Tag Archives: prairie food

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary

Preserved lemons and ageless aunties

Grainews

March 2020. I’m standing in my auntie’s orchard on a mild afternoon, the temperature about 18 C. In Canada, it’s deep winter, but here in California, the citrus trees have bloomed, and the fruit is ripe.

It’s a tough gig, being a grower on the Canadian prairies. We make jokes about the harsh weather – “But it’s a dry cold!” – but in reality some of us are pretty chuffed that we manage to grow anything at all.

Of course, we can’t grow everything. If I had my druthers, my little piece of prairie would be blessed with a kinder, gentler, more Mediterranean climate. I’d grow grapes, sweet cherries, olives, dates and figs, eggplant, all kinds of citrus. Lemons, grapefruit, limes and oranges fresh from the tree are an intoxicating thing. Just as intoxicating is the aroma of their blossoms before the tree produces fruit. O my.

Dozens of songs have been written about the lemon, from “Blind Lemon Blues” by Lead Belly to Prince’s “Lemon Crush”. In literature, too, lemons lead the citrus firmament – D.H. Lawrence waxed rhapsodic about lemons like innumerable stars in his 1921 travel book, Sea and Sardinia. But nothing but the doing of it captures the total coolness of strolling outside and twisting a fresh lemon free from the tree. As I said, the Mediterranean.

Citrus is an undeniably Arabic influence. Groves of bitter, or Seville, oranges, and other citrus were planted by Arabs carrying Islam into Europe. Flavours bequeathed by the Arabs to the cuisines of the Mediterranean include saffron, sweet-sour agrodolce sauce, brilliant on grilled fish, and preserved lemons. This is to fresh lemons as powdered and crystallized ginger is to a fresh hand of ginger – recognizably the same flavour, but not interchangeable. Fresh lemons are a brightener of flavours without equal – almost always, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice elevates a dish. But preserved lemons are transformed into condiment, losing their acidic rasp to the mellowing influence of salt.

So here it is – how to preserve lemons, then what to do with them. First we eat, then a glass of wine as we discuss the merits of moving to the Mediterranean.

  • dee’s note: I flew home safely. A week later, planes were grounded, airports closed, and the pandemic closed in.

Preserved Lemons

Preserved lemons are a classic Mediterranean condiment. They are wondrous added to prawns, grilled fish, stews or tagines, roasted potatoes, bowls of lentils or chickpeas, grain salad, vinaigrette. Makes 1 pint

6 lemons

2 Tbsp. kosher or pickling salt

4 bay leaves

1 cinnamon stick, broken

1 tsp. coriander seeds

¼ c. melted honey (optional)

Quarter washed lemons ¾ of the way down the fruit, leaving the quarters attached at the stem end. Stuff each with 1 tsp. salt. Pack into jar, peel side up, squishing well with a spoon to get the juices flowing. Sprinkle each layer with coriander seed, cinnamon sticks and bay leaves. Add honey, and if needed, extra lemon juice to cover. Cover and age in the fridge for a month before using.

Chicken with Olives and Preserved Lemons

Called a tagine in Morocco, a stew is a stew by any other name. You can swap the chicken for large cubes of lamb shoulder or cross-cut shanks; just extend the cooking time. For added complexity, add a pinch of saffron. Serves 6-10

6 chicken thighs and drums, bone in

2 Tbsp. olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1 head garlic, minced

1 Tbsp. chopped ginger (optional)                                                                

1 red pepper, chopped                                                                                  

1 tsp. anise seed, cracked

1 Tbsp. sweet paprika

1 Tbsp. ground cumin

2 Tbsp. ground coriander

½ cup chopped parsley

4 cups chicken stock

1 cup sliced green olives

1 stick cinnamon

2 Tbsp. pomegranate molasses or brown sugar

1/3 cup finely sliced preserved lemon, zest only

1 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar                                                   

1 bunch green onions, minced

salt and pepper to taste

Brown the legs, skin side down, in a heavy pan until most of the fat is rendered out. Set the meat aside. Add the onion, garlic, ginger, red pepper and spices. Sauté until tender. Add the parsley, stock, olives, cinnamon, pomegranate molasses or brown sugar and lemons. Bring to a boil, return the meat to the pan, reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until chicken is cooked and tender, about 90 minutes, longer as needed. Stir in the vinegar, salt and pepper. If the juices are too thin, bring to a boil uncovered, until sauce consistency. Garnish with green onions. Serve hot with roasted vegetables, cous cous, tabbouleh or mashed spuds.

