Tag Archives: scratch cooking

Salt

Grainews

February 2021. Let’s start over.  Yes, we are still in the grip of a pandemic. But there’s hope, and food is part of it. To reboot, here’s the first in several parts on culinary essentials – the balancing act of salt, acid, heat and sweet. Today, salt. Like many cooks, I keep an array of salts on my butcher block.

Historically, salt has been used to make political statements: in 1930, Mahatma Gandhi led a nonviolent march against the British tax on salt in his efforts to free India from British rule. Salt became the symbol of protest against colonial oppression as he led a 241-mile walk to the salt mines in Dandi, on the Arabian Sea.

Gandhi was right about salt’s value. “Salt of the earth” or being “worth one’s salt” imply rock-solid value, and salt is a traditional gift to celebrate friendship and a new home. However, according to food scientist Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, excess salt is implicated in digestive system cancers, may cause loss of bone calcium and exacerbate chronic kidney disease. But we need it, as Gandhi knew. A daily gram of salt is vital for our blood plasma, where sodium and chloride ions balance potassium and other ions in our cells. In the kitchen, salt enhances the aroma and taste of food, modifies flavour by countering bitterness or acidity, and is a preservative. We source salt from the sea and inland: water evaporates, leaving the mineral behind.

Maldon salt, from Essex, in southeastern England, has been sourced from the same spot for a century. Its costly, recognizable large flakes are crunchy flavour bombs, ideal on baked goods, caramel ice cream, roasted meats, fish and vegetables. Packaged without anti-caking additives, it tastes mild and pure.

Iodized table salt includes traces of potassium iodide, good with thyroid function. (The thyroid governs the body’s heat production, protein metabolism, and development of the nervous system.). Table salt contains anti-clumping additives to keep the salt flowing in humid conditions. It has a bitter, tinny, metallic finish. 

Unrefined sea salt, called sel marin or sel gris (grey salt), is minimally processed in Guerande, Brittany. The seawater’s salinity increases as it is “herded” through channels into successively shallower pools called oeillets. Surface salt crystals are raked off by hand by paludiers (salt harvesters). Moist and gray, its complex taste is due to traces of magnesium chloride, potassium, magnesium, copper and clay particles. The degree of saltiness varies.

Fleur de sel (flower of salt) is considered the finest, most delicate salt from Guerande, where paludiers rake off the fine flakes, which are air-dried in wicker baskets. This expensive mild connoisseur’s salt is good on finished dishes. Finer-textured than sel gris, think of it as a condiment more than a salt.

Pink Hawaiian sea salt is coloured by added clay rich in iron oxide.

Pickle-makers choose pickling salt, an additive-free coarse salt that does not turn pickling brine cloudy.

Kosher salt is iodine-free, additive-free, traditionally used to draw out blood and impurities in meat during the koshering process. It is slightly coarse but flaky, and is ideal for daily cooking. It is milder, so you may need to use more. Kosher salt is my day-to-day go-to.

Korean and Japanese salts are moist, like sel gris, but are a mixture of sizes of crystals. Creamy white and fairly salty, a little goes far.

Rock salt, mass-produced for use on roads and sidewalks, can be used in old-fashioned ice cream makers (on the ice, not the cream) to drop the temperature and hasten the freezing process. Use one part salt to five parts ice.

So let’s eat first. Don’t forget the salt.

Herbes Salées

Salted herbs are a Quebecois staple, a smart preserving method for gardeners faced with winter nipping down their herb beds each year. The types of herbs you use depend on what you grow: my current batch includes basil, oregano, parsley, chives, thyme, tarragon and a wee bit of sage and rosemary. Add minced celery leaves, kale, spinach or chard if you like, or even minced carrot. This only works with fresh herbs, not dried, so mark your calendar for next summer or fall. Good in sauces and gravies, soups, gratins, risottos, etc. Keeps for several months in the fridge.

Makes 1 quart

1 cup minced basil

1 cup minced thyme

1 cup minced parsley

1 cup minced oregano

1 cup minced tarragon

1 cup minced chives

¼ cup minced rosemary and/or sage

½ cup kosher salt

Mix together and transfer to a glass jar. Cover and store in the fridge for a week before using. Keep refrigerated.

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Cooking for Comfort

Grainews

December 2020. Pandemic or not, worrying about food is part of the zeitgeist, especially for those of us who feel responsible for others – our elderly friends and relatives, new moms with a babe in arms, immune-compromised cousins, kids at university or on a tight budget. Dropping off a meal is still one of the best ways to administer a long-distance hug. But even as we debate whether or not  – and how – we will celebrate our holidays, our daily bread and sharing is still a necessity.

