, usually framed in a slightly guilty gilt edge – I didn’t know what to make for you that is good enough. Like AJ, I always reply – I’m just glad of the invitation to share.

We have different hands, different styles. AJ’s pie pastry is flaky, made with butter and lard, meant to melt away. Mine, a brisée made in a classic French style, with butter, is crisp, meant to contain, then shatter between the teeth. She uses a pie plate, builds a lattice like a grapevine’s trellis to contain her strawberries and rhubarb. I make a freeform galette on a baking sheet, juices and specks of ginger and nutmeg escaping over the top.

The difference arises from the type of fat used, and the method used to incorporate the fat into the flour. Using lard mixed with butter, and leaving the bits of fat in large-ish blobs the size of fingernails, makes a flaky structure. Using butter, cut into mealiness, followed by a smearing action called fraisage, makes brisée liquid-proof while still tender. Both types have their advantages. And their heroes. So slice the pie. First we eat, then we try our hand at making other types of pastry.

 Apple Galette

This is a rustic free-form tart with one crust and lots of fruit. It is baked on a cookie sheet, not in a pie plate. Serves 6-8

1 recipe of your favourite pastry

8-10 firm tart apples (Gala, Granny Smith, Jonagold, Fuji)

½ cup brown sugar

½ tsp. grated nutmeg

½ tsp. ground cinnamon

a handful of raisins or dried cranberries (optional)

¼ cup butter, divided

1 egg

2 Tbsp. cream

2 Tbsp. white sugar

Roll out pastry into a 16” round. Place the round on a parchment-lined baking sheet with a bit of a lip. Let the pastry rest, lightly covered with plastic wrap, while you proceed with the fruit. Set the oven at 375°F, and position the rack in the centre of the oven.

Peel, core and slice the apples. Mix with the brown sugar, spices and dried fruit. Heat half the butter in a sauté pan. Add the apple mixture and cook over medium-high heat until the apples soften, about 15 minutes. Pour onto a tray and let cool.

Tidily heap the fruit in the centre of the pastry, leaving a 1”- 3″ border of pastry uncovered by fruit. Fold and pleat the outer edge of the pastry over the apples, making an enclosing lip of pastry. You should have a small section of apples in the centre that is uncovered. Distribute the butter in small bits on the apples that are exposed. Mix together the egg and cream, and brush the ensuing eggwash onto the pastry. Sprinkle the entire thing sparingly with the white sugar. Bake until browned, about 35 minutes. Serve warm.

 

 

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Birthday Markers

Grainews

I was born on my dad’s twenty-second birthday while he and my mom lived in northeastern France. My dad was in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and at the time he was stationed at the fighter jet station called 2 Wing, near St. Avold. Mom and Dad waited for many months for Dad’s very junior seniority to improve enough to allow them a house on the PMQs, or personnel married quarters, on the base. Meanwhile, they lived in the small French town of Berig. Mom spoke German, which was helpful in the district of Alsace-Lorraine – the area had changed hands multiple times, passing from French to German possession and back as wars and their victors determined the area’s newest allegiance. By the time my parents arrived in the late 1950s, the region was again French, after being returned to France after the end of the Second World War. But both French and a German dialect called Alsatian were spoken by most residents, and the area’s cuisine had a distinctly Germanic flavour that underlay the French sensibility of fresh, local and seasonal.

“Once a week a van came through the town, delivering a full case of wine, picking up the empty case, at every house,” Mom recalls. “The wine was from the Moselle district, famous for its whites. Another van came regularly too, with smoked and cured pork sausages – like salami – never fresh. Cattle were too valuable to be eaten – I remember seeing oxen in the fields, pulling ploughs. We got frozen chicken – flown in from Canada, probably, because England was still pretty strictly rationed back then – at the PX (the Post Exchange) on the base. But we bought our fruits and vegetables ‘on the economy’ (Air Force slang for the local shops), at the Friday night street market. It was lit by gaslight, and was very pretty – eggplants and peppers and spuds all in stacks, and bunches of fresh herbs.”

