Tag Archives: sustainable food

Becoming a Better Cook, Part I: By the book

Grainews

January 2022.

My son recently served me a meal of spatchcocked (butterflied) chicken. It was sensational, crisp and juicy. “Butterflied is the only way I roast a whole bird any more,” he told me.

Then I watched as he made brownies. His recipe was more complex than mine, and he spent longer on the process. They were addictive, moist in the middle. Better than mine.

That good food and my son’s attentiveness reminded me that good science makes better cooks. It also reminded me of professional cooking school in Vancouver back in the early 1980s, when one of my chefs chastised me. “You are asking the wrong question at this point, mademoiselle,” he said. “For now, ask how, not why. ”

But how and why in the kitchen are inextricably linked to becoming a better cook. So here are my Top 10 + 1 “how and why” food books, in random order. First we eat, then we read, and eat again.

  1. The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, by J. Kenji López-Alt.

A doorstopper loaded with photographs and high-results recipes, dense with practical applied science from an MIT engineering geek who loves cooking.

  • The New Making of a Cook, by Madeleine Kamman

The bible, starters to sweets, for a generation of professional chefs. Kamman, a Michelin-trained chef, blended science with an impeccable palate and technique.

  • The New Best Recipe, by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated

Cook’s Illustrated tests a dish’s variables sixteen ways to Sunday to make the best possible version. A valuable, food-splattered resource, also starters to sweets.

  • Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, by Deborah Madison.

The best vegetable-based book ever written. Creative, accessible, and just bloody delicious.  

  • CookWise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed (The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking with over 230 Great-Tasting Recipes), by Shirley O. Corriher

A gold mine from a food-and-science geek. “What This Recipe Shows” explains each dish’s ingredients, techniques, and culinary/scientific principles.

  • Tartine Bread, by Chad Robertson

Artisanal sourdough bread demystified: the complexities of exceptional breads with character, crumb, and crust. Learn to think in ratios and buy a good scale.

  • Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn

Clear details and ratios for making the best links. Now you really need that scale.

  • The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Process From Around the World, by Sandor Katz

From kraut, kimchi and kombucha to sourdough, this book will get you bubbling your own bacteria.

  • Batch: Over 200 Recipes, Tips and Techniques for a Well-Preserved Kitchen, by Joel McCharles and Dana Harrison

Canning, dehydrating, fermenting, cellaring, salting, smoking or infusing, organized by individual ingredients with myriad ways to transform each.

  1. Salt Heat Acid Fat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat

Cook by the four tastes. Quirky illustrations and exuberant language.

11. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, by Harold McGee.

Hardcore science from a food geek. No recipes.

Roasted Butterflied Chicken

From The Food Lab by J. Kenji López-Alt. Butterflying equalizes the cooking time needed for breast meat and legs. Serves 4

1 whole chicken, 3-4 lb.

1 tsp. kosher salt for dry-brining plus more for roasting

1 Tbsp. olive oil

freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place the bird breast side down on a cutting board. Use poultry shears or kitchen scissors to cut alongside the backbone from the poke’s nose up to the neck. Repeat on the other side of the backbone. Remove and reserve the backbone for stock-making.

Flip the bird over. Firmly press down on the breastbone with the heel of your hand. You should hear or feel it crack as the bird flattens. Tuck each wing tip under the breasts.

Loosen the skin by running your hand between the skin and breast meat, starting at the base of the breast.  Rub 1 tsp. kosher salt all over the meat under the skin. Place on a rack on a baking sheet and chill, uncovered, overnight if time allows.

Preheat oven to 450 F. Position an oven rack in the centre of the oven.

Dry the chicken skin and meat under the skin with paper towels. Rub oil all over the skin and meat. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

Centre bird on a rack on top of a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. Roast uncovered until the thickest part of the breast closest to the breastbone registers 140 F and the joint between thigh and drum registers at least 160 F.

Remove from the oven. Let rest for 10-15 minutes before carving.

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Root vegetables and taking root

Grainews

December 2021.

All month I’ve been pestering Mom for stories. You’d think I was five again. But no. Truth is, we’ve been in closer proximity than usual. She’s recovering from glaucoma surgery, which has eliminated lifting, bending over, or carrying anything heavier than a supper plate. So I am at her house, lifting, bending over, and carrying. It’s amazing how often we do those things without even noticing. Putting on your shoes, for instance. First you bend over to put on your socks. Oh. No, you put your feet up on a chair and call your daughter over to help you. Then you bend over to pick up your favourite shoes. Oh, maybe not. Then you bend over to pull those dogs onto your feet and tie them up. Ooops. You get the picture. Mom is wearing slippers, laughingly threatening to arrange for a private valet permanently.

