Friday, 30 March 2012

Making Jam and Jelly the Easy French Way

If you've never made preserves before, there are a few products available in most French grocery stores that make it a synch.

Before I discovered them, I was a jam purist, using only sugar, high heat, and the natural pectin in fruits to obtain the proper consistency in my preserves.  On a whim, I whipped up a batch of marmalade with one of them called Confisuc, and I've been using it ever since. 

These specialized products are a combination of gelling agent and sugar and I think they make a better jam or jelly simply because they reduce the cooking time to mere minutes.   With this short cooking time, the full, fresh, intense flavour of the fruit really stands out.

French companies St Louis and Béghin Say, and  German company Dr Oetker,  each make products that are a combination of a gelling agent and sugar.  All you need to do is add the correct amount of fruit and cook the mixture for a few minutes according to recipes that you'll find on their websites. 

St Louis makes 3 products under their special line called, Confisuc.  Special Gellée is for making jelly, Special Abricots is for making Apricot jam and Special Confitures is for making jam with all other fruits.  Each of these products is a combination of sugar and pectin as a gelling agent.

Béghin Say  has three products under their Special Confitures label, two are for making jellies, one with white sugar and one with brown, and a third, Allégées, is specially formulated so you can reduce the amount of sugar you use by 30%. They also have a great web site with recipes for almost every fruit imaginable.

Dr Oetker makes 4 products. Two are a mixture of sugar and gelling agent:  Fruttina Extra to make reduced sugar jams, and Fruttina Fraise, specially formulated for making strawberry jam.  Their two other products are packets of gelling agents lfiant Priz Classique made with apple pectin and Gélfiant Priz Extra to make jams with a reduced amount of sugar.

The final product is Vitpris  by Alsa which is a mixture of pectin, dextrose, and citric acid. It's basically the French version of the North American pectin products made by Certo or Bernardin.  You can also use Vitpris to make pâtes de fruits so I always keep a box of it on hand in case I find something interesting at the market or in the garden.  They also include a nifty little recipe book with each box.

Now that you've found some great fruit, bought your jelling product and have your croissants all ready to go, you'll need some jars.  I always buy mine in Italy at the Supermercato Conad in Latte.  They sell pretty Bormioli Rocco Quattre Stagioni preserving jars in different sizes and at a good price to boot!

With spring finally here and so many fabulous fruits on the way, why not whip up a few jars of home made jam to slather on your morning baguette and share with friends?

Give it a go!

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Mandarin Orange Curd Tartelettes

Remember the all those fabulous Mentonnaise mandarins I rescued recently from my neighbour's garden?  Well this afternoon I locked myself in the kitchen, sun streaming in,  to  create a few recipes with them.  Happy work indeed!

These little tartelettes are filled with a tangy, creamy curd made with fragrant, perfumed Mentonnaise mandarins and lemons.  If you're lucky enough to get your hands on some, this recipe will do them justice although mineolas and tangerines work well too.  Either way, I think these have a pleasing balance of sweet and sour, and aren't so rich that you wouldn't reach for a second one.

To concentrate the flavour of the mandarins, you'll boil the juice gently to reduce it by half and then add the lemon juice.


Mandarin Orange Curd Tartelettes

Makes 9 Tartelettes

Fine grater
9 -  3" (7½ cm) Fluted tart tins
Round cookie cutter, 4" (10cms)
Rolling pin
Medium sized, fine sieve
Small fine sieve

(Pâte sucrée)
100g cold, unsalted butter
70g icing sugar
200g all purpose flour, sifted
⅛ teaspoon salt
2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon milk

Mandarin Curd (makes 14oz (400ml))
2 tablespoons(22g)  lemon juice (about 1/2 lemon)
1 cup mandarin juice (225g), about 12
Fine zest of one lemon 
2 teaspoons mandarin  zest
1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon (112g) granulated sugar
2 teaspoons(4g) corn starch
4 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons (26g) cream
4 tablespoons (57g) unsalted butter at room temperature
Pinch of salt

2 teaspoons (4g) icing sugar OR
1 cup (250ml) lightly sweetened whipped cream

1. Put the tart tins in the refrigerator to chill.

Prepare the pastry
1.  Mix together the egg yolks and milk.  Set aside.
2.  Using your hands or a food processor, mix the butter, salt, and icing sugar together until well mixed. There shouldn't be any lumps of butter visible.  If you're using your hands, work quickly so you don't melt the butter.  The final mixture will be a thick paste.
3. Add the flour and mix gently or pulse a few times.  Add the egg yolk and milk mixture and mix until just incorporated.  Do not overwork the dough or it will become tough.  Knead once or twice to bring the mixture together. 
 4.  Form the dough into a flat disc, wrap in plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator to rest while you prepare the curd.

