Anything Grows: Local chefs find global flavours sprouting in Greater Victoria

Anything Grows - YAM City Issue May/June 2023
In his abundant garden at the Inn at Laurel Point, chef Ken Nakano grows produce that was once unimaginable here, including Japanese yuzu, Iranian Cornelian cherries and Philippine calamansi.

Chef Ken Nakano stops in his lush rooftop garden, gazing across the Victoria Harbour where float planes touch down and international ferries dock each day. The world arrives at our doorstep, in the form of both people and products, but Nakano is intent on shortening that supply chain, at least when it comes to some foods for his restaurant kitchen.

“This is sudachi,” says Nakano, pointing to a small Japanese citrus fruit and describing its tart flavour. “It’s used mostly for its oils and zest, so great for our desserts and the bar program.”

The kitchen garden at the Inn at Laurel Point is impressive. Diamond-shaped beds filled with herbs and edible flowers make beautiful backdrops for outdoor summer weddings. But Nakano has taken the garden in a more ambitious direction in the last few years, growing everything from baby corn to purple cauliflower and planting fruit trees bearing exotic Japanese yuzu and sudachi, sour Philippine calamansi, Asian pears, Iranian Cornelian cherries, fuzzy kiwis and Indian Blood peaches. And he’s still discovering the garden’s unique microclimates.

Even in early spring, before new crops are planted or trees have blossomed, there are leeks, potted wasabi plants and lacinato kale plants the size of small shrubs.

“Garlic grows well, so we have scapes in spring, then bulbs, and there’s guava berries, lemongrass, shiso, ginger and ume plums that I salted and dried for umeboshi,” Nakano says as we wander past the small tree that produces the apricot-like fruit. Berries are plentiful — currants, jostaberries, serviceberries, raspberries, sea buckthorn — and the garden yields lots of herbs and salad greens. “Last year we harvested about 300 pounds of various fruits and vegetables from this garden.”

Although that’s not nearly enough to feed the restaurant’s needs, Nakano says he relies on his garden to create carbon-neutral menus for events at the Inn at Laurel Point, the first and only certified carbon-neutral hotel in B.C. “That’s a new opportunity — events that feature sustainable ingredients,” he says, “but it’s also about education, and that’s the biggest benefit. Our cooks come out every morning to harvest vegetables, the guests see this and it starts a conversation.”

Nakano joins a growing number of B.C. chefs, farmers and horticulturalists growing global produce that was unthinkable just a short time ago. Going “glocal,” as it’s been dubbed (global + local) is a good way to be more sustainable while overcoming endless supply chain issues. Most importantly, it adds delicious new flavours and ingredients to the local table. 

Asian Edibles

The Japanese vegetables grown at Umi Nami Farm in Metchosin are a cut above. The flavours of their pristinely fresh organic mizuna, juicy daikon and Hakurei turnips truly trump all imports, and it’s why discerning chefs at restaurants like Uchida Eatery in Victoria or Wild Mountain in Sooke are loyal customers. Founders Yoshiko Unno and her late partner Tom Suganami began growing Japanese specialty crops in 1996. Today, the certified organic farm is run by Heather Ramsay with Unno’s help. Their vegetables thrive in 26 unheated greenhouses and outdoor plots, bordered by towering trees, and are available to consumers at Fujiya or by subscribing to one of Umi Nami Farm’s weekly box programs.

Even in mid-winter, huge daikon radishes are happily growing outside under floating row covers. Meanwhile, inside a steel and poly greenhouse, rows of feathery mizuna, sturdy komatsuna and bold mustard greens sprout in a humid, 10°C environment. It’s living proof that this sustainable, low-carbon but labour-intensive farm can produce a lot of interesting crops year round.

“By capturing heat and with wind protection, it’s like an old English walled garden,” says Ramsay of the passive solar system that warms the greenhouses. Cold-season turnips and carrots grow inside, with leeks bristling in outdoor raised beds. Summer brings Japanese eggplant, Chinese cabbage, slender cucumbers and shishito peppers. In fact, this pioneering farm may be the reason why other market gardens now grow Japanese turnips, mizuna and Asian vegetables in the region today.

Chef Oliver Kienast of Wild Mountain in Sooke says the vegetables from Umi Nami Farm are as pristine as they come. Their Japanese greens, many from the mustard family, often appear on his menus, along with juicy daikon radish and tender white Hakurei turnips.

Anything Grows - YAM City Issue May/June 2023
At Umi Nami Farm in Metchosin, farmer and business partner Heather Ramsay grows a variety of Japanese specialty vegetables. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

“Their Hakurei turnips are by far the best,” says Kienast, who recommends slicing raw turnips into thick rounds for canapés topped with local seafood or charring them lightly (he uses his wood-fired outdoor oven) for salads. 

