Monday, March 14, 2016

Give a dog a bone NOT before soup

Sometimes I eat out of the garbage. Case in point: One year as we cleaned up Easter dinner, I asked my sister-in-law what she did with the ham bone. 

It was a good ham, we enjoyed it immensely. As I was eating it, I thought of the (even more) delicious soup I could make with the bone.
She pointed to the garbage bin. Sure enough, there was the ham bone beneath a pile of paper napkins and soggy coffee grounds. I picked it out, washed it up and the rest was history. . . or lunch.

Somewhere in my formative cooking years, I heard this wise piece of advice from a chef of Italian heritage: "Don't waste good flavour." By this she meant, don't discard anything in the process of cooking one thing that might flavour something else. It's an adage of cucina povera, the frugal wholesome cooking of the poor.

That ham bone? It's the flavour in a lentil soup. Bacon drippings? Fry up some onions for chili. The rind of parmesan cheese? Toss it into a soup pot or simmering rice. Or do like Italian mothers and give it to a teething baby.

I keep a zipper bag in the freezer for carrot peels, onion skins, tomato ends, parsley stems, broccoli stalks, etc. When it's full I boil up a tasty vegetable stock. The soggy vegetable bits go into the compost, which becomes food for my garden.

Of course, the pioneers and Depression-era cooks were masters at reusing every bit of good flavour, as this example illustrates: leftover pickle juice was used to make more pickles, including watermelon pickles, which gave new life to the rinds.

It's estimated by the FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) that one-third of our worldwide food supply is wasted. For instance, 30 percent of cereal crops are lost. More than 40 percent of fruits and vegetables are discarded. Twenty percent of meat raised for human consumption never reaches the dinner plate.

These losses take place at five points in the food chain: farming, post-harvest storage, processing, distribution and consumption. In wealthy countries such as Canada, more than 40 percent of the loss occurs in the final stages – in retail stores and consumers' kitchens. In stores, the waste is often based on appearance. In the home, it's often due to spoilage and simply throwing it away.

I'm trying to change that, one bone at a time. Nowadays, my sister-in-law sets the ham bone aside for me, so forays into the garbage bin are well and gone. However, I am now facing competition from a new family member – a German Shepherd. While I would never take food from a baby, I have no problem taking it from a dog. After I've made my pot of soup, she can have it back. That's three meals from one bone.

A few weeks back, this column featured a recipe for a Greek appetizer called fava made with yellow split peas. Here's another use for those split peas. It's simple, delicious and the best of cucina povera and "don't waste good flavour" in a bowl.

Ham Bone Split Pea Soup
The bone often has enough meat on it for soup, but if not, add a handful of leftover ham. Since cured ham has been salted, additional salt is added at the end of cooking.
1 meaty ham bone
8 cups water
1 1/2 cups yellow split peas
1 medium onion, chopped
2 big carrots, peeled and broken in three
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper

Put everything except the salt and pepper into a stock pot. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover the pot and simmer 2-3 hours, until the split peas are completely broken down and the onions have disintegrated into the broth. Cool.

Remove the bone, bay leaf and chunks of carrot. Dice the carrot and toss it back into the pot. Pick the meat from the bone and add to the pot, or add some leftover ham, shredded or chopped.

Discard the bay leaf. Which is to say, toss it into the vegetable stock zipper bag in the freezer or into the compost. As for the bone, you can now give it to Spot, who will hardly notice the difference.

Reheat the soup. If it has thickened, add water until you have a pleasing soup consistency. Season with salt and pepper as needed to your taste.

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)

Monday, March 07, 2016

And the winner is... Baked Beans

It seems every old cowboy movie had a camp cook serving up a mess of baked beans. I can see John Wayne eating them now. . . from a tin plate with an old battered spoon and a chunk of sourdough bread. So, it's fitting that when I asked rancher Art Unsworth for a recipe from the annual Murraydale Stampede and Picnic, he sent a recipe for baked beans.

The Murraydale Stampede and Picnic has been held every summer since 1909 in ranch country south of Maple Creek. On the second Sunday in July, local families gather in a natural amphitheatre on the edge of the Nekaneet First Nation for an afternoon of socializing, rodeo and food. Four generations of the Unsworth family have been in attendance.

