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Archive for the ‘From The Wild’ Category

Episode 42 – Slow Food Edmonton

05.19.12

I’ve been involved with our local Slow Food convivium for a couple years now, and this year was an opportunity for Edmonton to play host to convivia leaders from across Canada, as well as delegates from Slow Food International for Slow Food Canada’s national meeting. What resulted was a rather epic adventure in food, as well as an unprecedented coming together of talented, inspiring food-people.

It was a rare occasion for me, who spends a lot of time advocating for regional ingredients like saskatoons, highbush cranberries, game meats, lake fishes, etc, to see the who’s-who of local chefs craft thoughtful and beautiful dishes to highlight what’s special to here. Although many celebrate regional ingredients on their menus, I’m pretty confident that the regional-food focus has never been so laser-precise, nor to this magnitude in Edmonton. Ever.

This edit condenses 4 days into 4 minutes. It by necessity excludes much of the goings-on around the enormous event, but hopefully gives you sense of some of the regional ingredients highlighted, and a look at how the local talent worked with them. If you’re interested in becoming a Slow Food member, you can sign up here.

Wild Asparagus

05.14.12

I’ve been looking forward to this for 9 months. Last August, while looking for mushrooms and saskatoons, I came across a patch of wild asparagus and since have been dreaming of a spring feed of asparagus I didn’t have to grow myself. That day has come. It’s worth noting that I am doubtful this is a native species of any kind, but is more than likely better described as a ‘feral’ asparagus. Some remanent of an old market garden or homestead in the river valley, or seeded by a bird. Or something. I don’t care. It’s giant, awesome, free, tasty asparagus.

The top left photo was today’s score. I’ve never harvested asparagus this thick. Ever. And my dad’s patch is about 20 years old – it’s got nothing on this. The thick ones are as broad as my thumb. Because they’re so giant, they add up fast. I only have a dozen or so, but I think 3 would exceed a normal portion of asparagus. The photo below is what they looked like May 3rd, taken on a forage I led for a crew of crazy-cool Slow Food Canada and Slow Food International folks. It was the first I saw them, so it wasn’t hard to get excited about it. That, and the vast majority of what we harvested was white, the soil around it being loose, and easy to dig down a bit to harvest it while entirely blanched. We ate them shaved and whole, raw, atop fresh eggs scrambled in beurre noisette and wild onion. I am looking forward to a pig out of today’s yield – I’ve been abstaining since last season.

No, I will not tell you where this patch is. But I can tell you that there are other patches around the river valley, and legend is they are even more prolific.

Episode 40 – Wild Onion

04.20.12

I found and wrote about this patch of wild onion in August, and all winter long it’s been in the back of my mind. The long stretch of lack of fresh, green flavors would be abruptly broken by the reappearance of this lovely piece of culinary geniusness. This particular one is allium senescens, its common name ‘german garlic’. I have a hard time comparing it to anything garlic as it strikes me nothing like it. It’s more like the offspring of a one-night-stand of nodding onion and wild chive. Nodding onion, to date, has been the clear winner in the kitchen for allium awesomeness. I think it has a competitor now, as A. Senescens is like nodding onion on steroids. I’m going to have to do some side-by-side comparisons.

Not all allium are safe to eat, by the way. One of the perks of going foraging often is I’d been in this area often enough to be there to see it bloom, positively ID it when it was, so that I was extremely confident come spring what I was looking at exactly. As always with wild food, it’s important to do some considerable homework prior to trying a bit of something. But that homework shouldn’t be a deterrent to learning about and tasting it, that’s for sure. Although a star now because it’s so early, this guy will be in season throughout the summer, so I can visit it regularly as the other greens, mushrooms, and fruits come into season.

Excavating Shaggy Parasol Mycelium

04.20.12

When we bought the property we’re now on I started digging up lawn almost immediately. What once was 99% lawn is now maybe 5-10% lawn. I’ve become pretty adept at destroying lawn. 5 years ago, when I started digging up soil that looked like that in the photo [currently excavating for the big-ass wood oven project] – white, granular, entirely different in texture – I thought it had something to do with the previous owners having a dog. I thought it was dog-poo-destroyed soil. Proof, once again, that I’m not always right.

As it turns out, the white stuff is mycelium [mycelia plural more appropriate?] of the shaggy parasol [lepiota rachodes] mushroom. It’s the vegetative part of the fungus that grows in the soil, the ‘mushroom’ bit we think of being the fruit. This white fuzzy, mold-looking stuff permeates the soil, decomposing things, and fruiting when and where it reaches some critical mass. The fruiting locations almost seem random to me in my yard, often fruiting a good 12-14′ feet away from where it fruited last. So far, I’ve dug out 2-3 wheelbarrows full of soil heavy in mycelia. I’ve been dumping it in other areas of my yard, covering it up, with hopes that it will produce more mushroom fruiting. I already get mushrooms in my front ‘forest garden’ due to having moved similar soil there in past years.

It strikes me as odd that me, of all people, happened to have purchased a property whose soil was rich in edible wild mushroom. Strange, no?

