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Winter in Adelaide can provide perfect lettuce growing weather – plenty of rain, and some sunshine, but not the lettuce-leaves-burnt-to-a-crisp sunshine we get in mid to late Summer. Lettuces need plenty of water, being shallow-rooted, and the leaves themselves have a high water content. If they get too hot or dry, or unhappy for any reason, their flavour turns bitter or they bolt to seed. On the other hand, make sure you grow late Winter/early Spring lettuces somewhere sheltered from frosts so that your lettuce leaves don’t turn to mush! But it’s so easy to grow them at the moment with the regular showers we’ve had, that some seeds I tossed around under our Fig Tree a while ago have been providing me with a daily bowl of salad, and I haven’t bothered watering them at all.

Red Oak Leaf lettuce, with some rocket and other mixed salad greens

Red Oak Leaf lettuce, with some rocket and other mixed salad greens

They’re Red Oak Leaf lettuces, one of my favourite varieties because they are so easy to grow, you can pick and eat them one leaf at a time instead of having to harvest the whole plant at once, and the snails and slugs don’t seem to like them much. Those slimy pests prefer the sweeter, milder green lettuces, so being a lazy grower I follow the path of least resistance and grow the stronger flavoured red varieties. These varieties also seem to be hardier when the weather warms up a bit, or if I forget to make sure they have enough water. 

Red Oak Leaf is often the only lettuce I’ll even attempt to grow in Summer when I’m rationing out water like liquid gold. In Winter when there’s plenty of water about I also like to grow Green Mignonette, a small variety which doesn’t take up much space, so will grow happily when squashed in amongst other vegies or in a tub. It has a lovely sweet flavour so I have to be a bit vigilant about the snails. I’ve also had good success with a Brown Romaine lettuce, which looks beautiful in a salad, has a great sweet-nutty sort of flavour, and is slow to bolt in warmer weather.

Growing lettuces from seed

I get my organic lettuce seeds from Green Harvest:  http://www.greenharvest.com.au    They also sell packets of mixed variety lettuce seeds so you can try several varieties from one packet – an economical way of finding out what grows best at your place. Hearting varieties are usually meant to be harvested all at once when mature, while loose-leaf varieties can be eaten gradually over a longer periods of time by just eating the outer leaves. Another good source for seeds is Select Organic: http://www.selectorganic.com.au  

Lettuces are easy to grow from seed. As long as you use a good seed-raising mix and make sure they stay moist, they’ll germinate quickly. Don’t sow them too deep, only about half a centimetre. I tend to just thinly scatter them onto compost, then scatter some seeds rasing mix over the top and water them in. Sometimes I’ll put a scrap of shadecloth over them to stop them drying out, to be removed once they germinate. I let them grow and compete with eachother for a little while until they’re about half a finger tall and then I thin out the small ones (and eat them in a salad) until I have some nice healthy looking lettuces about 20 to 30 cm apart. Sometimes with loose-leaf lettuces I get really lazy and forget to thin them out, and I just keep eating the outer leaves. They don’t grow very big that way, but they seem to last a long time. Whether you grow them in the ground or in a tub, the soil around their roots needs to be moist at all times, so that they grow quickly to full size without turning bitter. A thick layer of mulch around them helps a lot.

Harvesting lettuce seeds

If you want to harvest your own lettuce seeds for another round of planting, choose your best, healthiest looking lettuce and nurture it, making sure it has plenty of water and nutrients (if in doubt, add more compost!). Let it flower, keep molly-coddling it, and let the flowers turn into seeds.

It’ll take about two months for that yummiest-looking lettuce to produce yellow flowers that turn white and fluffy. You can then either:

1) cut off all the flowers near the bottom of the plant and put them somewhere to dry and then store the seeds, or …

2) my favourite method – leave them until they start spilling all over the garden and flying away with the breeze, then break off the big branch of flowers near the base and joyfully thrash it around the garden anywhere you think you might like lettuces! For more accurate and sensible ways of saving and storing seeds, see “The Seed Savers’ Handbook” by Michel & Jude Fanton. You can get it at: http://www.seedsavers.net

Eating lettuce and salads in Winter

You can give a Winter salad some really warm flavours. Try squeezing a clove of garlic into some olive oil and adding black pepper as a salad dressing. Or ginger, tamari and peanut oil with a little chilli….or how about a warm tahini, sunflower oil and sweet potato dressing.  My daily Winter salads are the result of garden foraging and usually include torn lettuce and rocket leaves, shredded cabbage, nasturtium, beetroot, radish and baby kale leaves, florets of raw broccoli side shoots, a handful of parsley and winter basil, and maybe some grated daikon and beetroot. Sweetened with some organic carrot from the market and tossed with apple cider vinegar and a good olive oil and sprinkled with sunflower seeds, it’s always an easy, fresh-tasting treat and makes me feel great. Toss through some chick peas or cooked beans and you have a complete meal. The incredible variety of ingredients is just one of the great pleasures of growing your own food.

Making the most of a small space: a red curly leaf lettuce growing in Spring under the protection of a dwarf nectarine tree. It will soon be ready for harvesting, and then the interplantings of kale and silverbeet will grow to full size.

Making the most of a small space: a red curly leaf lettuce growing in Spring under the protection of a dwarf nectarine tree. It is about to be harvested, giving the interplantings of kale and silverbeet space to grow to full size.

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Here’s my favourite way to make chai:

I grind up about a teaspoon of cloves, and a teaspoon of cardamom seeds in a  mortar and pestle. One teaspoon of this ground mix goes in a saucepan filled with a mug of water (I like to save the rest of the clove-cardamom mix for a head start another time, as these are the most time-consuming spices to pestle) .

Also into the saucepan goes: a little ground black pepper, two teaspoons of tea leaves (I prefer an Oolong, or more often I have “Daintree Tea”, a tea from Queensland which is organically grown), half a crushed cinnamon stick, a slice of fresh ginger, and perhaps some grated nutmeg or some crushed home-grown fennel seeds.

Fennel seeds ready for harvesting

Fennel seeds ready for harvesting

I bring this very slowly to a simmer to give the spices and tea time to infuse. When it’s simmering, I add a mug and a half of oat milk. You might like to use normal milk, and very occasionally I’ll use a good organic milk like Paris Creek’s. I let it simmer again for about five to ten minutes.

 

At this point it’s quite easy to get distracted by some gardening or a great book, or taking photos of  bugs, and before I know it the spicy warm smell of chai that has been accidentally brewed to a dangerously thick, syrupy soup wafts to my attention. If this happens, the tradition at my place  is to jump up, yelling “Chai Check! Chai Check!” and race into the kitchen to add more water if necessary. Friends are now so used to this that even those who don’t like chai will run to the stove and give it a stir. Don’t worry though, it will taste fine for brewing so long, and if you use a mild black tea, it never becomes bitter.

Just before serving I’ll stir in two teaspoons of honey to be warmed through the mix, because I prefer honey to the sugar that is added at the beginning in more traditional versions.

Now the chai is ready, and I strain it into a mug or two (this recipe will serve you and a friend, or you can save some for another mug later).

A good cup of chai is best enjoyed with a pal, sitting for a quiet chat on the verandah overlooking the vegie patch 🙂

I drink chai mostly because it’s delicious, but I also appreciate its health benefits…

Mild black teas such as oolong are ideal for chai because they won’t become bitter when brewed for a long time. These teas have very little tannin and caffeine compared to stronger black teas, so they won’t interfere with iron or protein absorption, and they won’t keep you awake  if you have an evening chai. Oolong tea is rich in antioxidants called polyphenols, which are believed to help the body’s cells resist damage by free radicals. If you wanted to, you could also make chai with green tea leaves.

Cardamom, according to Ayurvedic tradition, is a warming spice that improves digestion and blood circulation and detoxifies.

