Cheesy Scones

I came home late earlier this week. No time to really cook. So I pulled out a couple of jars of summer soup and made savoury scones (biscuits to the Americans) to go with it.

But I didn’t want plain scones…

These are what I threw together, and they were divine.

1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
60 g butter (about 4 Tbs)
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/4 cup chopped dill
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
2 small leeks (about 1/2 cup), finely chopped
3/4 cup milk

Combine flours, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Cut butter in until it’s the consistency of coarse meal. Mix in the herbs, cheese, and leek. Stir in the milk. On a well-floured board, knead the dough gently 4 or 5 times, then roll out to 1.5 cm (5/8 inch) thickness. Cut into squares or use a biscuit cutter.

Bake on an ungreased sheet 15 minutes at 200ºC (400ºF).

Nettle Season

It’s stinging nettle season and, as I’ve mentioned before, my garden is host to an irritating quantity of nettle—quite literally.

But though it is a stinging weed, I’ll admit to a certain fascination with nettle. Look at the stinging hairs (trichomes) under the microscope, and you’ll find beautifully wicked structures like fine hypodermic needles. Those syringes are full of an irritating mix of acetylcholine, histamine, serotonin, moroidin, leukotrienes, and formic acid to irritate your skin.

But the triggering mechanism for the trichomes depends upon turgor (water pressure), so once a nettle wilts, it can’t sting.

And once it wilts, nettle is an incredibly useful plant. It is edible and quite nutritious for both humans and livestock. The cooked greens are used in traditional dishes throughout the Northern Hemisphere where it is native.

It can be used to make a vegetarian rennet for cheesemaking, and is used to flavour and decorate some cheeses. I’ve made nettle rennet myself as a substitute for commercial rennet when I’ve run out.

Nettles can be used to make tea, cordial and beer.

The fibrous stems can be used to make linen-like textiles. The roots can be used to make a yellow dye.

Fed to chickens, nettle is an effective egg colourant, which may explain the deep orange colour of my chickens’ egg yolks at this time of year.

All in all, stinging nettles don’t deserve their bad reputation. Like many of our weeds, they’re useful plants that we’ve forgotten how to use.

Haloumi

I admit, it’s taken me eleven years of cheese-making to finally decide to make haloumi. I needed a cheese that would keep, but didn’t require several days of salting/turning/etc. Haloumi met that description.

I’d never made it because the processing time (for a proper, cultured haloumi) is so long and, frankly, the result is quite like paneer, which I can whip up in no time.

From a 7.00 am start, I finally put the finished cheese in the fridge at 3.45 pm. Hours of stirring, pressing, simmering, and salting.

We enjoyed some of it this evening, fried and served over a lovely warm salad of lentils and quinoa. The salad included salted lemons (which I blogged about back in September last year) which were just the right flavour with the cheese, pulses and quinoa.

A side of baked pumpkin slices rounded out the meal to perfection.

Truly delicious.

But will I make haloumi again? Maybe.

Ecological Weeding

A parasitised aphid (the bloated brown one), and an unparasitised one (the green)

A parasitised aphid (the bloated brown one), and an unparasitised one (the green)

As much as I enjoy weeding, I can’t possibly keep up with them all. There are always weeds on the property.

In truth, I don’t try to eliminate all the weeds. I take a ‘live and let live’ approach with many of them. I also recognise the utility of many of the weeds on the property–or at least their utility to other organisms.

Except in the vegetable garden where they are, literally, a pain, I allow nettles to reside in the yard. They provide food for our native yellow admiral butterflies and, in a pinch, can be used to make rennet for cheese making. Even in the vegetable garden, I don’t mind seeing them–they hate dry soil, so they’re a good indicator that I’m watering the garden enough for the vegetables.

Weeds like yarrow, clover, and dandelions are good food sources for beneficial insects, so they, too, are allowed to grow wherever they’re not in direct competition with crops.

Weeds are also sometimes good ‘trap crops’, attracting pests to plants (themselves) I don’t mind pulling out and destroying to get rid of the pest.

Sometimes, though, the ‘trap crop’ idea backfires on me. Today I noticed that a sow thistle I’d allowed to grow was covered in aphids–it was a great opportunity to destroy thousands of pests. Except that as I bent to pull the weed, I noticed that a large number of the aphids were parasitised by wasps. I depend upon these wasps to deal with my springtime aphid problems. Short of painstakingly picking off every parasitised aphid and caring for them until the wasps hatch, killing the aphids on the weed is going to kill the wasps, too. What to do?

So the weed has gotten a temporary stay of execution. I’ll keep an eye on it. When the wasps have emerged from the parasitised aphids, I’ll pull it and kill the remaining aphids.

