food : tourtière

The first pie before it went into the oven (after which it didn’t last long enough for more pictures!).

In preparation for hosting our family Christmas this year, I baked and froze two tourtières for Christmas Eve. Although the pies are the traditional French-Canadian Christmas Eve meal, and I am in fact French-Canadian, I mostly remember them as a feature of my Irish and British grandparents’ celebrations. Which could simply be because that’s usually where we spent Christmas Eve.

At any rate, I grew up with tourtière that included potato (sacre bleu!) and therefore had to do quite a bit of research on the internets in order to find a recipe that suited. In the end, I cobbled together two recipes—a plain version from French Kitchen in America and a ‘pâté à la viande’ with potato from Micheline Mongrain-Dontigny’s website—and tweaked them to my own tastes. Since we had ground venison, I included it and added slightly more garlic and spices to make sure the pies didn’t taste gamy.

Christmas Eve Tourtière (makes 2 pies)

2 lbs ground pork
1 lb ground venison*
2 large onions, minced
2-4 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium potatoes, peeled
1/2 to 1 c hot water
1/2 tsp dry (ground) mustard
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp ground clove (optional)
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon (optional)
dash allspice
dash nutmeg
salt to taste
1-2 eggs

*Can be made with all pork.

In a small pot, cover the potatoes with water and boil until soft. Remove from heat and mash coarsely.

In a large skillet or heavy-bottomed pot, brown the meat over medium heat with no oil. Mince the onions and garlic in a food processor, add to the browned meat, and cook over medium heat until soft. Add the mashed potatoes, spices, and enough water to keep everything from sticking and make the consistency that of a thick sauce. Salt to taste and remove from heat.

Cool the filling completely; it may be made ahead and refrigerated 1-2 days. Just before assembling the pies, allow the filling to come to room temperature and mix in at least one egg to help it hold together in the pie.

3/4 c white flour
1/2 c white whole wheat flour**
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 stick (8 tbsp) very cold unsalted butter (straight from the freezer is best)
2-4 tbsp ice water

*Four crusts are required for this recipe; I prefer to make them one at a time, as a double recipe is a bit large for my food processor.
**Can be made with all white flour.

In a food processor, combine flour, sugar, and salt and pulse a few times to mix. Cut the cold butter into 1/2 inch cubes, add to the flour mixture, and process until the mixture is coarse contains no butter pieces larger than a pea. Add ice water one tablespoon at a time, processing thoroughly between each addition. After the second or third tablespoon, the dough should appear wet and begin to clump up. Process until the dough is balling up, and then turn out onto a floured surface. Shape the dough into a disc, and then roll out immediately (if the butter and water were not cold enough, the dough may need to firm up in the fridge).

Assembly & Baking
Line two pie tins with crust—I used disposable aluminum ones since I was freezing the pies—and trim the excess dough with a sharp knife. Divide the meat mixture between the two pans, filling the pans to level or slightly mounded in the center. Cover with another crust, trimming the excess crust with a small knife. Seal the pie by turning the edges under, so that the top crust is against the pie plate, and pressing the circumference with a fork. Brush the tops of the pies with egg wash (1 egg beaten with cold water), and cut slits for steam with a sharp knife.

Bake at 350F for 45-60 minutes, until crust is lightly browned and loses its wet appearance and filling is steaming.

To freeze, allow to cool completely. Freeze to hardness on a tray, and then wrap in foil and place each pie in a ziploc bag. To reheat, bake at 350F for 30 minutes and then at 375F for 30-45 minutes, until filling is steaming and a knife inserted into the middle of the pie feels warm.

The end result was very moist (in a good way), although a few eaters voted for less cinnamon. I went with spices because I was concerned about the venison, and in the future I think I’ll make at least one plain pork pie with minimal spicing. Two pies were just enough to get the six of us through Christmas Eve dinner—accompanied by lentil soup, my uncle’s mild chili sauce, our farmer’s Garlic Fire Sauce, and homemade pickled beets—and lunches on Christmas Day, Boxing Day, and the day everyone drove home. Even with the spices, they were good enough that I’m eyeing the remaining ground pork in the freezer and wondering if I can justify making another pork pie with all-butter pâte brisée crust before next Christmas. Probably not.

food : tourtière

back on the horse

View of the falls from the Maid of the Mist plaza.

We’re back from our Midwest driving tour, having celebrated with both families and made brief stop at Niagara Falls in between parties. We also appear to have recovered from the head cold we contracted in Niagara and passed between us for a couple of weeks. It was too tempting to walk to the falls at night, and the combination of travel fatigue and the cold wet night was just too much for us. Despite the rain and cold, we had a good time riding the Maid of the Mist (I love that boat), visiting Niagara-on-the-Lake (not really my thing), and hiking down a trail into the gorge from an access point near the Totem Pole park. After I got over my fear of slipping on the wet rocks and falling to my death in the whitewater—the terrified screams of the passengers on the jet boats passing us on their way to the whirlpool didn’t help—I enjoyed that hike a lot.

