Category Archives: Fresh produce

Fabulous fava

I bought my first fava beans on the Danforth, years back when Fruit King still stood on the corner at Logan. They were big beans.  You couldn’t really miss them when perusing the usual green grocer contenders, be it potatoes, carrots or spinach. But in this basket was a stranger. Unlike their skinny cousin, the humdrum green bean,  fava beans were bulging, army-green giants with shiny, leathery skins and brown, pointy tips.

Eternally curious when it comes to fresh produce, I stood staring, incredulous at these five-inch-long, soft and spongy beans until I took a sharp elbow in my side from an elderly Italian woman dressed in black, head to toe.

No, it wasn’t an elbow, it was the corner of her shopping basket that she was in the process of shoving between herself and me as she stretched out one determined little hand towards the pile, ferreting out the greenest, plumpest ones.

“What are these?” I asked and she spat out  “fava” like it was a revolting, dirty word. Then she stopped for an instant, looked up from her clutch of beans and examined my ignoramus face just long enough for me to instantly understand the meaning of “evil eye”.

I decided to move towards the spinach and declined fava that day.

Fast-forward to now. My fridge is full of Ziploc bags stuffed with freshly picked fava beans from my Cowichan Valley garden. These aren’t any, run-of-the-mill fava beans, these are organic beans from bean grower Sal Dominelli on Gabriola Island.  He’s dubbed this fava variety “Exhibition Longpod Fava” and instructions on the seed packet called for sowing in “early spring”.

IMG_5345

Pre and post shucked fava

Owing to the carpet of snowbells under the magnolia and the clutch of daffodils ready to pop in our courtyard, I figured the cold wet soil of mid-February was ready to receive these seeds (dried, brown fava beans).  Amid the fog and incessant rain, I tucked them one-by-one into the soil telling myself the heavy layer of wet, chestnut leaf mulch would keep them warm enough to germinate.

Two months later, the bean stalks were already 18 inches high and needed stakes. In March, they had  white flowers with big black eyes.IMG_4717

In June, long, fat beans were growing up towards the sky.  The phallic nature of my crop almost had me blushing.  A hiking friend and fellow farmer sagely shared “they’re ready to pick when they drop down.”

Meanwhile, back in Toronto, my favourite wannabe-Italian, Randy of Scottish origin, had already tucked into fresh fava flown in from Italy that he’d purchased on the Danforth. Toronto was experiencing its usual lack of spring with a heat wave in late May.

“All day long, I can do this!” Randy enthused, sitting outside on his new deck, his mouth full of Pecorino cheese and freshly shucked fava, savoured with a “young Chianti, slightly chilled”.

My hiking friend shook her head and sighed when I told her of this flavour pairing.

Anything tastes good with wine and pecorino,” she scoffed.

Randy, I explained, was a dedicated  fava aficionado.  Who else but this mangiacake would de-robe the fava, not once, but twice, before he ate it?

My fellow fava farmer wasn’t listening to any of this gibberish, knowing full well the work and time invested in simply growing these beans. Shucking fava from the pod was an add-on compared to the ease of  bean brethren like snap or pole, who are ready to cook right off the vine.

IMG_5141

Fava Beans in Pod

Once shucked, the spongy fava casing reveals a loveable row of five to six, light-green-tinged beans each sweetly indented. I shucked out bowl after satisfying bowl full of beans and carted away bags full of fava shell refuse for the compost.

Scientist that I am, I measured my harvest. Ten cups! Was I up for Randy’s second peel out?

I gave a couple of beans a good try only to discover that the tight skin encasing each bean needed a small knife or long fingernail to remove it. Even still, I was nicking and separating the inner goodies. The process per bean, took the same amount of time as it did to simply shuck one pod and see five to six beans drop out.

It was, in the wise words of my engineer father, “A statistical nightmare!”

Unless you are Randy who awaits fava season with bated breath, ready to shuck all pods then tenderly hand-peel, each and every individual bean that comes his way. Last time we spoke, he cautioned me against over-cooking, too, suggesting that no fresh fava bean should be sautéed for more than a minute.

