Thursday, July 28, 2016

Winter mesclun salad pots

A fresh green salad in winter when dinners start to look mostly brown from slow cooked stews and tangines or to set off the deep red of a tomato based Italian dish, what a great plan.
At the beginning of April I ordered the mesclun winter greens seed mix from King Seeds.
I prepared 3 pots and 2 buckets with soil and some compost, and sprinkled the whole packet between the different pots. I put them out on the edge of the verandah - so they would get some rain - and waited.
I was thinking of the term 'microgreens' and I expected the growth to edible size a lot sooner. By mid-May so approximately 6-7 weeks later, I had pots of low greenery but they looked like weeds.
I was disappointed with the whole mesclun idea. I had successfully grown 3 pots and 2 buckets of little weeds. My one optimistic thought was the uniformity of what was growing in all the pots, perhaps it was the beginnings of a salad after all.
Before I pulled them all out in disgust, I regoogled the seed mix. It has arugula, miner's lettuce and minutina in it.
So I googled each of those separately. It was then that I realised what I thought was grass was actually very young minutina. I plucked some pieces and had a taste. They were definitely flavoured in the green salad genre - fresh, not bitter and not grassy.
This is what the different leaves look like when small:

Arugula (Diplotaxis tenuifolia)
Miner's lettuce

These pots have been excellent. Now I know they are mostly my salad greens, I can pick out the few weeds in the pots. I clip the salad greens with scissors, as much as I need for a particular meal, and then it grows back in between.
Having more than one pot means I can cut an entire pot for a salad and while it is regrowing use the other ones. The pots on the verandah has meant quick access during meal creation to grab some salad making the salad grabbing a more regular occurrence than if picking required putting on boots and heading out into the winter dark to the vegetable garden.
We have used the mesclun greens together with some pepper, balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil for a quick side salad, in sandwiches with cheese and homemade chutney, and on top of an omelet made from our chickens' eggs.
Based on the success of winter mesclun greens, summer ones will be added to the seed selection. Mesclun is a funny word. It is French for mixture, this is really one of the old salad ideas possibly back from Roman times. Mine should include flowers and more herbs as well to give it variety in flavour. Next time, I think I will include rocket, perhaps some mustard greens and add some edible flowers too like violets and nasturtiums. I like the idea of putting together the leaves to create the flavours pepper or mustard dressings would add to the salad. I will have to wait until we have finished eating the winter mesclun.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

How to make hard shell almonds palatable

We finally cracked into a hard shell almond only to taste bitterness. It was strongly almond but also, according to the internet containing a glycoside, amygdalin, which metabolises to prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) that is not good for you and mildly toxic.
We have three soft shell almond trees but these have been planted behind the hazelnut grove so don't get much sun. They are suffering from their lack of sun and also the other trees growing close to them. The almonds we did get off these trees were delicious. They were also easy to remove the almond out of the shell and we just ate them raw off the tree. But we didn't get very many at all, perhaps a handful per tree. We will cut down the extra trees around the soft shell almond trees to give them more of a chance and we have pruned them back to the healthy branches to hopefully help the development of the trees and more nuts next season.
We also have three hard shell almond trees situated in a sunny position and these were covered in nuts. The difficulty was the bitter flavour. We decided one is definitely a bitter almond tree but the other two are not quite bitter to the same degree. From the reading online and offline, it would seem, having the bitter tree is good for pollination purposes. So we started just collecting the nuts from the two trees we don't think are as bitter.
I tried cracking the nuts out of the shells and blanching them in boiling water but they were still bitter.
I tried roasting just the nuts in a frypan on the stove and they were still bitter.
I was about to suggest cutting down all three trees, when we tried the method we use for the hazelnuts. We put the nuts in their shells in the square cake tin on top of the fire for several hours. This makes them quite nice and gets rid of the more intense part of the bitter flavour.
These nuts we have covered in melted chocolate to create a sort of rough looking, scorched almond.
But we mostly end up just eating the almonds after they have been roasted over the fire.
The hard shells are definitely harder to get into. Come July they do seem to open up more and currently there are many split shells lying under the tree. So next season, I will keep a closer eye on what is happening to the almonds that have fallen from the tree and see if their shells can be more easily opened if left until late June/early July.
The vice grips do work for getting into the shells but more strength is required.
If I was planting almond trees, I would just plant soft shell almonds for ease of getting into the almond and the less bitter flavour.
But this article (and other similar articles from Italy and other European countries) about the superiority of hard shell almonds still has me wondering if the hard shell are better after all, just more almondy than I have experienced previously.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Hazelnut recipes

