Why plant carrots?

Freshly dug scarlet nantes carrots.

I live in the carrot capital of Ontario. The town a few minutes to the north of us hosts a yearly carrot festival. Carrots fill many of the fields that surround our community.
And when it comes to locally grown, I can buy carrots grown and picked within 20 kilometres of home at $2 or less a bag from the local grocery nine or 10 months of the year.
And yet, I still plant a few rows in my garden every year.
Why? Mostly for the taste. For the past few years, I have been buying scarlet nantes heirloom seeds from Hawthorn Farm Organic Seeds in Palmerston. A reliable crop even in heavy soil, the carrots are sweet, bright orange and only slightly tapered.
I plant them thickly in April and thin to about 5 cm apart when the tops are 10 cm tall. I start to harvest in July, when they are still babies, picking alternate carrots to give those staying behind more room to grow. We eat most of them raw — packed in lunches and shredded in salads. But, as the weather gets colder and the carrots bigger, I dice and slice them for soups and grate them for pasta sauces or muffins.
I pick as needed until the threat of a heavy frost. (Carrots will tolerate light frost.)
Carrots can be stored in the refrigerator for a few weeks or packed in slightly damp sand in a cool spot like the garage for months.


Slaw, so good

If you picture mushy cabbage in a bland, unnatural green dressing when you hear the word slaw, it’s time to expand your horizons.
A slaw should be crunchy, fresh and flavourful. Cabbage is a popular ingredient. But any crunchy vegetable with work — broccoli, carrots, celery, peppers, radicchio, fennel, even raw beets. Thinly slice, grate by hand or shred with a food processor.
For additional crunch, add nuts (toasted almonds, walnuts) or seeds (sunflower, poppy) or sliced apples. For sweetness, add dried fruit (currants, raisins, dried cranberries).
If you want a creamy dressing, mix mayonnaise with buttermilk and apple cider vinegar to boost the flavour. But a vinaigrette works well, too. Simply whisk together oil (olive, grape seed, walnut) and acid (lemon juice, wine, rice or cider vinegar), add a little sugar, salt and pepper, plus whatever herbs or spices you have on hand that will complement the other flavours (chives, horseradish, hot pepper flakes, parsley, caraway, dill, basil, tarragon).
Don’t feel limited by recipes. Use vegetables in season and the flavours your family likes.
Slaws stand up well to time and transport, which makes them perfect for potlucks, picnics and weekday lunches.
This simple slaw combines fennel and tarragon — a slightly unusual pairing that really works. I served it alongside barbecued pork side ribs and homemade corn bread.

Apple fennel slaw

Fennel Apple Slaw
Adapted from Bon Appetit
45 mL (3 tbsp) extra virgin olive oil
45 mL (3 tbsp) apple cider vinegar
10 mL (2 tsp) fresh lemon juice
25 mL (1-1/2 tbsp) fresh tarragon, finely chopped
1 mL (1/4 tsp) sugar
salt and pepper
1 large bulb fennel, thinly sliced
1 Paula red apple, cored and thinly sliced
3 ribs celery, thinly sliced

Whisk together first five ingredients in small bowl.
Combine last fennel, celery and apple in large bowl. Toss with dressing. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Pesto perpetuo basil

The variegated leaves of the pesto perpetuo basil.

I’ve long been searching for basil that could match the enormous, fragrant and flavourful plants I found several years ago at Dufferin County grower. (I’m not going to name names since he confessed to smuggling seeds from Israel to nurture in his greenhouse.)
This season, I finally found success with some pesto perpetuo plants purchased from Richters Herbs in Goodwood.
The description on Richters website sounded promising: dense columnar growth and variegated leaves gives this basil a majesty and appeal like on other … the scent is a compelling floral blend of spice and lemon … because it never flowers, it never slows down, as basils usually do when they flower and set seed.
The plants have delivered. They stand about 80 centimetres now. I’ve used the leaves for salads, salsas, pestos, pizzas, marinades and more over the summer and the taste is both sweet and spicy — just like basil should be.
Before the first frost, I will pick the remaining leaves and blend with fresh garlic, salt, pepper and olive oil in the food processor.
I freeze this mixture in a thin layer in freezer bags, breaking off a chunk any time I want “fresh” pesto taste during the winter.
For some recipes, such as frittata or soups, I use it as is. For a traditional pasta sauce, I add grated Parmesan cheese and very finely chopped pinoli (pine nuts) or walnuts.

