Friday, April 23, 2010

Does gardening save you money?

Our slapdash vegie garden, this morning, covered in dew

Whenever we have friends visit us from Sydney and beyond, especially those who visit only infrequently, part of the agenda is a wander around our vegie garden, the orchard and vineyard, finishing off with a stop to say hello to the chooks and the sheep.
Every so often someone will remark "I suppose you save lots of money doing this".
I find this a difficult statement to answer. We've been growing our own for so long now, I wouldn't have a clue what it would cost to feed us if we had to buy everything. Intuitively, I know this is probably right. Last night, all the vegies on our plate came from the garden, which is is not unusual around here. Of course we must be saving money.
It's not that straightforward, though. For example, I've been eating rhubarb and yogurt for breakfast for the last few months now, because our rhubarb plants have been so prolific. At Coles the other day, though, I noticed that a bunch of rhubarb cost $4.98 for 6 skinny stalks. If I had to buy rhubarb at the price, would I be eating it quite so often? Not likely. So am I saving money, growing something I wouldn't buy? (As an aside, each of my rhubarb plants must be worth about $100 each, at that rate!).
What I do say confidently is that we eat a lot better for less because of our garden. Our eggs, vegies and fruit are super-fresh (that is when the chooks aren't off the lay, as they are at the moment), we eat vegies that we probably wouldn't buy if we didn't grow them. When it comes to buying meat, I figure what I save on the vegie bill I can spend on the meat bill, so I buy smaller amounts of better meat, organic where possible.
But really, the benefits of growing your own go way beyond the dollars you save. The freshness of the vegetables. The knowledge that they are grown organically. The satisfaction of harvesting something you've grown. Expending energy in a constructive way - way better than hitting the treadmill (yawn). Contributing in some small way to reducing reliance on fossil fuels to grow and transport your food. Being able to share the produce around to your friends and neighbours. Appreciation for those whose life it is to grow food. To me, this is where the value of growing food is greatest.
The bottom line is if someone came along and showed me that I wasn't saving a cent by growing my own, would I change my ways? No way.

What about you?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Cheesemaking dreams

Lately, I've been musing about whether I might have a wheat intolerance. That is sad enough, but by golly, if I ever found out I was allergic to cheese, that would be rather tragic. I'm a girl who lurves my cheese.
Inspired by this, and by tutorials like those on Gavin's blog, I've been dreaming about learning to make cheese. So I ordered this book Home Cheesemaking by Neil and Carole Willman.
Oh dear. Having read the book, it all looks a bit daunting. I think I'll need to do a course, or at least watch someone make cheese, before I feel confident in having a go myself. Some things, I think, you have to do to learn. I've found courses nearby through the Cheeselinks website. Rather pricey, but it's my birthday coming up....
Meanwhile, ever wondered why cheese is expensive? Part of the reason would be the cheese yield - ie. how much cheese you get from your milk. For example, cheddar yields 10%. I guess this means it takes 10 litres of milk to make 1 kilo of cheese. The yield for parmesan is 7.5%. Makes you think, doesn't it?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Crunchy Granola Sweet

Over the last few weeks I've been making granola for breakfast. It's so delicious, especially with some stewed rhubarb and home made yogurt. Who needs fancy cafe breakfasts when you can whip up this luxury and have it every single day?
As fast as I've been making it, Action Man and I have been hoovering it up, and I am only too glad to make some more. Did I mention it's damn delicious? Even more, the smell of granola toasting is one of the best smells you can get, in my opinion (along with Charles de Gaulle roses, espresso coffee brewing and line-dried laundry).
My version is heavy on the nuts and seeds. Could this be why the waistband on my favourite pants is suddenly tight? Sigh.
On other matters eating, last week I mused about a possible wheat intolerance. Well, I've been giving wheat a wide berth, but last night I made garlic toast to eat with soup and had a piece with no ill effect. Maybe wheat's not to blame after all. I'll just keep tinkering with my diet to see what works best.

