The Cooking Badge

Brown Owl and Guide pins

Brown Owl and Guide pins

We have an automatic garage door opener. (More on that later.) Living in suburbia, I typically leave the house through the garage, open the door, back out and press a button in the car to close the door. This action, by the way, I must do with intense focus, concentration and mindfulness, otherwise - a half block away, filled with doubt – I turn back to check. Ok, the door is closed - and I drive away.

But this was early Monday morning – garbage day – and the blue bins had already been emptied, so leaving the car in the driveway, I returned the blue bins to the garage. Stepping back into the car I hear a bird call – “too wit, too wit, too woo”. I am not a birder, but I was a Brownie and a Girl Guide. No idea why we used to chant “too wit, too wit, too woo”, but we did – over and over and over.

What bird was this? Consult Google. Answer: the Tawny Owl – in fact two Tawny Owls! “Tawny owls make the familiar 'too-wit too-woo' call during the night and early hours but this is actually a male and female owl calling to each other - the female makes the 'too-wit' sound and the male answers with 'too-woo'.” [Source]

Several of my recent blog posts have been reminiscences – and this little bird call triggered another journey down memory lane - hope you don't mind.

For those who did not participate in “Guiding”, the leader of the Brownie pack was called Brown Owl, and second in command was Tawny Owl – there was even a Snowy Owl. The little girls were split into groups named for elves and fairies and we sat in a circle around a papier-mâché toadstool. I continued into Girl Guides – a transition that involved (for me) memorable pageantry. Walking from one group to the other along a silk carpet wearing fairy wings. “Hark who goes there? A Brownie. By what right do you come? By the right of my golden wings.” These days, I can’t remember why I walked into the next room, but I can remember that – good grief.

In Brownies and Guides, there were many areas in which one was encouraged to learn and demonstrate new skills for the reward of a badge. I had several badges, one of them being the cooking badge – not sure if that was at the Brownie or Girl Guide level – though I was quite young.

Here’s all I remember – I was told to go to a specified house of a family I did not know. In hindsight, it was probably a leader of a neighbouring pack who (bravely) volunteered for this trial. Arriving at the house, the lady told me what I had to make and then she closed the kitchen door and left me alone. I was told to make mashed potatoes and beef patties, and I think the vegetable was canned corn. There was no recipe that I recall. Corn and potatoes – easy-peasy. I have no idea what I mixed into the meat – then I fried the patties up in a fry pan. When ready, I served them and waited in the kitchen until they were done eating, and then had to tidy up. I honestly do not know how that family ate what I made. Maybe they didn’t. 

If you are thinking that they stashed away my food and ate a pizza instead, I must note that at the time there were few (if any) pizza take-out joints. If you grew up in Hamilton, you may have had your first pizza at P-Wee’s Pizzeria on Crockett St – opened from 1963-1994. If you could not afford that regularly, then you perhaps began to buy Kraft or Chef Boyardee Pizza Kits. I just Googled this and they still sell them! How can these still be a thing!!??

But I digress…


Shockingly, I got my Cooking Badge – though did not afterwards embrace cooking, and in the ensuing years had grumpy debates with my mother re whether one could ever catch a man without being able to cook – most notably, cabbage rolls. Once married, one of my “go to” cookbooks was “101 Ways to Use Hamburger” – and pan fried meat patties, served with yams from a can, were often on the menu. Bizarre!

It is only fitting that the recipe linked to this blog post be a meatball – but times have changed and I have changed with them. These little delicacies combine lean turkey and healthy lentils! With a choice of sauces you have a hit on your hands!

Permit me a few postscripts.

What about the garage door opener? These were not common when our house was built. For our 25th wedding anniversary, my parents and in-laws split the cost of automatic garage door openers. All my dad’s idea. I was a daddy’s girl through and through, but was so disappointed in that gift – what a crazy way to celebrate a marriage! I forced him to return the thing and used the money instead to frame prints of the passage of time in a relationship – a better memento. A few years later we caved in and bought the door openers. I still sometimes think of my dad as I enjoy that convenience. He meant well and I must have seemed so unappreciative.









