Thursday, March 29, 2012

Food Safety: It's in your hands

I was talking to a friend the other night who had just gone through a bout of food poisoning that he’s fairly sure came from something he prepared for dinner. With all my rattling on about knowing where your food comes from and how it’s grown/raised, you can be sure he had my sympathy. The ingredients all came from his local supermarket.

My friend’s illness also drives home my main point: we all place a lot of trust in the people who bring us our food. The more it’s processed, the more ingredients that go into what we buy, the greater the chance of something going wrong. With globalization, fresh food can come from halfway around the world. How do you keep up? How do you ensure your safety and your family’s?

Galen Weston, the executive chairman of Loblaws here in Canada, made an off-the-cuff remark at the Canadian Food Summit in February that attracted a lot of attention and criticism: “Farmers’ markets are great....One day they’re going to kill some people, though.” He later clarified his statement, saying, “I’m just saying that to be dramatic, though.”

Whatever. He appalled a lot of people. Perhaps he was just being thoughtless, or perhaps it was an underhanded effort to spread a bit of the blame for the fact that our food supply is really not as safe as we’d like it to be.

We’ve suffered through a huge number of food recalls over the past, say, thirty years. Hardly a month goes by where there isn’t another one. Most are situations where the food in question will just make you sick, but there have been other occasions where the outcome has been much more grave. People have died. The really curious thing, though, and the one that Weston either didn’t remember (which would be very surprising) or was trying to excuse or deflect with his comment (more sinister) is that the recalls and food scares have almost completely been at the hands of the large processors and retailers.

One reason for this is just a matter of size: most of the food consumed has come from these sources (large processors and retailers). Nearly everyone (in North America, at least) buys their food from supermarkets. Supermarkets are supplied by the large processors and distributors, so if there are problems with a particular item, it will affect a lot of people because of wide distribution.

But producing in volume brings its own problems, making the situation worse. For example, when you’re processing several million pounds of beef a year for hamburgers, you can’t keep a close eye on every little detail. And when the bottom line of the operation is based on dollars, corners can be and often are cut. Is it any wonder that many of the beef recalls concern ground beef products? Here’s what I always remember when tempted to buy ground beef at a supermarket: what I’m buying has come from a lot of different animals, maybe thousands, and it’s all been mixed together, so one bad cow can taint the entire batch. That’s why I never buy ground beef in a supermarket anymore – especially frozen hamburgers. It’s just not worth the gamble.

Could food purchased at a farmers’ market kill you? Of course. Food grown in your own backyard could kill you. But I’m more willing to put my faith in the smaller local producers who I can meet and talk to, even visit their farms. I purchase ground beef from butchers who have ground it themselves, sometimes right in front of me. I do have to trust that they keep their equipment clean, but I can use my eyes and ears when dealing with them and get a pretty good idea of how they conduct their business. You can’t do that when the ground beef comes from thousands of miles away.

Bottom line: when it comes to food, smaller is definitely better. We’re getting farther and farther away from that, and the result is less security in the food we consume, not more. And to further drive home the point, in the past few weeks, Loblaws was involved in a massive ground beef recall. How does that feel, Galen?

I’ll be back on the weekend with another great recipe to share with you. I can’t say what it will be yet. I always get my best ideas when I’m the hungriest!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Further adventures in home-curing: Gravlax

Since my earlier blog post about making the Italian delicacy guanciale, I’ve had a few people dropping me notes about other projects in the area of home-curing of food. I’m sort of new to this and feeling my way forward. Currently we’re drying a piece of cured pork loin in the basement, what the Italians call lonzino, which is something I’ll write a piece on later next month if this project turns out well. So far, it looks and smells great.

One bit of curing we have done a number of times over the years, though, is making gravlax. This is cured salmon as done in the Scandinavian countries. It’s very easy, takes only a few days to cure, and the taste is out of this world.

You need no special equipment, no special technical skill, and have no background in charcuterie (which can get pretty complicated). As matter of fact, you don’t even need much skill in the kitchen. Even if you’re not a particularly good cook, you can handle this and impress the heck out of anyone you serve it to.

Gravlax is generally served as a first course. We serve it with honey mustard into which we’ve put some chopped dill, and maybe a wedge of lemon to squeeze over it. Toasted rye bread or pumpernickel is the usual accompaniment. Sweet gherkins or preserved crab apples are also nice, and once we even served it with leftover cranberry sauce!

Okay, let’s get to work. You are going to need fresh salmon, the best you can get, so you’ll need to find a good fish monger if you don’t already have one. Beware of fresh salmon you find at supermarket fish counters since it’s not often very fresh. Regardless of where you buy it, make sure it doesn’t have a strong “fishy” smell. That’s generally the mark of fish that isn’t fresh. You want salmon that smells of the sea. Wild caught salmon is best if you can get it. The flavor is much better.

