Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Thinking outside the Coop

When I was in my final year of high school, I spent a few weeks at the Permaculture Research Institute (PRI) of Australia, both as a wwoof-er (wwoof = willing workers on organic farms) and as a student to complete my Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC).  There, my eyes were opened to a whole new world to which I had previously been oblivious. One of the things that caught my attention in particular was the eggmobile. It was so cute!

The eggmobile is a Joel Salatin invention and therefore is part of the idea of holistic farming. It allows laying hens to free-range during the day and can be moved as the owner sees fit. Hens and roosters can come and go as they please but it’s possible to lock them up to protect them at night or to transport them to a new location. You can read more about this particular eggmobile here

Another type of moveable chicken coop is the chicken tractor, which is what we use at the community garden. I don't know why this photo comes out blurry :-(

Chicken tractors don’t have a floor which means there’s no mess to clean up: the dropping fall exactly where you want them to, i.e. on the grass or garden bed. The only thing that you have to do is give the chooks food and water and they should reward you with beautiful eggs. 

Allowing the chickens to free-range while in their shelter means that you’re able to provide them with fresh grass, weeds and microbes each time you move the tractor. At the same time, the chickens do some work for you, such as digging, weeding and fertilising – all the things that prepare and enhance the ground for food crops. For this reason, the coop’s name was a tongue-in-cheek expression coined by Bill Mollison, the [co-]father of permaculture.  The idea comes from putting the chickens where they do the most good and where they are easiest to take care of in the garden.

The stand-out reasons to go mobile include:
  • Reciprocal benefits – the chicken, the grower and the garden all benefit
  • It’s appropriately scaled and practical (for as few or as many chickens as you think you can handle and as big or as small as you like)
  • It prepares the soil for optimum yields of vegies and fruits with high nutritional value
  • Humane way to raise poultry
  • Chicken tractors have a positive global impact on how people reclaim land and produce their food, and can encourage local self-sufficiency
  • Using chickens to biorecycle kitchen and yard ‘waste’

There are also other uses for chicken tractors that don’t necessarily involve chickens… they can be used as cold frames, firewood and small equipment storage, small pet pen, run in shelter for small livestock, etc. The possibilities are endless! It’s also a convenient way to look after the city chicks which have been plonked in the middle of suburbia. They can be constructed to compliment the home garden and small acreage while still offering the benefits of egg production, biomass recycling and garden helpers.

The core of permaculture is design. Design is a connection between things. It’s not the human, or the chicken, or the garden. It is how the human, the chicken and the garden are connected.” – Bill Mollison

May the flock be with you.

- Matilda

Salatin, J 1996, Pastured Poultry Profits, Polyface Incorporated, US. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Wombok and a packet of fried noodles

Last week I did some work at the garden planting some wombok, or Chinese cabbage. Initially I was worried I had blown the seeds out of the seed-raising mix when I watered them but it turns out that they survived both the artificial and natural barrages of water they were faced with and are doing well! I’ve always thought that I missed out when it came to inheriting my dad’s green thumb but maybe there’s still hope for me yet… 

The recipe below is an oldy but a goody, introduced to us years ago by a family friend who brought it along to one of the picnics we would have up in the Hinterland. She knocked it up in front of us and amazed us all with its simplicity of assembly and delicious taste. Mum has used it for years as a fall-back salad when we have guests. We usually try to avoid processed/packaged foods but you can’t go wrong with the packet of fried noodles in this case.

Earlier in the summer, we made this with fresh organic wombok from the garden… yum. When the greens are so tasty, you hardly need any dressing! So here’s the recipe - in anticipation of the development of the baby ones in the garden beds at the moment.

Oriental Fried Noodle Salad (from my mother’s cookbook)

1 packet fried noodles (100g)
½ - 1 wombok, shredded (washed and drained well)
6 shallots, chopped
100g roasted slivered almonds or pine nuts
Dressing: ½ cup castor sugar, ¼ cup white vinegar, 1 Tbsp soy sauce, ¼ cup olive oil, 2 tsp sesame oil


1. Mix all ingredients for dressing in a bowl; stir well until sugar is dissolved.

2. Combine the wombok, chopped shallots and almonds in a salad bowl. Add dressing and mix well.

3. Add noodles just before serving. Toss thoroughly. 

- Matilda

Thursday, February 23, 2012

“I wish I had a mango tree in my backyard…”

Before I begin: I am not an ‘Angus and Julia Stone’ fan. Just thought I would make that clear before people start judging me on my musical tastes (people of my generation probably hate me right now).

