Tag Archives: locavore

Becoming a Better Cook, Part I: By the book

Grainews

January 2022.

My son recently served me a meal of spatchcocked (butterflied) chicken. It was sensational, crisp and juicy. “Butterflied is the only way I roast a whole bird any more,” he told me.

Then I watched as he made brownies. His recipe was more complex than mine, and he spent longer on the process. They were addictive, moist in the middle. Better than mine.

That good food and my son’s attentiveness reminded me that good science makes better cooks. It also reminded me of professional cooking school in Vancouver back in the early 1980s, when one of my chefs chastised me. “You are asking the wrong question at this point, mademoiselle,” he said. “For now, ask how, not why. ”

But how and why in the kitchen are inextricably linked to becoming a better cook. So here are my Top 10 + 1 “how and why” food books, in random order. First we eat, then we read, and eat again.

  1. The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, by J. Kenji López-Alt.

A doorstopper loaded with photographs and high-results recipes, dense with practical applied science from an MIT engineering geek who loves cooking.

  • The New Making of a Cook, by Madeleine Kamman

The bible, starters to sweets, for a generation of professional chefs. Kamman, a Michelin-trained chef, blended science with an impeccable palate and technique.

  • The New Best Recipe, by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated

Cook’s Illustrated tests a dish’s variables sixteen ways to Sunday to make the best possible version. A valuable, food-splattered resource, also starters to sweets.

  • Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, by Deborah Madison.

The best vegetable-based book ever written. Creative, accessible, and just bloody delicious.  

  • CookWise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed (The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking with over 230 Great-Tasting Recipes), by Shirley O. Corriher

A gold mine from a food-and-science geek. “What This Recipe Shows” explains each dish’s ingredients, techniques, and culinary/scientific principles.

  • Tartine Bread, by Chad Robertson

Artisanal sourdough bread demystified: the complexities of exceptional breads with character, crumb, and crust. Learn to think in ratios and buy a good scale.

  • Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn

Clear details and ratios for making the best links. Now you really need that scale.

  • The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Process From Around the World, by Sandor Katz

From kraut, kimchi and kombucha to sourdough, this book will get you bubbling your own bacteria.

  • Batch: Over 200 Recipes, Tips and Techniques for a Well-Preserved Kitchen, by Joel McCharles and Dana Harrison

Canning, dehydrating, fermenting, cellaring, salting, smoking or infusing, organized by individual ingredients with myriad ways to transform each.

  1. Salt Heat Acid Fat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat

Cook by the four tastes. Quirky illustrations and exuberant language.

11. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, by Harold McGee.

Hardcore science from a food geek. No recipes.

Roasted Butterflied Chicken

From The Food Lab by J. Kenji López-Alt. Butterflying equalizes the cooking time needed for breast meat and legs. Serves 4

1 whole chicken, 3-4 lb.

1 tsp. kosher salt for dry-brining plus more for roasting

1 Tbsp. olive oil

freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place the bird breast side down on a cutting board. Use poultry shears or kitchen scissors to cut alongside the backbone from the poke’s nose up to the neck. Repeat on the other side of the backbone. Remove and reserve the backbone for stock-making.

Flip the bird over. Firmly press down on the breastbone with the heel of your hand. You should hear or feel it crack as the bird flattens. Tuck each wing tip under the breasts.

Loosen the skin by running your hand between the skin and breast meat, starting at the base of the breast.  Rub 1 tsp. kosher salt all over the meat under the skin. Place on a rack on a baking sheet and chill, uncovered, overnight if time allows.

Preheat oven to 450 F. Position an oven rack in the centre of the oven.

Dry the chicken skin and meat under the skin with paper towels. Rub oil all over the skin and meat. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

Centre bird on a rack on top of a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. Roast uncovered until the thickest part of the breast closest to the breastbone registers 140 F and the joint between thigh and drum registers at least 160 F.

Remove from the oven. Let rest for 10-15 minutes before carving.

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Root vegetables and taking root

Grainews

December 2021.

All month I’ve been pestering Mom for stories. You’d think I was five again. But no. Truth is, we’ve been in closer proximity than usual. She’s recovering from glaucoma surgery, which has eliminated lifting, bending over, or carrying anything heavier than a supper plate. So I am at her house, lifting, bending over, and carrying. It’s amazing how often we do those things without even noticing. Putting on your shoes, for instance. First you bend over to put on your socks. Oh. No, you put your feet up on a chair and call your daughter over to help you. Then you bend over to pick up your favourite shoes. Oh, maybe not. Then you bend over to pull those dogs onto your feet and tie them up. Ooops. You get the picture. Mom is wearing slippers, laughingly threatening to arrange for a private valet permanently.