Prepare the Curd
1.  In a saucepan over medium heat, boil the mandarin juice gently to reduce it to 1/2 cup.  This should take about 10 minutes.  Pour the reduced mixture into a bowl,  then add  the lemon juice and the zests.
2.  Place the medium sized, fine sieve over a medium bowl and set aside.  In a medium saucepan, mix the egg yolks, sugar, salt, corn starch and cream.  Add the juice mixture and stir well.
3.  In a medium bowl over simmering water, the mixture stirring constantly until thick and translucent. Remove from the heat and pour  the curd through the fine sieve into a bowl.
4.  Add the butter in small pieces and stir until melted.  Press some plastic wrap directly on the top of the curd and refrigerate.

Prepare and pre-bake the tart shells
1.  Lightly flour your work surface and pin and roll out the pastry dough to about 3mm thick.
2.  Using your cookie cutter, make about 9-10 circles. Gently press each of the circles into the tart tins, trim any overage and refrigerate them for at least 1/2 hour.
3.   Preheat the oven to 360°F(185°C)
4.   Prick the dough on the bottom of each pastry shell a few times.  Line each with foil or parchment and fill with baking weights.  Arrange them on a cookie sheet. 
5.   Bake the shells for 15 minutes, then remove them from the oven, remove the foil and baking weights, and return them to the oven  for another 5-8 minutes until golden brown.  Remove and set aside to cool.
6.  One at a time, flip them over onto your hand and very gently squeeze the sides of each of the tart tins.  They should pop out easily.  Set them aside

1.  Stir the curd a bit to soften it.  Spoon the curd into each of the tart shells, placing each onto a cookie sheet as you go.  Refrigerate for at least 1/2 hour.

1.  Put the icing sugar in the fine sieve and tap it gently to evenly dust top of the tarts.   Arrange them on a serving plate.  These tarts are also great with a dollop of whipped cream on top.

  • Don't over mix the pastry dough, your tart shells will be tough.
  • Keep an eye on the mandarin juice when you're reducing it.  It can go from ready to syrupy and overcooked in a few minutes.  Set a timer at 5 minute intervals just to be sure!
  • Because there is corn starch in the curd mixture, you can cook it directly on the stove instead of a double boiler but  you should still keep an eye on it though - if it boils it will still curdle.
  • Refrigerating your tart tins will make it easier to line with dough.
  • Tea pairing:  an aged Pu'er goes well with these tarts and balances out the acidity of the curd quite nicely.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Rescuing Mandarins

Here in Menton, France, the mandarin oranges are literally falling from above and landing with a splat on the street in front of my neighbour's house, right across from the front door of our weekend hide away.  Judging from the ugly pile of them, this has been happening for the past week.

I don't know about you, but food being wasted troubles me, especially when the food is Mentonnaise mandarins, for goodness sake, some of the most fragrant, sweet and delicious citrus grown here. 

Since our own mandarin trees produced hardly any fruit this year, I was especially disheartened to see so many of them smashed on the road, falling into the sewer and being run over by passing cars.

So this morning when I spotted two men in my neighbour's mandarin trees picking them and dropping them into buckets, I sprung into action.

"Could I buy some?"  I asked.  "Yes," came the reply, their boss would be here soon and we could work out a deal with him.

About an hour later the Patron or boss came by in his truck, out came his scale, and he started weighing out the mandarins.

Well, thirty euro  later, 10kg of luscious, perfumed mandarins were all mine but once we hauled the crates into our hallway I was a bit concerned.   With the 5 or so kg extra that he'd thrown in, this was a lot of mandarins!  I guess I'll be spending the next few days making all things mandarin.

Despite the mandarins' fabulous taste they're full of seeds so peeling and eating them takes a bit of effort and lots of seed spitting.