No wonder I reached for a glass of chianti when pondering culinary creations for the multitude of green orbs lingering in my fridge. I crowded Arborio rice with the, um,  little buggers to create a risotto failure that even my carb-loving husband declined. I made a luscious Mexican black bean soup and finished it with a scattering of fava, cooked only a minute or two (following you-know-who’s recommendation). The fava beans bobbed in the soup like buoys and I watched my guests politely skim their soup spoons around them.

IMG_5485

Dragon Tongue Beans

Finally, I had a fava epiphany, based on the cooking laws of terroir and desperation. My garden was spilling over with not just fava but an heirloom, purple streaked pole bean called Dragon Tongues. Wouldn’t they be perfect with the fresh pattypan squash I had pounced on at the Duncan farmers’ market that day? The cooking gods and I collaborated on a very fusion, very vegan dish that can be served hot over rice like a curry. Or it can be served French haute at room temperature, just like a Provencal ratatouille, tucked inside a lettuce leaf and garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds. C’est ca.IMG_5530

No matter what you do, be sure to serve with wine.  While Randy’s go-to is Chianti, he also recommends two crisp Italian whites: Vermentino di Sardegna or Falanghina.

And if your larder isn’t plum-full of fava and dragon tongue pole beans, substitute fava with lima beans, and try yellow wax string beans instead of the heirloom variety. Raise a glass to Randy and remember that 2016 was the International Year of the Pulses.

IMG_5537

Herd Road Bean Curry

Herd Garden Bean Curry

If you are obsessed enough, consider pulling out the just-cooked fava beans and squeezing each one out of its jacket, returning the deep green fava hearts to your curry. (Use my name in vain if you burn your fingers.) Like most curries, this will taste best the day after you cook it. Leftovers freeze well.

2 tbsp organic canola or sunflower oil

½ large sweet onion, chopped

2 garlic, chopped

1 garlic scape, finely chopped *optional

2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and finely grated

1 tbsp finely chopped or grated fresh turmeric OR 1 tsp turmeric powder

1 tsp cumin seeds

2 tsp coriander powder

1 cup tomato puree or passata (I like Mutti brand)

2 cups water

1 Poblano chile, membrane and seeds removed, thinly sliced

4 cups Dragon Tongue beans (topped, tailed and sliced in half.  Julienne if really thick)

½ yellow bell pepper, sliced into 2 inch x 2 inch pieces

½ orange bell pepper, sliced into 2 inch x 2 inch pieces

2 cups fava beans

½ tsp sea salt

½ tsp hot smoked paprika (I like La Chinata)

Fresh sage, sliced

Toasted pumpkin seeds

Heat oil in a large pot add onions, garlic, garlic scape, ginger and turmeric and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add cumin seeds and coriander powder and cook another minute. Add passata and water and bring to a boil.  Add poblano chili strips, Dragon Tongue (or wax beans) and bell peppers.  Cook, simmering uncovered for 5 minutes.  Add fava beans and cook until tender.  Season with salt and paprika.  Serve hot or at room temperature garnished with sage and toasted pumpkin seeds.

IMG_5541

Left: Peeled fava hearts Right: Bean casings

 

And the beet goes on

Every January, fresh vegetables finally get the attention they deserve. My beet buddies, whether they have billowing green leaves, long tapered roots or roly-poly bodies, are finally  back in vogue! All it took was the excess of the holidays to help nudge all those colours and shapes back into the healthy eating spotlight.IMG_9401 copyWhile I don’t like to play favourites, beets make me particularly happy, appealing not just to my palate, but my parsimonious nature. Where else do you get two vegetables for the price of one?

But the redness factor in beets – both in the roots and the greens – can distract. Not everyone can abide by the faint red juice that accompanies a sauté of beet greens and garlic. And even I, vegetable lover that I am, almost fainted when presented with a crimson bowl of borscht at the age of 13 while visiting the home of a classmate. Barely over the shock of my girlfriend’s father wearing an apron and cooking the soup from scratch, I followed her serving suggestion and placed a dollop of sour cream in the middle of what looked like a pool of blood. When I swirled the two together, I had visions of Pepto-Bismol and wondered if anyone would notice if my soup went stealthfully, spoon by spoon, into the African violet on the ledge behind me?

