Sunday 30 October 2011

Changing Direction

I haven’t been writing much lately and I do apologize.  I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to do with this blog and where I want to go from here. 

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve had some health problems in recent months.  Lately, they’ve affected my outlook on cooking because I am often not hungry and so eat only because I know I need to.  Eating for sustenance rather than enjoyment takes a great deal of the pleasure out of cooking.  I’m sure this will change soon (I usually have a huge appetite and a tremendous enthusiasm for food) but right now—for the first time in my life—I find myself viewing my kitchen time as a chore rather than a pleasure.  That, of course, makes it a challenge to write about food.

Being sick for a long time has affected my outlook about food in another way that is both more esoteric and more fundamental.  I realize that, while cooking is certainly a great love of mine and that my passion for food was the driving force behind starting my business, it is really only one of many interests in my life.  I am by nature a dilettante, constantly interested in different and diverse things, constantly wanting to move on and learn more. 

My hiatus from work leaves me unable to continue with catering, at least for a while.  I’ll have to save up some money before I can work for myself again.  I'm sad to have to leave my business behind even temporarily but, oddly, in its own way, taking a break may be a good thing.  Changing my focus will enable me to look at the broader range of my interests with renewed curiosity. 

Which brings me back to the subject of my blog:

I do want to continue writing about food, and about local farmers and food producers but
I want to write about other things too.  I want to write about grocery shopping and budgeting, about arts and crafts and photography, about making new stuff from old, about seasonal celebrations, about activities in and around the area, about gardens and how stuff grows, about fun stuff to do with kids…about all the things that interest me really.  So you’ll be seeing some changes here.  Much of my writing will continue to be food-centric but many other subjects will come up too. 

Please bear with me while I find my way in this new direction.  If you have suggestions about what you’d like to read about or comments on what I do write about, I’d love to hear them.  Thanks for your patience.


Saturday 22 October 2011

Beefs Again

I remember my mom being a pretty good cook when I was little.  That is, until she joined Weight Watchers.  Don’t get me wrong: I think that as weight loss programs go, Weight Watchers is a pretty sensible one.  It’s just that they preach the practice of substitution.  That’s not such a bad thing either.  I frequently substitute one ingredient for another if I’m looking to make a recipe more healthful.  It’s just that my mom, bless her heart, had no idea which ingredients made suitable substitutes.  She didn’t lack in creativity but her tofu dog chow mein with its sauce made from watered down low calorie ketchup and cornstarch was a turning point for me:  It was the exact reason I realized that I had to learn to cook.  It was a matter of self defense.

By the time I moved out on my own, I’d mastered the basics of putting a meal on the table.  My dishes were simple and my repertoire small, but at least my meals were palatable.  I found that I liked to cook.  The process of preparing a meal was soothing to me and the act of stocking my cupboards gave me a sense of security in what were, for me, very uncertain times.  

I decided to expand my cooking horizons and, in doing so, discovered a couple of things:  First, that I could tell what a dish would taste like just by reading a recipe and, second, that when I cooked for others, they enjoyed my food enough to want to put their knees under my table again and again.  It was very gratifying.  I started to look for recipes everywhere.  I bought women’s magazines in thrift shops.  I clipped recipes from newspapers.  I brought home cookbooks from the library.  

All this took place in the days before computers were commonplace, even in offices.  I know that some of you cannot imagine such a time, but it did exist.  I learned to type on an ancient Royal typewriter given me by my granny.  It had a cast iron body and a key movement so stiff that I nearly sprained my baby finger every time I typed an “A.”  Photocopies were out of my price range so, unless I was clipping from a magazine or a newspaper, I transcribed my recipes using that old typewriter and the yellow, inexpensive typing paper commonly used for rough drafts at that time.  The finished sheets were compiled in a binder, in the order I transcribed them.  No sorting or index here:  I found—and continue to find—the recipes in that book purely by spatial memory.

As my confidence in the kitchen grew, I came to realize that—despite being scarred by the tofu dog stir fry experience—living on a budget meant embracing the art of substitution.  I couldn’t just run out to the grocery store every time I came upon a recipe that called for an ingredient I didn’t have.  I learned to shop mindfully, to build a pantry, and to adapt my recipes to the ingredients I had on hand.

One day, while searching through a magazine from the library, I came across two chicken recipes.  Both were made with a yogurt marinade that later became a coating for the chicken as it baked in the oven. 

I knew for a fact that there was no chicken in my fridge, nor would there be until payday, but there was a blade steak.  I went home, cut the blade steak up into cubes, made the marinade, put it all together in a Ziploc bag, and popped it in the fridge.   

The next morning, I emptied the bag into my slow cooker, and that night I served the beef over egg noodles.

