Victoria Day garden idyll

Raised bed fully planted

I just ate an omelet made with wild leeks foraged from the nearby woods, shiitake mushrooms grown locally and outdoors, and the first spinach from our garden. The seeds were sown April 13. This is probably the earliest I’ve ever harvested my own spinach, as our southern exposure collects heat against the wall of the house. It might not be such a blessing in July, but for now I’m pleased.

This morning I also enjoyed watching a tiny wild bee pollinate the tomatoes.

Our official last frost date is May 17, but the actual last, very light frost happened around May 6 and was not enough to harm the already-planted tomatoes and peppers. Everything is planted now.

In case you’re interested, here’s what’s planted in the raised bed: (back row, left to right) scarlet runner beans, Cosmonaut Volkov tomato, peas, (second row) lovage, dill, kale, amaranth, spinach, sweet pepper, Thai basil, brussels sprouts, (third row) tarragon, sage, magenta spreen, lavender, leek, chard, arugula, (front row) thyme, spinach, onions, onions, leaf lettuce, carrots and calendula. Peppermint is growing in shade behind the house.

Barrels and raised bed

Container gardening can stretch the abundance of a small space. The pots contain (front row, from left) wild bergamot, cayenne pepper, Tiny Tim tomato, bush beans, zucchini, chives and rosemary. Hiding are lemon balm, basil, parsley, oregano, lemongrass and a later crop of leaf lettuce. The two containers on the edge of the stoop contain lemon verbena and Table Ace acorn squash, which apparently is compact enough to grow in barrels. I planted the squash last weekend and it’s the only thing that hasn’t germinated yet.

Once spring greens have been harvested, more kale and beans can go into the ground, but I’m divinely tempted to replace the early spinach with another tomato; it’s not too late! This will be my best and most blessed experiment with succession planting. I’m amazed at the opportunity to plant a second crop before the end of May. A lot of food can come out of a little soil.

Discovering wild leeks

Wild leek

In the woods behind our house I was delighted to find wild leeks, also known as ramps or Allium tricoccum. I’ve never encountered them before. These native food plants are so delectable even Martha Stewart approves and suggests some ways to use them. But when foraging for any wild edible observe two important cautions.


First, be absolutely sure of identification. Don’t risk eating something poisonous. It’s best to start with an experienced wildcrafting mentor to learn the basics, especially what to avoid. Use a good field guide.

Lily-of-the-valley closely resembles the wild leek, and it’s deadly poisonous. However, break the foliage of a wild leek and it will give a distinctive garlic-like scent. It also has a diagnostic reddish-purple stem and onion-shaped bulb, unlike lily-of-the-valley.

Wild leeks like rich soil in deciduous woods throughout Eastern North America. The leaves can be harvested in early spring. The plants need to do all their photosynthesis and store energy for next growing season before tree leaves unfurl. Once the canopy closes, wild leeks die back. The flower stalk appears later.

Be a conservationist

Here’s the second important precaution: think like a conservationist. Anyone who doesn’t respect a valuable source of nutritious food and can’t be bothered to harvest it sustainably has no business foraging. Wild leeks have been so depleted in Quebec that they’re now protected. Help ensure that ramps and other wild edibles remain abundant for next year and the next generation of foragers.

Never take more than 10 percent of the plants. And select one or two other strategies to ensure a continuing source of wild leeks for everyone who wants to enjoy them:

  • Collect only from large beds of plants, leaving small colonies to grow.
  • Digging into the soil, use a pocket knife to cut the bulb above the base, leaving the roots to regenerate.
  • While the bulbs are delicious, the green leaves are also tender and packed with intense onion-garlic flavour. Each plant has two leaves, so take one and let the other nourish the root.
  • Start a new colony by transplanting one or two bulbs into a nearby, similar patch of ground that doesn’t have any plants.
  • Avoid trampling nearby wildflowers; they need protection, too.

This week I enjoyed cooking wild leeks in a mushroom and cheese omelet, and in crab and asparagus soup. I’m also eager to forage for stinging nettles to combine them with ramps in a zesty spring pesto.

