Sunday, February 27, 2011

Why chicken chuckin' leaves a foul taste in my mouth

*This post also appeared on my other blog,

I can't stop clucking about Chicken Chuckin.

The event, hosted by local pub a week ago to raise money for Hospice Niagara, has drawn my ire since I moved to St. Catharines six years ago. I can't stomach the idea of throwing food around -- in this case, frozen chickens or poultry parts -- to raise money for a good cause.

It's the same reason I oppose eating contests. It's the sign of a gluttonous society when we can waste food and use it for entertainment like this.

To combat cranks like me, it's been said the chucked chickens, thrown like curling rocks in a frozen Rennie Park, are fed to sled dogs afterward. That still doesn't make it alright to me. Feed the dogs the already-made raw food they were going to be fed anyway, with or without this event. Fill rubber chickens with sand or with water and freeze them, and toss those like bowling balls. Want to make it really fun? Stuff them with water balloons and give the real meat -- have you bought chicken lately? It's expensive -- to a soup kitchen or food bank so that those who don't usually have access to fresh food have the makings of a good meal.

If the rubber chicken idea doesn't fly, how about contacting local curling clubs to see if there are any rocks they cull at the end of the season, like a scratch and dent sale. Maybe they'll donate them (how does one dispose of a curling rock?). Gather up a high school art class and have students paint chickens or design some flashy bird motif on the stones. If I had a shred of artistic talent, I'd totally break out a paint brush and draw me a big bad bird on one of those things.

While I have no doubt organizers' hearts are in the right place, it's bad optics to throw food around at the best of time. But it's worse when it happens on a weekend in which there was campaign to raise money for our local food bank. That Friday was the day restaurateurs and amateur cooks battled for culinary glory in a chili cook-off with proceeds going to Community Care of St. Catharines and Thorold. In the past two years, with the economy flagging, there have been several headlines about local social agencies whose shelves frequently run bare because of growing need and yet, there are some who feel it's OK to throw food around like a toy.

It's even more offensive that that's happening when there is unrest in Arab nations and people are dying in these political uprisings, which have been linked to food crises and the dramatic increases in food prices that world is seeing right now. It's been said we're one bad crop away from chaos.

So let's toss out the idea of tossing around food for fun and make Chicken Chuckin' an event that benefits even more people. Scratch the chickens and I'll start chuckin and stop cluckin.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Friday: Tuesdays with Tony Part 4

Bourbon rice pudding with caramelized pears and brandy snaps.
Tuesdays with Tony is my attempt to be a better cook, or at least make better use of my copy of local chef Tony de Luca's Simply in Season, 12 months of wine country cooking cookbook. Twice a month, I'm going to make something from Simply in Season. Just one recipe or maybe two at a time depending on my mood. And I plan to do it on a Tuesday. As a fan of alliteration, I like the sound of Tuesdays with Tony and I know that the man inspiring my resolution also hosts the odd cooking class series of the same name, so it seems fitting.

This has been the winter of the carb.

Comfort food has been my crutch to get me through the cold season — food that can pack on the pounds and leave one in carb-induced, nearly catatonic and comatose state.

No time for self-examination to figure out why. I just keep eating and enjoying it until that last forkful, filled with as much regret as good food.

And so, it was in one of my carb and comfort food-seeking moods that I selected the latest recipe from Simply in Season. Problem is, unlike someone who does eat lots of carbs, energy — or at least motivation — hasn't been at record high levels this week. That pushed my Tuesday with Tony and his bourbon rice pudding with caramelized pears and brandy snaps to Friday night.

After the storm we had during the day, there was something soothing about the idea of standing over a pot of steaming milk and bourbon being soaked up by arborio rice.

Being more of a beer and wine girl, bourbon isn't something I usually have around the house. Don't drink it and certainly have never cooked with it. In the recipe, Tony mentions that his favourite of the drink that always struck me as best paired with a pack of Marlboro's is Woodford Reserve.

Well, aside from taking 10 minutes just to find the bourbon section at the liquor store, it took me even longer to settle on a bottle of the burnt sienna elixir. No Woodford Reserve.

There were other brands boasting tempting descriptions with adjectives, such as small-batch and barrel-aged, but they were huge and pushing $40. Never having drunk the stuff and only needing half a cup, I was reluctant to dish out the dough.

So, I took my cues from the hair bands of my youth and settled on a 200mL bottle of Jack Daniels, which is technically Tennessee whisky but who wants to split dyed, teased hairs? My only exposure to this stuff and was seeing it in the pinups of the likes of Motley Crue or Poison, its presence so contrived in the clutches of men in painted-on leather paints and big hair. But at that moment, I figured if it was good enough for them, it can't be that bad.

