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!