Dad was often away on training exercises in Sardinia, and Mom, who would have three small children by the time they returned to Canada, made friends with the locals. Their landlord made schnapps form the local yellow Mirabelle plums, and Mom would receive a small glass of schnapps each time she went downstairs to pay the rent. She recalls that local women drank it with a sugar cube between their teeth, but the men took it straight up. At the pub she would often see the publican’s son, age twelve, holding a glass of wine and smoking, his big dog lounging on the floor at his feet. She remembers one evening at a birthday celebration, a group of workmen in heavy boots occupied the booth across from them in a café, a big pot of soup on their table. When Dad popped the cork from the Alsatian crémant he was opening, the cork flew and landed in their soup. Laughter ensued.

By now you are wondering – why this trail of memories? Memories are what remain of my father, who unexpectedly passed away in October. I served two kinds of soup at his wake, when my husband Dave lifted a glass of schnapps as he offered a toast to Dad’s memory. Dad’s and my joint birthday this month is my first in my life without him. So here’s a toast to fathers everywhere. First we eat, then we pop the cork. I hope the cork lands in your neighbour’s soup pot.

Carrot and Coconut Cream Soup with Anise and Ginger

For a light soup that is driven by its vegetable nature, use water or vegetable stock; chicken stock adds weight and birdlike flavour. Vary it by adding other root vegetables, and after pureeing the finished soup, garnish if desired with chopped roast pork or chicken, or add some shrimp sautéed with garlic and anise seed.

Serves 4
1 onion, minced
1 Tbsp. butter
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. grated fresh ginger

1/2 tsp. anise seed, cracked

1/2 tsp.  finely grated orange zest

1/4 tsp. cracked fennel seed

1/2 tsp.  sweet smoked paprika

6 large carrots, peeled and sliced thinly
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock

kosher salt to taste

1 Tbsp. fish sauce

1 cup coconut milk
2 Tbsp. finely minced fresh cilantro

1/2 lime, juice only

Combine the onion and butter in a large heavy pot. Add the garlic, ginger, anise, orange zest, fennel and paprika.  Cook over medium-high heat, adding small amounts of water as needed, until tender, about 10 minutes.

Add the carrots and stock, stir well and cook over medium heat, covered, for 30-40 minutes, stirring often, until tender. Puree. Add the salt, fish sauce, coconut milk, cilantro and lime juice. Serve hot.

 

 

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Edible Gifts for Any Season

Grainews

Last fall, when we bought a lamb for the freezer from a local shepherd, he tucked some extra livers into our box. “You’re a chef,” he said, “I know you’ll know what to do with them and they won’t go to waste.”

He was right: our gift bags to our friends last year included ramekins filled with savoury lamb liver paté, perfect with the sourdough bread, chutney and crackers I’d already made for the project.

But here it is three weeks until Christmas. Yikes! How did that happen? The holiday season does creep up on little stocking feet. Don’t panic. Instead, spend a bit of time in your kitchen this month, making some simple gifts that will be appreciated.

What matters most in life are not things, but emotions and experiences. Neither can be wrapped in tissue or tied in a ribbon. A handmade present symbolizes our efforts to make tangible those untouchable things, and the effort they take reflects the best of us at our core. Food makes memories. Ask anyone, at any age, about events that matter or people they love, and odds are good that food is an integral part of the story.

Some kitchen gifts are best started now. Others really are last-minute affairs that can be assembled moments before you change into your party clothes and head out the door.

You may have the ingredients for these gifts already on hand. All you need to do is change their state. Cooking is chemistry, and changing states is a simple matter sometimes—water into steam, sugar into caramel. As in a good fairy tale, the time spent in transformations is sometimes what counts most dearly, not the cost of the makings. And that is what gives the most modest of kitchen gifts their value. Just add ribbon.

