A Char-ming Gift

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Years ago, I cooked at a restaurant that served wild Arctic char from Labrador; although I’ve had char here and there since then, it never seemed to match the taste of that Labrador char. Just recently, I was gifted a few large Arctic char filets, beside myself with excitement, I could hardly wait to see how it tasted.

Arctic char (or charr) is in Salmonidae family; breeding in freshwater, it can live in the sea or be landlocked. The flesh runs from very pale pink to bright red, depending on diet and environment, and generally run 2-10 pounds. Mild tasting, they hover between trout and salmon, leaning more towards the trout side.
IMG_7041My filet was a lovely deep pink, in preparation for cooking, I removed the pin bones and belly fat, but left the skin on as I planned to pan-fry it and I love the crispy skin.

Although a mild fish, it stands up well to strong flavours. In this case, I decided on gnocchi with ratatouille, some asparagus, and my favourite fish accompaniment: lemon caper butter.

For the ratatouille:
Olive oil, splash
Zucchini, 1 each green and yellow, diced
Eggplant, 1 smallish, diced
Tomatoes, 12-14 small variety (cherry, grape), halved
Herbes de Provence*, 1 teaspoon (*a dried herb mix used in French cooking)

In a heavy bottomed skillet, heat the oil. Add the vegetables, season with Herbes de Provence and simmer until tomatoes cook down and the ratatouille looks “saucy”.

Ratatouille with gnocchi added

Ratatouille with gnocchi added

For the gnocchi:
Prepared gnocchi is easy to find in most supermarkets. Cook as per package instructions, and stir into the cooked ratatouille.

For the lemon-caper butter:
1-2 tbsp butter
1-2 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp capers

In a small saucepan, melt the butter. Once it starts to sizzle, add lemon juice and capers. Cook until butter is lightly browned. Spoon over cooked fish.

For the fish:
1 tbsp butter
salt and pepper
2 x 4-6 oz filets

Melt butter in skillet. Season both sides of filets generously with salt and pepper. Please flesh side down in hot pan, turning once when browned.
Asparagus:
Drop in pot of boiling water, remove when cooked but still a little crisp, and toss with salt, pepper and a shot of lemon juice.

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The final verdict? This is the char of my early cooking career, the clean fresh flavour I’d been missing. Absolutely fabulous!

With broken hearts

10489746_10152146145521962_7805419520453661075_nIt can’t happen here–until it did. This morning, we turned on our televisions to see an unbelievable tragedy, a chain of events that left a soldier dead and a nation in shock.
We have been attacked at the very heart of our country, our national being. The shooter could not have issued a louder message, even if it’s not quite clear or public yet what the purpose of the attack was and who is behind it.
Like many Canadians, I was fixed to the news, unable to really believe what was happening. It seemed surreal, as Peter Mansbridge anchored the coverage, his familiar baritone catching from time to time as he disseminated the information as it came in, keeping watchers informed.
In times of darkness, I turn to comfort food; but this is beyond dark; it’s incomprehensible. This is my country, my safe country. We go to other countries to offer assistance when these things happen, they do not happen here.
I can’t make sense of this, so I turn to what I can make sense of, and that’s my kitchen. Pulling ingredients out of the fridge, I think about my friends in Ottawa and I’m relieved they are safe.
Chopping onions, celery, garlic–the orderliness of the dicing and slicing, the repetitive motion of the knife, brings me some comfort. I make chili, and stirring in the spices I think of murdered Corporal Nathan Cirillo, the reservist whose picture is being circulated. Now we have a face to the earlier footage of a soldier, undergoing CPR and being whisked away by ambulance, the broad smile of the photo, gone.
When Canadians enlist, they know the danger. Regular and reserve forces understand they may end up making the ultimate sacrifice in service to country. But not like this. They know the risks as they head off to Bosnia, Rwanda, Afghanistan. There should be no risk guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, there should only be the feeling of privilege, and honour, of guarding this representation of our freedom.
I’m angry, so angry that this young life has been snuffed out for what? Chopping zucchini and eggplant for ratatouille, perfect cubes of vegetables on the cutting board, my knuckles are white on the knife handle.
I find half a red onion, some leftover tomatoes, and open a can of chickpeas for channa masala. The gunman is dead, and I’m glad. I try not to be like this, I try and humanize him but I can’t. Am I a terrible person for thinking this way? Right now, I don’t care, but I don’t like this feeling. I hardly realize that I’ve sliced a bag of mushrooms, and sauté them with balsamic vinegar, letting it reduce to a glaze. I use some of that liquid in a marinade for flank steak, and waste no more thoughts on him.
Unsettled, I turn to baking. Wishing I had yeast to make bread, but don’t so instead I turn to an old standby, a Jean Pare Company’s Coming book. Muffins & More is where we dug up recipes for the continental breakfast at the first hotel I worked in, and I turn the spattered and stained pages, looking for comfort. As I break eggs and measure flour, I think of 58 year old Sergeant-At-Arms Kevin Vickers. He’s being hailed as a hero for at the very least, keeping MP’s safe today and at the very most, saving their lives. There are several reports indicating it was he who shot the gunman and in doing so, undoubtedly prevented more carnage. In the days to come I know we’ll get more information, and the scope of his heroics today.
Lined up on the counter are a lemon-raspberry loaf, a peanut butter loaf, and a cinnamon streusel coffee cake. This is the only order I will find today.
I look for comfort in the blessings of the day–my little family is tucked in safe and sound. This day has had a profound impact on all Canadians, whether we realize it or not. Things will never be the same. Will I ever feel as safe and secure as I did before 10:00 this morning?
In the coming days, the country will be tested. Horror, relief, patriotism, will give way to blame laying and speculation. But I can’t dwell anymore. The pantry and fridge are empty, and the kitchen is closed.

