Halibut Cheek Curry made with Cow-Op Love

Every day, we count our blessings to be living here in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. This is a food zone and an agricultural oasis. Our neighbours have farm stands, cows amble in nearby pastures, tractors slow down Herd Road traffic and grapes course through vineyards framed by mountains and mist.  Bounty-filled farmers’ markets can be found all over the valley  but during these pandemic times, lines are endlessly long due to Covid protocol.

Luckily for those of little patience, we can shop online at the wondrous Cow-Op where an incredible catalogue of local items, from kale to duck liver paté to garlic seed bulbs are posted for purchase.

Due to the immediate freshness of these orders, local vendors update the site weekly with prepared, frozen or just-harvested items which go live on the site every Thursday until midnight Monday.  Orders can be picked-up in Duncan and Victoria, or delivered.

Once we’d picked up our first order, David and I were hooked. Thursday trips to Hope Farm in Duncan were a charm. The farm is littered with ramshackle chicken yards and coops, mountainous rows of kale and Brussels sprouts and a large, empty, funky old barn where we pick up our order.

In June, we walked off with a box spilling over with luscious heads of green butter and red oak lettuce from Lenora Bee Apiary and Farm, bags of freshly milled rye, Einkorn and Neepawa flours from True Grain and small bundles of chèvre and Tomme de Vallée from Haltwhistle Cheese Company.  After sourcing my order from freezers and refrigerators scattered through the cavernous barn, a Cow-Op staff pointed to a tray of heirloom tomato starts on the ground nearby.  “Take me home” said the sign and I walked away with a slightly forlorn, but not forsaken Mountain Merit  heirloom tomato seedling that is still producing on my back porch.

While Thursday afternoon Cow-Op pickups have become the highlight of this foodie’s week, I don’t always remember to put in my order by the previous Monday night deadline.

Last week I not only remembered but found food goddesses by my side as I gently defrosted a package of frozen Halibut Cheeks from Drift Meat and Seafood.

I had curry on the brain. It started with stained fingers after grating fresh turmeric then ginger. Fragrant wafts of onion and garlic filled the kitchen, heightened by whole cumin and fennel seeds thrown into the mix.  I found two ripe Mountain Merit tomatoes and another opportunity for my tomatillos that are growing like a rash through my beds right now.

Even though I’ve de-husked a hundred this fall, each and every tomatillo makes me smile.  Once their papery wrapping is off, these little green orbs have a sticky coating that adheres like glue until rinsed off. Tomatillos taste like unripe, green tomatoes with a twist of lime, perfect for these soft halibut parcels infused with the flavours of the Cowichan Valley. Thank you Cow-Op for bringing it all to the table.

Halibut Cheek Curry

Inspired by my purchase of frozen halibut cheeks at the Cowichan Green Co-op, this curry is also perfect for tilapia, sole, spot prawns, shrimp or scallops. The trick to great seafood is to cook it ever so lightly until just done.

2 tbsp coconut oil

2 tsp whole cumin seeds

2 tsp whole fennel seeds

¼ tsp cayenne

1 large onion, chopped

1 tsp ground turmeric or 2-inches fresh, finely grated

1 large garlic clove, minced

1 inch fresh ginger, finely grated

2 medium tomatoes, chopped

4 tomatillos, chopped

2 fingerling or small potatoes, chopped

1 cup water

4 halibut cheeks, aprox

1 tsp salt

Freshly ground pepper

¼-1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Heat oil in a large saute pan at medium high.  Add cumin, fennel and cayenne, cook 1 min. Add onion, turmeric, garlic and ginger and continue cooking until the onions soften.  Add tomatoes, tomatillos, potatoes and 1 cup water. Bring to a boil then gently simmer, covered for 10-15 min or until potatoes are tender.  Add more water if the sauce seems dry.  Add fish and gently simmer/poach covered until just cooked, about 3-5 min. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Garnish with chopped, fresh cilantro.

Sourdough Blackberry Lemon Muffins

I have a bit of a reputation. Some people call me a seed stealer.  I prefer the term  “forager”.

It all began in my tender years of five or six when I trailed alongside my Mom and brother walking along Muskoka roads lined with raspberry bushes. We held cardboard pint boxes in our little hands and were encouraged to pluck the red, ripe ones that slipped off the white core easily. There were thorns to avoid and lots of scratches to our bare legs and arms. The sun was beating down and sweat covered our brows. But boy oh boy, did those berries taste sweet. I ate nine out of every ten berries I picked, filling my box at a snail’s pace, but without a care. This was a hunt and I was hooked.  

