Friday, January 28, 2011

Fluffy, Pillowy Softness

I've debated with myself for a long time as to whether or not I should post a recipe for gnocchi. I love gnocchi. With a passion. Be they potato, semolina, squash or whatever, I love the dumplings! But they are a bit of a hassle to make at home. In fact, I rarely make them at home, I usually reserve the treat for when I eat out. So, despite being rather handy with the potato dough, I hesitated about posting a recipe for a long time: after all, my main goal with this blog is to make cooking look easy and fun.

But I caved: I'm writing about gnocchi. They are actually quite easy to make, and are definitely fun to make. (They're just a wee little bit of a hassle. Only a bit. But definitely worth it: I have tried several brands of store-bought potato gnocchi, including 'handmade' ones from an Italian pasta shop, and none come even close to homemade.)And this is the perfect time to be trying your hand at making them: the holiday cheer is long gone, the days barely feel like they're getting any longer; the cold weather seems to settled in for the long haul... It's time to gather friends and family in the kitchen, and have a gnocchi-making party.

First things first: it is important you start with the right potato. Gnocchi, like mashed potatoes, depend on the root's starchiness to become beautifully light and fluffy. So your best bet is to use Russets (pictured above), also known as Idaho; Yukon Golds; Bintjes; King Edwards; Desirée; Maris Piper. Unfortunately, most supermarkets sell bags of unnamed potatoes: try looking for labels marked 'baking', 'frying', or 'mashing' -the potatoes are most often yellow-fleshed and brown-skinned.

Secondly, you need a good potato masher: if you are able to obtain lump-free mash with yours, it will do the job. Otherwise, you will need to find an alternative in your cupboard. Ideally, you will have a potato ricer (see above), or a food mill; both kitchen tools are extremely versatile, from making lump-free mash to the silkiest, smoothest soups and baby foods. However, both can be ridiculously expensive to purchase (a good, solid food mill will run upwards of 75$; quality ricers start at 40$), so you will probably need to justify the purchase before actually investing in one. Either way, do not skimp on quality and comfort if you decide to purchase one, as cheap and badly made utensils usually end up in the garbage or at the back of the cupboard: they should be made of steel or aluminum; feel solid (heavy, but not so much that you can't lift it easily) and not wobbly; and, most importantly, they must be comfortable to handle. Another, cheaper, alternative is a fine mesh sieve and a spoon: pushing hot potatoes through the mesh takes a little time, but the results are surprisingly lovely. (Please do not use a mixer to crush the potatoes! You might be able to get away with it for mash, but the gnocchi will end up gluey.)

Finally, making gnocchi is very intuitive, which is why it can seem a little difficult at first. The recipe calls for flour to help bind the potato, but if you use too much, you end up with dense lumps, too little, and the dumplings fall apart when you cook them. The easiest way to describe the texture you are looking for is to pinch the meatiest part of your earlobe: your dough should feel as squishy as an earlobe. (It is also the texture to look for when cooking a rare steak...)


Potato Gnocchi
Will feed 4 to 6 as a main dish, amply more as a side dish

1kg/ ±2½ lbs potaotes (about 6 medium sized spuds)
150g/ 1¼c all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 egg
½ tsp salt

Fill a pan with enough cold water to cover the potatoes, bring up to the boil.
When the water is boiling, cover the pot, and bring the heat down to medium-high.
Let cook for about 12-15 minutes, or until a sharp knife easily slips in a potato and slides off.
Drain immediately, and let cool until the tubers are still hot but can be handled.
While grasping a spud in a tea towel, peel using a sharp knife: the skin should slip off of its own accord.
While the potatoes are still steaming, mash right onto your work surface.

Form a well with the mound of mash, sprinkle the salt and a few handfuls of flour over the potatoes.
Break the egg into the middle of the well, and using only one hand, gradually mix in the potato and flour.
With your other hand, sprinkle more flour until the dough has absorbed most of it.
Knead the ball of dough for 5 minutes, if the dough still feels sticky, add some more flour.


