Friday, July 22, 2011

Cool as a Cucumber


Oh dear me. I thought it was hot a few weeks ago. Little did I know that worse was yet to come! While there are a few pockets of renegade climate (anyone out in B.C., Washington State or Oregon?), large swaths of Canada and the United States are in the midst of a full-blown heat wave. I am fervently counting my prayer beads, and religiously perform a nightly rain dance, all to no avail. 

When the heat and humidity reaches such unbearable levels, my body all but shuts down. I hardly eat or sleep; I move about in a haze, functioning on basic mode. I can hardly get myself to cook under such conditions. What little energy I have is spent putting up with the heat at work; by the time I get home, I just barely manage to eat whatever can be consumed raw and cold. A cool cucumber I am not.

For all you brave souls out there who turn on your barbecues and grills to cook your suppers, the following is a recipe you want to keep in your pocket. It is a sauce that will make use of the beautiful produce that are abundantly available at this time of the year, and it is perfect on grilled meats, fish and seafood. It goes by several monikers, depending on the country of origin: salsa verde in Italy, chimichuri in Argentina, this sauce is also lovely over grilled or raw vegetables. Ocasionally, anchovy paste is added to salsa verde when used over vegetables, but it is completely optional.


Although parsley is most commonly used, any tender herb can be used in the salsa. And there is a plethora of choice right now: cilantro (coriander); basil; fennel or dill (perfect with fish and seafood); tarragon; garlic scapes; green onions (spring onions/ scallions); chives, and the lists goes on. Celery leaves, while technically not a herb, are also a tasty addition to the sauce. Often discarded, and much overlooked, celery leaves are more than mere garnish for bloody marys, they add a lovely chartreuse colour to the sauce, and are mild enough to go unnoticed by celery nay-sayers like myself. Even though I consider Mediterranean herbs such as thyme, rosemary, and oregano as some of my favourite aromatics, you want to keep them to a minimum in the sauce, lest they overpower other flavours.


Salsa Verde
Yields about 500ml/ 2cups

1 medium onion
2 cloves garlic
1 large bunch fresh herbs
60 ml/ ¼cup red wine or cider vinegar, or lemon juice
250ml/ 1 cup olive oil
salt and pepper

Finely chop the onion and garlic cloves. 
In a mixing bowl, mix the vinegar, salt and pepper. Add the chopped onion and garlic. Set aside.
Remove the herb leaves from stalks, top and tail green onions and garlic scapes, if using.
Roughly chop or tear the herbs, before adding to the onion mixture.
Add the olive oil.
Check the seasoning, and let sit for at least half an hour before serving.

This salsa verde is divine over any grilled meat, fish, or vegetable. In fact, you can think of it as a lighter, more summery version of a compound butter, such as beurre maître d'hôtel: try it over new potatoes, a T-bone steak, lamb chops or a slab of wild salmon. It will keep for several days in the refrigerator; the olive oil will congeal, but become liquid again once it reaches room temperature. 


By the way, some of you will be finding kohlrabi and fennel bulbs in your CSA baskets. Both these vegetables invoke a lot of head scratching for anyone unfamiliar with them. Fennel bulb has a distinct anise flavour that can be quite pronounced when grown under sweltering conditions. The fragrant fronds are delightful in salsa verde, and the bulb can be sliced thinly and doused with the sauce. Kohlrabi is a member of the cabbage family: it is basically the enlarged stalk of a cabbage. The leaves can be eaten like cabbage or kale, and the bulb can be cut into batons and consumed raw. If the bulbs have been sitting in your fridge for a while, it might have to be peeled, as its skin thickens in storage. The flavour is reminiscent of broccoli stems. Both bulbs are actually sublime when braised in a liquid of your choice or confit in olive oil, but it is much too hot to even consider cooking them right now.


Bon app'!


P.S. August 6th is National BBQ Day , and Meal Exchange is calling on all Canadians across the country to host a BBQ with locally-grown food in support of our local food economy. Every Canadian deserves access to healthy, nutritious food, and this starts with you! Anyone who hosts a BBQ will have a chance to win 2 tickets courtesy of West Jet!

Check out the National BBQ Day website for more information. (Thanks for the heads up Anne!)



Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The CSA Wants Your Help

The Canadian Space Agency (yeah, that CSA!!) has launched a wee food contest, and would like your input. Basically, when Canadian Chris Hadfield next launches into space in 2012, he will be bringing with him a care package of typically Canadian snacks to share with his colleagues on the International Space Station. The contest rules can be found on the site, just follow the link. However, I was unable to find the contest's closing date. 

I must say that I was a little stumped when I was contacted to submit my suggestion. Not that I have anything to say about the Canadian space agency, but because I couldn't think about a typically Canadian snack that fit the contest criteria! (Does that mean I have to give up my crown as the Snacking Queen?)




Friday, July 15, 2011

The Time is Now



A humanitarian crisis is looming in Africa's North East: a drought, thought to be the worst in sixty years, is creeping across Northern Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia. The situation is dire. The images of the famine of 1984 are seared in my mind, I cannot even fathom something worse.

Like a perfect storm, the drought and food crisis are aggravating the already unstable situation in the region. Displaced populations are on the move yet again in search of food and water. What with food prices at an all time high, and Western countries plagued by increasing debt, it does not seem likely that aid will be rushing in anytime soon.

There are several organizations trying to avert a disaster, and the diaspora are mobilizing their efforts. I know, it seems like the demand for aid and money is incessant. Perhaps, if we are suffering of donor fatigue, we can direct our efforts elsewhere? Droughts; floods; wildfires; tornadoes and hurricanes; and plagues of insects are part of nature, but these natural occurrences are happening at increasingly alarming rates. And everything points to their getting worse.

The signs are so glaring and horrifying, can we continue denying the effects of climate change? Perhaps, we could lobby our governments to take firm steps towards environmental sustainability and conservation.

The Honourable Peter Kent
Minister of the Environment
Member of Parliament for Thornhill (Ontario)
Les Terrasses de la Chaudière
10 Wellington Street, 28th Floor
Gatineau, Quebec
K1A 0H3
Email: Minister@ec.gc.ca


For donations (as gleaned from the CBC):
UN World Food Programme
WFP is targeting the most vulnerable individuals with much-needed food. They aim to reach nearly 6 million people in the coming months.
Canadian Red Cross
Money raised will go to support the work of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in the region, both providing emergency relief and helping people recover their livelihoods.
CARE Canada
CARE is improving water harvesting structures such as water pans, shallow wells; supporting livelihoods by implementing cash-for-work programs and cash relief to most vulnerable households in the affected areas.
Doctors Without Borders
Doctors Without Borders has worked in the camps at Dadaab for 14 years. They offer medical services in Dagahaley camp, providing a general hospital and five health posts.
Mennonite Central Committee
MCC is committing $1.2 million through Canadian Foodgrains Bank to support two food-for-work programs in Kenya that will have short- and long-term benefits. Kenyans will be paid with cooking oil, maize and beans for their construction of 92 sand dams and 25 wells. In Ethiopia, MCC funds are expected to be used for supplemental food for children under age 5 and lactating or pregnant women.
World Vision Canada
World Vision provides food, clean water, agricultural support, health care, and other vital assistance to children and families in need.



Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Dog Days of Summer


It's hot outside. Very hot. Too hot to cook. On days like these, I just break down and buy figs. They're not local to me, but they are in season in warmer climes such as California and Greece. I was hoping to have my own crop this year, but my fig tree has not appreciated the cool spring we had, so I probably will not be harvesting any fruits.


Figs are versatile fruits: sweet and tender, they are perfect for simple summer desserts; meaty and flavourful, they also lend themselves well to savoury dishes. On sweltering days, they can even replace an entire meal. Just crumble an unripened cheese -such as fresh goat cheese or feta- over halved figs. A drizzle of olive or nut oil is optional. 


Figs pair well with robust flavours like thyme, rosemary, and honey. They are particularly suited to roasting, just follow this recipe for roasted peaches for a simple dessert or the basis for a salty-sweet starter. Or you can do as the Italians do, and wrap quartered figs with slivers of cured ham.



Bon app'!



Monday, July 11, 2011

Sustenance


I've noticed that Quebec asparagus are still hanging about at the farmers' market. They remind me of gangs of teenagers loitering about in the malls: quite harmless, but somewhat unwelcome. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE asparagus -I'm sure that I've mentioned this fact almost as much as I've professed my love of peas- but on the rare occasions that the local asparagus season extends into July, I get rather turned off at the sight of them. By late June, I've quite had my fill for the year, gorged myself silly, and thought of every single way I could remember to dress the green spears. By the time July rolls in, my thoughts have turned to new pastures: I'm thinking garlic and tomatoes.

More specifically, my every thought is tinged by the aroma of garlic scapes. I usually try hold out from buying them at the market because I know that the flower stalks will be appearing in my CSA basket. But I am a weak, weak, weak person when it comes to resisting my food and aesthetic urges. The scapes are too pretty, what with their curlicue necks and pointed caps, I cannot deny them. Thus, I find myself with a surfeit of garlicky stalks that embalm my fridge and cloud my judgment.


What to do with the strange beasts? I usually stock up on zippy, garlicky pesto that keeps well in the refrigerator, and freezes almost indefinitely. The pesto is a lovely stand-in for garlic in any recipe, but the vegetable has its own merits. The bunches sold at the market, or found in one's CSA basket, are often sufficient for a year's worth of pesto and ample left-overs. Which begs the question, what now?

The garlic's frivolous flower stalk is a rather tame creature that will not lash out when consumed raw. Its flavour has definite garlicky-ness, but it is mild and has a touch of chlorophylic 'green' tones. The scapes add a delightful crunch when uncooked, and deserve to be only lightly warmed through if served hot. It is more piquant than pungent, though your nose may disagree with this notion. The following non-recipe is best consumed the day it's made, any left-overs -even when hermetically sealed- will embalm the ice-box in its entirety.


Saucy Tomato and Garlic Scape Salad 

A few garlic scapes - count about 2 or 3 per person
Tomatoes
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
Fresh, chopped herbs, optional

Wash and trim the scapes, removing only the dried bits on top and at the bottom.
Thinly slice or chop the scapes. This step can be done in a food processor, as the curlicues can be a little fiddly to chop.
Chop the tomatoes into bite-sized chunks.
In a bowl, gently combine the tomatoes and scapes. 
Season to taste. Drizzle with olive oil.
Cover tightly, and let sit at room temperature for at least 1 hour.
Adjust seasoning, and serve at room temperature.


After resting, the tomatoes will have rendered a lot of water, whereby making its own 'dressing'. Cherry tomatoes are often the tastier early tomatoes, and are particularly suited for this salad. Try to use different varieties for added colour and flavours. The salad is lovely as is, but you can add cubes of soft cheese (I am currently partial to Buflone mozzarella...) if you want to make a meal of it. This salad can also be transformed with the addition of cooked or sprouted grains, such as whole wheat berries, kamut, bulghur, or quinoa. Or, you can do as the Italians do in the summer, and use the salad as a cold sauce for hot pasta. Buonissima!




Bon app'!



Show Your Support for Farmers!



Time is of the essence: There is only one day are only a few hours left to the letter writing campaign in support of protecting prime agricultural land in Ontario. The deadline is midnight tonight.

Farmland is under constant threat, we must put our foot down and tell the Ontario Minister of Natural Resources that building an open pit mine at the expense of agriculture and clean water is senseless. You need not be a resident of Ontario to show your support for the local farmers. 

More information can be found at




Friday, July 8, 2011

Ballerina Girl


There's an ongoing debate on the origins of the Pavlova. Australians claim that the dessert was created in Perth in honour of Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, while New Zealanders will ascertain that the dessert originated on their shores years earlier. Either way, Pavlovas are easy desserts that truly enhance the flavours of the season.

