The Harvestfest Supper

A few weeks ago I attended a harvest-fest supper prepared entirely from  locally sourced food.    Such meals have become commonplace the last few years due to the popularity of the 100 miles, fields to forks, organic food movement.    At $40 a ticket, it wasn’t cheap, but this annual event helps promote the local farmer’s market and also gives the community college culinary students some practical experience in food preparation and presentation.    (for the book review which inspired this post – see Part One: The Literary Salon – Eating Local).

I’ve now become someone I said I never would be – one of those people who  takes photos of their meal while eating and posts them online.   May I be excused for the less than stellar quality of the photos, as I was so hungry that I sometimes forgot and took a few bites, plus I was trying my best to be discreet with the cell phone, although I suspect from the odd looks I received that some of my table mates thought I was a reporter for the local paper. 

The Venue:    

The event was held outdoors at a local farmers market, which is basically just a large slab of cement with a roof overhead but open to the elements on all sides.   The first year it was held in late September and they had to bring in space heaters and put up screens to keep the wind out.   After a whole week of rain, we were hoping for a warm sunny day and thankfully the weather gods smiled on us.    It was actually a bit too hot, we didn’t need any of those layers I threw in the car.   This was the third year for the event and the date is picked to coincide with the harvest moon, which was mid-Sept this year, and what a stunning moon it was on Friday the 13th.

Harvest Moon  Harvestfest

Harvest Moon courtesy of the Weather Network.

The doors opened at 5 pm with a cash bar and some music playing on the sound system, as there was a band later for dancing.

They had decorated with cornstalks and large pots of mums and bales of hay around the base of the roof pillars, a festive fall touch.  

Harvestfest Decorations

The Presentation:

The presentation was well done for an outdoor event.  The  tables were laid with white linens and china with a red accent color in the napkins and chairs. 

Harvestfest Table

They even had matching party favors, as each place setting held a red candy apple with a tag promoting the October play at the local theatre, a cute idea.   

Harvestfest Place Setting Candy Apple There were twelve settings per table,

Harvestfest table

which was a bit too cramped in my opinion, as the meal was served family style and there was no place to set the bowls down while trying to take a portion, and those bowls were big and heavy.   It was awkward.        Harvestfest squash in bowl

Ten at a table might have been better, or buffet style.   They really didn’t have enough servers for our table either, maybe someone had called in sick?   300 tickets were sold, and there was a big lineup of people waiting to get in when the doors opened.   

Scarecrows

The hungry mob…

I was lucky and got my tickets on a cancellation the month before, otherwise I might have been one of those scarecrows in the park across the street.

The food tents were off on the side, facing away from us, so we were not able to see any of the fast-paced cooking action like on Master Chef.   The ticket price was initially only $30, but they upped it to $35 last year and $40 this year.  (I imagine next year it will be $45 – as just like in an auction the price increases to what the market will bear).   All of the food prepared came from the weekly farmers market, or was sourced locally within a 100 mile radius, including the beverages.   

The Happy Hour

Two local craft breweries and two Ontario wineries were represented, with Pelee Island Winery just squeaking in at a 95 mile radius.    It was hot, so the beer was flowing as you can see from the tabletop pictures.   Unfortunately, we had a few extra guests at the table, attracted by the brew. 

wasps

Uninvited guests…

 The wasps descended for happy hour, stayed for the the appetizer and then suddenly departed, just as the sun was setting behind the buildings.    It must have been their bedtime, or perhaps they were off to another venue (see more on the Merry Band of Wasps in last week’s blog).   We sat at a table with a group of people who all knew each other, and the row across from me had to eat with the sun in their eyes.   Next time we’ll know which tables get the best shade.   It was so annoying that I went to the car and brought back a sunhat.  I came prepared for all weather.  

Now you might be wondering – why is she dragging this out, lets get to the food.    I’m cleverly but somewhat cruelly procrastinating so you can imagine the whole experience of sitting and smelling the irresistible aroma of food cooking for over an hour, while constantly swatting at wasps and shielding your eyes from the setting sun, with absolutely no hope of any dinner conversation due to the din of the crowd. 

Finally, the opening speeches –   two political figures were there, our provincial member of parliament and our federal parliament member, (we’re having an election this fall, they need to see and be seen) and as well as introducing all the VIP’s the MC thanked the exhaustive list of sponsors.  They announced they had Epi-Pens on hand if anyone got stung – medical preparedness is always appreciated.    Eventually grace was said, and a proper grace it was too, fit for a Harvestfest meal, not that Bless us Our Lord standard we used to mumble when we were kids.    

900 words in and not even a sign of a bread crumb…Ah, here it comes.

Harvestfest Buns on Table

The butter was properly chilled, although not in those little foil packets that you sometimes get in fancy restaurants, although it didn’t stay cool long.   The buns from a local bakery were good – soft and doughy.   It’s a new bakery in town so I’ll have to check it out.   The bread rated an A but I was starving by then so stale crackers would have rated an A. 

Finally, the menu.

Harvestfest menu

 The Appetizer 

Harvestfest Salad

The Garden Fresh Mixed Greens Salad with Berries and house-made Balsamic Dressing – was delightfully fresh, however the dressing was a bit too plain and vinegary.   I always think this type of berry salad goes nice with a raspberry vinaigrette such as the bottled house blend I buy from a local restaurant, but then it has spoiled me for all others.    There wasn’t any soup offered this year, although other years they had a choice of homemade potato or tomato.   I love soup, even in summer, so I was disappointed, but still A for the appetizer.

The Main Course

Harvestfest Dinner Plate

A few minutes of silence while we dig in before critiquing…

The Meat

Roast Pork Loin stuffed with Apples, Spinach, Caramelized Onions and Goat Cheese.

Harvestfest Pork Loin

It’s difficult for me to judge this as I’m not a big fan of pork loin.   I can eat it but I’d certainly never order it in a restaurant.   The traditional apple pairing was okay and I know caramelized onions are trendy, but I didn’t think they added anything special to the dish.   I couldn’t see much spinach, or taste the  goat cheese so they must have been subtle touches.   It was served on an enormous heavy platter and although it was pre-sliced there was nowhere to set the platter down while you wrestled a piece onto your plate, so I ended up with more than I wanted.   My consensus, just okay, although everyone else liked it, and the guy beside me took seconds.   That’s the thing with family style, they did replenish if you wanted more.   There was a short delay before they brought the rest of the meal so they were definitely struggling with the serving. 

Tender Chicken Breast with a Bacon Portabello Cream Sauce.

Harvestfest Chicken

Good old chicken, no matter how you dress it up, it’s the staple of catered meals everywhere.   It was tender as promised and the Portabello cream sauce was excellent, although I couldn’t taste the bacon.   (A plus).      

The Sides

Yukon Gold and Sweet Potato Pave with Parmesan Cheese 

Harvestfest Potatos

I had to google to see what a Pavé  was –  “A flat piece of food, usually meat, cheese or bread.  Pavé is French for a “cobblestone.”   When used in a food context, it refers to a square or rectangular flat piece of food or dish.    I guess this qualifies as it was a layered dish of potatoes cut into triangle wedges for easy serving.  

Potato Pave Harvestfest

It’s always a dilemma how to serve potatoes in a manner which keeps them warm but not gluey, and it was certainly a cut above a few potato puffs.   It was tasty, although I didn’t notice the Parmesan cheese, but then I can’t taste the difference between Yukon Gold potatoes and regular old spuds either.  As I’m Irish and never met a potato I didn’t like, I’ll give it an A, but you really can’t get too excited about potatoes.  

The Vegetables:

 

The roasted squash was one of my favorite dishes, so flavorful.  You never know with squash, it can be good or it can be bland and watery.   The cauliflower and carrots were tasty too.   Both were plain, not doctored up with anything, so the flavor came through – they stood on their own, a testament to good soil.  (A plus). 

Harvestfest Plate

The meat portions were generous – it was certainly a lot of food, and checking around, a fair bit of wastage, as people who had stuffed two rolls in (you know who you are), could not finish their meal.   I was full but not overly so, because wisely I had saved room for my favorite part.  

The Dessert

I had been craving a piece of cherry pie and had heard so much about The Famous Pie Lady.      

Harvestfest Pie and coffee

Although the crust was good and the filling plentiful, I‘m not sure how you can make a cherry pie without sugar?  There should be a law against it.   It was so sour I couldn’t eat more than a few bites.   As there was lots of pie leftover, I decided to try another kind when I went to refill our coffee cups, hoping no one would notice – plus it would be a shame to waste the leftover pie when things were wrapping up.   There were lots of choices. 

