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Roast Fig, Pecan and Feta Salad

honey roasted figs and pecans with feta salad

The riff of sweet, caramelised figs, salty white cheese, peppery leaves, and nut crunch is a classic one.  And like most classics, for very good reason. This salad was so good it’s been repeated regularly this year since the figs started coming on.  It’s a starring role salad – a dinner party first course, or a totally indulgent lunch, or a plate to take to a party.  If you are in Australia, figs are now in season, and only for a little while.

The Recipe:

Turn the oven on to medium hot to heat up.

Quarter the figs, spread them out on a baking tray and drizzle them with equal quantities of balsamic vinegar and honey.  I used a tablespoon of each with six large figs cut into quarters for this platter salad I took to a party.

For the pecans, in a small saucepan, melt together a teaspoon of honey, a teaspoon of butter, juice of half an orange, a scant teaspoon of garam masala, a pinch of salt, and a pinch of chili powder. Toss the pecans in this mix and spread them out on another baking tray. (I thought about using macadamias first, but the first of ours are only just coming on now, and I still have some of last year’s pecans needing using.)

Put both trays into a medium hot oven and roast for about 20 minutes until the figs are soft and caramelised and the pecans are roasted and their marinade reduced to just a coating.

You should be left in the  fig pan with a couple of tablespoons of juice.  If it is already reduced to a syrup, then you can just cool the lot.  If it is not syrupy yet, pour it into a small saucepan and reduce. If it has turned to sticky toffee, take the figs out and add a little water to dissolve.

Arrange a bed of rocket on a serving tray. Cover with a good sprinkle of cucumber quarters, then a layer of crumbled feta, then the figs and pecans, then a light sprinkle of mint and/or basil leaves.

Drizzle the fig juice over and serve.

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This is the view from our loo.

fig tree

It is one of the advantages of rural life, that you can have a loo with a view.  Figs are now in season, and you can sit on our loo and spot the ones that need picking. Which is a useful thing because figs don’t ripen well when picked green (the main reason they’ve never made it into the standard supermarket array), they ripen daily, and they’re best eaten straight away.

Our loo is a red manure worm processing system, and the resulting worm castings end up in an underground trench that the fig tree’s roots can get into.  That may, or may not,  have something to do with the fact that this year is turning into a very good year for fig harvesting. It’s a relatively new system – we’ve given up on the imperfectly designed composting toilet that always required a bit too much attention and maintenance to work properly on the cool south side of the house in our sub-tropical climate.  The new worm processing system should, in theory, work much better.

I always think that “composting toilet” is a bit of a misnomer.  Compost by rights is a compound that contains big, stable molecules of humic acid created by a particular kind of thermophilic bacteria.  The particular bacteria that make it like about three times as much carbon in their diet as nitrogen, an environment that is moist but not wet,  batch not incremental feeding, and nice insulation to keep warm.  Manure (human and other animals) is nearly all nitrogen rich compounds, much too wet, and you don’t get a batch of it all at once.  Most of the designs I see work on the principle of drying and aging rather than true compost making.

Anaerobic bacteria, the kind that make biogas, like a nitrogen rich wet environment. I see a few designs around these days for household scale biogas digesters and I suspect that could be the technology of the future.

But the other creature, and the one we’ve targeted, is red worms – Eisenia foetida and Lumbricus rubellus species, commercially used to process pig manure.  We were seeking a design that used no water – we’re on tank water, and in a drought year it is always a toss up whether to conserve water for possible fire fighting, spend it keeping trees alive or the garden producing, or let it go to environmental flow.  Flushing a toilet doesn’t get a look-in.

We were also seeking a design that used no or very little power. Nowadays we now have 4.5 kva of off-grid solar power and most of the time we can be completely profligate with spending it – put the electric bread oven, the slow cooker, the stereo, the washing machine, the pool pump and every light in the house on all at once. But I am so used to being frugal with power I can’t bear the idea of wasting it!

It had to cope with urine, cycle nutrients, take virtually no maintenance, and be salubrious enough for visitors used to white porcelain.

All that, and, very importantly,  a view.

