Tag Archives: sustainable food

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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Fathers & Chocolate

Grainews

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

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

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

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

Sourdough Chocolate Cake

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

Cake:

1 cup sourdough starter (or discard)

1 cup milk

2 cups all purpose flour

1 ½ cups sugar

1 cup vegetable oil or melted butter

2 tsp. vanilla extract

1 ½ tsp. baking soda

¾ cup cocoa

2 tsp. instant or espresso coffee powder

2 large eggs

Glaze:

3 cups icing sugar, sifted

½ cup butter

¼ cup plain yoghurt or buttermilk

2 tsp. instant or espresso coffee powder

1 Tbsp. hot water

Icing:

1 cup finely chopped dark chocolate (or chips)

½ cup whipping cream, more as needed

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

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

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

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

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The Big Cheese

Grainews

October 2020. Life in a pandemic takes its toll in many ways. One of the noticeable changes is how we spend our leisure time. No trips this year – not that I was actively planning, and not that I go often, but I’d love to see Europe again. I want to see Asia, too, and Australia, Africa, South America, more of North America. But not under these conditions. Not now. But the whole travel thing is complicated by my unwillingness to be the proverbial exploitative tourist. I do not want to take advantage of people.

So I’ve been reading instead, notably American humourist Calvin Trillin’s Tummy Trilogy. I adore his wicked humour as he tootles across the continent with the longsuffering Alice, and I howl every time I read about the next hotsy-totsy “La-Maison-De-La-Casa-House” restaurant he skewers. It’s a great way to do a little “on the road-ing” without leaving the safety of my ancient schlofbonk in my upstairs studio. Then for a change of pace and tone, I turn to foodie flicks and Bourdain reruns. (Check your library or online: Big Night; Julie & Julia; Babette’s Feast; Mostly Martha; Ratatouille; Like Water for Chocolate; Tampopo; Eat Drink Man Woman; Soul Food; The Wedding Banquet.)

But mostly I’ve been cooking. It’s been my cure for stress, trauma, and day-to-day worry for decades. This morning, for instance, I was suffering from anxiety about a pair of feral kittens who were born in our barn this spring. Last week their loving mama took them on a hunting lesson, then she got hunted. Now the kittens are orphans, stranded halfway down our driveway, sheltering in a stand of aspens, afraid to venture home. I fear for them. Coyotes hunt close by, as do red-tail hawks and great horned owls. The kittens won’t be coaxed and they are too wild to pick up. So I feed them. Then I go back to my kitchen and cook. Today I plan to make grilled Gruyere cheese sandwiches for lunch. Or maybe we’ll have fondue made with Gruyere for supper instead. Last week we had Margherita pizza topped with Gruyere. And corn quesadillas with the last of the summer vegetables and grated Gruyere. A Gruyere and new potato omelet for brunch. French onion soup with extra Gruyere. Lamb burgers topped with…

You bet there’s a theme. I received a big – I mean BIG – block of very good Gruyere from a friend who was passing through town a couple weeks ago. (We visited safely, in a park, a picnic at arm’s length. Then she hauled this enormous piece of cheese from her cooler and went on her way.) We’ve been eating Gruyere-everything ever since.

You might, in a generalized way, call it “Swiss” cheese, but Alpine or high-mountain cheeses include Franco-Swiss Gruyere; Swiss Emmenthal and Appenzeller; French Cantal, Beaufort (a type of Gruyere) and reblochon; Italian Fontina, Asiago and Gordo; and Norwegian Jarlsberg. They are made in summer, when the cows graze in high-elevation meadows. The milk is made into big wheels of cheese that often have holes from carbon dioxide generated during the cheese-making process. In general, all are dense, sweet, nutty, cave-aged – and slightly crystalline as they age. Gruyere is one of more than 180 European cheeses that have Protected Designation of Origin (DOC) status, so its production is strictly limited, and contained within a geographic region and to particular methods of production.

These cheeses are all yummy. Feed the kittens, download that movie or your favourite Bourdain episode, and melt some cheese. First we eat, then we talk about Meryl Streep as Julia Child. Great casting… and by the way, the kittens found their own way safely home to the barn.

Classic Alpine Cheese Fondue

Use a single type or a traditional mixture of Alpine cheeses – Gruyere, Appenzeller and Emmenthal – and add non-traditional ones – Asiago and Jarlsberg – to taste. Allow 1/4 lb. cheese per person. Add exotic flavour agents like truffle-infused oil before serving if you like. Set out a range of garnishes to suit your palate: sliced raw or cooked vegetables, crusty bread cubes, sliced ham or sausages, pickles and olives, chutneys and savoury relishes. Don’t ignore la religiouse, the crust on the bottom of the pot; for many, it’s the best bit of fondue.

