The Equinox and Preserving Autumn in Jars

The Autumn equinox has just passed and the vegetable garden is doing well despite the prolonged dry spell. We have now had a little rain, but the dams are still very low or empty.

There are still some summer crops lingering on even though the night-time temperatures are falling, some of the days can still be quite hot. We pulled out a lot of spent summer plants and made room for the winter season plants.

We have already harvested the first cauliflowers and broccoli. We still have some late lingering tomatoes and the last planting of corn to go. But the capsicums, aubergines and chilis are thriving. I managed to get some late zucchini seeds in after Xmas and they have been producing modest numbers of fruit, so ratatouille and all its variations is still on the menu. There is even enough for me to make a couple of batches of passata pasta sauce.

   

 

 

I use some of the last remaining brown onions from our Xmas harvest and a few small knobs of our garlic, lightly browned in good olive oil. The smell fills the house. It’s one of life’s simple pleasures. Hot olive oil with onion and garlic frying. I simmer all the roughly chopped veggies down with a bottle of red wine to make a chunky style pasta sauce. Once its been reduced well and thickened up some what. It is ladled into our 40-year-old, glass Vacola jars and lidded and clipped down to be simmered for 40 mins to be sterilised and vacuum sealed. In this way, it will keep for a year at least, if not longer, if required.

The spring clips are removed the next day after the jars have cooled over night. We test the seal to make sure that they are all perfectly vacuum sealed. Then they are transferred to the pantry cupboard.

Autumn is also the time for preserving quinces. The quince crop is very small this year due to the drought, but there are a few fruit to pick. This is only because Janine was out in the garden early and netted and bagged the fruit to prevent the birds from getting them. The birds have been very aggressive this years, as I assume that the drought has driven them to hunger. We have more wallabies coming into the orchard too, looking to find extra tucker during the dry. Not to mention the influx of fruit bats or flying foxes, that have migrated up from the colony in Picton recently, possibly also driven by hunger?

The quinces are washed to remove the ‘fluff’ coating then peeled, cored and sliced. I baked them in a light sugar syrup with some cloves, cinnamon and star anise, and after baking, they turn an inviting ruby/russet colour.  We have some immediately for desert and then again for breakfast the next day. Totally yummy! The remainder are vacuum sealed in ‘Vacola’ jars for use later in the year.

 

 

We have harvested the last two late season almond trees and spend the evening de-husking and shelling the small late crop. We have 14 almond trees in our nuttery. We have many different varieties, from very round and almost spherical, to very long and thin. Some are hard shell and others paper shell. Some are slightly salty tasting, while others are somewhat bitter, I suspect that this bitterness is from the naturally occurring cyanide that is found in all the almond/peach related stone fruits. What ever it is it doesn’t seem to be doing us any harm over the past 40+ years of eating them.

 

Warm autumn wishes from Steve the nutter.

The Last Week of Summer

Here we are in the last week of summer already. We have survived the 44oC day and months of desiccating extended dry weather. Today it is raining – at last! It’s such a relief to hear the rain gently tapping on the tin roof of our house. I wish that it were hammering, but I’m grateful for this small amount of precipitation. It would be nice to see some water flow into the dam again. it’s been almost 12 months since the last time we collected water in the dam.

This hot weather that we have been having has brought on the nuts. The hazel nuts are all harvested now. We pick up a basket full every couple of days. Hazels are ripe when they fall off. So it’s just a matter of raking them up. They flower in clusters of one, twos and threes, sometimes even in quads, but that is less common.

IMG_0302 IMG_0297

After each meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner, we sit at the kitchen table and shell and sort the viable nuts from the empty ones. This is done by dropping them on the kitchen table and seeing if they bounce or not, they are them saved or discarded into separate baskets. Full nuts don’t bounce. They just plonk down on the table with a thud. We test a few every now and then to confirm the bounce prediction and its usually correct. Empty nuts bounce all over the table. Only a couple of percent of the nuts are infertile.

The almonds are also ready just about now. Almonds split open their outer shell while still on the tree. So we know when they are ripe and ready to pick. We have to peel off the outer leathery ‘fruit’ coating and then crack the inner shell to get to the nut inside. The inner nut is nearly always quite damp, even in this very hot and dry weather. We spread them out on the kitchen floor in front of the big window, so that  they can dry out a little and become brittle, then we can crack them open with our fingers. This is quite time-consuming and luckily the almond crop follows on after the hazels have finished. We can only cope with one thing at a time.

IMG_0336 IMG_0337

IMG_0339

The almonds are not all off the tree. We have harvested 10 of the dozen trees. Almonds don’t like to get too wet when they are ripening. They have a tendency to go mouldy. We have 6 different varieties and the last two trees are a late variety. They may be OK if this rain is followed by another week of hot dry weather.

IMG_0363 IMG_0367

IMG_0369

The nut harvest is closely followed by the grape vintage. Both the shiraz and the isabellas are both ripe now. Yesterday we had a very big day picking, de-steming juicing, sterilizing and bottling about half the crop. We were both very tired by the end of the day, but now we have the best part of our years supply of dark grape juice in the pantry. So, although we are tired, we are satisfied and rewarded by our efforts. Not just this days work, but the 40 years prior effort, planning and preparation that have made this possible. We have managed to harvest and process and preserve half of the crop so far, about 9 baskets. Even if the weather stays manky now for the next week, we can’t lose. If its wet, we get the water and the garden thrives, if its dry, we’ll be out there harvesting the last of the crops.

My tank is half full.

 

Boxing Day Domestic Meditations

Before we head off to have out Xmas lunch, we are up early to harvest the summer largesse from the garden and orchards. We have been picking a few nice red tomatoes each day since mid December. Our earliest crop ever. Due largely to the fact that I started them off under an improvised cloche in September before we went overseas. This beat the frosts and kept them warm to get them started off earlier in the year. It’s the first time that I have attempted this and it has worked very well.

