Thursday, December 30, 2010

Endings and Beginnings

It's nearly the end of 2010 and as usual I've been looking back over the past 12 months. Like every year it had it's highs and lows and a few unexpected moments but overall it was a pretty good year with a glorious finish!

In the past I haven't posted much about my love, the Russian dancer- partly because this blog isn't so much about my personal life but also because his status here in Canada was in limbo. We met through work a few years ago and shortly after he decided to stay in Canada. For the past three years as we have built a life together we were always under the shadow of the possibility he might be sent home. Thankfully our dreams became a reality just before Christmas, when he was granted permanent residency - there's still some paperwork to file and fees to pay, and he will not be eligible for full citizenship for a few years but for all intensive purposes he's now a Canadian -and a proud one at that!

Compared to this news, everything else I considered writing about seems rather mundane so if the rest of the post seems random and a bit disjointed, bear with me- it's going to be a while before my feet touch ground!

So much of 2010 revolved around canning: from the CanJam started by Tigress, to the workshops I taught through the West End Food CoOp, it seemed like not a week went by that I wasn't putting something in the hot water bath canner. I even managed to put up a few jars under my own Backyard Farms label and sold them at local markets. I'm not sure I sold enough to actually call it income but I made enough to cover some of the costs and the shelves at home are well stocked for the winter.

Of course I wouldn't have had nearly as much stuff to put in those jars if it wasn't for Not Far From the Tree. I don't know how much fruit I personally picked this year but our grand total for the year was just shy of 20,000 lbs! I was also part of the team that organized the first ever Syrup in the City project, as well as some successful fundraising projects. I have so much fun working with them I sometimes feel I get more out it than they do from me! ( Photo courtesy of Lisa Pitman, another Not Far From the Tree Volunteer)

The backyard farms were hit and miss this year as usual- summer was much hotter and dryer than last year and the tomatoes on the roof garden suffered for it. All the necessary watering left them a tad nutrient deprived, no matter how much worm compost I added. My favourite tomato this year was the Black Brandywine- it was one of the first to ripen and the last to still be producing fruit- right into November!

The Jaune Flamme was a close second; although not as prolific, the fruit was some of the prettiest and tastiest I've ever had and I'll definitely grow them again.

The garden in the ground did much better due in part to the soaker hose I hooked up to the rainbarrel. The six tomatoes I planted in ground were much happier than their rooftop counterparts- some were over 6 ft tall! I also had great crops of rapini, edamame, peas and beans. A few things however were a complete bust- not single pumpkin or squash, one lone eggplant and three tiny potatoes. Lessons learned on all fronts!

One of my favourite parts of this year was how my blogging world spilled over into real life; meeting other Can Jammers and bloggers at local food events, and swapping recipes and jars. I'm super excited to have one of my recipes included in Sarah Hood's upcoming book We Sure Can! Of course many of the blogs I ready regularly are not so local but there are so many of you writing of things that are dear to me, and that list has gotten huge! At last count I'm subscribed to 50 blogs and there's still more I read sporadically. Too many to name all of them here, but a few deserve special recognition:

Jenna at Cold Antler Farm- in just over the year since I've been following her, Jenna moved from a small rental homestead in Vermont to her very own sheep farm in NY! With her trusty dogs and her music to keep her company, Jenna is an inspiration to all of us of what someone can accomplish when they set their mind ( and back) to it. She writes great books and takes stunning photos. Also- I named one of her sheep!

Ferdzy at Seasonal Ontario Food - As the name of her blog implies, Ferdzy is a master at both growing and cooking with local ingredients. Her gardens make me green (hehe) with envy, her recipes are delish, and her trips to area food producers gives me incentive to do more traveling and tasting.

Shae at Hitchhiking to Heaven - If you want to learn to make fabulous jams, this is the place to go. Shae comes up with the most wonderful combinations of flavours than I could ever dream of. Her blog is my go-to source whenever I have an idea and need confirmation of quantities and techniques. Her jams have won prizes and she has a porcupine for a guest host! What could be more cool? Buy her online book !

There are many more blogs I love dearly that you can check out from my blog roll if you have the inclination. And if you have a blog, feel free to link to mine- I love how we are creating communities that defy geography, and finding ways to use current technology to pass on traditional techniques and know how.

