Sunday, October 25, 2009

Out of hibernation, into a Spring stew

The coming of Spring has roused Hope Farm out of hibernation and we've been watching the artichokes blossom outside our bedroom window. It's a reassuring reminder that Summer is on its way. Also, that it's time to get back into the garden.

Artichokes seem to me a luxury of the season. Perhaps because they're a flower, or maybe because of their complex flavour. Thing is though, they're a bugger to prepare.

But they're worth the trouble and once you have a method, it's not that bad.

Here's what I do:
  1. Submerge the flowers in a sink full of cold water with a couple of lemon halves (I juice the lemons - and use the juice in the recipe below - and chuck the skins in the water). The lemon will stop the exposed artichoke flesh browning and the water bath will coax the bugs from their homes amongst the petals, so I wear gloves for this!
  2. Pull off the external petals until they are no longer coarse and green, but white and smooth.
  3. Chop the top off the flower at the indent and the stem off just below the base.
  4. Using a small paring knife, trim off the outside of the stalk and around the base, exposing the white flesh.
  5. Then use a teaspoon to scoop out the choke, making sure you remove the little white hairs. (You can cut the artichoke in half as I have done to get a better view).
  6. Keep the trimmed artichokes in the lemon water until you're ready to use them.
Good old reliable Stephanie Alexander had just the recipe to make the most of the first artichokes and carrots of the season Al presented to me. This stew actually turned out far more delicious than I had anticipated and made for a wonderful lunch the next day.

In the last part of the cooking, I panicked, thinking that it might not be substantial enough to feed a hungry, post-gardening Al, so I threw in a handful of penne and a splash more water. It wasn't really necessary, but it allowed us to have leftovers for lunch. I think it would also work well to add a handful of dried, soaked beans at the beginning. You can't go too far wrong with slow cooked, home grown vegies flavoured with garlic, olive oil and fresh herbs - a statisfying reward for a hard day's Spring cleaning.

Artichoke Stew
(Adapted from Stephanie Alexander's Cook's Companion)

5-6 artichokes, trimmed and quartered (halved if small)
5 small carrots, peeled and halved lengthways
6 small onions, peeled and halved
3 potatoes, washed and quartered
3 cloves garlic, peeled
¼ cup olive oil
2 cups vegetable stock
1 tbs flour
A few sprigs of thyme
2 bay leaves
Juice of one lemon
2 tbs chopped dill
Grated parmesan
Salt and pepper

Heat olive oil in a large, heavy-based pot. Add all the vegetables, thyme and bay leaves and fry for a few minutes, stirring to coat in the oil and slightly brown.

In a small bowl, mix a little of the stock with the flour to form a smooth paste. Then add the flour mixture into the rest of the stock. Add the stock to the vegetables and stir to combine. The vegetables should be almost or just covered by the liquid, if not, add a little more water. Season with salt and pepper.

Place a sheet of greased baking paper over the vegetables, put the lid on and leave the pot to simmer on low heat for about 45 minutes, or until the vegies are tender. (At this point you could also add some dried, soaked beans or pasta, if you do, just add some extra water).

Remove the lid, increase the heat and boil to reduce the liquid to a sauce, checking for seasoning as you go.

Top with parmesan and dill and serve with crusty bread.

From the garden: artichokes, carrots, lemon, thyme, dill

Dark, damp soil.

Victoria has had some rain. The farmers are happy, their crops are going well, as are ours. The inner northern suburbs of Melbourne never get the rain of the eastern suburbs, but what we have had has made a noticeable difference.

Carrots, Beetroot and Silverbeet in a raised bed.

In our time living here and growing our own food we have never had even close to average rainfall, so we didn't actully know what difference a little of the wet stuff makes. The garden has taken off giving us plenty of food (and weeds).

Golden acre mini cabbages in a raised bed.

One of my favorite additions to our back garden has been the nasturtiums, I bought an Alaska seed mix and love the way they wind around the raised beds.

The trailing habit of Nasturtiums.

producing abundant bright flowers that attract lots of bees and add a nice touch of pepper to a salad.

Nasturtium flowers.

