Thursday, August 04, 2016

Apples ♥ Cake

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

Apfel Kuchen
For the cake:
1 cup soft butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 3/4 cup flour
2 lbs apples, peeled and sliced

Cream butter and sugar well. Beat in eggs. Stir in vanilla, salt, baking powder and flour. Remove 2/3 cup and reserve for the topping. Spread remaining batter into a greased 9 x 12 inch pan. Cover with sliced apples.

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

Sprinkle apples evenly with the cinnamon and sugar. Mix reserved cake batter with flour until crumbly. Spread over apples. Bake at 350F for 40-45 minutes, until the top is lightly browned and the apples are soft.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Got berries? Make clafoutis!

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

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

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

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

Toss fruit with remaining 1 tbsp flour.

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

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

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Fruit Kebabs - Sweet Grillin'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Don't cha wanna Eggplant Parmigiana?

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Memories of Mom - Cream Puffs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)

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.)