Sunday, June 24, 2012

Fabulous Favas

It's summer! Though you wouldn't know it if you lived in London. My brief saunter down to the flower market this morning began and ended in sunshine, but was interrupted by a massive downpour in the middle. Luckily I had an umbrella with me, as the sky seemed ominous when I left, but I wish I had the sense to wear my wellies...

Anyway, the calendar says it's summer, even if the skies are uncooperative and the mercury has trouble staying above 20°C/ 70°F. And fava beans are one of the many vegetables that screams summer. Also known as broad beans, or fèves, fava beans sometimes get a bad reputation because of the mealy texture of the frozen stuff. However, if you buy fresh beans, they are anything but floury. Fresh favas are close in texture to baby peas, but with a smooth, creamy mouthfeel, a little like fresh almonds.

Broad beans do have chewy inner skins: if you think peas are a hassle to shuck, wait til you try your hand at those massive beans that come to market in the summer! The British and North-Africans often eat the beans unpeeled, but I think you can can only get away with unpeeled beans if they are very young: anything under penny-size might be tender enough to eat skin and all, but when they reach quarter-size (10p), broad beans should be peeled, lest you want to develop a fervent hatred for them. Broad beans need to be shucked before cooking, but should be left in their jackets. Fresh favas are easily overcooked, so keeping them unpeeled will make it easier for you to fish them out of the pot. The tender green flesh can be revealed once they have cooled enough to handle.

Now the fun can begin... The peeled beans can be added to a pot of rice in its last twenty minutes of cooking to make a fava bean version of rice and peas, or you can smash them into a purée to slather over toasts like you would with hummus. The recipe for one may seem like an incredible amount of favas, but you mustn't forget that at least half the weight of the beans will be the pod itself. While you can substitutes any fresh bean or peas for the favas, I wouldn't use frozen broad beans unless they were of a really high quality (you wouldn't want to eat a floury purée).

Smashed Beans on Toast
Serves 1

500g/ ½ lb broad beans, more or less 250g/ ¼ lb beans
1 sprig of mint
chives, garlic scapes, or 1 small clove of garlic
salt and pepper
olive oil
1 lemon
slices of toasted bread

Shuck the beans, and set aside.
Bring a pot of water to the boil. (I usually keep the cooking water for my plants, so I never salt it, however, you can add salt if you want.)
Add the beans to the boiling water, and cook for a minute or two.
Drain the beans, and leave to cool.
Meanwhile, finely chop the mint, chives or garlic scapes; if you are using a garlic clove, grate it to avoid biting into a chunk of it, or simply scrape it across the toast's surface
Peel the cooled beans, and collect in a deep bowl.
Mash with a fork to obtain a rough purée.
Season with salt and pepper, add enough olive oil to loosen the mix, and fold in the mint and chives or garlic scapes.
Pile onto the awaiting toasts, and grate a lemon's zest overtop.
Dig in.

If you somehow end up with too little bean purée, you can stretch out the mix with a soft cheese, such as ricotta, cream cheese, quark or a fresh goat's cheese. Garlic scapes would be magical with fava beans or peas, but I haven't seen any in London; the farmers' markets across North America should have piles of them right about now. Alternatively, if you leave the garlic out, the beans can be served up as baby food.

Bon app'!

Ravishing Radishes

I do find them oh so cute. As a button. Those radishes. They look especially fancy when they sport lovely red gowns, with their white petticoats peaking through. And those green plumes at the top! French Breakfast radishes are definitely adorable, but they can be a little difficult to find, even at the farmers' market. They don't taste any different from other radishes, but their seeds tend to be more expensive, so I think growers prefer the regular, round varieties. In any case, a radish is a good thing to have in the fridge.

Or in the garden: radishes take well to container growing, and are easy to grow, even for the brown thumbed. You should let them grow to almost ping-pong ball size, but I couldn't wait. The lure of the swelling roots was too strong, and I just had to pull up a few for my home-grown salad. Also, I belatedly realised that the window box that houses the salad bar only just provides enough green stuff for two, once a week. So regular harvesting of radishes is necessary to clear up space for new seedlings, if I want a regular supply of salads.

The great thing about growing your own radishes, or buying fresh from the market, is that the greens are plump and healthy, not dried out and wilted, or worse, rotting. The greens should be eaten as soon as possible, preferably cut off the roots as soon as they enter the kitchen. Washed and spun dry, they will keep for a few days in the fridge, whilst the roots can easily keep for a week. Of course, the whole point of growing your own is to eat freshly harvested...

I have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: radishes, roots and all, can be eaten cooked or raw. The greens are lovely in a mixed salad, but some might find the a wee bit too prickly for eating raw, in which case the leaves can be cooked like spinach. The roots become really mild when cooked, so if you happen to have a particularly spicy bunch, cooking will tame those fires. But this early in the season, most radishes will be mild and perfect for salads anyway.