Falling into comfort food

The leaves are changing colour and a chill is creeping into the ever-lengthing evening shadows, and memories of autumns past come rushing to the fore.
The fall was when my mother- and father-in-law made their pilgrimage from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia to visit us; after his passing, my mother-in-law continued to make the trip and we forged gold and red burnished memories as she took comfort in familiar rituals. Trips to Mahone Bay for the Pirate Festival, down to the Annapolis Valley for the Pumpkin People, and countless drives to take in the brilliant colours of a Nova Scotia autumn.
She’s gone now too, and I miss her terribly, and never more so than in the fall. This year, being out West for our first fall, I not only miss her but to a lesser extent, those traditional things that we continued on with.
One of our favourite things was a stop at Hennigar’s.
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There are many farm markets but there’s something about Hennigar’s–the goats, the birds, the seasonal decorations, the gift shop area, the ice cream, the bakeshop, the hot dog stand, and oh, yeah, the vegetables too–I never get tired of visiting. (If you’re not familiar, check out Hennigar’s here).
Of course, fall is harvest time, and market bins are overflowing with carrots, parsnips, corn and winter squash. One of my favourite ways of enjoying these harvest vegetables is with a root vegetable chowder. Soup is, after all, the ultimate comfort food. When I did the book launch in 2012 for my Chowders and Soups book, this is the soup I gave out as samples and it was wildly popular, drawing raves everywhere the soup pot went, and much to my delight.
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I’ve shared the recipe before, but in case you missed it, here it is again. The cream can be replaced with lactose free blend, or eliminate the dairy altogether for a lighter soup.

Root Vegetable Chowder

Roasting the vegetables extracts their natural sugars, which is what causes the browning (called caramelization). This in turn intensifies the flavours, erases bitterness and creating a more complex tasting soup.

4 x 8 oz servings
Ingredients

For roasting:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 /2 cup parsnip, cubed*
1 /2 cup carrots, cubed
1 /2 cup turnips, cubed
1 /2 cup red potatoes, cubed
1 /2 cup butternut squash, cubed
(* It doesn’t matter what size you cut these vegetables into, as long as they are cut uniformly so that they cook evenly.)
For the base:
1 tablespoon butter
1 /4 cup diced yellow onions (about 1 /2 small medium onion)
1 /4 cup diced celery
1 1 /2 cup vegetable stock
3 /4 cup coffee (18%) cream
1 /4 cup heavy (35%) cream
3 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1 /2 teaspoon herbes de provence
1 /2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper

Roasting the vegetables: Preheat oven to 400F. Spread vegetables in a single layer on sheet pan, drizzle with olive oil. Roast until vegetables begin to brown and are soft (about 45 minutes).
Preparing the base: Melt butter in a large, heavy bottomed pot over medium heat. Stir in onions and celery, cooking until soft. Add stock has been added, bring to a simmer. Add the roasted vegetables to the broth, and stir in cream, herbs, salt and pepper. Bring back to simmer and heat through for 5-6 minutes, allowing the flavours to blend before serving.

