Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Orange You Hungry? Carnitas!

I remember the first time I picked an orange. Not from the produce section. Not from a fruit bowl. Not from the recesses of my Christmas stocking. Picked an orange from a real orange tree.

I remembered it today because I just picked an orange and the smell took me back to the first time I plucked an orange from a tree and held it to my nose. It tingled. No orange from the grocery store smells like that.

Growing up, I ate plenty of oranges. My mom put them in my lunchbox, sliced into skinny wedges so I could eat the good part without fussing with the peels. I didn't much like peeling oranges, except those Christmas mandarins. Truth be told, I liked apples better. And bananas, strawberries, raspberries, grapes and pears. I preferred most fruits to an orange, except at Christmas time.

Until that orange right off the tree. It smelled so wonderful I peeled and ate it then and there with the juice running down my arm and the flavour tingling on my tongue. It was December and I was seven years old. My parents had piled us children (four of us, me the eldest) into the station wagon and drove to California to visit Uncle Guy and Aunt Daisy. They lived in Orange County, Los Angeles. Their street was lined with palm trees and there was an orange tree in their front yard.

As a northern prairie girl, I could think of nothing more marvellous than living in a place with orange trees instead of crab apples and warm winter breezes instead of snow. But I also had the inkling of a deeper insight, one I already knew at heart. The best food is fresh food eaten the day – even the moment – it is picked.

Sure, month-old oranges are good, but minute-old oranges are marvellous. Just as carrots from the garden are sweeter and juicier than store-bought carrots and strawberries picked and eaten are a whole other wonderful than strawberries from who-knows-where and who-knows-when. So I shouldn't have been surprised that summer in Senegal at the amazingly deliciousness of mangoes fresh from the tree. Yet, I was amazed. The difference was so striking, as if the mangoes I bought at home in Canada were made of wax and the mangoes of Senegal were the real deal.

So here I am, vacationing in Mesa, Arizona, where orange trees grow everywhere including the boulevards. It's enough to make my winter heart melt with each warm and juicy bite. The moral of this story, as I see it, is to enjoy my fruits and vegetables where ever I can get them, but to spend an extra moment savouring the absolute pleasure of eating those I pick myself.

Since oranges and limes are abundant here and now, I've been making this Mexican pork dish called carnitas and wrapping it up in flour tortillas with tomatoes, avocados and cilantro. There are two serving options, which are explained below, so take your pick.


Carnitas
3 lb pork roast
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
3 cloves garlic
1-2 chipotle chilies in adobo sauce
Juice of 1 big orange
Juice of 1 lime

Trim the pork of obvious fat. Mix cumin, salt and pepper, rub onto the meat and place in the slow cooker. Slice garlic and chilies, adding them to the pot. Pour orange and lime juice over all. Cook on low for 8 hours or more, until pork is tender. Remove the meat from the slow cooker. Strain and reserve the juice.

Finishing option a) Shred the pork with two forks and toss with 1/2 cup of juice, adding more juice as desired for taste and texture. Finishing option b) Pour the juice into a skillet and heat to medium high. Place meat in juice, cooking until the liquid is evaporated and the meat is browned on all sides. Serve in thin slices.

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

A culinary lesson from Hannibal Lecter

One crisp winter day I set out to pick juniper berries at a local park. I planned to make bigos, an old Polish stew, for a dinner party that week, for which juniper berries are a traditional ingredient.

Being both frugal and old-fashioned, I decided to forage the junipers in the wild, or at least the wilds of Kinsmen Park, Saskatoon. After all, why pay for something that Mother Nature (via the parks department) provides for free? Isn't foraging a form of outdoor recreation? If I didn’t pick them, would they not fall prey to a party of jays or a murder of crows?

On a previous reconnaissance through the park, I had noted a sprawling juniper bush in one little-used corner above a busy road. It was summertime and the berries were soft and green and overbearingly resinous. By mid-winter, they resembled peppercorns, hard and blue and pine-y. Used with a heavy hand, they could quickly overpower more gentle flavours, but applied sparingly, they add a mysterious hint of the woods to dark old-world stews.

So, with bigos on my mind, and a toque on my head, I made my way to the sprawling juniper at the edge of the park. I made a quick reconnaissance. The berries were plentiful, but seemed plumper and possibly cleaner away from the traffic and closer to the pine trees. On the backside of the juniper bush, I squatted into the foliage and began to pick.

