My favourite time of year

I love hydrangeas. Always have. Probably always will. I use them on wreaths and in mantle arrangements. I dry my garden ones and put them in my Christmas tree. I have tin signs with hydrangeas for my garden shed and pictures of them in my house. I hang hydrangea wreaths on my doors.

In fact, when I think about it, I love sunflowers too. And pumpkins and squash. This is probably because all of these things are harbingers of autumn, my favourite season. The skies seem bluer, the clouds more fluffy. Fall means crisp mornings, sweaters in the evening and the smell of apples and cinnamon in the kitchen, while jars of pickles mature on the back porch – my picture of perfection. I spent a lot of my life in eastern Canada and New England, so our annual trip east in September warms my heart with the autumn colours and roadside stands filled with apples and pumpkins.

Cooler weather puts our fall menu planning in high gear. This year has been a great year for herbs, so I have been experimenting with various pestos and sauces to enhance our winter dishes. Sage and walnut pesto is high on my list, with mint and pistachio close behind.

Beet salad with goat cheese, blackberries and mint is a wonderful early fall dish.

Beet salad with goat cheese, blackberries and mint is a wonderful early fall dish.

In my kitchen the secret to good pestos is fresh ingredients and attention to small details, like toasting the nuts and adding a little acid to keep the colour true. I use a cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, the greener the better, and of course fresh parmesan. I don’t add parsley to my basil or sage pesto, although some people do. I do however also make rubs, often with rosemary, oregano, parsley and sage, for pork and beef roasts.

I had too many peaches this year and so experimented with a peach-bourbon barbecue sauce. It isn’t perfect yet – it has the heat but not the bite, but over the next couple of weeks I should be able to sort that out. As well, I made apple butter, which I haven’t made in years, and now I remember why. To reduce it to perfect butter consistency, you have to simmer it for a long time, and unless you cook it in a very deep pan, apple butter ends up spotting everything within a foot. I am going to try a splatter screen on the next batch because it really is the most scrumptious breakfast spread ever.

Because I had all this bourbon for the barbecue sauce, I decided to infuse some of it with apples and cinnamon. It is due to be strained tonight, and I think it will make a wonderful addition to a cup of tea. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

And then there are pickles. This year I tried French cornichons, a tart little pickle flavoured with tarragon. They are a nice garnish on a ham sandwich or a slider. I am excited to try them! As well, tonight the cukes go into brine for dills. I got the pickling cucumbers from one of our local Hutterite colonies and the dill from my garden. This year I am putting some of them in Weck jars for gifts. We carry these jars at the Daily Grind, and while they are not cheap, they are a beautiful way to package your food gifts, and aren’t gifts of homemade food the best way to say I love you?

Gardening Part 3

 

 

Late August is always a tough time of year for me. Summer still bakes us with its heat, but the cool nights remind us fall is not far away.

tomatoes.jpg

Don’t get me wrong. I love fall. I love harvesting the garden and enjoying the colours. I love canning and pickling and stacking pumpkins on my porch. I love fall food – pot roasts, apple crisps, pumpkin cheesecake, and, of course, pumpkin martinis.

But do we have to rush headlong into my favourite season of the year? It seems this year everyone is anxious to see the year finished. Halloween and Christmas decorations hit the stores at the beginning of August. Radio and TV hosts talked about fall’s imminent arrival the Tuesday after the August long weekend. Gardening gurus tell us to harvest our tomatoes before the first frost, which they predict will come before Labour Day.

It makes me sad to see this acceleration of the seasons. Right now my tomatoes hang heavy on the vine, my miniature eggplants are just about ready, the tomatillos await salsa verde, and the herb garden is in full swing. I don’t want it to end. I have delicious amounts of basil, and have my olive oil, garlic and pine nuts ready, but surely it’s not yet time to make pesto? I just ate my first fresh peach of the season two days ago, for heaven’s sake!

eggplant 1.jpg

Here in Maple Creek we are blessed with about two extra weeks at either end of the growing season compared to where we used to live just south of Saskatoon. This extended good weather, coupled with raised beds and the shelter of hedges and buildings means my garden lasts a while longer that many in Saskatchewan. And still I hate to see it go.

Like my garden, September means change for the Star. Chef Joel and I start our menu talks, and set the date for our new menu’s debut. The soups take a fall turn, with cabbage, broccoli and squash playing their parts. The kitchen cools down a bit. As it gets dark earlier, the dining room feels more intimate and we all start to recover from a very busy summer.

herbs 2.jpg

September’s arrival also means we say goodbye to Bryn Vilness, the anchor of our front-of-house team. He’s off to Vancouver to go back to school, and while we wish him well, I really just want to chain him to the bar and keep him here. We will miss him dearly. Bobbi Jo has taken a full-time position with the high school and won’t have as much time for us. Anneli is going to a job with the health district and will also see her hours reduce. At least they are both staying in town so we will see them from time to time.

While we hate to see them go, we are pleased to welcome three new members to our team: Alana, Keanna and Kalee. We know they will make you feel welcome and continue our tradition of professional, friendly service.

 I guess I just have to acknowledge that seasons change, people come and go, and every change brings new challenges and opportunities. Still I am determined to slow this headlong rush to fall, and savour all the joys late summer offers. And, knowing me, I’ll probably ignore the frost warnings at my garden’s peril. Poor tomatoes!

Service with a smile

People tell me serving is an easy job – the kind of job you do while you’re waiting around for a good job to come your way. I do not agree. I have enormous admiration for our servers. Without them, we would be out of business.

Carol 1 with cake.jpg

A great server makes the difference between an okay meal and a great experience. Servers have to prioritize on the fly, keep a thousand things in their heads, smile at strangers when they feel like hiding in their rooms, problem solve, compromise, get along with their teammates and boss, and the list goes on. Surviving a busy service takes stamina, good humour, intelligence, and a commitment to great customer service beyond all else.

And on top of that, servers have to know the menu inside-out, negotiate with the cooks when something out of the ordinary is needed, listen to customer stories, and balance their tills. A server has to show up on time, ready to work with the public and ready to deal graciously with kudos and complaints. It is a very tough job. It’s also a portable job, where you can travel all over the world while you make money.

I once knew a man who had been a server all his life in Vancouver and area. He owned a lovely home in West Vancouver, drove a Mercedes, and eventually ended up as director of food services in a prestigious hotel. When I was visiting him, I asked him why he chose food service as a career when he had a business degree and could have chosen something more traditional. He spread his arms wide and simply said, “It’s a great job with great rewards.” He truly loved people and food. The money wasn’t bad either.

Serving was one of the first jobs I ever did. In those days we called it waitressing, and I think I made $1.25 an hour. I worked at a busy truck stop and ice cream stand, and couldn’t wait to get on with my life, into a “real” job. But the lessons I learned slinging BLTs and ice cream sodas stood me in good stead when I finally got that real job my mother wanted me to get (at which I lasted three and a half years before chucking the white collar world).

I learned that while the customer isn’t necessarily always right, the customer is always right. I learned to clean up my own messes. I learned accuracy (or the cook would yell at me), and I learned not to panic when a busload of retirees stops for breakfast and I’m the only one in the building. (Call someone and ask for help. It works better than panicking.) And now I’m back serving good food to interesting people.

I guess the point I am trying to make is that we should all choose careers that makes our souls happy, regardless of our education or the expectations other people have for us. Whether you’re a carpenter or a CEO, whether you have Grade 12 or a graduate degree, if you don’t have a job that rewards you and makes you want to go to work every day, you should rethink your career path.

For many people, creating an atmosphere where people can enjoy good food and drink is a great way to spend their lives. And we love them for it.