Friday, December 30, 2011

The final five: my favourite food moments of 2011

And then there were five moments left to count down in my top 10 list of favourite food moments of 2011.

Here are the rest of the highlights from the year that was at the table, in the kitchen and in the garden.

The Kickstand Supper Club meets and eats in a lighting warehouse
in June. 
5. My first supper club outing. It was finally in the cards for me to attend a Kickstand Supper Club dinner on the down-lo in June and I can't wait to do it again.

Not only did I eat a meal in an unexpected place — who knew a lighting warehouse could make a good dining room? — I had a fantastic time feasting on exceptional Asian fare with about 30 strangers who turned out to be fabulous dinner companions.

I'd never been part of a supper club before. In this case, I was summoned to the lighting warehouse behind the boxing club in St. Catharines by a cryptic email. I didn't know what I was going to eat or who was going to prepare the fare. I didn't even know who would be there to enjoy it with me.

After taking our assigned spots around a long rectangular table and next to people we didn't come with (no matter for me since I was alone), we dined at a leisurely pace, discussed food, wine, books, our hometowns, music, running marathons and everything else.

We became friends.

People connected over food and drink. Dinner was a social event rather than a perfunctory act.

Eating out was exciting again.

4. Creating Chive Walk with a crew of guerrilla gardeners. Half a dozen green thumbs gathered along the newly poured walkway to the Niagara-on-the-Lake Community Centre with garden gloves and spades in hand.

We set to work, inspired by one woman who wanted her town to be more like an English city that reinvented itself by turning playgrounds and cemeteries into farms, the train station into an herb depot, and became incredible and edible thanks to the creativity of its residents.

Guerrilla gardeners create Chive Walk in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

And in strips of dirt alongside the concrete stretch, we planted chives for our very own Chive Walk, a place where residents could snip the garlicky herbs or admire something quirky and beautiful instead of enduring the mundanity of more grass. It was one part beautification exercise and another part food security measure.

It was quite the sight when it was done but alas, chive walk succumbed to the whipper snipper of a summer student employed by the town. Although the spiky sprigs came back, they were soon shorn again before anyone could enjoy them.

No matter. I sense more guerrilla gardening in the future and greater success, too.

3. Gorging on white asparagus in Germany. My visits to Germany to see my relatives are always packed with loads of food memories. Good eating abounds in Deutschland but this past spring, I ate something that had never graced my fork before.

My aunt Sigrun's white asparagus with Hollandaise sauce.
White asparagus. Spears deprived of light. Albino asparagus deficient in chlorophyll. But they weren't lacking in sweet, mild flavour made even more perfect by my aunt's homemade Hollandaise.

White asparagus are hugely popular in Germany. There are even festivals devoted to this vegetable that trumpets the turning of spring into summer. My folks used to go ape when they'd see jars of them in the store here, much to my disgust (hey, I was a child and few veggies didn't gross me out). And now I understand why crowds gather in city centres and at dinner tables to celebrate "Spargel."

I can easily say that a simple supper of spears and sauce was one of the best meals I ate all year.

2. A pear-fectly good use for the unsung hero of fruit. I always feel a sense of satisfaction whenever I scale a ladder and scour fruit tree branches in search of ripe pickings for The Garden of Eating — Niagara. The program delivers the harvests to social organizations that don't see much in the way of fresh food donations through the year.

But this year marked a major coup for GOEN. Pears that would have otherwise gone to waste weren't just spared a trip to the compost heap. They were canned by hospitality students from the Niagara Catholic District School Board, thanks to teacher Mike Gretzinger offering their help.

That means fruit for those in need long after the leaves have fallen and pear season is but a distant memory. I am so grateful for their hard work and touched by their help, which ensures food donations during a time when the shelves are close to bare.

About 800 lbs of the bell-shaped fruit was preserved. That's more than 160 two-litre jars. Philanthropy is in the can.

Some of the jars of pears picked by The Garden of Eating — Niagara
and packed by Mike Gretzinger's students. 

