Friday, January 30, 2015

The Lalor Summer-School for Vegetables, Mid-Term Report

I seem to recall that when I last blogulated, several decades ago, I hinted at certain misdemeanours on the part of Summer: to wit, excessive heat. If I didn't hint at excessive heat, then I was certainly thinking about it, because at the time the edges of the leaves were still crisped from the previous heatwave. The edges of me were still crisped from the previous heatwave. This is despite the fact that I had spent most of the heatwave either chipping away with a spoon at 2 litres of frozen peach pulp or lying on the floor, pretending to do work-related reading, and periodically groaning.

I'm very pleased to report, however, that Summer has pulled up its socks and been remarkably nice ever since. February may be prove me wrong, but so far this has been the best Summer since 2010-11. We've had a whole fortnight of maximum temperatures in the low 20s and southerly breezes most days and a blanket or two on the bed and snuggly cats and a half-full watertank and yes I do go on about the weather, but it's because heatwaves turn the Harlotian mind to thoughts of imminent apocalypse, and, in the interests of balance, I have to be proportionately relieved by non-heatwaves.

It's been good, gentle weather for keeping veg alive, dry enough that they haven't all keeled over with fungal infections, warm enough that things are ripening in their own good time. 

We've been doing pretty well on the tomato front. The long red fellows are Amish Pastes. The big red in the bottom right-hand corner is a tomato of unknown parentage that turned up one day, the furry things up the back are not tomatoes (hello, interloping peaches), and the little orange guys are from a free packet of Diggers' Club Artisan Tomatoseeds.

I was a bit suspicious of Artisan TomatoesI mean, calling something "Artisan" just isn't very artisanal. Artisanal tomatoes should have names like Wapsipinicon Peach, Jaune Flamme, Schimmeig Weltschmersch, Big Red Rockeater, or Alpaca's Delight - or Amish Paste, for that matter.

But I'm prepared to overlook the flaw in their nomenclature, because they're quite lovely. And prolific. In future I'll have to try to repress the urge to grow magnificent boomba tomatoes and instead stick with the cherries. They ripen so much more quickly and they're so much more bounteous and easy.

As for their fellow nightshades, I've been enjoying my inaugural tomatillo crop. I bought these Green Harvest seeds, never having tasted a tomatillo, and I'm very pleased to find that they're worth bothering with.

The fruit mature inside these lantern-shade pericarps, like Cape gooseberries do.

And then, it seems, they're ripe when the pericarp splits. The fruit are sweet and strangely cheesy-tasting. Word on the street is that they're the basis for Mexican salsa verde (they're green when ripe, hence the verde). Henceforth I will be looking down smugly upon mere tomato-based salsas.

Speaking of smug, and more nightshade action, I seem to have cracked the secret to getting eggplants and capsicums from seed-to-fruit in a single season. Or I've had a lucky fluke anyway. I brought on these seeds in my heated propagation tray inside, and planted them out in late October into a bed covered with about 20cm deep of my artisanal compost, which shall henceforth be known as Artisan Compost. Apart from the minor setback caused by my Artisan Compost spawning a minor forest of volunteer potatoes and mallow (thank you, cold-composting methods), which it took me several weeks to realise I had to sacrifice to the greater solanum, things are going Well.

Camouflaged green capsicum! Sexy milk bottles & plastic flowerpots were deployed as earwig repulsing devices when the seedlings were planted out.

I've been getting a bit of bean action from these Dwarf Violet Queens, but the plants are disappointingly floppy. I may have over-manured the soil they're in (not with my own personal manure in this case, some of you may be pleased to read); whether it's that or that they're just congenitally lazy, I don't think I'll bother with them next year.

 Carrots and parsnips and leeks are pottering along in the excellent Greensmart wicking pots on the front driveway:

The disgustingly bitter radicchio which I didn't realise (a) would need blanching and (b) would taste like some grueling Baltic herbal remedy has gone to flower:

and in the spirit of growing my own root-based coffee substitute,  I am considering yanking it up and doing unto the radicchio (aka chicory) what hath been done unto its friends the dandelions.

Corn, corning away:

 Kale, kaling:

Leek, flowering:

Pumpkin, disappearing over the neighbours' fence, which is probably where its fruit will end up:

 NB: nibbled leaves. A personal contribution from Agatha the Pumpkin-Leaf Improver and Professional Chook.

Jaune et Verte squash, squashing:

That's not quite all. There's a potato patch doing its underground thang (I hope), two sweet-potato plants, one sending vines out on a serious rampage and the other minding its own business, the Egyptian walking onions beginning the formation of their bulbils, sorrel looking green and joyous, silverbeet going frantically to seed, Jerusalem artichokes ensuring flatulence for 2015, and Chinese water celery beginning its inaugural march across the pond into water chestnut territory.

And now, c'est tout. B+.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

We weed weed wee

Enquiring minds are no doubt wondering what all this talk of weed and wee and we and weed the abovely title portends. It's this, you see, I've been messing about with dandelions, one of the world's most famous diuretics, if for "world" you'll accept Culpepper's Complete Herbal (marrying botany and slightly dangerous medicinal advice since 1653). Old Nick Culpepper begins his reflections on dandelions by noting that the vulgar refer to them as "piss-abeds". This would be a clue: however tempting it may seem, you shouldn't drink your bodyweight in water and then gorge on dandelions unless you're prepared to sleep in a nappy on a plastic sheet. The good news, according to our favourite seventeenth-century herbologist, is that piss-abedding can be therapeutic. The dandelion:
openeth the passages of the urine both in young and old [eek!]; powerfully cleanseth imposthumes and inward ulcers in the urinary passages [double eek!], and by its drying and temperate quality doth afterwards heal them; for which purpose the decoction of the roots or leaves in white wine, or the leaves chopped as pot herbs with a few alisanders, and boiled in their broth, are very effectual.
As it happens, the passages of my urine have been in pretty good fettle of recent years, so I haven't been in dire need of a dandelion and alisander soup. However. Ever since the weather killed my first tea plant (a genuine Camellia sinensis, frizzled by a Melbourne heatwave) and then the chickens killed my second tea plant (not maliciously; it just happened to be where they wanted to excavate), I've gotten crazily enthusiastic about tea alternatives that are within my limited horticultural reach. And that means - besides lemon verbena and peppermint and lemongrass and raspberry leaf - dandelion root. What dandelion root tea lacks in caffeine it more than makes up for in a pleasing ... brownness. (How am I going? Talked you into giving up coffee for dandelions yet?)

The best time to harvest dandelion roots, I've learnt from grim experience, is before they flower (as with any root vegetable, the energy stored in the root gets used up in the flowering). We had a burst of dandelion flowering around September, but the next generation is yet to bloom, so this afternoon, with the soil good and soft from rain, I seized my opportunity to hoik up this fine assembly of rooticles.

You could probably brew with them as is, but I'm inclined to chop them up into 1cm lengths and plonk 'em in the oven for 15 minutes or toast them in a dry fry pan. The toasting seems to caramelise the sugars (starches?) in the root which makes these little niblets rather tasty.

They're ready now for my Dandelion Soy Latte deluxe. It's a thing. Sounds slightly more impressive than wee tea. You just plonk a teaspoonful of these into a tea strainer, steep it in your warmed and frothed liquid of preference, add honey if you like, and Bob's your nuncle.

P.S. more weeds for dinner. The mucilaginous mallow of the Malvaceae family has been springing merrily out of the compost I spread around my vegums. Imho, the best thing to do with a weed in the vegum patch is eat it (cf. nettles). Here, therefore, are some mallow leaves (centre) posing with some Murraya koenigii/curry leaves (left) and some cardamom leaves (rightish, downish) before being plonked into tonight's chickpea ragout. The leaves, stem, flowers, etc of the mallow are all edible, and quite an acceptable cooked green, particularly good in a casserole or something that benefits from a bit of thickening.

P.P.S. Tim wishes it to be known that he has brewed dandelion root ale. And lo it was good.

P.P.P.S. this post brought to you by the word "plonk", which I note I have now used four times.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Honey, I'm home: nectarine thieves, apricottage, and Operation Cyser

Hello blog! Hello 2015! Hello Lalor (from which magnificent outer northern suburb, we - Timnus, Harriet & Bea Cat, a posse of chooks and I - absconded for the hols)! We returned home from our abscondage just in time for 2015's first bout of Melbourne HellWeather, so it was only after we'd thoroughly watered the garden, shaded the bees, wet the worms and set out five million waterbowls for the chickens that we noticed that the entire crop of some 100 or so nectarines we'd left on our frontyard nectarine tree had vamoosed.

