Saturday, April 30, 2011

May 2nd Is Coming Up...

So all you Canadians, if you haven't already, go out and vote! Whether or not you like what is happening on the political scene, you need to vote in order to be heard. Universal suffrage is a hard-won right -just look at what is still happening in North Africa- we shouldn't take it for granted.

If you haven't made up your mind who to vote for, or whether or not you should just spoil your ballot, here is a link to the People's Food Policy's site to help you out. Lots of issues have been on the back burner during these five weeks of campaign, most notably the environment and food policies. Take a peak at the party platforms, if you need a nudge.

Go vote!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Peas Please!

As is always the case, I've jumped the gun and bought a few handfuls of fresh peas. I can't help it: My name is Dahlia, and I am a pea-aholic. Here in Montreal, local peas do not hit the market until early June, but when my rubber arm gets twisted, I will break down and buy peas from Virginia, South Carolina, and anywhere else along the American East Coast until the peas in my garden are ready to be eaten.

Fresh chickpeas are also in season right about now. They come from all the way in Texas, but my! are they ever scrumptious! They are an absolute treat: they are a cross between a dried garbanzo and a sweet pea. They're definitely starchier than peas, but they are not mealy like over-tired peas. They aren't exactly easy to find, but if you do see them, do try them, you won't regret it.

While I am still working on a (inordinately) large bag of left-over winter potatoes, I am positively craving new potatoes. Don't ask me how I can possibly get my hands on local new spuds in April, but the potato guy at the market has them, and they're from just outside Montreal. They are thin-skinned  and scrumptious, just like 'real' new potatoes, but I suspect they are actually over-wintered potatoes that were not harvested last fall. All I know is that fresh peas, chickpeas and new potatoes are delicious when cooked in the same pot.

The following recipe somewhat resembles a cross between the Peruvian vegetable stew called ajiaco and the Spanish patatas bravas. It is basically a fridge and pantry clean-out dish, and can be made with any kind of vegetables. Nevertheless, it is rather suited to fresh peas, chickpeas and new potatoes. Although new potatoes are not a must, you should use waxy potatoes,  as starchy spuds will likely fall apart in the sauce. Frozen peas, canned or dried chickpeas would certainly make a toothsome ajiaco. Only do try the fresh peas, if you can get your paws on them.

Nothing -in my mind- can beat the ultimate pleasure of shucking fresh peas. I keep repeating myself, I know, but just in case there are new people reading this post, I will say it again: there is no gratification like shucking a bushel of fresh peas. I'll let you in on a secret: back when I was living in England, I had a crazy -and at times, unsustainable- work schedule. But when it was pea season, there was nothing I relished more than shucking the cases of peas. I might have had a long list of things to do, a section to run, and crunch time was minutes away, but the shelling of peas I kept for myself. It was my 15 minutes of meditation/escape. Peace within the chaos. 

Ajiaco of Fresh Peas, Garbanzos and New Potatoes
Serves 4-5 as a main dish, or 6-8 as a side

500g/ ± 1lb shelling peas (±300g/ a little over ½lb shelled)
500g/ ± 1lb fresh chick peas (or 1 medium can, or about 100g/3.5 oz/1cup dried garbanzos)
500g/ ±1 lb new potatoes
500ml/ 2 cups crushed tomatoes
1 medium onion
4Tbs oil, for frying 
1 tsp, or to taste, mild chili paste or dried chili flakes/powder
1 tsp turmeric
1 knob of ginger, or to taste
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp cumin seeds
salt and pepper to taste

If using fresh, shell peas and garbanzos, and set aside.
Scrub potatoes, place in pot, fill with cold water, and cook until almost done.
In the meantime, finely mince the garlic, chop the onion. Peel and grate the ginger.
In another pot, heat oil over medium-high heat.
Add the minced garlic to the hot oil. Fry until golden and the sizzling ceases.
If using fresh chili paste, add to the garlic. Fry until it starts to curdle in the oil.
Add the cumin (and chili, if using dried) and turmeric to the oil, and fry until fragrant and golden. 
Fry the onions and ginger next. Cook until the onions are translucent.
If things begin to stick to the pot, add a few drops of water.
When the onions are fully cooked, add the crushed tomatoes, and bring to a gentle simmer.
Add the parboiled potatoes, and leave to simmer.
Adjust the seasoning.
When the potatoes are fully cooked, throw in the peas and garbanzos.
Simmer for another 6 to 8 minutes.
Serve immediately.

