Sunday, December 7, 2014

Kasundi - Spiced Tomato Relish

I first posted the recipe for a version of kasundi about three years ago - when it was totally knew to me - and hooked on it's spicy yumminess I have made it many times since.  With Christmas around the corner and a need for something delicious to go with all those leftovers AND a top homemade gift, I decided to give it another go - with my usual 'tweaking' of the ingredients to see if I could improve upon the first recipe; the taste of which was great, but I found the consistency a bit runny - by blending the garlic, chillies and ginger first to make a thick paste I found it remarkably improved.

If there is one thing I have learned about living in the sub-tropics it's about growing tomatoes - unlike every other place I have lived in - they are not a summer crop here; too wet, too hot and too many bugs, but find a the right spot in your garden and you can grow them for a good nine months of the year, right through winter, until late spring.  I harvested the last of my crop for the kasundi, but you can just as easily use canned tomatoes.

The taste is fabulous - rich, pungent and spicy and great with eggs, curries and rice dishes - and especially pakoras (Indian vegetable fritters) Easy to make this relish will keep, unopened in the fridge, for six months or more. The quantity of the ingredients may seem a little excessive - have faith, it works!  I thought the number of chilles was going to make it far too hot so included less to start with - I ended up adding more because it wasn't pungent enough - 30 it is!

4tbs peanut oil - or other vegetable oil (not olive)

4tbs black mustard seed
2 tbsp turmeric powder
4 tbsp ground cumin
30 small green chillies, seeds removed
NOTE: Do this with disposable gloves on!
12 garlic cloves, peeled
125g fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1 1/2 kg ripe tomatoes, chopped (or canned)
1tbs salt, approx.
250ml malt vinegar
125g brown sugar 
4 tbsp smoked paprika


1.  Place the ginger, garlic, chillies and 50ml of the vinegar in a food processor and puree to smooth paste.
2.  Heat the oil in a wok, add the dry spices and cook on a medium heat for five minutes - being careful not to burn them.
3.  Add the ginger paste and cook for further five minutes.
4.  Add tomatoes, sugar, salt and remaining vinegar and simmer for about an hour.  When the oil comes to the top it is ready.

Kasundi is the perfect accompaniment to homemade cauliflower and eggplant pakoras.  Check out the recipe. Having people over - then this is the perfect snack with a glass of something cold.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Pasta with tuna, lemon and rocket - singing pasta

This pasta dish is one of those things you can go to when you haven't got anything for dinner as you will find that you probably do have most of the ingredients anyway; those staples in the pantry like canned tuna, spaghetti, frozen peas and a lemon.

It's become my standby dish and everyone loves it anyway - it's in the top ten requests from the family - and so quick and easy to make.

As spring has sprung in the garden I would rather be out there than slaving away in the kitchen and singing pasta has become my standard 'after a day in the garden' dish - satisfying, tasty and easy.

I first saw a variation of this, many years ago, in a Qantas inflight magazine by and Australian woman who ran a cooking school in Florence.  This is what she served the arriving participants.

Like all simple dishes it's the quality of the ingredients that counts - which seems to have filtered down to my children as my son-in-law recently told me that he very quickly learned that only Sirena tuna and Barilla pasta should go in the trolley when he was doing the shopping.  (He also now knows to buy local Australian extra virgin olive oil and check the date when it was pressed - fresh is best!).  When I actually think about this it's mildly scary - have I become one of THOSE mothers and mother-in-laws?

Why singing pasta?  Well, the flavours sing in your mouth; the zing of the lemon, sweetness of the peas, hit from the chilli and the rocket just cuts through the oily flavour with it's slight bitter edge.

What you will need for 4 people:
400 g can Sirena tuna in oil
500 g packet Barilla pasta No5 (or any other good quality dried pasta - don't use fresh for this)
1 cup frozen peas
Zest and juice of one fresh lemon
Fresh rocket, about a handful
White whine, about half a cup
Extra virgin olive oil, about a quarter of a cup
Parmesan cheese, finely grated
NOTE:  This is one of those dishes that breaks the unwritten rule of no parmesan in pasta dishes with fish - see what you think?

Optional extras which I nearly always add; capers (I use pickled nasturtium seeds as a substitute) and a finely sliced red chilli - because I like chilli in everything.

1.  Put on a large pot of salted water for the pasta.  When it is boiling add the spaghetti and cook until al dente.
2.  Put the tuna, zest of lemon (reserve the juice), wine and oil in a saucepan and bring to simmer - add capers and chilli at this stage too.  
3.  Add peas and heat through.  DONE.  Don't overcook.
4.  Place the fresh rocket in the bottom of the colander and strain the pasta over it - the idea is to just wilt it.  Flick the rocket through the spaghetti with a fork.  Tip into a wide serving dish.
5.  Adjust seasoning of tuna mix - may need extra salt - and pour over pasta and stir through.
6.  Squeeze over lemon juice and top with finely grated parmesan cheese.

Am sure that this would taste even better on a balcony in Florence with a view over the Duomo but buon appetito anyway.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Elderflower Champagne

I don't know if you have ever used yourself as a guinea pig - well I'm doing that right now and feeling decidedly squiffy!  I am trying the first batch of my elderflower champagne and it tastes pretty sensational.  If this post trails off you know I have keeled over!

I am fascinated by all things that can be made by hunting and gathering ie FOR FREE and, in this case, a delightful and refreshing bubbly drink (alcoholic?) made from flowers growing in every wild hedgerow in my neck of the woods and, I suspect, in many other parts of the world too.  Elderberry was certainly part of every hedgerow when I was growing up in the UK and seems to be having a revival with elderflower cordial cropping up all over the place in food articles and celebrity chef programs - it has a distinctive and delightful taste.  I think too that it is all part of the challenge and thrill of making something fantastic from wild food - I know for certain that it is deeply embedded in my DNA.

The Elderberry bush (Sambucas nigra) has long been used for making all manner of drinks, jams and relishes but I was inspired to make this after watching a episode of the TV program of River Cottage with the fantastically resourceful British gardener and chef Hugh Fernley Whittingstall.

