Friday, December 30, 2016

In a pickle with a glut of cucumbers

It seems like it was only weeks ago that I posted a blog about my newly planted little "Cutecumber" cucumber plants. And that's because it was only four weeks ago! My, how this thing has grown in our summer sunshine, and now it is producing Lebanese type cucumbers at an astonishing rate. Right now, I'm bringing in two cucumbers a day, and though Pammy is a world-class cucumber snacker, she's falling behind and the cucumber glut in our fridge crisper cabinet is growing.

The plant's label said "90-150cm" but I think that's the daily growth rate ...

Mind you, it's a handsome thing right now. A month from now, as February's deadly, oppressive humidity starts to hit, this lovely green foliage will probably be dusted with powdery mildew, despite my best organic efforts to prevent it.

Half the trick with harvesting the cucumbers is actually finding all of them. The plant's growth is so lush, meandering and complex that it's easy to miss fairly large cucumbers. Our lunch guests on Christmas Day managed to spot three cucumbers I hadn't noticed.

With all this excess produce mounting up (even after giving several away) there was only one way to cope: make pickles. And so that's what I did today. I've made two different types of pickles. One is a Sweet Danish Pickle which I've made a few times before and which I really like. The other is my first attempt at dill pickles. It's too early to know whether that batch has worked, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, here's the basics of the Danish Sweet Pickles ...

After washing three cucumbers, finely slice them. That white thing in the photo is a Zyliss slicer, which is hellishly nerve-wracking to use because it's so sharp, but if you are very careful and follow the safety guidelines, it makes quick work of three little cucumbers. Each slice is very thin, about 1-2mm.

As you transfer the slices to a bowl, sprinkle over some sea salt flakes. I added the cucumbers in about 3 layers, salting each layer as I went. Leave them to soak for 10-15 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the pickling liquid, which is 1.5 cups white wine vinegar, half a cup of sugar, 5 bay leaves, 1 teaspoon yellow mustard seed, and 1 teaspoon of whole black peppercorns. To mix this up, just add the sugar to the vinegar in a few batches, stirring with a fork until the sugar dissolves. No heat is necessary, and the whole thing takes about 1 minute. So easy!

Next, rinse the salted cucumber slices under running water to remove the salt, drain in a colander, then gently squeeze dry. Divide the cucumbers into two small, sterilised jars, or pop them into one large sterilised jar.

Next, add the pickling liquid, along with the bay leaves and spices, to each jar (if using two). Seal the lids, pop them into the fridge and they are ready to eat by the evening (presuming you made them in the morning). Talk about easy.

If you think half a cup of sugar is way too much, the original recipe used one whole cup of sugar. I've experimented with 1/3 cup, 1/4 cup and I think 1/2 cup suits my tastebuds.

The original use for these pickles is as a "pickled cucumber salad" (agurk salat) to go with Danish pork and veal meatballs, called Frikadellers. While I still use them for that dish, these pickles are wonderful as part of lunchtime sandwiches, too.

Finally, the big experiment that has yet to end ... my first attempt at classic dill pickles. Now, the first thing I have learnt about this recipe is that there are only about a zillion dill pickle recipes out there (all authentic, of course).

The second thing I've learnt is that there is such a thing as "refrigerator" dill pickles, which means you can make up a little batch in a jar and pop them in the fridge. Wait a few days and they should be ready.

I am definitely not ready for Advanced Industrial Pickling yet — with all those scary jars with exploding sealed lids sitting in big pans of boiling water. So I like this idea of "refrigerator" dill pickles, it's far more peaceful. Here's what I did.

Sterilise the jar in boiling water, and wash three cucumbers. Slice off the ends of each cucumber, then slice lengthways into batons that are about one inch shorter than the jar.

Next, make up the pickling liquid, which is 1.5 cups water mixed with 1.5 cups apple cider vinegar, 2 tablespoons sea salt flakes, and 1 teaspoon sugar. Add this to a saucepan, heat this until the sugar and salt have dissolved, let it come to a gentle simmer, then turn off the heat and leave it all for half a hour to cool down.

To the bottom of the jar, add 1 peeled clove garlic, a sprig fresh dill and 1 teaspoon pickling spices mix (these are sold here in Oz in packs which contain mustard, peppercorns, allspice and dill seed). Then carefully stuff the jar full of cucumber batons. 

FInally, pour in the cooled pickling liquid, seal the jar, put it in the fridge and wait for three days. They should be OK to eat by then, but how would I know? My "three days" isn't up yet. I'll road test them in the New Year and let you know.

By the way, there is an alternative method for making these same refrigerator pickles, and the main difference is that you pour the very hot, simmering pickling liquid into the packed jar of cucumbers, then you let that cool down completely before refrigerating the jar. I wouldn't have a clue if that works, but I suspect it does because there's half a zillion recipes online which say to do it that way.

In the meantime, I hope 2017 is a very much better year for you than 2016 was, and I look forward to letting you know the exciting conclusion to my pickling experiments early in the New Year. See you then!

