In My Kitchen, April, 2020

Some time after I drafted this month’s In My Kitchen post, it occurred to me that this monthly world diary of kitchen activities could form a valuable record, documenting how cooking and food availability changes during a pandemic. It will be interesting to see if some items continue to be hard to source, for example flour, and whether the pandemic is followed by higher prices due to manufacturing interruption and a decline in agricultural output. It would be good if those joining in this platform could note their country and region when writing and perhaps comment on some of these factors too. Thanks Sherry from Sherry’s Pickings for enabling this connection throughout the world. I urge others to join in and to consider taking up blogging during these difficult times.¬†

Francesca, St Andrews, Victoria, Australia.

So much for April fools day. No one expected the unexpected, a pandemic that may end up rivalling all previous plagues, changing the direction of our lives forever. In the meantime, I imagine that there is far more activity in everyone’s kitchen this month. No doubt you, dear reader, will be in lock-down like me or are semi- quarantined. This pandemic is, for many, a time to embrace older values, kindness, sharing, communicating more than usual but from a safe distance, cooking, baking, making music or going slightly mad. The handy phrase ‘cabin fever’ has never been more applicable. On the plus side, it is a reminder for many how much time we waste shopping: this break from consumerism is not such a bad thing. For those who have lost work and income, I hope that you get through this difficult time and are adequately supported by your government.¬† This will not be the case in many countries.¬†

So many quinces. 10 jars of quince jelly later, and still more quince to process..

My shopping list is now tiny: my granddaughter shops for us once a week. I exchange, at a safe distance, a container of home made soup and the money, left on a metaphorical pile of Celtic stones. I feel like a villager from the famous Eyam village, sometimes referred to as the plague village. I’m fortunate to have a productive vegetable garden which supplies most of our fresh vegetables. But it is a labour of love.

These lettuce are grown from seed all year round.

Apparently there’s a rush on vegetable gardening in Victoria: I’ve heard that seedlings are as rare as toilet paper and flour. Plant seeds. They might only take a few weeks longer. Some vegetables are better grown from seed as they don’t transplant well. These include all root vegetables such as radish, carrot, and turnip, while rocket and all lettuce varieties appear within a few days and can be transplanted easily. You don’t need a special garden bed. Sow seed among your flowers and in your regular gardens. Make a drill with a stick, add some fine white sand or very fine soil, add your seeds, cover them lightly with soil or sand and keep moist. Within one week, and voil√†, you’ll have seedlings. Parsley seeds may take a little longer, as it’s said they go to hell and back before germinating.

Packets of seed. It’s time to sow.

Every time I make risotto, I think of my dear friends in Lombardy. Alberto grows beautiful rice in the countryside near Pavia. His mother and Zia and Zio will, no doubt, be safe in the countryside. To date, 10,000 Italians have died from this virus, with most occurring around Lombardy. Make a risotto and offer a thought for this region- all that lovely Carnaroli, Vialone Nano and Arborio is grown in the Po and Ticino river valleys, in the fields near the Lombardian villages that now feature daily in the news. We are all interconnected. 

Risotto con crema di zucchini. Lombardia, sempre nel mio cuore.

My pulses are getting a workout this month. This is not an unusual ingredient in my kitchen, nor has it much to do with the pandemic. I have to admit that while others were hoarding weirdo paper products from supermarkets, I went to BAS foods and bought an ungodly share of lentils, chickpeas and beans. Sono colpevole, I am guilty of hoarding too.

Marcella Hazan’s green pea and potato soup, made from dried split green peas.

The smell of chutney cooking in the kitchen is enormously comforting, reminding me of my matriarchal line and the old Irish-British aromas that would emanate from their kitchens in Autumn. This is a great way to use up less than perfect fruit, all those windfalls and spotted specimens. 

Apple and tomato chutney

The orchard keeps giving throughout the months of Autumn, thanks to some fortuitous planting of heritage varieties nine years ago. The Beurre Bosc pears are the best keepers and star when poached in wine, sugar and saffron. After the pears are cooked,  I remove them and cook down the syrup for a while, producing a pear flavoured sticky wine.

My son enjoys making craft beer and is still able to purchase a freshly made wort, though this may change in the coming weeks. It is a noble pastime which takes place on our back verandah and in our shed. We have our isolation environmental protocols well in place since our lockdown, so he wears gloves and doesn’t enter the house.¬† After the brew is ready, it is kept in a refrigerated keg. Yes, dear reader, we have cold craft beer permanently on tap, and though I feel this situation is a little unfair, I’m not complaining.¬†¬†

Plague pale ale

The following is a thought provoking video link from Italy, subtitled in English.¬† Worth a peep. Meanwhile, if you’re short of interesting ways to cook pulses and beans, check my blog over the coming week as I plan to document my vegetarian adventures more frequently.

In My Kitchen, March 2020

It’s impossible to write about my kitchen without reference to my productive vegetable garden and orchard- the two are so closely entwined. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, which is now over 6 years old, you may have noticed that my kitchen and cooking posts tend to focus on fresh produce. This is the essence of what food is about for me, the excitement and challenge of cooking radiating from the daily pick. As this season has been bountiful, my urge to work in the garden has strengthened. While others of my age often consider downsizing, I’m considering expanding the garden beds. Vegetable gardening is not only for food: it’s my yoga and gym, my meditation space and fantasy land.

One of the more exciting plant discoveries this year has been the Turkish snake chilli, a prolific bearer, and a kinky pepper to pick ( an old alliteration riddle comes to mind). A long and thin lime green pepper, it has a tendency to curl back on itself, looking a lot like whirling dervish, or a green man in a turban. One in 10 peppers will be hot, making them an interesting substitute for Pimento de Padron, the Russian roulette of peppers, when cooked in the same way.  Unlike the Padron peppers, which are tricky to germinate and slow to mature in my climate, the Turkish snake peppers grow well here and fruit early in the season.

Turkish Snake peppers, scorched and lightly blistered in hot olive oil, served with salt flakes.

The only unusual product I’ve bought recently, and one that is worth sharing, is this delightful stone ground flour from Tuerong farm, which featured recently on Gardening Australia.¬†The farm is located in the Mornington Peninsula hinterland and is dedicated to growing small crops of heritage French and Australian wheat varieties. You can view the episode here.¬† The flour is available at Tuerong farm, or at Hawke’s farm in Boneo, or online, though it’s not always available. The khorasan makes a beautiful loaf.

I like soup at any time of the year, and each season brings new flavours to the table. When fresh local corn becomes available, I love to make this chowder. We call it ‘cholesterol corn soup’, given its butter, cream and cheese content, perfect for the first seasonal chill. The recipe comes from an old edition of The Vegetarian Epicure, by Anna Thomas, 1972, back in the day when the ‘C ‘word wasn’t such a worry. I’ve never fiddled with the original, so soothing and comforting is this dish.

Corn and cheddar cheese chowder

Another recent chowder occurred when I discovered some big, fat tiger prawns in my freezer- remnants of the festive season. This one was a splurge, requiring a small smoked haddock as well.

Smoky chowder, with smoked haddock, leek, potato and prawn.

This season, I have developed a passion for photography, and tend to photograph the daily pick in the same little spot in my living room, where the light is moody and a little dark. Most of these photos land on my Instagram page, @morgan.francesca each day, and may account for my overall slackness in writing. As I pay a princely sum for this WordPress page, it’s time I got back to writing more frequently, though I can see why many take the easier, often wordless, option of Instagram. Time to return to the word image.

Jonathon apples, the second variety to harvest.

Early pears, not the best keepers.

Breakfast for a queen. Porridge with poached quince.

Let the grape harvest begin.

A monthly link up event, focusing on kitchen happenings, takes place via Sherry’s Pickings. The theme can be interpreted loosely. Through this monthly blogging event, I’ve met some wonderful kindred spirits.

 

In My Kitchen, June 2019

Winter is a tricky business. Throughout June, winter is still a novelty. Everyone walks around saying how much they love wood fires, barley soup, root vegetables, scarves, knitting and red wine, and how pleased they are that scary old summer is finally over. With the lowest rainfall on record, the first four months of 2019 were quite unpleasant, the ongoing drought finally breaking in May. These cold wet days are very welcome. Our garden sings once again. And yet I know that this love affair won’t last. By July, me, my bones and I, will want to fly to a warmer zone to dodge the worst of it. I’ll enjoy the remainder of this month and then I’m packing my bags.

Kitchen Garden

A visit to my kitchen is often preceded by a spin around the orto, my vegetable patch out the back that inspires most of my cooking.

A winter vegetable garden is often more productive than those of warmer months. While many Australians enjoy growing summer crops such as tomatoes, winter crops are a reliable source for salads and soup ingredients. I never let my beds lie fallow- if unoccupied, they are planted out with broadbeans ( fava) or filled with garlic, a crop that takes 6 months to mature. In my kitchen garden is abundant lettuce, ( spicy red Mizuna, Cos, Curly leaf, Endive, Bronze, Rugola), and self sown radicchio turning crunchy crimson. Cavolo nero, the Prince of winter, grows darker- a plant that thrives in cold weather. As the first frost has not yet arrived, chilli, tomatoes, basil and beans hang on bravely. Young turnips and radishes slowly plump: their leaves can be used as wild greens with pasta. Self sown leeks have been moved into position while wild mustard and celery appear in the pathways. Thanks to well rotted, mature compost, the winter vegetable garden is booming.

Cookbooks

Books and winter go hand in hand. I was planning to stick to library books for inspiration but a few purchases have crept through the door. The cost of a good second hand cookbook is usually less than half the price of a new magazine. Savers second hand store provides most of my cheap finds, while the Book Grocer is a great source of remaindered books.

Library books on trial. Happy to return all of these except Australian fish and Seafood, which is a superb, and Tartine, which is a great read for those who love sourdough bread baking. The two books by Meera Sodha were disappointing and Eat at the Bar by Matt McConnell was a quick enjoyable read but happy to return it.
New books purchased for $4 each. Two Diana Henry books are a delight to read, and while I don’t think I’ll cook from the recipes. they are good examples of excellent food writing. Magic soups on the other hand excels in food styling.
Second hand finds of note. The timeless classic, Turquoise, by Greg and Lucy Malouf, Neighbourhood, by Hetty McKinnon, modern vegetarian share food, and the Baker by Leanne Kitchen, old fashioned classics

Grains

I love warm grains in winter and farro is definitely my favourite. I used to buy Italian farro at the Mediterranean wholesalers, but now find Mount Zero Farro much tastier. Found at my nearby Deli and Larder.

