Monday, May 27, 2013

Ricotta: How to make from fresh milk

Tomorrow I am going to make a calcium rich cake (lemon, almond and ricotta) for the 'Stepping On' class that I help with  - it's our final session.  These are older folk that have had a fall or feel afraid that they might fall.  This is a serious scenario that affects the older age group,  their quality of life and ability to stay independent - something we all cherish.

Making your own ricotta, with a dairy farm of Jersey cows not far from me, makes common sense - and it is really simple (how that bloke gets up at 4am every morning to milk them is beyond me!).  However - thank you Mr. dairy farmer - and here we go!

2 litres fresh milk (8 cups)
250 gm plain yoghurt
Juice of one large lemon
Sea salt to taste

1.  Heat the milk in a heavy based saucepan to 90oc. (This is where you need a thermometer - see photo)
2.  Take off the heat and immediately lightly beat in the yoghurt and add the strained lemon juice and salt.  Stir a couple of times.
3.  The whey will separate from the curds.  Leave for about 15-20 minutes.
4.  Strain through fine large sieve lined with cheesecloth.  Drain for about 2 hours then refrigerate.
5. 2 litres of milk makes approximately 450 grams of ricotta (depending on the fat content of your milk)

Ricotta is a useful addition to lots of recipes.  Try these. (Simply click on the subject headings below and it will take you the appropriate page)
Berry and Ricotta Hotcakes 
Baked Mushrooms Stuffed with Ricotta
Strawberries and Ricotta on Toast for Breakfast (my favourite)
Baked Ricotta - delicious with home baked bread

And here's some other ways with milk:
Creme Caramel
Controlling powdery mildew on your veggies with milk!
And why not have a go at making your own yoghurt - it's easy

While we're at it - let's enjoy these beautiful camellias that I picked from daughter's garden - species unknown?

Friday, May 24, 2013

Recipe: Spicy Pumpkin and Coconut Soup

Dreamtime Beach, Fingal Head, NSW

Who left the freezer door open?  Suddenly we have gone from a day like this yesterday - where I had a beautiful swim at the beach - to a temperature drop of 10 degrees and freezing, lashing rain.  Soup weather?

I'm not a big fan of plain pumpkin soup - maybe because I wasn't brought up with pumpkin of any kind in the UK - people didn't eat it, it was fed to the pigs!  I remember trying to cook it when I first came to Australia as I saw it was a big part of the local cuisine.  Boiling pumpkin was not the way to go!  It took a long time before I tried it again and it became a different 'animal' after I roasted it - there's always a lot to learn!

This soup is simply delicious and easy to make.  A friend had given me a homegrown jap pumpkin that had a beautiful dense texture, deep orange colour and sweet nutty flavour - just what you want from a pumpkin.

It's also that time of year for harvesting ginger, turmeric, limes, chillies and coriander from the garden so a big pot of this soup steaming on the stove just makes sense.


1.5 kg prepared pumpkin, skinned and cut into chunks
2 medium brown onions, cut into chunks
(these can be roughly cut because the finished soup will be blended)
2 large garlic cloves, crushed
1tbs fresh ginger, grated
1 tbs fresh, grated turmeric or 1 tsp dried powder
2tbs olive oil
2 small red chillies 
NOTE:  Put one in to start with and check for 'heat' - you can put it in, but you can't take it out!
1 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp ground coriander 
NOTE: It is infinitely better if these are freshly ground
1/2 tsp cinnamon
Sea salt to taste
1-1/2 litres water
400ml can coconut milk
Fresh coriander for garnish
Squeeze of lemon or lime juice (this is the secret ingredient!)

