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Yesterday was the first day of autumn and I celebrated by making soup. Now mind you it doesn’t really feel like autumn. It’s short sleeve weather, which is not uncommon in these here parts in late September. My town is know for Indian summers. We’ve had such uncommonly beautiful weather for months and months now that part of me doesn’t want to let go, wants to hang onto the last vestige of summer as it slowly slips away. The other part of me is ready to trumpet fall in with all the hoopla of a marching band because it’s actually my favorite season.
I love the crisp cool days of early autumn when the sun is still shining but you can feel that nip in the air telling you to put on a jacket. I love watching the leaves turn color, the buzz in the air as students head back to school. But most of all–and I’ll bet you guessed this one–I love making the food that I didn’t get to eat all summer long as I stuffed myself silly with salads and fruit and caramel ice cream. That’s all fine and well (especially the ice cream) but nothing beats a boeuf bourguignon simmered on the stove all day, a good pork roast served with new potatoes, or a pumpkin pie finished with a good dollop of fresh whipped cream in order to get a good start on Thanksgiving (in mid-October for us in Canada). And of course, we can’t forget the soup.
To me, soup is supposed to be comfort food, which is why I like it creamy, or at least hearty, like a chicken soup loaded with noodles and vegetables. While I was growing up, my mother made a lot of soup. In Eastern Europe, soup is always part of the main meal, a custom that I have always disliked. It seemed that once I finished the soup, I was almost too full for the good stuff–often the meat and potatoes–which I ultimately preferred and still do. So now I make soup a meal on its own, served with some homemade crackers or a slice of rustic country bread.
This recipe isn’t set in stone, rather a guideline. You can add your own choice of spices or other seasonings. I add a small tomato to give it a boost of flavor. It’s not enough to make the soup tomatoey in any way, but gives it an unmistakable tang that goes beautifully with the leek and cauliflower.
Cream of Roasted Cauliflower & Leek Soup
1 head cauliflower
1 large leek, white part only
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons water
1 carton vegetable or chicken broth (946 ml)
1 tomato, blanched in hot water and peeled
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 sachet bouquet garni *
1/4 cup creme fraiche
fresh ground pepper
1) Preheat oven to 400F. Wash the cauliflower and leek thoroughly. Cut the leek into chunks and cook slowly in butter and water until water evaporates and the leeks are tender, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, cut the cauliflower into chunks and drizzle with olive oil. Roast in oven until golden and caramelized.
2) Bring the stock to a simmer. Add bouquet garni, garlic, salt and pepper. Add the cooked leeks and tomato. When the cauliflower is roasted, add to the broth and cover. Cook on medium low heat until the cauliflower is soft and tender and the flavors are incorporated.
3) Remove the bouquet garni. Puree the soup with an immersion blender. Season to taste with more salt and pepper. Thoroughly blend in creme fraiche.
* Bouquet garni is a mixture of dried celery, bay leaves, thyme and parsley. I buy Cote D’Azur brand, which is a local company. You can make your own bouquet by choosing a mixture of herbs and tying them into a small piece of cheesecloth. This will immerse the soup with the flavors of the herbs.
I find the more I cook and immerse myself in the world of food via various magazines and food blogs, the more I come to understand that there is so much I don’t know. This year I set out to become a food and travel writer and have achieved some success, but I realize that there is so much I’m going to have to learn about food if I want to have a career in this field. Since I think all of life is a learning curve, I don’t mind admitting my foibles in this regard. I have never eaten an artichoke and have no idea how to cook one. I love food but am a picky eater; although there are few foods that I dislike intensely, there are many that I don’t love and I feel life is too short to spend eating them. I would love to review restaurants, but I don’t think I could be objective enough to comment on organ meats or other such fare that is standard at some of these fine establishments that I read about yet have not gone to. Sadly, I will never be a restaurant critic for the New York Times, donning disguises and dining at Lutece.
Another curiosity: my favorite food is French, but until my trip to France last year, I had scarcely eaten it. My idea of French food was limited to quiche, onion soup, and potato gratin. Rather ironic considering I now regularly write about French restaurants in my hometown for some well-known online publications. Until I bought my copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I didn’t even know what clafouti was. I looked it up online, hoping to find a picture of this dessert which wasn’t a cake or a pancake, or a custard, but a combination of all three.
In fact, the first time I made a clafouti I expected a very cake-like texture and thought I had not baked it long enough. I made a mistake by not cooking some of batter before topping it with cherries and another layer of batter. I thought this was why the texture was so custard-like. I had no idea that it was supposed to be that way. Now that I’ve been set straight, I love to whip up a clafouti when I want something easy–something with fruit. I like to have it for breakfast on a weekend morning, instead of pancakes, sprinkled with icing sugar.
