Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Me Want COOKIES!!!!!!

I am a snacker. I think I've confessed to this vice before...

When I lived in London, my sweetheart and I pulled 70 hour workweeks, and hardly ever ate at home, yet our week-end grocery list (and bill) was huge from all the snacks I would purchase to satisfy my midnight cravings. Our small kitchen was filled to the brim with cookies, crackers and chips. Known as crisps in the UK, they came in a myriad of flavours each more tempting than the next: like Sweet Thai Chilli; Aged Cheddar; Stilton Cheese; Sundried Tomato; and meat flavours like Minted Lamb, Char-Grilled Beef and General Tao's Chicken for all the non-veg!

My present kitchen has been divested of most snack foods. I no longer live in fast-paced, work-crazed London, and having so much ready-to-eat food around when I have a three-day-week-end is just too dangerous. I do, occasionally, buy chips and crackers and such, but I try to avoid cookies and most sweets, because, I reason, I know how to make them way better than anything store-bought. Reasoning to oneself in a supermarket when your stomach is grumbling does not always work...

I like my cookies to be crisp on the outside and cakey-moist on the inside, a little like a muffin top, but thinner and yummier. I've been using the same, basic chocolate chip cookie recipe since forever, but I only discovered how to get the cakeyness about 10 years ago. I was making raisin-oatmeal cookies, and the raisin being a little too dry, I had soaked them in some rum and orange juice. Not wanting to waste good rum, I threw the unabsorbed liquid into the cookie batter, and the cookies turned out soft with crisp edges. Perfect!


It also works with chocolate chip cookies, though the chips do not require any soaking... duh!

The batter can be firm or very soft, depending on the butter's temperature. If your kitchen is cool, and the batter is firm, the cookies will need to be smooshed a bit before going in the oven as butter-based batters do not spread out like shortening-based cookies.

The cookies will eventually lose their crispness, but they should remain soft and moist for a week or more in a covered tin -if they don't get eaten before then.

Fruity Oatmeal Cookies
Makes around 2 dozens

½c /115g butter, room temperature
1c / 275g brown sugar, firmly packed
1 egg
1c /225g  all-purpose flour
1c /250g old-fashion oatmeal 
1tsp / 2g baking powder
1c /± 275g raisins, dried cranberries, chopped dried mangoes, etc... or chocolate chips/shards
enough liquid of your choice to just-barely-cover the dried fruits (if you are using chocolate chips, add 3Tbs / 45mL of whatever liquid you want -water, juice, alcohol or milk)

Soak the dried fruit in the liquid, set aside.
Cream butter until soft, you can do this over a double-boiler if the butter is particularly hard, but do not let it melt completely.
Add sugar to butter, and beat until light and fluffy. 
Add egg, and beat thoroughly.
Combine all the dry ingredients, and add to batter.
Remove fruits from the soaking liquor, they should be plump and moist and you should have about 3 tablespoons-worth of liquid left. If not, let the fruits soak for longer.
Mix fruits and liquor into the batter.

You can leave the batter to rest at this point, or even roll it into logs to keep in the freezer (up to 1 month).

Spoon heaping teaspoons of batter onto a papered cookie sheet.
Bake 12-15 minutes at 350'F/ 175'C.
Eat when cool enough to handle.

 Bon app'!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Overwhelmed

I am an emotional pincushion.
Nothing personal.
I've been glued to the telly and the radio, listening to the latest reports on Haiti. Crying.

And in the midst of that tragedy, news that singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle had passed away made for a sniffly Tuesday at work.

It got me thinking about how unsatisfactory work has been lately, and how I wish... for so many things. My mind went wandering, then I read fellow blogger Abi's post of the day: "If you make your only 'goal' happiness then you will find that your dreams grow organically out of that."

So nicely said. Thanks Abi.

I have been in a complete funk all week, and have not been able to motivate myself to do very much. I did make it to the grocery store, though I almost walked out empty-handed.

Do you know that I have never eaten a hard-shell taco? Ever? Tex-Mex joints and fake Mexican food were staples during my university years, but I never had a taco (probably because there were no vegetarian options.) I remember having birthday parties in pseudo-Mexican restaurants as a kid, but nary a taco in sight: lots of burritos, chimichangas, and heaps of fried ice-cream. No tacos.

Summer of '86.
My family was vacationing in California, driving up and down the coast. It was beautiful. The weather was gorgeous. We picked our own grapes. Days at the beach: I wished I had learnt to surf in Hawaii two summers earlier. Somewhere between Los Angeles and San Diego, we drove by a forest fire, the sky dark with smoke, the air thick and hot. The Mojave Desert seems like a shimmering mirage with its sprinting coyotes over hazy asphalt. And the sequoias are awe-inspiring.
We spent a day in Tijuana -not the real Mexico, I know, but I was ten, it was as Mexican as it would get for me. We bought flour tortilla tacos from a street vendor: the beef was spicy and  tender, the tortilla was soft and  chewy. It was so tasty and exotic. They didn't have those in Canada!

