Beginners Guide to Making Fermented Food – Kimchi & Spicy Green Beans

kimchi

Happy New Year everyone. If you’re making resolutions and thinking about eating more fermented food you are in good company. Fermented food is number 1 of the top 10 food trends for 2018 according to the BBC Good Food Guide. So how is your gut health?  Haven’t been asked recently? You must have been in hiding (or MacDonalds). Everywhere you turn someone is rotting something and scoffing it.

My Mum and many others find this rise in fermentation baffling. She is a very good food preserver of many years experience and talking with her about the principles behind lactic pickles and drinks she admitted to being at a loss to understand why anyone would intentionally let their food rot. She succinctly explained to me that she has spent the best part of her life avoiding dishing up rotten food. But she did recall being given “that slimy thing you fed with tea back in the 80s” but that didn’t last long. Fermentation in our house meant homebrew and ginger beer bugs and both were excellent (mostly).  Our food was sweet, sour, salty or bitter and umami was a crane from folded paper right?

lactic pickles

Captain Cook knew the benefits of fermented foods nearly 250 years ago, feeding his sailors sauerkraut to ward off scurvy. But sadly very few fermented foods dropped anchor into the kiwi culinary psyche. Maori cuisine has a far richer tradition of fermenting food that our national cuisine could have embraced, letting select Kai slowly soften into a delicious rot in running streams was one method and also a handy way of removing deadly toxins from some foods like Karaka berries, although that is a not so common practice now.

Even today our widely practiced preserving traditions are still rooted in a deep and well-founded mistrust of bacteria. Despite many parts of the world having a rich and ancient tradition of preserving with fermentation, the notion that there are good and bad bacteria is only just bubbling to the surface here. And we’re not alone – the rot is setting in across the Tasman too. The Fermentary is at the front of the Australian fermented food scene producing tastebud jangling products that appeal to jaded palettes and intestines alike. From their base in Daylesford, Victoria, Sharon Flynn, and Roger Fowler write, make, teach and sell a diverse range of fermented foods and fermenting supplies. Sharon’s book Ferment for Good is a great read and guide for anyone with an interest in the subject.

The Fermentary Water Kefir

Like any new food trend, it is easy to get carried away. I had a conversation before Christmas with a friend who has recently immersed herself and her kitchen in the dark and quiet art of fermented food and drink. It went something like – (me) “So what did you think of the water kefir then?” – (her) “Well it’s nice but I think I prefer the Kombucha because I already have the milk kefir that I alternate with the yogurt – although it might be good for the sourdough starter or to get the kimchi going – help yourself to another lacto-green bean – they’re good aren’t they – um when do you get time to eat anything that isn’t fermented these days?”.

You can reach “peak ferment” where your bench looks like a laboratory with various specimens bubbling, bobbing and burping away and you spend all your time nursing along this bug or that. Tending them all is a bit like one of those online games where you have a pet, farm, tribe or whatever that you must sustain – except this is real and you are sustaining yourself which wins out in my book. Like your ferments – you will find a happy medium where you work out which bugs you get along with and how many of them.

fermented kefir

So what are these good bacteria? and what makes them good for preserving and good for us? There are many different safe bacteria, yeasts and moulds that help create food full of delicious umami flavours (umami being the fifth taste that the bulk of us also knew nothing about until we tasted soy sauce). Many come from the Lactobacillus genus (hence Lactic fermentation) which includes species such as acidophilus, kefiri, sakei, plantarum, rhamnosus, casei and many more.  Members of this family also make cheeses and yogurts. They are present in the air and on the skins of fruits and vegetables and given the right conditions they will multiply spectacularly.

Ironically, this rampant proliferation of bacteria is one of two things that makes fermented food safe, the other is salt and we’ll come that. Basically, in the right conditions these bacteria break down the sugars and starches in the food they’re fermenting and turn them into superior flavours, awful smells, and lactic acid. Importantly it is this lactic acid that preserves the food. Just a different type of acid than the vinegar (acetic acid) or citric acid we are used to using for preserving pickles. Same principle. Bad bugs don’t grow in acidic environments.

But how do you know your lactic acid producing bacteria are getting jiggy and actually making the acid?  Until you get to know the look, smell and taste of a healthy ferment I recommend trusting in science – put a pH strip in it.  If the bacteria have worked their magic you’ll see a low pH of around 4.5 which is acidic enough to safely preserve the contents from other harmful bacteria.  Anything above 4.5 is not safe for longterm food preservation. (that bit was important – read it again)

pH strips for lactic pickles

Salt is the second safe element of a good lactic vegetable fermentation. A salty brine gives a great flavour and another layer of protection for the ferment to safeguard the pickle while the bacteria multiply. Luckily they don’t mind salt.  We use a natural sea salt with no iodine or anti-caking agents in it. Once you’ve reached the desired tang and acidity you can store your ferment in the fridge or in a cool place and as long as the food is under the brine and fitted with an airlock (I don’t recommend tight lids for living pickles) then it will keep for a year or more. Modern homes are warm and it is hard to find a cool spot to store your pickles. Cool is good because it slows down further fermentation. If you get into it you don’t want to clog up your main fridge with a year’s worth of pickles. I use a wine fridge that also gets used for cheeses – and everything except wine.

So, do the benefits of lactic fermenting preserves outweigh the smell and the fear of giving someone (including yourself) the squits or worse by feeding them rotten food? Although I’ve been a late adopter of fermentation as a preserving method I am a convert for vegetables and drinks.  Unlike fruits, vegetables don’t have naturally high levels of acid so they can’t be safely preserved without adding acid – usually vinegar. I grew up on vinegar-based vegetable chutneys, relishes and pickled onions and I still like an odd dollop of mustard cauliflower piccalilli with cold mutton but I find the clean, sharp flavours and the tang of lactic vegetable pickles are so moreish I actually crave them. My fermented drink of choice is water kefir, made with root ginger and dried fruit – kind of a hipster version of the ginger beer bug I grew up with.

