By Mike Wicks
Three Victoria chefs share their favourite flavour traditions of the holiday season. For one of them, it’s not about the turkey but a simple farm-fresh boiled egg!
Heather Cunliffe is known for her and her brother’s (Joe Cunliffe) two vegetarian restaurants: Café Bliss, which serves predominantly raw food, and Be Love, focused on sustainable organic cuisine. “We don’t claim to be vegan,” Cunliffe points out. “My values are more around whole food and being as close to the land as possible.”
Surprisingly, when asked about the holiday season, Heather says she doesn’t usually make Christmas dinner. “My mom or dad makes a classic turkey dinner.” Although at one time she was eating a raw vegan diet, nowadays she will eat a little meat but is mindful of where it comes from and what the animal has been fed.
“So it’s more about the quality of the food rather than what it is,” she says.
That’s not to say she doesn’t contribute her culinary skills during festive meals.
“I make a very good miso gravy and raw cranberry sauce. I blend up cranberries and orange zest with agar-agar [a vegetarian gelatine substitute produced from seaweed]. It turns a really bright red, darker than it normally is.”
Heather is a fan of Brussels sprouts (as are all our chefs). “I think they’re often prepared badly, which is why some people don’t like them. I roast them just with oil and salt, or I blanch and sauté them with garlic so they’re crispy on the outside, squishy on the inside.”
Last yearHeather made “bacon” bits using pecans. “We soaked the pecans with bacon flavours such as smoked paprika — kind of sweet — marinated them and then dehydrated them so they turned out crunchy like bacon. They were really good.”
Heather is keen on winter salads and makes a warm kale salad to go with her mom’s holiday meal. “I lightly sauté the kale and deglaze the pan with some kind of dressing such as maple mustard and add some toasted pecans and pear or Mandarin oranges.”
The holiday season wouldn’t be complete without cake, and Heather makes a raw fruit cake that sounds delicious. “There’s no flour or dairy, just a lot of dried fruit.”
Making the fruit cake involves food-processing almonds and dates and stuff to a gooey, doughy consistency that will hold the rest of the fruits together.
Heather’s mom, Rineke, is from the Netherlands, so her Dutch heritage comes to the forefront during the holidays. “I’m really quite a sucker for Dutch cookies and stroopwafels [a waffle made from two thin layers of baked dough with a caramel-like or treacle syrup filling] and gingery cookies that have animals and people imprinted on them, called speculoos.”
Chocolate is a must, and her oma [grandmother] still gives her a traditional Sinterklaas Eve [Santa Claus Eve] present of a dark Dutch chocolate letter — an H, for Heather.
Heather’s Raw Fruit Cake
Makes an 8-inch square pan
• 1 1/2 cups almonds
In a food processor, process almonds to fine and set aside in a bowl.
• 3/4 cup pitted dates
• 3/4 cup coconut oil
• 1/4 cup maple syrup
• 2 tbsp almond milk or water
• 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
• 1/2 tsp nutmeg
• 1/4 tsp clove powder
• 1/4 tsp vanilla powder
• 1/4 tsp salt
Place above ingredients in food processor and process to a creamy consistency. Add ground almonds and process to combine. Place in a mixing bowl.
• 3/4 cup pecans
• 1/2 cup walnuts
• 1/2 cup hazelnuts
Chop nuts into small pieces and add to bowl with mixture.
• 1 cup shredded coconut
• 3/4 cup raisins
• 3/4 cup dried cranberries
• 1/2 cup goji berries
• 1/2 cup dried blueberries or currants
• 1/2 cup chopped dried apricots or figs
Place dried fruit in bowl with mixture and mix to combine. Press into an 8-inch square pan and place in the fridge to set.