Mom’s most recent stories have been about winter, and winter holidays. Our family was poor, just another hardworking farm crew, so winter holidays to Cuba were never part of the gig. Prairie winters have always been harsh, and those days, it was even harder with the absence of electricity. In winter, Mom drove old Mart the horse to school in the cutter and unhooked him before turning him into the school’s barn with his halter on, the bridle hanging under her coat in the schoolroom to keep the bit warm. And come the festive season, my grandparents and mom and my auntie and all their local rellies would drive in the cutters to Mrs. Mike’s, my widowed great-grandmother, for turkey dinner. She would cook all day, then sit back with a glass of homemade rhubarb wine while her daughters-in-law cleaned up her leavings in the kitchen.

Like my grandmother and my mom, Mrs. Mike was a very good cook, but nothin’ fancy. Holiday meals were what you’d expect from a prairie cook – roast turkey and root vegetables, mashed potatoes, pie, steamed pudding, fruitcake. Squash never made it onto her holiday table, but carrots, you bet.

Now I love a good turkey or roasted chicken as well as the next hungry woman. But there are times when I think I am a changeling, at least in a culinary sense. I’d rather eat South Asian food than anything else. You know, food featuring those warm high-C spices – cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves. And a vegetable-heavy feast that might include rogan josh (Kashmiri lamb),but for me the heart of the table are the vegetables: dahl (stewed lentils with ginger), chole (curried chickpeas), basmati rice, aloo gobi (cauliflower and potatoes with tomato and garlic), bartha (smoked pureed eggplant), palak paneer (spinach and fresh cheese), garlic naan (flatbread), and pakoras (vegetable fritters) with cilantro chutney. That’s my last supper right there. My sons have it in writing.

I’ll share those recipes in the coming year. Meanwhile, a lovely way to introduce South Asian flavours is to add an Indian pickle to your table. My favourite is carrot pickle, and in years like this, when I have many pounds of homegrown carrots in my fridge, gifts of homemade carrot pickle are economical and delicious.

In a family committed to homemade gifts, food is often the medium that makes the rounds at our present exchanges. This is a hot-pack pickle that must be refrigerated, so include a note to that effect when you share it, whether at a Diwali, Eid, Kwanzaa, Hannukah, or Christmas feast. However we celebrate the rebirth of life and return from the dark, first we eat.

Carrot Pickle

Store this pickle in the fridge to let the flavours develop and use it to garnish curries, scrambled eggs, roast pork, smoked or roasted salmon, canapés, and grain dishes. Mustard oil adds a distinctively pungent, spicy note. Buy it at South Asian groceries. If you can’t find it, substitute your best extra virgin olive oil.

Makes 1 quart jar

1 lb. carrots, julienned, raw or lightly steamed                                              

1 head garlic, peeled and thinly sliced                                                            

ginger root to taste, thinly sliced       

1 ½ tsp. kalonji (black onion seed), optional                        

1 tsp. fenugreek                                                         

1 tsp. anise seed                                                         

½ tsp. coriander seed                                     

¼ tsp. cumin seed                                                      

1 tsp. mustard seed                                                                            

½ tsp. cracked black peppercorns                                                                                         

2 lemons, juice and zest                                                                                             

½ c. apple cider vinegar                                             

mustard oil as needed

Wash and sterilize the jar. Pack the carrots into the jar, using a pair of chopsticks or skewer to make the job easier. Combine all remaining ingredients except the mustard oil in a small pot and bring to a boil, then pour over the carrots. Top up with oil so that all the carrots are covered, then put on a snug lid and refrigerate for several weeks before using.

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Chameleon cooking

Grainews

December 2021.

I’ve been benched. Perhaps you recall that last month’s column mentioned Mom’s and my west coast holiday, specifically meeting a salmon fisher in Steveston. That morning we worked our way up and down the wharf, admiring the spot prawns and salmon despite having neither pans nor stovetop. We moved slowly, but not just to soak in the ambiance while accommodating Mom’s elderly gait. The day before, I had been struck, knocked down, and driven over by a ponytailed man riding a motorized scooter, a two-wheeler bigger than a Vespa but smaller than a Harley. Months later, I am still limping, and our dog Jake hasn’t had a run since before my accident. It turns out that soft tissue trauma in a foot takes almost as long to heal as broken bones. Who knew?

