Wednesday, November 03, 2010
Another wonderful autumn treat, pears come in a range of flavours and textures and can be enjoyed in many different ways (other than as a delicious snack on their own). Exceptional when poached with red wine and vanilla, they are also stunning with chocolate as in the classic French dessert Poires Belle Hélène (below). Alternatively try them in salads or add to an after-dinner cheese board; they go particularly well with Pecorino or Roquefort.
The cultivation of pears goes back some 4,000 years. It is likely that they originated in the Caucasus region from where they spread west to Europe and east to Asia.
In Ancient times the pear was considered superior to the apple and outnumbered it in varieties grown. By 300 B.C. techniques such as grafting and cross-pollination of pears were known in Greece.
The Domesday Book of 1086 refers to pear trees as boundary markers in England, suggesting their cultivation at this time. The first important English pear, the Wardon (a cooking pear mentioned in Shakespeare's work) was introduced by Cistercian monks at Wardon in Bedfordshire.
Pear varieties were greatly improved during the eighteenth century, largely by horticulturalists in France and Belgium. The number of varieties growing in Britain rose from 64 in 1640 to over 700 by the late nineteenth century.
Today the Conference pear accounts for well over 90% of commercial production in this country. Imported pears account for around 80% of consumption.
Like its cousin the apple, the pear (Pyrus communis in Europe) is a member of the rose family. Botanically speaking a pear is a type of pome - a false fruit in which five carpels (the true fruit) form a core containing the seeds.
Pears are a good source of vitamin B6 and vitamin C, potassium and copper. A slow-releasing energy fruit, excellent for helping to balance blood sugar levels.
Pears are usually picked when slightly under-ripe and they improve in texture and flavour after picking. Ripe pears have an inviting fragrance and yield to gentle pressure at the stem end but slightly firmer pears are usually preferable for use in cooking.
Choose pears that are undamaged and well-coloured. Russeting (a matt brown speckling on the surface) is normal on many pears.
Widely available UK/European varieties include:
Willams pears - golden yellow or red-tinged, juicy and sweet but with a firm texture, good for cooking.
With a long, thin shape and russet skin, Conference pears have very sweet and juicy flesh.
Comice is a French variety viewed by many to be the best pear. Tender, aromatic and richly-flavoured.
Concord - a recently developed Conference/Comice hybrid - is particularly good in dishes involving chocolate.
A pear's window of optimum ripeness is smaller than that of apples. Store at room temperature to accelerate ripening and refrigerate ripe pears or those you won't be using for a few days.
Prepare pears as you would apples, starting with a brisk scrubbing under running water. Rubbing cut surfaces with lemon helps prevent discolouration. The pips contain amygdalin - a compound that the body breaks down into hydrogen cyanide, although you'd probably need to eat your body weight in pears to receive a lethal dose.
Cooking times for pears vary depending on variety, ripeness and desired consistency. Test for doneness with a skewer. We find that if you start with firmish pears you can usually cook them for some time longer than recipe recommendations without detrimental effect.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Larger than the turnip and with a rough skin that is partly tan and partly purple, the swede's unpolished appearance belies its fine texture and distinctive, sweet tasting flesh.
When roast or mashed, swede makes a simple and tasty side dish. It can also be used to add interest to stews or in a variety of twists on mashed potato.
The swede is thought to have originated in central Europe and has a relatively short culinary history compared with many vegetables. It was known in France and England in the seventeenth century and became an important European crop by the eighteenth century. During the nineteenth century it reached the USA (where it is known as rutabaga) and then Canada.
To this day it is a much more popular food in North and East Europe than any other region.
A member of the Cruciferae family, Brassica napus is a hardy plant that is frost-tolerant and thrives in moist soil.
Swede has a good mineral content including calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and manganese. It is low in saturated fat and relatively high in sugars. It also provides some fibre and vitamins A and C.
Choose swede that is firm, solid and heavy for its size. The skin should be free of major damage but the rigid scars around the top are natural. Smaller examples are generally sweeter and milder.
