July 24, 2012

Sweet Corn Chowder

A light wind swept over the corn, and all nature laughed in the sunshine.                                                                                             – Anne Bronte

I recently wrote an article about my complicated relationship with corn for Edible Toronto Magazine (something which I've blogged about before). I'll warn you this is a longer-than-usual post - although it's actually a pared-down version of the full Edible Toronto article - but bear with me. If you love corn, you should read this. And if you don't have time, do watch this short video I made to accompany the article. My recipe for summery sweet corn chowder is below.  

I’ve never been a picky eater. In fact, aside from a short-lived vegetarian stint as a teenager, I have always considered myself a proud omnivore. I will eat anything and everything, and with gusto! I am what we call in French a gourmande. I simply love to eat. And I used to sink my teeth into an ear of corn without hesitation, anticipating only the pure pleasure that a juicy, golden cob can provide on a sunny summer day. But in the late 1990s I read something that completely changed my eating habits: the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes sold in Canada contained genetically engineered corn whereas the same cereal in Europe did not. I was annoyed to learn that we Canadians had so passively allowed these new mystery ingredients into our foods so I dove headfirst into a research and film project about genetically engineered (GE) foods, or GMOs, as they are more commonly known. 

I was so dismayed with what I found out about GMOs that I decided to do everything in my power to avoid eating them. But this is easier said than done: the three main GE foods – canola, soy and corn – are in a whopping 80 percent of the processed foods found in our grocery stores (click here for a long list of hidden GMO ingredients). And since none of these are labeled, a convoluted guessing game begins. Since most farm animals are fed GE soy and corn, suddenly meat and dairy were out for me as well, unless they were certified organic. (Organic certification prohibits the use of GMOs.) So what happened is I went from being an omnivore to being a very, very picky eater!

It isn't easy to explain it to people. It just doesn’t come out very smoothly, no matter which way you cut it. At least vegetarians, diabetics, heck, even vegans get a little understanding and respect. But try explaining that you’ll take a pass on those nachos because they are likely made with genetically engineered corn, cooked in genetically engineered canola oil, and smothered in cheese from cows that were fed genetically engineered soy and corn. If you ever want to create an instant awkward silence followed by a raging debate at a dinner party, I recommend this technique. You end up sounding like the annoying and paranoid food snob who asks way too many questions. So over the years I've learned to be discreet about my non-GMO inclinations when eating in public. But then again, isn’t that what landed us here in the first place? We Canadians are so polite and docile about everything, we are terrified we might disturb or offend someone. Maybe if we put up a good food fight, we would actually stand a chance at proper labelling and knowing what we're eating. Our American neighbours are now well ahead of us on that front, with some states beginning to pass GMO labelling laws.

I used to be somewhat comforted by the knowledge that most of the GE corn on the market was field corn intended for animal feed or processed foods. There were virtually no genetically engineered sweet corn varieties being grown in Canada. I could still indulge in my beloved slathered-in-butter corn on the cob as much as I wanted. But all of this changed last summer when a variety of not-so-sweet GE sweet corn called Attribute, from the company Syngenta, started being grown and sold in Canada and the US. With a heavy heart, I scratched yet another one of my favourite foods from my list.

I wanted to find out if I should be on the lookout for any other new GE sweet corn varieties this summer, so I consulted Health Canada’s list of approved “plants with novel traits,” as they mysteriously prefer to call them. I could see that various varieties of GE corn had been approved over the years, but that they were all field corn varieties. So I contacted Health Canada to inquire about sweet corn specifically. They informed me that they do not provide “information on which varieties of sweet corn are currently being grown in Canada.” So I contacted Lucy Sharratt at the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN). She confirmed that it is next to impossible to obtain this kind of information from our government. “You practically have to be a detective to find out what GE crops are being grown and sold in Canada”, she explained. Lucy informed me that, in addition to Attribute, there are three varieties of Monsanto sweet corn on the market this year, modestly dubbed Temptation II, Obsession II and Passion II. When I hear these names, I can’t help but simultaneously think of bad perfumes. . . and the witch and her shiny, poisonous apple in Snow White, but I digress.

