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.