Out of necessity comes action so off we dashed to the supermarket in Latte to buy preserving jars and sugar.

What doesn't go into the preserving pan I'll use to make hubby's morning juice, some mandarin sorbet, and some pâte de fruits for friends. 

It looks like my "waste not want not" mandarin rescue mission is turning out to be a lot of work!

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Pass the Whipped Cream, Les Gariguettes sont Arrivées!

Ahhh... Spring in the South of France...  

Just about the time the Mimosa have stopped  propelling pollen everywhere, coating everything in a fine yellow dust and sending everyone to the Pharmacie for allergy meds, Les Gariguettes are making their first appearance on the scene.  Rejoice!

Today was my first heavenly taste of this season's Gariguette de Plougastel from Plougastel-Daoulas in Brittany.  I remember the first time I ate them.  I couldn't believe my mouth, it being accustomed to the hardy Canadian, Spanish or American varieties.  It was a revelation at the time, as though someone turned up an invisible strawberry flavour knob.

I've been buying them for years from the Place d'Armes Market in Monaco and my regular vendeuse smiles knowingly when I approach, euro in my hand like an addict seeking a fix.  "Ah, oui, les Gariguettes"... she purrs, placing them gently into a crinkly paper bag.  Sometimes they never make it as far as home.

In France, strawberries aren't just strawberries, they have names, and deservedly so.  My three favourite are the Gariguette, which appear from March until June, the Ciflorette which straddle the Gariguette season and linger until July, and the sweet little Mara des Bois which hit the scene in April and May and are available into October. Many French producers now use greenhouses to manipulate the growing season and to ensure reliable growing conditions and thank goodness for that!

The Gariguette are a balanced mix of sweet and sour with a slightly perfumed finish and a soft texture that yields in the mouth.  In fact you can eat them by using only your tongue to break them up.  This brings me comfort because when I am really, really old and have no teeth I'll still be able to enjoy them. 

Worth the price

Years ago, I passed bowls of Gariguette as hors d'oeuvres at a cocktail party  with only whipped cream as an accompaniment and friends are still talking about them to this day.

How do you tell a Gariguette apart from the others?  First is the price.  At 32 per kilo or about €5-6 per pint when they first appear it's a bit of a shock to the system but thankfully they become cheaper later in the season.  Not that I wouldn't think twice about paying full pop for them and eat them all like a little piggy.

Some of the best Gariguette are often sold individually so you can buy as many as you can afford.  I like the ones I buy in the outdoor markets with in little pint sized wooden baskets lined with pink tissue.  Peel back the tissue and voila! There they are, slightly elongated, orange-red, and very shiny.  Each berry is conveniently topped with a calyx that stands straight up like a little hat, so you can pinch it like a handle and bite the fruit into your mouth.

You can often find Gariguettes by larger producers such as  Rougeline in your local supermarket.   Just look for the proud producer's face on the box, eating strawberries, making you jealous.

It's rare to find these strawberries outside of France because they're so fragile and not meant to be shipped any distance.  This way the French get to keep them all to themselves.  How lucky are they?

They're best served at room temperature, all by themselves or with something creamy and simple like lightly sweetened whipped cream or fresh ricotta.

If you do ever find them where you live, buy them, run home, call your friends, and share them.  That is, of course, if you don't eat them all yourself.

They'll thank you.  

And if you didn't eat them all yourself, here are some recipes:

Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Castle Terrace Restaurant, Edinburgh

Chef Patron Dominic Jack, front row centre, choreographing the pass

Last Saturday night I dreamt of the circus.

Not the kind of circus with poodles jumping through hoops and pretty girls riding ponies around a ring but of  Le Cirque du Soleil with its sophisticated staging and awe inspiring acrobats performing stunts that leave you gasping for breath and wishing the show would never end.

I'm certain that  my dreams were inspired by dinner hours earlier at Edinburgh's  Castle Terrace Restaurant.
A spring sprout in toasted cumin earth

In October, Chef Patron Dominic Jack added a Michelin star to his trophy shelf, already  overflowing with nine other culinary awards so since we were in Edinburgh celebrating hubby's birthday, I insisted that we eat there.  I'm so glad that we did.  In fact, it was the highlight of our visit.

Wherever we travel, we love to dine in elegant restaurants but it's rare to find one with  decent vegetarian food.  So when we learned that along with its regular menu, Castle Terrace offered a vegetarian à la carte menu and a multi-course  vegetarian tasting menu, we could hardly wait to get there.

As it turned out, our dinner was even better than we'd hoped.  Chef Dominic combined several cooking techniques like Molecular gastronomy, sous vide and traditional French, deliciously and unpretentiously.   This was quite a treat for demanding vegetarians like hubby and I.  Oh, and for a few more pounds, they would have paired each course with wine.  How fabulous is that?

Our humble thanks go to Chef Dominic's sister and mother, both vegetarians, whom he told us inspired him to offer vegetarian options. 

If I had to sum it up in one sentence, the dinner was a  mix of delicious seasonal and local food, creatively and passionately prepared, served with skill in sophisticated, and  soothing surroundings.

And even with his brilliant credentials and a busy dining room, Chef Dominic was incredibly down to earth and generous with his time,  showing us his well stocked wine cellar and then inviting us to sit at his chef's table while we watched his harmonious kitchen in action and sipped Lemoncello.  It was an unexpected and unforgettable evening for the birthday boy, me, and our guest Alex too.

What more could you ask for?

I can hardly wait to return.

Ravioli of fresh herbs and Highland Crowdie cheese


Sunday, 4 March 2012

The Farmers' Market at Tai Po 大埔農墟

It's no secret that I can't resist a farmers' market.  

Wherever I travel in the world I search them out like a ferret.   It doesn't matter how difficult they are to reach and all the complications of figuring out how to get there in a foreign language.  These little journeys always become memorable adventures and as always the farmers are dedicated and passionate, generous with their time and patient with us when we don't speak the same language which more often than not, we don't.

During our annual visit to Hong Kong last week, off hubby and I went on a Sunday, fearlessly in search of the Tai Po Farmers' Market, armed with just a map and an Octopus Card. After a subway ride, a short train ride, and an interesting 10 minute walk, we arrived at the charming Tai Po Organic Farmer's Market, founded in 2005.

Compared to North America, Organic Farmers' Markets in Hong Kong are small and not well known. The FVMCS or Hong Kong's Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department provides resources for those wishing to convert their current farms to organic ones but according to the FVMCS, there are only 184 farms engaged in organic farming practices.  Remarkably few for a region the size of Hong Kong.

Fanny-Min Becker and Steven Ma
Most of the organic produce you'll see in Hong Kong is in speciality sections of larger food shops, the biggest of which I found at ThreeSixty in the stunning Landmark Mall.

Katherine Ho and her entertaining neighbour
But for me, the best thing about a farmers' market is getting to speak directly with the producers and soaking in their passion.  Of course, finding some interesting products is a plus.

The Tai Po market had about 20 booths with products ranging from wine, breads, dry goods, cosmetics, fruits and vegetables.
After wandering around a bit, we met a charming woman, Fanny-Min Becker and spoke with her about her company, FM International Resources, and her personal journey that brought her to where she was now, all in flawless English.

That day she was showcasing Fair Trade products from Kablon Farms of the Philippines.  We bought some of her interesting, Pure Tablea organic chocolate made from fermented cocoa beans and some Pure Coconut Nectar both of which I'll be playing with in the kitchen.

We next met Katherine Ho of Cheer Land Company, importer of organic French wine Puig-Parahÿ from near the Spanish border.  She spoke English well which of course we really appreciated.
Apple Tsang

Her neighbour was both effusive and entertaining and he told us in his few limited words of English about a cousin of his who visited Banff. He also had some excellent strawberries and sweet carrots which I bought and ate on the spot, crunching away while we looked at the other booths.

Not far from Katherine, we met Apple Tsang who had some beautiful vegetables and beets which I would have bought had I had a kitchen.

The highlight of the visit for us was speaking to Katherine, Apple, and Fanny who made the trip worthwhile and memorable.  

Next time we visit Hong Kong, I think I'll bring them a few organic gifts from our part of the world... 

Tai Po Farmers' Market
Tai Wo Road
Tai Po, Hong Kong
9-5PM, Sundays

Koi soap

Little mandarin oranges