Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Going Coastal

It was in Vancouver, British Columbia, that the 100-Mile Diet concept originated, and if you look at all the great food available in that area--from their fisheries, bakeries, fromageries, wineries, cideries, charcuteries, etc.--you might come to think that 100-Mile regime refers to the girth you'll achieve if you partake too freely of the area's abundance.

But of course the title actually refers to a table graced solely with local products, those found within 100 miles of wherever your gastronomic epicenter may lie. (And as a matter of accuracy, shouldn't that be the 160-Kilometer Diet, 'cause they're like in Canada, eh?)

However you measure your dining circle's radius, if you center it in B.C. you're going to capture some very good eating, year 'round. We always head straight for the sea, land-locked as we are for most of the year. We can find live Dungeness crabs in Minnesota fish markets, and they're always a treat, but there's nothing like getting them straight from the waters where they live.

That's what you're able to do in Tofino, B.C., on the west coast of Vancouver Island, where we spent three nights during our recent visit. You buy the crabs from the folks who fished them, bring a big pot of water to the boil, and plunge the crabs in. Fifteen minutes later you dig in to an exquisitely messy repast. Melted butter is de rigeur. A salad and a piece of bread lend a sham civility to the barbarous proceedings, as does a glass or two of excellent B.C. wine. We like the local whites--pinot blanc, pinot gris, and gewurtztraminer all do well here.

Back on the mainland, from our base in Abbotsford, east of Vancouver, we always make a pilgrimage into the city to visit the marvelous Granville Island Public Market. Now, here in the Twin Cities we have come a long way in the last twenty years or so in terms of our culinary savvy and sophistication, and we have many, many wonderful local products of which we can be justly proud. But when a Minnesota traveler encounters a place like Granville Island, he is forced to conclude: "Man, we are still in the bush leagues...".

I'm not sure where to begin. Maybe with the seafood, since we're talking about going coastal: fabulously fresh local halibut, salmon, tuna, sablefish and rockfish, wonderful spot prawns (as good as langoustines, much cheaper), unbelievably sweet and nutty Qualicum Bay scallops, a dozen or more varieties of local oysters, along with mussels, clams, and crabs.

The prawns, scallops, clams and oysters in this pretty picture all came from local waters:
The market also offers great cheese and charcuterie, bakery goods and fresh meats, chocolates, olives, wild mushrooms, fruits and vegetables, wine, prepared foods to eat in or take out. It's more than a little overwhelming for the gastro-tourist with eyes too big for his stomach and too few meals to shop for before he must leave this Lotus-Land.

And it's not just the big markets like Granville Island that make this area such an eater's Mecca. Vancouver has wonderful farmers' markets in season, and the province's interior, from the beautiful, fertile Fraser River valley on eastward into the semi-arid Okanagan wine region around Penticton, sets an intrepid foodie on an extremely rewarding scavenger hunt from winery to cheese maker to nut orchard to berry farm. The province has realized the worth of gastro- and agri-tourism, and a wealth of brochures and helpful signage make the treasures easy to find.

We just had a partial day to explore a bit of the Fraser Valley east and north of Abbotsford on our last day there. A Circle Farm Tour brochure for the Agassiz and Harrison Mills area led us to The Farm House Natural Cheeses and Limbert Mountain Farm Simply Fine Foods. At The Farm House we were able to sample around a dozen of their farmstead goat- and cow-milk cheeses, which was really unfair, as that made it fiendishly difficult to choose. The young and aged goat cheeses both were superb, as was an alpine-style cow-milk cheese. The Welsh-inspired Caerphilly was delicious in both goat and cow versions. We wound up with a young crottin of chevre, a slice of the cow Caerphilly, and a wedge of a lovely, creamy cow-milk blue, the Castle Blue.

Though it was a bit of a damp and drizzly day we were planning on a picnic, and the young woman who helped us at The Farm House said they had picnic tables at Limbert Mountain Farm. It turned out they hadn't put the picnic area together for the season yet, but we enjoyed a lively conversation at Limbert Mountain Farm with Trudie Bouchard. You know how it is when people with a mutual, fervid interest in local foods get talking....

