Friday, 31 December 2010

Paprika Soup

One last post for 2010! I will go out on a slightly more healthy note than has prevailed for most of this month. The bad news is that unless you have dried your own paprika this summer, it will be a little difficult to reproduce this. But it can be done, I'm sure. Did you roast and freeze any peppers this summer? They would work well, or possibly you can find some greenhouse-grown red bell peppers which would be an acceptable alternative along with a hit of purchased ground paprika.

I added no other seasonings (besides a little vinegar and sugar to give some sweet-sour dimension) because my home-dried paprika was so rich and fabulous tasting. If you are using less interesting peppers, you might want to add a small handful of dried tomatoes to the vegetables as they cook, to give it another dimension, or add a little smoked paprika, spicy or mild, if you have it.

8 to 12 servings
1 hour prep time

Paprika Soup
500 grams (1 pound) potatoes
500 grams (1 pound) rutabaga
500 grams (1 pound) celeriac
8 cups chicken stock
50 grams (2 ounces) dried paprika
OR 1 large red pepper, roasted
AND 1 tablespoon sweet Hungarian paprika
salt & pepper to taste
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
2 cups light cream

Peel the vegetables and cut them into 1 cm thick slices. Put them in a large pot with the chicken stock and the dried or roasted paprika (pepper). Bring to a boil, and boil for about 30 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.

Let the mixture cool enough to handle, then run it through a food processor or blender until quite smooth. You may need to stop and scrape it down occasionally. The soup can be made ahead to this point and refrigerated, then finished later.

To serve the soup, bring it up to a boil. Taste it and season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the cream and heat until it is hot through, but not quite boiling. Serve at once.

Last year at this time I made Rum & Raisin Sweet Potatoes and Baked Onions.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Whipped Shortbread, Plain & Cocoa

My aunt used to make these, and I don't remember that hers spread all over the pan. Mine do tend to, even though I freeze them first before I bake them. Not too sure what I am doing wrong, but probably I need to up the starch or flour a little bit. However, these are still very, very tasty and the texture is terrific. They are better after they have sat for a day or two.

Mostly these are made in the white version but I wondered how cocoa - which is starchy, after all - would do in place of the arrowroot. Even better is the answer, I would say. I mean, c'mon; they're chocolate. I like these because even though they are killer rich they are not too sweet.

Anyway, on this note, Christmas is almost upon us and with it comes large numbers of relatives staying for the weekend. I am going to take some time off from the blog. Back in a week or so. Hope you all have great holidays and are able to start the new year in a relaxed and restored fashion.

30 to 42 cookies
1 1/2 hours - 30 minutes prep time

1 cup unsalted butter
2/3 cup icing sugar
1 teaspoon almond or vanilla extract
1 1/3 cups unbleached pastry flour
1/3 cup arrowroot or cocoa
a pinch of salt

Leave the butter out in a warm room for at least an hour to soften - you want it to be really quite soft.

Put it in a large, deep mixing bowl and beat it with an electric mixer until light and fluffy; several minutes. Add the icing sugar and beat it in well, then the flavour extract and beat again. The butter should be really very light.

Measure the flour and arrowroot or cocoa and add the salt. Stir them together, then beat them into the butter half at a time. It will seem like too much flour, and a certain amount will fly around. (That's why you want a really deep mixing bowl.) When the flour is completely amalgamated, continue beating the dough for another couple of minutes until very light.

Scoop the dough out by spoonfuls onto a parchment lined baking sheet. Keep the cookies fairly well apart as they may spread. Put each sheet of prepared cookies into the freezer for about 20 minutes, until quite frozen.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake the cookies for 20 minutes, until just a little coloured around the bottoms. Let cool then remove from the tray. Hopefully they have not completely flattened out. But they will be very tasty, regardless.

I made both kinds and made the plain ones first, then made the cocoa ones without needing to wash anything in between times, which was convenient.

I find the cocoa version holds up better than the arrowroot version. Possibly I should be putting in a little more arrowroot; 1/2 cup maybe instead of 1/3 cup. I'm not trying that now though; going to eat this batch of cookies first. There's enough cookies in the house to choke a horse right now.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Dried Tomato Pesto

Not entirely seasonal since it requires the purchase of some imported basil, at least at this time of year. Still, everything else was in the cupboard, not least the dried tomatoes. We have massive numbers of them from our garden and I will be trying to think of ways to use them up all winter.

I didn't add cheese to this as it went with the Baked Ricotta, and more cheese would have been a bit excessive. However, I would certainly add it in other applications.

p.s. Hurray! The days; they are now getting longer!

1 1/2 cups pesto - 6 to 8 servings
20 minutes prep time

Dried Tomato Pesto
40 grams (2 ounces) fresh basil
1/3 cup water
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
1/2 cup dried tomatoes
1/3 cup walnut pieces or sunflower seeds
1/3 cup sunflower seed oil
2 to 4 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon sweet Hungarian paprika
1/2 teaspoon salt
up to 1 cup of grated Parmesan (optional)

Wash the basil, and trim off any large, tough stem pieces. Drain it well.

Meanwhile, put the the water, rosemary and tomatoes into a pot and bring to a boil. Cover and remove from the heat. Let them sit for 10 minutes to soak.

Put the walnut pieces, sunflower seed oil, peeled garlic cloves, paprika and salt into the food processor. Add the tomatoes with the soaking liquid and the basil. Purée until well amalgamated, but with some texture.

Turn it out into a serving or storage dish. Can be used as a spread or dip, or over potatoes, pasta or rice. I served it as a side-by-side spread with the baked ricotta from yesterday, so cheese was not indicated but you may wish to add some quantity of grated cheese to this, particularly if it's going over pasta. I would think a good cup of strong cheese such as Parmesean would not be too much.

Last year at this time I made Braised Duck Legs with Rutabaga, Leek & Celeriac.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Baked Ricotta Cheese

This lovely dish of cheesy goodness is ricotta cheese from Upper Canada Cheese, drained and beaten with an egg and some Guernsey milk cheddar, then baked until set and bubbly. It makes a great spread on crackers or small slices of bread. I left mine pretty plain because I served it with Dried Tomato Pesto. You could serve it with any kind of pesto, or various chutneys pickles, or relishes. If you don't want to serve it with anything like that, you might want to put some herbs or spices into the cheese mixture.

The Guernsey Cheddar, by the way, was made by Pine River Cheese, which recently became the second cheesemaker in Ontario to make a Guernsey milk cheese. I got mine at the 100 Mile Market, but I'm not too sure who else would have it. Anyone spotted it anywhere?

This would serve 4 to 6 as an appetizer course in a meal, or it would make a good dish in a buffet of hors d'ouvres where, presumably, it would go much further.

4 to 20 servings depending
1 hour - 15 minutes prep time

Baked Ricotta Cheese
450 grams (1 pound) ricotta cheese
100 grams (1/4 pound) cheddar cheese
1 extra large egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
seasonings as desired

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Butter a small baking dish (or dishes, if you are going to serve it in individual portions)

Drain the ricotta well, then beat in the egg, salt, and any other seasonings that seem appropriate. Put the mixture in the buttered dish(es) and bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until golden brown and bubbly.

