Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Thanksgiving Leftovers

I finally used the rest of my turkey giblets, as well as some other Thanksgiving leftovers (frozen, of course.)

I simmered the turkey neck, heart, and bones with onion, carrots, celery, thyme, white wine, and water to make stock. The neck gave a lot of body to the stock. A lot. When I chilled some extra stock it solidified to a thick pudding. To the rest of my stock I added mirepoix, corn, and left-over turkey meat. I also threw in some Canada Goose wild rice, which was cooked in a separate pot (cooking rice in the same pot will leach starch which clouds the otherwise clear soup).

A good memory of Thanksgiving on a wintry day.

Quebec Part I: Cretons

These days the best-known food from Quebec is smoked-meat, bagels, and poutine. These are undeniably important parts of Montreal's food scene, but are not as relevant to the rest of the province. Montreal gets its unique bagels and delicatessens from the large Jewish populations of the older neighbourhoods like Mile-End. Over the past few weeks I've been thinking about the winter food of a Quebecois farmstead (rather than the metropolitan dishes of Montreal). While tinkering with this idea I'll forgo the poutine italienne and look instead at dry-stored root vegetables and legumes, all manner of dairy, craft beer, maple syrup, and pork.

In Quebec, the pig is king. This is partly their cultural heritage: "For centuries pork was the most commonly consumed meat in rural France. Rare was the small farm without its own pig." (Robuchon). Pork also has an entire craft dedicated to its preservation (charcuterie), which is useful for rural winter-dwellers.

With this in mind, the first dish I made was cretons. Cretons is a pork spread, usually served on toast. Most cretons is made by simmering pork shoulder and aromatics in milk. Once the meat is tender enough, it is mixed until creamy and spreadable. It is very similar to the French rillette, which is pork shoulder simmer in stock, then mixed until spreadable. Cretons are usually eaten for breakfast. In making my own cretons I combined a rillette recipe from Rhulman's Charcuterie, and a recipe by Ron Eade, a food writer for the Ottawa citizen. I spliced these recipes together, replacing the stock with milk. Rillettes are traditionally sealed in ramekins with rendered fat. This is not traditional for creton, but it makes for such a fantastic presentation that I couldn't resist. Especially in winter, as the fat looks like a skating rink once it sets, and because with the addition of a sprig of rosemary and some peppercorns, you can imitate holly. (Ron Eade's idea.) Here's my variation:

A holiday pork spread, in the style of Quebecois cretons

  • 3 lbs pork shoulder, diced to one inch pieces
  • 1/2 lb bacon
  • 1/2 lb smoked ham hock
  • 1 pork bone
  • 1 bundle thyme
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 medium onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, roughly chopped
  • 4 peppercorns, tied into a cheesecloth bundle
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves (I didn't have whole cloves on hand, though those are probably to be preferred...)
  • 1.25 L milk
First cover the diced shoulder with water and bring to a boil. This draws blood and impurities from the meat. Strain, discarding water. Place your purified shoulder and remaining ingredients in a large pot and cover with milk. Bring to a simmer, then place in 300F oven. Cook for 4 to 6 hours, until meat is falling-apart-tender.

Strain mixture, reserving liquid. Make sure you remove the bay leaves, peppercorn bundle, and pork bone. Place meat in standing mixer and mix on low speed, slowly adding reserve liquid until contents are moist and spreadable. This should take a couple of minutes.

Taste for seasoning. Since the dish will be served at room temperature, season assertively.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Smoked Ham Hock Cont'd

Some left-over ham got mixed with swiss cheese and mustard and baked in a pie crust.

A free-form, savoury tart filled with ham hock, swiss cheese, and mustard

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Smoked Ham Hock

A massive hock from K&K Foodliner, ready for the brineI picked up a monstrous hock from K&K Foodliner. It was one of the cheapest cuts of meat I have ever bought: about $6.50 for 1.7kg.

The plan was to convert this raw hock into a smoked ham hock, and then to use that to make a broth.

I put the hock in a simple brine solution for about a week, then smoked it over cherry wood.

I simmered my smoked ham hock for about an hour.
The flavour was unbelievable. Obviously it tasted like pork, but it was so smoky it verged on campfire. If it were any warmer outside, or if I were serving the Queen high tea, I would have diluted it. But today it seemed right.

Next I used the broth to cook my vegetables. I actually used up the last of the carrots and potatoes from the fall harvest at Tipi Creek, (though we still have about a dozen squash and countless bags of frozen vegetables). Even after an aborted attempt at making sauerkraut, we also had lots of cabbage heads rolling about our refrigerator.

