Sunday, September 25, 2011

Garden cleanup

Well, the beans have shrivelled up, the cucumbers are no longer growing, and the melons, I don't even want to talk about. It's the end of the summer, so it's time to clean out the garden. I pulled out all of the beets, left a few carrots in just for the hell of it, harvested all of the remaining rhubarb and picked every last tomato. 

Mrs. Bott's Italian tomatoes. Pretty.
The rhubarb was easy to deal with - I just chopped it up and stuck it in the freezer for whenever I'd need a little hit of summer in the dead of winter. But the truckload of tomatoes (I had more in the fridge - that photo is about the third of it) could only be dealt with in one way - tomato sauce, and lots of it. 

I started off by chopping up the tomatoes which consisted of Kenosha and Mrs Bott's Italian. I probably ended up with a good ten cups of them. Oooof.

I then chopped up the pancetta into little lardons (forgot to take a picture - sorry) and finely chopped two smallish onions. I then threw the onions with a bit of olive oil into my heated, beloved Staub cast iron dutch oven (hee!), and cooked them until they were translucent. 

Then came the tomatoes and the long, long wait. The secret to this sauce's tastiness is in the tomato-ey concentration of flavour - one that can only be achieved by patient simmering to eliminate water. Note to self: never start this tomato sauce at 7pm on a weeknight.

I lost patience halfway. Bedtime was fast approaching, so I did something that ended up being brilliant: I took the immersion blender and puréed the softened tomatoes to smithereens! The simmering sped up considerably and I had a thick, rich tomato sauce in no time. It was at this point that I quickly rendered the pancetta in a separate frying pan (omit this if you want to keep this sauce vegetarian - obviously) and threw it into the sauce along with all of the delicious brown bits from the pan. I did this at the end in order to preserve some of the flavour in the meat - had I added it to the sauce from the beginning, they would have only been rubbery pieces of flavourless nothing by the end. Ew.

Finally, and this is my brother-in-law Jean-Marie's trick for a fresh-tasting sauce, I added a crapload (yes, it's a technical term!) of roughly sliced and chopped garlic, I let it simmer in the sauce until it was cooked through and then took the whole pot off the heat. Adding the garlic at the end instead of frying it up at the beginning creates a whole new flavour experience - you have to try it. Anyhoo, once the garlic was cooked, the sauce was done! When I'd be set to serve it, I would just reheat it in a pot with a handful of fresh basil for a fresh-tasting, fragrant hit of deliciousness.

Of course, by the end of this process, it was waaay past my bedtime, but it was still too soon to put the sauce in the fridge. One should never put super-hot things in the fridge; it makes the temperature inside skyrocket, and then bacteria reproduce faster than they would to Barry White's greatest hits. Ew. So here's a trick I learned in cooking school for cooling off sauces and soups, lickety-split: fill your sink with cold water, put the sauce-filled pot in there (careful the water doesn't spill in!) and then keep cramming ice cubes all around it to keep the water freezing-cold. Keep stirring the sauce while replacing the melted ice, and your sauce will be cool in about five minutes.

So to recap, here's the how-to for the sauce:

- roughly chop your tomatoes (let's say 5 cups of chopped tomato);
- finely chop 1 medium onion;
- over medium heat, sweat the onion in a bit of olive oil;
- throw in the tomatoes and cook, uncovered, until soft;
- purée with an immersion blender and continue simmering until thick and no longer watery;
- chop approx. 4 slices of pancetta, pan-fry to render a bit of the fat and throw everything into the sauce, taking care to scrape out every last little brown bit;
- add 3 big cloves of roughly chopped garlic to the sauce, and simmer until soft;
- add a teaspoon of sugar or more to cut the acidity, if necessary, and season with salt and pepper if you wish (I didn't);
- just before serving, throw in a big handful of fresh basil and simmer until well-wilted but still fragrant;
- ta-daaa! Done.
- serve on pasta, on pizza or in a bowl with some baguette for dipping while watching Spaceballs for the 56th time.

That's all for now, folks. À la prochaine!

