Tag Archives: scratch cooking

Grainews: First We Eat: Edible Gifts for Any Season

Grainews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Caramelized Pecans

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

Makes about 2 cups

2 c. pecan halves

2 T. unsalted butter

2 T. sugar

1/2 t. ground star anise

1/2 t. cayenne

salt to taste

 

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

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Grainews: First We Eat: Soup, Beautiful Soup

Grainews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Squash, Pear and Parsnip Soup with Maple Croutons

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

Serves 6-8

1 T. butter

1 leek, sliced

4 medium carrots, sliced

4 medium parsnips, sliced

4 T. ginger root, minced

1 ripe pear, peeled and sliced

1 t. dried oregano

½ c. dry white wine

1 large butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cubed

6 c. chicken stock

2 oranges, juice and zest

1 t. lemon juice

4 T. honey

a dash of Tabasco or hot chili paste

salt to taste

1 T. minced fresh oregano or chives

1 T. whipping cream

 

croutons:

3-4 slices crusty French bread, cubed

butter for the pan

a drizzle of maple syrup

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

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

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Grainews: First We Eat: Preserves

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

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

Preservatives:

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

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

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

Get the freshest vegetables and process them promptly.

Processes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chili Cha Cha

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

Yield: 8-10 pints

24 c. quartered Roma tomatoes

6 c. finely diced celery

6 c. finely minced onions

1/2 c. pickling salt

4 c. white sugar

2 c. apple cider vinegar

½ c. pickling spice

3 red bell peppers, seeded and finely diced

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

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

 

 

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Giving Up the Garden

Grainews

This spring, I stood in Mom’s back yard with a wheelbarrow and a shovel, digging out all the soil in her raised beds. “Take it all,” she urged when I slowed down. “I’m done with it.”

“Not even a potful of lettuces?” I asked, thinking of the preceding summer, when she’d grown more lettuces than she and Dad could eat, and wound up giving much of the produce away to me and my salad-loving crew.

“Not even,” she replied.

So I dug out all the soil and hauled it all home, where it now nurtures several new vines on the south wall of the house, and adds its good character to amend the skin-flint soil in the herb bed to the north of the kitchen door. Good soil is never a waste of time to haul home.

Mom’s 83 this year, and intent on divesting herself of what she can no longer manage. It means she’s also made me and several others dig up half the raspberry canes in her patch. I brought my share of canes home and dug them into my own patch. Mom’s raspberry garden was famous among us berry lovers, a magnificent, lush, prolific plot that bore eloquent testimony to the power of regular watering.

After I’d dug in the new canes, I stood back to evaluate my own patch – a modest and unsheltered affair, open to the ravages of the west wind, devoid of the irrigation system Dad had labouriously installed in town. Remember to water it more regularly, I told myself. But I didn’t, and all summer, my raspberries were small thimbles, far removed from the thumb-print-sized berries I’d picked in Mom’s garden for years.

Mom’s a natural-born gardener, with green thumbs on both hands. She’s tended a garden patch of one sort or another all her life – as a mother of five hungry kids, as a field boss in a busy truck garden on Vancouver Island, and as a market gardener who took her produce to the farmer’s market in Saskatoon. True to her Depression-era raising, she has always frozen all her gardens’ provender, putting food by for winter before she eats any fresh. Next year, as I have this summer, I will bring salad greens and vegetables to her and Dad. And maybe, if I remember to water more faithfully, fresh raspberries.

If life is a garden, then my mother is welcoming its late autumn and coming winter with the same grace and good humour that has seen her through 83 years. So first we eat, then we freeze any leftover berries.

 

Summer Cobbler with Buttermilk Crust

I take this freezer-friendly cobbler to potlucks, year in and year out. In the summer, I use fruit fresh from the market. In the winter, I use frozen fruits and berries, or apples and pears enlivened with simmered dried fruit. Serves 12-16 generously.

filling:

* 8 c. fresh/frozen fruit

1 orange, zest only

sugar or honey to taste

1/2 t. freshly ground nutmeg

1/2 t. ground ginger

1/2 cinnamon stick

2 T. cornstarch

2 c. water or juice

 

