Just when I thought we had turned the corner, and winter had signaled an early arrival, along came a big sunny weekend, throwing me back into the sensuality of summer and late autumn. There’s a hot breeze blowing today: outside a lawn mower buzzes somewhere in the distance and the roar, now approaching now distant, of weekend Harley motorbike riders echoes along the valley below. If you listen carefully, there are insects too, a neighbour’s dog, and other domestic sounds, but still no jet noise above.
My kitchen routines happily shifted into winter mode last month. After the first cup of tea, I get stuck into things early- soaking the beans, feeding the sourdough levain or baking bread, making stock with leftover bits of vegetable, and deciding on the two meals of the day. Anzac biscuits always appear in April and the first of the Nanna soups are made, an old fashioned thing based on Mckenzie’s soup mix, the most comforting of soups. It’s a seasonal shift and one I really enjoy. But with this recent May Indian summer, we are back working in the vegetable patch, getting sunburnt, layering compost, and picking the last of the borlotti beans, small zucchini and yellow cherry tomatoes. Another bucket of late picked figs arrives to laze about on the north facing windowsill- if we leave the doors open, European wasps find their way straight to the ledge to seek out that ruby jammy flesh. The long lasting red peppers keep ripening. I’m yet to find a recipe for these but may dry some, make some Biber Salcasi or preserve them sott’olio, under oil. The summer – autumn season has been hugely productive this year but now I’m looking forward to the chards, bitter leaves, snow peas and brassicas of the coming season.
This month’s In My Kitchen is largely a photo post of the food that I enjoyed picking or cooking recently. As I read the posts of other contributors, especially those of my North American friends, I can almost hear that big sigh of relief and joy as they embark on their first dinner party or interstate family visit, now that they’re immunized. ( See Mae’s post here) It’s a liberating feeling for sure and I feel much the same way. Thanks Sherry for hosting this monthly roundup. See Sherry’s Pickings for other like minded kitchen posts.
It’s tomato time once again and that means passata making month. We grow a wide variety of tomatoes each year, but always reserve two beds for saucing tomatoes, either Roma or San Marzano, both cultivars of egg shaped tomatoes. This year I grew San Marzano from seed, starting in late winter. I planted out 12 seedlings and made sure they were well spaced, at around 35- 40cms apart, which guarantees a bigger crop. They are situated in full sun all day, another factor in considering the siting of your tomatoes. San Marzano and Roma tomatoes store well as their thick skins prevent early rotting or splitting. In the height of the fruiting season we harvest around 5 kilo per day: I’m pleased to see the crops slowing down now dwindling to around one kilo per day.
Dealing with this constant flushing means addressing sauce making in a very different way from the big annual sauce making day favoured by many. I don’t have a cool room or sufficient fridge space to store masses of tomatoes so we make sauce every second or third day. The following approach takes around 10 minutes of preparation, and minimal equipment. The resulting thick sauce captures the taste of summer to use throughout the colder months. The sauce consists of tomatoes only, no basil, herbs or garlic.
What you need:
3 kilo of San Marzano tomatoes or similar egg shaped tomatoes
a large heavy based stainless steel stock pot
an old fashioned mouli or passatutto ( metal hand cranked food mill) with larger holed disc.
rectangular plastic storage containers
Weigh the tomatoes and wash them if necessary. Remove ends and half, or quarter if very large. Throw them into the stock pot and cook on high heat for approximately 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure they don’t catch on the base of the pan. Place your mouli over a bowl. Pour the mushy tomatoes into the mouli. Once all the juice has fallen through, turn the mill to extract the remaining pulp. Scrape the thick pulp from beneath the holed plate and add to puree. Discard the skins and other left overs in the mouli. Return pulp to the stock pot and cook on medium heat for around 30- 40 minutes to reduce and thicken. When cool, place into plastic storage containers. Label with date and freeze.
