Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Hitting too close to my veggie crisper

Chard growing in my garden last summer.

The headline was an attention grabber.

"Fresh produce recalled because of salmonella scare," it read.

As an eater, how could I not be curious? How could I not need to know what, exactly, might be laced with illness-inducing bacteria?

Granted, most times, I stop reading such stories, penned more and more frequently, after the first few paragraphs. By that point, I've determined that whatever the contaminated food is, it isn't a threat to me because it's either a product or particular brand I don't buy.

But a recall this week hit a little too close to my immune system. The produce being recalled was chard, kale, parsley and various other greens -- my favourite vegetables, to boot -- and the brand was one that my local grocery store carries.

This is where I should I breathe a long, deep sigh of relief because I grow my own chard and buy my greens from a local farmer. Well, I do those things but red flags still went up over those greens.

It's late December and my garden is long gone. I have no cold frame to keep my greens growing in these current temperatures that inspire hibernation more than germination. I've moved my chard plants indoors where they have stopped growing and eased into their seasonal slumber, resting up to take off again outdoors in the spring.

As for my purchases from my much loved veggie lady, Linda, they still happen but didn't before Christmas. They got lost in the rush of getting things done and spending the precious few last days I had with a sick and dying cat. I simply wasn't up to the 40 minute drive to Wainfleet to pick up the chard I would need for the chard gratin I had planned to serve on Christmas Eve, so I headed to my de facto green source: the grocery store. There, I found large bundles of leafy Swiss Chard, adorned with its Little Bear label straight from Texas. Far from desirable but given the circumstances, it had to do.

So, it was a little tough not to be alarmed when I saw a story warning people about Little Bear chard this week and its possible salmonella contamination. Granted it was for leafy greens shipped to Canada between Nov. 30 and Dec. 7. Mine were bought on Dec. 22 (should I be relieved?) and if anyone still has greens kicking around from nearly a month ago, I can't imagine it's because they've been saving them for a special occasion to eat. They likely were forgotten about and given the recall, it's a good thing. For those who had eaten their purchases, well, if you're reading this, I can only assume you got through unscathed. Fortunately, my family seems to have.

Still, there was more to my reaction, summed up by someone on Twitter, who thanked me for tweeting the story, letting other greens lovers know so they wouldn't get green around the gills.

"I had some of these greens in my fridge. Makes me so angry," the tweep wrote.

That's exactly how I felt. Angry. Angry at the false sense of security I have when I buy food at the grocery store. Angry that my trust in what I'm being offered at said grocery store has been broken. Angry that I didn't take the time to drive out to Wainfleet. And angry that yet another food recall has happened.

If this is the price we have to pay to feed ourselves en masse, something is seriously wrong. How did this happen? What corners were cut in Little Bear's large scale production to put me, my family and countless others in possible danger? Isn't this yet another sign that something in our food system is not working? That the way the collective 'we' do things when it comes to producing food is broken and needs to be fixed?

Angry is starting to sound like an understatement. Where do I sign up to rise up?

The giants in the ag world might be cutting corners but lesson learned here. I'll take those corners, thank you, especially if they're en route Linda's farm and her safe, conscientiously-grown greens.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A (garlic) green Christmas

My tofurkey is beckoning, as is my carnivorous family's bird from Kent Heritage Farms in Niagara-on-the-Lake. (They maintain it's the best turkey they have ever eaten, so I'll just take their word for it).

That means I'll keep this short and sweet. I got an early Christmas this week when my experimental indoor garlic shot up four lovely, fresh beginnings of their future incarnations (will it be actual heads of garlic or only garlic greens?) and I wanted to share it since many of you are curious what my greenish thumb will reap.

Your guess is as good as mine, but right now, my experimental garlic seems to be doing everything it should be. That is, it's growing. Though I won't be eating fresh, homegrown garlic or its greens for Christmas, who knows what Valentine's Day will bring. Goodness knows there's nothing more romantic than garlic breath.

Merry Christmas everyone. I wish you and yours all the best.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Wanted: a real trail blazer

The Niagara Culinary Trail has come to the end of the road.

A former director for the group that churned out maps pointing people to local farms and local food said it folded because the money ran out.

