Bear Traps, Bergs and Mushroom Soup (or How to Survive the Trans-Labrador Highway)

It’s a weird thing, that you can hop on a plane and fly to England for cheaper than you can parts of your own province. It’s even more absurd to think that you can get as far as Egypt and back. I haven’t been able to afford a trip home since I left Labrador almost fourteen years ago (yet a trip to the Sahara was possible…I say possible, my Visa says thanks sucker). And Provincial Airlines, while I do appreciate the Babybels and little pastrami sandwiches, a piece of cheese covered in wax shouldn’t have to cost me almost $2000. Luckily I had to go for work three years ago…I love saying that, “I had to go for work.” Like I’m an executive flying to Hong Kong every other week. The truth is I was flown up to adjudicate the high school drama festival in Labrador City. I ordered fries dressing and gravy for room service and wore a dress and nice shoes so people would think that I knew stuff.

This time however, we had to bring our own Babybels. And spare tires. Who needs to fly when you can take fourteen hours of unserviced dirt road across the great Labrador wilderness? Not the hearty cast and crew of Tempting Providence, that’s for goddamn well sure. And if you like peeing in the woods and changing flats, well chickens, this is the adventure for you.

First stop, Oceanside cabins in Forteau. Or Oceanview. Seaview? Bayside! Nope…Seaside? Can’t remember, all the kitchenettes are blurring in my mind. Just a short drive away from L’Anse au Loup where we had to do the show at the high school the next evening. We hit Blanc Sablon in Quebec straight off the ferry. Technically that’s where it docks and then it’s just a jaunt to the border. A stop in Quebec is a no brainer for a variety of reasons; booze is cheaper there and cheap booze on a six month tour is essential to everyone’s health and safety. Now, essential to my health and safety is good food and something told me we should hit the grocery store before we crossed the border. A place called an epicerie was bound to have treats unknown to the convenience stores of coastal Newfoundland and Labrador. That might sound mean, but it’s a food reality in this province and we all know that the French don’t eff around, especially when it comes to eating. This is what hit me in the face when I walked in the door: Fresh croissants. Shallots. Prosciutto. Soft cheeses. WINE. On the grocery store shelf. YES. See? They just get it! I sure wish Sobeys did.

We got settled away in our cabin and I started to make spaghetti. Nothing fancy, just straight up meat sauce with a little prosciutto thrown in and a can of artichoke hearts. Sounds strange but I was so excited about seeing a can of artichoke hearts on the shelf I just bought them. If it wasn’t for the spaghetti I would have eaten them out of the can with my fingers on some hotel room bed, but this was all working out so far. I had just put the pasta on but put everything on hold when I looked out the window. The sun was going down and the light was really beautiful on the beach. There were a few icebergs around; they weren’t huge and not the kind that make the tourists flip out, but the mist was coming in and the beach was sandy. Kind of weird and lovely, like what a berg would look like if it made it down to Florida. I also had a brand new fancy pants camera that I was still learning to use. Out the door. Nice photos but pretty mushy pasta. Darryl hit the beach later and picked up a few bergy bits that had washed up. Didi made us ice bergy cocktails with Creme de Cassis and Perrier and I thought about people from away who would pay a lot of money for what I was drinking at that moment. Maybe not so much for the spaghetti.

A strange week when we hit the dirt road and the shows on the coast; a week of hotels and no kitchens, no cooking. We were there before peak tourist season (and peak blackfly season thankfully) so the restaurants had limited hours, resources, and vegetables. I used that flimsy excuse to eat a lot of hot turkey sandwiches and fries. Then there were those couple of dark days in Port Hope Simpson with a pack of Fudgee-os and a block of cheese. I had all these grand ideas in my head of traipsing around the Labrador woods, having boil ups and making bannock (and may I point out here that so did Hubbard, who ended up eating his own moccasins and dying in a tent). I managed a couple of nice walks, but there were enough stories from the locals about roaming bears to put me off heading out too far on my own. My favourite came from the guy at the gas station in Cartwright who said there had been a bear there a couple of days earlier knocking over garbage cans next to the gas pumps. “He was just hungry though, can’t really blame him.” I’d eat an actor in the woods if I’d just woken up from a long winter’s nap. Back to the Fudgee-os.