There are no fancy nut crackers here. We have found the vice grips work the best. You can adjust them to the size of the nut. It also means you know where the vice grips are because they are by the bowl of nuts.
The hazelnuts started falling at the end of February, through to end of March. Each day I would go out and collect them off the ground so they didn't go mouldy. It also meant the job of collecting them was not too big. One walk around the grove after arriving home and the nuts were collected.
We had half a shopping basket full of hazelnuts by the time they stopped falling. It looked a big cracking job. What would we do with all the hazelnuts?
What we found worked best with the hazelnuts was just cracking them as we needed them. We found the best way to roast them was in their shell. We put a layer in a square cake tin and sat that on the top of our logburner during the winter months. In the shells they have a barrier so depending on how hot your fire gets, it can take several hours to gently roast them, with no effort from you. Every now and then we might crack one and eat it to see if they are done. Sometimes the outer shells go a bit black looking so we figure they are roasted enough. Then we tip the nuts into a bowl. We have a had bowl of roasted hazelnuts sitting on our bench, ready to be cracked for a snack for the last five months. We have gone through a lot of hazelnuts this way - they are just so tasty, especially if still warm from being on the fire.
We have made our own hazelnut, chocolate spread. You do have to keep it in the fridge and I think shouldn't be kept for too long. We used Felicity Cloake's recipe. It is more hazelnutty, less sweet and much more like a breakfast spread than the commercial versions in the supermarket.
Other excellent uses of hazelnuts included adding it to homemade bircher muesli, filling for scrolls or sweet buns, any recipe that requires some nuts like loaves. I used hazelnuts in this persimmon loaf recipe.
The interesting one, that was thoroughly enjoyed was the hazelnut and anchovy spaghetti. It sounds an odd combination but the anchovy adds salt and the hazelnuts sweetness. It just works well. It did involve a serious session of nut cracking.
We haven't ground the nuts into a hazelnut meal for use in baking. Maybe in a few years when we are less excited by the hazelnuts we might have enough uneaten to do this.
We have almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts - hazelnuts are the most popular.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016


Our block is just outside the rubbish collection areas. So while our neighbours down the road and around the corner put their supplied bins out for collection, we take our recycling and rubbish bag to the refuse centre ourselves.
This is okay. I like that it makes me think more carefully about what I put in the rubbish bag so we can lengthen the times between trips to the refuse centre. It is also free to dump the council rubbish bag at the tip and the recycling.
Just after we moved. I set up our recycling bins. I went to the hardware shop, knowing the measurements of our car boot and the number of bins I needed that matched the council's recycling streams. I bought the bins, that would mean I could fit all the recycling bins in the car boot but were still a decent size. I bought two different styles because their slightly different shapes, meant they would fit better in the back. I have four 50 litre lidded bins, one for the rubbish bag, one for glass, one for paper and one for recyclable plastics. I have a smaller 10 litre bin for cans. They all have lids and I didn't want lids that would blow away in the wind.
The bins are close to the kitchen for ease of getting the recycling into them and close to driveway, for ease of loading them into the car.
Since I set up this system, I have realised that I don't take them all to the refuse centre at once because we don't fill them all in an even way. I usually take three big bins and the smaller bin for cans. Having the separate bins also makes me aware of what we are using most. Plastics is our most used recycling bin, despite reusing plastic containers where we can.
Every time I go to do the recycling, I am glad I took the time to set up our bins. Others are at the refuse centre picking through their recycling, working out what needs to go where. We drive up, open the back of the car, empty each bin into the appropriate recycling section and we're done with the bins all fitting back into the boot. We are off to add our rubbish bag to landfill while the others are still picking through their assorted bins.
Glass is the only more difficult one because I have one bin, while after the first visit to the recycling centre I found they separate them by colour. I am wondering about dividers down the bin but currently our glass recycling is our least filled bin because we reuse a lot of the glass bottles. I don't take it very often to the recycling centre so it is pretty easy to empty into the right bins. I could have  3 smaller bins for this and we may make this adjustment in the future, if our glass recycling grows.
It is definitely worth the time and the expense, doesn't have to be much, to set up a recycling system in an easy to use way that matches where you need to take it for recycling.


