Sunday 25 September 2011


We bought our house in Kelowna for the back yard.  The house itself was run down and had good bones but the yard, oh the yard!  It was blessed with mature trees.  There were a cherry tree, an apricot tree, a prune plum tree, a pear tree and a hazelnut tree.  The crowning glory, though, was a huge English walnut tree in the back corner of the lot.

The Okanagan is home to Canada’s only desert and, while slightly less arid than the desert lands immediately to its south, Kelowna in the summertime is very dry and very hot.  Our tree-filled back yard was an oasis, drawing birds, neighbours,and neighbourhood kids to its comfortable shade in equal numbers. 

We picked the fruit from our trees as it ripened in succession and then waited for the walnuts.  In early October we harvested them in huge numbers and my husband stained his hands dark brown prising them from their green husks and then extracting them from their shells.  We toasted the nuts lightly in the oven and then packed them away in the freezer.  Throughout the rest of the year we gave countless pounds of walnuts away as gifts—always gratefully received—and still enjoyed plenty for ourselves.

When we moved back to Vancouver Island, Jack mourned nothing from our time in Kelowna except the walnut tree.  He missed it terribly.

Some years later, when we were shopping for the home we are living in now, we were both delighted to find that the lot to our building boasted a large English walnut tree.  It was one of the many things that decided our purchase here.  We can now enjoy a close view of that tree from our apartment’s balcony.

Last year, the walnuts on our tree didn’t ripen.  One of our neighbours, who has lived here for more than 20 years, says it was the first time that had ever happened.  This year things are looking better.  The tree is heavy laden and the green husks on the walnuts are starting to split open slightly; a good indication that they are ripening as they should.

We have some competition for the walnuts from our tree.  The neighbourhood squirrels have been using the power lines in front of our place as a highway, and make daily stops to check the ripeness of “their crop.”  Jack yells the occasional, half-hearted “Get-out-of-there-you-little-bastards” imprecation at them but he is greatly entertained by their comings and goings and suspects—quite rightly—that there will still be enough left for the building residents even with the squirrels taking their share. 

Joe Public is a greater problem.  Because it is on the grounds of an apartment building, some people seem to view our tree as public domain.  Last year, we woke one morning to find a guy with a truck, a ladder, and buckets making ready to harvest the nuts from our tree.  My fella was not nearly so half hearted in his confrontation with him!

Walnuts are an ancient food source.  There are native species throughout Europe and Asia and one species—the Butternut or Black Walnut—is native to North America.  They’ve formed part of the human diet for a very long time. 

The oldest archeological site where walnuts were unearthed is in the Shanidar caves in northern Iraq, dating back to the Mesolithic Era. 

Items from the New Stone Age or Neolithic period found in Switzerland's lake district included walnuts. The Neolithic period began in Southwest Asia from about 8,000 BCE and expanded throughout Europe between 6,000 to 2,000 BCE. 

In North America, the upper Great Lakes region provides archeological evidence of walnut consumption dating back to 2000 BCE. Along with eating the walnut itself, First Nations people used the sap of the walnut tree in their food preparation.[1]  

Besides being a longstanding and very flavourful component our diet, walnuts are rich in nutrients.  They’re a good source of protein, vitamin E, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant phytonutrients. 

The form of vitamin E found in walnuts is somewhat unusual, and particularly beneficial. Instead of having most of its vitamin E present in the alpha-tocopherol form, walnuts provide an unusually high level of vitamin E in the form of gamma-tocopherol. Particularly in studies on the cardiovascular health of men, this gamma-tocopherol form of vitamin E has been found to provide significant protection from heart problems.[2]

Phytonutrient research on the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits of walnuts has moved this food further and further up the ladder of foods that are protective against metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular problems, and type 2 diabetes. Some phytonutrients found in walnuts - for example, the quinone juglone - are found in virtually no other commonly-eaten foods. Other phytonutrients - like the tannin tellimagrandin or the flavonol morin - are also rare and valuable as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients. These anti-inflammatory and antioxidant phytonutrients also help explain the decreased risk of certain cancers - including prostate cancer and breast cancer - in relationship to walnut consumption.[3]

The nutritional data at may prove helpful to you, although the serving size is quite large.  Walnuts are—like all nuts—rich in oil and therefore high in calories.  Moderation is key:  If you limit your serving to a smaller quantity (7 whole walnuts = 163 calories), you’ll still obtain a nutritional benefit, especially if that portion comprises part of a varied and balanced diet.

