Friday, June 1, 2012

Week Twenty-One: A Journey to Canada

When I included Canadian cuisine on this year’s project list, I had no idea what a treat it would be.  As I recall, I almost removed it from the list to add a more exotic cuisine (at least, to me) from Asia or Africa, but I changed my mind when I considered that I knew nothing of Canadian cuisine with the exception of poutine.  Considering how much I know about Mexican food, it seemed ridiculous to know so little about our Northern neighbors.  I am so happy that I kept to the spirit of the project and explored this unfamiliar territory, because I discovered a new-found respect and even admiration for Canadian cuisine. 

Like the United States, Canada is a country of immigrants bringing traditions and determination to their new homeland.  Its early settlers learned to survive on the natural resources of their surroundings, which accounts for the popularity of salmon on the Northwest coast, harp seal on the Northeast coast, and venison, wild mushrooms, and berries in the forested mountainous regions, including the Appalachian Mountains in southern Quebec and the Canadian Rockies in British Columbia and Alberta.  The traditions of other cultures are evident in regions with dense populations of Canadians from various ethnic origins.  French Canadians live throughout the country, although the largest concentration resides in Quebec.  Large communities of Chinese Canadians live in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, and Edmonton.  Other sizable ethnic groups found in dense populations include Scottish and Irish communities on Prince Edward Island, German communities in Saskatchewan, and North American Indians in the Northwest Territories.  These communities, as well as many other smaller ones, brought their food traditions to these territories and defined Canadian cuisine.

In order to sample the best of Canada’s cuisine from various traditions, I cooked popular dishes from different regions and ethnic backgrounds.  The options abounded as I discovered a long list of distinctively Canadian dishes.  I’m confident I selected some of the best!

Tuesday Night:  Soupe Aux Pois (Yellow Pea Soup) and Bannock

Soupe Aux Pois originated in Quebec during the early nineteenth century out of necessity to serve an inexpensive hot meal to country farmers.  The soup is made with yellow split peas and seasoned by pork fat and vegetables.  I used onions, carrots, and turnips, but other variations included potatoes and celery.  For seasoning, I added a bay leaf, salt, and freshly ground black pepper.  I simmered this soup for about two hours until the peas softened and served it with bannock.  The soup was hearty and delicious.  The salt pork added an amazing depth of flavor without overpowering the sweetness of the peas, onions, carrots, and turnips.  Just like most soups, the leftovers on Wednesday and Thursday were even better because the soup thickened and the flavors heightened.

I served the soup “as is” although I read several notes that the soup may be pureed for a smooth consistency.  Others noted that they pureed half of the peas to create a thicker soup.  I prefer the texture of the peas and did not see any reason to puree it.

Bannock is a simple quick bread.  It originates from a similar Scottish bread that fur traders likely introduced to the North American Indians living on the prairies.  The basic dough includes flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and water (or milk).  Traditionally, the dough rounds were cooked on hot rocks near a camp fire, or the dough was wrapped around sticks and cooked over the fire directly.  I used water in my batter, because I can’t imagine the early fur traders were toting around fresh milk.  The consistency of the dough reminds me of Southern Drop Biscuits as it was ridiculously sticky.  I baked my bannock on a pizza stone.  I think I flattened my rounds too thinly, because the end result was a thin bread with a tough exterior, and everything I read about it noted that bannock is light and fluffy.  As a result, I didn’t love it, but I can certainly understand how it could serve as great filler for a hungry person by the campfire.

Wednesday Night:  Cretons

Cretons (a.k.a creton, corton, or gorton) is a pork spread similar to rilletes originating in Quebec from French Canadian settlers.  As soon as I read about Cretons, I knew I would make it for this project.  I was intrigued by the simplicity of the recipe and the combination of spices used to flavor it.  After reading several different recipes, I found Bryan Eaton’s article, Good Eaton:  Creton – just like Mem used to make, and I knew it would be the quintessential recipe.  I love a good story, and even more, I love a dish with sentimental value to a family.  Eaton reminisces about his grandmother’s cretons.  When he was a child, she served it for lunch on white bread with yellow mustard.  She gave each grandchild a loaf in a small aluminum pan for Christmas every year.  Fortunately for the rest of us, Eaton asked his grandmother to write down her recipe, and not only does he share the recipe in his article, he also includes a picture of his hand-written copy, framed and hanging in his kitchen. 

Making the dish is actually quite simple.  I mixed twice-ground pork, grated white onion, ground cloves, ground cinnamon, salt, and a pinch of fresh ground pepper.  Then, I simmered it in a half-covered pot for about 2 hours.  (The recipe says to simmer until all of the water evaporates.)  When the water evaporated, I pressed the mixture into a loaf pan and left it in the refrigerator overnight.

I made this dish on Tuesday night, so it would be ready to take to a Wednesday night meeting.  I wanted to see what my friends thought about it.  I served it with water crackers, melba toasts, and whole grain Dijon.  This was AMAZING!  We savored every last morsel.  When I read that the recipe included ½ tsp ground clove to season one pound of pork, I was concerned that the cloves would overpower the dish, but Bryan Eaton’s mem knows exactly what she is doing.  This recipe is the perfect balance of flavors.  I liked the texture, too.  A good cross between pate and rillettes…not as fine as pate, not as chunky as rilletes.  I will make this dish again and again.  I highly recommend it!

