A slice of Sol’ Lifting Pie

Secret’s in the sauce.” – Sipsey (Film: Fried Green Tomatoes)

Eventually there comes a point in a cool-climate gardener’s calendar when one has to face the colder reality and accept that those immature, Solanum Lycopersicum, fruits of your summer labour, just ain’t gonna ripen! Rather than cry in a green-waste deluge over the lost juicey-red harvest, I decided to take a nostalgic walk down my childhood memory lane for some sol’ lifting, green-tomato cooking inspiration instead.

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Summer holidays. Saturday afternoons. 1995. I guess one could they were a Rottentomatoes event! At fourteen hundred hours, as the kelpies helped Dad round up the cattle for the afternoon milking session, my mother and all of us kids would pile into the family sedan for a rapid fire trip to the local video store to select the evenings’ Film Night V.H.S. In the interests of avoiding any clandestine arm twisting or conniving inter-sibling brawls, a strictly enforced roster system was established so as to enable a more “uninhibited”, movie selection process. While the boys would always opt for a new-release, shoot-em-up, Hollywood action blockbuster, my pick-of-the-flicks adopted a slower, more Deep South centered pace: the Kathy Bates and Jessica Tandy soulful special, Fried Green Tomatoes (1991). A duel period drama-comedy set about a progressive diner in 1960’s Alabama, the characters take the audience on a roller coaster ride of emotions as each employee plays their own unique part in an act of vigilante justice: at the Whistle Stop Cafe’, revenge is a dish best served piping hot and with a generous dollop of blood, red sauce.

Last month, as the daylight hours shortened and those bulky woolen legwarmers made their way to the front of the clothing selection line, it was time to take food lore into my own hands and lift from the earth, those stubborn green sols. Armed with pitchfork, gumboots and a whetted set of secateurs, my up-and-coming, savant scientists took to the streets with passionate fervour and used their “applied” home-learning lesson to make light work of the remaining emerald coloured eatables rambling their way through our recently procured Guerrilla Garden.

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From corn bread and curry to pizza topping and that coveted Soil’n’T Green Tomato Chutney – a popular food swap among our fellow community gardeners – for many weeks to follow, that cavernous basket of burgeoning fruit would see our family kitchen running as hot as the hinges on the gates of Hades…to use a southern american expression. The resultant menu? Well I guess one could say that is was fit to please even the most captious of self-isolating family diners.

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Green Tomato Corn Bread with Home Made Butter

And so it is with great pleasure, and a Whistle Stop in my step, that I present to you my pick of our families rather agreenable feasting favourites, the secret recipe for enjoying a sizable slice of…

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Sol’ Lifting Pie (delivers 6 – 8 soul lifting serves)

1 onion, diced
8 – 10 large green tomatoes, sliced
1 – 2 tbs brown sugar
1 – 2 chillis, deseeded and finely diced
½ c Italian herbs (basil, oregano, rosemary etc.)
¼ – ½ c Parmesan, grated
Pastry:
200g wheat flour
100g soy or sourghum flour
pinch salt
240g butter, cut into cubes

To make the pastry, mix together the flours and and salt. Rub in the butter until the mixture resembles that of breadcrumbs. Add 1 tbs cold water then bring the mixture together to form a firm dough. Form the dough into a disk then refrigerate for 30 mins.

In a heavy based fry-pan, fry the onion on a high temperature till translucent. Add the tomatoes. Fry for a couple of minutes. Stir in the sugar and chilli. Turn to low heat and cover with a lid. Cook for around 15 minutes, stirring regularly to prevent the mixture burning. Stir through the herbs and the parmesan. Season with salt and pepper then leave to cool.

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Roll out two-thirds of the dough to about ¼ of an inch thickness. Lay the dough over the base of a pie dish. Fill with the tomato mixture. Roll out the remaining third of the dough. Place over the top of the filling and, using a pastry brush, seal the edges together with milk. Roll down the edges to form a thick crust then coat the pastry with milk. Using a sharp knife, pierce a cross in the middle of the pastry roof to allow excess steam to escape. Bake at 200oC for 35 – 50 minutes or until the pastry is golden in colour.

Serve to your ravenous, undercovid home-school operatives with a side of end-of-season salad and a dash of Squashed Chutney.

