Sunday, February 21, 2010

True Grits!

"Corn provided infant America with a backbone while it was developing the use of its legs. America was growing, quite literally, up the cornstalk." Dorothy Giles

Many Canadians travel south in February and the U.S. is a popular destination. My partner (Mark) and my kids (Eliza and Daniel), and I decided to go "Stateside" as well, over the recent Family Day Weekend. Only we travelled due west instead - to Port Huron, Michigan.

It seemed amazing that after only a 90-minute drive we found ourselves crossing the Bluewater Bridge and arriving at the U.S. border. After arriving there so quickly, we had a 90-minute wait at the gate. I guess a lot of Ontarians had the same idea! It's pretty exciting to suddenly find yourself in another country after having simply crossed a bridge. The signage is all different, the shops are different, the money is different, and the food is different. And speaking of food, that is all we could think about, having had to wait so long for our breakfast.

For this first meal of the day we went where we always go when we visit Port Huron - The Daybreak Cafe. It is a very homey restaurant on the busy main street and it is always very busy inside, as well. They say you should always go where the locals go to dine and this is so true in this case. The place is bright and clean and airy, the service is quick and friendly, the prices are excellent, the portions are very generous and nicely presented, and (the best part of all) the food is delicious. Check out the menu:

You really know you have crossed the border when you read this entry on the breakfast menu: "Breakfast Feast - Hope you're hungry! Two eggs any style, meat and toast with potatoes or pancakes. Also includes biscuits and gravy which can fix any of your cravings." Wow!

After our fabulous breakfast we all waddled out of the restaurant to do a little (OK, a lot) of shopping. We went to a big grocery store to buy some "Quorn" products which is a line of vegetarian meat substitutes which have a very high reputation in Europe, but which are not allowed in Canada for some obscure bureaucratic reason. ( This sounds like it may be made from corn, but it is not. But if you do want corn, you have come to the right place if you are in the U.S..

In the U.S. corn is the number one field crop, by far. And you can really see this in the supermarkets where there are oodles of corn products. Tortilla chips are more popular than potato chips, all manner of Mexican-inspired foods using corn are seen including corn breads and corn bread mixes with "Jiffy Corn Bread Mix" seeming to be the most popular. (

A couple of years ago Donna, my very dear friend from Alabama, sent me a recipe for "Jiffy Corn Casserole" which is hugely popular in the South. I couldn't find it anywhere here in London but Mark was able to snag some up while in Michigan. I decided to make a Southern-themed dinner and I have to say this corn casserole was a hit. Very delicious! I must make it again soon as it is such a comforting dish on cold winter night.

One of the most favourite uses for corn in America, especially in the Southern States, is "grits". Grits are made from dried corn (or maize) kernals which have been soaked in a lye mixture to remove the hull and soften the inside of the kernal, then ground up to become "hominy grits". They are somewhat similar to polenta, but not as stiff. It is more like a sort of porridge. Wikipedia says, "Grits can be served hot or cold and as a base for a multitude of dishes from breakfast to dessert, depending on the additives. Additives can include salt and butter, meat (especially shrimp on the east and Gulf coasts), and rarely vegetables. It is common for people above the Mason-Dixon line to have sugar with their grits."

Being Canadian, I have, of course, had very limited exposure to grits. But I do have a funny memory associated with the above reference to Northern grit-eaters. A few years ago I was talking with my wonderful friend, Donna, and she just couldn't believe I had never even tried grits. She couldn't imagine such a thing, being an Alabama Southern Belle. So straightaway, she went out and bought me an enormous bag of grits! Then, she mailed it to me. It probably cost her ten times more to mail it than it did to buy it. I laughed when the package arrived. What a woman!

