Friday, November 29, 2013

Easy greens

One of the real pleasures of having Greek neighbours is occasionally tasting their wonderful home cooking. Our neighbour Katerina is a champion baker of biscuits and maker of dolmades, but a while ago she taught Pam how to cook their traditional dish of mixed greens, called horta, and gave us a container of it to try. 

Horta is just boiled mixed greens dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, and it's wonderful. As a result of Katerina's introduction, I bought some chicory seeds and have been waiting these last couple of months for it to get to the size when we can start harvesting leaves for making our own home-grown horta.

Here's the Chicory 'Spadona' ready to harvest.
I took only half the leaves from each plant, and
as well as the Spadona variety I have another
planted, with more serrated leaves.

Quite a mouthful of a name, Cicoria Catalogna Puntarelle
Brindisina. Both seed packets came from the online seed
retailer, The Italian Gardener, whose prices and generous
seed packets seem very good value to me.

While Katerina says she uses chicory for her
horta, she says you can use any leafy greens
you like. Traditional horta made in Greek
villages often uses a mix of wild greens harvested
in the fields, by roadsides or wherever they are
found. Pictured above is another terrific leafy
green we have growing here. It's called
perpetual spinach. I bought it as a seedling
and it just grows and re-grows. We have
harvested leaves from it many times, and it
just grows more leaves in response each time.
One growing tip if you want to try it: it can cope
with a bit of shade, and it hates hot afternoon
sun, so plant it somewhere that fits that bill.

The nice thing about cooking horta is that it's so easy and the amounts are flexible, and the ingredients are basically "whatever leafy greens you have at hand". Though the modern trend with cooking many vegies is to steam them, horta is an old-fashioned method where you boil the greens briefly, then dress them in olive oil and lemon juice, and that's about it. Here's how I did it last night.

We harvested about 500g of leaves, mostly chicory but about
a dozen perpetual spinach tossed in as well. Wash well, drain,
don't worry about cutting off stems unless damaged or brown,
then roughly chop the lot.
Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil, then add the
washed and chopped greens. Let them boil gently for 20 minutes.
Drain the cooked greens in a colander.
I'm sure that all the Greek cooks who make
horta just drizzle and squeeze, but as a
beginner I used two tablespoons of extra
virgin olive oil and one tablespoon of
freshly squeezed, home-grown, lemon
juice. Add salt and ground black pepper
to taste and mix it all into the greens.
Horta is rarely served piping hot. It gains flavour when just
warm, and it chills in the fridge and reheats very well, too.
Who says potato salad has to have mayonnaise? Mine included
home-grown shallots (green onions) and finely chopped radish,
but alas the kipfler spuds weren't home-grown.
And this being a Greek dish, we had lamb
(cutlets), flavoured with garlic and home-grown
rosemary and lemon juice.
Our first experiment with horta has changed my mind about what I am growing in our vegie garden. Chicory and perpetual spinach are so easy and prolific to grow, and cooking them is so easy that I think I'll make space for them on a permanent basis from now on, as popping outside to get the greens for dinner is such an easy and pleasurable thing to do.  

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Casting pods

Gardening deals out all manner of minor punishments to the keen, and one I am about to willingly risk once more is that of saving flower seeds in late spring to sow in autumn next year, in the hope of seeing a pretty colour show a year from now. 

The last time I did something similar was back in 2010, when I saved the seeds of colourful Zinnia angustifolia plants, hoping to get the same nice mix of yellow, orange and white flowers that I had enjoyed the year before.

Alas, they were virtually all-orange, with a few yellows and no whites at all, plus one pink one that I didn't want. Despite all that effort for such unpredictable results, I'm giving it a go once more, this time by collecting the seeds of Nigella, or love-in-a-mist. Besides, such interesting looking seedpods deserve to be saved.

These pods make a fair bit of noise, as they are dry and
papery, in some case with seeds rattling around inside.

There's no shortage of seedpods to harvest either. Lots of them.

