30 Nov 2014

garden share collective: last for 2014

Time for the Garden Share Collective round-up, and after skipping a month because I felt there was very little movement in my garden, I am back. There is… little movement. Some things are taking their sweet time in growing, and I blame the inconsistent spring weather (snow, sunshine, wind, rain, heat — all in one day). We get a couple of sunny warm days, but then any growth is halted as we plunge back to winter conditions and temperatures.

Let’s start with the fantastic news. Look! A tomato, and a baby zucchini!  


The baby zuke is about the size of my pinky finger. I was so thrilled when I found it that I ran inside and phoned my parents. Dad found the tomato — and a couple of teeny weeny mates —when he came up on the weekend (on his way to the cricket) and went to work on thinning and sorting the plants out.
Let me say, tomatoes are a mystery. I get the laterals thingy, I can work that one out; but the breaking off of perfectly good branches to leave a get a stronger structure — I cannot get why one is better than the other. I watch and listen to dad but it’s like looking under the bonnet of a car. A complete mystery.

Let me also say, mum and dad were a little bit envious at how well my tomatoes are growing. As in, faster than theirs. That made me feel very chuffed, as you might imagine. Hey, I might not know what I’m doing, but I’m doing it!
Mum surveyed the beds of corn and zukes and tomatoes, the rows of peas and beans, and declared I could almost start a market garden. That’s when I stood back and went, yeah, I have got a lot going on! With the new beds I’m accommodating so much more than I’ve been able to previously. And everything looks so neat, and with the borders of carrot and beetroot, and corner clumps of companions plants such as marigolds, pyrethrum (the white daisy at the very bottom of this post), johnny-jump-ups and lobelia, my garden is now exactly as I had dreamed it would look like.

Let’s come crashing back to earth a bit. It’s not all hunky dory. The silverbeet is fast bolting to seed; I’m kinda okay letting it go, having eaten such a glut of it recently. I’m happy to have a break and enjoy some sweet crunchy sugarloaf cabbages from dad’s garden. Still getting my chlorophyll fix but in a new and exciting form!
Behind the silverbeet are two failed passionfruits. I’ve accepted that these struggled to flourish and indeed at some point rapidly went backwards. I’ll pull them out, and have another go later.
Also, my broad beans and other beans have decided to be dwarf varieties, and they’ve started curling their leaves up. Dad and I suspect it’s because of the soil. You may recall we brought loads in to fill the new beds, and even though I dug in mushroom compost and manures, and I have been burying kitchen scraps and silverbeet leaves to boost the organic levels of the soil, I do accept that this takes time — years. Dad’s quick fix was to throw some blood and bone around, so let’s hope that sorts them out (it certainly stinks the place out). But I accept that good soil is a work in progress.

A quick overview for you. Normal red beetroot and a new row of golden beetroot; I have in my mind a pretty roasted veg salad combining those two. Peas: sugar snap (ready to harvest a small handful!) and greenfeast, and new purple podded. Some decorated with tinsel to ward off the sparrows who have been snipping the tender tops off. Beans: borlotti (just in), yellow wax and another green bean; I have another row of lazy housewives I am yet to sow. Oh, and normal and scarlet broad beans. Carrots (perfect round baby ones). Corn and zucchini. Garlic in the grow bags — I reckon I will pull one soon to test it out. Oh, and some lettuce in a long pot (leftovers from mum), some lemon basil, and some marjoram and sage seeds freshly sown in pots, to bolster my herb garden.
It’s watering, feeding, weeding — enjoying being in my vegie garden. This will be my last official Garden Share Collective post for 2014. It's been a pleasure talking vegies and fruit with you, learning some new tricks but mostly being inspired by everyone (and just a teensy bit envious of those gardening in warmer climes). Be sure to check out other green thumbs in the Garden Share by clicking on the logo at right, and til next year, happy gardening, and let's hope we all get enough rain thru the summer months.

