Category Archives: General

Unexpected Urban Forage

A number of recipes I’ve been eying in the past few weeks call for juniper berries and though they are common in many European dishes, they aren’t common to North American cooking. Nor are they common on our grocery store shelves.

What is common here though are the juniper bushes on which they grow and as I was walking back to work at lunch today, I found myself staring at a berry-laden juniper right next to the city bus transitway! At first glace, they appeared to be the young green ones that are not useable but closer inspection revealed some mature blue berries ready for harvest. Since I had an armload of stuff, was limited for time and was getting a few odd looks from passers-by, I limited my harvest to a small handful. I’ll go back when it’s not so busy and do a more thorough job. Then I’ll dry them on a windowsill for a few weeks and put them in a jar for future use.

I’ll have a few more urban harvest possibilities in coming weeks – rose hips (for jam), crab apples (spiced and preserved in jars, or jelly) and then there’s the street where black walnuts rain onto the road in the fall. There’s the puffball mushroom growing in the yard … if it survives the foot traffic. The tomatoes discovered recently at the back of the yard, sprouted from one of last year’s wayward tomatoes. And who knows what else?!

I love that there are little nuggets of goodness out there, just waiting for those who take the time to seek them out or just plain see that they’re there. There’s something immensely satisfying in harvesting these gifts of nature.

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Merlins High & Low

I’ve had a fascination with falcons since childhood, when I first learned about the art of falconry, and have always thought it would be the most glorious thing ever to have my very own falcon to take flight from, and return to, my gloved hand.

Sadly, though understandably, there are laws that prevent me from keeping a falcon, however, for a few months now, I have had my own falcons, sort of, as a pair of merlins came to nest this spring atop the 60-foot spruce tree at the back of our yard!

Merlins are small falcons, beautiful birds, whose urban population is on the increase, especially here in the Ottawa area. We’ve spent the last few months watching and listening to the rather noisy comings and goings of our resident raptors and were fairly certain in recent days, though hard to know, that there were babies in the nest.

Our suspicions were confirmed yesterday morning when I discovered a juvenile merlin perched just inches off the ground, on a rock under our apple tree. I started to approach, gingerly, so as not to alarm him (it just seemed like a ‘him’) but decided to wait and watch for a bit and went back inside, where I could watch from the kitchen window. When he continued to do nothing, even with his family calling overhead, I went back out armed with a towel and a laundry basket.

It took little to toss the towel over him and scoop him into the basket. I put the basket on the deck in hope that a parent would see him and somehow help him back up where he belonged but it became clear that was not going to happen and so the decision was made to take him out to the Wild Bird Care Centre, where they do marvelous work rehabilitating injured birds and returning them to the wild whenever possible.

Back out in the yard, we had been watching to make sure our poor little guy did not fall prey to a cat or a crow. The neighbourhood is full of crows and we had seen them harass the merlins on several occasions. There they were again, and it was soon clear why – another juvenile, unquestionable a sibling to the poor thing in the basket, was flitting amongst the mid-branches of the spruce tree and two crows were acting as a tag-team against the merlins. Action was needed!

Enter the slingshot, hastily retrieved from the basement. My son managed some well-placed shots that drove off one crow but the other swooped in on Young Merlin in the tree. He took off in an erratic flight – fear, ineptitude or perhaps both – and the crow took a strike. Downy feathers rained from the sky but Young Merlin flew on and disappeared into the maple trees across the street. Mother Merlin gave frantic calls but Young Merlin remained out of sight. But Poor Baby, in the basket, needed attention and eventually we had to hope for the best for Young Merlin and move on.

Poor Baby was silent and still on the drive to the care centre. Once there, they conducted a preliminary examination and said he didn’t look good, but gave us a reference number we could use to call and receive status reports on our bird. We were happy to hear that if he recovered enough to qualify for release, we would be able to pick him up and bring him home for release in our yard! We made a contribution to their donation box and left him in their expert care.

We watched throughout the afternoon and evening as Mother Merlin spent most of her time sitting like a sentinel on the same top-most branch of the tree, calling now and then but receiving only silence in return. It was a sad sight.

And then, this morning, I saw Young Merlin back on the lower branches of his home tree! He called as he fluttered between branches, while Mother Merlin sat in her usual spot high aloft, no longer such a sorry sight.

I came back in and phoned the Wild Bird Care Centre for a status report. Sadly, Poor Baby didn’t make it beyond early this morning.

The slingshot sits ready at the back door and we will be watching, ready to help if we can, as Young Merlin loses his last bits of baby fluff and gets good enough at flying to better fend for himself.

And I will continue to imagine, though a dream is all it will ever be, how cool it would be to raise my arm to the sky and have a falcon swoop in for a landing …

* * *

If you live in or near Ottawa, visit the Wild Bird Care Centre (on Moodie Drive, in Nepean) to see the birds they are continually helping. Please be sure to put what you can in the donation box on your way out – the work these volunteers do is amazing and the need for supplies is never-ending.

