Turbo tomato puree (the full saga!)

DSCN0002 The cook has arrived safely in the Fatherland to look out for the ‘oldies’ for a while, leaving the gardener behind as caretaker of her Australian domain. With the tomatoes still producing at the rate of a few bucketfuls per week, and autumn plantings in full swing out in the garden, desperate measures are required to ram these tomatoes through the understaffed bottling department. Not only that, the tomato press has been leant out to our middle son, so all the technology and expertise  built up by the gardener as ‘cook’s helper’ has been decimated in two swift moves…

DSCN0010 Fortunately, not all things German have taken the Qantas flight to the other side of the world; the Thermomix has been left on the kitchen benchtop, where it holds pride of place at the heart of the cook’s domain. Perhaps it was a measure of the cook’s desperation at this untimely desertion in the middle of harvest, but her last words before boarding her flight were something about ‘halve the tomatoes, leave the skins on and use the Thermomix to puree them’.  Strewth! – despite three engineering degrees and 36 years at the high-tech coalface, the gardener has never before been entrusted with the charge of this sacred artefact and so many inscrutable buttons. Nevertheless, with the addition of some freshly-picked basil, here’s how it went…



Now what, you say?

Stir? freeze? bottle? boil?

Dunno! – I’d better send the cook an SMS and ask – she knows I can’t remember more than three instructions at a time…

Some hours later

Dawn has awoken the cook; nine and a half hours ahead on the opposite side of the globe, the gardener is starting to fade, as is the late afternoon sunlight over the kitchen garden. Instructions filter through – add chopped onion, sea salt, garlic, cook slowly, bottle or find someone with freezer space…


Every large saucepan from the cupboard is now sauce-coated and out on the workbench; this calls for a trip to the cellar to fetch a serious pan; there’s about 15 litres of tomato puree here from one bucket of tomatoes. Slow cooking overnight reduces this volume slightly by boiling off excess water and thickening the puree. It also serves to keep the sauce near boiling point overnight, and stops it starting to ferment before I can find a solution to the bottling business.


Another sunrise over Australia, and its Monday; a working day – but not in the garden. Luckily for me, cooks outnumber gardeners ten-to-one in modern life; I call a friend who’s been keen to get some home-grown tomatoes to make sauce with, and tell her that the back door’s open and the sauce is already made and piping-hot on the stove. She runs around, buys new jars, sterilizers them and fills them with sauce. There’s so much left over that she turns some of it into a lasagne for my number one son and I that evening. I get half-a-dozen bottles of sauce; these will go to my third son and his wife for their newly-wed larder.


But the saga doesn’t end there; Sunday lunch in the middle of this process was all a bit rushed, and so our barbequed kangaroo was supplemented by some hot chips from the local chicken shop. Behind the counter was a young Chinese lady we have come to know who lives in a pokey little flat, without a garden, down the end of our street. I offer to drop off a bag of fresh vegetables – tomatoes, eggplant, chives, chillies, Chinese cabbage and so forth. Somehow, I fit that in too, and then forget about it. Monday evening finds her knocking on the door with a roast chicken from the shop; she and her flatmate have been thrilled to have fresh vegetables to include in their own cooking.

So then, our bachelor supper on Tuesday night will be chicken cacciatore. I have the sauce and the chicken, home-grown olives, and all the ingredients for a fresh salad just outside the back door…

Autumn vegetables

Slowly I seem to be getting on top of things in the veggie garden.

The last of the winter veggie beds is weeded and nearly fully planted. There are cabbages, cauliflowers, brusselsprouts, lettuces, silverbeet, komatsuna, spring onions, salad burnet, wild rocket, potato onions, garlic chives and parsley. Still to be sown - more carrots, turnips, kohlrabi, mizuna, mustard, fenugreek, etc.
The garlic that I planted 12 days ago has started to shoot. I only have a few more cloves to plant, then I'm done.
The first snow peas have germinated. Let's hope the snails, slaters and millipedes don't destroy them.
It's an exciting time in the garden. Lots of planting and sowing. And hopefully soon there will be a glut of vegetables. Life is good! :)

How to bottle tomato puree/sauce

The balmy days of autumn have come at last to the Adelaide Plains, the sun shines on the gardener’s work from a gentle clear blue sky and months of effort are beginning to bear fruit as crops reach fruition and the harvest begins.

