Saturday, February 27, 2010

Not Quite Like Pie

Born in Lahore, raised in Glasgow, poet, artist and film-maker Imtiaz Dharker likes to refer to herself as a cultural mongrel.

Cultural mongrel.

I like that phrase. I too, am a cultural mongrel. Born and raised in Canada to Chinese and Japanese parents, I am neither here nor there, though more here than there. I grew up in a predominantly WASP neighbourhood, in a multi-ethnic city, within a francophone province. My classmates were the mishmash population of non-Catholics who couldn't or wouldn't go to the "other" school board. Quebec politics were beyond our understanding, but we all knew one thing: we were Canadians.

I am a cultural mongrel. Or in shorthand, I am a Canadian.

My cultural background is neither clear-cut nor neatly defined. I cannot say whether I am more or less Japanese, more or less Chinese. I've recently had to answer that question in a survey, and I must admit I was dumbstruck: my two-year stay in Japan proved that I was definitely not Japanese, despite looking and fluently speaking Japanese; a short holiday in China showed that I had little understanding of Chinese culture. Neither my brother nor I have much in common with our paternal cousins, who are more ensconced in their Chinese-ness. My cultural baggage is filled with all the knick-knacks left behind by the people who have passed through my life: French, French-Canadian, Anglo-Canadian, Irish, Scottish, Polish, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Italian, Haitian, Lebanese...

A funny aside: the sun has gone down, and I haven't yet turned up the heat, in the room. My hands are cold, and I am having the darnedest time trying to type the word culture. It keeps coming out as clutter. Perhaps, in my case, it would be a more apt word: my clutter heritage...

My cultural confusion is most apparent in the foods I eat and cook. I learned French cooking, so my food  is influenced by my training. Yet Italian, or more generally, Mediterranean cuisine is easier to adapt to my vegetarian diet. My cupboard and fridge are filled with Asian ingredients like tamarind paste, ginger, tofu, sesame oil and lime leaves. I rarely cook Chinese, because my scant knowledge of it is filled with pork and duck -despite the fact that the fourteen days I spent in China were the easiest in terms of vegetarian foraging. I occasionally venture into Japanese foods, but I usually go to my Mum for that. I am increasingly aware that I actually like eating rice, but I am a devout bread-eater.

Give me bread, and I will make you a meal.

There was a lot of bread in my childhood. One of my family's Sunday ritual was to go to a nearby bakery for pains au chocolat, croissants and a baguette. The pastries were for breakfast, and the bread was for lunch. As a kid, I didn't really see the appeal of baguette: the crust was hard and hurt my gums, and there was too little of the soft centre, la mie or crumb. I grew up, the bakery closed.  Then I rediscovered bread with thick and crunchy crusts. I started trekking across town for good bread.

My fondest memories of living in France are of lazy Sundays spent at the market along the Quaies  de Saône in Lyon. I am not usually an early riser, but I always tried to get to the market by 7a.m. -even if I went out with friends the night before. The market got crowded by 8:30, and one could no longer stroll at a leisurely pace. I liked to go up and down the stalls, trying to figure out what to eat. I'd more or less think of a menu for the week, buy whatever would keep or needed extra ripening on the windowsill, then I would start on lunch. By the time I purchased my feast and squeezed through the crowds, I would find some friends sitting at the Café des Quaies. We would order some ice-cold wine, break into a hunk of cheese, tear off some bread. More friends would join us, some bringing Muscat grapes or spicy olives, others a nice, dry saucisson. A true feast would be had. Sometimes our lunches lasted forever, moving from one café to another, or to the park. Other times, I actually made it back to the dorm before all my food was gone.

It didn't much matter anyway, because there was a nice maraîcher -produce shop-  and two good bakeries a hop and a skip away from school. Though I had kept the terribly North American habit of buying (or at least trying to buy) enough food for the week, bread was the one thing I made a point of getting daily. If I couldn't make it to the boulangerie before they ran out of bread, I (sometimes) would swipe a half baguette from the kitchens at school.

There was one week every August when both bakeries would be closed for vacation, leaving the third one as the only source of fresh bread near school. That one week, I would make a point of going daily to town after classes to get my bread. Or I would do without bread.

