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.)