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fish with leek and tomato sauce

My  local fisho tells me that his mackerel is line caught, and that’s always a good thing as far as sustainability goes: no bycatch and no complete decimation of breeding populations.  Good Fish Bad Fish lists mackerel as sustainable too.  It’s high in Omega 3 and low in mercury, and it has a nice firm texture with few bones.  It’s an oily fish that goes well with acid tomato based sauce, and I have both tomatoes and leeks in abundance in my garden at the moment.

The Recipe:

For four serves:

  • Chop 4 leeks into 3 cm pieces.  There is usually hard to reach dirt in between the leaves, so I do this over the sink: take the outside leaves off and  the end off the green leaves.  Then chop from the bottom till I get up to where the leaves separate.  Then peel off the outside set of leaves, wash the grit out, chop another segment and repeat until I have used all the tender white and light green parts and I’m left with the tough outer leaves.
  • Add an equal quantity of tomato, roughly chopped if they are big tomatoes, whole if they are cherry tomatoes, and a slurp of good olive oil.
  • Add plenty of salt and pepper, a couple of bay leaves and a sprig of thyme if you have it.
  • If I am going out for the day, I use the slow cooker – set it on low with the lid off and leave.  Eight hours later, it is a thickish liquid tomato sauce with soft braised leeks.  This is the best way and it is so nice to come home to dinner pretty well sorted. If I am home or I want it faster, I use the slow cooker on high for about four hours, or an ovenproof dish with a lid, in a hot oven for 20 minutes with the lid, then another 10 minutes or so without the lid to reduce a bit. You want the sauce to be liquid , but not so liquid that it flows off the plate.
  • Fry the mackerel (fillets or steaks) quickly in a little olive oil, taking care not to overcook  and serve on a bed of leek and tomato sauce.
  • Couscous, green beans and zucchini all make good accompaniments.
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washing machine beans

We bought a second hand washing machine a little while ago, just by chance from a couple who had retired to Lennox Head leaving a family home with a great big garden to move into a beach house with a tiny garden. They were doing spectacular things in a tiny space and we talked gardens over tea for so long we nearly forgot why we came.  As we were leaving we were offered a packet of bean seeds, a variety that had been passed down to this great grandfather from his grandfather, passed down through at least six generations and who knows before that.

They are really long, flat beans with a dark reddish brown seed, so sweet that two-year-old Teo comes out to “help” me pick.  He’s not tall enough to reach them but he knows he will be able to raid them straight out of the basket (and that’s called “helping” in Grandma’s garden). They are stringless and delicious lightly steamed too, and they’ve survived the run of 40°C  days this last week (104°F for friends in USA).  My new favourite beans.  Washing machine beans.

My established garden all survived the heat wave – tomatoes and cucumbers, beans and snake beans, pumpkins and squash, zucchini and tromboncino, eggplants and capsicums, basil and spring onions, leeks and Molokhia, rocket and carrots, and all the perennial and semi-perennials.  But anything I had planted in the last few weeks that hadn’t had time to get roots down deep and wide enough suffered despite all my Frizzle Weather strategies. I had planted out some well advanced beetroot seedlings a couple of weeks ago and none of them made it through.

And I have something –  I think a blue tongued lizard – eating seedlings in the shadehouse as they come up.  The lizard is prime suspect because whatever it is is strong enough to break through the netting I have over the seedling boxes.  Today is cool and drizzly, perfect gardening weather.  This week is predicted to be showers.  I have gaps in the garden and nothing in the shadehouse to fill them.  This is cruel!

I’ve planted some Nantes carrot seed directly this morning, which might well be folly – we only need another day of heat wave next week or the week after and they’re gone.  But I’m betting now on the start of Autumn-ish weather.  I’m also planting out into the misty rain another round of beans, and just a couple each of all the curcubits – squash and zucchini and cucumbers and tromboncinos.  And some spring onions and beets and the first of the season’s parsnips.  And in the shadehouse some more basil and lemon basil, Paris Island Cos and red mignionette lettuces, leeks and mizuna.

And some strong wire over the seedling boxes.

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Jack and Kaela

Sisters and brothers, cousins and second cousins, grandmas and great aunts.  Nineteen of us this time and missing just a few for the annual (most years) few days at the beach.

