Sunday, December 1, 2013

December: The Rules

As of January 1st, 2014, these are the new rules.

All sugar-laden breakfast cereals with cute child-friendly cartoons on the box shall be banned.  The manufacturers of the three worst, Golden Crisp, Fruit Loops, and Honey Smacks, each of which contains more sugar than a Twinkie in every bowl, shall pay the equivalent of three new diabetes wards in fines.

Anyone who regularly crosses the border to shop for food at American super markets shall have all OHIP privileges revoked.  Since they prefer to pay their taxes to America and prefer to support American farmers and grocers, they can get their health insurance over the border, too.  Good luck.

Cooking classes shall be mandatory in all high schools.  The curriculum shall include nutritional information, meal preparation, shopping procedures, and include field trips to farms and local markets.  Exemptions will be granted to any student who can prepare and present a reasonably nutritious meal from scratch and who demonstrates rudimentary knowledge of healthy eating practices.

Anyone using a hand-held electronic device during meal times shall forfeit the device permanently.  This includes texting, video gaming, phoning, tweeting, and wearing ear buds or headphones.  In addition, all televisions will be turned off during meals.  To assist with compliance, television networks will be required to program only infomercials for hair removal products between the hours of 5:30 and 9:00 pm.

Sweet soft drinks such as Coke, Pepsi, and their many cousins which contain more than ten teaspoons of sugar in each can, will be more heavily regulated than alcohol.  Sale will be strictly limited to a six-pack per week and anyone caught supplying minors with this poison will be put on a restricted diet consisting of kale, spinach, sunchokes, and arugula (blended for breakfast, salad for lunch, stir-fry for dinner) for a period of not less than one week.

It shall be required that parents sit down for a minimum of one hour with all children living at home to consume a meal at least twice per week.  Said meal must be prepared from scratch with the assistance of said children and may count as homework for the afore-mentioned mandatory cooking classes.  Conversation is optional, but encouraged.

Supermarkets shall be required to carry local produce when it is available.  Any store selling strawberries from California, or asparagus from Chile, or tomatoes from Mexico, or garlic from China when such produce is being grown at Ontario farms shall have its entire parking lot turned over to a farmers’ market every weekend for one year.

Advertisements for fast food restaurants shall be required to include warnings about health risks and feature really, really gross pictures of people suffering from the results of a steady diet of their products.  Such advertisements shall also be strictly regulated to have no child appeal.  If parents want to take their kids to such unhealthy environments, they will do so without the encouragement of brainwashed children.
There.  I got that off my chest.  Amazing how a little venting makes you feel better.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

November: Community Gardens

Congratulations to the Pelham Horticultural Society and Pelham Communities in Bloom Committee for putting forward an initiative to create a community garden in Pelham.  The Town, moving with its accustomed caution, is collecting information about whether such a radical project will meet with voters’ favour before committing to it.  If there was ever a no-brainer, this is it. 

Community gardens are public spaces where people in the community can borrow or rent a small plot of land to grow their own vegetables and flowers.  Often, they are developed in conjunction with community housing projects or low income support projects and plots are given free to those in need.  But many are open to rental by anyone with a hankering to do some gardening and no appropriate place to do it.  What is there not to like?

Other Niagara Region communities have been enjoying community gardens for years.  St. Catharines, Grimsby, Niagara Falls, and Welland all have received Regional money to develop and sustain their gardens and according to media reports, they are an enormous success, both with people who might need some help with putting veggies on the table, and those who volunteer some time to show them the gardening ropes.  Climate Action Niagara lists eleven community gardens on their website, including gardens in Fort Erie, St. Catharines, Welland, and Chippewa. There’s one at Brock University, another at Niagara College’s Welland Campus, another at the Vineland Research Centre, and on.  As welcome as the Pelham initiative is, one can’t help but wonder what took so long!

The benefits of a community garden are many, besides the obvious one of supplying wholesome, home grown food, especially to those in need, a concept that is a the heart of Slow Food Movement.  There is the beautification of our town, along with community pride in undertaking a worthwhile project, combined with an increased sense of community as experienced gardeners share their secrets with novices.  And the environment will thank us for an intelligent use of vacant land, and the fostering of awareness about our food supply and food growing practices.

Is there a down side?  I certainly don’t see one.  If a community garden costs taxpayers a few dollars, it is money well spent for benefits that can make an important immediate impact, and potentially some really significant, long term, sustainable improvements to our community.