Just as a reminder, here's what I want to see next year. This
year's flower colours were blue and white, and I'm interested
to see what pops out in early spring 2014.

The seedpods themselves go through a few stages before they
are ready to be picked. These are the youngest stage, fresh
green with green lacy surrounds that form the 'mist'.

As time goes by the pods colour up with a light wine colour,
but even still this one isn't ready to be picked. It still feels soft,
and the lacy surrounds are still green. I'm only picking the pods
when the lacework has dried to bone colour and the pods
feel dry to the touch, like paper.

Splitting a dried pod open reveals the plump
black seeds. I'll collect all these over the next
week or so and put them in an envelope,
ready for sowing in autumn next year.

And who knows which flower colours we
will see. The original seed mix, called
'Persian Jewels' had a mix of blue, white
and pink on the packet. I didn't get any
pinks at all this spring, and my suspicion
is that my collected seed might end up
producing all-white flowers, but I'll just
have to be patient until next spring, won't I?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Collard Greens, y'all

I am sure lots of gardeners will agree with me that we never really get over the amazement that something as tiny as a little round black seed no more than 1mm across can turn into a beautiful big vegetable like this. If you're not sure what it is exactly, but can see the cabbage family resemblance, your hunch is a good one. 

Its botanical name is the same as ordinary cabbage, Brassica oleracea, and its origins as a vegetable aren't known for sure, which is a story common to the many and amazingly varied types of Brassica oleracea out there, including cabbage, wombok, kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoli… and this lovely thing, collard greens.

Collard greens are a staple green vegie not only of the Southern USA, but also of countries such as Brazil and Portugal. It's the Southern USA connection which got me interested in them, as I ate and enjoyed some while driving across the USA in 2011. When I bought a copy of the Soulicious eBook by Awia Markey, she included a packet of collard greens seed with the CD she mailed out. So around late August I planted them, they came up in around 10 days, and they've been growing well ever since.

I wasn't sure how big the plants grew and so under-estimated
their impressive final size. I had thinned the seed out to allow
just two plants to grow, but about four weeks ago I realised
the faster-growing plant was going to monster the smaller one.
So I transplanted the smaller one (on the left in this pic) and
it didn't like that and struggled for a couple of weeks, but is
now showing signs of growth. The big one just powered on.
This 'helicopter' shot from above shows that, unlike cabbages,
the collard greens plant doesn't form a central head. It's just
 a big, beautiful bunch of thick, wide, ornamental leaves. I have
been feeding it monthly with an organic-based liquid food,
and watering it regularly. It wilts very readily on hot days but
bounces back very well after it's been given a drink. It's easy
enough to grow but needs space and sunshine to be happy.
One irresistibly charming thing about the plant is the way that
raindrops sit up on it like big jewels, in much the same way
raindrops do on nasturtiums and the leaves of broccoli.
As they're easy to grow and very nice to look at, I'll be growing more collard greens with the unsown leftover seed given to me by Awia. 

As for cooking it, I gave it a try last Saturday night and was very pleasantly surprised. I was expecting it to be a bit like spinach and silver beet, in that a whole lot of uncooked leaves shrink and wilt their way into a tiny puddle of shapeless green veg. 

Not so with collard greens. In terms of texture and form (but not flavour), they remind me mostly closely of broad-leafed seaweed that I encounter in Japanese restaurants sometimes. In terms of flavour it's mild and pleasant, but given a boost with the traditional additives of onions, garlic, a touch of chilli and smoked meat. So, what follows is my Saturday night collard greens experiment, which worked out well.

Step one, harvest all the outer large leaves from the larger of
the two plants. This bowl full weighed about 1lb, or 500g.
It was easy to trim out the thick, white central
stalk, then I tore up the leaves by hand into
big pieces and washed them in a couple of
changes of water in the sink. The leaves are
noticeably thicker than silver beet or spinach,
and almost feel like fabric in your hands
as you tear each one into pieces.
Drain in colander, set aside. 
Now, this is where the recipe taught me something. The method for cooking the greens is to create a broth, let the broth cook for 20 minutes, then add the greens, pop on a lid and let it cook a further 30 minutes. They came out very green, tender yet holding their original form nicely, and they had hardly shrunk down at all.

Awia's recipe (at the end of the posting) uses smoked turkey
meat, along with the onion, salt, chilli, garlic, sugar and a
pinch of bicarb soda. I varied that, as I knew that the Cajuns
use Andouille sausage (not smoked turkey), and so I investigated
that. Andouille sausage isn't available in Australia, and the closest
thing to it doesn't come close, as it lacks chilli. This "closest"
sausage is kielbasa (smoked Polish garlic pork sausage). The really
important thing is the "smoked" flavour, which is why Awia
used smoked turkey, then added garlic and chilli to her recipe
(clever move). You could also use smoked ham hocks instead.

Anyway, for 500g of collard greens I chopped up 200g of
kielbasa and added the onion, chilli, salt, sugar and a pinch
of bicarb soda into about a two-inch depth of water, let
it come to the boil and then simmer away for 20 minutes.
The bicarb soda and sugar are essential. The bi-carb soda
tenderises the leaves and preserves their green colour, but
it does make the already slightly bitter leaves more bitter
still, so the sugar restores the flavour balance nicely.

After 20 minutes of cooking the broth, I added all the leaves
to the pot, and popped a lid on to let the simmering continue
for another 30 minutes.
Here's a thrilling action shot of the greens cooking in the broth.
One little detail to note is that you don't serve the greens with
all that smoked meat (just dot it here and there with a few
pieces). The meat is there to flavour the broth and the greens,
but this is still essentially a vegetable dish.

It'd take a much better photographer/stylist than me to make
a plate of collard greens look exciting, but they did taste very
nice indeed, much milder in flavour than silver beet. As I mentioned
earlier, the leaves hold their original texture very well.

And, it being a birthday weekend for this new
member of the 60-year-old gardeners club, we
washed down our new culinary discovery with a
glass or two of very non-traditional but eminently
agreeable bubbles. 
Finally, the recipe

The thing I really like about Awia's Soulicious eCookbook is that
you can print out the page you want, instead of having a whole
book cluttering up your bench space. You can spill spices,
liquid, garlic etc on it then toss it into the compost at the end.
You can order the eBook from Awia's Facebook page, and that's
the best way to get the recipe, but the basic proportions I used
were: 500g leaves (enough to serve 4-6 as a side dish); 250g
smoked meat (Awia uses turkey legs or thighs – red meat, not white
breast meat; I used Polish kielbasa garlic sausage); 2 minced
garlic cloves (if you're using smoked turkey, but omit if you are
going for garlic sausage); 1 onion, chopped; chilli flakes to
taste (about 1 teaspoon is a fair bit); pinch of salt; pinch of
sugar; pinch of bicarb soda (baking soda). The method is
explained in the photos above.
It's all very easy once you've cooked it the first time, but the first step, of course, is to grow your own collard greens.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Umbrella phobia

Fear of umbrellas? How silly. Is it fear of them turning inside out in a gust of wind? Nahhh. Fear of being poked in the eye by a monster brolly in the street? Nahhh. In my case it is a fear of losing umbrellas which has dogged me. I'm a shocker at leaving umbrellas on buses, in cafes, on park benches and other spots. And it's a fear of one umbrella in particular that has dogged me… until today, that is.

Very stupidly, I bought an expensive umbrella while on holiday in the USA in 2011. And I have never used it. I'm too scared I'll lose it on Day One outside the box. I really am a hopeless umbrella-loser, but as of today I have decided to take a huge risk and start using my high-priced, upmarket brolly – and to hell with the consequences.

