Thursday 31 March 2011

Texas Peas

I wrote the article featured in today's blog back in 2000, for the "Food Etc." page hosted by Nisa Internet Technologies.  Fortunately Brussels sprouts have grown in popularity since then and good recipes are more easily found. has 138 Brussels sprouts recipes on file, many of them very good, and has 214.  With the many recipes available now, I've been able to find a few that even my husband will eat.


Have you seen the price of broccoli lately?  Enough broccoli to feed a family of four costs about the same as a barrel of crude.  For some people, like my oldest niece, this is not necessarily bad news.  It means that the dreaded trees will make a less frequent appearance on their dinner table and that's just fine with her.  However, my brother--the grocery guru in their house--knows the importance of cruciferous vegetables and has replaced broccoli with other brassicas like cabbage, turnips, and kale.  This week, my niece found herself confronted with something even worse than broccoli:  her dad fed her Brussels sprouts.

I was actually kind of surprised to hear that my brother had put Brussels sprouts on the menu.  When we were kids, he had a deep-rooted aversion to them. Once, when my mom insisted that he eat just three Brussels sprouts at Christmas dinner, he obliged her and then promptly vomited them back onto his plate.  It put quite a damper on dinner for the rest of us!  Now that I think of it, though, I don't really blame him.  Mom bought her Brussels sprouts frozen and then boiled them into submission.  It would've taken a stronger stomach than mine (or my brother's) to find something likable in those khaki green, water-logged, sulphurous blobs. 

Although the Brussels sprouts of my husband's childhood came fresh from the garden behind the house, they were prepared in much the same way.  He refers to them as "Texas Peas" and, to this day, refuses to see one on his plate.

It's a shame that Brussels sprouts have become such an object of dislike because, when properly grown and prepared, they are really quite tasty.  They are also very good for you.  Four, 1-inch Brussels sprouts have only 40 calories, of which 5 come from fat.  They provide 12% of your daily dietary fibre requirement, 8% of your required Vitamin A and a whopping 120% of your daily requirement of Vitamin C.  In addition, the inclusion of cruciferous vegetables like Brussels sprouts in your diet may help to prevent certain types of cancer.  Pretty good incentive for rediscovering this neglected dish.

Brussels sprouts originally grew wild on the European seacoast and were eventually brought into cultivation in Belgium, where both the climate and soil are particularly to their liking.  It's believed that they have been grown there for 8 centuries and, in 1820, they were named the country's official green.  These little cabbages sprout along the stock of a larger cabbage-like plant and are best eaten when they are small and tightly furled.  They become sweeter once they have been exposed to frost or snow.  In Belgium they are consumed when they are the size of a child's fingernail and are particularly velvety and sweet.  Here it's unlikely that you will find such small Brussels sprouts but you should still shop for sprouts that are an inch or smaller in diameter and have tightly furled leaves.  There should not be any yellowing or rust on the leaves and the stalks should be crisp when you try to pierce them with your fingernail. 

Because of our lack of fondness for this vegetable, there aren't a huge number of recipes available for it.  I went to and found only eight.  An internet search yielded minimal information, although I got my best results on "Ask Jeeves," where I found recipe links and a link to  In the end, I turned to my old favourite "Greene on Greens," by Bert Greene (Workman Publishing Inc., 1984) where I found most of the factual info provided here and also some wonderful and unusual recipes.  Forget the soggy sprouts of yesteryear.  Any one of these recipes will change your mind about this much-maligned vegetable. 

Ever the optimist, I live in hope that I will be able to entice even my husband to try one of these versions of the "Texas Pea."  As a first step in my campaign, I'll send him to the store today to buy broccoli.

Wednesday 30 March 2011

Oh, Fudge!

A friend of mine gave me a box of fudge today.  I think it a lovely gift:  special because she made it for me and carrying with it a kind of old-timey charm.  Of course it tastes very good too!

Fudge really is an old-time treat, very similar to a sweet called tablet, which is noted in The Household Book of Lady Grisell Baillie (1692-1733).  Tablet is still enjoyed in Britain, especially in Scotland.  Although harder than fudge and more granular in texture, it contains similarly high amounts of sugar and butter, which allow it to melt in the mouth.  

Sometime after its arrival in North America, fudge was adapted to include cocoa or chocolate.  Chocolate fudge is the now most widely consumed version of this sweet.  Fudge can be made without chocolate though; in many other flavours.  Brown sugar fudge, vanilla fudge, maple fudge, and peanut butter fudge are all fairly common and, if you visit a specialty store, you are likely to find an even greater variety.

My gift box contains a very smooth chocolate fudge made with marshmallow cream.  It’s the first fudge recipe that I ever learned so I was delighted to know that my friend uses it too.  The recipe used to be printed on the back of the Kraft marshmallow cream jar.  I don’t know if it still is, but if you can’t find the recipe on the jar the Million Dollar Fudge recipe in the Fanny Farmer Cookbook is very similar.

Fudge is not an everyday treat.  Goodness knows it’s too sweet and too rich to be indulged in on a regular basis, but next time you are in need of a hostess gift, a birthday gift or just a thinking-of-you kind of treat, you might consider making some.  The smile you receive in return will be worth the effort.

