Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Walk In from the Cold

It's winter. Despite the unseasonable warmth in London, there is no denying the facts that Old Man Winter is lurking about. Those of you in Canada and northern US probably don't need to be reminded that he's hanging right outside your front doors, ready to blast you with arctic gales. No, indeed, Spring cannot come too soon.

However, spring is still a few weeks -if not months- away yet, and some of us desperately need to be reminded that the sun will warm our faces again; that the days are getting longer, no matter how imperceptibly; and, that we must not despair. Short of booking a tropical holiday, those of us on the verge of losing it can always cook up a plateful of sun and spices. I've been steadily scratching away at my repertoire of North African and Mediterranean fares just to keep me in a sunshiny mood: the spices alone conjure up summer heat, so one can easily turn a fridgeful of winter vegetables into a plateful of desert breeze.


If you've put up a batch of preserved lemons back in September and have yet tried them in your cooking, the following recipe is a great way to inaugurate your handiwork. Tagines are the most representative dish of Morocco: the name not only refers the stew itself, but also to the earthenware vessel that it is cooked in. But you don't actually need the clay pan to cook this stew, just a large pot, a few vegetables, and a few spices.

The following recipe is a little vague, as I am merely outlining the recipe: you can use any vegetable you happen to have on hand. The day I took these pictures, I made the tagine with a rutabaga, carrots, leeks, a parsnip, and some Brussels sprouts; but beetroots, turnips, squashes and zucchinis could have easily gone into the pot instead. If you prefer a meat-based dish, substitute half the vegetable with some stewing meat, such as chicken thighs or legs, lamb or beef.

If your fridge is bare, and you're trying to write up a shopping list, here are a few suggestions:
* Sweet potatoes, carrots, and kale/savoy cabbage: add the chopped greens at the very end of the cooking process.
* Winter squash and dried apricots.
* Rutabaga (swede) or turnips, carrots and prunes.
* Swiss chard (or any other green) with shredded beetroot: proceed with the recipe, and add the greens and beets at the very end.

Vegetable Tagine
Serves 4

1 medium onion
450g/1lb vegetables 
400g/14oz tinned, chopped tomatoes
400g/14oz cooked chickpeas (canned is fine)
3 cloves garlic
2cm/1" piece of ginger
1 tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp fennel seeds
3 cardamom pods
1 bay leaf
2 cloves
½ tsp ground coriander
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp turmeric
1 tsp paprika
½ tsp ground chile
½ preserved lemon
2 spring onions
6 sprigs cilantro (fresh coriander)
2 Tbs olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Peel and thinly slice the onion. 
Heat the olive oil over a medium heat, and sweat out the onions along with a few pinches of salt.
Peel and crush the garlic cloves.
Peel and grate the ginger.
Peel and chop the vegetables into 2 cm/1" cubes, set aside.
When the onion is translucent, add the garlic, ginger, and whole spices. Stir to toast the seeds for about one minute before adding the ground spices.
Add the chopped vegetables, and mix thoroughly to coat with the spices. 
Mix in the chopped tomatoes, and pour enough water to cover he vegetables. Bring to the boil.
Lower the heat, and leave to simmer for at least 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are fork tender.
Remove the flesh of the preserved lemon, and slice into thin slivers. Add to the stew when the vegetables are nearly cooked, along with the cooked chickpeas. 
Meanwhile, finely chop the spring onion and cilantro, and set aside.
Adjust the seasoning. 
Sprinkle with the chopped spring onion and cilantro just before serving.

If you are adding meat to the tagine, brown the meat over a high heat before proceeding with the recipe. A meat tagine will require at least 45 minutes of stewing before it is ready to serve. If you find the list of spices a little too daunting, you can substitute the entire list of spices with 2 heaping tablespoons of Ras El Hanout. Serve the tagine over hot buttered couscous, bulgur wheat, quinoa or with some flat breads.

Bon app'!

Hello Stranger....

