July 3, 2020

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Kitchen therapy

In times of stress, 'comfort food' takes on a whole new meaning

In a time of rapid change and uncertainty, home-cooked food can provide much-needed comfort and distraction.

"You can’t really plan too far into the future, but you can plan your dinner," says Suzanne Gessler.

The professional baker and owner of the Pennyloaf Bakery closed her Corydon Avenue shop and has been isolating at home while she figures out how to move the business online. As an entrepreneur, Gessler is filled with anxiety, but as a home cook she’s finding an opportunity to get creative during the downtime.

"I don’t usually feel like doing very much in the kitchen because I spend all day in the kitchen, but this has actually kind of slowed it down for me," she says. "Gone are the days of me having a bowl of cereal for dinner."

In fact, preparing the evening meal has become her "reason for being."

Supplied</p><p>Pennyloaf Bakery owner Suzanne Gessler has closed her Corydon Avenue shop, but finds herself cooking more at home.</p>

Supplied

Pennyloaf Bakery owner Suzanne Gessler has closed her Corydon Avenue shop, but finds herself cooking more at home.

"It gives me a reason for my husband and me to sit, far apart from each other, at the table and it gives us a chance to have a sense of normalcy," Gessler says. "It gives me something to concentrate on that isn’t complete stress."

King Arthur Flour sourdough starter recipe

Day 1: Combine the pumpernickel or whole wheat flour with the cool water in a non-reactive container. Glass, crockery, stainless steel, or food-grade plastic all work fine for this. Make sure the container is large enough to hold your starter as it grows; we recommend at least 1-quart capacity.

(Recommended by Suzanne Gessler)

To begin your starter

250 ml (1 cup) or 113 grams (4 ounces) whole rye (pumpernickel) or whole wheat flour

125 ml (1/2 cup or 113 g) cool water (if your house is warm), or lukewarm water (if your house is cool — see Tips below)

To feed your starter

Scant 250 ml/1 cup (113 g/4 oz) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour

125 ml (1/2 cup) cool water (if your house is warm), or lukewarm water (if your house is cool)

Instructions

Day 1: Combine the pumpernickel or whole wheat flour with the cool water in a non-reactive container. Glass, crockery, stainless steel, or food-grade plastic all work fine for this. Make sure the container is large enough to hold your starter as it grows; we recommend at least 1-quart capacity.

Stir everything together thoroughly; make sure there’s no dry flour anywhere. Cover the container loosely and let the mixture sit at warm room temperature (about 21 C) for 24 hours. See “tips,” below, for advice about growing starters in a cold house.

Day 2: You may see no activity at all in the first 24 hours, or you may see a bit of growth or bubbling. Either way, discard half the starter (113 g/4 oz), and add to the remainder a scant 250 ml (1 cup) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour, and 125 ml (1/2 cup) cool water (if your house is warm); or lukewarm water (if it’s cold).

Mix well, cover, and let the mixture rest at room temperature for 24 hours.

Day 3: By the third day, you’ll likely see some activity — bubbling; a fresh, fruity aroma, and some evidence of expansion. It’s now time to begin two feedings daily, as evenly spaced as your schedule allows. For each feeding, weigh out 113 g (4 oz) of starter; this will be a generous 125 ml or 1/2 cup, once it’s thoroughly stirred down. Discard any remaining starter.

Add a scant 1 cup (4 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour, and 125 ml (1/2 cup) water to the starter. Mix the starter, flour, and water, cover, and let the mixture rest at room temperature for approximately 12 hours before repeating.

Day 4: Weigh out 113 g (4 oz) starter, and discard any remaining starter. Repeat step 6.

Day 5: Weigh out 113 g (4 oz) starter, and discard any remaining starter. Repeat step 6. By the end of Day 5, the starter should have at least doubled in volume. You’ll see lots of bubbles; there may be some little “rivulets” on the surface, full of finer bubbles. Also, the starter should have a tangy aroma — pleasingly acidic, but not overpowering. If your starter hasn’t risen much and isn’t showing lots of bubbles, repeat discarding and feeding every 12 hours on day 6, and day 7, if necessary — as long as it takes to create a vigorous (risen, bubbly) starter.

Once the starter is ready, give it one last feeding. Discard all but 113 g (4 oz or a generous 1/2 cup). Feed as usual. Let the starter rest at room temperature for 6 to 8 hours; it should be active, with bubbles breaking the surface.

Remove however much starter you need for your recipe — typically no more than 225 g (8 oz or about 1 cup). If your recipe calls for more than 250 ml (1 cup) of starter, give it a couple of feedings without discarding, until you’ve made enough for your recipe, plus 113 g (4 oz) to keep and feed again.

Transfer the remaining 113 g (4 oz) of starter to its permanent home: a crock, jar, or whatever you’d like to store it in long-term. Feed this reserved starter with 250 ml (1 cup) of flour and 125 ml (1/2 cup) water, and let it rest at room temperature for several hours, to get going, before covering it. If you’re storing starter in a screw-top jar, screw the top on loosely rather than airtight.