1.  Heat oil in large, heavy based soup pan.
2.  Saute onion and garlic, but do not let them brown.
3. Add ginger, chillies, cumin, turmeric and ground coriander and stir for a minute.
4.  Add pumpkin, salt and water.
5.  Put lid on and cook until pumpkin is tender - about 15 minutes
6.  Add coconut milk.
7.  Blend to smooth consistency with a stick blender (these are wonderful inventions!)
8.  Adjust salt, chilli and liquid - may need a tad more water - plus the juice of half a lime.
9.  Garnish with fresh coriander


Pumpkins make a tasty and nutritious addition to many meals and are relatively easy to grow in the home garden - you just need a bit a space.  If you have limited space, one good way to grow them is over an arbour.  I saw this method to good effect when I was studying Permaculture at Crystal Water in Queensland - they used mesh fruit bags to hold up the weighty fruit.

Pumpkins (Cucubita spp.) are members of the Cucurbitaceae family along with zucchini, gourd, squash and cucumber. Technically a fruit, pumpkins have been in cultivation for more than 5000 years. This diverse group of frost-tender annuals and perennials has varied shapes, sizes, colours and patterns.  

Getting started
Pumpkin vines need fertile, compost-rich, well-drained soil in full sun and are most easily grown as ground-cover plants.  They are great in an orchard as a cover plant under fruit trees or in a part of the garden that is currently under-used (lawns!!).

In frost-free tropical and subtropical gardens, pumpkins can be grown all year round. In temperate Australia plant or sow outside after the last frost. Around our area they are grown as a late winter-autumn crop.


The range of pumpkin varieties equals that of tomatoes. Golden Nugget is best for small gardens.   Jap pumpkin is best for sub tropical gardens.  Butternut can be grown just about anywhere.

Planting and growing
Pumpkin seed needs a soil temperature of 20˚C for germination. Raise seedlings by sowing them individually in 10cm pots and plant when pots are filled with roots. Alternatively, sow seed or plant seedlings into mounds of rich compost formed over loosened soil. Plants take 70–120 days to mature. As pumpkins are shallow-rooted they need regular watering in dry or windy weather. Even moisture helps prevent fruit splitting. I like to start them off in a circle of straw filled with compost.

Watering in the morning and spraying fortnightly with a solution of one part cows milk to 10 parts water helps prevent mildew. Mildew-eating ladybirds, which are patterned with yellow and black bands, help control mildew naturally. 

Harvesting and storing
Pinch out growing tips of rambling stems to contain plants. When fruits have finished swelling, remove them with as much of the stalk as possible. 

TOP TIP:  Ripe fruits with unbroken skin store very well if kept in a cool, dry, well-ventilated space. In fact, if you want a dense textured, rich tasting pumpkin you need to 'cure' it for a few weeks once you have picked it. Seed can be saved from fruit one month after harvesting them. Scoop seed from flesh, wash, dry and store in a cool, dry spot away from sunlight. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Golden Penda Spitfires

The Golden Penda

The street where I live is named after this beautiful tree - the Golden Penda which was recently in all of it's flowering glory after a particularly wet summer - it does best in the sub-tropics.

For all of you who have an aversion to 'proper' names for plants I might tempt you by telling you that it often holds the key to a beautiful description of the plant.  Take the Golden Penda Xanthostemon chrysanthus - which is Greek for golden flower with yellow stamens (xanthos - yellow, stemon - stamens, chrysos - golden, anthos - flower)*.  Having a love of plants takes you to all sorts of unexpected and interesting places - which leads me to these strange creatures that I found on a branch of the Golden Penda.

WHAT ARE THEY? The larval stage of a Perga species - otherwise known as sawflies - Aussie children know them as 'spitfires' because when aroused (as in the above photo) they raise up their rear ends and spit a yellowish liquid.  As they are generally found on eucalypts this can sting if it gets you in the eye.  This also tells me that the Golden Penda must come from the same general family as eucalypts  (Myrtaceae) for these creatures to have set up home on it's branches.

The eggs of this sawfly are deposited in slits in the leaves.  After hatching, the larvae remain in the same group, during the day, spread out over the tree to feed at night, re-assemble for the next day, and so on.  They leave the tree when fully fed and pupate in the soil emerging as adults - which is kind of wasp like.  The larvae really only do lasting damage to young trees and you would manage this by just pruning off the affected branch, mowing it up, and putting it in the compost! 

