Sunday, 29 April 2012

Raw Artichoke Salad with Arugula and Parmesan

If you've ever visited the French Cote d'Azur or Italy's Ligurian coast, you may have seen on local menus a salad called, Carciofi Crudi, Rucola e Parmigiano, otherwise known as Raw Artichoke, Arugula and Parmesan Salad.  Its modest title doesn't really do it justice.

The star of the salad is raw épine or spiny artichokes that are available locally in the fall and spring. To make this salad, their tender interiors are finely sliced and seasoned simply with lemon juice, olive oil, and salt, scattered on top of fresh arugula, then topped with a liberal snowfall of shaved Parmesan.  My friend Meghan and I like this salad so much that whenever we dine in Italy, we always ask if the chef can whip one up for us even if it's not on the menu!

Even though artichokes generally take a bit of effort to prepare and the épine variety are particularly dangerous because of their sharp spikes, don't let that discourage you.  I've posted detailed, step-by-step simple instructions for you to follow.  Of course if you aren't able to find the épine artichokes, but you can find other local ones, by all means use those!
For this recipe, I like to use St Michel olive oil from Menton. I find that something magic happens to your taste buds when it's mixed with lemon juice.  If you can't find St Michel olive oil, just use any Ligurian olive oil you can find with a prominent, fruity taste.  Ardoino Fructus is a good one.

I hope you make this salad.  For me, it captures the true essence of Liguria.

Raw Artichoke, Arugula, and Parmesan Salad

Serves 4

Sharp knife
24-month old Parmesan.
Melon baller
Vegetable peeler
Salad spinner
Mandoline or Microplane shaving maker

6 cups (75g) arugula
8 Epine artichokes
1 tablespoon lemon juice (about 1/2 lemon) plus 6 wedges
2 tablespoons olive oil
Few pinches of fleur de sel
120g of 24 month old Parmesan for shaving, about 30g per person or enough to make about 1/2 cup of shavings per person.

1. Wash and spin your arugula. Place in the refrigerator to crisp up.
Microplane shaving maker

2. Make the dressing.  In a large bowl, combine the juice from one half lemon, 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and a few pinches of fleur de sel.  Mix a bit and set aside.

As you slice them, add them to the bowl of dressing and toss to coat. This will keep them from oxidising and turning brown.  Repeat with the remaining artichokes.  You can add more lemon juice and oil if you find the slices are not being coated thoroughly.  Set aside.

Assembly and Finishing
Try one of the artichoke slices and adjust the seasoning if needed.

Sliced artichokes mixed with olive oil and lemon juice
Divide the arugula between the four plates.  Squeeze a bit of lemon juice over the leaves and drizzle them with olive oil.  Arrange the artichokes in the middle of the arugula and sprinkle with Parmesan.  Serve with a wedge of lemon on the side of each plate.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Earn Danger Pay. How to Trim a Spiny Artichoke

The spring épine artichokes are hitting the markets in Liguria and they're a seasonal treat not to be missed!  I admit they aren't the friendliest looking things, more like something a Klingon would eat, but don't let that put you off.  Knowing how to prepare them is really quite empowering.

As a public service, throughout the markets in Italy you'll find burly men wielding sharp knives, skilfully removing the tough, spiky outer leaves, rubbing the half naked remains with a lemon and then with one quick stroke, "swoosh!" - off goes the stalk!  Nice thing is there's no extra charge and it sure makes transporting them a lot safer.

Even if you've brought home some trimmed ones, they'll still need more preparation before they're edible.   Unlike most artichokes, épines are fabulous eaten raw and the best part is their soft, tender centre leaves and heart.

They're the star of one of my favourite traditional Ligurian salads, Carciofi Crudi, Rucola e Parmigiano or Raw Artichoke, Arugula and Parmesan Salad.

I often wonder who the first brave person was who looked at these artichokes and said, "Hmm, maybe we can eat these!"  Whomever it was, he or she must have been either extraordinarily courageous, voraciously hungry, or both.

So sharpen your knives, take a few deep breaths and let's get to it!

A hazardous job!

First, take a deep breath and face your prey

Begin by pulling off the tough outer leaves. Be careful - the spikes are sharp and really hurt.
Cut the stalk from the head.  Set the stalk aside.
Use a vegetable peeler and peel the lower part of the head where it meets the stalk.  Peel it enough to make it smooth.  Rub lemon around the entire artichoke when you've finished peeling it. 

Trim the spikes off of the tip of the artichoke
Slice it in half.  Rub each half with lemon.
Use a melon baller and scoop out the furry bit.  That's the choke.
Scrape the melon baller down towards the tip to remove some of the innermost leaves that still have spiky ends.
Trim the tip a bit more if you see more spikes. If you are going to eat the artichoke raw, bite into one of the outer leaves.  If it seems too fibrous to eat, pull off a few more leaves until you reach ones that are more tender.
I'm preparing these for an Carciofi Crudi, Rucola e Parmigiano salad otherwise known as Raw Artichoke, Arugula and Parmesan Salad so I flipped the cut side down and sliced them thinly.  At this point you can place them in acidulated water if you're using them in a different recipe.
To prepare the stalks, use your vegetable peeler to remove the fibrous outer layer.
Halve the peeled stalk and cut it into pieces.
Here are the finished artichokes coated with lemon and olive oil, ready for the Artichoke, Arugula and Parmesan Salad.

There!  You've graduated from artichoke school. Brave, fearless you!

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Stelline and Peas. Risotto for the Busy Girl

When I host my non-foodie friends for dinner chez-nous, sometimes they ask me how I made the dish they're enjoying. More often than not, their eyes glaze over in the middle of my explanation.  Then they tell me they could never make it themselves because they don't have the time nor the skill to cook, please pass the salad.  Seems strange to me but there you go!

Here then, is a simple, delicious, and easy to make dish for all my busy, dear friends. 

Stelline and Peas.  Risotto for the Busy Girl

Serves 4 as a main course, 6 as a side dish

8 cups (2 litres) vegetable stock or or stock made with good quality vegetable broth cubes 
3/4 cup (135g) Stelline or Orzo shaped pasta
1 cup (135g) fresh shelled peas (about 250g in the pod)
1/2 cup (121g) whole milk
1 tablespoon (14g) butter
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chives 
1 tablespoon of fruity olive oil for drizzling
Fresh ground pepper
Parmesan for shaving
Optional:  arugula

A Microplane grater is really useful for making Parmesan shavings 

1.  In a large saucepan, boil the stock, salt well, and add the pasta.  Take note of the cooking time on the pasta package and subtract two minutes.  Set a timer for this time.  For example, the recommended cooking time for Barilla Stelline is 7 minutes.  You should set your  timer for 5.
2.  While the pasta is cooking, put the butter and milk in a medium saucepan.
3.  When your timer rings, add the peas to the water with the pasta. Boil for one minute.  Drain the pasta and peas and add it to the medium saucepan containing the milk and butter.
4.  Stir the mixture on medium heat, until the milk thickens a bit and creates a light sauce.  Add more milk if you'd like a more sauce.  Adjust seasoning.
5.  Spoon the pasta into warmed individual bowls, top with the chopped chives, freshly grated pepper, shaved Parmesan and drizzle with fruity olive oil.  If you're using arugula, arrange the leaves on top of each dish.

1.  I recommend you buy peas from Farmers' Markets where they are freshly picked.  Always ask to taste them before you buy.  If they're fresh, the pods should squeak when you rub them together.  One day after picking, they lose their subtle flavour and sweetness and the texture begins to change from tender to tough.

2.  As a rough estimate, you'll need two pounds of pods to get one pound of peas.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Fresh Pea, Fava, and Asparagus Risotto. Spring on a Plate.

I just love fresh peas. When they're just off the vine, they're a sweet, tender and sublime spring gift.

At this time of year I just can't get enough of them and it seems that this isn't going unnoticed.  On Thursday when I was queuing in the Monaco Market to pay for my third kilo of peas in the same week, my favourite vendeuse, Romy, asked me "encore Jennifer?!"  Busted!  I think she was hinting that I leave some for her other customers.

Looks like I'm not alone in my passion for peas.

The first time I saw them elevated to the gourmet status they rightly deserve was while dining at the two Michelin starred restaurant at  l'Hostellerie Jérome in the charming village of La Turbie, France.  Chef Bruno Cirino offered them to us in small dishes, raw and unadorned, as the first of several amuse bouche.  I thought it was brilliant.

Last summer I was sampling some of the season's first peas at Ottawa's Main Farmers' Market and next to me was a sweet little boy of about 4 doing the same.  After tasting a few, he held out his hand towards the vendor and offered to buy some with 3 rocks and a penny.  My heart filled with joy.