* Possible combinations:

raspberry and grape with rosemary

apple, strawberry, rhubarb

cherry and peach with nutmeg

peach and blackberry with lime zest

peach and blueberry with nutmeg

cherry and black currant or blackberry and thyme

very berry (raspberry, blackberry, blueberry, Saskatoon berry) with lime zest

three cherry (Montmorency, sour or Queen Anne, Bing)

pear and apricot (fresh or dried)

dried cranberry and apple with crystallized ginger

plum and peach

Damson plum and cherry

plum and apple with cinnamon and cloves or cinnamon and basil

 

** topping:

1/3 c. unsalted butter

1/2 c. sugar

1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour

2 t. baking soda

1 t. cream of tarter

1/2 t. salt

3/4 c. buttermilk

1 egg

Set the oven at 375 F. In a large pot, combine the filling ingredients. Bring to a boil, then pour carefully into a large shallow casserole with a diameter of 18″. Place on a cookie sheet with a lip to minimize spillage.

To make the topping, cream together the butter and sugar, then stir together the dry ingredients in a separate bowl. Mix together the wet ingredients in a bowl or large measuring cup. Beginning and ending with dry ingredients, alternately add the wet and dry ingredients to the butter-sugar mixture. Mix only until blended, then immediately drop by spoonfuls onto the outer edges of the fruit filling. Do not cover the centre with batter — it takes too long to bake through. Bake at 375 for 45 minutes or until done. Serve warm or cool.

** For a gluten-free alternative, mix together ½ c. melted butter, 2 c. oatmeal, ½ c. rice flour or cornmeal and ¾ c. sugar. Mix together to form crumbs.

 

 

 

 

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Mom’s New Reasons to Love a Farmer’s Market

Grainews

We’ve finished our coffee, and I am helping my mom into my car for our weekly trip to one of the local farmers’ markets. She has her green corduroy tote-bag over one arm, her purse holding its little zip-up change purse on the other, her favourite feathered hat on her head, her cane in one hand. From where we live, it’s a short drive to one of several small-town markets, plus several of varying size in the nearby city of Saskatoon. If I ask, she’s quick to tell me what she wants to buy today.

Back in the day, Mom was a farmers’ market vendor, selling her farm-grown produce, and later, dozens of styles of practical fabric goods, from farriers’ aprons and gun wraps to saddlebags and berry bucket holders. She could tell you all the good reasons to shop locally and buy from a farmer, reasons that remain as true and self-evident now as they were when Mom was a spry sprat of fifty: keep your cash in your community; fresh-picked food is fresher and more nutritious; local food is unprocessed, seasonal, diverse, and delicious even if it isn’t durable enough to ship to Delaware.

But Mom and Dad are in their eighties now, and they no longer sew or keep a garden. Nor does Mom bake the dozens of loaves of bread she made weekly when I was a kid growing up with my four siblings.

Mom’s reasons for going to the market have changed, and now include the social and sensory elements that as a busy farmer and mother, she never really had time to appreciate back then.

Today, I know our trip through the market will be slower than if I was there on my own. Mom will stop in front of each and every booth and table. “What do we have here?” she’ll say, even if we were here a week ago. Then she’ll scrutinize the wares as closely as any French-born chef. When samples are offered, as they often are, she tries everything, scrunching up her nose at pungent breakfast radishes, smacking her lips over fresh Okanagan apricots from the fruit truck. Then she’ll ask the vendor how sales are, how the weather is, how the bees are keeping, how the farm is doing. Eventually she’ll ask the baker if there are raisin tarts today, and the gardener for more of the yellow plum tomatoes she enjoyed last week.

When it’s time to pay, she will set down her walking stick and her tote bag, get out her wallet and her coin purse, and count out loonies and quarters and dimes. She laughs when I tell her I always feel like I’m getting something for free if I can pay for it with coins. Sometimes a few nickels escape, and I scuttle around on the grass at her feet, looking for them as if they were the Holy Grail. Eventually her coin purse will be stowed, her expanding totebag safe on her arm, and we will move on to the next vendor. There’s no rushing her, and I have accepted that it’s pointless to think I should want to. I am hanging out with my mom, and that’s a good way to spend my day.

I’ll be older eventually, and I’ll want my boys to take me to the market, too. I’ll still want to cry over the perfect peaches, smell the inveterate sugar junkie’s fix of caramelized cinnamon buns, admire the impossible pink blush on new-crop apples. And I won’t want anyone rushing me, either.

