Cooking from abundance.

There is nothing more satisfying than walking through the garden and making a meal from what’s available. Ever found yourself deciding on dinner then going to the shops to buy ingredients? If so, you might like to read on and discover the joys of creating from what’s available. If you start with what you already have, there’s very little chance you can go down the wrong path and cook out of season, over-processed or well-travelled “food” (read: items from the supermarket). Cooking from the abundance of your garden also gives you this crazy-brilliant feel-good buzz. True! Harvesting actually releases dopamine, and makes you feel good, supposedly a remnant from our hunter-gatherer days, where finding food triggered a release of dopamine, resulting in a feeling of bliss or mild euphoria. (Also supposedly the same process in play with compulsive shopping – ever heard of retail therapy?) But I digress!

Those who know me will be aware that I spent the past 6 months in Victoria, travelling, learning, wwoofing and exploring.

For those not in the know, WWOOF stands for ‘willing workers on organic farms’, and is basically a program whereby you stay on host farms and properties as a wwoofer, working approximately 4-6 hours per day in exchange for food and board, while receiving the benefits of learning and sharing skills, knowledge and culture with your hosts. Pretty cool way of exploring the world.

We spent three weeks at the end of last year on a permaculture property in Violet Town, which was super-peaceful, had an abundance of fruit, and where each day was started with a trip to the olive grove to milk the goat. Our second host was in Castlemaine, where we had stayed several times previously, and ended up being our semi-permanent home for around four months. A secluded and semi-cleared bush property on a hill with a yurt dwelling and a huge vegetable garden.

With each host, we mostly had meals provided, but on occasion (like when we got the chance to farm-sit the Violet Town property for four days) the garden and kitchen were entirely ours to express our culinary creativity. I have to say that while in Violet Town, there wasn’t all that much in the way of abundance except for a lot of greens, goats milk/cheese/yoghurt and fruit. If there is one thing I learnt at that farm it was this:

It is very hard to go wrong if you combine garlic, olive oil, salt and chilli.

This is a winning combination, and even if you only add a few leaves of chard to these ingredients, you already have a pretty delicious side dish.

By the time we got to the second property, we were pretty well into zucchini season. Queue “101 ways with zucchini”. I made everything: pasta sauce, chocolate muffins, stuffed zucchinis, pickle, sandwich fillings… you name it. I’m pretty certain that by March I alone was consuming an average of three zucchinis per week.

But the moral of the story is that cooking from abundance is fun. It allows for an incredible amount of creativity and expression, and it’s unlikely that you any two dishes will ever be the same, because the products of the garden are forever changing and evolving.

So here’s a celebration of home-grown-and-cooked meals, with a selection of my favourite farm/garden meals from my travels.

Homemade fettucini with new potatoes, zucchini and mint

Serves 2

Pasta:
300g flour
3 happy eggs

Topping:
2-3 potatoes, boiled and diced
olive oil
sprig mint, chopped
several (2-4 depending on size) cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 spring onions, sliced
1 zucchini, diced
salt and pepper

Place flour on a clean surface, make a well in the centre and crack in eggs. Mix all together, slowly incorporating flour until a dough is achieved. Knead well and allow to rest for an hour in the fridge. If you have a pasta machine, use it now – roll into thin sheets and cut using the fettucini cutter. Otherwise, it’s a rolling pin and knife.

Heat oil in a pan, add zucchini, spring onions, then garlic, cooking until zucchini is soft. Add boiled and diced potatoes and carefully stir in chopped mint, and season with salt and pepper. Meanwhile, cook pasta in boiling water for a few minutes until al dente, then drain. Add pasta to pan with other ingredients and some more olive oil. Carefully mix together. Season with more salt and pepper if required, then serve.

Stuffed roasted zucchini

Excuse the shifty photography…
Serves 2

I totally can’t remember the exact quantities here. Just play.

one large zucchini
3 leaves chard/silverbeet
3-4 cloves garlic, diced
olive oil
1/4 tsp coriander seeds
handful fresh coriander leaves, roughly chopped
tomatoes, chopped
1/2 cup (approx) roasted almonds, chopped
salt and pepper

Cut two rounds of zucchini, hollow out (keeping inside intact) and roast in the oven covered in oil and salt. Dice the remaining zucchini (or another one if not enough), including the hollowed out part.

While hollowed zucchini roasts, prepare filling by cooking remaining zucchini until soft with garlic. Add coriander seeds, and finely chopped chard. Toss in almonds, season with salt and pepper, then remove from heat. Stir through tomatoes and fresh coriander.

Stuff the roasted zucchini with the filling, and garnish with fresh coriander.

I served this on toast (as we had an abundance of bread), but it would definitely go much better with a potato rosti or similar.

Spiced potatoes and chickpeas with chapatis

I’m getting pretty tired, and am doing some major procrastination by writing this, so I’ll just give a basic outline of what’s in this.

chickpeas, cooked
potatoes, diced and boiled
onion, chopped
garlic
whole cumin seeds, roasted
salt
olive oil (farm grown might I add)
pepper
fresh coriander

Combine ingredients in a pan in a logical order, and serve with chapatis:

Chapatis:
flour
water
pinch salt

Combine ingredients to form a dough. Roll out and dry fry in a hot pan. Applying pressure with a tea towel can help them puff up :)

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Barefoot gardening

I found myself out in the garden again this morning. It often happens like that; I don’t intend on doing any gardening, but find myself amongst the lettuces early in the morning in my pyjamas, or dressed somewhat inappropriately for work. So this morning, I ended up weeding a whole lot of wheat out of the vegie garden, without shoes.

