Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What to Look for in April

I'm a little harried from work, but I just had to share the latest news:

Fresh peas from California have arrived. I'd give it another 3 to 4 weeks before Washington State, Oregon and British Colombia have their local peas, and another 2-3 weeks after that for the North East. I cannot wait! I will be gorging myself on peas yet again this year.

North American green and white asparagus are beginning to show up on market stands, and my vegetable supplier at work is predicting that the warm weather will push everything up  in the North East this year. Quebec asparagus may be a full four weeks earlier in arriving at the market, so keep your eyes peeled around the end of April. North Westerners are probably going to see local spears by mid-April.

Forced rhubarb: now is the season for fluorescent pink rhubarb. If you have never seen these in North America, do not be surprised, apparently they are very hard to come by. I know that there are rhubarb fans who go out of their way to produce the bright pink delicacies, but unless you are acquainted with one, you might not be able to get your hands on some. I apologize for having mislead some last year into thinking they were readily available in North America. They can be found, and I have seen some at the market, but the biggest producer of greenhouse rhubarb is Holland (they do seem to produce a lot of food for such a tiny country!).

Chives, garlic chives and wild garlic: Chives and garlic chives are available year round, either imported or hot house grown. Neither is a good substitute for herbs grown under the elements: the flavour is more robust, and the plant itself seems to withstand manhandling better than the delicate greenhouse prissies! (That might be a little harsh, but most outdoor grown herbs have stronger flavour than the indoor stuff, so a little goes a long way.) All three of the above have grown considerably in the past week in my garden, so it won't be long before the market stalls are filled with locally grown, hardy herbs. 

Local lettuces and other salad greens will be showing up in the coming weeks. My seeds have sprouted, and I will posting a how-to on growing your own salad bar shortly.

Bon app'!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Thank You!

A year ago today, I wrote my first blog post. I had no clue what I was doing, and I certainly was not sure I would find an audience, but I thought I would add my two cents to the throng of foodies out in the blogosphere. 

A year ago tomorrow, I wrote my second post, and had a similar picture to the one above. Those tomatoes seedlings are my Noah's Arch: two to each variety, each one a precious heirloom lovingly saved from one year to the next. Each little seedling encompasses all the awe and wonder that food holds for me, and that I hope to share with you yet again.

Thank you. For reading my blathering ons and for posting comments. I wasn't sure I'd find readers given the plethora of choice out there, but you too are out there. And for that I am truly grateful.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The sap is flowing...

2010 is going to be a bumper crop year for maple syrup!

The early, spring-like conditions and the continued night-time chills are the makings for abundant sap collection. Add to that the unusually warm El Niño winter we've had in the North East, and it spells the perfect recipe for delectable breakfasts! Indeed, most maple growers in Quebec are confirming that this year's sap is the tastiest it's been in decades. Apparently, the difference is astounding. Maple syrup in Ontario and New England are likely to taste markedly different too.

Don't go rushing to the supermarket for maple syrup just yet though. Whatever you will find on the shelves are remnants from previous years. The only way you can get you're hands on the 2010 harvest is to buy directly from maple growers (online or at a farmers' market), but do check that you are getting this year's crop before buying.

The price of maple syrup, however, is not expected to go down just yet. Even though 2009 was an abundant year, the reserves stocked by the Quebec Maple Growers Federation are not as high as they should be. With  a little luck, maple syrup will be a little cheaper next year. Obviously, the price of maple syrup in Quebec probably has little or no influence on the price of your local sap.  

My favourite way to consume this ambrosia is au naturel on crêpes, pancakes or French toast. Although the idea of sugar pie is always tempting, I must admit that anything more than a forkful is rather sickening. So  today, I offer you a bit of childhood nostalgia: maple taffy (tire). 

For those of you unfamiliar with the rituals of the sugar shack, maple taffy is a devil of a treat that only the very young (at heart) or the very brave dare to conquer. It is made from maple syrup boiled down until doubly concentrated and poured on a bed of pristine snow. The congealed mass is then picked up with a wooden stick and eaten as best one can manage. No matter how hard one tries to eat taffy in a civilized manner, one will end up sticky from head to toe! It is a yearly treat I like to indulge in, even though I always seem to get some in my hair.

