Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Canadian Food Hero - Chef Mara Jernigan Inspires Homemade Pierogies with Wild Mushroom Cream Sauce - The Canadian Food Experience Project

I met chef and local food activist, Mara Jernigan, almost 10 years ago when the two of us appeared on a local morning television show. At the time, I had no idea  this random coming together of two people would result in a life changing passion for cooking; if anything, I just hoped I would get through the interview without stumbling on my words.

I was there to talk about crisis lines and the importance of finding safe places to reach out; which was about as far removed from the world of food and cooking as you could get - and certainly, if someone had told me then that ten year's later I would be writing about the experience as a turning point in my life, I never would have believed it.

I smile now as I remember being interviewed amidst the clatter of peeping baby ducks - brought to the show compliments of Chef Jernigan - who was there to introduce a place called Fairburn Farm in the Cowichan Valley.

After living in Europe and discovering local artisan fare and organic agriculture Chef Jernigan became so passionate about the provenance of food in the kitchen  that she could no longer work with mass produced industrial ingredients. This brought her to Fairburn Farm where she began producing her own food and educating others.


The Canadian Food Experience Project began on June 7, 2013. Participants have shared their collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences, we hope to bring global clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice and we hope that other Canadian cooks and bloggers will join us.

The theme for the Canadian Food Experience Project this month is: A Canadian Food Hero, which is why I am honoured to write about Chef Mara Jernigan.


While the smells of sizzling duck breast and sausage filled the air in the studio that morning, I remember feeling a little queasy as I made the connection between those peeping little baby ducks and the delicious homemade sausage our host, Bruce Williams, handed me to try.

Until then my meat had come from the supermarket, nicely packaged, often de-boned, stacked in my cart just so in double wrapped sanitary plastic bags - and now, here I was, eating something that had recently been alive amidst a dervish of ducks reminding me with every little peep, the reverence and gratitude I should be having for the things I was eating.

I'd like to tell you that this was the moment my life changed. That I became a conscientious convert to the local food movement then and there, but if I told you that I'd be a liar. The pivotal moment for me - as most pivotal moments happen - came as more of a whisper so that while it was occurring, I had no idea.

It happened when Bruce Williams offered me a piece of duck breast that had just come out of Mara Jernigan's saute pan. To be honest, with all that peeping going on, the last thing I wanted at 7 in the morning was more duck - but I am Canadian, after all, and was taught to always accept what is offered, so I politely took that duck breast, cut off a little piece, and gave it a try.

If I had a sound effect function on this blog right now, you would be hearing the heavens open up while a multitude of angels sang hallelujah.


Because the duck breast was that good. 

It was velvety, and juicy, and quite the revelation. Not only had I never eaten farm raised duck before, this was my first experience with food prepared by a world class chef and my hedonistic Taurean soul was lit on fire.

I remember going back to the office that day raving about the duck, committed to learning how to create that kind of magic in my own kitchen - but as life always seems to want to happen, it did, and in no time I was back to cooking my trade mark casseroles with boneless chicken breast meat, ground beef, and varying flavours of Campbell's Cream Soups until the duck was nothing but a distant memory.

And then about five years later a friend of mine asked if I'd be interested in taking a cooking class. There was this place called Fairburn Farm in the Cowichan Valley and the chef there was offering "Field to Table" classes. She couldn't remember the name of the chef, but something about Fairburn Farm was twigging my memory - could that be the same woman who cooked the duck?

On the off chance that it was, I signed up for the class and found myself on a Saturday morning in July in the garden at Fairburn Farm with Mara Jernigan.

 Everything was an inspiration - from the way she kept all of her baking ingredients easily accessible in a rustic pie safe, to the outdoor wood burning oven where we cooked fresh pizzas for lunch made with buffalo mozzarella from a local farm, basil, and tomatoes from the garden. We sat outdoors sipping cold crisp local cider, munching on pizza the way it was meant to be: simple, crispy, and made with the freshest ingredients.

In the afternoon, we were back in the kitchen making pie dough for the most remarkable quiches, fresh pasta, salsa cruda, and strawberry crostada.

Although I got the lattice crust a little messed up, this was my first effort at re-creating some of the magic I experienced at Fairburn Farm that day.

In the years since, I have put in my own back yard garden, fashioned a pie safe/baking cupboard for myself, learned how to can and preserve food, and somehow, inexplicably, have become a small part of the Canadian food landscape through recipe development, teaching, and blogging - all the while aspiring to the greatness I experienced that morning with one perfect bite of duck.

Mara Jernigan is currently living in Punta Gorda Belize where she is the culinary director and chef  at Belcampo Lodge. She returns to Canada a few times a year to teach, runs a cooking tour of Italy that is on my bucket list, and continues to teach and inspire wherever she goes. In 2010 she was voted the top food educator in Eat magazine's awards.

As a person who's life has been changed for the better because of the passionate beliefs, talent, and generosity of another person, I am proud to introduce Chef Mara Jernigan as my Canadian Food Hero and a dish I created as my offering this month:

Homemade Pierogies with Wild Mushroom Sauce

Our menu that day at Fairburn Farm featured vegetarian fare wrapped up in the most beautiful hand made doughs and pastas. Prior to meeting Mara, I never would have conceived of making my own pierogies and always just purchased them frozen from the grocery store.

But once you've had them hand made, with fluffy, onion and cheese infused potatoes stuffed inside, you will never go back.

