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Memoir of a muffin

When I tasted my first bran muffin at the corner of College and Bathurst at The Mars, it was a revelation. I was 19, wore a peasant skirt over Kodiak boots and rolled my own cigarettes with Drum tobacco. I thought myself street-wise but was anything but … Just incredibly curious and always, always hungry. Thus, that first ravenous bite into a Mars bran muffin – dark with molasses and dense like black forest cake – is pure gold in my food memory bank.

My boyfriend Bob was also a revelation. Nothing about him resembled where I came from. He hadn’t grown up in North Toronto or gone to Upper Canada College (like my brother, father or grandfather) but he sure knew enough about betting to pique my father’s gambling instincts  and instill a gin rummy playing camaraderie between them.

One summer evening at a family cottage dinner, my stately grandmother innocently asked “And what is it that you do, my dear?” while passing Bob the gravy boat.

“I’m a bookie,” chirped Bob grinning like a cherub, thrilled to make this reveal. Nonnie promptly cleared her throat and my grandfather mumbled “Holy sailor” but no one else asked another word, quickly sweeping this unpleasant news under the nearest carpet.

IMG_2896But back to the muffin. The Mars muffin. It was big, filling and dotted with plump, fat raisins. They were served hot from the oven, sliced in half with a large pat of cold butter wedged inside and fully melted in seconds. Diners, breakfast eggs, take-out baklava and percolated coffee played large in my coming of culinary age. These gigantic muffins were new to diners in the 70s and customers would line up in front of the cash register hoping to leave with half a dozen of these towering –no, glistening – babies stuffed inside a Mars embossed, white cardboard box.

Near that same cash register, along the long, white Formica diner bar, were stools occupied by inner-city characters of dubious distinction. Bob seemed to know them all. They had nicknames like Baldy, Joe the Dipper or Car Fare. Some came “packing” and others had Mafia affiliations following them like shadows.

Bob, being Bob, liked to break away pieces of my W.A.S.P. veneer by unexpectedly pushing me in front of one of these cigar smoking men at the Mars saying, “Hey Dukey, meet my girlfriend Lynn.  She’s a Haver-girl.” I seethed at these embarrassments…  but they didn’t stop me from moving to New York with Bob a year later and attending an Ivy League college while he worked as a bouncer at Studio 54.

IMG_2898But back to the muffins.  I made some today in my West coast kitchen as the rain pelted across a gray, foggy horizon in a day-long deluge. I searched through my baking boxes and pulled out a bag of wheat bran, which now looks oddly old school next to newer fibrous fads like chia, flax or hemp. I found some spelt which adds such friendly nuttiness to any baking equation.

I mixed the dry and wet ingredients in two separate bowls. Quick breads and muffins all like this preparatory segregation with just minimal combining prior to the bake. Crosby’s molasses is a necessary must if you want real tasting bran muffins. And remember to measure the oil in the measuring cup first as prep for the molasses, which will slide out of the measuring cup effortlessly if you do.

Unlike the Mars bran muffin, these ones are good for you: moist, satisfying and rich. I’m willing to place a double-or-nothing bet on Crisco as the trans-fat source of those yesteryear muffins. Yet still, I savour that muffin’s nostalgia and happily munched on all these memories when creating, baking and eating my latest version.

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Banana Bran Muffins

Healthy, fibre-full muffins with a rich, moist texture and just a hint of banana or apple flavour.

Dry Ingredients:

1 ½ cups          wheat bran

¾ cup               all purpose flour

¾ cup               spelt

¾ cup               raisins or chopped dates

1 tsp                 cinnamon

1 tsp                 baking soda

1 tsp                 baking powder

½ tsp                salt

Wet ingredients

2 eggs              mixed

1 cup               mashed, really ripe bananas (about 2 ½) OR unsweetened apple sauce

¾ cup              plain yogurt

½ cup              milk

1/3 cup            molasses

¼ cup              vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 400 F

Mix dry and wet ingredients separately in large bowl.  Combine until just mixed. Use a ¼ cup measure to dollop into large paper muffin cups. Bake 20 minutes.  Makes 12 large muffins.

 

Bear plum jam

We had been painting the white picket fence for hours in the afternoon shade. Big, black crows screeched incessantly, punctuated by the soft, nasal bleats of nuthatches echoing through the forest trees. David wore a black shirt and shorts that were splattered with white splashes of our 1-2-3 primer.  We had been working for hours in the hot, BC summer sun.  With only two sections of finished fence behind us, it was time to stop.

