Thursday, May 30, 2013

Birth of a Farmer's Market: Fairmount Park

It is spring time. Late into spring in Toronto is the time when farmer's market sprout from local parks. In the last few years, I have been lucky to see East Lynn and Leslieville start their markets. Now, a place closer to home has carefully planted the seeds at Fairmount Park.

Farmer's Markets done in this way still feel a little odd to me. I grew up in a rural area where most people grew their own food and traded and gave away their excess. The definition of excess was quite fluid as people would can, freeze and store as much as they felt they would use over the winter.

When I got my driver's licence and ventured into cottage country further south, road side stands advertised blueberries, corn, peaches, watermelons and pumpkins. Further afield, road side distractions like the Big Apple and various corn mazes and haunted house specials made the farm into a bit of an amusement park atmosphere. There were still times in late fall and early spring where you could stop at these places and see the storefronts dwarfed by the fields and not be drawn in by people watching.

Moving to Ottawa, I encountered traditional farmer's markets where produce is invariably trucked in from nearby farms to the Byward Market, and in Toronto, St. Lawrence Market. Some of these market's have been around since the beginnings of the city and even beget permanent places such as Atwater in Montreal and the St. Lawrence Market South.

A funny thing has happened from the early days of local farmer's bringing in their wares. Big agriculture is one of the trends that has caused people to become divorced from their food with the advent of the foodie culture pulling the other way. This is the tension that shows in every market in this city.

Each step away from the traditional roots of farming brings me more removed from the ideal of growing your own food. Now my circle of friends in their 30s to 50s show their punkness by razing and renovating, growing gardens and making meals. This is their way of giving it to the man. There is a note of privilege that is missing from my formative days in that we can afford to buy organic/local produce. We try to reduce the money that we give to Galen and his testament that farmers will kill us.

Caution and sanity must reign in the way that it did not work out for the hippies who were too naive and didn't think beyond the currency of their movement. There is a 90s jaundiced view of the whole system that realizes that we are both a part and apart of it. Some try to minimize impacts on mother earth or maximize the food and nutrition they eat.

So, local used to mean within a certain limit to the city that was understandable. The CFIA has changed local to mean anywhere within a province or 50km of that province. Should local matter in this day and age? Now that we have modern refrigeration  and food processing, is there any reason to care? Well, no and yes. That would be a blog post on its own. In short, local means that you have an accountable person rather than a company behind the food you are eating and you are supporting a local community. It also tends to cost more for smaller productions with higher labour costs.

Organic is one of the other touchstones. There is still great debate on whether an organic system could feed everyone. Another blockbuster of an issue that I will just gloss over for now. Biodynamic systems have come a long way and we are still trying to figure out the differences between older subsistence farming methods, "traditional" or conventional farming and organic or biodynamic farming. Sometimes, we realize that we haven't come as long as we had hoped with science. This is one of those areas - food and nutrition is such a black art.

Anyways, Fairmount Park on their first try out shows some of these dynamics at play. Taking a look at their list shows  organic producers, farmer's who were already cultivating hothouse produce, greenhouse sprouts and organic plants. Alongside these, there were local meat producers, restaurants, music studios, small food products and others. It was to good to see some farmer's there but the ratio is a little off. I am sure that if this becomes a weekly event then the ratio will be better as it will provide more than a one-time offering for farmers.

What I got.

I overheard a conversation of a couple of friends who seemed to realize that the public park was their park. They started talking about other parks that had implemented a pizza oven and a community dinner. These types of conversations happen when public spaces become community spaces. History shows us that we do have to be careful, after all it is the tenth anniversary of Yonge Dundas Square which has become more commercial than intended. We don't want it to become any old circus but rather the circus that we choose. Good job on the first market. I hope this continues, selfishly, as it is so close to home and gives me grist for my blog.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Beer/Mead Vinegar Experiment #2

So, before I get going on what happened this time around with trying to turn beer and mead into vinegar, there are the links below to check out.

What lead me to try it and the setup of first experiment
Update #1
What the hell went wrong?

