Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Rutabaga with Dried Tomatos, Shallots & Garlic

I don't really love it when I come up with a veggie recipe that takes 2 pans, but this one was worth it.

I used tomatoes I had packed in oil, and for my cooking oil I used the oil they were packed in. There were probably some Italian type herbs in there, so feel free to add a bit of basil and/or oregano if you feel inclined. If you have plain dried tomatoes, I have suggested an alternative method of using them.You will need to use plain oil, and add the tomatoes to the rutabage to rehydrate rather than heating them with the shallots. In either case, if they are not small cherry tomato sized pieces, they should be chopped before using.

Those little dark green objects in the back of the picture are Swiss Chard Rolls, which we made and froze in the fall. They are great - thaw them out overnight, then heat them up in crushed tomatoes or thin tomato sauce. They work really, really well that way.

4 servings
30 minutes prep time

Rutabaga with Dried Tomatos Shallots and Garlic

4 cups peeled, diced rutabaga
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large shallots
1 tablespoon olive oil (see note above)
1/2 cup chopped dried tomatoes
3 or 4 cloves of garlic

Peel and dice the rutabaga, into smallish bite-sized pieces. Put it in a pot with water to cover and add the salt. Bring to a boil and boil until tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. If you are using dry dried tomatoes, add them to the rutabaga when they have about 5 more minutes to cook.

Meanwhile, peel the shallots and cut them in half from pole to pole. Cut the halves into thin slices. Heat the oil in a small skillet over medium heat, and gently cook the shallots until soft, reduced in volume and slightly browned; about 10 minutes. While they cook, peel and mince the garlic.

If you are using dried tomatoes packed in oil, pat them dry on a piece of paper towel, and add them to the shallots just a minute or so before they are done.

Drain the cooked rutabaga, and set it aside while you add the garlic to the shallots. Cook the garlic for about one minute, stirring, then add the drained rutabaga. Mash the rutabaga very roughly into the ingredients in the pan, mixing well.

Last year at this time I made Winter Succotash.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Cottage Cheese Pancakes

I inherited a couple of containers of cottage cheese from our next door neighbour, who was leaving town and had bought too much, so I was experimenting with it last week. By cottage cheese, I mean the lumpy curd stuff swimming in a creamy broth, not the drier, smoother kind of cottage cheeses I usually buy for baking.

One thing that it showed me is that the drier, smoother ones are better for baking and I should keep right on buying them instead of the more readily available soupy stuff. The second conclusion I came to, is that if you are going to bake with the soupy, lumpy kind of cottage cheese, it MUST be puréed. Otherwise the curds, once cooked, go unpleasantly hard and chewy.  These, on the other hand, were really quite good and I will certainly make them again.

about 12 4" pancakes
30 minutes prep time

Cottage Cheese Pancakes

2/3 cup rolled oats
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup cottage cheese
3 extra-large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
oil to fry

Put the ingredients listed above, without the oil, into a blender in the order given. (Rolled oats on the bottom, vanilla last, in other words.) Blend until smooth.

Preheat the oven to 200°F and put in an oven-proof dish to hold the pancakes as they are made. 

Heat the oil in a large skillet (or 2, if you are impatient) over medium-high heat; the usual temperature for cooking eggs and pancakes. Pour the batter into the pans to form 4" pancakes. Cook until firm and brown on each side. Keep the finished pancakes in the oven and continue until they are all finished, adding a little more oil between pancakes if needed.

I served these with apple sauce and maple syrup, but once my herbs come up in the spring I will omit the vanilla and add a couple tablespoons of chopped herbs instead, and serve them bacon.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Bean & Pesto Soup

I'm having a hard time coming up with recipes for the blog this winter. The problem is that we have been very successful at filling our freezers and cold storage with things we've grown and prepared ourselves. We froze tubs of stew, and ratatouille, and chard rolls, and apple crisp, and pesto, not to mention oodles and oodles of vegetables.  And then we take them out, thaw them and heat them, and eat them. Done. But not exactly a recipe, or if it is, it's one that's been posted already.

Pesto is a great thing to freeze (sans cheese) when basil is in season. It's compact and doesn't take up too much room, and it is SOOO much cheaper to make your own in season, not to mention that you can be sure it will be good. And if you have even a little garden space, you can grow your own basil. If you didn't freeze it last year though, you are going to miss out now. But go buy some basil seed for this summer!

I thawed out some pesto, and then decided I wanted it with something other than pasta for a change. Since I was in the process of cooking a big pot of beans (about which more later) I decided to use it on some of the beans. It turned out to be a soup, although I guess it's thick enough you could call it a stew. 

I cooked the beans myself (heck, I even grew them) but you could probably use about 2 large (540 ml) cans in their place, with the packing water instead. This is just a throw-it-together thing, so be prepared to adjust it according to the amounts and flavours of what you have.