Enjoy spring foraging and let us know how you like to use ramps for a culinary sensation.

Ephemerals in our new backyard

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What new beauty do I behold, just steps away from our back door?

I’m probably more of a wildflower geek than any other kind of geek. So it’s a lot to say that I like spring ephemerals best of all. It’s hard to resist a September meadow burgeoning with asters and goldenrod, the delightful freakishness of carnivorous plants, or the unexpected surprise of a wild orchid. But nothing quite moves me as the watercolour burst, at once modest and rampant, that floods Ontario’s spring woodlands.

Melting snow reveals the marbled leaves of dogtooth violets. The rest soon emerge through last year’s crust of maple leaves, hastening to complete another round of delicate flora-lust before the new canopy unfolds, casting them in shade.

How can I express my joy at finding so many familiar favourites blossoming just steps from our new home? I am smitten. White and red trilliums, spring-beauties, jack-in-the-pulpits and violets grew under the silvers poplars at my childhood home. Memory and spring come hand in hand when these flowers greet me again.

The large-flowered bellwort is unusual, a plant I’ve only seen once or twice before. It’s also a member of a peculiar clan, Colchicaceae, the autumn crocus family. Odd taxonomy always fires my geekish enthusiasm.

As if that weren’t excitement enough, the woods is full of ramp, otherwise known as wild leeks (not shown here). I’ve never had them before! I can’t wait to add them to some recipes over the next few days. Not long after we spotted them, we met a man on a bicycle collecting them, but there’s plenty to share.

I had to concede that I was unable to keep up with the daily macro challenge. It’s not that I never have enough time, but there have been quite a few days when I didn’t. But it was a valuable exercise while it lasted, and helped me become more familiar with my new lens.

Days like this one will make up for it, though. All these images were taken in the space of an hour in an acre of woods visible from my office window; all except the last violet, which is in our lawn. We’re feeling lucky indeed in our new home in Waterloo. Life certainly has its moments.


Macro a day, week 4

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The macro lens is forcing me to get to know my camera and equipment better. This week I learned how to change the autofocus point on the camera and reassemble my tripod so it can take photos near ground level.

Stability is important because closeup images of small things like the snowdrops often require good depth of field, requiring a small aperture. Depending on how much light is available, these have to be shot at a relatively slow speed shutter speed, around 1/100th of a second or more. Without lens stabilization, camera shake can blur the image. Using the tripod helps create sharp images.

It also saves my back having to maintain uncomfortable contortions while trying to hold the camera with both hands.

Why I’m taking the gluten challenge

Celiac disease via euthma

After seven years on a strict gluten-free diet, yesterday afternoon I met a gastroenterologist to begin the process of determining whether, in fact, I have celiac disease. This means that for the next 12 weeks I’ll undertake a gluten challenge in preparation for a small intestine endoscopy and biopsy in July to look for damage indicative of the disease.

Since I don’t have trouble tolerating the diet and I’ve had good results from it, people would be justified in asking, “Why bother?” Even the gastroenterologist, without arguing for or against this procedure, wanted to know my answer to that question. It’s important to know and here are my reasons.

  1. For people with celiac disease, even traces of gluten can cause damage. Often it is invisible and doesn’t provoke symptoms but can have long-term health implications. As far as we know, the concern is not so serious for people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity. If I’m going to follow this diet for the rest of my life I want to know how careful I need to be. It’s not a concern when eating at home. We maintain a strictly gluten-free kitchen. But the gluten-free diet becomes a source of anxiety every time I enter a restaurant or eat dinner prepared by anyone who doesn’t know the finer points. Even in restaurants that have gluten-free menus, many servers roll their eyes when you tell them you have a gluten sensitivity. If I’m going to be hardline about this for the rest of my life, I want to know.
  2. Bearing in mind those hidden implications of celiac disease, patients need appropriate medical follow-up even in the absence of symptoms. The gastroenterologist yesterday said he recommends a biopsy every five years. According to my research, CD patients should also be monitored for bone mineral density. They are at higher risk for certain kinds of heart problems and other diseases. CD patients on a gluten-free diet tend to have elevated cholesterol, as I do. I’d like to have a clear picture. Perhaps what’s more important, if I have CD I like my general practitioner to treat me like I have CD.
  3. It’s partly academic. As a journalist who often writes about CD, I’ve interviewed leading experts like Dr. Joseph Murray and Dr. Alessio Fasano. I’m research editor for Gluten-Free Living magazine. Several of my articles have presented the argument that no one should ever go on a gluten-free diet without first ruling out CD because it can only be diagnosed by the effects of eating gluten. I support this position particularly considering all the controversy around the diet, which can obscure serious health risks for a small but important minority of people. My job as a journalist is to inform and my lack of diagnosis might suggest I’m a hypocrite.

