Saturday, December 7, 2013

December 7, 2013: My Canadian Christmas Tradition

The Canadian Food Experience Project began June 7 2013. As we (participants) share our collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences, we hope to bring global clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice. Please join us.

I was born in Scarborough, Ontario, and was raised Catholic – at least until my father discovered that he could talk to God on the golf course on Sundays – so Christmas always meant snow, no school, and lots of cooking. In Trinidad – where my parents are from as you may recall – food is paramount to every celebration, especially to Christmas and Easter.
My mother was raised Muslim – she converted later, but that’s another story – so our family Christmas traditions came from my father. When I was a kid, I always thought that the cooking took place over several days. It wasn’t until I left home that I realised that it was the torture of sleep-deprivation that kept me believing the cooking was a seven-day non-stop extravaganza. All of the cooking actually took place within 36 hours.
We would start on Christmas Eve afternoon with the ham. This is not your honey-glazed baked ham. This was a nice bone of ham, which you can now buy at any self-respecting West Indian grocery store starting after December 15th each year, but when I was a kid, we got a smoked picnic shoulder ham from Dominion. To this day, even though I know in the depths of my heritage, I should be going to the West Indian shops and buying a nice, hung ham, I still go to the grocery and get a water-chilled, vacuum-packed smoked picnic shoulder ham. 
We put the ham to boil in plain water for about 2 hours. It’s supposed to get most of the salt out, and it’s also supposed to cook the ham. While the ham is boiling, we make the dough.
Dough? Dough, you say? What do you mean dough?
Well, here is the secret of the world-famous Trinidadian-style Christmas ham. Every Christian family in Trinidad has their way of preparing the ham and preparing the dough. Then you wrap the ham in the dough, and bake it until the dough is golden brown. And when I say “wrap”, I mean like the ham is a Christmas gift and the dough is the wrapping paper.
There is nothing that tastes better on Christmas Eve, and leftover on Christmas Day breakfast, than ham in dough. To me, ham in dough is Christmas. Even when I was a vegetarian for six years, I would sneak pieces of dough that weren’t too close to the meat.  

After the ham and dough were done, and we were busy having pieces as snacks, we would then roast chestnuts for our stuffing. This is not a Trinidad tradition. This is an Italian tradition that my father picked up from his Italian co-workers (and mistress, but again, that’s another story). My father believed the only way to prepare chestnuts was to roast them in the oven in foil and then, when they split, peel them and use the nut meat for the stuffing. I cannot tell you how many Christmas Eves I spent as a teenager (probably all seven of them) slumped over the kitchen table at midnight, with A Christmas Carol starring Alistair Sim on the TV, holding a paring knife, cutting into each chestnut by the split seam, peeling the wooden skins, getting splinters under my fingernails, just for a few tiny pieces of precious, golden chestnut. Just thinking about it right now makes my fingertips hurt as I type!

The next morning, my mother would use the chestnuts in her famous chestnut stuffing, which would be roasted inside the duck we would have for Christmas dinner. My mother is allergic to turkey, so we never had turkey at any celebration. We would usually have duck instead, since I grew up in Newmarket which was close to the King Cole duck farm.

My mother would also make Christmas sweet bread, which is not black cake or West Indian fruitcake. Sweet bread, not to be mistaken for sweetbreads, is a coconut bread, which may contain raisins, though mine never does, which has a crust of sugar on top. But overall, we didn’t do a lot of cookie baking for Christmas. Dessert was either sweet bread or something my mother would whip up. Dessert was always secondary to the food.

In my own house now, I make the ham in dough. I buy vacuum-packed chestnuts – sorry, dad – and chop them in the food processor to make my mother’s chestnut stuffing. And I bake all sorts of cookies and cakes for dessert, along with the raisin-free coconut sweet bread.

Much like the Christmas I grew up with, my Christmas is even more multicultural, including things from cultures that aren’t even part of our family. Last year, I went insane and made duckenhen  - duck, chicken, and Cornish hen – with chestnut stuffing instead of Andouille sausage stuffing.
I made a batch of pepparkakor from scratch.

I much prefer the Swedish ginger cookies from any other gingerbread cookie recipe out there. And, from my late husband’s family’s tradition, I made mund cookies from scratch. I also made Gordon Ramsay’s cranberry sauce which is simply to. Die. For. And yes, I made Gordon Ramsay’s shortbread. If anyone knows shortbread, it’s going to be a Scottish chef with anger issues.
Christmas is about the old and the new. As long as I’m alive, there will be a ham in dough on the table on Christmas Eve. And there will be chestnuts in some form. But we will keep adding items to that table, creating new traditions along the way.

If you’re still curious about this whole ham in dough thing, here you go. But don’t say I didn’t warn you – once you try some, you will want to keep the entire package to yourself!

