Sunday, May 31, 2009

What's up at Sleeping Cougar Acres?

I recently brought home rhubarb from Sleeping Cougar Acres. It went into crumble and sauce and there was plenty left to freeze. There were signs this week that there will be plenty more to reward us for our work before the summer is over.

If you look closely, you can see tiny bunches of grapes beginning to appear

What once looked like a vineyard of bare sticks is beginning to green up.

First squash! There wasn't even a vegetable bed here when I started to visit the farm.

Blueberries are flowering. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a crop like the one I heard about last year.

On Monday this was a bare vegetable plot. By Friday there was the beginning of peas...

... and corn.

I'm finding helping on the farm to be rather exciting. There's something new each week. New projects, new things to learn and this week new growth. It's going to be an interesting summer.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Special Sunday Edition

Yesterday Hubby and I participated in a class offered through our local rec centre where we were introduced to edible native plants. We spent the morning in the classroom learning the do's and don'ts of harvesting, identifying and eating plants that grow in the wild. Most of the afternoon was spent outside checking out what was growing in the parks around the rec centre and enjoying the fabulous spring weather.

Fireweed. Close-up I think it looks like Cleopatra the man-eating plant from the Addams Family. Fortunately, this plant isn't quite so deadly. The young leaves are edible, and the instructors served it to us in a salad at lunch.

Fireweed certainly looks like a weed from a distance.

Red elderberry. This is one I think I'll avoid. Though our instructors assured us that the cooked fruit is safe, there were several other warnings regarding this plant.

Salal. The berries are edible, though they don't appear until the fall. The leaves are often found in flower arrangements.

Lady fern. The shoots are edible if they are steamed. We were warned not to eat them raw.

Nootka rose. We have this growing wild beside our driveway. I would have never considered eating it, but apparently the flowers and the hips are edible.

Labrador tea. It's hard to see in this photo, and apparently it can be tricky to identify in person too, as it can be confused with other inedible plants. The instructors served us tea from the leaves. It was quite tasty, but I think I'll limit my consumption to those occasions where the tea is made by people who know what they're doing.

Grand fir. This one isn't so grand. It's just a baby. The new, light green needles are edible. We tried them in class served right off the twig.

Bigleaf maple. All kinds of good eating here. The young stem, flowers, sap and the seed part of the helicopter are all edible. Maple, not just for syrup any more. We did taste syrup made from bigleaf maple. Good stuff, though wildly expensive. We only got a drop or two on a teaspoon to try. Yum. It's not quite as sweet as syrup from the sugar maple, but it's good enough that I'd be tempted to learn how to make it myself. I wonder if my neighbours would notice if I tapped their tree?

We talked about a dozen different kinds of native berries in the classroom portion of our course, but the only one we found on our walk was the thimbleberry. The young stems, flowers and fruits are edible, and the leaves are so soft they are called nature's toilet paper. Good to know!

Another example of thimbleberry. The plant in the lower right corner of this photo is an example of an inedible berry. It's a snowberry (I think), and its berries are poisonous. Also good to know.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Great-grandma approved food

I found an interesting story about Julia Child while researching “Julie and Julia” for my book club’s potluck. While on their way to Paris in 1948, Julia and her husband Paul stopped for dinner in Rouen. Julia later claimed that the meal there marked “an opening up of the soul and spirit” for her. It was this meal that sparked her career as a chef, an author and a television personality.

I too had a moment like this. It was an event that eventually led to my starting this blog. I’ve never written about it before because I haven’t known how to describe it. I like Julia’s way of phrasing it. Surprising considering my early aversion to her boisterous nature and my difficulty with her recipes. I guess Julia and I have something in common after all. Given her success I find this reassuring. There may be hope for me yet.

My moment of revelation came last June while watching “The Hour” with George Stroumboulopoulos. His guest that night was Michael Pollan. I hadn’t planned to watch. That I caught the interview was a happy accident of channel-surfing.

I had seen Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food” at the library. Prior to the interview I hadn’t been tempted to pick it up, but after listening to him I knew I had to read it. Here was a man who was brave enough, or crazy enough, to admit on-air that his book could be summed up in the seven words that appeared on the cover. You didn’t even have to open the book to get its message, yet after the program I logged onto the library’s website and added my name to its waiting list. Much of what Pollan said confirmed what I already knew, but it was his encouragement to “get back to foods, real foods, the foods your great grandmother would recognize as food” that stayed with me.

It was several weeks before I received a copy of Pollan’s book. While I waited I thought a lot about family and food and tradition. From my mother’s side there were memories of meals at my grandparents’ house. Aunts and uncles and cousins sharing meals of roast turkey or pork or beef with all the fixings. There were breakfasts of fried eggs and peameal bacon. There were family barbeques to celebrate summer birthdays, and there were huge meals of perch or pickerel or smelt following successful fishing adventures. We went apple-picking. There were springtime afternoons of foraging by the train tracks for asparagus, and there was a memorable trip to the cemetery to gather hickory nuts. We went for Sunday drives to buy fresh veggies from roadside stands. We noted the changing seasons by what we found there.

My dad's grandparents are from the Ukraine. Meals with his family, held at his grandparents’ house, included perogies, cabbage rolls, kubasa, rabbit, and , at Easter, paska. I have memories of Baba’s substantial vegetable garden. It seemed like every time we stopped in to visit my great-grandparents we found Baba in the kitchen preparing meals or preserving food.

I finally got my copy of “In Defense of Food” from the library. I don’t have the words to tell you how the book affected me. To paraphrase Julia, my soul and spirit opened a bit further, and I was so inspired by what Pollan wrote that I bought my own copy of the book. In hardcover.

In defining food Pollan again talks about eating food your great-grandparents would recognize, and again I was drawn back to family memories. I’m fortunate that I don’t have to rely on my memory for foods from my mom’s side of the family. Mom is the one who taught me to cook, and she created a recipe book for me prior to my moving out on my own. As the book included several family recipes, I’m able to recreate many of the dishes I enjoyed as a child. And, since we get back to Ontario about once a year, there are family gatherings and shared meals to look forward to.

I’m not so lucky with my dad’s side of the family. After Baba died his family drifted apart. Recipes didn’t get shared in his family. Of course, I’m fairly certain Baba didn’t use recipes, and I don’t think she could read or write English. Still, I knew there were written records of her recipes out there. I spent a wonderful afternoon one Easter weekend making paska with Dad’s cousin’s wife when I was still in elementary school. I was so excited that she chose me to help, and I was so proud of myself when we were done. I had never helped to make bread before. I still remember being completely thrilled to be part of a process that created such delicious, golden braids of bread.

Fortunately, finding good Ukrainian food isn’t that difficult. I’ve been able to indulge my cravings for cabbage rolls, perogies and kubasa regularly. Paska, on the other hand, is a bit more tricky. I’ve been able to find it, but it’s never as good as I remember. I even went to the extreme of joining the local Ukrainian dance troupe in my search for paska like Baba’s. I ate lots of good food, but none of the paska compared.

Though Pollan’s writing prompted me to remember meals and foods shared with family, that isn’t all I took from his book. What I now try to practice is eating foods that are unprocessed, with few ingredients that are locally grown or produced. This has changed what I eat, how I cook, and how and where I shop. I’m not always successful, but it’s a process that I’m enjoying. I particularly enjoy my trips to the Farmers’ Market, which took me right back to the paska dilemma on Easter weekend.

Our local Farmers’ Market includes several stalls selling baked goods. On the Saturday of Easter weekend I noticed a stall selling paska. I almost walked right by, as I was sure I would be disappointed again. Then I saw they had samples. I figured I could taste-test without having to commit to an entire loaf, so I wandered over to try some. It was good. Really, really good. It was so close to Baba’s that I was speechless. I’m glad I had my sunglasses on, as I got all teary. Still, there must have been something on my face, as the guy at the stall looked at me, grinned and said, “Grandmother?” All I could say in response was “Great-grandmother”. Once I recovered my powers of speech I bought a loaf. I tried to convince everyone else at the booth they needed a loaf too. I probably wasn’t the craziest person at the market that day, but I’m sure the people at that booth thought I was.

Since that day at the market I’ve done something so bold (well bold for me anyway) I’m starting to wonder about myself. In a manner that I find stalker-ish (but which probably isn’t), I used the power of the internet to track down Dad’s cousin’s son. This would be the son of the woman I made paska with all those years ago.

I was fairly certain he wouldn’t remember me, but I was driven by paska-deprived desperation. I was also fairly nervous about doing this. Contacting a relative who I haven’t seen in 30 years to ask if he could put me in contact with his mother so I could have her bread recipe is a bit out of my area of expertise. I did it anyway. And he responded. His mother is going to contact me this weekend. I’m so excited I could dance. OK, I did dance. I knew those Ukrainian dance lessons would come in handy. I’m so looking forward to hearing from her, and I would be even if she no longer had the recipes. Like Esther says on the cover of her book, it’s not about the food. It’s about connection, and sharing, and in this case it’s about family. What a wonderful outcome from a randomly-viewed television interview. I think Mr. Pollan would approve.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Diet is "die" with a "t"

The phone rang shortly after dinner on Monday night. A friend was calling to wish us a happy Star Wars Day and to share the blessings of the force with us. I had no idea the May 4th was Star Wars Day prior to his call.

In the same vein, I wasn’t aware that May 6th was International No Diet Day until I saw it mentioned on a poster at the public library. Author and psychotherapist Esther Kane was scheduled to read and discuss a chapter from her book “It’s Not About the Food: A Woman’s Guide to Making Peace with Food and Our Bodies.” As dieting is food-related, I figured I’d attend and see if I could gather fuel for the blog. I’m glad I went.

In honour of INDD Esther chose to read the chapter titled “Why Diets Don’t Work”. While much of her work focuses on helping people with eating disorders - Esther herself has recovered from disordered eating - the information she shared would be useful to anyone. In fact, after listening to Esther I realized I have had moments that bordered on disordered eating. I was staggered.

Though I’ve never binged, purged, starved myself or been a yo-yo dieter, (I’ve only been on one diet. I joined Weight Watchers last year after a serious finger wagging from my physician.) I have had times when I feel that I fixate on healthy eating. This can be a type of disordered eating called “orthorexia nervosa”. Fortunately my bouts of healthy-food hyper-awareness (usually right after a finger-wagging episode) have been brief, and I’ve never become obsessive. Others aren’t so lucky. When taken to extreme, excessive focus on eating healthy foods “can overtake one's life and can turn into a habit that is decidedly not healthy.” People with this condition can be overly zealous, rigid and self-righteous in their adherence to a healthy diet. Often this leads to isolation as they can no longer dine “correctly” with family and friends. Self-criticism and self-loathing when they eat “incorrect” foods are also common. Extreme cases can lead to malnutrition and death. My episodes of healthy-food fixation were minor in comparison. I consider them to be a part of finding balance in my diet, yet I’m glad I now know that such moments may lead to more serious problems.

In her reading, Esther also shared some frightening dieting statistics. The one that haunts me is the fact that “50% of young girls in Canada begin dieting before age nine.” I’m still having trouble getting my head around that. I know North Americans have all kinds of issues with food and dieting, but I had no idea that these issues were so pervasive. Children dieting! We're scarier than I thought.

To a lesser extent, I was also surprised to learn that, 9 times out of 10, dieting leads to disordered eating. That is probably because I have always equated “eating disorder” with anorexia and bulimia. Now that I understand that yo-yo dieting is also a type of eating disorder that statistic makes sense.

I know it sounds like the whole reading was doom and gloom. It wasn’t. Esther’s talk included helpful exercises from her book. Mind you, my pie chart was a bit heavy on the pie. We were supposed to draw a circle and segment off how much of our day was spent thinking about food, weight and appearance. Considering I had spent my day doing groundwork for future blog articles, catching up on my food-blog reading, organizing my grocery list, getting groceries and preparing meals, my chart was pretty much all food! Rather embarrassing, but funny too.

Ultimately, Esther wants us to make peace with food and our bodies. (It says so on the cover of her book.) Last night she reminded us that food is not something to be afraid of. Food is nourishing and comforting. It is about community and sharing. When we diet, the only people who profit are those in the diet industry. (As an aside, I ended my Weight Watchers membership last week. They’ve already started sending me letters telling me why I need to come back. I now wonder who really needs whom.) She’s also confident that if we use our common sense, access our inner wisdom and practice being kind to ourselves things will get easier. With chapters about mindful eating, relaxation, meditation, and transforming self-hatred into self-love, I’m certain that readers will discover the tools they need to find balance within themselves and with food. I can’t wait to read the rest of the book.