I recently learned that you needn't trek out to a sugar shack (or a farmers' market in Quebec) to enjoy the travails of taffy: all you need is some maple syrup, a microwave oven and some snow (or crushed/ shaved ice).  I do not have a microwave oven, so I haven't tested this 'recipe', though it was obtained from a reliable source: boil 1 cup (250 ml) of maple syrup on high for 1 minute and 30 seconds -make sure you use a 2cup measure, and do not cover with cling film. Pour onto snow or shaved ice, pick up with popsicle sticks, chopsticks or whatever. Oh, and if you have long hair, remember to tie it back before attempting to eat taffy.

Bon app'!

The Best Apple Cake Ever

This cake tops my list of favourites for so many reasons... It is easy, so easy in fact, I am going to start using the expression "easy as apple cake". It is a crowd pleaser: everyone loves this cake, so make two if your are bringing it to a potluck (it's such an easy cake, it'll be a breeze to make). And it is delish: my boyfriend is a stupendous pastry chef, and he's worked in some of the best restaurants in Europe, but even he agrees that this apple cake beats his three Michelin star apple cake.

Right now I'm smiling like I just won a blue ribbon at a bake-off, and I'm not even boasting about my own recipe, it's my Mum's friend's recipe. It's so easy, one wonders why cake mixes were ever invented! If you follow the recipe to the letter, the cake will come out scrumptiously moist with a crisp top. Or if you, like me, happen to notice that your basket of apples looks dangerously close to turning into cider, and decide to double or triple the amount of apples in the recipe, your cake will turn out beautifully moist minus the crunchy top. Either way it is a scrumptious way to eat up a peck of apples.

Spring is officially upon us, and soon there will be a bounty of vernal delights at your fingertips, however, there are still some nice, crisp apples from storage to be had. So before we bid farewell to the remains of last year's crops and turn our noses up at the mushy out-of-season offerings, gather a final bagful of apples, and bake this cake. Any apple will do, but a baking apple (russet, gala, jonamac, or cortland) will hold up best.

Gâteau aux Pommes
Fills one 20cm/ 8" round pie dish

2 large eggs
¼ cup/ 60g vegetable oil
1 cup/ 220g sugar
1cup/ 145g all-purpose flour
2 tsp/ 6g baking powder
1 tsp/ 3g ground cinnamon
3 large apples
½ cup/ 60g chopped nuts, optional

If you are using a metal dish, you will need to oil or butter the dish and flour it. If you are using a pyrex or stoneware dish, no preparation is necessary.
Pre-heat oven to 350'F/ 175'C.
In a mixing bowl, combine the first 6 ingredients until completely mixed.
Peel, quarter and core apples. Chop into bite-sized slices. Add to the batter with the nuts, if using.
Mix until apples are evenly distributed in the batter.
Pour batter in baking dish, pop in the oven.
Bake 45 minutes to an hour, or until top is golden brown and a toothpick poked into the middle comes out clean.
Let cake cool down a bit before serving (if you can resist its yummy aroma!)
Serve as is, or with a dollop of Greek yoghurt.

When I was a kid, my Mum would make a strussel-like topping with chopped, toasted nuts and brown sugar that would be spread on the piping-hot cake as soon as it came out of the oven. My teeth ache at the thought of that topping! It was so unnecessary though, the cake is sweet enough without. And so much tastier.

Use this recipe as a springboard for your imagination: you can play around with the ingredients, as long as you keep the proportions the same. Use chopped or slivered almonds, chopped walnuts or pecans, leave them out altogether or substitute with pumpkin seeds (pepitas) if you are allergic to nuts. You can switch the vegetable oil with something more flavourful, like a fruity olive oil or nutty toasted sesame oil. Apples out of season? Use another seasonal fruit: berries, peaches, apricots, pears... Are your bananas turning black on the kitchen counter? Leave the oil out, and mash three bananas into the batter; add some grated zucchinis. The possibilities are endless!