Suddenly I was startled by a voice close behind me. "Did you lose something?"

I stood quickly and turned around to see a man, also dressed for winter, with a tripod in one hand and a fancy camera around his neck.

"Oh," I said, "I'm picking juniper berries." I showed him the contents in the palm of my hand.

He looked amused. "Are you having friends for dinner?"

"Well, yes," I said.

"And will you eat crow?" He smiled. Quite possibly he was unsavoury. Perhaps I should walk away. "Hannibal Lecter," he said.

(Of course, I knew the name of the maniacal cannibal in the movie Silence of the Lambs.)

"Did you read Hannibal? He liked to throw in a few juniper berries. Improved the taste."

"And the crow?" I asked.

"Stew. Flavoured with a crow fattened on juniper berries."

We walked together out of the park, discussing a novel I had previously not considered in the "food" genre. I had a new book on my reading list and a story to tell my friends, who I was not having for dinner.

I add juniper berries to any stew made with wild ingredients, such as venison, but it’s also good with beef. If you'd like to make bigos, you'll find the recipe here.


Venison Stew
2 pounds venison or beef
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp vegetable oil
8 potatoes, peeled
2 carrots, peeled
1 big onion
2 garlic cloves
Handful of mushrooms, fresh or rehydrated in water
2-3 crushed juniper berries
1 tsp crushed dried thyme
2 bay leaves
2 tsp salt and some freshly ground pepper
2 cups water or beef stock
1/2 cup frozen peas, optional

Cut the meat into one-inch cubes. In a large pot or Dutch oven, brown the meat in hot butter and vegetable oil. Remove the meat from the pot.

Meanwhile, chop the potatoes, carrots, onion, garlic and mushrooms. Place these vegetables in the pot and cook until the onion is soft.

Return the meat to the pot. Add the juniper berries, thyme, whole bay leaves, salt and pepper. Pour in the water or beef stock.

Cover. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the meat is melt-in-your-mouth tender, two or three hours. Add the peas (if using) about half way through.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Old Timey Gingersnaps


Today I'm dipping into my Saskatchewan heritage cookbook for this cookie gem. I found it in the Maidstone community cookbook Preserving Our Past for the Future. It's old-time yummm!

3/4 cup soft butter or lard
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup molasses
2 cups flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
Pinch salt
Extra sugar for rolling

Cream butter or lard with sugar until fluffy. Beat in egg and then molasses. Sift and stir in dry ingredients. Form into little balls. Roll in sugar. Placed well apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. They will spread in the oven. Bake at 350F for 12-15 minutes.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Sorta Raw, Sorta Not, All Good

My friend Joanne said she would not eat raw lamb, and that was fine with me. So while everyone else at the table made adventurous forays to try the lamb, she watched bemused. When they liked it, she looked puzzled. And when the bowl was almost empty, she finally picked up a piece of pita bread, spread it with lamb, topped it with mint and ate it. And liked it, too. Knock that off her *not* bucket list.

Eating raw meat is not as strange as it sounds in our roasted, stewed, grilled and skewered cooking culture. In our culinary heritage, it's way older than the BBQ. Of course, cooking is a great idea when the age and source of the meat is unknown, as in the reduced bin of the supermarket. Cook it well.

But this case was different: the lamb was raised locally on an organic farm, butchered in a small inspected facility, quickly frozen and delivered to my home just a few days prior. I trusted it.

I was cooking dinner with my friend Paula, of Lebanese heritage, who says it's traditional to eat lamb this way on the day the animal is slaughtered. In other words, to eat the best first. The dish is called kibbe nayya. To make it, minced lamb is mixed with cooked burghul (aka cracked wheat), lightly spiced with cinnamon and cumin, garnished with green onions and mint, drizzled with olive oil and scooped into pita bread. A cooked version is made by spreading the mixture into a dish and baking it. That's good, too.

Many cultures have a special dish made with raw meat of the best quality. The French have steak tartare (ground beef). Scandinavians make gravlax (salmon). South Americans have ceviche (fish and seafood). In Asia there are many raw meat recipes including koi soi in Thailand, a ground beef salad. I have not tried it, but I would.

There was a time when I was strictly a cooked meat eater. My steaks were well-done. That's how we did it growing up on the farm in rural Saskatchewan and the only way I knew. I have fond memories of grandma's roast beef cooked to dry and chew-worthy proportions, but I also recall that I loved the juicy fatty bits she left behind in the pan.