Leave a comment

Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary

Fathers & Chocolate

Grainews

November 2020. My family recently marked the first anniversary of my Dad’s death. I miss him. He and Mom lived fairly close by, and Dave and I visited them weekly for movie night with our dog Jake, sometimes with dessert in hand. Like a good chocolate, Dad had a soft heart within a crusty exterior. Chocolate was one of his favourite foods: his standing request for dessert whenever I consulted him was “Anything as long as it’s chocolate.” By which he meant dark chocolate, of course.

When we were kids, my home-cooking hero mother had a limited repertoire of desserts, but many were made with dark chocolate to suit Dad’s chocoholic tastes. His favourite was chocolate cake in a square pan; after supper Mom cut it into nine, three by three, enough for the seven of us plus seconds for Dad, and in his lunch the next day.

The chocoholic gene caught up with me as an adult. I love a tart lemon dessert, but chocolate rules, so I eat good dark chocolate every day – bolstered by my dentist’s advice decades ago, that chocolate really was the best choice if I was going to eat sweets. (It doesn’t get stuck in my teeth like toffee does.) Plus I’ve read that dark chocolate (containing a minimum of 70% cacao) contains flavanols, which are potent antioxidants. A 2018 test at Linda Loma University in California involved subjects eating dark chocolate before and after a brain scan. In the post-chocolate scans, researchers observed increased activity in functions like T-cell activation, cellular immune response and in genes involved in neural signaling, which translates to positive effects on mood, memory, stress levels and inflammation. As well, it reduces blood pressure and cholesterol. Medical and dental endorsement – double yay! Wowee, Dad was smart.

Desserts I’d make for my Dad if he were still walking the planet include a very adult flourless dark chocolate pudding/cake, salted caramel chocolate tart, and chocolate angel food cake topped with dark chocolate cream. And this intensely flavoured sourdough chocolate cake, which utilizes the discard from making bread. Dad would have loved this cake. So first we eat, then we discuss the many merits of quotidian chocolate as a lifestyle.  I’ll get you those other chocolate recipes another day, I promise.

Sourdough Chocolate Cake

When I couldn’t visit friends willing to adopt my sourdough starter extras and couldn’t stand the idea of tossing out the discard when I made bread, I went hunting for ways to use up my excess starter. This is adapted from a recipe I found on the King Arthur Flour website. Yes, it has two toppings. Make both. Makes one very rich 9”x13” cake

Cake:

1 cup sourdough starter (or discard)

1 cup milk

2 cups all purpose flour

1 ½ cups sugar

1 cup vegetable oil or melted butter

2 tsp. vanilla extract

1 ½ tsp. baking soda

¾ cup cocoa

2 tsp. instant or espresso coffee powder

2 large eggs

Glaze:

3 cups icing sugar, sifted

½ cup butter

¼ cup plain yoghurt or buttermilk

2 tsp. instant or espresso coffee powder

1 Tbsp. hot water

Icing:

1 cup finely chopped dark chocolate (or chips)

½ cup whipping cream, more as needed

Combine the starter, milk and flour. Mix well, then cover and leave out on the counter for 3-4 hours. (If you leave it overnight, you may need to feed it a spoonful of flour next morning if it looks depleted.)

Set the oven at 350 F. Butter and flour a 9”x13” cake pan. Mix together the sugar, oil or melted butter, vanilla, baking soda, coca and coffee powder. Add the eggs, one at a time. Stir in the activated starter, mixing well. Turn into the pan. Bake for 30-40 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan.

To make the glaze, put the icing sugar in a medium bowl. Combine the butter, and yoghurt or buttermilk in a pot over medium heat. Dissolve the coffee powder in the hot water and add to the butter mix. Heat to just shy of a boil and add to the icing sugar. Mix well to knock out any lumps. Immediately pour evenly on the cake in the pan. It will set as it cools.

