Monday, June 15, 2009


Published in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix on 15 June, 2009

I love “free” food. By free, I don’t mean no money down. I am referring to food that grows locally, year after year, with no help from human hands. Last month, I wrote about rhubarb, that favourite perennial vegetable that grows so prolifically on the prairies. Rhubarb is a “free” food because it comes back every year with no fuss and bother. Once it’s in the ground, it’s unstoppable.
This month, I’d like to pay homage to two other “free” vegetables that come up from one year to the next with no human intervention—asparagus and fiddleheads. In my garden, rhubarb really is free, but asparagus and fiddleheads are two “free” foods for which I am willing to pay, not having a source of my own.

Fiddleheads are the small tight curls of wild baby ferns before they unfurl in the spring. The name, I am told, refers to the decorative scroll at the end of a fiddle, which it resembles. Two weeks ago, I received a shipment of fiddleheads on the bus at $8 a pound. Not exactly free to me, but free for the picking to anyone inclined to go out in nature and get them. In this case, it was the folks at White Fox Gold, from an area north of Nipawin.
Given the distance, it is considerably cheaper for me to buy these “free” fiddleheads than to go out and pick them myself.
When I arrived at the bus station to pick up my fiddleheads, I discovered a dozen boxes on their way to various restaurants in Saskatoon, so it’s apparent that many local folks have been able to enjoy this “free” spring vegetable, too. Another favourite “free” spring food is asparagus. Once you plant asparagus, and get the bed going, there’s not much left to do but reap the harvest year after year. I don’t have my own asparagus patch, so I buy it at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market. I saw fiddleheads for sale at the market, too.

One of my favourite “free” foods is the wild saskatoon berry. In fact, I love just about any “free” fruit. Last year, my friend Marlene knocked on a stranger’s door and asked if she could pick his plums, which she could see hanging thick in his back yard. He graciously invited her, and therefore me, to help ourselves. Later in the summer, I may go out and pick wild morel and chanterelle mushrooms. Or, I may opt to buy them. Whether I decide to pay for the gas, or pay for the mushrooms, I am excited about the prospect of procuring these “free” summer foods. I’m a big proponent of eating locally, which for me, includes the “free” food that Mother Nature so generously offers. All the better when it really is free.

Incidentally, the historic Marr Residence in Saskatoon holds a Rhubarb Festival on the long weekend of August (Sun. & Mon.), so we can all pay homage to this hardy “free” food planted by the pioneers. You’ll find more Saskatchewan summer food festivals listed here.

This pasta recipe is made with fresh vegetables as they become available in season (primavera is Italian for first green), also made with asparagus, peas, zucchini, red pepper, eggplant, broccoli, etc. In this version, I precooked the fiddleheads because it is recommended to neutralize the bitterness and mild toxins in raw fiddleheads.

Pasta Primavera
12 fiddleheads
2 tbsp butter
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 chopped onion
2 chopped garlic cloves
12 asparagus, chopped
2 medium carrots, shaved with a vegetable peeler
2 large ripe tomatoes
1 tbsp fresh chopped parsley
1 tbsp fresh chopped basil
salt and pepper to taste
500g bowtie pasta

Bring a pot of lightly salted water to boil. Add the fiddleheads and cook five minutes. Drain.
Melt butter with 1/4 cup olive oil on medium heat. Add onions and garlic. Sauté, stirring, until soft. Add the fiddleheads, asparagus and carrots (or other vegetables of the season). Cook until vegetables are tender.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup pasta cooking water.
Season vegetables with salt and pepper to taste. Add cooked pasta along with the tomatoes, herbs, pasta water and 1/4 cup olive oil. Toss and heat until tomatoes are soft. Serve hot straight from the pot.

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