Thursday, December 31, 2009

Blue Moon

The stars have aligned to ring in the New Year with a bang. If the skies are clear in your area, take a peak at the night sky tonight, because there will be a Blue Moon.

It won't actually be blue, that's just the name astronomers give to the second full moon in a given month. It only occurs once every couple of years, and it's been some ten years since we last had a full moon on a New Year's Eve.

So here's to wishing you all a happy new year. May it be filled with love, joy and health. May you enjoy the good company of friends and family. May you have wondrous adventures, and beautiful discoveries. And most of all, may you eat many a good thing!

I hope you will join me again in 2010, as I seek out more seasonal goodies for you to enjoy.

Bonne Année et bon appétit à tous!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

I need lessons in food photography!

I tried to make this dish look good... but I don't think I was quite successful. It was, however, very tasty, and were it not so filling I would have eaten all eight endives in one sitting! 

Gratin d'Endive is often served as a meal in France, and little else is needed to complete it. Some crusty bread, and perhaps a green salad. You will need: 

2-3 braised endives, leftovers if you have them (if not, prep endives as per braising, and boil them in a pot of salted water), per person
1 slice ham per endive, optional (any ham will do, leftover roast is great, but prosciutto is nice too)

125mL/ 1 cup béchamel sauce per person (recipe follows)
grated cheese, optional (swiss cheese is typical, but mozzarella is an acceptable stand in)

Wrap each endive with a slice of ham, if using.
Place in a buttered dish, smother with béchamel. Sprinkle with cheese if using.
Bake in 350'F/180'C oven until hot and bubbly, and the cheese is golden brown -about 30 minutes.
Makes great leftovers, though I am doubtful there will be any. 

Béchamel (plain ol' white sauce)
4 Tbs/ 60g butter
½ cup/ 60g flour
2 cups/ 500mL milk
salt and pepper

Melt butter over medium heat. When completely melted, stir flour. Grate nutmeg over the pot (or add a small pinch of the grated stuff).

Continue stirring until white foam subsides.
Slowly add milk while whisking vigorously to prevent lumps from forming.
Continue whisking until the sauce starts to bubble. Whisk for another 2 minutes.
Yields about 3 cups/750mL of béchamel. 
Can be used for all sorts of things, including a delicious spinach lasagna.

From the Department of Gadgets You Never Knew You Needed:

The Flat Whisk
Being used to making large quantities of béchamel, I was never really bothered with burnt bits in the pot corners, until I discovered the flat whisk!
I don't usually burn my white sauce at home because cooking at dinner is usually a leisurely affair, but I find this whisk extremely useful for getting into the corners of a pot, making all sorts of sauce-making, sifting dry ingredients and mixing small batches of cake batter a real cinch (my balloon whisk has soooo many tines that it is often a hassle to clean!)
Flat whisks come in all shapes and sizes, but this shape is becoming increasingly common. The original flat whisk looks a little like the tungsten coil in an incandescent bulb. Either way, a very handy gadget.

Bon app'! 

Monday, December 28, 2009

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble

I think my new favourite way to cook is braising.. It is so simple and worry-free that even a super-busy-kitchen-inept-overworked-type person can manage to dish out a lovely meal of braised vegetables and meat. It is also very well suited to the current season, as there are few things more warming to the cockles  than braised foods.

Put simply, braising consists in cooking foods in a bit of liquid for a certain length of time. Meats will usually take a couple of hours, going up to 4 for a proper bœuf bourguignon, but you can braise leftovers in under an hour (braised turkey, anyone?), resulting in moist and fork tender meals. Vegetables are another quick option, taking about 45 minutes if chopped into small-ish bits.

The absolute top of the line equipment for braising would be the Crock-Pot, however it is not a necessity: if you have an oven-proof, lidded pot, a dutch oven, or just a plain old Pyrex dish and a roll of foil, you are set to go!

As I write, I am braising a 9" square pan full of endives. There will be leftovers, and tomorrow, or sometime later in the week, they will be turned into a gratin... I can't wait, my stomach is grumbling at the thought of it!!!

Endives, also known as Belgian endives, witloof or chicory, are a true winter vegetable. With its bleached-out, anaemic look, how can it not be? It is a somewhat labour-intensive crop, which explains why it is not the cheapest of winter crops. The pale spears are actually immature chicory buds forced to grow in the dark, hence the vampirical paleness. Yet despite its washed-out looks, it is surprisingly nutritious, not a complete waste of a chew... unlike some other leafy vegetables who shall remain nameless...

Forcing endives require no particular equipment whatsoever, besides a cool, dark room. With some basic knowledge, anyone can grow endives, and most growers and gardeners prefer autumn and winter to venture into production. Therefore, chances are you can find locally produced endives at a nearby farmers' market or greengrocer -supermarkets tend to stock imports (from Belgium no less!!!).

When purchasing witloof, try to look out for tightly shut, yellow-white spears; green leaves will be more bitter, and any loose heads will not keep very long. Once at home, keep your endives in the crisper drawer, and if you intend to keep them more than three days, wrap them in a tea towel to keep them in the 'dark'.

Endives make a delightfully bitter salad, though they are nowhere near as harsh as chicory salads (they're the same plant, but chicory grows in the light, and has had time to build up its bitterness.) A classic endive salad calls for walnuts, pears and blue cheese (any blue will do: Roquefort, Gorgonzola, Stilton or even Torta di Mascarpone). Incidentally, all these ingredients are usually associated with winter: a hunk of Stilton with a glass of Port by a blazing fire... very Christmas in an English country house.   

You can keep the blue cheese out if it is not to your liking or not in your budget, but whatever you do, do not use bottled blue cheese dressing: unless you can prove otherwise, I remain convinced that those blue cheese vinaigrettes are the most vile things ever! A regular wine vinegar dressing (1 part red or white wine vinegar to 3 parts neutral oil, salt and pepper to taste) atop crumbled blue cheese is ideal, but if you feel the need to camouflage the cheese, here is an easy recipe.

Simple Blue Cheese Dressing
100g (± 3 Tbs) blue cheese of your liking
125mL (1 cup) buttermilk, or thinned out yoghurt, or water with a dash of vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

Mash all the ingredients together with a fork, a whisk or in a blender.
Keeps in the refrigerator for about 3 days.
Serves 4-6

Back to my braised endives: for a vegetarian, they are a meal in and of themselves, with some thick sliced bread and a hunk of cheese. But they also make a nice side dish for any meat. You can serve as is, straight from the oven, or you can go all fancy and caramelize the endives in some butter and sugar.

Braised Endives
2 large endives per person
salt and pepper
1 orange, or a small glass of orange juice

If you intend to use leftovers in a gratin, leave endives whole, otherwise cut in half. Either way, trim off the brown end of the spears. If you have a deep-seated aversion to bitterness, use the tip of a sharp knife to remove just enough of the core for the endive not to fall apart.

Generously butter your baking dish or dutch oven. Place endives (cut side down) in a single layer, season with salt and pepper.
If you are using the orange, remove zest with a peeler/zester/grater, and add to dish. Juice the orange and add to endives -you only need a bit (about 1 cm/ ½")
Cover with a piece of foil or lid.
Pop into a 350'F/180'C oven for 15minutes.
Remove foil, and return to the oven for another 5-8 minutes to reduce the juices down to a thick syrup.
Serve and eat. 