Pickled Onions-1-2

I also like the process of making vegetable ferments because you don’t have to have a big boil up or worry about getting airtight seals, in fact, you actively don’t want this!  My lacto-fermented beans recipe below is designed to do a single quart (litre) preserving jar which is sometimes all I’ve got time to do when I come in from the garden of an evening with a bunch of beans. You don’t need a lot of equipment.  Good glass jars and airlocks and some weights to keep the contents of the jars submerged. We haven’t mentioned the health benefits of these living foods but some of the good bacteria make their way into your intestines too where research shows they can help everything from your digestion to your mood, appetite and even immune system!  There are lots of reasons to give fermented preserving a go but flavour is the most important – they just taste so good.

Here are a couple of my favourite easy vegetable ferments to get you started. First up:

Crunchy Green Bean Pickles

Anyone who grows beans knows that for 3-4 weeks over the peak of the summer (now) there are always more beans than mouths to eat them.  I have tried freezing beans and salting beans and drying beans but none of these methods does justice to the crunchy green beans of summer.  This lacto-fermented method actually adds something to the bean and retains the crunch!

  • 500g (1lb) of Green Beans
  • Sprigs of Dill
  • Chili Flakes
  • 2 cloves Garlic
  • 1 tablespoon Natural Sea Salt
  • 1 ltr (1qt) glass jar with airlock lid
  • a fresh grape leaf (optional)

green bean fermented pickle

Pick, wash, top and tail, 1/2 kilo (1 lb) of green beans.  Put the grape leaf into the bottom of a clean 1 litre (1 quart) glass preserving jar.  Put the jar on its side and stuff the beans in very tightly.  Poke in some sprigs of dill, 2 cloves of garlic and some chili flakes depending on how hot you like it.  Make a brine of 2 cups of filtered water and 1 tablespoon of natural sea salt (boil the brine and cool it if you don’t have filtered water) and pour it over the beans until they are covered.  Fit an airlock and set the jar somewhere warm for a week, checking every now and then to make sure no beans are poking their heads up out of the brine.  If you get any little patches of mould on top of the brine scoop it out. The brine will go cloudy – don’t worry. After a week, eat a bean and see if it is tangy enough for you.  Check the pH and store in a cold place when ready.

Serve these crunchy pickles with a dish of yogurt or hummus as a moreish lacto-fermented snack.  People rarely stop at one!  They are surprisingly good. The grape leaf is a trick an elderly Russian lady passed on to me – apparently it adds crunch to the pickle – use any leaf high in tannins – oak or horseradish also are good.

Lacto-fermented green beans

Spicy Kimchi

  • 1 Chinese Cabbage
  • 1/4 cup Natural Sea Salt
  • 2 tablespoons Fish Sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Chili Flakes
  • 4 cloves Garlic
  • 1cm Fresh Ginger
  • 1 teaspoon palm sugar or brown sugar
  • 1 large carrot
  • 4 spring onions

I like to think of Kimchi as interesting sauerkraut but that is doing sauerkraut a disservice really – they are both their own thing – but I like Kimchi and here is my version which is probably not authentic but I’ve been making it for a few years now and I love it.  Chop a whole Chinese cabbage roughly. Rub in 1/4 cup natural sea salt (wear rubber gloves) until the bruised cabbage starts to give up its juices (5-10 mins). Soak in a bowl of cold water for 2 hours. Rinse the salt off, drain and dry well on paper towels.

Mix 2 tablespoons of fish sauce with 1 tablespoon of chili flakes, 4 cloves of garlic, 1 cm of fresh ginger grated and 1 teaspoon of palm or brown sugar and add this to a chopped carrot and 4 spring onions and mix well. I’ve also added carrots and red onion in when they are to hand.

Add the carrot and spice mix to the cabbage and mix well then pack into a large glass jar and push it down with a pestle so the juice comes up and covers the cabbage.  Cover it with an airlock and leave it at room temperature for a week, pushing down a couple of times a day to keep the cabbage submerged and then taste it and if it is tangy enough move it to cold storage.

kimchi

The Truth about Baked Beans …

Baked Bean Taste Test

Those of you who have been following along for a while will know that we do like a good taste test.  You’ll also know we’ve been a little preoccupied with growing dried beans these last couple of years and we have a lot of dried beans in the store cupboard. So we decided to perfect home-made baked beans. To get our eye in we decided to taste a range of baked beans one cold wet winter weekend and award marks for:

  • number of beans
  • flavour and texture of beans
  • flavour and texture of sauce
  • Taste of overall product

It turns out that not all beans are created equal. Two were disqualified before we’d even begun. Sorry Weight Watchers – your beans are a sad excuse for food and would send me running for the nearest slice of hot buttered toast. Apologies also to Whole Earth – we so wanted your saucy organic baked beans to tantalise our taste buds, but with 15 different ingredients fighting it out your product just tasted brown and slightly fruity with a dose of musty wholefoods thrown in. Perhaps their journey from the UK didn’t do them any favours but this was just too much worthiness in one tin to taste any good. Just eat the toast.

baked bean taste test

So we tasted five main brands:

Budget faired the worst, made in Italy, a thin tasteless sweet glossy sauce with 5% tomato puree in it, wrapped around a miserly number of tough under-cooked beans. Even the tin is 10 grams less than the standard size. Italians involved clearly knew these were for export or their mothers wouldn’t forgive them.

Oak – didn’t fair that much better with mushy beans and a glossy runny sweet sauce that screamed vegetable gum and maize thickener.

