Monday, December 5, 2011

December: Terra Madre Day

December 10th marks Slow Food International’s signature event, when people from 120 countries celebrate their commitment to good, clean, fair food in an amazing variety of events. Last year, events around the globe ranged from a wild food festival in the forests of Java to traditional cooking workshops in Palestinian villages, to a solar cooker banquet in Costa Rica, to a mammoth eat-in in Kings Cross, London.

As you can see, Slow Food is an enormously variable concept, meaning many different things to people around the world. But what binds them together is a belief that locally sourced food is best; that traditional recipes, cooking methods, and varieties should be preserved; that those who produce our foods should be fairly paid, acknowledged, and supported; that bigger, faster, easier, and cheaper is not always better when it comes to what we eat; and that ceremony, family, and friends have an important place in the consumption of our food.

Among the most important of the many initiatives undertaken by Slow Food International is the 1000 Gardens in Africa project, a grass roots movement to create 1000 gardens across the continent to preserve local methods and types of agriculture. Gardens are springing up in villages, school grounds, church lots, and communal spaces. People are being encouraged to produce their own food in sustainable and traditional ways in an attempt to answer, village by village, the food crisis that is afflicting so much of Africa.

Here in Pelham, we are reflecting the global initiatives of Slow Food in our own small way. Members of Slow Food Pelham have been working with a local group home to encourage the young people living in difficult circumstances to discover the joys of producing their own food. By supplying gardening tools, expertise, and sweat, Slow Food members have helped these young people to produce a variety of vegetables and fruits in a working garden. For two years now, the small garden plot has yielded fresh produce… but more importantly, it has taught some young people the responsibility, the satisfaction, and the pleasure, as well as the hard work, of small scale home gardening.

One of the more than 1200 Terra Madre events that take place worldwide on December 10th will be a gathering of Slow Food Pelham members in rural Pelham at a member’s home. There, we will celebrate Terra Madre in company with tens of thousands of other Slow Food Members around the world with a tasting of Niagara wines and Canadian-produced raw milk cheeses. Although our event is small in scale and global impact, we are able, in our low-key way, to be part of an enormous movement that is changing our world for the better… Slowly.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

November: Great Caesar!

The Caesar salad is a fixture on most restaurant menus, and in most cases that means a Romaine lettuce salad, often with bacon bits and croutons, and a bottled creamy garlic dressing. This is a long way from the original that was created by Italian chef Caesar Cardini in California (or Tijuana, depending on the version) in the 1920’s. The story (as told by Cardini’s daughter) goes that he invented the salad with the few ingredients he had remaining in the restaurant kitchen after a particularly busy Fourth of July. He added cachet by preparing it right at the table of his customers. Needless to say, the legend is disputed, but it’s such a good story that it deserves to be true.

In a few very high-end restaurants, the Caesar salad is still prepared, with great showmanship, right at the table, a la Cardini. Olive oil, Worcestershire sauce, and vinegar are whisked together at tableside, the lemon squeezed over the torn Romaine lettuce, and a raw egg yolk deftly separated from the white and added right at the end of the procedure along with croutons and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

The Caesar that I make pays homage to the original, but adds anchovies and leaves out the raw egg yolk, just to err on the side of safety. Sometimes, I’ll use the egg, but plunge it into boiling water for 45 seconds before breaking it and dropping the yolk into the salad; this doesn’t affect the consistency of the yolk, but kills any nasty stuff. The anchovies are optional (Cardini did not use them), but don’t be afraid to try them; most people to whom I’ve served this salad, even confirmed anchovy haters, enjoy the dressing and don’t find it overly fishy tasting. And do make your own croutons; it’s dead simple, and impresses the heck out of people who buy theirs at the store. Add a few lightly sautéed shrimp or cooked chicken strips to make the salad a meal instead of an appetizer, and serve with fresh baguette. We enjoyed this the day after Thanksgiving with some chunks of leftover turkey. It was just right: fresh and not too filling after the overindulgence of the previous day.

1 large head Romaine lettuce, washed and torn into bite size pieces
½ Cup good olive oil
1 large clove garlic, minced
2 slices day old French bread
3 Tbsp Balsamic vinegar
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
Juice of one lemon
Pinch of dry mustard
3 or 4 anchovy fillets mashed
¼ Cup grated Parmesan cheese

Put the garlic in the olive oil and let it steep for at least an hour. Cut the French bread into 1 cm squares (about a cup) and sauté the squares in 2 Tbsp of the garlic flavoured olive oil until golden. To the rest of the olive oil add the other liquids, the mustard, and the anchovies and stir or shake well to blend. Pour the dressing over the lettuce, add the croutons, and toss thoroughly. Add sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste, then the Parmesan, and toss again just before serving. If you use the egg yolk, whisk it separately and add it at the same time as the other liquids.