Serves 4

1 clove garlic, halved

1 lb. grated cheese, a mixture

1 Tbsp cornstarch

1 1/2 cups dry white wine

Garnishes and dippers:

a drizzle of herb-infused olive oil or truffle oil, optional

crusty bread

vegetables

ham, kielbasa or other cooked sausage

Rub the garlic along the inner surface of a fondue pot.  Toss the cheese and  cornstarch together. Heat the wine in a heavy-bottomed pot to just below boiling point. Add a handful of cheese, whisking well, and add more as each handful melts. Stir until homogeneous. Transfer to fondue pot or small individual bowls. Serve warm with preferred garnishes and dippers.

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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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Comfort

Grainews

April 2020

April 2020. Dave and I live rurally. Just us, our dog Jake, housecat, and the barn cats. But there are the birds who visit our feeders. And the deer that graze at dawn and dusk just south of our house. The coyotes lurking. And the porcupines that stop by some nights, usually about midnight. But we keep the glass between us, so there’s no danger of breaking our social distancing compact. It’s good to see them clambering into our deck chairs, or picking up spilled birdseed, singing some incomprehensible versions of 1960s ballads to each other.  They will doubtless stop coming by once we start spending our evenings outdoors, but I like that they feel at home enough to occupy our chairs in our absence.

All those animals notwithstanding, it sometimes it feels like we are far from the madding crowd – a good thing – and other times, the crowds seem to jostle right up our long driveway and make themselves comfy too.  That jostle is life right now. Even though we are under pandemic lockdown, even though we are used to spending most days with just the two of us, the ghosts of thousands of Covid-19 victims from around the globe feel too close for comfort.  I don’t fear them. But I am not ready to join them, and I want them to rest more peacefully.

It’s been awhile, this isolation. We are praying, as everyone is, for wellness on the planet, a flattening of the curve, a drop in infections, for no more deaths, for a resumption of life as it was. But life will never be the same. This virus has made sure of that.

So what do we do?

We comfort one another. We go about our lives as best we can. We practice kindness and calm. Comfort includes cooking. Many of us have bursting pantries, stockpiles of groceries to stave off the threat of illness. Feed yourself. Feed your family. Cook food you love. Pour the wine. Steep the tea, make the coffee. Bake your favourite chocolate and ginger coffeecake, your best braises, all the beloved recipes that are marked up with spatters of love in your cookbook or indelibly imprinted on your memory. Make extra. If you can do so safely, drop some off – but honouring social distancing, and no contact! – to the porches of friends and neighbours, to elders who are shut-ins, to friends who don’t cook as much as you or who don’t have a bursting pantry.  Feed people. And as you bake or braise or broil, remember that stirring the pot with love is another way to flatten that curve. It’s love that is going to get us through. Not panic. Not hoarding. Not bullying or pointing fingers.

So spread around some love. My favourite breakfast right now as spring tiptoes toward us is a muffin that is endlessly adaptable.

This recipe began as a cake, my beloved auntie’s favourite carrot cake that she made for her family’s and friends’ birthdays in and around the Bay area of California. It is one scrumptious cake, loaded with butter, nuts and coconut, topped with cream cheese icing. The kind of cake that makes a baker’s name as a baker. Then I took a few liberties with it to make it less cake-y. Less butter, less sugar, swapping some of the all- purpose flour for whole wheat.

These days I use barley flour mixed with spelt flour, but it’s just fine made with wheat flour.  Paper liners for your muffin cups are advisable when using barley flour, because the muffins are crumbly. I sometime add an extra egg to help with the cohesion, but you don’t have to.

These muffins freeze well, and can be dressed up with cream cheese icing if you want them to masquerade as dessert one late evening as you watch another solo round of Netflix. Be well. Be calm. Be kind. Be good to each other. First we eat. Then we heal the planet.

dee’s Morning Muffins

Take on changing this recipe to suit your own preference. Like blueberries best? Use them instead of cranberries and chopped dates.

Makes 14

2 large eggs

½ cup melted butter or vegetable oil

½ cup brown sugar

3 cups coarsely grated carrot, apple or pear

1 ½ cups milk, orange juice, buttermilk or alternate milk

3 cups flour (a mix of barley, spelt, wheat, or any one)

1 Tbsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 tsp. ground ginger

½ tsp. ground allspice

¼ tsp. ground cloves

½ cup dried cranberries

1 cup chopped dried dates

Set the oven at 375 F. Line muffin cups with parchment liners.

Mix together the wet ingredients in a large bowl. Stir in all the dry ingredients and mix gently with a large spatula. Spoon into muffin cups. Bake for 22 minutes. Best served warm with butter and company.

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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

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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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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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