Monday, July 25, 2011

My beets hate me (and other garden woes).

A lonely specimen.

I'm pretty sure that my beets hate me. Of the 30 some-odd seeds I planted in the spring, the lonely beet pictured here is one of only five that actually germinated. Whether it was the cool spring weather or the seeds I tried to store over the winter, I'm still not sure.

I tried my best to be patient with them, consulting other gardeners who suggested that I might just try and wait out the cold weather and hope for the best. I was so desperate to see them sprout that I even left some of the weeds to grow until I was 110% certain that they weren't little beets in disguise.

Sigh. So, I've replanted with new seeds. I'm pretending like its all part of a succession planting plan for a fall harvest...

These beets, however, aren't the end of my mid-season woes. Only one of my 35 sunflower seeds germinated; which is probably just as well since I accidentally dug their row right on top of the new fence line, and they would have been in the way of the new posts and heavy, cement-covered boots that so far have defined the process of fence building.

Oh, and the garlic. It seems like no one is going to be getting garlic for their birthday this year after all. You remember how excited I was in April to have transplanted so many into the herb bed? Last week, after months of watching their tops wither and wilt, I finally threw in the towel and re-dug their half of the bed as a holding ground for some perennial flowers and sage. What was left of those 85 transplants you see in the photo below. (Ironically, the few that I did not move from the rhubarb patch are growing fantastically, and I used their scapes in a veal marinade just last week.) Double sigh.

But. It's not all bad. Not at all really. I have more greens than I can keep up with. The snowpeas have all but exploded out of their trellises; I've had to start bringing them with me to work as a snack to keep it flowering. The asparagus all survived and are now showing off their full green ferns, flapping like sails caught in the breeze. And even my tomato plants, however small, are flowering to announce their survival through the soggy cool spring and into the hot summer.

Well, it's best, I think, to end this rant on that happy note. I'm off now to stare at my beet patch. Wish me luck.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Smart meets sustainable at new local cafe.

Lobster knuckle flatbread at the Oceanstone Cafe.
 Sometimes, your next great meal is a lot closer than you expect.

This is something I learned recently when a new cafe opened on the resort property where I've been working this summer. When I arrived in May, the Oceanstone Cafe was still a nameless idea, and in the short months since then I have watched it grow and finally open its doors for business. Located just a stone's throw from Peggy's Cove in rural Indian Harbour Nova Scotia, the cafe boasts a menu that is equal parts smart, delicious, and sustainably inspired. A long, shiny copper bar and the work of local artists round out an eclectic cafe feel.

Last week I asked the cafe's chef, Jamie, to talk to me about food. He explained his desire to cook seasonally - indeed to build his menus and daily offerings around what is fresh and local. When I asked Jamie for some extra parsley during our photo shoot* and chat, he simply strolled out to the cafe's back patio and plucked some from the pots full of herbs that are scattered there. "When you find what's in season," he told me, "the food and menus will naturally follow, and they will be that much better." He envisions a self-sustaining restaurant, with its own gardens, and even (eventually, with luck) livestock to fill the fridges of his cafe kitchen. Tiny vegetable plots have sprung up in every spare corner of the oceanfront property to support this new venture, and row upon little row of bright greens, bins of earthy potatoes, and patches of peas now dot the surrounding landscape.

Organic arugula and greens in one of the property's many plots.

And so, I find myself happily eating my way through the menu at this little cafe that found me. So far, I've sampled steak with silky lemon-garlic aoli and fresh apple-radish slaw, two kinds of asparagus soup (don't ask me to decide which was my favourite!), and several of the daily changing sandwiches, like tomato bocconcini and avocado PLT. Daily cups of cafe au lait (technically not on the menu, but which barista Laura makes for me anyway - complete with microfoam heart, I might add) accompany me on my morning trek past the compost pile to the office below.