Form the dough into a ball, and let it rest.
Scrape your hands and your work surface clean.
Lightly flour the table, and divide the dough into 4 or 6.
Roll out each lump into a long snake, and cut into 2cm/ 1" pillows.
You can leave the gnocci as is, but they are usually rolled off a fork or a dumpling paddle to give them a ridged surface.
Flour the curved side of a fork (or paddle), place a pillow at the top of the curve and, using your thumb, gently roll the dumpling down the fork tines.
Place the finished gnocchi on a floured tray, while you finish off the rest of the dough, and bring a large pot of salted water up to the boil.
To cook the dumplings, plunge them into boiling water a few at a time.
They are cooked when the gnocchi float to the surface.
Serve hot.

Gnocchi are usually served with a savoury tomato sauce (like the one used here), a simple cheese sauce (such as this one, or just boiled cream with melted lumps of Gorgonzola), but my favourite way to eat gnocchi is to fry them in brown butter with a few slivers of herb (especially sage) and garlic.

Gnocchi are best eaten the day they are made. Unfortunately, they do not fare well when kept for too long. Although, they will patiently wait in the fridge for a day or two, for some reason, freezing them softens them too much to be boiled. If you must freeze them, fry them while still frozen when you decide to eat the left-overs.

Bon app'!

*From the Department of Gadgets You Never Knew You Needed:
To paraphrase a popular phrase, a good sieve is good to find. But not so hard: a good sieve can be had for under 10$, and is extremely handy to have around. Most of you probably already own a colander (to drain pasta and wash vegetables), and you might even have a small sieve to strain your tea or sprinkle powdered sugar. But I find that too many kitchens are devoid of a good sized mesh sieve when this one tool can do all of the above and more. It can be used to replace a ricer or food mill; it will strain a stock or a pot of loose leaf tea; it can sift flour, sugar, cocoa... if you know someone who is beginning to build up their kitchen battery, be a true friend, and get them a good sieve (and get one for yourself while you're at it!)

En français

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Why Buy Local and Eat Seasonal?

I recently took part in a market research discussion group looking into the eating habits of CSA members. It was eye opening: when asked why we choose to purchase local and seasonal, the usual answers came up. It's the environmentally responsible choice; it's to help local farmers and producers; it builds community... As the discussion moved along, what became even more obvious was the fact that most CSA members were not gung-ho eco-warriors, but regular folks, with busy lives, children, money problems and what-not. But everyone was sold on the idea, and would love nothing more than to spread the gospel.

So here I go! It's open-season for signing-up, most farms are still accepting new members. I've compiled a little lists of a few good reasons for joining in.

It's ECO-logical (hah! Silly pun, I know, I couldn't help it!)
Buying locally produced foods cuts down on your carbon footprint: CSA farms usually deliver within a 160km/ 100 mile radius; farmers who sell at market also try to limit their travels. Most farms participating in the CSA scheme are also certified organic, on the way to being certified, or organic with no intention of ever certifying (because it costs a pretty penny), so the produce you eat will have no pesticide residue and will have been produced in a manner that respects the environment and the surrounding wildlife.
If you need convincing that fruits and vegetables can be literal time bombs, just look at the list of the dirty dozen.

It's fresher
Because your food has travelled less, it often arrives in a better state. (Okay, I admit it, there is the occasional bug, and it can be a shock. But think about it: if the bug isn't dead, it means the food won't kill you.) But even more impressive is the fact that the produce is usually picked within hours of being delivered, so, not only does it look and taste fresh, it is better for you (picked fruits and vegetables start to lose their nutrients as soon as they are picked), and it will keep much longer than most store-bought produce.

It's economical
Each farm has their own way of working the CSA scheme, but in most cases, members are asked to pay upfront for the season's crop. At first, it will feel like you are parting with a big wad of cash, but once you factor in the number of weekly deliveries (anywhere from 20 to 52 a year), and the actual size of the baskets, you will realize that you are getting more than your fair share. In most cases, baskets contain a generous diversity of produce for under 10$ per person, per week. Also, the produce is so fresh, it sometimes keeps for weeks longer than the stuff from the grocery store: better keeping qualities means you waste less food (and money).