Bon app'!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Earth Hour



HEY EVERYBODY!!!! Earth Hour 2010 is this Saturday at 8:30p.m.

If you haven't heard about it, Earth Hour started in Sydney four years ago, and the movement has now gone viral. For one hour, at the same time, on the same day, everyone around the world switches off their lights -and the more gung-ho will unplug everything electrical. 

The act is purely symbolic of course, but it's so impressive when a whole city turns off all of its lights: imagine Manhattan's sky scrapers with the lights off. It is a yearly reminder that we must all make an effort to reduce out footprint on this planet. And it all starts by turning off any unnecessary lights.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Jamie's Food Revolution

In the professional chef's world, there are those who like and appreciate Jamie Oliver, and there are those who think he is a ponce. I like Jamie Oliver. I don't necessarily like his cooking or his cookbooks, but I have a deep respect for what he is trying to do for the general public's eating habits. I've gotten into raging debates at work defending the 'dumbing down' of food à la Jamie, but I stick to my guns: we need more Jamie Olivers in the profession.

Home economics has fallen out of school curricula the world over, people are increasingly dependant on ready-made foods and restaurants to feed themselves. Yes, I know, I am a chef and I depend on people not cooking for themselves to make a living. But I also depend on my customers being healthy and alive. Jamie Oliver is spreading the word that good, healthy meals can be simple and inexpensive. And fast.

Oliver started his school dinners' campaign in the UK five years ago, and actually managed to bring on change to the way Britain's children are fed at school. He is now bringing his campaign to the US. Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution is a bit over-dramatic, a little over the top, but the core message is there: unhealthy eating habits are unsustainable, for ourselves and for the planet. You have to watch it, if only to see how chicken nuggets are made.... eeeeeewwww!

It's a little less well known over on this side of the Atlantic, but Oliver is also an avid gardener and supporter of organic and local food systems. Organic food needn't be expensive: even if you do not have access to a parcel of land, you can easily grow part of your food. Even if it is just a couple pots of herbs, or a window box of salad. Or a jar of sprouts

To encourage you to green your thumbs, I will be posting more gardening tips this year. I'm just itching to get my hands in some soil!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

One Ocean


If you live in Canada, you either love or you hate the CBC.

I love the CBC. I am especially enjoying the current series of documentaries airing this month on The Nature of Things called One Ocean.

If you have access to the CBC, I highly recommend you watch the documentaries. If you don't have the CBC, or would like to catch up on missed episodes, they can be viewed online, just click on the link. 

The series is thought provoking.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

No preamble

No long winded-story today, just a quick introduction and a recipe...

The non-winter we've been having over here has got my brain all addled, and I have found myself craving raw and cold dishes. Like this root slaw: It's nothing revolutionary, just an alternate take on a French classic, the céleri rémoulade- shredded celeriac in a lemony dijon dressing.

Any root vegetable will do, but I tend towards a mix of beets, carrots and celery root. If there are beet-nay-sayers in your entourage, a slaw might win them over: the tangy dressing cuts down on excess sweetness, and the crunchiness is downright fun.

I love raisins in my carrot salad, but for some reason these rarely go over very well. Dried cranberries, on the other hand, seem to be well-liked by everyone.

Here are a few important tips to succeed at this salad. First of all, if you are using celeriac, it is important that you generously coat the shreds in dressing: celery root will turn brown if it is not first treated to an acidic bath.  Which is why the vinaigrette does not follow the usual two-to-one ratio of oil and vinegar. Secondly, this salad, like most slaws, is best prepared in advance: anywhere from an hour to 3 or more days (no joking! I like it best when it is about 5 days old, it then becomes a pickle salad!) Thirdly, if you are using beets, do not toss the entire salad ahead of time, unless you want to serve an all-red slaw. Lastly, this is the time to break out the mandoline, if you have one. If you don't, honing your knife skills on a fine julienne will result in a prettier salad, but using a grater (or a food processor if you own one) will be quicker and less exhausting: use the largest holes on your grater, or the smallest grid on the processor.

