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Friday, February 25, 2011

Figgy Feasts & Chick Chasey

The figs are ripening and providing a lovely feast for the birds at the moment.  Figs are a bit tricky.  You can't pick them too early because they don't ripen off the tree.  You have to catch them when they're just right - changed colour and easily twisted from the branch.  Leave them too late and they'll mush attracting all the insects.  And they spoil very quickly once picked.  We let the birds eat the top figs on our tree, there's always still plenty left for us.

The chicks are also enjoying the figs and providing me with entertainment.  I know animal creatures really ought not to be human entertainment but I do love to watch a game of Chick-Chasey.  Every morning the chicks greet me in their coop with squawks and yelps as they literally climb all over each other in a fight for the door.  Funny how they know exactly where the door is in the morning but struggle to find their way back in when it rains.  Anyway, they fight for the door and make a chick line for the fig tree looking for any that have fallen overnight.  Then one will pick a bit up in her beak and do a funny chicken run in an attempt to find a private place to consume it with all the other chicks in tow.  Another will steal the fruit and the game continues.
Eldest Monkey Boy loves a fig but naturally Littlest Monkey Boy won't even try.  Unless it's in a jam which I'll have to do again this year.


The other day I attempted a special figgy treat for myself. My current all time favourite tapas-style recipe for visitors is peppered figs with haloumi cheese. The recipe comes from George Calombaris' Greek Cookery from the Hellenic Heart book.  Well it was my birthday this week and I was alone for lunch but decided I would treat myself anyway.  The recipe calls for baby dried figs.  I figured it'd be just as good with big fresh figs - maybe a bit sloppier so I'd leave out the water.  And it tasted pretty good. But it looked like green diarrhea.  So I've spared you the photograph.

Below is the recipe as written by George. I urge you all to try it - truly is the most delish thing ever.  He recommends serving it with grilled haloumi but I've only ever fried mine and it was my birthday.  So I've included how to fry haloumi if you feel the need for a few extra kilojoules.

Peppered Figs with Haloumi

For the Figs:
• 100g dried baby figs
• 1 tbsp Attiki honey (still delish with your usual)
• 2 tsp balsamic vinegar
• 1 tbsp black pepper, cracked
• 1 cinnamon quill
• 1 small bay leaf
• 3 cloves
• water to cover

Place figs, honey, balsamic vinegar, black pepper, cinnamon quill, bay leaf and cloves in a saucepan.  Add water and bring to the boil.
Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook gently until tender.  Preserve in a sterilised jar.

For the Haloumi:
Cut haloumi into slices about 1cm thick. You can soak them in water if you don't like them to be so salty but I reckon the saltiness is the best bit. Heat some olive oil in a non stick frypan.  Cook the haloumi on both sides until golden and crispy.

Serve the haloumi warm with the figs on top.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Who's a Big Whiner Then?

Yep, wasn't long ago I was whining about my crappy tomato crop.  Not enough, slow to ripen, too many bugs, whine, whine.  Well turns out I was just being impatient (surprise, surprise)!   I've been getting lots of cherry tomatoes.  Sure some of them have holes where the bugs have attacked, but now that they're all ripening I realise I have stacks.  Almost too many.  Who could imagine that I could grow too many tomatoes?  

Of course, Littlest Monkey has decided he no longer likes tomatoes now that we have bucket loads.  Same as he's decided he no longer likes pies.  I discovered that pies were a good way of getting some vegetable into Little Monkey - polenta pie, rice pie, pasta pie, pastry pie.  Veggies with carb.  Couldn't go wrong there for a few months provided I called it a pie.  Now he tells me "I don't like pie remember!"  Like I'm some crazy, dementia-suffering slave mum.   So last night I tried the trick of the name twist.  "I've made a yummy polenta pizza.  Look crispy polenta pizza crust, veggies and an oozy cheesy topping."  He was having none of it.  Wouldn't even try.  Just ate the salad.  Some of it.  Three pieces of carrot, three pieces of cucumber and left the three cherry tomatoes.  

Sigh.

But I do know that Littlest Monkey will eat gnocchi.  Loves gnocchi since they made it last year at kinder.  Apparently he wasn't going to try it but perhaps persuaded by his four year old peers had a little taste and what do you know, liked it.  Had three bowls.  So I thought tonight I might turn this basket full of tomatoes into a pasta sauce and serve it with gnocchi.  

Until last year, I'd only tried making gnocchi a couple of times.  Both times were complete failures.  Chewy little potato rocks.  And I've found that eating out can be a bit hit and miss with gnocchi too.  Nothing worse than paying for chewy gnocchi in a restaurant.  Surely if it's on the menu they can get it right?  Many years ago an ex's sister's new Italian boyfriend (confused yet?) attempted to impress us all with an afternoon of gnocchi making.  But they turned out to be dreadful chewy little potato rocks too.  Even the super polite potential parents-in-law couldn't fake smile their way through them.  I suspect he hadn't spent much time in nonna's kitchen.  

