Archive | December, 2011

Two sides to every story

29 Dec

My First Tropical Anna Apple

I grew my first apple – it is a Tropical Anna, and here in Sydney town it was ripe on Christmas Eve.

That’s for anyone else desperately trying to work out ripening times by searching Google like I was. There is actually another apple on the tree – possibly the largest apple I have ever seen- and it’s probably still a few days away.

This is the first year for the tree – I planted it about 12 months ago. It’s pollinating partner, the Tropical Golden Dorset was a bit younger, and it failed to fruit this year.

I ate this lovely specimen straight after picking, and it was so sweet – still slightly warm from the sunlight, and I can’t remember ever eating a better one.

Bug damage to the Tropical Anna

Unfortunately there is another side to this story, and it ain’t attractive. Thankfully it was easily cut away, and didn’t seem to affect the taste of the remaining flesh.

The apple still on the tree looks like it has succumbed to the same fate – only slightly, and only in the last couple of days. I suspect fruit fly, but I have no idea what I’m looking for.

I thought I’d refrain from preventing anything pest-wise this year, just to see what I’m dealing with for future, so now I know that the fruit is susceptible when close to ripe, and I’ll probably need to bag it next year.

A Seasonal Christmas – Blueberry Shortbread

21 Dec

Being half American, many of my traditional family Christmas recipes are cold weather foods. There are a few exceptions (like my Mum’s famous pasta salad), but I am just starting to harvest an increasing number of summer fruit and veggies with no way of using them in our Christmas festivities.

So today I thought I’d start adapting some traditional recipes to incorporate Australian seasonal ingredients.

My two blueberry bushes are in their first year. I know you aren’t supposed to let them fruit so early, but I did. We’ve been picking fruit here and there for several weeks, but they just keep coming. The recent cold snap has even fooled them into flowering again!


I thought I might pick the remaining ripe fruit and use them in some shortbread.

I used the normal recipe that I use each year, adapted it slightly for the ingredients I had on hand, and added some blueberries.


Blueberry Shortbread

  • 250g butter, softened
  • 1 handful of blueberries -large ones quartered, medium halved, small ones whole.
  • 2 cups plain flour
  • 1 cup tapioca starch/flour (you can use cornflour)
  • 1 cup pure icing sugar

Preheat oven to 160 degrees

Beat butter until light and fluffy, then slowly add the sifted icing sugar until combined.

Slowly add the remaining dry ingredients

Turn out onto a bench and incorporate the blueberries, keading gently – just enough to bring the dough together.

Unbaked shortbread dough, pressed into pan

Line a slice tray with baking paper, place mixture in the tray until and spread out evenly.

Poke the mixture decoratively with a fork or toothpick and sprinkle some sugar over the top.

Place in oven and bake for 45 minutes until lightly browned.

The results were really good – the flavour is lovely and complements the shortbread well. I might be tempted to add a little lemon zest next time too.

I might try to continue this to use more freshly-grown produce unconventionally in my Christmas recipes. Anyone want to join me?

Blueberry shortbread

Are organic tomatoes a waste of time?

14 Dec

After going to great lengths recently to source organic tinned tomatoes, I’ve been frustrated to read several reports over the last week about the levels of Bisphenol A (BPA) in the linings of steel cans. Apparently this is particularly concerning in high-acid foods such as tinned tomatoes.

So after buying the expensive organic stuff, perhaps the packaging is contaminating my family all over again!

I use quite an amazing amount of canned tomatoes/paste/puree. Other canned good I use a lot of are:

  • Beans/chickpeas/lentils
  • Coconut cream
  • Baked beans/spaghetti
  • Water chestnuts, bamboo shoots/straw mushrooms
  • Condensed soup (oh, the shame – I promise I don’t use it in ‘casseroles’!)

I also sometimes buy other canned food like sauerkraut, pineapple, mandarin segments, mixed fruit.

So I am more seriously considering preserving my own produce, and if I can’t grow enough, then preserving things purchased in season if necessary. The problem is choosing a preserving system – it’s so confusing!

I’ve seen that the Fowlers Vacola system is very popular in Australia. Gav uses it, and there is a relative abundance of second-hand units on ebay, along with the preserving jars. I noticed that my local IGA even stocks some accessories.

The problem with this system is that it only works on high-acid and high-sugar foods like tomatoes and jams. If I want to preserve beans, then (I think) I would need a pressure canner – a completely different system.

Since the tomatoes are my main concern, I’m thinking that I should look out for an electric Fowlers Vacola unit  and start from there. If I’m actually using the system consistently, then perhaps I can move on from there?

Do you use a preserving system? Do you have any words of wisdom for me?

If I can’t beat the weather…

13 Dec

I guess I’ll have to work with it.

It just won’t stop raining around here. I’ve had to plant out most of my tomatoes in the vague hope of saving them from their wet feet, and the slugs are going berserk.

So I’ve started thinking of jobs to do when you expect rain to set in for days.