It builds community
By financially supporting a small, local farm, you are ensuring that a family remains in a rural community, which in turn prevents towns and villages from dying out. When a rural community thrives, it means that fertile lands will not get turned into condominiums, strip malls, and other suburban nightmares.
And you get to put a face on the food you eat: you will no longer be satisfied with anonymous food. Also, many farms prefer to have community drop-off points (as opposed to door-to-door delivery), which also builds up your community: it's like having a weekly block party! In this day and age, when most of us are so 'busy' that we no longer know who our neighbours are, CSA drop-off points are sometimes the only way we can meet the people who live within meters of us.

It's part of a global movement
Someone once asked me if buying local wasn't actually akin to protectionism, to which I say balderdash! (Actually, I was thinking something much worse...) By buying local (and trying to eat seasonal whenever possible), you are actually helping the global community.
It is complete hogwash to think that the agro-industry helps small farmers in developing countries: farmhands on industrial farmlands work under often harsh conditions; earn a pittance; have no health insurance (or any other kind of insurance for that matter); rarely have the means to feed their own families or to send their children to school. The Price of Sugar is a documentary on sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic, but could easily have been about any industrial plantation owned by big money in a developing country.
By supporting a local producer, you are indirectly supporting organisations such as La Via Campesina, and Navdanya International working to restitute land rights to the peasants who actually live and work on the land. The Slow Food movement sees buying local as a big stop sign for the land grab currently happening in poorer countries.
As consumers, we have the power to be heard: buying local is one small way to make a big difference.

I have previously compiled a CSA listing, but here it is again, in its (almost) complete form. 

Équiterre: Quebecers are lucky to have the people at Équiterre to compile the directory of CSA farms in the province, but there are other options for Montrealers who don't want to commit to one farm
Le Frigo-Vert, Concordia's food co-op
Fait Ici, a loco-centric old school general store
Co-op La Maison Verte is a health food co-op serving as a drop-off point for three farms in NDG.

Atlantic Canada
Amarosia in Shediac, N.B.
ACORN (Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network) list organic farms in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick

Ontario CSA

The Canadian Prairies 
Eagle Creek Farms near Calgary and Red Deer, AB
Organic Alberta
Other CSA farms in Alberta

British Columbia
City farm boy
UBC (yes! UBC as in the university!)
Urban GrainsFarm Folk City Folk

In the US
Star Hollow Farm in Washington, D.C.
Urban Farm Online
Local Harvest

In the UK

In Australia 

In France

Sign up, and bon app'!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

All You Need Is Love

Comfort foods. 

They're not always pretty to look at, but boy, do they ever hit the spot when all you need is loving goodness! This dish is just that: comfort and love in a bowl. My mum would make it when the mercury took a swan dive or when I was ill. It was something her Italian friend's grandmother made when my mum visited one summer, a long time ago. But it's most likely a dish that is made just about everywhere around the Mediterranean basin: the Turks call it Menemen, or vegetable and egg ragout (with lots of Aleppo pepper). We call it tomato tamago, but whatever its name, it's delicious.

Even if eggs and tomato sauce do not tug at your nostalgic heart strings, it will soon become a fast favourite. Eggs in tomato sauce, the name says it all. I feel silly writing up a recipe for it, but a friend of mine once said that some of my food ideas were too vague or esoteric for his beginner self. So for him, and anyone else who does not feel like a master in the kitchen, a recipe follows. However, as is often the case, it is merely a guideline, a little hand holding to give a shot of confidence. Use it as an inspiration, deviate from it as far as you like.

The only 'rule' to this dish would be to keep the tomato sauce chunky and flavourful: at the height of summer, you can let the tomatoes and whichever other vegetable inspires you to shine in their natural state, enhancing them with a few torn leaves of basil or oregano, but in the midst of winter, add as many spices as you dare. In fact, I often like to purge my spice cabinet when I make eggs in tomato sauce. Most spices have healthful benefits, so if you feel the sniffles creeping up on you, let yourself go with the spice jars! You really can't go wrong. 

For those of you who are a little wary  about mixing too many spices together, here is a -by no means exhaustive- list of aromatics that pair well with eggs and tomatoes, and cannot help but agree with each other: bay leaf; Berbere spice mix; chile (fresh or dried); Chinese five spice; cinnamon; citrus peel; coriander seed; cumin; curry powder; fennel seeds; paprika (mild, hot or smoked); garam masala; ginger (fresh or ground); oregano; pepper (any and all types -try long pepper, it's divine!); Ras el Hanout; rosemary; thyme; turmeric...