DSCN0043There are some 13 garden beds in this large kitchen garden, each one a little different to the others. Global financial disasters prompt others to move their funds into secure stocks and bonds; around here, we invest instead in truckloads of commercial organic compost. After years of effort, we’ve built up a rich black friable soil from the underlying red clay; this provides us with nutritious fruit, herbs and vegetables, exercise, a closeness to nature and a sense of purpose and connectedness with our food supply. These days we fence the chooks out and the garden in, and the tomato and eggplant bed above hosts about 36 producing tomato vines that are staked and interspersed with basil plants. Each week now sees a few more bucketfuls of tomatoes brought up to the house for bottling and storage.


From top left, clockwise, are ‘Amish Paste’, ‘Red Oxheart’, ‘Burpee’s Delicious’, ‘Mortgage Lifter’, ‘Tommy Toe’ (red cherry tomatoes) and ‘Golden Sunrise’ yellow cherry tomatoes. All of these will be used for bottling sauce and purees for winter consumption, as we have plenty of tomatoes left over for eating fresh.

The best tomatoes are selected and tomato seed is saved from them for next year’s crop.


All the remaining tomatoes are cut in half and brought to boil gently in large pots, then excess fluid is drained off through muslin cloth into pots and stainless-steel buckets and put aside by the cook for other purposes. The main mixture is allowed to cool before hand-pressing into puree.








DSCN0080These new Italian plastic tomato presses are inexpensive (AUD$50), stronger and lighter than earlier metal machines used by our Italian neighbours. We set ours up outside on a stainless-steel tray, and squeeze the mixture through two to three times to thicken up the puree and minimize wastage.

The net result is a bucketful of tomato puree that now needs to be bottled; we use a soup ladle and small plastic funnel to feed this thick sauce into old sterilized beer bottles and jars saved for the purpose, and capable of taking a tightly-fitted lid that will allow the mixture to be boiled for 20 to 30 minutes without spilling over. A fresh basil leave is placed in the top of each jar to add flavour. (Left over basil is used for making basil pesto).























Bottles, capping machines, large pots and buckets; all these household items represent a long-term investment in our kitchen and garden – just like the compost mentioned earlier, but not subject to the vagaries of world-wide economic markets.

‘Lazy Wife’ beans

I used to muck about with all sorts of bush beans in the kitchen garden but found that these dwarf bean varieties seemed lower to the ground with each passing year. While quicker than climbing beans to produce a crop, their single flush of beans overwhelmed the cook and plunged us shortly thereafter into a ‘bean drought’.


Climbing beans, on the other hand, tended to grow up our 4m tall bamboo tripods out of reach of the cook, and created a different type of drought that brought down curses upon the gardener’s head and nostalgia for the short bush beans of an earlier era. (OK, she never swears! That’s my job too…)

All these bean irritants have receded in our kitchen garden since I have concentrated on growing and saving on a single climbing bean variety called ‘Lazy Wife’ bean. The original packet I purchased over a decade ago from a heritage seed company called them ‘German Lazy Housewife Beans’. This was clearly a typo introduced by some Australian seed packet printer, as numerous trips to the Fatherland over the past thirty years have indicated the complete impossibility of the simultaneous occurrence of the words ‘German’ and ‘lazy’ in the same sentence. It would seem that the original seed came from Germany, and the ‘lazy’ bit crept in because this large flattish bean crops almost continuously for months on end and is largely stringless, saving much labour for busy housewives. The Digger’s Club used to make a claim that only a single bean reached Australia over a century ago, and that our current bean stocks were all grown on from this single seed. Eden Seeds in NSW describe this bean as follows: -

Original stringless bean from 1810, thought to have come from Germany, named because of ease of preparation, delicious flavour, heavy bearer over a long period, not much string even when old, round pods to 20cm. 80 days.

DSCN0015 What’s changed in our kitchen garden is that I no longer fence the chickens in and the garden out, but now fence the garden in and the chickens out. These permanent fences use heavy duty galvanized mesh that’s perfect for cucumbers, peas and of course, climbing beans. Climbing beans reach the top of this fence, wave their growing tips in the air for a week, then form an interwoven cap to the fence that restricts their height and makes the cook’s job easy at harvest time.