Now that we’re back at home, my plan for the rest of the summer and autumn consists of yard clearing, house repairs, clutter clearing, more house repairs, major fall cleaning, and some house beautifying in the form of paint. A lifelong process, I know, but I have big visions of what we’ll be able to accomplish over the next few months. And I’m going to get right on it just as soon as I finish my coffee.

back on the horse

new life birds in Ontario

Last weekend’s trip to Ontario turned out to be excellent for seeing both grandparents and new life birds. Although we only had a short time to catch up with family in each location, the need to drive from place to place was well-suited for nipping off the road and catching sight of Ontario’s winter migrants.

Our first birding detour was to Rondeau Provincial Park. As we drove the 401 I was seeing flocks of little brown and white birds flying up and circling around the farm fields. There was something about their flight that was different from sparrows, and my inability to identify them en route was driving me to distraction when, lo and behold, we saw a sign directing us to the park. Just off the 401, I was able to pull over and get a good look at a flock of little-brown-birds. It turned out to be a mixed group of Horned Larks and American Tree Sparrows, neither of which I’d ever seen before and both of which are common in southern Ontario in February (according to the birding list we picked up at Point Pelee last summer).

Buoyed by this early success, we continued on to the park. I suspect we were the only visitors, although there were locals coming and going so we did see other humans during our stay. Following the advice of the person at the front gate, I decided to try the woods behind the visitors’ center in my quest for winter guests. Thankfully someone—no doubt a local—had hiked the trail since the last snowfall, otherwise we might have had the embarrassing experience of becoming lost trying to follow the not-at-all-visible trail. The woods were pretty empty, it being the dead of winter, but we did see a few familiar birds: Downy Woodpeckers, White-Breasted Nuthatches, a Carolina Wren, and Northern Cardinals. Once we got reached the middle of the woods—an area that we guessed would be rather swampy in the summer, as it was criss-crossed with boardwalk-style bridges—we flushed a small group of little chattering birds from the brush. Based on my experience with little chattering birds at our local pond, I figured they were kinglets or vireos or flycatchers of some sort. I was able to pish them to me, which allowed me to identify mostly gray bodies, shortish tails and plump light bellies. Their flightiness, my inexperience, and the gray light of a winter afternoon in Ontario woods combined to make that the best I could do visually. However, all was not lost, as in the course of pishing I successfully noted their call (I’m learning!). Once back at the ranch in the car, we concluded that they were Golden-Crowned Kinglets, with the zeee-zeee-zeee call being the deciding factor. I think this marks the first time that I conclusively identified a bird using sound, which in itself may clinch my rise to intermediate status in this bizarre hobby.

Back at the visitors’ center, we hung around the (mostly empty) feeders and I caught sight of a Common Redpoll, a bird that also doesn’t venture south. There were flocks of little-brown-birds around the center, and a nice Red-Tailed Hawk hunting them, but the light was fading too quickly for me to firmly identify anything new in the sparrows. It’s possible that there were Field Sparrows mixed in with the Tree Sparrows, but nothing sat still long enough or close enough for me to be able to tell for sure. We also weren’t able to see anything interesting on the lake itself, as the edge was frozen to about 30 feet from shore, creating an effective gulf between us and the birds on the water. The person to whom final decisions regarding such questions of judgment as venturing out onto partially frozen lakes in order to get a closer look at seagulls are delegated—a person who is not me, for reasons which should be obvious—voted nay on that plan, so we called it a day.

The next leg of our trip took us to London, where we visited Springbank Park in the hopes of seeing some wintering waterfowl from the far north. The day we chose to explore was bitterly cold, but that did not deter me. The very first birds I saw on the river in among the Canada Geese and Mallards were three female Common Mergansers and a male Hooded Merganser, all of which were new to me. Further down the river we spotted a couple of male Common Mergansers. Seeing them made me realize how few black-and-white birds we get now that we live in the south, and I was glad we made the effort to see the winter waterfowl when we were up north. The only other unusual birds were foursome of what were likely escaped domestic geese: two Greylags and two mottled white crossbreeds, neither with the black tail feathers of Ross’s or Snow Geese. At that point my companion made the judgment call — another of the sort that is not left to me — that it was time to return to the car as he could no longer feel his toes, fingers, or nose. We returned the next day on our way out of town, but saw nothing more besides an escaped Domestic Mallard.