Fish

Many species of fish are at their peak in winter. The snapper were almost jumping at the Preston market last week, along with a winter specialty, a rare item, small gutted cuttlefish. I bought one large snapper carcass to make fish stock to freeze, one snapper to bake, and 1/2 kilo of cuttle fish to freeze. Five fishy meals for $19. I was very happy with this baked snapper recipe from Neil Perry. We devoured young Roger the Snapper with gusto.

Roast potatoes to accompany fish.

Road Trips

No road trip is complete without a tin of home made biscuits and a thermos. These chocolate, date and almond biscotti came along on a road trip way out west, past silos and deserts, wine country and isolated, melancholic towns. Travelling through the Wimmera and the South Australian wine district of Coonawarra during winter is inspiring. The light is silver, the red liquid rewards numerous.

Kitchen Table

I’ve been tempted with the idea of downsizing. Clearing out junk is very satisfying, but when I advertised our 2.8 metre long kitchen shearer’s table on the local Buy, Swap and Sell sites, I received a blunt message from my daughter in capitol letters. WHAT ARE YOU DOING? I sheepishly replied that our table was far too big for our needs but soon realised that on an average day, the kitchen table is covered with stuff-¬† laptops, phones, books, notebooks, lists, baskets of fruit and vegetables from the garden, bowls of sourdough slowly fermenting, a teapot and more. The table ad was withdrawn.

Yarns

In another cosy corner of the Kitchen cum dining room live the wool supplies. They have gathered here to remind me how enriching winter can be. My yarn stories can be found here. 

Discards for small projects, found at op shops.

Thanks Sherry for hosting this monthly series at Sherry’s Pickings. There’s always more going on in a kitchen than in any other room in the house.¬†

I am slowly being converted to the joys of Instagram. Less demanding than my blog posts, my pictorial pastimes can be found at @morgan.francesca

In My Kitchen, May 2019.

April was busier than usual with children on school holidays, beach days, Easter, followed by Anzac Day. I’m rather pleased that May has come around and I can get back to my home kitchen full-time, with some mellow Autumn cooking, interspersed with trips to the library. Anzac day, April 25th, demanded a few biscuits to mark the occasion. It’s a baking tradition in my kitchen as it was in my mother’s until recently. My Anzac biscuits are flat and crispy, the way I like them. I pop them in an old Anzac tin in the hope that they might last a few days. They never do. The Department of Veteran affairs has firm rules about Anzac biscuits. You risk a large fine if you attempt to call them cookies or play with the original recipe, or misappropriate the name in a commercial business. While not patriotic at all, I still believe in the uniquely Australian/New Zealand aspects of this day. Anzac biscuits are so popular with my extended family, I should bake them more often. For flatter, brown and crispy Anzacs, slightly reduce the percentage flour and add more brown sugar.

I like my Anzacs flat and crispy.

I whipped up these yeasted buns for Easter this year: unfortunately there was little time to concentrate on feeding a leaven for a sourdough version. This lot had extra fruit and were glazed with quince jelly. Unlike the supermarket versions which can still taste fresh after a week, ( or maybe even a month), these buns are preservative free so they don’t keep for more than a day or two. The left over buns landed in a rich bread and butter pudding.

Yeasted hot cross buns

One vegetable that grows very happily in this awful drought is chilli. They ripen in autumn and will continue to enjoy life in the garden until the first frost arrives. I use a few fresh, but the bulk of the crop is dried and ground into flakes for the year ahead. I also make chilli oil. Small batches are better as the oil can go rancid. This small jar will last a month or so. A nice drizzle for a pizza or crab pasta.

It’s garlic planting time. When you see sprouting garlic around the markets, you know the time is right. I usually plant 300 each year. This basket of 100 is a mixture of my own garlic and some Australian grown garlic from the market. Three separate plantings over May will ensure a staggered pick.

The chooks are pumping again, and suddenly I have far too many eggs. I have sent Mr Tranquillo the recipe, again, for Cr√®me Br√Ľl√©e, purchased some second-hand shallow terracotta ramekins, and I have also given him a blow torch for caramelising the tops. It’s his favourite dessert so I’m hoping it becomes his signature dish. I really do like it too.

Autumn also sees the return of pasta making in my kitchen. Three eggs and 300 grams of flour, preferable tipo 00, or a mixture of tipo 00 and semola rimacinata, or just plain flour if that’s all you have: no oil, no salt and no other additives, according to Italian nonne. This will make you a truckload of fresh pasta. I fiddled with some parsley leaf pasta in these lasagne sheets. Not worth the effort and such a 90s thing to do.