To make the icing, combine the chocolate and cream in a glass bowl. Heat on medium power in the microwave for 2 minutes. Stir gently to combine; heat for another 30-40 seconds if necessary to melt the chocolate. Slowly stir in extra cream to thin to spreading consistency if necessary. Spread evenly on the glazed cake-top.

Leave a comment

Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary

Embellishing the Everyday

Grainews

June 2020. Mom doesn’t like to cook. I hardly blame her – she’s 84, after all, and spent decades feeding five kids and my dad. When Mom had double knee replacement surgery seven years ago, Dad stepped into the kitchen. Mom was relieved, and after her knees healed, she didn’t return to cooking, but ate whatever Dad made.

Now a widow, Mom cooks again, albeit reluctantly and sparely. I do her shopping, and I deliver a variety of homemade dishes – soup, pasta sauce, muffins, crisps –when we visit for weekly movie night, and I make lunch (with leftovers) in her kitchen when we return from our farmers’ market forays.

Mom and I are working our way through the backlog of ingredients Dad accumulated before he died. He was a keen shopper, loved a bargain, and thought if some was good, more must be better. When Mom found several packets of round steak in the freezer, she turned the meat over to me, saying she’d never cook it. So I made a big potful of beef and wild mushroom stew for her. But even a carefully made stew constructed with good stock and wild mushrooms and red wine appreciates a little up-sell. So I made puff pastry, and filled six two-portion ramekins with stew, then covered each ramekin with pastry, slashed and glazed with egg wash, unbaked and ready for the freezer. I told Mom to roast some vegetables and a spud whenever she thawed and baked one of the ramekins. The pastry and roasted vegetables transformed that simple dish into a multi-textured meal.

The same pastry upgrade can be accorded to vegetable stew, chicken stew, lamb tagine – any would benefit from a little lily-gilding. It needn’t be scratch-made puff pastry, although it’s the most dramatic. Back in the day in my little Calgary restaurant, I routinely made chicken pot pies to order, topping a bowlful of chicken stew with stacks of buttered filo pastry, subjecting the whole thing to enough time in the oven to transform the pastry to a golden cap. Or, in the southern style, a few biscuits served as topping transformers. Even an upper-crust layer of thinly sliced and buttered potatoes can reinvent a day-to-day stew.

The process of adding a crust to a humble stew is like making cobbler or crisp instead of eating a bowlful of plain berries: it adds texture and a layer of complexity without increasing the degree of difficulty. Despite its rep, puff pastry really isn’t difficult. Sure, it has an aura of glamour, but like most pastry, puff pastry just requires a rolling pin, a bit of time and practice. Quietly serve the results without labeling them as “puff” until your hands are attuned.

So here’s a quick puff pastry to embellish your next humble stew or fruit cobbler. It is so much better than most commercial versions, and making it is quicker than waiting for that frozen brick of commercial puff to thaw.  Try it. First we eat the results, then we can discuss other ways to embellish the everyday.

dee’s Quick Puff Pastry

When I make pastry to top savoury dishes like stew, I sometimes use equal parts of butter and good lard. For sweet dishes like fruit, I use all butter all the time. Makes enough for 6 small ramekins or 3 9” pies.

pastry:

3 cups all purpose flour

a pinch of salt

1 cup cold butter, cut in cubes (or half butter/half lard)

1 cup cold water (more as needed)

egg wash:

1 whole egg

4 Tbsp. cream

Combine the flour and salt. Use a pastry cutter or 2 knives to cut the butter into the dry ingredients until the fat is the size of big peas. Add the water (more as needed depending on the climate and humidity). Mix to just hold together.

Turn out the pastry onto a floured counter. Use your hands to form the pastry into a thick rectangle. Keep the edges as tidy as you can. Fold one-third of the pastry over top, then fold the far side over top so you have a fat rectangle. Turn the dough 90 degrees. Roll out the dough into a fat but tidy rectangle, then fold in thirds again. Turn and repeat 4 times. Wrap and chill for 30 minutes.