Trinidad-style Christmas Ham
1 – bone-in ham, min. 7 lbs, max. to whatever can fit in your largest pot and oven.

Dough for a 7 lb ham:
3 cups plain AP flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
½ - 2/3 cup butter, room temperature soft
½ - 1 tsp salt
1 ½ - 2 cups lukewarm water

If your ham comes wrapped in plastic wrap, remove it, but leave any mesh netting the ham may come in on the ham to keep it intact while boiling.

Place the ham in a pot deep enough to hold the ham submerged in water. Fill the pot with water to cover the ham as much as possible. Place the pot with the ham on the stove and bring to a boil. Keep the ham going at a lively boil without spilling too much water out of the pot. If the water is bubbling over, then turn down the stove until the water is bubbling but not boiling over. Cook the ham, uncovered if at all possible, for 2 hours minimum.

To make the dough: in a large bowl, measure and sift/whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. Then take half of the softened butter and rub it into the flour mixture with your hands until the whole thing has the consistency of cornmeal. Add the water, ¼ cup at a time, to the cornmeal-like flour mixture until the dough is gathered into a smooth ball. Knead well, and leave in the bowl in a warm area of the kitchen with a damp dry towel over the top for about 35 – 45 min. It can stay for up to an hour if your ham needs more time to cook.

Ham will be ready when it starts to look flaky and feel springy to the touch. Remove from heat; drain. You can leave the ham in a colander or whatever you used to drain the ham (if in the pot, leave the ham in the pot but do not put back on the stove dry).

While the ham is draining and cooling off, preheat your oven to 350F. Turn your dough out of the bowl and onto a well-floured surface. Roll out until the dough is about 1/3” thick. Take the ham out of the mesh netting, if it had one, put it in the centre of the dough, and wrap the dough around the ham making sure to cover all surfaces of the ham. Put the ham, seam-side down, onto a baking tray lined with parchment or silicone. Take the rest of the softened butter and rub it on the outside of the dough until the dough is well-greased.

Put the ham in the oven and bake until the dough is deep golden brown. Depending on the size of your ham and how hot it was when it went into the dough, this could take from 35 – 60 minutes. If the dough appears to be drying out, you can re-baste it with any remaining butter you might have on the counter.

Once the dough is golden, remove the ham from the oven. Try to resist the urge to tear into it right away, but if you do, be careful of the steam that will come out of the dough when you first cut into it. Dough may be torn off the ham by hand as well.

If you do have any ham left over, be sure to pierce it with cloves all over before storing it away overnight. But don’t bake it with the cloves in it. The dough will not be as tasty.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

November 7, 2013: The Great Canadian Pumpkin Harvest

The Canadian Food Experience Project began June 7 2013. As we (participants) share our collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences, we hope to bring global clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice. Please join us.

We are so lucky to live in a country that experiences all four seasons. We see the stillness and feel the cold of the ground in winter, watching the bare trees bear the burden of snow to prepare for the burden of new growth. We smell the replenishing earth and watch the buds and flowers sprout off of trees and bushes in the spring. We enjoy late-night noshing and long, evening strolls in the warmth of summer nights. But it’s fall where we truly appreciate the fine bounty that this country brings.
As I’ve mentioned before, I live in the Ontario Green Belt. That means we have pumpkin patches and apple orchards. Our farms provide us with plenty of fall and winter crop vegetables and fruits to tide us over until the return of the spring.
Everyone I know has their own recipe for apple pie, whether or not they make it themselves. There’s a debate as to which apples are best to use for pie – Macs, Granny Smith, Honeycrisp, Red Prince, Gala, Fuji – the only thing we all agree on is not to use Delicious apples. To be honest, I am not a huge fan of apple pie, probably for that very reason – I haven’t found the perfect apple to make the perfect pie yet. Plus, as I discussed in the jam blog, I am not a huge fan of cooked fruit.
But there is one pie I have a terrible weakness for, and that is pumpkin pie. If I was left on a desert island, that island better have more pumpkins than a Canadian farm at Halloween.


A pumpkin is a perfect fruit, and the amount we waste in this country for Halloween decorations is frightening. As you probably know, the smaller the pumpkin, the sweeter the flesh; hence the reason why we carve large pumpkins and use baby ones for pies. By the way, my heart dies a little every time I see a baby pumpkin carved on a stoop at Halloween.
Pumpkin makes excellent soup (and the pumpkin itself makes a perfect tureen for serving the soup). We have recipes for curried pumpkin in Trinidad, even though the type of squash itself is slightly different from the orange kind (though it can be done with a bit of spicing up and a little extra salt with a pie pumpkin).
My mother knew I loved pumpkin pie, and she liked it as well. God bless her for being born during the end of a war, when canned food was praised to be better for you than real food. So she would buy those frozen Mrs. Smiths pies and bake them for me, claiming they were as good as a fresh pumpkin pie.
They weren’t.
I had many a fresh pumpkin pie over the years, but it wasn’t until my late husband, who was a chef and a graduate of the Stratford Chefs School, made me his version of pumpkin pie that I truly appreciated what it takes to make an honest-to-goodness mouth-watering pie.
So I’ll share his recipe here so you can create your own harvest pumpkin memories.  This will make one 10” deep dish pie. Also, it’s best to use a blind-baked shortcrust, though a blind-baked flaky pie crust can also do in a pinch. You just have to account for the extra leaking butter or fat.
Pumpkin Pie Filling
2 cups fresh pumpkin puree (from 1 pie-sized pumpkin, roasted)
1 cup brown sugar
1 vanilla bean, scraped, seeds only
1 tsp. ground ginger
½ tsp. each cinnamon, nutmeg, ground cloves
Pinch salt
Pinch white pepper
4 eggs
1 ½ cups 35% cream
¼ cup bourbon, dark rum, or good-quality rye (if you want to be ultra-Canadian)

First things first – cut your pie pumpkin in half, scoop out and save the seeds for roasting for snacks (!!) and roast the pumpkin in a 350F oven for about an hour. Test it with a wooden skewer; if it goes in easily and the pumpkin flesh looks caramelized (see photo), take it out and let the pumpkin cool until you can easily handle it. Scoop the flesh from the skin, throw it in the food processor and puree it until it is smooth like baby food. Raise your oven to 375F.
Put 2 cups of the pumpkin flesh in a large metallic or glass bowl, add all of the ingredients listed above into the bowl, and whisk together until smooth.
Pour the filling into the blind-baked shell and bake for at least 30 min before opening the oven to check. When the sides of the filling are firm, the pie is done. The centre may be a little jiggly. You may have to put a ring of foil around the top of the crust to keep it from getting too dark, depending on how thick your shell was made.

Monday, October 7, 2013

October 7, 2013: Preserving: Our Canadian Food Tradition or How I Learned to Stop Fretting and Love the Jam

The Canadian Food Experience Project began June 7 2013. As we (participants) share our collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences, we hope to bring global clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice. Please join us.

Let me start this off by saying I am one of those rare people who hates preserved food. I don’t like jams, jellies (except mint jelly on lamb), dried fruit, pickled things…I like food to be as fresh as it can be. I’m not sure why.
To be honest, I’ve never really heard about Americans or other nations home canning or making jams as much as we do in Canada. In Canada, we talk about someone’s mom or grandma making jam at home with the same ease as we talk about them making pancakes for Sunday breakfast.

As I’ve mentioned previously, my parents came to Canada from Trinidad. The methods of preserving in hot climates vastly differ from cold climates. In Trinidad, fruits and nuts are preserved by leaving them to dry outside in the sun, or in a shack in the backyard.  The only things that people “can” are chutneys (which are very different from Canadian chutneys) and “pepper sauce”, which is basically a savoury chutney-style sauce made out of various types of hot peppers and other ingredients. Every family has their own recipe.  Pepper sauce is not heat sealed or canned since it never lasts longer than a week or two on most people’s tables, and is usually stored in some type of recycled container, like an old mustard bottle.
My mother was born during WW2, when canned food first became a necessity in the Northern hemisphere, and brought by soldiers to the bases on the Caribbean islands. Foods such as corned beef, tinned soups, and canned milks were then integrated into local cooking on the Islands, becoming staples of everyday meals.

But when my mother came to Canada, for the first time, she saw people make their own preserves. The woman she boarded with made her own pickles. When my father started working as an accountant in an office in Weston, Ontario, the Italian workers would bring in jars of tomato sauce that they had made at home to share with others. And when we moved to the small town of Newmarket, Ontario, our neighbours made fruit chutneys and canned their own fruit (though using this term confused me for years when I was young. I expected people to put things inside of tins, not glass jars!).
Watching all of our neighbours making their own preserves inspired my mother to buy a bunch of fruit from Niagara and start canning things herself. She made about 100,000 jars of canned peaches one year. Another year, she canned her own tomatoes after we had a bounty in the back yard.  I remember she also made dill pickles (after we grew dill one year in the garden),  as well as trying her hand at jams and jellies. The problem was, she was making them all thinking that I would like this because, well, we were in Canada now and this was Canadian food for her Canadian daughter.

Being surrounded by endless jars of the fruit of my mother’s labours most likely contributed to my disdain for preserved goods.  But I’ve never really liked the taste of them.
I never had an interest in continuing my mother’s misplaced traditions until I had a son of my own, and we moved out to the Green Belt. The spring and fall we get out here are the sweetest berries on earth, and there’s only so much room you can make in your freezer for them. Besides, frozen berries are really only good for making sauces, ice creams, or throwing into punches as alternatives to ice cubes. And so I pulled out the books that my mother gave me to attempt to make jams.

