Friday, May 28, 2010


With more than a week of relentlessly wet weather drenching the garden and ruining that kind of fun, there is but one thing for this boy to do – cook! But something new, something different. For our 20th wedding anniversary last year, Pammy bought me a lovely Scanpan Tagine plus a big, beautiful Moroccan cookbook, and that's where I went to for inspiration. Hmmm, "chermoula" – a classic North African spice/herb blend – that sounds nice. I have most of the ingredients either in the pantry or growing in the garden. Let's go.

I'll give the recipe at the end, but here it is in its prettiest stage, just after I added ground cumin, paprika and cayenne pepper to the garlic. But I am already getting ahead of myself.

Here's the makings of my chermoula. Coriander, parsley and lemon (all home-grown), garlic, paprika, cumin, cayenne pepper, olive oil, and mortar and pestle.

Oops, forgot to mention the salt. In fact the salt is a magic ingredient, as it helps to turn garlic to soft mush with just a few thumps of the pestle. It's just like a little chemistry lesson on its own, the way salt disintegrates garlic.

Then you add the three spices mentioned earlier.

Then add chopped parsley and chopped coriander, plus some lemon juice, then at the end, some olive oil.

Traaa daaaa! Chermoula. It wasn't that hard to do, but the trick is to not add all the bulky parsley and coriander in one go. I added it in small batches and it quickly pounded down. Total time taken to pound it all down to a paste was about 5 minutes. Good village-style peasant work, and good rainy-day work, too. I suppose you could do it all in a blender, but it wouldn't come out like this, with the little chunky bits here and there.

The next step is to coat the "meat" with some of the chermoula. This in fact is a beautiful fish called Bass Grouper (it's similar to blue-eye cod). It comes as big, thick steaks from which I remove the bones, then cut it into chunks. It holds together beautifully in cooking and remains moist, never seems to go dry. However, this recipe would work equally well with other meats, such as chunks of chicken or pork, for example.

Next, the vegies. Here, I cut up slices of potato, red and yellow capsicum, zucchini, and tipped in a can of diced tomatoes, then stirred in the remainder of the chermoula and a few leftover scraps of parsley and coriander.

Big spoon to toss all the vegies together, plus a grind each of salt and pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil.

Any casserole dish will do, of course, but I do think my tagine looks snazzy.

Into the tagine I scooped in half the vegies to layer the bottom, then covered these with all the fish (which had been marinating in the chermoula for the half-hour it took to prepare all the vegies), then I covered the fish with the rest of the vegies. Lid on. Bake one hour at 180°C (350°F) and it's ready. Serve with couscous on the side.

Halfway through eating it, I said to Pam: "Oh oh, I forgot to take a photo of the finished dish". So you'll just have to imagine the results. It tasted yummy, though. Anyway, here's the amounts for the chermoula. As for the vegies, I just made all that bit up as I went along.

2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
3 tablespoons chopped coriander (cilantro)
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil

Method: pound the garlic with the salt until mushy, then add the paprika, cumin, cayenne pepper and lemon juice to make a paste. Then add the parsley and coriander in batches, and pound until reduced in bulk. Finally, work the olive oil into the mixture in stages, until blended nicely.

(For Aussie readers, this recipe is from the excellent book, "The Food of Morocco" by Tess Malloss, published by Murdoch Books, ISBN 9781741960341).

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Mrs Lithops' difficult delivery

The last time I posted a photo of my cute little Lithops plant, Lanie made the cheeky comment that she wanted to "get a black marker pen and draw some little eyes on it". Little did I realise that Mrs Lithops was with child at the very moment Lanie had her Texta dreams, but here's the evidence. Here she is, Mrs Lithops, with her little yellow baby – well almost, but not quite.

Now, some of you might be asking why I have rushed out to post this photo of an almost-there flower, instead of waiting to show the world the sunny baby, named 'Daisy', in all its cheerful, innocent glory. Excellent question...

Simple answer. Pammy took these photos on the last sunny day we had here, about five days ago. Since then we've had nothing but cloud and rain, and Mrs Lithops and Daisy aren't in the mood for flowering, it seems. In fact it looks a bit like Daisy is stuck there. No, I am not going to get out the forceps, or even the tweezers. Daisy will come out when she feels like it.

