Thursday, July 25, 2013

One by One

My honey and I went for a quick bike ride, and came back loaded with wild cherries. We had already picked and preserved two jars, but we were feeling a little greedy, so we couldn't resist going for more! There was enough for 4 jars of jam, for the price of a bag of sugar. While I understand how foraging for food can be daunting at first, I also believe that more people should try their hand at it. Foraging is a truly rewarding hobby once you've got the know-how. Online resources are plentiful, but nothing beats a good, hard copy guide.

Besides getting access to lots of wonderful food for practically nothing -wild foods that can cost a pretty penny when purchased at the market or in shops- foraging for wild foods really does reconnect one with Nature. The hedgerow where we go picking is home to about six or eight cherry trees; a few wild roses; a blackberry shrub; a dozen elder bushes; and a crab apple. Now if that doesn't sound like the makings of great wild feast, I don't know what does!

The lovely thing about wild foods is that no two plant produces the same fruit. Take those cherries for example. All the trees appear to be of the same age, so their pips were likely thrown on the ground around the same time, most probably by someone eating a bag of cherries and spitting out the stones while enjoying a leisurely stroll. Some trees produced the blackest, juiciest-looking cherries, while others had yellow ones, and still others produced pale red cherries that look very much like sour cherries. One would think that the black cherries would be sweetest, but they weren't! They were not only sour, but bitter as well. Of course, all that really matters, is that, once cooked, a lovely jam was the result!

If you do venture out to pick some wild fruits, do keep in mind that they tend to be much less sweet than cultivated varieties. So it is doubly important when making jams with wild fruits to follow old-school proportions: for each kilo/pound of fruit add the same weight of sugar (and a packet of pectin, if using). It may sound excessive, but the sugar is necessary for flavour and preserving. Just don't go eating all the jam in one sitting!

Bon app'!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Mighty, Yet Subdued

Radicchio is a beautiful salad, with its crinkly, deep garnet leaves. But its flavour is not to everyone's liking. The sharp, bitter tang can be quite a shock when encountered in those bags of washed salad, especially if they've withered to wizened chunks of rind amid the almost-bland bits of lettuce. Even I find it difficult to eat sometimes as the bright white ribs are often so bitter one is tempted to spit them out.

In warmer climes like that of Italy, radicchio is considered a winter salad, where its sharpness is the perfect foil for the sweetness of pears and the salty punch of cured ham or blue cheese. But in more temperate places, it is more readily available locally from late-July on. When grown in the mild, wet weather, this robust leaf can turn out to be rather civilized. However, under wildly varying climates or sudden heat waves, this pretty, little salad can end up with a vicious kick!

There is a way to render these mighty salad leaves into the most mild mannered vegetable. Heat is the great equaliser in the kitchen, and is surprisingly handy at subduing any wild personalities: just as fiery radishes can be tamed by tossing them into a hot pan, so too rabid radicchio. Throwing a few brazen radicchio into a hot oven will render them a tad more refined, and balsamic vinegar brings out their sweet nature. This also work for treviso, chicory (frisée or curly endive) and Belgium endive (witloof).

Roasted Radicchio 
For two

1 good sized radicchio
1 small red onion
balsamic vinegar
olive oil
salt and pepper

Quarter the radicchio, and remove most of the core, leaving just enough that the leaves do not separate out. Cut each quarter in two.
Slice the red onion into thin half-moons.
In a baking dish, toss the radicchio and onion with a healthy glug of olive and two of balsamic. Season with salt and pepper.
Roast in a 200°C/400°F oven for about 15 minutes, tossing the wedges after about 8 minutes to make sure that everything is browning evenly.
The radicchio is done when it is wilted and charred in a few spots.
Alternatively, you can grill the dressed wedges on the barbecue.

Roasted radicchio can be served as a hot side dish (when the weather cools down), but it is also quite lovely at room temperature. If there are any left-overs, they will travel well in a boxed lunch the next day -they fare better if kept out of the fridge- and they are mighty nice chopped into some pasta.

