Festive finale

I was expecting a quiet new years eve with a couple of friends and made a delicious mushroom pie that went very nicely with a freekeh and pomegranate salad made by my partner (I’ve included the recipes below). Despite there being only four of us (and two hounds) to celebrate we did turn the evening into a party and danced till midnight. We had a small ritual as the year turned that involved writing on two pieces of paper – one for something we wanted to let go of and leave behind in 2018, and one for something we wanted in 2019. Said paper was burnt over a bowl of water (for fire safety) whilst drinking my friends home made limoncello over ice.

Mates

Needless to say, finishing my book was my wish for 2019. The madness of the festive season has subsided and today was the first day this year I have sat down to write. I’m hoping for a productive day, as at 42 degrees Celsius it’s going to be too hot to do anything else.

Last week was filled with helping my partner build a new kennel for the hound who has grown to big to fit in the house built for her predecessor. She seems to like the new abode and has been hanging out in it during the day.

New house fur thinkin’

When the hound came to live with us as a puppy one of the first things she did was walk out onto the reeds in the pond and pee. I was unable to curb this habit so ended up having to fence it off and get a dog pool for the water obsessed beast. The pond lilies and reeds have grown uncontrollably since the fence went up and I have avoided the inevitable task of cleaning it out for some months. Yesterday the weather was perfect for working outside and getting wet so the day to do the deed arrived. The hound was not happy with being prevented from ‘helping’ but once she understood I would not let her climb the fence and get into the pond with me she contented herself playing with the detritus I tossed over to her.

The pond

I did make the fatal mistake of not shutting the back door properly and when I threw one particularly large bundle of sludge from the bottom of the pond over the fence, the hound grabbed it with glee and bounded inside whilst I yelled a futile “NO!” after her.

When I went in it was evident the hound has shaken the offending bundle as she entered and plastered the walls and kitchen cabinets with muddy blobs, left a couple of large sludge puddles on the floor where she dropped it a few times, then landed content on her bed with what was left making another muddy pool. I spent half an hour cleaning up then locked the dog outside and returned to my task. The pond and the house now sparkle, there is a fresh water supply for any thirsty birds that visit today in the heat and I can get back to working on my novel and see if I can make that new year wish come to fruition.

Oh, and here are the recipes for the fabulous Ottolenghi’s mushroom and tarragon pithivier (published in his book Plenty More and the Guardian online) and the freekeh salad (from BBC food recipes). Both are fairly easy to make and look and taste sensational.

Mushroom and Tarragon Pithivier (serves 6)
Ingredients:

  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 50g butter
  • 400g shallots, peeled
  • 50g dried porcini mushrooms
  • 200g chestnut mushrooms, cleaned and quartered
  • 150g shiitake mushrooms, cleaned and halved
  • 150g oyster mushrooms, cleaned and quartered
  • 150g buna shimeji mushrooms, divided into clusters
  • 300ml vegetable stock
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 200g crème fraîche
  • 2 tbsp ouzo (or Pernod)
  • 1½ tbsp chopped tarragon
  • 1½ tbsp chopped parsley
  • 900g all-butter puff pastry
  • 1 egg, beaten

Notes on ingredient substitutes:
Mushrooms: I was not able to find all the different types of mushrooms, so just increased the amounts of those I could find to make up the quantity.
Ouzo: I couldn’t find ouzo in mini bottles and didn’t want to buy a large one, so I substituted two tablespoons of vodka with 1/4 teaspoon of ground star anise for the ouzo.

The pie

Method:
Bring the stock to a simmer and add the porcini mushrooms. Remove from the heat and set aside to soften.

Heat a large, heavy-based pan with a third of the oil and butter, add the shallots and cook on high heat for 10 minutes, stirring, until soft and brown. Transfer to a bowl. Add another third of the oil and butter to the pan, and cook the chestnut and shiitake mushrooms on medium-high heat for a minute without stirring. Stir, cook for a minute, then add to the bowl. Repeat with the oyster and buna shimeji mushrooms

Tip everything back in the pan, add the porcini mushrooms and stock and lots of salt and pepper, and simmer vigorously for eight minutes, until reduced by two-thirds. Reduce the heat to low, add the crème fraîche and cook for another eight minutes. Once a relatively small amount of thick sauce is left, add the ouzo and stir through the herbs, adjust the seasoning to taste then set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, cut the pastry in two and roll both blocks into 4mm-thick squares. Rest in the fridge for 20 minutes, then cut into circles, one 27cm in diameter, the other 29cm. Leave to rest in the fridge again for at least 10 minutes.

Heat the oven to 200C/390F/gas mark 6. Place the smaller circle on a baking sheet lined with grease-proof paper, spread the mushroom filling on top, leaving a 2cm border all around. Brush the edge with egg, lay the other circle on top and seal the edges. Use a fork to make decorative parallel lines around the edge. Brush with egg and use the blunt edge of a small knife to create circular lines running from the centre to the edge, just scoring the pastry but not cutting through it.

