July 7, 2010

Homemade Ricotta and Tips for Growing Garlic

It’s that time of year again- not much time for writing about gardening and just enough time to delight in pinching out tomato side-shoots, taking a stroll past the peas - nibbling as we go, and for checking on the general progress of what looks to be a generous harvest to come.

Today was the first day where we’ve had enough crops come in so as to cover the kitchen table, and enough to make a salad worthy of a meal. Broad beans, 2 types of lettuce (marvel of the four seasons and buttercrunch), a spring mix of sorts, arugula (rocket), coriander, peas, our entire first crop of garlic (what a sight!), and enough basil to make our first batch of Genovese basil pesto!

On top of that, today I finally tried making ricotta from scratch. Well, not completely from scratch of course, but enough to report that it’s an incredibly simple process. So easy that, by the end, I was wishing I’d made it every week since I first read about how to make it on Chocolate & Zucchini. As it says on C&Z, the ricotta does taste a lot like the milk it comes from…and my ricotta was okay, but not quite as sweet as I’d hoped for. My guess is that the sweetness, despite using organic milk, can be best achieved by using milk that’s very fresh off the farm and ideally unpasteurized, for taste and for health benefits.

Unfortunately in Canada, at least in BC, it’s impossible to buy unpasteurized milk, so my advice is to make friends with your local dairy farmer and see where that leads you. I’d still try making it at home, at least once, just to see how easy it can be. Who knows, perhaps one day you'll be in desperate need of ricotta and the store will have run out. Well, now you know how to make it, and ricotta only requires whole milk (homogenised milk), buttermilk, and cheesecloth (muslin).


Garlic- my new love!
We harvested our first crop of garlic today- 24 enormous, beautiful bulbs. From this day on, I will always grow garlic whenever possible. The smell of it straight from the garden is reminiscent of the best markets, (sorry friends, but I won’t be spending $2 per bulb any more), and of the braided strands (plaits) of garlic hanging from market stalls in Provence.

On the subject of garlic braiding and fresh garden produce, I'd like to recommend an excellent book. It's one that every serious beginner gardener should own, called The Zero-Mile Diet by Carolyn Herriot. Although based on Vancouver Island where the climate can be quite different from the dry interior of BC, all the essential information is there. How to make an excellent compost, how to grow many types of vegetables in your home garden, including some more interesting varieties, how to save seeds, and most importantly…how to braid garlic (hee hee)! Exciting times lie ahead on the garlic front. In the meantime, until I learn how to braid garlic properly…my house will continue to smell of garlic while it’s drying! I love garlic, but that is honestly quite the incentive.

Top tips for growing garlic - as passed on by my wonderful garlic vendor at the farmers' market- and a few tips from me:
-         -  Buy organic garlic seed cloves from your local farmer’s market

-         - Plant garlic in the fall (some books recommend planting garlic in the spring but I haven't had very much success with this, and the garlic bulbs are often small). The garlic’s roots will start to form throughout the winter, and by the time spring arrives, you’re off to the races, so to speak!

-         - The seed garlic cloves can have a hard 'nub' at the bottom where the clove separates from the bulb. If it looks hollow then it’s ready for planting, but if rounded, then use the tip of a knife to lever out the ‘nub’. This will allow the roots to form more freely.

-        -  In early summer/late spring (usually June) garlic will produce green shoots from the stems called garlic ‘scapes’. The scapes feed off the bulbs, so it’s best to remove them (great for use in salads or in an omelette etc) to allow the garlic to grow bigger.

-         - Harvest your garlic in July when 2/3rds of the plant has turned yellow (at this point the stem might start to angle/lean over slightly as well).

I hope this helps to give you a good start in growing your own garlic this autumn, and that the intro to ricotta makes cheese-making a slightly less mystifying process, not to mention more accessible.

Happy gardening!  

June 21, 2010

Strawberry Rhubarb Parfaits with Poached Meringues

I guess the question should be asked. Are poached meringues deserving of a comeback? Does anyone even remember what they are? Or are they too retro and French-country to join our contemporary tables? Well, if given a moment’s thought, modern cuisine is all about simplicity, and highlighting the best attributes of any given ingredient. So I suppose you could say that there isn’t anything simpler in taste (egg white + sugar) and true to an egg’s unique properties, than a poached meringue, but I suppose that might be up for debate?

Poached meringues are exactly what the name implies - egg whites beaten with sugar until stiff, and generally shaped into quenelles (little football shapes made with 2 spoons) for presentation. There are two tips to keep in mind when first attempting poached meringues- there may be more tips, but I was only able to grasp the two in my first attempt: keep the water hot, but barely simmering, and save poaching the meringues until just before serving.

So here’s a little seasonal recipe to try- a variation on the classic French dessert ‘iles flottantes’ or floating islands. Making the most of organic eggs from a friend’s farm, and seasonal fresh strawberries and rhubarb, this dessert is both rich and zippy from the sweet/sour combination of the fruits. This is also a good way to use up some frozen fruit if you’re in ‘freezer-clearing’ mode like I am. This recipe may come in 3 parts, but each part is really easy. And, if you’re in a rush, you can leave out the poached meringues, making just the fruit and custard.

Strawberry Rhubarb Parfaits with Poached Meringues
Serves 4

For the custard: (this can be made up to 1 day ahead)
2 egg yolks (reserve the whites for the meringues) + 1 egg
250ml whipping cream
250 ml 2%/semi-skim milk
1/3 cup sugar

Heat the milk and cream until heated through and nearly boiling; remove from heat. Whisk together the sugar and egg yolks in a bowl that ideally has a pour spout. Add the heated milk to the egg mixture (keep the pot at hand) whisking until completely combined then return to the stove top.

Stir constantly on low heat until the custard thickens (about 8 minutes of your undivided attention is required here but is well worth it- if you stop stirring for more than 30 seconds(ish) then the custard may curdle).

You'll know the custard is done when you can clearly draw a line through the custard on the bottom of the pan.

Vanilla custard is one of my favourite desserts in the world, and can be used in a variety of different desserts; it’s definitely worth a few minutes of your time to make it from scratch with good quality ingredients. For a more extravagant custard recipe using vanilla bean see here:

For a frozen fruit compote:  mix equal parts cherries and strawberries and stew on very low heat until defrosted and a little juice has formed in the saucepan. Add in some 1”long sticks of rhubarb (cut 1 stick of rhubarb into 1/4s lengthways, then into 1” pieces) until steamed through, then thicken the sauce by removing the fruit with a slotted spoon and adding 1 tsp cornstarch dissolved in 2 tsp water. Stir, then add the fruit back in.

If using fresh fruit: steam the rhubarb with 1 tbsp water and 1 tsp runny honey and add to sliced fresh strawberries. Then top with the custard followed by the poached meringue.

To make the poached meringues:
Beat 2 egg whites with an electric hand mixer and add a pinch of cream of tartar (this will make the meringues hold together better) until soft peaks form. Then continue to beat, adding ½ cup sugar, one third at a time, until glossy and firm. Shape the meringues into quenelles using 2 tablespoons (see link above) and follow the below 2 tips:

1. In a sauté pan bring the water to a boil then lower the temperature to barely a simmer, keeping the lid on. Have everything ready before you do the poaching. Make the quenelles using 2 tablespoons, add them to the water and immediately cover with a lid, and cook/steam them for 1.5 to 2 minutes until set.

2. Drain the meringues by lifting them out of the pan using a slotted spoon (place paper towel beneath the spoon to instantly wick away the moisture before adding them to the custard). Have your sliced fresh fruit, or fruit compote, ready in the serving glasses and topped with custard before poaching the meringues.


June 10, 2010

Chilli hot chocolate and then some

Mmm...I just made a cup of thick hot chocolate with a Mexican twist, compliments of one of the best chocolate companies out there- Taza. And as they say on the back of the wrapped discs: "a small chocolate maker in Somerville, Mass. We use traditional Mexican stone mills to grind this unique, intensely flavored chocolate for eating and drinking". And if that didn't sound good enough...unlike other more well known Mexican-style (drinking) chocolate producers, like Ibarra, Taza chocolate is certified organic, and the company has a Direct Trade relationship with the growers where more money makes its way to the growers than even through the Fair Trade label. They also package it in the form of 2 discs, which makes for easier melting, and for easier snapping in half to make chocolate for one if you wish- and even then just half a disc will suffice. Also, the chocolate comes in fantastic flavours like Guajillo chilli (what I'm drinking now), vanilla bean, and salted almond. 

As I write, the hot chocolate is keeping a really nice, constant heat...but a skin is definitely forming on the top...off skin off! Okay, it's off now. I ate it. And it tasted really, really good. (Not like the skin that forms on top of a latte which for some reason is completely awful). 

So how did we find the Taza chocolate you may ask? Well, I didn't order it online, although always tempted. We actually stumbled upon it while in Santa Cruz for a wedding last September. On the way to the hotel we had the pleasure of stopping by a great local organic shop to pick up some things for breakfast - it had the most incredible selection of chocolate for such a small establishment- I guess the locals must have great taste!? Certainly we can vouch that the local, even home-brewed, wine was excellent...ahh to live in California. This was also where we learned that the infamous Santa Cruz juice actually comes from... Santa Cruz. Well, at least it appeared that way, what with the 30 or so different varieties of juice and juice blends on the shelf- it's pretty safe to assume. Needless to say we drank a litre of the stuff just overnight. And after a wedding...who wouldn't!

I digress...back to the chocolate.  First of all, I wish I had their job- those lucky (and incredibly brave, hard working and dedicated) owners of Taza. My 'get out of the rat race' dream is to have a sustainable, ethical cocao forest of chocolate trees interspersed with rainforest in some tropical paradise somewhere, with papayas and bananas growing within reach throughout the property.

It might look something like Willie Harcourt-Cooze's chocolate farm and factory. Willie's chocolate is only through UK retailers but, lucky for us, they are now shipping worldwide. This chocolate is also seriously good...less refined (more granular but also packed full of flavour) and available in 100% cacao cylinders, which can take a while to use, but I try to grate some from time to time into savoury dishes; this works very well with roast lamb and rosemary in particular. Their very innovative, South American influenced chocolate recipes are available online, and their wonky but 'makes you feel like a kid again' website is great fun exploring- especially the videos of Cooze- clearly a brilliant, uninhibited man with endless energy who would certainly make Willy Wonka do a double-take. 

So, after all this talk, am I going to leave you with a chocolate recipe? Of course!

A rough hot chocolate recipe:

One trick to making a thicker hot chocolate...and celiacs will appreciate this too...is to add about 1 tablespoon white rice flour- whisked in to avoid lumps of course.

Melt 1 disc of drinking chocolate (or make a paste of sugar (to taste) and 2 tbsp cocoa with some milk in a pan) on low heat in a small saucepan. Add a splash of whole milk to prevent burning and stir in the melted chocolate until there are no lumps. Then add 2 mugs worth of milk - this could be a combination of whole milk and 2% (semi-skimmed) - and heat until heated through. Whisk in 1 tbsp of white rice flour and gradually bring the hot chocolate to a boil, being sure to run a wooden spoon over the bottom of the pan to prevent sticking or burning. Let boil for just a minute, whisk to make it a little frothy, then pour into mugs.

Enjoy as a dessert for 2.