One of the greatest parts of the Australian, and in particular Queensland, summer is the tropical fruit that is in abundance at this time of year. My two personal favourites are watermelon and mango. Only last week, I singlehandedly devoured all of the watermelon present at a buffet lunch (the fruit shop down the road selling watermelons at 29c a kilo has also helped to fuel my addiction). I have been slightly more reserved when it comes to mangoes due to them being slightly more expensive but, in recent times, I have being racing – and winning - the bats to the mangoes on the tree at the community garden (which I didn’t even realise was there until about a month and a half ago…).  This has meant that at least half a dozen [organic!] mangoes find their way to my stomach each week.

In my humble opinion, nothing beats a plain Jane mango: cheeks cut off and sliced in a criss-cross so as to facilitate the smooth transition of the flesh from mango skin to mouth. Oh and the seed… the often meaty, always stringy syrupy goodness of Kensington mango seeds is unrivalled by any fruit on this planet. They’re also amazing in cheesecakes, smoothies, sorbets, etc, etc… the list goes on.

The Thais have also found a delectable manner in which to consume this gorgeous summer fruit - as an accompaniment to sticky rice cooked with coconut milk, coconut cream and sugar.

Photo sourced from internet

We always used to cook white sticky rice to use in this dish but have recently discovered that black is just as, if not more, delicious. My mum has tried numerous sticky rice recipes in her time and has finally found two which she has modified so that they make the cut. This is no mean feat when you consider that the recipes are being compared to the real deal; when they were living in Hong Kong and Dad was doing some work in Thailand, he would take her home sticky rice that he bought from its birthplace. 

Mango with White Sticky Rice (from my mother’s cookbook)
Serves 4-6

375g freshly cooked sticky rice
1 cup thick coconut milk
4 Tbsp sugar
2 tsp salt
4 Tbsp coconut cream (skimmed from top of coconut milk)
6 large ripe mangoes (skinned, stoned, cubed)


1. Making the rice: rinse several times (200g) until water runs clear, soak (12 hours or overnight), then drain. Line saucepan steamer with cheesecloth, steam rice for 45 minutes until tender and translucent. Remove from heat and fluff up with a fork.

2. Place the cooked rice in a bowl and set aside. In a saucepan over medium heat, bring coconut milk, sugar and salt to the boil, lower heat and simmer until milk thicken (about 4-5 minutes).

3. Pour mixture carefully over sticky rice, fluffing up rice with a fork and allowing the coconut mixture to trickle through but not ‘drown’ the rice (otherwise becomes too gluggy and the translucent quality of the rice will be lost).

4. Allow the rice to stand for 10 minutes, then turn in a mound on a serving platter. Garnish with thick coconut cream sprinkled with sesame seeds.

5. Arrange mangoes (cubed or sliced) around the mound of sticky rice. Alternatively, make individual servings of sticky rice and mango slices.

Above, black sticky rice served with canned fruit salad… slack, I know. But it wasn’t quite mango season yet when we were first experimenting with the black stuff. It tasted brilliant nonetheless.

Black Sticky Rice Pudding (from my mother’s cookbook)
Serves 6

200g (1 cup) black glutinous rice
250ml (1 cup) light or normal coconut milk
80g (1/3 cup) dark palm sugar (or half white, half palm sugar)
60ml (1/4 cup) coconut milk, extra, for serving
Fruit, for serving


1. Place rice in bowl, cover well with water, cover, stand overnight; drain. Add rice to pan of boiling water, simmer, uncovered for about 15 minutes or until tender; drain.

2. Combine rice, coconut milk and sugar in pan; simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally for about 15 minutes or until thickened to porridge-like consistency.

