Monday, May 25, 2009

Cheese!

I forgot to mention yesterday that, unbeknownst to most, cheeses have a season too. If you are lucky enough to live in a place where fresh, unripened, raw milk cheeses are legal for sale (not Quebec) you can look forward to fresh goat cheese in the coming weeks.

If like me, you only have access to unpasteurised cheeses that are aged at least 64 days, then you will have to travel to Europe for a bite of creamy, spicy, fresh goat cheese. Or you can eat aged goat cheese: however, beware which you choose 'cuz they can be quite sharp.

All those fresh goat cheeses you see for sale throughout the year are -obviously- made from pasteurised and most likely frozen milk, as goats are not forced to produce year-round like cows. Is there a taste difference? It's not always noticeable, but raw goat's cheese has a grassier taste, and can be more piquant. Is it worth a plane ticket to France? Definitely!

If you happen to be in France for the summer and are craving blood sausages (boudin noir), you've arrived too late! While most pork products seem to lost their seasonality, good blood sausages are only available for sale from November to early May, and most brasseries and bistros follow these rules.

Bon app'!




I see June in the horizon!

I'll be off on a much needed two week holiday, but before I go...

It's May 24th today (duh!). Over here in the North East this day marks the official start to the gardening season. While there may still be some freakish chance of a killer frost -there were frost warnings for Montreal up until Friday- the risk is pretty low, and the beautiful weather renders any attempt to resist quite futile.

And without fail, every gardener in Montreal answered the call: I swung by my local plant nursery to pick up some manure, and the place was crowded! I needed some veg , so I went to the market in the afternoon, and the place was an anthill! Now I realise the market is always full of people on the week-end, but just about everyone there today had a plant or two, or twelve, in their arms!

If you haven't been bitten by the gardening bug yet, this might be the year for you! It doesn't really take much really: a pot on the windowsill, some herbs on the balcony... It doesn't get more local than that!

If you're in the mood to go foraging, elderflowers are abloom. The elders on Mount-Royal were covered in buds on Mother's Day, and the warm weather we've been having will have opened the blossoms. The European Elder (Sambucus nigra) flowers a wee bit later over here, and you probably won't find any wild ones in Canada, but they smell (and taste) slightly sweeter. What do you do with elderflowers, you ask? Well, you might have guessed from its Latin name that this plant has something to do with sambuca, and you'd be guessing right. However, sambuca is distilled from the berries, not the flowers, sorry. Elderflowers are lovely, lovely things: they smell divine! If you find some: the flowers can be sprinkled on ice cream, or made into fritters.

They do not have the licorice-y flavour of the berries. In fact, if you've ever taken a wine appreciation class or have heard someone talking about wine, elderflowers are often referred to when a white wine is said to have a "floral" or a "white blossom" note: Alsatian and German Rieslings have a distinctly elderflower-like aroma.

The British and the Swedish make a cordial from the flowers (Ikea sells some cordial, or you can make it yourself) which is delicious with sparkling water or in cocktails... aaaahhh, don't you just love having a nice, tall drink on a hot afternoon? The British also make elderflower wine, but to tell you the truth, I think that dandelion wine tastes nicer!

Another note on foraging: if you want to learn more about wild mushrooms, Ron Mann's latest documentary Know Your Mushrooms is out this summer on DVD. While it won't make an expert mycologist out of you, this doc really brings home the notion that there is a dearth of foraging culture in North America...

This post is getting long, so here's the list for June:

-Lobster
Yes indeed! It's lobster season on both sides of the Atlantic (sorry, West Coasters... you don't have lobsters on your side, but if I'm not mistaken, I believe that wild Pacific salmon are in season.) While lobsters are available throughout the year, now is the best time to eat them. They have grown into their new shells, so not only are they large, they are also filled with flesh. The females may be filled with eggs, which make for a beautiful sight when cooked.
Some may object to eating lobsters for several reasons, not the least of which being that they are cooked alive. But perhaps what is most sad is that it takes close to 13 years for a lobster to reach 2lbs. If you are unable to forgo the delectation of the crustacean, maybe you can at least keep it to the summer months?
The lobster industry is very sustainable, and in most cases, it is a low impact fishery. While populations are not as numerous as they (supposedly) used to be, there is no shortage of lobsters. In fact, all the bottom trawling that nearly wiped out certain species have allowed the lobsters to thrive.