Their story is not uncommon for prairie pioneers. Sam and Lillian Unsworth and four children left England in 1895, settling in Ontario for a couple of years before relocating by covered wagon to Oregon. Sam took up sheep farming. However, their daughter died tragically on the farm and they could no longer bear to live there.

In 1907, they packed up the wagon and moved again, back to Canada, establishing a ranch near the Cypress Hills. They raised sheep, cattle, Clydesdale horses and fifteen children. Art is the youngest of 43 grandchildren and the third generation on the ranch.

Among his oldest memories is attending the Murraydale Stampede and Picnic, when the ladies outdid each other with fried chicken, roast beef, potato salad, cold baked beans, homemade buns and rhubarb pie. The men made ice cream. For a young cowpoke "it was like dining in heaven," he says. “The ladies brought their specialties of the summer. It was sort of like Christmas time when the best pickles were brought out. We got them at Easter time, at Christmas time and at the Murraydale picnic.”

Back before refrigeration, preparations for the picnic began in early spring when the men cut blocks of ice from a frozen pond and kept them cool and covered until the picnic. The shaved ice was used to churn ice cream, a rare treat on a dusty prairie summer day.

An early history of the event was published in a local newspaper: "Mr. Boardman […] made ice cream with a hand turned freezer. Later he rigged a gas engine to do the job. The women set up long tables at which to eat, resembling a banquet or a pot luck establishment. As years went by the stampede and picnic grew."

Later, concession stands were set up to sell hamburgers, hotdogs and store-bought ice cream, but many families still pack a picnic hamper and stake their favourite spot from which to watch the rodeo and eat their evening meal.

"I’ve got a fond spot for the baked beans," says Art. "And fried chicken always tastes better outdoors."

This recipe for baked beans originally called for salt pork, which was a method of preserving pork in the old days. Nowadays, it's made with bacon. With the long oven time, I can imagine Mrs. Unsworth baking these beans in the cool of a summer's night and taking them cold to the picnic. But they're also a great way to warm up a cold winter's day and an old-fashioned hot supper.
Old Fashioned Baked Beans
1 lb (450 grams) white beans
1 cup brown sugar
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 tsp mustard powder
1/4 cup molasses
3 cups water
1/2 lb (225 grams) bacon, diced
2-3 onions, finely chopped

Soak beans overnight. Drain, wash and boil beans in water until soft and tender. Drain.

Mix brown sugar, salt, pepper, mustard powder, molasses and water. Pour over beans. Stir in bacon and onions. Cover and bake at 250F for 7–8 hours, checking now and then and adding more water if needed. Remove lid for the final two hours of baking.

Cook's note: I like to do the first step of cooking the beans in a small crockpot. I set the crockpot on low and leave it overnight.

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Swedish meatballs are right at home in Canada

On a recent trip to Sweden, of course I had to try meatballs. Here on the prairies, Swedish meatballs seem to represent the culinary tradition of an entire nation that sent so many sons and daughters to western Canada in pioneer times. And it's good to know that Swedish meatballs are still popular in their homeland.

At a restaurant in old Stockholm called Pelikan (est. 1733) the menu is unabashedly traditional. Along with pork knuckle, Baltic fish and mashed swedes, the menu offers the timeless Swedish meatball "as big as golf balls" served with cream gravy, lingonberries and a sliced pickle, a bowl of mashed potatoes on the side.

According to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, about 40,000 Swedish immigrants came to the prairies between 1893 and 1914, most of them settling first in the United States (primarily Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin and the Dakotas) before moving north to homestead in Canada.

Among them were Anna and Olaf Nilson who came from Sweden in 1905. After landing at the port of Montreal, they took the train to Melfort, Sask., crossing the country with their two daughters in a cattle car. Their first home had been abandoned by its previous owner. The roof leaked. The floor was earthen. Their first cow died in calving.

The nearest store was more than eight kilometres' walk, where they could exchange extra butter and eggs for a few staples such as flour and baking soda. Most of their food they grew, gathered and raised themselves. The Nilson (later changed to Nelson) family history notes, "Mother stated many times that, if money had been available, they would have returned to Sweden."

Well, it wasn't and they didn't. Despite the hardships – and obvious lack of Baltic fish – they did their best to make the traditional dishes that reminded them of home.

