Sunday, July 17, 2016

Beetroot Tops - How to Cook Them

Travel can inform you in many surprising and delightful ways.  So there we were, on our first visit to Greece, sitting in a seafront taverna on the island of Kos when I discovered two things:



1.  You can eat beetroot tops.  I found this out when I asked the waiter what the plate of greens were that the nice young men on the next table were eating with their lunch. He just said horta, and when I looked perplexed beckoned me into the kitchen to see for myself - a common and endearing occurrence in Green tavernas.  Sitting on the bench top in the kitchen was a pile of fresh purple beets with their chopped off stems and leaves being washed in the sink. "There" said the waiter, pointing to the pile of wet greens, "horta."

2.  Horta - horticulturist. Horta in Greek roughly translates as 'greens' - growing from the earth.  So there we have it - my qualifications are in growing green things from the earth.

I don't know about you, but I didn't know you could eat beetroot tops because we never did in our family - and I never knew any other English family that did either.  This is in spite of growing beetroots in our veggie garden and throwing away the beautiful fresh leaves and just eating the ruby red beets - usually cooked and pickled in vinegar or, heaven forbid in Aunty Phil's famous raspberry jelly relish! Greens for us were cabbage or collards that were put on to boil usually when the roast went in the oven!

Greek island of Kos, where East meets West

Now with many more years on the clock than I dare to think about, I have been exposed, through travel and the multi-cultural melting pot that is Australia to eating the gloriously sweet ruby red beetroot every which way; grated in a dip with garlic and yoghurt, roasted in a salad with feta and pecans, making a magic marriage in beetroot and chocolate brownies, or simply freshly grated in a rainbow salad with honey and lemon dressing.  And, you did know that beetroot is incredibly good for you?


"Researchers at Waker Forest University in North Carolina have shown that a diet that includes about 500ml of beetroot juice per day helps improve blood flow to certain regions of the brain in older people. In particular the effects were noted in the frontal lobe - a part of the brain that commonly experiences reduced blood flow in age-related dementia and cognitive decline. The effect is likely to occur because beetroot juice (like spinach, celery, cabbage and other leafy green vegetables) is a good source of nitrates. These compounds are converted into nitrites by the good bacteria in the mouth, and act as vasodilators - in other words they have the capacity to open the blood vessels and enhance blood flow" Gardening Australia 2011


But it was in Greece that I first encountered eating the tops - the leaves and stems. You will find horta on the menu in just about every Greek taverna - especially in the springtime for they are traditionally any edible wild greens that scatter the hillsides and form an important part of the healthy Mediterranean diet. Collecting these free and wild greens is a common pastime for most Greek families - so if you are out in the middle of nowhere and you see moped parked with a distant figure hallway up the hillside, you know what they are doing.
Another good horta - sorrel

As well as beet leaves, the generic horta also includes; spiny chicory, chard, fennel, purslane, sorrel, dandelion, amaranth, wild spinach, rocket and many more that I haven't been able to identify yet. I think the reason why I have taken to enjoying horta so much is that they are mostly (apart from kale) not in the cabbage family so don't have that sulphury smell associated with the dreaded 'greens' from my childhood - plus, they are really delicious.

The secret to enjoying this dish is that the leaves have to be really fresh - in this case, freshly pulled beetroot.  I am lucky that our farmers' market in Mullumbimby have locally grown ones most of the year round and they look like they have just jumped out of the soil.  Here's how to prepare them:

1.  Cut off the stems and leaves and wash in them in several changes of water to make sure you have got rid of any dust and grit.
2.  Plunge them into a saucepan of boiling water and cook for 2-3 minutes until completely tender.
3.  Drain in a colander.
4.  Rinse out the saucepan and return to the heat with 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, freshly ground pepper and sea salt.
5.  Return the greens to the pan and toss through the oil, adding the freshly squeezed juice of one lemon.  That's it - horta.




"The world is a book, and those who don't travel only read one page"
St Augustine

Monday, June 13, 2016

Best Ever Fruit Cake

How many fruit cakes have your tried in your lifetime?  Well, this is the best one that I have ever had - and it is very easy to make.  In fact, it's my lovely neighbour Belinda Jeffery's recipe, and she calls it 'Last Minute Christmas Cake'.  

It has now become the families' go to recipe for a deliciously moist cake for the festive season, but I make it all through the year, especially in the winter, as everyone loves it - one of those comfort food cakes for a cup of tea on a cold day.  And boy has it been cold - the coldest June in 21 years and us sub-tropical species just aren't made for it!  Time to get baking and get those delicious spicy fruit cake smells wafting through the house.

