Not all Christmases are full of Joy, as Graham has had to learn the hard way. He wanted to share his stories with you all this year, when we're all feeling a little less than jolly due to the pandemic, and getting used to the idea of smaller gatherings. It's a good reminder that, in the face of great adversity, life still goes on. Life has a fun way of toying with us, we just have to be okay with rolling with it.
by Graham Duncan
Christmas 2020 is probably going to be a bummer. I should know. I’m an expert on difficult Christmases. Don’t believe me? Feel free to join me on a bumpy ride down my broken candy cane memory lane of Recent Christmases Past. It ain’t pretty. But here’s a holiday thought for you; when you get a lot of coal in your stocking — light it up and watch it burn.
Ice Storm Christmas 2013
Toronto freezes up and there’s a blackout. I venture out into the wilds of Eastern Scarborough to care for my aging father who lives in a 9th floor apartment. It’s flashlights, blankets and a lot of stairs. After cooking meals on the balcony on a camp stove and sleeping on the floor, on Christmas Eve day, Emergency Services carry him all the way down. We retreat to my West End apartment which now has power. He immediately falls on the floor. Then on Christmas Day, stressed and exhausted, when I tell my brother that it is physically impossible to get my dad to the family Christmas dinner, a giant argument ensues. But at least we had a Sanagan’s Tourtiere in the freezer.
Stroke Christmas 2014
My brother — recurring theme alert — has had a stroke and is temporarily residing at Bridgepoint rehab centre. So, we transport the entire family Christmas — there’s nine of us, many brandishing canes or walkers — to the facility. I guess it sounds kind of heart-warming but, as the person in charge of cooking and transporting the entire Christmas dinner, it feels more like Operation Giblet Storm. And Bridgepoint had all the festive atmosphere of a Cold War bunker.
Stroke Christmas Part 2 2015
To the canes and walkers, now add a wheelchair. The only place that is accessible to all of us is my brother’s industrial workshop where he builds synthesizers. Nothing says Christmas like a rack of diodes. Also, my wife is out of town caring for her ailing mother. And then when dinner is all over I have to drive my dad back to Scarborough through a blizzard. Boxing Day, it’s me and the cat. Put a little eggnog in that rum.
Cancer Christmas 2017
After having my cancerous kidney removed in November, I remember almost nothing of this holiday season except I managed to go back to work just before the Holidays, gingerly hefting turkeys and inflicting scar viewings on my unsuspecting co-workers.
Care Home Christmas 2018
We’ve now unloaded dad into institutional care. The care home workers, bless them, provide some touching hospitality but there’s no avoiding the fact that the turkey is pressed, dad’s has been in the blender and we’re all in a “special” room, made festive with institutional fluorescent lighting and the loud hum of an adjacent transformer.
As I write this, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is laying it on with a trowel: Santa’s in lockdown but Walmart isn’t; I’m awaiting a date for my third cancer surgery; and we all wear masks all day at work. But you know what? Peter and company now feel so sorry for me, they’re giving me Christmas week off. Thank you Santa-gan’s!
The funny thing is, after all of this, I still look forward to Christmas morning. So remember, just when it looks like it’s going to be All Grinch and no Cindy Lou Who, keep on Christmasing and Happy Holidays.
photos and words by Graham Duncan
This holiday season, if you’re planning on visiting people, most likely those visits will be occurring outside. The last thing you’ll want is a frosty beer. For al fresco revellers, hot booze is good news. I’ve been knocking back the Hot Toddies since October and they’re a lifesaver.
Here’s a practical list of easy-to-make, yummy, cockle-warmers that will see you through the holidays and beyond.
Practical note — ditch the glassware. Mugs keep things warm, including your hands, and they will not crack due to extreme temperatures. Small mugs are best; this is no time for dilution! (See photo.) Pre-heating the mugs with a little hot water extends their precious life-giving warmth.
For all recipes, feel free to substitute one brown liquor for another (i.e. substitute brandy for whisky, rum for brandy etc.). Scotch in any of these recipes contributes a likeable peaty element. For “hot water” please use freshly boiled water from the kettle. All recipes make one cocktail, except for Kingsley Amis’ Hot Wine Punch, which makes enough for a longer outdoor hangout session.
