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.