Nettle quiche

My first bite of nettle quiche was a take-out slice from Duncan’s Garage Bakery and Cafe. Every mouthful was a culinary revelation. Dark chunks of earthy greenness couched among creamy eggs, mushrooms, salty feta and buttery, flaky pastry –  this quiche bewitched. 

It did something else.  It tapped into my brain’s ever-pulsing cooking lobes, prompting synapses to pop like corn. I had to make this. 

The next day, my beleaguered husband is inevitably involved. We’re on Stony Hill Trail and I’ve sniffed out some nettles. Stinging nettles. David is holding a large plastic bag open as widely as he can, while I clip and clip, wearing gloves and laughing. These wild plants are the kind I’ve seen posted on Instagram inside rich, green, layered cakes slathered with icing. The kind that can leave a prickly sensation on your skin for hours, if not days. David is leaning as far away from me as he can,  knowing the sting from this nettle too well. Years ago, he’d picked an innocent bunch of leaves to vigorously wipe bicycle grease from his hands only to inflict a painful 48-hour reaction. I notice a sideways grimace from him as I stuff each bright green bundle perilously close to his bare hands and arms. 

IMG_9836Once home, I carry my two bulging forest bags into the kitchen. I climb a step stool and reach for the tallest pasta pot I can safely lift down without breaking my neck. Once boiling and salted, the water is ready for my nettles to take the plunge.  I put my muddy garden gloves back on. I’d wear clean oven gloves were it not for the dexterity the tongs required.  

In and out. Quickly. Each plunge was a messy affair, stems and leaves flying left and right as I pushed them into the water (not unlike squirming live crabs or lobsters who have seen the same fate.) But nettles die instantly. Each thorn is annulled in a nano-second ready to be pulled out limp from the black-grey water, as I inhale the rich, vegetal aroma. 

“Like spinach, but better,” opines my fellow spinach-lover as we dine.   

That’s after we pick up four dozen eggs at our favourite farm stand on Richard’s Trail.  Promise Valley always has their red cooler out, usually packed high with egg cartons and a big, blue freezer block wedged inside. Only once have we found the cooler empty,  our disappointment dashed by the appearance of the farm’s two pet goats pressing up against the fence their long, silky ears and wet noses begging for a scratch.

Just a week before that fateful nettle-filled bite at Duncan’s Garage, I was invited by dairy farmer Caroline Nagtegaal into Promise Valley’s hen house to witness “afternoon chores.”

“Want it?” asked this tiny blond woman in very tall boots as she smiled and giggled, offering me the handles of a large, wired egg basket.  We were standing with the hens, the air a cackling, bawk-ing din, intermingled with saw dust and chicken shit.  

IMG_0224“I’ve been doing this since I was five, but I still yelp when they nip me.”

Her hand was tucked under the rump of a Highline Brown, sitting proud and unruffled in one of a long line of boxes. Some boxes were empty, others occupied. All were lined with straw, tamped down into a nest-like well. Not all of Promise Valley’s 190 hens were inside that afternoon, but Rocky the Rescue Rooster was standing among a particularly talkative clutch collected around my ankles.   

IMG_0227I chickened-out and made a tentative reach into an unoccupied box to find five or six abandoned eggs.  Brown and beige, these eggs were room-temperature to touch except one that radiated such warmth, it must have been freshly laid. 

Of course, that wasn’t my first instinct, holding that egg.  It felt like eggs I have cooled after hard-boiling, warm but ready to shell. Seeing the hen house, helping Caroline collect the eggs as she does every afternoon every single day, was a privilege for this city girl who is always thinking about food, its whereabouts and how it can be transformed into something delicious. 

Like quiche and nettles. 

I reach into the freezer and pull a small bag of dark, green frozen nettles, the product of my nettle forage with David. Each bulging bag’s forest-fresh contents had been flash-boiled, transferred tong-by-tongfull into a large ice bath and drained. I had removed all the stems, squeezed handfuls over the sink to remove excess liquid and bagged up my nettle cache for the freezer. 

Asparagus was roasting in the oven while chopped onions sizzled in butter on the stove-top.  I grated a chunk of white cheddar and beat half a dozen of Caroline’s eggs.  I dumped the eggs into a four-cup glass measure containing milk, seasoned with salt, pepper, cayenne and freshly grated nutmeg. 

I defrosted half a nettle bag’s contents in a bowl of cold water, then dispersed little mounds  along the bottom of my Einkorn and Red Fife pastry covered with soft, fragrant onions, followed by a showering of cooled roasted asparagus and grated cheddar. 

Once the quiche was safely tucked inside the oven, sitting on a rimmed baking sheet in case of  any run-off, I could relax and dream. Promise Valley is making the transition to organic and will soon be offering Guernsey milk and cream-top yogurt at their farm stand. When they open their doors I will be first in line, conjuring up more tasty recipes to share here at Mado Food.

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Nettle and Asparagus Quiche

If you don’t have stinging nettles substitute with spinach and pretend. 

