Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Free Spirit Gardens

The topic for this week, if anyone wonders, is gardening. Because it's the end of May, and that's what's happening. Nonstop. Day after day. Hopefully, another week and almost everything will be planted and we can take a little break before tackling the weeding. However, today for once it's about other people's gardens.

I've been getting info for a while from Free Spirit Gardens. They're a group in Collingwood dedicated to the encouragement of growing food locally. You can hire them to do garden work and design, the money from which gets put back into building community gardens and local food education.

In the last couple weeks they've had a couple sessions of an activity that appealed to us, and we finally made it out to one of their events: a local farm has more asparagus than it has use for, so Free Spirit was invited to pick it, sell it and use the money for their projects. They put out a call for volunteers to pick and sort asparagus in exchange for keeping some it, and got an excellent turn-out.

While we were there, we heard about their next event; the opening of Cook's community garden in Collingwood. On Saturday we headed out to the garden to see what was happening.

We found the garden without difficulty - it's south of Collins Street, between St. Marie Street and Leslie Drive. The area could easily be sold to enlarge the local subdivisions, but the owner has been gardening it for many years. While they are no longer running a market garden, they still prefer to see it as gardens and have opened it up for community use with the aid of Free Spirit.

An enthusiastic collection of volunteers were on hand with seeds for swapping or for sale, and information about local growing.

The gardens themselves have been neatly tilled and are ready to go. Right now there are just 6 plots of 10' x 15', but more can be made available if the demand materializes. Rent is $25 for the season.

Some people were getting right to work! And yes, it looks dry. It IS dry. We're having a droughty spring after a droughty winter, and we are desperate for some rain.

With the help of local high-school students, the garden has acquired some state-of-the art compost bins. We looked on their works and despaired. Ours aren't half as good, let me tell you. Also they plainly have access to some primo rottables. Sound in background is the gnashing of our teeth.

The garden has also been endowed with some excellent rain barrels, which are certainly going to be needed.

The communal shed even has an enviable collection of tools, courtesy of Fiskars, who donated them.

The garden is owned by Mrs. Cook (in the middle). She and her family have been gardening here since 1974. It was a commercial market garden until the late 1990's. That's when the chain grocery stores implemented a "no local buying" policy, and since gardening and marketing your produce directly is a ridiculous lot of work, they stopped growing commercially, just growing enough for their own family use.

The actual garden work has been taken over by her son, seen in the middle about to cut the ribbon to declare the garden officially open. Kim Edwards and Matt Code of Free Spirit bookend the group. The man in the yellow shirt is a city councillor who's name I did not get. (Yes, I am a bad reporter.) One of the other women is the local high school teacher who's students have been part of the project, and who's name I did not get either... and I only have this photo because even though my battery died just as the ribbon was to be cut (that's it - I'm fired), Dan Plouffe of kindly sent me some of his to use. Thank you Dan! (You can see more photos of the day here.)

Monday, 28 May 2012

Next Stage of the Sweet Potato Rooting

Well, it's time for an update on our sweet potato sprouting experiment. The first thing to note is we probably should have started about 2 weeks earlier than when we did. However, we have sweet potatoes with lots of roots and lots of sprouts.

We kept waiting for the sprouts to get longer, but they just went on getting bushier without stretching up particularly. I joked (?) we should lock them in a dark closet for a couple of days to see if that would make them stretch out but of course we didn't. We cut off all the side sprouts. Most of the sprouts were on the top so I just sliced off the top then divided them into sprouts with a tiny bit of tuber still attached.

Now they are back in jars of water waiting for the sprouts to form roots. Hopefully, this will happen quickly and we can plant them in about 2 weeks - just a week or so later than we were hoping for originally.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Asparagus with Brown Butter

Hurray! It's the first asparagus of the year. I feel like I am none too soon in getting some; as I say at the bottom of this post everything is going to be early this year. As ever, the first asparagus should be served simply and enjoyed for itself but even so everything is better with butter. 

Be sure you have everything ready to go before you start cooking this - it all comes together so quickly there will be no time to fiddle with finding things as the asparagus cooks.

2 to 4 servings
10 minutes prep time

500 grams (1 pound) asparagus
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
the juice of 1/2 lemon
OR 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/8 tsp salt
pepper to taste

1/4 teaspoon sugar (optional)

Wash and trim the asparagus, and bring a pot of water to a boil in which to cook it.

