Friday, July 31, 2009

A word of warning

The abundant rains, and cool followed by heat that we've been experiencing in the East has turn this year into a bumper crop year for mushrooms. And the season has started early!

However, please do be careful when out on the hunt for wild mushrooms. There has already been a death in Quebec, and the said victim was an experienced mushroom enthusiast. Two little girls were also rushed to hospital when they nibbled on shrooms they found in their yard.

If you do run into a tasty looking fungi, pick the whole thing, including some of the soil underneath it, and have it checked by an expert if you are not 100% sure it is a safe variety. Some botanical garden have experts on site, or will be able to refer you to someone, universities with a horticultural department can help you out. Or leave the picking to experts, and buy your shrooms at the market. Wild mushrooms are lovely, but they can be deadly.

And those of you out West, do not despair! The drought may have delayed the shroom bloom, but a downpour will get whole thing rolling. So get your rain dance gear out, and start the chanting!

Oh the heat!

It's killing me! I shouldn't complain since this summer has been a bust so far, and my tomatoes really do need the warmth if I don't want to be eating fried green tomatoes all winter long... But the sweltering heat has finally arrived, and I don't like it!!!!!

The constant rain and cool temps so far had kept the mosquitoes at bay, and it was quite pleasant to go trudging about the garden under the gentle drizzle before the downpour, but now the skeeters are out full force, and I am a walking lump of itchy flesh. Yeah, I know, not a pretty image, but I am literally covered in mosquito bites. And do not go and blame my rain barrels! They have been immunised against skeets with granular Bt (available in plant nurseries and some hardware stores), so I don't know where they are breeding, but it's not in my backyard!

Anyhoo, aside from becoming completely inanimate in this heat, I have been recovering from a cold, which is why I haven't been posting with my usual manic regularity. But I am back, and I am catching up with the season.....

Despite the meteorological insanity, this summer has produced some fine vegetables, and the market stalls are filled to the brim with beautiful, local produce:

-Zucchinis and other summer squashes
All the rain we've been having in the Northeast means that zucchs are swelling like balloons, so even larger squashes are quite tender and mild despite being the size of mini-baguettes! Great for stuffing, shredding raw in a salad, stir-frying, frying (slice thinly, toss in flour, and throw into a vat of hot oil: it's delightful!), grilled on the barbecue...
Summer squashes have a delicate skin, so you should wash them when you get them home and keep them in a humid crisper drawer if you do not intend to eat them right away.

Greenhouse tomatoes have been on the shelves for a while now, but it was mostly the small cherries and medium sized slicers -at least in Quebec. Larger greenhouse tomatoes are steadily arriving to the markets, as are heirloom varieties like the beefsteaks and other gnarly-shaped fruits. Field tomatoes are a little late this year because of the lack of sun, but they should be here soon. Is there a taste difference? Depends who you ask, but generally speaking, field tomatoes are left on the vine slightly longer than in greenhouses -they're harder to find- so they can be extremely tasty!
And you should try the gnarly ones: they really pack in the flavour! Heirloom tomatoes are not all funny looking, but they were all bred for flavour, whereas most modern varieties are bred for productivity, solidity in transport and longevity on the shelf, so they often lose on the flavour side.
Whichever you choose to eat, do not put your toms in the fridge: the cold just kills the flavour, and brings out all the acidity all the while turning the sugar into starch -and you end up with a mealy tomato. If, like me, you do not have air conditioning, keep your windows open, have flies commuting to your kitchen... invest in a fly net: they're little net cloches that you place over your food, they will keep houseflies and fruit flies away from your lovely produce.

I was so excited when I saw this baby cabbage in my CSA basket, that I started chopping it for a coleslaw before it even occurred to me that I should photograph it!
So there you go, tender, baby cabbages are here, and it's coleslaw all around!
There are lots of ways to eat cabbage besides slaw, of course! I just can't fathom turning on a burner when it's 30 degrees outside!!! But cabbages are lovely cooked too, as long as you keep the cooking brief, otherwise you get nightmares! Seriously: overcooked cabbage makes you gassy and burpy, and is not conducive to a restful night! And it's gross too: anyone out there like brusselsprouts? I do, but that's because I learnt how to cook them properly. Cabbage should still be crisp, unless you're making cabbage rolls or some other boiled cabbage thing... but you should leave those dishes for the bigger autumn cabs.
In short, summer coles should be eaten crisp, as it suits their freshness.

