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

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.

White Peach Iced Tea Cordial

homemade peach iced tea-01

Bottled fruit is handy. For a quick fruit pudding, fruit flavoured yogurt or jazzing up the muesli, a jar of bottled fruit makes a great homemade fast food. But the average family, if there is such a thing, doesn’t eat their weight in bottled fruit each year like they used to. Tastes change, the world is no longer black and white and we are spoilt for choice on the food front. Breakfast has moved on from weet bix or kornies and dessert is no longer crumble or custard. My own house is no exception, so although I still do a few jars of bottled fruit each summer, I also scan around for new ways to use the fruit coming in from our orchard.

As well as dehydrating fruit, in recent summers I’ve been experimenting with fruit cordials. Some of you might remember last summer’s Women’s Institute Plum Cordial which went down very well.  This summer I’ve made another version of this with lemons which is even better and I’ve used the bounty from a little white fleshed peach tree to make this White Peach Iced Tea Cordial which is just gorgeous.white peach iced tea recipe

I’ve always liked the idea of making my own drinks for flavour, health and economy. I don’t know if anyone else has noticed the rise in “healthy” drinks on the market in recent years. Drinks marketed as natural, refreshing, energy rich, organic, vitamin enriched, fruits of the sun in a bottle etc.  As we’ve demonised mainstream fizzy soda drinks, these so-called health beverages have jumped up to take their place – but look again folks. Don’t be fooled by the green wrapping – some of these drinks have the same sugar content as the ones they are supposed to replace.  I bet you’d be surprised to know that Phoenix Apple & Feijoa has the same sugar content per 100mls that a can of Coke has. Same goes for a bottle of All Good Blood Orange.  Who knew?

heirloom white peach

Peach Iced Tea is another favourite with my niece and a 500ml bottle of this contains 7 teaspoons of sugar, not as much as Coke, but still more than the recommended total daily allowance for an adult. So my recipe for homemade White Peach Iced Tea cordial delivers a lovely peachy drink with a lot less sugar.  If you made it at kid strength 1:5 (strong) you’d still be getting 40% less sugar and a pleasant adult strength mix of 1:10 is 80% less sugar than the peach iced tea you will get from the supermarket.  I’ve put a shot of it into my water bottle today and it is really lovely.

RECIPE – makes approx 3 liters of cordial concentrate

  • Put 3kg peaches in a large heavy bottomed pan and cover with water.
  • Add the zest of 4 lemons.
  • Cook the peaches and zest on a medium heat until they are completely mushy.
  • Strain the peaches overnight through cotton cheesecloth.
  • For every 1 LTR. of juice add 500 grams of sugar
  • Add
    • juice of 4 lemons
    • 35 grams of powdered citric acid
    • 200 mls strong black tea
  • Bring to the boil
  • Cool and bottle in clean screw top bottles
  • Store in the refrigerator
  • You can also freeze in plastic containers and thaw as required.

Saving Tomato Seeds & Kicking Sauce

saving tomato seed

The late summer harvest from the garden is starting to pile into the kitchen and now is a great time to save some seeds from the pick of your tomato crop.  This season I grew a load of new varieties that folks have given me over the past couple of seasons, varieties that all came highly recommended and got duly tucked away in my seed tin to grow “one day”.

It turns out that they came highly recommended for good reason.  Now I am at the harvest end of the season I can see exactly why those who gifted me the seeds were so impressed by these tomatoes. Each has something different to offer and I will be saving the seeds, growing them again and sharing them with fellow gardeners.

This year’s tomato hall of fame includes:

  • Pauls Crinkly – a whopping big meaty tomato from Paul and it is crinkly.
  • Romano’s Capri – an Italian heirloom called Capri that has been grown by the Romano family in Nelson since the 1920’s. Superb flavour and very fleshy.
  • Bobs Low Acid Beauty – from Bob who makes the cider presses – very similar to and may well be Capri but bigger.
  • Oak Canning Factory – from a chap who’s name I sadly can’t remember – his Dad used to grow these in Papakura in the 60s for the Oak Canning Factory – a fascinating bush tomato that grows on the ground like a nest and is chokka with round red toms – very disease resistant and compact
  • Bruce Leopold’s Jersey Island – from Bruce who said it was prolific and he was right – smaller tomatoes in perfect trusses of up to 16 fruit from tip to toe of the plant.

Capri Tomato

I’ve learnt the hard way that when someone gives you some seed, get all the info you can about it then and there. It is often the only time you will have with this person and a valuable chance to find out the story behind the treasure they’re giving you.  Write it down so you can pass it on with the seed when you share it.

Oak Canning Factory Tomato

Tomato seeds are easy to save. Make sure you’re saving seed from an open-pollinated heirloom variety, not a modern hybrid as these won’t grow true from seed. Hybrids are crosses between different varieties and generally have F1 or similar after the name on the seed packet.  Heirlooms are not created by crossing varieties and therefore, they will grow true from saved seed.