Speaking of oranges. Even though global warming has not yet advanced to the point of rendering citrus fruit a regular crop in Canada, it is the season for oranges and clementines in the Northern hemisphere. And so far, the harvest has been a nice one, what with good sized fruits and lots of sweetness. While everyone is familiar with navel oranges from California and Florida, a little less familiar is the Minneola orange. This orange is about the size of a navelina, with a teat on the stem side instead of a bellybutton on the blossom end. Minneolas are delicious: juicy and extremely sweet, they taste a little like tangerines, and are, in fact, a cross between a grapefruit and a tangerine. Their peel is much thinner than that of an orange, without being quite thin enough to peel without a knife. A lovely alternative to oranges.

Well, my oven is calling my stomach, so I am off!

Bon app'!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!

There simply is no rest for the weary... Work today and tomorrow, so do not feel Christmas-y at the mo'... But need to eat, so have thought up a nice dish to nibble on.

Inspired by a nice photo in the January 2010(!) issue of Martha Stewart, I made braised red cabbage a couple of days ago. Although I have no qualms about eating leftovers as is, it just does not feel quite like a Christmas Eve thing to do, so I dressed up my cabbage with a lovely risotto. Like so:
It was delicious, and quite in the tone.

Granted risotto rice is not a local staple... If you are gung ho about your food miles but are craving a risotto-like grain, try barley. Although hulled or pot barley is higher in fibre and nutrients, pearl barley makes a softer and starchier risotto, it is also more readily available in regular supermarkets.

You can follow Martha's recipe for braised red cabbage with caramelised onions, but I was rushed and starving when I made mine, and have come up with an easier recipe.

Braised Red Cabbage, Onions, Rutabaga and Ice Cider

¼ medium red cabbage per person, halved
½ medium red onion per person, quartered
½ small rutabaga per person, cut into 1cm (½") wedges
salt and pepper
Ice cider, regular cider, cider vinegar, or any liquid you want (water; your favorite local beer; homemade white wine...)
crisp bacon or smoked coconut
to garnish

Generously butter an oven-proof dish large enough to contain all the vegetables.
Throw in your prepared vegetables, trying to keep them in a single layer. Season with salt and pepper (you can use smoked salt if you have it).
Slosh generously with cider (at least 1cm/½" deep).
Cover with foil and pop into a 180'C/350'F oven. Bake for 45 minutes.
Remove cover from the vegetables, and return to the oven. Leave to braise for another 15 to 20 minutes, or until the cider has reduced to a thick, pink syrup.
Serve with the crispy bacon or smoked coconut, if desired, atop local-flavoured risotto.

Risotto (serves 2)

2 Tbs butter
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 splash ice cider, or wine, or beer, or whatever
200g Vialone Nano rice, or Arborio rice, or short grain brown rice, or pearl barley
±750mL (3cups) water, vegetable or chicken stock
50g (± ¼cup) finely grated sharp cheddar, or your favourite local, hard cheese

In a pan, melt butter and add onions on medium heat.
Cook off onions until translucent and fully cooked, but not coloured.
Add rice or whichever grain you choose to use, toast grains for about 5 minutes (if you are using rice, you will notice the grains turn see-through).
Splash in the cider -this liquid is strictly for flavour purposes, if you avoid alcohol, you do not need to forgo risotto, you can use raw apple juice or just water.
Cook off cider until evaporated, add enough water to just cover the grains, and stir, stir, stir!
The secret to a proper risotto is vigorous stirring: it extracts the starches from the rice whilst separating each individual grain.Keep adding water, and occasionally taste a couple of grains to check doneness. Although risotto is supposed to be 'al dente', it should not crunch: the grains -whether rice or barley- should be firm but not gunk up your teeth.
When the rice is done to your taste, stop adding water. Cook off whatever liquid is left until the risotto is as thick as ketchup.
Add water if the risotto is too thick.
Throw in cheese, stir until completely melted.
Serve. The plated risotto should spread out a little, although some prefer a thicker, firmer dish.

A heart warming dish for a cold, cold evening.

Bon app'!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Like chilly, will travel

A word to the wise: if you want to keep your root veg over the winter, an unheated guest bedroom is not cold enough!

I still have some vegetables left over from my All Hallows harvest. They were fine in the garden shed, but the frigid weather hit. So I brought them in from the cold.

Unfortunately, it isn't cold enough in my apartment, and being a city girl, I do not have a root cellar... As you can see, my celeriac has sprouted in its valiant efforts to come back from the dead. And the 'neeps are shooting up too...

So, unless your fridge is a tight squeeze like mine, keep your roots in the vegetable drawer. Or build a root cellar. Or keep your guest bedroom as near to freezing as possible...

Or spend the next week making soup for the holidays!

Bon app'!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

'Cause Baby it's cold outside...

Ooooh baby, it is cold out there! I just walked out to feed the birds, and my toes are chilly!

Both of my cats are sleeping near a baseboard heater, wondering when I'll be slipping back in bed to keep warm.

Oh, but this perfectly clear, crisp December morning can only inspire another gift idea!


There is nothing like the gift of soup... It can be interpreted all sorts of way, from spending a day helping out at a soup kitchen, to making soup for a meals on wheels association. Or closer to home: if your circle of friends contains people in their 30s, then you probably know a few people who have very young children, perhaps even newborns. Well, there is nothing a new parent loves more than the gift of homemade food!

Forget about getting stuff for the baby (but who can resist? Baby things are so cute!!!), the child probably already had a whole boatload of stuff from the baby shower. No, think about the tired, overwrought parents who want nothing more than a proper sit-down to a nice home cooked meal.

Short of actually going over to your friends' home to cook in their kitchen, you can give them jars of homemade soup. Like this lovely winter squash soup.

It's easy to make. Easy peasy. You can either roast some squash (I usually have some ready to use in the freezer) or just peel and sauté raw squash. Either way, start with a bit of butter, some chopped onions and garlic. You can add whichever spices or herbs you like, tasty combinations are: sage (a classic Italian); thyme and extra garlic; smoked Spanish paprika; cumin and mustard seeds (my current fetish flavour mix); or combination of the above.

You can also add a chopped carrot, a bit of leek and some celery. These extra vegetables are not necessary, but they will contribute to rounding off the flavours. If you are used to using bouillon cubes or ready-made broths to add some oomph to your soups, try this holy trinity of soup making (onions/leeks, carrots, and celery), and you may forget about store-bought flavour boosters.

Throw in your squash (pre-roasted or not), and stir the whole thing up. When the onions begin to turn translucent, add water to cover. Put a lid on your pot, turn the heat down to medium-low and go read a book, or whatever you want. When the squash is nice and tender (15-20 minutes), take off the stove, and blitz. Check the seasoning, add some milk or cream if you want. And eat a bowlful! You deserve it. I added some smoked coconut as garnish.

Now for packaging your gift... You may have some pretty jars hanging around your kitchen cupboards, or in your recycling box, those used for ready-made pasta sauce are perfect (they contain two adult portions of main course soup!). Make sure the jars are clean and the tops aren't dented. Pour hot soup in the jar, tightly close the lid, and leave to cool down fully before keeping in the fridge.

The lid won't form a tight enough seal for the soup to keep at room temperature, but it will keep in the fridge for at least a month. Otherwise, it'll keep indefinitely in the freezer.

And you've got yourself a great gift for new parents or a friend who is at a loss in the kitchen!

Bon app'!

Well, well, well....

Soy Beans 2
Originally uploaded by La Banane Jaune
One early morning, my clock-radio turned on to announce it was time to get ready for work. So I was only half-awake when news of a new genetically modified crop was soon to be made available (foisted on?) to an unknowing public... Which is why I am only now writing about it.

