Housework II

On Sunday morning we awoke to steady rain that persisted throughout the day. We decided to head off to the Southside Farmers Market which was absolutely jumping. Clearly the rain wasn’t stopping anyone from getting their new season cherries and stone fruit. It’s great to see the market’s popularity increasing so much. Apart from selecting some delicious Danish pastries from the folks at 210 Degrees Patisserie & Bakery (their regular shop can be found at the Hughes shops) and a kilo of new-season macadamias, we picked up a Saw-leaf mustard plant and an Orange Thyme plant for the garden. The flavour of oranges is very strong in the leaves of the thyme – I’m not sure what we will use it for but I’m sure something will come to mind.

Back at Chez Fork it only seemed natural to settle in for a day of cooking and food processing to the background hum of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Spring DVD.

Firstly the I tackled the parsnips. If you need a lesson in what happens to the seedlings of rootcrops if you try to transplant them just look at the parsnips on the right-hand side of the photo.

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As the plants had started to put out a flowering stalk I knew that they would be too tough to eat directly. However, I wasn’t keen to throw away all the time, effort, not to mention soil and compost that had gone into their production. The answer was to clean them, cut them up into chunks and throw them in the freezer to be included in a soup stock (one that your strain the stock veggies out of before you make the soup.) This could also be done with similarly past-their-best carrots and beetroots.

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Next up was the re-found cauliflower, along with two others that were also reaching their use-by date.

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Not a pretty sight I’ll grant you but blanched (see below) and put in the freezer to be reincarnated as cauliflower cheese or curried cauliflower, the optics will be irrelevant. Also don’t forget to peel the stems and chop them up to be eaten along with the florets.

Finally the broad beans. I was passing my broad bean dip recipe along to a co-worker last week when I was asked about how to prepare the beans for eating. Now you may be one of the myriad of people whose lives have been blighted by only partially or poorly prepared broad beans. Indeed I’ve also encountered some thinking that these beans can only be eaten dried – not true. Believe me they are really yummy when properly prepared. If you are a broad bean virgin read on, the rest of you can skip the next few sentences.

First take the beans out of the pods. Chuck the pods into the compost heap and keep the beans. Bring about half a saucepan of water to the boil,  (choose a saucepan big enough to fit your beans with some space left over). Once the water has reached boiling point put your beans in and let them boil for 2-3 minutes. This process is called blanching and is the standard way of preparing most veggies for freezing. Drain the beans and let them cool down a bit before you start to peel them (stick them in some cold water if you are in a rush). Now this is where some people stop processing the beans and if you are unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end you will be served a bean with a thick grey, rubbery coat, not nice. Getting rid of the coat is as easy (or fiddly) as peeling them a second time. Some beans may come out of the boiling process with a split in their skins, if so a slight squeeze should see the inner bean pop out. If not take a small sharp knife and make a small slit in the outer coating and squeeze to remove the inner bean. Any bean less than a centimetre in length will be soft enough to be eaten with the skin on. Your reward will be a plate of bright green beans. 

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What you see here are the blanched beans, just out of the saucepan, on the right-hand side and the final peeled beans on the left-hand side. You can now use the twice peeled beans by frying with some butter or sage leaves or turn them into a paste for use as a dip (if you leave it thick) or a pasta sauce (if you thin the paste out with some oil or some of the cooking water from your pasta or as a spead on your sandwiches.

Broad Bean paste (for dips or sauces)

Put your broad beans into a food processor, or mash by hand if you want a more rustic look, or you can’t be bothered with the machine. Add two tablespoons of your choice of oil to get started (Olive oil would be fairly traditional), add some grated parmesan, an anchovy or two (less is more here), however much garlic you like and a good grinding of black pepper. Now depending on how thick you want your finished paste you will probably need to add some more oil along the way. Buono appetito!

PS if I want to freeze my broad beans I just pop the blanched beans into a bag and stick them in the freezer. I deal with the second peeling once the beans are de-frosted. I think the outer skin helps protect the inner bean from possible freezer damage.