300g unsalted butter
400g soft brown sugar
1.5 kg dried fruit - currants, raisins, sultanas, dates, prunes, sun-dried apricots.
NOTE:  Make sure that 1 1/4 cups of the mixed fruit are raisins.  Also, the better the quality - the better the cake, so I use preservative free organic fruit - believe me, it makes a difference.
2 tsp bicarbonate soda
1/2 cup brandy (or dark rum/port/muscat)
NOTE:  Don't be afraid that adding alcohol to this cake will make it unsuitable for children - it evaporates in the cooking process.  It is just there to add flavour and preserve the cake.
1 1/2 cups water
2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
2tsp ground cinnamon
4 eggs, lightly beaten
2 1/2 cups plain wholemeal flour
200g whole peeled almonds and pecans for decorating
Good pinch salt 




This recipe will make one large cake or two cakes of this size.
1.  Melt the butter over a medium heat in a saucepan large enough to hold all the ingredients.
2.  Add the sugar until it dissolves and becomes slushy.
3.  Tip in all the dried fruit, bicarbonate of soda, brandy and water.
4.  Increase the heat to high and stir until all the sugar is dissolved and simmer for 4 minutes.  BEWARE - the bicarb makes it froth up.
5.  Cover and leave overnight or for at least six hours.  You want all the fruit to plump up and be really juicy - this makes the cake deliciously moist.
6.  Preheat oven to 150oC.
7.  Butter and line your cake tins.  If making just one large one, you need a 25 cm round tin.  The round one above is 23cm and the loaf tin 20cm.
8.  Add the nutmeg, cinnamon and beaten eggs to the fruit and stir well.
9.  Add the flour and stir well, leaving it to sit for a few minutes before you scrape into the prepared cake tins. (This is where the grandchildren come in for wish-making and spoon licking!).
10. Tap the full tins lightly on the bench to help raise any large air bubbles and level out the mix.
11. Decorate with almonds/pecans and bake for approx. 2 hours until skewer comes out clean.  This will depend on the size of the tins you have used.  They may take a little more or a little less time.
12.  Leave the cake to cool completely in its tin, on a wire rack, before you take it out.
13.  Will keep in a sealed container in the fridge for a couple of months.



A small helper with a big spoon to lick - I think her wish came true too!

I was prompted to make a couple of these this week to give to my son Nick.  He is an arborist with a tree lopping business and has been working away from home on contract in the New England Tablelands.  Every day he organises a bought cake for his workers for morning tea and says that trying to find something reasonably healthy gets a bit monotonous - the choice being limited to carrot cakes and banana breads. It has been extremely cold out there with frost and snow and I can imagine how hungry they get?



I hope you enjoy this cake as much as Nick and his crew seem to be!

Winter Care of Citrus and Orchard Meadows


Soon the citrus harvest will be over with just a few fruit left hanging on the trees SO....... it's time to get busy - that's if you want a bumper crop next year.  Time to sharpen the loppers, buy some trace elements, bales of mulch and get out there.

It is time to PRUNE, FEED and MULCH those hungry citrus trees - and it doesn't matter whether they are in pots or in the ground - this advice applies to ALL CITRUS.

PRUNING
I recently went to help a friend of mine prune her old, but prolific, citrus trees and she reckons we are in for a wet winter so it's time to get those outdoor jobs while we can.


BEFORE

1. Branches hanging on the ground.
2. Crossing branches in the middle which rub together and then can be a site for pest and disease attack.
3.Tree getting too tall to be able to reach fruit.
4. Dry, cracked and bare ground under the tree.
AFTER
1.  Taking out some the large inner branches, as well as lifting the skirt off the ground, allows for better airflow through your citrus and helps to deter diseases.
2.  My retired farming friend, who used to be a commercial citrus grower, says not to be too timid when pruning and was just about to take to this tree with a pair of shears "just to give it a final haircut".  Her tip - don't let your trees get too tall so that you can't reach the fruit.


FACT: Pruning actually encourages more growth and flowering - and that means more fruit.


TOP TIP:  Gardeners are often reluctant to prune while there is still some fruit on the tree, immature or otherwise - but you have to do it sometime!  If you leave it until late in the winter you will be cutting off the developing flowering buds.  Here are a couple of ways I use up that excess fruit.
1.  Juice the fruit and make frozen ice cubes which you can store in the freezer until you need them.
2.  Make preserved lemons and limes, which will keep for ages, by salting them.  Here's how: 
*Cut the washed fruit into quarters and stuff into sterilised jars - salt the bottom first.
*With every layer of fruit add some salt.
*Top up with squeezed fresh juice.
*Weight down with a stone that you have cleaned with boiling water so that all the fruit is under the liquid.
*100g salt per 500ml jar.
* I add bay leaves to the lemons - you can add cloves and cinnamon.
* Ready to use in a month or so.  Wash the preserved fruit and discard the fruit pulp and white pith - you just want the skin - slice thinly

