Monday, June 15, 2009

The salad days are here!


We are 8 days away from the first day of summer! And you no longer have any excuses for not eating local produce.

Market stalls are overflowing, and even supermarkets are jumping on the bandwagon. There is an abundance of choice, and everything is delicious.

-Radishes
They are plentiful and cheap (I bought these 2 bunches for 2$). And the cool rainy weather we've been having has produced mild crunchers. If you prefer your radishes spicy, you might have better luck in the coming weeks, as they are announcing a mini heatwave on the East Coast. However, newer varieties tend to be quite mild.
At this point in the radish season, you are most likely to find them with their leaves still on. Make sure the leaves are bright green, and not too wilted (the hot sun will have the better of them near the end of the day, so don't be too hard on them). When you get home, cut the leaves off right away if you do not plan on munching on radishes within the next 48hours: the leaves will drain the roots of their water and nutrients leaving you with wizened and unappetising things. Do not, however, throw out the leaves! If you, like me, aren't too keen on lettuce, you can liven up the bland leaves with radish greens. Otherwise, feed them to you pet rabbits or your urban chickens.
The radishes themselves are great on their own, with a dip, or with BUTTER! I am a cook, so I cannot help it: butter is gooood. Seriously though, the French often serve their crudité platters with some not-too-soft-butter (unsalted) and a little dish of salt. Each orb, still wet from being washed, is dipped in the salt and smeared with butter before being gobbled up. Sounds a little like drinking tequila! The butter's creaminess coats the inside of your mouth and helps dampen down the radish's fire.
Or you can slice or chop them into a salad. If you like the cool contrast between the red skin and the white flesh of radishes, add them to your salad after you've tossed in the dressing as the red will bleed out.
Radishes can also be pickled: these are not your regular dill pickles, but more of an asian instant pickle. The vinegar turns them a pretty hue of pink, so it might do the job in convincing a little princess that radishes are delish!

Instant Sweet Pickles

½cup (125ml) rice wine (or any white) vinegar
½cup (112g) sugar, preferably white but can be demerara or any light coloured raw sugar
1 bunch radishes, or 2 large carrots, or ½ a daikon, or a combination of all 3

-These pickles are easiest to make if you have a mandolin, otherwise you will need to slice the radishes quite thinly and julienne the carrots and daikon with a very sharp knife.
-Stir sugar into vinegar until completely dissolved.
You might be tempted to heat this mix to melt the sugar more quickly, but I don't recommend it as it will concentrate the vinegary-ness.
-Marinate the vegetables for 5 to 10 minutes, and serve. Great as a salad for a spicy meal, or as an alternative to relish and ketchup on burgers and hot dogs.
These pickles can be kept indefinitely, however they get stinky
(the pepperiness in radishes is produced by a sulfurous compound, which in prolonged contact with vinegar, will start to smell) and lose their crunchiness over time, so it is best to eat them as you make them.

-Lettuce
Like most vegetables that are currently in season, lettuces are loving the weather. Sweltering hot summer tends to turn lettuces bitter, and makes them bolt (go to seed). If you like iceberg lettuce -I've notice that icebergs are enjoying a comeback- now is your chance to eat locals: ices do not like summer. In Quebec, growers tend to plant loose leaf (lola rossa or oak leaf) or butterheads (boston type), as they seem to support our hot, humid summers better. On the West Coast, where the summers tend to be rainier, you will find more head lettuces (romaine and such).
I was never a fan of lettuce, but I must admit that fresh leaves can be quite delightful. And market sellers know it: there are literally tons of varieties of lettuces, most of which can only be found at a farmers' market. Supermarkets have stuck to their old standbys, among which the iceberg.
As summer moves along, some varieties will come and go, giving you the opportunity to discover new flavours. Combined with a different dressing, the possibilities are endless!

-Green Onions
Green onions are plentiful and cheap as chips. But have you noticed that when you buy imported ones at the supermarket, they don't always make it to the end of the week? It's because they are not fresh. The ones I get in my CSA baskets easily last a whole month in my fridge (why am I keeping them that long you ask? My veg drawer gets so full with the generous weekly baskets, that some things fall to the bottom and get forgotten...), and the ones currently on market stalls will likely do the same. If you have a choice, pick onions that are untrimmed: they keep better.
Ever wondered what were green onions? They're immature regular onions... or not! There are two types of onion greens: bunching onions are a type of onion that hardly ever forms a bulb, imports from southern regions are generally of this type. The other kind of greeny is just an onion that hasn't started forming its bulb. Which explains why the greenies you find at a farmer's stall often come in purple: they were thinned out from an overcrowded field.
Green onions are versatile: they can be eaten raw in a salad or as a garnish on asian dishes (and you won't get stinky breath), or they can be cooked in a stir fry, or replace regular onions in a recipe.
I wouldn't go so far as to say that onion relatives are all interchangeable, but if you choose to eat only local and in season, then you hit the jackpot with this baby: the family's availability spreads out through the year, so you can have onion-y zing all year long without ever having to buy imports!

-Roquette
Also known as arugula or rocket, this peppery leaf is a godsend for salad lovers! It is a rather easy herb to grow and it is not finicky at all: cool and wet, or hot and dry, roquette will grow no matter what. It will get hotter with the weather though. Arugula is in season from mid-spring until late autumn, but it is at its mildest right about now.
Used in mixed salads, it livens up any tired old leaves, but it can also be cooked like spinach or tossed into a bowl of hot pasta with Parmesan and olive oil. Bellissima!
You might have run into wild roquette: it's not a relative, though it has a similar, if somewhat spicier, tang. It can be used the same way.
If you happen to buy a bunch with the roots still attached, you can replant them! Cut the leaves 5cm (2") from the roots, and soak in a glass of water overnight. Plant the roots in a deep pot, or a shady spot of garden. Water regularly, and you should be rewarded with a new crop of leaves. If the plants bolt, do not throw them out right away: roquette flowers are pretty and tasty. If you choose not to eat them, the bees and butterflies will certainly enjoy buzzing about the flowers.

-Spinach
Raw spinach is great in salads. If you don't like that weird feeling you get on your teeth after eating raw spinach, stick to baby or younger bunch spinach. That raspy sensation is caused by oxalic acid with builds up in spinach leaves as they get older. I doubt, however, you will find much aged spinach right now. Unless you buy your spinach picked and washed in a bag (tsk, tsk, tsk).
Fresh spinach is dirty: you need to wash it in at least three changes of water before you see the end of the grit. But it is worth the effort: the leaves are tender and juicy, and you rarely have fibrous bits, even in the older bunches and stalks. I seriously wonder what they do to bagged spinach for it to be so stringy. Unwashed and wrapped in a plastic bag or a damp towel, spinach will keep for a week; washed, trimmed and spun dry, it keeps for about 4 days. So buy a couple of bunches, wash it on you day off, and you'll have ready to eat spinach waiting for you in your fridge. And don't buy that bagged stuff, it's vile!

Bon app'!

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