Friday, May 29, 2015

Amazing Asparagus ~ Spring's Treasure

Local asparagus season has begun, with peak retail months of supply from April through June. A member of the lily family, the ‘spears’ grow from a crown that is planted 8 to 10 inches deep. I don't have enough garden space to grow asparagus but am lucky enough to have a friend who is willing to share the harvest!  

Beautiful, fresh cut, Denman Island asparagus
Store fresh asparagus clean, cold and covered. Break off the stem end as far down as snaps easily. Wash in warm water several times and remove any loose scales, dirt or sand. To maintain freshness, wrap a moist paper towel around the stem ends, or stand upright in two inches of cold water (my preference). Cover loosely with plastic wrap, refrigerate and use within 2 or 3 days for best quality.

When purchasing, choose bright green spears that are tender (easily punctured), with compact tips that have a slight purple tinge. If the tips are open, the vegetable is past its prime. Very thin, wilted or crooked stalks may be tough or stringy. Fat spears are more likely to be tender than thin ones. 

The key to perfect asparagus lies in the cooking. It is not necessary to peel green spears. A quick steaming that leaves it tender and crisp, rather than mushy and soft, is all it takes to achieve optimal texture and flavor. Do not cook asparagus in aluminum or iron pots as the flavor can be affected.
To steam; tie the spears into a bundle, it will be easier to handle. Cook by standing upright on the stem ends in ½ inch of boiling water; the water cooks the stems and the tips are then cooked by steam. This is why asparagus cookers are tall upright pots. Cook uncovered for the first 3 minutes then cover and cook to tender-crisp stage—about another 2 to 5 minutes. Remove with tongs and save the leftover water for soup or sauces.
To stir-fry; cut spears diagonally, leaving tips whole. Stir-fry pieces in butter or hot oil, in a skillet or wok at medium high heat. Stir constantly until tender-crisp, 3 to 5 minutes. 
Roasting is my favorite cooking method; roast in the oven (or on the BBQ) for about 6 to 10 minutes (depending on their thickness) or until tender-crisp.

Enjoy spring’s most treasured bounty.
Till next week ...Bon Appétit!

ROASTED ASPARAGUS      Yield: 6 servings 
This method is super fast, easy and pretty much fool proof with a beautiful al dente finish.

2 lbs. thick asparagus spears
Extra-virgin olive oil
Fleur de Sel

Hollandaise Sauce, optional

Preheat oven to 450˚F. Lightly oil a large baking sheet. Trim and wash asparagus spears, pat them dry. Arrange spears in a single layer on baking sheet; sprinkle them with olive oil and toss to coat lightly. Roast spears 6 to 10 minutes, depending on their thickness. Turn them at least once, until they are tender but still somewhat firm. Arrange on a serving platter, sprinkle with Fleur de Sel and set aside to serve warm or at room temperature. Can be served with Hollandaise Sauce.

HOLLANDAISE SAUCE         Yield: 3/4 cup
In Culinary terms this is one of the five Mother Sauces, an emulsified sauce made with egg yolks and clarified butter. This sauce should be fairly thick, though at the same time it should be light. The sauce will thicken as the butter is added and as the eggs cook.                                   

2 tsp. dry white wine (or water)
2 egg yolks
½ cup butter, melted and clarified
Juice of ½ a lemon (about 1½ tsp.)
Sea salt
Pinch of cayenne 

To clarify the butter, slowly melt in a small saucepan over medium heat and skim off the surface foam. Pour the clear layer of butter into a glass measuring cup, leaving behind the milky residue in the bottom of the pan, which can be discarded. Let clarified butter cool to lukewarm. Meanwhile, in the top of a double boiler (or in a stainless steel bowl over a pot of simmering water), combine the wine and egg yolks. Whisk constantly and vigorously until the yolks are thickened, pale yellow and double in volume. (If the eggs begin to scramble, or the mixture is cooking very quickly or gets too hot, remove the bowl from the heat and whisk to cool.) Remove the eggs from the heat and whisk for 30 seconds to cool slightly. Remove the saucepan from the heat and set the bowl over the hot water. Slowly drizzle in the clarified butter whisking constantly. When all the butter is incorporated, whisk in the lemon juice, salt and cayenne to taste. (If the sauce is very thick, add a few drops of wine or warm water to adjust the consistency so it is creamy and light.) Serve warm.