Oh…and there’s just one more thing…

…remember…the secrets in the source. Shhh!

Mothballed?

When the cooler weather sets in and those holey woolen jumpers emerge from their boxed-up, summer home, it can be tempting to let the vegetable patch go into hibernation and to cocoon oneself in the comfort of the insulated indoors until the season metamorphoses into spring.

If like me, however, one happens to have a ravenous penchant for tucker from that expansive wingspan of plants, the brassicaceae family, then there are a few things to add to the cool season to-do-list that will help realise a more healthy, hole-and-critter free crop on the other side of winter.

Recently, in addition to erecting pest netting and planting a few additional trap plants (sacrificial cabbage greens sown on the outside of the netting) seedlings at our community garden allotment, there was a flurry of activity about the homestead. Inspired by an idea from Annie – a fellow community gardener and allroud growing guru – my distance-learning pupae were piqued into crafty action, upcycling some everyday recyclables into pragmatic garden ornaments: cabbage moth decoys.

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Resources:
Old milk bottles
Fade resistant markers
Scissors
10 cm x 5 cm lengths of soft, white plastic (two per decoy)
Bamboo sticks
Twist ties
Sewing pins

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Start by first cutting a milk bottle into six rectangles. Draw a simple butterfly onto each rectangle.

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Cut out the butterfly and, using some fade resistant coloured markers, go wild with the colour creations.

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Using a thick darning needle, pierce two holes through the butterfly’s abdomen (about one centimeter apart). To attach a butterfly to a bamboo stick, first thread the twist-tie/wire through the pierced holes (both ends pointing non-coloured side down). Layer a couple of soft plastic strips over the top of the bamboo stick (centered). Place the coloured butterfly on top, wings overlapping the soft plastic. First secure the butterfly in place in the center of the bamboo stick with a sewing pin. Finish securing the butterfly, by wrapping the twist ties about the bamboo stick.

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Your beautiful butterfly creations are now ready to be placed in the garden for some territorial-moth deterring action!

Now…I’d love to say that all one need do now is to sit back and wait for the burgeoning brassica spoils to land on your post-winter dinner plate…but then I might end up with partially masticated, fat, green caterpillar spots on my tongue! As the hatch span of the cabbage moth (egg to first stage larva) is very short, a regular leaf check for little green eggs (the size of a pin head) will help to ward off the last of those particularly evasive, little white flutters and hence save that bountiful future harvest from being totally mothballed!

Feeling Seedy

After three long months of blistering heat, smoky haze and having a water can glued to one hand, even the most evangelical of gardeners can find themselves feeling just a little enervated and gone-to-seed by the end of the long summer season.

Tempting as it may be to race off the the shops for that quick-fix, store-bought seedling panacea, I have always found that my waning enthusiasm makes a much faster and more rejuvenating recovery after a solid morning session of autumnal exercise. It also proves to be a great family friendly activity for those little green thumbs who may be having an extended period away from the school house.

Ready. Set. Time to go wild for the Seedy Winter Workout Session

Kit up: you don’t need to race out and purchase the Lorna Lemon, rolled-gold standard of equipment to realise an impressively bulky result but you do need some basic essentials: pots (these can be made from newspaper/old egg cartons/milk bottles, collected from tip shops/ second-hand websites or purchased from the local gardening store); labels (paddle pop sticks or old milk bottles cut into strips work well) good quality potting mix; a trowel or large spoon; and a suitable location in dappled sunlight (I use a seed raising greenhouse…mostly for the shelf space!!).

Squats and chin ups: if you’re anything like me, then searching for that “carefully filed” seed collection saved from last season’s harvest, can involve lots of crouching, lifting and pulling oneself up on the edge of cupboard shelves…just in case that hidden box of growing treasures is lurking behind those bagged up sacks of pre-loved clothes. In addition to my own stock (or those swapped with neighbours, friends and fellow community gardeners), I also tend to plant a range of heirloom varieties of my family’s favourite eatable numbers, the seeds of which are purchased from reputable online stores or my local garden centre.

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Dips: you’ll be doing multiple repeats of these arm building digs as you plunge your trowel/spoon into that bag of potting mix, so best to find a comfortable place to lay out your kit so as to make for an efficient transfer from bag to pot. An outdoor table can double as a potting bench, otherwise you can always go old school and lay at a sheet on the ground (to catch residual potting mix) instead.

