3 May 2015

garden share collective: may

With the slide towards winter, the busiest and most productive time for my vegie garden is on the wane.

Two weekends ago, mum and dad came up for a much-needed ‘backyard blitz’. Three pairs of hands made very light work of end-of-season tasks, the two biggest being dismantling the tomato patch (rolling off the netting, pulling up the stakes and the now brown and brittle tomato plants, and giving the bed a quick once over) and pruning back the yellow peach tree.

About six weeks ago, maybe more, I came home from work to find one of the peach tree’s limbs had dramatically split, due to the weight of all the fruit it was bearing. The limb had sort of cleaved, forked, but somehow was not entirely damaged; the fruit continued to grow and ripen. But with most of the fruit now picked or fallen, it was time to cut back the broken branch (to the relief of the sage and chrysanthemums trapped beneath) and many other limbs, too, that knocked and scrapped noisily against the gutter in any winds.
Poor ugly tree
Dad largely did these two jobs, with mum and I catching limbs, picking up tomato debris, and tidying things into the council green waste bins or a pile for dad to come back and take away on his truck. Mum then took to two of my roses with the secateurs and gusto.
All this dramatic cleaning out and pruning – combined with the dramatically reduced lily-pily and the now denuded autumnal birch trees in my driveway – left me feeling a bit exposed for the first few days; like a kid with a too-short haircut. It was so bare, everywhere.
Work in progress. Tea essential
Elsewhere, I’m waiting for the various lines of beans to completely finish, their swollen pods to dry off for next season’s seeds. I’ve already collected a good handful of borlotti beans for this purpose.
The zucchinis are on their last legs – I get a couple of delicately slim fruit every couple of days; enough to make me wistful for their fat summer siblings.

Over the next month, I hope to pull out just about everything, then feed the soil before letting it hibernate. This was new soil put in after dad built the frames lastspring, and  I have been feeding the soil ever since, mostly by digging in kitchen scraps directly, between the plantings. On the weekend, when he was uprooting the tomatoes, Dad said this was doing good – there were a pleasing number of worms about. Which cheered me tremendously, because wormies are a good thing! I’ve organised to get some bags of horse poo from a co-worker who has horses, and I’ll be looking out for bagged-up sheep poos when I drive the country road down to my parents place. Ah, the bliss of being a gardener – getting excited about poo.
I am also collecting marigold seeds for next season
The only things I intend to plant next are some silverbeet, some purple sprouting broccoli (if it’s not too late) and some garlic (if I get around to buying some local organic bulbs).

The biggest and newest addition to chez Dig in is my second lemon tree. Say hello everyone to Lemonicious (Beyonce has a lot to answer for). She is a birthday present from mum and dad, after I have been whinging every since I bought my home (ten years ago) that I wanted a better lemon tree. Last weekend, I enlisted the help (muscles) of my friend A to dig the hole, and together we planted this sturdy, upright young tree (thank you A, you shall get some lemons!). This variety only grows about a metre to a metre and a half tall, which is just perfect for my backyard. I’m already dreaming of the G&Ts in a couple of years’ time – yes, I know you have to let the tree, not the fruit, grow for the first year or two. Gardeners need patience – and a few helping hands - don’t they?

27 Apr 2015

white chocolate coconut cakes


I am a chocolate snob: it’s dark or it’s nothing. So I quite surprised myself when I tore this recipe out of a magazine. There’s coconut in there too — another surprise, because apart from lamingtons, I’m not a huge coconut lover either. Maybe it’s because the magazine’s picture looked like a giant blanc lamington I was tempted.

These cakes (I made cupcakes and mini loaves rather than one large round cake) are a doddle to make: melt the butter and white chocolate, then stir thru the remaining ingredients. As they bake, they fill the kitchen with that intoxicatingly sweet coconut aroma. They are dense and not-too-sweet; you can top them with a white chocolate ganache and sprinkle them with shredded or toasted coconut, but I like them as they are, with a cup of tea, or after dinner served warm with a spoonful or two of stewed fruit. Something sharp like F’s summer greengages or rhubarb really complements the fudginess of the cakes, and a spoonful of tangy frozen yoghurt doesn’t hurt either.

