Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Grainews: Mrs. Diefenbaker's Cookbook

Since we're in the midst of a federal election campaign, I'm thinking of John Diefenbaker's dinner. The Dief was Canada's thirteenth Prime Minister and a proud prairie boy. . . especially proud of his mother Mary's good prairie cooking.

Diefenbaker was born in a small town in Ontario in September 1895. In 1903, when he was seven, his family moved west so his father, William, who had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, could take advantage of the healthful prairie air.

William took a teaching position at a one-room school near Fort Carlton, a mounted police depot and former fur trade post mid-way on the wagon trail between Winnipeg and Edmonton. Their home and school served as a community centre and rest stop where locals, travellers and new homesteaders were welcomed for a friendly conversation and a bite to eat.

In his memoir, One Canada (Vol. 1), Diefenbaker recalls North-West Mounted Police officers dropping by, humorously noting: "No doubt it was coincidence but they usually arrived at mealtime."

Residents of the local reserve frequently came for tea, and Gabriel Dumont, leader of the Metis uprising of 1885, visited now and then with a gift of game for the stew pot. "He could speak no English but he could shoot, and he gave us some examples of his marksmanship," writes Diefenbaker who, as a boy, was awed by the stature and stories of the legendary Metis hero.

Their daily diet was typical for prairie settlers at that time. Day to day, they ate rabbits, fish, wildfowl, prairie chickens and domestic chickens. Neighbours brought them Mennonite sausages, cured hams and garden vegetables until the Diefenbakers had a garden of their own. They picked wild mushrooms and berries by the pail full at a time when the prairie was bountiful in wild fruit. Diefenbaker lists a typical haul at 30 quarts of strawberries, 50 quarts of saskatoons and 100 quarts of raspberries!

In 1906, the family moved to a homestead near Borden, Sask. (the province of Saskatchewan having been created the year before), where they kept a milk cow and planted a large garden, particularly potatoes. Mary made excellent butter, which she traded at the general store for groceries such as flour, sugar and prunes. Her harvest meals were exceptional, and it was not unnoticed by young Dief that the harvest crews, usually consisting of 15-20 men, slowed their pace of work so they could stick around for one more meal.

"Mother was a good cook," he writes. "We always had plenty of wholesome food." Diefenbaker was so enamoured of his mother's cooking that he saved her cookbook, Good Housekeeping's Favourite Recipes and Menus From Our Kitchen to Yours, which is now part of his collection at the University of Saskatchewan Archives in Saskatoon.

The cookbook is well used, frayed at the edges and splattered with the memories of cake batter and tomato sauce. Additional recipes clipped from the newspaper are glued to the inside covers, most notably recipes for chocolate cake. Perhaps it was a favourite of young John and his brother Elmer.

Mary's cookbook includes this recipe for baked string beans. The original recipe calls for an unspecified "fat" for which I used butter. I also cut this recipe in half, since I am not feeding a harvest crew or a couple of active prairie boys.

Baked String Beans and Bacon
2 lbs string beans
6 slices bacon
1 1/2 cups light cream or thin white sauce (see below)
1 1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
3 tbsp melted butter
1/2 cup fine bread crumbs

To make a thin white sauce: On the stove, melt 2 tbsp butter in a small pot. Add 2 tbsp flour and blend well. Pour in 2 cups cold milk. Heat, whisking vigorously until bubbling and thickened. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and cook on low heat for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, cut string beans into one-inch pieces and cook in salted water until tender. Dice bacon and fry until crisp. Drain beans and mix with bacon, thin cream or white sauce, salt, pepper and 2 tbsp of melted butter. Place in a greased baking dish.

Mix bread crumbs with remaining 1 tbsp of melted butter and sprinkle over beans. Bake at 425F for 20 minutes, until golden brown.

A page from Mary Diefenbaker's favourite cookbook: the food spatters may tell us this was one of her favourite recipes.
(This article first appeared in Grainews)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Ford-for-a-Day Food Tour

If Ford offered you a car for a day and $500 spending money, what would you do? I decided to grab some friends and take the Ford Focus for a local food tour in and around Saskatoon.

