Halibut Cheek Curry made with Cow-Op Love

Every day, we count our blessings to be living here in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. This is a food zone and an agricultural oasis. Our neighbours have farm stands, cows amble in nearby pastures, tractors slow down Herd Road traffic and grapes course through vineyards framed by mountains and mist.  Bounty-filled farmers’ markets can be found all over the valley  but during these pandemic times, lines are endlessly long due to Covid protocol.

Luckily for those of little patience, we can shop online at the wondrous Cow-Op where an incredible catalogue of local items, from kale to duck liver paté to garlic seed bulbs are posted for purchase.

Due to the immediate freshness of these orders, local vendors update the site weekly with prepared, frozen or just-harvested items which go live on the site every Thursday until midnight Monday.  Orders can be picked-up in Duncan and Victoria, or delivered.

Once we’d picked up our first order, David and I were hooked. Thursday trips to Hope Farm in Duncan were a charm. The farm is littered with ramshackle chicken yards and coops, mountainous rows of kale and Brussels sprouts and a large, empty, funky old barn where we pick up our order.

In June, we walked off with a box spilling over with luscious heads of green butter and red oak lettuce from Lenora Bee Apiary and Farm, bags of freshly milled rye, Einkorn and Neepawa flours from True Grain and small bundles of chèvre and Tomme de Vallée from Haltwhistle Cheese Company.  After sourcing my order from freezers and refrigerators scattered through the cavernous barn, a Cow-Op staff pointed to a tray of heirloom tomato starts on the ground nearby.  “Take me home” said the sign and I walked away with a slightly forlorn, but not forsaken Mountain Merit  heirloom tomato seedling that is still producing on my back porch.

While Thursday afternoon Cow-Op pickups have become the highlight of this foodie’s week, I don’t always remember to put in my order by the previous Monday night deadline.

Last week I not only remembered but found food goddesses by my side as I gently defrosted a package of frozen Halibut Cheeks from Drift Meat and Seafood.

I had curry on the brain. It started with stained fingers after grating fresh turmeric then ginger. Fragrant wafts of onion and garlic filled the kitchen, heightened by whole cumin and fennel seeds thrown into the mix.  I found two ripe Mountain Merit tomatoes and another opportunity for my tomatillos that are growing like a rash through my beds right now.

Even though I’ve de-husked a hundred this fall, each and every tomatillo makes me smile.  Once their papery wrapping is off, these little green orbs have a sticky coating that adheres like glue until rinsed off. Tomatillos taste like unripe, green tomatoes with a twist of lime, perfect for these soft halibut parcels infused with the flavours of the Cowichan Valley. Thank you Cow-Op for bringing it all to the table.

Halibut Cheek Curry

Inspired by my purchase of frozen halibut cheeks at the Cowichan Green Co-op, this curry is also perfect for tilapia, sole, spot prawns, shrimp or scallops. The trick to great seafood is to cook it ever so lightly until just done.

2 tbsp coconut oil

2 tsp whole cumin seeds

2 tsp whole fennel seeds

¼ tsp cayenne

1 large onion, chopped

1 tsp ground turmeric or 2-inches fresh, finely grated

1 large garlic clove, minced

1 inch fresh ginger, finely grated

2 medium tomatoes, chopped

4 tomatillos, chopped

2 fingerling or small potatoes, chopped

1 cup water

4 halibut cheeks, aprox

1 tsp salt

Freshly ground pepper

¼-1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Heat oil in a large saute pan at medium high.  Add cumin, fennel and cayenne, cook 1 min. Add onion, turmeric, garlic and ginger and continue cooking until the onions soften.  Add tomatoes, tomatillos, potatoes and 1 cup water. Bring to a boil then gently simmer, covered for 10-15 min or until potatoes are tender.  Add more water if the sauce seems dry.  Add fish and gently simmer/poach covered until just cooked, about 3-5 min. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Garnish with chopped, fresh cilantro.

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

Breaking bread

True confessions: I’m a little wired up about bread baking.  I do it weekly.  Sometimes daily.  The process never ceases to fascinate me. The day I stop being thrilled about a loaf of bread – before, during and after its creation – is a day not worth living for.

Once a new, gorgeous loaf is out of the oven and cool enough to touch, I have to photograph it.  I’ve been sharing much of this on Instagram and now it’s time to showcase some of my bread progeny here.

Green and black olives with thyme
Green and black olives with thyme

This is one of the first artisanal varieties I attempted back in the 90s when I baked just about every recipe in Amy’s Breads by Amy Scherber and Toy Kim Dupree. Amy owns a bakery in NYC and has come up with a brilliant sponge starter that offers an apt stepping stone to the next level up: the sourdough starter.

Olive bread is always a big hit, especially with my friend Danny who used to come to high school with olive sandwiches painstakingly created by her adoring mother who sliced olives off the pit and wedged them between two slices of buttered bread.  We thought Danny’s sandwiches were pretty weird back then. Little did we know she was a gourmet trendsetter.

Semolina and sesame loaves perched on bannetons
Semolina and sesame loaves perched on bannetons

I wanted to rise my loaves in bannetons like the French master bakers do, but I was too cheap to buy them.  Unavailable for purchase in Toronto, I found my first ones online at King Arthur Flour. All my American cookbooks had King Arthur Flour in their “Where to Shop” section but I choked when I saw the price: US$35 for a single basket! Fortunately, my mother was willing to fork over the big bucks when she found them on my birthday wish list.  I have treasured these light, airy baskets ever since.

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Here is a semolina sesame loaf that has spent the night in the refrigerator tucked inside a banneton, sealed within a large plastic bag. I dust (no, shower)  the banneton with rice flour before I turn a shaped loaf upside down and into it for the long, final rise.  The ridges of the reed basket form the circular pattern on top of the loaf which I flip on to a bread paddle lined with parchment. I simply cannot bake free form loaves without parchment paper. It works like a charm.

Roasted potato levain.
Roasted potato levain.

Photographing loaf after loaf can get a little monotonous.  I found a new backdrop with my living room couch! Ikea never looked so good.

My bread club has been doing communal bakes from the bible: Bread by Jeffrey Hamelman. The first time I made the recipe (pictured below) I used a preferment with a pinch of instant yeast (as the recipe instructs) but a fellow baker suggested I forget the yeast and use a starter instead.  I’ve been toying with roasted Yukon gold potatoes, sage and even spelt in several adaptations for a couple of weeks.

As my sister once observed, “You just can’t leave well enough alone, can you?”

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Roasted potato bread, page 117, Bread by Hamelman.

It’s true, I can’t. This photo above is my first attempt at Roasted Potato Bread  and it looked and tasted amazing. The crust was a deep amber, the residual rice flour from the banneton added artistic flare and flecks of Yukon gold potatoes and sage peaked through the crumb. But I had to mess with it, because my inner bread critic thought that crumb was too tight.

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Mado’s roasted potato levain.

Here above is the glorious result of my second try when I broke from the recipe and used a tablespoon of my trusty starter to make the preferment into a levain. Getting too technical? None of this really matters unless you are a bread nerd. And my friends are willing to listen to me talk bread as long as they get some bread.

Like my friend Randy.

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Cinnamon raisin levain.

He will nod and listen and say, “Uh huh, uh huh,” for hours of a monotonous Mado monologue on bread. He hardly says a word until the end, when he slips in, “Have you ever thought of cinnamon raisin?”

Many loaves go in his direction.  And when there is a dry spell, he’ll text me to say hello, finishing off with, “Some say white bread gets a bad rap…” That’s Randy-speak for “I want.”

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Vermont sourdough (mostly white with a tad of rye).

And in this case, he got.