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Scatter runs: and so we reach the endurance aspect of your whole, garden-body workout. Planting seeds can be tiresome and lengthy work. Patience is a virtue. Particularly if you happen to love having a number of different varieties of each food plant! I always work to a general rule of sowing to a depth of three times the diameter of the seed. The easiest way I have found to do this is to first fill all the pots ½ (for the larger seeds like peas) to 2/3 full with potting mix. After selecting the packet to be planted, I then pour a small amount of the seed into my hand, scatter a pinch relatively thickly over the soil, then cover with approximately three times the diameter worth of potting mix. Repeat…times the number of different seed varieties to be planted.

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Hydrate: like all well functioning systems, regular intakes of water is essential. I tend to wait until I have planted up all my seeds and then give the whole lot a good dousing with the rose spout, being careful (by moving the watercan quickly in a back and forth motion) not to allow the water to fall too heavily onto the surface of the soil: we wouldn’t want to wash away all our hard work!

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Stretch session: I’d love to tell you that now all the hard work is done you can walk away and wait for your growing bounty to emerge…but then I’d be telling a very disappointing lie! Depending on the ambient air temperatures, the seeds can take between three days and two weeks (especially for slow germinating seedlings like onions) to awaken their green tendrils. During this time the seedlings need to be placed in a warm place out of direct sunlight and watered regularly. I like to place them near the front door with a bulb sprayer kept handy so that whenever my kids and I walk past we can give them a good squirt: a fun activity for the whole family…particularly if it results in a friendly bout of water warfare. When the baby leaves are well and truly above the soil surface, the pots should be moved into a position in dappled sunlight or a place that receives plenty of morning sunlight.

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Cooling down: after a beefy surge of growth and maturation, your little sprouts will be well on their way to being mean, eatable greens. To help boost the strongest of the bunch along, some tough and some what cool hearted culling needs to occur.

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Depending on the size of the pot, and the location of the seedlings within the pot (best to select those growing closest to the middle), I usually cull the sprouts back to half a dozen of the healthiest looking specimens. As for those lesser developed runts of the bunch, don’t be too hasty to send them compost-heap-packing, they make a refreshing addition to that salubrious, Saturday Pizza Night, salad.

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It’s always a rewarding experience to reflect back to the beginning of the workout session and give yourself a well deserved pat on the back for making it through the restorative journey. Once those dinky dazzlers, have bulked up to a reasonable size (I usually wait till they have atleast two sets of true leaves) they are ready to graduate into the big leagues: the planting bed in that beloved vegetable patch…

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…Ready, set…Plant it out!!

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Watch Out! Don’t Get Squashed

Aim high. Reach for the stars. Dream big. The sky’s the limit…

Just some of the many encouraging phrases bestowed on me by my parents during those formative years on the farm. Keen to live up to my mother and father’s expectations, I took it upon myself to ensure that I mastered the art of being a consistent “high” achiever. And so began my diverse and rather unorthodox take on the concept of altitude training. From wheat silos and haphazard hay-bale stacks to peppercorn trees and ten foot high shade clothed fences, if there was a vertical challenge to be had then you could bet your last high ropes carabiner I’d be at the climbing ready to take it on!

Early spring was always the most exciting time of year on the farm. Unfazed by the cool air and ice capped fences, my three brothers and I couldn’t throw the bedclothes off fast enough to compete for first place in the great race that was getting to the calving shed in time for the morning serve of colostrum rations for the newly born poddy calves.

One morning, following a particularly large dumping of September rain, Jimmy and Tommy – my two younger brothers – and I arrived at the feeding troughs to the sight of a sodden and desperately mewing piebald kitten hanging precariously by the tips of it’s outstretched claws from the corner, eave purlin, of the shed roof. Realising this was the perfect opportunity to show off my now well honed vertical scaling skills, I seized the moment and skillfully swung myself up and over the steel hinged, shed gate and rapidly began my ascent along the red-brick wall toward the frightened feline.

