Friday, September 29, 2006

Dining out – WHOLE WHEAT PEROGIES

Sometimes, the best restaurants take a bit of effort to get to – but it’s worth it.

Today, I went for a drive with my friend Susan and her two youngsters, Allie and Jackson, to admire the fall leaves along the S. Saskatchewan River. Our destination was the New Ground Café in Birch Hills, an hour or so north of Saskatoon.

My friend Jenny Willems started this fabulous little café last December. Eventhough it’s small (only five tables) and the menu is small (two or three items to choose from) it’s got big tastes and an ambitious flare. The chalkboard menu changes daily depending on what Jenny has purchased from local farmers and gardeners.

Jackson ordered the chicken noodle soup. Jenny warned him, ever so mother-like, that it might taste a little different because it’s made with coconut milk and Thai seasoning. Jackson took one spoonful and said it was so good we all had to try it. Allie ordered the best, gooeyest, whole wheat cinnamon bun I have ever eaten. Susan had the Turkey Dinner pizza – cranberry sauce topped with turkey and cheese. After an intrepid bite, Allie declared it so good she wanted half of her mom’s pizza. I had a creamy soup of potatoes and spaghetti squash with chunks of blue potato. It was so filling I couldn’t eat it all (along with a big chunk of bannock), but since Susan had given away half her pizza she was happy to polish it off. Driving away, Susan said there was not one thing she tasted that wasn’t delicious, and that’s saying a lot for a little restaurant off the beaten path.

The first time I visited the New Ground Café, Jenny was making blue cheese perogies for dinner. She has offered to share her favourite perogie dough recipe:

2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups whole wheat flour
2 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. oil
2 Tbsp. sour cream
3 eggs
1 cup water

Jenny’s note: Let rest at least half an hour before using. Add more flour if too sticky. Can double as ravioli dough.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Killer Spinach

So, we have been told not to eat spinach from the grocery store. The spinach could be contaminated with E-coli which has killed one person and made countless sick. The U.S. FDA says it's not a case of food tampering. But I say it is! We are tampering with our natural food system by relying on distant cheap-labour mega-farms for our fresh food. Standards slip, things go wrong, one mistake affects millions of consumers.

I will not be throwing out my store-bought spinach because I don't buy spinach in the store. I buy spinach from the local farmers' market when it's in season. I also grow my own and freeze it for winter months. If we stay connected to the sources of our food we are much less likely to be the victims of killer produce.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Water off a duck’s back – DUCK WRAPPED IN BACON

I went duck hunting on Saturday for the first time. It was perfect weather – if you’re a duck. Rain, rain and rain. I went with Sue, who hunts for food, and Katherine, a new hunter, to a pond near Perdue, Saskatchewan. I was dressed in my husband’s waders, with boots so big I was tripping on the barb wire fences we crawled through. We sat beneath a stand of young willows in a patch of wild mint and waited for the ducks to fly by.

Well, the ducks weren’t flying. So we gabbed for an hour or more, never fired a shot, and walked back to the house to warm up. However, we were not without a duck. Sue’s large munsterlander (a hunting dog) caught a young mallard duck. Back at the house, Sue cut the breasts off the duck, smothered them in Cajun spice and BBQd them to a charred rare. It was so good.

But the best part was lunch. We met up with a group of hunters at the Saskatoon Gun Club for a lunch made from wild fowl – coot cassoulet, crane wraps and best of all, Sue’s BBQd duck in bacon.

SUE’S BBQD DUCK IN BACON
Marinate fresh duck breast overnight in Italian dressing. Cut the duck breasts into small, thin strips. Lay half a piece of bacon flat and put a slice duck on top.
Add a piece of hot pepper (jalapeno or pickled chili) at the end and roll all together. Fasten with a toothpick. Grill only as long as it takes for the bacon to cook, and serve!

Monday, September 18, 2006

Newsaper - PASTA NORMA

This article appeared in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix on 18 Sept. 2006.

Summer’s bounty lingers in the luscious eggplant
The other night at dinner my husband put down his fork and declared the words every home cook would treasure: "This is as good as candy." And we weren’t even eating dessert! It was Pasta Norma, a dish from Sicily which (so the story goes) was named for the opera Norma when it debuted in 1831. The opera tells the story of a tragic love affair between a Roman official and a Druid high priestess. This does not seem to have any direct relation to the main ingredient in Pasta Norma – eggplant – except perhaps to say that it’s wickedly good.

Eggplant is not that common in Saskatchewan gardens, but it’s one of those exotic Mediterranean vegetables that will grow here with proper pampering. A couple of years ago, I found some eggplant seedlings in a local greenhouse and put them in my garden. I got lots of cute little purple eggplants, which spurred me to find new ways to cook them.

Fresh off that success, I planted some more seedlings last year but they didn’t do so well. I got just two eggplants which, if divided by the price of the seedlings, cost me $5 each. It is much less expensive and more reliable to buy them at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market. Freshly picked eggplants are available there in late summer and early fall, making this the perfect time to try some classic eggplant recipes from around the world.

The dish that immediately comes mind is the French vegetable stew called ‘ratatouille’, a mix of eggplant, tomatoes, red peppers and fresh basil that’s easy to make and delicious either hot or cold. The next classic recipe I tried was Eggplant Parmigiana, an Italian dish of fried eggplant baked with a tomato-basil sauce and lots of Parmesan and mozzarella cheese. It is absolutely yummy. Middle Eastern cooks make a dip for flatbread and vegetables with eggplant and tahini called ‘baba ghanoush’ and it’s the main ingredient in the Greek baked dish ‘moussaka’.

