Monday, May 25, 2009

Newspaper Column - RHUBARB CHUTNEY

Published in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, 25 May 2009

You know it’s a late spring when, by the end of May, there’s not enough rhubarb for a pie. This would have caused consternation for many rural families in the early days of farming, when rhubarb represented the end of winter and the first fresh food from the garden. It was the first “fruit” of the season at a time when grocery stores didn’t carry abundant produce from around the world. Rhubarb was so popular for pies that it earned the nickname the Pie Plant.
Of course, rhubarb is not really a fruit. It’s from the same plant family is sorrel and buckwheat, but its distinctive tart flavour lends itself to pies, cobblers, jams, beverages, chutneys and stews.

It’s high in fibre and a source of vitamin C and potassium, a natural laxative, thought to lower cholesterol and control weight gain, according to modern research. The marvellous thing about rhubarb is that it’s a perennial vegetable that loves a cold winter and comes up the next spring with no assistance whatsoever. No wonder it was found on just about every Saskatchewan farm and many city lots, too.

However, for most of its history, rhubarb was not considered a food. In China, where it originates, the rhubarb root was used for medicinal purposes, a practice which brought it to Europe. The ancient Romans coined the word rhubarb from Rha, their name for the Volga River, and barb, short for barbarian. In other words, it came from the barbarians up north. It wasn’t until the 1800s in England, when sugar because inexpensive and plentiful, that the love affair with rhubarb pie began.

Dr. John Bury of Saskatoon grew up in England where rhubarb pie was a family favourite. His youth also coincided with a time when rhubarb was still used for medicinal purposes. His father was the “analyst” or, in modern terms, the toxicologist at the London Hospital, where Bury took his medical training in the 1940s and 50s.

He still has his father’s copy of the hospital’s Pharmacopoeia, published in 1934, a book full of medicinal recipes with Latin names such as Mistura Gentianae cum Rheo, a mixture of gentian, rhubarb, ginger, sodium bicarbonate and peppermint water—a sedative prescribed for “nervous problems”—and Mistura Aperiens pro Infantibus, a laxative for children containing a tincture of rhubarb.

According to the Pharmacopoeia, the hospital pharmacy stocked rhubarb as a pill, powder and tincture (in solution with alcohol). Today, health food stores continue to stock rhubarb pills as a dietary supplement.

I prefer my rhubarb in pies, not pills, and my favourite recipes are not from a Pharmacopoeia but from a cookbook, Rhubarb: More than Just Pies, by Sandi Vitt and Michael Hickman, published by the University of Alberta Press. It’s full of rhubarb advice such as, when picking rhubarb, always pull out the stocks rather than cut them, and give the plant a good watering once a week or so.

I intend to make a pie as soon as there is enough rhubarb to fill the pastry, but I also want to branch out this year and try rhubarb in unconventional ways such as their recipes for rhubarb curry, rhubarb soup and this rhubarb chutney which I made a few days ago, halving the recipe because, well, that’s all the rhubarb I could muster. Click here for more rhubarb recipes.

Rhubarb Chutney
4 cups rhubarb
2 tsp fresh ginger, grated
2 cloves garlic
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded
1 tsp paprika
1 tbsp mustard seeds
1/4 cup black currents (I used raisins)
1 cup light brown sugar
1 1/2 cups white-wine vinegar

Cut the rhubarb into 1/4-inch (6 mm) pieces. Seed and remove veins from jalapeno; chop jalapeno and garlic finely. Place all ingredients in a saucepan; bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until rhubarb breaks down and mixture is the texture of jam, about 45 min. Keeps for several months in a glass jar in the refrigerator.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Local chickpeas and lentils

I've just discovered a neat little shop on Central Avenue in Sutherland which stocks a good supply of Saskatchewan-grown lentils and chickpeas under the label Kashmir Valley. The store is called Medina Foods and Halal Meats. (Halal food is prepared according to Islamic law). It's small but friendly and full of things you won't find in a regular grocery store. As for Kashmir Valley, it's packaged and sold by Diefenbaker Seed Processors of Elbow. Medina Foods is at 800 Central Avenue (the NW corner of Central and 108th).

Monday, May 18, 2009

One person's weeds... another person's dinner.

I did a bit of weeding at the community garden and made this "weed" fritatta for dinner. It includes orach, sunflower seedlings, dandelion leaves and johnny-jump-ups, all of which grow like weeds if unchecked. My gardening friend Karen has a carpet of fuscia-coloured orach in her garden. It was my first encounter and I must say, it is delicious. I'll be nipping back to her garden for more. Here's a closeup of the fritatta -- pretty as a piece of art!

Weed Fritatta
8 eggs
a generous pinch of dried thyme
salt and pepper
2 handfulls of small tender weeds plus some baby spinach
12-15 johnny-jump-up flowers
a bit of butter

Scramble the eggs in a bowl with the thyme, salt and pepper. Gently stir in the baby weeds. Do not add johnny-jump-ups at this point.

Heat a non-stick skillet on medium heat. Melt a bit of butter and swirl it around. Pour in the egg mixture. Place the flowers decoratively on top, pressing gently. As the eggs solidify, lift the cooked edges and tip the pan so the liquid egg runs under the fritatta.

When the egg is cooked on the bottom but still jiggly in the middle, place the skillet under the brioler and cook until the egg is just set. Allow to cool slightly before cutting and serving.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Saskatchewan Food Festivals 2009

Hog Fest, June 26, Englefeld.
The 38th annual event. What else would you expect of a town with a giant pig?
Saskatoon Berry Festival, July 4, Mortlach.
The second annual, and it looks like it will be a fantastic event.

Cherry Festival, July 25-26, Bruno.
Plus a cherry cheesecake literary event on the 24th.
Rhubarb Festival, August 2 & 3, Marr Residence, Saskatoon
This historic pioneer house celebrates this hardy prairie "fruit".

Wheat Festival, August 7, 8 & 9, Weyburn.

The website still shows last year's event, but you get the picture.

The Great Canadian Mustard Festival, July 25-26, The Willow on Wascana, Regina.Chefs face off in the mustard challenge, and you're the judge! Several restaurants also feature mustard on the menu. The event doesn't seem to have a website, but there's some info on the SaskTourism site.Wild Blueberry Festival, August 21-22, St. Walburg.
The whole town gets involved so there's lots to see and do besides blueberries.

Pumkin Festival, end Sept., Pilger.
Giant pumpkin contest (see photo) and pumpkin lunch.

Chokecherry Festival, Thanksgiving weekend, Lancer
Going on 39 years now. Here're some photos from a past

Do you know of other festivals that celebrate Saskatchewan-produced food? Click comment and tell us all about it.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Locally made paté - Do it yourself!

A birthday gift to myself -- Charcuterie, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. Charcuterie refers to the processing of meat by smoking, curing, salting, drying, etc., and includes bacon, ham, sausages, paté, terrines, confit and more. I began with paté: Venison and Dried Sour Cherry Paté (wild venison and Saskatchewan sour cherries) and Paté de Grandmere (pork with chicken liver - pictured above). All major ingredients were locally procured. Making paté was a bit time-consuming, but not hard to do. These early forays into charcuterie were quite successsful. Next... I'm looking for a hog's head to make headcheese. (Which, contrary to popular misconception, does not include the brains!)

CBC Radio Calling - Rhubarb

I was on the radio today with Garth Materie, host of Blue Sky, talking about rhubarb. Apparently, a lot of people in Saskatchewan like to talk about rhubarb. The phones lit up.
In preparation for the program, I learned a few things about rhubarb. Rha was at one time the name of the Volga River region, and Barb is short for 'barbarian,' as the Romans called anyone who wasn't one of them. Well before Roman times, rhubarb came from China and points east. Back then, it was used primarily as a medicinal. We didn't start eating rhubarb until the arrival of inexpensive sugar, in the early 1800s. Many of the callers to today's program sent in their favourite rhubarb recipes, which you'll find on the Blue Sky website.
Here are some other rhubarb recipes on this blog: