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Archive for December, 2012

Cartrut shell (Dicathais orbita)

Cartrut shell (Dicathais orbita)

In the lead up to Christmas, Sydney has turned on some classic Australian summer. So as coasters, we have been in the water snorkelling. Along the way I’ve casually pocketed some cartrut shells (Dicathais orbita) on a couple of offshore ventures (plus a couple of Spengler’s triton (Cabestana spengleri)). Legal bag limits and their abundance would have allowed for a lot more, but I’m on holiday and opting for light duties. They have been brought home, boiled and removed from the shell, minced and put into a recipe that essentially replaces the crab in crab cakes. Both cartruts and tritons are carnivorous sea snails and genuinely do have a slightly crabby taste to them. But not at all a crabby texture, hence the mincing.

These will come with me to the family Christmas day to be served as a canapé somewhere in among the day’s feasting. ‘Poor man’s crab cakes’ though they may be, if you get them right they are a genuine delicacy.

The name ‘cartrut shell’ comes from the distinctive lines on the shell that look like wheel tracks. The shells are boiled for 10 minutes and then can be picked from the shell with a fork. If you can’t quite get to some meat with a fork or skewer, you can usually dislodge them a bit by holding the shell tight and flicking your wrist hard.

The name ‘cartrut shell’ comes from the distinctive lines on the shell that look like wheel tracks. The shells are boiled for 10 minutes and the meat can then be picked from the shell with a fork. If you can’t quite get to some meat with a fork or skewer, you can usually dislodge them a bit by holding the shell tight and flicking your wrist hard in a downward motion (into the sink).

Once out of the shell, trim off the guts, the head and the hard bits and put the remaining meat through a mincer.

Once out of the shell, trim off the guts, the head and the hard bits and put the remaining meat through a mincer.

Once the meat is through the mincer, follow it with some bread to get the last of the meat through. From here you can just use a favoured crab or fish cake recipe or find one online. Largely due to what is in my cupboards and herb garden, mine was chives, garlic, dried lemon zest, chillies, parsley and half a kaffir lime leaf. Mix through an egg or two and a dollop of sour cream until it is a fairly runny mix and then bring back to a consistency that can be hand moulded into patties by mixing in bread crumbs.

Once the meat is through the mincer, follow it with some bread to get the last of the meat through. From here you can just use a favoured crab or fish cake recipe or find one online. Largely due to what is in my cupboards and herb garden, mine was chives, some caramelised onion, garlic, dried lemon zest, chillies, parsley and half a kaffir lime leaf. Mix through an egg or two and a dollop of sour cream until it is a fairly runny mix and then bring back to a consistency that can be hand moulded into patties by mixing in bread crumbs.

Pan fry the cakes until browned on both sides and put in a moderate oven for another 15 minutes to finish cooking the egg through. Serve with a dollop of sour cream and sweet chilli sauce (or sambal oelek or a hot sauce if you like some heat; and if you don’t, the salty hit of some fish roe works well).

Pan fry the cakes until browned on both sides and put in a moderate oven for another 15 minutes to finish cooking the egg through. Serve with a dollop of sour cream and sweet chilli sauce (or sambal oelek or a hot sauce if you like some heat; and if you don’t, the salty hit of some fish roe works well).

Happy Christmas,

Oliver

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Pigface (Carpobrotus glaucescens) fruit

Pigface (Carpobrotus glaucescens) fruit

I foraged along the cliffs and rocky shores today, basically for the walk. And as I did I snacked on pigface (Carpobrotus glaucescens) fruits. A little burst of something between strawberry, cherry guava, stewed apple, fig and kiwifruit, but more gel-like and mixed through with a bit of salt. The salty taste in a fruit can catch you out at first, but once this oddity is past, they are one of the tastier Australian native fruits around (although frankly it is not a hugely competitive field).