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Strofinaccio fatto dalla prozia di Alberto

It’s pastie time again. The filling in these pasties was fairly Cornish- onion, carrot, parsnip, potato. I found this puff pastry hard to digest. The sheets were left over in my fridge. For my next lot, I’ll focus on a good home-made short crust pastry.

There’s always soup in my kitchen. We don’t wait for Autumn or cooler weather to make good soup- we have it all year round. I am passionate about the building of a good soup. My soups are never randomly made. I like colour combinations, creating different flavour bases via a finely chopped soffritto, and seeking pleasing presentations so that you mangiare con gli occhi, or eat with the eyes before tasting the soup. Today, I wanted to paint a monochromatic soup in white and pale green, a contrast to today’s earthy dark rye bread. After building a soffritto of finely chopped garlic, fresh rosemary, a few anchovies and a pinch of ground chilli, I added a pile of cooked cannellini beans, shredded pale green cabbage ( wongbok cabbage which cooks quickly), and a handful of Pantacce pasta. A little grated Parmigiano Reggiano at the table and buon appetito. It’s ready.

Another cold day soup was built with Autumn colours, a typical Ribollita style soup. The soffritto build included onion, carrot, celery, and garlic. Once softened in EV olive oil, I added borlotti beans, more carrot, shredded cavolo nero, and some halved cherry tomatoes. This dense soup was served with a hunk of white sourdough.

Plain white Sourdough made with a stiff starter, recipe by Maree Tink, available on her Facebook site, Sourdough Baking Australia. More about this bread and other sourdough information in my next post.

A new cake has come into my life. I love flourless cakes that aren’t too cloying. This one has four ingredients ( butter, sugar, walnuts, eggs)¬† and can be whipped up in a few minutes. It is dense, is a great keeper and tr√®s French. The recipe for Walnut Cake from Perigord can be found here.

That’s a quick roundup of the kitchen treasure this month.¬† Thanks as always to Sherry, of Sherry’s Pickings, for the link up to In My Kitchen.

A Break in the Weather

At last there’s a break in the weather, a cool snap with a little rain. Is it time to rejoice or was that last shower just another drizzle of hope? This summer and autumn have been hot and dry, pleasant weather if you’re by the seaside, but not so kind for those who love their gardens and farms. An omen of what’s to come? To date, we have had around 60 ml of rainfall over the last three months. The tanks and dams are low, the fruit trees are dropping their leaves too early: rabbits crawl up and over fences in search of something green to eat, starting with their favourite snack, the ring- barking of fruit trees before looking for small gaps in the well fenced vegetable patch. The figs look like hard little bullets and have given up the battle.

Midst our paddocks of desiccation, there are some welcome surprises. The quinces are fabulous this year, picked just in time before the birds got desperate. Such an old-fashioned and demanding fruit, I love the way they turn from hard golden knobbly lumps into the most exotic concoctions. How do you describe the flavour and colour of poached quince?

With the sound of the rain on the tin roof, my thoughts turn to food and preserves. Quince jelly, quince syrup, perhaps to use as an exotic base for gin, a torta of ricotta and quince cubes, quince ice cream, the syrup swirled through a softened tub of good vanilla ice cream, perhaps some Spanish membrillo.

Long thin eggplants have been fruiting for months. While not as useful as the fat varieties, they grow more abundantly in our micro-climate.

After chopping the eggplant for a Chinese dish, I noticed their resemblance to the cushions.

The Pink Lady apples are the star this year. We grow 13 varieties of apple, and each has its year. The crop has been well protected by netting, though the desperado cockatoos are beginning to notice. Picked and stored in the fridge, they are reasonable keepers.

With the change of season, I hope to return to my usual pattern of posting and cooking. There will be more recipes coming and anecdotes of one kind or another, simple stories about the beauty of life. As the saying goes, ‘I’ll keep you posted’.

 

 

In My Kitchen, March 2019

From February through to April, my vegetable garden is at its peak: each week brings another tidal wave of fruit and vegetables through the back door and into the kitchen. The years of weeding, nurturing, staking, mulching, seed selecting and composting have paid off. Our vegetable garden is now nine years old and I often think it has a life of its own. Things pop up of their own accord, though I do have a small hand in this, allowing the prime specimens to go to seed. Time means nothing once I cross the threshold of the vegetable garden gate: it’s another world, another time zone, a spiritual place. I often enter with the simple intention of gathering a posey of parsley, then am overcome by something intangible. It is la terra del tempo perso, the land of lost time, but that time is definitely not wasted. The crops and the earth itself have ways of communicating their needs, more so in these challenging years of drought and changing climate.

Lots of beans in March.

