We have all heard the story of the one that got away, usually referring to fish. Well, after returning from my seaside holiday in mid-February, I discovered, hidden among the enormous leaves of my Italian round zucchini plant, a monster fruit almost as large as a beach ball that had evaded harvest.
The optimum size for this variety is around 8-10 centimetres in diameter.
I hollowed out the seeds and made a savoury stuffing rather like a shepherd's pie: minced leftover roast lamb, fried up with an onion, some garlic and anchovies, softened with a coulis of chopped black Krim tomatoes cooked with butter and basil and plenty of parsley. I baked it with a breadcrumb crust. With the very first of my own pink fir apple potatoes and freshly pulled carrots, it made a comforting dinner. And the leftovers were delicious reheated the next day for lunch.
The tragedy of the late summer was finding that eight spectacular parrots - or perhaps lorikeets, with emerald-green, blue and gold feathers - had taken up residence in the crab-apple trees. I rescued just enough fruit to make a single largish batch of crab-apple and rose-geranium jelly. The rest of the crop was all bitten into, the leavings tossed onto the paving. Whenever I tried to take a picture of these magnificent marauders, they flew off to a neighbour's tall tree, so I can't even show you how beautiful they were. I had left a few quinces for a late pie but it was not to be. They were also gone, with just the cores left dangling.
I'm going to harvest my crop of almonds now, as they're a favourite of cockatoos and the aforementioned parrots. As yet, they have gone undiscovered.
The farmers' market in late summer was so glorious I did wonder whether it is really worth all the hard work and disappointments to grow one's own produce. It was just a fleeting thought, as I can't put a price on the pride and satisfaction of pulling my own carrots and harvesting my very first crop of pink fir apple potatoes. Like many home gardeners, I'm sometimes overwhelmed by the quantity of produce ready at the same time. My solution is to share with friends and then get out the tomato-crushing machine, and to use all those stored jars for batches of pickled cucumbers.
I love meeting the growers at the market, though. Their advice is priceless. The potato man assures me I should dig the entire crop of potatoes now rather than leave them in the ground after the tops have died down lest they start to deteriorate and encourage grubs and other nasties to invade.
Last year's eggplant produced again, as did the capsicum. The eggplant have been marvellous, both the regular deep-purple Bonica variety and one I've never grown before - slender, striped and seedless. I developed a delicious vegetable accompaniment I've enjoyed several times, using a smallish Le Creuset cast-iron gratin dish that is just the right size. I halved an eggplant lengthways, rubbed it generously with extra-virgin olive oil and placed it in the gratin dish with a halved huge tomato, a garlic clove, and a few pieces of capsicum. I covered the dish and put it in a moderate oven for 30 minutes, turning and shaking once.
Everything becomes soft and slightly caramelised, the eggplant is deliciously creamy and there are always some juices to dribble over the accompanying fish or chops.
The glory vine leaves have started to fall and the crab-apple foliage is changing to gold. As autumn settles in, I'm looking forward to a second crop of Chantenay carrots, a second crop of my favourite slender bush beans, and some golden beetroot. I have to find space to plant the leeks and there's the annual challenge of which box to dedicate to the broad beans. It's too soon to say whether the pumpkin that has climbed into the lemon tree will hold the fruit that has set.
A highlight today was having a sneak preview of my friend Annie Smithers's book Annie's Garden to Table, by now in every bookshop. If food-lovers buy only one cookbook this year, this should be it - it's a glorious piece of work. For me, this book takes food straight back to where it is most meaningful - great produce, sensitively, lovingly and intelligently handled - and every dish made me want to rush to the stove.
I write this just before I start a tour to promote my own new book, a memoir titled A Cook's Life. The draft schedule is rather scary and has me criss-crossing the continent, visiting most states. By the next column, I may have some good stories to tell! I'll certainly appreciate the Easter break when I'm off to Phillip Island with friends, and the penguin parade is definitely on the itinerary. The last time I saw this I was about 10 years old.
Until next time.
PHOTOGRAPHY ARMELLE HABIB
This article is from the April 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.