Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Waste Reduction Week

Waste Reduction Week is celebrating its tenth year in Canada! (Ten years! One wonders why Canadians still top the charts for waste production!?!?!) 

It's still a ways off since it doesn't start until October. But I thought I would mention it now because National Zero Waste Week in the UK takes place next week. There is also a Europe-wide Waste Reduction Week happening in November; however, I was unable to find dates for the US, Australia, and New Zealand.

For ideas on how to put your trash can on a strict diet, you can check out these sites: My Zero Waste; The Rubbish Diet; Wasted Food; The Clean Bin Project; The Zero Waste Home. There is more, but these sites and blogs are a good place to start.

Of course, every week should be waste reduction week...

Monday, August 29, 2011


As Irene moves up the East Coast, there is nothing to do but to batten down the hatches, sit tight, and ride the storm out. I'm not particularly worried for myself: Montreal isn't exactly on her path, merely on the outer edges of her tropical wrath. I am more afraid for the folks in the Lower Saint-Lawrence. They are just emerging from the havoc that was spring, and must now hunker down for possibly more flooding. I hope that everyone is safe, and that the threat of Irene is nothing more than a media frenzy.

Since my refrigerator is full of produce, I might as well cook as long as the electricity holds out. If you swing by your local farmers' market (on a quieter, more pleasant day), you will see an abundance of produce sold by the bushel. For those of you with vegetable gardens, you are likely harvesting more than you know what to do with right about now. The end of the season is around the corner, and the fields seem to be sending out the message that it is time to be putting up for the barren months. The vegetables are gorgeous and prices are staggeringly low, and if you have the space and time to process the lot (and a car to cart it all home!), you can be nearly self-sufficient over the winter months.

Ratatouille is the ideal dish for preserving the flavours of summer. This vegetable stew is actually perfect for whiling away the time on a dreary summer day: the warm aromas will permeate every nook and cranny of your home, and stave off August chills, while the weather is raging outdoors.  (As long as you have power…)

It keeps for several days -its flavours improving each time you re-heat it, freezes well, and can even be canned for use over the winter. The basic ingredients in a classic ratatouille are tomatoes, sweet peppers, eggplant and zucchini; however you can add any other summer crop you happen to have on hand. As I debated whether or not I wanted to don a complete rain suit to go and harvest the yellow zucchini in my garden, I chopped up some green beans to add to the simmering pot.

Ratatouille recipes often call for tough, pungent herbs such as those found in the mix Herbes de Provence; but, do beware: some commercial mixes contain lavender, which can be pleasant to some, or absolutely vile to others. One way to avoid an unpleasant surprise is to use up the herbs (fresh or dried) you most likely already have on hand: thyme, rosemary, oregano, savory, (and lavender, if you wish) are most commonly found in Herbes de Provence.

There are several ways to make ratatouille, probably as many as there are cooks who make it. The vegetables can be roughly chopped into large chunks for a more rustic feel, or carefully diced into perfect, little cubes. They can be roasted, grilled, fried, or stewed, depending on how much time you want to spend toiling over them.  I usually prefer to chop the vegetables into smallish cubes, and to pan-roast them over low heat. The result is a versatile, full-flavoured stew that can also double as pasta sauce.

Yields about 3 litres/quarts

1 medium onion
3 or more cloves of  garlic
6 (500g/ 1lb) medium tomatoes, or 1 can
2 bell peppers, preferably not green
1 or 2 zucchini or other summer squash
1 chile pepper, dried or fresh, seeds removed, optional
3 tsp herbs, or to taste
125ml/ ½ cup oil, preferably olive oil

