Monday, September 27, 2010

Leap


Leap.

I'm not one for strong sensations. I do not particularly crave adrenaline rushes -though I must admit that a busy lunch or dinner service can be rather exhilarating. As much as I enjoy watching extreme sports, (and I am sure that in the deepest, darkest recesses of my soul there is a free-style snowboarder hiding, ready to burst out onto the half-pipe), I am a big scardy-cat. 

I like the comfort of my home; the company of good friends; quiet evenings with my sweetheart and the cats... 

But today, I took a big leap into the unknown. My heart is racing right now. The feeling is reminiscent of the last time I jumped off the 10m diving platform at the Olympic pool, twenty-five years ago... I feel like this. But I think that the grey clouds and raindrops in the picture above are a good metaphor for what is going through my mind at this very moment. 

I've finally quit a dead-end job that had me stewing in my own dissatisfaction for quite some time.

I don't know where I will land, but I feel strangely free, like a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders. There might not be anyone to catch me, but I know I will land on my feet.

Leap.

Everything will fall into place.





Oink, Oink, Oink!


Pigs have been on my mind a lot lately. It might have something to do with the number of requests I've had for bacon sarnies ('bacon sandwich' in British slang) and BLTs at work, but I think it mostly has to do with the early morning news I heard some time ago that the State of Tasmania has decided to phase out the use of sow pens by 2017. Subsequently, the Australian supermarket chain Coles announced that they would stop selling pork products produced by sow stall-using farms by 2014, which prompted the Tasmanian government to push up the ban's date.

Photo courtesy of ABC Rural News. Photographer: Gabrielle Chan

If you've never heard of sow stalls and have little or no knowledge about pig farming, the following might come as a big shock: in intensive pig farming, sows (female pigs) are kept in narrow pens barely big enough to allow for the animal to stand up or lie down on its side. There is no room for any other movement, they cannot even turn around to face another direction. When sows give birth to their piglets, they are moved to a farrowing stall that allows them to lie on their side for nursing, however, the babies are not actually in the same pen: they are separated from their mother by metal bars, supposedly to protect them from being crushed by the sow, should she try to change positions. Pigs are extremely social, intelligent animals, and it has long been deemed that such treatment is cruel and unnecessary for raising pigs for meat. Also, these stalls do not allow for the pigs' natural instinct to root around and to wallow in mud and dirt, a habit they use to protect their skin from insect pests and skin diseases. The UK banned the use of sow pens in 1999, but they are still widely used in the rest of the world, including in Canada and the US.


So the RSPCA has launched a new campaign to help improve the living conditions of pigs raised in Europe. Called 'Think Pig', the campaign is asking for consumers to consider the pig's welfare when purchasing pork products. While Think Pig (check out their Facebook page!) is aimed at UK consumers, it does send an important message for meat eaters around the world: as consumers, we have the power to demand for more ethical products. Simply asking pointed questions like where fish comes from has pushed most major grocery chains in Canada to voluntarily seek out sustainable fish. If you eat pork, ask your grocer to look into their suppliers' practices. If they are  unwilling to budge, and if it is within your budget, make friends with another  butcher, and buy ethically raised pigs from a small farm.

Improving the pigs' welfare is not only good for the pigs themselves, it is also good for the pig farmers. Did you know that most pig farmers in Canada lose money when they bring their pigs to slaughter? That pig anatomy is not taught in any veterinary school across Canada? Treating a sick or injured pig would cost more than dispatching it to the slaughterhouse, so pigs are not on the curriculum. The current Canadian government is actually paying farmers to reduce the size of their herds or even to get out of pig farming altogether in the hopes that it will stem the pork industry's financial hemorrhage. Better living conditions for the pigs would translate into higher selling prices, and therefore profit for the farmer.

Yes, better treatment for pigs will mean higher prices for consumers. But do we really need to eat so much meat? Should we even eat cheap meat? Wouldn't we feel better knowing that the animal we eat had a good life, and that the farmer who raised it had a fair wage for his work?

So the next time you pick up a packet of bacon, think pig.