My husband is no fan of yogurt but he loved this dish and asked what it was.  I told him it was called Beef Tzigane, and that it was cooked in a Hungarian style sauce.  He had a second helping at dinner and then finished the last of it for lunch the following day.  

I thought no more about that blade steak in yogurt marinade until he asked, while we were grocery shopping one day a couple of months later,  “Can we have beefs again?”

"We had beef just a couple of days ago,” I replied.

"No!”  He exclaimed, “I mean that beef dish in the Hungarian sauce.”

“Ah!”  The penny dropped.  I added yogurt to my cart.   

The dish has remained a favourite at our house ever since.  It may not be the prettiest girl at the dance but it turned out to be the one that came home to meet the family.
I made Beef Tzigane last weekend.  I served it with short grain brown rice, roasted carrots and turnips, and cabbage and apple slaw.

If you’d like to try this recipe, you’ll need:

2-1/2 lbs of lean beef blade steak or roast, cut into cubes
2 c. yogurt
2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cayenne (adjust the amount to your own taste)
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. powdered ginger
1 thinly sliced onion

Place the beef cubes in a Ziploc bag. 

Put the yogurt in a bowl and stir it a bit so it loosens up.  Mix in the garlic, salt, cayenne, cinnamon, paprika, and ginger.  Pour the yogurt mixture into the bag, zip the bag closed and then use your hands to move the ingredients around in the bag so that the beef is evenly coated with the yogurt mixture.  Marinate the beef overnight, in the refrigerator.

In the morning, place the beef and marinade in the slow cooker and add the onion.  Stir to mix the onion through the beef.  Put the lid on the slow cooker, set it on low and cook it for 8 to 12 hours.  Don’t open the lid because heat will be lost.  It doesn’t need stirring and the longer it cooks, the more tender the beef will be.

That’s it.  When it’s supper time, serve it with your choice of side dishes and enjoy.

Monday 17 October 2011

Our First Good Food Box

Today we received our first Good Food Box.  The contents are pictured above.  Pretty good for $10.00 I think. 

The Good Food Box program hopes to make wholesome food more affordable for all of its participants.  It operates by buying fresh, top quality produce directly from farmers and from wholesale clubs. (Here in the valley, the program works with the Old Farm Market.) Customers pay the cost of the food itself while distribution overhead is subsidized. 

In Duncan, the Good Food Box program operates through Warmland House, a community facility that provides temporary housing to those struggling to find stable housing, and emergency shelter our community’s homeless.  Assembling the boxes requires 15 to 20 volunteers and 8 hours of labour.  Many of the volunteers are Warmland House clients. 

The food for the Good Food Boxes is bought in bulk and dropped off at the program’s warehouse. Volunteers then divide up the produce into portions and put the boxes together. The boxes contain the maximum amount of produce possible for the price.

Every month, each Good Food Box contains 5 pounds of potatoes and 2 pounds of carrots.  The rest of the contents vary from month to month depending upon what’s seasonally available and offers the best value.  Like CSA boxes, the contents are determined by the program’s operators.  Unlike CSA boxes, Good Food Boxes are sourced from more than one provider, and the program operates on a month-by-month basis.  Customers do not have to sign a subscription for multiple months or for a full season.

There is no qualification requirement for participation in the Good Food Box program.  Poor, middle class or well-to-do; everyone can purchase a Good Food Box. (Or two or three if they want to: There is no limit on quantity purchased.)  The more people who join in, the greater the buying power becomes and the greater the value the program is able to offer its participants. 

If you would like to purchase a Good Food Box here in Duncan, payment must be made at Warmland House by the last business day of the month.  Boxes are distributed on the third Monday of the following month.  If you are not in Duncan, you may still be able to participate in the program.  There are Good Food Box programs all across Canada.  To find one in your area, Google “Good Food Box” followed by your community’s name.

Sunday 16 October 2011


You'd never catch anyone saying this now! It's a good reminder that how we think about food and how we think about physical beauty can change over time.

Loving food as much as I do, I think a lot about it. I read a lot about food history, food anthropology, and nutrition. I read cookbooks like novels.

I've learned that nutrition and health science are constantly changing, as are our societa
l standards of health and of physical beauty. We are constantly striving to be thinner and stronger and healthier; trying to measure up to images and standards presented to us by others--images and standards often based upon nutritional trends and fads.

Diet and nutrition trends come and go but common sense remains constant. It doesn't matter what others think about how you look. It matters that you are healthy and that you're happy with who you are.

Life is about balance: Eat a wide variety of foods from all the food groups but don't obsess about diet. Try to get some exercise every day but don't worry that you'll never make the cover of Vogue or Women's Health.

Whatever you do, do it for you. Do what you need to feel healthy and happy, and remember: Moderation in all things including moderation!