Harvestfest Pie

This time I grabbed a slice of apple pie.   Um….interesting – apple pie with no sugar, plenty of fruit and cinnamon though.   The apples mid-Sept are hardly ripe enough for pies yet, but  apparently sugar is now the new evil.   Maybe I’m spoiled, having grown up on a farm where homemade apple pie was a fall staple, and many people today just don’t know what good pie is.   But the guy beside me was disappointed in his pie too – pecan.   I didn’t ask why.  Should I try the lemon meringue – no, that would be piggy, so I gave up, secure in the knowledge I had a backup plan stashed in the car.   The pie was the disappointment of the evening.   (C plus) 

Plan B – B for Backup Dessert

Luckily I had stopped at the town’s grocery store before the event and bought a cherry pie from their in-store bakery.   I’ve had it before and it’s a perfect balance of sweet and tart, and I consoled myself with the thought that if I was still craving a piece later I would cut into it, instead of freezing it like I had intended.   Certainly the pie was a let-down especially for a dessert diva like me.    

After Dinner Speeches

The M.C. introduced and thanked all the chefs and cooks (who came out of  hiding in the side tents), raffled off an auction prize (a catered dinner for six which went for a bid of $410), thanked absolutely everyone again from the bowl makers to the man in the moon,  

Harvestfest Moon  Harvest Moon

sorry for the tree in the way…

and then introduced the band. 

Harvestfest Band

The Music  

The band was the house band from the local summer theatre which was currently showcasing a country music production, so they kicked off with Sold – The Grundy Valley Auction song, which is good in a cheesy way, as a cheese course is always nice after a meal.   Then Bad Moon Rising (CCR) because it was by then, (see above).   Then Old Time Rock and Roll – Bob Seger (okay), then they started to deteriorate into Billy Joel and two other songs I did not recognize, but then I am not up on the current stuff.   The band gets an A, as they were trying for a little bit country, and a little bit rock and roll.  The crowd was mostly an older one, the baby boomer set, and there were people up dancing as lots of beer had been imbibed by then.   I always admire couples who are first on the dance floor, especially when it’s at the front with everyone watching.   Let’s give the dancers, an A too, just like Dancing With the Stars.  

Overall, it was a good meal, except for the pork and the pie, but those were influenced by my personal preferences and expectations.   I had been expecting a turkey and beef dish, (as per the first year), not two white meats, plus a lot of people can’t or don’t eat pork, even though pulled pork is all the rage.   Was it worth the price?  Maybe.   The fifty dollar per ticket meal at the swing dance last year was better, with a portion going to charity, but even it went up to $75 this year.   I guess food prices are increasing overall.   Did they make a profit or just cover their costs?  I don’t know enough about the catering business to say.   Thirty dollars, as per the first year, might have been a more reasonable price, especially in small town Ontario, considering this was not a charity event, and I expect most of the cost of the decorations, party rentals and band would have been covered or subsidized by the sponsors. 

The Backup Meal 

I had been craving a roast beef dinner, which I got the following week when I took my mother to the monthly seniors lunch at the same retirement home I mentioned in my Woodstock Revisited post.   We had a garden fresh salad with ranch dressing, a nice tender slice of roast beer, mashed potatoes with a tasty gravy, diced turnips and a decent piece of apple pie – all for $10.   The portions weren’t huge as it was for seniors, but it was enough, and they do a nice turkey dinner too, although the rest of the meals can be hit and miss.   That’s the thing with restaurant reviews – a good meal may surprise you anywhere!  (Hey, I wonder if I could get paid for this?) 

Thus ends my short career as a restaurant reviewer.   I did have a piece of that bakery cherry pie the next night, warm with vanilla ice cream, but I froze the rest.    The apple in the candy apple was so sour I couldn’t eat it, but I took a few bites for nostalgia’s sake, as I’m sure it’s been fifty years since I had one the last time I went trick or treating.   

It might be fun to host your own Harvest Moon Supper sometime, there’s another one coming up October 13, and the apples will be riper by then too.   I think I would prefer caramel apples for the party favors, and maybe some butternut squash soup for a starter.   I also saw an advertisement for a Full Moon Boat Party cruise with a band on board, which I’ll file away for next year.   I’m sure they’ll be playing Neil Young’s classic – Harvest Moon.  

 

   

 

The Literary Salon – Eating Local

(This months Book Review may motivate you to eat healthier…..or you may just crave a piece of cherry pie.) 

A few weeks ago I attended a Harvestfest supper prepared entirely from  locally sourced food.   Although I had intended this post to be a restaurant review of that meal,  it grew too long so this will be the literary review for the month.      The books discussed here are older ones but they inspired me to try and eat better.   If you’re not into books, please feel to skip right over to the main menu.   (see Part Two for The Harvestfest Supper).

Harvestfest menu Many of us have the desire to eat healthier, but in today’s fast paced world it’s becoming more difficult to do so, hence the arrival of all those companies who will conveniently, albeit for an outrageous price, send you weekly pre-measured food preparation parcels – voila, supper in 30 minutes, as if a grown person wasn’t capable of going to a grocery store, buying food and preparing it just as quickly.    Perhaps there are fewer left-overs, but aren’t leftovers a good thing and would you really enjoy all those recipes they send?   As well, a large percentage of debt-ridden people eat out several times a week, a major hit to the family budget, and now you don’t even have to go out as those grub-hub apps will deliver the meal right to your front door.  And then there is the ever present lure of fast food restaurants so conveniently located along strip malls everywhere.   No wonder we have all forgotten how to cook, or in my case never bothered much.     

For many years eating local was the standard way of life.   When half the population lived in a rural environment you ate what you grew or raised.    My mother says that in her early married years, she only visited the grocery store for a few staples, which she bought with the $8 twice weekly cream check.   My father had dairy cattle so cream, milk and butter came from the cows, meat, chicken and eggs were all raised organically on the farm, and a large fruit and vegetable garden supplied canned goods and jams over the winter.    Self-sufficiency without delivery – although the breadman and milkman did make home deliveries.   

Things started to change in the mid-60’s with the arrival of processed food.  For an understanding of this shift in food production, I found a series of books by author, Michael Pollan to be excellent reads.    His 2008 book, In Defense of Food, is famous for it’s mantra, “Eat Food, Mostly Plants.  Not Too Much.” and “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize”. 

In Defense of Food: An Eater's ManifestoIn Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Simple words that changed my eating habits ten years ago when I first read this book, or at least made me stop and think first. Don’t eat anything your Grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Also wise words. This book provides an interesting history and peek into the multi-million dollar processed food industry – what started out as an attempt in the fifties to make food better and healthier and last longer, has backfired so that we now have transfats, plasticizers and softeners in our bread and fast food burgers which never decompose. Certainly an eye-opener – you may never eat the same way again.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four MealsThe Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

In his 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he discusses how food scientists thought they were improving food stability and palatability by adding chemicals and preservatives and such.   And while no one would argue that organic vegetables don’t stay fresh as long and bakery bread does tend to grow mold after a few days, if you look at the long list of unpronounceable ingredients on a box or can in the grocery store, it does seem strange to want to manipulate food from it’s natural origins to a more chemical state.   

Perhaps their intentions were good, and Tang orange crystals did supply the astronauts with vitamin C (although I remember it as tasting rather artificial), but starting in the 60’s the processed food revolution had begun – with snack foods, frozen TV dinners, cakes from boxes and fast food burgers – and there was simply no stopping it.   It was convenient and it tasted good – who cared if it was good for you.  

Like many farm women, my mother was a wonderful cook, of the plain meat/potato/vegetable type and we had plenty of homemade cakes, pies and cookies.     So while I may think I grew up eating healthy nutritious meals, and most of the time I did, by the sixties we also had penny candy and weekly trips to McDonalds on grocery shopping days and Saturday night treats of potato chips and pop (usually Coke) while watching Hockey Night in Canada.  Of my poor student days I have absolutely no recollection of what I ate, (did I eat?) other than residence food the first few years which was so bad I lost ten pounds.    Once I had an apartment with a kitchen we still never cooked but ate cheap meals like beans on toast, (never KD though), grabbed yogurt and grilled cheese from the student cafe, and drank endless cups of mostly vile donut shop coffee.   Our idea of splurging was an occasional trip to Bloor Street – Swiss Chalet (chicken), Steak and Burger (tough steak but warm apple pie) and Mr. Submarine (still the best subs IMO).   When I started working I had to contend with decades of hospital food, some of which used to be quite good when it was prepared from scratch, (I remember our cafeteria serving Seafood Newburg in the early 80’s before the discovery of cholesterol), but which eventually turned into those cook, chill and reheat meals which are now standard hospital jokes – if you’re well enough to complain about the food, you can go home.    I usually brought my lunch, except for the soup – as they always had some kind of homemade soup, probably loaded with salt.    After I changed jobs I was often too busy to eat, and lunch would be chocolate milk or half a sandwich grabbed in the staff room, and I would arrive home at night ravenous and eat whatever was in sight.    BTW, the invention of microwaves in the 80’s was a godsend, as then you could quickly reheat leftovers. 

