Sunday, January 31, 2010

Harvest recipes and family traditions

Got a glut? How fabulous.
You might be surprised to know how many vegetables, beside the usual suspects, can be frozen: tomatoes, for example, can just be thrown straight into the freezer. They'll never grace a salad again but are fine for cooking - even cherry tomatoes.

Same with passionfruit. And onions, although slice them first. Eggplants, zucchini, etc, should be sauteed lightly then cooled before freezing. Leafy vegetables need to be blanched in boiling water or preferably steamed, then cooled.

But this year I have gone a bit mad on the bottling, for the first time. It's a family tradition, in a way, but I'd never done it myself. So I started with...

My great-aunt Myrtle kept us all supplied with home-grown, home-bottled beetroot for years and it beat all hell out of the canned stuff.
I just recently inherited her recipe books and I can see from her notes that one year she made 39 jars.
I made about six. But my next batch of beetroot is still growing so it ain't over yet.
First, remove the tops (you can cook these like spinach, with olive oil, lemon and garlic), wash the beetroot, but try not to damage the skin. Leave the little roots - if you cut them off at this point, it will bleed colour out.
Then boil the beetroot. Mine are smallish and take about 45 minutes. Drain and let them cool enough to handle.
For the next bit, I suggest you don some rubber gloves or you'll look like an alien for hours later.
Take the skin off each beetroot with your fingers - it'll just squeeze off. Then you just put them into the jars, in whatever configuration you like: chunks, whole if they are baby beets, or slices if you want to pretend they are Golden Circle. Chop off the tops and roots unless you like them for aesthetic reasons.

Top the jars up with whatever quantity you need of the following mixture:
- Half a cup water
- Third cup red wine or sherry vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- Half teaspoon of salt
- A few grinds of pepper.


Raspberry Jam
I remember traipsing all over the place as a kid, collecting blackberries in our buckets, in great neighbourhood gangs, and my mum stirring up huge quantities of jam over the stove.
It's a bit sad you can't collect blackberries now in case they've been sprayed. It was nasty work but fun in a way. I'm thinking I might invest in some non-invasive blackberries next season.
I have to admit my first batch of jam was cheating because it wasn't with my own produce. My raspberry plants haven't fruited yet and even if they had they wouldn't last uneaten long enough to be made into jam.
(I was inspired by my aunt's efforts, sampled at Christmas. I won't go into my entire family tree, but this is Marls, a different aunt - just as great in spirit but not technically a "great-aunt". And a professional home economist.)
Anyway, I used frozen raspberries, as she had, because they are a great deal cheaper. You can get them at supermarkets but since then I've noticed plenty of farmgate producers offer them, and that's probably nicer fruit.
You can do it in the microwave or on the stove. I used the microwave but frankly it was pretty slow. Depends on your machine.

This is what I did:
- 500 grams raspberries
- 500 grams sugar (I used jam setting sugar)
- Juice of one lime

Chuck it all in a heavy microwave-proof jug and stir. Bung it on High for two minutes then stir again. Keep doing that until it sets.

Mine was pretty slow, so next time I'll just do it the old-fashioned way, stirring it at a rapid boil in a saucepan on the stove.

How do you know it's set?
Put a saucer in the freezer and after a few goes (I should think at least 8 minutes) put a teaspoon of jam on the saucer. Tip the saucer and give it a little push with your finger. If it wrinkles, it's set. (Lick saucer.)

That's it. Splosh into jars through your groovy jar funnel (see below) or spoon it in and get jam everywhere. Your choice.

Traditional tomato sauce
Auntie Myrt also made a mean tomato sauce. The odd bottle would fizz when you opened it, from fermentation, but apart from that it was inspired.
So this year my cousin Al and I decided to reinstitute the tradition.
Al once asked Myrt what her secret was: she answered, "SauceSetta from Coles", with which profound disappointment we have lived for years. But her old recipe books tell a different story.
So this is the recipe we used (slightly adapted from good old Cookery the Australian Way) and it turns out to be almost exactly the same as Myrt's (hers included apples, which may be why it turned into cider).
But, to our utter astonishment, it's bloody sensational.