Here I am out in the rain this soggy Tuesday morning,
christening my brolly while conquering my fears. And I haven't
lost it yet, although I haven't actually left the house with it
yet, either. Let me explain the problem for you…
There we were, last day in the USA, in San Francisco, and our
plane didn't leave till late afternoon. So on a morning shopping
expedition, with some leftover US dollars in our pockets we
went shopping, and I paid about $90 for this very nice umbrella.
And it is nice. It's a Davek (never heard of the
brand, but that doesn't matter). Inside the box
is a short history of umbrellas and some info
on how cool this upmarket brolly is.
The strap is thick, stitched leather, the metal clasp very solid.
The brolly itself isn't featherlight. It has some weight,
courtesy of the sturdy folding metal frame within.
It comes with a written lifetime guarantee and...
… they even provide you with a special Loss Protection Number
which allows you to purchase a replacement umbrella at half
cost, should you lose your expensive original purchase.
And despite all that, I've left it in its box for two whole years, knowing that I'd leave it on the bus or in a cafe about three hours after its social debut. That Loss Protection Number is no comfort. It means I'd fork out a smaller fortune for the replacement, which I would then leave in its box for five years, then promptly lose on the first day I use it.

Am I being pessimistic? I don't think so but Pammy's wise counsel is that I am. So, utterly sick and tired of having spent well over $90 on buying cheap, flimsy umbrellas in these last two years, I have decided to put quality to the test… and set myself a challenge. 

I plan to go for a walk in the rain later today to test out whether this upmarket brolly made in the Big Apple can handle Sydney in the wet [edit: correction! it says 'New York' on the box, but inside the umbrella a tiny little tag says… you guessed it… 'Made in China']

I'm pretty sure it will last, as it feels incredibly sturdy, but it will be a minor triumph if I come home with it still in my hand.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Deliciously soggy

Every gardener in Sydney will be pleased to see the rain falling these last few days. It's been a long time between drinks for our parched gardens. The last good falls were back in June and every local gardener can tell you how dry the soil is once you dig down a couple of inches. Watering by hand just isn't the same as having vast cloud-lakes of water falling from the sky.

I'm such a rain radar junkie that I also have the rain radar
app on my iPhone. I love looking at them. The red patches are
seriously heavy rain, yellow fairly heavy, dark blue is good
garden-friendly rain and light blue is very kind to vegie seedlings.
The lovely thing about rainy days is doing nothing much at all. All you have to do is watch, if you want to do that. One thing I will do during a brief break in the rain, though, is head out to the garden shed, get out the Dynamic Lifter (ie, chicken poo) and sprinkle a few handfuls to each of my newly planted gardenias, which so far are doing OK but not great. I guess lots of other plants will get the poultry-based aromatherapy, too.

If you've ever read a gardening magazine, they always say that the ideal way to fertilise plants is to water the ground first, spread around the fertiliser, then water it all in well. So, on a rainy day, wait for a break in the rain, behave like a mad person and do your fertilising then, then dash back under shelter and watch the rain wash the plant food down into the soil. Enjoy.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Red gluts

Many of our mornings look like this. Red gluts, of almost too many strawberries. We visit Pam's mum, other friends, and each time we take a punnet of strawberries with us, just to ease the gluts. And of course we eat our strawberries - on our breakfast cereal, or as healthy red snacks. 

As regular readers of this blog will already
know, our strawberry patch came up out of
the compost, all by itself, which is why
the plants are so healthy and productive.
They passed the survival test, so growing in
a garden with a nice man watering and
feeding them regularly is too easy for them.

And isn't this the way with growing food at home? Gluts. The really difficult thing is growing just enough for your needs. That's almost impossible. 

It won't be long before we have far too many cherry tomatoes. Hopefully one of these days we'll have far too many passionfruit, and it looks like I'll be making up a few jars of sambal oelek (minced chilli paste, Indonesian-style) to deal with our chilli glut in December and January.

I guess gluts are all part of the fun, of course, and they're much better than the alternative, which is dud crops. Despite many years of "growing our own" I still haven't got closer to the secret of just growing enough for our needs, partly because with a mere two people to feed, just one healthy, productive plant provides a glut.