3 or 4 servings
20 minutes prep time

Bean and Pesto Soup

4 cups cooked white beans
2 cups bean cooking water
1/2 cup chopped dried tomatoes
1 to 2 cup chopped frozen green veg of your choice, semi-thawed
1/2 cup prepared pesto (4 frozen ice-cube tray cubes)
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus a bit more to garnish

Put the beans and the cooking water with the dried tomatoes into a sufficient pot, and bring to a simmer. Simmer for about 10 minutes, until the tomatoes are soft. Add the vegetables, preferably thawed enough to not be in a massive lump. Continue cooking until the soup is hot again. Stir in the pesto and the cheese. Serve it up, and pass a little more cheese to sprinkle on top.

Last year at this time I made Lemon Meringue Pudding (or Pie).

Friday, 24 February 2012

Sauerkraut & Apple Stamppot

 I've made Stamppot before; this is a somewhat different version. You can drain and rinse the sauerkraut if you like but I think it's best to leave it au naturel; the tang definitely adds to the charm of this dish and it won't be excessive when mixed with all those potatoes.

I used a smoked turkey thigh for this but you can use whatever you like, really, as long as it is sufficiently pre-cooked that a half hour of steaming it will be enough. This will allow such delicacies as ham, smoked pork chops and all kinds of sausage as well as the smoked turkey to be used. This is a very quick and easy hearty meal for those who love meat and 'taters. That'd be us, no question.

4 servings
30 minutes prep time

2 cups sauerkraut
500 grams to 1 kilo smoked ham, turkey or sausage
2 or 3 bay leaves
6 to 8 juniper berries
1/2 cup water or broth
1 kilo (2 pounds) potatoes
2 or 3 large apples
salt & pepper to taste

Put the sauerkraut into a sufficient pot to hold it and the meat. Add the bay leaves, juniper berries and water or broth.  I am assuming meat which is at least partially cooked in advance by the smoking process. It's also best to cut it into serving size pieces before it goes into the pot. Lay these pieces on top of the sauerkraut. Turn the heat to medium, and allow to heat through while the potatoes cook.

Wash, trim, and if you like, peel the potatoes. Cut them in even chunks and put them in a pot with water to cover. Bring to a boil and boil until tender. As soon as they are started, peel (if you like) the apples and cut them into quarters. Remove the cores and add the apple quarters to the potatoes.

When the potatoes are tender, drain them and the apples, and mash them. Lift the meat from the top of the sauerkraut and set it aside. Mix the sauerkraut and any juices in the pot into the mashed potatoes and apples. Taste, and season with salt and pepper as needed. Serve with the meat on top and pass a good spicy mustard with it.

Last year at this time I made Spicy Garlicky Roasted Potatoes.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Cocoa Cream Puffs

Cream puffs! What else is there to say? Well, CHOCOLATE cream puffs, I should say. Oh baby. Of course; I dreamed up this idea, googled it, and discovered the rest of the world had been there before me. What else is new? Never mind. Plainly an idea who's time has come.  Rich and eggy (and chocolatey), but not too sweet - delicious!

Makes 12 to 24 cream puffs
1 hour prep time, 2 hours time to cool

Cocoa Cream Puffs

 Make the Puffs:
1 cup soft unbleached flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
2 tablespoons sugar

1 cup water
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 extra-large eggs

Sift the flour, cocoa and sugar into a small bowl and set aside. Put the water. butter and salt into a large pot and bring to a boil. When the butter has melted, and as the mixture boils steadily, dump in the flour mixture and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon,  until the mixture forms a smooth ball. Remove it from the heat, and let it cool for 5 to 10 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a large baking tray with parchment paper.

Break the eggs into the pot, and beat them into the dough, one at a time. Make sure each egg is well incorporated before adding the next one.

Spoon the dough out onto the prepared tray, keeping them as well spaced as you can. If they are a bit rough on top, smooth out the dough with the back of a wet spoon, but don't flatten them out - keep them as high as you can.

Bake the puffs for 30 to 35 minutes, until firm. Let cool before glazing and filling.

Make the Custard:
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons soft unbleached flour
2 extra-large eggs
2 cups milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Sift the sugar, salt and flour into the top of a double boiler. Mix well. Beat in the eggs, until the mixture is smooth and lump-free. Stir in the milk.

Turn the heat on under the double boiler. Stir the mixture regularly, until it begins to heat up; at that point it must be stirred constantly until the mixture thickens. Once it is thick, remove it from the stove (and the double boiler.) Add the vanilla and butter, and continue stirring until well blended and smooth. Set aside to cool before filling the cream puffs. Note; while it's not required to use an electric mixer to stir the custard, it does help to ensure a smooth, lump-free custard.

When both the puffs and the custard are cool, cut the puffs in half. (You can leave a "hinge" on one side.) Spoon enough custard into each open puff to fill it, and close the top back over the custard.  