All in all, it was a pretty productive year! Colette and I completed all 12 months of the CanJam, I grew and preserved a lot more food, as well as buying a lot more locally. And I managed to write at least a couple posts a month so definitely an improvement over last year. As I finish this post, it is now New Years Day and it's 9 degrees C and pouring rain here in Toronto which couldn't be more beautiful. Welcome to 2011! May the new year be bountiful and bring peace and prosperity!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lunar Eclipse Dec 21, 2010

It was a perfect night for moon gazing last night. Happy Solstice!

Sunday, December 19, 2010


The snow has been falling for a week now and although we haven't had the record breaking accumulations of other parts of the province, winter has definitely arrived. With daytime temps hovering near or below freezing, signs of life in the garden are gone. But here in the sunporch things are cozy and warm and the southwestern exposure gives maximum daylight now that that trees are bare. I've been able to overwinter many plants in this space and most of them do quite well. Along with the usual tropical plants I have a cayenne and a golden habanero pepper that are almost 4 years old now and the rosemary is on it's second winter. The chili peppers behave much like a deciduous shrub indoors- they lose all their leaves and end up looking like a bunch of green sticks. But if you look closely you can see new leaves already forming and one last habanero pepper is still hanging in.

There's a couple of new additions to the plant menagerie this winter and they are all volunteers. The avocado sprouted in the compost early last year but got snapped off by a squirrel. I saved it just in case and am happy to report it has all new growth. I also have a lemon tree! A number of lemon pips sprouted in the worm bin before I found out that the worms don't like citrus; I saved a few and this one seems very happy in the window. But the biggest surprise is the tomato seedlings! Likely another gift from a squirrel, a whole bunch of them sprouted once I brought the planter indoors. I didn't have the heart to rip them all out but I thinned their numbers to two thinking they would probably not survive in any case. Well apparently they have every intention of sticking around. We are two days till the solstice which means they are getting a scant 9 hours of daylight, yet they don't appear to be overly light deprived. The stems are fairly sturdy and well leafed and they are large enough now to be transplanted into their own pots. Which maybe an issue since all of my potting soil is currently outside frozen solid. I may have to purchase some if I hope to keep them growing but at least I have lots of worm castings from the worm farm. How hilarious would it be to have my own 'hothouse' tomatoes in early spring?

Having living green things around through the long winter months is so important in so many ways. They act as mini air filtres, clearing the air of it's buildup of CO2 and pumping out fresh oxygen. They also add humidity to the hot dry air pumped out by the furnace. But it's their symbol of life in the dark days of winter that helps the most; knowing that life survives even then gives hope that spring will come again and we will feast on warmth and sushine.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Where I'm From part 3

It's raining in Toronto but it's expected to turn to snow later today. Lots of it, if the weather reports are to be believed. It's about time -we've been blessed with an unusually long fall this year and have had only traces of snow to date. I was still getting green tomatoes from the last of my roof tomatoes until about two weeks ago and if I known I would have sown a fall crop of greens- next year I need to plan better.

So the gardens are finally put to bed and the last of the preserving has been put up in jars - one last batch of apple sauce is on the stove as I type. It's time to look to winter pursuits to keep myself amused. Like many people, I've been known to pick up a pair of knitting needles on occasion; it's good way to keep my hands occupied while watching tv on cold winter nights. My grandmother, my dad's mom, was an avid knitter and she taught me to knit when I was younger but I never had the patience to keep it up like she did. Truth be told, I have the attention span of grape and anything that requires me to keep track too closely or too long is destined to be messed up or abandoned. I can manage basic scarf and mitts and even a non complicated hat pattern but any attempts at more involved projects have ended badly. This goes for sewing as well; anything more than a basic seam is pretty much beyond my capabilities. My mother on the other hand is an accomplished smocker and seamstress. When we were young she made most of our clothing and she still makes the most beautiful smocked dresses for my nieces. Sadly I appear to missed out on that gene but at least I inherited her abilities in kitchen! Her cooking is combination of the joy of good food from her French heritage, with the frugality of her Scottish roots (think cabbage sauteed in bacon fat and maple syrup, yum); somehow she always managed to feed our abundantly family on a tight budget without resorting to gruel!

These skills and traits passed down mean so much more to me now as I dig further into our family history. Genealogy became my main outlet during the winter last year and although I set it aside during the growing season, I've been looking forward to having the time to bury myself in family history again. Last year I was caught up in the basic info- the names, dates and places became like a treasure hunt and each fact I was able to fill in was like solving another piece of the puzzle. But dates and places can only give you so much- they tell little of the people themselves. This year I'm making an effort to flesh out the people I discovered last year; the bare facts are my starting point of course but it's the little details like family stories and inherited traits that make me curious now. And one thing often leads to another- it was my mom's memory of hearing her mother speak of her Delorme cousins that lead me to discover that the woman believed to be my ggg grandmother was actually a stepmother- my gg grandmother Lizzie McVicar's birth mother Anna Lemay dit Delorme was actually the first wife who died when Lizzie was an infant. This was a huge surprise which my grandmother herself never knew. I think she would have been pleased to find out she had French Canadian heritage since her parents disapproved of her marriage to my grandfather, a French Canadian through and through.

I'm also looking into the history of the area they lived known as Argenteuil, Quebec. Many of the towns that evolved there are still much the same as they were when my ancestors settled there; the boundaries have changed or been renamed over time but the area my mom calls home is still fairly rural and off the beaten track thanks to it's somewhat isolated location in the Laurentian mountains. So what possessed my ancestors to leave their various home countries to settle there? Archibald McVicar, Lizzie's father, left Scotland and saw much of Canada as a furrier/tanner before settling in the area- perhaps his genes give me my need for constant change? The McCluskey side ( Lizzie's husband was John McCluskey) came from Ireland and set up farming "at the back of Chatham"-Were they farmers back in Ireland and is this where my love of digging in the dirt comes from?

John McCluskey and Lizzie McVicar

I know I will likely never find the answers to the many questions that come to mind as I discover more of my past but as I spend this winter searching for more facts and stories, I'll be grateful for the those that came before. For being smart enough and brave enough to come to an area that was little more than a wilderness when they started, and for digging in roots long enough to raise a few generations of family. And most of all, for passing on the skills to grow and preserve the bounty that Canada has to offer! I hope I do you proud.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

CanJam # 12- The Grand Finale- Dried Fruit

Sniff. I can't believe it's over already. Seems like it was just a few days ago that I read about the CamJam on Well Preserved and convinced Colette to sign up with me. Actually she didn't take much convincing; since the first time I taught her how to make my dad's dill pickles she's been a complete convert. But she's also been a bit of a silent partner on this journey- we both thought she'd be a regular addition to the blogging portion of the challenge but other than one guest post in Feb she hasn't really had time to contribute her thoughts. Which is a shame really- if you knew her in real life you know she's as chatty as I am and and canning with her is more fun than work! So it seems only fitting that she chose this final recipe and actually wrote about it!


My friend & fellow can-jammer Heather is a wonderful writer and extremely creative. This is why I’ve left the stories to her. For the dried fruit CanJam, we made Pear Port Compote – from the Bernardin Guide to Home Preserving.

Pear Port Compote

5 cups prepared pears – washed and cut into little pieces

1 cup each golden raisins and dark raisins ( we also added some dried cranberries)

Juice and zest of 1/2 of one lemon and one orange

¼ cup dried apricots - chopped

¼ cup packed brown sugar

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp ground nutmeg

¼ tsp ground ginger

Pinch of pickling salt

½ cup walnuts, chopped

½ cup port

Peel, core and chop 10 cups of pears.

Combine raisins, apricots, zest and juice of lemon and orange, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and salt in a nonreactive pot. Add pears and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Simmer with lid on for 30 minutes.

Uncover and boil about 15 minutes until thick, stirring frequently to prevent scorching. Add walnuts and port and boil for 5 more minutes, stirring constantly.

Ladle into sterilized jars, leaving 1/2 " headspace, and add seals and rings. Process for 15 minutes in a hot water bath.

My pears were picked from the neighbour’s tree earlier this summer and saved in the freezer for a perfect recipe like this one. I have no idea what kind they are, just that they are definitely local. My port was actually an amazing find during our summer holiday from a farmer’s market in Quebec City- it's called Portagen and it's made from berries, chokecherries and other delicious local fruit. I was saving it for a special occasion – and what’s more special than our year-end can-jam?

The recipe for the Pear Port compote says “Like fine wine, aging improves the flavor of this product (best used with a year). Spoon the compote into tart shells or pie crusts. For a rich, decadent dessert, serve warm with a dollop of whipped cream” which is just what I plan to do. YUM. Hey Heather – maybe we can try it with your mom’s Blanche Mange!

I loved this recipe as soon as I saw it because I had something in mind but hadn't figured out a way to put it into action. Back in Sept I wrote about my adventures at Henry of Pelham Winery (see Days of Wine and Walnuts). Since then I'd been mulling around the possibility of making a preserve using both the wine and the walnuts. The Pear Port compote seemed like a good jumping off point so here is my take on it that I'm calling Pelham Preserves. We divided the original recipe in half and included some of the remaining pears I picked in Oct with Not Far From the Tree. By incorporating other ingredients found in the Niagara region where the winery is located and using the walnuts I picked on site as well as the wine it was a way of capturing the spirit of that weekend.

In place of the raisins and apricots I used 1 1/2 cups of mixed dried fruit which included apples, cherries, blueberries and for colour tho they aren't local to Niagara, a few dried cranberries. I also added some whole spice- cloves, allspice and star anise. And because the wine is less concentrated than port I used a whole cup of Henry of Pelham's Cabernet Baco 2006 vintage. I allowed the mixture to cook down slowly, concentrating the the flavours and the results are sublime- it's like Christmas in a jar! It's fitting finish to the year and I'll be proud to give it as gifts.

It's been a wonderful year of preserving adventures and I want to send a big thank you to Tigress [Tigressinajam, Tigressinapickle] for organizing the CanJam. She did a fantastic job of reading and commenting on all the recipes each month for the past twelve! I'm sure when she originally set this in motion she had no idea the response would be so huge and it can't have been easy to keep tabs on all the submitters every month. Thank you for challenging us, for keeping it fun and for not laughing at us as we bungled our way through pickles and pectin. I sincerely hope the CanJam continues but I won't blame you if you decide to pass the torch or retire it altogether.

This is what a year's worth of CanJamming looks like.

So cheers to Tigress and all our fellow CanJammers- now I'm going to go crack open a jar of something delicious and polish off the bottle of wine. A toast to all of us! Let the festivities begin!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Lean, mean and less greens - relearning how to eat

I love green vegetables. Always have. My mom likes to remind me that my favourite food as a kid was broccoli. String beans, rapini, spinach, bok choi, artichokes, I love them all. I once gave myself kidney stones from eating asparagus at every meal for 3 days. I would chose brussel sprouts over cake without the slightest hesitation.

So the one thing I hadn’t considered when we decided to try to eat seasonally and locally was that I would some how miss out on my greens. I mean we live in the middle of the Greenbelt, some of the best agricultural land in Ontario, and getting local produce in abundance for a good portion of the year should be simple, right? So how is it the middle of November and I haven’t had a single brussel sprout yet this fall?

The switch to local eating has been a gradual one and I still have much to learn in terms of timing. I know enough to put away asparagus when it appears in May so I’ll have some in winter. I don’t buy strawberries in January, I wait till the local ones appear in June to get them, then make preserves and freeze some. The tomatoes I grew this summer have been canned, sauced, dried and frozen whole to be enjoyed all winter. I have frozen corn and dried beans galore. But somehow I failed to get much in the way of greens put away; I have some frozen rapini and edemame, along with the asparagus and I pickled a mess of beans both green and yellow, but I’m afraid to start dipping into them already. Winter hasn’t even begun here and it’s long time till spring and fresh greens. We have still have plenty of local winter squash and root vegetables available but I’m already ill at the thought of eating another carrot. Brussel sprouts are usually my mainstay green this time of year but they’ve been almost impossible to come by. I must have missed the local season at the produce stands and our weekly farmer’s market had them one week but was sold out before I knew. I even checked the chain grocery store recently but the only brussel sprouts available were imports from who know where in the US and I had to force myself to pass them up. It’s going to be a long winter and I know from last year that eating too many starchy vegetables is tough for me; I gain weight and am a lot more lethargic and moody. In the dead of winter I find myself dreaming of sautéed snow pea leaves or Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce and I know it’s the chlorophyll calling me.

There are still some local greens available well into the winter months here. We’ve been eating a lot of cabbage and I’ve made some into Kim chi too. I’ve been trying to make use of kale as well but every recipe I see either adds tons of fats like bacon or combines it with other foods to make it more palatable. But some days I just crave lightly steamed greens with a bit of lemon or salt and that's more difficult to come by. I’ve been able to pick up fresh local spinach which I’ve been adding to soups and stews and the occasional omlette. Until we ran out of eggs, which brings me to the next challenge.

Eggs are another thing I’ve always taken for granted. They’re cheap, nutritious and readily available in the supermarket. That is if you can overlook the possibility that your grocery store eggs likely came from a factory ‘farm’. Part of making conscious choices with food involves understanding where the food come from and once you’ve opened that door it’s difficult to go back. It makes no sense to me to be picky about where my veggies come from and ignore the deplorable conditions that most animals raised for food consumption are raised in. Switching to free run eggs seems to be an easy choice but then the cost factor comes in. This is not a complaint about being over charged; I recognize that our food system is broken and our food is falsely undervalued, leaving farmers to go broke while the grocery stores are full of cheap food. But for people on a limited budget the difference between paying $2/doz for factory farmed eggs and $6/doz for ethically raised is a difficult choice and some times means going without. Our food budget for the 3 adults in our household averages around $200/ month- that’s total, not each. We eat very well for that amount but it takes some creative buying and cooking to do so. Back in the summer I found a local green grocer who was selling free run eggs for $3.50/dozen-she gets them straight from the farm and they are lovely fresh eggs with deep coloured yolks and properly hardened shells. So eggs went back on the menu, with a guilt free conscience. I stopped in to pick some up yesterday to find she was sold out. And because it’s coming on winter and the hens aren't crammed in a artificial environment, they'll be laying a lot less so she won’t be getting as many for a while. She didn’t mention if the price will go up accordingly but I will have to make an effort to get to her store on the day the eggs arrive each week if I hope eat eggs regularly this winter. It’s just another piece in the rethinking how to eat process.

I know overall we have it pretty good. We eat healthy, freshly prepared and varied meals and I’m learning more every day about how to shop and preserve seasonally. We definitely won’t starve and I’m unlikely to develop scurvy no matter what my dreams tell me. I’ll just have to close my eyes and plug my ears when I have to walk by the produce section in the grocery store, so the veggies flown here from far away warmth can’t lure me in.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

CanJam # 11 Spiced Apple Rum Jelly

The year is winding down and winter is knocking at our door. We haven't seen snow yet in Toronto but it won't be long. The frosty weather and waning daylight makes me crave warm beverages like apple cider and mulled wine, not only for the taste but for the smell of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and allspice simmering on the stove.

Our choices for CanJam # 11 included apples, pears and quinces. I'm still dying to try working with quince but have yet to discover a source for them. I have a few pears left but I'm still hoping to sugar dry them- it's a lovely way of preserving but it doesn't involve canning. So that left apples of which I have copious amounts left from the last renegade pick. Turns out my apples are a variety of Delicious apples- I didn't recognize them because apparently I have never actually tasted a Delicious apple until now. Those deep red tasteless things they sell in supermarkets bear no resemblance to the intense flavour and colour of these gems. The tree I picked them from is likely close to a century old. It's the tallest apple tree I've ever seen, towering over the three story building it grows beside. I could pick only the lowest branches even with a ladder and picking pole; most of the fruit I gathered was windfall which thanks to the muddy ground below was intact and bruise free. I ended up with about 60 lbs of apples from two picks that way. If the building is still unoccupied next year I'm going to ask the owner if I can pick from the 3rd story windows since the best fruit was high out of reach.

So we had our apples and on a lovely fall Sunday my sister Meghan and I trekked over to Colette's with a bagful for an afternoon of canning. It was an ambitious day- we were also making red onion jam again because we can't seem to make enough of that stuff( see CanJam #3 )

We decided on an apple jelly but didn't have a particular recipe in mind. So we cut up the apples ( about 4 lbs), leaving the skins and cores and added them to a pot of water ( about 5-6 cups) and left them to simmer on the back burner while we made our onion jam. When the apples were soft we strained the liquid through cheesecloth and put it aside while we came up with a plan. I had made a gorgeous apple jelly with Thai basil from these apples a few weeks earlier and was delighted with the rosy pink jelly they produced. This batch was more tawny than pink and made us think of hot buttered rum. Like mulled wine and apple cider, hot buttered rum also makes use of spices like cinnamon, nutmeg. cloves and allspice and what better way to capture those flavours than in a jelly? Colette just happened to have some Appleton's Amber Rum on hand so using my basic apple jelly recipe and comparing notes on alcohol infused jelly ( we depended heavily on Shay of we came up with this lovely creation!

Spiced Apple Rum Jelly

4 1/2 cups of strained juice from cooked apples (see above)
4 cups sugar
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp whole cloves
1 tbsp whole allspice berries
2 cinnamon sticks
2-3 slices of fresh ginger
1 tsp fresh grated nutmeg
1/2 cup amber rum

In a non reactive pot add juice, sugar, lemon and spices. Grated nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon sticks can go straight in, place cloves and allspice in a spice bag or teaball. Heat to boiling and stir frequently. Cook it until it gets near gelling point and add rum. Reheat until it starts to sheet from the spoon- check for set using cold plate in the freezer. When it's reached gel point, remove whole spices and quickly pour in jars.

We added one clove and one allspice berry to each jar for appearance. Add seals and tighten rings to fingertight. Place in boiling canner pot for ten minutes. Remove and allow to cool.

This jelly turned wonderfully, gorgeous to look at and seriously delicious. Just ask my sister -if she ever gets her head out of the pot.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Will Work for Squash

I've never been one for wasting food. Growing up the eldest of 13 kids made eating everything on my plate a necessary survival skill and a lot of the ways I approach food to this day has much to do with my upbringing. How to preserve seasonal produce is one important thing I learned from my dad but he was also a savvy shopper with a keen eye for a bargain. We ate a lot of day old bread, learned to cut the blemishes off less than perfect produce, and made a lot of soup from chicken necks. Some of this I abandoned as soon as I moved out; I still have an aversion to store bought bread to this day. But other techniques I have kept or adapted for my own. I still make soup stock from bones, I always check the bargain bins at groceries stores and I take advantage of free food whenever possible (with the exception of dumpster diving- I draw the line at being a freegan!)It's not much of a stretch to see how easily I added gleaning to my tricks for eating well on the cheap, and lately I've become pretty proficient at bartering too. But even I had never considered getting paid in vegetables - at least not until I ran into Emma, one of the organizers of the Kawartha Ecological Growers. Just recently I happened upon Emma and her truckload of wonderful fresh from the farm produce while walking down an alley. She was delivering the weekly CSA order and in a hurry to unload so she could park the truck. I was full of curiousity and not in a rush to be anywhere so I jumped in and helped unloaded crates and baskets while peppering her with questions. I left with a new appreciation for the cooperative nature of their collective and some lovely potatoes and a squash!

The Russian is getting used to me dragging home bags of free produce and has even joined me on a pick or two. Since I began volunteering with Not Far From the Tree last year, gleaning has become a common past time when the weather is good. I can't help but look for potential pickings as I walk around town and I'm not the only one. At last count we'd picked almost 20, 000 lbs of fruit with Not Far From the Tree this year in just 5 neighbourhoods! Most of that would have ended up in compost or green bins or left to rot on the ground, Instead it fed volunteers like me, as well as hundreds of people who access community kitchens all over the city. I participated in picks of cherries, grapes, plums, apples and pears in various neighbourhoods around the city. Recently, in our last pick of the season we harvested a backyard pear tree that produced 248 lbs of sweet, picture perfect pears; my share ended up being 20 lbs! I did a few 'renegade' picks on my own this year as well- 55 lbs of sweet cherries back in June and 50 lbs of apples in the last week - both from trees that grow right on my street, a main thoroughfare that hundreds of people walk daily. I also rescued a boatload of abandoned tomatoes - all with permission from the homeowners of course!

This bounty of fruit can be overwhelming at times- at various points my kitchen has been overrun with fruit flies so thick they looked like smoke. They seemed to particularly appreciate grapes and must have invited a multitudes of friends and family- we had colonies that lingered for weeks! But from this abundance of fresh fruit I made jams, jellies, pickles and preserves, dried some and froze some for later. I've also begun to market some of my preserves under my Backyard Farms label and lately I've been swapping jars for farm fresh veggies and locally made bread and cheese. It's very satisfying to see the rows of preserves put away for colder weather, and smell the scent of apples permeating from the sunporch. It will be even more comforting in the dead of winter when we don't have to venture out in the cold to buy ridiculously overpriced produce flown in from god knows where!

Speaking of Not Far From the Tree, we'll be holding a FUNdraising party next Wednesday, November 10. Featuring edible treats concocted by Jamie Kennedy, Mark Cutrara and Carole Ferrari and an open bar featuring our signature Elderberry cocktail, this will be the shindig of the season and we'll be whooping it up at SHAMBA Space, 48 Yonge St, Toronto until they kick us out! Hope you can join us!

Monday, November 1, 2010

It's the Great Pumpkin Walk, Charlie Brown!

Last night was Halloween and like most cities in North America, the streets in my neighbourhood were teeming with small costumed figures and their beleaguered parents doing the rounds for the annual candy collection. But over the last few years our neighbourhood has created a different tradition, one that creates such an amazing spectacle that it's becoming an occasion in itself. The day after Halloween is All Saints Day for some, but for residents of Parkdale and vicinity it's the annual Pumpkin Walk at Sorauren Park!

Formerly relegated to the compost bin after their Halloween appearance, our pumpkins get a second chance to shine, long into night! The pumpkins don't actually do the walking; they are lovingly transported to the park and lined up along the paths that run through the park.

Hundreds of pumpkins seem to spontaneously appear throughout the day and by evening their numbers are spilling over the walkways and into the grass. People appear by the hundreds as well, strolling through the park oohing and ahhing over the works of art these lowly squash have become.
The pumpkins appear in all shapes, colours and sizes. Some are carved in traditional jack-o-lantern fashion, others are quite a bit more elaborate. The carvings can be really impressive in some cases; so good they almost have an air of competition, tho as of yet there are no judges. Just a wandering audience, happy to have a reason to celebrate the ancient ritual of Samhain for an extra day.

Monday, October 18, 2010

CanJam #10 Chili Peppers

The CanJam ingredient this month is chili peppers and I had a bumper crop of them this year; jalapeno/ habanero/ cayenne overload! Colette grew some very hot Portuguese peppers this year so we had those as well. The hardest part was picking a recipe - I have list on my fridge currently of things I still need to preserve and most of them involve hot peppers in some form. Kim chi is on the list but it's a fermentation process, not hot water bath. I made chili garlic paste earlier this month but such a small batch I didn't bother canning it, just stuck it in the fridge. It came down to salsa verde or hot pepper jelly, favourites for both Colette and I- so we decided to do both!

Salsa verde is a perennial favourite around here. We've been making this for so long I don't even remember how many years ago we started making it. It's always very popular; one year we had a exchange student from Mexico staying with us and he ate my year's supply in a matter of weeks while the canned version his mother shipped him from home collected dust on the shelf. We usually try to grow the tomatillos ourselves with moderate success- some years I actually get enough before the possums steal them all. This was not one of those years sadly -I harvested barely a pint! But at least most of the peppers are home grown!

Salsa Verde

1 lb tomatillos, husked and blanched for 5 minutes in boiling water.
1-3 jalapenos seeded and chopped
1/2 cup red or yellow peppers diced fine ( we used poblanos but any mild pepper will work)
1/4 cup vinegar
1 tsp lime juice ( preferably fresh)
1/4 tsp salt
1 clove of garlic ( optional)
chopped cilantro ( optional)

Blanch tomatillos as directed and coursely chop.
In food processor or with a hand blender, puree tomatillos, jalapenos (and garlic if using ).
In a large sauce pan add puree, red onions, vinegar, peppers and salt. Cook at a slow boil, about 5 minutes until slightly reduced. Turn off heat, add lime juice and cilantro and stir well. Pour in 250 ml jars and add sterilized lids. Can for ten minutes in hot water bath.

Salsa verde can be used in any dish that calls for tomato salsa but I like it best with chicken enchilladas.

Anther annual favourite is hot pepper jelly. Usually we do a jalapeno jelly but with all the lovely peppers to choose from (and the poblanos I found at the market), we decided to do a multi pepper version - a seriously hot jelly this time!

Red Hot Chili Jelly

1 1/2 cups of mixed hot and sweet peppers ( we used red bell, poblanos, Portuguese hot, red and green jalapenos- ratio of hot to sweet can be adjusted to taste)
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup white vinegar
5 cups sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 pk pectin crystals.

Dice peppers very finely ( use gloves for hot peppers!)
Saute peppers and vinegar until softened, then slowly bring to a boil.
Add pectin according to manufacturer's directions and bring to a rolling boil.
Add sugar and boil hard for 1 minute.
Turn off heat and continue to stir for 5 minutes, skimming foam.
Pour in jars and add sterilized lids
Can for 10 minutes in boiling water bath.

Makes ten 125 ml jars.

This is a lot thicker than our usual jelly. The colour is absolutely gorgeous, the peppers are beautifully suspended and this is one seriously hot jelly! We ended up with a slight problem with the pectin tho - it gelled but it's a bit grainy although it doesn't affect the taste. Popular wisdom suggests that it will dissipate in the jar but I made the mistake of trying to 'fix' it and failed miserably ( for more on that see here )

At least Colette will get to enjoy her share.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

How to screw up a recipe - twice!

It seems this is not my month. Colette and I did our latest Canjam creation last night ( recipe and more on that in another post) and we had a minor glitch. Our jelly was gorgeous and delicious but the pectin was granulated and it remained gritty even after processing. This was likely because we used a no sugar version of pectin in a recipe that required a ton of sugar. This is a rookie mistake; we both know better but we used what we had on hand and hoped for the best. And in all honesty it wasn't terrible. The texture was not the best but it was certainly edible. But I wasn't content- since I started teaching canning workshops this summer I've become a lot more picky about the results. In addition, I have begun to sell some of my preserves at local markets so my standards have gotten higher. In addition to proper sterilization techniques, which I have always be strict about, I am also more concerned with things like appearance and texture. After all if someone is going to pay for one of my products they deserve the best quality I can make. I do all my canning for sale in a commercial kitchen (to abide by local health regulations) but a lot of my test runs are still done at home, where we can taste the results ( and the mistakes.)

So when I checked the jelly this morning and it was no better, I decided to see what could be done to fix it. First I called the pectin manufacturer and was thoroughly chastised by the rep for using the wrong product- very helpful. She actually had no answers and was unable to comment on my suggestions, thanks for nothing. I tried the internets with similar results- no help there. So I decided to empty all the jars back into a pot and reheat it. Sure enough, all the granules began to homogenize, but now there's another problem. Reheating destroyed the pectin so now I had a lovely runny syrup. The instructions that come inside the pectin do have advice on what do if your jelly doesn't set. You use another package of pectin, dissolved in water and heated to boiling and add it back to the jelly. Boil the jelly for 30 secs, then turn off heat and stir for 5 more minutes. I used only half the package ( and water), followed the instructions to the letter and got something that no longer even resembles food! I'm serious- this stuff began to gel as soon as I turned the heat off and stirring only made it worse. When I attempted to pour it in jars it fell in chunks. I processed it anyhow in case the heat of the canner would help somehow but there is no saving this stuff. It resembles chunks of rubber cement with bits of pepper and tastes about the same.

This is one batch that is headed straight for the green bin - but at least I can reuse the jars!

On that appetizing note, I will be selling my Backyard Farms preserves at the Drake Hotel in Toronto this weekend as part of their Fall Market. The market is free and happens rain or shine - I will be there Saturday and Sunday from 10 -4 so if you are in the area, come by and say hi!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Settling In

Fall is upon us and as much as I try to deny it, the growing season is done for another year. Some years we get lucky and warm temps continue well into October and the summer crops linger for bit. Last year I ate my last fresh tomato salad in November! This year we've gone straight from 30 degree days to temperatures in the teens or lower, and the gardens are pretty much done. The remaining tomatoes are ever so slowly ripening but there are many left on the vines that won't make it before the first frost. I've been picking some under ripe to finish inside but the flavour is never quite the same.

Preserving is slowing down as well, but I still have a lot to do: I've yet to make salsa verde with my tomatillos, there are still apples and pears to finish, hot sauce to make, and I froze some peaches and plums for more jam making now that the kitchen isn't too hot to move in. And the farmer's markets are teeming with produce that I don't grow (yet!), like cauliflower and leeks. I still need to roast more peppers while they are cheap and I never make pickled beets or carrots until after first frost- they seem sweeter to me then. Thankfully most of this can be done gradually over the next month or so.

I'm also working on some fermentation projects this year for the first time.In the summer I pickled grape leaves using a lacto fermentation method with great results. More recently I accidently fermented some grape juice that is well on it's way to vinegar now. I'll post more on these and other things like kimchi in another post.

So now it's time to slow down a bit and even tho I wish it were otherwise I've been forced to concede. A spectacular rodeo dismount ( accidental of course!) from my bike has left me with a broken right wrist and the resulting cast has made me halt the hectic pace. I can still do most things but I'm much slower at the moment- it's a good reminder that I am not invincible. It's also a great excuse to curl up in a chair with a blanket, a good book and a mug of tea.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Rainy September Saturday night....

...and the farm cats are happy to become house cats again.