I find it fascinating that the lovely tree outside my building has a heritage dating all the way back to Mesolithic times.  I’m glad that the walnuts I’ll get from that tree are so nutritious.  I’m grateful for the shade the tree provides, for its beauty, and for the entertainment provided us by its squirrel “farmers.”  Most of all, though, I’m grateful for the flavour that these walnuts will add to my dishes throughout the year.  Free food is good.  Good free food is even better.


Friday 23 September 2011

Borscht and Biscuits

I made borscht tonight, or at least a variation of it.  It was ridiculously simple to make and very satisfying to eat.

Borscht came to North America with immigrants from Eastern Europe and from Russia.    There, it was often a vegetarian soup.  Meat was a luxury for much of the population.  Long winters and limited food supplies required that every bit of every vegetable be used, so vegetable trimmings were stored in a covered container outside the door, where the cold winter weather kept them frozen.  Just before the spring thaw the trimmings were used to make a richly flavoured and nutritious soup.  The ingredients varied regionally but could include beets, potatoes, cabbage, carrots and onions. 

My purpose in making borscht this evening was to use up some of the leftovers from last night's dinner.  Preparation was simple and straightforward.  I sweated some onion until it was tender and translucent, then added the stock I made from the drippings and bones of yesterday's pork roast.  (Pretty nearly any stock except fish stock can be used to make borscht.  I've used chicken, pork, beef, and vegetable stocks with equal success.)  Once the stock was heated through, I stirred in some tomato paste--about 2 Tbsp. for 4 cups of stock.  When the tomato paste had been incorporated I tasted the stock and adjusted the seasoning with a little salt. 

It's always best when making any vegetable soup to add your ingredients based upon how long they'll take to cook through. Tonight I added the beets first, then when they had started to soften a bit I added the potatoes.  The carrots and cabbage were cooked through last night so I added then just a couple of minutes before I served the soup.  I also stirred in about 1/2 cup of diced cooked pork.

I usually garnish borscht with a spoonful of sour cream dolloped in the middle of the dish.  It's mixed through the soup before eating.  Tonight I used plain yogurt instead. 

I served the soup with simple baking powder drop biscuits, hot from the oven.  Here's the recipe:

2 c. flour (either all purpose or half whole wheat, half all purpose)
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. cold butter
1 c. milk (I used 1/2 c. water, 1/2 c. low fat evaporated milk)

Whisk together the dry ingredients, then cut the butter into the flour just as you would for pastry.  Mix in the milk until the mixture forms a fairly stiff dough.  Drop spoonfuls of dough onto a parchment lined baking sheet and bake the biscuits at 400 degrees until they start to brown and are cooked through.  

So that's it:  borscht and biscuits.  Cheap, nutritious, tasty, and filling.  Did I mention tasty?  It was a lovely meal.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Budget Permitting

I feel very strongly that, whenever possible, we should buy locally grown produce, meat, and eggs.  It’s good for the earth, good for local farmers, good for our community, and good for us too.  Sadly my budget is now preventing me from putting my money where my mouth is.  Health problems have kept me from working for several months now.  Because I’m self-employed I don’t qualify for unemployment benefits, and I don’t have private disability insurance.  Our spending has been drastically curtailed but, even so, rapidly rising food prices are making it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. 

Some time ago, we made a decision that in order to buy locally raised, better quality meats, we would eat meat less often.  Now, if we limit ourselves to locally raised meats, our budget will not allow us to eat meat at all.  I’ll admit to a certain selfishness here:  I could forgo meat altogether—it would be the planet-friendly choice and probably better for my health—but I like meat and I’m unwilling to give it up entirely.  The few meat meals we eat (three or less each week) must now be made using meat purchased on sale at our regular grocery store.

Even purchasing meat on sale at the grocery store and limiting our consumption of it will require that we cut back on other things.  Dairy goods are becoming increasingly expensive so cheese is now a treat for us, limited to one or at most two meals a week. 

We have to carefully consider how much nutrition our dollar gives us, so processed breakfast cereals are no longer an option, and when we eat oatmeal or Red River cereal we eat it plain or with yogurt.  We often have to choose between buying yogurt and buying milk so we’ve opted for the yogurt because the beneficial bacteria in yogurt cultures make it the healthier choice.  We limit our consumption to a single serving each day so choosing yogurt for breakfast means we don't have it as an option for dessert.

Our choice of vegetables and fruits is becoming increasingly limited too. While we would love to continue buying local organic produce, it is often too expensive for us to do so.  We buy only what’s seasonal and on special these days, and we use every single bit of what we buy.  There’s not a lot of stuff making the trip from our apartment to the dumpster!

I know this sounds like I’m complaining but I’m actually quite proud of how well we eat on the money we have.  I’m writing this because I know that an awful lot of people are facing the same, or greater, challenges to achieving good nutrition at a price they can afford.  That being the case, you’ll likely see the focus of my blog changing to reflect these challenges. 

Tonight, though, we feasted.  I cooked a pork shoulder roast in the slow cooker today and served it with smashed potatoes, steamed cabbage, and carrots that were cooked along with the roast. We had a baked apple topped with an oatmeal crumble for dessert.  

Here’s a rundown on how I prepared our pork roast feast:

I started by placing a quartered apple, a quartered onion, several cloves of garlic, and some carrots in the bottom of my slow cooker container.  I seasoned the outside of the roast generously with salt, freshly ground black pepper, and poultry seasoning.  I put the roast on top of the fruit and vegetable layer in the slow cooker at about 8:00 this morning, set the temperature on low, and let it do its magic.  Shortly before dinner I took the roast out of the slow cooker, set it on a metal rack in a rimmed cookie sheet and tented it with foil.  I let it rest for 20 minutes before trimming the fat from the outside of the roast and then slicing enough meat for supper.

To make my smashed potatoes I boiled some unpeeled red skinned potatoes until they were fork tender.  I drained the potatoes and then mashed them with the garlic cloves from the slow cooker, a little butter, and some low fat evaporated milk.  (We keep this on hand because we don’t buy a lot of milk but I do sometimes need it for recipes.  Mixed with an equal amount of water evaporated milk can be used in any recipe that calls for milk.  It can also be used undiluted as a lower fat, less expensive alternative to cream.)

My steamer takes a while to get going so I started steaming the cabbage right after I took the pork out of the slow cooker.  The carrots I scooped from the liquid in the bottom of the slow cooker and directly onto our plates just before serving.

I prepared our baked apple just before I took the pork out of the slow cooker.  I preheated the oven to 350 degrees.  While it was heating, I cut a golden delicious apple in half and scooped the seeds out of the middle using a melon baller.  I cut a small slice off the peel side of each apple half so that they would sit in the pan without rocking and then placed them in a buttered pie plate put them in the oven. 
While the apple halves started baking, I assembled a crumble topping from 1/4 c. each of oatmeal, flour and brown sugar, 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, and 2 Tbsp. melted butter.  I stirred the dry ingredients together with a fork then mixed the melted butter in.  When the apple halves had cooked for about 20 minutes (right before we sat down to dinner), I took them out of the oven and pressed the crumble topping onto the top of each apple half.   

The apples went back into the oven for about 20 minutes longer.  I served them straight from the oven, piping hot.

It was a simple, inexpensive, very flavourful meal; comforting on a grey day like today and tasting of the season.  We both felt fortunate indeed to have such a feast in front of us.

Saturday 17 September 2011

Preserving the Sunshine

Wash, dry, slice, slice, slice.  Slice, slice, wash, dry, slice, slice, slice.  That was the rhythm of my morning. 

I was fortunate enough to get a great many field peppers this week.  As you can see from my photo, they were really beautiful—many coloured and interestingly shaped.  I wanted to make a painting of them and took a lot of pictures so that I’ll be able to do that later.  Today, though, I concentrated on getting them into my freezer.

Sweet bell peppers are a favourite of mine.  I love to cook with them, but they can be expensive.  The mild, often damp, climate here means that local peppers are almost invariably greenhouse grown.  Our greenhouse peppers come in three colours, like traffic lights:  red, yellow, and green.  They rarely cost less than $1.97/lb.  In winter and early spring, they can cost as much as $5.00/lb.  On our food budget, this makes them a luxury.

When we lived in the Okanagan, mid-September was the time of year to buy peppers.  Farmers, anxious to get them out of the field and sold before the arrival of the first frosts, would offer them very inexpensively but you had to be right there at the farm to get them.  We would buy huge bags of them, in every colour available.  I would arrange them in bowls like floral arrangements before putting them by for the winter months. 

Since moving back to the island, I’ve rarely seen Okanagan peppers in our markets or grocery stores.  I was delighted to find them this week.    

Culinarily speaking, bell peppers are a gift to cooks for the sweet, high note they add to dishes.  Nutritionally speaking, they are a treasure trove of vitamins and minerals.  Bell peppers are an excellent source of vitamin C at 175 milligrams per cup (that's more than twice the amount of vitamin C found in a typical orange) and a good source of another antioxidant vitamin—Vitamin E.  They’re also an outstanding source of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients.[1]

Because I love their flavour and value their nutrition, whenever I’m fortunate enough to get a quantity of affordable bell peppers I preserve as many as I can. There are lots of ways to put peppers by.  They are commonly dried but I don’t have a dehydrator and air drying them in our humid climate can be a hit or miss operation.  Peppers can be pickled too—and I enjoy them that way—but there’s a limit to how many pickles the two of us will consume in a year’s time. 

This year, I used some of my peppers to make a batch of Jean Anderson’s sweet red pepper paste.   (  I froze the paste in four ounce containers; a perfect amount of dipping sauce, or spread, or topping for the two of us.  The rest of the peppers I froze in strips, on parchment covered cookie sheets, and then transferred to freezer bags.

The trick to using frozen peppers is to add them to the pot directly from the freezer:  thawing them before use results in an unpleasant, watery texture.  If I need diced peppers for a recipe, I can dice the frozen strips.  A very few minutes at room temperature softens them sufficiently to do this, and a sharp knife makes quick work of chopping them before they have a chance to thaw completely. 

Just as a frozen green bean will never be as fine in texture or flavour as a fresh green bean, a frozen bell pepper will never yield that sweet crunch that a pepper fresh from the field provides.  But when the winter weather has set in and summer is but a memory, adding some frozen peppers to a dish can bring the flavour of sunshine to our dinner plates. 

My bags of frozen peppers are now resting at the top of my freezer; rainbow coloured promises of good things to come.  I’m so glad I took the time to put them by!

Wednesday 14 September 2011


This rather unprepossessing dish comes as directly from my mother as if I had lifted it from the wagon wheel-legged table that sat in the kitchen of my childhood home.  Every mom in our neighbourhood made a similar dish, based upon ground beef and macaroni, ground beef and potatoes, or ground beef and rice. 

Called variously Hamburger Hash, Goulash, Slumgully or—my personal favourite--Shipwreck, this homemade concoction predated Hamburger Helper by decades.  It was our loaves and fishes dish.   With the addition of more veggies and starch, Shipwreck could stretch a pound of hamburger to feed as many people as cared to put their knees under your table.   It was the week-before-payday standard, the mom-can-my-friend-stay-for-supper expectation, the we-were-just-in-the-neighbourhood-and thought-we’d-drop-by fall back.

I’m sure my mom won’t mind me revealing to you that the secret to Shipwreck’s endless stretchability lies in the gravy.  If you make a flavourful enough gravy, and add just enough of it to moisten the dish without making it gloppy, no one will notice how little meat actually makes it to their plate.

 I make it a little differently from my mom’s version but the same basic rules of assembly apply.  There are no hard and fast proportions and any left over cooked vegetables found in the fridge can perfectly well make their way into the pot.  The basis of the meal always remains the same. 

Mom’s gravy consisted of undiluted cream of mushroom soup with a beef bouillon cube dissolved into it.  That’s way too salty and chemical tasting for me.  I try to make this dish with left over pot roast gravy or gravy from a regular roast of beef.  If I don’t have gravy, I make one from a basic roux of 3 Tbsp. butter and 3 Tbsp. flour used to thicken about 3 c. beef stock. (I prefer homemade stock but will use stock in box if homemade isn’t available.)  I season the gravy with sherry, Worchestershire sauce, salt, and pepper.  If you remember those cream soup based sauces fondly, you can achieve a similar flavour and texture by substituting low fat evaporated milk for half of the beef stock.  You’ll need to salt the sauce more heavily if you choose to use the milk.

Once the gravy is made, I begin assembling the dish by browning a pound of ground beef.  I add a generous amount of Worchestershire sauce to the pan as the meat is browning, and allow the liquid to cook off completely so that the sauce is absorbed right into the meat.  Once the meat has browned, I add an equal or greater total quantity of coarsely chopped onion, coarsely chopped cabbage and thinly sliced carrot.  If you want to add garlic to this dish, it should be grated into the pan with these vegetables. 

I sauté the vegetables until the onion is translucent and then add about a cup of beef stock to the pot.  I continue cooking and stirring until the vegetables are tender crisp, adding more stock in small quantities as needed.  When the vegetables are cooked, little or no stock should remain in the pan.

To finish the dish, I add some pasta (for nostalgia’s sake, I use wholewheat elbow macaroni but whatever you have on hand will do), and I stir in any left over vegetables I happen to have in the fridge.  This week it was corn kernels from left over corn on the cob and some steamed green beans.  I add enough gravy to just moisten the ingredients.  I continue stirring until everything is heated through, and then simply serve the dish in soup plates. 

If you’re feeling fancy-schmancy you can top each serving with some buttered bread crumbs that have been baked in the oven for a few minutes until browned, and maybe a little chopped parsley, but that’s it.  Just serve it and enjoy it.  It tastes surprisingly good and may take you on your own little journey down memory lane.

Monday 12 September 2011

Good Food, Great Cause

James Barber aimed to make good food accessible to regular folk.  Through his television show “The Urban Peasant” and through his thirteen cookbooks, he taught ordinary people, with ordinary kitchen skills, how to prepare good, simple food using seasonal, local ingredients.  

Chef Barber spent his retirement years on a four hectare farm here in the Cowichan Valley.  He raised miniature donkeys, was an active volunteer, and continued both to love food and to write about it.  He died at the age of 84, sitting at his dining room table, reading a cookbook, while a pot of soup simmered on the stove.  His wife commented said “he definitely left this world in a way that he would have wanted to."[1]

As part of the Cowichan Wine and Culinary Festival this week, local chefs are hosting an event which will both honour James Barber and benefit one of my favourite valley places; Providence Farm. 

Providence Farm was established in 1864 by the Sisters of Saint Ann and has, since 1979, been a working organic farm operated by a non-profit organization.  The farm provides vocational and horticultural therapy to persons with mental health issues, developmental delays, and brain injuries.  It is a happy productive place in a beautiful setting, producing healthy food and a variety of crafts for sale in the farm store, and live plants for sale in the nursery.  The farm also rents allotment garden space to community members who don’t have access to garden space at home, and provides stables and riding trails for the Therapeutic Riding Association.

James Barber had hoped to provide the staff and community members at Providence Farm with a wood burning oven.  This year’s fundraiser will launch the wood burning oven project by offering a tasting menu prepared by local chefs.  As guests tour the farm they will find stations throughout the historic buildings, offering beautiful food paired with local beer, wines and ciders.

The participating chefs for the fundraiser include Bill Jones from Deerholme Farm, Fatima da Silva from Bistro 161, Brad Boisvert from Amusé Bistor, Brock Windsor from Stone Soup Inn, Paul Stewart from Harbour House Hotel, Jonathan Duquette from Rock Salt Café, Matt Horn from Cowichan Pasta Company, and special guest Robert Clark from C Restaurant. 

Besides benefiting a wonderful cause, this event affords people an opportunity to gain an appreciation of what Providence Farm does for our community while enjoying great food and drink in a beautiful, tranquil setting. 

If you would like to attend the James Barber Fundraiser, it takes place Thursday, Sept. 15, from 6:00 to 9:00 pm.  Tickets are $100.00 each.  Ticket information is available by phone at (250) 746-4204 or on the Providence Farm website:  You can email the farm at


Saturday 10 September 2011

Mocha Cupcakes

 I wasn't feeling great today and sometimes, when I’m not feeling great, I crave a little something-something.  Usually that something-something involves either chocolate or coffee.  Today I decided to satisfy my taste for both by making mocha cupcakes.

I don’t often make cupcakes.  I usually prefer to make a more traditional cake, either in a sheet pan or with layers and frosting, but cupcakes do serve a certain purpose:  They’re quick to bake, easy to serve, and—if you want to save some for later—you can cover unfrosted cupcakes in foil and freeze them right in the pan.

Here’s my recipe.  It makes about 18 cupcakes.

Prepare your pans either by buttering and flouring them or by lining them with cupcake cups.  I prefer cupcake cups myself.  I know that it’s another piece of paper you’re throwing away, but they cut down on prep time and they make the finished cupcakes easier to serve.  

You'll need:

1/2 c. unsalted butter
2 c. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2 eggs
3/4 c. sifted Dutch process cocoa
1-3/4 c. unsifted all purpose flour
3/4 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1/8 tsp. salt
1-3/4 c. good, strong coffee, cooled to room temperature

Cream the butter, sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy, then blend in the eggs.

In a second bowl whisk together the cocoa, flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

Add 1/3 of the flour mixture to the butter mixture and stir just until combined.  Mix in 1/2 of the coffee.  Continue alternating the flour mixture and the coffee, ending with the flour mixture.  Stir until combined but try not to over mix the batter. 

Spoon the batter into the prepared baking cups and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until they spring back when lightly touched.

Allow the cupcakes to cool in the pans.  If you’re freezing them, wrap them and put them in the freezer once they’ve cooled.  If you’re icing them, you may want to try this mocha butter cream frosting:  

Cream together 1 c. unsalted butter, 1/2 c. sifted Dutch process cocoa and 1-1/2 tsp. espresso powder.  Gradually add sifted icing sugar to the creamed mixture until the frosting reaches the sweetness and consistency you prefer.  If it gets too thick while you’re adding the sugar, thin it with a little milk.  The finished frosting should spread easily without being runny.

Because I like the contrast in texture they provide, I garnished my cupcakes with dark chocolate covered espresso beans.  Garnish is optional though.  The cupcakes are just fine without it.

Friday 9 September 2011

Going to the Fair

When I was a kid I hated sports day.  I was (and am) both uncoordinated and un-athletic.  Because of my November birthday, I was often the youngest child in my grade.  Every year I would be required to participate in track and field events and every year I would finish dead last in every event.  For me mandatory participation equaled inevitable humiliation.  It kicked the heck out of my self esteem. 

Fortunately for me, we also had the Cowichan Exhibition; our fall fair here in the valley.  I was never a 4H kid but I eagerly entered many of the childrens’ competitions at the fair, submitting artwork, cooking, and flower arrangements.  The blue ribbons I brought home showed me that what I lacked in athletic ability, I made up for in creativity.  I cannot begin to tell you how important that affirmation was to me.

Aside from affirming the self-worth of misfit girls, country fairs have always served an important function within our communities.  Back in the days before factory farming, supermarkets, and imported foods, local farms provided the bulk of our food supply.  In those days, fairs were a place for farmers to meet, to trade, and to compete.  A win at the fair meant an increase in the farmer’s reputation with commensurate increases in the value of his stock, and in the prices he could charge for for his products. 

Farm wives and children competed at the fairs too.  Prizes for the best preserves and baking were hotly contested, and children learned much about the trade of farming by raising their own livestock for competition.  The fall fair celebrated the accomplishments of our farming families and enabled non-farming members of the community to become better acquainted with those who produced their food.

Nowadays, the focus of the fall fair is shifting.  Teens and families gravitate toward the midway.  Some never even enter the livestock barns.  There are fewer entries in the cooking competitions.  Still, the farmers continue to come, and raising livestock, cooking, gardening, and preserving our harvest remain perennial themes. 

Today is the first day of the 143rd Cowichan Exhibition.  I’m excited to be going.  I’ll visit the animals in the barns, watch the draft horse competition, check out the displays in the exhibition hall, enjoy the childrens’ art, and—of course—sample the food. 

The fair’s organizers have done a wonderful job of adapting to the times, working hard to ensure that the displays at the exhibition remain current.  This year there is a duct tape competition and a Sheep to Shawl event, in which a group of weavers and spinners will start from scratch with a newly shorn fleece today and finish with a woven shawl on Sunday.  There are zucchini races, a scarecrow competition, and a contest in which local celebrities try their hand at milking cows.  There are floral arrangements and harvest baskets.  There is a wonderful photography display.  There’s kids’ art, and quilts, and rug hooking.  There’s music and dancing. I’m looking forward to all of it.

Here are some pictures from last year's Cowichan Exhibition:

Fair weekend is one of the happiest of the year for me.  If you’re in the area, you can check out the ex too.  You’ll find detailed information and schedules at  If you’re not in the area, do consider enjoying the fall fair in your own community.  We all need to refresh our connection with our rural roots and to honour the folks who work so hard to produce our food.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

Just What I Had On Hand

I live just two blocks from a grocery store.  It’s easy for me, when preparing dinner, to think I’ll just pick up an ingredient or two to add to what I have on hand.  Lately though, reducing food waste has been much on my mind so I’ve set myself the challenge of limiting my grocery shopping.  Each day’s best effort goes into using just what I already have on hand.

Don’t get me wrong:  What I have on hand is often really great.  I take care to ensure that I have a well-stocked pantry and freezer, and I get a farm box from my CSA farm every week.  My fridge is full of fresh produce and I have lots of great seasonings and condiments on hand all the time.  Still, there is for me always the temptation to get just one more thing, add just one more ingredient.

Today, I looked in my fridge and found leftover brown and wild rice mixture, steamed cabbage and an ear of roasted corn.  The first item I spied in my freezer was a whole chicken. 

I’d had a conversation with my friend Natasha last weekend about roasting chicken in the slow cooker and, since the day was quite hot and I didn’t want to heat up my kitchen, that’s what I decided to do. 

I put some aromatics (onion, garlic, celery, carrots, fresh thyme and rosemary) in the bottom of the slow cooker, then brushed my chicken lightly with olive oil, seasoned it generously with seasoned salt, and set it on top of the aromatics. 

I know many of the good cooks reading this are cringing right now but sometimes, during the day-to-day repetition of putting supper on the table, plain cooking wins out over more elaborate treatments.  There are lots of other ways I could’ve gone with seasoning that bird.  I’ve tried almost all of them over the years but my husband loves seasoned salt so today that’s what I used.

I set the slow cooker on low and let it do its work. 

When the chicken was cooked, I transferred it to a metal pan and set it under the broiler to brown and crisp the skin.  This last step is what takes a slow cooker chicken from pale and unappealing to aromatic and inviting.  It only takes a few minutes and it’s well worth both the effort and the extra dirty pan.

While the chicken was browning, I set about cooking my side dish.  I cut the kernels from the cob of corn, coarsely chopped some of the steamed cabbage, diced half an onion, and got the rice out of the fridge.  Using a non-stick pan, I sautéed the onion in a little toasted sesame oil--just until it was tender--and then added the rest of the ingredients.  I used equal parts of all four.  Once the vegetables and rice were heated through, I adjusted the seasoning with a little salt and pepper, perched the chicken on top of them in the pan and took it to the table. 

Despite the fact that I served it in the frying pan, it was a lovely looking supper.  Carving the bird at the table made it somehow festive.  It smelled great and tasted even better.  I’m so glad I used what I had on hand.

Tuesday 6 September 2011

Infused Vinegars

Infused vinegars form part of my pantry every year.  They add flavour to my salad dressings and marinades year ‘round, and they’re easy and affordable to make.  

I infuse my vinegars with fruits, herbs, garlic, onion, roasted red peppers, tomatoes, edible flowers; whatever suits my fancy and seems likely to work well with my recipes.  I try to keep it simple; one, two, or at most three flavours in a single blend. 

I use whatever vinegar I think will work best with the flavours I’m infusing.  I like red wine vinegar with cherries, and red or white wine vinegar with herbs.  I sometimes use rice vinegar or cider vinegar in my infusions, or even the plain white vinegar you buy in big jugs for pickling.  I rarely use malt vinegar.  

I work in small quantities because I prefer to have a selection of flavours on hand rather than a large batch of one single flavour.

As with any form of preserving, there are a few basic food safety rules to follow when making infused vinegars.  If you choose to make your own vinegars please follow the instructions carefully, without taking shortcuts.  It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Use glass containers for your infused vinegars.  I prefer to use canning jars with two part lid and ring seals.  You can re-use jars or bottles that have held other foods from the grocery store but, if you do, you won’t be able to process them in your canner or store them in your pantry.  They’ll have to be stored in your fridge as soon as they cool to room temperature. 

Always check your containers for chips and cracks that could cause breakage when you add hot liquid to the jars. 

Whatever jars you’re using, you’ll need to start by sterilizing them.  Wash your jars and lids in warm, soapy water and rinse them well.  Place the jars in a large kettle and cover them with cold water.  The water needs to cover the containers completely, with at least 2 inches of water above the containers’ highest point.  Bring the water to a boil and boil the jars for 15 minutes.  Keep them in the hot water, held at a simmer, until you are ready to fill them.

If you are using proper canning lids and intend to process your vinegar for storage in your pantry, prepare the lids according to the manufacturer’s directions, as provided on the package.  If you’re re-using containers and will be keeping your vinegar in the fridge, sterilize the lids in boiling water, right along with the jars.

While the jars are being sterilized, measure out enough vinegar to fill your containers and bring it to a boil.  Whatever you plan to put in the vinegar must be washed.  Large fruits or vegetables should be coarsely chopped or sliced so that they more easily release their flavours. 

There’s no hard and fast rule about proportion when making infused vinegars.  If you’re using herbs, garlic, or onions, their strong flavours require that only a small amount be placed in each jar.  A single clove of garlic will flavour a pint of vinegar.  Likewise a couple of tablespoons of fresh herbs will do the job.  Fruits and things like roasted peppers or tomatoes are more mild in flavour and will require more volume in proportion to the vinegar.  I like to fill the jar about a third full with these ingredients, maybe even more. 

When the jars are sterilized and the vinegar has come to a boil, work quickly.  Place your prepared infusing ingredients in the jars and pour the hot vinegar over them.  Wipe the rims of the jars clean with a damp paper towel and then put the lids in place. 

If you are re-using containers from the grocery store, allow the jars to cool, transferring them to the fridge as soon as they've reached room temperature.

If you’re processing the jars in your canner, screw the lids on finger tight.  Don’t over tighten them.  There needs to be room for air to escape during the canning process in order for a seal to form as the jars cool. 

Your jars should not rest right on the bottom of the canning kettle.  The water needs to circulate around them.  Put a rack in the bottom of the pot and sit the jars in or on the rack. 

Ensure that the tops of the jars are covered with at least 2 inches of water.  If they’re not, top the pot up with boiling water.  Boil the jars for 10 minutes, remove them from the kettle and allow them to cool to room temperature. 

Before storing your processed jars away in the pantry, check the seals.  The lids should be slightly concave and should make a clear, ringing sound when tapped with a spoon.  Lids that are not properly sealed will make a dull thud when tapped.  You’ll know the difference when you hear it.

All food put by in jars benefits from being stored in a cool, dark place.  Infused vinegars need to rest at least a couple of weeks in order to develop their flavours.  The longer they rest, the better their flavours will be.  Once you’ve broken the seals on your jars, infused vinegars should be stored in the fridge, just as you would store pickles.

All of this sounds like more work than it actually is.  The process goes quickly and the reward is definitely worth the effort.  Have some fun experimenting with your own flavours.  Enjoy the results.

Friday 2 September 2011

Discipline Bowls

I once served dessert to my step-sister in one of the small glass bowls that we use for ice cream and other sweet treats.  She accepted her serving with thanks and then remarked that her husband called that sort of dish a “discipline bowl.”  I got a good chuckle out of it at the time but, now that my health requires that I give some attention to my weight, the term has come back to me.
I have always had a huge appetite.  Even when I weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet, I ate like a trucker.  Over the years though, my metabolism has slowed and although I’m still just as hungry, I don’t burn off the calories like I used to.  I have the belly to show for it.  I’m working hard on exercising but the weight’s not going to come off, or stay off, unless I also exercise some portion control. 

Over the years I’ve read a number of articles about how larger plates and bowls have contributed to our society’s growing problem with obesity.  Apparently, although we would be sated with smaller portions, if we are served our food on larger plates we eat larger quantities.  It’s logical I guess:  A four ounce serving of meat looks a lot bigger when it’s placed on an eight inch plate than when it’s placed on a ten inch plate.  We, with our expectations of plenty, want a full plate no matter how large the plate is. 

The theory that larger plates equal larger servings has started me on an experiment of my own.  I have custard cups in four, six, and eight ounce sizes.  I have cereal bowls that hold either one and a half or two cups of cereal.  I have six inch bread plates, eight inch side plates, and ten inch dinner plates.  All of these different sized dishes can be helpful in managing my portions.  I’ve taken to serving things like cottage cheese and yogurt in bowls will hold no more the appropriate daily serving size suggested by Canada’s Food Guide.  I measure my starches using the custard cups, and weigh my meat portions on a kitchen scale.  I serve my meals on my eight inch side plates instead of on my larger dinner plates. 

Has this portion control demonstrated to me that when using a larger plate I’m eating more than I’m actually hungry for?  No.  I’m often still hungry after eating the recommended servings of meat, grains, or dairy products.  The difference is that I’m a lot more aware of what I’m eating so, when I find myself still hungry, I fill up on fruits and vegetables.  The end result of my experiment is that I’m consuming fewer calories without calorie counting and, at the same time, getting more of the nutrients and fiber that my body needs.

Who knew?  Three cheers for discipline bowls!

Thursday 1 September 2011

Transparent Apples

Many of the homes in my neighbourhood were built in the first half of the 20th century.  Those were times when homes were often modest in size, yards were spacious, and fruit trees were planted as a matter of course.  More and more often, when new owners purchase these houses the fruit trees are cut down to make room for driveways, for decks, or for additions to the house but, even so, our neighbourhood is rich with fruit in the late summer and early fall.  Right now, my daily walks take me past plum trees of many sorts, and past trees heavily laden with Transparent apples.

In my grandmother’s day, Transparent apples were prized because they are among the earliest of apples to ripen.  They are a “summer apple,” with a thin skin and tart flavour.  They don’t keep well but they do make wonderful pies and applesauce.  Having a Transparent apple tree in the yard afforded a homemaker the opportunity to use apples in combination with wild blackberries and other summer fruits; fruits that would not be available when the fall apple crop was ready for picking.  In times before commercially processed pectin was readily available, the addition of some apples to a pot of jam or jelly helped to assure that the finished product would set to the desired texture.  And, of course, any opportunity to put by applesauce was a good one.  Applesauce was (and still is at my house) much in demand for both table service and for baking.

It seems that many of my neighbours don’t know what to do with their Transparent apple crop, or perhaps they lack the time to take advantage of this fruit.  There are fallen apples lying on the lawns of many of the homes I walk past every day.  Since I do know what to do with these apples, I’ll be knocking on doors tomorrow to ask if I can take the windfalls.  Waste not, want not.  I know a good thing when I see it.