On a brief look through my cook books I have found at least 30 recipes for using either Elderberry flowers, buds, green fruit or mature purple fruit.  Elderberry wine was certainly a common tipple in post-war Britain and my father was a master 'weird' wine-maker with earthen-ware crock pots bubbling away in our airing cupboard full of the next toxic brew.  Maybe he was just looking, like me, for the challenge of making something for nothing but I vividly remember tastings of tealeaf 'saki', potato peel vodka and one spectacular brew of rhubarb and ginger wine that exploded and seeped through the ceiling to the sleeping neighbours underneath.

What you will need: Makes about 7 litres
1 very clean bucket
A quantity of very clean bottles that have a stoppered lids (because this can GO BANG!)
15 elderflowers, freshly opened with no brown bits on them.
500 g caster sugar
2 lemons, zested and juiced
2 tbsp white wine vinegar
6 litres filtered water (don't use chlorinated tap water)

1.  Put the sugar in the bucket and dissolve it with 2 litres of the water that you have heated.  Let this cool.
2.  Put the remaining 4 litres of water in the bucket along with the zest and juice of the lemons, the vinegar and the elderflowers and give it a stir.

NOTE:  It's important that you don't wash the flowers because they contain the flavour and yeast that you need for the fermenting process.  However, you may need to flick out the odd critter that floats to the surface.  Trust me, I'm a cook!

3. Cover with a clean cloth and put in a cool, dry place for 48 hours.
4. Strain the mixture through a muslin cloth and bottle-up straight away.  That's it!.

NOTE:  On the River Cottage forum on this topic Hugh clearly states that the brew does not have to show signs of fermenting before you bottle it - it WILL HAPPEN because of the yeast in the flowers!  And he was right - bubble away it did after about day 3.  I put a heavy blanket on top of the crate (stored in the garage) afraid that the whole lot would go off like gunshot in the middle of the night  - this hasn't happened so far.
5.  Put the bottles in a cool dry place for two weeks when you can start to drink it - and apparently will keep up to a year.

So this was it after day 18 - absolutely smashing.  Effervescent, flowery and refreshing, but I think I better go for a lie down!

NOTE:  Specific details about what sort of temperature and conditions to brew this champagne to maturity are hard to come by - all it says is cool??  We have just experienced some very hot weather when my garage got to over 30oC and it still worked so good luck and salut!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Lime-Papaya Meringue Pie

If you have followed my recipes before you will know that I always endeavour to cook things that are easy to make, delicious and with ingredients that are the freshest and cheapest around. This is all of those things but you will just need to put aside a little more time for this one but, believe me, it is well worth it - it's something I make for special occasions as everyone just loves it.  Out to impress - well this is the pie for you!

I got the ispiration to make this from recipes of two of my favourite cooks Belinda Jeffery (Desserts) and Janet de Neefe (Bali-The Food of my Island Home) - in fact I think I ate something similar to this is Janet's restaurant Indus in Ubud, Bali.  I was looking to make a dessert to go with an Asian inspired meal and this perfectly fitted the bill - it's very similar to the traditional lemon meringue pie with just a tropical twist.  It helped that I had just harvested fresh limes and papaya from my garden and had happily accepted yet another dozen fresh eggs from my neighbour who has very happy and productive chooks.

NOTE: The filling is a lime-papaya curd.  Cooking a 'curd' often calls for a lot of time consuming stirring over a double-boiler which you don't need to do with this recipe - it all goes in together (I'm trying to make it simple!).

200 g (11/2 cups) plain flour (I use wholemeal - that way I'm trying to pretend it's healthy)
30 g icing sugar
150 g chilled butter, roughly chopped
1 egg yolk (save the white - you will need it for the meringue)

250 g peeled and seeded red papaya, chopped (not yellow pawpaw)
200 ml water
200 g white sugar
1/2 cup cornflour
125 ml fresh lime juice
zest of two limes
100 g unsalted butter
3 eggs PLUS 2 egg yolks (save the white for the meringue)

3 egg whites that you have saved
100 g caster sugar
pinch of sea salt

1.  Preheat oven to 180oC
2.  Put the flour and icing sugar in food processor and blitz to combine.
3.  Add the butter and blitz until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
4.  Add the egg yolk and blitz until dough combines into one ball.
5.  Turn out onto lightly floured surface and knead briefly then press lightly into disc.
6.  Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
7.  Butter a 24 cm loose-bottomed pie tin or fluted quiche dish.
8.  Roll the dough on a floured surface to shape of pan then lay inside.  Trim off excess.
9.  Line pastry with non-stick baking paper and fill with pastry weights; I use dried beans.
10.  Bake for 15 minutes.  Remove the paper and weights, return to the oven and cook for further 5 minutes.  Remove from oven and cool.
TOP TIP:  Do not use foil for this - it will stick to the pastry.

NOTE: This is called baking blind and is pre-cooked in this way to ensure that the pastry is cooked through and does not go soggy when the filling is added.
TIP:  I always make a double batch of pastry and freeze half of it for next time.

1.  Put papaya, sugar and water in food processor and blend to fine pulp.
2.  Put the cornflour in a saucepan and mix to a smooth paste with a little of this papaya juice, then add the rest of liquid and stir to combine. DON'T PUT THE HEAT ON YET.
3.  Lightly beat the whole eggs and yolks and pour into saucepan, whisk in.
4.  Add the lime juice and zest.
5.  Melt the butter and add that too - stir to combine.
6.  NOW PUT THE HEAT ON LOW and whisk constantly until mixture thickens and cook for further minute to ensure cornflour cooked properly (otherwise it will taste floury)
7.  Pour into cooked pastry case and let it cool before adding the meringue.
1.  Preheat oven again to 180oC
2.  Put the three saved egg-whites and pinch of salt into a clean, dry bowl and whisk until. they form stiff peaks.
TIP: Meringue won't work if the utensils are slightly wet or dirty.
3.  Add the sugar gradually until you get your peaks back.
4.  Spread the meringue over the pie right to the pastry edge. Use the back of your spoon to make fancy swirls - remember, you are here to impress!
5.  Bake the pie for 10 minutes or so until the meringue is golden brown.

