The International Boundary between Canada and the United States has been closed since March 21. I put that phrase in capital letters because “International Boundary” is the official name for what most of us call “the border” or “the line,” as in, “I’m going across the line tomorrow.” For Canadians like my grandma, going “down south” is the same as going down the street to pick up groceries—because that’s usually what she’s doing. Hitting Fred Meyer on seniors discount day was a regular part of the shopping week for my grandparents. They’ve spent so much time across the line that they keep a bank account in the US.
I can’t see Washington state from my house, but I see it every time I walk down the hill, coming home from work. White Rock, BC, and Blaine, WA, share the Semiahmoo Bay, our sweeping shoreline of the Pacific Ocean. When the tide goes way out, one can walk across the rippled sand and accidentally cross the line. There are no markings in the water. There are few even on land.
The seventh month closure was most recently set to expire on October 21st. Extensions have become so commonplace that, four days later, I can find no news about the next deadline. (Entomologists just found the giant “murder” hornets in Blaine, so I’m happy to stay on my side of the line for a while longer.)
There’s a lot I’m missing. I didn’t get to hike across the border and take a trip on the Drayton Harbo(u)r water taxi. My mom and I haven’t been to Trader Joe’s since before last Christmas. Megan has a milestone birthday coming up in November, and any plans we might’ve made have been scuppered.
I miss American food. You might not think there’s much of a difference between Canadian and American food, but there is. You might think they import everything up north, but they don’t.
I miss biscuits and gravy from Diamond Jim’s in Bellingham. Half the reason to make a Trader Joe’s trip is to stop for breakfast first. No one makes biscuits and gravy like Americans, and there’s no place on this side of the border that makes it well. So I had to figure out how to make it myself.
Biscuits and gravy is a simple concept. It’s a béchamel sauce, with fried pork sausage added, seasoned usually with black pepper, poured over a butter and baking powder biscuit. It’s a meal made with odds and ends, if that’s all you have left.
Béchamel is one of the “mother” sauces of traditional European cooking. Fat and flour are cooked together, until the fat coats the flour, which encourages binding with the added liquid. (Add cheese, and now you have a mornay sauce!) I use butter, white flour, and milk when I’m making béchamel, but when I’m making sausage gravy, there’s a better fat. There’s the sausage fat.
Fry your sausage meat in a pan. I have an ancient cast iron I love. You want something wide and deep because you’ll want the space for mixing. I used a ground beef and pork when I made this recipe last because that’s what I found at my grocery store (the other ground sausage had seasonings I didn’t want or was in casings I didn’t want to fiddle with). When folks invented this recipe, they used the trimmed and discarded bits of pork, which included plenty of fat. Most pork sold today is extremely lean, and sausages, too. But we need the fat in this recipe, so add some oil or butter to your pan, if necessary.
Once the meat is cooked until no pink remains, add a heaping spoonful of flour. White all purpose is best. It soaks up the fat and disappears into the sauce, adding body, but not flavour. This is called a roux. Mix well at this stage, scraping the bottom and sides of the pan until no white remains. I know some cooks remove the meat and make the sauce separately, but I like one pot meals with as few dishes as possible (I don’t have a dishwasher—mechanical or personal.)
It’s time to add the liquid when the floor is cooked. A food safety reminder: flour is a raw product, as contrary as that seems. One more reason scientists ~really discourage you from eating raw cookie dough. Learn the difference between the smell of raw and cooked flour, and it’ll help you with your roux. Cooked flour smells, to me, like baking pastry or cookies, without the sugar.
Rarely do I buy ingredients especially for any one recipe, so the liquid I add to sausage gravy is whatever I have on hand. Once, I poured hot water into the recently emptied soy milk carton, shook it up, then used that for my sauce. Regular 1% milk is fine. Any plant-based milk works (though I find coconut milk to be overwhelmingly coconut-y.) Of course, 35% cream is wonderfully decadent. Even if you use milk, a splash of cream adds fatty flavour.
Turn the heat up, and stir while you pour. Don’t stop stirring. I like a stiff spatula to really scrape the pan and incorporate all the flavours from the very beginning of cooking. I will suggest you don’t add milk cold from the fridge during this step. At least bring it up to room temperature by gathering all your ingredients on the counter before cooking. Some cooks will heat the milk in a pan, but again—dishes.
Once your sauce looks thick, taste and add seasonings. Depending on your sausage and butter, you’ll need more or less salt. I like a lot of ground black pepper. Most Americans like something spicier, I think. It’s normal practice in many restaurants in the US to have hot sauce on the table with the ketchup—akin to many restaurants in Canada which have white and malt vinegar on the table. If you’re cooking for others, let them add their hot sauce later.
Our sausage gravy done, but we haven’t even started our biscuits. If you look at my photo above, you’ll see I ate that breakfast with toast: my own bread, sliced, fried in a pan with butter. Once I master biscuits the way I have toast, I’ll update this recipe. Until then, pour that gravy over whatever makes you happy.