Meet Eric and Ruby, of Peas on Earth, Alberta producers of exceptional organic produce, and have a taste of Ruby's fantastic Basil Beet Salad, or a nibble of Sauteed Garlicky Green Beans. (Skip to recipes.)
Passion and Love.
Those are the two emotions immediately evident when talking to Ruby and Eric Chen, owners of Peas on Earth Organic Garden in Sturgeon County. Passion for providing their customers with healthier food to nourish their bodies and a love for the earth and their commitment to nourish it.
Nestled amid rolling countryside studded with subdivisions of luxury homes and small acreages, their organic garden is a hidden gem. When you first drive up the curving driveway bordered by a line of cheery sunflowers you know you are in a happy place. You glimpse rows of lovingly tended vegetables and see a small cluster of workers hand picking crops in the distance. Boxes of produce are stacked in the shade, awaiting their trip to the market, and Eric and Ruby greet you with warm, welcoming smiles.
Their farm is a labour of love, a team effort, run by the two of them, but supported by and shared with family, including their two teenage children, Eric's parents, and a staff of employees and relatives who help out at 'crunch time'. Of their 65 acres, 25 are planted with a large variety of Alberta hardy vegetables and herbs - over 30 different crops with several different varieties of many of them.
And almost all of these crops must laboriously, carefully, and properly, be hand-harvested and hand-processed! This is no small undertaking. Machines can't be trusted to harvest the tender vegetables without damage, and Eric and Ruby are absolutely committed to providing their customers with the best produce possible, from hardy root vegetables to the most delicate herbs and tender leafy baby greens.
Ruby says their biggest challenge is the processing, sorting, washing, and packing - it is all very labour-intensive, and must be done as close to market time as possible to supply customers with the freshest produce, which means that Eric and Ruby are usually up late into the early morning hours the night before farmers' market days, preparing the produce for their customers.
But above all, Eric and Ruby are committed to providing health and sustainability for people and for the earth. They feel, that with all the sickness and disease now prevalent in our society, they can do their small part by providing healthy, chemical-free and pesticide-free food to nurture their own family and their customers for a healthier future. After all, their motto is "Growing for our children". The word play of the name of their garden, Peas on Earth, embodies their beliefs. Eric says, 'Peace on Earth, that's what sustainability means to me, taking care of the land." The farm is certified fully organic and Eric and Ruby feel very passionately about their commitment to growing good healthy produce.
They also have a very balanced view of the economics and vagaries of farming. "Every year has been different, and there is a reason and a blessing in everything. Every weed that grows, there is a purpose for it," says Eric. Some years, like this one, have been very dry - so they needed to water more. Different years produce different insects, weather conditions, problems, challenges. This year they had aphids for the first time, in their kale, which means that every single kale leaf has to be inspected and fastidiously washed by hand before going to the customer. Eric just shrugs his shoulders philosophically and smiles. It's part of farming.
If a crop fails, or can't be completely used, it's not considered waste. Eric's philosophy is, "What comes from the soil, goes back to the soil." The plants are cultivated back into the land to provide nourishment to the soil for future crops. It's a natural cycle.
Good sound farming practices are the backbone of this family business. Eric studied agriculture at the University of Alberta (where he met Ruby while they were both students), and Ruby handles the majority of the day-to-day business and administration of Peas on Earth. He grew up on a farm in Alberta and she grew up in Hong Kong, and they bring their diverse backgrounds and skill sets together to form a strong team unified in making their thriving organic garden the best it can be.
In this harsh, northern climate most crops only have two to three months of a vigourous growing season, so many of Peas on Earth's vegetables are planted weekly to provide an ongoing supply. When I visited, there were some young new plantings of hardier greens, tiny shoots just emerging from the soil. Eric says they gamble on the weather - if we have longer frost-free days they might get another harvest from them, if not - the plants get worked back into the soil (with a smile and a shrug of the shoulders).
Eric and Ruby are busy from early spring, starting seedlings in their 5000² ft greenhouse facility, to late fall, with supplying several local farmers' markets and local restaurants. They also have temperature-controlled storage facilities so they can keep long-season and root crops throughout the winter to supply vegetables to the Organic Box Home Delivery Program year round.
Peas on Earth no longer sells produce from their garden location, but you can find their fantastic fresh vegetables at the St. Albert Outdoor Farmers' Market (June to Thanksgiving), the Callingwood Market (Sundays until October 11) or at the Old Strathcona Farmers' Market all year round. Peek into the Peas on Earth website to see which produce is available at any time in the year.
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For a little taste of what you can do with such beautiful, fresh organic Alberta produce, here's an example of one of the Chen family's favourite salads. The earthy sweetness of beets is beautifully complemented by the robust sweetness of fresh basil and balsamic vinegar.
Kitchen Frau Notes: This salad is delicious with just the beets and basil, but if you want to amp up the protein, or make the salad more of a light lunch, toss in a handful of bocconcini cheese balls to add bright pops of pink. For a more intense flavour punch, you can use cubes of feta cheese.
Roast or boil the beets the day before to make this salad quick to put together. (Roasted have more concentrated flavour.) I love roasting a whole bunch of beets and having them on hand to reheat quickly for a dinner side dish, or to make salads like this one.
If you love basil, feel free to add even more than the recipe says.
I love this salad even better the next day, when all the flavours have had time to mingle and get cozy.
Basil and Balsamic Beet Salad
adapted from Ruby Chen
- 1½ lbs (700gms) medium-sized beets (4 cups cooked and sliced)
- ¼ cup finely diced onion
- 1 small clove garlic, finely minced or crushed (optional)
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 4 stems basil leaves (¼ cup, lightly packed)
- 2 tablespoons grapeseed oil, or other neutral oil
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ - ½ teaspoon black pepper
- optional: 1 cup halved small bocconcini balls (unripened mozzarella, the kind that comes packed in water), or torn bits of larger bocconcini balls, or diced feta cheese
Roast or cook the beets. To roast them, wash the beets and place them on a large square of heavy duty tin foil, or doubled regular foil. Seal up the package and roast at 400°F for 45 minutes to an hour, until they are tender when you pierce them, through the tin foil, with a fork. To cook them, place them in a large saucepan, cover with water, and bring to boil. Then lower the heat, cover, and simmer until tender.
When the cooked beets are cool enough to handle, peel off the outer skin. If roasted - scrape off the skin with a knife, if cooked - set a colander in the sink and slip off the skins with your hands while holding the beets under running water over the colander.
Allow the beets to cool completely, then refrigerate them until chilled.
Cut the chilled beets into quarters and slice the quarters.
Combine the diced onions, the garlic, if using, and the balsamic vinegar in the bottom of a mixing bowl. Allow them to macerate for 15 minutes or longer, so the onions get 'pickled'. Add the sliced beets and toss well until all the beets are coated in the vinegar.
Stack the basil leaves on top of each other 5 or 6 at a time. Roll them into a cylinder, then slice them finely.
Add the sliced basil leaves, oil, salt, pepper to taste, and bocconcini, if using, and toss it all gently together. Leave for at least 30 minutes for flavours to blend. Serve at room temperature.
The beautiful pink colour gets more pronounced if the salad is allowed to rest for a while and the beets have time to release some of their vibrant juices.
Keeps for several days in the fridge.
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I brought back some lovely fresh green and yellow beans (sadly now finished their season due to frost) from my visit at Peas on Earth. I was inspired to make this lovely bean dish for dinner that night. So tasty. And with the addition of a poached egg, it made a wonderful lunch the next day, too!
Kitchen Frau Notes: The turmeric adds a hint of earthiness and a touch of golden colour, and the white wine vinegar at the end serves to brighten all the flavours.
Garlicky Green Beans with Spinach and Toasted Hazelnuts
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- ½ medium onion, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- ½ teaspoon turmeric
- 1 lb (450gms) fresh green or yellow beans, or a combination
- ¼ cup (60ml) water
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 6 - 8 oz (175-200gms) fresh spinach, (3 - 4 large handfuls)
- a good grinding of fresh pepper
- 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
- a small handful of toasted hazelnuts, about ⅓ of a cup
- Optional: poached eggs to top the beans, one per person, if desired
*To toast hazelnuts: Roast the hazelnuts on a cookie sheet in the oven at 350°F for 8 to 10 minutes, until fragrant and golden brown. Place the hot nuts into a clean tea towel and rub them vigorously for a minute or two to get off as many skins as possible - don't worry, you won't get them all off.
Trim the stem ends off the beans, and cut each bean in half.
Heat the oil and butter in a large deep skillet over medium heat until bubbling. Add the chopped onion, minced garlic, and turmeric, and sauté for 2 minutes until translucent.
Add the trimmed beans, water, and salt, and sauté for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until the water has evaporated and the beans are just crisp-tender.
Tear any large spinach leaves into smaller pieces, and add the spinach, a handful at a time, stirring them under, until the leaves are just wilted. Add a good grinding of black pepper and sprinkle with the vinegar. Toss once more to combine, and tip the vegetables into a serving bowl.
Roughly chop the toasted hazelnuts and strew them over the top.
Optional: Top each serving with a soft poached egg and allow the yolk to run into the beans as you break it open.
Serves 4 to 6.
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