Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…

…who is the fairest of them all?

Anyone knowledgeable in the art of weed foraging will be all too familiar with the up to three metre tall Evil Queen of the of Apiaceae family, Wild and (sometimes Bronze) Fennel (pictured below). Drawn towards its beguiling countenance, this aniseedy fragrant and rampant perennial herb has made many a striking appearance in my home: the leaves make an interesting addition to my children’s nature table and; when dried, the long, wand like seed fronds take pride of place on our palatial standard, hard wood bureau. As for being a suitor to the culinary crown, well naturally, that place is reserved for the fairer, more voluptuously bulbous cultivar, Foeniculum Vulgare.

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Earlier this year, when our landlords decided it was time to give our spartan, red brick rental property a twenty first century style makeover, Scott and I made the big decision to take a dive into the mortgage market. Since compromising on our lavish lifestyle of spending our hard earned cash on good food and great company would have morphed us into a cottage full of Grumpy’s, we opted to go small: we are now the proud owners of an inner-city town house. When our courtyard gardens could no longer house the dozens of refugee plants – rescued from the evil clutches of an overzealous skid steer loader at our previous abode – my adventurous kids and I went in search of greener pastures for all our vegetable growing needs.

Following a surprisingly brief passage through forests of medium density housing and abandoned, tree-root lifted car parks, we arrived at what can only be described as a food growing oasis. Home to a merry band of lovingly eclectic green thumbs, my kids and I were affectionately adopted into the growing residence of industrious community gardeners and allocated our bit of earth: twenty five square meters of thickly covered, couch ridden, clay soil. Heigh ho. Heigh ho. It’s off to work we go!

When it comes to physical work, I am anything but Bashful. Six weeks later, proceeding plenty of hours spent rolling up the sleeves, turning and sieving through the earth…three times over…to a foot deep, and my pallid, snow-white arms finally realised a clear site. Imbued with a sense of late winter gardening solidarity and bouyed by the regular injection of encouragement, helping hands and time-saving tips, my vacant block of previously disused earth was quickly transformed into an thriving, hot-bed of summer seedling growth…with plenty of space for Hairy Lumpy Scary Pumpy (the Hallo-inbet-Ween Scarecrow) and our much loved mud-pie kitchen.

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In addition to sage advice, affable miens and labor-loving energy, my fellow community gardeners have giant sized hearts. Each returned visit from our, now dubbed, “Little Farm” would yield a new family dish infused with the latest donation of produce. From Asparagus and Spinach Tart to Rhubarb and Beet Struesel Slice, having not yet grown a thing, Scott somewhat jokingly remarked that “it had been my most productive garden yet”!

One morning, after a particularly enduring session of drilling lumber and pitchforking compost through my weed-free, clay-rich soil, the very Happy Jay – a food growing doyen- bequeathed me a brace of her finest fennel bulbs. Now I have to confess, when it comes to cooking with this delicate, root vegetable, I am a little Dopey. Determined, however, to put my gift to good use, I delved into our collection of CWA (Country Women’s Association) and country cooking books to Doctor a few of our tried and tested favourites.

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From the family kiln of our new, inner-city bungalow, I present to you my recipes for A’seedy Tabouleh Salad and Evil Queen Potato Bake.

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A’seedy Tabouleh Salad (serves a small, mattock wielding, army)

Although the classic version of this delectable salad is nothing to be Sneezy’ed at, a bit of aniseed thrown into the mix will see even the most Sleepy of garden worker friends refueled and at the pitchfork digging ready.

1 cup barley
200g of cherry tomatoes (or 3 – 4 tomatoes, deseeded and diced), sliced
2 – 3 cucumbers, diced
1 handful of rocket, roughly chopped
2 handfuls parsley, finely diced
2 handfuls mint, finely diced
Dressing:
¼ c lemon juice
¼ c olive oil

Place the barley into a small saucepan with 1 ½ cups water. Heat on very low until all the water is absorbed. Cool then refrigerate till cold. Mix together the tomatoes, cucumber, rocket, parsley and mint. Add enough barley until a desired ratio of grain to vegetables is achieved (freeze any remaining barley and use at a later date). Shake the dressing ingredients and pour over the top. Mix. Serve with that illustrious Evil Queen Potato Bake.

