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basket of citrus

Sunlight in my basket.

Limes, lemons, mandarins, oranges.  So many of them that I am making salted limes for adding to summer soda water and salted lemons for that little salty sour-sweet note that lifts so many dishes out of the ordinary.  I’m making lime syrup for cordial, but not being a real sweet tooth, mostly for Asian style dipping sauce for things like rice paper rolls.   I’m making Indian style Lime Pickle for curries (and for cheese and crackers), and mostly for giving away.  I’m putting lemon and lime skins in cleaning vinegar to make lemon oil vinegar for cleaning – it’s my one-and-only cleaning product for floors and stove and shelves.  I’m making lime and ginger marmalade – I can’t believe I’ve never posted that recipe.

But mostly, we are just using them fresh and glorying in the abundance while it lasts.  This time of year tomatoes are scant.  The ones you will be getting in the supermarket will likely be artificially ripened, tasteless, coming from a long way away, and very expensive.  I still get a few cherry tomatoes hanging on in my frost free garden but mostly that cooking niche that needs a bit of sweet acidity is filled by citrus.  So whereas in summer my pasta sauces are mostly tomato based – things like pasta puttanesca –  this time of year they are lemon based – things like lemon caper parsley pasta sauce, or Lemon Feta Tortellini.  Whereas in summer I add tomatoes to beans, in winter I add lemon.  In summer, soups nearly always have tomatoes in them, in winter a squeeze of lemon juice.  Summer salads have tomatoes and feta, winter salads have leafy greens and a lemon dressing.

It’s very neat the way tomatoes and lemons tag-team it.

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ful medames

OK, so I know somebody is going to protest about the inauthenticity of this.  And the photo doesn’t help.  Ful Medames is an Egyptian dish made with ful, which are fava beans or broad beans.  I make a version with fresh broad beans often in late winter or spring when they are in season and it is much more photogenic. But the strong  lemon/garlic/pepper kind of flavours of ful medames work with practically any kind of beans.  I’ve made this often with dried purple king beans or rattlesnake beans, which yields a much nicer looking light pinky-brown bean dip.  But this one is a real fusion – a middle Eastern dish using American black turtle beans.

I harvested the last of the turtle beans this week.  They were pretty dry on the bush, but we had the wood stove going and it was real bean eating weather so rather than dry them all the way for storage, I cooked them straight away in my favourite bean dish of all. The flavours are amazing – a whole bowl of beans for dinner and you scrape the bottom of the bean bowl.  On this occasion with sourdough flatbread with poppy seeds and crushed linseeds to scoop with.

The Recipe:

  • First soak and cook a cup of dried beans (or if you start with semi-dried beans like I did, a cup and a half).  Bean Basics has the basic method for this.  Soak them overnight or for a few hours, then pressure cook for 15 minutes or boil for about 45 minutes or cook them in a slow cooker for 5 or 6 hours.  Reduce to half beans half water consistency.  For this recipe, you want beans that are very soft.
  • Fry a chopped onion gently in olive oil till soft.
  • Crush or chop a whole corm of garlic (yes, lots!).  Add to the onions.
  • Crush or grind a whole dessertspoon of black pepper (yes, lots!) and add that too.
  • Add salt to taste.  Start with a scant half a teaspoon, but you will probably end up adding more.
  • Add the beans.  Simmer gently, stirring often, for about half an hour. The beans should break up but if you need to you can help them a bit with an eggbeater or a stick blender.  You can make it into a smooth puree if you like – I like it better with some whole or mashed beans in it.
  • Add a third of a cup of lemon juice.  Taste and adjust the salt and lemon juice – you will probably add more of both.

Serve in bowls with pita bread or flatbread to dip.

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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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kumquat marmalade

All in about an hour.  I couldn’t bear the amount of citrus sitting around so I found an hour this morning to make preserved lemons (on the right), lime pickles (back left), lemon cleaning vinegar (at the back), lemon vinegar (tall bottle), and at the front, kumquat marmalade.

Preserved lemons are ridiculously easy and fast, and they’re one of my pantry essentials.  A little finely chopped in couscous, marinades, tagines, savoury pancakes, yum. Lime pickles are wonderful with curries or dhal, or, in a very different direction, with cheese on crackers or a good sourdough.  Lemon cleaning vinegar is my standard (and just about only) cleaning product.  This time of year I fill jars with lemon peel and pour over cleaning vinegar (bottom shelf in the supermarket).  It goes in the bucket for floor mopping, in a spray bottle for the stove and shower, direct onto a sponge for disinfecting. It’s really effective, cheap, safe and smells wonderful.