-Strawberries
Ooooooh..... strawberries... Yeah, yeah, I know, American strawberries have already flooded the markets. But no offence to our neighbours down south, I prefer my local berries. As I am sure you do too!
Red ripe berries are so wonderful, they taste like luxury itself! Makes me wonder why anyone would want to forgo the pleasure and settle for anemic imports...

-Peas
I'm sure you've noticed that I am crazy for peas. And I am not ashamed to admit it! Fresh peas are divine. And I thoroughly enjoy spending warm afternoons shelling peas on the porch while watching the world go by. It's meditation incarnated into food!

-Baby beets
If you don't like beets, perhaps you should try baby beets. They're not really different from regular beets, except in size, their flavour can be milder, especially the yellow or white varieties -which are hard to find as full sized veg. However, children may be more inclined to try beets if they are bite sized... Raw, sliced thinly, and drenched in an orange dressing (orange juice, a touch of Dijon, olive oil, salt and pepper), with some slivers of baby carrots if they can be had... mmmmm!

-Mackerels
I'm not sure about the West Coast, but over here, mackerels will be swimming up the coast, and they will be in the northern reaches of Quebec's coast by the end of June. Mackerel is a beautiful fish, resembling a miniature version of the bluefin tuna, of which it is a cousin. Yet, unlike its cousin, the mackerel is not endangered, nor does it seem to have as big a following in North America.
It is a yummy fish, and when absolutely fresh it can be eaten raw, but it is at its best when grilled or pan fried. High in omega fatty acids (3?6? I don't know which, but it's full of it), it is a meaty fish with a fine texture.

Bon app'!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Things that make you go hmmmm...

The price of chemical fertilizers have close to doubled when compared to last year. All because of last year's crazy hike in the cost of petroleum. All the more reason why we have to encourage local producers whenever possible.

Even if your local producer is not organic.

So here are a few ideas on how to prepare your local produce!

Asparagus
Yes, I'm still going on about the asparagus. One of my favourite ways to eat these gems is boiled or steamed with mayonnaise, or hollandaise sauce if I can be bothered to make it (if you can't be bothered or don't know how, do not buy pre-made: it's quite horrendous.) If you want to try your hand at making a hollandaise, Julia Child's recipe and instructions in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, vol. 1 are foolproof (borrow the book from the library or a friend or steal it if you must!) Hollandaise is basically a warm, butter-instead-of-oil-based mayonnaise, so if you know how to make mayo, hollandaise is easy-peasy. But mayo is great, even if it's not homemade.
Or, if that is too plain for you: grilled asparagus are quite tasty too. I think it's safe to say it's open season for barbecues, so you have no excuses for not throwing a couple of spears on the grill. Wash the asparagus thoroughly. I don't know why, and maybe someone else noticed this too: but I find that supermarket asps tend to be gritty. (so don't buy supermarket asps!) Grittiness obviously will vary according to where you live: the soil around Montreal is clay, so local asps tend not to be gritty, just a little muddy. Roll the cleaned spears in some tasty oil (olive, hazelnut, sesame...), season with salt and pepper, add some crushed garlic if you like. Throw on the grill. Eat. It's that easy.

Peas
It's still a little early for peas here, but I have seen a few local peas, and I'm sure that other regions are coming into them. Fresh, local peas are a rare treat at Jean-Talon Market because few Quebec producers sell them direct: most pea farmers here sell them to the canning or freezing industry. It's such a pity because there is no such delight as a fresh pea! It can be a hassle to shuck peas -I actually find it quite meditative- but it only builds the anticipation of eating sweet pearls of spring!
Fresh peas take about 3-5 minutes of blanching or steaming depending on how young they are. Them all they need is a pat of butter and a sprinkle of salt. Yum. The Brits like to add some mint. That's nice too.
When I was a kid my Mum would make rice and peas: that was the epitome of spring for me.

Rice and Peas (serves 2)

1 cup rice (Japanese/sushi rice or Thai/Basmati, but not any other type of rice)
½ cup fresh, shucked peas, or frozen, small ("fantasy" size) peas
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter

-If you're using Japanese rice, you have to wash it under running water until the rinse water runs clear. With Thai or Basmati, it is less important -though any Thai or Indian person would tell me otherwise- because they seem to come out just fine. But this recipe does not work with any other type of rice -at least not to my satisfaction. Drain rice, and shake out excess water.

-Place rice in the cooking pot. You will need a 2-3 cup pot with a tight fitting lid. Add the peas, salt and butter. And 1 cup water, a little less (±¾c) for Thai rice. Cover the pot, and let sit for ½hour.

