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Buttermilk Pancakes!

For a lot of North Americans, breakfast is something often skipped during the work week. On the weekend however, time is made especially for preparing breakfast. One of my favourite things to make on a weekend morning is a big pile of pancakes, mostly due to their ease of preparation, and because of the sugary maple syrup splashed on top, a plateful of steaming hot pancakes feels like a treat set apart from the workday pace.

In preparation of writing this week’s blog post about pancakes, I did a bit of research on the subject. According to an online article by Rebecca Rupp about the history of pancakes from National Geographic’s special eight-month feature series, Future of Food, pancakes, or food like pancakes, are not a recent culinary invention. According to the article, anthropological researchers guess that Stone Age humans were cooking pancake-like foods over greased heated rocks due to the discovery and analysis of 30,000-year-old grinding tools that our Stone Age predecessors used to break down cereal grains, cattails, and ferns.

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A stack of pancakes can be dressed up any way you’d like–whether it’s with the traditional pat of butter and splash of maple syrup, or with cut fresh fruit and a blob of cottage cheese, pancakes are a pretty versatile breakfast component.

Both Rebecca Rupp’s National Geographic article, and Alan Davidson’s Oxford Companion to Food (1999) state that pancake-like foods made of cereal grains were made and enjoyed by the ancient Greeks and Romans, who would sweeten them with honey. In fact, Davidson attests that one of the earliest written records of a pancake-food was in Apicius, a collection of Roman cookery recipes generally thought to be from the late fourth or early fifth centuries CE. Generally speaking, pancake-foods consisted of a batter of ground cereal grains, milk, and eggs which was then fried into small cake-like portions.

Rupp also mentions in her article that pancakes featured in the daily lives and meals of colonial North Americans as well, and have since colonial times been a part of traditional North American breakfasts. According to Rupp, “pancakes—also known as hoe cakes, johnnycakes, or flapjacks—were made with buckwheat or cornmeal”, which would have been more easily produced and financially accessible in the American colonies than fine wheat flour. Comparatively, Rupp’s description of American ‘griddlecakes’ (as beloved by Thomas Jefferson) places this kind of pancake-food closer to today’s contemporary pancakes, as they contain a leavening agent, and thus are fluffier and more tender. Pancakes became a staple of the North American breakfast, and was a regular inclusion to the near-iconic bacon and eggs breakfast for Americans from then on.

In her book, Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal, author Abigail Carroll describes how Victorian-era culinary writers and intellectuals commented on the state of mid-nineteenth and late-nineteenth century breakfasts in America. According to Carroll, prospering middle-class families in America often had breakfasts that included “a combination of cold and hot meat as well as baked goods and porridge” (136) and that breakfast was, for many American families then, “the second-largest meal of the day” (136).

Carroll says that this sort of big-breakfast was considered generally acceptable for Americans that engaged in arduous chores long before actually sitting down for their breakfasts (136). Farmers, travelers, and general labourers were often working for several hours in the morning before returning to their kitchens or to local cafes, taverns, and restaurants for their breakfast meals. It makes sense then that these Americans were tucking in to large, calorie-heavy breakfasts—they were making up for the energy already spent in country or factory toil.

Big breakfasts were beginning to become a regular inclusion in the average morning for many Americans, including the richer classes. The big breakfasts that the richer classes were eating were similar to those of the lower classes and often included syrup-soaked pancakes alongside fried eggs, bacon, toast, porridge, and cups of coffee and tea. According to Carroll, “the tremendous size and complexity of meals, including breakfast, contributed greatly to the dyspepsia pandemic” (that is, a pandemic of chronic indigestion), as did “shifting work patterns in an urbanizing and mechanizing nation” (137). As workers began to shift from the workspaces of fields and factories to those of offices and desks, Carroll states that many late-nineteenth century writers and social commenters were writing published papers about dyspepsia, and that they were citing it as a “disease of civilization” (137). Carroll sums it up succinctly by stating that “the traditional farmer’s breakfast was simply no longer appropriate to a modern urban lifestyle, at least not for the majority of the middle class” (137).

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Pancakes take so little time in the frying pan, it’s easy to get them to the table while they’re still piping hot.