Friday, October 14, 2011

October: Now that you’ve gotten over the turkey, think Duck

Duck is an underappreciated food in Canada. While it is now featured in many of the better restaurants (including great recipes in three of my local favorites: Zest, About Thyme, and Paris Bistro), it seldom is featured in butcher shops or supermarkets, and seldom is served at Canadian tables. Having recently returned from a jaunt to the South of France, Valerie and I are very conscious of how much we have come to appreciate the French love of duck in their cuisine. It appears not only on the menus of some of the finest restaurants on the planet in Paris, but equally on the chalkboard specials outside small town bars and bistros. It is most often seen as “magret de canard” or duck breast, grilled with a sauce. However, it also appears on the menus of the southwest as “confit”, served alone or as the main meat ingredient in the famous cassoulet of the area around the town of Castelnaudary.

Confit is a way of preserving food… most often duck… that involves salting the meat ( normally the leg, though other bits work as well) for a day or two then poaching it in duck fat until tender. The meat is then immersed in a jar of hot duck fat and sealed, a process that will keep the meat for lengthy periods of time. When removed from the fat and either fried or baked, the meat is sinfully rich and flavourful.

Duck fat is also lavishly used in the South of France, especially for cooking potatoes. Duck fat is not like other fats… in fact, some scientific studies have likened its properties more to olive oil than to animal fats, and the French don’t seem to suffer from imbibing it in magnificent quantity. Ducks are by nature fatty creatures, so anytime the meat is cooked, fat results. Diced potatoes cooked in duck fat until golden and crisp are every bit as good as the fantastic frites the French do better than anyone (except the Belgians).

And then there is foie gras. Ducks are force fed until they are obscenely fat and their livers are enormous… at which point, they are among the most valuable birds on earth. Those livers (now called “foie gras” or “fat liver”… the French translation looks better on a menu) sell for prices that make gold look cheap and connoisseurs the world over willingly pay for the stuff, lightly grilled and served with sweet wine. Any leftover bits or inferior quality livers that aren’t sold as fresh foie gras are processed into paté or terrine and sold in tins or jars in specialty shops where even these secondary products fetch impressive prices.

However, as I have said, the magret or breast of the duck is the most commonly available part of the duck, and you’ll see it in French supermarkets and butcher shops the way you might see T-bones or pork chops here. The very best magrets are those from ducks that have been fattened to produce foie gras; they are about twice as thick and meaty as the breasts of normal ducks.

Preparing magret de canard is simple, and in previous columns I’ve mentioned my favorite recipe from Michael and Anna Olson’s On the Twenty Cookbook: just score the fat in a grid pattern and fry the breast fat side down for about 5 minutes, then pop it into a pre-heated 375 degree oven (without turning it over) for another 15 to 20 minutes. Duck, unlike other poultry, should be served medium to medium rare. Serve it with a sweet sauce like the sour cherry gastrique the Olsons use (even just smear honey on the meat while it’s still very hot) and, of course, potatoes sautéd in the fat.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

September: Hot Tomatoes!

Is there any better time of year in Niagara than September? Well, maybe warm days in May or a beautiful snowy day in January, or…. Well, September is pretty darn nice. Just look at the Pelham Farmer’s Market (or any of Niagara’s many fresh markets), packed with fabulous produce that simply can’t be duplicated by imported stuff at any time of year.

It’s also the time when real foodies stock up on all that fresh produce to make sure that it lasts as long into the winter as possible by preserving, pickling, canning, drying, or freezing some of it. I have already frozen bags full of strawberries from last June and raspberries from July to use in my morning smoothies right through the year, and I have learned to can peaches (more about that in another column), but now is the time to put away beans and broccoli, peppers, and tomatoes for winter stews and sauces.

I slice some tomatoes into thick slices and dry them to the consistency of leather in my smoker (an oven at 140 degrees works just fine) to use on pizzas or in sauces all winter. Some I make into sauce or paste to freeze, and the rest I just freeze whole. If I’m making something where I don’t want to use the skin, I just drop the frozen tomato in hot water for a few seconds, and the skin slides off. Frozen plum or paste tomatoes are way better than canned.
And with tomatoes at their flavour peak, this is the time of year to indulge in some of our favorite tomato dishes. Here are some of the recipes we look forward to preparing when tomatoes really taste like tomatoes.

