Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Chill-Out Room


Well, it seems like Summer is just not quite ready to give up the ghost! While I was getting used to the idea of breaking out the sweaters, I now have to drag the fan back from the shed! Days like these call for light and refreshing foods. Watermelons offer the perfect relief fro the heat. 


When I was a kid, watermelons only came in two sizes: large and extra large. They were perfect for large gatherings, picnics and bloc parties, but they were daunting for smaller households. Some shops would sell half or quarter melons, but unless they were freshly cut, chances were that by the time you got your melon chilled and sliced, it would have become a little sour. Nowadays, you can find small and tiny watermelons, perfect for four or fewer eaters, and these miniature varieties tend to be extremely sweet.

'Seedless' watermelons have been around for a few years now, but I have to say that I don't see the point: one of my childhood pleasures was to eat ice cold slices of watermelons in the backyard and spitting out the pips at the squirrels. It was all in good fun of course, I was not actually trying to hurt them, and they usually ate the projectiles. My father always sprinkles salt on watermelon slices: it intensifies the sweetness, and draws out the melon's water making for sloppily wet eating. A Cambodian friend of mine not only sprinkles salt onto melons, but she also adds powdered chilli peppers and lime juice. If melon is properly chilled, the combination is quite confusing, yet tasty.

Watermelon rinds, like cucumber peels, are more than just compost fodder. They soothe sunburns, hydrate chapped skin, and some people pickle them. 

Watermelons are lovely just the way they are, so it might not occur to some to do more with them than eating them straight out of the fridge; cubed into a fruit salad is often just about as fussy one will get with a melon. But this fruit has lots of potential, especially during the dog days of summer.


I don't remember where I first saw this salad, but I assure you it is lovely, and perfect for fending off a heat wave: the watermelon hydrates you, while the salty feta replenishes the minerals lost in sweat. Add some shredded herbs, and you have a flavour explosion that will revive any flagging appetite. If you find feta too briny for your taste, you can remove the salt by soaking the cheese in milk; the milk not only draws out the salt, it also tenderizes the cheese, rendering creamy instead of crumbly. Be forewarned though, once the feta has soaked in milk, it will not keep very long: three or four days at the most. 


Watermelon and Feta Salad
Serves four

1 small watermelon, or 2 halves of different colour (about 1 kg/ 2lbs, with the rind)
150g/ ±5oz  feta
About 10 mint leaves
Purple basil or shiso (perilla) leaves for colour, optional 
Kalamata or dried Morrocan olives, optional
Olive oil,  lemon juice, optional

Remove rind from watermelon, and cut into bite-sized cubes, about 2cm/ ¾".
Crumble or cut feta into 1cm/ ±½" chunks. Add to the watermelon.
Finely shred the mint, and toss into the salad.
The salad is done, but you can add olives for extra oomph. 
Chill for at least 30 minutes before serving.
The salt in the feta and olives will draw out moisture from the melon, so you should not need to add any oil or lemon juice, however if you find the salad too 'dry' after it has rested in the refrigerator, add a splash of oil, the lemon juice is only necessary if you want more zing.


You can use seedless watermelons if you like, but I do not find the pips particularly bothersome in the salad. They can be pushed into a corner of the plate, or discreetly spat out along with the olive pits. But should the seeds be swallowed, no one need worry that a watermelon vine will grow in their stomach...


Bon app'!




Sunday, August 29, 2010

The End is Nigh!


Oh August! Where have you gone? You flew by like a whirlwind, and left a blaze in our midst... With September lurking around the corner, I am feeling a chill down my spine. Next thing you know, Autumn will be at our doorsteps.


I don't know about you, but I hardly had time to see August whizz by. What with my skewed work schedule, I barely know what day it is, so it felt like I got sucker-punched when I realised August was coming to an end. Were it not for the fact that I saw little kids and young adults all dressed up for school, I probably would not have noticed that summer was creeping towards its curtain call until it was too late! This, despite the fact that nights are now comfortable enough to sleep under fluffy duvets (with the windows wide open!); that I have to scrounge through the tangled mess that are my tomato plants in order to harvest my daily pound or so before the squirrels get to them (they already finished off all the pumpkins... There will be no homegrown Hallowe'en display this year); that autumn vegetables are appearing in my CSA basket... I could have remained totally clueless...