Yellow stamens, golden flower - the Golden Penda

WHERE AND HOW TO GROW IT  The Golden Penda is an Australian tree originating in the forests of south-east Queensland and is ideally suited to the sub-tropics (I never saw one in Sydney - too cold, not wet enough?).

It makes an ideal specimen or street tree which gets to about 5-7m.  It is has a compact, rounded canopy that really loves a good prune every now and again - other wise the branches can get a bit straggly.

It's quite drought hardy, but welcomes a good mulch - most of my neighbours just use grass clippings.
The nectar eaters moved in when it was flowering - the racket from the parrot orchestra was, at times, deafening - and then the bats moved in at dusk. (We actually had car loads of people driving by as word got round about this magnificent flowering spectacle - I can't wait for next year!)

* A fascinating reference book never far from my side: The Language of Botany, Debenham, C. published by the Society for Growing Australian Plants

Friday, May 17, 2013

Recipe: Lemon, almond and ricotta cake

We should be able to have a sweet treat and think that somehow it is doing us good too!!  This is one of those cakes.  It doesn't all have to be BAD!.  I just got thinking after the last post about calcium rich food - well, let's make something delicious for dessert that is also nutritious.  This cake has the added bonus of having no flour - for all the gluten intolerant folk - and as my husband said, as we were having a piece with afternoon tea - this is a real winner - it's absolutely delicious!

'Eureka' lemon tree weighed down with a bumper crop

Just also happens to be lemon season with the trees dripping with ripening citrus.  I met a lady (Amy) in the playground the other day, when I was taking one of my grandchildren for a swing, who told me that they had fruit trees planted all around their suburb (Ewingsdale/Myocum) as street trees that anyone could pick.  Her children were able to pick mandarins at will, and she felt sure that this is the reason why they were so healthy last winter?! Amy also told me that, where her sister lived in Melbourne, you could access a web map of public land that plotted all the fruit and nut trees - and also had a useful guide for when they where fruiting. What a good idea?!

We were playing in the park of a housing development on the ridge at the end of our road (well it used to be a ridge until they bulldozed it flat) and I was asked by the owners to make a 'sustainable landscaping plan'.  I never heard back from them after I suggested that the streets should be planted out with 'useful' trees that the residents could harvest on their way to school and while out walking.  Food forests don't work out of sight - which is where they wanted to put it.  I think I'm just about sick of empty rhetoric.  All of the our street trees should beautiful and useful - either to us or native fauna.  Nature strips should be full of food plants.  If you think I'm nuts look at the Cuban model after the USSR pulled the plug on aid money that they had been dependent on for decades - they turned a dire situation around in a few years and reaped the rewards of self-sufficiency, improved health and a viable economy - by growing food on public land, rejecting the commercialization of our food and growing organically.
(NOTE:  In these modern times of growing waistlines there are only two countries in the world that have managed to reduce their obesity rates - and they are the two countries that have gone broke - Cuba and Nauru - food for thought!  Read this article by Professor Gary Egger - founder of Gut Busters
There, I'm done for now - let's have the recipe.

Lemon, Almond and Ricotta Cake

300g butter
1 1/2 cups castor sugar
4 eggs
2 cups almond meal *
3/4 cup fine polenta
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
Zest of 5 lemons and juice of 1 lemon
3/4 cup ricotta (you need the cake kind and not the creamed)
Icing sugar for dusting
*NOTE: I use bulk, whole almonds, with the skin on, and grind them myself - it's cheaper and adds extra fibre to the cake.

Preheat oven to 160oC
Line 26cm springform pan with non-stick baking paper.
In food processor beat together butter and sugar until creamy, add eggs one at a time.
Add remaining ingredients except icing sugar and ricotta.
Fold in ricotta so that it stays in lumps (that's the white bits in the photo above)
Pour into tin and bake for approximately one hour - test with a skewer that it comes out clean.
Cool completely in tin and serve with cream or yoghurt.

