Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Green tomato and chilli jam - it's a knockout!

As I've mentioned, things are slowing down in the tomato-ripening stakes around here. Thing is, there are still tons on the bushes. As the days and nights get ever-colder, the chances of them ripening get slimmer. Having already whipped up a batch of Rohan's Season's End relish, we were after a different kind of preserve to use up the last of Summer's bounty, which includes some extremely cute (and hot!) habanero chillies. 
Sunshiny orange habanero chillis. I'm sure they've inspired a muppets character at some stage
It may seem strange to describe a chilli (or any vegetable for that matter) as 'cute', but there's something about these guys that just reminds me of something out of the Muppets. They almost look like they have a nose and mouth hidden in their funny little wrinkles. And the colour! Yes, I'm a little enthusiastic about them. When I took some in to sell at our local food co-op recently (along with some luscious bunches of kale, silverbeet, chard and red mustard leaves), I must have seemed more than a little like a doting mother, showing them off. But that's kinda how I feel about our garden and its produce. A little proud.

But the fact remains that (as always) we grew way more chillies than we knew what to do with. 

Sadly, chillies aren't a regular feature in our menus at home, on account of the fact that one of our kids is not at all keen on them. For this reason, the chilli condiment is in hot demand (sorry) because it can be added after cooking, according to personal taste.

The totally amazing chilli jam made by Ding has been rather a staple in our house since a very generous and kind friend sent us a whole box of it (it's not available in Bega), but that box has all but gone. So green tomato and chilli jam seemed the obvious choice of preserve. Thing is, it turns out that green tomato and chilli jam isn't really a thing. Not too many recipes made themselves available to me, so I took matters into my own hands, using just the ingredients list on the side of the last remaining Ding jar as guidance. 
Garlic, ginger, chillies and tomatoes at various stages of ripeness, ready to be blended in our special, Indonesian low-wattage blender
Here's what I did:
Chucked lots of tomatoes, chillies, garlic, ginger, little mini capicums and onions into our special low-wattage Indo blender (normal blenders would freak out our solar system) and whizzed it, adding malt vinegar as needed to make it liquid enough to blend. Then I dumped the whole lot into a big saucepan with some tamarind juice, some fresh mint, coriander and basil, a slop of sunflower oil, some sugar and some salt. Then I simmered the lot for about an hour. When it seemed to be a good jam consistency, I put it into hot, sterilised jars.

I know this recipe might seem a lot like George's Marvellous Medicine, but here's the thing: just like George's concoction, my jam really worked!! The jars all sealed! It tastes freaking delicious!

Unfortunately, the 'George' method of cooking probably means I'll never be able to recreate the glory... Or maybe I will, in infinite variations, for all the years we grow too many chillies and need a way to preserve them. Who's to know? We'll just have to wait til next Autumn to find out. Hopefully this lot will last til then.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The luxury of a simple life

I never could have imagined the love I'd feel for our piece of land. It's the ultimate healing location for me, and most days I feel like there's nowhere else in the whole wide world that I'd rather be.

