Chevre Ravioli

ravioli1 smI love chevre. Not only is it easy to make, it’s delicious in so many ways—on bread with jam, on crostini with olivade, covered with herbs or black pepper and spread on crackers. It’s a fine stand-in for cream cheese in cheesecake, too. It takes on sweet or savoury flavours and lends them a creamy tartness.

This week, I used chevre for a super-easy ravioli filling—I mixed about a cup of finely chopped herbs (oregano, thyme, rosemary and cracked pepper) into about two cups of chevre.

My husband made a lovely spicy sauce full of spring vegetables to go on top.

The result was marvellous! Full of intense, fresh flavours!


Oyster Mushrooms

100_4082 smWay back in June I blogged about the mushroom growing bags I made from a repurposed tent. About a month ago, my husband and daughter started a batch of oyster mushrooms, and the bags were finally put to the test.

Today, we had our first harvest from them—mushrooms as big as my hand! And not a single fungus gnat larva in them (which was the purpose of the bags—to keep the fungus gnats from eating them before we did).

I can taste tonight’s mushroom stir-fry already!

(Not so) Plain Vanilla

100_4048 smI knew I would be picking strawberries later in the day, so this morning when I was baking I made a simple vanilla cake, because it would go well with the berries.

But why do we consider vanilla simple, plain?

Vanilla is an exotic spice, made from the bean of a tropical orchid. Like most orchids, it has evolved a close relationship with it’s pollinator, and is only pollinated by one genus of bees. Outside its native Mexican range, vanilla must be hand pollinated. Though vanilla was introduced to Europe in the 1500s, it was more than 300 years before a viable hand-pollination technique was developed, allowing vanilla to be grown throughout the tropics.

To make vanilla even trickier to cultivate, it cannot germinate without the presence of specific mycorrhizal fungi.

Add to that the fact that it grows in regions prone to hurricanes and cyclones (which regularly wipe out regional production), and it’s not surprising that vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron.

So, why do we think of vanilla as ordinary and plain?

Perhaps it comes from the fact that vanillin, the artificial vanilla flavour that is used in 95% of “vanilla” flavoured products is made from lignin, a by-product of the papermaking industry. That makes artificial vanilla much cheaper than real vanilla—cheap enough to use in everything. Unfortunately, vanillin is only one of 171 different aromatic compounds found in the real vanilla bean, which is why artificial vanilla tastes so…well…plain.

This lovely, exotic spice has been rendered plain by its cheap imitation.

I use only real vanilla.

It’s not plain.

But it goes great with strawberries!


20151127_125023710It’s aphid season here. Lettuce, strawberries, dill, parsley, and roses are covered in the little green girls.

I used to fret about aphids—they can certainly cause a great deal of damage, particularly to young plants. But I’ve learned to live with them. Here are a few of my aphid strategies:

  1. When I plant out, I check every plant carefully, and squish any aphids—knocking back these early individuals goes a long way to limiting damage.
  2. If a plant is heavily infested, I turn my hose on jet and blast the aphids off. This technique doesn’t get them all, but it does knock the population back to manageable levels.
  3. I allow some plants to get covered. In my garden, my early dill always gets nailed by aphids. I accept this. I don’t kill the aphids, either. The aphids on the dill attract ladybugs, lacewings, and parasitic wasps that eat aphids. Lots of aphids on the dill means lots of predators later in the season.
  4. I plant purple varieties of crops, which are usually less attractive to aphids.
  5. I accept aphids as a source of extra protein and vitamin B in our diets. We eat aphids. They’re good for us.
  6. I have patience. By midsummer, the aphids have all but vanished, decimated by the predators I cultivated in springtime.
  7. I admire aphids’ abilities and beauty—parthenogenic reproduction (that is, the females clone themselves—no need for males), dainty legs and antennae, and a remarkable ability to survive.

Why I love my e-reader

cheese curds sm(or how I manage to read novels during summer)

I love to read, but don’t always have a chance to sit down in summer. I’m often busy from 5 am to 10 pm.

But cheese making gives me an unexpected opportunity to get some reading in, and an e-reader makes it all the easier.

Cheese making involves a lot of standing in the kitchen slowly stirring the curd to drive the whey out. Depending on the cheese, this process can last from 30 minutes to almost two hours.

It only takes one hand to stir, leaving the other free to hold a book. Paper books often fall shut, and it’s hard to turn a page one-handed, but the e-reader is easy to operate one-handed. And if I finish a book half-way through stirring, I can just click to another without leaving the cheese pot.


Favourite Garden Tool–Machete

100_4045 smI learned to use a machete in Panama, where it became an extension of my arm. I learned my macheteing technique from greats such as Julián Valdéz and Onofre Gonzales. Not having been born with a machete in my hand as they were, I could never match their skill, but by the end of my two years, I could at least keep pace with a crew clearing brush for a new crop. Of course I could only do this because I’m ambidextrous, and when my left arm gave out, I could switch to the right. But, hey, that meant I was at least half as good as the farmers around me!

In rural Panama, a machete may be the only tool a farmer owns. It’s used for everything from taking down trees three feet in diameter to paring one’s toenails. Machetes are kept razor sharp, and if a farmer isn’t using her machete, she’s probably sharpening it. All that use wears them down. As a machete grows smaller and smaller, its use changes—from land clearing, to weeding tool, to kitchen knife. The smallest ones are given to little children, who proudly toddle around with machete in hand—able to help around the farm now they have a tool.

When I left Peace Corps, I sadly had to leave my “Collins”* behind—it was Peace Corps issued, and went to the next volunteer in my village. But I couldn’t live long without a machete, and soon had another upon my return to the United States. Actually, we had three…size is critical, and you have to get just the right one, so my husband has a long one, and I have a shorter one, and we have an even shorter one that fits neither of us well, but is useful for edge-destroying activities.

Those machetes came to New Zealand with us when we moved, and they are as useful here as they were every other place we’ve lived, though they get odd looks from the neighbours.

Here in the developed world, the machete is an anachronism of sorts. Its jobs are done by petrol-powered weed whips, chainsaws, saws and secateurs.

But there is something satisfying about a tool that can do just about anything. A tool that never breaks down, doesn’t need fuel, and requires only simple maintenance—sharpening—easily done with a file or even a chunk of concrete.

And of course, as the forerunner of the sword, a machete comes in handy if you happen to come across a dragon in the garden…

*Collins is a favoured brand of machete in Panama.

Girls’ Night In

100_4041 smMy son is at school camp and my husband is at a workshop, so it was just me and my daughter for dinner tonight.

We indulged in biscuits—eaten first with egg, cheese, lettuce, and all manner of toppings as dinner, then later filled with strawberries and whipped cream for dessert.


A game of washers in the late evening sun, and it was a perfect Girls’ Night In!



100_4036 smParsley is a ubiquitous herb, easy to overlook, easy to undervalue.

It is said its seeds must go to the devil and back seven times before germinating. I don’t think it takes quite that long, but parsley is slow to germinate.

Once up, though, parsley is tough and long-lasting. The plants I start in August will survive spring frosts to flourish through the heat and drought of summer, and continue flourishing through the cold wet winter, to be finally pulled out in October of the following year, when they begin to bolt, to make room for new plants.

We eat parsley by the handful (none of this Tablespoon stuff), and love it in risi e bisi, soup, potatoes, and gratins.

We grow both the Italian flat-leaf and the curly varieties (because, why not?), and enjoy the flat-leaf parsley fresh in salads (or just standing up in the garden as we pass by). We also enjoy parsley mixed with other fresh herbs to make a non-basil pesto that is lovely on pasta or as a topping for polenta crostini.

Of course, the best reason to grow parsley in much of the world is to attract the beautiful swallowtail butterflies, whose caterpillars specialise on parsley and related plants, incorporating the toxins from the plants into their exoskeletons to serve as defence. Unfortunately, we have no swallowtails in New Zealand, but the flowers of parsley attract bees, flies, and our native butterflies in large numbers.


100_4022 smWhenever I ask what folks want for Sunday breakfast, my son’s response is waffles. He always wants waffles, and only gets them a handful of times a year. I find waffle making tedious—I never get to sit down with the rest of the family, as they’re usually done eating by the time the last waffle comes off the iron.

But I love waffles, too, especially with strawberries.

So when I came in with almost four quarts of strawberries yesterday afternoon, I knew what breakfast would be today.

This recipe is adapted from the Basic Waffle recipe in Joy of Cooking. I double it—leftover waffles toast beautifully the next morning!

1 cup all purpose flour

¾ cup whole wheat flour

1 Tbsp baking powder

1 Tbsp sugar

¼ tsp salt

3 eggs

6 Tbsp butter, melted

¾ cup milk

Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, beat eggs and whisk in milk and melted butter. Combine wet and dry ingredients, stirring only until it is smooth. Cook according to the instructions for your waffle iron.

Waxing Lyrical

100_4015 smWhen I say I’m going to do some waxing, chances are it’s not the sort of waxing you think of. Instead of depilatory waxing, I’m doing cheese waxing.

I used to hate to wax cheeses. The “instructions” for cheese wax say you should brush it on. I used to try to brush my wax on, but very quickly realized that the wax hardens in the bristles before you’ve even got half a cheese covered, and then you’re trying to brush wax onto your cheese with what amounts to a block of wood. Meanwhile, half the wax ends up on your fingers, and you end up with a lumpy cheese, burnt fingers, and a stove covered in wax drips.

So I started dipping my cheese. This worked much better…until I accidentally dipped my fingers one day and dropped the cheese into the wax. I thought drips of wax on the stove were bad, but the tsunami of hot wax resulting from the dropped cheese took weeks to remove.

I still dip my cheeses, but now waxing is quick, clean and painless. Instead of holding the cheese, I create a sling for it out of cotton string. With my fingers hooked into the string and safely above the wax, I can dip an entire cheese all at once. I get a beautiful finish, no drips on the stove, and no burns. I also get a perfect place to attach a label, so I know which cheese is which after months of maturing in the fridge.