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Book reviews

Taste: Seasonal Dishes from a Prairie Table, C. J. Katz, CPRC Press, 2012, 203 pages

  • Laura Shine

Corps de l’article

Before picking up C. J. Katz’s Taste, I knew little about the foodscapes of Saskatchewan. Like many Canadians, I’d heard of the seemingly infinite wheat and canola fields, but certainly not of the haskap and lingonberries, the grass-fed bison and the prairie lamb, the traditionally harvested wild rice or the wild chanterelles, morels, and honey mushrooms. It is this sort of shameful ignorance that this tasteful and thoughtfully researched book aims to correct. Through recipes and stories that put forward fresh, original, and local ingredients, it sheds a long-overdue light on the bounty of this Prairie province.

The book adopts the increasingly popular theme of the four seasons to organize its recipes. This makes perfect sense in a place where foodscapes are defined by scorching summers and “near cryogenic winters” (90). In keeping with this theme, it also proposes a few local and seasonal menu ideas around such themes as “Canada Day Barbeque,” “Game Day Gathering,” and “Toboggan Party” (xi).

The layout of the book is aired out and inviting. Beautiful pictures abound, all in colour – the author is also a documentary food photographer. Unfamiliar berries or fish are photographed in detail, and a great number of growers, pickers, and fishermen appear alongside recipes showcasing their products. These portraits, accompanied by a short biography, give an intimate feeling to many of these encounters. The author’s voice is present throughout the book as she explains which recipes were taught by friends or handed down as heirlooms. At times, the reader almost feels he or she is seated at the family table, listening to cherished stories being passed on along with Rob’s Southern Barbeque-Style Pulled Pork (74), Mary’s Marinated Beets (163), and a Perfect Peach and Blueberry Lattice Pie (88). In some instances, it even seems almost too intimate: Katz explains that the water for Whole Wheat-Quinoa Bread should be “no warmer than a newborn baby’s bath” (147), a somewhat unsettling comparison for a cookbook.

It’s not all Old-Fashioned Apple Pie (136), however. The author blends traditional and modern ingredients, inviting foreign flavours into the Prairies to showcase emblematic local products. Prairie lamb is dressed up with orange and Middle Eastern spices (67) and flank steak with Korean flavours (28); papaya shows up alongside steelhead trout (20); curry paste and coconut milk are staple ingredients. More surprisingly perhaps, lentils, one of Saskatchewan’s main staples, are puréed and added to a dark chocolate cake (185). Other unexpected additions include tofu and ricotta in a semifreddo (82) and dark chocolate in a chili con carne (127).

Katz also promotes typical ingredients that may be little known outside of Saskatchewan and distinguishes many different species of fish (19), mushrooms (57), or prairie fruit (90). Emblematic terroir products such as labour-intensive wild rice (107), mustard seed (117), bison (123), lentils, (155) and, of course, the ubiquitous wheat (186) are presented in well-documented and informative columns. For the unlucky cooks who may not have easy access to fresh walleye or saskatoon berries, Katz suggests readily available substitutes.

Most of the recipes in the book are simple and straightforward. Many are quick enough for a weeknight meal and likely to please all members of the family. But avid cooks will also find interesting ideas and more time-consuming preparations such as pulled pork (74–75), various breads, and home-smoked fish, as well as a technique for making Hutterite Yogurt (95). Katz also proposes elegant Mixed Berry Shortcakes (34–35), Mushroom Cappuccino Soup (52) topped with milk froth and mushroom dust, and an interesting local take on the antipasto platter (102). The recipes are generally suited to the seasons, putting forth plenty of fresh asparagus and morels in spring and relying largely on pulses and braised meats in the winter. Summer, however, is an exception: it seems to me that cold soups might have been more appropriate than the four hot ones suggested here, including particularly hearty chowders containing legumes or curried winter vegetables (carrots and onions!) and pasta. The lasagne, albeit vegetarian, also seems out of place. Cleaner flavours would have been welcome here, and although two simple salads are proposed, a greater place could have been allotted to light, vegetable-based dishes that don’t require turning on the oven in the sweltering heat. Moreover, as a whole, the entire book could have benefited from a larger number of main courses that rely on little or no meat. At a time when many eaters are choosing more vegetarian meals, the sheer number of beef, lamb, bison, pork, duck, chicken, and turkey dishes may surprise health-conscious cooks. Out of 43 main courses, only 4 are vegetarian. While this is not a flaw in itself, some may find repetitive the use of so much meat.

Nonetheless, Taste remains an informative book that provides straightforward and insightful recipes. Thanks to C. J. Katz, the wheat fields will no longer overshadow the bountiful and diverse foodways of Saskatchewan and its delightful local products.

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