The next new life bird was sighted entirely by chance on the 402 as we drove toward Sarnia. During a break in the rain and clouds we drove right under a hovering Rough-Legged Hawk and got a perfect look at its white underside and black elbow patches. Unless it was an incredibly confused Osprey, there was no doubt about its identification. Our final bird-related stop in Ontario was in Sarnia, where we drove down to the park under the bridge so I could search for birds at the mouth of the lake. I spotted a whole group of Buffleheads, and was able to get good looks at both male and female birds. I’d seen females in Tillamook, OR, but the males were a first. I also saw a small group of Common Goldeneyes, another black-and-white bird that just doesn’t go as far south as we are. With a little patience and the willingness to tromp through slush to a decent vantage point I could watch them quite easily. It’s possible that I also saw a couple of White-Winged Scoters, but the light was fading quickly and they were too far away for me to get a decent look at their beaks. They appeared to be entirely black birds with white wing bars and they flew like ducks, which narrows the choices considerably; with the light as it was, though, any more nuanced changes of color or body markings were lost.

new life birds in Ontario

visiting the southernmost tip of Canada

But whenever I’m honest, something in me / still looks for fresh water that feels like the sea.Carrie Newcomer

standing on the southernmost tip of Canada

When I was a kid, I used to go to the beach at Point Pelée nearly every summer with my grandparents. I didn’t swim in the ocean until I was in high school, and to this day I sputter with the saltiness when I first go in. For me, as a kid, large bodies of water were Lake Erie and Lake Michigan. I couldn’t swim to the other side, and there weren’t sharks; that was all I needed to know. Only within the past couple of years have I been in Lake Huron, thanks to the hospitality of a friend with a family home up north, but I hope to eventually swim in all five.

I didn’t realize, until I moved out East, how much my sense of myself was defined by growing up around those lakes. When people out here hear ‘Midwest’ they think Idaho, Nebraska, Kansas. While I’m sure those places are nice, I think Michigan, Indiana, Ohio. Now, when people ask me where I’m from, I say the Great Lakes region.

My trip back to Point Pelée this summer was motivated somewhat by nostalgia, and a desire to share one of the favorite places of my childhood with my partner, and somewhat by an adult understanding of the significance of the park as a wildlife refuge. Along the lines of nostalgia, we went the whole nine yards: changing outside in the doorless spider-laden ‘rooms’, with one of us holding up the towel to block the other from view; dashing into the water to avoid the black flies, which weren’t so bad due to the drought, all the while yelling out ‘ooh! ouch! my feet! the stones! watch out for that dead thing!’; and, finally, bobbing from cold current to warm current back to cold current again, with exclamations of ‘did you pee or is that pollution?’ all the while. Following on the reminiscing I shared with a fellow bed and breakfast guest regarding the prevalence of dead fish on the beach during our youth, and how they never phased us and we just picked them up and threw them at each other, I told my partner we could get out when he saw a dead fish float by. Since that didn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon, we instead got out when we noticed that we were the only ones in the water and I conceded that I had, in fact, neglected to check the water safety posting at the Visitors’ Centre, a revelation that sparked cries of ‘my skin is burning, my skin is burning!’ from my faithful companion. Thankfully, a couple of families arrived as we were leaving, saving me from further castigation. Once we were safely back in the car, muddy feet and all, he turned to me and said, ‘This was your childhood beach-going experience? I’m so sorry.’ People from ocean states just don’t understand, although I did assure him that there are in fact sandy beaches with clean water in the Great Lakes system, we just didn’t happen to be near any of them.

Childhood nostalgia thus dispensed with, as well as could be with only being able to make the smaller loop of the marsh boardwalk, we moved onto the adult attractions of the place. Namely, the walk to the Point and the sighting of bazillions of birds. Most of the birds were ones I’d seen before, but I did add a new lifer, Bonaparte’s Gull. In addition to that treat, we saw several birds I’d only seen a few times before, including a Cuckoo and a clearly identified Swamp Sparrow. I missed the sight of a Red-Headed Woodpecker, flying along the golf course as we drove into the park, which would have been a new life bird for me; my bemoaning of this fact led my partner to say over and over ‘I wish I’d never seen that !@#$% bird!’ Mostly what we saw were barn swallows—in the nests, newly fledged, gathering food for each other—herons, and kingbirds. We also saw a pair of yellow warblers that were annoyingly difficult to identify. Their consistent bright yellowness led us to conclude, with some reliance on the frequency chart purchased at the Visitors’ Centre, that they were likely simply Yellow Warblers, but we were never able to catch sight of any definitive markings, despite our best efforts. It all comes of being novices, I suppose.

The Point itself was fun. I didn’t remember being down there as a kid, and it was pretty thrilling to walk along a narrow strip of land until your feet were surrounded on all three sides by lapping waves. The nerdy aspect of standing on the southernmost tip of Canada was not lost on us either. We stayed to enjoy the sunset of the western side of the Point, and then drove back to Windsor.

visiting the southernmost tip of Canada