Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Grainews - Ancient legacy of the lentil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Emmer, spelt, faro, kamut -- it's all wheat to me!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 20, 2015

Variations on a Greek salad

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Saskatchewan Folklore

"Incidentally, the good old days never existed."  Fred Baines, 1952

I wrote an article for Saskatchewan Folklore magazine. It includes an excerpt from my new cookbook Out of Old Saskatchewan Kitchens. Read it here:


Monday, December 22, 2014

Prairie Kitchens - Jelly Salad

Almost ten years ago, in spring 2005, I began writing this food column in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix. This is my last installment.

Back in 2005, my husband and I had embarked on an eat-Saskatchewan adventure to source almost all our food within the province. Over the years, I highlighted many of those foods – wild, cultivated and processed – that Saskatchewan has to offer, as well as the recipes and food traditions cherished by those who call this province home.

It sparked two books, Prairie Feast in 2010 and Out of Old Saskatchewan Kitchens in September, both of which owe their genesis in no small part to the opportunities this column has given me. In the new year, I'm heading to Europe to research another book, a history of wheat, for which I received a Canada Council writers' grant. New adventures await…

Looking back over the past ten years, I observe one significant gap in the subject matter of this column: jelly salad. Jelly salads are iconic in Saskatchewan, if not on the modern dinner table then in our fondest memories of fall suppers and holiday meals.

In my family, no Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner passed without my mom's jelly salad. However, my all-time favourite Jell-o concoction is made by my brother's mother-in-law, Enid Burton of Saskatoon. At her dinner table, it is served with the turkey but is also good as dessert. We call it Pink Stuff. So I sign off today with a Jell-o recipe and wish you merry adventures in the kitchen and a prosperous New Year.

"Pink Stuff" Jell-O Salad
1 large box strawberry Jell-o powder
2 cups boiling water
2 cups dream whip
1 1/2 or 2 cups mini marshmallows, plain or coloured

Stir Jell-o with boiling water until powder is dissolved. Cool and refrigerate until Jell-o is jiggly but not set. With an electric mixer, beat in cool whip until well incorporated. Stir in marshmallows. Refrigerate until mealtime.

(This article was first published in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix.)

Monday, December 15, 2014

Prairie Kitchens - Candied Orange Peel

Back in the day, people made candy for Christmas. Bought candy was a luxury many of the pioneers could not afford, except perhaps a few pieces dropped into a child's stocking along with an orange.

Common is the story of a farm wife butchering the turkeys in November and trading them at the general store for Christmas baking supplies, including the ingredients for making sweets.

Fudge falls into this category. Two weeks ago, I included a recipe for Maple Cream Fudge from my grandmother's recipe box. This week, I'm presenting the technique for making candied orange peel in the Lebanese tradition.

Dora Nasser came to Saskatoon with three young daughters in 1963 when her husband, Karim, took a teaching position at the University of Saskatchewan. Back then, she couldn't buy some ingredients essential to Lebanese cuisine such as eggplant, lentils, ground lamb and olive oil. "I really missed the food. We didn't starve but we didn't have the things I craved," she recalls.

How things have changed. Now she can buy eggplant of various sizes and olive oil from several countries. As for lentils, Saskatchewan now grows more lentils than anywhere else in the world!

Her family Christmas includes turkey stuffed with rice and pine nuts, Lebanese shortbread and candied orange peel. She prefers to use Seville oranges, but other thick-skinned oranges will do. Leftover syrup can be used in making baklava (a Middle Eastern dessert), added to the punch bowl or served on ice cream.

Candied Orange Peel (see images below)
4-5 oranges
Water for boiling
2 cups water
2 cups sugar
1 cup honey
Needle and thread

Lightly grate the oranges to take off the shine. Cut the stem and flower ends off each orange.

With a knife, score the peel into quarters, cutting through the peel from top to bottom. Peel each section off the orange including the white pith, then cut each section in half lengthwise. This makes 8 peels per orange. Boil orange peels in water until soft.

Put peels in cold water for a day or two, changing the water twice. Lay peels on a tea towel or paper towel to dry, pressing out excess water. I left the peels overnight.

String a needle with thread. Roll each peel into a curl and secure it by piercing it with the needle and thread. Continue until all the curls are strung together, pressed close so they cannot uncurl.

In a saucepan bring the 2 cups water, sugar and honey to a light boil for 10 minutes, until sugar is dissolved. Place the string of orange curls into the hot sugar syrup and boil on medium heat for 20 minutes or longer.

Cooking is done at the two drop stage: scoop some syrup with a cold spoon and pour it back into the pot. When the syrup rolls off the spoon in two side-by-side drops (as opposed to one stream) cooking is complete. Lift out the peels. Cool slightly and pull off string.


(This article first appeared in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix.)

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Prairie Kitchens - Pumpkin Loaf

My friend Judy would make her Granny proud. Her Granny Martha Mae came to Saskatchewan from Ontario in the early days when her husband got a job on the railway. When he was killed in a rail accident, she raised their four children by scrimping and scraping by.

"She could make a meal from almost nothing. Absolutely nothing went to waste," says Judy who, like most of us, admires the tenacity and ingenuity of single moms like her granny in the days before family allowances and childcare. "Her front yard was all flowers and her back yard was all vegetables," says Judy. "She taught us that meals were special and to be thankful for the food we had."

In keeping with her granny's frugal pioneers spirit, Judy prepared this recipe for pumpkin loaf from scratch – starting with the pumpkin. "I'd never cooked pumpkin from scratch before, but it was easy. It baked just like spaghetti squash," she says.

Like old-time cooks, she adapted the recipe to the ingredients on hand, substituting half whole wheat flour, omitted the nutmeg and cloves (upping the cinnamon) and adding an extra 1/4 cup of cooked pumpkin because that's what the pumpkin yielded. No waste!

She took it to a potluck brunch with my book club, who cooked recipes from my new cookbook Out of Old Saskatchewan Kitchens. Other dishes included buttered eggs, perogies, Swedish meatballs, cranberry jam, oatmeal scones and gingerbread cookies. A meal to make a prairie granny proud.

Pumpkin Loaf
2 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/2 cup raisins
1 egg
2/3 cup milk
1 cup cooked pumpkin, mashed
1/4 cup melted butter
Brown sugar for topping

Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl. Toss in raisins. Beat egg well and stir in milk, pumpkin and butter.

Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in egg mixture. Mix just enough to blend. Pour into a greased loaf pan.

Sprinkle generously with brown sugar. Bake at 350F for about 1 hour, until a knife inserted in the centre of the loaf comes out clean.

(This article first appeared in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix.)

Monday, December 01, 2014

Prairie Kitchens - Kutia

On December 24, many Polish, Ukrainian and Russian families will sit down to a traditional 12-course meatless Christmas Eve meal. The list of dishes may include perogies, borsht, mushrooms, fish and kutia, a dish of sweet boiled wheat with nuts, poppy seeds and honey.

Why include a dish of wheat for Christmas Eve? Back to pre-Christian times, even to ancient Egypt, wheat was considered a sacred grain because it provided bread – the staff of life – and symbolized death and rising again as the seed went into the ground and rose up as a young green plant. This symbolism entered the Christian faith in the wheat-growing lands of Eastern Europe, and from there, it came with the settlers to the wheat-growing lands of Canada.

Among those settlers were Anton and Anna Osiowy (o-sho-vee), Polish immigrants from Galicia, a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who homesteaded at Lemberg, near Melville, in 1897. Incidentally, Lemberg was the German name for a city in Galicia formerly known as Lwiw in the Polish Kingdom and currently Lviv in Ukraine.

In Ukrainian tradition, kutia is one of the first dishes served at Christmas Eve but in the Polish tradition of Anna and Anton it was served as dessert. Their great great grand-daughter, Annette Leniczek Stebner, remembers her dad fetching a bucket of wheat from the granary and the children picking out the chaff and weed seeds at the kitchen table. "It felt good to eat something we produced ourselves," she says, and still uses organic wheat from the family farm to make this treasured dish on Christmas Eve.

Anna Osiowy's Kutia
1 cup wheat seeds
6 cups water
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup poppy seeds
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or almonds
Pinch salt
1 cup sugar or honey
Cream for serving

Soak wheat in water overnight. Without draining, bring to a boil, skimming the foam that rises to the top. Lower heat, cover and simmer, stirring now and then, until the wheat seeds burst open, about 4-5 hours. Stir in raisins, poppy seeds, nuts and sugar or honey. Heat through. To serve, scoop into individual bowls and pour on some cream.

(This article first appeared in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix.)

Monday, November 24, 2014

Prairie Kitchen - Maple Cream Fudge

My grandma was proud of her fudge. She made two or three kinds of fudge to serve over the holidays, perhaps a custom she learned from her Scottish mother on the farm at Nokomis. Back in her mother's day, Christmas sweets and candy were an expensive extravagance for many prairie families. So they made their own.