Recipes such thin crisp bread, St. Lucia buns (served at the festival of St. Lucia on December 13), pepparkakar (ginger cookies) and meatballs with cream gravy or lingonberry sauce. This recipe for Swedish meatballs was given to me by Joan Thompson (née Nelson) of Saskatoon, granddaughter of Anna and Olaf.

She got the recipe from her mother Myrtle (née Standberg) whose Swedish ancestors followed a different route to Canada. They first settled in Minnesota and, in 1903, their son Axel moved north to homestead in Canada, where he married his Swedish sweetheart Jenny. Life was hard for them, too. Myrtle, one of 10 children, got her first job at 14 cooking and cleaning for a couple of bachelor farmers. But they prospered.

By 2011, more than 152,000 people living in the prairie provinces claimed Swedish heritage, and no doubt, many of them are still fond of Swedish meatballs.
A word about lingonberry sauce: lingonberry is the Swedish word for low-bush cranberry, which grows abundantly in our parklands and Boreal forest. You can substitute currant jelly.

Swedish Meatballs
1 1/2 lbs ground beef
1 small potato, peeled and grated
1 small onion, grated
1/2 tst salt
1/4 tsp pepper
2 tbsp cream
1 egg
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/2 cup dry bread crumbs
2 tbsp butter or oil

Mix everything but the final ingredient. Work the mixture with your hands or an electric mixer until the meat is smooth and fluffy.

With damp hands, form into balls. Heat butter or oil in a skillet. Fry the meatballs, turning to brown all sides. Open one meatballs to ensure they are cooked through to the centre. Tip: Shaking the skillet as the meatballs cook helps to keep them round.

If you need to cook the meatballs in two batches, add additional butter/oil if needed. Serve warm tossed with cream gravy or lingonberry sauce or both!

Cream Gravy
2 tbsp drippings from meatballs or butter
2 tbsp flour
2 cups warm chicken or beef stock
2 tbsp sour cream

Heat drippings or butter in a saucepan. Whisk in flour to a smooth paste. Add warm stock, whisking thoroughly to prevent lumps. Simmer and thicken. Remove from heat. Whisk in sour cream.

Lingonberry Sauce
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 cup frozen low-bush cranberries
1 tbsp fresh-squeezed orange juice

Heat sugar and water in a saucepan to a bubbling simmer, stirring occasionally. When the sugar is dissolved, add the berries and orange juice. Simmer.

As the berries heat, they will pop and release their juices. You can help by pressing them with a fork. Boil lightly until it is jammy, but not too jammy, as it will thicken further as it cools.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A Berry Healthy Winter's Day

Long before there were Florida oranges and an apple-a-day, berries were keeping us happy and healthy through the long winter months. Fact is, berries are better for you than just about any other fruit.

Berries were vital to the well-being of the indigenous population, who made a kind of fruit leather by pounding berries and drying them in the sun. This was eaten raw or reconstituted in hot water or soup. They made pemmican by mixing berries with bison meat and suet, a power food that kept for months without refrigeration. They sold it by the sack-full to European explorers and fur traders, making it the first processed food industry on the Canadian plains.

The early settlers were wild for berries at a time when any other fresh fruit was hard to find. Back then, wild berries grew much more abundantly than they do today. Early memoirs relate tales of picking parties heading out for wild strawberries, raspberries, chokecherries, gooseberries, saskatoons and blueberries by the bucketful.

John Diefenbaker, Canada's thirteenth Prime Minister, remembers his parents picking like crazy in berry season, listing a typical haul at 30 quarts of strawberries, 50 quarts of saskatoons and 100 quarts of raspberries. A quart is the size of a large pickle jar.

By the time I came along, it was hard to find a wild raspberry or strawberry but, fortunately, domesticated varieties had been planted on the farm. We had a large berry patch and, from an early age, I loved to pick. I loved being outside on a hot summer day with the buzz of insects and the scent of dry grass. I loved the rhythm of picking, like a meditative exercise that occupies the body but frees the mind.

Best of all, I love eating those berries in the depths of winter. Toast with raspberry jelly. Cranberry scones with strawberry preserve. Blueberry smoothies. Chokecherry syrup on pancakes. And, of course, saskatoon berry pie.

Now there's a new berry on my pick list: the tart prairie cherry developed by fruit breeders at the University of Saskatchewan. It's perfect for cherry pie or a fruit compote on roast pork.

