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'!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

All In Good Time

There are certain foods I always come back to: macaroni and cheese; ice-cold soba noodles; ratatouille; and babaghanouj. That last entry was a staple during my early forays into vegetarianism, and a popular favourite at all those potluck dinners students are so fond of. Babaghanouj and other Middle Eastern fares, such as hummus, are now experiencing soaring popularity. As well they should, since they are tasty, affordable foods that bring a touch of exoticism to any meal. And, as it so happens, eggplants are not only at the height of their season right now, but are being sold by the bushel at farmers' markets.

I would sometimes wonder what one could possibly want with a bushel of aubergines, but now I know: I've tucked away at least two kilos' worth of babaghanouj on my very own just this past week, and I've just made a fresh batch today. Most supermarkets sell several varieties of this dip/salad/sandwich saver, so you may wonder 'why bother making your own?' Well, for one, babaghanouj is extremely easy to make, no special appliances are necessary -just an oven or a barbecue, a knife and a fork. And another reason for homemade is that the flavours can be so much better, fresher and more intense!

Eggplants are used all over the Mediterranean basin, and variations of this dish can be found in Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Greece and Israel. Moutabiel in Tunisia is very much a carbon copy of babaghanouj, whereas a Turkish friend said that their version is chunkier, and very much resembles my father's aubergine salad. Whichever form yours will take, it is always a good thing to have handy in the fridge.

Yields about 500ml or 2 cups

2 large eggplants or 4 smaller ones
3 Tbs cumin seeds
2-3 Tbs tahine paste
1 bunch cilantro/fresh coriander, or ½ bunch parsley, or both
3 cloves garlic
2 lemons, preferably organic or unwaxed
salt and pepper
olive oil

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C/400°F.
Cut the aubergines in half, and score the flesh in a deep criss-cross pattern.
Chop the garlic.
Combine the cumin seeds and garlic with a generous pinch of salt and pepper, and rub into the eggplants' crevises. Drizzle with olive oil.
Place the eggplants flesh-side down on a lined baking tray. Bake in the pre-heated oven until the skin begins to char, and the flesh is soft, about 30 to 45 minutes.
Let the aubergines cool down, before scraping out the flesh into a mixing bowl.
Finely chop the cilantro and/or parsley, and mix into the aubergine flesh.
Add the tahine, the zest and juice of one lemon. 
Stir vigorously until the purée is as smooth as you like: you can also use a blender or a food processor if you prefer a very smooth babaghanouj.
Taste for seasoning and adjust accordingly: you may want to add the juice of the second lemon, or mix in an extra clove of raw garlic.
If you prefer a looser dip, drizzle in some more olive oil.

This moutabiel deserves star treatment, so pile it up in a bowl, and drizzle with more olive oil, sprinkle with sesame seeds, a pinch of ras el hanout, and perhaps some dried thyme leaves. Serve with thin slices of bread, some pita wedges or even with a few crudités.

My Lebanese friends may insist that fresh is best, but babaghanouj does keep very well, and I find that the flavours mellow out nicely over a few days. In fact, it can be frozen as well. However, it will look a little lumpy on defrosting: just give it a good stir, and it should become smooth again. Of course, freshly made does taste better, so you can freeze plain, roasted eggplants instead, and turn them into babaghanouj when you defrost them.

Bon app'!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sly Mistress September

September slipped in to replace August without much fanfare. What with the start of the new school year, many amongst us would rather turn a blind eye to the fact that Summer is well and truly on her way out. But all is not doom and gloom: there is still hope of a spectacular Indian Summer; and the beautiful Fall colours are a show stopper no one can deny. The markets are readying themselves for a final hurrah as well, and it's now or never if you want to bottle, can or freeze the flavours of summer.

Crates of strawberries will be hard to come by come September, but punnets of your local harvest, both small and large, should be available for a while still. 
Blackberries come into their own in September. If you are lucky enough to have a patch of wild brambles, have a look, you may be in for a surprise. I managed to pick about 500g in about an hour, and the flavour is amazing! I had intended on making jam with them, but they are too tasty to cook. What with the dry, sunny weather we've been having, the blackberries are sweet and full-flavoured, with only the odd unripe one packing a wallop of tartness.
Cranberries should be wending their way to the market as I write. There always are a few bushels available in September, just in time to jump into a batch of apple sauce, but the bulk of the harvest will obviously get kept for Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations.

Despite apple season actually beginning in August, September is the month most associated with this fruit. Especially since images of school are often paired up with apples. The cool nights and warm days of late summer contribute greatly to the flavour and texture of apples, so it is only normal that late season apples tend to be more popular than summer apples.
Of course, one must not forget the humble crab apple. Although these little nuggets are much too sour for most palates, they make great jellies, and will help to set any jam. So if you have crab apples growing in the vicinity, or happen to find some at the farmers' market (they practically give them away!), throw a good handful (peel, pips, and all) into a simmering pot of jam, and you can forget about having to add the pectin.

If August is all about the peaches and cream corn, then September is for the old school yellow sweet corn. Yellow corn takes a slightly longer time to come into its own, and this is the month to enjoy it. It isn't as tooth-achingly-sweet as the two-toned corn, but it can still pass off as dessert.

Honey and Bees
This time of the year is when the bees will be abuzz trying to make provisions for the winter. So if you haven't stocked up on local honey, now is the time. After the glut of summer, bee keepers hold off on harvesting any more liquid gold, in order to give their bees all the chances to survive the winter. 
That honey bee pictured above kept coming back to my garden today, and was particularly enamoured with my new passionflower. She buzzed about from eight in the morning to nearly sunset. I was quite happy to see her, as I hadn't yet seen any honey bees this summer. There had been lots of bumblebees, hover flies, solitary bees, and a few wasps, but the honey bees had not returned since Spring, so it was a relief to see her and a few of her friends flitting about the garden.

Pumpkins and Squashes
Autumn is indeed around the corner, and how could I not mention squashes? It is still early days for the bulk of the squash harvest, but the pumpkins should be starting to crowd market stalls. Although pumpkins are part of the winter squash family, they do not keep as well as its brethren, and is best eaten within a week of purchase. If you, like me, find that canned pumpkin are fit only for the compost heap, then you should stock up on pumpkins for Thanksgiving and any other autumnal celebrations. Simply cut them into wedges and roast in a 180°C/°F until soft, about 20 minutes. Discard the seeds, scrape off the flesh, and freeze in bags. Use as you would the canned stuff, but the flavour will be heaps better!
Other winter squashes are available in September, but I find their flavour and keeping ability is better with the later harvests, so unless you are in the mood for a squash casserole right now, try to hold off until later in the month to stock up for winter.

There is something unimaginably special about the local crop of garlic. I don't know what it is. But whether I am cooking with Isle of Wight garlic in London, or chopping Montreal-grown garlic in Montreal, the aroma seems fresher and more pungent than any other garlic (except maybe my own home-grown bulbs!) Maybe it's all in my head, but garlic is good for you, and the local stuff keeps incredibly well, so stock up on this flu-buster for the upcoming season. The local stuff goes in a flash, and is only available until late October.

Bon app'!

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