So here’s for overcoming chocolate prejudices and realising that white chocolate cakes are a good thing! Though you still won’t find me eating a block of it …
White chocolate coconut cakes
Adapted from the Woolworths April magazine. I have made this using my mini-loaf tin and cupcakes, so the final quantity varies each time, but the recipe specifies a deep 20cm round cake tin.
  • Preheat oven to 180 and prep your baking tins.
  • In a large saucepan, melt over a gentle heat 220 gms white chocolate, 180 gms butter, and ¾ cup water, stirring til smooth.
  • Remove from heat and stir in 1 scant cup sugar. Allow to cool for a few minutes.
  • Whisk thru 2 large eggs (or 3 small bantam eggs!) and 1 tspn of vanilla (I have also used the speckled vanilla essence, and the vanilla paste).
  • Sift in 1 ½ cups plain flour, ½ cup SR flour, and ½ cup desiccated coconut.
  • Pour or ladle into your chosen baking tins – it’s a pretty runny batter.
  • For cupcakes or small cakes, bake for 25-30 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean and the cakes shrink away from the sides a little. Rest on a wire rack, then remove from tin and cool, especially if you wish to ice.
  • For the ganache, the recipe specified 440 gms white chocolate and 2/3 cup thickened cream — but I halved this, and still had oodles of ganache left over (keep in fridge and then eat it as is for a decadent treat. Warning: addictive). To make the ganache, combine the two ingredients in a bowl suspended over a gently-simmering saucepan of water and stir until combined. Allow to cool until thick and spreadable.

19 Apr 2015

what's your cookbook?

Yes, I know there's a Vogue book in there. Girl's gotta have a bit of glamour

If you could have a cookbook that was ‘you’, what would it be like? I don’t necessarily mean a book that you write; rather, what collection of recipes would reflect your tastes and desires, your style of cooking and eating, how you shop, harvest, cook, eat and think about food? What would be in it?

I started thinking about this when I was working my way along the cooking shelves of my local library. I’d pick out a book, the colour and words along its spine tempting me, the covers making me want to take it home before I’d even cracked open the pages.

I’m sure you’ve done the same thing in your library or a bookshop; flipped and thought oooh! Look at all these delicious meals! And then had a closer look and thought, in a disappointed fashion, hmmm, maybe not. Too much of this, not enough of that, is what I thought as I put the book on the shelf.

I recalled that most people only make three recipes from a cookbook. When most cookbooks, I think, have around 100 recipes in them, that’s not a good strike rate.

So imagine holding in your hands a cookbook that you’d make everything in it. What would it be like?

Chuck out all the rules. I must admit I’m amused by books that start with a breakfast chapter. Me, I eat the same thing every day: rolled oats, nuts, stewed fruit, soy milk; cold in the summer and warmed through in the cooler months. I’m apparently not alone: someone at work told me that when it comes to brekkie, most of us are creatures of habit; changing your breakfast choice is one of the most difficult things to do (especially before 7am). I cannot fathom making a different breakfast every day, even on the weekends. So no need for a breakfast chapter for me.

I wouldn’t have a soup chapter either. My mother is horrified that I recently confessed I wasn’t a big fan of soup. After years of her freezing little portions just for me, each time she made her own big batches! I like chewing things, and while I do enjoy mum’s soups (I do, mum, really!), I could never be bothered making my own. I tried once, and it was just soggy vegetables floating about in water. But then I reserve the right to be contrary: recently I made tomato soup. But it was pretty thick, so more likely I’ll use it as passata.