Newf Nibbles: In Which Fleur Assists With a Cookbook Review

One of the best things about moving to the West Coast has been the warm welcome from the Newfoundland dog community out here. Generous with advice, recommendations, and time, these folks have made us feel at home with our dogs.
I had occasion to visit one of these lovely people, and we got to talking about what I did. Once she heard I was a food writer, she asked if I had a copy of the Newfoundland cookbook. My mind of course went to the many Newfoundland (the province) books I owned–but this one was something different.

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Jenny gifted me with a copy of “Culinary Concoctions & Newfy Nibbles”, a cookbook compiled by members of the Newf.net forum, and all proceeds went back to rescue and health programs of the Newfoundland Club of America. I am delighted to have this book, combining two of my favourite things, in my collection.

The book is divided into three sections: the people recipes, about 3 dozen dog recipes, and a small selection of photos and stories, both humorous and heartwarming.
There’s a broad variety of people recipes, written in folksy, lighthearted ways (Meatloaf-that-even-the-kids-like, Greg’s Colorful Poop Chili). Appetizer to desserts to drinks are covered, with plenty of Newf humour and silliness spread throughout (Newfucius Says he who has Newfie in kitchen gets a good lickin’). All good fun, and there are plenty of recipes that look great too.

Fleur: My turn? My turn? It’s my turn to write now Mom right?
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Fleur: Mom went to see this lady who has dogs. She came home smelling like OTHER dogs drool, an I don’t like THAT. But she had this book see? A cookbook! And it has dog recipes in it see? An I LOVES to eat so YAY!
There’s Newf Breakfast Bars, I could eat breakfast! There’s Beef and Barley Bites, I like beef and barley! Well, beef anyway. Mom what’s barley??
There’s cake and liver brownies! I don’t like liver but I bet it’s some good in brownies! Mom, you gonna make me some of that? We haven’t had homemade treats since we moved! C’mon Mom! How about a batch of Snickerpoodles???? Bet even Jack would like those!
Jack:Mmmm.
Fleur:I give this book 4 paws up!!!!

And there you have it. It seems that at last, I have a cookbook that I will actually prepare something from–I’m sure I, or Fleur, will let you know how it goes.

East vs. West: Battle Halibut

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Halibut is one of my very favourite fish to work with. The firm, meaty flesh is versatile and stands up to many cooking techniques, the mild taste is beautiful on it’s own, but can carry stronger flavours equally well, and being a flatfish, it’s particularly easy to bone and fillet.

Atlantic (Hippoglossus hippoglossus) and Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis) are technically two separate species, with the Pacific fish growing very slightly larger, but the meat is so similar in texture and taste that for cooking purposes, they are interchangeable.

The main differences in Pacific and Atlantic halibut seem to be twofold: stewardship, and usage.
In very broad terms, the Atlantic stock is well below sustainable levels, due largely to overfishing. It is more acceptable to use halibut caught via hook-and-line than trawler caught, and harpooned is better still.
The Pacific fishery has been better managed and so the West Coast halibut is not endangered. These two websites provide an excellent source of information on sustainability and making informed choices:
Environmental Defense Fund Seafood Selector
Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch

Atlantic market halibut are much smaller than their Pacific counterparts resulting in larger fillets and steaks on West Coast fish counters. Interestingly, I have found the prices to be higher for halibut out here.

Me, filleting halibut in the Yukon, 2000.

Me, filleting halibut in the Yukon, 2000.

Atlantic halibut, ready to fillet at home, 2013.

Atlantic halibut, ready to fillet at home, 2013.

Usage varies on each coast: Halibut is in much more common usage out here in things like fish and chips, fish tacos, and wraps. On the Atlantic side, you’d never see halibut used for casual fare (even pre-stock depletion); certainly not in fish & chips where cod is king (or more commonly in NS, haddock). On the East Coast, halibut is usually served (when offered at all) in more upscale entrees–perhaps poached, or pan seared, and never deep fried.

