Grilled Duck Breasts & Strawberry Shortcake

Yesterday I decided to cook something I’d never cooked before: duck. I’d eaten it before, generally in Asian fusion food, but I’d never cooked it. It’s different than most of the poultry I’m used to working with (i.e. chicken and turkey) in that it’s a red meat. It’s honestly more like ostrich. Somehow I’d managed to cook up ostrich long before I’d ever worked with duck, which is a little odd seeing as duck is domestic and ostrich is most definitely not. But I digress.

I found the duck breasts in the frozen section of T&T Supermarket a while back, and I bought them because they looked interesting and they were on special (my favourite combination). I’m not sure if this is usually the case, as I have no baseline, but that day they were significantly cheaper than beef. The breasts weren’t whole; they were already cut up into what I think of as tiny little steaks.

I used the marinade from a Grilled Wild Duck Breast Recipe that I’d Googled, knowing full well that since I liked all of the ingredients separately I’d probably like them together. I only did a quick marinade of about half an hour, since I wanted to taste the meat and not just the sauce. Then I threw the steaks on a preheated gas grill. The real challenge here was not to overcook them. I didn’t want them to be rare in the center, but they were so small that I really worried that I’d accidentally turn them into shoe leather. I settled on about five minutes per side, and that ended up being perfect. There was just a bit of char on the outside, but the middle was tender and soft.

I served the duck breasts on a bed of basmati rice, alongside some green zucchini that I’d sliced and grilled at the same time as the duck breast. Timing is always an issue with this kind of meal, so I cooked the rice first, then put the duck on, and then the zucchini, since it was sliced fairly thinly. It all came to the table piping hot and delicious.

For dessert we piled into the car and drove over to my parents’ house for strawberry shortcake. This time my mother made it, but she basically followed my Nan’s recipe. It was an assemble-it-yourself kind of affair (which the kids love), so if mine ended up being sloppy and leaning, that’s nobody’s fault but my own. Part of the problem with structural integrity is that I had to use a non-dairy whipped topping, which never beats as stiff as true whipping cream. Also, we upped the sweets game by drizzling dark maple syrup over the top, further compromising the tower’s support but definitely enhancing the taste.

Dessert finished and hands (and tables, and place mats) cleaned of sticky syrup residue, we headed back home to put the children to bed and to spend some quiet time digesting.

Maple Walnut Pouding Chômeur

Last night I had an urge to make pouding chômeur (“poor man’s pudding”), which is a kind of upside-down maple syrup cake that is baked with its own sauce. I wanted to use some of the lovely dark maple syrup that I picked up from McCannell Craftwork at Russell Flea over the weekend. Sadly, a copy of Anita Stewart’s Canada (2008) wasn’t immediately available at the library, and I haven’t yet bought a copy (although it’s down to $15.00 online so I really should), so I didn’t have access to the first recipe that I used and liked so much. Instead, I grabbed a few cookbooks with their own versions of a pouding chômeur recipe from the library, and then I went home to pick my favourite.

I thought that I had all of the ingredients at home, but it turns out that some of them had spoiled, so I had to improvise a little bit. I ended up combining the recipes from two different books. The final cake ended up being a little bit drier and with a sauce that wasn’t quite as runny as I’d been hoping. It was pretty darned good anyway.

Unfortunately, I found that the walnuts really overpowered the maple flavour, much to my dismay. Although it was a tasty dish all in all, I was really looking forward to that creamy maple syrup sauce dominating. I think I’ll stick to a more simple pouding chômeur recipe next time, whether it be from Anita Stewart’s Canada or another source.

Weekend Recap

Manning my first stall at Russell Flea was a lot of fun, and it was definitely a learning experience! I learned that the lights that I bought (from Dollarama, since a lot of people have asked) don’t fit through the bottom slats of all of the display crates, so I’ll have to widen a spot for them. I learned that it takes a really long time to pack and unpack a table’s worth of glass and stoneware when you have to unwrap and wrap every single item to prevent damage in transit. I learned that paper is great for wrapping delicate items if you only need to do so once or twice, but it disintegrates really fast (you’re better off using old fabric — blankets and towels are best — if you’re going to do it repeatedly). I learned that an apron with a lot of change in the pockets which ties around your neck can make your neck really sore if you wear it all day. I learned that people have really fond memories of old Tupperware and Pyrex.

Oh yeah, and I learned that I should be careful not to cram all of my tablecloths as tightly as possible into one bag, so that they effectively have the wrinkles pressed into them by the time I arrive at the venue. Whoops.

But I did have a good time. I got to chat with some friends who stopped by, and meet the vendors around me with a great deal more experience than I. I may even have met someone who can teach me how to spin if I ever manage to get my spinning wheel repaired.