Eggs In Tomato Sauce
Feeds one, multiply as needed

1 or 2 eggs
250ml/ 1 cup tomato sauce
    or 125ml/ ½ cup diced tomatoes
         1 clove garlic, crushed
         ¼ onion, chopped or sliced fine
         oil and/or butter
3 tsp mixed ground spices, plus a few pinches of the more colourful ones for garnish
salt and pepper

In a small pan, heat the tomato sauce.
If you are starting the sauce from scratch: heat oil and/or butter in a small pan over medium-high heat.
Add onions. Stir until a light brown crust forms at the bottom of the pan, add garlic and spices.
When the garlic is cooked, about 1 minute, add the diced tomatoes.
Cook until everything is bubbling and the tomatoes start to fall apart.
Adjust the seasoning.
At this point, you can either pour the sauce into individual bowls and crack the egg over top, and bake in a 180'C/ 350'F oven for 6 minutes, or until the eggs are cooked to your liking.
Or, you can crack the egg right into the pan, and poach it on the stove top.
Serve hot from the stove or warm-ish.
Garnish with a sprinkling of spices.

Make it for brunch, lunch or even dinner, be sure to have lots of crusty bread on hand to mop up all the sauce. Add a salad or some other vegetables on the side, and dinner couldn't be any easier. If you happen to have a few left-overs pining away in the fridge, add them to the sauce, it will only taste better. You can sprinkle some cheese on the eggs going in the oven, or you can scramble those in the pan...

Bon app'!

En français

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Glazed Over

I've been trying to fight off the flu for the past two weeks, and I've had to concede this week that I was fighting a lost cause. So I've been spending my days off sleeping in, dragging myself out of bed only for the bare essentials: feeding the cats and the birds (I pour the bird seeds out on my balcony ledge, so that I can spy on the cardinals and squirrels from my bed -my only form of entertainment all week!); making pots of tea; and getting a load of laundry done. I haven't had the energy to cook, luckily, my freezer was full of soups. But I have been craving something, and I didn't dare make it until today: glazed carrots.

The carrots have been sitting in my fridge since the fall, the last vestiges of my CSA basket. Though I was told that there are still carrots to be had if I could get myself to the farm, I had been hanging on to them like precious jewels. I was biding my time until I could muster the courage to make them... Glazed carrots are nothing complicated. In fact, they're really easy to make, and were they any other carrot I would have glazed them as soon as the craving hit. But these carrots were special, and they deserved proper treatment: I wanted them to turn out like my mother's glazed carrots. 

It's kind of a running joke in my house: my boyfriend is always comparing my carrots to those made by my mum. Even I have to admit my mother's carrots are the best, and mine trail far behind. On any given day, my glazed carrots will do the job, but when I am sick or feeling down and out, the only glazed carrots that will hit the spot are those from my mother's kitchen.

So, today I set out to glaze carrots like my life depended on it. I know where I go wrong: I remove the pot from the stove before the carrots are done. Yes, I know, it sounds silly -in this day and age, when one is told to eat raw! eat just barely cooked!- that the secret to perfectly glazed carrots should be to overcook them to the point where they start falling apart. It seems nonsensical, but there you go. In fact, the beta carotene in carrots is more readily available when the roots are fully cooked, so there is reason to all the madness after all! There are days when al dente carrots will do, and there are others when mushy carrots are just what the doctor ordered. 

A word on the carrots: they need not be fresh from the farm, but you should avoid overly big carrots, as they most often have a woody core, and those mini-carrots that come in a plastic bag are a big no-no. If you take a close look at those 'baby carrots', you will notice that they are simply larger carrots whittled down to miniature proportions; they are mostly tasteless core, and have very little of the carrot's sweet flesh. I prefer my carrots on the smaller side, no more than 2cm/ ¾" in diameter, but larger ones can always be halved or quartered, as long as woody ones are avoided.