Bon app'!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A First Time for Everything

Growing up in a country where summers are so hot that park lawns get scorched, my friend B never actually enjoyed a laid back picnic in a park. Until this week!

Have a nice summer, and bon app'!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

On the Verge

It's hot. So hot that my sweetheart and I escaped to the coast for the day. I'm not usually a beach person, the salty air and sea water do not hold much sway over my heart. But it is so hot (for London) that it was a relief to get blasted by the sea breeze. Even if I dozed off while reading, and ended up with a sunburn.

It's at times like these that I truly crave Japanese foods. Not because Japanese cuisine is devoid of cooking (it isn't.) Neither is it because it is simple (it isn't necessarily so.) Nor is it because I feel a strong attachment to my Japanese heritage (I never really felt particularly Japanese, and my two year stay there put the nail in that coffin.) No, it's because the Japanese are dab hands at coming up with dishes that'll tempt even the most heat-stressed appetite. And my mum -who likes hot and muggy weather as much as I do- would often whip up these summer standards at the first sign of mercury rising. Like hiyashi chuuka. It's another cold noodle dish, and even if its name translates to "chilled Chinese noodles", I don't think it actually originates from China. In fact, the only thing remotely Chinese about Hiyashi chuuka are the ramen or egg noodles used as a base for what is essentially a noodle salad.

In truth though, the noodles are inconsequential. The main feature of this dish is the topping. Purists will claim that only a specific list of toppings are allowed to top the chilled egg noodles, but I am not a purist. So here is a step by step account to building your own chilled noodle salad. Start with a deep dish, or a wide bowl. Mound a portion of cooked and chilled noodles (follow the above link for instructions on chilling noodles.) One portion amounts to: one nest of egg noodles; one packet of fresh or dried ramen; a single bundle of soba (buckwheat) or somen (thin, salty and wheat-based) noodles; or one layer of rice noodles. While I am not sure that udon (thick wheat noodles) would suit this salad, pasta is, unconventionally, nice. Chill the plate while you prepare the toppings.

The following are mere suggestions, as anything goes. Finely chop two leaves of napa or Chinese cabbage. Sliver some red pepper. Julienne some cucumber, avoiding the watery seeds. Shred an omelette, if you are in the mood for eggs. Radish are a nice addition, and, unless you actually live in Japan, will be easier to find than the more authentic daikon. Cook some mushrooms in a simmering pot of water (I usually just use the cooking water from the noodles.) Shitake mushrooms are fairly easy to find in supermarkets, but enoki are also increasingly so.

Enoki are thin, long and white mushrooms. They usually come in bunches with gnarly roots: these simply need to be cut off before cooking. Enoki are most often used soups, and once cooked, they take on a marvellous texture that is best described by the Japanese word korikori. I've tried to explain this word in English before and have been stumped. The closest thing I can think of is a bit unappetising: korikori is the texture of chewing on cartilage. Enoki, being mushrooms, are not as crunchy as actual cartilage, but they have the same chewy-crunchy-slippery thing going for them. Maybe it's an Asian thing, but it is a rather pleasant texture when contrasted with soft noodles.

Once you've got all the toppings prepared, they get piled up in orderly wedges atop the chilled noodles, just as if you were drawing a pie chart. Sprinkle some slivered green onions for garnish. And while your plate is chilling in the icebox, prepare the dressing. I do believe that the actual dressing for hiyashi chuuka is tsuyu-based (see above link), but the following is a simplefied version:

Express Hiyashi Dressing
For each person

2Tbs rice wine vinegar
2Tbs soy sauce
1Tbs sugar

Stir all the ingredients together until the sugar is dissolved.
Drizzle over the topped noodles, and chow down!

If you feel the need for a protein besides eggs, you can go traditional, and add some shredded ham, but prawns (North Atlantic shrimps may still be available...), crab or even crab sticks also fill in the gap nicely. When eating hiyashi chuuka, it is really important to dig down to the bottom of the bowl to soak up all the dressing.

Bon app'!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

First Harvest

So, I've come to the conclusion that I probably should keep my day job since I would be rubbish as a garlic farmer. But I must say that I am rather proud that I actually managed to harvest a few heads of garlic. There are still four more left in the pot, and I am hoping that they will be larger...

