Thursday, July 29, 2010

My Cup Runeth Over!

If July is about the horn of plenty filling up, then August is all about the horn spilling over! All across Canada and the Northern Hemisphere, gardeners and farmers alike are being overwhelmed by the abundance of their crops... for the most part. Some crops, in some region, are a little less successful than others, but on the whole, we are all scratching our heads, wondering what to do with all this food... Well, if you look through my archives, or in my list of tags, chances are you will find a post on how to deal with your 'problem'. If you don't, you should leave me a comment, and I'll make sure to write up a post on the subject -if I know what to do about said problem. Otherwise, you can scroll through my blogroll, perhaps a fellow blogger will have a solution for you.

In the meantime, here's what you can look forward to in August:

Wild Blueberries
Early in July, there were reports that the wild blueberries of Lac St-Jean would not be abundant this year due to a late frost in May. That may be true, nevertheless the blueberries from Abitibi seem to doing well, as they are at the same price as they were last year. In any case, wild blueberries are trickling in, and with a little luck, by mid-August, most regions in Quebec will be in full harvest.

Raspberries, Strawberries and other Berries
Raspberries have been around for a while now. You might not be aware, however, that August is when a second flush of raspberries come in. Also, in slightly more northernly reaches, wild raspberries are only just coming into full swing: for those of you who are nostalgic of childhood summers rambling through the brambles, the Laurentians in Quebec are flush with the wild berries. And they are particularly delightful this year! If you are thinking of trying your hand at jamming this year, the berries are particularly tasty this year (it's all that heat and sun), and last I looked, they were even less expensive than last year.

Quebec strawberries are entering their second (? Third?) flush. Strawberries in the North-West Territories and the Yukon are probably only just coming in. In any case, the strawberries are sticking around for a while yet, and the warm weather and sun will only improve their flavour. Other local berries are also plentiful at this time of the season: the gooseberries are gone, but the currants -red, white and black- are ready for eating out of hand or for making jams and jellies; as are blackberries. In the more northernly regions, cloudberries are most likely ripening right about now.

Ground Cherries
If you've never had a ground cherry, you do not know what you are missing! Here's Abi just swooning over them! They look like tiny tomatillos (that of green salsa fame), but they are sweeter, fruitier, and are loads of fun to eat. Kids usually fall in love with them because they are such odd fruits, and are a hoot to peel. Mix them in a fruit salad with berries, or use them in a savoury recipe like in a salsa.

Plums, Peaches, Apricots, and... Nectarines
Quebec's climate is slightly too iffy for most commercial productions of stone fruits, except for plums! We even have a beauty called Mont-Royal, and it should be making the roll call in August. In the meantime, Ontario's stone fruits are just lovely. Juicy and sweet, one can sit with a full basket, and eat them until the juices dribble down our chin, and we are sticky from head to toe! I am sure that the soft fruits from the Okanagan are just as delightful, despite the dry weather looming over British Colombia. Anyway, they sure beat the imports... I tasted a nectarine from I will not say where, and it was dry, dry, dry, and very mealy. Through no fault of the fruit, of course, the poor thing was picked before its prime. I have yet to see an Ontario nectarine, but I'm crossing my fingers that come August, they will be in attendance at the market.

Oh, I do love a good corn roast! Now that I think about it, I haven't been to one in ages... The first ears of corn have hit the market early, but they only get better as the season gets along. August's corn will be sweeter, with bigger yet ender kernels (September's corn is said to be tops!)
Corn on the barbecue or roasted over a campfire is truly nice, but I must say I favour the old standard boiled corn: it's quick and efficient, and the water keeps the corn from drying out, so each kernel stays moist and delicate. Also, all that cooking water makes a great stock base for a batch of corn chowder - what better way to use up left-over corn?

Field Tomatoes
Oh, I know they've already begun poking out their noses, but August is when the field tomatoes literally roll down the market's aisle! They are so abundant in August that one almost becomes jaded... but now is the time to gorge yourselves on these babies, because they'll be gone before you know it. You will have to wait until the end of the month for the bushels of tomatoes for canning, but do go have your fill of tomatoes now... Basil (and other herbs) are absolutely plentiful right now, and are the perfect seasoning for a tomato salad.
Every other summer vegetable you can think of (peppers, sweet and hot; eggplants...) will be coming into their own right about now. All the (local) ingredients for the perfect ratatouille are at your fingertips: tomatoes; eggplant; zucchinis;peppers; one  chilli pepper; and a handful of herbs. Heaven!