I can't even really describe what it is about our place that makes me feel this way. It's definitely beautiful. It's peaceful (most of the time, when our neighbours aren't chainsaw-ing or dirt biking), and yeah - I guess it's partly because it's 'ours', though this feeling is more about stewardship than ownership. 
Salvias and nasturtiums in the morning light
It's about having an opportunity to do something positive for this land - to manage it holistically, sustainably, regeneratively and productively. It's about being able to build and dream and imagine and create, without  having to worry about being forced to move on before we're ready. It's about being able to plan and plant, to put trees into the ground that aren't going to bear fruit for more than a decade. It's about long-term investments and watching things grow. It's about seeing other places, where people have lived for decades, and being able to think "that's what our place will be like one day". These are luxuries, we know it, and we feel blessed to be able to revel in these (and other) joys on a daily basis. 
Extra-tall sunflowers that just refuse to face the same way as the others. This sunflower made me smile - literally - every day while it was in bloom
They keep us grounded. They give us perspective. They help us feel better when we're sick or sad or tired.
Baby Bunn and her ever-pleasing perches
Even though these things may be 'simple' in a Western, 'developed-world' context, they are, in the scheme of the world, vast and beautiful luxuries. Losing sight of this perspective on our good fortune (mostly resulting from sheer luck at being born into the middle class in the first world), I feel, would detract from the joys that surround us, so we surely don't take any of it for granted. 
A pair of king parrots who visited daily towards the end of summer to clean up some of the remnant cherry tomatoes on our tomato trellis.
The little things - like watching the ducks foraging in the orchard, eating breakfast in the sun while the kids play on the tyre swing, eating a dinner made just from our garden, observing the daily and seasonal changes to the land and the veggie garden, watching a stunning moon-rise over the valley - are all 'simple' pleasures. But they're pleasures because we have the luxury to enjoy them as such. This is what we truly have to be grateful for: the luxury of choosing a 'simple' life.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Summer's last hurrah

A mix of tomatoes (some Amish Paste, some Tommy Toe, some Random Compost tomatoes), and our beloved Rotonda Bianca Sfumata di Rosa eggplants.
As you may well have noticed, Summer's gone. Sure, our garden's still cranking out handfuls of cherry tomatoes, and we still have chillies and eggplants hanging around, but they're growing and ripening more slowly now, as our night-time temperatures drop. These summer fruits - the nightshades - are much beloved in our family. Pearl even has quite a large tattoo of an eggplant to show her devotion! 
Despite our love though, eggplants have never grown in super-abundance for us. We're not really sure what we do wrong, but we suspect it has something to do with inconsistent watering. Oops. When we do grow and harvest them, they are treasured. So beautiful! So delicious!

With the coming of the cooler months, and the obvious slowing-down of our summer solanum harvest signalling the end of the Summer, we decided to have a feast to celebrate Summer's last hurrah. Our recipe of choice was Jamie's Eggplant Parmigiana. Can't go wrong with some fried eggplant, a tomato sauce and a bunch of cheese and bread baked to golden perfection, I say. And given our oven-less state, the whole shebang was whipped up on/in the barbecue!
Mmmmm.... nightshades.....
Like Pearl said, this recipe is perfect for the turn of season: eggplants and tomatoes are at their prime, but you need the cool crispiness of autumn to really enjoy this meal: it's not so much for the mid-summer dining. But with our window-blankets rolled down and the Autumn winds howling around our little bothy, it was the perfect way to enjoy the end of our summer's bounty.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

bartering = joy

I've recently had a few super-positive and fun bartering experiences. Come to think of it, all of my experiences with bartering have, in fact, been super-positive and fun. I guess that's just the way bartering is. 
Amazing orange giant-rose-print teatowel skirt makes for a jealous Pearl
Maybe it's because money, while (unfortunately) necessary, isn't actually as fun as some of the things I've recently been bartering for, like handmade recycled silver earrings and boxes of completely ace-balls haberdashery. Don't get me wrong: I love sewing and being paid for it. But when I'm sewing, I'm not usually thinking about the money - I'm thinking about what that money will be used for. Take Yolanda's dresses: While I was sewing them, I wasn't thinking about the cash, I was thinking about an electric fence. And if Yolanda was up for it (and was in that line of business) I would have happily traded some frocks for an electric fence. So I guess in instances like that one, money is kind of handy. But in other cases - like the case of these here skirts - direct trade is completely ace.
Zip it right on down!
A few months ago, I found out that my supremely talented friend Nicole was having a garage sale. Nicole's garage sales are... well... they're unbelievable, on account of Nicole being an incredible hunter-gatherer of all things beautiful. She's so good at collecting beautiful things, she doesn't have time to use them all, so occasionally has garage sales.

Being as we are now located in Bega, attending Nicole's sale (in Sydney) wasn't really an option. Luckily for me, Nicole is lovely, and she was happy to make a personalised selection of wares, which she sent down to me. Her 'price'? A P&E skirt. I. Feel. Lucky.
Printed velvet + bright floral teatowel = fun times
Shamefully, Nicole's box of goodies arrived some months ago and I've only just gotten to the skirt. Extra-shamefully, Nicole was the recipient of a custom P&E skirt for Christmas, which has also only just been done. I don't want to list excuses - let's just say I'm sorry.

And I hope that the skirts are satisfactory!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

News from the orchard part 2: the quest for a fox-proof chook house

Olive tends her flock - Errol's in the foreground with the glorious orange neck feathers, new 'Fort Choox' chook house behind
Fox-proofing the poultry community on our little farm has proved to be more difficult than we anticipated. When we first got the ducks, I made a dome. It was dodgy as all shit on account of the fact that I used the wrong kind of pipe, but we didn't have any trouble with foxes, though in hindsight I think that had more to do with the fact that our neighbours were baiting because it was lambing season. Just before we got the chooks, we built a snazzy A-frame house, which was, I thought, fox proof. Not so much. We had a few break ins, lost a few chooks, and I even spent one night in the orchard on an inflatable mattress chasing the fox off before I decided that the A-frame had to go. I'd patched it and patched it, and the mongrel fox was still getting in. We needed a new plan, a new design. So I consulted with my ever-helpful and thoughtful friend David, who had become quite interested in our fox-proofing plight (he enjoys a challenge). After many sketches, home-brew sessions and whiteboard-planning meetings, we devised a fox-proof chook house that fulfilled the following criteria:
1. Zero cost 
2. accessible for kids to let out/put chooks away/collect eggs 
4. includes a run so we can go away for a night or 2 without having to organise for someone to come and lock up/let out chooks 
5. comfy for chooks.
Chook house almost complete
The house we made was kind of inspired by Milkwood's rawbale chook house, though we obviously didn't use bales. We did borrow their idea of having a mesh floor for ventilation in summer, which is covered in thick straw in winter. And the house is (obviously) raised off the ground to thwart that fox digging his or her way in. Walls are corrugated iron (bastard fox ain't gonna chew through that in a hurry), held up with bush poles from David's place, floor mesh came from some supermarket shelving that was being chucked out, all timber was scrap from other projects/salvaged from the tip, and the pen is made from mattress springs that are dug into the ground down to 40cm. We'll be planting passionfruit vines on either side, to climb on the mattresses to provide shade in the pen during summer. It took about 10 hours to build (4 hours with David's help), not including the time it took to dig the trenches for the mattresses and holes for the bush poles.
At the moment, we have 8 chickens living in it (John Howard (our breeding rooster), a rooster we'll be eating as soon as he starts to crow, Errol, and 5 laying hens), and I reckon that's about the limit. When we expand our flock to include commercial meat birds, we'll be building more pens a-la Joel Salatin. But for the purposes of the orchard, 8 chooks (and 11 ducks) is just fine.
The back door - for chook ingress/egress, egg collection and house-cleaning
All in all, the chooks seem to dig it, and we've had no evidence that the fox has been hanging around or trying anything out. It's easy for Olive to tend to her flock (especially Errol, who is currently preparing for the Far South Coast Annual Poultry Show), and, if I do say so myself, it's pretty good to look at. Though it seems to me you can't really go wrong with bush poles, old gal and beautifully rusted mattress springs...
View down the orchard showing swale to duck pond, chooks and chook house

Saturday, May 11, 2013

In praise of window-blankets

One of the things about a passive solar house, is that you need to make sure that the solar energy (heat) that you collect through your north-facing windows during the day, doesn't escape when the outside temperature drops in the evening. If you have money, you can get double, or even triple-glazed windows. If you're doing things on the cheapity-cheap, however, and found-on-the-side-of-the-road-2nd-hand-windows are more in your budget range, then you need to go to a plan B. Heavy curtains with pelmets are usually prescribed, but lining curtains can be expensive. We also wanted a solution that meant that the maximum amount of glass was open for heat-transfer during the day - we didn't want bunches of curtain at the sides of our windows, blocking out bits of heat. And then Pearl reported "something she'd seen somewhere" that was like a big curtain quilt, which was rolled up and hooked in the morning. Effectively, you end up with a rolled 'swag' kind of thing at the top of the window during the day, and your windows (and your toasty, solar-warmed rooms) are protected by nice big thick window quilts and blankets at night. Snug!
Patchwork-quilt 'swag' at the top of our french doors - lets through the maximum amount of light/heat during the day, keeps the cold out and heat in during the night
So far, we're thrilled with the results! The window-blankets were made using whatever we had to hand - old blankets, a patchwork quilt that was the perfect size for our french doors, and some beautiful beautiful doilies and appliques sent to us in a spectacular package from our friend Nicole.
And they're doing a fab-o job of keeping in the warmth, too.
We toyed with the idea of getting a small wood heater, earlier in the year. But when we did the measurements, we realised that we'd lose almost 2 square metres of floor space. Now, I'm sure there will be nights and rainy days this winter when we'll be longing for a bit of extra warmth. But I'm also sure that during the 10 months of the year when we don't need a fire, we'd be longing for the space inside our little house. So we made the call and decided to save the money, and the floor space, and just get some more jumpers and blankets to see us through the winter. She'll be right mate! But what it means is that our window-blankets and that solar energy we collect on our earth floor all through the day, are going to be super-precious as the days and nights get cooler. 
The kids' window
Many locals are still thinking we're a bit mad, living without any heating (other than the sun) through a Bega  winter, but we have faith in the sun, and we have faith in our bales and we now have faith in our window-blankets and extra jumpers and long underwear. Let's see how we go, shall we?
Lined double-blanket. It's also a nice way to show off bloody beautiful blankets like this one

Sunday, May 5, 2013

let the pumpkin-eating begin!

Have you ever read Living the Good Life by Linda Cockburn? If you have, you'll know why I find our pumpkin harvest so funny. If you haven't, you should. It's inspiring and funny and real and grounded, and it helps put our consumer-y lives into some kind of global context by offering a realistic, Australian suburban alternative. In short, it's awesome. And they eat a lot of pumpkins.
The reason for their extreme pumpkin consumption is that pumpkins are pretty bloody easy to grow a ton of. While growing and preserving enough tomatoes for year-round consumption is something that many people, including ourselves, aspire to, when I read a blog like Fox's Lane, which I do quite enjoy, and read about what's actually involved in growing and preserving this amount of tomatoes, I realise that, realistically, we're a ways off this.

Pumpkins, on the other hand, are do-able, and I think with this year's harvest almost done and dusted, we'll have more than enough pumpkins for a pumpkin a week for a year. Sure, if we wanted to be really self-sufficient, we could grow and eat more than a pumpkin a week, but who really wants to do that?
part of the great pumpkin harvest of '13
We're viewing this harvest of pumpkins more as a trusty staple to supplement our growing and eating more seasonal delicacies.

Another upside of pumpkins (in addition to the fact that they basically grow themselves and are pretty pest-resistant) is that you don't really have to process them to make them store for a REALLY long time. If you leave them on the vine 'til the vine dies back, then leave their stalks (and some vine, for good measure - better to be safe than sorry) on and let the whole thing dry out really well, you should be able to store your pumpkins in a safe-from-rodents, dry place for a year. Yay!