Now that I’ve thoroughly scared myself with a review of my poor dietary habits over the years, I resolve to do better.  The Michael Pollan books have made a big influence on my food choices.   I read food labels now.   Buy as little processed stuff as I can and generally try to eat better, except for deserts, in moderation.  And isn’t that the more sensible way – everything in moderation.    It’s why diets don’t usually work – if you crave something, eat it, a small portion.   I craved cherry pie the other day, so I had a piece and froze the rest. The French way of eating, including lots of walking, is based on this principle.  As eating is one of the pleasures of life, why deprive yourself.  

Recently they have changed Canada’s food guide to emphasize fewer meat and more plant sources of protein, but I wonder how practical that is – are you really going to get people to eat more tofu, legumes and nuts?   It is accessible or affordable?    Maybe – those vegetable burgers seem to be very popular, but aren’t they just another form of manipulated processed food, fried on the same greasy grill as the meat ones?  

I’m certainly more of a foodie now than I used to be, but in moderation, not like those food network shows which drive me crazy with their pretentiousness – it’s just food folks – no need to have a melt down over a slightly burnt creme brulee when half the world is starving.    But I have become more selective in my eating habits.   When I eat something now I want it to be nutritious as well as delicious.  As we get older we worry more about maintaining our health – and as the saying goes, you are what you eat.  If you are in need of motivation – check out the books.  

Enough of the discussion, on to Part Two – The Harvestfest Supper.    As Julia Child used to say, “Bon Appetit”! 

 

A Victorian Tea

Every May 24th weekend one of our local museums hosts their annual Victorian Tea, complete with freshly baked scones, white tablecloths and fine china.   

 The May 24th holiday weekend in Canada is called the Victoria Day weekend, because May 24 was Queen Victoria’s birthday.   Older people may remember the schoolyard rhyme children chanted years ago – “the twenty-fourth of May / Is the Queen’s birthday; / If they don’t give us a holiday / We’ll all run away!”    Now many people don’t even know who Queen Victoria was, unless you watch the PBS TV show Victoria, but she was Britain’s longest reining monarch, although Queen Elizabeth surpassed her in 2015.   She became Queen at age 18 and reined over the British Empire for 63 years, from 1937 until her death in 1901, a period known as the Victorian era.   She married her cousin Albert, had nine children and survived 20 different governments and 11 prime ministers.   After her death, her birthday was made a federal holiday, which was eventually was moved to the Monday preceding May 24 because of the weekend.   Queen Victoria most likely would have approved as weekends were an invention of the Victoria era.   This May 24th marks the 200th anniversary of her birth in 1819. 

Victorian Tea CottageNote: the Union Jack (Canada did not get it’s own Maple Leaf flag until 1965) and the old fashioned lilac bush (see Lilac Time)

The Victorian cottage is one of many buildings on the museum site, whose mandate is to display our past customs and heritage.   Many have been moved to the site, including a one room schoolhouse, a small church and a log cabin from the days of the early settlers, but the cottage was part of the original grounds.   It is a small one floor dwelling, built in 1893,  which was used by a Detroit woman as a summer home until her death, when it was donated to the museum.    She was known as the cookie lady, for her kindness in treating the neighborhood children to sugar cookies on the veranda when they were passing by. 

Victoria Tea Cottage

 It consists of a good sized dining room, living room and  kitchen and two very small bedrooms.   

Victorian Tea

Victorian Tea Cottage

The inside still looks as it did during the time she lived there, floral wallpaper, quilts and all.  

China cabinet Victorian Tea

The problem with the Victoria Day weekend is that the weather is usually guaranteed to be cold, rainy and miserable, which does not deter the campers, as it is considered the unofficial start to summer.   It seldom fails, whereas the following weekend, the US Memorial Day is often quite nice.  Still, not one to let a bit of rain (or even forty days of it like this spring), get in the way of a good tea spread, I decided to attend.   The last time I was there,  it was miraculously a warm and sunny day, with a pleasant breeze coming off the river, and we were able to take our tea outside on the veranda, as opposed to inside huddled beside the stove.     It was such a fine day we lingered over a second cup.  

Victorian Tea cottage

Although the day started out warm and sunny, the forecast was rain by 3pm, (I’m quite serious about the forty days of rain), so we set out early and decided to tour the buildings first (my friend had never been there), as we could always sit inside later if it started to pour.   On our walk about, I noticed a big patch of rhubarb growing beside the log cabin and took some pictures which I could have used in last week’s Rhubarb Lunar Cake blog.  (It’s never too late to edit!)  

Rhubarb

There’s something so civilized about a tea party and the clink of china tea cups, shades of Downton Abbey.    Each small table was laid with white tablecloths, cream and sugar sets, crystal butter dishes, jars of strawberry jam and a colorful mixture of china cups and plates. 

Victorian Teat

 The servers, young and old, were dressed in the costume of servants of the day, complete with frilly caps and white aprons.   The wind was so strong, their aprons were billowing in the breeze and the tablecloths were threatening to blow away, so we decided to sit inside. 

Victorian Tea

The only occupant of the veranda was a bird nesting high up in the rafters, most likely anticipating left over crumbs.   

Bird nesting

 Even inside, with the veranda doors open, it was so windy that our vase of flowers blew over soaking the tablecloth, which they removed and replaced with one even more exquisitely embroidered.   Our server, a charming young girl of about ten, inquired as to our choice of tea and scones – raisin, rhubarb, orange or apple cinnamon.   

Victorian Tea China

 Such a difficult decision, but my choice is always the rhubarb – it was divine, light and fluffy, and I am still trying to get the recipe, a carefully guarded secret.    Unfortunately I forgot to take a picture of it before it was consumed!   Victorian Tea Cottage

They make up to 400 scones for the day, using the cottage’s own wood-fired stove.  (Note the mirror at the top – I guess that was to check your appearance after slaving over a hot stove all day?)    The cost of the tea was $7.50 with donations to the museum fund, ordinary admission being $5, a bargain for the price.    

Exactly at 3 pm as predicted, the skies opened up and rained on our lovely tea party.   Oh well, there’s always next year…I’m sure I’ll be back.  

Postscript:   Easy rhubarb scones, only for truly lazy cooks or those whose kitchens are about to be torn apart.   Mix this, Rhubarbwith this, Rhubarb scones

bake as directed,  Rhubarb sconesand you get this.  Rhubarb scones

Enjoy with a nice cup of tea in a china cup!

 

 

Rhubarb Lunar Coffee Cake

Rhubarb

“Mission Control to Earthlings:  Volunteers needed to test Lunar Cake recipe.  Only rhubarb lovers need apply.”       

Rhubarb is one of those foods you either love or hate.   I never liked rhubarb until a few years ago, but then my entire culinary experience consisted of a very tart rhubarb pie my mother would make for my dad once a year.   We had a big rhubarb patch on the farm, and no matter how much sugar she used in the pie, it was so sour no one else would eat it.   The rhubarb patch was rectangular in size and was beside a row of red currant bushes, with one black currant and one gooseberry bush at each end.   Behind it, the odd spike of asparagus would appear in the early spring, these all being old-fashioned farm staples from a century ago.  Today they would be considered heirloom varieties.   Once established, those old rhubarb patches would live forever.   I would sometimes volunteer to pick the red currants, as my dad would get his very own red current pie too.   In retrospect those pies must have been something his mother had made, nostalgic reminders of childhood.   We just thought they were sour.

Rhubarb patch (6)

Because the patch was so large and prolific and had been there for many years, people from town would stop by and ask if they could buy some.   If you are a rhubarb-lover you always know where a good patch is.   We would see the same people year after year, so one day we kids had the ingenious idea that we would have a roadside stand and sell bundles of rhubarb for 25 cents –  a country version of a lemonade stand. 

The rhubarb stand lasted all of one Sunday afternoon.  There was little traffic on our dusty country road and we soon grew bored laying on a blanket under the big tree out front.    On the rare occasion someone did stop, we would run to the house to get our parents, because we had been drilled in school not to talk to strangers, even those innocent souls out for a Sunday drive.   (Makes sense right, well in the mind of a child).   I think we grossed 75 cents.  

rhubarb and dogs (5)

Luckily we had our guard dogs to protect us and the rhubarb patch!

Now as an adult, count me in as a rhubarb fan too.   I especially love strawberry-rhubarb jam, rhubarb scones, and most recently a rhubarb coffee cake, which I’ve made the past few years from a recipe a dietitian friend gave me.    This Canadian recipe is called Lunar Rhubarb Cake and was developed by an editor of Canadian Living magazine back in the 1980’s.   It was so good, it went viral before viral even existed, with everyone saying they got it from their mother, aunt, neighbor.   (A recipe which promotes sharing like that, is one small step for food-kindness).    According to the food column in the Ottawa Citizen, the name lunar comes from the appearance of the top of the cake, similar to the crater-like surface of the moon.   

