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September 29, 2015

Sir John’s Table, by Lindy Mechefske

pudding pre-bakingI could never be a food blogger for all kinds of reasons, one of which is that all my pots and serving dishes are indelibly stained and my kitchen is old and grubby (and poorly lit). The other important reason is that I tend to interpret recipes as general guidelines instead of instructions, but in the case of the new book, Sir John’s Table, by Lindy Mechefske, this turned out to be an advantage. It meant I was unafraid to take on the recipe for Sir John A’s Pudding from a cookbook from the 1880s, a recipe named in honour of the first Prime Minister of Canada, whose instructions included “size of an egg” for butter portioning, no word on what vessel to cook it in, and vague baking instructions as follows: “Bake in oven for a few minutes.”

We really weren’t sure. “This is an experiment,” I kept telling my family, and then asking them, “Isn’t living with me a glorious adventure?” No one answered. They were all a bit irritated that our main course had been roast cauliflower. “I bet none of your friends are having pudding tonight in honour of Canada’s first Prime Minister,” I told Harriet. She looked at me funny: “Mom, do we have any ice cream?”

finished puddingSir John A’s Pudding is from Dora’s Cook Book, by Dora E. Fairfield, published in 1888—one known copy is still publicly available. It is a bread pudding, the bottom made with bread crumbs, egg yolks and lots of milk. Spread on top are stiff egg whites and sugar. I baked the whole thing in the oven for much longer than a few minutes (though I can’t remember how long now—I am as bad as Dora). When it came out of the oven, the topping was nicely browned but the pudding still seemed a little gloopy (“But gloopy means delicious, right?” I asked. Nobody cheered.) However once it had been resting for a little while the pudding was set, and now it was finally time to dish it up and assess the damage.

pudding serving

Guess what: it was totally divine. And everyone conceded that living with me was an adventure after all, a most delicious one. I did my I’m always right dance. I always mostly am.

Though not, admittedly, with my immediate assessment of Mechefske’s book. Sir John’s Table: A Culinary Life and Times of Canada’s First Prime Minister as a concept did not seem at first compelling to me, but then I opened it up and started reading. And what I found was an engaging, light and fun and informative text. So engaging, yes, that it led me to attempt archaic heritage recipes, plus the book is also a really interesting biography of Canada’s first Prime Minister.

sir-johns-tableSince we’re going all Full Disclosure in this post, I will reveal to you that I’ve not watched any political debates during this current federal election. As these debates fail the Bechtel Test on every discernible level, are intellectually stupefying AND we don’t have TV, I’ve felt more comfortable getting my political information from newspapers instead. There is something about the absence of women’s voices and the general feeling that anything concerning women’s experiences is mere frippery that renders most politics (and political biographies) null and void to me. It’s grown-ups acting out playground games, and taking themselves far too seriously. It’s just inherently uninteresting.

Which is not to say that political biographies must necessarily contain a recipe for bread pudding, or that the domestic is anymore inherently a female purlieu, but it certainly was in the 19th century. Which means that “culinary life and times” of Sir John A. Macdonald is going to give special attention to the women in his life and the personal and political roles they played: his mother, his wives, his lifelong friend who was also a pub owner. We learn about the food (bannock!) his mother brought to feed her family on the long voyage from Scotland to Canada. Also about Macdonald’s favourite childhood desserts, how traditional British foods were adapted to North America, wedding cakes from the 1860s, mourning rituals (after the death of his first wife), how the picnics at which he made his famous stump speeches would have been catered (by Mrs. Beeton, at least), and just how a roast duck dinner managed to save the Dominion after all.

For a light book, Mechefske manages to be rigorous about colonial atrocities, juxtaposing a lavish Toronto dinner with Metis and First Nations people starving on the plains at the same time. Her story of the triumph of Sir John A’s railroad also includes a legacy of racism and exploitation of the Chinese workers who built it. She manages to balance her portrayal of the generous and charismatic Macdonald with the dark side of his legacy—also his own propensity for problems with drink: “He joined the Temperance Society  again,” is a sentence that pops up more than once.

My one criticism is that the recipes have not been adapted for modern cooks, and so are more a curiosity than something the reader can use. Although there is value too in these heritage recipes reprinted as they were, for what they tell us about how 19th century cooks did their work, how ingredients, measurements and cooking methods were different, and also the peculiar stylistic quirks of their writers. And my own experience certainly shows (who knew?!) that the intrepid 21st century cook can have success with these recipes all the  same.