Make the Glaze:
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons milk
3/4 cup icing sugar
1/3 cup cocoa powder

Do not make the glaze until the puffs are filled and ready to be glazed. 

Put all the ingredients  into a small pot. Bring rapidly to a boil, stirring constantly. As soon as everything is melted and well blended, remove from the stove. Drizzle some of the glaze over each filled cream puff. Work as quickly as you can; the glaze sets very fast. Spreat it around with the back of the spoon if necessary.

Last year at this time I made Spicy Garlicky Roast Potatoes.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Milky Vegetable Chowder

There are lots of creamy soups, but this one is just milky, like an old fashioned chowder. It's surprisingly tasty for such a simple soup, but do use as good a stock as you can get; it's an important part of the soup. I made it with an excellent ham stock once, and I still remember it very fondly. Also nice about this soup; it does not need aging but is good to eat right away. Leftovers will keep for a day or two, but it shouldn't sit around particularly.

6 servings
30 minutes prep time

2 medium carrots
3 cups water
2 or 3 medium-large potatoes

4 or 5 cups chopped green or Savoy cabbage
1 large or 2 medium onions
4 cups chicken or other good stock
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup skim or 1 % milk

Peel the carrots, and grate them or dice them fairly finely. Put them in a large soup pot with the water, and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, scrub the potatos, and trim them as needed. Cut them into somewhat larger dice, and add them to the carrots. Boil them for about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, chop the cabbage, and peel and chop the onions fairly coarsely.

Skim any foam from the carrot and potatoes, then add the chicken stock, butter sugar, soy sauce and pepper. Bring up to the boil again, then add the cabbage and onions. Boil for 6 to 8 minutes,  until the cabbage is tender. Add the milk, and adjust the seasonings. Bring up to steaming hot but don't let the soup boil again.

Last year at this time I made Carrot Bran Muffins.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Basic Roast Duck

Around Christmas time we bought a frozen duck, on a whim, just because there it was. Recently I decided to pull it out, and roast it fairly plainly. 

Duck has a reputation for being very fatty, and it certainly has more fat than chicken. I can't say that I have found it all that bad when I have cooked it recently though. I remember my Mom cooking one in the '70's, and the fat just pouring off of it, so perhaps they have bred leaner ducks since then, or feed them differently. I almost would have liked to have had a bit more fat than I got, given how good duck fat is for cooking with.

My duck was actually darker than the photo shows, and yours should be too. That's the trouble with trying to photograph things at night - the light just bounces right off of them. Fortunately, the days are getting longer and my pictures should improve, not to mention my mood!

 2 hours - 15 minutes prep time
3 to 4 servings

a 2 to 2 1/2 kilo (4 1/2 to 5 pounds) duck
1 stalk celery
2 onions

4 cups chicken stock
salt & pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butter

If your duck is frozen, it must be thawed out completely before you cook it. Allow 3 days for this, in the fridge. Yes, really; 3 days. 

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Remove the neck and giblets from inside the duck. Save them, at least the neck, to make stock with the carcass of the duck once it has been eaten. Meanwhile, stuff the cavity of the duck with the celery stalk, cut in 3 or 4 pieces, and the onions, peeled and cut in halves or quarters.  Slash the skin and fat over the duck at regular intervals, without cutting into the meat. You will need a snug, fairly deep roasting pan with a rack to keep the duck off the bottom. Add enough of the chicken stock to cover the bottom of the pan by about an inch, but not so much the duck will sitting in it. Dry the duck thoroughly with paper towels, and arrange the duck on the rack in the pan, breast side up.Season with salt and pepper.

Roast the duck for 1/2 hour, then lift the pan carefully from the oven. Remove the duck to a plate, and check the level of the stock in the pan. Add more if needed. The idea is that it should never get so low that it disappears, or what it will actually do, solidify and blacken. Return the duck to the pan, this time with the back facing up. Roast for a further half hour.

Remove the duck from the oven again, and check the level of the chicken stock (which will now also be swimming in fat). Once it is topped up again, put the duck back in the pan with the breast side facing up again. Believe it or not, it will do no harm to rub the duck all over with a little butter at this point, to help it brown. Roast for a further half hour to 45 minutes, until the juices run mostly clear when a knife is stuck down to the bones under the thigh.

Remove the duck from the oven and cover loosely with foil - don't let it steam; you want that skin to stay crisp. Let sit for 10 minutes before carving and serving.

Save the vegetables, and all the liquids from the bottom of the pan! Put them in a large soup pot, and once the duck is eaten, add the bones and water to cover. Bring to a simmer and simmer for several hours. Strain, and chill overnight. The next morning, remove the fat and save it for use as a cooking fat. Use the stock to make soup, especially good if there was any leftover duck meat to go into it. Nice with noodles.

