Gifts from a gardener

I’m convinced that the cooks of this world greatly outnumber the kitchen gardeners !

There’s absolutely no sorrow in this situation for the gardener, because our gifts of kitchen garden produce can always find grateful recipients among the many cooks who provide us such pleasure at the end of a hard day’s work through the output of their kitchens.

To have both a cook and a gardener sharing the same kitchen and kitchen garden is one of life’s simple joys.

Freshly-picked, newly baked or home-preserved produce are gifts increasingly valued in a world accustomed to eating ‘factory food’; gardeners and cooks make treasured friends who are able to give of themselves in a unique fashion.


Basil pesto

No kitchen garden can have too much basil!

Basil is a fragrant sweet-smelling herb that comes in all shapes and forms from both Africa and Asia; of these, the most common and productive basil is the large sweet basil, sometimes called ‘Italian basil’ because it appears commonly in Italian dishes. ‘Lettuce-leaf basil’ is similarly productive, having a lighter-green crinkly leaf. Other basils include ruby basil, cinnamon basil, lemon basil, Thai basil and the perennial bush ‘Greek basil’. The latter forms, though colourful and equally well-loved by the bees, have smaller leaves, and are fiddly to turn into that wondrously nutritional and tasty spread – ‘basil pesto’.


Basil (except for the perennial Greek basil) is generally grown from seed in the Adelaide Hills and Plains during the warmer months of the year, and so by autumn is starting to go to seed, with long delicate flower stalks arising from the centre of each clump of basil leaves. You can still use flowering basil for pesto, but it is best harvested while the leaves are young and fresh. (We pinch off the flower tips to prolong the production of leaves). Use only the leaves in making pesto, and separate these from the stalks, which go to the compost heap.

Pesto is made from a paste of basil leaves; it’s surprising how many leaves (practically a half-a-bucket full) it takes to make a small amount of pesto. Pesto can be used as a spread on toast, as a sauce in pasta, or as a relish on roast meats such as lamb.


Pesto oxidises in air almost immediately it is made, turning from a pleasant shade of green to a muddy unattractive brown. Pesto can, however, be stored in the fridge by placing it in small glass jars and covering it with a 1 cm layer of olive oil to keep the air out. Just pour the oil into a small side dish to get at the pesto.

A bar mix is needed to grind the pesto in a small plastic jug, along with olive oil, salt, pepper, pine nuts, walnuts or almonds, cloves of peeled garlic, and parmesan cheese if you are going to eat the pesto immediately (as the cheese-version doesn’t store well). You can add parsley if you wish. In winter, we have found that we can also make a pesto from rocket leaves if the basil has run out.


Eggplants and ratatouille

Eggplants belong to the same family of vegetables (SOLANACEAE) as tomatoes, chillies, capsicums and potatoes. In France they are known as ‘aubergines’. They range from the large popular Australian deep purple ‘Black Beauty’ to pea-sized yellow ones from Thailand. Originating in India and Burma, they first arrived in China by the 4th century, and were introduced to Europe by the Arabs in the 7th century [from ‘The Seed Savers’ Handbook’ by Michel and Jude Fanton]

This year, I grew the ‘long white-streaked eggplants’, and some pure white egg-sized eggplants that remind one where the name ‘egg-plant’ actually came from!

Both are seen in the photo below (with a lemon in between), along with cherry tomatoes, basil and Italian grey-ribbed zucchinis. Note the spherical (bitter) yellow eggplant lurking at the top of the purple ones; this came off the same bush as the white ones.


These vegetables can be chopped into cubes and combined with salt, onion fried in olive oil, garlic, capsicums, oregano and other herbs to make a warm slowly-cooked side-dish of vegetables called ‘ratatouille’ that’s both tasty and nutritious.


Eggplant seeds are usually saved by cutting off the bottom seed-carrying part of large well-shaped early-maturing eggplants and putting them through a blender at slow speed with water before pouring out the mixture and selecting out the seeds for sieving, drying and storing.

Eggplants, and more commonly capsicums, are increasingly able to survive our warmer winters on the Adelaide Plains, provided they can avoid frosts, which kill them. This allows you to harvest eggplants and capsicums much sooner in the following year, rather than late in autumn and in early winter after a spring planting.

One of the common pests of eggplants late in the growing season is the introduced ‘Crusader Bug’ – a large grey bug about 1.5 cms long with a big white ‘X’ on its back as an adult, and a white spot or two when young. These sap-sucking bugs love the tasty tips of the eggplant bush where the flowers are and the fruit is forming; they inject a fluid into the plant that ultimately causes the growing tip to whither and the flower and fruit to fall off. Crusader bugs can be collected into a lidded-jar half-filled with water; just scrape the bug off the eggplant between lid and jar rim, where they will promptly drown.Crusader bugs will see you coming, and nip behind leaf or stem to avoid you seeing them; just watch carefully for movement to detect them. Flicking them off the plant hard with a finger-nail also gets rid off them.