The quinces started ripening in April. 
Quince jelly is one of my most favourite things so I had been waiting for the quinces to ripen.
I made several batches of quince jelly. I love how it changes colour as it cooks. The first big batch I also made quince paste from the pulp. When I know that I want to make quince paste I peel and core the quinces.

Quince Jelly
Peel and core quinces 
Chop into quarters and put in a pot and add just enough water to cover the quinces.
Add the juice of a lemon.
Bring to the boil and let simmer until the quinces are soft.
Strain fruit through some muslin or a jelly bag or a pillow case so you end up with the light amber liquid separated from the soft pulp of the quinces.
It helps if you can strain the liquid into a bowl with measurements on the side, otherwise work out how many cups of the liquid you have.
Bring the liquid back to the boil.
Add in the same number of cups of sugar as you had liquid and stir until dissolved.
Let it boil away until it reaches setting point of 105C or alternatively use the setting point measures of putting a little onto a cold saucer from the freezer and seeing if it sets by pushing it with your finger to see if it forms creases or when you run your finger through it it stays divided.
Once it has reached the setting point (it is usually quite a red colour by then),  pour it into sterilised jars and seal.
 ( You can make some of this jelly for use in meat dishes but adding sprigs of thyme. I washed the thyme in boiling water and then dropped the sprigs into the jars before sealing.)

Quince Paste
Use a big pot, with plenty of room - with the cooked quince, weigh how much you have and add that much sugar and the juice of a lemon. Stir it in.
Put over a low heat and keep stirring it until all the sugar has dissolved.
Then simmer it gently. You have to be careful that it doesn’t burn and stick to the bottom of the pot and also beware of it firing hot, molten lumps out of the pot. 
It will gradually change colour. Don’t be tempted to speed it up by turning up the heat as it just sticks and burns. Keep stirring intermittently to make sure it hasn’t stuck to the bottom.
After about 1, 1/2 to 2 hours it should be done which you can tell by when you draw the spoon across the pot, for a moment you can see the bottom.
Tip into baking paper lined tins and leave out to set or you can put it in the oven on a really low heat such as 40C to set.
It should be set over night.

I wrap it in the baking paper and keep storing it in the fridge. Others say you can store it in the cupboard but I haven’t tried that.

Another use of quinces we tried was peeling, quartering and adding to the slow cooker. I covered them with enough water so that they would not go brown and added brown sugar as much as I felt would be nice. I set it on low overnight. By the morning we had soft, sweet quinces to have on our breakfast.
We also made spiced quinces that are currently preserved ready to go in a savoury dish. 
You can make these in the slow cooker too or on the stove top. I peeled and cored quinces. put enough water in the pot to cover the quinces. To the water I add one sliced lemon, 2 star anise, 1 cinnamon quill, 4 green cardamon pods and 1/4 cup of brown sugar. This simmered away until the quinces were red and soft.

Stars for free

Taking on a lifestyle block, especially an overgrown one, is a lot of work. It requires money to be put into it to fix things, buy the right tools or replace worn out parts.
For us, it also means a much longer commute.
Despite this, there is one aspect that does just seem a free bonus. It is the stars. I haven't got bored of them yet. Many a night we go out side and just stand, look up and marvel at what we see in the pitch black of the country.
We got up at a ridiculously early time to see the planets aligned and we have put on warm jackets so we can stand outside for longer on crisp, clear winter nights. I have seen a shooting star leave a blazing trail behind it as it fell.
They are beautiful and there are just so many of them. They feel a spectacular free gift for country living.
One night I was standing looking up close to the feijoa grove. It was quiet, other than the occasional bird squark and I was admiring the Milky Way when I heard feijoas thud to the ground. I had just picked up a basketful that day to process. When it is harvest time, the fruit doesn't stop but stars don't either.
June night sky from the country