Pâtes au Pistou
Combine the following and serve over 1 lb. of freshly cooked pasta (I like linguine for this) to serve 4 to 6 people. Let the sauce sit for an hour to meld the flavours before serving.
5 diced tomatoes
¾ Cup shredded fresh basil
6 garlic cloves, minced
¾ Cup minced fresh parsley
½ Cup olive oil
1 ½ teaspoons of Herbes de Provence (a mix of thyme and oregano will do)
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Caprese Salad
This is a simple mix of thickly sliced tomatoes layered around the plate with slices of buffalo Mozzarella and drizzled with freshly chopped basil, a little good Balsamic vinegar and olive oil, and a sprinkle of sea salt. A nice variation is to use tomato chunks mixed with baby bocconcini along with the oil, basil, and Balsamic.

…and our all-time favorite, a rich and decadent recipe that has wowed whomever Valerie prepared it for from our friends in the South of France (who now serve it themselves and call it “the Canadian pasta”!) to friends in our backyard:

Tomato and Brie Pasta
4 large tomatoes cut into cubes
1 lb Brie, skin removed, torn into chunks
1 Cup fresh basil, cut into strips
3 (or more) garlic cloves, minced
1 Cup olive oil
Combine these ingredients at least two hours before serving and leave them covered at room temperature until the pasta is ready. Cook 1 to 1 ½ pounds of pasta (bowtie, fettucine, linguine, they all work) and as soon as it’s done, combine it with the sauce. Toss thoroughly and serve with freshly ground pepper.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

August: Barbecue Season

The barbecue season has been a long time coming in 2011. A wet, cool spring with only a few warm days into June really wasn’t very conducive to backyard dining or cooking. However, with the merciful end to the hockey season in June, we began to experience something more like summer, and since early last month, the smell of grilled food once again wafts across the neighbourhood. Barbecue season: a celebration of local foods, cooked and eaten by gatherings of friends and family… the essence of Slow Food.

The main event in Slow Food Pelham’s summer calendar is a barbecue: the Featherstone Lamb Roast in late August or early September. That’s when our members gather to put on a feast for themselves and guests and anyone else who likes slow cooked lamb on a spit accompanied with all the local bounty our region produces. Featherstone Winery near Vineland uses lambs to thin the grape leaves on their vines, thus exposing the grapes to the sun and insuring faster, more complete ripening for their award winning wines. It also produces succulent, grape leaf-fed lamb. This will mark the fourth year that Slow Food Pelham has worked with Louise Engel and Dave Johnson of Featherstone to provide this tasty feast on the very convivial wrap-around verandah of their winery home.

The key to roasting a whole lamb is the barbecue. It must be big enough to cover the entire spitted lamb and must have a motorized rotisserie to turn the lamb evenly over the coals. Oh, I know a hand-turned rotisserie is more traditional, but I have seen too many instances of meat burned on one side and undercooked on the other because the cook became distracted or was enjoying his rosé too much and didn’t turn the spit consistently. We are very fortunate to have on loan Michael and Anna Olson’s personal barbecue, a magnificent monster converted from an old oil tank. The charcoal is suspended over the bottom of the tank on a steel grid, and the large lid can be pulled over the turning lamb to keep the heat in for quicker and more even cooking. The device is so large that we can cook pans of local potatoes and onions under the turning lamb, basting them with the juice from the lamb as they cook.

Daniel Boudin and I are the designated chefs, and over the three years we have been roasting the lamb, we have developed our technique. We cook the lamb for about 3 ½ hours, regulating the temperature by adding or spreading the charcoal underneath it, and testing with an instant-read thermometer at frequent intervals. During cooking, we baste with olive oil that has several garlic cubes submerged in it, and use a brush made of rosemary twigs to do the basting. When we prepare the lamb, we stuff it with rosemary and garlic cloves before sewing it up and inserting the spit. The potatoes go on about 2 hours before serving and are nicely crisped and brown on the outside but still light and fluffy on the inside if we get it just right. The lamb is carved at the table, and served with the onions and potatoes, salads, vegetables, home-made desserts prepared by other members of our little group, cheeses from Chez Fromage Etc. (now in Fonthill), and, of course, Featherstone wines. It is a wonderful celebration of summer and of the barbecue.