Housework I

It was Joan Rivers who said “I hate housework! You make the beds, you do the dishes and six months later you have to start all over again.” Apart from the fact I love gardening, the time has definitely rolled around again for re-making the beds (I agree about the housework).

On Saturday we pulled out the remaining parsnips in pipes and purple sprouting broccoli (we’ve been eating them since mid-September), with a view to planting our tomatoes in the bed. We have kept one purple sprouting broccoli plant for the seeds (front right of the picture along with a large weed which has since been removed) and I have plans for the parsnips.

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Before anyone gets overly excited I will say that our idea of crop rotation is just don’t plant the same thing in the same place twice in a row. I can never find the rotation chart when I want to and here at Chez Fork we are rarely able to bring ourselves to rip out plants that are still producing. The other thing about pulling out the old stuff was that we found all this other stuff we didn’t even know we had. In my case three potatoes, three onions and a long forgotton cauliflower – well one brassica looks pretty much like another when you aren’t paying attention.

It was quite instructive to see that half the bed, where two or three crops have been grown over the last year and have therefore been manured and mulched had a vastly improved soil structure to the other end of the bed. In poorer part of the bed we’d grown carrots last year and then the purple sprouting broccoli this winter. Clearly with less mulch and regular addition of compost it was no where near as ‘good’ a soil as the other end. I was able to get some of our rotted compost onto the garden bed – the compost was full of worms so I only lightly forked it in so they could get on with their work.

Meanwhile on the other side of the garden TB was rennovating our second most venerable concrete block bed with a view to making our second wicking bed. Out came a very scraggy spinach and enough broad beans pods to yield 500 gms of beans. Like me TB also found some lost things – in his case a very welcome self-sown warrigal greens seedling. Unfortunately we are still looking for the good pair of secateurs and they could be anywhere!

Our first bed wicking bed is going great guns and we have not watered it since I built it at the beginning of October (er yes, it has rained a bit since then).

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As you can see the peas and silver beet are growing well. And my Purple Podded Peas are podding!

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Apart from not having to water so often the other good reason for a second wicking bed here is to stop the roots of the wattle tree from stealing all the moisture from the plants. Like me TB also found some lost things – in his case a very welcome self-sown warrigal greens seedling. Unfortunately we are still looking for the good pair of secateurs and they could be anywhere!

After calling it quits for the day we awoke the next morning to see that the “rain had interrupted play”.

Turn the Page

4 weeks to Christmas! I do wish that shop near my office would stop reminding me.

Anyway if you are stuck for ideas for presents or are looking for a good read over Christmas then you might want to have a quick squizz at my new Book Reviews page, conveniently located in the menu bar at the top of the blog.

So far I’m trying to find and link all the books I’ve reviewed to date on the blog. I know there are still a few to go so it will be a work in progress.

As for the Forks we have dropped the big hint to the guy in the red suit for Annabel Langbein’s The Freerange Cook and Italian Food Safari by Maeve O’Meara with Guy Grossi. If Santa’s elves get their act together I hope to be able do a review for you post-Christmas.

While speaking of things TV related I’m thrilled to see that when everything else is shutting down for the season SBS is cranking up the good shows to go over the break. Season two of Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam will hit the airwaves on December 2 at 7.30 pm, followed by a repeat of The Gourmet Farmer at 8.00pm. Yes there will be a new series of Gourmet Farmer but the timing is not clear – check out the blog post for more information.

Peak Soil?

“When our soils are gone, we too, must go unless we find some way to feed on raw rock.” (Thomas C Chamberlin)

As a gardener I know that without caring for my soil, feeding it regularly with organic matter and green manure crops, my ability to produce nutritious vegetables will diminish over time. In his book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilisation, David R Montgomery, Professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington, contends that the impact of massive and ongoing soil erosion on our own farming systems directly threatens the viability of our global society.

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Our relentless use and overuse of that most precious of all our commodities the soil is summarised in a 1995 review of global soil erosion which reported the annual loss of twelve million hectares or arable land to soil erosion and land degradation (Pimentel et al, Science 267:pps 1117-23). And that doesn’t include the amount of land which is currently being lost to the expansion of our cities. Just look at the growth of Canberra’s suburbs or the suburbs of any of Australia’s capital cities and you can see what I mean.