The only other thing you want to have is good, fresh dill and lots of it. The fresh dill adds so much to this dish.

Serves 8-10

3 lb fresh salmon, center cut
1 large bunch of fresh dill
¼ cup coarse (Kosher) salt
¼ cup sugar
2 Tbs white peppercorns, crushed with a knife blade

1. Ask your fish monger to cut the piece of salmon in half lengthwise and to remove the backbone and the other small bones, as well. They should be happy to do this for you. If they aren’t, find another fish monger!

2. Back at home, place one piece of your fish skin side down in a glass, enamel or stainless steel baking dish or casserole (non-reactive).

3. Wash the dill carefully to make sure it has no grit, then dry it in a towel, and coarsely chop the dill.Thickly layer it on the fish – and I mean thickly!

4. In a separate bowl, combine the salt, sugar and peppercorns. Sprinkle this evenly over the dill. Top with the other half of the salmon, skin side up.

5. Cover the salmon container with plastic wrap and set something on it with a flat bottom that’s slightly larger than the piece of salmon, then weigh this down with several cans of food. (We use a small cutting board and couple of liter jars of our tomato sauce.)

6. Refrigerate for 2 or 3 days. Turn the fish over every 8-12 hours, basting it with the liquid marinade that accumulates. Turn the salmon-dill “sandwich” over, then separate the two pieces and with a baster or a spoon baste the inside with the marinade. Cover it again. Remember to replace the weights each time!

7. When the gravlax is finished, remove the fish from its marinade, scrape away the dill and seasonings and pat it dry with paper towels.

8. Place each piece of salmon, skin side down on a cutting board and slice them thinly on the diagonal, detaching each slice from the skin. Arrange it attractively, serve, and watch your guests enjoy this delicacy.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Dining al fresco (includes the best pesto recipe we’ve found)

I had planned on continuing my series on taking control of your source of food , but with another glorious spring day here in Toronto, I sent the staff in the Blechta Test Kitchens home early so we could all enjoy the fine weather.

One of our favorite things about the warm weather months is dining outside. We don’t care if it’s eating a sandwich in the shade of a tree, sitting on the elegant terrace of a fine restaurant, or enjoying a leisurely meal out on our patio; if the weather is nice (or even close to nice), we want to eat outdoors. The only thing that will drive us indoors is driving rain or temperatures below fifty.

We often visit the tip of the Bruce Peninsula about four hours drive north of us. For years when they were younger, we took our two boys camping on Flowerpot Island, an island six miles out in Georgian Bay. Of course we had to cook all our meals on either an open wood fire or our white gas camp stove. We’d take a bit of fresh food for the first few days (eggs, bacon, a bit of meat, some milk, and fruit), then we’d make use of freeze-dried meals dry food we made up at home (pancake batter and such). Ever since my boy scout days, a bit of wood smoke and the smell of bacon cooking makes me nearly swoon. We taught our sons to appreciate the same things.

(Sidebar: Vicki and I went to Flowerpot by ourselves a few years back and it was her birthday the first night there. Believe it or not, I made her lobster risotto with wild mushrooms on our little gas stove. It was a long, involved process, but I got through it eventually and the meal tasted fantastic with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc chilled in the water off our campsite. Don’t know if we’d attempt something that complex again, but as a one-off, it was pretty spectac.)

Anyway, our patio is now all set up and we’ve decided we must have a lunch out there since Vicki is off to a rehearsal this evening. So we both dropped tools and started prepping. One of our favorite choices for a hot weather Italian meal is pesto. Our garden tomatoes make this perfect, but with them not available for at least 3 months, we’ll have to make do the pasta part of the meal.

There is just something about eating outdoors. What do you enjoy most about eating outdoors? A particular recipe, a particular location, a particular food?


For years we searched for the perfect pesto recipe and eventually found it. The secret turned out to be the amount of pine nuts. Even in Italy, we were disappointed by the pesto we ordered there twice. (Forget the stuff that comes in jars! Even in Italy, that was a mockery of what this intense dish can taste like.) Pine nuts can be very expensive if you buy those small jars you find in the spice section at your supermarket. A much more reasonable price can be found at your local bulk food store. They’re usually fresher, too.

Your basil must be fresh and free of grit, so wash it carefully – and then make sure you dry it thoroughly using layers of paper towel or a particularly absorbent tea towel.

With all great food, pesto is merely a by-product of great ingredients. Use great olive oil and only real Parmesan cheese. Domestic versions need not apply!

If you don’t like the raw garlic taste (like Vicki), put the garlic cloves in the pasta water as it’s coming up to a boil. A bare minute will do it. If you’re using fresh pasta (which you should), you may want a bit more than a pound for four people. It’s heavier because it’s still moist, so you don’t get quite as much volume for the weight.