HOW TO USE:  Preserved Limes - with fish and seafood.  Lemons - Couscous, Middle Eastern dishes, tagines.  Try this delicious lamb tagine dish - it needs 2 preserved lemons.
The street where we used to live in Sydney copping a huge storm


FEEDING and MULCHING
1..  The whole of the east coast of Australia has just experienced a terrific storm with some folk on the North Coast, where I live,  getting over 400mm in 24 hours (annual average 1,500mm) which means, for us gardeners, that many of the nutrients in the soil get washed away (along with the assortment of shoes from the flooded front porch!).  SO - with the portent of a wet winter, it's time to care for your citrus trees - AND the best way to do that is by caring for the soil - that means FEEDING it and not leaving the soil bare, and MULCHING.

2.  Note the tree in the top photo after we had finished. No more bare earth under under the trees.  Each tree has been mulched out to the drip line - in this case with spent straw from a horse stable, but you can use anything; wood chips, composted grass clippings, spent sugar cane, lucerne - just about whatever you can lay your hands on.

3.  An organic, pelleted, slow-release fertiliser (macronutrients) is the way to go together with a dose of trace elements (micronutrients).

TOP TIP: Grow your own mulch!  Plants some clumps of COMFREY and LEMON GRASS around your orchard - these can be slashed regularly and used as a green mulch.  WHY - COMFREY has a long tap root and mines up minerals from deep in the soil, it also has a low carbon to nitrogen ratio so can be used fresh - unlike most green material - it won't rob the soil of nitrogen as it breaks down. LEMON GRASS has essential oils that act as a passive pest control when the fresh leaves are used as mulch - for its size it also produces a lot of leaves.

AND NOW - for all of those folk who have an orchard and are interested in making a smaller footprint - READ ON


From This
TOP TIPS for A HEALTHIER ORCHARD:
Making our patch more like a living organism and less like an artificial, unsustainable experiment just makes common sense to me - do yourself and the environment a favour and eliminate the need for ALL OF THE ABOVE; continual mowing, weeding, feeding and mulching.

HOW: by making your orchard, 
less work to maintain, more productive AND more beautiful.



To This

COVER CROPS provide a living carpet of perennial plants for orchards.  A 'living mulch' of low growing legumes,  grasses and other wildflowers can provide many advantages, especially compared to exotic lawn grass (kikuyu,couch and buffalo) which aggressively competes with your fruit trees for water and nutrients - and you have to mow it!  

The best way to start is with a LEGUMINOUS COVER CROP.  Legumes are plants such as lucerne, pea and bean family, medics and chickpeas.



WHY IS THIS A GOOD IDEA FOR ALL ORCHARDS?: How about feeding the soil with the plants that are growing there?
  • Legumes have the ability to fix nitrogen from the air onto their roots which then becomes available, via the soil, to other plants.  Nitrogen is a major element needed for plant growth.
  • Protects valuable topsoil from rain and wind erosion.
  • Suppresses weeds without the use of herbicides.
  • Improves the health of your soil by increasing organic matter, earthworms and vital microorganisms.
  • Reduces compaction of the soil by frequent mowing.
  • Prevents hardpans and soil cracking and brings up minerals from deep within the soil.
  • Improves water, root and air penetration of the soil.
  • Provides nectar and pollen for beneficial insects and reduces populations of pests by providing a more balanced, diverse and natural habitat.
  • Looks wonderful - if you would rather have the buzz of insects than the sound of a mower, and the flit of butterflies and birds on the wing - then this is for you.
  • Is ultimately less work and saves you money - have you seen the price of a bale of lucerne lately?

  • NITROGEN NODULES on the roots of broad beans
HOW TO DO IT?

1.  It's obviously much easier to do this when establishing a new orchard as you need bare earth to sow the seed in.  Seeds are available from any rural seed supplier.
2.  How to get rid of existing grass:
  • There are new organically certified herbicides on the market that are based on pine oil called Weed Blitz - though I have yet to try it. (Recommended by Green Harvest Company that also sells cover crop seeds)
  • Hire a steam weeder to kill the grass - being used more and more by Councils and road side authorities as alternative to harmful herbicides.
  • For smaller areas - sheet mulch with cardboard and straw.
3.  Now for an important little bit of science.  The fixing of nitrogen by legumes from soil air require the presence of species specific bacteria (rhizobia) so it's important to buy seeds that have already been inoculated with the relevant rhizobia as your soil will probably be deficient in these important bacteria.

4.  Make sure you have summer (e.g. cowpeas, lab lab, soybeans, desmodium, siratro) and winter ( e.g.lupins, vetch, oats, ryegrass) growing crops as you want year round cover. 

5.  Add a grass seed to your cover crop -  including native grasses and others like oats, barley and ryegrass - has many benefits including; increasing organic matter and carbon input, encourages smaller seed eating birds and more beneficial insects. 

6.  Orchards with a lot of shade (macadamias, mangoes and avocados).  The DPI (Department of Primary Industry) recommends the native Smothergrass Dactyloctenium austral and Amarillo peanut Araelus pinto.
Cover crop seeds for sale in our local Rural Co-op

MAINTENANCE

1.  Once your new meadow is established slash as required!!!!  This may only be a couple of times a year!!!!!  Important to do it once in the late summer to encourage re-seeding.  Leave anything you have slashed to rot down.  Re-seed any bare patches - then just sit back and ENJOY IT.


Go to this link by the NSW DPI for lots of useful information.


Guess what Prince Charles gave his mother to celebrate the 60th anniversary of her coronation (no, it wasn't a corgi) - a MEADOW in every county rescued from abandoned waste ground.
http://coronationmeadows.org.uk 

  



Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Balinese Chicken Curry

This follows on from the previous post about turmeric and about eating your way to good health - and, while we are at it we might as well have something seasonal and delicious!  And, the absolutely best thing about making a curry like this is the heavenly fragrance that wafts throughout the house when it's being prepared.

Ubud, Bali, on the road to Kaliki

So this is a curry paste that you can make from either fresh or dried ingredients and keep it refrigerated to make up a quick curry of either chicken, tofu or vegetables.


I have spent many happy and fascinating times in Indonesia and am a big fan of it's little known cuisine (how many Indonesian restaurants do you have in your town?) - this is one such dish.  If you like Indian curries, you will be surprised at the freshness and pungency of this dish by comparison - give yourself, and your taste buds a treat and try it.

This photo shows three members of the ginger family which I have just harvested and use fresh in this recipe - common ginger, galangal and turmeric. Fresh ingredients, if you can get them, are always going to give a superior flavour to dried.



Freshly prepared spice paste
Recipe
1 brown onion
5 cloves garlic
4 large red chillies (this is a matter of taste so adjust to yours)
Extra small, birds eye chillies if you like it really hot.
1 tbsp chopped fresh ginger
2 tbsp chopped fresh, or dried, galangal
NOTE: A traditional Balinese recipe would also call for lesser galangal kaempfera galanga, but I have never been able to buy it in Australia except in a stale old powdered form, so I leave it out. Meanwhile, I'm hunting for a plant to grow in the garden.  
1 tbsp chopped fresh, or dried, turmeric
1 tbsp fresh coriander roots (or stems if unavailable)
1 tbsp tamarind pulp
Zest of 2 limes (substitute makrut/kaffir limes if you have them)
1/2 tsp shrimp paste (leave out if vegan)
1/3 cup toasted raw cashew nuts
NOTE: In Bali they would use candlenuts, but I find that the ones you can get in Australia are old and rancid so cashews or macadamias are the best option.  They are used to thicken the paste and make it more creamy
1 tsp black peppercorns
2 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tbsp palm sugar
2 tbsp coconut or peanut oil

An old travel diary from Bali and my attempts to work out the botanical names of the the spice mix after a cooking class in Ubud.
Method
1.  Apart from the oil, process all of the ingredients in a food processor until a thick paste is formed - you may want to add a little of the oil to combine it.
TOP TIP:  After you have combined all the ingredients, leave them in the food processor for about 20 minutes to soften and then re-process - you will get a finer paste this way.
2.  Heat the remaining oil in a wok and fry the spices over a medium flame, stirring constantly, for 2-3 minutes until the mix is glossy and golden.
NOTE:  When this has cooled it can be stored in clean jars in the fridge with a little oil on top until ready for use.


Makrut Lime Citrus hystrix (old Kaffir Lime) using the zest of the fruit and leaves in this dish

Chicken Curry Balinese Style
750g free range chicken pieces
3 tbsp coconut or peanut oil
4 makrut/kaffir lime leaves
2 stalks lemon grass, bruised
1 cup water
1 cup coconut cream
Sea salt to taste
Fresh lime and coriander leaves for serving


1.  Cut the chicken into curry sized pieces
2.  Heat the oil in a wok and throw in the chicken pieces and stir around for a couple of minutes.
3.  Add 2 tbsp of the curry paste and stir around to coat the chicken.  Throw in the lime leaves and bruised stalks of lemon grass.
4.  Add the water and cook uncovered until the chicken is tender and the water is reduced by half.
5.  Add salt to taste.
6.  Add the coconut cream and briefly bring to the boil just before serving. Serve with rice.
NOTE: Potatoes, beans or carrots may be added and tofu or tempe served instead of 
meat.
Balinese Chicken Curry