2 tbsp butter

1/2 large cooking onion, chopped 

1 cup defrosted frozen nettles

6 spears cooked asparagus, sliced into 1- inch pieces

1 cup grated old cheddar

6 eggs, beaten

1 cup milk or cream

1/2 tsp salt

1/4 tsp nutmeg

1/8 tsp cayenne

Freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Heat butter in a frying pan and sauté onions until soft and fragrant. Set aside and cool. 

Arrange onions, nettles, asparagus and 3/4 cup of the grated cheddar on the bottom of the pie pastry crust that you have made (see recipe below) or bought frozen.

In a medium bowl or 4-cup measure, combine milk, eggs, salt, nutmeg, cayenne and freshly ground pepper.  Pour into the pie crust and top with remaining cheese.  

Bake on a rimmed baking sheet in the middle of the oven for 50-60 min or until the centre of the quiche is golden brown, set and the middle won’t jiggle when gently shook.  Remove from the oven and wait 10-20  minutes before serving (to further set and slice up well).

 

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Einkorn and Red Fife Pastry

This flavour-forward pastry dough is adapted from Flourist and will taste best if you use freshly ground, local grain. If you are stuck with supermarket-only options, use whole wheat pastry flour instead of Red Fife and white pastry flour instead of Einkorn and cut down the ice cold water to 1/4-1/2 cup. Yields 1 double crust pie pastry. Freeze the leftover single crust for your next quiche adventure.

1 2⁄3 (230g) cup True Grain Sifted Red Fife Flour

1 cup (138g) cup True Grain Whole Einkorn Flour

1/2 tsp salt

1 cup (227g) butter, cold and cut into cubes 

1 tbsp apple cider vinegar

3/4-1 cup ice cold water, or as needed

Pulse flour and salt In a food processor bowl once or twice to combine. Sprinkle over with cubed butter and process on high for 30 seconds or more, until butter is the size of small peas. Pour vinegar and ice cold water through the tube with the motor running, adding water by the tablespoon until it adheres into a mass. 

Transfer to a large sheet of waxed paper and press the crumbly mess into a round disc. Wrap well and refrigerate two hours or until firm. 

On a lightly floured surface, roll out half of the disc and arrange in a deep (5-cup/1.25L) pie dish.

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Finding Spot Prawns

It was the Insulation Guy who got me started on the Spot Prawns. He’d just removed his gloves to down a glass of water and was looking around my kitchen, sniffing out my latest exploit, staring at rows of hot and boiled jam jars clicking shut in BerNARdin burps.

“You like to cook?” he asked.

I laughed.

“Lucky living here, then! All the blackberries you could eat in a lifetime. I’ve got a secret spot where there’s so many I can fill the back of my pickup truck in an hour.”

Classic.  Every foodie forager on Vancouver Island seems to have a fabulous tale like this. Insulation guy had barely taken a breath before he started in with more.

“And the Spot Prawns… well geesh, they do a huge run, right over there,” he said, pointing out my kitchen window. “Near Salt Spring. We haul out hundreds during the season.”

“How?” I asked.

“We drop traps and pull ‘em up!”

He licked his lips and rubbed his hands together, savouring the thought.

“It’s like manna from the heavens.”

I didn’t see Insulation Guy again but kept thinking about those prawns. Yes, I braved thorns as big as nails and picked buckets full of blackberries, but we had neither boat nor trap to pull any semblance of seafood from the ocean.

Then our friend Dan motored into the Ladysmith marina wearing his trademark grin and aviation sunglasses.  We were off to spend a night at their cottage on DeCourcy, a nearby gulf island where everyone has a generator and a heart-stopping view of the surrounding mountains.

“The tide is low,” yells Dan over the boat’s motor. “So, we’ll just wave at Annabelle and the kids as we pass by the cottage then park the boat around the back.”

Low and high tides, undercurrents and water depths are the common language of any BC boater and Dan loves every drop. Whenever he’s behind the wheel, he’s smiling ear to ear. No matter if the boat thunks and crashes against oncoming surf or the wind slaps like an ice-cold face cloth, he’s blissed.

“My friend John lives over there,” he shouts, pointing to a rocky outcrop barely larger than a hockey rink.

“And this place? Bill built this. Incredible, isn’t it? And all by himself!”

I can barely see the outline of a structure. We are whipping by another stony outcropping. Rocks. Trees. Water. Land of the adventuresome. Dan is a great guide knowing every nook and cranny, not to mention all the locals and their stories. But it’s lost on me. The boat’s motor is loud, and wind is whistling through my ears, until I catch a fragment.

“You pull what?” I ask.

“We pull our prawns right over there. We’re having them for supper!”

I’d heard tell of Spot Prawns in Toronto, decades back, when trendy chefs first jumped on this wild, BC treasure. Once or twice I’d seen them dancing inside live tanks in Chinatown, looking more like insects than fish. But it was on Dan’s boat where I learned the little critters walked into baited traps plunged at least 200 feet below, the rope’s end marked in the choppy waters by a bright buoy.