The lobster knuckle flatbread can't go without mention, and when I decided to write this post, I specifically asked Jamie to make it for me. The flatbread (pictured at top) is bright ocean meets garden greens on a plate, and though it's made for two, you might just want to order one all to yourself. It's made with locally sourced lobster and garnished with piles of glistening fresh arugula, and while the garden's arugula wasn't quite ready for picking when I took the photos, Jamie was quick to email me when I could first wander out to the beds behind the cafe for some early morning shots (pictured above).

I chat weekly with the vegetable gardener about the state of chard and spinach, and see her toting her blue wheelbarrow filled with plants, seeds, and soil about the property from my position in the office (not without a twinge of envy either, as you might expect). I've watched as fallen branches were transformed into new bean trellises behind the cafe's back entrance. And just the other day, as I was taking a breath of fresh air during a busy Saturday night, I found myself in a flower garden with one of the owners collecting garlic scapes. Between the smart food, sustainable approach, and eclectic atmosphere, the Oceanstone Cafe is an easy place to feel good about, especially when you've seen it grow (quite literally) from the ground up.

The local mussel pot. Fresh garden herbs and locally sourced mussels.

* This is a term I use very loosely. Maybe "photo practice" would be more appropriate.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Strawberries: Wild, Domestic, Delicious

Fresh Nova Scotia strawberries. Roll them in fresh-cracked black pepper for a new twist.*

I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with wild strawberries this year. In early spring I found them charming, with their sprinkling of tiny white flowers across our yard signalling the super-sweet berries to come. But then they started to spread. Worse than dandelions and gout weed, the little suckers were lurking around every corner. They invaded my asparagus bed, hassled my peas, and even set up shop in the middle of my driveway! (Imagine much scowling and fist-shaking here.) In a perfect world I would take the time to make an official spot for them to go about their fruit-production business, nurturing them and then tenderly gathering the fruit to make jam.

But my patience has limits, and frankly I think the little devils have made it clear that they don't need my help anyway. So, I am resigned to leave them as they are, snapping up a snack of tiny red berries whenever I see them, and occasionally tossing a swear or two in their direction when they get in my way. Love-hate indeed.

But fresh, local, domestic berries are another story entirely. In fact I will venture to say that there are few things that signal the arrival of summer more than local strawberries. Growing up we harvested masses of domestic berries from our backyard. My mother made strawberry jam and pies, but otherwise we kept it simple, eating them straight from their sunny plot with little more than a sprinkle of sugar.

These days I eat them plain, sometimes with a little whipped cream, or, when I am especially motivated, with a cool double brie as in the photo below. This little turquoise plate of happiness was my lunch today, and the accompanying cinnamon-sugar toasts were inspired by a lakeside picnic I had on Pelee Island many years ago. That lunch included a strawberry coulis with the brie and toasts, but fresh berries are so spectacular that there's no point in pulverizing them into coulis. The toasts are brushed with melted butter, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, and pressed gently into muffin tins to get their shape as they bake.

No need, though, to go to so much trouble. When the summer berries are at their best and juiciest, I often find it seems like too much effort to even slice them up, and I tend (as I suspect you do) to eat them straight from the thin wooden box.

Summer berries never had it so good.

*This was a trick I learned from James Barber, aka The Urban Peasant. Courtesy of CBC, The Urban Peasant was my after school TV show of choice when I was a teenager (our rural location rendered us cableless), and his unlikely take on strawberries is a divine contrast of flavours that will wake up your taste buds. Use a little less pepper than what you see in the photo though, I got carried away when I took the shot.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Going out to see the garden: A post for Dads.

Pike fishing with Dad. Pre-twenty-first century in Ontario.

It's Father's Day, the day of Dads. The current Canada Post strike means that my dad won't be getting his present on time this year. No matter - that's what blogs are for.

When I first told my dad that I was going to write a blog, he said "What's a blog?" (Actually, a lot of people said that.) After I explained what a blog was and my ideas for then-nameless Hungry Tiller, he said "Why the heck would you want to do that?" (A lot of people said that too.)  

