There’s something exciting underway in the Canadian food blogging world. It’s called The Canadian Food Experience Project and it’s going to be a great focus on the wonderful and varied food culture we have here in Canada. Valerie, of the blog A Canadian Foodie is hosting it. On the 7th of each month I, and a bevy of other bloggers, will put up a post relating to a Canadian food topic, then on the 15th of the month all the links will be posted for you to check out. I think it will be a lot of fun!
This month’s topic (I’m a little late out of the starting gate) is:
My First Authentic Canadian Food Memory
The word ‘foraging’ springs to my mind immediately. . . for mushrooms, and stinging nettles, and tea herbs, and wild rose hips, and roots, and a host of wild berries of all kinds. My parents were German immigrants filled with knowledge of the many edible plants and foods to be found in the wild. They had both lived through extreme poverty and hardship during the war years and post-war time in Europe. Their survival often depended on what they could glean from the fields, forests and streams. My dad talked about catching homemade nets full of minnows in the ditches, which his mother ground whole into delicious ‘fish burgers’ and about he and his brothers catching swallows in deserted barn lofts to be cooked in soup. They were thankful to pick the meat off the tiny bones. My mom remembers picking nettles and herbs to be used in teas and for healing (both people and animals) and gleaning whatever grains or vegetables they could scrounge from the harvested fields.
When my parents and their families arrived in Canada as immigrants in the 1950′s, they brought with them all that knowledge. No, they didn’t need to catch swallows and minnows any more, but they continued their foraging ways whenever they could. My dad was a hunter and fisherman, so we ate a lot of fish (definitely bigger than minnows) and wild meat, prepared in lip-smackingly tasty ways by my mom. My mom has a deep addiction to wild berry picking. She still spends days-at-a-time every summer picking wild blueberries and huckleberries and saskatoons, filling pails and pails of the sweet berries.
When we were children, berry-picking days were one of summer’s great pleasures, for many reasons. There was the break from daily chores and farm work. (Although cleaning and sorting and canning and freezing the berries awaited us when we got home.) There was the pleasure of filling our bellies (more than our pails) with the plump and juicy berries. And there was the promise of adventure. . . because we could always find berry-studded bear droppings or find the flattened grass wallows where the bears had had their little afternoon naps after feasting on the berries. Foraging provided food for our bellies and our imaginations!
My first memory of foraged food, though, is of juicy, flavourful wild mushrooms sauteed in butter – each bite a little burst of golden, earthy goodness. After a rain, my parents went mushroom hunting, usually in fields where cattle roamed – the grassy manure made a prime mushroom-growing environment. Mom and Dad knew which ones to pick, my mom knew how to cook them to toothsome perfection, and we all knew how to eat them with appreciation.
I don’t trust myself in the same way, so my mushroom picking is restricted to choosing the smoothest, firmest ones in the grocery store bins. I wish I had more courage to pick them myself, but the stories we were told as children, about people who took only one small bite of a poisonous mushroom and immediately dropped dead, have developed the healthy fear in me that I’m sure my parents intended. My imagination pictured those poor people writhing in agony before succumbing to their tortured demise. Mom and Dad didn’t want us picking any old mushroom we found growing in the fields or forests. Their stories worked.
So, no, I’m too scaredy-cat to pick my own mushrooms. However, I do know that we have edible mushrooms growing in the trees right behind our house. A few years ago when we were having our floors replaced, the contractor doing the work was from the Ukraine. During a lunch break he asked me if I minded him picking the mushrooms in our forest. I said ‘sure’ and was totally surprised to see him come out of the trees only a short time later with two plastic grocery bags filled and bulging with mushrooms, that he claimed were a delicious variety.
Hmmm . . . tempting, but . . .nope. . . .still too scared to pick my own. (And I never saw that contractor again to see if he survived.)
A plateful of golden pan-fried mushrooms brings me back to those childhood days, when we celebrated the bounty to be found in nature, prepared simply and enjoyed within a short time of their harvest. I know mushrooms aren’t exclusive to Canada, but to me they embody the Canadian spirit of living off the land and enjoying nature’s gifts.
