Thursday, December 19, 2013

Kris Kringle

I love fries. There, I've said it out loud. It is no longer my dirty, little, not-so-secret secret. In fact, I LOVE fried foods, and I am not averse to indulging my craving for greasy fries with unhealthy lashings of ketchup and mayo. In truth, I went through a period when I ate fries daily, I'm a little ashamed to admit it. But, as a vegetarian, there is often very little on offer to nibble on in a working kitchen -vegetarians are often sniggered at, and looked down upon- so platefuls of chips and mayo were a go-to when the hunger pangs hit. On the up side, eating fries daily at work meant that I never felt the urge to deep-fry potatoes at homes: no mess, no fuss.

But I no longer work in a restaurant, so I no longer get my fix of fries. There are local greasy spoons where I can get portions of fried potatoes, but I really have to be in the mood to walk into one and wait for my order. Especially when I know that I can make better fries at home, with perfect frying potatoes and, more importantly, without turning my kitchen into a greasy spoon.

Yes folks, it's true: you can indeed make beautifully crisp fries with just a few tablespoons of oil. And you don't even need to buy a new single-use contraption that will take up way too much space in your kitchen (you know who you are, I don't need to name you...) All you need are the right potatoes, a large frying pan, and some patience. Really.

The pictures aren't great because the lighting has been horrendous of late, but you will notice the tempting browning on those potatoes. It's all real, and I only used about two spoonfuls of oil. The hardest part in this endeavour is to find the right potato: in North America, go for the Yukon Golds or Russets; in the UK, Maris Pier, King Edward, and Desiree are good choices. You want a potato that is labelled for frying, roasting, baking, or mashing: these types of potatoes will have a high starch content that will not only gives good crunching satisfaction, but will also result in fluffy insides.

The next step is to cut them. They can be any size you want, but the entire batch should be the same size for even cooking. Also, be aware that the smaller fries will be a little more fiddly to turn onto all sides. Normally, the next step would be to give your potatoes a good wash to get rid of any excess starch: however, this step is only necessary if you are deep-frying your chips. When pan-frying, you need that extra starch for extra crunch. 

Get your pan moderately hot, and heat two to three tablespoons of vegetable oil. Place the potatoes in the pan in a single layer. Then wait patiently. When you notice a little bit of browning on the potatoes' edges, give them a little flip to brown the next side, and so on and so forth until the fries are evenly golden on all sides. Make sure they're cooked through by tasting one. Sprinkle with salt and enjoy while still hot.

Bon app'!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Feeling Festive

'Tis the season for entertaining, and you are very likely dusting off your drinks repertoire as we speak. I don't claim to have any new insight on the best holiday tipples, but I do know what I personally enjoy to toast my friends and family to. For down home affairs, I like to have a pot of mulled wine on the go to warm everyone up after a vigorous snowball fight. However, for slightly more posh affairs, nothing compares to a glass of bubbly, but champagne need not be the only liquid doing the rounds: I go weak at the knees for gin, and its heady juniper notes are definitely a winter-warmer.

A gin and tonic is wonderful at any time of the year, but to bring it into the holiday realm, add a healthy dash of cranberry juice. It's that easy, and it works like a charm. If you prefer your G&T in a tall glass with ice, freeze fresh cranberries and add them to the glass. Of course, those cranberries will be horrid to bite into, so you can always fish out whole berries from a jar of sauce, and freeze those instead. One cocktail done and dusted, and who says you have to save it for the party?

As for the mulled, if you make a base syrup in advance, and keep a few bottles of red wine in the pantry, you're set for any unexpected guests or neighbour who kindly removes the snow from your drive after a snowstorm.

Mulled Wine Base
Yields 1L/qt

1L/qt cloudy apple juice
2 cinnamon sticks, 10cm/4" each
2 star anise
6 green cardamom pods
4 cloves
1 orange, zested in strips and juiced
100g/3.5oz sugar

Bring all the ingredients up to a boil in a deep saucepan, then lower the heat to medium low, and leave to simmer for 15 minutes.
When the time is up, remove from the heat, and set aside to cool down to room temperature.
Sieve or pick out all the spices and orange peel.
Keep in a sealed jar in the refrigerator until needed.
When ready to serve, mix 1 to 2 parts syrup to every 2 parts red wine. 
Heat over a medium-low until heat until just simmering.
Serve immediately. Alternatively, keep warm over a very low heat.

Any left-over mulled wine can be cooled and saved for later, or better yet, used to poach pears or apples for dessert.

Cheers and bon app'!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Nut Cracker

There is something inherently Christmas-y about nuts. The most obvious link would be the ballet -The Nutcracker was a yearly tradition at home. If we didn't actually make it to the teater hall, then we would definitely watch it on the the television: I was, after all, obsessed with ballet and madly in love with Mikhail Baryshnikov.

There is, however, a more pragmatic reason for the association of nuts and Christmas: oily fruits were once a winter staple, providing much needed calories to withstand the cold, and they kept well into spring, often outlasting apples and other fruits.

Nowadays, most any fruit can be shipped around the world all year round, yet nuts are still very much present at this time of the year. It might be the sociable aspect of sitting around a crackling fire with friends and family,  while cracking open nuts; the shells get thrown in the hearth, feeding the flames, and the fruits are munched at, while great conversations are had.

I personally have a weak spot for flavoured nuts, tamari-glazed almonds being my downfall... They are a pricey habit to maintain, but they are a cinch to make at home. They also make great foodie gifts, especially for that oh-so-difficult-to-buy-for-someone on your list.

Spicy Tamari Nuts
Yields about 500g/1.1 lb

500g/ 1.1 lb mixed nuts: I prefer equal parts cashews, pecans, pistachios, skinned and unskinned almonds
125ml/¼c soy sauce
3 Tbs demerara or light brown sugar
1 tsp coarsely crushed or ground cumin
½ tsp smoked paprika
1 pinch cayenne pepper

Pre-heat oven to 130°C/ 250°F.
Mix all the ingredients together until the nuts are evenly covered with soy sauce and spices.
Spread evenly on a lined baking tray.
Bake for about 45 minutes, making sure to stir the nuts every 15 minutes or so.
If the nuts smell a little scorched after 20 minutes, lower the oven to  100°C/200°F.
The nuts are ready when they fell dry to the touch.
Leave to cool down on the tray before storing in airtight jars.

Try to prefer demerara sugar (or any coarse brown sugar) over a soft brown sugar: the large granule won't easily dissolve in the soy sauce, so instead of forming an overall sweetness, they'll roast into clusters of sugar that burst out every now and then. As long as they are stored in a dry spot, the nuts should keep for a few weeks.

Bon app'!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Deck the Halls

It's December. The fields are, for the most part, bare and barren. There is little in season that wasn't already on shop shelves back in November. However, now is not the time for the new: December is all about the holidays and traditions. Channukah is well on its way, and will be done by the end of the week. Even if one had potato latkas every night for eight days, few would even entertain the idea of complaining, and even fewer would give in to the temptation to try something different, such as vegetable galettes... And then, there is Christmas.

Even for non-Christians, Christmas holds a place in many a heart. It's not about the presents, the trees, or even the lights. It's about family, friends, and traditions. That word again: tradition. It's about your mother's top tip for the perfect roasted veg; it's your gran's scrumptious stuffing recipe; or maybe it's about your grand-pa's secret for the best ever fruitcake, the one that you squirrel away and nibble at weeks, nay months, later... It's about watching the same movies every year at around the same time. It's about the those cheese straws Aunt May always brings to brunch. It's about the food you share with loved ones. Now is not the time for innovation and new-fangled recipes.

However, every day in December is not Christmas, so while you may be knee-deep in preparation for the big day, you can still dabble in a few new recipes every now and then... In fact, they could even end up under the tree. Or in the freezer, for those days when baking trays of gingerbread men gets in the way of making dinner. 

Brussels Sprouts
Sprouts were never part of my Christmas panorama. However, I understand that they are not only traditional holiday fare in the UK, but also in parts of Canada and the US. In any case, sprouts are great in the midst of winter, and their flavour improves greatly after a few hard frosts. In Britain, stalks of Brussels sprouts remain in the fields, ready and waiting for the holidays. Sprouts should never be cooked til mushy, as it not only renders them hard to digest, it completely leaches away all flavour and interest in them. In fact, the best way to cook sprouts is either to shred them, and give them a quick stir-fry with lots of garlic, and maybe some chilli; or to cut them in half and to give them a brief spin in boiling, salted water before rolling them in some melted butter. Brussels sprouts should be eaten still slightly crunchy.

Chestnuts are often tossed through buttered sprouts. But, even though they are quite nice that way, I prefer them roasted in a dry pan, until they pop. They're also great to keep in your pocket when walking outdoors, as they will not only quell a grumbling tummy, they will keep your hands warm for a little while. They are also divine candied in a vanilla syrup, as the French are particularly fond of - in fact, marrons glacés are practically a requirement on the French Christmas spread. 
If there is one thing you may be able to tweak at Christmas-time, it may well be the dessert at the end of dinner: if so, you should try a chocolate and chestnut yule log. Mix chopped chestnuts in syrup, broken marrons glacés, or crème de marron (a sweet, sticky chestnut paste that is to die for on buttered toasts! It comes in a tin) through a chocolate ganache, and fill the yule log. Sprinkle with cocoa powder, followed by a little icing sugar.

Citrus galore
Key limes, Sicilian lemons, Seville oranges, California navel oranges, and Moroccan clementines. Is there really more to say?
Just in case: home-made marmalade makes a great gift, but for those who are not partial to marmalade, a thick syrup made with zest, juice and sugar is delightful drizzled on ice cream or a plain cake, or even in a glass of sparkling water or wine... These citrus are also a great addition to mulled wine, beer, cider, whatever you fancy...

No, not the crusty, trampled-on stuff that is already on the ground. You want the stuff that is still wending its way down, fluffy and feather-like as it dances in the air. Stick your tongue out, and look up at the sky, just like children do, not a care in the world. The sheer pleasure of it does not grow old.

December is about cherishing traditions.

Bon app'!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Onion

It's that time of the year again... When all you want to do is escape the mad rush, the crazed looks, the crushing crowds. If you're up for a little bit of cooking, then you could easily tick off your holiday gift list without stepping out of the house. (It is Buy Nothing week-end, after all...) It may be a little late for making jams and other preserves, but it's just right for a few jars of chutney.

Although chutneys are not nearly as popular in North America as they are in the UK, they are great to have kicking about the pantry. They can make a meal: a dollop on the side of a roast can save one the trouble of making gravy; a spoonful dropped into a dull soup is a wonder; a slather on toast, with or without a piece of cheese, makes a tasty sandwich; even mixed into a plateful of pasta, chutneys are one of the most useful condiments to have on hand. While ketchup is often thought of as being in a class of its own, it is basically a smooth chutney. The following red onion chutney is a close sibling to onion marmalade, but is much easier to make.

Red Onion Chutney
Yields about three 500ml/1 pint jars

1kg red onions
3 Tbs olive oil
5 cloves garlic
10 sprigs thyme, or 1 tsp dried thyme
1 bay leaf
5 Tbs demerara sugar, or 4 packed Tbs light brown sugar
125ml/¼ cup balsamic vinegar
3 tsp salt
pepper to taste

Top and tail the onions, cut in half, and peel. Thinly slice the onions from top to bottom: you want the slices to look like parenthesis not half moons.
Peel and mince the garlic cloves.
Pick the leaves from the thyme
Heat the olive oil in a pan over a medium-high heat, and fry the onions until they turn translucent. 
Stir in the garlic and cook  out for a minute or two.
Season with salt, sugar, pepper, the thyme and bay leaves.
Turn the heat down to low, and cover with a lid. 
Leave to sweat for about 20 minutes, stirring from time to time.
When the onions begin stewing in their own juices, add the balsamic vinegar, and turn the heat back up to high.
Stir continuously, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pan: you want the onions to caramelise a bit, but not to burn.
After about 5 minutes, the liquid in the pot should have thickened somewhat, remove from the heat and pot up in clean jars.
Leave to cool in a draft-free spot.

The chutney will keep for a couple of weeks, though it will need to be refrigerated once the jar is opened. To ensure a longer shelf-life, process the filled jars for about 15 minutes. You can vary the flavour of the chutney by playing with herbs and spices. I had a bunch of basil and sage pining away in the fridge, so they got chopped up and thrown in. Cumin is great with onions, and would be lovely with red wine vinegar instead of the balsamic.

Bon app'!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Staying In

There were forecasts for snow last week-end. While the predictions did not pan out for London, the skies looked ominous: the clouds were thick, impregnable, yet luminous. As if the snow was ready and waiting. The deep, rich smell of dried leaves no longer lingers in the air when I walk through the piles heaped on the sidewalk. The chill has dulled down the aroma of Autumn, Old Man Winter is making a move.

It's definitely time for belly-filling, heart-warming fares, and who doesn't like a good soup? It is the epitome of all that is nourishing, tasty and comforting. If you make a huge batch, it becomes fast food at a later date as well. Soup basics were covered in this post; once you've got those down pat, you only need to let your imagination run wild.

Of course, that may be easier said than done. When faced with a cupboard full of dusty jars of who-knows-what, it may feel simpler to just shut the door and have toast for dinner. We all get stuck in a rut sometimes, and opening a new spice jar can be just as daunting as walking into a neighbourhood ethnic food shop. However, tweaking old standards can shift an entire recipe, so it is worthwhile to try something new.

Take the following basic carrot soup: it is good as it is. But if you play around with the suggested flavour packs that follow the recipe, you can travel around the world, without ever leaving the dining table.

Everyday Carrot Soup
Yields about 2L/2 quarts

1 medium onion
3 cloves garlic
500g/½lb carrots
6 sprigs of thyme, or 1tsp dried thyme
salt and pepper
1 Tbs butter
2 tsp oil

Peel and chop the onion.
In a large saucepan, melt the butter with the oil. Fry the onion over a medium-high heat, until translucent and just beginning to brown.
Crush and peel the garlic cloves. Add to the pan along with the thyme. 
Peel the carrots, and roughly chop. Add to the pot, and sauté for about 5 minutes.
Cover with cold water, turn up the heat and bring up to a rumbling boil.
Turn the heat down, and eave to simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the carrots are fork-tender.
Remove from the heat, and puré until smooth.
Adjust the thickness of the soup by adding more water or milk. Check the seasoning.
Re-heat if necessary, then serve.

Serve up this soup as it is, or drizzle in a little cream. It will keep for about a week without the cream, and will get better over time. Try the following flavour packs to add different dimensions to the soup.

Flavour packs
1 orange zest
double cream or crème fraiche
10 sprigs of chives

Add the grated zest of one orange along with the carrots. Proceed as above.
Serve the soup, and drizzle with some cream or dollop of crème fraiche. Sprinkle with chopped chives.

1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp curry powder 
2cm/1" piece of ginger
6 sprig cilantro/fresh coriander
thick yoghurt
garam masala

Toast the cumin seeds and curry powder along with the onion. 
Peel and thinly slice the ginger. Add along with the carrots. Proceed with the rest of the recipe.
Garnish the finished soup with chopped cilantro, a dollop of yoghurt and a sprinkle of garam masala.

1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 dried chilli
1 preserved lemon
6 sprigs cilantro
olive oil
ras el hanout

Fry the dried spices along with the onion.
Quarter the preserved lemon, remove the flesh, and rinse under running water. Coarsely chop. Add to the soup just before pureeing.
Garnish with chopped coriander, a drizzle of olive oil, and a pinch of ras el hanout.

1 tsp caraway seeds
3 juniper berries
1 tsp peppercorns

Toast the spices along with the onion, and proceed with the rest of the recipe. 

Best of British
Garnish the finished soup with some onion marmalade or onion chutney and crumbled Stilton cheese. Nothing says winter holidays like a chunk of Stilton...

These flavour mixes add more depth when cooked into the soup, but they can be served up in little dishes, and sprinkled on top as and when needed.

