IF YOU think America is the punch line for too many jokes about food, consider the plight of the Canadian. Canada's national food is french fries.
That's the claim of Jim White, food editor of Canada's largest newspaper, The Toronto Star, who disarms the critics of Canadian cuisine by agreeing with them. "It isn't 400-year-old Florentine food, it isn't Hungarians with paprika, Japanese with tofu." After all, the country is only 116 years old. Give it another 100 years, he promises, and a cuisine will have developed.
Canadian food can only be described, says White, by what it's not. One thing Canadian cuisine is not, he declares, is a melting pot; every ethnic group is encouraged to keep its individuality, he says; there is even a Canadian ministry of multi-culturism to give governmental backing to diversity. The operating term is "ethnic mosaic." "We have a ton of Italians," so fennel and dandelion greens are staples in the markets, explains White, who goes on to cite the English and Scots with their breads, the Germans with their shoo-fly pie (and you thought that was American!), the Chinese, Ukrainians, Greeks, Estonians.
It is not frontier food any more than American food is Indian johnnycakes. It is not French, though Quebec's tourtie re and split-pea soup would be considered hometown fare on both sides of the Atlantic. And it has no dish--no taco of the north--that is likely to take its neighbors by storm. Tex-Mex is in no danger of being replaced by Kan-Can.
White wouldn't mind, however, if New Canadian Cooking took the U.S. by storm, so he and Canadian chef Tony Roldan commandeered the kitchen at the Canadian Embassy last week laden with Canada's native ingredients and their recipes from "The Best of Canada Cookbook" (McClelland and Stewart Ltd. $12.95). The book, written by this Spanish-born chef and Westchester County-bred food editor, is eclectic enough to encompass medallions of moose and whole wheat chocolate chip cookies, but the dinner they prepared for embassy guests homed in on dishes that would prove a point: That contemporary Canada has something unique to offer in the kitchen.
Their baggage included eight-pound muscovy ducks from a farm in Quebec, ready to be turned into the public debut of Tony Roldan's Royale de Canard Canadien ("duckburgers," as White calls them). The caviar was golden whitefish, poised in an ice mold imbedded with flowers. Jerusalem artichokes--an indigenous vegetable, which Rolden said is called "the Canadian potato" because this tuber also can be dug any time as long as the ground isn't frozen--became a creamy soup. With the ducks they served tiny curled greenery called fiddleheads, and wild rice with grains nearly an inch long (White explained that this top-grade variety, which sells for $8 a pound in Ontario, comes from Saskatchewan and, unlike much American wild rice, is not domesticated but actually grows wild). Dessert was Maple Leaf Mousse made with Canada's maple syrup and Rieder maple liqueur, then Drunken Red Coats, strawberries dipped in chocolate and injected with Canadian orange liqueur.
That there was smoked fish could go without saying, except that the familiar Nova Scotia smoked salmon was eclipsed by Winnipeg goldeye, a small fish rarely sold fresh because then it has a "not terribly wonderful texture," said White. In 1910 Winnipeg's Indians figured out that smoking the fish much improved it, so now they soak it in brine, smoke it with oak and--for some unfathomable reason--dye it red with analine, and thus turn it into a rarity nearly unobtainable.
If you are looking for the very best smoked salmon, suggested White, find that from Restigouche River on Canada's east coast. For a prettier buffet display, added Roldan, Pacific salmon is a better color.
Ambassador Allan Gotlieb introduced the menu as "what the chic people in Canada eat." It was, in any case, a rare dinner for the Canadian embassy, whose chef is Turkish and needed patient coaxing to produce the ritual tourtie res for Christmas. But Sondra Gotlieb, the ambassador's wife, is a cookbook author in her own right, who has explored and explicated more thoroughly than anybody Canadian specialties from stuffed moose heart to seal flipper pie. "We always have a Canadian something," she said of embassy dinners; but so far, that "something" has not been more exotic than smoked salmon, caviar, fiddleheads and maple tarts. She has been quoted as saying that you can't have an official Canadian dinner in any part of the world without a maple-flavored dessert. But she also has more ambitious ideas. "Our goal is to get cod's tongues," she said, and she might have been serious.
