Thursday, October 21, 2010

Falling for Colour



I have a difficult time getting through the winter months. This may have something to do with those nasty, four letter words; “snow” and “cold”. If I ever chance to live in a warm tropical place, you will never here me say; “I miss the snow”. Never, ever. I can guarantee that I would never utter those words. If I lived in a climate that was more appropriate for growing palm trees in the front yard instead of maples, the one month in Canada that I would truly miss would be October.


I often think that October is Mother Nature’s way of trying to make me feel better about the inevitable. My beautiful consolation prize for the (brrr) winter months ahead. This feeling is especially true on those gorgeous, mildly warm fall days, when the skies are blue, the sun is shining brightly and the leaves on the trees are lit up in brilliant shades of orange, red and yellow.


On crisp, cool October Saturday mornings at the local farmers’ market, those gorgeous fall colours are also reflected in the produce. Butternut squash, pepper squash, numerous varieties of apples, peppers, potatoes, carrots; colour is everywhere. It’s so easy to get inspired to cook up something warm and comforting. It’s been said that we eat with our eyes before we taste our food and I believe that using colourful ingredients is key to making the food we prepare visually appealing as well as flavourful.


The other night I made one of my favourite weeknight meals; fresh arctic char, topped with slices of lemon, gold and red sweet peppers and carrots; all the colours of fall. Everything is wrapped up in parchment paper, like a little package, and baked in the oven. It’s such a simple meal to prepare, but when it comes out of the oven and the “package” is opened, it really looks like something special.  Arctic char is a cold water fish that’s part of the salmon family and is one of my favourite choices for fish. The flesh is a lovely, light coral colour. The taste is similar to salmon, but the texture is lighter and flakier. The sweetness of the peppers and carrots are a perfect accompaniment to the fish. The parchment packages go into the oven on a baking sheet and that’s the only clean-up there is. No messy pans to wash up afterwards.

Arctic Char en Papillote – by Catherine Negus


Ingredients

For each “package”

5 to 6 oz. fresh fillet of Arctic char (preferably boneless)
2 slices of fresh lemon + additional lemon wedges for serving
1 medium to large carrot
½ sweet red pepper
½ sweet golden pepper
approx. ½ tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
¼ tsp. dried tarragon
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

Method

Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. For each “package”, you will need a piece of parchment paper approximately 15” square. Peel the carrot and remove the top. Slice it lengthwise in half. Set each half flat side down on a slicing board and slice each half lengthwise in ¼” widths. Cut the carrots slices in half horizontally. Remove the membrane and seeds from the sweet pepper halves and slice each half lengthwise in ¼” slices.
 
Place a fish fillet in the center of the piece of parchment. Season the fish with sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and little dried tarragon. Set two slices of fresh lemon side by side on top of the fish. Carefully stack the carrot and sweet pepper slices on top of the fish and drizzle with the extra virgin olive oil. (If you have too many slices of carrot and peppers to rest easily on the fish, save them for nibbling later.)


 Each fillet has two shorter length ends and longer sides. On the longer sides, draw up the sides of the parchment and bring them together. Holding the sides of the paper together at the top, fold them down about ¾”. Using this fold as your guideline, keep folding the paper over and over in the same direction until you have reached the top of the vegetables. Tuck the ends of the paper underneath the package. 


Set the prepared packages on a baking sheet and bake for about 30-35 minutes, until the parchment has lightly browned on top. Using a spatula, remove the parchment packages from the oven and serve on dinner plates as is. Unroll the parchment packages carefully as there will be steam that escapes. Serve with wedges of lemon. 


Friday, October 15, 2010

The Remains of the Day

One of the best things about a Thanksgiving dinner is the leftover roast turkey. In fact, sometimes I think I’m more excited about the leftover turkey, than when the roast turkey first comes out of the oven. Turkey is an incredibly versatile ingredient that works well in many dishes. One of my favourite ways of enjoying leftover turkey is one of the simplest; on a sandwich with toasted bread and lots of homemade cranberry sauce. Getting down to the end of the stash, there seem to be more bits and pieces of light and dark rather than lovely slices. This is when I like to make soup to use up what’s left. Turkey works exceptionally well in a corn chowder, with the sweetness of the corn balancing the dark and white pieces of savoury turkey. Turkey Corn Chowder is a nourishing, satisfying meal in itself, perfect for cool fall evenings.


 Thanks to the addition of a roux and creamed corn, this chowder has a rich creaminess to it without the addition of cream. Tarragon lends itself really well to poultry and corn. When adding the dried tarragon, I would recommend adding half a teaspoon first and blending it in, then taste to see if you would prefer the additional half teaspoon. The amount of turkey you use depends on how much you have available. No turkey hiding out in your fridge? Cooked chicken works equally well. And there’s one more great thing about this chowder; the leftovers!

Turkey Corn Chowder – by Catherine Negus


Ingredients

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cups chopped white onion
2 cups chopped celery
¼ cup butter
¼ cup flour
2 cups chicken broth
4 cups milk
1 14 oz. can creamed corn
3 cups canned, frozen or roasted corn kernels 
2 -3 cups chopped cooked turkey (pieces approx. ½” x ½”)
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
½ - 1 tsp. dried tarragon (or 2 tsp. fresh chopped tarragon)
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

Method

In a large dutch oven or heavy pot, heat the extra virgin olive oil on medium high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and sauté the chopped white onion and chopped celery until softened and the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes.


 In a separate small pan, melt the butter on medium heat. Gradually add the flour, whisking until thoroughly blended and smooth. Cook the roux on medium heat, whisking constantly for about 2 minutes, so that the flour is cooked and the roux has thickened. Add the roux to the onion and celery and stir to combine.


Add 2 cups chicken broth and stir for a few minutes until the mixture begins to thicken. Add the milk and heat, stirring. Add the creamed corn, corn kernels and turkey. Stir occasionally and heat through, but do not allow the soup to boil. Stir in the parsley and dried tarragon. Season with salt and pepper to taste.




Friday, October 8, 2010

Southern Hospitality (cont'd)

Elizabeth on 37th

I didn’t know at the time, but if there was ever a perfect time to discover “Elizabeth on 37th”, it was then, now long ago, while on a week long vacation with my seven month old daughter Karen, in tow. Tybee Island, Georgia, served as the base of the trip, with daily trips made into nearby Savannah. I quickly become captivated by Savannah’s undeniable beauty and charm. The historic center of the city had been largely preserved through a number of years of renovations. The lively River Street port area, park-like center square, moss draped trees and graceful mansions were much as they had always been.


Discovering “Elizabeth on 37th” was purely by accident. A chance drive down East 37th Street took me past a lovely early 20th century mansion that had been converted into a restaurant named “Elizabeth on 37th. The restaurant was named for one of its founding owners, self-taught chef Elizabeth Terry, who was in partnership with her husband, Michael Terry.  Intrigued by the impressive mansion and curious about the restaurant, plans were quickly made to have dinner there. It honestly never occurred to me that being a “fine dining establishment” it would be unusual for anyone to have dinner there with a baby along. I don’t remember Karen ever being loud or boisterous at anytime during her “babyhood”, and the thought never crossed my mind not to go because of her. She would come along just as she always did.

Elizabeth on 37th” did not disappoint. Stepping through the immense front doors of the mansion made me feel as though I was stepping into the grand foyer of someone’s home. The elegant mansion exuded a quiet, gracious presence that could be felt immediately. We were ushered into one of the original main floor front receiving rooms which now comprised the restaurant. Karen was graciously accepted as readily as any other guest.

I hadn’t given any consideration to the idea that the food would be any different than any other typical higher end restaurant of that time. It hadn’t occurred to me that I would be having “southern cuisine”, of which I knew very little. Quite frankly, just the sound of some southern fare had been of very little interest to me. After all, anything called “grits” couldn’t taste good, could it? And what about “black-eyed peas”? What were they? It sounded more like a type of bean to me. Hm.

