Enjoying the New Kitchen

Rain pounded on the roof and hissed against the windows. Wind whipped around the porch, tossing deck chairs everywhere. I lay warm in bed, only vaguely registering the weather, grateful once again to be in the new house and not in the shed.

We’re still settling into the house, but we’ve already given the kitchen a workout. Some days, when I step into that room, I wonder what we were thinking—it’s so huge! Then I cook something and appreciate every inch of space.

It’s been hard to get a photo of the foods we’ve baked–they’re eaten so quickly.

We’ve been craving all the baked goods we haven’t been able to make in the past three months. In the first twenty-four hours after moving in, we baked eight loaves of bread, three dozen cookies, and a batch of lemon scones. Over the next four days, we added pizza, Not yo’ mama’s mac and cheese, quiche, apricot tart, chocolate cupcakes, and homemade granola to that list. Moving into our second week in the house, we’ve made Mum’s fluffy buns, bean burgers, oven baked French fries, Irish soda bread, spaghetti with tofu meatballs, and roast vegetables.

Visiting some of our favourite foods after too many months without them has been a delight. It may be time to head to the library for some inspiration now—think what new things we could make in the fabulous new kitchen!

Winter Baking—Anise-scented Fig and Date Swirls

After a week of frosty mornings and gloriously warm sunny days, the weekend has brought us cold, drenching rain. 

So, the only thing for it was to bake!

I stocked up on my homemade granola and made a batch of Mommy’s Magical Crackers, but the fun baking for the day was a batch of fig and date pinwheels. I’ve only made them once before, but loved them. Flavoured with anise and rich in figs, they have a unique taste and texture that improves with age.

These are straight from my favourite cookie cookbook (the book itself is a work of art), The Gourmet Cookie Book. They take more time to make than many cookies, but the results are as attractive as they are delicious—well worth the effort.

1 cup dried figs
1 cup pitted dates
1/3 cup water
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbs sugar
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbs ground anise seeds
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
125 g (1/2 cup) softened butter
125 g (4 oz) cream cheese
1 tsp vanilla
1 large egg yolk
1/4 cup raw sugar (optional)

In a food processor or blender, puree figs, dates, water and 2 Tbs sugar. Set aside.

In a bowl, whisk together flour, anise, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In another bowl beat together butter, cream cheese, and remaining 1/2 cup sugar until light and fluffy. Add vanilla, egg yolk and flour mixture and beat until a dough forms. Form dough into a disk and wrap in wax paper. Chill about a hour, until firm enough to handle (I found in my winter-cool house I didn’t need to chill the dough at all).

On a floured surface, roll out dough into a 33 x 25 cm (13 x 10-inch) rectangle about 8 mm (1/3-inch) thick. Gently spread fig and date mixture evenly over the top, leaving a narrow border around the edges. Starting at one long edge, roll the dough into a jelly-roll-like log. Optional: roll log in raw sugar to coat. Wrap in waxed paper and chill 4 hours until firm.

Slice into 8 mm (1/3-inch) rounds and place on a greased baking sheet. Bake about 13 minutes at 180ºC (350ºF) until golden.

Winter Losing its Grip

When I returned a tool to the equipment hire place yesterday morning, the owner asked if I thought we’d have snow.

At school, the staff were buzzing with the possibility of a snow day. “Don’t tell the kids!” one whispered. “They’ll go crazy.”

The weather forecast is for a southerly storm to blow in on Wednesday. Depending on which forecast you look at, we might have snow to 400 metres or to near sea level.

But regardless of the forecast, it’s beginning to feel like spring.

Yesterday evening when I stepped out to close the chicken house, lambs bleated in nearby paddocks, starlings warbled in the treetops, and blackbirds fought over new territories. 

The sky was still light, though it was nearly six o’clock, and the air was soft and full of promises.

Today I am comfortable in a t-shirt, and have opened the doors and windows to warm up the house in the winter sunshine.

Whether it snows tomorrow or not, winter has lost its grip. Spring is on its way.

Gifts from the freezer

With love, from the freezer.

Our apple trees struggle against the macrocarpa hedge shading them and sucking away nutrients and moisture from the soil. I’m sure many years ago, when a previous owner planted them, they seemed far enough from the hedge, but today, without aggressive pruning, the hedge would engulf the fruit trees. So we rarely get large harvests of apples, and most years we eat them all fresh, long before they go wrinkly with age. 

This past summer was different. We had extra apples after accepting a big box of them from a friend, and then realising our trees held more than we thought. There was no way we were going to use all of the apples before they dried out, nor did I want the kitchen and dining room littered with baskets and bowls of apples for months. I filled the last of our empty canning jars with applesauce and still had more fruit. So I made a large quantity of apple pie filling, cooking the apples just enough to soften them slightly and release some of their juices. Then I froze it in pie-sized quantities. We enjoyed apple pie all through autumn.

We thought we’d finished the apple pie filling off, but the other day, my husband found a container of it on the bottom of the freezer. To find that pie filling on a cold and rainy weekend was a beautiful gift. A gift from our summer selves and from the freezer itself, which hid it until the need was greatest.

So while rain streamed down the window panes, I made a pie, filling the house with the warming smell of baking cinnamon, apple and pastry. We enjoyed the pie warm with whipped cream by the fire on a dreary night—a wintertime decadence to make us forget the damp and cold.

Thank you, freezer, for the wonderful winter gift.