One of the nice things about working for myself is that I can knit and mind a stall at the same time, once it’s all set up. That’s not something you’re generally allowed to do in a traditional retail setup. I find that it’s a great conversation starter. I managed to get about a third of a sock done that day.

Since I was away all day working, my husband did have to make dinner which was, at the request of the kiddos, pancakes! Hubby had never actually made pancakes before, although I was sure that that was a basic thing that everyone around here knows how to make if they cook at all. My husband is an unenthusiastic cook at best, but he has learned the necessary skills. His pancakes turned out really lovely! Fluffy and delicious, and smothered with fruit and maple syrup.

Speaking of syrup, apparently the sap has been running since that weird warm spell back in February, so the local tree farms should be getting a great harvest this year. Note to self: I need to pick up some more local maple syrup when I’m at Russell Flea again two weeks from now. I’m pretty sure it’s McCannell Craftwork was the farm that brought the syrup on Saturday, and I hope they’ll be back again.

Maple Rhubarb Crisp & Maple Leaf Cookies

I was trying to be as Canadian as possible this week and made maple rhubarb crisp from the recipe on page 116 of Sweet Ontario Pure Maple Syrup: Our favourite Maple Recipes, which is published by the Ontario Mable Syrup Producers’ Association. I picked up a copy of this cookbook this past weekend at the Cumberland Farmers’ Market, which is where I also picked up the rhubarb for the recipe. I didn’t purchase any good Ontario maple syrup at the time, but only because I already had two big jugs in my fridge. Can’t get much more local than that!


Maple rhubarb crisp topped with non-dairy whipped topping

I was really happy with how this recipe turned out. The crisp was the perfect blend of sweet and tart. I’m really looking forward to trying other recipes in this cookbook, such as the french toast casserole and maple BBQ chicken.

Of course, I had to check out some of the Canada-150-themed foods that are being sold in preparation for the big day. The above cookie was from a two-cookie decorating kit that retails at Walmart for $1.50. They aren’t half bad, given the price! My kids are going to decorate their own tomorrow. For an American company, Walmart carries an awful lot of Canadiana. But as the Arrogant Worms quipped in The Mountie Song:

“Where would you get a tank?”
“Walmart.”
“Oh.”

Speaking of the Arrogant Worms, here’s their song Proud to be Canadian, from the album Live Bait.

I hope you all have a safe and happy Canada Day!

Maple Mustard Glazed Salmon & Maple Barbecue Sauce

Because maple syrup is, well, a syrup, most people think of it first in sweet dishes like candy or fudge or cookies. However, it does add a fantastic note to savoury dishes as well.

One of the simplest recipes of which I have eaten a great deal — first prepared by my mother, later by me — is Maple Mustard Glazed Salmon from Jo Cooks. It’s basically four ingredients mixed together and poured over salmon, then baked. It’s delicious enough to serve at a dinner party, but quick enough to whip up as a busy evening meal. Maple goes well with mustard; not too surprising, really, given that honey mustard has a similar flavour profile and has been a grocery store standard for years.

Yesterday I served the salmon with one of my favourite last-minute dishes: fresh linguine (although you can use any kind of pasta, fresh or dried) with cooked spinach, cream cheese, and a little salt and pepper. I also added half an avocado on the side; my kids will eat avocado by preference over just about any other fruit or vegetable.

Maple is also great as part of a barbecue sauce. Lots of commercial sauces, such as Diana Sauce (a Kraft product) and President’s Choice, come in a maple variant. But it’s really easy to whip up one of your own! There are many recipes available online, but I am particularly fond of the no-cook Maple Barbecue Sauce on page 238 of The New Canadian Basics Cookbook (1999). It’s tangy, sweet, and just acidic enough to tenderize a tough steak if left to marinade. I wanted to fire up the grill and use this sauce yesterday, but the chilly downpours and the snow still freezing the barbecue cover to the ground made this inadvisable. I am sure that my jar of sauce will get a good workout over the coming months.

Maple Bacon Cornbread

Continuing this week’s theme of maple dishes, last night I tried out the Buttermilk Maple Cornbread with Flax recipe on page 43 of Anita Stewart’s Canada (2008). A number of the recipes I have used lately have come from this book, which I am greatly enjoying. I need to return it to the library shortly, so I have to optimize my use! Now that I’ve baked this cornbread, I have used every maple-based recipe in the book, with the sole exception of the crepe recipe on page 17. Between the buckwheat pancakes and the crepes I’ve made lately, I just didn’t feel the need to make yet another style of pancake.

