The Zero Mile Diet Garden

For many years I just assumed that I had a brown thumb. Any attempt I made at gardening on the island always resulted in stunted plants, low yields, and heartache. That was until someone gave me a copy of Steve Solomon's Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades. I discovered that the heavy rain that we have here on the West Coast leaches out many of the soil nutrients, and the soil tends to be acidic. Steve's solution is a heavy application of lime and a liberal dose of a miraculous homemade natural fertilizer made from easily obtainable ingredients. Early results in our new garden show that it's working.

Like most of our projects, the garden developed rather organically. About eight years ago I bought some recycled plastic container boxes from someone on Vancouver Island. I reassembled them on the south side of the driveway and filled them with topsoil. A small apple tree provided the focal point for the garden on the other side.

We tied a rope around the tree and used it to help us lay out the triangular-shaped beds. We defined them with recycled brick from our former fireplace and added an extra layer of enriched topsoil to the rather depleted soil that already existed. The only thing we have left to do is to cover the paths with some straw or bark mulch. I'm thrilled with the result.

We ordered the Zero Mile Diet seed kit from Dan Jason on Salt Spring Island. Dan has been providing open-pollinated, untreated, and non GMO seeds along with plenty of growing advice to Canadians for 22 years. The kit (which sold out quickly) contained seeds for wheat, barley, flax, quinoa, amaranth,various dried beans, paste tomatoes, and a 20-lettuce blend. I also ordered some soybeans, cucumbers, and runner beans along with the usual carrots, beets, squashes, and assorted greens.

The Heritage Bean Mix was so beautiful I almost wept. It's easy to pick out the "orca" beans in this picture.

The garlic and favas that I planted in November continue to thrive.

The French and Easter Egg radishes were stupendous, in fact I had probably added too much fertilizer - they were very leafy. I discovered that radish greens are edible and are not unlike turnip greens. Sauteed in olive oil with garlic and chili flakes, they are delicious.

We've been eating the lettuce for the last few weeks - it will probably bolt soon with the good weather we've been having. I planted almost everything except the tomato seedlings on the weekend. We'll keep our fingers crossed!

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

Last evening we hosted a fund-raising dinner for our local Health Care Society. Once a year they organize a drive called "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?". Islanders host theme dinners in their homes for anywhere from six to a hundred people. It's a great opportunity to meet new people, snoop around some beautiful homes, and have a delicious meal. This year the themes were diverse, from bouillabaisse to country Italian to a cocktail party for 100. We decided to cook a dinner entirely from the wood-fired oven and hosted eleven people who all paid $30 (a bargain, really).

I tried to keep the meal as local as possible - a challenge in this season - but managed to find some greenhouse grown eggplants and peppers for a Sicilian caponata to kick off the antipasto course.

I scrounged a few radishes in the garden that hadn't been nibbled by the pill bugs. I made fresh ricotta cheese and flavored it with green garlic and fresh herbs. Oyama Meats on Granville Island provided the prosciutto and salami and some purchased olives rounded out the offerings. I served them with focaccia, bread, and bread sticks that I'd baked the day before.

It was our first time cooking a multi-course meal like this in the oven for guests (and paying guests at that!) so we were a little worried about timing and fluctuating oven temperatures but except for the tart that needed a few minutes of extra browning in the kitchen oven everything came out perfectly.

I marinated the chicken in olive oil, garlic, white wine, and rosemary and roasted it with lemon slices and rosemary sprigs tucked into the gaps. It was moist and delicious and slightly smoky from the live fire.

I found a recipe for stuffed tomatoes (the big hit of the evening) in Viana La Place's Verdura. They were stuffed with a mixture of Parmesan, breadcrumbs, eggs and herbs. The asparagus was simple, tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper.

A warm bread salad loosely based on Cafe Zuni's accompanied the chicken. The arugula came from the garden.

The tart was made with a butter crust, pears, cinnamon, cardamom, and a few tablespoons of sugar. I served it with homemade chocolate gelato.

Everyone had a wonderful time, including us. I'm already planning next year's meal.

Zuppa di Pane

While visiting the Casentino region of Tuscany last May we were treated to a couple of typical primi in the form of two related soups, acqua cotta, or cooked water, and zuppa di pane, bread soup. Both are peasant dishes, designed to be eaten in lean times to use up the last scraps of whatever was left in the larder. According to Manuela, a local chef who cooked for us on two consecutive Saturdays, acqua cotta was devised by shepherds traveling with the transumanza, the migration of sheep across the mountains to fresh grazing grounds. By necessity it was made with ingredients that were easily carried or could be foraged along the way; stale bread, onions, tomatoes, wild greens and occasionally, potatoes or beans. Manuela served us at at least twelve dishes in those two combined meals but none were more appreciated than the the zuppa di pane and the acqua cotta

Yesterday while cleaning out the fridge I remembered Manuela's soups and dug out my notebook from the trip where I'd scribbled her instructions. I scrounged up everything I needed to make zuppa di pane, including some chickpeas that I'd cooked in the wood-fired oven on Monday. The version that follows is a fusion of the two recipes, with apologizes to Manuela for tinkering with her recipes. There is no need for the quantities to be exact.

Saute a medium chopped onion in a few tablespoons of olive oil until softened. Add a clove of chopped garlic and cook for another minute or so, until fragrant. Add a couple of chopped tomatoes (or a cup of leftover tomato sauce or puree), a few cups of stale bread cubes, a coarsely chopped potato, about a cup and a half of cooked chickpeas or other beans, and a few handfuls of fresh greens (I used nettles but spinach, chard, or kale would work just fine). Add water to cover and season generously with salt, pepper and cayenne (the cayenne adds an extra dimension to the dish - don't be tempted to leave it out). You can add other vegetables like celery, carrots, and zucchini and some fresh herbs but it's really not necessary.

Bring to a boil on the top of the stove, cover, and bake for about two hours, at around 250 F. You may take the lid off the pot for the last half hour or so if it seems too soupy or add extra water if it seems too dry.

Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature with a thread of your best olive oil and some shavings of Grana Padano or Parmigiano Reggiano. Don't be tempted to scatter it with fresh herbs or fancy it up in any way. It is absolutely perfect just the way it is.

Italians might describe this soup as brutto ma buono, ugly but good, but there is beauty in its austerity. It was as delicious as it had been in Tuscany, perhaps even better; earthy, hearty, and healthy all at the same time. Despite the long cooking time all the flavors were distinct and clear. I polished off the entire pot.