Friday 14 October 2011

Ginger Scones

In the small town where I used to live there was a café owned and operated by hardworking English couple.  They’d established a good clientele, many of them retired, who made a visit to the restaurant part of their daily routine.   

One of things that brought customers back to the café day after day was the baking.  The owners would come in during the wee hours of the morning and produce—from the restaurant’s single, elderly, four-burner-one-oven, home-style, electric stove—a wonderful array of scones, pies, and pastries both savoury and sweet. 

As might perhaps be expected, years of working from before dawn until after dinner service eventually took their toll.  The English couple sold their restaurant to the local baker.  He viewed the café as another venue through which he could market the products from his bakery and was confident that they were fine enough to please the café’s long time customers.

I was working at the bakery at the time the café changed hands, and moved from working in the bakery to working in the restaurant.  The baker had not required that the café’s original owners leave any of their recipes but he had hired one of their long time employees to continue on as cook.  She was instructed to teach me the restaurant’s recipes and routines, and this she did very well.  She did not, however, like sharing her kitchen or working for her new employers, and quit just a few months after they took over the restaurant.  I stepped into the kitchen in her stead.

I enjoyed my new job but noticed that many of the café’s long time customers remarked upon the scones.  It was not that there was anything wrong with the scones provided by the bakery—they were fine—but the customers missed the ginger scones baked by the original owners.  The baker did try to make a ginger scone but he flavoured it only with dry ginger and it didn’t measure up to the wonderful, strong ginger flavour the customers had come to expect.  

I decided to experiment with a ginger scone of my own.  I used crystallized ginger in my scones, together with dry spice, and baked them in wedges with crunchy sugary tops.  They were an instant hit. 

I’m still a big fan of crystallized ginger.  I enjoy its particular balance of spicy and sweet, but it’s a treat around here; I don’t always keep it in the pantry. 

This week I was fortunate enough to have a quantity of crystallized ginger on hand, left over from canning pears so I decided to make some ginger scones for our Meatless Monday dessert.  I split the scones and dressed them with hot peaches and cold vanilla yogurt.  They were lovely.

If you would like to make this dessert, you’ll need:

  • 1/2 c. finely diced crystallized ginger
  • 2 c. all purpose flour
  • 1 Tbsp. baking powder
  • 2 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 c. cold butter
  • 2 eggs, beaten (Reserve 1 Tbsp. egg white for brushing on the top of the scones)
  • 1/3 c. whipping cream
  • More sugar for sprinkling on the top of the scones
  • 1 pint jar of canned peach slices
  • 1 Tbsp. (approximately) cornstarch 
  • Vanilla yogurt
Begin by dicing the ginger.  Set it aside.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a large bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, sugar, cinnamon, ground ginger and salt.  When they’re combined, cut in the butter just as you would for making pastry.  I actually break the butter up with my fingers, squishing it into flat flakes of butter rather than cutting it into chunks.  The pieces of butter should be quite coarse.  When I break the butter up with my fingers they end up being about the size and shape of corn flakes.  If you’re using a knife or pastry cutter, they should be no smaller than a large pea.

Once the butter is incorporated, add the diced crystallized ginger, tossing lightly to distribute it through the dry ingredients.  Beat the eggs and cream together and then add them to the dry ingredients to make a stiff dough.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead it just until it sticks together.  Form the dough into a ball and roll it out into a circle about an inch thick.  Score the dough into wedges.  I make four wedges when using it for dessert (each wedge makes two servings) but it’s more usual to make six or even eight scones from this amount of dough.

Line a baking sheet with parchment and then place the scored dough round onto the paper.  Brush the top of the dough with the reserved egg white and sprinkle it with sugar.  Be generous; the sugar and egg white will form a lovely, crispy top crust.

Bake the scones for about 15 minutes, until they are golden brown.

While the scones are baking, drain the syrup from your canned peaches into a small saucepan and mix in the cornstarch until it’s dissolved.  Heat the mixture over medium-low heat until it comes to a boil and thickens.  Add the reserved peaches and stir them gently into the thickened syrup.  Keep them warm on low heat until the scones are done.

When the scones are baked, take them from the oven and cut the round into wedges.  Split the scones in half.  If you’ve baked large scones like I do, allow one scone for every two servings.  Place the scone halves on dessert plates and spoon the peaches over them.  Top the peaches with vanilla yogurt and serve your dessert while it’s still piping hot.

[1] You can read about my pears canned in brown sugar syrup with ginger at

This post is linked to Think Pink Sundays, hosted by Flamingo Toes

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Will I Do It Again?

I know I’ve mentioned it before but, for those of you who are new to my blog or who don’t follow my Facebook page, our household operates on a tight grocery budget:  $100 to $150 each month for food.  There are only two of us, so it’s not as difficult as it might be.  We know people who are facing much greater challenges. 

One way we manage our food budget is through planned spending.  In addition to our monthly budget, I set aside savings to be used for vegetable gardening and for buying extra goods to put by at harvest time.  These two fairly sizeable expenditures are not part of our regular monthly budget and amount to between $500 and $1000 per year. 

This year, we didn’t have a vegetable garden.  For the first time in more than thirty years we’re living in an apartment, with no garden space to call our own.  Since we didn’t have a garden this year, I decided this year to invest in a Community Supported Agriculture share.  I paid $525 upfront for a family-sized share of a local farm’s crop.  In return, I received twenty-four weeks worth of organically grown produce.

The harvest is nearly complete here in the valley and my time as a CSA shareholder is drawing to a close.  Will I be a CSA shareholder again?  I learned long ago never to say “never,” but I doubt I’ll repeat the experiment.

There are many good things about Community Supported Agriculture:  CSA shareholders support local small agriculture and, in doing so, are kinder to our environment.  Shareholders visit the farm where their food is grown and became acquainted with the people who grow it.   Food does not have to travel to market and it couldn’t possibly be fresher.  

The biggest downside to being a CSA shareholder is, for me, the lack of control over what we receive.  The farm determines what they grow and what their shareholders receive, and our CSA farm’s choices would not necessarily have been my own.  All the food was healthful, but it was also repetitive.  For example, I like kale—or at least I used to—but twelve straight weeks of it, in enough quantity to require its consumption at every single meal, was enough to make even me heartily sick of it.   When it reappeared in the farm basket again two weeks ago, I was so dismayed that I gave mine to another CSA member rather than bring it home.

I realize that CSA’s vary from farm to farm and that not all of them do this, but I noticed that the CSA to which I belonged reserved some crops for retail sale only.  Our CSA farm grew eggplants and cherry tomatoes, pickling cucumbers and various other vegetables that shareholders never saw in their farm baskets.  I found myself checking to see what was on offer to retail customers but I could rarely afford to purchase these extras, even with a 10% shareholder’s discount.

So, if I don’t repeat my CSA experiment, what will I do instead? 

Next week we begin participating in the Good Food Box program.  The program uses subscribers’ prepayments to purchase produce at wholesale prices.  Priority is given to purchasing local produce whenever possible but, when sufficient local produce is not available, local purchases are supplemented with produce from further afield. Boxes cost $10.00 each and subscribers can purchase as many boxes as they think their families might need.  Good Food Boxes must be paid for by the last business day of the month and they’re picked up the third Monday of the following month.  Anyone can participate in the Good Food Box program and, since more participants mean more purchasing power, the more people who join in the better.

I’m also investigating the possibility of leasing garden space next spring, in a community garden.  If I can get enough space to make it viable, within reasonable traveling distance of our home, at a price I can afford, having my own garden seems a better alternative than purchasing another CSA share. 

I’ll keep you posted on both of these projects. 

Sunday 9 October 2011

Rice Pudding

There are certain holy grails that I seek on a daily basis in my kitchen.  Affordability is on that list, as are flavour and nutrition.  I seek to include whole grains wherever I can, despite living with someone who complains when fed too much “cosmic granola food.” 

Rice pudding carries me a long way on my quest for kitchen grail.  I make rice pudding for dessert because it’s inexpensive, it tastes good, and it’s not overly sweet.  I also make it because it’s easy to prepare and the quantity of servings can be adjusted to accommodate however many people I happen to be feeding.  It’s easily dressed up too:  It can be topped with fruit or with applesauce, sprinkled with chopped nuts, or simply topped with cream or a little milk, straight from the jug. 

I usually cook with a mixture of various brown rices and a long grain wild rice.  Since whole grain rice takes a long time to cook, and it takes as much time to cook a little bit of rice as it does to cook a large quantity of rice, I’ve fallen into the habit of cooking quite a lot of rice all at once.  I divide the cooked rice into 2-cup packages, and pop it in my freezer.  When I know I’m going to need rice for supper, I take a package out to thaw in the morning. 

Because it is what I most often have on hand, I use my cooked whole grain rice mixture to make my rice pudding.  It adds a pleasant, toothsome texture to the dish and it hides a good quantity of fiber and nutrients in a package that’s palatable to even my picky eater.

I calculate the quantities for my rice pudding based upon single servings and I cook the pudding in small ovenproof custard cups.  If you prefer to serve your dessert family style, several servings can just as easily be cooked in a single large dish.  Shallow dishes tend to work best when cooking quantities of rice pudding in a single batch.  A 9-inch by 9-inch baking dish works well for 6 servings of rice pudding

For each serving of rice pudding, I use:

  • 1/2 cup cooked rice
  • Some currants—I have no idea how many.  Just use an amount that looks good to you.
  • 1 egg
  • 1 Tbsp. packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 c. low fat evaporated milk (Not sweetened condensed milk!)
  • A generous grating of nutmeg—Again, use your own judgment here.  Add an amount that looks right to you. 
  • A pinch of salt

Put your rice into a large bowl (if you’re baking it all together, put it into the dish you’ll be baking it in), add the currants, and mix them together.  If you’re baking the pudding in individual dishes, portion the rice and currant mixture into its individual servings.

