Archive for the ‘kitchen gardens’ Category

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Home-groan Tomatoes: A Labour of Love

January 31, 2015

As a tomato grower, I’m a great root vegetable producer. More on that later.

I’d never bothered growing tomatoes, but after last year’s Sydney Tomato Festival I changed my mind. It was taste-testing the Russian Black Krim and other unusual varieties that got me interested.

I started small, buying three cherry tomato plants (Lady Bug or Sweet Bite?) as I’d heard they don’t attract as many pests or diseases as larger varieties.

I planted them in my mother’s garden bed and watched them grow. On recent visits two-three times per week, I’d touch the parched soil that had gone un-watered for days. “Have you been watering the tomatoes?” “Oh yes of course” she’d answer. Unconvinced, I’d give them a good soaking anyway. 

The first harvest produced seven tiny tomatoes – four with split skins. What could I do with them? Make a sauce for three strands of spaghetti? Chop them up for one small piece of bruschetta? Wizz them into a thimble-full of Bloody Mary?

red cherry tomatoes

I decided on a lunch salad, cutting them in half and dressing them with oil, vinegar, salt and basil and tumbling them into the smallest bowl available.

On the next visit, my mother had already picked seven tiny tomatoes – five with split skins. Just as well then, that I’d bought a punnet of bigger, more attractive-looking relatives that I added to the bowl to plump up the lunch.

I reflected on the growing regime: bringing them home from the markets, making space in the garden bed, preparing the soil, planting and then feeding, watering and staking them. And checking for pests. I calculated that each meal from the crop has cost about $95.

But all’s not lost. I found a recipe I’d archived from the Italian Notes site for pickled green tomatoes (pomodorini verdi sott’aceto). Picking them unripened solves the problem of eating ugly, split fruit with the seeds erupting from the flesh like unwanted intestines.

However, I think my future as a vegetable grower rests with the sweet potato. Not very Italian, I know, but we have a mystery plant that has grown on its own, without love, and produces a bumper crop of sweet potatoes each year. No work required. Last year’s harvest included a potato so big I had to share half with the neighbours. The other half went to a friend who made a sweet potato pie for a dinner party.

biggest sweet potato

I’m really quite happy to let other people be tomato growers. I think La Gina has the right idea.

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Growing Coffee: a backyard job

September 30, 2014
growing coffee at home
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Mandarin Cooking Challenge: don’t try this at home

September 10, 2012

It can’t be because I’m missing the themed parties we used to attend. The ones where you had to come dressed as a fruit starting with ‘M’. Whatever the reason, I obviously needed a challenge.

I consider myself quite handy in the kitchen, but this attempt at a grand mandarin themed meal with an Italian twist delivered an ‘F’ for fail. I wouldn’t have minded so much had the fruit not been harvested in our garden with my own sweat and tears (see past blogpost). Here’s the results:

ENTREE: COUSCOUS, MANDARIN, FENNEL and TREVISO RADICCHIO SALAD

mandarin salad

Verdict: These ingredients do not want to be on the plate simultaneously. All wonderful by themselves, but ask them to mingle and it’s like the party where no-one has a good time.

MAIN: ANATRA AL MANDARINO  – my mandarin version of Duck a l’Orange (that some Italians claim was brought to France from Florence by Catherine de Medici in the 16th century).

Verdict: Fairly successful, if a little sweet for my taste. However, substituting the only liqueur I had in the cupboard – Drambuie – for Grand Marnier worked a treat, but I’m really here to rant aren’t I…

DESSERT: MANDARIN AND COCONUT JELLY

Blood orange and mandarin dessert

Verdict:  Gelatin recipes can be quite tricky, so follow them accurately. First attempt – a runny mess – couldn’t be rescued. Second attempt (while the Calypso dancers waited patiently) produced a stiffer wobble, but the mandarin marmalade topping (and blood orange sauce) I added quickly dissolved the two layers of jelly.

CAKE: MANDARIN and ALMOND TORTE with CHOCOLATE GANACHE (a variation of Claudia Roden’s flourless Orange and Almond Cake using mandarin marmalade)

Using mandarins in cakes

Verdict: BELIEVE what you read. If you don’t follow the recipe and substitute enough marmalade for two oranges you get dry cake. And don’t drop the cake icing-side down after adding the almonds. Any attempt at re-arranging will resemble Bugs Bunny’s two front teeth poking out under the ganache.

I see that Heston Blumenthal took the challenge to put the duck INSIDE l’orange. Quel smartypants.

♦ I welcome your thoughts or retorts on my posts. The Comments button is only a click away…

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The Secret Radicchio Society

June 4, 2012

I’m sitting at my mother’s dining table finishing my salad, thinking about life without these special green leaves.

Growing up in 1960s’ Sydney eating Italian food that my immigrant parents served, I’d hardly tasted the popular iceberg lettuce non-Italians ate. My father wasn’t a natural gardener, but one thing he did well was growing and harvesting bitter greens from the chicory family.

His specialty was a type of small-leafed, pale green radicchio grown in and around our hometown – Trieste – in northeastern Italy. These greens weren’t available at greengrocers, so most of our family friends from that Italian region grew it here in Australia: those who didn’t always had friends willing to donate some.

There’s not much you can do with this type of radicchio but eat it with vinaigrette. My father, however, chose to up the ante and sometimes added finely chopped, raw garlic. Being a non-Anglo preteen, I was anti-garlic and refused to buy into its alleged worm killing properties, so I discarded each tiny piece. If my father really suspected we had worms, he could have made life easier by trying a folk medicine remedy: a couple of garlic cloves in each shoe, to be absorbed through the skin. Slower, but kinder!

Realising I needed a creative way of eating the greens, dad added quartered hard-boiled eggs to the salad. I loved the way they dissolved into the vinaigrette, coating the leaves with a powdery yellow shine. Once all leaves were eaten, there was always a tussle for rights to sop up the liquid at the bottom of the bowl with crusty bread.

We stopped eating it for many years as different types of salad greens were available and Italian families no longer had the passion to grow it. Occasionally, in the 1970s, it would appear at barbeques and we’d swoop on it like seagulls, or we’d find it at family-run restaurants specialising in Venetian and northeastern Italian cuisine.

Growing radicchio from Trieste

The radicchio patch in all its glory

About eight years ago I had a craving for it and suggested to my mother I might try growing it in her backyard. I tracked down an online seed supplier who markets it in Australia as “Cicoria zuccherina di Trieste”. The term ‘zuccherina’ refers to its sweetness, but more accurately it has a pleasant bitter taste, especially if it’s eaten while still young and tender.

The radicchio patch – dedicated to my late father – has fed us continuously as it re-grows after each harvest. I sow it every two years after the leaves become a bit hard and hairy, and have my hands full protecting it from heavy rain and keeping two family cats from stretching out on it to bask in the sun. It needs watering every day – twice in dry summer weather – and my mother has become chief waterer.

Cicoria Zuccherina di Trieste con uova

The fruits of my labour

Greengrocers now sell many varieties of chicory, endive and radicchio such as the red Treviso and Verona, but don’t stock the type we eat, probably as it’s too delicate to withstand the handling and transport. In Trieste they are spoilt for choice, with up to four varieties sold daily at outdoor markets around the city.

It’s such a special part of the meals I have when I visit my mother twice per week; the table looks bare in the two months that the radicchio is in the early growing phase and too small to harvest. 

I think I need to become a fully-fledged market gardener and stagger my crops to enjoy it year-round.

 

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