Vegetable garden top five

March is an important month for my vegetable garden.
I gather my thoughts and the notes I’ve written in the margins of my agenda and scraps of paper, consult my books and magazines for folded corners and marked pages, go over last year’s plantings with an eye to crop rotation, make a few rough sketches and order my seeds.

My vegetable garden after the final plantings last May.

I buy organic whenever I can. Veseys is a reliable source of quality plants and seeds, and is continually expanding its organic selection. I’ve also had good luck with Hawthorn in Palmerston, Ontario and am trying Cubits’ dinosaur kale for the first time this season.
I try something new almost every year and will share my final selections for 2012 in a later post. But first, here are my top picks for any Ontario vegetable garden.

Tomatoes
When it comes to taste, there is nothing on your grocery store shelf at any time of the year that can compare to a sun-warmed tomato fresh from your own garden.
At a minimum, plant one beefsteak variety – for tomato sandwiches, caprese salads and just plain eating with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. If you have space and the inclination, add a couple more beefsteaks (for variation in taste, size and harvest time), a cherry/grape or two for salads and snacking and a paste tomato for sauce.

Bush beans
As I’ve noted before, one package of bush beans seeds can provide bountiful harvests for as long as you care to garden. I don’t bother with soaking, just poke the dried beans into the soil, water and wait for them to grow. Bush beans don’t require staking. The more you pick, the more beans your plants will produce. Leave a few pods to dry on the plants for next year’s harvest.

Swiss chard
Rainbow is my go-to variety — as much for the colour as the taste. The stems vary in hue from deep red to white, with shades of pink, orange and yellow in between. In a good season (like 2011), you can begin harvesting within six or eight weeks of planting (cut leaves, leaving about 2 cm of stem) and continue right up until the first hard frost.

Carrots
If you’ve only ever eaten the grown-for-shipping-not-for-flavour carrots from the grocery store, you’re probably not in a rush to plant your own. But I would urge you to give scarlet nantes a try. Cylindrical roots that grow 15 to 20 cm long, with a bright orange colour, smooth, thin skin and a sweet crunch. I plant them fairly thickly and lazily, thin to 4 cm, then again by harvesting some as baby carrots and allowing the rest to grow to full maturity.

Parsnips
The promise of digging vegetables out of the garden in January or March makes these a regular in my garden. Harvest after a good frost or two for a sweeter flavour. Fresh seeds are a must for success with this root vegetable, so choose a reputable supplier.

In praise of onions

Local onions, ready to slice for French onion soup.

Once or twice a winter season, my local FreshCo offers a deal on 10-pound bag of onions. I always take advantage of the sale (last week, $2.99). The onions are perfect: smallish, firm, clean, dry and grown close by, often in Bradford-West Gwillimbury, but this time in Newmarket.
Ten pounds might seem like a lot of onions for a two-person household to consume at their peak. But we love their sweet mellow flavour in any number of winter favourites from soup to risotto. In a few short days, I managed to put a significant dent in their numbers with a pasta sauce, jambalaya and this French onion soup.

French onion soup
This recipe is inspired by one from PEI chef Michael Smith. I wanted to try his method of wet cooking the onions in a closed pot first. I did get good results — thanks as much to my nose as the recipe. I could smell the onions starting to brown before the prescribed 10 minutes and quickly removed the lid, stirred and reduced the heat.
I’ve made a few ingredient changes as well.
This made two generous bowls, with leftovers.

Ingredients
10 to 11 small onions, thinly sliced
30 mL  (2 tbsp) butter
22 mL (1-1/2 tbsp) vegetable oil
salt and pepper to taste
80 mL (1/3 cup) sweet vermouth
5 mL (1 tsp) dried thyme
1,250 mL (5 cups) homemade chicken stock
2 slices of dark farmer’s rye bread, cut into large croutons and toasted
Gruyere, grated

Method
Cook onions, seasoned with salt and pepper, in butter and oil in large, uncovered pot over low heat until golden brown and very soft, stirring often, about 1 hour. (Alternately, add onions, butter, oil and splash of water to large pot over medium high heat. Cover with tight-fitting lid, cook until onions are softened and water evaporated, 5 to 10 minutes. Then continue cooking onions as above.)
Add vermouth, thyme and chicken stock. Simmer for 15 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.
Ladle soup into oven-proof bowls. Top with croutons and Gruyere.
Place bowls onto baking sheet. Broil until cheese is golden and bubbly.