As a result, before mealtimes I head to the living room to elevate my damaged limb and apply heat while I sip a glass of wine. In the kitchen, Dave is cooking. I am grateful. But I’ve learned to get out of the way instead of offering advice – we work in different ways, at different speeds, and my gratitude is purest when I refrain from “helping”.

When we met almost fourteen years ago Dave fed me sausages and sauerkraut for my first supper in his apartment. Since then, his repertoire has increased. He makes a mean meatloaf; a good Bolognese sauce enriched with dried figs, apricots, and prunes; and some terrific baked pasta. In the sweet kitchen, he whips up the occasional tea-loaf spiked with dark chocolate and Earl Grey. But although beans and lentils aren’t really his thing, I had a craving for pork and beans, so I asked him to make this simplest of all lentil dishes.

Canada is the world’s leader in producing and exporting lentils, with ninety-five percent grown in Saskatchewan. Lentils are superfoods, nutty, earthy, and yummy as well as high in protein and fibre. There is evidence that humanity has been eating them for millennia, from the Euphrates river valley 8000 years ago to Egyptian tombs at Thebes, and ancient frescos show the making of lentil soup. Half the world’s lentils are consumed in India, but they are also popular in Spain, the Middle, East, and France. Here in North America, we were slower to adopt the lentil, but with the advent of the Second World War, meat shortages convinced many cooks of the virtue of lentils.

This red lentil dish, cousin to the old staple of pork and beans, is a changeable chameleon. Vary the vegetables. Chop them finely or leave ‘em large. Make it thick with extra veg and call it a stew. Add coconut milk and shredded greens and serve beside coconut rice, or thin it with additional stock to serve as soup. Add minced sausage or not, as you please.

I have chosen South Asian fused with Spanish seasoning for this version, but you can go elsewhere: make a Thai curry (add green, red, or Panang curry paste, honey, lime juice, coconut milk, and lemongrass, with toasted peanut garnish); a Middle Eastern tagine (add pomegranate molasses, sumac or saffron, cumin, dried fruit, and preserved lemons); or a Latin-esque lunch (add coriander, fennel seed, chili powder, tomato, oregano, a bit of dark chocolate, and cilantro garnish). Of course you can use different types of lentils or cooked beans, but red lentils cook in the same timeframe as most vegetables, making this a prompt and practical one-pot peasant dish that sustains and delights. So first we eat, and then we can chat about other chameleon dishes.

Red Chameleon Lentils

Do not add salt or acid until after the lentils are cooked.

Serves 6

2 Tbsp. olive oil

4-6 cloves garlic, minced

1 Tbsp. minced ginger

1 onion, minced

2 cups chopped assorted vegetables (carrots, mushrooms, celery, bell pepper, zucchini, cabbage)

2-4 links sausage of your preference, diced or sliced (optional)

1 Tbsp. sweet paprika

½ tsp. smoked paprika

1 Tbsp. curry powder or garam masala

1 cup red lentils

8 cups chicken stock

2-4 Tbsp. lemon juice

salt and pepper to taste

2 cups shredded greens (beet tops, chard, arugula, kale, spinach, cress, mustard greens)

Heat a heavy-bottomed pot and add the oil. Add the garlic and ginger, stirring. Add the onion. Sauté until tender, about 10 minutes. Add the remaining vegetables and sauté for several minutes, using the mushrooms as a benchmark – when they are wilted, add the optional sausage. Sauté until the sausage is cooked, then stir in the spices to toast for a couple minutes. Add the lentils and stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cover snugly. Cook for 20 – 30 minutes, or until tender. Season to taste with lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Stir in the greens. Serve hot.

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Farmers and fishers

Grainews

October 2021.

Early fall, and I am on a holiday with Mom, revisiting the foods, places, and faces of her youth. Mom is a retired dryland farmer, and like me, she misses the ready access to fish and seafood that we enjoyed during our earlier coastal life while Dad was in the Canadian Air Force. So on this west coast vacation, we eat west coast fish every day – wild sockeye salmon, halibut, tuna, spot prawns, ling cod, rockfish, sablefish.

