Market Mondays – Brussels Sprouts

The poor, maligned, misunderstood Brussels sprout. Was there ever a vegetable so loathed?

It’s too bad really, because with astronomical amounts of vitamin K and vitamin C (273% and 161% respectively of the daily recommended intake) they’re a nutritional powerhouse. And that’s not counting the high levels of folate, Vitamin A, manganese and fibre. They count as those darky leafy greens that we’re all supposed to be eating more of, since they’re full of sulforaphane, a nutrient believed to have anti-cancer properties.

Brussels sprouts really did originate in Belgium, although a forerunner of the plant was known in Roman times. They made it to North America around 1800 when French settlers brought them to New Orleans.

When confronted with unharvested sprouts, most people don’t recognize them, assuming these “little cabbages” grow in the ground individually, when in fact they grow along a long thick stem with large cabbage-like leaves at the top. While they taste similar to cabbage, sprouts are, in fact, milder. They get their reputation of a bitter, sulphurous taste mostly from being overcooked. Steaming or boiling for 6-7 minutes is usually enough, and the standard of cooking them to mush has undoubtedly ruined an otherwise fabulous vegetable for a lot of people.

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Market Mondays – Cranberries

I think cranberry sauce is one of my favourite things about Thanksgiving dinner. Bright red and sweet, it’s like a little treat with all that meat and veg.

Cranberries are native to North America and are related to the blueberry. Used by First Nations people as food, medicine and dye, they were likely introduced to settlers in New England to become part of the first Thanksgiving feast. While cranberries grow wild, the ones we get have been cultivated for easy harvesting. Grown either in wetlands or areas with a shallow water table, the area is flooded when the cranberries are ripe and the berries are removed by machine. Since the berries float, this creates the picturesque cranberry bog we see in photos or on television ads.

This wet method of harvesting is usually done for berries destined to be processed into juice or jelly. Some berries are still dry-harvested (picked by hand or with gentle machinery that doesn’t harm the vines), and these are more likely to be the ones sold to consumers whole.

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Market Mondays – Melons

Sometimes, I’m not so bright. Because when I made up the list of fruit and veg to include in this column, I mostly based it on what would be in season. Which is the point of the whole thing (we’ll start covering meat and dairy and spices and such in the winter after the fall harvest), except for the fact that I didn’t really think too much about recipes.

Or more importantly, that there are a few seasonal items, such as melon, that you just don’t cook with all that much. Think about it – chilled soup, salsa, a few cocktails, fruit salad… maybe some cantaloupe wrapped in prosciutto. Whoops.

So what I have for you today is two different recipes for watermelon gazpacho, both from fabulous local chefs, and (thankfully) different enough that you can pick which one you’d prefer to make based on the other ingredients. Or make them both and do a taste test.

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Market Mondays – Corn

Poor old much maligned corn. It gets a bit of a bad rap these days, seeing as how it ends up in so many processed foods, and how it’s been genetically modified up the yin yang. And then there’s the whole ethanol issue. It’s too bad, because there’s nothing that says summer more than ears of sweet corn with the silks still wet, shucked, kissed with some boiling water and then slathered in butter. Made better only by the accompaniment of a lobster or two… but I digress.

Maize, as corn is properly known (the term “corn” is an English word for any cereal crop), is native to the Americas where it has been used for some 12,000 years. Maize made its way to the eastern seaboard and Canada somewhere around 1000 AD. Native Americans planted corn alongside beans and squash, a system known as the Three Sisters, as the plants were all complimentary, providing shade, nutrients and support in a system that provided optimum growth potential.

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Market Mondays – Blueberries

Here in the city, we’re lucky enough to have any number of markets where both wild and tame blueberries are available for a reasonable price. But for me, blueberries have the ability to make me really cranky. As a kid we’d trek off into the woods in the suburb of Halifax where I grew up, and fill huge buckets and jugs with the things to make pies and muffins and the famous Acadian blueberry grunt. Covered in mosquito bites, backs aching from bending over the low bushes and that awful feeling in the pit of the stomach caused by worrying that, at any moment, you’d come face to face with a hungry bear, picking was never really considered fun. We’d try anything we could to get out of going blueberry picking, but ultimately, at the first slice of Mom’s pie, it was all worth it.

