Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Independence Days Week 6 - Spring in Full Bloom!

It seems like I get later each week posting my updates but I had a legitimate (at least in my mind) excuse for not getting to it this past weekend- it was my birthday on Sunday! The weather continued to cooperate so we had balmy temps all weekend and it was so nice to wear pretty spring things! I was also blessed with lovely gifts and my favourite is the magical bracelet pictured above. It's an intricate pattern of painted flowers and bugs, all glimmering with rhinestones- if you look closely there's ladybugs, butterflies, and even dragonflies! The Russian did good on this one- I adore it!

The summer like temperatures ( we're expecting another high of 26 C tomorrow- in March!) are sending things into overdrive and I've been busy with things I normally wouldn't even think of till late April. The gardens are starting without me- all the garlic is well up, the forsythia is in full bloom and I'm thinking of starting some greens this weekend because the soil is already warm and I may miss out on cold weather crops altogether if I don't start now!

Plant something: Almost every tomato seed I started in plastic bags germinated- even the Scotia Cross seeds that are 9 years old! I've been busy potting them up and if this weather holds I may have them outside as soon as they have a good set of true leaves. The volunteer tomato seedlings I potted up a few weeks ago have already had a few minutes of full sun here and there and seem better for it!

Harvest Something: Snow pea sprouts and a lone carrot that missed being harvested and wintered over in the garden. More spring onions and some green garlic as well!

Preserve Something: Led a canning class yesterday at a community centre- we made red onion jam and it was a big hit with the mostly South East Asian group.

Waste Not: I rescued all these slightly blemished potatoes and bruised fruit from being composted. It seems people reject less than perfect produce in their Good Food Box and while most of it gets diverted to our kitchen, some goes straight to compost. I have no such issues and happily take home 'compost food' as the Russian calls it. Thankfully he'll eat pretty much anything and we think free food tastes even sweeter!

Want Not: Still working on the greenhouse shelving unit. As I mentioned in the previous comments the black plastic melted in the sun so I recycled some black fabric from a photography backdrop and stapled it to the old door that acts as a privacy screen from the neighbour's wall. This time of year, that side of the deck gets lots of sun almost all day but once the trees fill in it will be almost full shade. The idea is to use it as a solar heated greenhouse for seedlings in the spring and just extra shelves come summer. We're still looking at options for the cover, either plastic or glass and I have a recycled fluorescent light fixture that I plan to install along the top.

Eat the Food: Every Tuesday evening we get together with friends for an evening we call Home on the Range. One of several chef friends, including our roommate, take turns cooking up some fantastic meals from ingredients provided by the non chefs. The highlight of last night's multi course meal was this amazing grilled local pork shoulder crusted with wild leek pesto, and pearl barley risotto with mushrooms on a bed of pureed cauliflower ad sides of roasted beets and rapini. Stupendous!

Build community: Our FoodShare neighbourhood community project kicked off last week with the delivery of 230 jars to all the residences and store fronts on our street. The jars contained seeds, a survey and a list of upcoming events we'll be hosting!

Skill Up- another tip from the lovely ladies at Harvest Kitchen sisters, this time for a technique for starting sweet potato slips- we have dozens of them emerging from the 3 currently living on top of the fridge in my office! They look a bit like aliens right now but I'm excited to see them leaf out.

All in all, a pretty successful week!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Return of the Light

The first day of spring is less than a week away and for once the weather agrees with the calendar- it's been positively balmy lately! But even without the weather, or the calendar for that matter I'm already well aware of the upcoming equinox, because I can't sleep! Now that we've switched to daylight savings again we have extended daylight into the evening which is lovely but it's the light in the morning that wreaks havoc on my sleep patterns, even before the time shift. Going to bed early doesn't help either; I just wake that much sooner. So for about 2-3 weeks every year I walk around yawning and fighting to stay awake in the day but still pop out of bed when it's barely light the next morning.

Normally I take up afternoon napping until this passes, but between having a day job and not wanting to miss a minute of this glorious weather, I've been struggling through it this year. Which means nothing is safe around me right now; I forget things on the stove until I smell smoke, I've lost 4 bank cards in as many weeks, spilled and broken too many things to list and my already abysmal typing skills are beyond help- thank god for spell check!

It's not exactly productive to be this sleep deprived either so I have to keep moving or nod off at my desk. Things that require focus or complex reasoning are out too, or have to be done in small bursts. My ability to string words together , both verbally and written, is poor and even reading, normally my favourite pursuit , is a lost cause- I'm likely to doze off mid sentence! As a consequence of this I'm less inclined to take on extra projects and am having a hard time keeping up with the ones I have now. Some things, like seed planting, will get done because they must but for others, such as the Dark Days Challenge, I'm throwing in the proverbial towel. Not because we aren't still eating local, at least some of the time, but coming up with a meal the fits all the SOLE criteria is tough enough and posting about it is nigh on impossible right now. Besides it seems a little ridiculous focusing on the dark days when it feels like it's anything but!

Thankfully this phase never lasts long, my sleep patterns will self correct and I'll be back to cursing the alarm clock in no time. But in the meantime I can barely focus long enough to type this so please bear with me if I seem a bit erratic at the moment!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Independence Days Week 5

Crazy weather continues! On Sunday we hit 18C which is about 15 degrees higher than normal for this time of year! Now one warm day in late winter is not that unusual but it's been warm ever since and we're headed for at least a week of it! On top of our already mild winter, that's going to affect outdoor things dramatically. The maple sap is done for the season and things are greening up! I had a look around the garden on the weekend: normally the ground would still be frozen solid but my hyacinths are up, the rosebush has new leaves (not buds, leaves!) and I even picked some spring onions! Up on the deck things are much the same- my herb garden already has signs of life and the thyme, oregano and sage are already making a comeback.

I was all ready to post this update on the weekend but sitting in front of the computer when it feels like spring outside seemed like a waste of good weather so I'm late posting again. When my inner child wants me to go fly a kite, I'm all for it!

Grow Something: I've got pea sprouts, the beginnings of oyster mushrooms and a whole of tomato seeds germinating! The mushrooms are a bit of dud however- unlike last years shiitake kit which produced tons with a minimum of fuss, the oyster mushrooms keep sending out pins that just shrivel up. I'm misting and I have them covered with a clear plastic bag as directed so I don't think it's a humidity problem- I'm at a loss.

Harvest something: I repeat- Spring onions! From the garden! In March!

Preserve something: Nothing

Waste Not: Good shopping week- found a basket of less than perfect zucchini and two heads of cauliflower for a dollar/basket, two soup chickens for $6, and butter on sale for $2.99. Found a case of paper towels ( which we don't buy) when cleaning out a warehouse so I brought them home too. They have their uses.

Want not: We're building a new outdoor mini greenhouse/shelf system on the deck, using materials we have on hand and salvaged wood. It will have a black plastic backdrop to absorb heat, three levels of shelves, with one removable for larger plants and a clear plastic cover for cooler weather. I plan to install a grow light and eventually hope to incorporate a watering system using run-off from the roof, diverted from the rain barrel.

Eat the food: Lots of roasted cauliflowers soup (with whey!) and zucchini fritters.

Build community food systems: I've been busy putting together resources and getting ready to lead a workshop on how to start a community garden.

Skill Up: Tried a new method to pre-germinate seeds (which I read about on someone's blog but can't remember where!) Last year was such a disaster that I am sprouting them in bags on paper towels before potting them up. It's a good way to see if older seeds are viable and saves me planting a lot of dead seeds.

And on the home front- best news ever! The Russian had his final interview with Immigration Canada yesterday and he's here to stay! Now we can start panning for the future, though what those plans will be are still a mystery.

Happy Early Spring!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Independence Days Week 4

Last week was a blur so I'm a bit late posting - here's my Week 4 summation:

Grow Something: I'm so behind on seed starting this year that they've started without me! These accidental tomato seedling appears in a potted plant which I had added some worm compost to so I transplanted them to small pots. No idea of variety.

I also soaked some peas for sprouting as suggested by Harvest Kitchen Sisters

Harvest Something: Nothing- my peas are at least a few days away from being edible and I may leave them longer because what I really want is snow pea leaves saute├ęd in garlic, mmmmmm.....

Preserve Something: I taught my co workers hot waterbath canning and we made Cold Soother Jelly with our own honey- we share hives with the Toronto Bee Co-op!

Waste Not: Big fail on this one- I found several items of food including some chicken stock gone bad in the fridge. I had left it for a time when I could fire up the pressure canner but that didn't happen, so I've realized that I either need to become comfortable with doing pressure canning for a small batch or continue to freeze some things.

Want Not: Used two pairs of worn out slippers to make a new pair

Eat the food: FoodShare held it's annual fund raiser Recipe for Change last week and as part of my job I helped set up the venue and then got to stay for the fabulous treats prepared by many of Toronto's finest chefs as well as local wine and beer.

Some highlights:

Duck mille feuille with white aspargus and truffle vinegrette

Mini apple dumplings with two types of honey from the hives at Casa Loma

A whole pork leg prosciutto!

Texan style brisket with home made mustard, apple slaw and a fried quail egg

Still warm fresh mozzarella balls serve with salt and a drizzle of olive oil.

FoodShare used bicycle powered blenders to make fruit smoothies!

Build Community Food Systems: I've been been so busy with community events,I feel like I'm neglecting my own stuff. Yesterday I worked the FoodShare booth at Seedy Sat at Scadding Court and in between speaking to people about what we do, I was able to do some garden related shopping for myself, and catch up with a lot familiar faces including Gayla Trail of You Grow Girl, Laura from Cubits as well as my favourite 'urbans', Urban Tomato and Urban Harvest! I was trying to keep my spending to a minimum but I found something lovely to purchase from each of these fine ladies (I really wanted Gayla's new book Easy Growing but that will have to wait).

Skill up - the only big purchase I made yesterday was an unexpected one- a mushroom kit! last year I purchased a Shiitake mushroom kit and we loved it! It was amazing to be able to grow our own mushrooms and although the kits are not exactly cheap, they do produce a fair amount and fresh mushrooms are so delicious. So when I saw the kits for oyster mushrooms at the Young Urban Farmers booth, I couldn't resist. And as it turns out what I purchased is even more exciting than I originally thought because it's actually King oyster mushrooms which are one of my favourites! I can't wait to see it burst into fruit and to eat wonderful fresh mushrooms!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Dark Days Challenge-Comfort Food, Greenwashing and GMO's

My Dark days meal for this week is not exactly glamorous, but it was the end of February, and it's been a gray, bleak winter even without the cold and snow we normally have. I was in the mood for some comfort food and what's more comforting than Shepherd's pie?

I started by browning some lovely grass fed ground beef from the nearby Niagara region, added some chopped onion and garlic (both local), and frozen yellow peppers (from last fall). I had planned on adding some of the corn I also froze last fall but I completely forgot to include it, and didn't even notice until I started writing this post so I guess we didn't miss it! For the topping, I made some mashed potatoes (Ontario) with leftover whey - I still have over 3 litres of the stuff and am running out of things to use it in. This is a by product of home cheesemaking that hadn't occurred to me.

I layered the meat veggies and potatoes in a baking dish and topped it with some of the mozzarella cheese I made recently. As I was about to pop it in the oven to bake the Chef roommate asked if I wanted to add some crushed potato chips as a topping and I agreed without thinking. Only after I stuck it in the oven did it occur to me that the chips aren't really SOLE.

Or are they? This particular bag of chips was made by Lay's and like many large corporations, Frito- Lay is attempting to reach out to the local food market. Recently I've seen a number of tv ads for Lays promoting local potato farmers. So I went to their website and there I learned that I could use the product number on the bag to find out more about where this bag of chips came from. It seems our chips were made in the plant in Cambridge, about an hour from here. From that I was give a list of 3 potential potato farms which may have grown the chips: two were near Alliston,just north of Toronto and in the area of the proposed megaquarry), and one was Brant county (near Brantford, about an hour south west). Lays wouldn't tell me which variety of potato they use, only that it's specifically grown for them and it's a starch potato that does well in Ontario. So far so good on the local aspect!

But what about the other ingredients? According to the ingredient list of these chips (plain, wavy cut), they contain only potatoes, vegetable oil and salt. That didn't sound too bad but still rather vague so I called the customer info line to see what else I could find out. According to the website, the oil used for frying the potatoes into the lovely crispy chips is 100% sunflower oil but when speaking with the customer service rep, it seems they also use canola oil occasionally and she couldn't tell me which, nor where it was made, only that they purchase Canadian when possible but also use products from the US. Her answer was similar for salt which is abundantly mined both here in Ontario and elsewhere in Canada so I can live with that.

In the case of canola oil, it would seem likely that it's a Canadian source since we grow most of the canola in North America. However that's not exactly reassuring since most of the canola we grow is GMO. From the Canola Council of Canada Website:

Canola was developed using traditional plant breeding techniques, so it was not developed using biotechnology. However, about 80% of the canola grown in Canada has now been modified using biotechnology to make it tolerant to some herbicides. Using these specific herbicides has reduced the amount of chemical needed for weed control in the fields.

Remember - the canola plant has been modified, not the oil. So canola oil from the herbicide tolerant plant is exactly the same safe and healthy oil as canola oil from conventional plants. The modification has been made to only one canola gene and it is a protein. Processing removes all proteins from canola oil. That means canola oil made from GM seed is conventional canola oil.

I'm certain that is meant to be reassuring but frankly it raise more questions than it answers for me, especially since I recently went to see SEEDS, a wonderful documentary theatre piece currently running in Toronto until March 10. SEEDS takes on the case of Percy Schmeiser, the Canadian farmer who was sued by Monsanto over suspected patent theft when his fields were found to contain GMO modified canola. Monsanto's canola seed contains a gene that makes the plants immune to Round Up weed killer, another Monsanto product; Percy claimed it got into his fields unintentionally. If like me, you were already familiar with this story, you will be mesmerized by the use of actual court transcripts as well as verbatim conversation with the various experts involved. You may also be surprised by some of the information that didn't make the news and the play does an excellent job of offering a balanced look at both the science and the personalities involved, without offering an definitive opinion of who was in the right (don't worry, I still think Monsanto is the devil!) If you are in Toronto you should check it out for yourself at the Young Centre for Performing Arts (in the Distillary District)- for more info and to buy tickets go here To make it even better, Joel and Dana of Well Preserved have arranged for a 25% discount on tickets by using the code "Food" !

But back to the chips- the information on sunflower oil is less readily available. I was able to find out that the majority of sunflower crops in Canada are grown for 'confectionary" (eaten as a snack food I guess) or for birdseed. Which means the sunflower oil used at Lay's likely came from the US so not very local, but also not GMO, at least not yet!

So where does that leave my chip crumbs on the SOLE scale? Well they may or may not qualify as Local, I have my doubts about Sustainable at least in terms of manufacturing, Organic is not even a question and Ethically, who knows?

So I guess I still won't be buying Lays- but they sure tasted good...

Tomorrow in Toronto there's a Seedy Saturday, the first of 5!! Seedy Events in the GTA. I'll be manning the FoodShare table at Scadding Court Rec Centre, (707 Dundas St w at Bathurst) from 12 - 5 pm - come say hi!