It has been widely publicised that omega-3 and -6 fatty acids are great for our health, and the best sources for these fatty acids are oily fish. However, it is a well-known fact that fish, at least the ones most popular, are over-fished. Most large fish, those everyone is familiar with, are on the brink of extinction, and all fish stocks are predicted to collapse by 2048.

Fear not! Monsanto is coming to the rescue! The kind folks at Monsanto have once again selflessly thought to create a new Franken-crop to pull us mere mortals out of our dire situation! So those of you who have been feeling guilty about eating wild salmon, and you folks who do not like fish, you have yet another option for getting your omega-3s!!! It's Monsanto's new GMO soy with added omega-3s!!!!

Bully for you.

The thing is, why would you want to eat yet another GMO soy, and further poison your body with yet another crop that has not been thoroughly tested?

While it is true that (endangered) fatty fishes are the best and easiest sources for omega fatty acids, there are other ways to boost your diet. Regular ol' soybeans already contain omega fatty acids. Although regular soybeans do not contain DHA or EPA, those acids currently most talked about, they are a natural source of omega-3s and -6s. Not some Franken-crop.

Flax seeds are also high in omega-3s and -6s. Despite being a somewhat difficult source for humans, a diet rich in whole grain breads containing flax seeds will contribute to you body's intake of omega-3s. Vegans get extra benefits from using flax-based egg substitutes. Furthermore, chickens fed with flax seeds will produce eggs with a higher than normal omega-3 content. But if you really want super-charged eggs, go for those from pastured chickens.

A growing number of studies have shown that free-range chickens that are genuinely left free to roam amongst the grasses and bugs produce eggs and meat that are higher in omega-3 fatty acids. The same goes for cows: grass-fed cows produce milk and meat with a significant omega fatty acid content.

Yet another reason why you should be seeking out a proper butcher if you intend to go on eating meat.

Granted, grass-fed or pastured meats are more expensive than conventional meats, but you can always reduce your overall consumption of meat. And you would be benefiting more than just your own health: you will be supporting a butcher who is worth his mettle, and he (or she) who truly is a good butcher will introduce you to thus far unknown cuts of meat that are less of a strain on your wallet but packed with flavour. Moreover you will likely be spending your hard earned cash on meat produced locally by a hard-working farmer.

Fish in moderation, with an emphasis on sustainably caught and seasonal, is currently the only way to go. Unless you intend to start a massive letter writing campaign to your local fisheries' ministry, your best bet is to carry around a sustainable fish list around with you and make your voice heard with the money you spend. By the way, 'I don't know' is not a good enough excuse: if the person at the fish counter does not know where the fish is from, go look elsewhere.

Or go vegetarian. At least a couple of days a week.

But whatever you do, eat a large variety of foods, do not give in to fads, do not fall for miracle foods -they don't exist- and try to eat as much 'real' food as possible.

Bon app'!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Another gift for a good cause

I've just noticed a link on a friend's facebook page.

Say what you will about the dinosaur that is the UN, it still provides necessary aid to very needy people. EAT magazine is participating in a raffle to raise funds for the World Food Program. The prizes sound pretty tasty, and the money goes to a worthy cause. And you get a snazzy present to give to your favourite foodie to boot!

An apple a day...

It may be December, and the snow may well be covering every inch of sidewalk out there, but it doesn't mean that you can't get your frigid hands on local produce. Yes folks, apples are the local fruit of choice at this time of the year -unless you happen to live in warmer climes, and thus have access to citrus or other warm weather fruits...

If you're still scratching your head for gifts to get your loved ones, apples are a great solution! A pretty basket of local apples may not be your idea of the perfect gift, but jars of homemade applesauce or apple butter do make nice gifts, and they are not difficult or time consuming to make, but you should be choosy of the kind of apple you use. Not all apples are great for making into applesauce.

MacIntosh, Cortland, Jonathan, Jonagold, Winesap, Newtown Pippin, Gala, and Royal Gala are a few varieties that cook down nicely into a smooth, golden pulp. Some say that Granny Smiths are also good saucing apples, but I find that most grannies stay chunky, and in the North East, they are rather flavourless.

If you intend to give jars of sauce to everyone on your list, your best bet would be to buy a bushel of apples from the farmers' market, otherwise you can settle for a kilo bag from your supermarket. But be forewarned, apples that are kept in relative cold -like at a barely heated market- tend to be more flavourful than apples kept in a warm room -like the supermarket or a heated kitchen.

Peel, quarter and core apples. Dump into a heavy bottomed pan, and add some water (anywhere from just enough to cover the bottom of the pot to 1 cup/125mL). Bring up to the boil, and let simmer until the apples are nice and soft. The varieties named above will all fall apart into a smooth sauce. If you are using another variety, you may have to whisk or blitz the apples until smooth, or you may choose to go the chunky sauce route - in which case I really recommend russet apples: they are absolutely lovely for a chunky sauce.

Taste. Add sugar if needed.

For a twist on the whole apple sauce thing, why not add a whole vanilla bean, split in two at the beginning of the cooking process? A friend of mine who is really not into applesauce tasted my vanilla-apple compote and thought it was the best thing ever! Classic, and not so classic, spice and apple combinations are: cinnamon (use whole sticks to avoid over spicing and turning your sauce brown); star anise and clove; ginger (use fresh, not the powdered stuff); and pink peppercorns.

For apple butter, cook down your apple sauce for at least an hour over low heat, until it is quite thick (a wooden spoon should be able to stand in it on its own.)

If you're feeling a little wary about the whole canning process, no worries! You can look it up on the internet, or you can go the half-assed way. Wash you canning jars or re-used jam jars and lids in hot, soapy water, dump them in a large pot, cover with water and bring up to the boil. Let simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. You can leave them in the water until you are ready to use them, or pull them out with tongs as you need them. If your applesauce is piping hot when you pour it in the jars, you will get a tight seal. However, just to be on the safe side, I would advise your recipients to keep the jars in the fridge.

Did you know that early 19th century apple eaters had over a thousand varieties to choose from in North America alone? Although there have been recent efforts around the world to save apple diversity, hundreds of variety have been lost forever. Some varieties may never make it into consumers hands. But things are not all stark and black. While I doubt there will ever be more than 8 different varieties of apples at my local supermarket (only three of which are local), orchards around Montreal are making their fruits available to the public at farmers' markets across the province.

The same goes for growers around Toronto, Vancouver, New York, San Francisco... Ten years ago russet apples were impossible to find unless you went directly to the grower, but now they can be bought by the bushel. MacIntosh, still the number one apple in Canada, is quickly being caught up in popularity by its offsprings the Cortland and Lobo, and other apples are seen as serious contenders for the title of best eating apple.

If you like real crunch in your apple, Empire may be the apple for you. Though russets are not usually though of as eating apples, they offer a nice, clean crunch with the acid bite usually associated with easting apples. Russets' crisp sweetness is underlined by a floral aroma that sticks around after baking, making it the ideal apple pie apple: it would be the perfect foil for a sharp cheddar crust.

But don't limit yourself to my recommendations: each apple is adapted to different climactic conditions, so a variety that is delicious in Montreal might be mealy in Calgary, so ask around, and taste around. If you're looking for culinary adventure, exploring your local apple harvest can be the most bang for your buck!

Bon app'!

Food for thought

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I can't believe it's only ten days to Christmas already!!!!! Where did the time fly to?

I suppose we're all in the same boat right about now: rather busy with work, or end of term school stuff, and worried that the holiday list will NOT get shorter. Aaaah, the Holidays!

I've certainly been swamped with Christmas prep at work, and my mind has been completely engrossed with what is happening -or rather, NOT happening-i n Copenhagen, and I am sure so is everyone else.