-Bring rice to the boil. When the water starts bubbling, turn heat down to low, and let steam gently for 15 minutes. You might have to lift the lid a couple of times at the beginning if the water is boiling too hard.

-Turn off the heat after 15 minutes and let sit while you finish the rest of your meal. (These quantities are good for plain rice too)


Did you know that China is the biggest producer of "fresh" peas, snowpeas (mangetout), and sugarsnaps found on supermarket shelves? And did you know that field to fridge, those Chinese peas have a minimum of 8 weeks travel in them? Not so fresh after all, huh?

Chicory (aka "fake" dandelion)
Chicory is a multifaced veg: depending on who you are, where you're from, or where you live, chicory can be a completely different beast. For all intents and purposes, the chicory I am referring to today is the stuff that looks like dandelion on steroids. It tastes somewhat like dandelion, so you can prepare it the same way. However, it is less bitter, so it can be chopped and mixed raw into a regular salad.

Bon app'!


Meet Ms Molly!




Here she is folks. Isn't she cute?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Company's acomin'

I've been patiently waiting for my lettuce crop to grow in since the end of April. Everything was coming along quite nicely until I noticed that someone had been munching on my heirloom leaves... and peas, and beets. And said someone was probably the one who had a nasty surprise when s/he had a nibble of rhubarb.

I have a groundhog in my backyard. And she's hungry! I don't mind sharing the lettuces and the radish leaves, but I'm kind of upset about the pea shoots being razed to the ground. But I am not declaring war. After all, I am the invader here: until I moved into my apartment no one had a garden in the yard. In fact, no one even mowed the lawn. So I've taken out quite a big chunk of her grazing terrain, and I suppose I'll have to learn to share...

I will be putting up protection around the peas as soon as the gale force winds hitting Montreal die down.



When I started the garden last year, I had only staked out a small portion of the yard because it was a lot of hard work (the ground had been compacted by years of use as a car park), and summer 2008 was rather busy. So Molly -if ever I manage to snap a picture of her, you'll see, she looks like a Molly, even if she turns out being a he- didn't have much to say about my encroaching on her territory. And we had an agreement: she could munch on all the weeds I forgot to pull out and some of my radishes, and I would try to maintain the lawn with a healthy population of tender specimen.


All in all, we got along great last year. But my garden is bigger now. And so is Molly. So I'll put in a few extra lettuces for her. But the peas are all for me!





Thursday, May 7, 2009

It's all happening at the market

The fridge was empty, so we went to the market today... it was like being in a candy store! There were so many interesting things to see and to eat!

The people at Jardins Sauvages had lots of interesting wild veg on offer like dog's tooth lily leaves (aka trout lily or Erythronium). These were being sold as salad leaves. I didn't know that they could be eaten raw, as I was told that most wild foods are best consumed cooked. I didn't even know that they were eaten outside of Japan! I've only ever eaten trout lilies cooked like spinach. Briefly boiled, and refreshed in cold water, the leaves are squeezed dry and served with a miso based vinaigrette. Yummy.

Miso Vinaigrette

1 heaping tablespoon of red or white miso
2 tablespoons rice vinegar or lime/lemon juice
1 teaspoon sugar

Mix all the ingredients together, and it is ready to toss with cooked greens or a crunchy salad (chopped veg or sprouts.) It can be stretched out with any neutral oil (corn, safflower, canola) to use as a dressing on lettuce leaves - it really livens up bland iceberg.

Dog's tooth lilies are a protected species in most of its native habitats (Erythronium can be found in temperate, hardwood forests in North America, Europe and Asia) so I do not advise you go and picked these gems yourself. However, if you live in an expanding suburb, you might have noticed some woodland slated for construction: if there are any trout lilies there, you can pick those, as they will likely be bulldozed over.

In fact, if you love wild flowers and have a spot of shady garden, I say go out and scope future construction sites. While I would never condone the harvesting of protected species, transplanting specimens from doomed woodlots are an act of conservation and of nose thumbing to suburban sprawl.

There are lots of asparagus to be had right now. Though most were of the imported variety, there were two stalls announcing Quebec crops (!!!!), so I think it's official: Asparagus are here! I think there are few regions left in the Northern hemisphere that are not yet in the asparagus zone (Atlantic Canada, the Prairies/Plains, and Scandinavia.)

