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cooking

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

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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.

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.

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.
A LOT.

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. http://www.ourbc.com/travel_bc/bc_cities/yellowhead_hwy/ 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.

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.

 

This is how I staked the beans.

This is how I staked the beans.

One of my three sisters, Paula (who lives in Kelowna these days), visited this week. She brought 4 large, organic, free-range happy chickens and a bag of worm castings for me. These gifts were accompanied by various natural concoctions guaranteed to heal everything from tick bites to ebola virus for my husband and anyone else who was static enough that she could make them swallow it. All of this was a bribe because Paula no sooner got here than she went out to buy countless flats of fresh strawberries — at Emma Lea Farms on Westham Island in Delta. She then processed them all into freezer jam in my kitchen…a marathon of strawberry juice and plastic containers. So, about worm castings…I’ve always wondered about that odd place, along Glenmore Road in Kelowna, called World of Worms. I thought perhaps it was a miniature worm circus or demonstration dirt farm. Turns out, it’s a great source for worm castings which, as far as I can discern, are worm poop. It’s fine and dry, like coffee grounds and Paula’s had great luck with it in her garden. Which, once again, brings me to the garden!  I loaded up my terrific little plastic tub on wheels with the worm castings around noon today (mad dogs and Englishmen…it was 24 degrees outside). I did wear my wide brimmed hat and wore sunscreen! I walked to the garden pulling my little tub behind me and got to work. I weeded. Damn that horse tail! It’s not too bad if you stay on it, but it’s so aggressive and hard to get rid of. There were little sprouts of something we didn’t plant all around the green onions and a few other places. They weren’t especially hard to pull out except for the fact that they were tiny and had cleverly lodged themselves in between the delicate baby green onions.  Having gotten most of the bad guys out of the garden, I spread the worm castings around and worked them in a bit with my three-pronged hand rake and watered it in. Now, I had plans to stake the beans on that trip, but sadly left the stakes at home, so I planned another trip after supper when I took my mom out to meet friends. This time, I was wearing a full length sun dress and my Jackie-O sunglasses. Not really looking the part, but if I had to do a wardrobe change every time I went to the garden, I’d go less frequently that I already do.   

Young Roma Tomatoes

Young Roma Tomatoes

Both Amir and Nicole were there and they were over in a shot to offer advice and help out. Amir helped me position the poles in the right spots around the beans. I had thought that I would have to move the beans to sync up with the poles, but Amir showed me how to do it so that the happy bean plants wouldn’t be disturbed. I had wanted to take photos of everything to put here, but my daughter had pocketed the camera to record her day at the Steveston Salmon Festival so I was out of luck…until Nicole pulled her camera out of her bag and let me take the shots I wanted. They’ll be up as soon as Nicole has a chance to send them to me. The garden is getting so LUSH! Amir put some fertilizer on it a few days ago and it has greened up considerably. I also put fish fertilizer on it last weekend and, of course, the worm castings today. The warm weather is welcome and has made SUCH a difference! Amir encouraged me to harvest a row of arugla, which I did. He then told me I should move three tomato plants over and he gave me a bunch of arugula babies to put in. They filled up about a half a row, as he told me something really important…

Arugula. There are so many different types (and leaf shapes)!

Arugula. There are so many different types (and leaf shapes)!

Plant arugula seedlings close together, i.e. 1 inch. That seemed really close given the size of the seedlings, but Amir argues that they hold each other up and the closeness forces the plants up instead of out, so they get fuller and produce more of their delicious leaves. There you have it. My first tangible lesson.

Amir is definitely a food guy. He likes food and wine like I do, so we have lots to talk about. Too much, in fact. My garden visits can be a bit long given my schedule, but they are certainly therapeutic. I’ll go on Thursday to harvest another row of arugula and Amir has asked me to take some of his spinach, so Thursday will be a big salad night. I made my daughter a big salad with the lettuce and arugula I harvested tonight. It’s turning into a bountiful summer!

Maybe I’m overdoing it, but in addition to the whole “grow yer own” thing, we’ve pretty much divested ourselves of two cars in our household, leaving us with one hard working Hyundai Tuscon that we all share. We unloaded the first “extra” car intentionally. Two leases, two insurance payments and almost two times the gas didn’t make sense given that we had all kinds of things we’d rather spend that money on and we were feeling just a bit guilty about the carbon footprint thing. Besides, our daughter, Cass, still had a car so we figured we’d make do. Then Cass made a bad left turn and we were down to one. It’s been interesting. She doesn’t want to spend more money either. She’s saving for the obligatory trip to Europe post high-school-and-a-couple-of-years-of-college, so we’re becoming very creative and learning to share nicely.

This leads me to this evening’s post. Our nephew, Sam, celebrated his 10th birthday tonight, so I went over to Libby’s house for dinner and the traditional kissing of the new hamster (named Scooter by the way, and cute as a rodent could ever get). No sooner had I taken my first sip of wine when Cass called to ask if she could walk over to pick up the car so she could go to Burnaby. I figured I’d find my way home somehow, so why not. As it started to grow dusk outside, I thought about the 7,500 steps I’d walked and how I’d really rather make it the 10,000 you’re supposed to walk everyday. (Did you know that? An adult SHOULD walk 10,000 steps a day; a child about 14,000. Who knew? I’d swear I’d be a happier — and larger — person if I didn’t read so much!) So, at about 8:30, I set out in my flip flops to trek home. 

It’s about 1.5 km (~1 mile) to our house from Libby’s, I figure. And in between is our garden. That was the “carrot on the stick” so to speak. It’s gotten quite a bit warmer since the weekend. It was 19 degrees (about 70F) yesterday and today, so I know the garden will be happier. I figured that I could check out our little plants and give them a drink. After a stop at the store for some cream (look at me, shopping on foot just like I’m 18 again!) I got to the garden. It’s getting very “full” looking. Everything is just that much wider and taller. And, since I put more fish fertilizer on it on Sunday, I think it’s a bit greener, too. The arugulas and lettuces all want to flower, so I nipped off all that I could get my hands on. I think you’re supposed to, and if anyone knows something to the contrary, please leave me a comment!

I walked around and admired everything and sparked up the hose for a good watering. It’s looking good. After catching half an inning of the women’s softball game in the adjacent field and visiting with perfect strangers, I headed home…

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