Rhubarb

CAKE INGREDIENTS:

1/2 cup butter (softened)

1 1/2 cup white sugar

1 egg

1 tsp vanilla

2 cups flour    

1 Tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

1 cup sour cream (you can use 2% if you wish)

2 cups chopped rhubarb (you can increase by 1/2 cup more if you wish)

1 tbsp. floor  

LUNAR TOPPING:

1/4 cup butter (melted)

1 cup firmly packed brown sugar

2 tsp. cinnamon  (I omitted this, as in my opinion cinnamon goes with apple pie, not rhubarb)

DIRECTIONS:   

Chop the rhubarb and toss with 1 tbsp flour.   Cream the butter and sugar.  Beat in the egg and vanilla.   Mix 2 cups flour, soda and salt together.  (I buy the premixed flour with the baking soda and salt already in it which is more expensive but saves measuring).   Alternatively add the flour mixture and sour cream to the creamed mixture.   Add the rhubarb to the batter.    Pour into a buttered 9 X 13 inch cake pan.    Mix the topping ingredients and spread evenly over the top of the cake.   Bake at 350 for about 45 minutes, until the top is pitted and crusty and a skewer comes out clean.    (It was 15 minutes longer for me, as my oven always cooks slow).    Recipe serves twelve hungry astronauts.

Some versions of this recipe call for buttermilk or sour milk instead of sour cream.   The batter will be quite thick with the sour cream.  Rhubarb

The cake keeps well in the fridge and was incredibly moist even after a week.  It transports well too, should you wish to take it to a party in another galaxy.  I think it would work well with blueberries when the season arrives, because as we all know rhubarb season is way too short!     

Maybe if my mother’s old-fashioned rhubarb pie had a crumble topping we might have eaten it too, as the sweetness balances out the tartness of the rhubarb, similar to the popular combination of strawberries and rhubarb.  Although I’m not a huge fan of strawberry-rhubarb pie, mostly because of the pastry, I have made a compote by stewing equal parts of rhubarb and strawberries on the stove and adding sugar to taste.    It’s nice mixed with vanilla yogurt or ice cream or just eaten plain. 

Strawberry-rhubarb compote

I’ve been envisioning my own rhubarb patch in the backyard, so I bought home this last week, although it’s been too cold to plant it.   Rhubarb plant

Although eaten as a fruit, rhubarb is actually a vegetable.   While the stalks may be edible, the leaves are toxic to humans and animals due to a high concentration of the poison, oxalic acid.   It is a perennial which likes cooler climates.   Plant in full sun, spacing 3 or 4 feet apart in a row.    Patience is required as you can’t harvest the first few years until established.   Newer varieties last about 15 years.   You can also divide existing rhubarb plants (root balls) in early spring, so I might be on the hunt for an old patch down a country lane….

Flash forward to 2025 – mission accomplished….hopefully? 

Rhubarb   

 

 

  

 

 

Tea and Sticky Toffee Pudding

Sticky Toffee PuddingSnow, then ice pellets, then freezing rain, then back to snow again – this has been our weather pattern for the past six weeks.   Today is definitely another stay at home day, and for those weary of winter what better thing to do than to bake.  Your kitchen will smell lovely and your family is sure to be appreciative.  The third Monday in February is Family Day in Canada, as the government felt we needed a long holiday weekend to ward off the winter blues.   The idea is to spend the day outdoors with your family enjoying some winter activities, which inspired my mother to paint this picture.

Snow Day - AMc - 2015

Winter Fun

The weather cooperated last night with an unexpected six inch snowfall which made everything clean and white for tobogganing, skiing or skating.    It’s pretty, but I would much prefer to see some greenery in my backyard and if there are any snowdrops beneath the neighbour’s tree they must be smothered by now.   

There’s finally some warmth to the sun and the air has that mild feeling that tells you winter is winding down, but it’s still cold enough to make a nice warm dessert appealing.    I stole this recipe for sticky toffee pudding from a local coffee shop which specializes in homemade deserts –  well they graciously emailed it to me after I told them theirs was the best ever.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t a big seller for them, but sticky toffee pudding is not that well known in Canada, although becoming more popular.   Often thought of as a classic British dessert, it’s origins are actually Canadian, as (Wikipedia) legend has it that two Canadian WW2 officers gave the recipe to a British restaurant owner who put it in a cookbook.   So I guess you could say it’s circled back across the pond.   It’s really more of a cake, but as pudding is an interchangeable term for dessert in Britain, it’s best served with tea (and you can pretend you’re at Downton Abbey).  

Sticky Toffee Pudding

Sticky toffee pudding

I used a big muffin pan instead of an eight inch square dish, as it makes perfect portions, and that’s how the coffee shop served it.   Sticky Toffee Pudding

But I scooped the rest of the leftover batter into a small red loaf pan from Christmas because it looked more festive.  Sticky Toffee PuddingWatch the baking time closely, as I took them out a bit before thirty minutes and they were still well done, (and my oven normally cooks slow). 

The caramel sauce is sweet but not too sweet.   I find those cans of 2% evaporated milk (NOT sweetened condensed), always have a peculiar smell and taste, but you don’t notice it when it’s boiled together with the sugar and butter.   Some recipes say you can use cream if you wish, and I may try that sometime but I didn’t have any and the grocery store was closed because of the holiday.   Of course cream will up the saturated fat content.   Our (President’s Choice) grocery store sold an excellent microwavable freezer brand of this desert, and I was horrified to see they clocked in at 550 calories and over 60% of the days saturated fat quota.  We have extensive food labeling here, which probably discouraged people from buying them as the product was discontinued.   (Note the calories can be cancelled out by volunteering to shovel the driveway).   While many restaurant versions of this desert (and I’ve sampled a few), have a moister darker cake, sometimes with spices, this one is lighter in color and more like a muffin texture.    Store the sauce in the refrigerator if not using right away and reheat.    If you like lots of warm sauce (and who doesn’t as it makes the cake), there was enough evaporated milk in the 300ml can to double the batch.  It’s a rich decadent desert, so you might even want to split one with someone, and of course don’t forget the tea! 

Sticky toffee pudding

Song of the Day:   Tea for Two – Ella Fitzgerald

Teapot

 

 

 

Bacardi Rum Pum Pum Cake

rum cake      If you want a simple but delicious desert to take to a holiday buffet or help ring in the New Year, then a Bacardi rum cake is a great choice.   This cake is really something to celebrate, but for any non-drinkers you can burn off most of the alcohol in the glaze if you wish.   The recipe originated in the 1970’s but I saw a revised version in one of The Pioneer Woman cookbooks, which inspired me to try it out last year.   Although I remember it as a popular magazine advertisement from the Bacardi Rum Company years ago, I did not cook or even bake back then.    My only experience with a booze-laden dessert was during a late-night visit to a high school friend’s house over Christmas break.   She was of Italian descent and served us some kind of soggy boozy cake which was an Italian tradition.   After an evening of bar-hopping that was probably the last thing we needed, but we had strong espresso with it, as we sat around their ornate dining room table at 1 am  laughing and catching up and trying not to wake her sleeping parents.   (I don’t remember parents staying up worrying back then when their kids went out, certainly mine never did, but those were more innocent times when bad things didn’t seem to happen as often as they do now.  My parents never even locked their doors in the country and I often had to step over the sleeping dog when I got home).   I’m not sure what kind of fancy liquor was in that cake but it was very strong, so the memory has stayed with me…..plus the fact that I occasionally drive past her house, but they have long since moved and I lost touch.    This recipe is not as strong, or as soggy but has just the right amount of rum flavor.   It keeps well too, although I stored mine in the fridge in a covered container.   It was just as moist a week later when there were only one or two pieces left and the New Year’s resolutions had kicked in.      

Ingredients:

Batter:
  • 1 cup walnuts or pecans, coarsely chopped
  • 1 package yellow cake mix with pudding in the mix
  • 4 large eggs
  • ½ cup cold water
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • ½ cup light or dark rum
Glaze:
  • ½ cup unsalted butter
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • ½ cup light or dark rum
Instructions
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Prepare one 9 or 10 inch fluted tube pan; generously grease the pan with shortening and dust with flour.
Batter:
  1. Sprinkle the nuts over the bottom of the prepared pan.
  2. In a large bowl with an electric mixer, combine cake mix, eggs, water, vegetable oil, and rum; beat until thoroughly mixed. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula so the mixture blends evenly. Spoon the batter over the nuts and smooth the surface with the back of a large spoon.
  3. Bake: Bake 1 hour or until a long toothpick, wooden skewer, or cake tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove from oven and place pan on a wire cooling rack to cool for 10 or 15 minutes.    Poke holes in the bottom of the cake and spoon the glaze over it.   Be generous.  Let it sit for 10-15 minutes to soak in.   Remove the cake from the pan and place the cake on the wire cooling rack to finish cooling.   Drizzle the rest of the glaze over the top.
Glaze:
  1. In a small heavy saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. Stir in water and sugar; bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes stirring constantly so mixture does not burn. Remove from heat. Stir in the rum.
  2. Use a long toothpick or skewer to poke multiple small holes in the bottom of the cake.    Spoon the still warm glaze over the cake and allow to soak in. Remove the cake from the pan and repeat the process on the top part (which will have the nuts), until all the glaze is used up.

