Thursday, May 22, 2014

To Capri and Back

Everyone loves a good Caprese salad. The emphasis being on good: there's no point to a plate of tomato and mozzarella if the tomatoes are rock hard and as flavoursome as cardboard. So obviously, in May, when one is craving a nice salad, the Caprese would not be the first choice. However, if it's the soft mozarella you're hankering after, there is a way.

British asparagus are just about hitting their stride (they should not be far off in North-America), so -not surprisingly- I have been gorging on asparagus whenever possible. In fact, I've made a point of having asparagus at least every other day since the beginning of the month. And I will not slow down until the season ends in a couple of weeks.

So. About that salad. It's really not that complicated. Take a ball of mozzarella or a few bocconcini out of the whey, and leave at room temperature for at least half an hour. Mozzarella has such a delicate flavour that it is best appreciated at room temperature. You do want to use fresh mozzarella for this salad, keep the dried stuff for pizza and lasagne. If splurging is in order, go for some buffalo mozzarella or a creamy burrata. Meanwhile, boil or steam some asparagus until they are just barely done: squeeze a spear or two at the bottom end, if there is some give, they're ready.

Pile the asparagus on a plate -or two if you are sharing. Roughly tear the balls of cheese, and drape over the asparagus. Drizzle with a nice olive oil, or better yet use a nut oil: hazelnut really brings out the nutty notes in asparagus, but walnut may be a little easier to find. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and a fresh grind of pepper.

Purists will cry out that a real Caprese salad is NEVER drenched with balsamic vinegar, but this isn't a classic Caprese: it's asparagus with mozzarella. And balsamic vinegar -it needn't be an expensive one- is rather nice over the green spears. There is no need to drown the salad in vinegar, just a few drops are enough to bring out the sweetness and counter notes of wilted grass. (That last remark may sound a little cryptic, but if you've ever had tinned asparagus you will understand...)

No need for sprigs of basil either, they would be superfluous. However, you will need to serve a generous amount of bread with this salad, as you will want to mop up all those lovely juices on the plate.

Bon app'!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Sweetness and Light


The warm English winter was followed by a precocious spring, so everything is earlier than usual. While Canadians are only just thinking about making forays into the garden -after all Victoria Day is normally a good indication that the frosts aren't coming back- over on this side of the pond, it's that time of the year again... When I go trekking out into the wilds of London in search of foraged goods. I've only just missed the nettles, they're now too overgrown to be of any interest in the plate, but the elderflowers are at their peak, all my bottles are sterilised and lined up for this year's batch of cordial.

If you are not into foraging, there are other seasonal produce that could satisfy your sweet tooth: forced rhubarb is petering out, but the field ones are filling the shop shelves. Just in the nick of time too, as we are down to our last jars of jams. British strawberries are also at the rendez-vous, though they are still a little too pricey to be cooked down with rhubarb. However, the last of the British apples can still be had, perfect for a few jars of fruit butter.

A fruit butter is a smooth preserve made with much less sugar than jam, so it can be slathered a little more thickly on toast. Nevertheless, this preserve is not to be confused with low-sugar jam or fruit conserve: fruit butters are cooked down until thick, so there is no need for fiddling with pectin. The lack of added pectin not only means that butters are simpler to make, the end product rarely ends up jelly-like or rubbery. Mind you, the simplicity of the recipe does not make it a glorified apple sauce! A proper butter should be smooth enough to spread, but also thick enough to pile high.

Apple and Rhubarb Butter
Makes about two 500ml/1pint jars

400g/14oz rhubarb, or about 4cups chopped
2 large cooking apples (Bramley, Cortland or Russet are best)
220g/1 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean optional

Wash and trim the rhubarb. Chop into 1cm/ ½" chunks. 
Peel and core the apples. Dice the apples so that they are about the same size as the rhubarb.
Split the vanilla bean lengthwise.
Toss all the ingredients in a bowl, and set aside for about 30 minutes.
Pour the mix into a large pan, making sure to scrape out every last drop of syrup. 
Bring up to a boil over a high heat, stirring constantly.
Continue cooking over high heat until the apples break down, about 10 minutes. Alternatively, lower the heat to medium-high, cover with a lid, and leave to steam for about 5-7 minutes.
Turn to the heat down to medium-low, and stir constantly until the compote begins to stick to the bottom of the pan. 
Check the seasoning: depending on the tartness of the fruits, you may need to add more sugar.
Fish out the vanilla bean, making sure to scrape out the seeds into the butter.
Spoon the butter into clean jars, and seal. Leave to cool down in a draft-free spot..

If the lids have formed a vacuum, the filled jars can be kept in the cupboard until you open them. Otherwise, they should go in the fridge as soon as they have cooled down. Some people like to purée the butter further to make it extra-smooth, but I think that step is unnecessary -unless the apples did not break down completely. Once open, the fruits butter should be consumed within ten days. Although this butter will most likely be eaten for breakfast, it also makes a great filling for a cake or a topping on dessert. Any fruit with a low water content can be turned into butter: gooseberries will be next on the seasonal chart, followed closely by currants. A mid-summer pause will be necessary until the late-summer peaches and plums come in, as strawberries and raspberries are too watery to turn into butter.

