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


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


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

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!