Bad, indeed. That's how I felt as I walked up to the cashier, holding a bottle of the booze with its easily recognizable black and white label. Yup, I felt like a badass, standing in  my dress pants and work attire, a bottle of JD in my hands and a limp in my leg from a running injury. No one had to know I was using it for something as frou-frou as making rice pudding. Even if it was badass bourbon rice pudding.

The preparation wasn't too stressful, except my brandy snaps looked nothing like the picture and the dough was nothing but a crumbly mess that took several attempts to mold into cookie-like blobs before going in the oven. I'm certain I messed something up, though I'm not sure what. Maybe it was substituting maple syrup for the required corn syrup, which I didn't have.

It also took more than twice as long as the prescribed 18 minutes to turn my blanched arborio into the creamy goodness of rice pudding. I was growing impatient with every stir of the pot that didn't cause the milky mix to thicken noticeably but it was worth the wait.

I'm not a huge rice pudding fan, other than when I'm in a carb-induced cravefest, but this version of it could make me lust after it even during the days of lighter summertime eating. The bourbon took it from blah to bam, giving it sweetness with a twang. Think golden sugar flecked with charred oak. It all has me wondering what else I can add JD to.

It was an uber-sweet concoction, which I'm guessing the pears were intended to cut somewhat, they didn't. The fruit itself was bland and after being cooked in butter and more sugar, only added more tooth-aching sweetness the pudding. I was a little surprised to find this recipe in the February chapter of the book. Pears, after all, are in season in the fall and there isn't a local pear to be had at this time of year, forcing me to rely on a bland, American bosc. This recipe probably would have been better slotted in October. The days are getting colder and shorter and the cravings for carb-rich comfort foods are growing stronger so it certainly wouldn't be out of place.

The brandy snaps also turned out to be brandy busts and mine certainly didn't add anything to or complement my perfect pudding. With each spoonful of warmth that seeped through me, I felt my shoulders start to slouch and my whole body relax.

Must have been that semi-comatose, catatonic, carb-induced state setting in.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Growing hope: my evening with Joel Salatin

Joel Salatin (sorry for the blurry photo)
The words, catch-phrases and sound bites came in rapid-fire succession.

"The pigness of the pig."

"We treat our manure like waste and our soil like dirt."

USDA cheekily pronounced the USDuh.

They are beyond the usual platitudes of the local food, anti-industrial agriculture movement. Far weightier and more catchy than any cliche about eating within a defined radius. If only my pen could keep up with Joel Salatin, that self-professed lunatic farmer from Virginia, immortalized in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Much as I hoped to write an homage to the poster farmer of the real food revolution, I didn't mind being forced to sit back and take in the words of wisdom about the future food and farming that Salatin, "the high priest of the pasture" espoused Monday night at Daemen College. It was there, in an auditorium filled with at least 300 farmers, foodies and agvocates, that I saw up-close Salatin's zeal and brilliance, which I'd only read about in books or seen in documentaries.

I wasn't star-struck, like I usually am (yup, even Lloyd Robertson left me stammering and unintelligible when I crossed paths with him 10 years ago). Instead, I was inspired by what I heard.

Salatin has a no-nonsense approach to farming, following the patterns of nature and being in touch with the idiosyncrasies of land and animal. If you've read Pollan's foodie zeitgeist, you know Salatin's story  well. Salatin uses low-tech methods, employing his livestock to do a lot of the work on his farm and a lot of his own elbow grease to produce food that any one of us would be lucky to eat.

Integrity food, he calls it.

Everything he said about food production made sense to a non-farming type like me. It was actually enough to perhaps make me feel a little pessimistic about the future of food; pessimistic because I could worry about why there isn't more buy-in to the way Salatin farms from consumers or other farmers (though it seems to be a growing movement). Or why the US government gives Monsanto carte-blanche to ruin yet another industry by allowing free rein to plant its new genetically modified alfalfa. It's tough for anyone who pays attention to these issues not to foresee shades of the canola disaster that exists on the Canadian Prairies where Monsanto's patented Roundup Ready seed has wreaked havoc, contaminating conventional non-GMO and organic rapeseed crops. I could wonder who the next Percy Schmeiser a la alfalfa will be or worry whether there will be one at all. Will there be enough people to follow Salatin's lead before it's too late for our food supply and, therefore, us?

While Salatin may be the minority at the moment — a small beam of bright light amongst all the recent bleak headlines about food production — I left that auditorium last night feeling upbeat about the future of North American agriculture. This despite him rhyming off staggering statistics like 3.4 million acres of New York state farmland has been abandoned in the past 15 years.

To him, that's opportunity — a sign there is more than enough land to feed the world and feed it organic food produced the way Salatin does it.

