Tag Archives: scratch cooking; grass-fed beef; locavore; Saskatchewan peasant cooking; prairie fare; dee Hobsbwan-Smith; root vegetables; cooking with wine; culinary techniques

“Mother” soup


April 2021.

Before the polar vortex returned and the morning thermometer read -40 C, I spent some time splitting birch for the wood stove in the kitchen. We live in a house that’s over one hundred years old, and my mom thinks that it was originally assembled from two grain bins bolted together; three steps lead down from those two rooms to the kitchen. Each room has its own temperature and climate, and walking through the house is like entering and departing adjoining countries, each with its own warm or chilly welcome.

On days like that, the big kitchen is not warm unless I keep the fire bustling in the wood stove and have pots on all four burners of the gas stove, located at opposing ends of the kitchen’s long acreage. My upstairs studio can be hot in summer and chilly in winter, with its south-facing wall of glass. So too the sunroom, faced on three sides with glass windows, but busy nonetheless, containing Dave’s office, our dining table, my orchids, herbs, fig tree and desert succulents, but it’s made bearable in deepest winter by a little gas fireplace that the cat loves. My studio and kitchen are my favourite rooms all the same. The warmest room, to my surprise, is often the centrally located living room, where the internal conversations of thousands of books on our shelves generate sparks and fire.

Well, okay, maybe that’s not the real reason, but it sounds better than the pragmatic scientific facts. The facts, just the facts, are hot air rising from the kitchen up those three steps, the living room’s high number of doorways – five – and the presence of a bamboo-bladed ceiling fan that circulates air from one room to the next. And the sunlight. The living room too faces south, and on high winter afternoons, curling up with a book in the big armchair while the sunlight induces a snooze is a brilliant way to get through the cold snap.

Of course another good way to survive the cold is to cook. I’ve been spending a lot of time in the kitchen, and I recently asked Dave to give me a list of what he’d like to eat. Generous man, he immediately asked why. “I love all your cooking, sweetie,” he said. “I want to stay out of the rut,” I said. “If I keep track of what I’ve made and you give me that list, I’ll be less likely to repeat myself.”

This of course triggered a long conversation about the joy of leftovers and of eating favourite dishes regularly. But the truth is that every cook falls into a rut. Having a list of ideas to offset creative dry spells, as I used to when I ran my Calgary restaurant several lifetimes ago, is like walking from one room into another, a pandemic-sized metaphor for travel. Dave asks for Japanese ramen and curry bread, pad thai, Korean fried chicken, a swathe of Italian pasta, French classics like duck confit, bouillabaisse, and leek and potato soup. But he asks for the cold version – vichyssoise – ignoring the fact that leek and potato soup appears regularly on our table, albeit in disguise. Want North African chickpea soup? Add chickpeas, cumin, ginger, paprika, cilantro, preserved lemon. Want cheese and cauliflower? Yep, stir ‘em in. Want clam chowder? You got it. Coconut curry? Add coconut cream, fish sauce and kaffir lime leaves, maybe a bit of peanut butter.

Leek and potato soup is the mother soup of all soups. And on this bitterly cold day, I want all the calories I can cram into the pot, so I add grated cheese, chopped roasted cauliflower, leftover roast chicken, and a drizzle of cream to the pot. Antidote to the polar vortex? Maybe not. But it fuels us, and brings pleasure to a bitter day. First we eat, then we plan a post-pandemic vacation somewhere warm, with bamboo fans and sand.

dee’s Mother Soup

French cooks are used to the idea of “mother sauces”, basic sauces that are embellished with a host of ingredients, changing names as they change their stature. This soup works the same way – make it plain or add what embellishments you fancy. I use a hand-held immersion wand to puree half the soup, relying on the potatoes to serve as self-contained thickening agent.

butter or oil for the pan

1 head garlic, minced

1 leek or onion, minced

1 tsp. dried thyme

½ cup white wine (optional)

4-6 potatoes, cubed

6-8 cups chicken stock

salt and pepper to taste

cream to taste

Heat the oil or butter in a heavy pot, add the garlic and sauté until fragrant but not coloured. Add the leek or onion and sauté until tender. Add the thyme and wine, then stir in the potatoes, stock and seasoning. Cover and simmer until tender. Puree half the soup to thicken it. Garnish as preferred.

