My new nutmeg grater.*

There is always that glint in the eye when they reach the gadgets section. They finger the strawberry hullers, the cherry pitters, the green-bean slicers and plastic lettuce knives. They study the pineapple corers, the six different sizes of meatball makers and the 17 different graters, wondering which one they can reasonably justify as a purchase right now. No worries. There’s always something that’s a must-have.

They are the gadget freaks and I recognize them because I am one of them. It started many years ago when I bought a French parsley mill because I liked the look of it. I hardly ever used it for parsley but found it to be a dandy garlic chopper and used it that way for many years before it finally fell apart on me.

I’ve had to dial down my gadget-seeking gene, if only because there is no more space in my gadget drawers (yes, that’s plural!). But I could not resist this one; a knuckle-saving nutmeg grater that also acts as a round little storage bin for the whole seeds. (more…)

I was intrigued to see a story in the LA Times on wild strawberries which had a picture of the little berries that are just like ones that seem to be growing everywhere on our property. I pull them up like weeds, because they literally are a weed here.

They’re alpine strawberries — I called them yellow alpines, but the Times says they are white strawberries — that originally came from a gorgeous mixed planter someone gave me years ago. It had one alpine strawberry plant in it, a pretty little thing that produced lots of  small, fragrant sweet berries, most of which ended up eaten by birds or falling of the stems. Their peak, when they taste sweet and smell heavenly, lasts about a minute, as the Times story points out, and after that they become overripe and mushy. Picking them at their peak is a constant job that I’ve never really pursued with any vigour. When I see a few perfect specimens, I will pick and eat them right then and there and then forget about them. Maybe I should rethink my strategy.

The berries do not reproduce by runners, as standard strawberries do. Each berry is covered with tiny seeds and each seed can turn into a plant. Many did and I began to spread them out into their own little bed. The birds helped, too, as more and more strawberry plants began popping up in the strangest places all over our property.

Now they are everywhere and I have been pulling them out with great abandon. Maybe I shouldn’t be so hasty, if the Times story is right. These strawberries, because of their delicacy and flavour, are attracting the attention of chefs and other foodies, the paper says. The problem is that they are the devil to keep picking. So my dreams of a swell alpine strawberry business can have only one response: Dream on!

It’s just another example of the old saying: A weed is just a plant where you don’t want it. Go figure!

My favourite little Jossie with some of our chickens.

Having a flock of chickens in your backyard is the in thing this year. The New York Times recently ran a story in its weekend Magazine on women who call themselves femivores.

They embrace the life of their grandmothers and great-grandmothers, which is that of  a farm wife. But, god forbid! Do not ever call them that. They are femivores.

And the pinnacle of femivoredom is to have a flock of egg-laying chickens.

Yes, these are women described this way by NY Times writer Peggy Orenstein: “All of these gals — these chicks with chicks — are stay-at-home moms, highly educated women who left the work force to care for kith and kin. I don’t think that’s a coincidence: the omnivore’s dilemma has provided an unexpected out from the feminist predicament, a way for women to embrace homemaking without becoming Betty Draper.”

It’s all part of the trend of knowing where your food comes from. In Ontario, a battle is developing between those who let their chickens run free to grub for worms and fresh grass and those who mass-produce and market their eggs — those controversial caged hens who have never felt sunlight or  scratched real earth or felt the fear of a predator swooping down in search of a quick and tasty lunch — through the egg marketing board. The eggs laid by pastured hens just taste better (and I can vouch for that) say the customers who are willing to drive out of their way and  remember secret passwords to get those eggs, according to the Globe and Mail.

In Vancouver, the city council recently drew up a bylaw permitting every resident to have up to four laying hens in their backyards. It’s a “green” initiative which is a small part of that city’s attempt to support  something called “food security” — the ability of the populace to always have a guaranteed, nutritious food supply.

Does this sound crazy? Not to me. I’ve grown my own veggies and fruits for years, foraged for wild mushrooms, and now have chickens that lay a steady supply of eggs. Some day, we’ll try raising a pig. I adore eating good food, and these things keep me connected with where a lot of that food comes from. I am in love with the process as much as the end result. That’s not to say I am fearful or suspicious of imported food. I crave mangoes, and Asian fish sauce and fine coffee. I can’t do without my drawer full of exotic spices. And unique and well-made artisan foods from anywhere in the world are a temptation I often can’t resist.

But, femivore or not, I’m all for growing your own. More on how to actually go about starting your own little flock later. For now, there are eggs I must gather.