Now we can harvest a basket full of tomatoes each week. So we have been making small amounts of Tomato passata since the week before Xmas. This morning I put on a Jan Garbarek CD and settle in for an hour to shell a big bowl full of beans the have got away and are not as nice as they could have been if I’d got to them earlier. I have been picking, blanching and freezing them each week to keep up. There are some big scarlet runners, some lumpy french climbers and smaller bush beans. I need to harvest them every couple of days to keep them flowering. Today I decide to shell the larger ones and cook them down into a dish of beans in Tomato sauce.

  

Janine has been chopping and mashing the bigger ripe tomatoes in a large copper boiler to render them down for more passata. This is pretty simple to make. We just cut up the tomatoes, Place them in the pot and mash them with a potato masher and let them boil down in their own juice. After they cool, we will put them through the kitchen sieve to remove the seeds and skins, before re-heating to concentrate the flavour and them vacuum bottle them for later in the year.

 

 

I steal a ladle full of her tomato sauce and add it to the beans in a small pot and add a tiny knob of our home-grown garlic and one of our dried chilis. I set it one small burner to slowly simmer and get stuck into slicing all the small tomatoes in half for drying. It’s a cool morning, so it’s OK to have the stove on.

We are all done by 10.00 am.

The Last Batch of Marmalade

We are almost at the end of winter now and the last of the citrus still on the trees are  the Seville oranges. We have been making marmalade steadily through the winter months – and eating it too. We have been only just keeping ahead of our consumption.

For the past few months, I have been working flat out everyday, hardly ever taking any time off to work in the garden and around the house. Only the bare necessities could be done. The garden was looking a bit neglected and there were some essential maintenance jobs that needed seeing to.

Now my big show is up and I have given my artists talk last Saturday, then run a wood fire weekend workshop on Sunday, Today is a day off. We allow ourselves to sleep in a bit, have a late breakfast, then it is into the garden to harvest the last of the  Seville oranges. I get a couple of baskets full, as well as a few lemons. We spend our ‘day off ‘ making marmalade.

IMG_7635 IMG_7637

We make something of an effort to make nice marmalade. For us, that means using the orange juice as the only liquid. We take the time to cut away almost all of the white pith, using just the thin strip of coloured fruit skin, and that skin is sliced quite thin. Each of us has our own way of dealing with the process. I like it sliced very thin, as thin as possible, with as little white as possible.

IMG_7641 IMG_7642

IMG_7646

We squeeze out the fruit juice and pour it into a saucepan, all the pips are separated out to another smaller sauce pan and simmered with a minimum of water to extract the pectin. This is pushed through a small kitchen sieve and eventually back into the lager pan of juice and peel. The thinly sliced peel and juice is roughly weighed and about 40% of this weight is added as sugar, but we have experimented with as little as 35% sugar. I like it less sweet and a bit more bitey. I have heard of recipes that say 50% of sugar and even equal parts of sugar. I don’t think that I would like it that sweet.

IMG_7647 IMG_7648

IMG_7656 IMG_7657 IMG_7658

IMG_7651

Janine has made a hand-thrown, glazed, pottery funnel to make the pouring of jams, jellies and marmalade easier.

As we only seem to eat marmalade on toast for breakfast through the winter, we will have enough now in stock to last us through the last of the cool weather and through into the next winter, when the citrus will come back on again.

 

 

Cold frosty nights, a good time to make stock

I have been sitting with my show at Watters Gallery each Saturday to ‘meetngreet’ and answer questions, if any, from the visitors. I spend some time with a few couples. I tell them stories, recount a joke, offer some insights into the work and its back history. They laugh, we chat, I explain the work, give details of its making, describe the provenance and importance to the overall story, of some specific pieces. I give them a brochure, a colour catalogue and then, after 45 mins., they walk out happily. I look to Frank sitting in the corner. He smiles at me benevolently. “welcome to the life of the gallerist”!

We have had a longish dry spell and the nights are again frosty. Cold evenings are an ideal time to make some stock. I buy a few beef bones and a pigs trotter. We roast them in the wood stove while we cook dinner. Then I boil them down over night on a slow declining fire along with a big boiler of mixed winter vegetables. Some parsnip, carrots, celery, parsley and a hand-full of mixed herbs, bay leaves, chilli, a star anise and a few pepper corns. All the usual suspects. The whole lot is slowly simmered and in the morning each of the big pots is decanted. The marrow extracted from the bones, which are then discarded, the vegetables sieved from the stock and sent to the worm farm.

IMG_7342

DSC02806 IMG_7373

IMG_7378 DSC02808

Both boilers and added together and re-simmered  the next night with a bottle of red wine. This is reduced down to 600mls of thick, gelatinous stock.

This is wonderfully flavoursome stuff. I keep it in the freezer and bring it out when I need a stock cube. This stock is so high in natural gelatine, protein and fat that it doesn’t really freeze. It just sets into a very firm gel that I can slice straight from the freezer. A chunk can be added whenever needed in just a minute. I’m sure that it would keep for a very long time in this frozen state, but it never gets the chance!

What is really good about this stock, which makes it so different from any commercial product is thatches stock is free of salt. Most commercially available stocks are loaded with salt. It’s probably their main ingredient.

This is entirely home made, flavoursome, free of preservatives, insecticides and is almost healthy by comparison. It is also a much better use of my time than watching the idiot box.

 

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.

img_4607 img_4608

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.

img_4571 img_4579

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.

img_4580

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.

img_4597 img_4598

img_4602 img_4604

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.