Goose Bay and a day off to rest after the stretch of dirt road from Cartwright. We had nice little suites with kitchens and were staying for a few nights, so we made a trip to the grocery store. I was tired, crooked, and dusty. I wanted meat, bread, potatoes. It had to be good and it had to be fast or I was going to burst into tears. Chicken bake. My friends Phil and Mark made this for a dinner we had a couple of years ago and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since. It calls for a can of mushroom soup but it tastes so good that you don’t even need to be embarrassed that you’re going all eighties casserole on yourself. And why should you? Don’t screw up your nose, your mom made you casseroles from mushroom soup and you liked them. You loved them. I made this for my nan and she lost her mind and makes it all the time. So now you have to try it.

Everyone will love this and chances are you might have everything in your cupboard and freezer for it. Use whatever chicken you have and a nice homemade dressing (stuffing) or if you’re really pressed for time or are having an ultimate eighties casserole night, use Stovetop. When people were making boxes of Kraft Dinner in university, I was making Stovetop and eating it out of the pot. And somehow managed to get through those years without getting scurvy.

So I wanted to roast potatoes in smoked paprika to go with the chicken bake, but none at the grocery store. Goose Bay COME ON!!! I joke. The fresh herb section completely made up for it, even though there was no rosemary. Would have been nice plan B for the potatoes. However there was fresh oregano which only came dried in the Kraft pizza mix kit when I was a kid growing up in the Big Land, so good on you Labrador. You’ve aged well. There was regular paprika. We’re good.

I got over chicken breasts a while ago. They’re great if they’re not overcooked but even then…eeeeh…I don’t know. I think any woman in her thirties still has it ingrained in her brain that a grilled chicken breast is the only meat you can eat to ensure you don’t get fat. You know that late nineties low fat craze, you know the one where you could eat a whole pack of Snackwell’s brownies with a 2 litre of skim milk and not get fat? Remember that? Yeah I remember that and so does my ass. It didn’t work and I gained eighteen pounds. So the long and short and fat of it is, chicken breasts remind me of health magazines and shiny airbrushed orange people, so I gave them up. I’m all over skinless boneless chicken thighs though…they’re meatier, juicier. It’s a lot cheaper to buy them bone in but I’d rather have Stephen Harper and Margaret Wente over for dinner than skin and debone chicken parts. So there you have it. I splurge. I justify it by telling myself I don’t own a car so I can use gas money for fun food. Former extravagant purchases include Balderson double smoked cheddar. This stuff tastes like Michael Smith put on a plaid shirt, lit a fire next to the sea on a fall day and personally smoked it for you (I almost told him that once when I saw him in an airport, but thankfully I was too drunk). Twelve dollars a block. I get the odd pang of guilt about it. Then I read about Bev Oda and her sixteen dollar glass of orange juice in London and I thought well hell, at least I paid for my cheese and not you guys.

And yes, if I had the cash I would hire Michael Smith to smoke cheese for me. I’d make him wash my hair every day too.

Anyways, chicken bake, easy peasy. Get your dressing done first. There’s the classic Newfoundland recipe: breadcrumbs, butter, onions, salt and pepper, Mt. Scio savoury. For readers not familiar with Mt. Scio Farm, they grow the best savoury known to mankind. It’s not like sage, it’s not like summer savoury, it is unlike anything on earth. I have no idea what they do or how they do it but you cannot find this savoury anywhere else and it is the only thing NL nans use in their dressing. I can send some in the mail if anybody wants to try some, not joking. Make your dressing first; I do mine by taste and I like it on the oniony and savoury side. I like messing around with different kinds of bread too (great with homemade cornbread) and on this day it was a big loaf of nice Italian, well done Goose Bay. No food processor and I tore my bread by hand so it was more like little chunks of bread and not crumbs. I used shallots instead of onions because these little babies had made it over the highway from Blanc Sablon and were still looking good. Unlike the rest of us. Added butter, savoury, salt and pepper…mind your seasoning if you’re using salted butter. Mix everything with your hands; really get in there because you want to make sure the butter gets to all the bread. Layer some chicken in the bottom of a casserole dish…or three disposable loaf pans if there’s nothing suitable in your hotel kitchen. You can go easy on the seasoning or omit it all together because the mushroom soup will be salt enough (I used reduced sodium). Spread the soup over the chicken and add a little water if you want to keep the chicken from drying out, but you don’t need to use a can full. Dressing on top. Bake in a 375 F oven until chicken is cooked all the way through. This will depend on what you’re using…breasts won’t take very long, but bone in will take a little longer.

