Monday, May 26, 2014

Prairie Kitchesn - American Pancakes

When we think of the pioneers, we tend to think of Brits, Ukrainians, Germans or Scandinavians. Truth is, more settlers came to Saskatchewan from the United States than any other foreign country.

And why not? The United States is, of course, much closer than Europe and the journey was much easier to navigate than a long voyage across land and sea.

Most Americans arrived by covered wagon or by rail, bringing their household belongings, farm implements, livestock, food for the journey and seeds to plant.

They knew how to farm the prairie and were, therefore, more successful from the get-go than farmers from Europe, who often worked hard for a year of more before they could afford a plow and a milk cow.

According to Bill Waiser's Saskatchewan: A New History, an estimated 600,000 people migrated north to Saskatchewan and Alberta between 1896 and 1914. One-third of them were long-time Americans, such as the ranchers and black pioneers. One-third were Canadians who had previously moved to the United States and took the opportunity to come back across the 49th parallel. And one-third were Europeans who had immigrated to America one, two or three generations before and, for various reasons, felt they would do better in Canada.

Some typically American recipes travelled north, too, such as baked beans, barbeque short ribs, baking powder biscuits, potato pie and pancakes. Early cookbooks call these fluffy pancakes "American" to distinguish them from the large thin pancakes that were popular in European cuisine.

American Pancakes
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tbsp sugar
1 3/4 cups buttermilk
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tbsp melted butter

Sift together flour, salt, baking soda and sugar in a large bowl. In another bowl, whip together buttermilk, egg and butter. Pour mixture into flour and stir to a smooth batter. Fry pancakes on a lightly greased cast iron skillet, flipping when the top side is bubbly and the bottom is evenly browned. Serve with butter and syrup.

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

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Prairie Kitchens - Chop Suey

Long before there was a Chinese café in small town Saskatchewan, there was chop suey. The Chinese dish "tsap seui" refers to a mix of this and that, undoubtedly in the repertoire of every cook who immigrated from the south of China.

Chinese men came to Canada to help build the national railway. When that was completed in 1885, they settled in railway towns to open restaurants, grocery stores and laundries. In the census of 1901, there were 41 people of Chinese ancestry living in Saskatchewan (or, more accurately, what would become the province of Saskatchewan in 1905).

The largest Chinese community at that time was in Moose Jaw where, in 1913, there were 450 Chinese men and two women. This imbalance of the sexes was due to the fact that the federal government imposed a "head tax" of $500 on new immigrants from China and eventually barred women and children outright.

The first Chinese cafés served typically North American foods such as cheese sandwiches and hamburger steak, but with time and perhaps curiosity, their clientele ventured to try the exotic dishes of the Orient – albeit greatly westernized.Thus our prairie palates were introduced to wonton soup, egg rolls, sweet and sour spare ribs and chicken chow mein.

Tsap seui became chop suey. Because the recipe wasn't set in stone, Chinese cooks were able to use whatever meat and vegetables were available at the time. This version uses vegetables that were grown in Saskatchewan more than a century ago.

Chop Suey
1 lb (450 grams) pork, beef or chicken
3 tbsp soy sauce
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp each salt and pepper
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 large carrots, diagonally sliced
1 cup cabbage or kale, sliced
15–20 edible pod peas, cut in half
3 spring onions, cut diagonally in 1 inch pieces
2 tbsp cornstarch
1 cup chicken or beef broth

Cut meat in strips diagonally across the grain. Mix together soy sauce, 2 tbsp vegetable oil, sugar, salt and pepper. Add meat and marinate 2 hours.

In a wok or skillet, heat the remaining 1 tbsp vegetable oil on high. Drain meat from marinade (reserving marinade) and cook 1 minute. Remove meat from skillet. Add vegetables and reserved marinade. Cook 2 minutes.

Whisk together cornstarch and broth until smooth. Add to skillet with meat. Cook until thickened and heated through. Taste and add salt if desired. Serve on hot rice.

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

Monday, May 12, 2014

Prairie Kitchens - Jugged Rabbit

Are gophers good to eat? That question was posed by the Saskatchewan Herald newspaper in 1890. Apparently, the answer is yes. Some pioneers found gopher to be quite agreeable and, the article goes on to say, "The Indians are especially fond of them. When fat they are of a very sweet and delicate flavor."

