Stinging Nettles

 

Apart from the inconvenient fact that they sting, nettles are a delicious & healthy ingredient in soups, pasta dishes, risotto, omelets—basically any cooked dish where you would use young spinach. They’re well worth the modest challenge of picking them, as they’re rich in vitamin C, calcium, potassium, flavonoids, histamine, and serotonin—all the nutrients you need to reenergize after winter and to combat spring allergies.

Nettles grow wild in much the same places as blackberries. It’s a distinctive plant, with heart-shaped, finely-toothed leaves tapering to a point. The plant is covered in soft, downy hairs that, alas, bite back. The good news is that with a little care, they’re easy to handle and tame, and well worth the effort.

Gathering nettles

Make sure that your arms and legs are well-covered, and wear gloves. Find a good stand of nettles away from roadsides (where they may be sprayed or suffer from car exhaust). Look for tender young plants, and harvest only the upper, tender young leaves. (Or skip this step and just buy them at Niagara Grocery…)

NettlesTray

At home, bring a large pot of water to a boil and add a tablespoon of salt (this will help the nettles retain their crazily deep green color). Using gloves or tongs, dump a big tangle of nettles into the pot and stir them in. Lift the nettles out of the water as soon as they wilt, about 30 seconds or so, drain them, dunk or rinse them in cold water, and shake them dry. Repeat with remaining nettles, if necessary. Now you can take off the gloves. Here’s one of our favorite spring recipes, our take on a traditional Scandinavian soup.

Stinging Nettle Soup

2 tbs olive oil

1 onion, chopped

1 carrot, peeled & chopped

1 leek, thinly sliced

1 or 2 large potatoes, peeled & sliced into small chunks

About 4 cups of vegetable or chicken stock

About 1/2 lb of nettles (No need to blanch them first)

• In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Saute the chopped onion, carrot, leek and potato for about 10 minutes until they soften.

• Add stock, simmer for another 10 minutes.

• Using gloves or tongs, add the nettles and simmer until they wilt, about 60 seconds.

• Use an immersion blender to puree the ingredients, or pour into a blender and pulse.

• Serve with a dollop of sour cream and some crusty bread, and celebrate spring!

soup2

Apples to Apples

Peter Simonsen pulled up in his pickup this week with a thousand pounds of fresh-picked apples from his organic orchard in Keremeos, BC.  Now a half ton of apples is bound to draw some attention, so a small crowd soon gathered to sample and compare the different varieties, from Pink Ladies to Braeburns. Here’s a brief guide:

Clockwise from top: Ambrosia, Spartan, Golden Delicious, Fuji, Braeburn, Granny Smith. Center: Gala.

Ambrosia: A favorite in both lunchboxes and pies. Crisp, sweet, and aromatic, it has red stripes over a creamy yellow background that produces an attractive pink blush. The flesh of Ambrosia apples is slow to turn brown, making them especially suited for eating on their own and in salads. They’re also great for pies and baking; in fact, you’ll need less sugar because they’re so sweet.

Spartan: The Spartan was the first new breed of apple created by the Pacific Agri-food Research Centre in Summerland, BC. Smallish, with snowy white flesh and dark red skin, these crunchy, sweet apples are great in lunch boxes and briefcases.  Spartans are excellent all-purpose apples, for eating on their own or in salads, pies and sauces.

The Golden Delicious is a century-old classic with a rich, unique flavor, a soft golden color, and medium-firm flesh. Originally found as a chance seedling in West Virginia, the Golden has gone on to be a world favorite. Golden Delicious apples are great for eating on their own or in salads, but also good for pies, sauces and for baking. Naturally sweet, you’ll need less sugar.

Fuji: Originating in Japan, the Fuji is a cross between a Red Delicious and a lesser-known variety called Ralls Janet. It’s sweet with a firm, crisp flesh that gives a satisfying crunch. The Fuji has red stripes over a yellow-green background and it’s large – about the size of a softball. Fujis are excellent for eating on their own or in salads. They’re also good for baking and desserts because they hold their shape well.

Braeburn: A New Zealand native, the Braeburn is an excellent keeping apple with a sweet yet tart flavor and firm, crisp, juicy flesh in the style of older heirloom apples. Its shape is slightly oval, and its color is red on a green background. They’re great apples for eating fresh or using in salads. Also suitable for pies and sauces.

Granny Smith: Tangy, tart, and instantly recognizable, Granny Smiths are a distinctive bright green. They have a firm, crisp texture and are a little less sweet than other apples. Starting as a chance seedling in Australia in 1868 (discovered by Maria Smith), they’re thought to be a hybrid of a European wild apple and a domestic apple. Granny Smiths are great for eating on their own and in salads as the flesh doesn’t turn brown as quickly as other varieties. While a raw Granny Smith is tangy, once baked they’re much sweeter.

Gala: The Royal Gala is a crisp, firm, bright red or orange patterned fruit with a yellow background. Small to medium sized with a thinner skin, this sweet, succulent apple is a cross between a Golden Delicious and Kidd’s Orange Red. Originating in New Zealand in the 1920s, it’s now a favorite around the world. Galas are best eaten on their own or in a salad. But they’re also good for pies, baking and sauces.

McIntosh: Back in 1811 John McIntosh stumbled across a chance seedling in his orchard. He transplanted it, the fruit flourished, and his name was immortalized as a favorite tree fruit. Macs are firm, crisp apples with a greenish overtone and a distinctive red “cheek.” They have a rich, tangy flavor, an alluring aroma and their small to medium size makes them lunchbox perfect. They’re also known for the pink-tinted applesauce that they make. (Note: if you’re using them in pies, you’ll need to use a thickener.)

Pink Lady: One of the prettiest apples on the market, the Pink Lady has a distinctive blush. Its creamy flesh is resistant to browning, and its crisp sweet/tart flavor makes it extremely versatile. Slice and eat fresh, or use in all manner of cooking or baking. Interestingly, this variety is trademarked and Pink Ladies must meet strict criteria to be labeled as such.

 

Leek & Potato Casserole

Jan’s Leek & Potato Casserole

 

What is it about the crisp, dwindling days of autumn and our sudden craving for root vegetables? Perhaps they’re the quintessential hunker-down-and-get-warm  comfort food. Here’s a particularly soul-satisfying dish from our very own produce princess, Jan Wachtin.

8 medium russet potatoes

3 medium leeks

2 tbs butter

2 cloves garlic

2 cups grated swiss or gruyere cheese

3 eggs

1 1/3 cups milk

1 tsp salt

1/4 tsp pepper

1/2 tsp grated nutmeg

1/4 cups grated swiss or gruyere cheese for topping

• Peel potatoes and cook in boiling salted water until tender. Drain, cool and cut into slices 1/8″ thick.

• Prepare leeks, washing well and cut into thin slices. Mince garlic. Heat butter in large skillet over medium heat, add garlic & leeks. Turn heat to low, and stir until leeks are tender (about 10 minutes).

• Heat oven to 375F, butter 2 qt casserole dish, layer in 1/3 potatoes, 1/2 leeks, 1 cup of grated cheese. Repeat, ending with final 1/3 of potatoes.

• Beat together remaining ingredients (except 1/4 cup grated cheese), pour over top layer. Sprinkle with remaining grated cheese, bake until set & lightly browned (approx. 25 minutes).

Serves 8

L’oeuf Story

Basket of goodness: freshly gathered free-range eggs from Omnivore Acres.

Brown, white, free-range, free-run, omega, gluten-free…? Okay, I made the last one up, but the truth is customers often ask about the many types of eggs on the market, and which is “better”. Here’s a brief guide to the eggs we carry at Niagara Grocery & Fairfield Market, all of them local:

Conventional eggs (Farmer Ben’s): Caged birds, but with ample food, light and water. We call them “condo hens.” We stock brown eggs, which for some reason most people believe is fresher or healthier than white. Truth is they’re equally nutritious; egg color depends on the breed of hen. In Canada, Leghorns lay white eggs while brown eggs come from Rhode Island Reds.

Free-Range Eggs (Omnivore Acres, Theo’s Eggs): These eggs are laid by hens that have the opportunity to go outside. They may travel in and out of a barn or henhouse at free will, or spend a specific portion of their day roaming outdoors, where they dine on everything from veggie scraps to bugs. Although not certified organic, our free-range eggs are raised organically.

Organic Eggs (Avalon): Certified organic eggs are laid from hens that may be kept in any kind of caging system, but generally are cage-free. They eat an organic feed and don’t receive vaccines or antibiotics. In order to qualify for organic certification, feed must be produced on land that has been free from pesticides and fertilizers for at least three years.

Omega-3 (Omnivore Acres): Eggs that contain a higher level of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, thanks to the addition of flax seed to the hens’ diet. Omega-3 is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease.

Happy free-range chickens with an ocean view.

What we don’t carry…

Free-run Eggs. Also called cage-free eggs, these are from birds that are raised indoors, usually in an open barn. The hens have bedding such as pine shavings on the floor, and they are allowed perches and nest boxes.  However, they may still be at very close quarters with many other hens, and run around in their own droppings.

We’re Number 3!


It’s been three years this week since Jen & I began the adventure that is Niagara Grocery. What possessed a couple of naïve keeners like us to buy a run-down, 102-year-old corner store I’ll never really know. There were onions in the candy rack, the back room was packed with old cardboard, and there were ominous scratching sounds from inside the walls. The three best-selling items we inherited were smokes, lotto, and pop. But yet we saw something promising behind the tired, peeling façade.

We had some work ahead of us...

There’s a saying that nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days. It was pretty bad at first. We spent the first proverbial forty days and nights scrubbing and painting, and slowly but surely transforming the place into a true community store. To keep up our spirits we had an unofficial contest to find the most outdated product. The winner was a dusty little bottle of “Butter Flavor” whose best-by date was 1975. Eventually the smokes and lotto went away, to be replaced by house-roasted coffee, daily bread, and local produce. Emboldened, we added all kinds of products that caught our fancy, from gluten-free breads to organic dairy, locally-raised meats to artisan chocolates. What other corner store in Victoria has Ghee-flavored popcorn, local spot prawns, and stinging nettles?

This week a steady stream of customers, friends and neighbors dropped by to wish us happy anniversary. Heron Rock Bistro baked some delicious focaccia, and Sweet Flour Bakery produced a batch of incredible hazelnut fruit butter cookies. Stories were traded, bad jokes were told, and a good time was had by all. Then we all got back to work for the first day of year four.

No pot of gold, but lots of rainbows in James Bay