So I bought some taco shells at the supermarket. And a head of romaine lettuce of unknown origin. I remembered that I had some avocados in my fridge, and a few garden tomatoes left (yes!!!! survivors from my garden! little nuggets of summers slowly ripening on my kitchen table.) I also picked up a tub of sour cream - I think it was the only local product in my basket, a bit embarrassed to admit it...


The guacamole was really basic: avocados, chopped and partially mushed; lemon juice; yellow pear tomatoes, quartered; salt and pepper; some chopped chipotle in adobo that I found at the very back of my fridge; chopped green onions, and cilantro of course.

By the way, autumn to late winter is the season for avocados in the Northern hemisphere. Granted, they are not local to Canada nor to northern US, but the Californian and Mexican harvests of different varieties are in full swing. Florida's crops will be a rarity this year as avocados do not appreciate the freezing temperatures they had recently.


The 'meat' was slivered, extra-firm tofu, sautéed with ground cumin and coriander, chilli pepper flakes, salt and pepper, slivers of red onion, some more chipotle for good measure, and finished off with chopped cilantro.

Ideally, the tofu would have been fried until crisp bits formed on its edges, but I was getting impatient and very hungry. Cumin and coriander are appetite openers, their heady aroma just tickle your nostrils and call to your stomach. Your mouth waters despite itself. My stomach is grumbling just at the thought.

Chop the lettuce, stir the sour cream, think about grating some cheddar, but think otherwise... too hungry.

Crunch, munch, mmmph.

All in all, it was a good first experience, but someone has to explain to me how one goes about eating a taco without making a huge mess.

Bon app'!


Friday, January 22, 2010

There She Blows

Soufflés aren't usually thought of as comfort foods. In fact, soufflés might be one of those dishes  many home cooks run away from... Yet soufflés are actually very easy to accomplish, and can be rather comforting, once you've got the hang of them. Not to brag or anything,  but my first cheese soufflé was stupendous: I was eight, and was just beginning to cook.

A good recipe is always good to have, but understanding the soufflé is key. Like G.I. Joe used to say: knowing is half the battle.

A soufflé is basically a béchamel to which eggs and flavourings are added. That's it.

If you are confident in your white sauce abilities, then you too can make a soufflé. Since a soufflé is basically a fancy and puffy béchamel, you can pass off just about any vegetable on picky eaters, and they will eat it! You may have to do some fine chopping to foil really finicky kids, but I swear that even kale will go unnoticed.

Since I have been making soufflés for a while now, I rarely follow recipes anymore, but I have dug out Julia Child's recipe to serve as a guideline.

Basic Soufflé
Serves 4 to 6 as a starter or 2-3 as a main dish with a side salad

 2½ Tbs butter
3 Tbs flour
1 cup/ 250mL liquid
¾c flavouring (cheese, spinach, kale, peas, mushrooms, etc... or a combination thereof)
4 yolks
5 egg whites
butter, breadcrumbs/ grated parmesan/ flour for mold

Start with the béchamel:
Melt the butter over medium heat, add the flour and stir until the flour and butter start bubbling and is barely starting to brown, about 1 minute.
Slowly add the liquid while whisking vigourously. Milk is the prefered liquid, but you can use stock if you intend to make a meaty soufflé. When all the liquid has been added, cook off for another 3 minutes, all the while stirring constantly.
Remove from heat and add flavourings. 
*While I would never overwrite Julia, once you get a hang of the soufflé, you will come to notice that a soufflé can take on a bit more filling. It may not rise as high as Julia's soufflé, but you will be able to hide enough veg to feed your family: a cheese soufflé made according to Julia Child's measurement can absorb up to an extra cup of cooked spinach, mushrooms and kale.
At this point, your béchamel can be set aside for up to 5 days, or used for other purposes.

Add egg yolks, one at a time, to the béchamel. Mix until everything is completely combined.
This mixture can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.

Whip egg whites. If you are unsure of your eggwhite-whipping skills, add a pinch of cream of tartar to avoid over-whisking.
You want the whites to be firm, yet soft enough for the peaks to fold over. The cream of tartar will give you some leeway. Egg whites whip up more loftily if they are at room temperature, and your mixing bowl and whisk must be impeccably clean.


Next you need to fold the whites into the béchamel.
If your béchamel is fridge cold, give it a good whisk to loosen it up. Add a third to half of the egg whites to the béchamel. Mix it in to further loosen the batter.

