November in Stephanie Alexander's kitchen garden
As Stephanie Alexander travels around the country, she learns of new ways to cook with okra, citrus peel, broad bean tops and even monkfish.
This month’s column is really just a collection of interesting snippets gleaned from others as I move around the country. Food is such a good conversation starter.
My taxi driver in Hobart, on hearing that I wrote about food, wanted me to know all about the okra dish that was his favourite. He was from Pakistan. I have to confess that okra is one of the very few vegetables I rarely use.
I dislike the gooey substance that oozes from it after long cooking – although that’s prized in Louisiana as a thickener for gumbo. My new friend insisted that the washed and thickly sliced okra should be added to a pan of well-softened sliced onions with chilli to taste, and cooked briskly for no more than 10 minutes. It must have a bit of crunch, he told me.
Last month I wrote about my excitement at being introduced to Portuguese kale by kitchen specialist Ema at Altona Meadows Primary School in Melbourne. She has given me some seeds. Given that it’s a member of the brassica family, I think I’ll wait until next autumn to sow the seed.
I’ve had such wonderful sprouting broccoli this year, with not a sign of a cabbage white butterfly. Could that copper tape work? I was very cynical when my gardener proposed it, but not one little green caterpillar. I pick the side shoots as low down as possible to maximise the amount of stalk. Then I slice the florets away as close to the top of the stalk as possible and, with a paring knife, strip away the skin on the stalks. These tender spears are as delicious as the first spring asparagus. They’ll take maybe three minutes to cook; add the florets to the rapidly boiling water after one minute. Drain them both very well and return them to the hot pan for a moment and gently shake with a knob of butter or a small quantity of the best extra-virgin olive oil.
The Spanish fishmonger at my local market drew my attention to the fillets of stargazer, or monkfish. His tradition, just like the French, is to remove the fearsomely ugly head, skin the body and roast it on the bone. He knows I love big chunky fillets such as hapuku and blue-eye, or indeed monkfish. I often settle the chunk of fish in an ovenproof gratin dish on some lemon slices, pour over some oil, add a grind of pepper and that’s it. The Spanish tradition, as he told me, is to cook fish very plainly: olive oil (never butter), salt and pepper. “Herbs?”
I enquired. He thought for a moment and half-heartedly said, “Sometimes.”
Lina Siciliano from Rose Creek Estate has given me a cedro, a very unusual citrus fruit. It’s used, as far as I know, just for its highly aromatic and very thick peel, which is candied and then cut into very fine slices. In Sicily it appears as a decoration on cassata and on other pastries and desserts. I’m yet to try it, remembering my failed attempt some years ago now to candy bergamot peel. I’ve just remembered the beautiful candied orange peel offered to me by the kitchen specialist at the excellent kitchen garden at Margaret River Primary School in Western Australia. I shall email her for the recipe before trying my cedro.
My bumper crop of celery is a challenge. At Sunshine North Primary School in Victoria, the eight-year-olds made a salad of finely sliced celery with shaved parmesan and a dressing which included squashed anchovies and some orange. It was delicious and I shall have that tomorrow. Never again will I grow so much celery. It’s nearly a metre high and takes up so much room, but it’s so healthy. I am sharing like anything but still it goes on. I’ll have to make several batches of soup to freeze so that I can plant some baby corn.
It’s a good idea to pinch out the tops of the broad bean plants once they’re flowering. Most broad bean plants will be well in pod by now. These pinched-out tops are delicious sautéed. I add slices of baby cauliflower and toss them all together. Again, anchovies or a touch of chilli adds zing.
The roses are a delight and the careful pruning and shaping of crépuscule and mermaid on my back fence has paid dividends. The view from the kitchen to the back fence is delightful with the cream and pale-yellow mingling with a bit of white star jasmine.
The newly germinating bush beans, both green and yellow, are growing well, as is the yellow climbing variety. I can’t imagine summer without young beans.
Once the spring bulbs have finished flowering under the lemon tree I’ll once again plant watermelon seeds. Last year I was delighted with my small watermelons. Three of them! They were so sweet and the plant is very attractive. It seemed to enjoy having a bed to sprawl in without competition.
I’ve launched new kitchen garden programs at Margaret River, and at Auburn South in Victoria. I’m about to join a bus tour in Tasmania to accompany interested teachers and others to view four schools.
We’ve announced new options for schools to make the Kitchen Garden program more affordable and accessible to all schools – government and non-government. Within 24 hours of this announcement appearing on our website we had more than 30 schools apply. We’ve truly started a revolution! And it’s very, very exciting.
Until next time.
PHOTOGRAPHY ARMELLE HABIB
This article was published in the November 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.