Sunday, October 30, 2011

Just to reassure myself

After the great Vindaloo Disaster, I wanted to prove that I still could cook something new and different, so I turned to a French tart cookbook that I'd picked up at the library's used bookstore a few months ago.

Last week I took the kids to Smyth's Apple Orchard, because it's that time of year when rare types of apples are appearing, and some I can only find if I go out into the country. They also had some nice pears, and I ended up buying a basket. After a week or so, we were sick of eating fresh pears, so I decided to find a nice recipe to cook them into a dessert. I knew the French were better at cooking pears than the English, so I looked until I found a recipe for Tarte Bourdaloue. (It wasn't exactly this recipe, but very similar.) It's poached pears baked in a sweet custard called frangipane, and topped with crumbled cookies.

It was rather a more difficult recipe than I usually make, with lots of steps like "whip the eggs and sugar then add the flour little by little" followed by "boil the milk, then add it little by little along with the ground almonds", so I had a lot of ingredients out and had to be quick grabbing and adding them in sequence. Then I had to cook the frangipane, and they didn't tell you how to know if it was thickening properly; mine started getting a little lumpy, so I grabbed a whisk and began beating it energetically, and that seemed to do the trick. This was also my first time making a pâte brisé, which is basically a shortbread.

Anyway, it all turned out beautifully: my first French dessert! My confidence is restored.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Girl of the Vindalost

I don't have too much excitement in my life, so yesterday I thought I'd spice things up by trying to cook a new dish: Duck Vindaloo! I studied the Bombay Palace cookbook recipe, and spent a few days gathering ingredients, including a frozen duck that I carefully unthawed over 2 days. Yesterday morning, when I got back home from my school bus route, I got started.

The recipe calls for skinning the duck and cutting the duck into 8 serving pieces. This took me nearly an hour. Duck is very hard to cut up - the bones are much stronger than chicken bones, and they're put together in an odd way. At least once the skin was off, I could see better what I was cutting into. The one other time Dean and I ever tried to cook a duck was before we were married, when we roasted one, and had no idea what we were doing. I remember him trying to carve it like a chicken, and encountering bone everywhere he tried. And as he struggled over the bird, grease was pouring off of it and overflowing the platter, until I finally yelled at him to stop because he was ruining my tablecloth!

With the help of the biggest, sharpest knife we own, I finally got the thing cut up and put it into a pot to stew with some cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. It smelled very nice when it was done, then I drained it and put it aside.

The real "vindaloo" stuff came next, and I accurately put together the spice paste with vinegar, onions and hot peppers (from our garden!) all pureed together in the blender. The grand moment for assembling the dish came, I put everything together with the duck, and then put it in the oven to cook on the slow cooking setting. This was when I made my fatal error: I put everything in an aluminum pot!.

I came back from my afternoon bus route and checked on the vindaloo. The duck was soft, but there was an odd smell coming from it...a metallic smell. I tasted it...metallic taste. Then I realized that all the vinegar had reacted with the aluminum and produced...this. I moved it to another dish to cool off, hoping things might get better when it was cooler, but actually it was worse. When I tasted a bit of duck, it was like chewing on a piece of aluminum foil.

I had to phone Dean at work and tell him, as Basil Fawlty would say, 'Duck is off', and he'd have to come up with something for supper. "Help us, Obi-Dean Kenobi; you're our only hope!" As he saw this as an invitation to fire up the barbecue and cook some steaks, he took it pretty well.

Now I'm scheming to retry this experiment, only with pork next time, because it's equally authentic and would be much easier to prepare. Only I'll get out my enamelled pot to cook it in, and not make the same error twice.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Under the weather

I'm in the midst of a cold right now, which started last Wednesday. Thank goodness I'm past the horrible sore throat stage, but now I'm suffering a stuffed head and runny nose. Makes it hard to sleep, and that along with the general sense of malaise isn't doing much for my mental processes.

Just to show you how fogged I was, on Friday I came back after driving the kids in the morning, puttered around the kitchen for a bit, then decided I should force myself to get outside for a little walk. I decided that I might as well go and vote before anyone else, as the polls during our provincial elections open at 9:00. So I took my voter's card which was sitting in the mail rack, put on a coat and headed off to the Anglican/United Church down the street which is our usual polling station.

I thought it was odd, when I arrived, to see no signs out. Usually there's a "Polling Station" sign marked with a big X near the door - they used to have them out on the street, but in the past election or two they've been less obtrusive. This time I couldn't see anything. Aha, I thought - this must be a result of heightened security because of the danger of terrorism. People like me, who are registered to vote, have these cards with the address, so we KNOW the polling station is here. But without the signs, random terrorists driving by won't know it's there, and won't be able to shoot up the place. Not that this has ever happened in a Canadian election, but you can't be too careful.