Summer Market Garden Salad

Salad as supper during summer is dependent on the garden – or the farmers’ market. Don’t try to get the whole garden into the bowl. Be selective: several salad greens, a fruit or berries, a seasonal vegetable or two, and a protein, maybe left over or cooked in advance or on the grill. And olives, of course, and a handful of fresh herbs. Then instead of making a vinaigrette, choose a good oil – I am partial to olive, but you may like Canadian-made camelina or cold-pressed canola oil – and an even better vinegar. Make it pretty on the platter or toss it all together.

Arugula

Red leaf romaine or other greens

Radicchio leaves, torn or chopped

Olives

Grilled chicken wings, steelhead trout, chickpeas, soft/hard-boiled eggs or tuna

Sweet bell peppers, diced

Cooked potatoes, cooled and cubed

Sugar snap peas, steamed and cooled

Watermelon, diced

A handful each of tarragon, chives, cilantro, basil, parsley

Olive or other good oil

Fruit-infused, balsamic or sherry vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

 

Arrange all ingredients on a platter and drizzle with oil and vinegar. Season to taste and serve.

 

 

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Learning to Love Eggplant

Grainews

Like many Canadian children, my early experience of eggplant was anything but remarkable. My mom, a staunch Prairie cook, first encountered eggplant on her travels to Europe as a young mother with an Air Force husband. On her return to Canada, she did her best: she grew or bought globe eggplant, sliced them, dredged the rounds in flour, fried them and put them on the table unadorned. Undercooked, they were woody, chewy, entirely unappealing.

I didn’t learn to love eggplant until I was a young adult, living in Calgary where I met eggplant of varying pedigrees. At dim sum, we ate thin wands of eggplant, skin-on, stuffed with shrimp and pork; in the Pekinese palace, sweetened with hoisin sauce beside duck. In the Middle Eastern bistro we loved, it was baba ganouj, slightly chunky, succulent and smoky, with pita to mop it up. My European chef friends introduced me to moussaka, the Greek classic, and to Italian eggplant Parmigiana. Years later, my favourite chef from Naples taught me to suffuse cooked eggplant batons with a spice-and-herb dressing balanced between hot and sweet. Then I met the glory that is Indian eggplant, seasoned with cumin, ginger, coriander, turmeric, star anise, fennel, anise.

Despite its appearance on so many stages, eggplant is not an easy vegetable to know. It is round, oval, or elongated; black, purple, white or green, hiding its inner nature within an innocently simple shape. In the cook’s hands, a wide array of choices arise. Braise? Grill? Smoke? Fry? How best to celebrate its nature? At its worst, undercooked eggplant is woody and boring. At its best, cooked to tender and soft, eggplant boasts an unctuous, melting texture and subtly earthy taste. It just takes a bit of know-how.

Shape dictates cooking method. Use the tiny egg-like ones for stuffing or baking whole. Any eggplant can be grilled and served with a vinaigrette; any eggplant can be cooked whole on the open flame, then peeled, chopped and seasoned; or diced and braised, maximizing its tendency to absorb flavours.

Be warned that the spongy eggplant will soak up all the oil in a pan and beg for more! No matter the method, cook eggplant to well-done and soft. For a layered classic, start by grilling or oven-roasting lightly oiled slices, turning once when the slices are brown. Then stack up with other ingredients and sauce.

Alternatively, season those cooked slices with salt, pepper, mint, cumin, malt vinegar, garlic, coriander, smoked paprika, a drizzle of honey, a generous pour of olive oil, good enough to eat standing up in the kitchen, even better a day later. Now that’s something even my Mom would love. So first we eat, then we compare notes on our fave eggplant dishes.

Moussaka

For a richer dish, before baking top with a thick béchamel sauce enriched with nutmeg, Parmesan and feta cheese. For a lighter finish, simply sprinkle with feta.

Serves 8-10

4 large globe eggplants

½ c. all-purpose flour, for dredging

2-3 T. olive oil

2 lb. lean ground lamb or beef (optional)

1 large onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 bell peppers, diced

2 zucchini, diced

2 bay leaves

1 cinnamon stick

4 whole allspice

½ tsp. ground nutmeg

4 c. diced tomatoes

1 c. dry white wine

4 T. tomato paste

kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper

2 c. crumbled feta cheese

2 T. minced fresh parsley

Peel the eggplant and slice it into ½-inch slices. Lightly coat with flour, shaking them in a plastic bag and discarding the excess. Line a baking sheet with parchment and place the eggplant on the baking sheet in a single layer. Drizzle with oil and bake at 375 F until brown, about 15 minutes, turning once. Remove the eggplant from the oven and set aside.

