Music of the Night

Photo: Marcelo Zurita (CC BY-SA 4.0)

One of the pleasures of the short days of autumn is doing morning chores in the dark.

I know that sounds weird. I don’t particularly enjoy tripping over the tools someone forgot on the lawn the day before, nor am I overly fond of the cold wind slicing through my jacket.

It’s the sights and sounds of early morning that I enjoy.

Yesterday morning was particularly spectacular. The sky overhead was clear and star-studded—shimmering glitter strewn across the blackest velvet.

But the stars to the south were blotted out, and lightning flashed and forked far out at sea. The storm itself was silent from my distance, but the surf roared with a storm’s fury.

By the time the sun rose, birdsong, barking dogs and the drone of tractors drowned out the sound of the waves. Sunshine masked the flash of lightning as the storm stalked along the coast. The day dawned serene and mundane.

Other wonders have been revealed to me on my morning chores over the years.

A bioluminescent worm in the chook paddock.

Shooting stars streaking from zenith to horizon.

A bioluminescent sea creature frozen in snow and deposited in the garden.

The aurora australis pulsing green in the southern sky.

Rats tiptoeing along the top wire of a fence (I know, rats, ick. But it was an amazing feat of balance).

Little owls cackling in the treetops and swooping silently overhead.

The graceful undulation of a fence during an earthquake.

The comforting warmth of a goat’s flank on a frosty morning.

The gentle caress of a nor’west gale before it turns violent.

The rhythmic heartbeat of the sea at rest.

The clarity of thought on a crisp dark morning, before the stress of the day intrudes.

Summer’s Final Farewell

I moved the chickens into the vegetable garden last weekend—the final admission that summer is over.

I know it’s been over for weeks, but there have still been eggplants, peppers and tomatoes coming out of the tunnel houses. Before I moved the chooks, I harvested the last of those summer crops. We’ll savour them over the next week or so, and then it will be full-on winter from a culinary perspective, at least.

I’ve stocked up on barley to cook with our dry beans in bean-barley soup. Maybe I’ll add a bit of mushroom stock made from this autumn’s haul of porcini.

I’ve baked up some pumpkins so I have cooked pumpkin on hand for pie or galette later in the week. I’ll add frozen spring peas and summer corn to the galette, and garlic, stored in braids in the shed.

I’m eyeing up the secondary head of cabbage, sprouting from the remains of the summer crop. They’ll make tasty winter salads to complement warming meals.

i’ve planted out the winter crops, too—lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. They will provide us the late-winter vegetables we’ll crave come August.

So while I farewell summer, I welcome the culinary delights of winter. Not so varied, perhaps, as summer fare, but no less delicious.

Skink Snap

Stepping out the door one day last week, I met with this lovely skink on the porch. It’s not unusual to see them on our property, but it is unusual for them to sit still for photographs. The cool morning must have made this one sluggish, because he happily waited while I snapped a few pictures. 

I’m always pleased to see skinks; native vertebrates are pretty rare out here in the middle of the Canterbury Plains. We’ve deliberately landscaped to protect and encourage skinks, as I’ve blogged about before. It’s nice to know our efforts have been successful. On sunny days the native plantings rustle with unseen skinks, and the rocks sport basking lizards. I’ve learned not to leave garden hoses lying on the ground, lest a lizard take up residence in the open end.

The common skinks in our yard aren’t in any danger of extinction (unlike many of our native lizards, which are), but it’s nice to know they thrive here. Seeing them makes me smile.

Apple and Quince Pie

Sometimes inspiration strikes and it’s glorious.

That’s what happened yesterday afternoon when I decided I had to do something with the remaining apples and quince before they went bad.

I wondered…was apple quince pie a thing?

A quick glance at the internet told me it was, and confirmed my suspicions that the quince needed to be cooked before being put in the pie.

So, making it up as I went, I created this absolutely stunning pie. It was fabulous warm with whipped cream, but I think it was even better at room temperature the following day. More work than your average apple pie, but this isn’t your average apple pie.

4 cups sliced quinces
4 cups sliced apples
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp nutmeg
2 Tbs flour

Pie dough for a single-crust pie

Topping:
2/3 cup flour
2/3 cup walnuts, finely chopped
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
5 Tbs butter, melted

Place quince slices in a medium saucepan with a few tablespoons of water and cook gently until soft (5-10 minutes). In a bowl, combine apples, flour, sugar and spices. Stir the cooked quince into the apple mixture. Roll out your crust and place it in a pie plate. Combine all the topping ingredients in a bowl and mix with a fork until crumbly. Pour the apple mixture into the pie crust and top with the topping. Bake 50 minutes at 190ºC (375ºF).

The Indispensable Hoe

I was preparing the garden for my winter crops on Saturday when disaster struck. 

Okay, it wasn’t really a disaster, but it did effectively end my work for the day.

My hoe broke.

This has happened before. This particular hoe has been held together for years by duct tape after I cracked the handle on a particularly difficult clump of grass. Unfortunately, duct tape wasn’t going to fix this failure—this one was terminal, at least for the handle.

A few back-of-the-envelope calculations reveal that this hoe has done about 6,300 hours of work for me over its lifetime. It has measured and prepared garden beds, dug furrows for seeds, removed weeds, cleared paths, and mixed concrete. And it’s done all this with almost no maintenance—some sharpening, some cleaning, a little duct tape.

It’s no wonder the hoe is one of the oldest garden tools. The first evidence of hoes comes from cave paintings made in about 5000 B.C. Although there are many variations in hoe design, the basic idea has changed little for thousands of years; it’s a tried and true design that does the job well.

So this week I’ll find a replacement for my expired hoe. It’s not a tool I can do without.

Vilma’s Eggplant–better late than never

I’ve blogged about Vilma’s Eggplant in the past, but it’s worth repeating a recipe this good.

This year’s eggplants took a long time to get going, and it’s only now that summer is over that they’re really giving well. But it’s never too late for Vilma’s Marinated Eggplant. This stuff could make an eggplant lover out of anyone.

Vilma was the sister of our host mother during Peace Corps training in Costa Rica. She was loud and fiery-tempered, and regularly stayed with our host family when she was fighting with her partner.

When she was with us, she cooked—glorious Italian food she’d learned to make from her partner. Her food was a flavourful gift in a house where vegetables were usually boiled to death and served plain. 

One of the most wonderful things Vilma made was thinly sliced eggplant marinated in garlicky vinegar. She’d leave a jar of it in the fridge when she left, and we would savour it for a week on our sandwiches or with our mushy, flavourless boiled vegetables.

I foolishly never asked Vilma for the recipe, but a bit of trial and error was all it took to recreate Vilma’s marinated eggplant. 

This recipe mostly fills a quart-sized jar. It keeps for a long time in the fridge and makes a lovely addition to sandwiches. Serve it on crackers for party appetisers—it’s not the prettiest food, but after one bite, none of your guests will care.

2 small to medium eggplants
1 clove garlic, crushed
½ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Peel eggplants and slice very thin (1-2 mm). Steam until the slices are tender and limp (but not falling apart completely). Whisk all the other ingredients together in a small bowl, and toss them gently with the hot steamed eggplant. Refrigerate at least an hour before serving (the longer the better, as the eggplant will soak up more marinade).

Embracing Autumn

Our summer has finally turned to autumn. Cooler temperatures and more rain mean the grass has begun to grow again, green shoots sprouting through rain-driven drifts of dead vegetation.

The tomatoes are browning, spent after summer’s excess, and while I mourn their loss, I welcome the fruits of autumn—pumpkin, wild boletes, black beans, apples and a return of leafy greens. I welcome warming soups and casseroles. I welcome the smell of baking pie, simmering beans, and sautéing mushrooms.

I welcome the reduced workload in the garden, too. There’s still plenty of harvesting to be done, and I’ll be clearing away dead plants throughout autumn and winter, but soon I’ll release the chickens into the garden to keep the weeds and pests in check until spring.

It’s time now to take stock. Plenty of summer soup, pickles and jam in the cupboard; strings of onions and garlic hanging in the kitchen; pesto, peas and corn in the freezer. Jars of popcorn and dry beans line the shelf, and a basket of apples sits in the kitchen. We will eat well this winter, food and effort stored in jars and freezer boxes to be released and enjoyed on dark, cold evenings. 

So I will savour the warmth and sun that remains, but embrace the cold to come.