One hot summer day we went with Dan’s family for an exciting “pull” as son Hogan tugged the cage trap out of the water, grabbing the rope hand over hand, predicting (or boasting) a good haul of “at least 60”.

Hogan guessed it right but took no interest in the gruesome act that followed: On-site head removal. His nine-year-old sister Naomi was a seasoned pro, twisting them off briskly with each snap of her wrist, tossing dislocated craniums into the sea over her right shoulder as her left hand dropped  still squirming, headless prawns into a pail of sea water at her feet.

Dinner was an intoxicating feast of lime and cilantro marinated shell-on prawns, flash-fried for two or three minutes until perfect pink by chef Annabelle in the kitchen her father had designed, every wall another floor-to-ceiling window overlooking DeCourcy’s rocky coast and glistening sea below.

Once Insulation Guy and Dan’s prawn pull had whetted our addiction, David and I began to search for more sources.  We went on a road trip to French Creek Seafood Ltd and gasped at the price of their retail prawns, double the easy $20 cash asked by the First Nations fisherman with a freezer chest in the parking lot. Closer to home, we scoured the commercial fishing docks at Cowichan Bay and came upon a boisterous, beer drinking bunch just finishing a day’s work.

They had nothing to sell, yet were full of empty promises, “Tomorrow. Same time!”

(Nada. We were dumb enough to return.)

Prawn-duped time after time, David and I finally met our culinary saviour. Bugs.

I won’t tell you his first or last name or where he pulls them… or how. After four, newbie years on V.I., we have come to learn some of the island’s food codes.  We abide faithfully, if we want to stay sated.

Once in a while Bugs’ unidentified wife hands me a parcel the size of a basketball, tightly taped  in a sheet of foamy PVC then she winks. These prawns are headless and packed in solid ice, all curly and brown-pink. They take a few hours to thaw in my sink, surrounded by water in a silver bowl.

Photo by Emma Barrett

It’s an easy shelling endeavour when both David and Krystal dig in to help. I suggest leaving tails on but am quickly out voted. The shells are surprisingly prickly, a reminder of their wildness, like blackberries. Each have bright white spots on the first and fifth abdominal segments, according to BCprawns.ca and a translucent red-orange carapace with white stripes on the thorax. And this fun-fact: Every spot prawn starts life as a male and transitions to female in its fourth year- a piece of trivia worth dropping among LGBTQ circles these days.

Spot Prawns have 10 pairs of legs, five for swimming and the rest for walking, all of which come in handy when escaping an octopus, one of their biggest predators. Human predators, whether it be recreational harvesters like Bugs or eager eaters like me can eat prawns raw or cooked. Many prawn aficionados insist on cooking in the shell to enjoy a moist and juicy feast. There are dozens of ways to prepare this delicacy but we all agree on one vital standard: the shorter the cooking time, the better.

Photo by Emma Barrett

Which leads me to stir-fries and the wisdom of Cantonese cuisine when it comes to seafood. Think freshly grated ginger, cooking wine, a little garlic and fermented black beans. These babies have a salty bite and depth of flavour that magically enhances each sweet Spot Prawn mouthful. Luckily, Lee Kum Kee in Hong Kong bottles black bean and garlic sauce and it’s easily sourced in most supermarkets. But user beware. Fermented black beans from a bottled garlic sauce or in dried form can overwhelm. Start small. You can always add more afterwards when tasting for seasoning.

Oh, and another thing — Never ever divulge more than the code name of your Spot Prawn supplier on your blog unless you really want to express deep gratitude to Bugs, in a local Vancouver Island kind of way.

madofood.com/…inese-braised-pork-belly/ ‎

Spot Prawns in Black Bean Sauce

The trick to a great stir-fry is to cook the protein and vegetables separately, combining both at the finale with lots of built-in sauce.  BC Spot Prawns or shrimp are juicy and firm when quickly flash-cooked but toughen and dry out with every crucial minute of over-cooking.  Serve this over steamed rice or rice noodles. It also works as an Asian baozi filling.  Serves 4.

2 tbsp  neutral oil, (ie canola, sunflower, safflower)

2 yellow onions, cut into 1/8ths

3 sweet bell peppers, green, yellow, red, tri-colour, cut into 2-inch chunks

1 tbsp neutral oil

2 lbs Spot Prawns or shrimp, shelled

3  garlic, finely grated or pressed

1 inch pc fresh ginger, finely grated

2 spring onions, cut into 2-inch chunks

1/4 cup sherry

1 tbsp black bean and garlic sauce OR ¼ cup fermented dried beans

1 tsp soy sauce

1/2 cup stock or water

¼ cup chopped fresh coriander

Heat oil in a large wok over high heat, add onions and peppers and stir-fry at high for 3-5 min or until seared and tender.  Transfer to a plate and reserve.

