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Happy-Gourmand

Rations and bread crusts

Rations, care packages and bread crusts

I suppose at first glance that title might not seem like a logical bunch of stuff. But since I have your attention, let me share my train of thought…

Remembrance Day is approaching. It’s been 100 years since the First World War ended. In many ways the world has changed a great deal, but there are still soldiers away from home, and places where people are suffering and hungry.

We are fortunate enough to live in a part of the world where these things mostly don’t touch us at home. My way of offering a note of remembrance this year is to reflect on the food during times of conflict, and how our sustenance provides much more than calories and nutrients.

Anyone with a relative who lived during one of the Great Wars will have heard of “rations”. The concept of rationing food items that were the mainstay of our diet was started to try and supply enough to soldiers on the battlefields.

In Britain during the First World War, everyone had a ration card – including King George and Queen Mary. They would go to their local butcher or grocer and receive their allotted amounts of butter, bread, sugar, meat and cheese.

No one starved, but many went hungry.

A government initiative encouraged people to grow vegetable to supplement their diet. In Germany, there was similar rationing as well, due to the British naval blockade of supplies.

Meanwhile on the battlefield, the soldiers received some food, but their meals were also rationed. The science of preserving food was in its infancy and often the condition of items was less than desirable.

It is said that the “bully beef” (canned corned beef) was barely edible if one was lucky enough to warm it up, but eaten cold (as was often the case) it was disgusting. 

Manonochie stew (a thin broth with turnips and carrots, named for the company that prepared it) was no better. The biscuits accompanying the rations were so hard that they had to be dunked in tea to be broken.

Tea was a crucial element for British soldiers, as you might expect. Simple tastes were crucial to maintaining some kind of positive morale.

Here is what one historian wrote:

“Tea was a vital part of the British soldier's rations. It was a familiar comfort and concealed the taste of the water, which was often transported to the frontline in petrol tins.

"If the troops were lucky, they got bacon a few times a week, which they'd cook themselves over a candle taking care not to create smoke and attract a barrage of German shells.”

Away from the frontlines, soldiers would likely have a cook (one cook for every 100 soldiers). They still dealt with food shortages, and had to adjust to local ingredients, but the variety of their diet was a bit better. (British soldiers weren’t fans of “stinky French cheese” but potatoes could still be made into chips.)

There were generally only two industrial-sized pots to cook everything in, however, so quite quickly all the meals – and even the tea – started to taste the same. And the kitchen was usually at the back of the camp, farthest away from soldiers fighting, so getting hot food out to men in position was virtually impossible.

Earlier in the First World War and Second World War, soldiers might have received the odd package from home, which would often contain sweets and treats like cake or cookies, or even a can of sardines.

Later in the battles though, shortages plagued the populations at home as much as those on the battlefield. A shortage of flour in 1916 meant biscuits and bread had to be made from ground turnips.

In the 1940s, sugar was rationed as far away as America, so sweets were a rare commodity. Packages with chocolate, jam, maybe tea or coffee would be a welcome sight in the trenches.

Anything that didn’t taste like where they were was welcome.

Did you know the term “care package” officially began after the Second World War?

A relief organization in the U.S. called the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe started sending leftover ration packs to war-torn countries after the war ended, as a sort of temporary assistance.

These packages were all ready for shipping and provided needed relief. As time went on and the ration packs were used up, the teams at CARE began customizing the packages – sending tea instead of coffee for the British, including spaghetti for the Italians, and offering kosher packages.

In 1953, the organization changed its name to the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere, and it still exists today, sending packages across the world where they are needed.

When I spent a year in France during my university studies, a definite high point was receiving a care package from my parents with the special tastes of Canada.

As much as I loved French pastries and coffee, good old Cheezies and Oreo cookies were a welcome treat as I studied long hours. I wasn’t in need of food to keep me healthy or alive, but it certainly did my soul good to nibble on goodies from the home front.

One does have to learn how to appreciate good food. I was lucky enough to have a mother who was a good cook, so I have nothing to complain about.

As a kid though, there were days when we had things I liked less than others. Everyone in my generation seems to have a story that relates to leaving the bread crust behind on one’s plate (or the turnips, or mashed carrots, or whatever it was we didn’t like).

The parental response was always, “Be grateful. There are starving children in Africa who would be happy to have those crusts.”

I do believe my appreciation for the special taste of homemade food began in that moment.

