21 February 2007

Tomato Mania

I thought I was going overboard this season with 9 varieties (well, 10 if I count the volunteer Red Cherries that qualify more as a weed than a Tomato,) but "Tomatoes got headache?" takes the prize!

This year I grew Taxi (almost certainly the same as Rebsie Fairholm's "Yellow Taxi" – a very fine cooking Tomato, but not as nice fresh, I thought – Ida Gold, Gold Nugget, Red Kaki, Black Krim, Lime Greed Salad, Cherokee Purple, Tigerella and my pride and joy, Brandywine (which ought to start ripening over the next few days.)

As related elsewhere, the Cherokee Purple's got (mostly) nailed by blight, which spread to the Lime Green Salad Tomatoes.  I started another batch of LGS which are about to get planted out this weekend.  Its very late, I know, but we may get lucky with the weather, so what's to lose?  I was also lucky with a couple of volunteer Cherokee Purple's that appeared beneath the Rattlesnake Bean tepees, so I've been able to save fresh seed, clean of any suspicion of blight again this year.

Currently I am being threatened with consequences dire and dreadly should I dare to bring another load of Tomatoes into the kitchen... and the Brandywines and Black Krim have barely started ripening...! :-)

18 February 2007

Rub, rub, the Seedsman's Dub

Apart from being inundated by Tomatoes, and generally being in the thick of harvesting, we're also collecting Lettuce seed -- and trying in vain to separate no less than twelve different varieties!  In our last seed order from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, we got, as a nice freebie, a packet of mixed Lettuce seed labelled "Rocky Top Mix".  Definitely a worthwhile Lettuce mix to buy!

However... for saving seed its a bit of a nightmare having them all mixed-up!  I figure that, with care, I should be able to isolate at least six of the varieties.  Then I can grow up saleable quantities of each variety in isolation.  Fortunately I still have a bit more of the seed (and will, in all likelihood, order another couple of packets) so I should, in the long run, be able to keep them all.

So, having spent the morning cleaning out the chicken house (and making some minor modifications to their sleeping arrangements, which will doubtless mess with their tiny little Chicken Minds come bedtime tonight) I spent the afternoon cleaning Lettuce seed.  Rub, rub, rub, rub, rub.
Hardly a breath of wind, though, so winnowing will have to wait...

The authoritative classic on seed saving, cleaning and storing is Suzanne Ashworth's wonderful book "Seed to Seed".

11 February 2007

Breadmaking Day

It occurs to me that I started a "Sourdough Breadmaking" thread, but have utterly failed to follow through.  When I wrote about "Making Your Own Sourdough Starter," I also neglected to describe the actual recipe and process for making the bread from which your starter evolves.  Now I get to fix all that...

Time for a bread-baking day, today, and, approaching the end of a delicious, dense, dark rye loaf, decided it's time for an ordinary, no-frills, wholewheat loaf.

Gotta Make'a Dough
This is surely the simplest of breads.  If you don't have sourdough starter, this is a good bread to use to get one going.  Just use a sachet of instant yeast where I have used sourdough yeast, and add quite a bit more water.

Yesterday, quite late in the day, I took the sourdough starter out of the refrigerator, and, after giving it a half-hour or so to warm up to room temperature (not strictly necessary, but I like to), added a couple of cups of (white bread) flour and a bit of blood-temperature water -- just enough to make a stiff batter.  Leave the mix in a covered bowl overnight to grow.  I prefer to use white-bread flour for this step simply so that the starter doesn't accumulate too many bits of bran and junk.  On the other hand we're not fanatic about it, and have used brown and whole flour in the past when we've been out of white-bread flour.

This morning, removed a couple of cups of sourdough yeast to put back into the refrigerator for next time, thus keeping the sourdough going.  Our starter by now has quite a different nature to how it started out; it seems much calmer and steadier, stronger though slower, smoother and more mature.

Into the remainder of the sourdough yeastie, add 450g of whole-wheat flour, a couple of tablespoons of oil, a generous teaspoon of salt, and a handful-and-a-bit of brown sugarAny kind of oil will do -- I used sunflower oil today, but grapeseed oil, olive oil, peanut oil (if you can afford that) are all fine.  I am working on getting some sort of flour mill organised so that we can buy grains in bulk (as a prelude to growing our own) and mill our own flour.  Whole-milled flour is just so much better tasting than anything you can buy, but does need a bit more work to knead.