Hot Buttered Rum (Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts)
scant tsp sugar
1 tbsp butter
2 oz amber or dark rum
as required hot water
pinch ground spices: nutmeg, clove, and/or cinnamon
- Dissolve sugar with a tbsp of hot water in mug.
- Add butter and rum.
- Fill mug with hot water and stir.
- Dust with ground spices.
Irish Coffee (Mr. Boston Guide)
1 1/2oz Irish whiskey
as required hot coffee
to taste sugar
one serving whipped cream
- Combine whiskey, coffee and sugar in mug.
- Top with dollop of whipped cream
Rum Flip (Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts)
1/2 tbsp sugar
2 oz amber or dark rum
- Beat together egg and sugar.
- Combine with rum in small saucepan and heat, stirring constantly. Do not boil.
- If you wish to obtain a frothy texture, like an old-time flip heated and stirred with a hot poker, pour your mixture back and forth from mug to mug until frothy.
- Dust with nutmeg.
Hot Toddy (Pierre Burton’s Centennial Food Guide)
2 oz brown liquor (whisky, brandy, rum)
1 tsp maple syrup or honey
1 tsp butter (very optional)
as required hot water
pinch mixed ground spices: nutmeg, clove, cinnamon and/or ginger
- Combine ingredients in mug with tbsp of hot water and stir together.
- Fill with hot water and stir.
- Dust with ground spices.
Hot Wine Punch (Kingsley Amis, Everyday Drinking)
750ml low-priced red wine
5 or 6 oz brown liquor, preferably brandy
to taste (optional) sugar
1 tbsp mixed ground spice; nutmeg, clove, cinnamon and/or ginger
as required hot water
- Slice fruit into sections.
- Heat all ingredients in saucepan, stirring occasionally, until the mix steams but does not boil.
- Transfer punch to any heat-proof vessel with a pouring spout. Fill mugs 2/3 full of punch and top with 1/3 of hot water
By Graham Duncan
Photos by Graham Duncan
Does anyone remember Nouvelle Cuisine? Originating with a number of chefs in 1970’s France, it influenced restaurants throughout the industry. Nouvelle Cuisine emphasized fresh, quality ingredients, ornate presentation and lighter fare. It made for clean, distinct flavours, al dente vegetables, and occasionally finishing your dinner in need of a snack.
I asked Peter about Nouvelle Cuisine and he was, not surprisingly, well-versed. He brought in a massive stack of cookbooks and we decided I should get my Nouvelle on.
Nouvelle Quest Guided By Inspiring But Sometimes Vague Cookbook
From Peter’s library, Michel Bras’ Essential Cuisine seemed the most Nouvelle-y and ambitious. While published in 2002, it embodies many of the movement’s themes and exacting imperatives, as to be expected of a Three-Star chef. I decided to attempt two recipes from Essential Cuisine which combined the weird and the familiar.
Rump Roast Pan-fried with Crispy Fatback, Buckwheat Jus and Swiss Chard
The Rump Roast
The recipe describes a rump roast cut up into servings. We call these top sirloin steaks. If I’m going to cook a fancy steak dinner, admirable as a top sirloin may be, I’d opt for a more deluxe cut, like an Artisan Farms AAA strip loin (cut into two servings). And the pan-frying part? The grill was already going to be hot (see onions), so I cooked the steaks there as well. Hard to go wrong.
The Crispy Fatback
Steak — no problem. Crispy fatback, as portrayed in the cookbook photo, looked like playing cards, “standing on end so they catch the light”? I followed Bras’ scant instructions and ended up with delicious, stumpy pieces of crackling that were no more going to “catch the light” than they were going to catch a pop fly in centre field. I ate most of them while preparing the rest of dinner.
The Buckwheat Jus
This is a sauce to accompany the steak. In the recipe photo it appears as a luminous drizzle. After simmering the buckwheat, you sieve it, presumably to eliminate husks, resulting in a smooth base. Have you ever sieved porridge? This is why kitchens have apprentices. Combined with stock, onions and garlic, it tasted like health food stores smell. Even after trying to enliven it with concentrated stock it was about as luminous as burlap. Jus can’t always get what you want.
The Swiss Chard
Other than: separating the leaves from the stems; removing the fibres; splitting the stems; cooking them separately; chilling in ice water; and sautéing, again separately, with butter and shallots, this was a breeze. And delicious! But that may have had something to do with the rather un-Nouvelle-like half pound of butter.