Whisk your eggs until they are well beaten and no separate bits of white and yolk are visible.  Add the brown sugar and milk, then mix again until the ingredients are well combined.  Grate in your nutmeg and add your salt.  Be generous with the nutmeg.  It’s the main flavouring in the pudding and will need to be strong enough to flavour not only the custard but also the rice.  Mix again to distribute the salt and nutmeg through the liquid, then pour the liquid over the rice and currant mixture.

Bake the rice pudding in a 350 degree oven until the top browns and it begins to set.  It should still be a little soft in the middle when you take it out of the oven. 

You can serve rice pudding warm (I like it best that way) or allow it to cool and then store it in the refrigerator for later.  It’s a simple, old-timey treat with a comforting flavour and texture.  I hope you enjoy it.

Saturday 8 October 2011

Gobble, Gobble

I couldn’t let Thanksgiving weekend pass without writing something about turkeys and their history.  It’s been fun researching this blog.  I learned a lot along the way.

Turkeys have been part of North American culture for a lot longer than pilgrims and Thanksgiving.  Did you know that fossil records indicate that they diverged from pheasants about 11 million years ago?  During the Pleistocene age, their habitat probably extended from the middle latitudes of North America to the northern latitudes of South America.

Turkeys were one of the first animals to be domesticated in the Americas.  The Aztecs considered them so important that they dedicated two religious festivals to them.  The Maya raised them too, as did the Navajo.

By the time the first European explorers arrived in Mexico, turkeys were a commonly raised domestic animal.  In 1519, Cortez and his fellow Spanish Conquistadors found the Aztecs raising huexolotlin (turkeys) around their homes, and turkey was served at royal meals hosted by Montezuma.

The Spaniards carried turkeys back to Europe where they quickly became a popular fowl and a choice dish for state dinners. The turkey was little larger than the traditional goose, with a lot more meat and a refreshingly new taste.

Turkeys were introduced at a time when America was called The Spanish Indies or the New Indies, illustrating the confusion in people's minds about the true location of the continent where Columbus had landed. As a result, the Spaniards mistakenly called them "Indian fowl."

In 1530, Levant merchantsEnglish traders in Turkeyencountered “Indian fowl” there and brought them home to England.  Because of the area in which traders had first encountered the bird, they called it a "Turkey bird."

When the pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts in 1620 and began to search for native sources of food, they discovered that the Wampanoags and other northeastern First Nations hunted wild turkeys very similar to the farm-raised ones they'd brought with them from England.  The pilgrims crossbred wild turkeys with their domestic birds.

Wild turkeys could fly fast but not far, they had poor eyesight, and weren’t very smart.  They were easily trapped or shot, making them a primary source of food for early settlers.  By the late 1700’s, they were harvested without restraint and were available at such a low price that people looked down on turkey as food only for the lower classes.

The mid-1800’s, the civil war, and a shortage of food eliminated wild turkeys from more than half of their range.  By the early 20th century, the wild turkey population had dwindled in number to around 30,000, sparking the beginning of a conservation effort in the 1920’s.  By 1959, the total turkey population numbered around half a million.  Now more than 7 million wild turkeys roam the range of their original habitat.

The domesticated turkey has had its own checkered history.  Until the early 20th century, turkeys were bred for size, for show, and for specific feather colour.  In 1927, though, English turkey breeder James Throssel imported three birds as breeding stock to his new farm in British Columbia.  He bred his birds for meat and soon some of them were putting so much meat on in the breast that they were having trouble breeding naturally.  Throssel traded his birds with other meat turkey farmers in BC and Oregon where further crossbreeding for high meat production made natural breeding even more difficult.

In 1934, the USDA introduced a practical method of artificial insemination for turkeys, which allowed turkeys unable to mate naturally to reproduce.

The turkey of choice right through the 1940’s was the Broad Breasted Bronze—a descendant of Throssel’s turkeys—but turkeys with coloured feathers often had coloured markings on their skins where the pin feathers were.  A desire for a more uniform skin colour prompted turkey farmers to cross the Broad Breasted Bronze turkey with the White Holland.  The resulting breed, the Broad Breasted White, is the only commercially important turkey breed today.

Turkey breeders have continued to breed the Broad Breasted White turkey for greater meat production, in a shorter period of time.  They became so popular that other strains of turkey were no longer being raised in sufficient numbers to support their breeds.  Some heritage breeds were being raised on small farms but they were quickly nearing extinction.