Yield. 3 kilos will yield around 1.5 litres or so of thick passata/two tubs of 750 mls.
My mouli is one of my most useful tools. It’s easy to clean, easy to store and fast to use. It’s the perfect implement when you want a certain texture to your food. Sometimes they turn up in opportunity shops so if you see one, grab it. They come with two or three interchangeable discs.
Interesting Uses for passata.
I deliberately leave my passata plain so that it can be used in a variety of cuisines. Once defrosted, I cook half with some garlic in olive oil, dried oregano and a little tomato paste to use in the week’s supply of Italian dishes such as pizza, pasta, eggplant parmigiana, or Italian soups such as Pasta e Ceci or Minestrone. The remaining un flavoured passata is added to Indian or Chinese dishes. Last night I made a quick Indian sauce using passata with added garlic, some homemade tomato kasundi, and cream. This was used to sauce some lentil balls and became a quick version of Malai Kofta. It was a huge success, and consequently I now must make this year’s batch of Kasundi, which also uses another kilo of plain tomato thick passata. A few spoons of passata can be added to a stir fry along with soy or oyster sauce. Passata enriched with onion, garlic, chilli and smoked pimento is an excellent sauce for baked beans. And when tomatoes are sad and woody in winter, enliven them with a tub of passata to make a brunch shakshuka.
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.
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.
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 voilà, you’ll have seedlings. Parsley seeds may take a little longer, as it’s said they go to hell and back before germinating.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 — a potent greenhouse gas — when it rots.’¹
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.
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.
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.
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 Solutionssells 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Have you ever noticed the cost of organic garlic? Australian organic garlic retails for around $30 or more a kilo ( €20/US$22). Other non organic garlic is a little less, while in the latter half of the year, the only garlic available commercially comes via Mexico and Argentina, which looks better than the snow-white mesh bags of Chinese bleached ‘garlic’. I would rather go garlic free than eat these nasty lumps of poison. If you love garlic, choose the best. Source seasonal garlic from a farmers’ market. Flavour and economy are two of the main reasons why I grow my own, but I have to admit, I love harvesting garlic and watching the early colours change from deep crimson and purple to pale white striped mauve after they dry. Beautiful bunches of garlic always remind me of French country markets, alchemy, rustic food and good health. Long live garlic.
Growing garlic is time-consuming, which might explain why one head of organic garlic costs around $1.50. I’ll outline the steps here, in laywoman’s terms, for those who may be interested in growing a few. For those without a small patch of earth to dig around in, just enjoy this season’s garlic pics.
When to Plant
I usually start planting out cloves during Autumn, from late April to the end of May and do this in stages, thus staggering the final harvest dates. The old adage which advises that garlic must be planted by the shortest day, winter solstice, works as a rough guide, but I am finding that most of these old guides no longer work for me. If you leave your garlic till June 21st, expect a poor crop or none at all. The temperature of the earth is perfect for garlic in the last month of Autumn, providing just enough warmth to get green shoots going before winter. Given that garlic takes around 6-7 months to mature, it makes more sense to harvest them in late November, rather than during the busy December month. Last year I lost one bed of garlic planted in mid June and I can only put this down to the drop in ground temperature and soggy soil. The little cloves rotted and vanished. Of course the timing of planting will vary from region to region. I live in a cool temperate zone. Tap into local knowledge to find the best time to plant in your own area.
