Marmalade and Mushroom Sauce

I’m home and it is mid winter. Everything is dull and bleak. The sun is low in the sky and the days are short. The trees are bare and there isn’t a lot of variety in the garden. I can pick a goodly sized parsnip and carrot. A hand full of broccoli and some Brussel sprouts. This will be dinner with the addition of some potatoes from the kitchen store.

We have the basket of goodies at the sink ready to wash when our neighbour John drops in on an errand. He sits down for a chat and we share a beer. He tells us that his favourite butcher has just given him a kilo of eye fillet in exchange for a favour. He asked what we will be eating for dinner. I show him the garden bounty, all freshly picked at the sink.

He looks quite concerned. “Are you really going to eat that! That’s it for dinner?”

Yes indeed. That is what we are going to eat. “Why?”

He mutters something along the lines of “You poor hapless bastards!” “for f*%$#’s sake, don’t you have any real food in the house?”

He tells us that we should come to his place and he’ll feed us up. He adds, “Bring your veggies, I’ll cook the steak.”  We do, and he does. He has a special sauce for the steak. It’s delicious. He asks us what we think is in it. I can see mushrooms. I can taste a soupçon of ginger, there is pepper and salt, all the usual suspects, but there is something else that I just can’t guess. It turns out to be a spoonful of our very own marmalade that we gave them the week before. It’s a really interesting and delicious sauce.

Environmental fellowship

We have had a Danish potter staying with us for the past month. He won the Environmental Ceramics Fellowship for for 2016, but for both of us it was just too difficult to complete it last year, so we postponed to this year.

He is a potter from Denmark who is interested in sustainability and new ways of exploring how to make a living in this new digital age. He has his own web presence in Denmark where he markets Potters wheels, kilns and clay bodies, as well as making his own work. He is a digital native. Whereas, I am, on the other hand, a dig-it-all-native. Making everything myself from the ground up – and that is what he is here to learn.

We crushed porcelain stone in the big jaw crusher to make single-stone porcelain body. We made clay tests to investigate unknown clays. We worked in the gardens and orchards. Ate all our own produce. Cooked up some wonderful meals. Lauge is a great cook, so that helped. We went on a geology excursion to look at some of the local stone deposits. Harvested the shiraz grape crop and made dark grape juice from the grapes.

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All in all, the month flew by and it all went too fast, leaving so many things un-explored. A month just isn’t enough time to experience everything that we do here.

Janine and I are planning to do some volunteer aid work overseas soon. So we are working towards this by making clay tests out of the local clay that has been posted over to us to process. Our Guest lends a hand in everything that we do.

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We decide to go exploring and looking at a few rocks for making glazes. Then, to complete the true ‘Australian’ experience, we take him to the local micro-brewery and have a meat pie with tomato sauce, accompanied by a tray of the brewery’s sample beers for lunch. Fantastic! I haven’t eaten a meat pie since I was a kid, so it was an experience for me too!

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You have to look closely at the image of the analcime basanite deposit above to focus on the small figure in the foreground.

We cook and eat what is in season in the garden this autumn equinox. An autumn garden risotto, a fresh garden salad of shaved beetroot, cucumber, raddish, quince. Served with wasabi rocket, lettuce, beetroot tops, chilli and crunchy pan-roasted almonds.

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We also make an alternate version of okonomiaki, using some very firm, third pick, red cabbage, our own home grown eggs, garlic, chilli and shiso. Everything from the garden. Red cabbage is too slow to cook straight off as a cabbage pancake. So I pre-cook the cabbage to soften it down before I blend in the pancake mix and all the other ingredients. It’s not really a traditional Japanese okonomiaki. It’s an improvised Aussie OKA-nomiaka. Served with mayonnaise and Japanese okonomi sauce. Topped with bonito flakes and some Japanese pickled ginger.

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We finish the meal with fresh figs and soft white cheese. We do this desert a lot at this time of year while the figs are coming on. We try it with all manner of different soft cheeses. Boconcini isn’t the best, but you don’t know these things until you try them out. We’ve tried it with blue cheese, fetta and soft white goats cheese which was best.