I was sorry to hear that Box Offices does not like asparagus. I don't know what to say to that except you don't know what you're missing! To everyone else I say: Bon app'!

They're heeeere!


My asparagus have come! My asparagus have come! My asparagus are here! They're not ready to eat, but they're here! You can't see me, but just so you know, I am jumping for joy!

Asparagus are a great vegetable to grow in the garden because they are so low maintenance once they are in the ground. Granted they can be hard work before they're up and going, but they are worth it.

You can see the spindly, little blanched spears in the picture... the poor things: through my own error the little dears were caught in transit for close to a week, so they were very emaciated and hungry when they arrived at my place. However, they were immediately put into a load of nice, rich compost. I'm crossing my fingers that I will have my first crop next year!

If you have a garden and can spare a spot in the sun, plant some asparagus! They require some room, but they come back every year (some asparagus stands on abandoned farmland are said to be close to 100 years old!!!)

And there is nothing like homegrown, picked-just-now-fresh spears.

Seriously.

I think I've mentioned it in every single one of my posts: asparagus are very perishable. Yeah, they're fine even after they've flown all the way from Peru, but they are sooooo much better when they hardly travelled anywhere at all. Just picked, they can be eaten raw: they are sweet and juicy, and wonderfully crisp, with hints of green apple and freshly mown hay. Once you've eaten these babies, you will never go back to store bought, out of season asparagus again.

Anyway. So as I was saying, if you have the room, plant some asparagus. Whether you buy them by mail order or from a plant nursery, they usually come with pretty reliable instructions, so I will only add this bit of advice: COMPOST. Your asparagus will be staying in the same spot until you decide to tear them out, so they need a nice sunny spot and lots of compost or manure dug into the area where you want them to grow. Water them in once planted, and that is pretty much it. Oh, and don't pick in the plant's first year: they need to be well settled in before you can pick.

Until then, buy local asparagus!



Tuesday, May 5, 2009

If Music Be the Food of Love....

It's fiddlehead time! Isn't it fitting that the region that gave us that wild fiddle music should also be the spiritual home to the humble vegetable we call fiddlehead? Fiddleheads (têtes de violon in French) are now available worldwide thanks to Atlantic Canada, the largest exporting region of these little green beauties.

Fiddleheads can be picked all over North America, and depending which area you live in, you will be picking a different species of fern. Since I have no idea which one you should be picking, I will only suggest that you buy your fiddleheads at the market or the greengrocer. Most edible ferns in North America have little dried brown bits stuck to the stems: these do not have to be removed, but you should wash the fidlleheads in 2-3 changes of water to get rid of any dirt or bugs. Trim off the browned cut end, and you're ready to get cooking.

I know that nutritionists everywhere say that vegetables should never be cooked in contact with water, but it's all balderdash: some vegetables have to cooked in water, otherwise they will be inedible. Most bitter vegetables are made more palatable when cooked in lots of water. Bring a large pot of water to the boil, and dump in your fiddleheads. It takes at least 7 minutes to cook, sometimes more. Take a sharp and pointy knife to poke the thickest part of the fiddlehead's stem, if the knife slips in and out easily, it's cooked. Immediately immerse the veg in cold water to stop the cooking. (I realise that this cooking method uses large quantities of water, but it need not be a waste: if you let the cooking water cool down, it is great for watering houseplants or your garden. In fact, if you keep all your cooking water -unsalted pasta water too- for your plants, you probably won't need to use fertilisers ever again. You can also use you veg washing and cooling waters on your plants.)

You could eat the fiddleheads as is with some mayo, but that would be a little bland. In a fry pan, melt some butter and add some finely chopped shallots or onions. When cooked, add the boiled fiddleheads, give it a toss, season with salt and pepper, and you've got a lovely side dish.

I think it goes without saying that boiled fiddleheads can also be battered up and made into delicious fritters or tempura -is there anything that isn't scrumptious when deep fried?

If you've ever been in Chinatown or an Asian grocery and wondered why they had piles of fiddleheads in the frozen section, it's because ferns are also eaten in some regions of China and Japan. I'm not sure they are consumed elsewhere however. Ferns in Japan are a real springtime delicacy: country inns and all sort of tourist stops have special wild food menus that feature fern bracken and wild garlic in the springtime. Asian ferns are nothing like North American fiddleheads, but it would seem that they are used interchangeably: Asian forests cannot supply enough wild foods for the teeming millions of aficionados.

Makes me wonder why we aren't more appreciative of our wild abundance....

Bon app'!


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