Tomato flowers generally don’t cross-pollinate with other varieties so it usually doesn’t matter if you’re growing a lot of different varieties close together. If you want to be extra careful you don’t get a natural hybrid (ie. a bee cross-pollinating between two different varieties) put a piece of cotton muslin loosely over a bunch of unopened flowers and secure it with a rubber band. When the flowers open, give them a bit of a shake to move the pollen around each day inside the cloth and then wait to see you have fruit forming. This will guarantee pure seeds to save.

Jersey Island Tomatoes

To save the tomato seeds squeeze them out onto a saucer, separate most of the pulp and scrape the seeds into a jar with 1/2 a cup of water in it. Sit the jar somewhere warm out of the sun for a few days until a film starts to form on the top.  This film shows the seeds have started to ferment. Fermenting your seeds isn’t essential but it gets rid of the gel coating on the seed which can stop germination. These fermented seeds are cleaner, store better and grow better so it is worth a little faffing around.

Pour the water off carefully and add fresh water. Swish it around and pour it off again. The good seeds will sink and any you pour off any bad seeds and pulp. Keep doing this until you have clean seeds then dry them carefully on paper towels and when they’re completely dry store them in sealed containers in the fridge. Don’t forget to label the seeds during the different stages of saving them so you know who is who.  Tony Romano who gave me the Capri seeds said he stores his seed in the fridge and has been able to germinate seeds that are over 20 years old.

chilli tomato sauce

Making the tomato sauce is a bit of an annual ritual in my kitchen. The ingredients list is long and so is the cooking time so you kind of make a day of it.  Once a year in late summer when I’ve had enough tomatoes on toast, I start collecting up the tomatoes for this sauce that will last all year. This isn’t fancy passata tomato sauce for all those lovely Italian pizza, pasta, polenta dishes. This is old school, dip your sav in, tomato sauce.  So old school I won’t even call it ketchup. This recipe has evolved over a few years into its current form and is universally loved by everyone who tries it – everyone who loves food with a bit of a kick that is – it is a bit fiery.  If you’re making it for kids or prefer a milder version, leave out or halve, the chili, mace, ginger, smoked paprika, garlic, mustard and black pepper.

Ingredients:

  • 6kg of really ripe tomatoes
  • 4 red peppers de-seeded and roughly chopped
  • 6 medium white onions roughly chopped
  • 3 cups wine vinegar (red or white)
  • 2 cups raw sugar
  • 3 tablespoons non-iodised salt
  • 3 fresh red chilies or 1 tablespoon dried chili flakes
  • 1 whole bulb of garlic peeled and chopped
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons ground mustard powder
  • 1 tablespoon ground allspice
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons celery seeds
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons smoked paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon mace
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • zest of one lemon

tomato chilli sauce

Method:

  • Prepare your bottles. I save up glass bottles with nice wide lids for my sauce. Only save bottles with metal or cork lids. Plastic lids tend to melt when you sterilize them with boiling water.  You’ll want around 5-6 liters worth of bottles ready – if you like a thicker sauce you’ll only need around 4 liters worth of bottles.  Just add up the mls of each bottle on the calculator as you clean them. Clean the bottles in warm soapy water, rinse in clean water, drain and put them in a meat dish ready to go into the oven to be sterilized.  Wash the lids in the same way and put them in a pot of water to be boiled.
  • Wash and roughly chop the tomatoes, removing the green hard bits at the stalk, and put them in a large (8-10ltr) heavy bottomed stainless steel pot
  • In a food processor whiz together the garlic, chilies, onions and red peppers until they form a chunky salsa (that’s a consistency, not a dance)
  • Grind the spices if you’re using whole spices.
  • Add the red pepper mixture and all other ingredients to the tomatoes and cook it over a low heat until the tomatoes break down, stirring often with a heavy wooden spoon so it doesn’t stick on the bottom.
  • After 3 hours of gentle simmering and occasional stirring, run the whole mixture through a mouli using the middle sized plate – you don’t want it too smooth.  If you don’t have a mouli you can put a sieve over a pot and push the sauce through with the wooden spoon but do think about getting a mouli – they make short work of jobs like this and you can usually pick one up in a second-hand store.
  • You can turn the oven on now to 70°C to sterilize your bottles and put the lids in a pot of water to boil on the stove. Turn it off once it has boiled.
  • Return the sauce to the pot, increase the heat and stir it more often until it is as thick as you want it.  This is when it can burn so do perch next to the pot.   To test if it is thick enough, put a spoonful on a clean plate and push your finger through it. If it leaves a line it is getting thick enough, if lots of liquid still runs around the plate it has a way to go.  As a rule, I’ve found reducing the strained sauce by a further third is about right – or a further 2 hours cooking time.  Be patient – no-one likes a runny sauce. The sauce also changes to a deeper red as it thickens.  If you bottle it when it is too thin it is not the end of the world – you can redo it – you just need to wash the bottles again.
  • When you’re happy with the thickness, get the lids on the boil again, remove sauce from the heat, take the bottles out of the oven, drain the water from the lids and without mucking around fill the bottles through a funnel to within 2cm of the top. Screw the lids on each bottle as  you go – wipe the necks with a kitchen towel before you put the lids on if they have sauce on them.   Doing this quickly while bottles, sauce and lids are all still hot is important – use some oven gloves or cloths so you don’t burn yourself on the bottles.
  • Sit the bottles on a wooden chopping board to cool, they can crack if you bang them down on a ceramic benchtop – label them then store in a cool, dark pantry for use throughout the year.  The sugar and vinegar are preservatives so you don’t need to keep it in the fridge.

