When Everything is a Gift

My stunted yellow corn.

I never expected much from this year’s vegetable garden. The soil test revealed a virtually sterile substrate, nutrient-free, stripped by decades of conventional agriculture and then scraped by the developer’s bulldozers. It will take years to improve the soil to the levels of my old garden. In the first year, I figured I’d be lucky to coax a few meals out of the garden.

There’s no question the vegetables I planted are suffering. The plants are half the size they should be, and many are yellow and senescing early for lack of nutrients.

But the compost, manure, and other organic fertiliser I’ve incorporated into the soil have done some good. We have plenty of onions, cucumbers, carrots, herbs and green beans. We are overwhelmed with zucchini. The soy beans and dry beans will all give harvests. Pumpkins swell on their vines. We’ve even eaten a few melons.

Every fruit feels like a gift.

I could be dismayed at the state of the garden—corn only waist high, tomatoes ripening at golf ball size, potatoes decimated by disease … but I know what the plants are up against. I know how hard they’re working to produce anything. I admire their effort and determination.

So, in spite of how pathetic the garden is, I am pleased. I feel blessed at every meal, and I look forward to an even better year next year.

2021 Crazy Cake Day #1

Many years ago, I tried to make vegetarian rolled fondant. It was a complete disaster.

So when my daughter asked for an octopus cake for her birthday, I first wondered if I could manage to do it in buttercream frosting. I quickly decided that, no, it was really only going to work in fondant. So …

I spent a couple of hours on Tuesday scouring the city for the ingredients. They were easier to find this time—vegetarianism has become more commonplace, so gelatine substitutes are now available in some mainstream grocery stores. I took it as a good sign. My fondant would work this time.

I baked the cake (chocolate), and made the filling (peanut butter), and on Wednesday sculpted the octopus’s body. After a night in the refrigerator, the cake was ready to cover in fondant. Thursday morning I got to work.

The first batch of fondant was marginal at best. It had little elasticity, and I had to roll it out in pieces, rather than one big sheet to cover the whole cake. No worries. I managed, and the result was only a little bit lumpier than I’d hoped.

But I’d used nearly all my fondant, and I still had eight legs to make.

So, I made another batch. This one would be better, of course, because it was the second try. And it seemed to be going better for a few minutes. But by the time it was finished, it was clear this batch had even less elasticity than the first. 

At least I didn’t have to roll it out thin. It worked fine for the legs, as long as I worked slowly and didn’t try to curl the legs too much.

It took quite a long time to smooth all that lousy fondant into what looked like one continuous animal, but eventually I managed. Then I had a fabulous time painting it, watching the octopus colouration take shape.

It took a bit of trial and error to work out how to make zillions of suckers—thinned fondant piped into balls, partly dried, and then shaped before allowing them to harden. Then it took ages to place them all. I finished up just as my husband was putting dinner on the table. 

It was a heck of a lot of work for one cake.

But the final octopus looks like it could swim away any moment. And more importantly, I think my daughter is truly impressed—a rare feat.

Aromatic Memories

Smells have amazing powers. They can conjure spirits.

I was chopping parsley and mint the other day to put in dinner and, as the combined smell wafted from the cutting board, I though of Rhian Jones.

I shared a house with Rhian and five other women during my last year at university. Yellow House, as we called the brightly painted Edwardian edifice, was a good place to live. Though all seven of us had different majors and different personalities, we shared a desire to make the place feel like home.

We all enjoyed cooking, and regularly shared food. Rhian made tabbouleh that sang with flavour. “Granny’s” tabbouleh, because the recipe came from her grandmother. I still have that recipe.

I haven’t thought about Rhian for years, but the mix of herbs under my knife the other day drew her into my kitchen. I heard her infectious snorting laughter, remembered her vast collection of colourful bras, and tasted her granny’s tabbouleh shared among us on hot summer days.

I don’t know what became of any of my housemates from that year, but it was lovely to have Rhian laughing in my kitchen thirty years later. I hope wherever she is, she’s still making tabbouleh.

Inspirational Flavours

I was surfing the internet last week for something different to do with lentils and found a recipe for an intriguing lentil stew topped with roast broccolini and lemon on Bon Apetit’s website (Marinated Lentils with Lemony Broccolini and Feta).

I didn’t have broccolini, but I did have an overabundance of zucchini (surprise, surprise … It’s January; of course I have too many zucchini).

I was intrigued by the idea of roasting lemon, so I substituted zucchini and spring onions for the broccolini in the recipe, vaguely took inspiration from the herbs and spices in the lentils, and ran with it.

