Monday, March 14, 2016

Give a dog a bone NOT before soup

Sometimes I eat out of the garbage. Case in point: One year as we cleaned up Easter dinner, I asked my sister-in-law what she did with the ham bone. 

It was a good ham, we enjoyed it immensely. As I was eating it, I thought of the (even more) delicious soup I could make with the bone.
She pointed to the garbage bin. Sure enough, there was the ham bone beneath a pile of paper napkins and soggy coffee grounds. I picked it out, washed it up and the rest was history. . . or lunch.

Somewhere in my formative cooking years, I heard this wise piece of advice from a chef of Italian heritage: "Don't waste good flavour." By this she meant, don't discard anything in the process of cooking one thing that might flavour something else. It's an adage of cucina povera, the frugal wholesome cooking of the poor.

That ham bone? It's the flavour in a lentil soup. Bacon drippings? Fry up some onions for chili. The rind of parmesan cheese? Toss it into a soup pot or simmering rice. Or do like Italian mothers and give it to a teething baby.

I keep a zipper bag in the freezer for carrot peels, onion skins, tomato ends, parsley stems, broccoli stalks, etc. When it's full I boil up a tasty vegetable stock. The soggy vegetable bits go into the compost, which becomes food for my garden.

Of course, the pioneers and Depression-era cooks were masters at reusing every bit of good flavour, as this example illustrates: leftover pickle juice was used to make more pickles, including watermelon pickles, which gave new life to the rinds.

It's estimated by the FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) that one-third of our worldwide food supply is wasted. For instance, 30 percent of cereal crops are lost. More than 40 percent of fruits and vegetables are discarded. Twenty percent of meat raised for human consumption never reaches the dinner plate.

These losses take place at five points in the food chain: farming, post-harvest storage, processing, distribution and consumption. In wealthy countries such as Canada, more than 40 percent of the loss occurs in the final stages – in retail stores and consumers' kitchens. In stores, the waste is often based on appearance. In the home, it's often due to spoilage and simply throwing it away.

I'm trying to change that, one bone at a time. Nowadays, my sister-in-law sets the ham bone aside for me, so forays into the garbage bin are well and gone. However, I am now facing competition from a new family member – a German Shepherd. While I would never take food from a baby, I have no problem taking it from a dog. After I've made my pot of soup, she can have it back. That's three meals from one bone.

A few weeks back, this column featured a recipe for a Greek appetizer called fava made with yellow split peas. Here's another use for those split peas. It's simple, delicious and the best of cucina povera and "don't waste good flavour" in a bowl.

Ham Bone Split Pea Soup
The bone often has enough meat on it for soup, but if not, add a handful of leftover ham. Since cured ham has been salted, additional salt is added at the end of cooking.
1 meaty ham bone
8 cups water
1 1/2 cups yellow split peas
1 medium onion, chopped
2 big carrots, peeled and broken in three
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper

Put everything except the salt and pepper into a stock pot. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover the pot and simmer 2-3 hours, until the split peas are completely broken down and the onions have disintegrated into the broth. Cool.

Remove the bone, bay leaf and chunks of carrot. Dice the carrot and toss it back into the pot. Pick the meat from the bone and add to the pot, or add some leftover ham, shredded or chopped.

Discard the bay leaf. Which is to say, toss it into the vegetable stock zipper bag in the freezer or into the compost. As for the bone, you can now give it to Spot, who will hardly notice the difference.

Reheat the soup. If it has thickened, add water until you have a pleasing soup consistency. Season with salt and pepper as needed to your taste.

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)

Monday, March 07, 2016

And the winner is... Baked Beans

It seems every old cowboy movie had a camp cook serving up a mess of baked beans. I can see John Wayne eating them now. . . from a tin plate with an old battered spoon and a chunk of sourdough bread. So, it's fitting that when I asked rancher Art Unsworth for a recipe from the annual Murraydale Stampede and Picnic, he sent a recipe for baked beans.

The Murraydale Stampede and Picnic has been held every summer since 1909 in ranch country south of Maple Creek. On the second Sunday in July, local families gather in a natural amphitheatre on the edge of the Nekaneet First Nation for an afternoon of socializing, rodeo and food. Four generations of the Unsworth family have been in attendance.

Their story is not uncommon for prairie pioneers. Sam and Lillian Unsworth and four children left England in 1895, settling in Ontario for a couple of years before relocating by covered wagon to Oregon. Sam took up sheep farming. However, their daughter died tragically on the farm and they could no longer bear to live there.

In 1907, they packed up the wagon and moved again, back to Canada, establishing a ranch near the Cypress Hills. They raised sheep, cattle, Clydesdale horses and fifteen children. Art is the youngest of 43 grandchildren and the third generation on the ranch.

Among his oldest memories is attending the Murraydale Stampede and Picnic, when the ladies outdid each other with fried chicken, roast beef, potato salad, cold baked beans, homemade buns and rhubarb pie. The men made ice cream. For a young cowpoke "it was like dining in heaven," he says. “The ladies brought their specialties of the summer. It was sort of like Christmas time when the best pickles were brought out. We got them at Easter time, at Christmas time and at the Murraydale picnic.”

Back before refrigeration, preparations for the picnic began in early spring when the men cut blocks of ice from a frozen pond and kept them cool and covered until the picnic. The shaved ice was used to churn ice cream, a rare treat on a dusty prairie summer day.