Sometimes I look at a bed of struggling vegetable plants and I know that by adding a few shovels of well-rotted compost, the plants will thrive within a day or two. Compost is garden gold, especially here in the Shire of Nillumbik, the ‘land of shallow earth’ in indigenous language. I have 5 large bins in various stages of decomposition. The connection between compost and the kitchen is an important one. It is up there with the other daily kitchen tasks of recycling all waste that we generate through our consumption-plastic, glass, aluminium and paper- except that food waste has a much simpler solution. In my kitchen, a tall bucket lives inside a pull- out drawer under the sink. Anything that my chooks don’t fancy goes straight into the compost bin. This includes vegetable peelings and food scraps, fish bones, fruit skins, egg shells, newspaper wrapping, cooking oil, paper towels, tea leaves and spent coffee. Other paper products are added such as dockets and plain envelopes, non inked cardboard containers, and other plain paper packaging. It is one of the most important practices in my kitchen and is an ingrained, lifelong habit. I would feel incredibly guilty if I didn’t use this important resource: it would be akin to throwing away good food or wasting money. And my beloved vegetable garden wouldn’t thrive. Composting is an aerobic process that reduces or prevents the release of methane during the breakdown of organic matter so long as it’s done correctly. To not compost contributes to global warming, not to mention the costly exercise of councils having to take away waste that is a such a valuable resource to the home gardener.

‘Food waste makes up a big chunk of general household rubbish that finds its way to landfill. Not only does sending food waste to landfill cost the economy an estimated $20 billion a year, it produces methane ‚ÄĒ a potent greenhouse gas ‚ÄĒ when it rots.’¬Ļ

Worm farms also work well, though after killing my worms one very hot year, I haven’t returned to that practice. My recipe for compost making can be found here.

Part of today’s pick. and always the excitement- what will I make?

The Roma tomatoes are most fruitful this year, and are wonderful in this Retro Tomato soup. I’ve added a couple of grilled prawns on top for a bit of flash frugal: they ceremoniously sank for the photo.

Retro soup with grilled prawns

Sometimes I lay out an array of garden produce and let it talk to me about lunch. Today’s pick included carrots, corn, silverbeet, beans, and zucchini. The lovely Kipfler potatoes come from Hawkes, a farm in the hinterland of the Mornington Peninsula. The rest is from my garden. After removing the corn from the cob, the denuded cobs can be boiled with a little salt and fresh bay leaves for a corn flavoured stock. Just like that hilarious book on pig eating, Everything except the Squeal, I feel the same way about my garden produce and try to use every part of the plant. The chooks hang around the orchard fence waiting for lettuces and other greens that have gone woody in my garden. Only then will they lay good eggs, as their grassy run is now sadly lacking in green grass and shoots.

My veggies nicely supplemented by lovely kiplers from Hawkes farm, Boneo in the hinterland of the peninsula ( near Cape Schank)

Today’s soup. Corn, Hawkes kipler potatoes, onion, garlic, carrot, beans, half pureed. A healthy version of a chowder.

Another marvellous find this week at Hawkes farm was a 4 kilo bag of just picked strawberries for $5. These are marketed for jam making and are often too ripe to sell. I usually make a big batch of jam but this week’s lot was in perfect condition- just oddly shaped. After hulling, I froze them in one kilo lots. Hawkes farm uses environmentally friendly packaging: this bag is made from corn and is compostable: no plastics or nasties have been used in the manufacture. The bag is now in our compost bin- it will be interesting to see how long it takes to vanish completely. I’m trusting the label which claims it meets Australian certified compostable standards which are more stringent than those of Europe. A nearby business in the village of Hurstbridge, Going Green Solutions sells Compost- a- Pak products in packs of 50 for AU$20. At 40c a pop, I hope I can re-use the bags a few times, especially for freezing bread as well as the annual crop excess.

Compost-a- Pak

I love kitchen gadgets that work well and this Nutriblender from Aldi is a gem, especially given its powerful 120 watt motor. The motor churns through the fruits and veggies in under 8 seconds. Breakfast covered, and a great way to use our soft fruits that don’t store so well.

Aldi’s Nutriblender. Main appeal is the powerful engine and price.

Vampire breakfast. Watermelon, Mariposa plums, black grapes, frozen Hawke’s strawberries.

The cucumbers are still prolific this year. A few cucumbers, some half peeled, plus yoghurt, salt, spices, and mint, are thrown into the jar of the new blender, buzzed for a few seconds, then voilà, summer cucumber soup. Just chill it.

Cold cucumber soup, mint, chopped pistachio

This year our fruit tree netting has been very effective in keeping out the birds. To date, we’ve harvested early peaches, three varieties of plums, early varieties of pears and apples and now, the table grapes. The sultana grapes are small and sweet, while the fat purple grapes have an interesting history. A little pot with a cutting was given to me by Vittorio, 8 years ago. A Siciliano who migrated here in the 1960s, Vittorio used to sell seedlings and small plants at a nearby market. This grape cutting was originally taken from a vine that had grown in his village. It probably is an ancient clone but we call it Vittorio after that lovely, generous man.

Grapes galore

Finally, returning to the dilemma of recycling, which is central to all our lives, especially in our kitchens, where we now sort and store our daily refuse, our local Council has just advised that our recycling will go to landfill this week, or we can ‘hold it back’ until a solution to the recycling crisis is found. Other shires around Victoria have openly announced that all recycling will now go to landfill. Will this be the tipping point that brings about change in our consumer patterns?

Thanks once again Sherry, of Sherry’s Pickings, for linking our kitchen posts in the monthly series In My Kitchen.

