Tuesday, April 28, 2009

April's slipping away...

That's it, April is coming to an end, and now it's time for the growing season to really begin over here in the North-East....

While April brought in the first of the wild edibles and the first lettuces (the baby mesclun at the market was most likely local), May will be ever slightly more abundant.

Things to look forward to in May:

They're finally here! Well, perhaps not quite. Local spears will be trickling in slowly in the beginning, though I suspect that some areas will be seeing them earlier than I will. If you love asparagus, jump on them as soon as you see them in the market. And I would shun the supermarket, at least at the beginning. I cannot say it enough: ASPARAGUS ARE VERY PERISHABLE!!!! Even if the seller at the market isn't the actual producer, chances are he bought his stash that very morning at a bulk produce market (Marché Central in Montreal, Chelsea Market in New York, Rungis in Paris, Marché Gare in Lyon, Tsukiji in Tokyo... ). Those asparagus have 24hours of transport time at the very most. It is not ideal, but it is better than close to a week in cold storage, which is what most supermarkets will have on their shelves.

-Field rhubarb
Not fluorescent pink like the forced stuff, but just as tasty, and less expensive. Rhubarb is a bright note in the menu at this time of the year. Usually eaten sweet, this vegetable can be eaten raw with a sprinkling salt (but that's just crazy, unless you're mad for sourpuss candies.) Cooked rhubarb is usually considered a dessert (on ice cream, with yogurt, or simply with a spoon), but it can be eaten throughout the whole meal wherever you would use a chutney.

If you shy away from radishes because you find them too spicy, now is the perfect time to try them again. Radishes heat up when they age (long storage-transportation-shelf time, or even just hanging out in the soil because growers are busy with another crop) or because they grow under hot conditions, so early spring is ideal for eating mild, crisp nuggets.

Live crabs can be got all year-round these days, but if you live near the sea and want to encourage your local fishermen, brown crabs are coming in (at least in the Atlantic). Why is it a good time for crabs? Well, they finished spawning a little while back, and they haven't quite starting moulting yet, so they should be very meaty. Make sure you pick one that looks a little worse for the wear. Also, if you are not too squeamish about cooking them yourself, buy them live: fishmongers tend to overcook their wares. Bring a large pot of water to the boil, plunge the crabs head first. Calculate about 10 minutes of cooking time for each pound (±500g) of crab.

Vegetables to be on the lookout for
Next time you go tho the market, if you spot some jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes, topinambours) buy a pound or two as they are the last of the season. Sunchokes are planted in autumn or early spring, but they have yet to sprout over here, so they still make for some good eating. If your area is still chilly, sunchokes make a great mash or soup (make mash for tonight and have the leftovers as soup the next day.) The easiest way to peel the chokes is to parboil them for about 3 minutes, plunge them in cold water, and scrape the skin off with a spoon. If you want to make a mash, cut the peeled roots into small chunks, and finish cooking in some milk or cream. Mash with a fork or food mill, thinning out with the cooking liquid. Jerusalem artichokes are also good raw in a salad, but need to be kept in lemon water once peeled and sliced otherwise they turn brown.

If you love coleslaw, you should stock up on the last of the stored cabbages. Cabbages are keepers (in the fridge's crisper drawer, check it every now and then for rot, will remain fresh for a couple of weeks), and it will be a while before you see some large, locally produced heads again. If you are only making a small quantity of slaw, remove each leaf individually to preserve the rest of the head. Otherwise shred the whole head, and you'll be able to feed an army at a barbecue. Of course, you can always make coleslaw with the small summer cabbages -and it will be delicious- it's just a little more work.

You might still be able to get your hands on some kale. Kale is a beautiful vegetable that is still rather misunderstood: it is very hardy and hearty. If the leaves look a little tough, give them a quick blanch (or steam) before sautéing in some butter or olive oil with a clove or two or garlic. We still have a couple of weeks of chilly weather left before the real warmth will settles in, and I could really do with a kale and rice soup with Parmesan shavings, mmmmm... yum!

It is very likely that the garlic you will find at the market is not your local crop (unless you live in California where they seem to produce enough to be self-sufficient), but you needn't buy the imported stuff! There should still be some wild garlic left in many areas, and the first local spring onions (green onions, bunching onions, cébettes...) should be coming in as well as chives and garlic chives.

Bon app'!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

April is a slow and cruel month....

Hey... It's been a couple of days...
Today's post has a bit of a misleading title, yet it is so true. The weather has been impeccably beautiful in Montreal: I think it's the first time a LOOOOOOONG time that we've had such a lovely and gentle spring over here. I usually watch the news and envy the weather in Toronto, but not this year!

The weather is perfect, so why am I so blah? Well, actually, it's been a little too perfect... too sunny and bright, and not enough rain. Springtime should be about rain; about the washing away of winter's leftover muck and grime;about giving all those dormant roots a kick in the backside so they'd wake up already! Some spots in my garden are bone dry, and it's such a hassle to water them because I don't have outdoor access to water, except for my rain barrel and that went dry last week. So the seeds I sowed early are suffering a little, and my rhubarb has stopped growing (well, it's grown a little since this picture was taken, ever so little).

And to add insult to injury, people in Manitoba whose houses have been flooded have to worry about rain!!!! Why can't the rain come over here? A good and proper rain to make up for the strong winds that dried out the seedlings I left out on the balcony today.

Anyway, enough griping. I suppose my problems are trifles compared to most... April has been a slow month though. I forget how the growing season is so late here... I keep thinking that the asparagus will be up any minute now... but they're not. Not in Quebec anyway. Asparagus are up in Mexico and California. And Belgium, England and France.

Imported asparagus are available in supermarkets right now, but if you are a true fan of green asparagus, you will wait until your local spears are in: asparagus, like corn on the cob and green peas, are very perishable vegetables. Their natural sugars turn into starch the instant they are cut from their roots, and within hours their succulent flavours dissipate. There is a maniacal chef in upstate New York (I forget his name) who is so fanatical about asparagus that he grows them in a garden behind his restaurant, and the asparagus are cut to order. You read correctly: each time a customer orders a plate of asparagus, a commis (bottom rung cook) runs out to the asparagus bed to cut a portion and runs back to the kitchen to throw them in the pot of boiling water!

Well, asparagus are not yet in season in Quebec (perhaps they are in BC?), so I will mention them later when they spring up here. But I will say this: the only asparagus I would concede to buying as an imported produce are the white asparagus, because there are too few producers in Quebec, and they are not much affected by storage or transportation. However, I don't like them enough to justify paying such a premium on a bitter vegetable.

There is a wild spring treat that is up over here: Petasites japonicus. Also known as fuki if you are familiar with japanese cookery. The floral buds have broken ground under the snow and are ready to eat before the flowers are fully open. Fuki flower buds are rather fragile, so few Asian markets actually stock them. Your best bet would be to go traipsing in the woods. Petasites, or Japanese butterbur, have gone native in Canada, but they also have close relatives that are indigen and edible. They grow in wet undergrowth, but I have seen them on the side of train tracks and roads.

You can always grow them, since most plant nurseries have them in stock. They are are often sold as shade plants for their lovely leaves, but they will tolerate part-sun, and even full sun if they are kept wet.

If you do see these cute yellow flower buds, break them off at ground level, and run home! A quick wash to rid the buds of dirt or any early pests is all the prep needed. They are sublime in a tempura batter, or a more simple recipe would be to roughly chop the flowers and mix them with a white miso paste. This condiment is often eaten just with rice in Japan, but it is also a nice dip for broccoli.

Bon app'!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Wild foods

There are few pleasures in life as satisfying as a free lunch... well, I suppose there are others, but this one is pretty much at the top of the list.

If you're one to go out on a ramble in the woods, then you might have noticed that there is quite a lot of vegetation out in the wild. Perhaps you've even wondered if any of those plants were edible? Well as it happens, quite a few are not only edible, but quite delicious to boot!

Take wild garlic: it's a beautiful plant that should be up right about now. Its oval leaves closely resemble those of the lily of the valley, but they have a distinct garlicky aroma when you rub the leaves. The leaves come up in cool weather and pretty much disappear when warmth settles in. The flowering stalks come up later in June, and out of nowhere appear these beautiful balls of star-shaped flowers.

The wild garlic pictured here grows in my mother's garden. It isn't the true North-American wild garlic (Allium tricoccum, which grows wild only in the North East and is a protected species in Quebec), but bear garlic (Allium ursinum). Native to Europe, it has become a bit of a pest in certain american states. Both have similar leaves and flowers and are often interchangeably referred to as ramps. However, only A. tricoccum has an edible bulb very much like a regular clove of garlic (A. ursinum has a scraggly mess of gnarly roots), which turned out to be the plant's downfall. I don't know how true ramps are consumed outside of Quebec, but here the bulb is often made into a very pungent pickle. Unfortunately, it takes close to 10 years for the bulb to reach its full size...