The Pavlova begins with a meringue base. There are a number of ways to make meringue, but simple is best, so that is the recipe I will give you. Also, since the Pavlova is usually eaten with a fork or spoon, the meringue does not need to be bone dry, which is a good thing if you happen to be experiencing a hot and humid summer.

Next comes the cream. Whipped cream is traditional, but you can substitute thick yoghurt, or a combination of the two. Many recipes call for a sweetened whip cream, but I feel that it is a bit of an overkill since the meringue is already quite sweet. You can also top the meringue base with a fool, and call it a day. Rhubarb fool is of the season, and also quite fitting: since the 'original' Pavlova was topped with sweet-tart passionfruit, brilliant rhubarb would act as a shout-out to the tropical fruit. However, at this time of the year, the choice is endless, and you are only limited by your imagination.


 

Classic French Meringue
Yields about a dozen nests

90g/ 3 egg whites
150g-180g/ ½-¾ cup sugar

With an electric or stand mixer, beat egg whites until they begin to form a dense froth.
Gradually add the sugar, until everything is incorporated.
Beat the eggs to the stiff peak stage: when you pull the beaters out of the egg whites, a well-defined peak should form. Also, the eggs should be glossy, and show little or no remnants of sugar.
With a spoon, drop dollops of meringue onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper or foil.
Flatten the meringues, while forming a slight dimple in the centre.
Place in a 100'C/210'F oven, and leave to dry for about 2 hours, or until dried to taste.
Leave to cool completely before spooning whipped cream onto the centre of the meringue nests.
Top with fruits of your choice and serve.

Bone dry meringues will keep almost indefinitely in an airtight container, but everything else will keep for about a week, if the weather is not too damp. You can play around with different sugars for different effects and flavours, but do not alter the quantity too drastically, otherwise you will affect the density and sturdiness of the meringue. You can use a piping bag to form meringue nests that Martha Stewart would approve of, but it is quite unnecessary.




Bon app'!



Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Slip of the Mind


I forgot to mention grapes in my last post. In fact, I've noticed that I forget to mention grapes just about every year. Yet, I have fond memories of hunting for wild grapes of a sweltering July day... There used to be kilometres of wild grapes growing along the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railways in Montreal. With a little luck, you might still be able to snatch a few -if the Greek yayas and Italian nonnas haven't got there before- but I seem to recall that a good chunk of the vines had been removed because they posed some kind of imaginary danger to the trains.


In any case, even if you do not live in wild grape territory*, July is the time to be on the lookout for special grapes. Although I will probably never taste the grapes I photographed downtown, I am looking forward to biting into Concord grapes. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Concords, they are the grapes upon which 'grape' flavour was modelled. They are nothing like the anonymous red and green seedless table grapes that are available year-round: the Concord reeks of grape-ness. It has a thick, blue fleshy skin that is both tart and sweet, and a jelly-like centre that usually contains a seed or two (although seedless varieties have been popping up of late). As a kid, I enjoyed sucking the juicy centre into my mouth while noisily spitting out the peel before any of the tartness could reach my lips. I've grown up since, and learnt to appreciate the contrast of sweet and tart.

Another grape of note that is a true seasonal treat is the Muscatel. Muscats are true gems in the world of grapes: when perfectly ripe, they are a beautiful golden yellow with the odd brown speckle. They are maddeningly sweet, and have lovely floral and honey notes to them. These grapes are one of the few double duty grapes that perform well: it is an absolute delight as a table grape, and it produce some of the most lovely dessert wines.

Grapes, like most cultivated fruits, are inevitably sprayed with pesticides. However, the fine, white residue found on the surface of grapes is not a remnant of toxic chemicals. It is a naturally occurring wax called pruine in French. It is believed to contribute greatly to the flavour of the grapes, and wine makers insist that it is an important element for good wines. By all means, do wash your grapes before eating them, but do not scrub them until they become spotless!



Bon app'!



*Wild grapes are actually quite hardy, and can be found just about anywhere in temperate North America. The only exception might be where grapes are actively cultivated, in which case the wild plants may have been eradicated to prevent the spread of disease to the vineyard.