Burned the roast potatoes and set off the smoke detectors. But got to eat leftovers every day for three days. I even managed to feed Karen and save a little pan for my sister Jade and brother-in-law Trevor. In addition to working full time in Goose they rescue and foster abandoned husky puppies and their moms. Try dropping off a casserole and leaving this behind.

Darryl’s cousin is a helicopter pilot and volunteered to take us out for a ride the afternoon of the show. I was excited, but more disappointed in myself for being terrified. A thunderstorm in the afternoon gave me the excuse I needed and I bailed, claiming fear of ending up on Here & Now. Hold up there dude, I know you’re all, hey let me fly you over Muskrat Falls in a helicopter, but I have to stay in my hotel room and make mashed potatoes. And I did. They were garlicky and perfect and I fried them up as potato cakes the next day for breakfast. Try making them with butter, fresh cracked salt and pepper, shredded cheddar, a clove of minced garlic, a tablespoon of sour cream and a sprinkling of Mt. Scio savoury. Like little Newfoundland fishcakes, but with no fish and lots of cheese.

Home was the twilight zone. My old high school? Condos. Didi made the interesting observation that with the mines booming it’s kind of like a gold rush up there now. But instead of prospectors there are contractors, and the can can dancers with those cute frilly skirts are twenty-one year olds wearing hot pants. And no good can come of kicking seniors out of apartments so contractors can move in and pay three thousand dollars a month in rent. I bet the hallways in those buildings don’t smell like Sunday dinner anymore. Probably more like feet and beer.

So I learned a lot about myself while in Labrador. I’m afraid of bears and helicopters. But not butter and cheese. Which is funny, considering statistics and which one will get you in the end.

Two days, one flat tire, one black bear and six sets of shattered nerves later, we were back on the ferry again. With another pit stop beforehand in Quebec for cheap booze and cured meats. Good for nerves and bears. But not recommended for flat tires.

Beans in the Burbs

You are so intrigued by the words ‘beans’ and ‘burbs’ in the same sentence that you can’t look away, I know. Halifax came and went in a blur. And you know what? What a great food city. I love St. John’s dearly but Halifax wins hands down for its abundance of Turkish and Thai food. And a kick ass waterfront. Touristy, yes, but well maintained, swarming with locals, lots of room for a walk or a run. Three months on tour makes the pants a little tighter so when I arrived I thought, this is so great, I finally have a place to run that’s safe and well maintained where I won’t get stabbed (I’m looking at you London). Too bad there’s a huge farmers’ market down that way and I only put on my running shoes to go eat cheese and onion pasties and spicy Mexican chocolate ice cream. I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t exercise, there was no time, no time! Here’s why: Two weeks in Halifax and then three months touring rural Newfoundland and Labrador. What? Listen, we had lovely downtown apartments, swankified to the point that I felt like I should get my nails done. The kitchens were immaculate, well-stocked, granite countertops, an absolute dream for someone who thinks about her kitchen at home and feels a knife pain in her heart. But I just…couldn’t cook. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get Vietnamese in coastal Labrador. The best hot turkey sandwich and homefries of my life? Yes. But no falafel, no red curry and sweet mother, no crab rangoon from the Gingergrass (get the peanut curry combo). So I ate my way through the city. Like a giant deprived godzilla, stuffing myself stupid and counting down the seconds till I got hungry again. I normally can’t eat before the show, but I broke that rule in Halifax. It’s pretty physical and there’s this birthing scene where I always regret eating curry.