By now you’re probably wondering what the big deal is. Why not just eat the darn corn and stop worrying so much. Usually, when people ask me why I go through all the trouble, I recommend that they watch The World According to Monsanto, a film by award-winning journalist Marie-Monique Robin. And also read Altered Genes, Twisted Truths by Steve Druker (named by Jane Goodall "one of the most important books of the last 50 years"). Both answer a lot of questions and are true eye-openers as to the corrupted ways GMOs re being regulated in our food supply. I suppose that fundamentally, it’s the idea of genetic engineering that disturbs me most since it involves artificially forcing genetic material from one organism into the DNA of an entirely different species, something that doesn’t happen in nature, and with consequences that are difficult to predict. But in actual fact, I'm not  opposed to genetic engineering, conducted in a laboratory setting, as a means of scientific research, especially in the medical field. But when genetically engineered organisms are put into our foods without being labelled or adequately tested independently (in other words, not tested by the same companies that have created them), that's where I believe there's cause for concern. There are increasing number of peer-reviewed animal-feeding studies showing evidence of organ damage, gastrointestinal and immune system disorders, and reproductive failure. And earlier this year, scientists at the University of Caen in France showed that the Bt protein found in genetically engineered corn can be toxic to human cells, an alarming discovery given that last year doctors at Sherbrooke University Hospital in Quebec found Bt toxin from GE corn in the blood of 93 percent of the pregnant women they studied.

When people hear of my aversion to GE corn, I am often asked if I would rather have pesticides on my food. The answer, of course, is no. But the reality is that if GE corn isn’t sprayed with pesticides (which it usually is), that’s because it has been engineered to create its own pesticide. The pesticide is now inside the plant rather than outside of it. It can't be washed off because it resides in every cell of the plant. In fact, the cultivation of genetically engineered crops has led not to a decrease (as we are often told), but to an increase of 404 million pounds of pesticide use in the US since they were introduced. This increase is due in part to the emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds (or “superweeds”) caused by herbicide- resistant GMOs, such as Round-Up-resistant crops. And since these herbicide-resistant superweeds are becoming harder and harder to control using conventional herbicides like Round-Up, companies are now turning to stronger and more toxic chemicals, as Andrew Kimbrell explains in my video above. 

Given all of this, you’d think that our government would conduct thorough scientific studies before approving new genetically engineered foods but, instead, it relies on industry studies done by the very companies seeking approval (and profits) for these new foods. In 2001, the federal government was blasted by an Expert Panel of the Royal Society of Canada for its flawed and inadequate regulatory system when it comes to GMOs. The panel, a senior body of preeminent scientists and scholars, made 58 detailed recommendations for improving the regulatory system and approvals process to ensure it does what it is meant to do, which is to protect Canadians. Alarmingly, only 2 of the 58 recommendations were implemented. Given that our government is not following the expert recommendations of one of its top scientific bodies, is it any wonder that people are asking that at the very least, we be allowed to know which foods contain GMOs through simple labelling?

My farming colleagues planting Bodacious corn!
When I wrote my Edible Toronto article, I had just finished planting several rows of organic sweet corn at the farm where I am apprenticing. The variety we planted is called Bodacious, which according to the dictionary means: “remarkable, noteworthy, bold, audacious, sexy, and voluptuous.”  Yes, these are all attributes that I will happily sink my teeth into in just a few weeks since there are now small cobs on our corn plants. My boyfriend and I are also growing three other organic, open-pollinated varieties in our garden. One of these produces rosy pink kernels, which I'm dying to taste! The act of growing our own sweet corn represents a small kernel of hope for a world where we can one day have the basic human right of knowing what we are eating and, more importantly, knowing that our summer pleasures are not harming other living things. I’ll possibly find a worm or two in my corn. But I will happily take the worm over the spliced DNA.

My sweetheart holding some very special (field) corn seeds
If anyone actually read this looong post all the way through to the end, you most definitely deserve a medal, or at the very least, a delicious bowl of GMO-free corn chowder. And here's how to make it... but first! Oh I know, I'm so annoying, but first, please take one second to sign this important online letter against GE sweet corn.

