The Art of Doing Without
CHC CANADA 150 FOOD BLOG CHALLENGE
The Confident Kitchen Series
I am a proud Canadian. When the Culinary Historians of Canada invited food bloggers to participate in the “CHC Canada 150 Food Blog Challenge”, I knew that I wanted in! What a great way to celebrate and honour Canada’s 150th birthday by featuring a different Canadian dish or discussing a topic near and dear to our hearts each month.
The topic for the February “CHC Canada 150 Food Blog Challenge” is called doing without. This topic hits close to home for many Canadians, especially if you have a family member who has lived through difficult economic times. I am sure that there are many Canadians with countless stories of recent times or that have been passed down through the generations. My family is no exception. The art of doing without is more of a skill – essentially a life skill.
My French Canadian Grandmother – Meme (Mimi to us) and my Mom told us of many difficult times during their lives where they did without or utilized what they did have in some creative ways. My parents & grandparents had a lot of influence in the development of my frugal nature.
Careful, cautious and thrifty were important characteristics of my forbearers. I draw on those traits daily in my own kitchen. In this article, I will share a few of their stories, recipes and techniques that have been passed down to me regarding how to make the most of what is available.
My father was an accomplished gardener. Our large backyard garden was bordered by rows of raspberry and asparagus plants, a variety of fruit trees and arbours of grapes. My family traded produce amongst aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins to provide a variety of food. Harvesting tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, turnip, and many other vegetables and fruits kept us busy throughout the growing season. I was taught essential skills such as storing, canning, preserving and drying techniques at a very young age. The value of these skills hit home early in life. This is one of the primary reasons my career path focussed on food.
My Mimi and my Mom told me of times in their lives when food items such as sugar, coffee, butter and bacon were in short supply or rationed. These precious items were carefully considered when planning meals for their families. The recipes used were very basic using simple ingredients. They often substituted other items to replace or stretch the recipe while still providing nutrition and carbohydrates which were essential to families who were involved in the heavy labour of the times.
Mom had so many great ideas to fully utilize food products and to stretch each recipe. For example, she stored bacon drippings in a clean tin can. That precious fat was used for flavouring, frying meat or eggs, or for greasing the sides of the bread pans (we always saved the wax paper that the lard and butter were wrapped in to grease the baking pans). She also used the rendered bacon fat to make savoury pie pastry or biscuits when butter was in short supply.
CHEF TIP: I utilize a more modern method to store my bacon drippings. I pour the rendered bacon fat into a small silicone tray with wells that hold a one tablespoon-size portion. Then I freeze the tray until firm, remove the frozen nuggets, and store them in zipper bags in my freezer. They are used in many of the same ways my Mom did in the past. (see the recipe for Potato Scones).
My 90 year-old Mom also told me about the many uses of potatoes. Even the potato peelings were saved and cleverly fried in an old cast iron pan with bacon drippings. I made this and it was delicious! (see the recipe for Crispy Potato Peelings below).
The water used to boil potatoes was always saved and used for gravy, or making soup, or as the liquid in bread baking (see Salt Rising Bread below).
Leftover mashed potatoes were also used to thicken soups or used as an ingredient in potato scones, pastries, and potato cakes or fritters. (see Potato Scones and Potato Pastry recipes below)
Mom has a saying, ‘the sign of a good cook is the ability to make something out of nothing’. I didn’t understand when I was younger, but as time went on, I certainly learned to appreciate her ingenuity. The tricks, techniques and skills that have been passed on to me have made me a better chef. Here are a few of these time-honoured recipes with some revisions. Updates were required due to the fact that I have yet to find an accurate measure for a ‘pinch’, a ‘smidgeon’, or a ‘dash.’
CRISPY POTATO PEELINGS
Try making these crispy potato skin snacks by either frying them (I have my Mom’s old cast iron frying pan) or by roasting them in a hot oven. Simple seasoning is what my Mom would have used, however the substituting of onion salt or garlic salt is lovely change of taste. Feel free to use olive oil instead of the traditional rendered bacon fat.