23 Nov 2014

practising for christmas

In a serious break with tradition, I’ve put my Christmas decorations up already, before December. I go simple – lots of silver tinsel festooned about my living room’s large windows, hanging with silver tinsel stars; every door handle in the house has a silver tinsel star and silver bauble combo handing off the handle. I like silver tinsel — it catches the sunlight and looks so happy — and the monochrome scheme keeps it classy. Well, as classy as silver tinsel can be. I was having a tiring week, and just thought, why not have some sparkle?

I’ve also started practising for Christmas dinner, as this year we’ll be at my place. I’m lucky it’s just me, mum and dad, but that is two more people than I usually cook for, so I want to be prepared.

A lot of it will be seasonal: warm and fresh salads and sides made with produce from my garden and dad’s. Green beans and peas are probably on the menu, and maybe potatoes and pumpkin. Hopefully beetroot, to roast. I won’t know specific combos for these bowls and platters until much closer.

I have a couple of dressings and vinaigrettes to try over the coming weeks. I’m incredible boring and lazy; a dribble of olive or walnut oil and a squeeze of lemon juice is usually sufficient for me. But I’ll expand my repertoire for the Christmas meal — and hopefully for future ones too.

So that just left the main event. I decided on a meat-free menu; it's not really a big deal for any of us, but Dad did make a joke about eating brown rice and chickpeas, so I had to come up with something impressive enough to re-assure him — festive, not frugal, dad! Then I read Garden Deli’s recent post and thought a-ha! Pastry! Everything’s better with pastry; fancier, posher, more celebratory!
My mind raced to a luscious Martha Stewart tomato tart I’ve made before, which is so simple; that simplicity showcases the incredible flavours of homegrown tomatoes. A beautifully short pastry, daubed with a herby-garlicky oil, then topped with thick slices of juicy tomatoes which roast until they reach height of tomatoey perfection. My mouth is watering just remembering this.

However, there’s one flaw in this plan: neither dad nor I will have tomatoes ready for Christmas. And I refuse to buy pale, hard, cardboard-y ones from the shops. Dang!

I was inspired by a recipe from Valli Little in one of the delicious books, who herself was inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi (what lineage!). Yes, I was mashing up two recipes and adding my own twists, so this is why a practice run was essential. I came up with rich roasted sweet potato slices, atop a bed of creamy ricotta flavoured with fresh chives and lemon thyme, and meltingly-soft wine-sauteed leeks, all resting on a flaky pastry base.

In my practice run I have deduced that I can roast the sweet potato and sauté the leeks the day before; I could even mix up the ricotta too. That saves a lot kitchen stress and time on Christmas day, right? It’s then simply assemble-and-bake.

I have yet to get the quantities for the ricotta right; I had a little leftover. I may also swap out the almond flakes (not in the original recipes) for pine nuts; they may be a better match for the sweet potato. These are the issues I wanted to discover in my practice run, but I essentially know that I’m on a winner with these.

Coming out of the oven, the pastries looked and smelt special. The golden edges were beautifully puffed and the different layers looked like I’d gone to lots of effort, when they were actually so easy to create. They tasted lovely, and were not too heavy, either, so we’ll avoid that typical stuffed-silly feeling.

Then again, I have roped mum into bringing the Aussie classic, pavlova, for dessert. What a treat that will be! Hopefully with fresh berries from dad’s orchards — I already plan on having seconds of that.

The tinsel maybe up, the menu planned and practised; is it too early to wish you all merry Christmas?

16 Nov 2014

on garlic

Does this look evil to you?

Maybe if you’re a vampire (in which case … wow), but to most people, this is a lovely fat head of garlic. Pretty purple stripes, even.

To me, this represents the culmination of a months-long, supreme struggle of the conscience.

Because this is imported garlic.

Because my own is not ready yet. Because there is no local or Australian grown fresh garlic in the shops that I can find. Because even the minced bottled processed stuff is largely made of imported garlic.

Because one of my kitchen resolutions is to buy local or Australian produce wherever possible.

But there is only so long one can go without real garlic. I’ve been using garlic-infused olive oil (made in Australia) and I did find a small bottle of processed stuff using Australian garlic — but it tasted ghastly, not garlicky, and was thrown in the bin.

So in the end, after weeks of to-ing and fro-ing, do-I-don’t-I, resisting, longing, prevaricating, I capitulated to my tastebuds and bought this head of garlic from the local fruit and veg shop.

