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.

Grandma Jo was proud of her Irish heritage. So proud, 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 cards and even St. Patrick's Day gifts. And, of course, the good china. (She might even serve wine, though she hated the insinuation that the Irish drank too much. Green beer turned her nose.) Grandma Jo's maiden name was McNulty, which means she was so Irish she even married one. (That's grandma and her mother-in-law c. 1936)

Both the McNultys and O'Haras emigrated from Ireland to Ontario in the 1840s, the era of the Great Potato Famine, and from there came west early last century. It's a path followed by many Canadians of Irish decent.

Grandma Jo did not have a special Irish menu for St. Patrick's Day. All her fancy dinners included roast beef or turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, homemade buns and a cooked vegetable such as carrots or corn. However, she would end the meal with green sugar cookies or green cupcakes with green icing and sprinkles on top, at least when we kids were young. (She taught me the useful culinary skill of vigorously shaking together a drop of food colouring and half a cup of sugar, the lesson being that we need not buy sprinkles when we can make our own.)

It is interesting that the Irish never lost their love of potatoes, even though – and perhaps because – the Great Potato Famine was caused by a lack of them. In 1844 and 1884, a devastating blight swept through Europe, wiping out potato crops and rotting potatoes in the bin. In most places, the loss of the potato was mitigated by other locally-grown foods. But in Ireland, the potato was the only food sustaining millions of rural families, three meals a day. Why was Ireland so reliant on the potato? The population of Ireland had grown so great, and the land laws were so oppressive, that large rural families had to eke out their living on small plots of land. Acre per acre, potatoes produce more food than most other vegetables. Pound for pound, potatoes provide three times more calories than wheat. It was a monoculture, by necessity.

Unable to pay rent, many tenant farm families were booted off the land, compounding the devastation. By 1855, more than one million Irish had died of starvation and as many as two million had left the country, the McNultys and O'Haras among them. I am grateful they came to Canada, though I know not the hardship and heartache they faced in leaving their Emerald Isle. So, in honour of everyone who celebrates St. Paddy's Day (green beer and green sprinkles included) here's a traditional Irish recipe in praise of the potato.

2 lbs potatoes (3 large)
2 tbsp butter
1/2 cup warm milk
4 cups shredded cabbage
3-4 slices thick cut bacon, diced
1/2 cup chopped onion or leek
3/4 tsp salt and a pinch of pepper
Parsley or green onion to garnish

Peel, quarter and cook potatoes in boiling salted water until tender. Drain.

Mash potatoes with butter and milk, adding more milk if needed to make a smooth purée. Keep warm.

Meanwhile, cook cabbage in boiling water for 10 minutes and drain.

Cook bacon in a large skillet until soft. Add onion and cook until bacon is done. Stir in cabbage and cook a few minutes longer, seasoning with salt and pepper.

Blend cabbage into the warm mashed potatoes. Garnish with chopped parsley or green onion. Serve warm.

(This article first appeared in Grainews)

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.)