Pams – in a close third place with the most amazing sauce, good texture with notes of smokey bbq and grilled onions.  Also the biggest can and highest beans per capita but the texture of the beans let them down – too mushy.

Watties – in second place absolutely nailed the beans – a good amount cooked just perfectly – soft but with a little bite. The sauce was super tomatoey but overly sweet and sticky.

Heinz – in first place these had a good flavour in both the beans and sauce – not too sweet or gooey – everything you’d expect from a tin of beans which isn’t much. Beanz really does meanz Heinz. These are also made in NZ as are Pams and Watties.

baked bean taste test

One thing that did surprise us was just how much sugar was in most of these brands. Tomato puree does have natural sugars and beans have a little natural sugar in them too but nothing like the levels in the cans we tasted. Just to give you a comparison:

  • Half a can of Coca-Cola contains 19.50 grams sugar
  • Half a can of Watties baked beans contains 15.54 grams sugar

Most of us could polish off half a can of beans and the brands we tasted had between 10 – 15 grams of sugar per half can and that can’t all come from tomato puree. Pams was one of the better ones with a teaspoon less sugar than Watties per half can.

sugar in watties baked beans

So we thought seeing as we are so clever and righteous, we’d make the ultimate baked beans at home with no added sugar. We picked apart the labels, assembled the nice ingredients and had a go and it was pretty horrible actually. It looked the part but tasted like a vinegary tomato sauce with none of the love the ingredients deserved. See photo below.

homemade baked beans

We had another go with a recipe recommended by Gareth Partington of Partington Wines, an organic vineyard and winery in nearby Upper Moutere and realised the error of our ways immediately. We’d been trying to recreate an industrial product when we should have been trying to understand the bean!  During Mk-1 we’d made a sauce and cooked the beans and put the two together but no – baked beans – as the original makers intended are indeed baked – together – for ages as it turns out.

And this makes sense because beans need long slow cooking to soften and absorb the flavours of what you cook them with. Gareth’s recipe calls for 4 hours in the oven and having made several batches now we agree. The secret to a great baked bean is long and slow cooking. The second secret is the right bean. All of the baked beans we tasted are made with Navy beans also known as Haricot beans, a medium white bean that unfortunately is not commercially grown in New Zealand. I trialed growing some dwarf haricot beans as part of our heirloom bean trial but had no success and it seems I’m not alone.

homemade baked beans

The UK is one of the great consumers of baked beans and a lot of work has been done there to see if a cold-climate haricot bean can be developed. Until then most Navy or Haricot beans come from the USA and this makes sense in a way because that is the home of the original baked bean. Native Americans cooked dried beans with fat and water and this was picked up by the pilgrims who cooked dried beans with a little ham. The ham was dropped in lean war years and baked beans as we we know them today were created. Many American recipes still contain smoked bacon or ham and maple syrup.

The recipe we’ve arrived at includes haricot beans, onions, garlic, tomato puree, cider vinegar, bay leaves, black pepper, salt, mustard powder, mace, allspice, apple juice and a little molasses. It turns out that baked beans need a little bit of sweetness from somewhere but we don’t think they need as much as the commercial brands are putting in there.

homemade baked beans

Quantities are not an exact science with this recipe – follow your nose – or your taste buds. Soak the beans overnight and discard the water. Place all ingredients in a baking dish and cover with fresh water then bake in a moderate oven, stirring occasionally for 4 hours.

Update: You’ve asked for the actual quantities we’ve used so here we are:

  • 1 lb of dried haricot beans soaked overnight and drained
  • 1 1/3 cup of finely chopped onions
  • 1/4 cup dried English mustard powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
  • 1 cup tomato puree (half and half homemade tom chilli sauce and tom puree is good)
  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup apple juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 8 cups water
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground mace
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 tablespoon of molasses

I softened the onion and garlic in a little butter then added beans and other ingredients. All in an oven proof dish. The original recipe has 12 bacon slices which I didn’t use – if you do use these cook them with the onions and garlic. It looks like a lot of water but it does all cook down.  Put it in a moderate oven 180C and cook for 4 hours stirring on the hour.  I also didn’t put the salt in until the end as it makes the beans go tough.

We’ve tried using other varieties of beans that we’ve grown with this recipe and the ones that work best are small to medium sized varieties like Pinto, Borlotti and the heirloom North American shell out beans like Good Mother Stallard and Indian Hannah.

 

 

How to Make (good) Cider at Home

cider apples

Ever fancied making cider? Ever made it and regretted it? Well, one wander around Peckham’s cidery in Tasman’s Moutere hills during the autumn harvest will surely send you home fermenting a plan to make your own cider. Branches laden with glowing mellow fruit, crisp mornings, damp grass and a sweet smell rising from heaps of pomace (spent pulp) have me reaching for my basket and press. A great mellow filter descends on the Tasman region each autumn, and you half expect rosy-cheeked children to be picnicking under the next tree.

But don’t be fooled, cider making is not all wandering and wassailing – especially not during harvest. On an autumn Saturday, Alex and Caroline Peckham spared me time to discuss the art and science of it, between the pressing task of making cider. For the past ten years, they have been honing their knowledge and skills as cider growers and makers to turn this bounty into some of the country’s finest artisan ciders, winning acclaim and awards for the Peckham’s brand along the way.

Cider is wines friendly cousin. Not many of us attempt to make a pinot noir in the laundry but cider is more accessible, with apples often readily available and a less daunting process anyone can make cider. Press apples, ferment juice then drink right? But to make a good cider, the Peckhams generously shared a few of their hard learned tips.

cider press
Photo Daniel Allen – www.danielallenmedia.com

Firstly we talked about what is cider? Well, it is not made from peaches for a start, nor is it sweetened with sugar to within an inch of an RTD. True cider is an expression of the fruit and the soil and the maker. It is made with apple juice and skill. That doesn’t mean it is stuck in a rut; cider is evolving as the new craft beer with cideries popping up everywhere.

