December in Stephanie Alexander's kitchen garden
Stephanie Alexander has hauled her Christmas tree in from the garden and is busy protecting her stone fruit from possums and birds.
The year hurtles towards its end. The last two months become chock-a-block with events, so I tend to feel panicked rather than enjoying each occasion.
Much earlier in the year I needed to make Christmas pudding for a photo shoot. Once the mix was photographed I divided it between two very large pudding bowls, steamed them for five hours, then stored them. So now every time I open my small bar fridge I get a whiff of Christmas. One task done!
A round of the vegetable garden reveals a second crop of carrots coming along. The sprouting broccoli is nearly done, and the second crop is growing well. The leeks have been pulled and replaced by two rows of yellow butter beans, and the cauliflower’s been replaced with more bush beans – green this time. It’s been such a wet spring that the ground is easily worked, and I think I’ll delay mulching the boxes until January.
I had the privilege recently to launch the story of Lina and Tony Siciliano’s astonishing property, as told by Gabriella Gomersall-Hubbard in Growing Honest Food. The book follows the seasons and details the activities that take place in the vineyard, the olive grove, the kitchen garden and the kitchen. It includes a helpful planting and growing calendar for the south-eastern states.
This is the month for setting out tomatoes, and I have 10 tomato plants grown from seed given to me by Lina. Without a name they will be called Lina’s tomatoes. Lina also gave me a special gift: a rare cedro fruit from her tree. Well known in Sicily, but little seen elsewhere, this fruit is as large as an emu egg, has a very thick skin, and flesh of little consequence.
It’s the thick peel that’s candied and used to decorate cassata or enjoyed alongside a piece of cheese.
I was given a seven-day recipe for candying peel by the kitchen specialist at Margaret River Primary School, and I can report it a brilliant success. I had friends for dinner last night and made a fancy Italian zuccotto pudding. The pudding bowl was lined with cake sprinkled with a limoncello and blood-orange syrup and then filled with a rich mix of whipped ricotta, pistachio, grated chocolate and sliced cedro peel. I served it with blood-orange slices, and it tasted pretty good.
I’m picking tender salads: snow peas, golden beetroot and young cucumber. I have frozen some podded broad beans. It’s still a challenge to get the quantities right for a small household. I planted so much of my favourite leaf spinach and when the first hot days came I had to harvest it quickly before it wilted. I’m fussy about my spinach preparation: I rip out the central stem of each of the leaves before giving them a double wash then a fast boil with just the water clinging to the leaves. A quick drain, a press, then into the food processor with a knob of butter and a light seasoning. This brilliant green purée keeps for three days in the refrigerator and takes 20 seconds to heat in the microwave. In a few weeks I’ll harvest my garlic crop – just before Christmas Day, I think.
I’ve hauled out the Christmas tree that spends 11 months of the year in a large pot in a dark and ignored corner of the garden. With a tidy-up and a good soaking it will be ready for tinsel and baubles. And it will have grown at least 10cm since last Christmas.
Capsicum and eggplant bushes are growing, but the fruit is months away.
The two zucchini bushes are yet to fruit, although they are sprawling over the front path. The stone fruit and quinces are swelling in a promising manner, my doughnut peach included. All the trees are netted now. This may protect the fruit from the birds, but it doesn’t seem to completely fool the possums. Last season I found that as soon as a nectarine or peach softened even a little it had a bite taken out of it. I don’t mind sharing, but I do mind if I’m left without any perfect fruit. I shall move the strange staring owl that’s supposed to frighten possums into one of the nectarine trees to see if it helps.
I joined a busload of teachers and members of the public to visit three of our Kitchen Garden schools in Tasmania. All were well established, with flourishing gardens, bright, busy kitchens, and children bursting with pride to be guides to the visitors. At Moonah Primary School in Hobart the shelves in the kitchen were filled with preserves made by the students, sometimes with fruit donated by friends of the school. I bought peach jam, but wavered between it and the greengage. The nettles growing among the strawberries were going to be harvested to make gnocchi, said garden specialist Tino Carnevale. I was astonished to see a roast pig coming from the handsome adobe oven built by Oz Earth at St James Catholic College in Cygnet. It was to be cut up as part of our lunch. And at Snug Primary School the chickens roamed free and even perched on the shoulders of the students.
I’m off to Turin to contribute to a panel on Global Food Education. We think what we are doing is unique in the world. I wonder if I’ll still think this after listening to other panellists.
Until next time.
PHOTOGRAPHY ARMELLE HABIB
This article is from the December 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.