If you do find some wild garlic, please do not dig up the bulbs. Pick only the largest leaves, and limit yourself to a couple per plant. And let the flowers go to seed to insure future generations of ramps. Better yet, if you have access to a garden with a shady spot, grow your own wild garlic. Bear garlic is quite prolific and can be harvested from the first year. The leaves start poking out of the ground pretty much as soon as the snow has melted, and offer a jolt of green in the early drab of spring.

Both bear garlic and ramp seeds can be found on the internet. I've also seen bear garlic on offer at plant sales held by horticultural societies, so you can try your luck there. From what I was able to glean, ramps are kind of hard to grow for an inexperienced gardener. Bear garlic, on the other hand, practically grows itself. It likes moist soil, and a shovelful of compost if you have it, and that's about it. It will grow under mature hardwood trees or under any mature perennial plant, but I'm not sure about evergreens. The flowers are also edible, but if you let them go to seed, your crop will double the following year.

Interesting tidbit: the growing season in Europe is much longer than that of Eastern Canada, and most hardy edibles are available much earlier (greenhouse rhubarb hits the London markets in February). However, bear garlic in the Jura (Eastern France, not too far from the Swiss border) and at Kew Gardens just outside of London come up in late April, early May (that's even later than in my mum's garden!).

Wild garlic has a mild flavour, and can be eaten cooked or raw. Sliced thinly, it can add some zip to a potato salad. If you manage to gather a big bunch, it can sautéed and eaten as a green veg, or you can dip in a tempura batter and have puffy garlic chips.

Bon app'!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

It smells like spring!

I sauntered by Jean-Talon Market today, and boy oh boy is spring ever in the air!

The outdoor stalls are trickling in, and even though the walls are still up around the "indoor" part, most people were milling about outdoors. Of course, few of the current outdoor stalls are held by actual producers as they are busy getting ready for production, but you know that fair weather is around the corner when the market airs itself out!

The people from Les Jardins Sauvages are back, but they have moved to the other side of the market. They have a lovely selection of nice selection of wild mushrooms, but no locals yet. The morels from B.C. were lovely though, not too big, nor too small. Quebec morels are expected to make an appearance in about three weeks.

Morels are pricey (these ones were 110$ per kilo!), but they are a lovely treat. Unlike most mushroom you may be familiar with, morels are not spongy but more chewy, almost al dente. And they are very flavourful, so a little goes a long way. Thumb sized or smaller is ideal -you get more bang for your buck- as bigger ones tend to be watery and fall apart when you cook them.

Sautéed in a little butter, seasoned with salt and pepper, some sliced green onions and you have delight with each bite. Spoon it on some nice crusty bread and top it with a sharp cheese, slide it under the grill, and now you've got heaven on toast!

Most vendors at the market had neat piles of maple syrup cans, and they all had signs stating "new crop". Time to get the pancake pan greased up! Of course, maple syrup can be eaten anytime other than breakfast. It's great as a glaze on roasted meats (ham -without the pineapple- or any other part of the pig, and duck come to mind). And desserts! The simplest maple pleasure has to be taffy: there are three stalls at Jean-Talon, so even if you can't make it to a sugar shack, you can still have some "tire" and eat it!

If you love shrimps than head on to your nearest fishmonger: North Atlantic shrimps are in. Also known as crevettes de Matane in Quebec, these wild shrimps are sustainably caught from early April until the end of May. In fact, most wild shrimp stocks in North America are said to be sustainable, so ask your fish monger when your local shrimps are in season . Wild Atlantic shrimps are nothing like your run of the mill, hormone and antibiotic pumped farmed shrimps. For one thing, they're small, and like a lot of small, wild things, they are jam-packed with flavour. The shrimp are caught in nets and cooked right away on the fishing vessel. The salt clings to the shell and brings out the sweetness of the flesh.

When in season, they're often sold unpeeled and with the head: just pour yourself a nice pint of lager or a glass of crisp white wine, and munch on them, they practically peel themselves. If you prefer not to see a face on your food, they are also sold peeled, ideal for a salad (peeled, wild shrimps are also available frozen: it's a bit of a cheat, but save some of these to serve with the first summer tomatoes, yum!), they are somewhat less salty than the unpeeled shrimps but are still quite delicious.