Kale, Cauliflower, Broccoli and Cabbage
The crucifers are back in spades, just in time to contribute to your barbecue get-together: because who can imagine firing up the grill without a coleslaw on the side? I saw the first local cauliflowers, and they are massive! Even the one in my CSA basket was gargantuan - and they usually have trouble bringing these crops in... It must be the weather: it has been an exceptional summer so far in South-Eastern Canada, what with the generous sun and heat, and abundant rains. 
So don't be afraid by the large coles; they are big, but not overgrown: they will be sweet and tender, with no excessive fibres.

Mmmm, artichokes... The West Coast has already welcomed its first artichokes, but the winters being harsher in the East, the chokes are a little later over here. While I wouldn't bet on it, I am quite sure that  Quebec artichokes will also be in earlier than last year. And my mouth is just watering at the delectable thought of enjoying an artichoke leaf by leaf. The French have the perfect word for this method of eating an artichoke: effeuiller, or to remove one leaf after another, it is also used as a metaphor for stripping (a burlesque dancer is often referred to as une effeuilleuse...)!

Apples are often thought of as an autumn crop, but in reality, the apple season begins in late summer... However, as everyone has decided to be early this year, late summer apples are now mid-summer apples. I cannot roll out a list of summer apple names at this very instant, as I am not particularly a fan... I like my apples tart and really hard, with a loud crunch, and apples need cool nights to build up proper firmness. However, nights have been relatively cool these past few days, so I just might give summer apples another go this year. 
Anyway, if you love your apples on the sweet and melt-in-your-mouth-velvety side, then summer apples just might be your thing. They will be fine for eating out of hand, but will really come into their own in pies and other cooked desserts.

Yeah, I know, table grapes from all over the world are available year-round, but I'm not talking about your run of the mill table grapes: I'm talking wine grapes! If ever you needed proof that global warming is real, just look at the expansion of wine country around the world. Regions not previously known as hospitable for grapes are sprouting vineyards: everyone knows about the Okanagan Valley and the Niagara Peninsula, but did you know that Quebec has a flourishing wine industry (and some of it is impressively tasty!), as does Nova Scotia? In fact, all ten Canadian provinces have at least one winery.
August marks the beginning of les vendanges just about everywhere in the northern hemisphere, though Canadian vintners like to stretch out their grapes' ripening. However, what with the exceptional summer we've been having, there is a slight chance that harvest will begin a little early.
If you are looking for table grapes though, I remember buying baskets of Ontario grapes as a kid while on family vacation in the Niagara region. I believe that there is a small table grape industry in some Canadian regions, but it is nowhere big enough to leave the confines of its province. If you prefer to forage for your grapes, it is still a little early for wild grapes, though the vines along the train tracks of Montreal are definitely covered with immature bunches...

Green Beans, Yellow Wax, Lima Beans, Scarlet Runners...
All manners of beans engulf the market come August. They should all be eaten cooked, but can be enjoyed either cold, warm or hot. In a salad, as a buttered side dish, fresh beans have all the nutritional benefits and more of dried beans without the unpleasant side-effects.
Lima beans should be shelled, and if the beans are bigger than a penny, they should also be peeled. Later in the month, shelling beans should be making an appearance. There are all kinds of shelling beans, and they are all sublime: their flavour will be similar to their dry counterparts, but the flesh will be softer, fresher, and they require neither long soaking nor cooking times. You really have to try a mixed bean salad made with freshly shelled beans.

I am probably forgetting a whole host of things, but this is all I can think of for now.

Bon app'!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Urban Chicken Update

Oh dear! After a few months of silence, the floodgates have been opened wide! 

First things first: Calgarians had their chance, and they blew it! The June referendum was a bust, and Calgary decided to vote against urban chickens (although they seem intent on keeping a Stampede that is killing off horses like deer-flies...) However, Calgary's urban chicken defenders, namely a group called CLUCK, are still fighting the good fight. I am crossing my fingers and toes for you CLUCK!

Montreal, now is your chance! Le CRAPAUD (Collectif en aménagement paysager et en agriculture urbaine durable - that is a mouthful!) has launched a petition this very morning to have the urban chicken reinstated in Montreal's landscape. If you live in the city of Montreal (sorry suburbanites, you're going to have to deal with your own city halls), just click on the link to sign the petition!