Tuesday 29 March 2011

Brisket Three Ways

While I was preparing the sandwich for this week’s menu photograph, my husband asked me “What’s the difference between corned beef and pastrami…or for that matter, how is Montreal smoked beef different from the other two?  It’s a good question.

Corned beef, pastrami, and Montreal smoked beef are all made from beef brisket.  The difference between the three lies in the way the brisket is prepared.

Corned beef is usually wet cured in a spiced brine.  It can also be dry cured in granular salt.  Unlike pastrami and Montreal smoked beef, it’s not smoked.  It is ready for serving once the curing process is complete.

Pastrami is cured in a wet brine, partially dried, then seasoned with various herbs and spices.  Once seasoned, it is smoked and then steamed. 

Montreal smoked beef is prepared in a manner similar to pastrami but the brine it’s cured in is made with more cracked black pepper than a pastrami brine. The brine for Montreal smoked beef also contains aromatic spices such as coriander and is made with considerably less sugar than pastrami brine.

So there you have it:  similar yet different.  All three are very good, though, and well worth enjoying from time to time.

Sunday 27 March 2011

A Sheep for a Lamb

When I was a kid (back before they invented the wheel), lamb was a seasonal treat.  It was available only in the spring.  The rest of the year, we ate mutton; meat from “more experienced” sheep. 

The advent of flash freezing and refrigerated shipping changed lamb from a seasonal treat to something we are accustomed to seeing on our grocers’ shelves year-round.  With this change, mutton fell from favour.  It is now rarely seen in grocery stores or at butcher shops.  Many cooks believe we are the poorer for it.

Shepherd’s pie, Irish stew, kofta curry, and moussaka were all originally made with mutton.  Mutton’s deeper colour, firm texture, and stronger flavour helped it to stand up to long cooking. It was well able to hold its own with other strong flavours and with aggressive seasoning. 

We are fortunate here to have a number of sheep farms close at hand.  The rocky terrain of our gulf islands is not suited to raising cattle, but is an excellent environment in which to raise sheep.  Despite this, we rarely see local lamb or mutton in our butcher shops.

I’ll continue to enjoy roast lamb for Easter dinner but I’m on a quest to find a local farm from which I can purchase mutton.  I’m going to revisit my recipes with this meat as the main ingredient, and learn once again to cook with its deeper flavour.  I’m looking forward to it.

Thursday 24 March 2011

Breakfasts Remembered

We had breakfast for supper tonight and, while we were eating our eggs, bacon, grilled tomatoes and toast, we started reminiscing about favourite breakfasts from our childhoods.

My husband’s favourite breakfast was Toad in a Hole.  On Sunday mornings, his dad would cook breakfast.  Once he had finished cooking the bacon, he would cut thick slices of white bread and use a cookie cutter to cut a hole in the center of each slice.  The bread was fried in the bacon fat until brown on one side then turned to cook on the other side.  As soon as the bread was flipped, an egg was cracked into the hole in the center of the slice and left to cook as the bread finished toasting.

My favourite breakfast was soft boiled eggs and toast soldiers.  I’m sure part of the reason I remember it so fondly is that I was only ever served this treat when staying over at my grandma’s house.  I would sit at the table like royalty and be served two perfect, soft-boiled eggs. Along with the eggs came buttered toast, cut into strips exactly sized for dipping in the egg yolks.  I would dawdle over breakfast, dipping each soldier carefully into the yolk until just the right portion of his feet was wet.  Nary a crumb remained on my plate when the meal was done.

Our eldest grandson’s favourite breakfast is oatmeal, served with brown sugar and full fat whipping cream.  His Scottish great-grandfather served him this breakfast when he was not quite two years old and continued the tradition each time he came to visit.  Great-grandfather passed away some years ago, but the memory lives on and evokes a smile whenever we share it.

It’s funny how a simple egg, a piece of toast, or a bowl of hot cereal can evoke such happy memories.  What was your favourite childhood breakfast?  Does it have a happy memory associated with it too?

Wednesday 23 March 2011

Can't Have One Without The Other

I went to Saltspring Island today.  Since I’m always interested in seeing and tasting the work of other cooks and bakers, I decided to visit the island’s three bakeries while I was there.  I’d been told that all three were very good.

My first impression of all three bakeries was that they hadn’t evolved their offerings since the 70’s.  That’s okay by me; a lot of my recipes are even older than that.  The island has a big population of “professional hippies” (their description, not mine) so it makes sense that the bakeries produce items from hippie-dom’s heyday.  At least the 70’s focus encourages the bakers to use organic products.

My second impression of all three bakeries was that, despite the excellent raw materials used to make their products, the finished offerings on the shelf were visually unappealing.  Their taste was even more disappointing.  I bought several items at each bakery, sampling a bite or two of each.  Not one was better than mediocre and some of them were downright bad. 

I thought about it a lot on the way home and came to wonder if professional hippie-dom leads one to expect that if something is wholesome, it will also be leaden in texture and unappealing to the eye.  I certainly don’t think that should be the case. I don’t care if your carrot cake recipe dates back to the 70’s but, dammit, it should be the absolute best carrot cake you can possibly make.

You would think that with all of the wonderful ingredients available to these bakers—organic flour and eggs, locally grown fruit and vegetables, cheeses made right there on the island, coffee from the roaster right down the road—they would be inspired to do something really special. 