Monday, December 19, 2016

Frangipani 'Serendipity'

Replacing a major plant in our garden always leads to a small series of what Pammy and I jokingly refer to as "committee meetings". In this case the vacancy was created by the demise of our Grevillea 'Peaches & Cream' which was split into two floppy, despondent, sodden halves during a fierce storm a few months ago.

Since then the committee has met a few times, and eventually we decided a second frangipani would be the perfect choice for the spot, which is very close to our covered pergola, where we do all our summer entertaining. Cool shade and tropical fragrance in summer, lots of leafless light getting through in winter, the perfect size of small tree too, and an easy-care beauty that loves being in Sydney. Win, win, win, win, win!

But what kind of frangipani? What colour? Well, it turned out that Pammy found the perfect replacement by a process of serendipity, and here it is.

This isn't its official name, but I am thinking of this as Frangipani 'Serendipity'. 

Here's how Pammy found it: she opened a gate leading to a local art studio run by a ceramicist, Lisa (where Pam teaches painting), and there it was, in a pot, with a modest price tag on it. It was easily the nicest of a gaggle of about a dozen frangipanis Lisa's daughter had for sale, part of a fund-raising effort for her school. The plant itself was a cutting taken from the same coloured frangipani growing in the garden behind Lisa's art studio. Pammy texted me to say "I've found our frangipani" and later that day it was home at our place.

Here it is in all its shapely glory. With this start, our serendipitous find should grow into a beautifully shaped small tree over the next decade or so. 

Now, 'Serendipity' is one of my favourite words because of the story behind its meaning. The word itself was invented by Horace Walpole in 1754 (says my Oxford Dictionary), in his story "The Three Princes of Serendip". Now, Serendip was the old name of Sri Lanka (in between it was Columbo) and the meaning of serendipity is the "faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident." Walpole was thinking that coming across Serendip was a delightful discovery, and all of my friends who have visited Sri Lanka assure me he was right — it truly is a delightful place, when it's at peace with itself.

A much less happy tale is the demise of our poor old grevillea. The storm split it in two at the base, and it slowly died off over the next few months. It had been the frame for wearing our ever-growing tresses of Spanish moss, and eventually, a few years from now, we hope our new frangipani will do the same job. Pictured here is the sad sight today, with the bare branches held up by props. 

So, in the meantime, my first task is to redistribute all the Spanish moss evenly amongst our other backyard trees: a lime, a lemon, an olive and our other frangipani. Then it'll be a chore to dig out the grevillea, and finally a pleasure to plant out Frangipani 'Serendipity'.

Pammy loves our existing frangipani tree, which also has a similar history to our new one, in that the cutting comes from a friend, Krissy's, garden. Krissy is a former workmate of mine, and is the sister of another workmate and Pam's music-loving pal, Zora, so it's a tree with a close, personal connection that is important to us both. Our new frangipani comes from Lisa's studio where Pam has spent many many hours teaching art courses. So both our frangipanis have a special, personal history (which is why growing and sharing plants from cuttings is a beautiful way to enjoy a garden full of living memories). 

Of course Zora & Krissy's frangipani is an el-classico yellow and white one, while Lisa's frangipani has a blush of pink, as well as yellow and white ... 

... and both of them will look lovely on a rainy morning ...

... and both will smell tropically divine on a sunny day.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

A splash of red

Every bunch of enthusiasts in every field includes quite a few snobs, and gardening is no exception. Snobs, God bless their misguided souls, want to feel that they're a bit better than other people, and so they select something from their favourite pastime to be snobby about. There are wine snobs, music snobs, coffee snobs ... the list is truly endless, but somewhere in that mix you'll find plant snobs, too. 

And the wonderful plant pictured below is one that the gardening snobs will turn up their already upturned noses at, it's a good old geranium (botanically, a Pelargonium), and this very special one goes by the cultivar name of 'Big Red'. It's a miracle worker in my garden.

This is a photo from a few weeks ago. It's almost always like this, but every now and then it takes a breather (and I get in there and cut off all the faded flowers), the red blooms disappear for a couple of weeks, then it's back to full bloom again in no time. It's in flower for most of the year.

Not all geraniums are this wonderful. I have had plenty of them die off in Sydney's humidity over the years, but this Big Red champion just spreads and spreads and flowers and flowers. And it does all this in the one bed in my garden that has never been truly trouble-free or productive. No wonder I am in love with this plant.

Striking cuttings from it is an simple as whipping out the secateurs and whacking the trimmed cuttings into the soil, a pot or a hanging basket. Friends and relatives visiting our place invariably comment on Big Red and tootle home with a handful of cuttings at the end of their visit. Sure enough, six months later they're telling me how incredibly well their Big Red cuttings are going.

And that's what the snobs hate about this gloriously healthy, vigorous plant: it is far too easy to grow. They seem to feel that gardening should be difficult, that it's no achievement to cultivate an easy grower like this. (And I have garden snob friends who feel the same way about murrayas in Sydney ... they're also far too easy to grow, but that's another topic altogether).

So, all I can say to Sydney gardeners in particular, but I suspect many Australian gardeners in general is this: if you have a spot in your garden where nothing has really gone well, try this Big Red person and I sincerely do hope that it might make you happier. Failing that, at least it might make your garden look a whole lot more colourful, for very little effort.