Signs of Life

The “on this day” features on my phone and Facebook and whatnot keep reminding me that last year at this time the city was really greening up. Leaves were unfurling, plants were sprouting, and spring had definitely sprung. This year, not so much. I mean, that’s probably a good thing, because it’s only been two weeks since we had an ice storm. For those who don’t live in northern climes, ice or snow on leaves instead of bare branches puts a whole lot of weight on trees, meaning a lot more breakage and overall damage. Not to mention the frost damage that would have affected lower-growing plants. So in the long run it’s probably good that spring is springing slowly this year, even if it does mean that things like Ontario parks have had to have a delayed opening.

But if you look closely, you can see some signs of life, like buds on a lilac bush:

Or on a pear tree:

And hardy rhubarb sprouting up despite being thoroughly trampled by the fence installation guys in the fall:

With any luck, my harvest will be better than last year’s.

Of course, the tiger lilies are one of the first plants to shoot up after the snow recedes — they generally survive the last few freezes of the season just fine:

And the first dandelions have started to bloom:

I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of digging dandelions out of my lawn and my gardens, but they are one of the earliest foods for bees in the spring before the rest of the plants flower. So, yay!

I don’t generally plant my gardens until after the May 2-4 weekend, as late frosts can kill tender young plants. Given the weather we’ve had this year, I may be extra-cautious and not plant for another week after that, at the start of June. I mean, it hit 28°C (82.4°F) yesterday out of the blue, but average temperatures for May are generally much lower than that. However, I still enjoy seeing the native and perennial plants coming back in force after the temperatures rise.

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!

Strawberry-Rhubarb Butter Recipe

One of my favourite things in the world to can is fruit butters, which are basically fruit that has been cooked, blended, and then boiled down to reduce the moisture content until the end result is smooth and spreadable. Simmering off the water increases both the flavour and the acidity, so fruit butters need less sweetening for taste or for preservation purposes. Fruit butters are a simple, wholesome kind of preserve that historically, in Canada, was a common way to make fruits last the winter. These days, they are made and eaten all year long, although most home canning happens in the summer and early fall when fruits are freshest and at their most plentiful.

Contrary to what the name may indicate, fruit butters actually don’t usually contain any dairy products, although some recipes call for a dollop of butter to prevent frothing (which I usually forgo and instead skim the froth). They are generally vegetarian and can be made vegan through proper sourcing of ingredients — as I’ve previously mentioned, some varieties of sugar use bone char as part of the filter process, so if that’s important to you, you’ll have to do your homework when choosing a brand to buy.


Strawberry-rhubarb butter will last up to a year when properly canned.

Fruit butters have easily as many uses as jams or jellies, including (but not limited to):

– a spread on bread, toast, or biscuits;
– a filling in donuts, cookies, muffins, croissants, turnovers, and tarts;
– a topping for ice cream;
– a mix-in for yogurt;
– a topping for pancakes or crepes;
– mixed with cream cheese to make a quick dip for fresh fruit or crackers; or
– an ingredient in fruit butter bread (apple being the most common)

Strawberry-rhubarb butter is the latest fruit butter I’ve made, and I’ve found that it perfectly encapsulates the tastes of late spring/early summer. Since the ingredients cook down, it’s a great way to use up rhubarb — especially if you’re searching for ways to use the stalks from an over-producing plant! I prefer to cook it in a combination of the microwave and the crock pot, because both are less prone to burning than cooking on the stove. The quickest way to ruin a batch of fruit butter is to scald it; you’ll never get rid of that burnt taste. If you choose to cook on the stove, you will have to watch your ingredients like a hawk, stir constantly, and adjust your cooking times. For these reasons, if you have a microwave and a crock pot, I highly recommend using them.