The result was delicious and refreshingly different from my normal lentils. The roast lemon was good—sour, bitter, and slightly caramelised. It enhanced the lightness of the vegetables and was quite pretty, too. And the spicy, tangy lentils were a nice complement to the vegetables. I can envision the dish working well with many different vegetables—eggplant, green beans, even beetroot—a great way to highlight an individual vegetable against the richness of lentils.

It’s gotten me thinking about other places I might include roast lemon slices—in mixed roast vegetables over couscous, in a lemon/butter sauce over pumpkin ravioli, floating atop a bowl of vegetable soup … there are lots of intriguing options. I love when a recipe inspires new ways to prepare old ingredients.

Ugliest Cake Ever

Yesterday was a bad baking day, for sure. In the afternoon, I tried to make meringue with aquafaba, which we’ve done before with great success. Not so on this attempt. After nearly 40 minutes of beating, my meringue mixture was still nowhere close to being stiff enough. I tipped it into the compost pile.

Later, I made chocolate cupcakes using a tried-and-true recipe. What could go wrong? First, I was out of cupcake papers. No problem—I greased and floured two cake tins instead. The layers looked gorgeous coming out of the oven.

But fifteen minutes later when I tipped them out of their pans, they stuck. By the time I got them out, one layer had the entire bottom ripped off, and the other was in a dozen chunks. 

I should have broken up the rest of the cake and made a trifle out of it—it would have been an excellent trifle! But the whole inspiration for making cake was to make frosting for it from a half-block of cream cheese that had been sitting in the fridge for ages unused.

So I glued the layers together with generous slatherings of tart apricot jam from last year’s bumper apricot harvest, then topped it with my cream cheese frosting, which wasn’t enough to cover a whole cake, of course, since I only had half a block of cream cheese (would have been plenty for cupcakes…).

The result was …

“A remarkable recovery,” in my daughter’s words.

And I suppose it was, considering the crumbled mess I started with. Still, this is a cake to eat quickly and with closed eyes.

It is delicious, though. Especially with all that apricot jam glue holding it together.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Christmas day dinner–no cooking required.

Much of the world has entered the holiday season under the threat of Covid. Holiday gatherings, a highlight for many, are necessarily smaller or cancelled altogether.

For some, a Christmas without parties and large family gatherings will seem … well, not like Christmas at all. 

I’ve been thinking about this as I talk to my family about their holiday plans, and there’s a lot of similarity in what they are going through to what my husband and I have gone through as expats. We’re used to holidays far from parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. We know how the ghosts of family-filled Christmases past haunt the table set for two on Christmas eve. We’ve learned how to fill the holidays with meaning even if we can’t fill them with loved ones. I imagine most other expats have done the same.

It occurred to me that the lessons we’ve learnt are applicable to those stuck at home due to Covid. So here are some musings on how we’ve navigated (and come to love) solo holidays.

  • Treat yourself the way you’d treat guests. Do you usually make a special dinner Christmas Day? Cook it for your household, even if that’s only two people. Do you stay up late partying to ring in the new year? Well, put on the stereo and dance, no matter how few you are.
  • If the previous idea raises too many ghosts for you, create new ‘traditions’ instead. Throw out the holiday rulebook. Instead of a party, go for a hike with your household. Instead of buying a live tree, get creative and make one with your immediate family out of whatever’s lying around the house. Instead of a formal meal in the dining room, have pizza and popcorn while watching a movie on the couch. The more different the new tradition, the less likely those Christmas ghosts will show up. Just make the new plan as much of a treat as the old (not simply your usual routine). 
  • Dress up. Staying home? Put your party clothes on anyway. It will make the day feel special, even if all you do is lie around reading books.
  • Share with family and friends far away. This is so much easier today than it was 27 years ago when my husband and I had our first Christmas overseas. Then, I wrote letters describing our Christmas punch and mailed photos of our tiny Christmas tree. These days, we share via telephone, Skype, Zoom and FaceTime. It’s not the same as being there, I know, but I am thankful for the opportunities we have to be ‘together’ for the holidays.
  • Focus on what you can gain, not what you’re losing. Quiet time with your partner and/or children. Time alone to do what you want, not what the whole gang wants. Freedom from the intense cooking, cleaning and planning that go into hosting holiday events. A chance to re-think your holiday traditions. A reprieve from that loud uncle who always drinks too much and starts talking politics … I’m sure there are plenty of things you’ll happily miss out on this year.

No question about it, this year’s holiday is going to be different from normal for most people. But that doesn’t mean it has to be bad. Make the most of the opportunities to try something different this year. Who knows? Maybe something you do this year will become part of your holiday traditions for years to come.

Carrot Surprise

I’m expecting the worst from this year’s vegetable garden. Loosening the heavy clay soil as I prepare beds can feel like chipping at concrete. I fill a bucket with rocks every two square metres. At best, I’m able to loosen the top seven centimetres. And with the soil test having revealed shockingly low levels of NPK, there’s little hope for a bumper crop.