It is here that I will pay homage to my pals who’ve actually gone through childbirth, as I cannot even handle reenacting one after a feed of Thai.

If I lived in Halifax and had stupid amounts of money to drop on a condo on the waterfront, I would gladly do it for the chance to stroll through the Halifax market at my leisure. It’s open every day except Monday, although it’s bursting at the seams with stalls on Saturday, almost bursting seams on Sunday. The best coffee, curry, jam, wine, jewellery, vegetables, homemade sausages and farm fresh meat in the city. Filled with vendors who are passionate about what they do. I know I sound like a tourist brochure, but all the ladies and gents I chatted with were friendly, knowledgeable and discerning. I love food, I have a lot of questions about it. These were my people. Like the lady from Tangled Garden who sold me the “Radiant Raspberry” jam. I tasted a sample and said “I’ll take it” before I had the chance to do something obnoxious like scoop out a handful and smear it on my face. It was flavoured with rose geranium and tasted like a picnic in a Jane Austen novel, no joke.

The buskers there have to be the best in the city. Zulkamoon played a few times on my visits and these guys are the like the pied pipers. The toddlers freaked out, I’d never seen anything like it. A surefire way to cure a shitty mood is to get a double shot cappuccino from Steverino’s and watch a dozen two year olds dance like drunk uncles at a wedding. Check it out, how can you not shake your ass? Just ask the guy in the suit dancing by himself, he’s sure breaking it down like no one’s watching.

What is also excellent about Halifax is that one of my sisters lives there. A little outside the city, but closer than a flight to St. John’s, that’s for sure. Robin loves food as much as I do and when we get together we’re like Paula Deen meets Jamie Oliver meets Bridesmaids. The energy gets to be a little frantic, much to the delight of her husband. When she found out I was going to be in town for work she gushed, “Oooh! We can have you over for supper! I mean, come over and cook us supper!” On my days off she’d pick me up downtown, we’d hit the grocery and liquor store and head out to the suburbs. A bottle of sparkling booze and some cream cheese brownies later and we’d end up splayed out in a pile of cookbooks in the living room, deciding what I would make for supper the next evening and watching YouTube videos until it was time for bed.

On this particular day off, there was a very specific game plan. There was only so much time and the meals had to spaced out properly to ensure optimum hunger levels. Breakfast couldn’t be too big if we were going to have a good lunch, a nice appetizer before supper, supper and then cupcakes. It was kind of like planning a giant holiday meal. I couldn’t ruin this day like I ruined Christmas ’07 by eating nine puff pastry samosas with a bottle of Bailey’s on Christmas Eve and having to pass on Mom’s oven apple pancake the next morning. That pancake comes but once a year. And I effed it up. I still have my regrets.

Cereal for breakfast. Then shopping for more groceries and booze with a little pit stop at Winners (I bought a tank top with pearls on it, someone’s almost 36). Robin would make us lunch, head to work and I would start drinking wine and making food so we could all have a late supper for 8 or so when everyone got home. Italian sandwiches for lunch. Robin threw these things together like she was doing a quickfire challenge on Top Chef. I sat there with my mouth open while she sliced some ciabatta buns, spread them with marinara sauce, Genoa salami, sliced onions, mozzarella and a sprinkle of oregano or Italian seasoning or something nice like that. How to grill them I wonder? Good ciabatta buns are all crispy and puffy and would never fit in any sandwich press I’ve ever seen in a domestic setting. Robin lightly oiled a frying pan before she put the sandwiches in and took a heavy cast iron pan and placed it on top of the works of it. Poof. Homemade sandwich press for extra puffy sandwiches. My eyes widened.

“Did you like, just invent that?”

“Well…I guess? I dunno.”

“You’ve NEVER done that before? You just thought of that? Because if I find out you’ve been hiding this from me all these years I’ll be pretty pissed.”

“I just thought of it weirdo.”

“Now I have to buy a really good cast iron pan. Goddamn it.”