The tall bottle is an experiment.  I found that last year’s cleaning vinegar had grown a “mother”. This is a jelly-like layer on top that has the live acetic acid bacteria (a good bacteria) that makes vinegar.

vinegar mother

I did a bit of research and found you can add the mother to basically anything alcoholic to make vinegar.  I’ve put a bit into some nettle wine that is a bit too “green” tasting to be really nice, and a bit into some home brew bottled about five years ago to make malt vinegar.  But I’ve also put a bit into a big jar of just lemons cut into quarters and covered with water.  I’m hoping I can skip the alcohol making stage and turn it into lemon cleaning vinegar.  The lemons are quite sweet and would, I think, go alcoholic on their own.  The top of the bottle has some fine cloth held on with a rubber band so it lets air in and out. So we’ll see what happens!

And kumquat marmalade.  Not much else you can really do with kumquats, but they do make the very best marmalade, and though we don’t eat a lot of jam, it makes a good gift.

My Kumquat Marmalade Recipe

I go for simple and quick every time.  So my method is:

  • Put some jars and their lids on to sterilize by pressure cooking for 10 minutes or boiling for 20. The sugar in jam preserves it from nasty bacteria but sterilizing the jars stops it going mouldy on top.
  • Slice the kumquats into fine rings in the food processor with its slicing blade.  You can also put some good music on and slice them by hand with a sharp knife, which is slow but at least you can remove seeds as you go which does save you having to fish the seeds out later.
  • Weigh them, and add an equal weight of water. (If you haven’t got scales, it’s about two thirds of a cup of water to every cup of sliced kumquats).
  • Boil in a big pot for ten minutes or so until the rinds are well softened.
  • Add an equal weight to the original raw kumquat weight in sugar.  (Ie for a kilo of kumquats, add a kilo of sugar). Raw sugar works fine but will give you darker coloured marmalade.
  • Next bit is the tricky bit.  Stir in the sugar and the mix should clear and the seeds will float (sort of).  Use a spoon to fish out as many of the seeds as you can. ( This is the price you pay for using the food processor to slice!)
  • Keep at a nice steady boil, stirring occasionally to stop it sticking, till it turns to jam.  How do you tell?  Take a teaspoonful out every so often and test it on a cold plate.  (Be careful not to take it too far or it turns to toffee – it stiffens up as it cools.) This morning’s batch took less than 10 minutes to turn, but it depends on the amount of pectin in the fruit and that varies.  It can take up to half an hour.
  • Carefully, carefully (hot jam is one of the worst kinds of burns) pour it into hot jars.  Fill the jars to the very top.  Wipe the rim with a clean cloth or paper and put the lids on straight away.

Wonderful on good sourdough toast (of course) but also good in jam tarts, or as part of a cheese platter.  Or, best of all, with a nice arty label as a gift.

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My glut crop at the moment is lemons. It’s not quite the glut it was last year.  Last year at this time, this was what the bush lemon tree looked like, and we have four lemon trees of different varieties.

lemon tree

But at the end of the season last year, we pruned the tree fairly heavily – it was getting too tall and thorny to harvest effectively – and fed it with manure and mulch.  So this year we only have three trees bearing too many lemons.

These little lemon cheesecake tarts are a great party food – easy and cheap to make in bulk this time of year when lemons are in season, and they travel and keep well.   They cook so fast, you can make them in batches which means you don’t need industrial quantities of baking gear – just a couple of muffin trays and a couple of biscuit trays.  They are wonderful warm in a bowl with a little cream, but just as good cold eaten straight from the hand, which makes them perfect for parties and no washing up. I brought these out at the end of a Halloween celebration (southern hemisphere Halloween, early May) and they were a big hit.

The Recipe:

The Pastry

Turn the oven on to heat up.  You want a medium hot oven.

I use my Braun food processor to blend:

  • 4 cups of wholemeal plain flour
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 250 grams (1 cup, or two sticks) butter

till it resembles breadcrumbs.  It takes literally seconds in the food processor.  If your food processor won’t do it, you can rub the butter in with your fingertips the old fashioned way.  Don’t overprocess it – little flakes of butter are fine.  The key to making good pastry is not overworking it.

Then add cool water, little bit by little, till the dough holds together in a ball.  It will take about a third of a cup. Again, don’t overwork it.

Roll the pastry out on a floured benchtop till it is ½cm or so thick, then cut rounds with a small bowl.