So let’s get on with what I would have. Lot’s of chunky, healthy salad recipes: substantial, colourful, nutritious, hearty bowls full of vegies, chickpeas or lentils, nuts, and some leafy green things — but not too much; remember, I like to chew. Salads that are main courses in disguise. Different textures and colours exploding from every gorgeous bowl, all assembled in a flash. I actually have pictures of these kind of meals, torn from magazines and stuck on my fridge, for constant inspiration. So a few pages in a book would be very satisfying.

Next would be a chapter that would inspire my weekend meals. Like things on toast or between two bits of bread, but better than what I do at the moment. I need my weekend lunches to be quick because I’m usually in and out of the garden, but I know I could jazz things up a bit. Something to get me out of my summertime cheese and tomato and basil rut (which is pretty good, but a rut nonethless).

The next savoury section would be dedicated to the oven, because I love my oven. I’m thinking colourful vegie gratins, filling pasta bakes (but not too stodgy), warming risottos, wibbly-wobbly quiches, rustic zucchini-scattered galettes. Like the salads, a good emphasis on good-for-you as well as good-tasting. The sort of dishes you make in the wintertime, on the weekend when you have more time (as opposed to those quick toss-it-all-together bowls in the salad chapter).

Then we have, of course, the cakes and puddings and sweety things. Very old-school, old-fashioned. No chai puddings or avocado-chocolate mousses here, nor fancily decorated three-tiered constructions, no celebration or ‘special occasion’ gateaux.

We’d have plain cake, lemon cake (which I now know you love too!), orange and apple cakes, one or two fail-safe chocolate cakes (because everyone needs a go-to chocolate cake). There’d be a small selection of boozy cakes, because you know I love soaking my sultanas in sherry, or sploshing some tia maria in the brownies. A selection of biscuits made for dunking in a mug of tea. And after-dinner fruit crumbles and bread and butter puddings; homely and comforting, a little bit stick-to-the-ribs. All very CWA and what-granny-used-to-make-on-Sundays. Because they are the kind of recipes I love looking at and that inspire me to get in the kitchen.

So there we are. Some of those recipes I’ve already collected here at Dig In, or I have squirrelled into folders, in my own kind of recipe book. But it would be good to have all my favourite and favoured recipes all in one place. I have no desire to write a cookbook (I’d be scratching to reach that target of 100 recipes), but it’s a fun process once you start plotting.

So do tell me: what would be in your cookbook?

12 Apr 2015

lemon almond cake, lemon sour cream cupcakes

Trust me on this one. I know it doesn't look like much, but trust me...

When I served F this buttercup-yellow lemon and almond cake for afternoon tea, she said lemon cake was her favourite. What serendipity! It’s one of my favourites too (I also have a soft spot for orange cakes, apple cakes, and plain buttery cakes).

A good lemon cake should be zingy and refreshing, with or without icing; it should be equally invigorating on a dull winter’s day or hot summer evening - though it must be said, at this time of year, with darkening days and chilly afternoons, a good lemon cake really shines. It lifts your spirits and your tastebuds. And if the recipes says juice or zest of one lemon, it can’t hurt to give a little extra squeeze or scrape, can it? There is nothing worse than a lemon cake deficient in lemon.

After that, I do not mind if the cake if fluffy as a cloud or dense and pudding like. Both these cakes are on the richer end of the scale, and this lemon-almond cake is definitely more pudding than cake – especially the next day, when the zingy icing has had time to soak in (a transformation like this reminds me of Nigella’s damp chocolate cake, which gets better over time). The word ‘squidgy’ springs to mind!

Cakes made with almond meal (or full-fat sour cream) are usually wonderfully moist. However, the fact I used a lot less meal than the recipe specified — my digital scales blanked on me while measuring the meal, and what I had already weighed out looked like an awful lot anyway — I’m sure is the main reason this heavenly, lemony slab was so good (I've made it since with the reduced quantity and it works every time). 'The best', as F later emailed me; so good that she did not share the piece I gave her to take home with anyone. So best I share the recipe with you.

