Tonight in Ontario is the Harvest Moon – a signal to past generations that the crop was ready. I thought it was fitting to reflect (pardon the pun) on my recent trip to Manitoba.
Months ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to a Food & Farm trip during harvest time in the prairies. All expenses paid, yes. What did they ask of us all participants? NOTHING. Yes, I truly mean that. How they picked us all, I don’t know – the only connection I can figure out was our love of good food!
After settling in to my regular life, I have had a few days to gather my thoughts (and my sleep). I am sure to blog about my specific experiences of a whirlwind 3 days but this summary at least represents the table of contents.
I had a quick walk (twice) to The Forks for a few hours in Winnipeg, MB.
I met 9 other amazing “foodies” who ranged from Registered Dietitians, chefs, restaurateurs, a food photographer, a news anchor and a travel & food blogger.
After a weekend, the titles of these strangers faded away. The names turned into personalities and the glimpse of everyone’s passion started to come through.
Visits to vegetable, bison, honey, beef, grain, bean & canola farms were the main staple of our tour. It definitely kept us busy & active with the full itinerary.
Throughout the tours and conversations with farmers, it became apparent that everyone had their own interest and investment into food. The questions and comments helped to clear up misunderstandings as well as provide us with many facts and figures we didn’t know.
On top of the educational pieces about the agricultural processes and business side of farming, some history was retold.
The families and farming community were like Pleasantville. Yes, I was told that they are regular folk too but, coming from a metropolitan city of London, Ontario – it was like walking INTO history and old fashioned values – everyone was so sweet & nice in EVERY conversation plus hospitable, opening their homes to us (literally)!
Farmers really care about sustainability and being stewards of the earth.
The food served was out of this world and amazing – ranging from a Pinterest-like party setting in a barn catered by several amazing chefs to my roomie cooking me breakfast (who is an award winning executive chef) and having it ready after my shower (so sweet).
The farms were stunning pictures that really captured the essence of how much space Canada has and how beautiful every turn, hill top and valley is.
Everyone has a story to tell – Using media (videographers followed us, social media used by guests & farmers ) with so many Canadian farms out there, can help continue the conversation about our food.
My takeaway from a 3 day weekend is that I feel even more passionate for food. It has sparked new interests, questions and ideas that will last me for years to come. What I love most is that this experience has now become part of my story and memories. It will shape my future of food, not just in my career, but personally. I will share what I’ve learned on my path, because connecting more with our food and health can help us all live a great life. This trip definitely fed my body, but more importantly, my mind and spirit.
Cherries are in full season, but my “season” started months ago. I undertook a project with 20 Valley Harvest Farms. I have been responsible for many things including designing unique recipes that highlight not only cherries, but whole food, local and Canadian ingredients (Professional Home Economists can be a great source for recipe writing!).
So with so many recipes to design, test and re-test I also indirectly tested out several ways to pit cherries for the average consumer.
I first tried home hacks and methods that required only household items. You can read that post here: Cherry Pitting: Home Hacks on Trial. Even though I am against having too many appliances and gadgets in the kitchen, I went looking for a possible way to get through pitting tons of cherries so I could focus on the recipes (especially when a test completely fails and I need to re-do it fast!).
So I research and find the single, stainless steel cherry pitter. One was at Bed, Bath & Beyond for $18.99. I also found the Starfrit Cherry Pitter. With the option of “6 cherries at once”, I was very interested. It was plastic so I was a bit hesitant, but with the price tag of $14.99 at my local Canadian Tire, I considered it for 3 weeks. (Now when you search during the season, a ton more pop up when searching online.)
After buying out of season cherries from Washington (USA), spending tons of money and losing lots of time for the other tasks I needed to complete for 20 Valley Harvest farm promotions, I bit the bullet and pulled out my wallet.
Did you know that the average recipe development cost charged to companies is about $350 PER RECIPE?! It’s not just the time, but the cost of ingredients, appliances and even energy – electricity for stoves, appliances – add to the cost of a recipe to be developed and tested.
Being frugal, I thought I’d attempt the Starfrit one since it was cheaper and the idea of doing 6 cherries at once compared to the traditional, one at a time, made me travel to Canadian Tire. When I asked, the employee didn’t even know where to find it and she said they must not carry it. I thanked her and noted her lack of confidence of an obviously, not well requested item. So I kept searching the aisle for my solution to my “bloody” cherry hell (I mean problem….). Well, low and behold, after searching inch by inch, there it was… quietly sitting there with no indication of how purposeful it really was.
