Eating local has increasingly become trendy, but how does one eat local twelve months a year — especially in the deepest darkest parts of winter? Well, I’m here to tell you it’s not hard, and with some effort and planning, you can put together quite the colourful menu without eating beyond the limits of the 519. 

Learning what’s grown locally is a challenge all year long, especially in a climate such as ours. The average person may not know that greenhouses and hoop houses can support agriculture right into the coldest months of the year. It isn’t difficult at all to find local produce like peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers and more on grocery store shelves 365 days a year thanks to greenhouse technology.  

Hoop Houses are a way farmers provide greens throughout the year. When temperatures plummet, the hoop house will keep the coldest air and the deadly frost and moisture from hitting the ground. Coupled with propane heaters, this means farmers can bring to market salad greens, fresh herbs or even radishes when the rest of us are scraping snow from our windshields. Having the luxury of eating peppery arugula grown in the earth in the middle of the winter is truly a treat that the imported stuff can’t hold a candle to! 

One visit to such a farm a few years ago led to yet another amazing discovery under the cover of snow. Hearty greens like kale or collards can even continue to grow long after the snow falls. Of course, the rate of growth slows dramatically, but these fierce veggies will not just stay alive but they will grow even under a couple inches of the fresh white stuff. Not a super effective way to farm, but for the home gardener it’s a great way to keep that patch producing into the early winter. 

Another often surprising fact to learn is just how long the fall bounty will last into the year to follow; cabbage, root vegetables, garlic, onions and apples (to name a few) can be harvested, cured and stored in either temperature controlled rooms, or better yet, oxygen deprived rooms. 

An eye opening trip to Martin’s Family Fruit Farm in Waterloo a few years back had me marveling at the technology used to create “zero oxygen” storage rooms for the apples to sit in and “not ripen” or slow the ripening down to a snail’s pace so that large quantities of the fruit can be held and sold throughout the year. Simply amazing. 

Do me a favor and never buy another apple that’s not from Ontario. You certainly never need to!  

The last resource is maybe my favorite: the home garden. 

After a few years of gardening myself, at home, I realized it’s not “my best plan” to plant a garden that we, as a family, plan to consume as it’s ready. It simply comes on too fast and we can’t keep up with eating it all while it’s fresh. 

It took me a few years to figure out, but now the plan each spring is to plant a few crops of items I know my family loves and that I can easily preserve. Basil pots become pesto, green beans are pickled, garlic gets cured and stored, hot peppers into jellies and sauces, tomatoes simply tinned and cucumbers into the best hotdog pickles ever. 

It’s a bit of work processing all of this as it comes out of the garden, but it’s totally worth it and really sets a meal apart, bringing the summer feeling rushing back when pulled out of the pantry and onto the table.  

After all this talk of local food, I’m feeling sunshine deprived and hungry, so off to the kitchen for me. Tonight’s menu will be breaded eggplant steaks, stewed summer tomato ragu, arugula-crisp kale salad, roasted garlic sour cream, “house” grown paprika and sweet pickled cucumber! Check out below for the full recipe.

Nick Benninger is a local restaurant owner and chef 

A quick guide to following a Nick Benninger recipe:

First off, I am used to writing recipes for use in my professional kitchens, so I approach the writing process with the understanding that my reader has a certain amount of experience in the kitchen, and the confidence to make adjustments and judgment calls when needed. For example not everyone will bother making their own paprika for this recipe but I trust you and your ability to make this dish a banger, regardless of that. Secondly, I like to break my dish down into its parts, that way it is easy to reference later when you want to make these same sweet pickles for a hamburger party this summer! With that in mind, good luck and good eats.

Yields 4 hearty portions

Breaded Eggplant

1 eggplant

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

1 clove garlic smashed

2 teaspoons dried herbs from garden

Salt and pepper

1 egg

2 cups bread crumbs

1 cup flour

Directions:

Peel eggplant and slice into 2-3 cm thick coins, toss in vinegar, dried herbs, garlic, salt and pepper and let sit for 30 mins. In the meantime, prepare your breading station by whipping the egg with an equal amount of water, and placing flour and breadcrumbs in separate bowls. To bread eggplant toss in flour first, shaking off any excess, next into the egg and then finally the bread crumbs, if you love a heavy breading do the egg and breadcrumb step twice. When breaded, set aside till you’re ready to fry them. When frying, do so in a shallow frying pan with enough olive oil to fill pan 1-2 cm, fry on both sides and rest in oven till needed.

Stewed Summer Tomato Ragu

1L jar preserved summer tomatoes

3 cloves garlic

2 fresh bay leaves from potted winter garden  

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt

Directions:

Lightly smash garlic cloves and add to saucepan with olive oil, hefty pinch of salt and bay leaves, heat until the garlic begins to sizzle and lightly brown. Remove from heat and carefully add tomatoes, return to heat and simmer gently for 30 mins, re-season with salt and puree if desired.

Arugula-Crisp Kale Salad

2 cups arugula

4 cups kale

3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Salt

Directions:

Tear kale into bite sized pieces, toss with olive oil and salt and spread on a baking sheet leaving as much room as possible. Bake at 300 degrees F, watching carefully and stirring gently every 10 minutes. Remove from oven when kale is crisped and dried out. When ready to serve, gently toss crisped kale with arugula letting the oil from the kale dress the fresh greens, check for seasoning and serve.

Roasted Garlic Sour Cream

1 head of garlic

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt

1 cup sour cream

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

Directions:

Cut the tip off the head of garlic, leaving it whole. Place head of garlic in a tin foil pouch and top with salt, vinegar and oil. Wrap up the tin foil parcel and bake at 350 degrees F for one hour. When completely soft to the touch, remove from oven and allow to cool. When cool enough to handle use you hand to squeeze out all of the glorious goop and mix with sour cream, check again for seasoning and set aside till needed.

House Paprika

As many sweet red peppers from garden (or a local farmer0 you care to set aside.

This recipe is not worth doing if the peppers aren’t either homegrown or super farm fresh. Don’t waste your time with this if the peppers were not grown in the sunshine and earth like the old country. If you have a food dehydrator use that, if not, a cooling down oven or better yet, a barbecue works great. My method at home is to make a delicious meal on the BBQ and then add the peppers to the BBQ after I turn it off allowing the residual heat and remaining food smells the do the work for me, leaving a perfectly dried pepper imparted with just enough smokeyness from the barbecue to make the perfect spice!

Clean and cut peppers into chunks in the 5 cm square size range — cut them too small and you will have too much water leaving the peppers too quickly, and the result will be a soggy mess. Spread the pepper chunks out on a sheet pan and dry them to a crisp without browning them. When dried and cooled (this can take 24 hours or more) use a spice grinder to pulverize them and then sift to remove any unsightly chunks, This will last for a few months but do keep them in a airtight container to preserve the flavour. When ready to use, simply sprinkle on the finished plate and enjoy the fresh scents of summer.

Sweet Pickled Cucumbers

Handful of garden cucumbers

½ cup honey

1 teaspoon turmeric

2 teaspoon paprika

1 tablespoon salt

3 cups cider vinegar

Handful herbs from garden, dill preferably

These will be what I call fridge pickles, easy peasy and quick to make, so when you have an abundance of cucumbers or anything really in the garden, this is a great recipe to start with. Set aside a clean 1L mason jar, wash cucumbers thoroughly and slice into ½ cm coins filling the jar. Bring the remaining ingredients to a boil and pour over the jar of sliced cucs. Right away, place the lid on the jar and allow to cool on your counter, when cooled to room temp place them in the fridge and enjoy. If you have leftover pickling liquid simply hold onto it and use it with your next jar.

To Plate

Begin by spooning a few ounces of the tomato ragu onto the plate, creating a circular pool, top with 2-3 breaded eggplant steaks, top that with a dollop of our sour cream, a few cucumbers and the kale salad. Then make like Salt Bae and make it rain house made paprika all over that mid winter burst of sunshine!