Sunday, May 30, 2010

Back in the garden

Well, it seems I am feeding a local population of slugs.

Here's what they've done to my beans.

...and my swiss chard.

These plants can take some damage at this stage, but if the growing tip gets chomped, it takes forever (if ever) for the poor plants to get back on their feet. Now, as you may have guessed, I'm not a big pesticide fan. My method for dealing with leaf eating insects is to coat the leaves with ashes until the plants are far enough along that they can out grow all the munching. If only I had a source of ash...

...wait a sec!! Yes, yet another of the innumerable benefits of cooking with charcoal.

To get the ash to stick I first water the plants so the leaves are wet, then lightly dust them. This makes the leaves unpalatable to the poor slugs. I don't think they like crawling through the stuff. I'm sure if I was an overgrown slimeball booger of a creature, I wouldn't like it either. Sure, your garden will look like Vesuvius just went off, but it is only for a week or so.

Here's the chard all coated. Just re-apply the ash once it blows off or gets rained off. It also acts as a fertlizer -- how great is that? The other way to deal with slugs is to go out a night with a flashlight and pick them off the plants. But that's gross, and messes with my sleep, so forget it.

My crimson flowered fava beans are blooming nicely. Regular favas have white flowers with a black spot at the bottom. These babies are downright decorative. I never eat them -- it's kind of a pain -- but these are rare seeds and I like to keep them going. Call me Noah.

The Egyptian Onions have started forming their top bulbs -- they're in those little white sacks. One step closer to world domination.

Speaking of world domination, the lovage is now past six feet -- and the flower heads are just starting. It should be visible from Brockville in a couple of days.

The rhubarb is flowering and setting seed. It's a little unsightly, but I figure something probably eats those seeds, so why not let them grow? (This is why my garden usually looks like a disaster area.)

The horeradish is also setting seed. I leave that too.

Here are the seedpods from that kale that made it through the winter. I'm going to save them and see if we can get a winter hardy variety of Cavalo Nero established. This should take me until I'm 80, since it takes two years for a kale plant to go to seed, and it may take a few generations to get the trait stabilized, but it's good to have a project. I'll call it Cavalo Joe when it's all done.

Speaking of seeds, the sweet cicely seeds are hardening up now, so aren't any fun to munch on anymore. Once they turn black they're ready. Then I'll start sneaking them around the city to grow wherever they happen to sprout. (The world needs more sweet cicely. Look for it in a garden near you!)

The bay laurel that survived the winter is now starting to grow quickly. What a trooper! Not sure what to do with this guy when winter comes again. Leave it out and risk its death? Bring it in and never know if it really is some super strain that can survive any winter. Man, who thought gardening could be so stressful?

Last thing was to trim the side sprouts on the tomatoes. If you're trying to grow them up a pole, it's a good idea to pinch out these sprouts.

Once they're gone, the growth goes up instead of sideways and all over the place. This is more of a tidiness thing than a yield thing, so as you can imagine, I kind of bail on it later in the season -- still, it's good to aim for virtue at the start.

Happy gardening!


As I've mentioned before, my youngest daughter is a big fan of noodles. This is her favourite sauce to top them with. I've tried other sauces, but as far as she's concerned this is the only one worthy of eating (with the exception of the occasional pesto, and every now and then just straight butter and parm).

The original version of this recipe was in a Cooks Illustrated magazine which I have since misplaced. I recall skipping a few steps in the original, and I think it's evolved along the way (like that game you play in grade school when all the kids sit in a circle and a message starts with a whisper to a neighbour at one end and is completely different by the time it travels around the circle). In any event the main features are there, and it still tastes great.

This recipe doesn't use much in the way of fresh produce, so it's ideal for the 10 months of the year when tomatoes are, well, not that great. It starts with a carrot and an onion (a small onion, or half a big one).

Chop the carrot and onion nice and fine. You can do this in a food processor if you're in a hurry, but I find that cleaning the dumb thing takes just as long as chopping with a knife anyway.

Heat a chunk of butter and some olive oil in a deep frying pan (you need straight sides to hold all the sauce).

Then add your carrot and onion and fry up the battuto/sofrito/mirepoix on medium until the vegetables are nice and soft. I also add some dried oregano at this point so that the oil can pick up the oregano flavour.

Next step is to add a pound of ground pork. This works with beef too, but I think the original bolognese is supposed to have pork in it, so I go for that.

Chop the pork into two inch cubes while stirring it with the carrots and onion. Add some salt at this point, and let the meat fry for a minute or two.

Then the key to this whole recipe. Milk. This is the trick to making a meat sauce that doesn't seem like a bunch of hard little erasers mixed with tomato sauce. The milk keeps the meat protiens from tightening up too much, and yields a nice smooth and tender sauce.

Just pour two cups of milk into the meat and carrot mixture. The next phase of the recipe involves boiling the milk down so that just the fat remains (mmmm...). This takes about half an hour. I put the heat up one notch from medium to help it along.

During that half hour, you just stir the mixture now and then and gradually break-up the meat into smaller pieces with the spatula.

About 30 minutes later, the milk is gone. There should be just a bit of liquid left in the pan for the next step.

Now it's time to add the tomato sauce. Here's the alternative to fresh tomatoes and home-preserves: a big can of tomato sauce (680 ml size), and a wee can of tomato paste.

The first thing to go in is the tomato paste (all of it). Use the reamining liquid in the pan to help mix it in evenly.

Then pour in the tomato sauce (all of it too). Now you can turn the heat down to below medium, since the goal here is just to heat the sauce through. It can spend 10 to 30 minutes on the stove now, depending on how soon you want to eat, how thick you like your sauce, and how much you like cleaning tomato splatters off your stove.