NOTE:  What is high in calcium in this cake -  almond meal, eggs, butter and ricotta.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Recipe: Minestrone Soup

This is one of those recipes where every family seems to develop their own variation insisting that "it's the best" - and I'm no different - this is the best!!  I have been cooking it for years, tweeking the recipe to suit my taste and honing the ingredients until it is just about perfect, every time - there's also a triple bonus - it's cheap to make, goes a long way and IS VERY HEALTHY.

It's funny, but in Italy - where minestrone soup comes from, it is one of the few recipes I have come across that is not strictly regional and can be varied from region to region, village to village and family to family (think bolognese sauce (Bologna), or napolitana (Naples)).

Now that autumn is here I can finally think about more hearty, warming meals - and this includes soups, and minestrone is right at the top of the list as far as family favourites go - children, and adults alike love it.  My secret is to cut the ingredients into small, and evenly diced pieces, and leave out cabbage - it won't keep as it makes it smelly (that sulphury, cabbage smell!), and cook it in lots of olive oil.


1 large brown onion chopped finely
1/2 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely crushed
2 cups finely diced carrot
2 cups finely diced celery
1 1/2 cups finely diced waxy potato
1 400gm can copped tomato
1 700ml jar tomato passata
Handful of finely shredded kale (doesn't smell) or fresh, chopped green beans (optional)
2 bay leaves
Sprig of fresh thyme
Salt and Pepper
1 400gm can organic kidney beans (or cannellini beans), strained
1 cup small dried pasta
750 ml filtered water.
Handful of fresh, chopped parsley
Freshly grate parmesan cheese


Saute onion in olive oil in large heavy based saucepan.
Add diced carrot, garlic, celery and potato. Give it a stir for a couple of minutes
Add all other ingredients except pasta and canned beans,
Cook for 20 mins.
Adjust seasoning and amount of water.
Add pasta and beans and cook for further 10 minutes
Add parsley when cooked.
Serve topped with freshly grated parmesan

NOTE: I help out a a 'Stepping On' class -  management strategies and exercises for older folk who have had a fall or are becoming frail and afraid of falling.  Last week we were having a chat about Vitamin D and calcium - things that we need to help make our bones stronger, and I was thinking that this is a very nutritious dish that is high in calcium (and you could probably tick off just about every other essential vitamin and mineral as well).

As we age we need more calcium than in our middle years - about 1,200mg per day for the over 75's (50 year olds need about 1,000).  So one good serve of this soup will provide you with about half your daily calcium needs.

So where's the calcium in minestrone soup?  We'll take the three highest.

Parmesan Cheese: 100gm has 137mg calcium (the highest for any cheese)

Parsley:  100gm has 138mg calcium (a handful of fresh herbs on your food is often higher in vitamin and mineral content than the whole of the rest of the meal!!)

Kale: 100gm has 135mg calcium (any other fresh greens are good too)


For another calcium rich dish go to the zucchini bake recipe.

NOTE: You can freeze any soup that is left over.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Citrus: Pests and Diseases (scale,leaf miner, aphids, sooty mould,fruit fly)

Leaf miner damage on citrus - tell-tale silvery trails on new growth.

Scale (of all colours, shapes and sizes) leaf miner, aphids - and mealy bug, for that matter - are all known as SAPSUCKERS - because that is what they so - suck sap!  They are often noted as pests of citrus and there are simple remedies for controlling them that don't involve nasty chemicals - but more of that later - first things first.

As I stated before, on the previous post about citrus and caterpillars - your CITRUS WILL STAY HEALTHY IF THEY ARE KEPT HEALTHY!  They are heavy feeders and require regular, adequate amounts of water.  Go to that previous post for the full story on feeding citrus.

The next part of this story is about the ingeniousness of nature that makes you smile and mutter "clever critters"!

Before you notice scale damage on your citrus you will probably first notice ANTS, crawling up and down the stem, and maybe a BLACK SOOTY MOULD on the leaves and fruit.

