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My memories of school assemblies from my early years are a blur of secularised holiday celebrations and faux cool jingles designed to keep us from doing drugs. Not very influential with one glaring exception. I remember being blown away by the story of Terry Fox a twenty-one year-old Canadian who set out to raise a million dollars for cancer research by running across the country. Terry had been diagnosed with bone cancer in his knee, undergone chemotherapy and had his right leg amputated. Images of Terry running, with his artificial leg, along remote and lonely stretches of the Trans Canada Highway are I think a fairly universal early memory for Canadians of my generation.
I have spent much of this summer building a wood-fired oven with my family at the cottage and since this year is the thirtieth anniversary of the Marathon of Hope it seemed appropriate to mark this occasion by cooking a meal in the oven. The September Foodbuzz 24X24 is special because it is dedicated to raising funds for ovarian cancer research and I was happy to have my proposal to write about a meal honouring the Marathon of Hope accepted. Throughout its course the Marathon of Hope was about connecting with the small communities and individuals across Canada and I hope that by cooking a meal (with the help of family and friends) which represents the culinary traditions of these people and places I can honour this memory in my own way.
I can’t complain too loudly about how cliched the description has become because I have written it more times than I want to count but this summer has been a remarkably hot and sunny one. Unfortunately, August’s weather rarely influences September’s and for the day of the big meal we had stronger winds than anyone could remember for Labour Day weekend. When building the oven we were careful to face it away from prevailing winds but I still had some difficulty getting the oven lit on Saturday. In a world of electric ovens with digital controls it’s difficult to imagine the havoc caused by 30 km/h winds when cooking in an outside brick oven but now I understand.
On April 12, 1980 Terry started his journey across the country at the Atlantic coast near St. John’s, Newfoundland. His course took him through all four of Canada’s maritime provinces and these early stages were filled with the challenges of running a marathon every day in what can often be wintry weather in April. He was supported by his brother and his best friend and was I’m sure buoyed by the isolated recognition and public support he received along this part of the route.
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To represent the first stages on Terry’s route across Canada I made a simple appetiser of Atlantic smoked salmon with chives on a straightforward white bread baked in the oven. I find that unless the smoked salmon is really excellent and sliced quite thickly it is often overwhelmed by the dense texture and flavours of its usual partner, dark rye. I’d rather have the fish sing loudest so chose to make the French bread recipe that I default to, sliced it thinly and toasted it before serving with a dusting of chopped chives.
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Prince Edward Island is famous, from a culinary perspective at least, for two things, seafood and potatoes. I love freshly-shucked raw oysters but wanted to challenge my cooking boundaries a bit so decided to prepare two takes on their cooked incarnation: a rough adaptation of Charlie Trotter”s arborio-crusted oysters and a take on Oysters Rockefeller that uses par-cooked potatoes. Shucking oysters is a task that I don’t think, for reasons of freshness, should be done too far ahead of time but also one that can involve a lot of time and frustration if it starts off poorly. The box of Malpeques I picked up had its fair share of oddly-shaped oysters but only one that I had to discard (it was both foul and muddy) and I managed to set a good rhythm and get through the lot in good time. I’m still a fan of the raw delicacy but both of these recipes worked very well in the oven and the nutty flavour and texture from the toasted rice was a new experience for me.
Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were represented by the first really substantial dish of the meal, a lobster fritter on oven-roasted corn and bacon. Obviously, I’m happy when people enjoy my cooking but this plate was a surprise, slightly-frustrating favourite. Of all the courses this one had the most work done for it the day before–lobsters broken down and cooked using the method Chef Bonanno demonstrates in his video on protein university and corn roasted in the oven and cut from the cob. All that happened on the big day was combining the corn and bacon and roasting it slowly in the oven and dipping the lobster pieces (whole claws or half tails) in a light batter and frying them quickly. If all the courses could have turned out so well with the work down beforehand things would have been a lot easier.
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The ingredients are much of the story here, I suppose. Corn is reaching the end of its season in southern Ontario and these cobs from the Willowtree Farm stand at the North York Farmers’ Market were definitely not the prettiest of 2010 but they were the first I have had this year that blew me away with their “corniness” instead of just sweetness or juiciness. On the other hand lobster is just barely coming into season but the four pound-and-a-quarter specimens I got from Diana’s Seafood had a lot of vigor, filled their shells fairly tightly (when out of season or “soft shell” lobsters have grown a new, larger shell that is partly full of water), and were absolutely delicious.
The stretch through Quebec was reportedly the most difficult for Terry. None of his entourage spoke French and his endeavours had received less attention in the French-language media. His only escort at this stage was still the donated camper van and apparently he was often honked at and forced off the highway. He was also frustrated when the Canadian Cancer Society convinced him to take his first days off in Montreal so that fundraising would be boosted by coordinating his arrival in Ottawa for Canada Day.
Maple syrup, cheese, seafood, fresh produce like apples, and poutine are all famous products of Quebec but to me it is the source for North America’s best foie gras and for the course from Quebec I adapted recipes from two of my favourite cookbooks: the rich man’s brioche from Peter Reinhart’s Bread Baker’s Apprentice and–as a nod to the by-products of the foie industry–the duck breast terrine from Terrine by Stéphane Reynaud. The brioche experiment in the wood oven was surprisingly successful but admittedly it would be difficult to screw up bread with as much butter as flour and like the bread for the smoked salmon the brioche got a lot of its colour from the second toasting.
