Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb

Rhubarb is cheap and awesome and grows like a weed. If you've never eaten it in any other form, you might have had it in a pie or cobbler with strawberries. Here's an easy way to use it if you find that your garden is overrun with it, or if you saw it in the market and wondered what it was for.

Note that if you have rhubarb in your garden, it'll grow faster the more you pick it. Don't be shy about harvesting. Just grab the stems and pull them along their length so that they come out of the ground without breaking.

1. Remove the leaves. Rhubarb leaves are toxic, while the stems are edible. Just cut or break them off just below where the leaf meets the stem. (Check the bottom end as well, to make sure there isn't a new stem with a small leaf growing there. If there is, discard that leaf too.)

2. Wash the stems and chop them into one- or two-inch pieces, as if you were cutting celery for dipping, but shorter than that.

3. Put the pieces in a pot, and add water and sugar (white or brown). You don't want to cover them; add enough that half the rhubarb is underwater. For every two footlong stalks, add 1/4 to 1/3 cup of sugar.

4. Put a lid on it and turn the heat on medium-low. Let it simmer or gently boil until the rhubarb gets soft and turns into a syrupy fruit mixture. Stir it occasionally and taste the juice; if you want it sweeter, add more sugar, and if you want it less watery, let it simmer with the lid off for a while.

5. Let it cool. You can store this in the fridge for a week or so, or indefinitely in the freezer. It can be mixed into muffin or cake batter, poured over ice cream or pancakes or hot cereal, or just eaten straight up. Be creative!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Those big yellow turnips

I wasn't sure what to call this because the thing has too damn many names. Depending on where you live, it's a rutabaga or a swede or a neep or a yellow turnip. Please leave comments with other names if you know what I'm talking about but call it something else. This is where Latin species names come in handy, because no matter how many other names it has and might share with other plants, it can unambiguously be referred to as Brassica napobrassica.

The genus Brassica also includes cabbages, cauliflower, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts. If you are not a fan of that stuff and are going 'ick' right now, remember that turnips and rutabagas are the roots of plants, not the leaves and flower heads and stems, and they taste very different.

A rutabaga looks formidable in the produce department -- a big ugly yellow-and-brown streaked thing, like a giant gas planet only lumpier. In my part of the world they're harvested in the fall, and stored with a wax coating so that they're available right through until the next summer. They're cheap, usually sold per kilogram at a price comparable to that of beets or sweet potatoes.

I'm writing about them because I only just got the nerve to buy one and try cooking it -- and it was a complete success. There are lots of different ways to do it, and I figured the most foolproof one would be boiling and mashing. The only difficult part is cutting it up beforehand. You'll need a non-serrated knife that is long, strong, and sharp, and a large sturdy cutting board. Then you'll have to pare the rind off the pieces you cut.

After that, it was like boiling any other root vegetable -- cut the pieces into a manageable size, cover them with water in a pot, put the lid on, and boil. I let them simmer for about half an hour, then drained them and mashed them. The flavour is something like a parsnip or a carrot, not quite as sweet as a beet. The texture is a bit more fibrous.

It really was tasty enough that it could have been eaten with no toppings whatsoever. I ended up mashing it with olive oil and then mixing in some grated cheese and chopped green onions. One recipe I read recommended sour cream. Purists seem to go for salt and pepper and butter. I'm thinking ahead to my herb garden later in the summer and imagining that rutabaga would be great with basil and rosemary.

Anyways, that's an easy and foolproof way to cook a big cheap ugly vegetable. Google around a bit and you will probably find recipes for roasting or baking them, and suggestions for serving them raw on veggie platters or in salads.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Split red lentil soup

I'm not going to write an encyclopedia of lentils. There are so many kinds of lentils out there that that's what it would take to describe them all (and the Cook's Thesaurus has already done a good job of this). They're legumes, they're a staple food in many countries, they make for cheap and filling food, and they're a good source of dietary iron. See the link for pictures. I used red lentils, but any of the skinned and split lentils will work well for this recipe.


