I find it hard to tear myself away from the garden at this time of the year. I’m enchanted and energised by its wondrous growth as a response to the increasing light and warmth. The work is also demanding and my body hurts so much I have begun to tape up my shouder and wrist. Yes, I am my own task master: the garden is a joyous and productive space but I also hold a large whip. Gardening and Self Flagellation! My food garden is at that annual crossroad where the productive winter crops are becoming vertical towers of small leaf and flower. Most of these need pulling up, robbing the happy bees of their bright floral pleasure. We’re eating more greens this week as we prepare new garden beds for summer crops. The sight of big bundles of leeks, silverbeet, spring onions, endive lettuce and kale entering the kitchen can seem overwhelming, but most greens match very nicely with light cheeses, such as ricotta or fetta, or a generous sprinkling of parmesan cheese. The Italian pies of Spring, always associated with Easter in the northern hemisphere, are very appealing, such as Erbazzone, or Torta Pasqualina, requiring only a simple pastry crust made with flour and olive oil. I also use greens in Egyptian Eggah and Italian frittate, or substitute mixed greens for spinach in Palak Paneer, a favourite Indian dish. Greens and potato go well in hand pasties. Or in my favourite soup with with white cannellini beans, anchovy and rosemary, an old favourite recipe from Marcella Hazan.
The chooks are back on the lay and about time too. This year we lost fourteen hens to a fox attack, the first time since moving to our house in late 2009. We were left with five hens and two roosters. The hens went on strike due to shock and the cold weather. I was forced to buy eggs and didn’t enjoy them at all, despite the ethical promises on the packets. We returned from our recent South Australian trip to find some new arrivals -Andrew, Android and Andrea under the bantam Orpington. I’m hoping for girls. Getting rid of roosters is a cruel but necessary business.
The three Andrews are now one week old. Hoping for girls.
I was very pleased to discover that this lone fennel plant has become a perennial in the vegetable garden. The central stem, now quite thick and woody, continually produces little pups at the base. Small delicate ones in winter, large bulbous finocchi now in Spring. They are lovely shaved into salads, especially with the last of this season’s oranges, or cooked gratinata in a bechamel sauce. It’s such a shame that Mr Tranquillo doesn’t enjoy fennel as much as I do, but I’m working on him.
The most rustic and simple displays are often the best. As I pulled up most of the calendula, it was an excuse for a little floral arrangement in this old green kitchen jug.
The sourdough bread story continues in my kitchen but also in other kitchens when I’m away. I travel with an old cast iron Dutch oven, a small jar of levain, some bags of pre-weighed mixed flour, a razor blade and some oven parchment. I made three loaves during my last trip around South Australia, so didn’t need to resort to indigestible bread. While I don’t eat a lot of bread, I do like some each day, especially with soup or alongside a sauced meal where the bread becomes a scarpetta, a little shoe to scoop up the lovely juices. There are a few annoying trends in Australian restaurants where the bread is offered prior to the meal, or it’s not offered at all, or it’s costly and slathered in other stuff, or it’s inedible. Since when did one eat bread as an entree, spoiling everything that follows, robbing appetite, and then requiring a further purchase of more bread to make that little scarpetta for a lovely sauce? And yet we all do it: the bread arrives first and we pounce on it, dunking it in olive oil, or celtic salt or savoury butter. These days, I try to keep a little crust aside, surreptitiously disguised behind a napkin, hiding it from my ravenous companions, to accompany my meal. Companion, company, companionship- these lovely warm words derive from the Latin with bread. I still expect bread to be served with a meal, paid for or otherwise. Many of my home baked loaves travel to others, sometimes as hand luggage on domestic routes interstate. I export free loaves to those who desire them as a matter of companionship. It doesn’t make sense for me to only bake one loaf at a time. Their happiness comes back to me in bucket loads. Some of my very special sourdough mentors have taught me this.
A few fishy meals arrived in my kitchen over the last few weeks. Mouclade is one of the best ways to use small sweet black mussels. The dish is famous around Brittany in France, where the mussels are tiny and cheap. The creamy sauce is made with a hint of curry powder. The French recipes use creme fraiche, a product that is affordable and common place in French supermarkets, but not so in Melbourne. I thicken regular pouring cream with a little cornflour to obtain a similar consistency. Of course one needs lots of good bread to slurp up the juices. No little scarpette for this dish.
The other fishy dish that I enjoyed immensely from my kitchen was a pescatarian version of Spaghetti Carbonara. In a suburban district of Adelaide, known for the plethora of wonderful looking Vietnamese restaurants, I found the most exciting fish market, The Fish Factory, at Grand Junction Road, Athol Park. I purchased some smoked squid tentacles, which were rather moreish as a snack: they were lucky to make it back to my kitchen. The smoked legs have a similar mouth feel and flavour to guanciale. Along with our own eggs, parsley, and a good hunk of Reggiano Parmigiano, I felt that this was a fine replica of that most famous spaghetti dish, carbonara.
I hope this post signifies my return to blogging as it seems like such a waste to pay for a Premium package with WordPress if I’m not using it. I enjoy writing these little In My Kitchen summaries as it forces me to marry some of my photos to a few rambling thoughts on gardening and cooking, two passions of mine. Thanks Sherry, once again, for hosting this monthly series, Sherry’s Pickings.
Header photo features a lovely vegetable Tian I made in the Semaphore Kitchen, after finding an alluring French earthernware gratin dish tucked away in the cupboard. It begged me to use it.