Strawberry-rhubarb butter on Dad’s biscuits.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Butter
Yields seven 250mL jars

Wash and chop until you have:
1Kg (about 8 cups) rhubarb, any variety
Place the rhubarb into a microwave-safe casserole dish with:
1/2 cup water
Cover and microwave in 3-minute increments, stirring every time you check for doneness, until the rhubarb are falling apart (approximately 15 minutes). Set rhubarb aside.
Repeat this process, cooking each fruit separately, with:
1.2Kg (about 8 cups) strawberries + 1/2 cup water
1Kg (about 8 cups) apples (any variety) + 1/2 cup water
While apples are cooking, put the rhubarb and its cooking liquid into a blender and blend until smooth. Pour rhubarb puree into crock pot. Repeat puree step with strawberries and their cooking liquid, and when they are cooked, the apples and their liquid.
To the crock pot add:
400g sugar (about 1 3/4 cups)
Stir until all elements are well combined.
Set crock pot on high and cook until resulting butter is a little bit thinner than the desired final product (fruit butter will thicken slightly as it cools). This usually takes between 24 and 48 hours. Cooking more than 48 hours is not recommended as the butter will develop a burned taste. If fruit has not thickened enough after 48 hours, finish the thickening process on the stove top, stirring regularly to prevent scalding.
Fill 250mL jars leaving 6mm head space. Process in a hot water canning bath for 30 minutes after the water returns to a boil. This fruit butter will last up to a year when processed. Alternately, the butter may simply be refrigerated for up to three weeks, or frozen (leaving additional head space for expansion) for up to six months.

Bread Machine Baking

I’ve been taking the opportunity to play with my bread machine over the last little while, and not only because there have been some stinking hot days (30°C (86°F) with a humidex of 40°C (104°F) this past Sunday) where I don’t feel like baking in the oven. I’ve picked up a few more books about maximizing the potential of a breadmaker, and I think that the new knowledge I’ve gained, and the new recipes, are really making a difference in the results I’m getting.

For this bread I used the Golden Pumpkin Bread recipe on page 167 of Bread Machine: How to Prepare and Bake the Perfect Loaf by Jennie Shapter (2002), omitting the pumpkin seeds. The nearly-fluorescent orange colour was created by using the homemade pumpkin puree that I canned last fall. Some of the pumpkins that I cooked up after Halloween were white-skinned (probably Casper pumpkins), and their flesh was a more brilliant orange than the usual orange-skinned pumpkins you get around here. I also bought a variety of pumpkin that had skin that was a deep reddish orange, with a very intensely-orange flesh. The resulting bread was lovely and moist while still being light, with a slight tang of pumpkin that goes well with hearty dishes like casseroles and soups.

This loaf, although it doesn’t look spectacularly interesting, but it had a lovely, subtly-sweet flavour. It was based on the Apple Butter Bread recipe found on page 172 of The Complete Guide to Bread Machine Baking from Better Homes and Gardens (1999). To take advantage of my recent batch of strawberry-rhubarb butter (which I will share the recipe for soon), I used that instead of apple butter, and omitted the apple pie spice/allspice. This bread isn’t as moist as the pumpkin bread, but is more moist than your average white or brown bread. As per the cookbook’s suggestion, I have tried it with honey for breakfast, which was absolutely divine. I haven’t tried it as part of a grilled cheese sandwich with cheddar cheese due to my issues with dairy, but I predict that the flavour combination would be amazing.

Last but not least, my favourite bread machine experiment so far has been Marbled Pesto Bread from page 142 of Bread Machine: How to Prepare and Bake the Perfect Loaf. For this bread I used the Roadapple Ranch garlic scape pesto that I wrote about previously. The bread recipe required using the machine’s dough cycle, which means that the bread is then baked in the oven. It’s the economical version of using a stand mixer for bread dough, really, except that it also proofs the dough. The dough is rolled up kind of like a jelly roll, but with pesto instead of jelly. The final results were delicious! My husband has not stopped raving about this bread since I made it — and I’m pretty sure he ate most of the loaf. We didn’t serve this bread with anything; it was perfectly good all on its own, even without butter. I’m definitely making this one again once the days cool down a bit so I don’t roast myself by using the oven.

