26 May 2014

garden share collective: june

I don't feel sad about winding down the veg garden after summer, and letting it (mostly) hibernate  over the winter months.

In fact, it feels more in tune with the seasonal changes to do so. The days are getting shorter and darker, the garden beds are seeing less sun as it is lower in the sky, and the soil will be getting colder too, along with the air.

So it has been satisfying to pull out the last of the beans and skeletal tomato bushes, lift up the makeshift duckboards I used as paths, wiggle out stakes, and lean the trellises against the back fence.

So yes, even though the garden is approaching its dormant period, I have been doing a little work. I also plan on engaging my friend B's partner J to dig over the soil and help me bury in a couple of bags of finely pulverised fowl and sheep manure and mushroom compost I brought back from dad (the car still smells). As a big chunk of my growing area is reclaimed from the lawn, I enjoy this process of feeding it up; I also recognise that it will be necessary for the next few years at least.

I've also killed off another quarter of my back lawn, ready to dig up and turn into additional planting space (tomatoes!). There are times when a man's muscles are very much needed, and this is one of them! Hopefully I will organise to get J over in the next couple of weeks.

One sunny lunchtime I went home from work, pulled on my blundies, and planted out ten little silverbeet seedlings that mum and I had gathered from dad's garden on my last visit. In the space of an hour, I'd dug over the ground where the tomatoes had been (this bed gets the winter sun most of the day), planted the seedlings, installed protective guards around them (old plastic pots with the bottoms cut off), seasolled them and gave a little sprinkle of snail bait. And took a photo for you!

The next day was also sunny, so, on a roll, I again went home at lunchtime (I'm less than ten minutes away from work by car) and cleared the front of that bed of the yellowing parsley. What long, tenacious roots! Realising my kale seeds were seriously out of date, I sowed the lot in a row in front of the silverbeet; I figured I'd either get the lot or none. Well, after a decent wait, it appeared the answer would be none, so I bought a fresh packet and tried again. Who else reckons the first lot will now come up, and I'll be forested in curly kale?

I guess at this late stage I won't be harvesting any kale until spring, but it is good to have it back in the garden; I have missed growing and cooking it. And it thrives on frost, so it is a sturdy plant to grow in these climes.

The garlic is continuing to grow its fine ribbony green shoots in these growbags (below). Its quiet progress is reassuring as we enter winter.

But I am peeved to tell you that something - probably something slimy with a shell on its back - got to my green golfball-sized capsicum before I did - before the bloody thing was anywhere near ready - and ate half of it. So the capsicum experiment has ended on a sour note, and will probably never darken my garden beds again.

Don't forget to see others in the Garden Share Collective. Click on the logo in the column at right to see more green thumbs.

21 May 2014

on sweeping up autumn leaves

I’ve confessed before that this is my favourite time of the year. We’ve left behind the glare and heat of summer (such as it is in Hobart) and even though the days are getting shorter and the evenings cooler, we haven’t yet been plunged into the dark drag of winter.

The other reason I love autumn is the deciduous leaves, in all their glory, from rich fiery reds to golden glowing yellows; large flag-like shapes to small, intricate specimens. My route to work has many fine trees and shrubs and even vines, making the start and end of my working day a beautiful journey.

But here’s another autumnal confession: I love sweeping up those fallen leaves. Actually, I love any kind of sweeping out in the garden, but in this season, I get to indulge in this gardening chore — well, it seems, all the time.

On the weekends, I like to start my ‘working’ day by sweeping the small undercover area outside my back door, which collects the long golden leaves of my peach and nectarine trees. Then I move methodically along the pathways around the house and in the backyard, again picking up the fruit tree leaves.

Then I start in the driveway out the front, which runs the length of my block. Here it is the larger, flatter leaves of my ornamental blossom tree. Sadly the delicate, finely serrated leaves of my cut-leaf birches are long-gone — those still-young trees are fully exposed to the winds that roar up my street, and theirs are the first leaves to be carried off. And the ruby foliage of my young viburnum shrub was lost overnight, blown off by ghastly winds. Here one day, gone the next, before I could take a photo of it.