The one thing I have decided, though, is that additional pectin is just sinful in jam. I understand the need for it in jelly, because you are straining out all of the pulpy goodness and natural pectin in the fruit to give yourself a crystal-clear substance. But why add something to jam that is already there? So all of the jams I have ever made were crafted without additional pectin. I let the natural pectin in the strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries shine through.
(I did make mint jelly using the mint from my backyard, and there I was forced to use ready-made pectin, since mint does not have any natural pectin.)
My recipes are simple – fruit, sugar, lemon juice. Cook until done. (I use the spoon in the freezer trick.) Pour into a jar, and seal. I try to leave the berries as large as I can – I mash them, but I like to see big pieces of fruit in my jam, even though I still won’t eat them.

Since I don’t eat jam, and my son will only eat it if he sees other people eating it, I make jam for gifts. In June, I take the first strawberries of the season and make jam as thank-you gifts for my son’s teachers. In fall, I take the last of the strawberries and make jam for Christmas gifts.  The above pic is a jar of my spring jam which I gave to my son's teachers in June.

I think that’s what we all do these days – most people who preserve end up trying to make a business of selling their things or they give them away as gifts – it’s very rare in the urban areas of the country to see people who stock their pantries with their own home canned goods to use them through the winter anymore, even though they’re happy to purchase home canned goods made by country and city chefs alike.
If you’ve never tried to make your own preserves, it’s quite easy. Don’t be intimidated by the sterilization process – it’s easy to do these days if you have a dishwasher and an oven!  So let’s keep up the Canadian tradition of home preserving and canning. We have the perfect bounty for it, we should count (and can) our blessings!

Strawberry Jam Recipe

For every 2 1/4 cups of berries, add 1 cup of white sugar and 1 tsp of lemon juice. Wash and hull berries (with a knife - no need to use a fancy huller!) and throw them into a large pot. I use a stock pot. Add the sugar and lemon juice, then place on the stove over medium heat to heat up. Mash berries using a hand potato masher. You can crush them to a pulp or you can leave them depending on how whole you like your strawberries in jam. Once the jam starts to bubble and boil, start skimming any bubbles that come to the top off. You may end up with about a cup of bubble liquid for every 12 cups of berries you use. When you see the jam start to give off fewer bubbles and thicken up, put a metal spoon on a plate and put these in your freezer for about 5 - 7 min. Using dry hands take the spoon out and dip it into the thickened jam. Drop some on the plate, and if it comes to just about the thickness you like your jam to be, turn off the pot, and get ready to start pouring it into jars. If the jam isn't as thick as you'd like it, leave it on the stove, wash the spoon and plate, dry them thoroughly, and put them back in the freezer for another 10 min. Keep repeating the check until desired consistency is reached.


Saturday, September 7, 2013

September 7, 2013 My Cherished Canadian Recipe: The Humble Butter Tart

The Canadian Food Experience Project began June 7 2013. As we (participants) share our collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences, we hope to bring global clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice. Please join us.

I am an only child.

It’s almost commonplace these days to be an only child. People now start families later in life, and as a result, keep them small. But when I was a child, being an only child was still unusual. Most families still aimed to have at least three children, and most moms, including mine, stayed home while most dads, like mine, worked all week and hung out with the boys all weekend.

We moved to the small town of Newmarket, Ontario, when I was about three years old. That’s not meant to be cynical at all – Newmarket only had 12,000 people when we moved there.  I think I spoke in an earlier blog of my food memories at the markets in Bradford with my mother to get fresh produce each week during the summer.

In the winter, though, there wasn’t much to do, except play in the snow outside, or go on errands with your parents. My mother took me everywhere with her, and she loved to go to craft fairs at the local senior citizens’ homes or church basements. And because I was such a quiet and shy child, I just stood looking at the pink crocheted toilet paper roll dolls while she chatted with the ladies about crafting techniques.

No matter where you find a craft fair in Canada, there is always a bake sale towards the end. My favourite part would be getting a treat at the bake sale. There were always at least three long folding tables, covered with red and white checked tablecloths, ladened with trays of party sandwiches (which are my weakness to this day), brownies, Nanaimo bars, thick and chewy chocolate chip cookies, shortbreads, and simple, thick crusted butter tarts, with raisins.

I have to tell you – I despise raisins. I think it’s because the old ladies at the seniors homes used to always give me boxes of raisins for snacks, because they were “nature’s candy”. I would always eat them to be polite, but they would stick in my cavity-free teeth, leaving an overly sweet yet bitterly burnt taste in my mouth.  And sometimes, they would even have seeds. But no matter the colour – golden, dark, medium – raisins and I have never been friends. Grapes, fine. Wine, divine. But raisins come from a special part of culinary hell (along with all dried fruit in my opinion).

