Monday, February 01, 2016

As Canadian as Oats for Breakfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Take Your Pulse and Make Greek Fava

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Year of Pulses: Sprouts for New Year's Day

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 14, 2015

Good Ol' Meatloaf

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 30, 2015

Fill Your Ice Cream Pails with Scuffles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Falling for Zucchini Chocolate Cake

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

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

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

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

“What’s with all the zucchini?” he asked.
“Do you have something against zucchini?”
“Good,” I said. “You’re having it for supper.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Zucchini Please Cookies Please

For the first time in 20 years I did not have a garden this summer. And so, for the first time in 20 years, I found myself begging for zucchini. Thanks goodness for friends and facebook! This is my favourite zucchini cookie, made all the more loveable sweetened with honey instead of sugar.
The recipe is from the cookbook Zucchini: You Can Never Have Enough by John Butler. If the zucchini is young and fresh, I leave the skin on for a nice green or yellow fleck in the cookies. However, if the skin is thick I recommend peeling the zucchini first.

Zucchini Cookie
1/2 cup soft butter
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
pinch baking soda
1/3 cup honey
1/2 cup white flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup grated zucchini
1 cup raisins
1 cup rolled oats

Cream together the butter, egg and vanilla. Mix the baking soda into the honey and blend into the creamed butter. Sift the flours, baking powder and salt over the creamed mixture and mix well. Stir in the zucchini, raisins and oats. Drop by spoonfuls onto a greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350F for 10-13 minutes.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Mrs. Diefenbaker's Cookbook

Since we're in the midst of a federal election campaign, I'm thinking of John Diefenbaker's dinner. The Dief was Canada's thirteenth Prime Minister and a proud prairie boy. . . especially proud of his mother Mary's good prairie cooking.
Diefenbaker was born in a small town in Ontario in September 1895. In 1903, when he was seven, his family moved west so his father, William, who had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, could take advantage of the healthful prairie air.

William took a teaching position at a one-room school near Fort Carlton, a mounted police depot and former fur trade post mid-way on the wagon trail between Winnipeg and Edmonton. Their home and school served as a community centre and rest stop where locals, travellers and new homesteaders were welcomed for a friendly conversation and a bite to eat.

In his memoir, One Canada (Vol. 1), Diefenbaker recalls North-West Mounted Police officers dropping by, humorously noting: "No doubt it was coincidence but they usually arrived at mealtime."

Residents of the local reserve frequently came for tea, and Gabriel Dumont, leader of the Metis uprising of 1885, visited now and then with a gift of game for the stew pot. "He could speak no English but he could shoot, and he gave us some examples of his marksmanship," writes Diefenbaker who, as a boy, was awed by the stature and stories of the legendary Metis hero.

Their daily diet was typical for prairie settlers at that time. Day to day, they ate rabbits, fish, wildfowl, prairie chickens and domestic chickens. Neighbours brought them Mennonite sausages, cured hams and garden vegetables until the Diefenbakers had a garden of their own. They picked wild mushrooms and berries by the pail full at a time when the prairie was bountiful in wild fruit. Diefenbaker lists a typical haul at 30 quarts of strawberries, 50 quarts of saskatoons and 100 quarts of raspberries!

In 1906, the family moved to a homestead near Borden, Sask. (the province of Saskatchewan having been created the year before), where they kept a milk cow and planted a large garden, particularly potatoes. Mary made excellent butter, which she traded at the general store for groceries such as flour, sugar and prunes. Her harvest meals were exceptional, and it was not unnoticed by young Dief that the harvest crews, usually consisting of 15-20 men, slowed their pace of work so they could stick around for one more meal.

"Mother was a good cook," he writes. "We always had plenty of wholesome food." Diefenbaker was so enamoured of his mother's cooking that he saved her cookbook, Good Housekeeping's Favourite Recipes and Menus From Our Kitchen to Yours, which is now part of his collection at the University of Saskatchewan Archives in Saskatoon.
The cookbook is well used, frayed at the edges and splattered with the memories of cake batter and tomato sauce. Additional recipes clipped from the newspaper are glued to the inside covers, most notably recipes for chocolate cake. Perhaps it was a favourite of young John and his brother Elmer.

Mary's cookbook includes this recipe for baked string beans. The original recipe calls for an unspecified "fat" for which I used butter. I also cut this recipe in half, since I am not feeding a harvest crew or a couple of active prairie boys.
Baked String Beans and Bacon
2 lbs string beans
6 slices bacon
1 1/2 cups light cream or thin white sauce (see below)
1 1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
3 tbsp melted butter
1/2 cup fine bread crumbs

To make a thin white sauce: On the stove, melt 2 tbsp butter in a small pot. Add 2 tbsp flour and blend well. Pour in 2 cups cold milk. Heat, whisking vigorously until bubbling and thickened. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and cook on low heat for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, cut string beans into one-inch pieces and cook in salted water until tender. Dice bacon and fry until crisp. Drain beans and mix with bacon, thin cream or white sauce, salt, pepper and 2 tbsp of melted butter. Place in a greased baking dish.

Mix bread crumbs with remaining 1 tbsp of melted butter and sprinkle over beans. Bake at 425F for 20 minutes, until golden brown.

A page from Mary Diefenbaker's favourite cookbook: the food spatters may tell us this was one of her favourite recipes.

(This article first appeared in Grainews)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Ford-for-a-Day Food Tour

If Ford offered you a car for a day and $500 spending money, what would you do? I decided to grab some friends and take the Ford Focus for a local food tour in and around Saskatoon.