Anything Grows - YAM City Issue May/June 2023
Japanese yuzu and wasabi root are now local products, too.

“What I’ve noticed about all of their greens is they don’t need to be cooked,” he adds. Instead, he’ll add the delicately bitter and spicy greens to a light fish broth, or simply soften them with salt. “I always love to serve the slightly bitter tops with the sweet bottoms; it’s a nice complement.”

Daikon from the farm is a favourite for Wild Mountain’s lacto-ferments, brined and combined with its own spicy pepper paste for a quick kimchi. “That’s become a real building block for our cuisine,” says Kienast. “It’s the juice we use to bring up the umami in bases, sauces and broths.”

Going Green

Many chefs choose locally farmed ingredients with sustainable food systems in mind. Imported products may seem cheaper at the outset, but there are other hidden costs, including impacts on the environment due to transportation and large-scale conventional farming methods. Buying locally also supports communities and jobs, and protects the food supply. But it’s not all an altruistic exercise — chefs also get fresher ingredients, giving customers a tastier experience.

Take salad greens, says Jami Wood, co-owner of Niche Grocerant, a grocery/café that focuses on local food products. When the price of lettuce spiked last fall (due to unseasonably high temperatures, drought and fires in California), Wood says Niche chefs didn’t even notice.

“Everyone was freaking out about romaine and greens, saying how expensive they are and they look like garbage,” she recalls. “We get our greens from The Plot Market Garden and our greens are the best ever, completely reasonable. The price never went up and there was never a problem getting them.”

She adds, “We are an island and being part of the food security here on the Island, that’s incredibly important.” Besides, stocking local meats, vegetables and other food products gives her business its unique niche in the community.

Pioneering Producers

But could we really grow all of the foods we’ve come to enjoy from the far corners of the Earth? What about Chinese goji berries, kiwi fruit, rice, olive oil, saffron, avocados, lemons, pomegranates and exotic passion fruit and Buddha’s hand citrus?

Check that. Each of these crops is already being grown commercially in B.C., albeit on a small scale 

At Pluvio Restaurant + Rooms in Ucluelet, chef Warren Barr has added passion fruit and finger limes to his Island-centric pantry, thanks to The Garden, Jane Squier’s innovative farm and greenhouse project on Salt Spring Island. 

Anything Grows - YAM City Issue May/June 2023
Anything Grows - YAM City Issue May/June 2023
At The Garden on Salt Spring Island, horticulturalist Jane Squier grows subtropical plants like Buddha’s hand citrus (below) in greenhouses warmed by concrete pools of rainwater. Photo By: Alura Gilbert.

Squier is a horticulturist who spent most of her career in the hydroponic greenhouse business, producing lettuce and basil for supermarkets. But in 2014, she embarked on a new project, focusing on rebuilding her soil and growing a variety of subtropical plants and trees in a 6,000-square-foot greenhouse with minimal energy inputs. Concrete pools of rainwater retain and release heat, generated by a highly efficient wood gasification stove, and thermal walls keep her exotic crops from freezing.

“I’m growing anything that I can grow that’s somewhat subtropical and can tolerate one degree centigrade,” says Squier. She has 125 citrus and avocado trees in the greenhouse (37 varieties of citrus, ranging from yuzu, lemons, finger limes and Buddha’s hand to eight types of mandarin oranges), plus guava, pomegranate, banana and pistachio trees.

Anything Grows - YAM City Issue May/June 2023

Squier sells fruit directly to a handful of chefs, so you may find her produce on other menus, too — such as the chicken with local grilled lemons or Thai curry with makrut lime leaves at The Woodshed Provisions or the beautiful catered menus from chef Danya Smith at Lulu’s Apron, both on Salt Spring, or the hyper-local dishes at Oxeye and Pilgrimme on Galiano Island.

Haidee Hart, chef and owner of The Woodshed Provisions, has been cooking with Squier’s citrus fruit for many years. “As the diversity of local citrus increases and the harvest becomes more abundant, we are incorporating local citrus into more and more of our recipes,” she says.

Anything Grows - YAM City Issue May/June 2023

Squier offers regular workshops on regenerative farming and new sustainable technologies, teaching other growers about her ongoing experiments with exotic fruits and sharing her findings on her YouTube channel. Her sustainable greenhouse model for a mixed subtropical orchard is well suited to small farms or local community gardens, and a good way to rejuvenate the abandoned greenhouses in the region. 

But it’s a slow, experimental process. It takes years for trees to bear fruit; meanwhile, climate change is bringing more extreme temperatures to the west coast, adding ever-evolving challenges for growers. “This is very much early stages,” she says.

The Future is Exotic

Industry experts say supply disruptions are “the new normal” for the restaurant business, so more and more chefs will seek exotic local foods for their menus, despite the additional effort involved in connecting with local growers. In turn, we can expect more gardeners and farms to keep pushing crop boundaries. 

Island kiwi farms already sell their fuzzy fruit to local grocers, an olive farm on Salt Spring is producing olive oil and a farmer is growing saffron on the Lower Mainland. And while tropical and Mediterranean crops are still a new niche, some B.C. farmers are proving it’s both possible and financially viable.

At the very least, says Squier, it sparks the conversation around local food security and food production, and helps us all imagine how we might grow more food — and more unusual ingredients — closer to home.

4 RECIPES TO TRY


Pickled Daikon and Carrot 

Marinate daikon and carrots in rice vinegar, salt, sugar and chili pepper for a quick pickle. You can cut the vegetables into matchstick pieces by hand, or use a spiralizing machine to create thin, spaghetti-like strands that are perfect to pile onto sandwiches, scatter over salads or serve alongside grilled meat or fried fish.

Anything Grows - YAM City Issue May/June 2023
News Life Media / Stockfood.

• 2 cups daikon radish, slivered, spiralized or cut into fine matchsticks
• 1 cup carrots, slivered, spiralized or cut into fine matchsticks
• 1 Tbsp salt
• 2 Tbsp granulated sugar
• ¼ cup rice vinegar
• 1 Tbsp light soy sauce
• ½ cup water

Put the vegetables in a colander and sprinkle with the salt.

Place the colander in the sink and let the vegetables drain for one hour to remove excess moisture. After they have drained, rinse in cold water, then pat dry with paper towels (or spin in
a salad spinner).

Place vegetables in a covered container (or seal into a zippered freezer bag). Add the sugar, vinegar, soy sauce and water, and refrigerate for 3 hours or overnight.

Drain to serve on Vietnamese-style sandwiches or as a salad. This pickle keeps well in the refrigerator for at least a week. Makes 3 cups.

Tip: For an Asian-inspired slaw, toss pickled daikon and carrots with shredded napa cabbage, sliced, pickled sushi ginger and a drizzle of sesame oil. 

Charred Root-to-Tip Hakurei Turnip and Green Apple Salad

Chef Oliver Kienast of Wild Mountain in Sooke takes sweet Hakurei turnips into new territory with this salad that combines charred turnips and green apple with fermented daikon kimchi, hazelnuts, anchovies and salted duck egg yolk. He cooks the turnips in his wood-fired outdoor oven, but says you can use a wood or charcoal fire, a gas grill or even a hot cast-iron pan to quickly char the turnips and greens for this dish. 

Note that you will need to begin the lacto-ferment five days before finishing this dish, and the cured egg yolk at least 32 hours before.

Anything Grows - YAM City Issue May/June 2023

Salad:
• 4 large Hakurei (Japanese) turnips, with tops 
• Vegetable oil, as needed
• Salt, to taste
• cup hazelnuts
• About 1 tsp hazelnut oil 
• ¼ cup diced, fermented daikon or kimchi (see notes below)
• 1 large Granny Smith apple, diced
• 8 white anchovy fillets
• Optional: 2 cured duck egg yolks or 4 chicken egg yolks (see notes below)

Vinaigrette:
• 2 Tbsp grapeseed or other neutral-flavoured oil
• 1 Tbsp ferment juice (from daikon ferment or kimchi, see notes below)
• 1 tsp hazelnut oil
• 1 tsp warm honey
• 1 tsp apple cider vinegar 
• 1 tsp Dijon-style mustard 
• Generous pinch of salt 

Start your grill — charcoal or wood, preferably — and let the fire burn down until just coals remain.

Cut greens off turnips. Toss in a bowl with a little oil and a generous pinch of salt. Grill whole turnips and until quite dark brown but still firm in the middle. Grill tops until they just start to char.

Meanwhile, roast hazelnuts on a baking sheet in a 400°F oven for 10 minutes. Place the roasted nuts in a clean towel, rubbing them to remove the skins, then toss with a dash of hazelnut oil and a pinch of salt. Set aside.

Whisk together the vinaigrette ingredients and set aside. 

While turnip tops and bottoms are still hot, cut into large bite-sized pieces and toss in a bowl with vinaigrette and let cool. Add toasted hazelnuts, fermented daikon, diced apple and toss to combine.

Divide salad between four individual plates. Place 2 anchovy fillets on top of each serving. If you like, add thin slices of cured egg yolk to finish plating. 

Serves 4.

NOTES:

For lacto-fermented daikon: Combine chopped daikon with a salt brine (1 ½ to
2 tsp salt per 1 cup of non-chlorinated water) in a jar, loosely covered, and ferment at room temperature for at least 5 days. To create a homestyle radish kimchi, add hot pepper flakes, garlic, ginger and green onion.

To cure egg yolks: Place separated yolks on a bed of salt, cover completely with salt and cure for 24 hours. Rinse, then place in a dehydrator, and dehydrate for 8 hours on high setting, until dry firm to the touch. Once cured, the yolks will keep, refrigerated, for at least a month.

Japanese Salmon Bowls with Miso Mustard Greens

This salmon marinade starts with kasu, the lees left after making sake. Look for B.C.-made sake kasu from Artisan SakeMaker on Granville Island (founder Masa Shiroki also grows his own rice in B.C.), available at Fujiya Japanese food market. Fujiya also carries vegetables like mustard greens and Japanese turnips, grown locally at Umi Nami Farm in Metchosin.

Anything Grows - YAM City Issue May/June 2023

Salmon:
• 1 lb salmon fillet, cut into 4 portions
• 1 tsp coarse salt
• 4 Tbsp sake kasu
• 1 Tbsp white miso
• 2 Tbsp mirin (a type of rice wine)
• 1 tsp brown sugar

Rice:
• 1 cup short grain Japanese rice (white or brown)
• 1½ to 1¾ cups water (or as required by package directions)
• ¼ tsp salt

Miso Greens:
• 1 Tbsp neutral oil
• 4 to 5 cups mixed Japanese greens (mustard greens, turnip tops, komatsuna, etc.), coarsely chopped
• 2 tsp white miso
• ½ tsp Asian chili paste

Garnish:
• Sesame oil
• Furikake (Japanese seaweed and sesame seed seasoning)
• Hakurei turnips, shaved thin or cubed
• Small cucumber, sliced diagonally

Sprinkle salmon with salt and set aside for 10 minutes, then pat dry with paper towels.

Combine kasu, miso, mirin and sugar, and rub over salmon fillets. Marinate, refrigerated, for 1 hour or overnight.

Turn your oven’s broiler to medium-high. 

Place salmon skin side down on an oiled rack set over a baking sheet, and broil until nicely browned, about 4 to 8 minutes. Salmon should be lightly charred and barely cooked through.

To make Japanese rice: Rinse short grain rice well (or soak in cold water for 10 minutes and drain). Combine rice and water with salt in a small pot with a tight-fitting lid. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce heat to low and simmer 15 to 20 minutes. (This will take longer for brown rice — check package directions.) 

Let stand, covered, and steam for 10 minutes before fluffing with a fork.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a large sauté pan over high heat and cook the greens quickly, until just wilted, tender and bright green. Stir in miso and chili paste, and remove from heat.

To serve, spoon hot rice into serving bowls. Top with salmon — remove skin and break into large chunks first — and the wilted greens. Drizzle lightly with sesame oil. Sprinkle furikake over top. Garnish bowls with shaved Hakurei turnips and sliced cucumber. 

Serves 2 to 4.

Chicken with Local Citrus and Olives

Chef Haidee Hart of The Woodshed Provisions on Salt Spring Island has weekly menus featuring locally sourced, seasonal ingredients, including the citrus fruits from local greenhouse grower Jane Squier. This is a favourite dish in her shop. It’s simple, quick to make and delicious as part of an elegant dinner or to serve cold at a picnic. Start with local free-range chicken, says Hart, and use good quality olive oil and wine, along with lemons, oranges or grapefruit, or swap out the citrus for local plums or grapes in season.

Anything Grows - YAM City Issue May/June 2023

• 1 organic or free-range chicken, 4 to 5 lb, cut into pieces (some butchers are happy to do this for you)
• 1 orange, sliced, seeds removed
• 1 lemon, sliced, seeds removed
• 1 cup of your favourite olives (Hart uses Castelvetranos for their buttery flavour and great texture)
• Fresh herbs, such as bay leaves or sprigs of rosemary or thyme
• 1 orange, halved, seeds removed (to squeeze over the chicken)
• 1 cup white or red wine
• ¾ tsp salt
• 1 Tbsp brown sugar
• ¼ cup good quality olive oil

Preheat oven to 400°F.

In a 9- to 10-inch cast-iron pan or ceramic baking dish, arrange the chicken pieces in a single layer, skin side up. Tuck the sliced citrus and olives in between the chicken pieces.

If you like, tuck the fresh herbs between the pieces of chicken.

Squeeze the orange halves over the chicken, removing any seeds, then pour the wine over it as well. Sprinkle salt and brown sugar evenly over the chicken, then drizzle it with the olive oil. 

Place in the oven and bake for about an hour, until the chicken is golden brown and its juices run clear when tested.

Allow to rest for a few moments before serving. This is also a fantastic picnic dish served at room temperature the next day! 

Serves 4 to 6.