22 Feb 2015

toasted muesli

A recent conversation at work got me thinking some more about something I already think about a lot: making our own food.

Do you like making your own? How much of your own food do you make? And on the flipside, what are we happy to buy that’s ready-made or processed? Where is the line?

Whether you work full time or not, have family or not, what time constraints stop you from making your own food — or not?

And the biggie — do we, should we care? Is this something you think about too?

A microwave meal has never darkened my doorway (and yes, you can detect the moral undertones in those words). Yes, sometimes I’m tired and grumpy after a day at work, but I would never think ‘oh, I’ll get something to heat up on my way home’. Eggs-on-toast is this lazy girl's fall-back; even lazier are the single portions of home-made soup in the freezer, squirrelled away for just such evenings.

It would not cross my mind to pop a cake in my shopping trolley, or get a savoury quiche or pie for dinner that night. Why, when whatever I can bake would be tastier and probably healthier? And I take great pleasure — and yes, pride — in making my own tomato pasta sauces.

But … I buy the tinned tomatoes for the sauce when it’s not tomato season. I collect and freeze panettones at Christmas time, anticipating rich bread and butter puddings in the winter months. I have a last-resort stash of muesli bars in my yoga bag, for the times a banana is not enough to fuel me thru two hours of downward dog. And (my guilty secret) I have a canister of savoy crackers, hidden in the pantry, for those times when only mindless salty crunching will satisfy.

I also recognise my technical limitations. Yeast and I are not friends, so I cannot bake my bread. And it would never cross my mind to make my own cheese or yoghurt; maybe I’m fudging definitions here, but I think of dairy products like cheese and butter as ‘ingredients’ for my own cooking and baking.

The comment that originally set me off was ‘oh, if only I had the time’. But I thought to myself: isn’t it about making the time? If it is something that you truly value, don’t you find the time to make a big pot of sauce, a week's supply of slow-cooked casserole, or a tray of berry muffins? If what you eat is truly important to you, doesn’t that make it a pleasure, not another chore on the to-do list?

I know many would say I’m lucky: I’m single, without a family to look after. But I work full-time, and have a house and garden to manage and maintain; I am not some Carrie Bradshaw wafting around with endless glamourous hours to spare.

Not long after the conversation that set all this off in my head, I pulled the weekly supermarket catalogs from my letterbox and surveyed just how many pages are devoted to products, many of which could be home-made: tinned soups, cartons of custard, iced cakes, morning-tea biscuits, roasted chooks or trays of marinaded meats, ready to pop in the oven. Potato salads, microwave rice meals, and of course, frozen pizza.

One could apparently eat without ever having a real ingredient — say, a carrot or an egg — enter the kitchen (that side of processed food also alarms me: the unnecessary amounts of fat and sugar and salt that cannot be nutritious and must surely be harmful in the long term. I want to be in control of what is in my food, and I want it to be real and healthy).

I don’t think making your own means you’re back in the dark ages, labouring away all day; but I think some people (like my workmate) must think that (which must account for the success of Jamie Oliver’s 30 and 15 minute cookbooks, overcoming our fears of hours in the kitchen). And as I’ve said, I don’t think making your own has to mean making absolutely everything; life’s too short and one has to be sensible; of course I recognise that. But surely life is also too important to rely on mass-processed food from a factory; to hand over all the work to unseen hands.

I’d be interested to know where your ‘line’ is, because I know I can get judgmental about things like this (don’t tell me you haven’t felt the same while checking out the contents of other shoppers’ supermarket trolleys).

What processed foods are you happy to let in your kitchen? What would you never let in?