Heat a heavy sauté pan. Add the oil, then brown the meat. Add the onion, garlic, peppers, zucchini, bay leaves, and sauté to tender. Add the cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, tomatoes, wine and tomato paste. Simmer, covered, for 35 minutes, or until thickened. Remove the bay leaves. Season with salt and pepper.

Spoon a thin layer of sauce to cover the bottom of a 9” x 13” casserole. Lay half the eggplant slices on top of the sauce. Sprinkle with half the feta cheese, half the remaining sauce, the rest of the eggplant, then sauce, then the rest of the feta. Bake for 30 minutes, or until hot. Let stand for 10 minutes before slicing. Garnish with parsley.

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: In Good Company

Grainews

 We arrived for a preliminary visit at the farm in June 2010, a month ahead of our move-in date. Over-anxious? Eager? Yes, both, but mostly we came early to help my aging parents move out – into a bungalow in a nearby town – and to paint the old farmhouse we were moving into.

I drove from Calgary with my eldest son and my miniature schnauzer. Dave drove from Regina. We all stayed across the road from my parents’ farm, with Ken and Sharon, already friends, and destined to become even closer once we actually settled. A few days passed doing the hard work of getting my parents established in what had been my grandparents’  “town house.” Then we cleaned the old farmhouse, and we bought paint: sunny yellow, to magnify the high prairie light, with red for trim. I’d learn soon enough that such a red required multiple coats to get it just right.

I stashed the cooler I’d hauled along while Dave called in the troops – writers and artists he’d met and maintained friendships with since his days as Writer in Residence at the Saskatoon Public Library. They were people I’d met already too, at readings, and at writing retreats and workshops. Together we’d built quinzhees, shared meals, read early drafts of new work, made music. I’d been welcomed into the community. So it felt okay to invite them to a work bee that included home cooking.

The day of, most of the gang arrived, but one carful of city friends got lost en route and called from somewhere else, they weren’t sure where. But they were at a corner, and could see the road signs, so I explained the ups and downs of rural roads – township and range, and how to interpret their numbering. Eventually they arrived, cheerful and still game to paint.  I told them about the countless times I’d arrived with a carful too – kids, cats, dogs – from Calgary, to visit the parents, invariably late in the afternoon or evening as the light was fading, but back in pre-cellphone days, and before road signs numbered each intersection, when all I had to guide me were the crossing points of the hydro line across the south field and a dimly remembered sense of rightness – surely this must be the right road? Sometimes it was, sometimes not. Once I’d driven in circles at moonrise with hungry kids and wailing kittens distracting my highway-fogged brain almost past bearing, hoping to stumble across a stretch of road I recognized, an intersection, a length of fence. Fortunately, I’d finally looked up and found the hydro lines, in the right field, at the right fence, only a few minutes from waiting grandparents.

On our painting date, our friends finally found us, and we spent two days painting the house together. I cranked up my parents’ barbecue, left behind for the occasion, and fed us all.

My fallback salad dressing then, as now, was a vinaigrette-style Caesar dressing. After we cleaned the paintbrushes, I spooned it over salad greens and a glorious mishmash of grilled vegetables, sausages, chicken thighs, salmon and steaks. During this past winter, I’ve used the same dressing on roasted cauliflower, roasted Brussels sprouts, roasted squash, roasted onions, roasted peppers, roasted asparagus, roasted eggplant, and occasionally on a variety of salad greens. It feeds artists, writers and farmers with equally openhanded generosity on all manner of food, so make lots. First we eat, then we store the extras in the fridge for tomorrow.

dee’s Caesar Salad Dressing

When you make your Caesar, add fruit in season – orange segments and pomegranate seeds in winter; watermelon and grapes in summer. Serve on salad greens to suit, add grilled or roasted vegetables, grilled salmon, scallops, steelhead, flank steak, or chicken thighs. Add grated cheese and your choice of croutons. My son likes to add one soft-boiled egg per person to the salad plates.

Makes about 1 litre, and keeps well in the fridge. Serves a crowd.