Monday, July 4, 2016

Nashis and pears

The nashis ripened a lot quicker than I was expecting. They were ripe in late January, early February. From my reading on the internet, I was expecting March. The birds gave me the hint by digging in. This is a good way to find out if your fruit is ripe, but does mean you sacrifice some fruit.
The nashis were delicious - very juicy. One tree, they were quite small but these trees had no thinning done. Next season I will do some thinning to get bigger fruit.
We ate a lot of the nashis fresh and I also preserved some. I used the pressure cooker method. I peeled and cut them up, put the pieces into 500ml jars, filled them with a hot sugar syrup and then pressure cooked them four at a time in the pressure cooker. I half fill the pressure cooker with water, put in the jars, get it up to pressure and I can put the timer on the ring to keep it at pressure for 15 minutes before it automatically turns it off.
The other pears ripened much later in April. We have three different type of pear trees. We ate many of pears fresh and preserved some, again using the pressure cooker method. I don't do many jars of each fruit because they only have to last until the fruit starts again next season. I don't want to get sick of any of our fruit types.
I did make a couple of 500ml jars of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's Mustard pears from his Fruit Everyday recipe book. This is a great book for new ideas of using up your fruit. We did try quite a few of the recipes as our fruit ripened and we had made all the usual recipes.
Mustard pears are quite easy to make. The hardest part is judging how much liquid you will need to cover the pears. I made too much and have a jar of the liquid as well.
Apples can be difficult to tell when they are ripe. We kept trying apples off the trees from January. we found the apples could be very tasty even when they are not quite ripe. We also used them in muffins and other dishes before some of the varieties were properly ripe. Once fully ripened, I have tried preserving some jars of apple pulp, again using the preserving method but cooking the apple down first. It will be interesting to see if these work. I haven't opened a jar yet.
We have a couple of Sir Prize apple trees. When the fruit were ripe they were not crisp but floury, easily bruised and not very nice to eat fresh. But these apples are amazing cooked up. I just peel them and then use one of those plastic round slicers to cut them into eight pieces and core them. I fill a large pot with all the pieces, add a small amount of water to stop the bottom ones sticking and let them cook down on the stove, stirring occasionally. They will cook down to about half the original amount. These apples don't need any added sugar (my hands get sticky peeling and slicing them) and they make the most delicious pulp. It doesn't last long in the fridge, despite how big a pot I make of it.We eat this pulp on breakfast, pancakes, use it in crumbles, with yoghurt - the kids would just eat it all in spoonfuls if they could.
The apple and pear season lasted several months through April, May and into June. The quinces started ripening in late April.
The ease of picking fruit and the number of fruit trees we have, is making me work towards the goal of pruning our trees so they are not more than 2 metres high. This should make all fruit collecting easier. We do have a fruit picking ladder and it is great but I notice I use the most fruit from the trees I can easily pick at any time, without needing to collect extra equipment. Currently our Sir Prize apple tree still has apples higher up that I couldn't reach.
We keep a selection of baskets in our kitchen. We have black plastic shopping baskets and some cane baskets. It is useful having a selection and different sizes for taking out to collect the fruit at any time. The baskets can then sit in the kitchen as we deal with the fruit.

5 Favourite Sights Seen

  • 1996 Watching tropical lightning turn night to day, outside a little wooden church in a small village in Sabah.
  • 2004 Flying down the Rainbow Valley at 8000ft in a cessna on a clear blue day.
  • 2003 Seeing and hearing Michael Schmacher rolling out of the pit garage in his Ferrari in Hungary.
  • 2009 Chancing upon 100 or more dolphins just off the Kaikoura Coast swimming around, jumping out of the water, doing somersaults and generally having fun.
  • 2006 Finding a pool at the bottom of a waterfall in the bush at Kaikoura that was full of playing baby seals.