Friday, September 24, 2010

Do the Mashed Potato


French chef Joel Robuchon rose to fame for his inventive cuisine during the '80s, but he was probably most notorious for his sinfully delectable mashed potatoes. The insane recipe (500g of butter for every kilo of potatoes!!!) was not made public until after the chef's first attempt at retirement in the mid '90s. By then, the general public had taken a turn towards somewhat healthier eating, and the recipe's proportions definitely shocked many a gourmand. But I have to admit that the recipe is absolute heaven! And on chilly, cloudy autumn days, I like nothing better than to sit down to a steaming bowl of mashed potatoes. Robuchon's pomme purée are just the cherry on the cake!


Mashed potatoes, executed flawlessly, are the ultimate comfort food.  The silky smooth starch is the food equivalent of the biggest, fluffiest, softest woolly throw on a nippy day. Although consuming Robuchon's mash regularly would be pushing it health wise, regular ol' mashed potatoes made from scratch are a pleasant eat. It does sometimes seem like they require a little more work than one has the energy for after a hard day at the 'office', but I do feel deliciously spoiled when I -or my honey- goes to the trouble of mashing a few spuds. And do not doubt: mashed tatties on their own can replace a whole meal every once in a while!


There is no need for a precise recipe, but for perfect mashed potatoes, one should follow a few rules. After having spent over six months making mashed potatoes at a busy London restaurant, I think I pretty much have mashed 'taters down to a science. First of all, the potatoes must be of the starchy, storage type: new potatoes make for lovely crushed spuds in their jackets with olive oil, but are horrible when mashed  smooth. The variety is of little importance (especially since few supermarket 'taters are named), however, the starchier potatoes tend to have yellow or russeted (rough and brown) skins. Secondly, the potatoes must all be of the same size for cooking: if you are boiling them, peel before cutting them into chunks about the size of a pullet egg... Potatoes that are smaller than a large chicken egg can be left whole; about the same size as a large egg, cut in two; anything bigger should be cut into thirds or quarters. You can also bake the potatoes before mashing them, and the result will be divinely fluffy, but it will take a ridiculously long time before you sit down to dinner. I've noticed that one can now purchase pre-cut, microwave oven-ready potatoes for mashing.



(It's hard to translate onto a computer screen, but I just went blank at the thought of microwaving a potato. I won't even go there. If you enjoy eating microwaved potatoes, I do not want to know about it.)


Overcooking will result in watery potatoes, which will turn into a gluey mess when mashed, so it is important that you keep a close eye on your potatoes: chunks the size of half an egg will take about 15 minutes to cook in vigorously boiling water. Spear the potatoes with a sharp, pointy knife: there should be no resistance from the spud, yet it should not break up when it slips off the blade. Also, the cooking water needs to be cold and salted (about ½ tsp per liter/quart) at the beginning of the whole process. And finally, whatever method of mashing you prefer, always crush hot potatoes: warm or cool potatoes are only good for glue.

When I order (or serve) mashed potatoes at a restaurant, I expect the purée to be perfectly smooth and silky, like baby food. But I have to admit that I have a soft spot for lumpy mash. I doubt my mum ever served lumpy potatoes -I seem to recall that she took particular pride in making the silkiest potatoes, despite her busy schedule- but for some reason I associate lumpiness with childhood food memories. So, to this day, I continue mashing my spuds at home with an old school potato masher: the metal contraption with large, square holes. If you prefer your mash to be the smoothest possible, I strongly suggest you invest in a good potato ricer. This tool is perfect for all sorts of puréeing (no vegetable will resist it), and is essential for making gnocchi.

I like to make an extra large batch of mashed potatoes, because it allows for seconds, and there is the slightest chance that there will be some leftovers... Cold mash is the ideal food medium: if you know a difficult eater, camouflaging the offensive food inside a scoop of hot mash will make it go down a little more easily: add cold mash to a pan of lightly sautéed greens to reheat; a splash of milk to loosen the whole lot... even kale can go unnoticed! But who am I kidding? I don't even wait for leftovers: I love mashed potatoes with wilted roquette, sautéed spinach, and buttery braised Tuscan kale!

