Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Greetings: Chitting and Chatting

Christmas greetings to everyone and I hope you find some peace in your own Lake Lacuna.

Chitting:  Mr Curly's goat cart leads me nicely to a potato topic - one of those easy to grow, almost round-year crops that are so versatile.   I think crunchy, golden potatoes roasted in duck fat are one of the best things about a Christmas dinner - in fact potatoes just about done any old way would make my husband happy (I think it must be the legacy of those English school dinners!)  Chitting potatoes is the term old gardeners, like my father, would use for forcing the potatoes to grow shoots before you plant them by placing them in a cool, dark place for a while.  This almost guarantees success.

Harvesting potatoes
When you are ready to plant just mound up the soil that you have enriched with compost and pop them in about 50cm apart - they don't like a heavy clay soil.  As they grow, pile up straw around the stem.  The potatoes grow from shoots on the stem and unless you do this 'hilling' you end up with a smaller crop and green potatoes from too much light.

Harvest after about six weeks. There's nothing quite like freshly dug new potatoes, and you can now also increase your scintillating conversational repertoire chatting about  'chitting' and 'hilling'.  

TOP TIP:  I am writing this with raw potato poultices stuck to my 'once' very painful achilles tendons (achilles tendonitis).  Potatoes, particularly the skin and just under it, contain high levels of potassium (plus calcium, iron and phosphorus) and greatly assist with helping bruising and painful swelling.  Just grate some raw potato and attach it to the painful area with glad wrap or a bandage.  Repeat every couple of hours until the swelling and pain goes.  It's the only thing that has worked for me!

Thank you to the 3,000 plus people who have followed my blog since it started five months ago and especially those who have given me feedback and made comments - let me tell you, it is nothing but a pleasure for me.  I think you all deserve a Christmas present so here we go.

Luscious and Interesting Plants for your Garden:
'Datura'  Brugmansia sauveolens This apricot variety in my garden has large trumpet flowers, an interesting plant shape and wonderful exotic fragrance - especially at nightfall.

 A native of South and Central America it easy to grow from a cutting.  Just prune it back hard after flowering because it can get leggy.

It is renowned for having hallucinogenic properties so I wouldn't recommend munching on it - besides the perfume is heady enough to get you high!

The extensive family of strange, but beautiful, 'Beehive Gingers' with the flowers appearing like little orchids or crab claws out of the waxy bracts.

The 'cones' are long lasting, make beautiful cut-flowers and come in a vast range of colours from golden, scarlet - through to chocolate.  Zingiber spectabile.  The upright leaf stems give an exotic tropical feel to the semi-shade parts of the garden and grow from 1-1.5m.

I first came across this stunning climber at my neighbour Clive and Belinda's place - I love to be surprised by a plant I have never encountered before - especially something as gorgeous as this.  The glorious fragrance and beautiful flowers make a spectacular show. They cleverly use it to cover their pergola to give them some summer shade but then let in the winter sun because it tends to be deciduous in our area.  I have used it to cover and arbour that leads to my terraced garden and is in it's full glory over Christmas.

Vigna caracalla - otherwise known as 'Snail Vine' - the mauve, purple and white flowers look like curled up snails.

A leguminous vine from South America it develops long brown pods with seeds that are easy to propagate. It's a great plant for making use of the vertical spaces in our gardens - something, I think, we don't do enough of. 

NOTE:  My two older grand-daughters (6 and 8) recently put entries into the local country Bangalow show - I think their entries were flower arranging and biscuit making.  I noticed that another of the entry categories was 'gluton free chocolate cake' - a 'typo' that put a smile on my face.  A peaceful and loving 2012 to everyone - and happy gardening and cooking.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Recipe: Peach Chutney, Jam and Ice-Cream

Being in the sub-tropics, the local stone-fruit farm in Bangalow has only a small season of production from October to November, but you really have to get there to take advantage of the wonderful peaches and nectarines that are ripe and luscious for those few precious weeks.

I have been picking up cases of speck fruit (slightly damaged) for $4.  You just need the time (and jars) to then turn them into something delicious that will last for the whole year - the alchemy of cooking! It is worth just the drive home with the smell of ripe peaches in the car.  Jars of jam and chutney also make fabulous Christmas gifts.

Peach Chutney

2 red onions, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely crushed
4 cm fresh ginger, finely grated
4 sticks lemon grass, white part only, finely sliced
1/2 tsp black pepper
3 kg peaches, chopped
2 cups brown sugar
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tsp salt

Cook the whole lot up for 30-40 mins until slightly thickened and syrupy.  Put in pre-washed an heated jars.  Seal when cool.  Great with Christmas turkey, ham and cheese.

Peach and Rhubarb (optional) Jam
(I add the rhubarb to take the edge of the sweetness and help set the jam a bit better - but you can leave it out)
2 kilos stoned and chopped peaches
1/2 kilo rhubarb, chopped

Barely cover the fruit with water.
Measure how many cups of fruit pulp you have because you will need the same in sugar.
Bring the fruit to the boil and simmer for 30 mins.
Add the warmed (if you are making this in winter) measured sugar.
Bring to the boil and simmer until a skin begins to form around the edge of the pan (or when it gels when dropped onto the back of a cold saucer - the way my mother used to do it).
Put in washed and sterile jars and seal when cool.