Vanilla Vinegar is best with shellfish, roasted beets, carrots and asparagus. Start with good vinegar – white wine, apple cider, champagne. Split 2 or 3 vanilla beans lengthwise, scrape the seeds from the pods, and add them and the pods to the vinegar. Cover and age for a month.

Mixed Olives with Herbs are good anywhere and anytime. Buy good Kalamata, oil-cured or green olives and drench them in olive oil, garlic, hot chili flakes, a sprinkle of herbes de Canada, cracked fennel seeds, lemon zest and pepper.

For Herbes de Canada, mix together dried thyme, lavender, summer savoury, rosemary, parsley, basil, fennel seed, marjoram, sage in any proportion that fits your palate.

Chocolate-Coated Dried Apricots and Ginger require only white and dark (or milk) chocolate. Melt the chocolates separately. Line a baking sheet with parchment. Dip each piece of fruit or ginger halfway into one or the other melted chocolate, then lay it flat on the parchment. Chill. For a frill, dip a fork into the other colour of melted chocolate and wave it over the already-dipped fruit. Chill again.

Rooibos Chai is delicious South African herbal tea spiked with whole cloves, cardamom and cinnamon. For each cup of leaves, add 2 broken cinnamon sticks, a broken star anise, 12 green cardamom pods, 12 whole cloves and 15 allspice berries. For a traditional black chai, substitute 1 cup Darjeeling tea leaves for the rooibos.

Togarashi is a Japanese blend of chili pepper, black pepper, dried orange peel, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, hemp seeds and crumbled nori (dried seaweed). It’s good on scallops, salmon and in wine as a steaming medium for mussels.

Chevre Dip is what my friend Gail calls ‘kitchen crack’, and addictive it is. Buy good chevre, then puree it with olive oil, fennel seed, garlic, black pepper, basil, thyme, parsley, chives, lemon juice and zest, a bait of whipping cream.

The list of good homemade edible gifts is long: sourdough bread, chocolate and almond caramel bark, brioche or challah, paté, sausage, cookies, crackers, preserves. First we eat, then we’ll rummage through your pantry to see what we can whip up. Happy holidays.

 

Caramelized Pecans

These nuts are dynamite snacks, pizza topping, salad garnish, accompaniment to a glass of red wine. Don’t be tempted to sample them straight out of the pan– that melted sugar is hot enough to seriously burn your mouth. Also yum on flatbread, salad, grain dishes or with a glass of bubbly. From my first cookbook, Skinny Feasts (Whitecap, 1997).

Makes about 2 cups

2 c. pecan halves

2 T. unsalted butter

2 T. sugar

1/2 t. ground star anise

1/2 t. cayenne

salt to taste

 

Put the nuts into a colander or strainer and pour boiling water over them. Drain well, then place nuts and all ingredients in a sauté pan. Cook over medium-high heat for about 7 minutes, stirring well, until the nuts are dark and glossy. Spread them out in a single layer on a tray or plate to cool.

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Grainews: First We Eat: Soup, Beautiful Soup

Grainews

When my sweetie caught a cold recently, he asked me to stop in at our favourite Chinese restaurant and bring home some hot and sour soup.

“Are you kidding me?” I said. “No way. I’ll make you some.”

Next time you slurp some of this Szechuan soup at your fave joint, look at it closely. It’s actually pretty simple to make: diced protein, vegetables, and maybe noodles in a good broth bolstered with some heat and some acid – chili of some sort, and lemon juice or a pleasant vinegar.

Soup has come to mean many odd, disconnected things, including slang for nitroglycerine, especially used, says the Oxford dictionary, for blowing up safes. “In the soup” means to be in difficulty; “soup and fish” is Cockney rhyming slang for fancy evening dress. All of this from the French, and that from a Late Latin term for “sop”, a piece of bread soaked in water, broth or wine. Strange are the ways of the English language.