So, September approaches with lumbering steps. What's in season?  'What's not in season?' should be the question!

Oodles of bushels
If you've never stepped near a farmers' market, now is the time to go! And you better be feeling industrious, because you will heading home weighed down by a ridiculously large amount of food. This is the time of the year when just about everyone within the vicinity heads to the market for the annual stocking up on everything summer. It almost feels like taking part in an agricultural fair or a rural sidewalk sale! Bushels of tomatoes (in Montreal) go for 8$ to 15$ depending on the variety and level of ripeness; bell peppers are priced at 8$ to 20$; I saw bushels of eggplants for 10$; green and yellow wax beans are 5$ the half-bushel; shelling beans cost 4$ the half-bushel, but can also be bought in 20lb bags; chilli peppers; onions; carrots; and on and on....

If you're not up to tackling bushels of vegetables, consider sharing the lot with a friend or neighbour, because this is one time when I would advise buying in large quantities. Just the prospect of stocking up on the taste of summer should be motivation enough to break out the canning jars and freezer baggies! Just make sure you have the room to store your hoard.

Shelling Beans
I've mentioned shelling beans before, but I cannot emphasize enough how wonderful these beans are! They require some work, but if you have never shelled peas or beans before, you cannot possibly understand how ecstatically meditative the act of shelling can be when you've had a hectic day. I enter my own personal bubble when I start shelling legumes. Fresh shelling beans can be used like any old dry bean in salads; Succotash; or soups. But they differ from dry beans by not being gas-inducing. And they do not require any overnight soaking; just boil in a pot of salted water, or use for baked beans. 
Each region will have their favourite shelling bean, so I cannot say what you will find where you live. In Montreal, Roma or Romana beans are most common. They are pretty unassuming at the green stage, but when they start drying, they take on psychedelic streaks that are repeated in the beans themselves. If  you live in an area with a large African, Indian or Tamil community, you might be able to find hyacinth beans. These gorgeous beans are entirely edible from the moment they sprout from the ground (certain communities eat the shoots, while others eat the flowers, the fresh beans, freshly shelled beans or dry beans). If you cannot find these lookers, you can always grow them yourself: the seeds are sold just about anywhere as an ornamental.

Leeks
I've only just noticed that, while I mention leeks quite often, I have yet to devote an entire post to this versatile vegetable. I will have to correct this shortly. Leeks have been making an appearance since late June, but September is when the fat spears make it t market. Though leeks of any size are magnificent vegetables, the larger ones tend to keep better. In any case, leeks, like their close cousin the green onion, should be kept in the refrigerator. Any other onion, including garlic, should be kept as far away as possible from the cold-box.

Garlic
Local heads of garlic have been trickling in for a while now, however now is the time to stock up for the winter: the bulbs are large and plump, and they have that papery-white skin that will protect them from drying out. The bulk of garlic productions hit the stands in September, and unless yo live in California or China, run, do not walk, to get your stash. In Quebec and Ontario -and I am assuming in most other Canadian provinces- the local garlic disappear by late October. You might be wondering why you should bother buying garlic that costs nearly double the price of imports. Well, aside from the obvious reasons I could give you, your local garlic is very much likely to be organic, even if it does not have a label or sticker that says it is so. Garlic is a relatively pest-free crop; requires little fertilization; and farmers will refrain from spraying if they don't have to. Imported garlic requires some spraying to make it through the commute. Also, given the proper conditions, local garlic will keep for an incredibly long time: I usually manage to save a few cloves well into April or May. The ideal place to keep garlic is in a cool, yet dry spot; in my case, that turned out to be the cupboard beneath my sink. Never store garlic in the fridge.