Store this starter in the refrigerator, and feed it regularly; we recommend feeding it 250 ml (1 cup) and 125 ml (once a week.

* Tips: The colder the environment, the more slowly your starter will grow. If the normal temperature in your home is below 20 C (68 F), we suggest finding a smaller, warmer spot to develop your starter. For instance, try setting the starter atop your water heater, refrigerator, or another appliance that might generate ambient heat.

— Recipe courtesy of King Arthur Flour

So far, she’s whipped up a lentil, sausage and pancetta dish and is considering working her way through an Italian cookbook she got for Christmas, à la Julie & Julia, the 2006 book (and later film) by Julie Powell that documented her attempts to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year.

Gessler hasn’t done much baking at home yet, but she has noticed an influx of friends sharing their attempts at complex baked creations — like Napoleons, a French pastry dessert and croissants — on social media. She has also noticed many, many posts about sourdough bread.

"Sourdough bread would be a great start for people, especially if you have an interest in making bread," Gessler says. "It’s really fun, but not the easiest thing to make at home. It would be the equivalent to knitting a scarf if you’ve never done it before."

The most challenging part of the process is making a successful sourdough starter, a mixture of flour and water that captures natural yeast found in the environment.

Supplied</p><p>More home bakers are attempting sourdough bread these days because they are able to commit to the time-consuming process.</p>

Supplied

More home bakers are attempting sourdough bread these days because they are able to commit to the time-consuming process.

Gessler makes dozens of loaves of sourdough a week at Pennyloaf and advises home bakers to measure with a kitchen scale, search out tutorials online and practise patience and perseverance.

"It’s a testing-patience thing because it takes a while to get (a starter) going," she says. "Don’t give up on the first round; if your starter doesn’t start, you should just keep trying."

Alternatively, Gessler is considering selling portions of Pennyloaf’s homemade sourdough starter when her web store goes live.

Bread has also been a popular menu item at chef Alexander Svenne’s house, where his three children have been doing a lot of cooking together while they hunker down.

"It’s a neat way to not just be stuck in the house together, but actually doing pleasurable and productive things together," says the owner of Little Goat Food and Drink on Portage Avenue. "It’s not a make-work project — you have to eat."

Svenne, however, hasn’t had time to cook at home because he’s been so busy in the kitchen at Little Goat. The restaurant’s dining room is closed, but staff have continued offering takeout and delivering family-style dinners.

If he did have the time, Svenne says he would tuck into a complicated recipe like cassoulet — a multi-day endeavour that involves making duck confit, beans and pork ragu — or following Julia Child’s four-page recipe for boeuf bourguignon.

If he has time, Little Goat Food and Drink Chef Alexander will delve into Julia Child’s four-page recipe for boeuf bourguignon. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

RUTH BONNEVILLE

If he has time, Little Goat Food and Drink Chef Alexander will delve into Julia Child’s four-page recipe for boeuf bourguignon. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

"It’s basically beef stew but it’s so technique-driven that it takes a lot of steps," he says. "Food is something we usually have to rush — we have to get food in our bellies because you’re heading off to hockey practice or going to work, and right now a lot of people have a lot more time, so they can actually spend time enjoying cooking."

Chef Alexander Svenne’s boeuf bourguignon recipe

Cut blade into 3.5-cm (1 1/2-inch) cubes. Trim off only the thickest pieces of silver skin; you want to leave most of the fat and connective tissues intact, because cooked properly, it will break down to enrich the sauce. Season liberally with salt and pepper.

Serves four

900 grams (2 lbs) top blade roast

vegetable oil or lard

225 g (1/2 lb) thick cut bacon

225 g (1/2 lb) shallots or pearl onions (if you don’t have either, large diced regular onions would work)

450 g (1 lb) mushrooms

salt and pepper

500 ml (2 cups) red wine

1 litre (4 cups) beef stock

15 ml (1 tbsp) cornstarch

Instructions

Cut blade into 3.5-cm (1 1/2-inch) cubes. Trim off only the thickest pieces of silver skin; you want to leave most of the fat and connective tissues intact, because cooked properly, it will break down to enrich the sauce. Season liberally with salt and pepper.

In a heavy skillet, brown the beef on all sides. Don’t try to do it all at once; if you overfill your pan it won’t brown properly. Work in batches. Transfer meat to a heavy dutch oven. When all the meat is browned, deglaze the skillet with 250 ml (1 cup) of red wine. Add that wine to the dutch oven with the beef stock. Bring to a low boil and simmer for 2 to 3 hours. (you can put the beef in a 300 F oven if you prefer). Meat should be very tender and all the connective tissue will be soft.

Cut bacon into 2.5-cm (1-inch) strips or “lardons,” peel and quarter the shallots or just peel the pearl onions. For the mushrooms, quarter, halve or leave them whole depending on the size: think one good bite.

In the same heavy skillet, cook bacon lardons on moderate heat until crisp and fat has rendered off. Remove bacon and put on paper towel to absorb excess fat. Pour off bacon fat and reserve, leaving just a little in the pan. In the bacon fat, sautée mushrooms until browned and tender. Season with salt and pepper. Remove mushrooms from pan. In the same pan, sautée shallots or onions until translucent. Use more bacon fat as required. Add red wine, and simmer until wine is almost all reduced.