Big breakfasts, or farmer’s breakfasts, are far less frequent in contemporary North American diets than they were during the mid- and late-nineteenth centuries. The Victorian dyspepsia concerns have also faded as current eating habits have shifted to reflect the increasingly urbanized, mechanized, and fast-paced work schedules and business environments of today. Modern breakfasts have changed to suit the workday schedule and its requirements of convenience. Pancakes, therefore despite their quick preparation (especially since the twentieth century advent of manufactured box mixes), have largely become a weekend, treat breakfast food. Often pancakes are made and served as a breakfast meal on their own just as often as they are included in a large and leisurely Sunday morning breakfast spread.

This Sunday’s breakfast was a batch of pancakes served with heated, pure maple syrup. Despite a 1898 parenting manual’s inclusion of pancakes as breakfast foods as part of a “graveyard diet” (138), and associated Victorian-era dyspepsia concerns, I would encourage readers to make pancakes from scratch as a weekend treat. Box mixes are all well and good, but pancakes made from scratch with fresh buttermilk, vanilla extract, and egg are a welcome break from a work week of breakfasts of coffee and soggy breakfast cereal.

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Beef Stew and Irish Soda Bread!

Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, and last week I went searching through my city’s public library catalogue of Irish cookbooks in order to find something special to cook as celebration of the day. I had to plan ahead in order to put together an Irish-inspired supper since Tuesdays are extremely busy for me in terms of scheduled classes and homework workloads. I figured I wouldn’t really have the time on Tuesday evening to put together a special supper, so I had better make my attempt at making a St. Patrick’s Day meal on the weekend rather than on the day itself.

I was actually fairly surprised by the sheer number of Ireland-related cookbooks that are available through the public library. For some reason I’ve never really thought of the public library as a resource for cookbooks—although now that I stop to think about it, I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t be. I spent a good couple of hours searching through the online lists and catalogue of books about Irish cuisine and cookery before settling on requesting a copy of Cathal Armstrong’s 2014 book, My Irish Table. And it’s probably a good thing that I went hunting for such a comprehensive and contemporary Irish cookbook a few days in advance of March 17, because as of this blog post going live, all seven copies of this particular cookbook have been checked out from the library’s catalogue.

In My Irish Table, author and four-star chef Cathal Armstrong records his culinary path from Dublin, Ireland to the United States, where he currently owns and operates seven well-respected restaurants. It’s clear in Armstrong’s writing that this book is all about his love of his homeland and Irish food. Originally I was going to try to produce Armstrong’s recipe for Irish stew, but my parents vetoed the idea on account of their distaste for lamb. That’s a shame, because according to Armstrong, “Real Irish stew is not made with beef. At all. Traditionally it is made with lamb neck or shinbones (known as gigot)” (60). Although it’s worthy to add that Armstrong continues by adding that he usually makes this stew using lamb shoulder chops instead of neck or gigot as they “are meatier and you can get a good sear on them, which adds flavour” (60). And that’s a helpful addition of detail, because as much as I would have liked to cook with lamb in pursuit of authenticity, I’m not sure I’m on board with the idea of cooking lamb neck just yet.

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If you don’t plan on quartering small potatoes for your stew, why not serve it over a fluffy mound of mashed potatoes? From what I’ve been able to learn from online food writing sources, this is another traditional way of serving beef stew, and the creaminess of the mashed potatoes really has a delicious effect on a bowl of hot stew.

Instead, I settled for Armstrong’s recipe for beef stew as found on page 72 of the book. Back on page 60 in his explanation of what constitutes a real Irish stew, Armstrong suggests that carrots shouldn’t really be added to an Irish stew, but that he likes incorporating them due to their sweetness. Perhaps as a result of this carrots are plentiful in Armstrong’s recipe for beef stew, as are eight cloves of garlic, and an entire serrano chili—something that I wouldn’t have ordinarily associated with a typical Irish-based beef stew. (Although on further consideration, why shouldn’t it be added? Chilies and spicy peppers always seem to work well with beef, almost regardless of culinary context.)

Armstrong explains what is actually happening in the pot during the stewing process by telling readers that “when you apply heat to food, you’re actually applying pressure” (73). He further delves into culinary science by explaining that stewing meat is forced to contract due to the application of heat (and its pressure), and that this forces the flavourful liquids from the meat, into the surrounding mire-poix of the stew’s vegetable and aromatic components: the carrots, celery, onion, garlic, and fresh rosemary, thyme, and bay leaf (73). Armstrong says that the reason that a stew’s flavour intensifies over the days following the day the stew was originally made is because as the stew cools and the meat cools, it begins to relax and (re)absorb the surrounding liquid—liquid that was created by the meat and the vegetables cooking in the first place (73).

