Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sugar Snow

I had to be up early this morning and I woke to world blanketed with snow. It's been a long, cold, snowy winter this year and another round of the white stuff wasn't exactly something to cheer about. Until I walked outside in the early morning hush and realized it was sugar snow!

Sugar snow may appear to be just like regular snow to the untrained eye but any one who's ever spent any time in sugar bush will tell you that sugar snow is special. It occurs in late winter when the temperatures hover around freezing which is the ideal sap collection weather as well. Sap needs temperatures below freezing at night but slightly above in the day in order to run. Sugar snow requires similar conditions- too cold and it's just regular snow; too warm and it's sloppy and slushy and heavy with moisture. Sugar snow is large fluffy flakes that drift down like feathers and land ever so gently on anything solid. Clumps of snow clinging to branches tipped with buds makes my heart sing; the slightest movement or breeze will send it cascading down, resembling cherry blossoms in spring.
Living in a big city I sometimes miss the cues and natural rhythms of the seasons. With all the heated indoor spaces and easy transportation right at my door, winter can be one long blur of running from one shelter to another, and snow is something I see through a window. Sugar snow reminds me that spring is at long last on it's way, and things are changing even when I can't see them yet. Forget the robins and the crocuses; sugar snow is my first sign of spring! And even in the city you'll know it's sugar snow when you see the little old ladies out sweeping their sidewalks- no need to shovel this stuff!

Because it's so light and airy, sugar snow acts as insulation where ever it lands and a good sugar snow late in the season can extend the sap run. It also makes an excellent surface to pour molten maple sugar on to make maple taffy.

Best of all it's a good indicator that the sap is running hard and fast right now. Not Far From started tapping last week and with near perfect temps this week, we should have plenty of sap for our Sugaring Off party in Dufferin Grove Park on March 13! So grab your spiels and buckets- it's time to make syrup!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Mushroom Explosion!

Okay so I wrote this post a few days ago but when I went to add photos I realized the Russian had run off with the point and shoot camera with all my pictures from last weekend and he's currently freezing in - 20 C Winnipeg. No problem, I'll just wait and post about it in a few days, while I wait for the mushrooms to grow. Except that the mushrooms decided not to wait. They have completely exploded in the past two days. And there's a good chance they may take over the house by tomorrow. So I've harvested some tonight and I do have my good camera here for some recent shots but I'm a little embarrassed to say I failed to document their progress- it just happened so fast!

Last weekend work sent me to Montreal and while I was there I had a chance to check out a magical little shop called Mycoboutique which features everything you'd ever want to know about mushrooms and other fungi!

There's a refrigerated case that holds fresh mushrooms (since it's February not many were local and none were locally foraged) and related products like miso and kefir grains.

There's also a huge rack of dried mushroom including many locally foraged. They carry many supplies to grow your own as well, ranging from one time use kits to spore inoculant for various species using the drilled log technique. Lots of gourmet mushroom products ranging from dips and soups to full cooked and frozen meals are also available; some cooked right there in their in house kitchen! There's also a lot of really great resources and even a mushroom picking equipment area- now I'm coveting a mushroom basket! All in all, it's an absolute heaven for fungi lovers and well worth a special trip.

Of course I wanted to buy everything in the store but since my budget (and room in my luggage) only allowed for a small purchase, I decided on a kit to grow shiitake mushrooms. Other options included enoki or oyster mushrooms; they usually also carry kits for King Oysters and button mushrooms but neither were available the day I was there. The spores for each type of mushroom are inoculated into a sterilized sawdust mixture and kept refrigerated to keep them from pinning (sending out what we call mushrooms). Detailed directions on how to encourage fruiting are inside the box; mine however needed no help at all! Perhaps because the box sat at room temp in my hotel room for two days before I brought it home, I already had tiny mushrooms forming when I opened the kit. A quick dousing in cold water and some exposure to light seemed to be all they needed to take off!

The directions suggest keeping the kit in a cool but humid location and surprisingly, exposed to light but not direct sun. It seems most mushrooms (buttons being the exception) require some light to fruit; although they don't produce chlorophyll like green plants, they do need light to stimulate fruiting, and mushrooms exposed to light actually produce Vitamin D, something I can surely use this time of year. The optimal room for this in our apartment turned out to be the dining room which averages around 18 degrees C and has a north facing window. Because we have forced air heat which can be dry I adapted the kit to maintain some humidity by loosely covering it with a clear plastic (poly) bag as suggested. It seems to be working well - I ate my first crop of smallish shiitakes in less than a week. At that point they weren't fully mature but they were dense and sweet and delicious!

Today however they have reached monster proportions, look like proper shiitakes, and I need to figure out what do with them all!
I'm thinking mushroom soup, mushroom pierogies, or maybe just a dish of mushrooms sauteed in butter, yum! Like most home grown things, the difference between a fresh mushroom vs those you can buy at a store is astonishing. I don't know if I can ever buy another mushroom again now I've tasted these.

The kit gives instructions on how to reset the substrate for a second fruiting and in some cases it can be coaxed for a third. In theory it can continue to fruit indefinitely, however the kits are a limited by the amount of available nutrients and on average produce about 600 gm of mushrooms. Since Shiitake mushrooms average about $10/lb the kits aren't really cost effective at that rate. I asked about supplementing the sawdust with additional cellulose in some form and was told it is possible but unless the substrate is completely sterilized you'd risk introducing other organisms that are potentially harmful. So does anyone know where I can obtain sterilized hardwood sawdust? Because I think I just became a mushroom farmer!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Backyard Farms is an Urban Homestead!

One of the things I love best about social media sites such as facebook, twitter and of course blogging is the sense of community it creates with people of like interests. So when a number of different people I'm connected with recently wrote about an attempt to trademark the term Urban Homestead, they got my attention. It appears that a certain family run business operating out of the US applied for a trademark for the terms Urban Homestead/ Homesteader among others and have begun sending out cease and desist orders to others who use the terms, including authors of a book that was published long before, and libraries that circulate this book. Now to me that seems silly at best and mean spirited at worst but I am not a patent expert. It does however irritate the hell out of me when someone tells me what I am not allowed to call myself so as a show of support I will be part of a Day of Action today and I encourage you to participate!

Backyard Farms is my pride and joy but currently it's just a lifestyle choice. We grow barely 20% of our own food, don't raise any animals ( unless you count the farm cats or the vinegar mother) and the little money I make from selling my preserves basically covers the expenses. But I still consider it an urban homestead and the idea that someone can decide that I am infringing on their trademark is outrageous to me!

If you are wondering why this could affect you, you might be surprised to know that they have so far been successful at shutting down a number of blogs and facebook sites where people use the words urban homestead and similar terms! This to me amounts to censorship for profit and sets a very bad precedent which will stifle our ability to communicate valuable knowledge. If they prove successful it could create a situation where terms like Heirloom Tomato, or Lacto Fermentation could be trademarked by anyone who wants to eliminate competition. Granting exclusive rights to people like these goes against all the work that many others have done to promote heirlooms and diversity, and risks limiting free and open access to commonly shared techniques and skills.

For more info you can read about it here and here and you can join the facebook page here. If you are on twitter use hashtag #urbanhomestead. The idea is to swamp the term until it is impossible for them to claim that they have a 'continuous and substantially exclusive use of the mark" . Let's start by bumping their name off the top spot on google!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Spice Rack Challenge February: Citrus

So my first thought upon hearing what the Spice Rack Challenge ingredient for February was what the heck? Citrus? I mean I love my citrus - I routinely break the hundred mile diet rule to buy lemons and limes, and I have dried lemon zest and lemon pepper in my spice rack, but I don't think of them as spices per say. As I read through the possibilities however I realized this was a great opportunity to use some of the preserved lemons that I made just over a year ago. I usually just make chanh muoi (Vietnamese salty lemonade) with them but I have been wanting to try them in a Moroccan style chicken dish, traditionally made in a tagine. Since I don't own a tagine I found one version that can be made in a slow cooker and adapted it to my taste.

Two cloves of garlic, minced
olive oil for frying chicken plus 1 tbsp for marinade
one whole chicken cut into serving sized pieces; or similar amount of chicken breasts, legs or thighs
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp teaspoon ground ginger
pinch of saffron threads

Optional- (I used them all but you can choose to taste)
1/2 tsp cumin
1 tsp turmeric
one stick of cinnamon or a few pinches of ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground coriander

1 onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups chicken broth or stock (or water)
1/2 cup olives pitted ( green are traditional but any will do)
1 preserved lemon cut in small pieces

Mix the garlic, some black pepper, and a spoonful of oil. Rub the chicken with the mixture and set aside for a few hours. Heat the oil in a large heavy frying pan. Fry the chicken until all sides are browned. Move chicken to slow cooker. Lower heat in frying pan and add spices and onions. Stir-fry over med heat for a few minutes until onions are soft. Add chicken broth, stock, or water. Cook on high for a few minutes and pour over chicken in slow cooker. Set cooker to high for 30 minutes then reduce heat. Simmer over low heat for 2-3 hours. Add olives and preserved lemons and cook for an additional 30 minutes (or longer to reduce sauce.)
Serve chicken, covered with sauce, over rice or couscous.

I've never eaten Moroccan food so I don't know how this recipe compares to the authentic dish but I have to admit I was underwhelmed. To begin with the marinade contained a ton of garlic which promptly burnt while searing the chicken pieces. I had to wipe out pan to get rid of the burnt garlic so I lost all the lovely chicken jus. In the slow cooker the chicken became melt in your mouth tender but the combination of flavours wasn't what I'd hoped for. The Russian thought it was waste of good chicken but since he's not a fan of olives or lemons I wasn't surprised. I on the other hand love both of those things and was a bit disappointed. I'm not likely to make this again.

But since I've got the lemons out:

Chanh muoi

1/2 preserved lemon, rinsed
Sugar to taste
Water ( still or sparkling- I use club soda because I like mine fizzy)

Place lemon in the bottom of a large glass. Add sugar and smush together with a spoon. Add ice and water, stir. If using club soda, add slowly and allow fizz to settle before adding more.
Photo courtesy of

Now that's delicious!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Seed Haul

This past weekend, for the first time in years, I managed to attend Seedy Sunday! My work schedule this time of year is such that I've had to be out of town for the event for the past 6 years; last year included additional aggravation by sending me to Montreal the same weekend as Toronto's event, and not the following weekend when I could have at least attended Montreal's event instead. So I was excited to see how much the event has grown since the days when it was mainly a group of hardcore gardeners eager to swap seeds from native plants and whatever they grew themselves. Very little money changed hands at the earlier versions; some gardeners would sell extra seeds and seedlings for a nominal amount but the main currency was the seeds themselves. With the addition of so many seed vendors who sell heirloom and open pollinated seeds I wasn't sure how much if any trading was still going on, but just in case, I made up a dozen packets of seeds from some of the more uncommon and interesting stuff I've grown. I was also on the hunt for one particular item- Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) seeds. It's a plant that is native to Britain and was cultivated as an edible green since the Iron age although it's considered a weed by some, much like lambs quarters. You can eat the young leaves like spinach and the flowers stalks can be peeled and eaten like asparagus. A fellow blogger recently wrote about not being able to find seeds so I decided to take up the mission.

This year's event was being held at Hart House on the U of Toronto campus downtown. Thankfully it's a rather large space since attendance at Seedy Sunday gets larger every year and it was plenty crowded! As suspected the majority of booths were occupied with commercial seed companies, many of whom were new to me. And what a selection! Colette and I were like kids in a candy store, darting from booth to booth. There were also a number of local food and gardening representatives from organizations like Not Far From The Tree, FoodShare, Toronto BeeKeepers and various community gardens.

There were too many venders to make notes on all of them but a few stood out for me:

Mountain Grove Seed Co.
A family owned company from Eastern Ontario that grows and harvests all their own seeds. They grow lots of local and heritage flowers, a decent amount of heirloom veggies and a few herbs. Super friendly and knowledgeable, they were happy to answer my questions and refer me to another vendor to find Good King Henry, which they didn't carry. They don't have a web presence yet but they have a catalogue available for $2 and will mail seeds.
Mountain Grove Seed Company
RR# 1 Parham ON K0H 2K0
In Toronto Call 416-761-1619

The Cottage Gardener Heirloom Seedhouse and Nursery.
This was one of the busiest booths and it's easy to see why- the variety of seeds they carry, mostly rare and endangered, is huge! Their drool worthy catalogue was available for free and while they didn't have what I was looking for, they did have seeds for a plant from the same family, one I'd never heard of. Strawberry Spinach (Chenopodium capitatum) is similar to Good King Henry in that it's leaves are edible but it also produces a strawberry shaped red fruit!
4199 Gilmore Rd
RR#1 Newtonville ON L0A 1J0

Urban Tomato.
As the name suggests, Jill is all about the tomatoes with a few other veggie seeds for good measure. While the variety of seeds she has available isn't huge, she wins hands down for the coolest seed package designs; I wanted to buy everything on her table just to have them all! I end up buying a package of her mixed tiny sweet peppers- the small ones seem to do really well in pots on my roof! She was also open to trade so I swapped her some tomato seeds- my Stardust yellow cherry for some Una Heartstock.
Urban Tomato
Jill Bishop

I swapped for some other interesting seeds as well- some new grasses for my thicket- switchgrass and sideoats gramma from And from the seed exchange area I grabbed some Envy soybeans, some Red Fife wheat and Great Blue Lobelia. The best deal of the day however was from the Perth Dupont Community Garden where for a small donation, I picked up two types of pole beans, some sunchoke tubers and some chocolate which I promptly ate!

All in all, a successful Seedy Sunday!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Projects to Beat the Winter Blahs

I don't know about you but this winter is starting to make me feel like this:

I think I'm suffering from an acute case of cabin fever! Thankfully, there's a few upcoming events and projects around Toronto that will help shake off the winter slump no matter what the weather's doing.

First up is Seedy Sunday, this Sunday Feb 12 at Hart House in Toronto.

Seedy Sunday is one of the highlights of the new garden season to come and a place to get great ideas as well as open pollinated and heirloom seeds. If you aren't in downtown Toronto, Seedy events are happening all over Canada now so check the Seeds of Diversity list for one near you.

While you're mapping out your garden, you might want to make room for a pollinator nesting box. By hosting a small (30cm x 14cm), maintenance-free nestbox for cavity-nesting bees in your front or backyard, and permitting access to visit the nest approximately once per month for 20-30 minutes, you'll be contributing to important research about the wild bee population in Toronto. The nestbox would be set up at the end of April, and picked up at the end of October. These types of bees won't be making any honey sadly but they will help pollinate your garden! For more info and to register to be part of the project by Scott MacIvor check out his website at T.O.Bee

Got a maple tree in your backyard? Not Far From the Tree is gearing up for our Syrup in the City project again this winter. After last year's successful pilot project, we are expanding the project to included a DYI component which will allow people to purchase our kits and with our support, tap your own trees! Similar to our fruit picking model, you'll have the option to contribute some or all of your sap to our community boil down, and everyone is invited to our Sugaring Off party at Dufferin Grove on March 13. For more info and to register check out Syrup in the City

If you aren't in the Toronto area, check this list for a local community garden network in your area- it's time to get busy again!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Groundhogs, Hedgehogs and Rabbits!

Here in Toronto, we're getting dumped on yet again and if this winter is starting to feel never-ending, there's a few reasons to be a little more cheerful today despite the snow. Today is Feb 2 which means it's Groundhog Day if you live in the wintery parts of North America, Candlemas if you're Catholic and/or British, and if you celebrate pagan holidays it's Imbolc. Not uncommonly, all three celebrations seem to have borrowed a little from the other. Imbolc is an ancient Celtic celebration of the midway point of winter and like Groundhog Day, involves weather prediction. Candlemas is the last feast day of the Epiphany and is celebrated 40 days after Christmas to coincide with the day Jesus was presented at the temple. The candles lit at Imbolc seem to have been appropriated into the religious version at some point, as well as weather prognostication as noted in this ancient Scottish rhyme:

If Candlemass day be dry and fair,
The half o' winter to come and mair

If Candlemass day be wet and foul.
The half o' winter gane at Yule.

Where the groundhog come is a little less clear- there is some mention of a hedgehog performing a similar rite in British lore and even a badger is mention in some German tales. Whichever version you chose, there is real reason to celebrate today; Feb 2 marks the midway point between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, which means we are halfway to spring!

And if that isn't enough to celebrate, tonight is the new moon and for those that follow the lunar calendar tonight is New Year's Eve. Tomorrow ushers in the year of the rabbit which is supposed to herald a year of calm and tranquility. Sounds wonderful to me!

New Years Eve in Chinese culture is a time to get together with friends and family and enjoy a large meal featuring traditional lucky dishes. One such dish is Jiao Zi or steam dumplings. They are consider lucky because the shape of the dumpling resembles ancient Chinese money.

Jiao Zi


You can buy dumpling wrappers pre-made at any Asian grocery store- make sure to get round ones not wonton squares, or if you prefer, you can make them at home

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cold water
1/4 teaspoon salt


1/2 cup green onion, chopped
1 1/2 cups finely shredded Napa cabbage or bok choy)
4 tablespoons shredded bamboo shoots or grated carrots
1/2 finely chopped mushrooms (black mushroom are traditional but any fresh mushroom is fine)
2 slices fresh ginger, finely minced
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely minced
1 cup ground pork or chicken (cooked shrimp works too or omit meat all together and add more vegetables)

1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
1/4 tsp chili paste or to taste
2 tbsp sesame oil

1 egg, beaten

Stir the salt into the flour. Slowly stir in the cold water, adding as much as is necessary to form a smooth dough. Don't add more water than is ncessary. Knead the dough into a smooth ball. Cover the dough and let it rest for at least 30 minutes.

While the dough is resting, prepare the filling ingredients. Use a food processor to combine all ingredients but don't over mix: a quick pulse as you add each vegetable and put meat in last. Add soy sauce, wine, chili paste, and sesame oil and pulse until mixture binds together. If you are omitting meat add 1/2 of beaten egg to aid mixture to bind the veggies

To make the dumpling dough: knead the dough until it forms a smooth ball. Divide the dough into 60 pieces. Roll each piece out into a circle about 3-inches in diameter. Dough should be very thin!

Place a small portion (about 1 level tablespoon) of the filling into the middle of each wrapper. Wet the edges of the dumpling with egg mixture. Fold the dough over the filling into a half moon shape and pinch the edges to seal. Continue with the remainder of the dumplings.

You can cook these a number of different ways- boil, steam or pan fry. I prefer to fry them briefly until both side are lightly browned and edges are sealed, then add about 1/2 cup of chicken stock or water with a dash of soy sauce and allow them to steam until fully cooked.

Serve with dipping sauces of your choice.

Happy Groundhog day/Candlemas/Imbolc/ New Year!