The Indispensable Hoe

I was preparing the garden for my winter crops on Saturday when disaster struck. 

Okay, it wasn’t really a disaster, but it did effectively end my work for the day.

My hoe broke.

This has happened before. This particular hoe has been held together for years by duct tape after I cracked the handle on a particularly difficult clump of grass. Unfortunately, duct tape wasn’t going to fix this failure—this one was terminal, at least for the handle.

A few back-of-the-envelope calculations reveal that this hoe has done about 6,300 hours of work for me over its lifetime. It has measured and prepared garden beds, dug furrows for seeds, removed weeds, cleared paths, and mixed concrete. And it’s done all this with almost no maintenance—some sharpening, some cleaning, a little duct tape.

It’s no wonder the hoe is one of the oldest garden tools. The first evidence of hoes comes from cave paintings made in about 5000 B.C. Although there are many variations in hoe design, the basic idea has changed little for thousands of years; it’s a tried and true design that does the job well.

So this week I’ll find a replacement for my expired hoe. It’s not a tool I can do without.

Vilma’s Eggplant–better late than never

I’ve blogged about Vilma’s Eggplant in the past, but it’s worth repeating a recipe this good.

This year’s eggplants took a long time to get going, and it’s only now that summer is over that they’re really giving well. But it’s never too late for Vilma’s Marinated Eggplant. This stuff could make an eggplant lover out of anyone.

Vilma was the sister of our host mother during Peace Corps training in Costa Rica. She was loud and fiery-tempered, and regularly stayed with our host family when she was fighting with her partner.

When she was with us, she cooked—glorious Italian food she’d learned to make from her partner. Her food was a flavourful gift in a house where vegetables were usually boiled to death and served plain. 

One of the most wonderful things Vilma made was thinly sliced eggplant marinated in garlicky vinegar. She’d leave a jar of it in the fridge when she left, and we would savour it for a week on our sandwiches or with our mushy, flavourless boiled vegetables.

I foolishly never asked Vilma for the recipe, but a bit of trial and error was all it took to recreate Vilma’s marinated eggplant. 

This recipe mostly fills a quart-sized jar. It keeps for a long time in the fridge and makes a lovely addition to sandwiches. Serve it on crackers for party appetisers—it’s not the prettiest food, but after one bite, none of your guests will care.

2 small to medium eggplants
1 clove garlic, crushed
½ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Peel eggplants and slice very thin (1-2 mm). Steam until the slices are tender and limp (but not falling apart completely). Whisk all the other ingredients together in a small bowl, and toss them gently with the hot steamed eggplant. Refrigerate at least an hour before serving (the longer the better, as the eggplant will soak up more marinade).

Embracing Autumn

Our summer has finally turned to autumn. Cooler temperatures and more rain mean the grass has begun to grow again, green shoots sprouting through rain-driven drifts of dead vegetation.

The tomatoes are browning, spent after summer’s excess, and while I mourn their loss, I welcome the fruits of autumn—pumpkin, wild boletes, black beans, apples and a return of leafy greens. I welcome warming soups and casseroles. I welcome the smell of baking pie, simmering beans, and sautéing mushrooms.

I welcome the reduced workload in the garden, too. There’s still plenty of harvesting to be done, and I’ll be clearing away dead plants throughout autumn and winter, but soon I’ll release the chickens into the garden to keep the weeds and pests in check until spring.

It’s time now to take stock. Plenty of summer soup, pickles and jam in the cupboard; strings of onions and garlic hanging in the kitchen; pesto, peas and corn in the freezer. Jars of popcorn and dry beans line the shelf, and a basket of apples sits in the kitchen. We will eat well this winter, food and effort stored in jars and freezer boxes to be released and enjoyed on dark, cold evenings. 

So I will savour the warmth and sun that remains, but embrace the cold to come.

Nifty Nigella

Late summer is harvest time for all sorts of crops. Nigella might be the most unusual one I harvested this week.

