Cilantro Security

Cilantro (aka coriander) is an acquired taste. When I first had it, I thought it tasted like soap. Now I love it. Which makes this year’s crop all the more welcome, because we’ve been without it for several months.

Cilantro will grow year-round here, although during our dry summers, it bolts quickly. Usually I plant a spring crop and let it bolt and re-seed itself for a fall/winter crop of volunteer plants. Unfortunately, last spring’s crop was badly stunted by aphids and a hot dry spell, and it didn’t set seed. 

So we went all winter without cilantro—a sad state, when winter is the time for chilis and bean dishes that we normally flavour with cilantro.

It’s hot and dry again, but I’ve taken precautions against another cilantro failure. I planted two crops several weeks apart, and I’m watering them well. Hopefully we’ll be back to a continuous cilantro supply this year.

Oh Christmas Tree!

This time last year, I wrote a blog post about Christmas trees and our family’s unorthodox take on them. I argued that, while our trees may not look like the traditional pine tree, they embody the spirit of the season.

This year’s tree is no exception. After years of suggesting we build the tree out of LEGO, the kids finally agreed. For over a week, the living room floor was a construction zone, strewn with LEGO bricks, mini-figures and gears. The two-metre-tall central structure took two evenings of negotiation, planning and construction. Then there were the branches—marvels of LEGO engineering.

Then came the whimsy—that took the longest. A combination staircase/ ladder/ escalator/ elevator winds upward from level to level. A waterwheel turns lazily on the eighth floor. Gravity takes a holiday as a kayaker paddles straight up, trailing his pet shark on a lead beside him, and emergency personnel (including the undead) carry an injured person up the side of a column. Mini-figures evoke Escher on a section of staircase. A large ship juts from both sides of the trunk, as though the tree grew into place around it. A man fishes from the ninth floor. Motorised gears turn a fantasy clock, spin a merry-go-round, drive a hammer in a dwarven workshop, and spin a star. Under the lowest branches, a kiosk sells tickets to visit the tree.

And all that is before ornaments were added.

Now, mini-figures greet Santa Claus, and a giant butterfly takes flight from the top of the tree. Snowflakes, baubles, and our eclectic mix of homemade ornaments (including the Christmas tardigrade, quite a few insects, and possibly the only Trichonympha ornament on the planet) add to the seasonal cheer. To the Christmas purist, I’m certain our tree is an abomination.

But … evenings of family fun, laughter and creativity—the Christmas season doesn’t get any better. 

See the tree in action:

 

Colourful Carrots

The carrots are just at the thinning stage right now. I’m embarrassed to admit it took years for me to figure out that if I pulled the largest carrots at thinning time, we could eat them, and the ‘runts’ (which I used to pull out) would grow to a fine size.

But I’ve learned, and so at thinning time, we enjoy handfuls of pretty little baby carrots.

I planted six varieties of carrot this year. And despite my talent for over-planting, I’ve never yet grown enough carrots to satisfy the family’s annual consumption. The range of varieties encourages me to plant more, and they make for beautiful kaleidoscope dishes, cheerful with colour. 

Delicious Disaster

Ugly but delicious.

Gooseberries are ripening by the bucketful right now, so when I was planning dessert for a party last Saturday night, I naturally turned to gooseberries for inspiration. 

I made a large batch of gooseberry pie filling and baked up dozens of gooseberry tarts. Unfortunately, the fruit bubbled over, creating a sticky mess that glued the tarts into their pans.

Almost every one broke when I tried to take them out of the pans. One was so crumbled I had to spoon it out …

… right into my mouth. It was a sublime experience. Deliciously sweet and sour with a flaky crust, I thought I’d serve them anyway. I requested a second opinion from my husband and kids, giving them each the most broken tarts. They moaned in pleasure and nodded.

No one at the party mentioned how the tarts looked. I’m not sure they sat on the tray long enough for anyone to examine them—one taste and they vanished.