There a few good bakeries in Montreal, but I no longer go out of my way to get fresh bread. A loaf of bread doesn't disappear nearly as quickly as it did when I was in France. One probable reason is that I no longer buy as much cheese as I used to (it was so inexpensive and plentiful in France...) But more likely is a desire to keep those memories intact: that bread, and the feasts that ensued, are sacred tidbits on my altar to food, it cannot be replaced or replicated.

When I returned to Montreal, I tried keeping a sourdough starter, so that I can make breads similar to those I learned to love. But I couldn't keep up with the bread eating. Then I heard about an easy, almost sourdough-like recipe that I had to try. It's definitely easy, but not quite to my liking, so I tried tweaking it. At first I tried using my sourdough starter. It wasn't really a success (Cléa seems to have succeeded.) I gave up for a while, but a recent craving for bread made me want to give it another go.

I no longer had a sourdough starter -winter is not an ideal time to start one- but I wanted the depth of flavour that comes with the long and slow rise. So I reworked the recipe a few times. I think I got it: easy-as-pie almost-sourdough bread! Actually, it's not "easy as pie" as I have never found pies particularly easy to make. This bread looks like a sourdough bread, with big air bubbles and a subtle sheen to the crumb, but it isn't quite the same. The dough is not kneaded, so the strands of gluten are not as resistant: it does not hold up well to an overly moist filling. But for breakfast toasts, cheese sandwiches,  or sloppy veggie burgers, it is really nice. The crust is not too thick, yet it has a deep crunch to it, and the mie is elastic and chewy.

You will need a 3 quart (3L) dutch oven -cast iron or stoneware is fine- or a pyrex dish with a lid. I've also had success with a stoneware bowl and a foil lid, so I guess you basically need a thick-bottom dish (3 quarts or 3 litres) and some form of tight-fitting lid. The other important element for this bread is a cool room: my kitchen's temperature hovers between 16'C and 18'C (60'F-64'F). If your house is too warm, your bread will have to rest in the fridge for at least half of the time.

Easy Almost-Sourdough Bread

3 cups/ 390g  unbleached, all-purpose flour, divided
½ tsp/ 3g active, dry yeast or 10g (1tsp) yeast cake
2 tsp/ 10g salt
1¾ cups/ 438g water
½ cup/ 100g wheat bran, oatmeal or cereal flakes

Mix half the flour, all the yeast, salt and water in a large bowl. The dough will rise like crazy, so you will need the largest bowl you have (the salad bowl I use can hold 6l - ±7 quarts)

Cover with plastic wrap, and leave to rest in a cool, draft-free spot for 12-18 hours. Take a whiff after 6 hours: if your dough smells of beer, pop it in the fridge.

Add the rest of the flour, mix until all the clumps of flour disappear. Leave to rest for another 12 hours. I usually park the dough in my fridge for the second rise.
 Place your baking dish in the oven, pre-heat your oven to 500'F/ 250'C.

Scrape down the edge of the dough with a spatula, it will be extremely soft and sticky, so don't try to handle it with your bare hands. 

Sprinkle the top with half of the bran, oatmeal or cereal flakes.

When your oven is hot, take out the dutch oven, and sprinkle the rest of the bran on the bottom of the pot.
Scrape the dough into the dish, cover, and bake for 30 minutes.
Remove the lid, and bake for another 10 minutes or until nicely browned.

If you want a multi-grain bread, you can add up to ½ cup/ 100g of mixed cereal flakes at the second rise. The bread will be more dense and chewy than the plain bread.

Even if you have a good and reliable source for bread, you should try your hand at bread-making at least once. There are few satisfactions like biting into a slice of still-warm, homemade bread. And the best part is when your bread speaks to you:  as it cools down, the crust starts to crinkle and crackle in a way only bread can. It is quite charming, and never loses its appeal.

Bon app'!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Smelly Cat...

I love Phoebe...  
One of my cats loves to sniff everything and everyone. Except for garlic. This soup is perfect for when I want him to leave me alone in the kitchen. It calls for 8 heads of roasted garlic. Yes, eight. It sounds like a lot, but it actually isn't. 