Toasted muesli
Adapted from an Anneka Manning recipe. Toasted muesli is not something I have to make, but it's a easy crunchy treat, and you can control the sugar levels. Also, I love that there's no oil in this recipe, as I've seen in other recipes. I make this for a weekend treat, though it's also perfect sprinkled crumble-like over stewed fruit for a speedy pudding. Double the quantity if you wish; it magically lasts in an airtight container for weeks.
  • Preheat your oven to 160 and line at least two baking trays.
  • In a large mixing bowl, combine 3 cups rolled oats, 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds, 1/4 cup walnut pieces (I've also used macadamia pieces), 1/2 cup shredded coconut, and 1/4 cup flaked almonds (I've used those ones edged in skin).
  • Sprinkle over a good tspn cinnamon.
  • Then pour over 1/2 cup apple juice, and stir thru til evenly combined.
  • Spread the mix over your baking trays; you don't want it too thick, so you may want another tray. Dribble over 2-3 tbspns honey (between all trays); I like using a Tasmanian one with a stronger, less-sweet flavour.
  • How long you bake it for depends on how toasty you like your toasted muesli, and how thick your muesli layers are. I bake for 10 minutes, then stir around so the mix gets evenly cooked, flip the trays in the oven; bake for another 10 minutes, another stir and flip; and so on until I'm happy. I usually do 30 or 40 minutes of baking time. Watch carefully towards the end - it doesn't take long for the muesli to go from toasty to charcoally, trust me!
  • Allow to cool a little before serving with milk or yoghurt; and cool completely before storing in an airtight container. Mix through dried fruits of your choice (I like sultanas and those soft pillowy apple pieces).

15 Feb 2015

zucchini cake / carrot cake

When life hands you zucchinis, make...
zucchini slice, zucchini spaghetti, roast zucchini, steamed zucchini, grilled zucchini, zucchini dipped in hummous ...

Yes, it's zucchini season chez Dig In. I love zucchinis (luckily), but there have been days when I have dreaded going into the vegie garden to see how many I will find, and how big they are. Because anyone who grows zucchinis knows: there's always one that gets away. That the day before was a wee petite thing, and the next was a granddaddy, a monster.

So yes, it's been 101 ways to cook zucchinis here. Okay, that is a slight exaggeration; I have settled on a couple of main ways of cooking them. The first is roasting them with olive oil and S&P; very simple, but it brings out the creaminess of the vegetable. It pairs well with chickpeas this way, as you can see in the picture above. I then toss the pieces through a warm salad or even squish onto grainy toast. I am experimenting with freezing some like this, to stir thru my tomato pasta sauce in the winter months.

Grilling them is fun, too:

I also love spiralizing zucchinis, especially when they are still slender. I use the spaghetti-like strands tossed thru a salad, squished on a salad breadroll (a surprisingly good lettuce substitute if caught short) and stir-fried; with other green vegies and again with chickpeas (it's a combination I find so delicious). I mean, how pretty is this?

When I was buying my spiralizer, I must say I laughed when the sales girl said 'these are so great, they help you eat so many more vegetables!'. I don't need help eating more vegies, I said, I need more exciting ways to eat them. It's novelty value but hey, it works for me.

Finally, the best way of eating any vegetable, must surely be as cake. So, when life hands you zucchinis in excess and you can't give them away, make cake:

Using my new mini-loaf tin! Again, there's some novelty value attached to turning out these sweet little loaves, but every baker deserves a new tin every now and then, surely.
This recipe though was a bit bland; they needed lots of lemon drizzle on them to be enticing. But then, a week later, I made mini carrot cakes:

Mini carrot cakes so moist and rich, full of flavours from mixed spice, brown sugar and boozy sultanas. Mum actually said you couldn't tell it was carrot cake, the spice and sherried sultanas so potent. But who has ever had a wodge of carrot cake and said mmmmm, so carroty? I rest my case.
I gave T one of these carrot cakes, and when I sent her the recipe, I had a brainwave. This could be a zucchini cake! Sometimes my own genius scares me ... So, here we go, an all-purpose recipe you can use whether you have a glut of carrots or zucchinis. Or pumpkin maybe! Or beetroot, or parsnips, or ... okay, I'll stop now.