At Farquharson Farms, a market garden in the Comox Valley where my then-thirty-something Mom was a field boss in the mid-1960s, the farm’s 192 acres are now a waterfowl habitat. A few miles north, Mission Hill Meats has transformed into Gunter Brothers Meat, run by the grandsons of Harry Gunter; Mom worked for Harry five decades ago, delivering meat weekly up-island to Sayward and Kelsey Bay and providing cooking tips to the young wives on her route. We take a beach tour, revisiting Miracle Beach and Kin Beach, where back in the day we gorged on oysters, clams, and salmon, all caught by our family.

But you can’t recapture your youth. Mom is visibly disappointed that the small coastal towns she knew so well have changed, more perhaps than she has. So we leave the past behind and take the ferry to the mainland to visit our family.

On the Steveston wharf south of Vancouver, a dozen fishing boats are tied up. The fishers use ice to display their catch of gleaming silver and coral, the signature colours of salmon and spot prawns indigenous to the coastal waters.

Mom and I stop to chat with Steve Lewis, aboard the F.V. Evening Breeze, a 42-foot fishing vessel. I am curious about the parallels, if any, between fishing and farming. I learn that five years ago, Lewis, his wife, Michelle, and their son would sell 100 whole fish a day at the wharf, all frozen at sea when caught. This week, during a 9-day stint at the Steveston wharf, they only sold 31 fish on Sunday, and 30 on Saturday, despite 30,000 people passing through the wharf over the weekend. “People aren’t spending like they used to,” Lewis tells me. “We’re hoping it’s just Covid, but last year was better than this year.  And it doesn’t help that some fishers thaw their fish and sell it as fresh. We only sell frozen.”

Lewis was born into a Campbell River fishing family, and has been long line fishing for 50 years. The salmon fishery around Dixon Entrance, between Haida Gwaii and Alaska, where he holds his license, was open only briefly during August and September. Lewis’s halibut license allows fishing between March and November.

Like farming, getting into the fishery on a commercial level is costly. License renewal is $750/year, but its initial purchase – when available from another fisher – is worth $100,000 to $200, 000 for salmon, and almost a million dollars for a prawn fishery license, if you can find a fisher ready to sell up. Plus there’s the initial outlay of up to $500,000 for a boat, radar, sounders, fish sonar, computers, programs to map the sea-bottom and draw it in 3-D, insurance, and wharfage fees, plus power to keep the heaters going in the winter.

Like the dairy industry, the Canadian fishery is governed by quotas, with the added risk of storms, icy ocean water, short fishing seasons, depleting stocks, climate change, a decline in home cooking, and a public misinformed that buying fresh and farmed is better than frozen and wild. When I ask Lewis if he’s going to stick with the fishery, he wryly says, “We’ll stay in business. I hope our son will finally say dad I want the boat. One of us has got to get off – I did that with my dad.” Listening, I think of all the farmers I know with a younger generation leaving for easier lives off-farm. And I wonder all over again, who will feed us? So first we eat, then we talk about how to save the oceans and farms.

Dorothy Caldwell’s Roasted Salmon

This beautifully balanced dish relies on the extra fat from the mayo and the sweet-tart vinegar to enhance wild sockeye salmon’s richness. If you don’t have umeboshi plum vinegar, substitute Japanese-style rice vinegar or apple cider vinegar with a bit of honey. Thanks to my friend Dorothy for sharing. Serves 6-8

1 boneless side of wild sockeye salmon, 2-4 lb.

½ cup mayonnaise

2 Tbsp. umeboshi plum vinegar

1 medium minced red onion

1 tsp. mustard

½ tsp. smoked hot paprika

1 lemon, juice and zest

salt and pepper to taste

a handful of minced herbs – chives, parsley, thyme, tarragon, cilantro

Preheat the oven to 400 F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the fish on the prepared tray, skin side down. Mix together remaining ingredients except herbs and slather on the fish. Roast uncovered until just done, about 12-15 minutes. Sprinkle with herbs, then serve.

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Making the most of a tough tomato harvest

Grainews

October 2021.

War contributes to the transportation and appropriation of goods around the globe. For instance, tomatoes were among the plants and animals that ended up in Europe in the unequal exchange of goods, disease, slavery, land theft, and genocide between New World and Old, beginning in 1492 and culminating in1650, called the Columbian Exchange. This event led to the emergence of some remarkable Mediterranean dishes, many centering on the tomato, and making them among the world’s most popular fruit for home gardeners like me. My tomato-growing is bittersweet, knowing the history of the plants.

Tomatoes are fragile. A frost warning for tonight means that I will cover the fruit still hanging on the vine. Not that there’s a lot – this summer has been as disastrous for tomatoes as it has been for most other crops.