3. Serve with extra coconut milk and fruit of choice (mango!).

- Matilda

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Garden Ornament Proposal: TARDIS

Sillysparrowness simply won my heart with this remarkable video. I'm not sure how many of you out there are hardcore Whovians but you will appreciate this work of art regardless of your position on Doctor Who. So grab a tea or coffee and a slice of zucchini cake and sit back and enjoy the show...

I am so getting one of these for my kitchen garden. 

- Matilda

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Zucchini Challenge

We have a winner.

The highlight of this summer has been being able to experiment with the seasonal produce coming out of the garden. The veggies that have dominated our fridge over the last couple of months would probably have to be cucumbers and zucchinis. I’ve blogged about some zucchini dishes this year already but after trying many, my family has voted on a winner:

The zucchini cake pictured above is from the first ever time I made it (I forgot to stir the walnuts in so added them in at a rush after I had poured the batter into the pans, hence the lumpy surface). I can happily report that the second (and third, fourth, fifth and… you get the idea) time, the cakes came out much prettier.

Mum having some fun with the paper parasol. I used to collect these when we went to restaurants when I was little. Did other people do that as well or is it just me? I say ‘is’ because I still might be guilty of doing such things… Shhh.

Zucchini Cake (adapted from So Good & Tasty)
Makes 2 loaves


2 eggs
1/2 cup (or slightly less) olive oil  
3/4 cup honey
1 ¼ tsp pure vanilla extract
2 cups grated zucchini
2 cups whole wheat flour or all purpose flour
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
2/3 tsp salt
1 ¼ tsp baking soda
1/3 tsp baking powder
1 cup walnuts, chopped


1. Preheat oven to 180˚C. Line two loaf pans (mine were 3 x 7 and 3 x 6 due to my oven situation) with baking paper and set aside.

2. In a large bowl mix eggs, oil, honey and vanilla. Stir in grated zucchini.

3. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, baking soda and baking powder. Stir the dry ingredients into the wet. Stir in the walnuts and dried fruit if using. 

4. Pour equal parts of the batter into each loaf pan. Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean. Let cool on wire rack, then slice and serve.

It would probably be necessary to use the quantities of eggs (3), flour (3 cups), zucchini (3 cups), etc in the original recipe to yield two decent-and-not-to-mention-the-same-sized loaves. The only thing I would change is that I would maybe use just over 1 cup of honey rather than 1 ½ cups sugar. It might also be worthwhile cutting back on the amount of oil if using a liquid sweetener of any sort.

- Matilda

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Buzzing with Excitement

I’m getting my own bees!

That is, once we can find a swarm somewhere to put in a box. It still hasn’t been decided where they’re going to be kept (I want them at home so I can give them cuddles every now and again) but what I do know is what kind of hive my new babies will be living in.

Being the predictable, unadventurous and, to be blunt, rather boring individual that I am, I will be using a Langstroth hive. This is the most common design for beehives and is apparently used by around 75% of the world’s beekeepers… Mr Lorenzo Langstroth clearly knew what he was talking about when he wanted some honey from his combs.

Langstroth hives take advantage of bee space, the space that a bee needs to crawl freely between two structures. Therefore, rather than sealing the frames with propolis or filling them with comb to join adjacent frames, the bees can comfortably live and work in their artificially created environment. The reinforcement of the frames with wire also means that it is possible to spin the honey out of the comb. Once the honey has been extracted, the frames can then be returned to the hive for use by the bees. Depending on which way you look at it, you could say this creates either lazier or more efficient bees – they don’t have to waste the massive amounts of energy required to create a new honeycomb!   The estimates vary, but it’s thought that approximately six and a half kilograms of honey are needed to generate one measly kilogram of comb in a temperature climate, although the amount of energy expended by bees in the subtropics is less due to the fact that they don’t have to build elaborate nests to insulate themselves from freezing temperatures.

Below are the beehives at the community garden from which I drink litres of honey every morning, exhibiting the seven components of the modern Langstroth hive: hive stand, bottom board, brood box, honey super, frames, inner cover and outer cover.  

Even though Langstroth hives are what we are using at the moment, I think Dad and his beekeeping mates are looking to give the French-design Warré hives a go. Warré hives are a type of top bar hive and  much more simple in construction, consisting of hive body, top bars and a cover. They have their own set of advantages for both humans and the bees and personally, I’m excited at the prospect of trying this design. Some of the selling points of this model include…

  • Everything that was in the comb (pollen, propolis, antibiotics and ezymes in the honey) ends up in the honey. When you think about how much health food stores sell these ‘super-foods’ for in tiny plastic tubs, you realise just how much of an advantage this is for your health (not to mention your wallet)
  • You never have to buy beeswax again – use the leftovers from the honey production for anything you can think of (e.g. waxing two strings of hemp together to make a stronger strand, which can then be used to hemp up joints on bagpipes… a story for another day)
  • The probability of environmental toxins building up in the comb is much less because the bees rebuild the combs each season.
  • As a result of the comb being rebuilt each season by the bees, for the bees, the colony can build it in such a way that allows them to reset their cell sizes, communicate more effectively and generally be a happier and healthier hive.
  • No equipment is needed to extract the honey (you just mush the comb up and let it drip out!)
Photo sourced from internet
It also happens to be easier to build, more adaptable to different building materials and conditions, doesn’t require as much beekeeper exposure and is an ideal urban and educational beehive. In fact, the school I used to attend are making some Warré hives to take on a volunteer trip to Tanzania later this year. The only scary part about that is that they’re building the Warrés on Dad’s recommendation… eek. I really hope that it works out.

I’m sure it will be great though; I think that by writing this, I’ve convinced myself that I need to jump on the Warré bandwagon!

- Matilda 


Saturday, February 11, 2012

When it sees cake, the hungry lion in my tum tum goes “RAW!”

Yesterday I tried my hand at a vegan dessert: cheesecake.

But what about the cream? Cream cheese???


Drum roll, please.

*imaginary crowd obliges with a drum roll*

Photo sourced from internet

Cashews: those tasty little critters are more versatile than you might think...

A slice of The Raw Cheesecake, pictured above under the terrible lighting that is down-lights at night as I couldn’t be bothered taking another photo the next day. So I’m lazy. Sue me. 

Also, I obviously can't use a knife properly and my food processor isn't all that impressive. But you get the idea.

I was really apprehensive when I started making this… I thought "surely this isn’t going to work", but my worries were unfounded – the end result was spectacular! It felt like velvet on the tongue and the taste buds around the various papillae most certainly approved. Over-consumption of this cake can be justified by “it’s healthy!…er” which is not a quality many cheesecakes around the place can boast.  

Food like this makes me wonder why people continue to bother with some of the traditional stodgy and artery-clogging foods that are so prevalent in today’s society. I suppose it ultimately comes down to cost. It wouldn’t be feasible for me to make desserts like this all the time with good quality food, and in particular nuts, being as expensive as it is. For some reason John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ has popped up a few times over the last couple of days when I’ve had my mp3 player on shuffle and I really do wish the human race could, as a collective, imagine: imagine that there are no countries; imagine that there is no greed or hunger; imagine that all the people share the world. But such topics are probably best left for another day. So without any further ado, I present….  

Raw Cheesecake (adapted from My New Roots)


½ cup raw almonds
½ cup soft dates
¼ tsp salt

1 ½ cups raw cashews, soaked overnight
Juice of 2 lemons
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup raw coconut oil
1/3 cup raw honey (or agave)
1 cup frozen blueberries, thawed


1. Place the almonds, dates and salt in a food processor and pulse until the crust has reached your desired consistency. The way to test whether or not the crust is ready or not is to scoop out a tiny bit of the mixture and roll it in your hands – if it sticks together, then it’s perfect. If it crumbles, try adding some more dates.

2. Scoop put the crust mixture and press it into a 7” spring-form pan so that it is relatively even throughout the whole base and the edges are well-packed.

3. Thoroughly rinse the food processor and in it, place all the filling ingredients except the blueberries (make sure the food processor is a powerful one!).  Blend on high until a very smooth consistency is achieved… unless you like chunky cheesecakes, in which case you are more than entitled to blend it for a shorter period of time.  

