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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Chai kousa (dogwood) jam

Firstly, I realise this blog has been completely neglected for several months. I have often thought of the posts I could be making, but the practicality of travelling and blogging just wasn’t there. But I am back now, and I have an exciting culinary adventure to share!

I’ve been going for walks every morning since I’ve been home. It’s a fantastic way to start the day, and having the opportunity to observe the changing seasons around you is quite amazing. I recently noticed a peculiar looking fruit tree growing on the verge not far from home. Perplexed, I googled, but of course trying to find the name of a plant by searching “rough skinned fruit” is rather like trying to find a needle in a haystack, except you don’t know what a needle looks like. So I called upon the help facebook, and of course, it provided. I was informed that this strange fruit was a Cornus kousa or Korean Dogwood, and that yes, it is edible.

And so, I dragged my mother along with me to glean the fruit from the tree, in clear view of all traffic heading to the nearby town to buy their fruit from the supermarket. There was surprisingly little fruit in the end, but back at home I set about making jam. I had read that others had attempted to make jams and jellies from dogwood with varying levels of success. I have to admit that this is perhaps not as tasty as a rich raspberry or plum jam, but as an experiment, I am rather pleased with the results.

The taste of the kousa is very subtle, and when jammed, was a tad astringent (probably because I was using some unripe fruit). I decided this wasn’t going to be the most delicious conserve, so added some extra ingredients to spice it up a bit. Note that you would have to adjust the quantities depending on how much fruit you have, keeping the fruit and sugar in a 1:1 ratio (unless you’d like it less sweet – that’s okay too!) This recipe made 2 and a half large jars. Probably just enough I think, given that I still can’t determine whether eating this fruit is good or bad for you :)

Chai kousa (dogwood) jam

950g kousa, quartered
950g white sugar
1 stick cinnamon
0.5 – 1cm fresh ginger, coarsely chopped
5 cloves
3 cardamon pods, bruised

Place fruit and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly until all sugar is melted and fruit softens. Add spices and ginger and continue stirring until liquid begins to boil.

Turn heat down to low, and simmer. Mash fruit with a masher to extract more juice, and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally.

To test when the jam is ready, place a teaspoon of liquid on a cold plate. If it’s ready, it should be pretty viscous and not spread far on the plate.

Next, separate the liquid from the solids (seeds, spices, skin) by pouring through a strainer, or loosely woven muslin. I only had a tiny strainer, so did this in batches.

The remnants...

Reheat the liquid, and pour into sterilised jars.