Peruvian cookery is not known for being blow-your-head-off spicy, so unless you are going for the bravas effect, try to temper the heat: it should register as a pleasant tingle in the mouth, not searing pain. The crushed tomatoes are not a traditional ingredient, since Peruvians usually  purée large, mild chilies to add pizzazz and bulk to their sauces. If you happen to have a few Ancho/ New Mexico or Poblano chilies on hand, you can blend those to make about 125ml/ ½ cup of paste, and omit part or all of the tomato. Ajiacos are delectable with rice or quinoa, and are rather enjoyable when re-heated the next day or later in the week. You can also add chunks of tofu to the stew, or use it as a saucy side dish for meat. The flavourful seasonings are also great for camouflaging disliked vegetables: I managed to sneak a bunch of kale by my mum without her noticing!

Bon app'!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sloughing Off

I've been meaning to post about Potage Parmentier for a while now... It's the fancy name for leek and potato soup, another one of those recipes I mention often without any precision... Anyhoo, it may seem a little odd to be writing about leek and potatoes when we are all getting ready for true spring fare -if we haven't already begun to do so- but it is actually a fitting dish for early spring: I'm sure we are all familiar with Spring's manic diva ways -throwing all kinds of meteorological tantrums our way, so that we can never be sure when we can put away our winter layers. Well, leek and potato soup, like a good boy scout/girl guide, is always at the ready to be enjoyed hot or cold. Also, it's a great way to clear away the winter strays...

Potage parmentier (named after Auguste-Antoine Parmentier, the man who promoted the idea of using potatoes as a food in Europe) is the moniker used for the hot version, often mistakenly called Vichyssoise (named after the spa town of Vichy), a name that should only be used for the cold version of the soup. Serving temperature aside, there is one other glaring difference between the two soups: vichyssoise is always a smooth and creamy soup, whereas parmentier can either be a rustic, chunky broth (with or without milk), or a rich, smooth and silky cream soup.

Hot or cold, leek and potato soup is delicious, and makes good use of two vegetables that are all too often overlooked. Leeks and potatoes are available year-round in many guises, and making this soup throughout the year becomes an exercise in savouring the seasons: mild and tender spring/summer leeks with waxy new potatoes are beautiful in a rustic, chunky version, whereas robust autumn leeks paired with starchy potatoes shine most as a luscious cream.

Leek and Potato Soup
Serves 4

2 large leeks, about 454g/ 1 lb
4 medium potatoes, more or less 600g/ 1½lb
2 Tbs butter or oil
1 tsp or 5 sprigs thyme
1 onion and clove of garlic, optional
salt and pepper
cold milk, water, or stock
Cream and chopped parsley or scallions/ spring onions, for garnish

Top and tail leeks. Remove the first outer layer.
Separate the white part from the green top: discard the dark green leaves, keeping only the tender, pale inner leaves. Rinse the greens thoroughly under cool running water.
Chop the leeks -finely, if you are making a broth.
If you are making a creamy soup, peel and cube the potatoes, otherwise, they can be left unpeeled.
Chop and peel onions and garlic, if using.
In a large pot, melt butter or heat oil. Add leeks (and onion and garlic) and thyme, and leave to sweat it out, until completely wilted and some bits barely begin to colour.
Add the chopped potatoes, and enough liquid to cover. 
*Even if you want a rich dairy flavour, start by adding cold water to the pot (at least 1cupful): the water acts as a barrier between the pot and the milk, and it is less likely to stick.
After a good boil, the milk may appear to have curdled, however it is only the potato's starch binding with the milk. If you have an aversion to boiled milk, you can cook the vegetables in water or broth, and add milk or cream just before serving.*
Bring up to a gentle simmer, cover, and leave to bubble away until the potatoes are cooked.
Adjust the seasoning.
If you want a cream soup, it needs to be blended while it is still hot, otherwise the potatoes will go gummy: be careful not to get burned! Add more liquid, if necessary, to help with the blending.
For an extra smooth soup, it can be passed through a sieve to remove the larger bits of leek fibre.
Serve hot or chilled, garnished with a drizzle of cream and a sprinkling of chopped parsley or scallions.