¬Ļ https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2019-02-24/food-scrap-and-composting-solutions-for-apartments/10817702

Another Green Recipe from a Militant Gardener

The word ‘green’ is associated with more connotations than most other colours, including immaturity, rawness, naivety, pale and sickly looking, envy, and the green environmental and political movement, just to name a few. Perhaps some of these concepts are inadvertently connected? As an offshoot of the green environmental movement, some cooking sites loudly proclaim to be ‘green’, a word that has become synonymous with healthy. A quick perusal¬†of these sites will reveal recipes using all sorts of everyday ingredients that are neither ‘green’ nor¬† healthy. ‘Green’ food, just like that other odd term, superfood, has become another marketing tool. Maybe green is the new lite?

Pasta della settimana

As I suggested in a recent¬†post on eating greens, I am enjoying taking the word back to its literal meaning, given that I have a vast array of garden greens to choose from. I can honestly say that most of the things I eat are unavailable in restaurants. I prefer to eat my own concoctions more than ever and have no time for flashy, restaurant styling or plating. I’m after big flavour, freshness and ease of production. My garden greens go in soups, pastas, risotti: they top pizzas, go in salads and stir fries, while the herbs flavour bland foods or star in their own right.

Growing our own food and eating with the seasons is a fifty year old habit, though I think we’ve become better at it with age and more time. My green stories are not meant to promote a romanticised view of country life. Far from it. It’s a lifestyle choice which comes with a fair amount of dedication and is not for the armchair tree changer, the naive or the time poor. The picture of country life, at least in the Italian context ( this blog does, after all, rely on a certain Italianit√† for content and inspiration) pictures a nonna making bread and preserves or a nonno making sausages and eating pecorino and fresh fava beans under an olive tree. There will be home pressed olive oil and maybe an outside fireplace to cook alla brace. This is the stereotypical view of Italian country life, a wonderful food marketing myth. The idyllic notions about cucina povera conveniently ignore the laborious and hard life of the peasant. Italian migration, especially after WW2, took place as a result of desperate poverty in Italy. We can forgive the modern-day Italian blogger who pretends, just a little bit, to be connected to the land and the seasons, writing from the comfort of her own modern apartment or suburban home via a trip to the nearby farmers’ market to check what’s in season. These stories make people feel that their food has authenticity, another marketing tool.

It’s not easy being green. It’s hard work living by the seasons, which involves making vast amounts of compost based on the layering of collected manure, grass clippings, oak leaves, and scraps, as well as saving seed, pruning, netting fruit crops, harvesting gluts of food and giving it away or preserving it, watering, mulching, and ensuring that the fences keep out unwanted pests such as rabbits. The food tastes good because it has been nurtured well.

If you are fortunate enough to have any small patch of land that accompanies your abode, grow herbs that suit your climate, plant some silverbeet (chard) in the flower garden- rainbow chard, with its yellow and red stems looks wonderful. Plant an annual crop of cavolo nero for winter soups. These tall dark green plants look statuesque in a garden bed next to lavender. Why not grow some artichokes in an unused corner of the yard? Their silver leaves are as ornamental as any other exotic plant and they grow like weeds. Pop in a row of radish every fortnight and some soft heading lettuce. Tend to them like children and learn what they need. The old cop-out, having a black thumb, is an excuse for not learning about your own environment or the needs of plants. Agitate to save an old growth forest from logging and learn to grow a few greens at the same time. 

The two pastas shown throughout this story both rely on the same base soffritto shown in the picture below.

As the spaghettini cooks in the pot of boiling salted water, chop some soffritto ingredients. I like to use anchovy fillets, garlic and dried chilli. Heat a good glug of EV olive oil in a wide and deep frying pan and add this mixture, stirring about to break up the anchovy. Add some greens to the pan- I like to use broccoli Calabrese, a side shooting broccoli that is even finer than broccolini and cooks in a minute, a few young leaves of cavolo nero and some immature zucchini cut into the same shape as the other greens. Toss these about for a few minutes, then add a ladleful or two of the pasta cooking water. Raise the heat to reduce the liquid a little. Once the pasta is al dente, drain it and add it to the pan of greens. Toss about and season with ground pepper. Serve in big bowls and dress with grated Parmigiano or more good oil, or leave it as is.

No quantities are mentioned in the recipe. It’s entirely up to you and what greens you use. This recipe only works because the greens in question were picked 20 minutes beforehand. Herbs work well. Lettuce, chicory, chard, shaved young artichoke- whatever you can find or forage.

Simply pink. A few stray small garlic before cleaning. I’ll use this lot while young and ‘green’.

Notes.

  • Brocollini Calabrese seeds can be bought from Eden seeds. Sow these directly into the ground in April ( or towards the end of Autumn). I pick side shoots every second day.
  • Sunny brand anchovies come in 750 gr cans. I buy these at Gervasi supermarket in Brunswick, Melbourne. I haven’t seen them anywhere else in my travels. They are very good and last well, packed under oil.
  • If you grow too many chillies, dry them out and grind them in a spice grinder for the year. You can then decide on your own level of heat. They last in sealed jars forever.

 

In My Kitchen, April 2018.