Somewhere in early adulthood I tried a medium-done steak and I liked it. I graduated to medium rare. Next thing I knew, I was ordering straight up rare to raw. I remember the moment of revelation: it was a steakhouse in Maple Creek, Sask., full of cowboys and their families, serving Alberta Angus beef. It was the most deliciously rare steak I had ever eaten. Seasoned only with salt and pepper, it was so much more flavourful and melt-in-your-mouth than the steaks of my childhood. With meat that good, it seemed a shame to cook it through.

I don't serve raw meat to my guests very often, and I would never push it on the squeamish. I find a happy medium in this version of Italian carpaccio, pronounced car-patch-o. It's seared on the outside, pink on the inside, thinly sliced and served cold.


Seared Steak Carpaccio
Choose a good cut of beef such as tenderloin or flat iron steak.

1 clove garlic
1/2 tsp kosher salt
8 peppercorns
1 handful of mixed fresh herbs such as oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary and parsley
1-2 tbsp olive oil
2 beef steaks, no bone
Torn arugula leaves
Shaved parmesan cheese
Sliced bread such as baguette


Smash together the garlic, salt and peppercorns. Chop the herbs very finely. Taste and add more herbs as needed for a nice balance of flavours. Add to the garlic mixture. Drizzle in just enough olive oil to make a paste. Rub herb mixture onto both sides of the steak. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for a few hours to marinate.

Coat a cast iron pan thinly with oil. Heat on high. Add the meat and sear both sides, about 5-7 minutes per side. The meat will feel quite springy when pressed with a finger.

Cool, wrap and refrigerate until serving time. With a sharp knife, shave the beef across the grain in very thin slices. Arrange on a plate. Drizzle with olive oil. Scatter with arugula and shaved parmesan cheese. Serve with sliced baguette.

(This article first appeared in Grainews)

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Kibbe Nayya

My girlfriend Paula is a fabulous cook. Let her loose in the kitchen with a lemon and a sprig of mint and she can make a Lebanese feast. In her family, Kibbe Nayya is made the same day the lamb is slaughtered. There's no cooking in this recipe. "Nayya" means raw. Eat at your own risk!

1 shoulder of lamb (about 1 kg/2 lb of meat)
4 green onions
Handful each fresh mint and basil
2 tsp each salt and pepper
1 tsp cayenne
1/2 tsp each mace, cinnamon, and cumin
1 cup cracked wheat (called ‘burghul’ in Lebanon)
Olive oil for drizzling
Lots of thin green onions and extra mint leaves
Pita bread

Put the lamb (minus the bone), onions, mint, and basil through a meat grinder. Mix in the spices. Cover the cracked wheat with hot water and let stand ten minutes, until softened (or follow package instructions). Drain well. Mix the cracked wheat into the meat mixture and knead as you would bread dough, adding a drop of water from time to time, until the mixture is silky smooth.

Taste and add more spices to suite your palate. Paula says salt and pepper are the most important spices; the others should be evident but subdued.

Spread the lamb mixture into a flat serving bowl. Using a finger, run three furrows the length of the lamb. Drizzle a generous amount of olive oil into the furrows. Garnish the edges of the bowl with thin green onions and fresh mint leaves. To eat, scoop the Kibbe Nayya with a chunk of pita bread, top it with a green onion and a mint leaf, and pop it into your mouth.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Apples ♥ Cake

Apple pie is my favrouite, but I also love apple cake. This one reminds me of my Grandma Ehman, who made amazing desserts with the apples on our farm. I can't use those apples without thinking of her. So when my brother gave me a bag of farm apples, I made an old-fashioned apfel kuchen.

Apfel 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. Spread remaining batter into a greased 9 x 12 inch pan. Cover with sliced apples.

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

Sprinkle apples evenly with the cinnamon and sugar. Mix reserved cake batter 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.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Got berries? Make clafoutis!

It's a French brunch-y thing conveniently suited to the berries of a prairie summer. It's tradition in France to leave the pits in the cherries, so you decide...

2 tbsp butter
3 eggs
3 tbsp sugar
1 cup milk
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup flour
1 tbsp flour
2 cup mixed berries such as cherries, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, low bush cranberries, saskatoons. You can also add some thinly sliced rhubarb.

Heat the oven to 350F. Put butter in a 10-inch cast iron skillet or a pie plate. Place in oven until butter is melted but not brown.

