I lose all sense of time in the garden, and then I lose myself. It’s a common enough experience among gardeners. After the first flurry of harvesting, tying back overgrown tomatoes and moving hoses about, observing life’s cycle from seed to flower to fruit then back to seed, and all the while conscious of my own aging body as it bends and complains within this bounteous space, another state emerges. My pragmatic self surrenders to a semi- conscious meditation on the essence of being. Through silent awareness and invisibility, the sounds and signals of earth- primordial, spiritual, supreme- reinforce the idea of Anattā, that Buddhist concept of non-being.
It begins with a chive flower waving in the gentle breeze, now taller than the blanketing pumpkin leaves, insisting on more light. The delicate white coriander flowers belie the true pungency of their leaves, roots and seeds. Things are not what they seem. Then a strange bird call punctures the silence. High pitched like a creaking table, the sound is urgent but not bleak. I look up and see a flash of yellow underneath a broad wing span of black. It’s the yellow -tailed black cockatoo, an infrequent visitor to these lightly wooded lands. Now one, now two more, followed by a train of rasping sound, they are on their way to a distant pine tree. Word is out that the nuts are ready to strip. The guard cocky stands alert, signalling from the highest branch, a two-dimensional black stencil, a wayang puppet, an inked picture outlined in the early morning sky.
The bluest of blue of the radicchio flower is a call to the bees. I can never find the word for this blue: constructs such as Cobalt or Persian or Cornflower might have to do. And the little gem of a beetle, friend or foe, travels across a furry field that is an eggplant leaf. The mauve and white bean flowers peep from the darkness of their leafy canopy, an arrangement, a posy, a boutoniere. The beans can wait.
Every time I wander through the vegetable garden, cucumbers virtually trip me up. They are self-sown, growing wild between other more ordered plantings, scrambling over paths and up reo metal structures. Not having the heart to pull them all out when they were petite little specimens with delicate yellow flowers, I am now paying for that weakness. These cucumbers make the zucchini look polite. On average, I pick 10 a day and although I try to nab them while they are dainty and seedless, many reach adulthood. At the beginning of summer, when they’re cool and welcome, I grate them into garlicky tzaziki or serve them in various brines and vinegars, just like my grandmother Maggie used to do. I’ve also pickled a few jars with dill and am now wondering what comes next. Last night the cucs got the hot Sichuan treatment with this spicy dish by Fuchsia Dunlop. The best part of this dish is smacking the cucumber with a rolling pin- very therapeutic. It’s a wonderful side dish served alongside other dishes as part of a Chinese banquet. I attempted to eat this dish on its own as a little Chinese entrée, chopsticks in one hand, chilled rosé in the other. The dish needs friends, both culinary and human.
Smacked cucumber in garlicky sauce (Su an ni pai huang gua)
1-2 cucumbers ( 300 gr )
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp garlic, finely chopped
2 tsp caster sugar
2 tsp Chinkiang vinegar ( black vinegar- no substitutes)
1 tsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp chilli oil – optional
A pinch or two of ground, roasted Sichuan pepper
Put the cucumber on a chopping board and smack it a few times with a rolling pin or the flat side of a cleaver, until some cracks appear on the surface. Then, holding your knife at an angle to the chopping board, slice the cucumber on the diagonal into small chunks.
In a bowl, mix the cucumber with the salt and leave to sit for 10 minutes to draw some of the water out of the cucumber. Stir together all the remaining ingredients in a small bowl. Drain the cucumber, then pour over the sauce and serve right away while still crunchy.
Do you have any memorable and unusual cucumber recipes? Leave a cucumber recipe comment below. Francesca xx
I’m reinstating my monthly garden series today, in the hope that it becomes another posting habit in this new year. The January vegetable garden delivers an abundance of food and with it comes the search for novel ways to deal with the glut. Like our ancestors of old, some will be dried, preserved, or frozen for leaner times. Expect that there will be yet more zucchini, tomato, bean and cucumber recipes as the summer months go by. But in the meantime, as I navigate my way through the narrow paths that criss cross my orto, I have once again come to admire the work of my friend and yours, the bee. Without these busy visitors, I wouldn’t be eating so well and neither would you.
If bees are scarce in your neighbourhood or vegetable garden, try to encourage them. Grow more purple flowering plants in your garden and let some of your Spring crops go to seed. Be rewarded with spectacular beauty, whilst simultaneously attracting cross pollinators for your crops and those of the neighbourhood.
Towering seed heads in a vegetable garden look magnificent, adding drama, shade and wind breaks for smaller sun shy lettuces and young plants below. I grow Endive lettuce mainly to watch them bolt after Spring, tying them to poles near the tomato patch. The blue flowers of the bolted radicchio are the brightest of all, growing to around 8 feet high. They open during the morning then close on very hot days. In the meantime, fading leek and artichoke flowers do the job.
I can honestly say that my vegetable patch is a little wild and disordered, but there’s purpose and beauty in all this chaos. The bees agree.
My young visitors have learnt to respect and admire bees. They now know that the world depends on bees for the future of 70% of all crops and walk through the purple flowering bee garden with a little more ease, in their hunt for ripe strawberries, raspberries or a crunchy radish.
If you have a vegetable garden to share with us this month, add a link to your post via a comment below and I will then pop it onto the end of this post. Happy Gardening.
My best meals are usually spontaneous and unplanned. Ingredients present themselves from the Spring garden: I wander about, basket in hand, and pick a few likely candidates to make the Pasta Del Giorno ( pasta of the day) while Mr T digs out a cheap, light red wine, to go with it. He does most of the hard physical labour in the orto, carting wheelbarrows of compost about or making fences and mowing grass, so a proper lunch is in order most days. I add a few pantry staples and a new combination is born.
Today’s pasta takes around 20 minutes to prepare and cook. Meanwhile, have a munch on these radishes while I boil the pasta water.
Pasta del Giorno. Casarecce con bietola, acciughe, e ceci./ Casarecce pasta with silver beet, anchovies, and chickpeas for two or three people.
Recipe for two or three.
180 gr casarecce pasta ( I prefer De Cecco brand)
6 anchovy fillets in oil
2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil plus extra
a pinch of ground chilli flakes
4 medium-sized young silver beet leaves including stems.
a few tablespoons of chickpeas, well-drained, from a can. ( reserve the rest for another use)
more oil and parmigiano to serve
In a heavy based deep sided frying pan, add the oil and stir fry the garlic and anchovies together, mashing the anchovies as you go.
Add the chilli and finely shredded silver beet leaves, stirring well. Add a handful of chickpeas to the mixture. Turn heat down to very low or off until the pasta is ready.
Meanwhile cook the casarecce pasta in a large pot of salted water and as per packet directions. Keep a cup of the cooking water, then drain the pasta OR, simply scoop out the pasta with a large wire strainer and add to the frying pan of sauce. The second method retains enough liquid to loosen the sauce.
Turn heat to high, then toss around in the frying pan, distributing the ingredients well. Season with black pepper. Consider adding a little more oil or cooking water. Serve in hot bowls with grated parmigiano. Salute!
The Bossy Stuff or Basics for Beginners.
It is easy enough to create a nourishing and well-balanced pasta dish so long as a few basics are observed:
Start with a flavour base for your sauce. Each soffrito should match the ingredients and the season.
Don’t overload your pasta dish with too many ingredients. Choose around 2-3 main ingredients to star in the sauce.
Choose a pasta shape that will match or showcase your ingredients.
Consider how to make your sauce wet. Short, fat pasta shapes are hard to digest if the sauce is too dry.
Save some of the cooking water at the end to add to the sauce.