Aboriginal people are reported to have typically eaten this on the spot, be it just a nibble or a gorging, and I tend to go the same way. When they aren’t all that sweet I might find myself thinking that they would benefit from a little toss around in a dollop of warm honey; but when I bothered to bring them home to do this it all seemed a bit fiddly. The flavour enhancement seemed about equally offset by losing the wonderful engaged feeling of being outdoors, snacking on foraged food along a stunningly beautiful shore. If you did come across a huge crop however, jams are reputed to be a good option (although I have never tried it).

Pigface fruit peeled to reveal its salty gooseberry heart

Pigface fruit peeled to reveal its salty fruity heart

When you pluck them from the plant, a hole is generally made where it detaches. Holding the horn-like fleshy leaves above the fruit, the skin can usually be quite easily peeled back; either to reveal a fruit like a tiny kiwifruit, or at least get enough of an opening to then squeeze the pulp into your mouth.

When they are underripe they can be a bit bitter and when they are overripe they are shriveled and mean (but not useless). You will see a lot of pigface plants and a lot of not-quite-right fruit along the way for some pretty meagre returns most of the time. But you would usually just come across it incidentally and opportunistically, so there is no need for optimal foraging sums. They are also commonly planted because of their drought and salt hardiness and some of these varieties seem to produce no useful fruit at all. There are 2 main species prized for fruit in Australia, C. glaucescens on the east coast and C. rossi on the south, but some 25 species in the Carpobrotus genus all up, most from South Africa and some imported as ornamentals. Despite some of these (notably C. edulis) producing useful fruit, you will generally be better off sticking to the coast and the natives.

... they taste better than they look

… they taste better than they look

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Wild mustard (Brassica sp.) seed

Wild mustard (Brassica sp.) seed

A harvest of seed-bearing wild mustard sprigs

A harvest of seed-bearing wild mustard sprigs

I lived within metres of mustard growing as a weed in the reserve next door for 5 years before flicking through Euell Gibbons’ foraging bible Stalking the Wild Asparagus and the chapter on mustard. Wild mustard seeds, Gibbons informed me, can be made into a perfectly passable version of the common condiment. It hit me like Darwin’s theory hit Huxley – as so sensible on learning it that it was almost embarrassing not to have thought of it himself. While I don’t use a lot of it (because my meat mostly goes in stews and pies), getting used a salad dressing ingredient would be enough to account for some pretty serious harvesting.

A wild mustard seed pod (the window in the top of the background is where it will be dried to make the pods open and spill)

A wild mustard seed pod (the window in the top of the background is where it will be dried to make the pods open and spill)

A bunch of harvested mustard drying and spilling seeds (the spot is was growing visible in the background)

A bunch of harvested mustard drying and spilling seeds (the spot where it was growing visible in the background)

Next stop, Hank Shaw at the blog Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook and his mustard recipe. Not just easy he says, but ‘stupid easy’. Strangely, that’s quite a bit of pressure – messing up a soufflé is one thing, but failing at ‘stupid easy’ would take some coming back from.

I collected the mustard with secateurs, getting sprigs with mostly seed heads hanging, bunched them and hung them over a bucket to dry and shed their tiny seeds. A bit of trial nibbling on seeds certainly tasted mustardy, but no more than broccoli or cabbage seed for all I knew; and with that I became very keen to find out. I don’t much like being patient, but that was just what I would have to be. The harvest was followed by cool cloudy days and slow drying; and on Shaw’s advice I would have to wait again after I made the stuff. 10 days later, we finally got there.

With the seeds fallen to the bottom of the drying bucket with a lot of dried leaves, flowers and seed pods, it is sieved and then gently winnowed outside with a fan

With the seeds fallen to the bottom of the drying bucket with a lot of dried leaves, flowers and seed pods, it is sieved and then gently winnowed outside with a fan

With a few seeds getting blown away with each winnowing, I drew the line accepting a few plant bits in the mix

With a few seeds getting blown away with each winnowing, I drew the line and accepted a few plant bits in the mix

As for a recipe, I have advanced little from the HAGC version, so I’ll direct you there (http://honest-food.net/2010/10/18/how-to-make-mustard/) and confine myself to the very brief: grind seeds in mortar and pestle, add a bit of water to minimally wet for an initial non-acid reaction, add a little dollop of honey (a New Zealand thyme honey for me) and apple cider vinegar until it gets a pasty consistency, refrigerate for a couple of days, use. The scientist in me made me make a parallel batch using shop-bought mustard seeds as a ‘control sample’. The only real variation came later when to keep it safely unspoiled, and accepting that it was destined for salad dressing, I added crushed garlic, more vinegar and topped with oil in a jar.

It would take a hell of a lot of harvesting to get a large supply of seeds (but there are certainly opportunities for that, especially in some agricultural fields), so a mortar and pestle works perfectly for the small volumes I end up with. In particular, it allows getting a good mix of powder and whole seeds

It would take a hell of a lot of harvesting to get a large supply of seeds (but there are certainly opportunities for that, especially in some agricultural fields), so a mortar and pestle works perfectly for the small volumes I end up with. In particular, it allows getting a good mix of powder and whole seeds

The result: surprisingly very good, and with the foraged one preferred over the one from packet seeds (which kept both more bitterness and harsh heat) - with agreement from the other taste tester doing it blind

The result: surprisingly very good, and with the foraged one preferred over the one from packet seeds (which kept both more bitterness and harsh heat) – with agreement from the other taste tester doing it blind. So yes, you can make mustard from wild mustard in case you had been wondering.

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Roemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) - the crop from a heavy prune

Roemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) – the crop from a heavy prune

Some rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is grown in herb gardens, some as an ornamental, and here in Australia also as a memorial. It is thought that rosemary is good for the memory, with Greek scholars reputedly putting some in their hair to learn more effectively, and so among many other things it has become the herb of remembrance. ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember’ declares Ophelia in Hamlet, although insane at the time as I remember it.

It also grows wild on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey, and so for Australians and New Zealanders, the remembrance it signifies is the loss of life there in the First World War. It is sold for donations for veteran’s charities and worn on the lapel or under medals on Anzac Day – our national day of remembrance for fallen soldiers. People who grow it will often cut sprigs and put them out for people to help themselves. And people plant and tend it on diggers’ graves and at war memorials.

Rosemary at an Anzac Memorial

Rosemary at an Anzac Memorial

Rosemary is of course a shrubby herb and tending it, apart from water and nutrients, is all about pruning. So if you fancy yourself as a knowledgeable enough pruner to be confident that you are doing the right thing by the shrub and the significance of where it is growing, surely there is nothing wrong with sourcing your herb supply from a cemetery. In case someone might misinterpret respect and remembrance as desecration, perhaps go for the memorials over the graves. And just a conservative hand-plucked tip-prune I would suggest. ‘Lest we Forget’ and all that. You should also check rules within any cemetery – some may expressly forbid picking regardless of whether you are doing it a favour (this is aimed at people who didn’t bring flowers to put on a grave being taken by the urge at the expense of the landscaping).

I would almost load up the dehydrator with rosemary just for the smell the flat takes on for the day. And load it up I just have. From my own herb garden this time; from the shrub by the fence that has started to fall over and may not see another April 25th to be pruned by passers-by. When it is gone, here on a poor-soiled warm temperate coast not unlike its Mediterranean heartland, foraging is easy enough; including the nearest cemetery just a few hundred metres away up the hill.

Dries rosemary and dehydrator in a well perfumed kitchen

Dried rosemary and dehydrator in a well perfumed kitchen

Packed and gift ready

Rosemary, packed and gift ready

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Landlessness comes in many forms. It is exists in some parts of the world as the consequence of deplorable near-genocidal atrocity, and in many more as heartbreaking social injustice worth fighting against (see, for example, some of the issues covered by Via Campesina). So let’s be clear that when we talk about Australian urban landlessness for the purpose of almost recreational vegetable growing, we are talking about a relatively minor ‘first world’ middle class inconvenience. In my case, strictly speaking, I’m not even landless (covered in the ‘bush garden’ below).