David took the paint brushes inside the house to wash up.

I wrapped my hands around the bars of our trusty wheelbarrow and started to amble towards the driveway. Full of dried-up blackberry bush, the wheelbarrow’s contents slid and scratched against the metal sides, the wheel rumbling against the dry, clay earth.

No crows, no nuthatches, but a sudden loud crashing of branches broke out.

I looked towards the orchard and watched a massive, black bear come falling out of our plum tree, some 100 feet away.

When I say massive, I mean the size of a Smart car. Black and furry. Yet ominously silent.

My jaw slack in awe, I watched him land on all four paws and hurry off. Bears don’t gallop, or race. They truck mysteriously fast like an ambling thunder cloud, a sheet of dark light that thankfully went away, not towards me.

“David!” I yelped at the top of my voice.

Worried the bear would hear me, I toned it down to a whisper-shout with, “There’s, there’s a bear!”

“Whaaaaaat?” David emerged, hands still wet from washing the brushes. “Where?”

“He ran that way,” I said, pointing towards the orchard. “Don’t follow him.”

But of course, David did, thrilled and happy, calling back gaily, “It’s the wild west, baby.”

Minutes later, we stood beside our bear-mangled plum tree. A large, deep gash from his claws streaked down the trunk. A large heap of black, seed-studded scat lay nearby.  Up above, broken branches hung in disarray. Half-eaten plums littered the ground.

I reached up and pulled down a plum and popped it in my mouth.

Soft, and deliriously sweet and sour, this orange-yellow plum was perfectly ripe.  Time for harvest. Thank you hungry bear for finding the ripest plums in the orchard. This was a wild, but timely alert.

David walked back to the garage and carried out the ten-foot ladder. He propped it beneath the tree and I climbed up into the branches. Balancing a bucket on the top rung, I started to pluck plum after tiny plum from the tree.

Novice fruit farmers, we thought the ladder, the bucket and all these plums would just come together effortlessly but it’s an awkward balance:  Reach too far, and the ladder topples; grab too many, and some fall. There are always more to be harvested that are too high, too far, too out of reach.

Still, in no time, our bucket is full and we carry our cache back to the farm house.

Star Anise Plum Jam

With so many plums, my jam creativity has blossomed. I’d rather spice up a jam than leave it plain. This jam can go on toast, pair beside pork or chicken or make a dramatic debut on your next cheese plate. The licorice notes of star anise are strong in this jam, so feel free to cut in half if you want just a whisper. But don’t mess with any of the other ingredients.

6 cups plum puree (use yellow, orange and red plums) about 6 lbs whole fruit

5 cups sugar

2 inches ginger, finely grated

4 star anise

1 stick cinnamon

1 dried red hot pepper, cut in half

To pit plums, put in a large pot and fill with just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook just a minute or until skins start to peel off the plums. Carefully drain out and discard all the hot water. Transfer plums to a large bowl and leave at room temperature to cool enough to handle or refrigerate, covered with plastic wrap, for up to 3 days. Using a sieve, remove pits, taking care to reserve as much plum puree and skins as possible. Wrap the pits in cheesecloth, knotted with kitchen string.

Put sugar in a microwave-safe glass bowl and heat for 3 min on high.

In a large pot, combine plum puree, heated sugar, pits (tied in cheesecloth), grated ginger, star anise, cinnamon and hot dried red pepper. Bring to a strong, rolling boil, and cook for 10 minutes stirring constantly or until jelling point is reached. (Jelling point can be determined by placing a spoon into the mixture and watching how the jam falls off.  When the drops start to drip in long strands or sheet together, jelling has been reached.)

Using sterilized jars (boiled for 5 minutes), fill jam mixture into jars ½ inch from the top, run a thin spatula around the inside of the jar to remove air bubbles, wipe off tops of jars with a clean cloth, top with softened lid (placed in a bowl of boiling hot water for 5 minutes) and closed with ring, finger-tight.

Process for 5 minutes (covered with at least 3 inches of boiling water).

Yields  8 1/2   250 mL jars

Asian BBQed Chicken 101

My go-to marinade for pork or chicken is Asian-style.  That means soy sauce, cooking sherry and lots of shredded ginger and garlic: four essential items I like to have in my kitchen despite ginger’s proclivity to go into hiding. That spicy root likes to sneak behind a box of cereal or get buried in my crisper thus a couple of chopped green onions often must substitute. Add a little sesame oil and sugar and this marinade transforms into a rich teriyaki sauce that is soaked up by the meat and translates into something caramelized and super-moist on the barbecue.