October 21, 2014

All the Squash

harriet squashOh, so little sleep (Iris has a cold and is getting molars) and three part time jobs means that my mind is scattered this week, but I want to take a pause and write about squash. It’s partly the time of year, and also because brand new cookbook The Everyday Squash Cook  entered our lives, but no matter the reason, we are squash obsessed. Our Thanksgiving was made rich with acorn squash pie (see Harriet cleaning out the seeds, which we later roasted with the recipe from The Everyday Squash Cook) whose recipe I invented by mistake, but it turned out gloriously—I roasted the squash with the spices and butter in it, and then baked it all in an oatmeal crust. We also had this delicious Roasted Apple and Acorn Squash Soup and it was as easy to make as it was wonderful.

everyday squashThe squash that continues to challenge me is spaghetti—I don’t buy those recipes pretending the strands are pasta, and neither do my children. It’s okay roasted, but there is so much and the kids won’t eat it, and I don’t like it that much. We receive them often in our organics delivery, however, and I think we may have finally found the solution—a spaghetti squash soup recipe from The Everyday Squash Cookbook, featuring coconut milk for maximum deliciousness and the strands do indeed pass as noodles in a soup. So good.

A mysterious squash turned up on our delivery last week. The Everyday Squash Cookbook has a squash identifier, but I couldn’t find our mystery squash. So I turned to this rather nifty Winter Squash Visual Guide to discover it was a Delicata Squash. I roasted it according to this recipe to learn another thing—that Delicata Squash is the most delicious squash ever.

squashMore squash? We made Butternut Bacon on the weekend from TESC (you can see the recipe here) and it blew our minds. Easy peasy and it cooks in 20 seconds. And then we were left with a whole bunch of butternut squash, so I used a vegetable peeler to thinly slice it, and made a “pizza” from those slices, inspired by a recipe in Tessa Kiros’ Apples for Jammix slices in a bowl with olive oil and flour until slices are coated, then turn onto a pie plate and bake for about an hour. Top with tomato paste, oregano, and mozzarella cheese and bake for 10 more minutes. It’s so good, though Harriet wouldn’t eat it, but that’s not much of an indicator of anything.

One of my favourite squash recipes (which Harriet does eat) is this ridiculously easy risotto that requires no stirring because it bakes in the oven. I usually use butternut squash and it’s very good.

Tonight we’re looking forward to trying the Squash/Sausage/Rigatoni recipe from TESC. I am quite sure it will prove delicious. Check out this recipe for Butternut Brownies, and also this article on squash as one of “Canada’s heritage foods.” 

October 1, 2013

How to Feed a Family by Laura Keogh and Ceri Marsh

how-to-feed-a-family”Pratt’s postwar-era family table is a site of constant labour, meal after meal–which all fell to Mary, with no foreseeable end.”–Catherine M. Mastin, “Base, Place, Location and the Early Paintings” , from the Mary Pratt book, an excerpt from which appears today on the 49thShelf blog.

It’s a whole new world at our house these days, as I’ve got a 4 month old baby and a kid who has just started all-day school and is usually exhausted by 5pm. So while I am still a decent cook who makes dinner from scratch every night, I find many of my old standard recipes don’t quite work anymore. I need dinners that are quick, healthy, with minimal preparation (because heaven forbid the baby lets me put her down). I need dinners that my big kid will eat, even with her kiddish tastes, and oh yes, they need to be delicious, because I’m going to eat them too.

Enter How to Feed a Family by Laura Keough and Ceri Marsh, a book which couldn’t have come around at a better time. The first meal I made was shakshuka, a tomato egg dish for which I really did have all the ingredients already in my pantry. We got home at 6 that night, and I had to go out again at 7:15, but it all came together, and even Ol’ “I Don’t Like Tomatoes” Harriet ate hers up fine. Here, I thought, is a cookbook that does what it says on the tin.

We’ve had the ridiculously easy and tasty Lemon Linguini (though I threw in some spinach to up the greens), apple chicken curry (which we all enjoyed), tilapia tacos with fresh lime, though everybody’s favourite has been the so-simple sweet potato macaroni and cheese (which I particularly like because it makes a huge batch, and I freeze half for later). I have baked the whole-grain blueberry muffins three times now, and the whole play school is having them for snack tomorrow. I’ve stolen sandwich ideas (chicken and grapes. Yum!), made breakfast milkshakes, and we had cornmeal pancakes for lunch one day, which were terrific.

How to Feed a Family is a product of the blog Sweet Potato Chronicles, from which I’ve scooped recipes from time-to-time and for which my friend Athena writes a lovely column called “A Quick Bite With”. Reflecting its origins, the book is a bit of a mishmash and guided mainly by its writers’ tastes instead of a grander scheme. So you end up with a cannelloni recipe with a whole page of ingredients with another recipe calling for store-bought pastry shells (gasp! horror! says me). And they’re really, really into spelt flour and brown rice syrup, which I just don’t happen to have on hand. Further, my child wouldn’t touch an asparagus/tomato frittata with a ten foot pole, but that’s my problem (and it is. Because when she doesn’t eat her share, I eat it instead, which is a problem I don’t expect is come across by the book’s authors, two former fashion magazine editors who’ve probably long-learned the art of restraint).

