100-mile diet

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.

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’.

My sister, Paula, is a bit of anachronism. Once my baby sibling with a firey attitude, she has become a proficient “mountain woman” who laughs at cold (I, on the other hand, do NOT laugh at cold). Paula cans things, dries things and she pickles things.

Ray and I went to Winfield (just a few ticks north of Kelowna in the Okanagan) to stay with her this weekend. I brought about 15 pounds of our little plum tomatoes and an armload of fresh sage. I always knew that Paula canned peaches and made jam and pickled beets. She’s dried enough cherries to feed a small town, but she’s run up a few new tricks. She had dried sliced leeks and chopped peppers — of every colour. Fabulous! The smell of these little treasures was amazing and they will bring happiness to soups, stews and fried potatoes all winter. She set me up with one of her five driers (all purchased for a song at garage sales) and I broke all of the sage off the branches and set those up to dry.

We went to the Kelowna public market on Saturday morning and bought massive Walla Walla onions and perfect little carrots from Zelaney’s Farm. The Zelaney’s handle and sell vegetables like they’re hand-raised puppies. It’s like they know and love everything they grow and it shows in the exceptional produce and the beautiful faces of everyone who works there. Then we discovered smoked garlic at another little stand that sold Italian, French, Russian Red and several other fresh garlics as well as this exotic smoked stuff. Stick your nose in THAT brown bag and tell me you don’t have an out-of-body experience! Paula put some of that with carmelized onions on pizza that night. What a treat.

Some of the peppers before they were chopped and dried. Paula Diakiw 2009.

Some of the peppers before they were chopped and dried. Paula Diakiw 2009.

Paula also bought about 10 lbs. of leeks and more peppers. So I spent Saturday afternoon cleaning and chopping these and into the drier they went. Within 10 hours we had oodles more of both to add to her bounty and we parsed some out for ourselves and a few lucky family members. It’s amazing how much flavour and aroma gets trapped in the dried food. I crunched some of the leeks onto fried potatoes on Sunday morning and they added so much!

Spectacular Mount Robson, near Tête Jaune Cache in B.C.

Spectacular Mount Robson, near Tête Jaune Cache in B.C. t%EAte%20jaune%20cache.htm

On Monday (Labour Day) more friends arrived with their harvest from Tête Jaune Cache (pronounced by the locals as “Teejon”). JP and Alisha live “off the grid” on 9 acres of undeveloped land — no running water, no electricity, no roads. They had picked up JP’s mom, Josée from big-city Montréal at the airport and, after canning and drying at Paula’s, were headed up to show her how the other 1/99th live.

Paula (left) and Alisha in Churchill, Manitoba to see the Polar Bears. Jim Baldwin, 2008.

Paula (left) and Alisha in Churchill, Manitoba to see the Polar Bears. Jim Baldwin, 2008.

They brought beets the size of turnips, huge cucumbers and various other harvested treasures, all awaiting Paula’s expert advice on how best to process them for a winter that will make them a necessary staple along with the deer that JP can kill by the time the snow gets serious. They live in the wilderness with a moose of a dog named Hilo. He earns his keep intimidating nosey bears and thus protecting his people. He appears to be an Akita in the front and a St. Bernard in the back. He’s all muscle and brute force, but he is a real pussycat for affection. However, we were required to sequester Paula’s kitty,  as Hilo is in the habit of eating cats in a bite or two…literally. They also have a new puppy named Leon with the cutest ears. He looks like a husky cross and is as smart as a whip. Both dogs eat only raw food. In the summer, that’s whole raw chicken backs, bone and all. In the winter, it’s the waste from the deer that JP butchers himself. Hilo’s massive jaws make the bones look like marshmallows. I asked JP how he learned to butcher the deer. He says a Métis friend of his taught him the ropes, and now he butchers with so much more care than someone you might hire. He’s careful with how close he cuts to the bone to make the most out of a cut. He sounds passionate about the craft.

It was an interesting education, meeting these seemingly normal people who choose to live with only the barest essentials and make their way as a lifelong learning process unfolds. It was serendipity that they happened by this weekend, when I was really starting to understand how Paula’s harvesting instincts can tighten the 100-mile diet circle.

The end product of Paula, Josées and Alisha's canning on Labour Day. Paula Diakiw. 2009.

The end product of Paula, Josées and Alisha's canning on Labour Day. Paula Diakiw. 2009.

So, I got “schooled” by a gentleman named Mansur on Saturday. I commented on his fabulous corn (looks like the stuff real farmers grow) and that opened the floodgates. Turns out, Mansur is a scientist (of what sort, he did not expand upon, only that it wasn’t botany). He told me (are you writing this down?) that nitrogen starved soil will be rife with clover. He said something about what shortage caused the nasty, low-lying dandelions we get, but I was distracted and didn’t catch it. He also reinforced something I’ve heard before — never walk directly on your soil. Lay down 2X4s between rows and walk on those. He promptly examined my garden and, even though I had pulled out all of the clover, he pronounced it short on the middle number of the fertilizer — nitrogen. I told him I had some organic fish fertilizer and he said that it was “OK” but far too expensive.

Turns out, I Don’t Know Sh*t
Chicken manure is the answer to my prayers, he tells me. Mansur instructed that chicken poop is added to cattle feed to enrich it (who knew?) and so, by the time it’s been through the cow (insert bad visual here), it’s wasted a lot of its nutrients. So you gotta go with the chicken manure itself. But, oh, there is a METHOD!

You need furrows (the ones between my eyebrows were deepening as he spoke). Mound up the soil around the plants. This conical formation allows better root development. This develops furrows beside the plants. This is where you must put the water and, when the time is right, the chicken manure. I asked him if the time was right for my tomatoes. He said “two weeks ago…”. Great. He told me that tomato plants go through three complete cycles. They form green growth, form flowers and then form fruit. They do this exactly three times. When Mansur examined the new flowers on my tomatoes, damned if they weren’t a bit pekid looking…perhaps even a bit shrivelly. I wasn’t about to have my beautiful babies go into the dark night. I scrambled back on Sunday with my fish fertilizer and carefully fed them underneath their leaves. Mansur had made it quite clear that you should not put this stuff or any water on the leaves, especially this time of year. I heard this from another very experienced gardener (who I *think* was named Trudy?) who said that if the leaves don’t have time to dry before nightfall, they get blight (which originates in the soil).

More of Mansur’s wisdom
Mansur harvests his green onions, uses the tops and then replants the bulbs and gets more green onions. I’m not sure why he doesn’t just lop off the tops and leave the bulbs in, but maybe they like an outing now and then. He tells me he uses his beet greens in borscht (I did NOT know that middle eastern people knew borscht from ham soy gah).

I told him I stir fried mine. He didn’t seem interested. He has an incredible variety of food in his garden. Oats (I must ask him about those next time), arugula, basil, tarragon, rosemary, beets, corn, beans and more. He says that it’s really his wife’s garden. He was contemplating disentangling the beans from the corn (apparently she envisioned some sort of symbiosis here) but he was afraid she’d kill him. Apparently she’s on a road trip for two weeks. I said, well, you could start running now and you’d have a really good head start! Apparently, Mansur’s fear of the fairer sex didn’t filter down to his daughter. If she so much as showed up at his side, he told her to get away and not interrupt, chalking a point up to my mother who’s current crusade is to have all children mute and immobile in her presence…but THAT is another blog entirely.

So, I’m harvesting about 18 gorgeous romas a day from our plants. I guess that makes one per plant, per day. We’ve eaten them sliced (SOOOOO sweet), I’ve made sauce and I’m toying with canning my own tomato paste. They have been a great joy. The arugula babies are coming along as are the striped beet babies. The weather is perfect. I’d swear I was in San Gimingnano. Other than the looming deadline of teaching starting in a week and a blessed increase in work for us, I’d almost believe it.

My idealized garden, the view from San Gimingnano. photo by Casey Hrynkow 2006/

My idealized garden, the view from San Gimingnano. photo by Casey Hrynkow 2006.

OK, I have totally failed as a consistent blogger, but I resolve to do better from here on in.

We got going a little earlier this year and were spared any over-helpful neighbours, so it’s been a real joy and an opportunity to actually learn. The weather has been completely on our side — no June-uary this year. Long, warm (and some VERY hot) days. Arugula would have failed miserably, bolting out of control. I have just planted this past weekend as it is apparently much happier in cooler weather.

When we got to the garden in the spring, we found that last year’s leeks were perfect and ready to harvest. We both made wonderful soups with the bounty and I’ve discovered the wonder of slowly sautéed leeks. They carmellize and become sweet enhancements to savoury dishes. Libby and I planted separately and decided to see what worked. I put in beans this year — bortolottis that I dried from last year and favas. I started them in the back yard in little starter pots, along with tomatoes from seed. I bought the tomato seeds from Bosa Foods, an entirely Italian superstore in Vancouver that is a foodie’s nirvana.

I planted 18 tomato plant babies, lovingly watering and then caging them. I couldn’t bear to not plant one, even though there are so many. I gave a few to other gardeners in the community, but my 18 stayed with me. They are now a forest of fabulous and fruitful roma tomatoes. I get about a dozen a day right now. I’ve made two batches of beautiful, basic tomato sauce to freeze. The plants are quite close together, their cages touching. I didn’t know what that would do, but they have seemed to love it. I was worried when they started bearing fruit that they might be too crowded, so I transplanted three away from the group to test the results. Honestly, if there is a difference, it is that the ones with more room have done less well. Tomatoes appear to be very social — at least Italian ones!

My favas grew fast and strong and then — I had no idea that this was de rigeur — the aphids appeared. They are, apparently, like butter to popcorn. You can’t have one without the other. Aphid damage is evident on all favas, no matter where you find them. It doesn’t affect the beans except in extreme cases, but it makes harvesting a gooey and itchy affair. Next year, to avoid this, I will plant nasturtiums and sunflowers to distract the little suckers. It won’t eliminate them, but with a bit of strong hosing and brave wiping, I should be able to keep them at bay. I managed to get enough beans to make wonderful paste to smear on toasted garlic bread…absolutely marvellous. I have done this many times over with the additional beans I’ve bought at the local market. I can’t get enough of them!

The bortolottis were a bit disappointing. I got about two good bunches, but the aphids plagued them, too, to a lesser degree. I will plant them a bit earlier, directly in the soil next year and give it another go.

Now Libby, on the other hand, went with beets again. They have been fabulous. Sweet roots and gorgeous greens to stir fry. She also put in baby broccoli plants and damned if we haven’t had stir-fried broccoli from our own plants! She planted bok choy which we had every intention of cooking, but never got around to it. It bolted and was gone. Green onions were great. Paula gave me some beautiful walla walla onion babies and we are still harvesting these. They are great garden participants and I plan to put more in this fall. And that brings me to now. I have garlic from New Moon Acres to put in and I’ve planted baby brown onions that I found languishing in the back of my local produce seller. I put in more beets and some arugula. Let’s see what year-round gardening is all about!

OK, I’m a lousy blogger… I’ve had issues with the garden, largely because an enthusiastic co-gardener has basically taken over and I find myself merely watching when I go to the garden. Such are the politics of neighbours and well-meaning people who insist on control. I haven’t had the gumption to push back as day-to-day has been a bit of a challenge in the last two months. Mom has had a precipitous surgery  to replace a hip and then found herself out of emotional control since the surgery. Then, of course, there was the 10-day hiatus to get away and here I am. I’m writing course outlines for next week, coping with the frenzy of business returning to its normal rainy-season pace and still trying to work in visits with Mom in the hospital. Welcome to the sandwich generation.

Speaking of sandwiches… I made a pit stop — literally — at the garden yesterday. My well-meaning neighbour was nowhere in sight, so I knew I had a chance of getting in and out in under an hour. I made a mad dash to survey the garden and see what I could snatch from the branches.

The plum tomatoes are thick as thieves on the plants. None ripe yet, but I suspect they will all explode into riotous reds in unison. I’ll get the pot ready to make crushed tomatoes for the winter. There are some dazzling little Japanese eggplants tucked under leaves near the ground. I grabbed a couple with the intention of throwing them into the green chicken curry I made tonight. And the beets! Gorgeous little things, no more than 2″ in diameter with sassy green and red leaves. I hatched a dinner plan on the strength of the beets alone. (That’s where I was going with the sandwich segue).

My sister, Libby, had kindly picked up some of my favourite Bortolotti beans at the vegetable market down the road a couple of days ago. They are so exquisitely beautiful. Pink and white pods containing beans of wildly varied pink and white striations and spots! And they taste amazing.

The bortolottis in their natural (as well as naked) state.

Boiling the Bortolottis

Boiling the Bortolottis

Bortolottis ready to serve, tossed with garlic, EVO and sage

Bortolottis ready to serve, tossed with garlic, EVO and sage

 I shucked these and boiled them. Then I tossed them in extra virgin olive oil (EVO) and sage from (my herb pots outside the back door) with kosher salt.   





Fresh sage leaves gathered right outside the back door!

Fresh sage leaves gathered right outside the back door!

 I cleaned up the little beets, split them in two lengthwise and tossed them in EVO with four peeled garlic cloves. They sat in a 325 degree oven for about 30 minutes. I stir fried the beautiful greens with a bit of minced garlic, some EVO, organic toasted sesame oil and a dash of soy sauce. I like arugula, as I have said so many times. The arugula from the garden failed because of the horrible spring weather (I’ve since replanted for later on). I bought some organic arugula, dressed it with an EVO, champagne vinegar and sugar dressing and sprinkled it with chopped, toasted hazelnuts.    

Sauteed hazelnuts

Sauteed hazelnuts

Oh, I forgot! I’m not a vegetarian. We had a little ribeye steak in the freezer which I pressed into service with a red wine deglazing sauce. It never ceases to amaze me that, no matter how busy I am in a day, coming home to fresh produce and my kitchen lulls me into a Tuscan haze and I happily create meals that we eat late and slowly. It’s “slow food” of a different kind — not necessarily cooked over a long period of time, but prepared lovingly at a pleasant pace, allowing all of the senses to be delighted by each step of the process.

Ribeye steak with deglazing sauce, sauteed beet greens, roasted beets and bortolotti beans.

The plated meal, clockwise from top: Ribeye steak with deglazing sauce, sauteed beet greens, roasted beets and bortolotti beans.

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