Christmas preparations began early with the centrepiece of the meal – a turkey or a pork roast – raised on the farm. The pigs and poultry were butchered in November once the days dipped below zero since there was no freezer but the great outdoors. Many are the accounts of a farm wife keeping one turkey for her family and taking the remainder into town to trade at the general store for holiday baking supplies such as nuts, spices, candied peel (for the fruitcake) and white sugar. Fruitcakes were made in mid-November so they could "mature" before Christmas dinner, and a great variety of cookies were baked in advance and kept frozen for special meals.

However, when times were tough, as they were many years, Christmas was not always celebrated in fine style. Years later, Fred Baines recalled the first Christmases his family spent on the prairie after immigrating from England: "We did not celebrate in those days, but I remember, my mother cried at the poor dinner we had."

My grandma's recipe card for fudge is stained and well used, and the taste transports me back to the warmth and fragrance of her kitchen at Christmas time.

Maisie's Maple Cream Fudge
3 cups brown sugar
1 tbsp flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp butter
2/3 cup light cream
Pinch salt
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup walnuts (optional)

In a saucepan, mix all ingredients except vanilla and nuts. Heat on medium, stirring now and then, until sugar is dissolved. Continue heating on medium until the mixture comes to a full boil, stirring infrequently to ensure it is not sticking to bottom or sides of the pot.

Heat to soft ball stage or 238F on a candy thermometer. To test for soft ball stage without a thermometer, pour a small spoonful of fudge into cold water. Scoop up the fudge in your fingers; if it cools into a soft pliable ball you can work between your fingers it has reached the soft ball stage. If not, keep boiling and test again.

Once it reaches the soft ball stage, turn off heat. Allow to cool to 110F, cool enough to hold a finger in the fudge. Do not stir. Once cool, stir in vanilla and nuts, if using. Beat with a spoon until the fudge is smooth and no longer glossy. Spread into a lightly buttered 8x8 inch dish, smoothing with damp fingers. Cool completely and cut into squares.

(This article first appeared in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix.)

Monday, November 17, 2014

Prairie Kitchens - Creamed Chicken & Mamaliga

What's your comfort food? Ask one hundred people and you might get one hundred different answers. For Lisa Lambert, it's Creamed Chicken, a Romanian recipe brought to Saskatchewan with her grandmother one hundred years ago.

"It's steeped in nostalgia," she says. "We crave the foods that hold good memories for us and I have very good memories of Granny cooking good food for us."

Granny Mary Wilchuck was a little girl (nee Gnesner) when she immigrated to Canada with her family in 1914 and settled in Southey. They came from an area called Bukovina which was, at that time, under the authority of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, the area was historically Romanian. So, while Granny Wilchuck considered herself Austrian and spoke German, their immigration papers listed Romania as the country of origin.

This bit of history illustrates how blurred ethnic origins can become through the centuries of shifting borders, and how this is often reflected in favourite family recipes. At 17, she wed a farmer almost twice her age, an arranged marriage. It was not a blissful union, according to Lambert, but Granny Wilchuck was always smiling when she cooked for her family.

In time, she taught this recipe to her British daughter-in-law, Marilyn Wilchuck. Lambert has included the recipe in her cookbook, Recipes I Stole from My Mum, noting that, as a child, she always requested it for her birthday dinner. Mamaliga is the Romanian word for polenta, a corn meal porridge still popular on Romanian dinner tables today.

Creamed Chicken
5–6 lbs chicken parts
Water to cover
2 chicken bouillon cubes or 2 tbsp instant chicken bouillon
2 tbsp salt
4 bay leaves
1 1/2 cups sour cream
1 cup flour
1 cup water

Cover the chicken in water in a large dutch oven. Add chicken bouillon, salt and bay leaves. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 1 hour.

Remove a small amount of broth and cool. Gradually stir sour cream into cooled broth. Return to the simmering sauce, stirring constantly.

Mix flour and remaining 1 cup water until smooth. Stir into sauce to thicken. Discard bay leaves. Serve over corn meal.

Corn Meal (Mamaliga)
6 cups water
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp butter or margarine
2 cups yellow corn meal

Bring water to boil in a large pot. Add salt and butter. Add corn meal gradually and stir constantly until thick. Simmer about 20 minutes, stirring frequently, until corn meal starts to pull away from the sides of the pot. Serve hot.

(This article first appeared in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix.)