Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Slaw


The choice of local produce always seems to be quite limited in the winter months, yet if you allow the less familiar into your kitchen, you open your horizons. It is ironic really, now that out of season fruits and vegetables fly around the world year-round, our diet seems strangely restricted. Root vegetables often take a back seat to all the colourful imports we rely on to brighten our plates, but they provide good, solid nutrition at a fraction of the price of the hothouse fruits and vegetables that have more or less become staples in our diets.


Rutabaga, or swede, is an old school root vegetable that has fallen to way side, yet it is widely available in the winter months, nutritious and cheap. It is lovely roasted or baked, like a potato; is a delicious addition to vegetable soups; and it is surprisingly tasty raw. Its flavour is close to that of its sibling, the turnip, but is much less watery, since the pale yellow flesh is quite dense, much like a potato, without the starchiness. 


I have to admit that rutabagas usually get the same treatment in my kitchen, not only because I am a creature of habit, but because I have an 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' attitude towards old standards. I do often slip a few slivers of swedes in my old timer, the root slaw, but I  have often thought that the mustardy dressing was a bit too intense for the sulfurousness of rutabagas. Obviously, ideas were brewing at the back of my mind, since there are stellar flavour combinations that I occasionally bring out during festive times. 


In keeping with the seasons, rutabagas are best matched with the tartness of cranberries and the crisp, sweetness of apples. The results are always surprising, even confounding: when I first made this slaw, my sweetheart couldn't figure out what it was, despite being a detractor of rutabagas. Also, since swedes are virtually without fibres, and rather dry, they remain delightfully crunchy even after several days in the dressing, so they are perfect for making in advance.



Rutabaga Slaw
Serves 4, more than generously
1 medium rutabaga, about 400g/ 1lb
dried cranberries, a handful or two
2 medium apples
6 or so pieces crystalised ginger
1 lemon, zest and juice
3 Tbs oil, neutral or nutty
Salt and pepper

Using a very sharp knife, remove the rind of the swedes: all the stringiness is found in the thick peel, so even if you buy a gigantic root, peeling it will result in smooth flesh.
With the same sharp knife or a mandoline, shred the rutabaga as finely as possible.
Combine with the lemon juice and cranberries.
Shred the unpeeled apples, and mix into the salad.
Mix in the oil, and season.
If needed, add some vinegar drop by drop to cut back on the sweetness.
Let sit for at least 15 minutes before serving.


Any crunchy apple will do. However, I do have  a personal preference for the crisp-tart Empire and Gala -their beautifully crimson peel adds flecks of colour to the slaw- and the honey-flavoured Russet. The crystalised ginger adds another dimension of sweetness, and if it is chopped finely enough, its heat is greatly dissipated throughout, so it is barely noticed.




Bon app'!



Thursday, January 12, 2012

Dig for Gold



I recently bought myself yet another book for my already too large collection... Come to think of it, can a book collection be too big? Especially if one was a literature major?

Anyhoo, it's a book on foraging, a passion of mine that I would like to see more widespread. Far be it for me to say that one can feed oneself solely from wild foods, but foraging is a wonderful way to supplement one's diet with foods that are not available commercially. Many wild foods are extremely nutritious, and packed with flavours that cannot be found anywhere else. Foraged foods are perhaps too scarce to become a staple, but they are great for livening up boring fares. On the plus side, foraging eally connects you to the passing season, and sharpens your awareness of the environment you live in. And you really cannot beat the pleasure you get from knowing that the goodness on your tongue was free!

I have previously mentioned the seminal book by Euell Gibbons, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, but I have generally avoided making hard and fast recommendations because most of the books I've seen are too region-specific. However, this new book by Alys Fowler is quite interesting: Alys is one of my favourite garden writers. Trained in England and in New York, Alys takes on a more global and urban take to gardening, and her love of food colours all of her books. The Thrifty Forager is a good reference book, without the heavy details of a guide book. But what is particularly interesting about this book is that it approaches foraging from the urbanite's point of view: the books I've seen to date present foraging as a rural, or at the very least, wild area, kind of activity. Alys, on the other hand, is very much a city-girl, and sees bounty within the concrete jungle most of us live in.