From Salatin's perspective, the "tsunami of local food" that makes some folks unhappy because it's a movement that can't be "Wall-Street-ified" seems unstoppable. And, fortunately, my hand, buoyed by hope and the energy in the room, was able to keep up with what came next.

"The thing I'm most optimistic about is what I see tonight," Salatin said, motioning to us in the audience.

"You really don't have to eat white bread.... You really don't have to eat cheap food."

He continued proselytising about getting back in the kitchen. Make the dinner table the centre of the family where we engage in the "sacred" act of eating rather than have it be  "the pitstop in life on our way to other things," he said.

Then came some simple math in what can be a complex equation. 

"One plus one plus one... Collectively, you — we — all begin withdrawing from the economy of Monsanto."

Here's hoping there's a little Percy Schmeiser in all of us. 

Monday, February 21, 2011

Oui, oui Par-ee

Paris Crepes Bistro on Queen Street in Niagara Falls. It's a place that lends
itself well to photos, so take more than what I had — a camera phone.

With a knapsack slung over my shoulders, a pair of hiking shoes cradling my feet and wanderlust filling my heart, I must have had a look about me that said, 'I'm hungry' as I strolled through that alley full of restaurants in Brussels.

Or maybe, as I ventured away from La Grande Place, I had the look of a sucker — or tourist, but what's the difference, really? — as waiters and maitre d's tried to beckon me with their tables d'hotes.

I wasn't going to cave. I was smarter than that, I bragged to myself as I smiled politely and kept walking past the first offer of a multi-course meal prepared for folks just like me.

Ditto for the next one. And the one after that. Until finally, the cute waiter, promising not just a fantastic meal but a free glass of champagne while I waited for it, won out. I can admit, I have little willpower. Besides, who wants to be the drag always saying no?

Well, I said no again when I opted not to eat the daily menu. After all, I was a university student on a budget and money was depleting as quickly as the treads on my shoes as I neared the end of my Euro-excursion 13 years ago. Instead, I opted for what any good Belgian or tourist to their small but fair nation should eat: Moules frites.

Mussels with French fries. Simple grub that is a national dish.

I loved it. It was a mammoth pot of mollusks, steamed in a white wine broth with a side of crispy, cardboard-like fries. Just the way fries are meant to be when accompanied by mussels or anything else. Steam walloped me when the waiter lifted the lid off my mussels. It purged my pores and filled my nose with a wonderful scent.

I began to devour my meal. When I'd gotten close enough to the bottom of the pile, I dunked some of my fries in the broth, swishing them around and softening them just enough so the big forkfuls could fold easily into my mouth.

It was a perfect meal and one of my most memorable on that six-week jaunt.

Thinking about it still makes my mouth water just a little bit and makes me a little wistful.

But I've found a place to feed my hunger for nostalgia, to offer me that escape to a far-off place, here in Niagara: Paris Crepes Bistro.

I've been curious about this restaurant, if only because of its contribution to reincarnating Niagara Falls' downtown, which died a painful death when Clifton Hill became the place for tourists to the tacky mecca.

The boutique, with all its French fare, at Paris Crepes Bistro. They also sell
baguettes and other bread there, to take away and enjoy with the many jars
of jams and spreads on the shelves. 

The bistro is one of several new and newer establishments putting their money and their faith in a core whose soul had long been sucked out of it. With its Eiffel Tower motif and red facade, Paris Crepes Bistro's whimsy and joie de vivre makes it stand out among some of its tired and still vacant neighbours. (The former nightclub-turned-feeding spot on Queen Street won a Niagara Community Development Award in 2009). Unfortunately, it's always a place I've only thought of dining after eating elsewhere, and so it has long remained on my ever incomplete dining to-do list.

But with a last-minute offer of tickets to a Sabres game Friday night and a workaholic husband who would need until nearly the puck dropped to be ready to be Buffalo-bound, I needed somewhere to eat. Since my husband works in the Falls, it proved the perfect opportunity for me to visit gay Paris en Niagara.

I thought I'd want to dine on crepes. Instead, I found myself tempted by times past thanks a menu that boasted Moules Mariniere and Moules au Curry, both served with the those tasty, trusty sidekicks, frites.

I could have crepes for desert, I reasoned, even though it would make me a bad vegetarian if I relived that meal from 13 years ago. I became overwhelmed by a craving for those mussels I ate in Brussels and that niggling feeling of wanderlust that led me to them in the first place. I made up my mind about what I would eat before I even got to the restaurant.

My moules au Curry.
I wasn't disappointed by my Moules au Curry. They were delicious with those piping hot crispy frites, cooked in peanut oil. The meal wasn't the only treat of the visit, though. The service was warm and wonderful, provided by a young woman as passionate about seeing downtown Niagara Falls come back to life as the owners of the restaurant and the few brave souls who have set up shop around them.

As I sat in the front window, which opens so tables can spill onto the sidewalk in warmer weather, I felt like I was away from it all —  in a quaint Parisian cafe, sipping Gewurztraminer at a small round table. As I waited for my meal, I watched clouds of steam billow around the crepe maker from each bit of batter spread on a hot griddle. I took in the rows of French preserves and spreads that the bistro sells at its boutique. Each jar was stacked neatly on shelves that bore the look of a boulangerie

And though I normally might be in a bit of a snit with a wine list that doesn't feature any VQA offerings (and I'm certain there would be a few Niagara vintages that would be quite comfortable accompanying any of the French fare served at the bistro) I couldn't be bothered here. When you come to a place called Paris Crepes Bistro, you're coming for a taste of France. A strictly French wine list in Niagara becomes forgivable, even more so when the $10 I paid for a glass of Dopff & Irion Alsatian gewurz provided me with a generous pour. It also got laugh from my waitress who poked fun at her inability to pronounce the grape that's a mouthful for many this side of the Atlantic.

As game time neared, I realized I wouldn't have time for dessert. Very un-French-like to rush through my meal. Still, I know this is a place I will jet off to again when I have a sentimental yearning or am just hungry for good food. It's also a place for which I won't need to save frequent flyer points in order to afford a return visit. My meal, with tax and tip, was about $31. Without the wine (though why would you deny yourself), I could have gotten out of there for under $20.

To this I say, ooh la la and merci, Par-ee. Paris Crepes Bistro Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Monday, February 14, 2011

NiAGara: Farm Heroes and Agvocates — Malcolm Allen

Malcolm Allen, Welland MP and the NDP's deputy agriculture and food
security critic makes the rounds at the Welland Farmers Market recently.

Malcolm Allen has been busy learning a new language.

Gone is the former CAW financial secretary's union speak of 'brethren' and 'solidarity.' It's been replaced in the newly minted NDP deputy agriculture and food security critic's lexicon by the likes of pulses, oilseeds, succession and risk management.

They spill from Allen's lips as though the lingo of farming is his mother tongue and not something he's only received a crash course in during the past few months.

Though Allen, a rookie Welland MP, has traded in the autoworkers' banner of 'Buy the car your neighbours helped build' for one that reads 'Buy the food your neighbours helped grow,' he's still doing what he did as union brass: championing the importance of a Canadian industry so tightly woven into this country's economic fabric, many Canucks take it for it granted.

"Canada is seen as the bread basket to the world, which is true, but there's a lot of stuff we aren't doing," Allen said during a regular visits to the Welland Farmers Market recently. "If we lose the ability to do certain things, we may never get them back.

"We have this sense that all of this food will be at the supermarket. You take something off the shelf and miraculously, something else shows up. We need to think about that," he added.

To help get the wheels turning and put the cornucopia that is Canadian agriculture in the fore, Allen pitched the idea of a National Local Food Day last fall.

His private member's bill is currently working its way through the system — it's awaiting second reading — but Allen envisions the homage to Canadian farmers and all they provide for us to happen annually every Friday before Thanksgiving. After all, it's a time of year synonymous with harvest and being grateful for what the growing season has given. Allen hopes the day will inspire and remind Canadians to buy and eat local.

"It's not a holiday. It's not going to cost you anything. This is a day to recognize the folks who produced the good food you'll enjoy this Thanksgiving," he explained during a break from making the rounds at the market.

With his reusable shopping bags full of eggs, cold cuts and bacon at his feet (he saved room for apples to buy at the market later) and a brown aviator-like winter cap emblazoned with the slogan 'Farmers Feed Cities' in his clutches, Allen seems comfortable wearing the hat of agriculture champion.

He's at ease discussing what's plaguing the industry and speaks with same passion for saving it that he did the auto industry. And while he waits for Local Food Day to become permanently marked in Canadian calendars, he has plenty of other issues to chew on in his new role.

Malcolm Allen chats with a local egg farmer at the Welland Farmers
Market. The Welland MP has been getting schooled in Canadian
 agriculture issues since getting the nod to be the NDP's agriculture
 and food security critic. 

Small farms  have the highest rate of bankruptcy of any business in the country, he said.

Grains and pulses — a word he only recently learned meant chickpeas and lentils, not just the palpitation of arteries — are making good money right now.

Pork farmers are "bankrupt on paper," raising pigs for more than what they're able to sell them.

He questions who will be next to take the reins of farms throughout Canada, given how hugely expensive it is for a young person to get into farming, regardless of whether they're born into the business.

"I don't think a lot of us take the time to think 'How do they start out?' It's difficult to get financing, especially if you're a farmer," Allen said. "The average age of farmers is approaching 60. We need a new generation of farmers."

He's also come to recognize the great divide in Canadian agriculture — the Manitoba-Ontario border. Western Canada is fertile ground for big agribusiness. It's a place where size really does matter and farmers have traded in their quarter sections for thousands of acres of land.

By contrast, farms east of the postage stamp province are just that — small. Problem is, current agriculture policy favours the big operations, Allen said. The small farms of Eastern Canada don't fit with the "Conservative mantra."

"They're not working hard enough at that — at how do we keep small farms that are viable alive," he said.

Locally, the biggest issue is land use, Allen said. The best crop land has already been eaten by sprawl and while the Greenbelt is a good idea in principle, like much else to do with Canadian agriculture, it's far from perfect.

He doesn't mince his words when talking about it, ensuring nothing he says gets lost in translation.

"We do this, we say we want to protect farmland but then we don't enable farmers to make a living from farming," he said.

"Farmers don't deserve to live in poverty so they can feed us."

Sunday, February 13, 2011

1,000 words

A Gauk bean seed.

It's amazing the beauty and tranquility that can be found in a repetitive, seemingly mundane task.

The other week, Linda enlisted me to help her shell bean seeds for her seed catalogue. I find great comfort in counting and packing seeds, though to be honest, I find shelling a little more monotonous. Still, with a glass of wine and some music, it's relaxing and it can go quickly if you have perfectly brittle pods that pop open with ease, spilling their contents co-operatively into the container waiting to catch them.

I volunteered to take a couple bags of pods in need of shelling home with me to continue working. Despite the repetitive nature of the job — reach in bag, pull out dried bean, open pod, shake into jar and pry out the stragglers — one still has to pay attention ensuring no seed is missed and no future generation of meals left behind.

This month's photo is an example of an almost overlooked candidate for a future post in someone's garden. He almost wound up in the compost heap with the other empty, papery skins. I thought he looked beautiful, with his speckled skin wrapped around him. Beans really are something to behold. Each one is unique — like a protein-packed snowflake, no two are the same.

The patterns on their tough exteriors show the randomness and perfection of nature.

When I look at this photo several words, many of them cliches, come to mind:

One is the loneliest number. Blink and you'll miss it. Opportunity knocks quietly. Peek-a-boo. Potential energy.

What do you see?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Blue Tuesday: Tuesdays with Tony Part 3

Tuesdays with Tony is my attempt to be a better cook, or at least make better use of my copy of local chef Tony de Luca's Simply in Season, 12 months of wine country cooking cookbook. Twice a month, I'm going to make something from Simply in Season. Just one recipe or maybe two at a time depending on my mood. And I plan to do it on a Tuesday. As a fan of alliteration, I like the sound of Tuesdays with Tony and I know that the man inspiring my resolution also hosts the odd cooking class series of the same name, so it seems fitting.

Dear Blue Cheese, 

Let me start by saying, it's not you. It's me. 

I realize what I'm about to say will probably make foodies sneer and think me a lesser being, but I just don't think you and I are right for each other. My taste buds — I just don't think they're ready for anything serious right now. Maybe some cheap, imitation blue cheese salad dressing, but I just don't think we're mature enough to handle the real you.

You look good and I like the idea of you, but when we're together, there's just no spark. In fact, I don't really like you. I'm sorry if that hurts. Maybe one day we can be friends but for now, I think we should only see each other in very small doses.

Like on a veggie platter. Or in the salad dressing aisle at the grocery store.

All the best,


Yes, that's right. I don't like blue cheese. Reminds me of the unfinished basement in my childhood home, which, thanks to the occasional failure of the sump pump, had kind of a musty smell.

Blue cheese tastes like that smell. It was a fine enough smell to only have to inhale during the brief, but obligatory, trips to the basement fridge for more milk or whatever couldn't quite fit in our kitchen refrigerator. But not once did I ever think, 'Wow, it smells good down here.' Nor did that damp smell ever make me hungry. Never had the urge to lick a wall, just to see what it would taste like, either.

And yet, I paid a good chunk of change at the ever-quaint Chez Fromage for a wedge of Crozier Blue, an Irish blue cheese made with sheep's milk, to make my latest meal from Tony de Luca's Simply in Season. I thought perhaps I hadn't given blue cheese enough of a chance, so I would make a savoury blue cheese cheesecake with onion confit. After all, it looked like heaven in the picture and who doesn't want just a little piece of heaven for themselves.