Brownie badges. I cannot recall others I earned, but I just loved learning to do knots! I had a cute little booklet with all the basic knots which disappeared at some point. These days I get a kick out of the fact that there is a très cool app for learning knots called 3D Knots.

I never became involved in Guiding as a leader, but I do have a leader’s pin (pictured above along with my Guide pin - who knows what happened to the Brownie pin - a leaping elf!). In my past life, I was a post-secondary educator – mostly of mature students. The horrible part of that job was the grading. The best parts were the kind remarks and gestures from students. They sometimes claimed that I “changed their life”. I made sure the last truth they learned was that they changed their own lives through their dedicated study. Nonetheless, one memorable student was determined to offer me a tribute to my role in the tapestry of her life – she gifted me her Brown Owl pin - so sweet!

Here’s the recipe for Swedish Lentil Meatballs

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P.S. Were you a Brownie or Girl Guide? Any memories? badges? Love to hear your stories!

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Palacsinta - Hungarian "Pancakes"

Though I have posted various recipes over the past weeks, this is my first blog post since July!!! Part of the long gap can be accounted for by a sudden encounter with Baker’s Cyst – which has nothing to do with baking. I like to think of it as a “sports injury” since, as someone recently suggested – you don’t get it from being a couch potato. It did, however, turn me into a couch potato for several weeks. When you can’t stand or walk you are not blissfully in the kitchen.

Just before I met Baker C, we had made palacsinta [puh’ - luh - cheen - tuh] - which I usually describe as the Hungarian version of French crepes.  As I prepped the recipe for this site, I decided there was so much to say about this classic food that it deserved a blog post. So what follows are a lot of words – but here’s how I am framing it…

I recently sent my NYC tips to a friend. Told her if she was going to check out the High Line she should take time to watch this documentary. Why? Because in the words of Henry David Thoreau “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Surely it’s the same with food. The more we know about what we eat, the more we are “nourished” – in every way.

So, palacsinta… In my 1954 Art of Hungarian Cooking there is an entire chapter devoted to these delicate creations that came/come out of every single Hungarian kitchen - rich or poor. Wikipedia categorizes them as a pancake, which I suppose they are, but they are nothing like the thicker flapjacks North Americans are accustomed to. 

So are they a crepe? In truth, I have never eaten a bona fide crepe in France, but "crepe" does bring to mind a thin “pancake”. Crepes I have eaten in Quebec, while paper thin, have tended to be nutty brown and somewhat dry – and often immense in size. The Wikipedia entry for crepes claims Brittany / France as the origin and stresses they are made with wheat flour or buckwheat. That, for sure, accounts for the nutty brown look of Quebec crepes, and the first photo at Wikipedia offers an accurate image of these light brown papery creations.

That left me reconsidering my habit of calling palacsinta - crepes. Yes, they are thin, but never dry. They are pale with golden highlights, soft and moist, and almost transparent. The only things I have ever seen or eaten that resemble palacsinta are blintzes - which, it seems, have Russian origins, but are popular in Jewish cuisine.

If they are not really “crepes”, do they have links to France? My old Hungarian cookbook refers to their appearance in Rome and even Egypt. Given the expanse and influence of the large Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867 to 1918) it is not surprising that there are versions of palacsinta in many Eastern European cuisines - mind you... who influenced who? Much to my surprise, even Turkey has a version called krep. Hungarians familiar with their history know that the Ottoman Turks did get as far as Hungary in the 1500s (1541 to 1699). Did they bring the “krep” tradition or was it the other way around? Recently, flipping through a Food and Wine magazine, I also stumbled across a story about the Philippines where it seems Hungarian-type crepes are a big hit – filled with almost anything imaginable – think mango... Sure enough, the cuisine of Portugal and Spain also have a version of these delicate “pancakes” and must have “exported” it during their years of colonization.

[I am adding this after first publishing this blog post - just came across an ATK recipe for Swedish "pancakes" which appear to be like palacsinta - and as mentioned as an option in the recipe I share, they add soda water to the batter. Check out the descriptions of pancakes all over the world.]