Peel and chop onion. Peel garlic, and leave whole.
In a wide skillet or sauce pan, heat the oil. When it starts to shimmer, add the onion and garlic.
Turn heat down to medium-low. Leave the onion and garlic cloves to cook down slowly, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, chop the tomatoes. Chop them according to your tolerance of cooked tomato peel, i.e. if you dislike the tough bits of peel, chop finely or use canned, crushed tomatoes.
When the onion is translucent, crush the garlic with the back of a spoon. Stir around until the smashed garlic starts to stick to the bottom of the pot. Add the herbs, the chile if using, and a generous pinch of salt.
When the onion and garlic begin to colour, add the tomatoes. Let simmer for another 10 to 15 minutes.
Chop the eggplant. The peel is usually tender, so it need not be removed. However, you might prefer dicing the bits with skin more finely than the fleshy parts.
Check on the tomatoes: they should be cooked down to the point where a stirring spoon would leave a clear channel in the sauce, and the oil has separated from the vegetables. Add the eggplant; stir to make sure every bit is covered in oil. Leave to roast for about 10 minutes.
Remove the tail and core of the peppers, and chop.
Returning to the skillet, check the seasoning; add more salt or herbs as needed. Throw in the chopped peppers, cover the pot, and cook for 5 minutes.
Top and tail the zucchini, and chop. Add to the pot, and simmer only until heated through, about 5 minutes. They are at their best when under-cooked.
Chopped, fresh herbs such as parsley and basil can be added just before serving.

Nowadays, ratatouille is often served as a side dish in restaurants, but it is actually a vegetarian main course. My mother always served it with steamed and buttered couscous, but it also pairs well with rice or any other grain. As I mentioned earlier, ratatouille can double as a pasta sauce (a great way to squeeze in a few extra portions of veggies), but it is also rather lovely served at room temperature or even cold. Try it mixed with some cooked and/or sprouted wheat by way of salad.

Bon app’!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

From Root to Stem

This article from the New York Times got me thinking about gazpacho. A few weeks back, I spotted a book that was all about gazpacho. And just about every restaurant I walk past features a version of the ubiquitous soup on their menu. Gazpacho.

I've been mulling the subject over in my mind for a while now, but the right words just wouldn't come to me. How does one wax poetical about something that seems so foreign to so many people? Food magazines and shows love to talk about scrumptious cold soups to alleviate the heaviness of a summer heat wave, but most diners seem to eye chilled bowls with suspicion.

I think Fran Leibowitz had it right when she said that "cold soup is a very tricky thing and it is the rare hostess who can carry it off. More often than not the dinner guest is left with the impression that had he only come a little earlier, he could have gotten it while it was still hot."

And yet, gazpacho is the perfect medium for abundant summer harvests. While most of us may have the traditional combination of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and garlic seared into our minds and taste buds, just about anything goes nowadays. In the introduction to the book on gazpacho, I found the most apt phrase to describe this Andalusian soup: "Gazpacho is the perfect way to make any vegetable disappear." Perhaps Andalusian grandmothers wouldn't recognize their traditional soup in our creations, but if it can be eaten raw, it can go into the soup.

The classical recipe calls for extracting the vegetal waters by means of a food mill or a mortar and pestle, and then thickening the thin juice with stale bread, but if you own a blender, you can churn out dinner in a matter of minutes. You won't even need the stale bread, since the vegetables' pulp will render a thick enough liquor.

You can also use up all those odds and ends of vegetables that usually go in the garbage or compost bins, such as the peels, the stems, and the leaves of non-leafy foods. The colour of the resulting soup may end up a little muddied, but the flavour will be more robust. Blenders that are powerful enough to crush ice are usually strong enough to reduce any vegetable into a smooth soup, however, if yours is an older model (or if you, like myself, only have a stick blender), you can always sieve the soup to make it smoother.

I truly believe that a bevvy of delicious, cold soups can be created from whatever is in your refrigerator right now, so I will only give you a basic recipe as a guideline. The rest is up to you. For each cupful of chopped vegetables, add a generous pinch of salt; a half to full teaspoon of a flavourful vinegar; and a generous splash of olive or other robust oil. Reduce to a purée in the blender, adding ice or cold water as needed.

If you are really stumped for ideas, here are a few suggestions:
Classic Red - Tomatoes; red, yellow or orange peppers; cucumbers, peeled and seeded; and garlic.
Green - Cucumber; zucchini or other summer squash; kale or other green; garlic and scallions.
Salad - Lettuce; roquette; avocado; cucumber; tomato; lemon juice and zest; garlic.
Fruity - Tomatoes; watermelon; pineapple; mint.
Health Booster - Broccoli; kale; cucumber; apple; mint; sunflower seeds.

Now go forth, and empty your refrigerator!
Bon app'!

Monday, August 15, 2011


I've been having a few friends over. Flowers were brought home and put into vases. And plans for a feast were written out according to what was on hand. Food is obviously central to any gathering at my house, and summer is the perfect time to feature the bounties of the land.