Autumn in Melbourne, most would agree, is the best season of the year. Days are warm and still while evenings are crisp. A few small logs burning in the wood stove symbolise a seasonal turning point in the calendar: the first cosy fire is the most evocative of all. Other Autumnal markers are the slow ripening of the quinces, with a few falling each day, the late season heritage apples, the Rome Beauty and Akane varieties now ready, and the fat green olives beginning to blush purple-black. Keeping a productive vegetable patch and orchard may seem demanding to some- an abundant harvest can be a hard task master. This extra time in the kitchen is offset by time spent away from supermarkets. In my kitchen, the garden is featuring more each month and will continue to do so. Out of My Garden and into the Kitchen perhaps?

Last of the sweet Akane apples

If you grow your own chillies, you will probably end up with way too many but really, count this as a blessing. There are little saucers of chillies lying about in my kitchen and on sunny ledges, slowly drying out for the year’s supply. Once ready, they will be whizzed in an electric spice grinder then stored stored for the year in jars. Some dried chilli flakes also go into the making of chilli oil, an essential condiment on a southern Italian table. Soup bowls proliferate in my kitchen. Because I love soup so much, I have preferred bowls for certain soups. Fine purees tend to go into old-fashioned 1940s small bowls, onion soup into rustic terracotta bowls, Italian bean and pasta soups lounge around in shallow but very wide bowls and so on. It’s obsessive I know, and my soup bowl collection is being reviewed as I address the issue of downsizing. A few new irregular shaped bowls recently snuck into my kitchen.

A new soup bowl, with zucchini soup and pesto.

And when it comes to soup, the garden produce usually dictates the recipe. I always start with a soffritto, a very finely chopped selection of onion, celery, herbs and garlic sauted in olive oil, and then the soup is built on this base. It is artistic expression for me- not just a bowl of soup.

Late March garden pickings for soup, with our garlic from December.

The soup that followed the picking.

Zuppa dell’orto con quadretti.

I get nervous if the dried bean and pulse supplies fall too low. Sourced from¬†Bas Foods, most of these are Australian grown and are packed fresh in the warehouse next door. There’s nothing worse than woody old dried beans: no soaking and long cooking will revive them. Another essential soup ingredient is Farro, and it’s great to see the Australian variety on the market made by Mt Zero olives.

Dried beans and pulses

Autumn fruits, and a few stored plums from late summer, make fine fruit crumbles. My favourite mixture is apple, plum, orange, lemon peel, sugar, cloves and marsala. This batch is ready to be topped with crumble.

As we have been running between two kitchens for the last two months, we have discovered some interesting fresh supplies near our campsite on the Mornington Peninsula. These mussels are grown in the bay off Mt Martha where the water is deep and pristine. They are not available commercially in Melbourne as Point Lonsdale black mussels tend to dominate the markets. They can be bought at Safety Beach and also in Dromana. They are really the best mussels I have ever tasted.

Fresh Mt Martha Mussels.

I made a quick smoky chowder last night and a few of these briny molluscs went into the soup. Today’s Pizza lunch demanded a few more- and I still have half a bag left for some Pasta con Cozze tonight. Not bad for $7.50 a kilo.

Pizza Amore. ( cozze, pomodori piccoli, basilico, olive)

For the monthly series, In My Kitchen, organised and collated by Sherry, from Sherry’s Pickings. Strangely enough, this series keeps me on track and up to date with my garden life too.

Apologies to Eha, Debi and others for my earlier draft which suddenly appeared without my knowledge. Gremlins!

In My Kitchen, March 2018

Perhaps the title of this post should read ‘In My Kitchen Garden’ as this season’s harvest dominates the show and tell. March sees the tables and benches laden with baskets full of apples, pears, quince, figs, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplants, lettuce, basil, Thai herbs, and an occasional potato. The garden is wild and I can no longer tame all that rampant life without ending up on the table of the osteopath. The time for clearing and seeding will soon announce itself. I can already sense a crispness in the air. Today, the second morning of Autumn, the overnight temperature dropped to a chilly 10¬ļc: I pull on some warm socks before the day’s heat sets in. A morning cup of tea, followed by a rummage through the seed box is an auspicious start to the new season.

Sleeping Buddha and tomatoes

The sleeping Buddha was installed in my kitchen window after I was stung by a European wasp last week. These lovely Roma tomatoes enjoy an extra lazy day in the glazed northern sun. From now on, Buddha will remind me to search for smuggled insect terrorists. Did that wasp stare through the windows and gaze longingly at my produce laden table, then sneak in when the wire door was ajar?

Odd tomato varieties

This year we inadvertently grew some rather odd tomato varieties. Some are large and flavoursome but aren’t so prolific. They are grown for show. I bought the seedlings from an Italian man who labelled them simply as ‘red’. It’s rather nice though to completely cover a slice of bread with one large disc of tomato, the jewelled translucent seed and ridged pattern simply blessed with a grind of salt. It must be the perfect breakfast. The Russian tomatoes are lacking in flavour and I won’t bother with these again. They are too big and tend to rot on the vine before ripening. Next year I’ll stick to my favourites, the varieties that are well suited to my micro-climate;¬† Rouge de Marmande, the best of tomato flavours, Roma, or similar egg-shaped tomatoes which are good keepers, Green Zebra and the large acid free yellows which continue fruiting well into late Autumn, a literal pomodoro, along with a few self-sown large cherry varieties.