So, if I may, here are a few last minute suggestions for last minute gifts for all those people you never know what to get:

Gifts that keep on giving
The likelihood of actually finding the ideal gift for someone who is hard to shop for get slimmer and slimmer with each passing day, so give up already and make a charitable donation to an organisation in this special someone's name instead. Chances are this person is hard to shop for because s/he already has a lot of things, and do you really want to add to their pile of excess? Show you care for your friend's soul and the world at large by giving a gift that keeps on giving.

Many charitable organisations will accept donations in other people's name, some will even send a thank you card to that person in your stead. Still more organisations will put gift donations towards specific programmes of your choice, so you can choose a project in the image of your friend. For example, last year I gave to UNICEF's mosquito nets project in my brother's name because he had spent two years in Africa where malaria still kills hundreds of children every year.

Here are a couple of links:
UNICEF : This branch of the United Nations focuses on children and child issues such as education and nutrition. However, they work in many more fields, such as the prevention of AIDS, the distribution of mosquito nets, as well as environmental issues that can affect a child's well being.

Oxfam : Oxfam has a really nifty programme whereby you purchase a cow, goat or chicken that will be given to a family in need, you know "teach them how to fish, and they will feed themselves..."

Excellent Development : This organisation funds projects to slow down desertification in Africa by planting trees and building dams to trap rainfall.

Bees for Development and Hunger-Free World Bangladesh both promote beekeeping as a means to financial and food independence in developing countries. They provide farmers and families with a basic starter kit for bee keeping as well as training. Bees are essential for food production, all the while providing humans with a nutritional supplement: honey. The promotion of beekeeping allows farmers an insurance plan against total crop failure and may help slow down the disappearance of the honey bee.

Kokopelli is a French organisation working to safeguard the genetic diversity of heirloom seeds. They are part of the vast network of seed-savers around the world working to protect our food future from genetic desertification. They also have an active branch trying to supply safe (that is GMO-free) seeds to impoverished farmers free of charge. While they accept donations of seeds, they also need cash to help fund their projects in Third World countries. It's the perfect gift for anyone on your list who is a fervent advocate of small farms and local food production.

Seeds Savers Exchange
is another link in the seed saving chain. If you have a gardener friend on your list, why not get them a membership to this worthy organisation? SSE membership gives access to an international network of seed savers and a whole stash of heirloom seeds. It also gives gardeners an opportunity to distribute one's extra seeds to other willing recipients.

Still not inspired? How about donating locally? The ongoing recession is taking its toll on soup kitchens and food distribution networks across the country, while demand for food baskets are on the rise. Perhaps you can spread the word amongst your friends: instead of gifts to each other, why not give to others more needy?

Feel like you need to give an actual gift? Stay tuned for easy homemade and local gifts in my next post!

The true spirit of the holidays is not about giving gifts, it's about spreading the love!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Buy Nothing Day is this Friday (Saturday for non-North Americans) folks.

For those who doubt in the effectiveness of BND or any other individual action, here is a very fitting quote from the late Anita Roddick:

Anyone who thinks he is too small to make a difference has never been in bed with a mosquito.

So don't forget this Friday: stay in, enjoy a day away from crowds, with your family, your new born child, your cats. Or go to work if you must, pack a lunch, and forget your wallet and car keys on the dresser, just remember your buspass or your bike lock.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Canada's next top model....

Kale is such a beautiful vegetable that I couldn't help myself from having a veritable photo session with the frilly greens!

As its dark colours can attest, kale is a real nutritional powerhouse, unfortunately, it isn't a well liked vegetable. Which is bizarre, because as far as green vegetables go, it isn't particularly strong flavoured (like cabbage), bitter (like rapini) or tongue rasping (like swisschard). No, I can't really figure out why so many people back away from this lovely green.

It is a most forgiving vegetable: first of all, it keeps for a ridiculously long time -these babies have been waiting in a plastic bag, out in my garden shed for close to a month, and they are still full of life! Secondly, they are one of the few vegetables that can take any amount of cooking. In fact, kale likes to be well done.

Unlike most other greens that are best eaten underdone, kale is actually more palatable if it is thoroughly cooked (6-10 minutes in boiling water), and cooked some more (drained, rinsed, then thrown in a pan with butter, or in some tomato sauce, or reheated with leftover mashed potatoes....) Indeed, if you like to have green bits in your stews and casseroles, kale is the veg for you: it will be more than happy to stew for a couple of hours in a Crockpot or braise in the oven with whatever you want. The green kales may lose some of their brightness, but they will not turn muddy like, say, swisschard.... and the purple and pink kales will pretty much keep their hues.

Kale, like many of its kissing cousins in the cabbage family, is a very hardy vegetable: you may have noticed pretty, pink cabbages in some gardens, frosted over or even covered in snow. Although these decorative kales were bred for their colours, they are actually edible, and repeated frosts and snow cover renders them more digestible (just like Brussel sprouts!) This hardiness makes it the ideal winter vegetable for our northern climate: it is, in theory, available until at least late February, however its low popularity makes it sometimes hard to find locally. I have seen imported kale at the supermarket, but they tend to come from warmer climes and are sometimes tough because they were not subjected to frost. If you must buy imported kale, cook it 'to death' or place in the freezer before eating.

Better yet, if you have room for a couple of planters, plant some kale by your door step. It'll make a beautiful, seasonal display, and subjected to the frosty winds and snow, it will provide you with several tasty meals!

You may recall my raving-ons about beet purée. Well here it is in all its glory: pan seared giant scallops on a bed of buttered kale and a lovely beet purée.

Bon app'!

Friday, November 20, 2009

CSA directory, part II

If you have read my previous post on CSA directories, you may have noticed that it was not very extensive. It was not for lack of searching! I did spend a couple of days researching, and that was all I had come up with at the time.

Fear not! I did not end my search then and there, and today has been fruitful! I have found some information for people living in Alberta and Saskatchewan. If you live in Saskatchewan and do not find what you want on that link, you can always try contacting the people at LoFo to find something more suitable for you.

It isn't much, I admit, but it is all I have found so far. If you happen to find more links, or would like to put in a plug for your own CSA, please do not hesitate to leave me a comment. I would more than happy to help you spread the word.

I'm off to eat the above celeriac, so todeloo!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The beet goes on

The shorter days and brisk morning air have had their toll on me, and all I want to do is burrow myself deep under my duvet... but I really was looking forward to going into work this morning. I had my my menu all planned out, and I had a pretty good idea how each dish was going to be plated. I could even taste how all the flavours would meld into beautiful combinations!

So you can imagine my disappointment when I got to work and was unable to find the beets I had asked for!!! I had a clear image of the beautiful, bright magenta purée contrasting with gorgeously seared scallops, a shot of dark green leaves underneath, and a streak of orange reduction.

I even brought my camera to work, so that I could show you the result.

But the beets had gone into a soup, and there was my dish shot to pieces... I made a sweet potato purée instead. The plate was still pretty. A Good seller in any case, but I was too heartbroken to take a picture.

I resolved to make myself some beets for dinner, but my Mum swung by with supper in hand, so there goes another photo op!

All this hoopla to say that the chilly weather has definitely settled in, no more talk of Indian Summer. The fields are pretty much bare around here, but one can still speak of 'seasonal products.' For one thing, if you are a meat eater, it's hunting season: duck. goose, and larger game are in, and fans of strong flavours are in for a treat. Unless you own a registered gun and a hunting licence, your best bet for getting your hands on real game is a good butcher. I must admit that I haven't actually stepped in a butcher shop in recent years, so I am not actually sure that wild game is legal for sale in Canada. Do any of you out there know?