Bon app'!

Spring Feast

C'est le temps des sucres! It's the season for sugaring off! Unfortunately, not everyone can make to a sugar shack (though I do hope you get to live the experience at least once in your life... something for the bucket list!) Of course, you can always make a feast in your own kitchen: there is nothing better than breakfast fare served with generous amounts of beautiful maple syrup.

The traditional French Canadian sugar shack menu would give most people a heart attack: baked beans and pork; fried pork rind; split pea soup with pork jowl; eggs and bacon; pancakes or french toasts; all positively drowning in a sea of syrup. Oh, and one must not forget the taffy on snow for dessert. It's all a bit much for a homemade brunch, but can anyone pass up a platter of golden french toast?

It's all in keeping with the spring-cleaning mood, of course: french toast is perfect for using up all those ends and remnants of bread that seem to inhabit the kitchen counter. There's a good reason why the French call this brunch staple pains perdus: literally translated as 'lost bread', one uses old bread that would otherwise have been wasted. I feel silly giving a recipe for french toast, but I've actually been asked for one by several friends, which leads me to think that there are still a few people out there who are mystified by this dish.

Making good french toast is not an exact science, but here are a few guidelines to ensure success. First of all, use stale bread: it will soak up the custard more readily, yet will not turn soggy. If you do not have stale bread, you can leave slices out overnight to dry out a bit, or you can even stick them in a low oven until the bread has lost most of its springiness. Secondly, the batter has to be custardy: though the egg to liquid ratio need not be exact, the mix should neither be too thin nor too thick. Soaking time is somewhat important - some dislike the mushy, baby-food-like texture of soft toasts: a thicker custard, and shorter soaking period will result in sturdier french toasts. Finally, the type of bread used will greatly play on the final result: I rather like custardy, creamy toasts, so I prefer to use sturdy country loaves and baguettes, as they have a good crust to middle ratio, and the thick crust helps the soft centre from collapsing on itself. However, any stale bread will do the trick: I've even tried old pita wedges to test the recipe. The result was an interesting cross between crêpes and french toast, and was lovely sprinkled with maple sugar.

I've actually had earnest debates over whether or not the custard should be flavoured. It all comes down to personal preferences: I like to douse my toast with generous amounts of maple syrup, so I prefer a mere hint of sweetness in the custard. However, since I also tend to eat the left-overs cold and plain, I do make sure that one can taste the sugar. But I have a friend who prefers her custard lightly salted and peppered so that it doesn't jar with a slathering of Marmite... In fact, if you replace the sugar in the following recipe by a few pinches of salt, you can even use the custard as a base for a quiche. As much as I love vanilla, I don't put any in the custard because I don't enjoy the gustatory tug-of-war between the vanilla and maple syrup. However, a few gratings of nutmeg is quite complimentary to maple. But that is just how I like my pain perdu. One thing that need not be debated is the use of cream in the custard: cream is lush and rich, and will turn good old french toast into an event. Nevertheless, for the sake of you waistline and health, use for special occasions only.

Pain Perdu
Feeds... well, it all depends on whether or not you want to share!

250ml/ 1cup milk, cream, non-dairy milk, or any combination thereof
3 eggs
3 Tbs sugar, or to taste
1 stale baguette, ½ a country loaf, ½ package of sliced sandwich bread, or the equivalent quantity of any other bread
butter or oil for frying 

In a salad bowl or deep dish, mix eggs, milk and sugar until the sugar is completely dissolved.
Slice the bread -if it isn't already done- into 2cm/ 1" slices.
Soak the bread in the custard: at least 5 minutes (it really depends on how dry your bread is) if you like soft toasts. If you prefer firmer toasts, soak until the bread feels al dente: squeeze the bread between your thumb and forefinger, you should feel a slight resistance after an initial give.
Over medium/ medium-high heat, melt a pat of butter or a teaspoonful of oil in a frying pan.
When the butter starts to bubble, place soaked bread in pan.
Fry about 1 minute on each side, or until the toast is prettily mottled brown.
If you are feeding a crowd, keep toasts warm in a low oven until you are ready to serve.

