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Summer and sea spinach

June 24, 2007

arroche de mer/sea spinach
sea asparagus popping up in the marshes
Summer is here, both officially and on the front. The bugs have become unbearable, the kitchen heat is intense, and we can't keep up.  Everything is flowering and sprouting out of control, and so in our mission to harvest all of nature's  treasures, the sprint is on.     

François showing my family how to eat a cattail





The St-Jean Baptiste parties and the arrival of sweet Québec strawberries are other sure signs of summer. Summer is many things to many people: for some it’s chill time; for others, like most of us in the business of food, its high season juice time. In the city, its festival season and BBQ season; in the country, it’s all about bon-fires, fishing and hiking or frolicking lake-side.

But more than anything for us, summer means marine greens. So, we decided it was time to take off and see to them before the

mushroom madness took hold. We had cattails, daisy, clover flower and elderberry to deal with, but first things first. Off we went for a week of foraging for our gold, this time not in the forest, but by the water. I was following François on what he thought would be a prospecting run along the shores of the St-Lawrence out towards Gaspé. He especially wanted to see what was what in the Lower St-Lawrence. This is one of our favourite parts of the province, in large part because of the wealth of wild edible greens, but also because it’s so old, historic, enchanting, and under-appreciated. Having spent so much time here in the past, François also knows the shoreline like the back of his hand.

The lilacs were in bloom, weeks behind us, yet there was an abundance of other plants out ahead of time. Prospecting quickly turned into picking. The weather was nice, the local businesses were just getting into gear for the season; there was an energy in the air, but it was still serenely peaceful – the calm before the storm, maybe. We worked hard, and settled back to our camp at night with a bunch of local treasures for a rewarding feast.

In this neck of the woods, that means fresh and smoked fish, all the stuff we picked (sea greens like sea spinach, sea asparagus and sea parsley) and good bread. There is a terrific local bakery in Kamouraska that is worth the trip alone (Boulangerie Niemand ). We were equally seduced by this little café/bistro next door that serves sandwiches, salads and light meals with organic and local produce (Le Café du Clocher). They are on the waterfront, the food is amazing with lively fresh flavours, the service attentive and authentic; on a beautiful day, you couldn’t ask for much more. We visited a few local fish mongers afterwards, got our stash of smoked eel from Les Pécheries Ouellet, and then popped into the famous La Quai des Bulles to pick up a few delicious soap gifts. Unexpectedly, we spent hours there chatting with the owners and visited their production room which strangely resembled a kitchen, where they concoct their natural soaps. Scents of flowers, herbs and almond oil lingered in the air mixers and pots and pans and other typical kitchen implements were scattered about, as well as many ingredients that are in fact edible. But here, the final product is soap beautiful enough to eat.

The whole trip was so fun and soulfully nourishing, we almost stayed put. You see, we saw a waterfront house/auberge for sale and got day dreaming. There is something very grounding and calming about the place and the people of Kamouraska, as if good spirits reside there, and I’m not normally inclined to believe in such things. Anyway, for a second, I was ready to drop everything and smell algae forever, but a cloud passed and I came to my senses; sun and spirits or not, I don’t think I could not be so far from Montreal . But who knows.

We picked sorrel, wild rose petals for tisane, leaf celery, angelica and julienne des dames in small amounts. The sea asparagus (glasswort) wasn’t quite ready. But most importantly, the sea spinach or ‘arroche de mer’ was. This green happens to be my favourite thing ever, my coup de coeur. It tastes like spinach but more flavourful, more nutty and rich, and salty to boot. Its great raw in salads or even better wilted (cooked) with garlic and chilli, served along side fish or eggs or rice, or anything really. I can’t say enough about the stuff; it is so delicious, like super- duper- exciting spinach. I’ve served it to friends and family, people indifferent to greens, who were wooed. It was one of the few things that a former French chef colleague and I could agree on – that this was ‘the shit.’ We endlessly snacked on our MEP during service. He now works in Calgary and gets hundreds of pounds shipped out there when the season peaks.

This sea spinach (Arroche de mer) is surely one of the reasons I gravitated towards François in the first place. It was so new to me, I so loved it, and he was the only source. And he was charming enough. I realized I would have to secure him to secure my source. Inevitably and unconsciously, I was embarking on the journey I am now living, and many great meals later, I have no regrets.

This weekend, I served the delectable green in salad and in soup. I also added some to an orrechiette dish with ramps, lemon, sea parsley pesto, smoked salmon and peas. I have eaten it at home in mounds, wilted, with assorted toppings, in pasta with garlic or even alone. I cannot wait for corn and juicier field tomatoes, because to me, that’s the best combination in the whole wide world, as a side dish for fish, or in a compound salad with ham, bacon or cheese. Last summer, my kick was a tomato, bocconcini and arroche salad with smoked salt and crinkleroot (wild horseradish) oil. For our staff meal on Saturday, I did something similar, topping some tomatoes and wilted arroche with bacon, egg, and the last asparagus and peas. Drizzled with some olive oil infused with wild herbs and aged balsamic, alongside some crusty bread, it was amazing and just what we needed to get through the day. It was but a 10 minute time-out to scoff in a mad day of prep and processing, amidst bouts of stressed out squabbling, but communing over this seasonal meal settled us right down and brightened the day, reminding us of everything good. If François seduced me with wild mushrooms, it was with salads like this that I seduced him, and it still proves to be a sure way to make him happy. It is so easy to make good with good food.

If you are lucky, you may be able to taste this special sea green in some of Montreal ’s top restaurants in the coming weeks. Or you can come and eat at Les Jardins Sauvages www.jardinssauvages.com; we will also be opening on Sunday night as well as Saturday of the holiday weekends for small parties. For menu, see http://soupnancy.squarespace.com/menus/jardins-sauvages/.  Or call us and we’ll supply you or hook you up with Claudie (Les Jardins de la Mer, 418-714-0075) who works with François from Kamouraska. She ships to chefs in substantial quantities. For those of you at home, I know she may have plans to make these treasured greens available retail at some Montreal location, possibly La Mer on Papineau, so keep your eye out.

Now that I’ve gotten my arroche fix, I can go back to the work at hand and pay proper attention to the other wild edibles. I have a ton of cattails to make into stock, to blanch and freeze, and to make into flour. This flour makes a terrific crêpe by the way, and the stock is really flavourful and unique, reminiscent of corn and asparagus, great for soup, and shows a surprisingly incredible marriage with truffle. The cattails themselves are fun to eat alone too, cooked up in some water and butter (like corn on the cob or like a pogo).

There are mountains of varied herbs and flowers (daisy, achilée, armoise, mint, sea parsley, wild rose, sweet clover, elderberry flower, etc) that François and company have picked which I need to dry or make infusions with; there are daisy buds to pickle and pigweed and nettle to put up for the year. Then there’s my sanglichon project (an organic wild boar/pig breed from Morgan farms) to finish up. I have the less noble bits of the carcass left to transform into sausage. I have already braised the shoulder with ice cider and boletus (yum!), I have pan-roasted the tender cuts and I have made stew. I have made jellied broth with the head and bones, and bacon with the belly, which I first cured for a week in a slurry salt, sugar and wild herbs, then smoked for hours, and ultra slow-cooked for a couple more hours. It is to die for. I am sure I could convert the strictest vegetarian with one decadent bite, or at least cause them torment for the remainder of their meatless days. I have cut the precious slab into blocks, vacuum packed it and frozen it to make it go a long way, although deep down, I know it won’t last. Because everything is better with bacon. Or as I always used to say, ‘When in doubt, add bacon!’, a motto that has saved me from kitchen catastrophe when in a jam and up against the clock with a lack-lustre dish, time and again.

Time to get back to work… Next week, new things will be coming into season, so there’s no time to waste. Chop! Chop!


strawberry season

strawberry rhubarb 'shortcake' and sorbet with sweet clover and vanilla grass

staff meal: arroche and tomato salad


*Take note that we will be guests on Radio-Canada’s cooking/talk show Des Kiwis et des hommes on Monday, July 2 ( 9 am and 11 pm ).. Old hat for François, but it will be a TV first for me, it’s early morning, and in French; I’m terrified. Also, watch for Anne and Manu (of L’Eau à la bouche) on the same show later on in the week..

Posted on Monday, June 25, 2007 at 03:21PM by Registered CommenterNancy Hinton in | Comments Off