Sunday, November 23, 2008

Will summer ever start?

Picking this week: Cos lettuce, radicchio, chicory, the last of the leeks, garlic (Russian and normal), thyme, silverbeet.

Planting this week: 3 x tomatoes, beetroot (seedlings and seeds), dwarf runner beans (seeds), lettuce, parsley.

Still eating: pumpkins harvested in April (last one this week, made roast pumpkin risotto).

No pictures today, alas.

Odd, odd weather this week. Not hot, rain threatening but not actually falling. I wish it would just warm up a tad, and rain, to give these vegetables of ours a hurry on.

Perplexing times in the vegie patch. It is nearly the end of November and the seedlings I have planted over the last two months ago are growing very slowly. Tomatoes I planted at the beginning of October anticipating tomatoes for Christmas are lucky to have grown an inch. So much for that.

Meanwhile, a capsicum I planted in October has grown very little, stands about 6 inches, has flowers and yesterday I picked off a capsicum that was growing. I want it to grow to a decent size before it even begins to think of putting on fruit.

I have done everything by the book so far I thought. I’ve cultivated, added compost and poo, watered and fed with liquid fertilizer religiously. I’ve mulched thickly with lucerne hay, at great expense to the management. And still, by and large, the seedlings are sitting there , pouting.

My theory: the odd weather. I mean, it’s November and I am still wearing trackie-daks. When you clear off the mulch and feel the soil underneath, it is still rather cold. I wonder if I cleared off the mulch whether that would encourage the plants to grow. Trouble is, the weeds will invade. And if there is one thing I HATE it’s weeding.

Bought some more seedlings yesterday: three tomatoes ( 2 x Grosse Lisse, 1 x Black Russian), green mignonette lettuce seedlings, beetroot (one of my favourites, but no one else’s alas), another Italian parsley seedling (because the one I planted six weeks ago went straight to seed). These will go in the part of the garden that I cultivated a few weeks ago with compost and sheep poo. If the weather warms up perhaps these will grow a bit more quickly.

The tops of the garlic I planted in April are finally dying down, so I reckon I’ll be harvesting garlic over the next week. Not a moment too soon too. I’ve been using store bought garlic for the last six months or so. It’s not so bad if I can find Australian garlic, but the last time I went garlic shopping the only thing I could find was that scary Chinese garlic, you know, the stuff that sprouts as soon as you unpack it. The chemicals they must use to grow this stuff doesn’t bear thinking about.

I also bought a packet of alfalfa seeds yesterday, and started a crop of sprouts last night.

Meanwhile, the fruit trees look promising. The plums and peaches are not as loaded with fruit as they were last year, but hopefully this year, with some assiduous (eco-fiendly) spraying for fruit fly and some strategically placed traps, we might actually get to eat some. The figs tree has loads of tiny figs on it. The apple trees are full of fruit, and for the first time, the pears have some fruit as well. Most amazing of all, the plumcot has three fruits, the first it has ever produced!

Must get around to planting some pumpkin seeds soon. I think I’ll just make a heap near the vegie garden and then stick some seeds inside and see what happens! It worked last year.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Back in the Garden

I've been terribly slack I know. Never mind. The winter months have been quiet in the kitchen garden this year. Apart from fennel, silverbeet, radicchio and cabbage not much has been growing. The garlic I planted in April is still there. I'll probably harvest it in a month or two.

Spring has arrived, and the pace has picked up. About a month ago I planted ready for the summer: tomatoes, beans, lettuces, capsicum, basil and parsley, zucchini and cucumbers. Today I added, squash, more lettuces, eggplant, another basil (we love pesto) and sage.

Harvesting this week: potatoes (mainly out of the compost heap), lettuce (cos and rocket), silverbeet and leeks. Also eating straight off the tree, mulberries.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Quiet Patch

May, and the days are getting shorter and colder. Not much happening in the vegie patch. The seedlings I planted two weeks ago have settled in nicely except for the brassicas, the cavolo nero and the broccolini. Some bugger has eaten these seedlings down to the ground, leaving the lettuces right next to them, alone. Go figure.

At the moment we are harvesting heaps of citrus fruit, mainly grapefruit and limes. Oh, and we harvested our first and only Brazilian cherry, the first fruit in 5 years. The Brazilian cherry was one "magical mystery" plants we decided on in our orchard. The plant itself is quite attractive, and has done well, but until now it has never fruited.