Bay oh bay

I grow more than a dozen different herbs in my garden: basil, thyme, variegated thyme, mint, catnip, oregano, chives, rosemary, sage, dill, tarragon, marjoram, cilantro, parsley and summer savoury. Many are perennial, a few self-seed so reliably I’ve only needed to plant them once and the rest I plant each spring, most often as seedlings.
But I’ve always considered my collection a bit incomplete. Until this spring, when I finally found and purchased a bay tree, well really, a small seedling. Because bay is evergreen — but won’t survive an Ontario winter — I didn’t plant it in the herb garden, but in a small pot. It spent the summer on our back deck and will moved indoors — likely to sunny spot in the kitchen — this fall. With proper care, it should live for many years.
Over the summer, my little bay has tripled its leaf count and grown several centimetres. I have not harvested any leaves as yet, but will probably pick a few over the winter.
Bay provides that je ne sais quoi to everything from soup stock to pasta sauce and I am looking forward to being able to add it fresh to my meals.

Potted bay tree.

Taking stock

Stock — chicken, vegetable or beef — is a must-have ingredient in my kitchen. I use it at least a couple times a week in the fall, winter and spring for soups, one-pot dinners such as jambalaya or chili, stir-fries, sauces and to cook grains such as rice and couscous.
To supply this demand, my freezer is always well “stocked” with two things: homemade stock in 250 mL jars and 500 mL and larger plastic containers; and the ingredients for making stock.
When making stock, I generally start with chicken bones, although I make vegetable stock fairly regularly and beef stock when I have a bone or two on hand. I save the carcasses from roasted birds (chicken or turkey). And I also buy chicken breasts on the bone, which are almost always cheaper than boneless, bone them myself and throw the bones in a bag in the freezer until I’m ready to make stock. Whenever I spatchcock a chicken, I save the backbone too.
I use another bag to store vegetable trimmings: the peelings and ends from carrots (scrub your carrots first, of course), celery leaves, onion ends, mushroom stems, broccoli stalks, woody asparagus ends, etc.
To make stock, put some bones, a lot of the veggie scraps, a bay leaf or two and some black peppercorns in a big pot and cover with water. Simmer for an hour or two, let cool slightly, then strain and ladle into containers to freeze.

Chicken bones and vegetable scraps simmering into a flavourful stock.

Experiments in planking

We may be a little behind the popular kids, but David and I took the plunge and tried planking the last couple of weekends.
It started with a trip to the local home improvement store. Why, David reasoned, buy a one-foot piece of cedar for $6 at the grocery store, when you could get 10 feet for $10 from the Depot?
He just cut appropriate lengths and soaked them in water overnight (to avoid the plank and our dinner going up in flames).
Our first planked meal was a salmon fillet. I made a simple glaze of equal parts Dijon mustard and maple syrup. Half was applied before cooking and half midway through. Grilling time was about 20 minutes.

Dijon-maple glazed cedar-planked salmon.

We ate it hot off the grill for dinner with a spinach salad with a maple-Dijon vinaigrette and cold the next day for lunch with new potato salad and raw vegetables.
Simple, but sublime. This will be regular on our grill from now on.

Rosemary Dijon cedar-planked prime rib ready for grilling.