Blocking out the piercing wails hailing from above, I heedfully navigated the desultory brickwork, using gaps in the mortar and some spare, stacked fence palings to advance myself upward. Over the years, Tommy, Jimmy and I had become quite accustomed to rescuing stray animals that had taken refuge in various sheds and abandoned machinery about the farm. So as I neared my petrified friend, I was well prepared for the bared teeth and angry hissing that ensued. Ignoring the defensive, claw ridden strikes at my hands, I quickly covered the fist sized fur-ball with the cuff of my jumper and slowly made my way back toward my awestruck, brotherly audience.

Of course the blame for what happened next will always be leveled at the rain soaked, slippery clay soil and not at all because my over-inflated, high rise confidence had hijacked my sense of risk and caution. One moment I was comfortably balanced atop a stack of sturdy, wall-hugging fence posts, the next, I was pinned under a corporate fat-cat sized weight of Ironbark, competing desperately for breathing space through the only remaining gap between the now frantically mewing kitten and an incoming deluge of red-dirt mud.

I’m not sure what was worse, the incessant fang and claw induced maiming penetrating my now saturated Nanna-made jumper or the ultimate dressing down and week long parlour duties I received from Dad when, after what seemed like an interminable paws in time, he lifted me from my cat-tastrophe.

This summer I just couldn’t help myself. Dejected and clinging onto life with all but a tinge of chlorophyll left in the wilted green leaves, I threw the neglected punnet of Cucurbita Pepo into my basket and marched toward the checkout of our local nursery. Three months and a lot of love, weed and worm tea fertiliser later, and I was right back in that calf shed: totally squashed!

squash

Lucky. That was the name our much loved cat who, after much pleading and chore bargaining, was adopted into the family as yet another addition to our motley menagerie of rescued pets. Lucky is how I would also describe our abundance of fleshy, yellow marrow. From curries and pasta bakes to humble soups and sandwich-able preserves, we certainly feel golden to have so many adaptable family recipes that prevent us from finding ourselves in a profuse pickle. For those also flush with yellow funds this summer, I present to you my recipe for sharing the button squash love to all those who have a penchant for pickles…

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Squashed Chutney (makes plenty of tip shop rescued jar fulls!)

In true rescuing spirit, I plunged into that crate full of throw away, reduced price goodies at my local farmers market store to ensure that those over-sized yellowy-green marrows had plenty of motley friends to keep them company in those bottled up jars of summertime love.

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700g button squash, diced
2 green capsicums, deseeded and diced
1 corn cob, dekernaled
2 onions, diced
1 ½ c white vinegar
1 c white sugar
4 tsp ground turmeric
4tsp mustard seeds (brown or black)
½ tsp ground cloves
1 tsp curry powder
2 garlic cloves
2 tsp salt

Combine all ingredients into a large pot with a lid. Bring the mixture to boiling point and allow it to simmer on a low heat for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and simmer for another 30 minutes or until the mixture thickens.

Meanwhile, sterilise those tip shop rescued glass jars. To sterilise the jars and lids, wash the them thoroughly in hot soapy water (use a bottlebrush if you need). Rinse in hot water then leave upside down to drain on a tea towel. Place the jars and lids on a tray in an upright position then place them in the oven at 100oC for 15-20 minutes.

Bottle the chutney into the hot, sterilised jars and seal. Leave for atleast three days before consuming.

Chutney

For those in need of an extra squashy meal deal or a wholesome, lunch box treat for the kids, load up the that homemade bread with a spoonful of the chutney, top with some cheddar and throw it in the toastie maker (…also rescued from the tip!). Viola!

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Oh…and as for those large seeds hidden in the centre of the squash, don’t forget to dry and store them for next summer. It’s the golden gift that keeps on giving!

I Love My Sunburnt Country

From as far back as I can remember, no summer has rung more true to the words of Dorothea Mackellar’s iconic poem, My Country, than the one that we have just endured. From the rugged, flame engulfed mountains, to the drought and ice-bullet infested flooding rains, this Australia Day gave our family cause to reflect on how lucky we truly were to only be defending our lungs against the smoke rather than our home or our livelihoods against the formidable natural elements.

As heat waves across the country relentlessly thrashed thirsty paddocks and homesteads with whip-like talons of fury, community spirit saturated the media channels and internet streams with heroic tales of firemen, allied health professionals, charity organisations and humble neighbours bestowing wilful and lavish volunteer hours and aid upon those gravely affected by the fires. Closer to home, and many of our townsfolk were offered all but a moments reprieve from the sunny monotony as the joyous news of incoming rain was quickly replaced with feelings of loss and frustration about expensive repair jobs and interminable waits for insurance claims: the drumming of an army being less of the steady soaking rains and more like cricket ball sized hail stones!

Through it all – the smoke, hail and encircling fires – our family sat in the extremely privileged position of being almost completely unaffected: Scott cycled to work the day the midday hail storm wiped out most of the cars in the office carpark; my gardens, both at home and at “The Farm” (our offsite allotment), received a generous dumping of rain (without the icey fusillade); and we all had sufficient lung capacities to challenge, albeit with gas masks, even the most menacing of smog counts.

On the morning of the 26th January, as I heedfully balanced my burgeoning basket of allotment picked produce on the handle bars of my bike whilst also herding my speedracing kidditroop home, I was suddenly struck with a Green n’ Gold epiphany. Inspired by the acts of the many thousands of opal-hearted volunteers who assisted in the fire and flood relief efforts, I brought my love of ordered woods and gardens to our series of long weekend guests by rounding out each meal with a selection of no-waste, giant cucumber infused indulgences.

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To all who share my sentiment about our great countrymen and women, or for anyone keen for an adventurous take on the green and gold theme, then please feel free to take a walk down my green and rather shady lane. I present to you my recipes for…

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My Country Cake (Cucumber and Lemon Cake) and Cool as a Cucumber Cordial

Who’d have thought that those flailing seedlings I picked up on the throw out table at our local nursery would prove to be so productive! In true Darwinian style I chose the strongest of the punnet to take prime position in my summer, cucurbitaceae family bed. The runts I planted about the edge as a means of keeping down the couch and protecting the soil from the blistering hot sun. Two months later and my family recipe book is brimming with new favourites that make good use of the glut of tough skinned monsters that have now run rampant about our patch. My Country Cake and Cool as a Cucumber Cordial are true Green n’ Gold winners for all-comers to enjoy on those scorching summer afternoons.

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My Country Cake ingredients:
1 giant cucumber
zest and juice of 1 lemon
150g butter
¾ c brown sugar
2 eggs
½ tsp vanilla
½ tsp cardamom
1 ¾ c plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
¼ – ½ c milk
Icing:
125g butter, softened
1 ½ c icing sugar
1 tbs milk
½ tsp turmeric
½ c flaked coconut, finely diced

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Cut the cucumber into quarters lengthwise. Carefully remove the seeds with a sharp knife by slicing out the gelatinous flesh. To save the seeds for next season, push the seeds out from the flesh and rinse the seeds under cold water. Strain in a colander then place the seeds in the center of some muslin cloth. Tie up the cloth with some kitchen twine. Label (I use old egg cartons) and hang till completely dry (in the height of the summer, this usually only takes a few days). Cut the rest of the cucumber into large chunks and puree together with the deseeded flesh. Strain through some muslin cloth for atleast 30 minutes. You should have close to 1 cup of green cucumber liquid which can be frozen and used to make Cool as a Cucumber cordial at a later date. The remaining pureed cucumber in the muslin cloth is used to make My Country Cake.

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Cream together the butter and the sugar. Whisk in the eggs one at a time and then the vanilla. Stir through the pureed cucumber. In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, cardamom and baking powder. Stir one third of the flour mix through the butter mixture then one third of the milk. Repeat until all the flour and milk is used up and the batter is a thick and dollopable consistency. Pour the batter into a greased and baking paper lined 18-20cm cake tin. Bake at 170oC for 40-50 minutes. Cool to room temperature before icing.

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To make the icing, whisk the butter until almost white in colour. Whisk in ½ cup of the sifted icing sugar and a dash of the milk. Repeat until all the milk and the icing sugar is used up. Whisk in the turmeric. Spread all over the cake to approximately 5 mm thick. Sprinkle over the coconut.

Cool as a Cucumber Cordial ingredients:
700ml cucumber juice (see method above)
a handful of mint, bergamot, lemon balm or lemon verbena
650 g sugar

Finely dice the herbs. Place the herbs, cucumber juice and sugar into a saucepan and slowly bring to the boil, stirring constantly until the sugar is dissolved. Simmer for 3 minutes then leave overnight to infuse.

