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.

Kitchen Disaster

A beautiful new kitchen is no proof against disasters.

Yesterday I baked a batch of chocolate cupcakes. I used a devils food cake recipe from Tartine. It’s an intensely decadent recipe that uses 1 1/4 cups of cocoa. The result is a dark, rich cake that could satisfy any chocolate craving.

The recipe makes two dozen cupcakes, and as I walked across the kitchen to put the trays into the oven, one of the trays slipped out of my hand. A dozen unbaked cupcakes flew through the air to splat on the floor and all down the kitchen table. 

I was so stunned, I didn’t even swear. Half my cupcakes had just been ruined, and there was cake batter splattered across the kitchen.

After a few moments I began to laugh. Then I took some photos before trying to salvage some of the batter and clean up the mess.

I managed to retrieve enough clean batter for six cupcakes, so all was not completely lost.

And I got a blog post out of it—always look for the silver lining …

And the cupcakes? Delicious!

Pumpkin Scones

Necessity is the mother of invention.

That may be so, but laziness is invention’s maternal grandmother.

I was lazy on Sunday morning. I wanted pumpkin muffins, but I didn’t want to have to grease and then wash the muffin tins.

So I made up a new scone recipe to satisfy my pumpkin cravings. The results were delicious and satisfying. Best of all, there was no greasing and washing of muffin tins. Here’s the recipe in case you’re feeling lazy too.

2 cups barley flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp each of cloves, nutmeg, ginger and salt
125 g (1/2 cup) butter
1 egg
1 cup cooked, mashed pumpkin
1/4 cup cream
1/2 cup brown sugar

Sift together the flours, baking soda, baking powder and spices in a large bowl. Cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg, pumpkin, cream and brown sugar. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and mix until just moistened. Knead lightly and briefly until the dough comes together into a ball. Divide the dough in half. Pat each half into a round about 2 cm (3/4-inch) thick and cut into 8 wedges. Place the wedges on an ungreased baking sheet and bake 11-12 minutes at 200ºC (400ºF) on fan bake.

*I added nothing to these scones, but they’d be excellent with dried cranberries incorporated into the dough. I expect that replacing half a cup of the barley flour with cornmeal would be a nice variation too.

Weeding Magpies

Photo: Eric Weiss

We’re still getting to know the local wildlife at the new house. The marauding sparrows are pretty much the same—devouring young lettuce and chicken feed in large flocks. The black-backed gull’s evening flights to their nightly roos on the gravel banks of the Waimakariri River are also familiar—though at the old house, the birds were headed to the sea.

The magpies are also familiar, but I’ve noticed some intriguing behaviour here that was absent at the old house.

The magpies here are weeding my garden.

Well okay, not really. Not on purpose. But they’re doing a nice job of it, regardless.

Our yard and garden here are cursed with wire weed. This aggressive plant’s long tough branches sprawl up to a metre or more from a strong central tap root. They tangle in the lawnmower and garden tools, and can trip the unwary. Their only saving grace is that, at least in our lousy soil, their foliage is small and sparse—they may tangle all through my crops, but at least they don’t smother other plants entirely.

And apparently, they make superior magpie nesting material. For weeks, the local magpies have been avidly stripping wire weed from the garden and hauling it to the tops of the pine trees across the road. They started with the easily obtained dead plants that I’d pulled out and left lying about. But now they’re ripping up live plants and taking them away by the beakful.

All the more reason to love these feisty feathered thugs.

Cinnamon Muffins

I’m still revelling in our glorious new kitchen—it’s such a pleasure to cook and bake in! It inspires creativity.

This morning I tried out a new recipe for cinnamon muffins, and I think I hit on a winner. They’re quick to make and taste delicious!

1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup wholemeal flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 Tbs cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs

Topping: 2 tsp sugar and 1/2 tsp cinnamon

Combine the flours, sugar, cinnamon and salt in a large bowl. Whisk together the milk, oil and eggs in a separate bowl. Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in the wet, mixing only until combined. In a small bowl, combine the sugar and cinnamon for the topping.

Fill greased cupcake tins with the batter. Sprinkle sugar/cinnamon mix over each muffin.

Bake 15-17 minutes at 190ºC (375ºF). Allow to cool 5 minutes in the pans before turning them out.

Makes 16 muffins.

Enjoying the New Kitchen

Rain pounded on the roof and hissed against the windows. Wind whipped around the porch, tossing deck chairs everywhere. I lay warm in bed, only vaguely registering the weather, grateful once again to be in the new house and not in the shed.

We’re still settling into the house, but we’ve already given the kitchen a workout. Some days, when I step into that room, I wonder what we were thinking—it’s so huge! Then I cook something and appreciate every inch of space.

It’s been hard to get a photo of the foods we’ve baked–they’re eaten so quickly.

We’ve been craving all the baked goods we haven’t been able to make in the past three months. In the first twenty-four hours after moving in, we baked eight loaves of bread, three dozen cookies, and a batch of lemon scones. Over the next four days, we added pizza, Not yo’ mama’s mac and cheese, quiche, apricot tart, chocolate cupcakes, and homemade granola to that list. Moving into our second week in the house, we’ve made Mum’s fluffy buns, bean burgers, oven baked French fries, Irish soda bread, spaghetti with tofu meatballs, and roast vegetables.

Visiting some of our favourite foods after too many months without them has been a delight. It may be time to head to the library for some inspiration now—think what new things we could make in the fabulous new kitchen!

Chocolate Currant Upside Down Cake

Usually I bake a fancy cake for Queen’s Birthday, because any birthday is an excuse for cake. Heck, any day is an excuse for cake. But Her Majesty’s birthday is an excuse for FANCY cake.

This year, however, my cake baking abilities were limited. I made a chocolate blackcurrant upside down cake in the microwave, of course, since we’re still living in the shed. 

It was, perhaps, the ugliest cake I’ve ever made—rivalled only by the red currant upside down cake I made a couple of weeks ago. Something about the currants makes the cake slump in a truly unattractive fashion when flipped.

Good thing Her Majesty was busy this evening and couldn’t make it. We slathered the cake in generous helpings of whipped cream to hide its ugliness.

But there was no hiding the amazing flavour. I’m quite fond of blackcurrant and chocolate together, and the cake featured both flavours perfectly.

Below is the recipe. I’ve made this with frozen red currants as well, and it’s equally good.

Topping:
60 g (1/4 cup) butter
1/2 cup sugar
approx. 1 cup frozen (thawed) black currants

Cake:
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup wholemeal flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup milk
1/2 tsp vanilla

Make the topping: Melt butter in a 23 cm (9-in) square microwave-safe baking pan. Sprinkle sugar over the butter and then spread the currants evenly over the butter-sugar mix. Set aside.

Cake: Combine flours, cocoa, salt, and baking powder in a large bowl. Whisk the sugar, eggs, oil, milk and vanilla in another bowl until well mixed. Pour wet ingredients into the dry and stir until just moistened. Pour batter over the topping in the baking pan and bake in the microwave on high for about 7 minutes (the top should still look quite sticky and wet). Turn the cake out onto a plate immediately and leave the pan over top for a few minutes to let all the sticky goodness drip onto the cake. Serve warm with whipped cream.