Thursday, August 27, 2009

I Would Like to Take This Opportunity to Thank My Mom

The likelihood that I'll ever win an Oscar and be able to say 'Thank you Mom' is negligible at best, and even if I were to have Mr. Oscar in hand, the band would start playing really loudly before I got through even a small percentage of the things I would want to thank my mother for.

So, instead, I will employ the wonderful world of blogging to send thank-yous to my mother. Her name is Terry. She's fabulous. I am not at all biased in my judgement. There are more than a google (look it up, it's a number) things that I could thank my mother for, but since the very loose constructs of this blog concern things related to food, I'll attempt hold back on all the non-food related thank-yous. Note the word 'attempt'.

Dear Mom, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for the following childhood experiences:

  1. Never feeding me a TV dinner
  2. Taking me strawberry and raspberry picking
  3. Asking me to help you in the kitchen
  4. Making dinner every night
  5. Making sure we sat down to dinner as a family every night
  6. Serving vegetables at every dinner
  7. Making dessert a very occassional treat
  8. Never using canned corn or other canned vegetables and fruits
  9. Trying to feed us new/different foods, even if that cornflake casserole didn't get the thumbs up!
  10. Planting a vegetable garden
  11. Teaching me how to bake
  12. Making Christmas baking a tradition that I still treasure
  13. Not bringing sugar cereals into the house
  14. Letting me eat candy and chocolate, but making sure the house was not filled with sweets
  15. Taking me to the grocery store with you
  16. Not bringing your daughters up on television, but rather on books and imagination and the outdoors
  17. Making me a birthday meal every year...up to and including my 29th!!
  18. Packing my lunches, even though I thought I wanted cafeteria meals like pizza and fries
  19. Not having a bathroom scale
  20. Making delicious date squares
  21. Making homemade yogurt and bean sprouts
  22. Letting me order whatever I wanted when we ate out - even when I went through that hamburger phase
  23. Never buying white bread
  24. Making homemade jam
The list could go on and on, but in the interests of keeping this post to a respectable length, I'll now skip ahead....

I would also like to thank you for the following:
  1. Answering my many, many questions about cooking, food safety, etc. since I've been living away from home. I think I have averaged about two calls per month, possibly more. And you've always had an answer
  2. Holding food in balance - neither revering it to the point that it could become, literally, all-consuming nor dismissing it as something that could be nuked in two minute
  3. Teaching me almost everything I know about baking, most of what I know about cooking and a good chunk of what I know about food
Finally, Mom, thank you for being a wonderful cook and showing me that making a meal truly is a labour of love.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Keen on Quinoa

It's pronounced 'keen-wah'. And it's my new favorite food!

A couple of months ago I decided to go to a holistic nutritionist for dietary advice. I'd been to a regular (normal?) nutritionist a couple of years previous, but figured a different perspective on what one should eat was worth the investment. Well, as it turns out, my new nutritionist had much advice not only on what to eat, but also on what not to eat. Amongst the things she suggested I eliminate: processed dairy, gluten, soy-based drinks and cereals. She also suggested I cut down on my meat consumption.

Well, well, then what's a gal to eat? I inquired, having seen most of three of the four food groups go on the chopping block. Don't get me wrong, I love fruits and vegetables, but one cannot live on these alone - unless the one we speak of is a fruit fly.

Unsurprisingly, she was armed with recipes and suggestions for clean eating. No, I would not have to resort to eating soap. I could enjoy legumes, rice, kamut (I've still not ventured here), squash and other wholesome foods. And to ensure I got all my protein requirements, she suggested whey protein powder for my daily smoothie.

But I would prefer to get my protein from whole foods, I informed her. And as much as I enjoy legumes, I don't want to eat them day in and day out. That's when she mentioned 'qunioa' - actually she raved about it. It's South American in origin, and the Inca called it 'mother food', as it was the staple of their diet. It's the seed of a plant similar to spinach and quite tasteless - it picks up the taste of whatever it is cooked with.

Apparently it's the best source of protein in the vegetable kingdom and packs a punch of amino acids. It's also a really high word score in Scrabble.

I was sold. I went home, hopped onto and found a recipe that sounded manageable and quite delicious. I wouldn't normally use this blog to share a recipe, but this one is too good to not share. I think I've made it at least six times in the last two months and each batch makes 10, yeah, a lotta quinoa! It is an excellent potluck recipe - vegetarians will hold you in great esteem if you show up with a bowl of quinoa salad, and it also goes over well at dinner parties (as you can see by the picture of my friend, Erin, enjoying a spoonful of the good stuff).

Here's the original recipe, which can also be found here:

Qunioa Salad with Dried Fruit and Nuts
  • 1 1/2 cups quinoa
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3 1/2 cups water
  • 1 bunch green onions, chopped
  • 3/4 cup chopped celery
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1 pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons sesame oil
  • 1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 3/4 cup chopped pecans

  1. Bring the quinoa, salt, and water to a boil in a saucepan. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until the quinoa is tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Once done, scrape into a large bowl, and allow to cool for 20 minutes. Stir in the green onions, celery, raisins, cayenne pepper, vegetable oil, vinegar, lemon juice, and sesame oil. Allow to stand at room temperature for 1 hour to allow the flavors to blend. Stir in the cilantro and pecans before serving.

Here's where I'm going to be one of those annoying cooks and say that you don't have to follow the recipe. The celery and green onions are optional/interchangeable with other things like asparagus or whatever is green and will last a few days in a salad! The fruits and nuts are also interchangeable - throw in some dried cranberries, apricots, almonds or whatever.

As for the oils and such - DO NOT skip on the sesame oil. I would always choose olive oil over vegetable oil. I also enjoy the cilantro very much, but that's a personal taste. I didn't have the spices on hand when I made this the first time, so I threw in some cumin and curry powder and it turned out well. I also did not have lemon juice once and tossed in some maple wine. Oh, and I usually squeeze a bit of honey in (not much, just a bit).

Make this recipe. Seriously. It is GOOOD. Quinoa can be bought at a health food store or the bulk barn. I like to make it with red quinoa b/c it's pretty.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Where is the World is Your Salmon From?

My first meal upon arriving on PEI back in June featured a delicious Atlantic salmon fillet grilled on the BBQ. As I savored its delightfully familiar, rich taste, I asked my mother where it was from, expecting her to say 'Sobeys' or 'the Superstore'. I was completely thrown off when she replied 'Chile'. What?? But this is Atlantic salmon isn't it?? I was confused. My geography is not that great, but I was pretty sure that:

a) Chile was on the Pacific ocean; and
b) Chile was located in the Southern hemisphere.

Well, it seems that the Chileans are now farming the Atlantic salmon and shipping it all around the world, including the East Coast of Canada - which is (or at least I thought was) synonymous with 'fresh seafood'. Incidentally, I am in Pittsburgh as I write this and just had grilled salmon at Bahama Breeze, a small chain of restaurants serving Carribean food. The salmon they served me was also from Chile (I asked before I's always good to ask!). After a bit of memory jogging, I recalled that during my visit to Vancouver in May, I was shocked to find that Atlantic salmon was a good $6 cheaper per kilo than its West coast counterpart, Pacific salmon. At the time, this made no sense to me, since I assumed the Atlantic salmon was from Eastern Canada, where it could be presumed that costs of production (labour, feed, materials, etc.) would be somewhat comparable. Now it makes sense, that Atlantic salmon was ALSO from the West coast..just a bit further south than the Pacific salmon. Well, I really shouldn't be surprised. I have read enough exposes of the global food industry to know that its tentacles extend to every edible morsel that the earth or, more often, a laboratory, produces. Procuring food has become yet another 'system' that most of us know little about and are highly dependent upon.

My current read 'Eat Your Heart Out', by Felicity Lawrence is jam packed full of statistics and findings that reinforce a very, very basic fact that few people seem to be aware of: We have become dependent on an abundance of cheap food and a false sense of food security that are perilously dependent upon the continued supply of cheap oil. And so it is with salmon, as it is with corn, soy, beef and a myriad of other foods whose production has been outsourced to the lowest cost producer - regardless of where in the world that producer might be, because apparently even with the costs of oil factored in for transportation, manufacture and processing it is still cheaper to grow things or harvest them in far off lands or seas where cheap labor is abundant and, perhaps, environmental laws are lax.

And it's not just the 'where' that one might want to ponder next time they order 'Atlantic salmon' from a restaurant or pick it up at the supermarket, but also 'how'. It seems that the ever-growing surplus of corn in America is now making its way into the diet of the Atlantic salmon. This, again, should not surprise me. Corn makes up a far, far greater proportion of the typical North American diet than most people are aware. It is in everything, from Coke (corn syrup) to cereaal (and not just Corn Flakes, but pretty much any box cereal you find at the supermarket) to hamburgers. Cows, which naturally evolved to munch on grass (that's why they have four stomachs) are now routinely being fed corn, soy and a bunch of anti-biotics which are used to combat the cows' reactions to stress from its unnatural living and diet conditions. So now salmon farms are starting to include corn in their feed mix. Last time I checked, corn didn't grow in seas or oceans, so it's safe to assume that corn is not a natural part of the salmon's diet. In the wild, salmon feed off other fish. This new foray into feeding salmon corn, on top of the controversy concerning the high levels of PCBs in farmed salmon versus wild salmon, is enough to make one take a long pause before ordering what is a seemingly healthy menu choice.

Once you start asking questions, it's hard to stop. The next one you might want to ask is 'what about the wild salmon? wouldn't it be cheaper to fish those, since there wouldn't be the expense of feeding them and maintaining them until maturity? ' I'm not sure what the answer to this question is, but I suspect part of the challenge is that stocks of wild salmon are depleting. It's also my observation that the food 'industry' prefers to control every facet of production, starting with the growing or farming of its products (i.e. animals, vegetables, grains, etc.), convinced that science , in the form of chemicals, breeding, dietary changes, etc., can do better than nature. If quantity in the very short term is the only measuring stick the food industry is using, they might actually be right. But, of course, short term supply should never be the only measuring stick for something as vital to life as nourishment.

Well, in any case, the latest on the West coast salmon stocks is neither encouraging nor surprising:

If you're thinking of ordering fish or buying it at the supermarket, here are some resources taht might help you figure out what would be the best bet for your health and the health of the planet:

David Suzuki Organization - Conserving Our Oceans

Happy fishing!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Finding Joy

It's 12.27 am now. I just biked home from the movie theatre and should probably go to bed, but I can't. You know those rare times when something finds you at precisely the moment you need it? Like a book that you find yourself picking up from a used bookstore that ends up changing everything, or a long forgotten photograph that falls out of your old purse and makes you smile for the rest of the day? You didn't know you needed that book, that photograph, that phone call or that song, but afterwards you realise how very much you did. Well, tonight I went to the movies and watched Julie & Julia. It's a movie based on two true stories - one of Julia Child, the other of Julie Powell. I wanted to see it for the obvious reason - it's a whole movie about cooking and food.

But I was wrong. It's a movie about finding your joy, following your passion. And the only way to find joy is to be fearless. Fearless. A simple two syllable word for what is, without a doubt, the most difficult thing any of us can ever aspire to be. To live fearlessly is the ultimate freedom. To live fearlessly is to follow your heart without doubting that it will lead you to joy. It sounds simple enough doesn't it? Ah, but it's not, because there are the all those 'buts' that get in the way. But what if I fail? But what if people don't like me? Or love me? But what if I can't find my way? But what if I can't make ends meet? But but but but but....

I'm afraid of so many things it sometimes makes my head spin and my heart tumble around on itself. I'm afraid to believe I am a runner. I keep saying 'I'm not a runner', even as I tie up my laces and get ready for a 16 kilometer run. And I keep insisting I'm 'only' planning to complete a half marathon, no time goal for me because I am clearly not a runner.

I'm afraid to write. Most days, when I sit down to type something out, I simply can't. I'm afraid it won't sound good, that it'll be boring, that it will be cliche and people won't get it. I end up deleting a lot of what I write because it's not at all what is in my head. How do I make that leap? How do I get what's in my head onto the screen without making a mess of it between the time it takes to travel from my brain to my fingertips. I'm afraid of failing at what it is I want to be. I'm afraid I'm not a writer.

I fear my love of cooking and baking. I realise that sounds ludicrous, especially because anyone who knows me, knows that I spend a lot of time in the kitchen for someone that's fearful of preparing food. But it's true. I'm afraid that I'll never master the art of cooking. I'll just be adequate at it. And as for baking, well, quite frankly I'm afraid that I indulge in baking as a means of self-therapy. So I try to steer clear of baking altogether and stick to a relatively small number of straightforward meals that one really cannot muck up.

But something has changed recently. And this movie, Julie & Julia, gave me a glimpse into my own progress towards fearlessness. In the past month I have ran two races with intent. I told everyone else they were just tests, to make sure I can get through the half marathon. But I told myself to go out there and kick my own butt. And I felt like a runner both times I crossed the finish line. I've started this blog, which is my first small step towards re-entering the world of writing. There have been moments, even months, in the past, when I've believed I was a writer. But I didn't hang on the that belief, I got too wrapped up in getting through the days and figuring out my next moves. I'm forever distracting myself from the present with plans for the future. What is the point in that? Right now I am writing and that's all I have room for in this moment.

And as for my cooking, well that's going through a rather rapid evolution due to my forays into gardening and CSAing, which have had the combined effect of overflowing my kitchen counters and refrigerator with fresh produce of every sort imaginable. Suddenly, and without time to delay for fear of messing up, I have to figure out what to do with three heads of summer squash, two zuchini, a gazillion tomatoes, leeks, radishes, beets and an assortment of other vegetables that are begging to be prepared by little old me. So I am having a dinner party tomorrow and have no idea what will be on the menu. And I'm not panicking because I'm not afraid of screwing up. It's just vegetables after all.

I think I might be on my way to finding joy.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Food Dichotomies

Everywhere I go now, I find myself faced with food dichotomies - global vs. local, quantity vs. quality, shelf life vs. freshness. I wonder if it's because I'm immersed in researching local food systems, kind of like when you buy a new car and suddenly you seem the same model everywhere. Or maybe it's because there's a movement afoot, maybe, just maybe, people are starting to care more about what they are eating and where it comes from. Two stark food dichotomies I've encountered in the past couple of weeks:


While on PEI, I took pleasure in eating as much seafood as possible and sourcing my produce locally whenever I could. Below is a picture of one of the many meals I enjoyed with my family while on the Island. I prepared the salad, which contains local PEI spinach, feta cheese from NS, raspberries from the U-Pick down the road, pecans from the Bulk Barn, and a blueberry dressing that I made from Tignish blueberries, Rossignol maple wine (from PEI), olive oil and white vinegar. The fish is an Atlantic salmon fillet (more about that in another post, but for now we'll pretend it's relatively local).

Then I had to take a roadtrip. My first sojourn in my newly acquired Toyota Echo. It's been three years since I owned a car and I haven't missed having one, but, ironically, I found myself needing wheels in order to carry out my data collection for my Masters thesis in Environmental Studies. Well, in any event, I had to drive back to Kingston, Ontario from Prince Edward Island, and I was ill prepared foodwise when I hit the road with my driving partner and fabulous friend Jen. We had bananas and cashews, but needed more sustenance for the 16 hour drive. At lunch we stopped for Subway somewhere in northern NB. As fastfood on the road goes, I can handle Subway. At least there's some colour to the meal. Coming on the last leg of the trip, however, we decided we'd better have dinner. The options were not appealing - Mickey D's, KFC, Tim Horton's, DQ. We opted for DQ and I ended up getting a chicken wrap w/o dressing and, for reaons unbeknownst to me, a small fries. Ugh. I can't recall the last time I ate fast food. I abhor it and this time was no different. I don't understand why people eat fastfood on a regular or even semi-regular basis. My meal lacked colour and taste. The best part of it was the ketchup and that's only because I am a ketchup addict.


On Thursday, I started my workshare with Vegetables Unplugged. What does that mean? It means that I am working on a farm for three hours a week (one morning) for the next ten weeks. In return, I receive 20 weeks worth of delicious, fresh vegetables from the farm (more about this type of farm model, called Community Supported Agriculture, in another post). Whatever is ripe and has been harvested ends up in my kitchen that week. I loved my first day on the farm - all we did was pick and pack vegetables for three hours at a pretty leisurely pace. Good conversation was had between everyone as we picked, plucked and plonked. As noon approached, Craig, who runs the CSA operation, announced that we should get a bag and pack up our share of veggies. How wonderful to know when the vegetables in my kitchen were picked and by who and furthermore, to know that they use organic practices and are not farming intensively, but are farming smart. Melanie, one of the other farm workers, kindly posed for a picture with all of her vegetables stuffed into a big, reusable bag.

Then, on the ferry ride back to Kingston (the farm is on Wolfe Island, a 20 minute trip from dock to dock) I noticed a huge truck onboard. It was a Sysco truck, proudly announcing its status as a food marketer of quality food. 'Quality Assured Foodservice Products'. What does that even mean?? I'm not even sure I know what a foodservice product is. And who is assuring it's quality? It occurs to me that businesses are much like people - the ones that feel the need to announce themselves as being the best, the brightest, the strongest or the most durable are most likely to be the ones lacking these very qualities. It's the quietly confident ones that go about doing things based on an internal set of values without tooting their own horns that are much more likely to be trustworthy and worthy of your business. And I, for one, am pretty sure that Vegetables Unplugged has Sysco beat by a mile when it comes to being 'quality assured'.

Farewell Dinners

The past week and a half, I've found myself sitting down to more farewell dinners then I care to count. It seems that food and farewells go hand in hand on the Island - you can't escape without getting 'stuffed' from the well-intentions of your hosts, especially if they are family. Sometimes I swear they try to feed you as if you won't eat again until you return to PEI at Christmas. Such is life on PEI. It doesn't matter if you live here or are visiting, summer on PEI is certain to be full of 'welcome home' barbecues, bonfires and bevies on a patio throughout June and July.

Inevitably, then, as August settles in and the nights fall upon us earlier, the goodbye dinners start to roll in. They may not be christened as such though, because as we sit down to these final suppers we are all wishing the same thing: that time will stand still, that these last tastes of summer on the Island will stretch, stretch, stretch like a marmalade cat that's been napping all day in the shade of an oak tree. No one wants to look at the clock.

And that is how I found myself night after night over this past week and a half. Sometimes I was saying goodbye to friends that were leaving before me, other times I was saying goodbye to friends I didn't think I'd see again before I left. Always we'd find ourselves around a table, drinking and eating, laughing and chatting about times gone by and times to come. Then there were the goodbyes to family members that had dropped in for a weekend visit from the mainland. Saturday night, after a feast that was officially dubbed my birthday meal, I gave my sister a big hug and poked her belly - next time I see her, she'll be a mother. Life will change forever for her and Rowan.

The Dunes, an eclectic and gorgeous restaurant/gallery with spectacular gardens in Brackely Beach, played host to two memorable dinners with people I didn’t want to say goodbye to. So we didn’t say goodbye, at least not over dinner. Instead we savored divine seafood, reminisced about the past and planned future adventures together (one of which involves a chocolate cake being delivered to me and Devin at the end of our half marathon race in October). It’s almost as though the food and wine are meant to cushion the whole ordeal, make it less painful. Well, in one of two cases it did the trick. In the other case, I think overindulgence in the ‘cushioning effect’ of food and wine had the opposite effect, causing real, physical pain by way of stomachaches.

And now my farewell dinners are over. I am back in Kingston, trying to make my way through a slew of ‘welcome back’ dinners. The cycle begins again. For the past six years my life has been marked by farewell and welcome back dinners – it’s almost as if my travels to and fro are the courses of an elaborate dinner that will never end. And I’m OK with that, but some time, sooner rather than later, I’d like find a bit permanence, whittle down the number of times I have to say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ to those that I care about. It’s getting harder with every season that passes.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Coming Home

PEI is home. There is no denying this. No matter how many times I uproot myself from this Island that I grew up on, no matter how many kilometres away I plant myself, or how many times zones I have to adjust my phone calls, this little cradle shaped piece of land on the East Coast of Canada will always be home. And I will forever find myself 'coming home', returning as the holidays demand or as another chapter of my life comes to a close. The chapters of my twenties are marked by the dog-eared months I spent in between adventures, recuperating and rejuvenating on PEI. And so it was throughout most of my twenties that I developed a pattern of flitting between the familiar and the unknown. I'd leave PEI for somewhere far far away, then return to home for a few months , get itchy feet and then find another country willing to entertain my fascination with accents, kilts and all things non-Canadian. And then, many months later, I'd be back on red soil, savouring the familiarity of this place called 'home', until I again felt the need to made tracks for somewhere else, anywhere else.

And always, coming home meant returning to an easy routine, where eating and food shopping were second nature, where barbecued salmon and green salads were as common place as the pints I slugged back in Scotland and I found excuses to go to the Superstore on a daily basis. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the eating and food shopping experiences of Scotland, Ireland and Australia (stay tuned for a post about my haggis and kangaroo days), but there's something to be said for having dinner with your parents and running into friends at the grocery store.

Last August, I started the latest chapter and the last of my twenties, when I moved to Kingston, Ontario to do my Masters in Environmental Studies. In June I decided I had to book a solid month (or more) long visit to PEI during the summer - a wedding and baby shower were calling me home (not the same girl!), as was the desire for some familiarity and peace. And so I find myself here yet again, savouring everything about this Island I was fully prepared, in fact I was downright giddy about the prospect of spending six weeks of summer on PEI purely for the gastronomical pleasures it would offer up. I actually booked my flight home so I wouldn't miss the short, but delectable strawberry season. And I envisioned many nights around the dinner table, enjoying barbecued salmon, new boiled PEI potatoes and fresh garden salads. Mussels would also be a must and, while I wasn't set on it, I figured a lobster dinner might be worth taking in during the month of July. I had also plotted my visits to the Farmer's Market in Charlottetown and penciled in Adam for a delicious dinner at the Dayboat Restaurant, in Oyster Bed Bridge. Clearly, I was going to make the most out of my short visit home by indulging in the fresh bounty of produce and seafood on offer.

What I didn't expect was that, in the time between summer of 2008 and summer of 2009, PEI would begin to embrace the very things that I have always believed to be amongst its greatest assets: strong community and delicious food. Almost daily since I've been home on PEI I have found myself pleasantly surprised by what is starting to take place here. On the surface, I see provincial government initiatives, such as the 'Buy PEI' campaign. Deeper and more meaningfully, I see members of the community starting to support local farmers and entrepreneurs, such as the three farm families that started Riverview Country Market. Then there are the creative, forward thinking people like Dave Cormier and Rob Paterson, championing a local food movement and encouraging people to think about where their food comes from. Dave recently started a website that will map farms across PEI, so people can find local food in real time - when it is available for purchase/picking. This coming weekend there's an Organic Food Festival, dubbed Nigwek (Miqmaw for 'something good is growing), on Victoria Row, where there'll be plenty of musical acts, food demonstrations and presentations by our own Chef Michael Smith and organic farmer Raymond Loo. Then there are the farmers of course. Like Jen & Derek Campbell, whose CSA in Brookvale is full of fresh, organic veggies and feeds several happy customers every week.

I think what I'm trying to say is that I'm impressed. Very impressed. PEI is finally beginning to build on its strengths. Yes, maybe these are just small sprouts right now, but they are sprouts nonetheless. On my part, I've found myself avoiding the Superstore as much as possible, preferring to make meals from fresh berries and produce that I can get from the Farmer's Market and roadside stands or, ideally, my mother's rather large garden. I've been eating a lot of fish too. I'm not close to eating a 100-mile diet, but I'm closer than I ever have been in the past. And that's progress.

To use a well-worn phrase of my good friend Joan Fleming: 'At the end of the day'....that's what life is about: progress. If we are progressing towards something that we can feel good about, if we are able to smile and shake the hand of the person who grew the food we're going to eat, if we can sit down to a meal and know that what we're eating is good for us and good for the earth, then I think we're doing well. And we all have the potential to progress - to individually and collectively transcend the norms that stagnate our evolution. You have potential, I have potential, communities have potential, even a little island on the East Coast of Canada has potential. Let's make something of our potential. Let's progress.

And on a final note - it's good to be home.