Tag Archives: Seasonal

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.

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Connecting with our food

With the theme of food seemingly being at the height of fashion, there are any number of books available on all aspects of the subject, but I found one of the most interesting, entertaining, thought provoking and at times, confronting to be Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivores Dilemma” (Penguin, 2006). In this book Pollan, an American author and journalist, writes of how modern Western cultures (and specifically the US) seem to have become disengaged from the production of our foods, leaving us vulnerable to the seductive techniques of food marketers and the, frequently overblown, hype of food scientists, resulting in our nutritionally compromised modern diets. He writes about his journey following the path of three different food chains resulting in three meals that he then eats – the industrial (a fast-food meal), the pastoral (an organic meal) and what he terms the “Personal” – a meal which he has grown, hunted and killed himself. This book is guaranteed to make you have more than a passing thought about where the food on your plate has come from, how it got to you and whether it was worth it!

Since reading this book I have become, in a small way, a primary producer and, with Pollan’s words echoing in my head, the husband and I put quite a bit of thought into how our first herd of plump and glossy, happy, paddock-fed steers were to end up on someone’s plate. As omnivores at the top of the food chain, I believe that we owe respect for the lives of creatures further down. We were very fortunate in that we were able to get them into the cattle yards and onto the truck very calmly, using bales of hay as inducements, and they had just a very short drive half an hour up the road to abattoirs where they were “processed” the same day. They were not stressed, overcrowded, left in small yards for days at a time or driven long distances and I believe that their meat will be all the better for it.

In an effort to ‘connect’ with even more of our own food, we have just joined with a wonderful organisation new to Adelaide called Food Connect Adelaide . Originating in Brisbane, this organisation is dedicated to connecting consumers with local farmers and encouraging the eating of seasonal, local fruit and vegetables, produced using ecologically sustainable methods. The general public can become subscribers, signing up to receive a box of local, fresh produce delivered to various distribution points weekly. The distribution points are called “City Cousins” and are, in fact, other subscribers who elect to have their homes serve this purpose. This not only reduces delivery costs and greenhouse gas emissions from delivery trucks on large routes, but serves to promote a sense of community as subscribers become acquainted with others in their areas.

I picked up our first box of fruit and veggies yesterday and, as you can see, it was a little ripper, bursting with loads of fresh produce and topped off with a deliciously fragrant bunch of fresh basil! There is more than enough fresh product there and my mind was busy with cooking ideas as I unpacked it into the fridge. The two very good sized zucchini were the first thing that we have eaten from the box, using a delicious recipe for Zucchini and Herb Fritters from my patron saint, Claudia Roden and her book “Arabesque” (Penguin 2005). These are fresh and full of flavour from the added herbs and perfect for a lunch or as a side dish at dinner. Claudia says not to add salt as the feta is quite salty, but I disobeyed her (gasp!) and added just a little.

ZUCCHINI FRITTERS

1 onion, chopped
3 Tbsp olive oil
500 gm zucchini, grated
3 eggs
3 Tbsp plain flour
ground black pepper
pinch of sea salt
2 Tbsp fresh mint, chopped
2 Tbsp fresh dill, chopped
200 gm feta, crumbled
oil for frying

Fry the onions in oil until golden and soft, add zucchini and lightly saute until soft. Cool slightly.
Beat the eggs and flour together until well blended, add pepper, salt, herbs and mix well, then add feta and mix. Add onion and zucchini and mix.
Fry the fritters in small batches in hot oil and drain on paper towels.

These would be delicious served with a yoghurt and cucumber salad or a (mildish so as not to over-power the flavours) chutney.

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!!?

Vintage

The Onkaparinga Valley, where I live, is a rich valley of fertile land that, since it’s “appropriation” from the traditional owners, had been home to herds of dairy cattle and vast orchards of apples, pears and cherries. In more recent times the herds of equable dairy cows have been moved on and many of the orchards have been replaced with extensive vineyard plantations – for this cool climate is the ideal home for South Australia’s sauvignon blanc grapes.

This time of year is one of the busiest in our neighbourhood as it is vintage time – a fact that I had cause to ruminate upon at four this morning as I listened to the low hum of the not-so-distant mechanical grape harvesters. Vintage impacts on nearly all the locals in the area to varying degrees. We have no vines so it is mostly peripheral to us and simply means that we have to be more aware of the extra heavy traffic on the roads. With two teenagers who have recently become P plate drivers, my concern is that they be very aware of the fact that the large trucks carrying great big bins of grapes from the vineyards to the waiting winemakers are generally in a hurry, while the enormous, futuristic looking, slow moving picking machines that they will encounter as they round a bend in the road are not! Add to this van-loads of itinerate hand-pickers who are unfamiliar with the local roads and you will understand why I’m aging so very fast!

The vignerons and winemakers have been fortunate this year as the weather has been kinder. While we have had some extreme weather, the last few weeks have been mild and the grapes have come on at a steady pace. The buzz word at this time of the year is “Baume”, which is the scale by which the sugar in the grapes is measured. The sugar feeds the yeast in fermentation which, in turn, affects the alcohol level of the finished product. The Baume is read at regular intervals and when it is at the optimum reading for the particular type of wine grape, it is time for the grapes to be picked. This means co-ordinating either crews of contracted hand pickers or the sharing of a mechanical picker and the trucks to take the grapes, as quickly as possible, from the vineyards to the winemakers. Because of the weather, last year all the grapes in our area were ready for picking at once, meaning that there was an enormous rush for the pickers and the trucks as everyone needed them at once. This resulted in some delays at the wineries as the winemakers tried to crush bin after bin of precious wine grapes. According to my neighbour, a sauvignon blanc grower, it made for some very testy times!

The process is more measured this year, but still very busy and I can look out of my kitchen windows at any hour of the night and see the lights blazing at the nearby wineries as they get on with the business of providing me with my preferred tipple.
I do find it slightly comforting to know that I am not the only person awake in the valley.