Saturday, July 2, 2011

Glory Days

This is it, folks. We're at the height of Summer: the bountiful days of Summer. A few crops will probably be delayed because Spring was a little uncooperative, but here is a list -far from comprehensive- of what to look forward to in July.

Beans, Peas, and Other Pods
I've already mentioned beans and peas last month, but July is when the green and yellow wax beans really come into their own. Closely followed by fava and Lima beans. Runner beans might join the fray at the end of the month, but they like hot weather, so they might hold off until August. Shelling peas will gradually give way to sugar snaps and snow (mange-tout) peas. 
(Trivial, yet interesting, tidbit: I recently learned that Saskatchewan is rapidly becoming a world leader in chickpea and lentil production. I am looking forward to the day when fresh Saskatchewan chickpeas will be available at the market.)

Beetroot and Other Root Vegetables
Baby beets usually start showing up at the farmers' market in June, but the wet and chilly spring had been detrimental to this crop. Hopefully, the recent warmth will have given the little roots a boost. Other root vegetables making a show of strength are new potatoes; baby (and not-so baby) carrots; turnips; new onions, along with their younger sibling, the green onion; the new season garlic in July are usually large-bulbed, and have proper cloves.

Berries, Etc...
Local and red-ripe strawberries will be around until the early fall, but July hails the arrival of other berries such as raspberries; red and black currants; gooseberries; blackberries and mulberries. High-bush blueberries also trickle in by the end of the month.

Cabbage and Co.
Young and tender cabbages are perfect for coleslaw, and are reliably inexpensive at this time of the year. If you prefer other members of the cabbage family, you're in luck, as broccoli, cauliflower, rappini, and Asian cabbages are also abundant in July.

Field Tomatoes
Local (unheated) greenhouse tomatoes have been available since mid-June, but the first field tomatoes do not usually make a show until the end of July. There something about those slightly misshapen fruit, speckled with a little dirt that is oh-so special: they smell of the earth, the sun, and the rain. Their tomato-eyness is beyond surreal... I don't know how to explain it. It's the scent that lingers around after you've brushed up against a tomato plant: that is what a field tomato smells and tastes like, on top of all the natural elements it has absorbed. I mean, I know that all tomatoes -even those hockey pucks- grow on similar vines, but only a tomato that has grown exposed to the elements seems to smell the way it does.

Figs
Come July, I can't help myself anymore: I have to buy a case of Greek figs. They are dead-ripe and luscious, and perfect on their own. Not local in any sense of the word, but if you live in fig territory, then you will be seeing the local crop shortly. For those of you with a cooperative tree, you probably have some figs plumping up already, and with a little luck, they might be ripe before the end of the month.

Honey
Local honeys are usually available year-round, however, July is when there is a glut, and you are presented with a plethora of variety. You need not settle for the everyday flavours of wild flower, clover and goldenrod: there are dandelion; buckwheat (a dark, strong-flavoured honey suited for savoury concoctions); raspberry; apple; almond; orange; lavender honey... The choice is vast.

Stone fruits
Cherries. Plums. Need I say more? Apricots, peaches and nectarine show up a later in the season.

Eggs
We rarely give thought as to the origins of our eggs, but we really should. If you are lucky enough to get your hands on some free-range eggs, take a close look at the yolk when you break those eggs. It will be a deeper yellow than any other egg you've had in a while. In fact, it will be close to orange, especially at this time of the year. That intense yolk is chock full of nutrients not found in run of the mill eggs. (The same goes for milk, but it is rather hard to find milk exclusively from pastured cows nowadays...) Cherish those eggs: come fall, when the plucky ladies move into their indoor quarters, the yolks will revert to their paler counterparts.

Summer Squashes
Zucchini; yellow summer squash; patty pan squash; cucumbers; and squash blossoms. It all seems quite novel at first, but by the end of the month, you will likely want to run away at the sight of them. Well... maybe not the squash blossoms.



Bon app'!



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