Let the mixture sit for about 5 minutes before serving.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Finnish Nisa (Pulla) Bread or German Stollen

What both these breads have in common - besides being very suitable treats for Christmas - is that they are made of rich, eggy dough flavoured with cardamom. The pulla leaves it at that point; and as a breakfast or bread to be eaten with coffee, it's excellent, and suitable alll year round.

Finnish Nisa, or Pulla Bread
I took half my dough, and added dried fruits and marzipan to make stollen. It should also be dredged in icing sugar, but I will do that right before I serve it. Right now these loaves are in the freezer, waiting to come out for Christmas breakfast and our tree-decorating party.

I tend to think if you are going to bake, you might as well bake, so I have given instructions for making both of these at once - 4 loaves in all. However, there is no reason not to cut the recipe in half, and make just one or the other, or one loaf of each instead of two.

I used the lower amount of sugar, and I actually thought it could use a bit more. At that level, there is a sweetness to the dough, but it's really quite subtle. You might like a little more.

Note: The amount of fruit given to make stollen assumes you intend to make 2 loaves. If you intend to make all 4 loaves as stollen, you will need to double the amount of fruit.

Makes 4 loaves
6 hours - 1 hour prep time, 4 hours rising time (or more)

Christmas Stollen
Start the Yeast Proofing:
2 2/3 cups milk
3/4 to 1 1/4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon green cardamom pods
2 1/2 tablespoons quick acting yeast

Put the milk, sugar and salt in a pot, and begin heating them over quite low heat. Meanwhile, grind the cardamom pods. Sift out the green hulls, then grind the remaining seed some more, until it is as fine as you can get it. Add it to the milk mixture.

When the milk is just warm to the touch but the sugar is mostly dissolved, turn off the heat. Sprinkle the yeast over the surface and cover the pot. Set it in a warm but not hot spot and let it proof for about 15 minutes. At this point the yeast should be dissolved and foamy.

Make the Dough:
6 cups white spelt flour
3 large eggs
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
6 to 7 cups white or whole spelt flour

Put the flour in a large mixing bowl, and make a well in the middle. Pour in the yeast mixture, and add the eggs and the butter. Mix well. You will have a very soft batter.

Put out about 3 cup of the remaining flour on a clean counter or large board, and turn out the dough. Begin kneading in the flour, adding more as required once the first amount is absorbed, until you have a soft, very slightly sticky dough. You can use white or whole spelt depending on how refined a loaf you would like to have.

Knead for about 5 minutes, until the dough is very smooth and elastic. Put it back into a mixing bowl, clean and well greased with butter. Cover and put in a warm spot to rise until doubled in size; about 2 hours.

To Finish as Pulla or Nisa:
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons milk

Divide the dough into 4 equal portions.

Working with one of the resulting portions at a time, divide it into 3 equal sub-portions. Roll out each one between your hands, until you have a long rope of dough about a foot long. When you have all three rolled out, pinch them together at one end, and braid them. Place the resulting braided loaf on a large baking tray lined with parchment paper, or well buttered. Let rise again until doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 375°F.

Heat the milk and sugar together until the sugar melts; the microwave is a good place to do this. Brush this glaze over the loaves. Bake them for about 30 minutes, until done.

To Finish as Stollen:
1/4 cup candied orange peel
1/4 cup candied lemon peel
1/4 cup dried cherries, cut up
1/4 cup dried apricots, cut up
1/4 cup light raisins
200 grams good Danish marzipan
icing sugar

Take half of the above dough recipe, and knead in all the fruits. Mine were rather dry, so I soaked them in a couple tablespoons of sherry for an hour first.

Divide the fruity dough in half. Press each portion out into a rectangle, about a foot wide and 6 or 7 inches high. This should leave it about an inch in depth. Do this on a well floured board to keep it from sticking.

Divide the marzipan in half, and roll each half out between your hands into a long log just a little shorter than your rectangle of dough. Flatten it a bit, then lay it on the dough. Roll up the dough around it, and place it seam-side down on a large baking sheet lined with parchment. Repeat with the other loaf.

Bake for 30 minutes, until done. Sift icing sugar generously over the loaf before slicing.

Last year at this time I made Beet & Grapefruit Salad.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Jelly-Glazed Acorn Squash

Here's a quick - well, the work part is quick - and easy way to cook acorn squash. You can use whatever jelly you like, as long as you think it will work as a flavour. I used quince on half and some hot cayenne jelly on the other half. Red currant or crabapple jelly would also work fine, I would think. Marmalade would be excellent. I wouldn't use grape, though. Bleagh.

4 servings
1 hour 30 minutes - 15 minutes prep time

Jelly-Glazed Acorn Squash
1 large acorn squash
1 to 2 tablespoons butter
salt & pepper
2 to 3 tablespoons fruit jelly

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Wash the squash and cut it into quarters. Remove and discard the seeds. Put the squash pieces in a lightly oiled baking pan, and stab them enthusiastically if not aggressively all over with a fork. But don't pierce the skin.

Next rub them with the butter, and season them with salt and pepper. Bake for 45 minutes.

Take the pan out of the oven, and spread the squash with the jelly. Most of it should end up in the hollow middle, but try to spread it around some.

Put the pan back in the oven and bake for another 30 minutes or so, until the squash is quite soft.

Last year at this time I made Eggnog Shorties.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Aunt Alethea's Famous Squares

These squares are a Christmas tradition throughout various branches of my mother's side of the family, although there is some difference in opinion about how exactly they should be made. I decided I would make both versions this year.

The other (heretical!) version has 1/4 cup each candied orange peel, candied lemon peel and candied pineapple instead of the preserved ginger. Instead of 1/2 a cup of sugar in the batter it calls for 1 cup icing sugar, and a little nutmeg grated in. And finally, it doesn't get iced. I didn't have any candied pineapple (glick, frankly) and so I put in dried cranberries instead and I left out the nuts, because I also have to admit to not loving nuts in cake generally plus there's a lot going on in there already.

I used hazelnuts in the first version, which are probably more of a second favourite nut than a favourite nut; but the trouble with my favourite nuts (almonds? pistachios?) is that they don't generally last more than 15 minutes after entering the house.

So, which one is better? Hmm, let me have another one of each while I decide. Actually, I don't think there is much contest: anything made with preserved ginger is obviously going to be the best and that caramel icing rocks. But the other is really quite good too.

25 squares
1 hour - 30 minutes prep time PLUS 15 minutes to ice

Prepare the Dry Ingredients:
1/2 cup chopped favourite nuts
1/3 cup chopped candied ginger
3/4 to 1 cup chopped dates

3/4 cup soft unbleached (pastry) flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

Chop the nuts, ginger and dates. Put them in a medium sized mixing bowl.

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt over them, and mix gently but well, breaking apart any clumps of dates or ginger. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line the bottom of a 9" baking pan with parchment paper and butter the sides, or else butter the whole thing.

