A View From The Country, by Andrew Wood
The season this year has been very odd indeed. But odd in a good way. Fortunately the February deluge that saw northern Victoria flooded yet again missed us. Instead, we got just enough rain to ensure the tanks and dams had enough water in them to see the rest of the season out regardless of any follow-up rain (which there hasn’t been).
The most striking thing about the 2012 season was how quickly it started and how early it finished. Not that it has all come to a crashing halt. We are still picking vast quantities of stuff thanks to the most unbelievable run of perfect autumn wether we are currently experiencing (two months of gorgeous sunny days with temperatures in the mid-to-high twenties).
But in terms of summer produce—tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, pumpkin, eggplant—it was pretty much over by the beginning of March which is unheard of around here. Usually we would be picking cucumbers and eggplants till the end of March. Tomatoes till the end of April. Pumpkins would be maturing in the paddock till at least May. Not this year.
And it all started way too early. The late spring/early summer growth was phenomenal—seedlings just about grew before your eyes. By mid-December we were picking serious amounts of tomatoes, zucchini and cucumbers (normally the season would crank up around the middle of January). By February it just got silly: over a three-week period we picked two and a half tonnes of tomatoes off 1200 plants. Zucchinis were averaging a kilogram of fruit every week (we had 250 plants in). The cool room was chockers.
And then it all stopped as abruptly as it started. At first I thought the plants weren’t getting enough water, so I gave the beds and extra half an hour each. It made no difference whatsoever. I soon realised that the plants had completely exhausted themselves and were all dying: tomatoes, zucchini, pumpkin … the lot. By the time March swung around we were picking tomatoes off dead bushes, which was a very eerie sight: all these brightly coloured, healthy tomatoes and not a green leaf to be seen. Two weeks later we were ripping the plants out.
Yes, 2012 was the grow-like-crazy, produce-your-whole-crop-in-eight-weeks-and-then-promptly-die season. I am only now realising just how frenetic it was trying to pick and sell the vast quantities of summer bounty (picking days often went beyond 6pm despite employing even more people this year). And that is the most pleasing aspect of the 2012 season: it was extremely bountiful. Probably our best season so far. It was certainly our biggest (although we did put in a whole heap of new beds).
Another positive about this season has been the amount of early winter planting that we have been able to do. Tomato, zucchini, pumpkin, eggplant and cucumbers have all been replaced with Calabrese broccoli, purple cauliflower, shallots, fennel, carrots, beetroot, spinach etc., some of which we have already started to pick already thanks to the aforementioned perfect autumn weather. For how long this weather pattern is going to stick around for, is anyone’s guess. (I suspect Victoria might be in for a dry, mild winter—it certainly feels like it.)
This year has also been a bumper pumpkin year. We decide not to bother with the commonly known varieties that flood the market from now till spring and concentrate on lesser-known varieties. By far the best pumpkin we grew this year was the musque de Provence (also known as fairytale in the USA). These gorgeous flat, heavily lobed pumpkins are about the size of a wheel of parmesan (the biggest we have weighed so far was 25kg!). The skin is a beautiful autumnal tan/orange colour when ripe and the flesh is deep day-glow orange. It is a traditional variety from southern France and is the sweetest pumpkin I have ever tried. It bakes, boils and steams beautifully.
The other winner, which we grew for the first time was the exotically named gialla quintale. This Italian variety is the shape and size of a very large beach ball with bright orange skin and flesh (they look amazing in the paddock). The Italian Gardener (were I bought the seed) recommends harvesting them when they reach around 10kg, which, I suspect, has to do with ease of handling. Unfortunately they seem to double in size overnight and most of ours were picked around the 15 to 20kg mark. It is a milder flavoured pumpkin with a squash-like texture that works brilliantly in curries, hot pots or steaming and then smothering in butter and black pepper.
Another Italian variety we grew this year was the tonda padana. It is by far the prettiest of them all with its alternating vertical grey/green and orange ribs. The wonderfully dry, sweet flesh is perfect for pies, soups, gnocchi and scones or breads. The skin is incredibly hard, so I suspect it will be a good keeper as well.
Paw paw is a trial variety we grew this year (we only had a couple of plants). Think mega butternut with a mottled dark green skin. The ratio of size to flesh is outstanding: it only has a tiny seed cavity and the deep orange flesh is very similar to butternut. Will definitely be growing more next year.
Not surprisingly, pumpkin has been finding its way onto the menu more frequently of late:
I am generally not a fan of pumpkin soup—they’re either too bland and uninspiring (the sign of a lazy cook) or have the texture of baby food (or both!). This recipe, however, courtesy of my good friends Allan Campion and Michele Curtis, is a cracker. The musque de Provence was perfect in this. Jarradale or jap would also work well.
2 tbspns vegetable oil
2 tbspns red or green Thai curry paste
1 onion, finely diced
1 stick celery, finely diced
1kg pumpkin, peeled and diced
1 litre chicken or vegetable stock
400ml coconut milk
fresh coriander leaves, roughly chopped
freshly ground pepper
Heat a large heavy-based saucepan over medium heat, then add the oil and curry paste and cook for five minutes, stirring often, until fragrant. Add vegetables and season with salt. Reduce the heat and cook for fifteen minutes, stirring often. Add the stock and bring to the boil. Cover and simmer for fifteen minutes. Purée the soup in a blender and strain into a clean saucepan. Return to the boil, add the coconut milk and adjust the seasoning. Serve garnished with coriander leaves.
Chinese-Style Spicy Pumpkin
Traditionally eggplant is used for this dish, but a “wet” pumpkin like the gialla quintale is a brilliant substitute. You could also use marrow or squash.
500g pumpkin, peeled
3 tbspns light soy sauce
1 tbspn rice wine
1 tbspn roasted sesame oil
2 tspn clear rice vinegar
1 tspn sugar
2 garlic cloves, chopped finely,
1 tspn chilli paste
Cut the pumpkin into 5cm cubes and steam it until just cooked. Combine the remaining ingredients in a bowl and pour over the steamed pumpkin. Allow the pumpkin to marinate for ten minutes before serving. This dish can be eaten either hot or cold.
Pumpkin and Amaretto Tart
This is a much more interesting version of the more commonly known pumpkin pie. It can be served as an entrée, as a vegetable dish with a roast or even on an antipasto plate. A dryer roasting pumpkin such as the tonda padana (or butternut) works best.
500g pumpkin, peeled
50g mustard fruits, puréed (available from good delis)
2/3 cup fresh bread crumbs
2 tspns amaretto liqueur
2 eggs, lightly beaten
6 fresh sage leaves
Line a 22cm tart tin with the pastry and bake blind until light golden brown in colour. Remove from oven and cool. Cut the pumpkin into even size pieces and steam until tender. Dry in a low oven for five minutes, then puree with the mustard fruits, bread crumbs and amaretto. Adjust seasoning.
Lightly beat the eggs and mix into the pumpkin purée. Drop the sage leaves and butter into a small frypan and swirl until the butter is foaming and the leaves are crisp. Drain on kitchen paper, then chop and add to the filling. Tip the mixture into the pastry case and bake for 25–30 minutes until firm.
Watercress An Ancient plant worth rediscovering
Tomatillos: Mexican Green Tomatoes
Get some pork on your fork