Rum sauce

It can be impossible to find a cake mix with pudding anymore, so  newer versions of this recipe call for using one 3 oz package of vanilla pudding mix and a regular yellow cake mix. Cake mix

 Although the original recipe does not call for drizzling the glaze over both the top and bottom of the cake, I did both, as I wanted it nice and flavorful.   You do want it to soak in well so make lots of holes and let it sit for awhile before you remove it from the pan and repeat with the top. rum cake

I used a long two pronged fork to make the holes.   I could not find my Bundt cake pan (did I still own a Bundt pan?) so I just used a plain round Angel Food cake tin.   I also used butter instead of oil, a personal preference, and half brown sugar and half regular sugar for the glaze.   (Someday I may learn to follow a recipe exactly!)   The Pioneer Woman recipe called for 1/2 cup brown sugar mixed with 1/2 cup chopped nuts and sprinkled in the bottom of the pan, so I tried that this year and prefer the plain nuts version as it was too sweet and made the topping hard so that when I tried to poke holes in it with a nut pick,  it started to crack, so I ended up just drizzling the remainder of the glaze over the top.   Live and learn….a domestic goddess, I am not.

rum cake

I added the rum while it was still boiling to burn off most of the alcohol.   Of course you don’t have to use Bacardi brand rum…..any rum will do, but I do think a dark rum makes a nicer sauce.   When I went out for a walk and came back in, the kitchen still smelled rummy.  The batter tasted pretty rummy too, if you are the daring type who likes to taste raw batter.   I stored the cake in a covered container in the fridge and it kept well.   If it gets a bit dried out, microwaving it for about 15 seconds, makes it even better.   In fact, served warm with coffee, it’s a nice way to ring in the New Year with family and friends.   

Postscript:  see last years blog Here We Come A’ Wassailing for more New Years entertaining ideas. 

 

 

The Farmer’s Market

           If you have ever dreamed of packing in city life and moving to the country then this book is for you.    Canadian author, Brent Preston turned fantasy into reality in this account of starting an organic vegetable farm and ten years of trial and error and back breaking labor before finally achieving a profitable outcome. 

The New Farm: Our Ten Years on the Front Lines of the Good Food RevolutionThe New Farm: Our Ten Years on the Front Lines of the Good Food Revolution by Brent Preston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A must read manual for city dwellers and lovers of the organic food movement about a family who chose to leave the rat race and follow their dream of running a profitable organic vegetable farm. Dust off those fantaseeds and learn the gritty reality of where your food comes from.

           Although he might have started out with a simple plan in mind, by the end of the ten years he had mechanized his operations, hired agricultural co-op students for summer labor, perfected a delivery service and marketing campaign, and ended up specializing in just three crops, one of which was lettuce.   One of the things he did initially was to participate in the local farmer’s market every Saturday morning, but after a few years of this he packed it in.  If you think about it, never a weekend off for you or your kids, up at 4 am to load up the truck and then later in the day unloading the unsold produce.   Plus, while he said while he enjoyed the social aspect with the regular customers and the other vendors, there just wasn’t enough profit in it to continue.   Better to cater to the fancy restaurants who would pay premium for anything fresh and organic.   

           There is no doubt we are what we eat and organic food is in – food in it’s natural state.   Ask a person who has been lucky enough to live to be over ninety and chances are they grew up on a farm.   So farmers markets are booming because organic food is so popular, but are the farmers doing well?  I grew up on a farm, 100 acres, so I know how hard it is to make a living on one and how much work is involved.   We had a dairy farm with Holsteins  when I was a child and my dad had a small herd, three milking machines and a cream contract.   He got up at 4:30 am every day to milk the cows, then he would come in, shave and have breakfast (bacon and eggs and perked coffee), as we were getting up for school, by 7:30 he would have left for his other job, home at 4:30, early supper, then milk the cows again, and he would be in bed by ten or falling asleep while reading the paper.   On the weekends there were all the other chores to do.   Even back then you couldn’t quite make a living on a farm without a second job, and with a growing family, he finally switched to beef cattle instead and cash cropped corn, soybeans and wheat, and while that was a lot of work too, we were finally able to take a family vacation without being tied to the milking schedule.   Now farming is big business, a thousand acres or bust.  There was an article in the local paper recently about the International Plowing Match which listed a combine as worth $500,000, and a tractor with GPS the same.   My dad’s first tractor in 1948 cost $1000 and had a side seat upon which we kids would ride – heaven forbid, no one would let kids do that now.   My elderly grandfather who died in 1951, was against the new-fangled modern machinery, as they had to sell his beloved Clydesdale horses in order to buy it.  HorseThe last tractor my dad bought came equipped with air conditioning and a few years after he died, they had CD players, now they are steering themselves.   While farming may be mostly mechanized now, organic vegetable farming is still labor intensive, especially during the harvest.   It’s not a job many people want to do, and often the farmers must hire seasonal workers from Mexico or Jamaica to help out.

        September is the best time of year to visit a farmer’s market as it is bursting with the last of the summer produce and the early fall harvest.   While the peaches and berries may be almost done, the  plums, pears, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, new potatoes and onions are coming in.   

tomatoes

potatoes

Our local market is open Wednesdays in the summer and Saturdays year round.   Even in the winter, the inside of the old building is full of root vegetables and cheese and butcher shops, but in the nice weather the outside stalls see the most action.    They really need more space, but it’s been in the same place for eighty plus years and you don’t mess with tradition.   Located in an older residential part of town, there is one small parking lot and you have to drive round and round waiting for someone else to leave.  With about 50 spaces for 200 people it’s kind of like musical chairs for grownups.  Luckily, no one lingers long.   While you can get a pour over coffee with freshly roasted beans, there is no cafe to sit in or cooked food available.   We don’t see a lot of homeless people here but one day a woman with her cart piled high with all her worldly possessions asked me for some money, and with my hands full I shook my head no, but then after putting my produce in the car, I went to find her, and gave her ten dollars, which I suspected might go to drugs but who knows?   A friend of mine keeps Tim Horton’s coffee shop gift cards to hand out for this reason, but there is something so very sad about begging in front of a place with so much plenty.     

              Even in the winter I will visit about once a month, because there is still cheese, and apples and oranges to buy, but I’ve often wondered why they open at 6 am.   All the vendors are yawning by noon, or closing up early as they have been up since four loading their trucks.   Wouldn’t 8-2 be more civilized hours?   If they are supplying restaurants do they need to buy that early?    If I don’t get there by 11:30 (or  I’m still playing musical chairs), I may miss my favorite cheese stall or they might be out of Gouda.  

The cheese wars can be fierce.  There are two cheese vendors, right across from each other, and the Battle of The Gouda got so bad last year, they both decided not to post their prices.    They will glare across the aisle if they think you have abandoned camp, but if they have run out, what is the alternative?  My grandmother was Dutch, so I grew up on Gouda, the mild form, not the spicy seeded variety she bought from The European Shop.   

Dutch Inheritance - AMc

Dutch Inheritance

The market cheese is better than at the grocery store and they will give you a sample if you are undecided.   Even if you know you will like it, a sample will often tied you over if you got up early and missed breakfast.    Buying cheese at the market is also much cheaper than in the grocery store so I usually stock up on aged cheddar as well as the Gouda.    The one cheese vendor has recently retired and been bought out by the egg lady beside them, who I don’t think has gotten the hang of the weigh scale yet as she is very generous with her pounds, or kgs.   I don’t buy eggs from her though as I can’t stomach those brown eggs with the bright yellow yolks.   It reminds me of the eggs growing up on the farm, but I know free range chickens are all the rage and I am sure they are full of omega-3’s.    

I like to look at the flowers, the glads are out now, but I seldom buy as I have lots of flowers at home. 

glads

I have my own semi-successful potager, so I don’t feel the need to buy tomatoes, cucumbers or lettuce, but one whiff of the dill brings back memories of my mother canning dill pickles.    You can get a free bunch of dill with every large purchase. 

20180818_114916

dill

The early apples are starting to come in, which will soon mean spies and pies.  I can smell the cinnamon now.

apples

 My favorite time of year is when the summer fruits are available, the strawberries and peaches.   You can get a bushel of overripe fruit for ten dollars and make a whole batch of jam for what you might pay for two jars.    There is a jam vendor also, for when you run out, who also sells homemade fruit pies.  So definitely there is a cost savings, and the food is so much fresher and better tasting, not to mention not loaded with tons of preservatives and artificial ingredients. 