However, the Town wants our feedback on a survey before they take the next step of actually discussing the issue and maybe, eventually sending it to committee, getting staff to provide input and recommendations, debating it at Council, and one day, maybe in our lifetimes, approving a community garden project for Pelham.  Oh well, we have to start somewhere, so go to  and fill out the survey.  This is a bandwagon we can all jump on with pride and pleasure.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

October: Stale Bread

Ours is a throw-away society, perfectly comfortable with disposable everything, from diapers to razors to all manner of packaging.  As I have noted in this column, our food waste is enormous, actually exceeding our consumption. 

It wasn’t always so.  Diapers used to be cloth and washable and razors were at one time steel, able to be sharpened with a strop, and made to last a lifetime.  Even the safety razor was built to last forever, though it used disposable blades.  Today’s multi-bladed throw-away is a small-scale environmental disaster.
And food packaging!  Don’t get me started.  I am especially sensitive to this issue, having just returned from a holiday in Italy and France where we shopped at markets and took home our produce not in shrink-wrapped plastic, but in a reusable bag, our meat in a slip of wax paper folded at both ends, and our bread in a twist of paper.  And that brings me to the actual subject of this column: stale bread.  French and especially Italian bread is good for about three hours before it dries out.  In those three hours it is delicious.  But the Italians (among others, including the French and British) have developed recipes to make use of bread that is beyond its best instead of throwing it away.  This allows for guilt-free eating of bread bought at the local boulangerie or panificio twice or even three times a day.
I have written about my favorite recipe for garlic soup before… a concoction that uses stale bread as a thickener, and knocks out colds and flu bugs like a heavyweight prize fighter.  Another wonderful use of stale bread is in an Italian salad called Panzanella.  As unappetizing as “stale bread salad” might sound, this makes use of fresh flavourful ingredients to produce a deliciously different summer treat… and recycles bread that is beyond its best.
1 ½ to 2 Cups diced fresh tomatoes
½ Cup diced green onion
3 Tbsp chopped fresh basil (or more to taste)
½ Tbsp chopped fresh oregano or Herbs de Provence
1 clove crushed garlic
2 Tbsp Olive oil
1 Tbsp Balsamic vinegar
3 Cups diced stale French or Italian bread 
Mix together all the ingredients except the bread and let sit for half an hour for the flavours to blend.  When ready to serve, stir in the bread chunks so they are well coated and season with salt and pepper.
Note:  Don’t even try to use ordinary plastic wrapped sliced bread for this salad.  First, it doesn’t seem to go stale and dry out, and I do not want to know what’s in it that accomplished this.  Second, when it is mixed with any liquid it turns to wallpaper paste, and “wallpaper paste and tomato salad” sounds even worse than “stale bread salad”.

Monday, September 2, 2013

September: Waste Not, Want Not?

In a land of abundance, there is no region more abundant than ours at this time of year.  We are among the most fortunate people in the world when it comes to the availability of good, fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables.  The many Farmers’ Markets in Niagara are bursting with produce, and shoppers are thronging to them in record numbers.  Increasingly, the big chain supermarkets are paying attention to consumer demand and we’re seeing local produce and products on their shelves… a most welcome change from days past when it was rare to see anything local in our supermarkets.  In addition, we have been seeing a significant increase in organic, heritage, and sustainable food being grown in our region.

That’s all good news.  The bad news is that so much of that food goes to waste.  In Canada, we waste about $27 billion worth of food every year, according to a report from theValue Chain Management Centre (VCMC).  What is worse, it is not food production, food packaging, food transportation, food service, or food storage that is to blame for the bulk of that wastage;  household waste… food thrown in the garbage by consumers like you and me… accounts for more than half.  In a land of abundance, we have become so used to buying more than we can eat that we don’t even think about how much we throw away.

To look at the issue another way, we throw away almost 40 per cent of the food we buy, or around 172 kg per person per year… in a nation where 9 per cent of the population is called “food insecure” and about 870,000 people rely on food banks month by month. 

This is a complex issue, and the simple answer (“Stop wasting food, and everyone will have enough”) is simply not true.  Even if we suddenly stopped wasting so much food, that wouldn’t put the surplus food on the tables of those who need it.  In fact, I suspect the problem is insoluble.  The only thing we can do, if we care enough, is become conscious of the issue and each of us in his or her own way, resolve to do better.

One way of doing better is to take surplus fresh food to organizations that exist to redistribute donated foods to those who need it.  Pelham Cares is such an organization and they welcome fresh food for their program of providing for those in need.  Is your garden overrun with tomatoes or cucumbers or zucchini?  Were you too ambitious when you bought three bushels of peaches to preserve?  Take the excess to Pelham Cares and let them give it to people who need it.

Another way to reduce the waste is to recognize what “best before dates” really mean.  These dates are not about safety, but about peak quality.  Canned and packaged goods can be safely eaten long after their best before dates have expired, and even dairy products, if properly stored, will last well after their best before dates.  For a complete list of what you can keep and how long, refer to an article in the Globe and Mail, published Nov. 19, 2012 and available on line.  And if eating “expired” foods turns you off, consider taking them (so long as the packaging is in good shape) to Pelham Cares.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

August: Packing Light

A wilderness canoe trip is one of the most relaxing activities available to us.  Oh, it’s not relaxing in the “put your feet up and do nothing” way, but it’s one of the only ways to escape the stresses that are part of everyday life and decompress in the quiet and beauty of natural surroundings.  This is especially true for people who are surgically attached to their Blackberries and other devices that allow them to take their work and other stressors with them wherever they go.  Smart phones don’t work in the bush; there are no radios, televisions, video games, or computers.  
               Valerie and I just got back from a magical ten days in the interior of Algonquin Park, where we saw an average of about three people a day  (and those usually at a distance across a lake), and were completely out of touch with anything electronic.  The weather cooperated magnificently for the entire trip, and we paddled across calm lakes, set up camp on isolated islands, swam whenever we got warm, saw moose and loons with their new offspring, and even fished a bit.
               Whenever we talk about our canoe trips with friends who don’t venture into the wilderness, we are asked about food.  Ten days or two weeks without a refrigerator can present a challenge to people who love their food, but over the years we have developed a few tricks and techniques that enable us to enjoy good camp meals… maybe not strictly according to Slow Food principles, but nonetheless, good compromises.  Remember, we are carrying our food with us, so not only does it have to be able to go without refrigeration, but it ought to be light, compact, and easy to prepare since we use either a campfire or single burner camp stove as our only heat source.
               The first couple of days into the trip, we enjoy pre-prepared and frozen meals, kept cool in a collapsible, soft sided cooler bag that can be compressed and stowed when it’s empty.  Chili, stew, curry, smoked chicken, ribs all are available to us during this period and we’ll typically take corn on the cob for the first evening meal.
               Once the cooler is empty, we rely on packaged or dried foods for the most part.  Pasta is an important staple, and we will use our home-made pesto or a packaged sauce with it.  Gourmet Mac and Cheese is easy to carry, light, nourishing, and tasty for dinner.  Oriental and Indian cuisine figures largely in our menu, since the ingredients are often dried or packaged in such a way that makes for easy rehydration and light cooking.  The only down side of these packaged meals is the amount of sodium they contain, so we try to alternate packaged with non-packaged meals.
               One treat we always look forward to is Valerie’s Mexican Fiesta.  We take dried refried beans, salsa, nacho cheese sauce in a pouch, tortillas (we have even experimented with making our own from corn flour), and taco seasonings which we combine to produce a very tasty and filling taco feast.  Instead of salad greens to top the tacos (since salad would long ago have rotted) we sprout our own seeds in a plastic tube.  Soaking the seeds a couple of times a day causes them to germinate and grow into fresh and delicious sprouts… our camp salad content.
               By the end of a long trip, we resort to freeze-dried meals.  These are specially prepared for campers, canoeists, cyclists, and hikers and typically are compactly packaged meals in a pouch that can be prepared very simply by rehydrating and cooking for a few minutes… or in some cases, just by adding boiling water.  As unappetizing as these sound, some of them are actually really good, especially near the end of an extended trip in the bush.  How about chicken and dumplings, or Hawaiian pineapple chicken, or Cuban coconut black beans and rice, followed with freeze dried crème brulé or mint chocolate chip ice cream? (Really!) 
Camp meals are certainly not the same as you might expect at home or in a restaurant, but if they allow us to experience a glorious couple of weeks in the lakes and rivers of Algonquin or Quetico or Killarney, then, Slow Food or not, they are gourmet fare.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

July: Food in the news

Two very closely related but very different food related items caught my attention last month.  The first is a study of preschoolers that clearly shows eating in front of a TV or computer has serious health consequences.  The second was an interview by Jian Gomeshi on the CBC radio programme Q with food writer Michael Polen, who stressed the importance (and the decline) of home cooking.

The study of preschoolers by St. Michael’s Hospital doctor Navrinda Persaud and his team set out to determine if the levels of bad cholesterol (HDL) were affected not by what you eat, but how you eat it.  Elevated levels of HDL in preschoolers is a key indicator of health issues like cardiovascular problems in later life.  The study determined that kids who eat in front of the TV or computer monitor have higher levels of this dangerous cholesterol.  In fact, Dr. Persaud actually made the point that there was a stronger correlation between eating behaviour and high cholesterol than between what was eaten and high cholesterol. 

While this may be counter-intuitive on the surface, the study team points out that kids who eat while watching TV are not paying attention to what they eat, and tend to ignore the cues that tell them they’ve had enough.  “They’re just kind of shoveling it in,” says Dr. Persaud.  The study concludes that “evidence suggests promoting responsive feeding, where adults provide appropriate access to healthy foods and children use internal cues (not parent directed cues or cues from the television) to determine the timing, pace, and amount they consume.”  In other words, sit down and eat a family meal without the distractions of TV, smart phone, computer, or iPod and set an example of healthy, convivial mealtimes. 

Michael Polen is the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a call to eat locally produced foods wherever possible that was a bestseller when it came out in 2006.  His new book is called Cooked: a Natural History of Transformation and he is on the book circuit to promote it.  His conversation with Gomeshi touched on many aspects of our food culture, but centred on the question of “who’s doing the cooking?”  When we eat food produced by corporations, whether it’s prepackaged pizza or canned soup or frozen dinners, we are eating food made from cheap, industrially produced ingredients that include large amounts of salt (to make the crappy ingredients taste better), sugar, fat, and chemicals that make it last a long, long time so it can be shipped from afar and sit on a shelf until purchased.  When you eat industrial food, Polen pointed out, you are supporting industrial agriculture.

When Gomeshi mentioned our current fascination with star chefs and televised cooking programmes, Polen explained what he calls the cooking paradox: “We're spending more time watching other people cook food on television than we are cooking ourselves.  I think on some level we understand how important cooking is and we miss it in our lives.”

The Slow Food Movement is all about good, healthy, local ingredients prepared at home by people who care about what they eat, and consumed in a convivial, social setting.  Dr. Persaud and Michael Polen seem to be on exactly the same page. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

June: "Local" Food

Our government has now revised the official definition of local food to include any food produced in Ontario.  This change was driven by restaurateurs and others who found the 50 km definition too restrictive.  A Toronto cheese store could not list Upper Canada Cheese (made here in Jordan Station) as local, nor could a butcher in London say that organic chicken from Fenwood Farm near Ancaster was a local product.  The problem was especially difficult for farmers’ markets where farmers from further than 50 km. could not participate as a “local” producer.   In an age of quick and easy transportation, these restrictions may seem excessive and the media certainly featured many examples of food producers who were negatively affected.

We here in Niagara are perhaps less affected by such a restriction than other less fortunate spots.  Our market gardens produce a seasonal abundance, which can be found at any of the many farmers’ markets in our towns.  Fruit?  Of course.  Niagara is famous for the quality of our peaches and apples, pears, apricots, cherries, and grapes.  As one of the few locations in Canada that has a climate where tender fruit production is possible, we benefit not only from the delicious fruit that is available for our tables, but from the spectacular orchards and vineyards that are the backdrop of our region. 

As for drink, no one in Niagara has to travel 50 km. to get local wine, and the wine on offer is as good as anywhere in the world.  We even have two distilleries that most Niagara residents can get to in less than 50 km. for those who favour whisky, and my tippling contacts tell me that the quality of the rye whisky produced at both Forty Creek in Grimsby and Dillan’s in Beamsville, is world class.  Even local craft beer is available to us at Niagara College’s teaching brewery.  If you have not tried their small batch specialty beers, available only at the college and only in tiny quantities, you are missing a treat.  And two craft breweries have sprung up nearby along Niagara Stone Road:  Silversmith and Oast House… both producing delicious beer that makes them delightful additions to the wine tour.

Our artisans make excellent cheese, outstanding charcuterie, unique breads, and much, much more.  We are a region where “local” is hardly a restriction at all.  Of course, olive oil and citrus fruit are still out of reach (until global warming really gets rolling) so we will always have to go beyond our provincial borders for some of the things that make our meals enjoyable, but for those of us in Niagara, the semantics of local food are not awfully relevant.