Add the pasta to the sauce, and toss around in a large pan. This technique guarantees that the sauce is well-distributed through the pasta, and reheats as well. ( Don’t serve the cooked pasta in a bowl and plonk the sauce on top. Aussie style, alla 1970s – very stodgy )
Time the cooking of the pasta and taste it for doneness. Al dente or to the tooth means a little undercooked and not too soft. Remember that the pasta will continue to cook when added to the sauce.
Always heat the serving plates. A good pasta meal can become instantly cold through the omission of this step.
Use large shallow bowls for serving. Large deep bowls are better for Asian noodle dishes. Small ‘old school’ bowls are good for breakfast cereal.
Spring is finally sending her beautiful vegetables from the garden to my kitchen. The first and most evocative of these is the artichoke. Carciofi, artichokes, are fiddly to prepare, requiring removal of most of their outer leaves while simultaneously bathing their cut bodies in acidulated water before they bruise and darken. It really is worth the effort.
I love carciofi gently braised with garlic, lots of good oil, a little water, a grind of salt, and handful of torn herbs, eaten straight out of the pot with some crusty bread. I love them creamed in a Spaghetti ai Carciofi, bringing back memories of tiny trattorie in Rome. I love them thinly sliced on a pizza. Mr T does not share my passion: there is something quite odd about that man, which was the subject of my very first post back in October, 2013.
So many of my artichokes now get the ART for Artichoke treatment because he won’t eat them and I can’t eat them all. This arty thing began in the 1990s when Daniella, the sister of a good friend, Sandro Donati, had a photographic exhibition featuring artichokes, beautiful black and white studies which included portraits of her mother: moody, melancholic, and molto Italiano. In that same year, I came across a book, with a forward by Lorenza de’ Medici, with stunning reproductions of works by Giovanna Garzani, ( 1600-1670), an artist who painted delicate still lives featuring fruit and vegetables. These two memories have influenced how I see vegetables. Why stick flowers in a vase when the garden is singing with other more spectacular stems? When I arrange and photograph artichokes, I am really lusting for their creamy bitterness in my mouth.
Other herbal candidates entering my kitchen are given the art treatment too. Broad beans in flower, over grown stems of celery, sage bushes flowering purple, stalks of dark rosemary: ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.’ There are small tussie mussies of fragrant mixed herbs, bowls of lemons, fronds of wild fennel. Primavera nella mia cucina.
Sadly, I lost three hens to the foxes recently so we’re down to a dozen eggs a day. I sell a few here and there but always keep a basket of eggs in the kitchen, prompting a simple breakfast or a cake for someone. There is no need to refrigerate your eggs unless you plan to keep them for more than two weeks. I don’t clean the shells, if dirty, until I’m ready to use them. Cleaning eggs removes the natural protective layer, the cuticle or bloom from the shell, which preserves their freshness.
This month I have enjoyed researching the breads and sweets of Italy baked for the Day of the Dead, I Morti, on November 1/2. In Australia, Halloween was not celebrated until very recent times. Over the last 10 years, it has slipped into our language, led by commercial interests of course. The whole thing, in Australia at least, seems culturally artificial to me. I am now teaching my little ones about Celtic and Italian customs to counter the purple wigs and lolly bags entering their homes. They listen with wide-eyed wonder. Young Oliver leans in close and whispers ‘slipping through the crack of time’, though he turned up his nose at myFave dei Morti.
With all the bread I make, the little stove top griller pan with the heavy ridged lid, gets a constant workout. Stale sourdough comes to life when simply grilled and rubbed with garlic and dressed with new olive oil.
Australian Cobram Extra Virgin Olive oil is reliably good, winning prizes around the globe. Last May’s (2016) olive harvest and press has just hit the shelves. Look for harvest dates on your containers of oil. This information is more reliable than use- by-dates. The closer you are to the harvest date, the better the oil. Store large tins of oil in the dark. Decant the oil into clean pouring jars. When visiting an olive oil producer in Margaret River back in 2006, I was informed that adding lovely fresh oil to the oil that has been left in a pouring jar, even if only a few drops remain, tainted the fresh oil with already oxidised oil. Makes sense really.