One year, my husband and I did an experiment in local eating, choosing not to buy imported fruit from the grocery store and relying on prairie fruit alone. We ate berries in one form or another almost every day. In the spring, he made a surprising observation: neither of us had suffered a cold all winter long. All things being equal, was our local berry diet responsible for our good health?

I like to think so. Berries are high in vitamin C, rich in antioxidants and full of flavonoids (the dark red, purple and blue colours) to boost the immune system and fight disease. Berries are as good as fruit gets.

This recipe is a great way to show them off. Clafoutis (cla-foo-tee) is a French dessert traditionally made with cherries (often unpitted, as the pits are said to add extra flavour) but I like to make a prairie version with a mix of berries I picked myself. It's perfect for brunch any time of year.
Prairie Berry Clafoutis
Use fresh or frozen berries (or a mix of both). In season, you can also add some sliced young rhubarb to the berry blend.

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

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.

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)

Monday, February 01, 2016

As Canadian as Oats for Breakfast

I started my day with a bowl of oatmeal porridge. Nothing could be more Canadian.

We grow more oats in Canada than anywhere else but Russia. Canada is the second largest producer – and the largest exporter – of oats in the world.

Mountains of our oats are turned into brand name breakfast cereals, oatmeal cookies and granola bars, as well as many raw oat products from rolled oats to steel-cut groats to instant porridge.

Saskatchewan grows about half the oats in Canada followed by Manitoba and Alberta at 18-20 percent each, with the remaining fraction grown by farmers in other provinces. The "oat belt" runs from the Red River Valley in southern Manitoba, up across Saskatchewan like a Miss Universe sash, and north to Alberta's Peace River Country.

According to historians, oats have been grown in Western Canada since the days of the fur trade; they were a major food group of European fur traders and their livestock. Oats were an important crop for the pioneers when, in the days before tractors, oats were the fuel for the horses and oxen who broke the land.

Many are the stories of struggling homesteaders reduced to eating porridge three times a day. Even the Scots could get sick of that!

Speaking of the Scots, oatmeal was the culinary touchstone of immigrants from Scotland, as we read in this except from They Cast a Long Shadow: The story of Moffat, Saskatchewan by Kay Parley:

"Oatmeal was the most popular food and there was porridge on every Scotch table for breakfast, always stirred, as it cooked, with a wooden spurtle. . . Oatmeal was used in scones, cookies, dumplings and puddings. It appeared in fish dishes and meat dishes. It was used to stuff the turkey. New potatoes were coated with it."

Leftover oatmeal was pressed into a wooden box and cooled, after which it could be sliced like bread. This would be fried up for supper or packed for a long journey by horse and buggy as a filling snack along the way, especially in wintertime.

Before we get cooking, here's a lesson in oat vocabulary:

* Oat groats or whole oats are the oat seed with the outer hull removed. They take the longest to cook and are often pre-soaked.
* Steel-cut oats (also called Irish oats or Scotch oats) are oat groats cut into smaller pieces by steel blades.
* Rolled or old-fashioned oats are whole groats flattened in a roller. They cook more quickly than groats.
* Quick oats are chopped groats flattened in a roller. Because they are small and flakey, they cook quite quickly.
* Instant oats are precooked so they can be prepared simply by adding hot water, and are often flavoured and sweetened.

Take note that oats have a high fat content and, once the hull has been removed, can go bad quite quickly. For this reason, most “raw” oat products are steamed and dried so they can be stored at room temperature. Some specialty mills sell un-steamed rolled oats, which have more flavour and nutrients, but should be stored in the freezer.

Here's a recipe for oatmeal made with groats. It's more time consuming than using rolled oats, but it's also more filling and flavourful. You might also like this recipe for chocolate oat clusters.
Apple Honey Oatmeal
1/2 cup steel-cut groats
2 cups water
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 cup dried apples, chopped
1 tbsp honey

The night before, mix steel-cut groats with water and bring to a boil. Simmer 5 min. Remove from heat, cover and leave overnight.

In the morning, add another 1/2 cup water and bring to a simmer. Add the salt, cinnamon and dried apple. Cook, stirring, until desired porridge consistency is achieved. Stir in the honey and eat!

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Take Your Pulse and Make Greek Fava


Take your pulse. Not that pulse. I'm talking lentils, chickpeas, beans, peas. The United Nations has declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses.