Finally, about a year ago, I wrote about the RSPCA's campaign to Quash the Squash. Here is a little (overdue) update. It would seem like the Quash was successful: British consumers were numerous (11 thousand people!!!) to voice their opinion. The British government has decided not to regress their standards. Granted, they could have improved on their standards, but at least they chose not to follow the Europeans who will raise their numbers to 21 chickens per square meter (and you thought your morning commute was a tight squeeze!) So, here's to British chickens and consumers!

Have a clucky day!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Bringing Sexy Back

The other day I mentioned vegetable marrow. At the time, I didn't have one hanging about to photograph... I finally got one in my CSA basket, but I was so excited (and hungry) that I proceeded to cut it up before it occurred to me that  I should have taken a picture. Oops, my bad.

If you're wondering what this post's title has to do with overgrown zucchinis... Don't let your imagination run wild on this one! I am just referring to a great way to re-use left-overs, some would say it is downright sexy. I don't know how you feel about left-overs, but I know that quite a few do not like them. These persons do everything in their power to make only just enough food in order to avoid having to deal with them. I personally have no qualms about eating the same meal a couple of days in a row. If there really is too much to eat in two or three meals, I either pack it up and freeze it for another day, or I bring it over to a friend's. Left-overs also make great packed lunches, but my favourite way to make left-overs disappear is to make something else altogether.

Like stuffing. Okay, I admit, it doesn't look like much when photographed from such a close angle, but it is mighty tasty. My CSA baskets are getting bigger and bigger by the week, and space in my fridge is at a premium, so I have to clean it out on a regular basis to make room for the new arrivals. The above is the result of the last clean-up. Anything can go into left-over stuffing, as long as it is cut-up into bite-sized pieces. There are no hard and fast rules to making stuffing, but it is always good to have a balanced mix of the following: a grain or a seed of some sort (I used quinoa, but rice, barley or wheat berries are quite tasty); something saucy or juicy to keep the mix moist (tomato or any other sauce; a juicy vegetable/ fruit, like chopped tomatoes or grapes); and something to bind the whole lot (such as grated cheese; an egg or ground meat). Traditional turkey stuffing calls for bread cubes soaked in milk for the grain and binder; mix in some raisins or dried cranberries with sage, and your stuffed zucchinis will reach new heights!

Zucchinis aren't the only vegetables you can stuff: a popular summer dish in France are the Petits Farcis, baby vegetables stuffed with a mix of ground meat. Baby eggplants, zucchinis, patty pan squash, tomatoes and miniature bell peppers are all scrumptious with whatever stuffing you can think of.

Whichever vegetable you choose to stuff, cut them lengthwise and hollow out the seeds with a spoon. Make sure you leave at least 5mm (¼") of flesh, otherwise the walls will be too flimsy to support the stuffing. Also make sure you stabilize round bottomed-vegetables so that they don't roll around. Although I would avoid the seedy flesh, most trimmings can be chopped up for the stuffing. Tomatoes and bell peppers require slightly different treatment: cut off a small cap from the tail-end, making sure that the bottom end is flat enough to sit up straight; empty out the seeds. In all cases, season the inside of the vegetable before filling: even if the mix is properly seasoned, the vegetable will otherwise remain bland, which will make it hard going down with kids.

Once the vegetables are stuffed, they can go straight into a hot oven (180'C/ 375'F) for 30 to 45 minutes, or can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. The following recipes are merely ideas to get you going.

Fridge Cleaning Stuffing
tomato sauce
chopped vegetables
crushed garlic
grated cheese
ricotta cheese
chopped herbs
salt and pepper 

Day-old Bread Stuffing
stale bread, cubed
enough milk to moisten the bread
1 egg, beaten
raisins, or any other dried fruit
pine nuts
chopped herbs
left-over cooked meat, finely ground or chopped (optional)
salt and pepper

Stuffed vegetables are also lovely cold (or at room temperature) on a picnic or for lunch. For more ideas, have a look at La Tartine Gourmande, the pictures are absolutely mouth-watering!

Bon app'!

P.S. For those of you living in Montreal: are you loath to trek all the way to Jean-Talon Market to enjoy all the wonderful produce I mention in this blog? Can't find what you want at the supermarket? A new website is up to help you find a market close to you. There is a map of all the markets in Montreal, and the larger markets have their own tabs with links to the different producers on-site.
Les Marchés de Quartier is run by the committee that manages Montreal's public markets. The website is supposed to be both in French and English, however, the English does not seem to quite in working order.

The Garden

This summer is absolutely glorious! The hot, sunny days give way to good and proper rainy days, and the garden is just flourishing!

The first pumpkin is beginning to colour.

The tomatoes are cropping up everywhere! It looks like I'm going to have another bumper crop, and it just might ripen on the vine this year...