I am not completely the target audience for this book–I’ve got my own ideas about food and cooking and I dare their recipe for wholewheat pancakes to compete with mine, which I fry up every Sunday (blueberry banana!). But I’ve also never needed a book like this so bad in my life, and the spine is already way cracked. The pages splattered.Here is a cookbook that’s made to get used, and I am having an awfully good time with it.

January 28, 2013

The Ontario Table Cookbook

Ontario-Table-Cookbook-617x729I’ve had my eye on The Ontario Table by Lynn Ogryzlo for awhile now. It was shortlisted for the 2012 Taste Canada Awards, and has been part of a pretty display at my local butchers with a Le Creuset dutch oven and a tea towel. And even though it isn’t an alphabet book, it seemed the closest thing around to a local version of Foodshed: An Edible Alberta Alphabet. A few weeks back, the weather felt like absolutely spring and brought to mind miraculous things like fresh produce, and the gorgeous pictures in this book reflected the world exactly, so I sprung and bought it, and we’ve been eating rather deliciously ever since.

Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver changed our lives when we read it in 2007, and its effects linger on. At the time, we were broke but had a huge and beautiful garden, learning so much about how food grows, and we also started attending our local farmer’s market to spend what pennies we could manage. 6 years later, we no longer have a backyard to put a garden in, but we’re not broke either, and so we buy most of our food at our local farmer’s market in the summer, buy local food whenever it can be had at the grocery store (whose selection of Ontario garlic lately has been so exciting to behold), and have an organic food box delivered weekly which is composed of local food more often than not. We eat meat once or twice a week, and only buy from local butchers with ties to small local farms. We also eat organic as much as possible, not due to any dubious health claims but because we’ve determined that organic food tastes better and when you’re teaching a little person to enjoy vegetables, things like flavour are really important.

The Ontario Table is many things. First, it is an ode to local food cultures and to the tremendous diversity of food that is produced in Ontario. It is a travel guide to Ontario’s agricultural regions that makes one want to jump in the car for a Huron County road-trip immediately. It is also profiles farms and farmers from across the province, a glimpse of the people behind the food we eat. But most importantly, it is a cookbook and it’s been blowing our minds. We knew things were good when its recipe for beet chips was the first I’d ever made successfully. And then that weekend we had the cranberry beef stew and were pretty much converted. Oh, but the farmer’s pie, with sweet potato and mince chock full of vegetables, and Harriet loved it as much as did. Last night we had the pesto chicken stir fry, and it lived up to all our expectations. We’ve decided that with a meal from The Ontario Table, it might be impossible to go wrong.

The book is beautiful with stunning photography, and it’s as pleasurable to browse through as it is to eat from. From what I can tell, it’s also self-published, however, and sometimes a lack of polish shows–the index has the wrong pagination (but consistently, so you figure out where’s what), recipes could use more detail, and stronger editing (when exactly was my red pepper supposed to be added to last night’s stir-fry). I give these criticisms for the sake of full-disclosure, so you know what you’re getting exactly when I implore you, local food aficionados, to buy this book anyway. And I absolutely can’t wait for summer when it, and everything, will come into bloom.

February 20, 2012

Guacamole by Jorge Argueta and Margarita Sada

A couple of years ago, I was totally obsessed with literary avocados, so it was no surprise really that I’d find Guacamole: A Cooking Poem appealing. The kids on the cover live in a hollowed-out avocado, for crying out loud, with a purple bird on the window sill. And the illustrations really are what’s immediately appealing about this book, the sheer delight of the children in the story as they make literal the story’s metaphors about pits so slick you can slide down them, or a spoon you drive like a tractor.

The poem is Spanish poem is translated into English, and both texts appear here. The poem emphasizes feeling and sensuousness, and portrays cooking as a profoundly emotional experience. And experience itself is profoundly about imagination, the text here doing what the illustrations do with metaphors: with your apron on, you feel like a great chef, salt falls like rain, lime juice is a river, and a lime’s seeds are “Little pearls that look like eyes…”

The very best part of the book is that it’s as much recipe book as picture book, and the results are delicious. Our pages are already splattered with food in the very best way. The poem’s recipe is simple enough that Harriet and I could make the guacamole together with neither of us losing patience, and she particularly enjoyed stirring with her tractor spoon. We also took care to involve singing and dancing in the process as instructed (with is always important when you’re working in the kitchen), and I love the way this book shows cooking as something we can do with our family, and also something we can do for our family, and regardless, is connected to togetherness.