That's something we can celebrate here on the Canadian prairies, where we grow more pulses than most places on earth.

But we don't eat them, not nearly enough. Almost all our pulse crops are shipped to other countries where lentils, chickpeas and split peas are everyday fare. Tonight in India, families will sit down to a meal of masoor dal. In Spain, they’ll enjoy spicy lentejas con chorizo. And in Chile, they’ll fill up with a bowl of lentils de la Abuela, like grandma used to make. All with lentils from Canada.

Not only do we grow a lot of lentils (a record harvest of 2.2 million tonnes in 2015) we grow more varieties of lentils than anywhere else. In India, they prefer small red lentils. In Chile, it's large green lentils. And in Spain, it's pardina lentils also known as Spanish brown. We grow them all here, and more, such as little black beluga lentils, so named for their resemblance to the black caviar of the beluga sturgeon. Chefs love them.
The United Nations has proffered several reasons for declaring 2016 the International Year of Pulses. In developing countries, pulses account for 75 percent of the daily diet. Yet, worldwide, pulse consumption is declining. The UN would like to reverse this trend.

Pulses are a good source of protein yet less stressful on the environment than raising livestock. Pulses provide 20-25 percent protein by weight, double that of wheat at 10 percent and about half that of meat at 30-40 percent.

However, growing pulses uses much less water than raising livestock. According to the UN, a kilogram of lentils requires 50 litres of water while a kilogram of chicken takes more than 4,000 litres and a kilogram of beef consumes a whopping 13,000 liters of water.

Pulses help reduce food waste, which the UN estimates at one-third of all food produced worldwide. Since pulses are a simple food and stored dry, there is little lost in processing and much less spoilage compared to vegetables, fruits and meat.

The UN also notes that pulse crops replace nitrogen in the soil, reducing the use of petro-chemical fertilizers. This is a prime reason why pulse crops are so popular in Western Canada – they make economic and environmental sense when included in rotation with other crops such as wheat, flax and canola.

Pulses fit with another UN initiative: eliminating world hunger by 2030 while, at the same time, tackling climate change and improving sustainable farming. If we all start eating more pulses in 2016, that goal will be easier to reach.

Of course, I don't need to recommend more hummus and lentil soup. We've got that covered. But, I will propose this recipe for yellow pea fava, a Greek mezze (appetizer) made with yellow split peas. If you like hummus, you'll like this. 
Yellow Pea Fava
2 cups yellow split peas
2 cups finely chopped red onion
1 fat clove garlic, finely chopped
4+ cups water
1 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
3 tbsp lemon juice
1 cup olive oil
2 tbsp finely chopped parsley

Put split peas, 1 1/2 cups red onion, garlic and 4 cups of water into a medium pot. The water should cover the peas. Bring to a gentle boil. Skim the foam that rises to the surface.

Reduce heat, cover pot and gently simmer for 1.5-2 hours, until the split peas are completely broken down. Check periodically, adding more water if needed to just cover the peas.

Once the peas are fall-apart soft, cook uncovered until the liquid has evaporated and the peas are thick and bubbly. Stir frequently to prevent sticking to the pot.

Remove from heat. Add salt, pepper, lemon juice and 3/4 cup olive oil. Stir vigorously until well mixed. Cover pot with a tea towel and leave to cool.

To serve, scoop pea purée into a serving dish. Top with remaining 1/2 cup red onion. Sprinkle with parsley. Drizzle with remaining 1/4 cup olive oil. Serve with bread, pita or crackers.

The UN website includes many more pulse recipes from around the world.

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Year of Pulses: Sprouts for New Year's Day

The United Nations has declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses. So eat some pulses: lentils, chickpeas, beans and peas.
Like these lentil sprouts. Toss them in a salad. Sandwich them with cream cheese. Scramble them in eggs. Make a lentil burger. Lentils are quite good for you, but they're a whole different kind of good once they're sprouted.

If you start these lentils on December 27 you'll have a fresh batch of lentil sprouts for January 1. So kick off the New Year with some healthy greens. In solidarity with the world.
 
Start with a big pickle jar or something similar. Add 1/4 cup brown lentils. Ordinary brown lentils from the grocery store or, if you're a Saskatchewan farmer, from the granary.

