As the days become short and the evenings turn cold,
Stephanie Alexander monitors the progress of the brassicas and
prepares to plant garlic.
Melbourne's extraordinary autumn brought unexpected heat, and just when I thought it would never happen, all the green capsicums turned red. With so many gorgeous peppers and the very last of the fabulous tomatoes, I made a batch of salsa romesco. This Spanish staple requires the cook to scorch the capsicums, tomatoes, chillies and garlic, as this gives the dish a wonderful smoky flavour and releases the juice of the tomatoes. Everything is then peeled, chopped, puréed and emulsified with some paprika and fruity olive oil. I seemed to find a new use for this dish every day - all very satisfying.
It was great on toast under a poached egg and lovely stirred through tiny boiled potatoes. I drizzled some over a chunk of grilled salmon and I scraped the last of it into a casserole of chicken and ratatouille.
But now everything has changed.
The afternoons are shortening, the evenings are cold. Two of my three vegetable boxes are empty save for a sage bush. They worked so hard through summer and autumn and produced kilos of food. Now once again I'm faced with the problem of crop rotation. It's very difficult to implement - there aren't enough options - so resting the beds is the best I can do. I want to refresh the soil, though, so I'll investigate the contents of my compost bin. I'll certainly need to buy some organic material, but this will be mixed with material of my own production, dug in and left for a couple of weeks.
In the front garden the famous Chelsea sweet peas are climbing the supports once again, and young brassicas are coming along, as are lettuces.
This is the week to plant the garlic. I'm still using my bulbs from last December's harvest and they've kept wonderfully well. I've tied them to a door handle outside where they're under cover but have plenty of fresh air circulating around them.
I celebrated late autumn by enjoying a weekend away on the Mornington Peninsula. I spent my schooldays at Rosebud West and I feel very nostalgic when I look back. Much has changed, but not the flora. I started my trip with an absolutely wonderful walk at the McClelland Gallery & Sculpture Park at Langwarrin. Having spent my childhood dashing through thick tea-tree scrub I was delighted to discover the various sculptures sited among twisted, tangled tea-trees and I noticed a suspicious lifting of the thick leaf mulch under the trees; in my day that would almost certainly have been a large field mushroom pushing through.
I'm somewhat ashamed to admit it was my very first visit to the sculpture park. It was wonderful. There was so much to admire, to be intrigued by, to be puzzled by. A family with three young children were wandering along the trail at the same time as me, and the children absolutely loved the experience. I reflected that sculpture is an art form that's very appealing to children. Many of the works were monumental in size; others were intriguingly textured, and there were some fun pieces as well.
Following a local tip I paused at Cornell's Blue Fin seafood shop in Blairgowrie to buy a whole flathead. I came prepared, travelling with my own oval copper fish pan. Too many times I've tried to cook fresh fish in terrible stainless-steel frying pans in holiday accommodation, and this time I didn't want to risk it.
Back home, an unexpected photoshoot had me cooking up a storm, which isn't so easy these days without an apprentice at my elbow or a commercial dishwasher with a three-minute cycle. The morning flashed past and I produced a chocolate sponge that I later turned into a Black Forest cake with some of my own preserved sour cherries, an almond and honey slice, a passionfruit bavarois and its accompanying shortbread, a pistachio cake, and a sweet potato torte that was delicious toasted in a ridged pan and then buttered as one might do with a scone.
In December I visited Canberra to attend a summit on obesity in Australia, a two-day investigation into what could be done to address this important health issue. Papers were presented by scientists, doctors and representatives from various interested bodies, including me. The report of the summit has recently been released, and its recommendations make interesting reading. (The full report can be found at obesityaustralia.org.) I was very pleased to note that the Kitchen Garden program was referred to most positively. The report found that progressive expansion of the program over the next six years across all of Australia's primary schools would instil further knowledge of healthy eating and a preference for a diet high in fresh vegetables and fruit in children and their parents.
Until next time.
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