Photo by Sally Rae

Friday, May 22, 2015

Let The Planting Begin

The Victoria Day long weekend gave me a few extra days to assemble, organize and begin planting my experimental, 'Container Vegetable Garden' for 2015.

Inverted tomato cage/plastic cloche for larger plants
I put cardboard on the ground first; 1.) to prevent grass from growing around the pots, making lawn care easier with minimal weed eating and 2.) hopefully make it less inviting for slugs to move in. I placed a large saucer under each pot to capture excess water. I had 10 large pots for tomatoes, cucumbers etc. around the yard from the past few years. However, their soil was less than ideal; heavy, compressed, full of roots and some rocks. I dumped each pot of 'used' soil into the wheel barrow, broke it up and picked out all unwanted materials. Then added composted manure, Sunshine Mix potting soil (to lighten the mixture) and my 'Balanced Fertilizer Mix' (see recipe in my February 26, 2015 post, 'Spring Has Sprung?') These soil 'ingredients' were mixed in the wheel barrow then moved back into each pot in preparation for planting. 

I found 'tomato cages' absolutely useless, until a few years ago.... I needed to shade a 4'x14' brassica bed, the plants were wilting in the heat. I needed sturdy supports to; elevate burlap off of the plants, provide air circulation at soil level and stay in place in the wind. Voila, inverted tomato cages around each brassica, held to the ground with 2-3 tent-type pegs for each inverted cage. I now use the same method around the plants in pots. The frame supports numerous different covers and holds the plastic or burlap etc. away from the plant but stays put in the wind. Push the top ring of the tomato cage into the soil and weigh down with a few rocks or use tent-type pegs. Thread the plastic or burlap through the upward pointing spikes to hold in place if the wind picks up.
Inverted tomato cages support mesh trays or burlap for shade

In the top photo above; a long, clear, plastic bag over the inverted tomato cage becomes a cloche for larger plants at night. A hole is opened in the top to release excess heat and condensation will run down the inside to provide a small amount of moisture to the soil. New broccoli transplants are sheltered from the afternoon sun with a cardboard sheet supported between the tomato cage and a stake (burlap could also be used for shade but one side should be kept open for air circulation in this small space).

The outside tomatoes will be fine with our warmer temperatures but in the past I have found that if covered with a cloche at night for the first while, they seem to perk up faster and keep up with the greenhouse tomato plants. The cloche is removed in the daytime or they will overheat. If the sun is too intense, I shade them with burlap or the black plant trays that look like mesh. The inverted tomato cage provides a safe, secure, structure to hold the shade material at a distance from the plant.
Uncover plants in the daytime
In the day time, the plastic bag is rolled up to give the tomato air circulation. Once the temperatures are warm enough at night and the tomato is larger, the plastic and inverted tomato cage are removed. A wooden stake is placed beside plants when first transplanted into the large pot so as not to disturb the root system. When the inverted tomato cage is removed, wooden or bamboo stakes become the support system.

Till next week... Happy Gardening and Bon Appetit!

Photos and 'grunt work' by Sally Rae

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Summertime Food Safe 101

Food safe handling practices are important year round, but people need to be especially careful during the barbecue season. Extra caution should be taken to cook food thoroughly, avoid cross contamination and keep foods out of the temperature danger zonebetween 40-140˚F (4-60˚C). 
Summertime is outdoor party time—when the backyard becomes the living room, dining room and sometimes even the kitchen! With our Victoria Day, May long weekend just days away, it is the first long weekend of summer activities on Denman and Hornby Islands. Denman Island hosts its 28th Annual Pottery Tour and many summer residents will come to open and air out their cabins for the season ahead. This is the perfect time to review and refresh food safe handling practices. 