Another delight this time of the year brings is the Globe Artichoke harvest. Globe artichokes are a member of the thistle family, the edible part is the base of the unopened flower and about 10cm of the stem just below.

Green Globe Artichokes

Every year we look forward to the first artichokes and then fifteen minutes into their fiddly preparation we start looking forward to the end of the artichoke season. It is worth it though when you get them on a plate.

The Brassicas have done well with a drop of rain and a weak Seaweed, Comfrey, Wormjuice etc. tea kicks them along nicely.

Green Calabrese forming heads with splashes of Seaweed tea.

Remember when harvesting members of the Brassica family to lift the entire root from the ground to prevent build up of soil pathogens such as the Brassica disease, Clubroot.

Cabbage root.

The summer veg seedlings are also coming along nicely. I have four different kinds of Tomato; Roma, Tommy Toe, Tigerella and Grosse Lisse. As well as Black Beauty Eggplant, California Wonder Capsicum and Jalapeno Chilli. The general rule here in Melbourne is to plant your Tomatoes out not before Melbourne cup day, so they are currently enjoying the protection of a plastic sunhouse.

Tomato seedlings.

The nicest part of this lifestyle is to feel the seasons, and to come back around to Spring after a Winter hibernation feels great. Our Summer harvest is planned and the work we put in only a few months ago is giving us a bountiful, healthy, organic Spring feast.

Basketful of Spring goodness.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Spring Dinner

I had a craving today. After a night out overindulging I felt an absolute need for garden greens and the freshest food I could get my hands on. Then I had an awful thought, "what is there that is ready to eat right now?" It's early spring, we've had some much needed rain, and the daylight hours are extending. Everything is looking beautiful but the Beetroot are young, the Carrots are young, the Cabbages haven't formed heads etc. etc.

All of our summer seedlings (housed in a greenhouse tent), are up and running including Eggplant, Capsicum, Jalapeno Chillis, and four different varieties of Tomato - Grosse Lisse, Roma, Tommy Toe and Tigerella.

In my pleasant little amble around the garden I grabbed a few young carrots (that needed thinning anyhoo), a Chioggia and an Albino Beetroot (more for the leaves), a handful of Sugar Snap Peas, another handful of Diplotaxis (wild Rocket), another handful of Spring Onions, and a few sprigs of Lemon Thyme and the Dill whose seed I sprinkled in amongst my Silverbeet and Beetroot. Even just a few young vegetables can make a meal that will have you feeling great.

We decided that having felt early in the day that the garden was going to be short on what we felt we needed, and having been proven wrong, our meal was going to be made of only what was in the garden. Thankfully the chooks had done their job and the wonderful harvest below made a beautiful Frittata. The Sugar Snap Peas didn't even make it as far as the frypan, to eat them anything other than fresh seems criminal they are so delicious.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The love of Carrots

Carrots are a wonderful vegetable that grow easily in most climates given adequate water. They're very useful in the kitchen and contain loads of nutritional goodies. The idea that carrots gave you great eyesight was an invention of the RAF during world war 2 when England had developed radar technology to detect the German bombers. Not wanting the enemy to realise the threat, they invented a story about 'cats eyes' cunningham, a fighter pilot who could see in the dark as a result of all the carrots he'd eaten.

Carrot Seed are tiny and the biggest hindrance to successful germination is keeping them moist. They're sown quite shallow, so regular watering or covering the drill with wet newspaper will help to keep moisture levels up. Well cultivated loose soil is essential for long straight roots, over fertile soil will cause forked or hairy carrots (covered in fine roots).

As the seedlings come up they need to be thinned to allow the roots room to develop.

<==from this to this ==>

If you are happy to thin your carrots more than once as they grow, you can first thin them to about 5cm apart, and then to 10 cm apart. The second round will probably be large enough to eat as baby carrots.

When your remaining carrots have enough room to continue growth unchecked, make sure you give them a foliar feed with a weak seaweed solution, comfrey tea or the like. The foliage will droop as they will have provided some mutual support, but within 48hrs they'll be back up and growing.

Remember when harvesting any root vegetable to cut off the tops as soon as they are out of the ground to keep the foliage from drawing on its stores in the root.

