This article appeared in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix on 26 April 2006.
I am just coming off a very successful diet. I didn’t lose weight, but then, I didn’t set out to. But it’s been good for my health, good for the economy and good for the planet. Oh, and it tastes good, too. For the past year, my husband and I have been eating an all-Saskatchewan diet. From asparagus to zucchini, and the jelly in between, just about everything on our dinner table is a product of Saskatchewan.
Why, you ask? It seemed like a fitting project for Saskatchewan’s centennial year. But there were loftier motivations, too. I wanted to eat healthier, support the local food industry and reduce the environmental impact of my eating habits. Most of the foods we eat travel more than 1,000 kilometres from the field to the fork. To some, that may seem like a marvel of modern transportation, but to me it seems like an absurd waste of energy and fossil fuels.
If Saskatchewan prides itself on producing food for the world, why aren’t we eating more of it right here at home? I decided to put my money where my mouth is and eat locally. My Saskatchewan culinary adventure began last April, just as the tender chives were poking through the garden...
All winter, I planned this experiment in local food consumption. I decided to begin the first day I ate something fresh from my garden in Saskatoon. It was the chives. The date was April 16. I chopped the chives and sprinkled them on a hot German potato salad, served with sausages from the farmers’ market and my mom’s pickles. It was the first of hundreds of all-Saskatchewan meals to come.
I sat down and made a list of Saskatchewan foods in two columns, those I already purchased and those I would seek out. The first column included things like eggs, chicken, beef, tomatoes, apples and asparagus. The second list included things like cheese, lentils, cherries, rolled oats and mushrooms. Needless to say, it is hard to find "Made in Saskatchewan" in the local grocery store, so I had to find alternative sources.
One day in spring, the mailman left a parcel card in my mailbox. I went to pick it up at the postal kiosk at the neighbourhood drug store. "I hope you drove here," said the postal clerk, "because it’s heavy." She heaved the box from the back room onto the counter. "Books?" she asked. "No," I said. "Lentils."
It was, in fact, 15 kilograms of organic lentils and split peas from the Cerridwen Farm at Medstead. Over the past year, I have bought food in unusual places from flea markets to gas stations and even from the trunk of a car. Very quickly, I had to adapt my food habits. Instead of planning a meal and dashing out buy to the ingredients, I had to consider the available ingredients and plan a meal around it. I shopped at farmers’ markets, bought direct from farmers and read labels carefully in the grocery store. I went to the Saskatchewan Made Marketplace, which sells only local goods. I kept a garden and swapped produce with family and friends.
It’s a little more time consuming than a visit to the grocery store, but it’s a lot more fun!
For me, a sure sign of spring is the day in March when the Grandora Greenhouse lettuce and cucumbers arrive at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market. So, with lentil soup and fresh salads, we got our Saskatchewan diet off to a very good start...
Our Saskatchewan diet moved outdoors. Hamburgers, grilled vegetables, pizza on the BBQ, green salads dotted with edible flowers. The official summer drink on our patio was the Mint Julep, an icy sipping cocktail made with lots of fresh mint. In July, I issued a challenge to my bookclub. We usually have a potluck when we get together. Since we were reading a book set in the south of France, I decided the theme of the potluck would be Mediterranean foods made with Saskatchewan ingredients.
"Help! What on earth do you mean?" came a quick email reply from Susan. Well, think of the foods we associate with the Mediterranean. Pasta, pesto and pizza from Italy. Greek salad and spanikopita. Middle eastern pita bread, falafel and tabouleh salad. Fish and eggplant on the French Riviera. Lamb and honey in Morocco. The principle ingredients of all of these dishes are produced right here in Saskatchewan.
The potluck was wonderful, proving that an all-Saskatchewan meal doesn’t have to be meat and potatoes and rhubarb pie. Foods produced in Saskatchewan lend themselves to a range of world cuisines from Mexican tortillas to Chinese stir-fries.
I keep a small garden in Saskatoon which is usually designed with dinner in mind. It’s full of good things to eat within minutes of picking. But this year was different. I had to plan ahead.
So, I planted more beets and spinach and squash. I froze peas and corn. I grew lots of basil for pesto and dried the rest. I stewed rhubarb and made apple sauce. I even pickled asparagus from the farmers’ market.
In July, I picked saskatoon berries at Manitou Beach. In August, I picked mushrooms at La Ronge and cherries at the Yoanna Orchard near Radisson. In September, I picked pears from a tree on Temperance Street. Whatever we didn’t eat immediately was put away for winter months. As summer waned, my panic waxed. Could our Saskatchewan diet survive a long Saskatchewan winter? Or would we emerge pale and hungry with the spring thaw...
To celebrate Saskatchewan’s centennial in September, I decided to recreate the dinner served to dignitaries the day the province was created. I obtained the menu from the Saskatchewan Archives Board in Regina. Although there were several courses, the menu was quite generic. Cream soup, spring chicken and tomato salad could be prepared any number of ways. So, I consulted a cookbook that was popular in 1905, the Fanny Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cook Book first published in 1896. Then I invited two great friends, Heather and Murray, for dinner. Here’s the menu:
Imperial Cream Soup, chicken with spring onions, lamb in parchment paper, tomato salad with horseradish sauce, steamed asparagus, Potato Bells, sponge cake with champagne sauce and fresh strawberries.
By now our friends were all aware of our Saskatchewan diet. Whether from pity or concern, they began offering us gifts of Saskatchewan food. One day, there was a knock at the door. It was our friend Jeff, an avid hunter, with a box of frozen moose, cut and wrapped. "How do you cook moose?" I asked. "Like beef," he advised.
So, I delved into a food magazine and found a recipe for Portuguese beef stew. Substitute moose and it was delicious. I began stocking food like a crazy chipmunk who puts away enough for three winters. Before long, my freezer was full. Another friend to the rescue–offering space in his freezer and a key for quick access. And so, as the snow began to fly, we were comforted with baked beans, hearty soups and slow-cooked stews...
Winter greens (and reds)
Winter brings with it several special meals, and I aimed to prove that Saskatchewan foods could rise to the occasion. For Christmas dinner, we had squash and pear soup, baked ham, baked beans, coleslaw and a cherry tart. For New Year’s, the menu was grilled pork chops, mushroom barley risotto, red pepper salad and for dessert, a saskatoon pie. For Valentine’s Day I prepared a "red" meal including BBQ steaks, beet salad and a pink cake with cherry sauce.
I must admit, by February I was craving some fresh greens. I love coleslaw, but enough is enough! If I wanted fresh Saskatchewan greens in the middle of winter I was going to have to grow my own! So, I placed an order with Mumm’s Sprouting Seeds of Parkside. Seeds don’t need much space (just a jar in a window) and you’ve got vitamin-rich greens in just a few days.
Traditionally in prairie culture, winter was not the lean season. It was early spring, when the winter stocks had run out but the new growing season had not yet begun. As winter gives way to spring, we are using up the frozen tomatoes and opening the last jar of canned pears. I’m already out of dried oregano and pinto beans. Tonight, we’re roasting the last of the free-range chickens.
We did not starve–not in quantity or quality–on our Saskatchewan diet. The year is up, but I suspect we won’t celebrate the end of this diet because it’s become a habit for life.
For Saskatchewan menus, recipes and food sources please go to homefordinner.blogspot.com.
SWISS CHARD PASTA FILLING
I make this stuffing in the summer when Swiss chard is abundant and freeze it for winter pasta making. We usually make a large batch of ravioli and freeze what we don’t eat right away. I make the dough and my husband rolls it. (We have a Pasta Queen pasta roller and a ravioli press, which make the task quite easy.) To make the dough, I blend 2 cups of flour with 3 beaten farm eggs and a spot of water. After mixing with a fork, I work it into a ball with my hands, wrap it in a plastic bag, and leave it in the fridge at least an hour before rolling it.
If you don’t have a pasta maker or a ravioli press, you can use this stuffing inside purchased cannelloni. It can also be made with spinach. So, if you don’t have any fresh or frozen Swiss chard, feel free to substitute fresh or frozen. For the tomato-basil sauce, see the recipe in the August 2005 archives. To make your own ricotta cheese, see the recipe in the April 2005 archives.
1 pound Swiss chard, parboiled and squeezed dry. (or thawed and squeezed)
1cup ricotta cheese
1/3 cup parmesan cheese
1 large egg
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp each fresh thyme and fresh rosemary (or half as much dried herbs)
salt and pepper to taste
Mix everything together well and stuff something!