Milk and butter are essential for my mashed potatoes, but when I feel particularly flush I will add a splash of heavy cream. Sour cream, yoghurt, buttermilk, and cheese are other dairy products that can make their way into a serving of pomme purée, which all goes to show that I am not -and will probably never be- quite ready to go vegan. If the cooking water was adequately salted, your mash shouldn't require any more salt, but pepper or ground nutmeg will round off all the flavours in your tatties.


Bon app'!



Friday, September 17, 2010

Just One of Those Day...


Oh, it definitely feels like summer's come to an end all of a sudden! It was darn chilly at 5 when I got up to let the cats out... Brrr! It's the perfect day to curl up under a duvet (throw it in the dryer before snuggling in!) with a good book, or a ball of yarn and some knitting needles.  (I could really use a new scarf for this winter... ) I'm almost tempted to turn the heaters on tonight, but I won't, September 16th just feels too early for that.


It's certainly a perfect day for an old favourite of mine: Poireaux-vinaigrette. It sounds so prosaic in English -leeks with dressing- but I suppose that's all they really are. Leeks are beautiful vegetables in their own right, but they often play second fiddle to everything else on the plate. Poireaux-vinaigrette places the spotlight squarely on the leeks themselves.

I didn't always like this dish. When I was a kid, my father often made this salad, sometimes served warm, other times cold; occasionally the leeks were gritty, or stringy and they would get stuck in my teeth. No, indeed, I have to admit that there were times when I had a really hard time swallowing leeks no matter how they were dressed up. There were brief moments when I thought that leeks weren't half bad, but it was never a coup de foudre (thunder-struck love).

It wasn't until much later that I learned how lovely leeks could be on their own. I was in a bouchon lyonais -a traditional Lyon bistro- with a friend, and the carte I was looking at had nothing much by way of vegetarian options. My friend marvelled at the carnivore's smörgåsbord that presented itself to her, what with the cured meats, pâtés and whatnots. My only choice apparently was the Salade de Chèvre Chaud (salad with warm goat cheese croûtons) minus the lardons (salt-cured bacons batons). The waitress shot me a quizzical look, nodded when I offered that I didn't eat meat, and walked away with our order. When she returned with my friend's starter platter of charcuterie, she held a second plate in her hand: "Tenez mademoiselle, le chef vous a préparé des poireaux-vinaigrette!" (Here you go miss, the chef made some leeks for you.)

At this point, I still wasn't too fond of this onion relative, but I couldn't return the plate, so I took a bite of leek. It was meltingly soft, without a hint of stringiness. The leeks' sweet earthiness melded with the dressing's tangy zip: it was a revelation! Leeks were indeed delicious, and need not be hidden amongst other vegetables, or disappeared into a stock or soup. 

This salad can be served as a starter or as a side vegetable. Count on using 3-4 small or 2 medium leeks per person. You can use large leeks, but the smaller ones can be picked up and eaten like asparagus: with your fingers! Also larger leeks can sometimes be stringy, so it is best to keep them for recipes calling for chopped leeks.


 Poireaux-Vinaigrette

1 bunch leeks
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 Tbs white or red wine vinegar (or cider or rice...)
5 Tbs neutral oil
a few fresh grinds of pepper

Bring a large pot of water up to the boil. If you have no intention of using the cooking water on your plants, add a spoonful of salt when the water comes up to the boil.
Meanwhile, trim off the root end and most of the green part of the leeks: you want to keep only the straight white part. (Keep the greens for a soup, stock or for roasting.) Also, to insure that your leeks do not have any grit, cut well below the curvy part of the stalk (at least 2cm/ 1".)
Remove the first outer layer of the leeks. Wash.
Throw in the pot of boiling water, cover, lower the heat to medium-high, and cook for 10 minutes.
To prepare the vinaigrette: in a small mixing bowl, whisk the mustard and ground pepper, slowly add the oil in a slow drizzle. It should emulsify like a mayonnaise, but if it doesn't, no worries, it will taste great just the same. Once all the oil has been absorbed by the mustard, add the vinegar. Check the seasoning: it should be salty enough, but you can add an extra pinch if need be.
When the time is up, remove the leeks from the pot, and let cool until they can be handled: remove two more layers of leaves, and discard. (Despite being cooked to death and relatively tender, these outer leaves will seem stringy, but they can be used in a soup.)
Drizzle with the dressing, and serve.

