Wednesday, August 31, 2011

September: Hot Tomatoes!

Is there any better time of year in Niagara than September? Well, maybe warm days in May or a beautiful snowy day in January, or…. Well, September is pretty darn nice. Just look at the Pelham Farmer’s Market (or any of Niagara’s many fresh markets), packed with fabulous produce that simply can’t be duplicated by imported stuff at any time of year.

It’s also the time when real foodies stock up on all that fresh produce to make sure that it lasts as long into the winter as possible by preserving, pickling, canning, drying, or freezing some of it. I have already frozen bags full of strawberries from last June and raspberries from July to use in my morning smoothies right through the year, and I have learned to can peaches (more about that in another column), but now is the time to put away beans and broccoli, peppers, and tomatoes for winter stews and sauces.

I slice some tomatoes into thick slices and dry them to the consistency of leather in my smoker (an oven at 140 degrees works just fine) to use on pizzas or in sauces all winter. Some I make into sauce or paste to freeze, and the rest I just freeze whole. If I’m making something where I don’t want to use the skin, I just drop the frozen tomato in hot water for a few seconds, and the skin slides off. Frozen plum or paste tomatoes are way better than canned.
And with tomatoes at their flavour peak, this is the time of year to indulge in some of our favorite tomato dishes. Here are some of the recipes we look forward to preparing when tomatoes really taste like tomatoes.

Pâtes au Pistou
Combine the following and serve over 1 lb. of freshly cooked pasta (I like linguine for this) to serve 4 to 6 people. Let the sauce sit for an hour to meld the flavours before serving.
5 diced tomatoes
¾ Cup shredded fresh basil
6 garlic cloves, minced
¾ Cup minced fresh parsley
½ Cup olive oil
1 ½ teaspoons of Herbes de Provence (a mix of thyme and oregano will do)
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Caprese Salad
This is a simple mix of thickly sliced tomatoes layered around the plate with slices of buffalo Mozzarella and drizzled with freshly chopped basil, a little good Balsamic vinegar and olive oil, and a sprinkle of sea salt. A nice variation is to use tomato chunks mixed with baby bocconcini along with the oil, basil, and Balsamic.

…and our all-time favorite, a rich and decadent recipe that has wowed whomever Valerie prepared it for from our friends in the South of France (who now serve it themselves and call it “the Canadian pasta”!) to friends in our backyard:

Tomato and Brie Pasta
4 large tomatoes cut into cubes
1 lb Brie, skin removed, torn into chunks
1 Cup fresh basil, cut into strips
3 (or more) garlic cloves, minced
1 Cup olive oil
Combine these ingredients at least two hours before serving and leave them covered at room temperature until the pasta is ready. Cook 1 to 1 ½ pounds of pasta (bowtie, fettucine, linguine, they all work) and as soon as it’s done, combine it with the sauce. Toss thoroughly and serve with freshly ground pepper.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

August: Barbecue Season

The barbecue season has been a long time coming in 2011. A wet, cool spring with only a few warm days into June really wasn’t very conducive to backyard dining or cooking. However, with the merciful end to the hockey season in June, we began to experience something more like summer, and since early last month, the smell of grilled food once again wafts across the neighbourhood. Barbecue season: a celebration of local foods, cooked and eaten by gatherings of friends and family… the essence of Slow Food.

The main event in Slow Food Pelham’s summer calendar is a barbecue: the Featherstone Lamb Roast in late August or early September. That’s when our members gather to put on a feast for themselves and guests and anyone else who likes slow cooked lamb on a spit accompanied with all the local bounty our region produces. Featherstone Winery near Vineland uses lambs to thin the grape leaves on their vines, thus exposing the grapes to the sun and insuring faster, more complete ripening for their award winning wines. It also produces succulent, grape leaf-fed lamb. This will mark the fourth year that Slow Food Pelham has worked with Louise Engel and Dave Johnson of Featherstone to provide this tasty feast on the very convivial wrap-around verandah of their winery home.

The key to roasting a whole lamb is the barbecue. It must be big enough to cover the entire spitted lamb and must have a motorized rotisserie to turn the lamb evenly over the coals. Oh, I know a hand-turned rotisserie is more traditional, but I have seen too many instances of meat burned on one side and undercooked on the other because the cook became distracted or was enjoying his rosé too much and didn’t turn the spit consistently. We are very fortunate to have on loan Michael and Anna Olson’s personal barbecue, a magnificent monster converted from an old oil tank. The charcoal is suspended over the bottom of the tank on a steel grid, and the large lid can be pulled over the turning lamb to keep the heat in for quicker and more even cooking. The device is so large that we can cook pans of local potatoes and onions under the turning lamb, basting them with the juice from the lamb as they cook.

Daniel Boudin and I are the designated chefs, and over the three years we have been roasting the lamb, we have developed our technique. We cook the lamb for about 3 ½ hours, regulating the temperature by adding or spreading the charcoal underneath it, and testing with an instant-read thermometer at frequent intervals. During cooking, we baste with olive oil that has several garlic cubes submerged in it, and use a brush made of rosemary twigs to do the basting. When we prepare the lamb, we stuff it with rosemary and garlic cloves before sewing it up and inserting the spit. The potatoes go on about 2 hours before serving and are nicely crisped and brown on the outside but still light and fluffy on the inside if we get it just right. The lamb is carved at the table, and served with the onions and potatoes, salads, vegetables, home-made desserts prepared by other members of our little group, cheeses from Chez Fromage Etc. (now in Fonthill), and, of course, Featherstone wines. It is a wonderful celebration of summer and of the barbecue.

This year’s Pelham Slow Food barbecue at Featherstone Winery is September 10. Contact the President of Slow Food Pelham, Renée Girard at if you are interested in attending… but seats are very limited, as we try to keep the event as intimate and convivial as possible.