I remember seeing wild hares, and geese hanging in butcher shop windows in Europe. I also remember seeing small game at the butcher shop when I was a kid, but I must say that I haven't seen a hanging carcass in Montreal of late. In any case, a butcher worth his mettle will carry farmed game, if not the wild stuff. You'll have to ask him for recipes though, because game meat is a little beyond me.

Seasonal products more in my range are all the root vegetables that are being kept in storage to last us through the cold weather... Beets are top of the list for me! They're sweet and savoury, and are such a cheerful colour, what's not to love about them? Apparently alot, but I say pshaw! Roasted beets, sliced or diced and rolled in brown butter with a dash of lemon juice or balsamic vinegar is a worthy side dish for duck or any other dark meat. Borscht is an absolutely heartwarming soup and could be a meal in itself. Warm beet salad with orange segments, pine nuts (or hazelnuts, pecans, pumpkin seeds, almonds...) and a sliver of goat cheese is practically a bistro classic, and made all the more pretty with rainbow hued beets. And, alas, my lovely beet purée that was not to be today... Silky smooth, and shockingly magenta, it is the perfect foil for tender, melt in your mouth, pan-seared scallops.

The sweetness of the beets really highlights the natural sugars in seafood and is a perfect accompaniment for fruit-friendly meats, like duck and pork... How does roast pork stuffed with prunes with beet sauce (basically a runny purée) sound?

Red beets are known to stain, though I find that roasting them makes them more colourfast-or maybe it's just because I shed my skin very quickly... I don't know, but my hands seem to stay pink much longer when I peel boiled beets. Either way, the only time I wear an apron in the kitchen at home is when I handle beets.

Another interesting fact about beets: if you have, or know of, young children who are just learning about digestion in their science class, beets can be a fun learning 'tool'. Indeed, the potent red pigments in beets are resistant to our digestive track, so kids can keep track of their food. Literally.

Oh come on! Everyone number-twos and number-ones! It's amusing to most kids (and a few adults), except for princesses, and it is one way to get even the most reticent child to eat beets.

So on that note, bon app'!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Chickens, it's all about the chickens...

no golden eggs today
Originally uploaded by frankieleon
I really wish that keeping chickens in Montreal were legal, but then I think about Montrealers' animal rights' record, I think it might be a good thing that we are not allowed to keep the pretty ladies in this fine, yet crazy city. Perhaps someday, we will have more sense, and will be allowed to keep a few hens.

In the mean time, to those of you who live in more advanced cities, I say 'Lucky you! I'm so jealous!' If you have yet to get your chicks, I will add 'What are you waiting for?!?!' And to those of you who are seriously considering keeping a few chickens -urban or not- here is a very useful link on chicken husbandry. I must admit that I did not find the BackYard Chickens all on my own, it was linked to on another useful blog written by Jenna Woginrich. You may have noticed that Coldantler Farm is a blog I frequently read. Jenna's adventure in the rural life are entertaining and heartwarming, but most of all she offers a realistic glimpse into the whole process of building up a farm. You will also find useful tidbits on a chicken's life(style).

By the way, I don't know if any of you noticed the release of the 2009 edition of the Red List? This is the list put out by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. It made blip on the news last week: the numbers are not promising. Over one in five mammals, more than a quarter of known reptiles, and at least 70% of plants are on the endangered list.

It all seems overwhelming when written black on white, and you may feel that there isn't much you can do to save a South American tree frog, but all is not hopeless. Some of the endangered plants and animals on the list are from the agricultural domain: breeds of chickens, pigs and cows unsuited to factory farms; varieties of tomatoes, squashes and lettuces too fragile for shipping around the world. While saving Bengal tigers will require international efforts to halt the illegal poaching and trading of these majestic animals, saving farm animals and vegetables from extinction can be as simple as patronising a farmers' market and supporting small farmers.

Did you know that there over 500 varieties of potatoes grown in the Andes? Each variety is adapted to different soil, atmospheric and climate conditions. Many are unique to Peru, and even more stand to disappear if the climate warms up any more. Perhaps we cannot save all the potatoes in Peru, but we can make the effort of buying outside the big box. Of the thousands of varieties of named tomatoes in the world, less than 5 are regularly found on the shelves of North American supermarkets. So please, next summer, try some locally Black Krim tomatoes, or plant a few heads of Blonde Maraîchère in a window box. And if you do decide to keep chickens in your backyard, I hear that Chantecler -an old Québécoise, saved from the brink of extinction- is a very friendly creature.

Diversity, bio-diversity, is the key to our survival.

(p.s. That pretty chicken was not photographed by me. Click on it to find out more)

Old MacDonald had a farm...

My mind was all confusion on my way to work this morning. I was thinking about all the things I wanted to write about when I got home, and it all seemed quite interesting at the time, but now that I am sitting in front of my computer I forget what it was that I wanted to write about... there's a reason why I always have a pen and paper on me, perhaps I should use them next time I get a bright idea... Well, all is not lost!

If all my going on about how great my CSA baskets are have tickled your fancy and you still haven't got around to signing up for your own, the first step to joining is finding a farm that will supply you. So here are a couple of links to help you:

Equiterre for the list of Quebec's farms
Ontario's CSA directory
I couldn't find a directory for British Columbia, but here are a couple of links:
City farm boy
UBC (yes! UBC as in the university!)
Urban Grains
In New Brunswick, you can try Sackville
Prince Edward Island's listing

In the US, you can try this listing (it also includes some Canadian farms, and other countries) or this one, compiled by the people at Local Harvest

Not all the CSAs listed are organic, but some food and environment people would argue that local trumps organic any day if your organic has to be shipped from across the world. So I hope these listings whet your appetite!

By the way, some of you may be getting ready to get into Christmas gear... Have you thought of the gift of food? Granted, offering a CSA membership may be beyond the means of most of us, however, if my experience is any indication of the average CSA adventure then most baskets will have way more food than you or your family can consume before the arrival of the next basket. So why not share a basket with a friend or relative? It could be the gift that keeps on giving!

Buy Nothing Day

American Thanksgiving is coming up soon. And you know what that means: big feasts followed by a mad rush for Christmas preparations. This mad rush is epitomised in the US by Black Friday, a day of unbridled shopping and incredible sales for things we don't really need.

In order to remedy this insanity, the people at Adbusters created Buy Nothing Day 20 years ago. All across industrialised nations, all manners of events are being planned to disrupt -at least for one day- excessive consumption and waste of resources. This year, on 27 November (or the 28 if you live east of North America), BND would like people to go one step further and forgo all manners of consumerism: be it using electronics and other non-essential electrical appliances (does that mean no laundry day!?!?!), leaving your car at the curb, turn off phones and cellphones. Basically, this year BND is about stopping the hemorrhage, rethinking our excesses and reconnecting with the world at large.

Every year, thousands of people like you and me participate, hoping to send the message out: we cannot go on wasting resources and laying waste to the environment. So get together with some friends, have a raw food picnic, and say no to the craziness that is Black Friday.

Mark it down on your calendars: November 27/28, Buy Nothing Day.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Thyme is on my side...

Hello out there! I've been out enjoying this year's wonderful Indian Summer (it was 20'C in Montreal yesterday!!!) after a rather hectic week. So I haven't really thought about today's post... Sounds promising doesn't it?

First off, a few environmental groups have decided that the best way to send a clear message to our environmentally-challenged government is to call them. Equiterre and the David Suzuki Foundation are calling upon all Canadians to go to their phones and give Harper a piece of their minds. Politely, of course, wouldn't want to be un-Canadian. So, here's the number to dial: 613-992-4211. Or you can go to the David Suzuki website for more info and to sign an online letter.