Using the same wok over high heat add oil, garlic and ginger. Stir fry for 30-60 seconds, add spot prawns, cooking until just done. Use spatula to create a well in the wok, add sherry, black beans or sauce, soy and stock or water.  Stir 30 seconds, incorporate spot prawns and reserved vegetables. 

Serve immediately, garnished with chopped coriander.

Halibut Cheek Curry made with Cow-Op Love

Every day, we count our blessings to be living here in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. This is a food zone and an agricultural oasis. Our neighbours have farm stands, cows amble in nearby pastures, tractors slow down Herd Road traffic and grapes course through vineyards framed by mountains and mist.  Bounty-filled farmers’ markets can be found all over the valley  but during these pandemic times, lines are endlessly long due to Covid protocol.

Luckily for those of little patience, we can shop online at the wondrous Cow-Op where an incredible catalogue of local items, from kale to duck liver paté to garlic seed bulbs are posted for purchase.

Due to the immediate freshness of these orders, local vendors update the site weekly with prepared, frozen or just-harvested items which go live on the site every Thursday until midnight Monday.  Orders can be picked-up in Duncan and Victoria, or delivered.

Once we’d picked up our first order, David and I were hooked. Thursday trips to Hope Farm in Duncan were a charm. The farm is littered with ramshackle chicken yards and coops, mountainous rows of kale and Brussels sprouts and a large, empty, funky old barn where we pick up our order.

In June, we walked off with a box spilling over with luscious heads of green butter and red oak lettuce from Lenora Bee Apiary and Farm, bags of freshly milled rye, Einkorn and Neepawa flours from True Grain and small bundles of chèvre and Tomme de Vallée from Haltwhistle Cheese Company.  After sourcing my order from freezers and refrigerators scattered through the cavernous barn, a Cow-Op staff pointed to a tray of heirloom tomato starts on the ground nearby.  “Take me home” said the sign and I walked away with a slightly forlorn, but not forsaken Mountain Merit  heirloom tomato seedling that is still producing on my back porch.

While Thursday afternoon Cow-Op pickups have become the highlight of this foodie’s week, I don’t always remember to put in my order by the previous Monday night deadline.

Last week I not only remembered but found food goddesses by my side as I gently defrosted a package of frozen Halibut Cheeks from Drift Meat and Seafood.

I had curry on the brain. It started with stained fingers after grating fresh turmeric then ginger. Fragrant wafts of onion and garlic filled the kitchen, heightened by whole cumin and fennel seeds thrown into the mix.  I found two ripe Mountain Merit tomatoes and another opportunity for my tomatillos that are growing like a rash through my beds right now.

Even though I’ve de-husked a hundred this fall, each and every tomatillo makes me smile.  Once their papery wrapping is off, these little green orbs have a sticky coating that adheres like glue until rinsed off. Tomatillos taste like unripe, green tomatoes with a twist of lime, perfect for these soft halibut parcels infused with the flavours of the Cowichan Valley. Thank you Cow-Op for bringing it all to the table.

Halibut Cheek Curry

Inspired by my purchase of frozen halibut cheeks at the Cowichan Green Co-op, this curry is also perfect for tilapia, sole, spot prawns, shrimp or scallops. The trick to great seafood is to cook it ever so lightly until just done.

2 tbsp coconut oil

2 tsp whole cumin seeds

2 tsp whole fennel seeds

¼ tsp cayenne

1 large onion, chopped

1 tsp ground turmeric or 2-inches fresh, finely grated

1 large garlic clove, minced

1 inch fresh ginger, finely grated

2 medium tomatoes, chopped

4 tomatillos, chopped

2 fingerling or small potatoes, chopped

1 cup water

4 halibut cheeks, aprox

1 tsp salt

Freshly ground pepper

¼-1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Heat oil in a large saute pan at medium high.  Add cumin, fennel and cayenne, cook 1 min. Add onion, turmeric, garlic and ginger and continue cooking until the onions soften.  Add tomatoes, tomatillos, potatoes and 1 cup water. Bring to a boil then gently simmer, covered for 10-15 min or until potatoes are tender.  Add more water if the sauce seems dry.  Add fish and gently simmer/poach covered until just cooked, about 3-5 min. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Garnish with chopped, fresh cilantro.

All the babka in my life

Babka and I go way back, starting with my Jewish husband. He loved a good, dry cake. Both Don and his father Frank were of that persuasion.  Cake was best when it was dry,  crumbly like desert sands and bought at a deli bakery, of course.

The deli in West Palm Beach sold Don’s ultimate babka. We would stand in early bird lineups at 5 p.m. with my in-laws, demoralized to be part of what we jokingly referred to as “the blue rinse hour” for dinner.  

My mother-in-law Ethel wasn’t a cake eater.  Diabetic, she approached eating with cautious deliberation.  

“I like it bland,” she often said.    

Needless to say, food didn’t play a pivotal role in the Nausbaum family as it might in many other Jewish households. Celebrations were also kept minimal. Ethel used to mail Don a modest birthday check or a boxed shirt from Target.  One year she uncharacteristically asked her adult son what he would like to receive for his birthday and Don didn’t miss a beat.

