Round carrots are in season at the Jean-Talon Market
Photos by Stacey DeWolfe
One night last week, I came home to the most delicious surprise: my husband had prepared an amazing Sichuan meal with Kung Pao green beans and the best tofu I perhaps have ever eaten, at home or abroad. For the last several months he has been working to create the perfect balance in his Chinese pepper-salt, a savoury, tongue-numbing delight that combines sea salt with red or green Sichuan peppercorns. On this occasion, he had achieved his goal, coating the twice-fried tofu in a thick, heady crust.
It was some years ago that I first encountered Sichuan peppercorns, or “anesthetic berries,” as I called them at the time. It was at the old Niu Kee, on St-Laurent, that I first tried them. It was, as I recall, a truly mind-blowing experience — like having a thousand tiny fingers tickling your throat and tongue into submission. I was giddy and light-headed, and before I knew it, unable to taste any of the other flavours that appeared on my plate. I couldn’t wait to go back.
Then Niu Kee changed ownership, and we were depressed. If we were going to experience the bliss that was the hot and sour potatoes or the Kung Pao chicken, we were going to have to learn how to make them ourselves. Luckily, we had the Duguid-Alfords to lead the way — the Toronto couple that, until their divorce in 2009, traveled the world gathering recipes for a series of gorgeous coffee table-esque cookbooks, including Beyond the Great Wall, from which we acquired our pepper-salt know-how.
And so it was that we headed down to the market this past weekend in search of some fresh peppercorns, as the ones we had purchased last year had lost their magic powers. Because it was red peppercorns that we had first encountered in those early days, it was red peppercorns that we generally bought, but this time we went for green, finding them more gentle on the tongue and so better for everyday use.
It was also on this trip that I stumbled upon my new favorite Jean-Talon Market stand: Ferme Jacques et Diane (no, not that Jack and Diane). Though I have nothing but love for the green-overalled young’uns on duty at Birri Brothers, the folks at J&D are really down to earth (when I asked them what the little round carrots were called, they said, “round” and handed me a gift of radishes). And their bounty of root vegetables is a truly glorious sight to behold. Better still are the flavours that await.
A friend had told me these would be the best damn carrots I had ever tasted, and she did not lie: they were earthy, crunchy and surprisingly sweet. I brought them home, put them in a vase to photograph and admire them, and started to think about what I might do to celebrate them. At our house, carrots mostly show up in salads and stir fries, raw or in soups, but it is rare — almost never — that we make them the focus of a dish. What better way to do so than to introduce them to our old friend, Sichuan pepper-salt?
This has to be the easiest thing in the world to make. First, you roast a teaspoon of the peppercorns and a tablespoon of sea salt in a frying pan, stirring them until they become fragrant. Then grind them to a powder in a spice grinder and put the mix aside.
Then, wash the carrots and cut them as you like. I like to slice them thinly, on the diagonal, because they look a bit more fancy that way. I was making dinner for four, so used about two carrots per person. I also cut some garlic into thin slices, about one bulb per person. And that was it.
When you are almost ready to sit down for dinner, take a wok or cast iron pan and get it hot. Add one tablespoon of sesame or vegetable oil, and when it too is hot, add the carrots and garlic and fry them until they start to soften and brown. Take them from the heat, toss them with a little sesame oil, sprinkle them liberally with the pepper-salt mixture to taste, and get ready for a garlicky, carrot-y, tongue-tingling delight. ■
Ferme Jacques et Diane will be at Jean-Talon Market until Oct. 20.