Here, Look in the Garden Bed…
by Hélène Tremblay-Boyko
It is spring on the prairie. Plants and seeds that remained dormant in the dark have now stirred below snow-covered gardens, and the prairie’s hardiest have emerged in glorious response to the sun’s warmth. Once more, we will have the opportunity to feast on fresh, seasonal, local produce. But why should this matter? Grocery stores have boasted fresh produce all winter long, coming from such exotic places as Chile, Guatemala, and New Zealand. Our diets are filled with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables coming from around the world. So why does it matter that Saskatchewan gardens and growers are once again able to offer seasonal alternatives?
First, according to the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network,1 there is the environmental impact of the global food system which contributes 21%–37% of all global greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity. Such practices as clearing trees to make way for farming, and the manufacture of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers are among the main culprits. In addition, buying local means fewer greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the miles your food travels.
Next, there is the economic impact of supporting local farmers through Farmers’ Markets, Community Shared Agriculture (CSA), and your grocery store’s local food products. Your food dollars spent in this way will keep Saskatchewan growers and farmers thriving, especially the small family farms. This not only provides you with the freshest food possible, it builds a resilient community. When we become more self-reliant in sourcing our food locally, we replace the global, industrial food system with a more sustainable food web, which provides us all with the freedom of food sovereignty.
Finally, local produce means higher retention of nutrients. Produce which goes from the garden to your kitchen has not been subjected to the loss of nutrients during the long circuit from harvest to processing and packaging for transport, to wholesaler, to store shelves, to your home. Professor Cinda S. Chima at Akron University reports that researchers at Penn State recently studied the effects of storage on the nutrient content of fresh spinach and found that many of its nutrients are sensitive to conditions such as air, light, and heat.2 Noticeable deterioration begins within 24 to 48 hours after harvest. In addition, many fruit and vegetables which travel long distances to market are picked before reaching their peak, thereby sacrificing their highest nutritional content.
Something beautiful is growing…
So, what IS available in Saskatchewan in the spring? Among the earliest are greens—asparagus, sheep sorrel, arugula, spinach, kale, lettuce, Swiss chard, orach, and some herbs. There are also radishes and morels. For fruit, there is rhubarb and, in some years, early strawberries. Let’s not forget the so-called “weeds” that grow voluntarily in our environment, particularly dandelions and stinging nettles.
The earliest greens that come up in our yard are the volunteers. Besides the ubiquitous dandelions and sometimes intimidating stinging nettle, sheep sorrel is one of our first spring greens. Several years ago, I planted a single row of sheep sorrel in my garden. They are a perennial, and since I did not cultivate the garden after harvest in the fall, they grew back the following spring. They were an early treat in salads and soon began to shoot up seed heads. After that, they kept seeding out and coming up everywhere in great succession. They even outcompete the lawn, springing up in lovely little tufts all over. Even after we have gone over with the lawn mower, they grow back faster than the grass. NOTE: do not confuse sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) with Jamaican sorrel (Hibiscus sabdariffa).
Sheep sorrel is a green plant in the buckwheat family. It has a wonderful, slightly lemony flavour and its leaves have the texture of spinach. Sorrels were once classified under the genus Lapathum, a derivative of the Greek word meaning “to cleanse.” Sheep sorrel contains a class of astringent called tannins, has historically been used to treat inflammation, and is one of the ingredients in Essiac tea. It is a rich source of vitamin C, E, beta-carotene, and other carotenoids.
The next available greens are annuals, seeded out the summer before as I let a few of the plants bolt and form seed heads. In our garden, that would usually include arugula, spinach, and orach. Of these, spinach and its mild flavour is most familiar. Orach is a second cousin of spinach, and part of the same plant family as quinoa. According to Ashley Posluns in her 2016 article, “Orach is the New Kale,”—orach is a nutrient-rich superfood “jam-packed with vitamins and minerals like calcium, magnesium, anthocyanins, phosphorous, iron, protein, zinc, selenium, tryptophan, vitamin C, vitamin K, carotenes, and dietary fibre...”3 Orach is not only deliciously mild like spinach, it is beautiful in a salad because its leaves are green above and purple beneath. I prefer it to spinach as it doesn’t bolt as quickly and can be a substitute for spinach in salads or cooked on pizza and in pasta, risotto, and soups.
Since I like to add a little spicy flavour to my salad, arugula is a staple in my garden. Early in the spring, I harvest the new shoots that seeded out in the previous fall, but I always sow a new season’s crop. This delicious green is a nutrient-dense food that is high in fibre and phytochemicals. It is particularly rich in calcium, potassium, folate, and vitamins C, K, and A. Arugula is delicious in salads, especially with goat cheese, and makes a wonderful pesto which can be frozen and used throughout the winter months.
Finally, our yard boasts several rhubarb patches. If you have ever eaten raw rhubarb, you will not be surprised to hear that fibre is one of its nutritional hallmarks. In addition, according to Dr. Mercola (renowned natural health expert), rhubarb is rich in vitamins A, B, and C, as well as 45% of our daily recommendation of vitamin K. One cup of cooked rhubarb, he says, contains as much calcium as in one cup of milk.
Rhubarb is a winter hardy perennial, easy to grow, very forgiving of neglect, and easily divided for propagation. In early spring or fall, cut and plant pieces from the crown of a three- to four-year-old plant which has grown to about three feet in width. There are red and green varieties of rhubarb, and although the red stalks are more attractive, I have not found any substantial difference in their taste or uses. Rhubarb is great in desserts like pies and crumbles, or stewed and poured on yogurt. It even makes a great wine! If you don’t have one of these in your yard, find someone who does and get a cutting. It is as attractive as it is versatile.
Now that the snow has melted, geese and songbirds have returned, fruit trees are blooming, and Mother Nature is offering us a great buffet on the prairie. I challenge you to look around, find what is growing voluntarily, and sow what will come back to you when the cycle of seasons returns to spring.
Easy Salad Dressing
I use this dressing on all spring salad greens, in any combination and/or on shredded vegetables. For a small salad for two people, drizzle 1–2 tbsp flax or hemp oil (or vegetable oil of your choice) and an equal amount of balsamic reduction on greens/vegetables. Toss with 1–2 tbsp sesame seeds.
Here’s a lovely and refreshing salad with tender greens that I discovered online and adapted to our environment. A hint of citrus and toasted almonds add to the fresh flavour.
Spring Greens Salad
6 or so cups washed and torn mixed greens (see note)
2 small bunches of Lucullus chard, (a pale green, mild tasting variety of chard that grows well in my garden), thinly sliced
1/4 cup thinly sliced onion
1/4 cup toasted sliced or slivered almonds
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil or fragrant nut oil
2 tbsp white balsamic or white wine vinegar
2 tbsp orange juice
zest of 1/2 orange, optional (but highly recommended)
Combine all the ingredients in a salad bowl and toss together. Serve at once.
NOTE: Use a mild lettuce such as Boston or butter, spinach, and orach mixed with any combination of sorrel, arugula, dandelion greens, watercress. Or just keep it simple and use mixed baby greens.
I have made pesto with many greens besides basil, including chick weed, garlic scapes, and arugula. They are all delicious on hot pasta.
2 cups of packed arugula leaves, stems removed
1/2 cup of shelled walnuts, sliced almonds, or pine nuts
1/2 cup fresh Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
6 garlic cloves
1/2 tsp salt
Place in blender and buzz until smooth. If needed, add a tbsp of water to moisten.
I often make several batches to freeze. In those instances, I omit the Parmesan cheese and add it when it is time to serve it.
How to Store Rhubarb
Remove entire leaf from rhubarb (due to high levels of oxalic acid, it is toxic!), trim base of stalk and rinse in cold water. Fresh rhubarb will keep for a FEW days in crisper if wrapped tightly in plastic. For longer storage, cut into chunks and freeze for up to six months. Rhubarb can be dried or canned. Check out www.rhubarbinfo.com/culinary for instructions.
To cook rhubarb, place 1” chunks in saucepan, cover with sugar-water solution, and stew until the chunks have dissolved into a tender, threadlike, red slurry. This mixture can be stored in the fridge for SEVERAL days. Serve for breakfast stirred in yogurt or oatmeal. Stewed rhubarb can also be incorporated into BBQ sauce or marinades for roasted meats.
Of course, rhubarb is most often cooked in desserts. My favourite crumble recipe follows:
2 cups fresh rhubarb chunks spread on bottom of buttered 8x8 cake pan
Sprinkle with brown sugar to taste. Mix with slices of apple or strawberry to reduce sugar.
Mix together: 1 cup rolled oats, 1/2 cup butter, 1/2 cup brown sugar (I like to mix it with my hands)
Sprinkle this mixture on fruit. Bake at 350ºF for 30–45 minutes, until fruit juice bubbles up through lightly golden crumb mixture.
Serve warm with ice cream, yogurt, or sour cream.
If you would like to can rhubarb, here is a Betty Crocker rhubarb conserve recipe my mother handed down to me.
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1 lb rhubarb, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 pint (2 cups) strawberries, cut in half
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1/4 cup golden raisins
Heat sugar and water to boiling in a 3-quart saucepan, stirring constantly. Stir in rhubarb. Boil gently about 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until thickened. Stir in strawberries, walnuts, and raisins. Heat to boiling; boil gently 5 minutes. Quickly skim off foam.
Immediately pour into hot, sterilized jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Wipe rims of jars; seal. Cool on rack 1 hour. Store in refrigerator up to 2 months.
Hélène Tremblay-Boyko is a local farmer and gardener, passionate about food issues. She and her husband, Al Boyko, operate a certified organic mixed farm, and market online as BreadRoot Farm on The Farmers’ Table platform. They raise grass-fed, certified organic beef cattle as well as a variety of certified organic cereals and oil seed crops near Canora, SK. For more information, see The Farmers’ Market display ad on page 9 of the 27.1 May/June issue of the WHOLifE Journal.