Melbourne HellWeather MMXV, Bout the First

I planted the nectarine the day after we moved to Lalor, in the rain (sigh), just over four years ago. Pam from up the road popped down to introduce herself and invite me over for tea (nice work, Lalor Welcoming Committee). Someone whose name I've never learnt but who lives in the next street along warned me sternly that if I put a fruit tree in my front garden kids would steal my fruit. Oh no!, I thought, Not the national scourge of fruit-eating children! and then I continued on with my row of alternating apples and stone fruit along the front perimeter, imagining the occasional youngster helping herself to afternoon tea on the way home from school. Had I known that "kids will steal your fruit" would mean "some audacious individual of unspecified age will strip your entire crop", maybe I'd have grown a thistle hedge, sunk a moat and installed a pair of lusty piranhas.  Or maybe not. I have mixed feelings about this fruit theft. I myself am an A-grade salvager of abandoned fruit, for one thing, and if someone thought our under-ripe nectarines were so delicious that she/he/they persisted in denuding the entire tree, then happy Christmas, someone. More to the point, we're lucky it was just fruit we lost. There's some serious loot in our house, just waiting for the burgling. A sack of alpaca fleece, for instance. The complete set of the Season Eight Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic books. Several hundred bottles of variably potable homebrew. A 1940s sewing machine I found abandoned on the verge in Preston and lugged home at great cost to my dorsal muscles only to find that it didn't function. The $0.99 lounge suite from ebay. The coffee table snaffled from hard rubbish. So, nectarines schmectarines.

It has also helped reconcile me to my nectarine loss that we happen to be, right this minute, rather rolling in fruit. We found a wild apple in Bright (as you do) with precociously juicy apples. Who knew apples could ripen in December? Go, you good tree! Accompanied by my trusty nieces-in-crime, K and H, and the Tim-meister, we picked almost 15kg, without making much of a dent in this tree's fructifying.

Back home, the apricot tree was groaning with fruit (safely stowed in the backyard, away from Lalor's Stonefruit Filcher of Doom). Thinking we were in for hail last night, I pulled down half the apricots - 7.5kg as it turns out - and while scoffing the ripest, Fowlers Vacola-ed 11 bottles of apricocks (in the no-not-at-all-bawdy parlance of Mr. W. Shakespeare).

7.5kg of Moor Park apricots. Was pleased to note that Mount Alexander organicky Moor Parks are selling for $10/kg, which means that these kids have already more than paid for their insect/bird exclusion netting. In foreground: remains of my lentil deluxe dinner, eaten outside to maximise benefits of cool change. In background: dwarf peach (fruiting for the first time this year, yay!) and water chestnuts in blue pond thingy.

Eleven jars of apricottery with a dollop of honey per jar, all rustically packed. Ain't winning no CWA awards for handsome fruit-packing anytime soon.

Excess apricots (is there such a thing?) safely preserved, we got down to the serious business of making out first cider of the year.

Which, once the apples are assembled, begins with apple crushing. The apple crusher is a spendy bit of kit that is entirely worth its spendiness (say I, having laboriously crushed the apples in my 2L blender the first year we made cider). Of course, as with all positive spendiness to worthiness ratio calculations, this one assumes regular and passionate use (a fair assumption, as I'll be in the cider-making lark for many years to come, dog willing, and may yet manage to cultivate friends who want to borrow the crusher (or The Crusher, to give this fine article its due Arnie-Schwarzeneggerisation)).

The Crusher in its most fearsome aspect. 

You can't see 'em, but underneath those apples are teeth on wheels. They bite the apples up and spit them out into a bucket below. Then we take the apple spit bits and stuff them into the apple press and press away and out oozes the juice. No photo of this stage, because all hands are either engaged in manipulating the press or covered in bits of apple.

It turned out that while these apples were perfectly juicy and while they tasted (to me) sweet, their sugar content was pretty low, according to our trusty hydrometer. Our juice would have made the light-beer equivalent of cider, which sounded fine to me, but my co-vintner was having none of this namby-pamby barely-fermented, cideresque excuse-for-a-drink, and promptly poured a 600mL jar of our honey into the juice. Voila! Cider turns to cyser, i.e., apple-honey wine (at which point, it behooves me to point out that mead-making, aka, mazing, has all the best vocabulary: mazer, metheglin, pyment, cyser, melomel, hippocras), and its future alcohol content approximately quadruples.

5 litres of cyser-to-be

But on that I'll have to get back to you in the fulness of time. Five years or so should do the trick.