What's your favourite smell?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

What followed me home from Vinnies

Following last week's front cupboard clean out, I made a beeline for the local St Vincent de Paul to donate some perfectly good stuff that I'm sure someone could actually use.
Although I regularly donate stuff to charity shops (I'm not much of one to check out the shops themselves. This is mainly because (1) the goal of my life to have less, not more, stuff cluttering the place. Remember I live in a home full of hoarders, so I don't feel I need to make a contribution in this regard and (2) I never seem to see anything I would like.
But today, I deposited my donation goods, and had a quick trawl through the store. The local Vinnies is in a brand new building and it was really quite pleasant.
Out of the corner of my eye I spied the fabrics above. Orange wool plaid ($2), purple and yellow cotton jersey (and good cotton jersey, not flimsy at all - $1.50 each) and a pale yellow shirting, hopefully 100% cotton, with a subtle pattern ($1). Total = $6. Score!
I'll make a straight skirt cut on the bias with the orange wool plaid, aiming for some sort of retro look. The jersey will make some t-shirts, and the shirting I'll use to make a test of a blouse pattern I've been wanting to make, but really need to test out first before I cut into the "good" material.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Hoarder or chucker?

We have two cupboards next to our front door. These cupboards have in the seven years we have been in this house, become a repository for all things we don't know what else to do with. Suffice to say, they have been a bit of a mess.
For ages now, I've been meaning to clean these cupboards out. So I pulled out the contents: "dead" VCRs and an unrepairable DVD player, empty post boxes kept "just in case", a box of pamphlets from Action Man's work, baskets, a box of electrical cords of indeterminate origin, empty picture frames.
My instinct is to chuck (or donate) most of this stuff. But Action Man, who is a bit of a hoarder, will probably want to keep a lot of it.
If you had a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 was "hoarder" and 10 was "chucker", I reckon I'd be about a 7. My instinct is to get rid of things that don't have an identifiable purpose, but only after they've been hanging around for quite a while. Meanwhile, Action Man is probably about a 3, more hoarder than chucker, because you never know when you might need that gadget, widget etc.
This disparity caused a bit of debate when AM's parents were downsizing to a retirement village unit, and AM wanted to rescue all sorts of bits and pieces, while I was moaning "no more, no more!"
Meanwhile, my kids live in fear of the days when I enter their rooms with a collection of bags to sort through their stuff and "chuck" the clutter. Now they are getting older, they have more say in what they want to keep and I have a feeling they are both hoarders too.
So I am a chucker living with hoarders, trying to keep the clutter to a minimum. It's a losing battle sometimes!

So are you a chucker or a hoarder?

Thanks to all who left comments about my suspected wheat intolerance. This morning I had a piece of toast as an experiment to see how my stomach would react. Fifteen minutes later, no ill effects. Mmm interesting!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Gluten intolerant?

Over the last month or two I've been feeling very low in energy. At the same time I've had a "rumbling" tummy, and bloating - not too bad, certainly not debilitating, but enough to notice, you know? I ignored it. A bit of a sore tummy, so what?
But the other day I read something about gluten intolerance and put two and two together. Could I be gluten intolerant?
So for the last week I've laid off the wheat. And guess what? No grambling stomach. And I have some energy too (although this might be because my social life has quietened down a bit). Then yesterday my daughter made ginger cake and of course, I had to have a slice. I mean, one slice of cake! How much damage could that do?
Well, I found out. After 10 minutes, mild cramping that lasted all afternoon. Not too bad, but I would feel better without it.
Sheesh. I am the ultimate omnivore, I love eating everything (okay, maybe not offal, but you know what I mean. I do eat tripe though). I do not want to be gluten intolerant. I LOVE my bread and pasta. I LOVE baking. Life without wheat, not something I want to contemplate.
I have no intention of getting this confirmed by some health professional. I wouldn't be able to live in denial then!
Instead, I'll probably treat wheat with a bit of circumspection, and crack when I have to, knowing full well I'll pay for it.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Gorgeous Day

Just got back from a lovely walk with my daughter down near Currarong. A gorgeous, sparkling day. Hope you are all having a great day too.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Fun with leftovers

Thought I'd share my recipe for leftover shepherd's pie that I made, the other night, using what was left of some roast lamb from the night before.

The twist with this recipe is instead of topping the pie with mashed potato, I used polenta instead.

I grew up eating a lot of polenta, because both of my parents hailed from a part of Italy, the north east where polenta was the staple carbohydrate. They ate a lot of it, sometimes with stews or cotechino sausage, but more often just with radicchio lettuce, and according to my dad, one small finger of Montasio cheese and a piece of home made salami. Times were tough in Italy in the fifties.

I like polenta with stews or osso bucco too, but I like it best when it is left to cool on a tray and then baked or grilled until the outside is crisp. This is what I did with this recipe.