"Whosoever offers to me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit or water - that offering of love, of the purest heart I accept"
Mahabharata (sacred Hindu text)








Friday, May 27, 2016

Top Plant: Turmeric

BOTANIC NAME: Curcuma domestica
COMMON NAME: Turmeric, Curcuma, Indian Saffron, Yellow Ginger, Karmin 
FAMILY NAME: Zingiberaceae
ORIGIN: SOUTH EAST ASIA



Curcuma domestic in flower in the middle of summer.  This is the plant that has the yellow ginger root from which we derive turmeric powder - the aromatic curry spice.

Just about every where I turn these days I am hearing about the benefits of turmeric and tonight, when I had the family for dinner, both my son-in-law and daughter came in with a recipe for 'turmeric chai' or 'turmeric milk' espousing the health giving benefits of this yellow spicy ginger. (See below for recipe)

So what is it all about?  It's definitely time now for me to get down on paper what I know about this wonderful plant - wonderful for it's health giving properties and its use as a landscaping plant in the sub-tropical garden.

Freshly dug turmeric
Description
A perennial plant of the ginger family, native to India and parts of Asia.
Propagated in spring from knobbly roots, called rhizomes, which have thick, finger-like side-shoots. Leaf stalks rise to 1 metre or more high. Vibrant green leaves are lance-shaped. Floral spikes 20cm long, with thick clusters of pale green pockets with creamy/yellow foxglove-like flowers peeping out of each pocket, and a mild spicy aroma.

When to harvest: The leafy parts of the plant begin to yellow and die down in autumn - this is the time to harvest the edible yellow rhizome.  If you leave it in the ground it will re-shoot in the spring with the clump increasing in size over time and the turmeric root becoming more yellow and aromatic - that's why I usually harvest it after the second year when the flavour and colour has intensified.

Uses in Landscaping: It's a great addition to any sub-tropical garden with its lush green spear-like leaves and striking delicate flowers.  There is also a pink-flowering variety that is native to Australia with a very attractive red stripe up the mid-vein of the leaves.

It's happiest in moist, rich soil away from the intense heat of the midday summer sun.  Just remember where you have planted it so you don't crowd it in with taller plants that will hide its' loveliness when it pops up again in the springtime.

Curcuma australasica - the native Australian variety.  I haven't tried eating the root, but I'm sure you can, but it is not yellow.

Preparation


This is a job for some sunny weather!  After digging up your turmeric clumps you have to give them a good wash to get all the soil off and trim off any roots and stems.  The fingers of turmeric will easily break off from the main stem.  Leave them to dry in the sun before you cut them.  Then, you simply slice them up and put them on baking trays out in the sun.  You will have to turn them over a couple of times.  When the turmeric slices have dried completely they shrink dramatically, usually after a couple of days.  I then use my electric spice grinder to turn it into powdered gold!  It's very easy.



Health Benefits
First, let me say that this 'new' blockbuster nutrient is actually really old and has been an important part of the diet of Sub Continental and South East Asian cuisines for centuries - where would any curry be without turmeric?

NOTE: On my frequent travels to Indonesia,where I have been the guest of a family, they always have a jar of turmeric jamu (medicine) in the fridge - which consists of grated fresh turmeric, fresh lime juice, honey, water and often fresh chilli.  This is left to intensify for a few days and then a tablespoon of the liquid is taken with water.  This is their all round, every day tonic. 

Turmeric is recognised as being an anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial compound. 

In addition, as a recognised powerful antioxidant  current research is showing help with everything from heart disease to Alzheimers.  

"It is a possible aid in preventing chronic degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's disease."

"In fact, the high intake of turmeric in the Indian diet has been attributed to their rates of Alzheimer's disease, which are amongst the lowest in the world". Professor Marc Cohen, head of Complimentary Medicines at RMIT quotes from his latest research.  He also has this to say:

"Omega 3s in turmeric, with its active ingredient curcumin, are "blockbuster nutrients", 

"Turmeric is a powerful antioxidant which stops lipid oxidation and is anti-inflammatory," 


Cohen, who suffers from osteoarthritis, is such a fan of the spice that he takes it daily.

Another recent article in the Guardian quotes new scientific studies that also confirm that the anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin was more effective in treating rheumatoid arthritis than prescriptive anti-inflammatories. 


Importantly, it has also been found to inhibit the growth of cancer cells.

NOTE:  From all the current research that I have read it is stressed that taking turmeric in its natural state, either freshly grated or in its powder form, is far more effective than taking it as a manufactured supplement.  You have to eat your way to good health and not expect it from a pill because the benefits and complexities of whole foods, and how the body metabolises them, is still in the early stages of scientific understanding.

