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.

20191121_092107

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.

20191219_084959

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.

20191112_113448

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.

20191120_184922

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)

20191125_191523

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.

20191120_180847

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.

20191121_143533

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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”.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

20191114_201752

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.

20191117_150925

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.

20191114_194132

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.

20191124_113258

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!

Jams and the Giant Peach

Once upon a time period, long long ago, there was a bustling town gurt by fruit-laden orchards, fescue fields lush with fodder, and dairy farms aplenty. All the townsfolk were proud of their productive industries and parochial in their purchasing prowess: locally made…all the way to the kitchen larder. Whilst all fruit-growing-farms realised a Spiker of workers during the summer harvest period, one orchard in particular proved to be a Sponge for industriously minded locals keen to keep off the silly season pounds or put their somewhat lethargic, holidaying teenagers to work.

The morning of the particular day in question started just like any other. Rising with the sun, we picking workers lackadaisically assembled at the meeting point. A barren patch of earth located between a stand of flaccid looking oak trees and the weather-beaten living quarters for overseas itinerants. Covered from head to toe in light cotton garb, we were then separated into diversified teams of dab-hands and newbies before being loaded like pioneering convicts into the back of a dilapidated flat-tray wagon. Several kilometers of bumpy and suspensionless miles later and the 1950’s model Red Massey Furguson tractor came to a holt.

Colour picking was the job description for the day. A fact which only served to provoke the already irritable temperament of those keen to spend a long, afternoon session at the pub. Since no-one dared challenge the ganger’s authority on the call, we begrudgingly set to work resigning ourselves to the fact that many more climbs of the 6 ft long wooden ladder would be required to achieve the same “bin-volume” payment for ripe fruit.

By 10 am, the sun had begun to bear down on us with the full force of a 42oC day. Cursing and cussing at the exhausting and yeildless tree-clambers, I was ready to turn in the calico picking bag and head home to the cool retreat of the farm’s irrigation channel. “Hallelujah…would you come and look at this!”. Intrigued, we hastily emptied our part filled bags and headed to the base of an Empire State Building sized prunus persica tree. It didn’t take long for us to spy what Maria was directing her sharply pointed finger toward. There, hanging just above the top of the final rung of the precariously placed ladder was the the largest peach I had ever seen.

Awestruck, we stared longingly at the perfectly round, fifteen centimeter in diameter specimen still glistening with morning dew. For a fleeting moment my mind was lost in salubrious thoughts of the fructose-rich, orange flesh meandering its way toward my rumbling, smoko-break belly. “Oi ya slackers…what the devil you’ll gawkin’ at?”. Frozen in guilt ridden fear, we looked to each other for the courageous delivery of a placating explanation. Silence.

“Well since you’ll seem to have swallowed your tongues, I guess I’ll just have to ‘ave it all to myself”. And with a chain smoking chortle, our ganger adeptly retrieved the peach. Following several swift actions of the pen knife, he then presented each member of his relieved team with a lusciously fortifying segment. A meal that will always be remembered as one to feel all communally fuzzy about.

Thirteen years later, and a kernel of nostalgia is released from it’s robustly sealed pit..

20190222_115553

After a particularly energetic session of swings and roundabouts at one of our local parks, K1 stumbled across a rather drecrepid looking excuse for a tree. Unperturbed by the menacing looking branches, he seized the potentially fruitful challenge and retrieved our first bounty of well-pecked, cydia molesta (oriental fruit moth) infected peaches. As it turns out, looks can be deceiving. Whilst stoney by nature, this wonderful addition to our neighbourhood nature strip has seen many a jar of jam or chutney gratefully received as a birthday present or in return for that much needed bag of hand-me-down autumn apparel.

20190228_193206

Our families recipes for Peachy Keen Date Chutney and Gingerly Stoned Jam…for your nectarous delight!

Peachy Keen Chutney

12 peaches (or nectarines), diced into small cubes

1 ½ tsp grnd cardamom

1 c pitted dated, chopped into small cubes

1 c raisins

4 onions, diced

3 c brown sugar

2 tbs mustard seeds

4 tbs ginger root, finely diced

4 tsp salt

2 ½ c apple cider vinegar

20190211_201822

Place all ingredients in a heavy duty pot. Stir to dissolve the sugar. On a medium heat, bring the mixture to boil. Reduce the heat and allow to simmer for 45 – 60 minutes or until thick and syrupy. Spoon the mixture into sterilised jars (see below).

Gingerly Stoned Jam

1 – 2 kg Peaches (or nectarines)

sugar

1 – 1 ½ inch piece ginger, finely diced

Place a side dish into the freezer (used to test the setting point of the jam). Peel the ginger and peel and pit the fruit. Place the peels and pits into a muslin bag and tie tightly with a string. Chop up the flesh of the fruit, discarding any blemished or bird pecked pieces. Weigh the fruit. In the middle of a large, heavy based pot place the muslin bag. Pile the fruit around the bag. Add ½ cup water. Place the lid on the pot and on low heat, bring the contents to boil. Simmer for 10 – 20 mins or until the fruit is tender. Take off the heat and leave to cool for atleast 2 hours.