Choose your best looking cloves when planting. Keep some fine specimens from your previous harvest and plant these. If you choose little cloves, you will most likely produce little bulbs. The asexual reproduction of garlic means that what you plant is what you harvest, so choose your cloves wisely. It is said that garlic reproduced in this way will eventually lose its vigour, and that one should revert to seed at some point, a process that takes years. I am yet to notice any loss of vigour in the plants at our current farm. Your soil needs to be fertile and friable. Hard clay isn’t suitable as the little bulbs need to expand easily. Push the flatter end of the cloves into the soil: the top or pointy end should be just below the surface. Plant cloves about 10 cm apart, in rows about 40 cm apart. It’s a good idea to mulch lightly over the soil once the green shoots appear. Organic sugar cane mulch works well. Given that your garlic will be in the ground for at least 6 months, you don’t want them having to compete with weeds for moisture and nutrition. If Winter and early Spring is dry, you’ll need to water the crop. Most of my crop was smaller than average this year. This was due to very low rainfall from late Winter to Spring when we were away and unable to water. Smaller bulbs still taste good but are tedious to peel. These little underground gems need watering just like any other plant. Towards harvest time, hold off watering.
Harvesting occurs when the stalks begin to dry out and seed pods form at the top. I usually dig out a few in early November and start eating the immature specimens, the stalk included. By digging them up occasionally, you’ll be able to gauge their development. If you leave them too long, the cloves begin to separate and open like a flower: while still tasty, these don’t store as well as tightly closed garlic bulbs.
After pulling the garlic, clean the bulbs as soon as possible. I use a damp cloth to remove dirt and baked on mud. It’s important to clean them before bunching and hanging as later cleaning is far more tedious and you don’t want to introduce any dampness to a perfectly dried garlic. Hang the garlic under an airy verandah, well protected from rain and harsh northern sun. They may take a few weeks to thoroughly dry and harden. Well cured garlic will store longer.
After drying, the fun begins. Rub away the outer skins and along the stem to reveal the clove shapes. Most of the dark purple papery skin disappears, revealing soft mauve and white underneath. You might like to plait a few if you have grown soft necked garlic. Most of my garlic stems are too hard to bend into plaits so I make a few nice bunches to display in the kitchen. The rest get cut and stored in a dark spot, usually in a close weaved covered basket, or a container that can breathe, or in a hessian sack inside a terracotta pot.
I’ve featured photos of bulbils in my header photo and throughout the post. Bulbils form when a scape is allowed to mature. The scape is the stalk growing out of a garlic bulb. Although it is sometimes called a ‘garlic flower’ it is not really a flower. Like cloves from a bulb, bulbils propagate garlic vegetatively and the bulbs that grow from them are clones of the parent plant. This year we found a mysterious bed full of excellent garlic that I definitely did not plant. I vaguely recall throwing around a few handfuls of bulbils around two years ago. During summer, they produced stems that looked more like chives. They grew under the shade of a rampant pumpkin vine. These chive like bunches developed, untouched, over two years, and turned into my star garlic for the year.
A few notes.
The medicinal properties of garlic are well-known. A short paper on the history of garlic used medicinally can be found in the link below.
But then the Italian contadini always knew this, as these old proverbs corroborate:
L’aglio è la farmacia dei contadini. Garlic is the peasant farmer’s pharmacy.
L’aglio è la spezieria dei contadini. The same as above. A ‘spezieria’ was a workshop – laboratory in ancient times where medicines were prepared by an apothecary. The monasteries were famous for their spezierie.Bulbils broken into little gem like cloves.
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?
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 Italianità 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.
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.
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 10ºc: 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.
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?
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.
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.
I am still being challenged by the cucumber plague and now give most of them away. Come and help yourselves.
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.
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.
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.
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.
new/late tomato plants
Huge lemongrass plant.
Greek basil hangs on, rows of peas are planted in the middle.
Succhini love affair
new crop of strawberries.
The heart of darkness. Radicchio hearts beginning to form.
Such a long season. Zucchini Striati still producing well.
new pumpkins- will they have time to mature?
borlotti beans are my favourite.
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.
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.
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.
When I first studied Keats’ Ode to Autumn as a 17-year-old student, I was naive, optimistic and ignorant, full of expectation and youthful determination. The possibilities of life stretched out endlessly before me. I was in the Spring of my life: this metaphor, now considered clichéd, was not lost on me at the time, but then again, how could I have fully understood the real depth of this Keatsian analogy, not having travelled very far through the successive seasons of life. My literature teacher laid strong foundations for future and deeper understandings. Good literature requires frequent visitations.
‘To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core.’
I’m now in the Autumn of my life and am delighted to be here: I wouldn’t want to be 18, or 38 or 55 still. Those times were good: each season brought blessings and joys, angst and worry. Each season does. I just happen to love Autumn more and cling to whatever this season brings, knowing that my winter is not so far away.
‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun.’
I visit the vegetable garden now and am rewarded with the products of our particular Summer: volatile and untrustworthy, youthful and full of energy, promises are made and broken. Patience is important when dealing with summer. Autumn is long and slow, with cool beginnings, windless warm days and soft pink, crimson, turning to tangerine sunsets. The ‘conspiracy’ is now over: we are loaded and blessed with fruits and vegetables and I’m not in a hurry to tamper with the season or hurry it along.
Hiding along walkways, slow maturing pumpkins need another two lazy months before they surrender their sweetness and hard flesh for storing. Meanwhile, the zucchini are on display again, more loud and showy than the petite summer offerings: new flowers, bees and prolific fruits appear daily. Large seed filled zeppelins appear far too quickly now.
‘To swell the gourd’
There could be a part two to my Keatsian story: to think that we have only just begun our gentle waltz through Autumn.
My previous Keatsian posts can be viewed here and the full verse can be found here.
I know, dear readers and my good friend Helen, that I have mentioned my tomato glut in many other posts but I must mention two particular tomato varieties that featured in my vegetable garden this year. Firstly, the miniature yellow pear, which quickly became a triffid and bore fruit throughout December (unusual in Melbourne) and continues to do so. I attempted to weigh the crop but soon tired of this chore- many have been left on the vine as I couldn’t keep up with them.
The next tomato I promised to report on was the black-skinned tomato that my son grew from seeds purchased on eBay. They did eventually turn red and are in no way related to the more desirable Krim or Black Russian but go by the name ‘Indigo Rose’. They are blue tomatoes engineered at the Oregon State University. They are prolific, long keepers and medium-sized but sadly, they lack true tomato flavour so I won’t be growing these next year.
My favourite tomato, Rouge de Marmande cropped poorly this year and the Roma has called it quits already and it is only March! The season has been odd- one very hot spell in December, followed be a cool summer. Even the basil is slow.
The cool summer has meant an abundant supply of strawberries : they have produced continually for months and early self seeding of radicchio, rainbow chard and cavolo nero. You win some, you lose some with each season.
This year Alberto tied up the leeks and spring onions onto stakes. Their seed is now ready. They make great architectural statements in the veggie patch.
I have recycled lots of household junk. This basic clothes airer is used to support cucumber vines. The legs bury nicely into the soil.
I saved my disintegrating pool lounge chairs and turned them into shade houses to protect lettuce seed and young seedlings from drying out. I sow directly into the ground.
And here’s the pillow end of the old pool chair, ready to provide some instant shade wherever it’s needed. No land fill, no tipping fees- just re-purposed junk.
To do list:
remove shade cloth from the hooped frames now that the weather has turned mild.
make more compost
sow autumn vegetable seedlings, lettuce, carrots, spring onions, brocolli.
transplant self-sown seedlings as keeping them in the same bed will deplete them of goodness. Crop rotation makes sense.
remove bird nets from raspberry beds and cut back some of the canes.
pick all the grapes.
A good visitor to my veggie patch is this little ladybird beetle.
The veggie patch has also benefited greatly from the manure provided by our cows and hens. Here is young Dougie Dexter begging me for another cow lolly ( acorn). I would like to sell him and his cousin Oh Danny Boy but I don’t want them to end up on a BBQ!
Not only does this post from a monthly record of food gardening activities, it also features in the Garden Share Collective, kindly coordinated by Lizzie. Follow the link to see other amazing gardens throughout Australia, New Zealand and United Kingdom.