Anyway, last year we bought a cookbook Little Kitchen by Sabrina Parrini.  It's a cookbook for kids with lots of pictures and simple step-by-step instructions.  And that's how I learnt the trick to making gnocchi - don't over-mix the dough. Over-mixing makes chewy gnocchi.  So there you go - took a kid cookbook to teach me this simple lesson for melt in the mouth, super soft gnocchi.

Gnocchi & Tomato Sauce
Tomato Sauce (from Stephanie Alexander's Kitchen Garden Companion)
• 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
• 1 onion finely chopped
• 1 bay leaf
• 500g tomatoes chopped
• 2 cloves garlic
• 8 sprigs basil
• salt & pepper
• extra basil to serve

Heat oil in a large non stick pan and cook onion with bay leaf over medium heat until soft.  Add tomato, garlic and herbs.  Cook stirring frequently until tomato has collapsed.  Stephanie says this is a fast cook recipe and recommends cooking for 10 minutes only.  I forgot about mine and cooked it on low for much longer.  Tasted great.  She next recommends using a food mill to push all the tomato mixture through and get rid of the seeds and skins.  I've made the sauce without doing this step and it's fine.  But I recently got this wizzy gadget that I call The Squisher and it was fun for Eldest Monkey Boy and I to use.  It also served the dual purpose for this meal of squishing the potato to a mash for the gnocchi.
Add salt, pepper and extra herbs and serve with the gnocchi.

Gnocchi (from Sabrina Parrini's Little Kitchen)
• 500g potatoes, peeled & chopped
• 3 tbs plain flour for dusting the work surface
• 1/4 tsp salt
• 1 cup plain 00 flour
NB - This recipe is supposed to feed 4 but I reckon it must be four teeny tiny tummies not four greedy, hungry for gnocchi tummies like we have in our family.  

Cook the potatoes and allow them to cool in a colander.  Sprinkle 3 tbs of flour onto the work surface.  Push the potatoes through the squisher (or mash them) onto the flour.  Sprinkle on the salt and 1/3 cup of flour over the potato.  Mix it in quickly.  Add the rest of the flour in two more batches, mixing each quickly and lightly.  Divide the dough into thirds and roll each into a long rope about 2cm thick.  Cut each rope into 2cm pieces.
Drop batches of gnocchi into a large saucepan of boiling water.  When they rise to the surface they are cooked.
Success!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Really Ugly Nature Strips and Really Beautiful Ones

Weeds and our ugly front footpath
Where I live there are a lot of really ugly nature strips.  Actually, all over Melbourne there are a lot of really ugly nature strips.  Out the front of my place is a really ugly nature strip. 

Monkey Man and I have divided our outdoor spaces.  He is in charge of the front and I am in charge of the back.  Our front garden is a jungle.  No matter what I say, Monkey Man will not listen when it comes to the front yard.  Too many trees planted too close together and lots of weeds.  Tall people need to duck to get under the tree at the gate and short people need to watch out for side-splaying vines that'll poke you in the eye and thorns that'll rip a hole in your special cardigan.  Monkey Man never does real pruning.   Actually, that's not entirely true - whenever we are running late for something and I have just managed to herd the monkey family to the front door, Monkey Man will decide that it is a good time to do a little fingernail twisting of a couple of twigs.  And a little foot-sweeping of the path.  Monkey Man knows better than to make suggestions about the back, but if I do some pruning I need to hide the evidence.  He thinks that chopping a  branch from a tree is akin to chopping an arm from a human.
See - a jungle
Try making your way down this garden path
Anyway, the front nature strip has been his domain - a whipper snip when the grass gets too long and that's it.  But lately I've been eyeing it off.  Our nature strip gets a lot of sun and it would look so much better with some plants. Wouldn't it be wonderful if more people grew food on their nature strips?

A little way from us, some neighbours have done wonderful things with their front nature strip.  Check this out...
That's all on the nature strip.  There are tomatoes and lettuce and beetroot among the shrubs and  flowers and pots and garden art and even a little table and chair set.  Fantastic!

Our neighbour Mr. P. planted a row of almond trees along his nature strip when he first moved in many years ago. Unfortunately, they're not the sort of almonds I get excited about - they're bitter ones only good for desserts I don't know how to do.  But I've seen old ladies in black dresses carrying ladders to pick a basket of almonds from these nature strip trees and I reckon that's cool. 