The day began at a bakery... isn't that the best way to start a day?? The Night Oven has a large stone mill in back so I bought some fresh-ground flours (buckwheat and white) plus some sweet treats for sharing over coffee. Our friends Annie and Ward jumped into the car with us and we headed north of the city.

First stop, Pine View Farm at Osler. We had a good discussion with the owner, Melanie Boldt, about aging meat for 42 days. Cause if I aged meat for 42 days in my fridge it would probably be green! However, they know what they're doing and, as a result, the meat is extra tender and flavourful. And pricey! But it was a splurge, no?

We set off for the Smokehaus in Martensville, multi-winner of the annual King of the Koubasa award. Smells all smoky wonderful in there!! But the sweet spot of the morning was an unexpected stop just north of Martensville - a quick u-turn on the highway - for a gorgeous farmyard market.

Wow!! What a great offering of veggies, meats, pies, perogies, baking and even lard!! (It's really hard to find pure farm lard, which like for pie pastry). I bought a box of little jams for the Saskatoon Food Bank. Gotta share the local flavours!!

Heading back into the city, we made a pit stop at the Saskatoon Farmers' Market. Can I have one of everything!! Well, not quite...

Then down Valley Road to see what's new. I dropped in on my former colleague at CBC Radio, Joan Merrill, who runs Robertson Valley Farm with her husband Don. Amazing broccoli. Kohlrabi the size of cabbages!!

We stopped in at the Berry Barn and bought... strawberries!! Yes, the saskatoon berry barn is now growing strawberries, too. Who knew??

We wrapped up the day by taking two friends, Susan and Brent, for dinner at The Hollows. I recently heard a CBC Radio show about the chef growing the produce she uses in the restaurant. Her ethic is heirloom vegetables and the whole animal nose-to-tail thing. She won my heart with a cocktail called a Marigold topped with flowers. I love to eat flowers. :)
One last stop on the tour: the next morning I dropped off a selection of jams and jellies at the Saskatoon Food Bank. I hope they bring a smile to a child who loves strawberry, or plum, or raspberry, or...
As for the Ford Focus... It was fun to drive. The trunk was a little small for all our purchases (including those of our friends). It was low to the ground, but fortunately we didn't drive any difficult rural roads. It was a standard shift, which is fine with me, but it was the first time I had a car with 6 gears. I asked twitter what #6 was for, and someone replied "hydroplane." Yes, it was easy to speed in this car... very smooth, quiet and effortless. And red!!

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Grainews: Apple nostalgia in Berlin

In Berlin, I left the hotel room early one morning in search of coffee and apples. Anything with apples.

Wandering the neighbourhood, I found a sunny little bakery on a leafy street near the Brandenburg Gate. It had a tiny sidewalk patio with four tables and a plethora of potted plants. Best of all, a sign on the sidewalk said the bakery specialized in fruit kuchen.

Sure enough, there on the glass countertop were two large round fruit cakes, one plum and the other apple. But don't imagine the kind of fruit cake your grandmother made at Christmas time. They were what we here on the prairies might call "coffee cake" with a cake base, a layer of fruit and a crumble topping. In German, the apple version is called apfelstreuselkuchen. It was delicious, or lecker.

Ever since I was a child, I've loved anything with apples. We had two kinds of apple trees on our farm: a couple of big old crabs and a "pie" tree with large yellow apples, the variety of which no one recalled. We children were allowed to climb the crab apple trees and eat as many as we liked. But we were forbidden to climb the "pie" tree or eat any of its apples without permission. They were seriously earmarked for baking.

When my mother came to the farm as a young bride, she knew very little about cooking. Her mother (my grandmother) was a fabulous cook but she failed to pass on this knowledge to my mom. So my mom learned to cook from her mother-in-law. My Grandma Ehman was not a fancy cook but a good farm cook – hearty wholesome meals with produce from her own gardens, rich in cream and butter, from simple recipes that reflected her prairie roots and German heritage.