I've also noticed that local leeks are making their last appearance at the market: if you like leeks, go out and buy a bunch, as imported leeks tend to be stringy and sharp during the summer. Leeks will keep a couple of weeks in your fridge, but you can freeze them indefinitely in the freezer. Just chop up the leeks and wash them, dry them with a tea towel or in a salad spinner, and freeze them on a baking sheet. You can use them straight from the freezer. Although I rarely miss leeks in high summer, I do like a nice leek and onion quiche every now and then, and having some at hand is always convenient.

Before I go, I'd like to mention rhubarb again: I know I said that forced rhubarbs are in season, but I can't seem to find any in Montreal. However, while watching Martha Stewart this week, she had some beautiful, fluorescent pink rhubarb on the show. So greenhouse rhubarb is in, just not in Montreal. Now that I think about it, I didn't see much local rhubarb at the market last year either. Perhaps Quebec growers aren't big fans of the plant.

Bon app'!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Baaahh, ram, yew...

Easter is coming up, and for some lamb will be on the menu. In a previous post, I had mentioned that spring lamb should be coming in soon. I did a little research on the subject, and it turns out, the statement was a little off.

It would seem that unlike other animals we raise for food, sheep are very much seasonal beasts. Whereas cows and sows can breed pretty much anytime in the year (if they are in heat), ovulation in most breeds of sheep is triggered by diminishing daylight in autumn. Therefore, lambs are indeed born in the spring, but they're not old enough to be slaughtered for Easter. However, Easter being a big money-maker for sheep farmers, techniques have been fine tuned to induce earlier ovulation (it mostly involves playing with dimmers and light switches for sheep raised indoors.) So technically, you should be able to find some nice spring lamb at a good butcher's. For those willing to wait for Nature, the outdoor lambs will be around in May or June.

True spring lamb is slaughtered between the ages of three and five months. Regular lamb is under a year. (There is also baby lamb -6 to 8 weeks- but I've never seen it in Canada.) The difference between the two is their diet: lambs are weened from their mothers around 4 months old, after which they start to graze. Milk fed lambs have pale and tender flesh. Some fans of lamb find it too bland. The change in diet affects the colour of the flesh and the flavour. If you're lucky, you might even be able to distinguish what the lamb ate: a diet high in herbs can permeate the meat.

Lamb is a meat with character, and it goes beautifully with strong herbs like thyme, oregano, rosemary and mint. When in season, tomatoes and eggplants are ideal companions. Spring lamb, however, should be treated more delicately: its mild flavour can easily be overwhelmed by over-seasoning. It also tends to be less fatty than regular lamb, so it can be just lovely with a cream sauce and fresh peas.

If you do manage to get your hands on some spring lamb, try out the cheaper cuts like the shoulder, the leg or the neck, and roast or stew the meat. Spring lambs are so small that the racks can easily be overcooked and ruined, so I'd wait for regular racks. When following a recipe, keep in mind that spring lamb requires half the cooking time of regular lamb.

Here's my recipe for roast leg of lamb. I don't have measurements for the ingredients because I've always eyeballed it. Follow you instinct, and make the recipe yours.

Roast Leg of Lamb

Spring Lamb (SL) will feed 2, Lamb will feed 4 to 6

Preheat oven to 400F/200C
Cooking time: up to an hour for Lamb, 30 minutes for Spring Lamb -either way, ask your butcher, he should know

You will need:

Leg of Lamb (with bone)
Dijon mustard, thinned out with equal amount of water
Crushed garlic
Fresh or dried thyme
Salt and pepper
New potatoes

-Mix the thinned out mustard with thyme and garlic. Smear the leg of lamb with the mix. Season with salt and pepper. (You can leave the meat to marinate overnight at this point.)

-Place the leg on a rack in a roasting pan (the joint should be underneath). If you do not have a rack, don't go out and buy one: peel 2-3 carrots, slice lengthwise, place in a pan flat side down, drizzle with a little oil and season. Voilà! you've got a rack and side veg. Add new potatoes to pan.

-Pop the leg in the oven. Check on the meat after 30 minutes (15 for SL), if it has started browning, turn oven down to 350F/180C.
Check doneness after 10 minutes (I have a preference for medium rare lamb.) You can use a thermometer to check, but your best tool are your hands:

This is kind of hard to explain, but it is a tried and tested method: let your left hand (right, if you're leftie) go limp. With your other hand, pinch the muscle between your thumb and index: that is what medium rare meat should feel like. Rare feels like the extra skin between your thumb and finger. This method works for most meats.

Poke the thickest part of the roast to check for doneness.

- When done, take the meat out of the oven, and let it rest (at least half an hour for the lamb, less for SL) on the serving plate.