Considering my then unfamiliarity with much of what is known as “southern cuisine”, I unwittingly ordered a “Stuffed Sweet Vidalia Onion”, a seasonal dish that was not only intrinsically “southern” but a perennial favourite of regular guests to Elizabeth on 37th. Under a U.S. Federal law, the growing region for Vidalia Onions is restricted to within thirteen counties in Georgia. Vidalia onions are in season during April, May and June and I was lucky enough to be there during May of 1988. I couldn’t have known that for many years, Chef Terry’s “Stuffed Sweet Vidalia Onion” was on the dinner menu only during Vidalia onion season. The onion was filled with a mixture of sausage and cheddar, seasoned with sage as well as other herbs and seasonings, baked, and served with a lemon butter sauce. The end result was heavenly. The flavours melded beautifully. It had the sweetness of the onion, a gently spicy kick from the sausage, undertones of savoury from the herbs and creaminess from the cheddar and lemon butter sauce. It was unique and unforgettable.

Not only had the food been spectacular, the service had been outstanding. I just had to go back one more time before returning north. Reservations were made and kept for the following evening. This time we were ushered into the former receiving room to the left of the grand foyer. Once again, Karen came along and sat happily and quietly in her stroller through the course of the evening.

There are few restaurants that I recall the service as being truly as outstanding as it was at Elizabeth on 37th. I’m probably not the only one who is irked by waiters who amble over to your table and announce themselves in the same loud manner, such as; “How’re you doing tonight, folks? My name is Bobby and I’ll be your server tonight.” Never once have I had to call the server by their name (i.e.; “Bobby, could you please bring me another…”) and if they come to the table to take my order, I’ll assume that, yes, they are indeed my server for the evening. During the second evening at Elizabeth on 37th, the waiter was dressed impeccably in a white shirt and black bow tie, black dress pants and polished shoes. His shoulder length hair was smoothed back in a ponytail and his demeanour was one of quiet confidence. Throughout the meal, he was attentive and responsive. Rarely have I experienced such excellence in service.

That evening I ordered “Savannah Jambalaya”, Chef Terry’s own version of the infamous low country dish. There are endless variations of this one-pot rice based dish, which is said to have originated in Louisiana. This version included hot Italian style sausage, dark chicken meat, southern style country ham, perfectly cooked shrimp and just the right level of heat. Chef Terry had perfected the classic southern dish, once again expertly balancing the sweetness of the ham and shrimp with the heat from the sausage.

I waited in the large, empty foyer with Karen in her stroller while the bill was being looked after. From around the corner, a waiter appeared and stood several feet back and watched Karen. Then another waiter appeared, standing beside the first, just watching Karen. Another appeared, then another, simply standing there and looking at Karen, all the while not saying anything. More staff followed; cooks in whites and tall white chef’s hats as well as waiters, until there was a large semi circle of staff in front of Karen’s stroller. No one spoke. Karen sat there quietly as usual. The strangest part about this situation is no one said a single word. I cleared my throat and began talking to them.

“This is Karen. She’s seven months old.”

Nothing. No questions, no response, no one even acknowledging that I said anything. In fact, none of them took their eyes off of the baby girl who sat quietly in front of them. Unruffled, I chatted on a bit more to them, relating small details about the little baby that was holding them in seemingly silent fascination. What fascinated me was their complete silence. The time came to leave and one by one the staff slipped away around corners as silently as they had come. It was then that I realized that this staff probably never had a baby guest in the restaurant. For such a well behaved baby to make an appearance two nights in a row was more than likely unheard of. In a strange kind of way it was flattering that they all wanted to just quietly watch her for a few minutes.

