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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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grape vine

The grapes are hanging thick and heavy in our pergola.  Such a useful plant.  In winter the bare vines let the north western afternoon sun stream onto the verandah, warming the floor and creating a nice spot for proving bread or sitting with a book.  In spring the fresh, delicate leaves make dolmades, wonderful lunch or picnic or party food.  In summer the vines are thick with leaves blocking the afternoon sun and making cool green shade.  And giving us grapes.

I don’t know what variety this vine is – it’s over twenty years old now and my record keeping wasn’t real good then.  I do remember that it has been bearing well since my kids were very little, which means it must have borne well in its early years and still keeps going.  Grape vines can live for over a century.  We prune it every year in autumn, and prune it back heavily every few years.  But otherwise it gets no attention – no watering, no mulch, no fertilising.

The bush turkeys feast on them, and drop lots, and some years the grapes are so heavy I have to let the chooks out to clean up under the pergola or we start to smell like a party house after a three day bender.  We eat lots straight off the vine. I make schiacciata (just sourdough mixed with grapes and rosemary and turned into focaccia), I put grapes in salads, but in a good grape year, there are still more grapes to deal with.

The permaculture motto is “you don’t have a surplus of slugs, you have a deficit of ducks”, so my standard solution to gluts of anything is to look for more eaters.  But grapes don’t travel well, or last long in the corner mailbox in the heat.  So I make grape must, or really sapa or saba or mosto cotto depending on which part of the Mediterranean you listen to.

Grape must is red grapes, skins, seeds and all, cooked, strained and reduced down to a thick syrup. Cooking the skins in with it adds the resveratrol, that may or may not be good for everything from heart health to cancer preventative to anti-aging.  Real balsamic vinegar  is made from it and it is one of those traditional miracle cures for everything, and at the very least it has lots of polyphenols and antioxidants, and, no need for anything else, it is very delicious.

Real balsamic takes years and years and years to ferment and reduce. Expensive fake balsamic vinegar you buy in the supermarket is red wine vinegar with a bit of grape must added to it. Cheap balsamic is just red wine vinegar with syrup and colouring. I don’t have the patience or skill for real balsamic, but making good quality fake balsamic is very easy. In the long days of high summer, we have solar power to waste, so I can leave the slow cooker on all day using free power to cook and reduce the grapes to a thick, dark red syrup that is almost crystalline.   Four litres reduced to this little pot of crimson gold.

grape must

To make it, I fill the slow cooker with grapes and cook for a few hours with the lid off.  Then I use a potato masher to release the juice and keep cooking.  Eventually I want to reduce the must to a thick syrup, but at some point, I need to strain out the skins and seeds.  The longer the skins are in there, the more resveratrol, but also, the more syrupy the must and the harder it is to strain. I leave it as long as I dare, then pour into an open weave cheesecloth lined colander and squeeze the syrupy juice through the cloth, back into the slow cooker to reduce some more.

At this point, the syrup is properly called saba.  It is thick and sweet and it will keep in the fridge for a year easily.  Most of it is doled out by the teaspoon in salad dressings, marinades and in recipes where you might use honey.  Some though is a splurged treat – grape must on sourdough french toast with yoghurt.  Roman decadence.

french toast with grape must and yoghurt

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cucumber hors d'oeuvres

My glut crops at the moment are tomatoes, button squash, pumpkins, snake beans, leeks, and cucumbers.

And cucumbers.

My favourite varieties these days are Suyo long, Richmond River White and Giant Burpless.  I tried cucamelons last year but although they are cute, and astonishingly hardy and prolific (to the point where I worry that they could end up a pest plant)  they didn’t make it into the favourites list.   This year I obeyed my own rule of only planting out just a  couple of different kinds each planting break.  A couple in September, a couple in October, a couple in November.  Only the September ones are really bearing yet, the October ones just starting, and already I’m at give-away stage with cucumbers.

I do have a recipe for dill pickles, and one for bread-and-butter cucumbers, and for gherkins with really young ones. Once upon a time in my earth-mother aspiring days I would load up pantry shelves with jars of pickles and jam and vacola preserved vegetables.  I still have a bit of a soft spot for jars like that as decor – jewel colours and a picture of frugal affluence.

But up here in Northern NSW, cucumber season is long.  The dill pickles are nice enough.  The problem is that a jar will never be opened while we have the choice of fresh cucumbers, especially not when we have fresh cucumbers filling up the fridge, loading up the bench, appearing at every meal.  By the time the first frost finally finishes them off, we are so over cucumbers that they are going to be given a miss in any form for quite a few months, and anyway, it’s the season for leafy greens.  Then, just as we start to fancy opening a jar, the new season vines start to bear little green gems, and its on again.  The same issues get in the way of preserving or freezing just about anything these days.  I make preserves as condiments, and eat (mostly) what’s in season.  Gluts are for barter or give away, and when that route is exhausted, there’s always chooks.