The first cherry tomatoes are finally ripe! They're so juicy and tasty! There's nothing like eating a tomato still warm from the sun.
What's a girl named Dahlia to do, but grow dahlias?

By the way, no one seems interested in wining the Raj Patel CD... Just to clarify, this give away is open to everyone, no matter where you live. It is a really interesting and entertaining lecture, so leave a comment on the post, and you just might win yourself a CD of brain food!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Foodie's First!

I have a CD of Raj Patel's Seattle conference to give away. It is unfortunately not the entire book Stuffed and Starved on CD, but merely a 50 minute lecture. It is, however, a very enlightening and entertaining lecture on the importance of being conscientious consumers. 

If you ever needed eloquent ammunition to support your arguments for toppling the current state of food consumerism, this is your chance! Please leave a comment before Sunday, 1 August, and I will  choose a winner at random.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Hot, Hot, Heat

It's sooo hooot!

I know, I know, it's nowhere near as hot and humid as it was last week, but I still leave work all sticky and quite grumpy from having spent the entire day fighting with clothes that insist on clinging to every inch of my body. As soon as I step out from work, the only thought to inhabit my mind is  the ice-cold water that awaits in my fridge.

It's not imported French or Italian mineral water that comes in pretty glass bottles; nor is it fizzy water that so delightfully tickles one's nose when the glass approaches one's lips... It's not recycled, filtered and bottled tap water either... It's just a pitcher filled with my city's vintage. In an effort to reduce my waste output, I pretty much gave up on bottled water, though I must confess I do still buy the occasional bottle of sparkling water -just one or two every couple of months, no more, I promise!

Granted, it wasn't really all that hard to give up the bottle: I'm not much of a water drinker. In fact, I only started to drink water when I lived in France, where water with bubbles takes up entire aisles at the supermarket. It was the bubbles that got me, and the fact that mineral water in France is a little salty... But I digress.

My long standing objection to water had always been its lack of flavour. I could not see the point of it, when tea, coffee, milk and juice fulfilled the same job and tasted so much better. I have changed my mind since then, especially now that I work in sweltering kitchens. I do feel the hydrating benefits of a tall glass of water. I know that my body needs and craves water. But my taste buds are still not excited by water. At home, I will sometimes adulterate my water with syrups and squashes, though I must say that in the midst of a killer heat wave, I don't want my water to be sweet.

Just plain water could do the trick, but now that the market stalls are overflowing, and that gardens are abundant oases, one would be remiss not to throw a little something in the water from time to time... Mint and basil usually take over the garden at this time of the summer, and I often feel overwhelmed at the sight of them on my way to the compost bin. (By mid-winter, I'm usually kicking myself for not having made enough pesto, but that is another story.) Harvesting summer herbs often seems like an endless endeavour: you pick and pick and pick, and then they just sit around, waiting to be eaten, while what is left in the garden goes on growing.

So I've partially solved my herbal glut by throwing a few sprigs in my water pitcher. It's not the end-all-be-all solution, but it is a quick fix. And I do mean quick: there is no need to let the herbs steep for hours before enjoying a refreshing glass of herbed water. The herbs impart their aroma within minutes of hitting the water. If your pitcher is already chilled, you can help yourself to a glassful more or less as soon as the last sprig hits the H²O.

It's also a good way to get rid of a few extra cucumbers you may have lying about. If you've signed up for  a CSA basket, you are probably being invaded by the cucumbers right about now. Or maybe you would prefer something sweet: if you have left-over bits of fruit sitting in the fridge, they can go in the water too.

All those bits and pieces won't keep forever in the water though, they will have to be strained out after about 3 days, but in the meantime, you will have refilled the pitcher several times, and drunk lots of tasty water.

À votre soif!

P.S. Before bringing the sliced cucumber out to the compost pile, they could have a second life as eye masks or as a soothing compress for sunburns. Or you can blitz everything, and have a tall glass of green smoothie.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Petits Pois à la Folie

I've already shared quite a few pea recipes (fresh pea soup; rice with peas; risotto and pasta with peas implied; and so much more...), still I could not resist another pea inspiration! Peas are my ultimate seasonal treat, far beyond asparagus (and I am an absolutely devout asparagophile)! Yet, I could go on and on about how sublimely meditative shelling peas can be; how wonderfully ecstatic I am rendered at the smell of  cooking peas; how silly I get when I see bushels of peas at the market... but I would be repeating myself. You already know how I feel about peas, so on to the food.
Freshly shelled peas are like little kernels of explosive candy, and therefore require a recipe that will either emphasize or temper the sweetness. Although I do love the sweet tidbits, today's recipe will be all about toning down the sugar -just a tad- for those of you out there who prefer not to indulge your sweet tooth.

