Happy New Year!
Oh, I do hope that 2011 will be a wonderful year for all! Filled with joyful moments; tender instants; new discoveries; and so much more! Who's to say what is in store for any of us? In my case, my immediate future probably holds lots of cooking and cleaning*! I finally have some time off from work, and since most of my friends and family are back at work, I'm jumping on the opportunity to test new recipes and to enjoy old standards. All of which I will be sharing with you in the coming days.
I swung by the farmers' market to see what was to be had... The season, so far, in Montreal has been unseasonably warm, but don't be fooled, it is indeed winter. Unless you are lucky enough to live in an area where farmers brave the cold to tend to winter crops, there is little by way of local produce to be had. However, there are some old faithfuls hanging around, and other seasonal treats are showing up.
Many citrus fruits are available year-round, but there is something intrinsically satisfying about eating an orange or a clementine in the dead of winter. While a few citrus -like lemons and certain varieties of oranges- produce fruits for most of the year, the majority are true winter fruits. Many citrus require cool nights in order for the fruits to colour properly: oranges and lemons with green shoulders are not necessarily unripe, often it just means that they come from very warm regions.
New season navel oranges have been available since early November; lemons and limes from Mexico are abundant and beautiful; tangerines and mandarin oranges are truly at their best in winter. But the real star of the family in January is the Seville orange. It is not an orange for eating out of hand. This shiny skinned, dark orange is too tart and seedy to be of much interest raw, but it is the best orange for marmalade: its peel is neither too thick (like navels), nor too thin, with enough bitter punch and loads of citrus-y, fruity and floral aromas.
Much sweeter than the Seville is its cousin the Valencia orange: in North America, it is mostly produced in Florida, where it is deemed to be the best juicing orange. However, true to its Spanish origins, the Valencia also makes a lovely, though somewhat sweeter marmalade. Florida has been experiencing yet another bout of extreme winter weather, so if we do get any Floridian fruits, they will be on the pricey end.
Moroccan clementines are, as always, true winter gems. I especially love the thin skinned tart ones: they taste like vitamin C boosters. Their minute size makes them ideal for children's lunch boxes, and are easily peeled by little fingers. Apparently, Moroccan clems are hardly ever seen on the West Coast... I do feel sorry for them, they do not know what they are missing. More readily available from Alberta to British Colombia is the Satsuma mandarin: these Asian fruits are larger, and sweeter than clementines. They can be found in some Asian shops and fancy fruit and vegetable stores across Canada.
If I had bothered to cover part of my garden before the snow came, I would have had a steady supply of homegrown greens. Many leafy greens are extremely hardy vegetables, unfortunately, maintaining winter crops requires lots of dedication, and more work than it is worth for most farmers in Canada, especially since the markets are flooded with cheap greens from the US and Mexico.So unless you are fortunate enough to have a membership to a year-round CSA, you will have to settle for imported greens, such as spinach, roquette, and kale. If you do purchase imported kale, do be careful when cooking: kale is usually a tough green, withstanding long cooking times. But warm-weather kale may be much less hardy, so keep a close eye when cooking.
One of the few 'greens' to be locally produced at this time of the year is the endive -sometimes mistakenly labelled as chicory. Endives grow indoors, in dark, dank sheds, much like button mushrooms. Even though their culture is quite hands-on, it is not affected by the weather, and should be available until the end of the winter.
Cabbage and Co.
Locally grown cabbages are still available. If one is to judge from size, 2010 seems to have been very favourable to the cabbage family: green and Savoy cabbages are really large and inexpensive; and there are still a few Brussels sprouts to be had.
I'm not sure what the situation is like in the rest of Canada, but Quebec has never been self-sufficient when it comes to broccoli and cauliflowers. At this time of the year, cauliflowers can be a little pricey, however, broccoli can be purchased for a reasonable price.
If you -or a neighbour- have planted some decorative kales to brighten up your autumn garden, now it the time to dig them up for your (soup) pot! While edible, flowering kale is a rather tough member of the family, but a few weeks under the snow will have tenderized the inner leaves, making it perfect for cooking.
Onions and Co.
Quebec garlic is long gone, but onions, leeks and shallots are still available. These vegetables are great for winter soups and stews: there is no mistaking the warm, comforting aromas they emit when cooking. Rarely thought of as a vegetable in their own rights, given half a chance, onions and leeks can be true stars. Both are fairly good sources of vitamins and minerals -especially vitamin B6, so important for much need pep in the winter- and they add so much flavour to any dish that they can help you cut back on your sodium consumption.
Root vegetables are winter's staff of life. Most Canadian provinces are self-sufficient in root vegetable production: beetroot; carrots; rutabaga; parsnip; potatoes... These vegetables are nutritional powerhouses; not too caloric; inexpensive; and keep extremely well. If you are recovering from overindulgence during the holiday season, you really need to become acquainted with these winter beauties. There is a whole world of root vegetables for you to discover, varying in shape, size, colour and flavour, so you are bound to find one to fall in love with.
All root vegetables make lovely mash; beautiful roasties; pretty juliennes for stir-fries and salads (many can be eaten raw); and are suckers for soups.
Although our own production of fennel is concentrated in the summer and early autumn months, fennel does deserve the winter vegetable tag: fennel bulb, also known as Florence fennel, is a perennial plant in more clement climates, and can be harvested throughout the winter. Summer grown fennel has a strong licorice/anise flavour, which explains why it is often mistakenly labelled as anise, but imported bulbs are lightly perfumed, and can be used as a gateway vegetable for those averse to licorice.
Fennel bulb has the same crispy-crunchy texture as celery, and can be used in much the same way. It is a lovely addition to a crudité platter; are delightful thinly sliced over a salad; and are surprisingly charming when cooked with fish -in fact, it is an important ingredient in fish soup.
*Yes, indeed, I did say cleaning. It's an old habit, something of a tradition, actually: I like to start the new year with a spotless home (I also have another go at the big clean somewhere between spring and summer... But I am not obsessive-compulsive!)
Hence, the first 'useful tool' for 2011 is: baking soda! Not much of a tool, I suppose, but I'm sure everyone has heard of the myriad of uses for this humble kitchen chemical: it deodorizes; it cleans; and it's used in baking and candy-making. It's no secret that baking soda is great for scrubbing most surfaces (steel and enamel sinks, bathtubs, and what-nots), as it does not scratch, but few people are aware that it is also very handy for cleaning up burnt pots and pans. You can use baking soda to help scrub out the burn, but there is an easier way: sprinkle a generous amount of sodium bicarbonate over the burn, cover with water, and bring to the boil. Let it boil for a few minutes, then turn off the heat, let it sit until cool. The burnt layer often peels away with little effort!
The little dishes under your stove's burners are probably spackled with burnt food: soak them in a large pot with a generous handful of bicarbonate, boil briefly, and they will be as good as new. If you end up with a little bit of white residue after having rinsed it, just wipe it out with a sponge soaked in white vinegar (also another useful thing to have in the kitchen!) Voilà! Spotless-ness without effort!