1. Seed sowing

2. Transplanting

3. Mulching

4. Slug killing

Yesterday I took the rain as an opportunity to replenish my potted herb garden. This was a gift from some great friends when we moved into this house. The herbs are planted in a self-watering pot, about 75cm in length. It was given to me planted with rosemary, dill, oregano, parsley, chives, marjoram, tarragon, sage, thyme and basil. Most of these were really successful, but being a year later, some have died off (basil, chives, dill, parsley) while others have taken over (oregano).

It was time to replenish the soil, neaten up the plants and re-organise. So I dug out the different plants and disposed of the soil in the chook pen. The whole planter was extremely root-bound after just one year, and there was a rampant slug population thriving in the depths of the water reservoir. The chooks helped me out there. I then filled the planter with new potting mix and set to work neatening up.

I took out the plants one by one and cut back both the foliage and the root ball. I was harsh, but I think they will thank me for it in a few weeks. I was trying to cut back as much of the old, woody growth as possible, leaving the new shoots at the base. The rosemary was different – I approach that more like a hedge, just getting the shape right.

I replanted everything, along with one of the few successful basil seedlings I had lying around. The finished product is far neater, but I must admit I’m not completely sure the tarragon will survive the beating I gave it – do you think it needed leaves?

After that I mulched with some lucerne mulch I splashed out on the other day and gave a liberal sprinkling of multiguard (non-toxic) snail and slug pellets. I’ll need to add some chives and probably some curly parsley, but all in all – not a shabby effort really, and a perfect job for a week like this.

Hand pollinating pumpkins

12 Dec

Female Golden Nugget flower

Pollination normally goes down without a hitch around here. I don’t seem to be short of pollinating insects, and I love to see the bees flying about on bright sunny days.

Unfortunately I haven’t always had great success with zucchinis, squash and other members of the cucurbit family. Last year most of my zucchinis failed to set, and this year I’m not taking any chances.

Male Golden Nugget flower

I’m growing quite a few different cucurbits this year – zucchini, button squash, kent pumpkin, rockmelon, wee b little pumpkin and one of my favourites – golden nugget. The golden nuggets are a bush variety of pumpkin that grow more like a zucchini. I adore them quartered, seeds scraped out and roasted with their skin on. They are also great for stuffing.

These are the first of the pumpkins to flower, and seeing as we’ve had so much rain, I’ve been giving them a helping hand.

I’ve been out there, keeping an eye out for female flowers (the ones with a little bulb behind them). When I see one open, I’ve been plucking a male flower (one on a long stalk without the little bulb), removing the petals and brushing its pollen into the centre of the female.

Baby Golden Nuggets todayI took the photos above about a week ago, and so far not a single female flower has failed to set fruit. I have little golden nuggets all over the place, and I can’t wait to roast some.

Eating seasonally, I really miss pumpkins!

Tomatoes these days… *sigh*

7 Dec

I’ve said it before, but I love love love tomatoes. Last year I was slow off the mark and planted only three hybrids. They thrived in only partial sun, and I was inundated with lovely little baby romas.

This year I planned big. I had a decent early crop of Stupice, and I grew approximately 50 other plants from seed. I gave some away and kept about 40. I planned to grow most of them in pots. I think that in any other year my plan would have been solid. Not this year.

We have had cold wet weather punctuated by stinking hot weather, followed by more (and more) cold wet weather.

My tomatoes (all of them) have succumbed to fungal disease and grubs. The Stupices were decimated. The other plants that set fruit early have holes munched in the tomatoes and most of the leaves are yellow and stunted.

All my organic ambitions flew out the window and a few days ago I pulled out the tomato dust.

I sheepishly moved some of the tomatoes to the back deck (out of public view) and dusted them ferociously. They have actually recovered somewhat since then and put on healthy growing tips. I think if I keep it up I might have healthy (if not extremely tall) plants.

Earlier today I swung by the nursery on our way home from playgroup to buy some replacement seedlings. I probably shouldn’t have bothered. The (outdoor) nursery has clearly had the same weather as we have had, and all their tomato plants were as bad as mine. I bought a punnet of the Burke’s Backyard Italian tomatoes ‘Costoluto di Marmande’. They are small, but I think healthy enough to recover.

There wasn’t enough room out back for all of the pots, so this afternoon I pulled out the globe artichokes from Bed A, added compost and planted out some of the healthier looking tomato specimens, along with the ‘Costoluto di Marmande’. I finished planting and mulching just in time for (you guessed it) the rain to start.

How are your tomatoes going? Go on, tell me the truth – I can handle it (I think!)

A (substantially) home-grown meal

6 Dec

Today my friend Sarah came round, so we harvested some stuff.

Black zucchini, lazy housewife beans, carrots and these little baby onions that eventually formed from some shallots that I’d long given up on. When combined with some of the new potatoes I harvested the other day, they made quite a beautiful medley of spring vegetables.