-Meanwhile, degrease your pan. If it fits on your stove top, turn your burners on, otherwise scrape the caramelised bits into a saucepan. Add a splash of wine and simmer to dissolve the bits. Check for seasoning.
This will only give you a couple of spoonfuls of drippings. If you want an actual gravy, you will need to stretch it out with veal or chicken stock, however, a gravy is not necessary.
Serve with more Dijon mustard.

A friend had commented on my earlier post on lamb, saying that he found the idea of eating baby animals kind of disturbing. While I understand his feelings - I am a vegetarian, after all- I don't think eating lamb, veal, or chicks in their shell is "more wrong" than consuming mutton, beef or chicken. Humans are omnivorous animals, and eating meat is part of our diet. What is wrong is the excessive consumption of animal protein in industrialised nations. Meat has become cheap, mass produced, and unhealthy.

Though it shouldn't be.

I won't preach the virtues of vegetarianism, and I do not want to convert anyone, but I firmly believe that if one wants to eat meat, than one has to respect meat. To respect meat one has to think twice before reaching out for that cling-wrapped, value-pack of skinless, boneless chicken breasts. And the 16oz T-bone steaks. And the family pack of ground beef. And the spicy italian sausages. And... maybe we don't need to buy a month's worth of meat each time we go to the supermarket. We should be cutting down on meat anyway, if only to cut down on our carbon emissions. Raising animals for human consumption requires enormous amounts of energy and resources. Living beings were slaughtered in order to provide us with nourishment, and they deserve better than to be mindlessly consumed.

I know that the recession has hit hard, and feeding a family has never been an easy task, all the more reason for finding a good butcher. A true butcher knows how to stretch a tight budget, and can explain how to prepare unfamiliar cuts of meat. A good butcher will know how to make tripe taste lovely. A good butcher will have beautiful, local meats raised by small farmers who care about their animals. A good butcher is an artisan. And like many artisans, good butchers are a dying breed.

But that's a story for another day. In the meantime,
Bon app'!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Meanwhile, in Gotham City...

While we wait around for the weather to warm up, and for actual local produce to trickle in, I'll try to keep you entertained with some food news.

Two Saturdays ago, I very sleepily listened to the early morning news on CBC Radio 1 -yes, I am an unconditional fan of the CBC- and I thought I heard the news reader announce that Monsanto was going to commercialise genetically modified sugar beets in Canada. I waited for the next round of news to listen more carefully, but it was never mentioned again. I looked it up on the internet, again I found no mention about the beets' foray into Canada. However, I did learn that the GE beets were commercially available as of 2008 in the US. I also found a call to boycott Kellogg's cereals because the company deems it unnecessary to avoid the use of GE sugar in their breakfast products.

I don't know how effective boycotts are these days, but if you feel concerned by this issue perhaps you should voice your worries to Kellogg's Canada.

By the way, am I the only one to have heard about Monsanto's sugar beets coming to Canada?

Oh! For my birthday, I received a beautiful book on wild mushroom identification. Now mushroom hunting is a most fascinating occupation, one that does not garner enough respect in North America. In many European countries, pharmacists receive training in mushroom identification as a public service to amateur wild food gatherers, whereas here, you're more or less on your own. You might get lucky finding some help at a university agriculture or ecology department, though I wouldn't hold my breath or want to risk losing a beautiful harvest.

I have gone mushroom hunting in France and Japan, so I do have some basic knowledge, but I only pick fungi I am familiar with. If you decide to try your luck, arm yourself with a good photo guide (colour pictures are pretty, and some abound with interesting anecdotes, but close range colour photos are more reliable for identification). I would also try to find out where to go for help in identification. Some nature clubs offer classes, and guided tours. And don't go out alone, bring a friend -especially one with 'shroom knowledge.

You might be wondering why I'm mentioning wild mushrooms on a drizzly March day... well, fungi are not just an autumn harvest: it is a little early for Eastern Canada, but I know that some regions in North America are warm -and damp- enough for a most lovely spring harvest of morels. So get your wellies out, find a sturdy basket and a good knife! Or head to your local farmers' market: if your area has morel patches, chances are someone will be setting up a stall at the market.

If you live in Montreal: when the weather warms up, and the outdoor stalls open for business at Jean-Talon market, there is a lovely couple you have to visit. I can't recall their name right now, but they specialise in local, wild harvests, and last year they had gorgeous morels... There are also some shops on the market perimeter that sell wild mushrooms, though they are rarely local.

Bon app'!
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