Mail-order Summer

The rain has been steady all day—cold and drenching. Even indoors, I feel like the cold and damp has settled into my bones. Hibernation seems like a good idea.

But midday, the post arrived.

I braved the rain to run to the mailbox.

Inside, I found summer, or at least the promise of it. My seed order had arrived.

I’m still considering hibernation—this rain is supposed to continue for days—but now I have seeds to sort out and gardens to plan. With my mind on summer, I can’t possibly feel cold.

New Year, New Garden

A blank slate for a new garden–10 cubic metres of compost ready to be added to the soil.

Another solstice has passed and we can look forward to more sunlight each day. We celebrated Matariki—the Māori new year—last week, too, so it’s well and truly time to start thinking about the garden for this coming summer.

This year, my garden decisions are more difficult than they’ve been recently. This year we will be moving house mid-summer, assuming all goes as planned with our new build.

We have already marked out and tilled the garden at the new property, and we’ve planted it in green manure crops for the winter, even though the foundation of the house hasn’t even been laid yet. 

But moving mid-summer, it’s hard to know where to plant all the crops. Late-season vegetables like pumpkins and dry beans are easy—they’ll go in the new garden. Early crops like broccoli and radishes are also easy—they’ll go in the old garden.

Unfortunately, a huge number of crops will come on before we move and still be going strong afterwards. I’ll want them at both houses. But the prospect of maintaining two full gardens forty-five minutes apart from one another is daunting.

Add to the challenge the fact that the soil at the new garden is hard clay generously studded with rocks. It will easily take a decade of soil improvements to make the new garden as productive as the old, and it will always be rocky, no matter how much organic material I can build up.

So in my garden planning and calculating this year, I have to lower my expectations. I have had such a glorious garden, with excellent soil, for many years. It will be a challenge to start over, rehabilitating a compacted paddock scarred by years of commercial agriculture and not naturally blessed with loamy soil.

It will mean finding new varieties that thrive in different conditions, pulling out all the tricks I know for improving soil conditions, and learning new ways of working with the soil. I am prepared for disappointment, and excited by the challenge.

Stay tuned …

Reprise: Summer Soup

I usually blog about summer soup when we make it. It’s a major point in the garden calendar and deserves a mention at that time.

I’ve never said a word about it during the winter, but this is when it is most appreciated.

Yesterday we all got home late from work and school. It was dark and cold. We were tired and hungry. I was crashing into a miserable head cold I’d kept at bay all day by sheer force of will.

And there was the summer soup, waiting to welcome us home and usher us into summer, if only for a brief time. I heated up a jar of edible summer, and we sat down to eat within minutes of arriving home.

I took a spoonful and shut my eyes. Tomato, zucchini, green beans, corn and soy … all the flavours of summer soothed my raw throat and pounding head. The heat of sun-ripened jalapeños and Thai chilis warmed my sinuses and eased my congestion. For a short time my winter cold was forgotten in the glory of a summer’s day.

I harbour no illusions—summer soup won’t cure my cold, nor will it lessen its severity and duration. But it certainly can make my illness more bearable.

And so again I sing the praises of summer soup, and am thankful for the family effort that makes it possible to ease a cold and enjoy the summer sun in the heart of winter.

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.

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.

Shining in the Dark

Not much to look at in the light, but spectacular in the dark.

I’m a morning person. I’m rarely in bed past six o’clock, and am often up long before that. But I will admit that even I get tired of getting up in the cold and dark at this time of year.

Of course, sometimes the most amazing things happen before the sun is up.

Yesterday morning, I stepped into the chicken paddock feed ‘the girls’. It was still dark, with just enough starlight to see my way. I bent to tip a scoop of feed into their dish and froze.

Something glowed on the ground—the eerie glow of bioluminescence.

I’ve seen bioluminescence while feeding the chickens before—a tiny sea creature whipped up and blown in with a violent snowstorm—but this was different.

I flicked my light on and saw something pink glistening on the ground. When I tried to pick it up, I discovered it was the head of an earthworm.

A brightly glowing earthworm.

I couldn’t get it out of the ground in order to bring it in and identify it yesterday, but I took the spading fork with me this morning when I went to feed the chickens, and I collected a little glowing earthworm from where I’d seen one yesterday.

I already knew that at least one of our native earthworms is bioluminescent—Octochaetus multiporus, which I’ve blogged about before. But O. multiporus grows to enormous size, and I’ve never found any worms in the garden that match its description. Doing a little research, I found that bioluminescence is quite widely employed by earthworms, presumably as a deterrent to predators.

Most earthworms produce light in much the same way that fireflies do, with a chemical known as luciferin that reacts with oxygen-containing compounds in the presence of luciferase to create light.

So, what species is my little glowing worm? There are about thirty New Zealand species within the genera where bioluminescence has been recorded. I’ve found record of only two of those species being bioluminescent: O. mulitporus and Microscolex phosphoreus, a small worm considered native here, but widely distributed around the globe. My best guess is that it’s M. phosphoreus, but data on that worm’s distribution in New Zealand is almost nonexistent (it’s been recorded from only one location), and data about any earthworm in New Zealand is scanty. Perhaps my worm is M. phosphoreus, but it might also be a worm in which bioluminescence hasn’t been recorded. After all, most people aren’t out in the garden at night to notice glowing worms.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to have the worm identified by an expert. If not, well, I still think it’s the coolest thing I’ve seen in a long while! And I won’t be grumbling about getting up in the dark and cold tomorrow.