Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Eating Seasonally When Nothing is in Season

Unless you live somewhere that remains warm and sunny throughout most of the year, cooking seasonally in the months of November through March is a challenge. When I was living in Washington, my seasonal winter produce selection was definitely limited, consisting mainly of hearty greens, winter squash, mushrooms, apples, carrots, and onions. In Quebec, though, nothing grows during the winter. Absolutely nothing. In this neck of the woods, everything freezes and is covered in a heavy blanket of snow and ice during the winter months, so the growing season is dormant.
So, is it even possible to eat seasonally during the winter in a place where nothing grows during those months without getting scurvy? I am here to assure you that it is, but that it does take a little more effort than in the warmer months. There are a few options if you want to continue eating only local produce: one is to eat the local bounty that remains from the fall harvest. Root vegetables, apples, and pears all store well, and can last throughout the winter without rotting (if stored correctly).

Another is to try some of the produce that is grown locally in greenhouses throughout the year. Greenhouses across Canada grow mainly tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, and peppers so that produce can be grown locally in a controlled environment at all times. The pros: buying greenhouse-produced veggies means not having to buy stuff that has been shipped all the way in from California, Mexico, Chile, or somewhere else far away. Also, fewer pesticides and chemicals are used in greenhouses, so even the nonorganic stuff is much closer to organic than field grown produce. There are cons as well, though: greenhouse-grown vegetables cost more to produce, so they cost more to purchase as well. Maybe this isn’t a problem for you, but it’s worth considering. It should also be noted that it takes a lot of energy to grow in a greenhouse, and so I don’t know how much smaller of a carbon footprint greenhouse growing makes.
Finally, you can look for local produce that has been frozen or canned. In the case of canned, and sometimes of frozen, you are definitely losing some taste and nutrition, but if you’re really trying to only eat local, it’s an option. Or, if you’re really organized, you can spend your fall freezing and canning all of autumn’s bounty so that you can eat it throughout the winter. I hope to be that organized this fall, but we’ll see. I’ll admit, it’s one of those things I always say I’m going to do and then never actually get around to doing.

Honestly, my take on the subject of eating locally, especially during the winter, is like my take on most things: everything in moderation. I understand the importance of eating locally for my health, for the planet’s health, and for the health of the local economy, but there are some cases where I think eating locally isn’t necessary. For one thing, I really don’t believe that it’s better for my health to be denying myself such a huge variety of fruits and vegetables throughout the winter because they don’t grow in Quebec during that time. There are some fruits that don’t grow in this part of the world at any time of year: if I were to only eat locally, I would never eat citrus, bananas, avocados, or just about any tropical fruit. These things never grow in Quebec, so does that mean I should never eat them? I say no way. I think that my health is better for having these items in my diet. The fact that they have to be shipped in from afar just means that I should eat less of them, and more of what I can get locally.
Something that I will never ever get from Mexico or the southern U.S. —and I encourage you to do the same—is tomatoes. If you must have fresh tomatoes at this time of year, buy on the vine tomatoes that have been grown in greenhouses. If you’re not sure which are which, the greenhouse ones will be labelled “Product of Canada” (in the U.S. as well, for the most part). Why? The answer is long, but I’ll try to be brief: mass produced tomatoes are picked when they’re green and rock solid and sprayed with gas to ripen artificially. The labour to grow and harvest these tomatoes is often basically slave labour. In some cases, it is literally slave labour. For a crash course on the evils of industrial tomatoes, read this article.

Andrew and I have salad with dinner most nights. During the winter, I make an effort to stick to the most local stuff possible, as I outlined above. Sometimes, this presents a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity to add some variety to my salad repertoire. In looking through some old recipe clipping the other night, I found this one for Beet and Pear Napoleons with Ginger Juice Vinaigrette.
This salad is an ideal representation of my philosophy on eating locally during the winter: most of it is local, but for the sake of healthy variety, some of it is not.

Pears and beets are local, likely harvested a few months ago. You’ll notice in the recipe that there is supposed to be shredded apple on top, but Andrew ate the last apple, so I had to skip that component. In theory, though, apple would be another local contribution.
Oranges are not local, but they are in season, so they will represent the seasonal, but imported, component of this salad. I opted for Cara Cara oranges this time, a less acidic, subtler variety of the navel orange.

