Archive for February, 2013

Seasonal eats: Brussels sprouts with dried cranberries in a walnut caramel sauce

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013


Chef Judi Varga-Toth

If you’re finding it tough to eat seasonally at the end of a long Ottawa winter, take heart. “There are still plenty of seasonal ingredients out there,” says Chef Judi Varga-Toth of Credible Edibles, an eco-catering service that prepares tasty, healthy, plant-based meals for meetings, schools,  daycare, and soon, for take-home.

Varga-Toth showcases two winter ingredients — Brussels sprouts and cranberries – in this nutrition-packed recipe. Brussels sprouts belong to the brassicacea family, which also includes cabbage, collard greens, broccoli, kale, and kohlrabi. They can be steamed, roasted or sautéed, and pair well with salmon, chicken, pork, and even pasta. Brussels sprouts contain vitamin A, vitamin C, folic acid and dietary fibre and are believed to protect against colon cancer.

Cranberries also contain vitamin C and fibre, along with essential micronutrients. In addition, they’re a source of the compounds called polyphenol antioxidants, shown to play a role in preventing cancer and cardiovascular disease.  

About the chef

Judi Varga-Toth has been involved in the environmental and social justice movement for nearly 20 years, focusing in particular on the connection between our food choices, and our own health and the health of the planet.

 She opened Credible Edibles in 2006 to share her knowledge of and passion for delicious, healthy, sustainably produced food.  Through school and day care lunches, catering, employee health and wellness programs, cooking workshops, presentations and private consultations, Credible Edibles works to create simple solutions that improve health and respect the environment.

Note: Credible-Edibles has two cooking workshops coming up next week: Eat from Crete on Monday, March 4, and Spice it Up! on Thursday, March 7, 2013. See the complete workshop schedule here.

Brussels sprouts with dried cranberries in a walnut caramel sauce

Serving size: 2

 12-14 per person Brussels sprouts per person

10 walnuts, ground

2 tbs safflower or sunflower oil

1 tbs brown sugar

1 tbs maple syrup

1/2 tsp salt

pinch of cayenne

1/4 cup soy cream or soy milk

walnuts, chopped

dried cranberries for garnish


1. Place the oil in a small saucepan.

2. Grind the 10 walnuts to a powder using a coffee grinder.

3. Put the ground walnuts in the oil, and bring to low heat.

4. Add the brown sugar, maple syrup and salt.

5. Heat until the mixture becomes smooth.

6. Add the soy cream or milk and mix well.

7. Season to taste with additional salt or brown sugar and a pinch of cayenne.


 1. Clean the Brussels sprouts and cut an X on the bottom stem part.

2. Steam the Brussels sprouts for 5-7 minutes until they are soft, but still bright green.

3. Put them in a bowl and drizzle them with the caramel sauce.

4. Garnish with the chopped walnuts and dried cranberries.

5. Serve warm.

What seasonal dishes are you cooking?

Let’s start planning for food

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

Photo: Flickr tcd123usa

The way governments plan — or don’t – for food affects everything fromfarming and economic development to health and the environment.

 The importance of planning for food is one of the key themes to emerge from Policies from the Field, a series of working papers released last week by local food advocacy group Sustain Ontario. The papers discuss ways that governments can use policy to support a healthier, more sustainable food system. An earlier Earthward post looked at the new papers on food policy councils, local food procurement, and planning among different government sectors.  In this post, I’ll cover the fourth paper in the series, which focuses on the role of land use planning in making local food more accessible.

What’s land use planning?

Land use planning refers to the way land and resources are managed. It sounds pretty abstract but it has a big effect on our communities. For example, it shapes things like neighbourhood design; the location of homes, businesses, roads and public transportation; how open spaces can be used; and to what extent farm land is protected.

So what’s in the Sustain Ontario paper on land use?

Called Increasing Land Access to Local Food, the paper was put together by Burgundy Dunn from the Canadian Environmental Law Association. It looks at land use planning strategies in support of a healthier food system that’s structured to:

  • provide space and infrastructure for local food activities such as farming, processing, distribution and retailing
  • be economically sustainable for small- and medium-sized farmers and local food businesses
  • make healthy food available to all communities, including low-income and remote communities, and
  • operate in environmentally sustainable ways.

The paper provides examples of what other cities in North America have done to plan more effectively for healthy food.

What changes does the paper recommend?