Glazed Carrots
Serves 2, as a side order

500g/ 1lb carrots (about 8 small, 5 medium, or 2 large)
1 Tbs butter
½ tsp sugar
salt and pepper

Wash, peel, top and tail carrots.
Slice into 5mm/ ¼" rounds, halving or quartering the larger end of the carrots.
Place in a pot with a fitted lid. 
Just barely cover with cold water. Add a pinch of salt.
Cover the pot, and bring up to the boil.
Leave the carrots to cook, covered, over medium-high heat for 10 minutes, or until the carrots are al dente (cooked, but firm).
Remove lid, lower heat to medium, and cook for another 5 minutes, or until most of the water has evaporated.
Add the butter and sugar.
Shake the pot to help dissolve the sugar and glaze the carrots.
The carrots are done when all the water has evaporated, and the carrots are shiny.
Adjust the seasoning.
The carrots can be kept warm until the rest of dinner is ready, or they can be re-heated later, but they are at their best served immediately.

When I was a kid, I went through a long phase when I despised carrots. It was impossible to make me eat them unless they were cooked and cunningly camouflaged, though I would make exception for these glazed carrots. If you have a fussy eater, add an extra pinch of sugar, and he or she will be won over. You can prepare most root vegetables, frozen peas and corn in the same manner, just adjust the cooking time. Glazed carrots and onions are the classic side dish in French cookery for stews and braised meats, but they are delicious with anything you can think of, or on their own. For those days when I am not attempting to channel my mother's cooking, I like to add something extra to the carrots: a pinch of ground ginger; a few cumin seeds; a squeeze of orange juice; gratings of garlic... Use your imagination, and make these carrots your own.

Bon app'!

David Suzuki's Top Ten

One could never have too many resources for sustainable knowledge, so David Suzuki had come up with a concise list of sustainable fish. It's short and sweet, so it's a little easier to navigate than the list at SeaChoice (which is comprehensive, so a must for anyone who is an avid consumer of fish and seafood).

Bon app'!

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Majestic Plastic Bag

Something to think about the next time you are at the grocery store or at the market, and have forgotten your reusable bags....

Saturday, January 8, 2011


I lived in Europe for five years, but it wasn't until I returned to Montreal that the opportunity to visit Italy came up. A close friend from cooking school was getting married in her husband-to-be's hometown: Florence. How can I say  no to that? It was a whirlwind vacation, too short to really soak in the sights, but I do remember the food vividly.

I could wax on about the beauty of Florence, but I won't. What struck me about that city -besides the oozing culture, and the sensory overload- was the Florentines' love of vegetables. While I have noticed a nascent esteem for the humble vegetable both in France and in the UK, it paled in comparison to what I witnessed in Florence. It has nothing to do with the cult of vegetarianism and the eco-warrior mentality one sometimes sees in North America, but rather it was a deep seated respect for the vegetable and the place it should take at the table. Florence is at the heart of Tuscany after all, and la Toscana, birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, is also well-known for its fertile lands.Walk into any ristorante, trattoria, or osteria, and you will be amazed by the vegetable's presence on the menu.

No wonder the Florentines have left their mark on almost all spinach-based dishes (eggs Florentine, anyone?), and on the Florence fennel. Fennel bulb is not a true winter vegetable in most of Canada, but it is a perennial plant in more clement climates, so if you live in USDA zone 6 or higher, and are a fan of fennel, plant it in your garden. And if you like fennel, but have a bare spot in the garden, plant it anyway: fennel is a striking plant. It will need to be protected from snow if you intend to harvest it in the winter. Chances are you too do not have access to locally produced fennel after autumn, so if you are intent on eating local and varied in the winter, you might have to grow your own.

Fennel bulb, with its mild anise flavour, and almost-celery-like crunch is a wonderful addition to crudité platters, but it literally shines in the following salad: sliced thin, and layered with rounds of oranges, the fennel takes on a new dimension. Drizzled with a fruity olive oil, seasoned with coarsely ground pepper and flakes of sea salt, this salad is simplicity itself, and yet, it is stupendous. An ideal salad for wintry days: it has none of the delicate fluff of lettuces and baby leaves; it has body, and flavour, and most importantly, it has a tremendous crunch to remind you with each bite that you are well and truly alive.  The crisp crackle will envelop you, your own personal white noise. Pair it with a bowl of borscht, and you have an absolutely fabulous meal.

When purchasing fennel, choose one that is evenly coloured, not too green (or it will be more fibrous, and will have a more pronounced licorice flavour), with as few blemishes as possible. If the bulb comes with its fronds untrimmed, remove them when you get home, leaving about 3 cm (1½") of stem that you will trim off when you are ready to use the bulb. However, do not discard the fronds: they can be used just like regular fennel herb, and would be lovely in a creamy salad dressing; or in a tuna sandwich (with any fish really); or wherever you happen to need some fresh herbs. Fennel bulbs are usually pristinely clean, but check to make sure that there is no clod of dirt hidden in its nooks before processing. 

Insalata de Finnocchio è Arancia
Feeds two to four, although I'd keep it all to myself

1 large fennel bulb
2 medium sized navel oranges
Sea or kosher salt
Coarsely ground pepper
Good olive oil

Trim the root end and stems of the fennel. Remove any blemishes, if necessary.
Cut in two lengthwise, remove the tough core.
Lay the fennel on its flat side, and slice as thinly as possible. Set aside. (You can also use a mandoline.)
With a sharp knife, slice off the oranges' peel. (See here for a pictorial description.)
You can either cut the oranges into segments, or just slice into thin rounds. Save the juices.
Layer the fennel and oranges on a platter, sprinkling some salt and pepper between the layers.
Drizzle generously with olive oil, and reserved orange juice.

This salad is so simple that it is very important you use the best ingredients you can afford. The olive oil need not be a ridiculously expensive one, but it is crucial that it has a flavour you like. If you are not a fan of olive oil, use a neutral or citrus-flavoured oil instead, or omit it altogether. Do not use table salt for this salad: a friend recently commented that table salt did not taste very salty. I wouldn't have noticed, I don't keep table salt at home because I find its texture too fine. I think it has to do with the additives (regular table salt has iodine and an anti-caking agent added), but table salt just tastes muddled, and you end up using a lot more of it than is actually good for you. Since sea and kosher salts have no additives, their flavours are -for lack of a better word- brighter, so a little goes a long way.

Bon app'!

En français

Friday, January 7, 2011

Welcoming Warmth

I have the bad habit of mentioning foods and recipes as if they were common knowledge, never elaborating on them. Perhaps they are common knowledge, but then again they might not be. If any one of you has been left hanging, I do apologise, but you really should call me on it. I've alluded to borscht nearly every time I wrote about beets, but I have yet to post a recipe. I don't know if you really need another soup/ beet/ borscht recipe, as they are quite plentiful when one goes looking for them, but an extra recipe never killed anyone. Furthermore, if you live in Northern climes, you can neither have too many beet  nor soup recipes to carry you through the long winter.

Borscht is a typically Eastern European soup, made with beets and served with sour cream. Wherein ends any commonality: there are as many recipes for borscht as there are Eastern European grandmothers; some are thick and soupy; others, thin and watery; it's sometimes smooth and creamy, or chunky with chewy bits. Russian borscht is made with a flavourful beef stock, and slivers of meat floating in the soup are greatly appreciated. Polish borscht is always vegetarian, and typically served on Christmas Eve. Naturally, my preference is for the Polish version...

Beetroot is one of my favourite vegetables. It is available year-round in all its incarnations, from baby minis in early summer to leafy roots later in the season, and the reliable keeper the rest of the year. Its colour, so beautiful and gay, can only cheer one up on the greyest of days. Although I find their flavour rather mild and pleasing, beets have the bewildering ability to mask other vegetal notes: I often blend a whole bunch of chard in my borscht, but am always hard pressed to distinguish its hateful taste (I try, and try, and try, but I still cannot like chard... I will eat it, but I doubt I will ever pine for it.) Which makes borscht the ideal soup to make when you are saddled with a fridge-full of left-overs and no clue as to what to make of them.

Beets are so vibrantly beautiful, I really cannot understand people who do not like them. What's not to love? They're magenta; they turn everything they touch a violent shade of pink; they're sweet enough that most kids will gobble them up, but not so much as to be cloying; they're as delightful raw as they are cooked;  and they are ridiculously inexpensive! Really. I try to buy all my root vegetables from the market, directly from the farmer, because otherwise I'd feel too guilty forking over piddling amounts of cash for a ten-pound stash of roots. They're that cheap!