This included apple kuchen, applesauce cookies and apple pie. Her apple jelly was fantastic on toast, with pork chops and sandwiched in the centre of jam jams. I'm quite sure I was weaned on her applesauce. I have loved anything with apples ever since.

In the early pioneer days, apples were a rare treat. Dried apples were available in country stores, but fresh apples arrived by rail from Ontario. In 1914, pioneer Julie Feilberg, whose family homesteaded at Nokomis, Sask., recorded that a barrel of apples cost $4.25. She bought them as a special treat with Christmas money sent by her grandfather in Denmark.

Many farmers planted apple trees on the home quarter and, by the 1920s, some had opened their orchards for u-pick excursions. This coincided with the spread of automobiles and apple picking became a pleasant family outing.

Then came the legendary winter of 1942, which was so harsh that most of the apple trees on the northern prairies perished in the cold. Work began in earnest to breed new varieties of apples better suited to the prairie climate, based on experiments already underway at orchards such as those at the Seager Wheeler farm at Rosthern, Sask., and the Morden Experimental Farm at Morden, Man.

Thanks to their passion for apples, I was able to climb a big old crab apple tree in my youth and fall in love with my grandma's hand-picked apple kuchen.

I was thinking of my grandma that day in Berlin when a little bird landed on my table, brazenly eyeing my cake. I put a crumb on the far corner of the table and we enjoyed our apfelstreuselkuchen together in the morning sunshine.

Apple Kuchen
For the cake:
1 cup soft butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 3/4 cup flour
2 lbs apples, peeled and sliced

Cream butter and sugar well. Beat in eggs. Stir in vanilla, salt, baking powder and flour. Remove 2/3 cup and reserve for the topping. Press remaining dough into a greased 9 x 12 inch pan. Cover with sliced apples.

For the topping:
1 cup sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
2/3 cup cake dough
2/3 cup flour

Sprinkle apples evenly with sugar and cinnamon. Mix reserved cake dough with flour until crumbly. Spread over apples. Bake at 350F for 40-45 minutes, until the top is lightly browned and the apples are soft.

(This article first appeared in Grainews)

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Familiar Flavours Far From Home: Shashlik

Imagine if you had to solve a word puzzle before you could eat. But the puzzle is in a different language and a strange alphabet.

That was the challenge of ordering dinner in Izmail, Ukraine, a small historic city on the Danube River near the border of Moldova. My husband and I had just arrived in Ukraine, travelling down a country road full of potholes, the creaky old bus zigging and zagging while the onboard television blared a popular music show, the performers singing a familiar Beatles tune, slightly altered, All You Need is Peace. After a day of travel, we were hungry.

In Izmail, the only restaurant that appeared to be open was on the main drag, a popular place full of well-dressed millennials sipping cocktails and raising a din of conversation, of which I understood not a word.
At the table beside us was a young couple on a date. Behind us, a group of clean cut young men (perhaps soldiers) with a bottle of vodka on the table between them. The dance floor was empty (the DJ arrived later) and, playing on a giant screen, music videos of beautiful models in tropical locales.

Our waiter didn't speak a word of English and neither did his menu. It looked Greek to me. Literally. Prior to Ukraine, we had travelled in Greece, where I became somewhat adept at reading Cyrillic letters. The Cyrillic alphabets of Greece and Ukraine are close enough that I opened the menu and began sounding out the offerings. But even though I could pronounce it, I had no idea what it meant.

You might be surprised to know that restaurants in Ukraine often don't serve Ukrainian food, or what we here on the prairies know and love as the foods of our Ukrainian ancestors. Vareniki, holubtsi, kutia, babka and borshch – these are familiar foods in Ukrainian homes, but when people go out to eat, they're happy to dine from the smorgasbord of the world. Ethnic restaurants are as familiar in Ukraine as anywhere.