Last year at this time I made Bird's Nest Apple Pudding.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Lima Bean Soup

It is a great sorrow to me that Lima beans just aren't a local vegetable. I persist in trying to grow them, but they are from coastal Peru originally (see name) and they really don't take to this climate. However, I do occasionally buy them frozen as they are just too delicious to give up.

They make a very smooth and flavourful soup, and very quick and easy too. The quantity is sufficient for a starter to a larger meal; if you wanted, say, soup and a sandwich I don't think it would make 4 servings, more like 2 or 3.

4 smallish servings
20 minutes prep time

Lima Bean Soup
4 or 5 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon butter
300 grams frozen lima beans (1 package)
3 cups chicken stock
salt & pepper to taste

Peel the garlic and cut each clove into 2 or 3 slices, so as to create the most cut surface possible. Heat the butter in a small skillet over very low heat, and gently cook the garlic for about 10 or 15 minutes, until soft and very slightly browned.

Meanwhile, put the lima beans in a pot with the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Boil until done, about 5 minutes.

Put the lima beans into a blender, without the broth but with the garlic and the butter they cooked in, and purée until smooth. Add the broth as needed to keep them puréeing smoothly, but do hold back a little. When the Lima beans are very smooth, return them to the pot. Use the remaining broth to slosh out the blender and add that to the soup pot as well. Mix well and bring back up to a simmer before serving. STIR CONSTANTLY once the beans have been blended. They are very starchy and will do their best to weld themselves to the pot.

Last year at this time it was soup time too. I made Sweet Potato & Lentil Soup and Dried Corn Chowder.

Friday, 10 February 2012

A Visit to a Cuban Farm and an Organipónico

Of course, you know us; we wondered where food came from in Cuba. We knew that there had been a lot of trade with the Soviet Union prior to their collapse in the '90's; sugar in exchange for, well, just about everything. That meant that after the collapse, Cuba was in a difficult position. But now, there is plenty of food. Here is some of it on the move. We were determined to track it down.

To that end, we asked our hosts at our casa particular if they knew anyone who was growing food, and could arrange to visit. Their nephew lived out in the country, not far from Havana, and he had a friend who was a farmer, so it was arranged that we could go and visit. This is Jorge Feliz Abreo (y?) Malcharde, but everybody calls him Felongo. He has been farming ever since he was young, and he is now a very successful man, especially by Cuban standards.

The soil near Havana - and this farm, near Caimito, is I believe about 20 kilometres out - is very rich and very red, which to me suggests a high iron content. This field has been recently planted with alternating rows of tomatoes and plantains. The tomatoes will produce this year, while the plantains get established. Next year, the plantains will be large, and start to produce. This kind of time-based interplanting seems to be fairly common.

Felongo was quite exasperated about the age of his equipment, and was surprised when I told him a lot of Canadian farmers don't necessarily have anything much newer. In Cuba it is not available at any price, but in Canada the price is out of reach of many.

This is our old buddy malanga. What a beautiful plant it is! And it seems to grow everywhere and at every season. Cubans are not always as enthusiastic about it as I was, no doubt in part because of these qualities. It's a bland, starchy root, and one of the first solid foods given to babies. I suspect people saw an awful lot of it during the special period.

This patch is growing in one of the hedgerows, which were also full of various fruiting trees, although almost all of them were not fruiting or flowering at the moment, it being the driest and coolest part of the year.

This is Emilio, one of the farmhands. Felongo was too busy to walk out to the bean field we wanted to see, as it was about 700 metres away from the farm-house, so he asked Emilio to take us.

And these are the beans. They were a standard Cuban variety of black beans, the kind seen at just about every meal in the form of beans and rice, or Christians and Moors as it is also known.
They were expected to be ready and drying out by the end of February (this was early January) at which point the plants would be pulled up, piled in a heap and either threshed by hand or run over with equipment of some kind, if it was available, and then the beans gathered up. This process would take 5 or 6 men 3 or 4 days.

Emilio shows us a seed malanga root. The field to his side had been planted until recently in malangas, but it had been harvested about a week ago. The largest malangas had been sold, and the smallest roots saved for re-planting. They were stored in loosely woven nylon bags in an airy shed to keep them sound. They will, of course, be planted in a different field next time.

Here are some of the bags of malangas in the shed, carefully placed for good air circulation.

In the complex of sheds there were a number of rabbits in cages. I though suspending them was a clever idea - it makes cleaning up after them a lot easier. There were a lot of small meat animals in Cuba that we saw. Rabbits were slightly unusual, but only slightly. Chickens and turkeys were common. Goats were everywhere. None of these things (except chicken) showed up on any tourist menus that I saw; it was always pork, chicken, pork, shrimp, pork, pork, fish, and a small amount of beef. And pork, did I say?