In June 2001, Slow Food USA undertook a project to preserve four heritage turkey breeds—American Bronze,  Bourbon Red, Jersey Buff, and Narragansettand the support and publicity from their project may have saved these birds from extinction.  They still form only a very small percentage of the domesticated turkeys raised in North America but, with demand, their numbers are growing.

So, we have more things than we knew to be thankful for this Thanksgiving weekend:  Even though our appetite for turkey first almost caused its extinction in the wild, and then selective breeding for meat and marketability almost eliminated heritage breeds, we still have both wild turkeys and heritage farm raised turkeys here in North America. And not only do we still have them, but their numbers are increasing.

Imagine how very sad it would be for 11 million years of heritage and history to end with a group of birds that cannot fly, cannot breed naturally, and cannot survive in the wild.  Thank goodness common sense prevailed.

Please note:  I usually include end note references with my blogs, specifically noting the origins of each piece of information I’ve sourced elsewhere, but my blogs also usually include opinions and sometimes recipes that originate with me.  With the exception of the introduction and the last two paragraphs, this blog is different:  Virtually all of the information I’ve provided here has originated from other sources.  Some of it is quoted verbatim.  Rather than add an end note to every single sentence or paragraph, I’ve chosen to list my references below.

The bulk of my information came from and also referred to,, and 


Friday 7 October 2011

A Cup of Cocoa

It’s 2:30 in the morning and I can’t sleep.  I know from past experience that there’s no point in lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, waiting to drift off again.  My body will go back to sleep when it’s ready to.  In the meantime, I’m sitting at my desk with a cup of cocoa, hoping that by the time I finish the first draft of this blog post I’ll be ready to drift off again.

"A cup of cocoa."

When I was a kid, the words “hot chocolate” didn’t even form a part of my vocabulary.  

Cocoa was the hot drink of choice at our house on cool weather days.  

Mom didn’t give us a lot of sweets so we didn’t drink cocoa every day, or even often.  Cocoa was a sometimes after school treat, or a warm-me-up after playing outside on a cold weekend day.  From time to time it came to the hockey rink with us.  Every once in a while, it was a pre-bedtime treat. 

I didn’t taste commercially packaged hot chocolate until I was in my teens.  When I did try it, I was terribly disappointed.  It tasted watery to me, and overly sweet.  It was one dimensional, lacking that slightly bitter edge that cocoa has.  To this day, cocoa remains my preference.

The kids in my life think cocoa is gross and that's fine with me.  It means I don’t have to share it with them!  :^)

Cocoa is made when chocolate liquor is pressed to remove three quarters its cocoa butter.  

Fry’s cocoa - the most commonly available cocoa in my part of Canada - is Dutch processed, meaning it has been washed with an alkaline solution to neutralize its natural acidity.  Dutch processed cocoas have a smoother taste that makes them an excellent choice for hot drinks. 

I’m never without a tin of cocoa in my pantry.  I use it to make my favourite chocolate cake and mocha cupcakes.  It can be combined with melted butter to make a substitute for unsweetened chocolate.  Still, I most often take the can down from the shelf in order to seek the comfort of a hot drink and a childhood memory.

Hot cocoa is simple to make and almost as fast as that one dimensional instant stuff:

I use one heaping teaspoon of cocoa and two heaping teaspoons of sugar for every twelve ounces of milk.  I make my cocoa with skim milk but, if you want a richer drink, use 2% milk, whole milk, or even a combination of milk and cream. 

You need to wet cocoa well in order to get it to dissolve properly.  You need to make a wet paste first.  Without it, the cocoa will clump and take endless whisking in order to make a smooth drink.  

To make the wet paste needed to start my drink, I put the cocoa and sugar in a small saucepan and then add a very small amount of milk—a tablespoon or two.  I stir the cocoa, sugar, and milk together vigourously until all the ingredients appear wet.  

Once I’ve wet the cocoa into a paste, I gradually whisk the rest of the milk into the pan.  

I heat my cocoa to just below the boiling point, and serve it right away.

There are lots of ways to dress up your cocoa.  You can flavour it with a little cinnamon…and chili if you’re feeling adventurous.  You can add almond, mint or orange extracts.  You can top your cocoa with marshmallows or whipped cream. 

All of these flavours and garnishes are a lovely treat from time to time, but mostly I prefer to drink my cocoa plain.  Its comforting warmth and milky goodness carry me back to childhood in a single sip.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

Yellow Point Cranberries

Thanksgiving weekend is upon us.  The grocery flyers are filled with ads for turkeys, Brussels sprouts, pumpkin pie, and cranberries.  Related recipes are everywhere.

