Friday, September 14, 2012

Farm Day

We love visiting the farm.  There’s always something new for us to see and do.  We’re fortunate that we get to visit my sister’s farm throughout the year.  Their farm is a grain and seed farm with a few chickens, ducks, guinea hens, pigs, goats, cats and a dog.  There’s also a traditional country garden (in other words it’s HUGE), several flower beds, an orchard and a vineyard.  Of course there’s fruit - she is my sister after all!
These were actually last year's pigs - this year's are pink!
Our visit this past weekend came during a brief gap between harvesting the wheat and oats and harvesting the soybeans and corn.  In other words, all energy was focussed on work around the yard rather than in the fields.   The list of chores for Saturday included picking and juicing grapes, gathering peppers and tomatoes from the garden and moving the goat fence so the goats can roam on greener pastures.  What was just another ordinary day of chores for my sister and her family was a day of adventure for us.
We began by joining other friends and family for the annual grape harvest.  The harvest involves snipping grape clusters off rows upon rows of cold tolerant grape varieties.   My sister’s brother-in-law has an even bigger vineyard just a mile down the road where we picked more grapes.  In total, there’s about half an acre of grape vines to be harvested (about 700-800 plants).  After picking buckets and buckets of grapes they were taken to the processing room where they were pressed into juice and will later be turned into wine.  And no - we did not stomp the grapes with our feet!  For a closer look at the process check out this slideshow from the 2009 grape harvest.

Once the grapes were under control we picked a few bushels of tomatoes.  There was way more tomatoes than my sister or any of us could use - so I brought them to the city and donated them on behalf of my sister and Fruit Share to Agape Table.  They were so excited to get all those boxes of tomatoes for their chili and soup lunches.

We also picked a few red hot peppers.  There were enough to fill two 10 Gallon pails.  That's a lot of heat! My sister shares her garden with some friends who know their way around hot peppers and who love spicy Indian food.  We spent a bit of time lacing up these peppers for me to take home.  These pepper will last us 3 years!

 Finally, we turned our attention to the goats.  These friendly and curious climbers are always a big hit.  In addition to feeding them, we got to experience putting up a fence (my nephews think it’s funny that we actually wanted to help and thought of it as a ”fun experience”).

Usually my sister would do this job on her own - having 7 friends to help and joke around with made it hardly seem like work at all.  The kids loved taking turns driving the quad.

What a day!  A big thank you to my sister and her family for always making us feel welcome and allowing us to explore a little bit of farm life.

If you’d like to visit a farm but don’t have a personal connection like we do, take advantage of Manitoba Agriculture’s Open Farm Day.  On Sunday, September 16 you can explore several farms throughout Manitoba.  You’ll get to meet farmers, see their operations, participate in fun activities, ask questions and enjoy a lovely Sunday drive through our beautiful countryside.  

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Canning Diced Tomatoes

Yup, another tomato post.  I told you it's been a good tomato year!  This time I decided to can them.

It's easy to can tomatoes - it just takes a long time.  And yes, there are some important safety rules you need to follow.  They're simple - add acid (lemon juice), seal well and heat process jars for the right amount of time.

When you buy canned tomatoes in the store - what kind do you buy?  Do you buy whole tomatoes, diced tomatoes or crushed tomatoes?  I buy diced tomatoes.  So that's what I decided to make - diced canned tomatoes - peeled of course.

Here's how:

1. Wash tomatoes.
2.  Peel tomatoes.  Make a small X on the bottom of the tomato, place it in boiling water for 60 seconds, transfer immediately to an ice water bath and peel.
3. Chop tomatoes and toss into a large pot.
4. Bring chopped tomatoes to boil for 5 minutes.
5. Pack hot tomatoes into clean, hot jars (they need to be hot so the jars won't crack, but they don't need to be sterilized because our hot water bath will be more than 10 minutes).
6. Add lemon juice to each jar.  VERY IMPORTANT to ensure your tomatoes acidity is high enough to discourage the growth of the bacteria that causes botulism.  Remember, the botulism bacteria grows inside well sealed jars - it's not good enough just to have a good seal - add the acid.  It's really no big deal.  Add 2 tbsp lemon juice per 1Litre or 1Quart jar.  Add 1 tbsp to each 500ml or 1Pint jar.
7. Seal with hot sealing lid.
8.  Place in hot water bath.  Boil litre or quart jars for 45 minutes.  Boil 500 ml or pint jars for 35 minutes.  Yes, it's a long time.  But what's the safety of your family worth?

