Beach Hangout

We nipped out to the beach after dinner on Saturday. We had a nice walk on our lovely, lonely bit of coastline.

But the beach was busy with youth hanging out (up to no good, probably). Some were alone, and some were in groups, strutting their stuff.

But these youth weren’t your usual crowd of city kids, they were juvenile spotted shags, Strictocarbo punctatus punctatus, also known as spotted cormorants, parekareka, and kawau tikitiki.

Shags were once heavily persecuted as pests. Fisherman believed they destroyed the fisheries, snapping up all the commercial fish and decimating their numbers. Research has shown, however, that their impact on fisheries is minimal. On the other hand, there is some evidence that, in our area at least, shag populations are hurt by commercial fishing. Spotted shag populations on the Banks Peninsula rose from 9,787 pairs in 1960 to 22,123 pairs in 1996 following a reduction in commercial fishing around the peninsula. Illegal shooting can also cause local population declines.

The spotted shag is a marine species, never venturing far from the sea and feeding in deep water up to 16 km from shore. They’re gregarious, breeding and roosting in colonies with up to 2000 birds. The groups of juveniles on our beach were small—a few dozen birds at most. These birds were probably born on cliffs around the Banks Paninsula, and when mature, they’ll head back to those cliffs to lay eggs and rear their young.

So they really were just hanging out on the beach, just like teenagers from Christchurch hang out on the beach on weekends, away from the adults, goofing off and getting takeaways.

Nifty Nigella

Late summer is harvest time for all sorts of crops. Nigella might be the most unusual one I harvested this week.

Nigella sativa goes by many names: nigella, kalonji, black cumin, fennel flower, nutmeg seed, onion seed, and black caraway. Added to this mess of often misleading names is Nigella sativa’s ornamental cousin, Nigella damascena, also known as nigella (or love-in-a-mist). You could be forgiven for being confused.

Culinary nigella is a lovely aromatic seed that looks confusingly like onion seed. Its flavour has been described as oniony or oregano-like. I’m not sure how I would describe it—I suppose onion and oregano come close, but the truth is it has its own warm rich flavour. It is traditionally used in naan and string cheese. It’s also apparently great with lentils and other legumes.

Because we rarely harvest much nigella, we’ve only used it in naan, where it imparts a lovely savoury note to the bread. 

But this year, conditions must have been just right for nigella; it grew luxuriantly. Consequently, I have a huge quantity of seeds, so I expect we’ll be trying it out in all sorts of stews and curries. I’m looking forward to the addition to our spicing options.

Summer Soup 2019: proof we really are nuts

The family made our annual Summer Soup on Sunday. 

I think we definitively proved we have no self-control when it comes to gardening or cooking. In spite of me reducing my garden area this year, and despite the knowledge that our son is leaving home in a week (and won’t be around to eat this year’s soup), we managed to make even more than usual.

We filled all three of our big stock pots, and it took from 7.30 am to 9.00 pm to pick, chop, and process all that soup.

We had soup for dinner, I put a meal’s worth of soup in the fridge, and there are 28 beautiful quart jars full of soup lined up in the cupboard. 

Summer Soup is full of potatoes, carrots, soy, green beans, zucchini, tomato, sweet peppers, hot peppers, onions, garlic, sweet corn, beet root, basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and celery. The only thing not from the garden is the salt. It’s a burst of summer goodness for the cold days of winter. It’s a quick and delicious meal when we all come home late. 

But it’s more than preserved vegetables. It’s a whole-family team building exercise. After a dozen years, it’s a family tradition. Each soup-making session brings back memories of early years, when the kids’ help was more of a hinderance. They took enormous pride in their work those years, reciting the vegetables they’d cut every time we opened a jar.

Now they’re both accomplished cooks, and their help allows us to go way overboard on soup-making. They’re less vocal about it now, but I think they’re still proud of their part in Summer Soup.

As I’ve mentioned before, anyone can make soup, but it takes a family to make Summer Soup.

Mystery Maggots

Caterpillar, not maggot–see the six true legs and 10 prolegs?

The weather has been hot here, and all the doors and windows stand open all day. With no window screens, that means an array of bugs (and the occasional bird) pops in and out of the house. It’s not unusual to find flies, butterflies, damselflies, etc. on the windows. 

Still, I did a double-take when I saw maggots on my desk the other day. I knew they hadn’t flown in on their own—they must have been hatched nearby. I checked for unseen dead things on the shelves above, but found nothing. There was another maggot this morning, and I did a second unsuccessful check for the source. Then, while I was away from my desk for fifteen minutes, another appeared.

This time I pulled out the microscope and had a closer look.

It wasn’t a maggot at all. It was a tiny caterpillar.

I could think of no reason for a bunch of caterpillars to be living on my bookshelves and dropping onto my desk.

Then I remembered earlier in the day I’d shooed a wasp out of the office several times.

Bingo!

The wasp was a European tube wasp. These little insects seek out cracks and holes to nest in. They fill their nests with up to 20 caterpillars as food for their larvae and then seal the nest with mud.