Mom’s most recent stories have been about winter, and winter holidays. Our family was poor, just another hardworking farm crew, so winter holidays to Cuba were never part of the gig. Prairie winters have always been harsh, and those days, it was even harder with the absence of electricity. In winter, Mom drove old Mart the horse to school in the cutter and unhooked him before turning him into the school’s barn with his halter on, the bridle hanging under her coat in the schoolroom to keep the bit warm. And come the festive season, my grandparents and mom and my auntie and all their local rellies would drive in the cutters to Mrs. Mike’s, my widowed great-grandmother, for turkey dinner. She would cook all day, then sit back with a glass of homemade rhubarb wine while her daughters-in-law cleaned up her leavings in the kitchen.

Like my grandmother and my mom, Mrs. Mike was a very good cook, but nothin’ fancy. Holiday meals were what you’d expect from a prairie cook – roast turkey and root vegetables, mashed potatoes, pie, steamed pudding, fruitcake. Squash never made it onto her holiday table, but carrots, you bet.

Now I love a good turkey or roasted chicken as well as the next hungry woman. But there are times when I think I am a changeling, at least in a culinary sense. I’d rather eat South Asian food than anything else. You know, food featuring those warm high-C spices – cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves. And a vegetable-heavy feast that might include rogan josh (Kashmiri lamb),but for me the heart of the table are the vegetables: dahl (stewed lentils with ginger), chole (curried chickpeas), basmati rice, aloo gobi (cauliflower and potatoes with tomato and garlic), bartha (smoked pureed eggplant), palak paneer (spinach and fresh cheese), garlic naan (flatbread), and pakoras (vegetable fritters) with cilantro chutney. That’s my last supper right there. My sons have it in writing.

I’ll share those recipes in the coming year. Meanwhile, a lovely way to introduce South Asian flavours is to add an Indian pickle to your table. My favourite is carrot pickle, and in years like this, when I have many pounds of homegrown carrots in my fridge, gifts of homemade carrot pickle are economical and delicious.

In a family committed to homemade gifts, food is often the medium that makes the rounds at our present exchanges. This is a hot-pack pickle that must be refrigerated, so include a note to that effect when you share it, whether at a Diwali, Eid, Kwanzaa, Hannukah, or Christmas feast. However we celebrate the rebirth of life and return from the dark, first we eat.

Carrot Pickle

Store this pickle in the fridge to let the flavours develop and use it to garnish curries, scrambled eggs, roast pork, smoked or roasted salmon, canapés, and grain dishes. Mustard oil adds a distinctively pungent, spicy note. Buy it at South Asian groceries. If you can’t find it, substitute your best extra virgin olive oil.

Makes 1 quart jar

1 lb. carrots, julienned, raw or lightly steamed                                              

1 head garlic, peeled and thinly sliced                                                            

ginger root to taste, thinly sliced       

1 ½ tsp. kalonji (black onion seed), optional                        

1 tsp. fenugreek                                                         

1 tsp. anise seed                                                         

½ tsp. coriander seed                                     

¼ tsp. cumin seed                                                      

1 tsp. mustard seed                                                                            

½ tsp. cracked black peppercorns                                                                                         

2 lemons, juice and zest                                                                                             

½ c. apple cider vinegar                                             

mustard oil as needed

Wash and sterilize the jar. Pack the carrots into the jar, using a pair of chopsticks or skewer to make the job easier. Combine all remaining ingredients except the mustard oil in a small pot and bring to a boil, then pour over the carrots. Top up with oil so that all the carrots are covered, then put on a snug lid and refrigerate for several weeks before using.

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Chameleon cooking

Grainews

December 2021.

I’ve been benched. Perhaps you recall that last month’s column mentioned Mom’s and my west coast holiday, specifically meeting a salmon fisher in Steveston. That morning we worked our way up and down the wharf, admiring the spot prawns and salmon despite having neither pans nor stovetop. We moved slowly, but not just to soak in the ambiance while accommodating Mom’s elderly gait. The day before, I had been struck, knocked down, and driven over by a ponytailed man riding a motorized scooter, a two-wheeler bigger than a Vespa but smaller than a Harley. Months later, I am still limping, and our dog Jake hasn’t had a run since before my accident. It turns out that soft tissue trauma in a foot takes almost as long to heal as broken bones. Who knew?