There are many reasons I enjoy this time of year, not least among them the availability of fresh cranberries.  I enjoy a good cranberry recipe and use these tart treats in a variety of dishes, both savoury and sweet.  I make a point of ensuring that I have enough berries on hand to tuck in the freezer as well, so they can tide me through the off-season months.  You can imagine, then, how pleased I was to discover that we have an actual cranberry farm within reasonable driving distance of our home.

Our local cranberry farm, Yellow Point Cranberries, is located just north of Ladysmith, near the Ladysmith Bog Ecological preserve.  This acidic, boggy land is a perfect growing environment for cranberries.  During the growing season, cranberry shrubs thrive on the moist, but not flooded, land.  At harvest time, the cranberry beds are flooded and a harvester driven through them to remove the berries from the branches.  The berries contain air pockets that cause them to float, so they rise to the surface of the water where they are corralled and then either gathered or pumped from the bed.

The cranberry harvest is a floating treasure.  Not only do these beautiful red berries have tremendous flavour, they have nutritional and health benefits too:  

Cranberries have moderate levels of vitamin C, dietary fiber and the essential dietary mineral, manganese, as well as a balanced profile of other essential micronutrients.

Raw cranberries are a source of polyphenol antioxidants, phytochemicals under active research for possible benefits to the cardiovascular system and immune system, and as anti-cancer agents.

Cranberry juice contains a high molecular weight non-dializable material that might inhibit formation of plaque by Streptococcus mutans pathogens that cause tooth decay. Cranberry juice components also may possibly influence formation of kidney stones.

There is laboratory evidence for the anti-clotting properties of cranberry tannins.  They may prevent recurring urinary tract infections in women. Raw cranberries and cranberry juice are abundant food sources of flavonoids that have shown possible activity as anti-cancer agents.[1]

The folks at Yellow Point Cranberries use their floating treasure well.  They sell fresh cranberries and offer recipes for them on their website.  The farm also makes a variety of dry mixes and preserves that are available year-round.  There is a store at the farm—Cranberry Cottage—that is open daily, or you can order their mixes and preserves on line.  The farm café is open in September and October, from noon until 3:00 on Fridays and Saturdays.  You can drop by the farm for a self guided tour or, if you have a large enough group, book a guided tour. 

This year fresh cranberries from Yellow Point Cranberries will be available at Merridale Estate Cidery in Cobble Hill (, Averill Creek Vineyard in Duncan ( and Little Qualicum Cheeseworks in Parksville (, but only until Thanksgiving.  After that, all purchases must be made at the farm.

Starting Tuesday, November 1st and lasting until Thursday, November 10th, Yellow Point Cranberries will be hosting their first ever harvest days.  I’m planning a visit to see the harvest, the flooded field, and the beautiful carpet of floating cranberries.  I will, of course, be tasting products on offer at Cranberry Cottage too. 

If you would like to find out more about Yellow Point Cranberries, read their recipes, or see a list of their products, please visit their website at


Sunday 2 October 2011

Pears in Brown Sugar Syrup With Ginger

Pears are tricky.  When you buy them here, they're green and have to let them ripen.  There is a very brief few hours between when they are perfectly ripe—yellow and slightly yielding to the touch but still firm—and when they become overripe.  If you’re canning, that few hours can feel like a nanosecond.

I canned pears this week.  A lot of them.  They were on sale for $4.99 for an 8 lb box, so I bought 64 pounds.  Because they were picked, shipped, and stored together, all my pears ripened at exactly the same time.  That time fell about dinner time a few days ago so, after supper, I rolled up my sleeves and set to work.  I canned—quite literally—all night long.  My labours yielded me 42 pints of pear quarters in syrup, 15 pints of pear sauce, 20 jars of pear jelly, and 16 jars of pear butter.

Canning has kind of gone out of style.  Back in the day, every housewife spent the months of the harvest working hard to stock the pantry shelves with jars of fruit, vegetables, and pickles.  Nowadays fresh produce is readily available year-round and most women work outside the home.  Our busy and demanding schedules make it difficult, if not near impossible, to set aside a block of hours devoted to putting food by. 

Why then do I can at home?  Certainly not for love of the process; I find it tedious.  Not because it’s less expensive, either.  By the time you factor in the cost of canning jars, ingredients, and electricity—not to mention labour—it’s almost always less expensive to buy fresh, frozen or canned fruit at the grocery store.  No, I can fruits and vegetables at home because it gives me better control of the quality of the food I eat, and because it affords me the opportunity to enjoy flavours and combinations I wouldn’t readily find at the market.

This year, I canned all of my pear quarters in brown sugar syrup, with ginger.  It’s not the first time I’ve done this but it is the first year I’ve canned all of my pears this way.  Last year, I split my canning between pears in regular syrup, with a little lemon, and pears canned in brown sugar syrup with ginger.  Not a single jar of the pears in regular syrup was opened until all of the ginger pears were gone, so this year I decided to just go with what we like best.