Did I mention that it is worth the effort and absolutely delicious?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Barm Brack - Cold Tea Cake

This is one of my mother's recipes that came in her wide ranging fruit cake repertoire. It's one of those nourishing, old-fashioned kind of fruit cakes, well, a cross between a bread and a cake really - just what was needed for a weekend away camping.  You might find it a bit strange because the dried fruit is soaked in cold tea, but you will just have to go with me on this one.  It ends up being very moist and delicious and keeps for a good few days - if you are lucky.

Originating in Ireland, versions of it crop up all over the northern part of the UK probably in the necessity for filling the up the family as cheaply as possible.  The brack comes from an old Irish word meaning speckled - and you can see why!

I love it because it's so simple, quick to make and tastes really good; and there's a bonus NO SUGAR - apart from the natural sweetness of the dried fruit - and it's the kind of cake that cries out for a smothering of butter and a cup of tea.

1 cup currants
1 cup sultanas
2 - 3 cups cold tea (fruit should be well covered so that it can get to juicy plumpness)
30 g butter, melted
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3 cups wholemeal self-raising flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
Zest of one lemon

1.  Put dried fruit into a mixing bowl, cover with cold tea and leave overnight
2.  The next day, grease a large loaf tin and put oven on 180oC
3.  Lightly beat eggs
4.  Mix everything together with soaked dried fruit in mixing bowl.
5.  Turn into loaf tin and bake for 60 to 80 minutes until golden and skewer comes out clean.  Remove from oven
6.  Leave in pan for about 20 minutes before turning out and let cool completely before cutting.
NOTE ABOUT COOKING THIS CAKE:  You don't pour off the tea after you have soaked the fruit in it.  However, the fruit should have soaked most of it up.  If you have a lot of excess, strain some of it off into a jug and see if you need it once you have mixed all the other ingredients in.  The mix should be soft - not sloppy or stiff.  Hope this helps. Now, all that remains is to put the kettle on!  Or the billy in this case.  Our camping spot in Mebbin National Park with the most incredible, ancient fig trees - so big you could live in them and hundreds of years old.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Chicken Cucina - A quick and nutritious pasta dish

Short of time, cash, patience and ideas for dinner - then this is the dish for you.  The ingredients are simple and cheap; cooking time is as long as it takes to boil some pasta; it ticks all the boxes for nutritional content; adults and children alike love it AND it's delicious.

I've called it Chicken Cucina, but I'm sure the Italians must have thought of it first and have a traditional name for it - please let me know if it rings a bell.  

For four people you will need:
1 free range chicken breast cut into thin slices
1 tbsp olive oil
Pene pasta
1 cup sliced fresh mushroom
2 cups broccoli florettes (I made it with peas in the one above because I didn't have any broccoli)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 long red chilli, thinly sliced (optional)
1 handful of freshly chopped marjoram (or basil if you don't have it)
About 350 ml tomato passata
1/2 cup fresh cream (I think you could use plain yoghurt as a substitute)
Splash of dry white wine (optional)
Freshly ground salt and pepper
Handful of fresh chopped parsley for garnish
Grated parmesan

1.  Cook pasta in boiling salted water until al dente then strain; steam the broccoli above the cooking pasta water until just cooked then refresh under cold water and set aside.
2.  Heat oil in large heavy based pan.
NOTE: This is important: if you use a small pan the chicken and mushrooms will become soggy in their juices and not take on those lovely stir-fried flavours, instead they will be more like a stew.
3.  Flash fry chicken until the strips take on some golden colour - don't overcook.
4.  Add mushrooms, chilli, garlic - keeping the pan hot, toss around
5.  Add the tomato passata (wine) and cream and turn heat down to gentle simmer.
6.  Add broccoli and season with salt and pepper to taste.
7.  Stir through chopped marjoram (or basil)
NOTE:  Marjoram is one of my favourite herbs for all kinds of Italian cooking; it has a lovely aromatic sweet nutmeg smell and flavour.  If you don't have it fresh then use basil and a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg.
DONE!  Now just toss the sauce through the cooked pene and top with a little fresh parsley and some freshly grated parmesan cheese.  As you can see, this dish is very adaptable - I just leave the chillis and mushrooms out if I have any little ones for dinner - not their favourite things.

Marjoram (Origanum marjorana), often confused with oregano (Origanum vulgare), shown in the photo above growing alongside a pot of bush basil (Ocimum minimum); all easy to grow in a warm climate. Marjoram is more often used fresh in cooking and oregano dried or part of a marinade.  I like to have them in pots close to the house and move them around when it gets too wet or too hot.

NOTE: Adding a handful of fresh herbs to any meal infinitely adds to it's nutritional value.  See previous post all about parsley.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

My Top Ten Tips for Starting a Food Garden

"Find the shortest, simplest way between the earth, the hand and the mouth." 
Lanza del Vasto

For me, and the whole global community of gardeners, just being out in the garden is a fun and rewarding way to spend part of your day - AND put a smile on you face - good enough reason alone to get out there and have a go yourself? That's why, for me, it has become an enduring passion  - it also saves on gym and doctors fees - it's my keep fit and therapy session all rolled into one. And here's the big plus - YOU GET TO EAT FOOD YOU HAVE GROWN YOURSELF.   But I admit it is often hard work, and requires patience and effort which I frequently see wasted for want of a bit of know-how and a gentle nudge in the right direction.

I know that most people don't have my knowledge or experience - mostly learned from mistakes I should say - so just look at this as your shortcut to happiness.

Flossie - she's always happy

NOTE: If you really think about how nature does it you will be half way there.  The first three points are fundamental to successful food growing and you can't fudge them.

1.  Choose an area that gets 6 hours of sun per day.
Most of the food plants we grow flower and fruit within a few months (annuals) - they need light to do this.  The exceptions are leafy salad plants (lettuce, rocket, watercress) and some annual herbs (mint, chives, sorrel) which will tolerate less than 6 hours - these can go in partial shade.  I have food planted all around the garden - about 70 different varieties - which makes the most of the varying light conditions.  For a complete list of what you can grow, and when to plant, go to the Seasonal Planting Guide on the main page.