4 to 6 cups of your favourite soup stock
1 to 1.5 cups of lentils
Salt, ground cumin, chilli powder, and garam masala
1 cup fresh chopped cilantro


4 cups of stock with 1.5 cups of lentils will make a thick porridge, while 6 cups of stock and 1 cup of lentils will make a thin brothy soup. Decide what you want and adjust.

Bring the soup stock to a boil and add the lentils. Add a liberal shake of salt and each spice, and stir. Turn the heat down to low and let it simmer for 20-30 minutes, at which point the lentils will be disintegrating. Taste it and add more of whatever spices you think it needs more of. Add the cilantro, stir thoroughly, and turn the heat off. Let it sit with the lid on to stay hot until serving.

Serve with bread, or ladled over bowls of rice.


Cilantro is one of those things that people either love or hate. (If you don't like it, don't use it. The soup will be fine without it.) It's available in grocery stores and farmer's markets -- look for a shelf of herbs under the sprinklers or otherwise kept damp and cool in the produce section.

If the bunch you buy is too big to use in one day, unwrap it and let it sit loosely in a jar of water to stay fresh. It'll keep for a couple of days and then it'll start to go nasty, so use it up fast. You can also cut up the leaves, mix them with just enough cooking oil to coat them well, and freeze spoonfuls of this stuff in an ice cube tray to use later.

If you don't want to buy it, it grows like a weed. Get some coriander/cilantro seeds or pods (they're the same plant) and scatter them in a sunny flowerbed, or bury them shallowly in a large pot on your balcony. Clip and use as needed. When the weather is warm, check every day for flower heads. If you see them, cut them off and discard them, as the leaves will taste funny after the plant has flowered.

I am really not sure which of the dry spices is the most important for this soup. I don't use much garam masala, and I think you could get away without it. If there's a significant Indian/Pakistani population around, you'll find this stuff cheap in all the grocery stores. If not, don't bother with the generic yellow 'curry powder' for western tongues. Of course, since garam masala is a blend of spices, you can make your own, which is what many chefs do.

Cumin is probably the one I end up using the most of. It's a common spice in curries, and also gives Mexican dishes a distinctive flavour. It's great for enhancing the flavour of any dry bean or lentil.

Of course, the chili powder can be left out if you don't want it spicy. If you're a heat freak like me, you might try tossing a couple of whole dried cayenne peppers (skinny little red guys; in Asian groceries they might be called Thai chillis or bird chillis) into the pot when you add the lentils. I would not recommend trying to eat the chillis while eating the soup, but they'll add heat just by being in the pot.

This soup freezes well, so if you make too much just pop it in freezer-safe tubs. To thaw it out, let it sit on the counter or in the fridge until you can dump it out into a pot, and heat it up on the stove.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Soup stock

I'm not sure why making soup stock at home is such a mysterious process to many people (including myself, up until recently). Maybe it's the gourmet-ish reputation, the pickiness about clarifying and straining out particles, the fact that it can be bought in ready-made cans and cartons so therefore it must be difficult to make. (Tricksy, tricksy Campbells!) But it's not finicky food; soup is probably one of the most basic ways to squeeze every last drop of nutrition out of your food, as broth can be made with scraps that would have otherwise gone into the garbage or compost.

The first step is to save the scraps. If you're not going to use them the same day, freeze them in an airtight baggie or tub.

Meat scraps such as bones, gristle, dry end slices from roasts and other 'inedible' leavings can all be used. My mother used to use the picked-clean bones from a turkey or chicken roast, or the central bone from a ham. You can use raw scraps if you have time to boil them long enough that they get cooked through. Poultry giblets and necks work well for this.

Veggie scraps can include anything that you aren't cutting up and eating. The stringy rooty ends of onions are great, even if they still have papery skin attached. If you've had fresh garlic on the shelf too long and it's gone a bit dry and rubbery, use those too. Carrots that are limp and dehydrated but not moldy or slimy can go too. Woody stem ends from kale, broccoli, and asparagus are all fair game. Your imagination and your tastes are the only limitations with veggies. Just make sure you know if any bits of the vegetable in question are actually toxic and should not be used in food (such as the green stems and leaves of carrots).