Working my way through the menu, I suddenly came upon a word I understood: Карьонара. Carbonara. Below it was вологнесе or Bolognese. Italian!! Both were delicious.

In Odessa, we ate several meals in a sweet French bistro and in Kherson, we enjoyed grilled skewers of meat in an outdoor Georgian grill (that's the former Soviet republic of Georgia, not the U.S. state). In Kiev we ate paninis from vendor on the street.
The grilled meat was called шашлік, which I recognized instantly. It's shashlik, a familiar food among descendants of Russian and East Ukrainian immigrants, also known here on the Canadian prairies as shishliki. In the Old Country it's common to add lemon juice, but since lemons were impossible to find on the prairies more than a century ago, local versions tend not to use it.

Old timers will tell you a secret to making good shishliki is to mix it with your hands, so don't be afraid to put a little elbow grease into it.

Traditionally it's made with lamb, but pork and chicken are good, too.

2 lbs meat (1 kg), cut in 2 inch cubes
Salt and pepper
1 big onion, sliced

Put meat in a bowl. Sprinkle generously with salt (a good teaspoon) and pepper. With your hands, rub the seasoning into the meat. Mix in onion. Cover and refrigerate 3–7 days, turning the meat once a day. Thread meat onto skewers. Grill over hot coals or BBQ.
If you're feeding a crowd, use 50 lbs of meat, 20 lbs of onions, a generous 1/2 cup of salt and 1/4 cup of pepper.

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)

Saturday, June 06, 2015

The farmland of my roots - Vinegret

My farming ancestors came to Canada from Russia in the 1890s and, ever since I was a child, I dreamed of visiting their village on the Dnieper River.

That opportunity came in April. Despite the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, which is unfolding east of the Dnieper, I made a trek to the little village once known as Klosterdorf.

It was also a journey into the history of wheat. Some 2,500 years ago, farmers along the Black Sea – from the Danube to the Dnieper and beyond – supplied wheat to ancient Greece and Rome, neither of which could grow enough grain to meet the essential bread demands of their populations.

The shores of the Black Sea are dotted with the ruins of Greek colonies such as Histria in Romania and Olbia in Ukraine, both of which I visited on my way to Klosterdorf. Beautiful pottery, delicate glassware and gold coins on display in the archaeology museum of Odessa paint a picture of a prosperous agricultural society on the shores of what the Greeks called the Hospitable Sea.

Fast forward to the 1770s. The Russian army captured the area from the Ottoman Empire. Czar Catherine the Great invited farmers to return to the land and they did, from all over Europe, including my German ancestors.

A century later, the port of Odessa handled 40 percent of Russian’s grain trade. No doubt, some of that grain was grown on the fields of Klosterdorf.

Today, Klosterdorf is no longer a place on the map. It has been amalgamated into a larger village called Zmiivka, Ukraine. That was my destination as I boarded a dusty bus on a sunny spring day in April along with my husband, John, and an English translator named Viktorya.  

The old bus rattled down the country road, gears grinding and shocks falling flat. Apple trees were blooming and the young wheat was green. On either side, the fields were so wide and flat and straight to the horizon it reminded me of home, where I grew up in Saskatchewan.

We had not gone far when Viktorya began chatting up the old women at the front of bus. They laughed, flashing gold teeth and peppering her with questions about our venture to the village at the end of the road.

Before long, we had been invited in for tea, given a brief history of the village and pointed in the direction of Naberezhnaya Street, which was in former times the main street of Klosterdorf.

It looked as it might have a century ago, long low cottages on tidy lots that run perpendicular to the road, hens in the yard and laundry on the line. Gardens were turned and ready for potato planting. “We love our potatoes,” one lady told us through Viktorya. “Without potatoes we would probably starve.”

Hmmm, reminds me of my dad.

Another old-timer recalled a little German church at the far end of the street, but it’s gone now. Most of the German settlers left long ago. Today, Zmiivka is better known for its Swedish settlers who have maintained some ties with their former homeland.