This year’s Pelham Slow Food barbecue at Featherstone Winery is September 10. Contact the President of Slow Food Pelham, Renée Girard at if you are interested in attending… but seats are very limited, as we try to keep the event as intimate and convivial as possible.

Monday, July 4, 2011

July: Cherry Time

Every day, the dogs and I walk through the cherry and apple orchards behind our house and visit the ravines that cut across east to west with their majestic oaks, maples, and nut trees. It’s a never-failing source of pleasure to be surrounded by trees, whether cultivated for crops or natural; and the dogs and I never take our walk without silently tipping our virtual caps to Linda Allison, and Leo and Dan DeVries, and Lee and Brenda Johnson, whose orchards we are so lucky to have for our walks. Those of us not involved in farming can only partly appreciate the risk and work it takes to bring a crop to market. We see the early morning and late evening mowing and cultivating and spraying, and watch the frenzy of harvest with only a dim idea of the amount of labour and nail-biting that goes on behind the scenes.

This year, I notice that the sour cherry crop is light compared to other years. When I mention this to Linda, the real weight of my observation becomes clear: depending on the micro-climate within Pelham, the cherry crop is down from 50 per cent to more than 80 per cent! Imagine that you put in the same amount of work, invested the same amount of money in your business or job… and at the end of the year had your pay reduced by half to three quarters. The culprit this year was the cool, damp spring. The bees that the farmers rented from beekeepers took one look outside their hives and decided to stay in and play cards or knit sweaters rather than go out and pollinate the trees. In our area, south of Highway 20, the bees got maybe two days of work in during the two weeks for which they were hired. The result is clear to see on the trees now: fewer sour cherries hanging from the branches, with some trees having almost no fruit at all.

Most of Niagara’s sour cherry crop goes to Michigan for processing and shows up back on our supermarket shelves and freezers as pie filling, and no wonder because sour cherries make pie that is nothing less than divine. Of course, getting the cherries when they are fresh and unprocessed improves the flavour, and cherries freeze very well, so it’s a good idea to stock up at this time of year for cherry pie all year long. If you aren’t a confident pie baker, or would rather defer to the talents and expertise of truly accomplished pie bakers, I suggest you take in the Talent Night Auction at Pelham Community Church on Canboro Road. Cherry pies and contracts to bake cherry pies are up for bids, and if you can outbid the church’s regulars who are in the know, you will experience the absolute pinnacle of the baker’s art, created by people with generations of pie baking behind them.

But sour cherries aren’t only about pie. How about a Sour Cherry Cabernet Gastrique… a cherry and wine reduction… to accompany game? The recipe comes from Michael and Anna Olsons’ Inn on the Twenty Coookbook and is simple to make and simply delicious with duck. Put 1 ½ Cups of cabernet wine, 1 ½ Cups of red wine vinegar, 2 Cups of sugar, and 1 Cup of sour cherries into a saucepan and simmer until the sauce is reduced by 2/3 and coats the back of a spoon. The brilliant dark red colour adds accent to the plate, and the taste sets the meat up perfectly.

Another delicious way to serve sour cherries is as a salsa to accompany lighter meats like pork. This recipe comes from June’s Bon Appetit . Simply combine ½ Cup of chopped fresh cilantro, ¼ Cup of minced shallots, 2 Tablespoons of lime juice, ½ pound of fresh sour cherries (pitted and halved), 1 minced chile (choose one that has the degree of heat that you like… jalapenos are good), and 1 Tablespoon of olive oil. Mix together to let the flavours combine, and serve alongside grilled pork tenderloin. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

June: Slow Food International

The focus of this column has been, and will continue to be, Slow Food as a local movement, centred on the Niagara Region and the Pelham area in particular. However, it is interesting once in awhile to step back and realize that Slow Food Pelham is a tiny part of a global phenomenon. From its modest start as a counter-Fast Food movement in Italy in 1986, Slow Food International has grown to well over 100,000 members in 132 countries, and Slow Food Pelham is one of 800 “convivia” or chapters of the organization.

Among the aims of Slow Food is the preservation of local culinary traditions, plant and animal varieties, and food products; encouraging and supporting small scale and family farming and production, while educating consumers about the dangers of monoculture, factory farms, and commercial agribusiness; encouraging the buying and consumption of food that is ethically produced, local, organic, and sustainable; and, always, promoting the virtues of good food, carefully prepared, consumed at leisure in a convivial setting.

