The kitchen fireplace

DSC_0017 cropIt used to be that every kitchen had a fireplace. It was what you cooked on, after all! It’s unusual these days, but we are blessed to have a fireplace in our modern kitchen.

When we gutted the kitchen years ago, we talked about tearing out the fireplace. It’s an open fire, and very small (originally for burning coal), so it really only serves to make the house draftier. It is a superhighway for mice from under the house to the kitchen. The beige tile around it is, frankly, ugly. And we could use the space for more cupboards, or countertop.

But it’s a fireplace in the kitchen! What is more romantic and cosy than that?

The fireplace stayed.

Most of the time, it remains covered with a mouse-proof, draft-proof board that I painted with a fake fire in which the flames are fire-related quotes and sayings.

But there are times when you just need a fire in the kitchen. On those rainy nights when the kids have friends over, it’s a great place to make s’mores. On crisp autumn evenings with a party in progress, when you want the atmosphere of an open fire. When the hot water cylinder has been off for days (because we’ve been away, or the power has been out) and the quickest way to heat up all that cold water is the wetback behind the kitchen fireplace.

Or when we just feel like it.

So, though there is absolutely no practical reason to have the kitchen fireplace, I am happy it’s there.

Biscuit Stars

100_3639 smYesterday, I came across a lovely looking chocolate bread online that used the technique of cutting and twisting the dough to create pretty patterns.

I thought it would work in biscuit dough, too, so this morning I gave it a try.

I made my usual rolled biscuit dough, then divided the dough into quarters. I rolled out one quarter into a round about 20 cm (8 in) in diameter and 1 cm (1/2 in) thick and placed it on an ungreased baking sheet. Then I spread jam generously over the entire round, and topped it with another quarter of dough rolled out to the same size, pressing gently to bind them together. With a knife, I cut the stacked round into 10 wedges, leaving the centre uncut. Then I gently flipped each wedge over, to give it a twist.

Then I did the same with the other two quarters of dough. For the round on the left, I flipped each wedge in the same direction. For the round on the right, I flipped adjacent wedges toward each other.

I baked them at 190°C (375°F) for about 20 minutes.

The results were pretty and yummy, too!

Capturing water

100_3635 smSummers are dry here. Nor’west winds whip hot and dry across the plains, sucking moisture from the plants and soil. Though I protect my garden as best I can, with mulch and shelter, there is no escaping the need to water, at least once in a while.

That’s in a good year, when it rains occasionally during the summer.

Last year, we got almost no rain from October to February, and our autumn and winter have been unusually dry as well. The prediction with climate change is for more of our years to be like that.

Which naturally leads me to worry about water. For now, there is plenty of water in our well to keep the vegetable garden green in a dry year. But if we have more and more dry years, who knows what might happen to the water table.

So this year, when we needed to address some aging guttering on our sheds anyway, we tried to arrange things so we could make better use of the rain that does fall on the property.

We had a rain barrel before—a rusty old 55 gallon drum of unknown origin, from which we were able to draw rust-flecked orange water in an emergency. It was great for flushing the toilet after the earthquakes, but it wasn’t particularly pleasant, and it wasn’t enough water to make much difference if we needed to use it on the garden.

Now we have a 900 litre tank collecting water off our large shed roof, set up so I can easily attach a hose and draw off the water when I need it. And the water from the small shed’s roof is being directed into the pond, so that, hopefully we won’t need to refill it with water from the well when summer evaporation threatens to dry it up. Any overflow will water the garden around the pond.

There is still a lot of water we don’t capture, but the rain off the house roof currently runs out into perennial garden areas, including some of our fruit trees, so it’s reasonably well used.

Waste not, want not. At least, we hope so.


Belgian white carrot in a broomrape embrace

Belgian white carrot in a broomrape embrace

We have a moderate infestation of broomrape (Orobanche minor) on our property. It shows up here and there in perennial beds and in the vegetable garden.

Broomrape is a parasitic plant. It contains no chlorophyll, and when it is not flowering, the entire plant is below ground. Its fibrous, root-like tentacles encircle the host plant’s roots, sucking off nutrients and water from the host.

Though it “officially” prefers clover, in the vegetable garden, it seems particularly fond of carrots. I regularly find carrots being strangled in a broomrape embrace.

The gardener in me is dismayed every time I find one.

The scientist in me is fascinated.

Many parasites are very host-specific, that is, they only live on one or a limited number of host species. Orobanche minor appears to have a wide host range, but there is evidence that individuals parasitising different species are actually genetically isolated from one another, because the parasite’s reproductive cycle is tied to the host plant.

Eventually, that isolation could cause Orobanche minor to speciate…or maybe it has, and we haven’t noticed yet.

Perhaps some day my carrot-loving parasites will be different enough from my clover-loving parasites that they will have a new name. Maybe Orobanche carota!

Use it and Lose it

100_3629 smI opened the jar of sesame seeds this evening, and the glass lid slipped from my hand, fell to the floor, and broke. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Another one of my favourite antique jars was gone. There is only one left now.

I don’t know how old these lovely Atlas jars are, but they are certainly older than me, possibly much older. I should probably not be using them at all. But they are beautiful and useful—it would be a shame to pack them carefully away to preserve them. Better to let them live out their lives as useful kitchenware, as they were meant to.

I believe in using the things that I enjoy. So I use those antique jars, the 150 year old steamer trunk, the antique chairs, the collection of early 20th century teacups.

The quilt that I spent seven years embroidering goes on the bed every summer, and the newest quilt (over a year in the making) serves us all winter.

The result is, of course, that things break, fade, and wear out. Slowly these little treasures disappear, no matter how much care we take with them.

