Ode to a Prickly Gherkin and other tales

Rain was forecast for this morning, but it bypassed South Head altogether. I had decided to water the flower garden at dusk last night, which proved a sensible choice. There are clouds scooting across the sky as I write, and out the window I can see the neighbour across the road riding his farm bike across the paddock. There were black and white cows there last night, but they’ve moved on today.

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We had an unwelcome visitor this morning, in the form of a wild rabbit. Not that a pet rabbit would be any more welcome. I’ve seen him a few times lately and hope that he doesn’t make a habit of visiting us, or of bringing his extended family with him!

Outside I can hear ‘kihikihi-wawā’ cicadas (Amphipsalta zealandica), named for their loud chorus in the summer months. And there is a new tui hanging around – I’ll call her a ‘she’ although she could just as well be a male. She sings with just the one repetitive call – a sort of sharp ‘qweel’ sound with the first note dropping off to a lower note, not unlike the sound of a squeaking gate. She started calling this morning at around 5.30 am, right outside the bedroom window. I wonder if she’s looking for a mate as she is usually alone, which is uncommon for the tuis around here. She looks too fat to be a juvenile bird.

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On my garden ’rounds’ this afternoon, I spotted a couple of monarch butterflies, coupling on the grass. Then they actually flew away (not sure how), soaring upwards and disappearing over the top of the trees. High on love, I guess.

When I got to the pumpkin patch I was distraught to discover that the hens had scratched up some of our freshly-sprouted melon seedlings. The baby plants had been fenced-in with sturdy sticks, but these had been knocked down, and all that remains is a dusty hollow amongst the wood-chips. The hens are such little monkeys! I had to physically remove Lottie three times or she’d have destroyed several runners on the gherkin vine.

Just the one gherkin ready today, but many more on the way. I know that once they really start ripening I’ll be busy pickling every other day.

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The best remaining plums are either on the other side of the southern fence or at the top of the tree, so we walked around to the back paddock with a ladder to collect a bowl full. Ben will make a plum cake this evening for dessert.

I searched on the internet last night to see if I could find a stockist in New Zealand of electric water bath preservers, but without success. This seems to me the perfect appliance, with all our fruit and vegetables and just the two of us here.

I can smell the plum cake cooking. Yum!

And here come’s my mojito! Time to finish. 🙂

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Ode to a Prickly Gherkin (Hei kīnaki mō te kōrero ki runga)

It lay in wait,
Under lush and scratchy leaves,
Growing from stretching vines,
The curling tips of which reach in all directions,
Towards the sunlight and up and over the old tree stump.
In and out of lush soil and wood-chips,
The tendrils strong enough to forge ahead
Through any obstacle.

It lay in wait,
A fat spiky chrysalis,
Hanging from a woven flax thread,
The flowering tip long dried up,
The skin striped sage and mint green,
Not moving,
Fattening beneath the shelter
Of its mother leaves.

Until I picked it.

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Simple Plum Cake

(Serves 12)

150 grams castor sugar
115 grams softened butter
140 grams plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 fresh free-range eggs
1 pinch salt
12 freshly-picked plums, pitted and halved
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1-2 tablespoons caster sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 180 C

Beat sugar and butter until fluffy. Mix baking powder with flour and sift into creamed mixture. Beat in eggs and salt. Mix everything well.

Pour mixture into a large greased baking dish and smooth out with a palette knife. The mixture should be about 2-2.5 cm deep. Top with the 24 plum halves, alternate with cut side up. Then sprinkle with the sugar/cinnamon mixture.

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Bake in a pre-heated oven on the lowest shelf for about 45 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean. Cool to room temperature or serve warm.

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This recipe has been adapted from the Easy Plum Cake recipe at: http://allrecipes.co.uk/recipe/17476/easy-plum-cake.aspx

It is simple and really delicious. It works just as well with frozen plums, which is why we’ve been freezing so many plum halves over the past few days.

What happens when you go away for two days

pumpkin patch

It was as I expected.  When I braved the heat yesterday afternoon, I discovered that the plants in the pumpkin patch have put on a huge amount of growth and there were 6 gherkins big enough for pickling.  The two days I’d been away had been hot, dry and sunny.  Weeds are rampant and most of the plums have ripened and dropped (or been eaten or frozen).

It’s actually too hot to stay out in the sun for too long in the middle of the day.  I spent about 15 minutes trying to weed around parts of the vegetable garden, but it felt like the heat was pushing down on me as a physical force.

I tried a new gherkin recipe yesterday afternoon.   You can sample them after a minimum of 3-5 days, although of course, ideally they should be left for at least a month for the full flavour to develop.

If this recipe tastes good, I’ll use it for any  more that are produced.  It has no added sugar, which will suit my taste buds much better than the sweet gherkin recipe I tried a couple of years ago.

Pickled Gherkins
Pickled Gherkins

In the barn, the four blackbird chicks have left the nest.   We could see three last night – two perched on the washing line and one huddled down on a ledge.

Earlier today I could only see one chick.  It was standing on the woodpile, staring solemnly at me, and not moving.  When I left the barn, the blackbird hen flew to it with a beak full of worms.

blackbird chick
blackbird chick yesterday
Blackbird chick today
Blackbird chick today

Currently we have the following herbs and vegetables in the garden ready for eating: asparagus, basil, beetroot, coriander, dill, lettuces, silver beet and zucchini.