I didn't have a lot of answers back then, no answers really. But now, when people ask me about Hungry Tiller I tell them this:

Hungry Tiller has become a way for me to connect with home. I live half a country away from the rest of a very large family that has deep roots in togetherness, food, and living from the land. My brightest and fondest memories revolve around these themes, and Hungry Tiller connects me to them, to my family, and to our many traditions.

I often find my father at the center of these memories. Dad is one of the last of a great rural generation of gardeners, hunters, and foragers. He taught me to clean fish, to find wild asparagus, and how to tell the sweet corn from the field corn when you're driving by in a car. I learned these lessons by simple osmosis, slowly absorbing them over time through endless curiosity and observation.

He also taught me the importance of "going out to see the garden." In my family, whenever we visited one another the first order of business was always to go out and see the garden. This simple ritual of plant and soil inspection was always initiated by the visitor, and was never, for some reason, an invitation by the garden's owner. Motivated by a genuine curiosity about the state of beets and beans, it proved an easy segue to other conversations. Sometimes, at my grandfather's house, entire afternoons would be spent at the garden's edge, and in my memory it is the backdrop of many family gatherings. Children would run wild, picking raspberries and eyeing the neighbouring duck pond through the back fence. We were a family of eaters and gardeners.

In truth, I am not even sure that my family is aware of this tradition, or has ever thought of it as something more than ordinary. It was just our way of living and loving and poking fingers in the dirt, catching up over a raw yellow wax bean or two straight from the garden bed. But it has as special place in my heart, and remembering it keeps me close despite the miles and provinces in between.

Happy Father's Day to all the fathers and their daughters out there. And, as always, happy growing, cooking, and eating.
- Kim

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Not-so-lazy lavender.

Some plants are just lazy. Every day you check on them, watching them for new growth, impatiently poking and prodding to urge them out of their lazy-bones state. Lavender, it turns out, is not quite so lazy as I thought.

Last spring, inspired by a whim and a discount bin at a local garden center, I planted a single Munstead Lavender plant in my herb bed. It was a spiky little green munchkin of a plant, a bit worse for wear after spending too long in the same pot. As the season wore on, it didn't do much, and it seemed that my low expectations were proving true. No growth, no flowers. Nothing.

But then, well into a colourful autumn, the tiny plant shot up its stunning, delicate flowers nearly 8 inches into the air. While the rest of the garden had fallen into a brown, wintry slumber, scented waves of purple soared above the little garden plot. I was in love.

Mid-fall 2010. Lazy lavender wakes up as the rest of the garden drifts off to sleep for the winter.

This year, my little orphan lavender plant has come out swinging. No sooner was spring in the air than it decided to make up for lost time with a hearty growth spurt. Now, in early June, it's clear that it will need to be moved to a bed of its own; its dusty green spikes are threatening to overshadow my thyme (another plant which surprised me by surviving the winter...sometimes I have no idea) and are already crowding my duo of chives. In short, it's gone from lazy to out of control.

This year's mountain of lavender (midground). Not so lazy after all.

 And so, in the spirit of lavender success, I bought three more little Munstead Lavender plants to keep it company in its new plot in the perennial garden. I have no idea what I'll do with all the flowers when they bloom - maybe some vanilla lavender shortbread, maybe nothing at all. For now, I'll just be lazy and enjoy them.  

This year's new prospects, fresh from my local greenhouse.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Rhubarb meets ice cream.

Homemade rhubarb ice cream.

Rhubarb might just be our last true sign of spring. Somehow, the stalk-and-leaf plant has managed to escape the shelves of the supermarket, resisting the 365-day demand now placed on our old spring favourites like strawberries and asparagus. This escape, I think, is cause for celebration.

Last year, my little rhubarb patch produced such skimpy results that I was wondering if I had made a mistake when transplanting. This year, be it the rain or the extra blanket of manure, the patch is close to overflowing, and the first thing I thought of making was this recipe for rhubarb ice cream. It comes from Nigella Lawson's How to Eat, and it's a delightful change from the usual stewed rhubarb and crumble. The ice cream is silky smooth, with a classic rhubarb tang.  