Using a rubber spatula, gently fold in the rest of the whites: run the spatula along the edge of your bowl for a couple of inches and turn into the centre of the mix with a flick of the wrist. Fold until there are (almost) no lumps of egg white left: any lumps smaller than 1 cm/ ½" is okay.
Any mold can be used to make a soufflé. However, the straighter and higher the sides, the more lofty the soufflé. This recipe is for a six cup mold, but you can also make individual soufflés.
Generously butter the side and bottom of the mold.
Sprinkle breadcrumbs, grated parmesan or flour on the buttered surface, and shake out any excess.
This is an important step: it will help the soufflé rise to vertiginous heights, and it will form a crisp crust around the soufflé.
Fill the mold. If you are making one big soufflé, pour the whole mix into the mold. Smaller molds should be filled somewhere between half and two-thirds: less, and the mix will not rise enough, more and you risk and overflowing mess.
If you happen to have more mix than you have molds, you can use muffin tins, without the paper liners. More on leftovers later.
Once your molds are filled, you can keep them for up to an hour in a warm and draft-free place. Meaning, you can have soufflé for a dinner-party!

Pre-heat the oven to 400'F/200'C.
When the oven is good and hot, place your soufflé on the middle rack of the oven. Turn the temperature down to 375'F/ 185'C. And do not open the oven door for the the next 30 minutes!

A smaller soufflé will take 15 to 20 minutes to cook. Larger ones take 30 to 45 minutes. They will look done 5 minutes earlier, and if you like creamy soufflés, you can. But they will be more fragile and will fall more rapidly, especially if it's winter and your house is a little chilly.
 

Serve on its own as a starter, or with a nice salad as a main dish. 
 
Leftover soufflé are nothing to sniff at: they can be warmed over in the toaster oven or eaten cold, and are lovely for Sunday brunch or in a breakfast sandwich. I bet they could be beat any fastfood breakie sandwich hands down.


I'm getting hungry again...

By the way, if you happen to have leftover egg whites in your fridge, you can make a soufflé without yolks. You will need the equivalent of 6 to 7 egg whites (180 to 200g or 12-14 Tbs). Proceed as above, without the yolk.

A note on the cheese: any hard, flavourful and grate-able cheese will do. However, I would avoid stringy cheeses like mozzarella. And go for stronger cheeses, a medium or sharp over a mild cheddar.

Also, Julia's recipe calls for more egg white than yolk: if you don't like keeping orphan yolks in the fridge because you tend to forget about them, you can throw it in the soufflé. It will make for a slightly heavier soufflé, but it will still be tasty.

I hope you will try this out, if you haven't already. Soufflés are really much easier than they seem, and they make the simplest ingredients so very special.



Bon app'!

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Humble Little Button Mushroom


Ah, the button mushroom! I sometimes forget that mushrooms are vegetables in their own right -except when it's wild mushroom time, of course! But the humble button is a lovely vegetable, that truly has no season: it is grown in dark, damp and slightly warm places like a cellar, a heated shed, or even rehabilitated mine shafts. As far as I know, they are also grown just about everywhere, so you can easily get your hands on local 'shrooms.


Packaged mushrooms now contain a whole variety of fungi, from cremimi/coffee/portobellini to oysters, enoki to shiitake, but I will only dwell on the humble white. They  are fairly inexpensive (averaging 2.50$ for a 227g pack, or 99¢ when on sale), and can be the basis for a very filling meal. Add a small handful (4-6 buttons) to a tomato sauce and you can treat 2 to 4 people to a nice pasta dinner. Quarter the whole pack of mushrooms, and you can stir up a vegetarian goulash for two. If you must have meat, add one thinly slivered steak, and you can easily appease 4 to 6 hungry bellies.

Contrary to what we have been told countless times, mushrooms can be washed in water. In fact, you can even dunk 'em in a sinkful of cool water, and need not worry they will turn watery: mushrooms are already over 50% water, so chances are that all that juice in your pan comes from the 'shrooms themselves. So wash away buddy! You've got nothing to fear but fear itself! If you choose to not wash your fungi, you've little to fear too, most of the dirt can be brushed off, and it's sterile compost anyway. To wash or not to wash your 'shrooms, it's all up to you.


White button mushrooms sometime get a bad rap: empty calories, waste of a good chew, no nutrional value... Well, it's all bunk! They are very low in calories, yet are surprisingly packed with nutrition.They are also one of the few vegetal sources of vitamin D (the other being sundried shiitake mushrooms), so they are a great winter food when most of us get too little exposure to direct sun.


Mushrooms are also a natural source of glutamate: that 'evil' ingredient in ready-made foods that make them sooo addictively tasty. Artificial sources of glutamates add to instant foods' high sodium content, but those found naturally in foods are all flavour: they give that meaty, protein taste to dishes high in mushrooms. So all you veggies out there who (sometimes) miss meat, but don't want to eat the fake stuff, eat mushrooms.

Goulash is perfect winter fare: its 'stewiness' is absolutely heartwarming in a stick-to-your-ribs kind of way, but it does not require a regular stew's long cooking time. This goulash is my version of the dish. I am sure that people of Hungarian descent will not recognize their national specialty. In fact, for the longest time, I thought this was a vegetarian Stroganoff. Well, I was wrong, but it's still tasty. And quite filling. It also makes use of  the industrial sized package of Hungarian Paprika my brother brought me back from Budapest.