In her year in Washington Gotlieb has discovered that American beef has less flavor and its markets have less variety than in Canada, where "supermarkets have frozen seal flippers," she said. And even when the temperature is 30-below, Ottawa's markets have "a tremendous variety of produce."
Canadian cooking, whether adapted from French or English or wherever, tended to develop into heavier, colder-weather fare than its originals, explained Gotlieb. An Icelandic two-layer pie, for instance, has six layers in Canada. And though French Canadians always drank wine as did their forebears, they also invented the Caribou, which is a lethal combination of red wine, white alcohol and maple syrup.
But four-crusted pies and the like were made for lumberjacks, and are lightening up these days. "Sometimes you wish for a little butter," Gotlieb added wistfully of the new light cuisine. Some dishes, however, are clearly better for being adapted to modern life. On the west coat of Canada, Indians cook salmon by throwing it in the fire. "They used to do it to people," Gotlieb said in her best cod's tongue tone. And she's had to further adapt: When she tried giving a salmon barbecue in Washington it rained, so the staff had to flambe'e the salmon in brandy instead.
Regional and ethnic foods are proliferating in Canada as in the U.S. "You can practically get tourtie re now at the bus station," said Gotlieb, and Eaton's department store in Winnipeg sells cabbage rolls, while delis stock Ukrainian dishes. As Gotlieb wrote in "The Gourmet's Canada," "There are still many regions in Canada where you can eat polar bear rather than pizza."
The country has "great clumps of population quite isolated," said Gotlieb. With a population of only 22 million, a territory substantially larger than the U.S and two official languages, the local cooking gets firmly entrenched and sheltered so that it stretches from hardtack and marinated lesser snow goose to sushi and Chinese hot-and-sour soup. It is, on the other hand, a hamburger culture not unlike its southern neighbor. In other words, Canadian cooking has a lot of work ahead if it is going to get organized into a cuisine. White and Roldan are nudging it into the future with recipes such as these from their book, which they served at the Canadian embassy. CREAM OF JERUSALEM ARTICHOKE SOUP (Makes 6 cups)
The edible part of the Jerusalem artichoke is the underground tuber, a knobbly thing resembling a potato. It's available in wintery months in ethnic food stores. Buy firm tubers with clean skins, free from mold or blemishes. 1 tablespoon unsalted butter 1 large onion, finely chopped 3 medium-sized potatoes, peeled, sliced 1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped parsley 1 teaspoon thyme 4 large jerusalem artichokes (about 1 pound), peeled, sliced 5 cups chicken stock 1/2 cup heavy cream Salt
Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. When foam subsides, saute' onion until transparent. Add potatoes, parsley, thyme, artichokes and chicken stock. Bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, about 30 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Transfer mixture to blender or food processor fitted with steel blade and pure'e until smooth or strain through fine sieve. Return soup to saucepan. Add cream and salt. Bring to boil. Serve at once, or refrigerate and serve later, chilled. ROYALE DE CANARD CANADIEN: A FORCEMEAT OF DUCK WITH ORANGE SAUCE (4 servings)
Don't be put off by the fancy French name or the long list of ingredients. This is a ritzy way of saying "Duck Hamburgers with Gravy." What we have created is a deliriously delicious plate of duck patties, made from a forcemeat of duck and bacon, that float in a heavenly stock seasoned with juniper berries and rosemary, sweetened with orange liqueur.
You will find dried juniper berries available year-round in gourmet and specialty shops, sold in small packets. Forcemeat: 4-pound duckling 3 slices bacon 1 egg white 1/2 teaspoon salt Freshly ground pepper 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped walnuts 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg 1 teaspoon grated ginger root 1/2 cup heavy cream Stock: 1 tablespoon unsalted butter 1/2 cup chopped onion 1 clove garlic, crushed 1 teaspoon juniper berries, crushed 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns 1 small carrot, chopped 3 sprigs parsley 1 small tomato, chopped 1/2 teaspoon finely chopped fresh or dried rosemary 1 teaspoon tomato paste Salt 1/2 cup dry white wine 3 cups water Sauce: 1 tablespoon buckwheat honey Juice of 1 orange 1/4 cup Melchers Kanata liqueur (substitute Grand Marnier, cointreau or other orange liqueur) Rind of 1 orange, cut into long, thin julienne strips, blanched in boiling water for 1 minute 1/4 cup heavy cream 1 1/2 teaspoons salt Freshly ground pepper 2 tablespoons flour, sifted 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
To prepare forcement of duck, skin and bone the duck, reserving duck bones for stock. Cut duck meat, duck liver and bacon strips into small pieces. Place meat in food processor fitted with steel blade and pure'e. Transfer to stainless-steel bowl and refrigerate 30 minutes, or place in an enameled or china bowl and chill 2 hours. (The meat chills much more quickly in the stainless-steel bowl. You need a well-chilled forcemeat.)
