Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Spaghetti Incident Part II: Spaghetti squash pancakes

Spaghetti squash pancake topped with sour cream (the goat version for me)
and Cabernet Franc ice syrup.

There's a reason it's called spaghetti squash.

The more time I spend with these oblong, yellow, pulpy beasts, the less convinced I am that their moniker came to be because of the stringy, spaghetti-like consistency of their innards. Nope, I'm convinced it's called spaghetti squash because really, it's not good for much else other than a pasta substitute.

Proof came this week when I tried another suggestion I received after tweeting for ideas of how to pare down the pile of local spaghetti squash that had grown in my garage.

First up was spaghetti squash ramen, a brilliant idea that resulted in a meal I will repeat.

The other was for spaghetti squash fritters or pancakes drizzled with ice syrup, compliments of the Niagara-on-the-Lake grape grower behind ice syrup, Steve Murdza. A savvy marketer, Murdza is constantly tweeting clever and eyebrow-raising ways to use his creation, which could give maple syrup a bit of a run for the title of ultimate Canadian elixir.

Ice syrup is made from frozen wine grapes, which, instead of being fermented and used for icewine, are bottled as a thicker, sweeter, non-alcoholic incarnation that, according to Murdza's tweets, can be used on anything, including breathing new life into a spaghetti squash. Ice syrup comes in two varieties, Vidal and Cabernet Franc, and he suggested I try the red Cab Franc version for my experiment.

So, for dinner one night this week, I set about steaming a large squash (do they come in any other size?).

Once that was done, I treated it like I would potatoes in the making of potato pancakes. I love potato pancakes. Sure, they're far from sexy but they're a comfort food for me and filling. Topped with apple sauce, I'm sold even more on the potato pancake's merits. But for this experiment, I went with sour cream and then topped that with the ice syrup.

To give my simple, super mild squash a bit more oomph, I added two flavours that make the perfect couple: apple and leek. Oh, and of course, salt and pepper.

I fried them up and dug in. And while it was a creative use of my squash, I wasn't as sold on this version as I was the ramen.

Spaghetti squash is brilliant at maintaining its firmness. It doesn't get mushy, which is why it's the perfect pasta replacement. It's always al dente.

But when I cut into my pancakes, that firmness required me to use a knife instead of a lone fork, which can easily hack into and pry apart a potato pancake. The knife was needed to cut through the long strings of squash that just wouldn't separate easily from the pancake to make the journey to my mouth.

Normally, I like my potato pancakes big. Maybe among potato pancake purists, this is wrong, but it's never been an issue for me. With spaghetti squash pancakes, the silver dollar size is essential. At that size, they came out crispy. No matter how long I kept the larger editions on the heat, they didn't crisp up. Not good in my world. (If only I had a cast iron pan or a deep fryer...)

Also, Murdza knows what he's talking about with his syrup suggestions. Never doubt when he tells you to try it with borscht or anything else unexpected because without the syrup, this recipe would fall flatter than, well, a pancake.

I tried my spaghetti squash pancakes with just the syrup and it tasted like a waste of perfectly good ice syrup. With just the sour cream alone, it was like going on a dinner date with someone who wouldn't talk about anything other than work. Boring.

But with the syrup and sour cream together, it was actually pretty decent, picking up the slack of the apple and leek, which were maybe too mild for even the meek spaghetti squash. This is definitely a recipe that calls for the same punchy garlic greens or green onions that have a special place reserved for them in my potato pancakes.

While the next spaghetti squash to cross my path will wind up as ramen, this wasn't a total write-off. It's definitely more of a side dish rather than a main and is a worthy change from the usual squash-as-pasta dish, if like me, you're swimming in spaghetti squash. Just don't forget the ice syrup and sour cream.

Spaghetti squash pancakes (serves 4)

1 large spaghetti squash
2 apples, shredded with skins on
2 medium leeks, whites only, chopped/a large bunch of garlic greens/6 green onions
1 egg
1 cup flour (I used Tom Neufeld's whole grain flour that he grinds at his Campden farm. It's wonderful and he sells it Saturdays at the St. Catharines Farmers Market)
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
A good glug of oil for frying (I used about 3 tbsp, divided between each batch)

Steam the spaghetti squash in a steamer or pot until tender and easily pierced with a fork. Let cool. Scoop out innards.