To quote Cohen again: “A key challenge we have faced in the past is how to ensure curcumin is absorbed into the body to provide therapeutic benefit.” As well as using it in curries (where it is responsible for the yellow colour) and smoothies, he often has it with milk as the fat, he explains, helps absorption.


"I believe whole turmeric is more effective than isolated cur cumin for inflammatory disorders, including arthritis, tendonitis, and auto-immune conditions."

Taking the natural-first approach, is also backed up by Melanie McGrice, spokeswoman for the Dietitians Association of Australia.


"I think it's always better to try natural food sources before turning to medications," she says. "Turmeric certainly has a lot of health benefits, especially because it is so rich in antioxidants."

Golden Milk: As effective absorption from the gut has been one of the issues with turmeric's abundant benefits, and an understanding that fat assists with this, 
trendy cafes worldwide are now offering 'ginger chai' or 'golden latte' with a similar recipe to the one below.  Golden Milk or haldi ka doodh has, in fact, been used in Indian natural medicine as a winter drink to heal coughs and sore throats for longer than big beards and hipster baristas have been around. 

An anti-inflammatory Ayurvedic healing cuppa.
½ teaspoon of turmeric (fresh grated or powder)
½ teaspoon of fresh grated ginger
2-3 peppercorns
2 cups of milk
Spices (optional) cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, cayenne pepper
Honey to taste
Combine all ingredients except the honey in a pot. Simmer for 2-3 minutes. Strain. Add the honey once the mixture has cooled a little.

I have a bung knee so I'm off to boil up a golden brew!


My home grown turmeric powder

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Poached Oranges in Honey Syrup


I've just picked the first of this year's crop of sweet and juicy citrus from my garden and am reminded that this is one of the many delights of enjoying seasonal harvests - as the weather cools, a changing variety of foods become available and we can look forward to putting different dishes on the table - less salads and more hearty soups and casseroles - and yummy desserts using citrus.

Eating foods that are in their natural season and grown in the soil are always going to be more nutritious and taste better than foods grown artificially.  My youngest daughter, who lives in Sydney, is coming up for a holiday this winter so we have decided to do a Christmas in July for the whole family with roast turkey and the whole shebang - I can almost taste those roast parsnips, sautéed Brussels sprouts and chestnut stuffing - this just does not work in the middle of the Australian summer when it is boiling hot. I am cajoled
into cooking the turkey roast every year, usually just wearing a sarong with the fridge door open to keep cool,  but I long for a cold Christmas when we can enjoy a hot dinner and when the traditional foods are in their proper season.

It also occurs to me that is probably not just a coincidence that citrus season accompanies the coughs and colds winter spell - just when we need higher doses of Vitamin C and citrus goodness.

These poached oranges are very quick and easy to make and a great way to enjoy their sweet and tangy juiciness.  This dish owes its origins to Mediterranean cuisine where laden orange trees drip over old stone walls and line the streets of cities like Athens -  and where citrus are served every which way for desert.


Homemade preserved fruits in our local coffee and cake shop, Sifnos Island, Greece

It's great to have a standby dish of these in the fridge to have with yoghurt for breakfast; jazzing up a piece of afternoon tea cake or for desert with ice-cream - In their syrup they will keep for over a week.  
TIP: This is a very refreshing dessert to have after a spicy meal.

Recipe
1 kilo sweet and juicy navel oranges.  It's important to use navels because they don't have any pips and stay firm when you slice them.
2 extra oranges, juiced
1 lemon, juiced
2 tbsp honey ( you can use white sugar)
1 cup water

Method
1.  Put juice of oranges and lemon, honey and water in small non-reactive saucepan.  Bring to boil and simmer until syrupy and liquid is reduced by about a third.
NOTE:  Using honey instead of sugar gives a more floral flavour.

2.  While the syrup is simmering peel the oranges making sure you remove all the white pith otherwise your finished dish will be bitter.
NOTE:  I find the best way to peel oranges like this is to get a flat chopping board (not one you use for garlic!), take a slice off the top and bottom - you don't want those bits anyway -  so that they stand flat and with a sharp knife slice the peel downwards towards the board.

3.  Slice the oranges into thin rounds and place in a glass or ceramic dish.

4.  Wait until the syrup is completely cooled then pour over the orange slices through a fine strainer. Refrigerate before serving.


Poached Oranges in honey syrup with Ricotta Cheescake and homemade yoghurt.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Gardenias - Which One to Plant and How to Care for Them?