Nigella sativa goes by many names: nigella, kalonji, black cumin, fennel flower, nutmeg seed, onion seed, and black caraway. Added to this mess of often misleading names is Nigella sativa’s ornamental cousin, Nigella damascena, also known as nigella (or love-in-a-mist). You could be forgiven for being confused.

Culinary nigella is a lovely aromatic seed that looks confusingly like onion seed. Its flavour has been described as oniony or oregano-like. I’m not sure how I would describe it—I suppose onion and oregano come close, but the truth is it has its own warm rich flavour. It is traditionally used in naan and string cheese. It’s also apparently great with lentils and other legumes.

Because we rarely harvest much nigella, we’ve only used it in naan, where it imparts a lovely savoury note to the bread. 

But this year, conditions must have been just right for nigella; it grew luxuriantly. Consequently, I have a huge quantity of seeds, so I expect we’ll be trying it out in all sorts of stews and curries. I’m looking forward to the addition to our spicing options.

The Colours of Summer

Blue peas, purple potatoes, green beans, yellow zucchini, red tomatoes, orange carrots … The summer garden is full of colour. But it’s not just a feast for the eyes.

In the garden, the colours can serve a purpose—black and yellow tomatoes and red lettuce are overlooked by birds and bugs because they’re not the ‘right’ colours. Blue peas have tough pods that resist birds. And purple basil deals better with dry heat than green.

In the kitchen, the colours create spectacular visual treats—purple mashed potatoes, deep orange braised carrots, bright green pesto, pasta studded with all the colours of the rainbow. Along with the colours come flavours not found in supermarket produce—the rich sweet-tart of an Indigo Apple tomato, the succulent crunch of Scarlet Runner beans, the smooth earthiness of a Zephyr zucchini, the nutty bitter of a Touchon carrot.

A few years ago there was a campaign here to get kids to eat more vegetables. The main message was “Eat your colours.” I agree. Eat your colours. Revel in them. Feast your eyes and your taste buds.

Christmas Baking

When I was a kid, my mother would start her Christmas baking just after Thanksgiving. She’d bake dozens of kinds of cookies and freeze them. For weeks before the big day, there would be a big platter of cookies—a few of each of the types she’d made—out for eating. It was a child’s dream. I don’t remember her making anything but cookies for holiday desserts. We certainly didn’t need anything else, with all those cookies available.

Before moving to New Zealand, my holiday baking was similar (though with only one child eating cookies, I didn’t make quite so many as my mother did—she had three young cookie eaters). But it’s changed a lot since then.

Cookies are made with ingredients that store well—flour, butter, sugar, nuts—that’s great for winter baking, when fresh ingredients are hard to come by. But Christmas falls at the height of the summer fruit season here—it’s no wonder the traditional Christmas dessert here is pavlova—a meringue ring filled with fresh fruit (Unfortunately, I’m really not fond of meringue).

At the moment on our property, we are harvesting black currants, red currants, gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, and blueberries. With as much as 10 kilograms of fruit coming in every two days, much of that harvest goes into jam, sauces, chutney, or simply gets frozen for later use. But it would be a shame not to bake with that fruit, in favour of cookies, which I can make any time of the year.

So we’ve been enjoying strawberry shortcake, currant pie, and gooseberry crisp. For breakfast, we’ve been eating waffles smothered in fruit, and muffins studded with fruit. For snacks, and with every meal, we’ve been eating fresh fruit—whatever hasn’t gone into baking or the freezer.

Oh, there are cookies, too (why not?). But it’s the fruit I snitch while walking through the kitchen, and it’s the pie I crave for dessert.

Some day I’ll dispense with the cookies entirely … Maybe I’ll even learn to like pavlova.

Summer?

It’s been decidedly un-summer-like recently. We’ve had an exceptionally wet two weeks—there’s a puddle in the yard, Coes Ford is flooded, and weeds and mushrooms are sprouting everywhere.

Fortunately, that hasn’t stopped the strawberries. When my daughter braved the rain to pick, she found a surprising number of slug-bitten but delicious ripe fruits.

Strawberry shortcake for dessert, strawberries on my morning muesli, strawberries every time I walk through the kitchen…it must be summer!

Now, if only we’d see the sun…