Make the Batter:
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons butter, melted

Beat the eggs until light and pale, in a slightly larger mixing bowl. Beat in the sugar and the melted (but not too hot) butter.

Fold in the flour and dried fruit and nuts until all the flour is absorbed. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and spread it out evenly. It will seem thin and skimpy but persevere.

Bake the squares for 25 to 30 minutes, until golden and firm to the touch. (You can do the old toothpick test if you like.)

Once the squares (to be) have cooled, they can be iced. I generally do this the next morning.

Ice the Squares:
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 tablespoons milk
1/4 cup Sucanat or very dark brown sugar
3/4 cup icing sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Heat the butter, milk and brown sugar until the dissolved. Beat in the icing sugar and the vanilla. Spread over the pan of cake. Cut it into squares, and remove them from the pan.

Last year at this time I made Basler Brunsli.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Scalloped Sweet Potatoes

I thought I would try making that good old stand-by, scalloped potatoes, only with sweet potatoes. Here's the result and it's pretty good, I think. It looks a bit curdled, but I don't think it's any more curdled than regular scalloped potatoes; it's just that the orange makes it stand out more.

The sauce will seem very thick, and it is. Sweet potatoes are a lot more moist than regular potatoes and the liquid from them will thin it out as it cooks. Use whatever rather tangy, melty cheese you like. I used goat Gouda from Monforte but I think a Friulano would be really good too. Cheddar would really be my last choice, if I couldn't get one of the others.

As I was eating it, I thought that maybe it could use a little nutmeg in the sauce. So, if you think so too, put in a good little grating of it along with the cheese.

8 servings
2 hours - 45 minutes prep time

Scalloped Sweet Potatoes
Make the Sauce:
250 grams (1/2 pound) Gouda, Friulano, or Cheddar cheese
4 large shallots
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
3 cups whole milk or light cream

Peel and mince the shallots. Grate or chop the cheese.

Put the butter in a large saucepan with the shallots, and cook until the shallots are soft over medium-high heat. Add the flour, salt and mustard and mix well. Cook, stirring constantly, for 3 or 4 minutes. Begin mixing in the milk a little at a time until you have a fairly smooth sauce. Once it thickens, add the cheese and stir until it melts. Remove from the heat.

Finish the Dish:
1 kg (2 pounds or 3 or 4 large) sweet potatoes
100 grams (1/4 pound) Gouda, Friulano or Cheddar cheese

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Put about 1/4 of the sauce into a large glass lasagne pan (9" x 13"). Spread it evenly over the bottom of the pan.

Slice all the sweet potatoes thinly, discarding any bad spots. I didn't peel them, but I did discard the first slice from each end which was pointy and scabby skinned.

Take about 1/3 of the sweet potatoes and layer them evenly over the sauce in the lasagne pan. Top with 1/3 of the remaining sauce, and half the remaining sweet potato slices. Repeat with 1/2 the remaining sauce and all the remaining sweet potato slices, then spread the remaining sauce over the top layer. Grate the remaining cheese and sprinkle it evenly over the top.

Bake the casserole for 1 hour and 15 minutes, until golden brown.

Last year at this time I made Roasted Vegetable Wild Rice Salad.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Jap Chae - Korean Noodles and Vegetables

This is, admittedly, a rather simplified version of Jap Chae, a traditional Korean dish. However, it's quick and tasty and easy to make - a good thing for a week-night supper. You can make it any time of year as the vegetables can easily be changed around to reflect what's in season. Right now it's the the good old trio of cabbage, carrots and onions, with beansprouts and mushrooms to keep them company.

The only hard part is finding the sweet potato noodles (also known as glass noodles). They cook clear, and really have very little flavour of their own. However, they have a great texture and soak up the flavours of the sauce beautifully. If the directions on the package are different from mine, by all means use the ones on the package.

3 to 4 servings
30 minutes prep time

Jap Chae; Korean Glass Noodles
Cook the Noodles:
225 grams (1/2 pound) sweet potato noodles
1 tablespoon mild vegetable oil
1 tablespoon rice vinegar

Put a large pot of salted water on to boil. When it boils, add the noodles and stir well. Cover the pot and turn off the heat. Let the noodles sit for 10 minutes, then drain them. Rinse well with cold water, then drain again. Toss them with the oil and vinegar, then use kitchen shears to snip them into shorter, more manageable pieces.

Prepare the Vegetables:
2 cups chopped cabbage or spinach
1 large onion
1 large carrot
12 to 16 button mushrooms
2 cups fresh bean sprouts
1 or 2 green onions, if available

Wash, trim and chop the cabbage or spinach. Peel the onion and cut it into slivers. Peel the carrot and cut it into slivers as well. Clean and slice the mushrooms. Wash and drain the beansprouts well. I would put in a green onion or two if they were in season as well - trim them and cut them in inch long pieces.

Finish the Dish:
3 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon finely minced peeled ginger
3 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons mild vegetable oil
lightly toasted sesame seeds (optional)

Mix the sugar, soy sauce and sesame oil and set them aside. Peel and mince the ginger and garlic.

Heat the oil in a large wok or skillet. Add the slivered carrots and a tablespoon or two of water, and cook for about a minute, stirring the carrots around, until the water evaporates. Add the sliced mushrooms and cook them for a minute or two, stirring only once or twice, until they are nicely browned. Then add the onion and cabbage (if using), and cook for another minute or two, stirring frequently. Add the garlic and ginger and stir in. Finally add the bean sprouts (and spinach and green onions, if using) and cook until just wilted, another minute or two.

Finally, toss in the noodles and drizzle the sauce over them. Continue to cook for a minute or two, mixing well until the vegetables and sauce are evenly distributed through the noodles.

That's it! This is often served cool as a salad, but at this time of year I am happier to eat it hot. It's sometimes served with rice but that seems a bit excessive to me.

Last year at this time I made Meatloaf. It was also Christmas cookie baking time. I made Rolled Lemon Cookies and Rolled Spice Cookies.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Alaska Sweetheart Potatoes

Alaska Sweetheart Potatoes
This is going to be the winter of the potatoes. Not only did we grow 7 kinds ourselves, we picked up another 14 varieties to try from Pinehaven Farm. This is one of the ones we grew ourselves; the seed came from Eagle Creek Seed Potatoes in Alberta.

As you can see, the most notable feature of Alaska Sweetheart is the pink tone to the flesh, which matches the vibrant pink of the skin. There isn't much information out there about the history of this potato. People claim it was bred in Alaska, and it's clearly grown there. However, I don't find any references to it prior to the early 1990's and no information on its breeding.

While I like these potatoes, I have to admit I could be seduced away from them by pink potatoes with more intensely coloured flesh. For some reason, while the "blue" (purple) potatoes often have very strong colouring, the reds or pinks tend to be rather pale. I sliced several potatoes before I got one that I thought was intense enough in colouring to be a good sample. You do get the odd one that's even stronger a pink than this one, but many will be a bit paler.

Alaska Sweetheart is a mid-to-late maturing potato, ready in 80 to 90 days. It has a reputation as a shy producer, and we did get less of them than of some other varieties. I can find no information on disease resistance, and fortunately we have had no problems in the garden to test them.