Great reading if you are thinking of taking up foraging, or if you are a gardener waiting for the winter to thaw out...


Happy reading, and bon app'!



Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Begin at the Beginning


Happy New Year everyone! Wishing you all the best for 2012: May your bellies be always filled with deliciousness, your table surrounded by loved ones, and your hearts brimming with gladness!

After an all too short week of rest, I am set to start on solid footing: my 'stuff' arrived from Montreal mid-November; I've settled into my little nest; and now that I've had time to open all the cartons, my returns home from work actually feel like I've come 'home'. Sometimes I feel like a ball of confusion, contradictions and nonsense: here I am, preaching the virtues of sustainable living, all the while hanging on for dear life to the material possessions that surround me… But I have to admit, now that all my cooking knick-knacks are back in my hands, a little part of my soul is sighing with relief. I can putter about my kitchen once more, no more roughing it like we are camping.  Let the cooking begin!


Soups are a good place to start. They are great for clearing out the fridge, perfect for getting warm, healthful goodness into the body and the heart. They are especially wonderful at this time of the year, when all you want to do is curl up in bed under the duvet, or on the couch with a good book. And soups are great way to make winter vegetables shine. If you are still getting vegetables baskets from your CSA, you are probably receiving vegetables you are not familiar with: chop them into a soup, and you can discover the newbie in a gentle and non-threatening form.


Two of my favourite winter standbys are parsnips and rutabagas (also known as Swedes in the UK). I've mentioned them several times in the blog, but I have to admit that there is a dearth of recipes as I tend always to prepare them in the same manner (roasted or baked). If you are unfamiliar with either vegetable, a simple soup featuring one or several roots is a great way to familiarise yourself with them.


I have already posted several soup recipes, but I would like to expand on  the basic principles to great soup. Just because... a bookful of recipes is nice to have, but knowing the whys and hows is even better. It all begins with a few key ingredients: first of all, you will need foundation vegetables. In French and Italian cooking, foundation vegetables are present at the beginning of every good recipe. Called mirepoix in French or soffritto in Italian, they are the usual suspects of onion, carrot, leek and celery. They need not all be present, but at least two of them should make an appearance. Onions and leeks contribute a savoury earthiness that grounds the flavours; they also add sulfurous notes that add punch and vibrancy. Leeks are sweeter than onions, with a tinge of green freshness, whereas onions are the universal unifier. Carrots contribute a great amount of sweetness, and can be left out altogether if you want more savoury than sweet. However, the natural sugars in carrots are great for countering bitter and acrid tones in other ingredients. Celery is an unsung hero when it comes to flavour enhancement: it contains a great amount of natural glutamates, and brings umami to everything it encounters. Umami is a Japanese word that literally means 'tastes good', and is usually translated as 'savoury'. Celery also adds a good deal of fresh green notes, even when cooked to death. However, if you, like me, have a bizarre dislike of the green stalks, celeriac, its rooty sibling, does the same job with earthy tones instead.


Secondly, you need some fat: it can be any vegetable oil, butter, or even some kind of meat drippings. Any fat will do, but it needs to be there as it contributes flavour, and helps to blend everything into a harmonious whole. Although fat has been vilified, it is actually essential to flavourful cooking. While you needn't be as liberal with the stuff as a French-trained chef, fat is the best carrier for flavour: this ability explains why we all love fried foods, and are quite fond of creamy things. Most flavour compounds -at least those that persist after hours of cooking- are oil soluble, so the best way to hang on to them is to use a minimum of fat. And the tried and true method to draw them out of any food is to sweat them out in oil or butter. 'Sweating' vegetables merely means to cook them over a medium to low heat, to draw out their moisture, and to concentrate their flavours. It also mellows out any sharp or hard edge, like sulfurous overtones and squeaky green notes. Most vegetables will turn translucent, or at the very least, will take on an eery sheen; the vegetables are usually fork tender at this point, and they will begin to take on some colour. Fully sweated-out vegetables will have a good amount of flavour, but you can push them a little further by allowing them to caramelise a little: this will add deeper colour, and a slight bitterness, so use with extreme discretion!