Potatoes, Onions, Cabbages and Co.
You can still get your hands on dirt-covered new potatoes, but storage potatoes are taking up more space on market stands. That means that the perfect potato for home-made fries and mash potatoes are going to abound shortly! Most root vegetables making it to market will be increasing in size, as they are easier to store. So you will have to eat your fill of baby roots before they disappear for the year.
Thick-skinned new onions can be lovely, but they do make one cry when it comes time to slice them; storage onions tend to be slightly less tear-inducing, and they have the advantage of keeping well under the sink, with the garlic and potatoes.
Although I doubt there is truly a season for coleslaw, sauerkraut is definitely a fall or winter thing. I don't know how to make sauerkraut from scratch, but I do love eating it! All manners of cabbages seem to have had a lovely year, because everything I've seen at the market are enormous! Finding cauliflower for two will be an impossible feat, so I might just give up, and find people to share the cole-ossus with instead (I couldn't resist the pun!)

Wild Mushrooms
Get them from a professional forager, or go hunting yourself. If you have no prior experience in foraging, go with a guide. You do not want to risk your life for a bite of wild delight... In Montreal, you can try contacting Mycoboutique to find a guide.
One word of advice: wild mushrooms should always be consumed thoroughly cooked. No quick stir-fry for these fungi because even edible wild 'shrooms can harbour certain toxins that can only be destroyed by heat. Sauté in a fat of your choice until they are nicely caramelized, and then stew for for 5 to 10 minutes in a liquid (wine, beer, cream, water or stock).

Winter Squash
Pumpkins; acorn squashes; butternut; buttercup; delicata; spaghetti; hubbard; pâtisson; potimarron; turban... They are all as lovely as their names imply.

Summer Fruits
I know, I understand that you are probably dreading the approach of autumn, but worry not, you can still hang on to the last vestiges of summer: there are still loads of melons; watermelons; peaches; plums (Ontarios yellow plums have, sadly, ended their season, but Quebec's Mont-Royals are in full swing); and nectarines to be had. I am readying myself for the stark season by making batches of peach and plum jams. If I still have storage space left, I might even tackle some strawberry and blueberry jams... Though autumn strawberries should carry on until October if there are no cold snaps in the forecast, stone fruits and melons will probably be gone by the end of the month, so stock up or gorge yourself, whichever is your prerogative.By the way, your eyes are not playing tricks on you: those watermelons are tiny!

Apples
The crisp, cool evenings are conducive to the production of crisp and crunchy apples. Need I say more? Call around or make a quick search on the internet for you-pick orchards in your area: I still harbour fond memories of picking apples on school outings.

Artichokes
I love artichokes. Last year I had to wait until October for Quebec artichokes, but with the summer we've had I would not be surprised to see them in September.

Figs
If you live in California or Greece, you might be just about tired of seeing figs... no, scrap that, one cannot possibly have too many figs! Figs are one of those godly foods that are, unfortunately, hard to find locally in most of Canada. Unless you live in British Colombia: I hear that there are healthy 'groves' of figs scattered about Vancouver Island. There might be a few figs trees in Southern Ontario, but for the rest of us, it'll have to be imports, or grow your own. Since I am not likely to be harvesting my own crop anytime soon, I just might have to give in... In the US, figs are hardy just about everywhere, except for New England.

Wild Pacific Salmon
The Sockeyes are running up river. And they say it's going to be record-breaking year... Let's cross our fingers and toes that the wild ones are truly making a comeback.


Bon app'!




Monday, August 23, 2010

In Earnest


Summer is winding down. You can feel it in the air: the mornings and evenings have a chilly edge; the air is crisp. The heat is no longer stifling; the sun's rays do not scorch.  Days are getting shorter. And firefighters in British Colombia finally seem to be getting a little break. Let's just hope that a good rain comes soon to dampen down the parched land and put out the fires.


Summer is winding down. But the garden is not giving up just yet. In fact, it is giving out in earnest. The garden is gearing up for its swan song, and  it's going to go out with a bang!