Thursday Night:  Ginger Beef
Ginger Beef is a Canadian Chinese dish that originated in Calgary, Alberta.  As I read through lists of “Top 10 Canadian Dishes” online, Ginger Beef consistently held a spot near the top.  Its popularity and inclusion on these lists intrigued me.  I mean, I love our Chinese American General Tso’s Chicken, but if someone asked me to list my “top 10 American dishes,” I don’t think it would even cross my mind as a candidate because I think of it as Chinese food. 

Upon further research, I quickly realized the significance of Chinese food to the culture of Alberta when I discovered that The Royal Alberta Museum is currently hosting a traveling exhibit, Chop Suey onthe Prairies, to celebrate Chinese restaurants in Alberta.  (That’s serious.)  The museum’s website includes a brief history of “Ginger Beef” which explains how Chef George Wong of Silver Inn conceived the dish to appeal to the tastes of Calgarians:

The dish's inventor, George Wong, was a traditionally trained Chinese chef whose specialty was Northern Chinese food, sometimes referred to as Peking style. His career as a chef took him to London, England where he worked in relatives' take-out restaurants.

In 1974 Wong moved to Calgary and married Lily Cheung, one of two sisters who owned the Silver Inn. The sisters intended to open a Chinese restaurant serving authentic Northern Chinese food, but for the first year found themselves serving hamburgers and grilled cheese alongside their Chinese dishes. Calgarians were not yet ready for Chinese dishes that went beyond chop suey, fried rice or egg drop soup.

"Deep fried shredded beef in chili sauce" was one of the dishes that Wong introduced to his new customers. Inspired by an orange peel beef dish from Hunan province in China, he adjusted the seasonings to create a pub dish that had been popular when he worked in England. The dish was sticky and sweet, the way that most English people liked their Chinese sauces, and its spiciness went well with beer. To make his dish appeal to Calgarians, Wong battered and deep fried the beef. Even though he used very little ginger, Calgarians attributed the dish's slightly spicy taste to ginger and 'ginger beef' was created.

Royal Alberta Museum, Chop Suey on the Prairies. Retrieved from

So, I set out to make Ginger Beef for dinner on Thursday night, and it was just as good as I had expected.  Without a doubt, this dish is the BEST version of take-out Chinese I have ever tasted.  The sauce had a great balance of sweet, salty, and spicy elements, and it successfully complements the crispy beef with carrots, celery, and chili peppers.  Another Canadian winner!

Friday Night:  Poutine and Butter Tarts
Without a doubt, poutine and butter tarts are the most popular dishes in Canada.  They top everyone’s “best of” lists, and both represent simple ideas that culminate in satisfying flavors. 

I began my Friday evening with a Unibroue Don de Dieu, and it was so smooth and delicious that I wondered how I had never before had any of Unibroue’s brews.  The flavors were complex, yet the beer never felt heavy.  Hints of citrus, apple, and honey gave it a refreshing quality.  A perfect way to begin my evening.

While poutine is simply French fries and fresh cheese curds covered in brown gravy, its Canadian legacy makes it so much more than just a fast-food or greasy-spoon dish.  The dish originated in Quebec in the 1950s, and since then, many variations have developed.  When I visited Vancouver a few years ago, I was shocked that poutine could be found on almost every menu.  Even Burger King offered poutine with a combo meal.  Whether you stick to a purist’s poutine or branch out to a more idealized version (still have a special place in my heart for Sustain’s Duck Poutine with foie gras demi, duck confit, and feta cheese), it’s just plain good eats!

I decided to go “old school” with my poutine.  I hand-cut the potatoes and double-fried them for a perfect crispness.  I layered white and yellow cheddar cheese curds on top and smothered it in beef gravy that I spiced-up a bit with shallots, garlic, tomato paste, apple cider vinegar, and Worcestershire sauce.  Delicious…a perfect Friday-night junk food dinner!

Butter Tarts originate from the English Canadian settlers.  Common in pioneer Canadian cooking, these tarts are perfect examples of combining a few simple ingredients for an amazing result.  The crust is a simple butter crust made of flour, salt, butter, egg yolk, vinegar, and ice water.  (Not all of the recipes included vinegar in the crust, but I learned many years ago that vinegar is the key to a no-fail flaky pastry crust.)  The fillings range from “liquidy” to “gooey” depending on the ratio of sugar to syrup (corn or maple).  I made a filling of brown sugar, maple syrup, egg, butter, and vanilla.  The most controversial element of a butter tart recipe seems to be the addition of other ingredients to the filling.  From what I understand, raisins are acceptable, and I used them in mine.  The inclusion of pecans, walnuts, coconut, and/or chocolate chips is highly debated in butter tart circles, so I did not include those ingredients in mine.  They reminded me of pecan pie without the pecans.  I made them in miniature muffin cups, and the final tarts were perfect sweet bites. 

This week’s adventures changed my mind about Canadian cuisine for life.  I had a blast cooking and eating these dishes, and I will definitely be repeating many of them.  For sure, cretons will be a staple on cheese platters for future dinner parties at home.  Of course, I’ll be making an extra batch for me to eat before the guests arrive…

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