2.  Fix the soil.
Food is only as good as the soil it is grown in and a soil rich in organic material is the way to go. If water is held in the soil but does not get waterlogged and it is full of earthworms, then you have probably done everything right and your food will be healthy and nutritious.  Remember, produce gardens are hungry gardens so keep topping it up with the good stuff - compost, worm castings, composted grass clippings, animal manures, lucerne, seaweed, straw; add a liquid feed every couple of weeks and bingo; and, as I am about doing this as cheaply as possible, I make my own brew.

TROUBLESHOOTING If you have done the first two and the garden is just not thriving then do a pH test - which measures the acid/alkaline levels in the soil.  Very simply, soils with a neutral pH are more likely to be fertile; when they are too acid or alkaline the nutrients in the soil become locked up and are unavailable to the plants. 

A Little Story: I recently had a client who thought she had done everything right but her veggie garden was just not thriving.  A simple pH test showed the soil to be quite alkaline - why?  Well, a few questions revealed that she had used mushroom compost to build up her soil and as one of the main components of this is chalk, I knew that this was the cause of her problems - being alkaline, it is renowned for causing pH problems. Easily fixed with addition of acid stuff - blood and bone, chicken manure and good old fashioned urine - it really is a waste to flush it away.

3.  Organic and chemical free.  Experiencing the pleasure that comes from growing your own food and then picking it for tonight's dinner comes with an added bonus - it will be pesticide-free and healthier than anything you can buy in the supermarket. THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT -  Nature is in a fine balance out there and if you reach for the spray can every time you see an insect you will be killing off all the good guys that help to maintain a healthy balance - as well as yourself.  There are many simple and non-toxic ways to control pests and diseases and going organic is the way to start.  Your garden world is teeming with life - every cup of soil contains millions of micro-organisms that play a vital part in the cycle of life.  Don't be the idiot that causes the circle - that is Nature - to break because, one day there will be no going back.

4.  Do not put your kitchen garden near or under trees.
Why - you will just be feeding the tree roots - the trees will thrive and your veggie garden won't.  Raised beds are the way to go and try to have all/some of your food garden as close to the house as possible - especially the things you are going to use every day like herbs and salads (Permaculture class - lesson one).  If you have limited space - then use pots and whatever containers you can lay your hands on - I love to use old oil and olive cans evocative of Greek courtyard gardens; they have an added bonus of being portable, free and I can put them under cover when we get a Mullumbimby 'big wet'.

5.  Only grow things you are going to eat - or that make you smile.
Make a list of all the fresh fruit and veggies you buy - and all that your heart desires -  and see if your area is suitable for growing them.  Buy local seed and plants and save your seeds from one season to the next - you will have more success with these than anything you can buy in the shops - and swap them with other gardeners.
NOTE:  We tend to start out by planting things we grew up with, but this just may not be appropriate.  I grew up in the UK with all manner of green runner beans, but they just don't do that well where I live now, but snake beans (seeds from Grace, my egg lady), winged beans (bought from Green Harvest) and Purple King (from my mate Dave) thrive - I learned the hard way through disappointment and observation. You can't put a square peg in a round hole and expect it to be happy!

The delicious trombone squash - seeds also from Dave

6.  You can't grow everything you eat but you can eat everything you grow.
Most people I know who have a food garden suddenly become more interested in cooking and exploring new recipes - and we all know by now the benefits of a home-cooked, home-grown meals.  You also learn new skills and find yourself pickling, preserving and jam making - and sharing -  discover the joy of giving away food.
A LITTLE STORY:  As I am writing this I have had an email from my neighbour, who is overseas, telling me to go round anytime and help myself to the bountiful chard in her garden.  I have just been and picked a basketful so it's veggie lasagne on the menu tonight.
Check out my tried and true recipes on the main page - simple and delicious.

 Sharing abundance - Belinda's chard (a relative of spinach and silverbeet)

"Garden design should be as personal as underwear: (Who wants to wear white cotton knickers every day?  Or have a garden like everyone else's in the street or like those in garden magazines?) No-one can design a garden for someone else - a garden should be an intensely personal thing.  Forget about the sterotyped gardens you see all around you, and just work out what you love and what you need.  What do you want to do in your garden?" Jackie French
7. Start small.
If this is all new to you then start out with a few simple herbs and leafy greens. This does not have to be an expensive exercise and you can use all manner of recycled containers as planter boxes.  I think the most fabulous I have ever seen was a garden in the engine housing and boot of an old car - recycled heaven!
A creative gardener using bits of concrete drainage pipe and an old bath for their garden.

If you are not sure what to plant then have a look around local gardens for ideas, and take a trip to any allotments or Community Garden in your area; talk to people.  I have learned more from talking to other gardeners than I have ever learned from a book.  And, you really don't need that much space to grow food for two people.  How many kale plants does a girl need - my answer is one?

Kale that has been going for two years - I just keep cutting it back and mulching it

8. Dig as little as possible.
It's not good for your back or the soil.  Sheet mulched no-dig beds are the answer. Often, the best spot for a veggie garden is taken up by lawn - if it's not used for walking, lying, sitting or playing on then get rid of it - turn it into a productive garden bed.

From lawn to garden bed the no-dig way
9.  Think about the vertical.
I can guarantee that if you start using the vertical spaces in your garden to grow plants up and over it will suddenly become much more interesting and beautiful.  Do you have a gap between a couple of posts - then cover it in chicken wire and grow some tomatoes and sweet peas, or attach some wire along the underside of the eaves to grow a passionfruit vine.  I have seen amazing things done with up-turned bed-frames then smothered in flowering vines and edible plants.  Build a simple arbour over your veggie garden for beans, cucumbers and peas - mine is made out of recycled timber - in fact, most of the landscaping materials on my patch have been hunted or gathered.  Thinking about putting up a fence - then plant an edible hedge instead.
A LITTLE STORY: Way back in the 80's I did my first Permaculture course with Frances Michaels at Crystal Waters in Queensland (they now run the on-line organic supplies company Green Harvest) and a lot of it was conducted in their bountiful and massive food garden.  What really impressed me was the timber arbour they had built between two garden beds; it was covered in climbing plants and was like walking through a happy green tunnel where you could reach up and pick cucumbers, beans, squash and passionfruit.