The day began at a bakery... isn't that the best way to start a day?? The Night Oven has a large stone mill in back so I bought some fresh-ground flours (buckwheat and white) plus some sweet treats for sharing over coffee. Our friends Annie and Ward jumped into the car with us and we headed north of the city.

First stop, Pine View Farm at Osler. We had a good discussion with the owner, Melanie Boldt, about aging meat for 42 days. Cause if I aged meat for 42 days in my fridge it would probably be green! However, they know what they're doing and, as a result, the meat is extra tender and flavourful. And pricey! But it was a splurge, no?

We set off for the Smokehaus in Martensville, multi-winner of the annual King of the Koubasa award. Smells all smoky wonderful in there!! But the sweet spot of the morning was an unexpected stop just north of Martensville - a quick u-turn on the highway - for a gorgeous farmyard market.

Wow!! What a great offering of veggies, meats, pies, perogies, baking and even lard!! (It's really hard to find pure farm lard, which like for pie pastry). I bought a box of little jams for the Saskatoon Food Bank. Gotta share the local flavours!!

Heading back into the city, we made a pit stop at the Saskatoon Farmers' Market. Can I have one of everything!! Well, not quite...

Then down Valley Road to see what's new. I dropped in on my former colleague at CBC Radio, Joan Merrill, who runs Robertson Valley Farm with her husband Don. Amazing broccoli. Kohlrabi the size of cabbages!!

We stopped in at the Berry Barn and bought... strawberries!! Yes, the saskatoon berry barn is now growing strawberries, too. Who knew??

We wrapped up the day by taking two friends, Susan and Brent, for dinner at The Hollows. I recently heard a CBC Radio show about the chef growing the produce she uses in the restaurant. Her ethic is heirloom vegetables and the whole animal nose-to-tail thing. She won my heart with a cocktail called a Marigold topped with flowers. I love to eat flowers. :)
One last stop on the tour: the next morning I dropped off a selection of jams and jellies at the Saskatoon Food Bank. I hope they bring a smile to a child who loves strawberry, or plum, or raspberry, or...
As for the Ford Focus... It was fun to drive. The trunk was a little small for all our purchases (including those of our friends). It was low to the ground, but fortunately we didn't drive any difficult rural roads. It was a standard shift, which is fine with me, but it was the first time I had a car with 6 gears. I asked twitter what #6 was for, and someone replied "hydroplane." Yes, it was easy to speed in this car... very smooth, quiet and effortless. And red!!

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Apple Nostalgia in Berlin

In Berlin, I left the hotel room early one morning in search of coffee and apples. Anything with apples.

Wandering the neighbourhood, I found a sunny little bakery on a leafy street near the Brandenburg Gate. It had a tiny sidewalk patio with four tables and a plethora of potted plants. Best of all, a sign on the sidewalk said the bakery specialized in fruit kuchen.
Sure enough, there on the glass countertop were two large round fruit cakes, one plum and the other apple. But don't imagine the kind of fruit cake your grandmother made at Christmas time. They were what we here on the prairies might call "coffee cake" with a cake base, a layer of fruit and a crumble topping. In German, the apple version is called apfelstreuselkuchen. It was delicious, or lecker.

Ever since I was a child, I've loved anything with apples. We had two kinds of apple trees on our farm: a couple of big old crabs and a "pie" tree with large yellow apples, the variety of which no one recalled. We children were allowed to climb the crab apple trees and eat as many as we liked. But we were forbidden to climb the "pie" tree or eat any of its apples without permission. They were seriously earmarked for baking.
When my mother came to the farm as a young bride, she knew very little about cooking. Her mother (my grandmother) was a fabulous cook but she failed to pass on this knowledge to my mom. So my mom learned to cook from her mother-in-law. My Grandma Ehman was not a fancy cook but a good farm cook – hearty wholesome meals with produce from her own gardens, rich in cream and butter, from simple recipes that reflected her prairie roots and German heritage.

This included apple kuchen, applesauce cookies and apple pie. Her apple jelly was fantastic on toast, with pork chops and sandwiched in the centre of jam jams. I'm quite sure I was weaned on her applesauce. I have loved anything with apples ever since.
In the early pioneer days, apples were a rare treat. Dried apples were available in country stores, but fresh apples arrived by rail from Ontario. In 1914, pioneer Julie Feilberg, whose family homesteaded at Nokomis, Sask., recorded that a barrel of apples cost $4.25. She bought them as a special treat with Christmas money sent by her grandfather in Denmark.

Many farmers planted apple trees on the home quarter and, by the 1920s, some had opened their orchards for u-pick excursions. This coincided with the spread of automobiles and apple picking became a pleasant family outing.

Then came the legendary winter of 1942, which was so harsh that most of the apple trees on the northern prairies perished in the cold. Work began in earnest to breed new varieties of apples better suited to the prairie climate, based on experiments already underway at orchards such as those at the Seager Wheeler farm at Rosthern, Sask., and the Morden Experimental Farm at Morden, Man.

Thanks to their passion for apples, I was able to climb a big old crab apple tree in my youth and fall in love with my grandma's hand-picked apple kuchen.

I was thinking of my grandma that day in Berlin when a little bird landed on my table, brazenly eyeing my cake. I put a crumb on the far corner of the table and we enjoyed our apfelstreuselkuchen together in the morning sunshine.
Apple 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. Press remaining dough into a greased 9 x 12 inch pan. Cover with sliced apples.

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

Sprinkle apples evenly with sugar and cinnamon. Mix reserved cake dough 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.

(This article first appeared in Grainews)