My mom had to tear me away from the berry thicket and throw all my berry stained clothes into the wash. We never picked enough for the pies or jams we talked and dreamed of. In fact, my berries barely covered the bottom of my box but were  just enough for tomorrow’s breakfast bowl of Rice Krispies and cream. 

Decades later, I found myself walking down a road in Grass Valley, California with my sister-in-law, Nora until I stopped dead in my tracks. I was receiving heavy signals from my personal berry radar.  

“Are those blackberries?!” 

Nora couldn’t feign an ounce of interest. It was devilishly hot in the dry August sun and she was parched, needing a cool glass of water back home– which was not in the direction I was pointing. 

“You can’t do that!” she screamed as I hopped down into the ditch, climbing towards a flimsy fence separating me from my bounty.  It was easy to climb under and I did, rewarded by a thick cluster of fat, juicy berries.

“Stop Mado, it’s private property,” she yelled as I dove into her neighbour’s field. I pulled my black shirt out like a hamper and dropped the berries in by the handful. They were three times the size of an Ontario blackberry and as sweet as can be. The proliferation stunned me.  I’d never seen so many ripe, blackberries in my fruit-loving life.  

To keep the family peace, I crawled back under the fence obeying my sister-in-law’s admonishments while offering her a handful of the stolen goods. 

“Huh, what are these?” She held one berry in her fingers, brought it before her nose, inhaled,    opened her mouth, popped the berry in and started to moan, loudly. 

I’d found an accomplice. 

The following day we returned to the field armed with empty yogurt containers, filling two each in no time. That evening we dined on my first and most memorable pie. Pure blackberry pie.  I’d never made pie pastry before and somehow fashioned a semblance  with flour and shortening found in the back corners of her cupboards. I filled it with our black bounty, fresh from the pick but already leaking juice, crushing the bottom berries with its weight.  

I had set the oven at 425 F and in 10 minutes it had not only preheated but was rumbling like a coal fire.  I opened the oven door and felt a blast of heat so outrageously hot, I trembled in fear, offering my sweet berry pie to this monster. I waited five minutes and wisely turned off the oven, realizing the oven thermometer was broken, fearing my pie would explode in a ball of lava if I didn’t stop the oven’s frenzy. 

Remarkably, those free California blackberries and a broken oven thermometer was all I needed to make the most flaky, golden, berry-filled perfect pie of my life. Many have followed but none, thankfully,  with as much drama. 

I’m still a forager and a seed stealer dividing my time between downtown Toronto and rural BC. I am apt to walk down Logan Ave with a small set of scissors and surreptitiously snip off some morning glory seeds I have been watching dry throughout the fall.  Recently I filled my pockets with sweet pea pods at a Duncan community garden, knowing the owner would consider me a seed-saver, not a thief.  I expect the folks in the cars lined up at our Starbucks drive-through think the same when they see me roll down my window and pull a handful of brown and dry Cosmos flowers into the car as I wait for my latte order. 

It’s all Ling’s fault.  She asked me what those purple and white Cosmos flowers were growing in Riverdale gardens in the 1990s.  I didn’t know their name, then.  I asked her why she cared and she slipped a hand into her jeans’ pocket and revealed a mess of crumbled brown seed heads. Next, she scribbled “Purple Flowers” in Chinese on a piece of paper, put the seed heads in the middle and folded an instant, origami paper envelope. 

“I brought seeds from Shanghai,” she said proudly. I knew then that any refugee fleeing their homeland who cares enough to pack seeds for the escape was exactly the kind of garden guru I wanted to learn from.  Ling taught me not only seed saving, but how to root cuttings and separate clusters of African violets. 

So are we thieves or stewards of the earth?  I like to think the latter.

That’s why I came up with this muffin recipe.  It combines the best of The BC Forageables – blackberries —  and uses up sourdough that is normally discarded. A double save!  

Sourdough Blackberry Lemon Muffins

 

1 1/4 cup            all purpose, organic

½ cup                            whole spelt

1 tsp                    baking powder

1 tsp                    baking soda

1 tsp                    salt

 

 

1 stick                           unsalted butter, room temp

2/3 cup               refined sugar

2                          eggs

Zest                     of one lemon

100 gm/3.5 oz              sourdough discard

 

2 cups                           frozen blackberries

3/4 cup                sour cream/yogurt

 

 

 

Preheat oven to  400F. 

