Tag Archives: Fruit

Treasured plants – and people!

The foodie binge that is “Tasting Australia” is finished here in Adelaide for another two years. It is an eight day long celebration of all things food-related and anyone who is anyone on the national and international food scene can be seen prowling around our acclaimed Central Market at some time or another throughout the course of the week. During the festival I was very fortunate to be able to meet and spend some time with a much-loved Australian institution – Peter Cundall and his considerably more restrained, but no less committed wife, Tina. Peter is nationally respected for his enthusiasm and passion for gardening, with a particular focus on teaching others how to build and maintain their own vegetable gardens. He has also come to public attention in recent months for his very vocal opposition to the controversial Gunn’s pulp mill, planned for the beautiful Tamar Valley of Tasmania, but is no stranger to political activism having been a past Senate candidate for the Communist Party (1961) and Chairman of the Wilderness Society during the successful battle to prevent the building of the Franklin River Dam. During our conversation he spoke enthusiastically about “The Lost Seed“, a Tasmanian company dedicated to the protection and cultivation of heirloom varieties of fruit and vegetables which, in turn, reminded me of seed banks and a remarkable story.

Seed banks are institutions set up to collect and store seeds with the aim of preserving, as much as possible, food crop security and plant biodiversity for future generations. Many plants that were cultivated for generations are no longer considered useful for commercial agriculture and are becoming rare – if not conserved they will be lost forever. Further, a great deal of food crops are now genetically modified and frequently genetically homogenous which could conceivably leave them vulnerable to disease or pest attack. There are many hundreds of seed banks throughout the world, storing countless gene types, but still only representing a fraction of the world’s biodiversity. Of the more notable facilities there is the Svalbard International Seed Vault built into a tunnel in the side of a mountain in Norway and designed to withstand nuclear war and the Millenium Seed Bank Project, co-ordinated by the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, whose purpose is to insure against the extinction of plants in the wild and who aim to collect and store seeds 10% of the world’s dryland flora.

In St.Petersburg, Russia, is the Valivov Institute of Plant Industry, one of the earliest seed banks in the world, set up by Nikolai Valivov. During World War II St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) was subjected to a blockage by the German army, which lasted for 872 days. The city was isolated, with disruption to the supplies of food and water causing the deaths of thousands from starvation. The botanists who worked in the facility guarded the seeds – many of them edible – during the siege, with unbelievable diligence. When the blockage was lifted and troops and supplies were able to get into the city several of these men were found, starved to death guarding their charges!

One heirloom plant which is in no way endangered and is currently very much in season is rhubarb. Rhubarb is an ancient plant, having been used medicinally for centuries and mentioned in a Chinese herbal reference believed to have been compiled in 2700 BC. It was not used as food until some time in the 17th century, when sugar became more affordably available to the general populace. While we are all familiar with it’s use in pies and crumbles – often with apples – I was interested in finding other uses for it and turned my thoughts to the humble muffin. I was very pleased with these muffins – they have little fat, the flavours go well together and the odd burst of tartness from the rhubarb is an excellent counterpoint for the sweetness of the sugar. I used white flour, but there is no reason that wholemeal couldn’t be used, just add a little more liquid if the mixture is too stiff and remember – never over mix muffins or they will be tough!

RHUBARB MUFFINS

1 1/4 cup caster sugar
1 1/2 cup rhubarb, finely diced
1 cup toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped
2 1/2 cups SR flour
1/4 cup canola oil
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla paste
1 cup buttermilk
zest and juice of 1 orange

1/3 cup brown sugar
2 tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven to 180C.
Combine diced rhubarb with dry ingredients.
In separate bowl, whisk oil, egg, vanilla, buttermilk, orange rind and juice.
Add dry ingredients to liquid and mix with a wooden spoon until JUST combined – about 20 strokes of the spoon.
Spoon into muffin pan.
Sprinkle with sugar/cinnamon mix and bake 15-20 minutes.

Printable recipe RHUBARB MUFFINS.

Let them eat cake!

Maggie Alderson, who writes a regular column in the Good Weekend magazine on Saturdays in “The Age” newspaper, spoke last weekend of how she feels she has deluded herself into believing home-made cakes and baked goods, cheese, butter and home-made smallgoods are actually health foods. She writes that it is delusional and deranged thinking, but she is really not so far off the truth!