Remove the muslin bag and squeeze any liquid from the bag into the pot. This will add extra pectin (chemical that assists in setting the jam) to the mix. For every 500g of fruit (as measured previously) add 400 g sugar. Stir in the sugar and slowly bring the jam to a rolling boil. Boil for 10 mins and then test, using the frozen side dish, whether the jam is set (it should wrinkle slightly when pushed with your finger). Spoon into sterilised jars (see below) if ready, otherwise repeat the above step after another 3 minutes of boiling.

Sterilising jars: I have been making preserves for years now and after trying many cumbersome methods of jar sterilisation, I have settled on the following (that…to the best of my knowledge…has not botulised any recipient yet): wash jars and lids in hot soapy water ensuring that a bottle brush is used to clean the inside. Dip jars and lids into a sink of hot water (to wash off soap suds) and then drain upside down on a tea towel. Place jars and lids (open side facing up) onto trays and leave to dry completely in an oven set at 100 – 120 degrees celcius.

The BFG Jam

It was a trogglehumper of an afternoon.

Vehicleless and bereft of suitable wet-weather attire, I watched, with increasing anxiety, as the cumulonimbus cloud front hurtled its’ way toward the afterschool pick up zone. Realising the imminence of the rain gods plan to unleash their Maidmashing fury upon my two-wheeled, post-school commute team, I quickly executed my Head-of-the-Army orders for a Whizzpopping paced cycle home.

We were making good time. By the halfway point we had managed to stay ahead of the rapidly advancing grey giants and avoid the multiple Manhugging attempts of rushing traffic to see us tattooed onto bumper bars and zebra crossings. Just when I felt it was safe to relinquish my militaristic mannerisms, a complacent lapse in concentration saw my front wheel Butcherboyed by a jaggered edge of the pavement. As the consequential, Bonecrunching sounds of my dislodged chain saw me to a grinding halt, I watched in helicopter-parent-horror as my two little human beans vanished around the bend of the bike path infamously known as “car-crash corner”.

Panicked and overcome with catastophising thoughts of my children being swallowed up by jumbo-sized semitrailers, I quickly switched into bike maintenance overdrive. Four long, chain-grease-covered minutes later and I was back on my now rain soaked pushy peddling for a miracle. Rounding the bend, I braced myself for the impending sight of inevitable carnage.

Resignedly I absorbed the panoramic scene. Strewn across the neglected nature strip, lay two hastily discarded bikes. To the left I spied the abandoned backpacks, half open and resting dejectedly at the base of a 10 foot high landscaped embankment. Slowly I scanned my way up the steep slope until my eyes rested upon two familiar forms, frozen still beneath the redoubtable limbs of a hulking Prunus. As I grievously climbed my way to the edge of the foreboding canopy, I was met with the Fleshlumpeating, blood-coloured faces of two overly sated children who had just guzzled their way through a jumbo sized, rain-soaked serving of foraged fruit. Solaced and sweetly rejuvenated, we packaged a load of plums and neighbouring crab-apples into K1’s backpack for the first of our, now annual, batch of Foraged Plum and Crab-apple Jam.

Thirsty for your very own Bloodbottling experience?

Then why not Gizzardgulp the pride, unleash your hungry kiddy troops upon the neighbourhood nature strips and have your very own Bold ‘n’ Fruitful Galavant (B.F.G)…

20190107_132727

You never know, all your Golden Fizzwizards may come true: a bounty of jamable fruit for that fit-for-the-queen Devonshire Tea.

20190113_081725

BFG Jam (a giant sized fruit-bounty will make enough jam for plenty of royal quality Tea ceremonies)

A largess of crab-apples (or regular old apples) and plums (I always aim for an approximately equal ratio of plums to apples)

Sugar

Water

Upon returning from your Bold ‘n’ Fruitful Galavant, rinse all the fruit. Place a small side plate into the freezer (used for test that your jam is set). Place the plums into a large stock pot with ½ cup water. Peel and core the apples and cut into eighths. Place half of the peelings and cores into a muslin bag (discard the other half into your compost or chook fodder bucket) and tie using jute twine. Add the apples and muslin bag to the plums. Place the lid on the pot and on a medium heat, bring the fruit to simmering point. Simmer for 20 minutes or until soft. Remove the muslin bag, squeezing as much excess liquid from the bag as is possible. Pour the cooked fruit into a mixing bowl and leave until cool enough to handle.

Pit the plums (if you haven’t already) and roughly mash all the fruit. Weigh the cooked fruit. For every 500g of fruit you will need 400g of sugar. In a large heavy based saucepan, add the cooked fruit and the required amount of sugar. Stir to mix. On a medium heat, slowly bring the fruit mixture to a steady simmer stirring regularly to ensure the sugar is dissolving. Simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in any froth that has accumulated. Test to see whether your jam is ready by dropping ½ tsp of the fruit mixture onto the frozen side plate. The mixture should wrinkle slightly when pressed with your finger (it should not be runny). Simmer for another 5 minutes if the jam is not set, otherwise bottle into sterilised jars.

Just in case any unsuspected, dignified guests should grace you with their presence at your next, rather illustrious, Devonshire Tea Ceremony, place atleast one ready-to-use-jar in the fridge.