I planted thirty plants – among them Black Krim, Sungold, Marzano, Early Girl, Sweet Million, Brandywine, Whippersnapper, yellow-striped Green Zebra, and heritage beefsteak, plus five “mystery plants” purchased from tomato maven and author Sara Williams at her annual Tomatoes for Tanzania sale in Saskatoon.  Because we were flooded in 2011, and my mother’s and grandmother’s garden was eventually covered by a berm that encircles the house to keep ensuing (perhaps unlikely) floods from drowning our old house, most of my gardening takes place in containers and raised beds. The tomatoes inhabit a funky assortment of receptacles adjacent to the herb bed on the north side of the house. They get sun, shade, shelter. I had hopes of a bumper crop.

At her sale, I asked Williams for some tips. On her advice, I made eggshell tea to from crushed eggshells to aid in calcium absorption and reduce the risk of the dreaded blossom stem end rot.

Then the heat dome inflated over western Canada. A heat wave that lasted most of the summer set in, and my tomato plants, by then setting blossoms, began to look stressed. On days that hit upwards of 30C, it became impossible to keep the plants’ water level on an even keel.

A harvest vastly smaller than I expected – albeit with very few incidences of blossom stem end rot – meant that I had to go looking for additional fruit to feed my tomato habit. (Each fall I like to make roasted tomato sauce – more on that in a minute – and my paternal grandmother Doris’s southern Ontario sweet and spicy tomato chili sauce, dynamite with eggs and grilled pork. That recipe another time.)

Fortunately, my mom’s neighbour operates a bustling market selling homegrown vegetables, canned goods, and baking. She had bags of green tomatoes – beefsteaks, she thought. Now I have tomatoes ripening in my kitchen, bananas strategically placed on each tray to facilitate the process. In a week or two, I expect to make roasted tomato sauce for my freezer; I save the smaller tomatoes for use in our daily salads.

This sauce is money in the bank for a busy cook – it is ready RIGHT NOW, needing only thawing, as the best-ever pizza sauce, pasta sauce, soup base, and all-purpose ingredient in any dish requiring tomato sauce, from Bolognese to butter chicken.

Last fall, and again this summer, that tomato sauce featured prominently in al fresco pizza suppers enjoyed in the shade of the maple tree. Having the sauce in my freezer meant that my prep time was reduced, allowing me to enjoy a glass of wine with our friends. After more than a year of isolation, those pizzas symbolize the beauty and collegiality of the table, antidote in small part to the violence of how tomatoes came to European cooks. So first we eat. Then we pour another glass of wine and debate ways to grow the best tomatoes.

Roasted Tomato Sauce

This “oven-queen’s special” minimizes splatter and mess while producing a sauce bursting with fresh tomato flavour. One “quarter sheet” baking pan (about 13” x 18”) makes 6-8 cups of sauce. For Tomato and Lovage Soup, sauté minced lovage and add to the sauce, thinning with stock as needed. Vary endlessly.

3 lb. ripe tomatoes, halved or quartered depending on size

1-2 onions, minced

1 head garlic, peeled

olive oil to drizzle

salt and pepper to taste

Set the oven at 375 – 400 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Arrange the tomatoes in a single layer on the pan. Sprinkle the onion and garlic on top. Drizzle with olive oil to taste, then sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Roast for about 45 minutes, or until the tomatoes are collapsed, charred nicely along the edges, and cooked thoroughly. Transfer in several batches to a food processor and blitz briefly, leaving the sauce a bit chunky. Freeze in whatever volume seems useful to you: in my 2-person house, I use 2-cup containers.

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First We Eat: A Chicken in Every Pot

Grainews

July 2021.

I buy my chickens from a local farmer. She sells me eggs, too, blue, brown and white ovoids so beautiful they can’t help but taste better than commercial eggs. Each winter, my farmer sends me a note when she is ready to order her chicks, and I guess how many birds I think we plan to consume in a year. Big birds, that is – roasters, double Ds, you might say if you were inclined to categorize by cup size. I ask for larger birds because the ratio of meat to bone is higher. From one bird, I expect to feed the two of us, plus Mom, four, five or even six meals, plus whatever I make with chicken stock from the bones as a beginning point.