Today Action Man and I went halves in the fruit. It had a unique taste - sweet, tart with a medicinal overtone. I can't say that Brazilian cherries would have an avid following out with the masses.Still, it is a very attractive fruit, the red is like nothing I've seen on any other fruit.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Compost and seedlings

A few weeks ago our unloved compost heap was given a new home, courtesy of a couple of pallets, some star pickets, wire and about 1 hour. Until now the heap was exactly that, a heap behind the shed. In summer it was always a battle to keep the kikuyu off it, so I've coveted some proper "bins" or "compartments" or whatever you call them ever since. Anyway, Action Man came to the rescue finally and fashioned our bins. He is very useful, you know.
In other news, this morning I've been to the local market, making a beeline for the seedling stall. I LOVE this seedling stall. I'm like a kid in a lolly shop, and mark "market day" on the calendar so I know exactly how long until my next seedling fix. They have trays of seedlings on the tables, and you get to fill your seedling punnets with whatever you want, so you get to mix and match to your heart's content. The array! The choices! Today I bought more leeks and fennel, radicchio, red cabbage, cavolo nero, broccolini, tat soi and a punnet of mixed lettuce including a variety called red elk which I haven't tried before. Although I had planned to sit and sew some yoga pants this afternoon, the day is too nice to miss an opportunity to plant, so that it is what I'll be doing...

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Garlic

Not much happening in the garden this week. We went for a road trip to Mudgee and visited the wineries up there to see how the real winemakers do their thing. One particular point of interest: as we drove into town we noticed that some grapes had been left on the vine. Apparently, they were shiraz grapes, left to rot because the weather (ie. rain at the wrong time) had ruined them, and the wine would have been undrinkable. Aha! Given our experiences with our grapes this season, perhaps that is exactly what we should have done too.

Apart from that, I planted this year's supply of garlic. I bought 2 heads of Russian garlic and 6 heads of "normal" organic garlic, and planted them out last week - About 120 cloves in all. My eight year old daughter was a great help, and a potentially tedious job was done in less than half an hour.

Garlic's great. You just plant and forget until late spring. Oh, you have to keep the weeds down, but I'm not perfect by any means in this regard, and my garlic last year turned out just fine. The only thing I did was add a little lime to the soil, as I read somewhere that the allium family appreciates a little lime.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Chooks


The other day, all our girls lined up for a communal dust bath, overseen by the man of the house, Mr Rooster. Dust baths are a common indulgence for all the girls, but I had never seen all seven bathe en masse before, hence the photo.
We all love the chooks. They each have their own persona - the shy, inquisitive, annoying, determined. We have them all.
Some of our ladies are rather elderly (think 3-4 years old) so we generally average around 3 eggs a day. This tally has been decreasing lately, and today we had no eggs at all. Around this time of year for 6-8 weeks I buy our eggs, so the chooks get labelled the bludgers, living in a welfare state.
Not pictured are our two Chinese silky chooks, named Jack and Fluffy. These guys are purely pet chooks, although fluffy does lay her cute little eggs occasionally.
Lately we have added ducks to the poultry house, which has added another dimension to the personalities. At the moment we have muscovies, pekins and another small grey duck that does a good line in being indignant. Although I like their upfront manner, I do not like the mess the ducks routinely make of the water supply.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Quinces and pesto

Today I am going to pick the quinces and poach them for the first time ever! Yes, we've lost a few to the dreaded fruit fly (see previous posts), but I have about 8 relatively unscathed quinces to cook today.

Quinces are a strange fruit aren't they? Hard as rocks, fuzzy skin, boring beige when you cut into them and then a beautifiul jewel ruby colour when you cook them. My neighbour picked her quinces a few weeks ago and gave me some quince paste she made. She said it was her first attempt at quince paste. It was quite soft and jelly-like, I think she should have cooked it a little longer so it was a little more solid. Also, she added a heap of sugar, so that is what the paste tasted of. Hmmm...

I've been trawling my cookbooks for directions on poaching quinces. I found a recipe in the current issue of delicious magazine that calls for 1KG of CASTER SUGAR! 1KG, people? This was for 1 kg of quince! Why 1kg of sugar? I know quince needs a little help but not that much!
Fortunately, I found another recipe, far more sensible, that uses 3/4 cup of sugar, so I'll give that a try.

Not sure how I'll serve up the quince once it's cooked. I have quite a few eggs, so I might make some custard.

Over at the vegie patch, work beckons. Corn and tomatoes to rip out, garlic to plant. The weather has been beautiful lately, so hopefully I'll be out there very soon. The seedlings I planted two weeks ago have all survived so far, but haven't done much despite assiduous watering, weeding and fertilising. They are all cold weather crops so hopefully they will get a move on soon.

At the other end of the vegie patch is the basil bush which needs to be cut and turned into pesto. I was in Sydney on Monday and visited my favourite food shop, the Nut Roaster and bought 500g of pine nuts for $12.15. Compare that to 50g of pine nuts for $5.00 as seen at the local Coles this morning. So Sunday looks like it might be a good day for a pesto making session, using our own basil and garlic. I normally co-opt my son, whose favourite dish in the world is spaghetti with pesto, to wash and pick the leaves off the stalks. Some of the pesto I'll keep in the fridge for a month or so. The rest I freeze in 1/2 cup lots to use for pasta throughout winter. True, the colour does suffer, but the flavour is still there, which is enough for my pesto fiend.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

We caved

Confession time, people. This year we saw our tomatoes, peaches and plums decimated due to fruit fly. Then it was the quinces, feijoa and guavas. Now it's the citrus: pink grapefruit and limes, and if we don't make a stand NOW, it'll be lemons, mandarins and oranges.

