It seemed strange, in the past week, to be testing a recipe for sweet potatoes as DT became leader of the free world and Leonard Cohen bid us farewell. The world is a much more worrisome place this week, but we have to hold on to the life we believe in, no matter how mundane, and move forward. So there you go: sweet potatoes.
As you probably already know, these humble spuds are a super food, rich in vitamin A in the form of beta carotene. They are also a good source of vitamin C, manganese, copper, pantothenic acid, potassium, some of the B vitamins, and dietary fiber. Despite their sweetness, they are considered to be low on the glycemic index. So any which way we want to eat these tubers is a good idea.
One thing I’ve come to appreciate since retiring from the workforce two years ago is the Ottawa Public Library, or the OPL. What a resource. What I most love is the option to reserve, to get in line for a particular publication. It may seem dispiriting to be number 143 in the line-up, but things move quickly and before you know it, the book is yours for three whole weeks. Free! It does happen that books become available all at once, in a big wave, and there’s no way you can read them all in the allotted time, but life is like that and you just get back in line again.
What books am I reading? I just started The Edge of the Empire: A Journey to Britannia, in which the author, Bronwen Riley, takes us on a trip from Rome to Hadrian’s Wall in the year 130 AD. Along the way we learn about the Roman Empire and what life was like in England way back then. I love reading about this. Previous to that, I got through a good chunk of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. Fascinating, mind blowing in fact, but slow going in my case, and it came due before I finished it. This is one of those few books you need to own so you can properly absorb its contents.
Late last winter, as the snow was melting, a strange creature appeared at our back door. Turns out it was a cat, or more accurately, half a cat, with bony haunches and huge matted clumps of black fur. He had obviously survived a terrible ordeal, a unusually harsh Canadian winter, apparently with little food. We fed him, of course, and he stuck around, making our back deck his home through the spring, summer and fall. And what an appetite. By late November he was as solid as a little black bear, with a good, thick coat.
We called him Charlie because he’s male and because it rings nicely with Chicklet, the name of our official cat. He’s a lovely guy, just a little skittish, and particular about who approaches him and from what angle, and he absolutely, positively, will not come indoors. Worried about winter coming on, I tried bringing him into the kitchen, but the terror in his eyes put an end to that idea. So I built him a home out of a cardboard box, à la Martha Stewart crafts, lining it with fleece and a cat heating pad, and cutting a little door out of one side. I put it on the deck under the covered porch and wrapped it in plastic, and he took to it immediately.
When you spend all day braising lamb for a dinner party and it’s the potatoes your guests rave about, you know you’re on to something. Indeed, this potato gratin, known as pommes dauphinois in France, or plain old scalloped potatoes in my family, is easy to put together but altogether dreamy and delicious to eat.
The recipe is from Dorie Greenspan’s Around my French Table and is made of layers of thinly sliced potatoes bathed in garlic-infused cream and topped with cheese, then baked until the cheese melts and the potatoes turn soft on the inside, slightly crusty on top. The dish lends itself to much improvisation, as Greenspan explains in her “Bonne Idée”: for a dash of colour, try substituting sweet potato for an equal amount of russets, or add a layer of cooked chopped spinach or chard, sautéed mushrooms, or steamed small broccoli florets. Bits of cooked bacon or strips of lightly sautéed pancetta would also work well, and in place of the Gruyère, try Parmesan or a blue cheese like Gorgonzola.
Thanksgiving in my extended family has become a huge affair. That’s because we now number 25 people, plus any others who happen to be in the picture. The brave household that offers to host must find enough tables, dishes and cutlery to seat everyone, and usually cooks the main event, in this case a turkey. The rest of us bring appetizers, mashed potatoes and other vegetables, and a few desserts, typically involving pumpkin or apples. Pot luck, it’s the only way to go with a crowd like this.
Notice I said mashed potatoes. Feeling like a change, I offered to make Duchess potatoes this year. Admittedly, these are labour intensive. You start with mashed potatoes but then add egg yolks, cream and butter. This mixture is spooned into a pastry bag fitted with a star tip and piped into swirly mounds, which are baked until golden brown, slightly crusty on the outside, soft on the inside, rich and delicious overall.
Many summers ago, I studied French for a month at an exclusive language school in Villefranche-sur-Mer, situated between Nice and Monaco on the Côte d’Azur. It was très exotique. Villefranche is a town of apricot and turquoise-painted buildings sloping down to a sparkling blue Mediterranean. People drink crisp, cold rosé wines, lavender perfumes the air, and cicadas buzz in the dry afternoon heat. I did as best I could through the morning language labs and grammar drills, but really perked up when we broke for lunch. That’s because the food was very good.
Of all the delicious homemade dishes we were served, one stands out in my mind, and that is celery root rémoulade, also known as celeriac rémoulade or céleri rémoulade. It was crunchy and creamy at the same time, and I couldn’t get enough of it. You might ask how such a gnarly root vegetable can be made into a sublime salad, but peel off that warty exterior, cut the ivory-coloured interior into thin matchsticks and bathe them in a mayonnaise-mustard-lemon dressing, and voilà, you’ll be in salad heaven. You’ll want to eat it by the bucketful.
I’m taking my shopping cart on wheels to the farmers market these days because the vegetables I’m bringing home are large and heavy. It’s August, and the carrots, beets and potatoes are no longer baby-size, the cauliflower and broccoli are hefty, chard comes in big ruffly bundles, and cabbages are the size of footballs. Then of course there is fresh corn, and when you’re hauling home a dozen ears at a time, two or three times a week, you don’t want to be carrying them in your arms.
Corn season is finally here and we’re getting our fill, usually just boiled for a couple of minutes then dressed with butter and the finest sea salt in the world, Fleur de sel de Guérande. As you will know, fresh corn is also delicious creamed and served as a side, added to soups and chowders, and made into salads such as this Corn and Scallion Salad with Cilantro-Mint Dressing from Bobby Flay’s Barbecue Addiction on the Food Network. The sweetness of the corn combined with the tangy cilantro-mint vinaigrette and salty richness of the feta all add up to one perfect summer salad.