Zucchini cake / carrot cake
Adapted from a 'Super food ideas' magazine.
  • A week or two ahead of time, start soaking 3/4 cup sultanas in sherry. If you prefer a non-boozy version (huh?!) or you forget to do this, on the day soak your sultanas in hot tea, just to plump them up. But I recommend the boozy option.
  • Preheat your oven to 180 and prep your baking tin. I used my mini loaf tin (8 loaves) plus 4 holes of a muffin tin; the recipe specified a deep 20 cm round tin.
  • Gently toast in the warming oven 3/4 cup walnut chunks; do keep your eye on them.
  • Grate enough zucchini to get 1 1/2 cups.
  • In another bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup light brown sugar, 3/4 cup vegie oil or light-flavoured olive oil, 1/2 cup golden syrup, and 3 large eggs.
  • Sift into this 1 cup SR flour, 1/2 cup plain flour, 1 tspn bicarb soda, and generous 1/4 tspn each cinnamon, ginger and mixed spice (or whatever spice combination you like. I'm always heavy-handed with the mixed spice).
  • Stir in the grated zucchini, sultanas (drained if a lot of liquid, though a little extra sherry certainly won't hurt) and the toasted walnuts. You can also add the zest of one orange for even more flavour.
  • Pour into the pans. If you are using mini-loaves or muffin sizes, try for 20-25 minutes or until done. If a single large tin (which I have not used), the recipe specifies 60-70 minutes or until done. The cakes should be cooked but still moist.
  • When done, stand the tin on a rack to cool for a few minutes before turning out to cool completely.
  • PS I know there are some people who say 'the best bit of a carrot cake' is the cream cheese frosting, but I'm not one for all that gooeyness at home (and especially not in summertime). Hence, no cream-cheese frosting recipe. And if that's the best bit of the cake, then there's something wrong with your cake. Enjoy.

8 Feb 2015

what I learnt this summer about growing tomatoes

Last year I grew four tomato plants, and it was a bewildering, alien affair. Growing tomatoes is not like growing peas or beans or carrots or beetroot — which are essentially, 1) poke seed in ground, 2) water and feed, 3) harvest.

This year dad gave me ten tomato plants for my expanded vegie garden. He grows his plants from seed; a beautiful, rich heirloom variety of colours and shapes and tastes and names. So I have black krims (my absolute favourite for their colour, texture and taste), green zebras, pereforma abruzzese (new for us, and it’s a big sturdy giant of a plant), mamma mia, big beryl, kellogg’s breakfast, green grapes.
So with more plants in the ground, I needed to lift my game. I needed to learn and understand how to grow tomatoes. Well, learn, at least — some of this I just do, even if I don’t comprehend the reasons behind the actions. In a previous garden share, it was suggested that I get dad to give us a tutorial. So here it is of sorts: Dad showed me on his tomatoes what he does; I came home and practised on mine; and this is what I came up with. Now tending my tomatoes is not stressful or strange, but purposeful and even meditative. It’s almost like editing: whittling away at the weak and superfluous, making space for the strong and wonderful to shine.

Snip out laterals. The easiest thing. Imagine your tomato plant is a series of Ys. Stems, branches — Ys. A lateral is a soft little shoot that pops up between the arms of those Ys. Pick it out with your thumb and forefinger if it is fledgling, or a pair of scissors if longer (I find a pair of small but slim scissors is good for tomato work, better than secateurs). They are superfluous, so out!
I've already removed one lateral here, and it's popping out more! Determined little thing.

Shape your tomato tree. Continuing the motif, dad grows his tomatoes like one big Y: a main trunk which branches out to two main stems, off which your leaves and fruit will grow. Think of it almost as a standard, so trim away lower soft off-shoots and bottom branches. I’ve seen dad take it to extremes — the bushes almost look skeletal. I’m not that ruthless. So I have a lot more side branches than dad, even though I have established an approximate Y shape.

