Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Canadian Feast in America

The morning of the Canadian Feast begins with a desperate attempt to clean the oven. Last night, while preparing the butter tarts, the oven decided to do a vivid imitation of a smoke stack and wouldn’t stop spewing gray fumes into the kitchen and living room. The smoke alarm was piercing and I was forced to admit that one should really use the self-cleaning function on the oven more frequently than once every nine years.

The house smells like a pioneer campfire, which might be a nice touch of cinema verite for my Canadian Bannock Bread, often cooked on an open flame. I open the windows, letting in the balmy 27 degree morning air and set the self-cleaning function which operates at the peak of efficiency – it takes a mere 4 hours and 20 minutes to complete its task. Immediately the oven begins belching smoke again, so I retreat to the basement to save my lungs and watch DVDs.

After several hours the smoke dissipates, and I return to a chilly kitchen and sparkling clean oven. I set the table with Canadian colors of white and red and the traditional Maple Leaf and roll out pastry dough for the Tourtiere. The dough is a little temperamental at first, but eventually it bends to my will and I’m pretty confident that I will have a buttery, flakey crust.

My guests for the Canadian Feast are my parents, my brother and sister-in-law and my friend “Lee Sloan,” a grande dame of food and wine on the New York scene, who has been following this project with great interest. At 1:00 p.m. I pick up Lee at the train station. She comes bearing Canadian Riesling from the Niagara Peninsula and a satchel full of venerable cook books that might offer insight into our meal. I tell Lee about my problems with the oven, and she smiles wryly. “That’s why I don’t cook anymore,” she says. “I just call the caterer.”

Back home, the rest of the party is arriving, and I set up a round of Bloody Caesar cocktails which hail from Alberta. My brother Ken offers a toast, “To the successful celebration of Canadian cuisine.” The combination of vodka, Clamato juice and Worcestershire and Tabasco is smooth, spicy and tastes of the ocean on a hot summer day.

Everyone has taken to the Canadian theme. On the stereo, we’ve got Canadian musicians of all types – Diana Krall from Nanaimo, Gordon Lightfoot from Ontario and Michael Buble from Burnaby. My mom wears the pin my older brother brought her from a visit he made to Expo 67 in Montreal. Ken is sporting a plaid shirt for the “lumberjack look.” Lee has brought a cookbook published in 1972 called “Cecily Brownstone’s Associated Press Cook Book.” You may remember that Jill came across Cecily’s name during her research of the dish Country Captain. Lee was good friends with Cecily, a food editor at the Associated Press, and they would dine together. We find Cecily’s recipe for Country Captain on page 76, and talk about the fact that Cecily, who campaigned for recognition for the dish Country Captain which was popular in America, was actually born in Canada!

I prepare a recipe of Bannock in the skillet and serve the flat bread with blueberry preserves and butter. This time, I’ve fried these bread biscuits – popular among Canadian pioneers and First Nations People – in butter and they have a crisp golden coating and a tender crumb.

The French Canadian Pea Soup is a lovely flaxen color, mild and silky, with an herbaceous aroma and smoky flavor. This dish will provide the majority of our vegetables for the meal, which is just fine with my sister-in-law Pam who is not a fan of vegetables, but is quite taken with this intriguingly yellow pea soup.

Next, I pull the Tourtiere from the oven, the traditional pork pie served by French Canadians after midnight mass as a centerpiece of the holiday supper celebration. The domed crust is nicely bronzed thanks to an egg wash, and I’ve decorated the pastry with Canadian Maple leaves. The recipe from Canadian Living is a winner – festive, aromatic spices of cinnamon, pepper, savory and cloves tickle our senses and we relish the flaky pastry and robust filling of tender pork and earthy mushrooms.

Before dessert, we check in with Jill by telephone to offer our impressions of the menu she designed for us. Overall, it has met with resounding approval. Jill tells us her house is filled with the caramel aromas of roasted sweet potatoes for the finale to her American Feast, the sweet potato pie. Lee mentions another interesting connection in this cross-continental culinary exchange. Acadians, who populated Nova Scotia, eventually migrated to Louisiana, where the yam (cousin to the sweet potato) is a staple of the local cuisine.

We retire to the living room for our buffet of Canadian sweets. The bite-sized, honey-colored butter tarts, baked in muffin tins are delicate and just slightly runny. I’ve made two varieties, some plain and some with raisins. We sample each and join in the national butter tart debate of Canada over which type is superior. My dad and Lee vote in favor of raisin tarts. Dad likes mince pie, of which this is reminiscent and Lee likes the additional flavor and consistency. Ken, Pam and my mom support the unadorned version, rich and buttery with notes of vanilla. I sit squarely on the fence. I like them both.

The Nanaimo Bars threaten to send us all into sugar shock, but in a good way. Dark and sinfully rich, and dotted with almonds and coconut, are they brownie, or are they fudge? Whatever the label, Nanaimo Bars are a chocoholic’s dream.

In one Sunday afternoon, our armchair culinary journey has taken us across a country that is the second largest in the world. We have sipped cocktails in Alberta and tasted the foods of Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia. And with each bite, comes a story of history, ingredients, individuals and ingenuity.

As we begin to clean up the dishes and I hand out butter tarts and Nanaimo bars for all to take home, Jill is just about ready to welcome her guests for the American Feast in Ottawa.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

I do love this cooking project, especially as I live in the US and also have family members in Ottawa. But what strikes me as I look at the photos from your menu is that the food is all brown -- and this makes me laugh, because many years ago we were invited to a Thanksgiving pot luck at the home of some Ottawa friends. When the table was laid with all the food, we noticed that except for the celery on our vegetable plate, everything else on the table was shades of brown. Not a salad or green vegetable in sight!!! Looking forward to reading about Jill's end of this project, too.

wheresmymind said...

I love the maple leaves on the pie :)

Veron said...

I love your feast! The cute little maple leafs on the tourtiere is a nice touch. But truly i can't decide which one I love the best ...the butter tarts or the nanaimo bars. Excellent job, T.W...this is a well-researched and executed project!

Patricia Scarpin said...

Wow, T.W.!! This is a huge feast!

I have experienced the "smoky kitchen" situation and it's not nice, not nice at all.

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Lydia - early on Jill mentioned that this menu was short on veggies -- the fiddleheads were buried in snow!

Jeff - finally a use for those mini-maple leaf cookie cutters!

Veron -- since you are a true chocolate gourmet, I know the Nanaimo bars would have been your favorite!

Patricia -- my oven is now so clean and good for another nine years!!!

Bradley said...

Looks like you have all the bases covered. The maple leaves area great finishing touch! The pastry with pork and mushrooms sounds very hearty and warming perfect for a cold day.

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Thanks, Bradley - the pork pie tasted great, and the Caesars were every bit as good as you might imagine!