Well, I really didn't know how to prepare grits, so I read the instructions carefully. I decided that beginning by having them for breakfast would be the best way to go. After all, the photo on the package reminded me a lot of a thicker version of cream of wheat and I'd always liked that. I cooked up the grits, then tasted them and was surprised at the extreme lack of flavour. So, I fixed the problem by adding a nice bit of pure Canadian maple syrup. A bit of 'Great White North meets Dixie'. Later that day I emailed Donna to thank her and to tell her I'd had my first grit experience. She was very pleased that she'd been able to expand my culinary horizons. That is, until I told her about the maple syrup. She was shocked. "You're a YANKEE!!!!!" she exclaimed.

I think Donna has forgiven me for this Southern "faux pas" as we have remained very close friends. So, I think - as a tribute to my remarkable Alabama pal - my recipe this week will be for the "Jiffy Corn Casserole" instead of a dish containing grits. The recipe I've chosen is from Paula Deen, the queen of Southern cooking and whom you've no doubt seen on the Food Network. I hope you'll make it and enjoy it. Maybe invite some friends over and have a Southern menu. After all, wouldn't it be fine to bring a little Southern warmth and hospitality to our frosty Canadian days??

Cheers, y'all!!


This week's photo and recipe are courtesy of Paula Deen:

Monday, February 8, 2010

Memories of Peanut Butter

"Man cannot live by bread alone; he must have peanut butter."
James A. Garfield

One of my earliest memories involves eating peanut butter. In my very first posting I mentioned having always had a penchant for snacks, and right from the beginning, peanut butter was at the top of the list.

During the year that I was four years old I religiously followed a pre-lunchtime activity which involved tasty peanut butter sandwiches. And because I subsequently attended kindergarten in the afternoons only, I was able to carry on this tradition for the next year as well. In the good weather, anyway.

Most days I would enjoy the adventure of walking down to the corner to watch for my Dad who would be coming home for lunch. Because it seemed so far away to me, and the length of time was so hard to judge, apparently I was a little worried that starvation might set in before I could return home. So, my mother very kindly always made me a peanut butter sandwich - one slice of Wonder bread spread with peanut butter, then folded over, cut into two squares, and wrapped in wax paper. No Zip-Lock Baggies back then.

My Dad worked at the Sheaffer Pen Company and he always came home for lunch. Except, in those days we called lunch 'dinner' and dinner we called 'supper'. And lunch/dinner really was our dinner- it was the biggest meal of the day. We would always have some kind of meat, potatoes (boiled, baked, mashed, or scalloped), and a tinned vegetable such as peas, green beans, corn (or creamed corn), and sometimes beets.

Always potatoes. Never rice. Never pasta. Back then these dishes would have been way too exotic to have been considered. Although I do remember Mom getting a very cool 'potato ricer' once. Probably as a Christmas or birthday present, as Dad was big on the small appliances. It was a manually operated stainless steel gadget; you put peeled and boiled potatoes into the ricer then pulled down the handle and a flat paddle pushed the potato out through a multitude of small holes and into a serving bowl. And - voila! How exciting! You had the best of both worlds - you got to experience a new dish (eating rice for dinner) and also the deep seated comfort that came from really eating potatoes.

OK, so back to my pre-lunch tradition. Every warm and dry day I would head out about 11:30 and walk all the way from our house (at one end of our block) to the corner which was at the very far end of the block, to wait for my Dad. And when I say 'far', that is from my four year old self's perspective as the block consisted of about 7 small houses with a vacant lot in the middle of it. Although, it really did seem like quite a hike for me at the time.

And it wasn't without risk that I made this daily journey. The third house on the block had an extra door on the front whch had been boarded up for some reason and, naturally, we neighbourhood kids terrified ourselves by believing that a hideous witch lived behind that door. So I walked leisurely down the street each morning, observing what was going on around me, but sprinting madly past the 'witch house'.

It was always a thrill to get past that house, of course, but even better still because then came the vacant lot because quite often there were horses or ponies walking around, munching away on the long grass. You see, the house on the other (and safer!) side of the lot was owned by a man who kept and raced horses. It seems so strange now to imagine such a thing, but this was a small town in a rural area, and in the late fifties it seemed quite normal.

The next three houses had young children like myself so I had to allow for spontaneous play times. Because as long as the weather was good, children played outside. There were no 'play dates' or being driven hither and yon by parents. No way. Your only choice of friends was the kids on your own block - like them or not. And it does seem unusual now to imagine mothers urging very young children to 'go outside and play', but that is the way it was back then. We really had complete freedom to do whatever we wanted, as long as we didn't leave the neighbourhood. That was understood. We just went out, met up with the other kids, and then used our vivid imaginations to create fun games. It was an unwritten rule that we would report back home at meal times, and when the street lights came on in the evenings. But the rest of the day was ours.

And speaking of mealtimes, what great memories I have of those peanut butter sandwich fuelled morning adventures. At the end of the long and fascinating trek to the end of our block, I would sit down on the grass of the boulevard and open my little packet. I would sit there and quietly nibble away on my little sandwiches while staring down the street for the first sighting of my Dad. It always seemed to take so long! But, eventually, I would see his blue Studebaker swing onto the street. He would approach the corner slowly, always smiling and waving to me. Then he would stop the car and let me hop in, and drive us both back home for our hot 'dinner'.

Since then I have probably eaten about a million peanut butter sandwiches, either plain or toasted, or on a crusty roll. Or enjoyed peanut butter on crackers, in celery, in stir fries, in Pad Thais, or in cookies or various chocolate bars. And one very memorable time, back in the seventies, my friends - Joyce and Peter - entertained me on a warm summer day in their home by the beach. They had made a beautiful peanut butter cake from scratch and had served it quite generously along with a large pot of the most perfect, piping hot tea. Now, that was an experience to remember.

But I would have to say that my very best memory is of carrying those little packets of peanut butter sandwiches all the way to the corner, and of all those fun (and scary) adventures I had along the way.



Recipe for Peanut Butter Cake

Because I doubt you'd be very excited about duplicating my little sandwiches, I am giving you a recipe for a Peanut Butter Cake. I can't imagine that it could possibly equal Joyce and Peter's amazing cake, but it seems far less decadent and more in keeping with our current times. Personally, I am going to whip up this cake, along with a couple of handfuls of chocolate chips on top, and enjoy it with a nice, hot cup of tea.

(Both this week's photo and recipe are courtesy of "". Thank you!)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Yo Quiero Taco Pizza!

"Without question, the greatest invention in the history of mankind is beer. Oh, I grant you that the wheel was also a fine invention, but the wheel does not go nearly as well with pizza." -- Dave Barry

Feeling hungry for the taste of your favourite pizza? Well, you're in luck! Pizza just happens to be one of the most ubiquitous dishes around. No doubt there are several pizzerias nearby, but if not, there are countless varieties of frozen pizzas, packaged pizza mixes, and ready-made pizza dough if you are keen to make your own.

Almost everyone loves pizza. From guys watching sporting events, to teenagers hanging out on the weekend, to families settling in and relaxing with an easy meal on a Friday night. In fact, a recent study showed that children aged 3-11 preferred pizza by far over all other possible dinner choices. And what about the people who are lucky enough to have friends who will help them move? No need to even think about what to feed these generous friends. It's pizza and beer. Always.

Apparently the first pizzeria in the U.S. was opened in New York City over 100 years ago and it is, remarkably, still open for business today. ( But it was when American soldiers returned from WWII service in Italy, missing and craving the pizza they had enjoyed there, that pizza really took off in a big way. And its popularity has grown by leaps and bounds ever since.

But the 'pizza craze' took a little time to reach my very small home town of Goderich in Southwestern Ontario. I was nearly 10 when the first pizzeria opened there in 1964. It was called "The Pizza Patio" and I remember it well for two reasons: my elder sister, Lori (then 16), got her first job there, and I celebrated my 10th birthday by eating this new and exotic food. And I loved it! Absolutely loved it. My two friends, however, were not as adventurous and could hardly be persuaded to try it. My Dad had taken us there, to "The Pizza Patio", and he was quite disappointed that the girls were so mulish. After all, he was one of the very few people in our rural area to have ever tried pizza before.