So how do we safely share food with friends or family outside of our immediate bubble? After your gift of grub is cooked and cooled, transfer it to a washable food container or wrap it carefully in foil or plastic. Delivery needs to be contactless – wearing your mask, set the packet on a neutral spot like a bench or table at least two meters from your friend or beloved. Then send those virtual hugs along when your gift is picked up.

If you have received a gift of food, set it on an empty counter and transfer the food to your own plates or bowls. Refrigerate or store the food. Wash the emptied container, then wash the counter and your hands. When you eat that gift, your “thank you” will reach your benefactor, no matter the distance.

What food to share depends only on what you have on hand and what your beloved might enjoy. If you have it in your head to give dinner instead of seasonal treats, then homemade pizza is a great idea. It’s easy to make multiples in whatever size suits, and extras can be frozen. And it’s just so much better than anything store-bought or even picked up from a pizzeria. Pizza is one of those things that I never buy. You won’t either.

If you grew tomatoes last fall – or know a gardener who did – you might have made some roasted tomato sauce for the freezer part of your pantry. It’s an indispensable staple, hands-down the best instant sauce. It’s not too late to make some now: even out of season Roma tomatoes from far, far away make a roasted tomato sauce that outshines anything premade.

If you are delivering a pizza, underbake it marginally so that your beloved friend can reheat it without compromising the quality, and keep the arugula garnish on the side.

That’s all it takes. So first we eat, and then we can make plans for a meal together after the pandemic. Be careful out there. Feed your family and friends and yourself well this season.

dee’s Pizzeria Pizza

Spread out the work over the day to make assembly a quick job. Makes 4 rounds or 2 large rectangles

Dough:

1 tsp. yeast                                                                
1 tsp. sugar                                                                
1/2 cup warm-to-hot water                                        
 4 cups all-purpose flour                                           
1 Tbsp. kosher salt                                                    

½ tsp. dried thyme or oregano                       

2 cups warm water, more as needed                                      

2 Tbsp. olive oil                                                         

Roasted tomato sauce:

3 lb. ripe Roma tomatoes                               

2 onions, sliced                                              

1 head garlic, peeled and sliced                                  

2 Tbsp. olive oil                                             

salt and pepper to taste

Toppings:

2 Tbsp. olive oil

1 head garlic, peeled and sliced

2 onions, sliced

1 bell pepper, diced

8 mushrooms, sliced

salt and pepper to taste

1 cup sliced sausage or salami, optional

2 cups grated cheese (Gruyere, cheddar, asiago, Fontina)

2 cups arugula, optional

Combine the yeast, sugar and water. Let stand for about 5 minutes until it is puffy. Add the flour, salt, herbs and remaining water. Mix until the dough is smooth and elastic. Add the oil to the bowl, swirl it around to coat the sides and bottom, and roll the dough so its entire surface is oiled. Cover the bowl and refrigerate the dough to rise until doubled in bulk or until needed.

Set the oven at 450 F. Lay the tomatoes in one layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet, spread the onions and garlic over top, drizzle with the olive oil and add salt and pepper to taste. Roast until the tops are charred and the vegetables are tender, about an hour. Remove from heat and coarsely chop in a food processor.

Heat the oil in a sauté pan, then add the garlic and onions. Fry until half-done, then add remaining vegetables and optional meat. Cook over high heat for several minutes.

Remove dough from the fridge, cut in half or quarters, and shape into 4 thin flat rounds or 2 large rectangles, working with oiled hands directly on top of parchment-lined baking sheets. Let rise while you prepare the toppings.

To assemble the pizza, preheat oven to 450 F. Spoon ½ cup of sauce onto each pizza shell and spread thinly, then add layers of vegetables, sausage and cheese on top. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until nicely browned. Let cool before slicing, then top with arugula.

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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.

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Nuts About Spuds

May 2020. As a dedicated spudnut, I save potatoes for next year’s seed. This year I planted Pink Fir Apples, Amarosas, Kennebecs, German Butterballs, Linzer Delikatess, Yukon Golds, Norlands and Purple Vikings. When I dig the first crop, it’s a sign that we’ll be eating spud dishes of all sorts: boxty, champ, shepherd’s pie, colcannon, kugel, latkes, Parmentier, rosti, scalloped, pavé, spudnuts, frites, Anna, bubble and squeak, gnocchi, croquettes, duchesse, chips.

First grown by the Peruvian Incas, potatoes were transported to the Old World in1570 by the Spanish Conquistadores as part of the cultural appropriation that accompanied invasion. But the new vegetables were reviled by Europeans fearful of their nightshade family tree, with cousins including eggplant and tomatoes, but also deadly mandrake and belladonna, and so were grown initially as animal fodder.