Poireaux-vinaigrette are often served warm, but they are equally scrumptious at room temperature or cold at a picnic. Make sure you have some crusty bread with this salad, because you will want to sop up any vinaigrette left in your plate!



Bon app'!



Monday, September 13, 2010

Just in Time


In a previous post, I waxed lyrical about a lovely breakfast of peaches and cream, and bemoaned the fact that I had lost the recipe... I searched several websites, countless food blogs, and I couldn't find anything on plain peaches and cream: cobblers, slumps, and crumbles, they all sounded nice, but they weren't the stuff of my memories. So I bought some cream and a basket of peaches, and set to figure it out myself... Well, I feel sheepish now, but the reason I couldn't find the recipe is because there is none! This dessert couldn't be any simpler! I felt like hitting myself on the forehead, and shouting DUH!


Peaches and cream: the name says it all! Just in time to catch the tail end of Ontario's peach production; four, five at the very most, ingredients meld together into a harmonious taste sensation. It's an ephemeral treat, and should be eaten as soon as it is cool enough to do so: it will not stand on ceremony, nor will it wait around for anyone. It demands immediate attention: leave it sitting around too long, and its loveliness may flit away. The secret is in the crunchy topping: it is simply turbinado sugar (coarse sugar) caramelized onto the peaches. If you cannot find turbinado sugar, you can substitute regular sugar, but I would strongly advise adding the optional almond slivers to add crunch.


Warm Peaches and Cream
Serves 4 to 6

6 peaches
1 cup/ 250 mL heavy cream
¼ cup/ 100g turbinado sugar
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
¼ cup/ 125g slivered almonds, optional

Cut peaches in half. Remove pits. Place cut side down in a baking dish large enough to contain all the peaches without overlapping.
Mix vanilla extract with the cream, and pour over the peaches. The cream will not cover the peaches, but you need to make sure that every peach is dampened by the cream.
Crush the slivered almonds into the sugar, if using, and sprinkle each peach half with about a teaspoon of the mix.
Place baking dish in a cold oven, and heat to 350'F/ 180'C.
Bake beaches for 45 minutes from the moment your oven reaches the right temperature, then switch the broiler on to melt the sugar, about 5 minutes.
Serve immediately. 


The peaches do not need any other garnish, but if you must have more, something crunchy would be de rigueur: a shortbread cookie, crumble topping or crisp wafers.

Bon app'!




Saturday, September 4, 2010

Seeds for Pakistan II


Pakistan Floods 2010
Originally uploaded by Islamic Relief UK
I've been getting quite a bit of enthusiastic responses to my call for seeds, it's kind of overwhelming!

I will be collecting the seeds from North-American gardeners, and will take care of sending the parcel either straight to Pakistan or to Techure Foundation's London office, depending on the situation with cargo departures for Islamabad. If you are interested in contributing seeds, please contact me, and I will forward any additional information. 

However, if you live in the UK or in the rest of Europe, Techure Foundation will be accepting any gift of seeds at their London office, just send it to:

Mr.Haseeb Afsar
Social Mobilization Team
Techure Foundation
First Floor, 368A
London
E17 5JF
U.K

Contact Number : +44-752 975 0050

If you live in Asia or in Oceania, you can always send your seeds directly to Techure Foundation's Islamabad office: 

Mr.Humza Afzal
Regional Operations Head
Techure Foundation
21 Street 4
Sector C - DHA Phase 1
Islamabad - Pakistan
Contact Number : +92-333-5424-192 

In either cases, please label the seeds clearly, and if you can, place the seeds in plastic zip-baggies (conditions during transport and in Pakistan will probably be rather humid: it would be a pity if the seeds rotted before they got to destination).