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Lauge helps me finish off the internal fittings for the 8 little dalek kilns. These are now  almost all delivered, leaving space for me to start welding up my 2nd kiln job of the year. There is just enough room to get both jobs in the factory at the same time, but it takes a little bit of planning and maneuvering to get everything into the tight space.

Now the shed is almost empty, with the big new frame gone off to be galvanised and all the little ones gone to good homes:)

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We Are Cooking in the Heat

This last few days of heat has really set the garden back. We are out early and late watering. I watered for an hour, early this morning, but by lunch time everything was drooping with this blast of oven temperature air.

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Because it is so baking hot, I have been out cutting bracken fronds and sticking them into the seedling beds to give some shade to the young transplanted seedlings. I transplant them in the evening when it is cool and give them overnight to settle in before the next hot day. They seem to be surviving OK so far.

I have been harvesting the summer excess. A bucket of beetroot, a bucket of cucumbers a bag chillies and another red cabbage.

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I decide to make pickles, I wash, chop and thinly slice the cabbage, then soak in a brine of 2 cups of salt to 1 litre of water. The cabbage collapses over night and in the morning it is completely submerged. I rinse it twice to get a lot of the salt out, then pack it in hot sterilised jars from the oven and cover with hot pickling vinegar, then seal down the lids.  I hear them ‘pop’, and vacuum seal themselves when they cool, as I go about dealing with the cucumbers. They have been sliced and soaked in brine too. I rinse them and pack them into hot jars, cover with more of the pickling vinegar.

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While I’m at it, I stuff another large jar with whole chillies, that I have sliced open on the side to allow the pickling liquid in. My final job is to peel, then slice a big boiler full of cooked beetroot. They are a really wonderful colour. I bring them back to the boil for a minute or two in their original juice, I get 4 jars packed tight. I fish out a chilli, some cloves, pepper corns and a small piece of cinnamon bark to add to each jar. Then cover with the last of the vinegar.

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I have to go back to work tomorrow in the kiln factory. I have 7 kilns ordered, so far this year already. I’m booked out till September.  I have to get busy. My summer break is over. I started back a couple of weeks ago to get an early start on all these orders, but then I sliced my knuckle open. So that was that till now. With the scorching heat, I don’t fancy working in the tin shed that I call the factory. But needs as needs must. I think that I’ll be running the sprinkler on the roof during the hottest part of the day.

Of Passata and Porcelain

The summertime heat brings on the tomatoes, zucchini, chillis, aubergines and sweet basil. They love this hot weather, as long as they get the water that they need. This means I have to start making passata sauce. We are now harvesting more than we can eat each day. This is just the start. At the moment we have to harvest the tomatoes each day in the small numbers that are ripening. It has taken a week to build up sufficient quantity to fill the boiler. This is the first batch of passata. Soon it will build up to 2 batches a week. I will continue to make this sort of tomato sauce right through the summer and into the autumn.

Tonight I’m making a small batch to start with for our dinner, so I’m including a lot of zucchinis and aubergines as well. This will be a sort of variation on the ratatouille theme. All these vegetables grow together, they ripen together and they taste so good together.

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I bring it all to the boil and simmer it for a few minutes, just enough to soften the zucchinis and egg plant chunks, then scoop out a bowl full each for dinner. It’s summer on a plate!

After dinner, I add in all of the other chopped tomatoes and cook it down into a sauce. After it cools I put it all through the mouli sieve to remove all the seeds and skins, then reheat and seal in pre-heated jars to keep for the winter.

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The other thing that I like to do in this summer heat is to make porcelain from my collected stones. They are so hard that I need to put them through the rock crusher first thing to reduce them down to grit, then I can sieve the grit and re-process the larger pieces to get it all to pass through a 3 mm screen, then into the ball mill to be reduced to ultra fine grade.

 From this I can make glazes and/or more throwing body, as required.

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Cucumber Soup and Zucchini Fritters

A real favourite of Nina’s at this time of year is cold cucumber soup. The cucumbers have responded to the heat and our regular watering and are starting to produce in excess of what we can eat fresh in salads.

Nina doesn’t have a recipe as such, it’s really just a way of thinking about using up cucumbers. It’s cooling and soothing and a little bit tangy, and you get to use up a lot of cucumbers.