Sometimes I follow this pattern again in the afternoon, to tidy away any end-of-day leaf fall; or perhaps I’ll just do a quick go down the driveway.

So that is the how and the when, but what about the why? Why do I find this task so appealing?

I suspect that, like doing the dishes or the weekly laundry, it’s a sense of imposing order and neatness over my world (though it is admittedly Sisyphean at times, when, as fast as I sweep, the wind throws more leaves to my feet. But if I’ve set my mind to sweep now, I’ll pigheadedly refuse to admit defeat and down my broom). It’s satisfying to clear away the fallen leaves and other garden debris from the driveway and literally have a clean sweep.

The brisk, repetitive motion is also an enjoyable form of exercise. Back and forth, to and fro, walking up and down: it’s steady and calming. I saw a neighbour use one of those contraptions that look like a cross between a vacuum cleaner and set of bagpipes — and I’m not sure whether it was sucking or blowing — but I thought, where are the cardiovascular benefits in that? And the noise! Blasting away the peace! When the neighbourhood is quiet, just the birds twittering and the rhythmic sound of straw bristles brushing the concrete, it gives me time to think.

Because sweeping can be very conducive to contemplation (perhaps it is my suburban version of Buddhist walking meditation?). The morning sweep: my mind is still foggy with sleep, thinking about what gardening or household chores are ahead of me, assessing the state of the garden — now that the days are shorter, I don’t see my garden during the working week, and this is my gentle reunion with it. It’s a good opportunity to take stock of the weather, the birds, the garden, the neighbourhood, and I guess, me. Those repetitive movements can lull one into introspection. Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing with my life, what I could be doing; sometimes I compose sentences and turn over phrases and tweak words, not with a red pen in my hand but a broom. Mowing the lawn certainly doesn’t inspire such quiet moments of reflection, or such a sense of calm, purpose, order. I shall be sad when the autumn leaves have completely fallen and finished, and not just because of the bare branches they leave behind. I will no longer have quite so much sweeping to do.

15 May 2014

lamington cake

A couple of weeks ago, B and her four and a half year old daughter H visited, and we baked a cake together. B suggested something with icing might go down well, and I was inspired by Shady Baker Jane’s sweet Australia Day cake; so a lamington cake it would be.

For an iconic cake, what better source than Merle from the CWA? Foolproof and four and a half year old proof, surely.

And it was. H and I measured and stirred and counted out cups and spoons and eggs. B graciously tidied away said cups and spoons for washing up later. We checked the butter was soft enough to cream by pushing it with our little fingers; we double checked the recipe to make sure we’d used every ingredient. And we licked beaters, because if there was any wisdom a young cake baker should receive, it is that one must always taste the batter, and the cook always licks the beaters.

This was a big cake mix — obviously meant for a lamington pan, which I don’t have — so we used a brownie tin and just under a dozen very small paper baking cups. The advantage was that those little cakes would be cooked and ready to eat faster than the main cake. Next time (when I’m cooking without my young apprentice) I shall halve the recipe and simply use my brownie tin. The cake was lovely and moist; a good basic plain cake, and every baker needs one of those in her repertoire.

But the icing — well, wow-wee. This is why people write books about giving up the evils of sugar. This stuff was addictive; a pure, sweet chocolaty sugar rush. We swirled and daubed it on the cakes then topped with large flakes of shredded coconut, which sat beautifully on the main cake in particular.

A fun day was had by all. H left with all the little cakes packed into a fancy tin — B refused to take any of the main cake! At first I was fearful I would never get through it all, especially all that wicked icing. But I did! A lamington cake is a fine thing, and should not be restricted to Australia Day celebrations or baking days with little girls.