Despite a marauding squirrel who has taken a liking to pumpkin seeds. 


Despite the mildew that has taken over the pumpkin patch. (Hurray! I thought I'd ever be able to control that beast!) 


So what is one to do when it feels like there are more tomatoes than one can deal with?


More beans than one can keep up with?


One makes Abi's Roasted Green Bean Salad, or a modified version of it. 


I recently harvested some potatoes. It's nowhere near a bumper crop, but then, I never was one to have much success with the tubers - or any root crop for that matter, I think my garden soil is too rich for them... It is a goodly amount of taties  nonetheless, and they are a welcome addition to the salad.

(If anyone needs proof that climate change is real, I offer you my potatoes. These French rattes potatoes were not planted: they are survivors from last year's failed crop. And it looks like a couple of Peruvian Blues have made it through as well. Winter 2009-10 was so mild that the ground did not freeze, so the forgotten potatoes overwintered, and mice managed to destroy my asparagus. Granted it was an El Niño winter, but that usually translates into ice storms in Montreal -remember 1998?- not warm ground and slush. Climate change: it begins with perennial potato crops; next thing you know we'll be growing figs and citrus in Montreal...)


Green beans and tomatoes are a lovely pairing. I'd even say it's a classic, it appears in Salade Niçoise. A basic, pared-down version consists in a warm mix of sautéed shallots, green beans and tomatoes tossed in at the very end. Since potatoes are also essential to a classic niçoise, it goes without saying that all three together result in a flavour explosion. 

Although I try to avoid expensive ingredients in the recipes I post, for this salad I highly recommend you use the best oil you can afford. Any flavourful oil will do for this recipe. However, in most parts of Canada and the northern US, there are few 'flavourful' oils produced locally. In British Colombia, you can probably get your hands on some local hazelnut oil (it's so tasty!). While Californians are lucky enough to have their own lovely olive oils, other American regions may have local peanut oil. But for the rest of us, imported olive oil will have to do. (Canola oil is a purebred Canadian, but is too bland for this recipe.) The 'best' olive oil need not be the most expensive, but it must be flavourful. Do try to purchase it from a store that will allow you to taste the olive oil before you buy. Taste is subjective, and  the flavour of olive oil will vary from one region to another, so I cannot recommend a particular brand or country, but a good extra-virgin olive oil should not feel oily. I don't know if that makes any sense, but if you try several olive oils, you will understand: fresh olive oil has a touch of acidity that cuts through the greasiness. In Montreal, there are a few shops on the perimeter of Jean-Talon Market that offer olive oil tastings. The fish market La Mer has a relatively big selection of olive oils, some of which are privately imported, and there are always a few selections available for tasting. In any case, if you cannot taste the oil you are buying, check for a 'Best Before' or 'Date of Harvest' stamp somewhere on the bottle. If you cannot find one steer clear of it. (Try to be a year from the best before date, or no more than a year after the harvest date.)


Salade Confite à la Niçoise
Serves 4 as a main course, 8 as a starter

500g/ 1lb beans (green, wax, flat, broad, runner....)
500g/ 1lb new potatoes, thoroughly washed, but skin still on
500g/ 1 lb tomatoes
1 large onion
4 cloves garlic
500ml/ 2c olive oil
60mL/ ¼c vinegar (red wine, balsamic, raspberry, sherry...)
salt and pepper

Wash, top (and tail -if you want) the beans, and cut to bite-sized lengths. 
Boil or steam for 3 to 5 minutes, or until cooked but still crisp. Cool in ice water, drain and set aside.
Slice onion and garlic cloves into thin slivers. Place in a pan with all the oil over medium heat.
Trim new potatoes, removing any green bits. Cut into 1cm/ ½" thick pieces. Pat dry.
Add the potatoes to the onion and garlic. The oil should be bubbling, but not boiling vigorously. 
Keep an eye on the potatoes and onions: stir occasionally, making sure nothing sticks to the bottom. If the onion or garlic slivers begin to colour, lower heat. 
Cut tomatoes into chunks, about the same size as the potatoes. Season with salt and pepper, and leave to marinate in the vinegar.
The potatoes are cooked when a knife or fork pierces them easily (about 15 minutes). While some of the potatoes may have crisped up, most will be meltingly soft. Remove pot from heat, and leave to cool slightly.
Using a slotted spoon, remove confit potatoes and onions from oil, and combine with marinated tomatoes.
Add cooked beans, and toss. Add more of the olive oil, if you find the salad too dry.
Serve while still warm. 