-Green beans, wax beans and runner beans
Green beans, and all other beans are here!!!!! Green bean salads! Buttered green beans! Stewed runner bean with tomatoes! Wax beans sautéed with shallots! Fresh beans off the vine, raw and crunchy!
I love green beans. And they really are lovely with shallots, whether in a salad or tossed with lotsa buttah....! And I had a cat, -Cicio, bless his sweet, little heart- who had a thing for green beans: he loved to steal them from my neighbours garden and bring them home to us! He was a shoddy hunter, but he did bring back lots of beans! Wouldn't touch the ones we planted in the garden just for him, but he liked the thrill of stealing from the neighbour...
Keep them in a bag or wrapped in a tea towel in the crisper drawer. Most green beans are now stringless, so you only need to chop off the tops before cooking, leaving you with the cute tails as decor!

-Snowpeas and sugar snaps
Since we have been getting cool temperatures, there are still quite a few bushels of shelling peas to be had, but they are getting a little on the big side, and they are no longer sweet enough to eat raw, straight out of the pod. However, snowpeas (or mangetout) and sugar snaps are sweet and crisp, and rawther lurvely!
Both should be just barely cooked, either briefly stir fried or blanched just long enough to turn them bright green. If your sugar snaps are really fresh, they can be eaten raw as is, or with a dab of mayo. But please, do top and tail them, and pull out any strings if present: otherwise they can -and will - be unpleasant.
Keep in the fridge with the beans.

Keep an eye out for stone fruits, though I suspect that the pickings will be grim all around this year given our wacky weather. The West is too dry, so the trees may have trouble keeping the fruits, and the abundant rain in the East may have jeopardised peach and apricot season in Niagara. Anyone out there aware of the situation? Plums may be okay, since they are not as difficult (in needs) as peaches, nectarines and apricots. All I know is that my cherry tree did not set enough fruits for us to make jam this year... oh, it is a sad, sad day that does not start with toast and homemade cherry jam... I've only seen American cherries at the market so far this year.

The abundant rain has been helpful for wild blueberries, and they are forecasting an abundant harvests of little blues... Strawberries are still plentiful and the recent heat and sun should make for sweeter berries. Raspberries are still going strong, and they do not seem to have been affected by the bipolar skies.
I'm affraid that I may have missed the green gooseberries, but is you happen to find some, buy as much as you can afford, and make jam: it will be stupendous! But be aware unripe gooseberries are super tart, and require LOTS of sugar to be edible.

Bon app'!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Another thing that makes me go hmmm...

One of the many reasons I write this blog is that I hope to encourage more people to pay close attention to what they eat. Not so much on a nutritional or dietary level, but on an ecological one. What and how we eat has an impact on our environment, and as powerless as we may feel when faced with all the woes of the world, we do have the power to make a small difference through our diet.

We can also make a difference through our lifestyle, from changing a light bulb to using low /no VOC paints; buying local whenever possible, be it food or manufactured goods, to composting our food waste. Some take huge steps towards greener living (like Vanessa Farquharson who spent 366 days finding new ways to reduce her carbon footprint), others baby steps (like FINALLY using reusable bags for shopping).

Designers and manufacturers are jumping on the bandwagon. Some is greenwash, like biodegradable plastic. Others are genuine efforts to clean up our act, like Virginia Gardiner, a design student in London whose project was a new, snazzier (less hippy-back-to-the-land) version of the composting toilet.

One day, when I no longer rent, I'd like a composting toilet, so I can eat and poop with self-satisfied smugness that I am green and C2C*!

*Cradle to cradle: the principle in which all consumer goods should be eternally reusable and/or recyclable, whereby producing little or naught waste.

p.s. Isn't Virginia's sweater nifty?

Mushrooms are coming up like roses!

Wild treats still abound!

A little bird has told me that the first chanterelles (girolles) in Quebec have been spotted! Though mushrooms usually sprout earlier on the West Coast, it is very possible that you will not have seen your first summer shrooms yet, as you have not had much rain of late. However, do not despair: mushrooms will pop up at the first signs of rain, so keep your eyes and ears peeled!

I've noticed that samphires (salicornes)are still to be had. If you haven't tried these sprigs of saltiness, do try them when you get your hands on them. They'll sate a salty tooth.

Bon app'!

Raspberry Jazzberry

Oooooh! Raspberries are here! Just in time for the Jazz Fest!!!!!
That made absolutely no sense, but it just feels like summer when jazz fests are popping up left, right and centre, and you have a handful of berries to munch on.

Look at these beauties! All plump and juicy... my mouth just waters at the thought of them! These were the first of Quebec's raspberries, so they were still a little tart (yes, I bought these at the market, since the squirrels seem to beat me to my own crop...) But the warm weather expected in the coming week should sweeten the next harvests!