So we now have pumpkins 'hardening off' all over the place. And we're still finding them, hiding in the kikuyu. These will soon be stored in our loft, on shelves (if we can find some space!) on windowsills and probably on the floor under the table. Little ones will be used as components in still lives, and hold down our stack of cloth serviettes that sits, at the ready, on our table outside.
And a few nights ago we had our first (of many) pumpkin meals. It's something my mum used to make - classic comfort food, and, as a bonus, it's ridiculously cheap and easy and quick. It's basically a pumpkin risotto, but made with risoni pasta instead. 
Here's how:
Dice your pumpkin - We used half a medium-sized one for the 4 of us.
Chuck the diced pumpkin into a pot or pressure cooker (these guys are awesome!!!) with 500g risoni pasta and cover the lot with chicken stock. Bring to the boil, then simmer til the stock is absorbed and the pasta is cooked. Stir through some chopped sage leaves and some soft white cheese, if you're that way inclined. Done! 
We served ours with some mustard greens and silverbeet sauteed in olive oil and garlic. Bloody delicious! And I tell you what - when you're growing and cooking food like this, you can forget about Curtis Stone and feeding the family for under 10 bucks. Try feeding the family for less than 3. And no farmers being exploited to boot!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

mushrooms and other surprises

Last saturday the kids and I went with my friend Liz to Rocky Hall. The purpose of the trip was to try to find some pine mushrooms - our very first mushroom foraging adventure! I was pumped. Liz knew a place in Rocky Hall, about an hour south-west of Bega, that was, last Autumn and the Autumn before, covered in mushrooms. She didn't need to persuade me to make the trip out there, either. Rocky Hall is one of my favouritest places around these parts. Not that there's a lot there... maybe that's what I like about it. It's kind of wild... and ancient... and it has a certain feeling about it that I can't at all describe, but that resonates with me somehow. I suppose if I was a bit more woo woo, I'd say I'd "been there before", though I'm not 100% convinced that is the reason. Let's just say I dig it, for no real tangible reason, and leave it at that, shall we?
Aha! A pine mushroom... Apparently the only pine mushroom in the whole of Rocky Hall
On the mushroom front, however, Rocky Hall failed to deliver this particular Saturday. OK... we found one pine mushroom not far from Liz's old house, and we found this cool fungus as well, and there was an offer of a magic mushroom, but the heaving fry-pans full of butter and garlic and sizzling pine mushrooms failed to happen. Most likely, it's because it's not been such a wet season. Other foragers, like the writer of my favourite favourite blog, The Forager's Year, are reporting similar disappointments.
Cool fungus, happily photographed by Olive. If only it were edible...
Not to worry. The trip was fairly awash with consolation prizes, such as a dip in the creek, and big big pine trees to climb, and fairy gardens to discover and lunch at Liz's friend Susie's super-cute little cottage, which is nestled into the side of a little gully, looking for all the world like it's been there for ever. The house itself is not at all dissimilar in size, shape or stature to our own little Buckajo Bothy. When we arrived, I felt like I was seeing the property that's been in my mind's eye since I was about 15 - the kind of place I always thought I'd build - complete with covered gardens and massive fruit trees and eucalypts and slow-burning stove and lots and lots of bush and a gorgeous, rocky, rambling creek. The eery familiarity of the place prompted me to think about our own piece of land, which is so much more open than Susie's gully, and the differences in the houses (hers is red cedar clad, not strawbale), and the beauty of an established garden and a house that's been lived and created in for years and years. The whole time we were there (and for a few days afterwards) I reflected on the differences and similarities, and the ways in which dreams become reality. We are now, quite literally, building our dreams. We're working towards a vision that seems so real and solid to me... But seeing Susie's house made me realise how dreams can also change and evolve, depending on what the world throws at you, which I guess is what makes things exciting. It was a funny, unexpected kind of realisation to have on our failed mushrooming adventure, but I was grateful for it. 
A dip in this creek was a pretty good consolation prize
On the way home we stopped off to take a picture of Rocky Hall Cemetery, which I had fallen in love with, at first sight, about a year ago when I first saw it. Some people think it's weird for me to be thinking about such things, but I knew when I first laid eyes on it that this is where I want to be buried. It's peaceful, and kind of wild. It has a little gazebo and an old 44 gallon drum as a garbage bin. It has a looming rocky, scrubby hill, and there are only about 20 people buried there.
Rocky Hall Cemetery - my final resting place.
Hopefully next time we head down that way, the mushrooming will be more productive. But even if it's not, I know there will be a multitude of other adventures and surprises that will be pretty awesome consolations.