I know this is a cooking blog, but for me cooking and gardening go hand in hand. Growing food inspires me to cook, and my desire to eat good food sends me into the garden. I’ll get to the cooking bit, but not before I ramble over the garden (rambling over the garden then heading into the kitchen is a habit of mine).
Over the years I have moved a lot, and had many herb and vegetable gardens. Building them has proven to be an essential part of my settling into any new place, even if the landscape is not ideal. I have gardened in tight spots, in pots and sour soil, dealt with overshadowing, put up with short term leases and, in the first home I owned, accommodated the tendency of my then partner to steal the best spots for spiky grevilleas.
My garden tends to reflect my mental state. If it flourishes there is every chance I am procrastinating mightily, but my soul is mending. The reverse applies. The garden in my last house fell over and decayed because I got too busy writing a PhD, but my relationship was also withering on the vine. In the year that passed between moving out and buying my new house I had no garden – just a few styrofoam pots. I didn’t even have a compost heap. Now I have a new house, Maxholme, and this is the backyard, as it appeared on my first day of ownership.
It’s a 611 square metre blank slate, so the work begins to build a garden that reflects who I am – a woman on the very brink of turning 40, with no inclination to please anyone other than myself and my hungry child. A blank slate suits me very well indeed, and I will fill it with food. In these days of financial uncertainty and mortgage stress it is quite fashionable to be worrying about food security, but that doesn’t matter one jot to me, I’d be planting food anyway.
Of course, blank slates take a lot of work to fill. This was the herb patch – dead tomatoes, crusted earth, feral Vietnamese mint, barely hanging on rosemary and sage and a death lily patch (a nursery for snails).
My pride and joy is my ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ compost heap, which uses corflutes retained from political campaigns in a most creative way. Look whose face is helping the lawn clippings decompose! If you take your fingers from your eyes and look behind the compost heap you can see nascent vege beds.
It’s both exciting and soothing to watch the garden take off. When I moved in, on the coldest day of the winter, all I found was sage and rosemary, but since then a range of mints have come up, and I’ve added parsley, thyme, chives, lemon balm, garlic chives, pyrethrum, curry plant, tarragon, strawberries, tomatoes, lettuces, oregano and coriander to the herb bed, along with a bay tree. I’ve put in beds of spuds and asparagus, broad beans, corn and peas and am nursing seedlings of zucchini, pumpkin, basil, kale and silver beet. The trees are the biggest investment. I’ve got a crab apple, a cumquat, a meyer lemon, and four hazelnuts, which are part of a local food sharing initiative, along with raspberries and blueberries. I’ve also added trees that will bear the fruits I love the best, and that are so hard to find in good quality in the shops – black genoa fig, white peaches and apricots. In this picture you can see the very first baby apricot.
However, if I’m to be honest, all there is to eat right now in my garden is herbs. Which brings me to the chooks, and the cooking part of the post. The chooks are a curse in many ways. They have obliged me to buy many rolls of wire to keep them from turning over my mulch and devouring my seedlings. But they are funny, cute and friendly. They talk all the time and rush all over you if you venture into the garden. Their A-frame chook tractor, which lets them scratch away at the ground, has been a great way to start neat little squares of garden. They provide precious chook poo and they also pick through the death lilies to devour legions of snails. Here they are, at work in the back yard.
And they reward us with perfect eggs, whilst exerting a powerful influence over food-averse children (one I own and one who visits often). The kids delight in things like this:
Also, it seems, my vegetable averse one will eat vegies if they are wrapped in or mixed into an omelette and the egg-averse visitor changed his tune after a few trips to the chook house.
The challenge of using all those eggs has led to new discoveries. I’ve learned the secret of the perfect poached egg, which is to boil a deep potful of water, slip in some vinegar, get it to a rolling boil, stir it to a whirlpool and crack a day old egg into the central vortex. When made with home grown eggs my Dead Cert Seduction Lemon Delicious comes out a brilliant yellow. And I also came up with this, a variation on a Spanish trick, which uses my favouritest lentil in the universe, Puy (blue) lentils.
To do this all you need is a thick gluggy beany mix, like Stephanie Alexander’s divine Puy lentil salad, or the version I did here, which has tomatoes and optional bacon in it, and pop it into a casserole dish. Level off the top and pack it down. Then use the back of a table spoon to make recesses in the surface and break an egg into the hollows. Drizzle some olive oil on top of each egg and bake at about 180 for about 30 minutes, or until the eggs look set. It’s delicious. You can also do baked eggs this way in ramekins, with a beany blob underneath. The creamy egg protein goes so nicely with the beans and who’d have thought the kids would lap up the entire package?
By the way, the chooks are never for eating, and neither is this resident of Maxholme:
Sorry about the red eye, but it’s kind of her nature.