But a good cider still sticks to the fundamentals. And these basic tenet’s of fruit and land and technique have given the Peckhams more than enough room to create a range of ciders that suit the Kiwi palette. The pure fruit flavours shine through – without adding sugar. One of the biggest disappointments of the home cider maker is creating a mouth puckering bone dry brew that bears no resemblance to their favourite tipple. And while fermenting out all the natural fruit sugars is a common trap for new makers, Alex believes, dry is in the eye of the beholder. One man’s dry is another man’s medium, and Caroline agrees. Even in the last few years at tastings, she has noticed a shift in customer preferences away from the sweeter ciders to the dryer, more complex flavours of some products in their range.

And if you do over-ferment and create one of these bone dry brews at home all is not lost. Caroline advises that with the addition of a little apple juice or elderflower cordial there is every chance that you will be able to turn your cider from puckering to perfect. Just don’t put the lid back on it and pop it in the cupboard as it may well start to ferment again.

cider apples
Photo Daniel Allen – www.danielallenmedia.com

Varieties and Sourcing

Trees of specific cider apple varieties are hard to come by in New Zealand. The Peckhams built up their collection of over 30 varieties by obtaining graft wood off other growers and trees from Allenton nursery in Ashburton which has now closed.  Lambourne Marketing in Tasman carry some varieties of cider apples in their catalogue.

Cider apples have flavour profiles such as bitter, bittersweet and sharp, and a mix of apples from each profile goes into making the perfect blend – not unlike blending whisky. Choosing varieties is all about getting a blended juice with a good structure, you want a balance of astringency, tannin, and sweetness with a good aroma. Most ciders are blends for this reason, and for the home orchardist, if you are only planting a couple of trees the Peckhams advise choosing ones that give a balanced blend and ripen at the same time. Kingston Black and Sweet Alford would be one such pairing.

But if you can’t get your hands on specific cider varieties it doesn’t mean you can’t make good cider. The secret is tasting the fruit. Alex feels there is a belief that if you eat a sharp apple, then that is the one for cider. But while pressing a bucket of Granny Smiths might make a lovely clean, crisp apple juice it may ferment into a decidedly sharp cider without further special malolactic fermentation. Whereas the juice from a nice Egremont Russet or Bramley may give you a wonderful base for cider with just a hint of acidity from a few added crab apples. Training your pallet to taste the juice and adjust accordingly is one of the best things a home cider maker can do.

How to prune and spray them

All apples benefit from some pruning and spraying, and cider apples are no exception. While the Peckhams don’t manicure their trees like culinary apple crops, they do still prune for structure and do some fruit thinning to overcome the biannual bearing habit of some varieties. Their trunk pruning regime involves taking out up to 3 or 4 branches from a tree to aid openness for fruit ripening and harvesting. They have noticed lower yields without this pruning. They have also found a basic spray program for fungal diseases is necessary.

When to harvest them – fruit fall and ripeness

The ripeness of fruit is all when it comes to a good cider. Alex and Caroline ground harvest a good portion of their crop and the rest is hand harvested when very ripe. In early April, while the culinary apple crop is all but picked, the Peckhams are still hard at work bringing in their cider apples.

Just when is ripe enough can be determined technically by brix meters to measure the sugar, but the Peckhams have some simpler tests to help them judge ripeness. The first is taste the fruit. Take an apple like Cox’s Orange Pippin, Alex describes an under-ripe Cox, perhaps picked for supermarket sale, to be crisp, bland, acidic with moderate sweetness. But take that same apple at peak ripeness and not only will you have the acid and sweetness but you also get all the mellow nutty flavours that linger on your palate. These are the flavours that properly ripe fruit impart to a great cider.

For the home orchardist or forager, regular tasting of the fruit in the weeks leading up to picking is their advice – until you get those nutty flavours as well as the crisp, clean acid and sugar. That is not to say the fruit should be rotten. It is a balance, and any rot in the fruit will also come through as musty notes in the finished cider. Washing, cleaning and sorting apples are key to weeding out unwanted fruit and debris.

The final simple two tests are pop and pip. If your thumb can press into the apple with a pop and leave an indent without mushing it, then it is ripe. The colour of the pips when you cut it open also indicate ripeness – black pips are ripe while light brown is not.

ripeness test apples

How to press them

Before pressing the apples are milled into suitably sized pieces. Home cider makers employ all sorts of devices from electric garden chippers to food processors to achieve this job. Whatever you use, ensure the parts in contact with the fruit and juice are food grade as apple juice is acidic. The Peckhams advise that you should be aiming for irregular pea sized pieces – not so fine as a grated apple.

Depending on the press and type of apples you should aim for a yield of around 70% of the volume of juice to fruit – so 20 kg of apples will yield you 14 litres of juice. The pulp of cider apples is spongy and yields slightly less juice than less dense culinary varieties. Apple presses are specialist pieces of equipment, and it is hard to get home-scale ones that work well. I have a press made by Bob Croy from Wakefield, and it is a sturdy piece of equipment that I have used for years. Bob sells them on Trade Me.

How to ferment them

Once you’ve got your juice and you’re ready to make cider you have a couple of remaining key decisions to make. The first is which yeast to use. You can try the wild and free method, adding nothing and letting the natural yeasts on the skins of the fruit ferment as they will. This may result in something spectacularly good or bad. And for the home cider maker, this is a risk that may be worth taking. However, if you prefer a bit more certainty in your brew, the Peckhams recommend adding a Campden tablet to remove unwanted bacteria that can produce those “off” flavours and then use a white wine yeast to ferment the juice.