Roasting garlic takes the edge off its aroma, and it is much easier than peeling, chopping and sweating the bulbs. It's soooo tasty: the caramelisation that occurs in your oven brings on sweetness, smokiness and notes of earthiness. The bulbs become creamy-smooth and can be used as is on crusty bread (instant garlic toast!), with olive oil or butter atop steamed vegetables, or mixed into mayo for a zingy dip.

This is the home stretch folks. A few more weeks of winter -despite the unseasonably warm weather in Montreal, it still is winter out there- and it will be spring. This is the time when most people fall prey to lingering colds and the flu. Garlic is the perfect shield against the sniffles, and soup is the perfect medium for ingesting large quantities of the bulb. If eight heads of garlic sounds daunting, try Tea's garlic elixir. With a mere ten cloves it sounds like meeker fare, but somehow I doubt it is.

In either case, garlic soup is not as pungent as it seems. It's heart warming, health giving and it'll stave off any mean bug. If you are nursing a cold, or intend to feed this soup to someone who is ill, leave the milk out: dairy exacerbates phlegm, which is a bad idea.

Roasted Garlic Soup
serves 4 as a starter, 2 as a main, or 1 very sick patient

6 to 8 heads of garlic
oil for roasting
2 Tbs butter
2 Tbs flour
½ litre (±½ quart) milk
½ to 1 litre vegetable or chicken stock, see note
1 sprig or pinch thyme
salt and pepper
chopped parsley or green onion, chopped vegetables for garnish

Note: if you intend to garnish the soup with little bits of vegetables, boil them in lots of water, and use the cooking water as a stock. Otherwise, a good store-bought low-sodium chicken stock, or even water will do just fine.

Cut off the top ¼ of each head of garlic. Place on baking tray or in an oven-proof dish. Liberally drizzle with oil. Pop into a pre-heated 400'F/ 200'C oven, and leave to roast for 30 to 45 minutes. You want the papery skin to brown but not burn. Allow to cool down before handling.
Meanwhile, melt butter in soup pot. Add flour and cook off until it starts to brown around the edges -you do not want a stark white roux.
Add the thyme, and cook for a minute more.
Whisk in milk (if using) and stock, stir until smooth -don't worry about lumps- and bring up to a boil. It should not be overly thick, more like a broth, yet thick enough to coat a spoon.
When the garlic is cool enough to handle, squeeze out the flesh from husks, making sure the papery bits stay out as they are quite bitter.
Add the garlic to your soup, and let simmer for 10 minutes.
Take off the heat. You can either pass the soup through a sieve, squeezing the garlic through the mesh, or you can blend the whole lot. 
Return to the stove, and check the seasoning.

Serve unadorned, or with some diced vegetables and chopped herbs. Also nice with crunchy croûtons.

Bon app'!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Off Topic

The season for fresh chick peas has begun!

They are not local for me, nor for any part of Canada. In fact, I don't think there is any commercial production of chick peas in Canada. But if you do spot these at your local market, do give them a try: they are lovely! I doubt any supermarket would stock these, but you can try asking for them.

The difference between dry and fresh chick peas is like night and day, or like edamame and dry soy beans. You can substitute fresh for dry garbanzos in any and all of your favourite recipe, but I wouldn't make hummus out of them, it would be a waste of a good thing. They actually taste more like fresh peas, so if you've grown tired of frozen peas, try fresh chick peas.

Once you've tried them, you will fall in love. I swear! You'll want to eat them all the time. Their season is none too short (these ones come from Texas, and are available until late May), but they are not readily available, so your best bet is to grow them yourself. Chick peas are legumes, so they do not require good soil, any old scrub land is fine. They do, however, require a long growing season: they can be planted as soon as the ground has thawed and is dry enough for you to walk on. There is a pretty variety of chick peas called Kabuli Black that is more suited to Northern gardeners. It is a smaller pea, almost all black and pretty as can be. But the garbanzos from your dry store will probably grow too, given enough time.

If  you grow them yourself, your crop will be ready to eat by mid to late summer. I suspect that Texan farmers grow chick peas as a cover crop to protect their land from winter erosion, which would explain why the fresh peas arrive so early in the year. In any case, you really must keep your eyes peeled for these babies! This is only the second year I've ever seen them at the market. I'm crossing my fingers for them to catch on this side of the border so we can have local peas!