Also, Mr. Munib Khan, my contact at Techure, had an additional request: 

Finally, I would wish to have some pictures of yourself or the community of Gardeners helping you in raising the donation package presenting some form of association we would like to put on our case-study when developed after you are finished making all the contributions. This will be promoted and presented on the Social Media Platform and will be available on the website as to suggest to the communities about the idea of 'how small collectively done can be make huge differences'. 

So, please include a photo of yourself (or your garden) with your seeds!

Additional information can be found on my previous post, or you can always leave me a comment if you have any questions.

I know that the growing season is only just beginning to wind down for most North-American gardens (I know! my garden is still producing quite a bit!), but I would like to have the first parcel ready by late October. 

Thank you! And happy gardening!





Friday, September 3, 2010

A Perfect Day


Shelling beans. Freshly shelled.


The weather has been perfect for shelling beans: sitting on a shady, breezy porch or balcony, and zipping out the beans in zen-like calm one after the other. A lovely way to spend a quiet afternoon. It has been a little too warm to cook those beans though. Not a problem if the beans are on the dry side and you intend to keep them for the winter, but a bit of a dilemma if the beans are still green. They will keep a few days, well wrapped in the refrigerator, but it is a pity to spend an afternoon shelling them and not being able to eat the fruits of your labour right away. An absolutely perfect day would be hot and breezy while shelling those beans, followed by a good rain to soak the parched earth when you're ready to cook those beans... but I suppose we can't always get what we want.

Beans are such pretty vegetables. Just look at the Roma beans to the left and above: they are rather unassuming when still at the fresh, green stage, but as they mature and dry out they take on lovely pink streaks. While the pods are no longer edible, the colourful seeds inside become amazing powerhouses: those seeds are full of potential for life, for the survival of their own species and anyone who consumes them. When eaten fresh, before the pods completely dry out, beans are a completely distinct vegetable from their dried brethren: the difference is like day and night, the most common example being just-shelled green peas and split peas, or dried soybeans and the ever popular edamame.



Roma beans are not the only colourful and tasty legume currently in season: the hyacinth beans above might be a little difficult to find, but broad beans (also known as fava beans); lima beans (or butter beans);  edamame (green soybeans); and scarlet runners are some of what you can find at the market. Add a few beans in the pod and some crunchy vegetables, and you have a delightful salad.


The following recipe is no different from your everyday bean salad, the kind most often found in cafeterias and chain cafés, the only difference are the beans. And what a difference they make! If you have your own recipe for bean salad, you won't need mine, but do try them with freshly shelled beans, at least once (a year!) in your life. There are no proportions, because all ingredients are optional (except for the beans!), and depend on your taste. Also, a few of the vegetables listed below need to be cooked in boiling water: to save water, use a colander or pasta insert that fits inside your pot, so you can drain your veggies without throwing out the water; if you have neither, try draining your veggies over another pot or bowl to catch the water.



Bean Salad 

Freshly shelled beans, any kind you happen to find, or a combination thereof
Carrots, diced or sliced (depending on size)
Celery or celeriac, cut into chunks about the same size as the carrots
Bell pepper, any colour, diced
Kohlrabi, peeled and diced
Green, yellow wax, runner or whatever pod beans
Green onions
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
White wine, cider, or rice vinegar


Cook the shelled beans in large pot of salted water. The water should taste of salt, but you don't want it to be so salty that you couldn't drink it: the beans will absorb a good part of the salt, so you do not want to over-salt. It will take anywhere from 2 to 20 minutes depending on how green the bean was (if the bean was green, check after 2 minutes; if the pod was papery dry, and the bean quite hard, have a taste after 10).


When the beans are cooked, drain, and place in  a bowl with the vinegar and oil. Standard proportions for a vinaigrette are 1 part vinegar for 3 to 5 parts oil. Do not season with salt just yet, but you can add freshly ground pepper. Add peppers, green onions, kohlrabi, and celery, if using. Set aside.

If you are using pod beans, cut into batons, and cook in boiling water. When cooked, but still crisp, drain, and cool in an ice-bath. Drain again, and set aside.
Cook the carrots, if using, to the crisp-cooked stage. Drain, and add to the rest of the salad.