Shred apples in a food processor and chop leeks, set aside in bowl. Add egg, beaten, squash and flour to leeks and apples. It's important that the squash has cooled so it doesn't cook the egg. Add salt and pepper and mix well.

Heat oil in frying pan. Use a cast iron one if you have it. Add a heaping tablespoonful of batter, flatten and fry until golden brown and crispy. Drain on a paper towel.

Serve topped with a dollop of sour cream and don't forget the drizzle of Cabernet Franc ice syrup.


Sunday, January 22, 2012

Mark your calendars, Seedy Saturday cometh

Mary from the Cottage Gardener
By Linda Crago

It is that time again.

It's time to start considering what the garden "chez vous" will look like this glorious 2012. And of course we all know that the year to come will be the very best gardening year ever. All the vegetables and flowers we grow will look precisely like the ones in those glossy catalogues. Really!

Why not be optimistic? That's the beauty of gardening. It always could turn out that way! And if it doesn't, you still may have some vegetables to munch on and some stunning flowers to admire.

Seeds are a bit of a miracle. And if you like seeds and gardening and being with people who feel the same way, I hope you'll come out to Niagara Seedy Saturday on February 11, 10- 3 p.m. at Brock University, St Catharines. The event will be in the very beautiful Pond Inlet, which is within the Mackenzie Chown Complex.

There will be signs as you enter the university directing you to the event.

As it stands now, parking will cost $6, so pack your cars with family and friends, park off campus, take the transit or walk if you can. We are still working on reducing this amount and I'm hopeful we will.

There is, however, no admission fee. When you come in you will be given a pack of seeds, a warm welcome and an opportunity to browse, chat with some fine folks and listen to some very knowledgeable speakers. If you wish to leave a donation, it would be well received and will all be donated to Start Me Up Niagara to help them with their worthwhile efforts. Yes, 100 per cent.

We have many businesses and groups returning from previous years, but also some welcome new additions. Joining us this year are:

Steven Biggs Author "No Guff Gardening"
Acorus Restoration
The Cottage Gardener
Urban Harvest
Premier Horticulture (Myke Supplements)
Minor Brothers
Paul Federici (music!)
Ann Brown "The Plant Lady" (Sea Grass baskets)
Tree and Twig
Start Me Up Niagara (kids activity table)
Master Gardeners of Niagara
Seeds Of Diversity Canada
Sustain Ontario
The Garden of Eating — Niagara

There are a few more businesses that I am waiting confirmation from as well, so we'll have a pretty full house.

I am delighted that Paul Federici will be providing entertainment between speakers and that "Fed Up" Brock will be dishing out a light vegan lunch and coffee free of charge. But please consider supporting them with a donation, which would be greatly appreciated.

If anybody is interested in doing a bit of baking, please let me know. We'll again have our goodie table so people can enjoy a sweet snack while wandering.
Seedy Saturday t-shirts.
Our speaker schedule is:

10:15 Welcome and introduction of Susan Venditti, exec director "Start Me Up Niagara"

11:00 Steven Biggs "Container Gardening"

12 noon Chef Mark Picone

1 pm Colette Murphy, Urban Harvest

2 pm TBA

Also this year we will have Niagara Seedy Saturday t-shirts for sale. All the profits from the sale of these shirts will go towards the establishment of community gardens at Brock through the OPIRG group which is assisting with the running of this event. A small but heartfelt thank you. Each shirt is $15 and I only have a limited number. If you would like to have me hold one for you, please let me know and which size you prefer...S, M or L (unisex sizing).

And most importantly, bring your seeds! The seed exchange is the heart of this event; it is about sharing open pollinated seeds. It doesn't matter if they are seeds you have saved yourself or extra seeds from some you have purchased. All are welcome!

If you feel you could lend a hand at the event, please get in touch. Sign up to help with next years event.

Very much looking forward to it and I hope to see you there!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Grovel, grovel

I'm unconvinced about how much I like the colour yellow.

On a rain slicker, it's a beauty.

But as the colour of a button on this website with the word 'Donate' emblazoned on it, it makes me feel a little awkward. I hate asking for favours.

The donate button in the column on the right is because I am trying to raise money for The Garden of Eating — Niagara, the residential fruit picking program I started in 2009 to provide a source of fresh fruit to social organizations that would otherwise rarely see such donations. In that time and with the help of some kicking volunteers, we've diverted 3,600 pounds of tree fruit from compost bins, having that food go to people who can eat and enjoy it instead.

As the third full harvest season looms, I have some expenses coming my way as I work toward turning this from an after-work hobby to an organization with even greater impact. To do that, I need liability insurance and harvesting and canning supplies for my helpers, who have, for the most part, been supplying their own, generous bunch that they are. But mostly, my priority is getting that insurance for the coming year.

Until now, I have covered any expenses that have come up with my own funds but it's becoming increasingly difficult to do. That's why I've resorted to putting a donate button on this site and the GOEN's official website.

I'm in the process of incorporating the Garden of Eating — Niagara as a non-profit organization. That will make accessing grants easier, provided my applications get the stamp of approval. It should also enable the GOEN to apply for a group insurance rate, which would lessen costs.

There will be a board to oversee and help direct where the program goes. In time, applying for charitable status will be in the cards but for now, this is the most appropriate route to take.

That means that anyone who donates won't be able to get a tax receipt in return but you will have my gratitude and my word that anything donated will be used only for goods and services required to carry out this program. Two years ago, I raised $50 holding a raffle and only spent it this year on labels for pears that were jarred for Community Care of St. Catharines and Thorold. That wasn't because there were no other expenses for the program until now —I've purchased ladders and baskets in the meantime. I was just fiercely protective of how that money should be spent.

No one involved with the GOEN is or will be paid for their time. That is all volunteered so no money will be used as any kind of salary.

If you do decide to give, thank you so very much. If not, that's OK, too. This doesn't mean the program is in jeopardy. It just needs a little help.

Monday, January 16, 2012

A swapping affair

At this time of year, I long for maple syrup season to begin.

It marks the first harvest of the year and, it seems, that not long after, fiddleheads, rhubarb and asparagus (aka spring) appear.

It means the end of winter food blahs, though I do alright  in the cold season with local greens, squash, potatoes, garlic, carrots and beets. Still, there are only so many root vegetables a person can endure so thank goodness for the art of canning.

I don't do a ton of it, just enough to make the season without oodles of fresh, local produce just a little shorter. But it's also at about this time that I realize while I didn't make enough of one particular taste of seasons past, I made too much of another.

I've decided to something about that, though.

This past fall, while sitting in a food security meeting at work, I saw a logo for something called National Food Swap Day. It's on Feb. 24, 2012. It's happening in Australia where it's now summer and come February, they'll be swapping all the things I long for, such as fresh homegrown tomatoes, basil and chard.

Even though it's the dead of winter here, a food swap could still happen. Inspired by @wellpreserved, a couple that has held canning swaps in Toronto, I thought it would be fantastic to host one here in Niagara. So I am.

And I'm hopeful you'll be a part of it. Niagara in Jars is happening Sunday, Feb. 26 — a day I figured more people might have time to trade some home preserves than a Friday, which is the official food swap day. It's at Rise Above Bakery on St. Paul Street in St. Catharines, a fabulous space and an even better place to eat. The restaurant is closed on Sundays and owner Kyle Paton has agreed to let me host Niagara in Jars on his day off. He'll have a server present to offer up drinks and perhaps some of Rise Above's awesome vegan baked goods.

It's a great opportunity to meet with other home preservers, learn their tricks of the trade and swap that never ending supply of strawberry jam you're for something else. Like my green monster hot sauce that I feel like I'm swimming in.

Here's how it will work: participants will get a ticket for each item they bring to swap. That is currency to go shopping and pick up someone else's home creations. The items up for grabs don't have to come in a mason jar either. Maybe you dried some herbs for tea or a food rub. Perfectly tradable at Niagara in Jars. Dried fruit or veggies, homemade soap or candles, whatever — if you made or preserved it, I welcome it.