Not everything is better at the market though.   Sadly, it is home to the world’s worst bakery which sells the most tasteless bread ever baked, not to mention tarts with uncooked dough and a scant quarter inch of fruit filling.  The next time I walk pass, the owner asks if I want something so I venture a tactful complaint – I figure if no one tells him he can’t fix it.   He tells me he hired a new baker so I bought butter tarts this time.  Same thing.  I gave up.  There must be an art to making play-doh like that?    Butter tarts are a national institution in Canada but I have a fine recipe inherited from my mother.   We have much better bakeries in town but I suppose once a vendor has tenure in the building, it’s for life, and so many people don’t know what good pastry tastes like.   But the bread – there’s simply no excuse.    Bread is the staff of life, but so is good nutritious food.   If you ate today, thank a farmer!    

PS.   Happy (Canadian) Thanksgiving today! 

Wild Turkeys - AMc

Wild Turkeys

The Simply White Dinner

simply white dinner

           The Simply White Dinner is an annual event which originated in Paris twenty-five years ago and has now spread to cities all over the world.   The local version of this outdoor picnic has sold out again.  Every year this event gets bigger and more extravagant and every year people pay for the privilege of sitting with 300 other guests all wearing white on a summer evening and listen to jazz music while they dine on their own picnic fare.    Tickets are $60 per pair, (only pairs as the organizers want an even number of tables), and every year it sells out.   And yes, you bring your own food.   The $60 charge is only for the ambiance.   Bottles of wine (presumably white) are available for purchase, but you must bring your own bottle opener, white picnic basket/bag/cooler, white china, glass ware, real cutlery, (no plastic please), white linen napkins (to wave in the air for the group picture) and centerpiece (perhaps white hydrangeas).   You must wear white, and only white, except for footwear.    Elegance is encouraged, hats, fascinators, white boas, white gloves etc.   They supply the tables and chairs, the white tablecloths and the music.   The rest is up to you.   The location is top secret until the day before the event, presumably to avoid gawkers (although it might be hard to hide 300 chairs) but is usually somewhere along the waterfront.   This year they had a perfect summer evening with a lovely breeze coming off the water, last year it was sultry and sweltering hot.   It’s hard to dress chic when the humidity soars to over 40 C. 

           Now if you are a romantic at heart this sounds very enticing.   The event organizers promise a magical evening of outdoor dining, music and dancing under the stars.   It does sound wonderful and very Gatsbyish….who wouldn’t want to dress up like Daisy Buchanan?

       Except even the local newspaper christened it The Chic Potluck because……where are all the men?    The closeup in the paper showed a long table of stylishly dressed women with hats and white flowers or wreaths in their hair, with a few dapper men here and there, coerced into white suits or white golf shirts and white pants by their wives, but they were older, grayer men who may have grown up with John Travolta’s white disco suit in Saturday Night Fever, or perhaps Don Johnson’s pale linen jackets in Miami Vice, or maybe even Humphrey Bogart’s white tuxedo in Casablanca.    White is not a color favored by a lot of men, except for the classic white dress shirt which accompanies suits and ties, and I believe even that has fallen out of favor except for funerals and weddings.   Women enjoy wearing white, and as Jane Austen famously quoted in Mansfeld Park, “A woman can never be too fine while she is all in white” but I think Jane was probably thinking of younger women.    I abandoned white years ago as it can be unflattering to the skin tone of women over fifty.   In fact I don’t believe I own a single white item in my wardrobe.  I also can’t sit in the direct sun for three hours – would my beige parasol be confiscated at the door?   Parasol

Informal poll:  Female readers would your boyfriend/husband/male significant other be willing to don white (and we’re not talking white t-shirts here), to attend such an event?  (Male readers I would like your opinion too).  Men might be enticed by the promise of a good meal, but remember you are bringing your own food and it probably won’t be them making or packing the picnic lunch.   All of these are perfectly valid reasons to just stay home.   Still I am feeling a bit wistful about missing the promise of an enchanting evening(musical interlude from South Pacific) 

             The first year they allowed registrants to pre-order a boxed meal of a salad with protein/chicken for $22 (has anyone noticed that the $15 salad has now become $20) but that was soon abandoned, probably for liability reasons.   There are suggestions for picnic fare on the website…..appetizers, sandwiches, deserts.   The food does not have to be white, but what if it was?  If we’re going to have a theme here let’s go all out.   How about aged white cheddar with crackers, and white radishes and cauliflower veggies with ranch dip as appetizers.   Lobster or lobster rolls, or tuna on French bread.  Or that perennial picnic favorite, cold chicken and potato salad with white chocolate mousse or  crème brulee for desert?    Sounds like a plan, and you don’t have to pay sixty dollars to do it – you can put the money you save towards the lobsters.   Just organize a party for your own backyard some soft summer evening.   Invite some friends over and serve Prosecco or Pina Coladas.   Play old vintage Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin tunes instead of that horrible screechy jazz.   You might even cheat and stay out until midnight if your neighbors don’t object, instead of packing it in at ten as the official white party does.   (I’m not sure how much dancing under the stars would get done when it doesn’t even get dark here until well after nine, but you might get a good forty-five minutes of twilight twirling in). 

      Being possessed of an analytical mind, I decided to do the math.    300 tickets X $30 is $9000.   Nine thousand dollars to cover the rental of the table and chairs, the tablecloths and the jazz trio and DJ, might still leave some money left over, but as I don’t know anything about event planning, maybe they just break even?   They say they do it for the fun, it’s not a charity event.   It does seem like a lot of money though for some ambiance.   Last year I had tickets for a Local Harvest dinner, where for $30 a person you got an actual meal outdoors at the local farmers market square.   Although it was the end of September (timed for the harvest moon) and a coolish night they had heaters and a band played later.  (This reasonable price however might have been subsidized by the culinary arts students from the local college learning their trade).   The meal itself consisted of artisan bread, potato soup, locally sourced salad greens, a beef and a turkey entree, rustic vegetables and assorted homemade pies for desert.   And recently I attended a church dinner where the menu was a starter chopped salad, roast beef, chicken cordon bleu, mashed potatoes, carrots, coleslaw and homemade strawberry trifle for desert.  (This meal however might have been subsidized by the church coffers as a thank you to the volunteers).    And last June I attended a WW2 swing dance in an airport hangar, with a truly memorable roast beef and chicken buffet with the most scrumptious cheesecake for desert with a choice of lemon, cherry or blueberry toppings, and afterwards an evening of big band music with a 23-person orchestra.   Vintage dress was encouraged, some women did, most men did not, although I did see a few who might have been wearing their grandpa’s old uniform.   Tickets for that charity event were $75 per person, but as they have increased it to $100 per person this year they must not have made any money.   So, it is possible to have both food and ambiance for a price, (and it is possible to get members of the male species out for an evening of dining and dancing if there is a vintage B17 bomber on display to tour). B17 bomber

        Perhaps it is a case of country mouse versus city mouse, but if given a choice I think I prefer food over ambiance.   Still if Jay Gatsby offered to buy the tickets next year and pack me a picnic basket I might be persuaded to attend.     

Song of the Night:   Dancing in the Moonlight

Quote of the Day:    “There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights.  In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.  (The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald)

 

 

         

 

 

Strawberry Fields Forever

  StrawberriesStrawberry fields forever.   It sounds like a strawberry lover’s dream, but fortunately the science of greenhouse genetics has come up with a new strain of strawberry plant which bears fruit for four months – June, July, August and September.   Last year I planted two of these ever-bearing varieties which produced enough berries all summer to garnish a salad,

salad on plate
Mandarin salad with raspberry vinaigrette

and provide the odd nibble, both for me and the birds. 

Strawberries

I think the birds feasted, whereas I was more like Emma of Jane Austen fame, the pleasure was in the anticipation.   (see literary postscript below

Although the farmers markets are now full of gorgeous red berries,  Market Strawberries there is a certain satisfaction to be had in growing your own or in visiting a farm to pick your own fruit, plus it is certainly cheaper.    The farm outside town sells quarts for $6 versus $2.50 to pick your own, a significant savings if you are buying enough to make jam or freeze.  

Strawberry Field

       I remember going strawberry picking when I was a teenager, (long past the age when helping out was fun), and then spending a couple of hours at the kitchen table hulling the stems before my mother would place them in freezer bags.   We always had a long freezer at one end of the farmhouse kitchen, a freezer so vast and deep that if you tried to get to the bottom of it to find the last roast or bag of corn you might topple in.  Every summer those berries would go in the freezer and the next summer they would get thrown away.   I remember my mother making a strawberry shortcake in the winter exactly once and nobody liked it because the berries were soggy, but there is a vast difference between fresh and frozen soggy.    