Evil Queen Potato Bake (makes…enough to feed a ravenous, regal court)

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Whilst some might say that implanting fennel into the classic le pomme de terre (apple of the earth) bake recipe is just poisoning a good meal, Scott and the kids took to this quirky twist on the humble potato dish like The Prince to a glass coffin.

2 onions, finely diced
1 fennel bulb, finely sliced
2 rashers of bacon (or some salami), diced
2 handfuls tarragon, dill or fennel leaves
4 – 8 potatoes, thinly sliced
60 g butter
2 – 4 tbs flour
milk (atleast one cup)
cheddar cheese, grated

To make the cheesy, white sauce, melt the butter in a saucepan over a medium heat. Add enough of the flour to form a thick paste. While whisking, gradually add one cup milk. Continue whisking until the mixture thickens. Add a little more milk until a dollopable consistency is achieved. Throw in a handful of grated cheddar cheese and whisk till smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste. Leave to cool.

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On a medium heat, warm some oil in a fry pan. Add the onion and fry till translucent. Add the bacon and fennel. Cook for a couple of minutes then remove from the heat. Stir through the herbs.

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In a medium sized casserole dish, place a thin layer of the potatoes. Top with one third of the onion mix. Pour over one quarter of the cheesy, white sauce. Repeat this three times. Add one more layer of potatoes and top with the white sauce and a generous spread of cheddar cheese. Bake in the oven at 160oC for atleast 1 ½ hours or until the cheese on top is a golden brown colour.

Serve to all your family and friends with a side of A’Seedy Tabouleh Salad…

…Now…take a bite!

Luv en der Bouquet

Perhaps it’s my tendency to take walks down nostalgic, English memory-lanes. Or maybe it’s my fondness for all things green and flowering in the height of our dry and scorching summer. Whatever the reason happens to be, not too many plants could out-compete my love for the humble lavender bush.

Ten years ago, Scott and I traversed the red-carpet lined aisle of a 12th century built chapel to recite our wedding vowels before an audience of our dearest friends and relatives. Set against the backdrop of an immaculately maintained, Oxford College garden, we then transitioned into an afternoon of champagne sipping, croquet playing and high society wining and dining. With such botanical perfection to act as a substitute for the usual bevy of expensive flower arrangements, it seemed only natural to also take a more rustic approach to the acquisition of my wedding bouquet.

Until the day before I tied the knot, when my gaggle of girly-friends and relatives descended upon my cottage residence for an evening of hens night frivolities, I had always believed that my rather unorthodox life choices were due to some kind of genetic mutation in the “straight-laced citizen” gene. After all, for every one of my eighteen years of family-home life living, the bills were always paid on time, speed limits were obeyed and never, ever, ever were my school dresses allowed to be higher than my knees. Ever.

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After having our fill of Pimms beverages in the courtyard garden, me, mum and my covey of conspirators salleyed forth, through fields replete with cattle and sheep grazing on the early summer pastures, towards The Sun Inn. Feeling somewhat nervous about disclosing the evenings’ plan to my rule abiding, genteel mother, I surreptitiously hid my swindling equipment in the bottom of my capacious carrier bag and lingered, discreetly, at the back of the group. When the opportunity arose, out of the bag with great rapidity, came my scissors and roll of dampened kitchen roll. Into it went a prized specimen of only the finest English garden or wild flowers. By the time we had arrived at our destination, my booty bag was brimming with all the colours of the purloined, English countryside.