French toasts are best served piping hot, but there is no accounting for taste: I do relish left-over cold toasts too! If you are serving up french toasts at brunch, you will most likely want to have some fruit on hand to garnish your plate: local apples are still available in most regions, and are scrumptious caramelised. When you are done frying your toasts, add one last pat of butter to the pan, and throw in a few peeled, quartered and cored apples. Let to colour nicely on all sides, add a few drop sof water if you want to cook them fully. If you happen to have -gasp!- left-over french toasts, they can be frozen for another day: just layer the toasts with wax or parchment paper, and all you will need to do is pop them in the toaster when you fell like a nibble. Or you can just leave them on the counter for a midnight snack...

Bon app'!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Promise of Sweetness

It doesn't look like much at the moment, but the rhubarb is coming up nicely. I can't wait! I'm attempting to blanch it this year so that I can harvest something close to forced rhubarb: the plant is currently covered by an upturned garbage bin.

It was a perfect day for gardening today: slightly overcast, not overly warm. I didn't get as much done as I had hoped to, but it was a good beginning. Slowly, my stamina will build up to sustain day-long hoeing sessions. At least my garden looks a little tidier, and most of my groundhog fencing is standing straight again.

Happy day!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Spring Clean

I'm on a spring kick: I am quite sure that that next few posts will have the word 'spring' in the title (or 'vernal' to switch things up a bit), and will be either about the actual season or about the action. Just thought I'd give you fair warning. Spring cleaning. It is a wee bit early in my corner of the world for an actual spring-dust-up of hearth and home, but my fingers are itching to get going; my eyes keep veering towards the windows to remind my brain that the glass is getting pretty mucky; and my feet are just springing to jump into action.

Sometimes it feels like I spend my entire year spring cleaning: I must empty out my closet and dresser drawers at least every three months, trying to streamline the clutter, attempting to weedle out the unwanted items; to no avail, I still possess way more clothes and shoes than I ever actually wear... Luckily, cleaning out my kitchen cupboards does not cause me as much trouble. In fact, my pantry gets raided and cleaned out on a weekly basis. (HAHA!)

Seriously, I regularly enjoy taking down all the foodstuff from my kitchen shelves, dusting off the old things, and rediscovering the mysterious items I had forgotten about. But most of all I love going through my spice cabinet. In fact, I love going through everybody's spice cabinet: Tara at Tea and Cookie once posted about her newly arranged spice stash, and I thought I was in heaven! Whenever I visit my friend K, I make a point of opening her spice drawer to nose around. I am quite sure she has gotten used to my quirk... She seems to understand my spice fetish.

I go through my spice cabinet not so much so I can throw away old spices, but more generally to take stock of whatever needs topping up, and to see what I have to use up as soon as possible. While it  is generally believed that dried herbs and spices have a limited shelf-life, this is only really true for ground or finely powdered aromatics: whole, or as close to whole as possible, spices will often remain pungent for two years or more; whereas whole herbs can tough out close to a year, as long as they are kept in a dry, dark, and preferably cool place. Anything else should be used within six  to 12 months of purchase. However, if your spices are hanging around the kitchen for that long, it probably means you need to get cooking with spices more often!