If you have never made polenta, it's easy. Boil one litre of water, add salt and add one cup of polenta, in a stream, stirring with a wooden spoon as you go. Keep stirring for a few minutes until it thickens, then turn the heat to low and stir every so often. I find this makes enough for four people.

If you are going to fry or grill the polenta, add a few tablespoons of olive oil at the end. Turn it out onto an oiled baking tray and leave to cool. Then cut into fingers or use a heart shaped cutter and grill your polenta. Great with barbecues, or top with ratatouille for a nice vegetarian meal. I like melting cheese over it too for lunch.

And if you are interested in making leftover shepherd's pie, here is the recipe:

PREPARE polenta as above.
DICE One onion, Two carrots One leek, Two stalks of celery (or any combination of vegies you have to hand), and CHOP two cloves of garlic.
SOFTEN in two tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat.
DICE cooked leftover lamb (or beef or chicken for that matter), add to vegies. Season with salt and pepper.
COVER with liquid (water, stock, etc) - I used leftover red wine and a bit of water.
Bring to BOIL, the SIMMER for 30 minutes.
TRANSFER meat mixture to a baking dish.
PLACE polenta over the meat mixture (I tucked in some tomato slices too)

STREW with some grated cheese - I used grated parmesan here.

BAKE for about 30 minutes or so at 180 degrees C or until golden brown.

BTW - any other Blogger users out there. Do you have problems formatting your posts? I keep having trouble, especially with line spacing. Blogger has a complete mind of its own. AND I'm having difficulty navigating around my posts when I want to post more than one photo. It categorically does not want me to place photos where I want. Sheesh. Any light you could lend to why I might be having these problems would be appreciated!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Preserved tomatoes

Well, it's been an unusually social three weeks around here, with three overnight trips to Sydney for various reasons, and lots of comings and goings here. We've had visitors from Canada and Adelaide, birthday celebrations for my son, long overdue invitations to friends for lunch, Easter holidays, kids' sleepovers. I hope all that social activity (and let's be frank here, alcohol and chocolate) is why I'm feeling so lethargic. With nothing planned for the next few weeks and a better diet, hopefully I can regain a bit of energy.
One thing that needed attending, tired or not, was the tomatoes. Man alive. For some reason, our tomato bushes have lavished us with produce on an unprecedented scale, both the self seeded and the planted ones. And when you have kilos and kilos of tomatoes threatening to overtake your kitchen, you have to do something with them. Now.
I've never had this problem before, so I've been trialling different ways of preserving the bounty. I've made oven-dried tomatoes, tomato relish, pasta sauce and I've frozen pureed tomatoes. My favourite method of preserving, however, is the preserved tomatoes above, based on instructions given to my mother by my Zia Luigina in Italy, during mum's visit there in 1973. Mum wrote down her instructions as she watched her preserve tomatoes in this way, and only coincidentally came across the jottings while I was there this week. Coincidentally again, I picked up Tessa Kiros' Twelve while at the library today and she has a recipe in their that is very similar.
It is laughably easy and labour unintensive, and this is probably why I like it so much in my current state of over-it-ness.

Simply halve the tomatoes, and deseed them (as you can see I wasn't very strict with this). Let them sit in a colander for a while too disgorge any excess water. Finely chop some parsley, mix with a little salt and pepper. Pack the halved tomatoes into sterilised jars firmly (I used jars straight from the dishwasher), top with a little of the parsley mixture and two tablespoons of olive oil per jar. Close lids firmly.
Put the jars into a large pot (I put a tea towel in the bottom of the pot to stop them rattling), cover with boiling water, and simmer for 15-20mins. Keep in the water bath until completely
cool, and then remove.

That's it.

Do you have any other tomato preserving ideas?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Wine making Part 2

At the end of yesterday's post, we were left with a drum of fermenting grape juice. Keep testing for sugar with your hydrometer. When the baume is zero, it's time to celebrate. You've made wine!
Now is time to borrow a press and press the wine.
The grape leavings after pressings are destined for the compost. In some traditions, the grape leavings are mixed with sugar and water and fermented again to make grappa ie. rocket fuel. Nothing wasted, you see!
After you have pressed, decant the wine into airtight containers (preferably with airlocks) and resist the temptation to taste, which introduces air. Air + wine = oxidisation. Not good in wine.