Wild game such as gophers, rabbits and deer were an import food source on the prairies after the bison disappeared but before homesteads had established cattle and hogs.

In 1952, the University of Saskatchewan and Saskatchewan Archives asked old timers what the pioneers ate. One fellow, John Bird of Broadview came west in 1882. He said their primary meat was "rabbit, more rabbit and still more rabbit" along with prairie chickens, ducks and the occasional deer. He said a typical menu was rabbit stew for breakfast, rabbit and potatoes for lunch and rabbit again for supper.

Another family who came as Barr Colonists in 1903 was devastated when their winter cache of rabbits, which were hanging frozen outside, was eaten by coyotes. The Métis made a dish called rabbit rababoo, a type of stew with turnips, potatoes and carrots that went back to the days of the fur trade.

A recipe for jugged rabbit is found in many old cookbooks. Traditionally, it was cooked in an earthenware jug. Come to think of it, gophers might taste pretty good this way, too.

Jugged Rabbit
1 rabbit, cut in pieces
1/4 cup flour seasoned with salt and pepper
3 tbsp butter
1 big onion, chopped
4 cups beef stock
1 tsp thyme
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper
1 lb button mushrooms
Extra flour for gravy

Lightly dredge rabbit in flour seasoned with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tbsp butter in a Dutch oven or other stove-to-oven pot. Brown rabbit on both sides and remove from pot. Add onion to butter and cook until soft. Return rabbit to pot.

Add beef stock, thyme, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Cover and cook in 350F oven for one hour. Add mushrooms. Top up with water to cover mushrooms. Continue cooking for about 2 hours, adding more water if needed, until rabbit is tender. Remove bay leaf. Lift out rabbit to a serving plate and mushrooms into a bowl, keeping warm while making the gravy.

With your fingers, mix remaining 1 tbsp butter with enough flour to make a crumbly dough. Add to the hot liquid, whisking vigorously while bringing to a bubble on the stove, cooking until gravy is thickened. If it's not enough gravy, add more hot water. Taste gravy and adjust salt and pepper if needed. Pour gravy through a strainer to remove any lumps. Serve with mashed potatoes.

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

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

My Morning Muesli

3 cups old fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup chopped nuts such as walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts and peanuts
1/2 cup mixed seeds such as hemp, flax, sunflower and pumpkin
1/2 cup shredded coconut
3 tbsp honey
3 tbsp vegetable oil

Mix oats, nuts, seeds and coconut. Stir together honey and vegetable oil. If honey is solid, microwave briefly to liquefy. Optional: mix in dried fruit such as raisins, cherries, apples, etc. I prefer fresh fruit to dried fruit, but raisins are always a good standby. I prefer a martini glass, but a bowl is always a good standby.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Prairie Kitchens - Chickpeas and Spinach

Imagine surviving the winter in a sod hut with no electricity, no hot running water (well, any running water) and no fresh vegetables. By early May, you would be anxious to get gardening.

Many of the pioneers who settled Saskatchewan brought their favourite seeds with them from the Old Country. Tomatoes and melons from Russia, chickpeas and lentils from Syria, sweet corn from the United States. Some of their seeds did not fare well in our short northern growing season, however, those that did prosper were saved and shared with neighbours.

For instance, gardeners would note the first tomato to ripen and save its seeds for the following year. By attentive selection, new heritage varieties were created such as the Russian Saskatchewan Tomato and the Cream of Saskatchewan Watermelon.

However, it would be a mistake to think gardening started with the pioneers. During the fur trade era, the Hudson Bay Company distributed wheat, barley, oats, potatoes and garden seeds for planting at fur trade posts such as Cumberland House and Fort Carlton. These early gardens were often tended by Métis, who were the "green thumbs" of the Northwest Territories.

Perhaps the strangest seeds grown in pioneer times were those of settlers from the Middle East such as chickpeas and coriander, which were used in recipes like this one.

Chickpeas and Spinach
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
3–4 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups finely chopped spinach
1/2 cup finely chopped coriander leaves
2 cups cooked chickpeas
2 cups stewed tomatoes and their juice
Salt and pepper

Heat oil in a deep skillet. Cook onion and garlic until soft. Stir in spinach and cook for a few minutes. Add remaining ingredients, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer on low heat for 20 minutes. Serve hot or cold.

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