Melbourne’s cold Spring has seen the return of the hearty soup to my kitchen. This thick meal in a bowl, Zuppa Frantoiana, is a soup which celebrates the first pressing of the season’s olive oil. The soup is layered with oil and grilled bread in a tureen before serving.
Speaking of Sandro, (see somewhere above), I’m including a little clip of one of his joyous Friulian songs. La Banda di Sandro blended traditional jazz with Italian folk sung in the Friulian dialect. Hey, just for fun, and just because I wish he and Judy were back in my kitchen; I know they would eat all the carciofi and then ask for more.
Thanks to Liz, at Good Things, the In My Kitchen series continues. Do check out some of the other kitchens on her site this month. Saluti a Tutti.
Whenever I visit friends who enjoy gardening, the first thing on the agenda is a tour around their vegetable patch and orchard, before we settle down to a cup of tea and a chat. So grab a cuppa or something stronger and take a stroll around my garden for a quick tour. The season has been harsh but things are on the mend.
First up we have the tall blue and purple flowering lettuces, my bee and insect attractors and invaluable aid to the continued fertility of all the tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers and fruit trees. The bright cornflower blue flowers of the radicchio, now three metres high, are beacons to bees. The purple flowers of endive lettuce last for months, while the blue flowering borage plants magically appear on the lower levels. These lettuces self sow in early Spring, bolt towards the sky in late Spring and flower through summer. They are a gardener’s best friends.
It’s seed harvesting time. All the main lettuces have gone to seed and have been hulled through my Turkish Celik, labelled and packed. The leek seed is close to collecting and makes an interesting garden specimen. Many species self sow, such as lettuce, radicchio, silver beet, coriander,parsley, tomato, pumpkin, zucchini and cucumber, though not all are retained. The garden beds become depleted quickly when taken over by the same species.
a mixed bag
Pomodori- golden apples
Romas and zucchini
Rouge de Marmande
The tomato glut has caught up with the zucchini and it’s time to think about preserving. These golden tomatoes, giving literal meaning to the Italian pomodoro, are lovely sliced on toast or a pizza. The Roma tomatoes are prolific and good keepers, while my favourite, the Rouge de Marmande are still green.
As the heat will be with us for another two months, it’s time to apply another layer of mulch and to feed the older zucchini. I use organic sugar cane- it is expensive but goes a long way, and top this with crumbled old cow manure which I soak overnight in a bucket of water. As the zucchini have been productive for over two months now, they need a good feed.
Last year was a pear year: this year is the turn of the Japanese plum. Hooray. I have waited for Satsuma and Mariposa plums for around four years and at last they have begun. Another week and they are all mine.
The Garden Diaries this time last year: https://almostitalian.wordpress.com/2015/01/04/garden-monthly-january-2015/
What’s happening in your garden? Do you keep a garden diary or journal?
Radishes are the hidden gems of the too green Spring garden, crunchy crimson jewels waiting to be devoured, usually on the spot. Those that make it inside become a French treat, as an appetiser or a Spring breakfast.
Radishes, French Butter and Salt Flakes
Harvest a bunch of radishes, trim the roots and wash well in cold water. Arrange on a platter.
Serve with softened French butter, cultured butter or the best butter you can get you hands on.
Also add a small bowl of fleur de sel, Murray Pink salt flakes, or Maldon salt flakes.
Select a handsome radish, cut a cross in the top, squash in a bit of butter, then dip the buttered end into the salt.
Devour and repeat.
Feel the earthy, crunchy, salty, sharp, creamy, fresh explosion in your mouth. The success of this simple dish relies on the freshness of the radishes.
Radishes mature quickly and require fortnightly reseeding. They don’t need much room, just friable, well-drained soil. Kids love growing them too. Cherry Belles are my favourite variety but the longer crimson and white French Breakfast is a stunning, milder cultivar, more suited to stuffing with white butter.