There is no need for a recipe: a salad is a work of art unique to each maker. Radish leaves, though hairy and somewhat prickly, are mild and tender, with faint hints to its affiliation with the mustard family. The roots are usually tame if the weather is cool and wet, but can kick up a fight, if the weather is scorching and dry (most varieties are now bred to be mild, but if you have a thing for hot radishes, being stingy with the watering will help). A simple, slightly sweet dressing, like this miso dressing, best compliments radish-laden salads, however a dollop of mustard adds just enough bite (the vinaigrette in this recipe is perfect), if that is what you want. The rest is up to you.

Bon app'!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Friends and Foes

It's that time of the year again: birds are brooding, squirrels are scurrying, and plants want nothing more than to grow! Pictured above are the roots growing from a bunch of basil I had been keeping in water: store-bought herbs often last longer when kept in a glass of water, and if you keep the glass near a windowsill, the herbs will sometimes root. All you need to do is pot the rooted plant up, keep it well-watered, and you could have an almost-free plant.

The salad bar is thriving. The difference a few days can make is incredible at this time of the year! The roquette is ready for a good trim, and the radish leaves can be thinned out for the salad bowl. I won't be bringing home any store-bought salads for at least a few months now.

The weather in London has been patchy at best, and definitely on the cooler side of spring. But the sun has deigned to come out, and my little garden is all the more happy for it. The ladybirds I mail-ordered have done a rum job of clearing out all the aphids, and every plants is looking healthy again. Even that sorry-looking chives has shot out new shoots, which made me feel rather sheepish when I came home with a new pot of chives...

I spotted a new-comer in the garden, I'm sure you will all recognise the "common" ladybug. However, this big lady is anything but common: she is a Harlequin ladybug, an alien insect from Asia. Harlequins have been introduced to North-America in the mid-80s as a fast-growing, 'natural' pest control. Unfortunately, harlequins have not only spread like wildfire, they are threatening local species of ladybugs. In North-America, native species are similar in size as harlequins -and therefore, very difficult to distinguish- the only difference being that natives are less aggressive and nowhere near as invasive. Harlequins have been known to colonise the inside of homes, and tend to make a nuisance of themselves.

The problem with Harlequins is more acute in the UK and Europe, because native species are so much smaller than the giant foreigner. (I usually try to avoid getting bits of myself in pictures, but I've had to use my thumb as a gauge of scale.) The invaders are gluttonous eaters, and can easily eat local ladybirds out of house and home. They will even eat native ladybirds, if other source of food are scarce.

Unfortunately, there isn't much we can do on either side of the Atlantic to get rid of this invasive species. Ladybugs, invasive or not, are generally thought of as friendly insects, that greatly encourage the reduction of chemical warfare in gardens. However, there are little steps we can take to help all native and friendly insects better survive in our world. If you do garden -whatever the size- do not use any pesticides; do leave a little bit of a 'mess' of debris to shelter solitary bees, ladybirds, and other insects that like to burrow. For those who do not garden, purchasing sustainably produced fruits and vegetables means that you are supporting farmers who are working to support the ecosystem around their land.

Happy gardening and bon' app'!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Garden

It's not much. But it'll be the most productive garden I have ever tended. On my (relatively large London) balcony, there are:

Tomatoes, beans and coriander in the back; potatoes (the empty-looking planter) and basil in the foreground.

Mint, and oregano. The chives are succumbing to a massive aphid attack, but the native lady bugs I ordered are doing a good job of clearing them out.

A salad bar.

Pick-your-own strawberries

Mediterranean herbs and a patty-pan squash.

While all these plants will provide pollen and nectar for bees, I've also sown some borage and nasturtium to provide pollinators with extra food, and there is a budding lavender that should attract more friendly insects. I've also ordered an insect hotel for lady bugs and bees and a worm composter. All I need now is to find room for a couple of chilli plants and the garden should be set.

 Happy gardening, and bon app'!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Black Out, Speak Out

Right now, Parliament is pushing through a bill to weaken many of the country's most important environmental protection measures and silence the voices of all Canadians who seek to defend nature. Today it's our voice; tomorrow it could be yours.