We've tried organic, we really have. We've made bizarre looking fruit fly traps. We've covered tomatoes in panty hose. We've gathered fallen fruit and placed them in plastic bags and left them in the sun for 5 days. But the power of the fruit fly has been too much. In the face of everything we have thrown at them, they've increased in number, dammit. We're exhausted, we've run up the white flag. We've caved and gone against our organic principles.

Yes, we've sprayed.

I resisted for as long as I could. I really didn't want to spray. I mean, what's the point of growing fruit at all, if you're just going to spray it like a fruit you would get from a shop? Why? Why? Organic fruit makes me feel all smug. I won't feel smug about eating my sprayed fruit, but at least I'll get to eat some.

And here's a rationalisation for you: my fruit may not be strictly organic, but at least the "food miles" are about 0.1 kilometres, so on that score at least, we'll be doing fairly well.

In other news....there is no news. Well not quite. It's been fairly quiet on the produce front. Summer crops have come to their end, although the zucchini which I had written off has suddenly perked up and started producing. God only knows why. And the pumpkin vines I thought were a bit of a dead loss actually have more pumpkins on them than I thought. Bonus, and bonus. Meanwhile, the winter seedlings I put in last week are looking pretty healthy, although something has already taken a swipe at the broccoli.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Winemaking 2008 - the update

It’s time for an update on the 2008 wine vintage, and, unfortunately, the news isn’t good…

This is our third year of winemaking. Our first attempt was with Chambourcin grapes bought from a neighbour, and the resulting wine was pretty good. Our second attempt used our own shiraz grapes, and the result again, was pretty good. We were offering our wine to friends and family who all told us they thought the wine was very drinkable, and I don’t think they were just being polite. We even got a “Highly Commended” award at a local amateur winemaking show. So our confidence in tackling our third vintage was up.

I’ve already blogged about the diabolical weather conditions in the weeks leading up to grape picking. 9 inches of rain in 24 hours sums it up. We were experienced enough to know that weather is everything, and the condition of the grapes depended on it.

Anyway, we picked the grapes which looked okay. Some were a bit squashed. None, miraculously, had split (perhaps because temperatures were pretty mild).

Crushing went well. We reckon we have about 200 litres of grape juice. Five days later we pressed the juice, the process where you separate the fermenting grape juice from the skins. This is where our problems started.

The merlot looks fine. The shiraz, however, is a light mauve colour, not the deep burgundy it should be. It tastes fine, but the colour is a bit offputting, to say the least.

Action Man tried to rescue the situation by putting the juice back on the skins for a little longer, and re-pressing, but this doesn’t seem to have had much effect.

This is where lack of experience shows up. Winemaking professionals would probably be able to predict this problem and deal with it before it becomes a problem, whereas us bumbling amateurs try to put a bandaid on afterwards.

Not sure what we are going to do with the wine. It’s in its secondary fermentation for the next few months, so we can just forget about it for a while. If it is still light mauve by the time it comes to bottling, I’m not sure we’ll bother. I suppose it depends on how the taste comes up.

I’ll tell you what though, it is episodes like this that cement the respect I have for anyone who tries to make a living from the land. Our little 5 acres gives us enough of a window into the heartbreak these folk must deal with all the time. Our heroes should be all those farmers and primary producers dealing with everything that the weather, disease, pestilence and sheer bad luck throw at them. Their resilience is truly courageous.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Tomatoes among the thorns


I’ve already bemoaned the Great Fruit Fly Invasion of 2008 and the havoc it wreaked on our garden this year, especially on the tomatoes.

Well, I have to admit it wasn’t a total disaster. One of the unexpected habits of tomatoes, especially cherry tomatoes, is to self-seed all over the place. I suspect they grow from tomato seeds that have survived the digestive tract of our chickens, and then hide in the chicken manure which we shovel around the garden. For some reason, they particularly seem to enjoy the company of roses. And, wouldn’t you know it, the fruit fly has left them totally alone, unlike their carefully chosen, planted and tended relatives in the bona fide vegie patch. Perche?

Above is a very healthy tomato bush enjoying the hospitality of my shrub roses. It's very hard to discern where the rose bush finishes and the where the tomato starts.It hasn’t been prolific, but yields a good handful of small tomatoes every couple of days, with absolutely no human help at all ever. No effort at all vegie gardening, you have to love that. The most effort I contribute is to pluck them from the bush and convey them straight to my mouth as I wander around the garden.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

Vegetable garden

So far my posts have only mentioned happenings in the orchard. There is a very good reason for this.. the state of our vegie garden has in recent months been dire.

