Do I have to eat it?

Nance is a small yellow fruit popular in Panama. When my husband and I first arrived there, chicha de nance (a drink made from crushed nance fruit) was something we could barely choke down out of politeness to our hosts. The flesh of nance fruits is oily, gritty, acidic, and has a funky cheesy flavour. If you think too much about it, chicha de nance is reminiscent of watery vomit.

So you’ll understand why we didn’t like it.

But during nance season (and for several months afterwards, because people store it in bottles of water—yeah, don’t even think about what grows in those bottles) it’s impossible to avoid nance. Everyone you visit serves chicha de nance. Neighbours give you bottles filled with nance fruit.

You learn to drink it without grimacing. Before long you’re drinking it without even thinking about vomit. It’s a slippery slope from there, and next thing you know, you’re looking forward to nance season and wondering if you can trade some eggs for a bottle of nance from your neighbour.

I’m thinking about nance today as I contemplate the feijoas dripping from our tiny feijoa bushes. This is the plants’ first year producing fruit and I am amazed and a little terrified at their productivity.

I’m terrified because I hate feijoas. I don’t even like the smell. Simply walking past the fruit bowl when there are a few ripe feijoas in there makes me wrinkle my nose in disgust. I find it hard to breathe around them. Eating one makes me shudder—I swallow quickly to avoid tasting it too much.

Fortunately for me this year, my husband has been keeping up with the feijoas—he loves them. But those feijoa bushes are only going to get bigger. Next year I will have no excuses—I’ll have to eat them. 

So I’m thinking about nance. If I could learn to love a fruit that tastes and feels like vomit, surely I can learn to love feijoas, right?

They say a child needs to try a food up to 15 times before they’ll eat it. That’s a lot of feijoas …

There’s No Place Like Home

I’ve been feeling a bit like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz this week. Having been on a crazy whirlwind of a trip to the U.S. and Scotland, my overwhelming feeling since my return has been, ‘There’s no place like home’.

Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed my travels. It was great to see family in the U.S. for the first time in six (!) years, and Scotland was new and exciting. I love traveling by train, and enjoyed every minute watching the Scottish countryside roll by. And I’d never set foot in a real castle before, so visiting four of them was a highly educational experience, and something I can’t do in New Zealand. The botanic garden in Glasgow was a real treat as well—I wandered through the massive greenhouses twice, because they were so marvellous.

But I have to admit that the best part of the trip was coming home to my own greenhouse, bursting with vegetables.

Before we left, I set up automatic watering and shut the door, trusting to the automatic window openers to provide enough ventilation if the weather was warm.

Three weeks later, both summer and winter crops had obviously thrived in the warm, humid environment. A bit too humid, actually—the slaters had moved into the tomato plants (and apparently like to eat tomatoes) because it was too moist on the ground.

Aphids thrived, too, while we were gone, but all in all, I was pleased. To arrive home to fresh vegetables was an incredible gift, and it reminded me once again of how blessed we are to live where we do.

So I am happy to be home, pulling weeds, squishing aphids, and doing all the autumnal garden tidying I haven’t yet gotten to. It’s not a vacation, but it is home.

Autumnal Assessment

April is upon us, and it’s time to assess how the garden year went.

In a word, it was disappointing. 

It started off bad, with my seedlings in fungal-infected seed raising mix. That problem was made worse when I contracted Covid and couldn’t move those seedlings into better mix quickly, so they languished for a while. Many were planted out late or small.

And the problems continued once plants were in the garden. Flooding last winter sucked the nitrogen out of the soil in about half the garden, leaving my pumpkins, corn, peppers and eggplants all looking anaemic. To be fair, I harvested pumpkins—enough to enjoy fresh, but not my usual quantity that lasts us all year. We also ate sweet corn, but had none extra to freeze. The peppers and eggplants were so slow to grow this year that they’re only now ripening fruits—just in time to be killed off by winter temperatures.

The tomatoes and peas grew well this year, but were decimated by birds.

The cucumbers and melons were slammed by phytophthora during an early summer wet period—most died, and those that survived grew slowly. The only cucumbers that grew well turned out inedibly bitter, and I tore the plants out of the ground.