Growing and eating sweet corn

One of the risks and pleasures of ‘seed saving’ for a kitchen gardener is that one does not always know the ‘provenance’ of the seed one sows, especially if has been handed over at a seed-swap meeting in an unmarked envelope! What will come up? Will it be worth keeping?

So it was this year with my ‘no-label’ sweet corn seed and those ‘long white-striped eggplants’ (more on these in a later article).

The sweet-corn grew to over 3m in height – I know this, because I’m nearly 2 metres tall and couldn’t touch the top without fetching a ladder!


Each stalk bore two to three cobs, and owed their lustrous growth to regular drip irrigation under a thick layer of barley-straw mulch over well-composted soil; corn and maize are ‘gross-feeders’, requiring and taking large amounts of nutrients from the soil. However, the returns are high for the right variety, as there is nothing quite like fresh-picked sweet-corn boiled gently in water, then spread with melting butter. (Sweet corn should be eaten as soon as possible after picking, as the sugars within it turn rapidly to starch, depleting the nutritional value of this vegetable within hours of harvest).

But first came that big wind storm that flattened half the crop, followed by rats travelling in from miles around to climb the stalks in the dark of the night, cutting through the outer husk with their long sharp incisor teeth then stripping the corn kernels from the cobs. To save something for humans and chooks meant harvesting the crop before it was completely ripe (including the half-chewed cobs for the chickens).

Sweet corn should be grown, not in rows, but in squares. The reason for this is that it is wind-pollinated, and the male flowers on top of the plants shower pollen on the female cobs below. Each small thread (called a ‘silk’) in the ‘tassel’ sticking out the top of the cob connects to a single kernel in the cob below, and each silk must receive a pollen spore. So incomplete pollination means ragged development of the cob, as in the central cob in the photo below. The whitish cob on the left is immature; the kernels have yet to ripen, making this one fit for chooks but not for humans. The cob on the right, however, would be delicious!


Saving rocket seed

Spicy young ‘rocket’ (Eruca sativa – BRASSICACEAE) leaves are an easy addition to summer salads, or they can be used alone in a peppery salad with sliced pear and shaved parmesan cheese drizzled with olive oil.

DSCN0168 DSCN0123

Many Italian restaurants serve ‘wild rocket’ (‘Arugula’ in Italian, ‘Roquette’ in French), which has thinner leaves than the standard ‘cultivated rocket’ more commonly found in green-groceries. While the wild rocket has a distinctive flavour, you will get a bigger salad from the leafier cultivated rocket.


The former has a yellow flower, while the latter has a white flower with purple veins. Both varieties generate the flower at the top of a long stalk, with seed pods called ‘siliques’ forming along this stem on each old flower stalk. Once the flowers form (often accelerated by drought and high-temperatures) the leaves are too strong in flavour to be eaten.

DSCN0133  DSCN0105

Rocket is insect-pollinated, generally by bees, and does not cross-pollinate with other brassicas (members of the cabbage family, such as kale, cabbage, broccoli, mustard and kohl rabis).

Brassica seed appear at the end of the first growing season, and should be collected before the rains set in or the seed is spilled onto the ground by hot winds. The seeds rattle in the pod when dry. I find the simplest method is to strip them from the plant while it is still in the ground, straight into a bucket by dragging the dry stalks through the hand. Alternatively, break off the dry stems holding the siliques, and bang them against the side of a deep bucket to shake the seed loose. Then just throw away the dry seed husks. Many other seeds can be collected in the same fashion; this bucket full contains parsley seed as well as various brassicas.


The photo below shows a typical brassica seed pod, where the seeds are separated by a thin tissue-like layer into two rows on either side of the silique.


Brassicas such as Chinese cabbage can be grown from spring time onwards on the Adelaide plains, and we use them for leafy greens for the chooks. As this is essentially a low-value crop (though popular with bees and birds) the seed are bulked together and broadcast sown to save labour (provided ground is available). However, like European broccoli grown late into the warmer months, they attract ‘white fly’, which lay sticky grey eggs on these plants, making them unattractive and inedible.

DSCN0134 DSCN0111

A glut of tomatoes?

I suspect there are many households at the moment where the kitchen bench looks just like this one:
So, what do you do with your tomato glut? It would be interesting to hear what YOU do with them.

In my next post I will tell you all about preserving them. So, stay tuned!