Although I do not think you absolutely need to have Hungarian paprika to make this goulash -sweet Spanish paprika is rather nice too, especially Dalia brand (!)-  you do need fresh paprika. I've heard so many people exclaim that paprika was the most tasteless spice they've ever had, others called the poor powder 'red dust'.  The only problem was the spice's age: fresh paprika taste of ripe, red peppers with a hint of bite. It has a vegetal flavour and  brings voluptuousness to any dish, especially stews.


By the way, there are some pretty old spices in my cabinet, but paprika is the only one I have that is ground: whole spices actually have a surprisingly long shelf-life, but anything ground should be used as quickly as possible, or kept in the freezer. 


Smoked paprika is also another spice I use in this dish: it brings extra 'meatiness' to the mushrooms. It is not a necessity, so don't go out of your way to find some if you don't have it, but it does adds a subtle smokiness to the goulash, which is always a plus. Maybe it all harkens back to my meat-eating past, but there is something really comforting about smokey foods. It's so lovely in the winter, anyhow.

Mushroom Goulash (serves 2, or 4-6 if using meat)

1 package (227g/ ½lb) white button or cremimi mushrooms
1 medium onion
1 Tbs butter
3 large cloves garlic
3 Tbs sweet paprika
1 tsp smoked, sweet paprika
1 generous pinch thyme
salt and pepper
1 generous splash (±¼ cup) wine -red or white- optional
3 heaping Tbs leftover tomato sauce, optional
1 (±75g) slab salt-cured bacon, or 4 rashers bacons, cut into lardons, optional
1 (±120g) steak -any cut- cut into thin slivers, optional 
sour cream, regular cream, or crème fraîche/crème épaisse for garnish, optional


 *If you are using the bacon and meat: start by frying of the lardons in a bit of hot oil at medium heat (for some reason, this is a necessary step, lardons tend to burn if you leave the extra oil out. Skip the oil if you are using chopped bacon rashers.) When the bacon is nice and brown, remove to a plate, crank up the heat to high and throw the beef in. Quickly brown the slivered steak, then remove to a plate. You can discard the bacon fat and start anew with butter (extra tasty this! and it'll cut down on excessive smokiness) or you can forgo the butter, and use the bacon fat to cook the vegetables.*  

Peel and quarter onions. Cut into medium-thin slices.
Melt butter on medium heat, add onions, thyme, crushed garlic. Leave to sweat out.
Wash and quarter mushrooms, add to the onions when these have turned translucent.
Stir mushrooms around, as they should not colour too much. If they start browning, add wine and tomato sauce -if using- otherwise throw a small glassful of water to cool the pot down.
Add the paprikas, stir about and cook out for 5-10 minutes.

You can stir in the sour cream if you like a creamier goulash, but it is not necessary at all. 
Serve with buttered noodles or rice and peas (frozen!)


This dish reminds of the Beef Stroganoff my Mum used to make when I was a kid. Though I now know that Stroganoff is not quite what I thought it was, by any other name, it still makes for a scrumptious meal.

Bon app'!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Help Haiti

It's hard to ignore the horrors in Haiti. The devastation is so massive that one feels completely helpless to help.

Aid organisations all agree on one thing: unless you are part of on the ground rescue operations, your best options is to send money.

Here are some links to organisations who have long standing records in Haiti:
Médecins du Monde is another medical NGO with a long history in Haiti

The Humanitarian Coalition is the emergency disaster relief website for four NGOs, for those who are unable to decide where to send their donations.
Other, smaller groups may organising funding drives, but beware that they are unscrupulous people out there.

With close to 75% of Canada's Haitian diaspora living in Montreal, no one in the city is untouched by the disaster. A group of Montrealers are scrambling to set a charity concert in less than a week. While the final line-up has yet to be announced, the location and ticket price are already set: 20$ will buy you an evening of Montreal's great talents on January 21. All the money will be going to help Haiti.

I will keep you posted as more information comes up.

There are, obviously, all sorts of events happening around the world. If you hear of other events and want to give me a shout, I will post a link:
Carnegie Hall, February 26, 2010 


Addendum: I've been trying to donate through the web, thinking it would be easier. However, it would seem that both the websites and phone lines are being flooded with donations (a good thing). So I will be mailing my donations in. If you choose to the same, addresses can be found on the websites.
Also, a whole slew of charity concerts are being organised left, right and centre, so keep your eyes peeled.

** Yet another addendum: For those of you out there who have chosen to donate via your cell phones, please remember to reply to the follow up SMS after you've sent off your donation. Apparently close to two thirds of mobile phone donations have not gone through because people are not confirming them.
 

