Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Basketful of Vegetable Goodness

Living in a small, Canadian tourist town usually means few options for gourmet dining in the dead of winter.

We began cooking together mostly because we didn't think it was healthy to live on scrambled eggs and toast for long stretches of time. What began several years ago as a way to honour the hermit call of winter without going loopy has resulted in many evenings of fun and creativity and amazingly good food.

Mary and Chris at Ironwood Gardens have a beautiful, organic garden just outside of town. Every Saturday we pick up our baskets full of organic vegetable goodness at the tiny Farmer's Market on Pine Street. Beets, beans, greens, the most amazing garlic, leeks, the ever popular fennel, basil, tomatoes, berries and more.

This is the thing about vegetables: they turn funky if you don't eat them within a reasonable time frame.

This week we we were determined to make the best of our baskets. And we did. Our meal was so tasty that we wanted to share it with our Ironwood Gardens Basket cohorts. We took pictures midway through dinner when we came up with the idea of documenting our exceptionally successful endeavour. They didn't turn out. I know that my words are far more flattering to the food than the dark, blurry pictures I snapped. So, no pictures, but we hope that these recipes might inspire you to cook yummy dishes with your basket ingredients.

We have been cooking together for years and this meal was one of our best. Simple and good. The asterisks(*) indicate ingredients that were in this week's vegetable basket.

The Menu:
Slow Roasted Leg of Lamb with garlic herb rub
Roasted Fennel and Leeks with thyme and parmigiano
Sauteed yellow and purple beans
Red potatoes with olive oil, garlic and lemon
Simple green salad

The Recipes:

Slow Roasted Leg of Lamb
(This recipe is based on Nigel Slater's Spicy Slow Roast Lamb from his book, Kitchen Diaries.)

We eat lamb often. Ted Greenlees of Greenlees Meat on Bath Road usually has local lamb (in fact, most of his meat is local, organic, free range, all the good buzzwords). I've never gotten anything less than wonderful lamb from him. Plus, Ted and his wife, Teresa, are very friendly. Up until now my favourite lamb recipe is a boneless leg of lamb in pomegranate sauce. But tonight's lamb was better. Crispy, flavourful outside and fall away from the bone tender on the inside. The best.

a leg of lamb (about 5 lbs.)
1 large onion (or equivalent)*
4 cloves of garlic*
1 Tbsp. sea salt
a pinch of sweet paprika
1 Tbsp. cumin seeds
2 or 3 anchovies packed in oil (optional, adjust salt if using)
2 Tbs. olive oil
a thick slice of butter (optional)
1 cup water
*items from this week's Ironwood Gardens basket

Preheat oven to 300F.
Roughly chop peeled garlic cloves. Mash them together with the salt using a mortar and pestle (if you don't have a mortar and pestle you can mash them around in a bowl with either end of a wooden spoon). Add the paprika, cumin seeds, anchovies and thyme leaves. Mash a little more. Add oil slowly until the mash becomes a thick paste. Melt the butter and stir into the spice paste (I didn't use the butter and we didn't miss it).

Trim the lamb of excess fat. Put the lamb in a large casserole dish (I used an oval dutch oven. Nigel Slater says that a casserole with high sides works better than a shallow casserole). Rub the lamb with the spice paste. Scatter the chopped onions around the lamb and roast, uncovered, for 40 minutes.

Pour 1 cup water into the pan. Roast lamb for three hours or longer, basting it every 45 minutes with the juices that have collected. It's hard to overcook slow roasted lamb. It will be fall off the bone tender, especially if you baste it regularly.

Let lamb rest on a cutting board while you skim the fat off the top of the pan juices. Obviously, you will save the juice to spoon over the lamb.

Roasted Fennel and Leeks

If you like tender vegetables with crispy edges you will like this recipe. In my opinion the secret to great roasted fennel is slicing it thinly and then cooking it for a long time at a low heat with plenty of olive oil. I think that this recipe will turn just about anyone into a fennel lover.