Charcuterie: Making Bacon – Part 1


Early in July, I had the pleasure of tucking into a charcuterie plate at Juniper restaurant. I remember only a few things – house ham, duck something – but everything on the plate was wonderfully tasty! Charcuterie dominated my brain in the following days and it wasn’t long till some research on the subject had me searching for the book Charcuterie, by Michael Ruhlman. A trip to Chapters on Rideau Street put the book in my hands last week and then the hunt began …

I decided to make the first thing addressed in the book – bacon! The required sugar and kosher salt posed no problem but coming up with curing salt and pork belly took some work.

I knew from past experience that pork belly can be had from the local butcher store but has to be ordered and comes at high cost. A Toronto website listed T & T Asian Supermarket as a pork belly source and when I checked our Ottawa T & T store there it was – in approximately one-kilo chunks, at a very reasonable price!

Another site suggested Nicastro’s Italian deli as a source for curing salt and I was able to find it at their Merivale Road location, in a one-kilo bag labeled ReadyCure.

Curing Salt

Now, American recipes (like the ones in the book) call for a product called pink salt or InstaCure, which are 6.25% nitrite. The ReadyCure package didn’t list the percentage of nitrite, nor did the store staff know it, however, the package listed the Toronto manufacturer’s phone number and a quick call revealed it to be 1% nitrite.

After some wish-I-could-say-they-were-quick calculations, I was able to determine that, if I added 600 grams of kosher salt and 675 grams of sugar to my kilo of ReadyCure, I’d have three times the amount of Ruhlman’s basic dry cure (plus a bit more), at the correct percentage of nitrite. So this I did.

I’d picked up two pieces of pork belly and opted for slightly different treatments for each. The first one was dredged in approximately 75 grams of the basic dry cure and sealed in a large Ziplock bag. I did the same to the second one, but added about a quarter-cup of maple syrup. (I’ve a hunch I’ll prefer that one!)

So now it’s a 7-day waiting game, give-or-take a day perhaps, apart from a quick flip of each bag every other day. The meat will leach liquid and firm up over time. Once cured enough, it’ll be time to drain the liquid, rinse the meat, then roast or smoke it, low ‘n slow, to an internal temp of 150 degrees F. I’ve a week to sort out which it will be – while I’d far prefer to smoke it, I’m not sure I have the capability to do it as low ‘n slow as it needs to be done.

Watch for the follow-up to see which method wins and find out how each version tastes once sliced and fried. I sense it’s to be, for me, a rather long week of impatient anticipation. Hope it’s worth it!

Winter Solstice Ottawa – Update & Appeal

My last post shared my annoyance that a sub-committee at work used “Celebrate the Winter Solstice” to advertise a film screening having nothing whatsoever to do with the solstice. I’m pleased to report that a few e-mails and a phone conversation, expressing my conviction that a true solstice celebration would focus on the seasonal event and be an actual form of celebration, have produced some positive results –

I was asked for ideas and assistance in helping the group to host a more relevant Winter Solstice Celebration in future years!

So now I need to get busy with some ideas, bearing in mind that it’s a workplace event and likely confined to the lunch hour, however, the invitation will extend to roughly 5,000 employees! I’ll let you know how things develop …

But, back to the wider Ottawa community:

Judging by my blog hits over the past few weeks, many people in Ottawa are seeking a way to celebrate the solstice but, at this time, our community offers little in providing a way for people to come together to celebrate this event.

It’s up to those of us who want a community event to make it happen in future years …

How about a lantern procession to light up the darkest night, with workshops in preceding weeks, at various public locations, so people can make a unique and colourful lantern for solstice night?

The lantern procession – maybe along Somerset West and Preston, with access from all directions – Chinatown, Wellington West, Carling Avenue and the transitway at Scott Street – and ending at Plouffe Park, adjacent to the Plant Bath, on Preston, or perhaps greenspace at Dow’s Lake?

Maybe some mummers, drummers, fire-eaters or who-knows-what to liven things up?

People could fan out afterward to continue their celebration at a wide array of nearby restaurants and bars or at private celebrations elsewhere.

A key aspect would be to keep it in the hands of the people – city involvement that of helpful assistance only – with universal determination of planners and participants that it be free, distinct from competing holiday events and devoid of commerciality.

What would you like to see as a solstice celebration in Ottawa? Or wherever you are?
Care to collaborate on a 2011 event?
Leave a comment!

Winter Solstice Hijacked

Winter Solstice has become the main focus of the holiday season for me, though it seems to go largely unnoticed here in Ottawa. I envy the celebrations that take place in Toronto and Vancouver and live in hope that something of a similar nature will take root in our fair city. There are some small events that occur here but the pickings are just a wee bit on the slim side. I posted the ones I’m aware of on this site a few weeks ago and I thought I had a new one …

I was somewhat excited when yesterday’s inbox at work (a large organization of several thousand employees) turned up an invite from an in-house committee, addressed to all staff, to Celebrate the Winter Solstice!

Closer inspection revealed it as nothing more than solicitation to come out at lunch next week to view some films geared to raise awareness of this group’s political agenda. Fair enough – people might well be interested. But to present it as a way to celebrate solstice was misleading and opportunistic.

I replied, asking for an explanation as to why the invitation was considered a solstice celebration. There was no response by the end of the day. I hope it materializes – I’d love to see an explanation.
(For an UPDATE on this issue, see my December 20 post!)

. . .

I tried to initiate a neighbourhood solstice event a few years back, making lanterns and recruiting a small group of family, friends and neighbours to make some noise and light up the night in an outdoor lantern procession, followed by an indoor party. My hope was that, while starting small, it would grow in future years and gain in popularity. The party rocked but the outdoor procession fell a bit flat and seemed … just dorky. It definitely needed to be larger-scale to work. I did not repeat the exercise.

I haven’t given up but I’m a bit stuck on how to get Ottawa celebrating – ideas are welcome!

A World Wide Winter Solstice Celebration – Imagine …

Recent media commemoration of the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s death brought to mind the lyrics of his signature song, ‘Imagine’, and when they collided in my head with thoughts of the upcoming Winter Solstice, I did imagine …

Winter Solstice – a perfect opportunity not only to revive celebrating the return of the sun, as was once done in almost all civilizations, but to build on it and come together on that day – everywhere, everyone – in a spirit of peace, tolerance and togetherness. Where “the world will be as one”. (Southern hemisphere, see note below)

Judging from the number of hits I’ve had on a recent post about upcoming solstice events in my area, interest in solstice celebration is there; but the celebration isn’t … yet.

At a time of year that can be tough – the dark, the cold, the overblown commercialization, the pressures of the Season, the intrusiveness of it for non-celebrants – why not share in a celebration that everyone on the planet can be a part of? Imagine everyone, everywhere, pushing aside their worries, troubles and differences to celebrate the same thing, all together, at the same time!

How? IT STARTS WITH YOU.

To borrow loosely from those lyrics again, some may say I’m a dreamer but I hope I’m not the only one.
I hope you’ll join me in a sort of a grassroots movement and simply do something, anything, on that day, to observe the fact that it is the solstice. Anything, no matter how big or small – just something happy and joyful, sharing it too, if you can.

If you’re lucky enough to live where Winter Solstice celebrations already exist, join in. Most existing celebrations are centred around lighting the night and incorporate lantern processions, torch-bearing and bonfires.

If there’s nothing in your area, start something. Light a candle. Make a lantern. Have friends in. Go out for dinner. Gather at the local pub. Host a potluck. Wassail the apple trees. Have a bonfire. Make music!

The beauty is that there’s no set tradition – you’re free to create your own.

A few guidelines come to mind though:

1. Make it separate and distinctive – not just an extension of other celebrations that occur near this time.
2. Keep things easy, simple, inexpensive.
3. In the spirit of togetherness, cooperation and consideration for others, harm or offend no one as you make some noise and have some fun!

So, join me in doing something to celebrate on that day, but also:

SHARE this idea with family, friends and neighbours, so it spreads.

With enough people celebrating, starting just after sunset in their time zone, it would flow in a World-as-One wave of light, hope and peace around the globe.

Imagine …

NOTE: The December solstice is the longest day of sunlight – Summer Solstice – in the Southern hemisphere. But that’s just another great reason to celebrate – in fact, why not a World-as-One celebration of light, hope and peace twice a year, on everyone’s shortest and longest days?

Red Fife – Found It!

I’ve played around with bread-making here and there over the last few years and done a fair amount of research on different flours. In the course of some web browsing I stumbled onto the topic of Red Fife wheat:

Bought to Canada by David Fife, of Peterborough, in 1842, it became the main spring wheat variety grown in Canada and the northern U.S. for decades. It was gradually displaced, however, as “new and improved” wheat varieties came onto the market and has only recently been re-introduced. In the past few years, Red Fife flour has been discovered and embraced by the artisan bread world for the fantastic flavour and deep golden-red crust it produces.

Intrigued, I tried to source some locally about a year ago and came up empty-handed. Then, while researching something entirely different last week, I discovered a Red Fife wheat grower only a stone’s-throw past the 100-mile ‘local’ definition, discovered also that the grower stone-mills it into flour, found out that Westboro’s newly-relocated Natural Food Pantry, just blocks away, had it … and here it is!

Heritage organic flour from CIPM, Madoc, Ontario

I think what pleased me most in finding this flour was discovering that it’s grown and milled just outside the small town of Madoc, Ontario, where my grandmother lived all her life and where I spent almost every summer of my childhood.

A bit more hunting netted a promising recipe for Red Fife whole wheat bread that uses two different pre-ferments (a la Peter Reinhart) for the dough and a flower pot as a sort of ‘brick oven’ to bake the bread.

Now I just need to buy a terra cotta flower pot* and find time in the next few weeks to give it a go!

*OK, I know, there’s the wood-fired brick oven I built in the back garden but winter has arrived here and although I cooked outside in it that first winter, I’m just not that stoic at this point. The best I can say is maybe …