The potatoes are in general on the small side, and rather floury than waxy. They roast very nicely, but are also good boiled, mashed or fried (and in soup!) They are a bit soft, perhaps, for potato salad but it wouldn't be impossible. The flavour is a nice balanced and mild potato flavour. To help them keep their bright colour when cooked, steam them over water with a bit of vinegar in it. The vinegar won't be noticeable.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Fried Tofu with Stir-Fried Cabbage

I don't buy tofu often enough. I really enjoy it, but somehow I find it easy to forget about it. However, I saw some in the local grocery store marked at half price the other day. This was not a very firm, dense tofu, but a fairly soft one. Not as soft as some, which can be almost custard-like. You do need one that can be cut up and tossed around and still stay more or less in one piece (but don't get too upset if it crumbles a bit). The contrast of the crispy, flour coated outside and the soft creamy middle was very nice. And it's good old cabbage, carrots and onions again. Yay! I won't be saying that in April. But for now? Yay!

3 or 4 servings
30 minutes prep time

Fried Tofu with Stir-Fried Cabbage
Prepare the Tofu:
450 grams (1 pound) semi-firm tofu
1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns, crushed

Rinse the tofu, and put it on a plate, with another plate upside down on top. Put a weight on top of the second plate, and let the tofu drain for about 20 minutes.

Mix the flour, salt and pepper in a medium-sized mixing bowl and set aside until needed.

Prepare the Vegetables:
4 cups chopped cabbage
2 medium carrots
1 large onion
2 tablespoons finely minced, peeled ginger
3 cloves of garlic

Trim and chop the cabbage. Peel and slice the carrots. Peel and chop the onion. Mince the ginger. Peel and mince the garlic.

Final Cooking:
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons mild vegetable oil
2 or 3 tablespoons soy sauce

Heat 2 large skillets. Put 1/4 cup oil in one of them, and 2 tablespoons of oil in the other.

Cut the tofu into cubes, and toss it in the flour mixture until evenly coated. Lift the tofu out and put it in the pan with the 1/4 cup of oil once the oil is hot. Fry until nicely browned, turning it as needed so that most of the sides brown.

Meanwhile, add the carrots and onions to the second pan, along with about 1/4 cup water. Cook for 2 or 3 minutes, until the vegetables are partly cooked and the water has evaporated. Add the ginger and garlic, and stir in for a minute or so until fragrant. Add the cabbage, and season with a good sprinkle of soy sauce. Continue cooking and stirring for 2 or 3 minutes more, until the vegetables are cooked to your liking.

Serve the vegetables over rice, with the crispy, browned tofu over them both.

Last year at this time I made Ham, Squash and Leek Orzotto.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

This Is Not Pumpkin Soup And I Am Some Pissed

And do you know why it isn't pumpkin soup?

I nurtured these pumpkins all year; first planting them as seeds in little peat pots so their roots would not be disturbed when we planted them out, then keeping them under lights, then planting them in a compost-enriched bed with a little aluminum foil collar around the stem to keep the cut-worms away, then hours spent weeding and watering, then finally collecting them and storing them carefully in the furnace room to keep them coolish and dry. A lot of effort went into those pumpkins.

And then today I trudged out into the snow to buy the other ingredients I needed to make soup. I washed my pumpkins, and cut them in half. I was a little surprised at how narrow the band of flesh was, and it seemed pale. I put this down to our summer drought though, and proceeded. I pulled out all the seeds and gunk, I rubbed them with a little oil, I roasted them until tender. Then, once they had cooled, I went to peel off the skins and put the flesh into the food-processor to purée it.


The flesh was stringy; stringy like spaghetti squash. I tasted some. It had practically no flavour beyond a slight bitterness.


I am not going to name names here. Mainly because this is the 4th batch of impure seed from this summer, from 4 different suppliers ranging from the very large to the very small, from the long-established to the very new. But you can bet I will be sending this post to all 4 companies. We got 2 batches of bad peas and my favourite slicing tomato was not my favourite slicing tomato. And that's just the stuff I can tell. I wonder how many other things that we were growing for the first time were not actually what they were supposed to be? (There were a few other tomatoes that had crossed, but this was seed we saved ourselves, and we have no-one to blame but our own inexperienced selves for those.)

It's been a while since I've done much gardening, but I just don't remember having anything like this many problems when we were gardening in an allotment garden. True; we didn't grow as many different vegetables. Still, we did have a garden for 4 or 5 years and I just don't remember anything turning out not as advertised. Possibly we were lucky. But possibly with the surge of interest in home gardening seed suppliers are getting careless.

So, all you gardeners out there: what has been your experience - in the past and this year - with your vegetable seeds? I've been hearing rumours of other gardeners who have been having problems with unexpected and undesirable crosses in their purchased seeds. Let's hear about it. What seed, and if you don't mind, where you got it.

*Or, if you want to get technical, hybrid seeds. But in this case the phrase that comes to mind is not "hybrid vigour". It's "mongrel". BAH HUMBUG!

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Oh, S***

Well, there's the view out the back of the house for the next four months.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I think I'll go back to bed.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Leek & Brussels Sprout Soup

This is a very quick soup to make as soups go and not too heavy to serve as a starter to a larger more formal meal, although it will also be perfectly happy to just hang out with a sandwich. The sweetness of the leeks and the brassy brassica-ness of the Brussels sprouts balance each other very well. A little potato helps thicken it.

4 to 6 servings
40 minutes prep time

Leek and Brussels Sprout Soup
2 medium potatoes
4 cups trimmed Brussels sprouts
3 large leeks
1 or 2 stalks celery
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons flour
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
Salt & pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground celery seed

Wash and peel the potatoes. Cut them into chunks and boil them until just tender, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, trim the Brussels sprouts and slice them fairly thinly. Wash and trim the leeks. Slice them thinly, rinse them well again, and drain well. Wash and trim the celery, and slice it.

Heat the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the leeks and celery, and cook gently for a minute or two. Add the Brussels sprouts and mix them in well. Continue cooking for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. The vegetables should soften and cook down, but not brown.

Sprinkle the flour and seasonings over the vegetables and mix in well. Be mindful of the salt; how much you need will depend very much on your stock.

At this point, if the skillet is large enough (unlikely) you can add the stock to the skillet. More likely, you should put the stock into a soup pot and add the vegetables to it there. Add the potatoes, drained and roughly mashed.

Simmer the soup for about 5 minutes. Put about three-quarters of the soup into a blender and blend until fairly smooth. You will almost certainly need to do this in 2 batches if you don't want soup all over the counter. Mix the puréed soup back in with the remainder of the chunky soup. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

Reheat the soup to serve. Nice with a dollop of sour cream, but then so many things are. Really crunchy bacon bits wouldn't be half bad either.

Last year at this time I made Brussels Sprouts, Leeks & Carrots.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Aunt Hilda's Spanish Cream Becomes Ricotta Panna Cotta

When I first started blogging a few years back now, I noticed that many other bloggers were going on about something called "Panna Cotta". What, I wondered, was that?