We now live in a modern world, with many conveniences in the kitchen and the rest of our daily lives. I can still say I have nothing to complain about. I do try to remember to be thankful.

I shall be attending the Remembrance Day service with our little Sparks and the rest of the Girl Guides, standing in appreciation for all those who have served and sacrificed to make the world a better place.

As this year comes to an end with what we call the season of giving, I shall also be trying to give back; I want to help some of those who aren’t in a position to leave behind those bread crusts.

We can all do something to help make the world a better place.

Generosity is not something you can ration, especially generosity of spirit.



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Changing my gears

I have now unpacked my wool sweaters and long pants and tucked away the flip flops and flimsy sun dresses.

The tender plants in the garden have been brought in or covered with mulch and the patio chairs are stacked up. And with most of the lettuce gone from the garden, I don’t seem to feel like salad any more.

Rather, the tomatoes are being used for spaghetti sauce and broth for lamb stew that we can linger over as the evening cools off.

As fall arrives, there is always a melancholy at leaving summer behind, but then once it heads into full gear it seems that the crispness in the air and the changing colours bring a new outlook.

With the change in the clocks, I always feel my internal gears changing too; I am mindful of trying to go with the flow of the change and not have those gears lock up.

I enjoy the golden light of autumn that seems to make us all a bit more nostalgic, and I love the comfort food that graces the table again as we gather round with friends to catch up on old news.

The changing of gears when the seasons change is a natural part of life’s process, and letting it happen to you can be very cleansing.

Here is your checklist to ensure you get the most out of this new season. A sort of tune-up if you will, to make certain the machine is working well and the gears do not grind as you move from one to the other…

  • Take a walk through a vineyard or orchard, or to a hilltop where you can enjoy the view
  • Watch a sunset and a moonrise (preferably with someone so you can make the most of the romance in the moment. Just so you know, dogs count as suitable companions.)
  • Bite into an apple right from a fruit stand or market stall — listen to the crisp crunch of the skin and taste the flavours of a fall day
  • If you have kids, take them to the back yard or a park with lots of leaves and jump in a pile. (If you don’t have kids and can’t “borrow” any, just blame it on the fresh air going to your head. One important note though: make sure those leaves aren’t soggy.)
  • Savour a stew or a pot pie for dinner, and follow it with a comfy homemade dessert like bread pudding.
  • Enjoy the company of good friends and toast their health – if you feel ambitious, you can even start up a gourmet club and have everyone host evenings in a round-robin format (it doesn’t have to be dinner and could even be pot luck to accommodate today’s busy schedules)

This weekend, Martin and I will be doing all of those things, so we will toast your health.

Here’s wishing you many happy moments in that golden light and a good start to the coming winter when we will shift gears again.



Food for your Soul

I have talked about the strong feelings of change that many of us feel at this time of year. The changing colours and weather seem to bring a sense of melancholy to some, restlessness in others. Historically these tumultuous feelings have been linked to the holidays of the season.

For those who believe in the Druidic or similar philosophies that link themselves to the seasons, the time around the autumn Full Moon and the equinox are said to be when the barrier between the netherworld and ours is at its most fragile. Souls may pass back onto our side during this time. 

You might be familiar with Halloween and the pagan roots of donning a costume to scare away bad spirits. Or perhaps you know of its predecessor, Samhain (pronounced “sah-win”), the Gaelic festival celebrating the end of the harvest season. There is also the Catholic All Saint’s Day. All of these have a connection to souls who have departed our world. 

Perhaps this mystical element is what gives Hallowe’en its edge. There is something crazy about it, encouraging excess and silliness. On any other day of the year, who would tell their kids to gather as much candy as they could carry? When else would you entertain the idea of donning green face paint and a pointy hat, or wings and sparkles in your hair? All Hallow’s Eve is the time when anything goes.

For most of us, Halloween is a fun day to dress up and have a somewhat reasonable excuse to eat lots of crazy candy. Everyone is encouraged to get into the spirit of things (pardon the pun). Kids can often dress up for school that day, or at the very least will be attending some sort of neighbourhood gathering at a mall or community hall if they don’t go trick-or-treating door to door. Perhaps they dress up as what they want to be when they grow up, or maybe its their favourite character in a movie or book. Everyone deserves to feel like a superhero at least once in their lives, don’t you think?  And if they don a suit at an early age and decide they hate it, you might just save yourself the costs of helping with law school. 