As a result, before mealtimes I head to the living room to elevate my damaged limb and apply heat while I sip a glass of wine. In the kitchen, Dave is cooking. I am grateful. But I’ve learned to get out of the way instead of offering advice – we work in different ways, at different speeds, and my gratitude is purest when I refrain from “helping”.

When we met almost fourteen years ago Dave fed me sausages and sauerkraut for my first supper in his apartment. Since then, his repertoire has increased. He makes a mean meatloaf; a good Bolognese sauce enriched with dried figs, apricots, and prunes; and some terrific baked pasta. In the sweet kitchen, he whips up the occasional tea-loaf spiked with dark chocolate and Earl Grey. But although beans and lentils aren’t really his thing, I had a craving for pork and beans, so I asked him to make this simplest of all lentil dishes.

Canada is the world’s leader in producing and exporting lentils, with ninety-five percent grown in Saskatchewan. Lentils are superfoods, nutty, earthy, and yummy as well as high in protein and fibre. There is evidence that humanity has been eating them for millennia, from the Euphrates river valley 8000 years ago to Egyptian tombs at Thebes, and ancient frescos show the making of lentil soup. Half the world’s lentils are consumed in India, but they are also popular in Spain, the Middle, East, and France. Here in North America, we were slower to adopt the lentil, but with the advent of the Second World War, meat shortages convinced many cooks of the virtue of lentils.

This red lentil dish, cousin to the old staple of pork and beans, is a changeable chameleon. Vary the vegetables. Chop them finely or leave ‘em large. Make it thick with extra veg and call it a stew. Add coconut milk and shredded greens and serve beside coconut rice, or thin it with additional stock to serve as soup. Add minced sausage or not, as you please.

I have chosen South Asian fused with Spanish seasoning for this version, but you can go elsewhere: make a Thai curry (add green, red, or Panang curry paste, honey, lime juice, coconut milk, and lemongrass, with toasted peanut garnish); a Middle Eastern tagine (add pomegranate molasses, sumac or saffron, cumin, dried fruit, and preserved lemons); or a Latin-esque lunch (add coriander, fennel seed, chili powder, tomato, oregano, a bit of dark chocolate, and cilantro garnish). Of course you can use different types of lentils or cooked beans, but red lentils cook in the same timeframe as most vegetables, making this a prompt and practical one-pot peasant dish that sustains and delights. So first we eat, and then we can chat about other chameleon dishes.

Red Chameleon Lentils

Do not add salt or acid until after the lentils are cooked.

Serves 6

2 Tbsp. olive oil

4-6 cloves garlic, minced

1 Tbsp. minced ginger

1 onion, minced

2 cups chopped assorted vegetables (carrots, mushrooms, celery, bell pepper, zucchini, cabbage)

2-4 links sausage of your preference, diced or sliced (optional)

1 Tbsp. sweet paprika

½ tsp. smoked paprika

1 Tbsp. curry powder or garam masala

1 cup red lentils

8 cups chicken stock

2-4 Tbsp. lemon juice

salt and pepper to taste

2 cups shredded greens (beet tops, chard, arugula, kale, spinach, cress, mustard greens)

Heat a heavy-bottomed pot and add the oil. Add the garlic and ginger, stirring. Add the onion. Sauté until tender, about 10 minutes. Add the remaining vegetables and sauté for several minutes, using the mushrooms as a benchmark – when they are wilted, add the optional sausage. Sauté until the sausage is cooked, then stir in the spices to toast for a couple minutes. Add the lentils and stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cover snugly. Cook for 20 – 30 minutes, or until tender. Season to taste with lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Stir in the greens. Serve hot.

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Farmers and fishers

Grainews

October 2021.

Early fall, and I am on a holiday with Mom, revisiting the foods, places, and faces of her youth. Mom is a retired dryland farmer, and like me, she misses the ready access to fish and seafood that we enjoyed during our earlier coastal life while Dad was in the Canadian Air Force. So on this west coast vacation, we eat west coast fish every day – wild sockeye salmon, halibut, tuna, spot prawns, ling cod, rockfish, sablefish.