The cornbread is only lightly sweetened with maple syrup, so the flavour is much more subtle than something like a pouding chômeur. Despite the syrup content, it is not a dessert quick bread; it would actually be a great accompaniment to roasted or barbecued meats, especially saucy ones. The top is sprinkled with chopped crispy bacon pieces, adding little bursts of extra flavour, although I think this bread would be great without the topping as well.

I almost burned the cornbread while baking it; I was warned by the smell, and I got it out of the oven just in time. My timer for the minimum recommended time hadn’t even gone off yet! I think that the blame for that can be placed upon my oven, which, as I’ve complained before, has been giving me issues when it comes to even, predictable heating. A new oven may be required sooner rather than later, although I shudder at the expense. I hope that I can make it last at least until the end of the summer at least, since I don’t use it much at all once the weather gets scorching.

I also cooked my corn bread in a glass dish instead of the cast-iron skillet specified by the recipe. Why? Because I’ve only got the one cast-iron pan, and it was too small. I think it turned out fine, considering. I believe that the use of cast iron is more tradition than anything else. However, using a preheated cast iron pan may create a crispy bottom crust on the cornbread that I was unable to achieve with a glass baking dish.

Buckwheat Pancakes Recipe

Buckwheat crepes (crêpes au sarrasin) are traditional in Québec this time of year, served with a generous helping of maple syrup, of course. However, that’s not the dish with which I was raised. My father learned how to cook this kind of food from his father, who, as I’ve mentioned before, worked as a lumberjack in northern New Brunswick. There my grandfather was expected to take his turn cooking for the camp. What was passed down, therefore, was not a delicate crepe, but a hearty pancake meant to fill bellies as quickly as possible, and to fuel heavy manual labour for the rest of the day.

I prefer to eat buckwheat pancakes in the colder months, saving lighter or thinner versions for the summer when the heat makes lighter meals more appealing. However, if you prefer a heavier pancake, a nuttier flavour, or if you have a sensitivity to wheat or gluten, then can be eaten all year round. Despite its name, buckwheat is a totally different kind of plant than wheat; it’s actually more closely related to rhubarb than anything else (although it tastes nothing like it).


Stack of pancakes using a 50/50 buckwheat/all-purpose flour mix.

Buckwheat Pancakes
Yields 12 six-inch diameter pancakes*

In a large bowl, mix together:
3 cups buckwheat flour**
2 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
In another large bowl, combine:
3 1/2 cups milk
2 eggs
4 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla
Whisk together wet ingredients until they become a smooth mixture. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients. Beat with an electric or hand mixer until batter is smooth, scraping the sides of the bowl occasionally with a rubber spatula to remove lumps.

*This recipe may be halved if desired. However, keep in mind that pancakes reheat well in the microwave, and leftovers can become a quick hot breakfast for the next day(s).
**For a lighter pancake, substitute 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour for the same amount of buckwheat flour.

The most difficult part of making pancakes, the part that takes a bit of practice to get right, is the frying. Lightly coat the cooking surface of a heavy, non-stick frying pan with cooking spray. Place the pan on the burner, turn the heat on to just a little bit higher than medium heat, and immediately pour a ladle-full of batter directly into the center of the pan. (Never preheat an empty nonstick pan.) The batter will spread out without help to its optimal thickness. Watch the cooking pancake carefully for bubbles to appear on its surface. When the bubbles pop and leave little craters behind that don’t immediately refill in with batter, it’s time to flip the pancake. (See above photo.)

The pancake should stay in one solid piece when it is flipped. The trick is to cook it slowly so that the batter is almost (but not quite) solid at the time of flipping. If the pancake isn’t cooked long enough, the top layer of batter will just slide off. If it is cooked at too high of a heat, the pancake will be burned on one side by the time it is ready to be flipped. Have patience! Buckwheat pancakes are especially thick and therefore need more time at a lower heat to cook all the way through. Cook each side until it is golden brown.


Pancake using a 50/50 buckwheat/all-purpose flour mix, topped with fresh fruit, maple syrup, and whipped cream.

Traditionally, buckwheat pancakes are served with butter and maple syrup. However, they are a great base for many toppings. If you can’t get (or don’t like) maple syrup, any kind of syrup or sweet sauce will do; corn syrup, honey, berry syrups, and artificially-flavoured syrups are fine. Dust pancakes with white, brown, or icing sugar for a classy touch. Jams, jellies, fruit butters, and nut butters are delicious as spreads. The pancakes can be topped with fresh or canned fruit, adding whipped cream if you have it. They are also a good vehicle for flavouring inside the pancake itself; for added punch, sprinkle a few chocolate or butterscotch chips or small blueberries over the batter as soon as it has been poured into the pan. You can include those kinds of ingredients in the bowl of batter itself, but I like adding them at the time of cooking so that I don’t have to make up multiple batches to appeal to different peoples’ tastes.