The lettuce is somewhat local, and grown in a greenhouse. At least, I assume so, as the label reads “Product of Canada.” It could have been grown in British Columbia, which is not exactly in the golden 100-mile radius of local eating, but there’s no way of knowing. Anyways, it will have to do as the greenhouse grown representative in this salad.

But enough about local and not-local: this salad is a great salad because it tastes good. And it looks pretty.
This is the type of dish that you can bust out at a dinner party and your guests will all ooh and aah and think that you’ve constructed something very complex, when really, all you’ve done is stack the ingredients instead of just plopping them down on the plate. The beauty is in the contrast between the white pear, the deep purple beet, and the vibrant green lettuce.
It might seem like eating locally is a lot of work, especially in the winter, and that’s because it is. I look at it as a challenge, though, and an opportunity to try new things and learn more about where my food comes from. And don’t forget: everything in moderation.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Adventures in Grocery Shopping: A Guided Tour

When I blogged about returning to Montreal, I told you that I would write not only about what I am cooking, but also about what where I shop for food, what restaurants I go to, and what kind of food events I attend. I want to start doing that today by telling you about the little grocery store where I buy at least half of my food: Rocky Montana. Now, if you are a Montrealer who lives, or who has ever lived, in NDG, you’ve probably heard of Rocky Montana. I won’t make any assumptions as to what your opinion on the establishment is, but even if it isn’t your favourite place to shop, you would probably at least admit that it is an interesting, albeit strange, store. The reaction I get when I tell people where my new apartment is located is often: “Isn’t that right around the corner from Rocky Montana? I love that place!”
I’m kind of starting to love it too. It’s definitely the sort of place that grows on you, and I’ll admit, I was not all that enchanted by the store the first time I went to it. It’s tiny and crowded and a far cry from the shiny, wide, well-lit aisles of a typical chain supermarket. If you go there with a specific list, it is unlikely that you’ll find everything on it, even the items that you would expect every grocery store to have. What you will find, though, are spices, sauces, and a variety of other products that you can never find anywhere else, and for a fraction of the price that fancy speciality stores charge.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Rocky Montana is the type of place that suburbanites who are used to driving to the store and getting all of their groceries in one spot would not like very much. For city folks who walk, bus, or metro to get their groceries, and often shop at several different, smaller places, RM is a favourite go-to.

So, let me take you on a tour of this fine establishment. The first thing you need to know, before you’ve even entered the store, is which door you must go through, because the answer is not obvious. When you walk up to the two doors under the sign, enter through the door on the left, not the one on the right, as you would normally do. Why the owners of the establishment decided that the doors should be reversed, I have no idea, but just accept it and move on.
Once you’re through said door, you’ll be greeted by the sounds of Indian music and the sight of the register station directly in front of you. To your left are jam-packed shelves of baking staples, almond and soy milk, and organic broths. To your right are shopping baskets and carts. Don’t take a cart. There are few places in the store where a shopping cart actually fits and you will regret it. Instead, opt for a basket. If you’re planning on buying more than what fits in the basket, don’t. Just come back tomorrow and get whatever else you need. Walk through the shelves of nuts, seeds, and dried fruits (or grab a few along the way—the prices are unbeatable), and hang a right at the fruit stand. You need to pass this stand to get to the main fruit and vegetable section, which is no problem if isn’t someone standing there perusing (or restocking—there’s always someone restocking) the fruits on display. If there is, you’ll need to squeeze past this person, and you’ll probably end up bumping him or her with your basket, or stepping on his or her toes. Just say a polite, “Excusez-moi,” and carry on. You may want to pause for a moment to grab something from the alcove opposite the fruit stand where the impressive collection of Bob’s Red Mill products is kept, but don’t linger. That passageway can get hairy.
Now, you’re through to the fruits and veg, an impressive part of the store. In this section, the Indian music is accompanied by a soundtrack of running water and chirping, tropical-sounding birds. I guess these calming sounds are supposed to make you want to purchase more fruits and vegetables. It kind of just makes me need to pee.

The selection here is good, and you’ll want to take advantage. I only have two issues with the RM produce: none of it is organic, and among the nice, fresh, quality products, you’ll often find a number of fruits and veggies that are past their prime. Neither of these problems stops me from shopping there, though: for the products that I want to buy organic, I can go elsewhere, and I don’t have a problem with sorting through the less-than-fresh to find the good stuff. Also in this section is a fridge with a small selection of cheeses and dry sausage, and the impressive spice collection. You know that spice in that recipe you really want to try calls for that you can’t seem to find anywhere? They have it here.
After maneuvering your way back out of the produce section, you can investigate the rest of the store: four aisles, with not a millimeter of space wasted. Along the right-hand and back walls of the store are fridges containing a variety of products, but the real treasures can be found in the shelves of dry goods. Once again, be careful, because the aisles are narrow, and your path will often be blocked with boxes that have yet to be unpacked. Don’t be annoyed: it’s part of the charm of the place.