So on to the recipe. Like most soup recipes, the following is merely a guideline. The recipe has been reduced to its simplest form, you can add or subtract any ingredients (except for the beets! Though you can use any colour you like), and play around with the spices. The quantities are purely subjective, and depend completely on what you happen to have on hand or find at the market/grocery.  Even the process of making the soup rests with your own mood or instincts: you can go for classic rusticity, and grate all the ingredients -your borscht will be a heady broth with tender morsels of yummy goodness; you can rough chop everything, and blend the soup smooth - the result will be manna from heaven, and you will be able to serve it up fancy, or go  all tv-dinner, and sip it from a cup. Or you can go for the middle-ground, and make a rural-chic borscht by cutting all your vegetables into perfect cubes -the finale will look rustic, yet will show off how handy you are with a knife. Personally, I like to blend my soups -though I often leave a few chunky bits- because I'm a sucker for curling up with a good book and a 'cuppa'. However, when I lived in Japan, there were rumours going around that chewing your food was good for the brain; and recently, studies have shown that taking the time to chew and to savour your food is very good for the waistline. So it's all up to you. I provide you with the recipe, and you have free reign to do whatever you wish with it.

This bare-bones recipe yields enough to generously feed 4. Your final result will depend on how many left-overs you add to the recipe!

3 medium-sized beets, any colour (about 1 kg/ 2lbs)
2 medium onion
1 large carrot
3 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
1 tsp cumin, caraway or coriander seeds
1 tsp dried thyme
Vegetable oil and/or butter
Water or stock (vegetable, beef, or chicken)
salt and pepper to taste
Sour cream and chopped green onions for garnish

Peel and process the vegetables as you like. Set aside.
In a large soup pot, heat the oil and butter over medium high heat. Add the onions and garlic.
Sauté until the onions begin to go translucent, add the beets, carrots, and spices.
Season with a generous pinch of salt.
Cook until all the vegetables are almost tender. (If you have left-over veggies to pass, add them now.)
Add enough liquid to cover the vegetables by about 5cm/ 2". Bring up to the boil.
Reduce heat so that the soup will simmer. Leave to cook for at least 10 minutes, or until all the vegetables are fork tender.
Check the seasoning: add more salt, if needed, and pepper.
Blend the soup at this point, if you like.

Borscht is traditionally served with a dollop of sour cream, but you can substitute with crème fraîche (also known as crème épaisse, or cultured thick cream); plain yoghurt (or go really lush, and use Greek yoghurt!); or even drizzle regular cream over the soup. Served with lots of crusty bread, this soup makes a satisfying meal. You can even add thin slivers of left-over roast, like the Russians are prone to do. I promise, no one will rise from the dinner table feeling hungry!

Bon app'!

En français

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


The winter months can be long and cruel; luckily, each day is now a fraction longer than the last. However, chances are you are having a hard time finding inspiration in local produce. Root vegetables are old reliables, and I will be adding to the collection of recipes, but I would like to begin the year on a sweet note. Apples are the typical autumn-winter fruit across most of Canada; as are cranberries, but, come January, fresh, locally-grown cranberries are a bit rarer. Many of us will be looking farther afield for our fruity hit: citrus! There is no denying it, citrus fruit come into their own in the winter months. They are sweet, tart, and refreshing; their colours are bright and cheery, just what one needs on a dreary winter day.

There isn't much one can do to improve on the citrus fruit: it's portable (great for packed lunches and snacks); it's nutritious; and it comes in all shapes, sizes and flavours to suit just about anyone. But citrus are not just for eating out of hand; there is something to be done with them: marmalade! I do love a good marmalade, it's the perfect balance between sweet, tart and bitter. If you are not a fan, do not turn away, keep reading, I will make a convert of you. I used to hate marmalade. I disliked it with fervour: the bitterness of most commercial marmalades did not appeal to my childhood palate, but what really bothered me were the thick, chewy bits of peel -I would always choke on them. The bitterness has grown on me, but I still have an aversion to chunky peel. The solution is to make your own.