Karen in Savannah

Since the time that I experienced those two memorable evenings at Elizabeth on 37th, I learned that through her career, self-taught chef, Elizabeth Terry, received a number of prestigious awards for her fresh, innovative approach to southern cuisine including a James Beard award in 1995 for “Best American Chef: Southeast”. With her daughter, Alexis, she has written a cook book entitled; “Savannah Seasons – Food and Stories from Elizabeth on 37th”, which was first published in 1996 and is still available. The front of the house is now run by owners Greg and Gary Butch, former long-time employees of the restaurant, and the Executive Chef is Kelly Yambor. If you are planning to be in the Savannah area and like to experience fantastic southern cuisine and true southern hospitality, Elizabeth on 37th is located at 105 E. 37th Street. For details about the restaurant, their web site can be found at www.elizabethon37th.net

Karen - still lovely now


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Southern Hospitality


Bromiliads Growing on Mangrove Trees - Florida Everglades 

Whether your culinary preferences lean towards haute cuisine or burgers and beer; whether you have a full pocketbook or a near empty one, in almost everyone’s life there are those occasions when you step into a restaurant not knowing what to expect and leave having had a surprising, unforgettable meal. I am not, by any means, highly world traveled, nor do I have a pocketbook that has allowed me to dine in Michelin starred restaurants. I have, however, had several unforgettable dining experiences. Two such occasions took place in the southern United States; one just south of Marco Island, Florida and the other in Savannah, Georgia. These experiences couldn’t have been more different from one another. One didn’t even take place in a restaurant, but in the Everglades.  

On one of our annual January sojourns to Marco Island, Andrew and I, being sea kayak enthusiasts, decided to look for a guide who could take us kayaking into the Everglades. And find one we did; a big, burly man by the name of Jack, who kept alligators as pets at his office just north of the Everglades on Florida’s west coast. The morning of our paddling adventure was made miserable by cool temperatures and drizzling rain. At the back of Jack’s van, the three of us loaded up a trailer with the kayaks, paddles and gear and set off. In due course, Jack pulled his van to the side of the road at an obscure spot. We unloaded the kayaks, setting them into a barely visible creek overhung with mangrove branches. It was there that we received our first instructions from our guide;

“Whatever you do, resist the urge to pull your kayak through this shallow area by using the mangrove branches right above your heads. There are a variety of poisonous spiders in these trees.”

It was tempting to reach up and use the mangrove branches to pull my kayak forward through the shallow, marshy, creek, but his words kept me pushing forward using only my paddle. At last we emerged into a small lake. The rain had subsided and the water was calm. We paddled quietly for several minutes before I realized that the floating log that I had been paddling towards was in fact, not a log. The alligator remained still in the water, but his watchful eyes were on me. I turned to our guide and spoke as quietly as I could and still be heard.

“I don’t like alligators.”

Spotting the alligator, our guide responded enthusiastically.

“I don’t either. That’s why I always carry a two way radio in case of an emergency and this.” He held up a very large hunting knife. “And a first aid kit.”

Maybe this adventure was a little more dangerous than I had anticipated. Somehow I didn’t find his words comforting. I paddled slowly and calmly away from the alligator, not wanting to get its dander up or what seemed to be, its interest in me.

We continued our journey and were led from one area of water to another by adjoining streams of varying widths and depths. Here and there were floating white Styrofoam buoys that Jack would stop at. At each one he would reach down and pull up a small crab trap attached to the buoy with line. I hadn’t noticed earlier that Jack had a large Dutch oven set in front of him in the kayak. Once he had pulled up a trap, he would remove the heavy lid from the pot. One by one, he removed each crab from the trap, and checked to see if it was male or female. All the females were released back into the water. The male crabs were thrown into it the pot, which was quickly covered with the heavy lid. Jack would reset each trap and ease it back into the water. At one spot a large chunk had been bitten out of the buoy. Jack held it up for us to see.

“Alligators don’t differentiate between inanimate things and live creatures. They just attack everything. This buoy was whole yesterday.”

As we went deeper and deeper into the Everglades, the waterways became narrower and shallower until finally, Jack instructed us to leave our kayaks at the edge of the creek and walk through the knee deep water to a spot that he wanted to take us to. He paddled for a few minutes longer then got out of his kayak and pulled it through the water.

“Okay, let’s stop here.”

The rain had begun again. We were standing in about a foot and a half of water, in the middle of a creek in the pouring rain, and waited. We had no idea what to expect next.

