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)