Over the last few years, I’ve gathered many old baskets which tend to clutter the verandahs during the colder months. They come to life during February and March when they are filled repeatedly. The long kitchen table is covered with baskets full of colour as they await¬†sorting, freezing, cooking, preserving or giving away.

Jonathon apples- our earliest variety. More varieties to come. Lace produce bag in foreground made by Celia: thank you lovely friend.

Marcella Hazan’s apple and rum cake. One kilo of Jonathon apples dispatched.

It’s always a challenge to find more uses for zucchini. One way of eating a kilo without noticing is to make Indian Zucchini Bhaji. Grate them, mix with onion slices, then add to a thick and gently spiced Besan and rice flour batter, then deep fry them like fritters. Serve with chutney and yoghurt.

Zucchini Bhaji and mild mango chutney.

Fettuccine with grilled zucchini and pesto.

I am still being challenged by the cucumber plague and now give most of them away. Come and help yourselves.

Cucumbers, Hazlenuts, Buerre Bosc Pears.

Everyone and his dog has been waiting for the arrival of my figs. That day came yesterday. I have a few hundred slowly ripening and pick a small basketful when perfectly ripe. Green on the outside, but soft and purple within, they are the garden’s gender antonym to the zucchini. At some point I’ll make some fig jam when the harvest becomes overwhelming. Unusual fig recipes are welcomed, dear reader.

My most successful eggplant this year is this magenta striped variety, Melanzana Siciliana or Graffiti eggplant. I have some wild self sown eggplants still to show their true colours.

Too nice to cook.

Buerre Bosc pears are great keepers.

Thanks once again to Sherry of Sherry’s Pickings for hosting In My Kitchen,¬†a monthly event which encourages many to step back from their regular writing or photographic posting and to take a closer look at the engine room of the house, the kitchen.

Garden Prozac with Thai Salad

On mid Autumn days when the sun shines and there’s not a breath of wind, my enchantress, the vegetable garden, lures me through her gates. No matter how much I try to limit my work to an hour or so, time just flies by. I read recently that it has a lot to do with Mycobacterium Vaccae, a microbe in the soil, which is said to have a similar effect on the neurons as Prozac. The bacterium found in soil may stimulate serotonin production, which makes you relaxed and happier. Great, dirt is a natural anti – depressant. My fingernails are now full of garden Prozac. Or is it the sun, fresh air and exercise? I feel very content and at peace in the garden, despite what my back is telling me.

Today’s Pick/1. Carrots, cucumber, pumpkin, tomatoes, zucchini, baby leeks, Thai basil, mint, regular basil, French radish, beans, chilli.

Today’s pick

In the garden there are late borlotti beans, rambling cucumbers, and zucchini ( of course!). There are a few courageous tomato bushes, some self-sown specimens appearing out of nowhere after a big clean up. The strawberries are re-flowering, fruiting and throwing out runners which are taking up residence in the pathways. The lemongrass has turned into a giant, the chilli bushes are in their prime, and bok choy and celery have self-sown everywhere. There are three metre high amaranth plants, looking like it might be the invasive new crop I do not need. Definitely Triffid material. What was I thinking- grinding up amaranth seed for bread? This one has to go.

The potential pest. 3 metre high Amaranth giant about to shed its seed.

A transitional time, our beds are being prepared for new crops. Each bed receives a few loads of fresh compost and some spent straw from the chook house. So far, I have sown broccoli ( Calabrese), Tuscan Kale ( Cavolo Nero), regular kale, rugola, three types of lettuce, dill, radish, beetroot, spring onions, peas, snow peas, broad beans, parsnip, turnip, and cima di rape. Due to good timing- warm soil, followed by good rainfall and mild weather- all the seeds took off. Please dear reader, if you live near by, come and get some seedlings. I can’t transplant them all.

The seedling bed. Lots to spare

After a garden pick, I feel like one of those contestants on Masterchef, except less stressed. You know that segment where the judges hand over a bunch of odd ingredients and the contestants have to cook something using what’s on hand. Not wishing to see the freshly pulled carrots and herbs go limp, I put together this salad for lunch. As I was eating it, I thought it would go rather nicely with some grilled prawns, or freshly cooked prawns, peeled and chopped through it. But then, who needs to go shopping.

Fresh Garden Thai Salad

Garden Thai Salad

  • one medium zucchini, grated
  • 2 small carrots- I used two medium white carrots, and one small orange
  • leaves from mint, coriander, Thai basil, regular basil
  • one Thai chilli, chopped very finely
  • two teaspoons of light brown sugar
  • juice of one-2 limes/1/4 cup of juice
  • fish sauce to taste/ optional
  • a little neutral vegetable oil, not olive oil
  • unsalted peanuts, fried and chopped if you have some

Grate the vegetables. Tear the leaves and mix through. Mix the chopped chilli, sugar, lime juice, oil, fish sauce, together in a jug. Pour over the ingredients and toss well. Pile onto a serving plate and add chopped peanuts.

All for me.