Bon app'!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Kiss -Or How to Build a Great Salad

'Keep it simple, silly' should be everyone's motto in the kitchen. Especially at this time of the year, when the weather just beckons us to stay outside as long as possible, soaking in the warmth... Who wants to slave away in the kitchen, when all you want is to throw lunch or dinner together and sit out in the sun? Not I. Despite enjoying all the time I get to spend in my own kitchen, from end of April until early October, I would rather wile away my time in the garden or out hunting for wild foods.

So keep things simple. There is a wealth of goodness available right now (or very shortly), and they deserve to shine in their full glory! After all the heavy comfort foods we tucked into in order to survive this past winter, some of us probably feel like lighter fares are in order. Salads often get a bad rap for being boring, or for being rather bad for you (those gloopy dressings on the supermarket shelves are really to blame.) Baby salads do not require complicated dressings with fancy flavours: a quick vinaigrette can be made in a jiffy, and if you make a large batch, it will keep in the fridge for a good, long while. And remember, the leaves should be tossed and dressed, not drizzled upon.

I cannot express my love for asparagus often enough, and try to eat them whenever I can. However, I must stress the importance of buying fresh, local asparagus: they neither keep nor travel very well. Despite looking fine enough after having travelled halfway across the world, the flavour of imported asparagus have nothing on freshly picked spears. If you are a fan like myself, in order to get the best flavour out of your local asparagus, get them home as quickly as you can, and cook them straight away, even if you do not intend to eat them then and there. The cooked spears will keep for a few days in the refrigerator, and will be at the ready for your next salad. They will also have better flavour than asparagus that languished in the ice box before being cooked.

If a quick salad feels like too light a meal to keep you going until dinner, you can bulk it out with some fresh mozzarella. Just tear a ball or three over the tossed salad, and tuck in. If mozzarella isn't your thing, or you're fresh out, use whatever you happen to have on hand: shavings of a mature Cheddar or Parmesan will add zip and character; diced Swiss cheese will give you something to sink your teeth into, whereas dollops of ricotta, quark or even cottage cheese will keep things mild and creamy.

If cheese isn't in the cards, eggs are a great way to add substance to a salad, whether soft or hard boiled, poached or even fried. For extra crunch, and something to chew on, throw in some croutons. Real ones, that you made yourself, not those stale cubes from a cellophane bag. They are not difficult to make. Really. You can up the ante by toasting perfectly cubed bread with olive and garlic (in a pan or the oven), but I usually just chop up slices of warm toast and call it a day. If I feel particularly lush, I may butter the toast before chopping it...

It really can be that simple. Now go out and play!

Bon app'!

Friday, May 2, 2014


Last Saturday, I finally found a real farmers' market in London, not ten minutes away from where I live. London is peppered with small urban farms, set up to remind visitors where our food comes from. Few are large enough to produce commercial crops, and Stepney City Farm is no different, however, every Saturday morning, a couple of farmers and a handful of food producers set up stalls so that city dwellers can partake in really fresh, locally grown produce.

Despite the grey forecast, the weather was lovely, and the produce looked enticing. And there were asparagus...! I had heard murmurs that they were available, but had not yet been able to get my hands on a bunch. But they were at the market! So I swiftly picked up two bunches along with some brilliantly red rhubarb. I have since found British asparagus at the supermarket, and have been eating them on a daily basis.

The other farm stand was an organic/biodynamic producer, where I picked up a kilo of the tastiest new potatoes ever and free-range eggs with beautifully orange yolks.

It's still early days for new crops, yet there is no denying that new things are coming into season. Given the tough winter in North-America, the first harvests will be a ways off, but the woodlands should have a few tidbits on offer. New season maple syrup is already on shop shelves. The first fiddle heads have been spotted in Ontario two weeks ago, and should quickly spread east as the weather warms up. I've been keeping my eyes peeled for wild foods around London, and have already found lush stands of nettles. The elders have set their buds, and some have already begun to flower. Wild garlic is embalming woodland, and although they are protected in most parts of North-America, they are considered a rampant weed in England!

Artichokes from warmer climes should tumbling into shops shortly: the ones on London are all about the size of my thumb, but in Italy and California, they would be just about ready to be shipped out. Spring radishes are normally mild, but dry weather can produce peppery roots to liven up a salad of baby leaves. While forced rhubarb is no longer, the fields are producing luscious spears, just in time for the first flush of British strawberries.
Local fig trees are covered in budding fruits as well. London figs rarely bud up at this time of the year, but the past winter had been so mild that the trees managed to get an early start. With a little luck, I may be able to get my paws on a few... In the meantime, I'll just enjoy my strawberries.
Happy May! Bon app'!

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