Monday, July 29, 2013

Date and Tamarind Chutney

One of my favourite places to eat in Sydney, particularly when it was cold and you needed something really warming, was the Maya Indian restaurant on Cleveland Street in Surrey Hills.  After a huge North Indian thali plate I would get some samosas for lunch the next day and they would always come with their version of this chutney - yummy!

This is a really easy and quick recipe.  I whipped up batch yesterday afternoon when I realised that we had run out (always the way) and I was cooking up some pakoras (Indian vegetable fritters) for friends who were coming over for dinner.  This chutney is just the perfect accompaniment for that kind of food and also things like pates, terrines, cold meats, all sorts of curries and my husband's favourite - cheese sandwiches.
Pakoras - Indian vegetable fritters

It doesn't require any onions, garlic or vinegar and the sour fruity taste of the tamarind goes really well with the sweet richness of the dates.
Stick blending the chutney until smooth

Date and Tamarind Chutney

1 cup seedless (block) tamarind, soaked for half an hour in one of the cups of water.
2 cup seedless dates
¾ cup palm sugar
1 cup brown sugar
6 cups water
3 tsp roasted cumin seed - grind after roasting
1 tsp chilli powder
1 ½ tsp garam masala
2 tsp salt
1 tbs grated fresh ginger

TOP TIP:  I find it easiest to grate ginger with a julienne grater that has a finger guard - it's done in no time at all without shredding your knuckles!

1. Put all ingredients together in saucepan.  Bring to boil and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring to avoid sticking to bottom.
2. Stick blend to smooth consistency
2. Pour into sterilized jars.

(Will keep for six months or so in the fridge - if it lasts that long!)

NOTE:  It's really easy to make your own garam masala if you have a spice grinder.  Freshly ground spices just have so much more flavour.  Here is a simple recipe that I used for this chutney.
Dried spices ready for grinding

Garam Masala

4 tbsp coriander seed
1 tbsp cumin seed
1 tbsp black peppercorns
1tsp fennel seeds
¾ tsp cloves
2 cm piece cinnamon
1 tsp whole mace or ½ tsp grated nutmeg

1. Toast all lightly 
2. Grind all to fine powder and store in air tight jar

NOTE:  There are just about as many recipes for garam masala as curry recipes - this is just one that goes well with this recipe.  Be adventurous - try your own?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Fish Pie with Mashed Potato

A few chilly nights and I start thinking of comfort food - this dish certainly fits the bill - and it is so easy to make and very adaptable.  It's the kind of thing my mother used to make with smoked fish - like haddock.  I make it with whatever fresh and chunky fillet fish I can get at our farmer's market on a Friday morning - but you could use fresh salmon or add some prawns if you were making it for a dinner party (I'd probably use one of my fancier casserole dishes too!)
Di's Fish Pie

So many fish pie recipes involve a lot of different stages and consequently quite a few dirty dishes - with this one you make it and bake it in just the one pan - now, that definitely has to be a bonus!  Oh, did I say that it tastes delicious too?


500 g firm, white, chunky fillet fish (you can use salmon)
1kg mashing potatoes
75 g butter
1 leek, discard dark green part
celery, about half a cup, finely chopped (optional - you can replace the celery with bulb fennel)
2 desert spoons plain white flour
3/4 cup fish or vegetable stock
3/4 cup fresh milk
fresh parsley, finely chopped (about half a cup)
1 cup mixed peas and corn (optional)
salt and pepper
(extra butter and milk for mashing potatoes)
½ cup grated strong cheese or parmesan

Put oven on at 190oC
Peel and quarter potatoes and put them in saucepan of water to boil until cooked.
While potatoes are cooking put butter in casserole dish and melt.
Washing and slicing the leek

Wash leek and celery and finely chop and add to butter.

TOP TIP:  The best way to wash leeks, to get all the grit out of them, is to slice them lengthways (as in the photo) and hold under a running tap - white part at the top - this way the dirt washes down and out.

Saute the leeks and celery in butter

Saute these until soft. Turn the heat right down.

