27 Sept 2015

garden ramble: sprinter

Sorry for the absence! Work is super crazy at this time of the year and I come home mentally wrung out. I’m writing and editing like a demon all day, so the last thing my frazzled little brain cells want to do after hours is even more — especially thoughtful, creative stuff. All I want to do is sink on the couch with a juicy gin and tonic and a magazine full of pictures, absolutely no words at all please.

My garden is a calming retreat (especially with that G&T in hand), and finally the days are getting brighter and better. It’s ‘sprinter’ here in Hobart — have you ever heard that word before? It’s perfect for this hopeful but maddening time of year, when there’s a day or two of glorious weather followed by too many of frost-forecasts and gloom. It’s when everyone starts grumbling that winter really has gone on for too long now, please (and my goodness, it’s been a doozy of a winter this one).

The daffies and jonquils and freesias and blossoms are providing much needed colour after the grey of winter. But we all know realistically that we could still have a treacherous frost or snow dumping in late October. That’s sprinter.

But I’m out in my garden. Last weekend I dug in the green manure crops I had going in my hibernating vegie beds. ‘Crops’ may be too lofty a word: it was a motley patchwork of soft wheat, chickweed, sweet peas, a lot of nettles and other assorted weeds that I let do their thing.
The garden bed before digging over. I grow good weeds, especially nettles and chickweed!


First I hacked the lush, soft green growth into pieces with old shears from mum ...

Then I chucked about some sheep poo and mushroom compost, before finally digging the beds over to cover and incorporate everything. The bed that held the tomatoes was particularly hard work, as it had been walked over all summer when tending and harvesting the toms. So after a few hours of that, a scalding hot shower, the couch and that gin was very much in order. Anyway, I’ll let it sit for another couple of weeks — early to mid October is when I’ll start sowing my planned crops.
After. I couldn't bear to dig the dark purple violas in, so they are safe for now
Some of the vegies that have been slowly, valiantly persisting over winter: Broccoli, purple peas, silverbeet


The resident blackbirds loved my work, of course. They are so very tame: they know that whenever I go near the beds,  chances are I’ll uncover some worms for them, so they fly right down next to me, waiting for me to unearth their dinner. I think we have a bit of a deal brokered; they can have some juicy worms, but they aren’t to eat all of them. Anyway, I do like their company (and their lovely melodic song) and a few worms is a small price to pay for knowing they feel safe and welcome in my suburban backyard.

Oh, and my PSB

What else? Two new passionfruit vines (from mum and dad) are in...

... and swaddled and coddled like babies. Literally — the day after we planted them we got frost and snow warnings, so I constructed a frame, and for a few nights I wrapped and pegged an old sheet around them for protection. The vines are beautifully soft and tender, so I was not going to risk them being damaged by cruel frosts (that’s what killed my first passionfruit, a year or so ago). It’s perhaps rather apt that the result makes me think of crime scene tents.

Framed ... and tented

A victim of the process. Sorry, pansy

In other major news, dad, mum and I spent the good part of one Sunday finally getting a frame up on the front wall of my house for the climbing roses (a soft pink Pierre du Ronsard and a hot pink Zepherine) to clamber over. It looks a bit pathetic at the moment but I am patient, I know in time they’ll cover the blank wall beautifully, fragrantly.

I also took the opportunity to get mum’s advice on the pelargoniums that were in front of the roses; once so pretty but now, frankly, taking over the joint. The result is that most of them were hacked out to make way for a greater variety of plantings.

It looks bare and ugly right now, and there is much to do here and elsewhere in the front garden. I have a specific list of new plants I want — a green boronia, a purple perennial wallflower, one or two bird-attracting grevilleas, and some pretty annuals such as zinnias and petunias.

I am learning that gardening is a long journey over many seasons, requiring great wells of patience as well as creativity, team work and hard work.

Some more colour from around my garden


13 Sept 2015

on meal planning

A new al desko favourite: barlotto
Earlier this year, I tried to do the weekly meal planning thing. I thought it was The Grown Up Thing To Do. Everyone on the Kitchn it seems achieves zen by using military precision and many apps to plan each meal, each morsel, each ingredient, each day. I wanted a bit of that too.

For years I’ve had my weekday working lunches down pat by making a big ‘something’ on the weekend. Right now it’s the barley and roast veg thing, risottos, barlottos, oven bakes and other casserole-y stick-to-your-rib one-pot wonders.
Potato and pumpkin curry, ready for work lunches

But after-work evening meals are a bit more haphazard; usually a last-minute decision guided by opening the fridge or pantry and making up something fairly pedestrian.

So, the weekly planning thing. I sat down before I went grocery shopping, armed with recipe books and torn-out pages, and thought about what was in season, what was doable after work (you know: when you really can’t be bothered), and what was something new I hadn’t tried before. I made lists and lists and lists!
Tomato soup made in the summer. Crackers and a magazine, what more could I want?
I decided to cover four nights, I’d cook two recipes, two serves each; the fifth night could be lazy single girl’s eggs on toast or soup from the freezer or even a bowl of muesli. Or even cake — because I can.
Anyway, a modest system, I thought. But life would get in the way and somehow the wheels fell off. A recipe made three or four portions, not two; or I’d get invited out; or somehow the more delicate ingredients (usually dairy) would not make it til their allocated night … and I was achieving no zen whatsoever.
Barlotto made with roasted summer zucchinis, from the freezer
Then winter hit with a dark and icy bang, and the last thing I wanted to do after work was stand in a frosty kitchen, even if it was for only half an hour for a speedy pasta dinner. It was bone-chilling and bonkers. I wanted to get out of my overcoat and into the warm part of my house!