Montgomery builds his case by looking back to the earliest periods of human agriculture and considers farming practices from Iceland to Ancient Rome, the Pacific Islands to modern day Cuba to examine the ways that human societies have farmed their soils. He also examines the impact on those societies when they failed to maintain the balance between soil erosion and the speed at which geological forces can replace this most precious commodity.

In the past people who exhausted their land could literally pick up and move on to new places, even new continents, but today with the ‘available’, not to mention usable land, shrinking rapidly this is no longer an option. But not every society overused or abused their soils. The Nile Valley has been under permanent cultivation for over 5,000 years and has remained productive all that time. However the changes wrought by the building of the Aswan High Dam and the associated move to commercial commodity production from smaller farms has had an extremely negative impact on soil fertility and soil loss since the mid-Twentieth Century.

For me it is his examination of the impact of agribusiness (or industrial agriculture) in the Twentieth century along with the impact of the use of artificial fertilisers, particularly since the World War II, that I find is the most interesting part of the book. I didn’t know that the artificial fertilisers which are the backbone of today’s agribusinesses were produced by the WWII explosives manufacturers who were just tooling around trying to see what they could do with their left over factory capacity after we stopped collectively blowing ourselves up.

Montgomery concludes that our own agricultural systems are close to collapse and if we do not start doing something about saving our soil fertility now – and no, loading more artificial fertilizers on to our farmland will not help. Montgomery outlines in the clearest possible way the grave danger we are facing:

The underlying problem is confoundingly simple: agricultural methods that lose soil faster than it is replaced destroys societies. Fortunately there are ways for very productive farms to operate without cashing in the soil, put simply we need to adapt what we do to where we do it….The cheapest input to agricultural systems, the soil will always be discounted – until it is too late.”

While tackling soil erosion is a complex problem there is still hope for our ability to maintain food production both at the small scale and broader agricultural level. The introduction of no-till planting for broad-acre crops has had an immediate impact of cutting soil erosion both in Australia and the US. For a dry continent like Australia soil conservation measures also double their benefits but helping drought-proof farms. One of the fastest ways to make new soil is by continuing to feed your own garden with composts, green manures and mulches.

In our own region Zerowaste Australia is implementing the Groundswell project to which is looking at the economic benefits of returning organic wastes from city rubbish tips back to agricultural land. So if you live in Queanbeyan your organic waste is currently being spread on paddocks in the Goulburn area. Local participants include farmers, the Wiradjuri Condobolin Aboriginal Corporation, the Palerang Agricultural Society, Bettergrow, Zero Waste Australia and the South East office of the DECC Sustainability Programs Division and the Goulburn Mulwaree, Palerang, Queanbeyan City and Lachlan Councils. You can follow their blog to keep up with what is happening.

Dirt is a fascinating read and my brief summary here doesn’t do the complexity of Montgomery’s case real justice – it’s far more subtle than I have managed to convey. I’d highly recommend Dirt to anyone with an interest in the ongoing maintenance and hopefully improvement of our society. So far this book isn’t in the ACT Public Library, but perhaps you can take advantage of the current exchange rates and the Christmas season to get a copy in from the US.

If you would like to hear David Montgomery talk about this fascinating subject you can check out an interview broadcast earlier this year on Bush Telegraph (ABC Radio National).

Sitting Around

The drive up to Newcastle and back over the weekend certainly seems to have taken it out of me. I managed a small sortie out this morning to see that my edamame (Japanese soybeans) are ticking along quite well. But I can’t say the same for my Tongue of Fire beans – they keep getting eaten and not by me! Even plants that are well over 15cms in height are still being chewed by oportunistic snails and slugs – I console myself that should I ever get to eat some that they at least must taste good.

My strawberries are going very well this year. I picked a big handful this morning, having picked an equal number three days ago. Which reminded me that I still had bags of frozen fruit from last summer. I’ve taken care of that and now have several jars of strawberry jam.