While Armstrong recommends that beef stew be served over mashed potatoes, I thought I would make a couple loaves of Irish soda bread to help sop up the stew’s resulting gravy-like liquid. Armstrong helpfully includes a recipe for Irish soda bread on page 191. The popularity of soda bread (and of a lot of other unleavened breads) is due to the yeast’s historic costliness. Armstrong says that baking soda was introduced in Ireland during the mid-nineteenth century (191) and this coincides with a historic record of the country’s economic climate which would indicate why this bread became as popular and prevalent through Ireland at this time.

Soda bread is not difficult to make. Consisting of mainly four ingredients (flour, baking soda, butter, and milk—oh, and let’s say salt too for seasoning), it’s a quick bread that requires little working and kneading of the dough, and no time required for resting the dough (since there’s no yeast in it). However I’ve had mixed results when making soda bread in the past. It was a bit of a surprise then that Armstrong’s recipe for the stuff worked out beautifully. (Honestly, my bread baking efforts have a 50-50 chance of success or failure.) As it was, the bread looked and smelled lovely when I removed it from the oven, and it tasted wonderful with the beef stew.

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Sure stews are even better the day after making them, but I think this was a pretty successful “pre-St. Patrick’s Day” St. Patrick’s Day supper!

I’d like to include the recipes for beef stew and Irish soda bread from Armstrong’s book to this blog post, but due to copyright issues, I will instead direct you to check out your local booksellers to find a copy. In lieu of making a purchase, I’d encourage you to browse your public library’s catalogue in search of it. Who knows, your public library might have seven copies of it—although I wouldn’t bet on being able to find a single copy available the day before St. Patrick’s Day!

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Garlic and Yogurt Marinated Chicken!

I’ve never made a whole roast chicken. It’s one of those things that I’ve never attempted in the kitchen. I’m sure that I could figure it out though, and with enough attempts, I bet I could get pretty good at putting together a roast chicken dinner. But to be entirely honest, I think I’d prefer to simply roast (or bake) chicken pieces instead. And when chicken pieces (drumsticks, breasts, and thighs) are so readily available in the meat sections of most major grocery stores, I haven’t even had to learn to break down a whole chicken either.

And while learning to roast a whole chicken (and to break down a roasting chicken) is on my culinary to-do list, generally when I feel like making roast chicken for dinner, I usually end up making roasted chicken pieces instead. It’s not exactly the same thing, but it’s similar enough, and besides, it’s plenty more convenient and easy.

But simply roasting (or baking) this broken-down chicken with a sprinkling of salt and pepper isn’t often enough to impart big flavour to the chicken meat. So I quite often marinate the chicken pieces from anywhere between thirty to sixty minutes prior to placing them in the oven to cook. How long they sit to marinate depends on the kind of marinade I’ve put together, and just how strong I want the flavours to be in the chicken.

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This garlicky chicken is flavourful and easy to prepare, and is especially tasty with blanched green beans and bitter greens.

Working with the dark meat of a chicken (that is, the drumsticks and thighs) immediately helps to build a flavourful supper. I did a quick bit of research about the difference between the white and dark meat in chicken, and apparently besides the higher fat content of dark meat (which affects flavour considerably), dark meat has higher levels of myoglobin (a protein that supplies oxygen to muscles) than white meat does. This contributes a darker colour to the meat of a chicken’s legs and thighs, which makes sense since chickens are flightless birds, and rely on their leg muscles for mobility. The dark meat in a chicken has a stronger and more distinctive flavour than the white meat, but still works as an excellent base for building up even more flavours through a marinade.

Marinating meat helps to improve the flavour and tenderness of meats long before the cooking process even begins. Typically they include a base liquid made with oil (as a binding agent—one that pulls double duty helping marinade ingredients adhere together and also to marinating meat itself), salt and spices (which can be dried or fresh for a moderate or intensified flavour), and with an acidic ingredient (like citrus juice or vinegar) to help tenderize the meat proteins. The marinade I put together this weekend imparts some serious flavour to the chicken. This particular marinade has a serious base in garlic and oregano, but it isn’t overwhelming. The strong garlic flavour is tempered by the creamy tanginess of yogurt, and then it’s brightened up with the addition of a freshly grated and squeezed lemon.

