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Lamb kofta 1

I adore lamb, but am particularly fond of it ground, spiced with garlic, cumin, cilantro, coriander and salt, and grilled kabob-style. Despite my endless love for lamb kofta (a word that refers to all kinds of spiced, minced meat-balls, kabobs et al), I rarely think to make it, and I can’t fathom why that is. It’s meat on a stick, and it cooks in about ten minutes, and you can drag it through garlicky yogurt. At any rate, I was reminded how easy they were to make when I fired up the grill at 6:30 am to make them for CBC this morning, and cooked some flatbread alongside while I was at it, using the same naan recipe I’ve used for years – because I knew I’d be cooking early in the morning, I made the dough last night and kept it in the fridge to slow the rise.

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Chocolate marshmallow pie 2

I know it’s the height of spring and all thoughts are turning to strawberries and rhubarb (or should be), and I just harvested armloads of same to ensure baggies of frozen rhubarb will jam (pun totally not intended) all surplus freezer space for the foreseeable future, but because there were two 11 year olds in the house today, I decided to score some points with a chocolate marshmallow pie instead. (Spoiler: it worked.)

It’s been on my to-do list to make something out of Renée’s new(ish) book, All the Sweet Things, since long before it hit the shelves. It’s a gorgeous book, so well photographed and designed by the talented crew at Touchwood (who also published In the Dog Kitchen and Out of the Orchard! ahem), but most importantly it’s filled with things I actually want to make (and eat).

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Ellis bird farm 2

– This post was created in partnership with Travel Alberta and the support of Tourism Red Deer, which helps me spend more time here (where I most want to be!) and spread the word about all the amazing things there are to do/eat/find in our province! It’s always a good time to support our local farmers and small businesses. As always, it’s a documentation of our trip, in my own (often awkward, sorry) words.

If you’re around here on a regular basis (thank you!), you may have learned that our new thing is short road trips, often to small towns that aren’t typical tourist destinations. I love the speed of small towns – the free parking at their core, the relaxed pace, the old bowling alleys and old-school diners. And I love finding new things right in our neighbourhood, globally speaking. A few weeks ago we spent the weekend in Red Deer and Lacombe – not high on most vacationers’ lists, but I was teaching a few classes at the Cooking Room, I had heard there were some tasty things going on in central Alberta, and isn’t half the fun of a weekend away the staying in a hotel part? (With a pool? And ironed sheets? And a TV at the end of your bed?)

Also – it’s only an hour and a half drive. So we picked up W at school after lunch and headed to this place – the Ellis Bird Farm. I had no idea it existed. It was once the home and farm of brother and sister Charlie and Winnie Ellis, who set out their first nesting box for the mountain bluebirds in the fifties, and went on to fill the fields with some 300 nest boxes for mountain bluebirds and tree swallows, built and erected houses for black-capped chickadees, purple martins and flickers, and established a program for feeding winter birds. (It’s a great story – you can read all about it here.)

Ellis bird farm 1Ellis Bird Farm grain elevator

And it has the oldest (or one of) hand-made grain elevators in Alberta! I’m a sucker for a grain elevator.

Today, it’s both a working farm and a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of mountain bluebirds, tree swallows and other native cavity-nesting birds. It’s open to the public during the summer months – there are beautiful gardens, a new visitor centre, and the world’s largest collection of nest boxes. They’ve also teamed up with scientists to track birds using light-level geolocators.

Ellis bird farm 3

Between the surroundings and birdsong, it’s the best possible picnic location – but if you don’t think to bring your own, the tiny Ellis Café is in the little yellow house where Charlie and Winnie lived, and they’ll make you a picnic lunch full of locally produced meats, cheeses, pickles and preserves from area farms. Also: real iced tea and scones!

Ellis bird farm picnic
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Cabbage rolls 6

Cabbage rolls are not trendy, nor instagram-worthy. Some might call them dated, even though their doughy tablemates (peroghies) bask constantly in nostalgic adoration (even by those who did not grow up with Babas making them). I forgot how much I love them until my friend Dorata, who has been doing my hair for something like 20 years, and is one of the best cooks I know, brought me a plate with a few delicate Polish-style cabbage rolls as I sat with my hair under the dryer, and they were some of the best things I ever ate.

Cabbage rolls 5

I’ve never actually made them myself, and so I gave it a go for the radio this morning. I don’t expect to nail anything straight off the bat, especially not having had relatives telling me how and how not to make them. I texted Dorata, read a bit and went from memory, and came up with something that, in my mind, is a pretty delicious cabbage roll – meat-heavy (I used pork and beef, and a handful of rice), not overly spiced, simmered in plain, slightly sweet tomato sauce. Turns out W loves them too, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that they like vaguely like brains.

Cabbage rolls 4
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Waterton view

I’d like to sheepishly admit that although I grew up here, I’ve never really been to Waterton, save for a trip to a bison ranch ten years ago that no longer exists. I feel like a bad Albertan, but I know many Calgarians have never ventured this way, opting instead for the almost instant gratification of a drive to Banff or Canmore. The town of Waterton, in Waterton National Park, is tiny – with a population of 105, it virtually closes down in the winter, opening up again in May for the summer season. The place is somewhat of an enigma, without any chains (hotels and otherwise, with the exception of a small Subway), no cable TV and currently absolutely zero real estate for sale (we checked within 24 hours there) – it has a completely different flavour than Banff/Canmore/Jasper, focused on the lake but still surrounded by mountains. Touristy but not annoyingly so, nor overrun with people.

Waterton landscape

One of the best things about a trip from Calgary to Waterton is the drive — through farmland instead of foothills, on not-too-busy highways through towns like High River, Claresholm and Nanton (and Fort McLeod for a three minute detour), or on the Cowboy Trail (which adds an extra 10 minutes to your drive) past Millarville, turner Valley and Black Diamond. I love the wind farms as you get close to Pincher Creek, and the way the rolling green fields suddenly give way to massive Rockies, with no in between. It feels somehow like being in Europe, and then rolling into a little beach town.

Waterton lake 2Bayshore inn 1
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Salmon Falafel 2

Look at me, posting something not sweet! Something you may already know about me: I love homemade falafel, all crispy and warm, straight from the pan. It occurred to me that a kind of amalgamation between fish cake and falafel might be possible, and it turns out salmon gets along brilliantly with chickpeas (doesn’t everything?) and adds a meaty richness to the already delicious falafel. It’s a match made in frying pan heaven.
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chocolate marshmallow squares 4

I realize I’ve been dishing up a lot of sweet stuff lately – I promise we do eat real food too on occasion. You know what a fan I am of those rainbow peanut butter marshmallow squares – last time I made a batch W loudly wished they had been chocolate peanut butter, only the very best flavour combination ever, and so of course I obliged. It’s easy – just swap the butterscotch chips for chocolate, which I’m far more likely to have around anyway. And ever since a friend singed hers on the stovetop last Christmas, creating these irresistibly tasty crispy bits, I’ve imagined them with a slight crunch from a handful of cereal. Which turned out to be a Very Good Idea.

chocolate marshmallow squares 2
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Crepe cake 4

This is just a recipe for crêpes – I promise you don’t have to stack them, smeared with lemon curd and cream (above) or Nutella and stacked into a cake unless you want to. I consider crêpes an essential thing to know how to make – there is nothing like standing at the stove, rhythmically pouring and tilting batter in the bottom of a hot pan, then spreading hot crêpes with butter, sprinkling them with brown sugar and a shake of cinnamon, rolling them up and doling them out, to make everything feel right in the world on a weekend morning. (Lately I’ve been eating mine with large spoonfuls of cold stewed rhubarb and a blop of plain yogurt.) Everyone should know how to make a batch of crêpes, and not be intimidated by the process – the best way to learn is to practice, to get a feel for quickly tilting the pan to cover the bottom with batter as it cooks. And even those too-thick or wonky ones still taste delicious, so there’s really no risk involved in learning, is there? It’s a good thing to learn early and grow up with, I think.

Crepes 3

Traditionally, crêpe batter is whisked in a bowl or blended in a blender to the consistency of heavy cream, then allowed to sit for an hour or three, or even refrigerated overnight to allow the flour to swell ever so slightly in the milk and egg, making the batter more uniform. This is not a big deal, but would be infinitely more convenient if my blender actually fit in my fridge.
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