Cooking meat and poultry to the proper temperature is one of the most important safety tips. Meat browns quickly on the outside, make sure the internal temperature is correct. Always use a meat thermometer when grilling or cooking. Poultry can be precooked in the oven and then placed immediately on the barbecue to add the desired grill marks; this will decrease the amount of time it is exposed to danger-zone temperatures. 
  • Whole chicken should be cooked to 180-185˚F (82-85˚C)
  • Chicken parts and turkey pieces should be cooked to 170˚F (77˚C)
  • Pork chops, ribs and ground meats should be cooked to 160˚F (70˚C) 
  • Beef roasts and steaks should be cooked as follows:                                           
    • medium rare at 145˚F (63˚C)  
    • medium at 160˚F (70˚C)
    • well done 170˚F (75˚C)
Do not ‘partially grill’ extra hamburgers to use later. Once you begin cooking hamburgers by any method, cook them until they are completely cooked through to assure that bacteria are destroyed. When marinating raw meat, fish or poultry; do so in the refrigerator—not on the counter. Don't reuse the marinade from raw meat unless you boil it for several minutes to destroy any bacteria from the raw meat.

When barbecuing, use 2 pair of tongs to avoid cross contamination—one for raw meat and one for cooked meat. Handle the cooked meat carefully. Probably one of the biggest mistakes people make at home is the cross-contamination of raw meat juices with cooked, ready to eat meat. Have a separate platter for the raw meat and another for the cooked meat.  

Cleaning and sanitizing are important at all times—make sure your hands are thoroughly washed before handling any food. Hands should be washed with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling raw meat and poultry. Clean, rinse and sanitize knives, cutting boards and other work surfaces in food handling areas before using them for something else. Use a mild bleach solution of 1 tsp. bleach to 3 cups water.

Proper refrigeration is also a concern during the warmer months. Fresh items and produce, such as mixed salads and cut cantaloupe should be left on ice, in coolers or in the fridge. For salads, go for vinaigrette over the mayonnaise, it holds up better in the heat. When you transport food, always use coolers with ice packs so items are not exposed to heat. Items left outside in the temperature danger zone, can cause rapid bacteria growth. If food is being stored in a cooler, pack the cooler with ice or freezer packs. Replenish the ice if it melts. Keep the lid closed as much as possible, and store the cooler in the shade away from birds and animals. Use a separate cooler for drinks so the one containing perishable food won’t be constantly opened and closed.

Finally, when the food is set out to eat, DON’T DAWDLE. Food should be eaten when fresh, the longer it sits; the greater chance there is for bacteria growth. Always keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold until eaten. Immediately after everyone has finished eating, store leftovers in separate, shallow covered containers in the fridge and eat within two days. Reheat leftovers to 165˚F (74˚C). 

Enjoy the summer with these additional steps to ensure your food remains safe.
Till next week, have a safe weekend and Bon Appetit!
Cruise Ship passing Denman and Hornby Islands, heading to Vancouver

Photo by Sally Rae

Friday, May 8, 2015

Simple, Sexy Panna Cotta

Panna Cotta means 'cooked cream' in Italian. It is a molded, chilled dessert popular throughout Italy. According to Gordon Ramsey, ' has a silky, smooth texture that makes it one of the worlds sexiest desserts.'  

The original Italian dessert was made by blending thick cream, egg white and honey, sometimes thickened with fish bones. It was then baked in a bain-marie (water bath) in a low oven. After years, Panna Cotta evolved into what is now, a gelatin dessert; sweetened, flavored, garnished with fruit, a drizzle of honey or a sauce and served chilled. It can be flavored with anything from vanilla to coffee, chocolate and liqueurs.

It should take no longer than 5 minutes to put together. Adding the sugar early, will prevent the milk and cream from boiling over. Traditionally it is set in molds then turned out onto a plate. To keep it simple, pour into fancy jars or glasses but leave room at the top for the garnish or glaze.

When set, the desired texture is not too firm but still slightly bouncy. A bit springy on top when tested gently with your finger. The first bite should be rich, creamy, incredibly smooth and melt in your mouth with no trace of grittiness or lumps. If your panna cotta is still liquid, it may not have been left long enough to set or you accidentally boiled the mixture. Boiling destroys gelatin's thickening power. 

Some of the best properties of Panna Cotta are; it demands to be made in advance, it is easy, quick, practically fool-proof and it still delivers the WOW factor! It is accommodating to many dietary adjustments, being gluten-free and adaptable to dairy free and vegan diets as well. You can use milk, cream, coconut milk, soy milk, almond milk, really any creamy liquid, to make panna cotta. But keep in mind, the less fat the softer it will be. Alternate dairy products may require extra gelatin to unmold or can be served in a glass.   

