Classics with a spin

Photographs by Ashley Fraser

Three Ottawa chefs take classic recipes on a creative new ride and come up with simple, springy dishes

Julia McNair Wright would be spinning in her grave if she knew.

A strident, teetotaller, anti-feminist, anti-Catholic wife of a clergyman who wrote boatloads of sentimental, melodramatic fiction, religious tracts and even books on botany in the 1800s, McNair Wright also penned the no-nonsense, definitively titled, Ladies’ Home Cook Book:
A Complete Cook Book and Manual of Household Duties.

And in it, she set forth — in no uncertain terms — just how to prepare a dish for your good man.

So when we asked three Ottawa chefs — Peter Collins (Black Dog Café), Jamie Stunt (Oz Café) and Marysol Foucault (Chez Edgar) — to re-imagine and make over three tired old spring recipes from the past, McNair Wright’s 1896 book is the first place Peter Collins looked.

“I went through my cookbooks and found my great-grandmother’s. My aunt had given to me, and honestly, I never opened it,” says Collins, who settled on making over McNair Wright’s recipe for seared pickerel with greens, fiddlehead aspic and wild rice pilaf.

“It was interesting to see how different cookbooks were back then. It was like a housekeeping book, with how to do proper loads of laundry and how to cook. The simplicity of everything to do with food preparation really struck me.”

Although Collins’ re-imagined recipes involve a bit more fiddling than McNair Wright would have strictly approved — if she approved of anything — Collins, Stunt and Foucault have all stuck to easy-to-make, flavourful basics that take advantage of the best spring has to offer. Wild garlic ramps, fiddleheads, lobster, new potatoes, spring onions and shallots feature in the dishes, which range from a simple potage choisy to a hearty, yet luxurious, warm lobster and potato salad.

Jamie Stunt played with a warm lobster and potato salad with spring vegetables

Jamie Stunt

Oz Café, Ottawa

Potato salad might be a summer side dish, but when warmed, dotted with chunks of fresh spring lobster and garnished with market vegetables, it becomes a spring call to warmer days.

“It makes me think of eating outside, spring and summer imagery of barbecues, cottages and picnics,” says Stunt. “For many, barbecue season starts before the snow melts off the deck. So it’s a warm potato salad that says you’re looking forward to spring and summer outside.”

Most of the steps can be done in advance, except for the potatoes, but Stunt recommends asking your fishmonger about cooking a lobster or researching an online tutorial if you’ve never done it before.

Warm potato and lobster salad with spring vegetables

Serves six as a side salad, 2-3 as a main course

  •  1 1/2  pounds (680 g) live lobster

For the potato salad:

  • 6 wild garlic bulbs
  • 1  1/2 tablespoons (22 mL) olive oil, divided
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 6 slices smoked bacon, sliced into 1-inch (2.5-cm) wide pieces
  • 2 pounds (900 g) Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled
  • 6 green onions, washed and chopped
  • 16 radishes, washed and sliced
  • 1/4 cup chives, washed and chopped
  • 1/2 cup parsley, washed and chopped

For the dressing:

  • Juice and zest of lemon
  • 1/2 teaspoon (2 mL) grainy mustard
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons (7.5 mL) white wine vinegar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons (7.5 mL) mayonnaise
  • 1 teaspoon (5 mL) paprika
  • Salt, pepper to taste

Cooking instruction:

  1. Whisk together all dressing ingredients and set aside.
  2. For the lobster, boil a large pot of water generously seasoned with salt. Add lobster, being careful to hold the tail down as you put it in the pot. Cook 11 minutes, then remove from water and allow to cool. Separate the tail, knuckles and claws from the carcass. Using lobster crackers or a knife, crack the shells and remove meat. Roughly chop it into chunks; set aside, refrigerated.
  3. For the potato salad, separate the wild garlic bulbs from the green tops and finely chop the green portion. In a small stainless steel bowl, combine the wild garlic bulbs,   tablespoon
    (7 mL) olive oil, salt and pepper, wrap with foil and bake in preheated oven at 375 F (190 C) 5 to 10 minutes for tender small bulbs, or up to 20 minutes for larger, later-harvest bulbs. Bulbs are ready when they’re soft and caramelized to golden.
  4. Cook bacon until crisp; then drain on paper towel.
  5. Cut potatoes into a 1/2-inch (12-mm) dice and  toss with the remaining olive oil, salt, pepper and bake 25 minutes, or until tender.
  6. Toss together lobster, warm potatoes, roasted wild garlic bulbs, crispy bacon, green onions, garlic greens, radishes, half the chives and parsley, and the dressing.
  7. Garnish with remaining herbs and serve.


Marysol Foucault came up with a lettuce soup with a variety of garnishes. Above left, with crispy bacon, buttered croutons and parmesan and above right, with fresh sweet radishes.

Marysol Foucault

Owner and chef at Chez Edgar, Gatineau

Considered a classic of the simplest French cuisine, potage choisy is sometimes known by its blander English name, lettuce soup. And while the dish can indeed be very colourful, if neutrally flavoured, the modern addition of roasted celery root, fennel and crunchy toppings like buttery croutons, blanched spring peas, sliced radishes or roasted fiddleheads elevates it from the country kitchen to sublime elegance.

“It was one of my favourite soups,” says Foucault. “I originally did it at Edgar and it was not initially a hit. I had to convince people to have it and change it around. I love it on its own, but with the toppings, it just all comes together,” she says.