I think this recipe for risotto captures the fresh flavour of peas and the joys of spring!

Fresh Pea, Fava and Asparagus Risotto

Serves 4 as a main course or 6 as a side dish.


1 cup (150g) fresh spring peas (about 300g of pods)
3/4 cup (75g) asparagus cut into 1" pieces (about 6 short spears)
Pea purée, peeled fava beans, leeks and asparagus
1/2 cup (70g) shelled fava beans (about 16 large pods)
1/2 cup (65g) finely chopped leeks or spring onion, white part only
3/4 cup (120g) Arborio or Carnaroli rice
1 teaspoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cups vegetable stock, simmered with 1/4 cup basmati or Arborio or Carnaroli rice (see "Stock Tips" below)
1/3 cup (75g) dry white wine
1/3 cup (20g) grated Parmesan
2 teaspoons shredded basil
2 teaspoons fresh finely chopped chives
1 tablespoon of fruity olive oil
Small handful of arugula as garnish (optional)

1. Prepare an ice bath for blanching your vegetables:  fill a medium bowl half way with ice and add cold water until the ice starts to float.  Set aside

2. Blanch the vegetables one by one.  Start with the asparagus.  Boil in salted water for   one minute.  Remove with a slotted spoon and place in the ice bath.   After a few minutes in the ice bath, scoop them out and set aside in a bowl.  Repeat with the fava beans, 30 seconds, then the peas for 30 seconds. 

3.  Peel the fava beans and set aside.

4. Reserve a few tablespoons of peas and purée the remaining ones.  Add a bit of water if necessary to achieve a smooth paste.

5. Heat your vegetable stock in a saucepan and maintain on a simmer. 

6. Melt the oil and butter in a large saucepan.  Add the onion or leek and sauté on medium heat until soft.  Add the Arborio or Carnaroli rice and stir for about one minute.  Add the wine and stir until evaporated.  Add about 1/2 cup of stock and stir the Risotto until the liquid has evaporated.  Add another half cup of stock.  Stir.  Keep adding the stock, a half cup at a time, stirring after each addition until the rice is cooked to "al dente."  If you run out of stock you can use boiling water.

7. Add the asparagus, fava beans, whole peas, pea purée and basil and stir to heat through.

8. Turn off the heat, add the Parmesan, and stir vigorously.  You can also add a teaspoon or two of butter at this stage if you wish.  Adjust the seasoning.

9. Spoon the risotto onto heated plates and garnish with the arugula, chives, and drizzle with the fruity olive oil.

Stock Tips
1.  If you'd like your risotto to be really creamy, add 1/4 cup of Basmati , Arborio or Carnaroli rice to your stock  and simmer for 20 minutes before you strain it. 

If you're using vegetable broth cubes to make a stock, add some chopped carrots, celery, onion, parsley, the rice and some whole peppercorns.  Simmer for 20-30 minutes and strain.  This will enrich your stock and give it  a fresher flavour.

1.  I recommend you buy peas from Farmers' Markets where they are freshly picked.  Always ask to taste them before you buy.  If they're fresh, the pods should squeak when you rub them together.  One day after picking, they lose their subtle flavour and sweetness and the texture begins to change from tender to tough.

2.  As a rough estimate, you'll need two pounds of pods to get one pound of peas.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Ariane. The French Apple with its own Ambassador.

As I do every spring, I start to feel a bit homesick for the "old country," which in my case is Canada, so I dug around the fruit keeper in my "frigo" for a taste of home:  my secret cache of McIntosh apples or "Macs" as they are affectionately called by Canadians.  I brought them back with me in December and I've been rationing them like Scrooge to make them last as long as I could.

I guess I'd eaten them all and not remembered because after a few minutes of digging, I came up empty handed.  I suspected hubby until his whereabouts were verified.

Just by chance when I was at our local Health Food shop the next day, I was cruising the produce section when I spotted some apples called, "Ariane" that looked a lot like McIntosh.  I filled a bag with a few, hoping that they tasted like a McIntosh as much as they looked like one.  

I adore McIntosh apples, especially in the fall when they're straight from the tree, all crisp and intense, acidic and sweet all at the same time.  Believe it or not, I've delayed our return to Monaco in the fall just so I could enjoy the McIntosh season in Canada!

Generally speaking, I find French apples too sweet and their taste for me at least, is a bit monotone.  When I do buy apples in France, more often than not, I reach for the Granny Smiths.