As you know, I hate summer, and one of the main reasons I hate summer is weeds. Weeds everywhere. Sometimes I feel as if I could weed 24/7 and still not make any headway. Needless to say, the vegie garden is the part of my garden worst affected. The sheer volume of weeds in summer is enough to make me throw up my hands in surrender, so I do. Or at least, I plant the veg, then give it a wide berth, leaving the vegetables to the mercy of the weeds.

Yeah, I know that if I mulch, the weeds will supposedly not occur. Guess what? The weeds grow through the mulch. And because I have an aversion to spraying (I try to be organic as much as possible) my only choice is to pull up the weeds by hand. Which I hate with passion.

Today I weeded some of the vegie patch, because I had bought vegetable seedlings last weekend and I needed to plant them. Actually, it wasn't too bad. It's autumn now, and while it was warm, the sun didn't fry me quite as much as recently. It was quite meditative, really, then my daughter came up to the patch and chatted to me of inconsequential things while I weeded. No, she didn't help me weed. She hates weeding too. She's just turned 8 years old, and knows what's what.

So,until this morning this was what was growing in the patch besides weeds: pumpkins, rhubarb, basil, parsley, sage, thyme, capsicum, cabbage, broccolini, corn (an animal feed variety, which we grew as an experiment after the seeds were given to Action Man by a farmer. Will feed these to the chooks) and tomatoes. Not bad when I consider how much time I have spent on the vegie garden. To give him his due, Action Man has put the hard yards in the vegie patch lately. He had pulled out some potatoes so I had a large area to plant. I also pulled out a few of the spent tomatoes. Then I weeded. And weeded. Despite all the weeding, there were ever more weeds. I noticed chickweed for the first time this year. Grrr...The bane of winter.

Anyway, this is what went in this morning, ready for winter: silverbeet, cos lettuce, radicchio, bok choy, broccoli, leeks, shallots and fennel. I put a spadeful of compost into each planting hole, and watered with seaweed extract, so the seedlings have had a warm welcome into their new home. Getting all that done was very satisfying. Despite all this planting, too, there is still a sizeable area available to plant, and more tomatoes and the corn can come out soon, so planting possibilities abound. I'm thinking about peas for the first time this year. And it occurs to me that garlic should go in soon.

It is promising rain later this week, so the seedlings will get another dose of loving soon. Ahh..the vegies are in, and all is right with the world....

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Guavas


When it came to deciding what trees to plant into our orchard, my attitude was, anything goes. A cherry guava was one of those trees that I bought that I had no idea what I was getting. I’d never seen, let alone eaten, a cherry guava. I had no idea what the tree looked like. Nonetheless, I read in the catalogue that cherry guavas are suited to subtropical areas, so I figure, what the heck?

One thing that strikes me is that it is quite an attractive shrub. I could see it in a suburban backyard, no worries. Instead of murraya hedges, you could have cherry guava hedges. You get an ornamental and a fruit tree all at once.

So what do these cherry guavas taste like? Well, they taste a little like strawberries, sweet but a little sour as well. They are about 2-3 cm in diameter and do resemble a cherry, somewhat. To me, they are an acquired taste, and I eat them mainly because I read that these babies are high in Vitamin C too, and that with about 300mg per 100g of fruit, which is about 6 times the Vitamin C content of a citrus fruit.

Well, the cherry guava is now in season, and today I picked a big bowlful. We have far more fruit than we would ever eat, so again, I’ve resorted to preserving the crop by making some guava jelly. [Yes, by the way, I do have a paying job, plus the other job running the home. Jelly making gets accommodated by some creative multitasking].

My Queenslander mother-in-law showed me how to make guava jelly last year, and under her guidance, I had a bit of success. This is my first batch “solo”, using a recipe in Margaret Fulton Encyclopedia. It wasn’t so good. The jelly should set firm, but you should be able to spoon it out of the jar cleanly. My jelly set firm, all right, but it set “sticky” so that it is hard to spoon easily. Then I looked up another recipe, which directs you to use the pith and juice of a lemon or lime.(Margaret’s didn’t) Of course! I need pectin! Why didn’t I suss that with the first recipe? Anyway, I made the second batch using lime rind and juice. Bingo. Perfect guava jelly.

I’m glad I persevered, and tried another recipe. It got me thinking…some people might think that there is something wrong with their own abilities, when in fact, it is the recipe. I find I often override recipe instructions because my intuition tells me that they don’t sound “right”. I find, in particular, that cooking times are underestimated. Why is that? I don’t think it is my oven. Maybe recipe writers want to appeal to the “fast results” instinct, so they recommend short times. Often though, I think they sacrifice flavour.


Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Grape harvest


Years ago, when Action Man and I were first manacled together, I took him to stay with my Italian relatives in rural north-east Italy. My relatives have some farmland, including grape vines, from which my uncle makes the most stupendously drinkable red wine you can imagine.
We became well acquainted with that wine during our stay, so much so, that by the time we left it had become our joint goal to make our own wine one day, using our own grapes.

