Spring Cleanout

The equinox has passed and we’re on the sunny side of the year. The greenhouse is filled with vegetable seedlings. Flowers bloom in the yard. Asparagus spears and artichoke buds are popping up to grace our dinners.

Now is the time to scour the cupboards and freezer for what’s left of last summer’s bounty. It needs to be eaten before this year’s crops start to come in and make us forget.

As usual for us, the frozen peas and corn are long gone. The carrots I froze from last year’s bumper crop have been eaten, too. The currants, peaches and strawberries never stand a chance of making it to September—they are like bright sparks for winter’s darkest days.

As usual, what remains is pumpkin. Baked and frozen when the fresh pumpkins started to rot back in July, frozen pumpkin has become a staple in our springtime cooking as we scramble to finish it off.

Maybe I should plant fewer?

Except it’s the only vegetable left at this time of year. And maybe pumpkin isn’t traditionally considered a springtime vegetable but pumpkin pie, cake, galette, and pancakes are delicious any time of the year.

So bring on the flowers, the sun and the warmth. And bring on the pumpkin! We’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

pumpkin cake glazed with yogurt frosting
Pumpkin cake … best way to eat pumpkin?

Summer Stocktake

Mid-April, and it’s time to take stock of the summer’s garden. 

Compared with gardens at the old house, this year’s was a disaster—stunted plants that died off early, solanaceous crops decimated by viral disease, and heat and drought that I struggled to combat with irrigation.

But compared with what I expected, the garden was a huge success. I managed to provide the plants enough nutrients and water that they all managed to give us something. We had enough peas, corn and carrots to freeze some. We gorged on strawberries and melons. I gave away heaps of zucchini. The laundry room is piled with pumpkins. We’ve got more garlic and onion than we’ll be able to eat before it starts to sprout. And we’ve had a steady supply of tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. 

The stars of them all have been the carrots. Last spring I blogged about how well my carrots germinated this year—better than they ever had before, which was quite a surprise in the new garden. At the time, I reserved judgement—it was too much to hope the carrots would grow well in heavy clay soil studded with rocks.

But all summer we’ve been eating beautiful carrots, and last week I harvested everything remaining in the bed, because the slugs and slaters were taking their toll. The fridge is packed with carrots now, and I blanched and froze several kilograms as well.

In spite of everything, it was one of the better years I’ve had for carrots. To be fair, the roots are small, compared to the old garden. Some are bent where they hit a rock, and many broke off when I tried to lift them—if they penetrated too far into the clay, they were nearly impossible to harvest.

But even the purple carrots grew, which is quite an accomplishment for me—in past years, the purple carrots have done well in early spring, but then have been decimated by aphids, so we only ever eat them as baby carrots. Last week I harvested quite a few nice big purple carrots.

Best of all were the Paris market carrots—little, super sweet round roots perfect for lunch boxes and snacks. Their shape made them easy to pick, so there weren’t any left when I harvested the lot last week, but they’ll definitely be in next year’s lineup as well.

Overall, I consider the summer’s garden to have been a success. It’s looking pretty bare out there now, and I’m hauling cow manure from the neighbour’s place and incorporating it into the soil, so by spring I hope to have a few more nutrients available for the plants. I’m already looking forward to next summer.

A Squirrelly Weekend

Dried vegetables don’t look nice, but they’re great for backpacking.

I had a very squirrelly weekend last week. It wasn’t full of bushy-tailed, nut-eating rodents (they don’t live in New Zealand); I was the squirrel in my weekend. Squirrelling away food for later.

Thursday, I addressed an overabundance of zucchini by making zucchini bread. I tucked three loaves into the freezer to eat in the coming weeks.

On Friday, I used more of that zucchini, along with lots of other vegetables from the garden to make a vat of pasta sauce. Some of the sauce was eaten for Friday’s dinner, but most went into the freezer to eat in the coming months.

On Saturday, I shelled dry beans from the garden. Once they’ve fully dried, I’ll pack them in jars to be made into chilli and refried beans over winter.

Later that day, I made six meals worth of veggie burgers to squirrel away alongside the pasta sauce in the freezer.

All weekend, I had the dehydrator running, drying fruit and vegetables for tramping (backpacking) trips over the next year.

On Sunday, I picked, processed and froze the year’s harvest of soy beans.

My husband got into the act, too. He made two large pizzas, two-thirds of which we froze for future meals.

The garden is beginning to empty and the freezer is filling up. It’s a good feeling, in spite of the work involved. Like a squirrel, I’ll be able to curl up in my nest through the winter, nibbling on the food I’ve stored up.

Shed Cuisine

Fresh vegetables from the garden and some foraged mushrooms add a gourmet feel to even the most basic shed cuisine.

I haven’t done a proper blog post for weeks. Life’s been more than a little weird.

It’s been strange to see everyone posting on social media about all the baking and cooking they’re doing in lockdown and to feel completely separate from that. In normal times, I’m baking all the time, the cupboard never without something delicious and homemade in it. In normal times, I’m often spending two hours preparing even an ordinary weeknight dinner. In normal times, I bake scones or muffins for breakfast every Sunday. In normal times, weekends are for bread baking, jam making, preserving …

But these times are far from normal. Even ignoring Covid-19, we’re living in a shed. I’ll admit, I’ve been moping a little. A camp stove in the back yard is a poor substitute for a full kitchen and bread oven. 

But we also have rigged up the microwave and an electric kettle in the shed. And there’s the grill, too. It took a little time, but now that we’re settled in, creativity is again blossoming.

We’re learning to cook in the microwave—something we’ve never done. Apple crisp, blackcurrant crisp, fudge, frittata, porridge—I realise now we haven’t even begun to explore the possibilities of microwave cooking. It’s not the same as using a conventional oven, of course, but when a conventional oven is unavailable …

We’ve also been making excellent use of the food we preserved before the move—pesto, vegetable soup, apple sauce, pickles, olives, dried tomatoes, dried fruit, frozen fruit … there’s no shortage of excellent ingredients.

And some of the simplest meals are some of the best—potato soup, chilli, lentils and rice, risotto, risi e bisi—none of these requires more than one pot on a camp stove.

Cooking is weather-dependent—rain and wind both make cooking outdoors impossible (or at least really unpleasant)—but that just adds a little extra challenge. Maybe it will inspire a little more creativity.

What I know for certain is that I’ll appreciate the new kitchen even more when the house is finally done. 

Summer Soup 2020

No pandemic hoarding here, just the usual late season batch of Summer Soup. I’ve written about Summer Soup on numerous occasions (2015, 2016, 2018, and twice in 2019). We’ve been making it annually for at least a decade, and it has always been a family affair. In the early years, the children’s vegetable chopping efforts were more symbolic than helpful, but as their skills improved, their input became critical to the relatively rapid production of vast quantities of soup. 

This year, with our upcoming move, the garden output is less than in many years, and there’s so much to do, I wasn’t sure we would have a chance to make Summer Soup. In the end, I did it alone. Starting at 7.30 am, with many interruptions to help move furniture and tools, I began picking and processing vegetables. I pulled the final jars out of the canner shortly before 11 pm.

I listened to music and podcasts while I worked, and I got some brief help from my husband, but it wasn’t the same without the rest of the family there. Neither was the output—13 quarts of soup and 4 quarts of stock. 

I’m not disappointed—thirteen meals plus flavouring for four more will be lovely in the coming weeks and months—but I look forward to getting back to the family production of Summer Soup next year. It’s not just soup; it’s a celebration, and not nearly so much fun alone.

The Apricots of Wrath

I should have listened to Fate. 

“Don’t can apricots today!” it told me the other day. “You have no sugar in the house.”

But I looked at the vast quantities of quickly ripening apricots in the kitchen and knew they wouldn’t wait.

I drove to the store to pick up sugar.

Back home, I made my sugar syrup, washed and heated my jars, got my canning water to a boil, and prepared seven kilos of apricots.

All was going well until I was packing the fruit into jars. I kept an ear on my canner, making sure it stayed at a boil while I worked. When the bubbling hiss faded and died, I knew the gas bottle was empty. Not now!

I left off my jar filling and raced outside to switch gas bottles.

Back inside, water, jars, and sugar syrup were cooling, but I finished packing the apricots in and poured sugar syrup over them …

Only to find I was about a cup short of syrup. Gah! I quickly made up a small batch to finish off the jars.

Into the canner went the jars, and I heaved a sigh of relief. It took longer than usual to bring it all back to a boil, but I shrugged it off. It’s always that way for a cold-packed fruit. 

Then a few minutes into the boil, the canner started boiling over—orange, chunky, foamy water spilled onto the stove. Darn! A jar had broken. It’s rare, but after 30 years of use, sometimes the bottom of a jar will pop off during canning.

So for 25 minutes, I fought the sticky water boiling over on the stove. When I finally pulled the jars out, they were all coated in slimy chunks of overcooked apricot from the broken jar, and the stove was an gooey mess.

The six remaining jars all sealed, though, which was good. Pity about the stove. Took forever to clean.

Later, once the water had cooled, I tackled the job of emptying broken glass and gunk from the canner. And the first thing I did was drop the remainder of the slippery broken jar onto the floor, where it smashed to pieces.

Then, just to add insult to injury, when I dumped the chunky sticky canning water onto the compost pile, it somehow funnelled through the pile directly onto my foot. 

Cleaning up the mess took almost as long as the rest of the process, and I questioned whether it was worth it, or if I should have simply thrown away a couple of kilos of fruit and called it a day before I started.

Then my daughter pointed out that we had the makings of six fruit desserts there, ready to pull out on a winter evening. She had a point—we’ll enjoy that fruit, and by winter, I’ll have forgotten the frustration of preserving it.

But, still, I keep thinking I could have sat on the porch with a good book instead …

No Vampires Here!