It was nice this time feeling the change in the generations.  My sister and I firmly in the great aunt’s generation, our daughters stepping firmly into the mothers’ roles, wrangling great gangs of kids, “nobody is coming to the beach until they have a hat and sunscreen on”, “you have to eat something or you’ll get low blood sugar and be miserable and cranky”,  “find an aunt to watch the little kids in the lagoon and I’ll take the big kids out into the surf”.  Grandmothers and great aunts taking long beach walks talking about vocation and staying fit.  Long conversations about the ordinary extra-ordinariness of new babies and teenage angst and aging. Including by proxy ideas from grandad, died this time 5 years ago.

Two year olds and five year olds and twelve year olds and young adults and all the generations of parenthood and grandparent-hood and great grandparent-hood sharing and comparing the challenges of each life stage, and how to live them to the fullest.  I know too many people stuck in one life stage or another – young adults stuck in the dependence of teenagerhood,  Peter Pans in their 40s afraid to become men,  grandparents reverting to sex and drugs and rock and roll, exploring the world and trying to decide what they want to be when they grow up. One of the things I appreciate about my family is its midwifery of us through the stages, maiden, mother, crone, better and better.

Ollie Tayla and Kaela collecting seaweedJack and Emma collecting seaweed Kaela and Bella collecting seaweed
And, on top of all the phenomenological stuff, there is the practical issue of collecting seaweed to take home. Jack and Michaela, Emma and Tayla, Ollie and Bella helped me collect.  The best is half dry so it isn’t too heavy, shaken out of sand, varied kinds.  At home I tip the bags out in the driveway and give it a little hose off, not too thoroughly, just enough to wash off most of the sand and some of the salt.  Then I put it all into a barrel and cover with water and allow it to ferment.  Every week or two, I take a bucketful of greenish water out, dilute it, and use it to water the seedlings in the shadehouse, the potplants in the bathroom, any fruit trees or garden plants I think deserving of a treat.  Then I top it up again with water. Eventually the brew gets weak enough that I decide a beach trip is needed, and the magic pudding barrel is filled up again.

It’s especially valuable having a nice thick new brew this time of year.  We are past the summer solstice now, and heading into the wet season in my part of the world.  It’s time to start planting seeds of leafy greens again in the shadehouse and they specially like the micronutrient boost in seaweed brew. The curcubits in the garden are at risk of downy mildew and a bit of seaweed brew helps keep it at bay.  And it’s coming close to the best season for planting trees, and a bucket of diluted seaweed brew helps them recover from transplant.  So thank you nieces and nephews, sisters and brothers, mother and daughter, on every level.

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Turmeric Dusted Whiting

turmeric dusted whiting

Turmeric likes my subtropical climate, which is very lucky because fresh turmeric is one of my all-time favourite spices and hugely healthy.  I have a patch of it that takes absolutely no attention.  All I do with it is dig up a rhizome when I want it for curries or stir fries or to add a touch of spiciness to just about anything.  .

This time of year, I also dry a bit for recipes like this one.  It’s very easy – just peel and slice very thin, leave in the sun for a few hours on a hot day, then blend to a powder.

Whiting are still listed as sustainable, and there are very few ways to improve on just frying fresh whiting fillets.  But this turmeric dusting adds a crispy, mildly spicy coating that is very addictive.

You want about one part in ten turmeric powder to plain flour for dusting for this recipe.  So for 500 grams of whiting fillets, I use one teaspoon of turmeric powder and ten teaspoons (or three good dessertspoons) of flour.  Plus a pinch of salt.  An easy way to do it is to put the turmeric, flour and salt in a container with a lid and shake together, then add the whiting fillets and shake again to coat.

Then just heat a heavy frypan with a little olive oil till it is very hot but not smoking.  Fry the dusted fish quickly, just a minute or so each side, till they are golden.  Serve with a crisp green salad, or lightly steamed beans or broccolini or snow peas, and a wedge of lemon. Or just put them on a platter to share, and eat them in your fingers on the verandah of a summer evening.