The abundant rains we have been getting in the North East has not been overly helpful to berry farmers, but I must say that this year's crop looks downright gorgeous! The raspberries are large and plump, the strawbs are perfectly shaped, they almost look like imports! Though it is true that the lack of warmth and sun cuts down on the sweetness. I wonder how things are fairing on the West Coast, what with the drought and all.

I had these beauties with a handful of strawberries for breakfast, and it was divine! There were some chunks of mangoes too: granted they were not local, but they were nice too.

(It is mango season in the Northern hemisphere, just so you know. If you swing by a reliable fruit store, or an Asian supermarket, you are bound to find a plethora of mangoes. Or you can go locavore whole hog, and pretend mangoes do not exist. But if you happen to be in India around now, before the monsoon hits, you will find a glut of mangoes, varieties you've never heard of! Also, mangoes become hard to find in Hawaii after June. So if you want to eat local mangoes in Hawaii, go before the end of June.)

I don't think I need to give you ideas on how to consume your raspberries, though right now I am having visions of raspberry pancakes.....

Highbush blueberries from New Jersey are abundant and quite tasty. The highbush are the large, plump blueberries, more sweet than tart: they grow in bushes that can reach 1m50 (5') or more -hence the name- and are relatively easy to grow. Wild blueberries - the small, tart berries that stain hands and mouths- are low lying shrubs that grow in wet, boggy areas, and are oh so fun to hunt for when camping: they come into season quite a bit later.

Raspberries and strawberries are great cooked or raw, but aside from the occasional pancake, I find blueberries are best raw. I have yet to taste a blueberry jam that was worth the hassle. Blueberry pies are okay if made with wild blues, but highbushes tend to made runny, bland fillings. If you happen to be in Europe, you have to try bilberries (myrtilles): they're the European cousin of our blues. They grow on midsized bushes, but the berries are that same size as our wild berries. The flesh is dark and quite tart. These are lovely in jams and pies.

In any case, eat berries til you burst: they're good for you, and they'll be gone before you know it!

Bon app'!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Of gardens and CSAs

I started gardening ages ago, when I was a wee bumpkin and didn't know that watermelons were NOT tropical fruit... I had pushed some saved seeds into the warm soil, and was ecstatic to find little shoots pushing through a week later!

My watermelons did not produce that year -after all, it was July when I planted those seeds, much too late to produce melons over here. I've tried to have a garden ever since, wherever I lived, though it wasn't always easy. It was a tough learning curve: adapting what I had learned during 15 years of gardening in Montreal to really hot and humid summers in Japan; container gardening in hot and dry Eastern France; and rainy London.

I think London was the hardest, since I had no garden whatsoever, just a giant pot, and despite having a much longer growing season than Canada, the lack of sun in the UK makes it really difficult to grow tomatoes, a crop I have never had problems with before.

Now that I am back in Montreal, with access to a back yard, I can let myself go and dig into the dirt. So I have to contend with that rascal Molly, she can be quite entertaining. I even miss her if I don't see every once in a while...
I get an immense sense of satisfaction knowing that part of my meal was produce through my own hard work. Everything tastes better when you know that you put lots of love into it.

But I get it: not everyone has a green thumb -though they aren't hard to come by; not everyone has access to a bit of soil- even if a pot is all the space you need to grow some tomatoes... gardening is a commitment of sorts, and it definitely requires a bit of an investment at the beginning. So what are you to do if you can't do the gardening but would like to taste the love? Farmers' markets are a great option, but unfortunately, these are not always accessible to everyone, your other option is the CSA.

CSAs (community supported agriculture) are becoming increasingly popular, and they are even sprouting in towns that do not have farmers' markets. CSAs allow you the customer to have weekly access to fresh produce, very often organic, for a very affordable price, all the while helping out farmers. Since you pay upfront for the deliveries, the growers get a steady cash flow at the beginning of the season, when they most need it. Plus, they know that their produce will find a home at harvest.

Each farm or co-op in the programme runs slightly differently. Some provide year-round baskets, others only during the summer growing season. Certain farms will supply you with all the fixings for a meal (veggies, fruits and meat or eggs), while others only have vegetables. But you can be assured that everything will be extra fresh. And that you are helping to preserve small farms.

And inexpensive. The farm I subscribe to (D-Trois Pierres in the West Island) only produces vegetables, so I signed up for the smallest basket (1-3 persons). It costs 375$ for the 20-week season: that comes up to 18.75$/week. The baskets are too big for me, so I share them with my mother (9.40$ each). Every week, my fridge is full to bursting with all sorts of vegetables. Ten dollars wouldn't stretch half as far in a supermarket, or even at a farmers' market.