Bon app'!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Everything in Moderation

I'm really proud of today's recipe... It was a hard time a comin' in the midst of a crazy week at work, but I really needed a birthday cake for today. So I worked double time (at home), and have had to eat a lot of failures, but it was worth it.

Isn't she a beauty?
No, this isn't your run of the mill Red Velvet Cake. It's a Red Beet Cake. There's a Red Velvet revival going on, but do you know that the classic recipe calls for TWO bottles of red food dye?!?! That not only sounds excessive, it can't be good for you. 

This beet cake, on the other hand, is not only a sexy shade of magenta, it's healthy(-ier...) And it tastes divine.

There are a lot of beet cake recipes out there. Maida Heatter, the American Queen of Cakes, has a lovely one in her book of Cakes. However, most recipes contain chocolate, and while these result in a rich and moist chocolaty cake they do not have the telltale colour of beets (see left).

The beets make for an extremely moist cake -I've left the trimmings out on the kitchen table overnight, and they were still sticky-moist when I got home from work the next day! While the vegetable's flavour comes through, it isn't overpowering. I've iced the birthday cake, but it's perfect without, just sweet enough to be called a dessert, but not so much that you would feel guilty eating a wedge for breakfast.

I do love beets. I could probably eat beets every day, in a different manner for 365 days. But I have to admit that, come February, my love begins to wane, and my passion for root vegetables starts to flag... Much as I enjoy winter, and despite my anticipation for the March snowstorms, part of me is yearning for an early spring; for green shoots to poke out of the mud; new asparagus spears to show themselves on the market stalls. Yet my rational mind insists that I buy beets: so my fridge is full of beets that slowly get wrinkly, because my other mind refuses to eat another root.

There I was last Sunday, rifling through my fridge for something to eat, when I saw the tired beets. I need a cake! thought I. So I made a cake, but it wasn't right. I went and bought more beets; tweaked the recipe; baked another cake, and it still wasn't right... Scrapped the recipe, started anew, baked and ate until I couldn't eat anymore. Yet the batter's stupendous colour goaded me on.

This recipe calls for puréed beets. You can make your own from boiled or roasted beets. The roots easily give in to the blades of a stick blender or those of a food processor. You can also make the purée in a jar blender, but you will probably have to scrape down the jug a couple of times before you get a smooth purée. You can always use store-bought baby food, but I would not go there. If you really do not want to bother making a purée, you can try grating  it cooked (or raw -like for a carrot cake, I'm sure it'll work!) -although it might be a little messier this way.

If you really aren't sure about beets in a cake, you can always add 85g (3oz) of melted semi-sweet chocolate, in which case you could leave the lemon juice out of the recipe.

 Red Red Beet Cake
enough to fill a 20cm (8") square pan

250g / ½lb (1c) beet purée (about 3 medium beets)
160g/ ¾ c sugar
30g/ 2Tbs fresh lemon juice
50g/ ¼c vegetable oil  - I used hazelnut oil to intensify the roasted beets' nuttiness, but any neutral oil is fine
2 large eggs
130g/ 1c flour
16g/ 2tsp baking powder
butter and flour for the pan

Butter and flour your pan. Shake out any excess flour. Set aside.
Mix the beets, lemon juice, sugar, oil and eggs. You can use a mixer to get the batter nice and fluffy, but it isn't necessary.
If you are using chocolate, mix in with the beets.
Sift the flour and baking powder, making sure there are no lumps of baking powder left behind.
Thoroughly mix the dry ingredients into the batter.
Pour into the prepared pan.
Bake at 170'C/ 350'F for ±35 minutes. This batter is extremely moist, so the cake might not be done after 35 minutes. Check with a wooden skewer before taking out of the oven.

You can ice this cake with a cream cheese icing, but it really isn't necessary (a word of warning: the beets' ferocious pigments can -and will- bleed through the pristine white icing). If you find plain cakes too plain, you can always serve it with some sour cream (sweetened or not) or Greek yoghurt. By the way, if you live in Canada, the best cream cheese is made by Liberté or Western Dairy (same company): it is made with live cultures, so it has a nice tart edge. If your regular cream cheese lacks piquancy, you can add 1 Tbs lemon juice or a splash of buttermilk to your icing.