Heather’s Warm Apple Brussels Sprout Salad with Fig Balsamic Dressing
Fig balsamic dressing:
• 1/2 cup olive oil
• 1/4 cup water
• 4 black mission figs, soaked for at least 2 hours
• 1/4 cup fig soak water
• 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
• 1/4 cup maple syrup
• 1 tbsp nutritional yeast
• 2 cloves garlic
• 1 tsp salt
• 1/2 tsp pepper
• 1/2 tsp cumin
Place all ingredients in blender and blend until smooth.
• 1 lb Brussels sprouts
• 1 large apple
• 1/2 cup red onion, chopped
• 1 bunch kale
• 1/2 cup pecans
• 1/2 cup fig balsamic dressing
• 2 tbsp olive oil
Toast pecans in a dry pan over low heat; cool and set aside. Bring a medium pot of water to boil. Remove outer leaves from Brussels sprouts and cut in half. Submerge Brussels sprouts in boiling water for 10 seconds and immediately place in ice water. Once cold, drain and set aside. Cut apple into small chunks. Remove thick stems of kale and chop into small strips. Heat olive oil in a skillet and sauté onions and apples briefly. Add Brussels sprouts and continue to sauté until apples begin to turn translucent. Add kale and 1/2 cup
of dressing and sauté until kale is wilted. Add more dressing to taste. Serve warm, topped with toasted pecans.
Executive Chef Castro Boateng left Ghana when he was nine and grew up in Toronto.
His career has taken him to Scotland, the Cayman Islands and Bermuda, before moving to Canada and settling in Banff, and later Victoria. Having an English-born wife, Charlotte, who also spent time in the Caribbean, means the holiday season is a charming mishmash of cooking styles and traditions that speak to culture, family and travels.
Africans typically don’t have big breakfasts, says Castro, “but on Christmas Day you would wake up to a nice, farm-fresh boiled egg — that was special. It was about letting people know about fertility … about how precious life is.”
Where Castro grew up, the Christmas-morning egg topped toys. “I tell my kids about this and they look at me like I’m crazy, but Kaeden, our eldest, likes the egg on Christmas morning.”
Castro recalls his mom making a mackerel stew with spinach. “It’s more dense than a stew, really … more of a paste. It has chillies, nutmeg, lots of ginger … I’m working hard to make it as good as she does.”
He says over the holiday season his family likes to cook African food. “Africans always buy food that takes a long time to cook; we don’t buy tenderloins. A lot has to do with economics, but it also has to with it [the cheaper cuts] tasting better. My mom will still argue a nice chunk of oxtail will taste better than beef tenderloin. I kind of agree with her.”
In fact, a favourite Christmas dish for the Boatengs is braised oxtail. “We marinate it in allspice, ginger, cinnamon, some heat, garlic and rosemary for a day or two, then sear the meat, add it back to the marinade with parsnips, carrots, rutabaga, tomatoes — and slow-braise it until it falls off the bone. Meat that takes longer to cook will always taste better, and the smell of it cooking all day makes you hungrier.”
Although the Boatengs’ favourite holiday beverage is eggnog with rum and nutmeg, Castro will often make a Caribbean-style carrot-and-Guinness drink, using carrot juice, stout, condensed milk, fresh grated nutmeg, fresh ginger, a cinnamon stick and perhaps a little coconut oil.
Other traditions for the Boateng family including Bofroat, a dense Ghanaian donut; rum ball; Bailey’s cheesecake; and, from England, Cadbury’s Roses chocolates. Oh, and new pyjamas for everyone on Christmas Eve and Castro’s favourite gift: a special ornament each for the tree.
Castro’s Caribbean-Style Carrot-and-Guinness Beverage
• 2 lbs peeled carrots (or 1 litre of carrot juice)
• 1 cup Guinness
• 1/4 cup condensed milk
• 1 tsp fresh grated nutmeg
• 1/4 tsp fresh ginger, finely grated
• 2 tbsp coconut oil (optional)
Using a juicer, extract all carrot juice and strain through a fine mesh strainer.
Combine the carrot juice and the remaining ingredients except the coconut oil in a blender and blend for a minute. Slowly drizzle the coconut oil to emulsify.