My research has left me astonished about the global popularity of palacsinta-type "pancakes" – yet here it appears rarely on a menu. There was a time when one could get an authentic Hungarian palacsinta at the Coffee Mill in Yorkville (which, sadly, closed in 2014). Bloor Street’s Country Style is a last bastion of Hungarian cuisine in Toronto.

Whereas pancakes are breakfast (brunch) food, palacsinta is never a breakfast – unless you are inclined to eat leftovers for breakfast. They can be an appetizer or main dish – and are often dessert. How is it that a full chapter is devoted to palacsinta in my 1954 book? They offer one basic recipe (the one I use) and say it is common to eat it with a ham filling (though I have never seen or experienced that). Other options described are mushroom or cabbage fillings. Dessert options can also include ground walnut or almond filling. Some recipes suggest cutting the palacsinta into long broad “noodles” and mixing / serving them with whatever – even chicken paprikas. A dessert suggestion is to create a pile of palacsinta with cocoa between each and then slicing and serving this like a cake of many, many layers. In the KB kitchen palacsinta filled with ricotta, apricot jam or chocolate were/are the main event – they are supper – period. 

Hungarian cooks are under no pressure to serve meat at every meal, and when they do it is most often pork or chicken. Imagine the fantastic flavour combo in the Hungarian dish called “Hortobágyi Palacsinta” - shredded delectable, soft, pork or veal paprikas porkolt (stew), enfolded in a palacsinta and drowning in a paprika sauce – so yummy. 

The most famous dessert palacsinta is called “Gundel Palacsinta” – named for the iconic restaurant that lays claim to its creation. The Gundel first opened in 1910 and survived two wars and communism, continuing to operate today serving classic unadulterated Hungarian cuisine. Their signature palacsinta is presented not rolled, but folded twice into a triangle that is filled with a mixture of rum, raisins, ground walnuts, candied orange peel and whipping cream. This is all topped with a delicate chocolate syrup. I dusted off  Károly Gundel's cookbook, originally published in 1934. His book was apparently a huge success, translated into many languages including Japanese. He may well have been a celebrity chef of his times. He notes that in his own research of Hungarian cuisine he finds no reference to paprika – the national spice – until the 19th century. He suspects that it was the Turks who introduced paprika to Hungary and so it may well be that they deserve credit for palacsinta as well. I will have to stop comparing them to “French crepes”.

Here's the recipe. Will you make ever this? Some friends are waiting for me to post the recipe, so I suppose we shall see. Part of my blog goal is “legacy/archive” and so the recipe is now here as a torch for family and friends to pick up and carry on.

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Sausages - best or "wurst" food?

Been thinking about (and making, eating) sausage lately. The recipe I share at the end calls for removing the meat from Italian sausages. I have always found that to be odd – so much trouble to put the meat into the sausage casing – why take it out!?

Who invented sausages anyhow and why? Even before researching, I figured that animal intestines (natural casings) must have been a handy way to store bits of meat linked to butchering. Easy to imagine that once those little bundles of meat were preserved – smoked, for example – they would have been a safe and handy food source. Much to the despair of food trucks fighting City Hall in Toronto, that may be why sausages continue to be the most readily available street food in the “Little Apple”. The craving for more diversity in Toronto street food, should not be taken as a dislike for sausages. Wvrst has been abuzz with patrons each time I have visited, and a new generation of butchers and sausage makers seem to be thriving – take for example, this recent article (and video) about Bespoke Butchers in Liberty Village.

Sausages have been around for thousands of years, in every culture that butchered animals. Meat, tissue, organs, scraps and blood were stuffed into (cleaned) intestines or stomachs (e.g. Haggis). 

A core set of sausage types is linked (no pun intended) to cultural traditions – but enjoyed by all. Chorizo, for example, is no longer a favourite only with people of Spanish/Portuguese origins. Imagination now seems to be the only limitation to sausage ingredient combinations.

Sausage can be fresh, or some combo of smoked, cured, fermented, dried, aged. The main ingredient may be pork (most common), or beef, lamb, chicken – and there are even vegetarian sausages. Sausages are part of the charcuterie food trend which has experienced a renaissance in recent years. A new generation is rescuing traditions at risk of being lost – and, in part, that is why I sometimes make sausages.