Bon app'!

P.S. While the title to today's post obliquely refers to the fact that I've eaten way too much cake this week, it is actually a nod to my friend's 'adventure' with beets. She, like me, loves beets, but unlike me, she really overdid it: when she lived in Irvine, California, she would patronise a cool little juice bar set in a healthfood store. One day, she decided to have the usual beet juice, but without the apples, and she wanted a whole 16oz!!! Talk about supersizing!
Halfway through her juice, her friends noticed the colour drain from her face. Next thing they knew, she was passed out on the floor. She was rushed to the hospital, where she had to have her stomach pumped.
Turns out that my friend got iron poisoning from the exaggerated portion of beets. She literally od'ed on beets!!!
So the moral of the story is: everything in moderation. Even if it's healthy. And beets are a good source of iron!

Saturday, February 13, 2010


Well, it's a small victory in any case: the Indian government has announced a moratorium on genetically modified eggplants. While this moratorium is only temporary, there is hope that public pressure will turn it into an outright ban.

Dr Vandana Shiva is my hero: she is a die hard advocate for organic farming, farmers' rights and the preservation of bio-diversity.She deserves a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Help! I need somebody!


I found this recipe for bean burgers in the February 2009 issue of Gourmet Magazine - oh, I do lament the demise of that wonderful magazine... Though I bought the necessary ingredients right away, I never got around to making the burgers... I used the black beans for something else, and the other ingredients eventually disappeared from the fridge or pantry.

Fast forward to just a couple of days ago, and I realise I am craving veggie burgers! I don't really eat those anymore, not since the unfortunate incident when I inadvertently purchased a package of beef and portobello burgers instead of veggie portobello burgers... I have no qualms about cooking meat, but when one spends the whole day looking forward to a veggie burger for dinner and realises too late the burger in the pan is not veggie... well, it just cuts one's appetite. 

There are few things I will not make in my kitchen, veggie burgers are one of them (pasta in a box is another - not out of food snobbism, but because I cannot for the life of me get the liquid to powdered sauce ratio right!!! My friends laugh about it...) I tried to make some ages ago when I first stopped eating meat. It wasn't exactly a success, so I've avoided them ever since. A friend of mine has had quite a bit of success with lentil burgers, and the Gourmet recipe reminded me of them, so I thought I'd give it another try.

I couldn't find black beans at the grocery, so I got black eyed peas and pinto beans. And I followed the recipe... My friend K uses gluten flour to firm up the burgers, so I replaced the breadcrumbs with ¼cup of vital wheat gluten. She also bakes the burgers before freezing any extras. Her burgers are beautiful, so I figured I should do the same.

As you can see from the picture above, my burger was -once again- not really a success. It looks more like a not-so-sloppy-joe. With some crisp romaine, a slathering of mayo, dollops of homemade ketchup, a couple bits of sundried tomatoes, and two slices of homemade easy bread (more on that later!) it is still very tasty indeed, but a burger it is not!

K, when you have a bit of spare time (not so obvious with a new baby, I know), I think I could use a hands-on tutorial on veggie burgers!

Veggie Sloppy Joes
makes 6 generous non-burgers

2 cans of beans -I couldn't find 14oz cans (maybe it's a Canadian thing...) so I used 19 oz cans and modified the recipe accordingly-  drained and rinsed
3 Tbs mayonnaise
4 Tbs gluten flour or ½ cup breadcrumbs
3 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp smoked paprika
¼cup chopped fresh herbs -parsley, cilantro, epazote.... 

If you are using a food processor, divide the beans. Coarsely purée half the beans with the other ingredients, except fresh herbs. Mix in the rest of the beans and herbs.
You can also use a stick blender or a potato masher to purée the mix, in which case, all the ingredients can go in at the same time.
Form the mix into 6 patties.
Place on an oiled or papered baking sheet, and bake at 350'F for 15 minutes.
Serve on buns or bread of your liking, with your favourite condiments.
If you have extras, let them cool completely before attempting to wrap and freeze them.