The old ladies would try to get my mother to buy the tarts. You may recall that my mother came to Canada from Trinidad. Back then, they didn’t have tarts like they did in Canada, and they still don’t have butter tarts at all. My mother called these tarts the ladies would offer her “raisin tarts”, and would always ask if I wanted one. I would always say no thank you, and, since my mother was more of a mille feuille type of person, she would never eat them.

But one day, we went to one of these craft fairs, and lo and behold, we found what looked like the same raisin tarts without the spurge of raisins within. I asked my mom if I could try one, and she bought one for me. The pastry was crumbly and hard, like a cookie.  The filling was runny and sweet with a hint of tanginess that left me lapping up the inside of the shell. When I asked what they were called, the lady told me they were butter tarts. So for years, I thought the ones with raisins were “raisin tarts” and the delicious ones without raisins were “butter tarts”. I grew up believing that butter tarts were one of those things that only old ladies could make, like egg salad sandwiches and macaroons.

Over the years, I tried store-bought butter tarts, cafeteria-made butter tarts, bakery butter tarts, but they would all disappoint me at some level. They would either contain raisins, and thus to me would be inedible, or they would taste too artificial, as if the filling were made from melted plastic and the crust made from sawdust and cardboard glued together with margarine. I started to dislike the butter tart, not because of their flavour, but because they would always be nothing more than a disappointment to me.

At my last day job, one of my colleagues was a butter tart fiend. Like me, she believed the butter tart should remain pure and unspoiled, i.e. made without raisins. With my rediscovered love for baking, I set out on a quest to satisfy both of our appetites for the humble yet illustrious butter tart.

While searching for a recipe, I discovered that the butter tart is a Canadian dessert. Ask any American what a butter tart is, and they will have no clue. They may know sugar tarts if they live near the Quebec border, but only we Canadians know butter tarts. Asking what they are should be one of those instant citizenship questions at the border, rather than knowing hockey trivia or the recipe for poutine.

Earlier this year, I found it – and I posted my success (and failures) at this very blog right here. To make them more Canadian, I used maple syrup instead of corn syrup. It makes the filling runnier but less sweet and more balanced.  I did discover the old lady trick of making them in muffin tins. When I left that job after fourteen years, my last gift to my colleague was a box of homemade butter tarts, pictured below. The crust was like a shortbread cookie, and the filling had just the right amount of sweetness and tanginess. My next big culinary quest: to perfect the egg salad sandwich!
(here's a picture of a Wild Blueberry Butter Tart I made today. Yes, it does indeed work!)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

August 7, 2013: My Regional Canadian Food Heroes - the Farm(er)s

The Canadian Food Experience Project began June 7 2013. As we (participants) share our collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences, we hope to bring global clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice. Please join us.

I live in the South West end of Durham Region in the town of Ajax, Ontario. The most famous buildings in our area are the Pickering and Darlington Nuclear Plants. Some of you may even be old enough to remember the outcry by the public of the construction of both of these plants because of the potential impact they would have on the surrounding environment.

For you see, Durham Region is part of the Ontario Green Belt. And when the plants were first activated, everyone thought the nuclear plants would destroy the farmers’ fields with their hazardous waste and other environmental impact.

What destroyed the farmers’ fields wasn’t so much the nuclear waste but the population explosion in Durham region caused by the success of the nuclear industry. More jobs meant more people. More people meant more houses. And so, developers offered farmers ridiculous amounts of money for their land at a time when they needed it most, and in the place of crops rose row houses upon row houses, subdivision after subdivision.

The developments haven’t stopped. People are choosing to leave the static metropolis of Toronto and move further east. Ajax is growing in population because we have more dormant land for developers to use for more houses and more shopping centres. More shopping centres mean more food stores. When I say “food stores”, I don’t mean just grocery stores (which is where food lives and where it dies – have you ever seen a frozen thin crust pizza in a box? That to me defines the death of food.). I also mean fast-food and/or chain restaurants where the meals are cookie-cutter, boil-in-bag or frozen-to-flat grill, and the only flavour you can be guaranteed to taste is salt.

Unfortunately, most of the people who move out to the suburbs, or to this part of South Durham, love to frequent these harbingers of food death. Why else would we have 15 different wing chains within a 4 km radius?

But all is not lost out here. In spite of the amount of sodium dealers residing in the monolithic shopping plazas, we have a few local food heroes who are doing their best to ensure the people of Southwest Durham have the freshest, healthiest, most nutritious produce in Ontario.