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Thankfully it is one of the quickest jams to cook – per usual a Sally Wise recipe – so I managed it before my enthusiasm for work ran out – which it did once I saw the state of the back garden!

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Oh my god! The grass is long, the sorrel (in the front needs hacking back), the purple sprouting brocoli (yellow flowers) along with the curly kale needs ripping out while the broad beans and the snow peas are collapsing under the weight of growth (and not much else where the snow peas are concerned!). Not to mention the tomatoes that need planting, which Friend M has kindly given us as there has been virtually no progress with our own. Now why didn’t I buy those tomato plants which were already fruiting that I saw at the Newcastle City Farmers Markets yesterday?

Anyway I’m now feeling so much better because I’ve decided it can all wait for another day.

Jacaranda Time

From my family’s back deck in Newcastle you can see the trail of purple Jacaranda trees in full bloom, across the suburbs and out to the sea. It’s Jacaranda time in Sydney and Newcastle (although it’s reaching its end in Brisbane).

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This beautiful tree which originally hails from tropical and subtropical Central and South America nows marks the rapid onset of the Christmas season in SE Australia (or if you live in Brisbane that it is far too late to start studying for your end of year exams).

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We took the opportunity, while visiting this past weekend to drop into the Newcastle City Farmers Market, which very conveniently operates just down the road from where we were staying.While the market looks rather like the ones in Canberra, indeed we think we even spotted a common supplier

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I was looking for local produce. I must say that small dairies seemed to be a going concern with several milk and yoghurt suppliers in evidence. I bought two flavours of Marrook Farm biodynamic yoghurt (bush honey and lemon myrtle). I also got a bag of Port Stephens oysters and half a dozen passionfruit, the latter destined for icecream.

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Being somewhat of a purist in these matters, I thought that the craft stalls, those re-selling cheap imported products rather than genuine hand-crafted items, did detract from the proceedings. On the other hand the Shetland pony rides bought back memories of school fetes and the jazz band and cooking demonstrations added to the general atmosphere.

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So if you are in Newcastle on a Sunday morning 8.00 am to 1.00pm you can head over to the Newcastle Showgrounds at Broadmeadow and check them out.

A bucket of beans

It is a truism in gardening that things change from one season to the next and what grew well last year may not perform as well this season. We are certainly finding that this year. Maybe its the rain … we’ve been having a bit

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but I think it might also have to do with cultivation practices. Looking back at my notes I see that at this time in 2009 I was just getting the first pods on my broadbeans – but then I had not planted them until August. This year I planted in April and while the beans grew a bit then bided their time over winter, they rocketed away as soon as spring started. They are now over 1.5 metres high and producing like mad.

These are the broadbeans in May

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and this is what they are like today!

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So it wouldn’t surprise you to know that I picked a bucket of broadbeans today – which would, I guesstimate, be probably 1/8th of my current crop (and remember they haven’t stopped producing pods just yet).

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Once I shelled them they weighed in at just a tad under 1.6 kgs of beans.

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This lot will be blanched, ready to go into the freezer. Just a few minutes in boiling water then after they’ve cooled down they can be packed away. I’ll peel the outer pod off them once we defrost them to use. We’ll also be saving some dried beans as well as some for seed for next year. But we still have a lot of eating to do.

With the fresh beans TB has made a really nice side of broad beans in sage butter to go with our Kalyarni Dexter corned beef (speak to Ian Moy at the North or Southside Farmers Market). The recipe is dead easy. First blanch your broad bean pods in boiling water for a few minutes then pull them out let them cool a bit and peel off the outer shell of the larger beans – the smaller ones are tender enough to be eaten whole. In a small fry pan melt some butter and then fry off some sage leaves until they start to crisp up. Add your peeled beans back into the fry pan and swirl them around until coated with butter. Yummo.

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I forgot to mention that at the top of the plate we have the first of our hard-neck Red stemmed garlic bulbs, boiled, rather than roasted, in their skins – very sweet and creamy they were too. These were purchased at the Allsun Farms open garden day in 2009. If you missed out visiting Allsun Farm this year you might like to check out Variegated’s report on the day.