The adults are not to be left out of the festivities. Many parents go to great efforts to decorate the house and dress up for the visitors to their door. My dad worked in the media business, and so one year he and some of his audio technicians created a scary soundtrack of sounds to play as the kids came up the walkway. The only problem was that it was so scary, lots of kids turned around and ran away. The good news was that my brother and I got mini chocolate bars in our lunches for a couple of weeks. 

Candy at Halloween even steps outside the boundaries of normal goodies. 

Popcorn balls? The urban myth is that these first occurred naturally in the late 1800s when extreme Nebraska weather at the end of the season caused them. First, extreme heat made the kernels pop right on the cobs in the fields. Then heavy rain caused the sorghum syrup in the stalks to leak out and stick the popcorn together. This can’t be disproven, as apparently the evidence was eaten by a swarm of locusts very soon after it happened.  
How about another treat from the 1800s, Candy Corn? Did you know it was originally marketed as chicken feed?

You might not have bobbed for an apple if you aren’t as old as I (wink), but do you like candy apples? They were invented in 1908 by a New Jersey candymaker who melted down cinnamon candies to dress up apples, since they were a popular fall food. Caramel apples came later; they were the brainchild of a Kraft employee in the 1950s who was trying to find a way to use up leftover caramels that didn’t get sold at Halloween. (I never did really like those little caramels, but that was probably because they got stuck in my braces.)

There are the grown-up costume parties too, where everyone gets to unleash their inner self – whether that be a princess, a minion, a Transformer or a sexy nurse. I for one like the idea that once a year we can show an alter ego and not have to offer any explanation. There may be treats at those parties too, and all kinds of crazy punches; most of us can remember a “witch’s brew” from some Hallowe’en party that might have left us feeling like we jumped through time when we woke up the following morning.

You don’t need me to find a recipe for a witch’s brew or Jello shots – I’ll leave the partying to you. My contribution is a gentle one to celebrate this time of connecting with all souls. I’m going back to another Medieval tradition, when people went door to door asking for food in exchange for prayers made for loves one who had departed the world. Those giving food would often give out Soul Cakes, a sort of scone or biscuit that was often studded with dried fruit or raisins. They would feel good sharing food and knowing that someone was thinking of their lost loved ones. The person getting the cake was thanked for their good spirit with some sustenance. Like most traditions, there is no one recipe or right way to prepare them but the recipe I’m sharing is one that pays homage to the symbols we love about this time of year.

I know some of you would rather snuggle up with a friend and watch a horror movie to celebrate, but what can I say – this is my foodie version of the holiday. Extra points are given for those who dress up when they share their cakes. They don’t keep very long, so find more friends or make new ones to make sure they aren’t wasted. 

SOUL CAKES  (from T. Susan Chang)

Makes 12 to 15 2-inch soul cakes

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, ground fresh if possible
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (this spice is said to encourage warm feelings of friendship and comfort when people smell and taste it)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Generous pinch of saffron threads (to symbolize the sun, so important for the harvest, and the bonfires of Samhain)
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup currants, raisins or other dried fruit

For the Glaze:

  • 1 egg yolk, beaten (you can substitute 2 tbsp cream if you wish – it’s not as golden but it will give a bit of shine. You can add sprinkles after the milk if you want some pizzazz.)

 

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  • Combine the flour, the nutmeg, cinnamon and salt in a small bowl. Mix well with a fork.
  • Crumble the saffron threads into a small saucepan and heat over low heat just until they become aromatic, taking care not to burn them. Add the milk and heat just until hot to the touch. The milk will have turned a bright yellow. Remove from heat.
  • Cream the butter and sugar together in a medium bowl with a wooden spoon (or use an electric mixer with the paddle attachment). Add the egg yolks and blend in thoroughly with the back of the spoon. Add the spiced flour and combine as thoroughly as possible; the mixture will be dry and crumbly.
  • One tablespoon at a time, begin adding in the warm saffron milk, blending vigorously with the spoon. When you have a soft dough, stop adding milk; you probably won't need the entire half-cup. (If you have some left, you can use this as your glaze.)
  • Turn the dough out onto a floured counter and knead gently, with floured hands, until the dough is uniform. Roll out gently to a thickness of 1/2 inch. Using a floured 2-inch round cookie or biscuit cutter, cut out as many rounds as you can and set on an ungreased baking sheet. You can gather and re-roll the scraps, gently. The round shape is like the sun, and also like a coin – it makes a lovely offering.
  • Decorate the soul cakes with currants (you can make a cross pattern if you wish, or a star – whatever inspires you.) Then brush liberally with the glaze. Bake for 15 minutes, until just golden and shiny. Serve warm if possible. 