Mid-winter, when it was time to plant the garlic, I had no idea where we were going to be living at harvest time. 

So I covered all my bases and planted a full complement of garlic at the old house and at the new house.

Last week I harvested the garlic from both properties. As I expected, the garlic at the new house grew poorly in the clay and rock, but it did grow and is perfectly acceptable. The garlic at the old house had a spectacular growing year—nearly every head is large and plump.

So, knowing we struggle to finish off a normal year’s garlic harvest before it sprouts and gets nasty, I made an effort to preserve a few heads. Well, thirty-two heads, to be exact.

First, I filled the dehydrator with thinly sliced garlic and dried 20 heads. I’ve dried garlic before, and we appreciate the ease of tossing a few flakes into the mortar and pestle and grinding them up. Twenty heads of garlic dries down to less than a pint jar full of flakes—uninspiring until you think about how concentrated the garlic flavour is in that jar!

Then I tried something new—I pickled 12 heads. According to the recipe I used, the cloves can be used just like fresh garlic, and when you finish off a jar, the pickling liquid makes a great flavoured vinegar for things like salad dressings. They’re quite pretty in their little jars, and I look forward to trying them long about August when the fresh garlic is sprouting. Again, twelve heads looks like nothing when peeled and packed into jars, but with 32 heads preserved and another three dozen hanging braided in the kitchen, I still have a whole bunch to give away. 

So if you’re looking for vampires, go somewhere else. They’ll be staying far away from my house for a long time.

We’ll Never be Royal … Except During Artichoke Season

Just a few of the artichokes…

It’s artichoke season again, and we are officially overwhelmed. It’s no longer a question of whether we’ll have artichokes for dinner, but what we’ll have with them. I seem to have permanent spines in my fingertips from preparing them, and my fingernails are stained an unattractive grey from the purple ones. 

But the spines and the stains are worth it. Having this many artichokes makes me feel like a queen—who else could indulge in such a luxury? (Never mind that a queen wouldn’t have to prepare her own artichokes.)

This weekend, if I can manage it around open homes, I’ll bottle (can) a year’s worth of artichokes. It’s nearly a full day’s work. Picking and prepping 60 to 70 artichokes in one go is daunting, but then we’ll have riches year-round, and all we’ll have to do is open a jar to get them. Not too hard to take.

Inspired Red Currant Cobbler

Sometimes you have an idea that simply works.

We have a large quantity of red currants in the freezer from last summer, so we regularly enjoy red currant desserts. Usually, we make crisp with them, but tonight we wanted something different.

I decided to make a cobbler, but I wanted something different from a plain biscuit on top—something sweeter, and with a bit more flavour to complement the intense sour of the currants.

In a stroke of inspiration, I remembered a biscuit recipe in King Arthur Flour’s Whole Grain Baking book. I’ve never made the recipe, but I’ve often looked at it. It pairs cornmeal and maple syrup, and I was pretty sure those were the perfect flavours to go with red currants.

I was right.

The result was perfectly balanced, cake-like, and absolutely delicious (and would probably be excellent with frozen cranberries, if you don’t have red currants).

Combine in a shallow baking dish:
3/8 cup sugar
3 cups frozen red currants

Set aside while you make the biscuit.

Combine in a medium mixing bowl:
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup wholemeal flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

Cut into the dry ingredients until the consistency of coarse crumbs:
80 g (5 Tbsp) cold butter

Combine in a small bowl or measuring cup:
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup maple syrup

Add the liquid to the dry ingredients, mixing until evenly moistened. Pat out the dough into a shape to fit neatly over the fruit in your baking dish. Poke steam vents into the dough. Bake 30-40 minutes at 190ºC (375ºF). 

*Like any baked fruit dessert, this gets quite bubbly. Mine boiled over onto the bottom of the oven—you may want to set the dish on top of a baking sheet to avoid a mess in the oven.

Reprise: Summer Soup

I usually blog about summer soup when we make it. It’s a major point in the garden calendar and deserves a mention at that time.

I’ve never said a word about it during the winter, but this is when it is most appreciated.

Yesterday we all got home late from work and school. It was dark and cold. We were tired and hungry. I was crashing into a miserable head cold I’d kept at bay all day by sheer force of will.

And there was the summer soup, waiting to welcome us home and usher us into summer, if only for a brief time. I heated up a jar of edible summer, and we sat down to eat within minutes of arriving home.

I took a spoonful and shut my eyes. Tomato, zucchini, green beans, corn and soy … all the flavours of summer soothed my raw throat and pounding head. The heat of sun-ripened jalapeños and Thai chilis warmed my sinuses and eased my congestion. For a short time my winter cold was forgotten in the glory of a summer’s day.

I harbour no illusions—summer soup won’t cure my cold, nor will it lessen its severity and duration. But it certainly can make my illness more bearable.

And so again I sing the praises of summer soup, and am thankful for the family effort that makes it possible to ease a cold and enjoy the summer sun in the heart of winter.