- 5 kilo ripe tomatoes
- 1 clove garlic
- 6 pimento (allspice)
- 2 teaspoons mustard seeds
- 12 cloves
- Eighth teaspoon cayenne pepper
- Two and a half cups red wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons salt
- One and a half cups sugar

Wash the tomatoes, cut in half, take out core thingy at the top. Cook them with the garlic and spices until they are pulp, stirring frequently.
The book says to strain it through a colander but we decided life was too short and Bamixed the hell out of it. (That did mean we had to fish out the pimentos later, though.)
Add the other ingredients and cook, stirring frequently for 90 minutes. Ours took about an extra 20 minutes. You know when it's right when you put a dob on a plate and it doesn't all separate into liquid or fruit solids.
Funnel it into sterilised bottles, and Bob's your uncle. Which indeed he is, in both our cases.

I can see myself making a year's supply of pesto over the next few weeks. Happily, it's very easy. This is sort of Stephanie Alexander's recipe from Kitchen Garden Companion, but it's pretty standard. You can also make it with rocket, or with coriander and cashews - rather than pine nuts - though I don't hold with that bollocks.

- 1 cup basil (cram as much into that cup as you can)
- 80 grams good Parmesan, grated
- Half a cup good extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic
- Quarter cup pine nuts.
- Salt (also good)

Stick everything but the cheese (new band name?) into the blender and push that button until it's all smooth. You might need to stick a spatula into it a few times. Of course, you will take your finger off the Pulse button first, won't you?
Add the cheese and pulse just a little moment longer.

When it's in the jar, push it down carefully so there are no air pockets and cover it with a layer of olive oil.
Keep it in the fridge. We top up the layer of oil if we use any, but frankly it gets used pretty fast around here.

Jars, bottles and lids
You can recycle old jam jars or pasta sauce jars or anything, but the research says you need to get clean lids, especially if you're making something that needs to last for months.
You can order lids from Green Living Australia (and all sorts of other contraptions too.) I got a packet from my favourite nursery, Bulleen Art & Garden.
You can also get quite good jars from The Reject Shop at half the price ($2 or $3 depending on size) you'll find them in homewares stores.
Of course any Op Shop will have a million jars too. That's where I finally found enough bottles for the sauce. These also had to have new rubber sealing rings (from Mitre10).

Preparing jars and bottles
All jars and bottles, even if they look clean, need to be washed again (chuck 'em through the dishwasher) and sterilised before you put anything in them. For many things, this is simple.
Boil up a stockpot full of water and stick the jars and lids in it, then leave them to drain dry before you put jam or anything else in them.

Now, I have a theory: if something's worth doing, it's worth having accessories. Lots of accessories. A good-sized freezer is a start.

For any sort of preserving you will need a big stock pot with a heavy base. We used Aunty Myrt's pot for the tomato sauce, mostly for sentimental reasons, but agreed a big preserving pan for the bottle-boiling would have been a great deal easier.

A batter jug also makes life easier, but a mixing bowl is OK if you have a decent funnel. But I love my batter jug and use it for everything. Except batter.

My jam-making aunt showed me with great glee a jar funnel she had picked up somewhere: a stainless steel funnel with a wide spout that fits into the jar lid so stuff doesn't go everywhere. A beautiful thing. I scoured the world for one and finally found it on sale (about $10) in David Jones.

Jam will start to set when it hits 105 degrees Celsius. So a candy thermometer (about $8) can help.

I also found after the first round of jar scalding in boiling water that I needed a bit of help, so I bought a pair of tongs with silicon grabbers (whatever the technical term is) which made life so much easier. You'll also want nearby a few clean tea towels for helping manage the hot jars and lids.

