Thursday, August 24, 2017

Take one big zucchini...


I like a recipe that starts: "Take one big zucchini..." Or, you might say, "Prenez une grande courgette..." because this recipe is from France. It was included in a tourist brochure somewhere in the south of France, which I visited last in 1998. Wow, almost twenty years and I've been making this savoury zucchini loaf every summer since. It serves as a nice side dish or a light main with a leafy side salad. I like to top it with a tomato-y marinara sauce but it's also good all on its own. Best of all, it turns one huge zucchini into something warm and scrumptious. Seriously, most of us think "sweet" when discussing zucchini loaf, but that's not the French way. They take their calories not in sugar but in cheese. So give this a try and let me know if you won't still be making it twenty years from now :)


French Zucchini Loaf
1 big zucchini
3 eggs lightly beaten
1 clove garlic chopped
1/2 cup chopped parsley
2 tbsp chopped basil
1/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp salt
Pinch of nutmeg
150 g grated gruyere cheese

Peel the zucchini, scoop out the seeds and cut into 1/2 inch-ish chunks. Steam the zucchini until soft to a fork.

In a big bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Stir in the remaining ingredients, then gently stir in the cooked zucchini.

Spoon the mixture into a buttered loaf pan. Bake at 375F for 30-40 minutes, until the egg is cooked in the centre of the loaf. Turn on the broiler and lightly brown the top into a cheesy crust.

Remove from the oven and let the loaf set for a few minutes. Cut into thick slices and serve warm. 

Post Script: the original French recipe did not include basil but I like it. It called for a "handful" of parsley which I measured out to about 1/2 cup, so don't worry about being too precise on that.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Rhubarb to the Rescue

This time of year, I struggle to suppress my natural instinct to go out into the wilds (read: back alleys) of Saskatoon and forage for rhubarb. The devil on my left shoulder says Go ahead, back alleys are fair game. The angel on my right shoulder say, Nooooo, that's somebody's pie. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Eat your potatoes for St. Patty's Day


Since St. Patrick's Day is nigh upon us, I dedicate today's musings to my grandmother, Josephine O'Hara. Or, as I knew her best, Grandma Jo. That's her on the right, with her mother-in-law, my Great Granny O'Hara, on the left, circa 1936.

Grandma Jo was so proud of her Irish heritage that dinner on St. Patrick's Day was akin to Christmas or Easter. In other words, a feast. There would be St. Patrick's Day decorations, St. Patrick's Day

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Take time to stop and eat the flowers

Some people prefer to grow flowers and some people prefer to grow good things to eat, but me, I like to do both at once. Edible flower gardening. Here are four good reasons to eat flowers:


Flowers are pretty. We already put flowers on the table – in a vase – so imagine how extra pretty they are atop a salad bowl or a dinner plate. Flowers taste good. Think of peppery nasturtiums, tangy tangerine marigolds, sweet red clover and the blossoms of herbs.

Flowers are good for you. As tea drinkers already know, flowers have healthy attributes such as calming camomile and echinacea for colds. Flowers from vegetables "going to seed" can have the same nutritional aspects as the vegetable itself, such as broccoli florets-gone-to-flowers and over-grown arugula. And finally, it's fun. Flowers make me smile, all the way down.

Of course, it's nigh impossible to buy edible flowers at the grocery store (and you should never eat the flowers sold there for aesthetic purposes). But lucky for us, culinary flowers are easy to grow. They don't need much space, they look lovely in the garden and, for those who prefer flowers in the front yard, they do double duty as an edible flower bed. Here is a list of my favourite edible flowers based on their status in a prairie garden:

Perennials: johnny-jump-ups, borage, thyme, chive, tulips. Planted from seed: scarlet runner bean, basil, radish, arugula, nasturtium, zucchini. Bedding plants: tangerine marigold, lavender, dianthus (aka pinks). Picked in the wild (or the neighbourhood): clover, wild rose, lilac, caragana.

Some of you may notice the dandelion is not on this list. Back in the day, a great deal of wine was made with dandelion flowers, and I'm a big fan of eating the leaves, but I've yet to find a means of serving them for dinner. I'm still looking.

As a note of caution, some garden flowers are considered poisonous, such as potato and sweet pea, so do your own research if you wish to eat a flower not on this list. And never eat a flower that has been sprayed.