IMG_1175Chicken thighs are a perfect place to begin. I’m talking bone-in, skin-on to ensure real flavour. Forget those fat and expensive chicken breasts that often taste no better than the Styrofoam they are packaged on.  We want dark, flavour-filled meat and you’ll find that with the thighs.

img_1178.jpgBarbecuing chicken with the skin-on may create flare-ups if cooked on direct heat. But any BBQ-pro knows to use indirect heat, heating the two outer grills on high and leaving the middle grill off. According to my in-house BBQ specialist, you need to pre-heat the outer grills for 5- 10 min (lid closed) then lay on the thighs, skin side up, along the centre grill. Wait a couple of minutes, turn them over, basting with the remaining marinade. A long cooking time, lid closed, with constant turning and basting are the keys to success, says my BBQ king.

Dark juicy meat calls for 30-40 min depending on the size of the thighs and heat of your grill.  Be sure to test one thigh before serving, making sure the juices run clear and the meat is well cooked, especially near the bone. You aren’t apt to overcook or dry out an Asian marinated chicken thigh but you might be tempted to say the cooking is over before it is.  Give these babies the time they need and know that they can rest covered with aluminum foil for up to 10 minutes before serving, too.

IMG_1180Chances are you’ll be drinking some beer or wine while you cook and perhaps entertaining. Despite all that partying, promise me you’ll keep food safety first and remember that barbecuing is the number one cause of a dreadful affair called cross-contamination.

Remember that dish you carried the raw meat or poultry out to the barbecue in? Send it (and its raw juices/contamination) right back to the kitchen once your marinated meat is cooking.  Use a new, clean platter to receive your cooked goods and alas, you will cross over into a land free of food poisoning and full of Asian barbecue flavour.

I like to serve Asian bbqed chicken with hot, steaming Jasmine rice,  stir-fried Shanghai bok choy and/or a quick cucumber salad. This meal is quintessential summer food, in my books.

Asian BBQed chicken thighs

While chili paste is essential to this marinade it does not produce a spicy chicken thigh.  Trust me.

½ cup   cooking sherry

¼ cup   soy sauce

1 tbsp  sesame oil

1 tsp    sugar

1 tsp    sambal oelek

1 inch knob ginger, grated

2 garlic cloves, pressed or grated

8          skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs

In a bowl, combine cooking sherry, soy, sesame oil, sugar, sambal oelek, ginger and garlic. Pour over chicken thighs (I like to marinate in a glass casserole with thighs in a single layer). Marinate for at least 30 min and up to overnight, in the fridge.

Barbecue thighs on indirect heat (as described above) for 30-40 minutes or until juices run clear and meat is thoroughly cooked.

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Stir-fried Shanghai bok choy

Most Asian markets carry this green leaf, green stem bok choy (about 8 inches long).

2 tbsp              canola oil

1-inch              knob ginger, grated

1                      large bunch Shanghai bok choy, stems and leaves separated, washed thoroughly and chopped

½ tsp               salt

Heat a wok on high.  Add oil and swirl around the sides of the work. Add ginger and stir rapidly for 10 seconds, add bok choy stems, stir 2 minutes. Add leaves, salt and ¼ cup water and cover with lid. Leave to steam/cook until leaves are wilted and stems are tender. Serve.

Easy Asian cucumber salad

English cucumbers are long and thin, wrapped in plastic and greenhouse grown, versus the pudgy, thick-skinned field-grown cucumbers.

1                      English cucumber, sliced thinly

2 tbsp              seasoned rice vinegar

1 tsp                sugar

1 tsp                sesame oil

Pinch               hot pepper flakes

¼ cup               chopped fresh coriander

Salt                  to taste

In a medium bowl combine all ingredients and serve.

 

 

 

Digging Sweet Potatoes

Last week I put on my boots and jeans and boarded one of two, large tour buses heading for a sweet potato farm in Simcoe, Ontario. You’d think the author of a book on fresh produce might know that sweet potatoes grew in Ontario – but she didn’t. And you’d think that the farm we were about to visit might be run-of-the mill, but it sure wasn’t.IMG_4914 Continue reading