Any thinnings too small to eat will be interesting to scratch around in for the chooks.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Spring has Sprung.

Hello again,

After a winter break, we have returned full of vigor and ready for the spring action. The growing season starts this coming Tuesday, I will have a quiet glass of wine with Sarah to celebrate. Winter has not been particularly cold, however the reduced daylight hours have a big impact on growth rates. We have noticed in the past couple of weeks just how quickly things start to take off when the day length starts to creep up.

The occasional mild frost has made the garden look nice at the expense of the poor suffering seedlings... Currently we have
Carrots, Silverbeet, Beetroot, Cabbages, Broccoli, Black Kale, Garlic, snap Peas, Lettuce, Wild Rocket (Diplotaxis), Spring Onions and some past its prime, bolting, Tatsoi. I have also just put in seed of Tomato, Eggplant, Capsicum and Chilli, it is early but they are under cover.

As the jobs get done, the victories get victored and the failures get failed we will let you know via the Hope farm journal, so please come back and see how we are going.

Cheers AL

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Monster Marrow Chutney

Have you seen this zucchini that Aldrum grew?

It weighed in at 2.5 kilos. I think he might be trying to prove something.

Yes, honey, I'm very impressed.

But now I have to do something with the monster and I think a chutney is the only way to make a meal of this beast.

This is a very English-style chutney - quite fruity and mild and goes particularly well with a sharp vintage cheese.

Monster Marrow Chutney
1 over-sized zucchini (I used around 2.5 kilos), diced
4 green apples, diced
4 med onions, diced
1 cup brown sugar
500 ml white wine vinegar
1 cup sultanas soaked in vinegar
2 tbs salt
2 tbs powdered ginger

Bouquet garni:
1 tbs cloves
1 tbs whole peppercorns
1 tbs coriander seeds

Place the ingredients for the bouquet garni in a muslin square and tie tightly with string.

Combine the marrow, apple, onion and salt in a large bowl and leave for about 3-4 hours. The salt will leach a lot of the moisture and any bitterness from the marrow. Drain well.

Combine vinegar and sugar in a large, heavy-based saucepan on the stove and bring to the boil. Add the vegetable mix, the sultanas, ginger and submerge the bouquet garni.
Reduce heat and cook until the mixture has reduced to the point when, if you run a spoon along the base of the pan, the sea of chutney stays parted. This should take about 1-2 hours.

Bottle in sterilised jars and leave for two weeks to mature before eating. It will store for about a year, but once you've opened a jar, keep it in the fridge.

This quantity of vegetables yielded about 1.5 litres of chutney.

From the garden: monster marrow

Zucchini Schnitzel

Yep, the zucchinis are still coming...

I was running short on ways to make the most of our zucchini abundance and this seemed a simple way to jazz it up for a satisfying meal. Truly, you'd be surprised how filling these crunchy little rounds are. You could give it the whole tomato-sauce-and-melted-cheese treatment, as you might do with a schnitzel, but they went perfectly with just a sweet, spicy tomato relish (my sister-in-law's famous-but-secret recipe). You can even serve it, as I did, with the raw zucchini salad and almost believe you're not eating an entire meal of the same vegetable!

Zucchini Schnitzel

1 medium zucchini, sliced into 5mm rounds
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup bread crumbs
2 tbs Parmesan, grated
olive oil

Oil a shallow pan and place in the oven. Preheat oven to 180C.
Combine bread crumbs, Parmesan, salt and pepper in a wide bowl and the egg in another. Dip each zucchini slice first in the egg, then in the bread crumb mixture (you can repeat these steps if you want a thicker crust).
Place the zucchini slices in the pan and bake for about 10-15 minutes, check and turn over once the bottoms have browned. Continue to bake until both sides are brown and crispy. Serve immediately.

Note: You can add any flavourings you fancy to either the bread crumb or egg mix, depending on whether it is wet or dry. Try: curry powder, grainy mustard, paprika, herbs, chilli sauce, etc.

From the garden: zucchinis, egg

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Cinderella's wheels...