“I like you two,” announced our gruff guide. “I don’t like everyone that I take on this kayak tour, but you two showed up in bad weather, you’ve followed all of my instructions and you’ve been great company. So I’m going to make you lunch. I don’t tell customers about having lunch here in advance because I don’t do this for everyone. If I don’t like who I’m with I just take my pot of crabs home with me for my dinner!” he laughed heartily.

With that, he reached into his kayak and took out a rectangular board about a foot and half wide that had a rope attached to each corner. He tied each piece of rope to a mangrove branch, creating a stable platform. It looked like a small swing suspended from the branch. Next he set a two burner camp stove in the middle of the board and lit the burners. He lifted the pot full of crabs from his kayak and dipped it into the water, filling it part way, then set it on the burners. We stood there in amazement and delight. We were going to have fresh steamed crabs, in the rain, in the middle of a creek deep in the Everglades. Until that point I hadn’t realized how hungry I was! There were more surprises in store.

Next, Jack pulled out a collapsible table, unfolded the legs, and set up the table in the water.  He then pulled out a package and unwrapped a round loaf of olive focaccia, setting it on top of the table.

“I baked it last night,” he said, with a little pride showing through in his husky voice.

Even to this day, that olive focaccia was the best I’ve ever tasted; the olives and rosemary gave it a lovely, savoury flavour and the texture was perfect.

When the crabs were ready, Jack showed us how to crack open each section of a crab so we could extract the delicate meat inside. The crab meat was sweet, tender and utterly delectable.

“Just toss the shells to the side of the creek” he instructed. They’ll all be gone by tomorrow.”

Really? What was in there, anyway? I peered hard into the tangle of mangrove branches, but could only see darkness. Jack saw me starring into the underbrush and only vaguely confirmed my suspicions:

“Believe me; you don’t want to know what’s in there.”

Our view into the Mangrove trees

Jack had one final surprise in store. From his kayak he pulled out a container and lifted the lid, revealing a dark chocolate layer cake.

“I made this, too!” he proudly informed us.

“Can you believe this?” I exclaimed. “We’re having chocolate cake in the Everglades. This is absolutely amazing. Thanks to our great chef and tour guide.”

He was so pleased and so happy to have given us this unforgettable experience.

We packed up and headed back, retrieved our kayaks and paddled back to where our journey had begun. We loaded up the pick up truck and headed back toward his office. The rain had increased and water was accumulating on the flat road. Our guide was driving too fast and suddenly his van started hydroplaning, sliding back and forth over the water on the road. I hung onto the door and held my breath until he finally regained control. We arrived safely back where our journey had begun, helped him unload the kayaks and gear, expressed our thanks and said our goodbyes.

In subsequent visits to Marco Island, we’ve returned to the location where our kayak tour guide had his office, but sadly, it was no longer there and we’ve been unable to find out any information regarding his whereabouts. Jack was gone and we would never again be able to repeat our incredible experience, but I will always cherish the memory of that unforgettable day and that most unusual, amazing lunch.

Southern Hospitality to be cont’d. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

High Maintenance - Low Tolerance



One of my favourite movies of all time is “When Harry Met Sally”, not only because it’s one of the funniest movies ever made, but because here and there, its got great food related scenes and references. One of my favourite scenes occurs when they are both watching another all time best movie, “Casablanca.” Harry comments to Sally that Ingrid Bergman is “low maintenance” and Sally wants to know what Harry thinks she is. Harry replies that Sally is the worst kind; high maintenance who thinks she’s low maintenance. Sally asks why she is high maintenance and Harry demonstrates by giving her an example of how she orders in a restaurant: ““I’d like the salad, but with the dressing on the side.” “On the Side” is a very big thing for you.” And Sally says; “I want it how I want it.” Harry replies; “I know. High maintenance.”

I can relate to the way Sally orders in restaurants. When I’m ordering in a restaurant it can go something like this:
Waiter: “…and today our special is served with our own chef’s specially made coleslaw.”
Me: “Could you please tell me if there is any cream or milk in the coleslaw? Or is made just with mayonnaise?”
Waiter: “Uh, I don’t know. You can’t have milk or cream?”
Me: “I’m lactose intolerant.”
Waiter: “Oh, you’re allergic to milk.”