Here's some of that pork. Like the rabbits, these piglets were in a raised pen to allow for better sanitation and easy cleaning. The pigs themselves were an interesting and attractive landrace rather than a specific breed. Felongo mentioned that he had had Canadian pork. He started off by saying it looked so good - and then he added, and it tastes of nothing. What could I say? He has it nailed, unless you go directly to a farmer who is raising it properly.

I was amazed and excited to see this as we drove back and forth between Havana and Cienfuegos. Yes! It's rice! There seemed to be a few Vietnamese names near the rice fields, so I suspect this is a joint international project. Rice is a huge staple in Cuban cuisine, but I don't think much is grown in Cuba. We didn't see a lot of rice being grown, although on the trip back I realized there was more than I thought - about three-quarters of the rice fields were dry and fallow at the moment, and often had cattle in them, eating the stubble. This makes sense; as I've said it was the dry season. But you could tell the fields by the stubble, and the embankments around them. I guess people were just starting to replant for a new season.

We had heard much about the small urban vegetable gardens which provide a lot of food for Cubans nowadays. We also saw number of people growing vegetables in their yards, but only in the more suburban areas, of course, as the older denser parts of the cities really don't have any yards. Patios, yes, but they are usually paved and designed to be shady anyway. But here was somebody quite serious about their tomatoes.

After spending an afternoon in Havana looking for Organipónicos and not finding any we were a bit crestfallen. But once we were back in Cienfuegos we took a stroll from our new casa particular and were thrilled to find we were walking right by one! We chatted with someone there, and arranged to come back first thing in the morning for a tour. This is a large organipónico, with 1600 square metres of fixed beds, and an additional 1 1/2 hectares of fields.

La Calzada was a neighbourhood on the outskirts of the north-east of downtown Cienfuegos, and the further out you went along this road, the more organipónicos there were. I believe this was on Calle 60; a busy road serviced by a constant stream of horse-drawn taxis. I also noticed that all those taxis had by-product containment systems (aka shitcatchers) and I imagine that the contents get put to good use.

A couple of the workers were harvesting lettuce, and tieing it in bundles with short bits of telephone wire. We were told there are a large number of varieties of lettuce, but all we saw was a fairly straightforward mid-green softish leaf lettuce. It made a good foil to the ubiquitous cabbage which was the other half of the foundation of every salad we were served.

These kind of vegetables - mostly ones we are quite familiar with here - need to be kept relatively cool and well watered, and so are shaded with a plastic mesh, and grown in fixed beds. Garlic chives are planted along the edges of most of the beds, and clipped regularly and sold, but they also double as insect repellants.

Cubans use large numbers of chiles (peppers) in their cooking, but I would say 99% of them or more are very mild and sweet. The taste for spicy food so prevalent in the rest of the Caribbean and Central America has completely passed them by. I was very much reminded of the food we had in Spain, although with the addition of tropical produce, especially the excellent fruit.

In addition to malanga, another thing I really loved was fried plantains (tostones). I could eat them all night and all day. Happily, they showed up regularly. Here are some nearing maturity, planted in a hedgerow between the more pampered organipónico crops and the field crops.

These are sweet potatoes. We only had sweet potatoes once while we were in Cuba, which I regret very much because the ones we had were absolutely superb. Of course we had them in the form of french-fries, which only adds to my enthusiasm, but they were a pale straw yellow and a bit starchier than most we get here, and just beautifully flavoured in addition to being great for fries.

A fallow field, and more sweet potatoes. It was still quite early in the morning, as you can see by the shadows, but getting warm quickly. This farm had originally been run by Chinese people, but had been abandoned during or after the revolution. (I was not quite able to put together what happened to the Chinese in Cuba. There were once very many, now there are very few. They left, is the official story. It may even be true, who knows?)

Carlos Telles Machado, who gave us the tour and who is the boss of this particular organipónico, and I had a little mutual enthuse over malanga, and then he showed us one of his other favourite things; a kind of bean that grows on large bushes in the hedgerows. Excellent dried in rice as well as fresh and green, he assured us, and gave me a handful of them. Ready in 5 months, he said. I brought them home, so we will see if I can manage to grow them by starting them early indoors. A little research told me that they are, in fact, pigeon peas.

By the end of the tour, the little market booth at the front was being opened, and we bought a few veggies to eat in our little apartment. I was going to buy some vinegar too, but it turned out it wasn't vinegar in those bottles - it was homemade wine. Controls on alcohol sales seem to be pretty much nil in Cuba, but it seems like it's mostly just the tourists who make idiots of themselves.

This was at a farm we stopped at out in the country to ask for some directions. As usual there was poultry running around, including these multi-coloured turkeys which interested me very much, as turkeys here in Canada tend to be highly overbred, and consequently not at all self-sufficient.