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I completed the plate of a slice of terrine on toasted brioche with a few green beans, a mixture of quickly-pickled garden zucchini and hot peppers and a dollop of my homemade serviceberry jam. I’m really happy with how balanced the flavours for this course were. The sweetness from the jam and richness of the brioche pushed the best qualities of the terrine to their peak while the vegetable notes and acidity from the beans and pickle kept the fattiness in line. Best of all the orange zest in the terrine brought a refined final note to an otherwise rather rustic dish.
On entering Ontario things began to improve for Terry Fox. Crowds in Ottawa and Toronto were exceptional, he got to meet and received the support of even better known sports celebrities and most importantly this led to increased donations. After all, Terry placed fund-raising as the first goal and attended events and gave speeches on the same days that he run a full marathon.
Outside of the strong French cultural tradition in Quebec and fresh seafood on the coasts it can be difficult to define or describe a Canadian cuisine. While recognising that it is prepared pretty much wherever pork isn’t prohibited by the local religion an over-sized pork roast is to me the quintessential Ontario feast. Some insist on a whole animal as part of the ceremony of a pig roast but I think the flavour of an immature pig is much less intense and a full size hog would have been unwieldy and wouldn’t have fit in the oven so I chose a whole shoulder from a mature Berkshire pig.
In May I had the pleasure of touring the De Martines pork farm, Perth Pork Products, outside of Stratford, Ontario and confited the wild boar cheeks that we found in farm store’s freezer. (Our visit was ably covered by Mardi, Bonita, and many fellow bloggers.) I knew that this would be the perfect source for a whole shoulder from a heritage breed, “happy” pig and luckily Fred de Martines makes weekly deliveries to Toronto. That was how I found myself loitering near the door to the prep kitchen at the Eglinton West location of The Healthy Butcher with one expectant eye on the door to the building’s back alley. Right on time Fred pulled up in his refrigerated truck (naturally with pork-themed license plates) and passed me my precious cargo. We’ve heard it before but their is an obvious bonhomie and conspiratorial air that exists between good butchers and good farmers that I got to see up close.
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The feeling that this was some sort of illicit drug transaction was only heightened when I got the meat home and unwrapped it to prepare it for its overnight salt rub. There is an indescribably animal-like (though very clean) aroma that came from this piece of pork. It is the sort of thing you wouldn’t want to smell in the woods (or even a barn) without having the source squarely in view because it smells like it belongs to something with tusks and a temper. The appearance of the meat is just as uncommon with both streaks of bright white fat and dark, well-marbled muscle. I knew I would have to treat the pork gently and flavour it lightly and fortuitously the most recent issue of Cook’s Illustrated has a recipe for slow-roasted pork shoulder that I adapted.
For the larger piece of pig I used half a cup of kosher salt and half a cup of maple syrup (an obviously Canadian ingredient) rubbed all over the the meat and slashed skin. After being tightly wrapped the meat spent a night in the refrigerator and then about six and a half hours in the wood oven kept at a relatively low temperature. To go with the pork I thinly sliced some Ontario potatoes and roasted them in the oven–now fired up to a higher temperature–with pork drippings and cream once the pork had come out to rest. The plate was completed with a peach sauce adapted from the Cook’s Illustrated recipe that used white-fleshed peaches from Thiessen Farms in Jordan Station and a mustard pickle I made with cucumbers from our garden at the cottage.
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On the plate my high expectations for the pork were met and exceeded. Even with all of its various muscles the shoulder was tender and obviously full of rich, pork flavour. And the skin, oh the skin. Very, very dark in colour, with just enough un-rendered fat still clinging to the pieces, and a hint of the flavour from the maple syrup rub these were an easy sell.
On September 1, 1980 just outside of Thunder Bay, Ontario severe lung pain forced Terry Fox to have to ask to be taken to the hospital. After 143 days and 5,373 kilometres of running (3.339 miles) cancer had spread to his lungs and he was forced to temporarily abandon his quest in order to get necessary medical attention.
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To represent the final stage of the Marathon of Hope I made my take on lettu, a Finnish crêpe that is popular at Thunder Bay’s Hoito Restaurant. I served these egg-heavy crêpes with whipped cream and some of the brandied cherries I preserved earlier in the summer. This is a simple dish but I think it was just as successful as the more complicated courses.
On June 28, 1981 Terry Fox died from cancer. By then his new goal of raising a dollar for every Canadian (then about 24 million) had been reached and in the subsequent thirty years worldwide Terry Fox Runs have raised more than $500 million for cancer research. For more information about Terry and the Marathon of Hope his Wikipedia article is quite good, ESPN had a short video made for the 25th anniversary that is available on Youtube, and there is another ESPN film (narrated by Steve Nash and part of the 30 for 30 series) due out in October. More information can also be found on the Canadian Cancer Society and Terry Fox Foundation sites.
There is no way that cooking a meal for sixteen can compare to running halfway across Canada, I know. Just about all sixteen of us who shared the meal (me included) ran or walked the five kilometres around the island in Saturday’s wind and rain and I hope got a small sense of how monumental and difficult an accomplishment the Marathon of Hope must have been. Personally, I think the message is that properly funding cancer research, like most other noble endeavours, is about collecting the efforts of many no matter how small that draw on the inspiration from heroes like Terry Fox.