Category Archives: Food

Digging clams

Our river once had abundant soft-shelled clams, and you could dig a bucket in a few minutes. There was no fishing license required, but you could only take ones over a certain size, so we carried a homemade gauge to ensure we only took legal ones.

I wouldn’t eat them as a child, but grew to love them later, and I spent many hours swimming and playing in the water while my mother dug them. Most people dig on the beach at low tide using a garden fork, but this wasn’t my mother’s method as she said too many get broken that way, and that’s true. Another less common method was to use a homemade plunger made from a section of a car tire attached to an old broom handle, and dig them in the water, which was less destructive. But she was the only one I knew who dug them the way she did.

At our favourite spot, just a 5-minute row from our house, my mother would walk with bucket in hand in knee-deep water, looking for the holes that clams make with their siphons. She would then sit in the water and pat a hole with her hand, creating a vacuum that moved the sand and would start to excavate a larger hole. When she felt a clam, she would pull it out, examine it to see if it was alive and the right size, and then put it in the bucket beside her that was kept in place first by the volume of seawater it contained and then, little by little, by the clams.

Once her bucket was filled, we would return home, but we never ate the clams right away as they were gritty with sand. My mother would tie the bucket to the railing of the stairs that went down the bank in front of our house and leave the clams submerged in the bucket in the river overnight to clean out, expelling the sand that was in their system.

The next day the clams were placed in a large enamel pot with no water or anything else, just steamed as they were until they opened. Those that didn’t open were discarded, and the rest piled into a big bowl and placed in the middle of the dining room table. Everyone got their own bowl of melted butter, fresh homemade rolls and maybe potato salad.

We might dig a feed of clams every couple of weeks in the summer, and there never seemed to be any fear of them being overfished. Then commercial fishers started working on our river using mechanical vacuums a couple of decades ago, a similar idea as my mother’s manual method except they could dig out an entire bed in a few minutes. The last time we tried digging clams would be over 10 years ago now, and there weren’t any left, just empty shells. It will probably take decades for them to return in the numbers that existed before the commercial harvest.

You can buy clams, but they never taste as good as my memory of them. It was the whole process: rowing to the digging spot, having a swim, hearing the neighbour’s cows or dog, watching the clouds passing overhead, waving at a neighbour in a dory coming home from fishing oysters, looking back at our house, the little waves lapping the shore, the birds, the sun. The tang of our river, deeply salty and briny, alive with eels and lobsters and crabs and fish. The feeling that this harvesting had been done forever and would go on forever.

Mom and I digging clams somewhere on Foxley River, 1969

99

Not many get to decorate a cake for a 99th birthday, but I was fortunate enough to do so for my mother’s birthday today. I made the buttermilk birthday cake from Nigella Lawson’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess as it is foolproof, deliciously moist, and works well with gluten free flour.

I’m definitely not the baker that my mother, Vivian, was and still is. She is known for many culinary treats: butterscotch pie, lemon meringue pie, coconut cream pie (any pie, really!), orange chiffon cake, fudge, and lately, cookies, because they are easily made and just as easily given away. Any estimate of how many items she has produced over eight decades of baking would probably never come close to the true number. And, as we were only three in our immediate family, the majority of her baking was given away to our huge extended family, friends and neighbours, and for bake sales. At least once a week during my childhood, my mother would be baking for some charitable event or other, making sandwiches and sweets for a meeting, having people over for supper.

My mother has never complained about having to cook a meal, ever, and that’s not an exaggeration. True, she hasn’t worked outside the home for many years, but even when she and my father owned a general store, where she worked just as hard as he did, she cooked a hot noon meal for the two or three clerks they had working with them, six days a week. Dining out has never been a big thing for my mother, probably because we just never had many restaurants close by, so she has cooked most of her meals, and she prepares generally healthy things, which is probably how she has reached 99 without diabetes or high cholesterol!

She has been an effortless cook, an enthusiastic hostess, and a generous lady, even today sending a relative off with some brownies made yesterday. She baked cookies for a children’s event at her church this week, and next week has offered to make cookies for our local environmental group’s day camp.

Always looking outwards, finding a purpose for every day, never idle, always grateful, day by day by day for 99 years. It all comes back to her on days like today, with a steady stream of visitors showing her so much love, joining in the magic of a long and impactful life.

A Dilly of a CSA Box

Today was our first veggie box pickup from Webb’s Vegetables at the O’Leary corner. My spring went a bit pear shaped and my vegetable garden suffered as a result, but Steven noticed on Facebook that Webb’s offer a 12-week vegetable box subscription and I jumped in for the first time.

We received a lovely early season selection of produce that makes many an Islander’s heart sing: new potatoes, yellow beans and carrots. I can report everything was delicious.

Just past Webb’s is probably my favourite ice cream destination in the world, the Dairy Royal. It’s not flashy, they don’t have food other than potato chips, and they only took cash up until last year. It is handy to the Mill River Golf Course, where I spent many hours as a child following my father as he played and then as a junior golfer myself. The Dairy Royal was often a stop on the way home from 18 holes, a strawberry milkshake for my father and an ice cream cone for me.

They make their own dilly bars, but couldn’t get the chocolate dip needed to make them last year, so I felt like I was six years old again as I walked up to the tall order window and asked if they had dillies this year. Yes, they had dillies, and soon I had one in my hand again, in it’s paper sleeve, a generous dollop of ice cream with a very nice curl. It was perfect. Steven had an ice cream sandwich, the server advising that the cookie was still a bit crispy as they had just made them yesterday.

So, the O’Leary corner is not just for the hockey player doughnut shop, at least in the summer – there are wonders to be found.

Secret Menu

I’m a fairly regular customer at Samuel’s Coffee House in Summerside, so felt bold enough last week to ask one of the staff if they ever considered adding cortados to their lineup. I fairly squealed with delight when she said they did make cortados, but it never made it onto their menu board, although they do have a button for it on their cash system. They don’t use little glasses like Receiver Coffee in Charlottetown, and I feel it’s a slightly bigger drink than Receivers, but it is completely delicious all the same. I’m not sure why I didn’t ask about it before, but the coffee drink you need will emerge when you are ready for it!

So now you know the secret, too, and are a Samuel’s insider. Tell them Thelma sent you.

Moroccan Harira Soup

My go-to soup for forever has been a spinach and chickpea soup from one of Bonnie Stern’s HeartSmart cookbooks. It is very simple and quick to make with pantry items. It is what I fall back on when I don’t know what else to make for lunch.

Jane Jeffes’ beautiful Moroccan harira soup could just knock the Stern soup out of first place, though. I made it today and it was delicious, simple and uses things I always have on hand (I don’t always have fresh cilantro, but almost always have parsley either fresh in the garden or in the freezer). Most soups and stews benefit from sitting for a day and letting all the flavours mingle, but this was super soup right off the bat. It should be unbelievable tomorrow. Sorry, chickpea and spinach, you had a good run, but we are all about the warming spices now!

Courgette My Love

Feeling a bit “squashed” by zucchini? Only two of my summer squash plants made it through the hens picking most of the garden to death, but, really, there have been plenty of zuccs to go around with only two plants!

Thankfully, The Guardian has a cornucopia of courgette recipes. Just made Nigel Slater’s recipe for sweetcorn cake (I didn’t read the part where it makes two cakes, so ended up with one, which was fine), and last week make this rather odd-sounding but completely delicious Creamy Courgette and Tarragon Cobbler. Both vegetarian and easily made vegan and gluten free.

A pro tip from my mother, who used to grow and freeze oodles of corn: cutting corn off a cob is a lousy and potentially dangerous job, so cook your corn on the cob, then pry the kernels off using a fork. They come off the cob easily as you run the fork along, and stay pretty much whole, so no waste. You also don’t slice your thumb off, which makes everything better. I also find steaming corn is better than boiling it, and that’s what I did for the sweetcorn cake recipe.

Hummus

Gentle readers, I regret to inform you that Felicity Cloake is correct in claiming that peeling chickpeas makes a nicer hummus. It seems like a silly job, but you could say the rosary or review the Four Noble Truths while doing it for an efficient and holistic win-win!

Smacking vegetables

Today’s culinary revelation is smacking vegetables, which is not a description of how delicious they are but rather how you give them a good bash before cutting them. This is to ensure that any dressing clings to the uneven surface created by said bashing rather than sliding off neatly sliced chunks. Meera Sodha led me to this epiphany via this vegan recipe for sesame noodles with smacked courgette, and this video dramatically illustrates the Chinese cucumber smack she references. Smashing!

Vegan Creole Rice

I subscribe to The Guardian because I deeply value their news reporting, but I also really love so many of their food writers and recipes!

This vegan Creole rice by Meera Sodha is delicious and pretty easy. I’ve made it a few times and it is so reliable. Last night we had it with some Mighty Mushroom Bites (oh, the plastic packaging, but so good and vegan!). Tonight I’ll take the leftovers in another directions and serve them with some of Ranald MacFarland’s sausages.

Recipe hack: use bottled roasted peppers if you can’t be bothered to char your own. If you don’t have the jasmine rice they prescribe, buy a little and try it. And now that you have jasmine rice, try a Kylie Kwong fried rice recipe.