Now, the hope is the Region will take it over. After all, the level of government that is a bit of an enigma to just about everybody living in Niagara has been touting its local food action plan, making it seem like a good fit. Though, aside from sending staff to local food events to quiz revellers about whether we can grow oranges here, I'm not entirely sure what effective actions the plan has evoked.

In some ways, the demise of the trail is sad news for Niagara — a hotbed of agriculture that isn't found just anywhere. This region is the buckle of Ontario's tender fruit belt, with nearby Norfolk County and its micro-climate serving as the only other notch in said belt.

This region also does wine better than anywhere else in the province and Niagara is the poultry producing capital of Ontario, among our many other agricultural feats. Yet, the agency charged with marketing all of those food and farming fun facts to residents and visitors couldn't survive.

Several years ago, the trail got nearly $250,000 from the non-profit Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation to produce maps to local farms and lead the local food charge. A communications person was hired to pump out press releases and events were organized to connect chefs and locavores with farmers. But clearly, what work the trail did didn't resonate with its intended audience.

I can recall one such event intended to connect chefs with a local farmer, who had recently diversified his usual crop of pumpkins by adding towers of hydroponic strawberries to his Fonthill farm. Three years ago, the crop and growing method were shown off on a soggy fall day more synonymous with root vegetables than a berry that heralds summer.

I covered the event as a reporter for a local paper. There were lots of media there — more media than chefs, in fact. All of the chefs that were reportedly supposed to show didn't. Three turned up, but two were a husband and wife team working at restaurant that has since shuttered. I'm not sure what became of the farmer's strawberry crop. Good thing he always had that successful plan A of his pumpkins to fall back on.

The next event I showed up to was at Niagara College a year later. This time, the produce of the moment was pears. Chefs from the school's culinary institute stood in a parking lot over a portable burner, showing all the magic that could be worked by the lowly fruit. Those who showed up were handed a pear recipe and sampling of pear butter. Then tonnes of smirched but sweet seconds — pears that had been hammered by hail and weren't supermarket material — were packed up by volunteers for food banks.

But again, it was who showed up — or who didn't — that was key. It was media, a rep from the Tender Fruit Producers' Marketing Board, who wanted any help he could get in spreading the word out about pears in a new post-CanGro canning plant reality, the culinary institute crew, a farmer and volunteers set to pack pears. There were no other chefs or other food curious types.

I wrote my story, but how much the word got out about the event depended on how many people read the paper the next day.

Best of intentions but not even close to a success in marketing the bounty of this region. Of course, there are those culinary trail maps. Problem is, if someone didn't know about the trail or happen to stop in at one of its members' restaurants or farm stores, they would have needed a map just to find the map.

The last ditch effort to tell the world about all the fabulous food local farmers are producing came in the form of a small, glossy booklet dividing Niagara into five culinary regions. Depending on the farmer you asked, this wasn't a source of marketing genius. This was a source of anger, particularly for those living in west Niagara, a big brown abyss amongst the other colourful sections into which the region had been divided. And everything south of Vineland in this big brown abyss didn't exist, according to this guide — or at least it wasn't worth mentioning.

If you were to take the Niagara Culinary Trail, the body charged with marketing local agriculture, at its word, you would be inclined to think that West Lincoln and Wainfleet were just vast wastelands of nothingness — not home to Niagara's only other nut farmer, or a well-known heirloom vegetable grower who supplies some of the finest restaurants in Niagara while still selling her veggies to passersby at her farm, for example.

Maybe it's because they weren't members of the trail. If you weren't willing to shell out $400 a year to be mentioned on a hard-to-find map or in the occasional newspaper column, well, it's as though you didn't exist. So, how committed were the heads of the trail, really, to marketing all that Niagara had to offer?

Apparently, the $400 was also a bone of contention for some farmers, who complained that it was too steep a price to pay for what they received. The lack of fee money coming in helped sink the trail. But people aren't going to invest good money in something if there's no pay off, and clearly, there wasn't.

Other culinary trails survive and even thrive, so how do they do it? I've been told it's because local government steps in and supports them. If it's going to be the Region who plays the saviour, here's hoping it hops to it and doesn't move at the usual pace of government.

But if not, Niagara is fertile ground for another agency to take the food and farming marketing reins. (Hey Foodlink BLBF, are you interested?) My only hope is that whomever gets the job actually does the job. That means more than issuing the odd press release and map, and calling themselves local food champions because of it.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

'Tis the season to share

Food is for sharing. It's about community, memories, ritual and comfort.

With 2010 coming to a close, I'll be bidding adieu to another year of food adventures and another 365 days of interesting times in agriculture.

But enough about me. I want to hear about you. What was your favourite food or farming memory of 2010? Maybe you finally tried growing a garden and were successful. Perhaps you tried a new food that has become a fast favourite or made a concerted effort eat more local food — a change that has given you a fresh perspective. Did you find a new recipe that makes meal time that much better at your dinner table? Are Sundays spent in the kitchen experimenting?

Did you meet a local food crusader who inspired you? Have you bonded with a farmer who now keeps you fed? Maybe you took your love of local one step further and joined a group or organization championing the food of your region or beating the drum of food security.

Whatever it is, tell me about it. Write it and send it my way. I will post the entries I receive and award the top three with made-in-Niagara prize packs tailored to the winners.

While I love good grammar and punctuation, I won't hold a misplaced comma or the American spelling of flavour against anyone. What I care about more is something that is written with passion. If you have photos that you want to include, even better.

So get writing and send your submissions to by Jan. 20, 2011.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Growing Pains: Growing garlic indoors

I don't have much of a green thumb, but the other day, I thought I'd experiment with garlic that turned to seed. I've been asked to chronicle what happens. Here's part one.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

My first Quickie (and it won't be my last)

It's my least favourite meal of the day.

Lunch, quite frankly, is a drag. It requires planning, comes at an awkward time of the day and usually with a time limit attached to it. None of those attributes make it particularly me-friendly.

The planning part is a challenge because I work during the week, so that means if I'm being organized, I make my lunch the night before. That also means I have to think about what I'm going to have for lunch before I've even had a chance to contemplate breakfast. I'm not sure how fashion designers can work an entire season ahead because I have real trouble working just one meal ahead.

I'll try lightening my load by making enough at supper so that I have leftovers — leftovers, which made my nose wrinkle as a child make me ecstatic now because it's one less thing to worry about when it comes to eating the next day. Problem is, if I my husband comes home late from work, which he tends to do, with his usually voracious appetite even more voracious than usual, whatever morsels I thought I'd have left for the next day don't stand a chance.

I can't tell you how many times a confident me has visited the kitchen after he's eaten only to shocked at the empty baking dish/pot/plate/tupperware container and left fretting about what I will eat when the clock strikes noon the next day.

The result is me usually reaching for a reusable shopping bag as I'm about to dash out the door in the morning and filling it with the jar of peanut butter, jam, the loaf of bread (no time to pull out two slices) and a butter knife to assemble my midday meal at my desk.

If only my lunches looked like the one pictured above, boring as it may be, because if they did, it would mean a) I have a lunch and b) I wouldn't need to venture out of my office on these now damp, dreary winter days in search of grub.

But alas, I have found a cure for those days when I hope for something hearty and healthy but have to forgo homemade because the lunchtime forces are working against me. It's the Quickie at Wellington Court.

The swanky restaurant just a stone's throw from St. Catharines City Hall has started to cater to the 'to-go' crowd — the folks who don't have time to enjoy the relaxed pace of a meal eaten in the comfy digs of Wellington Court and who, like me, need a lunch to avoid hitting the 3:00 wall at 12:15.

For $15, those ordering a Quickie — an experience that elicits some slight tittering and prudish blushing by me (thank goodness I can't be seen over the phone) — get a gourmet sandwich, salad and mammoth cookie. It's so big that in my two times of having a quickie, I've never been able to finish and I've never been one to have a problem with dessert or nookie — erm, I mean cookies. (Quickie, just mere typing of it gets me a little flustered).

My first Quickie from Wellington Court, a grilled vegetable panini.

Best part is, it's really good food. My first Quickie was a grilled vegetable panini, something that I normally avoid in restaurants. Often, such sandwiches are scant on the satisfying stuff, like eggplant and zucchini, and too heavy on the peppers. Nothing against peppers but I don't want them to be the bulk of what fills the space between two pieces of bread calling themselves a grilled vegetable sandwich. Seems like whoever made the sandwich was mailing it in that day.

But my Quickie grilled veg 'wich had zucchini and yellow and red pepper, creamy goat cheese and a savoury pumpkin-almond pesto that was both sweet and with a bit of kick. It took a potentially ho-hum sandwich and made it whoa-yum.

Best of all, the sandwich was warm, and with one bite, I felt my shoulders relax just a little and my chewing switch from methodical to just a little slower. I was enjoying my lunch — thoroughly enjoying my lunch — and didn't mind at all that it was keeping me from my work.

It was followed by a salad of fresh greens, and finished with a ginormous homemade milk chocolate and walnut cookie that was of the stuff that makes Cookie Monster go banana cakes. It was worth the $15, which might strike some as steep for lunch. Still, when I think of what I've spent on other sandwich lunches because I've been a poor planner or my husband has been extra hungry, I feel like I may have been a bit hosed on those past lunch outings. The quality of my Quickie was above and beyond.

Yes, it really was good for me.

Each week, Chef Erik Peacock at Wellington Court changes up the Quickie Choices. This past week featured a calamari sandwich with lemon candy, chili aoli and lettuce. Not your typical ham and cheese and rye. How can that kind of creativity be resisted?

Also on the menu meatloaf sandwich and rare roast beef with horseradish cream on a croissant, along with the mainstay grilled veg panini.

There will be more Quickies in my future and I will savour every bite, taking a normally rushed meal as slowly as possible. Wellington Court on Urbanspoon

Monday, December 6, 2010

The name's Mayer, but you can call me cheesemaker extraordinaire

Peter and Doreen Sullivan tag-team to wrap homemade cheese in the kitchen
of their Niagara Falls home. The couple holds weekly lessons in cheesemaking
I've never been more excited to see mold growing on something in my fridge.

For the first time, the fuzzy stuff's presence has nothing to do with me forgetting about a tofu stir-fry that got pushed to the back of the fridge.

Nope, that mold is there because I've done something right. Its presence is magical. Pure, cheesemaking wizardry, thanks to Doreen and Peter Sullivan, ultimate foodies that they are.

Three months ago, I signed up to spend a Saturday with this Niagara Falls couple making cheese. I was beckoned by an offer from Standard reporter Marlene Bergsma, who knew such an outing would appeal to my food-curious sensibilities.

When she suggested it in July, I figured we'd be making cheese in just a couple of weeks but no such luck. The Sullivans' days of leading groups in proper milk-curdling techniques are in high demand and that meant Marlene and I were looking at November at the earliest to try our hands at an age-old art that seemed romantic, tasty and potentially smelly all at once.

We pulled up to a modest bungalow in north Niagara Falls on frosty Saturday morning to find six other curious and cheese loving folk who had travelled from as far away as Port Elgin and as close as Port Dalhousie to learn how to make cheese. We were even joined by a partner in the Upper Canada Cheese Co., that popular Jordan stop that churns out the likes of Niagara Gold and the perfectly named Comfort Cream cheeses.

Me packing curd into a cheese mold with hopes of it becoming Roquefort.
Our reasons for being there were just as varied as our hometowns: one couple was already making their own wine with local grapes so making cheese just seemed to be a natural extension of their handiwork. Others were curious or dragged along by partners, moms, or in the case of the Upper Canada partner, the determination to finally figure out how cheese is made.

Truth is, it's not easy. Aside from milk, there are certain things that are required: lots of hand soap and paper towels (if you missed out on the importance of hand-washing before, a day with the Sullivans will forever cement the importance of this essential life lesson) and patience. Cheesemaking is a time-consuming, precise practice. You might not guess it, but the production of curds and whey is a pretty finicky process.

Doreen Sullivan wraps some of her
homemade cheese.
We all gathered around the Sullivans' crowded kitchen table to learn about what made them home cheesemakers. For Peter, a guy with rosy cheeks and kindly face, he was groomed to be a foodie at an early age during visits to the neighbourhood butcher and a trip to Europe after finishing school with only high school French and an intimate knowledge of cheddar — he had no idea there were other cheeses out there — to guide him.

Given that all he could say en francais when hunger struck one day in Switzerland was 'Une sandwich fromage,' little did he expect that his request for sustenance would turn into a life-changing experience. What he got was some fine bread with some even finer Brie in between. And so, a sophisticated cheese connoisseur was born. It was a love that would only grow during another act of desperation 10 years ago.

Peter was in a pinch for a Christmas present when, as luck would have it, he heard the voice of a godsend on the radio. It was a woman named Margaret Morris and she talked about her cheesemaking classes that she held in her home in eastern Ontario. It was a done deal and a merry Christmas as Peter signed up both himself and Doreen.

They've never looked back and I'm doubtful they've bought much cheese since.

As for Doreen, she worked as a teacher, making her a shoo-in to lead a bunch of cheesemaking greeners in a how-to session. But she also got lessons in coagulation as a dental hygenist. Yup, that's right. Mouth cheese gave Doreen insight into the making of real cheese. After all, it's all about bacteria to take milk from that creamy liquid to a creamy solid worthy of being called cheese and being a dental hygenist taught her the difference good bacteria versus bad bacteria can make.

Enter the lectures on handwashing. If cheesemaking ever fails this duo, they would have a future with your local public health department for their stressing the importance of washing one's hands to the tune of Happy Birthday — a good length of time to get your digits soapy and water soaked. I must have lathered, rinsed and repeated about 10 times in the six hours I was in the Sullivans' company. My red and raw hands were assurance I wasn't going to contaminate my cheese-in-the-making with that bad bacteria Doreen had warned us about, even if it dashed any hopes of my being a hand model.

Marlene cuts the curd under Doreen's watchful eye.
On this blustery late fall day, we were going to make Camembert and Roquefort, though we were also provided with recipes to make Ricotta and cream cheese in the detailed and (I hope) foolproof instructions we were sent home with.

As the milk was brought to just the right temperature, we were told that these vastly different cheeses, as with any cheese really, have one thing in common.

"All cheeses are made the same way," Doreen said. "They all start out the same way, no matter what."

And that is brought to the right temperature in a water bath with sterile equipment.

We dutifully filled out our cheese diaries, penning in the time we got started, the temperature of the milk, the water bath and any interventions necessary to bring it up to the right heat at different intervals throughout the morning. We jotted down the proper bacteria to take our concoction from warm milk to the stuff that Little Miss Muffet ate on that tuffet of hers. We learned that rennet, the ingredient I have steered clear of as a vegetarian because its source can be a calf's stomach, is best used when it's the synthetic kind. Relief washed over me as I realized I didn't have to worry about breaking any veggie vow I had taken.

The Diva of Coagulation.
Then we were told to wash up and genuflect to the Diva of Coagulation, an effigy that sits amongst all the cheese books and magazines piled in the Sullivans' living room. The DC looks like a voodoo doll but holds the key to all cheesemaking success, Doreen swore. Too bad in my excitement I knocked her off her perch but at least if my cheesemaking ventures failed, I'd have something other than my novice ways to blame. (Fortunately, all is well so far. Thanks DC!)

A few hours later, we lined up to cut the curd — the Sullivans were full of cheese jokes but deftly avoided that old standard 'Cut the cheese' — made of store-bought milk and some pure cream the Sullivans bought stateside.

"This is when I say a prayer to the Diva of Coagulation," Doreen said.

Using a giant spatula, Doreen poked, prodded and stretched her curd until it made a clean break — the sign that it was ready to be further transformed into something more closely resembling Camembert.

We sliced through the curd and then filled up our cheese molds — small, plastic porous cups to let the whey drain and the curd to form into perfect pucks.

On to lunch, which is worthy of a post unto itself. Just listen to this menu: Chilled breast of chicken stuffed with roasted red peppers, cheese (made by the Sullivans, of course), marinated shrimp kabobs with Mozzarella and grape tomatoes, smoked salmon and gravlax with honey dill Dijon mustard, lemon mayonnaise and garlic mayonnaise, freshly baked baguettes, kalamata olive tapenade, wasabi guacomole and cucumber garlic sour cream, and salad with dried cranberries, walnuts and blue cheese dressing, again made with their cheese.

It was all artfully displayed and better still, homemade. Every sauce, every chicken breast that had been stuffed and inch of salmon smoked or cured was done by the Sullivans. If you think you're a foodie, you ain't seen nothing until you meet this couple, who, aside from having two cheese fridges to age their creations, have two homemade smokers in their backyard where they add that rich, woodsy flavour to everything from fish to their own cheeses.

Draining the whey from the Roquefort curd.
For dessert, we got to sample some of their creations, including a two-year-old Gouda, smoked cheddar, cream cheese, herbed cream cheese, blue and Camembert. These are talented folks. And with my full belly topped up with a beautiful, peppery Pilliteri Estates Gamay, the last thing I wanted to do was go back to slaving in the kitchen. But alas, Peter's pot of soon-to-be Roquefort was calling.

"I really like making this cheese because you can really play with it," he said eagerly.

Still, it all seemed like hard work with a temperamental medium at that. Copious hand-washing and temperature checking ensued, as did curd-breaking and cutting, curd straining and cheese mold filling, all with the worry that if we made the slightest misstep, we could end up with a breeding ground for listeria or worse: A failed effort to make cheese.

"This cheese is like a two-year-old. It's kind of telling you what to do," Doreen said.

Fingers crossed I understand cheese, something that is definitely not my mother tongue.

After flipping our cheese pucks a few times, we were sent on our way, some of us with our own cheesemaking supplies to try this at home. But I have to admit, there is so much that could go wrong and so much that could cause serious illness if I'm not careful. As someone who lacks patience because they just want the gratification of a successful culinary venture, I'm very likely to be a candidate to seriously screw up making cheese at home.

Fortunately, Marlene bought the goods and we'll try out creating seemingly easier cream cheese with goat's in her kitchen on Saturday.

In the meantime, I'll delight in the mold growing in my fridge and a food experiment gone right, all the while praying to that deity of congelation, the Diva of Coagulation.

I'll find out in four to seven weeks if she has deemed my pleas worthy of response.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

1,000 Words

I love vegetables. Being a vegetarian, there's a good chance I love them more than the average person.

Leafy greens? Swoon worthy. Beets? They make my heart go pitter patter. Other than Brussels sprouts — how I try to love you but keep getting rebuked by your horrid taste — and celery, which conjures up bad memories of ants on a log from nursery school, I'm hard-pressed to think of a vegetable that doesn't make me hungry.

Except when I'm at the Royal Winter Fair, which provided me with the fodder for this month's 1,000 Words. One of my favourite attractions at the fair is the giant vegetable display. This isn't for the faint of heart. Here, vegetables look freakishly... well, freakish. Think 50-pound beets and turnips, or squash that  could stand a visit to a dermatologist. These veggies are the making of horror movie props — grotesque, unappetizing and yet, I can't look away. I almost expect some of the tangled tentacles of these mutants to come to life and put me in a choke hold. They truly are amazing, even if they are hideous.

Here are a few shots I took last month at the fair of some less than fair specimens, unless, of course, you're a giant vegetable connoisseur.

This beet weighs 51.6 lbs. That's about how much I weighed in Grade 3.

This next beet comes in at only 39.6 lbs but with all its arms, looks much more creepy than the mammoth above. 
The stubs from the beet greens look like hands that can reach out and grab stuff.

Next to two ginormous beets, a five-pound carrot probably seems like small potatoes, until you remember this is a carrot. Five pounds is huge.
I'm not sure even Bugs Bunny could handle this guy.

The tangled mass that calls itself a parsnip or something vaguely resembling one. Or two, or three or four...
This one was probably my favourite mutant vegetable from the fair. A big knot of parsnip.

This kohlrabi reminds of Jabba the Hut or some other space creature with a small head and stubby limbs. 
This sucker weighs 43 lbs. Normally, a kohlrabi can fit in my hand.

One look at these turnips and it's no wonder so many turn up their noses at them or zucchini, the snaky thing on the shelf above them.
The stuff nightmares are made of...

I had to include this guy. It was the winner in the category of most unusually shaped vegetable. Clearly, Mother Nature and the judge have a sense of humour. 
This potato reminds me of something you'd find in a gag gift store. Anyone
remember the It Store? This would have been a huge seller there.

And finally, the unusual peanut squash. I have no idea if they taste good, but they look awful.
Get thee to a dermatologist.

I've said my words about these photos. What are yours?

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