There are many ways to get through lots of cucumbers.  Gazpacho is one of the best.  Tzatziki or cucumber raita is a side dish for just about every meal. Cucumber is a main ingredient in summer salads, Greek or Asian.  In this party season, cucumber sticks are great for carrying dips like hummus or baba ganoush or eggplant and pomegranite or roast pumpkin and macadamia or roast beetroot or  Muhammara.  And really fresh crisp cucumber makes a good substitute for crackers, loaded up with cream cheese and dill, or tomato salsa, or (yes, the irony has come back to bite me) feta and lime pickle.

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tomatoes 2015

My two-year-old grandson “helps” me pick the little red cherry tomatoes. He dutifully picks the tomato, puts it in the bowl, then without even letting it go, takes it out again and eats it.  They fruit astonishingly prolifically on tall indeterminate plants climbing the south side fence on one bed.  Sadly, despite being two-year-old’s sweet tooth worthy, they will never be a market variety – too hard to pick without splitting them.

red cherry tomatoes

Which means they don’t last, even a day on the kitchen bench.  I’m getting a bowl like this every day though and with three other tomato varieties also fruiting (Brandywines, yellow cherries, and Principe Borghese). We’re eating Tomatoes as Themselves as a side dish with practically every meal.  I’ve made Green Gazpacho with the yellow cherries a few times this season already – wonderful on a hot summer night. Pasta Puttanesca uses a whole bowl full of tomatoes. Fresh tomato sauces for things like Italian Kangaroo Meatballs,  Huevos Diablos, Slow Cooked Green Beans Italian Style come up often.

And still there are more. Which  means it’s passata and sun dried tomato time.  I’ve posted about Sun Dried Tomatoes a few times.  This time with the little cherries I didn’t bother threading them, just laid them on biscuit trays and dried them on the dashboard.  The little ones halved dry in a single hot day.

tomatoes drying

But I’ve also discovered a really efficient way to make passata using the slow cooker.  It works well for me because we are on stand alone  solar power and this time of the year, there is free power to waste.  I heat up the tomatoes in the slow cooker for a couple of hours, then blitz them just for a couple of seconds with a stick blender, then strain through an ordinary kitchen strainer to get most of the seeds and skin out.

Return the juice to the slow cooker, good pinch of salt, a few bay leaves or a sprig of oregano, perhaps some garlic, and leave it on high, with the lid off, till the passata is satisfyingly thick.  It takes about 8 hours in my slow cooker, which means I can just leave it to it while I go about my day.

Sterilize some jars and their lids by boiling for 20 minutes or pressure cooking for 10 and ladle the passata into the jars.  (A good tip is to leave a ladle in the passata so that it is sterile too). Lay a tea towel in the bottom of a big pot, put the lids on the jars tightly, stand or lay them in the pot, cover them with cold water, bring to the boil and boil for half an hour.  Check that the lids pop in as they cool.

I really like being able to make half a dozen jars at a time when I have excess tomatoes without it being a huge mission.  The little bit left over, too little for a jar, kept cooking for another hour till it was tomato paste thick and went wonderfully with Cheesy Zucchini Balls.


Tomato passata

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This picture is from an “In Season” post from four years ago.  Oddly, considering how neglected my garden is at the moment, I’m harvesting pretty well the same lot.  This time of year is a season of the first of things and the last of things in my garden, as the winter plantings finally end and the first of the spring plantings start to bear. Today I stripped out all the remaining broad beans and the last of the peas for shelling, so I can feel some broad bean, pea, mint and lemon puree coming on.  There is lots of celery but it is starting to flower so not for much longer now.  The later rounds of broccoli are bearing main heads and the earlier rounds side shoots, but I’m expecting cabbage and web moths to arrive soonish.  They’ll finish off the chinese cabbages too.  The cavallo nero kale has been prolific all winter but it’s starting to get aphids now.

I still have bulk silver beet but all the earlier plantings are now running to seed.  All my parsley has run to seed, and I am now harvesting seed from coriander and dill too.  Rocket has run to seed, but the nasturtiums are rocketing along and providing that peppery-ness in salads.  Though I still have lots of lettuce, the number of varieties is going down.