The recipe is not so daunting as it looks. Basically, you cook some rhubarb, make a custard, whip some cream and then toss it all into your ice cream machine (ok, so maybe it's a little daunting...but I promise that the individual steps are easy). It does take some time, but with the exception of the custard and the whipped cream, most of it is the hands-off, put-up-your-feet kind of cooking.

I would be lying to you if I said I didn't add a couple of specks of red food colouring to the mixture before it went into the machine. You will understand when you make it (when you separate the pulp, all of the gorgeous ruby-red colour stays with the juice!). I think Mother Nature will forgive me; after all, we're celebrating.

Rhubarb Ice Cream
from Nigella Lawson's How to Eat

Makes 1 quart and a bit.

2 pounds rhubarb, cut into pieces
1 1/2 cups sugar, plus 1/4 cup
1 1/4 cups light cream (I used 10%)
3 egg yolks
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

2. Put rhubarb in a baking dish with the 1 1/2 cups of sugar, cover and bake for 45-60 mins until it is very soft.

3. Drain the rhubarb pulp from the juice, and beat the pulp with a fork until it's smooth. Set the pulp aside to cool and store the juice for another use*.

4. Beat the yolks in a medium bowl with the remaining 1/4 cup sugar. Fill a large bowl with ice and water in the sink (this is because you will need to quickly stop the custard cooking). Put the light cream on to boil, but take it off the heat just before it does. Drizzle the heated cream over the yolk mixture slowly, whisking furiously as you do it (if you don't whisk, you'll get scrambled eggs).

5. Put the cream and egg mixture into a new saucepan. Cook it over medium-low heat, stirring constantly until it thickens - about 10 mins. Plunge the saucepan into your ice water bath and stir quickly until the custard has cooled.

6. Add the rhubarb pulp to the custard. Whip the heavy cream, and fold this into the rhubarb mixture. Add the vanilla.

7. Taste for sugar (keeping in mind that the cold will dull the sweetness), and add more if necessary, 1 tbsp at a time (I did not add any extra sugar and it was fine).

8. Pour the whole works into your ice cream machine per the machine's instructions. It's worth noting here that the mixture will be very thick, so you may end up scooping it into the machine vice pouring it in, but don't worry too much. Also, because of its thickness, I couldn't run my machine at the slow setting (the motor was on the verge of stalling - I kid you not), nor could I run it for the entire 30 mins recommended in my owners manual (at minute 20 or so it had become so thick it wasn't even churning, just spinning around in circles).

9. Freeze your ice cream in whatever container you wish and pat yourself on the back. Sneak a few spoonfuls while you're at it. Nigella says to serve as soon as possible once frozen, but I didn't scoop mine until almost a week later and it was fine. It freezes pretty hard though, so for the sake of your scoop give it 15 mins on the counter.

* If you reduce the juice into a syrup, it makes a lovely sauce for the ice cream. Otherwise, make some rhubarb jello. Mine's in the freezer for jello-making later on. (Let me know if you need a recipe!)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Asparaguys or bust.

Mary Washington asparagus crowns ready in their trench.

Asparagus is the ultimate waiting game. Three years of waiting game, to be exact, and the clock in my Nova Scotia garden is finally ticking.

Growing up, it was our annual spring tradition to pack up our pocket knives and go asparagus picking. The last of the country foragers, my dad always knew when the time was right, and we would drive the back roads to all of his secret places. Dad would spot last year's mature fern from the car, a crispy old brown tumbleweed of a plant, and my sister and I would scramble out to begin our search for the tender new shoots underneath. We got soakers from jumping across ditches, and every so often there would be a mild case of poison ivy, but at the end of the day we always came home with bags full of fresh-picked wild asparagus for our supper. 

Early this year I ordered ten Mary Washington asparagus crowns, and yesterday, in a blissful break from school and work, I finally finished their garden bed. Ten plants for two people might seem excessive (the grower recommended just two plants per person), but we have big appetites for the little green spears around here, and I figure the neighbours won't complain too much if the extras find their way next door. The roots needed a bit of coaxing to get them to drape out like "wigs on a head" on the mounds in their trench per the growing instructions, but in the end we managed to negotiate the planting. My new asparagus (asparaguses, asparaguys...) will take three years to get going. The shoots will need to develop into full fern-like mature tops for the first couple of years, strengthening the root system for the long perennial road ahead. And then finally, on the third year, we will harvest with abandon.

I, for one, am willing to wait.

Pardon the apostrophe. I was tired and the marker was permanent.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

To market, to market: Hubbards Farmers' Market opens for the 2011 season.

Coffee is always our first order of business on any market adventure.
The breeze was cool and the coffee hot at yesterday's season opening of the Hubbards Farmers' Market. Located in the heart of coastal Hubbards, this tiny market packs a lot of punch. Its vendors cover the same range of food groups and local art you'll find at the Seaport Farmers' Market in Halifax, but the smaller scale and country setting give this market an edge in comfort and community. Despite the cool weather there was a solid turnout, and people milled in and out of the barn with their coffees and dogs, children running wild across the grassy clearings. We even had a few patches of sunshine.

I wasn't sure what to expect so early in the season, but as we wandered around I made a few precious discoveries.

Broadfork Farm and their army of glorious tomato seedlings.

After coffee, the stunning tomato seedlings from Broadfork Farm were the first to catch my eye. They had so many varieties I could barely contain myself, and I saw a San Marzano plant that was nearly a foot tall!  When I commented on the size and health of their plants, Shannon explained to me that they heat their seedlings from underneath: perfect growing conditions for heat-loving, sun-sucking tomatoes.  I will most definitely be visiting them again soon.

Blueberry honey from Higbee's Berry Farm in New Ross.

I was drawn like bees to honey (.....what??) to a large corner table where Higbee's Berry Farm was displaying jar upon jar of sunny yellow honey. And not just any honey - they were selling blueberry honey. I was sold, and so were a lot of other people; in the time it took me to snap a few close-ups and scratch out some notes, I saw at least half a dozen other honey-lovers buy a jar of the sweet stuff. Higbee's is well-known for its blueberry production, and they have managed to extend their strawberry season to one of the longest in the province. Their market table is always full of surprises: last fall I even scored some chanterelles. Thanks to Cindy for letting me get so close.

Sunflower (left) and pea shoots from Pleasant Hill Farm.

Our last stop on the Hubbards Market circuit was Pleasant Hill Farm's outdoor stand, where generous bags of organic bright green arugula and pea shoots practically shouted spring. I talked with Cindy (another Cindy) for a minute about my bag of pea shoots and she professed to love the sunflower shoots even more. She gave me a sample, and I instantly bought a bag of those too. They were sunflower seed meets leafy green and I was already imagining them on my dinner plate.

And so, an hour later, we took our small bag of market treasures and a camera full of pictures home for the day. Filled with low-key country atmosphere and brilliant surprises, I think the Hubbard's Market opening was just the beginning of an exciting market season to come. Hope to see you there soon!

ps. There are a few extra photos of the market opening on the Hungry Tiller Facebook site. Just follow the link on your upper right.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Eat your chives with butter. Lots of butter.

Simple baked Atlantic salmon with a poached egg and chive beurre blanc.

The chive plant just might be the unsung hero of the herb garden.

This hard-working herb is the first to appear each spring and produces slim spikes of bright green oniony goodness right through until frost. Not only are chives perennial, they spread like mad from one year to the next and are almost impossible to kill; even those with the blackest of thumbs will see them thrive, either in containers or tucked into a garden bed. All they need is a mid-season haircut after they have bloomed to rejuvenate them, after which the new growth will have regained its early-May tenderness.

Normally relegated as confetti to a baked potato or scrambled eggs, it's nice to see chives get the spotlight once in a while. When I really want to make chives shine, I turn to Craig Flinn's chive beurre blanc. Flinn is a bit of a local food hero around these parts. He runs the always fantastic Chives Canadian Bistro in Halifax, and his recipe for chive beurre blanc comes from his first cookbook Fresh & Local.

Now, don't let the fancy french name fool you. Beurre blanc is a cinch to make and it's a perfect accompaniment to seafood, eggs, and (my favourite) asparagus. It takes less than 15 minutes from start to finish, and the list of ingredients is both short and uncomplicated. The resulting sauce is better than even the best hollandaise, a marvelous mix of tang and creamy butter. The first time I made this, I had to stop myself from eating the whole works straight from the pot with a spoon.

In the cookbook version, Flinn's chive beurre blanc is the final touch to a fairly complex meal of whole poached salmon, eggs, and pickled asparagus. Most often, we eat our beurre blanc over a more humble meal of poached eggs and steamed asparagus, but on nights when I am especially motivated I bake a filet or two of salmon as you see in the photo above.

This recipe serves six. Make the whole thing even if you have less people at your table; you will have to fight them for the leftovers.

Fresh garden chives and free run eggs.
Chive Beurre Blanc
from Craig Flinn's Fresh & Local

Serves 6.

1 shallot, finely chopped
1/4 cup white wine
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp white wine vinegar
1 tbsp whipping cream
3/4 cup cold butter, cut into 1cm (1/2 inch) cubes
2 tbsp chopped chives

1. Place shallot, white wine, lemon juice, and vinegar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce until you have 2 tbsp of liquid left in the pan.

2. Add whipping cream and return just to the boil. Remove from the heat and whisk the butter into the mixture a few cubes at a time. About halfway through, you may need to return the pan to the heat for a couple of seconds to help the butter melt (keep whisking). Do this as necessary until all of the butter is incorporated into the sauce.

3. Season to taste and add the chives*. If you used salted butter, you won't need any more salt. Flinn suggests a couple drops of Tabasco as well, but I have also seen recipes call for white pepper. I generally use neither and things are fine.

4. Serve warm over whatever you like, or eat with abandon straight from the pot. I won't tell.

Cut your butter first and then toss it into the fridge to keep cold while you reduce the liquids.
* If you have to keep the sauce warm for a bit, leave out the chives until right before you eat. Otherwise they will lose their lovely bright green colour.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The ghosts of garlic past.

Just one of several clumps mid-transplant.

You might get garlic for your birthday this year.

Last weekend I was poking around in my rhubarb when I discovered some garlic shoots growing right smack in the middle of the patch: a splash of bright green that could not be ignored against the ruby red rhubarb. And I hadn't even planted them - they were like the ghosts of garlic past.

Garlic is technically a perennial, so if left unharvested each clove will produce a whole head of new garlic the following year and so on, until you have over 100 of the damned things in your rhubarb patch. Mine were probably sown by the house's previous tenants and had somehow escaped my garden radar last spring.

So I left what I was doing and carefully dug up the clumps of wayward garlic, meaning to find them a new home in the vegetable garden proper. Not just for the aesthetics of my rhubarb patch, but because the garlic was too crowded to mature into full heads and would soon be shadowed by the giant leaves of the bed's rightful owners.  

Garlic overkill.
I'm one of those pathetic gardeners who can't stand to kill anything green and living, which is why an hour and a half later I had transplanted a veritable sea of garlic in what used to be my herb bed. I counted somewhere near 85 new garlic plants, and I was still staring down two more large clumps of shoots! I packed them up in a pot and hustled them off to my unsuspecting neighbours for their own gardens; I had reached my garlic limit.  

It's not all bad news. In truth I had been kicking myself all winter because I wasn't organized enough last fall to plant any garlic myself. I guess the small army of assailing shoots was really a bit of a gift to my lazy gardening ways.

And so, if your birthday falls anytime after July, you might just be lucky enough to get a head of garlic or two instead of a ribbon curl this year. Or maybe you'll find a few cloves sprinkled into your Hallowe'en goodie basket or, God forbid, your Christmas stocking.

In any case, at least we won't have to worry about vampires.
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