That would explain the bits of dried soil that accompanied some of the ‘maggots’.

We’ve seen the same thing with our native potter wasps. Last year I had to put tape over all the screw holes in the underside of the dining table, because potter wasps were stuffing them with paralysed spiders (and the spiders kept falling out all over the floor).

As I write, the wasp has returned. Empty-handed this time, she’s fossicking around for a new place to raise her young. Maybe she’ll find one her caterpillars will stay in this time.

The Colours of Summer

Blue peas, purple potatoes, green beans, yellow zucchini, red tomatoes, orange carrots … The summer garden is full of colour. But it’s not just a feast for the eyes.

In the garden, the colours can serve a purpose—black and yellow tomatoes and red lettuce are overlooked by birds and bugs because they’re not the ‘right’ colours. Blue peas have tough pods that resist birds. And purple basil deals better with dry heat than green.

In the kitchen, the colours create spectacular visual treats—purple mashed potatoes, deep orange braised carrots, bright green pesto, pasta studded with all the colours of the rainbow. Along with the colours come flavours not found in supermarket produce—the rich sweet-tart of an Indigo Apple tomato, the succulent crunch of Scarlet Runner beans, the smooth earthiness of a Zephyr zucchini, the nutty bitter of a Touchon carrot.

A few years ago there was a campaign here to get kids to eat more vegetables. The main message was “Eat your colours.” I agree. Eat your colours. Revel in them. Feast your eyes and your taste buds.

Gazpacho–Cool Food for a Hot Day

Gazpacho depends on good quality tomatoes. Only use the best.

While many of you in North America are shivering in the cold, we’re sweltering in the heat here. Our daily highs are in the mid-30s (the mid-90s F). After dripping sweat all afternoon, the idea of cooking is unappealing.

So we resort to hot-weather foods. Fortunately, the garden makes this easy. One of my favourite cool dinners is gazpacho—a cold vegetable soup. I think there are as many variations on gazpacho as there are cooks, but here’s my version. Serve with crusty bread and butter for a more substantial meal.

5-6 medium tomatoes (about 10 cups, chopped)
2 medium cucumbers
1 small red onion
handful fresh basil
1 clove garlic
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tsp salt
black pepper to taste

Peel and coarsely chop the cucumbers. Process in a food processor until finely chopped (not pureed). Remove to a large bowl.

Core and coarsely chop the tomatoes. Process in a food processor until finely chopped. Remove to the bowl with the cucumbers.

Finely chop the onion and basil (I find this easiest by hand, but it can also be done in the food processor). Add to the bowl.

Crush the garlic and add to the bowl, along with the vinegar, salt, and pepper.

*Optional—add a finely chopped jalapeño or a dash of hot sauce.

Mix all ingredients together and chill 2 hours before serving. If you’ve got no time to chill it, add crushed ice to the soup.

A Passion for Pickles

I’ve blogged about pickles before. How could I not? I love pickles. I plant pickling cucumbers only every other year, to prevent me from becoming the Crazy Pickle Lady, but this year is a pickle year.

Our favourites, without question, are dills. I made seven quarts of dills last weekend, and this weekend I put up another nine quarts. Plenty more to come before I’m finished pickling.

I can most of my pickles in a water-bath canner, so they last two years. But the canning process leaves them less crisp than I like, so I also make fresh pickles to eat right now. They’re crisp and sour, and super easy to make.

For a 1-quart jar, you’ll need:
1 kg pickling cucumbers, washed and cut in half lengthwise
1 head fresh dill
1 small red chilli (fresh or dried)
1 clove garlic, cut in half
1 bay leaf
1 cup vinegar (white or cider)
1 cup water
2 Tbsp coarse salt
3 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp mixed pickling spices (you can buy commercial, but I make my own mix to have on hand, see below)

Combine vinegar, water, salt, and sugar in a saucepan. Tie the spices into a cloth bag (or use a stainless-steel tea ball) and drop it into the vinegar mixture. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes.

Shortly before the vinegar is ready, fill your jar with hot water (from the tap is fine, but make sure it’s as hot as you can get it). Let it sit for a few minutes, to ensure the jar is hot. This step minimises the risk of heat stress cracking the jar when you pour boiling liquid into it.

When the jar is warm, pour out the water. Drop the dill, chilli, garlic and bay leaf into the jar, and then pack the cucumbers in tightly. Try to arrange them so the cut sides are not pressed against one another—you want the pickling liquid to penetrate the flesh. Remove the spice bag from the simmering pickling liquid and pour it over the cucumbers, covering them completely.

Allow to cool, and then store in the refrigerator for 3-5 days before eating.

If you have leftover pickling liquid, save it in a jar, and just heat it up to make your next batch of pickles.

Pickling spice mix (makes about 1 cup):
6 Tbsp whole mustard seed
3 Tbsp whole allspice
6 tsp whole coriander seed
1 tsp whole cloves
3 tsp ground ginger
3 tsp red pepper flakes
3 bay leaves (crushed)
3 cinnamon sticks (crushed)