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 Grumbling Gardener

Like every serious gardener I know, I complain a lot.

The weather’s too hot and dry. It’s too cold and wet.

The winter was too cold. The winter was too mild.

The frost came too early, it came too late.

Aphids have killed this, a fungus has stunted that.

Poor germination, poor pollination, nitrogen deficiency, weed growth, pest birds … I can always find something about the garden that’s not right. Because there is so much that’s out of my control, it can’t possibly all go right.

And like all good gardeners, I hedge my bets.

Sixteen varieties of tomato, nine types of beans, six varieties of pumpkin, four different kinds of broccoli, and three different eggplants is betting on at least one or more of those varieties not surviving, not producing anything. Twelve zucchini plants, twenty-one peppers, and fifty-nine tomato plants is betting that some will die, fruits will be eaten by the birds, and many will underproduce for one reason or another.

So today, after grumbling about dry soil, nutrient-deprived plants and destructive blackbirds, I returned from the garden with more than we could eat, as I did yesterday and the day before, and the day before that. I’m awash in garden largess, in spite of the birds, the aphids, the weather.

I’ve largely ignored rising food costs and the current egg shortage crisis. I don’t worry about what we’ll eat the next time we contract Covid and have to isolate. I plan my main picking for weekdays, when excess can be given away at work. I bottle, dry and freeze as much as I can, squirreling away the extra for the winter (hedging my bets that the winter crops won’t germinate, will be eaten by birds, will be flooded out …).

It is the precarious wealth of the garden, and January is the time when my grumbling is often silenced by the next mouthful of delicious vegetables. I can occasionally walk through the garden in January and be overwhelmed by the abundance.

Of course, once I get over that, I’m back to my grumbling. I mean, just look at this photo—the yellowed corn, the stunted pumpkins, the prematurely senescing potatoes …

Black Currant Icing

bowl of black currant icing

I made chocolate cupcakes yesterday and wanted to make use of some of the last of the fresh back currants in them. Instead of tossing a handful of black currants into the batter (which would have been lovely), I used the fruit to make a black currant icing—tart, sweet, and shockingly pink! 

You could do this with frozen currants, too, and it’s not difficult. The result is worth the bit of extra work.

100 g softened butter
3/4 cup fresh black currants
1 cup icing sugar

Place the black currants in a sauce pan and cook until soft—3-5 minutes. Press them through a sieve to remove seeds and skins. Set the puree aside to cool to room temperature.

Beat the butter until fluffy. Add 3 tablespoons of the black currant puree and beat until uniformly mixed. Sift the sugar over the butter mixture and beat until smooth. Adjust by adding more sugar or puree until the icing is spreading consistency.

Salad Trifecta

Holiday cooking is always special. And with the holidays falling during the summer here, it’s easy to create stunning meals without a trip to the grocery store.

For Christmas Day, I made homemade linguini, and my husband topped it with a delicious selection of garden vegetables—a fabulous, festive meal.

But Boxing Day’s dinner sort of blew Christmas Day out of the water.

It was a simple meal. Just three salads.

A potato salad made with purple potatoes, sparked up with celery, spring onion, parsley, and homemade pickles.

An Ottolenghi-inspired roasted cauliflower salad made with purple and white cauliflower and toasted walnuts. A dressing of vinegar, oil, maple syrup, cinnamon and allspice added complexity to the flavours, and fresh red currants added crunch and zing.

A fruit salad made with the many fruits gushing from the garden these days.

The overall effect was a riot of colour and flavour. Best of all, nearly everything came from the garden. Holiday meals don’t get much better than that.

Spicy Christmas Gift

One of my Christmas gifts from my daughter this year was a set of creative spice jar labels. She spent an hour or so on Christmas Day affixing the labels to all our spice jars.

I love the creativity of the names: imp skulls, essence of griffin, condiment for a pottle o’ chips, miniature grenades of flavour …

Today I was looking for cinnamon and allspice. It took ages to find the ‘fragrant soil’, and ‘cannonballs of spice’. LOL!

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.

Biscuit Stars (a.k.a. Starry Scones)

It’s been a long time since I blogged about biscuit stars (or Starry Scones, as I call them here in NZ, since ‘biscuits’ are cookies here). It’s been a while since I made them, too.

I was feeling whimsical on Sunday morning, though, and whipped one up for breakfast. As usual, it turned out beautifully and took minimal effort. It struck me as the perfect ‘fancy’ breakfast for the coming busy holiday season.

Try making one of these yourself—everyone will ooh and aah over your amazing culinary skills, and you never have to let on that it’s dead easy (I won’t tell …). 

Here’s the recipe. Enjoy!

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.

Carrot Success

young carrots
Young carrots, fresh from the garden–nothing is better!

I used up the last of the fresh carrots yesterday—the last of the carrots that I planted a year ago at this time. 