This salad is complete as is, and the crisp green beans will add enough texture to foil the softer potatoes and tomatoes. However, if you are using runner or broad beans, you might find the salad lacking in crunch: adding crunchy, garlicky croûtons or fried bread crumbs will add some contrast. The salad keeps really well, and the flavour actually improves over time, but the green beans will not stay green more than one day. If you plan to keep the left-overs for later, you should consider using yellow wax beans, or you can save some cooked beans apart and mix them in later. Save the left-over oil for a future use, it will impart a lovely onion-y aroma to your next dish.

Bon app'!




Sunday, August 15, 2010

CSA Directory Update


In case you are still on the look out for a CSA farm, here are few more links for you to look into:

Amarosia in Shediac, N.B.
Eagle Creek Farms near Calgary and Red Deer, AB
Other CSA farms in Alberta
ACORN (Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network) list organic farms in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick

Star Hollow Farm in Washington, D.C.
American CSAs listed at Urban Farm Online

Équiterre is still the most complete listing for Quebec, however, if you live in Montreal, here are other options not listed on the website:
Le Frigo-Vert, Concordia's food co-op
Fait Ici, a loco-centric old school general store
Co-op La Maison Verte is a health food co-op serving as a drop-off point for three farms in NDG.

Happy hunting!


..

Millions of Peaches


Can one have too many peaches? While I may claim to be more veggie than fruit the rest of the year, I definitely can survive on fruit alone during the summer months. What with the glut of berries, tomatoes, and stone fruits, who needs veggies? (Okay, you don't need to answer that question, I know I could not live without  vegetables.)

 
But peaches are definitely manna from heaven: the tender, fuzzy skin gives way to the softest, sweetest, juiciest flesh ever! In a good year, I could sit outside with a basket of Ontario peaches, and eat until I am sticky from head to toe (that seems to be a recurring image of my summer eating, actually...) Literally. I no longer attempt these sultry feats (feasts!), as I have no ready access to outdoor water, but if you have kids, forget about fluorescent-hued ice-pops: stick a few ripe peaches, nectarines and plums in the fridge and let them gorge on these nuggets of summer. (While you're at it, pre-slice some melons -Quebec watermelons and cantaloupes are just lovely this year- and leave them in the fridge.) Just make sure they're wearing their bathing suits and are near a hose!

Peaches are either of the yellow or white persuasion. Both are nice, but my personal weakness is for yellow free-stone peaches: a perfectly ripe white peach is extremely sweet, juicy like no other with slightly floral undertones, but a yellow peach just tastes more 'peachy' with its tang of tartness. You can occasionally find Asian peaches in Chinatown. Besides the fact that they are definitely not locally produced, these peaches are rather different from Western peaches: for one thing, they are huge, about the size of a large orange or medium grapefruit. They are usually of the white variety, which is fine if that is what you are seeking. However, they are also extremely fuzzy: they are the only peaches I've ever met that needed to be peeled.

Asian peaches are relatively easy to peel. Their skin is so thick that all one needs to do is take a knife to it as if it were an orange. However, if you prefer Western peaches without the skin, you need to plan ahead. Bring a large pot of water to boil. In the meantime, score the peaches with the tip of a sharp knife, making an X. You needn't go deep, 1 mm (1/16") is more than enough. Prepare a bowl of ice water, and leave it close to the stove. When the pot of water comes to a rumbling boil, scald the scored peaches one at a time for about 15 seconds. Plunge them in the ice bath. Once the peaches are fully cooled, the peel should slip off easily.