Cucurbita maxima, moschata and pepo make up the pumpkin family, within the family are many siblings. There are Grey ones, Orange ones, Green ones, long ones, lobed ones, tiny ones and huge ones... Cucurbita pepo is the scientific name for the Zucchinis also, so many of the growing techniques used for the production of Pumpkins are the same as for Zucchini. The seed (pepita) is elliptical, about 10mm across, and should be sown (with the flat sides up and down) about an inch deep after the last frost or early to mid spring.

Pumpkins require a long growing season so in cold areas they will benefit from being sown early in a propagator and transplanted when the soil has warmed. Pumpkins like to be planted in a mound of earth well enriched with compost. They grow quickly and appreciate regular water. The leaves and flowers look almost identical to Zucchini, they mostly grow as a sprawling vine rather than a large bush though. The vines love to have room to ramble so planting them well away from each other (1-2m), or training the vines will help.

Pumpkins also have tendrils (left) like
peas, beans, etc. for climbing, and can be grown up a trellis or over a garden structure (you can support developing fruits in string or net bags).

Early in their life Pumpkins predominantly produce male flowers (right), which have no embryonic fruit behind the flower, female flowers (with fruit, below) come later. Pinching out the growing tips can force the vine to send out side shoots which will usually produce more female flowers. Hand pollinating may increase yield in areas with poor pollinator activity. It is quite common to get 4-6 fruit developing on a plant, but if you want larger fruit thin out a few, If you want competition sized fruit thin to only one fruit per plant and watch 'em go.

Wait until the vine withers and dies, the fruit has developed full colour, and a hollow sound is produced when you tap the fruit before you harvest. When you harvest ensure you get a good (10-15cm) length of stem on the fruit and allow the fruit's skin to harden in the sun before storing for up to 6 months with some cultivars. Seeds can be saved when you prepare the fruit for eating for next years pumpkin patch, or you can throw them in you compost and watch them take off. Powdery mildew is the major threat to your crop (look at my post on Zucchinis for a milk spray recipe) and, less commonly, mosaic virus.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Fire in the belly...

As far as I'm concerned there is no savory dish that cannot be improved by the addition of two ingredients, one is the tang of a squeeze of lemon juice and the second is the bite of a finely sliced chilli. So that brings us to today's post, chillis.

Chilli was one of Columbus' gift to the world from the Americas, although there are suggestions of a pre-South American history of chilli in Europe. It is a member of the Solanaceae family with tomato, eggplant, capsicum, potato, etc.

The heat in the chilli is provided by 8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide or capsaicin, and I reckon I can taste every one of them 6 nonenamides. Heat, or quantity of capsaicin, is measured in scoville units which I think tells you the number of sips of icy water you need after a hot one (not the best solution, try dairy). Most people erroneously believe the Habanero to be the hottest, and although it is about 100 times hotter than a Jalapeno, the Bhut Jolokia or "Ghost Chilli" is about three to five times hotter then the hottest Habanero.

Chilli seeds (left) are about 2-3mm across and need to be propagated in warm (18-21C) soil. The usual rule of thumb of planting a seed applies - bury the seed 1.5 times its width, deep in a good seed-raising mix. Once up and running, chillis need very little special attention. Apart from some water and the occasional feed, the most important variable for success is temperature; they are a very warm-season crop.

Chillis make beautiful container plants, with the added functionality of being able to move them under cover if the nights turn cold. As the plants mature and you see the first suggestion of flower buds, you may want to give them a little extra potassium. An easy way to do this is to add some rotten banana skins to the soil or potting mix before transplantation.

Setbacks may include aphid attack (left), red spider mite attack, whitefly and/or verticilium wilt - but these are nothing pyrethrum, soap/oil spray, crop rotation or companion planting won't manage.

Seed saving is easy, let the fruit ripen, open it up and voila! **BEWARE though that if you plant hot and mild together the gene for heat is dominant so the progeny of your mild chillis may yield a sharp surprise!**

Depending on your taste, one to two plants is often said to yield enough for a family. As far as I'm concerned they can stuff that advice in their Scotch Bonnet, I go for six to eight plants for Sarah and I with a mix of Thai and Jalapeno (right).