It was what was known in our family as Aunt Hilda's Spanish Cream, that she first started making some time in the 1930's, now served in a spiffy glass and photographed at a stylish angle. Aunt Hilda was one of six sisters known for their talents in the kitchen. She made a number of desserts like this; rich, creamy, custardy and rather old-fashioned even when she was making them. Victorian, almost.

I have kind of mixed feeling about that. I mean, I wish "Panna Cotta" well in its new career, but I do wonder why things have to be given an Italian name and we have to pretend that our parents and grand-parents and great-grandparents had never heard of something that they actually probably ate about once a month, before they're allowed to be trendy. Still, if calling it Panna Cotta is what it takes to get people to try it, then so be it.

Aunt Hilda (actually my great-aunt) is long gone, alas, but her Spanish Cream carries on. Actually, this isn't quite her recipe, but not too far off. I lost some of the cream and eggs and replaced them with ricotta. This was some of the excellent ricotta that was given to us on our vist to Quality Cheese. The finished dessert was just perfect: rich, creamy, sweet but not too sweet, faintly tangy. It was delicious plain, and supported some preserved cherries wonderfully. Spanish Cream or Panna Cotta; by either name this is one special dessert.

6 servings
15 minutes prep time, 2 to 8 hours to set

Ricotta Panna Cotta
1 cup cream
1/4 cup sugar
1 large egg
2 teaspoons plain gelatine
450 grams (1 pound) ricotta cheese
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Put the cream, egg and sugar in the top of a double boiler. Cook over simmering water, beating constantly, until it thickens.

Put the custard in a food processor or blender. Sprinkle the gelatine over top. Blend briefly, then add the ricotta cheese. Blend well, until very smooth.

Divide the mixture into 6 individual serving dishes. Refrigerate until set; at least two hours. They can be served in their dishes, or unmolded. Aunt Hilda recommended some whipped cream or a spoonful of jam. Knowing the Aunties, that probably translated to "both" on the table. They are best eaten within 24 hours.

Last year at this time I made Boiled Ham with Cranberry Mustard. Which amuses me, because we just had a ham this week. I'm frequently amazed to go back a year and see that I really was eating some slight variation on the same thing at the exact same time last year. Often, things that could be eaten at other times of the year, but no; I ate it the same week, and it's not that I go back and check first. I don't.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Beans & Kale with Tomatoes

I cooked a large sack of beans this week and made soup, but there were so many of them that I had quite a few left over. I've done similar things to this before, but the combination of white beans, greens and tomatoes is so classic and so good it never hurts to do it again.

I used what was probably the last of the chard from my garden. Chard will be hard to find at this point, but kale should be around for a little while yet. If those fail there is always cabbage - a good, dark leaved one if you can get it.

3 or 4 servings
20 minutes prep time - not counting cooking the beans

Beans and Chard with Tomatoes
1 large onion
2 or 3 cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons mild vegetable oil
4 cups cooked white pea (navy) beans
4 cups chopped kale (or chard)
4 cups crushed or diced tomatoes
salt & pepper to taste

Wash the kale or chard and drain well. Peel and chop the onion. Peel and mince the garlic. Heat the oil in a large skillet, and sauté the onion until soft and slightly browned. Add the beans and continue cooking, stirring regularly, until the oil is mostly absorbed; just a few minutes. Add the garlic and mix it in until if becomes fragrant.

Meanwhile, chop the kale (or chard) coarsely. Add it to the pan, and cook down, mixing and turning so it cooks evenly. Once it is soft, add the tomatoes and simmer the mixture until it is well amalgamated and hot through. Season with salt and pepper.

A little bread and butter will make it a meal, or serve it atop a little rice.

Last year at this time I made Brussels Sprouts Braised with Chestnuts.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Christmas Plum Pudding

I'm late! I really should have made these a month ago. I kept eating my figs though, before I could round up all the other ingredients. Also I can't say I am really looking forward to Christmas. What I would like to do for Christmas is to go sit on a tropical beach somewhere for a week. Or Spain. Spain would be nice. What I am actually doing, though, is having a 2 day house-party for 10 people. It seemed like a good idea in July. However, I have finally conceded that ignoring it won't make it go away and started making some plans.

I didn't really use the exact proportions of fruit listed below. What I ended up doing was going through the cupboards and using up any old fruit I could find. I did keep the orange peel and ginger about right though. Some of it was rather old and tough so I soaked it in some old sherry that also wanted using up. I can actually see some space in the pantry now! If your fruit is really fresh and moist you could skip soaking it.

Below you can see the pot I used to steam the puddings. I believe this is sold as a set to make pasta but I have only resorted to using it for pasta when my regular pasta pot is otherwise occupied. Mostly I use it for steaming things, which it does very well.

I also experimented with putting my puddings into wide-mouthed glass jars, from which they slide quite nicely, since they taper straight down. Don't regard this as long term canning, say all the experts, but I don't see why they wouldn't keep as long if not longer than puddings taken out of the mold and wrapped up in foil - at least 3 months. Plenty of booze of course is a major contributing factor in this keeping ability.

Christmas Puddings in the Steamer
Makes 4 puddings of 4 servings each
about 45 minutes prep time - 1 1/2 hours cook time
Should be made 1 to 2 months in advance

Christmas Puddings Waiting for Christmas
Mix the Fruit:
100 grams (1/4 pound) black mission figs
100 grams (1/4 pound) light raisins
100 grams (1/4 pound) dark raisins
100 grams (1/4 pound) dried cherries
100 grams (1/4 pound) chopped nuts
100 grams (1/4 pound) candied peel
50 grams (2 ounces) preserved ginger
1/4 cup rum or other booze of choice
1/2 cup soft unbleached flour

Trim the stems from the figs, and chop them to be of a size with the other fruits. Mix all the fruits (and nuts) in a container that can be sealed, with the rum, and let them soak overnight. When you are ready to make the puddings, toss them with the flour.

Mix the Dry Ingredients:
1 cup fine whole wheat bread crumbs
1 cup soft unbleached flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

Mix these together and set them aside.

Finish the Puddings:
3 extra-large eggs
3/4 cup brown rice syrup
1/4 cup molasses
1/4 cup mild vegetable oil
1 cup buttermilk
and finally, more rum or other booze ad lib

Beat the eggs lightly with a spoon. Heat the brown rice syrup and molasses gently until they are quite fluid, but not really hot. Beat them into the eggs, then beat in the oil and buttermilk.

Butter 4 500-ml molds thoroughly.

Mix the dry ingredients into the fruits, then mix in the wet ingredients until well blended. Ladle the batter evenly amongst the molds. It will be quite runny, as you will gather. Cover the molds with buttered aluminum foil, and tie it in place with kitchen twine (or use rubber bands, if you have any of the right size).

Put the puddings into a steamer with water to the bottom of the jars. Steam for 1 1/2 hours, checking the water level regularly and topping it up with boiling water if necessary, and it will be necessary at least once I am sure.

