Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tall, dark and handsome

My latest cunning plan occurred to me many years ago, and it only came to fruition last Wednesday. Patience rewards those who wait. As soon as I saw the famous Chinese terracotta warriors, I wanted one – as garden art in my garden (although the unkind might think of him as a gnome - heaven forbid!). I don't care what people think. Now I have one, and he's tall, dark and handsome and I've found him a nice spot, too.

At the Art Gallery of New South Wales, here in Sydney, they're staging an exhibition of some of the famous Terracotta Warriors from China. Fabulous exhibition, well worth getting to if you are in Sydney. My nephew Neil visited China last year, went to the Terracotta Warrior site in China but also went to the Sydney exhibition a few weeks ago, and said he learned more about them here in Sydney than he did in China. But of course seeing them ALL in China was a truly wonderful experience. Like Neil, I learned so much in this excellent and beautiful display. And then, in the Art Gallery shop that inevitably follows on from every major art exhibition, there he was. About 30cm tall, very striking, and a bit expensive ($90). But I had to get him, I had wanted a terracotta warrior in my garden for many years. (Of course real Terracotta Warriors are real size, 190cm tall, so a mere 30cm tall copy-warrior fits my small garden so much better!)

He's not the first famous personage which I have borrowed for service in my garden. This Bart Simpson shampoo bottle is one-foot-tall perfect gnome size, and provided his little plastic body stays in the cool shade, he should be here for years.

Until the terracotta warrior arrived on the scene, security duties here in Amateur Land have been very ably covered by this hand-painted postman gnome, who I turned into a combat gnome with a splash of camouflage colours. Now, with the ancient warrior to lend a hand, I am sure he will be glad to have an increased force.

There was an important lesson I learned several years ago about the placement of objects in my garden, and that is 'respect'. I wanted a Buddha figure to sit at the base of my curry tree, and while I'm not a Buddhist or practitioner of any religion, if I ever turned religious I would probably become a Buddhist. And so I got in contact with a local Buddhist ashram, explained my somewhat quirky desire to have a Buddha figure close to my curry tree (reclining on a mother-of-pearl shell), and I learned a few things in that conversation. It's respectful to not have Buddha in a lowly position, such as down on the ground. That's OK. He's sitting in the garden's largest pot, in a nicely elevated spot. And then the Ashram person asked me: "Does Buddha have a nice outlook?" and I replied "Well, I guess he actually has the best view in the garden, and sees the setting sun every day." And so I relaxed, I had treated Buddha with respect.

I bore this lesson in mind when finding a suitable post for my Terracotta Warrior. He's close to Buddha's curry tree, also facing the setting sun. He has a traditional Chinese money tree behind him, and my most beautiful and fragrant herb bush, my sage plant, around him at the front. Hopefully he likes his spot. I think it's the second best one in the garden, and I don't think he'd begrudge Buddha the best seat in the house.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Too much basil

It was just one lousy punnet of the stuff I bought, about three bucks' worth of laziness. And now I've got an almighty great glut of basil to deal with. In fact I have another glut on my hands. Who would have thought two tiny cucumber seedlings could pop out a fridge full of cucumbers - well, they can. Anyway, back to the basil. Not only did I have too much, it was starting to be a nuisance. Let me explain.

Here's the trimmings, destined for the kitchen. Gosh they smell nice!

And here's the reason the trimming had to be done. Our resident delicate petal, Acacia cognata (in the foreground), otherwise known as Cousin Itt, is a perfectly healthy foliage plant that has an unfortunate tendency to suddenly cark it. Anything not quite to Itt's liking and it's 'hasta la vista, baby'. Terrible track record, this plant. Prior to the trimming, the basil behind Itt was about a foot or more higher than it is now. Itt now gets all of its morning sunshine back, restoring it to a full day's worth of the stuff, which is one of its precious needs. The others are only occasional watering, lowest possible humidity levels (and the basil was crowding Itt, too), fab soil drainage, and sheer good luck.

As for what to do with the basil, the first part of the answer is easy. Some of it is going into a tomato sauce, where these banana capsicums will also feature, and that tomato sauce is going to go over thin, lightly grilled slices of these delicious-looking purple Lebanese eggplants. The eggplant-tomato sauce combo will then be alternately layered with some spicy, cooked minced lamb, to form a moussaka-ish invention which I will be making up as I go along tonight. I like moussaka, but with all that gooey, heavy bechamel sauce in between each layer it's not right for summer, too heavy. As usual my experiments are done on live human subjects, and so that's what Pam and I are having tonight, along with some steamed greens on the side.

As for the rest of the basil, that's both easy and predictable: pesto. I love pesto, and when I make a batch I then freeze it in tiny little Tupperware containers that each only hold about two tablespoons of the stuff. Pesto freezes easily and keeps for months. Of course I like pesto with pasta, but I prefer the pesto-and-pasta combo in smaller doses, as the 'carb side dish' offering instead of potatoes or rice, in small servings on the side when you're presenting something else, such as chicken or veal.

My thawed pesto dollops are also lovely as a quick and tasty sauce to go with a grilled or pan-fried chicken breast, for a mid-week meal.

My pesto recipe is the one from Stephanie Alexander's 'The Cook's Companion' best-seller book, with the raw garlic toned down. Such vicious stuff, raw garlic. It's like loud metal music. I don't like too much of either.