1. Christmas dinner. A do-over of Christmas would be great. A medical issue kept me housebound and meant the family Christmas in Waterloo wasn't going to include me or my husband Steve.

Despite how we were both feeling, a Tofurkey dinner with local baked grated beets, local mashed potatoes and local greens was served. But because I was far from on top of my game, the beets were overcooked and dry, the mashed potatoes were gummy and I got carried away with homemade horseradish I added. The mushroom gravy congealed and, well, it was far from a stellar dinner.

The food may just qualify as downright awful, in fact. But as the two of us sat down to eat, my sweet, obliging husband politely praising my efforts, all done in my housecoat and in pain, it turned out to be a pretty great meal after all.

Sure, food is the focal point at the table, especially during a festive fete. But a great meal is made by more than just the sum of its ingredients. It's as much, if not more, about the intent and the company as it is the actual fixings.

Happy eating in 2012.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The year that was (in food) so far

Shutterstock image.

They're ubiquitous at this time of year. A guaranteed space filler at a time when the news cycle moves like sludge through a drainpipe.

Still, Top 10 lists, in all their clichéd glory, are kind of fun.

The more I read, the more I wax reflective on the 12 months that have been and the 365 days ahead. But this year, because of a recent event in my life, I'm even more pensive about what was and what will be.

As others sum up 2011 in a list of highlights (or low points), I've found it a welcome distraction to do the same, particularly when it comes to the year that was in food. So here comes Part One with the next instalment to follow soon. I share these with the hope that perhaps you've experienced — and enjoyed — similar moments or that in 2012, these will become fodder for you to try and recall as fondly as I do.

10. Hearing Joel Salatin speak. He's America's most famous farmer, catapulted to more than a cult following by penning his words of wisdom about farming in harmony with nature. Having journalist Michael Pollan also jot down a few salient Joel Salatin points in his diet-changing tome, The Omnivore's Dilemma, doesn't hurt either.

And in February, I got to hear the king of poignant farming soundbites proselytize — and preach to the converted — in Buffalo about the type of farming he does and the type of farming we as consumers should expect and demand be done.

Salatin unapologetically called the USDA the USDuh and made clever quips like "We treat our manure like waste and our soil like dirt."

But he also filled me with hope about just how good food and farming can be for us and the planet while serving up a side of reality about all that needs to change in our beleaguered industrial food system. If you get the chance to hear this man speak, you'll find yourself inspired to take part in a great food fight. 

9. Eating on the wild side of Niagara. I do it every year, every time the grass green sprigs of wild carrot catch my eye or my yard fills up with mallow. For me, foraging is always a thrill.

There is so much wild food beneath our feet, written off as pesky weeds but packed with flavour and nutritional or medicinal benefits galore.

Rose hips found in the wilds of St. Catharines.

From the arduous task of drying rose hips for tea, hitting the pay dirt of goldenrod (hard not to considering it's everywhere) or finding my first ramp, for me, finding food in the wilds of Niagara is like winning the lottery.

If you've never done it, it's easy to get started. Just pluck those earliest of dandelions from your lawn and throw them in a salad. Just make sure nothing has been sprayed or dumped on the land first. 

8. Demystifying Toronto's Chinatown with Shirley Lum. It was a grey November Sunday as my  husband Steve and I stood beneath a colourful moose at the aptly named Lucky Moose Market in Chinatown, waiting for a walking tour of this storied neighbourhood to begin.

Shirley Lum is a food historian who I first encountered on CBC Radio talking about food traditions in the big city. Ever since learning about her foodie walking tours in the spring, I have tried to get to TO and into one of the many corners of the city through which she traipses with the curious in tow. 

The Chinatown tour was a fascinating one, including lunch at Rol Sun, a popular dim sum spot on Spadina. We got there around 11:30 a.m., the place nearly empty. But within half an hour, our seats were coveted real estate as a line up started snaking its way through the door, the crowds already anxiously filling out their order sheets to expedite the eating when a vacancy at a table finally opened.

As I savoured pinched pockets packed with tofu and cloudear mushrooms, I watched as Steve gnawed his way through chicken feet, politely nodding in agreement with Lum that they really weren't all that bad.

Seeing photos of the Chinatown of old, once located in what is now the financial district before the community was forced to move north and west to make way for development, learning about family clubs, taking a tour of a grocery store and apothecary before sitting down to Hong Kong tea — think the strongest black tea you've ever had with condensed milk — rounded out a fabulous and tasty day. 

If you want to see Toronto from a different perspective, take one of Lum's tours. You'll leave full of good food and knowledge. 

7. Thursdays at the St. Catharines Farmers Market. They haven't been the same since but nearly every Thursday this past summer, I found myself standing at the window of a refurbished Purolator truck ordering my lunch.

Be it the green papaya salad, an heirloom tomato salad, vegetable curry or tom yum soup, a midday meal from El Gastronomo Vagabundo made my week meal-wise.

Chef Adam Hynam-Smith and his partner Tamara Jensen are nothing short of creative and exceptionally talented folk who always left me craving more. Unfortunately, rules being what they are in the city when it comes to food trucks, it's hard for this couple to pull up just anywhere to serve their fresh, globally inspired food that's garnering national and international press coverage.

Tamara Jensen and Adam Hynam-Smith of El Gastronomo Vagabundo.

Perhaps all isn't lost. We can let our councillors know that we value their entrepreneurial spirit and the choice of fresh meals on wheels instead of just hot dogs. Maybe then prohibitive food truck rules can change. But for now, if we want our El Gastro fix, we'll have to head to Hamilton, Toronto, Flat Rock Cellars in Jordan come summer or another private event they've been hired to feed. 

6. Getting my hands on a jar of Bill Lenko's apricot jam. He was one of the first farmers in Niagara to take a chance on wine grapes and he became a legend for changing the face of agriculture here.

But Bill Lenko was more than just a pioneering grape grower. He was a true renaissance man who believed in treading lightly on the Beamsville farmland that sustained him. Lenko wasn't a fan of chemical intervention and he produced everything from meat and dairy to fruit and honey during his farming career. Anyone who visited the family farm, also known as Daniel Lenko Estate Winery, probably knew him as the guy trying to pawn off spoonfuls of his swoon-worthy apricot jam in between sips of his son Daniel's Viognier. 

Bill was also a guy who was part of a generation that lived simply, made everything from scratch — his perogies made comfort food an art form — and made me feel awe at a rather remarkable human being who seemed unstoppable in his old age. Sadly, this good soul died in the summer but I feel grateful that I was able to sit down with him for a few hours and write about his life this past spring. 

I'll post the rest of my list soon. In the meantime, what have been some of your favourite food moments of 2011?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A last minute gift list for anyone who eats

T minus four days and I'm nowhere near done my Christmas shopping.

Maybe it's the lack of snow or the new format of my boss's radio station that now plays more Burton Cummings than Bing Crosby, but it's been tough getting motivated to hit the stores. The fact that this year I am stumped more than any other to come up with thoughtful, meaningful gifts for my family members isn't helping my cause.

It's only leading to aimless wandering, which is only leading me in the direction of frustration.

That has me thinking of last-minute gift ideas (food-related, of course) that, for me, would be more heartfelt than another button-down or shiny gadget.

For the procrastinators out there, this is for you as much as it's for me. Here are my gift ideas for the foodie (or any eater, really) in your life and it's easy to pack lots of Niagara into every package.

A gift basket of home preserves

If only I thought of this last year. I could have made stocking stuffers out of the dozen jars of strawberry jam I still had kicking around. But if you went on a preserving tangent this summer and have lots of local goodness to spare, throw it in a basket, wrap it in cello and put a bow on it.

Growing up, I didn't really appreciate homemade gifts. I wasn't sure if the giver was cheaping out or just didn't get my wish list filled with requests for the latest Wham tape or an ALF doll. These days, though, I appreciate the time and effort that goes into the DIY gift.

Going shopping in your own pantry now may save you a few bucks at this most expensive time of year but the value of such gifts is actually immeasurable. Good, homemade preserves. A far cry from the ill-fitting sweater that was made in China.

A gift certificate to dinner — at your place

Everyone loves a night out but if you think about it, inviting people over to a home-cooked meal is way better than a pass to even the finest restaurant.

My mom always laments the dinner invitations she doles out. 'Next time, we're going out," she'll say. But that's because of what she puts in to every meal. It's fine dining in a relaxing setting.

The time and effort that the giver has to put into every plate — not to mention the cost of ingredients — is nothing to scoff at. Make it meal made of mostly Niagara foods and wash it down with a bottle of local vino and who wouldn't feel grateful for such a gift?

A share in a CSA

A basket of greens from Tree and Twig Heirloom
Vegetable Farm. 
This is the ultimate local food gift. But it's so much more than that. It's an investment in a local farmer and your health. A basket of fresh veggies sounds just as good for you as a membership to the local sweatbox, er, gym. And it's probably more appealing, too.

CSA or community supported agriculture means weekly baskets of produce for a certain period of time during the growing season. It's like a share in your local farm. You pay upfront and your investment is paid back in dividends of radishes, greens and root veggies.

There are several CSAs in Niagara and they start at about $320 for 16 weeks depending on the size of basket. Some run longer and offer different sizes of weekly offerings. Some farmers will let you pay in instalments, too, which may make this a more feasible option.

Farmers may not be signing up new members just yet, but drop them a line to let them know you want to be a part of it — or at least pay for someone else to join. It's the gift that will keep on giving long after Christmas is but a distant memory.

Here are a few places to start your search:
Tree and Twig Heirloom Vegetable Farm in Wellandport 
Bartel Organics in Niagara-on-the-Lake
Creek Shore Farms in Jordan 
Thiessen Farms in Jordan
Ridge Meadow Farm in Beamsville
Sexsmith Farm in Ridgeway

A wine club membership

Picking out the perfect bottle of wine for your favourite oenophile can be an exercise in stress (and possibly disappointment) so let someone else do it for you.

Most of the wineries in Niagara have wine clubs that offer bottles monthly or cases quarterly.

Some of the monthly clubs, which usually include shipments of two bottles at a time, can run about $50 for each instalment. That's about $600 annually. If you live with said oenophile, it's a good deal for you because there's a good chance he or she will share (or, at least, they should).

The packages often include a recipe or wines that may not be available to the public. If you're not sure what winery to choose, Vineland Estates has a great deal that includes partnerships with other Twenty Valley wineries so each shipment has a bottle from Vineland and a vintage from elsewhere. Wine club members also get a free flute of bubbly when dining at the winery restaurant among many other benefits.

Most wine clubs offer plenty of perks in addition to the tipple for members. With so many fantastic wineries out there, you shouldn't have any trouble finding this gift easily.

A cooking lesson

Figuring out how much butter to use during a cooking
class with Adam Hynam-Smith of Peapod Cuisine.
So maybe your loved one isn't quite the culinary wizard you'd like them to be. Or maybe the foodie in your family wants to sharpen his or her kitchen skills. A cooking class is a fun outing and usually involves eating the lesson afterward. Plus, it's a gift that lasts with all the new know-how to be learned.

Niagara College offers several themed classes on weekends or evenings. Check the course catalogue to see all that's on offer.

If you love Thai food and an Australian accent, Peapod Cuisine (the folks behind the El Gastronomo Vagabundo food truck) offers fun, educational and exceptionally tasty teaching moments. Editor's note (Dec. 2012): Adam can now be found sharing his skills in classes at The Good Earth.

The Good Earth is a most beautiful spot with no pretense. This winery and restaurant started as a cooking school and classes are still on offer by well-known local chefs and those from beyond Niagara's borders.

Always wanted to learn how to make a top-notch tamale? Eh Jose, that most gregarious of St. Catharines farmers market vendors, who serves up guacamole and quesadillas like it's nobody's business, will come to your home, show you the ropes and then let you devour them.

Happy last-minute shopping (and eating).

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Getting saucy in Niagara

Made in Niagara Falls, Marinelli's True Italian Pasta Sauce is lip-smacking good. 

I have sauce envy.

Really, it's kind of irrational, considering what I'm jealous of is tomato sauce made by a pro who toils away at his creation in a small warehouse turned sauce-making centre in Niagara Falls.

Still, I turned green with envy when I tucked into a jar of Marinelli's red sauce this week because it tasted just the way I had always dreamed my own homemade tomato sauce would taste.

Fresh, sweet and packed with basil. Perfection, really, with simple ingredients speaking for themselves.

How did he do that? Adriano Marinelli is a tomato sauce genius, the lucky duck.

But it's also because he searched far and wide for consistently good ingredients, including an olive oil source in California.

Every summer, I attempt to outdo myself as I stir my pot of tomatoes turning to sauce but alas, I am more of a silly goose by the time the last glorious pop of my sealing Bernardin lids is heard. I use few ingredients. Fresh, too. Even local. But it's nothing to brag about. Or serve to people other than my husband, who, bless his heart, eats whatever I put in front of him, except tempeh.

I could chalk it up to my German background. Marinelli, an effusive entrepreneur who has been striving for the perfect premium sauce to be big brother to his mid-range line of sauces I find sporadically at Harvest Barn, is Italian. Sure, I might eke past him in a schnitzel showdown but in a pasta sauce smackdown, he'd rule.

Fettuccine dressed in Marinelli's vine  tomato and fresh basil sauce.
My consolation, though, is that I have finally found a jarred tomato sauce that I love eating. Hands down, Marinelli's vine tomato and fresh basil creation is the best pasta topper I've ever had, doing justice to noodles everywhere. Better still, there are eight other flavours to try.

I've been wanting to taste this sauce for months, ever since Marinelli started hinting about its existence on Twitter earlier this year (amongst many poignant posts) and sending me links to snazzy promos that piqued my curiosity more.

The story is, Marinelli, who I interviewed recently for a freelance assignment, has been working for years on a high-end sauce that could get him supermarket space in the U.S. and finally be the saucy brass ring he and his wife Lisa have been reaching for since they turned their tomato pulverizing hobby into a bona fide business about 10 years ago.

No corners were cut in this creation from the Sustainable Forestry Initiative certified box adorned with an embossed Picasso-esque, saucy lipped face giving you the come hither to just about every certification you can imagine. It's vegan, kosher, gluten-free, non-GMO verified and contains extra virgin olive oil certified by the California Olive Oil Council — a world first for pasta sauce.

He tried for organic tomatoes but just couldn't find a consistent supply of the red orbs.

Better yet, the ingredient list reads the same as anyone's homemade version might. There are no unpronounceables, no sugar, even. Just good stuff in a jar protected from light damage by its paperboard wrapper.

When it hits store shelves in the coming weeks, it'll sell for about $9.99. For pasta sauce, that's nearing steep. But it's worth it. Your tortellini and taste buds will thank you if your own saucing endeavours leave something to be desired.

Best part of all is that every jar is fodder for another Niagara food success story.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

'Tis the season to share — again

It's time to get contest crazy. Share and make this plate runneth over with your food stories.

Yes, it's that time of year when I pull out the most clichéd of headlines/blog post titles and entice you to enter my year-end contest.

I did this last year, asking people to share their fondest food memory of 2010. The entries were posted and the winners were awarded a local food prize pack tailored to their likes.

I'm changing things up this year. Since the prizes come out of my pocket (read: there's no sponsorship here), this year, I will be giving away three $25 gift certificates based on the content in the submissions. They will be for places here in Niagara, though, and as such, this year's sharing festivities are decidedly more Niagaran in theme than last.

I've been writing on this blog for the past three years, sharing my local food discoveries, introducing you to some of the fabulous folk growing food and making it more accessible in this fine region, and opining about important food and farming issues (well, at least to me their important).

In short, I've been telling you about how I — and, in turn, how you — can eat Niagara's bounty.

So this year, I want to hear how you've eaten Niagara in 2011. Maybe you have a favourite Niagara vendor you visit each week at a market. Perhaps you're a habitual forager and know where to find the best morels in the region. Have you joined a CSA that's changed your mind about the importance of eating local produce? Or do you regularly use a unique-to-Niagara ingredient in your cooking? You're a wine drinker wowed by the nose, palette and people behind your favourite tipple that you drive to the winery for on regular basis? Perfect.

Tell me about it, how it's affected your perspective about local food and the people producing it, whether its changed your opinion of Niagara or given you food for thought in another way. Just tell me what eating Niagara has meant to you. You don't have to be a Niagara resident to participate because the greatness of the region is pretty ubiquitous and it's also a tourist mecca beckoning ag geeks, foodies and oenophiles from afar.

The top three entries as chosen by the super duper official judge (that'll be my husband again, but hey, he has some cred. He's the managing editor of a local daily and knows a thing or two about good story telling) will be awarded a prize and, of course, the glory.

All entries will be posted on EN so think words and visuals. You can write your entry, make it a photo essay or shoot some video to tell me how you're eating Niagara. Make it as spiffy as you want. Written submissions should be no more than 500 words and videos should be no longer than three minutes.

When you're done, send them to

The entry deadline is Jan. 20, 2012 because I realize the holidays are a great black hole for time and you may not have a chance to share your story with everything happening between now and year's end.

Looking forward to hearing how you've dug in during the past year and gotten a taste for eating Niagara.

Read the entries:

Enjoying Niagara's Finest -- A Peachy Tale by Heather Rosen

Sunday, December 11, 2011

This little piggy...

Ashley Burke of Alverstoke Farm and her Berkshire pigs.

By Suzanne Taylor, ex-pat Niagaran, Eating Niagara’s northern correspondent and sassy foodie

So, let’s get the awkwardness out of the way up front.

I eat meat. I am a Meat Eater.

I seem to have a lot of vegetarian foodie friends, and it always makes it a bit difficult to talk about, but I love meat. I’m always excited when meat is cooked. I don’t really understand how anyone could give up bacon, and I believe this is why we were given teeth. I think we are carnivores and we need protein, personally.

I realize mine is not a popular or easy-to-defend stance, and so therefore, I’m careful about what meat I eat.

I haven’t purchased meat from a grocery store in years; nothing raised on a feedlot or fed corn, or given hormones or antibiotics has been cooked in my house for nearly a decade.

My meat costs more than the grocery store stuff but also tastes better, is slightly less guilt-inducing and I’m happy and willing to pay the price.

I was worried when we relocated from St. Catharines to Owen Sound about finding quality meat in this fashion but my worry was for naught.

If anything, there is more drug and hormone-free grass fed meat here than there is in Niagara and it can be had for less money, too.

I am quite pleased with what we’ve been able to find up here and we’ve eaten well, courtesy of Forsyth Farms, Twin Creeks Organics Farm and Taylor’s Country Meadow Meats, to name but a few. There is a LOT of agriculture up here.

Recently the Grey-Bruce Food Link, our local food co-op resource, tweeted that there was Berkshire pork available by the freezer order from a farm not too far from my house, just outside of Paisley, and I salivated.

If you are a Niagara meat eater and you haven’t had Berkshire pork yet, well, you should get yourself out to Lake Land Meats or Our Gate to Your Plate and get some, because there is nothing more delicious. Berkshire is often referred to as the Kobe of pork and I can assure you it entirely deserves this title.

The meat is dark and tender and sweet and juicy. There is very little mass lost in cooking and whenever I saw it on a menu in any of my favourite Niagara restaurants, such as Stone Road Grille, I would order it. To have a giant stash of Berkshire pork sounded like a little piece of heaven to me.

I discussed the matter with my husband, cleaned out my freezer and immediately called the farm for an order. I was fortunate to speak to Ashley Burke, the owner and farmer of Alverstoke Farm, and we discussed what a quarter of a pig would get me. We made arrangements for me to visit the farm in early December.

I was a little bit nervous about visiting a pig farm, despite having read Novella Carpenter’s excellent Farm City with her account of raising two pigs in downtown Oakland, California and being familiar with pig farming through that.

Although a carnivore, I had never met my meat, so to speak. Sure, I had driven by plenty of farms that were obviously producing beef or chicken or pork, but I had never gotten up close and personal to something that would later be on my plate and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.

Berkshire piglets.

Still, I liked the way that Ashley raised her pigs; feeding them top quality grain, vegetables and apples, and refusing to dock tails, cut teeth or ring her boar’s nose, which are all common farming practices on commercial pig farms.

Ashley only has one littler of pigs a year, which makes for slower growth and less production but higher quality meat. And she refuses to sell single piglets, maintaining that pigs are social and need to be in a group.

I made my way out to the farm on a snowy December Friday (incidentally, there is no such thing as Google Map directions to a farm in northwestern Ontario, and I must thank the Grey Bruce Agriculture and Culinary Association for providing me with its excellent map with all the concessions and side roads appropriately detailed) with my cooler and prepared to meet my meat.

Ashley also raises chickens and lambs and she was quite excited to give me a farm tour. It was time to feed the sheep when I arrived and they were bleating loudly. We could hardly hear one another. Sheep are herd animals and were not interested in being petted by me, although I got one to pose for a picture.

Dobby, the most well-endowed boar Suzanne has ever seen.

I was then directed inside a heavily gated area to guard myself against the protective habits of Dobby, Ashley’s massive boar, who weighs in at approximately 750 pounds and is somewhat cranky when it comes to his sows.

Ashley brought the pigs in from the pasture to the hay-strewn barn.

Pigs are extremely playful, I discovered. As they all came in, they began scooping up mouthfuls of hay and throwing it about in the air, rolling and playing and chasing each other and acting like, well, a barnful of extremely large snorting puppies.

Dobby had obviously spent some time rolling in the mud outside and having a wonderful time of it because he was coated in muck. I patted each pig and one of the sows, Sky, spent quite a bit of time investigating my boots. I was thoroughly snorted.

What struck me was how happy the pigs seemed and how pigs that are raised naturally don’t have that whiff of swine I’ve heard about.

They all genuinely seemed to be having a wonderful time. It seemed like an excellent way to raise meat animals, even if it did make me feel slightly guilty watching them play. I admit I had a few qualms about the whole thing while the pigs sniffed my feet.

My guilt dissipated somewhat as I headed into the basement with Ashley to her freezer to pick up my order, which was truly an amazing bundle of pork.

A quarter of a pig is a lot of meat and I was overwhelmed with all the different wrapped packages of sausages, bacon, roasts, chops and ribs that I was going to take home. However, buying naturally raised, hormone and antibiotic-free meat directly from a farm is decidedly less expensive than picking up 55 pounds of meat from, say, Cumbrae Farms, and paying top dollar, yet you’re still getting top quality pork for your money.

If you are interested in ordering the Berkshire pork yourself, there is information at the Grey Bruce Food Link here on how to order. And do be sure to follow Ashley on Twitter to hear about her pig farming adventures. Ashley is new to Twitter and the local food community, and she’d love to hear from you. So please welcome her if you are a literate Twitterite (with a nod to Peggy Atwood, of course).

If you are in need of a recipe for some delicious Berkshire pork, try this wonderful sourgrass soup made with smoked pork chop and sauerkraut, courtesy of my favourite cooking blog, TheKitchn. I made this with the first of my Berkshire stash and it’s beyond delicious.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A love that's easy to muster

Mustard greens from Linda Crago.

It's rare for me to meet a vegetable I don't like.

(Be quiet celery and Brussels sprouts).

It's a food group that makes my mouth water with ease. My passion, though, is leafy greens, my love for which I have professed time and again in countless blog posts.

Kale is my comfort food. Stir-fried with some ginger, soy sauce and a splash of rice vinegar and I am in heaven.

Chard, you're not so bad yourself. Collards, you have my respect.

But there's another green, come this time of year, for which my appreciation runs as deep as the shade of black-green on a crinkly lacinato kale leaf.

In winter, my heart belongs to the mustard green, those snappy, peppery leaves, made bold rather than bitter by the cold and grown by the woman who has expanded my veggie horizons like no other, Linda Crago.

I remember the first time I tried mustards. I was taken in by their ruffled, purple-speckled appearance and taken aback by a fiery flavour I hadn't tasted before.

I asked Linda what she had put in my basket, that day late in her CSA season.

It must be mustards, she said. And so began an affair that warms my vegetarian heart through the cold months when fresh local greens are virtually non-existent.

I've never seen mustards in the grocery store, only heard via the Twitterverse that some farmers markets in Toronto may have the fringed, pungent leaves at this time of year. Few folks know what I'm talking about when I mention them, encouraging them to track them down and gorge on their goodness.

It makes me feel as though I'm part of a small but devoted following of these leaves: the cult of the mustard green. It's a group I wish could be more inclusive than exclusive because really, people who can't sink their teeth into mustards are missing out.

Aside from a kicking flavour, mustards are apparently good at lowering cholesterol. They boast cancer-fighting properties, much like my other beloved greens. Mustard leaves are also loaded with vitamins K, A, C and folate, for those keeping track of the recommended daily intake.

Darn near perfect food, if you ask me.

Admittedly, though, I don't know that I do these virtuous veggies much justice in the kitchen. Because of their anything-but-wimpy flavour, I'm often stumped by them. My guilty pleasure is to stack them high on my veggie version of a BLT with tempeh or when I'm being really bad, soy bacon. (Hey, I don't eat it often, but once in a while, there's little better when the craving strikes).

I'll chop some up to liven up salads of more muted greens.

But adding them to cooked dishes, well, I'm not so sure about. Mustard leaves aren't as hardy as kale, so don't need to be heated nearly as long. Go overboard on the cooking and that fresh green colour looks more like fatigued. And their bite becomes more bark when cooked, the leaves losing some of that powerful flavour.

Out of all my many cookbooks, brimming with thousands of recipes, I have found only two how-to's for mustard greens, confirming their perplexing powers among cooks everywhere and the limited knowledge of their very existence.

Still, one recipe I did find in that perennial culinary guide, The Joy of Cooking, has fast become a favourite, and I've made a few modifications to it.

Get thee to Linda's farm in Wellandport (or an Asian grocery store if you can't) for some mustards and then try this vegetarian version of the J of C's mustards and chickpeas with curry, with a few amendments from me. And if you can't get mustard greens, other greens, such as kale, chard or collards will work.

It will result in a love that's easy to muster after just one bite.

Mustard greens with chickpeas and curry.

Mustard greens with chickpeas and curry

2 tbsp olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp fresh ginger
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tbsp mild curry powder
1/2 tbsp hot curry powder (or if you like it really hot, just use 1 tbsp hot)
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp cayenne
1/4 cup vegetable stock or water
15-oz can chickpeas
14-oz can diced tomatoes with juice
1 large bunch mustard greens, washed, trimmed and chopped (about 3/4 of a pound), or other greens, such as kale, collards, chard or a mixture of these
Salt to taste

Heat oil in a skillet. Add onions, garlic, ginger and cumin, cooking over medium heat until onions are softened, about five minutes.

Stir in curry powder, coriander, cayenne, and cook two to three minutes. This intensifies the flavour of the spices. Add stock and chickpeas. Bring to a boil and reduce to simmer.

Add tomatoes. Cook about 10 minutes. Add mustard greens and cook three minutes or until tender. Be careful not to cook them too long or they can become soggy and slimy.

Serve over a bed of naked oats, a fabulous, nutty-flavoured Canadian substitute for rice, or with naan bread.

Serves four.

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