In MtAoFC, Julia has a master recipe for Cherry Clafouti, and then a list of variations. I chose to make the Clafouti aux Pruneaux because it’s the perfect time of year for plums. In this variation, she asks you to drop them in boiling water and peel them. I found the prospect of this too tedious, so I simply cut the plums in half (I used small ones) and sprinkled them with sugar. Otherwise I followed the master recipe, which I include here with my one little tweak. Instead of plums, you can also use sliced apple or pear instead of plums. Clafouti can be a perfect summer or winter dessert, depending on the fruit you use. Now that is what I call versatile.
Julia Child’s Plum Clafouti
Serves 6 to 8 people
1 pound firm, ripe plums
1 1/4 cup milk
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup flour
1/3 extra cup sugar
icing sugar for dusting
1) Preheat oven to 350F. Cut plums in half and sprinkle with some sugar. Set aside.
2)Place all of the ingredients except the last 1/3 cup sugar in a blender in the order they are listed. Cover and blend at top speed for 1 minute.
3) Pour a 1/4-inch layer of the batter in a buttered fireproof baking dish or pyrex pie plate about 1 1/2 inches deep. Place in the oven for about 5 minutes–until a film of batter has set in the bottom of the dish.
4) Spread the plums over the batter with the skins facing up. Sprinkle with the extra 1/3 cup sugar. Pour on the rest of the batter.
5) Bake in the middle position of the oven for about an hour, until the clafouti has puffed and browned and a toothpick or knife plunged into its center comes out clean. Sprinkle the clafouti with icing sugar before serving.
If you would like to follow Julia’s recipe exactly as printed, drop the plums in boiling water for exactly ten seconds. Peel them before slicing. Soak in 1/4 cup of orange liqueur, kirsch or cognac and let stand for one hour. Substitute this liquid for part of the milk called for in the recipe and omit the last 1/3 cup sugar called for in the recipe. The apple and pear variations call for the same method; use 1 1/4 pounds of apples or 3 cups of pears, peeled, cored, and sliced.
If you regularly get your hummus in the deli section of your supermarket, I implore you to stop right now. I have a hummus recipe that will knock your socks off. Why should you bother making your own hummus? Because the stuff in the grocery store or your local deli is an inferior product, full of preservatives and bad fats–as is the case with most store-bought dips and spreads. It’s easy to make, and requires just a few ingredients, which you may already have on hand. The only step that takes any time at all is the soaking of the chickpeas, but you simply put them in a pot of water overnight and they’ll be ready for you the next day.
Now I must warn you. An authentic hummus is never presented as pictured here, in a towering mound or plopped in a bowl slapdash and any-old-way. This is a matter of my taking artistic license, so please forgive me. Hummus should actually be spread on a plate and smoothed down from the middle outward, creating a well in the center. Then you sprinkle it with a bit of ground cumin and drizzle it with olive oil and lemon. You can also infuse some olive oil with paprika, strain it, then drizzle it over the hummus, finishing with a thin line around the plate. Authentic and delicious, and pretty impressive for a plate of beans. You’ll be surprised with this hummus; it is substantial, yet light and fluffy at the same time from all that blending. I love to eat it with chunks of really good pita, warmed in the oven, or serve it with a plate of cut-up vegetables and multigrain crackers. A few choice olives wouldn’t hurt, either.
This recipe comes from Paula Wolfert’s amazing book The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, which I intend to review here soon. For now I will just say that if you haven’t cooked from Paula’s fabulous recipes, then I urge you to do so as soon as possible. Paula is often hailed as the preeminent authority on Mediterranean cuisine. Her books contain recipes from France to Syria and all points in between. She has traveled all over the globe in search of these recipes, which are marvels of authenticity and accessibility. By picking up this one book, I know more about Mediterranean cuisine than I ever thought I would. I highly recommend it.
Paula Wolfert’s Hummus
Makes 2 1/2 cups
1 cup dried chickpeas (250 ml)
1 small onion, peeled
1/4 cup tahini (sesame seed paste) (60 ml)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed with 1/2 teaspoon (2.5 ml) coarse salt
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice or more, to taste (50 ml)
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil (15 ml – 30 ml)
ground cumin, paprika, or pomegranate seeds for garnish
1) Put the chickpeas in a pot and cover with water. Soak overnight.
2) Drain; rinse and cook with the onion in water to cover until the chickpeas are very soft. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid for the dip. Set aside 1/4 cup of chickpeas for the garnish. Discard the onion.
3) Stir the tahini in its jar until the oil is well blended. Place tahini in the blender or bowl of the food processor. Blend the tahini, garlic, and lemon juice until the mixture “whitens”.
4) With the machine running, add the reserved cooking liquid. Add 1 3/4 cup chickpeas and process until well blended. Correct the seasonings with salt and lemon juice.