Chill for about an hour. Shake well and serve on ice (optional).
Castro’s Cinnamon-Spiced Cashew Nuts
• 4 cups unsalted cashews
• 1/2 cup maple syrup or honey
• 1 1/2 tbsp cinnamon
• 1 tbsp powdered ginger
• 1 tsp cayenne powder
• 1/4 tsp powdered cloves
• Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 275°F. Bring 8 cups of water to boil. Blanch cashew nuts in salted water. Strain the water from the cashews. (Make sure all the water is evaporated.)
Toss the nuts in the maple syrup and season with all the spices. Place the nuts on parchment paper on trays; roast in the oven for 1 hour or until the nuts are crisp.
Castro’s Parsnip-and-Apple Soup with Port Reduction
• 1 medium onion, roughly chopped
• 2 tbsp vegetable oil
• 6 large parsnips, peeled and roughly chopped
• 3 apples, peeled and roughly chopped
• 1/2 cup dry white wine
• 6 cups vegetable stock or chicken stock
• 1 cup apple juice
• Salt and pepper to taste
• Crumbled blue cheese (optional)
In a 3-quart saucepan, sauté onions in vegetable oil on low heat, approximately 2 minutes.
Add the parsnips and apples to the saucepan and continue sautéing for a few more minutes. Deglaze the saucepan with the white wine until reduced by half. Season with salt and pepper.
Add the stock and simmer for 20 minutes or until parsnips are tender.
Purée the soup in a blender until smooth; add apple juice to adjust the flavour and consistency.
• 2 cups port
• 1 tbsp sugar
Combine the port and sugar in a small saucepan and reduce on low heat until syrupy. Pour soup into soup bowls and drizzle with port reduction.
Stephan Drolet and his wife Jamie Williams took over 26-year-old Camille’s Restaurant three years ago (he was head chef for two years prior to that). “My parents are Quebecois, and I was born in Ontario. We had French-Canadian traditions, and the food we would cook around the holidays used a lot of pork.”
When he was growing up, the holiday season for Stephan was all about family. “My mom had 11 brothers and sisters, my father came from a family of five kids, so we were always at an uncle or aunt’s place, or they were at ours. There were always big buffets and if you ask me about the holidays, I’m going to pinpoint one dish right away — tourtière.”
This iconic French-Canadian meat pie originated in Quebec and is a traditional part of Christmas. There is no set way to make it and, as Stephan says, “there are as many different recipes as there are French-Canadian families.”
Many chefs keep their “secret” recipes to themselves, but Stephan was happy to share his with YAM readers.
Having moved away from the family back east, holiday celebrations these days are quieter affairs for Stephan, but the pork theme continues, with ham hocks served on a bed of split peas.
“I roast the ham hocks [covered] at 220°F to 225°F in a little water or stock and add vegetables — onions, carrots, whatever — in the bottom to flavour the cooking liquid, basting occasionally. I uncover halfway through cooking to reduce the liquid. Near the end, I’ll baste with maple syrup with some ground spices, maybe clove, nutmeg, chilies. The hocks should be cooked to the point where the meat is just pulling off the bone.”
Stephan cooks the split peas with some onions and chicken stock. “Season them and cook until they are just starting to break apart, add some herbs — rosemary, onions, a little mirepoix. They double as a starch. Cook them so they are more of a mash the consistency of a hummus, moist but not too moist. Then simply shred the meat on top and circle with the vegetables.”
The tourtière is the star of the show though. Amazingly, it’s served with tomato ketchup. “To this day,” says Stephan, “there are probably only three things I eat with ketchup; that’s always going to be one of them.”
One dish Stephan simply won’t do without during the holiday season is cretons. “This easy, rustic pâté tastes of the holiday season for me,” he says.
Cretons, similar to French rillettes, is basically ground pork simmered for hours and hours, says Stephan. “You let it congeal and it makes a country-style pâté. [I use] lots of wintry spices such as cloves and nutmeg — you can play with the flavours. These days I’m apt to add maple syrup and chili flakes, among other things.”
• 450 g ground pork
• 1 small sweet onion, minced
• 2 garlic cloves
• 1 tsp oil
• 8 cups chicken stock (water can be substituted)
• 1/2 tsp cloves, whole
• 1/4 tsp chili flakes
• 1/4 tsp nutmeg
• 1/4 tsp cinnamon
• 1/4 tsp thyme
• 3 tbsp maple syrup
• Salt and pepper to taste
On medium heat, sweat minced onion in oil and add garlic. Sweat 1 minute more and crumble in ground pork. Stir ground pork to break it up and cover with stock. Bring to a simmer.
When simmering, add dry spices and seasoning. Start with just a bit of salt, so that it doesn’t become overly salty as the stock reduces. Stir often to prevent sticking or scorching.
Reduce the liquid slowly to achieve a homogeneous mix resembling oatmeal or quicksand.
Add thyme leaves and maple syrup, stir and adjust seasonings to your taste.
Tip mixture into a container large enough to hold the pâté in a shallow layer and allow to cool to room temperature before placing in refrigerator. (If you put it in the refrigerator too hot, the thick mixture will raise the ambient temperature of your refrigerator.)
When cooled, the cretons will resemble a coarse country-style pâté and some fat will have settled on the top. This is normal and delicious but also easily removed if it is unwanted.
Stephan’s Cumin-and-Fennel-Cured Pork Shoulder TourtIère
• 5 kg bone-in pork shoulder
• 3 to 4 parsnips
• 1 fennel bulb
• Salt to taste
• 2 1/2 tbsp oil
• 12 cups chicken stock
• 2 carrots, peeled and cut to 1-inch pieces
• 2 onions, cut to 1-inch pieces
• 1 celery rib, cut to 1-inch pieces
• 2 gallons 5% pork brine
• 4 tbsp brown sugar
• 2 tsp fennel seed
• 1 tbsp cumin seed
• 2 1/2 tsp black peppercorns
• 2 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
To make a 5% brine, dissolve 1 cup of salt per gallon of hot water. Feel free to add spices or herbs to the brine. Stephan uses fennel fronds. If using, add cumin seeds when the brine is still warm. Allow brine to cool completely (otherwise you’re just making a bad soup) and place pork shoulder in a container, cover with brine and leave 24 hours.
Remove from brine and place on a resting tray to allow excess brine to run off. Mix brown sugar, fennel, cumin and coarse ground peppercorns and rub over the entire pork shoulder. Allow to cure overnight.
In a large pan, heat oil till it shimmers and sear the pork shoulder on all sides over medium-low heat. Add 1 onion and 1 carrot and celery. Sweat briefly in the pan. Remove pork shoulder and vegetables to a braising tray large enough to hold the shoulder comfortably.
Pour out any oil from the pan and scrape out any darkened bits. Deglaze with chicken stock and bring to a boil. Pour stock into braising pan with the pork and mirepoix [roughly copped vegetables] and cover with aluminum foil. Place into preheated 275°F oven and cook for 4 to 6 hours. Depending on your oven, the times could vary. You are looking for the meat to pull apart easily.
Allow to rest in the braising liquid about 20 to 30 minutes when done.
While it is cooking, dice the parsnip, 1 onion and fennel. Sweat lightly in a bit of oil and reserve.
Remove pork shoulder from liquid and allow to cool until you can handle it. Strain braising liquid into smaller pot and reduce until thickened. Taste periodically to ensure the flavour doesn’t become too salty. Remove from heat and thicken with a little bit of cornstarch if you feel the sauce may become too salty for your taste. Season with Dijon mustard to taste.
Remove bones from pork shoulder and break up the meat. Mix pork with vegetables and moisten with thickened braising liquid. Add thyme to mixture and allow to cool. Put mixture into pie shells of your choice, brush top of the pie shell with an egg wash and bake at 350°F until pie shell is cooked fully and contents are hot.