Lightly grease muffin tins with butter and line them with the pastry.  It will flute a little since the pastry is flat and the muffin tins cups, but that gives a nice shape to the finished tarts.  Prick the bottom of each with a fork, just lightly.  The holes should close up as the cases bake, and it helps stop them rising.

Bake the pastry cases for around 10 minutes till they are firm.  Try to catch them just before they start colouring.  I don’t bother with beans or rice or anything to bake blind.  The pricking helps them not to rise, but if they do, it doesn’t matter. You should be able to tip the cases out and line them up on biscuit trays for filling.

The Filling:

While the cases are baking, you can make the filling. Using the trusty food processor again, blend together:

  • 1½ cups of lemon juice
  • 3 teaspoons of finely grated lemon zest
  • 1½ cups of raw sugar (not brown sugar this time, or it makes the filling a caramel colour).
  • 1½ teaspoons vanilla essence
  • 6 eggs
  • 250 grams (1 cup) Danish feta, or some other smooth, creamy, salty white cheese like goat’s cheese. (Australian feta doesn’t give you the same smooth texture.)

Baking:

Fill the pastry cases immediately before you put them back into the oven to bake.   If you fill too early, they soak in and the pastry is soggy. You will probably need to do it in a couple of batches, so halve the filling so you can fill the first and second batch of cases evenly. A jug makes filling easy, and you need a cloth to catch drips.  Don’t overfill – they do rise a little and if they overflow or drip, the filling sticks and burns.

Bake in a medium hot oven for 15 minutes or so, till the pastry is just starting to brown and the filling is nearly set.  Take them out of the oven and dust with icing sugar, using a sifter or sieve to get a nice fine even dusting.  Put back into the oven for a final five minutes.

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The cockatoos have begun stripping the bush lemon trees.  They are very thorough and very wasteful.  In a few days they’ll all be gone. The geese like sitting under the tree in the shade and they’re a bit perplexed at all the half-eaten lemons lying around. For some reason the cockatoos don’t seem to want the Eureka lemons – the bush lemons are sweeter – more like Myer lemons – and perhaps that’s it.  So although we will have Eureka lemons all year round, it’s the end of the lemon glut.

We’ve been eating lots of lemon based recipes and the neighbours have been taking buckets and we have a bucketful in the car to take up to our daughter’s.  I’ve cleaned the oven and the laundry tubs and the brass vase. I’ve made a dozen jars of lemon skin in methylated spirits to use for cleaning and a jar of lemon skin in vodka to use for massages. I’ve soaked all the luffas in lemon juice and put them out in the sun to bleach (working on the theory that it used to be a favourite hair blonding technique, so maybe it might work on luffas?)

Lemon skins in methylated spirits.  The spirits will go yellow and the lemon skins white as the oils dissolve out.  I add a dash to cleaning vinegar (bottom shelf in the cleaning aisle in my local supermarket) to make a year’s supply of lovely smelling, potent cleaner for sink, stove, tubs, surfaces and floor. Then I can skip that aisle all year.

I use cheap vodka in place of the metho to make the same kind of lemon-oil-in-alcohol solution for rubbing on aches and pains, and for repelling mozzies and sandflies.  I used to use rubbing alcohol from the chemist, but vodka is cheaper 🙂

They’re lovely lemons, but I think I’ve reached the point where the cockatoos can have the rest.

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This is one for the breakfast party people.  I’m not sure how it would go for preserving.  For me, lemon curd is lemon season party food rather than a pantry item.  This time of year, with lemons and eggs both in season, is it’s time to shine.

I think maybe standard recipes have so much sugar because it helps preserve them.  If you are making lemon curd for eating more or less straight away, you can use a lot less sugar. It’s still very sweet – plenty sweet enough for even the sweetest toothed kids at the party – and it would probably keep for a while in the fridge.  I never have leftovers to test that theory!

The Recipe:

You need a double boiler, which is just a heatproof bowl that fits nicely in the top of a saucepan.  I have an enamel bowl that is perfect for this.

Put a couple of inches of hot water in the saucepan and bring it to the boil.  The bowl will be heated by the steam.  This is important. It won’t work if you heat the curd directly.

Beat together:

  • 4 eggs (medium size – 50 grams each)
  • Juice from 3 lemons (200 ml)
  • 2 teaspoons of finely grated rind
  • ½ cup raw sugar
  • 100 grams of melted butter
Pour the mix into the bowl and stir constantly with a wooden spoon till it thickens.  This will happen quite quickly.  Don’t boil.  It will thicken up a bit more as it cools.
Wonderful on pancakes or croissants or toast for a special breakfast.
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We have a few lemon trees, but my two favourites are the Eureka because it has lemons on it all year round, and this bush lemon propagated from a seed that came up from compost.