Lemon almond cake
Adapted from Ross Dobson’s ‘Market Vegetarian’. The original recipe specified gently toasting 250 gms whole blanched almonds before whizzing them to make your own meal. However, I was feeling poorly — the cost of the blanched almonds would have made this a very expensive cake — and I had almond meal in the pantry.
  • Preheat oven to 180 and prep a 20 cm square brownie tin.
  • Cream 200 gms soft butter, 200 gms sugar and the zest of at least two lemons. Maybe a little more! Then beat in 3 eggs.
  • Now fold thru 75 gms plain flour, 1 tspn baking powder, and 175 gms almond meal.
  • Finally, stir thru at least 80 mls lemon juice. Maybe a little more!
  • Spoon the batter into your brownie tin, and bake in the oven for 30–35 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean and the cake shrinks away from the sides a little. Rest on a wire rack, then remove from tin and cool a little before icing.
  • For the icing, combine 150 gms icing sugar with 2 tbspns of lemon juice. Yes ... maybe a little more! Pour over the cake. Lovely with a cup of earl grey, and even better the next day. I recommend eating this with a fork.

Lemon sour cream cupcakes
Another favourite lemon cake; Another lovely dense, moist texture. Adapted from AWW ‘Food we love’: I halved the recipe and made cupcakes.
  • Preheat oven to 170 and prep a 12-hole muffin tray.
  • Cream 125gms soft butter, the zest of at least two lemons and 1 cup sugar.
  • Beat in 3 eggs then the juice of one lemon.
  • Sift and fold thru 1 cup plain flour, half a ¼ cup of SR flour, and 90 mls sour cream.
  • Divide into the cupcake and bake for 20–25 minutes or until done.

29 Mar 2015

silver linings

Look what I came home to this week...

Yes, a stonking great big pile of beautifully aromatic woodchips, blocking my driveway. How so?

Recently I had to have a very large tree cut down, in order to avoid a neighbourly dispute. The tree, which my parents identified as a lily-pily, was huge, going upwards to the sky. Taller than my house, dense and dark. Birds roosted in it and chattered away as day drew to a close; it cast cool shadows over the house during the summer. It wasn't a beautiful tree, but it was a tree.

After I was asked to cut it down  - I shan't go into the reasons or the situation, but friends, let me tell you, I cried. For days - every time I left the house for work and passed the tree; every time I came home and passed the tree; every time I thought about it, I would cry. I would go to bed and my thoughts would return to that tree, and I would cry. I didn't plant this tree, but it was a tree, an old tree, a living tree, and I mourned its oncoming demise.

I get very emotionally attached to my plants. I suspect it's because I have no pets or children;  instead I transfer my love and care to the things I grow. Some trees, like the avenue of seven birch trees that my father helped me plant, or my new plum tree, mean infinitely more to me than any possible human (except my parents). The pink zepherine rose bush that my parents bought me a couple of years ago: when half of it got snapped away in some dreadful winds a few months ago, i came inside and heartily cried for its damage. Work might be frustrating, taxes and bills stressful, but the loss of any green thing in my garden will upset me dreadfully.

As quickly as possible, my dad organised G, an arborist who removed or cut back fire-damaged and dangerous trees for dad after the bushfires. I've met G a couple of times, so knowing him made me feel comfortable and reassured that my tree would be in good hands.

So one afternoon, G arrived, and over the course of a couple of hours, reduced the tree by about two-thirds its original height - it's now probably about two metres high, perhaps not even that. It was fascinating watching G work, especially towards the end when he was trying to shape the remaining bare trunks as best as possible. The difference between an arborist and a tree feller he told me, was that an arborist cares about the tree; a tree feller cares about the people. I liked that - I knew that we would meet my neighbours' demands but that my tree's life and health were his first priority; that it would be in good hands and would hopefully reshoot come spring; that these bare stumps may flourish back to life, green and happy.

G would cut down the tall limbs; when safe to do so, I dragged them away and hauled them in two piles on either side of my driveway. He remarked that I was a hard worker, but honestly, would I stand there and just watch someone work? I'm not strong by any means, but I like doing 'yard work' and it made me feel useful.

