Friday, 25 July 2014

Know Your Ingredients: Balsamic Vinegar

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Sweet, fruity, tart -- Balsamic vinegar is highly prized by the modern chef for it's capacity to "wake up" subtle flavours in salads and vegetables. 

Traditional balsamic vinegar (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale) is a wickedly expensive ingredient. Prices can range from $50.00 for a 100 ml bottle and up, and when we say up, we’re talking in the $500 a bottle range. It’s been passed from generation to generation as a family heirloom, been gifted to emperors and been included as a valuable asset in women’s dowries. As an ingredient, this is just too expensive to use willy-nilly in cooking. In fact, it is usually reserved to be sparingly drizzled on a finished dish. Why the cost? First of all, it’s an expensive condiment to make. Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is labour intensive and it’s a long time before the producer sees any return on his labour. To start, t is made from a special breed of grapes grown in Italy. The grapes are boiled in copper vessels until the volume is reduced to 30 – 50% of the original quantity. The remainder is transferred into wooden barrels and aged. Over the course of the year, some of the water component of the vinegar evaporates through the pores of the wood, concentrating the vinegar’s flavour. Every year, the vinegar is transferred to a progressively smaller barrel made from a different wood to pick up some of the flavour characteristics of that wood. The approved woods are oak, cherry, chestnut, mulberry, acacia, juniper, and ash. Young balsamic vinegar is aged three to five years. Very old balsamic vinegar is a minimum of 12 years old and up to 150 years old. We can promise you that anything over 25 years old is blisteringly expensive.

Fortunately, for those of us who lack the budget to procure the traditional stuff, there are alternatives. It’s usually labelled “Balsamic Vinegar of Moderna”.  While there are no defined standard for commercial grades of balsamic vinegar, they are usually some mixture of wine vinegar, sugar, water, preservatives, caramel and flavouring agents and thickening agents such as guar gum or cornstarch to imitate the traditional vinegar’s texture. This inexpensive, easily available ingredient can be sourced in any grocery store for much lower prices than the traditional vinegar. Expect to pay between $3 and $10 a bottle. This is the stuff to splash on salads or cook with – it makes a great braising liquid.

You can also “age” it by reducing it with a little brown sugar. Gently boil ½ cup of commercial grade balsamic vinegar for 5 minutes to thicken it. Continue cooking with 2 Tablespoons of brown sugar for another 2 minutes to further reduce the mixture until it's about half of its original volume. Remove from the heat and allow to cool -- store in the fridge in an airtight container. You’ll have about ¼ cup of the reduction that can be used in braises or dabbed on steamed vegetables. 

Friday, 18 July 2014

Know Your Ingredients: Cheese

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Where does one start when talking about cheese!? It's even harder to talk about it as an ingredient when it begs to simply be eaten in hunks and sometimes accompanied by a cracker...

For the purpose of this blog, I'll write about a few types of cheese, and what they're best for:

All manner of hard cheeses (there are 100's!) are available and versatile - experiment with what you can get your hands on, and choose your fave. Hard cheeses tend to last longer in the refrigerator, as they have a lower water content than the soft cheeses. 

Mozzarella - mild, stringy, best melted on pizza or pasta (like lasagna). In Italy, it is a soft cheese, frequently made from buffalo milk and eaten the same day it's made. Here in North America, it's usually made from cow's milk. Our mozzarella has a much lower moisture content than the traditional variety. Its usually sold in vacuum packaging and can last up to a month in the refrigerator. Some of the low moisture shredded mozzarella cheeses have an even longer shelf life (in the refrigerator). 

Cheddar - Originally an English cheese from the village of Cheddar, England, this hard cheese ranges from mild to sharp to extra old. Cheddars are great for snacking and sandwiches. A good "every day" cheese, no matter the strength. Canada makes a great deal of the cheddar cheese that is available in our grocery stores. Most of it originates from Ontario. 

Parmesan - Pricey. Traditionally, Parmesan is dry and is great shaved or shaken onto pasta or salad. 

These are a whole different ball game and are very different from hard cheeses. Ricotta, cottage cheese, cream cheese, and mascarpone are some varieties, and are commonly used to add texture. They have a mild flavour and are sometimes even used as an ingredient in desserts. These cheeses don't keep as long as the harder cheeses and need to be used up quickly. 

These have a distinct flavour and tend to be more easily tolerated by those with lactose sensitivities. Crumbled soft goat cheese is often used in a salad, or on pizza in place of mozzarella. You can add it to an omelette or slip a bit into a sandwich. 

This refers to treatment of milk before its made into cheese, and has to do with the bacteria within the milk. Pasteurization heats milk to a certain temperature which kills all bacteria (both good AND bad). Raw milk cheese must be aged before being safe to eat, and is often not recommended for young children or pregnant women. The majority of cheese available commercially around here have been pasteurized. Unpasteurized cheese are more commonly found in Europe, although in Quebec, they are legal to sell and quite popular. 

Cheese has a lot to offer, no matter what kind you choose. Try kinds that fit your budget, and decide what works best for your meals.  

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Baking Pan Release

This is used instead of cooking sprays for baking pans. It works very well, at a fraction of the cost of cooking sprays or professional Baker's Release sprays. It also doesn't gum up on the pan edges like the sprays. 


1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup all purpose flour

1. Mix ingredients either by hand or with a mixer until everything is well incorporated.

2. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 6 months.

Home Made Baking Mix -- Like Bisquick

  • 6 cups all purpose flour 
  • 3 Tablespoons baking powder 
  • 1 Tablespoon salt
  • 1 cup shortening 


1. In a medium sized bowl, add flour, baking powder and salt. Using a whisk, mix the ingredients thoroughly.

2. Using a pastry cutter, cut in the shortening until it is in small pieces. If you don't have a pastry cutter, use two butter knives and pull them across the contents of the bowl in opposite directions to cut the shortening into very fine pieces.

3. Store in an airtight container.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Know Your Ingredients: Potatoes

The humble potato is the fourth largest food crop grown in the world, just behind corn, wheat and rice. It is also the number one vegetable crop in the world and features prominently in the cuisines of Eastern Europe. We’ll be adding some of our favourite potato recipes over the coming weeks.

Potatoes have an undeserved reputation for providing nothing but empty, starchy calories. The Too often, they are deep-fried in oil or smothered in high fat foods like butter and sour cream which contributes a great deal to their “unhealthy” reputation. Take away the added fats and the potato emerges as a healthy, low calorie, high fibre part of our diet. In addition, one medium sized potato provides nearly one-third of the body’s daily requirement for Vitamin B6 which is used to build cells and many of the chemicals needed by the body, including the brain.

Potatoes are often sold in plastic bags at the grocery store. This remains a Kitchen-pixie pet peeve as plastic bags, even if they have holes in it, encourage moisture to build up which rots the potatoes. If you buy potatoes in a plastic bag, transfer to an open potato bin or a paper (or burlap if you can find it) bag when you get home. Potatoes should be stored in a cool, dark place such as a closed closet or cupboard. Even room temperatures will encourage the potatoes to sprout; however, the refrigerator is not where you want to put your potatoes. Under refrigerator conditions, the starch in potatoes is converted to sugar and they will taste funny. Also, try to store them away from the onions as the gases each vegetable emit will reduce the quality of the other.

In the grocery store, look for potatoes that are firm and relatively smooth without any signs of sprouting or green discolouration. The green tinge to the skin is a sign that the potato has been exposed to sunlight and may have produced a chemical called solaine that gives potatoes a nasty, bitter taste and can be poisonous if eaten in quantity. If you can (and it’s getting harder to all the time), avoid purchasing “pre-washed” or “already cleaned” potatoes. First, they are more expensive per pound than potatoes with the dirt still intact. Secondly, washing removes a protective layer on the potato skin which allows bacteria to spoil the potato. Finally, you are going to wash them anyway so why pay extra for this unnecessary “service”.

Most of the nutritional “goodies” of the potato are found in the skins so if possible, cook them with the skins on and eat the lot. Scrub the potato well under cool running water and remove any obvious areas of damage with a small sharp knife. If you need to peel them, use a vegetable peeler to remove as little of the skin as possible. Potatoes darken if they are cut and exposed to air so peel them just before cooking or put them in a pot of clean water until you’re ready to cook.

Types of Potatoes

1.       Baking potatoes: also called starchy potatoes, floury potatoes, jacket potatoes, Idaho potatoes. These potatoes tend to be long in shape and have a coarse, cork like or netted texture to their skins. They have a high starch content and cook up with a light, fluffy texture. They’re idea for baking, mashed potatoes or French fries. Some of the names you’ll see on these potatoes are Russets, Idaho Russets, or in New Brunswick, Netted Gems.

2.       Boiling potatoes: also known as waxy potatoes, fingerling potatoes. These potatoes tend to be round in shape with thin skins. They hold their shape better when cooked which means your potato salad won’t turn into a bowl of mush. These are ideal for use in soups, stews, potato salad, roasting, and barbequing. Boiled and mashed, they tend to be lumpy instead of smooth and creamy. Names you’ll see for these potatoes is round white, round red, red potatoes, salad potatoes.

3.       General purpose potatoes: these are the “middle ground” when it comes to starch content. These are moister than baking potatoes and still hold their shape when boiled. Common varieties include Yukon Gold and Peruvian Blue, Kennebec, and Katadhin.  They can be baked, mashed or fried but will not bake up with the same fluffy lightness as the bakers.

4.       New potatoes: (also called early potatoes in Britain). These aren’t really a separate variety. An immature, small potato of any variety is a “new potato”. They have thin, easily eaten skins. There hasn’t been time for them to convert sugar into starch and they have a very high moisture content. As a result, they do not store as well as fully grown mature potatoes, so try to use these ones up within a week of purchase.  They make a good boiling potato but will be disappointing if baked or fried.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Basic Tomato Sauce

Image courtesy Creative Commons 
Tomato sauce is a handy kitchen staple that is the foundation of many dishes. We are  posting this now because fresh tomato season will be upon us soon. This is a something that can be made in large batches in the summer time and frozen for use later this winter. If you want to bottle-can it, please check for our post we'll be putting up on safety tips for bottling low acid foods, or send us an email at and we'll get back to you. 

 Basic Tomato Sauce 

  • Yield: Makes 2 1/2 cups of sauce.

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 medium onion, finely chopped - about 1/2 cup 
  • 1 small carrot or 1/2 large carrot, finely chopped
  • 1 stalk of celery, including the green tops, finely chopped
  • 2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley or 2 teaspoons dried parsley
  • 2 - 3 mushrooms, chopped (optional) 
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  •  2 Tbsp chopped fresh basil or 1 teaspoon dried basil 
  • 1 Tablespoon fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried oregano 
  • 1 28 oz. can whole tomatoes, including the juice, or 1 3/4 pound of fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
  • 1 teaspoon tomato paste
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 Heat olive oil in a large wide skillet on medium heat. Add the chopped onion, carrot, celery and mushrooms (if using). Stir to coat with oil. Reduce the heat to low, cover the skillet and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally until the vegetables are softened and cooked through.

2 Remove cover and add the minced garlic. Increase the heat to medium high. Cook for garlic for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes, including the juice and shredding them with your fingers if you are using canned whole tomatoes. Add the tomato paste and the basil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a low simmer, reduce the heat to low and cook, uncovered until thickened, about 15 minutes. 

3. If you want you can push the sauce through a food mill, or blend it with an immersion blender, to give it a smooth consistency.

adapted from Simply Recipes 

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Garlic Scape Bean Dip

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Today in the kitchen we whipped up a batch of this garlic scapes bean dip. The staff and volunteers here at Our Greener Village Community Food Centre stepped up to their secondary jobs as "official taste tasters" for all things that came out of the kitchen. This dip passed with flying colours and it's definitely a kitchen keeper.

The original recipe came from the New York Times but we tweaked it a bit. Here's our version of Garlic Scapes Bean Dip.

Need to know what a garlic scape is? Check out our "Know Your Ingredients" column on the subject.


  • 1/3 cup sliced garlic scapes (3 to 4) 
  • zest of one lemon, very finely grated or minced.
  • 1 Tablespoon fresh squeezed lemon juice (the bottled juice is kind of flat in this recipe) 
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • pinch ground black pepper 
  • pinch red cayenne pepper OR a couple of shakes of Tabasco or other hot sauce 
  • 2 cups of white beans, cooked until very soft OR 1-15 oz (398 ml) can white or cannelli beans rinsed and drained
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2-3 Tablespoons water (as needed) 

1. In a food processor, process garlic scapes with lemon juice, salt, pepper, lemon zest and hot sauce until finely chopped.

2. Add beans and process until it's a rough puree. 

3. With the motor running, slowly drizzle oil through the feed tube and process until smooth. Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of water until you have a nice dip consistency. 

4. Check seasons and adjust to taste.