5) Allow the dip to mellow at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours. If you would like a smoother dip, push it through the fine blade of a food mill and discard the skins of the chickpeas.
6) To serve, spread dip on a shallow serving dish. Use the back of a spoon to make a well in the center. Drizzle with olive oil and garnish with ground cumin, paprika, or pomegranate seeds.
With summer drawing to a close, I find myself scrambling for fresh fruit, heaping extra blueberries on my cereal and making desserts with plums or raspberries taking center stage. One of my favorite fruit desserts is a tart or tartlet loaded with whatever fruit is in season and a simple filling of cream cheese or custard. Especially, I love a strawberry tart, made with the choicest of bright red berries, their color highlighted by a glaze of melted red current jelly.
True, strawberry season is over. It is in late spring and early summer when these luscious berries are at their best. Modern farming methods have made this fruit available all year round, but I’m not a fan of buying it in the dead of winter. Yet, as the first nip of autumn fills the air, reminding me of some of the dreary and rainy days to come, I hanker for strawberries.
I make my tartlet shells using Martha Stewart’s recipe for pate brisee, which seems to be the go-to recipe for pie-dough. Pate brisee is the French version of a classic pie or tart pastry. You press the dough into a disc rather than a ball before chilling it in the refrigerator, which helps it chill faster. The recipe makes 1 double-crust or 2 single-crust 9 to 10-inch pies, so I halve the recipe to make 4 4-inch tartlets. Of course, if you want to make 6 or 8 tartlets, use the whole recipe. You can find it here.
Strawberry Tartlets with Lemon Cream Cheese
Makes 4 4-inch tartlets
For the filling:
9 ounces (250g) cream cheese, at room temperature
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon good quality vanilla extract
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Cream all of the ingredients together in a small mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Spread into cooled tartlet shells.
Cut strawberries lengthwise into quarters and arrange on top of the cheese in a pyramid shape.
To give the tartlets a glaze, melt 3 tablespoons of red currant (or other red jelly) with one tablespoon of water and brush over strawberries with a pastry brush.
During late summer at some point I often make a trip to the Cariboo region of British Columbia where my parents have a cabin on one of the myriad of lakes you can find in that area. Actually, the cabin–usually referred to as a cottage back East–is more like a house, with a kitchen, bathroom, and a large bay window overlooking the water. If you like nature, the Cariboo is a great place to spend a few days, and the drive from Vancouver is incredibly scenic. True–you’re not going to find resort towns on your way, or places to shop for he latest Coach bag. Dairy Queen will probably be the classiest of the restaurant offerings. But you will find mile after mile of lush scenery driving through the mountains and along the Fraser and Thompson rivers.
Does this look like Canada to you? If you’re thinking it looks like some desert landscape, you’re right. Canada actually has two deserts–one in Southern Manitoba, the other in British Columbia’s Okanagan area, which extends into the United States and into the Sonoran Desert in Mexico. There are several other patches of land in this central area of the province that have desert-like conditions. On our drive we encountered miles upon miles of rolling hills blanketed with sagebrush and vistas that were definitely different from anything you would see heading out of Vancouver, which is geographically situated in a temperate rainforest.
The wineries, lakes, fruit picking orchards, and picturesque towns in the nearby Okanagan Valley make it a popular destination for tourists and Vancouverites wanting to leave the city behind for a long weekend, but the Cariboo offers an unbeaten path, full of rugged nature, and gold rush and pioneering history. It may be a path less traveled by Canadians, but it is hugely popular with Europeans–so much so that overheard conversations can make you feel like you’ve just landed in Germany.
I’ll be the first to admit I’m rather a city slicker. A few days in the country and I’m itching for a bookstore and an extra-hot caramel latte from Starbucks. I grew up visiting the Cariboo; the nature was background scenery, always taken for granted. But as I sat on the porch of the cabin with my family, looking at the calm blue lake with a cup of coffee in hand, I felt a deep sense of contentment, connected to something outside myself. Sometimes I get so busy that I forget that feeling exists.
The weather on the lake can go from brilliantly sunny to stormy in a heartbeat, and I could feel the whiff of early autumn in the air. I definitely saw it in the vegetation around the cabin, with the leaves already turning color and the myriad of ripe rosehip shrubs.
It’s interesting how having a camera in hand causes you to look at the details, to notice things you might not have noticed before, to appreciate color in a different way.
Sadly, I was only able to spend a few days in the Cariboo before heading back to Vancouver–which has it’s own share of natural beauty to offer. My trip was a reminder to not take that for granted.
If you are interested in finding out more of this spectacular region in British Columbia, check out some of these links:
It’s been a few days since I posted and it will be a few more until I do again. I’m on holiday and will back next week with new recipes and photos from my excursion into the Canadian wilderness.
See you next week, dear readers!