Now, there is no way I can itemize every type of product that is sold here, but let me give you a sample: a huge variety of Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indian, etc.), Mexican, and American sauces and condiments, oils, vinegars, dried beans, grains, a nice selection of gluten-free products, quinoa, a number of canned fish products, a variety of chips and cookies, nearly a quarter of an aisle full of tomato sauces, three shelves full of different types of honeys, and almost anything you can think of (and a lot of things you probably never thought of) that can come in a can or jar. Oh, and I can’t leave out: an entire wall of the store dedicated to different pastas and noodles.
Every type of noodle, from Italian to Asian and everything else in between, is represented on this wall. It is for wonders like this that I love this store.

So have I enchanted you, or do you think I’m crazy for loving to shop at such an odd little place? My shopping habits have definitely changed since moving out of Redmond, or, that is to say, moving out of a suburb and into a more urban environment. I walk to the store, and I often get my groceries at several different places. I discover new shops every day, from the snobby fromagerie in Westmount, to the hippy co-op in my neck of the woods. I generally only buy what I need for one or two days, and go to the store way more often than I did before. It may sound like more work, but I don’t think that it is. It requires less planning, and I stress less about forgetting something when I’m buying food.

I think Rocky Montana is kind of unique, but maybe I’m wrong. Do you know of a similar place? Would you rather shop there and at several different establishments, or are you more of a one-stop-shopper, preferring to get everything in one big store?

Fruits Rocky Montana
5704, rue Sherbrooke O

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

On Not Following the Recipe

Something you might often hear from people who cook a lot is that recipes are meant to be guidelines and that they do not need to be followed word-for-word. In fact, I know that I’ve said it in this blog a number of times, and there’s a reason for that: cooking becomes a lot more fun when you allow yourself to experiment. This is something I’ve come to realize in the past couple of years, and it has increased the pleasure I get from cooking many times over. Don’t get me wrong: I still think that recipes are important. Recipes can teach you, and in some cases, recipes know best. Good recipes have been tested in professional kitchens, and there’s a reason why there is no garlic in the ingredients list, or why the cheese should only be added at the last minute. But once you understand a recipe and some of the fundamentals of cooking, you can understand why a recipe is written the way it is. At this point, you can also see where the recipe allows room to move around.
Sometimes altering a recipe is as simple as substituting different seasonings, or adding or omitting steps. Sometimes it is as drastic as changing one of the primary ingredients, or using a different cooking method. You can make a recipe with meat vegetarian, or add meat to a vegetarian meal. You can add an Asian twist to a classic Italian dish, or modernize your grandmother’s famous recipe for beef stew. Once you start to play with recipes, you get to be creative with your food, and you become a cook who has her own signature recipes, instead of just a cook who can follow instructions.
A few nights ago, I modified a cold shrimp and noodle salad recipe to make a hot shrimp and noodle stir-fry. The original recipe has you cook the noodles, and then cool them under cold water. It also says to make the dressing, then toss the cooked shrimp with a little of it. The salad comes together by simply placing the noodles in a bowl, topping with the remaining ingredients, and then drizzling with the rest of the dressing. It sounds like a perfect summer meal, but since this is January, I thought it would also make a perfect winter stir-fry. To change the recipe, I had to do more than just heat the ingredients up instead of serving them cold, though. For it to work, I had to understand how this recipe worked as a salad, and what I needed to do differently in order to make it work as a stir-fry. The recipe is this Asian Noodle Salad with Shrimp from Epicurious.
My plan was to start to stir-fry the shrimp in some oil, then add some garlic, the red pepper, the peas, and the dressing, and then continue to stir-fry until the shrimp was just cooked. I knew that by cooking the dressing, I would lose some of it to evaporation, so I increased the quantities in the dressing by about a third. I also didn’t like the idea of eating totally plain, unseasoned rice noodles, so I tossed them with a little dressing immediately after draining them.
The remaining steps are more or less the same. I changed some of the ingredients, mainly to accommodate what I already had on hand. I used frozen peas instead of sugar snap peas, I used basil instead of mint, and I added sliced green onion at the end as well.
The stir-fry turned out beautifully. The combination of the sauce, along with the generous amount of fresh herbs added at the end, make this a very fresh and tasty meal. Adding dressing to the hot noodles was a good move, because they absorbed the flavouring very well. It was a bit of a risk turning a salad into a stir-fry—the results could have been very unappetizing—but this time, the risk paid off.