After about 4 weeks, it's time to rack your wine, as above. Siphon wine through food grade plastic tubing from one container to another. In the process, the fine particles in the wine will have formed a sludge at the bottom, which is left behind. Clean out the container, and again treat with sodium metabisulphite to prevent oxidation and bacterial spoilage.
Repeat the racking process again.
You can bottle your wine any time from now on. Wash your bottles thoroughly, again with sodium metabisulphite and do not rinse. This acts as a preservative. Fill bottles from the bottom up with plastic tubing.
Leave for as long as you can manage, and enjoy!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Making Wine Part 1

I've been away from the computer again this week. We spent a few days in Sydney, as both my children were taking part in the Primary Schools' State Swimming Championships at the Sydney Aquatic Centre , where the Sydney Olympics swimming events were held. Both days were early starts, which meant traversing Sydney during peak hour. It took us as long to drive the last 10 kms as it did to drive the first 150kms. I am not joking. This experience brought into clear relief the reason why Action Man and I left Sydney in the first place. AND they reckon they'll fit another 2 million people in the place by 2035! And how, pray tell, will they get anywhere to do anything?

Right, enough! Don't get me started on population policy in Australia! I can feel my blood pressure rising and I don't even live there!
I've been promising a wine making tutorial for a while, and here, today is part one. Excited? Let's get on with it then...


Getting started


In order to make wine, you will need a bit of specialised equipment, but if you've ever made beer, you probably have a lot of it already. Did you enjoy science classes at school? You'll love this!

Here is the list:


  • Food grade drums with airtight lids and airlocks (beer brewing drums are fine).
  • Hydrometer for testing sugar content
  • Plastic tubing, buckets and a large funnel for racking
  • Scales that weight down to grams
  • pH meter

Beg or borrow a grape crusher/destemmer and a wine press.
Wine making ingredients:
  • Grapes - of course. Grow your own, or keep a look out for wine grapes for sale. At this time of year in Sydney and Wollongong, you will see semi trailers pulled up on the side of the road, selling wine grapes from the Riverina or South Australia. (This year our grapes were ruined by too much rain in February, just before picking, so we found our grapes via the internet and met one of these trucks to purchase our grapes). Check the internet. Or ask your greengrocer to pick up some wine grapes next time they go to the markets. NB. you are looking for winemaking varieties - shiraz, grenache, mouvedre, cab sauv etc. not table grapes!

  • Sodium metabisulphite - to sanitise equipment and bottles, and kill of natural yeasts.
  • Tartaric acid

Winemaking yeasts and nutrients (from winemaking suppliers - again check the net).

Step 1
Check the sugar level
Before you pick or buy your grapes, check their sugar level (baume). When we bought our grapes recently, the old hand home winemakers were simply tasting the grapes. Action Man got out his hydrometer, crushing a few grapes through some muslin and testing the grape juice. To make wine you need a baume of between 12 and 14, as it is this sugar that will convert to alcohol. Anything less than 12 results in an insipid, barely drinkable wine. Above 14, it's blow your socks off territory.

If your sugar levels are a bit low, you can always cheat with a bit of white sugar, added at 8 to 10 grams per litre after crushing.

Step 2


No, this doesn't involve hitching up your skirts and having a good old stomp. Not any more anyway.
First, sprinkle a bit of sodium metabisulphite onto the grapes to kill off the natural yeasts on the grapes. Some home winemakers don't do this. They rely on natural yeasts, but the results are totally unpredictable.
The aim of crushing is simply to break the skins of the grapes, so yeasts (which you will add after crushing, having just killed off the natural ones. Yes, I know it sounds ridiculous) can do their work converting sugar to alcohol.
Beg or borrow a destemmer/crusher which will do the crushing job in a trice.
Transfer the crushed grapes, skins and all (called the must) into a food-grade plastic drum. The sodium metabisulphite will continue to do its job killing off the natural yeasts.
After about 24 hours, you now inoculate the must with winemaking yeasts and yeast nutrients according to the directions on the packet. Don't skimp, because the nuttients help prevent the formation of rotten egg gas - a smell not happily associated with wine.

Crushed grapes, the must, fermenting


Soon you will hear the snap, crackle and pop of fermention. Your job now is to regularly punch the skins back into the juice so that they don't dry out.
Test for pH, keeping the level between 3.3 and 3.4. If you need to reduce the value of the pH, add tartaric acid at one gram per litre to reduce pH by 0.1 (got that??)

Tomorrow...pressing, racking and bottling.