It’s Mexican — I’m not entirely sure where this sits on the spectrum of imported produce; sometimes the garlic is from China, sometimes it is from Spain, and I must admit I don’t mind supporting Spanish growers as my friend F is Spanish and hey, the Spanish economy needs help too. But I’d rather buy Australian garlic.

And why can’t I? If one can buy all sorts of other fruit and veg out of season, grown in the warmer far reaches of Australia or in the artificial climes of industrial poly-tunnels, why isn’t garlic grown all year round?

Probably more importantly, why do I get caught up in these self-imposed ethical dilemmas? Do other people stand in the supermarket aisle and silently wail 'why can't I find Australian tinned cannellini beans?!' before sighing and reaching reluctantly for the only ones available, Italian ones? Do other people get so caught up in their food rules — and heck, we are not even talking about nutrition or diet choices yet — that they sometimes go without?

I haven’t used the garlic yet. I wonder if I’ll feel guilty eating Mexican garlic. Hopefully I’ll just think, mmmm, real garlic again.

9 Nov 2014

eating more greens

With apologies to Kermit, but, it's not always easy being green. Eating green, that is; leafy green stuff. Last week I declared my kitchen a leafy-green-free-zone, and (almost) happily ignored the forest of silverbeet and kale threatening to take over my garden, kitchen and insides. I ate cauliflower, sweet potato, carrot, beetroot, normal spuds, red and yellow capsicum. I returned to the rainbow of eating.

Because all it seemed I had been eating up until that tipping point of 'enough!' was silverbeet and kale. With the plants in my garden taking advantage of the (fleeting) warm spring weather (dear reader, we have been up and down lately, with quite a lot of snow-on-the-mountain plunging us back into our winter woolllens), I was suddenly dealing with an awful lot of leafy greens. 
Sometimes I go thru these blinkered, perverse phases where I eat only what I grow, which is pretty silly when right now the only things I can harvest are silverbeet and kale. But it's like a kind of obsession: 'It's here, I grew it, I have to eat it! I can't waste it by buying other vegetables!'. My garden is a monoculture, my kitchen is a monoculture. My digestive system ... let's leave it at that.

It's not always been boring, and one can get inventive if forced too. I've been eating the greens with pasta sauce, with nutty chickpeas and plenty of onions, with toasted almonds and other garnishes to disguide their greenness. I've made the ubiquitous vegie slice. I've discovered a dressing of lemon juice and walnut oil pairs beautiful with the earthiness of silverbeet.
I have an Ottolenghi recipe (right now, who doesn't?) that I want to try where the silverbeet (or chard as it called in the northern hemisphere) is sauteed in wine; it's the one technique I haven't yet tried, and let's face it, just about anything tastes better when cooked in a little booze.
I even dabbled in 'cucina povera' - peasant food; in Italian, it sounds so much fancier - where I dressed some lightly steamed, limey green stalks with walnut oil and black sesame seeds. I thought it looked rather elegant.
The silverbeet is now going to seed very quickly (I'm sure because I cannot pick it fast enough), and unfortunately some of the kale is getting thick with those ugly grey aphids. The seeding towers of silverbeet will soon be delivered to mum's chooks (though the small baby leaves that pop out the stalks are still tender and delicious). But more seriously, I have decided that a dozen or so plants or silverbeet and the same of kale may look lush, but are not practical for a single person to consume. It is all growing faster than I can eat it (especially now I am eating other vegetables), and I really hate to grow food and then waste it. So when these plants are finished, next time I shall stick to a more managable two or three plants each.
But finally, a pretty non-green corner of my kitchen ... drat, some kale got in there, too!.

2 Nov 2014

wholemeal cocoa biscuits, ginger biscuits

I have been baking biscuits a lot lately. One of my kitchen resolutions a year (or two?) ago was to overcome my fear of baking biscuits, and I think I have leaped over that hurdle nicely.