A few short days later, as promised, G came around while i was at work and reduced the stacks of leafy limbs to this pile of fine leafy woodchip. It was actually very exciting - I mean, what gardener doesn't like mulch? For me, it was the silver lining in the whole affair: I may have had to cut down a tree, but i could use its wood and goodness around my garden. There's a lot of light and warmth coming into the house now - great at this darkening time of year; though we'll see what that means in the hotter months next summer. And I've cleared out all the rubbishy plants that were beneath; I'll keep it clean and bare save for a lot of daffies and jonquils and grape hyacinths that need little attention but are so cheerful.

So, you know what I've been doing lately: shovelling and barrowing the woodchip out of the driveway. My biceps and back are groaning, and there's been copious cups of tea to power me thru. But something good has come from a distressing situation.
Below, the woodchip pile plus the cut down tree at left

22 Mar 2015

what i learnt this summer about growing vegetables

Nectarines from my tree, during the summer months

As summer draws to a close, here is a kind of memo to self for next summer:

Say no to broad beans. You don't really like broad beans that much - so don't plant them. Stick to what you like - and what doesn't get smothered in black aphids.

Don't sow so many seeds. By that, I mean don't sow them so close together in the one row. It just leads to too many plants crowded together, which leads to a lack of ventilation and that powdery mildewy stuff on your peas; and a damn tangle of stalks and leaves that makes it difficult to find the beans. Trust that what you sow will germinate; you don't need to be so 'just in case' here.

Don't plant so many plants. Three zucchini plants will be sufficient (maybe even two) - sufficient and enjoyable, rather than stressful. Three silverbeet plants will be sufficient. Yes, they will be. There is only one of you, remember.

Don't plant a grid of tomatoes. Because it's difficult reaching the one in the centre for maintenance, watering and harvesting. Stick to a square of tomatoes, all around the outside of the bed.

Oh, and you might want to remember applying the above rule to tomatoes as well. Yes you have an abundantly-stocked freezer ready for winter, but maybe ten plants is too many for one person. Stick to the varieties you really enjoyed: black krim, roma-style mamma mia, the apricot-coloured big beryl, and the abbruzese. Four or five may be sufficient.

Don't plant those trimmed off bits of tomato plant. Yes it's cool to think of growing extra plants from little discarded bits. But see above rules - the main plants will be sufficient. Remember, there is only one of you; only so much one can cook and roast and eat and freeze. And look after in the garden.

Repeat the carrots and beetroots. Especially the round little 'paris market' carrots (despite the aphids and ants they attracted) and the sweet orange beetroot. However, even though they looked pretty bordering the edges, don't do this around any beds you plan on netting (that is, the tomatoes).

Don't do corn. Yes it looked wonderful, the tassles and tops swaying in the breeze, but the plants were in the ground for soooooo long and actually produced very little. How many meals did you get - three? Four? Not worth it.

Try climbing beans and peas. Specifically the sweet 'lazy housewife' beans that really are your favourite. Remember, you are getting older - it's getting hard to scramble around amongst the dwarf bush beans. Just make sure your trelllises are wind-proof.

What have you learnt about growing vegies this summer?

15 Mar 2015

the best butter cake

Everyone needs a good butter cake recipe in their repertoire, and this now is mine. It is simple but rich, plain but oh-so-good. While a slice or two is wonderful say topped with roasted apricots, plucked warm from the tree and drizzled with honey, or with a dollop of tart stewed rhubarb, mostly I love these little cakes — made in my mini-loaf tins — just slightly warm and ‘as is’, with a cup of tea.

It is tempting here to pontificate on the value of baking with good-quality ingredients: creamy Tasmanian butter and super-large rich eggs from my mother’s happy hens. And yes, that holds true.

But, a confession … I’ve made this recipe a couple of times now when all I had to hand was soy milk, not milk-milk nor sour cream — and lite soy milk at that (I have it for my breakfast muesli). That breaks all the baking rules, right? But you know what? It worked just as well as the times I used full-fat sour cream. I couldn’t taste any difference; the cakes were just as rich and moist and I-think-I-need-another-one.

