Summer Soup 2019: proof we really are nuts

The family made our annual Summer Soup on Sunday. 

I think we definitively proved we have no self-control when it comes to gardening or cooking. In spite of me reducing my garden area this year, and despite the knowledge that our son is leaving home in a week (and won’t be around to eat this year’s soup), we managed to make even more than usual.

We filled all three of our big stock pots, and it took from 7.30 am to 9.00 pm to pick, chop, and process all that soup.

We had soup for dinner, I put a meal’s worth of soup in the fridge, and there are 28 beautiful quart jars full of soup lined up in the cupboard. 

Summer Soup is full of potatoes, carrots, soy, green beans, zucchini, tomato, sweet peppers, hot peppers, onions, garlic, sweet corn, beet root, basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and celery. The only thing not from the garden is the salt. It’s a burst of summer goodness for the cold days of winter. It’s a quick and delicious meal when we all come home late. 

But it’s more than preserved vegetables. It’s a whole-family team building exercise. After a dozen years, it’s a family tradition. Each soup-making session brings back memories of early years, when the kids’ help was more of a hinderance. They took enormous pride in their work those years, reciting the vegetables they’d cut every time we opened a jar.

Now they’re both accomplished cooks, and their help allows us to go way overboard on soup-making. They’re less vocal about it now, but I think they’re still proud of their part in Summer Soup.

As I’ve mentioned before, anyone can make soup, but it takes a family to make Summer Soup.

Mystery Maggots

Caterpillar, not maggot–see the six true legs and 10 prolegs?

The weather has been hot here, and all the doors and windows stand open all day. With no window screens, that means an array of bugs (and the occasional bird) pops in and out of the house. It’s not unusual to find flies, butterflies, damselflies, etc. on the windows. 

Still, I did a double-take when I saw maggots on my desk the other day. I knew they hadn’t flown in on their own—they must have been hatched nearby. I checked for unseen dead things on the shelves above, but found nothing. There was another maggot this morning, and I did a second unsuccessful check for the source. Then, while I was away from my desk for fifteen minutes, another appeared.

This time I pulled out the microscope and had a closer look.

It wasn’t a maggot at all. It was a tiny caterpillar.

I could think of no reason for a bunch of caterpillars to be living on my bookshelves and dropping onto my desk.

Then I remembered earlier in the day I’d shooed a wasp out of the office several times.

Bingo!

The wasp was a European tube wasp. These little insects seek out cracks and holes to nest in. They fill their nests with up to 20 caterpillars as food for their larvae and then seal the nest with mud.

That would explain the bits of dried soil that accompanied some of the ‘maggots’.

We’ve seen the same thing with our native potter wasps. Last year I had to put tape over all the screw holes in the underside of the dining table, because potter wasps were stuffing them with paralysed spiders (and the spiders kept falling out all over the floor).

As I write, the wasp has returned. Empty-handed this time, she’s fossicking around for a new place to raise her young. Maybe she’ll find one her caterpillars will stay in this time.

Gazpacho–Cool Food for a Hot Day

Gazpacho depends on good quality tomatoes. Only use the best.

While many of you in North America are shivering in the cold, we’re sweltering in the heat here. Our daily highs are in the mid-30s (the mid-90s F). After dripping sweat all afternoon, the idea of cooking is unappealing.

So we resort to hot-weather foods. Fortunately, the garden makes this easy. One of my favourite cool dinners is gazpacho—a cold vegetable soup. I think there are as many variations on gazpacho as there are cooks, but here’s my version. Serve with crusty bread and butter for a more substantial meal.

5-6 medium tomatoes (about 10 cups, chopped)
2 medium cucumbers
1 small red onion
handful fresh basil
1 clove garlic
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tsp salt
black pepper to taste

Peel and coarsely chop the cucumbers. Process in a food processor until finely chopped (not pureed). Remove to a large bowl.

Core and coarsely chop the tomatoes. Process in a food processor until finely chopped. Remove to the bowl with the cucumbers.

Finely chop the onion and basil (I find this easiest by hand, but it can also be done in the food processor). Add to the bowl.

Crush the garlic and add to the bowl, along with the vinegar, salt, and pepper.

*Optional—add a finely chopped jalapeño or a dash of hot sauce.

Mix all ingredients together and chill 2 hours before serving. If you’ve got no time to chill it, add crushed ice to the soup.

A Passion for Pickles

I’ve blogged about pickles before. How could I not? I love pickles. I plant pickling cucumbers only every other year, to prevent me from becoming the Crazy Pickle Lady, but this year is a pickle year.

Our favourites, without question, are dills. I made seven quarts of dills last weekend, and this weekend I put up another nine quarts. Plenty more to come before I’m finished pickling.

I can most of my pickles in a water-bath canner, so they last two years. But the canning process leaves them less crisp than I like, so I also make fresh pickles to eat right now. They’re crisp and sour, and super easy to make.

For a 1-quart jar, you’ll need:
1 kg pickling cucumbers, washed and cut in half lengthwise
1 head fresh dill
1 small red chilli (fresh or dried)
1 clove garlic, cut in half
1 bay leaf
1 cup vinegar (white or cider)
1 cup water
2 Tbsp coarse salt
3 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp mixed pickling spices (you can buy commercial, but I make my own mix to have on hand, see below)

Combine vinegar, water, salt, and sugar in a saucepan. Tie the spices into a cloth bag (or use a stainless-steel tea ball) and drop it into the vinegar mixture. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes.

Shortly before the vinegar is ready, fill your jar with hot water (from the tap is fine, but make sure it’s as hot as you can get it). Let it sit for a few minutes, to ensure the jar is hot. This step minimises the risk of heat stress cracking the jar when you pour boiling liquid into it.

When the jar is warm, pour out the water. Drop the dill, chilli, garlic and bay leaf into the jar, and then pack the cucumbers in tightly. Try to arrange them so the cut sides are not pressed against one another—you want the pickling liquid to penetrate the flesh. Remove the spice bag from the simmering pickling liquid and pour it over the cucumbers, covering them completely.

Allow to cool, and then store in the refrigerator for 3-5 days before eating.

If you have leftover pickling liquid, save it in a jar, and just heat it up to make your next batch of pickles.

Pickling spice mix (makes about 1 cup):
6 Tbsp whole mustard seed
3 Tbsp whole allspice
6 tsp whole coriander seed
1 tsp whole cloves
3 tsp ground ginger
3 tsp red pepper flakes
3 bay leaves (crushed)
3 cinnamon sticks (crushed)

Sub-Alpine Idyll

We recently went on a lovely hike up Peak Hill, overlooking Lake Coleridge. The start of the track crosses paddocks, but once on the reserve land, the vegetation changes to a beautiful sub-alpine spread of daisies, Spaniard, matagouri, and tussocks. The daisies, in particular, were spectacular—so many were in bloom that the whole hillside looked frosted. The Spaniard was blooming, too, spiky flower heads rising above the daisies like something from a Dr. Seuss book. Native bees, mānuka beetles, and syrphid flies were all taking advantage of the abundance of nectar and pollen. The air hummed with insects.

You could be forgiven for thinking it was a beautiful, peaceful place. And it was, for us. But among the insects buzzing around were predators—pompillid wasps hunting for spider prey, robber flies snatching unwary insects out of the air, and birds snapping up bugs to feed to their young.

And then there were the plants themselves. At least one hapless beetle impaled itself on a Spaniard leaf. 

It may be pretty, but it’s a rough world out there when you’re insect-sized.

Respite on the Rakaia

The temperature is squatting at 37 degrees C. Body temperature. I’ve experienced hotter, but when it hits 37, it’s just hot, no way to argue it’s not.

So we headed down to the Rakaia River, just a short drive from our place.

The walk in from the settlement of Rakaia Huts is green and humid. The track is maintained only by the feet that tread it and winds through a magical scrubby forest. Non-natives brush leaves with natives, feral fruit trees share space with hydrangeas. The worst of Canterbury’s weeds coexist with a remarkable array of native shrubs and ferns—it’s the Peaceable Kingdom of the plant world.

Twenty minutes of walking through this green glade brings you to the river. The Rakaia is a braided river, so you cross and re-cross channels to reach one suitable for swimming. Down near the mouth, there are many swimming holes—deep and turquoise with suspended loess (wind-blown rock dust)—separated by sparkling riffles. We followed the river to the sea, testing each pool to find the best one.

They were all delightful, all ours for the taking, because there was no one else there.

Back home, we stayed in our wet togs until they dried, bringing the cool river with us.

In the time it’s taken me to write this blog, the temperature has risen further. The river water has long since evaporated. Now we have just the memory to keep us cool.

Alpine Delights

The family spent a delightful hour on the Dobson Nature Walk in Arthur’s Pass National Park on Wednesday. The track is an easy one, and hiking it quickly takes about 20 minutes. But it’s not a walk you want to do quickly, especially in summer. It winds through alpine and sub-alpine vegetation, including some beautiful tarns, and in summer, so many plants are blooming, it’s hard to take five steps without finding another lovely orchid, daisy, or hebe in bloom.

For me, the best part of the walk is the abundance of sundews in the tarns. As an entomologist, I’m naturally drawn to carnivorous plants like sundews. Sundews catch insects on the sticky hairs you can see glistening in this photo. The hairs are sensitive to both touch and taste, and when they sense a struggling insect, they fold inward to further entangle their prey. Enzymes exuded by the hairs then digest the insect, and the leaf takes up the nutrients in order to grow in the nutrient-poor alpine wetlands. 

These sundews were just beginning to flower—many plants had flower buds, but none had yet opened. The flowers sit above the leaves—an important adaptation, since the plant needs to be pollinated by the very insects it eats.

The alpine summer is short, so when these plants are done flowering, the leaves will slowly shrink into a structure called a hibernaculum that sits near the soil surface and protects the plant through the winter.