Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Why I love late August

It’s that time of year.

Okay. We forgot to take photos on Saturday, and
while it's set up for a party here, this is where
we do all our processing. It's a lovely place
to work on a beautiful day.
Don’t know what I’m talking about? What is good about the fact that summer is rapidly coming to an end, the nights are getting colder and the sun sets earlier? Even though it’s a few months away, we all know – at least in this part of the continent we do – what’s coming. Winter. Time to circle the wagons indoors and watch it get darker and darker. For someone who’s really centered on the warmer months, it’s hard to take.

So why am I so eager to move on from summer? It’s because our garden, like so many others, is bursting with vegetables and fruit that’s ready to harvest. In our case: tomatoes, beans, muskmelons, basil, and swiss chard. This year we’re swimming in tomatoes, and that’s not a bad place to be, especially with our San Marzanos which are pulling their stakes over because they’re so heavy with fruit.

Okay, what am I going on (and on) about? Why, preserving fruits and vegetables for winter use, of course.

We started last week with a run at chopped tomatoes, managing to make about half of what we need. That took about a bushel and a third of our tomatoes topped up by some we bought from our favorite supplier: Zito’s Marketplace. Our son Karel helped with washing and topping each fruit, then boiling the them to loosen the skins. I did most of the chopping, while Vicki skinned them, heated the chopped tomatoes and poured them in Mason jars for processing in a boiling water bath.

We can do this all pretty efficiently, but with a small crew, it does take a long time, this year, five hours. Sadly, we’re only halfway through. Next weekend, we’ll be at it again.

Maybe tomorrow, we’ll do our peach and mango chutney, a specialty of Vicki’ and something that doesn’t take quite as long, thankfully. Still on tap are pickles, roasted red peppers and a flood of tomato sauce we’ll be making with several friends in two week’s time.

Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? I won’t lie. It is. But the pay-off will come during the dark months when we can drop down to the basement where our shelves are lined with multiple jars of things we put up ourselves, no preservatives, no chemicals, just good honest food.

Life will be good.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Long time, no eats!

Love that brilliant blue of Georgian Bay Water at the Flowerpots!
August has turned into a vast wasteland for AMFAS, and for that I apologize. There are many reasons, mostly work-related, plus some time away from home that interferred. And oh, did you know I have a new novel being released in less than a month?

But I have been thinking about food – and cooking it! With tomato season in full swing, there have been lots of things with those red beauties. We also made some more bacon a couple of weeks ago, maple smoked this time, and it turned out beautifully. So beautifully, in fact, that my sons absconded with all of it after we’d cooked them a few slices for brunch!

This past weekend, we were in the wild woods of Muskoka, just north of Toronto, for an annual get-together with some friends from our days in Montreal at university (and after). Actually, we were at a very nice cottage, not roughing it in the slightest, but while we were out for some walks in the woods, Vicki and I discussed the times we used to take our then-young sons camping on Flowerpot Island, a few miles off the tip of the Bruce Peninsula.

One of our first times at Flowerpot back in the ’80s.
It is an amazing lovely and wild-feeling place. There are six rough campsites and because of the island’s rockiness and in consideration of the very fragile soil layer, each site has a large platform upon which you can pitch your tent. Cooking used to be done in fireboxes down near the beach when we first were going there (firewood supplied, but you had to cut the longer logs into suitable lengths – which we’d also split it for easier starting and more consistent cooking heat).

Later on, fires were banned because idiots would make bonfires on the cobble beach, and it was clear that sooner or later they’d set the woods on fire and this beautiful little gem of Canada’s Fathom Five National Marine Park would be lost. Now you can only use camping stoves, a bit of a bummer, really, but I concur with the reason things are this way.

Anyway, this post is about a recipe we all used to love whenever we were out on Flowerpot for a few days: camp biscuits! Neither Vicki nor I can remember where it came from, but we tweaked it a bit over the years until it became a “must-have” inclusion into all our camping trips. They’re quick, tasty and good for you with all that wheat germ. We can’t taste one of these without thinking of our picnic table out on the rocks with a view across the waters of Georgian Bay to the coastline of the Bruce Peninsula, about 2.5 miles away. The memories wonderful days and nights (the stars are jaw-dropping) we spent there with our sons are really precious to all of us.

This recipe is set up for cooking at home and they’re simple enough for even a young child to make. If you want to enjoy them while out hiking or camping, use milk powder which cuts down on weight and which means you only have to carry lightweight dry ingredients and oil. We’ve found that mixing the milk powder and water separately (following the directions on the box!), then adding this to the flour, etc. gave better results than mixing the milk powder in with the flour and then adding water.

