Canada! Ohhhhh, Canada.
Our calm, patient neighbors to the north. You are known to us for your forward-thinking approaches to social programs, your excellent comedy (and comedians) and that weird separatist thing going on in Montreal. But we don’t know a hell of a lot about your food other than poutine.
Poutine has become a big deal in the U.S. in the last few years, with cheap dive bars and expensive cocktail clubs alike commonly offering some pared-down or scaled-up version of this sloppy, savory comfort food on their menus. The average American is not afraid of poutine even though it sounds French, because it contains all of the things that we already enjoy – french fries, gravy, and cheese. I mean, there actually may not be another dish in existence that binds Yanks and Canucks together as brethren as much as this dish does.
This is exactly why I will NOT be making poutine today. It’s too easy, it’s too expected, and it’s not really that exciting of a dish, to be perfectly honest. Isn’t there anything else Canada can offer us that has a little more… I don’t know, zazz?
My favorite book that takes place in Canada is The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx. It’s a devastatingly depressing (but ultimately redemptive) story of a charmless, hopelessly average man who relocates to his ancestral home of Newfoundland to try to find a connection with his past. Aside from just being an exceptionally well-written book, it also really piqued my gastronomical interest with its mentions of several Newfie dishes – magical-sounding things like squidburgers (not a real dish), seal flipper pies (a real dish) and fried herring with pork cracklings and potatoes (also real). Newfie food definitely had to be on the menu for this post.
I also wanted to try to represent some other culinary traditions in Canada. I recalled a conversation I had had a couple of years ago with a very talented, fellow-Queens-based food writer named Regan Hofmann (she’s on Twitter at @Regan_Hofmann – give her a follow!!) over some killer Cypriot food. Regan is originally from Canada, and aside from schooling me on Canadian punk rock, she also told me about a few dishes that she considers to be specifically Canadian: cretons (a spiced pork pâté); pâté chinois (a shepherd’s-pie variant that derives its name not from those who prepared it, but from those for whom it was prepared [read: Chinese railroad workers]); and butter tarts, which are sort of like pecan pie minus the pecans. (Thanks Regan!!)
Taking Regan’s suggestions to heart, my final Canadian menu looked like this: cretons (French) as an appetizer, followed by fried cod tongues and rappie pie (Newfie), and then butter tarts (pan-Canadian) for dessert. This was going to be great.
Easy. Boil some ground pork in milk and spices, cool, stir. You got it.
The only trick here is to make sure you don’t give yourself botulism – cool it down fast and don’t leave it hanging around the stove once it has reduced to a thick paste. The fat will solidify as it cools, and then when you stir it around it will be incorporated into the paste in the form of tasty little lipid morsels. It will also give the pâté a rustic, rough texture, providing a little more variety in each bite than just a homogeneous paste.
Schmear it on some toast and you’ll have yourself a very satisfying Québécois breakfast, as well as a few hours of Christmas-scented burps. It’s really good, even if you don’t normally like pâté made from liver or other organs.
Seriously, this dish is extremely hard to screw up, so I won’t spend any more time on it. Plus, a great story awaits.
Erm, yeah. You know how stuff doesn’t always work out for me when I get obsessed about a specific ingredient? Well, it happened again.
The main ingredient in cod tongues is – you guessed it! – cod tongues. I have never seen these before, although I have seen cod cheeks become de rigeur on menus in the past few years as the cuisine of poverty has become more and more fetishized in fine dining. The “tongue” of the cod is not really a tongue like a cow or human might have, but really a hyoid apparatus – it’s function is similar to that of our tongue, except instead of manipulating food around the mouth it is used, rather, to slam food back into the throat or gullet. Cod tongue’s texture was widely described as “jelly-like” or “gelatinous” in the sources that I read, and it seems to be a throw-away part that Newfoundland fishermen got used to keeping and cooking for themselves, so as not to literally eat their profits from the more-desirable cuts of the cod. I was desperate to try it.