Above all, my favourite culinary flower is the zucchini. They are sunny in the garden, versatile in the kitchen and, by eating them, the best means of controlling the output of the zucchini harvest. In Mediterranean countries, they are stuffed and deep-fried, baked in sauces and stirred into risotto. In season, you can find them for sale at farmers markets. Here are a few tips for picking and preparing zucchini flowers:

There are male and female flowers. Zucchini grow from the female flowers. Don't pick all the female flowers or you will get no zucchini. On the other hand, don't pick all the male flowers as they are required to fertilize the female flowers. I like to pick a mix of both.

How to tell? Two ways: the inside of the male flower has a single stamen, while the inside of the female flower has a more complex-looking stigma. Also, male flowers are attached to stems, while female flowers are attached to baby zucchini.

It’s best to pick zucchini flowers in the morning when they are fresh and wide open so you can insert your fingers and pinch off the stamen or stigma inside. I like to pick the female flowers with the baby zucchini still attached. Do this carefully as the two will separate if roughly handled. Or, you can snap off the flower and leave the zucchini to grow up.

You may be asking, Why is she writing about edible flowers this time of year? Like many of you, I am planning my garden – day dreaming of walking a garden path on a sunny day, sitting down among the flowers and eating them. You can find more ideas for eating flowers on pinterest at ajehman/edibleflowers.


Stuffed Zucchini Flowers
6-8 zucchini flowers
2 tbsp chopped fresh basil (or a mix of herbs such as parsley, thyme, marjoram)
2 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup good-quality bread crumbs
1/2 cup water or beer
1/2 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
Vegetable oil

Stir together the herbs, cheese and bread crumbs.

Make a batter with the water, flour, baking powder and salt. The batter should be thick enough to coat the flowers but thin enough that you can roll the flowers in it without tearing them. Add more liquid as needed.

Meanwhile, in a saucepan heat 2 in. (5 cm) of vegetable oil on medium high until the surface of the oil shimmers.

Cup a flower in your hand and, using a small spoon (I use one of those souvenir teaspoons you find in second hand stores) scoop some filling into the flower. Fill the body of the flower only, up to the point where the petals separate. Draw the petals together, twirl them closed and set aside. Fill all the flowers before cooking them.

Roll each flower gently in batter and slip it into the hot oil. Do not crowd the flowers or they will stick together. Depending on the size of the pot, you will probably need to do this in 2 or 3 batches. When lightly browned on the bottom, flip and cook the other side.

Remove cooked flowers and set them on paper towel. Sprinkle with salt (optional). Serve immediately.

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Orange You Hungry? Carnitas!

I remember the first time I picked an orange. Not from the produce section. Not from a fruit bowl. Not from the recesses of my Christmas stocking. Picked an orange from a real orange tree. I remembered it today because I just picked an orange and the smell took me back to the first time I plucked an orange from a tree and held it to my nose. It tingled. No orange from the grocery store smells like that.

Growing up, I ate plenty of oranges. My mom put them in my lunchbox, sliced into skinny wedges so I could eat the good part without fussing with the peels. I didn't much like peeling oranges, except those Christmas mandarins. Truth be told, I liked apples better. And bananas, strawberries, raspberries, grapes and pears. I preferred most fruits to an orange, except at Christmas time.

Until that orange right off the tree. It smelled so wonderful I peeled and ate it then and there with the juice running down my arm and the flavour tingling on my tongue. It was December and I was seven years old. My parents had piled us children (four of us, me the eldest) into the station wagon and drove to California to visit Uncle Guy and Aunt Daisy. They lived in Orange County, Los Angeles. Their street was lined with palm trees and there was an orange tree in their front yard.

As a northern prairie girl, I could think of nothing more marvellous than living in a place with orange trees instead of crab apples and warm winter breezes instead of snow. But I also had the inkling of a deeper insight, one I already knew at heart. The best food is fresh food eaten the day – even the moment – it is picked.

Sure, month-old oranges are good, but minute-old oranges are marvellous. Just as carrots from the garden are sweeter and juicier than store-bought carrots and strawberries picked and eaten are a whole other wonderful than strawberries from who-knows-where and who-knows-when. So I shouldn't have been surprised that summer in Senegal at the amazingly deliciousness of mangoes fresh from the tree. Yet, I was amazed. The difference was so striking, as if the mangoes I bought at home in Canada were made of wax and the mangoes of Senegal were the real deal.

