Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Newspaper Column - TOMATO MINT SALAD

Published in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, 20 May 2008.

Curiosity got the best of me. I have often seen the mayor and his wife strolling the aisles of the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market and wondered, What do they buy? What does the mayor think as he wanders the market that he envisioned for the untapped potential of south downtown? How does it fit with his vision for Riversdale revitalization? And why is he always wearing a suit? Isn’t Saturday morning a bit early for a suit? Apparently not when you’re the mayor.

When I recently made arrangements to meet Mayor Don Atchison and his wife Mardele at the farmers’ market, he came dressed in a colourful pinstripe shirt and casual pants. He only wears a suit, he says, when he’s dashing to official functions and Mardele insists they stop at the market on the way. As it turns out, they are big fans of the farmers’ market.

“We always try to buy local,” says the mayor. “Mardele is a wonderful cook, as you can tell by looking at me.” It could also be his favourite sugar cookies, to which he makes a beeline the minute we walk in the market door. Mardele’s first purchase is a bunch of fresh-cut pussy willows. She is on the hunt for mint, and for that we head outside.

Since early May, many of the market vendors have moved their stalls outside onto the new paving stone patio. The big overhead doors of the market (it used to be a garage) are open to the fresh air and sunshine. People drink coffee on park benches and the lineup at Grandora Gardens is a block long. A typical summery day at the market.

“I have Middle Eastern blood in me, so I cook with lentils a lot,” says Mardele. “Lentils and brown rice and plain yogurt and a ton of mint. Mint goes in everything.” She tells a wonderful story about her grandmother’ dolmades, a Middle Eastern finger food wrapped in grape leaves. She remembers picking grape leaves with her grandmother at the Forestry Farm in Saskatoon.
“They had incredible grape vines and we would take bags and pick leaves. I was such a little girl but that memory comes racing back.”

The mayor grew up on a traditional prairie diet of meat and potatoes, fresh vegetables and oatmeal cookies. He remembers family outings to the Simpkins farm to buy vegetables in season. All these years later, he still shops from the Simpkins at the farmers’ market.

As we stroll the market, the mayor is stopped by friendly faces to shake his hand and say hello. He takes a lot of pride in the farmers’ market which, in 2007, was the first project to establish itself in the new River Landing development (followed recently by Persephone Theatre). They mayor was supportive of the new farmers’ market, not just because he’s crazy for local vegetables, but because it serves as a magnet to draw people from all over the city to River Landing, a bridge that connects the more affluent parts of Saskatoon with its poorer neighbourhoods on the west side.

He points out that the price of homes near the market has tripled. Patronage at the farmers’ market has also boomed since it moved to Riversdale. “It shows that people believe this is a healthy community again. It’s vibrant and it’s going to be even better,” he says. “The important thing is that Riversdale and downtown are joined together just as it was 102 year ago.”

The market is still surrounded by construction and traffic is congested by roadwork, but sitting on the park bench in the sunshine with the mayor and his wife, it’s easy to believe that vegetables (and cookies and mint) are vital to the future of downtown Saskatoon.

In keeping with Mardele's heritage, here's a salad with Middle Eastern overtones. For more Middle Eastern recipes with Saskatchewan ingredients, click on the label "Middle Eastern" below.

Tomato Mint Salad
2 tomatoes, quartered
1 pita bread
1/4 white or red onion
2 tbsp fresh mint
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp lemon juice
Salt and pepper

Slice tomatoes and pita into bite-sized wedges. Slice onion into paper-thin wedges. Toss onions with tomatoes and bread. Chop mint and stir into tomato mixture. Whisk together olive oil and lemon juice. Add a pinch of salt and pepper. Toss dressing with salad. Marinate 5 minutes and serve.

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