I used to try to explain the difference between lactose intolerance and a milk allergy, but after about 10 seconds, I would see the waiter’s eyes start to glaze over. Luckily for all waiters everywhere, I’ve given up on explaining lactose intolerance. What’s that you say? You’d like to know what lactose intolerance is? Well, alright then, I’ll try to make it brief.

The sugars in food can be either simple or more complex. The components in complex sugar are joined together like links in a chain. The linked or chained sugar is lactose. The human body requires a specific enzyme to break down the chained sugar for digestion. Some people are born without the necessary enzyme, and are lactose intolerant from birth. Others are born with the enzyme, but with time and maturity, the enzyme gradually dissipates, for some people more so than in others. This is why there are varying degrees of lactose intolerance. Some people are much more intolerant than others. When lactose is consumed in people who are lactose intolerant, they can suffer from nausea or pain and abdominal bloating, or from all of the symptoms. Not pretty.  

Now getting back to the restaurant scenario, the waiter checks about the dressing in the coleslaw and comes back to the table.
Waiter: “Well, the chef who makes the coleslaw isn’t here right now, and the chef who is here doesn’t know what’s in the dressing. Sorry.”

In all fairness, this type of scenario doesn’t happen in all restaurants. Some chefs are very obliging. They often know what the ingredients in their dishes are and some are very gracious and happy to make me a milk-free alternative. Not always wanting to be the pain-in-the-neck customer with “special needs” I often simply choose something that I’m sure will be completely milk/cream free. I’m not including butter in this because I can tolerate small amounts of butter. (Try explaining that to a waiter and they really think you’re just being a pain.) However, ice cream and whipped cream are totally out of the question.

For someone whose passion is baking and cooking, especially pastry, being lactose intolerant can be a pain in the neck for me, too. Baking and cooking for others is a joy. I can make anything and not have to be concerned about the dairy content. Small tastes to ensure that everything is as it should be are tolerable. Baking and cooking food for me to indulge in is another story, but I have found many ways to work around the problem. Most of the time. Cream is still out, of course, but I have found lots of lactose free products that I can use as substitutes. Lactose free milk is one of my biggest saviours. Buttermilk can be substituted by adding vinegar to lactose free milk. Lactose free sour cream is now available as well.

I have also learned that certain cheeses are naturally lactose free, such as Muenster, a flavourful cheese that is excellent on its own and that melts beautifully. Another lactose free cheese is Lappi, which is a good substitute for mozzarella. Hard cheeses that have been aged such as Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Pandano are also naturally lactose free. Good quality dark chocolate, such as Guanaja and Manjari along with many other varieties made by Valrhona, are lactose free. Of course, Valrhona’s excellent cocoa is lactose free. (Whew. I mean, who could live without chocolate? Not me.) Fortunately for me, Valrhona makes some of the world’s best chocolate if not the best.


Another saviour is “cultured” butter. Cultured butter is widely used throughout Europe. It is butter that has had an active culture introduced to it that naturally eliminates the lactose. This butter has a slightly tangier taste than regular butter. Being able to have butter again has opened up tremendous, endless possibilities in all forms of food preparation.

Chèvre, or goat’s cheese, is not lactose free but I have learned that goat’s milk has a protein in it that is much more easily digestible than the protein in cow’s milk. Goat’s milk also contains a smaller percentage of lactose than cow’s milk. As a result, many people who are lactose intolerant can tolerate chèvre, I being one of them. This is something I’m still experimenting with, and I have only had chèvre in small quantities to date. So far, so good.

Dulce de leche  (Sweet Milk) or as the French say, Confiture de Lait (Milk Jam) has become incredibly popular as an ingredient  in baking. Typically made with sweetened condensed milk, I grew curious. Could Dulce de Leche be made with lactose free milk? After much research and experimenting, I have made a suitable substitute for this delectable treat. Mine is more liquid than “jammy” in substance, but it’s as close to the real deal as I can get.