Lavender Panna Cotta with Blueberry Sauce  ~ Yield: 8 servings
Try infusing the cream with fresh mint or lemon verbena instead of lavender, then serve with fresh berries sweetened with a splash of kirsch. 

Panna Cotta:
Pressed for time? Serve in mini jam jars
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups half and half cream
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons 'Hidcote' dried lavender *
2 packets powdered plain gelatin 
        (about 4-1/2 tsp.) 
6 Tbsp. cold water
Fresh mint, for garnish 
Grapeseed oil or any neutral-tasting oil 

Blueberry Sauce:
2 cups fresh blueberries
1/4 cup sugar
1-1/2 Tbsp. fresh squeezed lemon juice

Preparation - Panna Cotta: Lightly oil 8 ramekins or custard cups with a neutral tasting oil and set aside. Measure cold water into a medium sized bowl, sprinkle gelatin on the water and let stand for 10 minutes so the gelatin can 'bloom'. 
Meanwhile, heat the heavy cream, half and half cream, sugar and dried lavender in a saucepan over medium-high heat while stirring constantly. Bring to a boil, turn off the heat, then whisk in bloomed gelatin until completely dissolved. Immediately remove from heat and let sit for 5 minutes to infuse the lavender.  
Strain the mixture through a fine sieve into a pitcher to make pouring easier. Carefully pour the mixture into 8 greased ramekins or custard cups. If you are pressed for time; pour into mini (4 oz) jam jars or wine goblets so you can serve them in the glasses without unmolding. When cooled, cover well with plastic wrap. Refrigerate the panna cotta for at least 4 hours or preferably overnight.
Preparation - Blueberry Sauce: Place 1 cup blueberries in a small saucepan with sugar and lemon juice. Cook on medium-high heat while stirring until the berries release their juice. Set aside and add the remaining blueberries and mix. If necessary dilute with a tiny splash of water.
To serve: to unmold each panna cotta, carefully run a sharp knife around the edge. Then dip the mold into a bowl of warm water for a few seconds, invert onto a plate and give it a shake to release. Garnish each with blueberry sauce and a mint leaf. (If serving the panna cotta in a mini jam jar or wine goblet, place a spoon of Blueberry Sauce on top and garnish with a mint leaf.)

*For more information on 'Culinary Lavender', go to the Helpful Tips page of my website

Coconut Panna Cotta with Fresh Mango  ~ Yield: 4 servings
This version has the advantage of being both gluten and dairy-free. I prefer the 'Ataulfo' mango for its rich, sweet, buttery, non-fibrous flesh. For more information visit my Blog Post on Ataulfo Mangoes.

Increase the 'wow' factor - unmold onto a plate
400 ml. can full fat coconut milk
1-1/2 tsp. plain gelatin
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 large, ripe 'Ataulfo' mango
Fresh mint, for garnish 
Grapeseed oil or any neutral-tasting oil

Lightly oil 4 ramekins or custard cups with a neutral tasting oil and set aside.
In a small saucepan, whisk the coconut milk until smooth. Sprinkle the gelatin on top and whisk until incorporated. Let stand for 10 minutes so the gelatin can 'bloom'.
Set the saucepan over medium-high heat. Warm the coconut milk, stirring constantly, until it starts to steam and the gelatin appears to be fully dissolved. Do not bring to a boil... you just want the milk to heat to the point where the mixture is smooth. Remove from the heat and whisk in maple syrup and vanilla.
Strain the mixture through a fine sieve into a 4-cup measure to make portioning easier. Carefully pour the mixture into 4 greased ramekins or custard cups. If you are pressed for time; pour into wine goblets so you can serve them in the glasses without unmolding. When cooled, cover well with plastic wrap. Refrigerate the panna cotta for at least 5 hours or preferably overnight.
To serve: remove stone and peel the mango. Cut into small dice and/or slices and set aside. To unmold each panna cotta, carefully run a sharp knife around the edge. Then dip the mold into a bowl of warm water for a few seconds, invert onto a plate and give it a shake to release. Garnish with fresh mango and a small sprig of mint. (If serving the panna cotta in a wine goblet, place a good amount of diced mango on top and garnish with a mint leaf.)

Till next week... Bon Appétit!  