I trimmed and prepared them all, added a little red capsicum and…

Now’s where I should leave it for you to imagine I whipped up something amazing with healthy-sounding ingredients like tamari, quinoa or miso, right?

In reality I threw them into a Japanese curry, made with S & B ‘Golden Curry’ instant curry roux.

And the kids gobbled it up!

I’m not gonna post a picture of the curry, because it doesn’t matter how good it tastes or how handy you are with a camera – japanese curry cannot be made to look good.

Sunflower Sabotage!

5 Dec

What is it with sunflowers? They are so bright and happy, everyone loves them, and yet they bring out all the neighbourhood low-lifes. Poor Ali had all 6 of hers completely stolen (I assume destined for a vase), and today I went out to discover this!

I guess it could have been birds or something, but last night we had the street christmas party at our place, and there were heaps of kids running round. People were sending round the word that the party had been moved from the park to the “house with the sunflower”, so it certainly got a lot of attention. I saw it looking just fine at sundown, and yet this morning it looked like this.

Do you think this is the type of damage a bird could do?

I’m not convinced, but I hope I’m wrong.

In happy news, my apples are starting to ripen. I was surprised actually, because for some reason I thought an ‘Anna’ apple was kinda golden in colour.

Clearly that’s not the case, because it’s turning red! A quick google image search tells me that this red blush is approaching the colour of a ripe Anna. It will spread a bit more and turn a deeper red, but I think I’m about 2-3 weeks away from apple-y goodness.

Also close to ready are my bird’s eye chillis. I don’t actually know the variety, because they were a gift from Sarah of Kitchen Adventures, but they are a seriously tough plant. It over-wintered easily and continues to be amazingly productive.

If anyone is interested in some seeds, let me know in the comments and I’ll send you some once I get a ripe chilli.

Getting their wings clipped

4 Dec

The chooks are growing, slowly (I want eggs nooow), but surely.

They are about 9 weeks old and they are starting to look like chooks. Their voices are breaking in a very 13-year old boy kinda way, and J has declared that they are all roosters because they are growing red crops.

A few times lately we have discovered the chickens perched up high on the tall bars that used to hold pot plants when the chookhouse was a shadehouse. Seeing as we also let them free range in the yard from time to time, yesterday P decided that it was time to clip their wings.

My Dad had given P a short lesson on how to do this, and looking now at lessons on the Internet, his method looks a little excessive. The chickens didn’t seem to mind though, so I guess it was OK. He clipped one wing on each chicken only. The idea is that you unbalance them so they can’t fly properly.

I imagined as he was doing this that he was going to turn to me and say something along the lines of “stop taking photos and help me, you twerp!”, but he didn’t – he clipped all 5 chicken’s wings on his own while I watched, completely uselessly.

After he finished each chook, the kids pounced on the feathers, collecting them in their specially-constructed “feather-catcher”.

Tonight was the street Christmas party. Normally this is held in the park across the street, but this year it was rained out. The whole neighbourhood then piled into our place, with the majority of people in the carport, under my hanging garlic. It was really lovely to see everyone and show them the chooks and the rest of our crazy food-growing yard which is normally hidden from view. We managed to get most of the place somewhat respectable, and I’m feeling much more enthused about the garden as a result.

I have big plans for the coming week!

First potato harvest

3 Dec

I was lamenting recently that I’d lost control of the garden. Well thanks to the motivation provided by a few visitors, an upcoming Christmas party and a little bit of help from Sarah at Kitchen Adventures, I am getting it a bit more under control.

The ugliest part of the garden was perhaps the tired potato bed out the back. Liz mentioned that she thought that it might have been ready to dig up, which honestly hadn’t occurred to me. It has now been 21 weeks since planting and this afternoon I thought it was time to clean the place up.

So I dug while J gathered, and it reminded me so much of doing the same thing as a kid. I really didn’t realise back then just how much of a raw deal it is to be the parent digging, rather than the kid scrambling after the little treasures.  I managed about half of the bed before admitting defeat and enlisting P to to the rest of the digging (while I joined in the scrambling).

I don’t actually have any photos of the harvesting (we were having too much fun), but in the end we had ourselves 9 kilos of potatoes. There was a mix of Kipfler (the little salad potatoes) Dutch Cream (regular-sized white ones) and Royal Blue (purple on the outside, white in the middle).

Tonight I made a few of the royal blues into some mash. They really were amazing – not sure if it was the variety or just how fresh they were, but I’ll be planting royal blue again for sure.

A great side effect of the potato growing is the quality of the soil afterwards. The bed was almost entirely filled with mulch and blood and bone, so digging the bed over was just amazing. So much richness and organic matter –  I can’t wait to put something else into the bed now.

I think if the potatoes hadn’t suffered the massive caterpillar attack and therefore been pulled up a bit early, then we would have had a lot more. This potato growing thing is as fun as I remembered!

Now does anyone know if I would get away with planting another crop now, or is it too late?