Blueberries are native to North America and related to cranberries and bilberries. While there are a number of varieties, most are separated into either low bush or high bush types, the first being wild berries, mostly picked by hand, while high bush berries are larger, able to be harvested by machine and in a taste comparison are considered more bland than their wild cousins.

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Market Mondays – Summer Squash

Summer squash (aka. zucchini) can be both a delight and a bane to home gardeners. A delight because zucchini are a fruitful fruit (while treated as a vegetable in the kitchen, zucchini and all squash are technically fruit) – they’re easy to grow and the fruit grows quickly, they’re also a bane because they’re almost too prodigious and home gardeners tend to find themselves with more zucchini than they know what to do with. In the peak of the season some will even take to leaving bags of summer squash on their neighbours’ doorsteps under cover of night just to get rid of some of their harvest.

Curcubita pepo is a member of the melon family, with distant relations to the cucumber. Squash originated in the Americas and was introduced to Europe by Columbus. The zucchini that we know today is a variety of squash that was developed in Italy. While there are a variety of different shapes and sizes of summer squash (ranging in shape from the spaceship-looking patty pan to round fruit the size of billiard balls), they can all be treated as one would a zucchini for cooking purposes.

While it’s tempting for home gardeners to let their zucchini grow huge (and they will get massive if you let them), the squash actually taste and cook best when picked at 20cm in length or less. Overly-mature fruit can be both fibrous and watery.

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Market Mondays – Apricots

Like our friend the plum from last week, the apricot is from the family Prunus. Originally thought to originate in China from as far back as 3000 BC, the apricot came to the Western world via Armenia. Apricots are now cultivated in all parts of the world, but are still an extremely important crop in the Middle East, particularly Iran where dried apricots have been an important commodity for centuries. Check the packaging on dried apricots you purchase in the supermarket – they likely come from Iran or Turkey.

Apricots are high in beta-carotene as well as Vitamin A. They are high in fibre and the dried version of the fruit is considered a good treatment for constipation. High in the anti-oxidant caretenoid,  apricots may help lower bad cholesterol and protect against cancer. The kernal or pit of the apricot also has many uses; dried and ground, it becomes the basis for the Italian amaretti cookie, and apricot kernal oil is the main ingredient in the liqueur Disaronno Amaretto. Apricot kernal was also once incorrectly thought to cure certain types of cancer, but because it contains toxic levels of cyanide, it was not considered an effective treatment for that disease.

When purchasing apricots, look for fruits that are a rich orange colour and that are slightly soft to the touch. If eating apricots for their health benefits, note that the riper the fruit the higher the level of anti-oxidants.

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Market Mondays – Plums

We’re still in the family Prunus as we move from last week’s cherries to this week’s plums. Plums are eaten from Asia to Europe and are well known for their variety and flavour – from the first tart yellow plums to red, black and the purple varieties most popular in Italian cooking. Worldwide there are over 2000 varieties of the fruit with about 100 available in North America.

Plums are a versatile fruit; they can be made into jam or used in desserts, but can also be made into wine, pickled, dried and salted, or dried into prunes (although the black prunes available in stores are from a specific type of plum). They even work well on pizza with cheese and prosciutto in place of the traditional figs.

Considered one of the world’s healthiest foods, plums are high in anti-oxidants, Vitamin A, Vitamin B2, fibre (prunes are a recommended treatment for constipation) and potassium.

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Market Mondays – Cherries

Most years, we’re savouring the first cherries right around now, as they normally ripen locally by the end of June. But if you’ve been frequenting the farmers’ markets, you’ve been eating cherries for weeks, since the sweet cherries, like most other seasonal produce, have come a full two weeks early.

The cherry is the fleshy stone fruit of the Prunus plant and comes in a range of sweet and sour varieties. There are over 1000 varieties of cherry but only about 10% of those are grown on a commercial scale. Most common are the sweet Bing, the sour Montmorency and the yellow-fleshed Rainier, although some Ontario farmers grow many more. If farmers’ don’t have their cherries labelled by variety at market, ask, because there are actually many varieties that are better tasting than those bland Bings.

The history of the cherry dates back to prehistoric times, and was introduced to England by Henry VIII. In North America, while wild cherries were native to the continent, the more traditional varieties we know were brought by French and English explorers and settlers. Prime cherry-growing regions include Southern Ontario, Michigan and British Columbia.