This time of year it is laden, every year.  It’s a stunning yield.  In a month or so, the cockatoos will, responding to some signal that is completely invisible to me, descend on it and almost overnight they’ll all be gone.  I don’t know how they decide they are ripe enough – to me they taste perfectly lemon-ly sweet now.

They’re a bit like a Meyer lemon, sweeter than some of the very tart varieties.  They have a thick skin and the tree is very very thorny, but the lemons are gorgeous for juice, for preserved lemons, for baking and cooking.

Today it is cold and wet.  I have the fire going and on this Queen’s Birthday holiday I’m bottling Preserved Lemons, making Chilli Jam with the last of the chilis, making some Cordial (not so much for drinking, but for sauces and dressings), making a batch of Lemon Polenta Steamed Muffins for morning tea for a weeding work bee group, and making a batch of lemon in rubbing alcohol for mosquito repellent, and for rubbing on muscle aches (just whole lemons, in a jar of alcohol for a few weeks till the oils in the peel dissolve into the alcohol), and a batch of lemon in cleaning vinegar for shower, sink and floor washing (just whole lemons, in a big jar of vinegar, again until the skins go pale as the oils dissolve into the vinegar).

And still, you can’t see where the lemons have been picked.

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I love my kitchen. It has a great big central kitchen bench in the middle of an otherwise very compact space (in a very compact house). I means cooking can be a social activity – several people can chop and stir and roll and fill at once.  Kids can sit up at a stool and be involved, and if they play it right get to listen in on adult conversations.

It only works though if it is not cluttered.  There are bowls of fresh fruit and veg, and a vase of flowers, and a few tools in daily use, like my garlic rock and mortar and pestle,  allowed on the bench, but nothing else.

Which brings me to my pasta maker.  I’ve just got one, yesterday, at a garage sale. I’m not sure at all whether it will be a stayer. The Rules of the Bench mean that it has to live up on a shelf and there are very few kitchen tools that are valuable enough to be taken down and used regularly to earn their space. Mostly I find the effort of washing up, putting away, pulling down, setting up is more than it’s worth.

With pasta, up until now I’ve always just gone with a rolling pin.  Lasagna and tortellini are easy peasy.  Tortellini are even easy and fast enough for the Tuesday Night Vego Challenge. I’ve been playing with a few different tortellini lately, but this has been our favourite.

The Recipe:

Makes two big serves, or three normal ones.

Pasta by Hand:

Put a kettle full of water on to boil. You will need a big pot of boiling water to cook the tortellini.

In a food processor, blitz until the dough just comes together (just a few seconds)

  • 1 cup of bakers flour (I use the same Laucke Wallaby Unbleached Bakers Flour that I use for my sourdough, but any high gluten flour will work)
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 dessertspoons (or 1½ US tablespoons) of olive oil
  • good pinch salt

Flour the workbench and knead very briefly, then leave it to rest for a few minutes while you make the filling.

Lemon Feta Filling

You don’t need to wash the food processor.  Just blend together until smooth-ish

  • 160 gm feta (low fat is fine)
  • 4 dessertspoons (or 3 US tablespoons) plain yoghurt
  • 8 – 10 green olives (or you could substitute capers)
  • a good teaspoon of lemon rind ( I like a heaped teaspoon, but I really like citrus flavours)
  • Grind of black pepper
  • A tiny bit of fresh chili or chili powder

Assembling

Divide the pasta dough into 15 little balls about the size of a large macadamia in its shell.

Flour the bench well, and with a floured rolling pin, roll the balls out very thin.  (If you flip them several times while rolling, you’ll find you can easily get them very thin without sticking.)

Put a spoonful of filling on each circle. Use a pastry brush, or just your fingers dipped in water to wet the edges.  Fold the tortellini over and seal together like a little pastie.  With the fold towards you, bring the two corners round towards you and squeeze them together.

Cook in a big pot of boiling water for just a couple of minutes till they float to the surface.

The Sauce

And while they are cooking, again you don’t need to wash the blender. Just blitz together:
  • a tomato
  • a good handful of sweet basil
  • a little swig of good olive oil

Drain the tortellini, divide into bowls, spoon over a few spoonfuls of sauce and gently toss, and top with a grating of parmesan.

Have you been doing the Tuesday Night Vego Challenge? Links to fast, easy, healthy, midweek vego recipes are welcome.

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