From a high point on the street, we had a spectacular view of the Dnieper by which grain was transported in former times. The river has been dammed downstream, flooding some of the land once associated with Klosterdorf, but it presents a picture of a contented and self-sufficient village that time forgot.

We wandered back to the bus stop with time to sit and have a cool drink outside the little grocery store, where the clerk calculated our purchase on a wooden abacus. A curious gentleman sat down and asked our story, what had brought us from Canada to Zmiivka, which Viktorya related to him.

He looked at me thoughtfully. “Yes,” he said. “When I look at your face I can see your ancestors.”

This beet and potato salad is ubiquitous in Ukraine and a favourite in my kitchen back home in Canada.

2 potatoes
2 beets
3 carrots
2-3 dill pickles
1/4 cup onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp vinegar (optional)
Salt and pepper

Boil potatoes, beets and carrots separately until cooked. Cool and peel. Chop vegetables and pickles in a small dice. Mix with onion, oil and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper.

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Ancient Goddess of Agricuture - Greek Salad

For more than 2,000 years ancient Greeks made a pilgrimage to the temple of Demeter, the goddess of farming. A few weeks ago, I did, too.

Today, the temple is in ruins, but it is possible to walk the stone streets, run your hand over ancient walls and contemplate the importance of farming in Greek mythology. Demeter was more than the patron of farming – it was through her that one was granted everlasting life in paradise, a place the ancient Greeks called the Elysian Fields.

Here is her story, in a nutshell: Demeter was sister to Zeus. One day, while picking wild flowers, her daughter Kore was kidnapped by Hades, god of the underworld. Demeter searched the land for her daughter, so distraught that she neglected to make things grow. The people implored Zeus to find and return Kore before they starved to death. In the meantime, Demeter stopped to rest at the town of Elysium, where she was treated kindly.

Eventually, Kore was returned to her mother with the proviso that she return to the underworld for part of the year. While in the underworld, it was winter on earth. When she returned, it was spring.

Demeter was so grateful she gathered up wild wheat and barley and showed the people of Elysium how to farm. They were so grateful, they built a temple to worship her. Demeter also gave them special rites – to eat her bread, sip her sacred drink, chant her prayers – by which one was granted life after death in the green Elysian Fields. Just as a seed of wheat comes to life when placed in the ground, the soul came to life in paradise.

These rites took place once a year at Elesium, a short distance from Athens. It was the desire of everyone in the Greek world to make this pilgrimage once in a lifetime. Every personage we know from ancient Greece, from Plato to Socrates to Pericles (the ruler who built the Parthenon), would have done so, as did the pre-Christian rulers of ancient Rome who changed the names of Demeter and Kore to Ceres and Persephone. Ceres is the basis of our word for cereal grains.

Today, the temple site is surrounded by urban sprawl and the sacred wheat fields have given way to oil refineries, factories and container ports. But stepping through the gates, it is possible to turn ones back on the modern world and walk the same paving stones as thousands upon thousands of pilgrims for whom wheat was more than food, but a sacred symbol of life itself.

At the Acropolis Museum restaurant, I ate a delicious wheat salad but sadly, they would not share the recipe. So instead, my other favourite, a true Greek Salad. No restaurant in Canada had prepared me for the simple marvel of a real Greek salad.

After sampling several in Greece, I have drawn these observations: The vegetables are crisp and chunky, dressed with good olive oil (no vinegar or lemon juice) and topped with slabs of feta cheese (not crumbled or cubed). The peppers may be any colour (including yellow banana pepper). Onion may be white or red and the olives maybe replaced with capers. In one version, the feta was topped with finely chopped pistachios. I have fond memories of Greece, but the taste memories are the best.

Greek Salad
2 ripe tomatoes, cut in wedges
1/2 cucumber, cut in thick slices
1 sweet pepper, seeded and cut in rings
1/4 small onion, slivered
Kalamata olives (a few per person)
Greek olive oil
Slabs of feta cheese (one per person)
Sprinkling of dried oregano

Toss vegetables lightly with olive oil. Top with slabs of feta. Drizzle feta with olive oil and sprinkle with oregano.