I must also reveal that once I misread the recipe and added three cups of flour, not two. Luckily I realised this before I folded that last cup in — so I upended the bowl and shook out as much as I could, then flicked off any remaining with my silicone pastry brush! I got most of it out, and added just a touch more (soy) milk to be on the safe side. As you can imagine, I am reading recipes very carefully now.

So this really is the best butter cake — no matter what you do to it.

The best butter cake
Adapted from an Australian Womens Weekly recipe, torn from the June 2013 edition. The recipe specified a 20cm round cake tin, but I’ve been using my mini-loaf tin (8 holes) and a couple of sturdy cupcake papers for whatever doesn’t fit.
  • Prep your chosen baking tin and preheat the oven to 180.
  • Cream 250 gm soft butter with 1 cup sugar and 1 tspn vanilla paste (I have also used the vanilla syrup-with-speckles) til wonderfully soft and creamy.
  • Beat in 3 large eggs.
  • Using a wooden spoon, fold in 2 cups SR flour and a pinch of salt.
  • Then fold thru 125mls milk (or other dairy, or dairy substitute).
  • Dollop into your baking tin and bake. I baked my smaller cakes for 20-25 minutes; the recipe specified 50-60 for a single large one. Once cooked, cool on a rack before turning out. Enjoy.

1 Mar 2015

garden share collective: march

I am exhausted.

I have reached that point of summer when I am just plain exhausted. When maintaining the vegie garden is a chore. No longer a relief after work, but another chore to fit in: watering, picking the beans and zucchinis - or as mum and I say, the beans and zucchinis and beans and zucchinis and beans and zucchinis ... our phone conversations lately go something like this: What did you do today? Oh, I picked more beans and zucchinis. And beans and beans and beans and beans? Yes, and more beans; just for a change. And what are you having for dinner tonight? Oh, I thought I'd have beans and zucchinis. What about you?

Yes, you can guess the response.
Luckily, the tomatoes have started ripening. Boom! Mum came up to help me pick my vegies - I had a breakdown one night over the phone and tearily pleaded for some parental assistance. So mum came over and got to pick my beans and zucchinis for a change. And at lunch she quipped to dad, isn't this pleasant, we're eating someone else's beans ... anyway, mum helped me pick bucket loads of tomatoes. As you can see above. She had warned me, somewhat ominously, only a couple of weeks earlier, that I'd have a lot of tomatoes ripening all at once.

And now I have, and I have trays lining my kitchen benchtop. I'm eating my way thru them merrily, but also cooking them. I think this was my real intention for the tomatoes all along: cooking them and squirelling them away for later. I have been roasting wedges of them, sometimes merely anointed with some olive oil and S&P, sometimes with herbs and garlic, then freezing them for winter use. For blitzing into a smooth sauce or probably just using them as is; they are such rich velvety wedges of tomatoey goodness.
Really, you can never have enough tomatoes. However, I may not have enough freezer space. Wow, do I need to ask santa for a second chest freezer out in the garage? I asked mum if I could rent some freezer space and she said, you'll be lucky.
But back to the garden. Watering is the other big issue, one that is breaking my heart. It's distressing to see how dry my garden is, despite mulch and my constant watering (or so it seems). Even though we have had a couple of 'big rain events' here in Hobart, it has overwhelmingly been a dry year so far (and the eastern shore where I live is notoriously dryer and warmer). I am just struggling to keep the water in the ground. And when it does rain, I am beginning to think that the mulch just stops the rain getting into the soil. I have become cynical about the rain and its unlikely appearance; I have become one of those people who view hot summer's days as a threat to the health of my garden.

So I am exhausted. There is a small part of me that realises autumn and the oppressing dark of Hobart's winter will soon be upon us, limiting gardening time and opportunities. But there is a small part of me that is also looking forward to the break that the winter season will bring.