Scrumptious marmalades can be made with any citrus. Traditionally, orange marmalades are made with Seville oranges, which are just about coming into season, but supermarket navels, Moroccan clementines, lemons and grapefruits can produce a perfectly acceptable jam. I like to add 2 lemons per kilo of citrus because their peel contains a lot of pectin, necessary to gel the marmalade. Ideally, you would buy organic or unwaxed citrus just for jam-making, but if those are too pricey, regular fruits will do: scrub them clean under warm-ish water, and remove any blemish or soft spots. There is a ton of recipes out there, but here is my own: it is relatively easy, and makes reliably tasty spreads. I have not included volumetric measures for the ingredients, because I find jam-making much easier when ingredients are weighed out. The precision of a digital scale is not necessary for jams and jellies, any scale will do: the general rule of thumb for most jams is a ratio of 60%-100% sugar to fruit (600g-1kg sugar/1kg fruit or 1.32lb-2lbs sugar/2lbs fruit). For citrus marmalades, you need a very sharp knife (or a good bread knife), and the ratio is 1.5-2kg sugar/1kg of fruit; it sounds excessive, I know, but the sugar is necessary to balance out the bitterness.

All-citrus marmalade is always scrumptious, but if you feel wary of the bitter elixir, you can add a few spices , other fruits or vegetables to temper the peel. Yes, you read right: vegetables; sweet root vegetables, such as carrots, beets and fennel bulb, are especially suited to jam-making. Grate up to half the weight in vegetable, and add to the pot before adding the sugar. Sometimes, all you need a few spices to make the marmalade more palatable for nay-sayers: vanilla bean is a classic, but any citrus-friendly spice will do -cinnamon; clove; cardamom; coriander...

Citrus Marmalade
Yields enough for four 250ml (8.5oz) pots

500g citrus fruit
1 lemon
750g-1kg sugar
1 vanilla bean
5 cardamom pods

Wash and scrub citrus fruits.
Cut off the button end (the pith -the bitter, white part of the peel- is especially thick at this end), split the fruit in two from top to bottom.
Slice each half as thinly as possible, removing any pips as they come along. (I like to place my cutting board over the edge of the sink, with the pot underneath to catch all the juices. Otherwise, I end up with a mess on my counter.)
When all the fruits are sliced, add water to just cover. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise, scrape out the seeds, and add -seeds and pod- to the pot. Add the cardamom.
Cover pot, and bring to the boil.
Let simmer over low heat for about 1 hour, or until the peel slices are tender. (Add grated vegetables at this point, if using, and simmer for another 10 minutes.)
Add 750g sugar, and bring back to the boil. 
Simmer over medium-low heat for another 30 minutes, uncovered, stirring every ten minutes, making sure that the bottom does not stick. 
Taste the marmalade: if it is too bitter, gradually add the rest of the sugar until it is sweet enough. Stir until sugar is completely dissolved, and cook for another 10 minutes.
Remove vanilla pods.
Pour into hot, clean jars, seal, and leave to cool.

Homemade marmalades are usually much looser than commercial ones, since there is no added pectin.  Properly sealed, the jam will keep for 2 to 3 years -except for an all-lemon marmalade, which should be eaten within a year of making. Marmalades are divine on toast, obviously, but they need not be reserved for the breakfast or tea table: they make delightful cake fillings (orange and chocolate is always a winner); warmed over with a bit of water, marmalade becomes a lovely sauce for a roast meat (left-over barbecue duck? Smother with marmalade, and you've got a new dish!)

A note on vanilla beans: they are pricey. Recent weather woes has driven the price of vanilla beans through the roof. Yet, when one considers the amount of work that goes into each bean -hand pollinated; hand picked; fermented a minimum of 6 months...- two dollars a beans seems like small potatoes. Some shops have preferential prices for bulk purchases, a good option if you do a lot of baking. Vanilla beans will keep indefinitely if kept in an airtight container, and are still usable if they are dried out. Also, do not throw out the used pod: they can be put to a second use. Rinse the pods after use, and leave to dry out for a day or two, then bury them in your sugar pot. The sugar will take on a subtle vanilla aroma, not enough to flavour your baking, but enough to add a little je ne sais quoi.

Bon app'!

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