My go-to place for exotic seafood is always The Lobster Place in Chelsea Market (in Manhattan) – they are probably the most expensive fish market in the city, but they also have, fittingly, the best quality and the biggest selection of specialty items. Since it’s a haul from Queens, I emailed my guy there first. His response: “This is something we can source and we do see it from time to time, however there is a 40lb order minimum for us to bring this in. Typically when we see them in the market it’s because a couple of our wholesale customers have shown some interest. The vast majority of whole cod that we see comes in head[ed] and gutted, so unfortunately we can’t save some for you. Unless you’re looking for 40lbs worth, the best thing to do is to sign up for our e-newsletter, which comes out weekly and lists specialty products. When we see this item on our wholesale buy list we bring it in and it will be on this e-newsletter list.”
I mournfully watched the newsletter for a couple of months, but no cod tongues. Time to cast a wider net.
I tried fish markets closer to Canada, calling and emailing a few in Maine and Massachusetts. Almost everyone just said “no,” and Harbor Fish Market in Portland, Maine emailed me back, saying “I have not seen those in so long… we don’t carry them anymore.”
Had northern New England lost its taste for this slippery delicacy? The quest for domestic cod tongues seemed to be at a dead end. My next tactic was to try to get someone in Newfoundland to overnight them to me, frozen – much less convenient, and definitely more expensive. I set a firm spending cap for myself because I have come to grips with the fact that I am insane, and starting sending emails to Newfoundland. The results were not good.
Belbin’s Grocery Store: “Sorry we do not ship out of province.”
Bidgood’s Supermarket: “Sorry but we are not permitted to export goods to United States.”
Stoyles Wholesale Seafood: “Sorry, we do not ship cod tongues to the U.S.”
Best of the Sea Fish Market: “Sorry, but we cannot ship seafood into the USA due to US Customs’ regulations. The only way that you would be able to get some would be to have somebody here who is flying to the USA and can take them back with them on their flight.”
So is this what it was going to take? Would I need to convince a third-party to smuggle them back for me? This was getting ridiculous.
I eventually came across a company in Toronto called Frozen On Time that specializes in shipping small-lot, temperature-sensitive items to the U.S. They were willing to ship a pound of frozen cod tongues to me for a reasonable price, but I would have to convince one of the suppliers to actually get the cod tongues to Frozen On Time’s Toronto location.
Mike Mundell’s Surf and Turf Store in Newfoundland was willing to play ball, but this would involve them first shipping the frozen cod tongues to Toronto, and then Frozen On Time having to get them to me (and through customs) within 36 hours. This logistical nightmare would end up costing me in the $100s of dollars, all for a pound of fish jelly.
No. Even I have my limits. No cod tongues this time, folks. If anyone reading this wants to be kind and bring some to NYC next time they visit, I will GLADLY update this post and put your name in BOLDFACE.
Rappie pie, luckily, is one of the most comforting things you can put in your mouth, maybe next to a pacifier, or whiskey. The name comes from the French verb râper, which means “to grate,” and refers to the treatment of the potatoes in the dish, which are grated to a wet, heavy pulp. The pulp is then placed in a clean towel, which is twisted and squeezed to eject most of the starchy potato water. You are left with a drier pile of potato mush.
Hm. We want the potatoes grated and separated from their liquid. Got it, cool.
Now, that pot of chicken and onions I showed you above contains both the protein of this dish and the liquid means of uniting its disparate elements. You take the boiled chicken and shred the meat off the bones. Next, you mix the potato mush into the boiling-hot broth and stir to make a mush that smells like chicken pot pie (which is more or less what rappie pie is, in the end).
The best part of this dish happens now – render some salt pork chunks and fry them till they’re crunchy. These cracklings are called scrunchions in colloquial Newfoundlandese, and their intense, fatty saltiness and crispy texture will help to break up the monotony of the one-note potato-chicken-broth mush. The rendered fat also gets mixed in with the mush, so nothing is wasted and all calories are accounted for.
After a long while in the oven, our rappie pie comes out and cools briefly – it stays molten hot for a good long time, so don’t worry too much about eating it immediately. Be chill.
