I spent last weekend on a farm in the Eastern Townships. I went there, officially, to conduct some interviews for an article on the new generation of agriculture. Unofficially, I went to Caroline Poirier and Sébastien Alix’s farm for a change of pace.
On Friday, I plucked and gutted chickens, and on Saturday, I hauled bales down barn stairs and stacked them along the walls. I also rolled several hundred feet of irrigation pipes. I got guts under my fingernails, dust in my lungs and scratches on my arms. In other words, I spent the weekend working up an appetite.
Caroline, 24, and Sébastien, 32, raise lamb, laying hens, meat poultry and cultivate 3 acres of vegetables for CSA boxes they sell to costumers in the Sherbrooke area. They also happen to be raising a 18 month year-old boy, Rémi, and are expecting a second child in December. They have, to say the least, their hands full. And they have an absolutely lovely, very busy life.
I may be a city girl these days, spending afternoons in coffee shops with my laptop in Montreal’s Mile End, but I grew up on a sheep farm in Manitoba. The time I spent in the Eastern Townships was not very different from what I did on weekends as a teenager.
I’ve come to miss that "good day’s work", the kind of work that means that food being grows right in front of your eyes, in your garden and your pasture. With that kind of work comes a kind of eating that is completely unlike having coffee and a pastry while you type on your laptop in the Mile End. It’s a kind of eating that is well deserved, that satisfies a hunger built up while you were working at making the very food that ends up on the table.
So, today I have a recipe for a lamb and eggplant casserole that Sébastien’s dad, André, brought to the farm for us to eat on Friday night. Admittedly, the eggplants were not Caroline and Sébastien’s, but the lamb certainly was. The casserole was quick to make, André told me, easy to thrown into the oven while you’re cleaning yourself up after your day’s work.
The ingredient amounts are pretty flexible, depending on the liquidity of your tomatoes. The best tomatoes to use, of course, are home canned tomatoes from your very own garden.
André’s lamb and eggplant casserole
2 medium onions, diced
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
2 lbs ground lamb
2 pint jars of canned tomatoes
2 medium-large eggplants, sliced into half-inch rounds
1 cup (or more!) grated old cheddar (the more flavourful, the better)
In a large frying pan, brown the onions, garlic and lamb. Add the tomatoes (liquid included), and simmer at a low heat for an hour or so, until it thickens and the flavours mix. Meanwhile, sprinkle the eggplant slices with salt and let sit in a strainer over the sink to let the bitter juices out for half an hour. Then, rince the eggplant and pat dry. Fry the slices in a second frying pan until lightly golden. Pre-heat oven to 350 F.
In a casserole, make two or three layers, alternating between the lamb and the eggplant, as with a lasagna. The last layer should be lamb, topped off with the grated cheddar. Bake uncovered in the oven for half an hour to 45 minutes, or until cheese in bubbly and golden.
This week, I am posting the first installement of my friend Salvatore Ciolfi's Montreal restaurant review. Sal is the Montrealer that will tell me about any restaurant that I need to visit in the town.
Sal's Restaurant Review: Beijing
by Salvatore Ciolfi
Given the large Chinese population in Montreal, it's always been a bit of a surprise to see how small and unimpressive Chinatown is. I mean compared in size, scale and fun to those in Toronto and Vancouver, Montreal's few blocks worth of China-themed businesses looks a touch on the pathetic side...as if a Chinatown didn't exist, and one was quickly thrown together to appease people. This is especially noticeable when you visit Vancouver's, which is so all consuming, you can easily forget you're in North America. All that said, there are a few restaurant gems in Chi-town, and one may have the city's best Hot and Sour soup: Restaurant Beijing.
A lot of Montrealers, particularly those who like cheap late night meals, will probably tell you that "VIP" is the area's best resto, but I'd argue that real foodies would be much more at home in Beijing's clean, bright room, and certainly more at ease with their fresh ingredients and menu. And besides, Beijing does stay open until 3am, so it's not like they're slouching in the post-booze world of early morning dining. Plus, it's a family style restaurant, which means one thing: lazy susans! Automatic bonus points if you ask me.
Recently, the Montreal Gazette featured the restaurant's aforementioned Hot and Sour concoction, and a recent visit was enough to justify the coverage. Spicy but not overpowering, the soup had just enough vinegar to give it a tangy, full-bodied flavor. Shrimp, tofu, egg whites and various Chinese vegetables give it a hearty feel, even if in the end, it's a fairly light soup that’s surprisingly good at opening up your taste buds. Traditionally, this is a Sichuan specialty, but here they also use barbecued pork to give it a Beijing regional touch.
The rest of the extensive menu is equally versatile, with numerous regional variations on traditional Sichuan dishes available. Our group opted for a serving of the “Thai style seafood chow mein,” which is a spicy, and colorful rethink of “Cantonese chow mein” featuring shrimp, crab and enough fresh basil to fool this Italo-Canadian into thinking he was back at his mother’s house. Confusing, but delicious all the same. All five of us agreed that we’d order this one again if we had the chance.
Equally great was the “Chicken with ginger and green onions,” a seemingly simple dish that packs a lot of subtle flavor (unless you happen to bite directly into a piece of ginger, as I did. There is nothing subtle about biting directly into a piece of ginger). The only minor misstep of the night was our third choice, “Sweet and Sour Pork,” which like most other dishes in the sweet and sour world, comes covered in a sugary, bright red sauce. The pork was a tad on the chewy side, and though the accompanying peppers and pineapple were fresh and tasty, the dish was a bit of a disappointment. Of course, it could just be that everything else we had was so great, that it just suffered in comparison. I’d be willing to bet that it’s still better than similar offerings at other restaurants.
All told, one large bowl of soup, a mountain of steamed rice, and three plentiful dishes was enough to feed five people, and it only ran us $58. A great deal if I’ve ever had one, and further proof for this Montrealer that there’s only one VIP in Chinatown, and that’s Beijing.
For the enterprising, here’s Beijing's “Hot and Sour Soup” recipe:
3 1/2 cups chicken broth
260 grams firm tofu, diced into half-inch cubes
12 small shrimps (50 grams)
50 grams barbecued pork strip, diced (available in Chinatown)
25 grams shredded Chinese radish (comes in a can; also available in Chinatown)
25 grams wood ear fungus (available in Chinatown; these come dried and must be moistened in cold water overnight until soft)
25 grams of bamboo shoots, diced (comes in a can; available at most grocery stores)
25 grams mushroom strips (these come dried and must be moistened overnight in cold water until soft)
1/2 teaspoon (2 mL) salt
2 teaspoons (10 mL) sugar
2 teaspoons (10 mL) white vinegar
1 teaspoon (5 mL) dark soy sauce
2 teaspoons (10 mL) light soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon (2 mL) sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon (1 mL) chili oil
pinch of black pepper
1/4 teaspoon (2 mL) cornstarch dissolved in one tablespoon
(15 mL) of water
1 egg white
Make sure all ingredients are ready beforehand. The secret to this recipe's success is to work quickly.
Quickly steam tofu, shrimp, barbecued pork, radish, wood ear fungus, bamboo strips and mushroom strips in a steamer over boiling water. Set aside.
Pour chicken broth into a very hot wok. Once the broth reaches a boil, add steamed ingredients. Using a wooden spoon, stir together quickly.
Add salt, sugar and vinegar. Stir together quickly.
Add soy sauces. Stir together quickly.
Add sesame oil. Stir together quickly.
Add chili oil and black pepper. Stir together quickly.
Add cornstarch. Stir together quickly.
At the very last moment, add one egg white. Stir together quickly. Serve immediately