The climbing beans are on the point of being ready, as are the strawberries, and our tomatoes are tiny and green.    But now that the fruit has formed, eating them is not far away.

Pickled Gherkins Recipe

500 grams gherkins
125 grams sea salt
3 cloves garlic (thinly sliced)
1 bay leaf
1 bunch fresh dill
1 tsp coriander seeds
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1 cups water

Wash gherkins thoroughly and dry.
Cover them with salt in a sealed plastic bag and set aside for 3-5 hours.
Mix the vinegar and water in a pan, and heat.
Add garlic (thinly sliced), bay leaf, dill and coriander seeds.
Simmer for five minutes.
Remove the gherkins from the salt.
Wash them thoroughly and dry them once again.
Place the gherkins in sterilised jars;
carefully fill with the vinegar/water solution (gherkins should be covered) and seal.
Set aside at room temperature for three to five days before eating.

Pumpkins and cherry slugs

We’ve had a few sunny days in a row and this has been reflected in the growth in the pumpkin & squash patch.  This year, I raised three varieties from seed and they are all doing really well (‘Thelma Saunders Sweet Potato’, ‘Burgess Buttercup’ and ‘Butternut Chieftain’).  There are quite a few pumpkins set already, some growing quite round and fat.  We planted and sowed most of our cucurbits in the native garden this year, and already I can see that it was a very sensible choice.  In previous years we’ve tried the back paddock (too dry and windy), in the main vegetable garden (too invasive) and on the grass in front of the barn (became overgrown with grass).  The native garden is sheltered and sunny, with very rich loamy soil.  The worst two weeds are convolvulus and madeira vine.  But I feel that I can control these two by digging them out when they come up and either leaving in the sun to shrivel up (convolvulus) or putting out in the rubbish collection (madeira vine).

Our zucchini ‘Costasta Romanesco‘ is huge, the fat yellow and green fruit remind me of smooth alien guinea pigs.  The hens have stirred up the wood chips around them and the zucchinis are difficult to find until they have grown too big for my liking.  Costasta Romanesco is a variety grown especially for their huge male flowers, which can be stuffed, coated in batter and deep fried.  But the zucchinis themselves also taste really good sliced thickly and fried in olive oil with sage leaves – they are much starchier than the commonly-grown zucchinis, with a lovely nutty flavour, and the sage leaves turn all crispy.

Ben has been collecting plums by the tray load, halving them and freezing them free flow.  This particular old prunus was here when we moved in and is quite gnarly and covered in lichen.  There wasn’t much fruit last year in comparison with 2011, but this year it is completely laden with beautiful red-skinned, golden-fleshed plums.  They taste the best if you can pick them when they turn purple but before they drop to the ground.  Each morning when we let the hens out, they hurry over to feast on the plums that have fallen over night.  There are more than we can keep up with.  I eat them whenever I walk past the tree but it barely makes a difference.  In the past we’ve made plum wine and plum sauce.  At least if we manage to freeze a good deal of them, I’ll still have the option to do this when life isn’t so busy.

Cherry slugs on my cherry Stella
Cherry slugs on my cherry Stella

The big shock yesterday was when I discovered that the leaves of our tiny dwarf cherry tree ‘Stella’ were covered in slimy little slugs.  We picked them all off and offered them to the hens, but they weren’t interested.  I later identified them as larvae of the sawfly (caliroa cerasi).  Many of the leaves had been converted over night from healthy green to lacy brown.  Thank goodness I do tend to walk around the complete garden on a daily basis.  When I checked again this morning there was only a solitary slug, so it seems that the crisis has been averted.

White-tailed Spider
White-tailed Spider

I also saw my very first ‘white-tailed’ spider, (Lampona spp.)  I’m always looking for different and interesting bugs and plants so when I saw this particular spider sitting near the ceiling of our porch, I rushed to fetch my camera and a stool.  I had to get really close up to take the photo and was surprised when I saw the white tip on its abdomen when I looked at the image later on.  There is quite a bit of negative hype about these spiders, but from what I have read, they are somewhat maligned.

It’s been a good day for power generation.  At the time of writing (7.30 pm), our 2KW system has generated just under 14KWh.  It has been a very hot and calm day, with the temperature ranging from 18C when I arose at 7.30 am and reaching over 30C in the sheltered patch by the bromeliad garden at around 3.00 pm this afternoon.  The sweet corn is ripening in the paddock behind the barn and the maize that stretches away to the north is very tall and lush.

Sitting here I can see across the Kaipara to the East.  The distant hills are a hazy blue grey, sandwiched between the palest blue sky and the silvery forget-me-not blue of the water.  In the foreground are our harakeke, which have flowered for the first time, sending straight spurs of rusty red flowers towards the sky.

Tomorrow I have to head to Wellington for an overnight meeting.  A major garden task for when I return will be to attempt to sort out part of our vegetable garden that is filled with scattered sweet-corn plants (a blackbird hen dug up most of them), self-sown Cleome (I want to plant these around the climbing beans), a few pumpkins and squashes, and other self-sown vegetables.  We are going to try to move all the corn to one end before they get too tall, rescue the Cleome and make some sense of the array of other vegetables that are growing there.