Monday, January 11, 2010

Lady Marmalade

Confiture d'oignons... It sounds so sexy in French, so much better than 'caramelized onions'. But a little light flashed in my head today at work when someone asked me 'Is that marmalade?'

Why yes, it is marmalade. Onion marmalade. And it has such a luxurious mouth feel that it is absolutely worth the tears and red eyes from chopping 2kg (5lbs) of onions, and three hours of stove time.

Yes folks, you read right: three hours on the stove!
But no worries, it's low maintenance: I spent most of the time in front of the idiot box, darning a favourite, old sweater that has seen better days. Ideally, one would cook the onions over a slow-burning wood stove or an Aga, but it is not an ideal world... A regular electric or gas cooker on a very low setting does the trick though, and maybe after an initial stove top sweating session, CrockPot can take care of the rest. In any case, the end result will be worth every effort!

So to the onions then. Any amount you are willing to chop is good enough, but you should make it worth your while and go for at least 2kg. Any less, and there just won't be enough confiture.

There is no need to chop too finely, about 5mm (¼") is okay, as the prolonged cooking would render thin shards down to a pulp. If you happen to have other alliums hanging about your pantry, you can throw them in too: shallots, leeks and garlic, all are welcome as long as they're kissing cousins.

Next you need butter. At least 1 tablespoon (30g) per kilo of onions, but no more than 3. If you are avoiding butter, a neutral oil is okay -you do not know what you are missing!- but you might have to add a generous pinch of sugar to help the caramelisation along.

Season with coarse salt -if you have, about a scant teaspoon per kilo- or ½ tsp of fine. Onion, butter and salt are a beautiful trinity, but you can -I do- add flavour enhancers to the lot. A bay leaf and a few sprigs (or pinches) of thyme are classic additions; I had some fresh sage dying to get used, so I threw it in. Star anise, juniper berries, long pepper, cloves, nutmeg or allspice could also be nice.

Get everyone nice and cozy and sweating in a large pot: the bigger the cooking surface, the shorter the stove time. Keep stirring the onions over medium high heat until they begin turning translucent. Turn the heat down to low, and go about your business for the next half hour or so. Next time you check up on your onions, they should have exuded quite a bit of juice, turn your cooker to its second to lowest setting, and check in an hour later.

When all the juices have cooked off, turn the heat down to the lowest setting, and check back half an hour later. The onions should start colouring a bit, it might even stick in some spots. Give it a good stir, and you can go back to reading your book. Or, if you are getting impatient, turn the heat up to medium, and keep a close watch. When the onions start sticking all over the bottom of your pot, start stirring constantly. Eventually, the onions will become an even, golden and fragrant brown. There might be some juices left: that's okay if you intend to consume every last bit of onion marmalade on the spot. However, if you want to keep the comfit for  a wee longer, take a few spoonfuls for eating right away, and return the rest to a low heat and let it cook some more.

If you've chosen to leave your marmelade to its own devices, you may eventually notice that your home is embalmed in a wonderful cloud of onion-yness. Run to the stove!

The onions may have stuck to the bottom of the pot, they may even have burnt a little. No worries: take the pot off the heat, stir everything about to assess the damage. If everything scrapes easily off the bottom,  all is okay. Check to see if all the juices have cooked off. If not, return to the stove top, and keep an eye on it.

If there are some stubborn burnt bits, taste the marmalade before you chuck it all out. Often there is barely any bitterness at all, or just enough to cut the sweetness of the onions. If you like the bitter notes, leave the whole pot to cool overnight; in the morning, all the burnt bits will have melded into the marmalade, and you will have a pleasantly bittersweet onion comfit.

If your onions are really bitter, save what you can, start a new batch, and combine the twain. If that sounds like too much trouble, make onion soup.

Two kilos of onions will yield about 375mL (±12oz) of marmalade. It may seem like a whole lot of work for nothing, but let me tell you what you can achieve with a jar of caramelized onions:

Instant onion soup: A cup of boiling water/ veggy or chicken stock/ amber ale  with a couple tablespoons of caramelized onions, and you've got a cup of soup like you've never had before. Add some cheese on toast, and you've got a meal.

Warm potato salad: This one is a no-brainer. Freshly boiled potatoes, marmalade, a splash of balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. Add a few Moroccan olives: a flavour explosion if ever there was one.

The best sandwiches ever: If you like a Ploughman's lunch, that jar of onions makes a passable fill-in for Branston pickles -which I am unable to find in Montreal. It's not quite the same, but it still makes for a mighty tasty cheese sandwich. It's also a good foil for bacon, if you are into bacon sandwiches.

Braised savoy cabbage with caramelized onions is classically called embeurré de choux in French cookery. It requires lardons (thick cut, salt-cured bacon, cut into pinky-sized chunks) to be rendered to a crisp in  a bit of butter (!), to which one adds shredded savoy cabbage. Sauté over medium heat until the cabbages sweat, add a generous amount of onion comfit, stir about, leave to bubble over low heat for 5 to 10 minutes. The savoy cabbage keeps its colour well, despite the seemingly excessive cooking time. Vegetarians can leave the bacon out and never miss it: I don't even bother with smoked coconut for this dish, it's lovely without.