Not only do I have eggplant in my kitchen, I also have it on my walls. One year for my birthday my husband gave me a still-life painting of an eggplant and a squash. Not long after, I invited my friend Tomasia for dinner. I suppose she hadn’t examined my walls until she was sitting at the table, when she looked up and demanded, "Why on earth do you have a picture of an eggplant on your wall?" In the 17th Century, still-life paintings of food were wildly popular in northern Europe, in part because they reminded people of their growing prosperity and the distances their ships would travel in search of exotic goods.

My eggplant painting reminds me of summer and my search for new and wonderful foods produced in Saskatchewan. I’m an enthusiastic supporter of local food, so it’s always exciting to discover a new gem to include in an all-Saskatchewan diet. Eggplant is often paired with tomatoes, as it is in Pasta Norma.

PASTA NORMA
olive oil
3 small eggplants
2 cloves garlic
8-10 plum tomatoes
a handful of fresh basil
salt and pepper
ricotta cheese
cooked pasta for four

Heat olive oil in a skillet until hot. Use enough oil to thickly coat the bottom of the pan. Slice the eggplant in rounds and then cut the rounds into quarters. Fry the eggplant in hot oil until soft and brown. It will soak up much of the oil so you may need to add more.

Meanwhile, sauté garlic in 1/4 cup olive oil. Stir in chopped tomatoes, chopped basil, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil then simmer for 15 minutes or more, pressing the tomatoes to create a sauce. Season with salt and pepper.

To serve, place pasta in individual bowls, scoop on some tomato sauce, top with eggplant and sprinkle with ricotta cheese. This dish is at its absolute best when the eggplant and tomatoes are young and fresh, so hike on down to the farmers’ market and do it right!

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Gifts of food - STEELHEAD TROUT WITH CHERRY TOMATOES

One day not too long ago, I got a phone call out of the blue from a woman who reads my column in the newspaper about Saskatchewan food. Her name was Genevieve. She said she had a gift for me. It was two big bottles of her marinated vinegar – one with garden herbs and the other with saskatoon berries – and a jar of pesto. What a treat! She told me to wait awhile before opening the vinegar. So, my first taste was last night. Here’s what I did with it:

STEELHEAD TROUT ROASTED WITH CHERRY TOMATOES
Steelhead is a type of trout raised at the Wild West Steelhead fish farm on Lake Diefenbaker near Lucky Lake, Saskatchewan. I purchased some trout while on a visit to the farm. It had been caught, cleaned and packaged within the hour. And cooked just a few hours after that! Any other fish fillets would work just as well in this recipe.

Heat the oven to 425. Take two handfuls of cherry tomatoes and cut them in half. (Red and yellow tomatoes would make a pretty mix.) Toss them with some shredded basil, a pinch or two of kosher salt and a good dousing of herb vinegar. Marinate for an hour.

Rub the bottom of a roasting pan with olive oil. Place two fillets of trout in the oil, skin side down. Season with salt and white pepper. Arrange the cherry tomatoes on top of the fillets. Drizzle with a bit more olive oil. Roast in the oven uncovered for about 15 minutes, until the fish is flaky.
Top the fish with some grated white cheese – parmesan, mozzarella or gruyere for example. Turn the oven to broil and bake until the cheese is melted. I served the fish with boiled fingerling potatoes and just-picked corn on the cob.

Friday, September 08, 2006

On the Airwaves - TROUT BAKED IN SALT

If you listen to CBC radio during the day (in Saskatchewan) you can catch my new food column Home on the Range on the program "Blue Sky" with Jen Gibson. I'll be on the show monthly to talk about my adventures in Saskatchewan foodland. My first show is today between 1:30 and 2:00 pm. We're going to talk (among other things) about my visit to Canada's largest fresh water fish farm - Wild West Steelhead on Lake Diefenbaker. It should be fun!

Update: The first program was marvellous. Robin called in from Regina to rave about Saskatchewan wild rice. He has a ten-year tradition of buying a big bag of rice and sharing it with his coworkers, so they get a chance to sample a product that is not readily available in their city. Isn't that sweet?! Lois called from Moose Jaw with her favourite recipe for Saskatchewan's fall bounty - beet borscht. Jen tried to twist Lois's arm to send us her secret family recipe. I'm crossing my fingers for that!

WILD WEST STEELHEAD TROUT BAKED IN SALT
Stuff the cavity of a whole 5-lb fish with lemon slices and fresh thyme. Place it in a long baking dish and cover with course salt. Use a 2 kg. box of Sifto salt (mined in Saskatchewan). The fish should be completely covered. Bake for 1.5 hours at 325 C. When it comes out of the oven the salt will be rock hard. Crack it open with a knife, peel off the skin of the fish and lift out the flesh.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Saskatchewan Sea Salt

As readers of this blog will know, my husband and I ate almost exclusively the foods of Saskatchewan in our own home for a whole year. During that time, people would try to catch me cheating by naming a food that no one could do without. Like salt and pepper. Where did I get Saskatchewan salt and pepper?

Hah! That’s easy. First of all, I buy peppercorns from Carole Stratychuk at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market. She grows the pepper on her vacation farm in Costa Rica, where she spends the winter months. So, while it’s not grown in Saskatchewan, it is grown by Saskatchewan hands.

As for salt, that’s even easier. There is a Sifto salt mine at Unity where they make table salt, kosher salt, pickling salt, water softener salt and salt licks for livestock. I toured the salt mine yesterday and was really impressed with the operation. The salt is extracted from an ancient sea bed 4,000 feet below the surface of the earth. To get the salt, they shoot down enough water to create a brine, pump it to the surface, and evaporate off the liquid. Voila, billion-year-old sea salt from Saskatchewan!

In the store, look on the box for a little circle that contains some letters and the number 69. That number denotes products from the Unity salt mine.