Bon app'!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Moving On to November

I don't know what it is about the impending end of the year, but Time just seems to fly as soon as October first rears its head! One day I'm thinking pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving, and the next I'm getting ready for Christmas! It doesn't help that the days are cut short: the sun barely comes out nowadays, and when it does it quickly goes back into hiding by mid-afternoon. Taking pictures in natural lighting becomes a challenge akin to an intense treasure hunt.

While most people will spare few thoughts to the upcoming holidays, for the catering world, November spells the onslaught of Christmas parties and the busiest period of the year. The frenzy just makes me want to curl up in a dark place and never come out! Don't get me wrong: we are all thankful for the business, but it would be nice if it was steady all year round, instead of being frantic at one end and dead at the other... 
In any case, the cold weather is sticking around for a little while yet, so it's a good thing that the seasonal offerings are perfectly suited for soups and stews; slow roasting; and comforting bakes. Now all we need to do is hunker down until it's all over!
Apples and pears are the old standbys at this time of the year. Both keep well in storage, so producers dole them out in trickles until the end of winter. However, they are not the only kids on the block: the new harvests of citrus are on shop shelves, and they are very nice indeed. Although most citrus are available year-round, I've noticed that the varieties available in November and December tend to be juicier, thinner skinned, and generally more sweet-tart than at other times in the year: in other words, just the way I like them!
Of course, some citrus only make an appearance come November, and are all the more special for it: Key limes have a very short season, and though they are full of pips and rather greedy of their juice, their fragrance is quite intoxicating and well worth the effort to extract it. Clementines, tangerines and satsumas are definitely winter favourites, and it simply feels wrong to eat them at any other time of the year (I know there's still well over a month until it's officially winter, but it bloody feels like it already!) There are also grapefruits to look forward to: cut in half, layered with brown sugar and grilled, they make a great addition to brunch.
Pomegranates are another cold season fruit. Although they hail from warmer climes, they only make it to market from November to February. Their jewel tones and sweet-tart flavours lend themselves well to both sweet and savoury, and do make a meal feel festive.

Root Vegetables
Carrots, onions, leeks, potatoes and beetroots are old faithfuls in the kitchen, but they don't always get the love they deserve. Nevertheless, they are steadfastly affordable, full of flavour, and they keep incredibly well, so if you happen to forget them in the pantry or fridge, chances they will still be fine when you get around to them. Sooner or later, you will be craving a good, heartwarming soup or stew, and they will be there for you.

Winter squashes are another cold season standby: they will keep for months in cool dry storage, such as in the garage, an insulated shed, or a cold pantry, so if you stock up now, you will be covered when they eventually disappear come January. 
The butternut squash has become the most ubiquitous squash on restaurant menus and in food magazines. They offer a good result to effort ratio given that a good chunk of it is all flesh and no seeds, but in my humble opinion, they are not the most interesting of squashes. The buttercup -pictured in October- has a dry, starchy flesh that is definitely sweet, yet has enough savoury oomph to complement any salty dish -they are the most prevalent squash in Japan, and are perfect for making croquettes
But there are other winter squashes to try out there. The acorn squash, tiny compared to most of its brethren, is often sold as 'single portion' sized, and its flesh, though not as dry and starchy as the buttercup, is full of intense squash-y flavour that you would never get from a butternut. 
The red kuri squash is so-called because its flavour is nutty and starchy, much like chestnuts (kuri means chestnut in Japanese). Because its walls are relatively tin, they are not very difficult to chop up, so they are rather hassle-free. 
If you are more into pumpkins, then you should veer towards the French squashes such as the potiron, also known as the cinderella squash, or the potimarron, a more compact version. Both are pumpkin-like in appearance and flavour, but have a dryer flesh, so keep much better than their Hallowe'en counterpart.

Bon app'!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Of Grace and Gratitude

Happy Thanksgiving to all my fellow Canucks!

October has definitely ensconced itself into our lives. Although I've had my blinders on, trying to ignore the advance of the season, it is difficult to deny that there is a very real chill in the air. Even the brightest days have a nip to them, a sharp edge that cuts deep, right through even the thickest sweaters and woollen socks. Autumn will not be denied. It is truly the season for hot foods, and as it so happens, the produce of the times lend themselves to just that.