Here are the top five reasons to Speak Out:
  1. Charities are being targeted. The government is adding $8 million in new funding for the Canada Revenue Agency to audit charities like environmental groups in spite of the fact they have simply exercised their legal right to advocate for things like laws to fight global warming. This will have a chilling effect on democratic debate. What's more, under these new laws, citizen groups will likely be shut out of environmental reviews of big projects like oil pipelines. Key government agencies with expertise will also have less input. Well-funded backroom lobbyists and political operatives will have greater influence.
  2. Canadians' participation in Parliament is being disrespected. Instead of following the established process for making sweeping changes, which allows for thorough public debate, these changes are being shoehorned into a massive budget law. This drastically reduces the amount of consultation on a whole variety of topics. These changes will have serious consequences for all Canadians and our voices are not being heard.
  3. Nature is being put at serious risk. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act is being replaced with a totally new law. Under it, Ottawa will play a much smaller role in protecting people from harmful projects, while retaining the right to basically rubber-stamp big projects that powerful oil interests want. And the new weaker rules are being applied to review processes that are already underway–so projects like the Enbridge Northern Gateway tankers and pipeline project could get an easier ride.
  4. Too much power is in the hands of too few. The National Energy Board will no longer be able to say "no" to oil pipeline projects that are not in the public interest. Politicians in Cabinet will be able to overrule the expert energy regulator if powerful oil interests don't like its decision. Permits that allow the destruction of habitat for fish and threatened or endangered species will now be issued behind closed doors without public scrutiny, if they are required at all.
  5. Trusted advisors to government that provide high-quality analysis for balanced policy are being ignored. The 2012 budget eliminates the funding for the last remaining government advisory body – the National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy (NRTEE). The NRTEE provides analysis and advice on how to meet our international commitments to reducing greenhouse gas pollution. Many lakes, rivers and streams that provide habitat to fish will be at greater risk of destruction because of changes to the Fisheries Act contained within the budget implementation bill. Healthy fish habitat is important for fish and for the people and businesses that depend on them.
For more information, please download a list of the TOP 10 items of environmental concern in the 2012 budget bill (Bill C-38).

Source: Black Out Speak Out

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Junebugs and Other Critters

It's June. The weather app on my iPod says that summer's arrived, and is sticking around, in Montreal. But it would seem that summer's come and gone from London. Oh well, one never can know what the skies hold for us, so we can only hope that the sun will come around some time soon. In the meantime, here are a few things to look forward to in June.

They're back. Weather permitting, asparagus season actually starts in May, but June is more reliably asparagus-friendly. Asparagus often peter out by mid-June, however, if there are no major heat-waves, the spears may hang around until the end of the month. 

If you haven't sniffed them out already, then you must have been holed up inside, because the first strawberries have been hanging out at the markets for a few days now. The strawberry season has been lengthening yearly, and even though they will be around until late September/early October in Quebec, there is something sublime about the first berries of summer. Personally, I think that the first strawberries should be enjoyed on their own, while basking in the sun, if it deigns shine upon you when you bite into the berries. As the season advances, a light sprinkling of sugar, a dollop of cream, a shower of elderflowers may be welcome additions, but the first bite should be nature (plain).
Others berries to look for in June are gooseberries. If you've never seen gooseberries, they look like white currants on steroids. The berries are still grossly under-ripe in June, but do not be put off by the green and super tart fruits: unsuitable for eating out of hand, they are perfect for compotes, jams and jellies. Gooseberries have a very high pectin content, so you will need to add quite a bit of liquid to the cooked fruits to obtain a medium to soft set jam or jelly.

Two words: sour cherries. They come into being much earlier than the sweet varieties, but they are the best for jams and baking. And for preserving in booze...

Once the flowers have burst open, the shrubs are easy to recognise. The white umbels emit the most intoxicating perfume on warm days. Fresh flowers can be sprinkled over strawberries, cooked with gooseberries, or made into cordials. The flowers can also be dried for herbal teas, where they will impart a mild anise flavour.

Salad Stuff
Summer goes hand in hand with salads. Which is a good thing as lettuce, radishes and other salad ingredients are abundant at this time of the year. And cheap as chips!

Lobster and Morels
Neither lobsters nor morels will ever be considered cheap, but they are in season in June. And nothing says 'celebration' like lobster and morels.

I have a soft spot for peas. (If you've been reading this blog for a while, this statement will need no repeating.) Peas are the ultimate late-spring/early summer treat: they're sugary enough to satisfy a sweet tooth, yet have green goodness for the health nut. 
Peas do not like hot, sweltering weather, so they are at their best before the heat settles in. While there are late summer varieties of peas that can withstand even the muggy summers of the East coast, peas should be eaten as soon as possible. 

New Potatoes
The beloved Jersey Royals of Britain start trickling in late-May, but June is when new potatoes really come into their own. In North America, few potatoes are sold with their names on the packages, which is a little unfortunate as each variety has its own distinctive flavours. The only way to get named varieties is to grow your own, which is, fortunately, quite easy to do given a little space. 

All new potatoes, even those of starchy lineage, have a waxy texture, and are best boiled for eating hot with butter or in salads. They should be kept in the refrigerator, and not in a cool cupboard like main crop potatoes.  

Most of you will be getting ready for your summer holidays, and most likely already have your summer reading list. If you  are looking for some thought provoking books, may I suggest Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals? Although Foer does end up becoming a vegetarian, this book is not a treatise on vegetarianism: Eating Animals is about just that, eating animals. If you aren't up for one's man search for the true story behind the industry of raising animals for food, you might prefer Ruth Ozeki's fictional renditions of a woman's search for the truth in My Year of Meats or in All Over Creation, about the industrialisation of potato farming.

Bon app'!

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