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Grainews: First We Eat: Reclaiming Our Peasant Heritage


Yesterday I walked home from morning coffee at my neighbour Sharon’s house, my passage closely observed by a leggy Black Angus calf. She bounced up to the barbed wire fence, her head high as she gave my dog and me the once-over. Jake stopped in his tracks, uncertain what this til-now-predictable creature was up to. “Nothing,” I told him. “She’s just curious. Like you. Let’s go home.”

At home, a pot of beef stock simmered, made from bones harvested from that calf’s cousin, and I had plans for some chuck and round, the meat also harvested from my neighbour’s herd – a pot of beef stew, enriched with a generous glug of decent red wine

Beef stew made with red wine was the essence of subsistence cooking for French farmers who were perhaps foragers, perhaps cattle farmers, perhaps grape growers or vinters. But call that same stew by its true name – boeuf Bourgignon – and serve it in a bistro or fancy white-tablecloth resto, and what was simple peasant fare is appropriated – and priced to match – for the upscale diner who perhaps can’t cook it for herself.

The whole idea of stew sounds unremarkable, I agree. It can be. I have eaten my share of beef stew tough enough to go walkabout in the pasture, with glue-y characterless gravy. But it’s just as easy to make a great stew as to make that boring pedestrian plain-Jane-do-we-have-to-eat-this-stuff-again version. So what rescues beef stew from ignominy? What makes it a yum-worthy dish?

Just a couple things: good ingredients and good technique.

Get good beef. Get some bones, too. Make stock: simmer it for at least 12 hours. It is essential. Yes, you can use canned or packaged stock, and yes, you could get away with making beef stew with chicken stock. But at a price. That beefy bubbling potful of liquid covering oven-browned beef bones and caramelized vegetables is the heart of the dish. While the stew simmers, the house will fill with layers of flavour, and the finished dish will taste rich, incredibly beefy and unctuous. Definitely yum-worthy.

The wine needs to be good enough to drink, but I would never pour a name brand fancy-ass bottle of Pinot Noir or Burgundy or Cab Sauv into my stew pot. I would use an entire bottle – cheap and cheerful Chilean Merlot, for instance – saving a single glass for myself as the pot simmers.

As to technique, use a couple pans. Sauté the bacon, onions and garlic, transfer them to a heavy pot, then pat the beef dry. Working in small batches, salt it, brown it well, deglaze the pan with some of that wine, and pour the whole shooting match into the pot. Add the rest of the bottle and a few ladles of stock. Cover. Simmer until tender. Peek and stir from time to time. It really is that simple.

Put some spuds and root veg into the oven to roast. Fry some wild or cultivated mushrooms and add them to the pot at the last minute. Sit down, fill your glasses. First we eat, then we thank the cook, the calf, the farmer.

Boeuf Bourgignon

You can add a dab of tomato paste to the pot, but I prefer the unadulterated flavour of wine and beef stock. Serve with roasted potatoes and root vegetables and a simple salad with a sharp vinaigrette. Serves 8

6-8 slices bacon, chopped

2 heads garlic, sliced

2 onions, chopped

olive oil for the pan

3-5 lb.  stewing meat, cubed and patted dry

salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste

1 bottle red wine

4 sprigs fresh rosemary, minced

1 t. dried thyme

1 t. dried basil

4-6 c. beef stock

sliced mushrooms (rehydrated dried wild or fresh cultivated)

oil or butter and garlic (for the mushrooms)

minced fresh parsley

Fry the bacon until almost crisp, add the garlic and onions, and cook for about 10 minutes. Transfer to a brazier or heavy ovenproof casserole. Re-heat the sauté pan, add a drizzle of oil, and enough beef to almost cover the bottom of the pan. Season with salt and pepper. Turn the meat as it browns. Transfer the browned meat to the pot, add a splash of wine to the sauté pan, deglaze it, and tip the scrapings and liquid into the pot. Cook the meat in multiple batches to avoid crowding the pan, repeating until all the meat is browned and in the pot. Add the rest of the wine, herbs, and enough stock to cover everything nicely. Bring to a boil, cover with parchment and a lid, and cook on low for several hours, until tender.

When the meat is done, simmer uncovered until the sauce thickens. Sauté the mushrooms with oil or butter and garlic, and stir into the pot. Serve garnished with parsley.




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Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary