Spirit of the Harvest: Breakfast in Montreal's 'Chez Alanis'

May 12, 2010

Spirit of the Harvest: Breakfast in Montreal's 'Chez Alanis'

Alanis Obomsawin, documentary filmmaker and terrific cook

Renowned food author Beverly Cox, winner of the James Beard cookbook award, a Julia Child award and a IACP cookbook award, and food editor for Native Peoples Magazine, contributes a monthly column and weekly recipes to TankaBar.com. The Spirit of the Harvest columns are published the second Wednesday of every month. Recipes from Beverly run on intervening Wednesdays.

Dining 'Chez Alanis' is a coveted invitation

Alanis Obomsawin (Abenaki) is internationally acclaimed as a documentary filmmaker, singer-songwriter, storyteller, social activist, educator and printmaker. What is less well known is that she also is a terrific cook! I first met Alanis, whose family name Obomsawin means "pathfinder" in the Abenaki tongue, at a screening of First Nations films last June, during Montreal's First Peoples' Festival. She is a woman of great presence and charm, with the kind of inner beauty and charisma that will never fade.

When Alanis learned that I am interested in food, she invited me and about a dozen other new and old friends for an impromptu breakfast at her house. Though her father was a hunting guide and often brought home game for the table, even as a toddler Alanis flatly refused to eat meat. She is a creative and inspired vegetarian cook, and -- as I learned by talking with her Montreal-based guests, such as her longtime friend, costume designer Annie Alexander -- dining "Chez Alanis" is a coveted invitation.

Her three-story town house on a quiet street in Old Montreal is filled with her own prints and engravings, an eclectic collection of works by other artists, and wonderful examples of antique Quebec-style painted country furniture. As our lively group assembled at the long kitchen table, our hostess stood at the stove turning out delicate, golden-brown crepes. Filled with a puree of fragrant, sweet-tart summer berries, dusted lightly with powdered sugar and garnished with a sprinkling of whole berries, the crepes are elegant in their purity of taste and simplicity.

Breakfast began with an appetizer of muesli, fresh fruits and berries mixed with toasted nuts, rolled oats and honeyed yogurt. Next came the crepes, warm from the oven, served with cups of strong, hot coffee. For the carnivores present, there was even a platter of crisp bacon. The conversation bounced interchangeably between French and English, and discussions ran the gamut from art, film and philosophy to politics and travel. Alanis travels a great deal; recently she has been honored at the 2007 Santa Fe Film Festival, where she received a Luminaria Award for Lifetime Achievement, and has taught an Academy for Creative Media Master Class at the University of Hawaii. A prestigious retrospective of her films -- she has 35 to her credit -- is scheduled to begin on May 14 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (see page 18), and she is looking forward to the trip.

It was a wonderful morning -- stimulating, relaxed and jovial. The mood set by our hostess, combined with her great cooking, explains why so many people, including me, are drawn to the table of this remarkable woman.

Crepes with Fresh Berry Puree

Yield: Serves 6-8


1 cup all-purpose flour
1 3/4 cups milk
1/4 cup club soda
1 egg and 1 yolk
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon melted butter
2 to 3 tablespoons melted butter or vegetable oil to brush crepe pan

For the berry puree:
1 quart fresh or frozen raspberries or strawberries
Honey or sugar to taste

For garnish:
Powdered sugar
1 cup fresh whole raspberries, blackberries or blueberries, or whole or sliced strawberries
Sprigs of fresh mint

Either whirl all of the ingredients for about 1 minute, at top speed, in a blender, or place the flour in a mixing bowl and gradually whisk in the milk, club soda, eggs, salt and melted butter. Allow the batter to rest in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.

Place a 6- to 8-inch nonstick or well-seasoned iron crepe pan over medium heat. Brush bottom and sides lightly melted butter or oil. Tilt the hot pan toward you. Ladle a scant 1/4 cup of batter into the front of pan, then slowly tilt pan backward to evenly coat the bottom with batter. When tiny bubbles appear on the top, flip or turn the crepe with a spatula and cook for 20 to 30 seconds on the other side. If the first crepe seems too thick, beat an extra 1 to 2 tablespoons of club soda into the batter to thin it.

If making in them in advance, stack the crepes between layers of waxed paper or foil so they won't stick together. They may be made in advance and refrigerated or frozen.

To prepare the berry puree:

Place berries and honey in a blender and pulse on and off until pureed. If desired, press the berry mixture through a coarse strainer into a bowl and discard the seeds. Makes about 2 cups.

To assemble the crepes:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place a crepe with spotty side up on work surface. Spread a scant tablespoon of berry mixture over crepe, leaving a 1-inch border uncovered. Fold crepe in half, and then in half again to form a wedge shape. Arrange filled crepes in a shallow, buttered baking dish and cover loosely with aluminum foil. Place the dish in a preheated oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until hot. Sprinkle lightly with powdered sugar. Serve 2 to 3 crepes per person, and garnish with whole or sliced berries and sprigs of fresh mint.

Alanis' Favorite Muesli: Oats with Yogurt, Fruit, Nuts and Honey

Yield: Serves 6-8


1 quart plain yogurt
1 1/2 to 2 cups quick-cooking oatmeal (also called rolled oats)
1 orange, peeled and diced
1 cup diced fresh pineapple
1 apple, cored and diced
1 cup fresh strawberries, sliced
1 cup fresh blueberries
1 ripe but firm banana, peeled and diced
Honey or maple syrup to taste, optional
1/2 cup lightly toasted chopped pecans, hazelnuts or walnuts

In a large mixing bowl, combine yogurt and oats. Cover and allow to soak overnight in the refrigerator. Fold in the orange, pineapple, apple, berries and banana. Drizzle with honey or maple syrup to taste. To blend flavors, return the muesli to the refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours until ready to serve. Serve sprinkled with nuts.

Beverly Cox is the food editor of Native Peoples Magazine and a former food editor and director of food styling for Cook's Magazine. She holds a Grand Diplome from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and apprenticed with Gaston LeNotre.

Beverly has written 13 cookbooks, including Spirit of the Harvest, North American Indian Cooking, winner of the James Beard and IACP cookbook awards in 1992, and Spirit of the West, Cooking from Ranch House and Range, winner of a Julia Child award in 1997, and Spirit of the Earth, Native Cooking from Latin America, an IACP cookbook award finalist in 2002, all co-authored with food photographer Martin Jacobs. Their most recent book is Eating Cuban, 120 Authentic Recipes from the Streets of Havana to American Shores.

Beverly and her husband, Gordon Black, an architect turned rancher, live on the historic Eagle Rock Ranch in Northern Colorado where her great grandfather homesteaded in 1872. Beverly teaches hands-on cooking classes for small groups who want to combine cooking with the experience of visiting a working cattle ranch.

You can contact Beverly at BeverlyCox@TankaBar.com

For more information about Beverly's cookbooks featuring Native American recipes:

Body, Mind and Spirit: Native Cooking of the Americas

Spirit of the Harvest: North American Indian Cooking

Spirit of the Earth: Native Cooking from Latin America

For more information about Native Peoples Magazine: Native Peoples

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