Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Blog Action Day

Being a newbie to the whole blog thing, I did not know that there was such a thing as a Blog Action Day. But there is, and now I know about it. And so do you!

Monday, September 28, 2009

A day's harvest

Well, it's not exactly one day's harvest, but this is what I have after a couple days' worth of poking about in the garden. Summer was late in coming, and autumn's chilly nights are upon us, and it seems quite surreal to have sooooo many tomatoes still invading all my counter space, but there you have it: Nature will take the course it must by whichever means necessary. The tomatoes must perpetuate their genes no matter what, and I am only too glad to be still eating tomato salads, and making weekly batches of tomato sauce for this winter.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Money, money, money...

It angers me to hear affirmations that food movements such as the locavores, Slow Food, and organic/Fair Trade are elitist. Food movements are a reaction to current events: packages of washed and trimmed spinach contaminated with E.coli; mad cow disease; avian flu threatening the free range industry; obesity being declared a worldwide epidemic; farmland being sold for residential development...

Foodies are often portrayed as snobby epicureans, and many are, but in their hearts they are people who care about food. Strictly speaking, we should all be foodies: we should care about where our food comes from; how it got to our table; what are its environmental and social impacts.

In a perfect world, we would all join CSAs, buy only Fair Trade coffee/tea/chocolate, have cupboards full of organic spices and condiments. But it is not a perfect world: some people think it is too expensive (it is not, even less so after one factors in the medical and environmental costs of a bad diet), too bothersome (no one stop shop for the marketeer), and most of all, too time consuming!

It is a sad fact that there are more and more people who do not know how or want to cook, but that is another story. Well to the non-cookers I say this: you no longer have an excuse not to support local producers and organic farmers! You too can help inject cash into the local economy, feel good about it, and you WILL NOT be getting a weekly basket of beautiful, organic fruits and vegetables. What you get is a modest, yet steady return on your investments. It's like CSA, Fare Trade and eco-friendly all rolled into one, and it's called Slow Money.

Now that you've already had all your investments transferred into ethical funds, Slow Money seems like the next logical step. Conventional investments go to big corporations like Monsanto and Big Pharma (yes, even though you participate in all the anti-Monsanto rallies and sign the petitions, if you have a regular RRSP, or a conventional pension/investment portfolio, chances are some of your money is going to the enemy), and banks have more less cut off all loans to small farmers, so until recently their only recourse was starting a CSA scheme. But not all farmers produce consumer-friendly fruits and vegetables, some produce organic feed or grain, others are into dairy and want to expand into cheese... All need money to improve or expand, but are unable to get loans through conventional means. This is where Slow Money comes in: you invest in a small farm or company, and in return you get a tiny share, and a steady return. It's nothing big, nothing astronomical, however it is a steady and stable return. You might not be able to bank your retirement on this investment, but you will be contributing to the local economy, preserving farmland and the environment, helping to ensure food safety and stability.

You can feel better about your pile of dough growing. And as bakers like to say, a slow rise means better flavour and keeps longer!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Getting ready for the windfall

I don't know about you, but as much as I like the idea of freezing stuff in ice cube trays, storing the ice cubes in freezer bags never really worked out for me. I only have the one freezer on top of my fridge, and whenever it goes into defrost mode, anything in a bag tends to fuse into one big mass, thus annihilating all the work I put into making single portions. So I was ecstatic when I saw these individual cubes at the pharmacy.

They're marketed as 'Pesto Cubes' or 'Baby Cubes', and I found them in the baby section at the pharmacy. Made of number 2 plastic (therefore relatively safe and BPA-free), these individual containers allow you to freeze usable portions of puréed herbs or homemade baby food and store them on stackable trays in the freezer.

I have four of them in my freezer right now, and they are great! I think I might actually have enough basil paste to last me all winter.

Easy Herb Pesto
1 bunch soft herb, such as basil, parsley or dill
oil, either olive or a neutral oil

Wash herbs, and remove all stems.
Bring a big pot of water to the boil. Blanch the herbs for about 30 seconds, or until they turn bright green.
Quickly remove herbs from pot, and dunk in an icebath or place under cold running water.
When the herbs are cooled, remove from water and squeeze dry.
Place in blender jug, add about 1 teaspoon salt and enough oil to cover. Blend until completely puréed. You might need to add more oil to keep the blades from sticking.
This purée will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks, or in the freezer for a few months. Do not leave the salt out, as it is a preservative.

Bon app'!

It's autumn!

Nothing like fall's crisp, clear air for beautifully blue skies!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Where is my mind?

I can't believe Autumn is already upon us, and here I am getting sideswiped by news that the UK wants to backtrack on the living conditions for battery chickens....

I really wanted to write about plums and apples and tuna... but I feel winded by all the running around on the net trying to find out more about the RSPCA's chicken campaign... Let me catch my breath...

Where to begin, where to begin? Fall is a busy, busy, busy time of the year for so many reasons: kids going back to school; adults going back to work after a not so restful summer vacation; and farmers are scrambling to get their crops in before the first hard frost comes down.

It's no coincidence that autumn is host to so many harvest festivals. Did you know that Hallowe'en was originally a harvest fest? The pagans believed that the gods died at this time of the year, and sent them off with a bang to thank them for the abundant crops. Then the Christians took the whole death theme and twisted it into All Hallow's Eve...

Anyway, so autumn is synonym with abundance. And the markets are bustling with activity. I've been so busy with my garden though that I haven't had time to saunter by to take pictures (sorry!)

The plums are lovely this year! I was worried that our rotten summer would have ruined the crops, but it would seem that plums are tough trees, and they've managed just fine. Though there are huge, plump plums to be had year round, nothing compares to the local fruits that are available just now (I know, I always say that, but it so true). These local beauties are the perfect lunchbox fruit, because they require no prep, and unlike the imported stuff they do not need to be messy-soft in order to be tooth achingly sweet.

There are several kinds of plums that are hardy in these northern reaches, and they are all just lovely. The dark purple, almost black, Italian plum, aka damsons in the UK and quetch (I love that name!) in France, is a nice balance between sweet and tart. Yellow plum or Mirabelles have tiny stones, and are rather sweet. Greengages are like Mirabelles, but green skinned. In Quebec, there are two local varieties that have been enjoying a bit of a comeback: the Mont-Royal (yes, it is a Montreal native!) and the Damas -a variation on the damson- which grows farther up north.

All plums make for great eating out of hand, but they also make beautiful, jewel tone jams. High in natural pectin and pulp, plums require little more than a quick wash and pitting to be ready for jamming. Though all plums make lovely jams, go for the tarter varieties as they will have a more balanced flavour. Equal parts sugar and fruit is not too much, but it can be reduced by up to half (500g sugar/kg of fruit). Plum jam is great on toast, with peanut butter or -even better- almond butter, but it also make a great condiment. As is with a nice pork roast, or mixed with a touch of mustard for poultry. Thanksgiving is coming up, so if some of you are tired of cranberries with turkey, why not try a nice plum jam?

Fall apples are finally here! I don't know about you,but I'm not too keen on summer apples: I find them too soft, and they do not keep very well either, which is why I didn't mention them when they were in season (August in case you were you were curious). Give me an autumn apple any day! Especially those that are so crunchy it feels like you may lose a tooth biting into them. Mackintosh, the quintessential Canadian apple, has been in since the beginning of the month. Next came Jonamac - a hybrid of Mac and Jonagold- a pretty apple, with its blush and golden hues, and a nice crunch. Some Cortlands have been around, and the cool nights of recent weeks are a good omen for firm apples!

Fall strawberries are in and they should be around until hard frosts (mid to end of October), so if you haven't already stocked up on berries for your freezer, now is the time.

Swiss chard and all matters of leafy greens are abundant, but if you want a real treat try to hold off until the weather gets even chillier: chard, kale and even Brussel sprouts are sweetest after they have undergone a bit of frost.

Corn is supposed to be best in September, so if you haven't overdosed on sweet corn in August, go out and buy a dozen just to see if the rumors are true. In any case, it's still great barbecue weather, so don't put away your grill just yet.

The next few things I'm going to write about are no longer thought of as having any seasonality at all, though in truth, most other foodstuff, they would be better off if they were returned to their rightful seasons.

Oysters: it was traditionally thought that oysters should only be eaten during the months ending in ER (September to December). Apparently the only basis for this kind of thinking was the lack of refrigerated transportation and the rough seas in the dead of winter. The invention of manufactured ice, followed by refrigerated trucks put an end to such practices, and year-round farming of oysters more or less killed off the idea.

Personally, I like autumn to winter oysters best: they are still quite plump and flavourful, without being fatty. Spring-summer is breeding season for oysters, and they tend to be milky (full of sperm and eggs). Some people like the fatty, almost buttery texture of summer oysters, but I kind of think they're gross... But that's just me. Each variety of oyster will taste differently depending on its place of origin, water temperature, water salinity and tidal variations. So try them all until you fing one you love.

By the way, oyster farming is very sustainable and has little environmental impact. In fact, there is ongoing research looking into combining oyster, salmon and kelp farming to reduce the environmental impact of salmon farming. Something to keep an eye on.

Another lost tradition is the autumn slaughter of pigs. Fresh pork is now available all year long, and it is a relatively cheap meat. In fact, prices are so low that pork farmers are having a really hard time making any money at present. It used to be that fresh pork was only consumed during fall and winter, and the rest of the year people contended with cured meats. The only remnant of this tradition is France's insistence on only selling blood sausages from October to May. However, if you happen to know a hobby farmer, you might be able to participate in this autumnal activity.

Finally, bluefin tuna! What with the ubiquitousness of sushi, one would never know that tuna was seasonal, yet it is. Tuna are a majestic migratory fish, and it only happens to come into American and Canadian waters at this time of the year.

Supposedly, North Atlantic bluefin tuna is being sustainably managed in both Canadian and American waters, since both countries have severely restricted the fleet of trawlers going after tuna in their own waters. Tuna in North American waters are apparently mainly line-caught, that is mano a pesce. Supposedly. Apparently. It may be true. In any case, scientists have been decrying the overfishing of tuna, and bluefins especially, for decades. And for decades the international association that sets the quotas for tuna have ignored the warnings, setting catch limits much higher than what is considered sustainable.

While bluefin tuna may be mainly line caught in North American waters, it is literally being hunted down to extinction in international waters, even in the Mediterranean. Big tuna are so valued on the market (fetching tens of thousands of dollars at auction in Tokyo) that large fisheries are investing millions of dollars in GPS systems, helicopters and spotter planes. Over the past 40 years, bluefin population has dropped by 60%, and it is believed that unless something drastic is done now, it will never recover. Both the American and Canadian fisheries are currently asking for an international ban on bluefin.

So folks, bluefin tuna is in season, but please, do not buy any. There are other -less expensive- fish in season.

Have some oysters! Eat lots of apples and plums, they're both lovely with pork roast!

Bon app'!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Quash the Squash Campaign

In a comment to my last post, I received disturbing news that the UK is deliberating whether or not British standards for battery chickens should be lowered to those of the EU.

Battery chickens already live in deplorable conditions only to satisfy current market values that require all market goods to be cheap. While this news may not directly concern most of you -my kind readers- perhaps you know people living in the UK, maybe you even travel to the UK on occasion. Wouldn't you rest easier knowing that the chicken you or your friends eat while in Britain live under infinitesimally better conditions than here in North America, or even the rest of the EU?

I thought so. So here's the link so you can give the British Minister a piece of your mind. Unfortunately, you need a UK postal code to sign the letter, so here's my old London code: E14 6LX.

And pass the word along!

Friday, September 4, 2009

puck puck puck puck.......

Urban chickens seem to be all the rage! Here's a link to another link.

If you are seriously considering raising your own chickens, here is an informative article from This Magazine. Did you know that Niagara and Brampton also allow the raising of urban chickens? So all of you wannabe urban farmers who live in TO, perhaps you should consider moving to the ,burbs...

On another note, if you like the idea of putting the essence of summer in a jar but cannot fathom spending hours on end canning tomatoes or making jam, there is an easier way: go at it in small batches. Although I love having a pantry full of homemade and homegrown cans of tomatoes, I don't really like spending entire week-ends working at it. So I go in small batches: 1kg of fruit fills three 5ooml jars of jam or tomato sauce.

I never could be bothered to peel and seed tomatoes, so I don't! I rarely ever used canned tomatoes for anything other than sauces or stews, so I don't bother with the peel and seeds: most stick blenders (and even regular jug blenders) are powerful enough to blitz seeds and peel. It might take a little more time then blending pulp, but it is less work then blanching and seeding.

Canning in small batches may not be ideal when you decide to bring home a bushel of tomatoes from the market, but it will help to break down the task. Especially if you are short on pots or you do not own a large canning pot. Anyway, those bushels of tomatoes are rarely ever all completely ripe:go through them all, wash them if need be, and sort by ripeness. Damaged tomatoes should be processed right away, and the rest can be canned in the days to come.

Small batch canning is also great if you grow your own tomatoes: after a while you and your loved ones will experience tomato fatigue, and the only beings tempted by the fruits of your labour will be the growing population of fruit flies. If you have other veggies wizening in your fridge, throw them into the pot with the tomatoes. Blitz, pour into a Mason jar, and sterilise (actually called 'processing', this step consists in boiling the filled jars in order to sterilise the whole shebang.)

Summer in a jar! Bon app'!


Fall is on the horizon.

It's hard to believe, given the rotten summer we had! I'm not usually sentimental about summer, the cool weather usually suits me, but it was a chilly summer, and my own tomatoes are a month late: this time last year I was drowning under a pile of homegrown love apples... This year, my canning jars are waiting to be filled.

However, real farmers are busy at this time of the year. Now is the time to hurry on to the nearest farmers' market if you only ever go once a year! Everything, or almost, can be bought by the bushel, and if you like a bargain you will be served! Tomatoes, peppers, garlic, onions, cukes... If you're into canning your own tomato sauce or making pickles, you can get some pretty sweet deals -and the prices should get better as the season moves along.

There are some things that are more perishable, and therefore would not be suitable as a bulk purchase, such as squash blossoms. These pretty flowers can be of the male or the female persuasion. The females will have a baby squash -most often a zucchini- attached to it. These are pricey (around 1$ a pop) and must be eaten the day you purchase them. Ideally, you will buy a couple this year to try them out if you've never eaten a squash blossom, and next year you will plant some squash so you can pig out on them. When you do bring some home, check them out for bugs and dirt, and only wash them if they are dirty: the blossoms are really fragile and require gentle handling. It is best to remove the organ inside as it can be bitter. Next is the fun part: stuffing! The simplest would be some cheese (mozzarella, ricotta, soft goat cheese), any herb you have on hand, and voilà! The blossoms can be steamed a couple of minutes to melt the cheese, or deep fried either in a light batter or a generous dusting of flour (dip them in milk to make it stick). However, the stuffing can be anything you want: diced tomatoes with basil; a ratatouille; chopped zucchini; quinoa; you are only limited by your imagination.

Bon app'!
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