Tuesday, October 23, 2012

More than just a pear

Dessert is one of those things we often reserve for special occasions. It's not really an every day thing, and if it is it usually involves milk and cookies or a bowl of ice cream. It's not that those two things aren't delicious, and they definitely function well as weekday dessert, but sometimes you need something a little different. Something more seasonal. Something with fruit. Maybe something poached.

This week in my produce box I received some gorgeous Bosc pears. My first instinct on beholding really firm pears is to poach them. Bosc pears hold their shape beautifully as the poaching liquid sweetens and softens them, spices them up a bit with whatever ingredients you choose. And I'd forgotten how simple they are to make.

I used David Lebovitz's comprehensive instructions for poaching pears, but I'll let you know which additions I used in the poaching syrup because they turned out perfectly. They even had my dad devouring them with enthusiasm and he's not usually one for dessert.

Along with the water and sugar I added a cinnamon stick, two anise stars, a teaspoon of cloves, three slices of fresh ginger, and about six allspice berries. The star anise rounds out the flavour by adding an element counter to the typical autumn spices, while the ginger added a gentle heat that just hovered on the edge of noticeable.

Once the pears were done I scooped them out with a slotted spoon and removed the spices so I could reduce the liquid to a syrup. It was all the pears needed, though they'd also pair well with spice cake or vanilla ice cream. I'm thinking a cardamom creme anglaise would also work. 

You can make these pears ahead of time and store them in the fridge in the poaching liquid. When you're ready to serve them you can reheat them in the liquid and then reduce the syrup. The pears will stay warm while the syrup reduces.

The best thing about these pears is how satisfying they are. They're sweet enough to indulge your dessert craving, but light enough to follow a large meal. And they're so easy. They offer maximum flavour with minimal effort. They're simple enough to serve after a weekday meal, but impressive enough to serve guests at a dinner party. And they are the perfect end to a crisp autumn day.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Autumn acorns (squash, that is)

This week I'm going to talk to you about acorn squash. I'd meant to talk to you about it last week, but such is my life. Anyway. I used this recipe, from the website Sprouted Kitchen (which I've talked about in a previous post), and I'm happy to report it was a success. I'm looking forward to working my way through the rest of the recipes on that site (or possibly purchasing the book they now have out).

I used acorn squash because it was what I had, but really any orange winter squash will do. Please be warned that these are very hard to cut. I'll be honest, I was expecting it to be harder after the warnings from my mom requesting that I don't cut off my fingers, but I also have a very large, very sharp, mildly terrifying chef knife of the slasher flick variety. If you have one of those, you're in luck. 

I followed the recipe for roasting the squash exactly, though I probably should have let it go in the oven a bit longer. Next time. Make sure yours is very brown and caramelized around the edges.

As for the quinoa, true to form, I was missing half the ingredients required to follow the recipe exactly. Even truer to form, I wasn't about to go the store just for the sake of getting those ingredients. 

As it happens, my sister doesn't like shallots, so I'd be leaving those out anyway, and I had a slightly overripe Macintosh apple that substituted for the pear. I left out the basil entirely because I didn't even have it dried, and I used chard instead of spinach. It was still delicious.

The cardamom adds an interesting layer of flavour against the maple-glazed squash and holds up well to the apples and the tangy lemon dressing that the whole concoction is tossed in. I wish I could pin point what exactly it is about cardamom that I like so much, but I have trouble finding other flavours to compare it to. It's one of my favourite spices, though, and maybe that's why. It's unique and distinct, but subtle, unlike, say, cilantro.

That being said. Make sure you have some ground cardamom on you. You know. The kind that's already ground. To save yourself cracking open cardamom pods and attempting to crush the solid little seed-like insides. Definitely not my typical lazy chef route.   

Another note regarding my recipe alterations. The original calls for baby spinach and says not to add it until your quinoa has cooled a bit. I disregarded that instruction with the chard. Chard, like kale and full-grown spinach, benefits from being cooked so it's not as tough and the flavours mellow out a bit. So I mixed it in right off the bat letting the remnant heat from the quinoa wilt it. 

It turned out better than I expected, to be honest, what with all the changes I made, and what I really want to emphasize with this post is the wiggle room you have with recipes. Especially when it comes to cooking. 

Baking is more precise, and I wouldn't recommend playing with your flour, butter, sugar, and leavening ratios if you don't have a solid grounding in how they work together, but something like quinoa salad, or stir fry, or pasta sauce, is just begging to be played with. To be altered to your tastes. Yes, there are classic combinations. But more often than not you'll be able to find a suitable, similar replacement for an ingredient you don't have.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Simple little things

This week I got my first delivery of produce from Fresh City Farms. So far it's been great. The spinach has been a tasty accompaniment to scrambled eggs and starred alongside a vibrant red tomato in last night's bacon and tomato sandwich (bacon from Rowe Farms, of course). I have an acorn squash waiting to be doused in maple syrup for roasting, some rainbow carrots whose fate will also likely involve maple syrup (guess what my next food purchase will be), and kale that I will without a doubt turn into more kale chips.

However, the true star of this bundle of produce so far has been the grapes. I know. I was surprised too. I had been meandering through life only ever eating your standard issue red and green grapes. So when I saw the basket of purple Coronation grapes, the only interesting thing I noticed about them was that they resembled every depiction of grapes I've ever seen in still life paintings and portraits of Greek gods. 

Well. There is a reason Greek gods were eating them in such copious amounts. 

Okay, so actually they're a specifically Canadian grape related to the Concord grape, but they're easily the best grapes I've ever eaten. Suddenly I understand where the grape flavour in candy comes from. Only this version isn't drowned out by cloying sweetness. They have a pleasant tanginess and are bursting with juice. I've been grabbing a handful every time I go into the fridge. I just can't resist them.

So my suggestion to you is, go find some Ontario Coronation grapes. If you happen to like grapes, you won't be disappointed.

Alongside the grapes I also received a little bag of organic cranberries from Quebec. Since Thanksgiving is on Monday, I thought I'd give you this recipe for cranberry sauce. It is almost stupidly easy. As I was making it my sister wondered why everyone doesn't make their own cranberry sauce. She poses an interesting question.

It's actually so easy that I can't come up with any logical, satisfying reason why people buy canned cranberry sauce. At this point I think it's just something we assume comes in a can. It's how we know it, and maybe our grandparents still make it from scratch, but we're used to it being in a can, so that's how we buy it. However, since frozen cranberries are available year-round, you have no excuse once I give you this recipe. Are you ready for it?

The Easiest Cranberry Sauce

8 oz (about 2 cups) cranberries, fresh or frozen
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
zest of one orange (optional)

Throw it all in a pot, bring it to a boil, and turn down the heat to cook it for another 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it looks like cranberry sauce.

That's it. Seriously. That's it. You don't even have to do anything to the cranberries. The most difficult part of this is zesting the orange and I'm giving you full permission to skip that step if you want. It would easily double (or triple even if you have a giant family who can't get enough of their cranberry sauce), but this would probably be plenty for your average sized dinner of about eight people.

Since I got a few oranges with my delivery, the only thing not organic about this cranberry sauce is the sugar. Not too bad I'd say. And did I mention it's delicious? Bright and tangy, with just the right amount of underlying sweetness and the subtlest hint of citrus. I will never purchase cranberry sauce again as long as I live.

Hopefully you get a chance to try it this weekend. I promise it will only take about 15 minutes of your time. And lets face it, it earns some bragging rights, doesn't it? Homemade cranberry sauce. 

Anyway. Enjoy the weekend. Enjoy the weather. Enjoy the turkey feast. Happy Thanksgiving!