So here I am, vacationing in Mesa, Arizona, where orange trees grow everywhere including the boulevards. It's enough to make my winter heart melt with each warm and juicy bite. The moral of this story, as I see it, is to enjoy my fruits and vegetables where ever I can get them, but to spend an extra moment savouring the absolute pleasure of eating those I pick myself.

Since oranges and limes are abundant here and now, I've been making this Mexican pork dish called carnitas and wrapping it up in flour tortillas with tomatoes, avocados and cilantro. There are two serving options, which are explained below, so take your pick.


Carnitas
3 lb pork roast
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
3 cloves garlic
1-2 chipotle chilies in adobo sauce
Juice of 1 big orange
Juice of 1 lime

Trim the pork of obvious fat. Mix cumin, salt and pepper, rub onto the meat and place in the slow cooker. Slice garlic and chilies, adding them to the pot. Pour orange and lime juice over all. Cook on low for 8 hours or more, until pork is tender. Remove the meat from the slow cooker. Strain and reserve the juice.

Finishing option a) Shred the pork with two forks and toss with 1/2 cup of juice, adding more juice as desired for taste and texture. Finishing option b) Pour the juice into a skillet and heat to medium high. Place meat in juice, cooking until the liquid is evaporated and the meat is browned on all sides. Serve in thin slices.

(This article first appeared in Grainews.)

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

A culinary lesson from Hannibal Lecter

One crisp winter day I set out to pick juniper berries at a local park. I planned to make bigos, an old Polish stew, for a dinner party that week, for which juniper berries are a traditional ingredient.

Being both frugal and old-fashioned, I decided to forage the junipers in the wild, or at least the wilds of Kinsmen Park, Saskatoon. After all, why pay for something that Mother Nature (via the parks department) provides for free? Isn't foraging a form of outdoor recreation? If I didn’t pick them, would they not fall prey to a party of jays or a murder of crows?

On a previous reconnaissance through the park, I had noted a sprawling juniper bush in one little-used corner above a busy road. It was summertime and the berries were soft and green and overbearingly resinous. By mid-winter, they resembled peppercorns, hard and blue and pine-y. Used with a heavy hand, they could quickly overpower more gentle flavours, but applied sparingly, they add a mysterious hint of the woods to dark old-world stews.

So, with bigos on my mind, and a toque on my head, I made my way to the sprawling juniper at the edge of the park. I made a quick reconnaissance. The berries were plentiful, but seemed plumper and possibly cleaner away from the traffic and closer to the pine trees. On the backside of the juniper bush, I squatted into the foliage and began to pick.

Suddenly I was startled by a voice close behind me. "Did you lose something?"

I stood quickly and turned around to see a man, also dressed for winter, with a tripod in one hand and a fancy camera around his neck.

"Oh," I said, "I'm picking juniper berries." I showed him the contents in the palm of my hand.

He looked amused. "Are you having friends for dinner?"

"Well, yes," I said.

"And will you eat crow?" He smiled. Quite possibly he was unsavoury. Perhaps I should walk away. "Hannibal Lecter," he said.

(Of course, I knew the name of the maniacal cannibal in the movie Silence of the Lambs.)

"Did you read Hannibal? He liked to throw in a few juniper berries. Improved the taste."

"And the crow?" I asked.

"Stew. Flavoured with a crow fattened on juniper berries."

We walked together out of the park, discussing a novel I had previously not considered in the "food" genre. I had a new book on my reading list and a story to tell my friends, who I was not having for dinner.

I add juniper berries to any stew made with wild ingredients, such as venison, but it’s also good with beef. If you'd like to make bigos, you'll find the recipe here.


Venison Stew
2 pounds venison or beef
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp vegetable oil
8 potatoes, peeled
2 carrots, peeled
1 big onion
2 garlic cloves
Handful of mushrooms, fresh or rehydrated in water
2-3 crushed juniper berries
1 tsp crushed dried thyme
2 bay leaves
2 tsp salt and some freshly ground pepper
2 cups water or beef stock
1/2 cup frozen peas, optional

Cut the meat into one-inch cubes. In a large pot or Dutch oven, brown the meat in hot butter and vegetable oil. Remove the meat from the pot.

Meanwhile, chop the potatoes, carrots, onion, garlic and mushrooms. Place these vegetables in the pot and cook until the onion is soft.

Return the meat to the pot. Add the juniper berries, thyme, whole bay leaves, salt and pepper. Pour in the water or beef stock.

Cover. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the meat is melt-in-your-mouth tender, two or three hours. Add the peas (if using) about half way through.