The transition of taste

Here in the Okanagan, we have been particularly fortunate this year with beautiful fall weather and the corresponding slow change of colours.

Have you noticed the colours of our food changes too as we head into cooler, shorter days?

It is a scientific fact that people who live in cooler climates behave like the creatures in those climates when it comes to preparing for winter.

We are more prone to “nesting”, creating a cozy home and snuggling down in it as opposed to roaming around outside. We also crave more fattening foods as our bodies condition themselves for a hibernation.

I don’t tell you this to justify those extra cookies you have in your kitchen or the extra helping of potatoes you couldn’t resist at dinner. It’s okay that we give in once in a while. But knowing our bodies want these foods in our diet can help us create a new balance as we shift our meals into winter mode.

I often suggest including salad dinners as a way to offset richer meals. This time of year it starts getting harder to find salad ingredients though, and who wants a cold meal on a cold day? So how about making a fall or winter salad?

Here are my favourite 5 ways to switch things up:

  • Use a Grain as a base instead of lettuce — quinoa and kashi (roasted buckwheat groats) are two gluten free options. Quinoa offers protein as well. Rice also works well, or ancient grains like couscous, freekah and barley. They take less time than rice to cook and you can make a batch ahead and keep it in the fridge for the week.
  • Sauté veggies instead of just having them raw as you do in summer salads. Zucchini, onions, mushrooms, peppers, celery — any or all of these can be tossed in a pan with a bit of oil and your herbs or spices of choice. Once cooked just until tender, toss them with your grain and voila!
  • Roast veggies for extra flavour. Broccoli, cauliflower, chunks of onion, peppers, winter squash, sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, and Brussels sprouts are all delicious. Cut into pieces, toss with oil and salt and pepper, then roast at 400F (or 375F convection if you have  that option) for about 10-15 minutes depending on the vegetable and size of the pieces. You want them tender but not mushy, and brown bits are the best part. Add these to your grain or toss with meat or fish if you wish to create a dinner bowl.
  • Add texture with nuts, seeds, fruit, even a bit of greens. Toast nuts or seeds for about 5 minutes to awaken their oils and bring up their flavours. If you chop apples or pears ahead of time, put them in water with a squeeze of lemon juice to keep them from browning. Green like kale, spinach, arugula and herbs such as parsley, cilantro and mint are all fun additions.
  • Warm your dressing or sauce to bring out its flavours. You can use bought sauce or make your own (remember Google is your friend - search for new inspiration). Heat just until warm and then pour over your dish and toss. This is the crowning glory on winter-fying your meal, and it will kick up the flavours a notch from having it cold.

Lastly, I highly recommend pairing your winter salads with a hearty beverage. If you’re a wine geek like me, this is a fun chance to try a variety of wines and not just the very bold, full bodied reds.

This is not to say you can’t have these - drink what you like. I like Cotes du Rhone reds and Italian Barbera wines to mix things up. The beers of winter can be fun too — stouts and scotch ales are my favourites.

These gorgeous days leading up to the Hunter’s Moon need to be savoured. I’m not a hunter but I am a gatherer. I intend to stock my pantry with harvest goodies so I can enjoy the flavours through the winter as I snuggle up.

I hope I see you around at the last few farmer’s markets.

Bon appetit!



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About the Author

Kristin Peturson-Laprise is a customer experience specialist by trade, which means she is someone passionate about people having a good time. 

Her company, Wow Service Mentor, helps businesses enhance their customer experience through hands-on training, service programs, and special event coordination.

Kristin enjoys her own experiences too, and that is what she writes about in this column. She and her husband Martin Laprise (also known as Chef Martin, of The Chef Instead) love to share their passion for food and entertaining.  

Kristin says:

"Wikipedia lists a gourmand as a person who takes great pleasure in food. I have taken the concept of gourmandise, or enjoying something to the fullest, in all parts of my life. I love to grow and cook food, and I loved wine enough to become a Sommelier. I call a meal a success when I can convey that 'sense of place' from where the food has come . . . the French call that terroir, but I just call it the full experience. It might mean tasting the flavours of my own garden, or transporting everyone at the table to a faraway place, reminiscent of travels or dreams we have had."

 

E-mail Kristin at:  [email protected]

Check out her website here:  www.wowservicementor.com

 



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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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