It took 10 years until we were able to buy the land to make it possible. One of the first things we did, apart from plant fruit trees, was to plant 100 shiraz and merlot vines for our own personal vineyard. And now, 5 years on the vineyard as you can see above is pretty well established. On Sunday we had our second and biggest, grape harvest.
Last year was our first vintage. We made 80 litres of shiraz, which we were pretty chuffed about.
We have been a little uncertain about this year. Summer 2007/8 has been a very wet, cool season after years of drought. Our vines were full of fruit, but we’ve been pretty nervous about the state of the fruit. After we had 225mm (or 9 inches) of rain in 24 hours a few weeks ago, we thought we’d be lucky to salvage any fruit at all, with thoughts of split fruit and/or fungus ruining the grapes. Luckily, our grapes survived, if not in perfect condition then in good-enough condition.
Then we waited for the sun to improve the sugar content of the grapes, but that didn’t eventuate either. In the end we decided we had to harvest. If the grapes lacked sugar, well then, we’d have to cheat a bit with a bit of sucrose.
In the end, we crushed about 300 litres of juice, for about 300 litres of wine. Such a lot! The ironic thing is that I have cut my wine drinking back recently to about 1-2 drinks a week. It seems we will be giving the stuff away, assuming it is drinkable.
As I write the must is audibly bubbling away in the shed at the back, so fermentation is well underway. There is an unmistakeable winey smell too. We’ll press this weekend. I’ll keep you posted on how our wine goes….

Monday, March 3, 2008

Mint

Mint, they say, is one herb you will never get rid of. Once it is in your garden, it’s there forever and grows like a weed.

Well, for a long time, I thought I was an exception to the rule. Mint invariably died whenever I planted it. I would look good for a while, then promptly turn up it’s toes. I felt like a gardening dunce.

That was until this year, when the mint keeps on keeping on, and has sprung up in places where I don’t expect it. Dormant seeds, or plants, I don’t know. I suspect the higher than normal rainfall is something to do with it. I’ve read that mint likes to be well-watered and I’m known for forgetting to water from time to time…

[The converse of my oversupply of mint this year is my undersupply of continental parsley. I’ve always been able to grow fantastic parsley bushes, but this year my parsley is very s-parsley. Hee hee.]

Anyway, the mint’s there, and now I am looking for things to do with it.

One combination I adore is sweet pineapple and mint. It’s up there with tomatoes and basil, to my way of thinking. I was introduced to this combination by my Queenslander mother-in-law, when she took a pineapple and whizzed it in a food processor with mint and sugar, and served it as a sauce over ice cream. Yummo. Another take on this combination was published by delicious magazine in February 2007 where Tobie Puttock gave recipe for pineapple carpaccio with mint and ice cream. He simply slices the pineapple very thinly lengthways, then pounds mint and sugar in a mortar and pestle and sprinkles the paste on top of the pineapple and serves it with good vanilla ice cream.

A few days ago I bought a Queensland pineapple and planned to eat it with mint a la Tobie. I was idly flicking through Belinda Jeffrey’s 100 Favourite Recipes, as you do, when I found an interesting recipe for mint, yogurt and lemon ice cream. It sounded just the ticket to take my favourite pineapple-and-mint combination one step further. Reader, I was not wrong.

Belinda rightly promises that that the ice cream tingles on your tongue, and the combination with the pineapple, (and it has to be a sweet pineapple) is superlative.

One little quibble with the recipe, though. The accompanying photograph shows ice cream which is a pretty shade of pale green. When I made it the ice cream stayed whitish, with flecks of mint that had oxidised into a not-so-pretty dark olive colour. Not nearly as attractive or appetising, so I resorted to the food colour to get that cool jade effect. How did Belinda manage to get her ice cream so green? Is there something she isn't telling us, or is just my luck that my mint is not so attractive. Mmmm….

Just as an aside...I would have to nominate my ice-cream maker as one of my favourite kitchen appliances. I had reservations when I bought it, and worried that it would spend most of it's time in the far reaches of my outer cupboards, but I am happy to say it gets a workout often. It's really easy to use, and I like eating ice cream made with honest ingredients- cream, sugar, eggs - and no spooky hydrogenated, trans-fat and other dubious substances.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Nigella's meatballs

Garden

I’ve been humming that Supertramp song “It’s Raining Again” because, you guessed it, it’s raining again. Seems that summer 2008 will pass us by.

Action Man has plans to pick the grapes for our annual winemaking on Sunday or the week after. The grapes have been one of the few success stories in our garden this year. There are so many of them! However, if this rain keeps up, we fear they may split and it’s goodbye to this year’s vintage. What to do? Pick early to avoid grapes splitting, or leave it a little longer so the grapes can ripen properly, and risk losing the lot?

Such dilemmas!

Kitchen

For the umpteenth time, my version of Nigella Lawson’s Summer Meatballs from delicious. magazine’s February 2006 issue was on the menu at our house tonight.