At Farquharson Farms, a market garden in the Comox Valley where my then-thirty-something Mom was a field boss in the mid-1960s, the farm’s 192 acres are now a waterfowl habitat. A few miles north, Mission Hill Meats has transformed into Gunter Brothers Meat, run by the grandsons of Harry Gunter; Mom worked for Harry five decades ago, delivering meat weekly up-island to Sayward and Kelsey Bay and providing cooking tips to the young wives on her route. We take a beach tour, revisiting Miracle Beach and Kin Beach, where back in the day we gorged on oysters, clams, and salmon, all caught by our family.

But you can’t recapture your youth. Mom is visibly disappointed that the small coastal towns she knew so well have changed, more perhaps than she has. So we leave the past behind and take the ferry to the mainland to visit our family.

On the Steveston wharf south of Vancouver, a dozen fishing boats are tied up. The fishers use ice to display their catch of gleaming silver and coral, the signature colours of salmon and spot prawns indigenous to the coastal waters.

Mom and I stop to chat with Steve Lewis, aboard the F.V. Evening Breeze, a 42-foot fishing vessel. I am curious about the parallels, if any, between fishing and farming. I learn that five years ago, Lewis, his wife, Michelle, and their son would sell 100 whole fish a day at the wharf, all frozen at sea when caught. This week, during a 9-day stint at the Steveston wharf, they only sold 31 fish on Sunday, and 30 on Saturday, despite 30,000 people passing through the wharf over the weekend. “People aren’t spending like they used to,” Lewis tells me. “We’re hoping it’s just Covid, but last year was better than this year.  And it doesn’t help that some fishers thaw their fish and sell it as fresh. We only sell frozen.”

Lewis was born into a Campbell River fishing family, and has been long line fishing for 50 years. The salmon fishery around Dixon Entrance, between Haida Gwaii and Alaska, where he holds his license, was open only briefly during August and September. Lewis’s halibut license allows fishing between March and November.

Like farming, getting into the fishery on a commercial level is costly. License renewal is $750/year, but its initial purchase – when available from another fisher – is worth $100,000 to $200, 000 for salmon, and almost a million dollars for a prawn fishery license, if you can find a fisher ready to sell up. Plus there’s the initial outlay of up to $500,000 for a boat, radar, sounders, fish sonar, computers, programs to map the sea-bottom and draw it in 3-D, insurance, and wharfage fees, plus power to keep the heaters going in the winter.

Like the dairy industry, the Canadian fishery is governed by quotas, with the added risk of storms, icy ocean water, short fishing seasons, depleting stocks, climate change, a decline in home cooking, and a public misinformed that buying fresh and farmed is better than frozen and wild. When I ask Lewis if he’s going to stick with the fishery, he wryly says, “We’ll stay in business. I hope our son will finally say dad I want the boat. One of us has got to get off – I did that with my dad.” Listening, I think of all the farmers I know with a younger generation leaving for easier lives off-farm. And I wonder all over again, who will feed us? So first we eat, then we talk about how to save the oceans and farms.

Dorothy Caldwell’s Roasted Salmon

This beautifully balanced dish relies on the extra fat from the mayo and the sweet-tart vinegar to enhance wild sockeye salmon’s richness. If you don’t have umeboshi plum vinegar, substitute Japanese-style rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar with a bit of honey. Thanks to my friend Dorothy for sharing. Serves 6-8

1 boneless side of wild sockeye salmon, 2-4 lb.

½ cup mayonnaise

2 Tbsp. umeboshi plum vinegar

1 medium minced red onion

1 tsp. mustard

½ tsp. smoked hot paprika

1 lemon, juice and zest

salt and pepper to taste

a handful of minced herbs – chives, parsley, thyme, tarragon, cilantro

Preheat the oven to 400 F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the fish on the prepared tray, skin side down. Mix together remaining ingredients except herbs and slather on the fish. Roast uncovered until just done, about 12-15 minutes. Sprinkle with herbs, then serve.

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Making the most of a tough tomato harvest

Grainews

October 2021.

War contributes to the transportation and appropriation of goods around the globe. For instance, tomatoes were among the plants and animals that ended up in Europe in the unequal exchange of goods, disease, slavery, land theft, and genocide between New World and Old, beginning in 1492 and culminating in1650, called the Columbian Exchange. This event led to the emergence of some remarkable Mediterranean dishes, many centering on the tomato, and making them among the world’s most popular fruit for home gardeners like me. My tomato-growing is bittersweet, knowing the history of the plants.