A quick survey of some of Slow Food International’s projects helps to provide a sense of how these principles are being put into practice.

Currently, a project called “A Thousand Gardens in Africa” has been launched to create exactly that: 1000 gardens in school yards, villages, and the outskirts of cities across the continent. Food gardens will be cultivated using traditional and sustainable methods, including composting, rational water use, planting local varieties, and intercropping of fruit trees, vegetables, and medicinal herbs. The objective is to help farmers and communities to recover local crops, rather than just handing out seeds and fertilizer.

In Italy, the production of a traditional cheese from the mountains near Milan has been saved by the intervention of Slow Food. Historic Bitto cheese is made by hand in the remote Orbie Alps by herders who follow the seasons with their herds. Slow Food has stepped in to provide a distribution system for the cheese to connect consumers and producers, so that the farmers get fair payment and consumers get a unique, traditional product at a fair price.

In Morocco, Slow Food has recognized and promoted the preservation of the traditional Berber delicacy, argan oil. Pressed from the kernels of the argan tree, this oil has been a fundamental part of Berber culture since time immemorial.

In Southeast India, the traditional foods of the Dalit people, 329 species of plants, many of which are designated as weeds by the scientific community, have been recognized and catalogued.

In Ireland, the Slow Food convivia are recognizing Grandmother’s Day, a day to celebrate the traditional foods and recipes of older generations. This year it was on April 16th… and maybe it is an idea that will catch on world wide.

In the U.S., a campaign called “What’s Killing Our Buzz” has been launched by Slow Food, with the aim of pressuring governments and agencies to investigate and reverse the devastating loss of honey bees over the past few years.

And so on. Around the world, the Slow Food Movement continues to work with partners and other like-minded organizations to preserve the biodiversity of our planet and the food traditions that have evolved over millennia. These examples merely brush the surface of a very active and dedicated organization, from whose efforts we all will benefit. We in Pelham “think globally and act locally” in our own small way as part of this worldwide movement. To learn more, go to or contact the Pelham convivium through Renée Girard at

Monday, May 2, 2011

May: Fish On!

With apologies to Alfred Lord Tennyson, “In spring a young man’s fancy turns lightly to thoughts of … trout.” Yes, the opening of trout season in Ontario is the fourth Saturday of April, and from then until closing at the end of September, trout are never far from my mind. As an avid (some might say obsessive) fly fisher, I love this time of year. During the winter I satisfy my addiction by tying flies that I imagine might tempt trout, and take a couple of trips south to play with other species like bonefish and redfish and snook… but my heart belongs to Ontario’s trout.

Although I am a devoted catch and release fisher, feeling that trout are much more valuable in the water than in the pan (and if I want to eat trout, I can buy farmed trout at any fishmonger), I do on occasion eat my catch, especially when I am on an extended canoe trip. When Valerie and I first met, she didn’t care for the taste of fish… until our first canoe trip into Algonquin Park. There, I caught a beautiful Brook Trout (actually, Brook Char, since, like Lake Trout, it is a member of the char family) and had it in the pan frying in butter within moments of taking it from the water. The taste of fresh -- really fresh -- trout meunière instantly turned her into a fan of fish, and she now prefers it to any other meat.

Trout meunière is the simplest of preparations, and enhances rather than overpowers the delicate, delicious flavour of fresh trout. Simply coat the fish fillets (or whole fish if it’s small enough) lightly in seasoned flour, and sauté them in a generous quantity of butter. When the fish is opaque (about 3 minutes each side -- don’t overdo it and dry it out!) put the fillets on a plate and scrape the brown bits from the bottom of the pan before pouring the hot liquid over the fish. A squirt of fresh lemon adds a nice touch.

A more complex version (though still quite easy) makes the dish a little more special for company. It comes from the southern U.S., where the trout they use is not trout at all. The famous Gulf Speckled Trout is a type of saltwater drum and shares not a shred of trout heritage. However, this recipe, which has become a New Orleans tradition, does work with our “real” trout, especially the farmed rainbow trout found in most markets.

