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.

Lettuce
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.

Roots
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'!

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