Happy gardening and bon app'!


There is just no accounting for where inspiration will come from. Carrot and cumin have become a classic pairing, so I have been long tempted to try my hand at a Moroccan salad of just that. I love the warm earthiness of cumin, and carrots are a good, sturdy staple that can usually be found in any kitchen. But there was just one caveat: all the recipes I found stated that the carrots should be just barely cooked. Even in his book Plenty, Ottolenghi calls for al dente carrots.

I have an aversion to crunchy, cooked carrots. It's a long story, but it boils down to this: between the ages of three and ten, I was unable to eat raw carrots under any circumstances. Cooked carrots could slip by me only if they were reduced to mush, and camouflaged under lots of other things. I have since come to appreciate the humble carrot, whether grated raw in a salad or chopped into sticks on a crudité platter. And cooked carrots no longer need to hide in dark corners of my plate.

But they need to be cooked. Completely. There's something about under-cooked carrots that reminds me of those carrots I despised as a child. I'm not normally a difficult eater, but some things just can't be helped! While I rarely balk at deviating away from a written recipe, for some reason, I hesitated in trying the salad. Even though I could've easily cooked the carrots longer. No one needed to know.

And so the inspiration (or should I say the push?) I confess that on really busy days, I would sometimes feign an urgent errand so that I could take a break. (You need to understand that in the restaurant industry, breaks are not readily granted on overly hectic days.) I would then rush out to a nearby upscale supermarket to buy a ready-made salad that had piqued my fancy. It was a cumin-y carrot salad with spelt, prunes and goat's cheese. The combination sounds a little odd, but it works. And most importantly, the carrot were chunky and buttery soft.

The following is my take on that salad, minus the goat's cheese and the prunes. Feel free to add either if you are curious, as they bring an interesting dimension to the salad. I would recommend a creamy, un-aged goat's cheese. I also used farro because  it appears to be easier to find in shops. Farro (and spelt) is an heirloom grain, ancestor to modern wheat. It can usually be found in natural and bulk food shops, but if you have trouble finding it, you can substitute it with barley, wheat berries or even wild rice (cooking times may vary.) All grains take a ridiculous amount of time to cook, barley being the one exception. If you can get your hands on par-cooked grains, use those. Otherwise, you need to soak the grains for at least 30 minutes (overnight is better) before cooking. Cooked grains do keep well though; at least three or four days in the fridge, or about a month in the freezer.

Carrots, Cumin and  Farro Salad
Serves 2 as a main, or 4 as a side

3 medium carrots
1 Tbs cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
75g/½ cup farro
1 lemon
olive oil
salt and pepper 
8 mint leaves, optional
1 clove garlic, optional

Soak the farro in plenty of water, and set aside for about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, top and tail the carrots, then peel. Slice the carrots in 1cm/ ½" rounds.
Place the carrots in a pot, along with half the cumin seeds, the coriander seeds, the peel of the lemon, and a generous pinch of salt. Cover with cold water, and bring to the boil.
When the water has come to a rumbling boil, turn down the heat to medium-low, and let the carrots simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the carrots are cooked through.
Drain he carrots, remove the lemon peel, and set aside.
In a dry pan, toast the remaining cumin seeds until medium-brown and fragrant. Add to the carrots.
To cook the farro: drain the soaking water, and place in a saucepan with plenty of fresh water and good pinch of salt. Bring up to a gentle simmer, and leave to cook for about 20-30 minutes. Spelt is cooked when the grains are soft but still chewy and whole. Drain and mix with the carrots.
Squeeze the now-peeled lemon, and pour over the salad. Toss with a few tablespoons of olive oil.
Finely chop the mint and garlic, and mix in, if you are using them.
Adjust the seasoning, and serve. 

This salad is best served just barely warm or even at room temperature. It is filling enough to be served on its own, but would also make a nice side to roasted fish or something from the grill.