Trout Meunière Almondine

4 trout fillets, skin on
Milk (about a cup)
Seasoned flour (about a cup)
½ C plus 3 Tbsp butter
¾ C sliced almonds
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp lemon juice
4 green onions, chopped
Tabasco sauce

Heat 3 Tbsp of butter in a skillet over medium heat. Dip the fillets in the milk and then dredge in the seasoned flour, and gently put them into the hot butter. Sauté about 3 to 4 minutes on each side, remove from the pan and keep warm. Add ½ C of butter to the pan and scrape up the browned bits from the bottom. Add the almonds and cook until they are golden. Stir in the Worcestershire, lemon juice, and a squirt or two of Tabasco. Remove from the heat, and stir in the green onions. Serve the fillets with the sauce liberally poured over them.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

April: Chef Michael Olson of Benchmark

Michael Olson is a Niagara treasure. Pelham Slow Food enjoyed one of our gourmet outings early in April, trekking out to Benchmark Restaurant at the Niagara on the Lake Campus of Niagara College. Recently re-branded by Michael, Benchmark is more casual, less upscale than the dining room it replaced; in fact, at lunch, tables of students can be seen enjoying a really good hot meal for $10, a meal that blows away anything they could get at a fast food joint for the same or more money. Try “Mild Curry Chicken with Cucumber Raita and Coriander Flatbread” or “Pork Schnitzel with Spaetzle and Sauerkraut” or “Steak Frites with Shallot Butter” each for only ten bucks! No wonder the students are joining discerning Niagara diners for lunch at Benchmark.

Slow Food Pelham’s big dinner was admittedly more lavish, with four delicious courses, featuring a main of “Roasted Filet of Homer’s Black Angus Beef with Maple Glazed Root Vegetables and Horseradish Hollandaise.” And Michael conspired with Maitre d’, Sarah Scott, to create the most convivial of dining experiences at a cleverly designed table setting that encouraged conversation. We had the option of choosing the chef’s wine pairings, which included the College’s own 2009 “Deans List” Chardonnay that won the top honours at this year’s Cuvée.

But quite apart from our glorious gourmet experience created by Michael Olson and his student assistants, in a region that is blessed with great chefs and wonderful restaurants, Michael is unique. He first came to the attention of Niagara diners when he headed Inn on the Twenty, at the time, arguably Niagara’s best upscale dining room. And while there, he was among the first to put the emphasis on local products and fresh ingredients, going so far as to actually put the name of the local producer on the menu. This practice is now commonplace, but back then it was a revelation: a chef crediting the farmers and producers who supplied the food he was presenting! Toronto food critic, James Chatto put it this way: “In Chef Michael Olson’s hands, the produce of local farms and market gardens found new expression – simple, sophisticated, seasonal – a way of thinking that has since inspired the cuisine of the whole region.”

Michael has espoused Slow Food ideals and put them into practice wherever he has presented his enormous culinary skill. I was at the “Cassoulet Eh!” Competition in Toronto where he presented his version of the savoury bean dish to critics, judges, and fellow competitors with a poetic speech on the values of comfort food, the virtues of slow, painstaking attention to detail in cooking, and the joys of convivial dining. This was long before I had heard of the Slow Food Movement, but Michael’s words struck a chord that continues to resonate today. His introductions to the courses at our dinner at Benchmark emphasized the connection to Niagara terroire and showed his enthusiasm for local products and local producers.

Among his many accomplishments, Michael has co-authored several award-winning cookbooks with his wife, Anna. Their Inn on the Twenty cookbook, their first, has pride of place on our kitchen shelf, battered and spattered and well-thumbed though it is. From it, I have gleaned at least a dozen of my all-time favorite recipes: the “Lamb Shanks in Gamay with Rosemary Scented White Beans” is second only to

“Seared Duck Breast in Sour Cherry Cabernet Gastrique”
1 ½ C Niagara Cabernet Franc
1 ½ C red wine vinegar
2 C sugar 1
C Niagara pitted sour cherries
6 duck breasts (boneless, skin on)

For the gastrique sauce, put the wine, vinegar, sugar, and cherries in a saucepan and simmer until the sauce is reduced by 2/3 and coats the back of a spoon.

For the breasts, preheat the oven to 375 and heat an oven-proof sauté pan over medium-high heat. Place the duck breasts skin-side down in the pan and season lightly with salt and pepper. Sear the breasts for 5 minutes and the place the pan, uncovered, in the oven for 15 minutes for medium rare (20 minutes for medium). Remove the duck from the pan and let it rest for 5 minutes (and please save the duck fat to sauté potatoes!) Slice the breasts thinly against the grain and spoon the sauce over to serve.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

March: Baked Beans

March is a heartbreaker. In January, we look forward to it as the beginning of spring, but when it’s here, it often brings some of the nastiest winter weather of the year. I always associate the winter’s most satisfying and heartwarming comfort food with March, because it’s a month when we need to fortify ourselves to get through the last winter storms and over the hump into spring. For that reason, I often make my enormous cassoulet in March and invite friends to share the head-to-toe warmth that lots of beans, duck, and fat can provide. Another favorite March meal is baked beans.