Put the asparagus in the water when it boils, and cook it for 3 to 5 minutes, until done to your liking.

Melt the butter in small saucepan, and cook it (simmer) until it turns brown; about 2 to 3 minutes. Meanwhile, juice the lemon and mix it with the salt, pepper, and sugar. If you prefer, you can use balsamic vinegar instead of the lemon juice, in which case omit the sugar.

When the butter is ready, mix it in with the other sauce ingredients. Drain the asparagus thoroughly, put it in the serving dish and pour the sauce over it. Serve at once.

Last year at this time I made Asparagus & Wild Leeks. Wild leeks have been over for a while this year already - this is going to be one of those years where everything is way early. I hate that; I always go out looking for things on schedule and discover I've missed them. I need to take warning from this.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Broiled Rhubarb

In terms of flavour, this produces results very much like basic stewed rhubarb; the advantage is that it holds together much better. This means it can be used in a more decorative fashion than stewed rhubarb. Here it is, across a simple vanilla pudding. Vanilla ice cream or custard would be just as good. French toast, waffles, or pancakes? For sure.

Allow 1 or 2 stalks per person
20 minutes - 10 minutes prep time

1 or 2 stalks of rhubarb per serving
1 teaspoon sugar

Cut a piece of parchment paper large enough to hold the rhubarb in a single layer and put it on a baking sheet. Butter the parchment paper fairly generously. Preheat the broiler.

Wash the rhubarb, and trim it, and cut it into pieces of whatever size you would like. Lay them on the buttered parchment, closely together (touching, en masse) but in a single layer. Sprinkle with the sugar. 

Broil the rhubarb for 5 to 8 minutes, until it is tender and the sugar has melted, perhaps caramelizing a bit in spots.

That's it; serve warm or cold.

Last year at this time I made Chicken & Asparagus Salad with Lemon, Chive & Mustard Dressing.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Tzatziki Stuffed Cucumbers

The trouble with tzatziki is that usually you have to have something else to put it on. This way, it goes on itself, so to speak. If you get the tzatziki thick enough this could be used as a pass-around appetizer or canape; in that case you might want to cut the cucumbers in thick slices and scoop them out to form little bowls.

When I picked up some nice little green house cucumbers at the grocery this week Mr. Ferdzy was a bit horrified; ("We're going to be up to our necks in them in July!") Yeah, okay; but in the mean time we are not, and we need to eat something. Still; while you can make this any time of the year with mini greenhouse cucumbers, it will make an extra-delicious appetizer or salad dish when those home-grown cukes are ready.

For the mint, the youngest, tenderest tops are the best - one little top pinched off for each cucumber you stuff. The instructions are for one cucumber (2 halves) but you can easily scale it up to make as many as you like.

Per cucumber (1 to 2 servings)
15 minutes prep time plus 2 to 3 hours wait time

1 mini cucumber
3 tablespoons thick yogurt
1 teaspoon fresh dill
1/2 teaspoon fresh mint
1/2 of a small clove of garlic
2 teaspoons lemon juice
fresh black pepper to taste

Wash the cucumbers, and cut them in half lengthwise. Use a grapefruit spoon to scrape out the middles, leaving enough of the walls to be sturdy; about 1/4" thick. Finely mince the scraped out middles. Mix them with the yogurt and a pinch  of salt.

Put the yogurt and cucumber mixture into a coffee filter set in a strainer over the sink, and strain the mixture for about an hour. Salt the carved-out cucumber halves and set them aside.

Meanwhile, wash and mince the dill and the mint, and peel and finely mince the garlic. Mix these gently into the draining yogurt mixture and let it continue draining.

When the mixture is quite thick, scrape it into a small bowl. Mix in the lemon juice, and adjust the salt if necessary. Rinse the cucumber halves, and pat them dry. This can, and perhaps should, be done some time in advance of when you wish to serve them. Store them in the fridge until wanted; an hour or two will give the flavours time to really come together.

Spoon the tzatziki mixture evenly into the cucumber halves and arrange them on a serving plate.

Last year at this time I made Chicken Salad with Fruit & Quinoa.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Welsh Onions

I've mentioned welsh onions a few times, when I've cooked with them or recommended them as a vegetable to grow. I think it's time to get into a bit more detail about them. They are rather obscure as a vegetable, which is too bad. They deserve to be better known.