Meanwhile, in a blender mix eggs, sugar, milk, vanilla and salt. With the blades running, add 1 cup flour and blend well.

Toss fruit with remaining 1 tbsp flour.

Remove the skillet or pie plate from the oven. Pour in the batter and scatter the fruit on top. Return to the oven. Bake about 20-25 minutes, until the centre of the custard is set.

Serve warm with a dusting of icing sugar or cool with a drizzle of syrup.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Fruit Kebabs - Sweet Grillin'

My dad celebrated a significant birthday recently so of course we had a wiener roast. It's my dad's favourite meal.

Few things are more "summer" than an open fire and food cooked on a stick. When we were little (my siblings and me) we followed dad into the "woods" around the dugout to hunt for wiener sticks. We'd each choose a straight young sapling, which he would cut with his jackknife and whittle to a sharp point. Yes, we learned early in life not to poke an eye out.

While in the "woods" we'd gather up deadfall and dry twigs for the fire pit in the back yard. Mom set out a bowl of potato salad, a bag of buns and a passel of wieners, along with the three essential summer condiments: mustard, ketchup and her homemade relish. (Personally, if you ask me, the only essential condiment is mustard, but that's another story…)

Long before I was allowed to grill a grilled cheese or boil and egg, I was an old pro at roasting a wiener over an open fire, turning the stick just so, keeping an optimum distance from the lick of the flames, ever careful not to drop my dinner into the hot coals. My preference was dark and bubbling but not yet charred. It still is.

While wieners are a relatively new invention, cooking with a stick is as old as the hills. Long before there were cast iron pots and rotisserie gas barbeques, there was the simple combination of a fire and a stick. This is true all over the world, whether the skewer is made of bamboo, metal or a poplar sapling. Kabobs, yakitori, satay, souvlaki, brochettes and shashlik (which literally means skewered meat).  

The first inhabitants of the great plains cooked bison meat by cutting it into thin strips and hanging it on a rack made of green saplings set over a smoky fire. Once the meat was dry, it was pounded to a pulp and mixed with suet and berries to make pemmican. When bannock became a staple of their diet, it was often baked in a frying pan by the fire or simply curled around a stick held over the heat of the flames.

I believe that somewhere deep in our genetic memory we are nostalgic for the smell of wood smoke, the aroma of seared food, the warmth of the communal fire and the self-sufficient satisfaction of cooking for ourselves in the great outdoors. And the cleanup is easy peasy. Just toss that cooking stick into the fire or "burn" it clean.

Years after our sapling adventures, my dad began making wiener sticks that served the role on a more permanent basis. These were made with doweling set with a two-pronged metal fork. He sold those wiener sticks at the regional park and other locations where campers congregate. We dubbed them the Ehman Weeny Wonder Wands. They were awesome. I often gave them as gifts.

Dad's not making the EWWW anymore but we still use them at every occasion that draws us together around the outdoor family hearth, er, fire pit.

Here's an easy recipe for cooking fruit on a stick, perhaps best done on the BBQ rather than an open fire. Plan to have two skewers of fruit and one skewer of cake per person. I've listed the fruit I like to use, but feel free to create your own combinations.
BBQ Fruit Kebabs
Bananas
Strawberries
Watermelon
Plums
1-2 prepared pound cakes
1/2 cup liquid honey
juice of 1 1/2 limes
2 tbsp finely chopped mint

Cut fruit and cake into one-inch chunks. If strawberries are large, cut in two. Place 8 pieces of mixed fruit on each skewer. Place 8 cubes of cake on separate skewers. Blend together the honey, lime juice and mint. Brush onto kebabs before and during cooking. Cook until the fruit is soft and juicy and the cake is golden. 

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Don't cha wanna Eggplant Parmigiana?

My little pot of basil rendered service to dinner tonight. Well, it needed thinning, didn't it? The eggplant and tomatoes were purchased at the Saskatoon Farmers' Market. And that lovely chunk of baguette is from the one-and-only Night Oven Bakery. This is a quick and easy version of an Italian classic.
Eggplant Parmigiana
1 big eggplant (or 2-3 little ones)
gobs of olive oil
7-8 Roma tomatoes
1 sprig fresh basil, chopped (or 4 baby springs)
1 cup mozzarella or other melt-y cheese, grated
1/4 cup parmesan cheese, grated

Slice eggplant about 1/4 inch thick. In a skillet, heat a generous dousing of olive oil on high but not smoking. Fry eggplant slices quickly, turning to lightly brown both sides. Remove to paper towel. Repeat, adding more oil, until all the eggplant is cooked. This can be done ahead of time.