Remove puddings from the steamer once done. You can test them with a toothpick, which should come out clean and dry. At this point I poured as much more rum over them as I could get them to absorb (several tablespoons each), put a lid and ring on them, and popped them back in the steamer for 10 minutes. They should now keep for about 3 months, I would think, in a cool dark place.

You could also make these in 2 1-litre molds, but in that case they should be steamed for at least 2 hours. These would have to be removed from the mold and well wrapped in foil once sprinkled with more rum. Again, keep in a cool dark place for up to 3 months.

To Reheat and Serve:
To reheat and serve the pudding(s), they should be steamed again for an hour. Or, what I actually do, which is to sprinkle them with a little liquid (more booze!) and microwave them until hot. The time will depend on your microwave, but almost certainly under 10 minutes to get one hot through. Much, much faster and doesn't tie up the stove when you are almost certainly wanting to use it for other things.

Serve them with Hard Sauce, which is basically boozy butter frosting.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Radish Fried Rice

This was a pleasant dish but not too different from the last time I made fried rice. I'm only posting it because it was such a good way to use up a lot of radishes, which we are now swamped with, having pulled all the root veggies out of the garden this past week. I used 3 different radishes - some spicy, some not - but the end result was extremely sweet and mild. I aimed to use the same flavours as in lo-bak go, and it was a little reminiscent of it, although the texture was of course completely different. Like lo-bak go, it went well with a good dollop of our Chile-Garlic Sauce, which I'm also pleased to report is hot but not as insanely hot as I thought it would be when I canned it up.

You could use any kind of daikon or lo-bak radish for this. Mine were a large watermelon radish - this was the one that needed peeling - a Blauer Herbst radish, and a couple of China Rose. Yes, I went on a radish seed buying binge last spring. No, I didn't know what to do with all those radishes. But so far, so good. I'll be sure to plant lots next year too.

We ate it all, but it was all I made. And we're pigs too, of course.

2 to 4 servings
30 minute prep time

Radish Fried Rice
5 to 6 cups grated radish
1 medium carrot, grated
2 stalks celery (OR 2 cups grated celeriac)
1 medium onion (OR 3 or 4 green onions)
12-16 shiitake mushrooms
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
250 grams (1/2 pound) bacon
3 cups cold cooked rice
1 or 2 tablespoons soy sauce

Wash the radishes, and trim off the tough stringy parts of the roots, along with any damaged spots. Peel off any skin that seems really tough. (Only likely to be a problem with home-grown radishes I suspect.) Grate the radishes.

Peel and grate the carrot and celeriac, or if using celery, wash and chop it. Peel and chop the onion or green onions. Trim the stems from the shiitakes and cut them in quarters. Mince the ginger. Chop the bacon into bite-sized pieces.

Heat a large skillet or wok and cook the bacon until it is soft and has let off enough fat to coat the pan. (Add a little oil if your bacon is too lean to do that - ha ha! But it has happened.) Add the mushrooms and sauté them for a minute or two. Add the onion (but not the green onions, if using) and the celery and carrot. Cook, stirring for a minute or two. Add the radishes and ginger and continue cooking and stirring, until soft; just a few minutes.

Using wet hands, break up the rice as much as you can and add it to the pan. Rinse those fingers quickly then start stirring in the rice, breaking it up so no significant lumps remain. Add the green onions, if you are using those. Sprinkle over a little soy sauce. When the rice and vegetables are well mixed and the rice is beginning to brown in spots, serve it up; you're done.

Last year at this time I made Stir-Fried Cabbage & Carrots.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Leek & Potato Soup

Leeks and potatoes; a classic soup. I was a bit surprised I haven't posted about this before. Mr. Ferdzy really loves this and has been lobbying for it for a while. I used Alaska Sweetheart potatoes, which have pinkish flesh and so if you look closely you will see that the soup is also a bit pink. Nice! But you can use any starchy potato you like. I am lazy and leave the peels on but it is more traditional and makes a smoother soup to peel them. Up to you. If you decide to leave them on, they should be well scrubbed, and don't leave them too big. Guess who did.

8 servings
1 hour prep time

Leek and Potato Soup
1.5 kilos (3 pounds) starchy potatoes
1 teaspoon salt
2 or 3 bay leaves
1 litre water
3 or 4 large leeks (6 cups once chopped)
3 or 4 shallots
3 or 4 stalks of celery
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon celery seed, ground
1 teaspoon rubbed savory
pepper to taste
2 cups light cream

Scrub the potatoes well, or peel them if you like. Cut them into chunks. If you leave the peels on, make sure the pieces of peel will be bite-sized. Put them into a large pot with the salt, bay leaves and water. Boil until tender.

Meanwhile, wash, trim, chop and wash again the leeks. Drain them well. Peel and chop the shallots. Wash, trim and chop the celery.

Heat the butter in a large skillet and add the celery and shallots. Cook gently until they soften somewhat. Add the leeks, and continue cooking, stirring occassionally, until all the vegetables are very soft. They will give off a fair bit of water as they cook; cook this off, then reduce the heat as they cook as you don't really want them to brown. Watch and stir them well. Towards the end of the cooking, add the ground celery seed and the savory.

Mash the cooked potatoes in the cooking water. Add the cream, and stir in the cooked vegetables. Season with pepper to taste. Can be served at once, or made ahead and re-heated.

Last year at this time I made Pumpkin Bran Muffins and Chocolate Syrup.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Rutabaga Hash

For the last couple weeks I have been in a hash-slinging mood; that is I haven't been very interested in cooking. Time to eat? Throw something in a pan 'til it's edible. This has coincided with pulling the root vegetables out of the garden the last few days, and getting them ready to store. Result; hash. This was actually quite nice. Softer and less crispy than a potato-based hash, but with a lovely delicate rutabaga flavour. Of course, these were lovely delicate rutabagas right out of the garden which couldn't hurt.

My onion tops never died down, so I still have onions with green tops (although they do look rattier by the day). If you have a green onion top, or a green onion, or even some chives or parsley I definitely recommend chopping them fine and throwing them in. They will add a very welcome touch of colour.

The two of us ate this all with no problem. If you serve it for breakfast, maybe with a poached egg it won't go any further than that. It sounds like a lot of vegetable, but it really cooks down. If you serve it as part of a larger meal, it would stretch to 4 most likely.

2 to 4 servings
45 minutes prep time

Rutabaga Hash
1 1 /2 cups grated celeriac
OR 2 stalks celery
4 cups grated rutabaga
1 medium onion
1 tablespoon mild vegetable oil
2 tablespoons butter
salt & pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika

Peel and grate the celeriac (or chop the celery) and peel and grate the rutabaga. You will need about a quarter of a medium-large celeriac and a quarter of a large rutabaga. Peel and chop the onion.

Heat the oil and butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion, and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion softens and browns slightly. Add the celeriac or celery and continue cooking for a minute or two. Add the rutabaga and water, and mix in well. Cook for about 5 to 10 minutes, until the water is absorbed or evaporated and the rutabage is softened. Stir once or twice.

Continue cooking for about 15 minutes, lifting and turning the hash as it cooks. Allow the bits in contact with the pan to brown, then turn and mix to allow new bits to come in contact with the pan. When the hash is browned to your liking, mix in the salt and pepper, and the paprika. If you have a green onion or some chives or parsley to add, mix it in as well and cook until just wilted. Serve piping hot.

Last year at this time I made Budget Beef & Mushroom Stroganov, and Smoked Trout Paté in Mushroom Caps.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Curried Noodles with Vegetables

I was thinking Singapore-style noodles here, although in a vegetarian incarnation. You could add some scrambled egg and mushrooms to the mixture, or even the traditional barbequed pork and shrimp (or chicken). We liked it fine as it was, though. Cabbage, carrots and onions is a combination of vegetables I never get tired of. Just as well. They are around for a long time.

4 servings
30 minutes prep time

Curried Noodles with Vegetables
2 cups finely chopped cabbage
2 cups grated carrots (2 medium)
1 large onion
2 stalks of celery
200 grams fine brown rice noodles
4 tablespoons mild vegetable oil
2 to 3 teaspoons Malaysian curry powder
salt to taste

Put a large pot of salted water on to boil.

Chop the cabbage. Peel and grate the carrots. Peel and slice the onion into thin slivers. Wash, trim and slice the celery thinnly.

When the water boils, drop in the noodles and boil them for just a minute or so. Drain them and rinse them in cold water. Chop or snip them with scissors into short pieces.

Heat half the oil in a large skillet. Add the celery and onion, and sauté until they begin to soften. Add the carrots and cook for a minute or two more, mixing well. Add the cabbage and cook until soft. When the vegetables look done to your liking, remove them to a serving plate.

Heat the remaining oil in the skillet. Add the noodles, and sprinkle them with the curry powder and salt. Cook for a minute or two, tossing them well until they are evenly coated in the curry powder. Add the vegetables back into the pan, stirring and turning until the noodles and vegetables are well mixed and hot through. Serve at once.

Last year at this time I made Roasted Pepper, Artichoke & Tomato Salad and Butternut Squash & Hazelnut Lasagne.

Friday, 19 November 2010

A Visit to Pinehaven Farm

The same day we went to Ontario Water Buffalo, we also stopped in at Pinehaven Farm, just outside of Millbrook. I had heard about John Wood, who - I had read - grows 40 kinds of potatoes at Pinehaven Farm. As it turns out, that piece of information is outdated. He actually grew 56 kinds of potatoes this year. You didn't even know there were 56 kinds, did you? I suspect most people could name Yukon Gold, and maybe Russet Burbanks (the classic baking potato). After that, they tend to be sold as "red" (skins) or "white" (beige skins).

That's pretty much what most people know, but there's a lot more to potatoes than that. While they are all recognizable as potatoes, there are distinct differences in flavour, colour and texture in different potatoes. Texture is particularly important as it has the most effect on the cooking technique chose for each kind.

From the farmers point of view there may be reasons to grow particular varieties of potatoes for other reasons besides looks and flavour; disease resistance, insect resistance, keeping qualities, the length of the growing season or ease of harvesting being the main things to consider.

John Wood is a 4th generation farmer, the third to farm this particular spot. He grows other vegetables as well; squash and pumpkins, beets, carrots, beans and cucumbers. Potatoes are obviously his main interest though, and what's mainly available at this time of year.

I won't even try to list all the potatoes he showed us, but I'll mention a few that sounded interesting to me: Irish Cobbler, a floury heirloom; MacIntosh Black, very dark; Red Thumb, a strong pink fingerling; Purple Majesty; a strongly purple fleshed potato; Pink Fir-Apple; an heirloom fingerling; River John Blue*, another blue from Nova Scotia; Mountain Rose, a good pink. Yes, I like the colourful ones! But he also has the old stand-bys like Norland, Sebago, Kennbec, Red Cheiftan and Viking. And, well, many others, old and new.

The potatoes are stored in a number of different containers. Most are in large wooden crates, although the ones he has in smaller quantities are in cardboard boxes or bushel baskets. Large nylon bags are also used. The room is kept pretty dim, and well ventilated. Potatoes keep best at about 7°C, and for the first few weeks they are stored give off a fair bit of moisture, which must be dispersed.

The potatoes are stored unwashed. They keep better that way. John sorts out the damaged or scabby ones as he sells the potatoes. He and his mother Marg eat the best of the seconds, and the remainder get fed to his cows. This has to be done with caution; cows love potatoes, but they can choke on them, and there is no giving a Heimlich maneuvre to a cow.

John rummages through his boxes of potatoes to show us particular varieties.

These ones are La Ratte, a traditional French fingerling variety. They are firm and waxy, with pale yellow flesh and are described as having a nutty flavour. They're pretty glamourous, for potatoes.

These are Peruvian Purple, another fingerling, and another heirloom potato. They are purple right through. John says he is selling more purple potatoes as they are becoming very popular.

Oh dear, which ones are these? I think they might be Annabelle, a yellow waxy potato, with a firm texture and an earthy flavour. But they could be Selma, or maybe Gala. Hmm. John would know - he knew all his potatoes by sight.

On Saturdays John loads up this trailer and goes to the Peterborough Farmers Market.

This piece of equipment is used to harvest the early varieties of potatoes, and all the fingerlings. They are small enough that they would fall through the chains of the bigger digger and be lost. The earliest potatoes are harvested at the end of June.

Pinehaven Farm has sandy, slightly acid soil, much like ours. Apparently, potatoes like that. We've certainly done better with potatoes than with some other vegetables. Potatoes are actually pretty tolerant of different conditions but the light soil means that the potatoes tend to be large and well-shaped.

There's the bigger digger, which will harvest several rows of potatoes at once, provided the potatoes are large enough. The later potatoes are harvested through to the beginning of November, in general.

The red bin-piler is basically a large conveyor belt, used to pile the potatoes in the wooden bins. Potato processing equipment (like an awful lot of farm equipment) is wildly expensive, and as a small family farm John is limited in what he can get.

For example, he has some trouble with hollow heart in some of his potatoes. Yukon Gold is particularly prone to get it. It just means that there's a hole in the middle of the potato, caused by uneven watering as it formed, or possibly a boron deficiency. There's no real problem with this, it's just unsightly as it may turn a little brown. If you get a potato like this, just trim around it a bit if it's discoloured. There is a machine to detect hollow heart in potatoes, but it costs about a million dollars. Yep, a million dollars. If it helps keep small farmers in the potato business, I'm prepared to do a little trimming, myself.

The fields look pretty bare at the moment, and mostly they are, although John is harvesting a few last potatoes still. This year is the latest he has ever had potatoes in the ground, and it was also the earliest he has ever planted potatoes in the spring. He starts early, and harvests early, because new (not fully formed) potatoes get a premium price in the summer. He also plants potatoes a lot later then we ever have. This means they get harvested as late as possible. If you are a specialty potato grower, freshness is important. I guess it also means that while he stores potatoes to sell into the winter, he doesn't have an enormous glut of them.

