As I write we are still experiencing near-wintry weather. The mornings are very chilly and the garden progresses very slowly. My herbaceous perennials have just started coming back. My sweet peas, bought a year ago at the Chelsea Flower Show, are just one-third of the way up their supports. The wisteria is still tightly budded although it's in full leaf. One night last week I was waiting on the front verandah for a taxi and noticed movement in the wisteria foliage. A possum stared back at me and showed no sign of being anxious as I half-heartedly shooed it away. Reluctantly it moved just a little.
I wondered if it was assessing the wisteria buds as a prospective feast.
The romping nasturtium plants have contributed bright splashes of colour during the past two months. I prefer to admire them in the garden than to eat them. The almond tree has finished flowering and now it's the turn of the miniature peach and nectarines. I have still not had my first meal of broad beans but it will be soon.
But the bold brassicas have been the stars of the winter garden. And with them comes the white cabbage moth. Nothing stops them altogether. I use derris dust on the young leaves, and my trick of large white squares of card speared among the growing plants does seem to reduce the amount of damage. A vigilant eye to pick off those perfectly camouflaged caterpillars is still necessary.
The rainbow silverbeet is such a beautiful plant and produces so generously. I have purple, pink, orange and yellow. They grow near the taller dimpled Tuscan kale, and I often think that my front border of these handsome winter plants can rival many flowering borders for beauty and drama. A fast and delicious side dish can be made with just a few leaves: sauté them in extra-virgin olive oil with chopped onion until softened, then add a handful of toasted pine nuts and a spoonful of currants.
I have made every cauliflower dish in my repertoire this season. My favourite is a purée of cauliflower, or cauliflower soup with shaved parmesan, and when my adult children visit they still ask for a crunchy cauliflower cheese. And the combination of cauliflower and Indian spices produces delicious fritters: try very lightly blanched and well drained florets of cauliflower mixed with a little turmeric, then added to a pan of popped mustard seeds and cumin seeds. This is great on its own, or stirred into a fish or chicken curry.
The cabbages are very versatile. When sliced thinly they combine with shredded carrots, spring onions and herbs to make coleslaw, and wedges of crisp cabbage are delightful quickly blanched and finished in a pan with browned butter and parsley. I have a very elaborate recipe on page 122 in my book Cooking and Travelling in South-West France for a whole stuffed cabbage. The cabbage is first blanched so that the outer leaves soften and "can be opened like a large green overblown rose" (says one of my old cookbooks). The heart is chopped and added to a stuffing - often pure pork, but it can be half pork and half veal or chicken - and then a little stuffing is spread on each outer leaf. The cabbage leaves are pressed back together, and the whole stuffed cabbage is tied and then braised with some stock for an hour or so before being cut into wedges to serve. Not a dish to prepare in a hurry, but fun to do once in a while. It's easier to make individual cabbage rolls as they can be tucked close together in a heavy-based casserole and simmered for half an hour with stock or tomato passata. To prevent the rolls from sticking, I like to line the bottom of the pan with a few additional cabbage leaves.
I harvest my sprouting broccoli crop as soon as I spy a few new shoots. I love it.
I remind readers never to ignore the stems;once peeled, they're as tender and delicate as asparagus, and just as delectable. Broccoli stems, florets and chopped anchovy make the classic sauce for the little ear-shaped pasta called orecchiette. (To make your own orecchiette, refer to page 180 in my Kitchen Garden Companion - a fun activity for a wet afternoon.)
With the leafy spinach, I wait until there's a good crop and then harvest all the large leaves. I give them a good wash, discard the largest stems back to the compost, cook the smaller leaves for a few minutes in the water clinging to the leaves, quickly drain them while pressing the water out with a large spoon, then straightaway whiz them with a knob of butter and a very little salt and pepper. This glorious velvet-smooth green purée becomes the perfect accompaniment to a rare fillet steak or a grilled slice of fish, or I freeze it for another day.
My barrel of closely planted mixed salad leaves has been a triumph. I have been picking from it for four months continually and have enjoyed a delicious salad every evening, augmented by some of the frilly oak leaf lettuce that self-seeded so happily elsewhere in the garden. With the coming of spring I will dig the barrel over, refresh the potting mix with organic compost and replant it.
Until next time.
PHOTOGRAPHY ARMELLE HABIB
This article was published in the September 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.