So it was a huge surprise to lift the frost cloth from my carrot plantings to find the best germination I’ve ever had. At the old house, I sometimes had to plant twice because carrot germination was so patchy. Some varieties barely germinated at all.

Now it looks like I’ve grossly over-planted—I swear every seed germinated—all five varieties.

I planted on the same date, with the same care afterwards as I have in the past. The weather wasn’t much different from weather at the old place. The only real difference was the soil. Go figure.

Maybe it was a fluke; I had occasional good years at the old house. And who knows how the carrots will grow now they’ve sprouted.

But it’s nice to have something go better than expected in this sad soil.

Part-Time Ducks

Ordinarily, I’d be annoyed if the neighbour’s livestock made a habit of hanging out in my garden. At the old house, a mob of sheep would occasionally take a detour into the yard while being driven past. And I remember a bunch of cows grazing their way through the vegetable garden once when I was a kid. Those experiences were always destructive.

But one of the neighbours at our new place lets her livestock roam the neighbourhood, and I find it quite pleasing. They are a perfect pair of ducks—one all white, one all black (I’ve dubbed them Ebony and Ivory, of course). Watching them cruising the neighbourhood somehow makes me happy. Their owner occasionally comes out to the road to shoo them back home, but most of the time, they roam freely. 

For a long time, they avoided our place, waddling around next door, across the street, down the road … But this week, they discovered the wealth of slugs in our garden. They’ve been spending a few hours every day waddling up and down the rows of perennial crops, probing the mulch and quacking contentedly to one another.

I appreciate their gentle pest control operations in our garden, particularly since they come with no obligations on my part. I’ve seriously considered getting ducks in the past, primarily for slug control, but I never followed through. In the end they were always just more animals to have to care for. So part-time ducks are exactly my sort of livestock. They show up for work, put in a few hours, then head off to someone else’s yard. 

I hope they’re giving their owner lots of eggs.

Happiness is a Kitchen Full of Baked Goods

The weekend was crazy-busy with garden work. Saturday, I worked from 7 am to 6 pm weeding, mulching, digging post holes. Sunday’s schedule was similar, but I stopped around 3 pm because the final job on the list was planting out lettuce seedlings, and the weather (hot and with severe gales) was sure to kill them all. Besides, I could barely move—back, arms, hands and feet all hurt from the punishing work. All I wanted to do was collapse.

Except that I wanted to collapse with baked goods in hand.

So instead of sitting down, I baked. Apricot tart for dessert, and a double batch of Irish coffee crunchies (from The Gourmet Cookie Book) for lunches. Baking made me forget my tired body for a couple of hours. As I pulled the last of the cookies from the oven, I was on a roll. I started in on chopping vegetables for dinner. While dinner cooked I filled the cookies with icing and finished cleaning the kitchen, so that by the time dinner came out of the oven, the cookie jar was filled, the tart was waiting to be cut, and all the dishes were washed.

I could barely sit upright long enough to eat dinner.

But every time I’ve been in the kitchen since then, I’ve looked at those baked goods and smiled. Okay, and maybe I’ve snitched a cookie too, but don’t tell anyone. 

Happiness is definitely a full cookie jar.

New Garden Challenges

We’re nearing the end of September and the garden work is ramping up. It’s exciting watching the new garden come together, even if it is moving more slowly than I’d hoped.

Everything is new this year, and it’s no surprise problems are cropping up. I’ve already lost most of my first tomato planting to frost, because I don’t have a heated indoor place to start my seeds anymore. I could have prevented the loss and brought the plants indoors for the night, but I haven’t had to worry about that for years … I’ve learnt now, so hopefully won’t get caught out again.

I’ve created my garden plan based on planting at the old house, but as I start to plant out peas, lettuce and spinach, I’m finding the need to adjust. How does one convert a set of six to seven metre long beds and a few odd-shaped ones to a rank of 3-metre and 8-metre ones? Add to that the fact the soil is dramatically different at the new place, and I don’t know how all the plants will respond to it and to the amendments I’ve added (cow poo, organic fertiliser, compost, green manure). Will my carrots be harvesting size before the zucchinis sprawl across their bed? Will the lettuces grow quickly enough to self-mulch? After fifteen years at the old place, I knew intuitively how each crop grew, how to get the most from the space I had by timing plantings and spacings, which varieties did best.

This year, I’m starting practically from scratch. I will plant as I am used to planting, because it’s a place to start, but I’ll be taking copious notes. Next year, I’ll have more information to go on, and the following year I’ll have more … and some day, planting at the new place will be as second-nature as it was at the old place.