1 T. grainy SK or Dijon mustard

1 head garlic, minced

1 3-oz. tin anchovies [and oil], mashed or pureed

1/3 c. capers, chopped

4 T. lemon juice

2 c. olive oil [or a mix of sunflower and olive]

2-4 T. Worcestershire sauce

8 T. red wine vinegar

½ t. hot chili paste

Combine the mustard, garlic, anchovies, capers and lemon juice. Whisk in the oil, stir in the remaining ingredients. Taste and adjust the balance to suit your palate: it should be sharp and pungent for best results.

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Let Us Eat Cake

Grainews

Cake is an important part of my family’s birthday rituals. When I was a kid, Mom made birthday cakes that contained coins wrapped in wax paper – for her five kids, but also for my dad, but always chocolate for him, and no coins.

I began to bake as a youngster, and in later years, as a chef, restaurateur and caterer, I made many cakes. My small restaurant in Calgary had a name for good desserts, among them one I dubbed “the Queen cake,” a luscious chocolate angel food filled with fruit and chocolate whipped cream. It became the favourite of my youngest son, who requested it each year for his birthday. (This year, he made his first ever for himself and his partner. Still his fave.) Back in the day, my eldest son begged me through a catechism of ever-changing-but-always-chocolate cakes that peaked with a five-layer extravaganza – a cake that took me three days to make and assemble. (“Never again!” I told my son.) So I thought everybody celebrated with cake.

My marriage ended in 2000, and a year later, I took up with a wonderful man. My birthday arrived. My new man brought me books, jewelry, clothing, wine, glorious presents I opened after a home-cooked dinner. But no cake. I was surprised by how deeply disappointed I felt, and my sweetie was appalled at the oversight, and my response. But I hadn’t mentioned it, and he – a diabetic – didn’t have any attachment to cake. So no cake. He hustled out next day, and bought cake, but it wasn’t the same. (The relationship didn’t last. Not the cake’s fault, although sometimes a critical thing’s absence brings home other lacks. )

I learned. Early on in our relationship, I told Dave that I wanted cake on my birthday – even last year, when I marked 60 years on the planet. Fortunately, the cupcake craze has stuck, and my non-baker Dave happily brings home cupcakes when we require cake not made by moi.

Over the years, I have acquired a wide cake repertoire, and am happy to make cakes for special occasions, especially when my friends and extended family will consume the leftovers. Because my sister and I have wheat intolerances, some of my fave cakes are flourless or low-flour: angel food cake; flourless chocolate torte; nut torte filled with citrus mousse; cornmeal and nut torte  flavoured with lots of lemon and cardamom, and totally outrageous with simmered apples, pears or quince and whipped cream.

When I first met Winnipeg’s favourite dessert, the schmoo cake, it didn’t take me long it realize it too could be flourless or close-to-flourless.  I adapted my angel food and my torte recipes, added a salted butterscotch sauce, and wowee, I fed my father and family schmoo cake for this year’s annual wintertime joint birthday party. Here it is. First we eat, then we weigh the merits of other celebratory sweets.

Schmoo Cake with Salted Butterscotch Sauce

Wowee Winnipeg! This is a dynamite cake with a murky past. Here’s my version, adapted from a blend of my angel food cake and flourless nut torte. If you wish, eliminate the flour and up the nuts to 4 cups.

Makes 2 9” spring-form pans; serves a crowd.

Cake:

12 whole eggs, separated

1 ½ c. white sugar, divided in half

¼ t. cream of tartar

1 t. vanilla extract

1 c. all purpose flour

1 ½ t. baking powder

2 c. finely chopped toasted pecans

 

Filling and topping:

3  c. whipping cream

Icing sugar to taste

 

Butterscotch sauce:

1 ½ c. brown sugar

1 c. whipping cream

2 T. salted butter

A pinch of kosher salt

 

Set oven to 325 F.

For the cake, beat yolks and half the sugar with the cream of tartar until thick, pale yellow and tripled in volume. Add the vanilla. Set aside.

In a clean bowl, beat the egg whites and the remaining sugar – added slowly – until stiff peaks form.

Stir together the flour, baking powder and pecans. Fold into the yolks, then fold in the whites. Divide among the two pans. Bake for 55-60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool completely.