Before we go any further, let’s talk about La Lawson for a moment. In the culinary world she’s kind of hard to ignore isn’t she? Whenever she’s on the telly, the whole family sits, mouths agape, mesmerised by her……overblown descriptions. Food isn’t just food to her, is it? She’s an artist, dammit, it just happens that food is her media.

I bought her book “How to Eat” when it came out, and have thoroughly enjoyed reading it over the years. Somehow, her hyperbole doesn’t seem so well, hyperbolic, on the page. And she does have an endearing turn of phrase that makes you warm to her. I still pick up “How to Eat” and read it as if it were a novel. Nearly every recipe is preceded by a long narrative, with a recipe being the ending. And what better ending could there be to any story?

Nonetheless, it’s one thing though to read a recipe, but what is it about any recipe that makes you get off the couch and into the kitchen? Despite all Nigella’s florid descriptions, I very rarely feel moved to try her recipes. Why is this? After some thought, I think it is because :

a) Her recipes are emphatically English, and I don’t think they translate particularly well, well not to my kitchen they don’t. So many of her recipes feature ingredients that are hard to get in Australia. Immediately these recipes go in the too hard basket.

b) When it comes to recipe methods, I need clear, to the point and slightly bossy - the sort of method writing Delia Smith does so well. I suspect Nigella is congenitally incapable of writing short, succinct methods. Rather, her methods are wordy, extravagant, full of little asides and therefore, slightly confusing - everything you don’t need when you are in the heat of battle.

So why did I decide to give Summer Meatballs a try? Well, mainly because it features ingredients that are readily available, and for once, her method was fairly straightforward. Also, mince and kids is a good match. But even this recipe is not without its idiosyncrasies. For one thing, I double the quantities (Except for the tomato passata. I still use one bottle) to feed my family of two adults and two children. 500g of mince for four people for dinner? Unfortunately, not on my planet. And, I use plain old beef mince instead of the chicken and pork she stipulates, but that’s because it is far easier to source beef mince than chicken and pork mince in the regional area where I live.

Other issues: One of the ingredients is fresh breadcrumbs. Nigella notes “I make mine from processed pita bread for ease”. Why is it any easier to make breadcrumbs from pita bread than from any other bread you may have on hand? I don’t have the foggiest about why this would be, and Nigella doesn’t elaborate.

Finally, the method directs you to take teaspoonfuls of meatball mixture to make about 50 meatballs. Aside from the tediousness of making fifty meatballs with a teaspoon, from a mathematical point of view, this just does not make sense. Nigella reckons on 50 meatballs from 500g of meat. That’s about 10 grams a meatball. Measure out 10g of meatball mixture. The quantity is so small, it is barely capable of making a ball shape. Rather, I scoop out the mixture with a 1/3 measuring cup, and get the job done in 1/10th of the time.

Despite all this, my version of All Year Meatballs, inspired by Nigella Lawson, are a big hit at our house. The meatballs are light and moreish. The recipe also makes a prodigious amount of sauce, which I heat up the next night as a sauce for pasta. Two meals from one dish? You have to love that.

All Year Meatballs

Meatballs

1kg low fat beef mince
2 chopped cloves garlic
3 slices day-old bread, whatever you have, made into breadcrumbs in the food processor
2 eggs
4 tablespoons parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Salt, pepper

Sauce

2 onions
2 carrots
2 sticks celery
A few glugs of olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 750g bottle tomato passata
1 cup milk (full fat is best)

Finely chop the onions, carrots and celery, or whiz them in a food processor. Place them in a large saucepan, with the olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and cook gently for 10 minutes or so. Add the garlic and cook for a minute. Put the passata and 500ml of water into the saucepan and bring to the boil, and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the milk and simmer for another 15 minutes.

While the sauce is simmering, make the meatballs by mixing all the ingredients together in a large bowl. Place the bowl in the fridge to firm while the sauce is simmering. When the sauce of ready, use a 1/3 measuring cup to scoop up the meatball mixture, roll into a ball and drop into the mixture. You should make about 15 meatballs. Bring to the boil again, and then simmer partially covered for about 30 minutes. Serve with whichever carb (pasta, rice, couscous, polenta or mash) that takes your fancy.


Later…

I’ve just looked up How to Eat and found Nigella gives a recipe for Meatballs in Tomato Sauce on page 482 which is slightly different from her recipe in delicious magazine, and more like the version above I’ve been making off my own bat, honest! In How to Eat she uses 1kg of beef mince. Why did she change it for the Summer Meatballs recipe? She also uses plain white bread and soaks it in milk which seems more fiddly to me than making crumbs from “pita bread for ease”. Still, though, she insists on making micro meatballs. Why? Why? Why? I think that will down as one of life’s little mysteries.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Fig to fig jam


Blogging is new, and therefore somewhat baffling. Since I've been posting I've tried to post photos, without any success. Today, I figured out what I've been doing wrong - not checking the "accept conditions of service" box. D'oh! I am such a technology amateur.
Anyway, here are photos of fig jam I made last week, glistening in the sunlight in my kitchen. Don't they look good?