Next, a flavour enhancer, such as salt, herbs, or spices, is always welcome, but it is not absolutely necessary. Well, except for salt: unless you are on a salt-restricted diet, salt is essential to truly let the flavours sing. It brightens, highlights, unifies, intensifies: it's basically an all-around workhorse. But only in small doses: start with a teaspoonful first (when making a litre of soup), and adjust by the pinchful. If you have reached the point of 'salty enough', but feel that something is still lacking, bring in the big guns: herbs and spices. Everyone has their favourites, and many are wary of them, but I absolutely love herbs and spices. I have my favourite standbys, the ones I always bring out when something needs tweaking. Thyme is a good all-around herb, and most people find it rather pleasing: it's not as brash as rosemary, nor as show-offy as oregano; it's understated, yet it will let you know when it's there. Cumin is another regular: it's earthy, literally -people who do not like cumin often complain that it tastes muddy, but when it is toasted it has the ability to gather every other flavour into its arms, and hug your taste buds. Flavour enhancers are best added while you are cooking off the vegetables to bring out the best in them.

You might be wondering which place I give to stock, but I have written time and again, that plain tap water is a perfectly acceptable liquid for soup. I do not deny that a good stock contributes a boost of flavour, but if you follow the guidelines above, your soup will be lovely, even with regular water. Stocks are great for using up bits and pieces of left-overs, such as peelings from vegetables and carcasses from roasts, but if you do not have the time to make stock and have yet to find a good store-bought one, use water. From the tap. It will be divine. Milk, cream and any other liquid are also quite lovely, but should never be the bulk of the liquid, as they can weigh down the end result: no more than half should be the upper limit.

One last element that can be of a certain importance is the way the vegetables (and meats) are cut. Chunky cuts give you a rustic soup that is great in its own right. A fine dice, where everything is dispatched with military precision gives the appearance of refinement, while still giving you something to chew on. Blending everything into a smooth purée is supposedly the height of fine dining, but is actually a quick (and lazy, but no less useful) way to foodie Nirvana. Knife (and blender) work may not seem all that important, but professionals will disagree: the way food hits your taste buds and nasal receptors plays a great part in how you perceive the flavours. A smooth soup that you simply swallow needs to be quite intensely flavoured in order to have enough impact in its short trip down your throat. Whereas one can play it little more subtle if you need to chew on the ingredients to release their essences. To prove my point, next time you have a bit of spare time -and soup- try this little experiment: leave part of the soup chunky or diced, and blend smooth the other. Try them side by side: even though both soups are basically the same, they will taste different. The same principle applies to different shapes of pasta...

The icing on the cake, err soup, is the garnish. I usually like to blend the dairy into a smooth soup, but will dollop the stuff at the end when serving a chunky soup. It's lovely to look at, and it also lets the eater play around with the flavour combinations. If you want to go lush and cheesy, use it as a garnish: unless I am making this soup, I don't think that cheese should actually be inside the soup, as it can get too messy. Slivers of green onions adds a splash of colour and notes of freshness (it's not purely decorative). If you have left-over roast chicken or turkey, it can be shredded or diced into the soup at any time, but is quite pretty when it makes a lacy appearance over a smooth lake. (By the way, if you want to add raw meats to your soup, it should be browned in oil just before the mirepoix is added to the oil: browning the meat brings out its best flavours and looks.)




Bon app'!



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