Two weeks ago I was whingeing about the cold, lack lustre Spring weather here in Melbourne. Today, as the mid afternoon temperature hits 35°C/95 °F, with a wind speed of over 50kph, I take this all back.
It’s October 6 and the seasonal warnings are ominous. The morning radio warned of a Godzilla El Nino year, and the CFA (Country Fire Authority) has seen plenty of action today. Small grass fires are appearing around the State, some escalating into emergencies. The air smells of smoke: the sky is a strange colour: it is not yet mid Spring.
Below is a screen capture of the radar of the smoke pattern from the fires today.
A few hot days in a row also sees the Spring herbal abundance bolt to the sky. The seeds of these bolters don’t set until summer and then it’s a little too late and too hot for them to germinate. I’m working my way through the tasty greens and will need to sow parsley, dill and silverbeet on the next wet day, greens that are our summer mainstays.
Today’s pasta recipe, before I became totally spooked by the weather.
Orecchiette con Aneta e Ricotta/Orecchiette with dill and ricotta.
For 4 as a light lunch.
First make the sauce in a food processor
one large bunch freshly picked dill, woody stems removed
two garlic cloves
one handful pine nuts
1/2 teas sea salt flakes
extra virgin olive oil to mix
100 gr ricotta.
Add all the dill, garlic, nuts and salt to a food processor and process well, scraping down the sides as necessary. Add the oil slowly to the dill mixture and process until the mixture resembles pesto. Then mix in the ricotta, process to barely mix. Taste for salt.
Cook 300-400 gr orecchiette pasta according to packet instructions.
Drain. In a warm mixing bowl, mix the pasta and enough of the herbal sauce to coat well.
Plate. As this is a mild tasting dish, you may wish to add parmigiana cheese at the table.
Note. By omitting the ricotta, the dill ‘pesto’ makes a lovely sauce for grilled fish or chicken, or could stirred through a pile of cooked white cannelloni or borlotti beans (fagioli scritti).
An old Italian proverb advises,” Quando i mandorli fioriscono, le donne impazziscono“- when the almond tree blooms, women go crazy. I can safely say that I missed this arboricultural, aphrodisiacal or psychotic event a few weeks ago. The almonds already have fruit! Mr Tranquillo is looking for a later flowering variety to extend the season.
My productive organic orto reminds me of the wisdom contained in old Italian proverbs, based on the experience of centuries of vegetable growing by the Italian contadini, the rural peasants, who depended on a productive home garden for crops to be eaten fresh, stored, pickled or dried. Given that this class of farmer was often at the mercy of the landowner, working under the mezzadria, thetraditional share cropping system, a productive ‘home’ patch would have been essential to their survival.
With each turn around the garden, I can hear the vecchi, the old folk, reciting advice in the form of rhymes, the oral history of food and planting. I have selected a few gems to go with this season’s verdant bounty.
Chi pianta le fave senza concime, le raccoglie senza baccello – Those who plant broadbeans without fertiliser, picks them without pods.
Chi ha un buon orto, ha un buon porco. Those who have a good vegetable garden, have a good pig. We find this to be the case with chooks also: they love wild rocket and silverbeet.
Let me out…stamp, stamp, stamp.
Un piatto di lattuga l’insonnia mette in fuga. A plate of lettuce chases away insomnia.
L’insalata vuole il sale da un sapiente, l’aceto da un avaro, l’olio da un prodigo, vuol essere mescolata da un matto e mangiata da un affamato. A salad wants salt from a wise man, vinegar from a miser and oil from a squanderer, mixed by a madman and eaten by the hungry.
Lattuga romanella ripulisce la budella. Cos lettuce cleans the gut.