Add the flour to this mixture and stir around until it all starts to stick together (this means the starch grains are bursting and will thicken your sauce – it’s called a roux and is the basis of most white sauces).
Place on a low heat and slowly add the stock and milk and combine thoroughly – do this carefully or it will go lumpy.
After a minute or so the sauce will begin to thicken.  You don’t want it too sloppy or the mashed potato wont sit on top.

Cut the fish into bite-size chunks and add to the sauce.
If you are adding peas and corn, put them in now.  Stir gently for one minute and turn the heat off. You don’t want to break the fish up and everything will finish cooking when you put it in the oven.
Adjust seasoning – I like white pepper with fish – add chopped parsley, stir.
Placing the mashed potato on the fish mixture

When the potatoes are cooked. Strain them and mash them with a little milk and butter and add salt and pepper – again, I like white pepper in mashed potato.
Carefully put small spoonfuls of potato on top of the fish mixture and then smooth out with a fork completely covering fish mixture.  Sprinkle with the grated cheese.

Smooth out the potato with a fork, sprinkle with cheese

Place in oven for about 20-25 minutes until top is golden

A few notes about this recipe.  Why leeks and not onion and maybe garlic?  I just think that the flavour and texture of leeks works better with fish - I find onion and garlic too strong in a creamy sauce - I don't mind it in tomato, Italian dishes.

I served it with sauteed cabbage, carrot and fennel - tossed in a hot pan with a little butter.  I just added some watercress at the end.

Fish Pie with sauteed winter vegetables

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Herb Gardens in Oil Cans

Herbs are an important part of our diet - it doesn't matter where you are in the world you will find herbs forming an integral part of culinary and medicinal traditions that are thousands of years old.
Herbs left to flower, like this dill plant are great attractors of insects and polinators.

Apart from the enormous variety of flavours, they are incredibly good for you - a handful of fresh herbs added to a plate of food will often contain more vitamins and minerals than the whole dish.  Think parsley and mint salads in Middle Eastern salads, coriander and basils in Asian dishes and oregano, basil, thyme and bay leaves in Mediterranean food - these are power packed with nutritional goodness.

HERBS can be divided up into three different types ANNUALS, BIENNIALS and PERENNIALS.

ANNUAL HERBS have to be planted every year and usually fall into the soft, leafy green variety - basil, coriander, dill and fennel.  These are easy to grow in a well mulched bed. - just plant  out seedlings in the springtime.

BIENNIAL the lonely, but very important parsley.  This takes two years to do its thing - grow leaves, flower, set-seed and die down. You can keep it going in the second year by pinching out the flowering stems as they appear.

PERENNIAL HERBS persist from year to year.  Some die down and then jump up again in the spring - like tarragon, yarrow, chives, comfrey and most the mint family.  But some stay around for most of the year - they just look happier in the warmer months - like the thymes, oregano family, sage, lemon verbena, rosemary and bay.

Flowering comfrey - where you need it - next to the compost bin!

In the sub-tropics, this latter group of aromatic herbs are a bit more of a challenge for us to grow as many of them originate in the Mediterranean with particular soils and climate - that is a free-draining soil and dry summers - neither of which we have.

For the first few years I lived here I would loose these plants every year in the summer wet.  Now, I have just copied the ubiquitous Greek olive oil can garden and everything is thriving!  Not only do I feel very virtuous about recycling these colourful cans, but I can move them under cover when we have a 'big wet'. - and for the past three years they have been thriving.
My olive can collection of herbs

It was time today - being late winter - to divide up some of these plants in the oil cans as they had become just too crowded and root-bound.  As I said to my neighbour today, unfortunately gardening is not like interior decorating - it is not finished even when the last wall has been painted!  Actually, propagating is just about my favourite job to do in the garden - there's something deeply satisfying about seeing new plants growing from seeds and cuttings.

TOP TIP: The larger cans in the picture above are actual olive cans and make perfect planters - they are larger than the oil cans and already have a hole in the top, you just have to put some drainage holes in the bottom.  Restaurants and cafes are usually happy to save these for you - especially in exchange for the odd potted up rosemary plant!


 Cut the top of the can with a can opener.
The top will be VERY SHARP so this is not a job for the kiddies.  WEAR GLOVES.

Punch some holes in the bottom with an old Phillips head screwdriver and a hammer.  (If you have a better way of doing this please let me know?)

This is a thyme plant that easily divided up into about eight plants with roots attached to each.  I re-planted two oil cans and put the rest into pots.

If you are planting rooted cuttings into pots it is easier to fill half the pot with potting mix and then lay the cutting on it's side - then complete filling with potting mix.  You may damage the roots if you try and force the plant into the pot of soil.

My newly potted up thyme plants next to a lovely Greek oregano.

TOP TIP:  When moving a plant or dividing one up and you damage some of the roots - usually inevitable - prune off an equal proportion of the leaf part of the plant.  For example, if you lose a third of the roots, take off a third of the top.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Mullumbimby Food and Soil Festival 2013

For the past three years our Community Garden has held an annual festival and this year is going to be bigger and better than ever with both Costa Georgiadis and Jerry Coleby Williams from ABC Gardening Australia.

For the first time in many years this event will be held in conjunction with the Mullumbimby Chamber of Commerce and involve the whole town.  They used to hold an annual event with the highlight being a fun run up Mount Chincogan - this will be re-instated at next year's event.  Maybe we can get Jerry and Costa to join in that next year?

This years Festival starts with a street parade through the town starts at 10.30 am on 1st September (first day of spring!!). It will make it's way to the Community Gardens where there will be lots of workshops, demonstrations, food, music, dance (I have a special interest in the Bollywood Dance performance!) which will keep going until 10 pm.

There will be lots of children's activities.  I am running a workshop on the value of herbs and growing food in small spaces.  The kiddies will be able to get involved and take home a potted up herb in an old container - i.e. and old work-boot or wellie (if you have any, I would love them!!)

If you have never been to Mullumbimby before you are in for a treat.  Come along and enjoy this Community Celebration and I look forward to seeing you there.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Bananas - Top Plants

Bananas in the back garden.
TOP TIP: This is one plant and needs reducing to three stems if I want it to keep producing good fruit.  This is the same for all banana plants.

Bananas are one of those really valuable plants for the backyard gardener - a cornerstone plant valued in many parts of the world for their versatility and nutritional value.

At a recent talk in our Community Garden in Mullumbimby ABC gardening presenter Jerry Coleby Williams listed them as a key plant for a sustainable future - along with yams, perennial spinach (like kang-kung and Aztec spinach) and pigeon pea.  When choosing any plants for the garden we should be adopting a Permaculture principle (or just plain old common sense!) - does this plant perform more than one function, does it grow easily in your area and is it relatively trouble free? Bananas certainly fit this bill.  What would you add to that list of cornerstone plants?  I know that I would have papaya, sweet potato, nasturtiums and lemon grass.
Bananas - a cornerstone plant in this Balinese garden along with sweet potato, lemon grass, cassava, water spinach, chillies, coconuts and amaranth

This is, in fact, how communities, who don't have access to supermarkets and industrialized food,  exist on staple foods that fulfill for them the above criteria.  Let me give you an example.  I was working in Bali, helping to design a kitchen garden and cooking school for a hotel in Candi Desa and I was given a list of plants I HAD to include by the head gardener.  Most importantly were the three pillars of Balinese life (that's how he described them) Coconut Palms, Bamboo and Bananas - from this everything else flows; their food, ceremonial offerings, construction materials, utensils, crafts etc.  Every family compound will grow them - they also of course grow rice, but not in the compound.

So with the banana you get the dinner and the dinner service, plus they are packed full of nutritional value, they taste fantastic, are incredibly versatile to cook with and the plants look fabulous.
When I was teaching in Bali we used to get lunch for the students my friend Darta's traditional Balinese restaurant.  They would arrive in a basket, each individually wrapped in a banana leaf, pickles and rice separately folded in a little parcel.  And..........when we had finished all the scraps could go straight in the compost!  When I first went to Indonesia in the 1980's they didn't have the plastic/rubbish problems that they have now for everything they served up just like this.

