"How do you know which ones are the weeds?"
Fifteen cooks are in the weeds - but these aren't just any weeds. They're locally grown, organic weeds nurtured by a seventh-generation farmer, Becky Townshend of Prince Edward Island's Fortune Organics.
And these aren't just any cooks. The farm is full of student chefs from the Culinary Institute of Canada on a field trip to explore local-food connections. Our mission: to harvest a meal of locally produced ingredients, take them back to my place, cook up a storm and share flavours and stories.
Which means weeds, and lots of them.
All organic farmers work hard to coax a living from their soil, so when Farmer Becky welcomes a class of junior chefs to her farm she sees opportunity: In exchange for a few baskets of vegetables, we're soon spread out across the garden on weed patrol.
In 15 minutes we haul a month's worth of weeds from the ground before thoroughly harvesting a very long row of yellow beans. Farmer Becky can't believe her luck. The students love every minute of it, too, peppering us with questions about every aspect of life on an organic farm.
Back at my house the fun continues. A brigade of young chefs take over my kitchen, slicing, dicing and sautéing the afternoon's harvest into an impressive buffet of PEI at its flavourful August best.
My fire pit is soon loaded with a thick bed of glowing hardwood coals, the grill full of thick local steaks. A pan of wild chanterelle mushrooms simmers. The oven is filled with rosemary-scented roasting new potatoes and honey-glazed beets. The ice-cream machine noisily churns away, while halibut bakes beneath an aromatic basil garlic crust.
To become a professional chef you have to learn a lot more than just how to cook. You also have to learn respect for your ingredients. The most powerful food lessons I've ever learned came from a field. When you understand, when you feel, a farmer's story it makes you a better cook. Your ingredients become personal. Your cooking matures.
Learning how to cook is often about mastering methods. Sometimes, though, tools and techniques overshadow the pure simplicity of an exquisite ingredient. It takes maturity to cook simply, confidence to let a perfectly imperfect organic carrot shine all by itself. It takes a personal connection with a farmer to truly understand food.
And the knowledge that the weeds are the ones that don't look like beans.
This dish was improvised by two student chefs from the Culinary Institute of Canada. They know that a simple breadcrumb crust is an easy way to add lots of aromatic flavour to any fish.
Basil garlic crusted whitefish
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 diced onion
4 cloves minced garlic
1 cup breadcrumbs
1/2 cup thinly sliced fresh basil leaves
4 six-ounce filets of your favourite whitefish (halibut, haddock, hake, or even salmon)
A sprinkle of salt and lots of freshly ground pepper
Preheat your oven to 400 F.
Splash the olive oil into a large skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté the onions until they're golden brown and fragrant, about five minutes.
Add the garlic and continue sautéing for another few minutes.
Transfer the onion-garlic mixture to a mixing bowl. Stir in the breadcrumbs and basil.
Pat a thick even layer of the crust mixture onto each of the fish filets.
Bake until the fish is cooked through and the crust is golden brown, about 15 minutes.