Root Vegetable Slaw
serves 4, easily

1 medium celeriac
3 medium carrots
2 medium beets
½ cup/ 125ml white wine or rice vinegar, lemon juice, or a combination thereof
½ cup/ 125ml vegetable, sesame, hazelnut, walnut, or olive oil -if you are using a flavourful oil like the sesame or nut, cut with a more neutral oil, or the dressing will be cloying 
1 Tbs Dijon mustard
salt and pepper
¼ cup/ 90g dried cranberries, optional

-Prepare the dressing by mixing the vinegar and mustard. Season to taste with salt and pepper. When everything is well blended, gradually add the oil while whisking with a fork or small whisk. If the dressing splits, it is not a problem, you're not looking for a mayonnaise.
-Trim top and tail of vegetables, and peel.
-Start by shredding the celeriac. 
The easiest way to peel a celeriac is to place flat on a cutting board once it has been topped and tailed, then use your chef's knife (or your largest and sharpest knife) and to slice off the peel while following the curve of the root. You should obtain a creamy white ball that is considerably smaller than the original root.
When that is done, mix into the dressing, making sure every shred is well coated. 
-Shred the carrots next, and combine with the celery root. 
-Shred the beet last. Mix in the cranberries, if using.
Place at the bottom of another bowl, and dump the shredded carrots and celeriac on top. 
-Cover, and leave to rest in the fridge until you are ready to serve.

Absolute bliss!

Really not a fan of beets or celeriac? Just the carrots with the cranberries make a pretty salad. Add some chopped, toasted almonds and you have lunch.

If you are a fan of beets, you may have noticed that this year's pickings are rather small (in Eastern Canada and North-Eastern US, anyway) compared to previous years: the excessively rainy summer of '09 hindered the roots' growth, which is why there is such and abundance of tiny beets. Interestingly, rutabagas do not seem to have been too affected by the rain -I've seen my fair share of 5 pounders this year!


Bon app'!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Hungry...


March is a busy month. Which is kind of ironic, really, since March is kind of dead in the restaurant  business... Yet, I am always running around like a headless chicken in March, trying to get all my seeds in pots of soil, turning my compost so that it'll be ready in time for the new beds, signing up for classes to fill in the empty spots in my work schedule... 

I end up feeling a little harassed and frazzled, and cooking kind of gets pushed to the back burner. Luckily, I have some soup in the freezer to sustain me. However, my fridge also needs a good cleaning out, so the freezer will have to wait today. 

I've been meaning to make some lentil soup for some time, and it'll be the perfect thing to use up the bunch of carrots that have been waiting in the fridge. Although I am getting a planter ready for early salads, I am not quite ready to be eating light spring meals just yet. I still crave hearty foods, and my fridge still holds a plethora of roots. So soup it is. 

Carrot and lentil are a classic pairing, and go well with winter fares like pot roast and braised lamb shank. Green lentils really convey that wintry image with its muddy green colour and earthy flavour, but red lentils are brighter not just in colour, but also in flavour. They're actually just regular lentils without their skins, so they cook up pretty much like split peas and are ideal for soups. If you keep a close eye on them during cooking, you can keep them whole for a salad or a sidedish, but they make such a lovely soup that you needn't put in the extra effort.

If you tend to shy away from dried beans, lentils are the perfect gateway legume for you: they do not require long soakings, are quick to cook and they tend to be less gas-inducing than other beans. Lentils are packed with nutrition: a great source of fibre, they provide your body with slow burning sugars. They are also high in iron and are a good source of vitamin B1, both necessary to keep your energy levels up at this time of the year. I don't know about you, but I tend to get easily fatigued at the end of winter, it might be the anticipation of spring or just the excess of activity, either way lentils give me a boost when I need one.

This soup is a beautiful, energy-boosting orange, and its aroma is DIVINE! It may be old hat to some, but it never ceases to impress when it is ladled out at dinner.