Tomatoes are fragile. A frost warning for tonight means that I will cover the fruit still hanging on the vine. Not that there’s a lot – this summer has been as disastrous for tomatoes as it has been for most other crops.

I planted thirty plants – among them Black Krim, Sungold, Marzano, Early Girl, Sweet Million, Brandywine, Whippersnapper, yellow-striped Green Zebra, and heritage beefsteak, plus five “mystery plants” purchased from tomato maven and author Sara Williams at her annual Tomatoes for Tanzania sale in Saskatoon.  Because we were flooded in 2011, and my mother’s and grandmother’s garden was eventually covered by a berm that encircles the house to keep ensuing (perhaps unlikely) floods from drowning our old house, most of my gardening takes place in containers and raised beds. The tomatoes inhabit a funky assortment of receptacles adjacent to the herb bed on the north side of the house. They get sun, shade, shelter. I had hopes of a bumper crop.

At her sale, I asked Williams for some tips. On her advice, I made eggshell tea to from crushed eggshells to aid in calcium absorption and reduce the risk of the dreaded blossom stem end rot.

Then the heat dome inflated over western Canada. A heat wave that lasted most of the summer set in, and my tomato plants, by then setting blossoms, began to look stressed. On days that hit upwards of 30C, it became impossible to keep the plants’ water level on an even keel.

A harvest vastly smaller than I expected – albeit with very few incidences of blossom stem end rot – meant that I had to go looking for additional fruit to feed my tomato habit. (Each fall I like to make roasted tomato sauce – more on that in a minute – and my paternal grandmother Doris’s southern Ontario sweet and spicy tomato chili sauce, dynamite with eggs and grilled pork. That recipe another time.)

Fortunately, my mom’s neighbour operates a bustling market selling homegrown vegetables, canned goods, and baking. She had bags of green tomatoes – beefsteaks, she thought. Now I have tomatoes ripening in my kitchen, bananas strategically placed on each tray to facilitate the process. In a week or two, I expect to make roasted tomato sauce for my freezer; I save the smaller tomatoes for use in our daily salads.

This sauce is money in the bank for a busy cook – it is ready RIGHT NOW, needing only thawing, as the best-ever pizza sauce, pasta sauce, soup base, and all-purpose ingredient in any dish requiring tomato sauce, from Bolognese to butter chicken.

Last fall, and again this summer, that tomato sauce featured prominently in al fresco pizza suppers enjoyed in the shade of the maple tree. Having the sauce in my freezer meant that my prep time was reduced, allowing me to enjoy a glass of wine with our friends. After more than a year of isolation, those pizzas symbolize the beauty and collegiality of the table, antidote in small part to the violence of how tomatoes came to European cooks. So first we eat. Then we pour another glass of wine and debate ways to grow the best tomatoes.

Roasted Tomato Sauce

This “oven-queen’s special” minimizes splatter and mess while producing a sauce bursting with fresh tomato flavour. One “quarter sheet” baking pan (about 13” x 18”) makes 6-8 cups of sauce. For Tomato and Lovage Soup, sauté minced lovage and add to the sauce, thinning with stock as needed. Vary endlessly.

3 lb. ripe tomatoes, halved or quartered depending on size

1-2 onions, minced

1 head garlic, peeled

olive oil to drizzle

salt and pepper to taste

Set the oven at 375 – 400 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Arrange the tomatoes in a single layer on the pan. Sprinkle the onion and garlic on top. Drizzle with olive oil to taste, then sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Roast for about 45 minutes, or until the tomatoes are collapsed, charred nicely along the edges, and cooked thoroughly. Transfer in several batches to a food processor and blitz briefly, leaving the sauce a bit chunky. Freeze in whatever volume seems useful to you: in my 2-person house, I use 2-cup containers.

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High Summer Ice Cream

Grainews

August 2021.

I love ice cream. I am not alone. In my immediate family, Dave and Mom perk up like hungry pups whenever we stop at our favourite ice cream joint. A 2019 survey reveals that twenty-five percent of Canadians eat ice cream two or three times a month, making us solid contributors to its global consumption, a love that generated over $65 billion (US) in sales in 2020.