So home I went, with a lighter wallet and a hope that this weird contraption was going to make my life easier.
The fresher the cherries, the more likely the pit will not stay attached to the tiny flap of skin.
Not just for pies, it’s a great way to make maraschino cherries for cocktails, garnishes and additions to salads.
A great tool if you are also going to dehydrate/dry these into cherraisins (I made up the word and pronounce it “sher-raisins” or “chair-raisins” – which do you prefer?).
Store with your canning gear and put away for the season, or with your colander for reminders when washing other fruits, berries and veggies.
Cherries after being pitted. Notice the cross hatch where the blade goes through.
Here’s what I think after testing out the Starfrit Cherry Pitter:
Easy to use – It has the same action as a stapler and a child can do it without help.
Dishwasher safe – It comes apart to clean all three parts and no handwashing required.
Quick – Less work and mess than home hacks, plus this type does 6 cherries at a time!
Easier than other pitters – For people that don’t have good hand and finger coordination (Ex: Persons with MS, arthritis, fibromyalgia, advanced or very young ages) – no balancing or strong grip required.
Compact – It stores flat with a small locking tab that keeps it flat for storage.
Encourages healthy eating – Mr R Ginger ate an entire bowl in 5 minutes when I offered him “some” since they were already pitted. I’m sure children and everyone in the family will do the same (we never got a chance 😉 ).
Cost is more than home hacks or commercially prepared ones
Space – You’ll need to store it somewhere when not in use.
Final Thought: Yes, I do recommend this item.
If you are picking cherries or making jam or pies, this is a great and healthy alternative to home hacks or commercially prepared with added sugar (10% for those buckets of pitted cherries seasonally available usually). This became my go to for my recipe testing. It has held up great under many dishwasher runs, two kids using it and the countless cherries sacrificed for 3 unique recipes designed by Nutrition Bites for 20 Valley Harvest Farms.
I’m not all for new gadgets, or spending money (frugal PHEc here!), but this saved me time and made it easier to enjoy cherries more this season. I’m happy to have it in my home, and I know next year I will be ready to pull it out. This cherry pitter is totally worth not looking like a red-handed, mass-murderer during cherry season when you are up for serving delicious pies, tarts, jams, salads and cakes quickly!
Note: All opinions are my own. This was not sponsored by Starfrit and I have not received any compensation or free items to recommend this product.
I was invited to participate in the Arts & Cookery Bank’s Food Fight this summer when I poked my head into their amazing heritage and social enterprise site in West Lorne, ON. (See my previous post on the tour I received.)
It was really a push outside my box. Not the black box that contained the secret ingredients. The comfort zone I had remained in. I was asked by Coupons for Hunger to compete in a salsa competition at the Covent Garden Market the previous year. Being a single mom, I turned down the opportunity. I usually never back down from a challenge, but after a few years of not fitting myself into any specific niche or exact career in food and nutrition, I had less than optimal confidence at the time. It was a regret I had – I could have taken the girls along (they love these sorts of things!
So, I said yes this time. I truly believe that everything happens for a reason, and when given second chances – TAKE THEM! Out of my shy box and into the black box I dove!
The experience was a whirlwind. Days leading up to the anxiety increased: Would my product flop? Would my friend bail on me at the last minute? Would I embarrass myself in front of the judges including Emily Richards, fellow P.H.Ec.?
But honestly the day came, and I was happy to just do it. I was conquering my fears of failure and doing what I normally do: give it my best effort and have fun. It’s not like I was doing brain surgery and someone’s life was at stake! It was just food. And I love food, cooking and adventures! So what’s the worst that could happen? I was going to get messy and lose. Ah well, I’ve had worse happen to me. And wasn’t West Lorne far away from London and Niagara – who would know? Except maybe my twitter followers because I tweeted it. But who really follows me anyways? But if you are looking, you can follow me here 😉
So we got to the place around 6:40pm. The first of that round of teams to arrive. We grabbed a few pics to remember our experience. We waited, and tried to figure out any hints. We discussed options based on what we knew:
It was to focus on local ingredients but give it a new twist
It was to be part of the product development for a signature line of preserves for sustainability at the Arts & Cookery Bank (great idea, like YOU in London, ON)
It would possibly use what was in season (being near Lake Erie – I thought tomatoes, blueberries, honey)
7 pm came and we were allowed to enter the kitchen.
But then we walked in, donned our aprons and each team was given a different black box – so no cheating off others’ ideas! We were allowed to use other ingredients around the Cookery Kitchen – onions, garlic, peppers, gooseberries, strawberries, fresh herbs, carrots, tomatoes.
I opened up the box and we had:
I got so excited and my friend was less than impressed. I used those ingredients all the time, her hardly ever!
We were also told we had to make an edible paste and 4 litres of the product! What???!!! They told us they didn’t want a jam. It had to spread using a knife, not a spoon. Oh my!!! This threw I think all three teams for a loop. Oh and did I mention we had 3 hours to complete the entire task – ideas to product completed and in jars!? Glad I’m an energetic person that is a “planner” and very organized.
So we came up with a plan to do roasted peppers and make a chutney-like spread. We asked the other teams if we could take all the 10-12 peppers in the basket. They were good with that and so away we went.
Working as a team with a friend was different. We both cook daily AND teach nutrition and cooking, but have never done it together! And did I tell you that we are both Italian decent? (Of course we were louder than the other groups and using our hands a lot more to talk 😉 Don’t pretend you weren’t thinking it! It’s true and we are culturally proud!) She roasted the peppers on the gas grill and I began the recipe development. I tried three tiny batches because we had super limited ingredients to make 4 litres – every piece of pepper was worth their weight in gold! In turn we worked pretty good together, considering we have our own style and personality.
I’m a ginger lover (yes Mr. R. Ginger can attest to that in both ways 😉 ) and my friend is not. So that meant that I had to reduce the ginger until she was not completely disagreeing with the amounts I added. Other than that, I reduced the sweetness of honey as well – that natural sweetener really packs a punch! Tumeric is a very easy spice to use and it’s difficult to really add way too much. But it does stain everything yellow – so watch your apron, tea towels, finger nails and skin!
We struggled with making 4 litres and added more onions, carrots and gooseberries to the mix at times. We used an immersion blender to blend some of the chopped roasted peppers to make a spread consistency and left some for a chunky “edible paste” – definitely not the norm. The other two groups used the standard corn starch thickening method to try get their product to a consistency. Hats off to the Sweets Bakery ladies who got gooseberries as a main ingredient. They did make it LOOK good – like a bakery product with a kind of “whipped cream” topping!
We didn’t want to change the taste so we committed to having less than 4 litres and keeping the taste better. My idea for the product jars was to add carrot ribbons to be a part of a garnish of sorts (DYK: a “garnish” technically HAS to be edible) and make it even more visually appealing. Topped that with parsley leaves and voila, our finished product:
Honey Ginger Roasted Pepper Spread
We packaged them up and then found three other jars we were supposed to fill! So we got a spoon out and started robbing Peter to pay Paul. We made the timeline with a completed EDIBLE product! Success!
Funny or interesting things that were part of our experience:
Blood, sweat and tears were put into this product development: She cut her finger (yes, even veterans do it!), we were sweating buckets and running around a lot, and I had to chop onions and cried a few tears
My carrot ribbons were taken as “scrap” and whisked away to be thrown out
We had a clean up crew that was fantastic – and now I realize why “chefs” are so lucky – they never clean up after themselves – Professional Home Economists, we do because who else it going to at home? I was spoiled to get to use endless dishes! A big THANK YOU to those wonderful volunteers!
We had a great time doing it and all our hard work paid off: we won the business category under my Nutrition Bites Consulting business! We were not in attendance, but Grace made sure to hold on to our gift bags/prizes. We received two cookbooks from the judges Jill Wilcox from Jill’s Table in London, ON and Emily Richards new cookbook coming out in the fall. We also enjoyed Forrat’s chocolates and other kitchen stuff including an awesome heavy duty Foodland Ontario apron as well. I’m sorry we missed out on the final event that Saturday, including Fresh Air Media’s Andrew Campbell, who is an educated young farmer in the area who is a great public speaker and media host.
The best part of the entire experience: I survived a personal and public challenge and am better for it. And it had to do with food. When can things ever go wrong from pushing your limits? It definitely made me more confident in my abilities, even though deep down I know that I shouldn’t really be that hard on myself. I learned to have faith in what I know is there, but the world might not know yet.
Hello World, I’m out of the box now and happy to face my next challenge!
On my gourmet Southwestern Ontario trip this past weekend (one day to be a blog post, hopefully soon), we stopped at Delhaven Orchards in Blenheim, Ontario near Lake Erie. We were blessed with a $25 gift certificate, and honestly it was crazy how much fruit we had to buy to spend it! (Farmers stands and markets are where it’s at for buying fresh produce for cheap!).
So what did we buy?
An 11-litre peach basket filled with “seconds” apricots (for $12 – no taxes ever on fresh fruit and veggies by the way in Canada) plus a whole bunch of apples, some peaches and plums (they are fully in season in Ontario right now so fill up your baskets and cars!). In comparison, “firsts” apricots were $4 or so for a quart (the average one pound countainer for strawberries).
And what are seconds?
They are the fruit and veggies that don’t look “perfect” in our eyes – smaller, some marks, or even sometimes under-ripe or over-ripe.
There are high standards for canning companies – so usually the biggest ones go to the processing facilities because they can get bigger slices (but then pack it in cans and lots of added sugar and “syrup” – always buy fresh if you can, or packed in water only). There is usually NOT bugs inside, and they can be SO much cheaper than “firsts”. Thirds exist too, but many are discarded or in a case like apples – might be made into a cidre or something that uses the fruit or vegetable but it is processed to a point so it doesn’t look physically like the same thing. It could still be a natural product, just perhaps not the full, whole food/fruit/veggie.
So don’t forget to look for deals everywhere but don’t judge a fruit just by the outside. Even peaches don’t have to be red to be the sweetest and juiciest. That depends on each variety, just like apples!
So enjoy seconds and thirds just like you would silver or bronze. Working hard for your money doesn’t mean you have to have the gold standard – you might just be paying for looks, not taste or nutrition.
PS – Those eating solely organic know that imperfect and sometimes downright ugly still tastes good. Nature is not always perfect to us, but that’s because how we view things. Literally sometimes.
So, a previous post on The Arts & Cookery Bank in West Lorne, ON did tell of the Food Fight Challenge that I was asked to enter. I’m proud to say that my home ec teacher friend, Tiz, and I won the business category (yes for my Nutrition Bites Consulting business). I’ll bring you through the whole process and my experience (good and bad – always honest here!) in another post. But I thought I’d share a picture until I have time to finish my Black Box Experience post.
Our finished product was a Honey Ginger Roasted Pepper Spread.
I believe they are planning this event to be an annual thing – so sign us up for Food Fight 2016! We have a title to defend!
So our family tradition is to go to a local pick your own strawberry farm (Heeman’s in Thorndale, ON) the day after school is done for the summer. This year, we had a late start and went around 4 pm to pick. We saw an old friend that worked the Pick Your Own (or #PYO ) and walked instead of waiting for the tractor and wagon ride.
There the pickings were slim. It turns out our nasty winter left some of the strawberry plant roots, a little worse for wear. So that might have been the last day for picking! We were so lucky! We got assigned to our row, and the lessons began. So many questions from the girls even though we have done this for years. Every year, there is a different level of questions or different people to interact with. It’s nice because it gives us the outdoors, the fresh air, and fruits (literally) of our labour. Quality time and no electronics (which I limit to 60 minutes a day for each child anyways – it works, try it!). So we got our strawberries back to the super clean barn. They weighed them ($2.25/pound) and the price tag – $47 and some. Yes, myself and two children (8 & 11) picked about 21 pounds of strawberries in less than an hour.
What does one do with that many strawberries? We delivered some to a friend. One more delivery still has to be made. And that night we brought more to a neighbour having an epicure party (their fruit dip mixes are delish!). Still there was way to many to eat fresh (we pick them at very ripe, as they taste the best and are super sweet then) even for my strawberry monster (the 8 year old). The plan, as always is to “jam” and to freeze whatever is left if I’m waiting for blueberry and raspberry season (which usually comes later in July & August).
So for an adventure, lessons in life, some free child labour (kidding!), and a tractor/wagon ride – plus tons of fresh produce at a fraction of a price (who says healthy, fresh and local is expensive?) the answer is simple:
Get picking your own fruits & veggies.
Cheap food plus:
Physical activity for the whole family
Entertainment that is cheap and you get a prize worth more than a dollar or stale popcorn
Nature and fresh air
Sharing with friends and family (community & social support), or a local food bank – yes they take it!
Do some home cooking to get sweet & stick, and
Enjoy your work and memories for months to come (preserve laughs and food).
So when raspberry or blueberry season comes, grab a friend or the family, and you will be berry, I mean very, happy that you did. It’s always a new experience, even if you have done it times before. If not, the staff are always so willing to help – so just ask. There is a first time for everything for everyone. (Or just comment below and I will help!)