“I want a babka from your deli, Ma.  It’s too good to be true.”

“What? A babka. That’s ridiculous, Don.”

“Ma, I want a babka. I want a babka from your deli. Fed Ex it to me.” 

I’m not sure what bothered Ethel more, the price of an overnight courier from West Palm Beach to Toronto or her son’s unbridled decadence. But she caved.  He was her only son (and a charmer, to boot).   

“How was the babka? Did it arrive?  Did you like it?” she asked on his birthday.  

“Did I like it?” he scoffed, “Ma, this babka is unfriggin’ believable. I’m going to get another slice right now and eat it while we talk long distance.”  

“Don’t. I can’t stand listening to you eat and talk at the same time.”

“But it’s my birthday!”

Don chuckled,  his mouth crammed full of babka. The crumbly streusel topping sprinkled all over his goatee. He’d already given up on a knife and was ripping the cinnamon-scented, cakey interior apart, moaning in appreciation and smacking his lips loudly.  

“You like it too much,” Ethel said. She was disgusted.  “I’ll never ever Fed Ex you a babka again!” 

She kept to her word and Don’s babka delivery landed squarely in my lap. But I was a Canadian goy who knew nothing about babka baking. Sure, I had done a little food research, happily trailing alongside Don to  Jewish delis in Florida, Long Island and the Lower East Side of Manhattan but not once had I set eyes on a Toronto babka until Don brought home a specimen from the Harbord Bakery. 

He ate one slice, winced, then threw the remainder out.

“It’s up to you, Mado,” he sighed.

Earlier in our marriage, I’d attempted chicken liver spread and was defeated.  Before that, it was the world’s oily-est latkes. Now I had to bake some dry, tasteless coffee cake?  I turned to one of the first cookbooks dedicated to Jewish baking and made a listless facsimile. 

“Inedible” said Don after the first bite.

So babka became a family joke.  A reverie about Ethel and  a guffaw over the Seinfelt segment where Constanza sweats bullets tugging a stolen babka into his apartment window with a rope and pulley.

Then, as beloved things often do, babka came back. Don passed away and left a big piece of babka in his son’s pulsing heart. It helped, too, that Nick’s stepsister Emma is a gourmet sleuth. She found (not a Sahara version) but a sinfully sweet and gooey chocolate babka at Toronto’s Pusateri’s bakery. Somehow she knew that Nick would want that for his birthday. In no time at all, babka was forefront on our mother-son baking list and Rosha Shanna 2020  seemed an apt moment to create Don’s cake.  

When Nick and I bake, I always learn something.  I start off as Mom Expert and he quietly models a better alternative. Like parchment paper. Babka demands it and I was eager to try cookbook author Mairlyn Smith’s technique: Cut a large swath, run it under water, scrunch it up, wring it dry and fit it into the pan. Yes, this technique moulds around the insides of a loaf pan but Nick’s idea was better – cut vertical and horizontal panels to fit the pans. Not only does  it look more professional, but if you allow for a few inches of overhang, you’ve got handles to lift out your cake effortlessly.     

A beautiful babka means whirls of marbled dough, twisting and turning before your hungry eyes. To achieve this, challah dough is rolled out into a rectangle and spread with a yummy interior of melted butter, dark chocolate and a LOT of freshly ground cinnamon. You roll it up as tightly as possible, take a deep breath and do the unthinkable: cleanly cut this pliable, warm, puffy roll of dough in half, lengthwise. I was certain a serrated knife would do the trick but no sooner did I execute this cut then it caught, pulled and messed up the chocolate spread’s definition. 

THREE CHOCOLATE CINNAMON BABKAS

A batch baker by trade, I won’t develop a recipe for less than 2 loaves. This one comes with a  bonus babka! Not dry at all, these glossy beauties are made moist by a special ending in which you lavishly baste with a sweet, wet syrup as soon as they come out of the oven — an unthinkable flourish to Don and his father Frank. Makes 3 loaves.

Challah Dough

2 1/4 cups   milk, warmed in microwave (at high, 1 min)

1 TBS   instant yeast

3   eggs

5 TBS   vegetable oil

4 TBS   honey

1 TBS   vanilla extract (we used a vanilla bean, sliced it lengthwise and scraped the seeds in)

8 cups/ 2 lbs 6 oz   organic unbleached bread flour

.6 oz   salt

Put warmed milk, yeast, eggs, oil, honey and vanilla in mixing bowl and blend with whisk attachment until frothy.

Add flour and salt into mixing bowl and knead with dough hook for 8 min. or until the dough pulls away from the bowl and creates a smooth ball. This is a sticky, enriched dough.  If it pools around the bottom of the bowl it may need extra tablespoons of flour during the last two minutes of the mix to ensure the dough pulls away from the bowl.