Maybe the routine of producing the same things day after day for 30 years or more has gotten to the bakers on Saltspring.  Maybe their customers’ low expectations have caused them to relax their standards.  Maybe they were never great bakers in the first place. 

Whatever the reason for the poor quality of their products, my visit to these bakeries reminded me that good ingredients aren’t enough.  In order to produce really good food you must also bring passion to the equation.  Good ingredients without passion will not produce good food, nor will passion without good ingredients.  You can’t have one without the other.

Tuesday 22 March 2011

You Win Some, You Lose Some

I’ve written before about left over bread.  I tend to have a lot of it in my kitchen because, when I make sandwiches, I slice from the center of the loaf in order to ensure that my portions are consistent.  This leaves the ends of each loaf unused.  I usually process the left over bread into breadcrumbs.  Today, though, I decided to try something new. 

I was going to be out for much of the day and wanted something that would be ready to go in the oven when I got home, so I made a savoury bread pudding.  I cut the bread into cubes and then tossed them with chopped ham, diced tomatoes, grated onion, and grated cheddar cheese.  Then I made a mixture of eggs, milk, dry mustard, Worcestershire sauce, and seasonings and poured it over the dry mixture.  I covered the dish and put it in the fridge to rest for the day.  When I got home I baked it.  The resulting casserole looked beautiful. 

I plated my savoury bread pudding beside a generous green salad and sat down to my supper with eager anticipation.  I took the first forkful of my bread pudding and it was…awful.  The texture was unappealing and—even though each of the ingredients was flavourful on its own—the finished dish was bland.  I tried a second forkful hoping it would leave a better impression than the first, but it didn’t. 

My bread pudding went into the garbage and, with the addition of some cold chicken left from last night’s supper, my side salad became a main dish.

I’m disappointed by the results of today’s experiment but I don’t regret having tried something new.  Even the best of cooks mess up sometimes; it’s how we learn.  Perhaps even more than our successes, our failed experiments have something to teach us. 

Today I learned that it’s always good to have a fall-back plan.

Monday 21 March 2011

Kale with Crispy Bacon and Sherry

I’ve pledged to include more cruciferous vegetables in my diet.  To that end, we had kale as a side dish with dinner tonight, with crispy bacon and sherry. 

It’s a simple dish to cook; not a recipe really, more a technique.  Here’s how I made it:

I began by washing the kale.  I soaked it in several rinses of cold water and then put it in a colander to drain. 

Next, I finely minced some thick cut, apple wood smoked bacon and sautéed it in a heavy-bottomed pan until it was crisp.  I removed the bacon from the pan, set on a plate lined with paper towel, and put it in the oven to stay warm. 

Once the bacon was removed from the pan, I deglazed the pan with a small amount Amontillado sherry, stirring and cooking until the sherry was reduced by half. 

When the sherry was reduced, I added the kale with only the water that remained on the leaves.  I stirred it occasionally until it was cooked down. 

When the kale was cooked, I removed it to a shallow dish and topped it with the crispy bacon. 

There are several reasons I like this dish.  First, and most importantly, it tastes good.  It’s also easy to prepare and can be made with locally grown produce.  It’s rich in vitamins A, C and K, is a source of vitamins  B1, B3, B6 and E, and of  calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium.  Pretty powerful stuff! 

Do you have a favourite kale recipe?  Care to share it? 

Sunday 20 March 2011

Cruciferous Splendiferous

My friend Angie starts each day with a green smoothie.  The green in her smoothies comes from a different herb or vegetable each day, sometimes including kale.  I’ve given her a hard time about this smoothie thing.  It just plain doesn’t sound appealing to me, but then, I don’t like smoothies at the best of times.  It’s a texture thing. 

It turns out that I owe Angie an apology.  Although a green smoothie may seem terribly unappealing, she’s on the right track.  Angie is fighting cancer, and cruciferous vegetables contain phytochemicals with potential anti-cancer properties. The Canadian Cancer Society recommends a diet rich in cruciferous vegetables.

We like to eat what's good for us, but what is a cruciferous vegetable anyway?

Simply put, cruciferous vegetables are members of the cabbage family, Brassicaceae.

They include:



 land cress,


Ethiopian mustard,



  collard greens,


 Chinese broccoli (kai-lan),




 Brussels sprouts,








broccoli romanesco,



 wild broccoli,

bok choy,






 rapini (broccoli rabe),


 flowering cabbage (ornamental kale),

 napa cabbage,


 turnip roots and greens,




Siberian kale,




 mustard seeds,


 mustard greens,





water cress,







Have I tried them all?  Heck, no.  It’s a big list! 

For the next while, I’m going to try to sample a new brassica every week (although probably not in a smoothie). Why don't you try a few new varieties too?

Cheers to you Angie!  Yet again, you’ve been an inspiration.


I sourced these photos on the internet.  My thanks to the photographers for their excellent work. 

Thursday 17 March 2011

Bread for Beginners

I bake all of the bread I serve.  This means daily baking, every morning, at 5:00 a.m.  You’d think all that baking would turn into a chore but it hasn’t yet.  I love the process of making bread and I love the smell of it baking.  I’m certainly fond of the finished product too.