Day 1: Soak 1/4 cup brown lentils in water for a couple hours. Drain. Give the jar and good shake and lay it in a sunny window.

Day 2, 3, 4, 5: Sprouts are rinsed and drained once or twice a day. You can cover the jar with muslin to drain the water or just use a strainer.
Day 4: Sprouts are looking good.
Day 6: Eat!
 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Good Ol' Meatloaf

Urgent message from a friend: Do you have a recipe for meatloaf? Why yes, of course!
3 slices of hardy but dry white bread, crusts removed
1 cup milk
1 egg
1/2 onion, chopped
1 tsp fresh thyme or 1/2 tsp dried
1 tbsp apple cidre vinegar
1 pound lean ground beef
1/2 pound pork sausages, casings removed
2 tbsp fresh dill, chopped (if you have it)
1 tsp salt
several grinds of pepper
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp honey
1 tsp brown mustard
A fat pinch of ground coriander
Break the bread into pieces in a large bowl.

In a blender or food processor, combine the milk, egg, onion, thyme and vinegar. Pour over the bread and mix well, leaving it sit a few minutes for the bread to soak up the milk.

Add the meat, dill, salt and pepper, mixing thoroughly. Pat the mixture into a bread loaf pan.

Stir together the tomato paste, honey, mustard and coriander. Spread on top of the meatloaf. Bake at 350°F for one hour. For a browned crust, turn on the broiler toward the end of cooking.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Fill Your Ice Cream Pails with Scuffles

My parents never threw out anything that might be something else. This was never more evident than in the stack of plastic ice cream pails leaning like the Tower of Pisa in a corner of the laundry room. No kidding, it's taller than I am.
Growing up, we ate a lot of ice cream. It was the easiest dessert with the highest approval rating. Now that my parents are no longer cooking for a family, they don't cook much at all. Why bother with all that when you can go straight to dessert, um, ice cream? It's become the food group at the top of the pyramid, the one you eat first. Which adds up to a bottomless pit of ice cream pails.

My fondest use of ice cream pails – once they're free of ice cream – comes at berry picking time, particularly saskatoon berry season in mid-July. With the handle looped into my belt, the plastic pail bobs effortlessly at my side while both hands are free to pick berries at will. This alone is good reason to eat more ice cream.

Just this past summer, while helping my parents clean out their big chest freezer, I discovered four ice cream pails full of frozen saskatoons. I also discovered three ice cream pails full of ice cream. When I grew up and got a house of my own, I equipped myself with a small stack of ice cream pails from my parents' stash. Their uses were endless.

I kept the cleaning supplies in an ice cream pail. I bought bulk lentils and stored them in an ice cream pail. I used them in the garden (picking weeds, picking peas, picking potato bugs) and for washing the inside of my car. The compost bucket was an ice cream pail under the sink.

I checked with my friends, who added a few more uses to that list: fermenting pickles, gathering eggs, stashing toys, trick-or-treating for Halloween candy, pre-mixing a batch of six-week muffins, making vodka slush and collecting small engine parts and other odds and ends you "might need someday."

My friend Carol keeps modelling clay in an ice cream pail and, on occasion, uses the lid as a paint palette. Speaking of lids, how often have you entered a content by writing your name on a piece of paper and dropping it through a slot in the lid of an ice cream pail?

This time of year, I imagine moms and grandmas across the prairies are filling a fair number of ice cream pails with seasonal goodies and staching them in the freezer ready for company and family holidays. This might be the most anticipated reuse of the plastic ice cream pail since berry-picking season.

No doubt, your family has a story like this one from Richard, who discovered his mom's secret stash of cookies in the freezer: "I would eat them and as Christmas approached, I'd tell my brothers about the ice cream pails. Of course, when my mom asked where the cookies had all gone, I'd have to tell her I'd seen my brothers rooting in the freezer."

However, others such as my friend Jen observe that plastic ice cream pails are not what they used to be: "If I can have a Grandpa Simpson moment, they're just not made like they used to be. We used them to collect eggs and carry water, but they're clearly making them flimsier and flimsier to make them cheaper. I wouldn't trust a modern day ice cream pail with 30 eggs!"

No, but I would still trust them with cookies like this one, which freezes very well. But no guarantees they won't mysteriously disappear.