It’s raining today so there is a welcome break in my feverish attempts to get our two acres into reasonable shape. I had to crawl up the stairs yesterday after more than six hours of weeding and cleaning out the many beds around the property — a job that takes up most of the dry days at this time of year — but the old chassis is feeling just fine right now, thank you very much.

Everything is starting to look good, and the seedlings I’ve started under my new grow light — 12 kinds of tomatoes, three kinds of zucchini, several squashes, tomatillos and my summer favourite, sweet basil — are looking vigorous.

Most of those seeds were saved from last year’s harvest. All of the tomato plants are from seeds of heritage tomatoes I’ve tasted and decided I want to grown again, and the squash pictured here is some kind of Spanish variety that has dense flesh and very sweet flavour, so I saved a few seeds from it as well, along with kabocha, mini-hubbard and delicata seeds.

Unfortunately, most of the squash seeds I planted (and some seeds I had saved in open containers for spring planting) were raided by a mouse in our supposedly mouse-proof garden workshop.  Mr. Mouse met his own unfortunate end by trying to unjam a peanut we had stuck in a mousetrap placed under the table where the seedlings are. I only hope he isn’t part of a larger family, but just to make sure, more mousetraps are at the ready. And more squash seeds have been planted.

Saving seeds is not only economical. It’s also a way of helping our planet’s biodiversity. If you’re interested in finding out more, check out Seeds of Diversity where you’ll find “descriptions, stories, history, cultivation details, and real gardeners’ comments on 19,000  cultivars of Canadian garden vegetables, fruit, grains and  ornamentals”. That’s a whole lot of eating!

The site also lists all the fruit, vegetable and other food seeds for sale in Canada and who offers them. For example, there are 34 different kale varieties, more than 130 varieties of carrots, and more than 320 squash varieties (Mr. Mouse would have been ecstatic!), plus listings for oriental and specialty greens and vegetable seeds, quinoa, amaranth . . . the list goes on. Makes you hungry just reading through it.

Happy gardening!

Emeril 20-40-60: Fresh Food Fast

By Emeril Lagasse

Published by HarperCollins Canada 2009, $32.99; softcover, 257 pages

Emeril Lagasse has kicked up fast food quite a few notches here with his latest book, which focuses on dishes you can cook up in, yes, 20, 40 and 60 minutes.

The beauty of it all is that you are cooking something fresh and tasty, rather than digging into another bucket of chicken or tearing out a slice of takeout pizza. Even deli food doesn’t ever compare to something home-made because, quite frankly, who knows how long ago it was made.

Lagasse doesn’t take a lot of space yakking about non-essentials. The book is primarily one recipe after another and most sound pretty darn good and pretty easy to pull off. The recipes that take an hour require the time mostly for cooking, not for prep, so you can take care of all those millions of other things on your to-do list while dinner simmers.

I made the Oven-Crispy French Fries with Paprika-Parmesan Salt tonight and served them with lemon/roast tomato mayo as a side to roast salmon with braised greens. Delicous! I used a Creole seasoning mix I had in the pantry for the potatoes instead of  Emeril’s Original Essence. Sounds like a perfume, but it is actually one of countless Emeril products available on the market, though to give the man credit, he does provide a recipe for the mix, which I’ll include below. He calls for it in a lot of the recipes, so you know you are in for kicky flavour when it’s among the ingredients.

Starters, soups, salads, sandwiches, pasta, rice and beans, veggies, seafood, poultry, meat and desserts all get the Emeril treatment. Among those that sound tantalizing: Sweet Pea Soup using fresh or frozen peas with lemon, mint and spinach; Fish Tacos with Black Bean Salsa; Spicy Pork Stirfry with Green Beans; Potato and Turkey Hot Dog Soup with Herbs, okay, maybe not company fare but the kids will love it; Shrimp and Zucchini Fritters with Roasted Red Pepper Mayo; Spicy Pork Wraps with Creamy Coleslaw; Bacon Braised Green Beans; Crispy Pan Roasted Chicken with Thyme Butter; Glazed Radishes, an unusual side dish; Country Fried Steak with White Gravy, a southern comfort food; and Emeril’s New-Style Caldo Verde. None are particularly difficult and all promise big flavour.

Here are some recipes from the book, including the Emeril spice mix. (more…)

That extra-virgin olive oil you drizzle over your salad may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

In a recent Montreal Gazette story, reporter Susan Semenak says olive oil fraud is rampant throughout the world, as some importers and distributors cut the expensive queen of oils with much cheaper sunflower or other vegetable oils.

Last year, three Canadian importers and distributors of olive oil were convicted under the Canada Food and Drug Act. Among them was Toronto-based importer and distributor of Emma, Casa Italia and Cortina Foods brands which was selling olive oil labeled extra-virgin but found to be 50 per cent sunflower oil. Santa Maria Foods, also of Toronto,markets Mastro olive oil and was convicted of unlawfully importing oil labeled as extra-virgin olive oil that was, in fact, blended oil containing approximately 50 per cent sunflower oil, Semenak says.

How can you tell if you’re buying the real stuff? Well, price is usually a good indication. The cheaper the extra-virgin oil, the more suspicious you should be. Quality olive oil is expensive to produce and if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is, says Semenak.

She also offers tips on how to find the true liquid gold and what to look for when tasting an oil. The best olive oils are bottled at the estates where the olives were grown, she says.

Some of our multi-coloured eggs. Aren't they pretty?

We lost a chicken a couple of days ago, one of our best layers. She was also one of our biggest hens, with a crooked foot that didn’t seem to stop her from running with the rest of the flock whenever I came out to the meadow to throw them some scratch — chicken candy, we call it — or collard leaves culled from spring-tender plants in the garden.

A hawk got her, the second time we’ve lost a chicken to a predator. That’s not bad, considering our little flock spends all day foraging in a fenced but open-to-the-sky meadow that measures about half an acre.We are out in the country and large birds — hawks and eagles — are a common sight around here.

Over the four years we’ve had chickens, we’ve lost most of them to natural causes. We started with about 20 chickens, many given to us by friends who wanted to thin their own flocks, others bought from a hatchery, others still purchased at a livestock auction.We have four left from that original group.

The others have found their own way to that big meadow in the sky. We’ve had to slaughter several birds because they became egg eaters, a bad thing when you want the eggs but they have first crack (no pun intended) at them. Once they develop a taste, they become like addicts and can’t stop themselves. Others became sick – some kind of genetic chicken disorder – and died, while the others just reached the end of their life spans. Some chickens, they say, can live up to 10 years, while others lay big beautiful eggs almost non-stop for a couple of years, then keel over, because they are bred to lay big beautiful eggs, not live a long time. Nature is a stern taskmaster that way.

We added eight or nine Ameraucana chickens to our flock last  year. They are distantly related to a South American pheasant from whence they inherited their best trick: they lay blue-shelled eggs that look so pretty nestled in the carton next to the pale tan and darker brown eggs of their sisters. Their eggs are just like the others, once the shell is cracked. But when I first saw the blue-shelled eggs in a shop in Napa, Calif. a few years ago, I knew I wanted those chickens in my flock, too.

The chicken who fell victim to the hawk added even more to the rainbow in our egg cartons. She was part Ameraucana (blue eggs), part brown-egg layer and we got her by trading a rooster we didn’t want. I am not yet good at scientific chicken names, so bear with me. Her genes gave her the ability to lay eggs that were bluish-green. We have one bluish-green egg layer left, now — also traded for a rooster — so I am trying to find another.

All our chickens give us eggs that taste wonderful. We sell the surplus when they are laying full-tilt and people tell us they love our eggs. Their little kids complain when the supply dries up — usually in the darkest depths of winter — and they have to make do with store-bought eggs.

But it’s the colours I love to see when I go out to check the nesting boxes. So pretty. It’s like Easter every day. Now, if I could only get rid of the wild bunny that sneaks into my flower beds and eats the pink lupines . . . Where is that hawk when I need him!

You don’t have to be Irish to enjoy a green beer on March 17.

St. Paddy’s Day usually revolves around good cheer, good  food — and of course, good drink. Check out these 15 St. Patrick’s Day recipes in this week’s LA Times food section, among them marinated wings, lamb chops with mint pesto, beer-battered shrimp, Irish soda bread, corned beef and cabbage, and Irish bread pudding with whiskey caramel sauce. Sounds like a party to me!

And if a mid-week bash isn’t in the cards for you, Saturday is the spring equinox, another good reason to celebrate.

Enjoy!

Bill Jones in the Deerholme Farm kitchen

Want a taste of the good life? It’s only a ferry ride away.

Consider: Baked Cortes Island oysters with locally foraged morel and leek gratin. Seared Qualicum scallops over  pork belly and stinging-nettle casserole. Flat bread with spectacular B.C. spot prawns and handmade cheese spread. Grass-fed beef-tenderloin carpaccio with roast garlic and Saltspring’s Moonstruck blue cheese.

The above dishes are on the cooking-class menus in the coming months at Deerholme Farm Cooking School in Vancouver Island’s fabled Cowichan Valley. Most — if not all — the foods cooked and served in the 1918 heritage farm’s updated kitchen are from nearby farms, fishers, cheesemakers, and bakers.

Jones checks out planting beds at Deerholme.

The greens and other veggies are from Deerholme’s own planting beds, just a stone’s throw from the kitchen. And the eggs that might make their way into the desserts and other dishes are from several varieties of heirloom chickens that happily cluck, scratch and pick away at any bug or worm silly enough to cross their paths at Deerholme.

“My favourite is the Ameraucana which lays those beautiful blue-green eggs. They also . . . have thicker, deep yellow-orange yolks — great for making custards and ice cream,” says Deerholme owner Bill Jones.

Aside from its heritage status, the kitchen also boasts wall ovens and a sink from the late James Barber’s Urban Peasant set. Barber was a neighbour and good friend of Jones, who spent three years restoring and updating the kitchen before he began holding cooking classes in 2005.

Jones, a French-trained chef, author of nine cookbooks, avid wild mushroom hunter, and wild plant expert is a champion of local and sustainable food sources. Jones fled the urban landscape of Vancouver 10 years ago to further pursue his passion for growing, foraging for and cooking fabulous food.

He is part of a vibrant food community in Cowichan that has helped turn it into a wonderful food and wine destination. His classes are mostly demonstration – with lots of sampling, so bring an appetite – but there are several hands-on classes too, one on dungeness crab (March 27)  and the other on wild salmon (June 5). A wild-foods class (April 24) includes a trek through nearby forests to hunt for morels.

Classes, which can accommodate up to 15 people, run from noon to 5 p.m., and cost $90 for most sessions (hands-on and specialty classes cost more). Here’s a list of what’s coming up this spring:

March 20, Island Spring Seafood, including salmon, scallops, octopus, oysters and crab — all from local waters.

April 17, Morel Mushrooms find their way into tarts, alongside pate, on salads and stuffed with several other delectables. It promises to be a good year for this prized mushroom, says Jones.

May 22, Asparagus and Spot Prawns, two of B.C.’s best spring-time foods, done five different ways. Spot prawns, sweet and wonderfully succulent, were once caught and immediately shipped offshore to eager palates in places like Japan. Today, thanks to a concerted effort by a number of B.C.’s top chefs, the prawns are made available to locals as well. It’s food for the gods.

June 19, Pasture-raised Meats, including chicken, beef, pork, duck and lamb. Taste the difference and learn how to bring out their best flavours.

More details at 250 748-7450, or check out deerholme.com, or email bill@magnorth.bc.ca.

Well, it is still winter, according to the calendar, so what better way to spend a damp and gloomy Sunday than in the kitchen whipping up something sweet or savoury —  or both. Here are some ideas from some of our favourite newspaper food sections.

Although we’ve had a great kick of spring already, not everyone has been similarly blessed. Noelle Carter of the Los Angeles Times had a hankering for something smoky recently, but the weather down there has been unusually wet and stormy so there’s not much happening in the way of outdoor grilling.  I know, I know, we here in the True North grill year round — sun, rain, sleet or snow. But those delicate Angelinos melt at the first sign of moisture. Their solution? Indoor smoked baby back ribs,  scallops, pork belly and game hens. Check out Carter’s recipes and methods for each.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has several suggestions for whiling away the afternoon by indulging  your sweet tooth. Think sweetened  condensed milk, not really a North American gourmet staple but beloved in South America and Asia for desserts and drinks. As kids in Holland, we had the sticky sweet stuff smeared as thickly as possible on bread. I stopped eating this a long time ago, but was reintroduced to SCM by a Mexican cook who used it to make a spectacular mango pudding (three good-sized, perfectly ripe, not-stringy mangoes, cubed; a can of condensed milk and a teaspoon or two of fresh lime juice whirled in a blender until smooth. Chill, serve with a splash of raspberry or other berry sauce and a dollop of whipped cream and wait for the applause).

Here, SCM is the base for coconut brigadeiros, Brazilian candies that owe their melt-in-your-mouth texture to SCM that’s cooked down until it’s thick and fudge-like. There are also dead-easy recipes for chocolate fudge and SCM ice cream.

Another NYT column I’ve recently discovered, New Staples, is in T, their online Sunday magazine. Merrill Stubbs, owner and founder of Food52, looks at great new ingredients  currently in vogue with creative cooks. Her column features vadouvan, a spice mixture I first heard about in San Francisco last fall (vadouvan is a fragrant mix of East and West, including dried onion or shallots and garlic  and “fenugreek, curry leaves and a host of warm spices that can include turmeric, cumin, cardamom, mustard seeds and cayenne”); using rendered beef fat for cooking; duck hearts on toast; and something called Buddha’s Hand, a highly aromatic, very unusual looking member of the citrus family.