BOTANIC NAME:  Gardenia
COMMON NAME: Gardenia
FAMILY: Rubiacae
ORIGIN: South East Asia and South Africa



Gardenia magnifica

(Hallelujah! - One of the few plants with a botanic name that is the same as its common name AND it only has one of those - gardenia)

WHAT:  Gardenias are rightly among the most popular plants in Australian gardens (they certainly are in mine - I have four varieties) grown especially for their glorious white, perfumed flowers and evergreen, glossy leaves.  The added bonus, for us gardeners, is that they come in a variety of heights and shapes - which means that there is one for every spot in the temperate garden, making them among the most useful of landscaping plants.

Gardenia radicans The lowest growing of the gardenias that rarely gets above 50cm. which makes it very useful for edging, borders, rockeries and courtyards.  The leaves are small, pointed (narrow elliptic) and evergreen.  It flowers profusely - mostly in November and December with fragrant irregular white blossoms.
TOP TIP:  The radicans part of its name means 'with rooting stems' which means that it is very easy to propagate this variety from its side stems which readily throw out roots - you simply cut off the rooted stem and plant it.


Gardenia radicans in flower and used here, to great effect, as a border for these steps in this Asian style garden



Gardenia augusta This is a medium sized shrub - more wide than tall 2m x 1.5m.and a great evergreen 'filler' for the sub-tropical garden. 

The most common varieties are 'Professor Pucci' and 'Florida' (a variety of which is a ghastly thing called 'Golden Magic' the flowers of which turn from their gorgeous creamy white to a sickly yellow as soon as they open).  Known as the florists gardenia augusta makes a wonderful cut-flower and has an extended flowering season, throwing out blossoms throughout the summer with it's peak through November and December.  Leaves are small and a lustrous dark green that are paler beneath.  It's easy to keep this plant small, but it does require regular pruning.

Gardenia augusta


Gardenia magnifica  The queen of the gardenias (photo of flower at the top of the page) A taller shrub, which will get to over 2m if you let it, with glossy leaves and the most beautiful matt-white perfumed flowers.  It doesn't flower as profusely as the other varieties, with its main flowering time before Christmas.  I find that they prefer a little less light - happy in the morning sun with filtered light in the afternoon, whereas the radicans and august as will tolerate full sun - but not the hot afternoon sun from the west.

This plant in my garden was over 2m tall and  looking pretty sick - leaves turning yellow and falling leaving mostly bare stems.  I couldn't find any sign of pests or diseases.  What did I do? Cut it right back, fed mulched it and hoped for the best. This was a couple of months later.






TOP TIP: I am writing about gardenias now because, while they have their main flowering flush in early summer, they will keep popping out the odd flower throughout the warmer months .  They have just had their last dash so NOW IS THE TIME TO PRUNE THEM.  

Big mistake people - don't let the stems get long and leggy like this, PRUNE THEM - and don't do it when most people do, in spring, because you will be cutting of the developing flower buds.

Because gardenias flower on the current seasons' growth you will get more flowers if you prune them because pruning creates a multitude of side shoots that increase the flowering potential.


The above photo shows a Gardenia augusta in my neighbour's garden (sorry Dixie!).  What do you think this plant is crying out for?  1.  A haircut - note the leggy, bare stems. and 2. A feed - note the pale, yellowing leaves.

COMMON PROBLEMS:  There are two reasons why gardenias do so well is the sub-tropical garden and both are related to their origin - they come from the sub-tropics, from the edge of pine forests with inherently slightly acidic soils - as are ours (5.5-6pH) - so generally they are going to be quite happy in conditions that mimic their place of origin: a warm frost free spot, humidity and a slightly acid, rich soil.  Without this they may struggle - round pegs and square holes people!



1.  Plant generally pale green with yellowing leaves - (not to be confused with NORMAL winter yellowing of some lower leaves)  If you look at the plant in the above picture, you will notice an overall pale green colour with quite a few yellow leaves.

SOLUTION:  Give the plant a dose of Epsom Salts (magnesium sulphate) - gardenias quickly become deficient in magnesium, mulch it (they like cool roots) and feed it at least three times a year with a slow release organic fertilizer.  All of this will correct any pH problems and feed the soil with all the nutrients that these plants require.  