Now then. I'm sure you've noticed the continent-wide panic about the second wave of swine flu - apparently in most European countries, the media have been a tad more level-headed about the whole pandemic... If you are rather unfazed about the whole event, then what follows may be of little concern to you.

There is no need to panic. Chances are that you will be no more affected by the flu this year than any other year. But while you are nervously wringing your hands waiting for your turn to get vaccinated, here is a link to some common sense advice from Greener. Other things you can do to increase your chances of sailing through the flu and cold season is to cook with lots of thyme, oregano, rosemary or savory. These herbs are high in thymol, a powerful compound known to hold down bacteria and viruses with its pinkie (if it had a pinkie). Thymol is a common ingredient in mouthwash, and has even been proven effective in fighting cold sores, so you know it works! The herbs do not need to be fresh, but they seem to be most effective if they are not greenhouse grown, so your best bet would be to head on to a farmers' market and load up on what's left of this year's crop (greenhouse grown herbs have soft green stems and are not overpoweringly perfumed). If you have some dried thyme in your spice cabinet, don't throw it out! It probably still has quite a bit of thymol left in it.

So go ahead, sprinkle your food with thyme! Your taste buds and your health will thank you.

If you have gone around the disinfection bend, please be careful of the products you use. Some commercially available surface disinfectants have been shown to be ineffective (and thus can contribute to the spawning of resistant strains), and many are extremely toxic to you and the environment. Alcohol and hydrogen peroxide are good disinfectants, but you want to stay away from both triclosan and bleach. Regular ol' white vinegar is a really effective and non-toxic bactericide, AND it can get rid of certain smells. A 5% white vinegar solution (1L of water, 50mL/4 Tbsp vinegar) makes a good all-purpose surface wipe. For an extra boost, add a couple of drops of essential oil of thyme.

Bon app' and to your health!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Oh when the Saints come marching in!

Happy All Saints Day!!!
Oh what a glorious day it was today! After the crappy All Hallows' Eve we had here in Montreal, I would bet anything that all the lost souls hanging about were quite happy to be on their way to the after-life... And we're back to regular time, so when my eyes were pried open by my hungry cats (from the meowing! They weren't actually pawing at my eyes!), I could see the sunlight streaming in from behind the curtains.

It seemed like a waste to be sleeping in on such a lovely Sunday, but I needed the extra hours of sleep to make up for my mad dash harvesting under the rain on Saturday... I was honouring the pagan roots of Hallowe'en: I have an unofficial alter to the Harvest Gods in my shed, a big stash of autumn vegetables, that will see me through the next couple of weeks, if not months!

Indeed, the fields around Montreal may seem to be barren, there are still lots of veggies to be had fresh, and lots more will be put by in storage for the coming months.

Pumpkins and other winter squashes
The rainy summer seems to have gotten the best of the winter squashes all across Canada and the northern U.S. If you went out to buy pumpkins for All Hallows' Eve, you may have noticed that the biggies were kind of hard to come by: the rain kept the bees away, which meant lower rates of pollination, which meant fewer seeds, which translates into smaller squashes. Furthermore, the cool and wet weather makes for more watery squashes, so if you are in the habit of hoarding squashes for the winter months, keep a close eye on them, because they may not keep as well as usual. However, if your squashes are in a cool and dry place, they should keep for a bit -I usually manage to keep them until the spring in my unheated guest bedroom. If you find soft spots, just cut them out and bake the squash. Baked squash can be used for soup, mash or in any number of desserts (pie, flan, crème brûlée...). It keeps well in the freezer.

I'm not sure how well this year's harvest will keep, but winter squashes are usually available from late September until early May.

It may not feel like the season for a green salad, but the weather would beg to differ: the cool, wet days of autumn are actually perfect for growing lettuces. In fact, most small farmers and gardeners like to sow fall greens after the summer harvest to stop the soil from eroding under the abundant autumn showers. I've noticed that most stalls at the market were still full of beautiful heads of lettuce, all at pretty much the same price they were all summer.

My garden is almost bare, except for the leftover salad greens, I'm thinking of leaving them there to see if they will survive under the snow. And most of my balcony pots have been put away for the winter, except for the salad planter: it will probably stay out until the end of November... Seriously, if you have the room for a small planter, you should really consider growing your own salad greens, it's much cheaper than buying bags of baby greens, and you'll be able to eat local salads from May to November!

Cabbages and co.
Just in case you were wondering what exactly I was harvesting on the last day of October: cabbages! I don't actually have any coles in my garden because they take too much space, but the farm I get my CSA baskets from does. Every year, near or at the end of the basket season, 'my' farm invites members to come and clean out the fields. So I went and fought against gale force winds and lashing rain, and hauled back a huge stash of cabbages, cauliflowers and collard greens!
I don't know about you, but I never really knew what collard greens were until I moved to the UK. Over on the other side of the pond, collards are called spring greens. In the UK, they are, as their name implies, available only in late-winter/early-spring. In the Southern States, collard greens are usually a winter vegetable. I knew all of the above from reading cooking and gardening books, but I still drew a blank as to what they were exactly until yesterday! Collard greens are any greens from the cabbage family. It is not one specific plant, but any and all leafage. They are hard to find in Eastern Canada, unless you grow your own cabbage or broccoli. Basically, collards are the young shoots on the plants. In the UK, mild and long springs will bring about abundant new growth on any cabbage/cauliflower/broccoli/sprout plant that has survived the winter. In the Deep South, winter is a much milder affair, so a fall sowing will provide lots of winter greens. In the northern states and most of Canada, it might be a little more difficult to overwinter coles, but it is likely do-able on the West Coast.

Local cabbages are usually available until spring. Broccoli and cauliflowers are a smaller crop in Eastern Canada, so imports start making an appearance in November.

Carrots, potatoes, beets and parsnips are familiar enough, but there are many more by ways of edible roots out there. Most root crops are particularly well suited to our growing conditions, so most provinces are fairly self-sufficient throughout most of the year. Basically, supermarkets have no excuses for buying imported bunches of beets with green in January, when bagged beets are locally available and at a quarter of the price.

Jerusalem artichokes, aka sunchokes

These gnarly looking roots are becoming increasingly popular, and are much easier to find than they were just a couple of years ago. These are the quintessential local vegetable. Even though their new found popularity began with the interest of European chefs, Jerusalem artichokes are native North Americans ('jerusalem' in this case is not a place name, but a family afiliation: girasole means sunflower in italian.) In fact, they were probably on the pilgrims' first Thanksgiving table. These tubers do not really taste of artichokes, though their texture when cooked may be similar. They can be eaten raw, sliced thinly and kept in lemon water, then used in a salad. They have a nice crunch them, somewhat like water chestnuts (but not quite, 'cuz I can eat raw sunchokes despite hating water chestnuts.) Cooked, they make a silky smooth purée which can turned into a lovely soup. Its nutty flavour is definitely enhanced by the addition of a nut oil, such as hazelnut (B.C. has a growing hazelnut/filbert industry, so try to seek out a truly local delicacy.)

The gnarly roots can be difficult to peel, so if you want to eat them raw, choose the smoother tubers. If you are going to use them cooked, the simplest way to peel them is to boil them: 3-5 minutes is enough to slip the peel off, keeping the tubers whole for use as a side dish (sautée in some butter, or roasted with a bird of some sort), or you can cook them through if you are going to make mash.