Bake for 35 minutes, until golden on top and cooked underneath. Allow to rest for ten minutes then serve.

Freekeh and pomegranate salad
Ingredients:

  • 200g/7oz freekeh, pearled spelt or pearled barley
  • 5 tbsp olive oil
  • 4 spring onions, finely chopped (leave these out if you don’t like them)
  • 1 pomegranate, seeds only
  • handful flatleaf parsley, roughly chopped
  • handful mint, roughly chopped
  • 1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
  • 2 tbsp pistachios, roughly crushed
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
Freakout freekeh salad

Method:

Put the freekeh and 1 litre/1¾ pint water in a pan together with 1 teaspoon of salt and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes until just tender. Drain and allow to cool

When cool, mix together the freekeh with the spring onions, pomegranate seeds and herbs. Season with salt and pepper.

Whisk together the remaining 4 tablespoons of olive oil and the pomegranate molasses with a pinch of salt, and dress the salad with it, mixing gently. Serve topped with pistachios.

What did you do for new year?

Main image: Hot hound

The fruits of our labour

Pomegranate flower

Around this time last year I remember sitting on the chaise lounge whilst I wrote.  There was a cacophony out the window and I saw a flock of Rainbow Lorikeets exit the apple tree. Upon investigation it became apparent that they had decimated the entire crop.  I was determined not to lose our fruit to birds this year, so the day before last weeks writing retreat we put a bird net up over the front yard which I fondly refer to as the Warrandyte Food Store.

Quince

 When I returned from Anglesea I was delighted to find that the rain in Melbourne had boosted the growth of the laden fruit trees. The garden had been exhibiting serious signs of stress from the lack of rainfall this year but recent downpours have enabled the earth to sigh with relief for a moment.

Sage flower

Us gardeners notice changes in weather patterns and spend a lot of time mulling over the impact on our environment. As I write this, thousands of school kids are standing up for their future and demanding action on climate change from our pre-historic politicians who insist on turning a blind eye to the crisis. They seem to find it easier to deny a problem exists than take on such a wicked intractable issue. Unlike our Prime Minister, who appears to be afraid of children, I’m delighted that kids are becoming activists and believe the school yard is exactly where activism belongs. Not being old enough to vote doesn’t mean you’re not old enough to think, and dumbing kids down is not in our future interests.

Raspberries

I have not written anything this week due to feeling a bit of RSI develop from too much typing. Instead I turned my attention to my other passion and started work on the myriad of maintenance tasks and unfinished projects in the garden. By next week I hope to have completed a small area of paving that I have been putting of doing for longer than I care to admit, and to have made some progress on a new gabion rock wall around the vegetable patch. Of course not putting fingers to keyboard does not mean I’m not working on my novel. Some time away serves as an opportunity for ideas and problems to ferment. I need to zhuzh up my opening chapter and have been pondering how to approach it and think I have an idea now.

This afternoon I will make this spring salad and take it to friends for dinner tonight. It’s one of Yotam Ottolenghi’s mouthwatering offerings.

Peach

Spring Salad (serves 4-6)

Ingredients

  • 300g asparagus, trimmed and sliced on a sharp angle into 3-4 thin spears
  • 200g french beans, topped
  • 300g broad beans (fresh or frozen)
  • 50g baby spinach leaves
  • 1 shallot, peeled and very thinly sliced
  • 1 red chilli, finely diced
  • ½ tsp sesame oil
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted
  • 1 tsp nigella seeds
  • Salt

Method

Bring a large pot of water to boil and blanch the asparagus for about two minutes (until just cooked). Transfer to a bowl of iced water to refresh. Do the same with the beans for about five minutes and refresh in iced water. Repeat the process with the broadens for two minutes. When cooled gently discard the broadband skins.Lay all the ingredients on clean tea towels to dry.

Cherries

Place all the greens in a large bowl and add the remaining ingredients and half a teaspoon of salt and combine.

Make it to enjoy with good friends and stimulating conversation…

Main image: Warrandyte Food Store

Quince tree flower up close

Mixing words, water and leaves

Kicking goals

This week has been a mixed bag. The implementation of my 1,000 word a day writing target is working pretty well as a motivator. I’ve been getting up at 6am and hitting the computer till the Scrivener bell goes off to tell me I’ve met my goal for the day – and what a lovely sound that is! Having a word count target (as long as it’s realistic) gives you permission to go and play when the bell rings.

Working with frustration

The structural edit is causing enough confusion at times to make me want to throw the towel in. That set off a different kind of bell – the one that told me to go back to basics. I made significant changes to the opening of my novel which has had a ripple effect throughout the story so I have had to revisit my outline to help get my story and characters clear in my head again. When I am happy with the revised outline I will use Scrivener to chop and change scenes IMG_1019around in much the same way I would pieces of paper or cards then fill out the gaps I create. This is one of the features of Scrivener I really like.

Giving myself permission to take a break

The front garden has been weeded and the vegetable patch is almost ready for the summer seedlings to be planted out. I have even spent some time just gazing at my favorite tree in bloom – the quince has the most beautiful, delicate pink and white flowers at this time of year.

It became evident early on that destructo dog liked water – any water – puddles, the river, the water bowl – all fair game for play. Soon after the puppy arrived, I had to fence off the pond to protect the water life when her first act was to leap onto the reeds in the pond and pee! The other day I wondered why the living room floor was covered in water then turned around and there she was sitting innocently on the sofa with a now empty water bucket IMG_1031in her mouth. I had a dog pool in the shed (the kelpie wasn’t interested in it) which I set up on the deck this week on a warm sunny day and expect I will get hours of entertainment from it.  Destructo dog thought it was Christmas.

Good food

The warm weather we’ve had makes me think of summer salads, so we made tabbouleh with the large quantity of flat leaf parsley about to bolt in the garden. We ate it with a delicious pomegranate dressing, baba ganoush and some lamb – yummo! Here are the recipes…

Tabbouleh

  • 1 cup Bourghal (course is better, but I used fine this time)
  • Large bunch of flat leaf parsley chopped (I had about 4-5 cups when it was chopped up)
  • Handful of mint leaves chopped
  • Coriander leaves (I don’t always include this, but had some left over so threw it in. Remove the leaves and keep whole)
  • 3 tomatoes chopped
  • 2 cucumbers chopped

Pour two cups of boiling water over the bourghal, cover and leave to sit and absorb the water. Pull off and roughly chop as much parsley has you can add a handful of chopped mint leaves and coriander if you have any. Mix the leaves in a bowl with the chopped tomatoes and cucumbers. When the bourghal is ready break up with a fork, drain off any excess water and mix through the salad.

Pomegranate dressing for tabbouleh (this is delicious)

  • 1/2 clove garlic crush with good quality salt
  • Lemon juice
  • Pomegranate molasse’s
  • Maple syrup to sweeten
  • Pinch of allspice
  • Olive oil

Chop the garlic then crush it using the back of a fork and some good quality sea salt. Mix some lemon juice and pomegranate molasses together to taste and add a bit of maple syrup to sweeten it. Mix in a pinch of allspice and double the mixture with olive oil. Shake it up and dress the salad.

Baba ganoush

  • 1 medium sized eggplant
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 3 tbs tahini
  • 3-4 tbs lemon juice
  • Salt

Burn the outside of the eggplant over the gas ring on the stove to give it that nice smoky flavor then pop it in a baking tray in the oven on about 200C (fan) till it collapses. When it’s cooled scrape out the flesh and pop it in a blender. Crush a clove of garlic with a bit of salt and add it, the tahini and lemon juice to the blender. Blend and adjust to taste if needed.

We cooked up some lamb cutlets on a skillet and served them with the tabbouleh and a generous spoon of baba ganoush. There is enough tabbouleh to last about three days so only dress what you are going to eat now and have it again for lunch and dinner the next day with some grilled chicken or snags.

How are your writing and cooking going?

Main image: Quince flower

Inset images: Destructo dog (Harper) checking out the new pool

Large fake red and yellow sunflower in garden bed

The forest or the trees

She was overcome by a wild madness that drove her to tear at the ground and hack at the foliage that threatened to devour the universe. The movement transformed her hands into something resembling the walking dead. A ton of dirt lodged under her fingernails, rested like dandruff in her hair and left long black stains on her face and clothes.

Don’t you love spring? The weeds took advantage of my absence and made a concerted effort at a takeover. Little did they realize that I would return with a plan for them as well as a plan to get my writing mojo back. There are seedlings in the greenhouse showing great eagerness to move into the vegetable patch now that the earth is warming up so I have been spending afternoons evicting the weeds.

Like writing, gardening benefits from a plan of attack. I like to mentally carve up the garden into sections and tackle the weeds in a logical order. This approach means I can see my progress and draw a sense of satisfaction as I complete each section. I try to hold the big picture in mind, but focus on the small chunks. I approach writing in much the same way. The big picture is the overarching story and plot points I need to hit, and I chunk it down into chapters and scenes.

I like a bit of technology and use the app Scrivener. The nerd in me became very excited to discover the target feature of the app this week and I have set it up so I have a target word count for each writing day. As the Scrivener marketing ballyhoo says it helps you see the forest or the trees which brings me back to gardening.

The plan is to get on top of the weeds before they all go to seed. I do not throw out discarded weeds (or words) as they can be reused.  I compost the weeds and use the composted material to build up the soil in the following season. My greatest challenge is that when destructo dog sees me weeding she wants to help but is not discerning about what she digs up.  Can you teach a dog to identify plants?

As much as possible I take inspiration for cooking from what is growing in the garden. I still have mint and an abundance of citrus and there are chilies from last season in the pantry. There’s also a plethora of cheap fennel about as it is in season. I have mentioned my crush on the chef Yotam Ottolenghi before and I often go to his recipes.  This week I made his saffron chicken and herb salad one night which is delicious and I have included the recipe below.

Yotam Ottolenghi’s saffron chicken and herb salad (serves 6)

Ingredients:

  • 1 orange
  • 50g honey
  • 1/2 tsp saffron threads
  • 1 tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 
about 300ml water
  • 1kg skinless chicken breast
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 small fennel bulbs, thinly sliced
  • 15g picked coriander leaves
  • 15g picked basil leaves, torn
  • 15 picked mint leaves, torn
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
1 red chili, thinly sliced
  • 
1 garlic clove, crushed
  • salt and black pepper

Method:

Preheat the oven to 200°C (fan forced).

Trim and discard 1cm off the top and tail of the orange and cut it into 12 wedges. Keep the skin on but remove any pips.

Place the wedges in a small saucepan with the honey, saffron, vinegar and just enough water to cover the orange wedges. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for about an hour. Add water during the cooking if the liquid gets very low.

At the end you should have the soft orange and about 3 tablespoons of thick syrup left. Use a food processor to blitz the orange and syrup into a smooth, runny paste. Add a little water if needed.

Mix the chicken breast with half the olive oil and plenty of salt and pepper, and place on a very hot, ridged griddle pan. Sear for about 2 minutes on each side to get clear char marks all over. Transfer to a roasting tin and place in the oven for 15–20 minutes, or until just cooked.

When the chicken is cool enough to handle, but still warm, tear it with your hands or two forks into rough and quite large pieces. Place in a large mixing bowl, pour over half the orange paste and stir well. Add the remaining ingredients to the salad, including the rest of the olive oil, and toss gently. Add salt and pepper to taste and more olive oil and lemon juice if needed.

 

Image: Spring in the main street

 

 

 

Puppy with dead stuck down a hole she dug in garden

Blood and guts

This post comes with a trigger warning: may be unsuitable for vegetarians and vegans. If you are squeamish turn away now.

Whilst the celestial orb was preparing itself for the early morning spectacle to slip into the earth’s shadow I was up to my elbows in blood and guts.DSC05587

In the early hours of Saturday morning the longest complete lunar eclipse this century occurred when the earth passed between the sun and the moon and caste the big white orb into shadow. The sunlight filtered and refracted by the earth’s atmosphere bathed the moon and gave it a bright red hue and its name, a blood moon.  The early morning was worth the effort to take a look.

Speaking of blood, destructo dog is now on a new diet.  We joined what I refer to as the dog cult recently (aka dog training school) as I’m keen for Harper to be a well-mannered member of society.  Anyhewz, they run a range of workshops on all things IMG_0731canine.  I went along to one on nutrition which ironically was facilitated by a vegan who was extolling the virtues of a raw food diet.  Subsequent research tells me that the raw food diet for pets is a controversial topic – why should all the controversy be reserved for people after all – but it does make logical sense to me. Before dogs realized humans are a great source of nutrition and security and domesticated us over 10,000 years ago, they didn’t eat carbohydrates, one of the key ingredients in many processed pet foods.  Apparently all carbs do is deliver a burst of energy and upset the pH of their stomach if they eat too much.  It can also contribute to what we call the ‘zoomies’ when doggo gets hyper at the time of evening when I’m ready for a quiet sit on the sofa.  In the wild hounds ate meat (often several days old), greenery, and dirt and have a digestive system designed to process these things.

The pup has had a few digestive problems since she arrived, the detail of which I will spare you, so I decided to give the raw food diet a go.  Off I went in search of the DSC05590ingredients and spent several evenings elbow deep in about 40kg of chicken, beef, turkey and crocodile meat and various types of offal, which has a distinctive metallic smell.  The whole exercise made me think of my grandfather who spent his working life as a butcher.  He was a short, charismatic but volatile man – maybe it was all that meat. I have made up enough meals to fill up the freezer that I installed in the shed for this purpose.  A week of probiotics and a slow transition onto the new diet and hey presto, the hound is already much improved all around.

Dogs love to help in the garden.  My old girl Jarrah used to like to drop her frisbee into any holes I was digging, Harper prefers to assist with the digging and helped me make a hole to plant a Mulberry tree this week, which I then had to fence off to ensure she DSC00508wouldn’t dig it up again.  I have also weeded the vegetable patch and popped seeds for tomatoes, basil, zucchini, cucumber and pumpkin in punnets and placed them under cover in a small greenhouse.  The broad beans are flowering and the other winter vegetables are sprouting with spring growth.

This week’s recipe has gone to the dogs and should not be served up to family and friends, but your four-legged mate will love this along with a bone every day.  Apparently you should not feed weight bearing bones but raw poultry necks and carcasses, kangaroo tails, ribs and wings are all good. Apply the same kind of food hygiene you would to your own food preparation.

Raw food recipe for dogs

Ingredients:

  • 400g lean meat of your choice
  • 1/2 teaspoon of good quality cod liver oil or half a can of sardines in water
  • 1/2 teaspoon of ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon of kelp powder
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 eggshell crushed
  • 30 grams liver, kidney or brains
  • 30 grams broccoli
  • 30 grams capsicum
  • 30 grams spinach
  • I add a calcium supplement for the puppy

Method:

Put it all in a big bowl and mix it up. Adult dogs eat about 2% of their body weight, puppies up to 6%.

I feed my dog this mix, one bone per day and she’s had dog chips in a toy she can eat whenever she wants.

Image: Harper doing some excavating

Inset images: Blood moon; Harper; broad bean

New Yorker sign in NYC

New York potatoes

It’s been a busy week, though not in the garden.  Luckily I don’t rely on it solely for food or we’d be in trouble and living on citrus fruit at the moment.  I entertained myself with the NYC Midnight flash fiction challenge last weekend.  NYC Midnight is a competition in which entrants receive a unique genre, location and object and are given 48 hours to write a story of up to 1,000 words.  The story must be written in the assigned genre, be based predominantly in the location given and the object must physically appear in it.

I was given a fairy tale, a veterinary hospital and a badge and had a lot of fun as I had not tried to write a fairy tale before.  There’s nothing quite like having a deadline to lifeensure you get a piece finished.  Short stories also provide a sense of completion and a bit of light relief from long form fiction which takes forever. Everyone who was given the same prompts will produce wildly different pieces which I look forward to reading when entrants start to share them in the discussion forums. Round two is in September.

On Wednesday I went along for the first time to a Writers Victoria workshop on voice and point of view facilitated by Robert Gott. I find being in a room with a bunch of other writers and talking about writing motivating and inspiring. A couple of us went along to the opening of the Melbourne Writers Festival at the State Library afterwards.  The theme this year is ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and will explore issues like survival, fluidity, impermanence, joy, grief, loss, love, determination and empathy.

It’s fitting given the festival theme that potatoes are the food topic for this blog.  The humble potato is believed to have bought an end to famine in Northern Europe after it arrived Deaththere in the late 1500’s.  Then an infestation of potato blight (Phytophthora infestans) in Ireland in the late 1840’s robbed the population of their staple diet and about one million people died from the resulting starvation and disease.  During the Irish Potato Famine, also known as the Great Hunger, more than a million people also emigrated to save their own lives, mostly to America and Canada.

This week I paid homage to the potato and made gnocchi for the first time.  We had a surplus of potatoes after my partner and I had both bought some during the week.  I also had one lunchbox of frozen tomatoes from last summer’s crop still in the freezer, so I decided to give making gnocchi a go.  The gnocchi recipe is from Donnini’s Pasta which is full of recipes for pasta of all shapes and sizes.  It’s much easier to make than I imagined and is delicious.

Gnocchi

  • 600g potatoes, unpeeled – try to select ones of similar size
  • 150g flour
  • 50g Parmigiano cheese, grated
  • 1 dessertspoon salt
  • Extra flour

Boil the potatoes with their skin on in salted water.  When cooked, drain and peel them whilst still hot. Mash the peeled potatoes ensuring the mixtures is lump free.  Incorporate the flour, Parmigiano cheese and salt into the potatoes. The mixture will be sticky but smooth.

Flour a board and your hands and turn the dough out on a board to knead making sure that you constantly fold the dough over onto itself.  The dough is ready when it is velvety to the touch.  Cut the dough into four equal sections and cover three of them with an inverted bowl while you work on the fourth.  Roll the section into a long sausage shape about 2cm thick.  Cut it into 2cm lengths with a sharp knife then roll each piece over the prongs on the back of a fork.  This thins out the middle of the gnocchi a little and the grooves help the sauce stick to each piece.

Make sure you have the sauce ready before you cook the gnocchi.  To cook, boil a large quantity of salted water in a big pot.  The gnocchi is cooked when it floats to the top of the water.  Remove with a slotted spoon and serve up with a dollop of sauce and fresh grated Parmigiano cheese.

Tomato sauce

  • Tomatoes – I had about 4-5 frozen which I defrosted and siphoned off some of the liquid from
  • 1 onion chopped
  • Garlic crushed (1 or 2 cloves)
  • tsp basil
  • Salt and pepper

Fry the onion in olive oil until translucent, add the garlic and basil and fry a minute or so more.  Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper and cook until it is the consistency you want for the sauce.

Image: New York

Inset images: Melbourne Writers Festival Launch

vanilla bean growing up wall

Jack and the bean stalk

My partner and I went on a trip to Vanuatu several years ago and had an amazing visit to Epi. Epi is a volcanic island, 444 square kilometres in size, and with a population of about 5,000. We travelled to Epi on an eight-seater plane which landed at Valesdir airport. The airport comprised a grass runway, a small shed and a friendly welcome. Island access was weather dependent and driving on the dirt road from one end of the island to the other required a four-wheel drive due to the many potholes along the way.

We stayed at a guesthouse on the south west coast. At the time the owners were away and we were left in the hands of Carol and her young son Rob who worked at the guesthouse and lived in a nearby village. I felt very fortunate to have this experience as we had the place to ourselves and Carol and Rob were very gracious hosts.

Electricity was only available to those who could afford solar and subsistence agriculture was the how most of the locals made a living. Copra was one of the main crops produced and required significant labour. Coconuts were broken open, the water drained out and the kernel dried in a kiln heated with wood. The kernels were sold to manufacturers who crush them to extract oil which we use in baking and cooking. It’s a tough life which I am reminded of every time I pick up a pot of coconut oil.

Carol took us on a tour of her village and showed us their agricultural production. They grew cocoa trees and planned to expand into selling vanilla beans. I was fascinated by the vanilla orchid. It’s an elegant plant with long succulent lance-shaped leaves that zigzag up the tropical trees and bear creamy blooms. It looked quite magical and when I followed its upward trajectory I had an urge to climb it to satisfy my curiosity about what was at the top. I wonder if I would have felt this way had I not read Jack and the Beanstalk.

Jack and the Beanstalk is in part a study on class and wealth disparity (something I was very cognisant of whilst travelling in Vanuatu).  It’s also a Trickster story with Marxist overtones. The very poor, but charming, wily and mischievous Jack comes into conflict with the bigger and more powerful ogre. Jack wins against his more powerful adversary by tricking the giant with his craftiness. The wealthy and gluttonous giant represents both what Jack finds monstrous and what he envies. Jack is both the oppressor and the oppressed. He is absolved of all wrong doing (stealing and killing the giant) due to his actions being about reclaiming his birthright and his right to social mobility. I hope Carol has had some success with breaking into the vanilla bean market and managed to outsmart all those greedy businessmen she would have to deal with.

I was so enamoured by the vanilla bean that I decided to try and grow this tropical plant in Melbourne. I anticipated that this venture would fail but was determined to give it a go. I’ve located it in the warmest and lightest room in the house and it’s made its way up to the ceiling already. I have yet to see whether I can entice it to flower and fruit, but this week’s recipe is what I imagine I will make if I do, using my beans and rhubarb from the garden.

Rhubarb Panna cotta Tart (by Hummingbird High)

Ingredients
Brown Butter Tart Shell (makes a 14 x 5-inch rectangular tart)

  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • a pinch of salt
  • 5.5 ounces all-purpose flour

Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta (makes enough for one tart)

  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons (1 envelope) powdered gelatine
  • 3 tablespoons cold water

Roasted Vanilla Rhubarb Topping (makes around 2 cups, enough for one tart)

  • 1 pound rhubarb, trimmed and sliced into 1-inch thick pieces
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup red wine
  • 1 vanilla bean

Use a 14 x 5-inch rectangular tart pan with a removable bottom

Method

Brown Butter Tart Crust:

  • preheat to 410 (F)
  • combine 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, 3 tablespoons water, 1 tablespoon granulated sugar, 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, and a pinch of salt in a Pyrex oven soft bowl
  • place the bowl in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, until the mixture is boiling and the butter starts browning.
  • remove from the oven, and add 5.5 ounces of flour quickly, by spooning in flour in 1 tablespoon sized chunks. Use a heatproof rubber spatula to stir in the flour until it pulls off the sides of the bowl. The mixture will bubble and smoke and make you feel like witch with a cauldron
  • Once the dough is cool enough to touch, use the back of your hand to flatten out the dough onto your tart pan. Use your finger tips to mould the dough up into the corners and sides of the pan. Use a fork to poke several holes into the crust.
  • Place the tart pan on a baking sheet and bake at 410 (F) for 15 minutes, or until the crust is light brown and starts to appear flaky. Once it does, remove from oven and let it rest on a wire rack. The crust is ready for filling when completely cooled.

For the Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta:

  • Combine 2 cups heavy cream and 1 vanilla bean in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape the seeds into the cream. Whisk it gently until the seeds are incorporated throughout the cream. Throw in the vanilla bean pod and cook the mixture over medium heat until it begins to just simmer and the cream smells fragrant. Remove from heat and cover, allow the vanilla bean to infuse the cream for 30 minutes.
  • After 30 minutes, fish out the vanilla bean pod. Add 1/4 cup granulated sugar and reheat over medium heat. Don’t let it come to a boil; you want it to heat only until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is hot (but not boiling) throughout. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.
  • While the mixture is cooling, bloom the gelatine. Sprinkle 2 1/2 teaspoons powdered gelatine over the surface of 3 tablespoons water in a small bowl. Let stand for around 5 minutes, until the granules have softened completely, before scraping out into the cream mixture and whisking until the gelatine is completely dissolved. Let cool slightly for another 10 minutes, before pouring into the brown butter tart crust. Transfer to the refrigerator and allow to set for at least 2 hours, until the panna cotta is firm.

For the Roasted Vanilla Rhubarb Topping:

  • Preheat the oven to 350 (F) — if you’re making the filling immediately after baking the shortcakes, your oven should already be ready.
  • Place 1 pound chopped rhubarb in a 9 x 13 inch baking pan. In a small bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup granulated sugar and 1/4 cup red wine — don’t worry if it doesn’t dissolve, it should just be a thick syrup. Drizzle over the rhubarb and toss to combine.
  • Split 1 vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape in seeds from the vanilla bean over the rhubarb mixture. Toss to combine and add the vanilla bean pods. Roast until rhubarb is very tender and the juices are syrupy, around 30 – 40 minutes. Let cool slightly on a wire rack before transferring to the panna cotta tart. Serve immediately.

Image: indoor vanilla bean

 

pile of dictionaries, pruning implements and an orange

The big prune

From the age of about eighteen through to twenty-two I lived in households sans television. The result was that I read voraciously. At one point I set out to read a dictionary cover to cover. It was the Longman Concise English Dictionary and I read all 1,651 pages. I still have it on my bookshelf held together with sticky tape.

There’s some great word games you can play with reference books like guessing the correct meaning of obscure words or who can come up with the most synonyms. The synonym, now there’s a beautiful thing. Found in a thesaurus – the treasure chest of words. A guy called Peter Roget, an avid collector of synonyms, developed the first thesaurus in the 1840’s and it’s my favourite reference book. A must have for editing. I’ve been doing some short story and chapter editing recently and the thesaurus has been getting some exercise.

I was thinking about editing whilst I was out pruning the fruit trees the other day, as you do. It turns out that editing and pruning have a lot in common. According to the online power thesaurus, edit and prune have twelve synonyms in common, and are synonyms for each other.

The thought processes for pruning and editing have a lot in common also. Is this the right place to cut? Will it improve the structure? How much should I cut? I also discovered that both pruning and editing are much harder with a puppy in tow. I’m thinking of changing Harpers name to Distractor, though Destructor might be more apt given the hole recently chewed in the sofa whilst watching Paris Texas. Maybe she just thought she was pruning.

Citrus and rhubarb are the garden produce of the moment in the food store until spring arrives. This roast rhubarb recipe is simple and delicious served on yoghurt for dessert or for breakfast.

Ingredients:

  • rhubarb
  • orange zest
  • orange juice
  • honey

Method:
Cut the rhubarb into finger length pieces. Remove the zest from the orange and juice the orange. Mix zest and orange juice with honey to taste (I usually use a ratio of one orange and its zest to one desert spoon of honey). Combine and mix all ingredients in an oven proof dish. Arrange rhubarb into a single layer, cover with tin foil and bake for about 30 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius. Serve hot or cold.

 

Espaliered oranges

Sailing Stones

Death Valley is located at the lowest altitude in the USA and is known for its extreme heat and cold. There’s a phenomena in Death Valley where black dolomite rocks as heavy as 140 kilos mysteriously hydroplane across the desert lake bed leaving trails in their wake. The occurrences confounded scientists since the 1940’s. Some believed that electromagnetic fields generated by UFO’s were responsible. There are even records of the happenings in Native American rock art depicting something unexplained up in the sky.

Modern technology enabled a couple of determined geologist to solve the mystery in 2014. The geologists set up a weather station and recorded the moving stones on camera after attaching GPS trackers to them. It took two years, a lot of patience, and perfect DSC05553winter conditions before they witnessed the rocks move. A day after rain the pond was covered with a thin layer of sheet ice.  The ice formed around the rocks lifting them clear of the lake bed. When the ice started to thaw and break up during the day some of it clung to the rocks forming a floating seat and the wind was enough to move them across the surface.

Winter carries with it a sense of slowing and contracting. There’s a temptation to curl up on the coach with a cuppa and a book. Mornings are crisp and cold and I often wake up in the clouds. Plant growth slows and aside from a little weeding not much happens in the patch. There are of course those ‘other jobs’. The ones I’ve been avoiding as they are as boring as waiting for stones to levitate across the ground. In fact one of them does require moving stones. Hundreds of them.