Despite the recent heat wave in Ontario and Southern Quebec, I was craving peas with pasta this past week-end. But not humdrum peas with long pasta and cream sauce: as lip-smacking as that dish can be on a rainy spring day, a knock-you-out scorcher calls for... something meaty that sticks to your ribs. Huh?!!? I know, I had the same reaction when I was told that the best food to beat the heat was a stodgy stew of miso and carp...

...That was ten years ago, I was living in Japan. At the height of summer, I was slowly wasting away in the unbearable heat, and counting down the days to when I'd make my escape back to Canada for a two month respite. Someone handed me a steaming bowl of carp stew, saying it would add pep to my step, revitalize my appetite, and jolt me out of my funk. Oh, how wrong they were. It was rather horrendous: I definitely do not recommend carp stew. However, a pea and mushroom ragù, inspired by the Bolognese, will hit the spot.

This vegetarian Ragù alla Bolognese closely resembles mushroom Goulash, but it is more of a sauce than a dish in its own right. A real bolognese is a fairly dry sauce, with lots of meat, sofrito (a mix of finely diced carrots, onions and celery, somewhat similar to the French mirepoix), just barely enough tomato to bind the whole lot, and a healthy dose of oil to pick up every scrap of flavour. Pea ragù is a saucier interpretation, though it is faithful to its origins.

I like to serve ragù with short, twirly pasta, like the handmade Maccheroni Calabresi pictured left, or the smaller Trofie. However, either pasta can be hard to find unless you live close to an Italian grocery or a specialty food shop. You can substitute any short pasta (penne rigate or rigatoni are good alternatives), or you can go more traditional and use a long, flat  egg pasta such as taglietelle, or even fettucine. Actually, any pasta you like will be scrumptious with the sauce, as long as it is al dente. Cooking time on packages are merely suggestions: for best results, check the pasta 2-3 minutes before the expected time is up. I often find that the pasta is ready in less time than suggested (in fact, one package I recently purchased indicated 9 minutes, but the spaghetti was close to overdone in 6!)

If you are unable to find fresh peas, small frozen peas ('fancy' grade in Canada), or chopped sugar snaps are excellent substitutes. I happened to have dried porcini mushrooms I brought back from a trip to Florence, but you can use any mushroom -fresh or dried- for the recipe; the indicated quantity is approximate, use as much or as little as you like or have. If you choose to use dehydrated mushrooms, soak them in warm water until they become soft, and squeeze out all excess water before adding to the recipe; you can save the soaking water as a stock for another recipe, or water a plant if you can't be bothered.

Fresh Pea Ragù
Serves 4 to 6 rather generously

1 finely chopped onion
½ cup/ 125ml olive oil
2 cups/ 500ml crushed tomatoes
8 pieces sun-dried tomatoes, slivered
1 small handful mushrooms, finely chopped
2 cups/ 500ml shelled peas
3 stalks green onions, finely sliced
3 cloves garlic, new season if possible, crushed
 salt and pepper

Gently fry the chopped onions in the olive oil over medium heat. 
(If you are using regular garlic, add it to the onions when they start becoming translucent.)
When the onions begin to turn golden, add the crushed tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, and mushrooms.
Simmer over medium-low heat until the sauce thickens. It should take about 10-15 minutes. You should be able to see the oil separating slightly, forming pool of a deeper red on the surface of the sauce.
Check the seasoning.
Add the peas, along with the crushed new season garlic, if using. 
Simmer for about 3 minutes. Taste a pea, it should pop in your mouth, just barely cooked, but not crunchy.
Stir sliced green onions into the sauce.
Spoon the ragù over pasta.
Serve with some ricotta cheese or shavings of Parmigiano.

You might need to provide bibs to your diners. If you have any sauce left over (I doubt you will), it will elevate a slice of toasted  whole wheat sourdough to open-faced sandwich heaven.

Bon app'!

Monday, July 19, 2010

New on the CBC!

It's been a while since I wrote about my musings on the CBC... I reiterate: I love the CBC! And they've got two new radio shows this summer that are particularly interesting.

The Bottom Line is David Suzuki's new radio show on, what else?, environmental issues. Today's episode is about soil, food politics, and feeding a growing population. If you missed it, follow the link to download the podcast.