Now I'm not usually one to advocate civic disobedience but... 
I know that councils can get a bit uppity about nature strips and what you can grow on them.  When I looked into my council's laws I discovered that I was supposed to get a permit to plant a nature strip garden and that I could only plant from a list of their recommended species.   A list that doesn't include edibles.  I don't recognise the names of these plants and I'm pretty sure that any nature strip garden made entirely from a little list provided by the council is going to be boring! Now I was always a very good girl at school - never got a detention.  And I'm a very well-behaved adult. I've only once back-chatted a police officer at a WEF protest way back in the late '90s and that's as bad as I've been, I promise. But I'm going to break this council rule!  I'm going to plant a garden without a permit and I'm going to plant some herbs in it! Provided I don't plant any noxious weeds, or bushes that'll obscure people's view of the road or stop people making a track from the footpath to their cars what harm can there be? 

I'm dreaming of herbs growing on my nature strip for all who care to share.  Things like mint and sage and rosemary.  Things that'll grow big and survive without water or too much attention.  I'm dreaming of bushes and flowers but I don't dare dream as ambitiously as the place up the road.  So I've been trying (not entirely successfully yet) to propogate some herbs.  I'm not going to spend money on plants for a nature strip that might be destroyed by a passing drunk on a Saturday night (we get a few of those) so I'm just going to use stuff I already have.

I'd love to know about any nature strips in your area and get some ideas.  In fact, I'd like to take a look at any lovely nature strips out there.  If you like, you could email me a photo and if you don't mind I'll pop it on my next nature strip blog post for all to admire.
Vietnamese mint I propogated getting ready for my nature strip garden

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Chickens are not the Brightest of Creatures (Part 2)

Who you calling stupid?
The other night I was watching SBS news while simultaneously playing bejeweled on my ipad.  Oh dear, embarrassing confessions. We spoilt ourselves with a Christmas ipad and I've consequently discovered a couple of daggy games and I have an addictive personality so I keep playing the daggy games over and over... Anyway, a news item came on about a dog that has a 1,000 word vocabulary!  I thought for a minute I must have inadvertently sat on the remote and flicked to Today Tonight (apologies international readers. Think sleazy, sensationalist, tabloid telly). But no it was the fluff piece at the end of the news.  I was almost tempted to risk a high score and take my eyes of the shiny, jingly jewelled patterns for a tick but my addiction won and I continued the game while listening.  This dog has 1,000 toys and knows them all by name.  And if you throw in a new stuffed toy he's never seen and give it a name he'll find it by using his incredible, deductive dog intelligence.  Now that is a smart pet.

Chickens must have much smaller brains than dogs.

And silkies are quite a bit smaller than your average chicken so I'm willing to bet they've got even smaller brains.

A couple of weeks ago, I lamented that my chicks were so dim they couldn't find the door to the chicken shed even though it was only two chick-steps away.  Well yesterday I realised in the middle of my vacuuming that it was pouring.  And the chicks were free-ranging outside.  They've never been out and about in the rain before.  Usually I send them back to their shed before the weather gets bad.  So I rushed out without umbrella or raincoat (as you do) to see what they were up to.  Of course they were just standing in a huddle wondering what all that water was.  They have fluff not feathers so the water was not running off them but turning them to slosh.  I quickly attempted to herd them into their shed but they were having none of it and stood rigid in their huddle.  So I picked up a couple of soggy birds, tossed them into the shed and ran back for the others. But by the time I'd collected two more the first two had run back out - I had of course left the door open.  We continued this silly game for a bit until we were all well and truly wet and a wee bit frazzled.

So if you're looking for a smart pet - go for Chaser the Super Smart Border Collie - not a silkie chicken. And if you're looking for a smart human, look for one who actually watches SBS news - the real bits not the fluff piece at the end. One who knows to close a door after her and who uses an umbrella in wet weather.  Certainly not one who plays enough games of bejeweled to make her hear jingly, jangly sounds and see sparkly, coloured patterns when she closes her eyes at night.
Beware, mind-numbing, addictive game