At Limbert Farm they grow herbs, garlic, salad greens, tomatoes, and more, and they gather the nuts from several magnificent old chestnut trees on the property. They infuse chocolate with herbs they grow, and use their garlic to produce a sauce they call "Barn Burner Garlic Nectar." They recently started bottling their own sauerkraut, and Trudie described with great glee the joy of bashing the living daylights out of shredded cabbage in a big old crock, to get the juices flowing and start the fermentation.

When you bond over fermented cabbage, you know you've met a fellow traveler. Slow Food tours stop at Limbert Mountain, and they offer a class on wild herbs and vegetables. Another course description, on reclaiming the backyard for edible plants, reads:

"We have been growing herbs, fruit, veggies and nuts organically for 30 years and we recognize a renewed interest in people wanting to connect with food that is seasonally available, fresher & more delicious and nutritious."

They're fortunate in B.C. to have a climate that allows them to eat from the garden year-'round. From what Trudie called their "hoop house," they are able to harvest fresh vegetables in every season.
And in pretty spectacular surroundings, as you can see. When you can pull fresh produce from the ground in mid-winter in a setting like this, it surely takes the bitter edge off of eating locally and seasonally....

It was a marvelous trip, and I haven't even mentioned the cider apple orchard we visited, the brick-oven baker we tried to track down in Tofino, the great fish tacos at Go Fish in Vancouver, the spectacular dinner of exquisitely prepared local foods at the Pointe Restaurant at the Wickaninnish Inn, the delightful Middle Beach Lodge where we cooked and ate those crabs while looking out our cabin window at the almighty Pacific Ocean.

And of course, it wasn't all about the food (though, to be honest, we did spend quite a lot of time considering that topic!). I always want to consider the food in context--of where and whom it comes from, of how it's produced and of what that means in the myriad ways that food affects our lives in terms of health, our environment, our economy, and the just plain joy it brings to our lives.

Which is a lot to consider, so I wouldn't try to do it all at once.... I'll end here by considering, very fondly indeed, the fellow travelers I shared this trip with. These three guys sitting on a log on the beach:
Edward Roy Gomm, Grace Ellen Laidlaw, Mary Janine Eckmeier

May you all travel, and dine, in such fine company.

Brett Laidlaw

Limbert Mountain Farm Simply Fine Foods:
The Farm House Natural Cheeses: www.farmhousecheeses.com
The Pointe Restaurant at the Wickaninnish Inn: http://www.wickinn.com/restaurant.html
Granville Island Public Market: www.granvilleisland.com/en/public_market
Middle Beach Lodge: www.middlebeach.com
Circle Farm Tour Brochures for the "Mighty Fraser Country": http://www.circlefarmtour.ca/
100-Mile Diet, "Local Eating for Global Change": http://100milediet.org/

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

We Certainly Can

They call it canning, but really it's jarring. Which sounds a bit disturbing, so shall we go with "preserving"? Whatever you want to call it, putting summer's and autumn's produce in jars is satisfying when you do it and extremely rewarding when you come to enjoying the fruits of your forethoughtful efforts.

I am not an expert canner, nor a very experienced one. Over the last few years I've generally put up a few pints of cornichons, some bread & butters, and some ketchup. When I discovered Mes Confitures by Christine Ferber two summers ago I got excited about jams and preserves, particularly from wild fruits, and last fall when I picked up The Joy of Pickling (go ahead and chuckle over the cheesy title; everyone does) by Linda Ziedrich I spent a frenetic week-and-a-half brining, pickling, fermenting and canning everything I could get my hands on.

The other book that has particularly inspired me is Sandor Ellix Katz's Wild Fermentation. This book has become something of a cult bible among atavistic food preservationists. (The Joy of Pickling also contains recipes for many fermented pickles.)

Canning is another of those traditional methods of preserving food which, like smoking, I once thought of as arcane and daunting. In reality, it's very simple. Excellent ingredients and proper hygiene and process produce nearly foolproof results.

In addition to my basic ignorance about the process, I also had to overcome certain preconceptions. I imagined, for one thing, that canning involved hours and hours of sweltering labor. I had this picture of the Iowa farm wife in mind, I think, her brow damp and fevered in clouds of steam, toiling through the humid August heat to fill the cellar with jar after jar of vegetables which, frankly, probably didn't taste that good. The spectre of all those jars of mushy grayish string beans lined up on the cellar shelves was yet another roadblock. You wondered if any of that produce ever saw the light of day once it went underground, making it seem that canning was not about nourishment, but about penance.

With that image in the back of my mind, I wasn't too eager to rush out and buy a gross of Mason jars and get to work. Thankfully, I found another approach. I don't can vegetables, per se, but jams and pickles, for the most part. Paging through the books mentioned above got
me so intrigued, I started making just a jar or two at a time, and I've been delighted with the results.

This sort of canning isn't about subsistence, but about pleasure, though there is an economy to it, preserving what's available and adding flavor and interest as you go. A glut of Anaheim chilies and baby carrots at the end of the season led me to combine the two in a visually appealing and quite tasty pickle based on a basic bread & butter. A few ears of sweet corn a bit past ideal corn-on-the-cob eating went in with leek and red bell peppers for a sweet and tart relish.

The brined cherry tomatoes (Joy of Pickling) have been a delicious revelation. They're fermented like Russian sour dills (something else we make a lot of), they made use of all those end-of-season tomatoes, both green and ripe, and it's hard to imagine a prettier pickle. There's a lot of garlic in there, some hot red chile, along with dill and the leaves of celery root. I will make these every year now, and I'll start earlier to stock up.

Onion and apple (Joy of Pickling) made use of a mess of apples starting to go soft. The apples came from trees which we now happen to own (more on that later). They're pretty tart, but nicely flavored with ginger and cloves. I'll make that again, but add more sugar or maybe some local honey.

The great thing about the these three books is that while they all contain instructions on sound basic principles, none is doctrinaire. They all show a joy in the process and a spirit of imaginative innovation, and they make you want to try out your own variations.

Now, I don't mean this as a tease, and I know it's a good couple of months, at least, before anything suitable for canning will show up in the farmer's market stalls around here--although, I am going to try pickling ramps and fiddleheads this year, and those will be around in less than a month...if the snow ever stops.... But I offer these words and images today because,

1) The canned stuff is about all of local produce we've got these days, and

2) It's never too early to start learning about the process, if you haven't done it before, or to plan for what you'd like to put up in the coming months, if you have.

For other books to check out, a couple of standbys are the Ball Blue Book, a nuts-and-bolts guide which also has a lot of interesting recipes, and Better Homes and Gardens, the good old red-checked standard. My ketchup and bread & butter recipes are adapted from BH&G.

Mary's not a big pickle fan. She's slowly coming around, so she'll try relishes, chutneys, and bread & butters. Me, I love anything brined, vinegared, soured, fermented, pickled in any way. If something like this really is the Ploughman's Lunch, I think I could be a ploughman. At least at lunch time....

The simplest pickles I know are the French sour gherkins called cornichons. I don't process these. Since they're done in straight vinegar, they will keep in the fridge indefinitely. They are the de rigeur accompaniment to patés, terrines, and other types of charcuterie, and find their way, chopped, into many salad dressings and classic sauces from tartare to gribiche. A simple, versatile pickle to start with even if you've never put anything in a can...er...jar, before. You certainly can.

Can can.

French sour gherkins

1 pint fresh gherkin-sized cucumbers, 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches long
1 tsp salt
a few sprigs fresh tarragon
four pearl onions, peeled
two cloves garlic, peeled and halved the long way
three whole cloves
2/3 cup white vinegar
1/3 cup white wine or champagne vinegar

Wash the cucumbers and trim the stems quite short. Put them in a glass or ceramic bowl, and toss with the salt. Let them sit overnight, stirring occasionally when you think of it. If it's coolish you can leave them out. In warm weather start them at room temp, them put them in the fridge overnight.

The next day rinse and drain the salted cukes. Put them in a pint Mason jar, alternating with the garlic, pearl onions, tarragon, and cloves. Combine the vinegars in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and pour the vinegar over the cucumbers in the jar. Let sit at room temp overnight.

The next day, pour the vinegar back into the saucepan, bring to a boil, pour it back over the cornichons. Do it one more time the next day--three days, three boilings. The cornichons can be used immediately but will improve with a few more days' curing. Kept refrigerated, they will last indefinitely.

copyright Brett Laidlaw 2008