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.

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.

Respite on the Rakaia

The temperature is squatting at 37 degrees C. Body temperature. I’ve experienced hotter, but when it hits 37, it’s just hot, no way to argue it’s not.

So we headed down to the Rakaia River, just a short drive from our place.

The walk in from the settlement of Rakaia Huts is green and humid. The track is maintained only by the feet that tread it and winds through a magical scrubby forest. Non-natives brush leaves with natives, feral fruit trees share space with hydrangeas. The worst of Canterbury’s weeds coexist with a remarkable array of native shrubs and ferns—it’s the Peaceable Kingdom of the plant world.

Twenty minutes of walking through this green glade brings you to the river. The Rakaia is a braided river, so you cross and re-cross channels to reach one suitable for swimming. Down near the mouth, there are many swimming holes—deep and turquoise with suspended loess (wind-blown rock dust)—separated by sparkling riffles. We followed the river to the sea, testing each pool to find the best one.

They were all delightful, all ours for the taking, because there was no one else there.

Back home, we stayed in our wet togs until they dried, bringing the cool river with us.

In the time it’s taken me to write this blog, the temperature has risen further. The river water has long since evaporated. Now we have just the memory to keep us cool.

Alpine Delights

The family spent a delightful hour on the Dobson Nature Walk in Arthur’s Pass National Park on Wednesday. The track is an easy one, and hiking it quickly takes about 20 minutes. But it’s not a walk you want to do quickly, especially in summer. It winds through alpine and sub-alpine vegetation, including some beautiful tarns, and in summer, so many plants are blooming, it’s hard to take five steps without finding another lovely orchid, daisy, or hebe in bloom.

For me, the best part of the walk is the abundance of sundews in the tarns. As an entomologist, I’m naturally drawn to carnivorous plants like sundews. Sundews catch insects on the sticky hairs you can see glistening in this photo. The hairs are sensitive to both touch and taste, and when they sense a struggling insect, they fold inward to further entangle their prey. Enzymes exuded by the hairs then digest the insect, and the leaf takes up the nutrients in order to grow in the nutrient-poor alpine wetlands. 

These sundews were just beginning to flower—many plants had flower buds, but none had yet opened. The flowers sit above the leaves—an important adaptation, since the plant needs to be pollinated by the very insects it eats.

The alpine summer is short, so when these plants are done flowering, the leaves will slowly shrink into a structure called a hibernaculum that sits near the soil surface and protects the plant through the winter.

A Trifle More Christmas Baking

Okay, so I wrote the Christmas Baking blog post a couple of days ago, and then this happened. We picked another mountain of fruit this morning, and it happened to be a bread day. My original plan was to bake a pie, but my husband agitated for a trifle, but without the custard, which he’s not fond of.

So into the baking rotation went a lemon cake. Once it was cool, I sliced it and layered it with fresh fruit (strawberries, raspberries, black currants and blueberries), raspberry sauce, and a mixture of cream cheese, whipped cream, sugar and vanilla (inspired by this trifle recipe, but I measured nothing, and ignored most of the directions).

Just making it made everyone smile. Eating it … Oh my! I think I have a new favourite Christmas dessert!