Thursday, December 16, 2010

Cutting Corners Making Bread... And a Secret Recipe

Entering the house on frosty days like these, there's nothing like the assault of fresh bread on the nose. This is the best bread recipe I have- its flavour coveted by many.  And it comes care of a lady who babysat me on weekends my parents stole away. Grandma Blair is not my grandmother and probably not yours, but when you taste this bread you'll realize its how you imagine family to be. A little crusty on the edges, warm and soft on the inside, with many different kinds of seeds giving variety to each bite

As with all my bread recipes, I've cut out most of the traditional steps of punching down and waiting forever to bake it. If you are a real stickler, then follow the traditional bread methods with this dough. But if you are like me, lazy and impatient with delayed gratification, then feel free to cut corners with any of your recipes too. This is how I approach any and all bread recipes:

1. Put all the dry ingredients in bowl. Mix.
2. Put all the wet ingredients in.
3. Mix. Add extra flour if dough is too wet (though don't be deceived when using a mixer- the more whole wheat you use, the less likely the dough will gather in a ball on the hook!). If you are mixing by hand, this is where the dough will become too stiff to stir, so you will knead it with your hands. Depending on what you are making, the finished dough will have different texture: Bread and buns dough will be soft and wet, keeping its form but just barely. Pita, pizza and bagel dough will be stiffer- they use less liquid and more flour.
4. Leave dough to 'rest' for five minutes in mixing bowl.
5. Decide: Cook it now or later? Most recipes make two loaves, so you may want to only cook one loaf and save the other dough for later. 
6. TO COOK IT LATER: Place dough in a large bag/ container and place in the fridge (you can let it rise on the counter for up to 2 hours). This dough will keep in the fridge for up to two weeks, and the longer it 'cold rises' the more complex the flavour.
5. TO COOK IT NOW: Shape into forms- loaves, buns, twists, braids. 
A note about loaves- I exclusively use pie plates or cookie sheets to make bread. I shape the loaves in rounds, rings, or oval shapes. To give them that artisan look, use a serrated knife and slice them three times before they rise.

6. Let shaped dough rise for an hour on the counter (cover if you want). Experiment with the rise time,  you may not notice the difference between an hour rise and a half-hour in the finished product. If I'm in a hurry, I may form dough into buns and leave them only a half hour to rise - they then cook fast and are done within the hour. Dough will rise another quarter its size as it cooks.

7. TO USE DOUGH FROM THE FRIDGE: The cold rise experts say to remove dough from fridge and allow it to warm to room temperature before forming it. However, I form the dough immediately after removing it with no problems. In the case of cinnamon twists (a post for next week), I will often remove the dough, shape it, and put it straight in the oven. We're eating twists 20 minutes after removing the dough from the fridge. 

8. So, forget the rules and experiment! For more on this, check out this past post on the basic bread recipe. 

Grandma Blair Bread

Finally, the recipe... it can be made in the mixer or is small enough to easily mix by hand. Makes 2 loaves or 2 dozen buns.

1. Mix dry ingredients in a bowl:
   - 1/2 C Red River Cereal
   - 1/4 C each: Sunflower, poppy, flax seeds and millet
   - 1 T Yeast
   - 1 t Salt
   - 3 C White Flour
   - 3 C Brown Flour
   - 1/4 Brown Sugar
2. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients:
   - 1/8 C molasses (or more to taste)
   - 1 egg, beaten
   - 1/4 C oil
   - 2 3/4 C warm water
3. Mix/knead until dough is soft and pliable (elastic is how it feels, but its hard to explain until you feel it!). Add flour if necessary. 
4. Let rest five minutes.
5. Form into bread or buns and let rise another hour OR place in bag for 'cold rise' in the fridge for up to two weeks.
6. Cook at 375 F. Bread for 45 minutes, Buns for 20-25. 
7. Slice, eat and enjoy.

I will be hosting a Bread Making Workshop on Sunday, January 23 in the afternoon. Max 4 people, so RSVP and pay early. Fee is $20.  You'll go home with 4 loaves of bread (2 Grandma Blair bread and two others), a dozen cinnamon twists, and a half dozen pitas/ or pizza dough.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Ode to Home in Time for the Season of Nostalgia

As a self-proclaimed Homesteader, I’ve given some thought to the role Home plays in my life. Homesteaders in the traditional sense are concerned about the very basics of survival: food production, food preparation, shelter from the elements, food preservation, and propagating more humans to consume said food resources. 