heirloom tomato seeds

 

Growing and Harvesting Figs

Italian Black Fig

When I moved to Nelson a decade ago I didn’t know my fig from my finger, figuratively speaking. They were in the same category as prunes with notions of purgative medicinal properties that didn’t flick my switch at all. Little did I know I’d soon be growing and enthusing about both of them.

My fig education began on a late summer field trip to the magical Mariri garden of George Christofski. I probably only spent an hour trailing along behind George with the other visitors, but my eyes were opened forever to the wonders of figs. George had over 50 fig trees and generously plucked fruit for us to taste as we toured the property. Succulent, sun-ripened figs were a revelation and an absolute opposite to the dried brown gritty discs I had previously known.

breba-crop-figs

The good news is that figs do well in frost-free parts of the country with warm summers. Years that we enjoy a long hot summer produce the best crops, as the main harvest for most varieties is in those mellow late summer months. Some varieties also produce an early harvest in December and January, known as a breba crop, which grows from small green fruit that have wintered over on the tree. These first figs don’t usually have the same succulent flavour as the late summer ones but they also tend to be impressively large. I like to use them for a savoury fig and red onion jam that is perfect with blue cheese.

bird protection on figs

The bad news is that birds love figs and over the years I’ve employed various strategies to get that perfect tree-ripened fig. Netting your complete tree is best, but easier said than done if it is a large one. In the past, I have made little hankies of fine mesh and tied them over each fruit. This season I used latex gloves with the fingers cut out for ventilation, but I like Sheryn Clothier’s idea of using little zip-lock bags over each fruit with a few holes in them. Bags would make it easier to see which ones are ripe, and I’ll be trying it next season.

Adriatic Figs-01

There are many varieties of fig tree on the market and you are best to find ones growing well in your area before selecting a variety to plant.  Here are some general pointers on three of the main families:

  • As a rule, the purple skinned figs with the red flesh known as Malta types do well in warmer climates. They have smaller fruit, ripen mid to late season and some will continue ripening after you pick them. Their flavour is spicy and sweet and they also dry very well.
  • The Sugar Fig varieties are squat with green to brown skin and yellow to pink flesh. They produce an early crop, do well in cooler climates and are very sweet and luscious.
  • Adriatic Fig varieties are green skinned with cherry red flesh. The fruit is longer and firmer than Sugar Figs. They ripen later and have magnificent flavour when fully ripe. They need a long summer to reach full ripeness.

Since that first visit to George’s figs, I’ve planted two of his favourite varieties, his Macedonian Fig and his Black Italian (photo top). Both are doing well and the Black Italian is in the warmest most sheltered spot I could find for it. Also, a Prestons Prolific which lives up to its name and has an impressive early crop and an existing large tree which I think is an Adriatic variety and I have practised fig pruning strategies on it.

Prestons Prolific Fig

Fig trees can become large but they take pruning very well provided you follow a few key rules:

  • Do major pruning late winter before the sap is flowing and paint all large cuts with anti-fungal pruning paint.
  • If you are trying to reduce and reinvigorate an old overgrown tree only remove a third of the old wood each winter until you have the tree back in shape.
  • Main crop fruit is borne on current season’s growth for most varieties, so annual pruning ensures vigour and continual new fruiting growth coming on.
  • You can either shorten branches back to a node where it will heal or you can remove branches entirely at the base of the tree to encourage new shoots, a bit like berries.
  • The later approach does keep the tree low and able to be netted more easily and it is becoming more popular to trellis or espalier these multi-stem figs.
  • If you already have a single trunk and you’re just shortening branches to encourage new growth try and keep the canopy open by thinning complete branches and removing excessive side shoots. Don’t snip off all the end buds as this is where the fruit forms!

They have aggressive root systems so don’t plant next to drains, vege gardens or paving.  They will seek out good earth and water from some distance.

Two of my favourite ways of eating fresh figs are with runny honey and yogurt and in a salad with mint and basil leaves. And yes, they do have one of the highest fibre counts of any fruit so they are deserving of their reputation.

 

Fig Salad