IMG_9546My children, now in their 20s, still won’t go near a beet. Who cares?! I’m tickled to reap more of my share of beet rewards. Besides, these babies take time. To roast, simply wrap unpeeled, individual beets in foil and bake at 350 F  for an hour or until tender. Or boil unpeeled roots in salted water for 45 min (or until a knife slips through the flesh with no resistance). Once cooled in an ice-bath, a beet’s skin slips off effortlessly.

There’s a reason you’ll find vacuum-packed, cooked beets sold in most European markets and in some upscale Toronto ones, too. Once cooked, you can slice them into a zillion different salad combinations.

But if time is of the essence, peel a raw beet and pull out the box-grater. Shredded (or even spiralized) raw beets are a delicious addition to salads or can be sautéed in olive oil with seasonings such as ginger, shallots, garlic or lemon zest.

Citrus is a fine companion for beets both visually and texturally. Think finely sliced grapefruit rounds stacked with cooked, sliced beets bathed in a piquant dressing with chives.IMG_9412

Another winner is goat cheese. Try roasting peeled beet wedges, cippolline onions and whole garlic cloves in olive oil and salt at 400 F for 45 min. Toss warm with goat cheese, arugula and torn basil, dress with olive oil and a small splash of sherry vinegar and serve to your best, beet-loving friends – year round.

© 2016 Madeleine Greey

Beet and Cabbage Borscht

This soup feeds an army.  I like to serve it fresh (ideally the day after, since the flavours intensify) and freeze the rest. A dollop of dairy such as sour cream or plain Greek yogurt, sprinkled with chives or chopped green onions and chili flakes is an irresistible garnish.

  • 2- 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 leeks
  • 1 onion
  • 3 stalks celery
  • 6  red beets, peeled and diced into ½ inch cube
  • ½ small green cabbage, sliced
  • ½ small red cabbage, sliced
  • 2 fresh bay leaves
  • 8 cups vegetable stock
  • 8 -10 leaves Tuscan kale, stem removed and thinly sliced
  • 1 small can (400 ml/17 oz) of cherry tomatoes and juice
  • 2  garlic cloves, pressed or finely grated with a rasp
  • 1 tsp smoked hot paprika
  • Salt (1-2 tsp)
  • Pepper
  • ¼ cup red vinegar

Heat oil in a large soup pot and sauté leeks, onion and celery with a sprinkling of salt until soft and fragrant.  Add diced beets, sliced cabbage, bay leaves, stock, cherry tomatoes and Tuscan kale.  Bring to a gentle simmer and season with finely grated garlic, paprika, salt and pepper.  Simmer gently for 45 min to 1 hr. Finish with vinegar.     © 2016 Madeleine Greey

IMG_4715

Beet and cabbage borscht

Red pucker power

It’s hard not to think of cranberries this time of year. Little red orbs that they are, cranberries are synonymous with the festive season. Rare is the turkey that’s served without glistening, ruby pools of cranberry sauce.

But there’s a little problem with these berries – they are pucker-up tart and not easy to eat straight. Yes, they mellow with a little cooking and indeed, become more palatable once sweetened, yet it’s the raw, nude cranberry that delivers the most health benefits.

IMG_4982

Continue reading

Happy Hens and Fresh Eggs

When I got my copy of Happy Hens and Fresh Eggs by Toronto author Signe Langford I judged it, yes judged it, by its cover. Cute quirky name, I thought, guessing this was yet another cookbook on eating local with a beautifully art-directed cover.

HappyHens_RGB300

Wrong.

This cookbook is a keeper.

Continue reading

Digging Sweet Potatoes

Last week I put on my boots and jeans and boarded one of two, large tour buses heading for a sweet potato farm in Simcoe, Ontario. You’d think the author of a book on fresh produce might know that sweet potatoes grew in Ontario – but she didn’t. And you’d think that the farm we were about to visit might be run-of-the mill, but it sure wasn’t.IMG_4914

Berlo’s Best Sweet Potatoes is the largest grower in Canada, with some 700 acres devoted to the adobe-coloured roots, annually harvesting a whopping 14 million pounds. Right smack in their busiest harvest of the year, head farmer, visionary and CEO Peter VanBerlo Sr. stood at the ready to tour us around his acreage, armed with an amplifier, microphone and 16 years of sweet potato farming experience.

