Bitter Greens

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The world of food is full of surprises, that’s what makes it so interesting. There is a Portuguese couple in my local market who sell olives, dried fruits and nuts, a selection of charcuterie, (they have a fabulous spicy chorizo), salt cod and a few Portuguese wines. Every time I see wine for sale in a market I think how archaic things are in Canada. Last week when I was buying salt cod to make brandade de morue,  a dish of cooked salt cod mixed with pureed potatoes and garlic, I noticed a pile of greens at the back of the stall. This was unusual because they don’t sell fresh vegetables. I asked about them and the first thing they said was that they were bitter. Great! They called them turnip tops. What we call rapini or broccoli rabe is known as cime di rapa in Italian, or turnip tops. I bought a big bunch and was told, everyone in the markets loves to tell you how to cook your purchases, that I should blanch them first to remove some of the bitterness, then cook them in a little olive oil and garlic. I protested saying that I loved bitterness, so they allowed that I could cook them without any preliminary blanching.

The bunch resembled rapini, the leaves had hollow stems, but there were no tight flower heads, just a few stray yellow flowers. The wife told me to bend the stems until they snapped, like you do with asparagus, otherwise they would be too tough. I followed her advice, then rinsed the leaves well, pulling out a few stray weeds, I’m guessing they were grown on a friends farm. As the leaves drained in a colander, I heated a little olive oil in a large saucepan and gently cooked a couple of sliced garlic cloves until they  began to colour. I dumped in all the damp leaves, gave them a stir, then covered the pot and cooked them until they were wilted and tender. The taste was like rapini, but significantly more bitter – I loved it. I am not sure my guests that night were as keen. However, that just meant I was able to enjoy the turnip greens the next day reheated in a frying pan topped with a couple of eggs. I am hoping they will have more this week.


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Leeks vinaigrette is one of my favourite dishes – cooked leeks (the white part) dressed with a mustardy dressing laced with diced shallots. The secret is to lightly cook the shallots in the liquid you used to cook the leeks. It’s delicious warm, or at room temperature and yet I rarely make it in Toronto. Why? Because I can’t find the leeks. Wait a minute I hear you all screaming, of course you can buy leeks in Toronto.  Yes, you can, but they are usually fat and only have a meagre few centimetres of white. With leeks it is all about the amount of white part. Why isn’t there more? This is what leeks should look like –

Just look at these beauties, lots of white , a little pale green, also good to eat, and dark green tops that you can throw into a stock. Surely they can be grown like this in Canada. However, as with white asparagus, no one seems prepared to put in the extra effort of hilling them, and most of us are unaware just how much better they taste when grown this way.
So I wait until I am in Europe to make any dish using leeks, I think a leek and bacon tart is next.

Bitter Review Time

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Bitter launched in the US last week and will be on the shelves this week in Canada. Those of you in the UK and Australia will have to wait until April 2015 unless you get you hands on an import. Luckily all of the press has been positive. Perhaps it is easier for people to like this topic Odd Bits didn’t receive as much love and people still don’t believe that Fat is good for you, but we know they’re wrong.

I have added new links to my media page and here are some other reviews to entice you to rush out and buy a copy –

Saveur Magazine       Superchef Blog      Fine Cooking      Gardenista

Writing a cookery book entails many stages and it is this last stage that I dread the most. I prefer to sit at my computer rather than being the centre of attention on a television spot or answering questions from a journalist. As this is my fourth book I am better at it, than I was, but I still don’t enjoy it.  Will I know the answer to the question? What recipe are they talking about? Did I really say that? I try to have a copy of the book indexed with post-it notes, although often I can’t find the page quickly enough. It is over a year since I handed in the manuscript and six months since I was desperately reading though the final pdf looking for mistakes. I don’t remember every wonderful word.

Often I rave on about a point for so long that I forget the original question, not good on live radio. And sometimes I just don’t know the answer. The PR for Bitter has begun well, everyone who has interviewed me has read the book. That was not always the case with my other books. Perhaps Bitter is not as scary for most people, perhaps it’s more sexy, who knows. I want  good questions that make me think again about what I have written and please don’t ask me for my favourite recipe. I like them all otherwise they wouldn’t be in the book.


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When was the last time you ate junket? Or perhaps, like my husband, you’ve never had it before? Well you should try it.  Junket is simply milk, sugar and vanilla set with a junket tablet. I used rum, instead of water, to dissolve the  tablet as it matches with the vanilla. On top is a little freshly grated nutmeg, an indispensable addition to junket.

The beauty of  junket is its “just set” consistency and mild, milky flavour. It is easy and quick to make and is a perfect late summer dessert, especially when accompanied by lightly poached fruit. Most of the apricots I’ve bought this season have been wooly, and one of the best ways to remedy that is to poach them. The blackberries can be added once the syrup has cooled.

And what is a junket tablet? Modern day rennet that gently curdles the milk setting it into a soft curd with a little whey. So there is no need to search for a calf’s stomach! Of course if you fancy making your own rennet, even beyond my scope,  you can read the instructions in Dorothy Hartley’s  Food in England.

According to John Ayto in The Diner’s Dictionary: Word Origins of Food and Drink the word junket is from the French jonquette that comes from rush baskets, that held the broken up curds in medieval times. Later, during the seventeenth century, it was customary to leave the curds intact. The word junkery was coined as early as 1450 and referred to ‘merrymaking and feasting’ which explains the use of junket as a term for a free trip.


Winter Cooking

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Provence is a mere memory and winter is biting hard this year in Toronto. In France it is the warmest winter in a century, I was just in Paris and it was warm enough to have a drink on the cafe terraces (with the heaters). Here it is the coldest winter in some time. It feels like the coldest since I first arrived, but my memory for cold is very selective. One big plus is that this bone chilling and pipe freezing -18C weather, yes we still have a heater warming our bathroom pipes, usually means bright sunny days. The photo was taken during a snow storm, but most of time I can sit in my living room bathed in brilliant although not warm sunshine.

I am spinning my wheels waiting for my BITTER book to come back for proofing, so to pass the time I’m cooking cold weather favourites. Last weekend it was cassoulet from Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes. I used haricots Tarbais that my friend Isabelle gave me. These beans, grown around the the town of Tarbes in south western France, are harvested by hand and dried naturally. I was lucky, these dried beans are always hard to find and last year was a very small crop. On top of that, as you’ll see if you check out their website, there was a fire at cooperative and there are no dried beans available until after this year’s harvest. So I’ll have to wait until November to restock. Sure you can make cassoulet with other dried white beans but the Tarbais are special, large, creamy and they holds their shape.

Cassoulet is a perfect dish for winter entertaining. You can make it ahead and as it cooks it warms up your kitchen and fills it with the rich, aromas of duck and sausage. The cocotte goes straight on the table so guests can help themselves. With all those beans, duck confit, pork belly and sausages you don’t need much else. I bookended it with a salad of bitter greens and a Campari ice. The bitterness at both ends of the meal was the perfect balance to the cassoulet.

So one way to cheer yourself up when it is too cold to venture out is to make stock, soup, or a stew. All simple and will cook away while you sit in the bright, cold sunshine and read a book, or this blog.