Sausage making used to involve my grandparents and parents. My grandfather went so far as to build a smokehouse at the back of his property – I have no idea if neighbours ever complained. I have one memory of a three generation sausage making session, then just two, and now I have all the equipment – what is one to do?

Technically, this is Italian sausage - no paprika in sight...

Technically, this is Italian sausage - no paprika in sight...

I live in a city with a fairly large Italian community. While sausages can be made year-round, every January / February local grocery stores sell pork butt and casings, and thus we are motivated to haul out the equipment – some of it made by my Dad. The family tradition includes making Hungarian kolbasz (pork flavoured with paprika and garlic). We have added Italian sausage to the repertoire.

Once the meat is ground and flavoured with spices, there are various “tools” used for stuffing the casing. A sausage stuffing device consists of a canister for the meat, a plunger and a funnel (onto which the casing is pushed, ready to be filled). Unhappy with the size of canisters, and wanting optimal control over the plunger, my Dad made his own. It’s an heirloom to be treasured.

One classic Hungarian sausage we have not yet made alone is Hurka (hoorkah) – a flavourful concoction of rice and onions and liver. “In the day”, organ meats were sometimes added. Such nose to tail eating has also experienced a comeback - supported by many talented chefs, notably Fergus Henderson and April Bloomfield - though she is currently on book tour with her new book - "A Girl and Her Greens". Locally, Jennifer McLagan has added "Odd Bits" to her acclaimed publications.

I have a memory of my grandmother washing a lung before grinding it into the sausage mixture. If the grinding was not to my liking, and I encountered a wee hunk of lung – out it came, though I still liked the sausage. It has been said that hurka is not unlike haggis which contains “sheep's pluck (heart, liver and lungs); minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, traditionally encased in the animal's stomach and nowadays often in an artificial casing.” (Source). I have never had haggis, but won’t be shy if ever presented with the opportunity.

It's hard to resist the cute little bundle of pepperettes, wrapped in kitchen twine, next to the register of Sanagan's Meat Locker in Kensington. But, truth be told, I could maybe, maybe live without eating sausage. In part, that is because my tummy is not always happy with purchased sausages. I know exactly what goes into ours. The casing is natural – not artificial. Everything I know from food handling certification is in full force, and once ready they are stored frozen. When homemade runs out, I trust a local Italian vendor who makes his sausage daily and once it is sold out, you must wait for tomorrow.

How do you spot a good sausage? "The meat,’ says butcher Andrew Poulsen. ‘With no filler. When you mix in things like breadcrumbs, eggs, stabilizers — they all deteriorate the quality." Sausages destined to be dried are cured using curing salts (sodium nitrate / nitrite) to prevent botulism, and while this is not required with fresh sausages, some butchers add it. The addition of nitrates / nitrites is controversial. Not all countries agree on regulations, and producers who use them offer assurances re quantities and remind consumers that some vegetables have more nitrates than cured meat.

Kolbasz - cooked in a pie plate in the oven

Kolbasz - cooked in a pie plate in the oven

Other things may also be added to sausages. In the UK, “sausages” must contain 32 - 80% meat. So when is a sausage not a sausage? UK television personality Marc Sage explores why “bangers” (as in bangers and mash) are not officially sausages. Endure the first few goofy minutes of this video, and watch as he proceeds to make a banger according to legally permitted ingredients. It seems like nothing anyone would want to eat – yet taste testers give it a thumbs up!?

I fear some readers may never want to eat a sausage again, but perhaps in time will not be able to resist the juicy succulence of a sausage – which seems always to be paired with a carb – a bun, wrapped in a pastry, potatoes or pasta. Google ‘pasta with sausage’ – over 43 million results. Somebody must like it! This Orecchiette with Sausage / Tomato Sauce has come out of our kitchen countless times – and is even a hit with guests!