Asian Shrimp and Noodle Stir-Fry
Adapted from www.epicurious.com
Serves 4

6 tbsp fresh lime juice
4 tbsp fish sauce
5 tsp chili-garlic sauce
3 tsp sugar
1 6.75 oz. (191 g) rice stick noodles (maifun)
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 lb (453 g) medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
2 cups frozen peas
1 cup thinly sliced Japanese or Persian cucumbers
½ cup fresh basil leaves
½ cup fresh cilantro leaves
3 green onions, thinly sliced

To make the sauce, whisk together the lime juice, fish sauce, chili-garlic sauce, and sugar until the sugar dissolves.

Cook the noodles in boiling salted water until tender, stirring occasionally, about 4 or 5 minutes. Drain, then immediately toss with about a tbsp of the sauce.

Meanwhile, cook the shrimp. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the oil and heat until shimmering. Add the shrimp and begin to sauté until they just begin to turn pink, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the garlic, stir for one minute, then add the sliced pepper. Sauté for an additional 2 minutes, then add the peas and the remainder of the sauce. Cook for about three minutes longer. The peas should be tender, and the shrimp should be cooked through. Turn off the heat, stir in the cucumber, and then stir in the noodles.

To serve, divide the stir-fry between four bowls, and then top with the basil, cilantro, and green onion.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Still Learning

I guess that the holidays bring out my nostalgic side, because the other day I found myself reading some of the early posts on Bring Your Appetite. In my opinion, a trip down memory lane is never futile. It’s a chance to look at how you’ve grown and changed over time, and hopefully a chance to learn from your mistakes. With about three years’ perspective, I can easily see many of the mistakes I made, and also how my cooking style and abilities have changed. My very first post probably illustrates this the most. I introduce myself and talk a little about what my cooking skills and knowledge level are, and why I decided to start this blog. Wow, what a change three years can make: I wrote about how I often used bouillon cubes in the place of real stock (*shudder*), how I rarely cooked without a recipe (if I use recipes now, they are only guidelines), and how I didn’t know any famous chefs who weren’t on the Food Network (I am now a big fan of many chefs who have never appeared the Food Network). A lot has happened in that time: I went to culinary school, I worked in the culinary field, I cooked more at home, I ate at better restaurants, and, last but not least, I maintained this blog. So, of course I changed, and of course I learned.
Some things haven’t changed, though. I still love to cook, and look forward to the time I set aside almost every day to be in my kitchen. I still like to try new things: new foods, new recipes, and new methods of cooking. I’m also still learning, and I plan to continue learning for the rest of my life. Looking at my old posts was a good reminder of this.

Just last week, I cooked something I had never cooked before. It was rabbit stewed in red wine. I had eaten rabbit before, but never prepared it myself. I chose a Julia Child recipe, because who better to be my guide into the field of rabbit cookery than the “French Chef” herself?
The recipe required that the rabbit be cut up for the stew. Julia suggests that you have your butcher do this for you, but there was no way I was going to let this opportunity to work with an animal I had never butchered before slip away from me. During my internship at Café Juanita, I watched the cooks cut up rabbit many times, so I had a decent idea of how to proceed. Despite the large differences in the anatomy of a rabbit compared to a chicken (a creature with which I am very familiar), the general principals are still the same: cut at the joints, and, when separating flesh from bone, use the bone as your guide so that you lose as little flesh as possible. I think I did an all right job, but I could certainly use some more practice.
Julia’s recipe and everything else I’ve ever read about cooking rabbit warns that this meat has a tendency to dry up and become tough easily. This makes it a good meat to stew, and marinating it beforehand will help it to be even more tender and flavourful. Julia suggests having the rabbit sit in a combination of red wine vinegar and herbs for twenty-four hours, and it turned out to be an excellent suggestion indeed.
The rest of the process will be familiar to anyone who has braised or stewed meat before: the meat is browned, then placed in a casserole with liquid (in this case, the reduced marinade, along with reduced wine, and beef stock), and cooked slowly until the meat becomes tender.
What absolutely makes this dish is the sauce that is put together at the end. When the rabbit is finished, it is removed from the casserole. The liquid left in the casserole is reduced, and then prunes that have been stewed in Cognac, stock, and butter are added, along with the rabbit’s liver, if you want. I also couldn’t resist finishing the sauce with a couple dabs of butter to give it a glossy sheen.
Pour this over the warm rabbit, and voila! Rabbit stew is served.
There are few things as rewarding as cooking something for the first time and having it come out as a great success. This rabbit stew was exquisite. Was it also decadent? Yes. Time consuming? Yes. Worth the trouble? Absolutely. After all, it was all in the name of learning something new, and that is always worth the trouble. I hope you’ll take the leap with me and try something new one night soon because trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

