Sunday, October 30, 2005

Sole that's good for the Soul

It was one of those Sundays that seem mellow and gentle, letting you drift through the day without thinking of the workweek. His Froginess and I spent a lovely day together just "being". It culminated in pumpkin-carving for Halloween, a nice dinner and "Rome" on HBO.

While I prepped for dinner, His Froginess cut the designs in the pumpkins we talked about earlier. We had a whole family: Papa Scary, Mama Happy, and Baby Sad. Simple designs but then H.F. has not had the years of experience carving that many North Americans have had. Being French, the whole Halloween thing was a little vague to him and he never really experienced it until he got here (Canada). As he is a big D&D/role-playing fan, the concept of dressing up and being someone different for the night is appealing to him. I think it is fast starting to be his favourite holiday. He takes great pride in carving pumpkins now. It's rather cute to see how enthused he gets.

While he scooped and cut, I created my first sole dish with some of the sole Beloved Friend bought for us in Port Hardy. Fishing village that this is, it's crazy how you can't always get fish at the store.

Anyways, I'd not only never cooked sole before but never anticipated what an art it is to cook it. I'll know better now how carefully to flip the fish and how delicately to get it out of the pan. My first attempts broke. Disappointing for the visuals I was going for but not like I destroyed the taste at least.

I created a French dish with the sole, as per the request of H.F. We had Sole with Lemon-Caper Brown Butter Sauce, boiled potatoes, and steamed zucchini ribbons. H.F. was very flattering when he said the food was good enough for a 2 star restaurant in France. I'd be glad for any star in France. The picture is not exactly top level food porn but it gives an idea. Hopefully my ability to present food on the plates will improve with time.

Here is the basic recipe for the Sole:

Petrale Sole with Lemon-Caper Brown Butter Sauce

* 8 pieces of Petrale sole
* Salt and freshly ground pepper
* 6 tablespoons olive oil
* Juice from 2 lemons
* 4 tablespoons butter
* 2 tablespoons capers (optional)
* Lemon wedges for garnish

1. Rinse fish and pat dry with paper towels. Season both sides of the fish with salt and a little finely ground black pepper.

2. Heat a non-stick frying pan on medium high heat. Add the olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan. When oil is slightly smoking, add the fish to the pan. Cook 2 minutes on each side, until fish is brown and crispy. Turn the fish over with a spatula and cook another 2 minutes on the other side.

3. Pour lemon juice over the fish and remove from pan. Set aside. Add butter and capers to hot pan. Swirl butter until melted, scraping any bits off the bottom of the pan. Without overheating the butter, let the butter develop a light brown coloring to it. Remove from heat and spoon butter sauce and capers over the fish and serve immediately with lemon wedges.

Serves: 4

The recipe I worked from suggested pairing it with a riesling but H.F. and I drank ice cold Oceanspray white cranberry juice with it and it went quite well with it. It wasn't too overwhelming and it gently washed the tongue in its acid, getting you ready for more buttery fish and starchy potatoes.

A suggestion for this recipe: Don't use so much oil. I had to get rid of a lot of the oil. Sole is delicate and needs very little cooking. Trying to fry it as they suggest will only increased the fall apart issues.

[addendum Nov 2. : I have since learned that just recently a shipment of sole came north to our little backwater. It seems it was SENT BACK!!! because it wasn't ordered. Both myself and the informer were highly indignant that such a prize escaped our clutches. I start to wonder what other little treasures were lost to our town because of that mentality!]

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Recalling Thanksgiving

Thursday night (Oct 6 2005) His Froginess (aka my French Fiance) suggests we should do Thanksgiving this year so we can be in the habit for feast with future kidlets. 'Let's get a turkey and the other things for it. Let's invite our friends over' Cautiously agree, wondering what the heck I'm getting myself into.