Peeling peaches seems like more trouble than it's worth, though I suppose some desserts may be more enjoyable without the peach fuzz. For everything else, peaches in their blushing garment are simply divine. Peaches are fragile fruits, bruising easily when ripe, so buy them on the firm side (just make sure their shoulders are golden and not green), and leave them to ripen on the counter at home. Enjoy the summery dollops as they reach their peak. 

Peaches are so perfect in their natural state  -the same can be said of any perfectly ripe fruit, really- that anything you can do to them seems like superfluous overkill. But sometimes, one's basket of peaches ripens more quickly than one can eat them, or one might tire of them before one sees the bottom of the batch. Hence the need for a few fall-back recipes... Twenty years ago, I stayed at a quaint bed and breakfast in Calgary, and had the most splendid dish of Baked Peaches and Cream for breakfast. I remember asking for the recipe, but I am sorry to say that I have since lost it. The following recipe is just as scrumptious, and very easy to make.


Honey Roasted Peaches
Serves 2, or 1 very selfish cook

2-3 peaches, freestones will make your life easier
4 Tbs / 60ml honey
water or white wine for deglazing
fresh herbs of your choice (basil, lemon thyme, lavender, rosemary...)

Cut peaches in half along their seam. Remove the pit and set aside.
In a hot pan, heat the honey until it bubbles. Keep a close eye on the honey, as it can burn easily. 
If you are using a dark-coloured pan, you will have a hard time watching the honey, but follow your nose! It always knows! Sniff the honey at regular intervals: you might not be able to see when honey starts to caramelize, but your nose will. When you get a whiff of toasted bread or nuts, gently place the peach halves in the caramel, cut side down.
The honey will splutter and splatter so be careful not to burn yourself, lower the heat to medium, and let the peaches cook for a minute or two.
When the skin starts to curl up at the edges, add a splash of water or white wine to deglaze the pan.
Cover the pan, turn the heat to medium-low, and let the peaches roast until their peels completely curl up and slip off. If the sauce reduces before the peaches are ready, add another splash of water or wine.
Add herbs to the pan, swirl around.
Check the sauce's consistency, it should have thickened back to its original density.
Plate the peach halves, and drizzle with the sauce.
Serve as is, with a dollop of plain yoghurt, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, shortbread cookies or crumbs, or all of the above.


This exquisite dessert can be served warm or cold; it keeps well in the fridge, and will travel comfortably for a picnic. Make it extra special with a splash of bubbly added at the last minute for a fizzy reminder of the fuzzy robe... If you manage to save some of the sauce: it can be put to all sorts of uses, but the most delectable would be to pour a spoonful in a glass of chilled white (bubbly!) wine for a peachy-honey kir. The honey will have taken on the rosy flush of the peach skins, and will transmit its lovely hue to your drink.


A word on honey: you might have noticed recent news mentioning the plight of  the honey bee. Wild and domestic bees are crucial for the pollination of over 70% of our food crops. Yet bees are disappearing around the world. While the debate on what are the main causes for colony collapse disorder rages on, sprawling monocultures, widespread use of pesticides, and loss of habitat are being singled out as the principle factors.

As city dwellers - I am assuming that most Quest followers live in urban or sub-urban areas- we often feel divorced from our food sources, but we cannot ignore the bees' misfortune. I am not expecting you to set up bee hives in your backyard (although there are increasingly more cities opening up to urban beekeepers, including Montreal), but there is much we can do to sustain our local bees. Swaths of green grass are symbols of Suburbia, but they are the equivalent of vast deserts for bees: sow flowering plants in your lawn, like clover, vetch, English daisies and alfalfa to provide bees with a diverse diet. If you have a garden, flowers are essential, as is a protected (hidden) messy area: wild bees do not build hives like the honeybee, they nest in hollow branches or in the ground. During long dry spells, provide bees (other insects and birds too) with shallow dishes of water: bees get thirsty too! And never use pesticides: a well-balanced (or an unbalanced one like mine) organic garden will sustain a beautifully diverse community that evens itself out.