This trimming helps focus the plant on its fruit, and also helps with ventilation, which helps with pollination. Tomatoes apparently do not pollinate by bees; the flowers pollinate themselves, dropping their pollen in the breeze. So if you have an airy plant, the flower stems can do a little shake in the breeze and sprinkle their pollen about.

I also figure if air can circulate around the plant, there’ll be less chance of disease, and more light to ripen the fruit.

Trim the fruit branches. This was a bit trickier to photograph for you. If you have leaf growth come out after the flowers (on the same stem), then trim it off. Here you can just see a stem, its flowers, and then some more leaves hanging off below. Cut those leaves off, otherwise the plant will put its goodness into growing the leaves, not your fruit.
Some of my plants also grew large leaves (reminding me of monsterios) so I trimmed them off, on the same basis.
Hmmm, must darn gardening top...
Tie up your plant. Ha, now we’re getting to the kinky stuff. As you trim, tie up your plant to the stakes (woop, backtrack here: Dad whacks four stakes around each tomato plant; at first these are used to hold the plastic bag-like guarding we use around each young plant to protect it from wind, but once the plant is strong and the guarding removed, the stakes are used for tying the plant up).

Tying up the plant will help it grow strong and upright, and protect branches from breaking off, either in strong winds or under the sheer weight of your bounteous tomato crop. Tomatoes can be heavy; some of my abruzzeses are massive!

I believe in lots of twine, and tying branches back to the stakes even if they look really sturdy; just in case; better safe than sorry. And heck, it’s only twine; less than $10 a spool from the hardware shop.

Dad gives his a couple of twists in the middle between plant and stake; I’ve adopted the looping method, which reminds me of looping woollen scarves round my neck in the winter time (or last week).
Repeat often. All these steps — laterals, leafy bits, trimming, tying up — need to be done through out your plant’s growth. It helps keeps the plant supported and putting all its energy into big luscious fruit — which is what it’s all about.

However, I will admit two things:
  • I didn’t start doing this until very late December, until Dad’s lessons. So there was a lot of leaf growth to wade thru at first, a lot of ‘re-structuring’ to do, and some branches were growing almost horizontal! But no harm was done; the stems were still soft and flexible enough for me to secure against stakes and pull back to an upright position. It was just a lot more work than doing a little bit regularly as the plants grew
  • unfortunately, this went out the window once I netted my tomato bed a week or two ago, against the blackbirds. The net turned out to be too small and therefore stretched so tight that it’s a pain to lift and re-peg. So while I wait for the hardware store to get a supply of larger nets, I’ve not done any trimming. Which bugs me now I know how important it is! And I miss the work: it’s a good way of regularly checking your plants and fruit.

Wash your hands. Dad said the sap from the plants can sting your eyes, so take care while working and wash your hands thoroughly once you’ve finished. Actually, scrub your hands: I have thought my hands clean and when I dried them on a towel, the towel became very dirty. So obviously tomato sap is very strong stuff!
I haven’t covered watering, or feeding, and only briefly touched on netting your fruit. Let me just say, netting is essential if you have birds in the neighbourhood. There is nothing more upsetting than coming home and finding an almost-ripe tomato you had your eye on pecked to pieces (you could probably hear me cursing from there).
Ugly but essential.
But watering and feeding are straightforward. I wanted to record here all the nitty gritty things dad showed me this summer. I have lots of big fruit on, so obviously this is working — we just need some consistent sunshine now to ripen it all! Then hopefully I shall be drowning in tomatoes; I think we would all agree a glut of tomatoes is no bad thing.
If you have any other tomato-growing tips, I would love to hear them!

Why we do it.