The Swiss chard was delectable. The fatback can probably be mastered but the buckwheat jus and I will never see eye to eye. Oh, and the steak was excellent. Whadya expect? It’s from Sanagan’s.
Roasted Sweet Onions with “Licorice Powder” and Vinaigrette au Jus
You’re supposed to roast the onions nestled in a pan of rock salt but that’s a lot of rock salt for just one dish. So, I slow roasted our beautiful Cookstown organic sweet onions on the gas grill; a successful adaptation.
Dry black olives overnight in the oven. Chop into a powder. Combine with demerara sugar and almond powder and you’ve got a wonderful licorice-y garnish. Dusted over top of the roasted onions, this is the sort of infatuating culinary alchemy I was hoping for.
Vinaigrette Au Jus
Red wine vinegar, grape seed oil (exceedingly clean and mild) and “short pigeon jus”. What is short pigeon jus, you may ask? A short jus is a concentrated, almost demi-glace-like reduction of regular stock a.k.a. long jus. Now, the long and short of it is, that even at Sanagan’s we don’t have that much pigeon carcass laying around for stock. So, at Peter’s suggestion, I made 2 litres of long duck jus, which was enriched and reduced into less than a cup of short duck jus, two tablespoons of which were added to the vinaigrette. Crazy! But the result was worth it. You know when you’re at some great restaurant and you say, happily, “We’d never have this at home”? That’s where we were with the vinaigrette au jus.
The disappointments of the fatback and the buckwheat jus were overcome by this dish. It’s definitely the most original thing I’ve cooked and one of the most delicious.
The Nouvelle Takeaway
You stand up, you walk, you fall, you stand up and walk again. My Nouvelle adventure taught me a few new tricks and re-awakened my appetite for experimenting in the kitchen. Now, if you see me out in Bellevue Park with a net, you’ll know that I’m working on my short pigeon jus.
By: Graham Duncan
Not long ago my wife and I shared a Sanagan’s cote de boeuf. We were on our own at an 100-year-old cottage in Muskoka. There was red wine, there was salad and there was that majestic slab of 50-day dry aged rib steak. It was an absolutely simple and memorable dinner, as a meal can be when it features ingredients of the highest standard.
So the question is, what makes dry aged beef such a significant culinary experience?
Dry aging has been part of carnivorism for as long as humans have understood that changes occur to an animal’s flesh after it dies, the most obvious example being rigor mortis. For centuries beef and game have benefitted from various forms of controlled aging. While modern processing techniques sidestepped the procedure, nothing can replicate the flavours and textures resulting from the painstaking tradition of professionally dry aged beef.
Sanagan’s dry aging fridge is a funky place indeed. In this low temperature, moderate humidity environment sub primals (bulk cuts) of bone-in rib and strip loin sections bide their time, slowly growing crusty exteriors that will later be trimmed away. During this period our friends, the enzymes go to work .
Enzymes are molecules that accelerate chemical reactions in cells. With beef, enzyme actions enhance flavour by converting: proteins into savoury amino acids; glycogen into sweet glucose; and fat and fat-like membranes into aromatic fatty acids. At the same time, they’re working their magic on tenderness too, breaking down collagen fibres.
But what age is the perfect age? 28-days is the steakhouse standard (or that’s when your steak turns into a zombie). Some establishments probe the outer reaches of aging with 120-day-old rib steaks, all gnarled up like Yoda. Assistant head butcher Christopher Spencer, who’s been overseeing the Sanagan’s dry aging program since 2018 explains our process: “We experimented; just a lot of testing. Anything more than 60 to 70 days gets very cheesy. We found that 40 to 50 days achieves a good balance of accessible aged flavour”.
And just what is that aged flavour? I think the only way to describe it is steak-ier. Those elements of savoury juicy succulence that makes your mouth water when you think of a steak are all refined in a dry age steak. There’s oxidized fat lending aromatic depth, all the gelatinized protein (enzymes!) creating that melt-in-your-mouth thing, the absolutely indescribable flavours of age; you know like wine, like cheese. If you’re familiar with the concept of umami, that gives you an idea. But really, words don’t do the trick. You’ve got to try it for yourself. But you’ll have to find your own cottage.