Simple dishes star this season,the cucina povera of theItalian contadini:
freshly made egg pasta with sage leaves browned in butter
frittata stuffed with herbs and wild greens, with ricotta saltata
orecchiette with turnip tops, garlic and anchovies
green salads wisely dressed
pies and tarts with silverbeet, dill, spring onions and mint, along with fetta
silver beet dolmades
salsa verde to dress fish or dill and walnut pesto to dress hard-boiled eggs
risotto with cavolo nero or radicchio
It’s all very green with the odd touch of bitter crimson. The planting of the summer fruiting vegetables has begun.
Julie’s Spring garden in the North Island of New Zealand is always inspiring, especially given her brilliant photography. Find her at frogpondfarm
Winter is a great time to check the vegetable garden’s infrastructure before being overwhelmed by the tasks of Spring. Five years ago when we moved into this property, we installed a tall fence around the perimeter of the garden. The base of the fence was then boarded, allowing mowing and brushcutting up to the edge, but the fencing wire was not buried. We should have known that the rabbits would keep finding weak points and enter by digging under the boards. Task number one is to rectify this problem. Time to call a working bee.
Last summer we installed hoops over half the garden beds, enabling us to attach shade cloth over the summer crops during the hot summer months. The hoops are made from ‘found’ reo ( metal reinforcing rods) which are cut into 1½ metre lengths then inserted into flexible poly piping. More hoops are required this season, to cover the remaining beds with stretchy cheap bird netting as a deterrent to the winter vandals, namely the cockatoos. These large birds love a winter raid. The guard cocky sits in the tallest tree, alerting his friends of our imminent arrival, though all our loud shooing and yelling has little effect. Down they swoop in large gangs, bombing any plant that they consider too tall, ugly or in the way. Last week the slow-growing broccoli plants became winter’s first victims. Some were sliced in half, others were pulled out of the ground. Just for fun! The 300 garlic plants are getting some height and look like the next target.
Keeping accurate rainfall records is an ingrained habit: we have records from this area dating back to the 8os. Winter rain tallies are important for many reasons. Melbourne can often be cold and dry in June and July, so watering becomes essential. This July we have received 104 mm, with a cumulative total of 491 mm for the year, comparing favourably with the figures from the July aggregate totals from recent years. (July’14- 340 mm, July ’13-300, July’12- 457, July ’11-537, July’10- 483). Let’s hope that the rain keeps up in Spring.
Our vegetable garden relies on dam water. The house is supplied by rainwater collected in tanks and is reserved for home use, topping up the swimming pool and emergencies, such as bushfire. We extended the dam, making it deeper and wider, soon after we arrived in our new abode. It filled quickly during a Spring downpour: we watched in awe as it went from empty to full in one afternoon, like a giant cappuccino in the making. During the dry months, water is pumped from the dam up to a 5000 litre holding tank on the ridge. The water is then gravity fed down to the garden, via underground pipes, as the vegetable garden is sited well below the tanks. Sometimes the lines get blocked or are slowed down and need the filters changed. This is another winter task.
Our beautiful Dexter cows, Delilah (the bitch) Sad Aunty Derry, Skinny Duffy and the boys, Dougie and Oh Danny Boy (the rogue), give us a bountiful supply of manure as do the chooks. The manure is layered into large bins, along with dry leaves (carbon), and green matter (kitchen waste and green clippings): the resulting ‘lasagne’ puffs away for three months until ready for use with each new season. We have around five bins in various stages of maturation. Well made compost is the answer to successful organic growing, along with adequate water, mulching, and siting the garden away from shade or large rooted trees. East and north sun are key factors, along with protection from the South West, the main source of our destructive winds.
Winter lettuces come in all colours and flavours. They are picked every few days, washed then spun and bagged. Unlike the supermarket packets of uniform ‘baby’ leaves, gassed and given a mandatory wash in bleach, home-grown lettuces are delightfully irregular, and often come with stems attached. The current mix includes Cos, butterhead, red oakleaf, red butterhead, rocket and baby radicchio.
Looking for more garden inspiration? Check out this month’s vegetable garden posts on Lizzie’s Garden Share Collective from Monday, August 3.