Awaking late following a solid evening of top quality pub food and anecdotal banter, I lackadaisically lumbered my way down the antique staircase in search of that invigorating morning cuppa. As I made my way through through the lilliputian, wooden kitchen door of our cosy, nineteenth century railway cottage, I was greeted with an opalescent display of floral handy work, adeptly gathered at the base with a silky, white satin ribbon. “The rose didn’t quite stand out enough…so I added some of my own hand picked work” said my mother with a smile. “I’m sure your neighbour will be thrilled to know her lovely lavender now takes pride of place in my daughters wedding bouquet”.

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As a reprieve from the hectic schedule of work, school, extracurricular activities and general day to day living, last Saturday evening saw Scott and I donning the fancy dinner garb to enjoy yet another of our treasured Dine-In-Date-Nights. Comprising only the finest garden sourced ingredients, my take on the humble, iced cream dessert forced us to, literally, take some time out to stop and smell the luv en der bouquet!

Lavender Ice Cream (makes approximately 1.5 L)

For me, making ice-cream is a forty-eight hour, labour of love. Having a moreish predilection for the french take on this humble dessert, means that I use a lot of eggs, cream and sugar: the sweetest things in life! The three step process sees me first making the custard. Cooling for twenty-four hours. Churning and then freezing for another twenty-four hours. Whilst a long time in the making, the effort is well worth the wait and is always received with happy smiles from all those who dare to take on my, often wacky, combinations of lingua experiments. Depending on how many flower heads one chooses to pick or pilfer, the intensity of lavendula flavour can be modified to suit all ice-cream comers.

600 ml single or pouring cream
400 ml milk
1 cup sugar
atleast 20 lavender flower heads
5 egg yolks (reserve the egg-whites for a spring take on the traditional, crisp almond bread: see below)

Atleast two days before you wish to make the ice-cream, place the ice-cream bowl (from and ice-cream machine), into the freezer. In a heavy based saucepan over a low heat, bring the milk and cream to simmering point. Cool for alteast 20 minutes.

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Meanwhile, break up the heads of the lavender flowers and rub them into the sugar. Whisk in the egg yolks till light and creamy (this may seem a little lumpy at first). Slowly pour in the heated milk mixture in a steady stream, whisking vigorously till all combined. Return to the saucepan. Stir constantly over low heat until the mixture thickens. Do not let the mixture to boil.

Pour, through a sieve, the custard mixture into a mixing bowl. Cover and cool to room temperature. Cool overnight in the fridge. Two hours before you wish to churn the custard mixture, place the bowl into the freezer. Churn for 15-20 minutes in the ice-cream machine. Place the churned ice-cream into a tub and store in the freezer for 24 hours before serving. Serve in a bowl or cone together with a slice of Strawberry Almond Bread.

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Strawberries are dime-a-harvest-bounty-dozen at my house in November. Acting as a thick ground cover in our courtyard garden, K1 and K2 can often be found taking a forage break in order to retrieve these ruby-esque spring time fruits. In addition to mini-pots of jam, leftovers from the afternoon guzzle fests make a berry alluring twist to the standard almond bread recipe.

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5 egg whites
¼ cup coconut sugar
½ cup white sugar
1 cup buckwheat flour
¾ cup wheat flour (plus a little extra)
½ – ¾ cup almonds
½ – ¾ cup strawberries, sliced

Whisk the egg-whites till stiff. Whisk in the sugar. Mix together the flours. Gently fold through the flour, strawberries and almonds. The mixture should be dollop-able. Add a little more wheat flour if it is too runny. Pour into a small, 1 litre loaf tin. Cook at 160oC for atleast 40 mins or until firm to touch. Cool in the tin. Refrigerate for atleast 8 hours or overnight.

Turn the loaf out onto a board. Slice into 3 mm thin pieces and place on a baking tray. Cook again in the oven for atleast 20 mins at 120oC (this temperature is very forgiving). Flip each piece and return to the oven for another 15-20 mins. Cool.

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To serve as an accompaniment to the Lavender Ice-cream, slice each piece in half on the diagonal. Place one half (or both) into the top of your ice-cream serve.

Spread the lavendula to all your lovers and loved ones!