Most importantly, support local bee keepers. Like any other agricultural enterprise, beekeeping is hard work and deserves every penny it asks for its production. Imported honey can be up to half the price of local honey, but local honey ensures that local crops are pollinated and that local beekeepers stay in business. By buying local honey, you will also witness the passing of the seasons, as the flavour of honey changes throughout the year.

Bon app'!


P.S. I keep forgetting to mention that summer's wild mushrooms are popping up everywhere. I am assuming from the recent heat and dry weather in British Colombia, that B.C.'s mushroom will be delayed, but the rain was evenly spaced out in the East, and the chanterelles (girolles) in Quebec have been abundant and of a good size. With a little luck , they'll be around for another week.

P.P.S. I'm always writing about the beautiful summer we are experiencing in Quebec and Ontario because it's what I see first hand, but I know that the weather has not been as generous in other parts of Canada. I do want this blog to encompass the whole of Canada  -North America, actually- so if you notice any discrepancy between what I write about and what is happening in your area, don't hesitate to leave me a comment: I'd love to know what is cropping up in your neck of the woods!
For example, Quebec and Ontario garlic have been harvested and are in the process of being cured for storage, but out in Calgary, garlic scapes are still available.



Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Mad Apple


I love eggplants. For as far as I can remember, I've always eaten these vegetable-fruits, they were part of my family's culinary landscape. Both my parents have their eggplant repertoire: stuffed and fried; sliced in a fan and roasted; pickled; in salads... However, most of my friends at school had never seen an eggplant, much less eaten one, unless they were of Mediterranean or Asian origin.

Eggplants - aubergine in Britain and France; brinjal in India - have had a checkered past: up until recently, it was believed that these fruits were toxic unless heavily salted and cooked before consumption. Yet the Japanese and Italians have been eating them raw for quite some time. The Italian name, melanzana, is derived from the Latin for 'bad egg'. When first introduced to Europeans, the poor thing, cousin to the 'poisonous' tomato, was believed to cause insanity, hence the moniker 'mad apple'.

My, how times have changed! They are just about everywhere nowadays.  Market stalls have bucketfuls of colourful jewels: long, thin, and dark purple Asians; football-sized oblong 'regulars'; small, egg-shaped white ones; green-striped ping-pong balls from Thailand... When choosing eggplants, make sure their skin is glossy; their flesh firm with the slightest hint of give; they should feel heavy for their size; and their calyx (leafy cap) should be fresh and green.

Aubergines are a chef's best friend. Next time you eat out, look closely at the menu, chances are that there will be eggplants somewhere, most likely in the vegetarian option, probably grilled or roasted, in a 'Mediterranean' style. Despite being a complete mystery for some, eggplants are relatively easy vegetables to prepare. Sliced into 1cm (½") slabs, drizzled with oil and seasoned, they can be pan-friend, oven-roasted or grilled on the barbie, just like a vegetarian steak or burger. Eggplants are absolute heaven when paired with tomatoes, basil, and cumin. They are an integral part of classic summer ratatouilles, and Middle-Eastern baba ghanoujs. And they are essential for my father's eggplant salad.


Coriander is the other essential ingredient for this salad. In fact, one can almost call this a Coriander and Eggplant salad.


If you aren't really fond of cilantro, now is the time to build up a liking for it: try to find a bunch that has a higher proportion of flowers and the more finely-cut, mature leaves. The flavour will be slightly subtler, less pungent. And make sure you remove every bit of stalks before chopping. If, however, you are a fan of coriander, try to find bunches that have begun to set seed, and make sure you keep every last bit of stalk for chopping: the flavour will be more intense, and you will get added texture from the crispy-crunchy stems.


If you happen to have some cilantro growing in a pot or in the garden, you are probably despairing at the state your plants are in: don't throw them out! They still make for great eating and gorgeous garnishes!