Nothing can top a platter of seasonal vegetables with bowls of Romesco sauce and hummus for dipping; a salad of summer-fresh tomatoes, herbs and lettuce is divine; some local cheese and bread, and a warm quiche to stave off the chill of an August evening round off the meal. Then comes dessert. The finale can be a bit of a bone of contention: do I serve a bowl of fresh fruits, and leave it at that? Or do I bake something that features seasonal fruits?

If we were still in the midst of a heatwave, there would be no contest, dessert would be fresh berries with a side dish of whipped cream. But we are no longer suffering from sweltering temperatures. August is still hot, a daily reminder that summer is not yet over, yet sundown is refreshingly cool, so turning on the oven no longer seems like torture. In fact, it is almost welcome.

Pies are a North-American tradition: if you do the food blog circuit at this time of the year, you will find an abundance of delectable pie recipes. However, I am not handy with pies: they were not in the family repertoire, and they were also missing from culinary school. I have become quite agile with tarts, and can actually churn them out with a little foresight. Yet, for last minute desserts, nothing beats a clafoutis (the final 'S' is silent.) Clafoutis is a traditional cherry flan from the Limousin region of France. There is still time to make this flan with sweet black cherries, but any ripe fruits will make a scrumptious clafoutis. Peaches and apricots are lovely in August, and there are still a few raspberries to had, together they are magic. The following recipe is an adaptation of the one found in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Today, 15 August, would have been Ms. Child's 99th birthday.

Yields one 25cm/10" round or 23cm/9" square flan

750ml/ 3 cups fruits, chopped and pitted
300ml/ 1¼ cup milk
90g/ 1/3 cup icing sugar
90g/ ½ cup almond powder, tightly packed
3 eggs

In a blender, blitz all the ingredients, except for the fruit, for about one minute.
Set the batter aside for at least a half hour.
Butter the baking dish -it should have about a 2L/8 cup capacity- and strew the fruit at the bottom.
Pour the batter over the fruit, and place in a pre-heated 180'C/350'F.
Bake for an hour, or until the batter stops giggling in the pan.
Serve warm, or just barely at room temperature.

Clafoutis are usually made with wheat flour, but I really like the way almonds bring out the nuttiness in stone fruits. If you would rather try the original recipe, substitute the almond powder with 70g/ ½cup of flour, and replace the icing sugar with regular granulated sugar. The batter will be a little thicker, so you might have a prettier flan if you strew the fruit over the custard. Bake as you would the above.

Happy Birthday Julia, wherever you are. Bon appétit!

Sunday, August 7, 2011


There are some flavour combinations that one eyes with great suspicion (chocolate and bacon is one such example), but there are others that just make sense as soon as they are mentioned. Tomatoes and peaches. The idea kind of jars at first, though if you think about it the intrigue begins to take over. They're both fruits; they both come into season at around the same time; they are lovely with most summer herbs... So if you're a follower of the 'if it grows together, it goes together' rule, it just has to work.

And it does. The sweetness of the peaches enhances the sugar in the tomatoes, and there is just enough acidity to counterbalance the whole. Left unpeeled, the peaches' fuzziness adds a voluminous mouth feel, that is just perfect with the velvetiness of a ripe tomato. 

It's a simple summer combination that requires the least effort and input. You will need dead-ripe peaches and tomatoes: wash the fruits; cut into wedges; toss with slivers of fresh herbs; sprinkle with a few drops of vinegar, salt, and you're ready to go. A mild vinegar, such as white wine, cider or rice vinegar, is best suited to this salad. There is no need for oil since the fruits have enough body to give the impression of creaminess.  Serve at room temperature.

Any herb with sweet undertones will do: basil, from purple to green to lemon scented; mint; or lemon balm. Thyme and rosemary, used sparingly, are also lovely. My personal favourite is shiso, a Japanese herb that is sometimes called beefsteak plant, perilla, or even Japanese basil. It can be found in most Asian shops, though some herb growers will have them at their market stalls. The Japanese typically use green shiso raw, and reserve the purple variety for pickles, whereas the Vietnamese and Koreans seem to use the purple leaves exclusively. Shiso has a wonderful flavour that combines slightly camphorous notes with fresh chlorophyll, and the barest hint of anise to bring it some sweetness.

