Monday, September 6, 2010

You say "tomAYto", and I say to hell with it...

I could blame the late, soggy, cold spring, the too few really hot days we had this summer, or just the conjunction of Jupiter and Mars. Whatever. Tomatoes hate me this year. Here it is, the second week of September, and I have had, count 'em, exactly three ripe tomatoes out of a tomato patch the size of southern Saskatchewan and the approximate density of mid-town Manhattan. Grr... That averages out to about $75 a pound for mediocre specimens.

And yes, I'm taking it personally. Yesterday my friend Jane filled a small gunny sack with luscious, ripe, red cherry tomatoes from her garden, and handed them over to me with the same smug aplomb with which most gardeners unload their over-abundance of zucchini on the unsuspecting. Our other gardening friends, the Meyers, will be munching on fresh tomatoes hot out of their garden until Thanksgiving. My canning shelf reveals that last summer I had such a glut of the stuff that I was making tomato chutney in mid-August. So the only conclusion I can draw is that this year the tomato gods have it in for me. Next year I'll try to appease them by sacrificing a virgin bunny rabbit (of which we do have an abundance, though I'm not so sure about the 'virgin' part).

Never mind - we live about 15 short klicks away from the most amazing greengrocer in the Lower Mainland. Their tomatoes are not only plentiful, they're organic, and they're cheap. An investment of about $12 buys you a 20 lb. case of gorgeous, plump plum tomatoes, suitable for sauces, salads, or, our favourite - smoking. So that's my solution to this year's home-grown shortage - spent one gloriously near-fall afternoon last week tantalizing the neighbours with a three-hour binge of smoking tomatoes.

Here's how we do it: Wash and cut the tomatoes in half, discarding the seeds. Spread them, cut side up, in a single layer on the smoking racks. Sprinkle with kosher salt and maybe some fresh rosemary or sage. Meanwhile, set your smoker (or an ordinary covered grill works well, too) to a low heat - we kept ours at about 200°F - and add your choice of wood chips. We used mesquite this year, but only because that's what we had on hand. We have had fine results with hickory, alder, and applewood in the past.

The result is that we now have a year's supply of smoky heaven. Cut up and tossed into a hearty soup or pasta sauce, they add a depth of flavour similar to prosciutto or double-smoked bacon. They're the base for addictive appetizers, topped, for instance, with a generous pinch of gorgonzola and popped under the broiler for a minute. And nothing, but nothing, in my opinion, makes a better topping for a simple pizza.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Dancing to the beat

I have a love/hate relationship with blackberries. I love the juicy ripe fruit. I especially love hauling out my last bag of hard-won berries in the middle of December, then baking them into a pie, or throwing together a microwave jam, and then feeling the blast of their tart/sweet juice washing in my mouth. I don't even mind dislodging the seeds from my teeth - I figure it's a small price to pay for that taste that still carries hints of a warm August evening spent fighting the brambles, the birds, and an occasional wasp for the precious ruby berries.

But I hate when the blackberries decide to make good on their threat of world domination, and I have to do battle, armed only with pruning shears, heavy work gloves, and a long-handled rake. Those brambles fight back, and they are vicious. I have scars to prove it.

So this morning is bright, warm, and glorious. And the brambles are taunting me, calling my name, daring me to usurp them. And I had to take up the challenge. This time, though, I have a secret weapon: my iPod. My iPod knows me better than I know myself. It knows that if I'm in the mood for some Alison Krause and Robert Plant, I might just as easily want to hear some Bach next, then maybe Keith Jarrett's long piano riff on his Köln album. This morning, as I swung my shears wildly off in all directions, my iPod decided I needed to listen to some flamenco guitar - Bola Sete at the Monterey Jazz Festival, to be precise. Perfection! Great guitar, infectious energy, a brilliant sun-dappled morning, grass still damp and cool with dew, and newly-honed blades on my scimitar (er, pruning shears). Forgive me while I have an El Cid moment...

Friday, May 7, 2010

Shameless self-promotion

In this month's Eat Magazine

Adventures with food

So our foodie friend Jonathan managed to score a multi-week sojourn in Vancouver. His visit is work-related, so his company is putting him up in a high rise overlooking Coal Harbour, and providing him with a daily stipend. What to do, what to do -- or more importantly, where to eat? Hmmm...

Jonathan lives in Manhattan, is a world traveller (it's his job, poor SOB!), and is an accomplished cook and enthusiastic epicurean, so it's not like he's looking for the nearest McDonald's, or even The Keg. This makes recommending places to indulge his appetite and interests a bit of a challenge. Fortunately, Vancouver has advanced several degrees beyond the days when our dining choices extended to Hy's Steak House, White Spot, and a couple or three chow mein palaces . We've steered him towards Japadog, located handily enough just outside his office tower, and he's found Robson St.'s izakaya scene all on his own. He's also been smart enough to post on Chowhound, and has a wealth of recommendations from the local foodie community. So we're pretty certain our lad won't waste away here in the hinterlands, though he reports that the prices we pay for domestic plonk came as a rude shock.

To date, our main contribution to his culinary education has been to take him to 12B, a mystery venue, where Chef Todd (sorry, no more precise identity is available, though judging by the quality of food presented, he is no stranger to professional kitchens) prepares highly imaginative, intricate food for small batches of diners who bring their own wine.

It's a long story, but our group of ten were mostly strangers to us, though not to each other. This caused an interesting moment or two, given that our host is healthily paranoid, given the iffy legal status of his enterprise. Nevertheless, by the end of the evening we were all chatting happily away, sharing wine and impressions of the evening as though we had known each other for our entire lives. By the middle of the next day, we had exchanged emails and promises to do this together again. And that is the magic of good food shared in compatible surroundings with similarly-minded folk. The community that is formed is somewhat more than the sum of its parts.

Tomorrow we get to expose our friend to the delicacy that is poutine, as prepared by the fine Quebecois chef at La Belle Patate, followed up by drinks at the Sylvia Hotel. Environment Canada promises us sunshine and warmth. Is there any better way to while away a Saturday afternoon? It may not be Manhattan, but it is Vancouver!

yes, well...

So it's been a few months since I posted. It's not like there's anyone reading this, after all.