Surely Home is a lot more than the sum of these skeletal parts. Screws and 2x4s, trusses and shingles, cement and hardwood: a house this makes- but a home?

The word Home has an emotional dimension that, when I imagine it, is the ‘meat’ (err: flesh) on the skeleton. Relationships, memory, expectations, and exasperations stretch over the structure and add warmth like that of new love or old love or bacon wrapped tenderloin.
There are many words that start with ‘home’ which are full of emotional associations. Let’s explore a few.

Consider the word: “Homemade”. Its very mention conjures the image of a crackling hearth and wafting scent of chicken soup and fresh bread.  Strange that this word doesn’t bring to mind those biscuits I cleverly disguised as ‘biscotti’ or the smoke from the hearth pizza that assailed the fire alarm until it shrieked like a cat fight.

Consider the word “Homemaker”. As a generation Y-er, I have a hard time detaching this word from snide ‘bare foot and pregnant in the kitchen’ comments. But the homemakers I’ve met don’t look much like their caricature. Women and men, fathers and grandmothers, they are involved in more than giving a house that homespun feel. Regularly they fuel the fire that is community action.

Say it, “Home.” I hear: Crackling fire (I don’t have a fireplace) and crinkle of Christmas presents (one day a year).

The reality is, at times Home sounds like me screaming at the kids to stop crying while they scream at me to stop screaming. Thankfully these off notes join the tenors of other sounds: the piano thunking, the girls wrestling on squeaky couch springs, the screen slamming with Mat’s entry, the bath tap pouring, the oven door opening, the forks scraping, and boots booming across the living room floor. The music of home, the real soundtrack and not the one created by advertisers and nostalgic storytellers, is dissident and soothing in even measure. It is as complex as a master composition: something to be enjoyed thoughtfully on a cold, snowy December Day.

Yak and Jammin

The ever-violent game of 'spoons'.

Yak and Jammin'

Kitchen Party
Murder Mystery Birthday party
Add caption
Back Deck Barber Shop

Monday, November 29, 2010

Harvest 2010- Thank God for the Grocery Store

I know it's late to be posting an update on September's harvest, but I needed some time to come to terms with my meagre gleanings. It was a tough year this year. Everything started out looking so lovely and green, then...
Clearing the garden.

1. My onions were eaten by the onion fly (again!).
2. My broccoli and kale crawled with the cabbage moth's pre-winged worms.
3. My crab apple tree caught a fungus and dropped all its leaves in May.
4. Only half my potatoes grew.
5. The squash grew slowly.
6. The eggplant grew even slower. 
7. My four harvestable corn tasted... hmmm, like wood?
The corn sure looked promising-- before August when they stunted.
The aesthetic of these carrots is great but our general consensus was that the traditional orange tasted best.
Two eggplant struggled to palm size. Too much rain, too little heat.

Late season broccoli was the only thing that survived the cabbage fly's summer assault.

There were some real hits- like the arugula, borage and many of my Italian herbs (and of course mint) that produced like crazy. I tasted the first fruits of my honey berry bush while the strawberries exploded. All the strawberry spinach and wild strawberry seeds I planted grew happily. I harvested grapes! And my carrots did a nice job of growing sweet with funky colours. And cucumbers! Cucumbers finally flourished in my garden thanks to rain, rain, constant rain.

But its all got me thinking about food security. If I depended on my yard this year for food, well, I'd have some great flavoured Italian water-soup and nice tea with cucumber slices.

I often joke I'm a lot like Marie Antoinette with her Versailles' garden. She ran a little hobby farm. She dabbled in growing the palace food but she depended on a much broader source of food production to keep the castle happy and fed. Her wealth allowed her the opportunity to glean the spiritual benefits of getting her hands dirty without any physical consequences when nature had its way.

This about sums up my gardening experience this year. I harvest much joy and rhythm in my urban yard. But this year I'm thankful to live in a time and place of plenty- where my garden doesn't drive my decisions about vacations or my children's survival rates.

I like to think I keep a garden as a food source. But in truth, quite thankfully, I garden as a hobby.  