Camp Biscuits
Makes 8

1-1/2 cups stone-ground whole wheat flour
1/2 cup wheat germ
1 Tbs baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/3 cup oil (we use canola)
2/3 cup milk

1. Mix together dry ingredients.

2. Beat the wet ingredients together then add them to the dry. Mix lightly but thoroughly.

3. Knead the dough for a minute or two right in the mixing bowl.

4. Divide the dough into 8 pieces. Flatten in your hands to make patties about 2" across and of even thickness.

5. Heat a skillet over a medium/low flame. Grease it lightly then cook the biscuits (covered) turning once. It takes about 5 minutes per side depending on thickness (and the heat of your camp stove if you’re cooking them that way. Check them for doneness by poking each with a knife. The blade should come out dry. Eat these puppies hot!

Monday, August 6, 2012

San Marzano Tomatoes

Ah! The good life...
I hate to once again go on about all things Italian (at least on the topic of food), but summertime for us means lots of Italia because there are so many pasta dishes that can be made quickly, won’t heat up the kitchen, and taste fantastic. For us, this shifts into high gear when the tomatoes start ripening. We seldom go a day without tomatoes somewhere on the menu. Like our good friend Marilyn Cornwell, we’ve even eaten them for breakfast. We have great tomatoes for such a short time every year, you have to enjoy them while you can!

Due to my wife’s Italian teacher, Sabrina, last year we discovered San Marzano tomatoes. This particular variety is the gold standard for sauce in Italy and we enjoyed several cans while traveling around in that country. Once back home, we discovered San Marzanos are pretty dear in the grocery store. The only solution appeared that we would have to grow our own. Then, lo and behold, bushels of fresh San Marzano tomatoes appeared in August just up the street from us at the recently opened Zito’s Marketplace. Apparently, Angelo’s family owns a market garden and they’d been growing them for years. To say the least, we were very enthusiastic about this turn of events.

We make several dozen litres of tomato sauce and chopped tomatoes every summer, and last year we used San Marzanos for the first time. Instead of half an inch of watery sauce at the top of each jar, we had beautiful, deep red goodness from top to bottom. Interestingly, we also have fewer jars of sauce left in our basement than in recent years. Coincidence? I think not! In fact, we’re currently completely out of chopped tomatoes.

We also planted San Marzanos in our garden this past April. The plants are huge and absolutely loaded with fruit. This past weekend we harvested the first ones to ripen (photo on the left), and of course, we made a simple fresh pasta sauce to feature them, additionally flavored with our own basil. For pasta we used some frozen cheese ravioli we bought from Bologna Pastificio, a fantastic Toronto shop where we buy all our homemade pasta.

I’d like to share our simple recipe with all of you.

Fresh Tomato Sauce with Basil
Serves 2

2 Tbs olive oil
1 garlic clove
1/2 cup of thinly sliced onion
2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
salt and freshly ground pepper
8 oz pasta (10 oz if you’re using fresh)
1 cup of grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
8-10 large basil leaves, sliced thinly

For this sauce, we generally don’t bother to skin the tomatoes before chopping. The idea is to make the preparation as quick and easy as possible. If you do want to skin them, just drop them in a pot of boiling water for 2-3 minutes to loosen the skins (slightly more if they’re a bit underripe). San Marzanos are very meaty and have fewer seeds than other tomatoes so don’t bother seeding them before chopping. If you’re using another variety, you should probably remove the seeds and the pulp surrounding them before chopping your tomatoes.

1. Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan to the point of fragrance. Smash the garlic clove with the side of your knife, chop it slightly then add it to the pan along with the sliced onion. Cook over medium heat until both are soft. Don’t let them brown.

2. Lower the heat low/medium, add the tomatoes and pepper flakes and cook the sauce gently while you’re waiting for the pasta water to boil and the pasta to cook. Don’t let it get too dry though. If it does, either add a bit of pasta water or maybe a bit of white wine.

3. When the pasta is ready and drained, add salt and pepper to taste to your sauce, then toss it with the pasta and cheese until the cheese melts and is incorporated into the sauce. Lastly, add the basil leaves and toss just long enough to blend.

4. Serve immediately (preferably outdoors) in heated bowls with a little extra cheese on top and maybe a bit more basil, all accompanied by nice bottle of Chianti, Valpolicella or other Italian red wine, and a tossed green salad. I guarantee you’ll experience a little bit of heaven on earth.

Note: If you don’t have fresh basil leaves, do yourself a favor and just leave it out. Dried basil just does not cut it here.