Stir the salad until everything is evenly mixed up, and taste: it is probably already salty enough - if not add a small pinch of salt- but lacking in something... Cover the salad bowl, and leave to rest in the refrigerator for half an hour or so. Add the green beans just before serving.
Mix and serve.

This salad, like most salads made with crunchy vegetables, improves with age. However, the pod beans will go grey after a day sitting in vinegar, so if you intend to save the salad for much later, either keep the green beans out and add them later, or use yellow wax beans. Also, use your imagination, or whatever you find in the fridge: the sky's the limit.

An imprecise recipe as above can be rather daunting, but cooking is all about feeling and personal likes, and no one knows your likes better than yourself. A friend of mine reproached me for writing recipes that left too much leeway, so I've made some efforts, but a salad like this one really depends  on the person who makes it. All I can do is give you guidelines to hone your intuition.

Bon app'!




Seeds for Pakistan


Pakistan Floods 2010
Originally uploaded by Islamic Relief UK
I am truly touched by the influx of support for sending seeds to Pakistan. I have found a British aid organization willing to distribute the seeds to small farmers. 

The Techure Foundation is a NGO whose main goals are to eradicate poverty, promote education and health issues, but they also respond to emergencies. They have accepted to take on the task of distributing the seeds we send to small farmers in Pakistan who have lost all their crops. All I need to do is to collect the seeds and send them on to their office in Islamabad.

If you are an experienced seed-saver (sorry, I don't mean to segregate, but seed-saving of certain food crops can be a little touchy at times) and have seeds to spare, email me and I will send you the address where the seeds should be mailed. If you are worried about your seeds being contaminated by pests, you can always freeze your package for 48 hours before sending it off.

I was asked for specifics on the kind of seeds needed in Pakistan... I will be honest, and admit that I have no idea. The climate in Pakistan is generally hotter, and more humid than USDA zone 5 (maybe close to a zone 7 or 8?); soils are generally quite fertile, but can be subject to droughts outside of monsoon season. I think that any food crop that is heat tolerant; productive even in poor soil (the floods will have washed away quite a bit of nutrients); open-pollinated (no hybrids please!); and not too uncommon (no green tomatoes?) will be greatly appreciated. I'm not particularly familiar with Pakistani food, but I am assuming that most farmers will have some familiarity with tomatoes; eggplants; peppers (hot and not); onions and other alliums; squashes of all kinds, including melons and gourds; beans and peas; herbs like basil, coriander (cilantro);  spices likes cumin, mustard, and nigella; and grains such as wheat and barley.

Again, thank you for your generosity.



Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Pakistan Floods


Pakistan Floods
Originally uploaded by islamicreliefusa
It's September 1st, which means there are twelve days one month and three days left to the Canadian government's programme to match every dollar donated for Pakistan relief.

The disaster has been  slowly mounting to catastrophic proportions, but donations are only just trickling in at rates nowhere near the deluge that followed the earthquake in Haiti. The situation in Pakistan is dire. The Pakistani need help now.

The following links are to trusted organisations that are currently on the ground in Pakistan:

The Humanitarian Coalition: is the Canadian umbrella for Oxfam, Oxfam Quebec, Care and Save the Children.
Greater Good: an American umbrella site for several charities, you can choose to donate to help the human victims of the flood, or even to help rescue farm animals that have survived the deluge.
Médecins Sans Frontières is still accepting donations for emergency medical relief as the risk of disease is still very high.

The above organisations are currently busy with emergency help, but the Humanitarian Coalllition and UNICEF are also in for the long term: Oxfam is known for helping out small farmers, encourages local food production, and has a well-established rural aid programme; UNICEF is already setting up new schools in areas where the water has receded.

I hesitated for a while to donate, but only because money is a little tight this summer. So I understand when people say that they can't really afford to give at the moment. I am currently scouring the internet and writing to aid organisations to see if anyone is collecting seeds to help re-establish devastated farmland. I will keep you posted, in the hopes that gardeners in the blogosphere will unite to re-seed Pakistan.


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