This is a light, summery chowder best made with fresh sweet corn and new potatoes. The addition of cream and cornmeal gives it a velvety texture that is creamy but not too thick. The chipotle is optional as it can be quite spicy and overpowering for some. For a GMO-free chowder, you’ll want to watch out for the following ingredients to be either *organically grown or *non-GMO-certified: sweet corn, butter, bacon, chicken stock, cornmeal and cream. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

1 small bunch of fresh thyme (about 15 sprigs)

4 ears of sweet corn*

4 slices bacon*, chopped, (or 2 tbsp butter*)

1 medium onion, diced

2 stalks celery, diced

2 tbsp finely chopped chives or green onion
4 cups chicken* or vegetable broth
1/4 cup cornmeal*
2 to 3 cups cubed potatoes
Optional: 1 minced chipotle chile (from a can or dried and rehydrated)
2 cups half and half (10%) cream*
1 tsp smoked paprika
Salt and pepper to taste

Using a sharp knife, remove the corn kernels from the ears of corn; set the kernels aside. In a medium stockpot over medium heat, cook the bacon, stirring occasionally, until the fat is rendered. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes. Stir in the celery, half of the thyme leaves, chives, salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes.

Stir in the broth and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer. Transfer 1/2 cup of the liquid to a medium bowl. Add the cornmeal to the bowl, whisking until smooth. Stir the cornmeal mixture back into the chowder. Stir in the potatoes and chipotle (start with one-half of the chopped chipotle and add more if desired, to taste). Cook 10 minutes and then stir in the corn kernels. Cook until the potatoes are tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to low. Stir in the cream and paprika and cook until just heated through, about 2 minutes. (After the cream is added, do not allow the chowder to boil.) Garnish with sprigs of thyme or chives and serve with warm crusty bread.

July 12, 2012

Fennel quinoa salad with raspberry mint vinaigrette

Helllooo out there! Sorry I've been away from this blog for so long but I've been busy having a love affair with fennel.

Photo by Katrina Ludlow

And peas, and swiss chard, and raspberries. Oh ok fine, and turnip greens as well. But the fennel, oh that fennel.

Photo by Katrina Ludlow

Some of you have asked for updates and photos from the farm but it's been so busy I've barely found time to keep up this blog, let alone take pictures that do justice to this beautiful place. Luckily, 2 talented photographers have been visiting us lately, doing some gorgeous photography work, and they very kindly allowed me to use their images to illustrate this blogpost. For those of you who don't know, I am currently doing an organic farming apprenticeship with a farmer affectionally dubbed Farmer Tom, on his biodynamic farm in midcoast Maine. And while it may be a bit of a rough segue going from talking about dainty flowery ice bowls in the last post, to talking about shovelling sheep shit and such, as Farmer Tom says: this stuff is future food! (or as he once called out to a particularly nicely composted little pile of manure in his best Smeagul voice: "it's my precious!")

Farmer Tom photographed by Katrina Ludlow

Tom's farm provides weekly harvest shares to over 100 CSA members. There is also a small dairy on the farm, as well as chickens and sheep.

Photo by Katrina Ludlow
Photo by Katrina Ludlow

When I fantasized about doing a farming apprenticeship while sitting at my desk in a downtown Toronto office, I had no idea I would find it this challenging. It's not as if I had never done any gardening or farm work before, but apprenticing through a whole growing season really puts you face to face with your own limitations and challenges. It's safe to say my farm fantasies were a little too Martha Stewart picture perfect. After an initial first few weeks of the honeymoon phase where everything was seen through rosy-coloured glasses, I realized the reality is more dirty, at times monotonous, and almost always achy. I seriously considered whether I am really cut out for this work the day we mucked out a one-foot deep layer of compressed manure in the sheep pen.

Photo by Britt Leckman

(Note the pained look on my face?) I laugh about it now, but I wasn't laughing then. I was already feeling tired and achy that day, and not thrilled at the prospect of several hours of shovelling. But what really nailed me was the combination of the pungent permeating odour (bringing a new understanding of the word "fresh") and my good old overactive gag reflex. 

For the first hour, I had to make a superhuman effort not to throw up. Between shovelfuls, I would start heaving and have to run up the ramp of the sheep entrance to take quick sips of cool clean air. But the ceiling is very low there (sheep are not very tall you see), and on one of these occasions I got up too fast and whammed my head on a sharp point on the ceiling. I was so shocked by the shooting pain compounded with the bubbling belly storm that I had been trying to suppress that tears started streaming down my face instead. Right there on the sheep ramp, I had a mini meltdown, with thankfully, no one looking. It took me a moment to collect myself. I work with a bunch of guys you see, and although they are the "sensitive types" they are also adept at the art of teasing and I didn't think I would live it down if they saw me blubbering over the mundane task of shovelling manure. So I composed myself as best as I could and got back to it. I have to admit that finally seeing the floor below that layer of muck is one of my great life accomplishments. I was beaming with pride as if I had just made a great work of art.

Photo by Katrina Ludlow

So yes. Farming is hard work. I knew it, but I didn't KNOW it, know what I mean? Now I know it in my achy shoulders, calloused hands & grimy nails, and sunburnt arms. What I am getting out of this apprenticeship more than anything is an ever deepening appreciation for the labour involved in getting food to our tables. Particularly organically-grown foods, which require added human labour (often a labour of love) since rather than spraying your crops with pesticides, you have to find alternate, often creative methods to deal with weeds, insects, mould, and disease. I say this following a very long afternoon under the relentless sun, picking juicy potato beetle larvae with my farm comrades. Someone commented that what took 5 of us several hours to do would have taken 1 person around 30 minutes of spraying on a conventional farm. (Although I hear a local organic farmer uses a shop-vac to suck them up fast!) Any way you look at it, organic farming is a challenging path, but it is a deliberate choice to respect life on this earth, including our own, and is infinitely more rewarding. It has been shown by a 2011 United Nations report that small-scale, sustainable farming is the best way to feed a growing global population. And with over 150 species estimated to be going extinct with every day that goes by (much of it linked to intensive agriculture and overfishing), it's heartening to see the incredible biodiversity of plants, crops, birds, and insects that thrive on an organic farm. 

Photo by Katrina Ludlow
Photo by Katrina Ludlow

There are so many magical moments scattered throughout each day on the farm, but the biggest joy of all for me is harvesting and cooking the tasty fruits of our labour. There have been so many recipes I've wanted to share with you all lately that have slipped by, and I promise I'll try to blog more frequently from now on, but this most recent one is a summer quinoa salad with fennel, green peas, chèvre, and a raspberry mint vinaigrette (since our raspberries have just begun and our peas are in full swing... and our fennel, well we already talked about that - let's just say that that elegant row of proud fennel is my very favourite place on the farm)

Quinoa salad is delicious with whatever fresh seasonal veggies you have on hand, so if you don't have fennel and peas but instead have zucchini and tomatoes, by all means, use whatever you've got that is in season in your area (although I wouldn't use the below vinaigrette on a tomato-based quinoa salad, a simple olive oil, basil & vinegar vinaigrette would be my pairing of choice instead)

2 cups quinoa, cooked, drained, and cooled (be careful not to overcook it if you don't want porridge salad, yuk)
1 fennel bulb, finely sliced
3 green onions, finely chopped
1 cup fresh garden peas (I used bot shell peas and snap peas)
1/2 cup crumbled chèvre (goat cheese)
1/4 cup chopped fennel leaves
Mix every thing together in a large bowl.

1/2 cup crushed fresh raspberries (or you can substitute 1/4 cup raspberry jam)
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tbsp maple syrup (don't use if using jam)
1 1/2 tbsp vinegar (I used white balsamic)
5 sprigs of fresh mint, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely minced
Salt and fresh cracked pepper, to taste
Mix together and shake in a bottle. Pour generously over your salad and serve!