Perfection

2016-12-13-18-36-33-cropAfter decades of work, I finally did it.

I made a perfect pie crust.

A flaky melt-in-your-mouth crust that made this excellent ricotta and vegetable pie seem like just a prelude to the crust. Not a hint of toughness, not a moment over-baked or under-baked. Even the bottom, that tends toward sogginess, was perfect.

That’s it, now—I’ve accomplished that and can tick it off my list. I never need to make another. I’ve done it right, and that’s that. My last pie crust.

Well, okay, I like pie…a lot. I probably will make another crust. And another. And another.

And, if I’m being honest, this perfect crust came about in part because I was being a bit lazy.

My pie crust recipe (designed to create an American pie crust with NZ ingredients), is supposed to be made with 125 grams each of butter and Olivani. But today there was a 150 gram chunk of butter in the fridge. I didn’t feel like cutting off a 25 gram sliver, so I just used it, and reduced the Olivani to 100 grams.

The other part of the perfection of this crust was a 45-minute chill in the fridge after rolling it out and putting it in the pan. That chill was necessary, simply because I was cooking alone today, and it took 45 minutes to pick, prepare and cook the vegetables after I finished the crust.

I really wasn’t aiming for perfection (my usual crust is actually pretty good, so I tend not to mess with the recipe much), I just stumbled upon it by accident.

I have, however, made a note on my recipe to increase the butter to 150 grams and chill for 45 minutes…

Counting your Quinces

2016-11-28-16-39-54-smYou know what they say—don’t count your quinces before they ripen…okay, maybe they don’t say that, but they probably should.

I’m pleased to count the little quinces forming this year, though. I know we won’t get to eat all of them, but it’s the most fruit the little quince tree has ever set.

I can almost taste the quince paste now…

I had never encountered quince before coming to New Zealand. It’s an odd fruit. It’s sort of what I imagine pears must have been like before hundreds of years of plant breeding—astringent, hard, and gritty. They’re not a fruit you eat fresh.

But cook them, and all their glorious floral flavours come out. Turned into quince paste, they are one of my favourite foods.

Quince paste is delightfully versatile—pair it with cheese on a cracker for a salty snack or hors d’oeuvres, or spread it on toast for a sweet breakfast treat.

Making quince paste is a lesson in patience. First, you have to wait for the quinces to grow and ripen—they won’t be mature until autumn, and they’re not a fruit you find in the store, even in season. You just have to wait for them.

Then you have to simmer those rock-hard quinces for half an hour until they’re soft enough to mash.

Then you add sugar and cook oh-so-slowly for up to 3 hours, until the mixture turns red.

You pour the hot paste into jars and wait another few hours for it to set.

Finally, you can enjoy your quinces.

So, yeah, don’t count your quinces before they’re paste.

Umami Stacks

umamestack1My husband came home from work early yesterday, which gave us a rare mid-week chance to cook dinner together.

“What I want,” he said, “is some sort of pastry. Little rounds topped with feta cheese and…I don’t know what. What’s out in the garden?”

“Pak choi, asparagus, artichokes…” I began. “Artichokes would be good.”

“Yeah, but a lot of work.”

“Not if you use last year’s canned ones—there are still some left.”

Before we knew it, we had concocted these incredible little pastries. We called them umami stacks for their dose of umami-rich ingredients. They were as beautiful as they were delicious. With mid-week meals like this, it’s no wonder we never bother to go out to eat.

We measured nothing, but here’s an approximation of a recipe…

Make your favourite pie crust—enough for a double-crust pie. Roll thin and cut into 8-10 cm (3-4 inch) rounds. Arrange the rounds on ungreased baking sheets and chill until you’re ready to use (my recipe made 24 rounds).

Toast a few tablespoons of sesame seeds in a dry skillet until browning. Grind them in a mortar and pestle with some coarse salt and black peppercorns. Set aside.

Slice a generous handful of portobello mushrooms, and sauté with a little garlic. Set aside.

Steam 10 asparagus spears. Remove 8-10 cm tips and set aside. Chop the remaining stems.

Mix in a large bowl, mashing slightly:

  • feta cheese (about 125 g)
  • canned artichokes (1 pint jar)
  • spinach (several good handfuls, cooked well)
  • fresh dill weed (a handful, chopped)
  • 1 egg
  • the chopped asparagus

Spread a dollop of the feta mixture on each pastry round. Top with a few slices of mushroom and an asparagus tip. Sprinkle with the sesame seed mixture.

Bake at 190°C (375°F) until the pastry is lightly browned—15-20 minutes.

 

*We had six pastry rounds left over. I spread them with softened butter, sugar, and cinnamon, rolled them up, and baked them with the umami stacks. Mmmmm!