An early history of the event was published in a local newspaper: "Mr. Boardman […] made ice cream with a hand turned freezer. Later he rigged a gas engine to do the job. The women set up long tables at which to eat, resembling a banquet or a pot luck establishment. As years went by the stampede and picnic grew."

Later, concession stands were set up to sell hamburgers, hotdogs and store-bought ice cream, but many families still pack a picnic hamper and stake their favourite spot from which to watch the rodeo and eat their evening meal.

"I’ve got a fond spot for the baked beans," says Art. "And fried chicken always tastes better outdoors."

This recipe for baked beans originally called for salt pork, which was a method of preserving pork in the old days. Nowadays, it's made with bacon. With the long oven time, I can imagine Mrs. Unsworth baking these beans in the cool of a summer's night and taking them cold to the picnic. But they're also a great way to warm up a cold winter's day and an old-fashioned hot supper.
Old Fashioned Baked Beans
1 lb (450 grams) white beans
1 cup brown sugar
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 tsp mustard powder
1/4 cup molasses
3 cups water
1/2 lb (225 grams) bacon, diced
2-3 onions, finely chopped

Soak beans overnight. Drain, wash and boil beans in water until soft and tender. Drain.

Mix brown sugar, salt, pepper, mustard powder, molasses and water. Pour over beans. Stir in bacon and onions. Cover and bake at 250F for 7–8 hours, checking now and then and adding more water if needed. Remove lid for the final two hours of baking.

Cook's note: I like to do the first step of cooking the beans in a small crockpot. I set the crockpot on low and leave it overnight.

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Swedish meatballs are right at home in Canada

On a recent trip to Sweden, of course I had to try meatballs. Here on the prairies, Swedish meatballs seem to represent the culinary tradition of an entire nation that sent so many sons and daughters to western Canada in pioneer times. And it's good to know that Swedish meatballs are still popular in their homeland.

At a restaurant in old Stockholm called Pelikan (est. 1733) the menu is unabashedly traditional. Along with pork knuckle, Baltic fish and mashed swedes, the menu offers the timeless Swedish meatball "as big as golf balls" served with cream gravy, lingonberries and a sliced pickle, a bowl of mashed potatoes on the side.

According to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, about 40,000 Swedish immigrants came to the prairies between 1893 and 1914, most of them settling first in the United States (primarily Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin and the Dakotas) before moving north to homestead in Canada.

Among them were Anna and Olaf Nilson who came from Sweden in 1905. After landing at the port of Montreal, they took the train to Melfort, Sask., crossing the country with their two daughters in a cattle car. Their first home had been abandoned by its previous owner. The roof leaked. The floor was earthen. Their first cow died in calving.

The nearest store was more than eight kilometres' walk, where they could exchange extra butter and eggs for a few staples such as flour and baking soda. Most of their food they grew, gathered and raised themselves. The Nilson (later changed to Nelson) family history notes, "Mother stated many times that, if money had been available, they would have returned to Sweden."

Well, it wasn't and they didn't. Despite the hardships – and obvious lack of Baltic fish – they did their best to make the traditional dishes that reminded them of home.

Recipes such thin crisp bread, St. Lucia buns (served at the festival of St. Lucia on December 13), pepparkakar (ginger cookies) and meatballs with cream gravy or lingonberry sauce. This recipe for Swedish meatballs was given to me by Joan Thompson (née Nelson) of Saskatoon, granddaughter of Anna and Olaf.

She got the recipe from her mother Myrtle (née Standberg) whose Swedish ancestors followed a different route to Canada. They first settled in Minnesota and, in 1903, their son Axel moved north to homestead in Canada, where he married his Swedish sweetheart Jenny. Life was hard for them, too. Myrtle, one of 10 children, got her first job at 14 cooking and cleaning for a couple of bachelor farmers. But they prospered.

By 2011, more than 152,000 people living in the prairie provinces claimed Swedish heritage, and no doubt, many of them are still fond of Swedish meatballs.
A word about lingonberry sauce: lingonberry is the Swedish word for low-bush cranberry, which grows abundantly in our parklands and Boreal forest. You can substitute currant jelly.

Swedish Meatballs
1 1/2 lbs ground beef
1 small potato, peeled and grated
1 small onion, grated
1/2 tst salt
1/4 tsp pepper
2 tbsp cream
1 egg
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/2 cup dry bread crumbs
2 tbsp butter or oil

Mix everything but the final ingredient. Work the mixture with your hands or an electric mixer until the meat is smooth and fluffy.

With damp hands, form into balls. Heat butter or oil in a skillet. Fry the meatballs, turning to brown all sides. Open one meatballs to ensure they are cooked through to the centre. Tip: Shaking the skillet as the meatballs cook helps to keep them round.

If you need to cook the meatballs in two batches, add additional butter/oil if needed. Serve warm tossed with cream gravy or lingonberry sauce or both!

Cream Gravy
2 tbsp drippings from meatballs or butter
2 tbsp flour
2 cups warm chicken or beef stock
2 tbsp sour cream

Heat drippings or butter in a saucepan. Whisk in flour to a smooth paste. Add warm stock, whisking thoroughly to prevent lumps. Simmer and thicken. Remove from heat. Whisk in sour cream.

Lingonberry Sauce
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 cup frozen low-bush cranberries
1 tbsp fresh-squeezed orange juice

Heat sugar and water in a saucepan to a bubbling simmer, stirring occasionally. When the sugar is dissolved, add the berries and orange juice. Simmer.

As the berries heat, they will pop and release their juices. You can help by pressing them with a fork. Boil lightly until it is jammy, but not too jammy, as it will thicken further as it cools.