Send winter on its way like a Canadian!
It’s that time of year in Canada: when winter just won’t quit us! You never know if you should dress for summer sunshine or a polar vortex, and often you leave the house ready for gd anything, shedding layers as you go.
In order to make up for the inclement times, we have a lot of end-of-winter festivals, many of which revolve around French Canadian history and culture. All around the city, we see Cabanes à Sucre pop up, and it’s so much fun to get all layered up to go eat maple syrup in snow. This is actually the snowiest month here where I am in the prairies; we can brush off our snowshoes for a little late-winter stroll over the snowbanks.
The French Canadian Cabanes à sucre (sugar shacks) are originally the chalets set out in the forests where maple sap is collected, and boiled down to that delicious substance we pour over virtually everything! It’s a place to thaw out on freezing days and maybe pick up the spoons to join in the chanson à répondre (call-and-response songs). French Canadian music is fun, rousing and beautiful – if you’re interested skip down below to check out some of my favourite Canadian artists.
And of course, while in the chalet you want to partake of some delicious foods designed to warm you inside out. French Canadian cuisine reflects the cold weather and is made for snowy months. It involves slow-cooked stews and soups, where a pot can bubble for hours over the fire that’s keeping your cabane warm. Expect to find lots of cured meats, soups that use dried beans, as well as anything that uses up your store of maple syrup! Today I’ll share with you an extra-special family recipe passed down through my husband’s family for generations, the iconic Canadian tourtière.
Sometimes in my food research, I come across something magical, and this month was no different. A dessert I prepared for this blog turned out to be the most amazing, easiest recipe I’ve made in a long time, and I knew immediately it had to be my recipe of the month, which I post every month in my newsletter. Not yet signed up for the newsletter? Now’s the perfect time! Just follow the link below.
Tourtière is and always has been the main event of a French Canadian feast. If you’re going to be very traditional about it, tourtière is only eaten one time a year: at Réveillon, Christmas Eve, when families gather and celebrate long after midnight mass.
Our family is not traditional! My French Canadian mother-in-law cooks up a batch of tourtière once a year, but then we eat them throughout the winter months. Very important to get top-quality meat – it’s worth going to a butcher! Then the meat is seasoned beautifully with warm spices like cloves and cinnamon.
How you choose to eat it is up to you. Many members of my family think no tourtière is ready without a healthy dollop of ketchup. Pickled beets are always served as a side dish. Or you could go all out and drizzle maple syrup right over your meat pie!
This recipe has a long history in Canada, and comes from my husband’s grandmother, Liliane Magnan.
Pastry: This makes enough pastry for about 4 pies; you can use the amount of dough you need and save the rest for later
4.5 cups of flour
1 tbsp of salt
1 lb of shortening (Tenderflake)
1 tbsp vinegar
1 tbsp brown sugar
4 lbs very lean ground pork (I order mind from a butcher)
2 large onions – medium chopped
2 to 2.5 tsp coarse salt
4 cups boiling water
1/2 tsp ground cloves (can be adjusted to taste)
1 tsp cinnamon (as above)
3/4 cup uncooked rice
- In a large bowl, mix flour and salt.
- Add one pound shortening and cut it up with a knife and then blend with a pastry blender.
- In a large measuring cup, break egg and add (very cold) water to the 8-oz line. Add vinegar and brown sugar; mix well.
- Add water and egg mixture to flour gradually and work with fork and then with hands into large ball of pastry.
- Place in refrigerator for about 20 minutes. (Pastry can be prepared ahead and stored in a plastic bag in the fridge for a few days. Remove from fridge 1/2 hour prior to using it.) Once chilled, roll out pastry into pie shells.
- In a large sauce pan or pot mix pork, onions, salt, water, cloves, cinnamon and rice.
- Cook on low heat, stirring continuously until meat loses red color. Simmer on very low heat for about 45 minutes. Here’s where you can taste and adjust the spices.
- Place meat in pie crust.
