May in Stephanie Alexander's kitchen garden
Stephanie Alexander’s espaliered Jonathan apple tree produced only two apples this season, but her capsicum and eggplant bushes fruited magnificently.
The herbaceous border has been such a delight all through the summer and early autumn. You can learn a lot watching one plant come into its moment, then wane and be pushed aside by something different, and the salvias gave a second flush after being cut back. But now it’s really the end of autumn and there’s more than a hint of cold in the early mornings and evenings. The sweet peas I brought back from the Chelsea Flower Show last year were a triumph: the flowers grew on long, strong stems, so they were perfect for cutting and scenting my writing-room. I saved and dried the seeds and the new plants are now just starting to climb their support.
The bulbs planted a while ago have started to disclose themselves: Dutch iris, bluebells, grape hyacinths and alliums. My friend and garden designer Paul Bangay doubts the alliums will flourish – he says they need colder air. But the bulb catalogues were encouraging, so I’ll wait and see. The roses have all finished. My beautiful rose-purple Madame Isaac Pereire has revealed herself as a pillar rose and has been trained to an obelisk-shaped support. I’m hoping she’ll cascade from it in the springtime.
The new persimmon tree had a hard time during the hot summer, but finally produced some leaves that lingered rather than being scorched. The first leaves have now turned gold and are about to disappear. I have my fingers crossed that the tree will burst forth with vigorous growth in the spring.
The two-year-old capsicum bushes produced magnificent fruit, as did the eggplant, and the basil bushes were embarrassingly laden. I made several jars of pesto and many, many batches of ratatouille. I froze some ratatouille in small portions to be used as a quick side dish for a steak or piece of fish. My favourite variation was to spread the ratatouille into an oiled gratin dish and top it with a generous layer of sourdough crumbs tossed with grated parmesan and finely chopped anchovies. A drizzle of olive oil and a slow bake until the crust was golden. A delicious lunch dish.
The espaliered Jonathan apple produced two apples this season, which is a 100 per cent increase on last year. Last month I reported on a bird attack; now I’ve bought an electronic bird scarer which emits a high frequency sound that’s thought to scare away possums and birds. It seems to be working, or is it the suspended candy-cane-striped silver strips I’ve hung on fishing line above the raised beds? Whatever it is, I’m grateful, as my carrots and leeks have grown well without damage. It’s almost time to pick the first young leeks and leave the rest to fatten up.
Spinach is probably my favourite green leafy vegetable. Silverbeet is always dependable, but soft-leaved spinach is more delicate, if more temperamental. I’ve planted seedlings between other plants and around the tepee supports in the front garden. I’ve restricted myself to just two plants of Tuscan kale; the plant grows so vigorously that it’s hard to use it fast enough. And of course I have to find room for other brassicas and resign myself to the cabbage moth invasion as the broccoli and cauliflower plants grow. I wonder if the candy-cane twirly things will discourage them?
This year I’m going to grow broad beans again, though not the beautiful purple-flowered variety – their yield is small and their pods are significantly harder to shell.
I hope to avoid last year’s glut of broad beans by leaving four weeks between the plantings.
I grew a large amaranth bush and watched with interest as the arched flower spikes produced blue-black tiny berries which then hardened into seed cases, each about the size of a currant. I picked many of them, dried them inside for a month, and then finally tested my own claim that the tiny black seeds within the seed casings could be popped into “fairy popcorn”. I stripped the seed cases from the stems, wrapped them in a clean tea towel and belted them with a rolling pin. The difficult part was separating the chaff from the very small black seeds. A small low-powered fan might do a good job; I tried my coarsest sieve, but it was not coarse enough. Eventually I brushed most of the chaff away and heated the seeds in a dry non-stick pan covered with an enamel plate. After a minute the seeds all popped and it was pretty dramatic. Such a fun thing to do with children. You could scatter the popped seeds over a salad or just eat them as a snack.
My one cumquat tree in a tub seems to produce fruit all year round. I prefer to make marmalade in small batches, so when I estimate that there is about a kilo of fruit on the tree I harvest it and make a batch. I’m sure I’ve said it before, but is there anything better than hot crunchy toast with butter and cumquat marmalade and a cup of tea?
By next month I will have been all over the country promoting my memoir, A Cook’s Life. Until then.
PHOTOGRAPHY ARMELLE HABIB
This article is from the May 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.