Once the beef is tender, add shallots, mushrooms and bacon. Continue to simmer beef for about 30 minutes to meld flavours. The stock should reduce to form a sauce. If the sauce seems a little thin to you, mix a little cornstarch with cold water and stir in. Heat until thickened.

Serve this with mashed potatoes, roasted potatoes or egg noodles and some fresh veggies.

Note on choosing wine for the recipe: Use a decent full-bodied wine. Don’t spend a lot of money, but don’t use a wine with sour or off tastes. Bad tastes get exaggerated when you reduce wines. Serve the dish with the same type of wine you used in the dish, If you used Cabernet, serve it with a Cabernet. It doesn’t have to be exactly the same bottle — you might want something a little fancier — but if you stick with the same grape, it will pair well.


For those looking to make the most of what they have in the fridge or pantry, Svenne suggests starting with a flavour profile and building a dish from there. If you have limes and cumin on hand, for example, you could throw together a Mexican-inspired dish with beans and frozen corn.

Another way to get creative and reduce food waste is by making use of vegetable scraps. Potato peels, carrot trimmings and partial onions can be turned into vegetable stock; broccoli, cauliflower and mushroom stems can be chopped in a food processor and added to other dishes.

"That’s a great addition to meatloaf or meat pies," he says. "It’s a filler but it also adds flavour and nutrients."

If there’s one positive that comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic, Svenne hopes it’s a greater enjoyment of cooking.

"If we get out of this... and everyone’s a little better of a home cook, I think that would be good for everyone’s health and wellness and well-being for the future," he says.

Susan Watson agrees. The registered dietitian and owner of Winnipeg nutrition counselling business A little Nutrition says cooking skills are in short supply these days, as our lives have gotten busier and convenience foods have become readily available.

Supplied</p><p>Winnipeg registered dietitian Susan Watson and her daughters. </p>

Supplied

Winnipeg registered dietitian Susan Watson and her daughters.

"The opportunity we have right now with social isolation... is that we get some undivided attention and time that we can invest in our health and invest in learning how to cook," Watson says, adding that she recommends seeking out beginner-level tutorials and recipes online for those who are new to cooking.

Susan Watson’s one-pot quinoa chickpea spinach soup recipe

In a large pot, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook for three minutes.

Serves six

15 ml (1 tbsp) extra virgin olive oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

3 carrots, finely chopped

750 ml (3 cups) spinach, roughly chopped

1.5 litres (6 cups) vegetable broth

1 796-ml can diced tomatoes

2 sprigs fresh rosemary

5 ml (1 tsp) dried thyme

125 ml (1/2 cup) uncooked quinoa, rinsed

1 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

15 ml (1 tbsp) lemon juice

Instructions

In a large pot, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook for three minutes.

Add the carrot and garlic, then continue to cook for about two minutes.

To the pot, add the vegetable broth, diced tomatoes with their juices, thyme, rosemary and the quinoa. Bring to a low boil, cover and cook for about 15 minutes. Add the chickpeas and cook for five more minutes, until heated through.

Stir in chopped spinach at the very end.

Remove the sprig of rosemary then add lemon juice. Stir to combine. Serve warm and enjoy.

While preparing a meal can be a learning opportunity, the simple act of eating can be a challenge right now.

Many people use food as a coping tool when faced with strong emotions, like anxiety, says Watson. While it’s a common way to cope, emotional eating becomes a problem when it’s someone’s only way to cope.

"Often I tell people: don’t react right away, just sit there and ask yourself, ‘What am I feeling? What do I need?’" she says. "It’s often not that food that you’re reaching for, it’s self-care or a distraction or needing to call a friend."

The loss of a daily routine can also lead to nutrition issues. Watson works with many teachers and seasonal workers who struggle to eat regularly when their schedule changes. Her advice to those clients is to eat every two to four hours and consume balanced dishes and snacks that include a serving of protein and grains and a lot of fruits or vegetables.

"Under stress and difficult times some people can forget to eat… and when we’re undernourished, that’s going to impact our immune system," she says. "It’s OK if you’re struggling emotionally to sit with it for a few days and let things be a little bit abnormal, but eventually realize that you need a reset day."

Hydration is something else that falls by the wayside when a routine is out of whack. Watson suggests aiming to drink 1.5-litres of water each day.

Susan Watson’s quinoa chickpea soup has a balance of grains, protein and vegetables. (Supplied)

Susan Watson’s quinoa chickpea soup has a balance of grains, protein and vegetables. (Supplied)

Learning how to grocery shop in bulk will also be a challenge for those who are used to making daily trips to the supermarket.

"We can’t sustain that anymore," says Watson. "When you do buy things for a week or two, think about consuming your fresh stuff first and purchasing a good combination of fresh and pantry staples."

eva.wasney@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @evawasney

Eva Wasney

Eva Wasney
Arts Reporter

Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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