However, the point is that I live in a rented upstairs flat and have had to get a little creative getting my vegie growing spaces. I’ve got four of them now and that is not including that I would gather just as much again from public and wild places. It’s a kooky kind of version of what permaculture types describe as ‘zonation’, being the location and prioritisation of growing areas where they best suit you, themselves and the landscape. Somewhere in among it all there is probably a solution for anyone in an Australian city wanting to grow, no matter where they live.

The herb garden

The apartment herb garden

The apartment herb garden

About five years ago the ground around the block of flats was trashed and then turfed with the exception of a thin garden bed along the front wall. The various owners had gotten together and decided on the simplicity of a hedge, and somehow I was lucky enough to catch them time with a plea to let the tenants grow. In went the herb garden. With four one bedroom flats in the building, each successive tenant has simply been told to help themselves and do some growing if they feel like it. Two of us feel like it and it all works pretty well. This is the garden for the stuff you pop out from the kitchen for rather than any bulk harvested crop (except for drying large amounts when a major herb pruning or chilli surplus occurs).

Currently growing: Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, chilies, lovage, basil, sorrel, chives, rocket, Chinese cabbage, bay, kaffir lime

The allotment

Allotment

Allotment

We joined the Randwick Community Organic Garden five or six years ago; back when there was only a few month wait for an allotment. We pitch in with the communal work of it and I go along most weeks on my day with the Boy, even if only to water, watch him watch the chooks and do a little light work befitting a three year old’s attention span. The intention is to grow a few vegetables that don’t take too much regular care, or need harvesting at a perfect point of ripeness we are just as likely to miss, and which might come home in relative bulk for freezing, pickling, drying or gorging upon.

Currently growing: Tuscan kale, beetroot, rhubarb, asparagus, ginger, yacon, jeruslaem artichoke, globe artichoke, watermelon (the amaranthus in the picture now gone)

The office salad garden

Office salad garden - before

Office salad garden – before

Office salad garden - recently

Office salad garden – recently

Earlier this year I moved into an office with a garden, albeit grown over and more used for storage. So a few of us got together in it one Saturday for a blitz, and there it was – an office salad garden. This garden works perhaps best of all of them in terms of production, especially with a good regular succession of lettuce and the tomatoes starting to come on. And it functions very well as a communal effort; while I may do most of the work, the fruits are shared with people I work with. We turn up each day and are in it together, so if I am keeping up the planting succession while someone else is keeping up the scheduling of my projects, it would be hard to pick out a salad eating non-gardener as a slacker or sponge. A work place is certainly a better place when you can bring nothing more than some bread and still know a tasty, healthy lunch in a garden is at your fingertips. Everything growing in the garden is something that can be eaten fresh and raw in a lunch.

Currently growing: Cos lettuce, oak leaf lettuce, rocket, cherry tomatoes, roma tomatoes, cucumber, parsley, cress, chives, radicchio.

The bush garden

The bush garden

The bush garden

Putting the lie to any suggestion that I am personally landless (the half that isn’t the bank’s), is a block of rough mountain scrub three hours away with a one-room cabin that feels in many ways more like home than where I usually live. The land is so poor that it affords us the great luxury of precious few land management chores; the sort of land that locally adapted plants win on over ‘weeds’ with little intervention. So for a garden, just a tiny plot for greens and herbs to freshen up meals on extended stays, we built a box (with rocks and split logs) and left the rest of the wildness to itself (scattered trees excepted). And then we didn’t just fence it, we caged it – steel reinforcing mesh that is yet to be bolstered with chook wire – the sort of cage that needs to keep out wallabies, roos, wombats, feral goats, feral pigs and rabbits (birds, possums and rats we’ll have to see about). We still have an irrigation issue (when we aren’t there) to resolve but have put it next to the roof-fed tank with plans of some timer-based drip irrigation and some thoughts on ollas (unglazed clay pots that wick water into garden beds).

Currently growing: Only just planted, with sage, thyme, parsley and kale. Seeded with watermelon and rockmelon, but only with an experimental amount of expectation.

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