There’s a kind of popular mythology around baking bread at home:  One imagines that it’s a skill learned from a mother or grandmother, in a warm, old-timey kitchen.  Many believe bread baking to be a complicated process, and the production of a good loaf of bread to be an almost mystical skill.  Not so.  I learned bread baking from cookbooks and through a process of trial and error.  Once I mastered it, I realized that it was not nearly as complicated a process as I had been led to believe.

Here is the basic white bread recipe that my trial and error produced.  It works very well for me and most of my other bread recipes have evolved out of the proportions used here.

Melt 1/2 cup of butter—1/4 lb.—and allow it to cool to lukewarm. (You could use vegetable oil instead.  It would yield just as tender a loaf but butter tastes better.)

Combine 2-1/4 cups of lukewarm water and 2 Tbsp. sugar.  Stir until the sugar is dissolved and then sprinkle 4-1/2 tsp. active dry yeast into the water.  Wait about 10 minutes for the yeast to dissolve and rise to the surface of the water.  Add the melted butter, 6-1/2 cups of white flour (bread flour is best, if you can get it), and 2 tsp. salt.  Be sure to add the salt last, on top of the flour, so that the flour will cushion it from the yeast.  Stir the ingredients together until all the flour is absorbed.  The dough should form a ball that pulls all of the sticky bits away from the sides of the bowl.  You may have to do the last of the mixing with your hands.

Most recipes say to flour the board on which you will be kneading your dough but I find that this sometimes causes the dough to absorb too much flour and become heavy.  Turn your dough out onto a clean counter.  It should be stiff enough that it won’t stick to the countertop as you knead it.  Knead the dough, turning it as you work, until it becomes elastic and seems to push back at you.  You’ll see a real change in texture.  It should look satiny and spring back when you poke it lightly with your finger.

Clean out the bowl you mixed the dough in and then oil the inside of the bowl with a light film of vegetable oil.  Place the kneaded dough into the bowl, turning it to coat the outside of the dough completely with the oil.  Cover the bowl with a clean dish towel and allow the dough to rise until it’s doubled in size, about 1-1/2 hours. 

When the dough has doubled in size, punch it down, knead it a few times and then form it into two loaves.  Place the loaves in oiled bread pans and allow it to rise again.  The
second rising will take less time. 

Commercial bakeries often omit the first rising, putting their bread dough directly into the pans.  I choose to allow my bread to rise twice because it yields a finer crumb and it allows the flavour of the yeast to develop.

When the unbaked loaves look about the size and shape of a baked bread loaf, heat your oven to 375 degrees. Bake the loaves for 25 minutes and then rotate them in the oven to ensure even cooking.  Bake for about another 20 minutes and then check the loaves for done-ness.  They should be nicely browned and, when you tap gently on the bottom of the loaves, they should make a hollow sound. 

If you like your bread crusty, you can stop at this point, allow the bread to cool and then slice and serve it.  If you prefer a more tender crust, brush the loaves with melted butter while they’re still hot.

Not so hard at all, is it?  Go ahead! Try it!  Let me know what you think once you’ve baked your first loaves.

Wednesday 16 March 2011

Potato Scones

I made potato scones as a side dish for supper tonight. Made from leftover mashed potatoes, they are not scones really—more like thick airy pancakes—but they are easy to make and surprisingly delicious.

The recipe I use for my potato scones comes from a Mennonite cookbook published as a fund raiser by a group of church women.  It’s soft cover, spiral bound, and all but falling apart from constant use. 

A very simple way of living is observed in Mennonite communities.  Careful management of resources is stressed and thrift plays an important part in household management.  Because of this, many of the recipes used in Mennonite kitchens are meant to be made from leftovers.

Small wonder my little cookbook is so well worn!  I have a pretty good library of cookbooks but few of them contain recipes actually built around leftovers.

Of all the dishes in my Mennonite cookbook, I make potato scones most frequently.  I turn to them often because, provided the basic proportions of the recipe are observed, they are infinitely adaptable.  I’ve made them with mashed yams, carrots, and squash…I even made them once with a combination of brown rice and creamed spinach.  They turned out very well. 

You can add most anything to the basic scone recipe to ramp up its flavour.  I have, at various times, stirred in green onions, sautéed yellow onions, various herbs, cheese, sautéed mushrooms, and chopped up left over meat.  All of these ingredients worked well.

Here are the basic instructions for making potato scones:
Measure your mashed potatoes as you turn them out into a mixing bowl.  For every cup of mashed potato, you will need an egg, 1/2 cup of flour, and a tsp. of baking powder.  Mix the egg into the mashed potato until they are well combined.  If you are adding extra flavouring ingredients, stir them into the potato egg mixture.  In a separate bowl, combine the flour and baking soda.  Add the dry mixture to the wet mixture and stir until a thick dough is formed.  Set a frying pan over medium heat and heat together equal parts of butter and oil until the butter is melted.  Put spoonfuls of batter into the hot fat and flatten them out slightly.  Cook the scones, flipping them once, until they are golden brown on both sides.  Serve hot, with butter or gravy.