Passionfruit vine - the view from my bedroom window

10.  A gentle plea for chaos.
  • Don't be a slave to neatness - straight lines and regimented rows are for the army not for a sustainable garden.  I'm going to say it again - think about nature - does it grow that way?
  • Plant a mixture of annual and perennial food plants so you will always have something to eat. Check out the Seasonal Planting Guide on the main page.  
  • Think about the birds and the bees; attracting beneficial insects to your garden, birds, and small reptiles will keep your garden healthy and happy.  PLANT LOTS OF FLOWERS - zinnias, marigolds, cosmos, daisies ...............................and some natives - grevillias, tea trees, lomandras.
  • Let some herbs and veggies go to flower and seed (like parsley and dill); the benefits of this are threefold - they attract pollinators and you can collect the seed for next season - and it looks gorgeous. 
  • Edge with logs and rocks - they make handy hiding places and large shallow dishes make great birdbaths.  Mixing everything up helps to create balance and harmony in a garden; some call it companion planting, I just call it common sense - and you will have less pests and diseases. 

A healthy and productive garden can't help but be beautiful.  Don't give up, just give it a little time and love.

11. ( I forgot) mulch, mulch, mulch

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sticky Pear and Almond Cake

I don't know if you are a fan of the River Cottage series from the UK with cook and renaissance man Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall - I know I am.  For someone with such a long-winded name he has inherently short-winded recipes with basic ingredients that are easy to follow and always turn out well - can't ask for anything more.  This beautiful pear cake is based on one of his recipes.  Well, it's supposed to be with pear, but I had some beautiful organic apples given to me so this one is with apples.  It works equally as well.

3 pears or apples, peeled and chunked
30g butter
1tbs honey or brown sugar
Squeeze lemon juice

300g butter
225 caster sugar
4 eggs
200g almond meal
100g wholemeal self raising flour
1tsp ground cinnamon


  • Pre-heat oven to 170o
  • Place pears, honey, butter and lemon juice in frying pan and cook until caramelized - about 10 minutes.
  • In food processor cream butter and sugar together.
  • Scrape down sides and add eggs one at a time until light and fluffy.
  • Add almond meal, flour and cinnamon and cream together.  Don't over-beat.
  • Put cake mixture in greased cake tin and spread pear mixture over the top.
  • NOTE:  The larger the chunks of fruit, the more they will sink into the cake which make the cake sticky and delicious.
  • Bake for about 50 minutes (until skewer comes out clean).  You may need to turn oven down to 150o for further 5 minutes or so.  The cake should be firm to touch in the middle.
  • Turn out when cool and sprinkle with icing sugar.
NOTE:  You can make this cake gluten free by substituting the wholemeal flour.  I usually use a mixture of buckwheat and brown rice flour.

We've just had a severe weather warning for storms ands floods so I think it's time to batten down the hatches and put the kettle on.  There goes another clap of thunder!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Flores, Indonesia - Beyond Bali

These pages have been quiet for the past month or so because I went to a family celebration in Bali and then had a couple of weeks spare so decided, on the spur of the moment, to go to Flores.  This is something of our adventures.

Flores is part of the vast Indonesian archipelago of over 17,000 islands that lies east of Bali between Lombok and Timor, with Sulawesi to the north and Australia to the south.  It is a large island - about 700 km long - narrowing to 18 km at it's slimmest with the Komodo Islands off it's north-western coast.  Its name comes from Portuguese explorers who first travelled along the top of its north coast and marvelled at the spectacular flowering trees dotted among the palm trees and verdant greenery.

You know when you have arrived in Flores - it feels like the exotic South Seas, east of east, exciting and mysterious - like nowhere else I have ever been before.

Flores has long been on the adventurous backpacker route with travel by boat from Lombok - a three day trip - and renowned tumultuous seas where the warm Flores Sea collides with the cooler Sumba Strait. (Our daughter had done this trip 15 years before and she said it was not for the faint hearted).  Or, you can take a 1 hour 15 minutes prop. plane from Denpasar, Bali to Labuan Bajo, and fly over some breathtaking scenery on the way (fare on Garuda A$90) - this was the option we took.  Not a bad one, as it turned out, because that very same week a tourist boat from Lombok, on its way to Flores, went down in a storm and five people lost their lives.

Gunung Rinjani - Indonesia's second highest volcano on Lombok Island

Labuan Bajo, on the western tip of Flores, is the fastest growing region in Indonesia - which is evident when you arrive at the unfinished new and soon to be impressive airport.  Despite a clamber over building rubble to the baggage claim, passing an old green shed with a lopsided sign above the door telling you where the VIP Lounge used to be, you just have the sense that this is a place just being discovered by mass tourism - having exhausted Bali.  But, for the moment, Labuan Bajo is like stepping into a Graham Greene novel and this old port still has an unhurried, exotic charm about it.  The picturesque harbour is dotted with traditional wooden boats called phinisi - in fact, we didn't spot one 'plastic' boat or a touristy shop selling touristy things - they are probably there, but I wasn't looking that hard.

Labuan Bajo harbour

What you will find are lots of dive shops and tourist agencies, for Labuan Bajo is the gateway to the World Heritage listed Komodo Islands with it's exotic fauna, flora, magnificent coral reefs, tropical fish, dolphins, turtles and whales.  In fact, most visitors to Flores come here just for that experience and never venture any further afield.  And, while the Komodo Islands have been listed as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and they are certainly worth a visit,  Flores has just so much more to offer the adventurous traveller with a week or more to spare.

Labuan Bajo is also the jumping off point for the burgeoning luxury sea cruises to the exotic Spice Islands of Ambon and Banda - the true Eat Indies and reason why the early trade routes opened up here - they were after their nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon.