To recap, that was carrots, potatoes, and cabbage simmer in a ham hock broth. Garnished with shredded ham and celery leaves. Served with mustard and bread. A good cold-weather meal

Thursday, November 5, 2009


Hickory-smoked pork ribs with a barbeque sauce glaze
The term “barbecue” is used pretty loosely around these parts. Most often it refers to an outdoor grill, but I have also had “barbecued” items in restaurants that haven't been anywhere near an outdoor grill. In fact, these items, usually ribs or pulled-pork, have been braised or even stewed in an acidic solution called "barbecue sauce"

True barbecue is pork that has smoked at low temperature for several hours. The home of true barbecue is the American south, notably the Carolinas and Tennessee. When I say "true", I'm not arguing about the origin of the word or the antiquity of the practices, although I suspect that Southern barbecue would win on those fronts, too. I mean that the quality of the resulting product is infinitely superior with true barbecue. It is unlike any meat I have had before: it is transcendent.

The difference in taste is obvious. Complex, aromatic smoke is the base. Barbecue sauce is added towards the end of cooking, for a little acidity and sweetness. The real surprise was the texture. Food that is stewed in barbecue sauce is touted as "tender", but is actually just mushy. Food cooked low and slow and dry are tender, but they still have texture and bite.

In the southern states, there are barbecue restaurants. They have smokehouses where they cook pork ribs and beef briskets for eight hours. People line up to eat at these places. They literally go through tons of meat every day. They sell out of product every night. Occasionally one of these places will be featured on a Food Network show like Diners, Drive-In, and Dives. To my knowledge they just don't exist in Canada. Luckily you can do it at home.

Over the past two weeks I have barbecued twice. The first was with pork shoulder from Trowlesworthy Farms. The second was today, with grocery store side ribs, in the photo above.
Required Reading:
  • Jeffrey Steingarten's essay "Going Whole Hog", from The Man Who Ate Everything. Does a good job describing the mania for barbecue in the southern states.
  • Michael Ruhlman's recipes for Pulled Pork and Carolina Barbecue Sauce in his book Charcuterie.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Preserving by Drying

Hot red peppers from the Strathcona Farmers' Market drying in our kitchen Or, How to Make Things Uncomfortable for a Microbe.

A simple start: dehydration. All life needs water, so removing the moisture from food makes it inhospitable to microbes. Some items can simply be air-dried. One week in July Lisa bought a whole bag of hot peppers from Doef's, then strung them together with unflavoured dental floss and hung them in our kitchen. The skin has become paper thing and brittle, and when held to the light you can see the shadows of the seeds. It's a simple preserving method that requires almost no work and keeps us in pepper heat all winter long.

You could probably also naturally air-dry fruit, but partway through the summer a family of fruit flies moved into our house, so we had to give our drying method a little boost. We had a couple gallons of saskatoons and tried a batch in the oven and a batch in a food dehydrator that Lisa and Judy found at a garage sale (one of several fantastic finds this summer.) Both turned out great and make a tasty addition to our infinite supply of granola.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Beef Stock

Before I even had the chance to awkwardly approach a butcher to ask for animal bones, Lisa and I found some at the farmers' market.

Four Whistle Farms sells two-pound packages of beef bones for about $3.50. So does Trowlesworthy Farms, but they were sold out by the time I got to their booth.

The Four Whistle Farms bones still had lots of meat on them. In his book Sauces, James Peterson says that meat adds flavour to stock, while bones add body. An ideal, savoury stock would be made with only meat. This would be extremely expensive, so we use bones, vegetables, and meat scraps as a compromise. That extra bit of meat on the Four Whistle bones was definitely not a bad thing.

As with my last stock experiment, I once again worked from a Robuchon recipe, but this time with some major departures, using beef bones instead of veal, and tomato paste instead of fresh tomatoes.

I roasted the bones and vegetables without parchment on a non-non-stick pan [sic] so that meat juices could caramelize on the surface. Then I deglazed the pan with water. This is a great way to add flavour to your stock. According to James Peterson, it also results in a clearer stock.

First while roasting, and then while simmering, the stock made my house smell unbelievable. Like, "run in off the cold street from a game of stick ball to find Nonna at the stove" unbelievable. "Provincial farmstead kitchen" unbelievable.

The finished product tasted great, but was a little heavy on tomato paste.

Beef Stock (adapted from The Complete Robuchon recipe for veal stock)
  • 2 pounds beef bones
  • 1 carrot, coarsely chopped
  • 1 large onion, coarsely chopped
  • 1 celery stalk
  • 1/4 pound mushrooms
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 bouquet garni
  • 1/2 cup tomato paste
  • salt
Brown beef bones on a baking tray in 400F oven for about thirty minutes. Spread tomato paste onto bones and add carrot, onion, celery, and mushrooms. Brown vegetables. Place browned ingredients in stock pot with garlic, bouquet garni, and a pinch of salt. Deglaze pan with water or beef stock and add to stock pot. Cover contents of pot with cold water and simmer gently(!) for four hours.