One of these local farms is Stroud Farms. Their main store is located on the Whitby/Ajax border, surrounded by pear and apple orchards. Stroud Farms also owns several other acres of farm land in the boundary of the Town of Ajax, growing corn, raspberries, beets, and other root and tuber vegetables. Their main store is open from July to November, and in the fall, they have the largest selection of pumpkins and gourds in the region. They also sell locally-sourced honey and maple syrup, a limited amount of baked goods, and a limited amount of produce which is grown by other local farmers that they themselves might not grow on their farm (e.g. kale) but they wish to make available to their customers. Stroud Farms has a secondary store located right on their corn field on Kingston Road/Highway 2 in Ajax.

Stroud Farms popup store on the corn field, courtesy of 

Their website can be found here: . During the season, Stroud Farms is my every day farmer’s market!

The other local farm that I want to call out as a local food hero is Willowtree Farm. They are located a little bit north of the Southwest Durham area, just outside of Port Perry (about a half hour north of Ajax). Like Stroud Farms, Willowtree Farm has its store located right on the farm itself. They differ because Willowtree Farm also raises organic, hormone-free beef, and offers it for sale at their store. The Willowtree Farm store also has a working beehive in its walls, which you can see when you visit.

Willowtree Farm also offers pick-your-own berry fields and a delivery service within Durham Region of a weekly basket of fresh, farm-raised meat and farm-grown produce to be delivered to your door. This delivery-to-door is known as a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.  Willowtree Farm also offers a variety of rare and unusual produce grown locally that you might not see in other farm markets, all gathered from nearby farms if not grown at Willowtree itself.

The Willowtree Farms website can be found here: . I can verify that their natural angus beef is some of the best beef I have eaten in my life (and I’ve eaten a lot of beef, even in Alberta! (sorry Valerie)).

In among all of the land of Durham, and elsewhere, being taken over by housing development after housing development, and shopping centre after shopping centre, local farms and farmers are my Canadian food heroes. They are visible within the community, giving consumers an affordable, healthy, and local choice of food purchases. Customers and consumers can ask the farmers questions about how the food was raised, the growing conditions, or any other concerns they may have. And their food simply tastes better. Without the need for salt.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

July 7, 2013: A Regional Canadian Food

The Canadian Food Experience Project began June 7 2013. As we (participants) share our collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences, we hope to bring global clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice. Please join us.

Sometimes it seems that we Canadians can only see ourselves the way the rest of the world sees us - as one small group of people on the world's second-largest political land mass. We don't contemplate the differences between us, unless we think about Quebec, or maybe even Newfoundland.

It wasn’t until 2004 that I realised that not all dialects of non-Newfoundland Canadian English are the same. I had travelled to Winnipeg in August of that year to attend a work conference for all members of the various legal departments across the company for a total of twenty people.

On the first night of the trip, the General Counsel hosted a dinner party for all of us at his home in the thick of mosquito season. He had one of those fancy electronic mosquito fences around his place, so we weren’t bitten too badly. I thought nothing could top black fly season in Algonquin. I was wrong!

Dinner was a lovely grand turkey dinner with all the trimmings. A little unusual for August, but turkey is probably the easiest thing to prepare for such a large crowd. The food was comfy, delicious, and made us all feel right at home, like one big family (which was one of the objectives of the trip).

After dinner, we were helping to tidy up when one of the lawyers wanted to know about the “dainties” that were coming out.

We Torontonians froze, and gave the lawyer and the others a curious look. We wanted to know exactly what kind of dinner party we had been invited to, and just how these people in Winnipeg, who seemed so mild-mannered and meek, spent their summer evenings!

“Excuse me,” one of the Toronto legal assistants called out, “Did you say ‘dainties’?”

“Yeah,” the lawyer replied, “don’t you guys have dainties in Toronto?”

“We do,” I said, “but they’re not exactly appropriate to show at dinner.”

There were enough raised eyebrows to lift the roof off of the house.

“You know, dainties,” said one of the Winnipeg legal assistants, “little cakes, biscuity things, we put them in little paper cups on a tray…”

“OH!” gasped all of the Torontonians with relief. “You mean pastries and petit fours!”

“Well, what did you think we meant?”

We told her.

After the dainty miscommunication, the Winnipeggers introduced us to another "new" word in their non-accented dialect.

“And Sue even got a shmoo!" one of the Winnipeg assistants cried.

We Torontonians had no clue what that meant. To me, Shmoo was the little white ghost cartoon creature from Saturday mornings.

“Okay, we give up,” said a Torontonian, “What the hell is a shmoo?”
The Winnipeggers gasped.

“Oh, you don’t know the shmoo? You’ve gotta have the shmoo!”

And that’s when they brought in this huge cake iced with the whitest cream, served with a gravy boat of butterscotch sauce. My Torontonian boss called it a Baked Alaska. He was promptly yelled at by every Winnipegger in the room.

