Market Mondays – Fiddleheads

There’s a phenomenon on Twitter where people will mention or retweet something and create a buzz, but the buzz fails. For instance, a dozen people will mention a food-related event but none of them will actually attend. The same kind of failed buzz seems to be happening with seasonal produce. I’m seeing piles of people squeeing about ramps and fiddleheads, but none of that excitement translating to blog posts showing what they’ve been cooking with these seasonal glories.

In fact, the only mention I’ve seen about fiddleheads in terms of someone having purchased and prepared the things is pickling. No references to the fresh product at all. Which makes me think that maybe people still don’t know what to do with fiddleheads, even though they’re turning up everywhere.

Up until a few years ago, the few people in Toronto (mostly ex-pat Maritimers) who knew and loved fiddleheads were happy to have one small feed of them each June. There was one produce shop in Kensington Market that would bring them in from Nova Scotia and by the time they made it to the store shelves they were already starting to go off. Sobey’s stores (based in Nova Scotia) would sometime get them in as well, albeit in very small quantities.

While the Ostrich Fern is native to Ontario, nobody seemed to pick up on the fact that the things are mighty tasty until a few years ago – probably after having listened to a Maritimer friend bemoan the lack of them one time too many.

So now they’re everywhere – and people are excited – but still… nobody seems to be doing much with them.

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Market Mondays – Ramps

If you’re wondering why you’d never heard of ramps prior to a few years ago, you’d be in good company. While the allium tricoccum is native to Ontario, it’s only in the past few years that this member of the onion family has become popular. So popular in fact that the foodies are flocking to buy them and the anti-foodies are casting them aside. Which, while the things are darn tasty, may not be a bad idea, given that they’re considered to be a “threatened species” in Quebec and parts of the US.

To many people ramps signal spring – the first bits of edible greenery after a long hard winter. Ramps are considered a special delicacy in the southern US states, particularly in Appalachia where ramp festivals attracting thousands of people take place every spring in Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. The popularity in local, seasonal and foraged foods means that many high-end restaurants are now serving them as well.

With this many people freaking out over ramps, it’s no wonder they’re considered exploited or threatened in various places. Quebec bans restaurants from serving them, and individuals in that province may harvest no more than 50 bulbs for personal use. Harvesting a ramp means pulling the whole plant, including its roots, out of the ground. Unethical harvesters can clear a whole patch of ramps, leaving nothing behind to propagate for the following year. The recommended harvest per season is no more than 5% to 10% of a wild patch.

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The flavour combination of dark chocolate, dulce de leche and sea salt is not new. You might even say it’s a bit passé, but it could also be one of those things that become a classic, like chocolate and mint.

I had wanted thimble (aka. thumbprint) cookies, but I was also craving chocolate. And when my pal David at Circles and Squares Bakery tweeted about making dulce de leche brownies, the idea hit me.

This first batch is really a prototype – I made one pan and put the caramel into the thumbprints first, before baking, as you do when making the regular version with jam. This created a big oozing mess of melted caramel. Filling the prints as soon as the cookies come out of the oven works better – it melts just enough to smooth out, without creating too much of a river.

I also used 100% cacao chocolate, because that’s what I had on hand. It’s not readily available, but I don’t think I’d go below about 80% or the cookie will be way too sweet – otherwise the amount of sugar would have to be adjusted. And, I cheated and used dulce de leche from a jar, but the caramel is not hard to make.

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Frangipane Tart

I’ve been making variations of this little beauty all summer. Pretty much any fruit goes well with almonds, so all it takes is some fresh fruit and about 125mL of jam in a similar flavour.

The crust is a Martha Stewart recipe, although I’ve tweaked it slightly because it’s pressed into a pan, not rolled out. The frangipane itself is a recipe featured on a BBC food show called What to Eat Now. I’ve tweaked this a wee bit as well since I found the batter to be so soft that the fresh fruit added on top sunk into the batter before it could cook and firm up.

I’ve used plums here, but I’ve also used raspberries, peaches and it would work with apples or pears as well.

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Almond Joy

Ever since I attended the All About Almonds event back in November, I’ve found myself addicted to the things. That’s partly because they sent us home with pounds of almonds in various forms, and I’ve been eating them for months, but one item in the swag bag  – a package of cinnamon-sugared almonds – intrigued me enough that I’ve been making my own for a while now, working with various ratios and spices to get the perfect addictive product.

There are many different processes for candying nuts. Some recipes called for whipped egg white (which create almost a meringue coating), others instruct cooks to remove the nuts from the boiling sugar and water solution with a slotted spoon and roll in spices and more sugar before toasting, while others still require letting the sugar brown and caramelize. Every method creates a different type of candy coating and once you get spices in there, the options are even more vast.

This final one might just be the keeper, though, as the flavours really seemed to work nicely and the coating has a good texture.

We love these as a snack to replace regular candy or cookies, and almonds are so healthy that we can almost feel virtuous about eating them, even with a tiny bit of sugar and butter in the recipe.