For more safe, tomato canning options check out the National Centre for Home Food Preservation.

Note:  It took me 6 hours to can 10 Litres of diced tomatoes.  If it weren't for the lack of freezer space, I'd probably just stick to freezing.  My husband figures each can of tomatoes is worth at least $20.  What do you think, is it worth it?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Pico de Gallo - Fresh Salsa

When I was younger, my favourite salsa came from a jar where you couldn't really tell what all the ingredients were.  Fresh salsa was a little too raw for me and I did not like cilantro at all.
Today, I love fresh salsa or pico de gallo or salsa fresca with all it's colorful, fresh, raw veggies.  And, I have learned to love cilantro.
Now that the tomatoes are coming in fast and furious, fresh salsa is one of our favourite snacks.

Here's our recipe.

6-7 plum* tomatoes, chopped and seeded**
1/2 onion, chopped
1/2 green or yellow sweet pepper, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 to 2 cayenne or jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced (your preference)
3 tbsp chopped cilantro or parsley
1 tbsp lime juice
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground coriander
salt and pepper to taste

1.  Combine all ingredients in a bowl.
2.  Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.
3.  Eat immediately or cover and refrigerate for 15-30 minutes.

Serve with tortilla chips and strawberry margaritas!

* Use whatever tomatoes you have on hand.  Plum tomatoes are great for salsa because they have more flesh compared to other tomatoes.  It's also easier to take the seeds out - if you choose to do that.
** Taking the seeds and the surrounding liquid out of tomatoes helps limit the amount of liquid in your salsa.  But it is totally optional.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Canning Tomato Salsa

Tomatoes, tomatoes and more tomatoes!  It's definitely that time of year.

In addition to BLT's, tomato soup, fresh salsa, and bruschetta, I've used our tomatoes for frozen tomato soup stock (juice), canned diced tomatoes, and frozen tomatoes.  But my favourite tomato preserve is tomato salsa.  Opening one of those jars in the middle of winter is like a little taste of heaven.

I'm not going to lie - canning salsa (or tomatoes for that matter) is time consuming work.  The issue with canning tomatoes is that the level of acid in them varies and often it is too low in order for them to be processed like other fruits which are typically considered high acid foods.  And, with salsa, we often add more low aid veggies like onions, peppers and herbs.  High moisture, low acid, low salt and low oxygen environments are ideal for the growth of Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria that causes botulism (read more here). 

As a result, to can tomatoes or salsa safely, we need to ensure that there is enough acid in our canned goods to make conditions unsatisfactory for Clostridium botulinum, that we're vigilant about following safe water bath canning procedures and that we process them for the recommended time.  When canning tomatoes, the recommendation for acid is adding 2 tbsp of lemon juice or vinegar (5% acid) for every litre or quart jar or 1 tbsp for every 500ml or pint sized jar.  When canning salsa follow a recipe that comes from a credible source where the proportions of acid to non-acid foods have been measured and tested.  I turn to the National Centre for Home Food Preservation.

Here's a step by step look at how I made my salsa.
score washed tomatoes with an x on the bottom
place in boiling water for 60 seconds
remove from boiling water and immediately put in ice water for peel to come off easily
peel tomatoes
for thick salsa, remove the seeds and liquid from the tomatoes
chop and mix all ingredients in a large pot
simmer for 30 minutes
fill hot jars leaving 1/2 inch headspace, seal and process pint (500ml) jars for 15 minutes

Remove from canner and allow to cool on counter for 24 hours.  Check seal.  Enjoy any that did not seal properly right away and tuck the rest away for a delicious winter treat.
Of course, you can always freeze your tomatoes and avoid all this trouble.  But, if you're freezer is full - go for it!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Holy moly, there sure are a lot of tomatoes in my garden!  I'm thrilled but also a little stressed about all the tomato processing that this will mean in the weeks to come.

I was away for a good chunk of the summer; the tomatoes did not get pruned - at all. The result is a tomato jungle.
Do you see the red tomatoes?  Sometimes I don't find them until they are extremely red and ripe.
During planting season, I always seem to forget how big and bushy the plants get and sometimes don't leave enough room.  Here the cabbage is in the tomatoes, or the tomatoes are in the cabbage patch - not sure which!  
And here's a butternut squash seeking a little shade from the tomato plants.
Even though it's a jungle out there - I've never had such an amazing tomato crop.  Could it be that my careful pruning in past years has been a waste of time?  Does the dense foliage keep the soil moist despite the warm, dry summer we've been having?