If your spice rack/cabinet/ stash is in dire need of a proper airing out, might I suggest you make a batch of chili? True aficionados of authentic Texas chili will most likely frown at the following recipe, and will cringe at my every suggestions on how to make a scrumptious pot of Big Red. I do not pretend that my recipe would ever make the cut in a Texas chili contest, but it's still a mighty fine chili, and will make a good dent in any dusty collection of spice jars. Chili is the ideal 'spring clean' food: the rich mix of spices, veggies, beans and/or meat will absorb just about anything you can throw at it, and the result will be all the more tasty. The recipe lists only what I most often put in my chili pot, but you can add any other spices you happen have on hand (and are at a loss about what to do with): now is the time to use up any left-over garam masala; aging Berbere mix; mysterious ras el hanout; confounding epazote; and any such item that is crowding your spice collection.

While sweet peppers are the vegetable most often thrown in a pot of chili, since the following recipe is for a spring cleaning chili, you can empty out your crisper drawers and freezer, and use up whatever needs to get going. Even if the thought of making this dish vegetarian would make a cowboy turn in his grave, beans are a great addition to the pot: they are a healthy source of protein; are full of fibre; are inexpensive and add lots of bulk to the dish, so you can use less meat -if you choose to do so- and stretch your food budget to boot. Canned beans are convenient to have in the pantry, however, dried beans are less pricey. 

Spring Cleaning Chili
Will feed at least four hungry folks

2 Tbs hot paprika or 2 tsp ground/flaked chile pepper, or adjust to taste
3 Tbs cumin, ground or whole
2 tsp ground cinnamon or cassia
3 Tbs oregano
1 Tbs salt
5 Tbs mild paprika, optional
1 tsp fennel seeds, ground or whole, optional
2 tsp epazote, optional
2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 cups/ 250ml mixed dried beans, soaked overnight and drained
     or 2 cans of your favourite beans, or 1 cup/can of beans and 1cup/ ± 
     200g ground meat
2 cups/ 250ml crushed tomatoes
2 cups/ 250ml mixed chopped vegetables 
5 Tbs oil, for frying

In a large pot, cover the soaked beans with fresh water, and bring up to the boil. Let simmer until the beans are cooked, about 45 minutes. 
In the meantime, heat oil in a separate pot or pan, add the chopped onions, and fry until they become translucent.
If you are adding meat to the chili, fry it up once the onions are cooked through.
Add all the spices and fry for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the spices begin to stick to the bottom of the pot.
Add the vegetables, and cook until soft. You may have to add a few spoonfuls of water to help the cooking process.
When all the vegetables are soft, add the crushed tomatoes, and bring up to a gentle simmer.
Check the seasoning at this point: you want the mix to be a touch saltier, as you will be adding the beans.
When the beans are cooked, drain them (save the cooking water!) and add to the chili.
If the stew is too thick, add the beans' cooking water until you get the right consistency.
Bring the chili up to a gentle simmer, and let cook for at least 25 minutes.

Chili is best served re-heated the next day: this way, the flavours have ample time to meld and mellow out. This stew is usually served with a dollop of sour cream, grated Jack or sharp Cheddar, and a generous sprinkling of cilantro. Like many stews, chili is a great equalizer: no matter what you put in the pot, it will taste scrumptious, making chili a great dish for disappearing left-overs and unliked veggies...

Bon app'!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Spring has sprung. I know some of you are thinking 'Duh, the first day of spring was over a week ago.' But in most of Canada, spring's arrival is not so obvious -I woke up to flurries and hail just this morning. However, the geese have been steadily flying back for the past two weeks; the snowdrops and crocuses are flowering in Montreal; the cherry blossoms are in full glory in Vancouver; and farmers' markets are getting rid of their winter cover.

It will be a while yet until the farmers move to their outdoor digs at the market, but there are sure signs that the food coffers are slowly opening up: the fish monger at Jean-Talon market is setting up his stand, getting ready for the arrival of the first North Atlantic shrimps and live snow crabs; local greens are increasingly taking up shelf space; and foragers are getting their gear ready for the new season. Although I've been feeling much like a bear just emerging from a long winter sleep, I, too, am getting the spring vibe.

When I became a vegetarian, I thought I would eventually return to meat once ethically raised would become standard. That was twenty years ago; while I now know that I will probably never eat meat again, I am happy to see that ethical choices are more than ever available to consumers. Maybe some day soon, we will also become more aware of the seasonality of meat. February marked the beginning of calving and lambing season in most of the northern hemisphere, so technically, April is when new season lamb and milk-fed veal starts appearing on the butcher's counter. However, you will have to browse the shelves of real butcher shops in order to find these spring delicacies, since the meat counter at the grocery store is less likely to be stocked with seasonal meats. April also marks the end of all wild game, and for traditionalists, the last link to artisan black pudding. If you are a fan of Schwarzwurz or boudin noir, run, do not walk, to your nearest artisan butcher.

Fish and Seafood
Un-shelled North Atlantic shrimps will soon be making their way to the fishmonger's counters, as are snow crabs. There are a some concerns with harvesting methods of both shrimps and crabs, but eiher are generally considered sustainable when trapped. Your fishmonger should be able to tell you how the shelfish was caught; if that is not the case, slowly back out of the shop and seek another place to do your business.

Spring Greens
In the British Isles, the words 'spring greens' refer to a specific vegetable, the very same vegetable Americans in the South refer to as collards. Both collards and spring greens are actually the generic label applied to any tender green leaves that sprout on cabbages and their ilk. These greens are not very common in Canada since our winters are often too harsh for cabbage stubs to survive into spring, although backyard gardeners sometime manage to get in a harvest or two in late autumn.
However, I am actually refering to any green edible that springs up at this time of the year: while my vegetable garden is still under a 30cm (1') blanket of mouldy snow, there is green stuff to be had this early in the growing season. Vegetable growers who have planned for the early season are already getting ready to reap their first harvest: early salads should be wending their way to the shops, if they aren't there already. These leafy vegetables are actually grown outdoors, under a tunnel, and not in a greenhouse. Lettuces are most common, but arugula and several varieties of chicory are also hardy spring greens.

And I mustn't forget all those wild -and not so wild- treats one can find outdoors, pretty much for free. Some spots in my garden are free from the shackles of snow, and tender green tidbits have begun sprouting, many of which are actual foodstuff. Pictured above is mitsuba, also known as Japanese parsley, it's not a native plant, but it is quite happy in most North American climates, and will provide food as soon as it can poke its head out of the ground. Dandelion greens have not quite shot out from under the leaf cover on my lawn, but if I were to rifle around, I am sure to harvest enough for a meal or three of dandelion crowns (the unfurled greens).
Morels should begin making an appearance in April, though this is generally only true in Europe and on the West Coast; out East, morels do not usually appear before mid-May, unless Spring made an un-seasonably early appearance (not the case this year!) There are lots of wild things to eat out there, more than I can cover in a single blog post, but all you need is a good guide, a sharp knife, and a good pair of wellies!

Maple Syrup
I mention maple syrup whenever I can, because who doesn't love maple syrup? The new season crop has arrived!! And I will be making a few batches of pancakes and other breakfast goodies in the weeks to follow.

Other Spring Goodies
For you lucky readers who live in warmer climes, you are most likely being just about swamped with such lovely things as asparagus and peas... Not so lucky for us northerners... Unless you happen to have a garden, and have already planted your peas for the season, whereby you can reap an early crop of.... pea shoots! Yes, indeed, that very same vegetable that costs an arm at the gourmet shop, and a mint in Chinese restaurants is actually very easy to grow. In fact, you don't even need a garden to enjoy Tao meoh. It is often written in gardening books that peas are only worth planting if one has a lot of space to spare, an unfortunate truth, when one considers how delicious these vegetables are. Planting peas in a container is pretty much a waste of soil, since you will never get much of a crop. BUT, this fact is only true if you intend to harvest the fruits alone! Pea shoots can be harvested as soon as the plant has reached 10cm (3"); will grow happily in a container; and will continue growing and producing as long as you leave a few leaves for the plant to sustain itself. In fact, you can harvest shoots up until the plant starts flowering. Pea flowers are quite lovely, delicate things, and with a little luck and sunshine, you will eventually get a pea or two to munch on (unless you choose to eat the flowers instead!) Pea seeds can be purchased at garden centres, or even in natural food shops -look for them in the seed sprouting aisle.

Bon app!

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