Bon app'!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Down to the Lake

It seemed so unlikely, and yet... It was hot and muggy. In London, of all places. Just in time for the solstice, Summer made an appearance. It felt like being back in Canada. Though not quite as hot as a Quebec summer, it was just as unbearable. Were I back in Montreal, I would have headed for the cottage -despite the black flies and the mosquitoes. Scampered down those one hundred and seventy six steps to the lake, and a not so graceful plunge into the deep, dark waters. It would be daunting, because the water is bracing this early in the season. But it would be such relief from the heat. And I would remain in the water until my fingers and toes -and perhaps, even my elbows- would get wrinkly as prunes.

But, given that it would take about 9 hours, 6 time zones, and more money than I can spare right now to get to the family cottage, I settled for a two hour walk across central London, meandering through parks and squares, and once I got home, tucked in a Japanese summer fave: zaru soba. It literally means buckwheat noodles in a basket, and in its absolute bare-bones form, that's all there would be to the dish: chilled buckwheat noodles on a bamboo colander, and a bowl of ice-cold broth.

However, most households, and the better pubs, in Japan serve all sorts of garnishes alongside the basket of noodles. Strips of nori seaweed (the very same one used in sushi rolls), slivers of green onions, and shredded leaves of green shiso are staples, but my mum likes to add julienned cucumber and ribbons of paper-thin omelet.

Initial preparations for this dish are time consuming, but with a little planning, it is a cinch, and you could end up with the makings of several meals. Tsuyu is the all-purpose broth of Japanese cooking: served warm, it is the dipping sauce for tempura and fried tofu; served chilled, it is the dipping sauce for all sorts of cold noodles. It is usually made with hon dashi, a bonito (skipjack tuna)-based stock, but I am posting a vegetarian version made with dried shitake mushrooms.

Tsuyu (Japanese broth)
Yields about 750ml/1¼ quart

6 whole dried shitake mushrooms, or a small handful of sliced, dried mushrooms
6 Tbs soy sauce (use a Japanese brand, or a light Chinese sauce)
4 Tbs sugar

Soak the mushrooms in enough cold water to cover.
After about 15 minutes, squeeze the mushrooms dry. They can be discarded at this point, but I like to slice them, and add them to the cooking stock. Reserve the soaking liquor.
Bring 500ml/1 quart of cold water to a simmer.
Add the soaking liquor to the pot, making sure to discard any grit at the bottom of the bowl. 
Stir in the sugar and soy sauce. 
When the sugar is fully dissolved, add the rehydrated shitake, if desired.
Leave to simmer for about 15 minutes.
After it has cooled to room temperature, chill until ready to use.

This recipe can easily be doubled, and the broth will keep for at least a week in the fridge. To keep it longer, freeze in little jars. This tsuyu can also be used as a base for a hot noodle soup, but you will probably need to let it down a bit, as the above proportions will give you an intensely flavoured broth. Dried, sliced shitake and soba noodles can be found in most supermarkets and natural food stores, but for whole mushrooms (and a more intense flavour) you will need to go to an Asian market. If you have access to an Asian shop, you can most likely find dashi base, which can be used instead of the shitake.

The Japanese have a strong sense of the convenient, and most dried noodles come packaged in little bundles: one bundle is a single portion. Soba noodles are cooked like any pasta, however, as they are to be served chilled, they should be cooked beyond the al dente stage. Most packagings will have instructions on how to cook them, but a little trick my grandfather taught me for perfect noodles is to let the pot of noodles come back to a rumbling boil, throw in a glassful of cold water, cover the pot, and turn off the heat. Wait about 4 minutes before draining the noodles, rinse under running water until cold, and leave to drain in a colander until ready to serve. The cooking water of soba noodles is traditionally kept and served at the end of the meal. Buckwheat tea is said to be great for lowering blood pressure.

The shredded omelette is basically a thin pancake cut into ribbons. Count on one egg per person. Shiso leaves can be a little difficult to find, even if you have an Asian supermarket nearby, but they can be omitted altogether or substituted with Thai basil (normal basil could also do in a pinch.) The cooked shitake can be served on the side. To plate up, mound the garnishes on a sharing plate; place the colander of noodles on a dish; and divvy up the tsuyu into individual bowls, about 125ml/½ cup each should be enough. To eat, a few pinches of garnish are dropped in the bowl of broth. A few strands of noodles (enough for a small mouthful) are dipped in, and eaten in one go with some of the garnish.