And that's it -- only and hour start to finish. Top it off with some freshly grated parm and some salt and pepper. This makes enough sauce for about 8 plates of pasta, so you should be able to get two meals out of it. It freezes well, so I put half of it aside for a quick meal on another day. Buon appetito!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

You can call me Herb, Herb-BACEOUS!

Out in the garden this morning, I noticed that the thyme had started to flower (it's about thyme, I said!). (groan). This is the signal to do a haircut on the herbs, and do the season's first batch of drying. (It's a pain if the flowering gets too far along, since you get a bunch of crap in your dried herbs -- i.e. flowers and seeds -- so it's best to head this off at the pass!)

I started with the oregano. It was chugging along nicely, and ...

... looked like this after the trim. Basically, I just head out with scissors and a big bowl, and snip away. Mow them down low enough that you get a good section of stalk, but not so low that there's nothing left to keep growing.

Here's the thyme before...

... and after.

I also trimmed the sage. (See the flowers starting?) I don't use a whole lot of sage over the winter, but it is nice to have on hand. (I steered clear of the lovage -- too scary!)

These herbs will far surpass anything you can buy at the store. I recall reading some FDA guidelines for herbs specifying the amout of dirt and the number of insect parts and rodent hairs that are acceptable in commercial preparations. I aim for pretty much zero of both.

The first step is to give the trimmed herbs a wash. If you're strategic in your trimming, you'll avoid the dirty parts of the plant and only trim the clean stuff (chuck the parts with spit-bugs on them too). Then all you need are a couple of rinses in cool water (I use a big bowl to do the rinsing). Rinse in small batches so it isn't too crowded and you get good water circulation. Once that's done, shake them out to remove excess water, and plunk them down on tea towels to start drying.

Here's the yield so far. Don't be deceived, however -- all this will dry down to about a teaspoon. I go through a lot of oregano and thyme through the winter, so I'll be repeating this shearing exercise every month or so. My stocks are down to the wire now, so this harvest comes just in time. (Save some fresh oregano to make some chimichurri if you're keen on doing some Argentinian grilling this weekend!)

Now, how to dry it. This is the key part of the process. If you dry the herbs too slowly and in high humidity, the leaves will start to darken. Basically, you'll be making black tea out of your herbs and creating a whole new taste sensation that may or may not be any good. The key to success (and green dried herbs) is a fast dry in a low humidity environment. This leads me to the brainwave of the century: I dry my herbs at work in my super dry and hot office.

I am even famous for it! This is from the August/September 2002 issue of Fine Cooking. My first published work. (Although I must confess, the text looks almost nothing like what I sent -- the original was WAY more hilarious.) ANYWAY, the point of all this is that the inhuman dryness and generally unpleaseant conditions in the average 1970s era office building are perfect for drying herbs. Pop them on your desk on Friday (like I'm going to do tomorrow) and they'll probably be ready Monday morning! The only challenge is in meeting all the "Is that pot?" comments with a clever answer.

Bon appetit! Remember, it's time to get ready for winter. The days start getting shorter in less than a month!

Monday, May 24, 2010

'cue the chicken legs!

Cooking chicken legs on a charcoal barbecue can be a bit of a challenge. Well, I guess getting them cooked is not the challenge, but cooking them without incinerating them sure is. Here's my method....

First you need to build a decent fire. One chimney of coals won't cut it, since you need this fire to burn for around half an hour. So,...

when your chimney of coals is ready, dump those out. Then...

...dump a whole bunch more charcaol on there. (This stunt usually produces a pretty decent shower of sparks, so watch out!)

About 15 minutes later the whole mess o' coals will be ashed over and ready to go.

Next you have to bank the coals to one side of the grill. I use the back of my grill brush for this (although I must confess it does look a little burnt). Here you can see the coals on the right, with a clear space on the left. In the clear zone is a big hunk of mesquite that will smoke away while you cook (if it starts to burn, sacrifice a little beer to put it out). You need this clear zone, since this is where the chicken will start.

Now for the chicken. I don't get fancy here. Just chicken legs with salt and pepper. The barbecue sauce is for the last moments of cooking. Having a set of long tongs is a good idea since with this many legs you are close to the heat for long stretches of time and even with gloves on it can get too hot for short tongs. (Just so you know.)

The starting position -- ladies and gentlemen, start your chickens! All of the legs are over the "no coals" zone with the skinny ends pointed towards the heat. This is key if your want to avoid carbonised drumsitcks. Now all you have to do is rotate the legs every once in a while and gradually march them up the grill as the heat subsides. (I know I'm setting myself up for weird dreams of marching chicken legs.) It's also a good idea to switch the ones on the edges with the ones in the middle every now and then to ensure even cooking.

Here they are at the first flip after about two minutes. See! Browning nicely, but no burning. Oh yeah!

I find it helpful to keep them in the same orientation so that they cook evenly. You can do what you want, of course.

Here they are moving slowly up the grill. Once you hit the half way point, it's a good idea to...

...flip them around so the fat ends can start getting more heat.

After about 30 minutes of this jockeying they should be done.

It's a good idea to check the temp (moslty to avoid having to go back to the grill after you sit down). Apparently 180 is safe for legs. These babies got up to 200! But they weren't dry, tough, or burnt. (Could be dumb luck, could be the method, who knows?)

Once they're cooked, retreat to the cool zone for the bbq sauce. I apply it to one side, then flip the legs as I move them back over the heat.

When they get there, I put the sauce on the second side and flip them as soon as they're all sauced. After a minute the sauce should be heated, and you're all set. (You don't want a sugary sauce to sit over the heat for very long or it will burn.)

Plate up with some nice sticky rice, some tomates, and enjoy it all outside on the picnic table you just made!

Buon appetito!!