Peach Ice Cream

6 eggs beaten
3 1/2 cups white sugar
10 fresh peaches, pureed
4 cups heavy cream
2 cups yoghurt or light cream
2 tsp vanilla essence
1 tbs lemon juice
3/4 tsp salt

Have all ingredients very cold.
Mix eggs and sugar in bowl until creamy
Add pureed peaches to sugar/egg mixture
Stir in all other ingredients and put in ice-cream maker until churned

This is so yummy.  Fresh and slightly tangy.  Will keep in the freezer for up to three weeks.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Fragrant Garden: White flowers

Frangipani.  Plumeria rubra (almost white!)
There is nothing better on a summers evening than sitting out in the garden with a cold glass of wine and taking in the wonderful smells and listening - listening to the birds calling and cooing, the green tree frogs racketting in the drainpipes, the catyatids drumming down in the creek ( and the mosquitoes buzzing!)  But, most of all, just drinking in the fragrances.  At the moment it's mostly from white flowers: magnolia, gardenia, frangipani and mock orange.

If you have ever wondered why white flowers tend to smell most fragrant at nightfall it is because they are mostly pollinated by moths that find their way to the flowers by the white glow of the petals and strong perfume - plus the seduction of nectar.

Gardenia magnifica
I love white flowers - particularly the gardenias flowering now in all the gardens around me.  There is one for every aspect - small and compact Gardenia radicans, middle-sized shrub Gardenia 'Professor Pucci' and the head-high Gardenia magnifica.   I love their glossy green leaves, their beautiful irregular flowers with their matt ivory petals, but most of all I love their fragrance.  I have a lot of white flowers in my garden and had a 'love at first sight' for white and silver gardens when I went to Sisinghurst Castle (Kent, UK) for the first time in the 1980's (it's glory years!).  This was the home and garden of Vita Sackville West and her husband Harold Nicholson - debatably the template for modern English (world?) garden design with a focus on formal design and informal planting.  I know when I went there the first time, late one summer's evening I said to my husband - "Well I can happily die now because I have seen heaven and it is wonderful"

Sissinghurst.  White Garden with climbing rose
Vita was an eccentric disinherited aristocrat who made her money by writing - she had a long running gardening column in the English dailies - on the periphery of the Bloomsbury Group.  Her husband and she were both actively bisexual - now that would make for an interesting marriage! - but, if their letters and diaries are anything to go by, they loved each other to their dying days. Harold, a British diplomat, was appointed to the court of Shah of Persia and Vita's story of her trip overland to meet him in Tehran for the Sha's coronation makes fascinating  reading (Passenger to Tehran, 1926)  Harold too was a wonderful writer and diarist of his life and times - his books still make fascinating reading.
Sissinghurst - formal design with informal planting

At Sissinghurst she wrote in a tower with a view over her beloved White Garden - while Harold, the children (two sons) and a few servants lived in outbuildings scattered over the estate (sounds sensible to me!) I was recently listening to an old interview with her son Nigel who said that, in his mother's lifetime, he was only allowed twice into her tower. 

The White Garden, viewed from her tower, was created to glow in the dark on moonlit nights - to comfort, inspire and perfume her solitary musings.  It also broke a lot of gardening 'rules' i.e. massed plantings of one colour and using a living structure as support for a climber (in the centre of the White Garden was an old apple tree and growing through it was a white climbing rose cascading over the branches - a wonderful sight to behold).  The apple tree has long gone but the rose is still there supported by a conventional pergola. 

Sissinghurst, and English gardens of the same era like those of Gertrude Jekyll, Edward Lutyens and the Lloyds at Great Dixter, created a template in garden design that has been enjoyed and copied over and over again ever since - that is, formal design (creating rooms within rooms) and informal planting.

Mock Orange.  Murraya paniculata
Now we get to the regal queen of the garden - a particular favourite of mine.  It is worth having a Magnolia grandiflora 'Little Gem' for the fragrance alone - subtle lemon with jasmine undertone - let alone the flowers - wow!!! I have had one in a pot, as a focal point in my garden, for about five years.  It will happily keep on flowering as long as you prune off the old flower heads because it only flowers on the current seasons growth (plus you don't want energy wasted going into making seed heads). This is a very underused plant in Australia which the warmer parts of Europe have taken to their heart.  I was amazed the first time I saw this beautiful plant (not the dwarf one) espaliered all over the side of an old villa in France - then seeing it repeated over and again in Italy and Greece.  