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Alberta Avenue Farmers Market

It may be -14 and snowing- but there is a place you can buy chard, fresh greens and garden carrots today: The Alberta Avenue Farmers' Market. Located in the community league on 93 street and 118 Ave here in Edmonton, it is a relatively new (1.5 years old) year-round market working hard to connect producers with urban customers.

The prices are exceptional, though the selection is still pretty sparse. Today, I bought $3 eggs and grass fed hamburger for $3.50 lb from Ari. I bought a decent ring of garlic elk sausage for $5.50 and ground elk for $4.30 per lb from a producer in New Sereptia. There was fresh peach pie (she uses frozen, not canned peaches!) for $5 and a loaf of banana bread for $3.  From Green Eggs and Ham I bought a bag of carrots for $5- they will have fresh greens all year round, thanks to their greenhouse outside of Leduc.

There's a real need for a thriving year-round market in Edmonton, north of the river. But its more easily said than done: to get committed producers you need committed customers, but for committed customers you need committed producers. A new steering committee has been created to develop a plan for the market's sustainability, and since its in my community, I happily joined. In a neighbourhood where there is a diverse mix of people and growing revitalization, a market like this one can only enhance our networks and the vibrancy on the Avenue.

So, all you Edmontonians who have a grocery budget to spend and ten minutes on a Thursday (from 2- 7pm) to stop in to shop- please spend your dollars at a market that promises a lot more for our community than garden produce and baked goods!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

November Flowers, Harvests and Buds in the Backyard

BUDS! In November?
Saskatoon has buds like this all over the tree.

I am fearing for the winter health of some of my berry bushes. There have been a significant number of frosts to date, but daytime weather has been generally mild. On roaming the back yard today I was shocked to find buds on my saskatoon- and my honeyberry was actually sprouting new leaves!?
Can you see the new leaves on the bottom right? There are others on the left.

FLOWERS! Even after many many cold nights, my pinks, clematis and, of course, asters, are blooming. The purple coral bells offed rich counter point to all the yellow and orange leaves from the mountain ash.

This is the clematis' second year planted here.  It is zone 2 and native to the rockies.
These pinks have offered an explosion of colour all summer long- and now into the fall. Behind them is a lavender, zone 4, that has flourished at the base of the apple tree for four seasons.

Prolific Asters!
Iris' and coral bell at the base of the Saskatoon.

HARVESTS: We continue to enjoy parsley from the garden. Up to two weeks ago the strawberries were producing and I'm popping out into the yard for still fresh garlic chives, oregano, arugula and beautifully coloured kale.
Arugula still growing and blooming
Still-green strawberries front a Morden Rose

Green onion/garlic chives are still giving. I planted these from seed (from Salt Spring Island Seeds) and they promise to be a perennial that will continue passing on the love, labour free! Wild strawberry seeds blew into this bed, and the little guys seem happy with the onions- a pairing similar to their natural habitat in the mountain meadows I grew up exploring.

Four varieties of oregano peek out from the fallen leaves of our mountain ash. 

The kale turns purple when cold- but its still good to eat. These little guys suffered under the shade of a large tree and in drought like, nutrient poor conditions. They are survivors that I don't think I'll eat- for their sake.

This is a Silver Sage that I grew from seed last year. It is still producing new leaves from its centre- now that the slugs are slowing down- I guess it has to grow when it can! I've planted wild strawberries all along the path (at the bottom of the picture) and these should produce fruit next season. They are doing a great job of filling in as a ground cover. I bought the seeds on ebay from an Albertan company. These seeds were hard to find- but propagated very easily both inside and out. 

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Carrots in the Washing machine?

Louise Froese, who taught me to cook beets, casually mentioned that she doesn't bother scrubbing her garden carrots.

I looked at her with some incredulity. Dirt isn't as bad for you as us sanitized parents like to think, but didn't dirt affect the flavour? Not to mention the texture.

Good thing I pursued it. Turns out, she lets her washing machine do the scrubbing for her.
I couldn't believe it would work so I headed home and threw about 5 pounds of carrots and turnips from the garden into the washer along with two large bath towels (I made sure to brush the excess dirt off the veggies).