Lactose Free Dulce de Leche in the making

My being lactose intolerant is a very real physical limitation, not a lifestyle choice. Regardless of that I think it does make me, although reluctantly, “high maintenance”. On the other hand, I think it’s helped me to become a better cook. It’s often our limitations that inspire us to push harder to find ways to work around those limitations, whatever they may be. More often than not, in the end we discover new things for ourselves that we would otherwise have never found. Yes, of course I still do miss whipped cream and ice cream and always will, especially when watching others enjoying these treats. To help me “tolerate” my loss, I just try to think about all those calories that I’m saving, and smile. 

A small amount of Dulce de Leche goes a long way

Friday, September 17, 2010

Field Tomatoes



For all those moments in the depths of winter when I am desperately craving a fully ripened tomato, picked not-so-long-ago from a nearby farmer’s field and still warm from the sun, but have nothing but mealy, flavourless tomatoes, (and sprayed to make them look somewhat orange in colour), I rejoice that at this moment I have too many summer tomatoes on my kitchen counter. It makes me happy just to know that they are there, waiting to be eaten. Too many tomatoes; is there such a thing? I love that they are imperfect, different sizes and shapes, with marks on them that can only come if they are allowed to stay in the fields until they reach full ripeness. There are few things that taste better than summer field tomatoes. (I am clinging to the fact that technically, at least for a few more days, it's still summer.)

It takes very little effort to make seasonally ripe tomatoes even more glorious than what they are right now; a little finely chopped shallot, extra virgin olive oil, a few garlic cloves, fresh herbs, seasoning and hearty bread such as baguette or ciabatta. These ingredients equal my own favourite homemade bruschetta. Simply heavenly. In North America, bruschetta has become a really commonplace dish, seemingly served in nearly every restaurant. In a society that’s become fascinated by the next food trend, bruschetta has become old hat, so to speak. But in Italy, bruschetta has been enjoyed since at least as far back as the 15th century. Looks like bruschetta is here to stay.

Chopped tomatoes, ready to be made into Bruschetta

Catherine's Bruschetta

Many people mistake the topping on this dish as being “Bruschetta”, possibly as a result of countless stores selling containers of the topping and labelling it as “Bruschetta”. In fact, bruschetta refers to the entire dish, most commonly served as an appetizer. Freshly made at home with fully ripened tomatoes and really fresh herbs, it’s taken to a whole new level. A lot of people like cheese on bruschetta, but with fresh ingredients like this, I leave off cheese. It just distracts from the explosive flavour combination of the tomatoes, garlic and fresh herbs.

Flat Leaf Italian Parsley - Fresh from the garden

 Ingredients 

1 loaf of hearty French or Italian bread such as baguette or ciabatta
4 large fully ripened tomatoes
4 garlic cloves, (2 peeled and sliced in half lengthwise, 2 finely minced)
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing onto the slices of bread
2 small or one large shallot
¼ cup white wine tarragon vinegar (optional)
2 tbsp. fresh basil, chopped
2 tbsp. fresh flat leaf Italian parsley, chopped
sea salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

 Method

Place the oven rack in middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
It’s easiest to use tomatoes that are ideal for slicing, such as beefsteak. Slice and chop the tomatoes and put them in a medium sized bowl. Finely chop the shallot in approximately ¼” sized pieces. Sometimes shallots can have a sharp pungency. To reduce excess pungency, soak the chopped shallot in ¼ cup of tarragon white wine vinegar for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain the chopped shallot on paper towels before adding to the tomatoes. Add 1 or 2 cloves (depending on how much you like) of minced garlic, the chopped flat leaf Italian parsley, chopped basil and ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil. Toss all ingredients gently to blend. Add freshly ground black pepper and sea salt to taste and toss again. 

Soaking the chopped shallots

 Slice the baguette or ciabatta diagonally in ½” slices. Brush the slices with extra virgin olive oil. Bake the slices in the oven, either directly on the baking rack or on a heavy baking sheet, for about 7 minutes, or until slightly crisp. Remove the skins from two cloves of garlic and slice each clove lengthwise. While the baked slices of bread are still hot, lightly rub each slice with a piece of the sliced garlic cloves. Using a slotted spoon, spoon the tomato mixture on the pieces of bread and serve immediately. 