I’ll be happy to tell you how I canned my pears but I do also want to recommend that, if you’re planning to do some canning yourself, you invest in a good canning cookbook and that you read the instructions carefully before beginning work.  Food preserving isn’t just a matter of art but a matter of science too.  The only way to ensure that your food will be not only tasty but also fit to eat is to follow proper safety practices, and to follow them meticulously.  However tempting it may be to do so, don’t shortcut canning procedures.  I want you to stay alive and healthy to enjoy a second batch!

Pears oxidize very quickly, turning brown first at the edges and along the center line where the stem is removed, then browning wherever they’re cut.  If you’re canning them in regular syrup, most canning books recommend that you either toss the cut pears immediately in lemon juice or bathe them briefly in an anti-oxidant solution of either lemon juice and water or ascorbic acid and water.  If you’re canning the pears in brown sugar syrup, this is less of a concern because the syrup is a  light brown colour and will help to disguise any oxidation.  Even with brown sugar syrup, I recommend working quickly and filling each jar with syrup as soon as the pears have been packed into it.  Once the syrup covers the pears, providing a barrier between them and the open air, oxidization is no longer a problem.

Many canning books recommend cooking the pears in their syrup before placing them in the jars.  If you’re working with green pears this certainly helps to soften them up and makes packing them into the jars an easier task but, if you prefer to let your pears ripen before canning as I do, cooking them in the syrup and then cooking them again in the canner gives them too soft a texture.  I pack my pears into the jars raw, topping up the jars with syrup as soon as each one is filled.

Before I begin canning pears (or any other food), I make sure I have all the necessary tools and ingredients on hand.  To can pears you’ll need:

-a cutting board
-a paring knife
-a melon baller (not strictly necessary but it makes the job much easier)
-a ladle
-a couple of forks and a knife with a thin blade
-measuring cups
-a large pot to make your syrup in
-prepared jars and lids (You can find more information on this in my infused vinegars
-a canning kettle and racks

and these ingredients:

-ripe pears
-brown sugar
-candied ginger

Begin by preparing your jars and making your syrup.  I usually allow about a cup of syrup for every pint (500 ml) jar I’ll be using.  If I need more, it’s easy enough to make it as you're working.  Last year I made a simple syrup using equal parts brown sugar and water.  This year I made a light syrup using one part brown sugar to two parts water.  I have to say that, upon preliminary tasting, I liked the simple syrup better but that’s just me; use whatever proportions you prefer.  Bring your syrup to a boil and then reduce it to a simmer.

Work one jar at a time, keeping the rest of the jars hot, in their sterilizing water, until you need them. 

Put a piece of candied ginger into the bottom of the jar.

Peel and cut your pears, then pack them as you go.  I start by removing the stem.  Then I remove the blossom end of the pear with my melon baller.  Once the blossom end is removed, peel the pear.  Cut it in half, then use your melon baller or a small measuring spoon to scoop out the center core, where the seeds are.  Cut the pear into quarters and put them in the jar.  You may find that you need to use a fork to arrange the quarters in the jar so that they all fit tightly.

(I save the blossom ends, peels, and the core with its seeds into a second large pot with about half an inch of water in the bottom.  When I’m done canning the pears, I cook these scraps over low heat to soften them and encourage them to release their juice.  I squeeze them through a piece of muslin and save the juice to make jelly with.)

When your jar is full, up to the raised line molded into the glass where the bottom of the screw top lid will rest, tap the bottom of the jar on the counter a few times.  This will cause the pears to settle into the jar a little and should make room for a bit more fruit.  You may have to cut some smaller pieces of fruit to top up the jar. 

Once the jar is packed, ladle in enough syrup to fill the jar to the raised line in the glass.  Rotate the jar, looking for any air bubbles trapped between the pears and the sides of the jar.  If you find bubbles, slide a thin knife down the inside of the jar to release them.  Top up the syrup if necessary. 

Wipe the rim of the jar with a clean cloth or damp paper towel then run your finger around it to ensure that there are no little pieces of fruit stuck on the rim and no chips in the glass.  Top the jar with a prepared lid and tighten it to finger tight, no tighter.

When all your jars are packed, process them in a boiling water bath.  You’ll need to cook pints 25 minutes or quarts 35 minutes.  Remove them from the canner, let them cool, and then check the seals.  Refrigerate any unsealed jars and use them first.

The longer you let your pears sit in their syrup with the ginger, the better their flavour will be.  I like them best served very cold, but you can also thicken the syrup by cooking it with a little cornstarch and then use the hot pears as a filling for a crisp or as a topping for pound cake.