One large banana packs over 600mg of POTASSIUM which I eat every day to ward off cramps.

They are high in FIBRE and  and are abundant in a range of VITAMINS and MINERALS: vitamins A, C - the range of B's (including B6) and Folic Acid.

On the mineral scale Calcium counts in at 9.2 mg, Magnesium 44.1 mg, with trace amounts of iron and zinc. 

Putting all of the nutritional figures together clearly shows the banana is among the healthiest of fruits.

DEPRESSION: According to a recent survey undertaken by the Black Dog Institute in Sydney amongst people suffering from depression, many felt much better after eating a banana. This is because bananas contain tryptophan, a type of protein that the body converts into serotonin - known to make you relax, improve your mood and generally make you feel happier.
Beautiful bananas emerging from the flower.

Bananas have been cultivated for so long that they have lost their ability to reproduce by seed - and therein lies the dilemma - because of problems with disease (like bunchy top) it is illegal to give away suckers to friends and neighbours.  But, don't despair banana growers, who are registered to supply suckers, are usually happy to let you have a few - that's how I got mine.

THE BANANA IS A VERY INTERESTING PLANT.  The green stems above the ground are, in fact, pseudostems (otherwise known as 'peepers' (don't you love it?)) and the true stem is a rhizome under the ground from which all parts of the plant emanate - including the flowers (see above drawing - it's been raining a lot so I have a lot of time on my hands!)  You can now understand why it's important to feed and mulch around the banana roots?  

HOW DO THEY FRUIT?  The flower stem travels up through a mature pseudostem producing both male and female parts - the bell at the bottom is the male part and the part that produces the fruit are the female flowers at the top.  Bananas are unusual in the plant world in that they are parthenocarpic - there is no pollination - hence no seed.  Fertilization is stimulated by a phytohormone within the plant.
Male bell flower at bottom of flowering stem (this doesn't produce fruit) with female fruiting body at the top.

CARE AND MAINTENANCE  Once a stem has fruited it will not produce again so you should remove it.  They are very easy to cut down and make a marvelous bio-degradable garden bed edge.  A banana plant will keep on producing stems, but you should limit these to THREE per plant otherwise fruit production declines.

Bananas are very fast growers and put on a lot of leaf and they therefore require a lot of water - that's why mulching is important - it prevents them drying out while feeding them at the same time.  They respond well to regular watering with compost tea and mulching with comfrey leaves - they like a bit of extra potassium (potash) - otherwise they are pretty care-free.

BATS, RODENTS and BIRDS also love bananas and it may be necessary to cover the developing bunches with a banana bag.

WHICH BANANA?  The most commonly grown banana is the Cavendish in fact the botanical name for bananas is Musa cavendishii.  A popular variety of the Cavendish is the 'Lady Finger - next is the more stubby sugar banana.  The odd thing is that the Cavendish is a smaller growing plant and more suitable for the home garden than the taller sugar banana.
A home grown bunch of Cavendish 'Lady Finger' bananas fruiting at hip height - pick as you go?  I have already cut off hands from the top once they began to ripen.

WHERE CAN YOU GROW THEM?  Bananas are typically a plant at home in the tropics and sub-tropics. They are best suited to a warm, frost-free, coastal climate and usually grow well as far south as Perth and Sydney. They need all day sunshine and moisture. 

WHEN TO CUT THE BUNCH of  FRUIT? The bunch should not be left on the on the plant once they begin to colour - you can remove them one hand at a time.  The bunch is ready to pick once the bananas fatten out - i.e. they lose their angular shape and ridges - this is usually about four months from the first unsheathing of the bell.  If you leave the bunch hanging for too long the fruit tends to split.

NOTE: Something that Jerry Coleby Williams was very passionate about were plantain bananas - the kind you use for cooking things like curries and using as a carbohydrate substitute instead of rice, potatoes, and cereals etc.  If you're looking for cornerstone plants for the future he believes that this is just about top of the list.  To be continued..........