Even though the moldy taste was t muted by the addition of cream cheese ('twas thanks to a goat in this case), there were still hints of basement. Blue cheese in cake form — Tony de Luca's cake form, no less — still didn't win me over.

The onion confit, with its sweet-sour tastes of maple syrup and red wine vinegar, was really the icing on the cake for me — the part that enabled me to swallow and keep the gag reflex in check.

My heart broke just a little bit when I didn't swoon over this supper that I slaved over for two days to make.

My inability to gush about this little experiment isn't a reflection of the recipe. My husband raved. So did several co-workers for whom I dished out pieces in a bid to get rid of the cake for fear the rather dear dessert for dinner would go to waste. Even my co-workers, who turn their noses up at, well, just about anything, shovelled forkfuls gleefully into their mouths.

But alas, blue cheese and I, we're just not meant to be.

And I'm OK with that.

Alright, enough with the cheesy breakup metaphor.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Niagara Seedy Saturday is coming!

Wow! Did Seedy Saturday ever sneak up on me.

Less than a week to go until Niagara Seedy Saturday and I am STILL cleaning seed and putting it in packets. As well as getting orders together and mailing them out.

Hope I'm ready for this event, which is designed to get us all in the mood for spring and gardening. It really will come. All of them, I mean. Seedy Saturday, spring and hence, the garden.

Been quite a winter. I heard it was going to be warm, not much snow, and heard it was going to be cold with lots of snow. It appears we got the latter, which is actually good. Hopefully, there will be a good winter kill of the nasty bug pests in the garden, and having a good covering of snow is good for everything.

Seedy Saturday is ready to roll. Let's hope we don't get a good hit of snow on Feb. 12. Or in southern Ontario speak, a "blizzard." But it will go rain or shine, sleet or snow.

I think it is the best place in Niagara to come to pick up a good selection of heirloom and open-pollinated seed at any time of the year. Seed vendors include The Cottage Gardener, Urban Harvest, Acorus Restoration and me, Tree and Twig. Other vendors are The Plant Lady, with her popular sea grass baskets, and John Renaud from Premier Hort, with his Myke soil amendments.

Folks will have access to the seed exchange table, which will be monitored this year, and are encouraged to bring as much seed to share as possible. If it is your own seed you have saved or excess seed from a packet you have purchased, the key is "open-pollinated." This enables people who pick up your seed this year to grow it out and save some seed from it for next year's Seedy Saturday. And because it is open-pollinated, it will come true to type.

A note about heirlooms: Heirlooms are all, by definition, open-pollinated. But not all open-pollinated seed is heirloom, despite the fact you can save its seed and it grows out to be the same as the fruit (or veg) that you saved it from.

Heirlooms typically have a story, are saved in families and passed down from generation to generation, and are in the area of 50 or so years old.

Why are heirlooms important?

Yes, they are diverse, colourful and they may taste better. They may even be trendy. But that hasn't always been how people have thought. And while we were thinking about hybrids and convenience, we allowed 90 per cent of our vegetable varieties to disappear in the last 100 years. I find that loss of diversity shocking and very alarming. And just very sad.

By diving into the wonderful world of heirlooms many years ago, I have found some phenomenal heirloom vegetables I would never want to go without again. But what if we had access to that other 90 per cent? Oh my.

An interesting example of what can happen is an experience I am having this year. Many years ago I ordered a bean from an extraordinary small seed business in the US. I have saved the seed for this bean since that time, and now offer it for sale in my seed listing. It is a great bean, I like it a lot. It is called Blue Ribbon. It is a nice romano-type bean, with purple striping. Yummy.

This year, the company I got the seed from originally isn't offering the seed. I am getting a lot of interest in it, as it seems I am the only one in North America offering it. Correct me if I am wrong.

If I didn't offer it, well, it wouldn't be out there circulating, and might just disappear. Forever.

You can see the importance of saving seed. Diversity in our food crops is essential for our survival. The Irish potato famine killed one million people who depended on the potato to survive. When blight wiped out the potato crops, it was a tragedy.

Seed companies typically drop varieties that aren't best sellers, or have crop failures. Many varieties have disappeared because of just these reasons.

Ah, yes, I got sidetracked. But then not really. This is what Seedy Saturday is about — a celebration and sharing of open-pollinated seed. An opportunity to learn from our speakers. A chance to meet people who are keen gardeners, beginning gardeners and just darn nice people who have similar interests.

You can talk to the knowledgeable people from The National Farmers Union, USC Canada, Steven Biggs, a noted garden authority, who will also be speaking, Community Care of St. Catharines and Thorold about their community gardening efforts, Seeds of Diversity and a number of master gardeners.

Our gardening club, Lettuce ,Turnip and Wine will be represented. Small, but a going concern — maybe it's time to join! (Free!)

There will be free coffee and treats (note to self — bake this week!), and the fine folks from Peapod Cuisine will be serving a light lunch for purchase. If anyone cares to bring some baking along, be my guest!

If you have extra gardening books, magazines, cookbooks, clean pots, gardening tools or anything gardening related you'd like to find a new home for, bring them along. There's a garden giveaway table, too.

Donated door prizes will be given out throughout the day.

Cost of admission is a minimum $2 or a donation of more. This will help me pay for use of the facility, which is more than it was last year. And you will receive a small pack of seeds at the door. If there is any money left over, I will donate it all — every penny — to USC Canada as I did last year.

I hope to see everyone come out — it should be a really good day. And please, come on over and say hello!

The world's most famous grass farmer comes to Niagara

He became a household name in agtivist and foodie circles thanks to Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and movies dissecting industrial food systems, including Food Inc., and Fresh.

And now, Joel Salatin is coming to Niagara. Well, not this Niagara, but the U.S. extension of it. The grass farmer extraordinaire from Virginia is speaking at Daemen College in Amherst on Feb. 21.

Salatin, a.k.a. The Lunatic Farmer bestows his insight at 8 p.m. The event is hosted by Edible Buffalo magazine.

If you have an interest in food, food security or any other food issue, consider coming. This guy will change the way the you think about what you put on your plate, or just affirm you're already on the right track.

(Photo source: Google Images)

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Battle Roti: I fought the wrap and the wrap won

Believe it or not, I'm not vying for worst food photography honours with this photo. Nope, instead this is my way of paying homage to a vegetable roti I had for lunch a few weeks ago -- a vegetable roti that, I say with utmost respect and deference, kicked my butt.

I am a creature of habit and come lunch on Tuesdays or Thursdays, I often go to the St. Catharines Farmers Market where I habitually get lentil soup and tabouli from Tony and Amira of Tonami. Every time I head to their stall, I pass by a man donning a chef's jacket and a huge, friendly crooked smile. We always say hello, sometimes even wave, and I, with my heart set on lentil soup, have plowed on.

The smiling man is Linzey Guppy, proprietor of the Real Roti Caribbean Food stall. I've always been intrigued by his offerings, noticing the beef, chicken and goat roti, but failing to notice the other fine print: the option of just a simple vegetable roti. A prize find for us vegetarian types.

I haven't had a roti since my days as an intern at Discovery Channel Canada when I had a date with a someone us young singletons in the office at the time called "The Hot Guy." It was my first roti, eaten at a Scarborough haunt aptly called the Roti Hut. So when I saw a vegetarian roti option at the St. Catharines Market, I thought a trip down memory lane for $6.50 would be worth it, this time sans hot guy but with better company. Me. (Turns out, hot guy took all the female interns to Roti Hut).

All this time I had been bypassing Lynzey, failing to see that he also served up heaping takeout containers full of potatoes and carrots in a warm, curry-flecked gravy. He'd been offering the meatless option for the three years he'd been a market vendor. Clearly, my powers of observation are not so powerful and I've had tunnel vision for lentil soup.

Lynzey has been selling roti three days a week at the market as a retirement pastime while he waits for his wife to begin her work-free golden years and counts down until his children finish university. Lynzey has been living in Canada for 28 years, going back to his homeland of Trinidad twice a year to get some sun and take a break from slugging ginormous roti wraps at the market.

One of Lynzey Guppy's rotis, intact.

 With his collection of rice cookers and steaming crock pots, he makes each roti with ease, folding the wrap, which has yellow split peas and beautiful, earthy cumin sandwiched between flour sheets, effortlessly around its molten innards. For my first roti, pictured above, I told him to make it like he would do for himself.

Out came a mason jar of homemade scotch bonnet hot pepper sauce. Like a conductor, his spoonful of hot sauce danced a staccato jig through the air as beautiful, fiery orange sauce dripped onto my roti.

"You like hot sauce?" he asked as he drizzled.

"Yup. But not too much," I quickly added.

And here is where the best of intentions can go awry. Tell someone to make something like how they would eat it and they have free reign. Intervene and tell a guy who douses everything with hot sauce to go easy on it and his idea of going easy is your idea of going overboard.

I took that roti, wrapped in wax paper and packed in a brown paper bag, back to my desk where I huffed and puffed, guzzled glasses of water and sniffled between bites for the next 15 minutes. I wasn't going to let this raging roti beat me.

But, as the photo suggests, it did, mostly due to its size, though, and my boss's annoyance at how many of her kleenex I was going through. Lynzey's rotis, which he eventually hopes to proffer in the food court of the Port Tower once it's built, are mammoths. They are satisfying and have become a new comfort food for me on market days. For $6.50, it's a lot of comfort and a little ray of island warmth as winter drags on.

Try it with a Solo banana pop and you have what Lynzey calls "exam food," the fare he fueled up on while he was in school. Even today he never gets sick of eating it.

"You can't get sick of good food," he said.

He's right.

Good thing I've learned his lingo for easy on the hot sauce: 'Whoa! That's good!"

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A vegetarian's beef with Veguary

I applaud anyone who considers becoming a vegetarian.

To me, it's a sign that they are seriously examining their diet choices — for whatever reason — and paying attention to what we eat is always a good exercise.

My going veg more than five years ago wasn't done in haste, though the decision was made rather quickly after seeing the best market lamb that year at the Royal Winter Fair, oblivious to his fate. I could no longer dissociate between the meat on my plate and the animal that particular cut was once part of.

The decision worried my very meat-centric German family. What would I eat at our very meat-centric family meals? I even worried about making myself ill by cutting out such a big part of my diet and one that I enjoyed immensely, no less. I researched my decision carefully, learning how to make the change safely for my health so I could chalk this life change up to a success.

And it was. It was one of the best decisions I've ever made. I didn't expect to feel better after cutting meat out of my diet, but I did. I had more energy and didn't get a sniffle for more than a year after becoming a vegetarian. I even put some meat on my petite frame, rather than becoming a scrawny waif. They were unexpected benefits that had everyone around me also convinced I'd done good with this one.

As such, I would never deter anyone from no longer putting pork on their fork or refraining from asking where's the beef. My bleeding heart rejoices just a little bit on Meatless Mondays, that weekly homage to keeping the flesh of a dead animal off the dinner plate. But I get frustrated — downright angry, in fact — by gimmicks to make one go veg, temporarily or permanently, such as Veguary.

Veguary is the clever name given to the month of February and a month-long campaign to get people to try out a vegetarian diet.

It's the brainchild of three university students from New York, who came up with the concept in September 2009. The month when the harvests of many veggies in their northern climes — and ours — are still at their peak.

Yet, they settled on Veguary. Clever, but not well thought out. Vegtember, though it doesn't roll off the tongue as easily, is much smarter. And that's my beef with this event.

Why on earth would you hold a campaign targeted toward meat eaters — toward a crowd in which many of whom think I subsist on tofu and rabbit food —  in the dead of winter when there is a dearth of local, fresh produce available to enjoy?

The irony is, today while driving home and listening to a radio interview with the executive director of a Toronto vegetarian group promoting Veguary, the sustainability card was played as an argument for why people should go veg.

He cited a United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization study, called Livestock's Long Shadow, that says 18 per cent of the globe's greenhouse gasses are created by the livestock industry. But what about the environmental issues wreaked by imported produce?

I'm not going to make the argument that food that travels fewer miles is better for the environment. It has been argued time and again that there is more to consider than distance travelled from farm to fork when calculating the environmental impact of a meal. Crop inputs also have to be taken into account. And among them, the types of fertilizers and pesticides used, many of which are offshoots of the petrochemical industry.

More concerning to me still is that many of the countries whose produce is filling our grocery stores right now use chemicals that have long been banned here in Canada. DDT, for example, is still widely used on fruit and veggies grown in South America, particularly Chile, but imported here at this time of year. DDT may give us good looking produce, but it has virtually destroyed bird populations, let alone causing harm to farm workers exposed to it. All this despite a 2004 worldwide ban on DDT's use.

There's also the latest agri-chemical debacle in California, where approval was recently given to use a carcinogenic neurotoxin on berries grown in the Sunshine State, sacrificing human lives for food out of sync with the seasons and Mother Nature.

These are just a few of the examples that make us vegheads sound like protein-deficient nitwits when we launch a pro-vegetarian campaign in the throes of winter and call it sustainable.

Meat eaters who I know have long peppered me with questions indicating that they think going veg would be tough because there are so few options come meal time. It's entirely untrue. I've become a better and more creative cook since giving up meat and I've never eaten better. The only time I feel limited is in a restaurant where meat choices abound and I'm left with the token pasta primavera as my only option.

Still, for people just sticking their toe in vegetarianism's compassionate waters, it can be daunting. So again, why have a campaign when fresh food options that could really turn someone onto a vegetarian lifestyle are at a minimum? No matter how noble the cause, I don't think anyone is going to stick with it if it doesn't taste good and they don't get some sort base enjoyment out of it.

Look, I applaud the Manhattan trio of university students for trying to make the world a better place. They get an A for effort but clearly, they've failed critical thinking 101.

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