This marinade recipe is evocative of Greek flavours, and the chicken thighs and drumsticks need only to marinate for forty-five minutes in order to reap the full flavour of the marinade’s ingredients. When it comes time to cook the chicken, arrange the thighs and drumsticks in a baking dish with the thickest ends of the meat settled near the edges of the baking dish. This way, the meat is sure to be thoroughly cooked during its time in the hot oven. Extra marinade can be added to the baking dish around the chicken pieces before the raw chicken is placed in the oven to cook. It will essentially act as a basting or braising liquid, and result in moist and tender meat, but it can affect how the chicken browns. If you choose to add extra marinade to your baking dish, it should only be added at the beginning of the cooking process as the marinade will have juices from the raw chicken still within it. Having less marinade in the cooking dish will help your chicken to brown up more uniformly as it roasts.

Try this marinade the next time you want a chicken dinner full of delicious, savoury, garlicky goodness, but be warned: mincing this many cloves of garlic can be quite … fragrant.

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Not a roast chicken dinner, but it’s still chicken, and it was roasted! (Or… well, actually baked. Close enough.)

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Bon Appétit’s Roasted Chicken Breast with Chickpeas, Tomatoes, and Paprika!

Bon Appétit’s recipe for Roast Chicken Breast with Garbanzo Beans, Tomatoes, and Paprika is one of the first recipes I tried out when I was first making weeknight suppers for my family. It isn’t a very complicated recipe (which was a good thing, since back then, I had even less experience in the kitchen than I have now), and it shares some similar attributes with my family’s usual way of preparing chicken for supper.

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The roasted tomatoes and cilantro give the meal its sharp acidity, the yogurt mixture balances it, and the meaty chicken breast and chickpeas carry and complement the flavours of cumin and paprika nicely.

Whenever my mum roasts chicken pieces for supper (usually chicken legs or thighs, she prepared whole roast chickens differently), she always makes a point of seasoning the chicken pieces with paprika. It’s a nicely fragrant and earthy spice, with a subdued flavour profile, and adds a rich colour to whatever meats you season with it. When I went looking for a recipe that I could try out, I immediately tried to find a chicken recipe that featured paprika. (Because my family was already familiar with it, and I knew we were sure to have it on hand in our spice rack!) A quick internet search containing the keywords “chicken” and “paprika” led me to Bon Appétit’s website, its catalogue of recipes, and this recipe which immediately appealed to me, of course!

Chickpeas (another name for garbanzo beans) are one of my favourite legumes, and this recipe features roasted tomatoes too, which I love. Cooking tomatoes intensifies their flavour, and can turn a bunch of humdrum hothouse tomatoes from the supermarket into a wonderful part of your meal (especially if you were to roast them with entire cloves of peeled and trimmed garlic—the buttery, nutty flavour of the cooked garlic tempers and offsets the tomatoes’ acidity nicely). Therefore, this recipe has become one of my go-to recipes when it comes to putting together a hot meal for my family (although I usually have to make a pot of rice as well since my dad doesn’t like chickpeas very much).

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You know it’s done when the chicken is cooked through, and the tomatoes have burst and softened.

Paprika is essentially dried sweet red peppers which have been ground to a fine powder. It’s a popular component in Hungarian cooking, and generally Hungarian paprika is thought to be the finest paprika available in terms of quality and most flavour. (It’s probably safe to say that Hungarian paprika has the most cultural caché and value when it comes to the subject of paprika produced by region.) Hungarian paprika is divided into six sub-classes ranging from delicate in flavour and spiciness to powerfully flavourful and spicy. For the recipe today, I used a smoked paprika. Its colour is a brilliant red, its texture is soft and crumbling, and it has the most wonderful earthy and smoky aroma.

A lot of food companies and chefs use paprika specifically for its deep red colour (as paprika loses some of its flavour when it is heated), and often it is mixed with a bit of heated oil (or oil that will be heated) in order to disperse its colour through other ingredients. In this dish, it is mixed with extra virgin olive oil and mixed into an uncooked yogurt mixture as well as spread throughout ingredients that are set to be roasted at a high temperature for about twenty minutes or so. If the flavour of the paprika is reduced or overwhelmed by the flavour of the other ingredients in the roasting dish, it is still in full flavour effect in the cool and tangy yogurt mixture!