The Main Ingredient is hosted by Khalil Akhtar, CBC Radio's food columnist. It's all about food, but not in a foodie-crazy kind of way: it deals with all issues revolving around food, from politics to psychology, history to hysteria, with a sprinkling of environmental issues and eco-food trends. It airs on Mondays at 11:30 a.m., right after Q with Jian! Monday mornings have never seen so much brain food! There are no podcasts, but you can listen to streaming audio, just follow the link to catch up.

Feed your brain, expand your mind!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Market Report

I was at the market yesterday, and guess what I found... PEAS!!!! Those of you who have been following my blog for a while know how much I love peas, and how I can wax lyrical about them. 

I love fresh peas.

As soon as I see the first peas from California in March, I practically mark my calendar and count the days until I see the first local pods... I confess, I did break down a few weeks ago, and bought a small basket of peas from North Carolina. They were tasty, but a little disappointing... They had become a little mealy from being on the road too long. But I was getting desperate: Miss Molly had ravaged my own peas, and the first heatwave in May had me doubting I would ever see a Quebec pea. But there you go, I was a doubting Thomas when I should not have been, and I was still rewarded with these beautifully sweet nuggets.

Peas are notorious for their love of cool, wet weather, and many a gardener in our climate rue the day they planted their rows of peas: our springs are often too short, and our summers too scorching which  can result in no pods at all or mealy and bitter peas only good for drying and pea soup. There are varieties of peas better adapted to our climate, and those above certainly are part of that bunch. The peas range in size from tiny to medium-large; are sweet, sweet, sweet; and pop in the most delightful way when you bite into them. If you find some peas at the market jump on them: if the hot weather continues for the rest of the summer, there may not be much of a pea season this year. Also, most growers sell their crops on the frozen front as it is a more reliable client, and prefer bringing snow peas and sugar snaps to market because they are more heat and travel tolerant. If you cannot find fresh shelling peas, sugar snaps and snow peas are acceptable substitutes -but they are not the same...- and are available until the fall.

Ontario's stone fruits have arrived in drove, and they are truly beautiful this year. The hot weather, tempered with a good dose of rain and abundant sunshine has resulted in gorgeously plump fruits, full of sugar and juice. In previous years, the fruits have hit the market in waves, each variety giving place to the next. However, this year, plums, peaches and apricots have hit the stalls at the same time. Nectarines seem to be holding back, but it might just be that they were hiding from me.

I am having visions of peaches and cream; roasted nectarines; stewed plums; stuffed apricots...

Quebec and Ontario sweet corns are nearly three weeks early this year! I was surprised to see baskets of corn already on the stands, but they are definitely here. The ears are a good size, and the kernels are not too small. They are the first of the season though, so they are still a little pricey. But they are a good indication of what to expect for the rest of the summer. Who's up for a corn roast?

You probably have surmised by now that squashes are invasive plants and abundant producers: zucchinis and yellow squashes are no different. Although I personally prefer smaller zucchs because they are so tender and have no seeds, I cannot resist the occasional overgrown zucchini as they are so inexpensive: most growers try to give them away at a dollar apiece. The British have a way with names, and overgrown zucchinis (or courgettes as they like to call them) go by the charming name of vegetable marrow. If you are single or live in a household of picky eaters, you might want to steer clear of marrows as they are often big enough to feed an army!

Whereas small to medium-sized summer squashes are delightful eaten raw or cooked, peel, seeds and all, marrows need to be seeded before being cooked, and are tastier peeled unless you are using them as a vessel for a stuffing. For best results, prick the skin with a fork so that any excess water can escape the marrow while cooking; though the barbecue would probably make for a tasty marrow, this giant can exude a lot of juices and will be messy on the grill, so you will have to turn the oven on for this one.

In case you are wondering what is that strange beast in the above picture; it is not a squashed squash (its neighbour is a Roman zucchini, or a zucchete), but a patty pan squash, also known as a turban squash or a flying saucer. It tastes pretty much like any other summer squash, and can be eaten in the same manner. They are especially pleasant when stuffed will a piquant filling.

That's all for now, but I will be back shortly with a recipe.

Bon app'!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Heat is On

The East Coast is just barely getting over the first heat wave of the summer, that meteorologists are already announcing a second, albeit milder, less humid one. Last week's heat and humidity was brutal: I don't know about you, but I was subsisting on a mostly liquid diet, and would only regain my appetite late at night.