Like most dishes in my Mennonite cookbook, these scones are not in any way slimming.  The recipes are written for farm folk who do hard physical labour all day and don’t need to worry about calories.  For the rest of us, these dishes have to be once-in-a-while treats but it’s still worthwhile getting to know them.  In learning about this food, I came to understand a lot about the community from which it originated.

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Community Supported Agriculture

Small farms are feeling the pinch these days.  Property taxes keep rising, fuel and electrical costs are increasing.  Fewer and fewer young people are choosing farming as a profession.  Competition from mega farms is pushing small farms from the market.  

In losing small farms, we are becoming more and more dependent on imported foods.  We’re settling for lower quality produce; less than fresh from its long trip to our market.  This food is more costly—both economically and environmentally—than that which is locally grown.

Community Supported Agriculture is a means of supporting small farms.  It’s a very simple plan really:  Community members buy a portion of a farm’s crops at the beginning of the season.  Then, throughout the growing season, they receive a share of the farm’s production.  Not only does this provide the farmer with an assured income so that planting can continue, but it also provides shareholders with a direct connection to the source of their food.

Participating in community supported agriculture brings consumers right to the farm.  At a time when we are remarkably disconnected from the origins our food, CSA shareholders come right to the source.  They have an opportunity to put their hands in the soil and to actually see their food growing.  They gain an appreciation both for the seasonal cycle of growth and for the hard work required to bring their food to the table.  All of this is good.

Alderlea Farm is a successful example of community supported agriculture.  This bio-dynamic, organic farm is located in Glenora, near Duncan, in the Cowichan Valley.  They sell shares in their crops, run a restaurant at the farm, and participate in an apprenticeship program aimed at training new farmers. 

I've purchased a share of the Alderlea Farm crop.  For 24 weeks this year, I'll be receiving organic produce, fresh from their fields.  I’m looking forward to getting to know other members of the Alderlea Farm community and to cooking with these beautiful vegetables.

If you would like to learn more about Alderlea Farm, please visit their website at

Monday 14 March 2011

Yum! Crumbs!

When I make sandwiches I cut from the center of the bread loaf, working my way back toward the crust.  I do this because I want to use the largest slices from the loaf for my sandwiches, ensuring that my portions are consistent.  I don’t use the smaller slices at either end of the loaf.   

Since I use only about three quarters of a loaf of bread to make sandwiches with, I’m left with the other quarter unused and—true to the nature of my Scottish forebears—I just can’t bear throw it away.

What does one do with left-over bread?  Lots of things, but in my kitchen the ends of the loaves are most often made into breadcrumbs.  I grind them in my food processor, put them in freezer bags and store them in the freezer until I have need of them. 

Breadcrumbs are handy things to have in the larder:  They can top a casserole or pasta dish, they can be used as breading on fried or oven baked meats, and they are an essential binder in meatloaf, and in many other recipes.   

I particularly like using my breadcrumbs to make Sicilian spaghetti.  It’s a quick, easy, inexpensive dish, and it’s very tasty.  To make it, cook a pound of spaghetti just as you usually would.  While the spaghetti is cooking, heat 4 Tbsp. olive oil in a large skillet.  Open a 2 ounce can of anchovies and chop them fairly finely, then mince 3 cloves of garlic.  Add the anchovies and garlic to the hot oil and sauté them until the anchovies break down (about 2 minutes).  Remove the skillet from the heat.  Stir in a cup of breadcrumbs and a cup of chopped parsley.  Drain the pasta and toss it with the breadcrumb mixture.  Season it with salt and pepper to taste, and top the dish with grated Parmesan.

How easy is that?  And fabulous too.  Leftovers they may be, but breadcrumbs are also a wonderful means of adding flavour and texture to the even the simplest meal. 

Sunday 13 March 2011

Not June Cleaver

Today was a busy day for me.  I baked bread and rolls, tested the dishes for the coming week’s menu, and tried a couple of new dessert recipes.  My kitchen looked the worse for it too.

To my surprise, I find that I enjoy setting my kitchen in order after a busy day of cooking.  As a child I was the Princess of  Mess.  My room was always filled with the clutter that arises from an assortment of projects at different stages of completion, and I was always ill inclined to tidy it away.  It seems most unusual to me that I now find great satisfaction in standing back after everything is tidied away, enjoying my handiwork. 

I found myself singing while I cleaned today and thought “Oh no!  I’ve turned into June Cleaver!”  My husband rushed to set my mind at ease though, assuring me that I’m safe from that fate for a while yet.  The day has not yet arrived when I'll consider doing the vacuuming in pearls and high heels.  Thank goodness.

I may not be June Cleaver but I’m glad that I’ve learned to love this other side of cooking.  I need to:  I’m still mighty good at making a mess.

Saturday 12 March 2011

Yay! Birthday Cake!

I went to a birthday party today.  The birthday cake was a dense chocolate cake with chocolate filling, from a local baker.  It was nicely decorated and quite tasty but, to my mind, it didn’t hold a patch to the butterfly-shaped chocolate cake with vanilla icing that my mom made for my ninth birthday party.

Everyone I know has a favourite birthday cake.  Most often they are home-made, from Mom or Grandma's recipe. They have made-from-scratch icing and cute but clumsy decorations. 

My friend Karen has passed her love of chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting on to her girls.  My daughter made a very popular cake decorated with green icing and lots of little plastic army men.  My friend Amy made her kids red velvet cake with cream cheese icing.  My mother-in-law had a particular fondness for vanilla sponge cake, filled with raspberry jam.