Place in a large plastic, oiled tub or covered bowl and let it rise until doubled at room temp, aprox 2 ½ hrs. (Or simply refrigerate immediately and leave to rise overnight or up to 48 hrs)

Babka filling

4 1/2 ounces (130 grams)     dark chocolate, Callebaut, 55%

1/2 cup (120 grams) one stick        unsalted butter, cold is fine

Put in a glass bowl and heat in microwave (1 – 1 1/2 min.)

1/2 cup (50 grams)       icing sugar

1/4 cup (30 grams)       ground cinnamon

Add to melted chocolate.

Line loaf pans with parchment, like Nick does.

Divide dough into 3 pieces.

Roll one piece out on a well-floured counter to about a 10-inch width (the side closest to you) and as long in length (away from you) as you can when rolling it thin, likely 10 to 12 inches.

Spread one-third of chocolate mixture evenly over the dough, leaving a 1/2-inch border all around. Brush the end farthest away from you with water. Roll the dough up with the filling into a long, tight cigar. Seal the dampened end onto the log.

Cut the log in half lengthwise with a metal bench scraper, like Nick does.  Lay one piece over the other, cut sides up, at the mid-line, creating an “X” then gently twist the ends. Gently place the twist into a loaf pan, doubling it over itself if necessary. Repeat 2 more times. Cover all the pans with oiled plastic or a towel. Let rise until doubled, about one hour.

Heat oven to 375°F 30 minutes before the bake. Beat an egg in a small bowl. Baste babkas with egg just before baking. Place loaves in the middle of the oven and bake 30 minutes. 

While babkas are baking, make syrup,

1/3 cup water
6 tablespoons (75 grams) granulated sugar

Heat in microwave

As soon as the babkas leave the oven, brush with syrup. Use it all up, as this creates a glossy, moist finish.  Let cool about halfway in pans, then transfer to a cooling rack.

 

 

 

Making Gnocchi with the boss

It’s a cold winter night in Toronto.  I’m about to  drive over to Rocca’s for dinner, but text her first.

“Get three to four medium at No Frills,” she instructs.  We need Yukon golds.     

When I arrive, their house oozes Puglian warmth.  Randy says “You don’t have to knock” and Rocca calls from upstairs, saying “Do you want some slippers?’  

She enters the kitchen and pulls out the pasta board.  It’s two feet by two feet, thick plywood with a lip that catches under the table.  Her father, or Nonno to the grandkids,  made it for her.  

Nonno will turn 95 next Sunday.  They want to celebrate at a restaurant but he asks  his daughters to make him cavatelli, his favourite pasta.

“Handmade pasta for 25 people,” says Rocca shaking her head and muttering Puglian swear words.     

But tonight, the pasta is gnocchi.

“I’ll get started while you have some wine and cheese,” says Rocca.

Randy is dangling a large breast and nipple from a string.  It’s a cheese called Caciocavallo and  the size of a small cantaloupe. 

“Our annual Father’s Day cheese,” he laughs, an impish grin spreading across his mug. I nibble on slices with baguette and knock back some Rosso while Rocca deftly peels the potatoes, cuts them into quarters and boils in salted water.

“I’ll demo the first batch, then it will be your turn,’” she announces. 

Oh boy.

She measures out two cups of organic, unbleached all-purpose flour and piles it on her papa’s pasta board. With a flick of her right hand, she swirls a hole in the middle, creating a powdery volcano waiting for liquid. I spoon chunks of hot, cooked potato into her ricer and she squeezes, mightily, creating a rainfall of potato strands. 

The essence of these gnocchi – hot steaming Yukon gold potatoes – slips and wafts through the kitchen air. We share a satisfied cooking smile.  Rocca taps a free run Omega 3 egg on a bowl’s edge and we both go “ahhh” over the yolk’s deep orange-ness. 

She sprinkles the flour and potato mound with salt.  I ask how much and she mutters “Normale”.  

She wields a bottle of olive oil and pours two large glugs into the mound, creating golden streaks and streams throughout. I ask how much and she shrugs her shoulders, too busy to fuss over measurements. 

Then she does something that makes this recipe writer crazy: she slides the beaten egg into an empty measuring cup and pours reserved (and cooled)  potato cooking water into it up to the one cup line. 

As I sigh in frustration, Rocca clutches a quarter dry measure and twice she scoops up egg and potato water mix sprinkling it over the potatoes, flour, salt and olive oil. Using her bare hands, she mushes it all together (I recommend a dough scraper). It doesn’t coalesce into a good clump so she adds another quarter cup of egg and potato water. In seconds, it transforms into a hot, soft dough, pliable and warm.  The perfect spot between sticky and dry. We cut off a half cup chunk and roll it into a snake, then cut of half-inch pieces she calls “chicklets”. 

“Do you want to cut chicklets or roll out the gnocchi?”  

While the former sounds easy, I know I need practice rolling. She has a small wooden board, the size of a large smartphone that is corduroy-ed, with narrow slits, and she demos how to roll a piece of gnocchi dough  along this surface. One deft move and “Voila!” it’s a cute little roll with ridges.

Fast forward 18 months. Rocca is at the gnocchi helm again, this time in the Cowichan Valley bossing David and me.  We stand at the counter each with a pile of PC “OO” (doppio zero)  flour before us. We blend in cooked and riced BC-grown yellow potatoes plus potato water mixed with egg. A soft, warm dough forms instantly and we knead it ever so briefly. We start to cut dough chunks, roll out dough snakes, cut into chicklets and press against the gnocchi board.  It takes a skillful hand but Rocca won’t do it.  She says “your job” and David and I steal competitive glances at each other’s work. 

We fill two baking trays with our ridged dumplings.  Rocca cooks them in hot boiling salted water, plunking them in and lifting them out with a slotted spoon, the second each gnocchi bobs to the surface indicating doneness. Cooked gnocchi slide into a bath of ice cubes and cold water in order to halt cooking. Later they are drained en masse and drizzled with lots of olive oil. Their final destination is a good sauce.

I happen to have one. Braised short ribs. 

In Duncan I am able to find huge, fat short ribs at Thrifty’s supermarket.  (In Toronto, I’d have to order them from a butcher since they never look this fat and ample in supermarket meat counters.) 

We heat up my sauce in a large deep skillet, add the gnocchi and warm everything gently while someone grates Parmigiano-Reggiano and finds our sacred, big jar of Puglian hot peppers in oil. 

Gnocchi is best served as a first course, or primi. It’s filling. Just two ladles full is ample for most. Rocca smiles in approval after she takes her first bite. The gnocchi are soft, delectable pillows bathed in an unctuous sauce, bedecked with parmesan. 

Rocca’s Gnocchi

 

While Rocca prefers the counter technique for creating the dough, you can also mix everything in a large bowl. If you don’t have a gnocchi board, Rocca says it’s ok to leave as half-inch chicklets simply cut from the rolled dough. 

 

3-4    Yukon Gold or yellow-flesh potatoes, peeled and quartered

2 cups        flour, all-purpose or “00”

1 tsp sea salt 

1       egg

2 tbsp         extra virgin olive oil

 

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and cook potatoes until tender but not crumbling. Reserve a cup of cooking water before draining potatoes. Mound flour on the counter and create a well in the middle. Sprinkle over with salt.  Once the potato water has cooled enough not to cook the egg, crack the egg into a glass measuring jar and fill to one level cup with potato water.  Mix.  Place potatoes in a ricer (if you don’t have one, grate them) and drop potato shreds into the flour well. Pour over ½ cup of egg/potato water and olive oil and mix into a dough, using a scraper or a spatula. Add another ¼-1/2 cup of liquid if needed to create a soft pliable dough. Roll and form gnocchi.

 

Heat a large pot of salted water to boil, gently add gnocchi.  When gnocchi float to surface, remove with a slotted spoon and place directly in heated sauce or into an ice bath to cool.

in

Mado’s Short Rib Pasta Sauce

 

Preheat oven to 350 F

 

3 tbsp olive oil

2 large cooking onions, chopped

2 large ribs celery, chopped

2 tsp dried thyme

Salt

 

Heat oil in large Dutch oven, cook onions, celery and dried thyme with salt until soft and caramelized, about 5 minutes.  Set aside.

 

Use the same pan to heat another 2 tbsp olive oil on high and brown

 

3 lbs short ribs (3-6 pieces)   

Seasoned with salt and pepper

 

This takes about 3 min per side, total about 12 min. Set aside

 

Deglaze pan with 1 cup red wine (Shiraz/Syrah) scraping up all browned bits. Add  sautéed onion mixture and  

 

Add

1/2 tsp dried chili pepper flakes

½ cup dried porcini or shiitake mushrooms, finely crumbled 

1 cup passata (pureed tomatoes, favourite brand is Mutti sold in tall glass jars) 

3 crushed garlic cloves

Handful basil leaves, chopped

1-3 tsp sea salt 

Lots of freshly cracked black pepper

Fill with water to just cover the ribs

 

Place a sheet of parchment over the surface, cover and bake at 350F for one hour, reduce to 325F and cook 2 more hours. Meat should be falling off the bones. Allow to cool (preferably overnight in the fridge). Skim fat. Remove bones and tendons. Shred meat gently.

Continue reading “Making Gnocchi with the boss”

Lavender Plum Jelly

The first time I laid eyes on these plums, the trees were groaning with them. It was  August,  the day we took possession of our Vancouver Island  home in 2016. While David, his brother Norm and sister-in-law Cheryl stood in the courtyard surveying the exterior of the house,  I trotted down the driveway to find out what was green and growing on our 2.5 acres.

Huge rhododendron bushes and plum trees lined the driveway. Shiny red plums, no bigger than marbles, glinted in the sun. None were nearby, but all shone like Christmas ornaments far from reach in the tall,  skinny trees. 

