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October

I am writing just before I leave to go on holiday to Sicily (expect a Sicilian theme next month). I have packed the hothouse with germinating seedlings and have asked friends to keep them well watered.

My first tomato seedlings are growing well in the hothouse. I have several green zebra, a most successful tomato. Its green and yellow stripes are a wonderful talking point and I always look forward to a salad of multicoloured tomatoes. An enthusiastic seed saver (thank you Barry) has given me seeds of two heirloom varieties, one called Ailsa Craig, and the other a climber called riesentraube which promises bunches of smallish rich, red fruit with a flavour resembling that of the beefsteak tomato. Exciting!

I have also germinated listada di gandia eggplant. I've grown them once before; the striped violet and white skin is very beautiful and the flesh is delicate. Interestingly enough, my sister, who has a mild allergy to purple eggplant, has no reaction to this pretty variety.

Now that spring is really with us I am enjoying pulling carrots, leeks and baby beets, both purple and golden ones. I removed the protective nets from my crates of snow peas and broad beans and they have enjoyed their new freedom and grown tall. In a week or two I shall be eating the first broad beans. The very first pick are podded and eaten dipped into a saucer of olive oil with just a grain of sea salt just as I might otherwise offer a dish of olives. I could add freshly pulled radishes to the plate too. I can never find enough space to keep up the radish supply. Thank goodness other growers at the farmers' market always have the pretty pink-tipped radishes in abundance now.

My strawberry plants have perked up, putting out new leaves and a few tentative flowers. I expect results after my holiday.

The celery is magnificent. I have grown too much of it and deliberately planted it very close together to self-blanch. I have used it lavishly in stocks and salads and have just made a lovely celery and potato soup with chicken stock. I used about three times the volume of celery to potato and sweated the chopped potato with an onion and garlic in a big lump of butter for 15 minutes before adding the sliced celery and covering the lot with the stock. As soon as the vegetables were really tender, I passed the soup through the blender and a strainer. It was a delicate pale green. As an interesting side dish I kept aside all the inner leaves, dipped them in tempura batter and fried them in a small pot in a good depth of olive oil. A trickle of walnut oil in the soup was very good, and perhaps I should have toasted a few walnuts and added them to the soup. I didn't think of it in time.

The sprouting broccolini continues to be generous. It's something of a magnet for the white cabbage moth and it's necessary to soak the shoots before cooking. Several times I've been surprised as a grass-green caterpillar has dropped to the bottom of the bowl. I've ordered some horseradish shoots but can't decide where to put them. Horseradish really needs to be contained, and I wonder if I feel like dedicating a wine barrel to them. Presumably I can grow other shallow-rooted salad plants in the same barrel.

The handsome pepino plants in my front garden just keep on growing. They're now about a metre across and my friends at the Digger's Club say they could easily double this size. They have also told me that the pepino will still thrive in semi-shade, so I think it had better be moved. After being scathing about the fruit I think I must have tried unripe ones. Once properly ripened, it is quite delicious. As with so many fruits, especially melons, a drop of lemon juice really lifts the flavour. I've eaten the last two (which incidentally stayed happily on the bush for a month after ripening), peeled and sliced, combined with a sliced banana, blood orange segments and passionfruit as an outstanding and refreshing breakfast fruit salad.

Many years ago when I first lived in France, I discovered that weekday lunches often started with simple vegetable salads, sometimes bought from the local charcuterie. Among my all-time favourites were (and still are) celeriac rémoulade; poached slender leeks, drained very well and dressed with a herb vinaigrette; and simply grated carrots. The French version of carottes râpées was dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, and had sliced or quartered hard-boiled eggs arranged around the edges of the shallow salad bowl. Sometimes I vary this classic by dressing the gratings with olive oil, lemon, a dash of rosewater and a handful of roasted unsalted pistachios.

On a more broadly garden-related note, my friends Kylie Kwong, Sean Moran and Damien Pignolet and I are plotting and planning a very special dinner we will prepare as a fundraiser for Sydney's Bondi Primary in late November. This is a once-in-a-lifetime culinary get-together and is sure to be fun. Watch this space for more details.

It is such a busy time in the garden. I must get as much as possible into the ground so that I am surprised when I return after three weeks away.
Until next time.

PHOTOGRAPHY ARMELLE HABIB

This article is from the October 2010 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.

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