Typical house lining the old port of Labuan Bajo, Flores

Why did Labuan Bajo feel like stepping into a Greene novel?  Apart from the ramshackled South Seas charm of the place, there was a certain excitement and tension in the air.  This, I suspect, was due in part to it being the end of ramadan with 20 million people on the move across Indonesia for the traditional trip home for Idul Fitri.  This Islamic three day public holiday on Flores had the full festival feeling with street parades, fireworks and feasting which was in total contrast to the 85% of people in Flores who are Roman Catholic with churches, priests and nuns a regular sight on the streets and virtually ignoring the whole proceedings - doing the usual thing like Jews at Christmas - making the most of it. (The Portuguese arrived in Flores in the 1600's and converted most of the population to Catholicism but ancient animistic beliefs (adar) are still alive and dancing among the Catholic population - but more of that later).

St George slaying the dragon/devil outside St Josef's church near Ende with a unique Floresian touch of using a typical textile pattern as the background motif.

What added to the tension was that our visit also coincided with the long awaited announcement of the result of the Indonesian presidential elections between the old guard Prabowo, and the new kid Jokowi.  I was told that over 80% of Floresians voted for Jokowi (he had personally promised to fix the roads!) and the announcement of his success came with a great deal of excitement, relief and optimism for the future.  After we saw some of the roads we could see how the promise to fix them could be a vote winner!
Food stall in Labuan Bajo with all kinds of vegetables, spices, eggs and homemade tofu in the bucket

"As a Muslim majority country, which also has a robust and vibrant democracy, Indonesia is quite exceptional in a Muslim world dominated by monarchies, dictatorships and uncertain, vulnerable democracies.

Indonesia's experience in transiting from years of authoritarianism to democracy stands as an inspiration at a time when countries like Egypt are back peddling on meeting popular aspirations for change and political reform."  Shada Islam. director of policy, Friends of Europe, Brussels,  Jakarta Post July 8th 2014

Labuan Bajo family dressed in their finest for Idul Fitri celebrations

Komodo Islands It was not that hard to organise a trip out to Komodo from Labuan Bajo on a traditional boat for two days and a night - you just take a wander down into the port area. We were tossing up whether to go for two nights when the friendly tour operator said "I think one night will be enough for Ibu" - how right he was!  While I loved most of it - trying to sleep on the deck above the engine housing with little head clearance, which meant crawling to the toilet at the back of the boat, was not really my thing. 

I had also imagined a romantic night under the stars bobbing about in a balmy tropical cove, not factoring in that our captain, Mahkmoor, had made a beeline for a particular sandy cove - the famous Pink Beach - for one reason and one reason only.  Also moored there was a tramp steamer from Lombok full of scantily clad backpackers.  I could see Mahkmoor losing all interest in our needs as lovely things in bikinis leapt onto the beach followed by chaps with cold cases of beer. A soccer match started, then a bonfire and barbeque, then a riotous party.  All scruples, religious or otherwise, were cast aside and Mahkmoor joined them, finally wading back to our boat at 3am gloriously and noisily drunk - then, at 4am the call to prayer started from Lombok village - yes, one night was enough for Ibu.  Whilst I was furious at our captain's shenanigans Michael, who had slept through most of it, just said - well you would, wouldn't you?

Our phinisi, dropping us back on the beach of our hotel in Labuan Bajo

Apart from that - we had a fantastic time.  When you travel from Bali to Lombok you cross the Wallace Line - named after naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin (and first to expound the theory of evolution).  His many trips to this region, in the middle of the nineteenth century, lead him to the conclusion that islands to the west of the line, including Bali and Java, were once part of the vast land mass of Asia, and everywhere to the east, from Lombok onwards were once part of the Pacific-Australasian continent (Gondwana).  This conclusion was based on his observations of the species of flora and fauna that were quite distinctly and uniquely existing either west or east of the Line. 

Our Komodo Island guide
So, when we stepped onto Komodo I was looking at flora (cycads and acacias for example) that was very similar to a dry Australian landscape and nothing like I had ever seen in Bali.  But, there were more surprises.  We had a fantastic guide from the local Komodo Village - but for once I hadn't brought a notebook or pen with me - his knowledge about the traditional use of many of the plants was wonderful.  We chose to go on an hour's trek up Sulphurae Hill - we thought named after some sort of sulphur springs common all over Indonesia.  But no - we very quickly heard a familiar bird call (like a squeaky door) of the Sulphur Crested Cockatoo  and then the equally raucous Noisy Friarbird.  We were very quickly surrounded by a swarm of very hot and perspiring bird-watchers with small binoculars, large cameras and action pants (you know, the kind that zip-off at the knees), very excited at spotting these two 'rare' birds.  We had a smile and told our guide that those pesky things woke us up every morning being regular visitors to our garden in Australia.  We are brother and sister, I said in my halting Indonesian; which got a large smile from our lovely guide.

Komodo Dragons  There are about 6,000 of them living only on three islands in this region - the largest group and size of them on Komodo - getting up to 3m long.  Whilst their normal diet is deer, pigs, water buffalo and smaller dragons they have been known to attack and kill humans too so you need a guide wherever you go.  

The dragons (monitors) were being quite shy on our visit as it was the mating season, but our guide managed to help us spot a couple of them basking in the sunshine - perhaps hoping to catch off guard the odd lagging-behind birdwatcher?

The rest of the time on our little boat we spent snorkelling, eating and sleeping.  In fact the second mate, Jumadi, cooked up the most delicious local food that we ate on Flores.  I really don't know how he did it in his tiny little galley kitchen.
Lunch anyone - mie goreng (fried noodles with lots of vegies decorated with curls of omelette), ayam goreng (spiced fried chicken) ikan sambal (fresh fish in a tomato, onion, garlic, chilli sauce) with local rice (which has a red or pinkish colour).  For afternoon tea he rustled up pisang goreng (bananas fried in crispy batter) or banana and coconut pancakes with palm sugar syrup.  So, while we may have been sleep deprived, we did not go hungry.

