Published in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, 18 July 2005
We may be far from the Mediterranean Sea, but we’re not that far from the Mediterranean diet. Many of the foods that form the diet in Mediterranean countries like France, Greece, Spain and Morocco are also grown right here in Saskatchewan.
Consider the tomato. It was cultivated in South America by the Aztecs and taken to Europe by Spanish explorers in the 1500s. Lentils are a staple food in Mediterranean countries like Egypt and France. In fact, they are now eating lentils from Saskatchewan, which has become one of the largest producers in the world.
I began exploring the Mediterranean connection more than a decade ago when I asked my mom to grow some basil in her garden on the farm. To me, basil is the essential summer herb. It goes perfectly with tomatoes and lentils and many other Mediterranean dishes. If I could have only one fresh herb, it would be basil.
I had grown it in pots on a sunny balcony, but I had no idea if it would survive on the dry windy prairie. Well, it thrived. That row of basil grew so tall I picked it into black garbage bags and gave some to all my friends. So here’s my point – eating Saskatchewan foods does not mean a meat-and-potatoes-and-coleslaw diet. Saskatchewan foods lend themselves to many culinary traditions from around the world.
This is good news, because for one full year I have pledged to serve Saskatchewan foods almost exclusively at my own dinner table. I began in mid-April, and I’m happy to report that I am eating better and healthier than ever. I am searching out new sources of food, reading labels in the grocery store and getting to know some farmers. I am even the happy recipient of gifts of food. Not long ago, my neighbor Andrea presented me with a container of frozen apple butter from her own tree. It went straight into a fruit cobbler.
Recently, I hosted my bookclub. We always have a potluck meal and since we had just read "Tender is the Night", a novel set in the south of France, I decreed that the dinner theme would be Mediterranean foods made with Saskatchewan ingredients. Before long, there was an email in my inbox: "Help! What on earth do you mean? Examples please." So I listed off some foods that we have in common – grains and lentils, tomatoes and herbs, cheese and chicken, pasta and bread, etc, etc.
My friends are real troopers. They came with excellent dishes that were – or could be – made with Saskatchewan ingredients. We had: arugula salad, lentils with fresh herbs, Lebanese tabouleh salad, French gratin of cauliflower, Greek spanikopita and Italian margarita pizza (tomatoes, basil and cheese).
Just the other night, we had our friend Ian and his mom for a nice dinner on the patio. I found a pasta recipe in a cookbook by the godmother of Italian cooking, Marcella Hazan. It called for red, yellow and green peppers, ground veal and fresh pasta. I bought greenhouse peppers from the farmers’ market, made pasta with fresh farm eggs, and substituted ground moose for the veal.
The moose came from Jeff, an avid hunter. When he heard that I was eating Saskatchewan foods, he showed up on our doorstep with 30 pounds of frozen moose. Gotta love friends like that!
This is the national salad of Lebanon, pronounced ta-BOO-lee. I made it with pearl barley from the Daybreak Farm at Estevan, farmers’ market tomatoes and fresh greens from my own garden.
1 cup pearl barley
1 bunch green onions
2 bunches parsley
2 bunches mint
1/4 cup canola or olive oil
Juice of 2-3 lemons
salt and pepper
Soak the barley in plenty of water until it is chewable but not too soft, a few hours. It should double in size to about 2 cups. Drain. Finely chop the herbs and onions. Cut the tomatoes in bite-sized pieces. Mix everything together and enjoy.