Rhubarb

It’s rhubarb season, and I only just discovered that rhubarb is one of my husband’s favourite “fruits” (I know it’s a petiole (stalk) and not a fruit, but it is cooked like one, so I think of it as being in the same category). We’ve only been married for ten years at this point, and have known each other for more than twenty, you’d think it would have come up in conversation before now. In any case, I do have a rhubarb plant in my old garden, which is an area of the yard where I used to grow things but have had to stop because the fence there desperately needs repair. We’re supposed to get a new fence this summer, so hopefully I’ll be able to plant a secondary garden against the fence next spring. All that being said, my rhubarb plant is under-performing, to say the least.

This plant is three years old and honestly looks like I just planted it this year. The stalks are losing a size competition to the grass. The plant has never been big, so I doubt that it needs to be split. I think it’s probably due to poor soil quality; I mean, I have never fertilized that garden, I just used the soil that was there when we moved in. Next year I’ll be sure to add compost and extra soil and see if that helps at all. With the new fence going in, there’s no point in trying anything before then… My plant may not survive the ordeal anyway.

So that was my total rhubarb harvest: one handful of spindly little stems. Luckily, some friends of mine out in Russell have a plant that is trying its hardest to take over part of their back yard, and they let me harvest more than half of it in exchange for some homemade pickles. I could not have been more thrilled (or thankful)! So I got to cooking.

The first thing I tried, at my husband’s request, was strawberry rhubarb pie. I used the pie recipe from page 680 of the Joy of Cooking (2006 edition), but I used the Purity Pastry crust from page 73 of the Purity Cookbook (2001 edition), which is my preferred basic pie crust recipe. This was my very first attempt at a rhubarb pie of any kind, and also my first shot at a lattice crust, which I discovered isn’t terribly difficult, although it’s time-consuming.

The top of the pie came out a little bit darker than I’d have liked, although it didn’t taste burnt. I kept my eye on the baking process, constantly monitoring the oven temperature, and it happened anyway. I am really starting to need a new oven. I can’t keep a bulb lit in there because it burns out within days, the temperature control isn’t accurate (which is why I have a secondary thermometer in there), and it’s so small that I can only cook one thing at once. Ah well, it’ll happen eventually.


Thing 1 holding the pie over my head so I could lay on the floor and get a shot at the bottom.

What surprises me the most is that the pie wasn’t overcooked anywhere else. I would think that the bottom would be the most likely spot, given that I was using a baking setting where only the bottom burner was used. I know that the pie plate protected the bottom of the pie somewhat, but even so… Well, at least it tasted good.

As an aside, you might notice that the rhubarb in my dishes doesn’t look particularly red; that’s because the cultivar that my friends grow is ripe when the stalks are green, although sometimes they do have a slightly red tinge. It tastes just as good, even if the colour of the dishes isn’t nearly as spectacular.

I’ve also been baking up loads of Rhubarb Orange Bread from page 22 of 125 Best Quick Bread Recipes by Donna Washburn & Heather Butt (2002). This book was a thrift store find that I definitely don’t regret! I made a few loaves of the rhubarb orange bread that were devoured by my family before I had a chance to photograph them, then a pile of mini-loaves for the freezer, and then a couple dozen nut-free muffins for the kids to take to school (the original recipe has walnuts). I prefer the taste and texture of the version with nuts, but I understand why it’s something that can’t be brought to school.

As I write this, I am in the middle of making up some slow-cooker strawberry-rhubarb butter. If it turns out, I hope to share the recipe. The one thing that I meant to make that I forgot about was a rhubarb crisp, for which there is a recipe on page 692 of my Joy of Cooking. If none of my other friends have excess rhubarb for which they’re willing to trade, I may have to buy a bundle at a farmers’ market this weekend just so I can make this dish. It’s been many years since I had one, but I remember it being delicious!