Health Check Imposter

A Coffee Crisp wrapper with conspicuous white check-mark
Notice anything peculiar about this chocolate bar? Doesn't that symbol on the bottom right look suspiciously like a heart? With a check mark on it?
The really sad part is that when I first saw this, I wasn't that surprised that a chocolate bar could carry the Heart and Stroke Foundation's Heart Check symbol. After all, other "heart-healthy" items endorsed by the Heart and Stroke Foundation include Slush-Puppies, hamburgers, and tater-tots.
For thorough critiques of the Health Check system, check out the Weighty Matters blog, or this expose from the CBC's Marketplace.
Anyways, Coffee Crisp obviously does not sport the Health Check symbol. That bulbous red patch is actually Nestle's logo (so you can see the same picture on other Nestle products, like Smarties). I have no idea what it is supposed to represent. Below the check mark the wrapper reads, "Your good health comes from a balanced diet, proper nutrition and physical activity."

At first I thought the slogan "Coffee Crisp makes a nice, light, snack" was a reference to the light texture of the bar, but it's actually meant to trick people into thinking that wafers covered in chocolate might be good for you.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Turkey Giblets

This was the first year that I had a hand in preparing the Thanksgiving turkey. Subsequently it was also the first time that I came in contact with the infamous giblets: the neck, heart, liver, and gizzard of the turkey, stored together in a bag in the cavity of the bird.

First things first: I needed to know what I was dealing with. I was familiar with the general shape and function of the first three items on that list. The gizzard, however, I embarrassingly thought was the flap of skin hanging between a turkey’s beak and neck. Turns out this is the wattle, “an organ of sexual dimorphism” (Wikipedia), whatever that means. The gizzard is actually a stomach with strong muscles that break down food.

The giblets from my Thanksgiving turkey: neck, heart, and kidneyOn inspection of my own turkey giblets, and comparison with pictures on the internet, I decided that I was not given a gizzard, and that my turkey’s liver had been broken in two. In the picture at left, clockwise from the top left is the neck (obviously), the heart, and two pieces of liver.

A quick Google search suggested that the giblets are most often simmered with the gravy to add extra offally good (pun) flavour. I also looked for preparations dealing just with the liver. People online were divided as to whether turkey livers make for good eats. You can only read so many blogs and forums that waffle back and forth before just trying it out yourself.

I basically followed Julia Childs' recipe for sautéed chicken livers: salt, pepper, and flour the livers, then sauté them in butter and oil with mushrooms and ham (homemade bacon in my case). I spread the mixture on lightly toasted baguette rounds, then had them as an appetizer to left-over turkey and mashed potatoes.

Texturally, the liver was unlike anything I have had before. In a good way. Not too firm, not too supple, kind of creamy, but still meaty. Weird. Really satisfying.

I froze the neck and heart, and someday they will aid in the making of a killer stock for turkey soup.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Alberta Natives

This weekend I was flipping through a tree and shrub guide to the prairies and came across the following jaw-dropping native species:
  • beaked hazelnut
  • American hazelnut
  • American highbush cranberry
Kevin Kossowan has blogged a bit about wild highbush cranberries around Edmonton here.

Seriously: why aren't our farmers' markets awash with Alberta cranberries? Why isn't my street lined with hazelnuts?

Also listed as natives were two species of juniper: the creeping and the Rocky Mountain. Wikipedia suggests that the berries of these junipers are too bitter for human consumption, but I'd like to judge that for myself (as long as they aren't poisonous).
Classically, juniper berries are used to flavour game marinades, pork, sauerkraut, and spirits. Seems like they'd fit into the Alberta culinary landscape well...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


The culmination of my autumn preserving was the makin’ of bacon. It never occurred to me that I could cure meat in my own home until I found the blog of one Kevin Kossowan. Just by reading how he categorizes his posts ("Cider Making", "Foraging - Berries", "Foraging - Mushrooms", et c.) you know that you've stumbled across a renaissance foodie. Kevin recommends a book by Michael Ruhlman called Charcuterie with all manner of recipes for cured and smoked meat.

The word “bacon” usually refers to pork belly that has been cured and then smoked. An exception to this rule is “back bacon”, which is cured pork loin. “Canadian bacon” is back bacon that has been cured and then smoked.

Step One: Acquire Pork Belly

I ordered a slab of pork belly from Easyford Meats. The slab was 2.2kg and cost about $25. It was thinner than I expected, only an inch in its thickest parts, and was about one foot by two and a half feet long.

A pork belly slab from Easyford Meats, soon to be homemade bacon

Step Two: Acquire Cure

All the sources I consulted used “pink salt”, which is 6.25% sodium nitrite and 93.75% salt. It is died pink to avoid confusion with table salt and accidental consumption. (Sodium nitrite is toxic in large quantities, but safe in the concentrations used in curing). I went to a butcher supplier called CTR Refrigeration and bought what they call “F.S. Cure”, which is only 5% sodium nitrite. I tweaked the cure recipe so that I had the proper amount of nitrite and plain salt. I also picked up some hickory and cherry wood sawdust while I was there.