All this heat has been a little more favourable to plants and vegetables. Ontario's soft fruits are hitting market shelves two weeks earlier than usual. Although some regions in Quebec were a little drier than others, on the whole, the humidity in the air allowed the soil to remain quite damp, so most plants managed to handle the excessive heat unscathed. However, the continued spate of heat means that baby veg are quickly growing into big ones, and market shelves are overfilled with gorgeous produce. Like these beautiful beets.

They are still very tender, juicy and thin-skinned, just like baby beets, but they are just about the same size as the beets one finds in the winter, without the candy-like sweetness. They are lovely raw in a Whole Beet Salad: just barely peeled, sliced thin, the leaves and pretty stems shredded, and dressed lightly with a splash of vinegar or lemon juice and a drizzle of oil, salt and pepper to taste. Just what the doctor ordered to ward off heat fatigue: the iron content in both the root and the leaves are an excellent tonic, and will vivify any sluggish temper.

I've finally joined the throng of people who barbecue on their balconies! I found a barbecue small enough for my miniature balcony. Now if only I can figure out how to get the charcoal properly lit... In the meantime, I am 'mastering' the art of slow cooking on the barbecue (mostly out of necessity!)

For those of you who still have not developed a liking for raw beets, barbecues are the way to go: char the skin over a medium fire, then move the beets to a cooler spot on the grill. It will take at least 45 minutes to cook, if not longer, but it's well worth the wait: the charred skin imbues the flesh with a nice smokiness, while the slow cooking brings out all the beets' sweetness.

Since they do take some time to cook, grill some extra beets and save them for another time. They will easily keep for a week in your fridge. And please! Do not throw away the greens! They are a lovely addition to any salad, and they are also scrumptious cooked. In fact, if you like swiss chard, you will love beet greens; if you, like me, are not too fond of swiss chard, you will LOVE beet greens.

Don't ask me why, I do not know, but despite my best efforts, I still do not quite like swiss chard. I will eat it, and I have been known to help myself to seconds, but I prefer not to eat chard, especially the pretty, colourful ones with thin stems. I do like white swiss chard, with ribs that are close to 5cm (2") wide: those chards are mild, bordering on bland. But the thin-ribbed Rainbow Chard is too astringent for my liking, it leaves my teeth all raspy and my tongue quite furry.

Beet greens look just like Ruby Chard, in fact, they are siblings: both beet and chard have the same Latin name Beta vulgaris. Just like any siblings, they have similarities and differences: beet greens are milder than chard, not as astringent, but can be used pretty much the same way. My favourite way to eat beet greens is in a warm salad with the charred root.

Warm Salad of Charred Beets and Greens
Serves 2 as a main dish, or 4 as a starter

3 or 4 beets, medium-sized, with the greens
2 cloves garlic, new season if possible
fresh goat cheese or silken tofu, optional
salt and pepper
1 tablespoon sweet-flavoured vinegar (balsamic, raspberry or cider)
3 tablespoon olive oil

Trim leaves from the beetroots, leaving about 3cm (1") of stem on the root: this will prevent the beets from bleeding.
Wash the roots and leaves. Keep the greens in the refrigerator until needed.
Grill the beets. They do not need to be cooked through, but are tastiest if charred all around.
Set aside until cool enough to handle. With a small knife, scrape off the skin, rinse under cold water.
Slice beetroot into bite-sized chunks. Leave to marinate with the vinegar, salt and pepper while you prepare the rest of the salad.
In a pan, heat the olive oil on medium heat.
Roughly chop the garlic cloves, you want it to be chunky, not too fine. Add to the hot oil.
When the garlic starts to sizzle, throw in the beet greens.
It will only take about 30 seconds for the greens to wilt.
Remove from the heat, and add the beetroot.
Add the goat cheese, or silken tofu, only once you have plated up the salad, to avoid marring its pristine whiteness.
You can also add some fresh croûtons - toasted cubes of stale bread, drizzled with oil- or simple serve with a nice loaf of bread.

Bon app'!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Building a Mystery

Well, it's a mystery no more: the squash that popped out of my compost is a miniature pumpkin. With a little luck not only will I have my fill of squash blossoms to eat, but I will also have my Hallowe'en display and pie filling for free!

As you can see from the picture below, squash plants can be quite invasive. Yes, that is one lone plant that has invaded an entire bed and is attempting to jump into the tomato patch. Just for refence's sake, the 'pumpkin patch' is about the same width as the compost bin in the background, and three or four time as long.

The other plants in the bed are barely surviving, but I can't even go and rescue them since the squash is so prickly! Next year, I will have to cull all compost volunteers.