Friday at school: Invite friends over for Monday. Enthusiastically embraced by friends. Try to hide look of turkey-fear in eyes. Wonder what the heck I'm getting myself into

Friday, after school (Oct 7 2005) Go with His Froginess to the little band-run store that is our main food source. He goes off in one direction. I make a B-line for the back where I know the frozen turkeys are. Open freezer lid. Blanch. Only two turkeys left and both of them look like linebackers. Assess the monetary damage on both. Opt for the smaller of the two. Nearly fall in trying to drag up 55 pounds of turkey. Hit head. His Froginess shows uncharacteristic timeliness and helps me drag the beast up into the cart. Eyeing him with a "are you sure?". See that he looks shocked. Also can see he has that determined look on face that means 'It may be stupid but we're doing it'. Sigh internally and begin shopping for rest of fixings. No potatoes left... Agh! Run to fake potato section. Have no roasting pan remotely big enough for toddler size turkey. Blanch as I take only option: a tin baking pan that bends if looked at. Is not supposed to hold turkey of the size currently in shopping cart. Know there is no other option. Wonder what the heck I'm getting myself into

Later that evening: Call mother and beg for help. Mother assured her daughter is crazy but talks calmly to her about thawing for Monday, making gravy, etc... Take all information in with a dazed conscience, wondering what the heck I'm getting myself into.

Saturday(October 8, 2005)Go to fridge, cocking head at the monster taking up most of the upper fridge. Poke it to feel for thaw. Nothing. Go away. Return to fridge. Repeat the above innumerable times. Get worried by the evening. Wonder what the heck I'm getting myself into

Sunday morning(October 9, 2005): Repeat poking procedure. Relieved that it squishes in a bit. Test other parts. No squish. Damn! Wonder what the heck I'm getting myself into

Sunday afternoon: Fill sink with cold water and ice cubes. Compare white monster to toddler in sink. Turn every hour. More squish with poke. Starting to lose heart palpitations somewhat. Return monster to fridge at night. Feel that insides still frozen. Heart palpitations begin again. Tin foil container catches metal fridge spoke. See tiny hole. Know store is closed tomorrow. Nearly faint. Patch hole with plastic. Hope for best. Wonder what the heck I'm getting myself into

Monday morning (October 10, 2005): Up early. Try to ignore turkey. Hoping it will cook itself. And find a new pan. Wonder what the heck I'm getting myself into

10:00am:Face reality. Call mom again for reassurances and to actually write down recipe for stuffing this time. Call neighbour. Beg for aluminum foil on pretense of needing tent for turkey. Dump turkey in sink again with water. Patch hole with tinfoil layers and tape. Say a few Hail Marys. Pour hotwater down throat of beast. Actually smile when can get giblet bag and neck out. Keep in sink with water. Make stuffing. His Froginess mentions good smell. Ignore him as bird butt being stuffed. Lay in tin bin. Pray. Put in preheated oven. Wonder what the heck I'm getting myself into
Later that morning: Begin basting beast with friggin' small spoon. Have no baster. Realize how friggin' unprepared for this I am. Pray. Wonder what the heck I'm getting myself into
Later that afternoon: Shocked to see the beast dripping off so much juice and browning slowly and nicely. Think my prayers have been answered. Even smells good.

Late afternoon: See that turkey is lovely but awash in juices. And hot. And suddenly realize it needs to get out of the oven. In one piece. Without spilling. Panic. Try and finish other food goods in good humor. Not succeeding well. Call mother in panic about gravy production again. Wonder what the heck I'm getting myself into

Friends arrive: Everyone has food. Table starting to groan. Turkey still not out. H.Froginess suggests taking it out himself know what klutziness follows in my wake. Ain't gonna happen. Panic. Decide to each take one side in both hands. Carefully lift from oven. Pray.Pray.Pray. Lands with quiet thud. Open eyes. Thank my lucky stars. Beloved friend helps remove beast and drain juice into 8 cup measuring cup. Thank my lucky stars I bought cup a month before. Turkey juice almost to the top. Alarmed. Turn to beloved friend who helps me make gravy as brain cells lose all conciousness, forgetting mommy's suggestions. Could nearly kiss friend as gravy and turkey get served in fairly ample time. Sit down. Eat. Laugh. Eat. Relax. Make mental note. Buy smaller turkey waaaaay ahead of Thanksgiving next time. Buy roasting pan. Buy baster. Buy brain.

All told, though, it was my first time turkey cooking and it went better than expected despite my long weekend panic attack. I will plan waaaaaaaaay ahead next time.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

