Dana’s Gardening Adventure: Growing veg is also great in a crate

May 30, 2008

So, the plants and seeds are doing their thing in the garden. Weeds seem to be growing faster than anything, which is a bit of a worry but I guess also a fact of the organic gardening experience. While mine is a classic backyard garden plot, I’ve noticed that people are finding any way they can to be better earthlings by growing a few of their favorite veggies and herbs.

Urban community gardens are popping up in all kinds of Canadian cities. In fact, the picture above is of a 2007 summer Toronto garden sponsored by Hellmann’s mayo. This year their project will continue with 94 contest winners who will get urban garden plots in cities such as Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax. Hellmann’s also has some useful online garden planning tools I found fun to play with.

If you don’t have access to one of these plots or have a yard that’s suitable for planting, you can still grow food in window boxes, pots and other containers. I’ve done it and it’s surprising how much produce a few pots can yield.

Even if you’re a champ at growing decorative plants in containers, the shift to growing edible plants can be a challenge since soil, sun and fertilizing can greatly affect the taste and nutrient content of herbs and vegetables. So, check out my container gardening tips before you get started:

Sun: To mature successfully, the balcony or terrace where you grow edible plants should receive about 5 hours of sun a day, preferably morning or late afternoon exposure, which is less scorching than the intense, mid-day rays.

Drainage: Choose containers that have an adequate number of holes in the bottom to ensure proper drainage; that way your edible plants will neither drown nor parch.

Soil: The soil for growing edible plants in containers needs to have a combination of characteristics: container plants do well in soil that allows rapid drainage but also require sufficient water retention to keep the plant roots uniformly moist. “Soiless” potting mixes and peat moss drain quickly, are lightweight and free from soil-borne diseases and weed seeds.

Planting: Since there is seldom 100% germination and emergence when growing plants from seed, always plant more seed than is needed in each container. After the seeds sprout and the seedlings start to touch, thin plants to the desired number.

Feeding: Since you’ll be cooking and eating the herbs and vegetables you grow, choosing a safe fertilizer is very important. Avoid chemical fertilizers that can make plants inedible. Unlike a yard garden, the soil in containers is unlikely to get organic enrichment naturally so work compost into the containers often. Compost is sold by the bagful at most garden centres.

Watering: The best way to water container plants is with a watering can or gentle sprayer attachment on a garden hose. Be sure the water is cool before applying it to the vegetables, particularly if the hose or watering can sits in the sun for part or all of the day. Watering with hot water cannot only damage foliage, but retard root development.


Great design, great gadgets

May 29, 2008

I’m not a huge gadget fan. I’d rather have a few versatile tools than a bunch of single-use items that clutter up my kitchen. That said, I’m the first to applaud good design and champion a great new innovation. For instance, I had one of the first seats on the microplane band wagon.

This summer I’m excited to have this smart juicing device in my drawer. You get so much juice out of lemons and limes with so little effort and mess using this press that homemade lemonade and caipirinhas will be flowing like water! While the design of this juicer is admirable for it’s functional prowess, there are a slew of tools that are also notable for their beauty available from MoMA’s store (did I mention that my birthday is approaching?):

Measuring Tape Timer
Cutting Board Organizer
Folding Bread Board
Party Sporks
Splash Bowls


My trip to the opera

May 28, 2008

I almost didn’t do this month’s Daring Baker’s Challenge. Not only was my time short and my ass disturbingly enlarged by other eating, but the recipe for a white-on-white Opera Cake (chosen by the founders of the group, Ivonne and Lis) was rather involved. And, truth be told, my friend Dean makes a truly wonderful classic Opera Cake that I can have anytime I drop by his bakery Amadeus Fine Cakes. (If I invited Dean to come over to play guitar hero, he’d likely deliver one to me as well.)

But, I’ve been really enjoying being a member of the Daring Bakers so I felt that it was important that I do this challenge no matter what. After all, when you join a group, you make a commitment, right?

I ended up rushing through my cake. I made the glaze, the buttercream and the syrup late at night and made the mousse and baked and assembled the cake a day and a half later with a houseful of company. As a result, I didn’t get the best looking result. My buttercream layers weren’t very even and my mousse layer was visible here and there through the glaze. It wasn’t a showstopper but the cake tasted great and the recipe, although long, worked well.

Now that I’ve finished my third DB challenge, one thing is puzzling me. What do the other Daring Bakers do with all of the stuff they bake?

Each month I’ve had copious amounts of extra baked goods.

• March was Dorie Greenspan’s Perfect Party Cake which I served at my Easter Feaster. I had nine at the table and still had a quarter of a cake left over.
• April was Jill O’Connor’s Chocolate Dipped Cheesecake Lollies. I scaled down the recipe, used only half the cheesecake and still had enough lollies to send home with my dinner guests (we were six that night).
• Now this month, we made this cream coloured Opera Cake. Despite having eight for dinner, I still had half a cake left over! I froze the leftovers to serve the next weekend, but I’m finding it fatiguing to manage my DB wares.

I hope the next challenge features a recipe that can be either easily scaled down or that is not meant to cater a huge party. Tune in next month to see what they throw at me!


Preplanned memorial meals trend up

May 27, 2008

Five times a year, my son Oliver and I go to the Toronto Children’s Symphony series. Afterwards we head over to Pangaea to have a bite to eat with Martin before heading home for a suburban Saturday night. It’s a great ritual that I hope will ensure he grows up to be a civilized, open minded young man.

Driving home after our last concert, we were listening to CBC Radio One and caught the tail end of a very interesting discussion on Talking Books. Although the subject was The End of The Alphabet, by CS Richardson, the panel’s discussion digressed into a chat about how our aging society has developed a grief culture that views grieving as noble and maybe even a little bit romantic. (You can download the full discussion as an MP3 file for free if you want to hear the whole chat, BTW).

To make a long story short, I was intrigued to learn that many people are pre-planning not only their basic funeral arrangements but also their wakes. While purchasing a burial plot and casket has traditionally been viewed as a selfless act designed to spare your loved ones trouble, this panel asserted that a new aspect of this trend is that these pre-planners derive pleasure while anticipating their own funerals and planning their memorial parties.

This discussion really hit home with me since I have planned my own funeral at least three times over. In fact, pretty much each time I attend a funeral I spend a couple of days afterwards musing (both aloud and silently) about what I’d do the same and what I’d do differently for my own funeral. I always thought it was my controlling nature that led me to these thoughts but now I can blame a cultural movement.

In my imagined memorial plan, the menu is similar to the one I chose for my 40th birthday party (yes, I am such a control freak that I planned my own party): tea sandwiches of all kinds, Eini cupcakes with butter cream frosting, and a bottle of Veuve Cliquot for everyone who attends. Although I’d love for everyone to stay long enough to drink their entire bottle at my wake and spend the evening reminiscing about our shared adventures, my mourners can take the wine home to toast me in private if they prefer. I have similar plans for music, flowers, eulogies, and, believe it or not, loot bags.

My husband thinks I’m absolutely cracked and won’t allow me to hint at this subject when he’s around. What do you think? Is it morbid that while I’m healthy as a horse and just entering the second half of my life that I think about my wake? And, should it be important that my wake is the kind of party I’d want to attend myself?


Bluefin blues

May 26, 2008

Last night I ordered sushi and sashimi from Mi-Ne, the best of our many local Japanese restaurants. I purposely avoided ordering bluefin tuna (which is on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s do not eat list) but I couldn’t resist a double order of big eye tuna sashimi. I just crossed my fingers and hoped it was not caught with a longline.

While we were eating our dinner, Martin and Oliver and I discussed how hard it is to be a conscientious sushi consumer who avoids fish that are on the Watch and Avoid lists. As both an active member of the Endangered Fish Alliance and a very concerned earthling who buys hundreds of pounds of seafood a day, Martin knows the fish on the endangered list by heart and follows the latest breaking news on the subject closely (in fact, he’s excited that we now have a Canadian program that is similar to Monterey’s).

When we finished eating, he went to the computer and pulled up this recent article, which reports encouraging news about the bluefin tuna crisis.

In précis, the article talks about Kindai, a farmed version of bluefin, developed at Kinki University’s aquaculture program in Japan. Although you can’t give the buyers of this tuna points for shopping locally, you certainly can thank them for finding an alternative to depleting the ocean stock of bluefin tuna.

Next time I see bluefin tuna on a restaurant menu, I’m going to ask if it is Kindai. I know it isn’t likely that it will be, but at least I’ll be letting restaurateurs know what I want before I order something else.

I know I told you to avoid Chinese food restaurants that serve shark fin soup two weeks ago and that I shook my finger about tetra packs last week. I might seem pushy but I feel really strongly that we all need to take responsibility for changing habits that are negatively affecting the earth and the oceans. Do you agree? If not, let me know.


Dana’s Big Gardening Adventure: planting time!

May 23, 2008

Just as I’m getting my seedlings and delicate baby plants into the garden as part of my own personal locavore experiment, big business is catching on to the concept, too. From the sounds of this article, the effect of big companies growing and processing locally is excellent for the economy as well as for the environment. Good news all around.

My intention is to reduce my food miles for produce to zero this summer and I’m off to a good start. You’ve all seen my seedlings and the bricks I pulled out of my garden to get ready to plant. Now, it’s time for you to meet John, my mom’s boyfriend. That’s him rototilling the soil in the garden behind my test kitchen. As you can see, I didn’t fib when I told you that I had great garden plot. Look at how dark that soil is!

After he finished, I marked out my rows and got my seeds and seedlings into the ground. I’m going to be using 100% organic techniques this year as part of my experiment. With soil that has been a fallow compost heap for at least three summers, I expect I’m going to have a ton of weeds. At John’s suggestion, I’ve spaced the rows wide apart (almost 2 feet/60-cm) so that we can run the rototiller down the rows to mulch up the worst of the weeds as they spring up. That said, I’m expecting to spend a lot of time weeding this summer so next on my purchase list is a composter.

Next week I’ll have pictures of my garden and a full plant list to share so please drop by to see my progress.


Championship grilling

May 22, 2008

The food I associate with summertime weekends is just as important as sun and fun. Together, these factors contribute to the mounting anticipation I feel as summertime approaches. Burgers, rotisserie-turned roasts and whole chickens, sticky ribs and buttery fresh corn are the foods that epitomize fantastic summertime weekends.

In the past, people like me have needed to work for their summertime grilling satisfaction. I’ve spent hours burning charcoal down until only embers remained, brined and marinated and rubbed meats with secret ingredients and then lovingly cooked the food, stopping often to baste and brush, hoping to produce great memory-making foods. Now, on almost any summer weekend, I can attend a championship grilling event where professional grillers make and sell ideal versions of these summery foods.

If you haven’t heard of it before, championship grilling is a ‘sport’ that’s perfect for people who like to eat ribs, inhale mesquite smoke and drink beer. It’s a macho domain that, although not athletic, is taken very seriously by those who participate. In fact, placing at the Memphis in May, Kansas City BBQ Society or Florida BBQ Association grilling events places any griller in the professional category and qualifies him or her to go to the world championships in Belgium (no, really, they do grill in Belgium. It isn’t only about French fries there). Here in Canada, we have some mighty fine grillers with a professional league of our own. Check out the Canadian Barbecue Association’s calendar of events for opportunities to get your fingers sticky this summer.

Hungry for more details about championship grilling? Delve into these online sources:
http://bbq.about.com/library/weekly/aa101197.htm
http://www.ronshewchuk.com/bbq/eventPDFs/Langley.pdf
http://www.tedreader.com/
http://www.canadaslargestribfest.com/
http://www.blazinbbq.ca/

Photocredit: www.blazinbbq.ca