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Flummoxed About Fat

Last week an earthquake registered off the coast of Vancouver Island. Media reports referenced the location’s proximity to a point where the Juan de Fuca plate attempts to slide under the North American plate. None of the news articles felt the need to explain plate tectonics – now considered to be a well-known, accepted geophysical fact. Yet in my lifetime this was not always so. Elements of the theory were proposed in the early 1900s, but even in the 1960s ideas such as continental drift were considered by some to be unconventional and unaccepted.

“Truths” linked to “science” can evolve and change, and “truths” about health and food are no exception. Who could blame us for feeling flummoxed, with questions that have too many conflicting answers? Is Vitamin D good? Should we restrict cholesterol? Should we eat many small meals a day? Is red wine and dark chocolate good for us? Nina Teicholz’s recent publication called The Big Fat Surprise outlines and adds to growing research that fats are good for us after all (including some saturated fats). [Warning: vegetarian friends may consider some of what follows, coarse language.]

Despite the mantra all researchers should live by – “correlation does not equal causation” – Teicholz outlines how the origins of some claims about health and food can be traced back to faulty observations and assumptions. Easter and Lent, it seems can, in part, be blamed for a decades old demonization of fat. “In the early 1950s… (a) scientist believed he found, in part by studying a group of men on Crete… that their good health and low rates of heart disease were due to a diet low in animal fats…Pouring over some of Keys’ original studies, Teicholz realized his work was partly based on men who had been observing Lent - a time when Cretans dramatically reduced their consumption of meat and animal fats.” (Source)

This blog post is not intended to change any reader’s attitude toward fat. For me, the new “truth” about fat makes me feel better about my full fat choices (and childhood.)

Nagypapa | szalonna sütés | Queenston Heights

Nagypapa | szalonna sütés | Queenston Heights

I have already blogged about my childhood obsession with butter. Bacon was another fat linked to fond memories. My grandfather’s fridge always had a huge hunk of bacon, sometimes called slab bacon (cured and smoked). He would cut little pieces for me (what the French would call lardons) and place them on slivers of rye bread, and called them kis katona (little soldiers). A bacon roast (szalonna sütés) involved putting slab bacon on a stick, and cooking it over a fire. Every few minutes the fat from the bacon was dripped over slices of rye bread that was smothered with a mixture of tomatoes and onions. Incredible! 

I did not have a “meat and potatoes” upbringing. Many meals were meatless – Hungarian kitchens produced a lot of creamed vegetables and pasta dishes. Almost anything could be mixed with cooked pasta. Túrós tészta / csusza involved mixing pasta with ricotta and a bit of sour cream, sprinkling with bacon lardons, and drizzling with bacon grease. I preferred this pasta / ricotta combo with sugar (oh dear, another evil) instead of bacon grease. Considering that celebrity chefs like Lidia and Jamie drizzle olive oil over so many things, funny that the idea of a “bacon grease drizzle” still does not appeal. I am not convinced too many readers will want to make this, but here is a link to website with a version of the recipe

 Túrós tészta |  Source

 Túrós tészta | Source

Government websites still list saturated fats as “bad”. This doesn’t seem to bother those adopting the latest café craze – butter coffee – especially popular in wellness oriented coffee shops. Some of my recent recipe testing assignments are intended for a cookbook promoting the Paleo lifestyle, and they all use coconut oil - listed on both Canadian and American websites as bad saturated fats to be avoided.

Teicholz researched her book for almost ten years, but “isn't optimistic that change will come easily. The clean eating food movements, led by the Michael Pollans and Mark Bittmans, are hugely influential.” Mind you, a Pollan saying is “Don't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.” Unwittingly, he thus gives me permission to continue eating full fat products. I won't apologize for the fact that some of my recipes begin with a tablespoon of lard, or duck fat. And I'll consider bacon eating moments to be a tribute to my grandparents!

P.S. This past week seemed to be “fat week”. With breakfast, I read about Lee’s Ghee, and encountered Lee later the same day at the One of a Kind Show. I bought some of her Ghee with Dates. Poor thing was subjected to a Twitter lambasting for appropriating a food not linked to her culture. The so-called #gheegate finally calmed down with people supporting her right to make and sell this. She says her products are great for cooking / baking (she offers recipes) and with coffee, and on popcorn!

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[Bacon image source]