- Bake at 425F for 15 minutes; reduce heat to 350 and bake 40 minutes more. If you want to freeze and reheat later, reduce this last cooking time to 30 minutes.
No compilation of French Canadian dishes could be complete without the iconic poutine, a bar-style dish of fries covered with gravy and cheese curds. Purportedly invented in the 1950’s when a regular customer of Café Idéal asked for cheese curds on his fries (readily available due to the amount of fromageries in the nearby Centre-du-Québec area). The owner is reported to have replied “ça va te faire une maudite poutine!” (“that will make a damned mess!”) but did it anyway, and it quickly became a mass hit.
My kids are so-so on poutine, as they think there’s too much sauce and are suspicious of any kind of cheese, but it’s actually super easy to whip up a batch. Especially if you cheat like me, and buy a bag of frozen fries to be baked.
I followed this recipe by Seasons and Suppers, and within 30 minutes I had the perfect French Canadian side/after-hours snack!
Quebec-Style Yellow Split-Pea Soup
I should hope by this point it is perfectly obvious that I am not a chef in any professional sense of the word, but rather an amateur food enthusiast who loves trying new recipes. And … the recipes don’t always work out. I wanted to try this split-pea soup and followed this recipe by Seasons and Suppers exactly … only by the time it was dinner time and the soup had stewed the required time, the peas were still hard and completely inedible!
Though nothing stated it, I figured the peas needed to soak a bit before they would work. I had to scramble to throw together a meal for the hungry masses (canned tomato soup and pierogies!) I was going to call this a loss, but I decided to hang on for a little bit, putting my inedible soup in the fridge to marinate for a few days. When I reheated it, I discovered a pleasant surprise: completely delicious. I’ll make this again for sure, but with a longer cook time.
Takeaway: Any recipes with dried legumes or pulses should involved some soaking time!
Maple Butter Tart Bars
These bring the awesomeness of sugar pie into an easy-to-eat (and share) bar. They are gooey, buttery, and completely delicious.
The recipe comes from the Crumb Blog, and one thing I liked about it was the addition of a small amount of apple cider vinegar. I found this cut the sweetness so that the real flavours of maple and butter shone through. However, my kids didn’t think they were sweet enough! Haha, you can’t win them all. These are perhaps perfect for an indulgent treat with your afternoon coffee or tea.
Tir d’Érable (Maple Taffy)
Ever since we’ve moved back to Canada, we’ve tried to do our own tir d’érable once every year. The snow is always best end of winter/early spring, and it’s pretty easy to do. All you need is some wooden sticks, some maple syrup, and a heavy snowfall!
You need to start out with some good quality snow, and pack it down to build up layers. I saw we had snow forecast so stuck my dish out on the patio to collect! I kept the dish in my freezer next to me until the syrup was ready to go.
Next, take 1 cup of maple syrup, and bring to a boiling point, stirring with a wooden spoon. It helps if you have a candy thermometer, to see that that temperature gets to between 235 and 245F (112 to 118C). If not, I’ve read that if a drop of the syrup instantly turns hard in cold water, then it’s ready.
Next, pour the boiled syrup in strips over the snow. They harden within 3-5 seconds, then you can wrap up the gooey taffy around wooden sticks. Voilà! These are just like taffy, and they will try to pull your fillings out, so beware if you’ve got braces.
(I’ve posted some photos of our tir below. Yes, I did ask my 6 year old to take pictures because the process of the tir is too involved to set things down to photograph. Yes, most of the photos were of the ceiling and the inside of her mouth, so this was the best I could get, haha)
Les Chansons Canadiennes
These treats will warm your body, and now I have some French Canadian music to warm your spirits.
And Gaetan Benoit, a fransaskois, has recently released an album that captures the fun and the jubilance of French Canadian culture. I defy you to not tap your feet throughout – it’s impossible! Gaetan has also recently released an English-language podcast Holding On, Letting Go, where he shares English songs and his personal fight with terminal brain cancer.