Remove from the fridge 30 minutes before you plan to roll out for use. Cut dough into 4 pieces and roll on floured counter to preferred thickness. Use a sharp knife to cut to required size and shape. Cut several slashes in the centre of the pastry as steam vents. Transfer pastry to top of stew or fruit filling.  Chill for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 F. Make the egg wash by whisking the egg and cream until well blended. Brush onto the pastry. Bake for 20 minutes, then reduce heat to 375 F. Bake for another 20 minutes or until golden.

Leave a comment

Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary

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.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary

Grainews: First We Eat: Feeding Our Elders

Grainews

Last month an elderly friend called me, wondering if I could help him and his wife cope with food for a couple weeks. They were living in assisted living after he’d had a stint in the hospital, but both were anxious to get back into their own home, a move scheduled for several weeks after our conversation. He thought that having good meals would smooth their transition and give them one less thing to fret about as they re-adjusted to life at home.

At the time I’d been fretting about my mom, a recent widow, wondering how she – sick of cooking after decades of feeding kids and husband – would respond to her new culinary regimen. To my surprise, Mom has grabbed the bit and run free, cooking and eating exactly what she likes whenever she feels like it, abandoning a lifetime of structured meals and regimented mealtimes. I’d been afraid she would abandon the kitchen and dwindle, but her appetite resurfaced, robust and eager to relish her favourite foods. It was the perfect metaphor for her approach to her new life.

So my worries on her account were needless, and I was able to turn my hand to cooking for our elderly friends. I was glad that they would be at home again, but I had a different set of worries about them: would they be safe? Would they be comfortable and competent feeding themselves? And what about after my help ended? How would they get their groceries? What support services had they arranged?

 

They assured me they had suitable support in place for their return. As for food, their preferences fairly closely matched how I cook for Dave and me – a modified Mediterranean diet, with lots of vegetables and olive oil, and fish on a regular basis. So it would be a fairly simple task to feed them. The biggest challenge was choosing dishes that would keep gracefully in the fridge for a couple days, then reheat well.

So I gave them a succession of salads, sourdough breads, braised dishes my foodie friend Gail has always called “stewy bits”, and for variety, some lovely Saskatchewan fish – pickerel braised with tomatoes, capers and olives; roasted steelhead smeared with local mustard and Canadian maple syrup. One day I decided to make cornbread, a wonderful breakfast dish and midday snack with honey and butter. To honour the cook’s rule of doubling down on labour, I reserved some to use for stuffing some farm-raised chicken breasts.

My mom had made cornbread as an after-school snack for me and my siblings when we were small, so I made extra into muffins and delivered them to her, wondering if she would remember and recognize the flavours. Well, of course she did, and launched into a reminiscence of life on Vancouver Island and her garden there. Amazing, how food triggers such strong memories. As for my elderly friends, they loved the cornbread, and the stuffed chicken as well, especially after I told them the story of school snacks. So first we eat, and then we can talk about your favourite afterschool snack as a kid.

Skillet Cornbread

Pull out your favourite black cast iron pan for this bread. Save leftovers to use as stuffing for chicken. Serves 6-8

1 ½ cups cornmeal

2 ½ cups all purpose flour

¾ cup sugar

salt to taste

3 Tbsp. baking powder

1 tsp. ground allspice

¼ tsp. hot chili flakes

2 eggs

1 cup corn kernels

2 cups milk or buttermilk

½ cup melted butter or vegetable oil

Set the oven to 375°F. Lightly butter and flour a 9” cake pan or cast iron pan, or line a muffin pan with papers. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl. Combine the rest of the ingredients in a separate bowl, then add to the dry ingredients. Mix just to blend, then gently pour into the prepared pan or muffin cups. Smooth the top and bake about 35 minutes, less for muffins, until set and golden. Serve warm with butter, honey optional.

Cornbread-stuffed Chicken

Serves 4

1 ½ cups cornbread

1 egg

4 green onions, minced

4 chicken breasts or thighs, boneless, skin on

olive oil to drizzle

salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375°F. Crumble the cornbread. Whisk the egg and add to the cornbread with the green onions. Loosen the chicken skin to form a pocket. Tuck stuffing under the chicken skin and drizzle with oil, then season to taste. Roast the chicken pieces, turning once or twice, until juices run clear, about 40 minutes for breasts, longer for thighs, depending on size. Remove from heat. Let stand 5 minutes, then slice across the grain and serve.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary