A New Year in Food

I’ve never been a big fan of the New Year’s resolution. I’m not against it in principle, it just often lacks intention and an implementation plan. “This year I will garden more,” she declares, coffee in hand, one late morning in early January, about forty-eight hours before her day job resumes. Okay, great. But how will that happen, exactly? And what is the motivation behind it?

This year I’m going to get a little more specific with my goals, and at the same time leave some room for interpretation in the execution. What do I mean? Let’s make this discussion a concrete one and consider my three food goals for this year.

C'mon leeks, grow already.

Goal 1: Grow more food.

The motivation for this goal is that I want to increase my food security, learn more about agriculture, become more attuned to food seasons, and increase the food productivity of urban land. The motivations sound pretty lofty, but the goal itself is very down to earth.

I plan to grow more food by doing any or all of the following: start planting earlier in the year (it was July last year when things got underway); expand the garden (find another garden plot or sunny spaces where I can sneak in a few veggie plants); plant more productive varieties for this climate. Growing food without land ownership can be tricky, and a larger garden equals more work, so I need flexibility in how I meet this goal.

Cukes, welcome to the garden.

Goal 2: Can something I’ve grown.

Last year I discovered canning in a big way. Everything I canned, though, was purchased from the Farmers’ Market. This will largely be the way of things this year, except that I will strive to grow enough of something that it can be preserved as jam, pickle, conserve, chutney, or sauce. Call it my desire to taste a bit of homestead living in the middle of the city—to be self-sufficient in something, anything, even if it is only six half-pint jars of bread-and-butter pickles.

The plan for this is easy, made possible by goal number one. I will grow more of one or two things (tomatoes? cukes? beans?), choosing the specific fruit or vegetable based on what I want to add to my pantry and what plants can be expected to yield enough produce to make canning it worthwhile. I look forward to a good, long study of the seed catalogue that just arrived yesterday morning.

Goal 3: Forage for food in the city.

This goal represents a new food experience for me. This isn’t foraging in the sense of gathering from the wild (mushrooms and asparagus hold no appeal for me), but rather harvesting the food grown—almost inadvertently grown—in public areas. Mostly this takes the form of fruit trees grown as street trees. I want to encourage edible landscaping in the city, and I also hate to see food go to waste.

The next time I walk under a plum tree dropping its fruit on the boulevard to rot, I pledge to record the location of the tree and come back to harvest some plums. If the tree is on private property, I may contact the owner and suggest a fruit share in exchange for picking. (This endeavour is currently limited by the lack of a ladder, but there’s about seven months to sort out such logistics.) Isn’t there an apple tree somewhere on 7th? A plum tree on Yew? Does anyone know of pears or cherries?

It sounds like there’s plenty to do this year, but also plenty to eat and enjoy. Note to self: idealism aside, it’s just food. Perfection is irrelevant here. Do what you can, just make it yummy.

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Urban food gardening, part 5: harvest time

Pumpkins in the rain. The harvest of my imagination.

Is November still considered “harvest time”? My North American upbringing has me associating the harvest with late August to October, with the requisite pumpkins, apples, golden sunlight (when it’s not raining), and random haystacks. An unidentified farm vehicle and a scarecrow complete the vignette. Of course, as an urbanite I don’t typically come across haystacks and threshers (I know these exist, but doubt I would recognize one) yet the mental picture is a reflex, a product of culture.

The garden at 90 days, in late October.

The restrictive notion of harvest as a particular season or time of year is much more of a romantic notion than a real one. Of course the pumpkins really are ready to pick in October, but the amount of harvesting done year round in a place like Vancouver makes every season a potential harvest season. My own urban agricultural exploits had me sowing seed in late July, so my harvest is necessarily a later one. In fact, some of it is so late it’s actually early—for 2011, that is. July was the perfect time to plant overwintering onions.

Mescluns, Cimmaron romaine, and Grand Rapids leaf lettuce are still going strong.

Despite the late start, I’ve been harvesting for some time now. I’ve been picking greens since the end of August with the cut-and-come-again technique that takes individual leaves and keeps the plant growing new ones continuously. More than any other food I had wanted to grow lettuce, and the endeavour has been a satisfying one. Growing a couple of varieties and mescluns isn’t difficult, but the sheer fact of harvesting these greens on a weekly basis for most of the last three months has given me such a feeling of accomplishment. Oh Cimmaron romaine, how you empower me!

Giant radishes inspire confidence and raise eyebrows.

Growing radish was likewise gratifying. Such speedy plants, radishes are impressive for their ability to produce a root vegetable in record time. Harvesting these hulking specimens felt like “harvest” in that sense of pulling up an entire crop at once. Kale and Swiss chard are currently being harvested in batches: not as prolific as the lettuces, these greens (though the kale is also purple and the chard is also yellow) take longer to reach maturity but can be harvested leaf-by-leaf if desired.

Lovely golden-yellow Eldorado Swiss chard.

Just coming out of the ground are the carrots. I’ve been pulling one every two weeks or so to check their progress (they’re on time, but I’m impatient) and the early specimens were sweet tasting and—no lie— carrot-shaped. After reading so much about the difficulty of growing a good, straight carrot I’m wondering if I just got lucky or if I have the magic carrot touch. Though I’m quite sure it’s the former, I feel a bit cocky and anticipate a larger planting next year.

Early carrots, Prodigy (left) and Bolero (right, planted 30 days later).

There’s still more in the ground. Depending on the weather, or when I need it, this time of harvest could extend into winter. Time to readjust my mental picture of harvest to include leeks, spinach, and snow tires.

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Veggie Newbie

Rainbow chard from Forstbauer Family Natural Food Farm.

The 2010 New Vegetable of the Year is… a rediscovered heirloom, a new hybrid, or a genetically modified Franken-veggie? Nope, it’s Swiss chard—a brand new vegetable, for me at least.

I was a picky eater as a kid. Perhaps I still am, but I’m working on it. Each year I deliberately introduce myself to a vegetable I’ve never tried before and attempt to appreciate its merits. So far the experiment has been successful, and this year’s new veggie has become a weekly staple. Who new it would be this easy?

Swiss chard goes by many names: mangold, perpetual spinach, spinach beet, crab beet, seakale beet, and silverbeet. The dark green savoyed leaves are often the only part that is eaten, though I’ve heard that the stems can be prepared as well. I am yet to find that kind of courage, though the stems are certainly beautiful enough to consider: deep yellows and reds are common colours, as are pink, white, and every shade in between.

Incredible shrinking chard, fried with leek.

I wonder if I selected this year’s new veggie due to a bit of shame and embarrassment. I’ve been aware for many years, of course, that eating dark green leafy vegetables imparts unparalleled nutritional goodness. In particular, Swiss chard is chock-full of vitamins A, C and K, and minerals such as calcium, magnesium and iron. But it was more likely the exclamation I caused at a dinner with friends when I said I had never tried chard before that got me to consider it. “You’ve never eaten Swiss chard? Ever? What about kale? Collard greens?” Ah… no, on all accounts. My friends were incredulous. I ducked my head and half-heartedly tried to own my greens-deficient identity. It’s not like I didn’t eat lettuce, for crying out loud. I’m not completely unschooled in leafy green ways.

I’ll admit that often my strategy for a new vegetable—or an old vegetable that I don’t like very much—is to make it disappear. Zucchini bread and lasagna, for example, are the only ways I eat zucchini, made possible thanks to the vanishing act this squash pulls when it is shredded and cooked. (I’m not big on slimy chunks, sorry zuke lovers.) Trying chard for the first time, this basic strategy seemed like a sound one. Much like spinach, chard leaves steam or stir fry to a tiny fraction of their original volume, making them easy to incorporate into other dishes whether called for or not. It’s been a simple matter to add the incredible shrinking chard to soups, sauces, and casseroles.

Bacon-makes-everything-better quiche, with Swiss chard in a supporting role.

It turns out that Swiss chard is good. It’s true that I’m still more likely to enjoy it in an ensemble cast than in a starring role, but so what? It’s fantastic in bacon-leek-tomato-chard quiche, and if I need another year to appreciate it on it’s own, at least it has moved off of the “never been tried” list. That list is still pretty long.

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Epic Tomato Put It Up Day

How long will thirty-two jars last?

This was the summer I learned to put up. Canning summer’s harvest, or “putting up,” is a time-honoured tradition that I have absolutely no personal history with. I reached the tipping point with it this year likely due to a growing obsession with eating whole, local, and organic food. Canning feels like a natural extension of a food philosophy that prioritizes knowing what I’m eating, where it comes from, and how it is prepared. It also satisfies a growing need to feel deeply connected to land and place, and to know that we won’t starve when the earthquake hits. (Alarmist? Not really, more like “secure-ist” in the sense of food security.) But more than anything, I just want to make tomato sauce from scratch and eat it on pasta in January.

With this mindset, and a love of farm-fresh tomatoes, I embarked on the Epic Tomato Put It Up Day. “Epic” was a descriptor applied on Monday after the ordeal was over, for reasons that will soon become clear. Caution: think twice before trying this at home.

Twenty-five pounds of organic roma tomatoes.

9:15–10:30am

Sunday dawned rainy and cool, tarps pooling overhead at the vendor stalls of the farmers’ market where I would buy supplies for the day’s canning projects. Twenty-five pounds of tomatoes: check. Sixteen ears of corn: check. Twelve apples, nine large onions, six peaches, the list went on and my arms nearly failed me. Back at the ranch, the counter overflowed with gorgeous fruits and veggies at their peak, and I had some serious work ahead.

10:30am–12:30pm

There’s a rhythm to preparing large amounts of any one type of food. Reminiscent of an assembly line of one, the repetition becomes something of a meditation. “Blanch, peel, core…blanch, peel, core,” was my new tomato mantra.

The beginning of three recipes from one pot—barbeque sauce, sweet and sour sauce, and chutney.

12:30–1:30pm

The first canning project was an oh-so-efficient three-in-one recipe. Starting with the tomatoes, apples, onions, vinegar and spices, the batch will simmer for about two hours to reduce to a thick, savory barbeque sauce. This would be the first of three products to emerge from the pot. Simmer simmer.

1:30–3:30pm

A proud multi-tasking moment: simmering pot; blanching and peeling peaches, boiling them down with sugar, garlic, and Tabasco; shucking and cooking corn; tomato mantra redux; running jars through the dishwasher; setting the canner to boil. Mastered the four-burner shuffle. I also took a moment to eat lunch (silly me, wasting time like that).

3:30–4:00pm

Barbeque sauce (just less than half the amount in the pot) ladled into piping hot jars, processed and left to cool on the counter.

4:00–5:00pm

Peaches in thick, glossy syrup added to the pot, transforming the formerly-known-as barbeque sauce into sweet and sour sauce. Into jars, into the canner, onto the counter.

5:00–5:30pm

Raisins join the last dregs of the sweet and sour sauce to form chutney. Canned. Three sauces from one pot—impressive.

5:30–6:45pm

Onto the next project! Corn kernels bounce off the cutting board into all corners of the counter, blocked by my body from diving suicidal for the floor. More chopping produces onion, more tomato, and cilantro, combined with vinegar and spice in the pot and brought to a boil. A trip through the canner and corn salsa appeared on the counter beside the three sauces.

Cooking down tomatoes into luscious pasta sauce. You could smell it from the sidewalk.

6:45–8:00pm

It was time to begin crafting the main attraction, the pasta sauce, and that meant—you guessed it—more tomato mantra. (Did I say “meditation” earlier? I may have meant marathon.) The seduction of homemade sauce is the incredible taste that comes from vine-ripened tomatoes cooked down to intensify the flavour, a process that takes three hours at least. That’s right, three hours with an 8:00pm start time. Um, no problem. The pasta sauce was now on the stove.

8:00–8:45pm

Thank goodness for pizza leftovers. Fortified with dinner and a short sit-down, I gamely considered my options. I could rest for a bit and even clean up the kitchen before the sauce was ready, or I could can the remaining four pounds of roma tomatoes languishing in the bottom of the large cardboard flat. No time like the present, I thought, secretly gleeful to produce yet another batch of foodstuff this day. I’d take it easy tomorrow.

Stewed tomatoes. There's time, right?

8:45–10:30pm

Once more with the tomato mantra masochism, then a rough chop of the tomatoes and into the jars, processing for forty minutes. With time enough to sit for a spell, I thought perhaps a bitty perusal of my other canning recipe book—the one that is decades newer—would be fun. Well, it seems safety concerns have really elevated in the intervening years, and processing time for raw packed tomatoes has doubled. Mine is not to question, though I am fully licensed to groan loudly and cast drooping eyes at the clock.

10:30–11:15pm

Another forty-five minutes then. Boil, boil, toil and trouble. I collapsed on the couch.

11:15–11:45pm

I lifted the lid of the canner after eighty-five minutes of total processing time to find the water level even with the tops of the jars. This is a bad thing. Every book I’ve read wants two inches of water above the jars during the entire processing time. The spectre of botulism took shape over my left shoulder, so I dutifully boiled the kettle, topped up the canner with boiling water, and processed for another twenty minutes.

Beautiful sauce, bad decisions.

11:45pm–1:00am

It happened around the witching hour. I was taking out the sterilized jars from the canner, ready to receive the glorious (and now very thick) pasta sauce when I dropped one. It hit its fellow on the rim and clattered back into the roiling boil. Examining the assaulted jar revealed a small missing shard and a rough edge.

In retrospect, this is where I should have called it quits for the night. But I was tired, so tired, and made what I thought was a reasonable decision at the time. I removed the chipped jar, swirled the others around in the water to rinse them and pulled them out of the canner in an inverted position. I peered into each one, looking and not finding any glass shards. I filled them, put the lids on (perhaps a bit tighter than usual), and processed them in the bath.

I dreamed that night of tomatoes, boiling water, and glass. I woke tormented by thoughts of internal bleeding and hospitalization. I dumped out the sauce.

Other people—perhaps saner—would space these projects over several days, and possibly over a couple of weeks. I am not such a person. I would try pasta sauce again next Sunday. Of course I’d need a recipe to do while waiting for the sauce to boil down. And since I’d have tomatoes left over, maybe also a tomato jam, and…

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Urban food gardening, part 4: site maintenance

Thinning early seedlings.

Time moves slowly in the first weeks after sowing seed. You’re watering very carefully, waiting for the first tiny greens to break through the soil. You watch for growth, measured daily, and write veggie due dates in your calendar. With an eagle eye, you look for the small holes and ragged edges that betray pests, searching under leaves without success. Occasionally you thin, transplant, and hill up. You try to keep busy.

In this time of waiting, you get to know things.

You get to know more about where you are. This place that you chose to commit to for the coming seasons has its own rhythms and expectations that are separate from yours. Maybe this is especially so when your garden is in the public realm.

After the weekend, for example, there is more litter. Not in the garden, mind you, but around it.  Sometimes litter takes the form of cigarette butts, sometimes it’s squashed ketchup packets or rubber gloves, sometimes abandoned furniture. Maybe the furniture has only happened once, but it was very large as far as litter goes.

You get to know the neighbours. The people who live somewhat nearby who walk their dogs, pick berries with their kids, collect cans, and just hang out. You find out that you’re not the only who picks up the litter. You become impressed with the shared commitment to the neighbourhood, watching a neighbour painting over some uninspired graffiti to “help spruce things up.”

The garden at 39 days: insanely exuberant radishes and happy lettuce transplants.

Invariably, the people who walk by have something nice to say about the garden. “Nice work!” “What beautiful straight rows!” and “They’re sprouting up real good, eh?” You might start to enjoy talking to strangers.

You also get to know yourself. You discover that growing food feels really good, and that you’re really excited to see your lettuce transplants are thriving and the chard stems are as golden yellow as the seed catalogue promised. Maybe you had an inkling that this would happen—that growing your own food would feed your soul. Or maybe you didn’t, but it’s good to find out. A little site maintenance never hurt anyone.

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Milk culture

Are we devoid of culture?

Cultured foods, especially fermented milk products, were once a much larger part of our collective diet. From necessity, many cultures discovered how to preserve milk and make delicious foods in the process. In the time before industrialization, cultured milk was a way of life.

Yogurt in a jar. Otherwise known as lacto-fermentation at its most yummy.

Yogurt, buttermilk, sour cream, cream cheese, cottage cheese, and crème fraiche are common foods that have traditionally been made by allowing milk to sour. Without pasteurization or refrigeration, milk sours and separates. This process of lacto-fermentation involves the production of lactic acid—friendly bacteria break down milk sugar and milk protein to produce enough lactic acid to inactivate all the nasty bacteria. This preserves the milk for a time, making it safe to eat and imparting a sour taste. We seem to have lost the taste for sour milk, and with it we’ve lost a lot of food culture.

It’s useful to consider what we understand as culture. “Culture” is defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary as “the act or process of cultivating living material (as bacteria or viruses) in prepared nutrient media; also: a product of such cultivation.” This doesn’t sound very appetizing—in fact, it hardly sounds like food at all. Culture is also defined as “enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training.” If we no longer recognize culturing as making food, and if cultured foods are no longer held in good taste, is our intellect or our training to blame rather than our taste buds?

A cultural manifesto—a whole book about making and eating yogurt.

We must consider what influences our current food culture. Food is big business. National food safety regulations support food commercialization and tell us that the food we prepare ourselves poses health risks. The result is that we’ve become afraid of food. In such a state, we’re easily convinced by agri-business propaganda that processed cheese slices are an acceptable, edible milk product. We’ve become suspicious of the raw milk that has sustained generations, and of traditional practices that have produced cultured foods such as kefir—a sour and slightly effervescent beverage with antibiotic properties. Our appetites and attitudes have been warped. We’re at risk of losing the knowledge and good sense, not to mention the good taste, of our traditional foods.

It’s time for a cultural revolution. I’m making yogurt.

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Urban food gardening, part 3: from seed…

Bedtime reading with the West Coast Seeds 2010 Gardening Guide.

When did my favourite reading become a seed catalogue?

Such publications are fascinating, really. A wealth of information, tidily packaged into concise boxes with pictures, descriptive text, and icons for growing seasons and heirloom status. Though not strictly necessary, some include the occasional poetic praise of taste, colour, or general aesthetics that bring life to an otherwise plain-jane vegetable. Tokyo Cross turnips, for example, are described by the West Coast Seeds 2010 Gardening Guide as “…so smooth and pretty and with tidy tops too.” One wonders if there are Japanese radish charm schools. The Marian rutabaga is “a globe-shaped root with an attractive creamy-coloured interior and purple shoulder….” I’ll never look at a root vegetable the same way.

Future meals, in self-sealing envelopes.

From a careful read through the catalogue, one can select the vegetable varieties that will grow the largest, fastest, soonest, easiest, and (subjectively) best. Alternatively, one could select the prettiest, strangest, coldest (season or climate), or oldest (a long history of cultivation). Varieties are plants within the same species that have different characteristics, such as colour or size, and may prefer different growing conditions. Vegetable varieties provide such a wide range of growing and eating experiences that the gardener must make deliberate choices.

I found myself planting near the end of July. When other gardeners are reaping the bounty of vegetables sown early in the year, I was just getting going. This meant that I would need varieties that ripen before winter—when the cold either kills plants or makes them dormant, depending on their constitution. I was also looking for overwintering varieties that could be harvested in early spring. I found what I was looking for in the form of mescluns and lettuce, scallions and leeks, spinach and chard, carrots and fennel, and garlic. I also found a keener of a veggie—the radish— that would satisfy my desire to see quick progress and assure myself that yes, they really will grow. My trusty seed catalogue had it all.

Little seedlings, radish and fennel.

Not having done this before, I agonized over what to plant where. Which will grow tall and shade others, which need room above ground and which need it below, and what should go beside the carrots to ward off carrot rust fly? (I hear it’s a problem.) It’s just a small garden, but it’s brimming with seed in straight rows, neatly labeled, and now in various states of germination. Everyone is all tucked in, snug in their raised bed.

So why am I still reading this catalogue?

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