You can use half a dozen small, or 3 large cucumbers. Peeled and seeded if they are older and larger, but all in as they come if they are young.

She starts with one of our red onions from the plait hanging in the kitchen, but you could also use a mild white one. You can add green spring onion tops finely chopped too if you like. Add as much as you like the taste of. (and never end a sentence with a preposition! )

A big bunch of cilantro or coriander leaves finely chopped. The first spring planting of coriander is bolting away to seed heads just now, but there is enough to pick from it and the new, young seedlings of the second planting are only just emerging.

Add a small bunch of mint leaves, finely chopped.Then add a couple of cloves of garlic, or six! depending on their relative strength and your taste expectations. I really love the stuff, so she puts in a lot. It tastes better, i.e. stronger flavour  if you smash it with the side of a knife or extrude it through a garlic press. The mashed fibres give off more flavour. I think that the fresh raw garlic really makes this soup. That and the coriander. The cucumbers are really there just to fill it out. Next, add some finely chopped chilli to taste and although I don’t use salt, if you want it, add it to the degree that you want your arteries hardened. Go for it!

Add the Juice of a lemon or preferably a lime – or two.

Put the whole lot in the blender with half a tin of coconut milk. If you don’t have a blender use a food processor, if you don’t have electricity, use a hand whisk! Add a couple of spoonfuls of plain greek yoghurt, if you don’t have greek yoghurt, add some Turkish – that’s close enough! Use what you have that seems right, taste as you go to check. Sometime we use sour cream, just to use it up if it’s open and that’s what you have in the fridge. You can use a blend of all three. Use what you have. Experiment! If you don’t have a fridge, eat it warm, but it’s not quite the same. Cold is better in this hot weather.

You can serve it with a little bit of olive oil on top and some paprika sprinkled on, or just plain.

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Janine mixes up and alters the recipe each time she makes it to keep it lively and interesting, sometimes adding chopped dill, parsley or tarragon leaves. Sometimes with only yoghurt and other times with just coconut milk. It works just the same.

It’s always different and always delicious. A perfect soup for a hot summers day. Nina has made this fantastic soup to cheer me up as I’ve managed to hurt myself during the day.

Zucchini Fritters

Take 3 or 4 zucchinis, depending on size, 1 potato for a little filling and binding starch and a small white onion. Grate them all into a big bowl, add a handful of flour and 2 eggs, some pepper and whatever herbs that you prefer. Today Nina adds Thai basil, parsley and a small amount of mint. Mix it all together in the bowl, then press off any excess juice. She pan frys them in a little olive oil. We have them with cucumbers in yoghurt and a few sliced fresh tomatoes. Delicious.

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The next morning, my finger is not red or throbbing, so I have done a good job of cleaning it. I’m confident that it will heal well now. No need to go to hospital. I just can’t use that hand to grip anything for a while.

An enforced day off. Something rare for me.

The First Ripe Tomato Before Xmas

We have just picked our first ripe tomato before Xmas. This was never possible when we came to live here 40 years ago, but now, with global warming, we have been able to do it for the last 3 or 4 years in a row.

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We have a nice crop of red cabbage coming along just now, so it’s time to make a batch of pickled red cabbage. I slice it finely and remove all the coarse bits to be fed to the worms. Then place it in a big bowl and pour over some brine. This is the standard 1 cup of salt to 2 litres of water. This is a pretty saturated solution. It’s just about as much salt as cold water can dissolve. It’s left to stand over night with a weight on top to compress. It soon drops down and is submerged in the brine. In the morning I pour off the brine and rinse it once on cold water, then pack the cabbage into sterilised jars. I prepare a batch of pickling vinegar, by heating up standard white wine vinegar with all the usual spices and a spoon full of sugar. This is poured over the cabbage and the lids sealed down. It couldn’t be simpler.

I want the cabbage to remain crunchy for use in salads, so I don’t cook it. It’ll need to be kept in the fridge for safe keeping.

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Berry Jelly

As we approach the summer solstice, the red berries are starting to ripen. We have to cover them with one of our large sheets of nylon bird netting. If we don’t cover the ripening fruit, the birds will take the lot in a couple of days.

