Monday, December 5, 2016

Trombone Squash - Summer Survivor

Surviving Summer

A favourite summer vegetable - trombone squash

We have recently had some early summer scorchers, with very little rain, that has just decimated the garden - the heat and humidity have been intense, so this thought is not far from everyone's mind.  WHAT FOOD CROPS WILL SURVIVE THROUGH THE SUMMER?

Delicious finger eggplants - great for the barbecue

This was the question that my neighbour asked me the other day and my answer was almost spontaneous; okra, snake beans, amaranth bi-colour, eggplant and the trombone squash - all subtropical plants to survive our weather conditions.  I leave the corn and sweet potato for those with more land than me.

I still have some tomato, kale and cucumber plants struggling on from winter and spring but, in this heat, you can forget lettuce, Asian greens and other green beans.

Amaranth bi-colour - the spinach alternative.  Very nutritious and easy to grow - you just have to get the right variety - this one!

Snake beans - they just keep on coming

Trombone Squash
Cucurbita moschata
Zucchini tromboncino (listed by this name in the seed catalogues)

WHY is this one of the most rewarding summer vegetable crops?

52cm in one week!

1.  It is very easy to grow, surviving the summer heat and humidity - it just needs a frame to grow over - like a trellis or an arbour. Plant the seeds, that you have saved from the year before or bought from a reputable company like Diggers Seeds of Green Harvest (I got mine from my mate Dave) in the springtime.

2.  This zucchini/courgette/squash is a fast mover -  you can virtually watch it growing in front of your eyes.  This one reached 52cm in one week - I just love it. There aren't many plants that having me dashing out with the ruler, first thing in the morning, and gaping in awe at just how fantastic nature can be.

3.  It is very prolific - one plant will give you heaps of fruit.  You just may have to intervene and help it along by hand pollinate if it raining and there are no pollinators around.  This is easy.  The male and female flowers are borne on the same plant - the female giving you the fruit and male the pollen for fertilising - and their structure easily tell you which one is which. So you just pick the male flower with the pollen on his pokey-out-bit and stick it in the female - bingo - who said gardening was boring?

4.  This is a nutritious and versatile food that I turn into lots of delicious dishes; corn and zucchini bake, bubble and squeak and the really yummy haloumi and zucchini fritters.  I also like to serve it as a side vegetable - simply sliced and tossed in some hot olive oil with garlic and black pepper, then finished with a squeeze of lemon juice. You don't have to peel it!

Zucchini Bake

5.  You only use the long stem part which is seedless, less watery than ordinary zucchini and has a firm nutty flavour.  The round bit at the end contains the seeds - which you can discard.

6.  I always let one hang on the vine until it is dried and hard - the seeds will begin to shake around in the rounded base.  Store these in a cool dry place for next year.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Carrot and Sultana Cake with Banana Icing

One of the weirdest cake recipes I have ever seen was in a collection called 100 Years of Australian Country Cooking (1988) that I picked up in a garage sale with the kind of recipes that raise your eyebrows but, nevertheless, I find fascinating for their novelty value. Tempting dishes like Surprise Parsnip Pie and Mock Wild Duck Casserole (that contains beef and lambs kidney, but no duck) One particular recipe that caught my eye was for a beetroot cake with peanut butter icing - this was before the days of beetroot being trendy in everything, and I thought it very odd indeed.

Well, when I recently saw this carrot cake recipe I was immediately reminded me of the beetroot/peanut butter thingummy - must be the carrot with peanut butter in the cake and spicy banana icing on top. But, do you know what - it works!

This is a very versatile recipe, that I have tweaked to my taste, that can either be made into an iced afternoon teacake or into a slice that is great for children's lunch boxes.  It's a real hit with our growing brood of grandchildren - 7 and counting! (Leila, 10, said the icing tasted like banana milkshake!)

I'll give you the two versions and see what you think?

Carrot and Sultana Cake with Spiced Banana Icing

150 g crunchy peanut butter
1/2 cup of sunflower or other vegetable oil
250 g dark brown sugar
2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 cup milk
3 eggs
350 g freshly grated carrot
275 g sultanas
150 g glace ginger (optional)
100 g plain wholemeal flour (you can substitute this with almond meal)
150 g wholemeal self-raising flour
(for gluten free you can substitute with a third each of buckwheat/brown rice flour and fine polenta)
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1. Preheat oven to 180oC.  Line a 23cm round cake tin or loaf tin with non-stick paper.
2. Grate the carrots (I do this with the grater blade of the food processor - because I can!) then put them to one side.
3. In the good old food processor - that you don't need to wash after grating the carrots, beat the peanut butter, oil, sugar, ground ginger and milk until smooth then beat in the eggs.
4. Stir in the grated carrots, glace ginger, flour and bicarb until mixed.
5. Pour the mixture into the tin and bake for about 45 minutes, or until a skewer poked in the middle comes out cleanly.  Leave to cool before icing.

Spiced Banana Icing

100 g butter
1 large ripe banana
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp hulled tahini
75 g cream cheese
125 g icing sugar

1.  In the trusty food processor beat together the butter, spices, banana, cream cheese and tahini until smooth and creamy.  Add the icing sugar and mix until smooth.
2.  Spread over the cooled cake and chill before serving.

Carrot and Sultana Slice
(as in the photo at the top of the page)

1. Make the same recipe for the cake just omitting the ginger - usually not the favourite of children, and adding 1/2 cup of pecans instead, and have another half a cup for decorating the top.
2. You can ice this too - you just have to omit the pecans on top.
2. Bake for 30 minutes on 180oC or until skewer comes out clean.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Getting America Back Online

I am not often flabbergasted, but I was this week when I discovered that more than 60 million Americans are forbidden, by locals laws, from having a washing line! Yes, that's right, they are not allowed to hang out the washing in their own backyard.

This piece of information came my way via an American friend of mine, who has lived in Australia for a long time, but has had to return to the States after the recent devastating floods in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that left her elderly mother homeless.

When she went to sign the lease on a new place it was written into the contract that she was not allowed to have washing hanging in the front or back yards, or on the verandah for that matter, but that is was perfectly OK to have a tumble dryer out there in full view of the neighbourhood. She questioned the logic of this, especially in light of the fact that post flood there was a dire shortage of washing machines and dryers, only to hit a brick wall.  The landlord finally agreed to let her hang washing as long as it was out of sight.

Why, I asked myself?  How had this crazy piece of widespread legislation come into being in the first place when the iconic Hill's Hoist, with washing gaily flapping on the line, is a common and everyday sight in Australia.  Trying to legislate against it would be seen as laughable.  And, we are not talking about folk in apartments, we are talking about people with a yard who could have a clothes line.

Apparently hanging out the washing was the norm in pre-war America, but then the advent of the suburban ideal was born in the 1950's. This was partly driven by a push to get women back in the workforce after World War II; the need to sell electricity and the appliances being invented to use it (surprise,surprise), and partly by an idealised notion of progress - clotheslines became a symbol of the life people wanted to leave behind.

Upon the humble clothes line, a battle line has been drawn that embodies a uniquely American clash of ideas about class, liberty and the environment and they have swallowed this hook, line and sinker - well not line.

It may be hard to believe, but clothes lines in America are a symbol of poverty and vulgarity - they believe that having a clothes line not only lowers the tone of a neighbourhood but also the house prices.  These notions are fueled by the self-interest of property developers and steeped in an historical Puritanical prudery.  You can go out into your backyard in bikini but, for heavens sake, don't hang your undies out.

Arguing over the right to hang laundry on clothes lines which is, in most countries a taken-for-granted way of life, seems almost ridiculous even before the environmental merits are taken into consideration.  Official figures say that in the USA tumble dryers guzzle 15% of household electricity.  The same research shows that if one in three Americans started line drying for five months of the year, 2.2m tonnes of CO2 would have been prevented from entering the atmosphere by 2020.  It's free solar and wind power, for heaven's sake.

The comments left on my friends' social media page concerning her right to a clothes-line paint a vivid picture, incredulity and disbelief from her Aussie friends (" sheets smell like sunshine" and "I had to teach my American sister-in-law how to use a clothes peg"), and bristling defensiveness from many of the Americans (".....he who has the gold makes the rules......the rights of property owners far outweigh environmental goodness or renters rights").  In America, it seems, the big picture is just not in the frame.

Americans also use the vagaries of weather as an excuse.  What do you do when it rains, they ask?  80% of Americans own a tumble dryer while only 4% of Italians do, so let's ask them.  "Well, I hang it outside when it is sunny and inside in the basement where the boiler is when it is raining - simple, ciao."  Which is pretty much what we did in the UK when I was growing up and where sunshine can often be a dream you once had.  Just about every household had a wooden and rope drying rack in the kitchen - the warmest place, which could be lowered and raised. Sitting at the dinner table with my grandma's long john's dangling above my head inspired a certain curiosity, but not embarrassment - we were used to it.

If you have never buried your face in a laundry basket of sheets that have been dried in the sun and wind then you are missing out on one of the simple pleasures in life.  And what about that hit of vitamin D while you're standing at the line, the chat with the neighbours that you wouldn't otherwise have had while smiling at the bird orchestra and clouds scudding by? While I'm hanging my washing out, or rushing to get it back in, I am often reminded of a beautiful line from a James Taylor song - "the threat of heavy weather was what she knew the best".

Hanging out the washing is something unhurried - a peaceful contemplative practice - bend, stretch, peg.....bend, stretch, peg. And, doesn't everybody know that the clothes are cleaner when they are hung out to dry.  Sunlight bleaches the whites whiter and kills bacteria that a cool wash doesn't AND the clothes last longer.  When I came to Australia in 1975 I lived next door to a lovely American family.  We both had a young family, but I noticed that she never hung out washing.  I was curious, got into a conversation with her about it and challenged her to the 'undies' test.  We bought an identical pair of boys red underpants - she washed and dried hers in the dryer and I hung mine on the line.  After six months, hers were red no longer - more a sludge pink, with the elastic gone, while my son's were still red and good for at least another six months.  She bought a Hills Hoist.  We are still friends.

Unbelievably too, clothes line disputes have lead to tragedy.  In 2008, a man was shot dead in Verona, Mississippi after neighbours argued about hanging laundry outside.

I just can't imagine how something so illogical has perpetuated for so long and how the Americans have let the washing be draped over their eyes like this. But hang on, wait a minute, haven't they just endorsed a climate change denier and scientific ignoramus as a presidential candidate?

A bit of Aussie humour from Michael Leunig

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Bordeaux - Why You Should Go!

Last year we did a cycling trip from Innsbruck to Verona and it was so wonderful that we wanted to do the same kind of thing again, only somewhere different. We love the south-west of France and had glimpses of Bordeaux on a previous trip, vowing to return - the city and whole region is just so lovely.  This was where our trip this year started.

How bad could cycling through the premier wine growing of France be with its chateaux, historic villages, through the forests of Aquitaine to the seafood heavens of Arcachon and Cap Ferret on the Atlantic coast - staying in comfort and eating and drinking some of the best you can get along the way?

First let me point out that we own no lycra, but after last years' experience we did get some cycle touring shorts that have a kind of padded nappy insert - as he said "all ready for the nursing home Nanma"?
The companies that we organise these tours through take all of the stress out of the trip - you just have to turn up, get on the bike and pedal!  They organise: the bike - touring upright kind with panniers and basket, repair kit for the bike, helmet, book hotels in advance with choice of standard (we go 3-4 star - come on, I've been on a bloody bike all day), take your bags from hotel to hotel and provide you with comprehensive and detailed daily route maps that include places of interest, historical background and recommended restaurants. 


If you have never been to Bordeaux - go!  Fortunately we decided to have a two day break in Bordeaux before the cycle trip started - it's wonderful!!  Fifteen years ago was not the thing of wonder it is today.  After an extreme makeover under mayor Alain Juppe (former French Prime Minister), Bordeaux was admitted to UNESCO's World Heritage Register in 2007 and now shines in majestic splendour beside the Garonne River.

Place de Bourse

On that previous trip we had driven past Place de Bourse and thought wow!  I have since read that it judged to be the most magnificent riverside squares anywhere in the world.  My photo doesn't do justice to it's romantic grandeur.  Beautiful pale limestone buildings surround three sides of the square that front the Garonne River - the lifeblood of this historic wine growing region - topped with grey slate moulded roofs. You would not be wrong in thinking that you could be in Paris because, if not designed by Baron Hussmann, then the style was certainly copied when Bordeux got a complete makeover in the 18th century banishing its grot to history.

Hotel Bordeaux with its award winning restaurant and the kind of clientele who double park their Ferraris and Lamborghinis right outside. Place de la Comedie. Unfortunately, this was not where we stayed - next time.

What also makes Bordeaux refreshingly lovely is that you can actually enjoy the place on foot for much of it, like Place de Bourse, is pedestrian only.  They also have a fantastic network of cycle paths and terrific light rail - with no overhead wires - that connects all the transport hubs and stopped right outside our hotel in the centre of town at Place de Comedie - making it easy and inexpensive for us to get from the airport and around the rest of the city.

Grand Theatre de Bordeaux from 1780, Place de la Comedie. An astounding building of the Classical style, crowned by nine statues of the muses.  Daily tours of the building only in July and August when there are no nightly performances.  Make sure you do a tour or book yourself a performance ticket - the interior is breathtaking.

What to do with two days in Bordeaux?

1.  First of all, stay in the historic city centre with walking distance to most places of interest.  We stayed at Hotel du Normandie at the junction of Place de la Comedie and Quinconces (tram and bus stop). Housed in one of Bordeaux majestic 18th century buildings - most of the rooms are huge with soaring ceilings and windows - just make sure you ask for one of these on the side away from the tram stop!  Or stay in one of the numerous other hotels in the city centre.  Hotel du Normandie was chosen for us by the bike company, and very happy we were too.

View from my bedroom window, Hotel du Normandie

2. Take the hop-on, hop-off tourist bus.  I'm a big fan of these for 'getting the picture' when you arrive in a city for the first time.  The one in Bordeaux stops right outside the very good Tourist Information Office - handily located opposite our hotel with the audio on the bus giving a good background history. You can spend the whole day on there, if you want to, exploring places of interest on the way.  They are inexpensive, with discounts for seniors and students, and usually last one or two days.

One of the entrances into the city from the riverfront of Quai Louis XVlll

3.  Hire one of the bikes that you can pick-up from one of the many bike stations around the city, and take a trip along the Garonne River on one of the numerous signposted bike tracks that criss-cross the river.  You can also take day cycling trips around some of the most famous chateaux and vineyards of the region.

The bar at the Grand Theatre

4.  Go shopping, get a French haircut and stop for an aperitif on the way home.  Rue St Catherine (pedestrian) has some fabulous shops, including Galleries Lafayette (Paris) where I managed to pick up a good, black, travelling frock (scarce as hens teeth in Mullumbimby) while waiting for a hair appointment - makes a girl happy.  Me mate was equally content exploring the Aquitane Museum - Bordeaux archeological museum - which, he said, was really terrific.  Stop on the way home for an aperitif on the gloriously romantic terrace of the Grand Theatre Bar and Restaurant and, well, just let your mind wander!

5.  Bordeaux has 8,000 plus chateaux scattered among this famous wine growing region so taking one of the many themed tours that visit the premier vineyards is a must.  It's easy to book through the Tourist Office, or online in advance if it is busy time of the year.  We missed out because it was August and we hadn't pre-booked, but we would have gone for the afternoon/evening dinner tour that visited Chateaux Lafitte Rothschild and Margaux having dinner in the Historic village of St Emilion.  We weren't too disappointed though as we were going to be cycling through the Sauterne and Graves vineyards in a couple of days.

Timbale of fresh tomato, whipped light goats cheese and small pot of octopus salad with capers.  My delicious entree at the Brasserie d'Orleans.

6.  Dining out is a real pleasure in Bordeux.  Ask your hotel to recommend somewhere off the tourist track that is authentic.  Brasserie d'Orleans was certainly that on Esplanade Quinconces - one minute walk from our hotel.  I was sold the minute we arrived by smiling, efficient waiters in white shirts, black ties and crisp aprons with a small but traditional menu that did not disappoint. (15-30 euros)

A LITTLE STORY:  Me mate was busy trying to order a bottle of red wine amidst a lot of confusion - not understanding what grape varieties were on offer - with French wine you are expected to know that simply from the vineyard - we are not that smart.  At this point the waiter brought over a bottle of wine from the sauve, silver haired gentleman at the next table, who had been listening to our conversation, with a "Monsieur Claude would like you to try his wine - he thinks you may alike it".  M. Claude was correct - we struck up a conversation and found out that Bordeaux was his home and, when not travelling, ate at Brasserie d'Orleans every night, as we subsequently did and then asking for a bottle of the 'M. Claude' when we ordered and every waiter knowing exactly what we meant.  Got to love that! 

Esplanade de Quinconces

End your evening out with a wander down this vast tree-lined esplanade to the lights twinkling along the Garonne River - the statues and fountains in this huge park are fantastic.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Hummus - best ever recipe!

I can never really understand why people buy shop bought hummus when it is so easy and cheap to make at home, AND I have never had one of those from a plastic thingummy tub that tastes anywhere near as good as this. All you need is a food processor and a few basic ingredients - just throw it all in and bingo!  IT IS NOT HARD TO MAKE.

This is my go to dish for taking to a party - it's often requested and gets lots of compliments, so is definitely one of those dishes where the making of perfect has been in the practice.

Apart from being so quick, easy and cheap to make, it is incredibly good for you - this is the real deal as far as super foods are concerned.

  • Hummus is high in iron and vitamin C and also has significant amounts of folate and vitamin B6. 
  • The chickpeas are a good source of protein, dietary fibre, calcium and potassium. 
  • Tahini consists mostly of sesame seeds, which are an excellent source of the amino acid methionine, complementing the proteins in the chickpeas - and the sesame is where the high source of iron comes from as well as being a good source of calcium, potassium and phosphorus.
  • Fresh lemon juice is high in vitamin C.
  • Garlic, a natural antibiotic.
  • Olive oil - the good oil

It's a great vegetarian food and like other combinations of grains and pulses, it serves as a complete protein when eaten with bread.

No meal in the Middle East would be complete without a freshly made plate of hummus and passions run high over its origin and 'the authentic recipe'.  In fact, the 'hummus wars' have been going on for some time between Lebanon (who want to patent the recipe) and Israel (who exports the largest quantities around the world).

This is the recipe I have tweaked over the years to be to my taste and I make it at least once a week and, there's an added bonus - the grandchildren love it.

  1. 1x 400g can of organic chick peas (gives you 250g of chickpeas after draining)
  2. Juice of 1 small lemon
  3. 2 tbs tahini hulled (sesame seed paste) - important to use the pale variety otherwise it can be bitter.
  4. 1 small clove of crushed garlic
  5. 1 small tsp ground cumin
  6. sea salt to taste
  7. 2 tbs extra virgin olive oil (approximate - depends on how much oil your tahini has)
  • Strain the chick peas of all their canned liquid.
  • Put all ingredients in a food processor and pulse until a smooth consistency.
  • If, at this stage, the hummus is very thick you may want to add a small amount of water to thin it.
  • Serve on a plate with the hummus fluffed up around the edge - easy to do with the back of a spoon.  
  • Drizzle with olive oil and paprika or finely chopped parsley or mint.  This is making me hungry!
TOP TIP:  This recipe is to my taste.  You may think it needs more; salt, lemon juice, tahini or garlic so it's important to taste it, once you have processed it, and adjust accordingly.
ALSO - hummus is supposed to be light and fluffy - not thick and gluggy - that's where adding a little water (filtered) helps.  Try it and see for yourself.

Graffiti from a wall in inner Sydney in the late 70's.
"God hates homos". Written underneath - "But does he like tabouli"? 
I can never eat hummus without thinking of this and smiling

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Potatoes - growing your own is easy!

We have just been away for a couple of months and just about the last thing I did, before I left home, was plant some old potatoes in the garden that had been quietly sprouting away in my pantry - ones that you would normally chuck out.

This was a quick and easy task because the second last thing I had done before my trip was to mulch the garden with a thick layer of straw to suppress the weeds, stop it drying out and provide a rich layer of organic matter to quietly feed the soil.

Now, what was the first thing I was thinking about on my way back from the airport and what was the first thing I did the next day - you've got it - inspect the garden and dig up my beautiful potato crop - about 6kg of Dutch Creams from 3 mouldy old potatoes!!  Want to find out how you can do it - read on.

Potatoes are in the same family as tomatoes,eggplant, capsicum, the Solanaceae family so remember one of the rules of gardening - don't plant anything from the same family in the same spot twice in a row - this is called rotation.  Why? - because they need similar nutrients from the soil and repeat crops will fail to thrive AND particular pests of that family will build up numbers if they have successive host plants - common sense isn't it?

Technically, it is illegal in most states of Australia to grow potatoes from anything other than certified seed potatoes - this is to stop the spread of diseases, so if you live in a potato growing district follow this advice.  However, people have been growing potatoes for centuries from their own potatoes - just be sensible and use healthy looking potatoes to start with.

Chitted potaoes - ready for planting

You will find that many supermarket potatoes WON'T sprout in the pantry - this is because they have been treated to stop them doing so - like sterile tomato seedlings from the hardware store.  This is to stop the home gardener doing what we have always done - saving seed and regrowing another crop. (This is another capitalist trick - like printer cartridges and mobile phone paraphernalia, grrrrrr!).  Fortunately, while I had been away, a few forgotten potatoes had been sprouting away in my pantry - just ready for me to plant after I had dug up the last lot.

NOTE:  A cool, dark place - like a pantry, is the ideal spot to get your potatoes to start sprouting - ONLY PLANT THOSE THAT HAVE

This depends on where you live, but they are pretty forgiving about most growing conditions - they just won't thrive in the depths of winter, so if you get frost plant when the last frost is over.

Our summers, up here near the Queensland border, are way too hot and wet for potato growing during the summer months and they are generally grown as an autumn/winter/spring crop - and I usually get in at least two crops a year because they only take from 60-90 days from planting to harvesting.   However, I have just been visiting my mother in Suffolk,UK and fields of more temperate summer grown potatoes were being harvested everywhere - their winters being just too cold for the spud.

The potato is a tuber - a root crop, and the developing potatoes grow off the stem and need to be grown in deep soil because any near the surface will turn green and these are poisonous.

Potatoes are heavy feeders with a pH below 6 (slightly acid) - so don't add lime.  They will not grow in heavy clay and like a friable, rich soil.  I just use compost with a handul of pelleted chook poo.

Heres how I do it - it's really simple!

1.  Prepare a bed of straw/grass clippings/composted weeds THAT IS IN FULL SUN.

2.  Make a hole about as deep as your elbow to your hand - this is gardeners measurement!

3.  Place the 'chitted' potato in the bottom of the hole - this is what a potato is called when it has sprouted.

NOTE:  You can grow potatoes in just about any container that has drainage holes and is LARGE ENOUGH e.g. old garbage bins with holes in the bottom, free-form piece of wire mesh made into a circle, hessian sacks.  I am not a fan of the rubber tyre potato stack - I worry about the chemicals from the tyres.

 4.  Get some well rotted compost and add a handful of organic fertiliser.  I use Organic Life - which is mostly chook poo but has other things added to ensure that all the major and micro nutrients are present.

You will not need to feed this crop again after that.

5.  Because my soil is solid clay - I put some gypsum in the bottom of the hole as well - this flocculates the clay particles i.e. helps to break it up. You won't need to do this unless you have similar beige pudding for soil like mine

6.  Be generous in filling your potato holes with soil because the size of your potato crop is directly related to the quality and amount of soil that they have grown in.

7.  Give the ground a good water and then just don't worry about it for about two months.

8.  You will know when the potatoes are ready to harvest because the green plant, that has shot out of the potato above the ground, will begin to die-down and wilt.

9.  This is the fun part - digging up potatoes, like jewels from Aladdin's cave - was what first turned me on to gardening when I was a child and helping my dad on his allotment.

Now who has been paying attention?  Explain the terms rotation, chitting and flocculate?

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Beetroot Tops - How to Cook Them

Travel can inform you in many surprising and delightful ways.  So there we were, on our first visit to Greece, sitting in a seafront taverna on the island of Kos when I discovered two things:

1.  You can eat beetroot tops.  I found this out when I asked the waiter what the plate of greens were that the nice young men on the next table were eating with their lunch. He just said horta, and when I looked perplexed beckoned me into the kitchen to see for myself - a common and endearing occurrence in Green tavernas.  Sitting on the bench top in the kitchen was a pile of fresh purple beets with their chopped off stems and leaves being washed in the sink. "There" said the waiter, pointing to the pile of wet greens, "horta."

2.  Horta - horticulturist. Horta in Greek roughly translates as 'greens' - growing from the earth.  So there we have it - my qualifications are in growing green things from the earth.

I don't know about you, but I didn't know you could eat beetroot tops because we never did in our family - and I never knew any other English family that did either.  This is in spite of growing beetroots in our veggie garden and throwing away the beautiful fresh leaves and just eating the ruby red beets - usually cooked and pickled in vinegar or, heaven forbid in Aunty Phil's famous raspberry jelly relish! Greens for us were cabbage or collards that were put on to boil usually when the roast went in the oven!

Greek island of Kos, where East meets West

Now with many more years on the clock than I dare to think about, I have been exposed, through travel and the multi-cultural melting pot that is Australia to eating the gloriously sweet ruby red beetroot every which way; grated in a dip with garlic and yoghurt, roasted in a salad with feta and pecans, making a magic marriage in beetroot and chocolate brownies, or simply freshly grated in a rainbow salad with honey and lemon dressing.  And, you did know that beetroot is incredibly good for you?

"Researchers at Waker Forest University in North Carolina have shown that a diet that includes about 500ml of beetroot juice per day helps improve blood flow to certain regions of the brain in older people. In particular the effects were noted in the frontal lobe - a part of the brain that commonly experiences reduced blood flow in age-related dementia and cognitive decline. The effect is likely to occur because beetroot juice (like spinach, celery, cabbage and other leafy green vegetables) is a good source of nitrates. These compounds are converted into nitrites by the good bacteria in the mouth, and act as vasodilators - in other words they have the capacity to open the blood vessels and enhance blood flow" Gardening Australia 2011

But it was in Greece that I first encountered eating the tops - the leaves and stems. You will find horta on the menu in just about every Greek taverna - especially in the springtime for they are traditionally any edible wild greens that scatter the hillsides and form an important part of the healthy Mediterranean diet. Collecting these free and wild greens is a common pastime for most Greek families - so if you are out in the middle of nowhere and you see moped parked with a distant figure hallway up the hillside, you know what they are doing.
Another good horta - sorrel

As well as beet leaves, the generic horta also includes; spiny chicory, chard, fennel, purslane, sorrel, dandelion, amaranth, wild spinach, rocket and many more that I haven't been able to identify yet. I think the reason why I have taken to enjoying horta so much is that they are mostly (apart from kale) not in the cabbage family so don't have that sulphury smell associated with the dreaded 'greens' from my childhood - plus, they are really delicious.

The secret to enjoying this dish is that the leaves have to be really fresh - in this case, freshly pulled beetroot.  I am lucky that our farmers' market in Mullumbimby have locally grown ones most of the year round and they look like they have just jumped out of the soil.  Here's how to prepare them:

1.  Cut off the stems and leaves and wash in them in several changes of water to make sure you have got rid of any dust and grit.
2.  Plunge them into a saucepan of boiling water and cook for 2-3 minutes until completely tender.
3.  Drain in a colander.
4.  Rinse out the saucepan and return to the heat with 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, freshly ground pepper and sea salt.
5.  Return the greens to the pan and toss through the oil, adding the freshly squeezed juice of one lemon.  That's it - horta.

"The world is a book, and those who don't travel only read one page"
St Augustine

Monday, June 13, 2016

Best Ever Fruit Cake

How many fruit cakes have your tried in your lifetime?  Well, this is the best one that I have ever had - and it is very easy to make.  In fact, it's my lovely neighbour Belinda Jeffery's recipe, and she calls it 'Last Minute Christmas Cake'.  

It has now become the families' go to recipe for a deliciously moist cake for the festive season, but I make it all through the year, especially in the winter, as everyone loves it - one of those comfort food cakes for a cup of tea on a cold day.  And boy has it been cold - the coldest June in 21 years and us sub-tropical species just aren't made for it!  Time to get baking and get those delicious spicy fruit cake smells wafting through the house.

300g unsalted butter
400g soft brown sugar
1.5 kg dried fruit - currants, raisins, sultanas, dates, prunes, sun-dried apricots.
NOTE:  Make sure that 1 1/4 cups of the mixed fruit are raisins.  Also, the better the quality - the better the cake, so I use preservative free organic fruit - believe me, it makes a difference.
2 tsp bicarbonate soda
1/2 cup brandy (or dark rum/port/muscat)
NOTE:  Don't be afraid that adding alcohol to this cake will make it unsuitable for children - it evaporates in the cooking process.  It is just there to add flavour and preserve the cake.
1 1/2 cups water
2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
2tsp ground cinnamon
4 eggs, lightly beaten
2 1/2 cups plain wholemeal flour
200g whole peeled almonds and pecans for decorating
Good pinch salt 

This recipe will make one large cake or two cakes of this size.
1.  Melt the butter over a medium heat in a saucepan large enough to hold all the ingredients.
2.  Add the sugar until it dissolves and becomes slushy.
3.  Tip in all the dried fruit, bicarbonate of soda, brandy and water.
4.  Increase the heat to high and stir until all the sugar is dissolved and simmer for 4 minutes.  BEWARE - the bicarb makes it froth up.
5.  Cover and leave overnight or for at least six hours.  You want all the fruit to plump up and be really juicy - this makes the cake deliciously moist.
6.  Preheat oven to 150oC.
7.  Butter and line your cake tins.  If making just one large one, you need a 25 cm round tin.  The round one above is 23cm and the loaf tin 20cm.
8.  Add the nutmeg, cinnamon and beaten eggs to the fruit and stir well.
9.  Add the flour and stir well, leaving it to sit for a few minutes before you scrape into the prepared cake tins. (This is where the grandchildren come in for wish-making and spoon licking!).
10. Tap the full tins lightly on the bench to help raise any large air bubbles and level out the mix.
11. Decorate with almonds/pecans and bake for approx. 2 hours until skewer comes out clean.  This will depend on the size of the tins you have used.  They may take a little more or a little less time.
12.  Leave the cake to cool completely in its tin, on a wire rack, before you take it out.
13.  Will keep in a sealed container in the fridge for a couple of months.

A small helper with a big spoon to lick - I think her wish came true too!

I was prompted to make a couple of these this week to give to my son Nick.  He is an arborist with a tree lopping business and has been working away from home on contract in the New England Tablelands.  Every day he organises a bought cake for his workers for morning tea and says that trying to find something reasonably healthy gets a bit monotonous - the choice being limited to carrot cakes and banana breads. It has been extremely cold out there with frost and snow and I can imagine how hungry they get?

I hope you enjoy this cake as much as Nick and his crew seem to be!

Winter Care of Citrus and Orchard Meadows

Soon the citrus harvest will be over with just a few fruit left hanging on the trees SO....... it's time to get busy - that's if you want a bumper crop next year.  Time to sharpen the loppers, buy some trace elements, bales of mulch and get out there.

It is time to PRUNE, FEED and MULCH those hungry citrus trees - and it doesn't matter whether they are in pots or in the ground - this advice applies to ALL CITRUS.

I recently went to help a friend of mine prune her old, but prolific, citrus trees and she reckons we are in for a wet winter so it's time to get those outdoor jobs while we can.


1. Branches hanging on the ground.
2. Crossing branches in the middle which rub together and then can be a site for pest and disease attack.
3.Tree getting too tall to be able to reach fruit.
4. Dry, cracked and bare ground under the tree.
1.  Taking out some the large inner branches, as well as lifting the skirt off the ground, allows for better airflow through your citrus and helps to deter diseases.
2.  My retired farming friend, who used to be a commercial citrus grower, says not to be too timid when pruning and was just about to take to this tree with a pair of shears "just to give it a final haircut".  Her tip - don't let your trees get too tall so that you can't reach the fruit.

FACT: Pruning actually encourages more growth and flowering - and that means more fruit.

TOP TIP:  Gardeners are often reluctant to prune while there is still some fruit on the tree, immature or otherwise - but you have to do it sometime!  If you leave it until late in the winter you will be cutting off the developing flowering buds.  Here are a couple of ways I use up that excess fruit.
1.  Juice the fruit and make frozen ice cubes which you can store in the freezer until you need them.
2.  Make preserved lemons and limes, which will keep for ages, by salting them.  Here's how: 
*Cut the washed fruit into quarters and stuff into sterilised jars - salt the bottom first.
*With every layer of fruit add some salt.
*Top up with squeezed fresh juice.
*Weight down with a stone that you have cleaned with boiling water so that all the fruit is under the liquid.
*100g salt per 500ml jar.
* I add bay leaves to the lemons - you can add cloves and cinnamon.
* Ready to use in a month or so.  Wash the preserved fruit and discard the fruit pulp and white pith - you just want the skin - slice thinly

HOW TO USE:  Preserved Limes - with fish and seafood.  Lemons - Couscous, Middle Eastern dishes, tagines.  Try this delicious lamb tagine dish - it needs 2 preserved lemons.
The street where we used to live in Sydney copping a huge storm

1..  The whole of the east coast of Australia has just experienced a terrific storm with some folk on the North Coast, where I live,  getting over 400mm in 24 hours (annual average 1,500mm) which means, for us gardeners, that many of the nutrients in the soil get washed away (along with the assortment of shoes from the flooded front porch!).  SO - with the portent of a wet winter, it's time to care for your citrus trees - AND the best way to do that is by caring for the soil - that means FEEDING it and not leaving the soil bare, and MULCHING.

2.  Note the tree in the top photo after we had finished. No more bare earth under under the trees.  Each tree has been mulched out to the drip line - in this case with spent straw from a horse stable, but you can use anything; wood chips, composted grass clippings, spent sugar cane, lucerne - just about whatever you can lay your hands on.

3.  An organic, pelleted, slow-release fertiliser (macronutrients) is the way to go together with a dose of trace elements (micronutrients).

TOP TIP: Grow your own mulch!  Plants some clumps of COMFREY and LEMON GRASS around your orchard - these can be slashed regularly and used as a green mulch.  WHY - COMFREY has a long tap root and mines up minerals from deep in the soil, it also has a low carbon to nitrogen ratio so can be used fresh - unlike most green material - it won't rob the soil of nitrogen as it breaks down. LEMON GRASS has essential oils that act as a passive pest control when the fresh leaves are used as mulch - for its size it also produces a lot of leaves.

AND NOW - for all of those folk who have an orchard and are interested in making a smaller footprint - READ ON

From This
Making our patch more like a living organism and less like an artificial, unsustainable experiment just makes common sense to me - do yourself and the environment a favour and eliminate the need for ALL OF THE ABOVE; continual mowing, weeding, feeding and mulching.

HOW: by making your orchard, 
less work to maintain, more productive AND more beautiful.

To This

COVER CROPS provide a living carpet of perennial plants for orchards.  A 'living mulch' of low growing legumes,  grasses and other wildflowers can provide many advantages, especially compared to exotic lawn grass (kikuyu,couch and buffalo) which aggressively competes with your fruit trees for water and nutrients - and you have to mow it!  

The best way to start is with a LEGUMINOUS COVER CROP.  Legumes are plants such as lucerne, pea and bean family, medics and chickpeas.

WHY IS THIS A GOOD IDEA FOR ALL ORCHARDS?: How about feeding the soil with the plants that are growing there?
  • Legumes have the ability to fix nitrogen from the air onto their roots which then becomes available, via the soil, to other plants.  Nitrogen is a major element needed for plant growth.
  • Protects valuable topsoil from rain and wind erosion.
  • Suppresses weeds without the use of herbicides.
  • Improves the health of your soil by increasing organic matter, earthworms and vital microorganisms.
  • Reduces compaction of the soil by frequent mowing.
  • Prevents hardpans and soil cracking and brings up minerals from deep within the soil.
  • Improves water, root and air penetration of the soil.
  • Provides nectar and pollen for beneficial insects and reduces populations of pests by providing a more balanced, diverse and natural habitat.
  • Looks wonderful - if you would rather have the buzz of insects than the sound of a mower, and the flit of butterflies and birds on the wing - then this is for you.
  • Is ultimately less work and saves you money - have you seen the price of a bale of lucerne lately?

  • NITROGEN NODULES on the roots of broad beans

1.  It's obviously much easier to do this when establishing a new orchard as you need bare earth to sow the seed in.  Seeds are available from any rural seed supplier.
2.  How to get rid of existing grass:
  • There are new organically certified herbicides on the market that are based on pine oil called Weed Blitz - though I have yet to try it. (Recommended by Green Harvest Company that also sells cover crop seeds)
  • Hire a steam weeder to kill the grass - being used more and more by Councils and road side authorities as alternative to harmful herbicides.
  • For smaller areas - sheet mulch with cardboard and straw.
3.  Now for an important little bit of science.  The fixing of nitrogen by legumes from soil air require the presence of species specific bacteria (rhizobia) so it's important to buy seeds that have already been inoculated with the relevant rhizobia as your soil will probably be deficient in these important bacteria.

4.  Make sure you have summer (e.g. cowpeas, lab lab, soybeans, desmodium, siratro) and winter ( e.g.lupins, vetch, oats, ryegrass) growing crops as you want year round cover. 

5.  Add a grass seed to your cover crop -  including native grasses and others like oats, barley and ryegrass - has many benefits including; increasing organic matter and carbon input, encourages smaller seed eating birds and more beneficial insects. 

6.  Orchards with a lot of shade (macadamias, mangoes and avocados).  The DPI (Department of Primary Industry) recommends the native Smothergrass Dactyloctenium austral and Amarillo peanut Araelus pinto.
Cover crop seeds for sale in our local Rural Co-op


1.  Once your new meadow is established slash as required!!!!  This may only be a couple of times a year!!!!!  Important to do it once in the late summer to encourage re-seeding.  Leave anything you have slashed to rot down.  Re-seed any bare patches - then just sit back and ENJOY IT.

Go to this link by the NSW DPI for lots of useful information.

Guess what Prince Charles gave his mother to celebrate the 60th anniversary of her coronation (no, it wasn't a corgi) - a MEADOW in every county rescued from abandoned waste ground. 


Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Balinese Chicken Curry

This follows on from the previous post about turmeric and about eating your way to good health - and, while we are at it we might as well have something seasonal and delicious!  And, the absolutely best thing about making a curry like this is the heavenly fragrance that wafts throughout the house when it's being prepared.

Ubud, Bali, on the road to Kaliki

So this is a curry paste that you can make from either fresh or dried ingredients and keep it refrigerated to make up a quick curry of either chicken, tofu or vegetables.

I have spent many happy and fascinating times in Indonesia and am a big fan of it's little known cuisine (how many Indonesian restaurants do you have in your town?) - this is one such dish.  If you like Indian curries, you will be surprised at the freshness and pungency of this dish by comparison - give yourself, and your taste buds a treat and try it.

This photo shows three members of the ginger family which I have just harvested and use fresh in this recipe - common ginger, galangal and turmeric. Fresh ingredients, if you can get them, are always going to give a superior flavour to dried.

Freshly prepared spice paste
1 brown onion
5 cloves garlic
4 large red chillies (this is a matter of taste so adjust to yours)
Extra small, birds eye chillies if you like it really hot.
1 tbsp chopped fresh ginger
2 tbsp chopped fresh, or dried, galangal
NOTE: A traditional Balinese recipe would also call for lesser galangal kaempfera galanga, but I have never been able to buy it in Australia except in a stale old powdered form, so I leave it out. Meanwhile, I'm hunting for a plant to grow in the garden.  
1 tbsp chopped fresh, or dried, turmeric
1 tbsp fresh coriander roots (or stems if unavailable)
1 tbsp tamarind pulp
Zest of 2 limes (substitute makrut/kaffir limes if you have them)
1/2 tsp shrimp paste (leave out if vegan)
1/3 cup toasted raw cashew nuts
NOTE: In Bali they would use candlenuts, but I find that the ones you can get in Australia are old and rancid so cashews or macadamias are the best option.  They are used to thicken the paste and make it more creamy
1 tsp black peppercorns
2 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tbsp palm sugar
2 tbsp coconut or peanut oil

An old travel diary from Bali and my attempts to work out the botanical names of the the spice mix after a cooking class in Ubud.
1.  Apart from the oil, process all of the ingredients in a food processor until a thick paste is formed - you may want to add a little of the oil to combine it.
TOP TIP:  After you have combined all the ingredients, leave them in the food processor for about 20 minutes to soften and then re-process - you will get a finer paste this way.
2.  Heat the remaining oil in a wok and fry the spices over a medium flame, stirring constantly, for 2-3 minutes until the mix is glossy and golden.
NOTE:  When this has cooled it can be stored in clean jars in the fridge with a little oil on top until ready for use.

Makrut Lime Citrus hystrix (old Kaffir Lime) using the zest of the fruit and leaves in this dish

Chicken Curry Balinese Style
750g free range chicken pieces
3 tbsp coconut or peanut oil
4 makrut/kaffir lime leaves
2 stalks lemon grass, bruised
1 cup water
1 cup coconut cream
Sea salt to taste
Fresh lime and coriander leaves for serving

1.  Cut the chicken into curry sized pieces
2.  Heat the oil in a wok and throw in the chicken pieces and stir around for a couple of minutes.
3.  Add 2 tbsp of the curry paste and stir around to coat the chicken.  Throw in the lime leaves and bruised stalks of lemon grass.
4.  Add the water and cook uncovered until the chicken is tender and the water is reduced by half.
5.  Add salt to taste.
6.  Add the coconut cream and briefly bring to the boil just before serving. Serve with rice.
NOTE: Potatoes, beans or carrots may be added and tofu or tempe served instead of 
Balinese Chicken Curry

"Whosoever offers to me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit or water - that offering of love, of the purest heart I accept"
Mahabharata (sacred Hindu text)