Step Three: Cure

I used the basic cure recipe from Charcuterie, which consists of kosher salt, pink salt, and white sugar. I rubbed this mixture onto the surface of my thawed pork belly, which I then set in a shallow plastic tub.

The pork belly sat for almost ten days (longer than the recommended seven). I flipped the slab and redistributed the cure twice over that period. All in all the meat lost much less moisture than I expected: there were only a couple thin puddles of liquid around the belly.

On the tenth day I rinsed the slab under cool water and patted it dry with paper towels. I then placed it on racks, uncovered, in my fridge overnight to form a “pellicle”, a tacky surface that helps the absorption of flavour during smoking. That evening I also put some of my hickory chips in water to soak overnight.

Step Four: Smoke

The next morning I smoked the meat, which was without exaggeration one of the most rewarding food experiences of my life. I made a few aluminum foil packets, each filled with two handfuls of wet hickory chips and one handful of dry. I punched holes in the packets with a fork.

My barbeque set-up for smoking: wood chip packets on one side with heat on, meat on the other side with heat off

The Result

The biggest difference between homemade and store-bought bacon is texture. My bacon had a denser, coarser, and all in all more satisfying texture than the convenience store variety. The taste was much more robust. I think this is one more grocery store product that has been ruined for me.

The finished bacon

Thursday, October 1, 2009

My Introduction to, and Growing Obsession with, Stock

Over the past year, my interest in broths and stocks has increased with each passing week. My first encounter was at Hulbert’s, where Chris would save vegetable trimmings--carrot skins, thick, white celery ends, and onion roots--in a pot in the cooler. Never broccoli or cauliflower, he said, because they produce a “skanky” broth. Once enough scraps had accumulated they were thrown in a stock pot, covered with water, simmered for eight hours, and strained. At the time this was just a curious process that I figured I would try at home, eventually.

Then I read Alton Brown’s I’m Just Here for the Food, which details the process of making stock from chicken carcasses. The “sauces” section of that book convinced me of the usefulness of having a ready reserve of stock in the freezer. I now thought of stock as a useful trick up my culinary sleeve.

During the summer, when Lisa and I were making most of our meals from scratch, we were often wishing we had stock so we could make soups, sauces, and gravies. Going through lots of produce and a few whole chickens, we gathered enough scraps to produce the occasional batch of the elusive liquid.

Furthermore, we recently bought stainless steel cookware, and the sticky bits left in the pan after we cook meat are absolutely begging to be deglazed with stock and made into an accompanying sauce.

The final blow came while reading Anthony Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential, where I found lines like, “Stock is the backbone of good cooking,” and “Life without stock is barely worth living.” Needless to say, these words added an almost desperate urgency to my experiments with stock.

I started some research. Very few professional sources recommended the use of cutting board scraps. I guess this makes sense, as consistency is usually an obsession of the restaurant industry, and the hodge-podge stock pot produces a different product every time. It’s still a great method for the home kitchen, though.

Using fresh, whole vegetables for a mere stock seemed criminal at first, but by the last harvest day at our CSA, Lisa and I were completely overwhelmed. Even after freezing and canning what we could, there was a surplus of the very vegetables that most vegetable stock recipes call for.

I eventually decided to try a Robuchon recipe that uses vegetables, herbs, dry white wine and star anise. I’ve appended the recipe below. I also gleaned the following advice from Joel: simmer very, very gently, otherwise the finished stock will be cloudy.

I set to work. When the mixture first started to simmer, all I could smell was anise, and I was worried that its unique taste would completely obscure the subtler aromatics. By the time the stock was done, the anise had married well with the others. The wine added a mild, pleasant acidity.

I'm hooked. My next experiment will be beef stock. Apparently the first step in that process is procuring beef bones. I need to befriend a butcher. Fast.

Vegetable Stock (From The Complete Robuchon)

  • 3 stalks celery, roughly chopped
  • 2 leeks, roughly chopped
  • 2 carrots, roughly chopped
  • 1 onion, roughly chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 cups dry white wine
  • 2 whole star anise
  • 1 bouquet garni (3 stems parsley, thyme, and 1/2 bay leaf)
  • 2 scant teaspoon coarse salt
  • pepper
  • 6 1/4 cups water

Combine ingredients and simmer very gently for three hours, skimming foam from surface every half hour. Yields about one litre of stock.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Canada Goose Wild Rice

A handful of Canada Goose wild rice from Fort Assiniboine, AlbertaAnother mind blow. Today Judy showed up with a bag of Canada Goose wild rice from Fort Assiniboine. This shocked me. Partly because it is an expensive, luxurious ingredient. Partly because as a child I was fed mostly potatoes, so rice always seemed exotic to me. (Wild "rice" is actually a misnomer: it's the seed of zizania grasses, which are not part of the rice family, though they are closely related.) Anyways, turns out it's indigenous to lakes across Canada and the northern United States.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Raspberry Liqueur

Ever since Neil brought me a recipe for limoncello from Capris, I've been eager to try some sort of fruit infusion of alcohol. My surplus of raspberries from Roy's seemed like divine providence. Here is my recipe for raspberry liqueur.