Ice cream may have originated in China prior to 1000 AD, then travelled into India in the sixteenth century via Afghanistan, a famous East-West crossroads. In the western world, it likely originated in Italy (from points east). The first written recipe appeared in England in Mrs. Mary Eale’s 1718 cookbook. Ice cream cones were a big hit at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, in wafer cones that likely originated with an Italian immigrant.

Homemade ice cream is not difficult, and machines to mix it are widely available and affordable. First, get hip to some science. Cream and milk, frozen, is a hard mass; adding sugar softens it, but also drops the temperature at which ice cream freezes to well below the freezing point of water. Adding fat and protein – in egg yolks and cream – keeps ice crystals small for a creamy texture. Mixing air into the mixture as it freezes impairs the formation of ice crystals, making ice cream less icy-textured, so it feels light on the scoop and easy on the mouth. For a silkier texture, a home cook can add corn syrup, or replace some whipping cream with evaporated, powdered, or condensed milk.

Some ice creams, like Italian gelato, are unstirred and have no air, giving them a dense mouth-feel. Indian kulfi is milk cooked down to densely creamy consistency before being frozen.

Sorbet – simple sugar syrup with egg whites added for textural support – is often infused with fruit juice or puree. (Whole fruit or fruit pieces are icy-hard tooth-crackers when frozen.) Sorbet is usually stirred, like ice cream. Its cousin, granita, is made with minimal scraping with a fork, for a grainy, ice-shard texture.

Ice cream’s flavours start at vanilla, but I always get stuck at chocolate and caramel. Others like berries, tea infusions, herbal highnotes, and fruit purees. So hold off on the trip to town. First we eat some ice cream. Then we can exchange recipes.

Vanilla Ice Cream & Variants

To venture beyond “plain vanilla”, flavour this with the spices that make up gingerbread cookies and cake. Or add chocolate ganache (melted chocolate and cream), caramel, or toasted chopped nuts and rum. Makes about 4 cups.

1½ cups whipping cream

1½ cups whole milk

4 egg yolks

½ cup white sugar

2 tsp. vanilla extract

In a heavy pot, heat the cream and milk. Whisk the egg yolks and sugar in a large bowl. Pour in the slightly cooled liquid, whisk well, then return to the cleaned heavy pot. Place over medium heat and cook gently, stirring with a wooden spoon. Do not boil. Cook until lightly thickened – it should coat a spoon and leave a clear line when a finger is drawn across the spoon’s back. Remove from heat, strain, then cover with plastic wrap placed directly on the custard surface. Cool, then chill. Make ice cream as usual per the ice cream maker’s instructions.

Variants:

Gingerbread Spice:

2 whole star anise

1 cinnamon stick

2 whole cloves

6 whole allspice                     

½ nutmeg

Add to the milk and cream. Heat to a simmer, and steep for 20 minutes before straining. Continue as instructed.

Cinnamon Mocha:

½ lb. semi-sweet, white, or milk chocolate, chopped

¼ cup strong coffee or espresso

1 tsp. cinnamon

Melt the chocolate on medium power in the microwave, about 2 minutes. Add with the coffee and cinnamon to the heated cream-milk mix. Stir well. Continue the recipe as instructed.

Burnt Orange Caramel:

1 cup white sugar

¼ cup cold water

2 twigs fresh rosemary

zest of             2 oranges

1 cup orange juice

1 cup heavy cream

1 Tbsp. butter

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the sugar and water. Stir well to dissolve, then heat to boiling. Brush down sugar crystals from the side of the pot to prevent re-crystallization. Add the rosemary and the orange zest and cook the syrup over high heat until it begins to brown. Shake the pan or turn it if hot spots develop and cause uneven colouring, but be very careful; the heat is approaching 300°F. Allow the caramel to cook until it is dark amber in colour, then stand well back and cautiously add the orange juice. IT WILL SPLATTER. Immediately stir well to re-dissolve, then stir in the cream. Return to the heat and boil for 5 minutes, to reduce and thicken. Strain and store in the fridge. To use, reheat gently, stirring. Make the ice cream and stir in the caramel just as the ice cream sets up, or serve warm on the side, preferably with grilled pineapple spears.

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First We Eat: A Chicken in Every Pot

Grainews

July 2021.

I buy my chickens from a local farmer. She sells me eggs, too, blue, brown and white ovoids so beautiful they can’t help but taste better than commercial eggs. Each winter, my farmer sends me a note when she is ready to order her chicks, and I guess how many birds I think we plan to consume in a year. Big birds, that is – roasters, double Ds, you might say if you were inclined to categorize by cup size. I ask for larger birds because the ratio of meat to bone is higher. From one bird, I expect to feed the two of us, plus Mom, four, five or even six meals, plus whatever I make with chicken stock from the bones as a beginning point.