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Tomato Salmorejo

salmorejo

I have tomatoes.  Tomatoes for giving away.  The brandywines are still fruit fly free, this late in the season.  Up here in northern NSW, I can usually get them fruit fly free for a few months, but often by now it is one for us and one for the chooks.  I love giving them to people who don’t have a garden and watching that moment of stunned surprise as they taste them.

Tomatoes for drying.  The Principe Borghese make the best dried tomatoes.  They’re small enough to sun dry in one hot day on the dashboard, large enough to be not too fiddly to halve, dense and fleshy without being too juicy. Fully dried they go in a jar covered in olive oil for storing, semi-dried they go in the fridge in olive oil with some garlic and oregano, for adding to pizza or pasta or on crackers or made into tapenade.

Tomatoes for eating fresh, in salads, on sandwiches or as my current favourite breakfast, soft boiled egg and tomato mash on toast.  The yellow cherries are great for this.  They are sweet and not too acid, and they pick without splitting which means I can keep a bowl on the kitchen bench.

Tomatoes for passata and tomato sauce. The little cherries that split easily are great for this.  They are juicy and flavoursome and you don’t need to worry about splits or go to tedious work cutting them.  But I have enough passata on the shelf, and still lots of cherries.

So Salmorejo is a favourite lunch lately.  Salmorejo is a cold soup but that idea doesn’t do it justice. It’s very fast and easy, and it will keep for a day or two in the fridge so you can make ahead of time (which also makes it great for a first course for summer dinner parties or barbeques).  You can also blend left overs with semi-dried tomatoes to make a dip or spread.

Like many really famous traditional recipes, it is simple – just three real ingredients.  But they all have to be nice enough that you go yum even when just tasting them alone.

Salmorejo

Makes 2 serves for lunch, or 4 for as a dinner party first course, or probably even 6 if you serve in cocktail glasses. Multiply by as many as you need.

You need 1 ½ cups of tomato juice.  I blend the little cherry tomatoes in the food processor then strain out the seeds and skins, spending a little bit of effort to stir through as much as I easily can of the jelly surrounding the seeds, since according to Heston Blumenthal that’s where the unami is.

Add a couple of cloves of crushed garlic and salt and black pepper.

Blend the tomato juice with a cup (loosely packed) of sourdough bread, minus crusts.  I’ve made it with wholemeal and even multigrain but this is a recipe that really calls for white bread.  Stale is fine.

The next bit is easy to get right, but also easy to get wrong.  Blend till smooth, then, with the blender going, add ¼ cup nice tasting olive oil in a thin stream.  Thin stream.  If you add it slowly, it will emulsify like mayonnaise does, making the soup creamy.  If you add it too fast it will split.  Stop the blender as soon as it is all in – you don’t want to split off the bitter aromatics in the olive oil.

Traditionally salmorejo is served topped with chopped hard boiled egg and crispy ham, but I like it best with lots of finely chopped cucumber.

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Marion Nestle’s blog “Food Politics” would be on my “Sites I Visit Lots” list except that it is USA food politics, and although we in Australia are heading down that road, we’re not quite there yet.  Our beef is still mostly free range not CAFO, our potatoes are still not GMO, school lunches are still mostly home packed.

But this post of hers is just as relevant on the other side of the Pacific.  I’d add in a number 7 and 8, and it would make my guidelines too.

It’s worth going to the link to see them elaborated.

  1. Eat more plants.
  2. Don’t eat more calories than you need.
  3. Eat less junk.
  4. Eat a variety of foods you enjoy.
  5. Find the joy in food.
  6. Learn to cook.

I’d need to add:

7. Eat mostly food that is fresh, in season and local.  In fact, you could probably leave out fresh and in season, because by eating local you are doing that anyway – avoiding zombie food that has been artificially ripened, dunked in preservatives, cold stored, bubble wrapped in ten layers of plastic, transported across continents, and is wearing the food equivalent of mortician’s make-up.

8. Eat mostly food grown with love and care and pride.  By you or someone you can, and do, thank.

And that’s it.  All the dietary guidelines you need!

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Davidson Plum Sauce

davidson plum sauce

It has been a great year this year for Davidson plums.  We planted dozens of them as part of our riparian rainforest regen project from 2000 to 2003.   I don’t know whether it is just because they have now hit their stride, or if the unusually wet spring has something to do with it, but this year they have been laden.