If this was Battle FOR Halibut, the West would win based on superior conservation efforts; efforts that I’m not sure aren’t based on lessons learned from the East Coast. But this is Battle Halibut, and based on taste, this one’s a draw.

You can find one of my favourite halibut recipes in a blog post from last year: Blackened Halibut Chowder. Bon Appetit!

Cookbook Score: Bella Coola PTA

It’s been too long since my last post, and I’m sorry for that; I’ve been dealing with a calcification in my rotator cuff, and a “frozen” shoulder that makes it difficult to write. It’s been a slow haul back to the keyboard, but shockwave & other physical therapy is starting to work a little magic. Enough of that business, on to the topic of the day.
Regular readers know I’m a sucker for a cookbook, and especially the oldies. While rooting around a fabulous used furniture store, I spied a small pile of cookbooks tucked into a corner, and unearthed this delight:

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Bella Coola is about 1000km north of Vancouver, and after checking out the region online, I’ve just added it to our list of places to see while we’re posted out here. The pictures on the website are breathtaking, you really should have a look here.
Back to the book: this one was put together by the local PTA in 1963, and assures me that I can please the family using their favourite recipes (love those old-school sentiments). It’s interesting to me because while I have several of these community type cookbooks, this is the first one in which the pages are photocopies of handwritten recipes, adding a different dimension of character. (Incidentally, this one was printed by Alex Wilson Publications out of Dryden, Ontario, still in business!)

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Note the recipe for a happy home, which at first glance induces eye-rolling in its folksy earnestness, then upon second reading, mostly rings true.
I love the household and cooking tips, (a lump of sugar in the water can force a rose to bloom! Before cleaning fish, sprinkle salt on the breadboard for easier cleanup!)
and can just imagine the women as they neatly scribed their favourites, in careful handwriting, for inclusion. So much community culinary history here, I wonder about their families, if they and their families still live in the valley, and how many of these books would be around with addition recipes written on the blank pages in the back.
I’m notorious for adding cookbooks to my collection without ever cooking from them, but in this case I’m not sure I can resist trying Granny Plommer’s Blackcurrant Jam, or something I’ve not seen before, Salmon Egg Stew. And if I do actually get around to making them, I’ll let you know how they go!

Dog Days: In which Fleur explores Whiffen Spit Park

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Fleur: Hi! I had a BIG adventure today! An’ I wanted to tell you all about it! And Jack wasn’t there because he didn’t wanna get up in the truck, and it’s because he’s OLDER but I’m not old yet so I got to go!
Across from my house we can see this lighthouse and Mommy said it’s a “dog-friendly” park! I’m a dog! I’m friendly! So we went over there!IMG_6225

An’ when we got here, I saw a LOT of dogs! And right there in front of my very eyes was a Landseer like baby Jack! Her name is Emily and she is SEVEN today! I sat for a birthday picture with her and her friend Lucy, and their mom made a BIG fuss over me and said I was BEAUTIFUL! Which I AM! So that Mommy is a smart Mommy like mine! But Mommy made such a fuss over her–Mommy, I’M the prettiest, ask Grandma Dee!

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We walked WAY out the LIGHT! We saw LOTS of people on the way an’ this woman said to Mommy “Are you taking your bear for a walk?” and I looked around for a bear but there wasn’t any just me! And Mommy laughed but that same laugh when people ask her how big our poop is! The polite laugh!
Then some animals came by I hadn’t seen before! I barked and barked but Mommy said they were horses and nothing to be afraid of. And one of the ladies on the horses said “Well look at you, you’re almost as big as a pony yourself!”
Then a girl came by an’ said “Your dog is not gonna eat mine, is he?” What kind of dog was that Mommy? Started with F? (Yorkshire Terrier, Fleur) No Mommy I think you said an F-word!
(do you want to finish this or not Fleur?)
Anyway, I was insulted because FIRST of all I’m CLEARLY a GIRL, and second I wouldn’t want to EAT that thing–all that long hair caught in my teeth, yuck!
So we looked over at my house from this side then we started back.
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And I got to swim LOTS! It took us two times as long to walk back because I swam lots!
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And then the BEST part, because Mommy stopped at the store to get us beef jerky treats.
I took some home to Jack. I told him ALL about our adventure so he will be SURE to want to go next time!