A lot of coconut happening here:

Lamington cake
Adapted from Merle’s recipe posted on the Random House website. Use the specified large rectangular cake tin (31 cm x 21, and 4.5 cm deep), or a 20 cm brownie tin plus baking cups as we did.
  • Preheat oven to 180 and prep your chosen baking tin.
  • Cream 250 gms soft butter with 1 ½ cups sugar.
  • Beat in 4 eggs then 1 tspn vanilla.
  • Sift in 2 ½ cups SR flour, 2 tbspns cornflour, 1 tspn baking powder (yes, SR flour and baking powder) and a pinch of salt.
  • Now stir thru ½ cup greek yoghurt. It will be a very stiff batter.
  • Transfer batter into your cake tin and bake for 40 minutes or until done. If you’re using smaller baking cups, these will be done in 20–25 minutes.
  • Allow to cool a little before icing. To make icing, sift together 2 cups icing sugar and 2 tbspns cocoa powder. Moosh in 90 gms softened butter and 1 tsp vanilla. You won’t get it all combined — don’t worry, the hot water next brings it all together. So gradually add hot water; start with 2 tbspns and trickle more until you get the consistency you desire (we stopped at a thick frosting-like paste). Taste and adjust; we added more cocoa for a sweet but proper chocolaty taste.
  • Spread the icing over the cake and sprinkle over as much coconut (desiccated or flaked) as you desire.

8 May 2014

simple pumpkin lasagna

Due to popular demand at the office — colleagues stopping me in the corridor and popping into my office to catch me eating al desko — here is what I’m eating this week for my lunch.

It’s a very simple lasagna: only ricotta, pumpkin and peas. My idea of lasagna — and perhaps yours too — is hours spent making the various layers and sauces, before you even begin to assemble and bake the collated final dish.

With the minimum of main ingredients, this version cuts out much of that pfaffing about. Therefore you get straight to creamy, gentle comfort food, just right for the shocking onslaught of winter cold in Hobart.

There’s a subtle dash of smoky paprika and chilli and sage, and a little parmesan, just enough to tease your tastebuds (I didn’t want anything aggressively cheesy). What you’ll enjoy is the richness of the ricotta and smoothness of the pumpkin, punctuated by waxy, nubbly bits of walnut and those polka dots of peas. With the fresh pasta sheets and thin, elegant layers, this is not a greedy lasagna; it’s comfort carbs without tipping over to stodge.

I know I’ll make this again because it was so easy and delicious. The question is, will I be seeing this in my co-workers’ lunchboxes now?

Simple pumpkin lasagna
Adapted from delicious magazine, July 2007. You can find the original on the taste website. Next time, I would simply steam the pumpkin, as roasting did not add extra flavour, and it qould be even quicker; and I would use any variety or mix of pumpkin, even sweet potato. Finally, I don’t have a 24 cm square baking dish so just made do with my largest round one, and it worked out fine.
  • First take one cup of frozen peas and allow to thaw. You need a packet of 8 fresh lasagna sheets and I find these easier to use at room temperature, so get them out now too.
  • Preheat oven to 190 and line a baking tray with paper.
  • Peel 1.2 kilos butternut (or other pumpkin) and chop into small chunks. Season with S&P and smoky paprika and dried chili, to your taste, and drizzle with oil. Cover with foil and bake until tender. As noted above, you could also steam this, and then fold thru the flavourings.
  • While the pumpkin is cooking, blitz in your food processor 375 gms ricotta (from the deli), 1 egg, 1 generous tbspn greek yoghurt, and half a cup of grated parmesan; all til smooth. Spoon ricotta mix into a bowl and clean your food processor.
  • Now take your cooked pumpkin, add 1 tbspn finely chopped fresh sage leaves, and whizz in your food processor til smooth.
  • Now, butter a 24 cm square baking dish or other large sized one, and start assembling.
  • Lay two lasagna sheets on the bottom; smooth half the pumpkin; sprinkle over half the peas; lay another two lasagna sheets; smooth out half the ricotta mix; lay another two lasagna sheets; smooth the rest of the pumpkin; sprinkle over the rest of the peas; lay another two lasagna sheets; smooth out the rest of the ricotta mix.
  • On the very top, sprinkle over a layer of panko breadcrumbs, some freshly ground pepper, and some walnut pieces – as much or as little as you desire.
  • Cover with baking paper then foil and bake for 35 minutes (in your still heated 190 oven). Then uncover and bake for another 15–20 minutes or until golden.
  • When cool, portion out into your lunch boxes; and the next day, tantalise your co-workers.