It took advocates like Antoine-August Parmentier to make spuds acceptable. Parmentier was a socially conscious chef and medical officer who also enforced smallpox vaccination among Napoleon’s troops. He became a staunch advocate for potatoes after he survived on them in a Prussian prison camp during the Seven Years War (1756-63). He later planted potatoes on his estates near Paris: to create potato cachet, he posted guards during the day, but removed the guards nightly so Parisians could “steal” the plants to grow in their own gardens. His influence endures in French dishes bearing his name as indicators that they contain potatoes. In an ironic moment of food history, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the royal gardens, the Tuileries, were converted to potato fields.

Potatoes migrated to North America in the 1770s. American inventor Ben Franklin attended a “potato feast” cooked by Parmentier for the French king, Louis XIV, who wore a potato flower boutonnière. Franklin subsequently carried seed potatoes home. His colleague, Thomas Jefferson, served as American Minister to France, and one of his slaves, James Hemings, studied to be a chef while they were in Paris. Later, at the White House, Hemings served finely cut potato pieces cooked in hot oil. Et voila: French fries.

It’s amazing that the potato is even eaten in Ireland after the Potato Famine of 1845-51. At that point, Irish Catholics could not own or lease land, so were reduced to tenant farmers and poverty, eating one variety of potato, the Lumper; the Corn Laws made wheat unaffordable, and dairy, fish and cattle were exported en masse to England. But an ecological disaster made a bad situation worse. A plant pathogen, Phytophthora infestans, wiped out the Lumper crop, turning tasty taties into rotting slime. A million Irish died of starvation and a million more fled, mostly for The New World. Thus my potato-loving paternal ancestors became settlers in what would be known as Treaty 3 Territory, the Between the Lakes Territory, Upper Canada, or southern Ontario.

In what became known as Alberta, Daniel Harman, agent for the Northwest Trading Company, mentioned in his journals the harvest of the first potatoes seeded in 1810 near Dunvegan. Forty-three years later, the potato chip was invented in Saratoga Springs, New York. A chef, George Crum, irked when railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt sent back his potatoes for more cooking, thinly sliced the offending potatoes, fried them in oil, and sprinkled the resulting chips with salt. Vanderbilt loved them, triggering our continuing affair with potato chips.

But potatoes have better uses than chips. As my feisty Irish granny was fond of saying, spuds are best served plain, with a few added ingredients – hence latkes, boxty, pommes Anna, or champ. So first we eat, then we’ll swap recipes.

Hedgehog Potatoes

This is one of those deceptive dishes that elevate its few ingredients. It’s also good for practicing your knife skills. Choose uniform oval potatoes – yellow-fleshed are best – of similar size. Make extra! These reheat well, uncovered, in a medium-hot oven. Serves 6

6 potatoes

2 heads of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

chopped chives for garnish

sour cream for garnish

Set the oven at 350 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut off a thin slice of each potato to make a flat surface. Set the potato on its flat side and use a large sharp knife to make parallel cuts across the potato at regular intervals. Do not cut all the way through. Insert a garlic slice into each cut. Repeat with the rest of the potatoes. Transfer the potatoes to the baking sheet. Drizzle with oil, then season with salt and pepper. Bake for an hour, more if needed, basting at intervals. Serve with garnishes.

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

Grainews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marmalade

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

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

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

1 lemon, zest and juice

6 cups water

4 lb. white sugar

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

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

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Grainews: First We Eat: Freezers in a Frozen Land

Grainews

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

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

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

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

Potstickers

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

filling:

1 onion, finely minced

1 carrot, grated

1 parsnip, grated

1 cup finely shredded cabbage

1 Tbsp. minced garlic

1 Tbsp. grated ginger root

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

2 lb. ground turkey or pork

2 Tbsp. minced cilantro

1 Tbsp. light soy sauce

1 Tbsp. fish sauce

2 Tbsp. minced green onions

½ tsp. hot chili paste

1 egg

 

casing:

2 packages won ton wrappers

oil for sautéing

 

dip:

2 Tbsp. hoisin sauce

1 garlic clove, minced

1 tsp. minced fresh ginger

1 Tbsp. lemon juice

1 Tbsp. light soy sauce

hot chili flakes or paste to taste

water to thin to dipping consistency

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

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

 

 

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: 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.