Luxurious melon fail

I'm a little miffed that the weather's so beautiful these days... Did we really need to have that little mini two-night cold snap that brought on those dreadful frost warnings? I still had such high hopes for my luxurious melons that, despite my amateur planting skills, were actually doing well! The heat we've had over the weekend, and the warmth predicted for this upcoming week would have been the perfect finishing temperature for my little garden protégés. Alas, the frost came, and I made the executive decision to pick the biggest of the melons to see if there was any hope of me witnessing the luxuriousness promised by the seed package back in May...

Sadly, it was all melon but in taste... The texture was beautiful and the smell was a promise of what a few more days of warmth would bring. But it barely tasted of anything. Waaaaaah! I don't remember why I thought it important to leave the rind from the slice I sampled in the photo. Perhaps out of bitterness for what may have been. Stupid unpredictable nature. I'm a tryin' again next year!!!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

My ample larder, part 1

Sorry for my tardiness in posting. I have no excuse. I'm a bad, bad blogger. Please accept the following post as a token of my affection to you, my sweet, sweet and gentle reader. 

The larder... From the old French lardier. It means a place where you keep your lard. Or something along those lines... My grandmother used to say larder. It's the only reason I use the word. Surely pantry or store cupboard would be more poetic, but I like larder. Laugh if you will. Plenty have already. Larder.

So here's the deal. I hate getting caught defenceless. If someone arrives at our house on short notice, whether it be for dinner or an afternoon visit, I need my artillery to blow their taste buds away (or at least distract them). If I were to have nothing to serve them, not even a measly Kalamata, I'd die of shame. I don't know why this is so important - it just is. I think it has to do with the fact that when I'm happy, I eat. And when I have visitors, I'm happy. So if I don't serve food, it's like telling people I'm not happy to see them... Ooo. That's heavy. I think I just learned something about myself just now. Cool.

Anyhoo, back to the larder. The larder is a wonderful, magical place - a cave of wonders if you will - where certain types of foodstuffs are at the ready at all times to insure readiness to feed and entertain. When paired with the staples that are always in my fridge and freezer, these food items make me feel like the MacGyver of the kitchen - only with better hair. So the following post is an ode to my larder, if you will. An hommage to the foods that stand on guard for me (and the people I feed).

Arrgh! I forgot about the bendy shelves! Please ignore that aesthetically disturbing
feature of my larder. Also, please ignore the Skippy peanut butter. I'm still working on
converting Marc to the sugar-free non-crap kind. It ain't easy.

First, the protein. It's so easy to have non-perishable protein on hand. Here's a run through of the main ones I usually have lying around:

  • DuPuy lentils: they're just plain fabulous. They're meaty and fragrant and have a beautiful mouthfeel. They remain firm when they're cooked, so they're actually still appealing when they come out of the pot. You can serve them cool tossed with fresh herbs, a green stringy thing like beans or asparagus, tomatoes, baby spinach and a vinaigrette. Or you can serve them hot with some sautéed onions and Marc's favourite "seasoning", bacon (you only need three or four slices, cooked and crumbled), with maybe a side salad and some baguette. Smoked pork and lentils. It's like the perfect marriage of French Canadian and European French. Can you hear the angels signing?
  • Quinoa: good as a side dish for fish from the freezer or, again, in a salad, like my roasted zucchini and quinoa salad. For a fast and heathy fish recipe, check out Martha Stewart's technique for cooking it en papillote. Normally, I just stick the fish and whatever random veggies I have lying around the fridge (thinly sliced so they cook quickly) in the little cooking pocket. Try thinly sliced potatoes, onion, chives, red pepper, grated carrot and baby spinach. Don't forget the salt and pepper. 
  • Canned beans: most beans can be thrown into salads (with or without lettuce) or made into patties or stews, while chickpeas can also be roasted for snacks, or be transformed into delicious, silky hummos. And you already know about the virtues of chickpea flour!
  • Canned fish: Jamie Oliver has a fantastic recipe for pasta with tuna and tomato sauce. It's from his Cook with Jamie book. I highly recommend trying it. Canned tuna can also easily be added into salads, such as my no-brainer macaroni salad (one of Marc's all-time favourites... Really?!?):  Mix together cooked and cooled macaroni, a can of tuna, finely chopped red onion, fresh chopped or dried mint for seasoning, tomato, celery, a generous glug of olive oil and juice of a lemon, salt and pepper.
  • Nuts: I keep most of these in the fridge, but I'm mentioning them here. Usually, I have a Costco bag of almonds and also another type of nut which I like to alternate between walnuts, pecans and pine nuts. I use nuts in salads and in pilafs, but they're also very helpful when I'm baking and, especially, when I make an out-of-the-blue pesto. Like in the early summer when my beet greens were still young and fresh: using my food processor, I whizzed around beet greens, parmesan, lemon zest and juice, garlic and some almonds. Throw some hot pasta on that, honey. Woo. Nuts are also lovely when entertaining. Toast a few pecans, coat them with honey and other tastiness, serve with cocktails and you have friends for life. Same goes for your run-of-the-mill dry roasted peanuts. Pop the top, serve with pickles, olives and some pretzels and you have a party!
Second, the carbs. Mmmmm. Carbs. 
  • Couscous: good for (duh) salads, side dishes (add some chopped dried apricots, some chopped mint and a few toasted pine nuts to the cooked couscous) or an awesome vehicle for leftover tomato sauce (again, as a side dish, perhaps?)
  • Bulghour: yadda yadda salads, yadda yadda side dish, yadda yadda to thicken vegetarian stews (this is Sparklypear's discovery - brilliant!) 
  • Pasta: no need to elaborate here. Watch the calorie factor, if that's a concern.
  • Rice: all types. Brown, Basmati, Arborio. For making salads, pilafs, stir fries and calorie-bomb / emotionally therapeutic risotto. 
  • Vermicelli and asian noodles: for spring rolls, pho (pronounced fuh, I've been told) and stir-fries.
  • Panko breadcrumbs: do I really need to explain the panko? Do I need to explain the need for oxygen?
  • Triscuit. they're like bread that doesn't go bad. You put stuff on 'em. And they're delicious. And they're only three ingredients. Wheat, oil and salt. No crap. Beautiful.
And finally, the rest.
  • Vinegars: I find that with red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, cider vinegar and balsamic, I have all the bases covered well enough. With any of these, a little garlic, a little dijon, a splash of fresh lemon juice and some olive oil, you're in vinaigrette heaven. Anybody who's isn't satisfied with that is just a whiner.
  • Oils: organic olive and canola are in the larder. Toasted hazelnut, toasted walnut and sesame are in the fridge (nut oils spoil quickly - never store them at room temperature).
  • (Addendum) Coconut milk: I just remembered coconut milk while writing the post for Larder- part deux. Crave it, need it. For asian dishes, curries and cakes. 'Nuff said. Just take care you don't overdo it - those bad fats'll git 'ya.
  • Sweeteners: local honey, brown sugar, white sugar and asian rock sugar (Yan Can Cook converted me to that one) are in the larder. Maple syrup from Awazibi in Maniwaki is in the fridge. I use the honey and the maple syrup to sweeten salad dressings (on top of their obvious breakfast applications). The sugars are for baking and coffee. The rock sugar is for asian dishes such as stir-fries.
  • Dried fruit: I keep most of them in the fridge for optimal freshness (dried cherries, apricots and raisins), although I did notice that yellow-bagged lollygagger in the picture (dried plums). I add dried fruit to salads, pilafs, oatmeal in the morning and baked goods. They're also perfect for snacking when combined with a handful of almonds.
  • Plain chips and pretzels: you can't see them in the larder picture because I keep them in a separate cupboard above the fridge, high enough that I have to make the conscious effort to drag a chair over to reach them. Stupid temptation. Chips and pretzels are another non-spoiling crowd pleaser when it's cocktail time. But we're not heathens, here. Serve them with something fancy like cornichons and pickled onions. Puh-lease. 
So there we go! Part one of the greater-larder overview. I hope this information proves useful as the cold weather rears its ugly head and you begin squirrelling food away for winter... Ew. Apologies for using the "W" word. 

Next post: larder, part deux! À plus tard!