Daisy's little umbilical stalk is visible if you get very close up, and so I guess the flower pops up and out on its stalk when the sun shines, but so far this is as good as it gets. The only thing I am doing at the moment is bringing Mrs Lithops under cover at night and also during the day when it rains, to keep her dryish. This woman comes from a desert climate, and Sydney in the throes of a late autumn drenching probably doesn't remind her much of her home in an African desert.

I'll just have to be patient, although I hope the Lithopses aren't the kind of plant to flower every 15 years or anything frustrating like that. I am sure that as soon as the sunshine returns, Daisy will come out to play and the birds will sing, etc.

But as it's too soggy for much gardening right now, Mrs Lithops' difficult delivery is definitely the central drama here in Amateur Land. Come on Mrs Lithops, push!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Purplish patches

We're not exactly swamped with flowers at the moment, but that relative scarcity of blooms allows the few performers to have the stage all to themselves. And right now there's a pretty little bluey-purple show going on.

All Sydney readers will know this photo wasn't taken today, as it's pouring with rain at the moment, and all of us Sydney gardeners are going 'Yippee, rain at last!'. No, this is a sunny Sunday morning shot, with the early morning sun lighting up my little village of succulents (on the right) and its protective pathside forest of purple-flowered alyssum. The alyssum in the pot comes from seed I sowed there a bit over two months ago. The alyssum outside the pot is self-sown – such a pretty little paving weed, isn't it?

Not far from the alyssum the newly planted Tibouchina 'Groovy Baby' is having a wonderful time settling into its new home, even sending out an outrageous bloom every now and then. If it could talk I'm sure it'd just giggle.

New growth everywhere, flowers, flower buds and hopefully more flowers, so far so good.

Such a powerful colour, purple. To my mind, when at it's best, it evokes a sense of celebration, maybe even extravagance. But at it's worst, it can be trashy and gaudy. I guess it's just how you use it in the end that matters. Just a couple of little purple patches now, when nothing much else is in bloom, seems about right. They have the whole garden to themselves and they certainly are lighting up the joint right now.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Waiting in line

Haven't I been quiet lately? Well, yes. Two whole weekends in a row without gardening or blogging, and the truth is that I could get away with a third gardening-lite weekend, as everything is in a 'set and forget' mode at the moment. A few weeks ago I had a huge weekend digging, sowing and planting and since then the seeds have slowly gone about their business of germinating and forming roots and leaves. Early morning sprinkles of the hose from me, and that's all I need to do right now. So here's all the chirpy little seedlings, waiting in line for their turn to become dashing herbs, vegies and flowers a month or so from now.

First stop, spinach and calendula land. Spinach the three rows left, calendulas on the right edge.

Trainee spinach.

Calendula wannabees. Just like in reality TV, some of these hopefuls will be voted off over the coming days and weeks, to make room for the remainder. That's show biz!

The next orderly bed (with sugar cane mulch dividers) features coriander, choy sum, celery leaf plants and baby beetroot.

Beetroot rangas.

Coriander kids

Choy sum punks, too many of them

Slow off the mark, these probably are the celery leaf plant seeds. Who has ever heard of weeds growing in orderly rows? No, these must be the seeds I sowed, probably, I guess...

Next bed, poppy seedlings, and the bare earth at the front now has a long line of the tiniest little baby curly parsley seeds coming up. At last!

Across the way, the flat leaf parsley seeds have turned into seedlings, while the shallot seedlings behind, as usual, are just getting on with business.

Let's finish off with some seed-sowing graduates. The chervil loves the semi shade as much as mint does, but is a lot better behaved. Lovely little herb.

And the oak-leaf lettuce looks lovely in the early morning light. And it ain't half bad in sandwiches, either.

Everyone in Sydney agrees this autumn has been something special. It's still sunny and moderately warm, but the heaters are on at night now, and the weather folk say that it should be colder and wetter this week, and there's not a peep of complaint from anyone. We need the rain, as it has been too dry. And we don't begrudge the colder weather finally arriving, as it is overdue.

This loveliest of all our seasons has been such a kind one to all the plants in the garden. The youngsters are all waiting patiently in line, growing every day, while that old gardener doesn't seem to have much to do and just wanders around taking a few photos, pulling up a few weeds here and there, and stopping occcasionally to look up and that clear blue sky, making sure to remember what a fine, glorious autumn this has been.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Succulent season

Though succulents are usually thought of as tough, water-hardy plants which are built to survive hot, dry summers, the other side of their nature is that they don't really like summer all that much. Like most garden plants (and people), they much prefer autumn and spring. Right now they're growing and flowering, and looking lovely.

