Eat Local: Healthy, local meals made easy

by Sherri Telenko

Food suppliers have given us consumers what we demanded: low prices and convenience. As a result, some believe, our enjoyment of food has suffered.

Regional production, short transportation distance from farm to table and seasonal eating are the key components to the new eat local, eat fresh movement we’re hearing so much about. Importing cheaper produce from other countries, providing consumers with out-of-season fruits and vegetables year round and factory farming fish and animals have a lot of hidden costs both environmentally and health-wise that we are only beginning to admit. As consumers become more savvy and ask questions about where, when and how our food is produced, more and more local produce, meats, cheeses and breads are making their way onto store shelves. Yet, so far, eating local foods seasonally isn’t always convenient ““ but that’s changing. With the help of several early fresh food adapters, consumers can ride the flavour train without getting too dirty in the kitchen.

Many chefs, including Jeff Crump, Executive Chef at the Ancaster Old Mill, have done the work for us. “I now have local suppliers for every product we sell,” he says. So having in-season wild salmon and asparagus is easy ““ just show up when it’s on the menu. Others, such as local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms, will deliver seasonal produce to you, while entrepreneurial companies, like new kid on the block EcoChef, provide organic farm-fresh meals ready for take out.

Farm Fresh Fine Dining

According to Chef Crump, customers at the The Old Mill expect menu changes seasonally, but that’s new from two years ago. “When we say, “˜Salmon is not in season right now,’ they get it,” he says. “That’s the kind of clientele we have.” Seasonal eating is the key to the entire eat fresh practice. It’s about getting excited about the fact strawberries or tomatoes are available because you haven’t eaten one in six months, he says. It’s about the anticipation of really enjoying that food because it’s fresher and more flavourful and it’s a special treat at a certain time of the year.

According to Crump, buying locally grown fresh foods in season is actually cheaper, especially for consumers who are willing to cook, or learn to cook quickly and easily at home. For restaurants, it’s a cost-effective approach most should be willing to embrace.

For instance, in the stream bank outside the window of The Old Mill in Ancaster, watercress grows, and inside a log, mushrooms. Both are harvested for the evening menu by restaurant staff. “I even forage for wild leeks and carrots occasionally in the forest across from me,” Crump says. “That’s incredibly cost effective and makes for some surprises on the table too.”

With the help of the restaurant’s pastry chef, Bettina Schormann, Crump has written a book called Earth to Table: Seasonal Recipes from an Organic Farm due out in mid-September. Half memoir, half cookbook, he wrote it to teach people how to incorporate old fashioned seasonal cooking into their contemporary lives.

Ready-made Meals

Speaking of contemporary life, some of us still need food quick and easy, yet worry about food quality, freshness, and safety. For those used to picking up packaged food on the go, EcoChef has the answer: ready-made convenience and locally-grown farm-fresh taste.

Sonya Kaute, owner of EcoChef, has blended her business education with her passion for food to create a new retail concept: ready-made meals you buy, heat and serve all made from local farm ingredients. “People are becoming more aware of where their food comes from and how it is prepared,” she says. “Yet people also have very busy lifestyles and don’t have the time to cook healthy meals. Sometimes they have to go to the fast food places, not because they like them, but because they have too. I was the same way.”

Yet Kaute grew up on a farm and remembers her mother picking vegetables in the morning to use in that day’s meal. She feels people today miss out on that healthy fresh taste. So EcoChef provides the convenience of home cooked meals at two new retail outlets: 188 Lakeshore Road East in Oakville and 1240 Burloak Drive in Burlington.

“The main ingredients of each recipe can be traced back to a specific Ontario farm,” she says. And the price point is comparable to [other] outlets. “We buy the crooked carrots and small tomatoes from the farmers that the grocery stores don’t want,” she says. “It’s perfectly good food, but we get it for a lower price and pass that savings onto the consumer.”

One of her favourite dishes is mac and cheese. According to Kaute, it’s made from sweet potatoes and kids can’t tell. “They love it,” she says. “It’s an easy way to get vegetables into fussy eaters.”

Crops to Kitchen

Finally, for those who like the idea of cooking up new and interesting in-season options at home, without the hassle of reading countless labels at a superstore or running from shop to shop, consider a basket of farm-fresh goodies packed for you and delivered weekly. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms are new to North America but are by no means new world-wide. They are becoming the answer to the rising costs of agricultural business, a fact that’s keeping new generations of small operation farmers from starting up.

CSA is a simple concept: people in local communities become members of the farm by purchasing a subscription ““ or piece of that year’s bounty ““ for a predetermined amount before the harvest is planted. Then once a week for the length of the growing season (usually 18 to 20 weeks), the member picks up a box of farm fresh produce. Some CSAs, for an extra fee, deliver to your door. What’s inside the box, however, depends on what was ready for picking that week.  Most CSAs grow a variety of vegetables, and provide suggested recipes with each parcel.

Plan B Organic Farms is one of the most established CSAs in the region, with delivery depots in Oakville, Mississauga and Burlington. They offer three sizes of shares starting at $450 per season and home delivery at an extra $5.25 per week.

The primary advantage of joining a CSA, according to Melanie Golba, co-owner of Plan B Organic Farms, is that all food is picked from an Ontario field the day of or day before delivery, so the food is incredibly fresh, tastes better and there’s a higher nutritional value.

“We also email a weekly newsletter to our members,” she says, “that contains suggested recipes for what was harvested that week. Emails reduce paper consumption.”

In the last five years, Plan B has had to scale up operation, adding produce from other local certified organic farms to the amount they already grow at the 50-acre Flamborough farm.

Farm to table food, without the need for preservatives, pesticides, transport trucks, and international border crossings, is clearly possible. It’s an age old idea for a new world.

Eat local this summer by shopping these farmers markets

Burlington Mall Farmers Market
Burlington Mall parking lot
Wednesdays and Fridays 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays 7 a.m. to noon from early May to the end of October.

Milton Farmers Market
Main Street between Martin and James Streets
Saturdays from 7 a.m. to noon from May to October.

Oakville Civitan Farmers Market
Hopedale Mall parking lot
Saturdays 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. from May to November.

Oakville Place Farmers Market
Oakville Place parking lot.
Thursdays 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. from June to October.

Square One Farmers Market
Northwest parking lot
Fridays and Sundays 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. from June 5 to November 1.