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.

Bear plum jam

We had been painting the white picket fence for hours in the afternoon shade. Big, black crows screeched incessantly, punctuated by the soft, nasal bleats of nuthatches echoing through the forest trees. David wore a black shirt and shorts that were splattered with white splashes of our 1-2-3 primer.  We had been working for hours in the hot, BC summer sun.  With only two sections of finished fence behind us, it was time to stop.

David took the paint brushes inside the house to wash up.

I wrapped my hands around the bars of our trusty wheelbarrow and started to amble towards the driveway. Full of dried-up blackberry bush, the wheelbarrow’s contents slid and scratched against the metal sides, the wheel rumbling against the dry, clay earth.

No crows, no nuthatches, but a sudden loud crashing of branches broke out.

I looked towards the orchard and watched a massive, black bear come falling out of our plum tree, some 100 feet away.

When I say massive, I mean the size of a Smart car. Black and furry. Yet ominously silent.

My jaw slack in awe, I watched him land on all four paws and hurry off. Bears don’t gallop, or race. They truck mysteriously fast like an ambling thunder cloud, a sheet of dark light that thankfully went away, not towards me.

“David!” I yelped at the top of my voice.

Worried the bear would hear me, I toned it down to a whisper-shout with, “There’s, there’s a bear!”

“Whaaaaaat?” David emerged, hands still wet from washing the brushes. “Where?”

“He ran that way,” I said, pointing towards the orchard. “Don’t follow him.”

But of course, David did, thrilled and happy, calling back gaily, “It’s the wild west, baby.”

Minutes later, we stood beside our bear-mangled plum tree. A large, deep gash from his claws streaked down the trunk. A large heap of black, seed-studded scat lay nearby.  Up above, broken branches hung in disarray. Half-eaten plums littered the ground.

I reached up and pulled down a plum and popped it in my mouth.

Soft, and deliriously sweet and sour, this orange-yellow plum was perfectly ripe.  Time for harvest. Thank you hungry bear for finding the ripest plums in the orchard. This was a wild, but timely alert.

David walked back to the garage and carried out the ten-foot ladder. He propped it beneath the tree and I climbed up into the branches. Balancing a bucket on the top rung, I started to pluck plum after tiny plum from the tree.

Novice fruit farmers, we thought the ladder, the bucket and all these plums would just come together effortlessly but it’s an awkward balance:  Reach too far, and the ladder topples; grab too many, and some fall. There are always more to be harvested that are too high, too far, too out of reach.

Still, in no time, our bucket is full and we carry our cache back to the farm house.

Star Anise Plum Jam

With so many plums, my jam creativity has blossomed. I’d rather spice up a jam than leave it plain. This jam can go on toast, pair beside pork or chicken or make a dramatic debut on your next cheese plate. The licorice notes of star anise are strong in this jam, so feel free to cut in half if you want just a whisper. But don’t mess with any of the other ingredients.

6 cups plum puree (use yellow, orange and red plums) about 6 lbs whole fruit

5 cups sugar

2 inches ginger, finely grated

4 star anise

1 stick cinnamon

1 dried red hot pepper, cut in half

To pit plums, put in a large pot and fill with just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook just a minute or until skins start to peel off the plums. Carefully drain out and discard all the hot water. Transfer plums to a large bowl and leave at room temperature to cool enough to handle or refrigerate, covered with plastic wrap, for up to 3 days. Using a sieve, remove pits, taking care to reserve as much plum puree and skins as possible. Wrap the pits in cheesecloth, knotted with kitchen string.

Put sugar in a microwave-safe glass bowl and heat for 3 min on high.

In a large pot, combine plum puree, heated sugar, pits (tied in cheesecloth), grated ginger, star anise, cinnamon and hot dried red pepper. Bring to a strong, rolling boil, and cook for 10 minutes stirring constantly or until jelling point is reached. (Jelling point can be determined by placing a spoon into the mixture and watching how the jam falls off.  When the drops start to drip in long strands or sheet together, jelling has been reached.)

Using sterilized jars (boiled for 5 minutes), fill jam mixture into jars ½ inch from the top, run a thin spatula around the inside of the jar to remove air bubbles, wipe off tops of jars with a clean cloth, top with softened lid (placed in a bowl of boiling hot water for 5 minutes) and closed with ring, finger-tight.

Process for 5 minutes (covered with at least 3 inches of boiling water).

Yields  8 1/2   250 mL jars

Digging Sweet Potatoes

Last week I put on my boots and jeans and boarded one of two, large tour buses heading for a sweet potato farm in Simcoe, Ontario. You’d think the author of a book on fresh produce might know that sweet potatoes grew in Ontario – but she didn’t. And you’d think that the farm we were about to visit might be run-of-the mill, but it sure wasn’t.IMG_4914

Berlo’s Best Sweet Potatoes is the largest grower in Canada, with some 700 acres devoted to the adobe-coloured roots, annually harvesting a whopping 14 million pounds. Right smack in their busiest harvest of the year, head farmer, visionary and CEO Peter VanBerlo Sr. stood at the ready to tour us around his acreage, armed with an amplifier, microphone and 16 years of sweet potato farming experience.

Our bus had travelled from Mississauga to the sandy loam of Norfolk county, one of the most diverse agricultural areas in OntarioIMG_4889Tall and lanky, VanBerlo stood roadside motioning us to park beside one of his sprawling sweet potato fields. Armed with smartphone cameras, pens and paper, our mostly-female group got off the bus slightly dazed and disoriented. City folk, we stumbled an unsteady course through the field, negotiating our way over burrowed trenches and uprooted debris.

Suddenly VanBerlo shouted “Look there!” and pointed frantically at one of his custom engineered digger/harvesters off in the distance. It looked like a travelling assembly line, crowded with over a dozen seasonal workers busily sorting, shaking and tossing an incoming sea of the pinky-red sweet potatoes.

“These workers have been with me for 29 years,”said a satisfied VanBerlo. He paused politely as we let out a collective sigh of approval. “I must be doing something right.”

He is.

VanBerlo and his sons Nick and Peter Jr. have teamed up to take the kinks out of sweet potato farming.  It’s a fussy, temperamental root wrapped in a thin, delicate skin that abhors the cold and demands gentle treatment. Traditional farm machineryIMG_4940 wasn’t up to the job so the VanBerlos designed their own   harvesters, and in 2006 established a state-of-the-art facility.

After our romp through the fields, VanBerlo Sr. took us into this gargantuan packing, curing and storage facility to watch employees wash, sort, bag or box the spuds before undergoing their four to seven day curing process.

“Basically we fool these potatoes into thinking it’s summer and time to get growing again,” explained VanBerlo with a twinkle in his eye. “We put them in a hot, humid 85 degree (Fahrenheit) room and their skins thicken and the starches convert into sugars.” Once fully cured, sweet potatoes are stored for up to three months in his computer-controlled facilities that automatically shut off the curing process and turn on cold storage in well-ventilated, 55 degree F rooms that are stacked high with crates from ground to ceiling. It’s massive.

IMG_4943

Curing not only makes sweet potatoes taste better, but it helps promote longer storage. Van Berlo says his sweet potatoes can store for 12 months but once they’re moved out of storage, shelf-life is reduced to a couple of weeks.

At home, store your sweet spuds in a dark, cool cupboard rather than the fridge.  In fact, give them more TLC than you might confer on regular potatoes for if sweet potatoes are dropped or punched around, their sweet interiors will quickly bruise and decay.

When asked about the sweet potato-yam confusion among produce retailers, VanBerlo just laughed and said, “If Sobeys asks for yams, I give ’em yams.” But that’s an inside joke between all of us sweet potato experts. (Real yams don’t grow in North America and look very different: they are white-fleshed, long starch tubers with rough scaly skins.)

Berlo’s Best sweet potato farm bears testimony to the resilience and innovation of  Simcoe’s former tobacco farmers. It’s a one-stop-shop for growing, harvesting and packaging a capricious root from the American south.

Now put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Sweet potato puree with pecans served at Bonnie Health Estate
Sweet potato puree with pecans served at Bonnie Health Estate

Sweet potato soup with ginger and cinnamon

Fresh ginger is the magic of this soup.  Peel it and grate with a microplane for best results. If you’ve got a spice grinder, cinnamon is always at its peak when freshly ground.

2 tbsp            vegetable oil

1                       onion, chopped

2 tsp                 finely grated fresh ginger

4 cups               low-sodium chicken stock

3 lbs (1.5 kg)     medium sweet potatoes (about 5),                                                                                      peeled and cut into half-inch (1 cm) dice

1 tsp                    ground cinnamon

1 1/2 tsp             salt

Freshly ground pepper, to taste

1 cup                     milk or cream

In a large pot, heat oil and cook the chopped onion at medium low for 5 minutes or until soft and fragrant. Add  ginger and cook for 30 seconds. Add stock, sweet potatoes, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, for 15 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Remove soup from heat and allow to cool. Use a handheld immersion blender or puree in batches in a blender or food processor. Gently reheat and whisk in milk.

© 2015 Madeleine Greey