No strawberries yet, but lots of other produce

In my last post I griped about finding moldy Ontario strawberries in my grocery store earlier this week. The following day I attended an event on the grounds of Queen’s Park (the site of the Ontario legislative building) where agricultural commodity groups had gathered together for a few hours to participate in a Pick Ontario Freshness event designed to promote Ontario foods. The Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Leona Dombrowksy and Canadian culinary activist Anita Stewart attended and spoke about the importance of supporting Ontario farmers and buying Ontario foods whenever possible. Minister Dombrowsky also announced government funding for Ontario farmers’ markets to the tune of $4 million over the next four years.

All good news, but the even better news was that across from my display where I was promoting Ontario eggs was a table laden with small baskets of strawberries. I could sense these were no ordinary strawberries. As I headed across the grass and over to the table to inspect the strawberries for mold and fruit flies, I just knew I wouldn’t find a blemish. Close up, the berries did indeed look perfect – plump, red, beautifully formed, and much larger than the ones I’d seen in the grocery store. After giving them a thorough scrutiny, I seized the opportunity to ask the woman standing behind the table about the sad strawberries I had encountered at the grocery store the night before. I presented my theory that our recent wet weather had caused the berries’ distressed state. No, came the answer, the berries had probably just sat too long in the store. I was advised to buy berries at a farmer’s market where they would likely be only a day old, if even that.

Great advice, for sure. I realize that the produce at a farmers’ market usually arrives without having passed through the hands of a middleman, and this allows it to get to me faster than the fruit in most grocery stores will, but, when you aren’t able to get to the market or to a farmstand, you’d like to think you can count on getting quality produce from your grocery store. (And probably, more often than not, you can.)

I was invited to come back to the display for a free basket of berries when the event officially opened, but unfortunately I got too busy at my display feeding the throngs of Queen’s Park staffers and the consumers who happened along. By the time I looked up from my egg slicer and pickled eggs to gaze wistfully over at the strawberry table a few hours later, not a berry remained.

Not to worry, however. I may not have found strawberries that day, but I didn’t go home empty-handed. Longo’s, a grocery chain with stores in and around the Toronto area, had a display beside me and when they packed up to leave, they kindly handed me a overflowing box of blemish-free mushrooms, zucchini, apples, lettuce, sweet peppers, beets, and bunches of dill and parsley.

Some of that produce has already gone into a vegetable-laden salad and an omelette. This weekend I’ll go to work on the beets, pickling half of them and using the rest to make beet relish.

Beet Relish
(Makes 3-1/2 cups/875 mL)

5 medium beets
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 sweet red peppers, finely chopped
1 cup (250 mL) white vinegar
1/2 cup (125 mL) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon (5 mL) pickling salt
2/3 cup (150 mL) grated fresh horseradish

Cook beets in boiling water until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain beets, remove skins and chop finely. There should be about 2 cups (500 mL). Mix beets with onions and peppers.

Combine vinegar, sugar, salt and horseradish in a large stainless steel or enamel saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Add vegetables. Return to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Ladle relish into hot jars to within 1/2 inch (1 cm) of rim. Process for 15 minutes for half-pint (250 mL) jars and 20 minutes for pint (500 mL) jars in a boiling-water canner.

Remove jars from canner to a surface covered with newspapers or layers of paper towel. Cool for 24 hours. Check jar seals (sealed lids will turn downward.) Label jars with contents and date and store in a cool, dark place.

* Since the processing time is longer than 10 minutes, the jars don’t need to be sterilized, but they should be hot. Heat them by placing them in water in the boiling-water canner and bringing the water to a boil.
* A 14 oz (398 mL) can of beets can be used in place of fresh beets.
* Commercially prepared horseradish can be used instead of fresh, but use twice as much.

Recipe Source: Put a Lid on It! Small-Batch Preserving for Every Season by Ellie Topp & Margaret Howard, Macmillan Canada, 1997