I've read through the commentaries to the Gourmet post, and apparently I am not the only one who's had problems with the burgers -granted, I didn't really follow the recipe... One person said that leaving the patties to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes did the trick. Maybe I'll try that next time.

Bon app'!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Our Children Will Accuse Us

Do we really need another documentary exposing the dangers of conventional agriculture? Probably not. I don't think I can stomach another one. However, even if the general public understands the problem, it seems like governments of the Western world (notably Canadian and American) do not seem to understand the issue. Maybe more hard hitting documentaries are exactly what we need.

Following in the footsteps of Our Daily Bread, Food Inc. and The World According to MonsantoNos Enfants Nous Accuserons is the latest to expose the dangers of petro-chemicals in agriculture and the environment. The movie is vying for playtime in Canadian movie theaters, so if you want to see it on the big screen, please follow this link: the number of viewers is being monitored over the next 2 days to see if it is commercially viable.

Monday, February 8, 2010

It's All Happening at the Zoo...

Okay, so it's not exactly the zoo. It's the Montreal Botanical Garden. They've recently set up a new permanent exhibit of tropical food crops. 'What's that got to do with eating seasonal and local?' you ask: well for one, we might as well openly admit that very few of us actually eat local and seasonal 24/7, 365 days a year. 

Some of our foods will be imports, and the new exhibit at the Botanical Garden helps to shed the light on those far away crops. Though I personally would have preferred more encyclopedic signage,  the signs that were posted were informative enough for the average visitor. For everyone else, there is the option to rent an audio guide, or to follow one of the many volunteer-guides present in the greenhouse.

February break is coming up for some, and if you happen to be in Montreal, it could be an interesting way to kill an afternoon.

Unfortunately, the fruits are all off-limits: could you imagine tasting a star fruit like the one to the right? I'd never seen one that colour! Apparently, it's varietal thing, not a question of ripeness, but I can't help to think that an orange carambola would be much tastier than the yellow, waxy things found at the supermarket...

Some of the food plants on exhibit have  already been imprinted in our visual memory, like the coffee plant (the second largest exported food crop - bananas being the first) through television ads about Juan Valdez and the recent media buzz about fair trade coffee. But others, being less photogenic,  are a bit less familiar:
the peppercorn vine

the sugarcane (granted these specimen are much smaller than the giants in sugarcane plantations, but one gets the idea how the sharp-edged blades of grass can cut a picker's hands and face to shreds.)

The cacao trees were an interesting sight: the flowers sprout right out of the trunk, as does the pod that follows. It's hard to believe that such a big fruit can come from such a tiny flower.

The additional information provided on agriculture and post-harvest production really gets one thinking about one's food. Did you know that it takes at least nineteen months of drying and fermentation for a green vanilla bean to turn into the fragrant brown pod some like to denigrate (plain as vanilla my "%?%!@!). You will never hear me grumble about the price of vanilla ever again.

If you do live in Montreal, and have children, you may also be interested to know that the Botanical Garden has a vegetable gardening programme and offers day camp services in the summer. Information can be found on their website.

Here's to educational ways to obsess about food!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Three Sisters

Ah, the winter squash! What a beautiful vegetable. Place a couple of colourful squashes in the middle of the dining table, and you've got a lovely centrepiece. They come in all sorts of shapes and colours, and each has a distinctive flavour.

Highly nutritious, the winter squash makes for wonderful winter fare: it gives respite from the endless contingent of winter root vegetables (lovely as they are themselves). Pleasantly sweet, winter squash vary in texture from crisp to creamy-smooth, with flavours ranging from nutty to buttery. Though some squash haters may pick up on the hints of family resemblance, the brightly coloured flesh of winter squash is a far cry from melons and cucumbers. If you are dealing with a die-hard melon-hater, stick to the more starchy squashes to quash their dislikes.

Butternut, buttercup and acorn (bb&a) are the more commonly available squashes with starchy inclinations. Spaghetti squash and pumpkin are somewhat watery (in fact, pumpkins are so full of moisture that they rarely keep past late November), and can remind some of their summer cousins. While spaghetti squash and pumpkins are most delightful when just barely cooked and still crisp (pumpkin pie notwithstanding!), their starchy counterparts are at the best when fully cooked to bring out their smoothness. Actually, bb&a puré down to such creaminess that they make a great low-fat, vegan soup: rich enough to satisfy everyone at a dinner party without leaving the vegan guest out.