There are so many things you can do with a jar of confiture d'oignon. I promise you, you will not regret having spent all that time for one jar.

Bon app'!







Addendum: If my post on sprouts has peaked your interest, and would like to supplement your internet research, Mark Braunstein offers a free, downloadable sprouting chart that you can link to from here.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

It's Smokin'!


This is how stir-crazy gardeners suffering from cabin fever get their kicks in the dead of winter at -12'C (10'F), windchill factor -22'C (-8'F): by stirring a steaming pile of compost.

Yeah, I'm sure you're fascinated, and are absolutely in awe of my steaming compost... But it's a point of pride for my gardener's soul. One day, I will have an off-the-grid home heated by my compost...

In the meantime, I am rubbing my hands at the thought of all those plants that will not go hungry over the coming months.

Bon app' petits légumes et belles fleurs!

It Doesn' Get Closer To Home Than This


No, it isn't a picture of weird alien worms. It's a close-up of my sprouting jar.

I grow sprouts. It's easy and... fun? Well, I'm not sure everyone would call it fun, but it definitely satisfies some of my gardening itches in the dead of winter. And it definitely is easy. And tasty. And it all happens right in my kitchen.

There are lots of resources on the web for growing sprouts, so I will only touch upon the main points. If for some reason you do not like googling for information, your public library should have a couple of books on sprouting. They're usually in the cooking section beside the vegetarian and macrobiotic cookbooks. Some vegetarian cookbooks also touch upon the subject. I'd look up for books that were first published in the 70s, like The New Laurel's Kitchen. A really complete ressource book on sprouting is The Sprout Garden by Mark M. Braunstein.

First of all, you do not need any fancy equipment. I have tried quite a few, from the clear plastic, multi-level sprouter to the fancy jars with plastic mesh tops, and I always come back to the old hippie standard: the Mason jar with mosquito netting. If you do not have spare Mason jars hanging about your kitchen, you can use any old jar with a piece of loose-weave cloth or mosquito-netting elastic-ed to the top.

My main beef against commercially available sprouters is that their plastic 'mesh' usually have too few holes that are too big: smaller seeds like mustard tend to clog them up, and are difficult to pry out, and it just makes the whole process quite tedious. If you do end up using a piece of cloth, you need to make sure its weave is no tighter than... lace curtains! My first sprouter was topped with leftover material from kitchy, polyester lace curtains, and it worked okay. A double layer of cheese cloth may also work. But the absolute best is definitely soft plastic mosquito netting.  I'm currently using a cut up splatter guard from the dollar store; I used the Mason jar top for measurements, and the screw-ring keeps the whole set-up in place.


Sprouting seeds are available from natural food stores. They come in single varieties or in interesting mixes. Price will vary according to the seed variety, but most seeds are reasonably priced. However, you do not necessarily have to buy sprouting mixes: if your bulk food store has a good turnover rate, you might have luck with their grains and legumes.

Be forwarned though: the seeds must be in pristine shape (no nicks, chips and cracks) and they must not be irradiated. If you are buying bulk organic, then your seeds are very likely to sprout. I've managed to sprout organic quinoa, flax and buckwheat.

Some plant nurseries also sell seeds for sprouting when they put out their seed stands in the spring, but the packets are tiny, and much more expensive than the organic stuff.

Not all seeds are suitable for jar sprouting. Some seeds, such as flax, chia, cress and basil develop a sticky, snot-like substance (properly called mucilage) when wet and clog up the holes in your netting. These seeds are usually sprouted in a saucer or in soil. Also, these sprouts are often left to grow green, as they are apparently more nutritious that way.


On top of requiring no special equipment, sprouts have few special needs. Some water, provided by an initial soaking, to revive the seeds and a daily rinsing out to refresh them.
Darkness: sprouts like to grow in a dark and draft-free place. I place my jars on an angle -like in the second picture- in the cupboard beneath the kitchen sink.
And warmth, nothing excessive, my kitchen is at a constant 18'C (66'F), and the cupboard is probably cooler. In fact, some bean seeds do not sprout well under too warm conditions. The first time I tried my hand at mung beans, I had left them in the furnace room in my parents' basements: the seeds rotted before they even had a chance to sprout.

One last thing about sprouts: despite what you may have seen in salad bars and fast-food salad joints, legume sprouts -such as mung and soy beans- should not be eaten raw. Raw legumes contain a toxic enzyme that can only be destroyed through thorough cooking. While the occasional salad is not likely to be harmful, if you get into the whole sprouting thing, you will probably end up eating lots of beans. Five minutes in boiling water, 10 minutes in the steamer or in a frying pan should be enough to cook your sprouts without losing any crunch.