Jerusalem artichokes are the perfect winter vegetable: they keep extremely well outdoors in the ground or in cold storage (but not so well in a refrigerator -I don't think they like the company!), making them available from early October until mid-May.
A word of warning, sunchokes contain inulin, a form of starch that humans cannot digest. While this is great for diabetics who have to keep a close eye on their starch intake, it also means that chokes can be hard to digest at first. So start with small amounts and chew thoroughly.

Dahlia tubers
Okay, so dahlia tubers aren't exactly known to be a vegetable. And you're not likely to find them at any greengrocer, but if you happen to grow dahlias (any kind), then you will have lots of tubers on hand. You might want to keep them for next year, but it is likely that you have way more than you wish to keep. Well, you can always eat them. I'm not quite sure what they taste like, but apparently dahlias were first grown for food before they became the lovely hybrids they are now. The flavour of the tuber is said to change from one variety to another, so you might have to try several kinds before you find one you like.

Turnips and rutabagas
Turnips are not everyone's cup of tea, but they are staples in the winter pantry. They keep 'forever' and are extremely inexpensive. Baby turnips, boiled whole then rolled in melted butter, are a lovely side dish, or on their own on a slice of crusty bread. Bigger turnips, more likely to be found throughout the winter than the babies, must be peeled before eating, but they are also nice eaten the same way. Turnips really come into their own when roasted. They are a marvelous foil to any game meat, if you are into them.

Rutabagas, also called swedes, are yellow turnips with pretty purple shoulders. They can be eaten just like any other turnip, but being a less watery root, they are especially tasty when roasted or baked. Guy Fawkes Night is coming up on 5 November, though baked potatoes are usually associated with bonfire night in the UK, the Scots prefer their Neeps and Taties, which are simply mashed rutabaga and potatoes with lots of butter. A very scrumptious side dish indeed.

Turnips and rutabagas are likely unpopular because they lack a little in colour, but they truly make up for it in flavour! If you really are craving greenery, turnips can come to the rescue: place turnips near a sunny window, in a dish of water; change the water every two or three days, and you should be rewarded with some green growth. Turnips greens have a little kick, but they do add some zing to bland winter vegetable.

I've yet to see an imported rutabaga in Quebec, though small turnips are often imports. However, local swedes and turnips are available all over Canada and really inexpenssive, so do not pass them up. They are available year-round (yeah, it's that big a crop!) but they are best from September to early spring.

Bon app'!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Savez-vous plantez des choux?

No, that isn't a big pile of cabbages, it's actually a small bunch of Brussel sprouts. Ooooh! I can hear the groaning from here! The poor Brussel sprouts have got a bad rap. Just the other day a friend of mine declared she hated them and would never eat them ever again... Harsh! On the other hand, a week earlier, another friend claimed that he actually enjoyed the sprouts his mother served him as a child! However, the general consensus is that Brussel sprouts are not an easy vegetable to like.

Which is very unfortunate, because they are at their best from now until spring. Truly, Brussel sprouts can be a fine vegetable if some care is taken in its preparation.

First of all, you should only buy locally grown sprouts (for real!!! This applies to all vegetables whenever possible, but it is especially true with sprouts.) Secondly, you should wait until hard frosts have hit your area -which is why you should buy local sprouts only. If you live in a frost free area -i.e. a winter-free area- then I suggest you stick to frozen Brussel sprouts. One of the reasons why so many people dislike Brussel sprouts is because they are very gas inducing and can cause other digestive discomforts, more so than any other cabbage. Frost and freezing can help alleviate this problem by breaking down the sulfurous compounds in the sprouts (these are the same chemicals that give mustard its kick). It also sweetens the sprouts and softens its tough fibres, another potential cause for gassiness.

Brussel sprouts are a marvel of the cabbage family: unlike its cousins, the sprout is totally impervious to the cold. In areas not plagued by huge amounts of snow in the winter, Brussels sprouts are left in the ground all season long, to be harvested only as needed, under a mantle of snow.

Another trick for minimizing sprout discomfort is to start slowly: pretend you are a baby having his first taste of solids. Eat a little at first, and slowly build up the portion. Your stomach will gradually get used to them, and you will discover that sprouts are actually quite tasty!

Of all the cabbages, I find the Brussel sprout most scrumptious cooked. I'm not too keen on cabbage rolls, and boiled cabbage just doesn't do it for me, but boiled and buttered sprouts are really yummy! Timing, however, is of the utmost importance: the other reason most people hate sprouts is because our parents often cooked them down to a mush. Yuck!

While most vegetables should be cooked until they are easily pierced with a pointy knife and slip off said knife, sprouts are done when they can be speared but do not fall off the knife. This can be achieved by cutting any sprout bigger than a ping-pong ball in two, then boiling or steaming the sprouts. If you absolutely want to keep your sprouts whole, it is best to score the stem crosswise with the tip of your knife and boil them. Plunge them in an ice bath to stop them from cooking further.

Once you've got your prepped sprouts, the sky's the limit! Chop some bacon into 1cm (½ inch) pieces and fry until crisp, add the Brussel sprouts, and voilà! You can add boiled and peeled chestnuts (it's the season for those too, if they grow in your area!), and you've got the traditional British side dish for roast goose. If you are a vegetarian or do not eat pork, but would like a similar dish: melt some butter in a frying pan, add slivered almonds and toast until golden, throw in the sprouts. You can also add some smoked salt to get a hint of smokeyness, or use hickory smoked almonds.

(Smoked salt is ridiculously expensive, but it is really tasty, and you only use a bit for flavouring, NOT for seasoning. It is easier to find than liquid smoke, and since you are only using a pinch, it is probably less hazardous for your health. If, however, smoked salt is too pricey or difficult to find -it's available in specialty groceries and fancy food stores- you can always smoke your own salt in your barbecue. Throw in a side of salmon, or some baby back ribs to make it worth your while.)

Give Brussel sprouts a chance!

Bon app'!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Cranberries too

Yeah, it's just another pic of regular ol' crans... I went to the market today on the lookout for cranberry beans, or any other dry shelling beans. I've been keeping my eyes peeled since the end of August, but I've either missed them completely or the cold and wet summer was detrimental to the dry bean crop... I don't know, but I was craving a big bowl of bean soup!

If you've never had fresh dried beans (I know, it sounds like an oxymoron! But that's exactly what they are!) you have to try to find some. Fresh shelling beans look like overgrown green beans, except that their husks are dried up, yellowed and rather unpromising. But inside those yucky -and sometimes mouldy- shells are hiding little treasures. All the beans available in the dry goods section are, at some point in the year, available fresh at farmers' markets or specialty vegetable shops. They are almost as starchy as the wizened dry stuff, yet they still have some of their 'greenness'. It's a little like the difference between a just picked green pea, still in its pod, and a shelled pea from who knows where. Fresh garbanzos (chickpeas) are truly delightful eaten as a green veg, not at all a stodgy starch (in Montreal, fresh chicks are only available imported in the spring: they require too long a growing season for us Northerners.)

If you can find some, you have to try them: Romano, navy, cattle, soldier, lima, runner... all are pretty pretty pretty so pretty it is almost a shame to cook them at all, but they would be inedible otherwise. It's also unfortunate that I was unable to find some fresh beans to show you just how pretty they truly are. Just to give you an idea, open your pantry if you happen to have some dry beans to hand: you see those cool shapes and patterns on the beans? Now imagine brighter colours, sharper contrasts.