Fig jam

There are some aspects of cooking that require perseverance aren’t there? For me, baking has required concerted effort, and pastry still remains a bugbear. Jam-making too, as I have explained in previous posts, also presented problems. But like a kid learning to ride a bike, sometimes you just have to get back on and give it another go.

We are in the midst of a fig glut, so there was nothing for it but to make fig jam. This time, though, I decided I had to bring the jam to the boil slowly, and once it was at a boil I had to forget my normal multitasking and hang around the bubbling pot for half an hour.

Result? Sweet success! And what’s more I repeated the success with a second batch the next day.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Figs

I hate summer. Hate it. I hate it so much that when I was required to write a poem for a Creative Writing unit I did at University a few years ago, I decided to write an anti-ode to summer. Here it is:

SUMMER

Summer’s breath of unpitying intent scorches land into
Desiccation
While we marinate in merciless sweat

The cantankerous sun lasers hard-won melanomas into foreheads
Unyielding
Then leaves the scene of the crime

Capricious storms are left to finish the job
Violently
Summer, you are a sick joke


See, I told you I hate summer. And I didn’t even mention stuff like humidity, mosquito bites, endless lawn mowing and snakes.

Summer’s only saving grace as far as I can see is culinary, speci

fically, cherries, mangoes and figs. And happily, these fruits come into season sequentially, so I can savour cherries before Christmas, slurp on mangoes afterwards working up to my very favourite, figs.

Now, we don’t grow cherries or mangoes where we are. It’s too warm for cherries and too cool for mangoes. But for figs it is just right. We have one producing fig tree, nearly four years old, which has been fruiting for two years for not much effort. Fruit fly doesn’t seem to like these babies, fortunately.

At the moment, it is all systems go with our figs.

I have been eating 1-2 figs a day for the last two weeks, we have such a glut that I fear we are going to end up feeding figs to chooks so I am going to have a go at fig jam. I’ll let you know how we go.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Peach jam

When we bought our house nearly five years ago, the only edible plant, on the whole 2.5 hectares was a lone lemon tree. Count it. One. Vast swathes of ultra-fertile land (or land was once part of a dairy farm, so has benefited from decades of cow pats) and one lone lemon tree. I still shake my head in disbelief. What we were the previous owners thinking?

Well, we soon put that to rights. One of the first things we did was plant an orchard. I grabbed a catalogue from Daley’s Fruit Nursery and spent many happy hours dreaming about the possibilities of our new orchard. What to order? There was so much! In the end, we went for broke. Anything that was vaguely do-able went in: Apples, pears, oranges, mandarins, grapefruit, mango, lime, Brazilian cherry, guava, feijoa, figs, nectarines, plumcots, plums, peach, quince, black sapote. Some we had well-founded doubts about, mango being one. We thought we would be too far south for mangoes, and so it has proved. Others, like feijoa, black sapote and Brazilian cherry, we had read about only in books. We planted only because we could. Of these three, only the feijoa has produced any fruit. The Brazilian cherry looks good, but hasn’t produced any fruit. Meanwhile, the black sapote immediately dropped all its leaves on planting, as if to say “I don’t like it here!” We have since replanted it elsewhere, where it has started to look quite handsome, but alas no fruit here either.

The story with the rest of the trees has been more promising . Last summer, after three years of careful tending during the drought, the trees started producing. We'dcome back with something from the orchard nearly every time we went to inspect the trees. We were proud of our efforts and proud of our trees. We were on a roll, and expected big things from our orchard in 2008.

This year, it’s been quite a different story. Oh, it started out all right. Really well, in fact. The end, though, has been tragic. The problem? Too much rain, and everything that goes with that. It’s been a very sorry tale.

Take, for example our Golden Queen peach tree. Last year she gave us about 10 kilos of sunshine yellow peaches. Delish.

This year, we did everything we thought we needed to do. We sprayed for brown rot with Bordeaux mixture in August before bud burst and afterward. We pruned judiciously. We fertilised. We were rewarded with a tree was covered with tiny peaches by the end of September. By January, though, those peaches were mostly ruined by an incredible attack of fruit fly. My view is that our very wet summer has created a bonanza for these little blighters.

Yes, I know we should have been more vigilant. We should have put out traps far earlier than we did. Sorry. Won’t do it again, Miss. The alternative is to spray with scary chemicals. My feeling on that is, what’s the point? One of the main reasons I like to grow food is avoid pesticides and the like. If I have to spray my own fruit, I might as well buy my fruit and save myself the angst.

Anyway, I managed to salvage a couple of kilos of damaged fruit, and decided the best thing to do was make some peach jam, using a Skye Gygnell recipe from the November 2007 edition of delicious. magazine.