A Helping of Heiltsukness


After living for a full four years and a bit with the Heiltsuk I have experienced the seasonal rounds more than once. Many of the local favourites are related to the ocean. They also export some of their specialties to other seafood loving cultures like China and Japan.
When the weather around here begins to act all teenagerish and confused we know the herring are coming. Patches of sun, followed by a deluge of hail, a whiff of wind, sun, then rain and so on... in predictionless patterns March enters the scene. Not so predictionless are the Heiltsuk, though. They are busy getting all their equipment ready, setting up special frames in the water, watching for every sign that the herring are coming to lay their eggs.
There are three ways I know that eggs are collected by the Heiltsuk. There may be more that I don't know about. One way I've seen the Heiltsuk people collect herring eggs is by the hanging of fresh Western hemlock branches in the water. The result, when pulled out of the water, looks like a creamy snow covering the conifer branches. It has always been amazing to me to see children who are normally sugar-obsessed glom on to these branches and pick them clean of eggs. I could be wrong but I think this is the source of the dried eggs that are like sea-flavoured potato chips. I particularly like those.
Very common for collection is the style with eggs on broad leaves of kelp. This one I've seen most often served in feasts as I guess it is easier to store than the branches. It is stored in brine some with the kelp still attached and some without. This can be served fresh from the brine, covered with soy sauce or cooked in garlic butter. This is also the kind that is graded and prepped for export to Japan. They are willing to pay handsomely for good quality as I understand it. Some years, when there are a lot of good-quality herring eggs a nice chunk of money comes to the village. Some years are better than others.
The last kind of collection I know of but don't see as often is collected on a thin, grass-like seaweed. I don't think it's exported either. My personal experience of this Heiltsuk treat is that THIS is one of the cultural foods that needs you to grow up with it. I'm not used to the extreme chewiness of the eggs, even when they are butter fried. I, however, make an exception for the dried eggs. They are more delicate in texture and briny flavour. I'd love to have more of those right now.

Another of the important parts of the Heiltsuk year has just now passed in fishing. Many of those salmon who just months ago frolicked and skipped in the waves are now filling the freezers, smokehouses, and bellies of folk around here. They have as well delighted the long-traveled fishermen who patronize the fishing resort, Shearwater, a hop, skip and a jump across the Pass from us on Denny Island. Of course different salmon come at different times but summertime always seems to be equal to salmon to me around here. And September to October means spawning time.
As the salmon who hung out in the ocean practicing their jumping skills move to the creeks and lakes, a new phase of food collection begins. Fat females are harvested for eggs. The way I've seen it eaten around here is in seaweed soup. Now I'm sure some people would blanch at the thought of eating a soup filled with seaweed and pale pink ball-bearing-like salmon eggs but it really is pretty good. Particularly with the eggs. The cooked salmon eggs add a starchy balance to the faint grassy brininess of the cooked seaweed. And I just find that soup pretty too--dark green-brown scattered with the pale pink dots. Eggs are also collected for a delicacy I've yet to taste—-fermented salmon eggs. Also known as stink eggs, fermented salmon eggs are a traditional food all along the coast. I hear it is quite strong in taste. I've also heard that you can smoke eggs in the smokehouse too. Maybe it’s the same thing as stink eggs.
In mid-spring seaweed-collecting takes place. I myself have a bag of the black shriveled strands. I have to ask what kind it is again but is a very nice-tasting variety. They are good in soups or rehydrate and added to, say, bok choy, It's also very common here to use it as a salty condiment sprinkled over one's rice. After collection and cleaning, the seaweed is carefully set outside to dry on frames, many on rooftops, some on temporary sawhorses. Afterwards, it can be dried more in a low temperature oven to dehydrate it completely for storage.

Other delicacies and collected foods I know less about but I am aware of their presence in the seasonal round. Sea urchin and sea cucumber are collected around here. I don't know what happens to the sea urchin as of yet but I went with the language teacher and my class last year to the fish plant where they were processing sea cucumber for sale. I think it was for the Chinese market. Didn't really appeal to my senses but I'd try it, I guess. I just don't like remembering the thing still moving when it was cut up. In the winter months clams are collected around here. I've had some of those clams in fritters. Greasy but Oh God, they were good. I've eaten a bit of mussels from around here. Don't know if they are eaten much around here. At least not anymore. I know once the Heiltsuk collected Chinese slippers (shellfish) and abalone for consumption but that's rare or even illegal right now I think (abalone at least). I think there is some call to revitalize the abalone population again but I don't know too many details. I'm sure there's more things collected but I've not heard of them.