Obviously, winter squash do not grow in winter, in some far away land with temperate climes . They grow all summer long, are picked and cured in the autumn, and keep for a really long time without too much effort -except for pumpkin. In fact, Canada is practically self-sufficient in winter squash production, with Ontario producing the largest amount, British Columbia a close second, and Quebec trailing far behind in third place. Despite the wet and cool summer of 2009, Canadian squashes are still available at the supermarket, and South American imports should not appear before May -but who eats stodgy winter squash in May anyway? Asparagus and peas in May!!!

In order to keep through the long winter months, winter squashes develop a very thick rind during the curing process. Which can make for quite a workout when you try to hack the thing into bits. Personally, I find it easiest to saw the squash in two with a serrated knife or to hack at it with a heavy cleaver (it gets a bit messy this way). I then scoop out the seeds, and pop that baby in the oven (cut-side down on a papered baking sheet, 375'F/ 190'C for 45 minutes). If you want chunks of squash for roasting, and need to peel them raw, you can partially bake the halves (±20 minutes) before peeling and chopping. I've heard that a couple of minutes in the microwave oven also works, but I don't have one, so I don't know how you would go about it this way. Acorn squash tends to be smaller than its cousins, and it has a relatively thin rind, making it an easier candidate for raw chopping. I usually roast acorn wedges with the skin on: the skin is thin enough to eat, but can be removed in the plate, and it's more colourful that way.

Native American Indian legends have it that Corn, Bean and Squash were three inseparable sisters. Raised together, these three crops thrive and flourish, providing us with sustenance throughout the harsh winter months. Followers of native gardening and sustainable landscaping often plant these food crops together to create low-impact vegetable plots: the corn stalks grow tall and straight, serving as polls for the climbing beans, whereas creeping squash shade roots and act as a living mulch. And the bean, being a legume, traps airborne nitrogen and makes it available to her two hungry sisters.

Three sisters so intertwined, it stands to reason that they should be eaten together. Funnily enough, of all the recipes for succotash that I found, only one contained all three sisters, the others consisted of corn and beans alone. Succotash is a stew-like casserole of corn and beans (and squash!) often served as a side dish. Very hearty and filling, it is traditionally made with dried corn and beans, but some recipes call for fresh summer corn. For convenience's sake, the following recipe uses frozen corn and dried beans, but you can also use canned.

I've never had authentic succotash, I've only ever read about it in recipe books, so I may completely off the mark with this soup. But it a hearty soup, full of contrasting flavours and textures. It's perfect for chilly winter days and snowy evenings. Add thick slices of bread and a hunk of cheese, and you've got a simple meal to warm you up.

The beans and the squash require some advance preparation, however, you can save some time by pre-cooking beans and squash on a slow day and keeping them in the freezer. Cooked and frozen squash are great to have, especially when you have sudden cravings for a pumpkin dessert: substitute baked squash for the pumpkin in your favourite recipe, and the results will be so much tastier than if you had used canned pumpkin.

Succotash Soup 
serves 4 as a starter, 2 as a main

1 medium butternut or buttercup squash, or 2 large acorn squash
1 medium onion and/or 1 leek, chopped
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1 bay leaf
5 leaves fresh sage or 1 tsp dried sage
about 1 pinch grated nutmeg, optional 
½cup dried beans, or 1 medium can of beans of your choice
1cup frozen corn, or the equivalent canned
salt and pepper
2 Tbs butter or vegetable oil

If you are using dried beans, soak them the day before you intend to make this soup. Throw out the soaking water (water your house plants with it!), cover with fresh water and bring up to the boil. Most dried beans will take 45 minutes to just over an hour to cook. Smaller beans tend to take the least time, and lentils need neither soaking nor a long cooking time.
When the beans are cooked -they should be soft enough to chew without crunch, but still hold their shape- leave to cool down in the cooking liquor. Drain before using.