There’s quite a lot of edible plants native to my part of the world but not so many of them that are abundant and really delicious.  The range that I look at from my bedroom window goes all the way up to the Bunya Mountains in Queensland along ridgelines. It was likely a route that Bundjalung people took to travel to festivals and feasts, and Bunya pines (Araucaria bidwillii) grow well here, so it is a bit strange that they don’t seem to have been naturalised. We have feasting quantities planted but you couldn’t really call them a native bush food.

But macadamias (Macadamia tetraphylla) and Davidson plums ( Davidsonia jerseyana) are endemic to right here, real bush foods.  We have re-established populations now that should reproduce on their own (climate change allowing) and provide foraging for generations to come. That’s a nice feeling.

The plums are sour, so sour that your eyes cross, but they cook up into the most glorious fruity and aromatic and tart jams and sauce and syrup.  They contain really high levels of anthocyanins, phytonutrients that are really strong antioxidants, and lutein which is one of the compounds that gives kale it’s reputation.  They are also a good source of a good range of minerals – potassium,  zinc,  magnesium, calcium, and of  vitamin E and folate.  All of which is probably necessary to counterbalance the amount of sugar they need to become delicious.

We’ve picked buckets, and there is probably one more pick still to go, distributing the seeds back down into the rainforest gullies.  Enough jam – we’ve eaten way more than we should, I’ve given it away, had people over for pancakes and plum jam breakfasts, even sent some to my son in Vanuatu – which was ridiculous in postage costs but so nice to be able to do – and I still have a year’s supply on the shelf.

This batch went into sauce.  Enough sauce. It is very very good – sweet/salty/sour/spicy with strong and complex flavours, a little goes a long way and I have bottles of it.

Then a batch into syrup for cordial and marinades and granola and over ice-cream.  Enough syrup.  I made it not overly sweet, to my own taste, but perhaps I should have made it sweeter and I’d have a chance of getting through it with a batch of kids at the beach.

For the next batch, I’m considering trying to make salted plums, like umeboshi plums or saladitos.  Anyone tried anything like that with Davidson plums?

The Recipe: Davidson Plum Sauce

This recipe makes about 1.2 kg, or litres of sauce. You can easily halve it if that’s too much.

You need a big non-reactive pot (stainless steel or enamel or pyrex).

Put a saucer in the fridge or freezer.

You need 5 cups of plum pulp.  I find it easiest to remove the two seeds by just squishing the ripe plums and feeling for them. Then blend or process the plums, skin and all, to your desired consistency.  I like it best when it is a bit chunky, not too smooth.

Put the pulp in the pot with:

  • 2 ½ cups brown sugar
  • ½ cup vinegar
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala
  • 3 cardamom pods
  • 3 star anise pods
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • a thumb of ginger grated fine
  • 3 or 4 cloves of garlic crushed
  • chillies chopped fine to taste.  I only have green Bishops Crown chilies ready yet, so I used half a dozen of them.

Cook at a gentle boil for around half an hour stirring occasionally.  Put a ladle in the pot so that it sterilizes too.  Test it every so often by putting a spoonful out onto the cold saucer.  It is ready when it reaches a nice syrupy consistency, still pourable but not liquid.

While it is boiling sterilize some jars or sauce bottles.  Depending on how narrow the neck of your sauce bottles is, you may need to sterilize a jug too.  You can sterilize easily in a pressure cooker for 5 minutes, or by boiling for 15 minutes, or in a slow oven for 20 minutes (but boil the lids separately or the plastic lining melts).  You can also use a dishwasher or a microwave so they say but I don’t have either of them.  You want to put the hot sauce into hot jars so time it so both are ready at once.

Ladle the hot sauce into the hot jars and put the lids on straight away.

It will keep like that for a long time, the sugar and vinegar preserving it, and it will be much too acidic for any food poisoning bacteria.  If you want to make a whole year’s supply, or if you are worried, you can go the extra step of boiling or pressure cooking the sealed jars (boil for 20 minutes, pressure cook for 10 in a pot with a tea towel in the bottom to stop the jars rattling).

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