Each summer, I drive to the farm and collect my butchered birds, along with the livers, hearts, and gizzards. We have chopped liver spread; our dog Jake has simmered gizzards and hearts. I spend all afternoon and evening cutting up and freezing birds in bags – all thighs, all breasts, all drums, all wings – so my winter and spring cooking is decided by cut, which in turn determines cooking method. Then I brown the carcasses in the oven and make a huge potful of stock, which I also freeze, money in the bank to a cook. 

The birds my farmer raises are delicious. They eat well, get plenty of air and exercise, and have a good, chicken-y life, with bugs and grasses to peck and breezes to ruffle their feathers. I’ve been eating birds raised off the grid for much of my adult life. Underlying my visits to my farmer’s yard is my memory of my Gran raising birds, and her butcher day, here on the farm where Dave and I now live. My Gran was good with her hatchet, but I will never forget seeing headless birds like avian Ichabod Cranes careening about the yard as they ran towards their deaths. The pungent smell of scalded feathers prior to plucking hung on all day, made worthwhile by the canned chicken that Gran put up, cellar shelves lined with quart sealers.

According the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, poultry is the second-most-popular meat on the planet, just behind pork. But studies of diet during the pandemic show that home cooks have turned more often to poultry than any other protein source, mostly because of its versatility. My husband Dave has lost count of the number of ways we eat chicken, but his favourite is still fried chicken, which I make once or twice a year. So first we eat, and then we debate our top bird dishes.

Brined Fried Chicken

Method matters: brining chicken, pork, and turkey is a solid-gold way to ensure a juicy, tender result; and meticulously dredging the pieces in flour, egg-wash, and crumbs protects the chicken from the oil.

Serves 8

½ cup kosher salt

1/3 cup sugar

2 cups water

1 quart buttermilk

1 head garlic, peeled and smashed

a handful of fresh thyme

several sprigs of fresh rosemary

1 Tbsp. whole peppercorns

2 Tbsp. sweet paprika

1 roasting chicken, cut into 4-oz pieces (off the bone is best)

3 cups flour (barley, wheat, or spelt)

salt and pepper to taste

1 Tbsp. sweet paprika

1 tsp. dried thyme or basil

1 egg

2 cups milk

4 cups panko breadcrumbs

oil for the pan

Combine the salt, sugar and water in a pot and bring to a boil. Stir until all crystals are dissolved. Cool thoroughly. Add the buttermilk, garlic, thyme, rosemary, peppercorns, and paprika. Mix well. Transfer to a large zippered plastic bag, add the chicken pieces, seal, and refrigerate for 8-12 hours.

Remove the chicken from the brine. Discard the brine. Pat dry the chicken and let stand on a baking sheet so it will not be stone cold when you cook it. Set the oven at 325 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment.

Stir together the flour, salt, pepper, paprika and herbs on a baking tray with a lip. Mix together the egg and milk and put it in shallow pan.  Put the breadcrumbs in a shallow tray or large plate. Arrange the three containers in a row on the counter: flour, egg-wash, crumbs. Set one empty parchment-lined tray next to the crumbs.

Dredge several pieces of chicken in the flour, coating each thoroughly, then shake off the excess. Dip each thoroughly in the egg wash, then in the crumbs. Arrange on the tray in a single layer. Repeat until all the chicken is coated. Clean your hands often as you work.

Pour 2” of oil into a large cast iron frying pan and heat the pan until the oil sizzles when water is flicked onto it, about 340 F. Use tongs to place a piece of chicken skin-side down in the oil – it should sizzle. Add as many pieces as comfortably fit in a single layer. Cook until nicely browned, 5-7 minutes, then turn to colour the second side, about 3-5 minutes. Remove the cooked chicken to the second tray. Repeat until all the chicken is cooked. Keep the tray of fried chicken in the oven while the rest is frying. Serve hot.

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Cooking for Comfort

Grainews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dee’s Pizzeria Pizza

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

Dough:

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

½ tsp. dried thyme or oregano                       

2 cups warm water, more as needed                                      

2 Tbsp. olive oil                                                         

Roasted tomato sauce:

3 lb. ripe Roma tomatoes                               

2 onions, sliced                                              

1 head garlic, peeled and sliced                                  

2 Tbsp. olive oil                                             

salt and pepper to taste

Toppings:

2 Tbsp. olive oil

1 head garlic, peeled and sliced

2 onions, sliced

1 bell pepper, diced

8 mushrooms, sliced

salt and pepper to taste

1 cup sliced sausage or salami, optional

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

2 cups arugula, optional

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

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

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

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

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

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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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