Growing sprouts can be fun, and if you have kids, it can make for an interesting science project.  Growing your own sprouts opens your kitchen to new flavours -although the salad section in most grocery stores now offer a wide array of sprouts, there is an even wider variety of seeds available from the natural food store-  all for very little money. Extremely nutritious, low in calories and high in fibre, homegrown sprouts are a great way to add oomph to sometimes blah winter offerings.

If the amount of water required for the whole process seems a little wasteful (soaking, plus daily rinsing out over 3 to 4 days, not so bad, really), you can take comfort in the knowledge that all that water can be recycled into your houseplants. In fact, the soaking and rinse water are so full of nutrients, some of your houseplants may start to grow at an alarming rate even in the dead of winter!

Bon app'!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Some Like It Hot

Reading about other people's comfort foods got me thinking about my comfort foods... Definitely sweet. Despite claiming that I am a consummate salty snacker in my previous post, my surefire go-tos are sweets that harken back to my childhood: custard filled cream puffs (aka choux à la crème); rice or tapioca pudding; and crème caramel.

Yes, I definitely have a thing for that custardy texture.

Even my idea of salty comfort foods usually tend towards a creamy texture: anything with béchamel (like a vegetarian Bolognaise-style lasagna, or homemade macaroni and cheese) is top of the list. Lately however, I've been seeking out foods from my cultural heritage. More precisely, my mother's cooking. Like kimpira vegetables...

Named after a strong-willed character in traditional Japanese puppet theater, kimpira is a dish of (typically) root vegetables (all no-nonsense-good-for-you vegetables) sautéed in sesame oil with slivers of dried chilli peppers. The most common kimpira is made from matchstick-sized gobo, or Japanese burdock root, carrots, and/or lotus roots. Tasty stuff indeed, and always a treat when I happen to drop in at my parents' when my Mum's whipped up a batch. But, unless you are an ardent forager, you might have a hard time finding burdock root, even in an Asian grocery store. You can substitute salsify for burdock, if it is available at your farmers' market.

Do not go digging up the ponds at your local botanical gardens for lotus roots!!!
(Have you ever witnessed the glorious sight of a pondful of lotus in full bloom? It is truly a sight to behold. The Chinese Pavilion at the Montreal Botanical Garden is quite nice, but my fondest memory is the pond neighbouring the school where I worked when I lived in Japan. 
It was quite stupendous. Gorgeous in an exuberant way, almost bordering on the brazen. 
What a shock I had one September afternoon, when I walked to the pond only to find that it had been dredged up, and the lotus ripped out. I knew that the pond's owners were farmers, but I hadn't realised that the lotus were a crop, not a garden.)

Just in case you've resolved to eat only local products over the coming year, you needn't deprive yourself from tasting this easy dish. Tonight's kimpira was made from parsnips, celeriac, carrots and shredded cabbage. All survivors from my Hallowe'en harvest.

It was delicious. It filled the void in my stomach and my heart. It made me realise that I am a rice eater.

I never used to like rice. My parents had a hard time making me finish off the rice on my plate as a child. But my two year stay in Japan opened my eyes: rice raised on small paddies by caring farmers tastes wonderful. Each 'terroir' in Japan has its fetish variety of rice, with its own flavours and aromas. Being able to taste the difference was awesome.

Recent research claim that there is little evidence of difference between organic and conventional foods. That may be true, especially if the products tested all come from large-scale farms, but I am convinced that vegetables and animals lovingly raised, foods made with passion and care taste different. It sometimes brings tears to my eyes.

Kimpira Vegetables
(Feeds one famished vegetarian, or 3-4 regular eaters)

1 medium carrot
1 medium parsnip
1 small celeriac
5 leaves of green cabbage, ribs removed

2 Tbs/ 30mL Japanese toasted sesame oil
1 dried chilli pepper, sliced in thin slivers -or ¼ tsp chilli paste (Sriracha)- or to taste
1 Tbs mirin, or white wine with a generous pinch of sugar
Japanese soya sauce

Peel all vegetables.
Finely julienne each vegetable. You will need a sharp knife to do this easily, or you can use a mandoline*.
Heat oil in a frying pan on high heat (try to avoid Teflon pans, if that is not possible, sauté the veg in small batches at medium heat). 
When the oil starts to 'shimmer' (just before oil starts smoking, its surface seems to ripple), throw in your julienned vegetables and chilli pepper. 
Stir-fry until the vegetables just begin to turn limp -you want them to be al dente, or just crisp.
Add soya sauce to taste (± 2Tbs/ 30mL) and mirin.
Serve as a sidedish, with rice or stir-fried noodles.

You can substitute any and all vegetables for whatever you want -though I would stick to crunchy veg. Potatoes are tasty served this way. My Mum's served kimpira red peppers and carrots (full of vitamin A!) to great acclaims. And I am sure that rutabaga would be a success.

