Friday, July 18, 2014

The Canadian Food Experience Project: Tardiness and taters (in scape pesto)

New potatoes with garlic scape pesto

I'm not always the most confident person but I can confidently say that when it comes to being late, I kick butt, hands down.

My skills at tardiness are unsurpassed. I can get up a half an hour earlier and still be 10 minutes late for work. Want to meet for lunch? Bear with me because I'll be there after our date has started. Throw a baby into the mix and now it's just embarrassing how late I can be. I don't do it to be rude. I'm often just a bad judge of time and how long things take.

In saying all that, I'm really late with this post, which is the last in the Canadian Food Experience Project and it comes equipped with a recipe that may also be a bit late for the season. Alas, it all seems fitting if I'm being honest with who I am, which this post demands.

This final instalment of the Canadian Food Experience Project is supposed to be reflective — how and if we found our Canadian food voices, what we learned. I can say this with certainty: I don't know that I could define Canadian food with any more ease or clarity today than a year ago when this project started. From one region to the next, one province to the next, food is so vastly different and so influenced by every culture that is a part of Canadian society. The Niagara peach is as Canadian as poutine, bannock, maple syrup, cod tongues with scruncheons, Saskatoon berry pie, perogies (I'm thinking of you Glendon, Alta.), pizza, dim sum, fusion — the list goes on. If someone out there has a definite answer to question of what Canadian food is, I'm game to hear it.

As for my Canadian food voice, it definitely has a Niagara twang. I'm grateful I live in this region for many reasons but when it came to this project, I found it made writing easier. After all, we're one of only a very few stone fruit-growing regions in the country, producing the most peaches of anywhere in Canada. Coming up with food blog fodder is helped along when you live in a region with Class 1 farm land and micro-climate that distinguishes it from other parts of the country where the traits that differentiate aren't quite as distinct.

Eating Niagara is in its sixth year of existence and during that time, I've tried hard to champion this region and all its tasty attributes. It was fun to do it for this project and an audience that might not otherwise be aware of why Niagara is an important, unique part of Canada's food fabric. In some ways, I'm sad it's over because there's so much to say about this area that someone could write a book about it.

Hey, wait a sec...

Anyway, my Canadian food voice is one I hope to continue honing as I get back into blogging with more regularity. But who knows what the future holds and what changes could be in store, kind of like my plans for dinner one night last week. I had loads of garlic scapes in my fridge, that harbinger of summer's arrival as allium turns its energies from growing its spring flower (the scape) into those beautiful bulbous and pungent roots to be harvested just a few weeks from now. I've been grilling most of those snaky green scapes whenever they show up in my CSA basket or when I purchase them from a nearby farmer. Tossed in some olive oil, sprinkled with a bit of kosher salt and thrown on the barbecue for a few minutes, and you have my new favourite way of eating garlic scapes. The tangled mess is charred in places, taking away some of the garlicky bite and replacing it with an unsurpassed sweet smokiness.

It seems, though, that one of the most popular ways to enjoy these lovelies is in pesto. Not bad, but garlic scape pesto has never been my favourite. That was before I found myself at my usual fruit stand in search of cherries when I saw them: new potatoes. They were beautiful, small and with papery skins that were dusty with dry soil and so thin as to barely be able to protect white, juicy flesh that had yet to become really starchy with age. Suddenly nothing seemed to taste better to me than garlic scape pesto. It seemed like the perfect companion for those tiny tubers but this couldn't be just any garlic scape pesto.

It had to have something more than a predictable garlicky punch for these first taters I saw peeking out of a paper bag, coaxing me to buy them. It also had to be thicker than what I would use to dress pasta. A hefty, almost crumbly, pesto was the only thing that could hold its own next to something as substantial as potatoes, and it would be amped up with a few sun-dried tomatoes.

And so it did with sheep's Romano and pumpkin seeds, sun-dried tomatoes and, of course, garlic scapes. Potatoes with pesto were my meal that night; a simple affair that I could only get away with only because it was summer. The whole do is best enjoyed on a patio, free of pomp and circumstance.

I realize many people have already eaten their way through their haul of scapes by this point in the summer. No worries if so. Just give this a whirl next spring. Us locals, however, can head to Quiet Acres farm stand on Lakeshore Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake to can find coiled bunches of scapes for much of the summer — perfect for those who don't mind things that run a bit late.


New potatoes with chunky garlic scape pesto

Serves two as a main course, four as a side dish.

Just a heads-up, this recipe yields about two cups of thick pesto, so you can toss those taters in it with abandon. Leftovers are great spread on bread and popped in the toaster oven, or blitz them in your food processor with more olive oil to thin out and toss with pasta for dinner the next day. Pesto keeps in fridge up to four days. 

For the pesto, clean and roughly chop:
12 garlic scapes

In a food processor, place:
Chopped scapes,
1 1/4 cups of shredded Romano cheese
1/2 cup unsalted, roasted pumpkin seeds
1/3 cup sun-dried tomatoes
1/3 teaspoon salt

Pulse and add slowly while processing:
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Toss with two pounds of new potatoes, cleaned and boiled until tender. If you can pierce them with a fork, their done.

Add fresh ground pepper to taste.

The Canadian Food Experience Project was started by Edmonton-based food blogger Valerie Lugonja, who has called on Canadian food bloggers to define the country's culinary identity by sharing their Canadian food experiences.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Getting your seasonal drink on with Market-Fresh Mixology

I love the word muddle.

As a writer, I have it high on my favourite words list. It sounds like its meaning — clouded, confused, unclear — but more melodic and literary.

And until recently, I thought it was merely a sweeter sounding synonym for all those words. It wasn't until I cracked a copy of Market-Fresh Mixology: Cocktails for Every Season ($19.95 Agate Surrey) that I learned it was a bona fide bartending term and a necessary step in the making of some swoon-worthy libations.

But then you are reading the blog of someone whose limited cocktail knowledge was gleaned while stocking shelves at Pier 1 Imports in university. It was during that time that I mastered the difference between a highball and old fashioned glass while honing my gift for convincing people that they'd also need a snazzy set of seasonal swizzle sticks to go with their glassware purchases.

What can I say? I'm a beer girl. My drinks of choice are simple in part because my knowledge of mixology has been limited to staid vodka and tonics. But having a copy of Market-Fresh Mixology, written by master mixologist Bridget Albert with Mary Barranco, makes me look like a mistress of the mixed drink. It's filled with dozens of seasonal drink recipes that are not only approachable but make me want to forgo the beer altogether.

All that's needed is a trip to the farmers market and the liquor cabinet.

Albert, director of the Academy of Spirits and Fine Service, and Barranco make it easy to get your drink on in a fresh, seasonal way, first by devoting several pages to easy explanations of the tools one needs to mix like a pro. Think shakers, strainers and yes, a muddler. 

Albert and Barranco provide an easy-to-read run-down of what spirits to include in a well-stocked bar, highlighting the sometimes subtle but important differences between whiskeys, tequilas and brandies. Before delving into the drinks of the four seasons, the duo also spills on how to make a variety of simple syrups, sour mixers and purées.

Next comes 76 pages of beautiful recipes for dozens of creative cocktails made with everything from beets and carrots to those fruits that are quintessentially Niagara: peaches, plums, pears and even the Concord grape.  Instructions for seasonal infusions, ranging from the marriage of strawberry and rosemary with gin as the officiant, to a savoury onion infusion that brings together jalapeno, peppercorns and bell peppers in vodka, are also included to help readers build a bar worth boasting about. 

The glossy full-frame photos, shot by James Beard Award-winning photographer Tim Turner, leave me craving virtually every drink between the covers of this book but Albert's simple recipes, which include a list of tools needed for each concoction, make it possible to have my thirst quenched in no time.

The intention of the book is clear. It's to ensure the average home bartender can look like a whiz with a muddler, rocks glass (another name for the old-fashioned!) and some vodka. Or with any other bar implement and spirit. Albert and Barranco show that novices need not be overwhelmed when mixing a drink yet they also have plenty to offer the bartender comfortable pulling a Tom Cruise a la Kokomo with a cocktail shaker. In short, I love this book. It's the perfect resource to keep handy when entertaining or even when you want to treat yourself to some downtime and a brown derby.

Market-Fresh Mixology was originally published in 2008, just after 'locavore' became part of our lexicon and eating  seasonally was once again starting to make sense to people. Still, it seems that only now has such a way of living truly become habit for many rather than a trend, so releasing Market-Fresh Mixology's revised and expanded second edition in 2014 is perfect time, really. It doesn't hurt that there's been an explosion of craft distilleries fermenting fine spirits to make the reprinting of this little gem of a book even more timely and relevant.

"I want my readers to gain confidence and experience so they know they can make really great cocktails right in their own homes," Albert says. "They no longer have to serve cocktails with store-bought ingredients. They can truly elevate what they serve with just a little preparation. I also want them to enjoy their new craft and delight in what they do."

There's nothing muddled about that.

Cucumber Caipiroska

Cucumber Caipiroska

This recipe is filed under Spring but in these parts, cucumbers are decidedly summer. And with the World Cup in high gear, I thought this vodka-based version of the Brazilian Caipirinha would be the perfect accompaniment to taking in any match on the pitch. (Reprinted with permission from Market-Fresh Mixology by Bridget Albert and Mary Barranco, Agate Surrey, March 2014.)  

Mixing glass
Rocks glass

4 lime wedges
1 ounce simple syrup
2 cucumber wheels (1/2-inch)
1 1/2 ounces pear vodka

To a rocks glass, add lime wedges, simple syrup, cucumbers and vodka. Muddle until the ingredients are well combined. Add ice to tin. Pour ingredients from rocks glass to mixing glass while reserving the rocks glass. Shake well. Dump all ingredients from the shaker back into the seasoned rocks glass and serve.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Coming back

A rough outline of one of the chapters in Niagara Food: A Flavourful History of
the Peninsula's Bounty.

It's been a long time, hasn't it?

I have to apologize for my absence. It's not that I'm no longer interested in being here. No, not at all. In fact, I look forward to being here a lot more again now that my manuscript is done.

I have to say, when the last word was typed, it was a little anticlimactic. With each word I wrote that brought me closer to the end, I had visions of throwing the monstrous pile of papers, notebooks and books on my desk into the air and dancing a jig on top of them when they landed. But considering it was 2 a.m. and everyone else in the house was asleep when I had no more to write, I didn't think it would be appreciated.

Actually, I didn't have the energy. So I just stared at the screen, expecting some euphoric feeling to overtake me but nope. It wasn't exhilaration that I felt either. I felt panic.

There is a vulnerability to writing 43,000 words about something that you adore, as I adore Niagara food and farming. This isn't my usual 600-word news story that's here today and forgotten tomorrow. I feel as though my credibility as a writer and as a champion of all things edible and Niagara — and the people producing them — is on the line. What if people hate it? Worse yet, what if no one reads it? What if this is the only book I ever write? I worry about that because I really want to write more. I've wanted to be an author since I was a child and I have so many ideas.

I know people could love it, too, and that's what I hope, of course.

My soul feels laid bare with this project. I'm not sure that feeling will have subsided by the time my book comes out in the fall, though I look forward to holding it in my hands, to seeing the cover, the words on the pages, to breathing deeply the smell of the ink and paper, and the sweat and tears that went into every moment I devoted to this nearly year-long work.

I will feel as though I have given birth again, my second labour in the same year.

Niagara Food: A Flavourful History of the Peninsula's Bounty is due out this fall. I nearly had a heart attack when I saw that it was already listed on Amazon for advanced sales back in May. The words weren't even finished when I discovered it. And every time I've looked at it since (yes, I did go to Amazon while writing and call it up to see it, just to keep me going), it still didn't feel real.

If you are interested, though, please check it out. If you do decide to buy a copy, know that I am grateful. I hope more than anything that my love for Niagara will be apparent with every turn of the page. We have amazing people here doing some really inspiring things with food. What's not to love, really?

To coincide with the upcoming release, my Eating Niagara column will be running twice monthly in all the Niagara dailies this summer. I look forward to getting out and meeting more people doing important work in local food and farming. Perhaps I'll have the fodder for a sequel soon enough.

Mostly, though, I look forward to coming back to this space, my creative outlet, and sharing food stories again, like the reviews in the works on two recipe collections that are welcome additions on what's becoming an overflowing pantry shelf. Or my last two —and long overdue — instalments of the Canadian Food Experience Project, and all the other inspiration that I know I'll find in the weeks and months ahead.

I've missed you guys and I promise I won't go so long without saying hello again.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Canadian Food Experience Project: Five garden weeds to put on your plate

My garden is barely a postage stamp.

Right now, it's mostly a barren swath of soil, home to a clematis that keeps hitting the snooze button and some early rising rhubarb that's up but barely at 'em.

I love it, though, for the gifts that it provides. Sure, I feel grateful when the herbs and vegetables I plant each year grow and thrive and reward me weeks and months later for what little effort I put into their upkeep.

It's the surprise gifts that I love more, though. The ones I don't plant.

The weeds.

Yes, what other gardeners despise and work out the day's frustrations by pulling, I take delight in letting grow. I don't fret about these herbaceous squatters competing for sunlight and nutrients with those perennials who have seniority in my plot or any annuals who lease prime real estate for a season. The reason is simple. Most of the weeds in my tiny plot are edible, packing a health kick and more flavour than some of those invited guests we go to great lengths to make comfortable. I'm looking at you green leaf lettuce.

Ever since the province imposed a cosmetic pesticide ban in 2008, lawns and gardens everywhere have become virtual salad bars. They're filled with roots, leaves and blooms that had been all but banished from existence by those poison-carting tanker trucks that homeowners once hired to spray them into oblivion. And for that we should be grateful. 

As some food security advocates lobby for insect farming to feed the world, I say we should eat more weeds. Looking outside my back door, they're plentiful and effortless to grow, so why not take advantage of what's on offer? Here are five common garden weeds that we should be putting on our plates instead of the compost heap:

Monday, April 21, 2014

Co-operation makes it happen: Helping out the Niagara Local Food Co-op

Arden Vaughn of Lake Land Meats and former board president for the
Niagara Local Food Co-op. The co-op is in "dire straits financially," Arden says.

I just ate a vegetable pot pie that I didn't make myself, save for reheating it from frozen.

Not my usual fare but I'm still getting back into the swing of cooking for myself since my daughter's arrival four weeks ago. That makes convenience food fair game for me right now.

This pre-fab pot pie is a little different, though, than what you might be conjuring. It was made locally by a St. Davids business called Health Nut Vegan Foods and I bought it through the Niagara Local Food Co-op. In fact, a lot of my recent meals have come from co-op vendors: Chana masala, sweet potato and black bean chili, tofu deli slices for sandwiches. None of it has unpronounceable preservatives or funky chemicals putting me at risk of indigestion or my daughter growing a third eye. Just simple ingredients, much like what I'd use if I were making each meal myself.

While I've made a point of ordering regularly from the co-op, which is a virtual farmers market with shopping done online, that order with the vegetable pot pie made the entire two years I've been a member worthwhile. My life is made easier with healthy meal options that I don't have to stress over making myself as I get accustomed to being a sleep-deprived mom running on fumes.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Canadian Food Experience Project: The flavour purple

Homemade grape juice is easy to make and an homage to a Niagara industry
that has been kept alive by only a small group of farmers.

I wanted flash. Some ta-dah, huzzah, laaaaa.

Because that's how grape cream pie sounds to me — or purple cow pie, depending on what circles you run in — especially a vegan version, given the cow and I just don't get on well. There would be homemade condensed milk, too, created with coconut milk to further prove my domestic prowess and eschew the bovine.

But I was running out of time to try my hand at it. March 30 was the deadline I had given myself to finish the first draft of Niagara Food: A Flavourful History of the Peninsula's Bounty for my publisher, the History Press. At 1,000 words a day, it seemed nothing short of doable, though my manuscript wasn't actually due until May 1. You see, I was trying to please another editor — Olivia, my daughter growing inside me and, according to my obstetrician, expected to arrive April 10.

I was trying to beat the belly as I diligently wrote about food and farming in Niagara each day for the past two months. But as my self-imposed manuscript deadline loomed, developing and testing a recipe using a regional food — Concord grape juice — for this instalment of the Canadian Food Experience Project was the kind of fun for which I just couldn't find the time. 

Then the belly decided my gig was up anyway. Done my manuscript or not, able to create and test vegan purple cow pie or not, Olivia arrived March 24, nearly three weeks early. 

So I offer something less flashy than grape cream pie. Something simpler but something far more relevant to me, to the belly that is now my daughter sleeping by my side as I type: homemade grape juice. Of course, Concords can be used for this or green Niagara grapes when they're back in season in August and September. Any juice grape, really, even if they are harder to find now that our juice grape industry is barely a blip on our agricultural landscape. After Cadbury-Schweppes, which made grape juice concentrate for Welch's, closed its St. Catharines plant in 2007, the death knell rang for the 60-year-old local grape juice industry.

There were 87 juice grape growers at the time with 1,700 acres of fruit to their name. Last time I checked in 2012 while writing a story for Edible Toronto, there were 32 growers and less than half the 2007 acreage remaining. Most of those growers now send their grapes over the border to a co-operative that also processes bunches for Welch's. Buy a can of the brand-name grape juice concentrate and you might get a taste of Niagara's grape juice legacy. A handful of growers, hanging onto tradition and a livelihood, also press and sell their own juice. It's available at local farmers markets or directly from the farm. 

How the mighty Concord has fallen — once even a staple in our local wine industry until the advent of free trade and the Vintners Quality Alliance in the late 1980s motivated growers to plant proper wine grapes, such as Chardonnay.

Bunches of sovereign coronation grapes on a grapevine
Sovereign Coronation grapes in a Niagara-on-the-Lake

Late last September, I could be found in a Niagara-on-the-Lake vineyard that rolled out in front of me like a lush welcome mat. I was picking Sovereign Coronations, a table grape similar in taste to the Concord but seedless, that was developed in the 1970s at the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre in B.C. 

Sovereign coronations have been growing in Niagara since 2000, a cross between the black Patricia and green Himrod, so says the mighty Wikipedia. I adore how when I pop one in my mouth and gently bite down, the sweet, juicy green flesh separates from its tart dark skin, both coming together again as I chew to create the epitome of grape flavour. Imagine eating a Jolly Rancher or any other grape candy and you'll have an idea of the sovereign coronation's oh-so-purple flavour. 

That early fall evening a few months ago, I was harvesting heavy bunches of the berries cloaked in their soft, milky bloom for the Garden of Eating - Niagara. The farmer couldn't find a buyer for his fruit and several tons were going to fall to the ground to rot. At the time, I was maybe 12 or 13 weeks pregnant and hadn't yet announced that I was expecting. I was nervous about sharing the news, more uneasy about filling my bushel baskets too full and doing any heavy lifting. My friend Rowan was with me to help pick and shoulder the loads, him clutching one side of the bushel basket, me the other, as we gingerly carried them from the vineyard to my car for delivery to Project Share. 

With every step toward my car that I took, I chanted to myself 'Please be OK, baby. Please be OK, baby. Please be OK, baby.'

While Olivia is my first child, she wasn't my first pregnancy. I had a miscarriage nearly two years ago and often wonder if it was because I didn't slow down, that I still did the heavy lifting when perhaps I should have asked for help. That I took for granted the delicate act of life being created and growing inside me. 

The whole drive home that night, my car filled with the most potent purple smell, I kept repeating my mantra. Still, I knew no matter how hard I willed a healthy, happy baby, my mind wouldn't truly be at ease until I was holding her in my arms. 

That night, I rewarded myself for my efforts in that vineyard. I set aside a peck of grapes for myself, thinking I could easily eat my way through 12.5 pounds of fruit in no time. After all, I had another life to feed. As the days passed, I realized just how much fruit that was and decided to juice what was left — juice that I might one day use to make vegan purple cow pie, if time ever allows. Or just sip, enjoy and toast the new priorities in my life, celebrate my daughter and give thanks for an evening in a Niagara-on-the-Lake vineyard that was both so forgiving and fruitful.

Homemade grape juice

I used about six pounds of grapes to make two litres of juice. Making juice in six-pound batches is very manageable.

Step 1
Pluck grapes from stems and clean.

Step 2
Put berries into heavy-bottomed pot and mash with a potato masher.

Step 3
Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring and continuing to mash grapes as they heat up.

Step 4
Simmer for 15 minutes then remove from heat.

Step 5
Strain juice through a colander lined with cheesecloth or through a fine-mesh sieve. Don't force the juice through. Let it drain on its own, otherwise you will need to strain it twice.

Step 6
Heat pack in sterilized, one-litre mason jars (a 10-minute water bath, depending on altitude, will suffice).

Step 7

If you don't want to make your own, the following Niagara farmers press and sell their own label of juice:

Concord Mountain Farm Juice (Grimsby): 905-563-1835
Honey Valley Farms Juice (Jordan):
Wiley's Juices (St. Catharines):
Greenview Farms (Fonthill): 905-892-3326

The Canadian Food Experience Project was started by Edmonton-based food blogger Valerie Lugonja, who has called on Canadian food bloggers to define the country's culinary identity by sharing their Canadian food experiences.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The perfect balance: arugula, mushroom and walnut risotto

Arugula, mushroom and walnut risotto
Rumour has it tomorrow is the first day of spring. It's supposed to show up around lunch time.

I can only hope it makes a grand entrance because despite what the thermometer says, from my perch in front of my laptop, it doesn't look like winter is giving up its iron grip on us. I feel like it's pulling a Charlton Heston, taunting us with "From my cold, dead hands..."

Just go already. 

And while I have enjoyed this first real winter that I've experienced since moving back to Ontario from the Prairies 12 years ago, there was one issue starting to give me severe cabin fever: the lack of anything green and fresh that was local. I long for those signs of green garlic or wild hairy bittercress, despite its hideous name, that I found in my garden around this time last year, and celebrated like the gift that they were.
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