The second is temperature. One of the biggest mistakes home cider makers fall into is fermenting their brews at too higher temperature. Apparently, cider prefers a slow cool ferment at temperatures as low as 8°C up to around 14°C. So don’t stick it in the hot water cupboard.

Alex succinctly sums up the key points for success “Ripe fruit – not too much acid, some tannin, and a cool slow ferment.”

For more pictures of the orchard and cidery visit peckhams.co.nz or find their range at Farro Fresh, Moore Wilsons and Fresh Choice throughout the South Island.  For more information on cider making the Peckhams recommend a visit to cider.org.uk

Get to know the Feijoa

feijoa tasting

Not all feijoas are created equal and with all the new varieties on the market, saying it tastes like a feijoa is like saying a wine tastes like grapes. The chances are if you think you can’t stand feijoas you just haven’t met the right one yet. We tasted 8 feijoas on the trot. Don’t try this at home. Marks were awarded out of 5 for grittiness, astringency, sweetness, perfume and an overall score. Here are the edited highlights:

Variety & Season Judges’ Comments

Marks out of 5

Unique (early) Sorry, we found “Unique” a bit average, lacking any definite flavour or aroma. The fruit does ripen early.

2/5

Apollo (early) For such a giant of a tree, the fruit lacked true feijoa grit and astringency. Inside its rough skin “Apollo” is just a big old sweetie.

3/5

Wiki Tu (mid-late) This diminutive tree packs a huge flavour punch in its fruit. Meaty, sharp, gritty, astringent and sweet, all in perfect balance with a lovely fragrance to boot. Outstanding.

5/5

Kaiteri (early) A smooth, mango, guava flavoured fruit. Luscious, very sweet, massive fruit with not a trace of grit or tang. A model modern fruit, “NZ’s next top Feijoa”. If you don’t like feijoas try “Kaiteri”.

3/5

Anatoki (early) Smooth skin, smooth flesh, “Anatoki’s” lack of grit pulled it down the rankings and perhaps deserves a recount. Not too sweet with a lovely tangy sharpness. My personal favourite.

3½/5

Opal Star (late) Another late ripening variety is topping the charts. “Opal Star” had a big, very sharp flavour with medium sweetness and grit. Like “Wiki Tu” it is the meaty Beefsteak of the Feijoa world.

4/5

Pounamu (early) If there were a reality show called Extreme Feijoa “Pounamu” would win. Huge flavours but the extreme sweetness of this fruit led to a lack of balance in our opinion. Mind you, it was our 7th, and we weren’t spitting them out.

3½/5

Kakapo (mid) Another modern sweetie,“Kakapo” is one for the kids with a medium level of grit and tang but loads of sweetness.

3½/5

feijoa anatoki
(Unique bottom right)
Judges Note: To rate anything is to invite debate so the judges acknowledge that factors such as thinning, feeding, pruning and climate can alter the sugar levels and flavours of varieties. The judges also acknowledge a slight bias for old school feijoa flavours.

Most of our modern feijoa varieties are the handiwork of Motueka based plant breeder Roy Hart. Here are ten things I learned about feijoas while we sat on his porch talking:

  1. Feijoas are native to Brazil and Argentina but have grown in NZ since the early 1900’s
  2. The petals are edible, and birds eat them, pollinating the flowers in the process.
  3. That classic feijoa grittiness disappears when you bottle them
  4. Roys own favourite is Pounamu, but he also rates Anatoki (my favourite)
  5. Even “self-fertile” varieties set much better quality fruit with another variety planted nearby for pollination
  6. Always buy cutting grown or grafted trees as seedling trees don’t produce fruit true to label
  7. They start fruiting in their 2nd year, and the crop ripens late February in the North through to late May in the South.
  8. The tree can withstand -10C frosts; late spring frosts won’t damage flowers and early autumn frosts only damage ripe fruit.
  9. They take hard pruning very well and can be relocated.
  10. They are shallow rooted trees that love mulch and a good rich feed of compost and manure each spring.

Favourite Festive Finger Food

blog-post-photo

This weekend I won’t be alone in getting ready for the “festive fortnight” leading up to Christmas. That couple of weeks when you invite and get invited to work do’s and drinks with neighbours and give gifts to teachers, posties and Aunts. So if you don’t want to resort to a pricey spread of supermarket crackers, grapes and cheeses or box of chocolates then try these Jo Segar inspired recipes that see me right each silly season.

Out of my fairly sizable collection of recipe books, it is the Jo Segar books I turn to time and again for easy, crowd-pleasing drinks and nibbles fare. My sister gave me Jo Segars book “You shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble, darling” in 1998, for my first Christmas in London. With new people to entertain it fast became a bible and one recipe, in particular, the Baby Pecan Pie recipe became a favourite and I will admit that I make it for the pastry and I don’t think I’ve ever made it with pecans in it. Click here for the recipe.

best-christmas-mince-pie-recipe

The pastry is a simple 3 ingredient food processor job that produces the ultimate sweet tart pastry. The icing sugar doesn’t get out much anymore but this recipe makes up for it. Close your eyes and measure it – it’s Christmas. Click here to follow her instructions, she knows what she is talking about. Do chill it for 30 mins, do use floured hands to press out the pastry and don’t overfill the cases – everyone does – but don’t. The recipe says it makes 16 mini pies, but the filling is enough for a double batch so make a double batch of pastry or half the filling.

christmas-mince-pies

For the filling, I’ve used all sorts of dried fruits and nuts, glued together with the egg, butter and brown sugar mix she suggests. I usually add a touch of mixed spice or cinnamon depending on the fruit. This year I’m using prunes that have been visiting some brandy syrup in my fridge for a while, some lovely orange zest and juice from the tree in the garden and some flaked almonds. But seriously – just use what you have in the dried fruit and nut line and they will be gorgeous. Cool them and store them in an airtight container and serve with a dusting of icing sugar or a dollop of whipped cream.

christmas-truffles

Christmas is the time for homemade truffles and Jo Segar also features in the best Christmas truffle recipe line up from the Country Trading Co. archives – her Prune and Port Truffles are just divine – click here for our blog with that recipe in it.