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Market Mondays – Peas

I eat my peas with honey,
I’ve done it all my life,
It does taste kind of funny,
But it keeps them on my knife. – Anonymous

Most commonly found in mixed frozen vegetables, the humble pea is one of the most versatile vegetables out there. Eaten fresh, dried, frozen or canned, peas  can be used in soups, stews, pies, risotto or curries, or fried and served as a snack.

The pea is actually a fruit, but is considered a vegetable for cooking purposes. There are many varieties of peas from sweet peas to snow peas or sugar snap peas, with some growing as vines and others low-growing plants suited to field cultivation. In Ontario, peas are at their peak in June and July.

The use of peas dates back to the Middle Ages when they were part of the typical diet along with broad beans and lentils. Peas are eaten throughout the world from Asia and India to Europe and North America.

Peas are an excellent source of folacin (Vitamin B9). They are also a source of Vitamins A and C, fibre and potassium. A half cup of cooked peas is only 70 calories.

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Market Mondays – Fava Beans

We’ve all heard the old joke from The Silence of the Lambs, but fava beans go with more than a nice Chianti. Vicia faba, also known as the broad bean, tic bean, field bean and bell bean is a versatile spring vegetable.

Known for the long thick pods lined with a soft fluff, splitting open a fava bean is like opening a jewel box to find your dinner presented on a bed of velvet. For many dishes the skin of the beans itself needs to be removed (making them slightly unpopular with impatient cooks), but it’s worth the effort. Some people experience a reaction to the raw or uncooked beans, so favas should always be cooked completely.

The plant is a hardy one, able to withstand cold temperatures and salinity in its soil. They grow quickly and have lush foliage, making them an ideal cover crop. Favas are also considered nitrogen fixers, adding this important nutrient back to the soil.

Favas are eaten in many cultures from Asian to the Middle East to Europe and Northern Africa. They can be fried and served as a snack, added to soup and stews, tossed with pasta or served as a topping on bread or toast. The most famous fava dish has to be the Egyptian dish ful medames, where the dried beans are stewed and mashed and then blended with lemon, olive oil and spices and served with bread and an egg, typically for breakfast.

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Market Mondays – Strawberries

The time is upon us. If you’re like me, you’ve walked past time huge, hard, tasteless red supermarket strawberries all winter in anticipation of June and Ontario strawberry season. Nothing beats the smell or flavour of an Ontario strawberry, ripe, just picked, and warm from the sun.

Strawberries are a member of the rose family, and while the old bit of trivia claims that strawberries are the only fruit to have their seeds on the outside (which they’re not – cashew fruit and pineapple both have their seeds on the outside) those little yellow things that most people think are the seeds are actually the fruit; the red flesh bit we love to eat is the receptacle.

Dating back to ancient Rome, the strawberry as we know it originated in Europe, and was cultivated in 13th century France for medicinal purposes. The first American species of strawberry was cultivated in 1835 and strawberries grow in every province and every state in Canada and the US. While we normally think of June and July as strawberry season, many farmers now grow a number of “everbearing” varieties that will bear fruit from June until the first frost. Vendors at many Toronto farmers markets (including Nathan Phillips Square and Metro Hall) usually have berries right up until October. There’s been many a year when I’ve had fresh Ontario berries for breakfast on Thanksgiving morning. And if you’re wondering why it’s better to buy local berries, consider what happens to berries from California before they get here.

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Market Mondays – Radishes

The first root vegetable of spring is also the most under-used. Besides putting them in a salad, what do you DO with radishes anyway?

Related to the mustard plant, radishes come in several varieties, ranging from sweet to spicy and peppery in flavour and from white to vibrant red, and even grey and black in colour. They are a favourite of the home gardener because they’re easy to sow, grow quickly, and offer an early sense of accomplishment. Cultivation of radishes dates back to Roman times and records suggest that the plants were domesticated somewhere in Europe.

Which begs the continued question – why do we mostly eat them raw in salads? A perusal of the Internet led to me recipes for pickled radishes, roasted radishes and one in which the roots are boiled until tender and then tossed with butter and brown sugar, much as you’d do with carrots or parsnips. Having tried this, I think I know why we prefer to eat the things raw – boiling saps out all of the lovely crisp peppery flavour.

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