- Potato skins, cleaned and dried (use the peelings promptly as they will oxidize and turn brown if left too long)
- Rendered bacon fat (or butter or oil) as required
- Onion, chopped fine (optional)
- Salt and pepper to taste (onion salt or garlic salt, optional)
- Garnish: sliced green onion
- Frying Pan Method: Heat a cast iron pan over medium heat and melt the bacon fat.
- Add the cleaned and dry potato skins and toss to coat the potato skins with the fat.
- Add the diced onion (optional).
- Fry until the potato skins are cooked to a golden brown colour.
- Season to taste with salt and pepper (or optional onion salt or garlic salt).
- Serve hot.
- Oven Method: Preheat the oven to 400oF/200oC Place the bacon fat on a greased baking sheet (or parchment lined baking sheet), and put into the oven to melt the bacon fat for a minute or two.
- Add the potato peelings onto the tray and toss to coat in the melted bacon fat.
- Season to taste with salt and pepper (or optional onion salt or garlic salt).
- Roast until the potato peelings are golden brown and crispy. Serve hot.
My Mom and Grandma never let anything go to waste, so leftover mashed potatoes were utilized in many ways. Biscuits or scones made from leftover mashed potatoes with a small amount of bacon fat was not only thrifty, but also absolutely delicious! I love the flecks of bacon fat showing through the biscuits.
- 6 oz. all purpose flour (about 1 cup + scant 1/4 cup)
- 2 level teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 4 oz. mashed potato (about ½ cup)
- 1 oz. of bacon fat, cut into small pieces
- 4 – 5 Tablespoons of potato water (or milk)
- Preheat the oven to 425oF/220oC
- Combine dry ingredients: flour, baking powder and salt.
- Mix in the mashed potato.
- Cut in the bacon fat.
- Add about 4 tablespoons of potato water (or milk) to make a dough that is soft and smooth. Add 1 tablespoon of additional potato water if required.
- Turn the dough out onto a floured board and flatten to ½ to ¾ inch thick.
- Cut rounds with a biscuit cutter (or use a floured glass like my Mom did).
- Place the rounds into a greased cast iron pan (or greased baking sheet).
- Brush with more potato water or milk.
- Bake for 15 minutes or until the scones are golden. Serve hot with soup or stew.
SAVOURY POTATO PASTRY
CHEF TALK: This savoury pastry is very versatile, easy to mix together and roll out. I have also provided some options to change it up a bit. For example: cutting the pastry into strips as shown below will make dumplings or what my Mom called, ‘sliders’. Or, if you omit adding the liquid to the pastry, the dough can be made into gnocchi. Gnocchi are easy to cook. Just place them into softly boiling water and wait until they float up to the top. Remove them with a slotted spoon and then fry them in a frying pan with a little butter (or bacon fat). Enjoy!
- 4 oz. all purpose flour (just less than 1 cup)
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 oz. bacon fat (2 Tablespoons)
- 8 oz. mashed potatoes (1 cup)
- 2 – 4 Tablespoons potato water or water
Savoury Potato Pastry | urbnspice.com
- Combine the flour and the salt.
- Cut in the bacon fat into the dry ingredients.
- Add the mashed potato and mix to incorporate the ingredients.
- Add 2 – 4 tablespoon of potato water or water to make a stiff dough.
- Turn out onto a floured surface and knead for a minute.
- Roll the dough out to line a pie tin.
WHAT ELSE CAN I DO WITH THIS RECIPE?
CHEF TALK: I often take a recipe and provide various easy-to-make adaptations. This recipe has quite a few variations for you to try.
- Pie Pastry: My Mom would use this savoury potato pastry dough to line a pie tin for tourtière or other meat pie fillings made from leftover Sunday roast. On a personal note, my Mom used an old chipped teacup as her 1-cup measure and all of the ingredients for pastry were mixed in a beat up old ceramic-coated metal bowl. The end result was always perfect. Talk about doing without!