Right now is spruce-tip season here in northern Canada, so I can think of nothing better than the resinous flavour of this herbal delicacy to enhance the earthiness of the buttery sauteed mushrooms – a match that makes my mouth water. And the spruce tips were definitely foraged by me from my own trees . . . I know they’re safe.
If you have never used fresh spruce tips in your cooking, I urge you to try them. Every spring, my mom eats a few of them whenever she is gardening, just because. I think her instincts are sound, because spruce tips are full of vitamin C. They are delicious - lemony and piney at the same time.
If you have a spruce, or pine, or other fir tree in your yard (or your neighbour’s), you have a source for a seasonal delicacy.
Just pick off the new growth buds at the ends of the branches, remove the brown papery casing and use them to flavour all sorts of dishes, like potatoes and desserts. You can pick the spruce tips even after they are no longer tight buds, as long as they are still soft and not too tough or resiny-tasting.
You can use them as tight buds, like on the left, up until they are opened up but still tender, like on the right.
Kitchen Frau Notes: If you collect your spruce tips from a location where they aren’t exposed to exhaust fumes from vehicles, you don’t even need to wash them, because they will be clean and protected inside their papery husks. Just check for bug bites, but those are rare. If the tips are older, or near a road, give them a quick rinse and shake them dry.
You can use the tips from any needled tree. Taste them first, as some are more ‘piney’ than others. You may need less of the stronger tasting ones.
Don’t worry about damaging the spruce trees – you are actually doing them a favour, and pruning them to grow even bushier by nipping off the tips. Try to spread your picking around different parts of the tree, rather than picking one area clean. Just don’t pick the tip off the leader at the very top of a young tree, as that could disturb its growth.
The spruce tips last for up to a week in the fridge if kept loosely covered.
Sauteed Mushrooms with Spruce Tips and Chives
- 2 tablespoons salted butter
- 4 cups small white button mushrooms (11oz/320gms)
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon chopped spruce tips
- 2 tablespoons minced chives (or green onions)
- light sprinkling of pepper
Wash the mushrooms under running water, then leave them to dry on a tea towel or paper towel until most of the moisture is off. Pat them lightly with the towel to speed the process. If your mushrooms are large, cut them in halves (or even quarters if really large).
In a heavy skillet over medium heat, melt the butter until it starts to sizzle and smell nutty, just beginning to brown slightly. Tip in the mushrooms and sprinkle them with the salt. (The salt helps draw the moisture out of the mushrooms.)
Saute the mushrooms, stirring them often, so they brown on several sides, for 8 to 10 minutes. First, the liquid will be released from the mushrooms, but keep cooking them until this liquid is cooked away and the mushrooms start to brown. Once the liquid is evaporated you will need to stir them more often.
When the mushrooms have all turned a deep golden colour on several sides, sprinkle them with the chopped spruce tips and chives. Cook them for 1 minute more, stirring constantly.
Remove the pan from the heat, give them a very light sprinkling of pepper (you don’t want to overpower their delicate flavour), and tip them into a small serving bowl, scraping all the lovely butter and sprucy, chivey bits into the bowl, too.
Serves 4 as a side dish.
In the words of Andreas: Those mushrooms are amazing.
You might also like:
Spruce Tips and Potatoes and Cream
Spruce Tip (or Basil) Baked Rhubarb Compote over Silky Swedish Cream
Fresh Trout, Morels, and a Side of Bannock
Ode to the Lowly, Lovely Chayote Squash
Coconut and Curry Carrot Puree
The Canadian Food Experience Project began June 7, 2013. As we, the participants, share our collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences, we hope to bring global clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice. Please join us.
What is your first Canadian food experience? I’d love to hear. If you want to share, drop me a line in the comments link below!
I will share the link to the round-ups each month on my facebook page. If you ‘like’ my page at the top right side of this post, you will be able to view the links.