Freshly made bruschetta, ready to be devoured!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Summer in January


When I was about 12 years old, I read a novel written by Irene Hunt, entitled, “Up a Road Slowly”. It was a story about a young girl’s coming of age and her complicated relationship with her aunt, with whom she lived after her mother’s death. I remember very few details about the story except for one late summer scenario when the main character, Julie, helps make fresh peach ice cream. They used an antique wooden ice cream maker and slowly turned the crank by hand to freeze the thick cream and peaches over ice. The peaches were at their peak, fully ripe and dripping with juice. I just never forgot how incredibly luscious making that ice cream sounded and although I had never had homemade peach ice cream, I could imagine vividly how incredible that creamy, rich, peach ice cream would taste.

I still love fresh peaches and all the delicious ways they can be enjoyed. Sometimes the best way to enjoy a peach is the easiest; to stand over the kitchen sink and bite into one, letting whatever juice escapes fall into the sink. The sad thing about peaches is that they are only available for such a short time. To remedy this, I recently tried using an idea from “French Food at Home with Laura Calder” to freeze peaches in jars with syrup. (The specific recipe can be found in Laura Calder’s recipes at www.foodnetwork.ca.) The peaches are peeled and sliced but not cooked, so even though they are preserved in syrup, they should still taste like ripe, fresh peaches even in the middle of winter. So if you’re like me and would like to have fresh peaches available whenever you want them, even if your craving comes in the middle of a January blizzard, here’s one way to preserve them while they are still at their peak.

Although the recipe from foodnetwork.ca gives instructions to peel the peaches first, I found it easier to change the order of preparations.

Frozen Canned Peaches, adapted from Laura Calder


Ingredients
1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon powdered ascorbic acid
8 – 10 peaches
2 cups of water

The Laura Calder recipe suggests that you can find ascorbic acid from a drug store, but I found that powdered ascorbic acid, suitable for preserving, is most readily available at larger natural food stores. Ascorbic acid is very expensive, but a little goes a long way.

First, fill a large stock pot or canning pot with enough water to cover the size of mason jars you are using (I like the 2 cup or medium size) and put on a burner over high heat. Wash your jars, lids and seals and rinse thoroughly. Submerge the jars, lids and seals into the large pot of water. When the water has come to a boil, boil the jars, etc. for 10 minutes to sterilize them. After they have boiled for at least 10 minutes, remove all the items to a large baking rack to cool slightly. (I found that a pair of tongs for lifting items in one hand and a fresh dish towel in the other to balance made this task much easier.)


Meanwhile, bring 2 cups of water to a boil with the sugar and ascorbic acid. Boil for two to five minutes, until the sugar and ascorbic acid are completely dissolved. Pour the syrup into a container that it will be easy to pour the syrup out from, such as a large measuring cup. Allow to cool.

In a medium to large pot, bring water to a boil. Fill a large bowl about half full with cold water and place it on the counter close to this second pot. Add about a dozen ice cubes to the cold bowl of water. Using a paring knife, make a small X mark on the bottom of each peach. Once the water in the second pot has reached the boiling point, slip in no more than 4 peaches at a time. Count slowly to 10, and then remove the peaches to the bowl of ice water. Give the peaches a few minutes to cool. Repeat with the remaining peaches. Remove the peaches from the ice water, pat dry with a paper towel and using the paring knife again, peel them, starting from the X point. This method of briefly blanching the peaches causes their skins to slip off much more easily.


Slice the peaches in about ½” slices, and fill the jars about ¾ full. Cover the peaches with the cooled syrup. (The peaches will float a bit in the syrup.) Leave at least an inch of air space at the top of each jar, to leave enough room for expansion when the peaches and syrup freeze. Top with the seals and lids and tighten somewhat. Once the jars have cooled completely, seal them tightly and freeze.


All that remains is to wait for that bitterly cold day in winter, when all you can think about is long, warm summer days and the glorious taste of fresh peaches. Yum!