12 fresh picked quinces arranged in a circle

Old food

Never one to shirk a challenge, I took up surfing aged forty-nine. It all started on a romantic week away to Byron Bay for my partners birthday. We tried hang-gliding but found it a bit boring as we could only be passive passengers.  Then we went for a surf lesson and were hooked. We stumbled across this guy called Rusty Miller who taught surfing at The Pass. Rusty is in his seventies and originally from California. He was a world champion surfer and is a great teacher as well as a politically astute and fascinating man. He runs a surf school with his daughter Taylor who is also a great surf teacher. That trip was the start of an annual winter pilgrimage to the iconic Byron Bay to learn to surf on the long, slow, reliable warm water waves.

Easter weekend is exactly three years since those first surf lessons with Rusty and we took our boards and headed down to Anglesea on the Great Ocean Road in Victoria with some surfing buddies. Easter brings with it a big moon and king tides which drive large rolling waves. My Liquid Shredder surfboard, fondly referred to by a friends husband as the ‘floating footpath’, is an advanced technology soft hybrid long-board made in Peru. It’s easy to ride and can handle any surf that I can. On those big waves rolling in, I hang on for dear life as the board is caught and rushes forward with the wave, then I get to my feet as it gathers momentum. It’s such a thrill and a great way to play. Who says you can’t teach old dogs new tricks I say.

Speaking of old, the quince tree in my garden was full of ripe fruit at Easter. Quinces were highly prized by ancient civilizations though I only discovered them fairly recently after I planted a tree in my garden. The tree itself grows like a image in a Dr Seuss book. It produces the most beautiful delicate white-pink flowers in spring followed by giant yellow woolly fruits that have a surface as irregular as a boxers nose. I always preserve some of them, but we were having friends from Torquay over for brunch over Easter so I took a bag of quinces with me. There is nothing quite like the aroma that slow poached quinces infuse throughout the house. They develop a great pink-red color as they cook and are delicious served with Greek yogurt for breakfast.

Ingredients:

  • Six large quinces
  • 1 cup rice malt syrup and six cups of water or equivalent volume of sugar syrup (two parts water to one part sugar)
  • 3 tbsp lemon juice
  • 3 cinnamon sticks
  • 1-2 vanilla beans, split and seeds scraped
  • 12 cardamom pods, bruised
  • 24 black peppercorns

Recipe:

Place all the ingredients except the quinces in a heavy baking dish. Bring slowly to the boil over a medium-low heat, stirring to dissolve the syrup. Peel the quinces (keep the peel) and cut each into 6-8 wedges, leaving the core intact. Add the quince to the syrup in the pan. Tie the peel in a piece of muslin and add to the pan, pop the lot in the over on 150 C for three hours until the quinces are soft and a rich red color. Serve the quinces with Greek yogurt and a drizzle of the poaching syrup. Sprinkle with pistachios and cardamon.

What’s your favorite quince recipe?

Image: Quinces from my garden

Collander filled with lots of fresh figs

Fig that

In his poem Figs D H Lawrence wrote

“The proper way to eat a fig, in society,

Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,

And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower.”

The fig tree in my garden is laden and it delivers over ten kilograms of fruit. More than I could ever consume by Lawrence’s method.  I’ve been on the hunt for 101 ways to eat and preserve figs as one does when there is an abundance of produce. This has included fig, tomato and prosciutto tart; fig and walnut bread; fig compote; burnt fig jam as well as dried figs and fig leather in the drier. For leather cut up the figs and turn to mush in the blender. Spread on kitchen paper on the drying trays and leave on over night. Great for a sweet snack – just don’t eat too much at once.

When I go travelling I love to learn as much as possible about the local food culture and cuisines. A great way to do this is to eat your way around town on a walking food tour which many places have or to attend a cooking class. When I visited Turkey a few years ago we did three of the walks hosted by Culinary Backstreets to get immersed in the local food scene. We also went on a kebab crawl to try and find the best kebap seller.

Turkey is the biggest producer of figs in the world and at the right time of year their distinct perfume wafts through the streets of Istanbul. A days cooking class in Istanbul taught me how to make some mouth watering Turkish dishes including fig and walnut desert.  This is the recipe.

Incir Tathsi (Walnut stuffed figs in syrup) – serves 6

Ingredients:

  • 12-18 dried figs (kuru incir)
  • 100g Walnuts (ceviz)
  • 1/2 lt/1 cup water (su)
  • 250g lemon (limon)
  • 12-18 cloves (karanfil)

 

Preparation:

Prepare a syrup by bringing the water, sugar, cloves and lemon (squeeze the juice and throw in the peel as well) to the boil.

Meanwhile, stick a little knife into the side of a fig and cut through to a little beyond the centre, then turn the knife in a way that a little less than half of the fig gets opened on its side (big enough to stuff a walnut half inside). Stuff the opened fig with half a walnut, the bulbous side of the walnut under the stem of the fig. Close back up, making the sides stick back to each other. Repeat procedure for all the figs.

Add the figs with their stem up to the boiling syrup (just covering). Simmer for about 30 minutes. Turn them mid-way through the cooking process and then turn again 5 minutes before the end to give them some colour on each side. Take off the heat and let hem cool in the syrup. Transfer the figs to plates plate, leaving behind the syrup. Decorate with ground pistachios and/or grated coconut. Serve at room temperature with kayak (heavy Turkish cream) on the side.

Variation: add Turkish tea and bay leaves to the syrup.

What to do with the leftover syrup:

  • Figatini: Cool and shake over ice with vodka (half/half) – tone down with soda water if too sweet. Serve in a shot glass next to the figs.
  • Boil down into a sweet thick sauce and drizzle over things that are not too sweet such as yoghurt, porridge, a fresh white cheese, pancakes, fruit tart, etc

What do you do with your figs?

Image: Figs from my garden

Homemade rustic tomatoe pie with fresh basil

What’s the difference between knowledge and wisdom?

Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad. An oldie, but a goodie. Essentially if it has seeds, its a fruit (tomatoes, olives, cucumbers, legumes as well as apples and pears). Vegetables are the non-flowering bits like leaves (spinach and kale), roots (carrots and turnips) and tubers (potatoes). We tend to talk about fruit and vegetables more from their culinary use – vegetables are savory, fruits are sweet, but botanically speaking this distinction is not correct. Confusing, I know.

Speaking of old, I discovered the pure joy of growing bucket loads of tomatoes when I discovered heirlooms. There are so many varieties, from bite size cherries to big whoppers for hamburgers. A personal favorite, at least aesthetically, is the black and red (pictured in an earlier post). I can’t go past a yellow tomato to add an extra sweet taste and color to a salad, and as a crime fiction lover my personal name favorite is the Tomato Ananas Noir, because who doesn’t love a noir right? The Noir is huge and delicious, just like a good book, and gets darker as it ripens. The tomato even wrote its own thriller back in the middle ages. Wealthy people often ate from pewter plates, but items with high acid content like tomatoes made lead to leach into the food, causing lead poisoning and death. Tomatoes were considered toxic for about 400 years after that.

Of course growing bucket loads of tomatoes, one needs to find creative ways to serve and preserve them. There’s nothing quite like eating paddock to plate, but it does require research to fossick out new recipes so you don’t feel like you are eating the same meal three times a day, day in, day out. My most recent new find was the shortcrust tomato pie. Easy to make with a nice rustic finish (pictured).

Shortcrust tomato pie

Oven temperature: 220/220 Celsius fan-forced

Pastry:
• 2 cups plain flour
• 150g butter
• 1 egg yolk
• 2 tblsp chilled water

Mix flour and butter in  a food processor till it resembles breadcrumbs.  Add egg yolk and chilled water.  Process until the mixture almost comes together.  Add a little extra water if needed.  Place dough on a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth. Roll out the dough between two sheets of baking paper to about 30cm and refrigerate for 30 minutes on a backing tray.

Pie:
• 1 tblsp olive oil
• 1 clove garlic
• 1/2 tsp mixed dried herbs
• 1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese
• 450g small tomatoes (I use cherry or other small varieties and cut in half)
• 1 lightly beaten egg
• basil leaves

Combine the olive oil, garlic and herbs in a small bowl.  Sprinkle the parmesan over the pastry, leaving a 3cm border. Arrange the tomatoes over the parmesan.  Spoon the oil mixture over the tomatoes and fold the pastry edges in over the filling.  Brush the pastry edge with egg and season the pie with salt and pepper.  Bake in the oven for about 30-35 minutes until the pastry is crisp and golden and the tomatoes are tender. Sprinkle with basil leaves and serve.

What’s your favorite tomato dish?

Image: Shortcrust tomato pie

Three red and black heirloom tomatoes

The summer food store

Plunging your hands into fertile soil is such a sensuous experience. The garden is my physical creative space and where I retreat to recharge and to think. There is a meditation created by the rhythm of the seasons. Gardening puts you in touch with the beautiful but harsh reality of the cycle of life. New seedlings are planted with such tender hope and there is joy in the budding of new fruit. There is also loss when pests attack, flocks of birds and other animals raid your fruit and vegetables, rain comes when it is not welcome or there is no rain at all and the scorching sun shrivels your produce.

I live on about a third of an acre of tough clay ground on a steep north facing hill. The whole area was mined for gold from the late 1800’s through to the 1960’s, so the soil was quite depleted when I moved here. Over the twenty years I have lived in Warrandyte I have gradually built up the soil and the garden to be productive enough to provide over 50% of the household food. There are twenty-one fruit and nut trees, and the only flat piece of ground on the block has been dedicated to the vegetable garden. I also have kiwi fruit, passion fruit, raspberries and herbs growing.

This year I lost all my apples from one tree in an afternoon when a flock of Crimson Rosellas swooped in the day before I planned to net the tree.  The tree convulsed for about ten minutes emitting a cacophony until they had eaten the lot, leaving only apple cores hanging on stalks. I have had a bumper crop of about twenty kilos of tomatoes though. I have frozen and pickled tomatoes and sought out recipes to eat them in a variety of ways, most recently with the abundance of green beans growing. A very simple but tasty combination is cooked as follows:

  1. lightly cook the beans in boiling water
  2. add olive oil to a non-stick fry pan and throw in several thinly sliced cloves of garlic (had a great crop of garlic last year which hangs in the shed till we need it)
  3. stir in the beans then push them to the outside of the pan and fill the middle with chopped tomatoes till they are cooked (you can also throw in some chopped zucchini if you have some growing)
  4. stir in some parsley and basil if you have any. Add salt and pepper.

I’ve been serving it with a bit of grilled or lightly fried chicken and some corn on the cob from the garden. Yummo.

What’s happening in your patch?