1 cup well-packed basil leaves
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
30g pine nuts
1 clove garlic, crushed (Stephanie adds 2 cloves, which is three times as much as 1, as raw garlic behaves exponentially)
salt to taste
60g grated parmesan cheese

Whizz the basil, oil, pine nuts, garlic and salt in a blender, till it's a green sludge. Pour and scrape this into a bowl.
Stir in the parmesan cheese, in batches.
This makes a lot, so aim to freeze at least half of it, for later use.
As usual with such simple recipes, the niceness of the ingredients counts for everything. Nicest basil, nicest oil, nicest cheese. I can't afford the nicest oil or cheese - mine's more middle-class, like me. But my basil is the best that money can buy. Three bucks a punnet of seedlings, home-grown the organic way in Aussie sunshine.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Holiday snapz

I'm not sure what the official definition of a holiday is. One possible one is that if you're not sleeping in your usual bed, but you've got your usual partner beside you, then you're on holidays.

However, this time round we holidayed at home. The nights might have been same bed (same girl!) but the days have been very laid-back and irresponsible. I needed a break from blogging and we both needed a rest from work. So we concentrated on really difficult assignments like going to the movies, eating out at restaurants, and catching up with friends – on weekdays, for lunch. So that's my new working definition of a holiday. If you see your friends for a long lunch on weekdays, then you must be on holidays.

And so here are a few holiday snapz of my lovely summer holiday spent here at home, a million miles from care.

Every year Pammy designs her own Christmas cards, gets a local printer to print up a couple of hundred of them, then she hand-writes a message in each of them for family, friends and clients. This is this year's card, a complete departure from anything she has done before, and I love it.

Out in the garden, almost everything that happened was pretty much expected for this time of year, but there has been one exception. This orchid normally flowers in June and July, so what possessed just one plant to come into flower for Christmas, for the first time ever, I don't know. It seems healthy enough, but I've got my eye on this weirdo now.

The freshly harvested red spring onions looked so nice I had to take a photo of them before I started cooking.

Lazy me bought a punnet of 'mixed assorted capsicum' seedlings and all of them, every one, was of the yellowy-green banana capsicum type. Serves me right for not starting them from seed a month earlier.

I'm just starting to harvest the first of the Lebanese eggplants which I blogged about in December, here. What a wonderful colour, and it's a handsome plant.

I've created a monster with my Lebanese cucumber plants. We are cucumbered out! Fortunately both of our Greek neighbours' families eat cucumbers by the score, and so a couple of armfuls have been handed over the fence on both sides so far. And whether they want them or not, friends and family all leave after a visit here with some cucumbers. Where I went wrong is that I noticed there were few bees buzzing around the cucumber plants, and so I hand-pollinated the flowers with a paintbrush – and ended up with a major glut. They're very nice to eat, though, and we've even cooked them as a vegetable, sliced into sticks and sauteed in butter with either chopped chervil or dill tossed in at the last moment. Nice side dish.

As well as having too many cucumbers, I definitely have too much basil. There's only so much pesto you can eat or make, same for tomato and bocconcini salads, tomato pasta sauces, etc. The upside is that it's a nice plant to be around. If you lightly brush past it as you're weeding around the area, the air is scented with basil as you work.

Don't you love it when a sick plant bounces back from death's door and gets well again? That's real job satisfaction. A while back I did a blog posting with the dreadful name of 'The Black Lagoon' about the radical attempt to resuscitate this struggling pot of French tarragon by soaking it in an inky-black lake of Seasol and a wetting agent. Well, it worked! Lovely aniseedy flavour, French tarragon, and I'm sure the revived stuff tastes better than ever.

At the same time as I rescued the tarragon, the chives needed the same rehab treatement, and that soaking trick definitely seems to work on sad, struggling pots of herbs.

Another former hospital patient has bounced back well. This Grevillea 'Robyn Gordon' has looked as though it was headed for the cemetery twice in its career, and both times it has recovered beautifully thanks to repeat sprays with Anti-Rot, followed by a radical prune. The honeyeaters are loving it now, squabbling over the nectar-laden flowers every morning.

Down close to ground level the little Tibouchina 'Groovy Baby' has hardly grown at all. Iit is a dwarf that will only get to 60cm (two feet) but it's going nowhere fast. However, it has been in flower since late September and is still going strong. Some of the lower leaves are yellowing a bit, which is a worry, so I've fed it recently in the hope that it's just tuckered out from flowering so much.

I'm a sucker for quick-growing, dense-blooming summer annuals, and these marigolds are as reliable as they come. Once planted, they need almost no attention.

Ditto these rudbeckias. Easy-peasy and cheerful too.

As I started with Pammy's card for the masses, I might as well finish with Pammy's card made just for me. Her gift choices, gift-wraps and cards are a constant marvel to all who know her, and this year she made a special card for me, a whole year in our garden. Each month, on the first of the month, she took a photo of the garden from the same spot. The card itself is a whopper, A3 size (and of course the other six months are on the other side). She's a special one, my Pammy.

So welcome back to all my readers, and I hope you too enjoyed some good times over the Christmas/New Year period. I know from watching the news how hard that would have been to achieve for many people. I saw how appalling the snow and cold has been in both North America and Europe, and how drenched and heartbroken much of Queensland has been as well. I just hope that 2011 is a better year than 2010 for all of you (and us as well), a much better year.

This year I am planning on conducting a hi-jacking of sorts of my own blog. I'll still keep rabbiting on about my garden as I usually do, but if things work out as I expect they will, I might blog a bit more about food and cooking this year, and a bit less about gardening. We'll see what happens.

Pam and I are in full swing planning our holiday to the US later this year, and 'American cookery' was the theme of the various books and packages of ingredients which formed her Christmas present to me this year. So don't be surprised if I blather on about gumbo instead of grevilleas and jambalaya instead of jasmine, from time to time.