  1. Plan for food. Unlike issues such as health, water and housing, only food has been sidelined as a planning issue, seen as a private sector activity rather than an essential community need. This has to change, the paper argues. Besides preserving farm land, local food production and infrastructure should be integrated into provincial and municipal policy, plans and legislation. More mixed use zoning should be encouraged to ensure that food sources like supermarkets, farmers’ markets, community gardens and restaurants are integrated into or near residential areas. Food and transit planning should also be integrated to improve food access.
  2. Increase the availability of healthy food in all neighbourhoods. Change policies and regulations to encourage retail food sources – farmers’ markets, small processing facilities, distribution centres for regionally produced foods. Municipal governments could recognize farm stands and markets, and urban agriculture as desirable land uses by providing space and transit and offering incentives for infrastructure.
  3. Create more opportunities for urban and peri-urban (land that adjoins urban land) farming. Farming should be formally recognized as an appropriate use of urban land. Governments should create and protect urban farm lands, offer up lands they own for urban farming and support urban agriculture as an economic venture.

Where can I find out about land use in Ottawa?

As with many things in Canada, jurisdiction is split among different levels of government. For example, as part of the National Capital Region, certain spaces in Ottawa come under federal/National Capital Commission jurisdiction.

The Ontario government Planning Act provides a land use planning system that’s intended to promote sustainable economic development and a healthy natural environment throughout the province. Within that framework, municipalities have leeway to tailor their decisions to local needs.

The City of Ottawa Official Plan outlines broad land use policies, as well as land use designations that specify what is or isn’t permitted in a given area. The City has designations for urban, expanding urban, rural, Greenbelt, open space and other land types, which are implemented through detailed zoning by-laws.

Is Ottawa doing any of the things Sustain Ontario paper suggests?

The City of Ottawa helps to support the work of Just Food which covers a variety of local food initiatives, including new farmer training, community gardens and development of a food hub. The city will also be represented on the soon-to-be-launched Ottawa Food Policy Council. However, at this point, the Official Plan does not explicitly plan for food.

What changes to Ottawa land use policies would you like to see to improve access to local food?

4 ways Ottawa’s new food trucks can boost sustainability

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Ottawa’s street food scene will soon start to sizzle, thanks to the City’s Friday announcement that 18 new food trucks and carts with creative menus had the green light to start serving customers in May. Instead of having to settle for fries and dogs, Ottawans will now have the chance to sample fresh seasonal dishes, seafood, Southeast Asian snacks and Cajun specialties from 11 trucks and 7 carts in dedicated spots across town. The new vendors will bring the total number of licensed food trucks and carts in the city to 62.

 A cult following for food trucks

In recent years, food trucks have developed a cult following in North America, with devotees using smartphone apps such as Eat Street, Roaming Hunger and Food Truck Fiesta to track down their favourites. In this city, aficionados stay up-to-date with Street Food Ottawa. But are these kitchens on wheels eco-friendly? After all, we’re talking about vehicles that often rely on some form of fossil fuel to get around and to run their onboard stoves and generators.

A lot depends on the choices vendors make about the type of energy to use (gasoline, propane, biodiesel, solar, etc.), as well as whether to source ingredients locally, and use recyclable or compostable packaging and utensils. But the consensus seems to be that — besides spicing up the urban foodscape — food trucks have the potential to contribute to sustainable communities and neighbourhoods. Here’s how.

  1. They support the local economy. When you buy from a locally owned truck or cart, you’re putting money into a small business in your community, not into the pockets of a national or international fast food chain.  A local owner may also be more likely to spend money locally and purchase local ingredients.
  2. They offer some environmental pluses over the bricks-and-mortar restaurant. For example, they use less water and don’t need to light, heat, cool or ventilate a full-service dining area.  In Ottawa’s case, the new trucks and carts will have assigned spots so they won’t be on the move.
  3. Local ingredients are showing up on more and more food truck menus, meaning fewer food miles, more support for local farmers and fresher, more seasonal food. Of the 18 new vendors approved by the City of Ottawa, at least five will create their menus around local ingredients. They include:
  • Benjamin Baird (of the Urban Pear restaurant): OttawaStreatGourmet – fresh, local, seasonal and ever-changing menu; to be located north side of Queen, west of O’Connor
  • Peter G. Bowen: Epicurean Munchie Truck — health-conscious, foodie-friendly, locally sourced cuisine; east side of Olmstead, south of Montreal Road
  • Jacqueline Jolliffe: Stone Soup Foodworks — local soups, tacos and sandwiches; east side of Spadina, north of Wellington. (Check out Chef Jacqueline’s recipe for potato and leek soup on Earthward.)
  • Tim Van Dyke: LUNCH – fresh, local ingredients in wholesome soups, salads and sandwiches; north side of Albert, east of Lyon
  • Gavin Hall: BOBITES – Best Organic Bites – organic baked potatoes with seasonal toppings; east side of Metcalfe, south of Sparks
  1. Customers can enjoy more diverse cuisine, better quality and healthier choices as street food continues to reinvent itself.  In the case of Ottawa’s new food truck vendors, the priority placed on quality cuisine and healthy ingredients is reflected in the makeup of the volunteer panel that chose the winning applicants. The panel represented Savour Ottawa, which promotes Ottawa as a culinary destination with an emphasis on local foods;  the sustainable food advocacy group Just Food; Ottawa Public Health; the Canadian Culinary Federation, a national association for cooks and chefs, and;  the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association, a hospitality industry group.