On the positive side, the potatoes were great—died off a little earlier than I expected, but produced plenty of tubers, with little trouble in the way of pests and disease. 

The perennial fruits did well overall, too, and the freezer is stuffed with berries for the winter. Even the 3-year-old fruit trees gave us crops this year (small ones, but the trees are still tiny themselves).

So, as usual, there were wins and losses, and now I’m looking forward to how to increase the wins for next year. I spent the past several weekends digging a drainage ditch and soak pit to draw flood water off the garden this winter. Hopefully that will help retain the nutrients I’m hauling to the garden in the form of manure each week. My husband and I have also been discussing improving our bird defences before next spring—permanently netting an area of the garden for the most bird-ravaged crops. I’ve also identified some new varieties of bean that are doing better in the new garden than my standards from the old garden, and I’ll adjust next year’s planting to allow more space for the more vigorous varieties. 

That’s the best part of gardening, really. You always get another chance to do it better. So I head into autumn a little disappointed in last year’s garden, but with high hopes for what next year will bring.

Cheese and Quince Tart

Our quince tree gave its first harvest ever this year, which is exciting. I picked them today, and my husband went looking for some new (to us) recipes that use quince.

He came across Tarta de Queso y Membrillo con Almíbar de Cardamomo—Cheese and Quince Tart with Cardamom Syrup. How could I resist? 

It’s been a while since I followed a recipe in Spanish, so there was an added level of adventure for me making this recipe. I don’t think I ever bought or used azúcar flor (icing sugar) when we lived in Panama, so I had to look that one up.

Even in your native language, this is not a tart you whip out quickly—nothing using quince is, and this has lots of different things to prepare—but it is delicious! It’s essentially cheesecake with caramelised quince in a pie crust. What’s not to like?

I modified the recipe slightly—here’s my version, in English.

Cheese layer:
1 package cream cheese
1/2 cup unsweetened yogurt
2 Tbs honey
1 egg
1 Tbs fresh lemon juice

Quince layer:
3 large or 6 small quince
1/4 cup brown sugar
25 g butter
1 Tbs cinnamon

Enough pie dough for 1 crust (see my pie dough recipe here)

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Cardamom syrup:
3/4 cup icing sugar
3 Tbs fresh lemon juice
3 cardamom pods

Make your pie crust and refrigerate until needed.

Mix the ingredients for the cheese layer with a handheld mixer until well combined. Set aside.

Peel, core, and thinly slice the quince (you should have 7-8 cups of fruit). Place the quince, butter and brown sugar in a large skillet and cook on low heat for about 10 minutes, until the quince has softened. Stir in the cinnamon.

Roll out the pie dough and line a pie or tart pan with it. Pour the cheese mixture evenly over the bottom of the crust. Layer the caramelised quince on top, and sprinkle with chopped walnuts.

Bake at 190℃ for 40-45 minutes.

While the pie is baking, make the sugar syrup. Place the icing sugar, lemon juice and cardamom pods in a small saucepan and boil gently for 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool. Drizzle over the pie when serving.

The recipe I used said to serve the tart warm, which is how we ate it this evening. But I’m looking forward to a second piece tomorrow, because I think it’ll be even better cold. 

Next time I make this (because there will no doubt be a next time), I’ll crush the cardamom pods so that the syrup is more strongly flavoured. I also think it would be even more spectacular with a cup of ugni berries (Chilean guava) tossed into the quince mixture.

If you don’t have quince, this tart would be lovely made with apple or pear, too.

Harvest Days

My hands smell like onions. My fingernails are stained purple. The walls and cabinetry in the kitchen are festooned with colourful splatters and drips. The floor is sticky underfoot.

It must be harvest time.

The garden gushes vegetables in late summer, and the shorter days warn that it’s time to start preserving the bounty before it’s gone.

One of my favourite ways to save summer’s vegetables is in summer soup (which I’ve blogged about nearly every year since 2015). Because soup uses a bit of everything, there’s no need to have vast quantities of any one vegetable. And it doesn’t matter if, say, the sweet peppers bombed or there’s an overabundance of sweet corn. Soup accepts what you’ve got and returns lovely meals all packaged and ready to go on those winter evenings when you come home late from work. It is both forgiving and giving.