At first, I didn’t pay much attention to my lack of footwear, though as I continued to work, I realised just how awesome it actually is to garden barefooted. Without trying to sound too New Age here, there is something wonderful about being able to actually feel the earth beneath your feet, and connect with the soil which is very much alive, providing nourishment to the little seedlings, which in turn will nourish you. In Western culture, it is very rare that we exerience this physical connection to the earth, as unfortunately we as a society have deemed it unacceptable to walk around in public barefoot. (Such a shame.) It may just be me, but getting your feet dirty is also quite fun. It reminds me of playing in the mud in kindergarten, or the feeling of the sand between your toes at your first trip to the beach for the summer. Also WOMAdelaide.

There are actually some tangible benefits to barefoot gardening though. Earlier in the year, I completed my Permaculture Design Certificate at The Food Forest. Amongst an amazing line-up of tutors, I was lucky enough to be taught by David Holmgren; co-originator on the permaculture concept. Something he said during the course which I remember just now, is that walking around barefoot is actually a wonderful tool for observation. (For the uninitiated, observation is a key principle of permaculture design and practice.) Literally feeling the ground beneath us, allows for detection of subtle changes that we mightn’t otherwise notice. The change in soil moisture across different garden beds, and the temperature change in spring indicating that carrots can be planted, are just a couple of uses for bare feet.

Though of course, always keep safety in mind. I definitely wouldn’t recommend using tools around bare feet, and be mindful of small, biting critters who might feel threatened by your presence. But when feeling a little disconnected from nature or life, taking a stroll without shoes can only be a good thing.

Mushrooms

I found myself in the garden this morning, planting out some salad greens and pumpkins. This was more a necessity than anything, as I had just observed the pot-bound mizuna struggling to stay alive. Sometimes a wilted seedling is all it takes to get something done. I might just add that I was still wearing my pyjamas at this time, but I digress.

Much to my surprise, each garden bed was filled with these tiny mushrooms, sprouting from the compost. They looked so pretty, glinting in the morning light, so I rushed back inside to get the camera. My inner nerd instantly wanted to identify them. After a quick Google search, I found myself on RogersMushrooms, trawling through photos of fungi. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately??), I have better things to do with my day than figure which species I have growing between the lettuces. Just for the record though,  I’m pretty sure they’re in the Mycena genus.

Anyway, here’s a wee gallery of unspecified mushrooms taken from lots of different angles.

                  

Artichokes and potatoes

This morning we had the most glorious weather, and the jerusalem artichokes were calling out to be harvested. I was pretty keen to try a recipe I’d been exposed to the other day for jerusalem artichoke pakoras, so I suppose if I’m honest, my stomach was the motivation to get this job done.
This is the first season we’ve grown jerusalem artichokes (or fartichokes, as they’re affectionately known), so I was unsure what the crop would be like. The plants themselves were huge – at least 3m tall, so I feared they might have used all their energy for vegetative growth, and produced very few artichokes.
I was wrong.
This was perhaps the most exciting moment of my year.
Yes, big call. And perhaps a judgement could be made here on the mundane nature of my year thus far, but it actually was quite exhilarating to discover masses of artichokes. Giant ones too. I had never seen any so huge before, so my reaction was perhaps justified.
As I moved along the row, I noticed that I was harvesting
fewer artichokes, and many more potatoes. Unexpected, but fine by me. The dinner plans started coming to me all at once – potato curry with rice and jerusalem artichoke pakoras! Hurrah!
So into the kitchen I went. Scrubbed the knobbly beasties, and peeled them. I might just add that this is harder than it sounds.
The recipe for the pakoras is from Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Companion – an essential purchase if you have a vegetable garden, and eat food. They are basically diced jerusalem artichokes, battered and deep fried.
From my encounter with this recipe the other day, I found that they take quite a while to cook, and the batter browns a lot faster than the artichokes become soft. So this time I parboiled them before battering them, which worked quite well. I’ve heard that soaking jerusalem artichokes before cooking them helps to reduce their fart-factor (for want of a better word), so naturally, I did that too before boiling them.
I also made a curry from the recipe sheet provided by Carmella’s Curries. I bought some of her kasoundi from the Barossa Farmers Market over the weekend, and was keen to try it out. Unfortunately, my slightly less-than-sensational chef skills mean that multitasking in the kitchen is still a bit baffling to me, and I subsequently cremated a batch of pakoras while tending the curry…
So, the finished product? Unfortunately, the terrible quality photo doesn’t quite do it justice. It did look a bit more vibrant than this in real life. And it tasted quite good. The pakoras are ridiculously addicitive, but isn’t everything that’s deep fried though?
Lessons learnt: Cook curries for longer so the potato is soft, and my multitasking skills need work. Also that deep-frying oil is useless once you’ve burnt things in it.