You might notice that my measurements are *cough* very precise.  It is important that you use exactly a handful-and-a-bit of sugar, for instance.  Self-sufficiency demands that you develop your own judgement, trust to your own senses, especially your "common" sense, and your sense of what's going to work.  Mistakes are good!  How else do we learn?

The Art, Science and History of Kneading

Added a bit of lukewarm water to the dough -- perhaps a half-cup -- as it was a bit dry.  Then knead.  As a wee lad I was taught to knead bread by Nanna, my late grandmother.  She had a wonderful, wide enamelled bowl that she used for breadmaking.  I would love to find a similar bowl, but all I can find is plastic rubbish, so I knead on the kitchen counter.  Nanna was fanatic about cleanliness for breadmaking; lessons that have stayed with me to this day.  Before getting my hands into the dough, I scrub-up, doctor-style, using a nail-brush and not just for the fingernails, using antiseptic soap, then make very sure I rinse the soap off very thoroughly.

Initially the dough is very poorly mixed.  Mush, mush, mush with the fingers until it's all gluing together, then tip out of the bowl onto the (clean!) counter-top dusted with a bit of flour.

Push the dough around with the heal of your hand until it forms a coherent ball; add a bit of flour if it seems too wet.  You're aiming for a slightly-sticky-but-not-sticking-to-hands-or-counter consistency.  Today's bread is going into a baking-tin for the baking, so can afford to be quite soft, as it doesn't need to hold its own shape.  Initially, as you work the dough, the flour absorbs moisture, and the mixture becomes stickier as you work it.  Chuck a bit more flour onto the counter if the dough starts sticking too badly.  On the other hand, if the dough seems too stiff and dry, poke some holes into it, throw a little water into the holes, and work the water into the dough.

Then knead: push your knuckles into the dough, using a twisting motion, folding the dough back on itself now and then.  Beat it up.  This is a quite vigorous style of kneading.  Kneading releases the gluten in the flour, which holds the bread together around the holes of gas that the yeast makes.  After about 12 minutes the dough will start fighting back.  Keep kneading!  Knuckle kneading becomes more difficult, and you likely want to switch to using the heals of your hands to push the dough about as it becomes spongey and springy.  You're done after 15 minutesAs you gain experience with bread you can dispense with the clock-watching and just go by feel.  Actual times vary depending on the condition of the flour, humidity of the weather, and myriad other factors.  But when you're just starting out, do it by the clock!

If you're wanting to make a sourdough starter, now is the time to break off a knob of the dough to use for that purpose as described here.

Rising Up

I moulded the dough into a sausage shape, then rolled the sausage through a scant-handful of sunflower seeds, just for a bit of entertainment. Plunk the dough in a greased loaf-tin.  Cover with a cloth, and place in a warm spot -- but not too hot, or you'll kill the yeasties.  It will take most of the day for the bread to rise -- much longer than when you use bought yeast, but the bread has a much stronger, more elastic consistency for it, not to mention the sourdough taste.

Around 4:30 or 5 this afternoon we'll get around to...


Pre-heat the oven to 180°C, then gently -- you don't want to knock the bread about, now that it's so beautifully risen -- place the loaf in the middle of the oven as quickly as possible.  You want to disturb the temperature of the oven as little as possible -- avoid having oven elements switch on if you can.

Bake for 40 to 45 minutes.  When its ready, the loaf will make a hollow sound when you tap the underside of the baking-pan.

Tip the loaf out of the tin as soon as it comes out of the oven.  This allows excess moisture to escape, giving you a nice crispy crust.  Let the loaf cool for 10 or 15 minutes before you cut it.  In the early days of our breadmaking we never could wait that long, it smells so mouthwatering!  But the bread really is better for being allowed to rest a little when it comes out of the oven.