While your beans are soaking, prepare the squash: cut in half, remove the seeds with a spoon, place on a papered (parchment or aluminum) baking sheet. Some cooks like to season the squash at this point, while this will definitely help flavour the final dish, I sometimes use extra baked squash in sweet recipes, so I prefer to leave them unseasoned. Bake in the oven at 375'F/190'C for about 45minutes. If you find squashes a tad too sweet for your liking, you can bake them a bit longer (15-30 minutes more at 350'F/180'C) until the flesh starts to caramelize. The colour will be darker, but the sugars will be toned down.

When the squash are cool enough to handle, scrape the flesh out with a spoon and save for later.

In your soup pot, melt the butter or heat oil. Add the chopped onion/leek, and let them sweat.

When the onions begin to turn translucent add the garlic, bay leaf, sage and nutmeg if using.
When the onions are fully cooked, add the cooked squash, stir about to mix.
Add just enough water or vegetable stock -if you have- to cover, and bring to the boil.
Leave to simmer for 10-15 minutes.
Remove from the heat, and purée until smooth. Add more water or stock if the soup is too thick, you can also use cream or milk, but the soup does not need it.
Season to taste.
Return to the stove, and bring back to the boil.

If you are using canned beans and corn, drain and rinse under the tap.

Add the corn and beans to the boiling squash, turn the heat down, and let simmer for 10 minutes. 
If you cooked your own beans, the cooking liquor can be used as a stock for the soup.

The soup is pretty enough on its own, but if you feel it needs a garnish, the sky's the limit: colourful sprouts add crunch and zing; chopped toasted almonds and fried sage leaves are traditionally paired with squash in Italy; and crumbled blue cheese or bacon makes this soup a meal.

If you tire of blended soup and would like more to chew on, this soup can be made in a more rustic fashion. It may actually take less time to make...

Chop the onion or leek into bite-sized pieces, and mince the garlic and fresh sage (if using). Do not pre-bake the squash: instead you will have to wrestle with it to cut big chunks. To peel, try using a vegetable peeler: not all peelers can handle squash rind, if yours is having a rough time, you will have to go at it with your chef's knife. Place the squash chunks on a flat surface and cut the peel away. Once peeled, each chunk should be chopped into slightly larger than bite-sized pieces -they will whittle away during the long cooking time. Throw in the pot with the onions, sauté until the onions are cooked, and the squash starts to change colour (its edges should look translucent). Add the soaked beans (not cooked!), cover with water and bring up to the boil. Leave to simmer for 45 minutes. Check the beans for doneness. Add frozen corn, and season. Simmer for ten minutes more. 

Bon app'!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

How Exciting!

Blog Aid
Originally uploaded by seven spoons • tara
Within hours of Haiti's massive earthquake, food blogger Julie Van Rosendaal set to work on a fundraising cookbook for the benefit of the people on the CaribJbean island.

And here it is!

It's amazing how a lot of dedication and some outside help can achieve so much! All the recipes were contributed food bloggers. The book is a true work of love: the photos, the artwork, and the printing were all offered. And the whole lot was wrapped up in under three weeks!

Bravo Julie!

And the book can be yours too. It's a print on demand book, and every single penny goes to the Canadian Red Cross and Doctors Without Border. And if you order before February 12, the Canadian government will match the donations.

We all can use another cookbook, and this one is for a good cause.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Good news!

Bluefin Tuna
Originally uploaded by justaddwater2001
France's Minister for the Environment has announced today that he will be asking for an international ban on the catching of bluefin tuna. If the motion is approved, the ban should be effective by the end of 2011.

French environmentalists were quick to jump the gun and demand that the ban take effect right away, but the French Ministry wants to give France's tuna fishery time to recycle itself. Fishermen are up in arms, as always, claiming that they are victims of the environmental and animal rights' movement.

While I feel for the fishermen who will lose their jobs, the inevitable extinction of the tuna -and other fish- will have similar consequences, on top of the disappearance of important species. The question is, should the job loss happen overnight, or should it be drawn out over a couple of years, while fishing towns whittle down to nothing,  fishermen grow too old to train for new jobs, and fish become scarce?

It's a small step, and though I doubt every tuna fishing country will be signing on, it's a small glimmer of hope for the majestic bluefin. I just hope that saving the bluefin does not come at the price of other tuna species.
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