Fresh, shelled beans cook in minutes, not hours, so you can have your bean salad almost as soon as you crave it. And the real boon is that fresh beans do not cause stomach discomfort! Yeah... you remember that grade school limerick "beans, beans, they're good for your heart, the more you eat, the more you fart!" Well, that won't happen with these babies: during the drying process, the sugar in beans turn into a starch that is indigestible to humans, hence the production of gas, but that starch is yet unformed in shelling beans. So buy a bushel, and spend an afternoon shelling beans over a nice cup of mulled cider... By the way, those dried husk are great for the compost, but they are even better as a mulch in the garden. And I was told that they can be used as decorative accents in basket weaving if you are the crafty type.

As I mentioned earlier, these beans can be eaten like any fresh vegetable, simply boil them for 5 to 10 minutes (depending on their degree of dryness), and then toss in some butter with garlic or shallots, or douse them with salad dressing for a warm bean salad. You can also make quick baked beans with fresh beans, just follow your favorite baked bean recipe, and cut the cooking time down to no more than 30 minutes, maybe even less. I'll have to get back to you on that one...

My favorite bean recipe is Bean and Parmesan soup. I usually make it with dried beans, but it's still too early for a stick to your ribs kind of soup, so when I do get my hands on shelling beans, I like to make the lighter version.

Bean and Parmesan Soup 
Serves? maybe 4 as a starter, 2 as a main course, or 1 famished person

1 bushel of fresh shelling beans (about 1kg with the shell), any kind or 250g (±1cup) dried beans
1 large carrot
1 big onion
1 small leek, optional
1 huge clove of garlic
butter or oil
Pamesan rind, about 2x5cm (1"x2.5") piece
3 sprigs fresh thyme, optional
1 sprig sage, optional
1 sprig rosemary, optional
½ bunch flat leaf parsley, optional

-Shell all the beans, you will probably get about 2-3cups of beans. I know, it seems like a lot of work, but it's worth it. Give them a quick wash.
-If you are using the dried beans, pick through for any stones or clods of dirt, place in a large pot and cover with water. Leave to soak overnight. On the next day, if you are susceptible to bean gas you can change the soaking water (if you have houseplants, save this water for them, it is FULL of nutrients), otherwise proceed with the recipe.
-Peel the carrot and onion, chop into big chunks. Do the same with the leek, and wash thoroughly.
-In a large pot (if, like me, you only have one large pot, transfer your dried beans to a big bowl), heat the butter or oil or both, add the herbs -you can use dried herbs if you like, about 1 teaspoon each- the onion, carrot and leek. Cook down until the onions are translucent and start to brown on the edges. Add the beans and cover with just enough water. Throw in the Parmesan rind.
*I always buy chunks of Parmesan, and grate as I need it, because it keeps better and longer this way. If you only have grated Parmesan, add it at the very end. However, I find Parmesan blocks more economical than grated: the flavour is better, so I use less, and it keeps indefinitely in the fridge. And I get the rind for this soup!
-Cook until the beans are easily crushed under a fork (about 20 minutes). If you are using the dried beans, it is important that you DO NOT salt the pot until the beans are fully cooked, otherwise they will never soften. Dried beans will take at least 45 minutes to cook, if not longer.
-Take the pot off the stove, and blend it. I've broken a few stick blenders making this soup -it was the cheese!!- so I recommend using a jar blender for this soup. If you do not have a jug, take out the Parmesan before you blend the soup. Or you can make a more rustic soup by chopping all the veggies bite sized, and cutting up the Parmesan rind once it has softened up in the soup (or not).
-Return the pot to the stove, check the seasoning, add grated Parmesan if you want more cheesiness. You may need to add some more water if the soup is too thick -especially if yo are using dried beans.
-Serve as is, or with some pesto. This soup is delicious hot off the stove, but it is even better re-heated the next day. It also freezes very well.

Another tasty way to eat fresh beans is with buttered kale and lots of garlic... I'm hungry!

Bon app'!

Sunday, October 25, 2009


It's cranberry season... Well, it's been cranberry season for quite a while actually, since mid-September. (Check out the beautiful shots from La Tartine Gourmande...) But with Canadian Thanksgiving just past, and the American one coming up next month, it really feels like it's high time for cranberries. Just imagine the bread pudding from my last post studded with fresh, tart cranberries. My mouth is watering!

Cranberries are wonderful powerhouses of nutrition: I may be quite laissez-faire about diet and nutrition, but I know a superfood when I see one and I will not pass up the opportunity to enjoy them. Cranberries have been proven to be a great preventative for cystitis (UTI), are very high in vitamin C and other anti-oxidants, among other benefits they bring you. Ever wonder how Ocean Spray manages to supply cranberries from Canadian Thanksgiving all the way to Christmas? Aside from buying off a huge chunk of North America's berry production, cranberries have natural anti-bacterial properties which allow them to keep for an incredible amount of time. Case in point: for Christmas 2008, I used cranberries as the table's centrepiece. They were out in a warm room all day and all night, and most of the following day. I eventually got around to cooking part of them a couple of days later, but half got forgotten at the back of my fridge. I found them a month later (well into 2009) and they were still nice, not one rotten berry!

Apparently, the cranberries anti-bacterial properties are also good for us: eating these tart berries can help prevent mild cases of food poisoning. So this holiday season, do not pass up on the cranberry sauce, it might save you from a bellyache.

The whole anti-oxidant craze has been a boon to the cranberry industry, and to some extent to cranberry growers. Cranberry production in most Canadian provinces have shot up, and there are increasingly more market stands offering local crans. There are, however, some environmental concerns with massive production of the berries. If you check out the link to La Tartine Gourmande, you will see why. Cranberry harvest requires huge amounts of water, which can lead to the pollution of water tables. Some environmental concerns can be avoided by purchasing berries from smaller "producers", by which I mean wild pickers. There is also the option of avoiding big suppliers like Ocean Spray, and buying from actual producers, who are truly invested in protecting their water table, seeing as they and their family drink from it. I hesitate to claim that all small farmers are wary of pesticide overuse, but given that the price of chemical pesticides have doubled over the last year, most producers have had to cut back on their use.

Fresh cranberries can be used in so many ways, that it boggles the mind. But you need not limit yourself to cranberry sauce with turkey, or the ubiquitous cranberry muffin that is showing up at every fast-food breakfast place in town. Jazz up your tired cranberry sauce recipe with some chili pepper (why not some chipotle?) and orange juice and zest, and you've got yourself a chutney that will rival ketchup on anything (it's great with aged Cheddar on multigrain, r with cream cheese on a Montreal bagel...) Cranberry-orange jam with toast; cranberry pancakes; cranberries in your morning smoothie will really wake you up!

And don't forget the desserts: cranberry-pear crumble; cranberry-apple pie; cranberry fool (use some leftover cranberry sauce or jam)... But I think my favorite way to have cranberries are in a cocktail! Now if you order a cranberry drink in most bars, they will serve you alcohol mixed with cranberry "juice", but those are loaded with sugar and they lack real cranberry flavour. Your best bet is to make your own cranberry alcohol. No, it's nothing complicated and it does not involve distilling or fermenting: purchase a bottle of your favorite white alcohol (gin or vodka are recommended, white rum is too vile) and some cranberries. For 1L of alcohol, you will need about 500g (1lb) of cranberries. Find a clear glass container to fit everything, or several smaller ones and divide evenly. Leave the berries and alcohol to rest at room temperature for at least a month before imbibing. The alcohol will have taken a beautiful ruby tinge and the berries' tartness. You can strain out the berries at this point, but it is not necessary. Keep to hand in the freezer, and you will always be ready to dole out the cranberry drinks! (Cranberry gin with tonic is luscious!)

Bon app'!

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