Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Pump Up The Jam: Canning & Preserving With Perth County Kitchens

The only problem with local produce is... it's here, and then it's gone.

A mere two weeks ago, the Slow Food Sunday Market vendors Megen's Family Farm were selling truckfuls of beautiful asparagus to line-ups of appreciative consumers. The next week, alas, there wasn't a spear to be found.  

The tragic irony is that when seasonal produce like asparagus and strawberries shows up there is a tonne of it, but there is only so much you can eat!
Every summer, it's the same thing for me... one day I look up and there is no more asparagus, and a few weeks later there are no more strawberries. And I say to myself, Dang, I really should've preserved some. I could've enjoyed it all year round. This week, thanks to Perth County Kitchens, I did just that!

Perth County Kitchens is a fantastic initiative by my sister-in-food Laurie Knechtel (above right), who sources-out certified kitchen spaces in our county for two purposes: to connect people who want to process food for commercial purposes with Health Unit approved facilities, and to hold community cooking workshops for the young and old to learn new skills and revive lost arts. Previous sessions have included fun pizza-making workshops for kids, and artisanal breadmaking class for ambitious do-it-youselfers. All the classes are different, but the one thing they have in common is that they use local product and all participants learn about where the ingredients were sourced. This week's class was about pickling asparagus and making jars of strawberry preserves - all sourced from the aforementioned Megen's Family farm - and was led by home kitchen talent Bev Rock (above on left).
I first heard about Bev Rock from the reporting of Maureen Argon, another sister-in-food who is also a sister-in-blog (see her two pieces on preserving with Bev here and here). Bev attributes her talents as a canner and preserver to her family upbringing, "A lot of the methods I use I learned from my mother and grandmother." She even brought along her grandmother's handwritten notebook with all of her secret family recipes (I snuck a peek, above).

The class was sold out, which made it easy for us to break into three groups and pump out three different types of strawberry jams: plain strawberry, strawberry rhubarb, and gooseberry strawberry (the rhubarb and gooseberries both came straight from Bev's garden!).

In between the strawberry and asparagus sessions we all took a break and enjoyed some jam on fresh baked bread Laurie had picked up from the newly-opened Your Local Market Co-op.

Laurie sourced out what had to be some of the last asparagus of the season from the Megens.

Bev showed us how to make pickled asparagus by placing them in a vinegar brine with green garlic from nearby August's Harvest, dill, and mustard seeds.

We made jars of pickled asparagus using the longer spears, as well as a bunch of jars using the smaller pieces that were trimmed off so the spears would fit in.

Everyone went home with three jars of strawberry jam (one of each kind) and three jars of pickled asparagus. 

Besides the learning experience, and the practical benefit of being able to eat this precious seasonal and local food in the middle of winter if I want, the best part of the Perth County Kitchens experience for me was making new friends and spending time with fellow food lovers, working together to create something special. Perth County Kitchens really puts the "community" in "community kitchens", and I look foward to the next opportunity to take part in more of the sessions Laurie will be coordinating in the future. One of the best ways to keep yourself in the loop for upcoming classes is to follow Perth County Kitchens on Facebook.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Chef Denis Cotter: For the Love of... Veg

I have a confession to make.

I'm a closet vegetarian. Or, more accurately, I generally don't eat meat.

Right now, a lot of my regular readers are probably like, "Uh, aren't you the guy who's spent the last year telling us all about your joyous experiences eating: duck, lamb, beef, waterbuffalo, venison, chicken, pork, wild boar, caribou, muskox, seal, walrus, whale, elk, and pheasant?!? You sell heritage breed pork to raise funds at the market every week! Dude, you ate horse!!!"

OK, OK. I did all that. But I did it for the culinary experience and to celebrate our local farmers and chefs, not as part of my everyday lifestyle. Don't get me wrong, I really, really appreciate a nice cut of sustainably-raised local meat cooked properly by an expert. But when it comes to cooking at home on a day-to-day basis, the Stacey kitchen is free of meat. 

[Other than fish, which, yes, I realize is not a vegetable, and which, yes, I know disqualifies me from being anything near a true vegetarian.].

When I'm cooking from the heart - at home for my family and friends - I'm cooking vegetarian, and so I was so delighted to get my hands on For the Love of Food - Vegetarian Cooking from the Heart, a cookbook by one of Stratford's most luminous culinary (and literary) talents - Chef Denis Cotter - who's renowned in his home country of Ireland as one of the best vegetarian chefs in the British Isles.

Chef Cotter, whose Cork vegetarian restaurant Cafe Paradiso is a perennial favourite among the Top 100 Best Places to Eat in Ireland, now has a total of four cookbooks to his name. His books (which include Cafe Paradiso Cookbook, Paradiso Seasons and Wild Garlic, Gooseberries... and Me) are really great reads as well as wonderful resources for creative, colourful and diverse vegetarian recipes and ideas.

Last week, Revel Caffe was host to the Canadian launch of Denis Cotter's heartfelt new book. Before signing copies, he gave a speech that included the announcement he's recently gained his permanent residency status here in Canada!

Those of us who attended the book signing were treated to a selection of really tasty dishes from the book as well as special recipes Denis is saving for books-to-come.

The superlative "Best Cheese On Toast In the World" Chef mentions in the video was, well... the best cheese on toast in the world (especially accompanying a champagne toast, above).

Fellow Revel Caffe regular Sam was offering savoury beet mini-tarts. Edible trivia fact: did you know in Ireland what we call 'beets' they call 'beetroot'? And that no matter what you call them they go great in a pastry tart topped with local goat cheese?!?

Revel Caffe owner/food lover Ann Campion (above) was serving my favourite dish of the night, a perfectly seasoned fried chickpea-flour-bread dish called Penelle (check out the Cafe Paradiso's website where the recipe for this beautiful appetizer is the June 2011 Recipe of the Month).

I can't wait to try out some of the recipes from this from-the-heart book. Now that we're in the middle of asparagus season, I think I'm going to try the Grilled Asparagus with Poached Eggs & Avocado-Cherry Tomato Salsa (pg. 36). Or maybe I'll try Love Soup (pg. 108)... Chef Denis (particularly well known around here for leading a Stone Soup collective cooking workshop at the Savour Stratford festival in 2009) shares the Italian Bread Soup recipe he uses to express his love for food and for his Canadian soulmate:

I like to think that the chef is a medium between the produce and the diner, but it is certainly true too that the chef adds part of his or her own love of their role in the process.
To cook with the same devotion to someone you love is a humbler act. It is focused on one very precious person and what you think will bring them pleasure or soothe their troubles. When that comes off, there is no punching the air or high-fiving, but a profound communion of two souls. 
Over a bowl of soup, no less.

Signed copies of Chef Denis Cotter's latest book are still available at Revel Caffe. Once they're sold out, you should head over to Callan Books on York Street in Straford to get a copy of this wonderful work of writing, photography and culinary creativity.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Slow Food Sunday Market Goes... To Market Square, Where Else?!?

Almost exactly a year ago, Slow Food Perth County was invited by Ruth Klahsen of Monforte Dairy to start a market in the back lot of her new artisan cheese factory location. The Slow Food folks didn't hesitate to take her up on her offer, and in late spring, 2010, the Slow Food Sunday Market was created to connect our community with local growers and artisans who exemplified Slow Food's 'Good, Clean and Fair' principles.

It was (I guess appropriately) 'slow' at first.

But then, as the summertime weeks went by and the produce started coming out of the ground, the market started generating a little more attendance. The market regulars knew they had stumbled upon something special - the only place in town where they could get Monforte Dairy sheep and goat's milk cheese, Soiled Reputation Farm's unparalleled greens, starter plants and herbs from Tim at Creton Farm, heirloom seeds and produce from Anything Grows, sprouts from Kawthoolei Farm, smoked offerings from Koert Organics, treats from Lindsay's Bakery, Erbcroft Farm Lamb, and Perth Pork Products - all in the same trip!

As winter approached, the loyal Slow-Food-loving marketgoers started to lament: "What will happen when winter comes and the market goes away?!?"

Then, like the true local food heroes they are, Rick and Allan from Anything Grows stepped up and rescued the market, offering to relocate it to their garden/food store's historic cellar on St. Patrick Street (formerly the site of Stratford's original brewery).

The Slow Food Sunday Market really thrived in its winter home. It became a destination where a lot of people just came to hang out and drink coffee and chat... usually about food. My kind of place. The roster of vendors expanded to include the Stratford Urban Farming Experiment's fresh baked bread,  Feed Your Body's vegan creations, one-of-a-kind handmade greeting cards from Barb's Cards, and sustainable fish and seafood from Simple. Fish and Chips.

What next? It was only natural that the Slow Food Sunday Market would finally reclaim the historic Market Square (behind Stratford's City Hall) as a place for the community and its visitors to come together to access great food and enjoy our city's downtown space.

The dream of a Market returning to Market Square came to fruition on Sunday, June 5, 2011!!

The new market was piped-in with majestic style by the Stratford Police Pipe and Drum band:

The market continues to grow in its vendors. Sara from Nourish Whole Food Nutrition was serving-up spectacular rhubarb smoothies, and nearby Megen Family Farm literally sold a truckload of beautiful seasonal asparagus (next they'll have strawberries!):

Shawn Hartwell from Simple. Fish and Chips had some support from a giant local chicken who was very persuasive telling folks to consume more sustainable fish (and therefore less chicken!):

Antony "The Singing Farmer" John (aka Soiled Reputation's Manic Organic) was belting out the classics to the delight of the massive crowd that showed up for the historic event:

All I can say is: What a day! And many more to come - the market will be running downtown every Sunday from 10am to 2pm all the way until October 30!

I am so unbelievably proud to be part of a community like Stratford and a group like Slow Food Perth County, who have put food back where it belongs: in the heart of our city!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

I'm game for grillin'!

Finally, it looks like summer barbeque season has arrived!

Last Saturday I really got into the grillin' spirit when I attended a cooking demonstration at Turnbull & Stewart (Erie Street's kitchen equipment oasis). Here in Perth County we are blessed with a diverse selection of local proteins, including pasture raised heritage pork, beef and lamb, as well as more exotic meats like elk, wild boar, waterbuffalo, pheasant and duck. I've found that as a rule the more unique a product is the more challenging it is to cook properly, so I was glad to receive a delicious crash course in cooking high quality meat on the BBQ from a chef who really knows his way around a grill!

Ian McArthur is chef/owner of Food At Your Fingertips here in Stratford. He is an experienced caterer who also sells a really great line of his own creative soups at the Stratford Farmers Market every Saturday. He's also a huge fan of Perth County producers, "I think most people don't know how lucky we are here. We're just a stone's throw away from all these great products." As he seasoned and seared off some of the cuts he was about to grill for us, he explained his preference for wild and heritage breeds:

Ian shared with us some of the tricks pros use when cooking with these precious products. Carry-over cooking is when you take what you're cooking off two donenesses lower than what you're after, and then take it off the heat and let it rest while it continues to cook and absorb all of its juices. He also showed us all a great method for cooking a leg of lamb on a cedar plank.

I have to say I've never seen anyone more enthusiastic about local lamb than Ian. He told us all about how he was matched up with Erbcroft Farm to create a lamb dish for a recent fundraising event, and he found the meat to be so sweet it was a revelation: "It changed my life. It was by far the best lamb I've ever dealt with." I have to say I'm a big fan of folks like Chef Ian, who view sublime food experiences as ecstatic, life changing epiphanies.
After we all enjoyed some of the sweet/smoky cedar-planked lamb with a glass of Ontario red wine from Pelee Island Winery, Ian moved on to serve us a grilled tenderloin of heritage Tamworth pork from Perth Pork Products that was incredibly moist - a firsthand demonstration of the value of resting meat.

As a condiment for the pork was a Bobotie chutney Ian made, which was through-the-roof tasty. Based on the national dish of South Africa, it had all sorts of fruit like raisins and apricots and a really complex-yet-harmonious mix of East Asian/Middle Eastern/Mediterranean spices and flavours. Erbcroft lamb changed Chef Ian's life... well I think my first taste of Bobotie changed my life. I made sure to sign up for the follow up Turnbull & Stewart newsletter where we'll get all of the recipes for the food we'd tried that day.

The final dish was a particular favourite of mine (I'm a fan of game meat). The duck breasts Ian sourced for the workshop were phenomenal (they had to be about three inches thick!), and he cooked them to perfection. 

One of the best elements of the dish was the "Honey Hot" barbeque sauce produced by another Stratford BBQ legend, Victor of Vittorio's Sauce.  This sauce was developed specifically for poultry, and has a Chinese Barbeque recipe that is just the right amount of both heat and sweet. I am really looking forward to the Stratford Blues and Rib Fest taking place on June 24-26, which multi-BBQ-award-winning Victor is helping to organize. In Stratford you can of course find Vittorio's Sauces at... Turnbull & Stewart!

I came away from the informative and flavour-filled afternoon with a better idea of how to bring the best out of the amazing local farm meat products here in Perth County. I know Chef Ian knows where to find Erbcroft Farm lamb and Perth Pork Products every Sunday - we've seen him at the Slow Food Sunday Market all winter at Anything  Grows. I'm sure we'll see him this Sunday, when the market moves outside to Market Square behind City Hall for the very first time! 

Just in time for BBQ season!