I’m sure someone else has done this before, but I got pretty excited about the possibilities. I was thinking about homemade meatballs on ciabatta, pressed heavy in a hot pan with buffalo mozzarella, the cheese and sauce running over the sides and turning to chewy crispy bits…BASIL! We had fresh basil in the fridge for the basil lime coconut cupcakes. I stopped Robin mid-bite. “Wait! Basil! Fridge! I’m such an asshole I can’t believe I forgot we had basil!” We pried open the sandwiches and stuffed it in. A teeny tiny glass of nice red wine to go with. Robin wasn’t pleased with the way the marinara sauce soaked into the bun; I wasn’t morally opposed to it, in fact I kinda liked it. She says that Jamie says to butter your bread no matter what kind of sandwich you’re making, so the sauce just sits there all saucy and doesn’t soak in. We’ll try next time and see how we go.

A glorified pizza sub? No effing way. A hot-pressed Italian sandwich on ciabatta with fresh basil.

Rob left for work and I got to it. Cupcakes first (some of you might remember these beauties from November) and a chicken in the oven to roast a couple hours later while I made the appetizer. Rudy the golden retriever suitably unimpressed that we weren’t going for a walk and I that was neglecting him to make bean dip. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Kind of conjures up images of potlucks from the seventies. The kind of thing you make as an afterthought to keep the vegetarians happy. But the truth of it is, I’ve seen meat eaters lace into this stuff like it’s a tenderloin. You know that pizza dip thing that people make for parties? The one with all the cream cheese and sauce and cheddar cheese that is so gross and amazing and you just can’t stop? It’s like that, except hot and not gross and good for you. Or mildly good for you depending on how much cheese you like to use. It’s perfect and alarming for vegetarians because it gets them all nostalgic for bacon. You could do a vegan version by omitting the sour cream and maybe some soy cheese on top or just let the bean dip go naked without dressing it up in cheese at all. And it’s completely gluten-free. If you’re cooking for die-hard meat eaters get them to try it anyways and tell them to stop their whining. Or sprinkle some crumbled crispy bacon on top. If you’re looking for that classy edge, leftover taco ground beef.

I made this one night a couple years ago when my friend Petrina popped over. She’s a vegetarian, I had a can of black beans, I messed around and came up with this. I’ve played with it a bunch of times and settled on this recipe. It’s similar to the vegan black bean breakfast sandwiches I posted there a while back, except there’s sour cream and it’s zinged up until it’s really creamy and baked in a pan instead of formed into patties. You could choose not to zing and just use the bean mixture for burritos. Either way, black beans are smoky and amazing and generally please most people. Mess around with the spices and see what you like.

Smoky Black Bean Dip

1 can of black beans, rinsed and drained
1 tsp of ground cumin
1 tsp chilli powder
1/4 tsp crushed chillis
Salt and pepper to taste
Juice from half a lime
1 tsp of sour cream
Smoked applewood cheddar
La Chinata smoked paprika

In a medium sized bowl, add beans, spices, salt and pepper, lime juice and sour cream. Zing everything up with a hand blender or in a food processor til it’s smooth and creamy. Spread evenly into a 9×9 pan or a small lasagna pan. Grate the smoked applewood cheddar on top, followed by the smoked paprika (I like super cheesy with lots of paprika, but a just a sprinkling will do). Bake in a 375 F oven for 20 minutes or so until the cheese is golden and melty and a little crispy around the edges. Serve with tortilla chips, pita bread or other fun things for dipping.

This is super hot when it comes out of the oven (really?) so let it sit for a few minutes and mind yourself or you will burn your tongue like no one’s business. If you can’t get smoked applewood cheddar, try a smoked gouda. Plain cheddar will do fine if you use the smoked paprika, maybe just sprinkle a little of the paprika in the bean mixture before you blend to make sure you get a good smoky flavour. I’ve said before that the La Chinata stuff will punch you in the face, so use sparingly if you’re cooking for pals who can’t handle spice. Go cracked if you’re using regular smoked.

We had it with white, but I think a red might be nice. Best with beer though. And a golden retriever tucked under your feet. Just don’t let him try any of the dip. Yikes.