A shot of homemade raspberry liqueur
Raspberry Liqueur
(adapted from a souvenir-bar-towel recipe for limoncello...)

  • 750g raspberries
  • 750mL Everclear grain alcohol
  • 750mL water
  • 750g white sugar
  • 500mL lemon juice, strained of pulp and seeds

Pour the grain alcohol and raspberries into a large glass container. Mash the berries, cover the mixture tightly, and leave for two weeks. This is the infusion.

Pour the infusion through a wire strainer to remove the berry pulp. Discard said pulp.

Make a simple syrup of 750g white sugar and 750mL of water on the stove. Cool to room temperature and combine with berry infusion.

None of the acidity of the berries survives the infusion stage. At this point, with the darker raspberry flavour, the strong taste of alcohol, and the sickly sweet syrup, the solution honestly tastes a lot like cough medicine. It needs the transforming power of lemon. Mix in the lemon juice, and allow some time (a few days?) for the flavours to combine. Strain through a coffee filter to remove the finer sediment.

I finished with about 2.5L of liqueur which was almost 30% alcohol by volume. At this strength, somewhere between a stiff schnapps and vodka, I was expecting to have to dilute my liqueur with pop. However, when poured over ice, it is surprisingly (and dangerously?) easy to drink straight. Summer in a glass.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Raspberry Jam

Homemade raspberry jam on Treestone Bakery breadIt's the height of berry season, and I just picked several pounds at Roy’s Raspberries, west of the city on highway 16A. The bulk of the harvest was frozen for later use as ice-cream topping and crumble filling, but plenty of berries were kept for experimentation. With Lisa’s recent purchase of a garage-sale canning pot, my first project was a winter’s supply of raspberry jam.

I was happy to find the following recipe for traditional raspberry jam: one volume raspberries and one volume white sugar. It’s ridiculous to measure raspberries by volume, but I’m a sucker for a simple ratio. As I was working with honey instead of sugar, my recipe and process looked like this:
  • Two parts heated, mashed raspberries.
  • One part heated honey.
  • Simmer until thickish.
  • Jar.
The jam tasted great: much brighter than the store-bought variety. Much seedier, too. This was my first experience canning food, and it went fairly smoothly, I think. If in a year I have botulism, I'll change my answer.
When I mentioned to people at work that I spent my day off making jam, I was confusingly dubbed “Aunt Jemimah” for the rest of the week.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


In the last few days I have learned a lot about oats. For example: whole oats are called groats. Not impressed? Fine. Here are the main "styles" of processed oats:

  • Rolled oats: steam-rolled flat. I think the most popular style.
  • Steel-cut oats: each groat is cut (by steel, I guess) into a few pieces. Sometimes called Irish oats.
  • Quick Oats: the oats are steel cut and then steam rolled, even flatter than rolled oats, reducing cooking time (hence the name).
Why have I become a scholar of oats? This week Judy brought us a 20kg bag of rolled oats and a 20kg bag of quick oats, both from the Can-Oat mill in Manola, and each costing about $25. While Lisa and I are pushing shopping carts through organic grocery stores and reading labels to try and find local food, Judy is hitting the highway and visiting industrial milling operations and talking to farmers.

As dry goods, our oats will keep for months, as long as we store them in a cool, dry place. Regardless of how well they keep, the simple fact that there is almost a hundred pounds of oats in my house has made me anxious to start figuring out how I can use them. Hence the oat research.

The first information I came across was historical. Several sources that I consulted had a quote from Samuel Johnson's dictionary, which defines oats as a grain "which in England is generally given to horses, but which in Scotland supports the people." Apparently the common Scottish reply went something like, "That's why England produces such fine horses, and Scotland such fine men."

Eventually I found some practical information on consuming large amounts of oats. Here are the down and dirty, super-simple recipes in which I plan to eat my bounty.

Homemade granolaBasic Granola Recipe

  • 2 cups rolled oats
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/8 cup cold-pressed canola oil
  • pinch of salt
Combine all the ingredients and mix with a spatula. Spread evenly on a parchment-lined tray and bake at 325F. Watch the oats around the very edges of the pan. When they are just starting to brown (about eight minutes), remove the tray from the oven. Flip and redistribute the oats as best you can, then return the tray to the oven until, once again, the oats on the perimeter start to brown (roughly another four minutes). Watch carefully: they'll burn quickly. At this point the oats will feel soft and moist, but as they cool they will become crisp. That's just the base. Add dried fruit, nuts, spices, and dairy products as you see fit. I like mine in yoghurt, with dried saskatoons.

Basic Porridge Recipe
  • 1/2 cup quick oats
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 tbsp honey
Combine ingredients in bowl and cook in microwave until milk as been absorbed by oats. Stir to distribute honey. If you're feeling wild you can throw some rolled oats in for more texture.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Ever since Lisa’s mom showed me the chickweed and lamb’s quarters in my driveway, I have been walking the streets of Edmonton with a downward gaze, trying to identify sidewalk creepers and back-alley flowers.

I recently stooped over a new find. A short plant with fingerling leaves similar to anise or dill. Developing flower-heads promised a yellow bloom. I uprooted the plant and smelled the leaves, hoping for the licorice of anise. Instead I was completely overwhelmed by a thick, impossibly sweet and floral odour. It was a familiar smell, both from rural Ontario and Calgary. It was a smell I had often wondered about as a child.

I described the appearance and perfume of the plant to many an “elder.” My mother guessed sweetclover. Judy finally posited chamomile. Sure enough, a Google Images search returned pictures of plants with the same foliage, and flowers that looked just like daisies.

Now that I recognize the plant, I see it on almost every sidewalk, unkempt yard, and alleyway crack. Now, in the second week of July, most of the small plants in driveways have not flowered, but a few choice plants in yards and fields have blossomed into smiling yellow faces wreathed by white petals.

A city website says that scentless chamomile (Matricaria perforata) is a common weed in Edmonton, so I'm inclined to think that this is the variety I keep seeing (even though, as I said, the leaves have a very pronounced scent). The type usually used for tea is German chamomile (Matricaria recutita). I decided to test the tea-worthiness of our local problem-plant.

Most internet sources that I consulted said to use the flowers to make tea. A foraging compendium suggested the leaves. I tried both. The flower makes a passable tea for sure. The leaf brew has a distinct fennel aftertaste.

Part of our local-eating regime has been the denial of certain “exotic items”. These include, predictably, citrus fruit, wine, and chocolate, but the luxury whose absence has caused the most grief has been coffee.

I drink coffee for three reasons: the taste, the caffeine, and the ritual. A number of substitutes can stand in for any one of these traits, but few can replace all three. With chamomile, I thought I was getting closer with a hot drink that would give me a good-morning buzz. Lisa gently corrected me: chamomile is a relaxant, and the principle ingredient in “sleepy time” teas. So it’s the opposite of coffee. At least it will provide ritual: the slow sipping of a hot, floral drink. I’ll settle for that.

The whole experiment has me thinking more about foraging, generally: wondering if I would be able to safely identify edible mushrooms, or perhaps find some wild berry patches. Worth investigating, I think.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Weed-Eater (A Whole New Meaning)

Lisa’s mother, Judy, shared a distant memory from childhood. One spring evening, unexpected visitors came knocking just before dinner, and her mother was in a panic to find food for them. The children were therefore sent out to pick lamb’s quarters, a weed that grew in the yard. Chickweed, too, was occasionally brought to their table.

I listened to this tale with skepticism of two kinds. Firstly that any weed would be pleasant to eat, and secondly that I would find these weeds in my yard. Judy took me to my own alleyway and within ten seconds had identified both lamb’s quarters and chickweed. Thus began the sidewalk sample platter.

The lamb’s quarters had the same creamy texture as spinach. When we took it inside and heated it on the stove it wilted just like spinach, too. The chickweed was a bit tougher, and the slight woody flavour was a constant reminder that I was eating a weed.

When trying to find more edible weeds that grow in Edmonton, I happened upon this rarely-to-almost-never updated website.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Got Any Cheese?

As a boy raised on macaroni and cheese (every Friday night) and grilled cheese sandwiches (every Sunday afternoon), I knew that to get through this summer I would need to find some good local cheese-makers.

The starting point for my cheese-quest was an article by Jennifer Cockrall-King on local artisan cheese makers. Between the three producers listed there, and a couple others I had heard of through friends, I had a nice list with which to start:

  • Eyot Creek – near Leduc, gouda
  • Natricia – Ponoka, goat cheese
  • Leoni Grana – Camrose, parmesan
  • Edelweiss Foods – St. Albert, camembert
  • Sylvan Star – Red Deer, gouda and cheddar
  • Tiras – Camrose, specializing in Greek cheeses such as feta and kefalotiri
Working through this list, trying to acquire each cheese, I found that most of them are no longer being made. My research was conducted from the chair in which I now sit, reading out-dated webpages and dialing the phone numbers that I found on them. Not crack-shot journalism, to be sure, but there were a couple of good finds. Here are my notes:

Eyot Creek – If you Google Eyot Creek, you are presented with a slough of webpages concerning an E. coli outbreak from late 2002. The sicknesses were traced back to Eyot Creek farmstead cheeses that had been sold or given away at both the Strathcona and St. Albert farmers’ markets. I could find no information on Eyot Creek dated after the E. coli outbreak. I assumed the worst and crossed Eyot Creek from my list.