In the kitchen, soup means a collection of foods cooked in liquid. Larousse Gastronomic, the reliable workhorse of culinary definition, devotes twenty pages to soups, among them cold pureed blend of leek and potato (vichysoisse), and chowder, made in a pot (chaudiere) on a French fisherman’s schooner. But just to complicate things, chowder can be a thick white soup in New England or a thin red broth in Manhattan.

In any case, the healing and nurturing attributes of soup are universal. Soup has the mythic power to heal broken hearts and cracked bones, to thaw skiers’ frostbitten noses and to mend, like Time, all wounds, as per the wondrous qualities of apocryphal Jewish grandmothers’ chicken soup, Japanese miso soup or Chinese hot and sour soup.

To a cook, the soup pot is as varied as this week’s fridge contents. The temptation always looms, though, to empty the entire vegetable drawer into the soup pot. Such cluttering with odd’n’ends is a death knell to the best soup, which needs focus and direction, translated into a finite number of ingredients. Add ’em all and the pot veers off into uncharted territory, its boundaries undefined and its character unstable or unstated. The other side of the coin is the ease with which soup accepts last-minute lineup changes and substitutions. Slide onions in for leeks, use carrots for roasted red peppers, yams instead of Yukon Golds.

To my mind, the best soups arise from cold-weather cooking, when the slow simmer fills a chilly home with a blanket of comfort. When it’s too cold to venture outdoors, scenting winter like my skittish cat at the door, wanting out but shy of the weather; too dark too early and for too many hours… these are prime soup-making conditions.

Don’t fret. Soup is an all-day proposition. Most soups cook inside an hour while delivering the same comfort as your Great-aunt Tilly’s ever did, but with a reduced degree of difficulty, perfect for those days when the dog, the boss, the kids, the weather, are not as you would like them to be. Soup is an undemanding companion, seeking only to warm and restore, asking nothing in return. Baby, it’s cold outside. Snuggle up to a hot stove. First we eat some soup, then we can put some records on.

Squash, Pear and Parsnip Soup with Maple Croutons

Puree this soup into a smooth and velvety texture, or leave it chunky. Make the croutons just before serving to avoid eating them all in advance! From my first cookbook, Skinny Feasts (Whitecap Books, 1997).

Serves 6-8

1 T. butter

1 leek, sliced

4 medium carrots, sliced

4 medium parsnips, sliced

4 T. ginger root, minced

1 ripe pear, peeled and sliced

1 t. dried oregano

½ c. dry white wine

1 large butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cubed

6 c. chicken stock

2 oranges, juice and zest

1 t. lemon juice

4 T. honey

a dash of Tabasco or hot chili paste

salt to taste

1 T. minced fresh oregano or chives

1 T. whipping cream

 

croutons:

3-4 slices crusty French bread, cubed

butter for the pan

a drizzle of maple syrup

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed stock pot. Add the leek, carrots, parsnips, pear and ginger, and cook until tender without colouring. Mix in the dried oregano, wine and squash. Add the chicken stock and simmer until all is tender. Puree. Adjust the balance with orange juice, lemon juice, honey and hot chili paste and salt. Stir in the reserved orange zest, fresh oregano or chives, then serve, drizzling each portion with a teaspoon of heavy cream.

Make maple butter croutons for garnish by sautéing diced bread in butter to crisp. Drizzle with maple syrup and caramelize to brown. Serve on the soup.

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Grainews: First We Eat: Preserves

Whenever one of my sons visits, he invariably rummages through the fridge, hunting for a jar of beet pickles or dills. When he finds it, he devours half of its contents. It’s been that way for years: I am the Condiment Queen. My pantry – and my sons’ – are full of preserves, mostly homemade. They are made with personalized flavours, from ingredients I can trust, and I know they are carefully made and safe to eat. And delicious.

Canning invokes more science than most people realize. Here’s what you need to know.