Just make sure it's labelled and any common allergens mentioned.

Don't have scores of stuff to swap? No worries. What few items you'd like to trade are more than enough. Don't have anything to swap at all? Come anyway and socialize or get inspired to get canning this year. There's also still time to make some last minute carrot marmalade.

Niagara in Jars is free and runs from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. I only have one favour to ask. If you plan to attend, please let me know here so I can have an idea of how many people to expect.

See you there!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Spaghetti Incident: Spaghetti squash ramen

Spaghetti squash ramen.

Spaghetti squash is the new zucchini.

I find myself in possession of a lot of it — mostly really big ones — and short on ideas of what to do with it.

Oh sure, I've read all the healthy spiels about how those among us wanting to reduce our carb intake and up our daily veggie count can use spaghetti squash instead of the usual durum wheat noodles when cooking up a meal of pasta.

Done it. It's alright. I'm usually hungry afterward and feeling a little unsatisfied. But healthy, to be sure.

Still, as my collection of these oblong, hefty yellow edibles grows thanks to a local farmer and my inability to say no, I haven't really been feeling the squash-as-pasta thing. And I've become increasingly convinced spaghetti squash is one-trick pony.

At the very least, it was the squash that drew the short straw, seemingly unable to do all that its cousins could, like make soup or be the basis for risotto, pancakes, muffins, breads or add some dimension to custard. Or just eat plain or stuffed.

Seriously, try googling spaghetti squash recipes and you get how-to's for what sounds eerily similar to plates of pasta.

It's all a variation on a theme and kind of uninspiring. So, I threw out the question to the Twitterverse: what do I do with these things other than make a sub-par version of spaghetti?

And tonight, inspired by the suggestion from chef and professor Deborah Reid (@dreid63), I found the answer: ramen.

I know. I"m still using my squash as a noodle substitute but it's nothing resembling marinara or aglio e olio and that makes me happy. Excited, even, to eat this stuff on what really should be a cold winter's night made for slurping soup but feels like March come early.

Reid's suggestion came with the caveat that she had never tried using spaghetti squash as ramen but I think she should. I think everyone should give it a whirl as a stand-in for those long, squiggly Asian noodles swimming in soy-infused broth.

It's delicious. The strands of squash reminded me of glass or kelp noodles. They were firm in texture, more crunchy than chewy, though I steamed the squash first before drenching it in broth.

With some shredded local cabbage and carrots, some sliced shiitake and green onion, you have the perfect anytime meal. It's also a super fast supper. Just find any ramen recipe on the web (I used this one as my inspiration, upping the soy and ginger content to taste then squeezing out some sriracha when serving it up) and you're set.

As for my feelings about spaghetti squash, that one-trick pony has ridden into the sunset. I realize now, it was a squash misunderstood.

It wasn't the simpleton. I was.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Red fife wheat pasta to the carb craving rescue

Red fife wheat grain and pasta.

Carb cravings are a killer.

At this time of year, they're almost insatiable. Pasta, breads, a roti from the market chock full of potatoes and chickpeas.

I want them. I eat them. Then, depending on how much willpower I have in those moments of chowing down, I wind up in what feels like a carb-induced coma. Blissful. Sleepy. And maybe a little bloated.

When it comes to using pasta to satisfy my need for carbs, I buy it in the supermarket or a local Italian grocery where it's made fresh. I've never tried my hand at making pasta. Instead, it's on my list of things to do before I die. In my world, making pasta is daunting enough for me and my all-thumbs ways to have it join making a quilt and knitting a scarf on my bucket list check-off.

Problem is, finding local pasta is like searching for that proverbial needle in the haystack (albeit a locally grown, non-GMO one, I'm sure). It's out there but strangely enough, if you want it, you have to travel to markets in Toronto to find it. There, at the St. Lawrence Market and Wychwood Barns, you can buy plastic containers packed with red fife wheat noodles bearing the bright green Moyer Rowe Family Farms label.

Some of that red fife wheat, a heritage variety of grain born and bred by Peterborough farmer David Fife in 1842 and once on the brink of extinction, is grown right here in Niagara by Vineland farmer Paul Moyer and pasta business partner John Rowe. The duo also harvest some of the grain in Guelph.

Red fife wheat grains.
Red fife wheat is Canada's oldest wheat and it's currently enjoying a renaissance, thanks to an interpreter at a historic grist mill in BC, who wanted it to enjoy commercial success again. More than 100 years after it fell from favour for newer, pest resistant varieties, red fife is being recognized once more as the miller's and baker's dream it is.

Moyer is the ultimate entrepreneur and inventor, the wheels always turning to improve upon what he's already doing or dream up his next food product. I first met him about three years ago when I interviewed him about his spot on the CBC's Dragon's Den where he was one of the lucky few to get the support — and financial backing — of some of Canada's most successful and entertaining business minds for his candy apple business.

Ever since Moyer got into the pasta business two years ago with just three acres of wheat and a pasta machine in his garage, I've been curious to try his latest creation but hard-pressed to find it anywhere. Given the limited number of places it's available, I know why (and keep my fingers crossed I'll see this Niagara pasta here in Niagara).

Still, I finally got to try to some this week, satisfying a calling for carbs and a long-standing desire to fuel up on these ones in particular.

Did I mention I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I'll be able to one day find this pasta here? Local connection aside, it kicks butt.

Brown in colour — a deeper shade than the tawny whole wheat noodles churned out by the behemoth labels that line store shelves — it has a stronger flavour than regular white pasta. It doesn't taste much different than the store bought whole wheat varieties but it's more substantial. It has heft and body.

It's chewy with the flecks of wheat felt and tasted in every bite, but not unbearably gritty.

And unlike regular pasta, it doesn't get mushy. I cooked it al dente — though I think you'd have to cook it a really long time to get anything but — and topped it with Marinelli's arrabiatta sauce (made in Niagara Falls), thinking a sauce with bite would hold its own on pasta with a bit of bite, too. But the real test of my rigatoni's worthiness came the next day when I ate the leftovers for lunch.

Usually, my day-old pasta is soft, virtually disintegrating with every bite but my red fife wheat pasta tasted even better than it did fresh out of its boiling water bath. Perfect texture. Chewy but less gritty.

And most importantly, really tasty.

Carb craving curbed.

Monday, January 2, 2012

A (non) resolution made in the kitchen

I see more of this in my future: home-cooking.

They're the domain of failure, a bastion of letdowns.

If 'Resolution' was a spot on the map, I'm convinced it would be the place self-esteem forgot.

Hey, I've fallen for what the changing of the calendar can make a person think they can do. I've set many a resolution and while I congratulate those with the discipline to turn those life goals into life habits successfully, I am not one of them.

Take the year I vowed to get to work on time. Did I mention that I might have been one of the reporters in my newsroom who inspired a mass email warning us that if we weren't at our desks by 9 a.m. every day, we may just get a letter in our file? The resolution to shave 15 minutes off my arrival time didn't work but the fear of a grumpy city editor sure did.

Punctuality is not in my genes. But then neither is the stick-to-it-iveness that new year's resolutions require. I'll admit, I can be flaky.

Last year's resolution to cook twice a month from a particular cookbook in my collection so that it wouldn't be a how-to unfulfilled started off well. But after five tries, the wheels fell off that, too. Tuesdays were to be the day devoted to such a task but then suddenly Tuesdays become the busiest night of my week to do anything but stick to my resolution. So did Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays for that matter. And weekends? Those days dedicated to sleeping in and roaming the countryside or lounging with my cats? Forget about it.

Plans change and over the holidays, I was reminded of that rather harshly with the caveat that there's very little — if anything at all — I can do to stop it.

So this year, I've decided 'Down with resolutions.' I'm all about setting goals that I will ease myself into rather than start and stop cold free-range, organic turkey. None of this going to the gym on New Year's Day only to have my membership collecting dust by week's end.

No, I know what I want to accomplish this year — I'm hopeful it'll be sooner rather than later — and so I'll set about to doing what I can when I can to achieve it.

My goals for 2012 are mostly financial — I've said I'm going to eliminate my credit card bills once and for all — but food will figure in my plans to achieve that.

I will be cooking at home more often.

That means fewer lunches from market vendors or my favourite falafel stop downtown. A larger number of summer weekend outings capped off by a meal in my backyard rather than on a restaurant patio. Bucking up and just finding something to eat at home no matter how much easier it would be to get take out. Not caving to the temptation of prix fixe menus that pop up at all those fantastic food establishments that I love to patronize.

It's not that I don't enjoy cooking and that's why I don't do it daily. Most days after work, I find it therapeutic to get lost in the smells, sounds and stirring of a pot in my kitchen as I make something that nourishes both my body and spirit. It's pure bliss for me to flip through the pages of a cookbook or find a new recipe online and think about what could be.

The sense of accomplishment when trying something new in the kitchen and hitting it out of the park, an achievement affirmed by the zealous gobbling of food by my husband, is first-rate.

I love to cook but I just need to do it more often and in larger amounts. That way, I'll have enough leftovers for both me and my husband to have for lunch the next day. Or the day after that. Or to eat when I get home from work and don't feel like cooking. Sorry market vendors and takeout peddlers.

I see in my future more Sundays in the kitchen preparing meals for the days ahead so that I can hit reheat on the microwave when I walk through the door after work on Monday instead of starting from scratch. I was so good at it in university — in university, for goodness' sake, when I had a more pressing social life or the demands of academic deadlines that were way scarier than anything I've encountered in my career filled with do-or-die timeliness.

If I was that organized and gung-ho once, I know I can be again.

That way, my goals — not resolutions — to eliminate debt and pad the savings account — will be within reach. Totally doable.

So here's to more home-cooked meals in 2012, salve for the soul and the wallet, because I'd rather eat them than my words.

Enjoying Niagara's Finest -- A Peachy Tale

By Heather Rosen

I’m just wild about Niagara fruit; I even count bouncing cherries in my sleep instead of sheep. I spend weeks preparing myself for my annual trek to Niagara-on-the-Lake’s storied Peach Festival in August. I like to arrive around 9:30 in the morning, just as they’re setting up for the day’s festivities (and just in time to find free parking for the entire day!).

The tables that line Queen Street groan under the weight of peach preserves and other seasonal delicacies. I can almost hear my mother’s voice telling me not to eat so many sweets before lunch (and in my head I respond, telling her these treats ARE my lunch).

Well before noon, I somehow manage to tuck into peach muffins, peach ice cream, peach blossoms (pastries), cold peach soup, peach pie and, of course, at least one fresh peach. This means I usually have to adjust the position of the steering wheel in my car before I hit the QEW; no way am I going to be able to slide easily into the driver’s seat.

Another favourite stop is the Greaves Jam store; my favourite purchase is a few jars of the hard-to-come-by boysenberry jam. They simply don’t carry it in many places in Toronto. (I know of one in particular, but will not reveal it unless I’m being held at knifepoint.)

On the way back, I usually stop in at Inniskillin Winery to admire the lush vineyards and wander through the wine store, perhaps picking up some ice wine truffles to take home with me. I visit Kurtz Orchards (on Queen in Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Country Market on the way out of town), Van de Laar fruit stand for the freshest fruits, and Walker’s Country Market, all along the Niagara Parkway as I head back to Toronto.

There’s something about the Niagara terroir and fields and orchards that sets my pulse racing. The beauty of the land; the unique microclimate that is perfect for creating magnificent wines and luscious fruit; the fabulous view of the Niagara River from the Escarpment; the care that local food growers, vintners, bakers and other artisanal food producers/manufacturers take to make delicious products, so finely crafted, with a view to the old ways of doing things. Many of these individuals will take the time to talk to you about what they do. I feel, and have always felt, that the locavore and slow food movements are so important to our local economy – and our collective health.

I’m proud to support the farmers, growers, vintners, bakers, jam-makers and others in southern Ontario and Niagara. I believe it brings us closer to the land and its bounty, and to a better future for us all. (And it all tastes great, too!)

**I'm looking forward to returning to the Peach Festival in 2012... and will perhaps take in some of the exciting War of 1812/Bicentennial events.

Click here to learn more about Tis the Season to Share — Again
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