So it’s worth a long day in the kitchen to make and bottle (can) a big vat of the stuff.

And while you’re at it, it’s super easy to toss carrot peels, corn cobs, celery tops, and other ‘waste’ from soup making into a large pot to simmer for stock. Run the stock through the canner after the soup, and you’ve got delicious summer flavouring for winter risottos and stews.

So I may have spent fourteen hours in the kitchen on Saturday, but at the end of the day, I had fourteen quarts of soup and six quarts of stock (and another four quarts of pickled onions, because you know, if you’re going to spend all day in the kitchen, you may as well make the most of it.

In the coming weeks, I’ll bring in the pumpkins and potatoes, freeze sweet corn, and string hot peppers for drying. The kitchen will be messy, and I’ll have too much to get done.

But when it’s all over, I’ll be able to relax, at least for a while, until the winter crops need to be weeded …

Enjoying the Shoulder Season

Summer sunflowers are still in full swing.

The end of February marks the end of official summer in New Zealand. The shift to autumn is full of ups and downs. The first half of this week was as hot as it gets here, with temperatures in the low 30s (around 90℉). On Tuesday, it was hot enough that my husband and I headed to the beach for a swim after work, and I didn’t even need my wetsuit—the water and the air were both warm. 

But on Wednesday, a front came through, bringing rain and a decidedly autumnal chill. By Thursday, the porcini were sprouting—a sure sign of autumn.

Of course, also on Thursday we harvested plenty of summer vegetables from the garden—zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers. The transitions between seasons are drawn out, messy affairs. The weather forecast for next week includes more summery weather intermixed with the rain and chill of autumn.

Autumn mushrooms are coming on.

So for now, we get to enjoy the delights of both seasons, harvesting summer’s bounty amidst the treats autumn brings. This weekend, I’ll plant out my winter crops, giving them time to establish during the shoulder season, before summer’s warmth leaves entirely. I’ll also harvest the soy beans and bottle up some summer soup before the vegetables are gone. Summer’s not over yet, but it’s time to start packing up. 

Zucchini and Tomato Tart

We’re in the bountiful days of summer right now. And while I’d like to be sitting in a chaise lounge enjoying that bounty all day, someone’s got to pick it and process it. At the moment, the processing mostly involves making pickles and chutneys, but there’s a lot more to come. Then there’s the necessary watering, weeding, tying up of tomatoes, planting of winter crops (because as John Snow says, winter’s coming)…

zucchini tomato tart

But at the end of each day, we do get to enjoy the fruits of the season. Last night I made one of my favourite mid-summer meals—zucchini and tomato tart.

The beauty of this tart belies its simplicity—just tomato and zucchini, embellished with a little parmesan cheese, garlic and basil. 

Back when I had dairy goats, I’d spread a layer of chevre on the bottom, too, which was divine. It also had the bonus of preventing the crust from getting too soggy. These days, without an unlimited supply of goat cheese, I put up with a soggy crust—the tart is still amazing.

This tart relies on having the best tomato and zucchini possible—it’s not a dish to make with out-of-season vegetables—so if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, hang in there and enjoy this gem in July and August instead.

Download the recipe here.

The Holiday Season Down Under

blackcurrant bushes

It’s been too long since my last post. I have illness to thank again. And simple early summer busyness. The strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries, black currants and red currants are all coming in now, and I’m wondering how on Earth I’m going to pick and process them all!

The big garden excitement here at the moment is the new greenhouse that my husband and I gave to each other for Christmas. Yes, we know it was a rather early Christmas gift, but by the time we get the thing set up and ready to go, it’ll be Christmas Day. I’m looking forward to having more garden space under cover for some tender perennial crops and better winter growing.

I’m off to pick berries now and consider what different jams I’m going to be making this weekend! I’ll leave you with a little bit of Christmas doggerel (because I can’t help myself–bad holiday poetry just spills out of my brain at this time of year).

Down here where kiwi birds roam
Santa trades snowy rooftops for foam
Of the incoming tide
As the reindeer all ride
A Sea-Doo till it’s time to go home.