My Food-onomics

04.13.12

My diet is probably the most localized of anybody I know. Some come close, but let’s use me as the example. If I’m Mr. 95+% local food diet guy, and local, good quality foods are by your definition the most expensive foods, I should then have the highest food cost of anybody I know. But the facts are, the opposite is true. Our family’s food budget works out to about $400/month. That’s for a family of 5 [kids 5, 3, 1], which per person works out to $80/person, $2.66/day, or less than $1/meal per person. Thems is the facts.

How? I’m headed there, bear with me a bit. It’s critical to point out here that we’re eating the top quality ingredients we can find here too. Rather than buying my meat at Walmart, I’m buying the best quality pasture raised stuff I can find. Rather than eating veg bred for withstanding transportation, I’m growing those with the best flavor I can find. We even fit in buying organic grain in there – I think if more folks learned the difference between conventional grain farming and organic grain farming, they’d make that leap too.

Which leads me to an important point: the marginal cost of upgrading. Having visited an organic grain farm and concluded that I didn’t want to feed my family conventionally raised grain, I found a local supplier [Sunnyboy and Highwood Crossing for unbleached white flour] that was selling organic flour for $32/20kg bag. I could buy conventional at a box store for $13 or so. So I was multiplying my food cost 200-300% on grain. This seemed illogical to my inner cheap-ass, but then I looked at the bottom line. If we go through 3 bags a year, I was spending $39 before. Going organic would cost $96. A year. So $63 more per year. That’s $5 of my $400 monthly food budget I’m happy to spend to upgrade. Think about some of the things you spend $5/month on. Parking meters maybe? Those same ‘upgrading’ economics apply to many other items, including meats. And for the record, our budget affords us buying heritage organic whole-grain flours from Gold Forest Grains too.

A quick look at inflation and seed cost. My grandma’s 95. She was born in 1917, before the end of WWI. I’m sure a bunch of carrots at the market, if they were there at all, were a few cents. Seed cost would have been fewer cents. Almost a century later that bunch of carrots at a farmers’ market, $5, say. When I’m a senior, it will likely be $10-20. And I’m not begrudging the farmers those prices – they have to pay for their time to feed you. But the seed cost remains pennies. In fact, if you save seed [and Monsanto doesn't sue you for intellectual property theft, that is], seed can still be free. As time passes, I’m convinced the economic value of seeds will become more and more obvious to the average consumer. The spread of end-product cost and seed cost is growing. I’m doing more and more seed saving. Did I mention the free part?

So I’ll cut to the chase on a few items. Let’s start with fruit and veg. Because we pick fruit until we can pick fruit no more with Operation Fruit Rescue Edmonton in the fall – saving fruit on the tree or bush that would otherwise get hauled to landfill – our fruit cost has fallen to essentially zero. And no we don’t need to eat apples all winter. Our freezer’s full of sour cherries, black currants, raspberries, apples, apple juice, and more. You could argue that I have to include my cost of gas to harvest fruit, but I’d argue that I don’t, because you wouldn’t include your cost of gas to go to the box store to buy the stuff.

Our annual seed budget for veg is about $100, and I could easily tighten that up if I felt it was necessary. So yes, that $100 bill pays for enough vegetables to feed our family for the year, year round thanks to cold frames and my root cellar [also economical to build]. So substantially all of our fruit and veg for the year costs a whopping $100 or so.  ’But I live in a condo downtown and don’t have a garden‘, say you. Your solution is the Edmonton Organic Growers’ Guild - you can take the LRT to the UoA farm, spend some afternoons and evenings pitching in, and they get grants to pay for seed and tools, so your organic veg is free. There’s that word again: free. And would you believe they’re actually looking for people to take them up on this deal?!?

I’ve done beef-onomics and pork-onomics for years. When I first started buying whole animals, I was highly motivated to figure out if that big expense up front worked out in the end. Turns out for pork that no matter how I spin it, it works out to about $2.25 a lb, give or take a dime or so. Keep in mind, this is pastured, low-density, antibiotic+hormone free, happy pig, and I can shake the hand of the farmer I buy from. Box store pig isn’t any of those things. Yet my $/lb works out to less than the box store. Yes, less. I’ve done the math. So top quality meat for less than box store prices. The catch: you have to actually buy and use a whole animal [ie, not just eat its tenderloin or boneless skinless breast], and spend some time processing it yourself. And therein lies the rub. Time.

Most folks, when I start talking about food economics, will grab ‘time’, and toss it in my face. ‘You must spend every waking hour growing, processing, and preparing your own foods‘, say they. Anybody that knows me knows that’s not true. For example. It takes me 2 hrs to take a side of pig and break it down. That’s wrapped, packed, in a freezer, cleaned down. Folks will spend 2 hrs watching a movie and think nothing of it, so I’ll take that to mean 2 hrs is not a big time commitment. Harvesting apples [did I mention free?] in the fall can be done at a rate of about 100 lbs/hr, say. If you buy apples at the market for $2-3/lb say, than the economic value of your time is $200-300. Per hour. Not a lot of time, but even if it was it’s an economically efficient use of it, even if you get paid a whole lot at your day-job.

But even if it did take a lot of time, I’ll argue til the end of the earth that perhaps we should start to be okay with spending more time handling our own food. Call me crazy. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I’ll still get those telling me they have NO spare time, AT ALL. Not one single day on a weekend a year. I think that’s dysfunctional and more is required than a reinvention of your food life. So long as folks own TVs, there are some spare moments in the week. If you’re that person that’s so strapped they need to figure how to best utilize those few precious spare hours per calendar year to maximize their food budget – email me or let me know in the comments. I’ll be happy to help you. But before you fear the time commitment, ask those that do it – grow, process, harvest, cook, and otherwise spend time with their food, and they’re likely to tell you it’s a wholesome, productive, happy-making ‘work’. A therapy of sorts. It’s good for the brain. It’s good for the health. It’s good for the pocket-book.

Willing to share your food budget? Any food items you haven’t found an economical solution for?

Late-season Whitefish

03.17.12

WhitefishI’ve been a busy boy lately, so much cool stuff that I’m having a hard time keeping up. But I couldn’t not post about some lovely fish we caught today after a long day on the ice. Not much action, but any day taking home fish is a good day for me, no matter how meagre the success. A perk to ice fishing I really do enjoy is the shooting the shit [can't do that when hunting so much], sharing some food and drink, etc – very social + you’re fishing.

I’m still enamoured with the whitefish. I had zero experience with them, despite having fished in Alberta my whole life. Just not in the lakes that had whitefish, apparently. I love their prehistoric salmon-esque look. They’re the best white fish there is for smoking as it’s oilier than perch or pike. And recently a friend and I did up some whitefish, scaled, skin-on, fried until the skin was crispy and it’s my new favorite. Lovely stuff.

Ice fishing season is coming to an end, quickly. In a couple weeks the season’s closed, and the lakes are already getting mucky around the edges, despite the 2-3′ of ice we fish on – the ice auger I was using today was up to the handles today before breaking through to water. Today was the first time ice fishing that the Canada geese were flying and honking about, a sure sign that winter is about to let go, and it’s on to growing season again.

Episode 34: Caviar?

03.06.12

It is ice. And it is a hole.

One day, a biologist will explain to me why it is that when ice fishing, the vast majority of your catch are females, or ‘hens’. As an example, the last day I had a bunch of perch in my kitchen sink, 9 out of 9 were female. So what, you ask? Well what this means to me is that I have a surplus of roe. I’ve been cooking it, mostly, then realized that perhaps I am missing the boat on converting it into something unique and special: caviar. As I’ve since learned, caviar is simply brined fish eggs. That’s pretty simple. Most recipes online [Hank's got a nice post about caviar] were from trout or salmon roe. Perhaps freshwater fish roe would suck? Nope. I’ve had Golden Caviar [Whitefish caviar]. You can buy it commercially. I had to try it.

Turns out one of my favorite ice fishing spots is a mile or two away from Doef’s Greenhouses [Ep. 33]. I shot these two episodes in the same morning. A morning I will not soon forget, as I learned that hauling all my fishing camp gear and all of my camera gear for a km or two in deep snow is not a very good idea.

So I made up a 5% brine, threw it into my ice fishing bucket, and set out to give it a go.  I’d read that you should do it with super-fresh eggs. I can attest to the fact that they do deteriorate rapidly under refrigeration. Subsequent concept: go catch a fish with a DSLR on record, then kill and de-roe the fish right then and there on the ice. Can’t get much fresher than that. If you want to give this a go, you might want to read up on freezing freshwater fish prior to eating a raw preparation, so you can manage any bug-risks yourself. I’ve done my homework. So how was it? Watch the video.

Crispy Perch Roe

02.25.12

Perch

Some Grant MacEwan University students were at my house the other day doing a photo doc about me, and my dad showed up with a box of 9 perch he’d caught. One of them was a giant 14.5″ long [the fish, not the student], and weighed 830g. The roe sac in the thing was giant, filling my open hand. In fact, every single one of them was female, and I removed all the roe sacs, adding up to a whopping half-kilo+ of perch roe. That’s a lot of roe. What on earth was I going to do with that much roe.

The man who guided me last month for Episode 26, and as a consequence got me hooked on this ice fishing thing [I've gone every single week since then], suggested frying the roe until crispy. Sounded interesting – I’d only ever cooked roe until just done. Crispy things, generally speaking, are tasty. As it turns out, fish eggs take a long time to get crispy – but they do. They also pop all over, many an egg making an escape from the pan like popcorn might do without a lid. I recommend covering the pan with a screen. I added a bit of red  onion, salt, and it definitely benefited from some pepper. Happened to have some re-fried mashed potato to go with it, and those to things get along. Fried eggs and potatoes, outside the box. The cous-cous-like fish eggs kind of end up like a fried breadcrumb topping, which is very pleasant. I would do this again, but would love to try it when there are fresh chives, parsley, maybe some chervil in the garden to finish and toss them with. More roe R&D is on its way soon.

Crispy perch eggs on potato