A delicious baking disaster. I’ll definitely have to do it again.

Gooseberry Pie Filling (enough for two full-size pies)

8 cups fresh gooseberries
4 cups sugar
2 Tbsp corn flour (cornstarch)
enough water to prevent sticking (less than 1/4 cup)

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook 1-2 minutes, until berries soften. Crush berries in the pot with a potato masher. Boil about 5 minutes longer until the mixture begins to thicken. 

The pie filling can be baked in a double or a single crust. If you choose a single crust, top with streusel topping:

2/3 cup flour
2/3 cup finely chopped walnuts
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
5 Tbs (80 g) melted butter
Blend all ingredients with a fork until crumbly.

I baked my tiny tarts for 35 minutes at 190ºC (375ºF). A full pie should take 45 – 60 minutes.

Obsessive Gardening Strikes Again

It’s done! I finally finished planting out vegetables this past weekend. At both houses. And though I said I wasn’t going to, I ended up with nearly full gardens on both properties (never mind how I managed to start so many seeds in the first place…). 

Of course, I justified it with the observation that plants won’t grow well in the new garden—neither the weeds nor the vegetables—so it’s not like that garden will be too much work (yeah, right). 

And it would be a shame not to plant in the old garden one last time and reap the harvest from fifteen years of work on that patch of land (even if I won’t get to harvest it all). It was only logical to plant two full gardens, right?

Logical only if you’re a problem gardener like me. Once again, I’ve proven I have no self-control when it comes to plants. I can already hear my justifications for excessive gardening next year … The soil is so bad at the new place, I’ll have to over plant just to get enough vegetables to eat. I’ll just plant green manures and till them in to improve the soil. I don’t know which varieties will do well in the new garden, so I’ll have to plant lots of different ones … I’m sure I’ll come up with plenty of other justifications, too. It’s hopeless, really. If you put me in an apartment on the twenty-third floor, I’d find some way to grow excessive plants.

At least I know I’m not alone. Just look at the number of gardening blogs out there. And the number of people I see in the garden centres loading up their cars with bags of potting mix and potted plants. And in a few months, the multitude of gate sales of excess vegetables. And the number of people who post proud pictures of their first tomatoes or strawberries of the season on social media. There’s a whole community of obsessive gardeners out there. Come on, pick up your hoe, spading fork, or trowel and join us. We’re always partying in the garden, and there’s usually great food afterwards.

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.

Garden Gifts

Our house went on the market today. We’ve spent the past several weeks painting, tidying and weeding to make the place look its best. On Sunday evening, after a hard three days of work, I wandered around the yard. The air was sultry—oppressive heat slowly giving way to the comfort of a lazy summer evening. The freshly cut grass was soft and cool underfoot as I padded past purple baubles of blooming chives, snow-in-summer spilling onto the path in frosty profusion, multi-hued pansies nodding in the light breeze, and pale irises standing tall. I strolled the rose garden, only just beginning to flower. A lone peony sported golf-ball-sized burgundy buds. The last of the pittosporum flowers perfumed the air.

In short, the garden was at ease in its lush maturity—the result of fifteen years of hard work, on top of the botanical history of a hundred years of landscaping. I thought of all the plants the property had gifted us with—roses, dahlias, naked ladies, camellias, irises, and others. Discovered among the overgrown gardens, often nearly choked out by weeds, the plants responded well to love and care, and formed the core of what we’ve done with the yard.

Then I thought of our new property, a bare paddock, its botanical history limited to pasture grasses and clover. There will be no gifts, discovered among the weeds. No heirloom plants needing only a little love to bloom and thrive.

The thought was depressing as I strolled the mature plantings we will leave behind. Starting from nothing but rock and clay is a daunting prospect.

But this property will gift us plants yet again—hundreds of seedlings, cuttings, bulbs and divisions sit in pots, awaiting transport to their new home. One day, they will be the botanical history of the new property. One day, I will stroll among them in contemplation, just as I did among their predecessors at the old house.