I have a small front loader that boasts a lot of unused settings. Putting a tiny bit of soap in the reservoir, I set the machine on the lowest, shortest setting (hand dry) then watched the veggies whirl about. The towels lessoned the rattling which I imagined would assume the din of a tympani.

Outside of my skepticism, my main concern was for the machine. I asked Louise about wear and tear and she shrugged that it never had been a concern for her machine: a top loader that has washed many pounds of carrots over many years.

The buzzer announced the 20 minute cycle was up. I pulled the veggies out and, of course, they were as clean as if I'd spent 20 minutes scrubbing them. The odd one had a little dirt residue that came off with a scraping from my nail.

I think my next (and last- welcome winter) batch of carrots, I'm going to try in the top rack of my dishwasher. Will report back!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Dehydrators are a Dream

Next to cinnamon twists fresh out of the oven, there is nothing else that creates a buzz in the kitchen like apple fruit leather hot from the dehydrator.

Our community league sponsored the purchase of this dehydrator, for use by any Alberta Avenue community members (let me know if you'd like a turn!):

There are four drying trays, however you can stack them up to eight high, if you buy extra trays. Heat settings are clearly marked, and the dry time is mostly due to your preference.

 To make fruit leather, pureed fruit is smoothed on donut shaped trays. I've mixed strawberry and raspberry in with apple sauce for occasional variety, but I prefer straight up sour apple.  You'll need about a 3/4 - 1 Cup of sauce per tray.

After about 6- to 8 hours (depends on the thickness of your layer of sauce), voila, fruit leather like none other.

Generally, our family of four will eat the bounty from all four trays in the scope of 24 hours.

It's a good thing we have a ready supply of Grandma's homemade apple sauce waiting in the freezer!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

From Local Farms- A Video Project

Folks! Check out Kevin Kossowan's blog for some exceptional photos and tips on eating, drinking and living well. Most interesting is the host of video interviews he's collected with local farmers in a series called "From Local Farms". A kind of "We Eat Together" meets video series. Meet him November 7, 2010 at the upcoming Slow Food Edmonton General Meeting.

Here's a video of the The Sun Dog Folks (Jenny has many connections in the Alberta Avenue area):

From Local Farms - Sundog Organic Farm from Kevin Kossowan on Vimeo.

And for all you chicken farmers that want to go organic and have volume, here's an interview with Ron Hamilton at Sunworks Farms (one of the larger/est local organic chicken operations):

FROM LOCAL FARMS - Sunworks Farm from Kevin Kossowan on Vimeo.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Growing Grapes in the Alberta

My first grape harvest. This is from a two year old vine- so bunches are still small.
Grapes are one of those fruits that visitors are often surprised to see growing in our climate. While many locals have heard of the long-suffering Valiant grape, there are at least eight varieties of grape that grow in Zones 2-3. I have four varieties, 2 white and 2 red, and this year I had my first (small) harvest from the Eona vine. Planted two summers ago, the grapes grow on the south side of my stuccoed house. Thanks to the wall radiating heat, its extra hot and sheltered.

 The grapes were each about a centimeter in diameter and packed with the flavour of Welches Grape Juice. Picked at the end of September, they had survived (and possible thrived?) through one hard frost. The skin was soft, the fruit juicy. Then there were the seeds: Two! Two 2 mm seeds in each grape! The taste and value made the seeds worth the work- but they definitely slowed my consumption speed. Perhaps this is nature's way of reminding us where life comes from? Perhaps this is creation's way of imposing discipline in these times of fast food and eating on the run?

"Every prairie fruit you find will have a seed or pit," Shannon says. My wee grapes had 2 seeds per fruit! 

The process of food-scaping my yard has been long and slow; most plants require at least three to four years before they produce a harvest of significance (damn it, once again I am forced to be patient!). Shannon at Shallow Creek Nurseries- sadly now closed- has been a wealth of information and source of many varieties of fruit. Here are some of her recommendations for growing grapes in regions with hot summers and hard winters:

1. Where you place grapes is crucial- they need a sheltered spot with full south exposure. Be particularly careful to choose a home out of the wind.
2. Fall pruning should always be done to protect the plant from winter kill. Prune each vine down to the fourth bud.
3. In preparation for winter, shovel lots of snow on the remaining plants.
4. Don't expect fruit until the third season. Let the plant focus on its root system for the first few years.
5. After the third year, if you want to encourage fruit production then keep the vines pruned at about four feet high. If you want leaves for a trellis, of course let it grow, but don't expect a lot of fruit.
6. If the grapes are tart, you've picked them too early. Water them and wait another week or two. The fruit should get plumper and sweeter in this time.