By using fennel and potatoes and roasting the garlic, the flavour becomes even smoother. Foucault also recommends varying your lettuce choices — try pungent arugula, compact butter lettuce or mesclun, all of which are amongst the earliest spring greens available. To finish, strain the soup for a more consistent look and add a dollop of cream for a richer taste.

Nouvelle potage choisy with spring-fresh garnishes

Serves four

  • 1 fennel bulb, medium dice
  • 1 large potato or 4 fingerling potatoes, medium dice
  • Olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon (15 mL) butter
  • 1 onion, medium dice
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 4 cups (1 L) chicken stock
  • 2 heads romaine lettuce, washed and sliced
  • Salt, pepper to taste

Chez Edgar calendars for sale at the little Gatineau bistro

To garnish (choose one selection):

  • Crispy bacon pieces, buttered croutons, shaved
  • Grilled prosciutto and hard-cooked sliced quail egg
  • Blanched fresh peas
  • Sliced fresh sweet radishes (sliced on a mandolin)
  • Sautéed mushrooms, asparagus tips or fiddleheads

Cooking instruction:

  1. Brush fennel and potato with olive oil. Bake at 375 F (190 C) until vegetables are tender (about 20 minutes).
  2.  In a stockpot, melt butter and sauté onion until translucent but not browned. Add minced garlic and cook a few more minutes, stirring so it doesn’t brown. Add fennel, potato, and chicken stock. Simmer lightly until all the vegetables are thoroughly cooked.
  3. Add lettuce and, once it is wilted, purée the soup with a hand blender or in batches in a food processor.
  4. Season to taste (may add cream for a richer soup), then garnish.


Peter Collins turned to Julia McNair Wright’s Ladies Home Cook Book: A Complete Cook Book and Manual of Household Duties (it was his great-grandmother’s). He chose her seared pickerel recipe and added his own spin

Peter Collins

Black Dog Café, Manotick

The simplicity and accessibility of local, fresh spring ingredients were the main attraction for Collins in remaking McNair Wright’s dishes.
A “huge fan” of sourcing ingredients locally for his restaurant, Collins says that “technically, if you were stranded at a cottage, you could make most of this by foraging in the spring forest.”

Based on the subtle, delicate flavour of the pan-seared pickerel, the main dish is elevated by the greens, which are slightly “mellowed out because I hit it with some white wine and butter.” If pickerel isn’t your favourite, substitute with mackerel, halibut or any other fresh white fish.

Seared pickerel with greens and sautéed chanterelles and fiddlehead aspic with sautéed asparagus

Serves four

For the braised greens:

  • 1 tablespoon (15 mL) olive oil
  • 1 bunch Swiss chard, or 2 bunches mustard greens, chopped
  • 2 shallots, minced
  • 8 or 9 chanterelle mushrooms, chopped coarsely
  • 1/2 cup (125 mL) fish stock
  • 1 teaspoon (5 mL) lemon juice
  • 1/2 tablespoon (7 mL) honey
  • 1/2  tablespoon (7 mL) Dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons (25 mL) white wine
  • 1 teaspoon (5 mL) butter

For the wild rice pilaf:

  • 1/4 cup (50 mL) butter
  • 1 cup (250 mL) wild rice
  • 1/2 cup (125 mL) shallots, sliced
  • 3/4 cup (175 mL) celery, chopped
  • 1/2 cup (125 mL) carrots, chopped
  • 3 cups (750 mL) fish stock
  • Salt, pepper to taste

For the fiddlehead aspic:

  • 1 pound (450 g) fiddleheads, rinsed, brown chaff removed and ends trimmed
  • 2 tablespoons (25 mL) butter
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 4 or 5 bulbs wild garlic (reserve green ramps, chopped, for garnish if desired), or 2 cloves regular garlic
  • 2 teaspoons (10 mL) agar agar (at health food stores)
  • Pepper, to taste
  • 8 to 10 asparagus tips, cut in 3-inch (7.5-cm) lengths, or use reserved ramps from wild garlic

For the fish:

  • 2 to 3 boneless pickerel fillets, 24 oz (625 g) total weight

Flour, for dredging

  • 1 1/2  teaspoons (7 mL) butter

Cooking instruction:

  1. For the braised greens: In a large saucepan on medium heat, heat olive oil and sautée chard, shallots, mushrooms for 5 minutes. Add fish stock, lemon, honey and Dijon. Simmer and reduce by half. Add white wine, butter, and stir in.
  2. For the rice: In a saucepan, melt butter, sauté rice, shallots, celery and carrots until partly cooked. Add fish stock and gently simmer, covered, 45 minutes.
  3. For the fiddleheads: Cut into small pieces and pan-fry in butter with shallots, garlic until tender, then purée mixture in a food processor until smooth. Transfer to a saucepan, add agar agar and simmer 3 minutes. Add 1 cup (250 mL) water, pepper and pour into ramekins. Set aside to chill in the refrigerator.
  4. Before serving, remove ramekins from fridge to return to room temperature. Garnish with sautéed asparagus tips or wild garlic ramps.
  5. To prepare fish, dredge fillets in flour to coat. Melt butter in pan and gently fry, flipping half-way through.
  6. Serve with braised greens, fiddlehead aspic and rice pilaf.

Connect with Julie Beun |