It’s very important to measure every ingredient! This recipe owes as much to chemistry as it does to flavor. The authentic way to make this is using a mortar and pestle. I tried it once for a single portion and it was an awful lot of work for not that much difference in texture. Take a pass on authenticity.

The real secret of this recipe is pan toasting the pine nuts. It adds so much more flavor than just dumping them in raw – not that raw is bad. Most people make and enjoy pesto using raw pine nuts. This is just better. Try it both ways and you’ll see what I mean.

2 garlic cloves
2 cups basil leaves (pack them in fairly tightly, washed, then dried thoroughly
½ cup pine nuts
¾ cup Parmesan cheese (or half Parmesan, half Romano)
²⁄₃ cup olive oil (good quality only!)
1 lb pasta (linguine or fettuccine)

1. Put a large pot of water on to boil.

2. Pan toast the pine nuts until lightly browned. Careful! They burn easily. Keep them moving.

3. In a food processor, first chop the garlic, then add basil leaves a handful at a time. Scrape down the bowl and lid.

4. Add toasted pine nuts, then cheese and finely dribble in the olive oil in a slow, steady stream. Process only until well blended. Set aside.

5. When the water boils, salt it and add the pasta, cooking until just al dente. You don’t want your pasta to be flabby.

6. Just before your pasta is cooked, take out a few tablespoons of the hot water, add it into the pesto and blend for a few seconds. This will freshen it and add to its “mixability”.

7. Drain the pasta and put it the back in the hot pot. Add the pesto to the pasta, mix well. If needed for blending, you can add a bit more pasta water (but only if you’ve saved it beforehand. Serve on heated plates.

Hint: If you have any pesto sauce left over, put it in a dish, pour a thin layer of olive oil on it, then cover tightly. It will keep fresh for 10 days or you can freeze it for several months.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Our favorite way to cook mussels

My darling wife Vicki thought my most recent entry (just below) got a tad too strident. We both feel very strongly about our personal food supply and how big business is making decisions that may not be in our best interests. Be that as it may, we want A Man for All Seasonings to be a friendly welcoming place where people can gather and talk about food.

With all that in mind, and because it’s another beautiful spring day here in Toronto, I decided to talk about our favorite bivalve recipe: grilled mussels, or more correctly, moules à la Catalane. We’re having a guest for lunch today and thought this would be the perfect way to inaugurate our cooking outside season.

We found this recipe in one of our favorite cookbooks, Lulu’s Provençal Table (more info under our listing of Favorite Cookbooks in the right-hand column). Lulu’s family owns Domaine Tempier (Vicki jokingly calls it “Domaine Tant Pis”), a winery in Provence, and as this cookbook she wrote with Richard Olney proves, she is a fantastic cook. Her mussel recipe is our favorite from the book. We make it several times every year as long as the weather is good and we can cook outside. That is a must for this recipe. Cooked indoors, this dish is a pale shadow of itself. You need that wood smoke added to the flavor.

Over the years, we’ve taken our show on the road to various friends’ places, cooking in fields, driveways, anyplace we can find a bare spot to lay our fire. At home, we have a fire pit for all our outdoor cooking (more on that some other time), so it’s even easier.

Now that it’s spring, if you grow grapes or fruit trees, they’re going to need pruning. We save all our trimmings, bundling them and seasoning them for a year, so they’re nice and dry. The past few years, I’ve also been driving around our (very Italian) neighborhood the nights before the garbage is collected and whisking off any grapevine clippings I find to bolster our stores. Moules à la Catalane are best cooked on grape trimmings if you can get your hands on any, but it works with even twigs gathered in a forest. Regardless of what you use for your fire, make sure it’s dry.

We’ve found that the perfect wine to accompany this is Lulu’s own rosé from Domaine Tempier. It’s not available in Canada, but we’ve bought some in the States. For a secondary choice, pick another French rosé, one that’s fairly dry and fruity.

We guarantee that once you’ve tasted these little "flavor bombs", you will realize just how special they are. We have never served them to anyone who hasn’t been blown away by them.

Grilled Mussels (Moules à la Catalane)

Serves 4

We enjoy this feast with a chilled, crisp rosé, a tossed green salad and a nice loaf of crusty bread to sop up the “sauce” from your plate.

(Hint: Use bent coat hangers to lift the grill on and off the fire. Guests can serve themselves right off the grill. Pocket knives seems to work best for opening the mussels.)

This is an absolutely fantastic meal on a summer evening. The shucking of the 
mussels takes a bit of time, especially when you’re learning how to do it, but it’s all very worth it in the end. Your guests will not believe how fast this cooks. They also will not believe how fantastic it tastes!