Scuffles
2 1/4 tsp yeast (1 packet)
1/4 cup warm water
3 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
3 tbsp sugar
1 cup soft butter
1/2 cup milk
2 eggs, beaten
Sugar and cinnamon for rolling

Dissolve yeast in warm water. In a bowl, stir together flour, salt and sugar. Work in butter with your fingers.

Combine milk, eggs and yeast. Add to flour, mixing well. Turn onto a floured surface and knead briefly until smooth. The dough will be sticky. Wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Divide dough into six balls, working with one ball at a time. Sprinkle sugar and cinnamon generously on the countertop, place a piece of dough on top and roll to a circle 1/8 inch thick.

Cut the circle into 16 wedges, like pieces of a pie. Roll up each wedge from the wide end to the pointy end.

Place 1 inch apart on lightly-greased baking sheet, fashion into a crescent and bake at 350F for 15-20 minutes. FREEZE!!

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Falling for Zucchini Chocolate Cake

When my husband and I got married we had one prenuptial agreement, at his insistence: that I would never plant more than six zucchini at a time.
Talk about tough love. Zucchini is my favourite summer vegetable, for a number of reasons. It grows quickly, it’s lush and attractive, the flowers are big and sunny, and it produces a ton of edible food. Well, perhaps not literally a ton, though it may seem so at times...

Zucchini is incredibly versatile in the kitchen, whether the size of a baby finger or the size of a small canoe, whether in a soup, salad, main course or dessert. Best of all, zucchini flowers are edible, too, and what better way to curb the natural fecundity of a zucchini plant than to nip it in the bud.

In my first garden, I planted twelve zucchini. I had grand plans. I filled the flowers with a mix of herbs, bread crumbs and parmesan cheese, rolled them gently in batter and fried them until crispy and gold. When the zucchini were small, I sliced them into pasta primavera or a pot of minestrone soup. When they were as wide as my wrist, I chopped them into ratatouille or grilled them sliced with olive oil and rosemary.

When they reached the girth of my grandmother's rolling pin, I grated them for vegetable lasagna and zucchini chocolate cake. When I couldn't keep up, I stacked the most plump and matronly zucchini like cordwood waiting for winter. And that’s when John came into the picture.

“What’s with all the zucchini?” he asked.
“Do you have something against zucchini?”
“No.”
“Good,” I said. “You’re having it for supper.”

Cooking for two had the positive effect of doubling my zucchini consumption, but it seemed to make no dent whatsoever in the quantity of the raw material. The zucchini kept pace, as if sensing the drain on resources required a corresponding increase in supply.

There’s a saying in rural parts that the only time you really need to lock your car is during zucchini season. John, however, had a slightly different take on this old adage. He suggested I box the zucchini, add a big red bow and put them in my car unlocked.

As winter settled in, the last of the zucchini began to shrivel and turn yellow in my basement. I had to concede that, perhaps, too much of a good thing is not necessarily a good thing. “I’ve decided to take your zucchini pledge,” I announced, “and to prove my commitment, I’m going to toss the last of these zucchini into the compost pile.”
He glanced at the bucket of yellow zucchini. “They’re rotting,” he said.

“No," I insisted, "just a bit soft." I poked one to prove the flesh was still firm enough for the side of the grater. I made one final zucchini chocolate cake and, in a soft December snow, committed the last of the zucchini to the compost pile. True to my word, I reduced my zucchini patch to six and then to three, and miraculously, I've always had enough for one last zucchini chocolate cake as the snow flies.

I often make this cake in two smaller pans and freeze one for another day. In fact, it's often better on the second day, if you can resist it warm from the oven!
Zucchini Chocolate Cake
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cardamom
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup soft butter
1/2 cup canola oil
1 tsp vanilla
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
3 cups grated zucchini
Handful of mini chocolate chips

Sift the flours, cocoa powder, baking soda, salt and cardamom into bowl. In another bowl, beat sugar, butter, oil and vanilla until light and creamy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each one.

Add the dry ingredients in three parts, alternating with the buttermilk. Stir in the grated zucchini. Pour batter into pan that has been greased and floured. Sprinkle on chocolate chips.

Bake at 325F for 40-50 minutes, until a knife inserted in centre of cake comes out clean.

Still more zucchini? Make chocolate zucchini muffins or zucchini oatmeal cookies!

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)