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You Can’t Eat Just One

A few years back, food bloggers went all wacky for homemade microwave potato chips. I remember making the things, and while they were good, they were a bit of a pain in the butt. Basically you sliced a potato, sprayed the slices with non-stick spray and laid them out on a plate and microwaved them for 5 minutes. Problem was – some microwaves are more powerful than others, and if you had a not especially powerful one, it often took 7 or 8 minutes to get the chips crisp. Given that you could only do one plateful at a time, it could take half an hour or more to make a small bowl of chips.

I always knew you could do something similar in the oven, and figured that it would probably take about the same amount of time. So over the past few days, I’ve been experimenting. It’s crazy cold outside, and my body wants comfort food and that generally means chips – or French fries. But it’s still January and I’ve been mostly good about keeping to the resolutions, so I wanted to avoid the greasy salty bagged potato chips from the variety store. These have a bit of oil, just to keep them from sticking, but I’d still count them as being healthy – leave the skins on and they even have fibre.

And – they’re really good. Not nearly as greasy as fried ones, but still crisp and satisfying. And way cheaper than a bag of crappy junk food chips.

My next project is to play with some other root vegetables; sweet potato chips, beet chips, parsnip chips… definitely cheaper than those bags of root chips from the health food store. And probably better.

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Eat Your Almonds

I know it’s not technically possible, but anyone looking in my cupboard would swear that I have all the almonds from the state of California. I know, I’m exaggerating, but it does seem that way. See, I’m still working through the swag from the almond event I went to back in November. The almond slices and slivers are unopened but I started to get concerned about the 3 pounds of almond flour.

Nut flours tend to go rancid pretty quickly – all that exposed surface area. So after a couple of attempts at macarons (I lied – so NOT as easy as you would think, those things are fussy!), I figured it was time to track down some other recipes that use almond flour or ground almonds.

I found this recipe in Gregg R. Gillespie’s 1001 Cookie Recipes where there are 57 recipes with “almond” in the title. These are “Almond Cakes III”; not to be confused with Almond Cakes II or VI, or almond cookies, almond crisps or almond crescents, all of which offer multiple recipes with their own Roman numerals.

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Rhubarb Coffee Cake

My Mom and Dad have a massive rhubarb patch in their back yard. I think it might actually be one gigantic plant, in fact, but it keeps them well-stocked in rhubarb all summer long. This recipe gets made a lot in their house, to use up the rhubarb, but also because it’s really good. My Mom cuts these smaller, into squares (16 from an 8-inch pan), but I tend to think of this as more of a coffee cake, and given the small amount of fat in the recipe, don’t feel terribly guilty serving up larger pieces and thinking of it as cake.

I cook this at a slightly higher heat than the original recipe calls for, and I also tend to find the original a bit too sweet for me, so I’ve switched the topping to brown sugar from white, and cut the amount slightly.

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And Visions of Sugarplums Danced in Their Heads

Okay, class… hands up if you actually know what a sugar plum is.

The Oxford Canadian Dictonary description is “a small round candy of flavoured, boiled sugar”, which is the oddest description I’ve ever seen. Larousse Gastronomique, that bastion of all things edible, disappointingly, contains no entry at all.

If you do a Google search on “sugar plum” you get sugar plum fairies, sugar plum balls (as in, the dance), a website for a gift basket company, and even a brand of tea. None of those have anything to do with actual sugar plums, however.

I first ate a sugar plum in Simcoe, Ontario in about 1990. Some neighbour of my ex’s grandparents discovered an old Victorian recipe and made boxes of the things to give as gifts. We had a box of a dozen to share between six or seven of us. I think I managed to score three of the things, based on a relative or two disliking dried fruit. Brilliant things these. Dried fruit and nuts, essentially the ingredients in a fruitcake, minus the annoyance of the actual cake, all soaked in booze and rolled together, coated with a sprinkling of sugar to balance the flavours. The sugar plum is so named for the inclusion of the sugar coating and prunes (dried plums) along with a variety of other ingredients.

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Treat of the Week – Lassy Mogs

Have you ever rejected something from your childhood based on a memory that was either partially or wholly incorrect? As adults, our palates expand as we try new and different types of food. For some people the food of their childhood becomes the comfort food they return to when the cornucopia of choices just doesn’t satisfy. For others, especially those of us for whom food created very mixed emotions, the stuff we ate as kids can be the fodder for terrible memories.

I thought of this last night as I watched a documentary on CBC called XXL about a “fat camp” for overweight teens in Nova Scotia. One of the families was eating a traditional boiled dinner; corned beef, cabbage, carrots, potatoes and turnips, all boiled together in one pot until it all tasted the same and was pretty much mush. I gagged a bit and had to cover my eyes until it was done, something I never have to do even when there are surgery shots on TV.

My reaction to lassy mogs was almost as bad. I remember them as being soggy; sweating to a mush where they all stuck together in the cookie jar where they would remain until they were eaten, regardless of how long that took. This ideology of not wasting food, even if it was going bad or stale, or had lost its appeal, remains with me to this day, and Greg regularly remarks on stir-fry nights that I must have cleaned out the fridge.

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