Now, jam-making is something I do only rarely, and I’ve had mixed results. Last year, I made some very nice feijoa jam, and I have made good marmalade in the past. On the other hand, I’ve burnt a few batches of jams, and this batch, alas, was no exception. The recipe I was following said something like “boil rapidly for 30 minutes, until the jam reaches setting point”. Which I did, but I looked away for a few minutes and came back to find the sugar had caramelised and burnt way before setting point was reached.

How do I avoid this dilemma? Next time I reckon I’ll just have to hover over the saucepan and watch it like a hawk. Any other ideas about where I am going wrong out there?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Ratatouille

One thing that I have learned in the gardening caper over the last 5 years is that you can never assume you’ve got something nailed. Just one you come over all smug, your garden soon contrives to knock you from your own pedestal.

Our first four years of vegie gardening were done during a drought. No rain for months on end. Endless days of summer temperatures up in the 30s. We tended our vegies carefully, hand watering and mulching like mad all the while. We were rewarded for our assiduousness. We had vegies of all descriptions coming out of our ears during summer. I barely bought a vegetable for months on end.

Well, this summer has been the summer of reckoning. The drought has broken. This should be a good thing, right? Oh no, it isn’t because now we’ve had too much rain, see. Two weeks ago we had 225mm (or about 9 inches) of rain over a 48 hour period, and since then we have barely had a sunny day. And this is after a few months of way above average rainfall. It has hasn’t hit 30 degrees Celsius for weeks, now. All we have is mild temperatures, humidity and rain.

Now, the vegie garden is a jungle, but it isn’t fruiting. My theory: lots of rain = no bees = no pollination = no vegies. Eggplant, capsicum, zucchini, cucumbers, pumpkin, corn - all are a dead loss. Where there is some fruit, it’s taking it’s time to ripen. And of course, as I’ve explained in a previous post, the rain has encouraged those damn fruit fly. Bummer all round.

So this week, as I made a batch of oven-roasted ratatouille, I mused on how last year every ingredient would have come out of the garden. This year, everything except the tomatoes was bought at the market. Such is life.

Oven roasted ratatouille

3 medium eggplant, diced
1 red capsicum, sliced
3 zucchini, diced
4 tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 red onions, roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 400g tin chickpeas
Salt, pepper

Preheat oven to 200◦C . Place all the ingredients except the chickpeas in a large roasting tin. Roast for about 30 minutes, then add the chickpeas after giving the vegetables a stir. Roast for another 10-15 minutes.

Delicious hot, at room temperature or cold.

© growgirl 2008

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Tomatoes

Last year was a great tomato year. We harvested heaps tiny toms, Grosse Lisse, Black Russians and Romas for months.

2008, on the other hand, has been an utter disaster. The bushes themselves have been growing like mad for little return, alas. Too much rain, I think, and a diabolical case of fruit fly has meant that we have fewer tomatoes on our luxuriant bushes, and what does grow gets stung, despite our organic fruit fly traps.

How have we been dealing with the fruit fly? We’ve learned the hard way that dealing with fruit fly calls for a pre-emptive action. By the time you have a problem it’s far too late. At this late stage, the only thing to do is to get rid of the stung fruit. Every fruit that looks stung gets put into a plastic bag and left in the sun for about five days. Then we hurl them in the bin and sigh. At the moment though, we have had precious little sun, so the bags are being left out for quite a bit longer.

Despite this, I had about 5 kilos of tomatoes with only minor damage, so this morning I decided was the day for a pasta sauce cook up.

I really wanted to make bottled tomato sauce, but haven’t been able to find a recipe in any of my books. Despite my Italian heritage, my family never really went in for the tomato sauce making ritual. Mum tells me that this is because I family is from Friuli in the north east of Italy, where tomatoes did not flourish in the 1950s. My Nonna would grow tomatoes but they weren’t a big success and they were quite acid. Colder weather in their area, so shorter growing seasons, see.

So I have opted simply to make a simple napolitana sauce and freeze the result. Here’s my recipe:

Napolitana Sauce

5 kg tomatoes
5 onions
10 cloves of garlic,chopped*
Olive Oil
Salt, Pepper


Skin and de-seed your tomatoes by pouring boiling water on them and let them stand for a few minutes. The skin should come off fairly easily. Cut off the tops of squeeze to de-seed. Meanwhile, chop your onions finely (I did mine in the Magimix) and soften in a large saucepan with 4 or 5 glugs of olive oil over a gentle heat. After about 10 minutes or so, when the onions is soft, slightly golden add the chopped garlic and cook for a minute or so, then add the tomatoes. Bring to the boil, season with salt and pepper and simmer for 30 minutes or so.

At this point, after letting the sauce cool a little, you could freeze as is if you like a chunky sauce, or whiz the sauce in the food processor for a smooth result. I’ve pushed the sauce through the mouli for an in-between texture.

*Note the symmetry? One onion and two garlic cloves for every kilo of tomatoes, so you can adjust your quantities accordingly.