French onion soup.

Holiday baking, round 1: Christmas cake

I may be in the minority here, but I grew up regarding Christmas cake, as my family calls fruitcake, as a special treat — something to be savoured in small slivers after a turkey dinner.
My mother made this fruitcake for decades, wrapping and mailing or hand delivering it to our grandparents, great-grandmother and occasionally aunts and uncles. The recipe makes a large, dense cake in an angel food cake pan. My maternal grandmother cuts hers into sections and freezes it, bringing it out for guests such as her bridge group throughout the year.
When my older brother and I left home for university, Mom began making smaller cakes for us to take back after the holiday break. It was one treat I never had to share with my roommates.
Two years ago, Mom passed the cake-making duties on to me.
The numbers of recipients have dwindled on my side. But, having married into a family of fruitcake lovers, I’ve added a few others to the list.
So, every November, I visit the bulk store and fill a cart with candied cherries, diced mixed fruit, orange peel, raisins, pecans and walnuts, and then spend a few days stirring and baking. For the past couple of years, I’ve made three of these enormous cakes — one for my maternal grandparents and two others to be divided among parents and siblings.
This year, however, my grandmother requested a smaller cake. I bought some new cake pans and used one recipe to make three cakes — 15 cm, 20 cm, 23 cm. I gifted the medium-sized one to my grandparents at our annual extended family gathering this past weekend. David and I have been sampling the smallest. Slices of the larger one will be part of a tray of sweets we take to David’s family for Christmas and served to guests, including my immediate family who we are hosting on Dec. 27.
I had thought to make a second batch, but when my oven died Nov. 25, it seemed as though fate telling me one was enough this year. If I get a “Where’s the fruitcake?” or two from our relatives maybe I’ll up my quota again next year.

Christmas cakes.

Christmas cake
Ingredients
225 g (8 oz) candied green cherries
225 g (8 oz) candied red cherries
900 g (32 oz) diced mixed fruit
110 g (4 oz) candied orange peel
250 mL (1 cup) dark seedless raisins
375 mL (1-1/2 cups) walnut halves
500 mL (2 cups) pecan halves
875 mL (3-1/2 cups) all purpose flour
454 g (1 pound) butter, softened
375 mL (1-1/2) cups sugar
6 eggs
5 mL (1 tsp) salt

Method
Line 25-cm (10-inch) tube pan with foil, smooth.
Cut cherries in half.
In large bowl or pot, combine cherries, 175 mL (3/4 cup) of liqueur, remaining fruit and nuts. Let stand 10 minutes. Stir in 500 mL (2 cups) flour until fruit is coated.
In another bowl, with mixer at medium speed, beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Gradually add eggs, salt, remaining flour and liqueur and beat until well mixed.
Bake at 300 Fahrenheit for 2-1/2 hours or until cake passes the toothpick test.
Keep refrigerated. Freezes well.

In search of India

It’s easy to pull together a fairly tasty Indian dinner using the pre-blended spice mixtures, curry powder or garam masala, or sauces you find at the grocery or bulk food store. But for a meal that is more authentic and satisfying in its preparation and flavours, I am learning to start with the whole spices, then grind, toast, fry and blend.
We are hosting dear friends for an Indian feast this weekend. And, while I won’t spoil the surprise by detailing the menu here, I did want to post about the spices required to make six dishes from scratch — starter, main, two sides, condiment and dessert.
Although my spice cupboard (not rack, cupboard) is well stocked, I did need to add some items for this undertaking. Here is the sum of my list.

Perhaps the prettiest of spices, star anise.

These items (most of which I always have on hand) are readily available in my local Bulk Barn:
• green cardamom
• star anise
• coriander seeds
• cumin seeds
• fennel
• cinnamon sticks
• whole dried red chiles
• bay leaves
• saffron
• nutmeg
• mace
• tumeric
• cloves
• cayenne

Indian ingredients: mustard oil, dried fenugreek leaves, fenugreek seeds, kalonji, black cardamom and black mustard seeds.

For other items, look in the Indian section of larger grocery stores or an Indian grocer.
Since I happened to be in downtown Toronto Tuesday, I stopped by a stall at the St. Lawrence Market that had everything else on my shopping list:
• dried fenugreek (methi) leaves
• fenugreek seeds
• kalonji
• black cardamom
• black mustard seeds

I’m excited to start cooking.