Preservatives:

Salt: If you reduce salt, the salt in the cucumber migrates into the not-quite-salty-enough brine, causing soft pickles. (I warned you about the science…) AND reduced salt can lead to spoilage due to micro-organisms. So do not adjust the recipe’s salt content.

Sugar plays a role in preventing spoilage too. Do not alter it.

Use pickling or apple cider vinegar with an acidity of 5% to eliminate any risk of botulism. In fermented pickles (see below), too brief a brining time makes vinegar cloudy as liquid seeps out of the vegetables.

Get the freshest vegetables and process them promptly.

Processes:

* Old-fashioned processed pickles (sauerkraut, dills and kimchi) are made by a slow process of brine fermentation, whereby the bacteria in the vegetables reduce the sugars present. This takes 3-5 weeks in a large crock.

* Fresh-packed pickles are made by covering raw or cooked vegetables with hot brine or syrup, then pasteurizing in a boiling water bath to kill bacteria.

* Refrigerated pickles are made by placing raw vegetables in a flavoured brine and refrigerating them. Even unopened jars must be kept refrigerated.

* Relishes are made from chopped fruits and vegetables, seasoned and simmered in sweet or tart brine. Chutneys are fruit-based relishes, simultaneously sweet, tart and hot.

Of course you can buy Pickling Spice, but self-made means better flavours. Use whole spices. For about 1 cup, mix 1 T. each allspice berries, black peppercorns, green cardamom (optional), celery seeds, cloves, coriander seeds and mustard seeds. Add 30 crumbled bay leaves, 4 broken cinnamon sticks, and 10-15 crumbled red chilies. Mix together and store in an airtight jar.

Use a boiling water bath to preserve your canned goods, and a pressure canner for low-acid vegetables and proteins to prevent botulism.

Sterilize jars, tongs, rings. Simmer flip lids for 5 minutes to soften the sealing compound on the inner edge.

Use canning jars, wide-mouth canning tongs, wide-mouthed funnel; a chopstick to position foods and remove air pockets.

“Headroom” refers to the space in the jar that is left unfilled. Overfilled jars do not seal; underfilled jars take too long to force out all the air left inside. Rule of thumb: 1/4″ for 8-ounce jars, 1/2″ for everything larger.

Use a clean damp cloth to wipe the rim after you fill the jar. Tighten ring to fingertight.

Return full jars to water at least 1” deeper than the jars in a single layer on a metal rack for processing. Cover the pot and start timing when the water boils. Average processing times at sea level: 15 minutes for half-pint jars; 25 minutes for pint jars; 30 minutes for quart. Add ten minutes for altitudes above 3,000 feet.

Cool jars on a cloth away from drafts. Check for a seal: the top of the lid should not move, should be slightly concave, and should ring clearly when you tap it. As the jars cool there will be an audible ping as each lid seals.

I told you there’d be a lot of science. There is more to discuss, but first we eat.

 

Chili Cha Cha

The recipe for this chili sauce is at least four generations old, handed down from the Southern Ontario branch of my family tree. For concentrated, clear flavours, put the pickling spice directly into the mix, but warn people to beware of crunchy peppercorns and cloves!

Yield: 8-10 pints

24 c. quartered Roma tomatoes

6 c. finely diced celery

6 c. finely minced onions

1/2 c. pickling salt

4 c. white sugar

2 c. apple cider vinegar

½ c. pickling spice

3 red bell peppers, seeded and finely diced

Combine the tomatoes, celery, onions and pickling salt in a large stainless or glass bowl. Let the mixture stand on the counter all day. In the evening, transfer the vegetables into a large colander or strainer with a bowl beneath it to catch the drips. Cover and drain overnight. Next day, discard the liquid.

Dump the vegetables into a shallow heavy-bottomed pot. Stir in remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer to sauce-like in consistency, about 20-35 minutes. Stir regularly. Ladle into jars and process.

 

 

 

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