4. Pour approximately two-thirds of the filling mixture out onto the crust use a spatula to smooth it out. Add the blueberries to the filling remaining in the food processor and blend. Pour the blueberry layer over the first layer and smooth it out with a spatula.

5. Place the cheesecake in the freezer until it is solid. Take it out to thaw for about half an hour before serving and return any leftovers *cough* back in the freezer.

Unfortunately this recipe doesn't really lend itself to using fresh produce from the garden (apart from the honey!) but I believe that there are quite a few raw cheesecake recipes out there, some of which may even manage to incorporate a veggie or two... I’m extremely keen to try some different variations of this spectacular dessert so I’ll keep you posted!

Aha, geddit?! “Posted”… ‘cause it’s a blog.

Hmm time I shut up methinks.

- Matilda

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Which came first… the Chicken or the Egg?

Lately, my obsession with chickens has been rekindled. The scratchy, clucky and bossy type - at least they have been in my experience.

When I was about five years old, my parents bought me two baby chicks to care for… sadly, Snowy and Jonno were both killed by the dog next door. So, they got me another two.  I named one (Emily) and my friend the other (Jonno) and I’m glad I got creative with my naming because it was again the chick named Jonno who unfortunately perished at the paws of the white and fluffy rat over the fence. They say it’s important for chooks to have at least one girlfriend around so that they don’t become lonely so I think my parents were initially a bit worried about Emily being by herself (they had geese before I was born and when the female died, the gander went crazy of a broken heart).

Their worries were unfounded however because Emily quickly became acquainted with Cybil, my dear late sister and friend:

In fact, Emily bossed Cybil around. Poor old dog, she probably didn’t know what had hit her (or pecked her in the nose as the case was).

< Photo of Cybil and Emily – coming!! > 

I was always keen on chooks but since Dad has been down at the community garden working with them (and bringing fresh eggs home!), my interest has been tickled again. The latest non-fiction book I hoed into was not, for a nice change, a physiology textbook. Rather, it was Jackie French’s ‘Chook Book’.

My nerdy, library-and-in-particular-fiction-loving 10 year old self was quite a fan of Jackie French and my young adult (age-wise anyhow) self is also a fan, except this time of her non-fiction works. Apart from being busy in her work as part of the ACT Children’s Ambassador, a patron of Club Cool (a programme that encourages children to read), director of the Wombat Foundation and writing books (duh), she and her husband somehow manage to care for a four hectare garden. Reading the description of her place on the biography section of her website made me green with envy…. oh how I wish for 800 fruit trees!

Anyhow, there were a couple of things I learnt from Jackie French’s book that I found particularly interesting… mainly because I hadn’t heard of them before. Apart from the different breeds of chickens, etc, the things I was most fascinated by were the 'how-to' of eggs! Here are a few that kept me entertained and opened mouthed for even hours afterwards... 

  • Store eggs bum-up to suspend the yolk inside the white (this produces a nice even whiteness around the yellow when the eggs are hard-boiled)
  • Never wash eggs as the shells are porous, just brush them clean
  • When using just the egg whites, pierce a small hole in the smaller end of the egg and let the white ooze out before putting tape over the hole.  Stored this way in the fridge, blunt end down, the yolks will keep fresh for several days; yolks can also be slipped into a glass of cold water and stored in the fridge for a day or two. They can also be dropped into boiling water and stored as hard-boiled yolks for salads, etc
  • Egg yolks are usually in the blunt end so when cracking the egg, hold the blunt end in your dominant (cracking) hand and try to catch the yolk in the blunt end; the white will easily slip out of the pointed end
  • Room temperature eggs are less likely to crack when you boil them, the whites whip better and yolks are fatter and higher when you fry them
  • One or two extra yolks adds creaminess to scrambled eggs (as does 1T orange juice as long as it’s not from a navel orange); don’t use milk for scrambled eggs – use 1T butter per egg and crack the eggs directly into the pan

Now I’ve always prided myself on being able to make perfect soft-boiled eggs. According to Jackie French though, I’m doing it all wrong! So this is the method I’m going to be trying out the next time I’m craving a soldier boy covered in creamy golden goo:

  1. Prick a tiny hole at the fat end with the needle if one is handy (stops shell breaking)
  2. Put eggs in saucepan, just cover with cold water and put on heat
  3. As soon as the water begins to boil, take it off heat and leave for 2-4 minutes (white hardens at 2, yolk at 4 – around 3 minutes would give my kind of egg: solid white but a slightly runny yolk into which you can dip toast!)
    Note: eggs are hardboiled after 15 minutes done this way
The book wraps up with about 20 pages of recipes that use chicken and/or eggs. I never really took notice of how many eggs one inadvertently consumes over the course of a day... cakes, salads, stir-fries; the list goes on. One of my mum's ways to use up veggies that are nearing their use-by date is to fry them up with egg. Below is a photo of a simple yet delightful cucumber, zucchini and egg stir-fry she invented on one such occasion. 
And the sushi she made on the same night... organic egg rolls, cucumber and perilla leaves with unfortunately-not-organic chicken, garnished with organic rocket.

Which brings us back to the question: which came first – the chicken or the egg?

- Matilda

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Okra One-Oh-One

I was shocked to find that my consultation of Stephanie Alexander’s 'Kitchen Garden Companion' shed no light on the topic of okra.

Now this book’s home is a snug corner of the side board behind the dining table, where it can be plucked out at a moment’s notice should we want to know something about the food we are stuffing into our mouths. It’s truly the most gorgeous and detailed book, providing information on the plant, growing and harvesting, preparing and, of course, recipes using that particular vegetable or fruit. It has never failed us so far so I was quite disappointed when it couldn’t help with my quest to know more about this sweet, gooey and absolutely delightful veggie.

However, in this day and age the internet seems to serve as a one-stop shop… which I really think it shouldn’t be. But one may as well take advantage of it while it’s still up and running, right? In saying that though, it probably isn’t a bad idea to not forget how to use books as a reference point– for the time when computer hackers around the globe decide to take down the government or whatever by destroying the World Wide Web with viruses (nasty little acellular beasts they are).

There’s my little conspiracy theorist rant for the day.

So yes: okra, aka gumbo!

Some okra coming on in the garden 
Apparently it’s from the same family (Malvaceae) as the lovely hibiscus, which you can sort of guess from its flowers.

As well as the spineless variety, which is more common here, I’ve been fortunate enough to treat my pallet to some Brazillian okra as well. High in fibre, vitamins (A. B… C! And K), minerals (iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese)  and folate with no cholesterol or saturated fats, I reckon you could call okra the ultimate diet food – low in calories yet has plenty of the good stuff to help you kicking along. Not to mention it’s flipping delicious! According to some research, it also helps control blood sugar levels so is particularly useful for diabetics.  And it’s low GI!

Okra is a summer veggie (duh) whose seeds germinate in warmer soils, after the last frost of the winter has been and gone. They grow alright in any decent soil and weeds can be kept away by cultivating the soil near the plants shallowly…  the fun really starts when the pods reach between 5 to 7.5 centimetres long, while they’re still tender and immature. Using garden scissors or pruning shears, clean cuts to the stem can remove the pods without hurting the rest of the plant, ensuring it goes on producing bucketfuls of the stuff!

I wouldn’t say I’ve experimented too much with okra in cooking, apart from frying them up in the pan with some olive oil and garlic - simple yet delicious. Mum would deep fry them as tempura (ohhh heaven!) when Dad used to grow them at home; he never had too much luck with them though so I think he’s really proud of this year’s harvest down at the community garden. We were lucky enough to be given some special brown and white sesame seeds (surigoma) from Japan so the following recipe is the one our family has been obsessed with this summer.

With fresh organic okra from the garden and raw honey straight from the hive, where could one possibly go wrong?!

Okra with Sesame Dressing


10-12 okra
30ml ground sesame seeds
8ml soy sauce
5ml honey
3ml sesame oil


1. Boil okra for 2-3 minutes, drain and cut each okra into 3-4 pieces.
2. Mix the remaining ingredients in a bowl and toss with the okra.
3. Devour (the Asian in me loves it with a bowl of simple white short-grain rice, cooked to perfection in a rice cooker).


Gloopy gooey okra goodness.

- Matilda