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Brekkie and the Big Bang

Cherry tomatoes, rainbow silverbeet and basil
Well after whining about my failed tomato crop a couple of days ago, I had a pleasant surprise this morning.  I just left them alone for a couple of days. When I went out to pick the ripe ones there were lots - without holes and despite the wilting lower leaves.  Maybe I'd gotten rid of most of those grubs to the chicks.  Maybe they crawled away when they knew I wasn't boasting anymore and had confessed my boasting sins via blog.  There were enough tomatoes to justify the use of my Little Red Riding Hood basket that I picked up especially for veggie picking 6 months ago at the op shop.  It's been sitting disappointed at my back door all this time willing me to produce a bit more so it can be used. 
My favourite breakfast
So I picked some garden ingredients for my favourite breakfast - silverbeet, tomatoes and basil.  Whizzed them all up in a frypan with a smidge of cooking spray, some mushies and an egg, wacked them on some toast and served it all up with a nice cup of earl grey.  (You'll notice that my egg remained intact so I'm bound to have a good day today.)  Now you may be looking at my breakfast and thinking that is a lot of food.  Yep you're right - but I always have a big breakfast with lots of veggies.  Several years ago I lost 23kgs on weight watchers and it changed the way I eat.  A big breakfast fills me up and stops me snacking on crap in between.  And I eat lots of veggies.  There you go my secret weight loss weapons!  

While I was eating my brekkie Littlest Monkey Boy hit me with a question "How do we know the Big Bang happened if there were no people around to see it happen?"  Now Littlest Monkey had his first day of school on Monday.  We had 40 minutes of crying and screaming and force dressing to get him there.  He carried Tiny Ted his current favourite stuffed toy with him the whole day.  Fortunately, he enjoyed himself once there.  But he is still my baby and he wasn't the only one sooking that morning.  I had to wear sunglasses at drop off to hide my weeping.  But I think it is time to let go.  If he's big enough to bamboozle me with questions on cosmological theory over breakfast then he's big enough to totter off with Tiny Ted to school. 
Teary Littlest MonkeyBoy with Tiny Ted looking cold and apprehensive on his first day of school.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Boasting Brings the Bugs

Tommy Toe
Now I'm not a very supersitious person.  Although Monkey Man would disagree.  He reckons I'm bonkers 'cos every morning I have a little ritual with my egg-cracking.  As I'm making my breakfast, if my egg yolk breaks and runs everywhere I know it's gonna be a bad day.  If it remains intact, all's well to carry on.  Luckily I'm pretty good at the egg-cracking caper seeing as I have one most mornings and I consequently usually have good days.

There was a teacher at a school I worked at and he sagely advised us over morning tea one day that the first rule of teaching is this: "The minute you think you've won - you've lost"!  And he was right.  Never get too cocky.  And I think that's been my mistake with my tomatoes.

I grew my tomatoes from seed for the first time this year and they were coming along fantastically.  Enormously tall bushes with loads of cherry tomatoes.  When Mr P. came to visit he was most impressed and said they were doing better than his!  Better than Mr P. my Italian, expert, gardener neighbour!  Huh!  My chest puffed up a bit at that one and a little more when friends visited and I'd take them on a tomato admiring tour.  Yes, I'd say with false modesty, it must be those Diggers seeds or the broad bean crop before that fixed the nitrogen (see how much I've learned?). 
Grub Attack
So the plants grew wonderfully and there were masses of lovely tomatoes - but I'd been waiting and waiting and waiting for something to ripen.  And finally a few have been turning red - maybe 8 a day.  Not many.  Not enough for a real meal.  Then when I would take a closer inspection at my booty I'd discover that some rotten little grubs had been burrowing in and had made whopping big holes in most of them.  So I've ended up throwing half to the chooks who squawk and squabble and have a tommy tomato feast and I'm left with four measley cherry tomatoes.   And what's more, the bottom of the plants are all starting to wither and die - already.  What's going on?  I've never had grubs eat my tomatoes before.  And surely the bush isn't supposed to die at the bottom when the top is still in flower?   

My only explanation is cockiness.  I've learnt a lesson.  Never get too full of yourself.  No boasting.  Those little grubs can hear a boast from several gardens away and will come crawling into your patch just to teach you a lesson. 
At least the chooks like them.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Yellow Zucchini

Zucchini Tri Colour
I have a zucchini bush that is massive and taking up a lot of space in it's patch.  It's been rewarding us with a nice green zucchini every so often but I was a bit disappointed.  I was expecting quite a bit more from such a big bush taking up so much space.  I wondered if there weren't enough pollinators about and contemplated giving it a premature composting to make way for the cucumber that's trying to grow beside it.  But the other day I ventured a look beneath it's prickly leaves up the other end where the first fruit came and I got a surprise.  Lots of little growing yellow zucchinis. Then I remembered that this was a seed from my Diggers pack called Zucchini Tri-Coloured Mix and I could expect green and yellow and white zucchinis.  Lovely.  

Now I just need to address the powdery mildew problem.  I think those milk washes can be effective but you have to be vigilant and I'm afraid I'm a bit lazy.  I did read somewhere that a dose of liquid seaweed watered all over the leaves might work and that sounds like something I could manage.  We'll see how I go. 

Now I'm looking forward to lots of lovely multi coloured zucchinis meals.  
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