A huge black raven flew over, each flap of its massive wings vibrating overhead. My eyes fell on saffron-painted plums poking out from leafy branches nearby. They were tiny little wonders no bigger than the cherry tomatoes growing in my downtown Toronto containers. Each orangey-yellow orb was splashed with traces of red. Warm to touch in the hot August sun, I picked one and popped it in my mouth, smiling wide.  It had a sweet, pulpy juiciness.

A search ensued! In three minutes, my makeshift t-shirt pouch bulged with a colourful, but slightly moist and sticky bounty.  Juice was trickling out from the overripe, split ones that came in every hungry handful I snatched away from the tree.

With no room for more to carry, I snacked heavily, reducing my load by half as I came closer to another variety-in-waiting. Heavy green clusters of plums weighted down the branches bringing them closer to my reach.  Alas, these golf ball-size beauties were sour and hard:  Not ready for prime-time picking.  I spat out my pit and was surprised to watch it join dozens littered in the grass below, all fallen from the mouths of marauding deer.   

On another branch —  Hope. One once green had ripened to a deep yellow, beckoning. I was perched on rocks that lined the stone walkway down to the dry pond nearby. Teetering on one foot, then the next, I managed to shake the ripe branch and gather the sweet morsels that fell to the ground, avoiding those that fell upon a mound of shiny, black pellets.  Deer scat.

I returned to the house and found the others, tracing their voices echoing through the empty halls. None seemed as eager to sample my found fruit as I, but each nodded their head politely after a taste.

This was just the beginning. What food writer in her right mind isn’t obsessed with gathering sweet, ripe FREE fruit hanging from trees? It’s like finding money dangling from the leaves.   

On superhot summer BC days, when the thermometer slips over 30 and it’s crazy to get out of the shade or up from a lounge chair, I drag my husband out on a blackberry pick.  We wear PPE: Long pants, long sleeve shirts, boots and gloves. We dig out the lawn clippers and apple crates from the garage.  Then we cruise through the windy roads of Maple Bay and environs, searching for manna from the heavens. When we spot black swaths of untouched, unblemished, fat, ripe, abundant berries overhead we no longer cry in vain, thinking they’re unreachable. We simply laugh an arrogant chuckle, deeming ourselves seasoned professionals. David clips the clusters and I catch them in a waiting  apple crate beneath his arms. Once we’ve filled the crates, we aim to stop, but never can.  There’s always another ripe berry around the corner and a few empty plastic bags to hold them.   

Pounds upon pounds of ripe, sweet fruit cannot be consumed instantly. Berries are flash frozen on trays in single layers or tucked into a rustic tart or two. But plums, especially the ones in our orchard, are more troublesome. The pulp to pit ratio is about 50:50. I have cooked them in huge pots on the stovetop or roasted them in the oven, but afterwards, there are  still all those pits to contend with. A food mill can help the process but nothing works finer than my Mehu-Liisa 111 made in Finland.

This three-tiered stovetop pot is basically a small distiller or “steam juicer”. The bottom is filled with water heated to a boil on the stovetop, while the middle portion holds the juice which falls into this catchment area from the large steamer above holding quarts of picked fresh fruit on top.  Take off the stopper and hot clear juice empties out from the fitted plastic hose attachment. Last time I used my Mehu-Liisa 111  I packed it full with 14 pounds of fruit, turned on the heat and collected five liters of juice in under an hour. 

Sadly, plum juice is not a favourite beverage, but it makes beautiful jelly that I can slip into my suitcase and gift friends and family each time I fly back home to Toronto. That way, I can bring a taste of our BC orchard across the country and share the wealth because money found on trees is simply delish.

Herd Road Lavender Plum Jelly

  • Servings: 14 250 ml jars
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The golden hue of this yellow plum jelly is painted purple with the addition of lavender and whole blackberries. After canning, check all the jars for a tight seal. Makes 14 ½ 250 ml jars of jelly.

12 cups plum juice *
4 tbsp lemon juice
6 tsp Pomona’s Universal calcium water
2 tsp unsalted butter
4 cups refined sugar
9 tsp Pomona’s Universal pectin
½ cup dried lavender or lemon thyme
1 cup frozen blackberries

Sterilize jars.

In a large wide pot heat plum juice, lemon juice, calcium water and butter and bring to a rapid boil.

Combine sugar and pectin in a bowl, then add to juice once it is rapidly boiling. Stir mixture until it comes back to a full boil then take off the heat. Carefully remove foam.

Remove hot sterilized jars and arrange on counter. Put 2-3 frozen blackberries and ½ tsp lavender in each jar before filling with plum mixture leaving ¼ inch headspace and lidding fingertip tight. Process 10 minutes in boiling water.

Remove from canner and listen for a satisfying pop as each lid seals. All the lavender and blackberries will have floated to the top. Wait a few hours for your jelly to gel and cool, then turn a jar upside down to test if the jelly has thickened enough to suspend solids in the middle of the jar. If so, leave upside down for 8 hrs or overnight.

*Substitute with apple or white grape juice

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