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February

The Kitchen Garden Foundation celebrated the end of 2011 with a marvellous fundraising weekend in the countryside near Malmsbury. Our friend and well-known garden designer Paul Bangay opened his glorious gardens to the public, with proceeds going to the Foundation. After a rather soggy Saturday, Sunday was bright and sunny. Five thousand serious garden lovers turned up over the weekend.

The gardens are inspiring and it's difficult to explain them on paper; words do not do them justice. Paul has added a substantial vegetable garden - I think I may have influenced him! His gooseberry bushes were laden; my single gooseberry bush has yet to set fruit. The strawberry patch was full of scarlet treasures. There were many children over the weekend and I did wonder how many strawberries were still on the bushes at the end. And I was envious of Paul's extensive asparagus bed.

Another friend, Annie Smithers, who operates Annie Smithers bistro in nearby Kyneton, offered to rise at four in the morning on both days to bake scones for the visitors. Annie made 2000 scones, but there was more. She also donated 45kg of her own raspberry jam, made from 68kg of raspberries, topped with 50 litres of pure cream! The scones were so popular that they barely lasted through lunch.

Paul and Annie are truly amazing friends and supporters of the work done by the Foundation and we are very, very grateful.

Back home, there has been so much rain that my garden is harbouring hundreds of snails. I have been ruthlessly disposing of them, as my new plantings of baby lettuces, seedling cucumber and beans are all trying to establish themselves. I use kitchen salt on the brick path, pet-friendly pellets, and, yes, lots of hand-picking and stomping.

Last year's eggplants, chilli and one capsicum have all decided to put on new growth. They looked very unpromising until the first days of real heat. I did plant backup plants and I will be interested to see whether the new plants catch up with those from last season. One of my successes this year has been a planting of an heirloom round pale green zucchini called tondo chiaro di Nizza that I bought at the Chelsea Flower Show. (I then discovered I could have bought the seeds here from the website of the Italian Gardener.) In my relatively small garden patch it's difficult to accommodate full-sized bushes of the more usual zucchini, and this plant is much more compact. The fruit is very sweet and is picked when it is no more than 10cm in diameter.

A favourite way with young zucchini is to halve them, paint the flesh with extra-virgin olive oil and grill them cut-side down on the barbecue until they're partially softened. Dress them while they're still hot. Toss a small handful of toasted pine nuts into a pan with a handful of currants and a few spoonfuls of dry wine. Cook for a minute or two until there is almost no liquid left, then spoon the mix over the grilled zucchini and season to taste. Best eaten still warm.

I am discovering the pleasure of steamed eggplant. In the past I have fried it, or grilled it, or roasted it whole to chop for a dip, and usually dressed it with olive oil, lots of herbs, lemon juice or pesto. But inspired by a recipe of Kylie Kwong's, I am loving eggplant peeled, cut into thick wedges, steamed in a bamboo steamer for no more than five minutes, then cooled and dressed with a Chinese dressing that combines soy, sesame, vinegar, a touch of sugar and a bit of dry Sherry. The dish is slippery and a bit sloppy, as Kylie says, but scattered with sliced spring onions it goes superbly with white-cooked chicken and has appeared often on my summer lunch table.

I would like to be able to update you on the flavour of my "unknown" tomatoes but so far I am only able to report that the tomatoes are large and swelling. The seedling I bought labelled "patio tomato" has almost filled one of my fruit-crate beds. It's jostling the carrots and has hundreds of slightly larger-than-cherry tomatoes on it. Once again they're not quite ripe but look absolutely sensational.

I'm going to have a bumper crop of quince and will share them with my friends. Given that Maggie Beer has perfected the art of making quince paste, I see no reason to make more. I'll poach plenty of fruit, make several quince tarts with browned butter (the tart was a signature dish at Stephanie's restaurant, and the recipe is in The Cook's Companion) and substitute poached quince for apple in some favourite apple cake recipes. And I'll probably freeze some when I tire of it for the moment.

Until next time.

PHOTOGRAPHY ARMELLE HABIB

This article was published in the February 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.

MORE INFO

For more information on Stephanie Alexander's Kitchen Garden Foundation and schools, check out her website.
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