We were moored in a small crystal clear cove, about to tuck into this feast, when a canoe from the local village pulled up and asked us if we would like a cold Bintang beer - I now have some understanding of how Baden-Powell felt when Mafeking was relieved.

Getting ready to snorkel off lunch

Labuan Bajo to Bajawa  The next part of our adventure was a road trip across Flores with a first days long drive via Ruteng to mountainous central Flores. 

We had found it very difficult to organise this or, in fact, work out where we wanted to go, what to see and how to get there for we could not find one map or any guide books for sale anywhere.  Our hotel in Labuan Bajo, who were useless in this department - had directed us to the Tourist Information Office - the existence of which was unknown to our taxi driver who, with a stab in the dark, took us to the most official building he could think of; which turned out to be the ante-natal clinic.  Bemused, they directed us to a dilapidated government bungalow down the road that contained two men having a siesta on the floor(Catholicism is not the only thing the Portuguese left behind) and a lifelike plaster model of a komodo dragon with large bits missing.This then was the Tourist Information Office of Flores that had no maps or guides - not one - "sudah habis" - already finished, the sleepy men said.  

Regardless, armed with an ancient map book of Indonesia, that we had brought with us from home, we organised a driver and car and took off anyway - Agus (Agustinos) had come recommended and seemed to know where to go - he spoke good English and fortunately we were to discover that we shared similar tastes in road trip music. A note of caution.  Make sure the car that they show you (great, modern 4x4 with air-con) is the car you actually get and not what we ended up with (old bone shaker with wind-down windows that ultimately broke down). 

"My wife doesn't like music - me and my children, we love it.  Music is fun and it makes you happy.  Life is short - you might as well have fun and be happy.  Agus - as he cranked up "Absolutely Everybody"

Ruteng to Bajawa:I had read about the trans-Flores highway. Forget it - it doesn't exist - or else it is under construction and the roads are atrocious but, the scenery is magnificent - through dense and lush rainforests, towering stands of bamboo and emerald green rice fields.

If we had done our homework properly we would have pre-organised a few days trek around Ruteng, visiting Wae Rebo (one of this region's remote traditional villages) and Liang Bua (where the remains of the Flores 'hobbit' were famously found in 2003).  As it was we were just passing through, only stopping at Agus's sister-in-law's house to pick up a pot and some potatoes!  Michael's eyes lit up briefly when Agus asked us if we would like to sleep with the 'virgin women' in Ruteng on the way back, which quickly faded when he realised that Agus meant at the local convent with the nuns!

TIP:  It's possible to stay at many convents around Flores (pre-book) and a good option for women travelers.
Flores has fabulous coffee and Agus knew of all the best coffee shops on the way.

We were on the road with thousands of other travelers going home for the end of ramadan and the Idul Fitri celebrations.  Buses and minivans were packed with people and baggage, some with chickens tied to the back and often young men deciding to avoid the cramped and hot conditions inside by precariously sitting on the roof.  We had one close shave; on coming to an abrupt halt, coconuts began cascading from the roof of the bus in front of us narrowly missing our windscreen.  Disaster for us was avoided when passengers from the bus suddenly leapt out and chased the rolling coconuts down the hill.

All along the edge of these twisted roads are large plastic sheets spread with drying crops of rice, coffee, cloves and cocoa,  marked by large rocks in the hope that the trucks and buses won't drive over them.  There is also no shortage of fresh fruit and vegetables produced in this incredibly fertile volcanic soil.  Argus was always stopping to buy whatever was the regional speciality - large yellow passionfruit, sweet oranges, roasted corn, peanuts etc.

Sweet potato, taro, bananas, pumpkin, cucumbers, chokos and ginger for sale along a mountain road

We finally arrived at our destination of Bajawa after a bone-shaking nine hour trip.  It was cold and I was very glad that I had a jacket and long pants, that I ended up sleeping in for it got even colder - we were 1,100m high with the town framed by a perfectly formed volcano Gunung Inerie and in the center of the Ngada region.  

There are five distinct peoples and languages on Flores dictated hitorically by the rugged and isolating terrain. Although the locals understand bahasa Indonesian they speak their own local languages amongst themselves and Agus couldn't understand the Bejawans, being from Manggarai in the west; he spent most of the time just scratching his head.

Gunung Inerie (2245m)

You don't ask much from a hotel - clean and comfortable bed, functional and clean bathroom.  Unfortunately the Hotel Bintang Wisata in Bajawa provided none of these.  Fortunately we had a duty-free bottle of Gordon's gin and an interesting couple of fellow disgruntled guests to share it with.  The best was yet to come.

Agus met us at breakfast (sweet white bread with an egg - standard fare - get used to it) with the news that there was a festival in the village that we were going to visit that day, to celebrate the completion of a new house.  Bena is one of the most traditional Ngada villages nestling under the dome of Inerie with a spectacular layout - like a ship - with thatched houses strung out around a central square - dropping a level in the middle,  the deck.  The central earth square was lined with megalithic tomb like structures - some of them dating from the stone-age.

It was also lined with the villagers making music with drums and gongs and dancing - whilst the biggest wok I have ever seen was bubbling away with  discernible bits of recently slaughtered pig poking out (lunch).  The dancing - shuffling really - periodically started up, went on for a few minutes, petered out only to start up again a few minutes later.  This was to go on for the next 24 hours while the village filled up with returning relatives bearing the traditional gifts of a live pig, bottle of arak (local liquor) and a packet of cigarettes.  Agus assured me that these were 'Catholic people like him'! The next day they were going to slaughter a buffalo and have it for lunch along with the gifted pigs. We spent a few hours here and it was great because we were largely ignored by the locals.  They offered us coffee in the shade of one of the families' verandahs and, even though we were, we were not made to feel like voyeuristic tourists.

TIP  Agus had asked us if we wanted to visit the hot springs close-by. We declined, thinking they were like the numerous hot springs we had visited before in Indonesia - sulphurous, smelly, bubbling mud pools - silly us.  Our gin drinking buddies told us later that they were wonderful -  situated where two rivers met, one hot and one cold, and you could swim in them!