The other thing I was amazed to discover, is that most of the shrimp (and langosta, usually called lobster) we had been offered on various menus was farmed! I think of farmed shrimp as being terrible; bland and soggy. Certainly all the stuff we get here from Asia is very bad, not to mention notoriously unenvironmentally sound. But the Cuban shrimp tasted wild; firm, sweet and flavourful. I ate it almost at every opportunity. You can't tell from a roadside view, but this farm also did not seem to have done much if any environmental damage, being located on a rocky sea-side as it was.

The main building had this very cute and stylish shrimp sculpture out front, about which I have nothing to say except that it, like just about all the food I ate in Cuba, put a big smile on my face. I left very impressed by the hard work and ingenuity that has gone into solving Cuba's food situation, and I hope to go back soon.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Citrus & Ginger Beet Slaw

This was a ridiculously easy to make little salad, and very tasty too. Raw beets are still something of a novelty to me, but they are surprisingly crisp and refreshing and worth doing as a regular thing.

I used a small blood orange for the orange in the salad, and used a second one to garnish it, which I do recommend. Actually, I wonder how this would be with grapefruit. Pretty good, I would think - must experiment. I still have half a bag of beets left, since that was the only way I could find Ontario beets being sold. *Shakes fist at grocery store.*

4 servings
45 minutes - 15 minutes prep time

Citrus and Ginger Beet Slaw

1/4 teaspoon finely grated lime zest
1/4 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
1/2 teaspoon finely grated peeled fresh ginger
1 teaspoon honey
the juice of 1 small orange (I used a blood orange)
the juice of 1 medium lime
1/4 teaspoon salt

2 large or 3 medium beets (2 cups when grated)

Grate the lime and orange zest and the ginger into a bowl that will eventually hold everything. Mix in the honey, orange and lime juices and salt, stirring until the honey and salt are dissolved.

Peel the beets, leaving the rough skin at the top on. It will give you something to hold onto. Grate the beets into the bowl of dressing, and discard the tops once your fingers are in danger.

Toss the grated beets with the dressing, and let marinate for about 30 minutes before serving. This will also keep overnight in the fridge.

Last year at this time I made Quinoa Pilaf and Ginger Marinated Carrots & Turnips. Yes, there seems to be something about the middle of winter that makes me want ginger in my raw veggies.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Yes, It's That Time Again...

Good seeds, and true, you must have if your garden is to attain that highest success which should be our aim. Seeds vary greatly - very much more so than the beginner has any conception of. There are three essentials; if seeds fail in any one of them, they will be rendered next to useless. First, they must be true; selected from good types of stock and true to name; then they must have been good, strong, plump seeds, full of life and gathered from healthy plants; and finally, they must be fresh. It is therefore of vital importance that you procure the best seeds that can be had, regardless of cost. Poor seeds are dear at any price; you cannot afford to accept them as a gift. It is, of course, impossible to give a rule by which to buy good seed, but the following suggestions will put on the safe track. First, purchase only of some reliable mail-order house; do not be tempted, either by convenience or cheapness, to the gaily lithographed packets displayed in grocery and hardware stores at planting time - as a rule they are not reliable; and what you want for your good money is good seed, not cheap ink. Second, buy of seedsmen who make a point of growing and testing their own seed. Third, to begin with, buy from several houses and weed out to the one which proves, by actual results, to be the most reliable.
from Home Vegetable Gardening, by Frederick Frye Rockwell, 1911

Yes, it's time to be ordering your seeds, if you haven't already! We just finished up this week, leaving only the potatoes and sweet potatoes to be determined. I've said a lot about ordering seeds before, here and here, and I won't get into describing all the seed suppliers again. Go and check them out through the links..

Once again, let me draw your attention to the Seeds of Diversity site. Their list of available varieties in Canada is a wonderful resource.

We are definitely slowing down on the ordering of 60 gazillion different seeds each year; after 3 years gardening some distinct favourites are starting to emerge. Also, we bought a lot of seed last year and still have much of it. The big exception is beans; the heirloom varieties tend to come in small packets. I would have saved seed, but we had a bean virus in the garden last year, so we are ordering new this year. And of course, there are always a few things we just have to try.

From Heritage Harvest, we are trying a lot of beans: Desoronto Potato Bean, Dolloff Bean, Mennonite Purple Striped (a local heirloom for me!), Annelino Yellow and Early Riser. We're also going to have a go at Listada de Gandia eggplant, Weaver's Mennonite Stuffing pepper, and Gaspé Flint corn.

From Cottage Gardener, we are getting Cherokee Trail of Tears bean, Chervena Chuska, Sweet Chocolate, Fish, and Orange Thai peppers, Guatamalan Blue squash, Patisson Panache Verte et Jaune summer squash, Cream of Saskatchewan watermelon, Country Gentleman and Double Standard corn and Australian Brown onions.

From Annapolis Seeds we are getting First & Best #2 and Misty peas, Purple Peacock beans, Musquee de Provence and White Bush Lebanese squash. We just sent him off a cheque, but I notice he is getting set up to start taking PayPal orders which will make things much easier there.