For those that haven't bothered to read the above, a quick recap. I tried to make vinegar from three different pots of brew that I had laying around: mead, a high alcohol hoppy mix (DIPAs and other stuff) and a malty lower alcohol mix of stouts and other ales. The first time I tried with these same mixtures, I got mixed results that didn't quite work. The chief problem was that there was only teaspoons of the remnants at the end of the period.

In order to address the problems or learning opportunities that occurred in the first experiment, I changed a few things. Firstly, I started with a lot more liquid. Each container was filled with at least 250mL of beer or mead. I took @RamblinRoadBeer's question about location and temperature and ensured that I placed the containers in a warmer environment. I also added a bit of mother from Bragg's Cider Vinegar that I had left after using it all up.

After a few weeks of leaving the whole mess alone, there was a more decided sour flavour to the three brews. It was well on its way but I had a few drops of scum on the bottom of a whiskey vinegar that I decided to add. Then, I forgot about it. Not really, but close enough. It stood in the cupboard above the dishwasher for a while.

After a few weeks, the mead was still sweet with a slight sour undertone. The malty one was not really turning and the higher alcohol one had no alcohol left. It tasted and smelled like vinegar. A vinegar with a decidedly malty taste, so much so that my wife did not like it. Huzzah! So, why the hell did it take me so long to write this up? Well, I have been lazy at doing the research to see why this happened and what I could do different next time. A book I picked up to read called Ideas in Food had a section on vinegar and got me thinking that I should write this up.

So, it turns out that there is an optimum alcohol content for making vinegar. It is in the 9 to 12 percent range. Explains why the strong beer mix turned. Also gives me an idea on how to fix the other two. The malty brew needs to have some alcohol added to convert to vinegar. Adding a neutral spirit should do the trick. If I wanted to have some type of flavour added to the vinegar, I could add gin, rye or whatever. That would lead to a whole other set of experiments. It also means that if someone gives me a nasty bit of alcohol, I will water it down and turn it into vinegar.

The mead has a different problem, It has a lot of sugar that is locked up in honey which is a natural preservative. You do want a certain amount of sugar to turn to alcohol and further convert but honey requires a little help. This means that I may have to add some yeast to start the conversion process or continue to add liquid and hope for wild yeast to make its way into the soupy, and murky mead. Haven't decided what to do yet but I think I'll try to convert it.

I'm really glad that I tried to do these in a more haphazard way than trying to follow a recipe. I now have a feeling for how these critters grow and live. There is some clear factors that make them happy. It makes me think that maybe I should start some type of vinegar pot but we will see.

Just as a last aside before I leave this experiment on the positive note, Ideas in Food will be my second book purchase for this year. For those of you interested in the science and experimental process of food and cooking, this has some really neat points of view and suggestions for techniques that will get you going. Now, I have one pot of alegar, the correct term for vinegar made with ale, and two almost pots to try some more ongoing experiments. Can't wait to see if the next tweaks result in vinegar or not.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Culling the Books

This morning, I finished reading a magazine from last year on food. The magazine was Creative Nonfiction Issue 41. Of course, it is from 2011. It was one of the first mags that I had bought to review for this blog but I never got around to it.

I read a few of the essays and only wish that some of my posts will read like these personal nonfiction essays. The best of the bunch was one that I posted in my twitter feed, How to Fix Everything. It was about the connection of food with memory and love. I don't really want to review this magazine but rather use it as a way to talk about letting go.

This past year was not a good year for me healthwise. Nothing major but the pains of getting old. My ankles seem to have some malady that makes it hard to walk for more than 2km or stand for a couple of hours in the kitchen without causing great grief the next day. Halfway through the farmer's market season last year, I walked the 1km home with too much stuff and brought out a lurking condition that is similar to Carpal Tunnel.  Sometimes it is hard to hold a knife or spend too much time with preparing a meal. My hands will go numb and turn into pins and needles that don't go away.

All this time away from the kitchen has made me look at my bookshelves differently. They groan with promise of cooking projects yet to be tried but now would be more trying. So, the cull begins. Firstly, I swept through the years of LCBO Food & Drink which I was able to do fairly quickly. The recipes are now on line and I usually only used the magazines for inspiration. It is always easier to find a number of different recipes for a named recipe but hard to find something that works with a half thought out menu. Other magazines also felt the scalpel. All that remains is fresh growth. Magazines either have to be used regularly or within the past year or so.

The problem lies with the books. Some recipe books sit on my shelf as companions to other books. Even though Russo and Lukins split from each other, their solo cookbooks still kept them together. I hardly used the books that came after the split. It was liking choosing sides in after a relationship has gone south. There was something as a couple that didn't exist afterwards and neither seemed particularly interesting. Now, these books will make their way to a cookbook swap, second hand store or thrift shop.

Other books were given as gifts. Some have made their way into rotation but others don't quite do it for me. The intention of the gift givers were good and they were definitely in the ballpark but as the days go on and the friendships dwindle or rage on, the book is secondary. It is not as if my friends will think less of me nor will they necessarily recognize or remember the book they gave. I have repaid them in food where food is my stand-in for love. I can some of these go.

The next set that are leaving are the ones that are currently the hardest to let go. My hands and feet are getting better but I am facing a slowdown in the kitchen. While I am only in my forties, I have to decide whether I want to be able to play with my kids in the park, go for a walk with my wife or continue to try and show my love in the kitchen. Maybe I'll return to the books filled with fascinating techniques when everything is better but there are some things that I must realize that I am probably not going to do. I am now becoming smarter with the culinary challenges that I take on. I need to judge how much wear this technique will cause or how much tear it will be to throw this type of party. I have started to let go of some of these things. It will make me a better person and a better cook. The simple, tasty dishes I make now are made more with love and dedication than any others I have made in the past.

Monday, May 13, 2013

How to Survive LCBO Strike as a Craft Beer Drinker

There are a number of strategies to survive the possible strike at the LCBO that may or may not begin on Friday before the May long weekend. This list, coincidentally, also follows the trajectory that many beer nerds follow in their ascent or descent into beerdom. Feel free to stop anywhere along this ladder. There is no shame here.

Level 1: Rookie
Description: Doesn't want to give big beer their beer dollars. May have a penchant for German lagers, Mill St., Hoegaarden or some crafty beers.
1. Go to a bar, any bar. Most will have Mill St. or some type of imported beer.
Drawback: Costs more than drinking at home
2. Beer Store. They'll have limited craft brews of questionable age.
Drawback: Well, big beer owns the Beer Store so you are giving some money to them. Also, a boost in profits might make them think that their model is still viable.

Level 2: Amateur
Description: Has a favourite style and beer region. Generally an ale lover who is aware of all the local breweries. Knows that fresh beer tastes good. Knows what a one-off is.
3. Go to a brew pub or brewery (Toronto, Ottawa, Kingston, Waterloo, ah, just click the link to Mom and Hops. They do a great job of keeping up to date.)
Drawback: They are location based. You have to go to the pub to drink or to buy their stuff and they are only allowed to sell their own. This means that there are a lot of places in Ontario that are out of luck.
4. Visit a beer forward bar. There are a shitload of bars in Toronto and I don't want to slight any of them. So just google it using search terms like best beer selection [insert city name here].
Drawback: See suggestion #1 above.

Level 3: Pro
Description: Knows where every bar that sells cask beer within 30 miles. Drinks to season. Local LCBO knows him on sight and they are on first name basis with at least three different bars. Knows the process for making beer.
5. Bottle Brews. Found these at IGA in the Beach in Toronto. There are several Italian grocers along the Danforth that have these around. I've tried the Mister Beer Brown Ale.
Drawback: It takes time for the brew to ferment and it isn't quite the major leagues. Decent brew for the price but definitely not as good as some of the seasonals.
6. Buy a kit. There are a few quality kits that will give you a chance to brew your own. A friend tried Brooklyn Brew Shop to an okay result.
Drawback: Sometimes you love beer and it doesn't love you back. Kits mileage varies.
7. Homemade Mead. The recipe is dead simple. Take honey, add water, yeast and wait.
Drawback: It's not beer and it takes a month at least.
8. Go to a U-Brew-it. Costs are reasonable. You go in and choose your style. Maybe you mess with the recipe. Takes a couple of weeks. I use Fermentations! but have used others in the past that didn't work out.
Drawback: Gotta have one near you and cede control to someone else. Not really brewing but brewing by proxy.

Level 4: Expert
Description: On first name basis and/or recognizes brewers, beer writers, bloggers and cicerones. Can name a bunch of one offs that later became permanent list items at the LCBO. Probably has a beer fridge and beer cellar. Prepares vertical tastings and thinks that most of the beeradvocate and ratebeer are full of shit.
9. Break out the equipment and books. How to Make Your Own Brewskis and Brooklyn BrewShops Beer Making Book are good ones to look at. I have also found a few at yard sales over the year. They may come in handy. Put places like Toronto Brewing or Brewmonger on speed dial. (Another google search for you. Home brewing supplies [insert your city here]
Drawback: House or garage smells like a brewery and some of the neighbours may be concerned.
10. Start your own nanobrewery, finally. Come on, you know you wanna.
Drawback: You will be committed and might have to be committed. Also, mooching friends.
11. Start growing hops.
Drawback: It will take three years.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Book Review: From a Polish Country House Kitchen

After reading Poland by Michener, which I still must review for all the food references, I decided that I would hunt up a Polish cookbook. In one of my feeds, this one came up, From a Polish Country House Kitchen: 90 Recipes for the Ultimate Comfort Food.  It is the result of the authors, Anne Applebaum an Danielle Crittenden, opening a country inn in Poland.

I had mixed feelings about this book. It seems that I share a similar background with one of the writers. Her family came over in the late 1800s and settled in USA. Mine came from 'Australia' and settled in Canada. I suspect it is really Austria giving the partition of Poland at the time.

The ingredients that are used in this book are definitely ones that I am used to such as: cabbage, venison, beets, plum, and mushrooms. Some of the preparations are decidely post WW2 with influences of the new Baltic states. Much of the same trepidation that I have with identifying with Polish heritage is the same issues I have with identifying with this cooking. 

Two issues in general. One is the fact that my family came over with a high number of Kashubs. Much of the dominant culture of the area that I grew up in has that aspect of a certain type of rural cooking.
The second issue is that the language my father spoke is considered Low Polish. It is also over 100 years older than the current language, so many Poles would not consider it Polish. Combine that with the fact that there were few Poles in the area that spoke this variant of Polish but rather Kashub and it muddies the waters. 

Still, when I started making friends with second generation Poles in Ottawa and Toronto, a lot of the same flavours and recipes are still familiar enough to leave echoes of longing. This leaves me with a few new recipes to try with familiar ingredients which I can share with my children.

There are many good recipes to try in the book but I was left with six that I wanted to try. Mustard soup just seems like a strong flavoured and nourishing soup. Another soup that caught my eye is the Sour Bread Soup. I have been playing around with rotting stuff for a while (beer and vinegar come to mind) and this starts out with souring bread and removing the green bits. I so want to try this. Dripped noodles is just that, some noodles made directly into broth. I like noodles a lot but am too lazy to make them. This recipe takes away that excuse. Red fruit salad uses fresh currants. I think it would work with chokecherries as well. It is just a sour and tartness that I like. There are a few more but this listing seems like a bit too much of self indulgence.

If you are interested in Polish food, there are probably other books that you could pick up but the pictures and stories in this one might make you want this one more. A lot of the recipes are interpretations but probably closer to a North American taste profile. This is not a real criticism as many of the headnotes speak about the way that these recipes were collected by watching or asking the people who cooked them how it was done. So many of them were done by feel or eye and that is what made this book appealing to me. Unfortunately, too many of these recipes and flavours are too familiar to me. However, for those just embarking onto a journey of culinarily visiting Poland, then this could be a nice stop at a country inn.