This salad can be made a number of ways, depending on the type of eggplant you happen to have on hand. If you bought one of those large football eggplants, you can cut it in half, roast it in the oven, and scoop out the flesh with a spoon. That's how my father makes this salad: the result looks like a chunky Chinese baba ghanouj. Smaller eggplants tend to have thinner skin, so you can slice and grill (or roast or pan-fry) the  unpeeled slabs before assembling the salad. If you've got the grill lit, you might as well throw some thickly sliced onions too: while the salad calls for finely, chopped raw onions, you will probably have more takers if they're cooked.


Eggplant Salad
Serves 4 to 6


1 large eggplant, or 5 smaller ones
1 generous bunch coriander/ cilantro
2 lemons, zest and juice
1 large onion or 3 babies
Olive oil
salt and pepper


If you are using a large eggplant, cut in half, generously drizzle the cut side with oil, season with salt and pepper. You can roast it in the oven (cut side down on a foil-lined tray, or in a baking dish) at 375'F /109'C for 30 minutes, or you can grill it on the barbecue for 15-20 minutes on each side. Either way, when the eggplant is cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh, and put aside.

If you have small aubergines, cut into generous slices, drizzle with oil, season, and throw them on the grill or in a frying pan. The eggplant needs to be cooked through for this salad, so you might have to move the slices to a cooler spot of the grill to let them cook fully. Let the cooked slabs rest under cover while you prepare the rest of the salad.
If you and your fellow eaters like raw onions, finely chop the onion, otherwise, cut in half (if small) or thick slices (if big) and grill alongside the eggplant. Chop to bit-size before mixing with the rest of the salad.
Rough-chop the cilantro -with or without the stalks- and combine with the lemon juice and zest, onions and olive oil. Add any cooking juice collected from the rested eggplants.
You can leave the eggplant as is, but you might find it easier to eat if you chop it a bit . Mix into the dressing and serve. Adjust the seasoning.


It is possible that you will have more eggplant than you can possibly eat in one sitting.  While this salad makes wonderful left-overs, you can set aside some cooked eggplants for something else before dressing it. Grilled eggplants, along with other grilled vegetables, make lovely sandwiches, pizza toppings, pasta sauces and lasagna stuffing. Or you can always use them for an abridged ratatouille.



Bon app'!



Friday, August 6, 2010

Summer's Bounty


What can be easier, or more pleasant, than making a quick mixed salad with whatever you have at hand? The French call mixed salads une salade composée -isn't that sweet? As if the salad were a musical composition, all the flavours melding into visual and gustatory harmony. The salad pictured above was made with a few pickings from my garden and CSA basket.


Such as pretty, colourful cherry tomatoes.


A slightly overgrown - in my opinion - cucumber.


Edible flowers from herbs and vegetables. 

The whole is lightly seasoned with a splash of rice wine vinegar (use any mild vinegar), and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. No need for more, not even oil.


I don't really like cucumber peels: they get stuck in my teeth, and are extremely painful to pry out. I've always peeled and seeded cucumbers, but before they get chucked in the compost bin, the peelings are put to a secondary use: they make great moisturizing facials and plasters (you can use the peel of any watery squash for this, including melons.). You can either use the peels as is, or blend them into a paste; smear on your face, a sunburn, or any dry, itchy patch of skin, and leave to dry out for ten to fifteen minutes. Your skin will feel replenished and soothed.


Not all flowers are edible, but an easy rule is if you can eat the leaf, chances are the flower is also edible. Most summer herbs are flowering right now. It often advised to remove the flowers to preserve the flavour of the leaves (flowering is a sign that the plant is ageing, and can lead to stronger flavoured, bitter herbs), but it would be a waste to throw the blooms out. They are just as flavourful as the plants themselves, and they are so beautiful. I was told that the flowers of scented sweet peas (grown for their blooms and not for their peas) were toxic, however, the flowers of garden peas and beans are edible.  Flowers and seed pods from the crucifer family are also edible: cauliflower and broccoli are common examples; but radish, mustard and kale produce edible flowers; their seed pods add interesting textures to any plate.


Bon app'!



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