What’s your favourite birthday cake?

Friday 11 March 2011

Everyone Needs to Eat

While out for a walk the other day, I passed a building with a sign out front that said “Cowichan Valley Basket Society.”  I was curious to find out just what the “Basket Society” is, so I went inside to ask.  I was told that the Cowichan Valley Basket Society provides hot soup, sandwiches, doughnuts, and coffee, Monday to Saturday, to anyone who is in need of a hot meal. As well, clients can register to receive food hampers once a month. 

Like most food banks, the Cowichan Valley Basket Society is completely non-profit.  It depends upon the support of people within the community.  The society has some paid staff but much of the work is done by volunteers; people who give generously of their time because they believe that everyone should have enough to eat.  The food distributed in the hampers comes from within the community too, in the form of food donations, monetary donations from private individuals, and corporate donations. 

Sadly, the food bank is seeing an ever-increasing number of clients, many of them among the working poor.  These are people who, although employed, are not earning enough money to feed themselves or their families without assistance.  Tough economic times can also mean a decline in the number of donations the food bank receives.  The two circumstances have combined to form a real challenge for the food bank here, and in many other communities as well.

Despite the challenges they face in providing their service, the people that I met on my visit to the Cowichan Valley Basket Society were pleasant and positive.  I applaud their hard work and community spirit.  

I think that, no matter where you live, you can probably stand up and applaud the work of food bank volunteers in your area.  Perhaps we should think about that:  We need to find a means to provide a living wage to everyone within our communities.  Food banks should not be the norm.

Thursday 10 March 2011

Comfort Food

I’m grumpy today.  If Oscar the Grouch’s girlfriend Grungetta ever needs an understudy, I could step right into her role.  Since cooking is a creative process for me and closely linked to mood, today’s curmudgeonly disposition has affected my approach to my kitchen.

It’s a good thing that this week’s menu is all about comfort food because when I’m grumpy that’s the direction I take.  It was actually quite soothing to prepare tomato soup, grilled cheese sandwiches and pudding.  The process took me back to innumerable childhood lunches.  There’s something smile-inducing about the memory of dunking a grilled cheese sandwich into a bowl of soup.

For most people comfort food is something that they associate with childhood; some dish or group of dishes that evokes memories of happy times in a place where they felt safe and loved.  This is certainly true of my favourite comfort foods.  I’m not craving mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, or butterscotch pudding for their flavours (although they are certainly very good).  I’m craving them for the memories associated with them.

Wednesday 9 March 2011

Merridale Ciderworks

I use a lot of apples in my cooking during the fall, winter, and early spring.  They may not all be grown right here in the valley but, whenever possible, I do buy apples grown in BC.  When buying apple juice or apple ciders, I seek out those produced here on the island.

We are very fortunate here in the Cowichan Valley because we have our own cidery; the Merridale Ciderworks.  They produce exceptional ciders from traditional varieties of cider apples, grown for centuries in Britain and in Europe, and now thriving here as well. 

Cider apples are not like the dessert apples we buy in the grocery store.  They are bittersweet and bittersharp, producing quite astringent juices.  These bitter juices produce a higher quality, better tasting cider without the addition of chemical additives that might otherwise be required to amend the flavour of the finished product. 

Because they are not grown for their appearance, cider apples do not require many of the chemical pesticides and fungicides used to produce the pretty apples we are used to seeing in our markets.  All of the apples (about 110 tons a year) used by the Merridale Ciderworks are organically grown.  As much as their excellent taste, the growers’ mindful farming practices recommend these ciders to me. 

I use apple juice, apple cider, and apple cider vinegar in many of my recipes.  As with my wine vinegars, I choose to make my apple cider vinegar myself.  I do this because starting with the best quality cider allows me to control the quality of the finished product.  My apple cider vinegars start with Merridale cider.

It was one of my apple recipes that brought this note to mind.  Look for a dressing made with cider vinegar on one of my lunch-time salads within the next few weeks.  Enjoy it knowing that, in doing so, you are getting the some of the very best of what the valley has to offer.

Tuesday 8 March 2011


I went out to lunch with a friend today, to a Vietnamese restaurant that specializes in various types of Phở.  I enjoy Vietnamese food so it was a special treat for me.

Vietnamese food has come to Canada with the refuges of the Viet Nam war.  Most of these people brought little in the way of material goods, but a great deal in the way of work ethic, family values, cultural traditions, and cuisine.  We are richer for their presence here.

I think the reason Vietnamese food is so popular in North America is that it incorporates many flavours with which we are already familiar, but presents them to us in a different way.  This is certainly true of phở. 

Phở begins as a savoury broth flavoured with beef, veal bones, bay leaf, onion, salt and pepper, similar to broths in almost every other culture.  Phở is made unique through the addition of fish sauce and by the fact that the meat in the soup is added raw, immediately before service.  The meat cooks in the hot broth and diners then further season the soup with their choice of mung bean sprouts, Thai basil, chilies, and lime, all of which are served separate from the soup, as a side dish.