I suspect I have been over zealous in my pruning efforts in the past.  Sure it makes the plants look nice and the tomatoes are easy to find - but is it worth it?!  I know I have way more tomatoes this year and hunting for tomatoes is kind of fun!

And boy oh boy, when I find them all - we're going to have some amazing salsa!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The First Tomato

There's something special about the first juicy, sweet, red tomato of the summer.  It's a little piece of heaven.

Just look at these beauties I picked from the garden this morning.  There are Early Girl, red pear, yellow pear and cherry tomatoes.
Those two big ripe tomatoes didn't last very long.  They made lovely toasted tomato sandwiches.

Nothing could be simpler or more tasty.

  1. Toast rye bread.
  2. Spread with butter or mayonnaise (I couldn't decide so I did one of each).
  3. Top with sliced tomatoes (I like small slices for small bites).
  4. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.
  5. Enjoy! 
When I get tired of this, I'll start making BLT's, or create fancier versions that include goat cheese and fresh basil.  But for now, simple is best.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Peas and Butterflies

Fresh garden peas and a butterfly got my kids excited about the garden this week.

The peas were perfect.  A handful of these will win anyone over!
We shelled these peas and ate them straight up without cooking.  Yum!  The kids thought it was great, although chasing uncooked peas around on your plate can be a little challenging.

I know if tasty fresh peas and carrots won't draw my kids to the garden, caterpillars and butterflies will. Aidan discovered this newly hatched monarch on the ground. He sat by the carrots and held it cautiously as it dried and stretched its wings.
Did you know you can tell a male monarch from a female monarch by the two black spots on its hindwings on either side of its abdomen.  Can you see them? This is a male monarch.

More great experiences from the garden.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

What's Growing

It's hot, hot, hot outside.  Summer is definitely here.

Around the house, I water the plants now and then (my least favourite garden chore).  Down at the garden, our plants have to fend for themselves - there's no easy way to water down there unless you feel like hauling buckets of water from the river or jugs of water from your house.  

Luckily, this spring provided good moisture and gave our plants a great start.  I hope they'll continue to do well during this heat and that their roots are deep enough to find moisture.

So far, things are looking great.
Pea pods - days away from munching on peas
A pepper almost ready to go 
Melanie's yellow pear tomatoes only a couple of weeks until we enjoy these beauties.
Royal burgundy bush bean blossom - soon there will be beans 
One of my all time favourites - carrots
Corn - still a long way to go, but it's looking good
Bachelor buttons in full bloom (those seeds are going to spread everywhere!)
Bachelor buttons in a vase - (one way to stop the seeds from spreading)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Kohlrabi Harvest

I'm excited to be a guest blogger for the Manitoba Canola Growers' Be Well blog this summer.  They have some amazing recipes, great giveaways and excellent information and strategies for leading a balanced, happy life.

My first blog post was about the flea beetles in our cabbage patch.  The last thing any gardener wants to see is their veggies being eaten by anyone or anything other than themselves!  So, as I describe in the post, we covered our broccoli, kohlrabi and cabbage with a floating row cover.

Were we able to save our kohrabi from being stripped bare?
It's time to roll back the row cover and see what we find. (insert drum roll here!)

Yay!  It's like magic.  Big beautiful brocolli, a lovely little red cabbage and some ready to pick kohlrabi.

Look at these three kohlrabi.  They're perfect.  Remember, you don't want kohlrabi to grow too big or too long because it will get woody - and nobody loves woody kohlrabi.  Enjoy them when they're young and tender.
How to Use Kohlrabi
You can eat kohlrabi raw by slicing it or grating it for a coleslaw type salad.  The taste and texture will be very similar to brocolli stems.  The flavour may be a little more sharp/spicy - sort of like a radish.

Chop kohlrabi and add it to a stir fry or steam with other mixed veggies.

Cooked with Dill Sauce
My all time favourite.  Peel, slice and steam kohlrabi until translucent and tender (the taste becomes a little milder and sweeter compared to when it's eaten raw).  Add a little of the creamy dill bechamel sauce from last week's blog.  Savour every moment!

What to serve with kohlrabi?  You won't be surprised to learn that we love serving kohlrabi with some nice German bratwurst - but equally delicious for a nice summer time fare is a sunny side up fried egg.  I'm telling you the combination is a sure hit.

Thursday, June 28, 2012


Raised on homecooked, German meals, I didn't grow up with a huge array of herbs and spices. Dill, however, was one herb that was part of our regular repertoire and to this day, it's still one of my favourites.

The dill in our garden is at its peak.  It's time to harvest, freeze, share and enjoy!
We probably have over 50 plants just like this that have self-seeded themselves.  We've given away and tried transplanting several of them to friends and our school butterfly garden (black swallowtail butterflies love dill).  There is still a lot of dill!
Black swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs on dill, we've been watching this guy grow in our garden. 
Melanie took this bunch to sell at a plant stand when the Transition Winnipeg held their walking tour of the Sustainable South Osborne Community Coop's gardening initiatives.

I took another bunch to freeze, so I can have dill all year long.  A couple of years ago, I tried drying the dill and using it throughout the year.  It dried well, but the flavour just didn't hold up.  Freezing, I find, works really well and the flavour stays true.
Drying dill in 2010, it worked, but the flavour didn't last long.
I much prefer chopping and freezing the dill.

But what I really love, is dill sauce on potatoes.  Ideally, on freshly dug new potatoes - but it's a little early in the season for those.  We made do with fresh dill sauce on big potatoes served with ham and red cabbage - a classic German supper.
Here's our recipe for a bechamel (white sauce) with dill.

Dill Bechamel Sauce

2 tbsp of butter
2 tbsp of flour
1 cup of warmed milk
salt and pepper to taste
1/8 tsp nutmeg
2 tbsps chopped dill

  1. In a small saucepan, gently melt butter (do not let brown).
  2. Sprinkle in flour and mix well.  
  3. Cook and stir for 3 minutes.
  4. Gradually stir in the warm milk, whisking thoroughly to ensure no lumps.
  5. Cook sauce over medium heat for 8-10 minutes until smooth and creamy.
  6. Add salt, pepper, nutmeg and dill and cook for 1 minute.
  7. Serve over potatoes, spaetzle, fish, or schnitzel.
Enjoy and let us know if and how you use your dill.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Poison Ivy - Identifying and Treating

The Wilderness Skills Intensive weekend I was at this past weekend was amazing.  I can't wait to tell you all about it. I took home fond memories, invaluable skills, new friendships, various hand-made tools and a wee bit of poison ivy.  Let's begin with the poison ivy.

I discovered I am one of the 60-80% of people who is allergic to the oil produced by this plant back in the 80's when I had such a bad case that my eye was swollen shut, I had webbed toes and my boss asked me to leave the office and go home.  If you've ever had a severe case of poison ivy, you can relate.  

While it brings me such great discomfort, I am in awe of this plant that can bring even the biggest and toughest of us to our knees begging for mercy.   Here's a little more about this incredible plant that we should all treat with the utmost respect and caution.

Identifying poison ivy:
If you're planning a trip to a park (yes, even urban parks like Assiniboine Park can have poison ivy),  river bank, bush or forest know how to identify this plant and don't touch it with any part of you.
  • Three leaves 3-12cm in length, red in spring, satin green in summer and shades of yellow, orange, red or bronze in autumn. 
  • Slightly toothed, somewhat shiny, smooth leaves. 
  • A woody stock at the base of the plant. 
  • Grows along the edge of trails or disturbed habitats where sunlight can reach it.
General Info:
  • Urushiol,  a colourless, odorless oil (resin) contained in the leaves of the plants is the cause of allergic reactions in 60-80% of people. 
  • The oil can be carried in the air, on clothes or on pet fur. People extremely sensitive to this plant may get a rash from airborne oil particles.
  • Burning the plant releases the oil in the air and can cause extreme reactions to all parts of the body (even air passages). Do NOT burn poison ivy plants. 
  • People can develop the allergy over time and repeated exposure. 
  • The reaction causes a rash, itching, swelling and tiny blisters. 
  • The reaction can happen within hours or within 5 days of contact. 
  • The rash may take one to two weeks to heal. 
  • Severe poison ivy should be treated by a Doctor. 
  • Poison ivy blisters are not contagious since they do not contain urushiol. However, if urushiol remains on something (pants,hiking boots, pet's fur) you might be re-exposed and experience a reaction again. 
  • Urushiol can remain active for over a year!
The Rash
I know what the plant looks like, I know how sensitive I am, I know not to touch it or to touch any part of my clothing or footwear that has come in contact with it - and still, I usually get a bout of poison ivy every year.  As unattractive as it may be, I feel obliged to show you what the rash looks like.  Here's my wrist three days after exposure.  It's itchy, it's red and it's blistery.

By the way, I would consider this a mild case - it can get much worse, especially if you start scratching.
Treating Poison Ivy
Laura Reeves, a botanist and the instructor for the Wilderness Skills Intensive workshop, and our hosts from Northern Sun Farm Co-Op that are surrounded by poison ivy plants daily, suggested I try some natural remedies for treating poison ivy rash.  


The sap inside the stems of jewelweed (related to impatients) should be rubbed on the parts of the skin exposed.  It will reduce the symptoms significantly and if applied immediately after contact, may prevent the rash from occurring.  

The really cool thing about this plant is that it grows in the same habitat as poison ivy.  Poison and antidote right next to each other - isn't that amazing.  
If you don't have access or can't find jewelweed, try garden variety impatients.  They're rumoured to have the same properties at smaller concentrations.

Oak Tea
Another natural remedy recommended was to soak the affected area with oak tea.  Apparently the tannic acid in the oak leaves, bark and acorns will act as an astringent to help dry out and calm the rash.  I wasn't instructed on how to make oak tea, but I figured some leaves and bark in a pot of boiling water, left to steep for half an hour should be enough to produce tannic acid water. 

Conventional Treatment
If you prefer more conventional treatment, here are some suggestions.   Calamine lotion doesn't seem to do anything for me, but some people say it helps them.  When I had it really bad, I did see my Doctor who prescribed some heavy duty hydrocortisone.  I've never taken antihistamines for poison ivy. Do what you gotta do!

  1. Stay outside. If you know you've been exposed, avoid going indoors to prevent spreading the urushiol.  Take your shoes and clothes off outside.
  2. Clean your skin immediately. If you do this within 10 minutes, you may be able to get the urushiol off before it penetrates your skin. 

  • Don't use hot water on your skin. This can draw the urushiol deeper into your pores.[2]
  • Don't use soap until after you've rinsed off your skin with just water. Soap can pick up the urushiol and move it around to other parts of your body.[1]
  • Don't forget to clean under your fingernails; you may have scratched off some urushiol and could redeposit it on other objects or areas of your skin by accident. 
  • Since urushiol is an oily resin, it binds to proteins in the skin and, after this process is complete, is nearly impossible to remove.

  1.  Recognize the symptoms. If you didn't get the urushiol off in time, an allergic reaction may follow within 48 hours. First, your skin gets red and itchy. Then a rash follows, usually in a pattern of streaks or patches. Eventually the rash turns into red bumps or large oozing blisters. The rash will appear wherever you came in contact with urushiol, although it may take longer for the rash to appear on parts of your body where your skin is thicker. It doesn't spread  because there's no urushiol in the blisters.[3][4] Once the urushiol is gone, the rash will go away. Spreading only occurs if urushiol remains on your skin, fingers or clothing.  Because it is an oil, you must be diligent with washing and using soap in order to remove the oil.
  2. Stop scratching! Even though the rash is not contagious, it's best to avoid damaging the skin, or else you run the risk of getting an infection from germs.
  3. Wash clothes and anything else that may have come in contact with a poisonous plant (gardening tools, pets, sports equipment, sheets). Don't underestimate the power of urushiol; it can remain active for over a year.[4]
  4. Cool off. Take cold baths or showers, apply cold compresses, and/or massage the affected area with an ice cube. The cooling sensation will provide temporary relief.[2]
  5. Dry off. Always let the area air dry – this reduces the itching and oozing of blisters.[2]
  6. Work to soothe the rash. Some of the following products can help soothe the itching and irritation of poison ivy or poison oak:

  • Take antihistamines. They can be taken orally or applied topically, or both. Unfortunately, these types of products only treat the itching symptoms but do not help the rash heal more quickly [5]. Antihistamines, generally offer only mild relief from the symptoms of poison ivy, but if taken before bedtime their combination of anti-allergy and drowsiness-inducing effects can help you get some rest. 
  • Try hydrocortisone cream. However, some people find that hydrocortisone cream makes the symptoms worse in the long run. While the ingredients work for several hours, these creams tend to moisturize the skin at a time when drying provides longer-lasting relief. 
  • Apply calamine lotion. Calamine lotion can ease the itching and soothe blistered skin. Apply regularly and liberally.
If - or for many of us - when you get poison ivy, good luck and don't scratch!