Feast like a Canadian: 5 lightened-up favorites for Canada Day


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On July 1, our neighbors to the north will celebrate Canada’s 146th birthday, the momentous day when three colonies were united into a single country. That country that so generously gave the world Ryan Gosling, Tim Hortons — founded by an NHL player, by the way — and the International Space Station’s robotic Canadarm deserves a proper tribute on its national holiday.


Here are five Canadian culinary classics*, demystified and recreated in healthier forms, so you can feast with appropriate enthusiasm without having to let out your belt a notch. (And sorry, I regret to inform you that Canadian bacon isn’t actually Canadian.)

*Disclaimer: I am not a Canadian; I’m only married to one. Also, the Americanized version of our unpronounceable Irish name is “hockey,” so that’s got to count for something when it comes to all things Canadian, right? Anyway, I don’t want to incur the wrath of patriotic Canadians, so please know that these are creative — and healthier — reinterpretations of the real deal.


1. Nanaimo bars

This quintessentially Canadian treat that hails from the city of Nanaimo (pronounced “Na-NYE-mo”) in British Columbia is a triple-threat of deliciousness. The bottom layer of this no-bake cookie bar combines chocolate, nuts, coconut and graham cracker. It’s then topped by a creamy custard layer and, for the grand finale, a finishing layer of melted chocolate. But unless you need to develop an insulating layer of blubber to survive the brutal winters of the Nunavut territory, chowing down on Nanaimo bars year-round isn’t recommended.

A personal trainer who has some pretty major Nanaimo bar street cred — she lives outside of Nanaimo and boasts a seven-generation family heritage in B.C. — developed a kid-approved, healthier Nanaimo bar recipe on her website Wholesome Fitness.

The lightened-up version dramatically reduces processed sugar contents (some recipes call for as much as 6 cups of sugar for the custardy middle alone!) by opting for natural sweeteners like honey, stevia and mashed baked yam. Subbing extra dark chocolate for the traditionally used semisweet or milk chocolate, and coconut oil for loads of butter and heavy cream further sweetens the appeal of this healthier alternative.

For a traditional recipe, check out this one from baking blog Butter Me Up Brooklyn.


2. Poutine

Poutine (“pu-TEEN”) is to the Quebecois what disco fries are to Americans — or chili-cheese fries, if you’re more the Southern type. French fries, brown gravy and fresh cheese curds combine to create an iconic and indulgent French-Canadian snack. The resulting dish might not look the most appetizing — you might remember the “Modern Family” character Jay’s grumpy quip, “Well, it looks like vomit, and I’m not poutine it in my mouth!” — but how can you go wrong with fries covered in grease and fat?

OK, OK, so your arteries might not thank you so much. Fortunately, this heart attack on a plate can be easily reduced in fat by using oven-baked fries. Eating Well offers a recipe that opts for extra-sharp cheese for a curd-like kick and finishes off the poutine with a grease-free gravy brimming with fresh mushrooms. 

Cooking blog Coffee & Quinoa takes the whole thing another step in the healthy direction by whipping up a vegan poutine that incorporates roasted carrots, parsnip and cauliflower drizzled in a veggie stock-based gravy.

But if you really want to chow down on the classic, Food.com will tell you how to make a no-nonsense “real” Canadian poutine.


3. BeaverTails

Ottawa, Canada’s capital, is home to the largest skating rink in the world, the Rideau Canal Skateway, a whole 7.9 kilometers long — that’s 4.8 miles to us metric-system-incompetent Americans. Along the way are plenty of rest stops, cozy ice-side fires and belly-warming treats, including the popular BeaverTails pastry.

BeaverTails are a fried pastry, hand-shaped to look like a beaver’s tail and served piping hot with a variety of toppings, such as cinnamon sugar, maple butter and chocolate hazelnut spread. So yeah, a dessert you kind of have to earn from all that ice-skating. Although wildly popular in Canada from the Ottawa-based BeaverTail bakery chain, did you know that more than 1,000 “ObamaTails” were served at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration? The cross-border pastries were created by BeaverTails for the Canadian Embassy and featured a chocolate-maple syrup “O” on a cinnamon-sugar pastry. 

Canadian-based healthy cooking website Inspired Edibles slaved away to create an equally tasty, better-for-you version of BeaverTails. The reduced-fat recipe is oven-baked instead of fried, and uses olive oil, whole-wheat flour and coarse grain sugar to minimize overly processed, refined ingredients. Suggested healthy toppings for the cinnamon-coated pastry include nuts, seeds and freshly squeezed lemon.

For the more authentic, deep-fried version, check out this recipe from My Square Frying Pan.


4. Butter tarts

What is perhaps even more definitively Canadian than, say, buying milk in a bag? Americans, meet the butter tart, a flakey pastry filled with a delectable mixture of butter, sugar, syrup and egg, baked until partially solidified and crunchy on top. They are kind of like miniature pecan pies — or treacle tarts, for our friends across the pond. 

Canadian butter tarts find their roots way back in the 17th century when the filles de marier — i.e., girls of marriageable age — arrived in New France and had to whip up something mouthwatering from their new staples: maple syrup, farm-fresh butter and raisins.

Finding a “healthy” butter tart recipe might seem about as likely as finding a unicorn wandering through Banff National Park, but holistic nutrition blog My New Roots, run by a Canadian, has done just that. Her version significantly reduces the use of artificial sweeteners, opting instead for naturally sweetening barley malt and brown rice syrup. She also incorporates coconut oil, brown rice syrup and rolled oats, so you don’t have to feel too guilty when you reach for seconds.

Kevin Lynch’s Toronto-based cooking blog, Closet Cooking, offers a traditional butter tart recipe — adapted from the way his grandmother would make them for the holidays — made even more Canadian with the welcome addition of maple syrup.


5. Maple syrup

Speaking of which, a list of distinctly Canadian foods would not be complete without the trademark sticky condiment. I mean, there’s a maple leaf on the country’s flag! And the global strategic maple syrup reserve, which holds an astounding 46 million pounds of the stuff, is a real thing! 

As Buddy the Elf will tell you, maple syrup is a food group all on its own and fortunately can be incorporated into all kinds of healthful dishes. Also, my Canadian in-laws would like you to know that it is properly pronounced “SEER-up,” not “sir-rup.”

The Vintage Mixer dishes on how to make a pumpkin maple granola using only unprocessed ingredients to help start your day off right. The granola recipe uses pumpkin puree, dried cherries and, of course, maple syrup to satisfy your sweet tooth, plus plenty of oats, pecans, pepitas, chia seeds and coconut for more wholesome goodness.

If you’re feeling indulgent, Canadian blogger Chasing Tomatoes offers a recipe for maple cookies festively shaped like maple leaves.

And I shouldn’t have to say this, but make sure you use real maple syrup for these recipes. Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth’s artificially flavored syrups are not invited to this party.

So, Happy Canada Day/Joyeuse Fête du Canada, and happy eating! Who knows? Maybe you’ll learn that cravings for Canadian food really do exist.