For savoury nibbles I love her bacon and flaky pastry pinwheels, parmesan wafers and onion marmalade in tiny pastry cases. Thanks for all the great recipes and Merry Christmas Jo!

For three of our favourite crackers to complete your festive fodder click here for lavosh, knackenbrot and oat cakes. Then put your feet up and enjoy a well-earned rest.

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Gran’s Mint Sauce

homemade-mint-sauce

Nothing reminds me more of early summer than the smell of fresh mint. For a short window, before the bugs perforate it and the rust sets in, mint is at its verdant, rampant best. At this time of year, especially in a wet year like this one, the mint stalks are soft and the new tips are greener than green.

There are a hundred and one types of mint you can grow but for maximum mintyness I prefer the stiff pointy leaves of a good true spearmint. One sniff of these crushed leaves and you’d swear you were eating snifter lollies or spearmint gum. This particular mint is my Grandad’s mint that he used to grow in a concrete laundry tub by the back door.  My Dad still grows it the same way and so do I. I’m using it to make my Gran’s mint sauce recipe which makes me a third generation grower and maker of this little garden to table combo!

mint-sauce-recipe

My Gran was a “bit of this and handful of that” kind of cook, so getting any sort of quantities and method from her was a challenge. “Add just enough and stir till it’s done”, was her usual response. But this little recipe is a good one. She made it as a concentrate and watered it down to serve in a cut glass with the Sunday roast of lamb or mutton. I’ve expanded on her instructions a bit for you!

Gran’s Mint Sauce

  • 1-quart (1 liter) bottle of vinegar – I use wine or cider vinegar
  • 1 lb (450g) of brown sugar –  I use raw sugar and you can use less quite safely
  • 1/2 cup plain salt (that’s un-iodised – I use sea salt)
  • 3 cups of chopped mint

how to make mint sauce

Method

  • Sterilize small glass jars or bottles to take the volume of sauce you’re making – you want ones with non-reactive screw top lids and wide mouths so you can get the chopped mint in. I put the bottles in an oven on 140°F, 60°C to sterilize them. This also means they’re less likely to crack than cold bottles when you pour the hot sauce in.
  • In a non-reactive pan, boil the vinegar, sugar, and salt and keep it boiling gently
  • Wash and finely chop the mint – really fine – the finer the better.
  • Sit the bottles on a wooden chopping board and pack the mint evenly into each bottle
  • Pour the boiling vinegar mix on top and fasten with sterilized non-reactive lids.  Gran used cellophane and rubber bands.
  • To serve, shake the bottle to mix, pour a little sauce into a jug and dilute to taste with cold water.

homemad

I like to use this mint sauce in marinades and dressings even more than I love it on roast meat. Uncut it makes a mean addition to mayonnaise for a minty new potato salad. It will keep quite happily on your pantry shelf for a whole year.

How do you like to use mint?

Couple of Tips:

  • A wooden chopping board lessens the risk of bottles breaking when they’re full of hot sauce and being put down on a hard or cold work surface.
  • Mint is a perennial plant that dies down in some parts of the country over winter – so don’t think you’ve killed it if it disappears from your garden.
  • Screw your pantry shelving unit to the wall if it is freestanding and fit little guards across the shelves to stop jars falling off in an earthquake and smashing. I’ve taken mine down for the photo but my shelves have that plastic coated curtain wire across each one.

10 Minute Home Orchard

plan a home orchard

Planning an orchard is very exciting. You’re already dreaming of baskets of sun-ripened fruit and blossom-laden trees. But good harvests start with good planning and this short guide will set you on the right path.  An orchard is something that will be with you for quite a while, so a 10-minute read is a good investment to get it right.

What do we want to eat?

Only plant what you like to eat. There’s no point putting in one of everything to tick a box if you like only some of them. If plums are your thing plant plums, if you’ve got room for an avocado tree plant one. Make a list of the fruit you love first and then go through the steps below to work out if you can, and want to, grow it successfully.

Does it grow here?

Before you buy trees ask your neighbors what grows well in their orchards and see what fruit local growers at your farmers market have for sale. Talk to growers about what does well in your region and what soil type they’re on. This can vary a lot within a region and affects what will and won’t grow. For example, walnuts don’t like heavy clay soils, avocados don’t like wind and frost.

planning a home orchard

When does it ripen?

If you choose your varieties carefully you can plan to have some fruit ripening for most months of the year in your orchard, even in the depths of winter. Talk to your neighbors and local growers at the market each week to build up a picture of local ripening times in your region and use this to pick your selection of trees to plant.

What can we maintain?

It’s easy to put a large orchard together on paper but it’s not so easy to look forward 3, 4, 10 years hence and think about who is going to mow, prune, spray, weed, do the frost protection, put the bird netting on, do something with all the fruit …you get the picture. Try and look past the jars of bottled apricots and think through what level of maintenance and processing you can cope with in the time you have before you order your trees. If I’d done this I wouldn’t have planted more than two plum trees.

plan-your-orchard

Preparing the Site

Your site is your site, you can’t change it greatly but what you can do is improve drainage if that’s a problem, plant or put up some shelter from the prevailing wind, chop back trees that may shade your orchard from the sun, bring in or make a load of good well-rotted organic compost to plant with your trees. Get rid of any heavy weed and grass growth before planting. Goats are never compatible with new orchards either.