Down here while the barbies heat up
Santa sips pinos gris from a cup.
With sand in his shorts
He’ll play summertime sports
Till the elves tell him it’s time to sup.

Down here where pavlova is king
Santa enjoys his annual fling
Wiggling tired bare feet
In the summertime heat
While we wait for the gifts that he’ll bring.

The base of the new greenhouse. Raised beds to lift plants above winter flooding and provide decent soil for growing. Hopefully we’ll get the top put together this weekend.

Crisis and Creativity

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, but I contend that actually it’s crisis that’s the real mother of invention.

Lately I feel like I’ve hit one crisis after another—getting Covid during the busiest season in the garden, having book sales completely tank in the lead-up to Christmas, having a critical component of a week-long science lesson be unavailable anywhere last week …

In the garden, I cut corners, laying compost on top of the soil rather than incorporating it as I usually do, in order to save time and limited physical energy. It’s something I hoped to be able to start doing, but figured I still had years of breaking up clay before it would work. Surprisingly, while the soil is a little harder than I’d like it to be for planting, it’s not terrible. If the plants do okay, I may have just changed my garden routine for good, saving me lots of work.

For my books, I’ve taken a step back from the ‘usual’ marketing techniques that have been costing me more than they’ve been bringing in. I’ve analysed what I’m good at, what I enjoy doing, and how I can incorporate those things into my marketing strategy, rather than banging my head against marketing strategies I’m no good at and hate doing. It will take a while to implement my new plan, and even longer to know if it works, but I’m having a great time working on marketing at the moment, rather than dreading every second of it as I usually do.

In the classroom, with less than 24 hours until my science lesson, I launched into preparations for plan B—activities I hadn’t run in 30 years. I felt completely unprepared, and kept realising things I’d forgotten to prepare or forgotten to do—each time I looked around at the resources to hand and got creative. The result was a set of fabulous lessons that didn’t look at all like I’d planned, but which worked well and were fun for everyone.

I really hope next week isn’t as full of crisis as the past several have been, but if they are, I’m pretty sure that as long as I keep moving forward, creativity will blossom and I’ll end up in better shape than before.

Here’s to crisis and creativity!

Springtime Sick Days

It’s been a while since my last blog post. I wish I could say it’s because I’ve been so busy in the garden I haven’t had a chance to sit down. 

Reality is I’ve finally been hit by Covid, so I haven’t been in the garden at all for days.

The weeds are growing, the pests multiplying, and time is ticking away in the spring planting season while I’m indoors sneezing, coughing and blowing my nose. 

It’s not the end of the world, of course, but it is frustrating.

However, there have been positives of an enforced rest.

  • I’ve never enjoyed the flowers outside my windows more. Right now, the pansies are a riot of purples and yellows throughout the flowerbeds, the snow-in-summer is a frosty carpet of blooms, the geum is flowering with the richest red, columbines are opening their blooms, and best of all, the irises right outside my office window have started to bloom. These plants were rescued from the school I work at when their location was due to be paved over. I had no idea what colour they were, and it turns out they’re a gorgeous purple—my favourite iris colour.
  • I’m appreciating anew the security of having plenty of preserved fruit and vegetables from last year and spring vegetables in the garden. No matter that we’re not allowed to leave home for a week—everything we need is here.
  • I’m appreciating the care of other gardeners who have offered help and dropped off fresh lemons for us.
  • I’ve gotten some sewing done, which is unusual at this time of year, when I’m usually occupied by the garden. 
  • I’ve read several books—always a bonus.
  • Now that I’m feeling a bit better, I’ve been able to get some writing done. I was disappointed Covid took me away from editing my next book, because I felt like I was on a roll. But a few days away from the computer gave me time to more deeply consider the changes I needed to make, and the edits I’m now making are going to lead to a better book. That’s a win!
  • Most importantly, I’m in isolation with my husband (who is also sick), and the extra time together is a gift.

So in spite of the fact there is a mountain of work awaiting me in the garden, getting Covid hasn’t been a complete disaster. Eventually I’ll be well enough to get back to the vegetables and the weeds, and they’ll still be there for me when I do.