However things turn out, it will be another adventure, another story to tell.

In February, results finally came from a test done last summer. They showed I have HLA-DQ2, one of the genes that predisposes people for CD. This only proves that I’m not among 60 percent of the population that doesn’t have the genes and can’t get celiac disease. But based on the results, my doctor referred me to the gastroenterologist.

The usual path to diagnosis begins with a blood test for antibodies while the patient is eating gluten. However, I would have to pay for these tests and the cheapest, most readily available test for tissue transglutaminase antibodies (anti-TTG) is at best inconclusive. The specialist recommended that I forgo blood tests, do not pass go, head directly to biopsy. I was surprised, however this reflects the fact that many experts still regard biopsy (a collection of small tissue samples from the gut lining) as the gold standard for diagnosis, particularly in adults.

Starting this week, maybe tomorrow, I start eating gluten again. Fortunately, only modest amounts are necessary to provoke markers of the disease. Dr. Murray advocates a kinder, gentler gluten challenge than was considered necessary in the past. My gastroenterologist said three doses per week should be enough, although he encouraged me to eat more if I can tolerate it.

I don’t know what to expect. I have mixed feelings. Besides the suspicion of CD, I’ve benefited in many way from the gluten-free diet. It has sparked creativity in cooking. I pay more attention to healthy eating. But nobody wants a disease like this. I’d be happy to uncover a less dire explanation for the symptoms.

The gastroenterologist suggested I might enjoy the chance to eat whatever I like. I should be looking forward to tasting the things I miss most like a good crusty baguette, regular pizza and apple fritters from St. Jacobs Farmers Market. But having interviewed CD patients who briefly went back on gluten, I doubt that it will be any fun.

I had lots of low-grade digestive issues before the diet. I’d been diagnosed with hiatal hernia and reflux disorder years ago. I suspect these were somehow related. I have to take a proton pump inhibitor to treat reflux. For a couple of years I had frequent diarrhea. This became markedly worse after I acquired a bread machine and started eating delicious bread every day. Twice I soiled myself while out in public. It was humiliating, no help to someone who suffered from social anxiety.

My uncle had celiac disease so I suspected gluten might be the problem. But I didn’t have enough income at the time to justify (in my own mind) paying for blood tests. I wish I’d known better. I went on a gluten-free diet in March 2008.

I stopped having the runs immediately. But in the ensuing weeks I noticed improvements in other seemingly unrelated symptoms. Depression and anxiety were alleviated. So was joint pain, which I’d attributed to an inherited tendency toward arthritis. At age 44 I would commonly get tired of being on my feet for long (normal shopping trips were physically grueling). It’s strange to realize I’d accepted that as normal; now 51, I seldom experience fatigue like that. All these complaints are typical for people who don’t know they have CD.

In light of this, people might be justified in questioning my curiosity – why I need to pursue a diagnosis now. If the treatment works so well, maybe I should just accept it. But as a journalist I’m obsessed with knowing and speaking the truth. It might be easier to tell restaurant servers a little white lie: “I have celiac disease.” But it runs against the fibre of who I am.

It’s also possible that the condition is not CD. The biopsy might be negative, which could indicate non-celiac gluten sensitivity or other possible food sensitivities, for example to fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polylols (FODMAPs). If that becomes the questions, I’ll pursue the answer.

I need to know.

[Edit: As an afterthought, I recall that in 2008 I couldn’t obtain a referral for biopsy without first taking the blood test for celiac disease. It’s an encouraging to find that medical awareness of this disease and its implications have shifted, and that the gastroenterologist wants to take the simplest approach for a clear diagnosis. It’s also important to note that here in Canada we have to pay for the blood tests (though some employee benefit programs would cover it) but not the surgical procedure of endoscopy and biopsy. Strangely, the lab didn’t charge me for the genetic test last year. I suspect this was an oversight.]


The photo shows a tissue sample from an intestinal biopsy illustrating flattening of the villi, which is diagnostic of celiac disease. It comes courtesy of Ed Uthman on Flickr via Creative Commons.

Macro a day, week 3

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Several of this week’s photos portray a new raised bed we installed last weekend for vegetables and herbs. I confess I was so preoccupied with the project that I missed doing my macro challenge one day, so I used two photos from another day to make up the week.

The stretch of mild spring weather encouraged me to seed several crops. Within three days arugula had sprouted. Thyme, sage, tarragon and lovage went into their squares today. Chionodoxa, miniature daffodils and crocuses appeared around the neighbourhood.

Macro a day, week 2

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Here are the photos from my second week of shooting a macro a day, focusing mostly on the world of small beneath my feet. In keeping with early April in Ontario, the weather gave me a chance to photograph snow and rain.

But the unrivaled highlight of the week was spotting and photographing a lovely butterfly this afternoon, a new species for me. It’s Nymphalis milberti, Milbert’s tortoiseshell, which inhabits the boreal forest, much further north than here. It’s in the same genus as the larger mourning cloak, a more common sight this time of year. However, the Peterson field guide says this beauty occasionally migrates further south. I feel lucky.

Macro a day, week 1

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Beginning April 1, I began a self-challenge to take a photo every day using my new macro lens. I’ll post the results periodically in galleries. So here are the first four.

The lens came as a reward for 11 months of exercising regularly. Every week, if I exercised at least four days, I could put money in a jar toward the purchase. Bribery works wonders, and I seldom fell short of the goal.

It’s a good thing to give ourselves incentive to achieve difficult goals. I don’t necessarily enjoy rigorous exercise, but I love doing photography.

For a long time, I’ve wanted to do more serious macro photography. The basic lens that came with my Canon Rebel XSi camera has a reasonable macro function. But I couldn’t get as close to the subject as I liked. The new lens allows me to do so.

I’m used to having a zoom function. This lens has a fixed focal length. This forces me to put extra consideration into how I compose photos when I take them. It’s going to be a learning experience. I haven’t set an end date for this challenge. A year might be impractical but interesting.

This photography project will focus primarily on the world of small beneath our feet, things that live and grow on the surface of the earth.

Opportunity and adventure: moving to Waterloo

Houseplants in living room window

It might look peaceful enough, but this living room is the scene of a recent dramatic transition. My partner and I have just finished moving our home from Guelph to Waterloo, Ontario.

Moving is supposedly one of the most stressful life experiences, along with getting married and losing a loved one. Having a sensitivity to the spirit of a place or genius loci, I’m prone to anxiety about changing my home.

We didn’t especially want to give up the place we left. We loved the house but the rent was high. Finances required us to reduce housing costs. We considered buying but the time wasn’t right. We had to weigh our priorities and make some compromises. It could have been a terribly depressing process. Besides, I had lived in Guelph for 32 years and loved the city.

Despite this, the move has turned out extremely well. The right frame of mind was essential. Treating the transition as an adventure and opportunity has made it happy rather than regrettable. Good luck brought us into a spacious townhouse backing on extensive parkland rather than a cramped inner city apartment. We’ve still had to downsize. It has been a valuable exercise in simplifying our lifestyle. But I look forward to living here with unreserved joy.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll post some more thoughts on the subject of moving, along with some portraits of our new home city, Waterloo.

Coincidentally, I bought a new macro lens. Starting yesterday I began challenging myself to take a photo every day with it, lasting some period of time yet to be determined. This photographic study will emphasize the world of small and the ground beneath my feet. Watch for periodic galleries of these images.

In leaving Guelph, I considered whether I should change the name of this blog. I no longer have any immediate connection with the Speed River or its little sister, the Eramosa River. However, in some respect I’ll always feel at home with them, and both flow into the Grand River which is the lifeblood of Waterloo Region. For me, place has to do with knowing who we are and where we belong, and flowing water remains a metaphor for life. For now, the rivers of Guelph remain part of my identity.

Four best gluten-free bread recipes

Gluten Free Maple Oatmeal Bread

It takes a little extra time and patience, but there are few do-it-yourself foods so satisfying as homemade yeast bread. It presents a special challenge for gluten-free cooks. Gluten-free bread gets a bad rap for being fussy and cardboard-like. However, I’ve discovered it’s no harder than conventional bread and, as usual with gluten-free cooking, with persistence we can find alternatives every bit as delicious as conventional recipes, if not more so.

I didn’t have much information when I realized I was gluten intolerant seven years ago. I had recently bought a bread machine as consolation when my mother was dying of cancer, but it only brought more grief. I was aware I had some unidentified food sensitivity but unfortunately it was all that good, fresh, homemade bread that made me truly sick for the first time. When I started recovering on a gluten-free diet, one of the first things I had to do was get that bread machine out of my home.

We didn’t have as many gluten-free options in 2008. All the bread I tasted was truly horrible. So I stopped eating it entirely for several years. We didn’t have that many recipes either, so I had no idea delicious homemade loaves were possible let alone straightforward. I consoled myself with simpler experiments, and discovered gluten-free muffins can be awesome.

Recently, some delicious gluten-free bread has become available from local bakeries. Over the past year, we have become daily consumers of fresh bread again. However, I have several serious reservations about these.

First and most serious, they don’t necessarily come from dedicated gluten-free bakeries. While the recipe itself contains none of the forbidden grains – wheat, rye, barley, spelt or kamut – conventional wheat bread comes out of the same kitchens. No doubt the pans and ovens are contaminated with gluten. Though I’m not sensitive enough to get sick at these low concentrations, it’s still a serious consideration because people with celiac disease can have ongoing damage without showing any symptoms.

I hate to criticize local bakers who want to make life easier by baking for people on a restricted diet. Unfortunately it’s part of an overwhelming fad around the gluten-free diet that can trivialize the safety of millions of people with a serious health problem. In my own life I’m moving toward buying food only from dedicated gluten-free kitchens, and it seriously restricts my options. I may not be able to buy bread from the neighbourhood bakery, as I’d like to. Fortunately, many more businesses, restaurants and food stores are beginning to take gluten contamination seriously.

My other gripe has to do with healthy grains, never mind whether or not they’re gluten free. Gluten-free baking has to combine whole grains flours for flavour and nourishment with refined flours and starches to soften the texture. In my own baking I use two parts whole grain to one part starch, which provides a good balance of wholesomeness and tastiness. The delicious local bakery bread calls itself quinoa flax bread, two seeds rich in healthy fibre, protein and fatty acids, but I suspect the soft texture comes from an overabundance of tapioca starch.

This is no different from conventional baking. People love the texture of white bread, but it’s not so healthy for you. Those refined flours have a higher glycemic load. Recent information from food research indicates starches are also to blame for high cholesterol, a risk factor for heart disease.

Finally, it’s hard for budget-conscious folks to buy gluten-free bread without balking at the price. Three loaves of quinoa flax bread sell for $15 at our farmers’ market. It’s a bargain by gluten-free standards, but still 60 percent more than I’d expect to pay for conventional artisanal bread.

With safety, nutrition and economy in mind, I recently started baking our own bread again. In the future I’d like to experiment with my own formulae, but it’s best to take a few lessons from experience. There are lots of excellent blogs about gluten-free cooking. Two I’ve often drawn inspiration from are Gluten-Free Goddess and Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef. I’m confident any of their recipes will turn out well, plus providing interesting and beneficial information.

In the past month I’ve tried four bread recipes, and it’s not as hard as expected. They tend to follow the same pattern: proof the yeast, whisk together the dry ingredients, add the liquids, blend thoroughly with dough hooks in the stand mixer, pour into a loaf pan, let rise in a warm oven and then bake. Kneading doesn’t come into it, because that’s a process designed to activate the stickiness of gluten. Neither does punching down the dough and letting it rise again a second time. So in fact gluten-free bread involves less hassle if we get the formula right. Thankfully, for the past few years lots of people have been experimenting and telling us what they know.

All the recipes I’ve tried this month have been excellent, but this is partly because I have enough experience to know a disaster (or at least a waste of time and ingredients) when I see one. For instance, as yummy as buckwheat may be, I won’t be trying pure buckwheat bread with no other flours. My intention was to get a few promising recipes in my arsenal so we don’t have to eat the same bread every week, and find out what makes the perfect loaf before I start tweaking to suit our own taste buds. Here’s a review of the ones I’ve tried so far:

  • Gluten-free oatmeal maple bread from Gluten-Free & More. My first attempt was possibly the best bread I’ve ever made, no exaggeration! My favourite conventional recipe for many years was maple oatmeal bread from one of the Harrowsmith cookbooks. I tried to convert the recipe several years ago, but while cakes and muffins can handle conversion, bread recipes don’t work very well because the differences in moisture and flours is so drastic. So I was delighted to find this recipe (top photo) turned out so well: soft, not crumbly, slightly dense but not heavy, not dry, crust slighty crunchy, and with my favourite redolence of oatmeal and maple syrup. As a first effort, it was an overwhelming success. I expect this will become my favourite standby again. The recipe makes two loaves and freezes well.
  • High protein quinoa bread from Simply Quinoa. It was hard to find fault with this one. If I hadn’t been so blown away by the first experiment, I’d be more effusive about this one. It’s an excellent bread that will become another standard in the repertoire.
  • Gluten-free multi-grain sandwich bread from Gluten-Free Goddess. Another delicious bread. The cornmeal imparts a certain squeaky crispness to the crust (like deep snow on a very cold day) and a novelty to the inner texture. The bread was slightly crumbly. My partner liked it a lot. It was my least favourite so far, but only because the others were so outstanding. It scores high enough to become another regular.
  • Gluten-free pumpernickel bread from Carla’s Gluten Free Recipe Box. I recently discovered Poschaven Farms grows and mills organic, gluten-free buckwheat in Northern Ontario. This inspired me to look for a rye-style bread based on buckwheat, containing molasses and caraway seed. It took some persistent Googling to find one that met my criteria. I used to love pumpernickel, so this was fun to make. It just came out of the oven this morning (photo below) and it’s very good: more fragrant than flavourful, but still tasty. It’s a little on the soft and spongy side, very appealing, but it contains more starch than is necessary. So I might try tweaking this one next time around by replacing some starch with more buckwheat or another flavourful flour: quinoa or amaranth. But this clearly holds its own in my Evernote cookbook.

Gluten Free Pumpernickel Bread

Note that all these breads become a little stiffer with time. I’m not sure what does this to gluten-free breads, but I suspect its the eggs, used for leavening, which harden with age. It doesn’t mean they’re stale. It might take getting used to, but toast the slices lightly and they’re awesome as ever. The maple oatmeal bread makes particularly wonderful toast.

I slice the entire loaf as soon as its cool (fairly thinly, because these breads are hearty enough to stretch a long way). I suspect they would be more crumbly if I didn’t slice them right away. They’re good for four or five days in the refrigerator. I froze the second loaf of maple oatmeal bread (already sliced) and it was just fine.

I almost regret waiting seven years to start baking bread again, but maybe the timing is important. We’re getting ready to move so it’s a time of transition. I’ve recently been trying to make even more of our food from scratch: things like hummus, granola cereal – and bread. It’s less convenient and requires some commitment, but the reward is better nutrition and satisfaction in what we eat.