I’ll have some Eureka lemons most of the year, but the bush lemons are finished and I’m picking the very last of the late season mandarins and grapefruits. The grape vines are laden and though the grapes will be a month or so yet, I’m using the leaves regularly.

I’ve stopped cutting asparagus for the year but just as the asparagus finish, I start cutting artichokes.  The new zucchini are getting to a good size to pick young fruit as well as flowers.  I picked the very first of the Corno de Toro capsicum today, a bit green still but there are lots more coming on.  The first of the season’s new potatoes – such a treat – along with baby cucumbers and the first of the squash.

I am also picking the first of the season’s fresh garlic – early, but then I planted early too.  Fresh, juicy garlic is a totally different thing to the dried up imports from China.  If you don’t grow your own, look out for fresh local garlic at Farmers Markets from now on.  It’s an experience!

With fruit, this is berry season – strawberries, blueberries, white and purple mulberries.  It doesn’t last long so I’m making the most of it.  Paw paws are still in bulk, and the white mulberries are laden this year.

So that’s what I’ll be basing my cooking around this month.

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My son is here for the weekend with some of his friends, so I get to do my favourite thing in the world and feed a mob of young urbanites.

But they sleep in!

So while I’m waiting, I thought I might give you a preview.

mandarins carambola grapefruit

First up, winter fruit – carambola, mandarins, grilled pink grapefruit, with yoghurt.

Then poached free range eggs on sourdough toast with lemony garlicy  mushrooms with goats’ cheese.  The mushrooms have been braised in garlic, butter and lemon juice, and I’ll pop these in the oven just as they come to wilt the spinach and melt in the cheese a little.

garlic mushrooms with spinach and goats cheese

With a side of haloumi and winter tomatoes (which I’m very proud of at this time of year) on a bed of rocket.  I’ll fry the haloumi in a little olive oil and dress with  balsamic at the last minute.

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With homegrown coffee and homemade sourdough with lime or kumquat marmalade.

lime marmalade

There was mention of lemon butter last night so I’m thinking pancakes with lemon curd for tomorrow’s breakfast.

The wood stove is lit, the sun is shining, music on the record player, guests for breakfast – life is good.

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box of vegies

In my kitchen is a box of vegies that I’ve packed to send to the Bentley CSG blockade vigil.  A small group of hardy souls are maintaining a vigil there,  so as to be able to let us all know when we’re needed to stop the drill rig.  It means all the rest of the 90% of the region’s population who oppose gas mining can get on with their lives meanwhile. It’s tedious work, just watching a gateway and I thank them for being willing to do it.  Metgasco is imposing a huge cost on us all in making us do this – we have way better things to do than defend against looters.

tomatoes

In my kitchen is a big bowl of mixed tomatoes – cherries, Principe Borghese grapes, yellow cherries, and Yugoslavs. I’ve had a bowl of tomatoes on the bench for several months now.  I’m lucky that there are some tomatoes in my garden most of the year, but this late summer peak of the season is such luxurious excess!

olivesIn my kitchen are this year’s olives, now in their brine solution for the next three months.  We still have four big jars of last year’s olives left and they are perfect for eating now after three months in brine then nine months marinating in oil and spices.  This year I held my nerve a little longer and we have more black than green ones so I’m very happy!

persimmons

In my kitchen is a bowl of persimmons.  There were more but my partner loves them.  I thought for a bit too long about what I could make with them and now there are so few left that I don’t have to think any more.

beans

In my kitchen are some pie dishes full of shelled beans drying.  We’re at the stage in the year now when the bean jars start to fill up.  The white ones are Blue Lakes, the mottled ones are Rattlesnakes, the brown ones are Purple Kings, and the black ones are Turtle Beans.  All except for the turtles are tall climbers that we’ve been eating as green beans up till now, but now we can’t keep up so I let them mature, shell and dry them, and store them to cook over winter.

sunflower

And in my kitchen is a sunflower in a vase, just for making me happy every time I look at it.

I love seeing what’s happening in others’  kitchens.  Head over to Fig Jam and Lime Cordial for the list.

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Jan harvesting

In my kitchen is a blackboard list of what is harvestable in the garden.  I have a wonderful partner who does a lot of the cooking in our household but the garden is foreign lands to him.  So I had the brainwave of writing a list of what is in the “outdoor pantry” right now. Dumb idea.  He is never going to plough through that lot when he’s thinking about what to cook. But it does look impressive all written down doesn’t it.

seeds drying

In my kitchen I have bowls of seeds drying, taking up half my bench space.  Thankfully it’s good drying weather so they shouldn’t be there long.  Usually I dry seeds on the verandah but a brazen bush turkey has taken to coming up to check what is on the verandah table every day, clumping through breaking bowls and spilling things and pooing everywhere.  There’s snake beans and rattlesnake beans, for planting and for storing as dried beans.  There’s  nigella and dill for spices and for planting.  There’s lucullus (Italian silverbeet) and parsnips for planting.  There’s some seeds of the Brandywine tomatoes that have done so well this year and a good buttercrunch lettuce that was slow to bolt and has hung on till now to go to seed.