If I were to alter the recipe, I would perhaps add another half-tablespoon of paprika into the mix, and cut the oil measurement down a bit. I generally find that during the roasting process, a lot of water is released from the tomatoes and that provides sufficient liquid to keep the chicken from drying out (and even better, that liquid helps to ensure there’s never really an issue with ingredients sticking to the bottom of the pan, or scorching while they roast!). If you’d prefer to use skinless, and boneless chicken breasts for this dish, you absolutely can (that’s all I had on hand this time, and they worked out fine) although the bone-in sort may offer a bit more flavour to the meat as the bones themselves heat throughout the cooking process. I’ve never prepared the meal using skin-on, and bone-in chicken breasts, though I’m sure that using them would result in serving a fairly similar, delicious supper. Try this recipe the next time you’re looking for a quick, brightly coloured, and flavourful chicken supper! It would go great with a salad of dark, leafy greens tossed in a balsamic dressing, and with a hunk of soft, freshly-baked bread on the side.

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Mm, leftovers! (This is just as good the next day as it is the day it’s made.)

Hillary’s Very Basic, Totally Alterable Chili Recipe! (With thekitchn.com’s Jalapeño Cheddar Corn Muffins!)

At its most essential, chili is simply a thick stew of meat (usually beef) and spices. Usually it will include tomatoes, corn, and beans, too. There are countless ways to make chili, and nearly everyone who makes it with any kind of regularity seems to have their own particular preferences about they make chili and how they think chili should be made.

In fact, the “proper” methods of making chili can be such a point of contention in the United States between aficionados of the dish, that there are numerous chili cook-offs held each year, and several semi- to totally-official, state-styled variations on the stuff exist. There’s a kind of reverence that surrounds the dish—it’s a cultural touchstone for a lot of people in the southern border states in the US (particularly in Texas), since a geographic region’s popular food is a good reflection of its cultural influences and participants.

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A big pot of chili is exactly what this weekend called for!

But since I’m not from the southern United States (or Texas specifically), I don’t feel like I have any claim to being any sort of chili ‘purist’. While I can appreciate a debate (or feisty argument) about what makes a ‘proper’ pot of chili, I don’t really feel as though I need to get involved and offer my two cents on the subject–especially when there are folks who are ‘in the know’ making much better cases for their particular favourite methods than I could about mine! Actually, to be honest, I’m perfectly happy to make up a big pot of meaty, spicy stew that’s jam-packed with tomatoes, beans, and peppers, label the tasty stuff ‘chili’, and not give a single thought as to whether I’m making it ‘right’ or not. As long as it’s got the main flavour profiles of beefy meatiness and a particular kind of spiciness (and it’s a hearty dish), it’s chili to me!

And after this weekend’s bizarre turns of weather—first 30°C in the sunshine on Saturday, then a low of 10°C in the persistent, pouring rain on Sunday, I thought a big pot of chili and a pan of cornbread muffins were the perfect supper to alleviate the dreary gloom and wet, and warm a person up from the inside-out.

I wasn’t really working with any particular chili recipe in mind, and sort of made the chili up as I went, using ingredients that I already had on hand in the pantry. I think the only items I really needed to pick up from the grocery store was the package of chorizo sausage (which is more Spanish or Portuguese in origin than Mexican, to be honest). Chili, despite what the purists say, can be a very versatile and forgiving dish—so I went a little nuts adding different ingredients to it, while trying to keep its main flavours resonant.

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This picture is cut off a little bit because while these muffins were set to cool, my dad stole one and stuffed it in his face. I came into the kitchen to take pictures for this blog post, and found him standing there, trying to talk around a mouthful of cornbread, “What are these? Can I have another?”

And of course, I had some of the sharp cheddar cheese left over from the other week’s Apple Cheddar Quick Bread recipe, so I thought I might make a cheddar jalapeño cornbread too, and get as much spicy pepper flavour into supper as I could. I used thekitchn.com’s recipe for jalapeño cheddar corn muffins for my cornbread recipe, but lessened the amount of sugar added to 1/8 of a cup. (Cornbread requires a bit of sugar, but I was worried that it might come out a little too sweet.)

The spiciness of the chili can slightly overwhelm the subtle spiciness of the seeded jalapeño in the cornbread, but not its flavour, and both components of the supper work very well together. Check after the ‘Read More’ to find my recipe for homemade, non-purist, rainy Sunday-evening-in-Winnipeg chili, and you can find directions for making your own!

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Despite what the soup-bowl mug might suggest, there’s no mushrooms in this chili! (Although, I bet they’d be a nice addition and add a different level of meaty flavour too)!

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