        Our farmhouse strawberry shortcake was not like any of those anemic-looking store-bought cakes or biscuits garnished with a few berries.   My mother would start with a golden cake mix, (never white), baked in a long glass pan, and then crush a big bowl of berries (leaving some whole) with a bit of water using a potato masher, adding sugar to taste.  

When it was served you would cut your own size of cake, crumble it up, and then the bowl was passed around with a big spoon and you would ladle on a generous portion, certainly enough to make the cake soggy and wet with berries and juice.  Whipped cream was optional.   I still make my strawberry shortcake this way.   Guests who were not used to this old-fashioned version might find it a bit odd but in retrospect it was more like a trifle.

     I had a wonderful homemade strawberry trifle last week at a church dinner and nothing beats homemade, but if you want a quick alternative just layer the leftover cake and berries with store-bought vanilla pudding cups (instead of custard) and garnish with whipped cream (from a can but scratch would be divine).    It makes a nice easy desert plus it gives me an excuse to use my Downton Abbey thrift shop crystal goblets. 

Strawberry Trifle

Strawberry Trifle

I made a non-alcoholic and an alcoholic version, adding some brandy to the bottom layer of cake to make it soggy, and it was very good indeed.  

Strawberry Jam

      Last summer I made strawberry freezer jam for the first time (as part of my Jamfest frenzy), and into the freezer it went, where it still resides and will soon be thrown out……it must be genetic!    

       I am trying to be more conscious of food wastage, as studies show we throw out a quarter of the food we buy, but a fresh strawberry is such a wonderful thing and the season so short I think we can be forgiven for being extravagant in our stock-piling.  StrawberriesIs there really any comparison between a fresh picked berry and those berries the grocery stores pass off as the real thing the rest of the year – tart, tasteless and hard and pulpy inside to withstand shipping.        

      Still on the rare occasion I need jam for scones I can easily buy a good brand of strawberry-rhubarb jam from my friend’s shop.  strawberry rhubarb jam

       I did however make a fresh stewed strawberry-rhubarb preserve this year,Strawberry-rhubarb compote

equal cups of strawberries and rhubarb, with a tiny bit of water plus sugar to  taste, cooked down to a soft texture on medium heat, which I keep in the fridge and mix with vanilla Greek yogurt, because with all the varieties of yogurt available why don’t they make a strawberry-rhubarb flavor.   

Literary postscript:  Jane Austen’s Emma wherein Mr. Knightley has issued an invitation to Donwell Abbey, “Come and eat my strawberries: they are ripening fast.”…..”Mrs. Elton, in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting, or talking — strawberries, and only strawberries, could now be thought or spoken of. — “The best fruit in England — every body’s favourite — always wholesome. These the finest beds and finest sorts. — Delightful to gather for one’s self — the only way of really enjoying them. Morning decidedly the best time — never tired — every sort good — hautboy infinitely superior — no comparison — the others hardly eatable — hautboys very scarce — Chili preferred — white wood finest flavour of all — price of strawberries in London — abundance about Bristol — Maple Grove — cultivation — beds when to be renewed — gardeners thinking exactly different — no general rule — gardeners never to be put out of their way — delicious fruit — only too rich to be eaten much of — inferior to cherries — currants more refreshing — only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping — glaring sun — tired to death — could bear it no longer — must go and sit in the shade.”

My sentiments exactly.   34 C today or 40 with the Humidex….Strawberry Field

 

 

 

Under Pressure (Instant-Pot for Beginners)

Several months ago, I was gifted an Instant-Pot Pressure Cooker.   I would never have been brave enough to buy one myself.   Anything that boasts about it’s ten safety mechanisms on the box makes me extremely nervous.

Instant-Pot

10 safety mechanisms

Of course, I realize the marketing team felt it necessary to reassure those who remember their mothers or grandmothers pressure cookers blowing up on top of the stove and coating the ceiling with the meal du jour.  

Museum pressure cookers

Museum display of old pressure cookers

And then there was the Boston Marathon tragedy, all those lives lost and  missing limbs.    I remember a co-worker telling me several years ago that her husband had bought a pressure cooker from Amazon and staring at her quite puzzled as to why someone would want such a thing, in fact I even reminded her that the government was monitoring online purchases of such possible terrorist devices.    I was blissfully unaware of the cult of the Instant-Pot, which can cook food two to six times faster,  but her newly-retired-now-in-charge-of-supper husband was not, and anything that could promise to whip up a meal in thirty minutes might also conserve precious couch sitting time.  If you check out Amazon, the reviews tend to be favorable, lots of “life-changing” comments, a few mentions that it stopped working after a few months, some complaints about older models, and recently there was a company recall on the Gem 8 in 1 model which overheated and caused a meltdown.   I am probably already making watchers of the American TV show This is Us very nervous, (the main character dies after a crock-pot catches fire and burns the house down but this was in the seventies when crock-pots were new).

The Gifter was a millennial, and aware of my technological ineptitude, but also aware that I, the Giftee, would persist, with gritted teeth, until I figured it out.   Like many of my generation, I lack the technology gene, the devil-may-care, let’s-try-this-and-see-what-happens attitude of younger people, who don’t remember when “it should work” usually required four hours of trying to restore it to it’s previous state.   When I bought my first computer back in 1986, a glowing orange DOS dinosaur currently awaiting museum status in the basement, it did not even come with an instruction manual and there was no internet back then to google solutions.   I still have PTSD from my first laptop in 2000 when I recall spending a whole afternoon reinstalling Windows the very first day.   Now laptops have become so efficient nothing ever seems to go wrong with them, and on the rare occasion it does, they fix and upgrade themselves.    I may hate it, but I must admit technology can be a wonderful thing.

Still, it was several weeks before I took it out of the box, but finally I read through the Instruction Manual and checked out all the menu buttons.

Instant-Pot
The Hissing Monster

 It didn’t seem too bad until I read the troubleshooting guide – “Intermittent beeping after the cooker starts for awhile could indicate overheating due to starch deposits on the bottom – Stop the cooker and inspect the bottom of the pot.”   Stop the cooker?   How?  There is no stop button.  Hit cancel?  Pull out the plug?   Do a Quick Release before or after?    After that, I was not brave enough to try the initial steam test.   My mother was having eye surgery soon, and I had visions of burning my hands or face and not being able to drive the several hours to the clinic.    I put it back in the box and it sat there in a corner of the dining room glaring at me while I did my best to ignore it, although once in a while I would stare at it and sigh.

Several weeks post-op, the Gifter (waves at Gifter), emailed me asking how the pressure cooking was going.   The Gifter had also previously sent me an email recall of Insta-Pots melting down, but a quick model number check reassured me mine was not one of them.   Nevertheless, I was starting to feel under pressure.

So feeling guilty for having ignored the gift for so long and with some trepidation, I did the recommended steam test first, which involved adding 3 cups of water and hitting the steam button for 2 minutes.  This is to ensure your machine is not defective, and horror, might have to be returned.   The steam shot out like a mini volcano then stopped.   It didn’t seem too bad, but if you have small children or dogs be forewarned they might find the hissing part scary.  (Lock up the cat too, it might hiss back).   I know I did, and donned safety glasses just in case.  I can’t quite figure out the mechanism of the steam release, as it does this when the proper pressure is reached before it starts the cook countdown, and then after when it is done, it either releases naturally or you can do a quick release, but I am sure there is a sound scientific theory behind it.

Part of my dilemma, when researching the literally thousands of recipes online, is that I have the Mini-Duo 3-quart pot, and all the recipes are for the regular 6-quart size, (there is also an 8-quart size).   The Mini is designed for 2-4 portions, and people who don’t want leftovers – it’s ideal for singles, college students or empty nesters.   I found it made four regular but not man-sized portions, but then I was careful not to overfill it past the 2/3 fill line, due to fear of clogging the release mechanism.    I wasted several days trying to find out if I needed to reduce the cooking time as well as cut the recipes in half, but the Instant-Pot support person told me to use the regular cooking time in the recipe, (as in the oven temperature is set the same for one piece of chicken or ten), but then she said it depended on the thickness of the meat/food.  It was all very vague.  She finally came out and said there was no official cookbook for the Mini, although there are lots of regular recipes on the Instant Pot website.     There is also an official Facebook page listed in the instruction manual, one for beginner’s (and those who are scared) and one for cult members, (lots of gushing and pretty pictures).   There is also a small recipe book in the box, with things like coconut fish curry, Moroccan lamb tajine, purple yam barley porridge and turnip cake (and no I am not making this up.)   The only recipe I found appealing in the booklet was for roast beef, so I started with that.