Apples and Pears
The ultimate portable lunch fruits also happen to be happy in warm desserts such as crumbles (especially if you can grab a few spears of autumn rhubarb before it's too late!); stewed fruits; tarts and pies. Apple and pear sauces are delightful in their own rights, but just as they can add that extra special something to a roast pork, they can also fill a beautifully crisp sweet pastry. And what can be more heart-warming than the aromas of a baking cake?

Cabbages and their Ilk
Gone are the days for creamy coleslaw, say hello to cabbage rolls and soups galore. Cabbages are so full of goodness though that you should really give them a bigger spot in your pantry: braised; bubbly and squeaky; or use this pancake recipe for a simplified version of the Japanese favourite okonomiyaki...

Root Vegetables
Carrots; onions; leeks; parsnips; rutabaga/Swedes; potatoes; Jerusalem artichokes; beets... The list goes on, but all these steadfast vegetables are the reliable friends of the cold weather cook. They embody soups, stews and Sunday roasts all to themselves.

Two words: pumpkin pie.
Although we usually tend to make pumpkin pies with Baby Bear pumpkins (those small, two handful-sized pumpkins with the tightly knit flesh and sweet flavour), any winter squash can be turned in to pies and desserts. In fact, I prefer buttercups (pictured above) for baking: their knubbly, green skin is quite thick, and may not inspire much, but the deep orange flesh is starchy and dry, and SWEET! So much sweeter than pumpkins, with subtle hints of spice. They are not nearly as popular as the ubiquitous butternut, but let's just keep this between us - they are so much more tasty!

Bon app'!


Monday, October 7, 2013

In Search for Flavour

A proper post will follow sometime this week. Promise. In the meantime, here is an interesting podcast to keep you busy...

Bon app' and happy listening!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

What the Heart Wants

Now that it is officially autumn, we seek warmth wherever we can find it. If you've been keeping up with foodie trends, then you may have noticed that foods from the Arab world are on the up and up. Morocco has been quite popular of late, and the tagine, with its heady spiciness, is the perfect stew to keep you warm.

A key ingredient to the tagine is the preserved lemon. Although you can easily find preserved lemons in Middle Eastern/North African shops, they are not that difficult to make. And the flavour is often better when homemade. All you need is a little time.

Preserved Lemons
Yields 4 preserved lemons

4 organic or unwaxed lemons
200g/1 cup sea salt
200g/1 cup sugar
10 sprigs of thyme
2 sprigs of rosemary
1 Tbs cumin seeds

Wipe the lemons clean with a damp cloth. Quarter each lemon, and remove any visible pips. Set aside.
Roughly chop the herbs, and mix with the sugar, salt and cumin seeds.
In a lidded 500ml/1 pint jar, spoon in a 1cm/½" layer of the salt mix.
Layer in a few lemon wedges. Sprinkle generously with salt, and continue layering until the jar is full.
Finish with a layer of salt to the very top of the jar.
Cover the jar, press down on the contents if necessary.
Hold on to any left-over salt for later use.
Sneak a peak after a week: there should be a pool of brine at the top of jar, and there may have formed a gap at the top. Fill the gap with any left-over salt mix.
Check on the lemons weekly to ensure that they are always under dry salt or brine: if the lemons start to peak out, push them back under.

The lemons will be ready to use after a month. They will improve greatly with time, and if you have the patience, wait at least three months before plucking a wedge out of the brine. Only the peel -zest and pith- are used: simply peel the wedge as you would an orange. Before discarding the flesh, squeeze the juice back into the jar to top up the brine. Chop the peel, and use wherever: substitute for lemon zest, even in sweet things... The flavour boost is incredible.

Also, do not discard the brine! Even though the liquid from most commercially preserved lemons is bitter, this brine should have a pleasant balance of sweet, sour and salty: it can be used instead of lemon juice, but do be sure to omit all other salt in the recipe. This brine can also be re-used to preserve another batch of lemons.

Bon app'!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Something to Keep in Mind

This phenomena has become more prevalent in countries around the world -not just in Canada. If we can afford to buy fresh, local foods, then we should. If locally produced foods are difficult to find, then we need to voice our concerns.