While Shallow Creek Nurseries are no longer open, their website is a wealth of information on local fruit for the Prairies and can give you an idea of the possibilities for fruit in your yard. Read about the 8 different kinds of grape, 11 types of cherries, and 6 kinds of saskatoons. They also sold hybrid fruit varieties like Chums and Jostaberries, and unique cuttings from the Goji bush.

The greenhouses offer a disappointing number of varieties of berries. But I believe that the more people ask for them, the more likely that a market will grow- so ask ask ask!

Here are a few nurseries and garden centres that carry berries and fruit (there is still time to plant a clearance shrub or tree before winter!):

Greenland Garden Centre
- Sunstar Nurseries
Address: (780) 472- 810 167 Ave. NE (Not as great a selection but they do have: apples, pears,  plums, honeyberry, saskatoons, currants, grapes, cherries)
- Arrowhead Nurseries- (780) 472-6260, Address: 2503 211 Ave NE (graft their own plums, apples, cuttings for honeyberries and cherries (romance series, sour cherries), grapes (valiant and beta), currants, josta berries, and pears))
DNA Gardens (for black currants and hardy apples/plums/pears- Southeast of Red Deer.)
- Holes Greenhouse

Also, the online service at T& T Seed's is very good and their selection is better than most.

If you find other sources of great, hardy fruit, please let me know!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Nova Scotia Chow Chow- Using up those Green Tomatoes!

If you're like me, you have lots of green tomatoes reddening (and rotting) on your basement floor. I post here a delicious green tomato recipe from my dear neighbour Trish. She shares a wee bit of the heart of Nova Scotia with us...

Chow, chow!  I just like saying the word, even typing it is fun. chow, chow.  chow, chow. meow meow.
This is a Nova Scotia Chow Chow recipe.
To be used on hunks of dry meat or to sweeten up a dull meal.
Delicious any time of year.
Best to can. 
1. Slice:
 - 16 cups finely sliced green tomatoes
 - 8 cups sliced onions

2. Sprinkle well with salt (preferably sea salt) and let sit overnight.  Mmm..salty juices.

3. Drain.

4. Put drained tomatoes and onions in a large pot, add:
  - 3 cups of vinegar, 
  - 4 to 5 cups of sugar (depending on how sweet you want your chow chow)
  - 1/2 cup of pickling spices (in a cheesecloth bag)
5. Cook, stirring often until soft and thick.
Makes six whopping pints.

Monday, September 27, 2010

More Pumpkin Recipes

I'm not a fan of the texture of pumpkin soup, but the flavour in the recipe below is fantastic... I use it more like a dip with pita chips, which bypasses the whole mental problem over texture.

Both recipes come from those crazy Canadian ladies, Janet and Great Podleski (Loonyspoon girls). If you've got extra money in your cook book budget, their recipes are fantastic- flavourful and healthy.

Pumpkin Soup with Apples and Ginger

2 tsp olive oil
1 C chopped onions
1 t minced garlic
1 T grated ginger root
1 t  curry powder
1/2 t cumin
4 C chicken broth
2 C peeled and chopped apples
2 C canned (or cooked) pure pumpkin
1 C chopped carrots
1/2 t salt
1/4 t pepper
3/4 evaporated 2% milk, or light 5% cream

1. Heat oil in large, non stick soup pot over medium heat. Add onions and garlic. Cook and stir until onions begin to soften, about 3 minutes. Add ginger root, curry powder and ground cumin. Mix well and cook for 20 more seconds.

2. Add broth, apples, pumpkin, carrots, salt and pepper. Bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer. covered, for 12 to 15 minutes or until carrots are tender. Stir occasionally.

3. Use a hand blander and puree until smooth. Stir in milk or cream. Serve hot.
(From Eat, Shrink and Be Merry)

Pumpkin and Carrot Muffins

1 1/2 C flour
1/2 C wheat bran
2 t  baking powder
2 t  pumpkin pie spice (I mix nutmeg, all spice, ginger, cinnamon up equal parts)
1t   baking soda
1/2 t salt
1 C cooked/ canned pure pumpkin
1/2 C grated carrots
1/2 C buttermilk and honey
1/4 C butter or margarine, melted
1 egg
1 t vanilla
1 t grated orange zest
1/2 C chopped walnuts (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 375. Spray a 12- C muffin tin with non stick spray and set aside.

2. In a large bowl, combine flour, wheat bran, baking powder, pumpkin spice, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

3. In a medium bowl, whisk together pumpkin, carrots, buttermilk, honey, butter, egg, vanilla and orange zest. Add wet ingredients to flour mixture and stir just until moistened. Batter will be thick. Gently fold in walnuts, if using.

4. Divide batter among 12 muffin cups. Bake for 20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove muffins from pan and let cool on wire rack.
(From Crazy Plates)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Cooked me a Pumpkin

'Tis the season that you can finally buy (or are harvesting) Jack O'Lantern's head.

When Madi saw one among the grocery bags, she immediately begged to make pumpkin soup. I was a little surprised because at four years old, veggies and/or soup is not her thing. Pleased that my daughter's palate was becoming open minded, immediately upon her request I tossed the 2 foot wide squash into the oven.

With the oven rack set as low as it could go, Jack the Pumpkin filled the space. He sat on a ridged cookie sheet for at least 2 hours, roasting at 300 F. He slowly sagged and sweated in the heat. Madi forked him every half an hour, "Is the soup ready yet?" she asked continually. I think she thought that we'd open the pumpkin up and soup would be inside. A nice idea- huge orange bowl of pumpkin soup... perhaps this could be done with a little clever manufacturing (suck out the seeds and insert the spice?).

Once the fork pierced the flesh easily, we pulled out the tray and let Jack cool. On numerous occasions, I have nearly cut my hand off while trying to chop up fresh squash. It was only last year that I began roasting them whole; I'll never know how many fingers this method saved me, but I guarantee a few.

Slicing Jack in half took about half a second and the inside stringy bits and seeds were easy to remove. From this large pumpkin, bought for $4 from Superstore, I gleaned 18 Cups of cooked pumpkin (about the equivalent of 8x 540 ml of canned pumpkin or about $24 worth!)

Another way to visualize our harvest is to imagine my kitchen filled with:

- 4 dozen pumpkin/carrot muffins
- 8 servings of pumpkin/apple/ginger soup
- 5 pumpkin pies
- 1 cup of roasted seeds

What a feast! Gleaning Jack's flesh required us to get our hands dirty (slimy might be a better descriptor), but it was great value for little effort.  What pumpkin I didn't use, I packed in 1 Cup baggies and froze.

See below for my roasted pumpkin seed recipe (for nutritional information see here for seeds and here for pumpkin). I'll post the soup and muffin recipes tomorrow.

Roasted Pumpkin Seed Recipe

1. Wash and dry seeds. If all the strings don't come off, pick them out after roasting when they are crispy and easy to sift out.
 2. Toss seeds with (olive) oil and (sea) salt. You could also use seasoning salt, cajun spice, fajita spice...
3. Spread out seeds evenly on a cookie sheet and roast in 200 F oven until they are crispy like you like them (plan for a few hours). Stir them occasionally for even roasting.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Apple Oatmeal Recipe for a Too Early Fall

The first frost here in the great North was a frost to be reckoned with. Nothing like -5 C to clobber most of the garden leaves to a drippy, translucent mess. Not to mention how it left most tomatoes and squash that I was optimistic enough to leave on the vine. But, focussing on the positive, one has to turn to the carrots and apple- they really are divine after such a frost lays out their more tender garden compatriots. This is their time to shine.

Our grey, cold weather is enough to make me start making oatmeal again. If you're not a fan, try it one more time adding shredded apples and (a wee bit o') cream- and you may just be hooked (and healthier for it!).

Now that my black pot has been moved from the needs-to-be-redesigned- solar cooker, it has become my oatmeal pot. For something worth getting up in the morning, find yourself a pot and put in it:

1 Cup Oatmeal (I prefer regular, but use instant if you have it)
2 Cups Water
pinch of salt
splash of cinnamon (or 3 or 6)

Heat this up to boiling then turn to low for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. While you wait, shred an apple.

Add the shredded apple to the pot when oatmeal has thickened. Warm for another 5 minutes. Try experimenting, adding almonds or raisins as you prefer.

Sweeten with brown sugar, or maple syrup. I mix in a splash of cream to make it the kind of porridge you get for $9 a bowl at Vancouver hotel restaurants.

Happy warming, folks. The season for furnaces has begun.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Meeting Cora's Bees

Cora Suits Up
To watch the bees in action, check out this video of Cora opening the hive.

Quick quiz: What do you do when something black and yellow buzzes by your head? If you’re with my neighbour, Cora McLachlan, you better not swat at it- McLachlan is a beekeeper and keeps four hives on a Camrose area farm.  Her hives face a field of swaying gold grain heads. It is a short commute to work for her busy bees.

Last month I had the opportunity to watch thousands of her honeybees. Standing in their flight path from their hive to the field was surreal; the bees, like a lazy house cat, gave me no notice. “Things to do and flowers to see,” they buzzed.

Their homes are innocuous, simple wooden boxes stacked two to five high. Each one houses an average of 60,000 bees. Their door is a narrow, horizontal entrance at the base of the stack.
The hives on the left are healthy.

This year, only two of McLachlan’s colonies are strong. One weak hive was over exposed to winter gusts and the bees starved to death, huddled together at the base of the hive, too cold to venture to the food in the box above. The other colony has mites. These tiny parasitic creatures are wreaking havoc on Canadian bee colonies and in some areas are threatening the beekeeping industry. McLachlan doesn’t like medicating, but this year she must do it or face an extinguished colony in the spring. Prevention is her main interest in combating the mites and she is experimenting with a variety of methods.

Most honeybee colonies in Alberta travel from New Zealand in a capped tube, narrow in diameter and as long as a small car is wide. Eight to ten thousand bees are in this tube; there is one queen. This lucky lady will spend her life laying eggs in cells and secreting a pheromone that ensures all other females remain sterile. In the larger cells she lays drones (the male, minor characters in our story). The virgin queen will mate once in her life, mating with multiple drones. After the festivities, the lucky guys romantically, literally, drop dead.

From the smaller cells, females will hatch. As a beekeeper, you hope that most of the eggs laid are females because it’s the ladies who do all the work. In fact, too many guys can seriously weaken your colony by eating food the females spend their life collecting. In their short life span of about 6 months, the females will cycle through most roles in the hive. The queen must be cared (she will outlive her compatriots ten times!). Then there are the drones to run out and keep from the hive, the combs to build, the colony to defend, the collection of pollen and nectar from the field, and the honey to make. Most of their life will be spent in the fields.  

I'm feeling a little nervous.
To peek in the hive, I suited up like a real bee keeper- white coveralls smelled deliciously sweet, elasticized elbow-high gloves and a safari hat surrounded by netting that was tied securely around my collar. McLachlan suited up as well. She has kept bees for two years and has never been stung in that time. She’s careful, but the bees are also very docile when she opens their hive, thanks to the (legal) smoke she puffs into the top box a minute before entry.

Inside the boxes, plastic combs hang like file folders in a drawer. The combs fit tightly together to ease the bees’ work filling the cells with nectar (their carbs) and pollen (there protein). When the time is right, they cover it all with a preserving layer of wax. One box can hold 75 lbs of honey.  As one box is filled and capped, they work their way up. McLachlan’s September’s harvest was slim considering the number of stacked boxes, garnering her just over 100lbs of fresh, free flowing honey.

While McLachlan keeps her bees outside the city, an urban bee movement is gaining momentum.  Many cities including New York and Vancouver have overturned bylaws restricting beekeeping in the city limits. In Edmonton, Patti Milligan, aka Lola Canola, told the Edmonton Journal, “My feeling is, if we go the way of most cities that have had this discussion, the bylaw will be changed.”
The buzzing field.

My trip to McLachlan’s bees was a reminder to think a little differently about buzzing creatures.  Wasps and hornets are important predators in our gardens. Honeybees not only produce their sweetener, they and other pollinators are critical for apples, squash, strawberries and other plants to fruit.  The makings and mysteries of life are in the hands and feet of much smaller creatures than I.

Their gift is a miraculous one to our incessantly swatting race.