This pretty looking cabbage isn't quite as it seems... It is actually a Brussels sprout top. As its little baby sprouts can attest to:

Brussels sprout tops are not readily available since they are generally considered to be waste products. However, if you are a member of a CSA, and your farm happens to grow sprouts, then I encourage you to ask for the tops. Because of their size, sprout tops are less daunting than a whole cabbage, so they can be used up in one meal. And yet, they do keep incredibly well - almost as well as full-sized cabbages, and definitely longer than actual Brussels sprouts themselves. You may be able to find them at the farmers' market, and some supermarkets in the UK are stocking their shelves with the pretty things.

They have the characteristic sweetness of sprouts, but are less fiddly to prepare: just remove the tough rib, and chop into thing strips. They can be stewed or slow-cooked in a soup, or flashed in a hot pan and mixed into a stir-fry. Add lashings of garlic, a few slivers of chilli, a drizzle of lemon juice, and you will never turn your nose up at a sprout again.

Bon app'!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

All Is Made New

Happy new year! 

Okay, so we're already a week into the new year, but 2014 is still very much a newborn, full of potential and possibilities. It might not feel like it right now, especially if you are living through yet another blackout while the wind and snow rage on outside. I hope you are somewhere warm, that you are surrounded by loved ones.

January is often feels like a barren month -and if you live in an area covered with snow, it is very much so- but there are a few treats to look forward to during this inhospitable season.

Citrus fruits come of age during the winter, the best ones come from countries that have sunny days and chilly nights as the cold triggers the fruits into storing more sugar. The thick, waxy peel of citrus fruits makes it difficult to judge the fruit's ripeness, and its colour is not an indication: cool temperatures can prevent lemons and oranges from turning into their characteristic yellow and orange, yet still be full of juicy ripeness. I have to admit that I have yet to find a fool-proof way of picking the perfect citrus, so I would love to know your tricks for choosing the best oranges and clementines.

January is the month for making marmalade! Seville oranges are the best oranges for preserving and are most abundant at the beginning of the year. However, Sevilles are not the only citrus to make a show this month: blood oranges are rather swish with their streaks and specks of purple pulp. Blood oranges tend to be sweeter than the more prevalent navels because of their low acidity, which makes them a perfect match for this fennel salad or this beetroot number.

Ever since these jewel-like fruits have attained the status of super-fruit, they have become increasingly popular. Most of us will consume it in juices, or buy packages of the kernels, already pried out of the spongy shell. But they are really not that difficult to peel just very messy!
Here are a few easy steps to opening a pomegranate, but I personally prefer cutting the fruit through the equator (right down the middle, somewhere between the top and the tail) and using a spoon to tap the fruit's bottom over a bowl. It's still a messy job, but it is fun enough to get a junior assistant (i.e. a child) to do the hard work. I used the tapping method for this salad.

Roots and Other Vegetables
We all know that nothing new is coming from the fields come January... well, actually, that may not be quite true. There are increasingly more farmers who choose to store their root crops in the field: it saves them the cost of running storage facilities, or having to sell crops at a low price in autumn when every other farmer is trying to offload the same produce. The technique of storing hardy roots underground is not new, in fact it was the main means of preserving fresh foods well into winter up until recently. And it is proving to be a very efficient and cheap storage method allowing truly fresh vegetables to make it to market  as and when they are wanted.

Root vegetables are generally known to be tough, but there are other winter standards that should not be forgotten. Cabbages are often left in the fields, to be dug out from the snow at a later date. Of course, this method of conservation is only reliable in areas that do not get excessive snow fall, but it is surprising how many cabbages can survive under the snow until the spring melt. In fact, even more resilient are the kales, which are likely to be more tender after spending some time under snow. Frost-bitten kales are not always the prettiest to look at, but they are perfect for braising and stewing, as they hold up well against the long cooking time.

Hoping that this new new year finds you warm, dry and with a full belly!
Bon app'!

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