The recipe I use for my baked beans is one that I pieced together from a superb short story written by iconic Canadian author Pierre Berton. According to Berton, baked beans were what fortified the Klondike gold rushers on their long and arduous trek across the Arctic to the gold fields. They would make a huge batch of beans and then let it freeze, gnawing off chunks of the bean-sickle as they struggled across the rugged trail.

Berton’s short story included his version of the Klondike beans recipe, but, in keeping with the rough and ready methods of the gold rushers, he was extremely vague about amounts and measures. His instructions included things like “a handful” of this or “a nice amount” of that or “enough” of something else, and, memorably, “pork cut into cubes the size of marshmallows.” It took me a long time and many experiments to develop a recipe from his tale, and I have added a few touches of my own that don’t appear in his short story. The result is a concoction that I have been using for late winter meals for many years. It freezes well (naturally) and should be served with lots of fresh bread to mop up the juice.

Pierre Berton’s Klondike Baked Beans

1. Soak 1 litre of dried white navy or Great Northern beans overnight
2. Drain and rinse the beans, then put them in a large pot, adding fresh water to cover by 3cm. Add 2 bay leaves, 2 crushed garlic cloves, 1 – 2 Tbsp each of oregano, thyme, chili powder, parsley, and 1 tsp of ground cloves.
Simmer at low heat for 2 hours.
3. Drain the beans and reserve the liquid. Put the beans in a large casserole or baking crock and add ½ kilo of bacon chunks* cut into cubes (marshmallow size)
4. Put the liquid into the pot and add 3 tomatoes, ½ Cup of chili sauce, 1 can of tomato paste, 4 onions (2 chopped fine and 2 chopped coarse), 1 Tbsp of dried mustard, 2 crushed garlic cloves, 1 Tbsp of celery seed, 1 Tbsp of Tabasco sauce, 1 Cup of dark molasses, and ½ Cup of maple syrup
Simmer at low heat for about an hour, then pour the reserved liquid over the beans
5. Cover and bake at 325 for about 4 hours
6. One hour before serving, add 1 Cup of sherry or dry red wine and lay 6 bacon strips on top. Half and hour before serving, remove the cover to crisp the bacon (use the broiler at the end if the bacon isn’t crisp enough).

*You can ask the butcher for the end pieces of slab bacon, which are smokier than the middle portions. Alternatively, use smoked turkey leg instead of the bacon. Klager’s in Fonthill is very accommodating at supplying either.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

February: In Praise of Pizza

Pizza is one fast food that even a dedicated Slow Food member can love. Just because it doesn’t take very long to prepare, and is sometimes served in a shopping mall food court should not ban it from the Slow Food menu. Pizza can be nutritious, can be made entirely of local ingredients, and can be a wonderfully convivial meal… slow food perfection! The fact that it sometimes contains unhealthy, imported ingredients, and is often eaten in less than convivial settings and styles (ie. in front of the TV or in an ugly fast food “restaurant”) is not the fault of the dish.

Pizza comes in an array of styles and varieties that range from the bready “deep dish” Chicago style right through to the wafer thin, crisp, wood-fired version. And toppings! Pizza has been garnished with every imaginable food item.

My favorites include the very plain and simple “Margarita” which was named for the 19th Century queen of Italy because it has the three colours of the Italian flag: white (mozzarella cheese), green (fresh basil), and red (sliced tomatoes). The Pie Plate restaurant in Virgil makes a great version of the Margarita, which they cleverly call “Boot Queen.” (Boot – the shape of Italy on a map + Queen = Italian Queen or “Margarita”… get it?) At the other end of the scale, The Pie Plate serves a seasonal special pizza, which, during the fall and early winter is a concoction of apple slices, cheddar cheese, walnut pesto, and a drizzle of maple syrup! You really have to be daring to try it, but once you do, you’ll order it again and again.

Lorenzo’s Fine Foods in Fonthill makes a delicious gourmet pizza, too, and Lorenzo’s tomato sauce is perhaps the best in the business. I learned recently that he is so picky about the tomatoes he uses that he has enlisted the help of the horticulture experts at NTEC in Port Robinson to grow a specific strain of tomato (San Marzano) just for him, so he won’t have to import them from Italy.