Rabbit Marinated in Vinegar and Herbs, and Stewed in Red Wine
Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, vol. 2 by Julia Child and Simone Beck, pp. 246-249
Serves 4-5

The marinade:
½ to 2/3 cup red wine vinegar (depending on the strength of the vinegar)
½ tsp cracked peppercorns
3 tbsp olive oil
½ cup sliced onion
2 large cloves garlic, unpeeled, halved
4 juniper berries
½ tsp oregano
1 bay leaf
½ tsp thyme
1 whole rabbit (2 ½ lbs), cut into eight pieces

The stew:
4 ounces bacon, cut into 1 ½-inch sticks (makes about ½ cup)
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 cup sliced onions
1 marinated rabbit
1 rabbit’s liver (optional), seasoned and floured
3 tbsp. flour
Marinade from rabbit
1 bottle of red wine, preferably young and full-bodied (Mâcon, Côtes-du-Rhône, Mountain Red)
2 cups beef or veal stock

The sauce:
20-25 large prunes, simmered for 10 to 15 minutes in ¼ cup Cognac, ½ cup of beef stock, and 2 tbsp butter
Sautéed liver (optional), cut into small pieces
2 tbsp butter

Taste the vinegar you plan to use to marinate the rabbit. If it seems very strong and harsh, only use ½ cup. If it doesn’t seem overly acidic, use up to 2/3 cup. Combine the vinegar with the rest of the marinade ingredients in a bowl or casserole large enough to hold all the meat comfortably. Add the rabbit and baste it with the marinade. Cover and refrigerate the bowl, basting and turning the rabbit occasionally. Marinate at least 24 hours, or up to 2 to 3 days.

Preheat the oven to 450 F. Brown the bacon in a large frying pan. Add the oil, and stir in the onions. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onions are tender and lightly browned. Transfer the onions and bacon to a heavy, oven-safe casserole large enough to hold the rabbit pieces easily.

Meanwhile, remove the rabbit from the marinade, dry thoroughly with paper towels, and season with salt and pepper. When the onions are out of the pan, add more oil if necessary so that the pan is filmed by 1/8 inch. Raise the heat to medium-high and brown the rabbit pieces on all sides. Add the rabbit to the casserole. Sprinkle on half the flour, toss the rabbit, sprinkle on the rest of the flour, and toss again. If using the liver, brown it quickly, removing it from the pan as soon as it has browned on all sides.

Heat the casserole to sizzling on the stove, then set uncovered in the upper third of the preheated oven for 5 minutes; toss again, and return the casserole to the oven for 5 more minutes. Lower the oven’s temperature to 350 F.

Meanwhile, pour the browning fat out of the frying pan, and pour the marinade into it. Boil it down until the liquid has almost completely evaporated. Pour in the wine, boil down to half its volume, add the stock, bring to a boil, and set aside.

When the casserole is removed from the oven, pour the hot wine and bouillon mixture over it. Stir everything in the casserole so that it is well blended. Bring the liquid to a simmer on the stove, cover, and simmer in the oven. Regulate the heat so that the stew bubbles slowly and regularly throughout the cooking, and baste the rabbit pieces occasionally. Stew for about an hour, or until the meat is tender if pierced with a knife.

When the rabbit is done, remove to a serving platter, cover, and keep war, while finishing the sauce. Remove bay leaf, and skim surface fat off the liquid. Bring to a simmer, skimming. Reduce until you have about 1 ½ cups of sauce, thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Add the prunes with their liquid and the cut up liver, if using. Simmer 2 to 3 minutes, drop in the butter, and swirl the sauce until the butter has completely melted. Taste and adjust the seasoning as desired. Pour the sauce over the warm rabbit and serve immediately.