The Art of Travel, Simon Kuper, Weekend Financial Times, July 18 2014
"The ideal – admittedly impossible – is to arrive fully informed yet with no preconceptions"

Bajawa to Moni  We were on our way to Kelimutu National Park through more spectacular scenery to be based for a couple of days in the rural village of Moni - surrounded by rice fields, rushing rivers and soaring volcanic peaks.  We had a very peaceful nights sleep at the new Ecolodge - about 1km out of town - resisting Agus's suggestion to stay at another one of his mates' places - cheap but not cheerful!

The traditional thing for visitors to Kelimutu (1,639m) is to get up about 4am and climb to the top for sunrise and observe the changing colours of the three famous lakes.  We were wisely told by other travellers not to bother as it was normally shrouded in cloud until about 10am - when the mist briefly lifted and you could see the three famous coloured crater lakes.  With this sound advice we had a delicious lie-in and lazy breakfast smugly passing glum hikers on their way down from the mountain, at 9.30am, that was still shrouded in fog and raining.

We were in for more Gondwanic surprises.  The dominant tree species all the way up the mountain was Casuarina equisitifolia, commonly known in Australia as she-oak, and as we climbed higher we entered into rainforest that was just like being in the back of Mullumbimby, where I live on the sub-tropical east coast of Australia ,- with almost identical flora.

Casuarinas look a lot like straggly conifers.  Agus had a song for every occasion - a man after my own heart -  (he'd see goats, bananas, bamboo and know a local song about it) At the first sight of the casuarinas he immediately broke into a rendition of "Oh, Christmas Tree, Oh, Christmas Tree" followed by a traditional Manggarai folk song about these trees telling us that Floresians used them for their Christmas celebrations. But we couldn't top his version of "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" although we did join in with the chorus.  

Kelimuti is sacred to local people - they believe it is the final resting place for the soul and many make an annual pilgrimages to the top of this blown-out volcano to leave offerings on ancient stone slabs.  It's an eerie place where the rainforest vegetation drops away to scattered scrub dominated by three mighty craters that contain the coloured lakes.

A group of locals, in their finest with red betel-stained lips, come to celebrate Jokowi's Presidential election.  They were shouting out his name for the photo and had his poster emblazoned the side of their open-topped truck

We were in luck.  By the time we arrived at the top the clouds had lifted and the sun came out  with the three lakes, affected by volcanic gasses, appearing as bright turquoise, black and emerald green - a truly amazing sight.  Within twenty minutes the clouds closed in again and all colour was gone from the lakes. (When my daughter was there 15 years before, she said that they were blue, brown and red!)

TIP It's well worth taking the side path, about halfway back to the carpark, along the track marked 'arboretum' where all the significant trees and vegetation are labelled. If we had more time I would definitely have take the option of a longer trek through the forests around Kelimutu - the landscape and vegetation made me want to see more.

Ending up in Ende Unfortunately, this was where our trip was cut short by the lack of shock absorbers in Agus's jeep and my dodgy back, so we didn't make it to Maumere on the north coast for more snorkelling and beach bungalowing - instead deciding to fly back to Labuan Bajo from Ende (A$40 on Garuda) where we had a connecting flight to Bali. 

I had wanted to visit some of the villages around Ende  that still produce traditional textiles with plant dyes - so all was not lost.  Apart from that, there is not a lot of charm to be found in Ende - it's mainly a transport hub.  The coastline, while quite picturesque, is not really inviting with pounding surf and black sand - the white sandy beaches being all on the north coast. 

South coast of Flores with Ende in the distance

We tried to find some charm in Ende and ventured out to see 'the sights', but the Sukarno museum was tutup for renovasi and the fish market restaurants were habis for ramadan. (Ex president Sukarno was exiled here by the Dutch to keep him out of their hair)  We had chose the Grand Wisata Hotel because it had a pool - for Ibu's back, but it was the strangest designed hotel I have ever stayed in with cavernous tiled lobbies, stairwells and corridors, but tiny dungeon like rooms.  Things were tight, because of the public holiday so we took what we could get, but one night in an incredibly noisy windowless cell in the basement had us pleading with the front desk at 6 o'clock in the morning for something, anything, else - no matter what it cost.  We were then told that the Presidential Suite was available for only $10 more!!  We took it sight unseen - it couldn't be worse after all?!!.  I don't think any president would stay there but we couldn't have been more happy with this turn of events - just getting to it was a bit of a mission.  It was right at the top of the hotel - through the darkened ballroom (which always had a member of staff stretched out across a couple of plush chairs with mobile phones glowing in the dark - it was the only place in the hotel with reception), across an unfinished roof and finally up a fire escape. But, it was very peaceful and it had a bath - and all for $50 per night with breakfast!.  A comment from a fellow Aussie guest we thought most apt "I reckon the bloke who designed this hotel must have been smoking the cheap stuff".

Traditional Flores textiles at Bou Sama Sama foundation, Ndona near Ende, with indigo used for blue dye and morinda root for red.  You can take workshops here.

Returning to the Bintang Flores Hotel in Labuan Bajo was like coming home and guess who drove through the night so he could pick us up at the airport?

TIP  Made in Italy.  Labuan Bajo surprisingly has one of the best Italian restaurants I have ever eaten in with chef Marco Bertini having a real presence, welcoming guests and sending over complimentary limoncello - that always goes down well. He is also doing a fantastic job of recruiting locals for staff and growing much of the produce on his own nearby farm.  We don't normally eat Western type food in Indonesia but after a week of pretty ordinary tucker (a lot of the local places closed for ramadan) we were really looking forward to a return visit to this restaurant.  In fact, I was dreaming of his homemade sourdough bread and salad of tomatoes and ricotta - also homemade.  The squid ink ravioli stuffed with clams was pretty damn good too.  It's like an oasis.

The sunsets in Labuan Bajo are wonderful

For more information about Komodo National Park go to this link
Next time Banda and Aceh - Flores was fascinating and fun.