I had bought a small sirloin tip roast but had to cut the end off to get it to fit in the pot.   I stuck the rest in the oven with some baked potatoes.   My dilemma then was whether to set the roast on top of the trivet thing, or to rest it on the bottom in the 2 cups of chicken broth.   I posted the question on the Facebook support page and when I checked back later, two women were having a fight – one said resting it on the trivet would result in steamed meat and the only way to get any flavor was to let it soak, the other said it would be soggy and boiled if I set it in the liquid.   Having spent the better part of the afternoon researching recipes online I was exhausted so I posted that I was going to take a nap and left them duking it out.   I seared the meat on saute, plopped it on the trivet/steam rack (as it was also recommended by the tech support people and majority rules), added the broth, and set the timer for 40 minutes (the Instant-Pot recipe booklet said 50-60 min for roast, but I cut it back as mine wasn’t as thick), and went to take a catnap.    I woke up feeling much better, and after doing a quick release, the meat was perfectly done and perfectly tasteless – it tasted boiled, to me anyway, but the recipient of the meal seemed pleased.   Dog

Blame it on the Facebook lady, who when I reported back on my lack of success,  suggested I feed it to the dog, and since I do not own a dog the neighbor’s would have to suffice.   This picture is taken through the fence, as the dog has the strange habit of peeing on my shoes in some strange form of enthusiastic greeting, and I am rather protective of my shoes, size 5 being hard to find.    I did get the owner’s permission of course, (as some dogs only dine on dried dog food), but the dog was so happy, he will probably pee twice as much the next time he sees me.   I know he doesn’t look happy but that breed looks perpetually sad.

Luckily, the end piece of roast I had put in the oven was tender, and the baked potatoes were nice and fluffy.   With some salt and lots of butter, a baked potato is a perfectly fine meal, (it must be my Irish Roots).    The Instant-Pot went back in the box…..and might have stayed there had the weather not turned cold again, and I turned into the Soup-Chef.   I am a soup lover, and we were still having winter here.   What is more warming than a hearty bowl of soup.   Since then I have made Loaded Potato Soup (the potatoes cooked in 8 min, but I would have nixed the cream cheese), Potato and Leek Soup (again 8 min potatoes but I cheated and used a Knorr Cream of Leek dried soup mix to flavor the broth because I didn’t have any leeks, next time ½ package as it was too onioney),

Split Pea and Ham soup (using the leftover ham from Easter, too thick, too many peas), Cheesy Cauliflower Soup (the best so far, but maybe less onion), and Beef Stew (with cheaper stewing meat, but it was too watery, had to remove some broth before I thickened it, and with recommended cooking times ranging from 12 min to 45, I chose 20, and although the beef was very tender, the potatoes had turned to mush.   Next time I will cook the beef for 15 min and add the veggies for 5 min).   After the countdown is done, the keep warm function will come on, so you can add the milk, cheese or other ingredients to thicken the soup.   I also made macaroni and cheese (perfect pasta in 4 minutes), but when I vented it a thick white liquid (instead of just steam), came spewing out all over the kitchen cupboard (which since my cupboards need replacing didn’t bother me too much other than I had to wipe up the mess).   Page three of the instruction booklet warns that certain foods such as macaroni, noodles, spaghetti, oatmeal, split peas, cranberries etc may foam, froth, sputter and clog the release mechanism, “these foods should not be cooked under the pressure cooker settings unless directed in Instant-Pot recipes.”    I was aware not to overfill it with foods which could expand, but were they suggesting that frothing and foaming like a rabid animal is normal – proceed at your own risk if you have nice kitchen cupboards?    A puzzling, rather ambiguous statement considering the sheer volume of recipes available containing these ingredients.    

The saute feature is also useful for searing the meat first in the pot, as it saves dirtying an extra pan on the stove.  When using Saute of course you must keep the lid off.   There is also a slow cooker function on the pot which I have not used, you have to have the lid in the venting position for that, or you can buy a special glass lid.   There is also a yogurt maker function, which some people raved about.   While browsing recipes someone had made sourdough bread in his, and I wondered about baking as deserts are my thing.  I noticed there is a recipe for Crème Brulee in the small recipe book.

There are seven features on my model, (see pic below), but I see from the Website there are now 9 in 1 models which add cake baking and sterilizing functions, a Bluetooth model you can control from a smartphone or tablet, and a new Ultra Deluxe 10 model which can customize pressure and non-pressure cooking for the perfect combination, as well as 16 different functions, including make perfect eggs and probably also set the table, empty the dish washer and put out the garbage.  Can kitchen robots be far behind? A pot like that deserves a name – perhaps Louis? 

Instant-Pot

Seven different functions

To sum up,  I see this machine as being particularly useful for busy working people who want a nutritious meal on the table fast, especially if you have prepped your ingredients before hand, plus it has the added advantage of fresh ingredients, (perhaps from your Potager), but it is definitely a learning curve and a process of experimentation.   While I don’t think I’m a Pot-Head yet, and might never be, I think if we spend a little more time together we could become quite good friends.

Some additional tips:

The Instruction Manual, like most instruction manuals, is simultaneously ambiguous while also making it seem more complicated than it really is.   Of course, I have not encountered anything which requires real troubleshooting yet.

To be reassuring, it is impossible to open the pot when it is in the locked position and under pressure.   It also makes a cute little chirping R2D2 sound when you lock the lid or remove it.   Do not open the pot until the float valve drops down and all the steam is released, either naturally or a quick release.    To do a quick pressure release is not difficult, but you do have to be careful of the steam, use tongs or oven mitts to move the valve to venting, and keep your face away.   Be careful also when taking the lid off the pot, in case it is steamy.   Pay attention to your recipes and follow whichever release is recommended for the food you have in it…..a natural release might result in overcooked food, and vice versa.   Some recipes combine the two, calling for a natural release of 15 min, then finishing up with a quick release.   After a couple of uses, I was not worried about the pot exploding anymore, as it is quite sturdily built, and you cannot open the pot when it is locked and in the sealing position.    I even put the safety glasses away.

The official Instant-Pot website has lots of recipes, a help line, and FAQ’s.   I found the Youtube videos helpful also, more for quantities and cooking times, but make sure you look at the finished product as my beef stew recipe did not need 3 cups of water, (and that was one of the few Mini recipes I found).    You must have the required minimum of liquid in the pot to achieve pressure, but that was overkill for the Mini.   (The tech help line said a minimum of 1 cup for mini, 2 cups for the larger size).

The advantage of the smaller 3 qt Mini is that it takes a shorter time to reach pressure, (less than ten min), so this cuts way down on the meal prep time.   I made soup in 30 minutes.  Whereas the bigger pots (6 to 8 qts) can take up to 20 minutes to reach cooking pressure before they start the cooking countdown, so factor in the preheat time when deciding which size pot you want to buy, as well as the size of your family, and whether you want leftovers.

I am still skeptical about cooking plain meat, unless you like to add lots of spices, like in a curry or stew.  (I tend to be more a plain meat/potato/veg person).  As well as pasta, I am sure the pot would be wonderful and fast (4min) for rice dishes, as well as baked potatoes.   I cooked my potatoes for the potato soup in 8min, but some recipes said 5min.    As for the soups, I don’t think you get the same mingling of flavors as you would if you simmered the soup on the stove for several hours, but the quickness of the cooking might outweigh the difference.   For that reason I wonder if the new Ultra Deluxe 10 in 1 model with it’s customized programs might be more beneficial in terms of taste, as you would have the best of both worlds, the flavor of a slow cooker and the speed of the pressure cooker.  

I am not sure if Instant-Pot’s are popular elsewhere or if this is a North-American phenomenon?   I read somewhere they were invented by a Canadian company.   They were certainly one of the most popular Christmas gifts last year, and everyone I run into has a relative who got one for Christmas and loves it and gushes about it (members of the cult), or hasn’t taken it out of the box yet.   I had an interesting conversation with a lady in the grocery store aisle when buying dried split peas.  I asked if she knew the difference between the yellow and green variety, and she replied that her family wouldn’t eat anything that green unless it was St. Patrick’s Day, a valid point, so I bought the yellow ones.   She had been given an Instant-Pot three weeks earlier but hadn’t used it yet, it was a re-gift from her sister who had been afraid to open it at all.   Fear seems to be a common theme.  One woman posted ecstatically on the Facebook group that she had found one in the original box at a thrift shop for $5.   If you don’t want to spend too much, or think it might end up living in the Cupboard of Unused Appliances, you could check out the thrift stores for donations by those who feared too much, but beware the safety mechanisms have been improved on the newer models, so I would check the age of the model.   Also if you see a sale in a flyer, act fast as they sell out quick.   So, chose your side – Team Instant-Pot or Team-Stove.   For me I think it will be both, the Instant-Pot for quickness and convenience and the stove for a leisurely afternoon and a house filled with the aroma of something good cooking.

(Disclaimer:  I received no remuneration for this review, unless you count the bone the dog greeted me with on my next visit to the neighbors – see you can teach an old dog new tricks).