Swede will keep well in the fridge for a couple of weeks or more.
Peel before use. As the skin is quite thick and uneven you may find it easier to quarter the swede and cut off the skin with a knife, rather than using a peeler.
Roasting will concentrate the swede's flavour, whereas boiling will dilute it. Cut swede into chunks or cubes, according to preference, and cook until tender. Baking at 200°C will take around 30 to 45 minutes, boiling will take 10 to 20 minutes.
Swede can also be used raw; try it finely grated in a salad.
In Scotland swede is known as neeps and is served mashed alongside haggis as part of the traditional supper on Burns Night.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Figs make very attractive starters (e.g. served with Parma or Serrano ham) and delicious desserts. Try them drizzled with honey and your choice of cinnamon, thyme and pistachios, then roasted and served with a dollop of mascarpone or crème fraiche. And they're a great addition to an after-dinner cheese board.
Thought to be indigenous to western Asia, the selection and cultivation of figs began in remote antiquity. Stone tablets dating back over 4,000 years record the use of figs in southern Iraq and the harvesting of figs is depicted in an Egyptian tomb painting from around 1,900 B.C.
Figs were grown in Greece by the eighth century B.C. and taken to Spain, Portugal and North Africa with Arab conquests. Later they were spread via European invasions to Central America (sixteenth century), North America (seventeenth century) and Australia (eighteenth century).
Technically a single fig is a syconium containing over 1,000 tiny fruits (what are thought of as the seeds).
There are hundreds of varieties of the common fig (Figus carica) ranging in colour from purple-black to yellowish-green. Fig trees can grow to 15m tall and many types are dependent on fig wasps for their reproduction; the wasps pollinate the fig as they move between seed pods laying eggs.
Figs are rich in minerals and a good source of potassium, manganese and iron. They also contain vitamins A, B and C and a decent amount of fibre.
Figs do not ripen after picking and so unripe figs are to be avoided. Choose figs that are richly coloured, plump and soft but with unbroken skins. At peak ripeness they may be covered with a light, fuzzy bloom. A sour smell indicates figs that are past their best.
Due to the difficulty of transporting ripe figs undamaged, the very best figs are only found in the countries where they grow. If you are fortunate enough to be in a Mediterranean country during the season, be sure to try a local, freshly picked fig to experience how they should REALLY taste.
After harvesting, figs have a short life. Keep in the refrigerator and use within a day or two.
Wipe with a damp kitchen towel. If the stem end is hard, cut it off. To show figs at their best, halve them or cut a cross in the top and press your finger in to splay them out.
When the last of the fresh figs have disappeared for the year, get some dried figs and make Figgy Pudding...
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Kale is a very handy ingredient for seasonal eaters as it is one of the few green vegetables that is more abundant and flavourful during the coldest months of the year. It can be substituted for cabbage or spinach and makes a fine side dish when blanched and sautéed with garlic (a little soy and a sprinkling of chopped, roasted nuts is a lovely addition). It also makes an excellent ingredient in hearty, warming soups such as Scotch Broth and the traditional Portuguese dish Caldo Verde.
Kale has been cultivated for over 2,000 years. In much of Europe it was the most widely eaten green vegetable until the Middle Ages when cabbages became more popular. Historically it has been particularly important in colder regions due to its resistance to frost. In nineteenth century Scotland kail was used as a generic term for 'dinner' and all kitchens featured a kail-pot for cooking.
A member of the same family as the cabbage - Brassica oleracea - most of the kale eaten in this country is curly leaved and belongs to the species acephala. Flat leaved kales are also grown but tend to be tougher and are now used mainly for animal feed.
Kale is a nutritionally rich food containing:
vitamins A, C and E
a substantial mineral content including manganese, iron, calcium and potassium
phytochemicals such as sulphoraphane (linked to cancer prevention)
Kale should have a fresh green colour with moist, crisp, unwilted leaves. Young, small-leaved specimens are more tender; bigger leaves are well suited for use in soups.
Keep in a plastic bag in the fridge. Kale becomes increasingly bitter and strongly flavoured the longer it is kept and so is best eaten soon after buying.
Give kale a good wash in a sinkful of water to remove any dirt clinging to the inside of the leaves. If the stems are very small and tender they can be cooked with the leaves. Stems that are thicker, but still tender, can be cut off and cooked for a minute or two before the leaves are added. Any thick, tough stalks should be discarded.
Kale has a relatively low moisture content and therefore does not shrink as much as other greens and requires a longer cooking time. Except when very young, kale is not particularly pleasant when undercooked and should be served soft rather than al dente. Steam, simmer or saute gently for several minutes until thoroughly tender. A stock can be added for extra flavour.
Early in the twentieth century, Kailyard (kale field) was a disparaging term used to describe a school of Scottish writers, including Peter Pan author J. M. Barrie, whose writing featured sentimental nostalgia for rural Scottish life.
Wednesday, October 06, 2010
Butternut squash is one of the most popular and widely available forms of winter squash. Varying in shape from cylindrical to half-dumbell, its smooth tan exterior hides deliciously sweet, dense and buttery orange flesh.
The adaptability of the butternut squash is demonstrated by the wide variety of uses to which it is put in different countries. Across the globe it crops up in recipes for stews, gratins, pasta dishes, risottos, soups and curries. When baked and mashed, perhaps with a touch of nutmeg or cinnamon and a splash of cream, it makes a very appetising autumnal side dish - try it with your Sunday roast.
The squash has long been an established part of the diet in each of the five continents. Its exact origin is not clear but it is thought that it was eaten in the Americas over 5,000 years ago. It is known to have been cultivated by the Incas in the fifteenth century and remains a very important source of food throughout much of central and south America.
Butternut squash belongs to the Cucurbita moschata species. Other members of the Cucurbitaceae family include the pumpkin, cucumber and courgette.
The split between winter and summer squash is primarily based on usage, rather than botanical classification. Winter squash, such as the butternut, are squash that are harvested when mature, with hard skins. Summer squash (including cucumbers and courgettes) are eaten whilst immature and usually have an edible skin and less strongly flavoured flesh.
Butternut squash is a well-balanced food source that is rich in complex carbohydrates and low in saturated fat and sodium. It is a very good source of vitamins A and C and a good source of beta-carotene, magnesium, manganese, calcium and potassium.
If you can push a fingernail into the rind of a squash it is immature and will be lacking in flavour and sweetness. The rind should be firm and unbroken with a uniform matt tan or beige colouring (free from green tinges).
Squash should feel heavy for their size (indicating a high moisture content - squash gradually lose water after harvesting). Bigger squash generally have a more highly developed flavour.
Squash are amongst the longest keeping vegetables. In a cool (not refrigerator-cold), dry, well-ventilated place they can keep for three months or more. At room temperature, or in the fridge, they will deteriorate more quickly, but should be fine for at least a couple of weeks.
The hard rind, dense flesh and awkward shape mean that butternut squash require careful cutting. Use a large knife or cleaver to make a shallow cut down the length of the squash (curves permitting). Place the blade in the cut and knock the back of the blade (using your hand, a wooden mallet or rolling pin) until the squash is cut in half lengthways. Scoop out the seeds and any fibrous-strings (the seeds are edible - raw or toasted - but the fibrous coat can be fiddly to remove). If you require chunks of squash, cut a small piece of each end, enabling you to stand it vertically and trim off the rind before slicing and dicing.
Squash should be cooked until tender. Baking a halved butternut squash is an excellent way of preserving and intensifying its flavours. Cubes can also be added to casseroles or curries. Boiling is quicker than baking but will result in some sugars being absorbed into the water and so is best used for dishes (such as soups) where the flavoured water forms part of the dish rather than being discarded.
A quick gratin can be made by softening thinly sliced butternut squash in a pan with a knob of butter, before finishing under the grill with the addition of cream and grated cheese.
Plainly cooked and pureed butternut squash makes a delicious and nutritious baby food.
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