Wow That's A Lot Of Work

Not!  Let's do an accounting:
  • Preparing the sourdough starter: 2 minutes
  • Mixing the dough: 1 minute
  • Kneading: 15 minutes (I lie; I only really kneaded for about 12 minutes, today)
  • Cleaning up afterwards: 2 minutes.
Total: 20 minutes.  The rest of the time is just standing around waiting for stuff to happen.  And I could just as easily make 2 or even 4 loaves in the same time just by increasing quantities.

07 February 2007

Mike's Psychedelic Breakfast

Chillis are back.  Oh, it's soooo good to have fresh chillis every day again!  No matter how oft repeated, it's true: A Day Without Chillis Is A Day Wasted.  So far its only the Jalapeños and Red Hats, but it's all good...

Actually, their "real" name is Bishop's Hat, but, being an open-source-software kind of family, "Red Hat" seems like a better name.

Breakfast Recipe:

Some Chillis; say 6 or 8 Jalapeños, plus 3 or 4 Red Hats.  Or any hot chillis you like. (If they're not hot, what's the bloody point?)  Chop them up and dump into a cast-iron pan with a little dab of butter.

I never eat margarine, being slightly suspicious of a so-called foodstuff that's only about two processing steps short of being plastic.
Fry the Chillis at a medium heat with a lid on to sweat them a little.
Add four to six small Tomatoes, halved, when the Chilli fumes start getting noticeable -- I used Ida Gold (sorta two-bite size) and Gold Nugget.  Keep the lid off the pan for this stage.  Start the Tomatoes on their backs first  (the skin side), turning them after awhile so that the cut ends get a bit caramelized.

I remember reading that the Aztecs used to use Chillis as a punishment for naughty children: They'd chuck a handful of Chillis onto a fire, and force the child to breathe the fumes. Sounds like a hectic punishment, but probably less truly harmful than smacks.

About the time the Chilli fumes start getting serious -- the time you start coughing, your nose begins streaming, and the Dog runs outside -- crack two Eggs into the mix, and cover the pan again until the eggs are as cooked as you like.

Serve on a couple of slices of sourdough Rye bread made yesterday.

The only not-homegrown ingredients: the butter, the rye flour, the salt, oil and malt-extract in the bread, and the coffee.

PS: As I sit here writing, our Loerie has just crash-landed into the Grape Vine again for her afternoon feed...

03 February 2007

Rare Visitor

We had a very special visitor: a Knysna Loerie (Tauraco corythaix).  Loeries are very, very shy; at the slightest disturbance they move away.  As people have moved into the area, built houses, kept their packs of howling hounds, cats that "don't hunt or chase birds, really, I'm absolutely positive!" Loeries disappeared into the depths of the forest.

Knysna Loerie close-upIn the forest they live high in the canopy, and are extremely well camouflaged.  The bird books describe them as green, and, while that's true as far as it goes, their wings have a sheen very similar to satin so that they most commonly look black unless the light is just right.  The underside of their wings is a deep, rich, shimmering crimson -- very distinctive.

They are fruit eaters, and that's what attracted our visitor!  We have a mature grape-vine growing over the west-side pergola.  The vine shades the west side of the house, helping us keep cool in Summer, while losing its leaves in Winter to let warmth in when we do want it.  It creates a transition space between the lounge and outside fireplace, and also gives us some fruit -- the little bit that is left for us by the Cape White-Eyes, Bulbuls and Finches.  No serious loss, since the grapes are not particularly nice eating -- the skin is very tough and sour, though the fruity bit inside is quite nice, having a strongly raisiny, berry taste.  They might make nice raisins, but our climate is too humid for drying fruit.  Happily the grapes also brought us this beautiful Loerie.

Knysna Loeire in the Grape VineThe pictures were taken with an ordinary point-n-shoot camera -- no special lenses or anything else fancy, which should give you an idea of just how close we were to the bird.  This is extremely unusual, as they take fright at the slightest movement.  Please excuse the glare from the window in the pictures -- probably someone handy with the Gimp could clean it up, but I am totally clueless at driving those sorts of programs.

We also believe that there is a connection between the Loeries and Elephants in the forest: When, on occasion, we have walked in Elephant-inhabited areas of the forest, flocks of Loeries make an peculiar (and to my knowledge, undocumented) call which we think warns the Elephants of our approach, enabling them to slip silently away into the deep gloomy growth.

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