 

In a medium bowl combine or sift all purpose, spelt, baking powder, baking soda and  salt. 

 

In a mixer, cream butter with sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in eggs, one at a time. Combine lemon zest and gently fold in sourdough discard.

 

In medium bowl, toss frozen berries with 1 tbsp of flour mixture

 

Fold in half of the flour mixture and half of sour cream, then repeat.  Gently add blackberries in flour. 

 

Divide mixture using an ice cream scoop or 1/4 cup dry measure into 12 muffin cups.  

 

Bake 20-25 min or until golden and  tester comes out clean.

Lavender Plum Jelly

The first time I laid eyes on these plums, the trees were groaning with them. It was  August,  the day we took possession of our Vancouver Island  home in 2016. While David, his brother Norm and sister-in-law Cheryl stood in the courtyard surveying the exterior of the house,  I trotted down the driveway to find out what was green and growing on our 2.5 acres.

Huge rhododendron bushes and plum trees lined the driveway. Shiny red plums, no bigger than marbles, glinted in the sun. None were nearby, but all shone like Christmas ornaments far from reach in the tall,  skinny trees. 

A huge black raven flew over, each flap of its massive wings vibrating overhead. My eyes fell on saffron-painted plums poking out from leafy branches nearby. They were tiny little wonders no bigger than the cherry tomatoes growing in my downtown Toronto containers. Each orangey-yellow orb was splashed with traces of red. Warm to touch in the hot August sun, I picked one and popped it in my mouth, smiling wide.  It had a sweet, pulpy juiciness.

A search ensued! In three minutes, my makeshift t-shirt pouch bulged with a colourful, but slightly moist and sticky bounty.  Juice was trickling out from the overripe, split ones that came in every hungry handful I snatched away from the tree.

With no room for more to carry, I snacked heavily, reducing my load by half as I came closer to another variety-in-waiting. Heavy green clusters of plums weighted down the branches bringing them closer to my reach.  Alas, these golf ball-size beauties were sour and hard:  Not ready for prime-time picking.  I spat out my pit and was surprised to watch it join dozens littered in the grass below, all fallen from the mouths of marauding deer.   

On another branch —  Hope. One once green had ripened to a deep yellow, beckoning. I was perched on rocks that lined the stone walkway down to the dry pond nearby. Teetering on one foot, then the next, I managed to shake the ripe branch and gather the sweet morsels that fell to the ground, avoiding those that fell upon a mound of shiny, black pellets.  Deer scat.

I returned to the house and found the others, tracing their voices echoing through the empty halls. None seemed as eager to sample my found fruit as I, but each nodded their head politely after a taste.

This was just the beginning. What food writer in her right mind isn’t obsessed with gathering sweet, ripe FREE fruit hanging from trees? It’s like finding money dangling from the leaves.   

On superhot summer BC days, when the thermometer slips over 30 and it’s crazy to get out of the shade or up from a lounge chair, I drag my husband out on a blackberry pick.  We wear PPE: Long pants, long sleeve shirts, boots and gloves. We dig out the lawn clippers and apple crates from the garage.  Then we cruise through the windy roads of Maple Bay and environs, searching for manna from the heavens. When we spot black swaths of untouched, unblemished, fat, ripe, abundant berries overhead we no longer cry in vain, thinking they’re unreachable. We simply laugh an arrogant chuckle, deeming ourselves seasoned professionals. David clips the clusters and I catch them in a waiting  apple crate beneath his arms. Once we’ve filled the crates, we aim to stop, but never can.  There’s always another ripe berry around the corner and a few empty plastic bags to hold them.   

Pounds upon pounds of ripe, sweet fruit cannot be consumed instantly. Berries are flash frozen on trays in single layers or tucked into a rustic tart or two. But plums, especially the ones in our orchard, are more troublesome. The pulp to pit ratio is about 50:50. I have cooked them in huge pots on the stovetop or roasted them in the oven, but afterwards, there are  still all those pits to contend with. A food mill can help the process but nothing works finer than my Mehu-Liisa 111 made in Finland.