But I like to think of these objects as having a life, a presence that is tied intimately to their utility. If they are not used, they cease to exist as they were meant to. By using them, and ultimately breaking them, I keep them alive. And when I wrap the broken shards in newspaper and inter them in the rubbish bin, I know that they have lived and died well.

I hope I can say the same of myself when I reach the same point in my life.

Greek Salad

Greek salad3 smIt was a raw, overcast day today, and I spent most of it outdoors. So I thought I’d do a little summer dreaming for today’s blog to warm me up.

Dreaming about Greek salad—the essence of summer.

Fresh tomato (preferably Brandywine),

Fresh cucumber,

Homemade feta (from our own goat milk),

Big, fat black Kalamata olives,

Fresh basil,

Balsamic vinegar,

South Lea olive oil, made just down the road.

Serve it with some crusty homemade bread and a glass of wine.

Nothing could be better!

Mushroom Leek Tart

IMG_3455Driving home today with a kilo of mushrooms in the car, I devised the following mushroom and egg tart for dinner.

It was delicious!

Approx. 1 kg fresh mushrooms, sliced (I used buttons and portabellas)

10-15 g dried porcini, soaked 30 min in hot water

4 small leeks, sliced

small handful dried tomato, chopped roughly

Fresh thyme, rosemary, and parsley to taste

½ c. grated parmesan cheese

8 med eggs

salt and pepper to taste

Sauté leeks, mushrooms, tomatoes, rosemary and thyme over medium heat until well-cooked, and the mushroom liquid has evaporated. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Make pastry for a double crust pie. Roll it out in one large sheet and line a jelly roll pan with it.

Sprinkle half the cheese over the crust. Then spread the mushroom mixture evenly over the cheese. Top with the remaining cheese.

Crack the eggs onto the tart, one at a time, arranging them neatly across the tart.*

Bake 20 minutes at 190°C (375°F). Allow to cool for 5-10 minutes before serving.

*If I made this again, I’d bake the tart for 10 minutes, then add the eggs—20 minutes is a bit too long for the eggs.

Garden Update–24 August

100_3612The greenhouse and the first of the garden beds have been cleared of weeds and prepared to receive plants!

The first plants to go into the greenhouse won’t stay there long. They are the early crops that need just a little extra warmth now, but will be planted out into the garden in just a few weeks. These plants have spent the past week in my office, with a little overnight heat to help the seeds germinate. Now they’ve moved to the greenhouse, making way for the late season crops in the office.

I start the vast majority of my vegetables indoors, because I get much better and more even germination there, and it protects the seeds and very young seedlings from the voracious birds and slugs that prowl the garden.

Over the past two weekends, I’ve planted the following in seed trays:


Broccoli (de Cicco)

Cabbage (Puma)

Pak Choi (Joi Choi)

Broccoli Raab (Spring rapini)

Cauliflower (Snowball)

Pepper (Jalapeño Early)

Pepper (Marconi Red)

Pepper (Thai Super Chilli)

Pepper (Mini-Stuffer)

Pepper (Muscato)

Pepper (Cabernet)

Eggplant (Tsatsoniki)

Eggplant (Tokyo Black)

Eggplant (Eclipse)

Snow Pea (Goliath)

Sugar snap pea tall

Blue Shelling Pea

Lettuce (Danyelle)

Lettuce (Merveille de quatre saisons)

Lettuce (mesclun mix)

Lettuce (Red Flame)

Lettuce (Summer Queen)

Lettuce (Drunken Woman Fringed Head)

Lettuce (Apache)


Spinach (Santana)

Spinach (Bloomsdale)

Spinach (Red Stem)

Onion (Stuttgart Long Keeper)

Onion (Red Amposta)

Spring onion (Ishikura)


Cilantro (slow bolt)


Gogi berry

Dill (bouquet)

Cape gooseberry

Fennel (Florence)

Fennel (Sweet Leaf)

Celery (Elne)

Celery for cutting

Parsley (Gigante Italiano)

Parsley (Green Pearl)

Tomato (Amish Paste)

Tomato (Indigo Rose)

Tomato (Window box red)

Tomato (Bloody Butcher)

Tomato (Beefsteak)

Tomato (Brandywine pink)

Tomato (Russian Red)

Tomato (Pear Blend)

Tomato (Delicious)

Beet (Detroit Dark Red)


Chard (Cardinal)

Basil (Amethyst)

Basil (Sweet Genovese)

Basil (Thai Siam Queen)


And a bunch of flowers I won’t list…

For a total of about 1300 plants.

Many more to come…

Pastry for Science

Photo: Simon Pierre Barrette

Photo: Simon Pierre Barrette

Yes! The next time anyone questions my predilection for pastry, all I have to do is say I’m making it for science!

Researchers at Carleton University in Ontario made fake caterpillars from pastry in order to test the importance of the visual components of the tiger swallowtail caterpillar’s defence strategy (which is to look like a snake). The pastries were popular with birds, until they painted snake eyes on them. But young birds could learn that pastry with snake eyes was tasty, too, and then would only avoid pastry with eyes and the shape of a snake.

The researchers conclude that the combination of features the swallowtail caterpillar uses is a result of the selective pressure of smart birds, who aren’t fooled by imperfect disguises.

I might conclude that birds like pastry just as much as I do!

Upside Down Cake

100_3609 smI don’t make it often, but I love upside down cake. Nectarines are possibly my favourite fruit in the topping, though pears and peaches are excellent, too. Really, how can you go wrong with butter and sugar-drenched fruit on top of cake?

At this time of year, the best I could do was a jar of black boy peaches that I put up over the summer, and that was just fine!

And with a bit of whipped cream left over from pumpkin pie the other night…hard to beat!