What a pleasant surprise when I tasted the Arianes and discovered that indeed, they are remarkably like a Mac!  They were  a bit sweeter than a Mac but they had a good balance of sweet to sour, crisp and delicious.

After devouring a few, they were small after all, I did a bit of research to learn more about them.

The Ariane apple was developed by French Company, Pomalia and was launched commercially in 2003.  It's claim to fame, besides it's excellent flavour, is that it's scab resistant and so can be grown more or less organically.

The Ariane is currently grown by 250 producers around France, primarily in the Loire Valley (in the west), the Monts du Lyonnais (to the east of central France), the Périgord and Tarn & Garonne (in the south-west), and Provence (in south- east).   In 2011, 20,000 tons of Arianes were grown.

The Ariane had its moment of glory this February when it was showcased at the annual Fruit Logistica tradeshow in Berlin where 2,400 fruit and vegetable producers from around the world gather to showcase their goodies.  The mind boggles.  I plan to go next year.

It seems I'm not alone in my appreciation for the Ariane apple.  Alain Baraton, Head Gardener of the Château de Versailles is Ariane's official ambassador.  You've got to love an apple with its own ambassador.

Well, with this sort of taste and pedigree, I think I've found a worthy replacement for the McIntosh.  At least until the fall.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Spring Comes to Liguria

Zucchini Blossoms.  I'm told they make fabulous tempura!
What with travelling, French train strikes, goofing around with friends, and other diversions, this Saturday was the first time I've been able to visit my favourite market in Ventimiglia since the beginning of April. 

Together with two of my most dedicated foodie friends we stuffed our wheeled carts with  insanely fresh artichokes, tomatoes, Parmesan, hazelnuts, and other spring goodies until the wheels were about to collapse.  Then we went for a lovely lunch in a restaurant I've been wanting to try and we talked about food.  A fabulous day by all accounts!

The spring season in Liguria is advancing fabulously as you can see from these photos. We're seeing asparagus everywhere, peas, fava beans, and the fabulous Merinda tomatoes from Sicily have made their début.   According to some vendors, very soon we shall have morels!

Spring turnips with skin like silk

Epine artichokes that are fabulous raw
Merinda tomatoes.  'Tis the season to make sauce

Friday, 13 April 2012

Edinburgh's Farmer's Market

It was cold, it was windy, and it looked like it was going to rain or snow any minute.  But that didn't stop me from checking out the Edinburgh Farmers' Market on our recent weekend getaway to Edinburgh.

Farmers' Markets are my catnip.

Every Saturday, rain or shine, The Market is held from 9:00-2:00 on Castle Terrace in down town Edinburgh with the impressive Edinburgh Castle looming in the background.

On the day we visited, there were about 30 vendors lining both sides of the street.  It was jam packed with customers despite the nasty weather.  Halfway along, shivering in the cold, I asked two local men  if the weather was typical for this time of year.  They laughed and replied that I mustn't be from Scotland.  Apparently it was considered a balmy, rather pleasant day by the natives. They were both wearing kilts.

Root vegetables, baked goods, breads, fruits, chocolates, meats, whisky, and excellent cheeses where on offer.  As always when I visit Farmers' Markets I wished I had a kitchen  in my hotel room so I could cook up and enjoy some of their products.

Whisky and oatmeal.  Who knew?
If I had to chose my favourite vendor, it would have to be the Stoats Hot Oatmeal stand where you could chose among 12 different flavours of hot oatmeal, "Balvenie Double Wood Whisky and Honey" being one of them. How cool is that?  I bought two boxes of their plain oats to enjoy at home.  Close second was the Standhill Cheese Stand where we sampled and bought some of their skilfully made, buttery cheeses.

Hubby's favourite was the Pig's Nose Whisky stand where curiously, he lingered for quite some time, tasting all that they had on offer.   We bought one of their mugs when he couldn't decide which of their whiskies he preferred.

A close second was The Chocolate Tree stand, specialists in hand crafted, organic chocolate, where we shared a  delicious, creamy hot chocolate.

After about an hour or so, we could take the cold no more and quickly made our way to the Scottish National Gallery to warm up and take in their fabulous collection.

I hope to visit Edinburgh's Farmers' Market again or hopefully another one of Scotland's Farmer's Markets but I  think I'll wait until the weather warms up!

The Edinburgh Castle as a backdrop
A wee dram on a cold day

Sophie and her smokin' squeeze box

The Chocolate Tree
Stoats' excellent oatmeal