Phở is of relatively recent origin.  A fusion of French and Vietnamese cooking, it originated in North Vietnam during the 1920’s.  It gradually spread throughout the country, with each region adapting the recipe to include local ingredients and seasonings.  In these adaptations, the evolution of phở is akin to that of older, more traditional peasant foods in this and almost every other culture.

Isn’t it wonderful that we have the opportunity to experience dishes like phở so close to our homes?  Because we are a nation of immigrants, the opportunity to experience other cultures through their foods is always close at hand.  Treat every day as an adventure:  Look for a new dish, try a new restaurant, discover another culinary tradition.

Monday 7 March 2011

Hey, Puddin'!

Until the advent of pudding mixes, every cook knew how to make a cornstarch pudding.  Vanilla cornstarch custard pudding, or blancmange, was a staple nursery food in Victorian England and, if dressed up with caramel or chocolate, adorned with fruit, or topped with whipped cream, it was thought fit to grace even the finest table.

After WWII, with advertisers and home economists proclaiming the virtues of convenience food, the humble cornstarch pudding fell from favour.  It’s never regained its place of pride in the home cook’s repertoire.  It is, however, a good thing to know how to make.  We usually have the ingredients on hand and, once mastered, this pudding makes an affordable, tasty, comforting dessert.  It can also be used in pies and parfaits.

The proportions for almost all cornstarch puddings are the same.  With the exceptions of caramel and butterscotch, you can make just about any kind of pudding you might like simply by adding flavourings to basic blancmange right at the end of the cooking time. 

To make a blancmange, begin by whisking together 1/3 c. sugar, 6 Tbsp. cornstarch and ¼ tsp. salt.  Gradually add 4 cups of milk to this mixture, whisking constantly as you do so in order to dissolve the cornstarch.  Place the mixture in the top of a double boiler or in a heat-proof bowl over—but not touching—boiling water.  Stir it constantly until it begins to thicken—about 8 to 12 minutes—then cover it and continue to cook the pudding for another 10 minutes. 

Once the milk mixture has thickened, stir about a cup of it very gradually into 2 well-beaten eggs.  Do this slowly, stirring the whole time, to ensure that the eggs blend into the mixture without scrambling.  Add the egg mixture back into the pan with the rest of the milk mixture and cook the pudding for 2 more minutes, stirring constantly. 

Remove the pudding from the heat and stir in 1 tsp. of vanilla extract.  Pour it into a bowl and cover it immediately with plastic wrap, making sure that the plastic rests right on the surface of the pudding.  This will prevent the top of the pudding from forming a skin.  Once it has cooled sufficiently, store the pudding in the refrigerator.

Simple, right?  Now that you know how to make it, you can file this recipe away for the next time you have need of a little comfort food.


Sunday 6 March 2011

Arrgh! Who Invented This Oven Anyway?

My oven has been misbehaving lately.  At totally random intervals, the broiler element comes on instead of the bottom element, scorching the tops of whatever I am baking.  Yesterday it did this at the very beginning of  a batch of bread, scorching the tops of the loaves black before the insides of the loaves had even begun to set.  So frustrating!  I cursed my stove roundly and then called a repairman, who told me that the problem was probably due to a computer chip that needs replacing.  Until the part comes in, I continue to play oven roulette; allowing sufficient time to remake everything just in case the problem reoccurs.

The problem with my oven caused me to think about how much I take my stove for granted.  Modern ranges, with their easily adjusted settings and usually reliable ovens are a very recent invention. 

There were ovens even in prehistoric times, built of hardened mud.  They were common household fixtures in the Indus valley and in pre-dynastic Egypt.  In central Europe, fire pits in insulated yurts were used to cook mammoth as long ago as 29,000 BC but it was the Greeks who invented the front loaded oven, and it was they who developed bread baking into an art.  The bakers' profession developed in their culture, as bread was increasingly baked outside the home by trained professionals and then sold to the public. 

Even though the first cast iron stoves made their appearance in the 1700’s, they were not common in European homes.  In most villages, the baker owned the only oven.  If one wanted to bake something at home, a cauldron was used.  It was placed on the fire and banked with embers.  The heat from the embers transferred to the pot, cooking the food inside.

Gas stoves arrived in the 1800’s and electric stoves even later.  With the coming of the industrial revolution and the rise of the middle class, home ovens became more and more common.  By the 20th century, most homes had an oven of some sort in their kitchens.

Time enough has passed that we have come to take the convenience of a home oven for granted.  Still it takes only one failure of this common appliance for us to be reminded of how very much they have changed our lives.

Saturday 5 March 2011

Mmmm! Cookies!

There are always cookies in the cookie jar at our house.  I know that they are no friend to my waistline but they are a homely food, bringing with them comfort and happy memories.  I enjoy serving them to my guests and I’ve noticed that a cookie offered is rarely refused.

The word cookie has evolved from the Dutch word koekje, or “little cake,” and it arrived in the English language through the Dutch in North America.  Koekje properly describes the origins of the cookie, which is believed to have found its beginning in cake baking.  Over time the two diverged, with water being the medium for cohesion in cake batter and oil the medium for cohesion in cookie dough. 