18-24 fresh mussels per person
olive oil (the best quality only!)
pepper (freshly ground)

1. To clean the mussels, soak them in cold water to which a handful of coarse sea salt has been added. Scrape them, if necessary, or simply rub them beneath the water. Discard any that are open and stay that way even if you tap your finger on the shell. (You can also use the smell test: if you open one and it doesn’t have that sweet tang of the sea, view it with a jaundiced eye.) Pull out the beards. To open a mussel, force the two shells in opposite directions between thumb and forefinger and slip a thin knife blade between the shells, starting at the top and sliding down. When it touches the mussel, the shell will open out. With a knife tip, loosen the flesh from one half shell and fold it into the other. Twist the empty shell free and discard. As they are ready, arrange the mussel-filled half shells in rows, on a grill. (You can use the one on your barbecue. We use square, metal cake racks since our fire pit is fairly small).

2. Drizzle a few drops of olive oil (we use an eye dropper for more precision) and a grinding of pepper over each mussel.

3. Make a small bonfire of, preferably, dry grape trimmings in a bare area. (If you don’t have grape trimmings, dry twigs will work, but keep the pieces small in diameter.) This will be a fast, hot fire! When the flames die down a bit, spread the twigs out enough to create a flattened surface on which to place the grill.

4. Place the grill directly on the bed of hot coals. They are done when the mussels contract, releasing liquid that begins to boil almost immediately, combining with the olive oil to form an exquisite little sauce. Remove the grill from the coals before the mussels’ liquid has completely evaporated. It probably won’t take more than about a minute. Serve immediately!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

In praise of buying locally, part 3: Who’s running this show anyway?

It’s probably pretty clear by now that I have no time for agri-business. The idea that it’s somehow better for all of us to get our food from farms with thousands of acres under cultivation or thousands of animals kept in huge sheds where they never see the light of day and live out their time standing on concrete is something that we should all be concerned about. We won’t even get into how I feel about genetically modified grains.

Agri-business and the supermarket industry have worked hard to convince us that this is all okay for our food supply. Mostly, it’s under the banner of “we can bring you food cheaper”, knowing full well that everyone can be seduced by a bargain. The fact is that we currently pay less per capita for our food then at any other time since Canada switched from mostly being rural and people grew most of their own food. But is cheap food necessarily a good thing?

In my last post, I told you of a man with a vision. Potatoes are about the last thing that could be expected to inspire passion, but there are people who believe that bringing well-raised, tasty and nutritious food to market is really important. When you’ve eaten some of Bob Taylor’s potatoes, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

With our increasingly global society, another change to food has crept in: you can now buy almost anything anytime of the year. Every week at the market, I see asparagus which is primarily a spring crop. Mid-winter in Ontario where I live is not the time to see it, but we do. After doing some digging, I found that a lot of it comes from Peru. After tasting it on numerous occasions, I can believe it was trucked here – slowly. It is not fresh. It is not what I consider asparagus.

This member of the fern family is supposed to be plump and tender, a rich dark green and have an earthy smell. The stalks should be tender almost to the bottom. At the height of our local asparagus season here, it is just that. In November, you get thin stalks, sometimes fairly desiccated at the ends, and a light green color that speaks of long transport. The taste you get is a faint echo of what asparagus should taste like. My feeling: why eat it?

It’s the same with most fruits and vegetables eaten out of season. My wife absolutely refuses to eat sliced tomatoes (the big ones) before late July or after the first major frost. I’m the same way about apricots (which I adore) and will only eat locally-grown ones, preferably bought directly from the farmer. Buy them in a supermarket and all you’ll get are mealy, hard yellow things that bear no resemblance to what an apricot should be. The problem with both these items is their short availability. For tomatoes, it’s barely three months on a good year; for apricots, it can be as short as three weeks. What’s a lover of these two foods to do?

My feeling is that you go nuts and eat your fill when you can get the best. Eat them because of their taste. From May to June, we buy a lot of asparagus. In July through to late September/early October, we have our garden supply some the most luscious tomatoes you’ve ever eaten. We often serve them at two meals a day. The same goes for strawberries, cherries, melons… I could go on and on. We also buy the freshest ones possible. That usually means avoiding supermarkets, even at the height of the local season.

Why? Because they get their produce through middlemen. That extra layer in the purchasing pipeline can add days and miles to the freshness of your fruit and veggies. Buy from a grower or someone who has a working relationship from a grower. Back in the good old days, farmers would come right into town and deliver to stores and restaurants. That’s increasingly rare these days. If you don’t want to take the time to source your food directly, find a good green grocer who does.

Each person has to make a decision on how they eat. For many, dollars and cents have to rule the day. The option of more expensive food is not a realistic one. But for others, we do have an option and we should vote with our wallets. We can also vote with our time. Find a local farmers market or a green grocer who understands that providing the best produce is important. Buy locally. Pay a fair price, preferably directly to the farmer. That’s the best way to assure they’ll be around next year. And the food…well let’s just say, you will be amazed at how good it can taste.

So as we get into spring, look forward to early goodies like local radishes and tender young lettuce, strawberries, fiddleheads, garlic scapes, baby spinach, and asparagus. When they’re available, go nuts. One of our favorite spring treats is sliced French breakfast radishes (the long ones with the white tips), placed on the best baguette we can find, spread with some sweet butter. I know it sounds weird but the taste is beyond lovely.

As a matter of fact, I planted a row of these radishes in our garden yesterday. I’m taking a flyer here since snow in April is not unknown in these parts, but what’s the worst that can happen? They’ll die. So what? I can always plant more (and will anyway). If we’re lucky with our weather this year, the Blechtas will be eating homegrown radishes by mid-April.

Now that’s living!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A dessert intermission: Tiramisu

We interrupt our series on buying locally to address a deficit in the postings so far: no dessert recipes! Having been taken to task by an email from a AMFAS reader about just this, I’ve decided to post something about our current fave dessert.

Tiramisu is a staple on the menu of many Italian restaurants all over the world, but did you know it’s a recent culinary invention? By all accounts, it originated in the Veneto region of Italy, Treviso, to be exact, at Le Beccherie restaurant. In Italian, tiramisu means “pick-me-up”. Here’s a quote about it I found online:

“Born recently, less than two decades ago, in the city of Treviso, is a dessert called Tiramisu which was made for the first time in a restaurant, Alle Beccherie, by a pastry chef called Loly Linguanotto. The story is very credible, said Mascioni, who traveled to Treviso to talk to the Campeols last fall. There, matriarch Alba Campeol told Mascioni that she got the idea for the dessert after the birth of one of her children. She was very weak in bed and her mother-in-law brought her a zabaglione, spiked with coffee to give her energy.”

The recipe dates back possibly to the ’60s according to many sources, but certainly the dessert was making its way across Italy and eventually the rest of the world by the late ’80s. And no wonder, it’s a fantastic combination of flavors and textures: coffee, ladyfingers, mascarpone cheese, eggs, whipped cream and chocolate. It’s also surprisingly easy to make and is the perfect end to an Italian meal – or any meal, for that matter. Instead of cocoa powder, we use dark chocolate which looks a bit more interesting and tastes lovely. Traditionalists will cringe, but suit yourself. (They’d also object to our alternative liqueurs.)

Here in the Blechta Test Kitchens in the heart of beautiful midtown Toronto, we’ve developed our own take on this (now) classic Italian dessert, and we’d like to share it with you. It’s lovely and easy to make. Buon appetito!

Serves 6-9

This recipe comes with one important caveat: the original uses raw eggs. We make it with raw eggs, but we also know our egg supplier very well, so we can trust them. If I were using eggs bought in a supermarket, I would definitely use the variation mentioned at the end. The fresher your eggs are, the better they will work, especially whipping the egg whites. If you can, make the basic recipe. It’s a bit lighter and we think it’s tastier, too, but you have to use eggs you can trust! You don’t want your cooking to make people ill.

Also, we’ve begun using Nocello, an Italian walnut-flavored liqueur that’s rather hard to find (impossible in Ontario, it seems). It is really lovely, so if you can find some, sub it in for sweet Marsala (traditional) or Amaretto (almond flavored), which is also very nice.

For a fantastic presentation, make it in a springform pan and after removing the sides, bring it to the table to cut it for serving. Trust me, 0ne forkful and your guests will be impressed.

3 egg yolks
3 oz sugar
3 egg whites
6 oz mascarpone cheese (the fresher, the better)
½ cup heavy cream
espresso or very strong coffee (room temp)
sweet Marsala wine or Amaretto liqueur
32 Savoiardi biscuits (lady fingers)
dark chocolate for grating

1. Beat egg yolks and sugar until they’re thick and creamy.

2. Using a fork, beat the mascarpone until it’s “loosened up a bit” and then gently fold it into the egg and sugar mixture.

3. Beat the heavy cream until stiff and then fold it in. (I also beat in a half-envelope of stabilizer, available at most grocery stores, to keep the cream from breaking down.)

4. Beat the egg whites until stiff and dry, then very gently fold them into the mixture.

5. In an 8" x 8" pan, place a layer of biscuits that have been very briefly dipped in the cold coffee. Cover with half of the cream mixture.

6. Add a second layer of biscuits, this time dipping them quickly into the marsala or amaretto. Cover with the rest of the cream.

7. Chill for at least 2 hours. Just before serving, grate some chocolate over the top. You want a fairly heavy covering.

Notes: This dish is best served on the day it was made. Dip the biscuits into the two liquids in the coffee only briefly. They absorb it very quickly and then you’ll have to deal with them being really mushy apart. It’s nice when they retain a bit of cake-y texture. The liqueurs seem to absorb more slowly, so you should dip them slightly more slowly. If there’s any liqueur left at the end, drizzle it over that layer of ladyfingers.