- Potato Gnocchi: Use this dough for a type of potato gnocchi by rolling the dough into long snakes and cutting the dough into one-inch pieces. Drop the dough pieces into soup broth or boiling water and serve as a side dish.
- Dumplings: Mom would roll the dough out thinly and cut strips of dough. She cut them into 3 or 4 inch long pieces and used a knife to make a slit in the middle of each piece. She would drop the dough strips into simmering stews to make what she called ‘sliders’. I still love those dumplings!
As previously mentioned, potato water was saved for many purposes, including as the liquid when making bread. Yeast was often hard to come by, so a technique for making bread, called Salt Rising Bread was often used. This recipe is from an old Watkins cookbook.
This was the only cookbook that my mother has ever owned and I am now lucky to have this precious cookbook for my own kitchen. The first few pages of the well used cookbook have long been destroyed, so I cannot tell you what the exact copyright date of this book is, however, from my research, I believe it might have been circa 1938.
SALT RISING BREAD
- 4 Tablespoons white or yellow corn meal
- 2 Tablespoons sugar (divided)
- 1 ½ teaspoons salt
- 1 cup milk, scalded
- 1 cup warm potato water
- 2 Tablespoons rendered bacon fat or lard (melted)
- 5 ½ cups all purpose flour
- The Day Before: Scald the milk. Pour into a small bowl and add 1 tablespoon of the sugar and 1 ½ teaspoons of salt.
- Stir in the corn meal.
- Insert the small bowl into a larger bowl that has been filled with warm water. Cover and let it stand in a warm place overnight. (I placed this double bowl combination into my oven with the oven light left on, which kept it at a steady 100oF/40oC).
- The next morning, stir in the warmed potato water, the remaining 1 Tablespoon of sugar, the melted bacon fat or lard and 2 cups of the flour. Beat it well.
- Place the bowl with the mixture into a large pan of warm water. Cover and let it rise in a warm place (about one hour).
- Turn the dough into a larger mixing bowl if necessary and stir in the remaining flour to make a stiff dough.
- Knead for 10 minutes or until the dough is smooth and elastic.
- Divide the dough in half and place in greased bread pans.
- Brush with melted butter.
- Cover, and let rise in a warm place to 2 ½ times its size (about 2 hours).
- Bake in a 375oF/190oC oven for 10 minutes, and then reduce heat to 350oF/175oC for another 25 minutes or until the bread sounds hollow and has turned a golden brown
- Brush with melted butter again when it comes out of the oven.
- Cool the bread and slice thinly.
NOTE: This delicious bread does not rise as much as a yeast-based bread. It is dense in texture with a fine crumb and has a characteristic sourdough taste. It freezes well. (CHEF TIP: slice the bread before freezing).
The knowledge obtained from economizing and doing without is truly a valuable life skill. Just to illustrate, these are some personal memories of my Mimi and my Mom Doing Without.
I have a photograph of my Mom (the little one) and her sister in simple yet very sweet little dresses made from a potato sack. Doing without touched all aspects of their lives. My Mimi was a skilled seamstress – those little dresses in the photograph made a statement. I am proud to say that Mimi passed her sewing skills on to my Mom and also on to me. I will always remember her tiny perfect stitches when she hemmed a dress.
I was also taught by Mimi how to turn a worn shirt cuff in and employ invisible stitches to make it new again. She also taught me how to carefully darn a worn sock using an old toy plastic bowling pin as a form to hold the sock in place while she wove thin wool in and out around the hole. When she was finished, the sock was perfectly smooth and invisibly mended.
Today, mentoring is something that is thought of in our working lives. When I was growing up, mentoring was something we did in all facets of life.
I am grateful for the mentoring that I was so patiently given and for all of the skills I have learned from loving hands and warm hearts. Doing Without does not mean you are missing out – it means you have lived, you have learned, you have toughed it out and you have triumphed!
Today, recognizing how to approach life in a sustainable way is a skill that everyone of any age can and should embrace.
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