When meat is sufficiently chilled, blend it thoroughly with egg white, salt, pepper, walnuts, nutmeg and ginger. Using a wooden spoon, mix forcemeat and add cream in slow, steady trickle. Mix until cream is fully incorporated. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes before cooking.
To make stock, melt butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion, garlic, juniper berries, peppercorns, carrot, parsley, tomato, rosemary, and duck bones. Cook, stirring, until onion is lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Add tomato paste; add salt to taste; add wine and water. Bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer, uncovered, about 30 minutes or until stock is reduced to 1 cup liquid. Strain through fine sieve and set aside.
To make sauce, cook honey in a saucepan over high heat until honey turns a caramel color. Add orange juice, liqueur and strained duck stock. Reduce heat to medium and cook 2 minutes. Add half the julienne strips of orange rind and 1/4 cup cream; cook 1 additional minute. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat but keep warm.
Shape duck forcemeat into 8 equal-sized patties--about 2 ounces each. Dredge with flour. In a saute' pan over medium heat, melt butter. When foam subsides, saute' patties about 5 minutes each side, or until golden in color. Remove and set aside. Drain excess fat from pan; add duck sauce, return patties to pan, and simmer over medium heat, covered, 2 minutes.
To serve, arrange duck patties on a serving platter. Cover with sauce and sprinkle with remaining julienne strips of orange. Serve with fresh buttered green beans and pure'e of celery root. MAPLE LEAF MOUSSE (8 to 10 servings)
This is an extraordinary dessert, testimony to Tony's professionalism and patriotism. Maple Leaf Mousse is an original creation for The Best of Canada, a celebration of Canada's maple syrup. 2 envelopes gelatin 1/2 cup dry white wine 1/2 cup maple syrup 4 eggs, separated 2/3 cup Rieder maple liqueur (substitute 1/3 cup maple syrup and 1/3 cup brandy, or 2/3 cup other liqueur) 1 teaspoon crystallized ginger, finely chopped 2 cups heavy cream 1-ounce square unsweetened chocolate, grated
Sprinkle gelatin over wine and let soften 5 minutes. Add maple syrup and mix well. In a stainless-steel bowl over simmering water or in top of double boiler, beat egg yolks 2 to 3 minutes, until thick and a lemon yellow in color. Beat maple syrup mixture into yolks. Cook, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens enough to coat wooden spoon. Do not boil or eggs will curdle. Remove from heat and let cool.
When yolks are cool, add maple liqueur and ginger. Mix well. In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff. In yet another bowl, beat cream until stiff. When maple gelatin mixture is partially set, fold in whipped cream; then gently fold in egg whites.
Meanwhile, rinse a 2-quart charlotte mold (or souffle' mold) in cold water; drain excess water but do not dry. Fill with mousse mixture. (the slight film of cool water will keep mousse from sticking to the mold). Chill mousse for at least 4 hours. To unmold, run knife around edge of mousse, and briefly set bottom of mold in hot water. Garnish with grated chocolate. ALMOND WILD RICE (4 servings) 1/2 cup seedless raisins 2 tablespoons amaretto liqueur 1 cup wild rice 5 cups water 1 teaspoon salt 1 small onion, peeled, studded with 2 whole cloves 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup sliced toasted almonds
Soak raisins in amaretto for 2 hours. Wash rice in several baths of cold water and remove any foreign particles. Drain and transfer to a saucepan. Add water, salt and onion and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, 35 minutes or until rice is tender. Drain and remove onion. Add butter and toss until rice is evenly coated. Add raisins with amaretto and mix in with fork. Sprinkle with toasted almonds and serve.