Still, it's not too likely that market gardeners will suddenly take to growing them; you will probably have to grow your own. I think them worth while even in the smallest garden; perhaps even if all you have are pots, although I admit I haven't tried them there. They are very hardy and easy to grow though, so I think they would do fine in pots. Many people do grow them as an ornamental plant. The leaves form a handsome, strappy clump and the flowers are perfect ivory spheres, so they fit very comfortably into a mixed perennial border as well. 

In appearance they are not so different from any other green onion. Their great advantage is that they are the very first onion up in the spring, allowing the gardener and cook green onions perhaps as early as March and certainly by April. Now, in May, they are still going strong although I will soon turn to other onions in the garden and give them a rest. 

Unlike most onions, which are biennials, welsh onions are perennials. This is always a bit tricky in a vegetable, especially one where you eat the whole thing. There are other perennial alliums - shallots, walking onions, multiplier onions or potato onions - and like them, welsh onions grow in clumps and are generally increased by bulb offsets.

They probably resemble chives more than any other member of the domesticated allium family, but chives on steroids, being up to three times taller and a great deal more robust. One way to use them is like chives: cut off the tops, and let them regrow. Alternately, they can be dug up once they are mature enough to form a clump, and 2/3 to 3/4 of the larger onions used, and the rest replanted. And, unlike those other perennial alliums increased by bulb offsets, welsh onions still reproduce very well sexually; i.e. they produce fertile pollen and set ample seed. In spite of this, I have never had them self-seed excessively in the garden, unlike chives. This does open the possibility of growing a new set each year from seed.

Welsh onions (allium fistulosum) are not Welsh. They were introduced into England in 1562, as poultry feed, sent by a Swiss botanist who refered to them as welsch, meaning foreign. Confusion was inevitable. Ultimately, they are said to have originated in Siberia. There are more refined varieties that have made their way east as well, and seeds for them can be found in Oriental seed lists, especially Japanese ones. However, the robust and basic welsh onion is a good choice for home gardeners here.

They are one of the easiest alliums to grow, not being fussy about soil although they do require it to be well-drained. Indeed, once established they are quite drought resistant. You can start them in pots then plant them out, or direct seed them in the spring. They will need full sun to light partial shade. Give them a good dose of water when you divide them, to help get them settled back in again. They will toughen once the flowers start, so either remove the flower stalks or move on to other onions once that happens.

Apparently there is a white skinned and red skinned variety of welsh onions, but the white skinned are regarded as milder, more tender and better growers, and are the only one I have seen.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Palak Alu (Saag Aloo)

Here is a meeting of the old and the new. Our potatoes are starting to get distinctly sprouty - quite a number have hit the compost pile in fact - and most of you will find spinach just starting to be available, although ours is rapidly running to seed and needs to be eaten up. We have leeks in our garden still too, although you are much more likely to find onions at the store than leeks. Still, there may be a few at farmers markets. 

The potatoes were the Pink Fir Apple which have really stored extremely well - the best storage potato we have grown yet, closely followed by the good old Russet Burbank. When I say 4 servings, I assume you will serve this with some naan or paratha, or rice at least, and maybe some other protein dish. As ever, I didn't do that and the two of us ate all of it.

This is a versatile recipe. Other greens are quite possible, such as chard or kale, and using yogurt versus tomato yields fairly different results.

4 servings
1 hour prep time

Prepare the Spices:
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon green cardamom pods
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/16 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt

Heat a dry skillet and toast the cumin seeds, coriander seeds, peppercorns and cardamom until fragrant but barely browned. Remove them at once to a plate to cool, then grind them finely. Mix them with the remaining spices and set aside.

Make the Palak Alu:
300 grams spinach
500 grams potatoes
1 large leek or 2 medium onions
2 to 3 cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons finely minced fresh ginger
3 tablespoons mild vegetable oil
1/2 cup yogurt OR crushed tomatoes

Wash the spinach and pick it over. Rinse it well again, and set it aside to drain. Wash the potatoes, cut them into chunks and put them in a pot with water to cover. Bring them to a boil and boil for 10 minutes. Drain well. They should be almost done and still quite firm, so drain them sooner if they are getting too soft.

Meanwhile, wash, trim, and chop the leek, and rinse it again and drain well, or peel and chop the onions. Peel and mince the garlic, and the ginger. Shred the spinach fairly finely.