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Free Foods of Spring - Rhubarb Pudding

Here's the original recipe for rhubarb pudding as recorded in Kristiane's mix of Norwegian and English:

Bland godt 1 kop mel og 1/4 kop brunt sucker.
Rub ind 1/2 kop smor.
Put rhubarb ind i en smurt dish.
Og dros med en kop huidt sukken some har 1/4 teaspoon kanel.
Nu press over rhubarb deigen og bak i en. Passe varme.

This food column appeared this month in Grainews:

You may call them weeds, but to the pioneers dandelions were dinner. After a long winter of root vegetables – progressively shrivelling and even running out – dandelions and other “weeds” were the first greens of spring. Mother Nature’s salad bar.

Tender young dandelion leaves were collected by the pailful, as were lamb’s quarters, sorrel and purslane, also known as portulaca. They were often eaten cooked, either alone or added to a recipe such as green borscht, a popular soup of potatoes, dill, sorrel and sour cream.

One method of preparing dandelion leaves went like this: whisk together an egg with half a cup of sour cream. Cook until thickened. Stir in a dab of butter and 2 tablespoons of vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Toss in a good amount of well-washed dandelion greens and cook until wilted. Eat warm.

Of course, dandelion leaves and other wild greens were not the only signs of spring in the kitchen. Every farmstead had a rhubarb patch which sprang to life before the last vestiges of snow had disappeared. Rhubarb was the first “fruit” of spring.

Back then, rhubarb was commonly called the “pie plant” because, as we all know, it makes an admirable pie. Of course, it also tastes great in a cake, crisp, bread pudding, compote and a jar of jam.

Even though rhubarb grows like a weed (try uprooting it!) is it not natural to the Canadian plains. However, that tenacity served it well during the time of the settlers. Many a pioneer arriving by train or horse-drawn wagon brought a piece of rhubarb root to set in their first prairie garden and were quick to share it with immigrants from overseas who had travelled more sparsely.

Like dandelions, rhubarb is a good source of vitamin C, which might have been in short supply come spring, especially if the sauerkraut crock (also steeped in vitamin C) was dipping low.

Interestingly, before rhubarb became associated with jams and pies, the root was used medicinally as a mild laxative and stomach tonic. It was not until the 1800s, when sugar from the West Indies became more widely available and more affordable in Europe that someone had the bright idea of sweetening the sour stalks and eating them.

The recipe below was provided to me by Irene Hagel, granddaughter of Norwegian pioneers who homesteaded near Weldon, east of Prince Albert, Sask. in 1902. Hans and Kristiane Lien had first settled in North Dakota but, unable to afford a farm of their own, they moved north to take advantage of the free homesteads offered in Canada.

For the move, they packed everything they owned into a rail car, including cattle, chickens, a team of horses and, yes, a root of rhubarb, which provided many memorable desserts over the years.
This recipe for rhubarb pudding, originally written in Norwegian, was found among the keepsakes of Hans and Kristian that were passed down the generations. It’s a delicious way to welcome the first “fruits” of spring.

Rhubarb Pudding
1 cup flour
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup butter
4 cups thinly sliced rhubarb
1 cup white sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Mix flour and brown sugar. Rub in butter until blended. Put rhubarb in a buttered baking dish. Mix white sugar with cinnamon and sprinkle over rhubarb. Press flour mixture over top and bake at 325F for 45 minutes. Serve warm or cold.

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Ancient legacy of the lentil - Lentil Cookies

There’s an old adage in Greece about not adding “myrrh to the lentil soup” because myrrh is too fancy for a humble bowl of lentils. A culinary overkill.

Ancient Greeks preferred more simple flavourings such as vinegar and sumac (which grew wild) or olive oil and salt.

They boiled the lentils until they were soft and thick for a soup called phakes (or fakes), a dish the Romans called puls, from which we get the botanical word pulse to describe legumes such as lentils, chickpeas and peas.