This three-tiered stovetop pot is basically a small distiller or “steam juicer”. The bottom is filled with water heated to a boil on the stovetop, while the middle portion holds the juice which falls into this catchment area from the large steamer above holding quarts of picked fresh fruit on top.  Take off the stopper and hot clear juice empties out from the fitted plastic hose attachment. Last time I used my Mehu-Liisa 111  I packed it full with 14 pounds of fruit, turned on the heat and collected five liters of juice in under an hour. 

Sadly, plum juice is not a favourite beverage, but it makes beautiful jelly that I can slip into my suitcase and gift friends and family each time I fly back home to Toronto. That way, I can bring a taste of our BC orchard across the country and share the wealth because money found on trees is simply delish.

Herd Road Lavender Plum Jelly

  • Servings: 14 250 ml jars
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The golden hue of this yellow plum jelly is painted purple with the addition of lavender and whole blackberries. After canning, check all the jars for a tight seal. Makes 14 ½ 250 ml jars of jelly.

12 cups plum juice *
4 tbsp lemon juice
6 tsp Pomona’s Universal calcium water
2 tsp unsalted butter
4 cups refined sugar
9 tsp Pomona’s Universal pectin
½ cup dried lavender or lemon thyme
1 cup frozen blackberries

Sterilize jars.

In a large wide pot heat plum juice, lemon juice, calcium water and butter and bring to a rapid boil.

Combine sugar and pectin in a bowl, then add to juice once it is rapidly boiling. Stir mixture until it comes back to a full boil then take off the heat. Carefully remove foam.

Remove hot sterilized jars and arrange on counter. Put 2-3 frozen blackberries and ½ tsp lavender in each jar before filling with plum mixture leaving ¼ inch headspace and lidding fingertip tight. Process 10 minutes in boiling water.

Remove from canner and listen for a satisfying pop as each lid seals. All the lavender and blackberries will have floated to the top. Wait a few hours for your jelly to gel and cool, then turn a jar upside down to test if the jelly has thickened enough to suspend solids in the middle of the jar. If so, leave upside down for 8 hrs or overnight.

*Substitute with apple or white grape juice

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Experiments in Einkorn

When the curious around me ask, “What have you been baking these days?” and I reply “Einkorn” I might as well kill that conversation. Enunciating these two simple consonants, Ein then Korn, is an instant entrée to “Huh?” and glazed-over eyes.

Perhaps the most ancient among ancient grains, Einkorn is grown here in BC and is in desperate need of a makeover. Few seem to know how tasty it is.  Or the delight a baker such as me has when poking my schnoz into a freshly milled bag and inhaling the sweet wonder that is Einkorn.

I bought my first bag from Flourist.com who shipped my flour over the Georgia Strait from their Vancouver bakery and mill. I liked buying an organic, traceable grain that is freshly milled right before packaging. I also liked seeing a line drawing of all their producers, including Einkorn grower Lorne Muller of Swan River Valley, Manitoba.

When I read the flowery descriptor under the 2 kg bag of Einkorn priced at $24.95 (compared to $15.95 for whole spelt) I was not a believer.  It said, “This flour showcases the taste of ancient Einkorn wheat, with a flavour that shines in everything from pastry crust to sourdough bread”

Them’s fighting words, I thought. How could this unknown, nobody grain be so tasty in so many baking applications?

It was time to test.

 

 

First, I made pancakes, sourdough einkorn pancakes with frozen wild blackberries. They were good but, in my mind, just ol’ pancakes.

 

Second try was stupendous: Einkorn Banana Bread. I found a recipe posted at The Perfect Loaf under “my top three leftover sourdough recipes”.

Like pancakes, I’ve made banana bread a million times but never has it domed so high (and not fallen) with a porous, sourdough bread texture. img_4124.jpg Einkorn offered up a nutty, sweetness. This quick bread was addictive and thanks to einkorn, high in protein, fibre and eye-healthy carotenoids and lutein.

My next try, 50% Einkorn sourdough levain (recipe below) was fated for success the moment I watched the dough twirl around my KitchenAid dough hook in a remarkable creamy softness, as if whipping cream.  Yet, this was a whole grain.

Things got einkorn crazy when my friend Wilma and I scarfed down several helpings each of my next test: Pear Tarte Tatin.  This gluttony, after a particularly filling sushi-making party, had never been witnessed before by her partner or mine.

All we girls could say is “The einkorn made me do it.”

It may not have hurt that the pears were so sexy and that this tart oozed with butter and sugar, yet never have I received such personal affirmation for a whole grain dessert.

If Einkorn could dance on the tongue for dessert, could it go solo soaked and sprouted in a jar? I measured out one quarter cup of BC-grown kernels purchased at Cowichan Bay’s True Grain bakery. After a 12 hr soak, the kernels had plumped up. Some had split. After another 24 hours, little white tails emerged on most of the kernels.  I topped that evening’s salad with a couple of spoonful’s adding a sweet, crunchy nuttiness to simple microgreens and grape tomatoes.

The finale of my Einkorn tests hit a crescendo with risotto. My top recipe taster and ardent Arborio rice fan was aghast at the suggestion.  But when faced with my creation at the dining table, he quickly returned to the pot for seconds.

I would never have tried this had I not tasted and devoured friend Randy’s superb farro risotto.  If Randy could do it, so could I, especially knowing that farro is Italian for spelt and einkorn’s Italian appellation is piccolo farro or little spelt.

Listening to my inner Marcella Hazan, I went to the stove, pulled out a medium saucepan and heated up some olive oil and a knob of butter. I tossed in sliced leeks, diced cremini mushrooms and fresh rosemary stirring and sautéing until the  juices emerged. In went a cup of einkorn kernels, which I sautéed for 2-3 minutes getting the pan adequately dry and toasty before adding sliced, reconstituted porcini mushrooms and a big splash (3/4 cup) white wine that filled the kitchen with an intoxicating aroma. Over the course of 30 minutes, I slowly added mushroom stock by the half-cup-full stirring and cooking the kernels in their uncovered pot until they were soft, tender and truly nutty.

True confessions: Einkorn kernels will not melt into the same creamy luxuriousness that an Arborio or Navarro rice can but Parmigiana Reggiano is always at the rescue.  Freshly ground black pepper is another must.

Experimenting the gamut of Einkorn, from sweet confections to healthy raw sprouts made me a believer. It turns out Flourist wasn’t being flowery in that description at all.  This grain can do it all.IMG_4144

50 Per Cent Einkorn Levain

This dough is very extensible and stretched a yard when I scraped it from the mixing bowl to a plastic bin. I got the same results during stretch and folds. It baked up high, with a dark mahogany crust with traces of raisin and cinnamon in the air.

Levain:

1.8 oz            liquid starter

5.2 oz            Spring water

8 oz               Unbleached, organic white hard/bread flour

In a medium bowl, dissolve starter in water with a fork. Add bread flour and knead into a ball.  Cover with plastic wrap.  Let stand at room temperature for 12-16 hours.

Final dough:

Levain (minus 1.5 oz)

1lb .6oz         Spring water

2tbsp             honey

1lb                 Whole Einkorn

8 oz               Unbleached, organic white hard/bread flour

Dissolve levain in spring water in stand mixer bowl. Add honey, Einkorn and bread flour. Use the paddle attachment at low speed, mixing until a shaggy mass. Cover and autolyse (let stand) for 20 min.

.6 oz                     sea salt

Sprinkle dough over with sea salt, using dough hook, mix at low for 3 min.  The dough will separate from the sides of the bowl and create a firm ball.

Transfer to a large oiled bowl or covered plastic bin.

Bulk fermentation: 1 hr. 40 min  (Stretch and fold once, after 50 min)

Shape two loaves and place in bannetons dusted with rice flour.  Cover each with a large plastic bag and refrigerate immediately, 12-16hrs

Preheat dutch ovens at 500F for at least 30 min, bake 20 min covered, reduce to 460F and bake 20 min uncovered. Transfer to wire racks to cool.

Got juice

Three years ago, David and I became the proud owners of an apple orchard on Vancouver Island. It was August and ten, old trees stood before us in three, neat rows above a carpet of burnt, golden grass.  The hot, Cowichan Valley sun beat down on our Torontonian brows as we gazed up, knowing nothing, surveying our orchard’s branches.  

I pulled the closest apple off a tree and opened my mouth.

“What are you doing?” David asked, incredulous.

I bit off a big chunk and chewed, holding his gaze. I continued to chew, hoping that somehow the taste and texture would improve. 

But it didn’t.  

I spat it out and recognized the first unripe flavour of my new occupation.  Apple Orchard Aug 2016

Beside the orchard was a long, gravel driveway up to the house, guest house and barn. It was lined with plum trees, all of them heavy with yellow, orange and red plums each no bigger than a cherry tomato.  They hung like grape clusters and beckoned sampling. I started with a demure, meek sampling that turned into rapid gobbling followed by voracious hoarding. 

David’s watching eyes bugged. 

Each plum was sweet, juicy and too plentiful for the pouch I’d fashioned in my t-shirt, now fully stained and attracting a buzz of nearby wasps.   

David picking High RussetsDavid, my apple farming husband, is still incredulous three years later as he lugs 15 boxes full of apples into the back of the SUV. It’s our third annual harvest and the first to go to McBarley’s juice and fermentation facility in Duncan. It’s not even the fall and we have harvested and boxed all of Number Two and Three trees. (These round, red and green apples the size of a fist resemble McIntosh apples – but doesn’t every Ontarian call apples that?)   Classic Red No 2

Never before have we nabbed the apples from Two and Three before the ravens execute their robbery. But here on the West Coast, David and I often wait for the wildlife to inform us. Their radar goes off like a living, breathing Brix meter. This year, all it took was a murder in the orchard for me to get out there and taste our wares. 

“It’s really good,” I say to David, mouth full of apple. “Try it.”

“Sweet!” is his reply.

We’re both incredulous. 

The brown, dry grass below the trees is littered with scat. We argue over their provenance. Is it bear, deer, rabbit or the neighbor’s lab? We know elk don’t venture in these parts, but then again, we never know what can happen here.  Just a few months ago, six gargantuan black steer (set loose from a neighbouring field) sauntered past our windows at dawn, way before our caffeine had kicked in and we had the wherewithal to run outside and follow them.

But I digress.  The apple harvest.  With tall, old trees like ours, it has to happen with ladders, a tool David was thrilled to purchase at Adam’s Tool and Tarp in Duncan and load into his brother’s pickup.  He bought an eight and 10-foot pair, neither which is easy to lug across the orchard let alone manoeuvre around our tall, leafy apples trees with their outstretched, unruly boughs.  

“It must be stable,” said our arborist Gordon McKay in his thick Scottish brogue, as I climbed up the rungs one wet, bone-chilling March morning several years ago. It was the only piece of instruction he’d given me in the past half hour that had made total sense. 

Number 7 beauty shotMcKay had started with the buds, pointing out their difference, which I could not discern. 

Then he spoke about cutting angles, which I quickly confused.  

Finally, he spoke about “last year, this year and next year’s growth”, at which point I was terminally lost, yet climbing up an eight-foot ladder. 

Just clip and hope for the best, I told my shivering self, dressed in two layers of long underwear and holding Japanese cutting shears in my right hand. My tree mentor’s instructions had floated right over my baseball cap into that gleeful empty field I call my memory. Luckily, the arborist was nearby on the other ladder, up another tree, clipping away expertly at breakneck speed. I faked a good hour of pruning until I snuck away, sighting urgent bathroom needs. Both McKay and I knew – there and then – that I didn’t have what it took to prune, but I might have some talent in the harvesting department.

Fast forward to August 2019.  My baseball cap and pony tail are stuck in a branch and I can’t move my head. An inch. I’m up on the top rung of an eight-foot ladder.  All I can see is apple leaves, spider webs, branches and one fat, out-of-reach 2-pound honker of an apple. But if I move too far to the right or left, it will be suicide, by hanging. A professional (i.e. Lee Valley) apple harvester’s bag is slung across my chest. It probably weighs 15 lbs and despite weight-lifting at my Mill Bay Pilates classes, I know I’m a goner. So I do something unusual for me: I wait. I breath. I listen to the jungle call of a nearby Pileated Woodpecker and thank my lucky stars that I get to be an apple farmer stuck in a tree overlooking Herd Road lake.  

Harvest box 2&3David and I are killing this year’s harvest.  Four or five full apple boxes are at the base of Number 8, the only tree we sort of know the varietal name for, due to its rusty, russet skin. Because we’re professionals, we don’t pretend to know the true varietal names of any of our ten trees but we are carefully recording their appearance, taste and botanical behaviour like the untrained scientists that we are.   

One summer, we took samples from each of our ten trees to the BC Tree Testers at the Cobble Hill Fair. Despite the combined  wisdom of three experts riffling through onsite reference books, slicing, tasting and considering… they came up empty, sighting the more than 10,000 different apple varieties and their unfamiliarity with our mysterious ten. Thus, we can only be certain all ten trees are different varieties, likely planted around the time David and I were born. We fondly refer to our apple family as Tree One through Ten, a habit that seems scientific but at the same time, really appeals to my Chinese sensibilities.  

A perennial Food Mama, I cannot let the offspring of my offspring go to waste. Thus the harvest, the ladders, the collapsible boxes, the shears and bags all spring into action once the ravens descend on the orchard. They huddle like dark shadows at the base of our trees and diffuse in a tactical squad when we walk or drive by. Once I’ve pulled all the easy to reach apples from the low hanging branches and dump that first bag of hard red orbs into a box, the ravens have returned to the perimeters, invisible in the high branches of our pines and firs emitting an intermittent  “scaaaw”, a staccato, almost digital “blonk” or my favourite, a continuous stream of gurgling water. 

Timing is tricky. Really tricky.  Mother nature doesn’t give a hoot about any of the dates I’ve put into GoogleCal but booking an apple squeeze is imperative. We know our trees don’t all ripen at the same time. Rather, they ripen up the line from Number One (ready in mid-August) to Ten (done in early October). 

But it took us three years to learn to stagger one year’s harvest into three drop-offs at McBarley’s. 

Our newbie harvest of  ‘16 was crushed in Courtney, a 3-hour drive away. Pressing Matters have a $300,000 German-made mobile apple juice maker that travels across the island and even ferries to many of the Gulf Island apple farms during the season. Yet this year, it was grounded. 

“Why?” I asked, making my first apple farmer business call.

“Cause nobody has apples this year,” laughed the gruff farmer on the other end of the line. “You bring ‘em here and wait for us to juice them.”  

David and I were the fourth truck full of apples to pass through Pressing Matters farm gate early one October morning.  We unloaded, adding our harvest to a ramshackle sea of cardboard boxes filled with pockmarked apples of every size and variety. Apple Juice Boxes in SubaruMany hours later, we left with 5L boxes full of hot pasteurized juice packaged into vacuumed plastic bags. Just like boxed wine, this juice comes out of a tap and is shelf-stable for 6 months without refrigeration.   

Next year, Pressing Matters went mobile and we found them at a small farm in Cedar, an easier 45-minute drive away. The truck in the lineup ahead of us had three times as many apples as we did. 

A mobile pressing machine like this requires four or five to operate and at McBarley’s they run the unit outside in their parking lot. Customers like us just drop off our apples, watch them get weighed and sign up for pasteurized juice, hard cider, or both. 

It sounds simple but the rub is in the timing. Ask any farmer and she’ll tell you to check that almanac, or your horoscope or better still, the waxing moon to know best harvest times. Yet to run a facility like McBarley’s, it’s all about scheduled dropoffs and pickups  for hundreds of folks like us avec les pommes. We opted for a three-stage harvest this year hoping 2019 will translate into the sweetest juice and  best bubbly vintage, ever. 

I know Number One through Ten will drink to that. 

Ground lamb curry & FOO Asian Street Food

There’s nothing like the thrill of an Asian food find for an eater like me. Especially when the food is found in Victoria.  In the rain.  On Yelp. When we least expected it.

FOO Asian Street Food (769 Yates Street) is not a fancy place. Like many of its Vancouver Island brethren, this funky hole-in-the-wall demands lining up before you can order and snag a seat. At FOO the seating is slim:  no more than a dozen stools line the perimeter of the order/waiting area.

Emma and I dashed in from out of the rain and were instantly slammed (in a pleasant, food-lover’s-way) by the smell of the place. The air was thick with stir-fried oil, Thai basil, chillies, toasted seaweed and Jasmine rice. FOO’S menu, along with daily specials, were in big print on the blackboard. Reading it was veritable candy to my Asian-cuisine-starved eyes:  curries, noodles, stir-fries, dahls, sweet and sour soups,  and crazy specials like poutine with Szechuan peppercorn gravy or fries done up Togarishi-style with spicy house furikake and fermented chili mayo.

Better still, the woman at the cash taking our order was mean. She had an edgy, crowded city attitude that delights masochistic and hungry metropolitans like me.

We ordered hot fried bread and chutney to whet our appetites along with two local brews: a can of Fat Tug (Driftwood IPA) and a tall bottle of Hoyt Pilsner. IMG_1897

Because our stools were squished near the cash counter, I leaned over, smiled senior-sweetly and asked the Cash Lady if the fried bread contained chickpea flour.

She could barely contain her disgust.

“Chickpea flour?!” she scoffed.  “We’d never do that, ever.” Then she guffawed.

Okay, maybe I should have guessed turmeric.  I know they secretly tuck something into these professionally deep-fried triangles of golden-hued, super moist bread.  Each bite took the edge off our hunger.

Next up, seared morsels of rare, albacore tuna were spread out like a deck of cards over a tangle of cold soba noodles and cucumber ribbons bathed in a sesame-miso vinaigrette.  Pad Thai was ratcheted up a notch with charred scallions instead of plain old green onions.  But it was the Curried Noodle Stir-Fry that stole my foodie heart, with morsels of cha siu bbq pork, succulent shrimp and truly al dente Shanghai noodles. IMG_1900

I lied. It was the Sweet and Sour Pork Belly with tamarind glaze served with spicy green beans that stole all our hearts. Each one of these pork mouthfuls had us groaning, its flavourful fat such a yummy counterpoint to the salty pork.img_1895.jpg

Just below the blackboards manning the open kitchen, two young chefs in black T-shirts slammed, shook, tossed and sautéed non-stop. Working eight unrelenting gas burners on super high, each like a blow-torch, these guys have no time for comments or questions from Plebeians like sweet, little old me. I watched them ladle in sauces, drop in handfuls of noodles, sprinkle fistfuls of shrimp, pork or tofu and slide steaming contents into one big white bowl after another.  It was an endless stream of expert deliciousness overseen by the Cash Lady managing both the line-up and take-out call ins.

“You can pick up in an hour,” she told one caller, “Want it sooner? Try McDonalds.”

Luckily, we experienced no wait. We were at the front of the line both visits and food arrived swiftly.  After the first FOO visit, we started plotting our return, despite the more than hour drive into Victoria over a mountain pass, no less.

It was the Ground Lamb Curry’s fault. I didn’t tell you, dear reader, about its rich and layered meat sauce, redolent with a dozen spices and so superbly satisfying. The blackboard advertised it as “Indian spiced lamb” but it was so much more than those three words.  I swear those line cooks had pulled every flavour out of their toolboxes to create this glistening, gravy infused lamb creation, sweetly offset with green peas, lying on a soft white bed of basmati.IMG_1904

There were four of us all fighting over the Ground Lamb Curry on our second visit. It was a magical flavour equation that I had to recreate in my kitchen.

As every cook will attest, ingredients are 90 per cent of a recipe’s success. I jumped on two packages of frozen, farm-raised ground lamb from the Yesteryear stall at the Duncan Farmers’ Market.  Later, I pounced on fresh, very unwrinkled turmeric root at The Community Farm Store, also in Duncan. My spice drawer had recently been supplemented by a happy, inaugural stroll through Sabzi Mandi Supermarket in Nanaimo. The finishing green garnish would be a handful of mint from the burgeoning mass under our willow tree and another, from a clump of cilantro in the raised beds. (Miraculously, cilantro (fresh coriander) self-seeds here on the island.)

And because I am so humble, I attest that the only difference between my Ground Lamb Curry and Foo’s is me.  I am the final 10 per cent of this recipe’s success.

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Herd Road Ground Lamb Curry with Peas and Mint

This is the same and different from Foo Asian Street Food’s ground lamb curry.

2 cooking onions, quartered

6 garlic cloves

2 inches ginger

2 inches turmeric

Peel and chop onion, garlic, ginger and turmeric.  Whirl into a paste in a food processor, adding ¼ – ½  cup water.

In large frying pan, heat  two tablespoons oil and saute onion paste until golden, about 3 minutes.

In a small mortar and pestle, crush:

1 hot dried pepper

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp coriander seeds

½ tsp fennel seeds

½ tsp black peppercorns

1 ½ tsp coarse sea salt

Add to onion mixture and saute 1-2 minutes.

Add:

4 tbsp tomato paste

½ cup coconut milk

Bring to a boil and simmer gently for a few minutes.

Add

2 lbs ground lamb

3 tsp garam masala

Cook on medium heat until lamb is brown.  Add 1 1/2 cups water.  Cover and simmer on extreme low for 20 minutes

Add:

1 ½ cups frozen peas

2-4 small fresh green hot peppers

2 tsp anardhana (dried pomegranate) * optional

1 tbsp lemon juice

¼ cup chopped fresh mint leaves

¼ cup chopped fresh coriander

Simmer until peas are tender.  Serve on steamed basmati rice.

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