Monday, February 18, 2013

Perfect picnic food

Flix in the Stix is coming to Tamworth this week and it sounds to me like a great excuse for a picnic. Unfurl your tartan rug and pack your basket with foods that you can share and graze on – cold meats and olives, finger sandwiches and something sweet to finish.

For more picnic food ideas, including some recommendations from Tamworth's Phillippe Kanyaro, of Le Pruneau, and Leisel Mcilrick, of Ruby's Cafe and Gift Store, check out my article over at Tamworth Country Life.

What's your favourit picnic food?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Party Food

Party food, finger food, nibbles - call it what you like, catering for drinks can often be more labour intensive than cooking a three course meal for eight. So when a friend asked me to bring a plate to his wife's surprise 30th birthday party, I was happy to help out.

There are many bakers of mini-quiche in this town, all of them far more accomplished than me, so I had to come up with another idea. Being the recipe junkie I am, I trawled through my clippings and magazines, developed a shortlist and settled on pork larb.

Larb is a minced meat salad, usually served at room temperature. A quick web search suggests it's a traditional dish of Laos, but it's also a feature of Thai cuisine, in both Thailand and here at home. Indeed, much of the "Thai" food we eat in Australia is often a blend of broader South-East Asian Cuisine.

I'm really not sure how traditional my dish was, but it certainly had typical ingredients: chilli, lemongrass, fish sauce, lime juice, mint and coriander. I found the recipe in a back issue of delicious magazine and the same recipe has been published online by delicious uk.

Drinks were on a Friday night, and this was a fantastic post-work party dish, as I could cook the pork the night before and assemble pre-party. The Australian version of the recipe recommends baby cos leaves. I used both cos and iceberg and I found the iceberg more suitable, with less wastage.

I'd recommend using free range pork mince for the best flavour and don't skip the toasted rice - it's a fantastic looking garnish, is easy to do and surprisingly delicious. Plus it's a key component of traditional larb dishes.

Happy nibbling.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The gardening caper

I am not a very good gardener. Or maybe gardening is harder than I expected it to be. Probably both.
Sixteen months ago, when we moved from inner-city Melbourne to Tamworth, in the north-west of NSW, I expected to find myself in veggie growing heaven. We would have a no-dig garden and a worm farm, we would grow vast quantities of vegetables to share and we would don Etsy-esque aprons and start pickling when it all got too much.
We hit our first hurdle when it came to the no-dig bed. You see, the area we had set aside was 2.5 x 2.5 metres. That’s a lot of pea straw, newspapers, lucerne, well rotted manure, hydrocell and certified-organic compost – all the ingredients we would need according to Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Companion.
We overcame this and incurred much less expense thanks to a generous donation from Sam’s uncle, who is a lucerne farmer, and a trailer-load of organic 3-in-1 from a local landscape supplier. We set out our railway sleepers, laid newspaper on the ground, covered it with lucerne, topped up with organic 3-in-1 from the Tamworth Landscape Supplies and then mulched with more lucerne. And just to be straight with you, “organic” does not refer to a lack of chemicals; rather, it refers to organic material consisting of a whole lot of manure. It smelt questionable and the plants loved it. So did the dog.
Tamworth gets very hot. By the time the garden bed was set it was a little late to be planting from seed, so we bought some seedlings and watched them grow. Summer was a huge success. We lived off beans, pickled cucumbers and made pesto from one metre high basil. We experienced no pests and generally felt very proud of ourselves. The few seeds we did try to raise - beetroot, capsicum, chilli - didn’t amount to much, but we weren’t perturbed. After all, we were still learning.
Then I got a little enthusiastic with seeds. I shopped at diggers. I bought heirloom leek and beetroot; chives, pak choy and watercress; snow peas and broad beans. I planted them direct or in punnets, depending on the instructions. I waited and nothing happened, save for the odd pak choy.
Still I wasn’t perturbed, there were many reasons. The dog got a few of the punnets. I had watered with a watering can, thus likely washing the seeds away. And I had let the punnets dry out - a seed no-no and my biggest challenge. I began planting everything in punnets, even when the instructions said sow direct. I was rewarded with a few beetroot seedlings but still the punnets dried out.
I tried putting the punnets in the shade of an established plant with no success. Then I tried keeping them in the warm shed, moving them outside when the first shoots appeared. I was rewarded with a couple of sprouting snow peas, only to have them consumed by slugs, snails and caterpillars. Sam got sick of having them in the shed and I forgot to water. Fail.
A few people suggested dedicated seed trays. Instead I put my punnets in a sealed plastic container. Still no luck – I can’t even remember why. I bought a mini-greenhouse but then put it in a position that was too hot. I moved it. I tried watering with a spray bottle so my watering can didn’t wash away the seeds, but I wasn’t vigilant enough. Let’s face it, I have a complete lack of dedication to the watering process and apparently near enough is not good enough.
And then, jackpot! I put plastic containers inside the greenhouse, then I put my punnets in the containers with a little water in the bottom. A few things grew.
And then I went overseas for a month.
Fast forward a month or two, and summer storms have wiped out the greenhouse a couple of times. A few weeks ago I bought some seedlings. I think we’ve come full circle.
Have you got any top seed raising tips? Or maybe you have your own story of gardening heartbreak.