One very useful tip that can be taken from Michael Pollan is to never eat anything your great Grandmother doesn’t recognize as food and nothing will drive that point home faster than a quick read of the ingredients list of a packaged, store-bought cake! Depending on the product, these baked goods can have anything up to 20-25 different ingredients in them, including things with very long names that look as though they have come straight out of the science lab – certainly not out of any kitchen my great Grandmother would recognize.. Chemicals are used to tweak texture, flavour, colour and shelf life, often in an effort to imitate the home made product, we then blithely feed these to our families without much thought. However, a basic, homemade cake has only four or five natural ingredients in it – flour, sugar, eggs, butter and/or milk. These cakes are not meant to last for weeks on the shelf. They are meant to be, and in this house usually are, consumed/devoured within a day or two and are made with pure, familiar, whole foods. Of course,excessive consumption of any foods, including homemade, whole food goodies, does not contribute to a healthy diet, but there can be room for treats in a nutritious, well-balanced diet.

One of the justifications often used for the purchase of artificially coloured, flavoured and preserved snacks is a lack of time to bake, but in reality baking can take as little or as much time as you like. It is a skill that can be taught to kids from a relatively early age and using one of the inexpensive mixers, processors or stick blenders freely available, it is often quicker to mix up a cake and stick it in the oven than it is to drive to the shops. It is certainly more satisfying and the end result is far better tasting than anything out of a plastic wrapper.

The following recipe is for one of my late summer favourites – an upside down plum cake. I look forward to our plums every year so that I can make a couple of these and because of the birds, as mentioned in a previous post, you can imagine my disappointment when I thought I had missed out this year.  But, thanks to the folks at Food Connect, I was thrilled to find some beautiful, sweet, juicy blood plums in my last delivery and wasted no time in getting this recipe into the oven.

This is a particularly forgiving recipe and I often substitute, depending what is on hand.  Sometimes I use buttermilk, sometimes light sour cream, other times yoghurt – using sour cream (full or low fat) gives a lovely rich cake.  If you use sour cream or yoghurt you may need to add a little milk to loosen up the batter.  I just love making this with plums, but apples or even bananas would be pretty good too. I serve it with a good dollop of whipped cream, but yoghurt or ice cream would work as well. In fact, when I’m not looking, the husband likes to keep all the options open.
Again, I use the good old Thermomix, but any processor or blender will do.

PLUM UPSIDE-DOWN CAKE

2 Tbsp melted butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
4-6 plums, sliced

1 cup SR flour
1/4 cup butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla paste (or natural vanilla essence)
2/3 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 165C. Grease sides of a 20(ish) cm round cake pan.
Coat bottom of cake pan with the melted butter, sprinkle with the brown sugar and arrange plum slices.

Place remaining ingredients into processor and blend until well combined – 30-60 seconds. Spoon batter evenly over plums.
Bake for approx 35 mins, or until skewer comes out clean.
Leave in pan for 5-10 minutes, then invert onto serving plate. Serve warm or cold – anyway you serve it, it is great!


Printable recipe PLUM UPSIDE.

Gingering up the last of the figs

Life can be tough up here on the hill and, if we had to rely on our small domestic orchard for supplies of fruit, things would have been very grim indeed this year.

When we first moved here I was tickled to bits to be the proud owner of this orchard of apricots, plums, apples, figs, nectarines, quinces and peaches. I had romantic visions of myself frolicking through the trees – possibly wearing a large bonnet and carrying a wicker basket – plucking nature’s bounty from my trees, then heading into the kitchen to begin bottling my own preserves and making jams for the local shows. In anticipation of this I scoured the classified ads in the paper and found a second-hand Vacola preserving unit with jars. I rushed home with them, washed all the jars and sat back and waited for the fruit to ripen. Sadly, I was not the only one waiting for the fruit to ripen.

As soon as the fruit looked as though it was on the way to being edible the birds swooped. Our first season they cleaned off all the peaches and nectarines, most of the plums, more than half of the apples and all but one apricot! We like to think that we are not dummies, so next season we bought nets and then went to a great deal of trouble to get them over the trees. The birds were one step ahead of us and got under the nets, or through the holes that we had made dragging them over the boughs. The result was slightly better – we managed to get some of the fruit that year – but we wondered if it was worth it.

The netting business was tedious so we quickly gave up on most of the fruit trees. We worked out that it was all about timing and have subsequently entered into an unspoken agreement with the birds. If we are quick we can have some plums and apples, they don’t like the quinces and we can share the figs. Things seemed to go a bit haywire this year, though, as all of the plums and apples were stripped from the trees while still rock hard and green. All we are left with is figs and quinces. I don’t bother to make fig jam as no-one here, except the husband who is on a diet, will eat it. I have one or two nice fig salad recipes, but when my friend Liz mentioned this dish I knew that I had to try it out and I begged her to pass it on.

This seriously delicious method for keeping figs couldn’t be simpler. The end product is dark, sticky and luscious and one of the nicest ways that I have ever eaten figs. I served them with ice cream, but cream or thick, Greek yoghurt would be just as nice. The recipe that Liz sent me said that powdered ginger could be used, but I used fresh stem ginger. I dried my own figs in a dehydrator, but bought ones can be used. I have also doctored the quantities just a little.

GINGERED FIGS

500 gms dried figs
1 & 1/2 cup of water
1 lemon, cut in slices
6 slices of fresh ginger or 1 teaspoon of ground ginger
3/4 cup brown sugar

Wash figs and clip off stem.
Put in crock-pot with remaining ingredients. Cover and cook on Low 6-8
hours, high 3-4 hours. place figs and syrup in glass bowl and chill in
refrigerator.

How easy is that!!?

Just Dessert

I have a fairly serious sweet tooth. When dining out I have been known to forgo a main course, instead having two entree’s, to ensure sufficient digestive space for the “pud”. My real passion is chocolate and I can (and most certainly will, at a later date) drone on about the health giving benefits and restorative powers of that magical little bean. As I have previously mentioned, I firmly believe that almost anything is improved with a little/big bit of chocolate but there are certainly occasions where something fresh and light is more appropriate and, with Julie in mind, this following recipe most definitely fits that bill.

My inspiration for this dessert was the Egyptian-born cookbook writer, Claudia Roden. I first discovered her when I was mis-spending my youth, living in various share houses. I was not very long out of home at that stage, with bad food memories and very basic cooking skills, when my housemate announced that he had invited a fairly well known visiting band home for dinner the following evening. At that time the housemate – who was not the household cook – was doing a midnight-dawn shift as a disc jockey at a local radio station and, having just interviewed the boys, discovered that they were at a loose end and tired of take-aways. These were not particularly sophisticated times so when he called me to share the joy and request my co-operation I was happy to oblige, secure in the knowledge that I could turn out a very respectable roast dinner. It was not until he called me back fifteen minutes later with the news that two of the band members were vegetarians that a feeling of cold dread gripped my heart and I realised that I could well be way out of my comfort zone.
I bolted to the largest book store that I could find, feverishly searching the shelves for a vegetarian cookbook that I felt would not overly challenge my inadequate culinary skills when Claudia Roden’s “A Book of Middle Eastern Food” found it’s way into my hands, and a quick flick through it reassured me that I may just be able to avert total gastronomic disaster. I have no memory of what I prepared for the vegetarians that evening, but I do remember that the meal and the evening was, fortunately, a success.

For me, this was a wonderful introduction to an unknown cuisine. The recipes in the book were accompanied by personal anecdotes and memories of the dishes or brief accounts of the origins or rituals surrounding them and it became a favourite standby on my cookbook shelf. Claudia Roden has gone on to become one of the most inspirational and authoritative writers on Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food, with subsequent publications comprehensively covering Jewish, Moroccan, Turkish, Lebanese and Italian food, many winning various writing awards. The seminal – and face-saving – “Book of Middle Eastern Food” was re-created and enlarged by her and published as “The New Book of Middle Eastern Food” in 2000.

This is a deliciously fragrant dessert to serve after an otherwise substantial meal. It can be as sweet as you like and goes equally well with a good dollop of either thick cream or refreshing yoghurt.
Ras el Hanout is a blend of Moroccan spices and can be bought or blended yourself. I have done both and can recommend the blend sold by “Herbies” at http://www.herbies.com.au/

SPICED ORANGES

2 cups fresh squeezed orange juice
Zest of 2 oranges
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons ras el hanout spice mix
1 teaspoon rose water
8 oranges

Peel oranges, removing all pith. Slice thickly and arrange in shallow dish.
Place orange juice, sugar, zest and Ras el Hanout in saucepan and bring to boil stirring to dissolve sugar. Boil for about 5-10 minutes to reduce and thicken the syrup.
Remove from heat, add rose water, set aside to cool, then pour syrup over orange slices.
Serve cold.