Spiced Carrot and Red Lentil Soup
serves 4-ish as a meal

1 medium onion
4 medium carrots
2 cups/ 250g red lentils
1 orange, zested and juiced
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 clove garlic
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper
2 Tbs oil or butter

Peel and roughly chop onion and carrots.
Melt butter or oil in a pot, add onion and carrots, as wells as spices, garlic and orange zest.
Let vegetables sweat until onions are translucent.
Add lentils and enough water to cover by 5cm (2") -about 1.5L (6cups). You can also use stock if you have it. 
Bring to a boil. When the water has come to a rolling boil, turn heat down to medium-low, check water level -it should still cover everything, if not add some.
Simmer until carrots are fork tender (for a chunky soup) or really mushy (for a smooth purée). 
Try to find the bay leaf before blending. Add the reserved orange juice.
Using a blender, stick or otherwise, purée the soup, stopping when it is of your preferred texture.
Season to taste.
Serve the soup with a dollop of yoghurt or sour cream and some chopped herbs (cilantro or parsley).  You can add crunchy croûtons or nothing at all.

Makes a nice filling meal, but won't weigh you down.



Bon app'!



.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

March...

I can smell it already! Spring is just around the corner! 

It really is: the other day I was walking downtown and I saw my first dog turd poking through the snow. A sure sign of spring if you ask me.

March is upon us, and I am crossing my fingers that we will have at least one more snowstorm in Montreal to ring in my birthday, but I'm definitely itching for renewal. My tub of potting soil is defrosting in the spare room, and my seedling trays are ready to go. We may still be in the hungry gap, but I'm getting ready for the gardening season.

If you followed the Winter Games, I'm sure you noticed that the West Coast isn't having much of a winter... The gardening season is definitely on over there, and I'd bet good money that fields are already greening up. Over here in the East, growers are only just starting to clean out the green houses.

What to look for in March:

The wet autumn of 2009 made harvesting sunchokes quite a miserable job, so it is more than likely that there is still quite a haul left in the soil. Chances are fresh tubers will be dug out in the coming weeks to make room for the new crop. 
Some people prefer fall-harvested jerusalem artichokes, and others prefer the spring cull, either way make sure the tubers you buy are firm. Personally, I prefer freshly harvested chokes because I find that stored tubers take an incredibly long time to cook.

Early Lettuces and other leaves
When we had that first bout of warm weather in February, I was able to pick some roquette poking through thin patches of snow... Even if there are few winter survivors, early salads and other greens will be coming up very soon under poly-tunnels (unheated, plastic structures.) So keep your eyes peeled right about end of March.

Radishes
Radishes are not chilly-billies! An easy crop, they don't mind cool, wet soil, and are quick to poke their noses out of the ground. West coasters will be seeing their local crop very soon.

Maple Syrup
Ooooh, the season is definitely on baby!! Warm days and cool nights are tirggers for sap to rise, and we've definitively had perfect conditions lately. I've heard word that sugar shacks around Montreal have started tapping their trees, and some are already boiling sap.I say bring it on!

Blood Oranges
I know, unless you are in California, Italy or Spain, these beauties are definitely not a local produce. But they are so pretty, and their season is so short, you really should not deprive yourself of these vitamin boosters. You won't be finding any Floridian blood oranges though, their crop was completely destroyed by frost.
Blood oranges tend to be smaller than navels, and not tooth-achingly sweet. You may encounter some seeds, but they are never overly seedy. If you are feeling industrious, they make a beautiful marmalade, but you need to take a few precautions. I usually boil the peel and flesh of my citrus together for an hour or more to make my marmalade, but in order t keep the beautiful colour of the blood oranges intact, the flesh cannot be boiled longer than 30 minutes. The peel should be cooked with sugar until it soft and almost translucent before adding the chopped flesh. The resulting marmalade will be a beautiful ruby hue, and a touch more bitter than a navel marmalade.

Asparagus
California's asparagus season has begun, so... Washington State and British Colombia should be seeing their first spears by month's end... I'm so jealous! It'll be at least another two months before the asparagus poke through my garden.

Bon app'!
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