Sunday, March 23, 2014

Pickled Dill Cucumbers

These pickles are sometimes referred to as bread and butter cucumbers, probably because they fit neatly in a sandwich and go with lots of sandwichy type things like; cheeses, cured meats, ham, pate', terrine and roast chicken.  In fact, they are a very handy thing to have a jar of in your fridge.  Oh, and did I say that these pickles are really easy and cheap to make?

Cucumbers are part of the important food family CUCURBITACEAE - along with; melons, squashes, pumpkins, zucchini and gourds that grow through the summer months on scrambling vines.

This years' dry summer has brought a bumper crop of cucumbers, but the recent humidity has brought the ubiquitous fungal problems - common to this whole family (see previous post on controlling fungal diseases with milk) and it was time to harvest what I had left and make some jars of pickles.  I always grow a kind of Lebanese cucumber because they are so crunchy and sweet with a non-bitter skin - you can happily eat the whole thing.
12 fresh, small cucumbers (about 2kg)
2 tbsp salt
1 small brown onion, sliced very thinly (I do this on a mandolin)
1 tsp black peppercorns
Small bunch fresh dill
1 tsp dill seeds
2 tbsp white sugar
2-3 cups water
11/2 cups white wine vinegar

1. Sterilize the jars you are going to use
2. In a non-reactive saucepan, heat together sugar, 1 tbsp salt, vinegar and water.  When dissolved, turn off heat and leave to cool.
3. Thinly slice the cucumber, discarding both ends. Place them in a colander with the sliced onion and sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon of salt.  Leave for about 40 minutes.
NOTE:  Salting the cucumbers in this way draws out some of the moisture so that they remain crunchy when pickled.

4. Wash the cucumbers under a running tap and dry, as best you can, on a clean tea towel.  Give the fresh dill a rinse too.
5. Pack the cucumbers firmly into your jars, together with the onion, fresh dill, dill seeds and peppercorns. 
6. Pour the cooled vinegar mixture over the cucumbers until they are covered.  Give the jars a couple of bangs on the bench-top to get all the air bubbles to the surface.  Seal them tightly with a lid and leave for at least three weeks for them to cure.

Some jars of freshly made pickle and an almost finished jar that has been curing for a while.  They will turn from green to this 'cucumber pickle colour'.  

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Luffa - Grow your own bathroom sponge

Luffa acuttangula
Luffa, loofah, Chinese okra

This is another of those fantastic sub tropical plants that are largely ignored.  Mostly known for scrubbing purposes, luffa plants are actually gourds, (in the same family as cucumbers, pumpkins and melons) that produce edible flowers, and tasty young fruits - highly prized in some cultures for their versatile, okra like fruits.

If you have read any of my previous posts you will realize that I have a small suburban block and space is of a premium, therefore using plants that have more than one function and cover vertical spaces makes good, common sense gardening - the luffa plant is one these. This fast growing climbing plant makes a wonderful quick screen, you can eat the flowers, young fruit,  and then used the dried fruit as a bathroom sponge.  (As my son-in-law said, "Oh my gourd!")

  • Vigorous-growing annual vines with tendrils that enable them to climb - often to 10m.  Need a strong fence or support to grow up.  Have tough, but light stems.
  • Sow seeds in the spring in the sub tropics.
  • Part of the the zucchini, cucumber family are distinguished by typical yellow flowers.


  • Flowers - The bright yellow flowers make a wonderful garnish, and can can be dipped in light batter and fried tempura.
  • Very young luffa fruits - can be diced and used raw in salads.
  • Young fruits - Young fruits can be prepared like courgettes, and can be stir fried with other vegetables to make ratatouille, or sliced and grilled with a little black pepper.  I made them into a Sicillian like caponata.
  • Larger fruits - can be stuffed with rice and vegetables.  Just use young fruit - under about 15cm - otherwise you will be eating bath sponge.

  • The flesh of these luffa species have been found to contain appreciable amounts of antioxidants.  Luffa extracts are used in several herbal remedies to relieve hay fever symptoms, including sneezing, nasal discharge and blocked nose, and are prescribed to reduce allergic reaction.

  • Good as a fast growing screen against fences.
  • To make luffa sponges, pick the fruits when they have turned yellow brown and keep dry until the outside skin peels off readily.
  • Shake all the seeds from the inside and you are ready to scrub!!  It's that easy!

Luffa sponge, ready for picking!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Snake Beans - Top Plants

Vigna unguiculata
Snake Beans

Snake beans are another one of those largely overlooked crops that do very well in the sub-tropics but, because people are unfamiliar with them, they just don't grow them - even though they are going to do remarkably better than any other 'traditional' bean through the hot and wet summer months.

You will be familiar with them if you have visited Asia or seen them stacked in bunches in your local Asian grocer - with individual pods anything from 30cm - 1m long!  I first encountered them in Indonesia where they are a staple ingredient of all kinds of stir-fries and curries and taste delicious, buttery, crunchy and sweet.

NOTE: Another top food plant for the sub tropics is amaranth - also used in Asian cooking.

  • These beans grow on a vine that need support.  They are quite vigorous and will get to a height of 2m+.
  • They are an abundant cropper, so 4-5 vines are enough for one family.
  • The beans grow quickly and need to be picked regularly while they are still green - they can go yellowish and tough very quickly.
  • Snake beans are a legume (this means that they fix nitrogen), and are very useful in rotation with hungry plants (like corn, tomatoes and beetroot/carrots) helping to restore depleted soils.

  • I have tried buying snake bean seeds from many sources and not had much luck with them.  I have had my best crop this year with seeds I got from Grace, my egg lady, so my advice is to source seeds locally - and then save some.
  • Plant two seeds about 10cm apart and when they are about 10cm high, snip off the weaker one.  These seeds are best planted straight in the ground.
  • While an all year round crop in the tropics, one crop lasts for about nine months here in the sub tropics, so it's best to plant the seeds when the winter cold is over - in the early springtime and treat it as a warm season crop.  They don't like to dry out.
  • Flowers are in pairs and may be white, mauvish or creamy yellow - so be careful when you are picking the beans not to destroy the ripening pod next to the one your picking,(this is the voice of experience talking!).
  • All beans, including snake beans, have good amounts of protein, often 12-20% and have traditionally been an important part of our diet - this is particularly so for vegetarians.  
  • They also contain amino acids, B vitamins, fibre and also vitamin A.
  • Snake beans need to be fresh and lightly cooked.  They have a slightly different flavour and texture and, if like me, you enjoy cooking Asian food including curries or stir fries, then this is the bean for you.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

High Cholesterol and Thyroid Disease

This is not something I would normally write about, but I think it is so important and revelatory that I feel compelled to share it with you.  I also know, from talking to my doctor and friends and family, that most people are unaware of the relationship between thyroid disease and consequent high 'bad' cholesterol levels and resulting heart disease.

Let me start at the beginning.  Last year I was diagnosed with Hashimoto's disease - an autoimmune disease of the thyroid, leading to hypothyroidism - an underactive thyroid - which results in stopping the important hormone thyroxine from being produced.  This disease, often hereditary in origin, produces a range of symptoms.  There are a range of conditions and diseases associated with the thyroid - Hashimoto's is one of the most common.

Symptoms of Hashimoto’s disease
Hashimoto’s disease progresses very slowly over many years, so the symptoms may go unnoticed. The symptoms and signs vary depending on individual factors including the severity of the condition, but may include:
1. Unrelenting fatigue
2. Feeling the cold
3. Constipation
4. Swollen face
5. Dry, coarsened skin
6. Dry hair that is prone to breakage, hair loss
7. Voice changes, such as persistent hoarseness
8. Fluid retention (oedema)
9. Sudden weight gain that cannot be explained by dietary or lifestyle changes
10. High blood cholesterol
11. Stiff and tender joints, particularly in the hands, feet and knees
12. Cognitive changes, such as depression or forgetfulness
13. .Enlargement of the thyroid gland (goitre)
14. In women, heavy menstrual bleeding (menorrhagia).
Sometimes Hashimoto’s disease does not cause any noticeable symptoms. The condition may be discovered during investigations for other, perhaps unrelated, 

How did I end up with this diagnosis?  I was pretty well symptom free - apart from  unrelenting fatigue, always feeling the cold and painful hands and joints (the rest of it I just put down to age and my usual battiness).  Suddenly, I had a persistent pain in my head - which told me that my blood pressure might be unusually high and I could tell that my pulse rate was running high (I could hear it in my ears) - so off I went to the doctor.  I did not know, at this stage, that having a high cholesterol reading was also a symptom of hypothyroidism.

I have had a high cholesterol reading for as long as I can remember (7.8) and have been nagged by various doctors to take statins.  I was resistant to do this for various reasons, not least of which are the possible side effects (from which I have seen my mother hospitalized and very ill). I also, in a previous life, worked for the pharmaceutical industry and know that's what it is - an industry.  I also did not have other risk factors WHICH IS WHAT YOU WILL HAVE TO ASSESS.  I have a healthy diet, exercise regularly and am a healthy weight for my height and age - the only downside is a query that my mother has a 'heart problem'.  

Blood tests revealed that my thyroid was 'stuffed' - or, as my doctor said "it was like an out-of-control bushfire" and she was surprised that I was on two feet.  Further tests revealed an inflamed thyroid with two fairly large nodules and the 'c' word was bandied around until biopsies discounted that.  This GP was the first person who ever told me that my high cholesterol reading could be related to thyroid disease.  I was prescribed thyroxine to supplement what my own thyroid was not making - this I will have to take forever - as prolonged thyroid disease usually results in it's irreparable damage.  She also said that I had probably had a malfunctioning thyroid for a very long time that had gone undetected because I was relatively symptom free.

The Happy Ending
After three months of taking thyroxine my thyroid levels are back to normal and more importantly my cholesterol reading is now a healthy 2.3.  The Sword of Damocles has been lifted.

The Moral of this Story
On the way out of the my doctor's surgery, while still trying to absorb this amazing news and marvelling at the bodies' intricate complexities, I asked her. "So should everyone who has a high cholesterol reading get their thyroid checked " and her reply "Of course".  Her complete advice of what your doctor should do when you go for a thyroid check is the following:
  • A thorough family and medical history.
  • Physical examination.
  • Blood tests for T4, T3, and TSH and antibody levels.
I hope you find this useful and I am sorry that there are no pretty pictures to accompany this post - all I had was an ultrasound image of my nodulated thyroid and I didn't think you'd want to see that!  Good luck.