There are still about 2 kilograms of frozen carrots left that should last almost until the first of this season’s carrots are ready to pick.

I can’t tell you how pleased I am about that. It’s the first time ever I’ve grown (nearly) enough carrots for the year. Usually I end up buying commercial carrots by mid-June.

We eat a lot of carrots. I have raw carrots for lunch every day, and at least half our dinners have carrots in them. We also discovered the joy of Mexican pickled carrots this year, and probably ate five kilos of them in the past two months. So a year’s supply is a whole heap of carrots! 

And if you wonder why I go to all the effort of attempting to grow a year’s supply of carrots, you have clearly never grown your own carrots. Home grown carrots put the tasteless, watery supermarket carrots to shame. Yes, they’re not as uniform in size and shape—I harvest some pretty ugly, twisted roots from my rocky garden—but their flavour (and colours) are far superior to commercially grown carrots.

I plant a wide variety of carrots. Last year I planted Paris Market, Scarlet Nantes, Touchon, Kuroda Improved, Tendersweet, and Purple Dragon. Touchon has been my workhorse carrot for years—flavourful, reliable and nicely shaped. When we moved to the rocky soil of the new property, I first tried Paris Market—a stubby round carrot I figured would be less bothered by the rocks. I wasn’t terribly excited about it at first—little carrots can be a pain to process in the kitchen, when you want a whole lot of carrot for dinner. What I didn’t know was that Paris Market carrot also has fantastic flavour for eating raw, and roasts beautifully as whole little carrot nuggets. It can also grow to a whopping size if you let it. And because of its shape, it’s easy to pick in my heavy clay soil. It’s beginning to nudge Touchon out of the top spot on my favourite carrots list.

Now that I’ve successfully grown enough carrots, my goal this year is to spread my carrot planting over a longer period, so I get just as many carrots off half the garden space, and so I don’t have 40 kilos of carrots in the fridge at any one time. 

And there’s one of the many reasons I love gardening—there’s always something new to learn, new to try. There are always tweaks and improvements to be made. A gardener can always aspire to a more productive, less weedy, less labour-intensive garden for the coming season.

Happy gardening everyone!

A Kiwi Halloween

October is nearly upon us. For me here in Aotearoa New Zealand, that means springtime planting, flowers, and lots of weeding! But for many of my readers, it means colourful autumn leaves, pumpkins, and the spooky season of Halloween. And for writers of fantasy, like me, it means story inspiration too (even if my witches aren’t always who you might expect …).

When I was a child in the United States, Halloween was one of my favourite holidays. Yes, the candy was a draw (I’ve always had a weakness for candy corn), but what I liked most was the chance to make a costume and then walk around after dark wearing it. 

Halloween imagery is all about darkness and things that go bump in the night. It’s meant to be scary, but I quite enjoy the night and all the creatures that inhabit it. 

As an interpretive naturalist in America, I led a lot of night hikes. ‘Spooky’ owls and bats are old friends I’ve had the privilege to not only observe in the wild, but teach with in classrooms and nature centres in a variety of places.

Spooky enough for Halloween?

And those nocturnal animals can be helpful. When I lived in Panama, there was a sizeable gap between the top of the walls of my mud house and the roof. At night, little bats would swoop into the house through the gap, zipping around snapping up mosquitoes. I used to lie awake at night waiting for their arrival before falling asleep, knowing they were keeping guard against the little blood suckers that wanted to disturb my rest.

New Zealand is blessed with a fabulous array of nocturnal animals. If Halloween had originated here, the icons of the season might be a bit different …

  • Kiwi—Imagine this beach-ball-sized bundle of fluff with a deadly beak spearing hapless hikers in the dark. Maybe there would be vampire kiwi.
  • Kakapō—What could be scarier than a nearly invisible nocturnal parrot with a booming voice that echoes through the night?
  • Wētā—Okay, lots of people already find these giant crickets spooky. And some of them bite. They’d be a perfect candidate for Halloween horror.
  • Owls … maybe not—The morepork and the little owl might need to up their game to be Halloween mascots. Their cute factor is pretty high, and their calls are far from scary. I’d even go so far to say that the morepork’s call is soothing.
  • Bats—Unfortunately, New Zealand’s bats are all endangered, so you’re not likely to encounter them frequently. However, they have some interesting habits that would play out well on the spooky scale. Short-tailed bats don’t hunt from the air like many other bats. Instead they scramble around on the forest floor, using their wings as legs. What’s that rustle in the undergrowth?
  • Moa—Yes, these giant birds are extinct and were probably only partly nocturnal, but maybe their ghosts or skeletons could haunt a New Zealand Halloween. Their diet was mostly plants, but I still wouldn’t want to meet up with a 3.5-metre-tall bird in the dark.

Of course, a Southern Hemisphere Halloween would have to fall in April or May, during the autumn here. We could all dress up as kiwi or moa and eat pavlova …