2.  Scale and sooty mould -  the waxy dots on the mid-rib of these gardenia leaves is a SCALE - a SAP SUCKER and a common pest of gardenias.  Note the ants all over the leaves.  ANTS and SCALE live in a symbiotic relationship - clever critters! The ants give the scale a piggy back to a new plant (scale can't fly), to feed off honey-dew that is exuded by the scale after it has sucked the life out of the new leaves, leaving them weakened and unsightly.  If you have noticed a BLACK SOOTY coating on the leaves  - this is a mould (that gets transported in the air) that lives off any excess HONEYDEW after the SCALE and ANTS have had their dinner.
SOLUTION: A simple, non-toxic, home-made eco oil - don't reach for the spray can!! (Click here for the whole story about SAP SUCKERS and how to control them).  Just mix this up in a spray bottle, give it a good shake and spray on affected areas - this smothers the scale - problem solved. Repeat as necessary.
3 tbsp cheap cooking oil
4 drops washing-up liquid
1 litre warm water



Infestation of caterpillars in the growing tips of gardenia

3.  Bud worm - damage to the growing tips of the plants and flower buds can be caused by a wide range of winged insects that lay their eggs on the gardenia and when they hatch the larvae (caterpillars) eat the juicy new bits.  I had noticed this recently on most of my gardenia bushes with tell-tale chewed shoots and leaves and webbing all over the growing tips.
SOLUTION: I am reluctant to reach first for any kind of control of garden insects, knowing that infestations are usually indicative that the plant is under stress - they are a bit like us, when we are run-down we get sick too.  Importantly, I didn't know how this critter fits in to the life cycle of other species.
1.  First of all I tried pruning all the bushes and cutting off the affected areas.
2.  When some persisted I sprayed the affected areas with Dipel - a non-toxic biological control of caterpillars.

 PROPAGATION:  
1.  Gardenias are relatively easy to propagate from semi-hardwood, leafy tip cuttings with a heel of older wood - in other words, a stem tip that is not entirely green and beginning to turn brown. Cuttings are best taken in autumn and winter - makes sense to do it after you have pruned them - you have lots of propagating material! - and strike in a mixture of sand and compost.  For a detailed explanation of how to do this, go to this link.  I have four magnifica bushes in my garden, all growing from cuttings from of a bunch of gardenias I received about 12 years ago - it's that easy!
2. Refer to Gardenia radicans.  Their ability to throw out roots from side shoots is not unique to this little fella - all gardenias will do it.  Simply find a side shoot close to the soil, weigh it down with a stone, or peg it with a piece of wire, cover in nice moist soil and mulch and leave for a few weeks.  When it has grown roots, you simply cut off that stem and plant it.




You've got to love a plant that is named after a chap named Garden?  Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist (1707-178) and father of binomial nomenclature - the bloke who set about naming all plants and animals in a standardised and logical way - named the gardenia to honour Alexander Garden (1730-1791) - a Scottish physician and amateur plant collector who left his chilly homeland for the southern states of the USA where, I suspect, he saw gardenias for the first time and fell in love with them too?

Friday, April 15, 2016

Rose Petal and Rhubarb Jam

If you have never tried this you are in for a real treat - just opening the lid and smelling the wonderful fragrance of this jam is enough to have you running for a slice of fresh, crusty bread and butter.


I was prompted to make this yesterday because my adult son and daughter are taking a short break to visit their grandmas in the UK - my mum is 87 and my mother-in-law is 97 - and my son hasn't been for nearly 30 years and my daughter for 20.  What better than a jar of homemade jam to take for them - just hope they can fit it in when we take them to the airport this afternoon!

Traditional in cuisines of the Levant - eastern Mediterranean, I first tried this jam this whilst we were staying in an old Venetian villa on the Greek Island of Folegandros - it was made by the owner's grandmother and had me determined to try it for myself when I got home - it was so delicious.

Recipe
Young, plump rhubarb (about 1 kilo)
White sugar - same amount in weight as the rhubarb
About 400 g fragrant, fresh, red rose petals
Juice of 2 lemons

Method
1.  Wash the rhubarb and cut into one-inch pieces and place in a large, heavy bottomed saucepan.

2.  Sprinkle with the juice of the lemons and cover with the sugar.  Cover and leave to stand overnight.  DO NOT ADD ANY WATER.

3.  The next day, stir in the rose petals and bring to the boil.

4.  Do not reduce the heat but boil rapidly until setting-point has been reached. It will need to occasional stir to stop it sticking and burning.

5.  Remove from heat, cool slightly and pot in sterilised jars.  Seal when it has cooled.






NOTE:  Leaving the rhubarb overnight, covered in the lemon juice and sugar, helps to draw the moisture out of the fruit - repeat, YOU DO NOT NEED TO ADD WATER - if you do, it won't set.

This is what it looks like in the morning after sitting overnight - notice how much fluid is in the pan?




WHAT KIND OF ROSES TO USE:  
Any fragrant, old-fashioned kind of rose will do.  I used Papa Meilland because I have it growing in my garden.  "Roses in the sub-tropics" you might ask, but there are many that do well - specifically those that come from the sub-tropical parts of China - like this tea rose.  It has a long flowering season, sensational dark red colour and heady fragrance.


Talking about tea - time for a cuppa anyone and a slice of bread and jam?