Since eggs can often contain salmonella bacteria these days, you can change the recipe in order to not have raw eggs in it. Simply beat the egg yolks and sugar in a double boiler until it just boils. Cool it to room temperature. Now mix in the mascarpone. Whip double the amount of heavy cream given above and fold that into the mixture, leaving out the egg whites altogether.

Friday, March 9, 2012

In praise of buying locally, part 2: The Potato Guy

At the end of my last post, I said I would be “digging deeper”. I wasn’t kidding.

Today, as part 2 of my series on sourcing local, well-grown food, I’m going to be talking about potatoes. But first, you need a little background.

For years, my son Karel and I have been going to the St. Lawrence Market in downtown Toronto nearly every Saturday. It is a fantastic resource for this city to have. Saturdays, as well as the South Market, there is a farmers market in the north building. We always start there and purchase most of the week’s fruit and vegetable needs. There are also vendors who also sell meat, poultry, cheese, baked goods, etc., very much in keeping with most farmers markets, but we ignore them most of the time. We’re there for fruits and veggies!

Sadly, there are also some vendors who “pretend” to be farmers. Their stalls look much the same as the others, but their wares come straight from the Ontario Food Terminal. It didn’t take us long to figure out which was which, and Karel and I generally make our purchases from those selling fruits and vegetables that they’ve grown on their land.

One of our favorite stops is at The Potato Guy, as Karel calls him. Bob Taylor of Cedar Creek Farms (Rockwood, Ontario) is an affable man who knows more about these amazing tubers than anyone I’ve ever met. (We haven’t been out to visit his farm yet, but that’s something I hope to rectify this coming summer.) Everything for sale on his tables was grown on a farm that’s been in the family for generations, and it shows in the quality of his potatoes and the pride with which he sells them.

If you only buy potatoes at a supermarket, you may have noticed that you see the same three or four varieties over and over. With the exception of Yukon Gold, the potatoes you see in the average supermarket are not marked as to what strain the are. They’re sold as generically white potatoes, redskins, and Idaho. But what strain are they? I don’t think anyone in the store could tell you.

Not so when you buy from Bob Taylor. He’s at the market every Saturday around 5:00 a.m. with plastic crates full of all different kinds of heritage potatoes. These go into either pint or quart baskets and are laid out on the table according to strain. The key here is the signs that each of the orderly rows has. These identify the strain and which way(s) is best to cook them. And I’ll bet you’ve never seen any of the names before.

Want to know the best mashing potato? Bob will tell you. You’re making a roast and want to throw some potatoes in to cook with it. Bob will have the perfect suggestion. And the thing about all his potatoes is that the taste is fantastic – and each one is different.

Some of these strains have been around for a very long time. You just don’t see them much anymore. Why is that? “Because they may be a bit harder to grow,” Bob told me a few weeks ago. “Or maybe they don’t look as nice as the potatoes in your supermarket.” He picked up a particularly knobbily spud. “See what I mean? These would be hard to wash mechanically and they look a bit funny. But when you stick a forkful of these in your mouth, you’ll know why I grow them.”

Besides bringing better tasting potatoes to his customers, Bob is helping keep these heritage strains alive. He has made lots of converts over the years.

Sadly,with winter winding down, so is his stock. Some of our favorites have already sold out. The only thing to do, then, is wait until late next fall when Bob will again lay out two large tables of potatoes with names like Irish Cobbler (our favorite masher), Linzer, Kennebec, Shepody. It’s a dizzying list and the flavors and textures are dizzying, too. Because of Bob, we don’t eat many potatoes in the summer, when he has none for sale. Why eat something mediocre when you know what the real thing tastes like?

Cedar Creek Farms sells potatoes that taste the way they used to, grown because of their flavor and texture, not how they’ll look in the store or how long they keep. Isn’t that the way it should be?

Next: eating in season, or why you shouldn’t bother buying asparagus in November.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

In praise of buying locally, part 1

Several years ago, we made a conscious decision to take a more active role in the purchase of the food we eat. Huh? I know that sounds sort of silly, but that’s the way we thought about it. Let me explain.

In North America most certainly, but also on a globally spreading basis, people are buying all their food in large food stores, generally called supermarkets. The reasons are multiple: one-stop/buy-all-your-needs shopping, spending less of our valuable time, and costing less money. I don’t think I would find much disagreement if I said that the last reason was the most important for most people. Depending on where you live, getting your food at supermarkets might be the only choice you have. The Walmarts of this world are able to sweep away all the smaller operators (and even some big ones) in their path. That’s a frightening thing, considering their retail ethic.

But what if you care about where your food comes from, the quality of it, what was done to it, how much nourishment you’re actually getting from it? (We won’t even go into the taste of it at this point in the discussion.) Products sold in supermarkets have to be labelled as to place of origin and ingredients, but that really doesn’t begin to tell you the whole story. You won’t find out the things you need to know if you care about what you’re putting in your body.