1 Feb 2015

garden share collective: february

Ah, Tassie summers. Ups and downs. Great weather one day, cold and grey the next. Sundresses and thongs, sun on bare skin; then pulling on a cardie and thick socks. We had a couple of scorchers, where the intense sun burns your skin in minutes (and if Hobart's weather says '30', add about 5 degrees for the eastern shore where I live). But then we had an amazing night of rain where my rain gauge hit levels never before seen; and this week has never seen a temperature above 18. A Tassie summer certainly keeps you guessing.
The same can be said of the vegie garden - ups and downs. Take for instance my little 'Paris Market' carrots. Beautiful little globes, with a wonderfully carroty flavour. And ... thickly covered in clumps of grey aphids at the base of the stalks. I never realised aphids went for carrots; Dad had never heard of such a thing either. Aphids truly revolt me, and to find them encrusted all over my carrots (along with the attendant ants) made my stomach churn. Harvesting them was a loathsome chore, as the ants would swarm all over me as I pulled the carrots; I'd simultaneously dunk the carrots into a bucket of water to swish off the aphids and flick the angry ants off my arms and legs.
But the trauma was worth it; they are delicious carrots, and rather practical too, as little or no cutting is required before cooking.
Next to suffer were my broad beans. Look how pretty they are, growing amongst the companion plants of marigolds and pyrethrum (with some bee-friendly blue larkspur and summery white cosmos thrown in for good measure):
Yet these too were blighted by aphids - this time, shiny black ones (and yes, the ants were there too). Again, not just one or two insects, easily blitzed with a modest spray of pyrethrum or left to the couple of ladybirds I have seen in the garden. No, thickly scabbed stalks and leaves and soft new growing tips. I would need an army of ladybirds to devour all these! It was truly disgusting - just typing this, I am pulling the same revolted face that I do when out in the garden; my jaw clenches and my lips pucker and twist downwards. But I was astounded by the fact that these creatures recklessly flaunted themselves (yes, aphids are evil creatures) right near my companion plants! How does that happen?
Last weekend I pulled all the broad beans out; they were all akimbo after some nasty winds and that was the final straw. Blackened with aphids and helter-skelter from the winds - and barely any beans to boot, either! So out, out damn bean.
I've pulled some other crops out already - sugar snap and greenfeast peas (shown above when lush and healthy) that had done their lot and gone awfully mouldy (see them here, if you're into pics of mouldy peas), the purple podded peas which were so pretty on the vine as flowers and little pods:

Gah, where's the moisturiser? Wrinkly hands!
Yet the purple peas also got blown over in the strong winds and went mouldy rapidly, and were not heavy croppers. I found a very informative local blog that explained all about mould, or rather mildew, and discovered I'd been doing everything wrong. Mainly, trying to cram too much into the garden, and each row - I am very guilty of sowing seeds very close together for maximum results. So there was probably very little ventilation. Okay, lesson learnt.

We won't say much about zucchinis; I told you how inundated I was in my last post and I do plan on talking more about then again soon. But, look how pretty the vines are:
Did you know that some peasant cuisines in Italy advocate eating the leaves and stalks of zucchini vines? I thought of that as, armed with gloves, I would trim off the spiky leaves smothering all nearby. Eating these? I'm all for not wasting anything, but that truly would be poverty.
I grew and harvested glorious beetroots, red and orange. I am tossing up whether to try sowing another crop now - I think I will. I love them cut into wedges, laid out in a single layer on a baking tray lined in foil, and roasted (wrapped in foil) with olive oil, white wine, and garlic. Tenderly soft and robust in flavour - though those orange ones did have a sweet edge. Beetroot is one of my favourite vegetables. Oh, and it's never attacked by aphids.
To complete the list, I am currently and eating growing borlotti beans, more sugar naps, green French beans, curly yellow beans, basil, lazy housewife beans. Waiting for the corn (growing beautifully, though not yet ready to harvest) and almost, almost:  
Worth the wait.
What to do now? Keep watering, and feeding - garden maintenance. Think about sowing some late summer crops - beetroot, carrots, more beans - that may be okay as we head into autumn (though I think we are there already this week). And simply enjoy. Be sure to check out other green thumbs in the Garden Share by clicking on the logo at right.