Photos by Sally Rae

Friday, May 1, 2015

Fresh Garlic vs Minced in a Jar

Have you ever caught yourself saying or thinking, "I find preparing fresh garlic tedious and the minced in a jar so quick."? This comment followed my previous post on 'Sprouted Garlic' dated April 24th, 2015. My reply was, "I have never used it (from a jar) and can safely say never would use it... as for minced in a jar vs fresh, no contest! Fresh is always best and my first choice!" However, I can relate to how tedious it is to mince fresh garlic, but there is nothing like the pungent, pure flavor and quality of fresh. The flavor and consistency of garlic, like most foods, changes when frozen. That said, in place of fresh, I would still prefer to use garlic grown in my garden then frozen, rather than anything from a jar. 

Here are a few solutions that evolved over the years when I had too much fresh garlic or when dry storage was no longer an option...

1) Many years ago: I would clean a good amount of fresh garlic cloves, place in a food processor, pulse but keep it slightly chunky. Then loosely spoon the minced garlic into shallow, freezer containers. It was easy when frozen to release a teaspoon or so with a fork or knife and put it on a plate to defrost (in no time) ready to use! UNTIL we had numerous power failures that winter then the loosely packed, minced garlic became a difficult, solid lump. 
I tried another batch, pulsed quite chunky but the same problem occurred before I had used up my supply. Then to increase the tedium and clean up, it was too chunky and had to be minced again before using in most recipes.

2) Several years ago: I lost my entire garlic crop to botrytis. Once discovered, I had time to peel and clean the entire harvest, about 60-75 large heads. Indeed, my hands smelled of garlic for a few days! I decided to mince it in the food processor, pack it on large, parchment paper lined, jellyroll sheet pans and freeze it. It was then cut it into teaspoon size ‘cubes’ and frozen. A few problems with this method; it was quite time consuming and I had to place wax or parchment paper between the layers of cubes or they would stick together and form a lump. A quick product to work with once defrosted but far too time consuming for initial preparation. I also tried using ice cube trays and had great difficulty getting the the frozen, minced garlic to release from the tray. Maybe silicone ice cube trays would work, but I just had the standard, hard plastic ones.

Frozen garlic and defrosting 4 cloves in the garlic mincer
3) My most recent method comes into play when; the garlic has any problem at harvest where it will not store properly or in the spring when it starts to sprout in the storage room. These are peeled, rinsed, green sprout removed if necessary and popped into a zip-type small bag (with the date) then into the freezer.... done. When assembling a recipe, read through the recipe first and assemble your mise en place. At this point, the frozen garlic cloves are removed to room temperature to a plate or small bowl, and in no time are defrosted, ready to mince. To speed defrosting time, they can be cut in half. 

4) For large amounts of garlic, I still prefer my board and French knife but I have a separate board for garlic and onions that is dishwasher safe. It's a good practice to never mince onions or garlic on the same board that you use for fruit or chocolate. Residuals in the board will add an unwanted, unpleasant flavor to other foods. There is nothing more embarrassing that serving beautiful, fresh cut watermelon on a hot summer day that tastes like garlic! I have separate cutting boards for bread/baking, fruit/vegetables, onions/garlic, chocolate, meat, fish, etc... but I digress, maybe a future blog post?

Lee Valley Tools ~ Garlic Mincer (old version)
I discovered a kitchen gadget through 'Lee Valley Tools' that is efficient for a small amount of fresh, minced garlic and works great with my defrosted whole or halved cloves.,40733,44734

I have the older version which is a bit less ergonomically friendly but I love this gadget! To use the frozen garlic cloves; take the amount of cloves required from the freezer, cut in half if desired and place in this handy mincing gadget until defrosted. It is then a matter of putting the two piece gadget together, a few turns (depending on how fine you want it) and voila, minced garlic. Because this tool is strictly for garlic, no need to worry about transferring flavor to the next ingredient. Remove the minced garlic and rinse the gadget in hot, soapy water. As Jamie Oliver would say, 'easy peasy!' If you have prepared more than needed for your recipe, toss it back into the bag of frozen cloves, or wrap in a tiny piece of plastic or wax paper and pop it into the bag for next time.

Till next week, keep those questions coming... Bon Appetit!

Photos by Sally Rae