How do we come up with a layout?

Try and plant the evergreen trees in a spot that won’t block the path of the sun from your other deciduous fruit trees.
Spacing is important. It sounds ridiculous allowing 6m between stick like plum trees but trust us, in 3 years you’ll see why. You need to allow for mowing and moving room between trees for pruning and harvesting and airflow to avoid fungal diseases. Larger trees like walnuts, avocados and chestnuts will need around 10-15m space between them and the next tree. Plums, peaches, nectarines, apricots allow 5-6m at least. Smaller trees like olives, hazels, feijoas will cope with 3-4m.
If you want a few berry bushes, try and put these close to the house and treat them more like part of your veggie garden than your orchard. Berries need more hands on care and attention than other fruit trees, more pruning, watering, covering up from birds etc. and the closer they are to the house the better your chance of getting the fruit. A dedicated site for your orchard is good but don’t be afraid of poking fruit trees and berry bushes throughout your garden. For example hazelnuts or feijoas are perfect screening on a driveway or boundary, while a grapevine will cover an ugly fence or drape over a veranda.

how-to-lay-out-a-home-orchard

Irrigating & Protecting New Trees

Baby trees are a lot like children. Get them off to a good start in life and they’ll be trouble free motoring down the track. Here are 6 things you must do for your young orchard, in order of importance:

• Irrigate frequently, a good soak every week or two, over the summer months for the first 2-3 summers until their roots are down deep enough to find water.
• Stake and tie them up from the prevailing wind if they are tall sticks for the first year until they get their roots in.
• Pick immature fruit off the trees for the first season or two to let the trees get established before using energy producing fruit (especially citrus).
• Protect tender trees from the frost until they get to a couple of meters in height.
• Keep the weed and grass growth down from around the trees by mulching with tree mats or bark.
• If you are rural put guards on to stop damage from rabbits stripping the bark.

Dwarf Trees & Growing in Containers

Don’t try and grow full sized fruit trees in containers for a couple of years while you wait for your patch of land. You won’t get a meaningful harvest and any growth advantage will be lost with the transplant shock when you try and replant a large tree into the ground – they tend to sulk for several years.
There are a number of dwarfing fruit trees available if space is at a premium. These are trees that are either grafted onto a dwarfing rootstock or are naturally low growing varieties. Before going into dwarfing trees check that your soil type is suitable for dwarfing trees. They don’t do well in heavy soils.
Dwarf trees are also suitable for container growing, however, you will need to water very regularly over the summer months and keep a lot of fertilizer up to them as trees in containers quickly exhaust available nutrients. You also need to spray dwarfing trees much more diligently with anti-fungal sprays like liquid copper because the dense habit of foliage leads to greater levels of fungal diseases.

Good luck with your orchard planning. An orchard is an evolving, living thing and it will reward you with fruit if you reward it by taking the time to understand its needs and care for it as it grows. Don’t think of it as a one-off purchase of a few trees, think of it as an investment in food production for years to come, an asset for you and your family and friends.  Everyone makes a list of fruit trees they want to fill up their garden with right away and that is great but leave room in the scheme for what you don’t know you’ll want yet. Experience shows that in a couple of years you’ll be saying, I wish I had room for an earlier ripening apricot and a white-fleshed nectarine … or a cutting from that great fig tree from Mrs. Smith down the road…

Heirloom Bean Trial – Pt 2.

how to store shell-out beans
This week we’re sharing how to harvest and cook with those heirloom shell-out beans we talked about growing in our last post. When the beans are growing, encourage them to carry on producing by picking a few of the first pods. Once you can see the outline of fat bean seeds tight against the skin of the pods, you can shell them out and cook a few fresh. Fresh shelled out beans aren’t common in our bean cuisine but freshly shelled they are a real gourmet treat. They cook in very little time and have a melt-in-the-mouth creamy texture.
For dried beans, let the pods mature a few weeks longer on the vine until they start to yellow and wither. If the weather is dry, you can leave them on the vine until the seeds rattle inside crispy brown pods. If it is going to rain, harvest the pods when they start to yellow and dry them on racks inside.
storing dried beans

I found a few old soil sieves propped up in the porch were perfect for this. When the beans are dry and hard, you have the satisfying task of shelling out and storing them in glass jars for use throughout the coming year. Mark advised me that heirloom beans are self-fertile and rarely cross, so don’t eat them all – a few dried beans are perfect for saving to grow again, the following season

While I waited for the beans to grow I expanded my bean cuisine by reading “Cassoulet – a French Obsession”, a lovely book by Kate Hill. She unpicks each element of this classic French bean and charcuterie dish and writes quite passionately about beans. Freshness is all according to Kate, not something I’d considered in dried beans, to be honest, but according to her those jars of beans decorating your shelf for the last few years will be starchy tasting and hard to cook compared with “fresh” dried beans. She advocates looking for a harvest or sell by date when buying dried beans and any over 2 years old are not worth shelling out for.

heirloom bean trial

Kate also advocates a “love the one you’re with” local philosophy to beans not just for freshness but also terroir that will make local beans suit local dishes. While in New Zealand she was surprised by the lack of locally grown dried beans and found the imported beans that were available tough and harder to cook, pointing to irradiation, age or storage as possible culprits. Perhaps there is a place for grower to supply New Zealand bean buyers with a range of gourmet fresh dried beans?, but until then the best option for flavor and variety is to grow your own.