Each summer, I drive to the farm and collect my butchered birds, along with the livers, hearts, and gizzards. We have chopped liver spread; our dog Jake has simmered gizzards and hearts. I spend all afternoon and evening cutting up and freezing birds in bags – all thighs, all breasts, all drums, all wings – so my winter and spring cooking is decided by cut, which in turn determines cooking method. Then I brown the carcasses in the oven and make a huge potful of stock, which I also freeze, money in the bank to a cook. 

The birds my farmer raises are delicious. They eat well, get plenty of air and exercise, and have a good, chicken-y life, with bugs and grasses to peck and breezes to ruffle their feathers. I’ve been eating birds raised off the grid for much of my adult life. Underlying my visits to my farmer’s yard is my memory of my Gran raising birds, and her butcher day, here on the farm where Dave and I now live. My Gran was good with her hatchet, but I will never forget seeing headless birds like avian Ichabod Cranes careening about the yard as they ran towards their deaths. The pungent smell of scalded feathers prior to plucking hung on all day, made worthwhile by the canned chicken that Gran put up, cellar shelves lined with quart sealers.

According the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, poultry is the second-most-popular meat on the planet, just behind pork. But studies of diet during the pandemic show that home cooks have turned more often to poultry than any other protein source, mostly because of its versatility. My husband Dave has lost count of the number of ways we eat chicken, but his favourite is still fried chicken, which I make once or twice a year. So first we eat, and then we debate our top bird dishes.

Brined Fried Chicken

Method matters: brining chicken, pork, and turkey is a solid-gold way to ensure a juicy, tender result; and meticulously dredging the pieces in flour, egg-wash, and crumbs protects the chicken from the oil.

Serves 8

½ cup kosher salt

1/3 cup sugar

2 cups water

1 quart buttermilk

1 head garlic, peeled and smashed

a handful of fresh thyme

several sprigs of fresh rosemary

1 Tbsp. whole peppercorns

2 Tbsp. sweet paprika

1 roasting chicken, cut into 4-oz pieces (off the bone is best)

3 cups flour (barley, wheat, or spelt)

salt and pepper to taste

1 Tbsp. sweet paprika

1 tsp. dried thyme or basil

1 egg

2 cups milk

4 cups panko breadcrumbs

oil for the pan

Combine the salt, sugar and water in a pot and bring to a boil. Stir until all crystals are dissolved. Cool thoroughly. Add the buttermilk, garlic, thyme, rosemary, peppercorns, and paprika. Mix well. Transfer to a large zippered plastic bag, add the chicken pieces, seal, and refrigerate for 8-12 hours.

Remove the chicken from the brine. Discard the brine. Pat dry the chicken and let stand on a baking sheet so it will not be stone cold when you cook it. Set the oven at 325 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment.

Stir together the flour, salt, pepper, paprika and herbs on a baking tray with a lip. Mix together the egg and milk and put it in shallow pan.  Put the breadcrumbs in a shallow tray or large plate. Arrange the three containers in a row on the counter: flour, egg-wash, crumbs. Set one empty parchment-lined tray next to the crumbs.

Dredge several pieces of chicken in the flour, coating each thoroughly, then shake off the excess. Dip each thoroughly in the egg wash, then in the crumbs. Arrange on the tray in a single layer. Repeat until all the chicken is coated. Clean your hands often as you work.

Pour 2” of oil into a large cast iron frying pan and heat the pan until the oil sizzles when water is flicked onto it, about 340 F. Use tongs to place a piece of chicken skin-side down in the oil – it should sizzle. Add as many pieces as comfortably fit in a single layer. Cook until nicely browned, 5-7 minutes, then turn to colour the second side, about 3-5 minutes. Remove the cooked chicken to the second tray. Repeat until all the chicken is cooked. Keep the tray of fried chicken in the oven while the rest is frying. Serve hot.

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Please Pass the Crackers

Grainews

June 2021.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Makes about 60 2” crackers

1/3 cup (55 g) wheat germ

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

1/3 cup (70 g) sugar

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

¼ tsp. cream of tartar

¼ tsp. baking powder

¼ tsp. baking soda

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

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

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

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

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

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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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