 

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

Grainews

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Apple Galette

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

1 recipe of your favourite pastry

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

½ cup brown sugar

½ tsp. grated nutmeg

½ tsp. ground cinnamon

a handful of raisins or dried cranberries (optional)

¼ cup butter, divided

1 egg

2 Tbsp. cream

2 Tbsp. white sugar

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary

Grainews: First We Eat: Birthday Markers

Grainews

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

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

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

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

Carrot and Coconut Cream Soup with Anise and Ginger

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

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

1/2 tsp. anise seed, cracked

1/2 tsp.  finely grated orange zest

1/4 tsp. cracked fennel seed

1/2 tsp.  sweet smoked paprika

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

kosher salt to taste

1 Tbsp. fish sauce

1 cup coconut milk
2 Tbsp. finely minced fresh cilantro

1/2 lime, juice only

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

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

 

 

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Pigtails, or Everything But the Oink

Grainews

Pork has influence far beyond the table. Words invoking pork have made their way into everyday life, from football’s autumn pigskin classic at your favourite stadium to pork-barreling politicians looking for re-election. Of course, electors will be choosing a pig in a poke, and then must make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Even music is infiltrated by pork, as with the Pork Belly Futures, a well-educated Toronto-based blues band.

For a long time, pork was a poor family’s meat. Even now, it is the most widely consumed meat on the planet. Statistics Canada’s records show that Canadian farmers produced 14 million pigs for consumption in 2019 on over 8,000 farms. (In 1991, over 29,000 farms were raising porkers for supper.) That’s still a lot of sausage and ham, with 41 percent of those animals raised in western Canada.

Around the globe, pork is king, eaten in a wider variety and range of styles and shapes than any other meat. German cooks simmer smoked pork hocks with sauerkraut, and French cooks add a variety of pork products – sausages, hocks, smoked chops – to cassoulet. In Spain, the haunch of the black Iberian pig is converted into incomparable jamone, cured with salt, air and time into a supple and delicious staple that is as popular in Spain as its Italian equivalent, prosciutto, is in Parma. Chinese cooks velvetize pork with cornstarch, soy and sometimes a splash of sherry, then add it to stir-fries. Hot dogs are the ballpark staple, bacon and eggs is a diner classic, and barbecue specialists slow-smoke ribs or pork butt, converting it after hours of slow cooking into messily magnificent pulled pork sandwiches garnished with coleslaw and soft buns. Canadian cooks love peameal-coated back bacon or ham in split pea soup, and nearly everyone everywhere loves waking to the smell of frying bacon.

As the meat of many cultures and classes, pork is a good example of frugal “tail to nose” eating. Nothing is wasted on a pig. Parts of pigs are cured, salted, smoked, stewed, chopped, stuffed, brined, rolled, roasted, pickled, grilled, barbecued, braised, broiled and fried. Even its trotters, or feet, are consumed, as are its ears. Insulin for diabetics has been derived from pig products, pigskin becomes gloves and footballs, and good-natured cooks take a little ribbing if they ham it up or mutter, sotto voce, about “when pigs fly” and capitalist pigs who bring home more than their share of the bacon

A pig in a poke refers to a con dating back to the Middle Ages in Europe when meat was scarce. Unscrupulous itinerants would misrepresent a live cat or rat in a poke (a bag) as a suckling pig, and the buyer would pay accordingly, only to learn of the mistake after the bag changed hands. Fortunately for us cooks, modern pork is no pig in a poke. If you, like me, are lucky enough to have a smokehouse in your neighbourhood, you know the pleasure of smoked pork – ham, sausages, pork hocks, chops. It’s my favourite meat. So first let’s eat, then we can debate the merits of our favourite smokehouses.

Ham with Black Mission Fig Glaze

If you’re lucky enough to have a local smokehouse, get your ham there.

Serves 8-10

5 lb. ham

½ onion, thinly sliced

2 cups chicken stock

8 black mission figs

4 cloves garlic, sliced

3 strips of orange zest, about ½” x 2” each

2 Tbsp. tahini

2 Tbsp. olive oil

1/3 cup maple syrup

1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard

salt and pepper to taste

 

Set oven at 350 F. Score the ham’s rind in diamonds at 2” intervals. Place the ham, scored side up, on top of the onion slices in a shallow roasting pan with sides. Pour the stock around the ham with the figs, garlic and orange zest. Bake uncovered for 2 hours.

Remove the ham from the pan and turn up the oven to 400 F. Pour the stock into a sauté  pan, straining out the onion slices, figs, garlic and orange zest, and put them in a bowl or food processor. Add the tahini, oil, syrup and mustard to the solids. Puree, then set aside 1/3 cup of the puree.

Return the ham to the roasting pan and slather the rest of the puree over the scored ham rind and into the crevices. Return the ham to the oven for 10-15 minutes, glaze side up.

Meanwhile, add the reserved puree to the stock and mix well. Bring to a boil and reduce the liquid by half, to the thickness of gravy. Season to taste. Carve and serve the ham with the sauce on the side.

 

 

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary