In Season: Toronto stores get an early jump on summer with greenhouse veg
Image: Sai Sumar
When $8 cauliflowers made headlines back in January, I got in touch with Ezio Bondi, of Bondi Produce, who explained the steep produce prices were due to a combination of the slipping Canadian currency (shining a light on the country’s reliance on imports) and bizarre El Niño weather patterns. A 25-lb. case of Florida beefsteak steak tomatoes was up to $50 from $30, the average price during the winter. But Bondi was optimistic about the upcoming months when Ontario greenhouse vegetables—predominately tomatoes and peppers—become available.
Last week, I received an email from Bondi saying greenhouse items are abundant and freight costs have dropped. That means prices are down, which makes Ontario’s finest an even better alternative to imported substitutes.
Blocky bell peppers and a range of tomatoes, from beefsteak and roma to on-the-vine and sapori, make up almost 75% of greenhouse vegetables. While seedless greenhouse cucumbers (which represent around 25%) and lettuce (which takes up 1%) are in season all year round. Certain farms are also experimenting with trickier, specialty crops: Mucci Farms in Kingsville grows mini eggplants and strawberries (I found some yesterday at Loblaws).
Most grocery stores carry Ontario greenhouse vegetables such as Wal-Mart, Longo’s, Sobeys (incl. FreshCo), Metro (incl. Food Basics), and Loblaws (incl. No Frills, Fortinos and Independent City Market). Although you’ll be lucky to find produce labels beyond the country of origin let alone a greenhouse-specific stamp, unfortunately. But, keep an eye out for cellophane wrapped cucumbers, the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers (OGVG) logo as well as the Foodland Ontario logo.
If you don’t see any of those, look for a PLU code sticker that says “Product of Canada” on individual items. While greenhouse vegetable farms stretch across the country, Ontario represents more than half (68%) of the total harvested area in Canada. Therefore, if you’re buying tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers labeled “Product of Canada” there’s a good chance it’s from an Ontario greenhouse since their field counterparts won’t be in season until June (for cucumbers) and July (for tomatoes and peppers). Field options are usually around until October, while greenhouse tomatoes and peppers can be found into November.
Though greenhouses rely on meticulous computerized climate control, solar energy is crucial. And there’s not enough sunlight in the winter to sustain growth, which leads to a mandatory hiatus for complex crops. However, new LED lighting systems that boost solar power give year-round production a bright future. Slight changes in the quality, intensity, and colour of the light impact the growth and composition of the crop. For example, red and blue spectrum combinations are best for lettuce, while tomatoes and strawberries need ultra violet and infrared rays.
I know, these vegetables are on every menu and are easy to work with, but I have to share Ina Garten’s Greek Panzanella recipe. It’s all about cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes. I also love that you can use up leftover stale bread (any hearty, crusty loaf will work, but I’d recommend some rustic sourdough). Instead of cooking the bread, just cut the loaf into cubes and leave them in a warm place for about 20 minutes to make sure they’re dried out. The salad tastes great—perhaps even better—after a day or two.