[Update: I just found an article in The Leduc Representative that says Eyot Creek stopped cheese production partly because of "cost prohibitive renovations recommended by Captial Health".]

Natricia – The above-mentioned Cockrall-King article said that this Ponoka goat cheese is available at Paddy’s International Cheese Shop. I went there and asked for it by name. The girl behind the counter said that they were currently “considering” carrying Natricia, but that they hadn’t decided yet. Most likely she had no idea what I was talking about. When I got home I called the number for Natricia from an antiquated Ponoka business listing, and got the private voice mail of a Ponoka couple. Also, the url I had for the alleged Natricia website was a dead-end. Strike two.

Leoni Grana – This parmesan from Camrose is also long gone. There is a brief explanation on a forum on The Edible Prairie.

Edelweiss – Contacting Edelweiss Foods Ltd, I got the peculiar feeling that I was calling a man at his private residence (the phrase, “How did you get this number?” came up). He said that, unfortunately, he is no longer able to make cheese.

Sylvan Star – This well-known, award winning cheese is available at Planet Organics. Sylvan Star specializes in gouda and cheddar, but they also make cheese curds, if you’re a stickler for authentic poutine.

Tiras – When I called the Camrose listing for Tiras Dairies, a woman answered and pronounced the word Tiras with some difficulty. I asked hesitantly if their cheese was available in Edmonton. Of course, she replied, and gave me a list of vendors, among them Hellas Food Importers, El Safadi Bros, and Omonia Foods.
A tub of Vlahos Greek Style Feta made by Tiras Dairies of Camrose, Alberta
As a pretentious philhellene, I would like to go on record and say that Tiras feta (marketed as Vlahos Greek Style Feta) is fantastic. Unlike rubbery super-market feta, Tiras is soft and creamy, while retaining the characteristic feta crumble. Also, if you buy it in a large enough quantity, it's cheaper by weight than good grocery store cheeses like Cracker Barrel.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Local Staples: Flour and Eggs

With several farmers' markets and CSA programs around the city, fresh meats and vegetables are easy to find. Other essentials, like flour, require some gum-shoeing. This week I researched where to buy some local food-staples.
A load of Treestone Bakery traditional breadFlour - Treestone Bakery has been featured in articles, like this one by Green Edmonton, and radio reports, like this one by The Dirty Hoe of CJSR, not only for the quality of its products, but for its environmental sensitivity. The daily breads at Treestone are made with whole wheat that is farmed near Leduc and milled on-site with an imported French stone. This flour is sold in one kilo bags for $2. It is a fairly coarse grind, and our preliminary batches of pasta were acceptable, but not great.

For special breads like brioche, Treestone uses white flour milled by Sunny Boy in Camrose. Thankfully you can order some of this flour. I got 5 kg of red spring wheat for $10.

Eggs - Eggs are available at the Strathcona Farmers' Market through vendors like the Holden Colony and Sunworks Farm of Armena, Alberta. They usually sell for about $4 per dozen (compared to $2.60 per dozen at a grocery store: get over it...)

If, however, you find yourself in need of eggs in the middle of the week, when your farmers' market is closed, Planet Organics carries eggs from Purnima Farms in Breton, Alberta. Large Purnima eggs command $5.67 per dozen.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Montreal: Culinary Notes

Last week, after attending a cousin’s wedding in eastern Ontario, I spent some time in Montreal with my sister, Elizabeth. We were only there for two days, but we were able to cram in quite a bit of food. Here are some highlights.

The iconic cartoons of Fairmount BagelsMontreal Bagels
After puttering around a nearly vacant Old Montreal (it was Monday morning), we struck for the livelier Mile End, a community of the Jewish diaspora, replete with delicatessens and bagel bakeries. The oldest of these is Fairmount Bagels.

The front room of Fairmount functions as both storefront and stock room, with racks of pre-bagged bagels stacked up the walls. Behind the counter I could see two men, each rolling out bagels two at a time, one with each hand. The bagels were lined-up on long wooden sheets, then slid into the gaping mouths of the fire-breathing ovens.

We ordered a half-dozen poppy seed bagels. Immediately outside the bakery is a bench, and we sat among importunate pigeons to sample our purchase. The most obvious difference between these Montreal specimens and our usual grocery store variety is the shape. These were more slender rings, with larger holes in the middle.

I took a bite. Before I could taste the dough, the texture had already seduced me. It was dense and chewy, but yielding, not tough in the slightest. Finally the pleasant sweetness washed over my tongue. The grocery store bagels I was raised on required toasting and cream cheese, or ham and mayonnaise, or at the very least butter. This Fairmount bagel was emphatically not just a conveyance for other foods.

In most Canadian cities, the butcher, the fishmonger, the fruit vendor, and the baker all live in one place: the grocery store. The streets of Mile End, however, are filled with fromageries, boucheries, boulangeries, and patisseries. Some of these words were familiar to me from elementary school (“J’aime le fromage”), others were more mysterious, suggesting medieval guilds and farmstead root cellars. Charcuterie, for one, which I later found out encompasses the many methods of preserving pork: curing, smoking, and drying to make products like sausages, bacon, and ham. We also came across stores offering viande fumée, smoked meat, but I was holding out for the real deal, the landmark Schwartz’s on St-Laurent. That would come later. I am a patient man.

The St. Hubert Chicken logoRotisserie Chicken

Unbeknownst to the rest of Canada, one of the most popular dishes in Quebec is rotisserie chicken. There is, for example, a popular rotisserie restaurant chain called St. Hubert’s which has a friendly cartoon chicken on its logo. My first taste of the slow-roasted bird came while walking on St-Viateur, at Serrano Bar-BQ. I’ll admit that “Serrano Bar-BQ” doesn’t sound like the most authentic of Quebecois establishments, but there was a line of francophones starting at the till and stretching out onto the street. Following the well-worn advice to eat only in places packed with locals, my sister and I stood in line, not entirely sure what to expect or order once inside. Everyone who trickled out of the place had a large, crusty bun with pulled rotisserie chicken inside, so our choice was essentially made for us. There were two types listed on the chalkboard menu: cuisse and poitrine. Having no idea what either meant, I ordered “cuisse,” and Elizabeth “poitrine” (the harder of the two to pronounce). I received dark meat, Elizabeth white. (I later asked a friend who attended French emersion in Calgary what exactly these two words mean. He couldn’t recall the exact meanings; he only remembered that he heard them frequently in his sex-ed classes. They mean, respectively, thigh and breast, or chest.)

It was one of the more memorable sandwiches of my privileged, sandwich-filled life. The bun was perfectly crusty, but easy to bite through, giving way to chicken that was tender without being (too) greasy. And simple yellow mustard, lettuce, and tomato to garnish. This meal, too, was enjoyed on a sidewalk bench, under a hot sun.

That night we ate dinner at L’Hotel Nelson, in Jacques Cartier Square, a restaurant famous for its garden patio, live jazz, and crepes. I tried the veal blanquette.

I looked up the term "blanquette" once I was back home: "The French term for ragout of white meat (veal, lamb, or poultry) cooked in white stock or water with aromatic flavourings.” –Larousse Gastronomique)

A light, crisp crepe exterior, creamy sauce, tender veal, aromatic onions and carrots, and nutmeg. To drink I had a rousse (the Quebecois word for a red or amber ale). I embarrassingly can’t remember the brewery name. It was good, though: an even caramel flavour with balancing hops. Dessert was a limoncello sorbet.

Naturally we needed to have poutine before we left. Wikitravel had recommended a place called La Banquise (“The Ice Floe?”). On entering, several factors conspired to make me love this restaurant, specifically, and Montreal, generally. La Banquise has a bright, quirky interior, similar to some of the Nelly’s restaurants in Calgary. It is open twenty-four hours a day, which, as far as trendy hangouts go, is completely unheard of on the prairies (unless you think casinos and Denny’s diners are trendy). And, as a coup-de-grace, a live Janis Joplin recording was playing.

Elizabeth and I tried two classic poutine variations: poutine italienne (with bolognaise), and poutine chou (with coleslaw.)

Let’s get our facts straight. Poutine is French fries with cheese curds and gravy. Usually the hot gravy is poured over the fries and cheese, to soften the curds.

If, however, you order “poutine” in any chain restaurant (Boston Pizza comes to mind), you will get French fries and gravy, topped with mozzarella and thrown under a broiler to melt the cheese. The result is stringy, pizza cheese and soggy French fries.

These plates, though, were the genuine article. The curds lose their characteristic squeak once they're heated, but they retain a satisfying chew, and don’t spread around the plate to rob the fries of crispiness. I washed my plate down with a Cheval Blanc white beer.

Smoked Meat

To complete our homage to delicious, delicious saturated fats, that night we ate at Schwartz’s. It was pouring rain, and we had to wait in line outside, under an awning. We were seated at a table for eight, with three other people occupying the opposite end. When the sandwiches were first brought out, their dimensions surprised me. The slices of rye bread were about the size of my wallet. The meat, however, was piled about as high as the bread was wide. It was dry but tender, peppery, and delicious. Poutine still in our stomachs, Liz and I forwent the fries and ordered an acidic slaw. The wall beside us was plastered with newspaper reviews and magazine articles, all salivating over Schwartz’s. The funniest clip I saw came from a skiing magazine profiling the slopes of New England. It told skiers that the best place to eat when visiting Vermont was Schwartz’s, in Montreal.

I noticed that several Francophones ordered their meat and bread on separate plates, and then constructed their own sandwiches, or simply double-fisted the two ingredients.

There were a few other local food customs that I didn’t get to experience, like “apportez-ing” my own “vin”.

Maybe next time. And there will be a next time.