When I reached the entrance, I found all the doors locked. Mystified, I looked at my voter's card. It read "Election Day: Thursday". Oh, my God, I thought, the election was yesterday and I missed it! How I could imagine that the day after an election there'd be no mention of it in the paper or on the radio, or that my husband, an election junky, could have possibly forgotten an election and not said a word about it, just didn't occur to me. Then I looked further on the card: "...October 6." I'd actually gone to vote a week early, AND on the wrong day! I've never before been that confused without heavy medication.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The damson tree

I forgot to mention that for the first time ever, the damson plum tree produced enough fruit to be worth picking! I believe it was about 11 lbs, and I ended up making over 2 dozen jars of jam.

It was a surprise that anything came of this tree at all, because as usual, it was bedevilled all season by various pests. Aphids were EVERYWHERE, because it was so damp this year, and there was also an attack by the dreaded plum cuculios, but I beat that off with several doses of insecticidal spray. Worst of all was that the tree was afflicted by a sort of dying-off blight. Whole branches would just dry up and die. I'd have to cut them off, back to healthy tissue, and hope for the best. Sometimes the tree would put out fresh shoots around the cut, so it still has lots of vigour, but I was worried I'd have to cut it back to a stump! Of course, it's got the usual canker problem too - that's also worse in a damp year, but I'll get a better look at the damaged branches once the leaves fall off.

Meanwhile, here's a look at the glorious scene in August, just before I picked the plums:

2011 Garden

I didn't blog much about the garden this year, because it was pretty much a so-so season. It wasn't too bad, but most everything was a bit mediocre. We never quite recovered from the very cold rainy spring, which caused everything to be so late being planted. It was so damp, in fact, that about half of my raspberry canes died, and I'll have to replant some fresh ones next spring. The ones that survived produced some nice berries, but only enough to eat as a snack; no raspberry jam or pies this year.

The potatoes did pretty well for the most part, but some of them were attacked by some sort of underground pest. The potatoes were chewed, but underground! What could do that? Not squirrels or chipmunks, who don't bother with potatoes anyway. Raccoons will chomp on potatoes, but they usually carry them off a little distance, and then you find a half-eaten potato lying on the ground. I suspect some kind of maggot. And I noticed that it happened particularly on the patch of ground where last year I planted corn! I wonder if the corn attracted some sort of pest that hung around and attacked the potatoes this year? Next year, I'm going to plant something else where the corn went this year - maybe tomatoes.

Speaking of corn, well, the less said the better. I mentioned we were late planting. The early corn only was ready to pick in mid-Autust! And the late corn was still immature when it was struck by a plague of raccoons. They stripped the cobs in just a few days. I don't think I'm going to bother growing corn next year - it takes all that space, and then something like this happens!

The tomatoes were...okay. Slow to ripen, but they tasted nice; there just weren't that many of them. In past years Dean has had to go loaded down to the office to give them away because we had so many, but this year was just got enough to get by.

I had one notable success, though, and with a new plant that was an experiment: I tried growing Garden Huckleberries. I ordered the seeds from Dominion Seed House, even though I've never been one for starting anything from seed. But I tried it and found that they sprouted very quickly and were quite hardy, fast-growing plants. I put out a total of 8 plants in the garden and waited to see what would happen. Once the warm weather started, they grew very fast - by the end of the summer they were taller than me!

A few weeks ago, I decided the berries were looking black and shiny, so I picked a batch and followed the recipe given in the link above. It's true what they say, they have absolutely no flavor fresh at all - it's like eating hay. I also noticed that even though they'd grown through the net I'd put over them, no animals tried to eat the berries at all - the birds and the chipmunks left them completely alone (unlike our poor blueberries, which were stripped from the plant while they when they were just barely changing colour!)

The recipe is pretty easy to follow; my only problem was finding a non-reactive pan to cook them in, because of the baking soda. I don't know just what the baking soda does, but it must be some chemical reaction, because as the recipe says, as soon as I added it, the liquid turned a fantastic lime green! I think kids would really enjoy participating in a cooking project of this sort; the bright green foam is very unexpected.

Then I rinsed off the berries, added the sugar and lemon juice, and sure enough, it turned into a lovely dark purple pie filling/ dessert topping that does taste a lot like blueberries!

I'm going to try this again next year. Oh, and the plants are VERY prolific producers - I've frozen 8 pies so far, and gave away one, while the plant is still going strong in the garden. It's even producing new flowers, even though the frost is going to kill it off in a few weeks. It seems to be similar in growth habit to an indeterminate cherry tomato plant - it just goes and goes until the frost.