So we each had a slice of shmoo and some dainties. And that shmoo – perfect chiffon cake with the crunch of nuts and billowy Chantilly cream drizzled with just the right amount of butterscotch – was incredible. It looks as if it's going to be rich, heavy, and ladened with sugary sweetness. It is, in fact, the opposite. It is a very light, well-balanced dessert, depending on how much sauce you drizzle overtop or have on the side. 

It makes me sad (though it makes my hips happy) to think that they only have this in Winnipeg. When I asked for the recipe, I was told that nobody makes their own shmoo – there are arguments over which bakery in Winnipeg makes the best shmoo, and people choose their affiliations and order shmoos from their favourite bakery.


Since we don’t have that luxury in the GTA (and if there is a place around here that sells shmoo, will someone let me know?), I had to make my own shmoo.  The pictures here are of the shmoo I made for our Canada Day dessert this year courtesy of the recipe from Canadian Living. It’s not that difficult once you can make a chiffon cake. But the Winnipeggers are right – there is nothing like the taste of a shmoo in Winnipeg, with some dainties on the side!
Hint: use your favourite butterscotch sauce recipe. The one from the link above ends up giving you a sauce with a fudgelike consistency, and has to be monitored carefully so it doesn't end up becoming candy.

Friday, June 7, 2013

My First Authentic Canadian Food Memory (for The Canadian Food Experience Project, June 7, 2013)

The Canadian Food Experience Project began June 7 2013. As we (participants) share our collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences, we hope to bring global clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice. Please join us.

I was born at the dawn of multiculturalism in this country, at the corner of Lawrence & McCowan in Scarborough, Ontario, Canada. My parents came to Toronto from Trinidad & Tobago, a place where multiculturalism was a way of life. Caribbean food, especially food in Trinidad, like the people, comes from a mix of all of the cultures who settled the island, whether they were brought by slave traders,  were the slave traders themselves, or emigrated during British rule.
My experience of Canadian food is probably different than most, since as a kid, Canadian food meant grilled cheese & fries with ketchup at the Kresge’s counter with my mom at Eglinton Square after my checkups with the doctor. Canadian food was the food my mom didn’t cook at home. I grew up on roti and curry, thick chicken soups, callaloo, pelau, salt fish buljol, baiganee, and other Trinidadian staples. My mom only started buying Kraft Dinner after I was old enough to be seduced by television advertising and asked for it by name.

My mother grew up on a farm in Trinidad. My grandfather raised goats and chickens, had the occasional steer for beef, and grew fruits and vegetables by the bushel. His farm had a small swamp on it where he and my uncles would catch fresh blue crab and crayfish and cascadoo (a hard-shelled fish that is special to Trinidad, and has nearly become extinct now), among other fish. So my mother knew a thing or two about choosing fresh vegetables, meats, and fish.

Just before I turned 4, my parents moved from Victoria Park and Ellesmere all the way to Newmarket, Ontario. My parents wanted to have a nice house with a yard for their kid to play in. Newmarket is also near the Holland Marsh, and every weekend we would venture up to Bradford to buy our vegetables and fruits for the week. My mother trusted the produce straight from the farm over produce at the grocery. It seems obvious now, but in 1974, people were still enamoured by tinned vegetables, TV dinners, and instant mashed potatoes.  
The backyard at our new house was huge (definitely larger than most suburban yards these days). The previous owners left us with a large back garden, which included a large, flourishing plant of rhubarb. My mother had no idea what to do with rhubarb. We planted our tomatoes next to it, because, well, all of our neighbours planted tomatoes. It seemed like the Canadian thing to do.

(Those tomatoes we planted near the rhubarb were the sweetest tomatoes I had ever tasted in my  young life. I used to eat the ripe ones right off the vine (because what 4 year old in 1974 would even think about washing a fruit!) and get in trouble for not leaving any for my mom. To this day, I prefer the taste of a Canadian backyard-grown, vine-ripened tomato over any other tomato on the planet.)
As for the rhubarb itself, my mother asked our neighbours, two elderly British ladies who lived together in a large farmhouse-style home to the back of our house, what she should do with this plant. The ladies were more than happy to help her out, and told her to wait until the rhubarb stalks were pure red, then they would be ready to be picked. They were going to give her a recipe to make a pie out of the fruit (and yet even though I know rhubarb is technically a vegetable, to this day I still call it a fruit).  They showed her how to make a shortcrust dough, and then showed her how to cook down the rhubarb for the filling and add sugar and spices and then put it into the crust and bake the pie.

It was probably the second most disgusting thing I’d eaten in my life. After liver.
I hated anything tart, and the tanginess of the rhubarb, even with sugar, was too much for my 4 year old palate. I spat it out and swore I’d never eat those red stalks again, and for 35 years, I didn’t.  It wasn’t until I had a child of my own and moved out to Ajax,  because I wanted to raise him in a house with a backyard, and discovered the green belt at this end of suburbia, where the strawberries smelled like heaven and the rhubarb was redder than the ripest berry, did I decided to give rhubarb another chance. Then I learned that the key is to NOT cook the rhubarb before putting it in the pie!


For those of you who are now craving strawberry-rhubarb pie (since strawberries are now in season), here’s my own personal recipe for the filling. Pie crust is more about technique than recipe, so whatever you choose for your pie crust, if it’s Crisco, butter, lard, or some combination of those, the key is to freeze your fat, and then use a box grater to grate it into the flour mixture (I use 2 c flour, 1 Tbsp sugar and 1 tsp salt for 1 cup of fat). Use a pastry blender or knife to mix the grated bits in, then add ice cold water, bring it together using the knife you used to stir in the bits of fat, and then dump the lump right onto plastic wrap. Wrap that lump of dough and then shape it into a ball (I shape mine into discs so they chill through, but to each their own) while in the wrap. Wrap overtop of this and then refrigerate overnight or for a minimum of 2 hours. Not 20 min. 2 hours.  
Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

1 pie crust recipe that will make a top and bottom crust.

For the filling:
2 cups diced fresh rhubarb (try to get it redder than the ones in the picture)
3 cups diced hulled fresh strawberries
¾ to 1 cup white granulated sugar
½ cup packed brown sugar
½ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp ground cardamom
¼ cup cornstarch or 1/3 cup tapioca starch
Pinch of salt
1 beaten egg

1.       Combine rhubarb, strawberries, and ½ cup of white sugar in a bowl. Toss the fruit in the sugar, then dump it all in a colander and leave it to drain in the sink or over another bowl for at least 45 min but no more than 1 hour.

2.       When the fruit has been sitting for about 30 min, preheat oven to 350F and line bottom of pie dish with bottom crust. Put bottom crust back into the fridge until your fruit is drained.

3.       After the fruit has been drained, put it into another bowl and add remaining ingredients. Toss to combine well but work fast since your fruit will be mushy and liquidy.

4.       Take bottom pie crust out of the fridge and add fruit.

5.       You may choose to top the pie with a lattice using the second half of the crust. It looks prettiest, but if you just want to put the top on and cut a nice pattern in it, you can do that too. Don’t leave it without a top, though.  Just make sure to put a top on with ventilation, and crimp the edges well.

6.       Brush pastry with beaten egg and place in oven for 20 minutes. You may choose to TENT a piece of tin foil over the pie at this point, but be careful not to squish or tuck the foil onto the pie itself.

7.       Continue to bake the pie from 45-60 minutes more, or until the filling is cooked through and bubbling, and your crust is golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool somewhere where nobody will try to eat it. (Good luck with that).

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Canadian Food Experience Project (or how I'm reactivating my food blog)

So I haven't posted here in almost a year. How do I know that? Because my last blog had something to do with butter tarts and the Tour de France, and the Tour is starting again in exactly 28 days from today (squee!!).

It's not that I haven't been cooking, or baking, or anything culinary for a year. I have. But I've also been trying to write offline. Recently I've been encouraged to go back, pick up the page, and make a concerted effort to make this writing thing a go. After all, I'm hitting my mid-life crisis (as you can tell if you've seen the sixteen colours in my hair these days, including but not limited to, grey) and if I don't do this now, well, it's never going to happen, and I might as well just go back into the ocean of commonality sludge with all the other dreams that die...

So I've been hanging out in the world of fiction. It's a fun place because you get to make stuff up (like hanging out with men who look like Alexander Skarsgard and Justin Theroux). But really, it's hard work. And I want people to read what I'm writing now. Plus, I want to write more about food. I love sharing my recipes, and I even love the feedback I get from people who've tried making the bacon & eggs cheesecake ("mine cracked. How did you get yours not to crack?" etc.).

This morning, I was sitting around, waiting for people to wake up, sipping my green tea, and checking my Twitter feed to see what nonsense had happened overnight when there was a very interesting tweet from @lucywaverman:

So I clicked on the link, and read about The Canadian Food Experience Project. And well, I'm Canadian. I like food. And I like writing about food. So I contacted Valerie, and now I've signed up!

This will now make sure you have at least one (1) new food blog entry each month. This coming entry (due on June 7th which is Friday as I write this - ack! deadlines!!) will be about My First Authentic Canadian Food Memory. Now given that I was born and raised here, and given that my parents are from Trinidad, this should be a very interesting memory. It may not be as luscious or organic as some of the other writers, but it will be Canadian, and it will be uniquely mine.

So stay tuned to this page... :)