In fact, I’ve realised that because biscuits are so fast to make — whiz up all the ingredients in a food processor, or melt-and-mix them in a saucepan with a wooden spoon, before popping them in the oven for mere minutes — they’re well suited to mid-week after-work baking, done because the cupboard is bare and you can’t wait til the weekend to replenish it. Or because you know your weekend will be full of good weather and gardening work, and you won’t want to be inside in the kitchen at all. Or, just because.

The baking part of biscuits was my stumbling block in the past. With a cake, it’s easy to tell when it’s done, or when it needs an extra five or ten minutes safely. With a biscuit, there’s a big difference between ‘12-15 minutes’ (have you noticed that can be a standard biscuit baking time? or is it just my recipes?). Twelve can mean soft and cakey, 15 – heck, 13 – can mean short and crisp, or hard and crunchy.

Which are all desirable outcomes on the spectrum of biscuitness* but, well, sometimes the close proximity of those times flummoxes me. Especially when a biscuit may be soft and pillowy to the touch when straight from the oven, but once cool, sets hard and crisp. Trusting that transformation is something I am still getting used to. Sometimes I want a jaw-breaking ginger biscuit, but a matter of a minute less in the oven means I get a chewier version. As I said, that’s not always a bad outcome; I just need to adjust my expectations slightly.

I’ve made these two recipes a few times lately, and each time they’ve come out differently. And it’s not just due to the baking time, I’ve realised, but whether the eggs from mum’s chooks are small or large (I may use two super-small bantam eggs for one normal egg), how many walnuts I feel like, how much glace ginger I have left in the pantry, and whether I think ‘one teaspoon of golden syrup? Bah! That’s not worth having!’. Yep, maybe all these variations have a lot to do with it as well … I feel like each time batch is a mystery batch, but I am learning not to mind. All variations go well with a cup of tea, and that, I think, is all that matters.

*Ask people how they like their Anzac biscuits, and they’ll fall into two camps: chewy versus rock-hard. It’s an ongoing debate in Australia.

Wholemeal cocoa biscuits
Adapted from a great book of mum’s, ‘Australian Quick n Easy Muffins, cakes, biscuits, slices, loaves, scones’. I’ve made these cakey as well as short and dry, like a good shortbread.
  • Prep a couple of baking trays and preheat oven to 190. Or 180, which is what I do sometimes.
  • Gently melt 125 gms butter with 1/2 cup light brown sugar in a saucepan. Remove from heat when done and allow to cool a little.
  • Using a wooden spoon, beat in 1 egg. Then sift and stir in ¾ cup plain flour, ¾ cup plain wholemeal flour, 1 ½ tbspns cocoa and 1 ½ tspns baking powder.
  • Now the next measurement is imprecise, but the quantity of walnut pieces I have used has varied each time according to what’s in the pantry, what looks right on the day, and just what I feel like. So stir thru anywhere between ½ to 1 cup of walnut pieces. Sorry.
  • Take walnut-sized spoonfuls, roll into balls and place on baking trays, flattening slightly. Bake biscuits for about 15 minutes. Cool on trays for a few minutes before transferring to racks to cool completely.
Ginger biscuits
Adapted from the Women’s Weekly ‘Best Ever Collection’. These can turn out cakey or hard, though I have noticed they seem to get harder after a few days (no, not stale!).
  • Prep a couple of baking trays.
  • In a food processor, whiz up 2 cups plain flour, ½ tspn bicarb soda, 1 tspn ground cinnamon, 2 tspns ground ginger, 1 cup sugar and 125 gms cold butter.
  • Add 1 egg, ½ tbspn golden syrup, and 1-2 tbspns chopped glace ginger, depending on your ginger preferences (and pantry supply!). Whiz til combined.
  • Now turn out into a bowl and use your hands and give a couple of squeezes to bring the dough together.
  • Take walnut-sized spoonfuls, roll into balls and place on baking trays, flattening slightly (fork indentations, as seen in the photo above, are purely decorative in that old-fashioned way). Fridge these for around 20 minutes or so while you do the washing up and tidy away the kitchen, and start preheating your oven to 180.
  • Once the biscuits have chilled a bit and your oven is preheated, bake biscuits for about 20 minutes or until nicely golden brown. Cool on trays for a few minutes before transferring to racks to cool completely.