Do you ever go to a market and see a piece of produce so lovely that you must buy it, just because of how it looks? At Urban Farm Market at Westminster Hwy. and No. 5 Road, where I shop almost daily, I found such a thing on Saturday. The most exquisite baby eggplants sat piled in shiny purple rows. Their skins were plump and firm. Their stems said they were newly off the vine. I chose two of them and imagined creating a beautiful meal around them.

On Sunday, I made my first eggplant parmesan and wondered how I’d gotten through life this far without this dish. It requires salting the eggplant slices and letting them sit for 30 minutes to remove any bitterness — standard procedure with eggplant. Then they are dredged in flour, dipped in egg and then in Panko crumbs. They are fried until golden brown and crispy on the outside.

Panko-crusted eggplant slices

The next step is to make a rich tomato sauce, flavoured with basil. I use imported Italian crushed tomatoes (sorry about that, 100-mile diet!) and add it to gently sautéed garlic. Then I add bunches of basil and let it simmer to blend the flavours.

Basic tomato sauce with garlic and basil

The whole thing is then combined, kind of like lasagna with a layer of tomato sauce, a layer of eggplant, a layer of fresh mozzarella, repeating and then adding handfuls of parmesan on top of the final dish.

Eggplant parmesan

This day, I also tackled a dessert, something as rare as a hot day in June in Vancouver. Along with my beautiful eggplants, I found the very first local strawberries. There is something about strawberries grown in the Lower Mainland of BC that defies adequate description. They are sweet and intensely flavoured with rich, red coloration throughout. They begged to be displayed in a dessert, so I found a recipe called Crostada di Fragoli e ricotta. It is a simple, crisp sweet crust, topped with a lemony custard made with ricotta which is baked in the shell, then topped with sliced strawberries and dusted with icing sugar. Something so simple in taste, but so crazy good!

Crostada di fragoli e ricotta

Image Source: dcJohn / License under Creative Commons 2.0

As this Community Garden blog morphs into one about gardens and nature, I feel my newest experience belongs here. I was out at the local casino this evening with my daughter and sister-in-law for dinner. It sits overlooking the Fraser River with a picturesque marina in the foreground. While sitting in the restaurant watching the river and the setting sun, I was marvelling at a great blue heron, standing stalk still and watching the river with rapt attention. Then my daughter spotted something moving in the water. She declared it to be a beaver.

I have to tell you that I have seen some wildlife in my time, but NEVER a beaver. Being Canadian, this almost seems treasonous. I was so excited, I probably made a fool of myself as I pressed my face against the glass to watch. I imagined beavers to be about the size of our small dog. No. This animal was as big as a golden retriever! He swam up and down towards us and away from us a couple of times, swishing his tail as he went. He was enormous and awe-inspiring.

It is stunning that in a relatively urban environment (Richmond does have a good blend of farms and fishing boats mixed in) that you can see something that I always assumed could only be found in Canada’s wildest places. What a treat and what a fantastic discovery.

Our back yard is a traffic jam of hummingbirds. We had Anna's hummingbirds at our feeders all winter. Not significant, except that these are California's been a bit chilly this winter! Now the Rufous' are back with their workmanlike green fatigues on. I have two feeders. This is the new one: The newcomer, red plastic. Seems to be gathering a following. Our workhorse, which has seen action for more than 3 years Ray bought a spectacular Nikon before he passed away, one of many tools he thought I would need or want going forward. He loved me so much. I took these today....Our little Rufous' hard at work for their babies.

It’s 2011 and my brother Kevin is in. Libby and I have managed our community garden plot for the past three years, but now we add our brother, Kevin — vegetarian; Buddhist — and now, gardener. We taught Kevin the ins and outs of tilling this Saturday. We showed him the evil that is horse tail and how to hunt it down. He was triumphant in pulling out the Mother of All Dandlelions.

Kevin displays the "one that DIDN'T get away"

The garden is now completely turned. We had the whole crew: Libby, Kevin and his and their girls: Kathryn, Jacqueline and Elly. They entertained themselves remarkably while we wrestled with unwanted flora in the early spring soil.

Elly, Jacq and Kathyrn attest to their support

There was latent garlic already sprouting, so I pulled it apart and gave each little plant room. I’ve started leeks and Walla Walla onions at home in little baby greenhouses. And, on Sunday, I started our Roma tomatoes. Oh, so exciting. According to the package, we will have our crop on July 11. Let’s see how that turns out!

Casey, Kevin and Libby. We're grinning because we don't know how stiff we'll be in 24 hours!

This has been a question weighing on my mind lately. In our home eat predominantly organic food for reasons too numerous to mention. But my fanaticism about organic food has to be balanced with what’s good for the planet, as well as our bodies.

There are four pillars to sustainability. Organic food clearly meets the first: environmental. It is pesticide free and is grown without the use of chemicals and Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs. That’s good on a number of levels. The food is neither sprayed — nor is it managed — with anything that is not organic. No non-organic fertilizers, no animal byproduct feeds, etc. If none of that goes into the food, none of it gets into us.

Since the middle of the 20th century, our food has been “scientifically managed”. We get “perfect” vegetables and fruits, fat chickens and nice red beef. The vegetables and fruits may be grown in shorter times, having less time to absorb nutrients, the fruits sprayed to appear beautiful. The chickens are fed hormones to grow more quickly (and push our children into puberty before their tenth birthdays), and the beef is fattened in packed feedlots where animals live in their own waste. So, organic is good. But there are some other sides to the argument.

Do we buy organic at the price of the other three pillars of sustainability? What if our organic fruit comes from Chile? It meets all the organic criteria, but…it is shipped over thousands of miles. That’s a big carbon footprint (environmental). It also supports Chileans, God love ’em, but not our own economy (economic). It numbs us to our own ability to grow and manage our food sources (social and cultural). That loss of tax base erodes our elected governments’ abilities to fund: social services, schools, the arts, infrastructure, etc.

Enter the local food argument. Growing food locally limits the fossil fuel issue. It supports our own farmers and our own tax base. Lake Country Harvest (full disclosure: it’s my little sister, Paula’s company), dries cherries and produce from the Okanagan. It is often the “cull” produce that would otherwise simply be composted. It makes fabulous food that withstands time and bursts with flavour. Paula’s nascent little company increases the yield for Okanagan farmers, preserves seasonal food and is local food.

She’ll source organic when she can, but the bigger issue for her is limiting waste in our own back yard and preserving the best of our provinces harvest. It’s something to think about. And I’m doing that.

Little garlic plants already making a huge effort.

OK, so it’s January 30, with a 3C high, but its sunny and, well, carpe diem. The plan was to have a group thing, but events conspired to waylay the rest of my posse, but I was damned if I wasn’t going to get this done.

Our garden last year was a washout — a combination of less than perfect weather and a string of family crises that made working it very difficult. I’m sure our fellow gardeners were mumbling about our pathetic effort. But I will not be cowed! Libby and I will be joined by my brother Kevin in making this a real family affair this year. We’re talking about what we’ll plant and excited about the spring. Today being somewhat “spring-like” it seemed a good time to get going. I know this will piss off my family and friends elsewhere in the country, but I have to say that surviving the constant rain is psychologically debilitating , so we need earn our warm winters.

I dug up about a third of the garden today. The soil was heavy with wet, but it was easy to get deep, which was a blessing. I ripped out a lot of the aggressive mint and horsetail and turned in some organic stuff to help. I found that our garlic had seeded and I had countless little babies starting! That was SO cool to find! I also found some new plants that had formed from last year’s planting, so I rearranged everything as well as I could and congratulated myself on my January gardening effort.

The claim staked today

News Flash! If you’re an organic food person, you need to know about the “Saturday Market” at UNFI in Richmond. It’s very ad hoc, but the prices are sometimes very good and it’s worth stocking up once in a while. My sisters and I are big fans and go often. You need to know your prices, though, as some things are much cheaper at Choices and things like agave syrup (yes, organic) are a bargoon at Costco. Just sayin’.

This year’s turkey was a combo of tried and true and scary new.

My daughter laments the fact that I fiddle with tradition, but as my husband explains to her, good cooks always want to push to be better, and that would certainly describe my intent.

I brined the turkey this year in a juniper-infused brine. My younger sister, Libby, had done the Thanksgiving turkey in a dry brine a couple of months ago and it had been exceptional, so I decided to throw caution to the wind and try a liquid brine. The results were fantastic. The bird browned beautifully and evenly and the meat was extremely moist and tender. I did cook it breast-side down for about an hour and then righted it for the remainder of the time. I used a specialty turkey (no hormones, free-range) of about 12 lbs.

The stuffing is one I have been doing for about a year and it came from La Cucina Italiana. Basically, it goes as follows:

Clean and slice the white part of 12 leeks, very thinly. Sautee these in two frying pans (it’s a whack of leeks!) in olive oil. I cook them until they are truly carmelized…it takes 40 minutes to an hour they way I do it, but I would highly recommend the slow method as it brings out so much flavour.

Cube two Italian loaves (I use long ciabatta-style baguettes). Spread these in one layer on cookie sheets and bake at 300 for about 30-40 minutes until they are golden and dry.

Combine the cooled leeks and cooled bread cubes. Add a large handful of chopped sage and some fresh thyme. Add about 1/4 c of extra virgin olive oil. Add 5 cups of brudo, a (a complex and expensive-to-make but oh-so-amazing stock, also from La Cucina Italiana). Combine well.

Bake in baking dishes at 350 for 40 minutes. I used a bit for the bird, but didn't stuff it heavily. I just wanted the herbs to flavour the meat a bit.

I came across this cautionary tale and was touched by it.

The only thing I’ll temper this with is that our parents have been (and sometimes still are) tack sharp sentient beings. So when do we “know” that this is gone? Or is it? How do we know when we should shift from “are you kidding?” to “oh, dear, it’s OK.”? How do we know it isn’t a cry for attention when friends their age are either sick or no longer interested.

Septuagenarians are people with 70+ years of experience, knowledge and the wiles to manipulate their adult children. How do we know when they are manipulating rather than asking for our help? Will they ever, really, ask for help? Or are they too proud? And will they instead punish us for our mobility, our presence of mind and our youth?

It is worth thinking about as we are compressed between the guilt of how we raised our children and how we comfort and protect our aging parents.

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