Chop the tomatoes. Turn skillet heat to low, toss in tomatoes and cook until soft. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in half the basil. Cook until it's nice and sauce-y. This can be done ahead of time.

In a baking dish, spread half the tomato sauce. Layer half the eggplant. Sprinkle with half the mozzarella. Dot with basil. Add another layer of tomato sauce-eggplant-mozarella. Sprinkle the top with parmesan.

Bake at 375F for 30 minutes. Optional: Turn on broiler and lightly brown the top.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Memories of Mom - Cream Puffs

I lost my mom this spring. She had Alzheimer's Disease so, in a way, we had lost a great part of her already. It was incredibly sad.

I was assigned the task of writing her obituary for the local newspapers. As I scanned the fondest memories of my mom, it seemed so many of them involved food. Gardening in spring. Berry (and weed) picking in summertime. Shucking corn and shelling peas. Gathering eggs and plucking chickens. Special birthday cakes and shelves upon shelves of pickles and preserves. And picnics.

Like so many moms she could pull off bountiful family dinners with the precision of a drill sergeant. Yet when we sat down to eat her chair was always empty. We'd refuse to start without her, but as soon as grace was said she'd find her way back to the kitchen for a missing spoon or another basket of her famous buns.

My mom collected salt and pepper shakers. She had hundreds of them. So it was common, at special occasion dinners, to find a "theme" salt and pepper shaker at every place setting. There were gingerbread men (and women) for Christmas and baby chicks for Easter and prairie icons such as grain elevators for special dinners in between.

For birthdays, she would bake a cake of our choice. I always asked for chocolate angel food cake with toasted coconut frosting. She was a master at angel food cake. She always put coins in the cake, the largest denomination earmarked for the birthday girl or boy by a strategically placed toothpick.

One year (when I was too smart for my own good) I surreptitiously moved the toothpick. Mom got me back by ensuring I had the piece with the penny. Whoever got the penny had to do the dishes.

About ten years ago, I decided to learn to make mom's dill pickles. I'm not a big fan of dill pickles but my husband loves them. He claims my mom's dills are the best he's ever had. The funny thing is, she didn't eat pickles either! (Here's me and the pickles.)
Then came the time, as it does in farm families, when mom and dad moved to a house in town so my brother and his family could live on the farm. That meant cleaning out two large freezers in the basement. At the bottom of one freezer we discovered several milk cartons of saskatoon berries labelled 1998.

"Mom," I said, "these saskatoons are older than your grandchildren!"
She just laughed and shrugged. No matter how many saskatoon pies she made (and she made many) there were always more berries in waiting, like pennies in a bank.

For a special treat mom made cream puffs. They were large like tennis balls and filled with whipped cream. Biting into one side sent the whipped cream squooshing out the other. To a kid, this was food heaven. I thought my mom was magic.

Then I grew up and discovered that cream puffs aren't magic at all. They're really quite easy to make, given a little patience and practice. This recipe comes from her copy of Cooking the Co-op Way. Instead of a dessert, I turn them into a savoury appetizer by making mini puffs and filling them with chicken or salmon salad. In France these savoury puffs are called gougère.

But every now and then, to feed my nostalgia, I will fill them with whipped cream and think of mom in heaven.
Cream Puffs
1 cup water
1/2 cup butter
1 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3 eggs

In a saucepan, heat the water and butter to a light boil.

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. When the butter is melted, add the flour mixture all at once. Stir vigorously and continuously until it forms a ball of dough that leaves the sides of the saucepan clean. Remove from heat and cool five minutes.

Add one egg and beat well, until fully incorporated. Repeat with the other two eggs.

Drop mounds of batter onto a greased cookie sheet. The size may vary from that of a walnut for appetizer puffs to an egg for larger cream puffs. Space them well apart as the puffs will double in size.

Bake at 425F for 15 minutes, then lower the oven heat to 375F and continue baking until the puffs are lightly browned, 20-25 minutes for large puffs and 10-15 minutes for small puffs. Turn off the oven, open the door and allow the puffs to cool for a few minutes. To serve, cut a slit in the side of each puff and spoon in the filling of your choice.

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)