Please note that you don't have to use meat. Veggies by themselves make excellent stock. My favourite combination is kale, carrot, onion and garlic. For the longest time I avoided making veggie stock because I had just never seen anyone make stock with anything but meat. It's weird what kind of mental blocks we can set up for ourselves. Go figure.

The procedure is simple -- you need to boil the scraps in a pot of water until it turns into broth that tastes good. To make a more flavourful broth, use more scraps for the amount of water you have, and cook them longer. You can add salt during cooking, or just put salt on the table so that people can adjust it to their own tastes. If there are any pieces of stuff that you don't want in the soup at the end you need a way to remove them.

A meat bone can just be lifted out with tongs, and you'll have lots of little meaty shreds floating around in the soup. Vegetables tend to cook down to the point where they're disintegrating, which will make for a cloudy and nutritious broth. Fancy cookbooks will tell you to tie the scraps into a bag made of cheesecloth, and boil the bag. You can also use a metal steamer basket; just submerge it instead of keeping the water level below its floor. Failing that, you can pour the broth through a strainer into another pot after it's cooked. These last two are my favourites, as they remove big pieces of not-tasty stuff like onion paper, and keep all the nutritious soup sediment.

That's all there is to it. I haven't tried freezing stock after cooking it, because it takes up more room in the freezer; I tend to freeze the scraps and use what I need to make a pot of soup for immediate use. If you've got other things you want to throw in the soup, do so. Meat should be cooked for a long time in soup. Veggies, pasta and grains, and most dry legumes can be cooked in the broth until you like the texture. (Be careful with some beans -- kidney beans are toxic when undercooked, so they need to be cooked until they're soft enough to mash with your tongue.)

I think I should write about beans next. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Dusting off the old food blog

*cough* *hack*

In light of what's happening in "America's breadbasket", I'm going to make an effort to actually write in this thing.

I'm hearing more from people who are actually there than from the news media. I read it in someone's blog first, before the media considered it newsworthy. We can't sit around passively and wait for the media to spoon-feed us information; we need to network and talk to each other. One thing I've been hearing is that people want more recipes for what to do with cheap raw staple foods. If you have a request for information on a specific food, post it here and I'll see what I can come up with.

I'm not going to talk much about growing food, because I know a better site for that. Gayla Trail's You Grow Girl website and book are primarily aimed at urban gardeners -- people who want to grow food in a small yard, on a balcony, or in an allotment garden. The information still applies to people who own larger plots of land, of course, but if you're in a city you still have options. The most useful part of that site to me has been the online community, where you can pick the brains of hundreds of other gardeners around the world. (If you see Indefatigable hanging around in there, that's me.)

We don't know how far this will spread or how bad it will get before it starts to get better, but people have had to do this before. Google "victory gardens" if you want to see how people fed themselves during World War II, when a lot of industrially-produced food was being rationed. The only difference today is that in the 1940s, Americans, Brits, and Canadians were used to eating a lot of fresh food anyways. Today we might feel lost at first without prepackaged frozen dinners, but we'll get used to it. We still have access to soil and water and seeds, and we have kitchens.

Monday, March 19, 2007


It's occurred to me that I'm going to be writing from a Canadian perspective -- what kinds of foods are available to me at what time of year, what units of measurement are used in the kitchen, and so on. I'll try to keep things as universal as I can, but if you have a specific request for terminology translation or for advice on a certain food, leave me a comment and I'll do some research.

* * *

One thing I've been eating a lot of this year is beets. I was buying beets in the supermarket today, and the woman behind me in the queue noticed and said "I've been addicted to beets all winter!" I said I felt the same way. They're cheap (about fifty-nine cents per pound, or in the same neighborhood as yellow cooking onions) and don't have to travel very far because they can actually be grown in Canada at the colder end of the year.