So here’s where our more active role in finding out this information comes into play. Ever try to ask a question of the kid putting out the produce at your local supermarket? More than likely you’ll get a, “Dunno.” The produce manager will not do much better either. They won’t know when it was picked, where it came from past the country of origin, even if you’re asking about – and paying more for – organic. And generally, the quality of the produce owes a lot of its (non)flavor to the fact that it has to be shipped a long way and has to stay looking good for as long as possible. Taste and nutritional value are far down in this equation.

Stop at the butcher counter and ask where their pork or beef or chicken come from. They won’t be able to tell you because they get it from their company’s central warehouse, and that warehouse gets it from multiple producers. Don’t even ask about ground beef…

So what are we to do? We hear scary things about food recalls all the time. People have died from eating tainted food. Now think back 20 years. How many recalls do you remember from that time? How about 40 years ago (for those old enough)? I’m sure it happened, but I’d be willing to put money down that it didn’t happen as often. Why?

I’ll bet you already know the answer: factory or large-scale farming. For example, when you’re raising 20,000 hogs a year, you can hardly know what’s going on with your individual animals. With the price of pork being pretty well dictated by the large chain store buyers, producers have to do things as cheaply and quickly as possible. The profit margin is very low and the costs of operations very high.

Bad things happen in this sort of environment, be it with beef, pork, chicken. eggs, carrots, spinach or pretty well anything. You also have to rely on everyone doing things the right way, not cutting too many corners, and not making mistakes.

So that’s why we wanted to get out of the “supermarket rat race”.

Living in Toronto, it didn’t take much effort to make the switch because there’s the St. Lawrence Market to begin with, but not all the vendors there do things all that much differently than the supermarket chains. We’ve had to take it much further than that as a result.

Next post: Digging a little deeper

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Our vegetarian comfort food favorite

Several non-carnivore friends have asked, “What about us, Blechta? What’s with all the meat?” Now, I may have mentioned that Vicki and I were primarily vegetarians in university. I must admit that it was a mainly financially driven choice, but if we had some sort of meat on the menu for a meal, it was a pretty big deal.

Since we’d both come from families that definitely were not vegetarian, we had to come up with recipes that were good to eat and contained enough protein to keep two young and active music students going. Pasta was always a good choice, so we came up with a very good marinara sauce with mushrooms, and we ate a hell of a lot of Kraft dinner which we could get at Warshaw Supermarket on Rue St. Laurence (we were attending McGill University at the time) for 15¢ a box if we bought a whole case. We did indeed buy it by the case.

We no longer eat Kraft dinner (thank the lord!), but one of our favorite meals from those days is still a regular part of our menus to this day. I’m not certain how we came up with it – actually Vicki made it first – but it is an especially good recipe, easy to make, inexpensive, and with a pretty good protein level.

The main source of protein in it comes from using brown rice. This is a nutty, tasty grain, but it can be a bit difficult to cook. Back in the day, we used to just boil it (with a touch of salt) until it was done and then drain it. It was okay, but we’ve since found a much better way to cook it.

Anyway, we made a lot of this during our university years. One mouthful and we’re right back in our apartment at corner of Hutchison and Prince Arthur in the student ghetto in 1971. Hopefully, you’ll feel the same way…the good memories part, not remembering being in our apartment. That would be a bit too weird.

Brown rice and mushrooms with toasted sesame seeds
Serves 4

The other nice thing is that the recipe is extremely expandable, so if some friends turned up unexpectedly (we’re talking you, Simon Stone!), we could include them in our dinner plans without going hungry ourselves! The meal would also always include a big salad, so you can see that even if we weren’t flush with money, we did it very well indeed. A plate of this always brings back wonderful memories for us.

13 cup sesame seeds
1 cup brown rice
½ tsp. sea salt
½ lb. 
Crimini mushrooms, sliced
1 medium onion, diced
4 Tbs canola oil for sautéing
dark soy sauce and freshly-ground black pepper

1. Pan toast the sesame seeds until golden brown. (This means you put them into a small frying pan over medium low heat. Keep them moving gently, either by shaking the pan, or by using a spoon. You want them to brown evenly. It doesn’t take much time – and they’ll burn quite quickly, so pay attention!) Set aside.

2. Rinse the brown rice thoroughly in a strainer under running water. Put the rice and salt in a saucepan with 1½ cups of cold water. Bring to a boil uncovered. Now cover the pot tightly (you don’t want the steam to escape, lower the heat to a bare simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat, keeping the lid on solidly and let the rice steam for an additional 15 minutes.

3. While the rice is cooking, sauté the mushrooms in 2+ Tbs of oil. Then sauté (separately) the onions in the remaining oil until lightly browned. Season both the mushrooms and onions to taste.