4 cups thinly sliced fennel* and leeks*
2Tbsp. thyme
1/2 cup grated parmigiano
salt and pepper
olive oil
vermouth (optional)

Preheat oven to 300F or 325F.
Core and slice fennel. Wash leeks well. Quarter them lengthwise and then cut into 3 inch pieces. Sprinkle with thyme, salt and pepper. Add a couple of tablespoons vermouth or white wine (optional). Liberally dose with olive oil (if you don't use enough olive oil things burn unattractively). Sprinkle parmigiano on top. Bake in a slow oven for 45 minutes or longer, depending on how crispy you like things.

Sauteed Yellow & Purple Beans

This is a seat of the pants recipe. You just have to eyeball the ingredients. We used all of the beans that we had in our weekly basket, enough for 6 people, I'd say. By the way, do you love Mary and Chris' garlic as much as I do? It's hard necked garlic (I think that's what Chris told me). Most of the garlic we get in the supermarket comes from China now. It's amazing to me the difference between this wonderful garlic and the garlic that is available at the supermarket.

Yellow beans*
Purple beans*
Onions, finely chopped*
Olive oil, a good amount
1 clove of garlic*
1-2 Tbsp. lemon juice

Trim beans and slice diagonally. Heat a good amount of olive oil in a sautee pan (3 Tbsp. or so). Cook the onions until soft. Add beans. Sautee for a few minutes. Put lid on pan and cook over low heat for about 10 minutes (I am absolutely not sure about that time, so cook until the beans are to the softness that you enjoy). Squeeze lemon juice over the beans. Using a garlic press, crush garlic over the beans and then mix. Salt and pepper to taste.

Red Potatoes with Olive Oil, Garlic & Lemon

We were not going to make potatoes because we had so many other vegetables, but the lamb jus was calling for some potato-like companion. We made these at the last minute and they were tasty. I will definitely make potatoes this way again.

Potatoes cut into smallish pieces* (we needed them to cook fast so they were big bit-sized)
Olive Oil
Salt & Pepper

Boil the potatoes until just tender. Heat olive oil in saute pan. Toss the potatoes around for a few minutes. Off heat, squeeze lemon juice and garlic clove over the potates. Add salt and pepper to taste. Toss around a bit.

Simple Green Salad

This is not even really a recipe. It's a lazy man's salad because you don't even attempt emulsification. You could easily add more seasonings, but I think that these simple greens are the perfect counterpoint for a meal like this with deep flavours.

Salad greens*
Olive oil
Vinegar (we used white balsamic)
Salt and pepper

Put olive oil and vinegar in a salad bowl (use your preferred ratio of oil to vinegar). Sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Put your pinky in to taste. Adjust seasonings and ratios, if needed. Add greens to the bowl. Toss.

Bonus cocktail recipe: Classic Martini
This was the cocktail we drank while preparing the meal. Three things to know about the classic martini: it is made with gin; it contains a healthy dose of vermouth; it is served in a small cocktail glass because it is meant to be an appetite stimulant, not a thirst quencher. If you have tried and hated martinis, give this recipe a shot. You might like it.

2-3 parts gin (Plymouth Gin is my first choice because it is flavourful and not too strong)
1 part dry vermouth (Noilly Prat)
3 or more dashes orange bitters (hard, but not impossible, to find)
lemon twist or olive
lots of ice

Put lots of ice into a cocktail glass (the big kind for mixing). Add gin, vermouth and orange bitters. Stir well (classic martinis are stirred, not shaken). When you think you've stirred enough, stir some more. The melting ice is a necessary ingredient in the cocktail. That's also why you don't want to put the gin in the freezer, although vermouth requires refrigeration. Strain into small martini glass. Twist a small piece of lemon peel over the cocktail and then drop it in the glass. You could garnish with an olive instead of the lemon twist, although I don't know why you would want to do that.