We have made a few small picks over the last week, but now, the real crop is ripening. We go out early, before the heat of the sun builds up. We pull back the net half way and work over one side, then the other. In half an hour we fill half a dozen plastic tubs with luscious ripe red/black berries.

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We will do this every 2nd day for a week now and then once or twice more during the next week and they will all be all but gone before Xmas.
Back in the kitchen, Janine weighs the munificence of the canes. We have harvested 3 1/2 kilos this morning, and another 3 kilos the day before. It’s a great start to the day and the week.
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Bach in the cool of the house, we re-hydrate with a cup of last years preserved dark grape juice. It’s so thick and concentrated, it is 100% grape juice and nothing else, pasteurized and vacuum sealed. It’s really amazing stuff that bears no resemblance to anything that you can buy in a shop. The commercial grape juices that i have tried, taste like they are 80% water in comparison. This stuff is just so rich and thick and concentrated in comparison. So much so that it has to be mixed 50/50 with water, otherwise it is just too strong. It’s a great natural, flavourful thirst quencher.
While I go back to work down to the kiln factory finishing up the last of the work on the current job, that is due for delivery on Wednesday, Janine stays in the kitchen to make todays harvest into 3 gratifying indulgences.
First, a youngberry sorbet, which is made from the juice sieved from the berries, no pulp in there, she only adds a very small amount of gelatine and some orange juice and then it is churned in the freezer, until it sets.
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juice of 500g youngberries
juice of a couple of oranges
1 tbs of gelatine powder
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Second, she makes a youngberry jelly. This jelly is a desert jelly. It is made with the berry juice and gelatine and placed in the fridge until it sets.
First bring the whole fresh fruit to the boil and mash it all up with a potato masher as it is heating. This liberates the juice quicker. Pour through a sieve or cheese cloth to remove the pulp and pits. While still warm, pour the juice into a medium pottery bowl and add one tbs of dried gelatine and stir until dissolved. Leave to cool, stirring occasionally while cooling to keep the gelatine in suspension. Once cooled, place in the fridge to set.
Her third creation is youngberry jelly This is a fruit conserve jelly. The kind that you spread on toast at breakfast. This is really sensational. I think that this is the best thing that can be made from youngberries. Everything made with youngberries is good, but this is the best! The balance of concentrated fruit flavour, the natural fruit acid and the natural sweetness of the fruit is just amazing. It takes a bit of time, but it is all there, just for there making.
Fill two 5 litre boilers with fresh fruit. Bring the fruit to the boil and simmer for a short time, while mashing the fruit pulp to express the juice. When it has cooled, pour it through cheese cloth and let the liquid drain freely from the fruit for several hours, or overnight. Don’t squeeze of press the cloth to extract more juice, or the jelly will become cloudy. You can add a small amount of sugar to the clear juice and bring back to the boil. Most recipes say to add equal weight of sugar to that of the juice for this kind of jelly, but that makes it ridiculously sweet. However, it does ‘gell’ quicker. Janine only adds a 1/4 of that amount  of sugar and cooks it a little longer. This serves to concentrate it more and makes it all the more intense.
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Simmer this mixture to allow the fruit flavour to concentrate and intensify. Test by putting a small sample on a dish and place it in the fridge until it ‘sets’. If it doesn’t ‘set’ , cook it for longer. This standard jam making procedure. Once ready, bottle in sterilized jars straight from the oven and screw the lids down tight.
Technically, it will keep for a year, but it never lasts that long. This jelly making activity makes the kitchen and most of the house smell so delicious. The sweet, acidic fragrance wafts right through the house. It smells so amazingly good. We polish off the first jar in just two sittings.
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Janine also bottles the whole berries as simmered pulp, once sterilised it is bottled hot jars from the oven and keeps for ages. We made so much of this last year, we still have some left.
We are grateful for this largesse of our canes. They provide for us in this bountiful way each year in the early summer and I reciprocate in kind by diverting the underground seepage trench from the septic system over into their direction. These vines and the cherry trees below them are now well watered and well fed throughout the year by this artificially created underground spring of nutrient rich water. Totally natural, gravity fed and organic!
Best wishes Steve