But you don’t have to rely on the creativity of others to get unique and delicious pizza. Pizza is easy to make at home, whether you opt for the simplicity of topping flat bread, choose a frozen crust, or go all the way and make your own pizza dough. The latter, by the way, is very easy to do in any bread maker: just follow the instructions to make the dough, roll it out, top it with your favorites, and pop it in a pre-heated oven for 15 or 20 minutes.

One of my all time favorite pizzas is “pissaladière,” a no-cheese version that is not from Italy at all, but originated in the South of France in the area around Nice. Cut into bite-sized pieces, it makes a great appetizer.

thin crust pizza dough or flat bread for one pizza… usually rectangular rather than the traditional round pizza
olive oil
3 large onions, sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
12 black olives
¼ Cup of pine nuts
2 - 3 Tbsp of fresh thyme
12 - 20 anchovy fillets
1. Sauté the onions and garlic in olive oil at low heat until caramelized, about an hour, stirring occasionally
2. Spread the onion mixture on the pizza and lay the anchovy fillets on top in a grid pattern making 12 squares (you may need more or fewer fillets, depending on their length)
3. In the centre of each square formed by the anchovies, place an olive
4. Scatter the pine nuts and thyme evenly and drizzle the pizza with a little olive oil
5. Bake at 450 degrees for about 15 – 20 minutes, until the edge of the crust is golden
6. Serve hot or at room temperature

Saturday, January 1, 2011

January: Community Supported Agriculture

Here’s an idea whose time has come. Buy your vegetables or meat or cheese by pre-paying the farmer in the winter, then collect the food you’ve paid for during the year, when it’s freshest and best. This is the essence of the CSA or Community Supported (or Shared) Agriculture system. Basically, we, the consumers, are advancing the farmer the funds with which to produce his or her crops and collecting a return on our investment in produce. Talk about win-win!

CSA farms are mostly vegetable producers, and there are lots of them, though they tend to fly under the radar in our supermarket-dominated environment. (One estimate has about 500 CSAs in Canada, more than 12,000 in the U.S, of which the largest, in California has 3000 families as members!)

Typically, CSA members go to the farm each week during harvest season and pick up the baskets of fruit or vegetables that they have paid for. Sometimes they get to select from the week’s varieties of produce, but in other cases, they pick up their basket of whatever the farmer has on offer that week.

The advantages for the consumer are many, freshly picked fruit and vegetables right from the farm every week being the most obvious. High quality food, often produced organically or biodynamically, is an attractive alternative to imported, days old, factory farm produce. Beyond that, a real sense of where our food comes from and a closer relationship with the farmer is an important, though intangible, benefit. CSA members also report that kids who are vegetable-resistant suddenly take an interest in the veggies on their plates once they have visited the farm and seen “their” food being grown right before their eyes.

For the farmer, the advantages of CSAs are even more important. Having the money up front to produce the food, make necessary capital expenditures, and budget labour and materials costs is an enormous benefit. Then there is the idea of shared risk: the farmer is usually the only member of the food chain who takes the risk of crop failure and pays the price if the worst happens. With the CSA system, that risk is shared with the “investors” who acknowledge that an early frost might wreak havoc on the spring lettuce or excessive rain might damage the tomatoes… and hope for a bumper crop of asparagus or raspberries or squash.

But vegetable producers and consumers aren’t the only ones to benefit from the CSA system. Recently, Monforte Cheese of Stratford launched a CSA, offering cheese lovers a chance to invest in their new dairy and cheese-making operation in return for certificates that could be used to buy the cheese that would eventually be produced. Locally, Lake Land Meats on Regional Road 81 in St. Catharines offered their first CSA in 2009 for their vegetable production. Now they are launching another to get the capital for a new culinary studio and production kitchen. Investors can use their certificates to buy Lake Land meat and game over a five year period, getting a nice return on the original investment. (
Other local CSAs include Tree and Twig Gardens in Wellandport, specializing in heirloom produce (; Creek Shore Farms in Vineland, growing a wide variety of vegetables (; Fair Wind Farm in Sherkston, also producing a wide variety of vegetables and berries (; and Sexsmith Farm in Ridgeway, offering vegetables, berries, herbs, and flowers (
Here’s an opportunity in the dead of winter to invest in good, wholesome, local food, support local farmers, connect with the food we eat, and save the planet! What’s not to love about CSAs?