The Romans believed lentils were restorative and good for your health. Their famous physician, Hippocrates, prescribed a lentil diet as a tonic for liver fatigue and, amazingly, modern science has backed this up.

The oldest archaeological evidence of lentils for dinner was found on the coast of Greece at a place known as the Franchthi Cave, circa 13,000 years ago.

These were wild lentils. The cave was home to a group of hunter-gatherers but over time they moved out of the cave into a small village by the Mediterranean Sea and took up farming.

By 6500 BC they were growing wheat, barley and lentils – the same domesticated grains that have been farmed in the Middle East for 10,000 years.

Eventually, due to global warming, the sea level rose until it covered their village and fields, which were discovered by archaeologists exploring the cave in the 1960s.

It is interesting to note that with the spread of farming westward from the Middle East, those three grains – wheat, barley and lentils – spread together. Though lentils were late coming to Western Canada (more than a century after wheat and barley) it is barely a breath in terms of historic time.

What was once the breadbasket of the world is now the lentil basket of the world. No nation produces more lentils, of more varieties, than Canada.

However, as Canadian lentil production was rising, Greek farmers were growing fewer lentils, preferring instead to plant crops that qualify for agricultural subsidies from the European Union (which, apparently, lentils do not).

According to an online source, farmers in Greece grew 12,700 tonnes of lentils in 1961 and just 2,000 tonnes in 2011. Now they buy lentils from us.

For all I know, I was eating Canadian lentils just the other day when I ordered a bowl of lentil soup in a restaurant in Athens. It was rich and fragrant, seasoned with tomato, carrots and parsley. Simple and delicious, the perfect restorative after a long day of travel and airport food. As much a part of Greek history as the Acropolis.

Despite its ancient pedigree, new varieties of lentils are still being developed. The small black lentil is a Canadian invention, according to Bert Vandenberg, a plant scientist at the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan. He says it was bred at the research farm at Indian Head, Sask.

Some enterprising chefs noted that it resembled the black caviar of the Beluga sturgeon and, voila, black Beluga lentils began appearing on trendy menus.

While I’m a big fan of old-fashioned lentil soup, I also like a new food trend. This cookie recipe fits that bill – a delicious new way to enjoy the ancient legacy of the lentil.

Chocolate Lentil Cookies
Small black or brown lentils look deceptively like chocolate chips in these delicious cookies.

1/2 cup soft butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup cooked small black or brown lentils
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp milk
1 cup flour
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup quick oats

Cream the butter, sugar and lentils. Some of the lentils will puree and some will remain whole. Mix in the egg, vanilla and milk. Sift the flour, cocoa powder and baking soda, adding to the batter with the oats until well blended. Drop by the spoonful onto cookie sheets. Bake at 350F for about 15 min. Allow cookies to cool slightly then remove to a cooling rack. Makes about 30 cookies.
(This article first appeared in Grainews.)

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Emmer, Einkorn, Farro, Spelt - Wheat Salad

I've started a new food column in Grainews, a newspaper for prairie farmers. So naturally I thought "wheat" was a good place to start. Like many of us, it has an interesting family history. You can read it at Grainews or below:

You could say wheat is the reason I’m writing this today. Because of wheat, my ancestors came to farm in Western Canada, as did most of the settlers on the great plains.

By 1906, one year after it became a province, Saskatchewan was calling itself the Breadbasket of the World. In 1928, Canada produced more than 40 per cent of the world’s wheat supply.

Before packing up and moving to Canada, my forefathers were wheat farmers in Russia, near the Black Sea in what is now Ukraine. Wheat was grown in Ukraine at least 2,500 years ago when it was a breadbasket of ancient Greece. The north shore of the Black Sea is dotted with the ruins of Greek colonies established for the procurement and shipping of wheat.

Like my ancestors, I grew up surrounded by wheat fields, albeit on a new continent, yet I knew nothing of the ancestry of this illustrious grain. So, here’s a quick genealogy of wheat: wild wheat called einkorn crossed with goatgrass to create a hybrid wheat called emmer. This happened in the fertile valleys of Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq and Syria.