So I had a re-think. I already used the weekend to cook my big Monday-to-Friday lunch ‘something’, so why not also for my Monday-to-Friday dinners? (weekends remain a lazy and haphazard affair, and I’m very happy with that. It’s the weekend after all. Vegemite on toast is entirely acceptable).
These white-bean croquettes were a bit of a let-down; they were mushy and bland
So here was my meal planning: one lunch, one dinner. Some may crinkle their noses at the lack of variety, but the sheer practicality means it’s a winner for me. I know there is something good waiting for me when I come home. Something delicious and healthy and — done!

Saturday morning is spent cooking and cooking; usually a good three hours in the kitchen. And then washing and washing: when you cook multiple meals at once (I’m also baking a pudding or cake), it seems that you use every utensil and bowl and chopping board and tea towel at once!

Broccoli, kale and toasted walnuts are a good combo!
But all that effort is worth it, because it frees my evenings up enormously, so I can spend more time on the important things in life. Right now that’s housework and reading on the couch. But come summer: gardening and being outside!

I’ve mostly been choosing one dish to be ‘fancy’ or new or more time-consuming, and the other to be more straightforward (I revert to the barley and roast veg often). Sometimes the ‘easy option’ is excavating a home-made pasta sauce or tomato soup from my chest freezer and enjoying that (I’m aware I need to eat my tomato sauces before next season).
This week's barlotto in the pot: pumpkin and roasted tomatoes and yellow capsicum
The good thing about weekend cooking, as I’m sure many of you know, is that you have the time and energy to try those new fancy recipes. Unrushed hours to get things right; and more if things go wrong and you have to dash to the supermarket and start again (it doesn’t happen often, thankfully). I need to psych myself up for new dishes, especially savoury ones; I’m currently working up the courage to try a from-scratch curry using eggplant and coconut milk, two ingredients that are never in my kitchen, using a tried-and-tested family-favourite recipe from my friend F.

So do you have a system? Are you an efficient meal planner? Are you a big-batch cooker, or a daily one? What works for you?

6 Sept 2015

nigella's big choc cake


Does anyone else watch cooking shows and think, what a waste? Let me explain. Watch the cook or presenter chop up some herbs — and not put it all into the dish. Or take a bowl of flour or sugar from the carefully prepped and measured mise en place selection, and not use it all. Or whip up a cake batter, pour it into the baking tin, but leave a good portion behind in the mixing bowl.

I loved watching Luke Nguyen’s recent travels around the UK (what a friendly guy!) but I noticed when he didn’t use the whole portion of ingredients set out. Someone (probably some lowly assistant) went to the trouble of chopping and mincing and measuring out that spring onion, and lugging it out to some windy outdoors location — hey, use it all!

Nigella is another, far worse offender. Watch her chop coriander and leave handfuls of it behind on the chopping board. Or whiz up a cheesecake, pour the batter into the tin, but not use a spatula to scrape it all out. Yes, it looks liberating and wantonly to cook with such abandon, but …

It’s a waste!

Surely it’s a mess to wash up all that unused batter or brush away that discarded herbage.

But mostly I can’t help think it’s food and money being thrown away. On the occasions when a cake I’ve made doesn’t turn out, I get cranky about the good eggs from mum’s chooks that have been wasted. Or the beautiful butter or nuts or chocolate or other quality ingredients I’ve bought — wasted. The ingredients that have been paid for — left behind, then washed down the drain or thrown into the garbage? Does that make sense?
Hopefully the vegetably ingredients are composted, though I doubt Luke, cooking on Hadrian’s wall, had a compost bucket off-camera. And maybe Nigella and her TV crew lick the bowl and beaters. Actually, with Nigella that’s highly likely. But still.

Contrast this to the French patisserie chef on a Food Safari episode: he scraped out every last lick of his raspberry soufflĂ© into the moulds. This was a man appreciating exquisite ingredients; he was not prepared to waste a drop. This was a business man, considering expenses and profits, who had paid for those ingredients; he couldn’t afford to discard a drop. Oh la la, I wanted to applaud.

When I was a child, I begged my mum to leave some batter in the bowl for me (and she did) but now that I am my own cook, I’m pretty diligent at gathering every last bit of batter and putting it into the oven. But there’s a difference between a little bit left behind and a whole slick of the stuff.

What about you? Do you scrape the bowl as clean as possible?
Nigella’s big chocolate cake
Adapted from her fudge cake in 'Nigella Bites'.
  • Prep a deep bundt cake tin and preheat your oven to 180.
  • In a measuring jug, combine 3 eggs, 150 mls sour cream, and 2 tspns vanilla.
  • In a medium bowl, combine 400 gms plain flour, 350 gms light brown sugar, 50 gms cocoa powder, 2 tspns baking powder, 1 tspn bicarb soda, and ½ tspn salt.
  • In a large bowl, beat together 175gms butter that’s been melted and cooled slightly, 125 mls light olive oil, and 300 mls water. A free standing mixer is good for this recipe.
  • Pour in the egg mixture and mix until combined.
  • Slow the mixer down and gradually add the dry ingredients, then give it a whiz faster until nicely smooth. It will look like divine chocolate mousse, but resist the urge to start eating it now.
  • Pour every last bit into your bundt tin; I also needed some cupcake papers (Nigella’s original recipe specified two 20 cm round tins, but I wanted the drama of my bundt).
  • Bake for 45 minutes or so until done (about half that for any cupcakes). Allow to cool in tin for a few minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely before frosting.
  • To make the frosting, melt 100 gms of dark eating chocolate (the 70% stuff). Stir into this 125 gms butter , ½ tbspn vanilla, and 140 gms icing sugar. Now taste: I always adjust frostings a little, more icing sugar or vanilla, depending on how sweet my tastebuds are inclined that day.
  • Daub and swirl all over the cake and enjoy.