Rappie pie is sort of like chicken soup, but without all the splashing and vegetables. It’s flavor reminds me of shepherd’s pie, chicken and dumplings and mashed potatoes. It’s sort of your catch-all North-American dish, in a way. No surprises – save for an errant, briny scrunchion here and there – but comforting and warming through and through. It’s just what you need after a long day of fishing on a cold sea, or hunting online for cod tongues in your boxer shorts.
Lots of salt so far, so let’s move to a sweet dessert. As with the rest of the dishes I picked, this one also demonstrates the effective simplicity of traditional Canadian cuisine. While Canada is home to a vibrant and lively food culture (see Joe Beef and Au Pied de Cochon for two Montreal-based examples of this), the dishes that sustained it in earlier eras were defined by utility and remained true to their northern-European, fur-trading roots. Then, of course, there is the influence of the First Nations, who were the first to harvest maple syrup and lived, as well, on high-calorie, life-sustaining game and fish.
Anyway, butter tarts. Very simple – make your grandma’s 1950’s-style, multi-purpose Crisco pastry, which you will then use as your tart shell. I only have these large tart molds, but ideally they would be a little smaller.
Once you make your mixture of eggs, brown sugar, raisins and the eponymous butter and pour it into the tart shells, they go in the oven for about twenty minutes and come out looking like they are made of crack cocaine and daydreams:
The shortening-based tart shell is light and flaky, of course, because it’s made of hydrogenated fat and is slowly murdering you. The filling is riotously sweet, with the huffed-up raisins providing fruity little points of light in a sea of dark, sugary oblivion. These are addictive and I understand now why they come up in discussions of Canada’s “national dish.” The recipe I used is from Grahame’s, a bakery in Ontario that apparently makes a legendary butter tart. If mine are even half as good as Grahame’s then they definitely deserve the praise.
Alright, that’s it. We’re done.
You know what? Fine. Fine!
Here’s your freakin poutine. I got this picture off the internet.
Oh, and be sure to check out the recipe below, you are NOT going to like it.
Canada, you have a lot more to offer than just poutine. I hope I’ve helped people understand this, even just a little bit. You’re a good neighbor to put up with us, and your food is awesome. High five! (We can high five because we’re right next to each other.)
Now you go:
I used Emeril Lagasse’s recipe for cretons, which can be found here
1 medium-sized chicken, whole
3 large yellow onions, quartered
12 large russet potatoes, peeled
1/2 lb salt pork (or bacon), cut into lardons
salt and black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Wash the chicken. Place it in a stockpot with the quartered onions with just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for about 1 hour, or until the meat starts to come away from the bones.
Remove the chicken from the pot with tongs, and place on a plate to drain slightly. Reserve the broth. When the chicken cools enough to handle it, pick the meat from the bones and lightly chop the meat into bite-sized hunks.
You have two options for the potatoes – you can grate them with a box grater and then squeeze the water out of the pulp through a kitchen towel, or you can just juice them (if you have a juicer). I juiced them. Discard the starchy potato water, and reserve the dry pulp.
In a frying pan, render half of the salt pork or bacon, cooking until the lardons are crispy. Set them aside, and reserve the rendered pork fat.
Bring the reserved chicken broth back to a boil. In a large mixing bowl, CAREFULLY combine 4 cups of boiling broth with the potato pulp and immediately mix well with a whisk or wooden spoon. Add the rendered pork fat and the crispy pork lardons and continue to mix well. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
In a pie plate, take turns layering the potato mixture and the shredded chicken meat until it is all used up. top the pie with the other half of the raw salt pork (making sure that there will be enough room for the fat to collect and not run off the pie plate into the oven).
Bake at 350 degrees for 90 minutes, or until the top of the pie is deep, dark brown and the salt pork is crispy.
I used a recipe provided by Grahame’s Bakery in Kemptville, Ontario, which can be found here
One bag frozen french fries
One can Campbell’s beef gravy
2 cups cheese curds
Heat up the french fries in the oven. Pour the gravy into a bowl and heat in the microwave. Pour the gravy over the french fries.
Top with cheese curds. Serve hot, in the middle of the night.
Feel ashamed that you didn’t try harder.