From Prairie Garden Seeds, True Red Cranberry and Grandma Nellie's beans, St. Hubert dried peas, Costata Romanesco squash, Orchard Baby and Simonet corn.

From Ontario Seed Company, Chioggia and Early Wonder beets (starting to look like staples for us), Sweetness III carrots, Hollow Crown Improved parnips, White Vienna Kohlrabi, and our old fave, Early Yellow Globe onions.

From William Dam, Spaghetti Squash, Sun Sugar tomatoes, Groninger Blue leaf cabbage (like collards, I guess), Imperial Star artichokes, DeCicco broccoli, and Harris' Model parsnips.

The main new seed supplier for us this year is Hope Seeds in Nova Scotia, from whom we have ordered Red Express cabbage, Jaune de Doubs carrot, Gilfeather rutabaga, Golden Midget watermelon (totally an impulse purchase) and Golden Grex beets (ditto). They have some very interesting stuff here, including a lot of east-coast heirlooms. Our main object here was to get the Red Express cabbage. We got seeds for it last year from Greta's Organic Seeds, but alas, not a one germinated. Hope it's not a system-wide problem.

That just left King of the Garden lima beans from Stokes (had to throw in some Painted Mountain corn and Jersey Giant asparagus too), and Santa Clara Canner tomatoes from Upper Canada Seeds.

So you see, this year we are really restraining ourselves on the new variety front! Hardly a single new, experimental item! So, yeah, when you stop laughing here are some more links for you, to my latest time-waster: old gardening books on line. The following 4 are probably worth dipping into:

The Plain Path to Good Gardening, by Samuel Wood. (1871)

Vegetable Gardening
, by Samuel B. Green. (First published in 1901.)

Vegetable Gardening
, Ralph, L. Watts (First published in 1911; also, written as a textbook and more technical and detailed than the others.)

Sweet Potato Culture, James Fritz, (1886) Short and, er, sweet!

Oh hey, and let me add: Squashes, and How to Grow Them, James J. H. Gregory, 1867.

And also, The Field & Garden Vegetables of America, Fearing Burr, 1865

What exciting things are you growing this year? Seriously, I'd like to hear!

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Frazier White Sweet Potato

We grew 2 kinds of sweet potatoes last summer. I have to say neither of them did well but it was our first time growing sweet potatoes, and the beginning of the summer was definitely not good growing weather for them. I understand that most of the bulking up of the roots takes place right at the end of the growing season, and if it is shortened in any way you will lose a lot of volume. I assume that is what happened. From 12 slips, we got 11 pounds.

However, we did get enough to try them out. These Frazier White sweet potatoes were a new variety for us. We found them very interesting. I expected them to be a bit plainer and starchier than the usual sweet potatoes, but they were neither. They were very sweet, although somewhat mild tasting. They were not quite such a nice colour when cooked, turning a little yellowy-brown - you can see them on top of the Shepherd's Pie I made with them - but fine, really. I would grow them again in the hope of a better harvest next time.

Sweet potatoes need a long growing season, warm and moist for best results, although sweet potatoes are quite drought resistant. Frazier White has a 90 to 105 day growing season, which means timing to get them in must be just right: not too early, but as early as possible to ensure the time required. Next year, I think we will probably cover our sweet potatoes with a hoop house for the first couple of weeks at least. As far as sweet potatoes go, that is a fairly short growing season.

One of our two sweet potatoes bloomed steadily for us this summer, and one did not. I was quite surprised since William Woys Weaver commented in his book, Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, that he had never had a sweet potato bloom in many years of growing them in Pennsylvania. Alas, I no longer recall which one bloomed and which one didn't, but I think it was Georgia Jet and not Frazier White. If they had both bloomed, there might have been seed, which is how new varieties of sweet potatoes are produced. Backyard hybrids are common in the U.S. south, and it is probable that that is the origin of Frazier White.

Frazier White is generally described as an heirloom sweet potato, but I can find no trace of its origins. It is not, as far as I can see on a quick perusal, mentioned by that name in James Fitz's 1886 book Sweet Potato Culture.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Curried Shepherds Pie with Sweet Potato Topping

Our sweet potatoes did not produce all that much last year, but we are eating them and they are good. Next year we will try to grow more of them. We grew 2 kinds, a fairly standard orange one and a white one called Frazier White. They do taste slightly different, although just as good as the darker ones. You can certainly use whatever sweet potatoes you like for this.

The Jamaican curry is something I picked up last time I was in Toronto and I'm enjoying it very much. Mine is quite mild, so you may wish to adjust the amount of curry powder you put in, depending on what you are able to get.

4 servings
1 3/4 hours - 1 hour prep time

Curried Shepherds Pie with Sweet Potato Topping
Make the Sweet Potato Topping:
1 1/2 kilos (3 pounds) sweet potatoes
3 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Wash the sweet potatoes, and stab them with a fork. Bake for about 45 minute to 1 hour, until soft. Let them cool enough to handle, then peel and mash with the butter and salt. Meanwhile...