You can find a list of Ottawa’s new food truck vendors on the City’s website.

What do you think of Ottawa’s decision to let new food truck vendors in on the action?



Smart ideas for Ontario food policy

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

They may not be sexy, but smart, well-crafted food policies, rules and programs play a big part in building a more sustainable food system.

On February 11 and 12, Sustain Ontario unveiled Policies from the Field, a series of working papers on policies to boost healthy eating and local food production. Sustain Ontario is an alliance of provincial stakeholders – including Ottawa’s Just Food — that advocates for healthy, sustainable food and farming.

The first four papers in the series consider national and international food policies that Ontario’s municipal and provincial governments could adopt in areas such as:

  1. food policy councils
  2. local food procurement
  3. inter-sectoral food agendas, and
  4. land planning to improve local food access

A paper about food hubs will come out February 19, 2013.

In this post, I’ll cover the highlights from the first three papers. Next week, I’ll look at the reports on land use planning and food hubs. Sustain Ontario has posted Policies from the Field online.

Ontario: The Case for a Provincial Food Policy Council

Authored by U.S. community food activist and writer Mark Winne, this paper argues that there’s a lack of common focus to food policy at the provincial and state government levels in North America. While for-profit and non-profit groups have stepped into the void, they may lack the capacity or clout to deal with challenges such as food insecurity, rising obesity rates, and the decline in family farms.  Food policy councils can help bridge the gap by bringing citizens, stakeholders and governments together to actively plan and manage food systems. Examples of successful food policy planning include Toronto and Edmonton at the city level and Nova Scotia, Connecticut, Michigan and New Mexico at the provincial/state level. Given the uncertain future of global food, Winne concludes that cities, provinces and countries that don’t actively shape their own food systems will be at the mercy of forces they can’t control.

As far as Ottawa is concerned, we will soon have our own food policy council.  Slated for launch in the near future, the council will include representatives from the City of Ottawa, citizens and other food system stakeholders.

Possibilities for Local Food Procurement in Ontario

Procurement policy is key to a thriving local food system. As the U.K., Italy and the U.S. have learned, when governments and publicly-funded organizations (e.g., school boards, hospitals, universities) start sourcing local food, it ramps up supply, along with the infrastructure to process and distribute it.  But there’s a stumbling block. Ontario’s ability to procure local food is restricted by a slew of trade agreements – NAFTA, the agreements Canada is negotiating with the European Union (CETA) and Pacific nations (TPP), and others. These agreements prohibit the countries involved from choosing suppliers based on geographic location.  As a result, limiting bids on a food contract to local suppliers would be seen as discriminatory. That said, there may be some wiggle room, according to the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA).  For example, following the lead of several EU nations, Ontario could craft requests for proposal with “technical specifications” to favour foods based on seasonality, freshness or local organic certification.  It might also be possible to set policies that are exempt from trade agreements altogether, such as measures that would apply to contracts below a certain dollar value or that would support non-profit organizations.

Health in All Policies

This paper from food policy analyst Wayne Roberts describes a strategy called Health in All Policies (HiAP) that’s endorsed by the World Health Organization and has been adopted in Finland, the EU and South Australia. In a nutshell, HiAP is an inter-sectoral approach to health issues that connects them to all government agencies instead of just health departments. Roberts suggests that Ontario could implement a HiAP approach to food issues instead of scattering responsibility for them among different bureaucracies such as employment, the environment, health, agriculture and fisheries. This approach would allow people from the various food sectors to understand how interconnected their issues are and what they could achieve by collaborating on an integrated agenda.

What municipal or provincial policy would you change to make local food more widely accessible?

Celebrate Valentine’s with local bean-to-bar chocolate

Saturday, February 9th, 2013

If you’re buying chocolate for Valentine’s, why not try some small-batch artisanal chocolate made here in Ottawa?  Hummingbird Chocolate Maker handcrafts its dark, organic chocolate bars from single-origin Latin American and Caribbean cocoa beans and uses 19th century methods to bring out their unique flavours.

Hummingbird is a labour of love for owners Erica and Drew Gilmour. It fuses their passion for chocolate with a commitment to social justice that’s rooted in years of aid work with farmers in developing countries. Not only does the couple strive to produce exceptional chocolate, they insist on buying cocoa beans that have been sourced ethically to ensure that the farmers who grow them receive a fair price.

Hummingbird chocolate has become a hit since its launch in June 2012. In fact, the Gilmours have had to buy more equipment to keep up with demand, and have moved the chocolate workshop out of their Stittsville home and into commercial space at Alice’s Village Cafe in Carp. “With our old equipment, we could only make 50 bars at a time,” Erica says. “Now we have two larger machines that can each produce 200 bars at a time.”

How does the chocolate taste?

Wonderful.  Depending on the origin of the cocoa, you can detect flavour notes of fruit, honey, toffee and whisky to name just a few. I sampled several bars at Hummingbird earlier this week, including their delicious Bolivia and Cumboto lines.  My very favourite was the deliciously spiced Patanemo bar, made from Venezuelan cocoa beans.

How is it made?

Making the chocolate is a 10-step process that takes about a month from start to finish. When the Gilmours receive the dried, fermented beans from the wholesaler, they: 

  1. sort the beans to remove twigs and debris
  2. slow-roast them
  3. crack them into bits called nibs
  4. sort the nibs by size
  5. winnow the nibs to remove the shells
  6. grind the beans into a moist paste called liqueur
  7. conche the beans. This is done by running the liqueur for 3 days, non-stop, through a machine that rotates grinding stones to develop taste. Organic sugar is added (the only other ingredient in Hummingbird chocolate) at this stage.
  8. let the mixture rest for 3 weeks to 30 days so the flavours can settle
  9. temper the chocolate in a special machine that adds sheen and rounds out flavours. Then the chocolate is poured into decorative molds.
  10. wrap the finished bars

How does the long process improve the flavour?

Like wine, coffee and tea, the taste of chocolate is a matter of terroir – the interaction between a given plant (the cacao tree, in this case) and the geography, climate and harvesting methods of the place where it’s grown. With chocolate, the longer production time expresses the unique flavours of the cocoa origin, offering more complex, layered tastes. It also gets rid of off-flavours, such as acidity. By comparison, mass-produced chocolate tends to have a uniform taste with more sweetness than character.  Acidity doesn’t burn off naturally, but is masked by adding other ingredients such as vanilla extract.

How much do the bars cost?

They retail at $6.50 each. The higher price reflects the higher quality cocoa beans, the labour-intensive production and the deeper flavours.

Who’s buying Hummingbird bars?

The bars appeal to different people for different reasons. Besides enjoying the taste, there are customers who may appreciate that Hummingbird is a local business, or that the chocolate is small-batch, or that it’s ethically traded. Others are drawn to the health benefits of cocoa. In addition to its following in the Ottawa area, the chocolate is sparking interest elsewhere in North America and in Europe, Erica Gilmour says.

Will the business stick with chocolate bars or branch out with other products?

The plans are to try darker and lighter chocolate and to sell cocoa nibs, Erica says. “The nibs are crunchy pieces of pure cocoa that taste very good sprinkled on oatmeal, for example.” In the long term, she’d also like to do some hot chocolate.

Where can I find Hummingbird chocolate?

It’s available at the Ottawa Farmers Market, Thyme & Again Catering and Food Shop, Coco Jojo, Gaia Java, Alice’s Village Café and Pêches & Poivres. You can also order it online from Foodie Pages.

What’s your favourite chocolate and where do you buy it?

Seasonal eats: Potato & leek soup from Stone Soup Foodworks

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

Chef Jacqueline Jolliffe, Stone Soup Foodworks

Spring will be early this year if you believe the various groundhogs that saw their shadows February 2.  But you don’t need to wait for warmer weather to enjoy some seasonal local vegetables.   Those still available in Ottawa include potatoes and leeks, both of which are featured in this comforting winter soup from Chef Jacqueline Jolliffe.

Jolliffe is the owner of Stone Soup Foodworks, a food truck that specializes in fresh, healthy lunches and sustainable catering. An avid cook and environmentalist since she was a child, Jolliffe taught high school before realizing that the only truly sensible career path for her was to open a soup truck and teach the lost skills of chopping, cooking and preserving real food grown in real soil by real people.

“At Stone Soup Foodworks, we believe that food can be good for people and good for the earth as well as being delicious,” Jolliffe says. “We also believe that local and organic foods should be affordable for all, and that convenience does not mean that we have to forego taste and ethics. Our mission is to connect people with one another and with the land through a rich and healthy relationship with food.”

 Potato & leek soup

Prep time 20 minutes, cooking time 35 minutes (if you have vegetable stock on hand).  Serves 12 as an appetizer.

1/4 cup unsalted butter

6 large white leeks, sliced and well-washed

2 tsp salt

8 large russet potatoes, peeled and cubed

enough vegetable stock* to cover, plus two inches.

1 cup whipping cream (or reserve for garnish)

*You can find simple recipes for homemade vegetable stock at sites such as Canadian Living and

Melt butter on medium heat in a heavy saucepan. Add leeks and salt and cook for 10-15 minutes until softened and nearly melted.

Add potatoes and cover them with stock to one inch above the potatoes.  Bring to a boil and cook until potatoes are very soft.

Blend using hand blender until very smooth. Stir in cream and heat gently.

 Garnish with chives or cream.

What’s your favourite winter soup recipe?

Food read round-up: Connecting food, water, energy and climate

Saturday, February 2nd, 2013

Food read round-up is a semi-regular post that highlights food/farming stories from around the world to add perspective on Ottawa’s sustainable local food scene.

You don’t think of institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank as big sustainability advocates. But unlikely as it seems, the heads of these two organizations recently linked future prosperity to environmental sustainability and urged swift action on climate change. In particular,

IMF managing director Christine Lagarde noted that “good ecology is good economics” and made headlines with her statement that “unless we take action…future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled.”

It’s anyone’s guess whether or what action will be taken. But it’s encouraging to see some economic bigwigs acknowledge the ecology-economy connection. Interestingly, the connection theme cropped up in several food and farming stories in the past few weeks.

 Knowing the nexus.  Two reports released in January highlight the interplay among food production, water and energy. Using – or misusing – one affects all the others, often in ways that can’t be foreseen. Add climate change and population growth to the mix and the uncertainties are magnified. The draft National Climate Assessment focuses on extreme weather events and their impact on human health, ecosystems, water supplies, energy facilities and our ability to produce a stable, adequate supply of food. Food, Water, Energy: Know the Nexus, a publication of the GRACE Communications Foundation, argues that, to create a more sustainable future, we need to understand the nexus – in other words, the point at which food, water and energy intersect. For commentary on these reports, try The Agricultural Fulcrum: Better Food, Better Climate and Climate Science Watch.

Food + fracking. Recent media stories have uncovered the links between hydraulic fracturing – “fracking” – and the food we eat. Fracking is a technique used to extract natural gas from rock by injecting it with pressurized chemicals.  Practised across Canada and in the U.S., fracking has come under fire for contaminating groundwater and drinking water and boosting carbon emissions. In The Surprising Connection between Food and Fracking, Mother Jones columnist Tom Philpott examines another aspect of the process: more natural gas from fracking will supply more of the nitrogen used in conventional farm fertilizers.  As Philpott points out:  “If Big Ag becomes hooked on cheap fracked gas to meet its fertilizer needs, then the fossil fuel industry will have gained a powerful ally in its effort to steamroll regulation and fight back opposition to fracking projects.”

Also worth reading:

 Top source of food poisoning? Leafy greens. Great – just what we wanted to hear. According to a study released by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in five foodborne illnesses are attributable to leafy greens – more than red meat, poultry, fruits or dairy. The good news is that these illnesses were not the most dangerous (that distinction went to poultry).  Also that, as long as we handle (i.e., wash or cook) our greens properly, we shouldn’t stop eating them. Figures from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) show that there are about 11 million cases of food-borne illnesses each year in this country.

Can small farms benefit from Wal-Mart’s push into local foods?  Vowing to double its local produce sales by 2015, Walmart has moved aggressively to get local farmers on board in Canada and the U.S. This story from Harvest Public Media doesn’t investigate the situation in Canada, but for the moment it looks as if the main beneficiaries of the retail giant’s local food strategy are a small number of producers who’ve changed their business model to suit Walmart, and of course, Walmart itself.

What have you been reading about food and farming?