Guacamole is part of a series of cooking poems by Argueta which also includes Bean Soup and Rice Pudding. I look forward to trying the others.

March 29, 2011

Good Food For All: The Stop Cookbook

Now that I can count down the weeks to asparagus season with the fingers on just two hands, I am thinking about eating springtime, and then summer and fall. It was around this time last year that I purchased Good Food For All: Seasonal Recipes from a Community Garden produced by The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto, and it set us on a delicious course of seasonal eating in 2010. My only complaint about the book is that mine has fallen to pieces, but I suspect this is an indication of how good the book is rather than any of its deficiencies (save for binding).

Courtesy of Good Food For All, we have feasted on roast vegetable burritos, vegetarian shepherd’s pie, multi-grain supper salad, chicken burgers, beef stew, asparagus quinoa with peas and feta, stuffed swiss chard leaves, seared rainbow trout with greens, heirloom tomato salad, and strawberry bread. The strawberry bread in particular was the stuff of legend, and I am looking forward to strawberry season so I can make many of a loaf of that heavenly stuff. Once, I had to get rid of some beets and our dinner was an unappetizing sounding “beet bake” that turned out to be delicious. Another time, however, we had a tofu baked-bean casserole that was less so, but I feel like we should have known better. Otherwise, Good for For All has never led us wrong.

The book has beautiful photography, straightforward recipes and instructions, and follows the Stop’s educational mandate in such a useful fashion– a page devoted to different kinds of grains and how to cook them, for example, which was one of the first to fall out of my book. And I am happy because the cookbook is listed on The Stop’s website as “The Stop’s First Cookbook”, emphasis mine, because I’ll be first in line to pick up their second.

June 6, 2010

Literary Bananas

The most recent object of my fruit obsession was the wondrous pomegranate, and before that I was nuts about avocados. For the past six hours, however, I can’t stop thinking about bananas. It’s not the first time– when I was pregnant, I ate bananas all the time, and obsessive-compulsively baked with them. Yum, those trimesters were banana pancakes, banana bread, banana cake, banana SPLITS, and my daily snack of a banana stuffed with chocolate chips melted for thirty seconds in the microwave.

This latest banana fixation is a bit different. It all started a few weeks back when we visited the Royal Botanical Gardens, checked out their banana biodiversity display, and learned that there actually exist thousands of varieties of banana, that sometime in the middle of the last century the “Cavendish” was decided as the banana of choice for exporters, and these days it’s the only banana around. Which means that bananas in general are threatened, because biodiversity has been completely undermined and as the Cavendish is under threat by a menacing fungus, we may be on the fast track toward the banana version of Silent Spring.

And then today I ate a plantain for the first time in my life. I fried the pieces, using this recipe, and topping it with sheep’s milk feta from Monforte Dairy, and it was the most extraordinary treat I’ve had in ages. I was so busy marvelling at the flavour that I scarcely noticed my husband polishing off the whole plate of them, and he’s just lucky I like him a lot or I really might have considered divorcing him. Instead, we decided to go out and find another plantain, and so tonight’s after-dinner walk was devoted to seeking out banana biodiversity in The Annex neighbourhood.

Results were poor. We went to five grocery stores and found nothing but Cavendish varieties. Finally, at an Asian grocery store at Bloor and Palmerston, we found another plantain. (The first one had come from Augusta Fruit Market in Kensington. I wonder if we’d sought banana biodiversity in Kensington, perhaps we’d have better luck? But I doubt it). We both do remember seeing red bananas at our local grocery store once years ago, and we bought them, but either red bananas are terrible or we didn’t let them ripen, because neither of us remembers this experience positively.

Plantains though, oh wow. And bananas in general– like anyone with a baby, I bow down to these. We had a fun snack of black beans and bananas a few weeks back, that suggested to me that the lovey fruit is more versatile than I ever imagined.

Anyway, now I am going to read the book Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World. (And you can bemoan these hyperbolic titles all you want– heaven knows that I have–, but it’s sort of nice that when one becomes obsessed with any object, one can rest assured that a recent book has been written devoted to it. These are not such terrible times in which we live, save for the banana biodiversity threat, but I digress).

Have been thinking about other literary bananas too– did you know that the term “banana republic” comes from an O Henry short story  (though I do, only thanks to Wikipedia)? The first one I could think of off-hand was the bananafish, from “A Perfect Day for…”, which (allegedly) had six bananas in its mouth, tragic being that it was. I think literary banana peels are quite ubiquitous, but I’m not sure they count. It’s the flesh that I’m talking about. And there’s Banana Yoshimoto, who is probably the most literary banana going. But I can’t help thinking there must be a whole bunch more out there (ha ha).

Um, this post is also certifiable proof that I lead a life much unencumbered.

Mitzi Bytes

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