Make the Filling:
1 cup diced celeriac
1 large onion
2 medium carrots
2 cups frozen corn
500 grams (1 pound) ground beef
1 tablespoon mild vegetable oil
2 tablespoons Jamaican or other mild curry powder
1/2 teaspoon rubbed thyme
1 teaspoon salt
black pepper to taste

Peel and dice the celeriac, onion and carrots. Set the corn out to thaw.

Heat the oil in a large skillet and crumble in the beef. Cook until browned, stirring occasionally. Add the celeriac, onion and carrots, and continue cooking and stirring until they are softened and browned in spots as well. Add the seasonings and cook for another few minutes. Turn off the heat and mix in the corn.

Put the beef and vegetables into an 8" x 11" baking pan, and top with the mashed sweet potatoes. Return to the oven and bake for 30 minutes to an hour and a quarter, until lightly browned and bubbling. (Baking time will depend on whether it goes straight in or whether you allow it to cool, and refrigerate it before proceeding.)

Last year at this time I made Cocoa Oatmeal, Dried Corn Baked with Cream & Cheese and Ambrosia.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Buying Food in Cuba

As anyone who knows us will suppose, everytime we found a market we went into it. This was the first one, in Cinefuegos. It was the largest market in town, the one we were directed to when we asked about it. We actually only found one other large market in Cienfuegos, out in the eastern suburbs on Calle 60.

I was still a bit shy about taking pictures of people at this point, but do you see the 2 people in Tilley hats in the middle of the photo? It turned out they were Canadians from Edmonton, there with a class full of agriculture students who were all snapping away, so we blended in quite well! We chatted about their itinerary with them and were green with envy.

In Havana, there were smaller markets all over the place. Many of them seemed to operate on a communal basis, with what appeared to be the produce of 4 or 5 farms set up each on their own table. The actual produce didn't vary a huge amount from place to place.

This was one of the larger markets we found in Havana, actually in El Vedado. (The main part of Havana is divided into 3 main sections, from east to west; Old Havana, Central Havana, and El Vedado. Miramar is further to the west, and then it's all surrounded by lots of small suburbs.)

Look at those eggplants! We never actually saw a one cooked while we were there. I think perhaps people think tourists don't like them, and I'm afraid that's probably a fairly safe assumption. People complain about the food being very plain in Cuba, but I suspect after a few bad experiences people feeding tourists also stick to the tried and true.

Next to the main market was a government food depot, where people picked up food using their ration cards. Rice, beans, sugar, oil, vinegar, salt, milk and so forth were sold at very cheap prices here.

There wasn't any vegetables or fruit in the government market; for that you needed the regular market. There was a great selection: plantains, bananas, papaya and guava, onions and garlic, cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, malanga, yucca, sweet potatoes and more. No mango, it wasn't mango season. I don't know what else wasn't in season. This is the cool and dry part of the year, and so winter in so far as there is one.

Another, smaller market in Havana. We bought a pineapple for 5 pesos (about 20 cents) and 5 pesos seemed to be a typical price for units of vegetables (ie. one pineapple, a can full of peppers, one pound of malanga, etc.) In general I'd say that equates to about 1/10th of the price we pay for vegetables here; very roughly of course. You have to remember though, that Cuban incomes are generally no where near 1/10th of what they are here, so for Cubans these prices are high. Not high enough to stop people from buying though; all the markets we saw of any size seem to do a pretty brisk business.

I was surprised to see how many people were selling already cut up vegetables. I had always supposed them to be a sign of effete western capitalist decadence, but I have to admit they were a good thing in Cuba. Kitchen utensils are very hard to get, and most kitchens pretty basic. They were certainly popular.

Yet another little market. I see some stacks of yummy guava jam in there. I have to say I loved all the fruit in Cuba, and it was so nice to be able to eat it and other raw produce without untoward repercussions.

Some produce heads in from an organiponico in the suburbs to restock one of those little town markets. By motorized vehicle? Not a chance. Hey look! Carrots and beets. We didn't actually see them a lot, apart from a little carrot in salads occasionally. We got served radishes once, to my surprise. No surprise, they weren't any good. Not a vegetable adapted to growing in Cuba, I wouldn't think.

The markets ranged in size from quite large to little booths like this one. You could also often buy produce from people walking around selling it out of a small cart or bag, as with this woman. She was somewhat unusual; most of the mobile sellers were male.

When my father was in Cuba at the end of the special period, he came back commenting on how skinny everyone was. Not so much any more. People were rarely fat, and the lack of motorized vehicles keep them generally pretty fit as well. However, people seemed mostly well feed and even occasionally well padded. The organiponico system and other farm reforms seem to be making a difference, along with increased tourism.