(The Japanese soya sauce and sesame oil are not a bid for nationalist pride: their flavours are more subtle than Chinese soy sauce and sesame oil, and will not overpower the vegetables' personalities. Most supermarkets have the more popular Japanese products in stock. Mirin is a sweet rice wine used only for cooing. Real mirin is difficult to find outside of Japan, but a dry white wine doctored with a pinch of sugar will do, or if you can spare it, a sweet white wine would make an extravagant substitute.)


I don't know if this dish will bring tears to your eyes, or if it will tickle your taste buds and warm your belly, but it is a little bit of what I call comfort.

Bon app'!
 




*From the Department of Gadgets You Never Knew You Needed:
A mandoline can really simplify your life if you are not confident about your knife skills. Japanese mandolines, like the one on the left, are great for slicing and shredding in three different width. These are usually found in Asian grocery stores. However, spare blades can only be ordered from Japanese stores, and it can take a long time. They are relatively inexpensive (± 30$), so if your blades are really dull and bent out of shape, it might be worth your time just to buy a new one (although I am not an advocate for disposable purchases: unless you use your mandoline daily, the blades should be good for years).
French mandolines are more complex affairs made of stainless steel, and are priced in concequence: a good French mandoline will fetch at least 75$ -anything cheaper will be just that: cheap. French mandolines are a good investment if you like slicing, dicing and frying: a good French mandoline can cut fries, from matchstick size to fat, steak fries; they usually come with a waffling blade for waffle chips and game chips (waffle chips sliced in a criss-crossed fashion to obtain a basket weave in the chip) and other fancy blades. Replacement blades are extremely hard to find though.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Snow Patrol

Yesterday's snowstorm reminded me that I had some leftover stewed fruits in my fridge...

I don't usually have a lot of fruits around the house: I am a consummate salty nibbler, and fruits do not often satisfy my cravings. But I had lots of apples leftover from my apple saucing session last year (!), so I made a stewed fruit crumble to bring over to my friends' for New Year's Eve. Thus the leftovers in the fridge.

Stewing fruits is a great way to use up all those tired fruits at the bottom of the fridge drawer, and it makes a luscious dessert. It's also a tasty and low guilt way of enjoying out of season and non-local fruits...

Traditionally, stewed fruits start out as dried fruits, such as prunes, dried apricots, pineapples, cranberries, mangoes.... and so and so forth, soaked in a liquid -syrup for those with a die-hard sweet tooth, plain water, juice or alcohol for everyone else. Cook over medium-low heat until the fruit is plump and tender (usually under 30 minutes). Stewed fruits are yummy served warm, on their own or over ice cream or plain yoghurt, or with some biscotti to dip into the juices.
You can also stew fresh fruits such as apples, but you should use fruits that will keep their shape after cooking. Ideal supermarket apple varieties are Granny Smith, Empire, and Jonagold. Farmers' markets offer a much wider selection such as Russet, Bramley's Seedling, Cox's Orange Pippin, Idared, Newtown Pippin, Northern Spy... don't you just love the names people give to their apples?

If you intend to use your fruits in a crumble, you can add saucing apples to absorb any excess juices. An extra handful of dried fruits also helps. My new year's crumble included: Russet, Empire and Cortland apples, dried mangoes, dried cranberries (fresh ones would have been lovely too and would have thickened up the mix), and candied ginger. I didn't add any sugar because the dried fruits brought in enough sweetness.

I don't have an actual recipe for the crumble mix, I usually just wing it because I can't be bothered to seek out a recipe. But crumbles are like that: forgiving, easy and sooo tasty! Technically, I think my crumbles are actually called crisps, but let's not bother with technicalities today, I just want a warm dessert.

Crumble Mix
Equal parts each soft butter, flour (whole wheat, all-purp, semolina, or a mix thereof), and rolled grain (oatmeal, wheatberry, quinoa flakes or whatever you have)
¼ to ½ measure of sugar, white or brown or whatever - if you are trying to cut back on your sugar intake, use the lesser amount (¼ cup of sugar for 1 cup of butter) but do not completely eliminate it: sugar is necessary to bind the mix and to bring in crunch
chopped nuts, optional

Cream butter and sugar until just combined.
Add all dry ingredients, mix until fully combined and you obtain pea sized lumps. 
This can all be done by hand, no heavy equipment needed.
You can top your fruits with this mix and pop in the oven at 350'F/180'C for 20 minutes (individual portions) to 45 minutes (family -sized dish), or you can bake the mix on its own, thus allowing you to assemble the crumble whenever you crave one.   








Bon app'!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Here we go again!


Sigh... Every year it's the same thing over again... I keep telling myself I have too many plants, too many herbs, and way too many tomatoes, yet I open those darned seed catalogues, browse those plant websites. And there goes my gardening budget shot to pieces again!

Oh well. It will be a glorious garden though!  I can't wait to introduce you to new flavours...


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