Some years before, probably in the late 50's, my Dad and his brother-in-law had gone on a rare trip to the big city of Detroit, Michigan, to see a ballgame at Tiger Stadium. It was quite a big event for them and they had a great time. All the excitement of the day apparently gave them an appetite so they decided to dine at a local restaurant before heading home. This, again, was very unusual as eating in restaurants was very uncommon back then - at least for our family!

Well, Dad and Uncle Charlie got settled in and were looking around, checking the place out, when they noticed many signs and posters advertising the new rage in food dishes - "Pizza Pie from Italy!" The waitress strongly suggested it and touted its incredible popularity saying, "Everyone loves it!" She tried to describe pizza to these two Huron County men who had probably never eaten a meal in their lives that didn't contain both meat and potatoes. She eventually gave up the description and told them to just go ahead and try it. And so they did.

They had no idea what to expect but were clearly feeling excited about trying something so new. The waitress asked them if they wanted a small, a medium, or a large and that perplexed them as well. It was so hard to know, as they had no idea what they looked like. It seems that Uncle Charlie puzzled over the decision for a bit and then said, "Well, I'm really feeling hungry so I think I'll get a large one." And then (somewhat surprisingly) my Dad, a slight man with a notoriously small appetite, agreed that he'd have a large one as well.

Dad told me later that they both nearly fell off their chairs when the two enormous 'pizza pies' arrived. Their eyes were practically as big as the great wheels of food filling up their table. He said they gave it their all, but between the two of them they were unable to finish even one. But it certainly made a good story for Dad to tell his family and friends. He had fun describing this amazing new dish with his arms spread wide as if telling a 'fish story'.

Since my first taste of pizza at age 10, I went on to see and to eat many more pizzas of astonishing varieties. But I was surprised last week when my daughter, Eliza, said that her meal of choice for her 21st birthday was a pizza I had never even heard of - a "Taco Pizza".

So, we headed out to shop for the necessary ingredients: pizza crusts, taco sauce, refried beans, salsa, a variety of sweet peppers, a red onion, corn niblets, and a slab of marble cheese. These ingredients were assembled in layers (see recipe below), then the two pizzas were cooked. (We had planned to make three, but wisely settled on two.) Once the cheese was bubbling and looking very fine, we topped the pizzas with shredded lettuce and drizzled them with sour cream. Amazing.

We quickly found out that taco pizza is delicious! Eliza, her brother, Daniel, her boyfriend, C.J., and her friend, Devin, and I enjoyed our thick, tasty, and hot slices enthusiastically. But in the end, our meal bore quite a resemblance to Dad's and Uncle Charlie's long-ago 'pizza pie' experience in Detroit. Because even with five hungry diners at our table (including three young men!), try as we might, we couldn't finish even ONE taco pizza!



Recipe for Taco Pizza

1 pizza crust (any kind you like)
1 can refried beans
1 small can taco sauce
1/2 cup salsa (mild, medium, or hot - your call)
1/2 red onion, diced
2 sweet peppers, diced (any colour)
1/2 can corn niblets (drained well)
2 cups shredded marble cheese
2 cups shredded romaine lettuce
1 cup sour cream, thinned with a little milk or cream (placed in a squeeze bottle)
Black olives, optional (We didn't use them because Eliza despises them.)

Mix refried beans and taco sauce and spread on pizza crust. Spread salsa over bean mixture.
Top with onion and peppers and corn.
Top all with grated cheddar.

Place on a pizza stone (preferrably) or a pizza pan. Bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes.
(Or until the cheese looks perfectly done to you.)

Remove pizza from oven carefully and place on a serving plate. Cover with shredded lettuce and drizzle with the sour cream. Slice pizza and serve immediately.

Wash down with a cold 'cerveza'. (Muy importante!)