Over time, as farmers grew emmer century after century, new varieties evolved such as durum, Polish and Khorasan (also known today as kamut). They are descendants on one side of the wheat family tree. At some point, emmer crossed with another goatgrass to create the other side of the family tree — bread wheat.

The origin of spelt is a bit foggy; some think it’s a hybrid of emmer and goatgrass (a precursor to bread wheat) and some think it’s a descendant of emmer and bread wheat. Either way, spelt and bread wheat are close cousins.

While exact dates are sketchy, it is generally accepted that farmers began cultivating einkorn and emmer in the Middle East about 10,000 years ago. By the time the Greeks settled on the Black Sea, bread wheat was the famous member of the family. It helped fund the monuments of the pharaohs and fed the powerhouse of ancient Rome.

And, almost 2,000 years later, it was the wheat that settled the plains of Western Canada. Today, bread wheat accounts for 90 per cent of the world’s wheat crop, while durum is about five per cent. Einkorn and emmer (also known in Italian as farro) are still grown in small quantities around the world.

I often see spelt, farro and kamut referred to as “ancient grains” as if they are special cases, but no matter how ancient, they are all wheat.

As you might guess, I am fascinated by the story of wheat, so much so that next month I’m heading to Greece, Turkey and Ukraine to dig into the cultural, political and edible history of wheat. Someday, I hope to write a book on the matter. It seems like a natural follow to my first two books: Prairie Feast, a culinary journey into the agricultural heartland of Canada, and Out of Old Saskatchewan Kitchens, a look at Saskatchewan’s early history through the lens of food and the recipes that fuelled the pioneer dream.

When Grainews editor Leeann Minogue asked me to write a regular food column for this paper, I jumped at the opportunity. Who better to appreciate the fruits of this land than the farmers who put their hearts and souls into the venture?

So, let’s start with a recipe for wheat. Whether you use spelt, farro, kamut or wheat from your own granary, it’s a healthy tribute to this ancient grain.

Wheat Salad
1 cup wheat seeds (also called wheat berries)
1/3 cup dried Prairie cherries OR cranberries
3 tbsp. vegetable OR olive oil
2 cups kale, chopped
1/2 cup pecans, chopped
1 apple, diced
3 spring onions, finely chopped
2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
Salt to taste

Spread wheat on baking sheet and toast in 375 F oven for 10 minutes, until brown and fragrant. Tip wheat into pot, cover with plenty of water, add a dash of salt and boil until soft, about 1 hour. Near the end of cooking, add dried cherries or cranberries and cook a few minutes to plump them. Drain wheat and, while still warm, stir in vegetable or olive oil. Cool. Before serving, add kale and mix vigorously until the kale is tender. Stir in the remaining ingredients.
(This article first appeared in Grainews.)             

Friday, March 20, 2015

Variations on a Greek salad

What makes an authentic Greek salad? Tomato, cucumber, sweet pepper, onion, olives and slabs of feta cheese sprinkled with dried oregano, bathed in olive oil and... When in Greece, do as the Greeks do:

This Greek salad has sliced red peppers and a bed of slivered lettuce. Eaten at Melina's Café in Athens. The café is named for Melina Mercouri, a Greek actress, activist and politician, so beloved that museums are free on March 6, the day of her death in 1994.

Greek salad in a bun -- capers instead of olives. This was lunch in Elefsina (near Athens) after visiting the ruins of the temple of Demeter/Ceres, Greek goddess of agriculture and everlasting life.

This one has an unusual variation - finely chopped nuts. Next to a plate of grilled fish at a blue-checkered-tablecloth (seafood) restaurant in Tirnavos, a farming town north of Athens.

OK, this is not a traditional Greek salad - it's the winter wheat salad at the Acropolis Museum restaurant. It was delicious with slice of cheese pie. I asked for the recipe but they wouldn't share. :(