Of course there is no end to the other accessories one could get, or you can improvise if you don't have a gear fetish, but these are the basics.

Excellent advice and more recipes are available on my new favourite site: Nonsuch Kitchen Gardens.

Good luck and buon appetito!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Things I learned this summer (so far)

1. If you live on a block full of gum trees you will never ever be "fire ready".
2. It's a myth that possums won't climb any wire that wobbles: they will if there are ripening pears on the other side.
3. Chooks don't like it when it's 44 degrees.
4. Seedlings with daggy old labels from some old family grower bear four times as many eggplants as those with groovy branding.
5. You have to plant three times as many peas as you think you'd ever need or you only get a dozen at once.
6. No matter how tough you think your favourite loppers are, when faced with a 40-year-old rambling rose you may be better off walking to the shed and getting your pruning saw (this is much faster than finding spare parts for your favourite lopper).
7. Never buy a cheap line trimmer.
8. In fact, if you have a bush backyard, don't even bother with a line trimmer. Spend more money on a bladed brush cutter.
9. (See 7, above) Don't throw out your receipts.
10. Don't get too excited when the Council erects signs announcing fire prevention works along your road - erecting the sign is the only tangible thing that will happen
11. Chain saws rock.
12. Bushfire fuel reduction is best started in winter, so you don't spend every precious spring and early summer weekend missing out on proper gardening.
13. Blue-tongues look pretty damn scary in the twilight.
14. Just keep feeding citrus. They eat more than you.
15. Pindone works.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Gardening in pyjamas

38 degrees yesterday. 31 today. 41 tomorrow.
So it's out early with the buckets of leftover shower and kitchen water, plus a little squirt from the tank. (I fear I may have been a bit profligate with the tank water early in the summer.)
The seedlings are suffering: lettuce, chard, beetroot. The citrus are sulking. The tomatoes and eggplants are growing five inches a day.
Like everyone else in Melbourne and half of Victoria, I spend an inordinate amount of time in the early mornings lugging buckets about and dribbling water rather meanly onto priority plants.
For me, food is the priority, followed by relatively new plantings that might need a very occasional helping hand, and a couple of young grevilleas that got inundated by caterpillars and all their new growth chewed. Everything else just has to cope - or not. They mostly cope, because I just don't buy or plant anything that has high water needs.
It's far too hot for gardening the rest of the day, so the early morning is also the best time for trimming, spraying, and of course harvesting. Evening is the time for deadheading, vaguely staring at things and pottering.
This morning I brought in the last of the tree onions. I just love how they are known as Egyptian Walking Onions. I have visions of little onions walking like Egyptians all over the veggie patch, singing happily to themselves.
But I'm not letting them walk - that is, normally they would bend over so the tiny bulblets on the ends of the stems touch the ground and plant themselves. I've put the bulblets in a string bag for planting later in the year as I have to rotate them to another part of the patch.
The early morning watering and pottering means I am always to be seen gardening in pyjamas and things (plus hat and sunnies on weekends). It's a good look. Luckily nobody can see me. At least, only the odd local walking their dog along the river. The other week one of them surprised me - he'd lost his dog and shouted out to me to ask if I'd seen it. I was in the chook house in my dressing gown at the time.
At present I'm reading Monty Don's gorgeous Ivington Diaries, his journal of several years of building and maintaining a beautiful and productive English country garden. His entries for January and February involve frost, rain, floods and snow and not being able to get out into the garden in the daytime. Mine involve bushfire fuel raking and the scent of lavender and hot tomatoes. Last entry I read, he was pricking out rocket seedlings in the potting shed early one morning. I just chuck a handful of rocket seeds on the ground and off they go.
It's a world away from here - on every possible level.
But on the other hand, we're both gardening in our pyjamas.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Weeding really can get you down

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
seem to me all the uses of this world.
Fie on't! O fie! 'Tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in Nature
possess it merely.

~ Hamlet