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.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Canadian Food Experience Project: (Almost) a Canadian love affairwith ice fishing

Ice fishing huts on Lake Erie in February 2014.

The framed photo propped against the wall in my office started it all.

The red wooden ice fishing hut against the stark backdrop of baby blue sky interrupted by the ruler-straight line of Lake Simcoe's frozen surface was so beautiful, I had to buy it when I saw it 12 years ago at the One of a Kind craft show in Toronto.

The aesthetic appeal aside, it awoke in me something primordial. There was something about sitting on a frozen lake, alone with a rod and your thoughts, anticipating the catch of fresh fish that led me to believe I had to go ice fishing. 

The second toe on my left foot, which regularly turns nose-wrinkling shades of magenta, deep purple, even a bit of periwinkle blue the moment it feels slightly chilled, is the regular reminder that it was all just nonsense.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Lessons in blogging: Saying yes to a big brand, then saying no

Source: Shutterstock

It was a thoughtful pitch. Solid, even.

The PR consultant knew my name, that I hated celery, that my food blog was intensely Niagara-focused.

Those personal touches made it tough to ignore, unlike the myriad of other poorly researched and impersonal offers I get to be a brand ambassador for coffee, or to write a review about everything from medjool dates to exercise equipment. 

That's why, rather than hitting delete, I considered writing a review of the new Sobeys store in St. Catharines. Not only was it a local story, it was right in my neighbourhood and, the consultant pointed out, the store now carried many products with a Niagara connection.

I'm always very reluctant to do sponsored posts or take up a company on a product review offer. In fact, I can count on one hand those that I've done since starting this blog five years ago. I'm careful who I lend this virtual space to, not wanting to shill for anyone and everyone because I got something free. After all, it's my reputation, my brand, as it were, that's on the line.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Sip, savour and help keep a popular Niagara event going

Cookbook author John Schlimm will be in St. Catharines this weekend as part of a
sold-out fundraiser for Niagara VegFest at the Niagara Artists' Centre. His latest cookbook,
The Cheesy Vegan, offers simple cruelty-free ways to eat the world's ultimate comfort food.
Photo source: American Library Association

Vegan food.

For whatever reason, those two words can make the most ardent omnivore shudder. Or become defensive.

Take it from this undisciplined vegetarian who has, over the past eight years, had her meals scrutinized by skeptics and critics alike.

Vegan food is no oxymoron, omnivores. Some of my most memorable and satisfying meals have been entirely plant-based, and, as an added bonus, guilt-free.

For the past two years, two St. Catharines women have been working hard to show people the merits of adopting a plant-based diet or at least making less room on their plates for meat, dairy and other animal products.

Keri Cronin and Laurie Morrison founded Niagara VegFest in an effort to educate those hungry to try out more mindful eating, and their efforts have been devoured by the thousands that have attended VegFest in the two years it has run.

But Cronin and Morrison, who became inspired to start the festival in 2012 after hearing about similar events in the U.S., need some help to ensure VegFest remains a free event that attracts the who's who of vegan and vegetarian cooking and eating.

Friday, January 31, 2014

St. Catharines couple hopes to tap into local harvests with fruitbrewery

Chris Peters and Crystal Morin hope to extend Niagara's ale trail with a fruit beer brewery. 

A St. Catharines couple has dreams of putting up their shingle on Niagara's ale trail.

Homebrewers Chris Peters and Crystal Morin have ambitions of beckoning the thirsty with fruit beers, made by fermenting some of the bounty that grows in Niagara. Think an apricot and orange IPA, a raspberry Hefeweizen, or a maple vanilla porter, sourcing locally grown ingredients when possible and bottling them under their aptly named Hop'n Orchard label. 

It's a heady idea but after testing out some of their concoctions on friends, using a five-gallon pilot brewing system in their garage in Western Hill, the beer afficionados say their hobby has the makings of a solid business plan. 

"We've always knocked around the idea playfully," Peters said. "But when our friends really liked it, we thought maybe we were on to something."

Problem is, how do they take the idea from their garage to growlers they can sell legally?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The conflicted vegetarian and her chowder

Smoked trout chowder

I have an on-again, off-again relationship with fish.

In the minds of many, this makes me a bad vegetarian, even if my relationship with the gilled types has been more off in the eight years since giving up meat. 

Still, there are moments when fish and mollusks have been my saviour, like the time when, after withering away on the 100-mile diet for weeks, winding up undernourished, weak and anemic, I finally listened to my body and gave up the ridiculous quest in exchange for a plate of pasta and unsustainable (no doubt Thai-farmed) shrimp. Otherworldly by 100-mile diet standards. Necessary to help me mend my body with the protein and carbs that it had been missing for the previous six weeks.

There was also the time I had some awful virus shacked up within me that kept me bathroom-bound for four days, hugging the toilet as I genuflected to whatever it was that was trying to do me in. After four days, my system entirely purged and my appetite tentatively letting me know it was returning, I jumped up from languishing on my couch to proclaim, 'I need meat!' My husband obliged and got me takeout — a shrimp salad in all its medicinal glory. 

I'd eat some seafood — I drew the line at lobster and crab — to appease my mother who seemed less stymied by salmon in the kitchen than lentils when we came to visit. But I did it begrudgingly until I finally said no more. I was, after all, a vegetarian.

And it seems now, with me pregnant and afflicted with the odd craving, I am on again with fish, having eaten it a handful of times. Fish and chips slathered with tartar sauce sounds perfect in my current state, compared to a filet of sole or plate of tilapia. Something about that greasy, glorious heart attack on a plate. I have no justification for it, however, other than being guided by my belly when it comes to deciding on my next meal.

In a moment of real weakness before Christmas, I found myself standing in Lake Land Meats with a small smoked trout filet in my hand. What was I thinking? I was racked with guilt, common among Catholics, Jews and wavering vegetarians. 

Still, I left with my filet, tailed by my guilty conscience the entire drive to the grocery store where I bought myself a bottle of hemp oil with the hope that regularly gulping plant-based essential fatty acids would prevent me from ever doing again what I had just done.

Has it? Yes. And no. I recently found myself in possession of another filet. OK, to be clear, it wasn't as accidental as that sounds. I ordered it from the Niagara Local Food Co-op because the magic that I worked with that first filet compelled me.

Not too thick, not too thin, this chowder won over my skeptical husband.

And truth be told my husband ate most of it after recoiling in horror at the site of the filet. That's what happens when you turn the deep pink, oily side of trout into rich smoked fish chowder, with rib-sticking starchy potatoes and sweet carrots (both grown in Niagara), and a touch of thyme to make it all the more aromatic, earthy, even. Suddenly it becomes appetizing. More than that, in fact. It becomes the makings of new cravings that those greasy fish and chips just can't touch. 

Fortunately, those cravings are few and far between, I'm sure because of the hemp oil, whose taste I can barely stomach.

Doesn't make me feel any less guilty about loving that chowder, though. 

Smoked trout chowder

Serves 4

2 tbsp butter in a heavy-bottom pot over medium-high heat

1 onion, diced
2 medium carrots, diced

Cook until onion is transluscent and carrot starts to soften.

4 cups of vegetable broth
1 pound of potatoes, peeled and diced
1/2 a tsp of dried thyme

Bring to a boil and reduce heat to simmer, covered, for 15-20 minutes our until potatoes and carrots are tender but not mushy.

Then add:
1 small fillet of smoked trout (about 1/3 of a pound), flaked
1 cup of cream 
1/2 tsp pepper
Salt to taste

Simmer five minutes more. Serve with your favourite bread for dunking.
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