4. If you timed everything correctly, it will all be done at the same time. Portion out the rice onto 4 plates, the top with mushrooms, onions and a sprinkle of sesame seeds. If you want to be really plush, a teaspoon of minced parsley is also nice, but we didn’t often have money for fancy stuff like that.

(In looking at this, I think a nice addition would be a bit of dried oregano added to the sautéed mushrooms just before they’re finished cooking. We didn’t use that back in our university days, but I want rat you out if you decide to try it.)

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Comfort Food

I’ve been talking about some pretty esoteric things here on AMFAS for the past few postings. I mean, how many people dry cured meat in their basement? So we’re moving on to a more relevant topic today: comfort food.

Even though we’ve hardly had what I would call a winter here in Toronto (more like an indefinite run of late autumn), I’ve found myself thinking about preparing meals of comfort foods. The past few weeks we’ve had a good bit of damp cold, the perfect time a warming meal that just makes you feel good all over – especially in your tummy.

What's better than roast chicken & baked potatoes?
In talking this topic over with other people, I’ve found I’m somewhat limited in my thinking that comfort food means something warming. That’s comforting to me, as it turns out. To others, comfort food may mean anything: soup, pancakes, a favorite dessert. About the only thing I discovered that was completely off the comfort food list were vegetables (except for potatoes). Hardly surprising, that.

My favorite comfort foods are roast chicken or meat loaf. Either has to be accompanied by a baked potato. I don’t know why that is. My mother made a decent meatloaf and we’d occasionally have a roast chicken. We ate a lot of baked potatoes when I was a kid, probably because my mom (a busy lady) could throw them in the oven and forget about them. She also made a wicked dish we called “bean casserole” which contained ground beef, rings of onions, baked beans, canned chopped tomatoes and brown sugar. We ate a lot of that. And it will be the topic of a posting farther down the line, I’m sure.

Which brings to mind another nostalgic childhood memory. In the fall, we used to rake a big pile of fallen leaves (the really dry ones you find in November just before the snow starts falling). We’d bury some potatoes in at the bottom (with no foil wrapping allowed!) and light our pile up. We’d have plenty more leaves standing by and throw them on whenever things slowed down. After about 20-30 minutes, we’d let the fire die, rake away the leaf ashes, and find our baked potatoes, now completely black. If we’d timed it right, all you needed to do was break them open and scrape out the perfectly cooked and fluffy interior. With lots of butter, salt and pepper, we felt pretty damned proud of ourselves for cooking “a real meal”. For some reason we called these potatoes “Mickeys”, but I have no idea why.

Nowadays, of course, you can’t burn leaves unless you live way out in the country where people don’t pay too much attention to what you’re doing. It’s too bad. For instance, our two sons barely know what burning leaves smell like (and I’m not talking about those kinds of leaves!).

So, what is your favorite comfort food, and why? Is it something you love the taste of, or does it go deeper, stirring childhood memories, or it puts you in a specific time and place you enjoy recalling? Let us know!

Roast Chicken à la Rick

A delicious winter meal. We usually serve this with baked potatoes and some sort of hot vegetable. The nice thing about cooking it this way (more braising than roasting) is that your meal is ready in an hour, you don’t have to fuss once it’s in the oven. The chicken comes out moist and succulent with its own juices in the bottom of the pan, ready to make into a fantastic brandy and onion gravy. Heaven!

The paprika gives the skin a nice golden color since, being covered, it really doesn’t brown. All the herbs and spices also help to crisp up the skin. I don’t give any measurements for those because it’s more a “feel” than a measurement. Go fairly light on the garlic and ginger and more generous with the paprika, thyme and pepper. Easy on the salt, though. You probably shouldn’t use more than a teaspoon overall before cooking. You can always add more at the table. I also put about another half teaspoon into the cavity. If there are any fresh herbs (parsley, thyme, rosemary, bay, etc.) lying around, those wind up in the cavity, too.

1 chicken, 2-3 lbs
granulated garlic
ground ginger
ground thyme (or rosemary)
freshly ground pepper
4 medium onions, sliced thickly
¼ cup brandy
¼ cup water

1. Preheat oven to 350°.
2. Rinse and dry the chicken thoroughly inside and out.
3. Dust it on all sides with the spices and herbs.
4. Line the bottom of a roasting pan with the onions. Pour in the brandy and water, then place the chicken, breast side up, on the onions.
5. Cover roasting pan and bake for around 1 hour. Poke the breast or thigh with a knife at the thickest point and if the juices run just slightly pink, it’s done.
6. Take the chicken out, cover it loosely and let it rest for 15 minutes while you make onion gravy after chopping up the onions and making a gravy with the cooking liquid. If you don’t make gravy, save the liquid for the stock you should be making with your chicken carcass.