Bon app'!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Another Keeper

I am a saucy eater... Umm, that sounded dirtier than I had intended. What I meant to say is that I really like when my food is swimming in a flavourful sauce. It probably has something to do with my Chinese background and my French training: a good sauce will make just about anything palatable, a great sauce will steal the show. And you can sop it up with a chunk of bread or a spoonful of rice.

I've been meaning to post the following recipe for a while now, but somehow the right time kept passing me by. Because, I will shamelessly admit it, I rarely make this sauce at home. In fact, when I lived in London, there was a wonderful store at Borough Market that stocked beautiful Spanish products, including jars of Romesco sauce, so 'homemade' often went by the wayside. Not that it is in any way difficult to make at home.

Romesco sauce is Spanish, one of the 'It' flavours of the moment. This is another one of those sauces one should always have on hand: it is great with just about any meat or vegetable, and truly hits the spot as a snack when slathered on a thick slice of bread or crisp croutons. It can also be slathered over potatoes, just like Deb does at Smitten Kitchen, or as a variation on the ajiaco theme.

It is traditionally made in a mortar and pestle, but can be whipped up in the blink of an eye in a food processor. Having never owned a food processor, I've a few tricks to make a blender version of the sauce. This luscious sauce combines several ingredients that are currently in peak season: rotund red peppers, tubby tomatoes, and alabaster almonds.

Fresh almonds are a bit of a trial to get to, but are worth all the trouble. They have a lovely, fresh flavour that borders on sweet and milky. They are softer than dried almonds, and can easily be crushed in a mortar. Whole, fresh almonds look like stunted, green apricots; the flesh of the fruit is dry and woody. The part we eat is the kernel of the pit. If you do find green almonds -often in Middle Eastern groceries- and choose to use them for this recipe, crack open the fruits using a nutcracker or a hammer (watch your fingers!), pry out the nut, and peel off the white skin. Otherwise, just use the raw, unpeeled almonds called for in the recipe. If you do not have any kitchen appliances, finely chop all the ingredients with a knife, and substitute crunchy almond butter for the slivered almonds.

Romesco Sauce
Yields about 500ml/2 cups

2 red peppers
500 ml/2 cups crushed tomatoes
1 onion
4 cloves garlic
125 ml/ 1cup olive oil
3 Tbs sweet smoked paprika
100g/1 cup slivered almonds, with the skin on
1 tsp Sherry or red wine vinegar

Halve the red peppers, remove seeds and pith. Stuff each half with a peeled clove of garlic, and place cut side down on a baking sheet.
Roast peppers under the oven's grill until well charred.
If you have a gas stove, you can also char the whole peppers over an open fire.
Set garlic aside, and place peppers in a bowl and cover with cling wrap, leave to cool.
Chop the onion.
In a large saucepan, fry the onion and garlic over medium heat.
When the onion is fully cooked and begins to brown, add the slivered almonds.
Keep stirring so as not to burn the almonds.
Lightly toast the almonds, then stir in the crushed tomatoes. Let simmer.
Peel the cooled peppers and add to the sauce, along with the smoked paprika.
Turn the heat down to medium-low, and stir constantly.
When the olive oil starts to float up from the sauce, remove from the heat.
Purée the sauce in a food processor, blender or a mortar: do not blend until smooth, you are looking for a rough texture.
Check for seasoning. Return sauce to the saucepan, and bring to a gentle simmer.
Keep scraping the bottom of the pan until the sauce thickens a bit more, and the oil separates again.
Remove from heat, and stir the vinegar.
Serve warm or at room temperature.

Romesco sauce will easily keep for a week or more in the refrigerator -if you can resist it for that long. Use  it as dip for bread and veggies; blend it into sour cream or cream cheese, and eat it with chips. Serve it as a sauce for grilled meats or vegetables. Or use it as a pesto over pasta.

Bon app'!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


August. The sky, the sun, the weather, the garden, everything points to it: it's still summer, and it will be so for a little while yet. But I can't help but feel that it is slipping away all too quickly. The days are getting imperceptibly shorter; evenings are cooler; light sweaters are taken out of drawers to ward off the chill. I know I shouldn't complain, some regions have had no summer whatsoever, others are still struggling to get out of the horror that was spring.