Whip the cream and icing sugar to taste. Slice each cake in half. Place one half on a flat plate, add whipped cream, a second layer of cake and cream, then third and fourth layers of each. Cover outside with whipped cream. Chill.

For the butterscotch sauce, combine all ingredients except salt. Bring to a boil. Simmer until the sugar is completely dissolved. Add a pinch of salt. Transfer to a jar. Let cool before using to generously garnish each slice of cake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Sausage-making

Grainews

Sausages used to be the great unmentionable, made from things no one wanted to know about, never mind eat. But although they began as the thrifty butcher’s way of using up trimmings, sausages have gone uptown.

Making your own sausages, like anything homemade, means the cook controls everything, from the selection of meats, salt and spices to the amount of fat.

Begin at the butcher’s. I buy pork trim, cut it up myself, and grind it as well. If you don’t have a meat grinder, ask the butcher to grind it medium or coarse, or a mixture, if you like a coarser-textured link. It doesn’t have to be just pork, although German and Alsatian pork sausages are justifiably famous. I like to make sausages from pork, turkey, chicken, lamb, beef, or game, but often add ground pork to the mix, especially with game, which is extremely lean. (Hunters take note: the butcher will need your animal’s provenance, so take along the tag – or the information on it – when you take your game to the butcher to be ground.)

Order pork fat from the butcher as well. Old-style sausage-masters will tell you that the best sausages are made with 25 percent fat – for tenderness, mouth feel and flavor. But I drop that figure and add other ingredients – apple, pear, carrot, onion, leek, peppers, mild cabbage – without sacrificing any of those critical elements to keep my sausages’ fat content manageable.

Buy casings too. Natural pork casings are carefully washed intestines, if you must know. Synthetic casings are sometimes available, but really, do you wanna do that? Back in your own kitchen, thaw the casings.

Add salt and seasonings to the meat and fat. Some cooks find that sautéing, roasting or grilling any vegetable additions makes a milder sausage. Please yourself. If you are grinding your own, cut ingredients so they fit in your meat grinder’s feeder tube. Season and chill the mixture overnight before grinding it all. Next day, add ice, cold beer, wine or juice, or ice water to help the mixture develop a sticky texture.

Put the casings into a bowl of water, using a clothespin to clamp one end of a casing onto the edge of the bowl. Remove the clothespin and hold the casing open under running water. Use shears to sever a length several feet long. Re-pin the new end to the bowl, and drain the detached piece.

(To store unused casings indefinitely, drain well and add several large handfuls of kosher salt. Mix, wrap and refrigerate or freeze.)

Sauté a few patties and taste for seasoning. When the blend is balanced to your taste, set up your stuffer with the right size of “horn.” Slide the casing onto the horn. Yes, you can make jokes.

Like some stage productions, stuffing sausage is a four-hander: one person fills the hopper and runs the controls; the other uses both hands to pack the sausage as it fills. Leave a few inches empty at the beginning of the casing so you can tie it off later. Decide on a sausage length, and twist the casing as it fills or afterwards, to create separate sausages, alternating directions, three complete turns each time, to ensure the whole thing doesn’t unravel like a Slinky losing its kinks.

Use a large needle or hatpin to prick any air bubbles as the casing fills, and leave some room at the end. Knot both ends. Repeat. When you are done, don’t wait for dinner. Strike up the grill to celebrate. And congratulations. You have just contributed to an enduring culinary tradition. First we eat, then we talk about how many other ways there are to season sausages.

Turkey Apple Sausages

These sweet links are great with arugula salad, lentils, grainy mustard and crusty rolls. Serve with lightly chilled rosé or German beer.

Makes about 24 sausages

2 lb. white/dark raw boneless turkey

½ lb. pork fat, diced

2 tsp. curry powder or Chinese 5-spice

1 lemon, zest only

2 T. minced fresh thyme

2 T. minced chives

2 T. kosher salt or to taste

black pepper and hot chili flakes to taste

4 apples, peeled, diced and sautéed

¼ c. cooked black beans, chopped

½ c. cold water or white wine

12’ hog casings, as needed

Dice the meat and fat. Combine all the ingredients except apples, beans and water/wine, mixing thoroughly. Chill, Grind. Add remaining ingredients. Test for seasoning before stuffing sausage casings.

Cook on the grill, in a hot oven or under the broiler until the juices run clear, about 8-10 minutes, depending on the size of the sausages.

