Chef's childhood inspires Algonquin food with a modern twist

Growing up in the remote community of Red Lake, Que., learning to cook was often a matter of survival. Cezin Nottaway recalls that If she wanted to eat, she had to help out in the kitchen.
Cezin Nottaway is a trained Algonquin chef who gives traditional family recipes a modern twist. (Courtesy of Cezin Nottaway )

Learning to cook was often a matter of survival in the remote community of Red Lake, Que.

Cezin Nottaway recalls that if she wanted to eat when she was growing up, she had to help out in the kitchen.

"Here's some potatoes. Here's some carrots. Peel them," Nottaway recalls her grandmother telling her. "Here's some walleye. Filet it."

As a child, even the simplest tasks, like boiling water, required her to fetch both the water and wood needed to start a fire. From her time living in the bush, Nottaway picked up a few unusual skills, like being able to butcher moose, deer and even beaver.

They are skills Nottaway still draws from for her company Wawatay Catering, which specializes in serving traditional Algonquin recipes with a modern twist.

Her menus incorporate a lot of wild meat, but she prepares them using modern techniques. She trained as a chef at Algonquin College in Ottawa.

"I could easily serve it the way my grandma would service it, or I could turn it into something else," said Nottaway.

"My grandma's [recipe] is tea and onions, that's how she'd cook her meat."

Nottaway says cooking meat in tea gives it an earthy taste that's hard to describe.
Nottaway's daughter, Quill Cote, helps gather piigidosiig - rotten wood used to smoke meat, vegetables and even cheesecake. (Courtesy of Cezin Nottaway )

"It's just so homey, and it reminds me of my kookum's. It tastes like deliciousness," said Nottaway.

When smoking meat, Nottaway uses a family technique called piigidosiig  — which is a form of rotted wood.

"You make a fire, and you get the coals nice and hot, and you'd use this wet wood that you have just picked, and that's what you'd cover your red coals with," said Nottaway.

"With that you get this amazing smoke coming from this piigidosiig."

Nottaway has used this unique technique to smoke everything from meat to tomatoes and even cheesecake. While cheesecake isn't the most traditional Algonquin food, Nottaway is convinced that's how her ancestors would have made it. 

Cezin's Seared Moose Sirloin (2 lbs)
Cezin Nottaway's moose sirloin recipe is easy to follow. (Cezin Nottaway)

1. Pre-heat oven to 375 F.
2. On medium high heat, prep your cast iron pan with butter.
3. Season sirloin with sea salt and freshly cracked pepper.
4. Once your butter is brown, sear all sides of the sirloin.
5. Pop it in the oven for 10 - 15 minutes, depending on how well done you like your meat.
6. Deglaze with a splash of red wine and finish with 1 tbsp of butter and a dash of maple syrup.
7. Serve with sautéed mushrooms