 

strawberries

In my kitchen are three gorgeous strawberries, getting close to the last of them.  I really should share them, shouldn’t I.  Hmm….

chillies

In my kitchen is a bowl of Bishops Crown chillies, the first big harvest of chillies for the season.  I was thinking to pickle them, but the weather report is predicting some stinking hot days over the next few days, so I might take advantage of the weather to dry these to make chili powder.

first mangoes

In my kitchen are the very first of the season’s mangoes.  This variety is ripe when the skin is still green, but these aren’t quite ripe yet.  I’m thinking a Thai style green mango salad with Thai basil, red onion, and a lime cordial and fish sauce dressing.  If I get it just right I’ll post the recipe.

first pomegranate

In my kitchen is the first of the season’s pomegranates, a small one I picked really just to see if they are ready yet.  They will be better in a week or two, but there will be so many over the next month, we might start on them now. Pomegranates are hugely healthy and really underappreciated in Australia, and if I ever see them in the supermarket, they seem to be so expensive I feel very lucky having quantities of them.  They are spectacular in salads, little pops of tart sweetness.  And they make wonderful Middle Eastern style dips with eggplant or capsicum.

george foreman

In my kitchen is an op-shop scored George Foreman oven, I think late 1980’s/early 1990’s vintage.  I’m using it to bake my sourdough these days. I am still figuring out how to use all the power we are making now with last year’s new solar panels. A friend showed me her electricity bill, and I felt very happy with our decision to go off-grid, stand-alone solar.  It does mean that we need to actually be mindful about electricity and frugal with it in overcast weather, and have energy efficient set up so we can be frugal (LED lights, small efficient fridge, small screen LED TV, laptop).  But in sunny weather we just can’t use it all, even charging a hybrid car. So I’m experimenting with moving more and more of my cooking away from gas and over to free electricity.

tomatoes

And finally, in my kitchen is a big bowl of tomatoes. I’m picking a bowl like this a day at the moment.  The Yugoslavs are so good. I wish I could figure out why some years they get fruit fly, and some years they don’t, but this is a lucky year.

It’s such fun stickybeaking in others’  kitchens.  Head over to Fig Jam and Lime Cordial for the list.

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tomatoes

Back from welcoming Teo into the world, and a few days of warm weather with a lucky 50mm of rain , and the tomatoes have gone berzerk.  The big beefsteak one in the front is a Yugoslav, the one at the back a Brandywine.  These are my two favourite big tomato varieties.  They are both a bit fruit fly prone, so I have to be a bit lucky to get them – some years are worse for fruit fly than others.  And I only try for them early in the season – I won’t plant any more now.  They are both supurb flavoured tomatoes though, and worth growing for dishes where the tomatoes are the star, like Margherita Pizza or Tomatoes as Themselves or Pasta Puttanesca.

The small red grape-shaped tomatoes are Principe Borghese.  It’s an indeterminate, climbing variety that yields really heavy crops of sweet, meaty, fruit fly resistant tomatoes.  My breeding seems to have gone towards smaller and many-er than the standard kind – the seed you buy are likely to be more like mini-Romas.  They are one of my long-time favourite varieties, less seedy and more solid than cherries and good fresh or for cooking or bottling or sauce making, and very robust and reliable.

The yellow cherries are a new favourite.  I got the seed from some wild ones I found rambling all over a native bed in a park.  They were yielding really heavily even in poor soil, no water, lots of competition, harsh sun.  I’ve always been a bit shy of yellow tomatoes, thinking them a bit sallow but these are a good real tomato flavour (if a bit pale alongside the Brandywines :).  They are also prolific and so hardy, I haven’t planted any this year – they’re all self-seeded ones. The red cherries are the same – self-seeded, fruit fly resistant, hardy and prolific.

There’s a couple of Romas in there too, hiding.  They are fruit fly resistant and hardy, if not quite as prolific as the Principes and cherries.  Some years I go for San Mazanos but they tend to be a bit more disease prone.

I grow all indeterminate varieties, so all the plants bearing now should keep on producing right through until winter.  Summer really has started.

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