 

 

 

 

 

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Grainews: First We Eat: Winter Greens

Grainews

In winter, when arugula and other salad-ish greens travel thousands of miles, have been contaminated with E. coli or are too costly to be borne with good grace, I turn to sturdier greens for warm salads and robust vegetable dishes.

Mustard greens, or flowering gai lan, a Chinese form of broccoli, are assertive and blend well with strong tastes. When I want a faceful of flavours, I steam gai lan, drain it, and add a couple tablespoons of good marmalade diluted with orange juice to the pan just as the vegetables are nearly done. No marmalade? Use plum or sour cherry preserves and lemon juice.

Sui choy, Nappa or Savoy cabbage are my go-to for tender, mild cabbage. They cook the same as cabbage, but are tender and slightly higher in water content. For a milder flavour, choose baby bok choy.

For more European flavours, I turn to chard, kale or Brussels sprouts.

The Brussels sprout makes an annual winter appearance, but is often ignored as being “too cabbage-y”. Far better to find it in late autumn at a farmers’ market, when you can appreciate its garish Martian-spaceship design of balls clinging to a stalk. But by midwinter, you will only find the bulbs, those perennial keepers, in the supermarket. Like its cabbage cousins, this mini head loves the company of pork, but is reduced to sulphurous fumes if overcooked. Brussels sprouts are utterly divine roasted. Quarter or halve each head, roll in good olive oil with salt and pepper, and roast in a single layer on parchment-lined paper until slightly charred, turning once or twice. Next best is to thinly slice the little buggers, and quickly fry them with bacon, onions and garlic until tender, adding small amounts of water to create steam. Add a drizzle of cream if you like.

Think of chard as two vegetables – the dense stalk and the soft, pliable leaf. Fold each leaf in half lengthwise along the stalk, cut the stalk out, chop up the leaf and set it aside. Chop the stalk and sauté it with onion and garlic. Add the chopped leaves, a bit of water, a handful of dried cranberries, and quickly cook until the leaves wilt. Then add some toasted chopped pecans and maybe a bit of Parmesan or chevre, and toss it on linguini. It’s a riff on a classic Catalan combo of greens with nuts and raisins, so vary it however suits your pantry.

Kale soup shows up from Portugal north to Scandinavia, nearly always partnered with pork, sausages or ham, and dried beans. Be sure to cut out and discard the thick central rib from large leaves. Kale doesn’t reduce its volume as much as other greens, so one bunch is enough to add to the pot. Kale can be braised or stir-fried, but it is dense, and takes awhile to become tender. Be patient. Otherwise, soup is a convenient vehicle. Kale  too is delicious roasted, so separate the leaves, toss them in seasoned olive oil and spread them out on a tray to roast until crispy.

They tell me that winter will end eventually. This year I am not so sure. But until we can pick our own arugula and romaine again, these sturdy greens will sustain us. So first we eat, then we peruse the seed catalogues.

Winter Greens in Coconut Milk

Any sturdy greens will work in this mellow Thai-style dish: my favourites are gai lan, followed by Nappa cabbage. Serve with plain or coconut rice or finely-textured noodles, or as an accompaniment to curries, grilled meats or fish. As with any stir-fry, have all the ingredients sliced and measured before you begin to cook.

Serves 6 as a side dish

1 T. sunflower oil

½ onion, finely sliced

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 T. grated ginger root

4 kaffir lime leaves (use the zest of a lime if you can’t find lime leaves)

½ red bell pepper, julienned

1 coarsely grated carrot

1 tsp. finely minced jalapeno or to taste

½  head sui choy or Nappa cabbage, julienned, or gai lan, left whole

1-14 oz. tin coconut milk

1 tsp. shrimp paste, optional

1 T. fish sauce or chopped anchovies

1 T. honey

the juice and zest of 1 lime

salt and hot chili paste to taste

minced cilantro for garnish

Heat the oil in a large sauté pan, then add the onion, garlic, ginger, lime leaves, bell pepper, carrot and jalapeno. Cook over high heat, stirring, until the vegetables are tender and transparent, about 5 minutes, adding small amounts of water to prevent browning. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Cook, stirring, until the greens are tender. Cook a few extra minutes to reduce and thicken the liquid if desired. Garnish and serve.

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