Faucarias, with their python-like jaws of spiny teeth, look quite savage at other times of year, but now, in autumn, they're home to dainty, yellow daisies.

Sempervivums are simply growing well now. I repotted these last spring and am hoping that by next spring they'll have filled the bowl with maroon-tipped, pale green rosettes.

It's the same story with the graptoverias. Repotted last spring, growing well now, hopefully looking a grey-blue picture of abundance by next spring.

Sometimes, when I look at my haworthia, I think of these as being like some kind of crowded futuristic city designed by Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi. They're showing more complex colours now and are growing so fast they'll start climbing up and over each other. I'd like to see that!

Gasteria bicolor has never looked particularly bicoloured to me, at least until this year. Hopefully this is how it's meant to look. It's producing babies now, so I presume all is well, but as my knowledge of succulents is pretty limited, I often look at some of them and wonder 'is that normal, are you OK?'.

And so low are my expectations for this lithops, the living stone plant, that all I want for it is survival. When I repotted it into its nice little blue pot, I discovered that it was planted straight into gravel. OK. And then after a very wet month one of the two original lithops people shrivelled and died (that's when my low expectations really kicked in). Since then, this rather cute little survivor-person hasn't grown, hasn't died, hasn't done anything, and I'm delighted!

Several other succulents in my little potted conclave known as Succulent City are sending up flower spikes now, and there's never a dull flower in Succulent City. While these plants do store water to survive summer, the fact is they just go into survival mode over the hot months, then shout 'hooray' when autumn comes and then go into growing and flowering and baby-making mode during the cooler, wetter months. Around here, autumn is the real succulent season.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Scenes from a cookathon

I've been cooking all day, and loving it. Big family bash tomorrow and my assignment is a chicken casserole for 10, easy enough to do, but the day started out rainy and that got me in a cooking mood.

By the time I came home from shopping with all the things on the list I also had impulse-bought some rhubarb, all the makings of a big batch of chicken stock, plus veal shanks for osso bucco tonight. Maybe it's my diet which is to blame! My rule is that I can eat anything I like for dinner, as long as I cook it myself (that's a loophole and a half, isn't it?). As well as loving the smells and flavours of cooking, I love the sights, and that's what this blog is about: scenes from a cookathon.

Strawbs drying on paper towels. They'll disappear fast tomorrow.

I think I accidentally clicked up a Dutch master treatment of these moody grapes.

Even the vegie scraps bin looks like a still life.

Here's my secret to a decent chicken stock. Old boiler chooks – full of chookie flavour, easily the best. The only ones I can find are frozen Home Brand from Woolies, and they do the job beautifully.

Chopped vegies ready for the stock pot. Lots of them.

The home-grown contribution to the stock pot: thyme, parsley, bay leaves.

For the chicken casserole I went all fancy and made a proper bouquet garni. Here's the makings: a stick of celery, a bunch each of thyme, and parsley sprigs, plus one of rosemary and a few bay leaves.

Here it is all tied up and ready to be tossed in the pot.

While the bouquet garni looks nice placed on the chicken casserole like this, after the photo was taken I shoved it deep in the pot to do its job properly. The casserole is a sort-of coq au vin variation I've invented, flavoured with French mustard, tarragon and white wine.

The rhubarb is for breakfast. In the sink they looked like red logs floating downstream.

Chopped up, sprinkled with sugar, with just a little water in the bottom of the saucepan, it cooks down in no time. I'm always looking for something new to add to my breakfast cereal, and rhubarb will do the trick this week.

Pam says I am a glutton for punishment in the kitchen, and she's right. For some strange reason I also went outside and harvested a big bowl full of cumquats, mostly to help the poor cumquat tree get on with recovering from its recent trauma. At first I thought I'd turn them into marmalade some time this week, but then it occurred to me that I could turn them into a cumquat jelly. My quince jelly went rather well last year, and so that's my next bit of kitchen madness. Cumquat jelly, hmmmm....

Anyway, that's it for the meantime – I'd better stop blogging and keep on cooking – the chicken stock smells great, so it's ready, and it's time to turn the veal shanks into osso bucco. Love a good Saturday cookathon every now and then, I do.