Topped with my original recipe for velvety wild mushroom sauce, this is a dish you will come to again and again either as a starter, a side, or a main course with a beautiful tossed salad. 

Visit the printable recipe here: Pierogies with Wild Mushroom Cream Sauce

Please enjoy my easy to follow step by step video to learn how to make perogies yourself. 

Pierogie Ingredients
(pierogi dough and filling recipe adapted from original "Nana's Pierogies" at Just a Pinch)

  • 2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 large egg
  • 3/4 cup warm water
  • 2 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
Potato Filling
  • 1 1/2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 3 tsp butter
  • 1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 small diced yellow onion
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp each kosher salt and black pepper
  • 1/2 cup grated cheese (change the cheese depending on taste - I like Gruyere, or a 4 cheese Italian blend with this recipe)
Wild Mushroom Sauce Ingredients
  • 1 pkg dried wild mushrooms (about a half cup)
  • 1 tsp butter
  • 1/4 tsp each salt and pepper (or to taste)
  • 1 1/2 cups beef stock
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1/2 cup full fat sour cream
Directions - Dough
  1. Mix the flour and salt together in a large bowl.
  2. Make a well in the center and then add the egg, vegetable oil and warm water and stir until it all comes together. 
  3. Remove to a floured board and knead for about a minute - just until the dough is smooth. Divide it into two equal pieces, wrap each in plastic, and let rest for 30 minutes.
Directions - Filling
  1. Boil the potatoes until tender. While they're boiling saute the finely diced white onion in the butter and extra virgin olive oil. Add the garlic powder, salt and pepper stirring well and continue to saute until the onions begin to look soft and golden. 
  2. Drain the potatoes.
  3. Add the onion mixture along with a half cup of shredded cheese to the drained potatoes and mash everything together until its nice and smooth and fluffy.
Directions - Assembly
  1. Now its time to roll out the dough. Place one of the halves onto a floured surface and roll to a thickness of about a quarter of an inch. Cut out round disks using a tumbler and then roll out each individual disc before stuffing. 
  2. Place 1 tbsp of the potato mixture onto the disc and then roll over and fold. Seal the edges further by pressing down with the tines of a fork. These can be made ahead at this point and then refrigerated or frozen until ready to use.
Directions - Wild Mushroom Sauce
  1. In a medium saucepan over high heat bring the beef broth to the boil.
  2. Place the dried mushrooms into a bowl and pour the hot stock over top. Cover and let steep for 30 minutes.
  3. Remove the mushrooms and reserve the broth, chop them, and add them to a saute pan with a teaspoon of butter. Saute over medium high for about two minutes. 
  4. Add fresh thyme and pour the reserved beef and mushroom broth back into the pan. Bring to the boil and let reduce by about a quarter. 
  5. Remove the thyme, add the sour cream, and stir until you have a smooth velvety sauce. Add additional salt and pepper to taste. Set aside until ready to serve.
Cooking the Pierogies
  1. Pull out a large non-stick saute pan and prepare it with 1 Tbsp vegetable oil.
  2. Using a slotted spoon, immerse the pierogies in batches of six in a large pot of rapidly boiling water. Let boil until they begin to come to the top. 
  3. Heat the saute pan over medium high and then turn to medium.
  4. Transfer the pierogies using the slotted spoon one by one into the large non stick pan heated to medium. The water from the pierogies will make the pan sputter quite a bit. Just remove the pan from the heat momentarily when that happens and keep going. 
  5. Turn them every minute or so and continue to saute until both sides are golden. Remove the pierogies to a paper towel lined sheet pan and keep them warm in a 200 oven while you cook the next six. 
  6. Serve drizzled with the wild mushrooms and sauce.



Lyndsay Wells is a professional trainer, writer, and program developer with a passion for food and cooking. She is an award winning recipe developer, and a website ambassador for Kraft Foods Canada. Lyndsay believes cooking should be approachable and easy and has great tips and ideas for putting together sophisticated looking dishes that cooks of all levels can accomplish.

Visit her daily on her blog, The Kitchen Witch or on her YouTube Channel, CHARMED With The Kitchen Witch.

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  1. Finally! I am here and reading your story about Mara! I have been looking forward to this! She was also in Bon Appetit Mag as one of the 50 best cooking schools in the world.
    What a story. Hallelujah. Thank god for duck. It must have been duck confit. She is such a passionate and dynamic gal. I just missed being able to attend one of her week long cooking classes - and then she packed up and moved. You are fortunate to live there and see her when she comes home... I think she usually goes to Montreal to visit her son - but probably goes to the island, too.
    I had the incredible opportunity of working with her as she was also the President of Slow Food Canada for several years. To lose her to another country is about as close to a national disaster as could be, in my opinion.
    o sorry my response is so late. I usually read the articles much sooner, but am really behind. Have been away, and it is summer. I have been very eager to do this, however, as I get so inspired reading through all of the contributions. It is just such a pleasure. So glad you are a part of The Canadian Food Experience Project and this story is your story, too....

  2. I LOVE being part of the Canadian Food Experience Project and having the opportunity to share bits and pieces of my Canadian Food Life - which, as it turns out, has been an extraordinary journey so far - both mine, and the other Canadian bloggers participating. Thank you Valerie for taking the time to read our submissions. It means a lot to receive feedback from someone like you in the food world who we all respect and admire so much!