These were fresh beets, of course. A lot of people don't like beets, and it's probably because most people are used to eating them out of cans. Canned beets have lost their crunch to overcooking and their flavour to over-salting. Cooked at home from fresh, they're sweet and crisp and earthy-tasting. I have a soft spot for the canned ones anyways -- they were one of the first solid foods I can remember eating -- but fresh ones are like a higher plane of beet existence. (A word of warning, and possibly Too Much Information: do not be alarmed if you see anything purple in the toilet after you've been eating beets. It is normal for both #1 and #2 to take on a rather technicolour quality.)

So, if you're interested in a vegetable that is cheap and sweet and can be stored for a long time (and that turn everything they touch to purple), here are some easy ways to try them.

The Basics: Beets can be cooked any way that carrots can be cooked. They just need more time, and can't easily be eaten raw (unless they're grated finely), because they're a lot tougher than carrots in their natural state. If you like cooked carrots, you will probably like beets cooked properly.

The simplest thing is to boil them. Scrub off any major amounts of dirt, cut off the scraggly root end and stem end, and cut the beets into pieces about the size of golf balls. With bigger beets this might mean cutting them in quarters or even sixths; baby beets are already the size of golf balls and won't have to be cut.

Cover the pieces with water in a pot, and bring it all to a boil with a lid on. (If there's no lid, not only will it take longer to boil, but you'll have purple juice splattered all over your stovetop.) After about ten minutes of boiling, stick them with a fork. If the fork goes in easily, they're ready. If not, put the lid back on and check them every five minutes or so. Fish them out of the water, which will be extremely dark and purple and could probably be used to dye cloth or Easter eggs. Eat them as they are, or with a bit of butter or oil and salt and pepper. They're very flavourful and tend not to need a lot of enhancement.

If you want to take it a step further, you can roast them. Boil the cut pieces for about five minutes to soften them up a bit (this is called parboiling in cookbook-ese), which will also get the remaining dirt off them. (The instinct is to peel them, but if you're going to boil them they don't need peeling at all.) Coat the pieces lightly with oil or butter or margarine and put them in an oven-safe dish. Turn the oven on to 350 F and roast them for about half an hour.

Recipes: I'll post a more complicated beet recipe later, if I can find one. Honestly, they taste so good on their own that they don't need to be hidden in anything -- and anyways, if you try to mix them into something you'll just end up with a purple casserole.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Yes, you can cook.

If you can open a can and heat the contents, or follow the instructions on a box of mac & cheese, you can cook. You might be surprised to hear this, but you can even cook from scratch. The skills are the same -- if you can use a sharp knife or a stove or a timer, and you can follow instructions, you're all set. Turning raw food into something edible and tasty is no more complicated than making brownies from a mix.

I suspect that for many people, the intimidating factor in cooking from scratch is that your average carrot doesn't come with cooking instructions. That's what I'm going to provide here. The recipes in this blog will generally focus on individual foods -- plants, meats, and grains -- that will still be recognizable by the time they get to the table. Most of these things require very little preparation. Occasionally I might throw in a more complicated recipe, and if you want to try those, just remember that more steps does not necessarily mean it's harder to do. It just takes a little longer.

There are lots of different reasons for wanting to learn how to cook from scratch. You might suspect that it would be cheaper than TV dinners, or healthier than processed foods that are over-flavoured and artificially preserved. Maybe you like to be crafty and creative, and you want to extend that talent into nourishing your body. Or maybe you want to nourish your mind and mood -- for myself, fresh whole foods go a long way towards fighting seasonal depression. Add your own reason to the list if it isn't here.

I was going to write a cookbook, but I think the premise is a little more suited to a blog or column than a single volume. There's just so much to cover. I know if I wrote a book I'd want to be constantly rewriting and adding to it, and it would never get finished. Instead of a tome of knowledge, it'll be more like a tour of a farmers' market.

Please keep your hands and feet inside the grocery cart, and enjoy the ride!