I have espaliered citrus trees in front of the house that enable me to step out onto the deck DSC05548in winter and pluck oranges and tangelos for breakfast. The trees are mulched using stone mulch as we live in a high fire risk area and I didn’t want to put flammable material right next to the house. It does make maintenance labor intensive however. I’ve been contemplating for over a year the task of taking up all the stones to give the trees a really good feed and compost to boost production. The rock wall surrounding the citrus also needed some repairs where it had subsided.   I finally attended to the tedious task this week. It’s quite meditative but it did make me wish for UFO’s or ice sheets to lend some assistance. Just imagine getting up one morning to find all those stones moved to one side without any effort from me.

Speaking of tedious we are still working our way through all those pumpkins, not to mention the kale. I did grow our first edible pomegranates this year which add a bit of zing and variety to a dish…

Kale and roast pumpkin salad with pomegranate molasses and almonds

Ingredients:

  • Pumpkin peeled, seeded and cut into small wedges
  • Bunch of kale
  • Handful of chopped almonds
  • 2 spring onions
  • 1/2 lemon juiced
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp pomegranate molasses
  • 1 small pomegranate – seeds removed. The easiest way to do this is slice off the crown and expose the white membrane. Score around the pomegranate from top to bottom making four quarters. The score should reach the white membrane without cutting the fruit open. Soak the pomegranate in a bowls of cold water for a few minutes then gently pull it apart and remove the seeds which will sink to the bottom of the water.

Method:

  • Heat oven to 180C (fan forced)
  • Toss the pumpkin pieces with 1 tbsp oil and 1 tbsp pomegranate molasses to season then tip onto baking tray and roast for 25 minutes until the pumpkin is tender.
  • Blanch the kale in boiling water for a few minutes then run under cold water to stop it cooking. Drain and dry in a salad spinner or with kitchen paper.
  • Toast the almonds in a dry fry pan.
  • Whisk 1 tbsp oil and 1 tbsp pomegranate molasses with lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Mix the kale with the dressing and stir in the spring onions.
  • To serve, tip the dressed kale onto plates, place the roast pumpkin on the kale and sprinkle with almonds and pomegranate seeds.

Image: espaliered oranges

Kale leaves

Food fads

A few years ago kale became a ‘thing’. There’s even a cookbook called 50 Shades of Kale that apparently makes kale sexy. Personally I’ve never been a fan of cabbage. Kale is an older relative of the cabbage from the Brassica family and a close relative of my least favorite vegetable, the brussel sprout.

I resisted kale for a long time. I thought it looked like a chewy bitter, fibrous and indigestible green that would leave splinters in my mouth if I ate it. Cellulose on steroids. It wasn’t until a friend offered me some kale chips he’d made that my curiosity was tweaked. What doesn’t taste good with oil and salt after all?

I wouldn’t say I’ve climbed onboard the fad train. You certainly wouldn’t catch me having kale smoothies for breakfast, but I do grow it now. It’s easy to grow and it tough. It loves the cold and survives just about anything. A few plants I grew last year lasted right through the summer and were the only thing still standing after I’d cleaned out the summer garden. That means the only home grown produce I have ready to eat at the moment are kale, the pumpkins I picked a few weeks ago, kiwi fruit and preserved figs and quinces. Luckily there’s supermarket I can go to.

Melbourne has turned cold all of a sudden and it will take a little getting used to. It’s great to have some rain though. The garlic has popped as have the peas I planted a few weeks ago, but it will be a while till I have some to eat.

I do need to wade through all those pumpkins and like to eat from the garden as much as possible so I wanted to find something I could do with kale and pumpkin. Kale chips are easy but preparing kale for other things can be a bit of a pain. If you want to eat it raw you really need to massage it. Maybe that’s where the 50 Shades of Kale book came from. It’s a vegetable that improves with a bit of rough and tumble. Massaging breaks down the cellulose and the kale becomes more easily digestible. I prefer it cooked myself and I think its particularly good in soups. Here’s the recipe for a pumpkin, kale and broccoli soup I made this week. It’s got loads of garlic as well to keep the vampires at bay.

Pumpkin, kale and broccoli soup

Ingredients:
• 5 Garlic Cloves, crushed
• 1 large bunch Kale – cut out the woody stems and chop roughly
• 1 tablespoon Olive Oil
• 2kg Pumpkin, peel and cut into pieces
• 1 head of broccoli
• 1.25L Stock or well seasoned water
• 1/2 teaspoon ground Nutmeg
• Season with salt and pepper to taste

Method:
• saute garlic and kale in olive oil for 3-4 minutes in a large pot.
• Add pumpkin, broccoli, stock, nutmeg, salt and pepper and bring to a boil.
• Reduce to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes or until pumpkin is tender.
• Blend ingredients until smooth.

Image: curly kale in the patch