Black aphids - typically on new growth of citrus

The ANTS come first.  What they want is the sweet excretions from the sapsuckers - known as HONEYDEW.  So, they pick up and take baby sapsuckers from tree to tree so they can have some tucker.  If you think about it - scale can't fly, so how do they get from one plant to another - well the ants do it for them.  The sap suckers then multiply and cause the damage - withering and curling of new leaves, distortion of fruit and die-back in new stems.

Scale and sooty mould on citrus
After the ants, sapsuckers and honeydew comes SOOTY MOULD.  This is a fungal spore that lives in the air and also lives off honeydew.  So these three - ants, sap suckers and sooty mould live in a symbiotic relationship - each reliant on the other.  Clever isn't it.

The sapsucker story!

Before you reach for the spray bottle think about the creatures out there that want to feed on these unwanted ones and try to encourage them first.  I'm talking about birds, lizards, ladybirds, lacewings, hoverflies, some wasps and these large, amazing insects - the mantids.  After all, as my friend Mary would say - it's just a big restaurant out there!  We have to try and get away from the 'creepy crawly' and 'enemy' attitudes to most creatures in the garden and realise that most of them are, in fact our friends.

 (Look at this previous post on design tips and how to encourage beneficial creatures in your garden)

In the meantime, here is a simple and effective remedy for controlling sap sucking insects, like scale, and for getting rid of sooty mould - the oil in the mix smothers them as they actually breathe through their exoskeleton (outer covering).  Don't be tempted to buy 'white oil' in an aerosol can - aerosol cans are non-recyclable and the oil base of the mix is often petroleum - total overkill.  Use sparingly as you may, unwittingly, be killing the beneficial insects too.

For a 1 litre spray bottle:

3 tbs cheap cooking oil (you don't need extra virgin for this!!)
4 drops washing-up detergent (acts as surfactant to mix oil with water)
1 litre warm water

Shake up and use when cool.  Do not use in heat of day in direct sunlight - leaves will cook!!  Needs a good shake every time you use it.  

NOTE: What to do if you notice sooty mould in large trees and ants going up and down.  In this case it's probably not practical to spray the tree.  Controlling the ants is the key by placing a band of double-sided sticky tape around the tree and covering it in something tacky.  You can buy commercial insect barriers for this (Green Harvest - 'Tanglefoot' Insect Barrier).  In the old days they would use Vaseline or old engine oil.  Some farmers made the mistake of applying this directly to the tree only to find that they had effectively 'ringbarked' them!

WASP GALL DAMAGE:  You may notice these swollen lumps on citrus branches - make sure you prune these and destroy them.  This is the damage that the burrowing wasp gall makes - if left, they will weaken the tree and eventually destroy it.

FRUIT FLY: A common pest of citrus.  These tiny flies lay their eggs in small groups just beneath the skin of the fruit where  the larvae hatch. Their feeding, and a rotting organism that is introduced when the eggs are deposited, quickly spoils the fruit.  Difficult to control once they have taken a hold - the trick is to get them early in the season by putting baits near plants that are prone to their damage.  Go to this link for effective home-made fruit fly baits.

CITRUS RUST MITE: This looks like bronzing on the fruit and is often mistaken for a nutrient deficiency whereas, in fact,  it is caused by a tiny mite  This is not to be confused with a small amount of brown markings to the fruit and leaves caused by storm and wind damage. CONTROL: Once this has taken a hold it is very difficult to control.  Infestation by this rust mite is indicative that the tree is under stress - lack of water, good soil and nutrients.  Mites very quickly develop resistance to pesticides so there is not point in reaching for the spray gun.  My advice is to destroy all the affected fruit, give it a hard prune and feed and mulch it.

Healthy limes from a healthy tree!

NOTE:  By following these few simple guidelines a lot of the common problems citrus growers have will not occur - i.e better fruiting and less pests and diseases.

For step-by-step notes on planting and pruning citrus go to this previous post.