It is believed that cookies originated in 7th century Persia and that they made their way to Europe with the Muslim conquest of Spain.  By the 14th century, they were being baked throughout Europe.  The cookies of those times were popular fare with travelers.  They were hard and therefore durable, and most cookie recipes contained a large proportion of nuts, making them a good source of protein.  The food we now associate with the name “cookie”—made by creaming butter and sugar together to form the basis of the dough—didn’t become common until the 18th century.  Now, though, this type of cookie is quite universal and has become the comfort food memory we most often associate with childhood. 

Cookies are easily baked and can be successfully made by even the most inexperienced baker.  They are often made from ingredients readily found in our pantries and, when home baked, can be quite economical to make.  I am glad to have them in the house; grateful for a small treat with my afternoon tea or for the opportunity to share them with friends. 

Friday 4 March 2011

Can't Be Beet

It’s a rough time of year to buy vegetables.  Even I, who love winter vegetables, am getting a little tired of them.  My husband, who doesn’t love them quite so much, is openly rebelling each time he sees a root vegetable on his dinner plate.  We find ourselves succumbing to the lure of imported asparagus, snap peas, and spinach but, lovely as these treats are, we usually try to buy food grown closer to home, both to support local farmers and to help keep our budget on track.

When I brought home beets again today, there was an audible moan from the direction of the living room. I knew I had to change them up a bit in order to make tonight’s supper a little more appealing.  I decided to make beet risotto.  You might want to try this too.  Risotto is more a method than a recipe, but here are the general instructions:

Bring about a litre of chicken stock to a simmer.  While the chicken stock is heating, peel and finely grate a medium-sized beet.  Set it aside.  Zest an orange and set the zest aside.  Cut the orange in half.  You’ll need it later.  Finely chop about a half cup of onion. 

Pour about 2 Tbsp. of olive oil into a heavy bottomed pot and heat it over medium heat until surface of the oil begins to dimple and shimmer.  Add the chopped onion to the pot, together with about a cup of Arborio rice and sauté them until the onions are tender and each grain of rice is coated in oil.  The grains of rice should be a little bit translucent around the edges.  Add the grated beets, the orange zest and a couple of ladlefuls of stock.  Squeeze the juice from the orange into the pan. 

Stir the rice until the stock is mostly absorbed and then add more.  Continue stirring and adding more stock to the rice as needed, until it has reached the texture you prefer.  The risotto should have made its own sauce and be loose enough that it will spread when spooned onto your plate.

Some folks don’t consider a risotto finished until cheese has been added but I think that the beet and orange give this enough flavour that you can forgo the cheese.  If you are missing that creamy dairy texture, stir in some butter or some goat cheese.

Risotto needs to be served as soon as it is cooked.  This one should liven up your plate a bit; just look at the colour!

Thursday 3 March 2011


One of the best things about doing what I do is that I get to bake every single day.  Every baked good that I serve comes from my kitchen so early mornings find me baking bread, muffins, cookies and cakes.  I could just buy this stuff—there are lots of great bakeries—but then my kitchen wouldn’t smell nearly as nice.

There’s something universally appealing about the aroma of freshly baked bread. Years ago, when I worked at a bakery, the kitchen would get very hot so we would open the doors to help cool the room.  As soon as we did, the smell would draw people in.  It didn’t matter if it was two in the morning or three in the afternoon, if the aroma of baking bread was wafting out the door passers-by would stop, inhale deeply, and then follow their noses into the bakery.

I bake on a much smaller scale here but the response remains much the same:  My neighbours pause on the landing to enjoy that fresh-baked scent as they go by our door, and guests in my home invariably find themselves standing at the kitchen counter waiting for that first slice to be taken from a still-warm loaf of bread.  The aroma appeals to me too:  It stirs happy childhood memories and, even on the most hectic days, calms frayed nerves. There is no better aroma therapy than the smell of baking fresh from the oven.

Wednesday 2 March 2011

Something in the Wind

People with allergies are closely attuned to the seasons.  Their itchy eyes and snuffly noses tell them the seasons’ progression as accurately and clearly as any calendar.  My eyes and nose, together with the pollen on the windshield of my car each morning, are telling me that the alders are pollinating.  I didn’t know though, until I drove by a nearby hazelnut farm, that the hazelnuts are pollinating too. 

The pollinating hazelnut trees got me thinking:  There aren’t many bees around right now so how are these trees being pollinated.  Could it be that the wind does the job for them?  I did some research online and, sure enough, that’s just how it happens.  The same breeze that deposits pollen on my windshield each day carries the pollen from tree to tree, helping to ensure a harvest of hazelnuts later in the year.

Thinking about the wind and about pollination made me think about the farmers who raise the hazelnuts and, indeed, about all farmers:  I’ve always admired the work ethic that keeps farmers farming.  (It's becoming increasingly more difficult for our farmers to make a go of it and yet they keep on working.)  What I hadn’t thought about until today is that farmers are also gamblers.  Every year they stake their livelihood on the vagaries of Mother Nature. 

The calm, clear days that we so long for are no friend to the hazelnut farmer.  They need the March winds to ensure the pollination of their crop.  And, like every farmer, they also need the right amounts of sun and rain—just enough, not too much or too little of either.

Farmers gamble each year that nature will provide the conditions that will carry them through to a good harvest and they gamble, too, that the harvest will not be so good that it causes prices to drop through over-supply.  Pretty gutsy, if you ask me.