DSCN0052 The gardener has his own reasons to be grateful for the stringless qualities of this old heritage bean variety; extra points with the cook can be earned in the evenings by topping, tailing and cutting up basketfuls of these beans for freezing or lacto-fermenting.


Tomatoes with flavour

One of the great pleasures of kitchen gardening is access to tomatoes with taste. This is a pleasure that creeps up on one; months of careful work sowing seeds, raising and planting out seedlings, staking and endless tying and pruning of tomato vines suddenly bears fruit. Tomatoes redden and soften, then suddenly there is a glut and tomato bottling for sauces looms over the household.


Big ones, little ones, red ones, yellow ones – some of these tomatoes are eaten straight off the vine and never make the journey up to the kitchen. The smaller tomatoes are Golden Sunrise and Tommy Toe, with the bigger beefsteak tomatoes being Mortgage Lifter, Burpee’s Delicious and Oxheart (the cook’s favourite). Growing different varieties simultaneously hedges the gardener’s bets against failure. I’ve learnt not to be too greedy when planting out – tomatoes are the most labour-intensive of all the kitchen gardener’s crops. This year, aided by a mild summer, I’ve brought 36 vines through into the autumn harvest; they all stand taller than me, and I’m a big bloke!

And so, the gardener’s reward arrives. A simple moment of intense pleasure – a supper of tomato-on-toast with a little olive oil, herb salt and ground pepper, with a few basil leaves on the side for piquancy. Life’s good!


Eating a Sweet Siberian

Watermelon!This variety does not take too long to produce fruit. 80-85 days. It does not produce gigantic fruit. So, it is ideal if you don't want a monster of a melon clogging up your fridge. Or if you don't have an army to feed.

Bright green skin and yellow-fleshed. Very juicy, very sweet!

More on how to pickle cucumbers

While kitchen gardens produce fruit and vegetables, mature gardens also produce seeds. While many varieties of seeds are grown for planting out as next year’s crops, a more subtle reason for harvesting large quantities of particular seeds is to use them directly in the kitchen for culinary flavouring.

Once cucumbers suitable for pickling have been grown and harvested, they can be bottled in wide-mouthed jars, either whole or sliced, in salt water (16g per litre of pure water) and (optionally) a tablespoon of whey per jar (from natural yogurt) . Then the seeds are added for flavour – coriander, dill, mustard and fennel. Cover with raspberry or vine leaves and weigh these down with glass marbles to keep the cucumbers submerged. Store in a cool dark place for eating over the following year until the next crop of cucumbers is ready for harvest.


When gardeners and cooks get together

There will be plenty of produce from the garden that ends up on the table.
All kinds of salads and side dishes, accompaniments, main dishes, herbal concoctions, laughter.The table ended up too small for all the bowls and platters, so we had to have a sideboard laden with dishes, too. Sorry, no picture of the sideboard.

Cucumbers for pickling and salads

Some of last year’s pickled cucumbers (made from Lebanese slicing cucumbers) were less-than-ordinary; if you are going to go to the trouble of bottling your summer crop for winter consumption, then growing the right sort of cucumber in the first place is a good start.

Yet sliced cucumbers are an important part of our summer salads, so a cucumber that can do double-duty for slicing AND bottling is something worth looking out for...

The cucumber shown in the photo below is called ‘Muncher Burpless’, grown from non-hybrid, old traditional open-pollinated seeds from Eden Seeds in Lower Beechmont in Queensland. The same length as the teaspoon below them, these small cucumbers have a slightly thicker and rougher skin than DSCN0006standard salad cucumbers.

Here’s what the packet says:

Cucumber: Summer salad vegetable, known to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Likes rich well drained soil, though not heavily fertilised. Keep moist. Shallow roots damaged with cultivation. Sow after frost.

Muncher Burpless – tender burpless slicing variety, 17cm long, smooth bitterness-free green skin, can be used for pickles also. Resistance to mosaic virus. 65 days.

We are harvesting these cucumbers daily, and have bottled the surplus. Being small, there is no need to peel or slice them before putting them into wide-mouthed pickling jars. When peeled and used in salads, the taste is indeed smooth and free of bitterness, just as the packet proclaims.