Monday, July 5, 2010

A Hard Day's Night II

Squash blossoms are ephemeral beauties: like the morning glory, they open with the morning light and fade by sundown. By the following day, they are shrivelled up yellow wads, barely recognizable as what was once a pretty flower. Yet they are a prized ingredient in many Mediterranean cultures: I've seen chutney-like sauces made with the blossoms, but these flowers are most often stuffed and either fried or steamed. Just the thought of squash blossom fritters makes my mouth water.

Squash blossoms can be found at the farmers' market or in a neighbour's invasive squash patch... whichever is easiest of access. If you do not see them at the market, walk up to any stall with zucchinis or squash for sale, and ask them if blossoms can be ordered: since the flowers are very perishable, some farmers only sell squash blossoms by reservation. If you really cannot find any, you might have better luck with a gardener friend or even your compost pile! While most winter squashes are a little too unwieldy for a balcony garden, zucchinis and other summer squashes will easily grow and produce abundantly in a pot: if you're not holding your breath for a bumper crop of zukes, it isn't too late to pot up a plant or two.

Though yesterday's harvest may seem a little small, it made for a copious plate for one, but could have easily been a starter for two, or appetizers for three or five... you get the picture.

But a meal for one it was. Every last bit on that platter was turned into a simple dinner that took no more than 20 minutes from start to finish. Really, it's that easy. I'll admit I did take a few shortcuts, forgoing steps that seem so important at the restaurant when producing food for paying customers. But I was feeding me, it was getting late, and I was famished.

Squash blossoms are either male or female. Both are edible, though you are more likely to find male flowers, as they are most abundant on the plant. The female flowers have a baby squash attached to its bottom end, whereas the male has a regular stem. Both flowers are somewhat prickly, and if you have sensitive skin, you should handle the blossoms with caution: gently rubbing your hands under warm, running water should rid your skin from embedded stingers.

To prep the flowers for eating, carefully wash them to remove any dirt or clandestine traveller, then gently pry the petals open: inside you will find the sexual organ. While it is perfectly edible, the organs are not particularly palatable, some find them rather bland, while others distinguish an unpleasant bitterness. Either way, both the anther and the stigma are relatively large, and take up precious real-estate that can be put to better use with some stuffing, so they should be cut out. Your squash blossoms are now ready to eat.

You can stuff the blossoms with whatever you like, including your favourite turkey stuffing. The simplest recipe calls for shreds of fresh mozzarella (bocconcini) or Mozzarella di Buffala, but any cheese would be delectable (Sage Derby will soon be in season, and would probably be heavenly!) Figuring out how many blossoms to buy will depend on how big your wallet is, but one or two is enough for an appetizer; three, with a few leaves of salad on the side will suffice for a starter or a side dish; but you will need at least five for a main course. The following recipe is merely a suggestion based on what I happen to have in the garden, use it as a guideline, but most of all, use your imagination!

Stuffed Squash Blossoms
For 5 blossoms

5 medium to large squash blossoms, prepped
5 small to medium radishes or baby turnips, with the leaves
5 sugar snap peas, snow peas, or 10 fresh peas, shelled
5 large leaves of basil
2 cloves new garlic
50g (1.79 oz) cheese (I used some extra-sharp, aged Cheddar)
salt and pepper to taste (but keep in mind the saltiness of you cheese)
olive oil for frying

Shred or finely chop all ingredients, except for the squash blossoms.
Mix to combine well, taste for seasoning.
Stuff the blossoms: you can pack in the stuffing, most blossoms should take about 2-3 tablespoons' worth of stuffing before tearing.
Fold the petals over like for a parcel. Keep the package closed by placing the blossoms petal-end down.
In a frying pan, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil on a medium setting.
When the oil starts to shimmer, place the bell-shaped parcels in the oil, flat side down.
After about 15 seconds, flick the blossoms onto their sides, turning them every 10 seconds, until every side is lightly browned.

Serve with a small salad, if you feel the need. A splash of balsamic vinegar might be called for, but the oozing cheese should be enough of a sauce for most.

I was thoroughly stuffed with the five bites of blossoms, though bigger appetites may require more. Buttery, fried breadcrumbs would have been a pleasant addition to the stuffing, but I didn't have any bread to hand. If you want to attempt fritters, it is easiest to twist the petal ends before dipping them in the batter, stem end first. Plunge in the hot oil, whilst holding the petal end for 5 seconds, giving the batter enough time to set the end shut (just make sure your fingers are not in the oil!)

Bon app'!

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