John grows about 25 acres of potatoes. He moves his crops around from year to year. He doesn't grow organically, but he takes a fairly philosophical view of the problems that affect potatoes. We discussed scab, white grubs and Colorado potato beetles. He says all these things are cyclical. By moving potatoes around and having a lot of different varieties, he knows he will always have some problems, but he will also always have some that do just fine.

It was a beautiful day, but you can tell it's November by the way the sun drops like a hot stone around 4:30. Time to go home and have some supper - how about some nice potatoes! (And yes, I did get quite a few from John, so expect some potato recipes in the next little while - although I also plan to cook most of them fairly simply, to assess them.)

*The name rang a bell when John mentioned it, but I didn't place it for a while. River John is in Nova Scotia, in Pictou county, home of me ancestors or at least some of them. Okay, gotta try these.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

A Visit to Ontario Water Buffalo

Digression: look at that picture. Does that look like November to you? No, not to me neither. I like it though, I have to admit. So, where was this bucolic scene of strangely pleasant weather? It's just north of Stirling, at the home of Ontario Water Buffalo.

Ontario Water Buffalo is a farm owned by Lori Smith and Martin Littkemann. In 2008 they wanted to get back into milking. Dairy quota for cows, though, is both staggeringly expensive and rarely available. Then a friend of Martin's told him about water buffalo. "You can milk those?" he asked. Even better, he was put in touch with Quality Cheese, who had a yearning to make mozzarella di bufalo - mozzarella made with buffalo milk, the way it's done in Italy. With a willing and able purchaser, he and Lori went to a water buffalo conference in Italy and then began putting together their herd. Their first water buffalo came from a herd in Vermont. Additions were made with buffalo from British Columbia and Michigan. Today, they have about 200 head of water buffalo. That's Lori with one of the bulls; in fact, the bull.

These are some of the young males. Eventually, they will be sent to the butcher, and the meat will be available through the farm, or served in Kingston restaurants. There's also a distributor, Wendy's Mobile Market.

The stars of the show, though, are the milking buffalo. There are only about 30 being milked at any one time right now, although the milking barn has room for 40. Some of the reasons why that number is so low include the fact that of their 200 head, there are a number of males, there are a good number of heifers (female buffaloes not yet mature enough to breed) and a number of females that are dry. The buffalo being milked will produce for 8 or 9 months, an average of about 8 litres a day. The best milkers will produce up to 15 litres though, and the amount varies with time. Depending on where they are in their cycle, they will be milked once or twice per day.

Left to their own devices, water buffalo would breed in the late summer and calf the next summer. Cows have a nine month gestation period, but water buffalo are pregnant for over 10 months. However, because the farm needs to keep a steady flow of milk throughout the year, the goal is to have some water buffalo impregnated every month. Most are done through artificial insemination, but if that fails to take (about 20% of the total attempts) the gentleman in the second picture is called upon to take up the slack.

Water buffalo are calm, friendly and curious beasts. Unlike cows, who just aren't that into you, the water buffalo are all sure to come right up the fence as soon as you appear. They reminded me a bit of dogs - they wanted to sniff me, then lick my hand. That would be a 1000 pound dog, mind you. Water buffalo calves are about the same size as other calves when they are born; about 70 to 100 pounds. They are bigger, stronger animals as adults though, although they don't immediately seem that much bigger than cows. Lori quoted, "If you can't move it with horses, try oxen. If you can't move it with oxen, try water buffalo. If you can't move it with water buffalo - you need dynamite."

In Thailand (and other places), water buffalo are used as draft animals, but they also race them, although I'd say that's easier said than done by the looks of it.

Even though water buffalo originally hail from much warmer parts of the world, they handle cold weather just fine. They can come in and go out of shelter as they like, and they generally like to be out for part of the day in all but the very worst of winter weather. They have thick skins and plenty of hair; more of both than cows. In the summer they do need shade, especially the darker ones.

This picture cracks me up. Actually, the water buffalo in general cracked me up. I thought they were adorable, with their sweet curiosity and big rubbery noses that seemed to have a life of their own. It's not a word normally associated with farm animals, but there it is: they're adorable.

They're stocking up at the buffet here; later they will chew their cud, just like cows. Like cows, they also have 4 stomachs.

From a little distance, the farm looks much like any other cattle operation.

From close up, it's a different story. Oh that face! Oh that nose! Adorable!

The present barn is an old one, with a definite upper limit to the number of water buffalo that can be milked. Martin and Lori are making plans to replace it with a modern barn, where the buffalo can be rotated in and out, with (theoretically, anyway) no limit on the number that can be milked. In spite of the age of the barn, it was clean and sweet-smelling. Actually, Lori says that water buffalo are hypoallergenic. We certainly didn't have any reaction to them.

The barn was also home to a large group of the cleanest, friendliest barn cats I've ever encountered, including these three cute kittens. Lori is clearly an animal lover, and in addition to the friendly cats and the friendly water buffalo, there was a very friendly dog. I don't think I've ever been anywhere else where every critter was so happy to see me.

Cats asleep on the top of the "kitty condo". Lori fills cages with straw and covers them with blankets, and the cats stay in the barn all winter, and keep the mice away.

One of the calves in the barn, who are being monitored. This little calico cat was the friendliest of the bunch and escorted us on most of our tour.

The light colour of this calf shows that she has swamp buffalo characteristics. There are two kinds of water buffalo; swamp and river. The swamp are traditionally draft animals, and the riverine are better for milk. The herd here is mixed, but with more river buffalo in the blend, and as time goes on that's the emphasis of the breeding program. Lori and Martin keep very careful breeding records, as it's likely that at some point they will begin to sell water buffalo to other farmers who want to start milking them.

Grain feed and sawdust wait in the barn. In general, water buffalo eat much the same things as cows. However, great care must be taken with medications. Early North American water buffalo farmers found out the hard way that some of the antibiotics that are safe for cows will kill a water buffalo. The good news though, is that they are very hardy animals and much less prone to mastitis than cows.

Lori mentioned that water buffalo like to crowd together and lean on each other. If she or one of the farm workers are between two of them, they may get leaned on. Pushing won't get them to stop, they'll just lean harder because they think you like it too. A scoop of grain tossed between them will get them to separate, so they can get at the grain. They're more inclined to step on your feet than cows as well, or at least less likely to notice that they're doing it and stop. They may be very friendly, but they're still big, strong animals and must be treated with a lot of respect.

This isn't quite the start of the chain of stainless steel that leads to the refrigerated dairy case where you buy your cheese - that was stainless steel piping in the barn, going to each stall - but it's the first really noticeable piece. Milk is stored in this tank for pick up by Quality Cheese.

The milking apparatus hangs on the wall. Quality Cheese tests the milk as it arrives at their factory, but of course it's up to the farm to make sure that the milk is clean.

The start of water buffalo farming in Ontario has created a lot of excitement. Even though Lori and Martin have not had water buffalo for quite three years yet, there have already been two annual water buffalo festivals held in the area, which have had good turnouts. Look for next years' sometime in August, and in the mean time keep an eye out for that mozzarella di bufalo.