To sterilise the cordial bottles and lids, wash the bottles and lids thoroughly in hot soapy water (use a bottlebrush if you need). Rinse in hot water then leave upside down to drain on a tea towel. Place the bottles and lids on a tray in an upright position then place them in the oven at 100oC for 15-20 minutes. Meanwhile, strain the cucumber liquid to remove the herbs. Reheat the liquid to simmering point then bottle into sterilised bottles and leave to cool. Refrigerate till cold. To serve, pour 1 tablespoon into the bottom of a glass. Top with 1 cup cold water (or carbonated water), ice and fresh mint.

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Serve your cucumber delights to your patriotic guests with scoop of homemade ice-cream and a generous toast: “To those who know what brown country their homing thoughts do fly”. Enjoy!

Streusel All the Way

Dashing through the farm,

in a wagon packed with kids,

books tucked under arm,

berry coated lips.

Plants and flowers glistening,

banter fills the air,

what fun it is to laugh and bring,

some gardening tips and fare.

When it comes to the silly season and the jolly madness that is back to back festivities, family gatherings and kids causing a hoarding calamity about the food table…well…I have to confess…

…I’m a totally devoted and enthusiastic lover of the whole, Jingle Bells, shebang.

This years’ sleigh load of party going events was whip started into action by a newcomer to our family’s list: The Community Garden Christmas Gathering. Organised by Carmelita, the naturally glamorous green-thumbed mother of three, our family clan was greeted at “The Farm” by tables elegantly adorned with water jars – suffused with an array of native plants and flowers – and replete with all manner of home made and grown food items.

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While the adults quaffed and dined, the kids took to the red wagon – borrowed from our local Toy Library – like elves to Santa’s production line, taking turns to daringly cart each other about the acre of growing land. Even the goats, penned in the adjacent school agricultural plot, took to the festive atmosphere with gay abandon, ensuring they had their fill of hand picked couch and comfrey.

Of course, no festive party would ever be complete without a touch of gift giving. As the children sat, ensconced about the present sack, tearing at the paper covering the newest edition to their reading libraries, the rest of the attendees got busy trading gardening tips and exchanging recipes until the setting sun signaled the Dashering and Dancering call to set the family members on a course for home.

Presents
Charged with the task of using any produce that still remained in the plot of our gallant and vivacious Community Garden Coordinator – who has taken a temporary break from physical duties to wrestle it out with a particularly obstinate form of breast cancer – my contribution to the gastronomic events of the evenings frivolities included a unique take on a traditional, country cooking style, slice. I present to you, my recipe for…

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Santa’s Streusal Slice (Beet and Rhubarb Streusal Slice; Makes a sack load).

Streusel:
½ c plain flour
¼ c rolled oats
1/3 c coconut sugar
½ tsp cinnamon, ground
80 g butter
Filling:
3 – 4 coarsely chopped stems rhubarb
1 medium sized beetroot, peeled and coarsley chopped
1 tbs honey
Slice base:
100g butter
½ c caster sugar
1 egg
1 c self raising flour
1 tbs coconut flour

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Make the streusel by mixing together the oats, flour, sugar and cinnamon. Rub the butter into the oat mix and bring together to form a dough. Place in an airtight container and freeze for 2-3 hours or until very firm. To make the filling, place the beetroot and rhubarb in a small saucepan with ½ cup water. Bring to simmering point with the lid on. Simmer for 20 minutes or until the fruit is soft. Cool. Stir through the honey then puree’ the fruit. Place the fruit mixture in the fridge till cold.

Cream together the butter and sugar. Whisk in the egg. In a separate bowl, mix together the self raising and coconut flours. Add the flours to the creamed ingredients and mix thoroughly to create a crumbly dough. Press the dough into the bottom of a 19cm square cake tin. Bake at 180oC for approximately 20 minutes or until golden brown on top. Leave to cool for 10 minutes.

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Spread the fruit evenly over the slice base. Grate the streusel over the top. Bake at 180oC for approximately 15 minutes or until golden brown on top. Cool then place in the fridge overnight. Using a bread knife, cut the slice into 3 cm squares then serve to your merry band of Santa’s Slice loving friends.

Ho, ho, ho…struesel all the way!

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!