When the potatoes are just about ready, put 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet to heat. Drain the potatoes well and add them to the oil. Cook until well browned, turning regularly. Add the leek or onion, and let cook, turning regularly, until softened and slightly browned. Add the ginger and garlic, and cook for a minute more. Add the spices and mix in well. If the spices seem too dry, add the remaining tablespoon of oil.

Once the spices are well amalgamated, start adding the spinach in handfuls, adding more as it wilts and makes room in the pan. Once it is all in and sufficiently cooked, mix in the yogurt or tomatoes, and let the mixture simmer gently until it seems ready - for me, just a few minutes. Stir regularly as needed.

Last year at this time I made Pasta with Spring Spinach Pesto.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

It's the Middle of May So You Know Where We Are

We're in the garden, of course. That's not us above; those are some turkey vultures that were hanging around in the garden this morning. We've often seen them circling above, but they've never landed this close before. They are usually very wary birds. They disappeared once we went out and got to work.

Mr. Ferdzy has invested in a drip irrigation system and he is testing it out. He made an idle comment that he might guest-post about it once it has been in long enough to get an idea of how it works. I will probably hold him to that. One less post for me to do!

And there he is again. Work, work, work. I've decided he is like the Energizer Bunny. I, on the other hand am definitely Flopsy.

Most of the potatoes are now planted. And yes, we are planning to dig 2 more beds there. Because we are keeping up so well with the ones we already have, ha ha.

More planted potatoes, along with garlic, and in the next bed still too tiny to see, carrots and onions.

The peas that we planted in March (March!!!) came up nicely then decided that had probably been a mistake. Fortunately they are tough and they can take it. They hunkered down and sat there until last week, when they decided it was probably safe to start growing again. They have tripled in size since then and will be climbing the trellises shortly.

Last years' new wet beds are a discouraging mess of weeds. Not in any way unexpected. We think it will take at least 3 or 4 years to get them into good condition. The afternoon was spent weeding one, and dumping composted manure on it. We'll add a little of the sandy topsoil from the higher parts of the garden, then plant it with celeriac and celery.

And, no kidding, we planted our peppers. We will keep them under the hoophouse for a week or 2 as needed, but there is no frost forecast for the next 2 weeks and then we are past the expected last frost date. They were getting large, floppy and starting to want to form blossoms so it is great to get them out of our plant room, leaving more room for the tomatoes.

So there it is; not much cooking going on. This is a difficult time of year anyway. Potatoes and other stored things getting sprouty, new things just starting to grow. We'll be picking some asparagus this week with a bit of luck and maybe some rhubarb too. Spinach still going strong, in fact it is going to seed. Lettuce is up and starting to look a bit leafy. Lots of things to look forward to!

Friday, 4 May 2012

Cabbage with Onion Greens

Surprise! No wild leeks... I'm all out. Except for the ones I planted, of course. It turned out that we have had quite a lot of rain this week so I am optimistic that they will do well. Today I will put on my boots and go visit them. However, I feel obliged to say that you could replace the onion greens with wild leeks, if you wanted to; say about 12 to 18 of them.

And what do I mean by onion greens, anyway? Basically, I mean green onions, but in this case I have just pinched off the tops of my welsh onions. Any sort of green oniony thing would work though; the wild leeks, shallot greens, onion tops, chives, or garlic greens. Anything you can raid from the garden. I do recommend welsh onions though. They are definitely the earliest green onions available each spring.

4 servings
20 minutes prep time

4 cups chopped cabbage
2 cups chopped onion greens

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
2 cloves of garlic

2 to 3 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon mild vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon arrowroot or corn starch
1 tablespoon mild vegetable oil

Chop the cabbage. Chop the onion greens. Peel and mince the ginger and the garlic. Mix the soy sauce, vinegar, sugar and arrowroot or corn starch in a small bowl.

Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the cabbage and several tablespoons of water. Cook until the water is evaporated, and the cabbage is wilted, turning and mixing constantly. If necessary, add a little more water to get the cabbage done to your liking. Just before it has reached that point, add the onion greens, the ginger and the garlic. Continue to turn and mix until the onion greens are wilted but still bright green. Stir up the sauce again and pour it over the vegetables. Mix it in well and as soon as it thickens, remove the veggies from the heat and serve them.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Spaghetti with Wild Leeks

This is probably my very favourite pasta dish, and I love pasta dishes of all kinds. I don't make it very often, because it's a greasy carb-fest, but a nice clump of wild leeks seemed like a good reason to break it out.

Of course the two of us eat it all, but if you were sensible and served it with a salad it would stretch to four servings.

The well-known version of this dish doesn't contain wild leeks, just garlic. I think it's better with a little touch of green, but other possibilities are a handful of shallot greens, minced chives and/or parsley. Shallot greens, by the way, are probably the domesticated onion that most resembles wild leeks. Unfortunately, I've never seen anyone sell them, but if you are growing shallots I think it is well worth while to plant extras to be eaten as greens in the spring. They really do have a rich and subtle flavour much like the wild leeks.

2 to 4 servings
25 minutes prep time

225 to 250 grams spaghetti or capellini
1/4 cup extra-virgin sunflower or olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 to 3 cloves of garlic
1/4 to 1 teaspoon crushed red chile OPTIONAL
16 to 24 wild leeks (ramps)
1 cup finely grated Parmesan or other hard, tangy cheese

Put a large pot of water on to boil for the pasta, salting it generously when it comes to the boil.

Meanwhile, put the oil and butter into a small saucepan. Peel and mince the garlic, and add it to the pan. Wash and clean the wild leeks, and trim off the roots. Mince the bulbs and stems, and add them to the pan of oil and butter. Add the red chile if using. Heat the pan, and simmer the contents gently while the pasta cooks. Don't let the garlic get brown; if it shows signs of doing so reduce the heat and just keep it warm until wanted.

Meanwhile, shred the leaves of the wild leeks finely, and grate the cheese.

When the pasta is done, drain it well. Toss it at once with the shredded wild leek leaves, until they are well wilted. Then mix in the pan of oil and its contents, and toss with most of the cheese, keeping out just a small handful to sprinkle over the top.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Chicken with Wild Leeks

Well I did say that the things I ended up doing with the wild leeks I kept aside for cooking were more ideas than recipes...

4 to 6 servings
1 hour 10 minutes - 10 minutes prep time

Chicken with Wild Leeks

16 wild leeks (ramps)
8 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs
1 cup chicken stock
salt & pepper to taste
1/3 cup light cream
2 tablespoons arrowroot or cornstarch

Clean the wild leeks by peeling off the skins and trimming the roots. Rinse well in cold water. Cut the leaves from the stems and bulbs, and divide them into 8 equal piles. Spread the bulbs around in a 8" x 12" shallow baking pan. Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Take a pile of the prepared leaves, and lift the skin on one side of a chicken thigh. Slide the leaves in underneath the skin, probably folded in half to fit, and push the skin back into place. Put the chicken thigh into the prepared pan and repeat with the remaining chicken thighs and piles of leaves. Pour the chicken stock around the thighs and season them to taste with salt and pepper.

Bake the chicken thighs for 50 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and drain as much of the stock as possible from them, into a pot. Return the chicken thighs to the oven for another 10 minutes and make the gravy while they continue to cook.

De-fat the chicken stock, and bring it to a simmer. Mix the arrowroot or cornstarch into the cream until well dissolved, with no remaining lumps. Stir it slowly into the stock. Continue cooking and stirring until it thickens, just 2 or 3 minutes. Pass with the cooked chicken thighs.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Spinach & Wild Leeks

Somehow my ramps are not ending up in anything that can reasonable be called a recipe, so much as I am just cooking them and eating them. Never mind; nothing wrong with that.

This could be served as a side vegetable at a meal, but we thought it was delicious piled on toast and topped with poached eggs. 

2 to 4 servings
30 minutes prep time

250 to 300 grams spinach
12 wild leeks (ramps)
2 tablespoons butter OR bacon fat
salt & pepper to taste

Wash and pick over the spinach, and chop it coarsely. Clean the leeks, pushing down the dirty, damaged outer layer on the roots and trimming it off. Cut the stems and root from the leaves and chop them coarsely. Actually, chop them both coarsely, but keep them separate.

Heat the butter in a large skillet over medium heat, and cook the leek bulbs until soft and slightly browned. Add the leek leaves and cook until just wilted, stirring constantly; just a few seconds. Add the spinach and cook it until well wilted down but still bright green, again stirring constantly. This won't take more than a minute or two.

If you want to serve this with poached eggs and toast, the eggs should actually go into the pot before you start cooking this dish. The toast should also be started right around the time you start cooking the roots. Of course, this will all depend on how firm you want the eggs and how brown the toast, not to mention the efficiency of your appliances, so adjustments may need to be made. Still, I would say this is the fastest part of the meal.