Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Separate School Board

Recently, there was yet another gay teen who was bullied and took his own life. Jamie Hubley was 15 year old student at an Ottawa, Ontario high school. I firmly believe that the schools need to do a far better job to combat bullying and discrimination, but that is not really the topic of this post. What caught my attention was one detail of Jamie Hubley's story that connects with other problems in Ontario. The detail was that Hubley originally went to a Catholic school, where he experienced some very severe bullying. His parents did what they could; they offered support and moved him into a public school, but bullying continued there. Many people outside of Ontario may not know this, but a great many catholic schools in Ontario are not private schools, as would be the case for any other religious school. In Ontario we have two separate publically funded school boards; the regular public board and a catholic school board. Residents indicate on their property tax bills whether they wish their tax funds support either the public board or the catholic board. To me, this arrangement flies in the face both of the separation of church and state and of the very principles of public education.

It should be pointed out that the separation of church and state is not quite as sacrosanct in Canada as it is in the United States and, less than a century ago, most schools had a religious affiliation. My parents grew up in Montreal and, when they went to school, there were two school boards: one protestant and one catholic (actually there were four - protestant and catholic each had an English and French board). Now my parents are anglophone and Jewish, so any school board was affiliated to a religion not their own. Some time ago, the system was overhauled and the church was taken out of the public school system. The Catholic board became the French school board, while the protestant board became the English school board (English catholic and French protestant had little enrolment and were merged into the larger boards). So Quebec has removed the church from their public schools, as has most of the rest of Canada. Yet Ontario continues to maintain the catholic school board as a publicly funded entity. No other religious group is granted this distinct privilege of having their religious schools funded by taxpayer dollars. In fact, in 2007 the opposition Conservative party of Ontario proposed a plan to, if elected, institute a voucher system by which people who send their children to private religious schools would be able to receive tax write-offs, essentially giving all religious schools a partial subsidy. This idea was quite unpopular with the voters and the Conservatives lost an early advantage in the polls to lose the election that year to the Liberals. I actually would have been conditionally in support of this idea were it not for the fact the Catholic schools would continue to be fully funded, thus leaving all religious schools still at a disadvantage. However, if the Catholic board were abolished I would support their schools being able to take advantage of a voucher program, as long as all other religious schools could partake as well.

Why does all this matter? Well, since public schools are funded and run by the government, they must abide by official government curriculum and fully conform with all provincial human rights and non-discrimination policies. As homophobia in the public schools will not (or at least should not) be tolerated, most schools have Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) or similar programs, at least if there is a desire for one. If a school principal or local school board tried to block it, the ministry would intervene as that would be against policy. Apparently, the Catholic board does not have to play by the same rules. The Catholic schools are allowed to include religious instruction in the curriculum and it seems they are not required to fully follow provincial guidelines if they are “contrary to religious principles”. Over the past year, there has been a push in the Catholic school boards in Halton region and Toronto to start a GSA, which the catholic board has been consistently blocking. There has been a great deal of overheated rhetoric and some rather disgusting comments, but the real point is that the Catholic board is apparently able to flout provincial law because tolerance of homosexuality is supposedly “contrary to Catholic teaching”. What the boards finally seem to be settling on, only after pressure from the education ministry, is to allow “diversity clubs” or “tolerance” groups - but they can't have “gay” anywhere in the name, and in one case they were not even allowed to use the rainbow symbol. Now, let me think, what is the original symbolism of a rainbow... oh that's right, in the story of Noah's Ark. So the ultimate religious symbol of peace and harmony is too contentious and symbolic of “the gays” and can not have a place in a “religious” school.

Now I am sure that intolerance in the name of religion takes place in other religious schools. The difference is these are private schools - entirely self-funded through student tuition, church or other religious association sponsorship, and private donors. So as long as they are not actively violating the province's human rights code they may teach whatever religious doctrine they please, even if many of us may not agree with it or if it is intolerant. But when a school receives public funding, whatever it does ought to be in the public interest. While you can choose to have your personal tax dollars go toward the public rather than catholic school board, this obviously splits the total available revenues. That means whatever goes to the catholic board is money that could have gone to the public board, so whichever option you select you are still subsidizing both school boards. Despite this public funding, the catholic schools are still permitted to include religious instruction in the curriculum and they are currently insisting that they not be required to teach anything that contravenes their religious principles. If their religious teachings state that being gay is unacceptable, then they can claim that not only do they not have to teach anything about gay issues (if that ever becomes part of the curriculum) but they can refuse to allow students to form a Gay-Straight Alliance. So how does a gay Ontario resident feel, having their tax dollars go (indirectly) to support a school system that will teach kids that you are sinful and ought not to exist? It would serve us well to remember that so much of the most vitriolic homophobia out there today uses the pretext of religion to justify the hatred.

Unfortunately, I don’t really see any prospect of this arrangement changing any time in the near future. There is simply no political will to undo an arrangement that benefits the Catholic Church, which represents a very large number of voters and wields considerable political clout. In the recent election, only the green party was saying anything about disbanding the catholic board, all the parties with any significant vote share are not contemplating any such thing. But if we are serious about equality in education, we cannot continue to support a school system that allows inequality.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Day At Foodstock

I’m sure you are eager for news of how Foodstock turned out (at least some of you are), so here is my report and review of the event.

We planned to arrive around about a half hour after the official opening time of 11am, so we left Guelph at 10am, planning for about a 90 minute drive though the countryside. As it turned out we got within a couple miles of the farm in only an hour and 10 minutes - then came the first clue as to how popular this event was to be. All of a sudden, we hit total gridlock. When we eventually got to 20th sideroad and made the left turn I was able to really see how far back the line of cars continued down county rd 124. The volunteers did their best to let people know where the parking was and guided people in fairly well but, due to them lineups, it took about 50 minutes to get to the field being used as the main parking lot - a distance of maybe a few miles, if that. Seeing all the cars already parked there, in another full parking lot, and along the sides of a few sideroads as well as all the cars still on the road behind us, it was clear that many thousands of people were attending. Add that to the several buses that were bringing people from Toronto, Guelph, Collingwood and other places and this makes for massive attendance. I was wondering how many people would show up, as the forecast had been calling for rain most of the week and that day’s forecast was calling for mix of sun and cloud with a chance of rain. Driving up, it was raining in Guelph but closer to the event the weather was beautiful. Later in the day, the weather was more mixed, with intermittent showers, and a cold wind by mid-afternoon. The great thing, though is it didn’t seem to bother too many of the attendees. They came prepared and committed; perfectly willing to accept a little discomfort for a great experience.

There were close to 100 chefs at the event, from restaurants in Toronto, Collingwood, Niagara, the local area and many other places in Ontario and two from outside the province. Each booth was spread along a network of paths leading through a forested area and around the outside of that area. The paths were quite muddy, but people were warned to bring boots.  At each booth, the chefs served up tasting portions of a dish prepared especially for the event. There were rather long lineups at most, if not all, of the stations, which meant a good deal of time was spent waiting in line. Also there was no place to sit, but these two things kind of worked together; you would get one bit of food and you would eat that while you waited in the next line. I did not even get to half of the booths, especially since by the afternoon many were starting to run out of food. Still I must have had at least 20-25 different tastes, possibly more.

All the food was of high quality and as there were so many different things I can not even remember all of them. Many offerings featured potatoes, as this is a potato farm. Also, given the weather and number of people to feed, it was not at all surprising that there were a great many soups and stews on offer. An early standout was a Jerusalem artichoke soup with brown butter. They heated the soup on a campfire and suspended the pot rather than placing it on a grate.

Another standout establishment was Café Belong, a new restaurant in Toronto owned by celebrity chef Brad Long who has made multiple appearances on Food Network. Long was there himself, shucking and serving oysters. They also featured a vegetarian stew that was quite tasty and enhanced to spectacular effect by a chutney (don't remember what it was though). And the freshly shucked Malpeque oysters were among the best oysters I have ever had - juicy and very pleasantly briny. My mom has never really liked oysters but tried one and loved it - much to her surprise.

Later came two very good fish dishes: a smoked whitefish mousse with local potato chips (not sure if they were made commercially or in-house but they were phenomenal), then arctic char hot-smoked over a bed of hay and served on a thin slice of daikon with some sliced onion.

There was a very good apple and pumpkin cake that really got some nice juiciness from the apple.  Then was what I think was the best bite of the day - Le Select Bistro offered mustard-braised rabbit on a white corn polenta with dandelion greens, topped with julienned apple and pea shoots.  This was one of the more elaborate and composed dishes, yet still warm and comforting with a stunning  flavour.

Caplansky’s food truck, the only food truck operating in the Toronto area (though they are still not allowed to operate downtown) was at Foodstock as well, and offered smoked turkey on a beet-flavoured goat cheese. Maybe not one of the best items but still very good.

By this time we were in the area closer to the main stage where the musical performances would take place and the lines were even longer. There were some very good apple crullers dusted with maple sugar and served with an apple caramel. Then we entered what we thought was the line for the next booth but it was in fact a line that continued past several booths in a steady flow. First was pulled pork on an apple slice. Then was the George Brown college chef school which had several offerings: a squash soup with candied pecans, an excellent antipasto on fresh bread, and apricots preserved in an icewine syrup. Then was celebrated chef Jamie Kennedy’s booth. He was serving french fries.   No kidding. Of course he used potatoes from farms in the township and they were absolutely perfect.  It was raining when we were served, but the fries stayed crispy and they had some nice herb seasoning. They came with a choice of two mayonnaise-based dipping sauces, a chilli mayo or a cider vinegar mayo which was very tasty. There was also a good smoked pork sausage with an apple compote. Then finally came Michael Statdlander's booth, occupying the ultimate prime location right next to the main stage. That was only appropriate as he was the organizer of this entire group of chefs. He was serving a potato, pumpkin and cabbage soup with smoked bacon, which he ladled out of a giant pumpkin.  One booth I regret not stopping at was one that had bison prosciutto which the chefs were carving as they went.

Chef Stadtlander with his "No" Pumpkin

Yes, that is a leg of bison, cured like a prosciutto

We left a little after 3:30. The wind had picked up, it was getting a bit cold, and most of the food had run out.  There were many big name musical performances yet to come on the main stage, but that wasn't really the reason I was there. But for those that stayed on, the final hour and a half of the event featured performances from the Barenaked Ladies, Jim Cuddy and Sarah Harmer, among others. 

It was very hard to gauge exactly how many people showed up at Foodstock but the numbers were clearly massive. Based on a quick view of how many cars were parked in the field, it seemed quite likely there were at least 5,000 to 10,000 attendees, and of course the buses likely brought many more. Some of the preliminary estimates are suggesting there were as many as 28,000 -30,000 people on this one farm on that one day. That amounts to half the population of the entire county and was most likely the most attended event ever held in Dufferin County. Up to 30,000 people were willing to drive a good way to visit this beautiful bit of farmland and make a statement that this land must be kept as a potato farm, and a mega quarry is a very bad use of this land. There are also some  suggestions that the organizers may do this again next year. Now that an environmental assessment has been ordered, there will not be any final decision on approval of a quarry for several years, which will mean that the quarry opponents will have a long fight ahead of them with plenty of legal expenses to pay for. Proceeds from Foodstock and donations to the NDACT will pay for legal costs and advocacy work to make sure that the environmental assessment is done properly and addresses all of the potential risks. There was also some worry in previous weeks about what effect the provincial election might have had, as the opposition Conservative party is very pro big business and seems to be against environmental concerns (they are very much like the US Republicans) and if they had won it was very likely they would overturn the call for the assessment. As it happened though, the Liberals barely won re-election so what was agreed to before will continue. No decision will be made as to approving the quarry for years. Still that does not mean there is no risk, since many environmentally damaging projects still receive a go-ahead despite such concerns.  I am glad many of you care about this issue; while aggregate is always needed for building projects, it is not acceptable to take Ontario's most fertile land and take it out of food production, especially when there is also a real risk of damaging so many important watersheds.

For more information on the fight against the mega-quarry and for the latest news and updates on the fight, visit the North Dufferin Agricultural and Community Taskforce (NDACT) at Those of you from Canada are also encouraged to contact your local members of federal and provincial parliament to make your views known. NDACT has petitions that can be signed and sent in (the government needs original signatures so an online petition is not available). There are also links to related media articles and you can also follow no mega quarry on facebook and twitter.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Foodstock 2011 - Stop the Mega-Quarry!

I know that most of my readers don’t live near here, but this is an important issue and I want to draw attention to this. Melancthon township is a small rural area northwest of Toronto, between Orangeville and Collingwood that is primarily farmland. Specifically, it is one of the most prolific potato-growing regions in Ontario and supplies the Greater Toronto Area with a large percentage of its potatoes. A couple years ago, a large corporation known as Highland Companies began buying up farms in this area, telling sellers they would continue with potato farming. They amassed a plot of 7000 acres, then submitted a proposal to the Ontario government to operate a limestone quarry on this land. Initially proposed at over 2300 acres this is by far the largest quarry to operate in Canada and they have been granted perpetual rights to draw a 600 million litres of water per day from the area. The region is near the headwaters of the Grand River watershed, which serves over a million people in Southwestern Ontario, including Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton, the Niagara region - oh, and Guelph. The quarry will dig 200 feet below the water table so the potential for contamination of the whole watershed is high. This land is far from any major highway, yet they will be running 300 trucks an hour carrying stone back and forth. While they intend to grow crops again on the quarry floor, this concept is laughable, as quarrying generates soil contamination and it is highly unlikely that this would even be possible. Further, this company, while supposedly Canadian, receives primary backing from a New-England based hedge fund, and neither company has ever operated a limestone quarry, let alone a mega-quarry. That tells me they will likely be bringing in an outside operator after approval, so any concerns regarding safety records will not be addressed. Furthermore, there is a loophole in the law saying that quarries do not have to undergo an environmental assessment to be approved. This land is located just outside the Greenbelt, a protected area that grows much of Ontario’s produce. Fortunately Ontario’s government has recently reversed course and has finally ordered an environmental assessment for the project.

With this impending threat to our local food security, local Ontario chefs have come together to show solidarity with the protests against this mega-quarry. Leading this is celebrated chef Michael Stadtlander, one of the country’s best chefs and one of the strongest advocates of local, farm-to-table cuisine. The Canadian Chef’s Congress, of which he is the chairman, has organized a fundraising dinner at an area farm that did not sell out to Highland and they are billing this as “Foodstock”, with the implied reference to Woodstock quite intentional. More than 70 chefs, including Stadtlander, Jamie Kennedy, and other top chefs will be present and contributing dishes. Unlike most celebrity chef charity events, that will usually cost more than $100 per person, Foodstock is a pay-what-you-can event. You can either register in advance at or pay at the gate - the suggested donation is a mere $10. Of course, since all funds go to support the cause, larger donations are obviously welcomed. This is a no-frills event - except for the food. Attendees should bring their own plate, cutlery, napkin and water glass. As this is on a farm and will go rain or shine, it is probably also a good idea to bring a chair and boots. The event is on Sunday, October 16, 2011, from 11am - 5pm. The farm is in the village of Conover, at county road 124 and Melancthon 20th sideroad. To get there from Toronto, take Hwy 401 to 410, then to Hwy 10 (Hurontario st.) and stay on it past Orangeville to Hwy 89 at Primrose. Go left and continue to county road 124, just before the town of Shelburne, turn right and follow 124 until 20th sideroad. I imagine there will be signs near the location. I believe it is about 1 hour’s drive from Toronto, depending on where you are. It seems there are also bus trips being organized to the event from Toronto, Guelph, Hamilton, and Collingwood. These are being organized primarily on Facebook.

View Larger Map

I have always wanted to attend one of these multi-chef dinners but the price was always way too high - even though it would be going to support a worthy cause. This one is different. Not only is the price much more reasonable, this really is an important issue for this region and I want to give my support. Also, this event is occurring on my Birthday, my 30th. I will most definitely be attending and I hope if there is anyone else reading this who lives in the GTA or Southwestern Ontario, please consider taking the time to attend this event, have some great food, and show your support for our environment and our food supply.

For more information on the mega quarry and the risks it causes, visit:

For information on Foodstock, or to register in advance, visit:

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Homemade Tomato Sauce

In my recipes, I have often mentioned using either canned tomatoes or homemade tomato sauce. Tomato sauce is fairly easy to make at home as long as you have a way to store it. The best way is to make a very large quantity near the end of the tomato season, like now, and freeze it in the portions you will use.

Tomato Sauce

1 bushel ripe plum tomatoes
1-1/2 cup vodka

That is all the ingredients. This does take some preparation time though. I recommend having someone else help you with this process, otherwise it can seem overwhelming and take a very long time. If you make this much, you will also need a VERY large stockpot - perhaps two. You will have at least 20 litres at the beginning - perhaps more depending on whether there are some rotten tomatoes in the bunch and how full the bushel was. To buy the tomatoes, a farmer’s market is usually the best bet. You do not want beefsteak or other round tomatoes, as they have more juice and not enough pulp to provide a rich sauce. In Montreal, I was able to find a variety called “Super Marzano”, which is a variety similar to the famous Italian San Marzano tomatoes. These tomatoes are very sweet and on the dry side, which means when cooked they make a very deep flavoured sauce with a fair amount of sweetness. I don’t think these are commonly grown in Canada though, but the more common Roma tomatoes are pretty good too, as are any variety of plum tomato. The tomato season runs until the first frost, which in this part of the world is usually sometime in mid-October, though it can sometimes come earlier. Although field tomatoes start becoming available in August, plum tomatoes ripen later and the large quantities at low prices are not available until the season is nearly over. Bushels are generally available starting in September running until about a week or two into October, unless a frost comes before then. This year was bad for tomatoes, and many other vegetables. We had a cool and rainy May and June, then very little rain for the rest of the summer. Also, except for a period of a few weeks in July, it was not exceptionally hot. And finally in September, we got more rain, and colder weather. As they were predicting a chance of frost this past weekend, we needed to get our tomatoes last week. Even in the last week in September many vendors had mostly under ripe tomatoes in their bushels, but we were able to find one vendor at St. Jacob’s Farmer’s Market with good quality ripe tomatoes. If a bushel seems too much for you, half-bushels are perhaps even more common than full bushels, especially this year when both yield and quality were off.

When you get the tomatoes home, the real work begins. This is an all-day process so you may want to wait until the next day and get started in the morning. The first thing that must be done is the tomatoes need to be peeled. To do this, you will need to blanch the tomatoes in boiling water then cool them down, after which the skins will come off easily. There are a few ways this can be done, depending on your equipment, how much help you have, and your own preferences. My preferred method is to set up a pot of boiling water and a large bowl or tub filled with ice water. Place a batch of tomatoes - not too many at one time - into boiling water for about 45 seconds to a minute, maybe more if they are especially big. Then fish them out using a skimmer (depending on the size of your basket and pot, a fry basket could work as well, or lacking anything better, a slotted spoon) and transfer them immediately to the ice bath. Once the tomatoes have cooled back down, they can be removed from the water and peeled. Once peeled, cut the tomatoes into chunks - size doesn’t matter that much - remove the core if it seems quite large and woody (otherwise don’t bother) and put them in your big stockpot, making sure all the juices get in the pot too. Try to be as efficient as possible in these steps, to save time. This is where an assistant can be incredibly helpful. You can divide up tasks so both of you are constantly working. Still a full bushel can take two people about 2-3 hours. So maybe if you are new to this, it might make more sense to start with a half-bushel.

Anyway, once you have a few inches of tomatoes in the stockpot, you can turn the heat on to low. This will save time since while you continue to process tomatoes, the others already in the pot can start cooking. Once the tomatoes have broken down somewhat and there is a lot of liquid in the pot, it is time to add the vodka. As vodka has no taste, you may have wondered why I am using it here. Similarly, I used to find it odd that a classic Italian pasta sauce was “alla vodka”. Vodka sauce doesn’t taste “boozy”, in fact doesn’t taste out of the ordinary at all. But vodka sauce is a rose sauce, which has a base of tomato and cream. When you make a sauce out of something solid, your goal is to extract as much flavour as you can out of the food into the sauce. Most flavours dissolve well in water, which means any liquid works well for making a sauce or stock. However, not all flavour compounds dissolve in water. Some of the distinctive flavours in a tomato are soluble in alcohol and not water. Other ingredients share this quality. That is why many commercial extracts, like vanilla extract, are created using alcohol as the medium. What this means for our purposes is that by adding alcohol to the tomatoes, you will get heightened flavour you would not get otherwise. Since we want to taste the tomato and not other flavours, vodka is the best choice, as it is high in alcohol and has no flavour. In these early stages, stir the pot frequently, making sure nothing sticks on the bottom and scorches. Once the tomatoes are fully broken down, there is less risk of this, but occasional stirring is important.

On a side note, you can use this knowledge to make your own vanilla extract as well. This is extremely easy. Take three vanilla beans, split them but do not scrape out the grains, and put everything in a 300-500 ml glass jar, and fill the jar with vodka. Seal it, and store this in a cool, dark place for about 1 month and your extract is ready to use. If you find it is not strong enough, add another bean and set it aside for a couple more weeks. You can even make the vanilla go further by continuing to top up the bottle with more alcohol, as long as the bottle is still at least 3/4 full. And if you seek out really good vanilla beans, you will have some amazing extract.

Once all the tomatoes are in the pot, let them simmer for several hours, until they have formed a thick, chunky sauce. 4-6 hours is a good guideline, but that depends on how much you made and how concentrated you want the sauce to be. When it is done, let it cool for a couple hours, then ladle it into containers. In our family we use 500ml containers for a portion, which is two cups. These are usually sour cream or deli containers that have been saved and reused. Some people prefer to create a smooth sauce by grinding the tomatoes through a food mill, which also removes the seeds, before storing. I think it’s much better left chunky in its more natural state, seeds included. Store these containers in your freezer and take them out as needed. Obviously if you do not have a lot of freezer space, that will limit how much you can make. One bushel should make about 18 litres of finished sauce. This amount will normally last us at least two years, sometimes three.

There are some additional variations you could make to this. You could add some garlic or basil to the tomatoes, but if you are going to use this for a variety of purposes that may not be what you want. Also, if the tomatoes are under ripe, or just not very sweet, a small quantity of sugar added to the pot can help things out a bit. Don’t add very much, a few tablespoons ought to do it.