Stranded parsnips

Stranded parsnips, just waiting to be harvested and eaten.

Whenever talk turns to vegetable gardening (more often than you might think), I am always quick to praise the parsnip. It’s easy to grow (as long as your seeds are fresh), it’s much cheaper than buying it at the grocery store, it tastes great (particularly roasted) and you can harvest it all winter long.
Name one other vegetable that offers all that.
Parsnips are a favourite in our garden and on our table. Their taste sweetens with a frost or two and there is something so uplifting about being able to dig a vegetable out of the garden in mid-January, cook and eat it.
The strange weather – little snow, balmy stretches with rain followed by cold snaps – in southern Ontario has foiled our plans this year.
I went out yesterday afternoon to dig a few parsnips to roast with some carrots and turnips (the latter harvested from our garden in the summer and frozen) and serve alongside the garlic-crusted sirloin tip roast I had planned for dinner.
The ground, with its skim coat of snow, was as hard as cement.
I couldn’t even pull out the fork we keep to mark the rows (although David did later). A shovel just chipped away little bits of dirt.
I guess we’ll have to wait (and not too long if the weather forecasters are to be believed) for a warm spell before we can rescue our poor stranded parsnips and enjoy them for dinner.

First ingredient: Duck

If truth be told, the subtitle for this post is Christmas Eve dinner for two. I had such good intentions to post, post, post during the holiday break, but there was always something more pressing to do (sip eggnog and brandy, make soup, listen to the radio, snuggle on the couch).
Having wrapped up all our gift and grocery shopping, David and I spent the day before Christmas at home — preparing for the trip to visit his family Dec. 25 and 26 and the arrival of my family Dec. 27.
I wanted dinner to be non-taxing, yet special.
After much inner debate, I settled on duck breast. Having never cooked or purchased it before, I called my local butcher for some information and he led me to King Cole Ducks. The home farm for this large producer is located in the north end of York Region and sells fresh, frozen and smoked duck to the public. I visited the busy store Dec. 23 and bought two fresh breasts for the very reasonable price of $8.
It provided the inspiration for a simple and seasonal yet elegant and delicious meal. We paired the duck with a jammy merlot.

Roasted butternut squash and apple soup with maple allspice sour cream.

Roasted butternut squash and apple soup with maple allspice sour cream
This was a reprise of the soup I served at Thanksgiving. Really, a vessel for more of that maple allspice sour cream. I eyeballed the proportions for the sour cream this time around and it was better than I remember.
I made the soup in the morning, reserved two generous servings to reheat for dinner and packed the rest in the freezer for later.

Mixed greens with gorgonzola and pear

Mixed greens with gorgonzola and pear
A simple salad of mixed baby romaine mixed with a white wine vinaigrette and topped with sliced pear and a generous wedge of room temperature gorgonzola.

Pan-seared duck breast with cassis compote and pan-fried Yukon gold potatoes.

Pan-seared duck breast with cassis compote
This recipe comes courtesy of Bob Blumer.
I wanted a tart fruit sauce to complement the rich duck, but not one that involved buying imported fresh fruit. I had a bottle of cassis purchased at Finger Lake Distilling during a camping trip this summer. It was fate.

Ingredients
2 boneless duck breasts
2 shallots, minced
generous splash of cassis
30 mL (2 tbsp) of black currant jam
generous splash of balsamic vinegar

High heat and a well-seasoned cast iron pan made the duck breasts plump up and sear quickly.

Method
Preheat oven to 350 Fahrenheit.
Using a sharp knife, score 4 (1/2-cm-deep) cuts across the skin of the duck breasts at a 45 degree angle. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Heat a well-seasoned skillet or non-stick pan over high heat. When pan is hot, add duck breasts, skin side down, and cook for 5 minutes or until skin is brown and crispy. Flip and cook for 2 more minutes.
Remove pan from and transfer duck breasts, skin side up, to a cooking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Bake on the top rack of the oven for 6 minutes.
Carefully discard all but 15 mL (1 tbsp) drippings from pan. Return pan to medium heat and add shallot. Stir occasionally for 3 minutes or until shallot begins to turn golden.
Add cassis to the pan and stir with a wooden spoon to loosen up the browned bits left by the duck. Add jam, vinegar and more black pepper, and stir occasionally for 3 minutes. Remove from heat.
Remove duck from the oven and slice each breast at a 45-degree angle into 1/2-cm-thick strips (properly cooked duck should resemble medium-rare steak). Arrange in a fanlike pattern on warmed plates and spoon sauce overtop. Serve immediately.

Pan-fried Yukon gold potatoes
A classic.

Ingredients
225 g (1/2 pound) Yukon gold potatoes, 1-cm dice
salt, pepper
15-30mL (1-2 tbsp) duck fat

Method
Parboil potatoes until nearly cooked but still firm. Season with salt and pepper
After searing duck breasts, transfer 15-30 mL of fat to hot pan.
Add potatoes and fry to a golden brown.
Serve with pan-seared duck breasts.

For the kitchen

Tajine.

Not surprisingly, we received many gifts we will use this year while we grow, cook and eat. Here’s a bit of list.

A tajine (the earthenware vessel not the dish), given along with recipes and a Moroccan spice mixture. Something I would not have splurged on for myself but will treasure for its decorative qualities and the slow-cooked spicy meals I plan to make this winter. A perfect gift.

Large stockpot. A more practical present, to be sure. But one that I requested and will boost my stock-making productivity by 50 per cent.

Good-quality, non-stick skillet. We’d tossed an old one years ago and eggs have never been quite the same. Another practical but useful gift. (Fried egg, cheddar, ham and olde smoky on English muffins made a quick pre-guest-arrival brunch Dec. 27.)

Searing plate. This is an accessory for our Weber charcoal grill. A new hinged cooking grate with a removal wire insert and a cast-iron seal grate that fits right in. David can practically taste the rare ribeye.

Herbes de Provence. I used this classic French mixture of dried savory, basil, thyme, fennel and lavender flowers to flavour a simple post-holiday-food vegetable soup.

Mustard. David loves Anton Kozlik’s Canadian Mustard, available in dozens of varieties at the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto, Cheez ‘N More Specialty Cheese Shoppe in Aurora and other fine food retailers. I stuffed his stocking with a couple of varieties — olde smoky and horseradish — he can use to liven up his weekday sandwich.

Red peppers. Hot and red pepper jelly, plus just the right dish for serving, in the tomato red that accents our kitchen. A lovely host gift.

Nail brush. A must for anyone making frequent trips between the vegetable garden and kitchen.

Hand cream. Ditto.