When the meal is done, the cooking water (soba yu) is poured into each bowl of remaining broth, and drunk up. If chopsticks are not your favourite eating utensils, the soba and garnishes can be dressed with the tsuyu and eaten like a salad. Also, for a little extra zing, mix in a dab of wasabi.

Bon app'!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Come On Summer

I didn't think it was possible. But it seems really true: summer has arrived in England! The weather is warm, and verges on positively hot when the sun peaks out from behind the clouds. Summers in England are milder, less extreme than in other parts of the world: heatwaves here do not reach the sweltering heights of Southern California, or even the muggy extremes of Eastern Canada. But they are a welcome intrusion. 

         Photo courtesy of Laura O'Reilly              

Never have I seen a more sun-worshipping people than the British. In fact, every single one of my expat friends marvel at the odd behaviour Britons indulge in when the sun makes an appearance: every inch of sunny real estate is quickly snapped up, whether it is the green grass in the park, or even the pavement and sidewalks near a pub. Everyone will forgo the comfy seat of a bench in favour of a sunny cinder block. It makes for a funny picture when walking by a crowded pub. The punters are concentrated to the sunny side of the block, and the shade is completely deserted!

News of extreme weather has trickled over this side of the pond, and my heart goes out to everyone recovering from the floods in Alberta, and those still fighting the brush fires in Arizona. Despite destructive weather increasingly becoming a reality at this time of this year, July is definitely the month when Summer comes into her own. Crops abound, the farmers' markets are overflowing.

Stone Fruits
From cherries to peaches, apricots to plums, stone fruits are one of the many pleasures of summer. There is something primal about a soft, ripe peach that just makes you want to sit outside in your barest outfit, munching on a bowlful of them while the juices run down your chin! While peaches, apricots, plums and nectarines are best enjoyed at room temperature (take them out of the refrigerator about an hour or two before eating), cherries are quite scrumptious when served over ice. Or in a clafoutis.

Strawberries are still going strong, and will hang around until at least September, but they are no longer the only players in the berry patch. Raspberries have a strong presence in July, and mulberries are not far behind. If the warm weather holds, blueberries should be abundant near the end of the month.

Melons and Other Squashes
The British climate is not really conducive to the culture of melons, but they can be grown in greenhouses. Melons, and especially watermelons, were central to my childhood summers, as my father always made sure there was one chilling in the fridge. They, along with peaches, were a backyard staple, and it seemed like the most normal thing to sit at the picnic table in my bathing suit, with sticky chin and forearms, and to spit the pips out at passing squirrels!
Cucumbers and zucchini (courgettes) are also abundant come July, and any of you with a plant or two in the garden or with a CSA membership will be feeling the pinch shortly. A good way to use up excess cucumbers is with a jug of flavoured water, and zucchini can be grated and frozen for a batch of cake later in the year.

Green, yellow wax, fava/broad and beans aplenty at this time of the year, while runner beans are in season later in the month.

I love sweet corn. Corn on the cob IS summer for me. Depending on the weather, the local harvest (in North America) can happen as early as the end of July, but August is a surer bet. But one can always wish... Here in the UK, corn on the cob is available year round, and it is nothing like the corn I dream of.

On a completely different subject, you may have noticed that July is often synonymous with an unwelcome invasion in your kitchen: fruit flies. Those pesky, little brown flies like to buzz about in the heat of summer, and always seem to rest on those lush fruit bowls we all like to leave on the kitchen counter. However, it isn't actually the fruit itself that they are attracted to, in fact, what brings the fruit flies out is the smell of fermentation. So, even though we all like to have a well-stocked fruit bowl at room temperature, the best way to keep those annoying flies at bay is to keep all fruit in the fridge and only to take out what you intend to eat within the hour or. In really extreme cases, you may even need to store open bottles of vinegar and wine in the refrigerator. 

Bon app'! 

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