Cooking Beans

I was initially disappointed with the size of my harvest for the amount of plot the crop took. That was until I read that dried beans triple in size during soaking and cooking. My jars of dried beans actually yielded many more meals than I initially thought they would. Other bits of bean lore I discovered to improve my bean cuisine included:

  • Soaking dried beans for 8 – 10 hours in a large bowl of cold water softens them before cooking which reduces cooking time and helps them cook evenly. Lentils and other small pulses do not need pre-soaking.
  • Discarding the soaking liquid and cooking in fresh water may reduce flatulence, but some say this is a load of hot air and loses flavor in the bean. I tried both and didn’t notice an appreciable difference in taste or breeziness.
  • Don’t add any salt or acidic liquids like vinegar until the end of cooking as these can slow down the cooking.
  • A teaspoon of oil added to the cooking water can stop the beans foaming.
  • Always cook beans on a gentle simmer. Rapid boiling will cause them to split, break up and cook unevenly.
  • The best way to test for doneness is to taste the beans. When they are done they will be soft and creamy with no chalkiness, not wet and mushy.

Taste Test

Once the beans were grown, dried and admired, we came to the business end of the trial – the taste test. The beans were soaked overnight and the following evening we cooked up each one in nothing but water, then ate our way through a vertical tasting of 13 different varieties, awarding scores and notes on taste and texture. Oh, the things that pass for fun in these parts!

how to harvest dried beans

The outstanding winner on the night was Rex and Margie’s Maerawhiti bean with a nutty, sweet flavor and creamy texture. I wish I knew the variety, but I’m sure someone will recognize the seed and enlighten me. Good Mother Stallard came in a close second with a chestnut sweet flavor, and even, creamy texture – much better than the supposed gourmet Borlotti which we rated as a good flavor absorber, but now something of a has-bean by comparison.

Good Mother Stallard Beans

The small pretty Persian Lima beans cooked quickly, rated well for flavor and had a uniform creamy paste, but the firm skin held the beans together making this bean well suited to bean salad. Whereas the Mexican Pinto, Blue Shackamaxon and dwarf Haricot would make ideal refried beans with thin skins, creamy paste, and bland flavors.

heirloom-shell-out-bean-varieties

The soya beans tasted very rich, like the protein parcels they are and the Red Kidney beans were sweet and creamy, crying out for some chili and tomato. I cooked up some dried Red Kidney Beans from the local bulk bin as a comparison, and they took longer to cook, were not as sweet, had tougher skins and a flakier, less creamy texture than the home-grown ones. Proof that even in dried beans freshness matters.

Cooking with Dried Beans

A traditional French Cassoulet is a marriage of beans and meats, cooked slowly in a vegetable and herb enriched broth. Such is its place in the cuisine of southwestern France it even has its own special earthenware pot known as a cassole which is used to cook it in. I decided to attempt one during a wet winter weekend.

authentic-french-cassoulet

Kate Hill’s book gives several recipes including the classic Cassoulet where the method and the ritual are as important as the ingredients. This is true slow cooking – a dish to make over the course of a couple of days and to be enjoyed for a couple of days more. The combination of confit of duck, ham hock, salt pork, and a good Toulouse sausage all in the one pot may seem like a meat overload but the flavors all mingle and contribute to a significantly hearty dish that would be the poorer for omitting any one of them.

The simplicity of the dish means it relies on the quality of the ingredients to make it great. My kiwi cassoulet with the last of my Maerawhiti beans, homemade lamb sausage, lightly pickled pork belly, back fat and foot of a happy free-range pig went well with some winter veggies and herbs from the garden. The only import was some duck confit from France. Even though the meat is significant, this dish is really all about the beans.

And if Cassoulet looks a bit involved for you, here’s three of my current favorite quick and easy recipes with beans and pulses.

dried bean recipes

My friend Rachel gave me this recipe for Salt & Vinegar Roasted Chickpeas. They make a lovely snack and could be adapted to a range of seasonings. Definitely a recipe worth further experimenting with. Soak chickpeas in a large bowl of cold water overnight. Drain in a sieve, weigh them and spread on a foil-lined baking sheet. For every 400 grams of soaked chickpeas mix up 50 ml cider vinegar and 5 g of sea salt. Pour the mixture over the chickpeas and bake in a 200°C (390°F) oven for 30 minutes, turning every 10 minutes. Watch them towards the end so they don’t burn. Cool completely and store in a glass jar with an airtight lid.
Ribolitta is a classic Italian bean dish that makes the most of dried beans and winter veggies during the colder months. Nigel Slater describes it as “a big fat soup substantial enough to be a main meal”. Cook your beans up and keep the cooking water to add to the soup. Chop up onions, carrots, a little celery and cook them in some butter with a bay leaf. Add your cooked beans and bean water. I add chicken stock, but a can of tomatoes is traditional. The soup is often thickened with bread but I like it thinner with the bread served for dunking. Season to taste and stir in a big handful of chopped Kale 10 minutes before serving and a big bunch of chopped Italian flat leaf parsley a couple of minutes before serving.
This Red Lentil Coconut Curry is a one-pot, no soaking required, hearty meal. In a large saucepan, cook a chopped onion in a little oil or butter, add some grated fresh ginger and garlic to taste and cook for a couple of minutes. Add in some chopped pumpkin, parsnip or sweet potatoes and cook for a further 5 minutes. Season with ground cumin, coriander, turmeric and a little chili to taste. Stir to mix and add in 1 1/2 cups of red lentils, a can of coconut milk and 2 cups of water. Cook on low for at least 30 minutes, stirring occaisionally so it doesn’t stick. Season to taste and serve with rice or flatbreads and some chopped coriander leaves. I’ve dehydrated it for a tasty tramping meal.
I’m making space in this summer’s garden to grow more beans to dry. If anyone has a good big white bean like the French Tarbais, Large Lima or Spanish Habichuelas Blancas I’d love to swap some seeds.