For more information, you should have a look at Équiterre's website. They also provide links to all the farms in Quebec that are part of the CSA programme. It might not be too late to join since some farms deliver year-round. If you live in Toronto, here a link to Vanessa Farquharson's blog, where you'll find some info on CSAs in TO.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Support your local farms!

I received my first basket of organic goods last week. And it was full of goodies!

Young turnips: the first turnips of the season are sweet and tender. They can be eaten raw, shredded in a slaw or cut into chunks, steamed and doused with butter. The greens are great in a salad or eaten cooked like spinach.

Lettuces are abundant this time of the season, and terribly inexpensive at the market: though this beautiful head was included in my basket, it can be found for a dollar or two at the market (I checked yesterday at the supermarket, and they were1.99$. Boston lettuce was 2.99$. Boston and other special lettuces were 2$ at the market.)

Baby spinach, so lovely and tender there's no need to remove the spines.

Baby wild roquette is less spicy than older leaves, yet it is still full of flavour and personality.

Mixed baby greens can be terribly expensive, so it's always a boon when one finds a big bag of them in CSA baskets! The farm I get my veggies from makes a nice mix of lettuces (red and green oakleafs, red and green lollos -frilly edged leaves, baby romaine, and others), all very nice and mild, so I usually mix in some of the spinach and roquette in my salads.

Tatsoi is an Asian green that isn't very easy to find in stores, especially in the baby size, though bigger ones can be found in Asian supermarkets. Young leaves can be eaten raw in a salad (with pickled radishes as the dressing!), but they are especially delicious stir fried with some ginger and soy sauce.

Mizuna is another Asian green that can be eaten raw in salads or stir fried. It has a bit of a kick, and it really livens up milder lettuces.

Rapini has been enjoying a bit of the limelight of late. Also known as brocoli raab or rape, it has been introduced to Montrealers ages ago by the Italian community. It is a wonderfully bitter green that is traditionally sautéed in olive oil and garlic, and served with white cannili beans or Parmesan shavings. Really tasty on some crusty toast!
If you can stand the bitterness, rapini can be boiled in a huge pot of water with a pinch of baking soda. But you have to keep a close eye on them or they will turn into a smelly sludge: as soon as they turn a deeper shade of green, pull them out of the water and cool them off in an ice bath or cold, running water. The greens will be well done, and not a hint of bitterness. You can cook French green beans (the really thin green beans) this way too, but don't try it with regular green beans as they only take 2 minutes to cook.
And the star of the week is the garlic flower. These can be found at most farmers markets right about now, and for the next couple of weeks. No, they are not some alien vegetable, nor are they grown in zero-gravity greenhouses: they naturally grow in a curly cue fashion. These are the flower heads of garlic bulbs, and they must be trimmed off in order to allow the bulbs to grow fat. They can be sliced and briefly sautéed, or chopped and kept in oil and used instead of garlic. Unless you live at the same latitude as California, you won't be getting any local garlic for at least a couple of weeks, so garlic flowers a nice local alternative to imported vampire-busters.

But do keep your eyes open for new garlic: it should be making an appearance in a week or three, depending on where you live. Quebec new garlic tends to be really small, but some warmer regions will be producing regular sized bulbs. New garlic, if you can get your hands on it, is really, seriously, gorgeous! First of all, the skin hasn't been dried, so it is a cinch to peel off the moist outer layers. Second, it is sweet! I seem to be repeating myself, but new anythings are often sweet: vegetables, like most animals, get their energy from sugars, so naturally when they are fresh and young they will be full of sugar. New garlic is so mild that I could eat a whole head raw, though I do prefer roasting it and eating it on toast with some rapini...

Going out of season:
If you haven't already had your fill of asparagus, you better get a move on, because they will soon disappear from the shelves and stalls!

Coming in:
Mmmmm! I was so jealous when a friend from France called to gloat that she had just picked her first raspberries from her garden for an afternoon snack. My canes have nubbings of berries, but none are anywhere near ripe!

California Bings (black) and Rainier (yellow) cherries have been around for the last couple of weeks, but they haven't been very sweet. They should get sweeter with the coming weeks, but the Niagara cherries should have hit the market by then. I don't know how things are going on the West Coast, as I hear they are suffering a severe drought. I hope that the rain these past few days will be enough to help growers in the Okanagan and the Prairie provinces.
Meanwhile, the sour cherries on my Mum's tree are gradually getting redder, and I am just looking forward to a serious jamming session!

I was walking down the street from work, and I saw a huge mulberry tree covered with blush and tan berries. I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for when they turn black. I'm sure that the squirrels are also on the lookout.

If you're lucky enough to live in a warm enough clime, local artichokes will soon be gracing the market stalls. Unfortunately for me, Quebec is too chilly for this tender thistle.

Bon app'!

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