Our bus had travelled from Mississauga to the sandy loam of Norfolk county, one of the most diverse agricultural areas in OntarioIMG_4889Tall and lanky, VanBerlo stood roadside motioning us to park beside one of his sprawling sweet potato fields. Armed with smartphone cameras, pens and paper, our mostly-female group got off the bus slightly dazed and disoriented. City folk, we stumbled an unsteady course through the field, negotiating our way over burrowed trenches and uprooted debris.

Suddenly VanBerlo shouted “Look there!” and pointed frantically at one of his custom engineered digger/harvesters off in the distance. It looked like a travelling assembly line, crowded with over a dozen seasonal workers busily sorting, shaking and tossing an incoming sea of the pinky-red sweet potatoes.

“These workers have been with me for 29 years,”said a satisfied VanBerlo. He paused politely as we let out a collective sigh of approval. “I must be doing something right.”

He is.

VanBerlo and his sons Nick and Peter Jr. have teamed up to take the kinks out of sweet potato farming.  It’s a fussy, temperamental root wrapped in a thin, delicate skin that abhors the cold and demands gentle treatment. Traditional farm machineryIMG_4940 wasn’t up to the job so the VanBerlos designed their own   harvesters, and in 2006 established a state-of-the-art facility.

After our romp through the fields, VanBerlo Sr. took us into this gargantuan packing, curing and storage facility to watch employees wash, sort, bag or box the spuds before undergoing their four to seven day curing process.

“Basically we fool these potatoes into thinking it’s summer and time to get growing again,” explained VanBerlo with a twinkle in his eye. “We put them in a hot, humid 85 degree (Fahrenheit) room and their skins thicken and the starches convert into sugars.” Once fully cured, sweet potatoes are stored for up to three months in his computer-controlled facilities that automatically shut off the curing process and turn on cold storage in well-ventilated, 55 degree F rooms that are stacked high with crates from ground to ceiling. It’s massive.

IMG_4943

Curing not only makes sweet potatoes taste better, but it helps promote longer storage. Van Berlo says his sweet potatoes can store for 12 months but once they’re moved out of storage, shelf-life is reduced to a couple of weeks.

At home, store your sweet spuds in a dark, cool cupboard rather than the fridge.  In fact, give them more TLC than you might confer on regular potatoes for if sweet potatoes are dropped or punched around, their sweet interiors will quickly bruise and decay.

When asked about the sweet potato-yam confusion among produce retailers, VanBerlo just laughed and said, “If Sobeys asks for yams, I give ’em yams.” But that’s an inside joke between all of us sweet potato experts. (Real yams don’t grow in North America and look very different: they are white-fleshed, long starch tubers with rough scaly skins.)

Berlo’s Best sweet potato farm bears testimony to the resilience and innovation of  Simcoe’s former tobacco farmers. It’s a one-stop-shop for growing, harvesting and packaging a capricious root from the American south.

Now put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Sweet potato puree with pecans served at Bonnie Health Estate

Sweet potato puree with pecans served at Bonnie Health Estate

Sweet potato soup with ginger and cinnamon

Fresh ginger is the magic of this soup.  Peel it and grate with a microplane for best results. If you’ve got a spice grinder, cinnamon is always at its peak when freshly ground.

2 tbsp            vegetable oil

1                       onion, chopped

2 tsp                 finely grated fresh ginger

4 cups               low-sodium chicken stock

3 lbs (1.5 kg)     medium sweet potatoes (about 5),                                                                                      peeled and cut into half-inch (1 cm) dice

1 tsp                    ground cinnamon

1 1/2 tsp             salt

Freshly ground pepper, to taste

1 cup                     milk or cream

In a large pot, heat oil and cook the chopped onion at medium low for 5 minutes or until soft and fragrant. Add  ginger and cook for 30 seconds. Add stock, sweet potatoes, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, for 15 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Remove soup from heat and allow to cool. Use a handheld immersion blender or puree in batches in a blender or food processor. Gently reheat and whisk in milk.

© 2015 Madeleine Greey