Yet, I can't help but feel a little cheated. It's August, and my tomatoes are only just beginning to produce fruits, whereas this time last year I already had a couple of jars put away. This time last year, it felt like summer would never end; this year, the end of summer is all I think about, that and my big move... Here are a few things to look for in August:

I know that apples are usually associated with autumn, but the harvesting of these fruits actually begins in late July/early August. Many apple growers will thin out their fruits to ensure that the main crop will be lush and healthy. These thinnings are often labelled as 'white apples': the unripe fruits are too tart for eating out of hand, but are ideal for jelly-making or for producing homemade pectin for jams.
There are also a few varieties of apples that ripen in late summer. Summer apples tend to be softer than autumn fruits, so they might be an acquired taste for some.

For those of us living in less clement regions, August marks the beginning of a most wonderful season. Artichokes have been on market shelves since late spring, but now is the time to keep your eyes peeled for the local crop. Artichokes are the flower buds of a close cousin to the thistle, a perennial. However, in zone 6 and colder (i.e. most of Canada), artichokes are grown as annuals, so the buds do not show up until late August and should be available until October.

Green beans, yellow wax beans and runner beans are abundant at this time of the year. But so are fava beans, and fresh shelling beans such as Roma. It is also the time for fresh Canadian chick peas: their availability is spotty, but if you scour the market stalls, you just might be able to grab a bunch. All beans make lovely salads, perfect for fighting off the heat. If you've never tried  freshly shelled beans in a salad, you do not know what you're missing: the flavour is fresh and lively, and unlike dried beans, fresh beans are easy to digest.

Cabbage and Cousins
Coleslaw is a classic summer salad, its tang and creaminess is the perfect foil for grilled foods, and is easily the most popular crowd pleaser. New crop cabbages are tender and cause fewer upset stomachs than late-season cabbages, but if you are not partial to coleslaw, you have other options.
Broccoli is, without doubt, the workhorse of the family: high in vitamins A and C, it is also a good source of calcium, iron, and other minerals. Cauliflower is not as hard-working as its cousin broccoli, but it is milder in flavour and more easily digestible, so tends to be more popular. Recent years has seen the apparition of colourful cauliflowers: difficult eaters may be swayed by a purple or orange cauliflower.
Kales of all stripes are showing up at the market. While I love kale, it isn't exactly a summer vegetable, however, it does freeze well once cooked, so you can always stock up on kale for later in the year. In any case, every member of the cabbage family is scrumptiously nutritious, and are believed to have anti-cancer properties.

Despite the cool and wet spring, sweet corn has made it to market. The ears are still on the small side,but boy are they sweet! In Quebec, only the two-coloured varieties are currently available. If you have a preference for old-school yellow corn, you will have to wait until September.

Eggplants, Tomatoes and Peppers
In case you were unaware of the fact, these fruits are close cousins, along with potatoes, and husk cherries. Greenhouse tomatoes, eggplants and peppers have been on market shelves for a while, but the field grown crops are trickling in. The fruits are usually a bit dirty, and a few will be wonky, but their flavour is unbeatable: you can almost taste the sun and the rain with each bite.

Grapes and Other Fruits
When one thinks of locally grown fruits in Canada, the list seems awfully short at first, but we are actually blessed with a surprisingly wide range. Ontario and British Columbia are big producers of table grapes, peaches, and plums, all in season right now. Quebec grows a few varieties of plums, which should be available a little later in the month.
The first local apricots are showing up, as are wild blueberries, black berries and husk cherries. Nectarines shouldn't be far behind.

Squashes and Melons
Zucchinis, patty pan squashes, cucumbers and melons are sure signs of summer. The first spaghetti squashes are also wending their way to the market: you can probably plan an entire menu with nothing but squashes from start to finish!

Root Vegetables
They are all finally here: beets of all stripes; colourful carrots; new potatoes; and white turnips. The wet spring, followed by scorching heat was really tough on these vegetables, but they are making a comeback. Radishes are still going strong despite the heat we've had in Southern Quebec. In fact, if you are partial to spicy radishes, you will be well served.
While technically not a root vegetable, Swiss chard is the twin sibling of beets: if you like chard -which are also in season now- you must try beet greens. They are, in my humble opinion, the superior green of the two. As a matter of fact, the greens of most root vegetables are absolutely lovely, and can bulk up a salad or replace spinach in a stir-fry.

Bon app'!

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