Cloves contain Eugenol, which functions as an anti-inflammatory, and a variety of flavanoids.

Black Pepper has both anti-oxidant and anti-bacterial properties.

Cinnamon is also anti-bacterial and can lower LDL cholesterol. It may also may have a regulatory effect on blood sugar.

Ginger is a great anti-inflammatory and is warming when the weather’s cold. It’s good for the digestive tract and is very helpful for settling the stomach.

Fennel seeds soothe the stomach and are rich in minerals, including magnesium.

Cardamom, cloves and cinnamon are also sources of manganese, which helps to strengthen cell walls and aids joint lubrication and nerve function.

These are only a few of the benefits of dinking home-made chai.

And there are so many ways to make chai. Some people add mint or licorice root, others forego the tea and just use the spices. I would love to know your favourite chai recipe, so if you have one to share please add it to the comments (see below).

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Now that it’s Autumn it’s time to make pesto with all the basil, before Winter comes and finishes it off.
I’ve grown purple basil and green basil, but I tend not to make pesto from the purple variety because I’ve found it produces a grey coloured pesto which tastes fine but doesn’t look very appetising!
I use toasted almonds in my pesto because they taste great and add texture, and because I can obtain them grown locally, & chemical-free.
I use a food processor, which I know to some more discerning mortar & pestle pesto advocates will seem like sacrilege, but it tastes great to me and I just don’t enjoy pestling for ages (although I’m quite good at pestering).
So I just throw a couple of handfuls of toasted almonds in the food processor, and whizz them till they’re still fairly coarse, so they’ll add a nice substantial texture to the pesto.
Next I add lots of basil leaves, pulled off a couple of big healthy bunches of basil. The basil flowers are also fine to use. I pour in some good virgin olive oil (the quality of your oil will really make a difference to the final taste), and process into a rough paste. Season with salt and pepper, mixing the seasoning through.
I may add more basil leaves if the pesto doesn’t seem strong, or green enough, or I may add more oil if it seems too stodgy. Just adust the mix as needed -this is down to personal taste, but bear in mind that the pesto always seems to harden when it’s settled, so it’s often better to make it a bit more runny at first.

But where’s the garlic and the grated parmigiano?

Well, if I’m going to use the pesto within the next 2 weeks, I’ll mix in some crushed garlic and very finely grated parmigiano, put the pesto in a glass jar with an extra layer of olive oil over the top to help keep it fresh, and store it in the fridge.

But I most want to use my pesto right in the middle of Winter, when there’s no basil in the garden but I want that lovely, warm, sun-kissed, slightly crunchy flavour stirred through my hearty minestrone soup!
So in that case, I get a plastic, sealable, re-usable bag, fill it with the pesto, and flatten it all out so it freezes into a big thin square when I put it in the freezer. Then, whenever I need some pesto for a soup or some toast, I go to the freezer and just break the amount I need off the square. It defrosts very quickly in this small quantity, and then I can stir some freshly squeezed garlic and/or some grated parmigiano into it if I wish.

 Why add the garlic and cheese after defrosting, and not while I’m making it intially?
Because I’ve read that garlic can become bitter, and can lose many of its health benefits when frozen. And because I have some friends I like to share pesto with who don’t eat cheese. And its really nice without the parmigiano, anyway.

Getting creative….
I’ve used this basic technique to experiment with all kinds of pestos, including Garlic Chive Pesto, Rocket Pesto, Spinach Pesto (you have to cook the spinach first), and even Coriander Pesto, depending on what’s in the garden. I’ve also added sunflower seeds, which tastes lovely and is very nutritious, or used cashews instead of almonds for a rich, luxurious taste. A little mashed anchovy adds a great lift to coriander pesto.
There’s also no end to the various ways you can use pesto: stirred through soups, on toast, on pizzas, stirred through fresh pasta or a rice salad, even placed in the middle of a home-cooked savoury muffin!
I would love to hear your favourite pesto recipe if you have one.

 

 

 

 

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