We decided to up the ante for Round 2 with prime rib. I whipped up a glaze of Dijon, red wine vinegar, olive oil, half a grated onion, two cloves minced garlic, a pinch of cayenne, cracked black pepper and lots of dried rosemary.
The glazed roast was placed on a bed of fresh rosemary (from my garden, of course) and roasted on the barbecue for about 1-1/2 hours.
The results were mixed. The glaze was a winner, but the smoky flavour somehow negated the richness you expect from this cut of beef. Not worth a repeat visit in my books.

Rosemary Dijon cedar-planked prime rib ready for the plate.

Still, we happily ate it with barbecued potatoes tossed with olive oil and oregano and stir-fried green beans (from the garden) and red pepper. Leftovers went into a Japanese-inspired soup (recipe to follow at a later date).

Japanese-inspired prime rib soup.


Last winter, I added mini-muffin making to my Sunday morning routine. Using two basic recipes and adding whatever fruit (bananas, berries, apples, peaches, pears) or vegetable (zucchini, pumpkin, carrot) I had on hand, plus complementary flavourings (spices, grated ginger, lemon or orange peel), I made a different variety every week until the weather got too hot for baking.
I like mini muffins because eating two of something is so much more satisfying than eating just one, and yet two mini-muffins are still less muffin than one large.
A batch baked on Sunday gives us enough for lunches/snacks for the week.
With the cooler weather returning, I decided to bake a batch this weekend.
Starting with a basic honey wheat muffin recipe, I used the buckwheat honey we bought during a road trip to the Finger Lakes region of New York State this summer and a few of the too-ripe-for-eating bananas I had stashed in the freezer.

Honey wheat banana muffins, made with buckwheat honey.

Below are the two basic recipes I use as my starting point. Both are from Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook. My husband received this book as a gift from family friends when he first left home. It is a great source for basic, classic recipes and information like how long it takes to roast a 10-kilogram stuffed turkey.
I’ve altered the baking time for mini-muffins. For regular muffins, bake for 18 to 20 minutes.

Basic muffins

675 mL (1-3/4 cups) all-purpose flour
80 mL (1/3 cup) sugar (white or brown)
10 mL (2 tsp) baking powder
1 beaten egg
175 mL (3/4 cup) milk
60 mL (1/4 cup) cooking oil

Add whatever combinations of fruit, nuts, seeds, spices and flavourings you like.
Blueberry and orange peel; banana and cardamom; pumpkin, allspice and nutmeg; shredded pear and fresh ginger; apple, walnut and cinnamon; carrot and nutmeg; and poppy seed and lemon peel are just a few of the combinations we have tried. I also add ground flax seed or wheat germ.

Whole wheat, spelt, buckwheat or other flours for all or part of all-purpose flour.
Large flake oats for about half the flour.
Low-fat plain yogurt for the milk.
Juice for the milk.

Preheat oven to 400 Fahrenheit.
Sift flour. Combine dry ingredients in a bowl.
Combine wet ingredients in a second bowl.
Add wet ingredients all at once to dry ingredients. Mix to combine. (Batter should still be lumpy.)
Spray mini-muffin tins lightly with cooking spray, fill to nearly full with batter.
Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until golden.
Makes 32 to 36 mini muffins.

Honey Wheat Muffins

250 mL (1 cup) all-purpose flour
125 mL (1/2 cup) whole wheat flour
10 mL (2 tsp) baking powder
1 beaten egg
125 mL (1/2 cup) milk
125 mL (1/2 cup) honey
60 mL (1/4 cup) oil

Again, add whatever combinations of fruit, nuts, seeds, spices and flavourings you like.

Preheat oven to 400 Fahrenheit.
Sift flour. Combine dry ingredients in a bowl.
Combine wet ingredients in a second bowl.
Add wet ingredients all at once to dry ingredients. Mix to combine. (Batter should still be lumpy.)
Spray mini-muffin tins lightly with cooking spray, fill to nearly full with batter.
Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until golden.
Makes 32 to 36 mini muffins.