Local is best. 

For all sorts of reasons. 

Full stop. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Where the Wild Things Are

No, I am not offering up some worms for breakfast... A few friends of mine have been asking about composting, so I thought I'd broach the subject here. Gardeners of the organic persuasion like to nickname compost 'black gold', but I think it should really be called 'miracle elixir'! I have to admit that I am passionate about compost! Making compost is right up there with cooking, knitting, and sewing. It is definitely an activity I consider a hobby!

There is a wealth of resources about composting, so I will gloss over the nuts and bolts. Compost, or garden compost as the British call it, is basically well-rotted organic material. In other words, anything that used to be alive is upcycled into a nutritious compound for plants. I like to think of composting as the natural next step to cooking and eating, and it is also the obvious companion to reducing, reusing and recycling.

The theory is that if you leave a pile of food and garden waste exposed to the elements, wild yeasts, bacteria and bugs will break down the material. Eventually you will have a pile of crumbly brown stuff that looks very much like soil and smells vaguely of mushrooms. In reality, however, if you leave a pile of garbage out in the yard, you will be plagued by pests and your neighbours will hate you.

The least messy way to make compost is to build or to buy an enclosure for the compost pile. These can take many forms, and I suggest you read up on different types of composters here. Building a compost bin from re-purposed material is the cheapest and most sustainable way to go, but for those of us who aren't particularly handy, many cities sell composters at cut-rate prices.

Contrary to general consensus, there is really very little that cannot be composted: if it used to breathe, it can go in the composter. Whether it is plant material (paper, cardboard, used tissues, vegetable trimmings, cotton rags or that tired carrot at the bottom of the crisper drawer) or of animal origin (egg shells, table scraps,  old wool sweaters, and cheese rinds), it can -and should- be composted. One key point is to ensure that your bin is two-thirds filled with dry -also known as 'brown'- material, such as fallen autumn leaves, shredded cardboard and newspaper, and compostable pet litter (wood shavings and other such materials).

Some things, like bones and seashells (oysters, mussels and clams) take a really long time to break down, and are best thrown in the bin or sent to commercial composting facilities (cities and towns are increasingly turning to municipal composting to deal with their mounting waste disposal problems.) Meat and fish scraps, shellfish such as shrimp and lobster can get a little smelly, but they do wonders for plants. And as long as they are buried deep into the pile, these should not assault anyone with their odour.

The secret to a low-smell compost pile is to get it nice and hot. And to do so, you need to mix the pile around on a regular basis. There is a plethora of information on hot composting, but personal experience has taught me that the easiest way to turn a pile is to dig holes. Build the initial pile with brown stuff, then each time you want to add a bucketful of waste, instead of just dumping it on top, dig in and bury the new stuff. If you rotate around the pile each time you dig in new material, you end up turning the whole lot by the end of the month. Do this often enough, and you will be rewarded with beautiful compost within three months. Also, used coffee grounds (with the paper filter!) and teabags (paper ones only, do not compost plastic mesh bags even if they claim to be biodegradable) are wonderful fuel for the compost heap.

For those of us living in flats with little or no outdoor space, composting need not be out of reach. You can always save your food scraps for a friend's compost bin, or you can try your hand at worm composting. Just follow this link to learn how make your own worm farm. Vermicomposting is not as dramatic as hot composting: you do not get  billows of steam every time you stir the pot, and the process is much slower. Whereas a hot bin can reduce a lobster shell to marvellous plant food in less than two months, the worms will meander about for at least three, if not six, months. However, worm compost is very potent plant food.

In any case, composting rewards you with quantities of lovely planting medium (no need to buy bags of potting soil for that basil you brought back from the supermarket), and helps to reduce your waste output. The added benefits of garden compost are healthy plants (better disease resistance -no need for spraying!) and healthier fruits and vegetables for you!

Happy gardening, bon app' little worms!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Good Morning!

You know you're in Montreal when your breakfast is a bowl of the most lovely yoghurt, two handfuls of wild blueberries from the Abitibi, and a good glug of vintage maple syrup!
Pictures from my Sunday morning trek to Jean-Talon market will follow shortly....
Bon app'!
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