* The photo of a traditional salmon bbq is property of , a website devoted to one of the most beautiful jewels in Heiltsuk-Oweekeno traditional territory. Please visit the website and see for yourself.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Oodles of Ooligans

Once I was innocent of ooligan knowledge. I don't think I'd even heard of ooligans, let alone ooligan grease, until I went to Bella Coola where I worked for two months in 1996. Also known as the candlefish, the ooligan is a little oily fish with sharp teeth and a strong taste. Apparently it is so greasy that a whole dried fish can be lit like a candle! Not that I met it in either form in '96.
In Bella Coola I had encountered a jar of the grease, rendered by special technique from these silvery fish, in the local museum. The smell, I thought, would have knocked me flat if I'd not heard other people exclaim in shock beforehand. It was pungent to say the least with a strong aroma of fish and something else I can't quite recall. Maybe something in scent I think I could find akin to the strongest, oldest French cheese I'd encountered years later. It wasn't until four years later that I was to understand that this grease was the headiest of the varieties to be found on the coast. I had, until then, believed it must be one of those cultural acquired tastes that one just can't understand unless you grew up with it.
My experience further north in the Nass Valley changed my opinion 180 degrees. I not only tasted it for the first time but also visited a place where it was rendered. The taste was very fishy but not powerfully so. It actually really did enhance the dried seaweed and the wind-dried fish I'd dipped in it. The rendering involves fermenting the fish, boiling and skimming--a long, scented occasion which occurs around Spring Break (March). It was during that time that other encounters with the ooligan led me to understand its huge impact on the lives of some coastal peoples. And how good it was. I was understanding how it was that it had been used on everything from rice, to toast, to berries instead of creams or butters.
Back in 2000, I and some others, who had travelled to the said Nass valley for two weeks for a teacher's experience, had the opportunity to string up the ooligan for wind-drying and some for smoking. I remember freezing my fingers off in the March wind as I learned how to carefully string the silver fish on thin strips of red cedar, weaving in and out of the gills, avoiding their sharp teeth, or performing similar tricks with the gills and mouths on long cedar sticks for the smokehouse. After long, exhausting, freezing hours we sat around the fire and ate some of the ooligans set aside for dinner. The taste of ooligans puts sardines to shame, I must say. All that grease must lead to the tastiness of its flesh, especially when roasted over the fire. I didn't have an opportunity to have some ooligan that way for 5 years and I have to say that it was even better than I remembered it.
But, back to grease. After living 5 years with the Heiltsuk Nation I have since understood that I didn't even yet taste the queen of greases which came from Kitimat. Not sold cheaply, this pale grease is sought by many for its quality. I tasted it first at a feast and was surprised at how tame it was in comparison to the previous kind I tasted in Aiyansh or smelled in Bella Coola. I actually found myself longing to taste Nass grease again. I guess, like with wines, everyone has their preferences.
Even though I couldn't have believed it 10 years ago, I wish now to do a taste sampling of each type of fermented fish grease all at once to understand the qualities and differences. However, closely guarded family treasure that it is in so many villages I doubt that will happen any time soon. All I ask for in return is a chance to eat more ooligans for dinner. mmmm...

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

What is a Deetsa?

Actually it's "dica". But most of you don't speak Heiltsuk. I guessed that you wouldn't know how to pronounce it. Up until yesterday I didn't even know how to spell it. I just knew I was one.

Don't pull your hair out. I'll tell you...

Dica is the Heiltsuk word for "teacher". I am a teacher in a small First Nation's (Native American to many of you out there) village on a remote section of the Canadian West Coast. It's beautiful, it's wild and I love it here. The people are warm and generous and I enjoy a close relationship with many of my teaching colleagues. We practically live in each others pockets so it was bound to happen *wink*.

Now what in all heckfire does that have to do with a dining room? Well, quite frankly, I love food and I like to try new food experiences when I can. And I do stress "when I can" because I don't exactly live in an urban centre close to any food style I want. I'm stuck in the odd position of being someone who loves exotica who lives in a place that just started shipping in black beans in a can (for how long, who knows?), or may not know what a mango is. So I get stuff while I can down south in Vancouver et al. But it's not to say that it's all processed cheese and hotdogs up here. The Heiltsuk people regularly ply the waves and shores for various ocean food goods. Some of those are even quite exotic or expensive elsewhere in the world.

So this blog is my way of describing what I do to make my culinary life more interesting. No doubt I'll let other flotsam and jetsam in life float to the surface of this blog but it mostly focused on the thing I've been trying to avoid thinking about all my life (never succeeded) and succumb to its wiles. I don't feel so alone seeing all those other food blogs out there. They always say to write about that which you love ;-)

I've got to go now before they shut of the power for the morning... yes, a charm of this place is that they have to shut down the whole grid to work on the powersystem at times... I'll tell you more about Heiltsuk fare and my own food penchants later.