There are no rules for this, just fun and beautiful results.  Try out a 'Vita garden' in a spot at your place with white flowers and plants with silver foliage - it doesn't take long to see and smell the results.  If you don't have room,  all of the plants mentioned make fine pot specimens - just be generous with the pot size and remember to feed them because they don't have access to nutrients from the soil.
NOTE:  A friend, whose eyesight is not so good, told me that she has recently planted the lovely native shrub/herb Cats Whiskers( Orthosiphon aristatus) along the path to her front door to 'light' her way home in the dark.

What is beautiful is good, and who is good will soon be beautiful.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Recipe: Broad Beans

I think broad beans are worth having just for the plants alone.  I love their winter flowering that has a tiny pink blush on the petals (like they have been stained with raspberry juice), and their slightly fragrant flowers looking like butterflies clustered on a stick.  And then you get the edible pods!

NOTE: To encourage 'bushiness' pinch out the tips when they are about 1m high - you can eat those too in salads.

Growing Broad Beans (Vicia faba):  Known as fava beans in America these are one of the easiest beans to grow.  They are not a summer bean however, and need to be planted late summer for spring harvesting - but they are frost hardy.  Sow the seeds in a bed that has been enriched with some good compost/composted manure/ or composted grass clippings. Give it a feed of blood and bone and dolomite (to raise the pH slightly as the pea and bean family prefer slightly more alkaline soil)- 1 handful of each per square metre.  Water well until the shoots are through and about 15cm high - you can then pretty much leave them alone unless you have a very dry period.  Plant a few together so that they can support each other as they get taller.

Vaucluse House Kitchen Garden
Broad beans are a favourite vegetable of mine with their nutty flavour, but I learned even more about them on my last trip to Sydney thanks to my Greek friend Despina.  The Greeks have a whole repertoire of cooking broad beans at every stage of their development, and I was lucky enough to get some dishes cooked for me or have the recipes passed on.

It all started on a walk around the kitchen garden at Vaucluse House where they have tried to recreate, with heirloom varieties, a Victorian food garden.  They had a bumper crop of broad beans and Despina explained that you can eat them in their ‘three stages' 

Broad beans in my garden

The shelled beans are delicious by themselves as a vegetable - simply steamed and tossed with olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper - but here are examples of the three ways to use them.
When the pods are about as long as your index finger you can eat them whole:
Broad Beans and Artichokes from Lesvos:

250g young broad bean pods
4 fresh artichokes, prepared and peeled back to the hearts (keep from going brown in water with lemon juice)
3 tbs olive oil
1 brown onion
juice of 1 lemon
bunch of fresh dill
salt and pepper to taste

‘String’ the bean pods with a peeler as you would for runner beans.
Sautee the finely chopped onion in olive oil in a saucepan. (I asked Despina if you put garlic in it and she gave me a look as if I had stuck her with a knitting needle and said “Of course not”- I obviously still have a lot to learn about Greek regional cooking!)
Add the broad beans and prepared artichoke with 1 cup of water and the chopped dill.
Despina's whole broad beans with artichoke
Cook for about 20 mins adding the salt and pepper and lemon juice at the end.
NOTE:  You can also cook the whole broad beans like this, but without the artichoke and use stock instead of water - just don't forget the lemon juice, olive oil and dill.
(I have just found a recipe similar to this in Elizabeth David's Mediterranean Cooking from 1950)

When you can see the beans fattening in the pods:
Salad of Broad Beans with Cauliflower, Watercress and toasted macadamia nuts.  This is one of the best late winter salads that you will ever eat!

250g shelled broad beans – they will still be green
250 g cauliflower
Handful of washed watercress (or rocket/salad leaves)
Half cup macadamia nuts (or pine nuts) toasted
Dressing from olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper

Cut the cauliflower into florets and stream with the broad beans for 3-5 minutes (it still needs to be firm)
Toast the nuts in a frypan or in a tray in the oven until slightly golden
Toss together the cauliflower, broad beans, watercress and nuts with the simple lemon dressing

When the pods are really fat and the skin on the beans is as thick as paper.
Sicilian Broad Bean Dip

500g mature broad beans, shelled
1 clove garlic crushed
lemon juice
olive oil
salt and pepper
quantity of crusty bread

Steam the beans for a few minutes until just cooked.  Cool.  Now, I am sorry but you are going to have to peel them or they give the dip a bitter taste, but it is worth it.  Don’t worry if some are a bit grey looking.
Mash the beans and add the lemon juice, crushed garlic and olive oil (about 1 part lemon juice to 2 parts oil).  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Should be firm, not sloppy.  Spread on the crusty bread and open a bottle of prosecco. Buon appetito.

(When I said to Despina "How can you eat the broad beans whole-aren't they all hairy inside?" She replied "You think I would eat furry?") NOTE: The furriness goes when you cook them.

Another Salad with Broad Beans
Di's Garden Salad  October 2012

500g shelled broad beans, cooked for one minute in boiling water that has had a knob of butter adeed to it.  Refresh under cold water when cooked
Mixed salad leaves
Few mint leaves
Freshly shaved pecorino/parmesan cheese
Dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper
This was truly delicious - and all the better if you have fresh beans from the garden!