Of the many
Tonight’s dinner was a good one, a stir fry in which the experience of 20 years, a well-seasoned wok, the good sense of Nigel Slater and a pleasing selection of raw ingredients came to delicious fruition.
We met as student vegetarians, one of us with a wok and the other with an aptitude for slicing vegetables, and so the stir fry was an early feature of our culinary relationship. We learnt some tricks early — get the chopping done before turning on the heat, slice thinly and with an eye for the elegant line, wash the rice well before steaming it, do not peak at the rice while it’s cooking, keep the seasonings simple, come to the table hungry. Others took long to learn — use pretty bowls, use good knives, go for a variety of textures, crank the heat as high as possible.
But it is the latest lesson that has been most revolutionary. Cook each ingredient separately. For this, we have Nigel to thank. I hope he wouldn’t mind the first name, for it is how we refer to all our favourite food writers. “What would Nigel do?” we say, confronted with a spartan cupboard, a new vegetable, a cut of meat. We get our answers from other writers too, but Nigel’s pretty damn reliable. Anyway, he points out that the wok works best when it is not overcrowded, when things can move and flash and the sauce coats but does not pool.
So, that’s our new trick. I put the rice on and get everything sliced, then Ian takes over the frying. One ingredient at a time, a shake of soy for some, oyster for others, teriyaki for the meat. Bowls on the table, happy children, some leftovers for lunch tomorrow, a warm feeling in the tummy.
Of the few
Strangely, the meal reminds me of another good one we had recently. We didn’t get our potatoes planted this year, or we haven’t yet, I suppose there is still time, but some came up anyway, the scattered progeny of the ones we missed last year.
I watched the plants grow without thinking much about it, making the mistake of thinking something accidental would be of limited value, and then we dug them up to make room for the spreading zucchinis. Well, what a joyous surprise that was! Red, white, purple, some whoppers, some tiddlers, all with the fine, earthy skin of the newly dug and a gloss when scrubbed like polished stones, curved amber, oiled wood. I weeded, Ian dug, the Cat took photos, the Rabbit harvested, the chickens ate the weeds, Stella kept us company.
I’ve done boot camp, Christmas, Trump, summer holidays, the return to work, gardening, adventures with children, movies, books, terrific whiskey, and a sleepover for 11-year-olds. Yesterday it rained and I had a cold, so I lit the fire, made hot drinks and retreated to the sofa. I wouldn’t describe it as restful, exactly — the children were tired and scrappy and stuck indoors — but it was a necessary grinding to a halt, of sorts.
It’s often hard to know what will save a day, but in this case, it was minestrone. I don’t always like minestrone, but this was a light, summery number with enough savour and steamy heat to restore just enough wellbeing for me to get to bed.
Ian made it, so I don’t know the fine details of the recipe, but here’s what I think he got right. The vegetables were sliced at angles, thin enough to fit well on the spoon, but large enough to offer definite taste and something distinct in each mouthful. There weren’t too many carrots, giving a layer of sweetness but not overwhelming the fundamental earthiness of the dish. The cooking started with bacon and ended with strong, fresh chard from the garden. I had extra tomatoes in my bowl, and a scattering of feta. The pasta was rigatoni, thick and knubbly. There were broad beans from our garden. The zucchinis were young and flavourful, with firm, peppery skin. The stock was light and hot.
The Rabbit was home sick today, so I had another quiet day. He made a Lego lawnmower — my role was to find the pieces and offer moral support. We succeeded, but only just. I left my work phone on, which was a mistake.
I reheated some of the minestrone for lunch, something I would avoid with a less robust pasta. Still, it needed a bit of tarting up for a new day, so I sliced in a couple of dusky Nigella tomatoes, a few shredded leaves of chard, some leaves of purple basil from the glasshouse. Feta again, of course.
The sun came out after that. We went to the gardens, kicked a ball, flew a kite. The Rabbit rescued his toy bandicoot from the animal rescue boat. We put ourselves together, not perfectly, but from what we had.
Home was good, though — our new after-school childcare person is a footballer, so the boys are well thrilled. He is also a jolly good cleaner, so I am well thrilled too. The boys are used to being journo kids — they missed their dad, but flicked straight into helping-out, getting-on-with-it mode.
I kind of enjoyed the quiet and calm of the week, but realised within half an hour of Ian being home that the volume in the house had quadrupled and I had slowed to snail’s pace. I guess we had all been managing and looking after each other and that was good, but we need Ian to relax us and let things go. It was a good reminder of the ways we balance each other, of the dance we do as opposites.
The boys were pretty scratchy, but by the time we had eaten bento, driven round the harbour, played soccer, made a sandcastle, conducted watery experiments on the sandcastle, snuggled on the sand, driven round the best inlet in the city, seen baby stilts and a kingfisher and got home, we seemed to have made it back into ourselves again.
And then we each found our own peace. Ian tidied up and did chores. I planted 40 zucchini seedlings out, picked a salad of baby leaves and flowers, and cut back some lupins and sorrel that had gone to seed. The Cat watched soccer videos. And the Rabbit made things.
He started by cutting back sorrel, but was interrupted by his bowels, which we only knew about because he left the bathroom in a less than ideal state. Then Ian found him in the workshop with a large piece of wood in the vice with the words “side 1” written on it. “What are you doing?” Ian asked. “Making a run for the guinea pigs,” said Rabbit.
Later, we were having dinner. Ian was drinking wine, eating pasta and talking to me. I was drinking wine, eating pasta and reading a book. The Cat was calculating the value of our car relative to the weekly income of a professional footballer (low). The Rabbit was drawing circles and cutting cardboard. Five minutes later, he had finished a set of traffic lights.
Awkward. I was going to write a post about my new job and then I was going to write a post about Fiji and then I was going to write a post about Rabbit’s bike and then I was going to write a post about family life and then I was going to write a post about books and then I was going to write another post about my new job and then I was going to write a post about something else, chickens or politics or coffee or washing or Lionboy or asparagus most likely, and probably definitely about the garden at some point, which has been The Project most weekends lately and now we have 46 kinds of edible things growing in it and here’s some spring evening photos because I’m sorry I’ve been away and I might be back.
I came outside the other day and found the Rabbit tying the watering can onto himself. He said he was sorting out a system so he could take the watering can to the tap and fill it. It was a pretty complex arrangement, but he seemed happy so I left him to it.
A bit later, he wasn’t wearing the watering can any more, but he was going back and forth from the kitchen sink with a cup of water. I threw him a towel and left him to it again.
Later still, I came out and found him looking very pleased with himself. The kitchen floor was dry, and he had something to show me. “What have you been doing, kid?” I asked. “I planted a broad bean,” he said. “I made a hole in the vege patch and put the bean in it and watered it.”
The girls are what I think we could call “established” now — their routines, personalities and quirks are firming up, becoming easier to discern and decipher.
Tilda is the Leader of the Pack, first to get to me when I take in food, occasionally inclined to peck her sisters on the side of the beak, seemingly the only one who knows how to open the mash feeder.
Her assertiveness and speed to treats got the better of her for a week or two when she went off the lay, then started laying shell-less and soft-shell eggs, disturbing things that she would drop anywhere then eat with the other chickens. Clearly, this is non-desirable chicken behaviour and led to much late-night, anguished Googling. The solution, in the end, was simple — bring the chickens in from the paddock to the run earlier in the evening and give them fewer treats so that she was forced to make the mash a greater proportion of her diet. Her shells are still lighter and smaller than those of the other chickens, but they are proper shells and she is back to laying them in the nest boxes, so we will count that as a win for Farmer McLaughlin.
Angelina, my dark-feathered girl, is probably next in the ranks. She is beautiful and sweet, but dim, regularly confused by fences and the intricacies of the mash feeder. She particularly likes to scratch in the dirt for bugs and often asks me to pick her a blade of grass, her elegant little head tilted in a model of chook quizzicality. She was my first layer and seems the most reliable, producing a strong brown egg every morning and sporting the reddest comb and wattles.
Helen is my wayward girl, my dreamer. We brought the chickens down to the vege patch the other day in an attempt to harness their weed-destroying, seed-eating powers for the greater good. Getting them into our makeshift enclosure was a bit of a trial, involving detours through the rose bushes, mutually alarming encounters with the cat, and Farmer McLaughlin’s best impersonations of a sheep dog. In fact, I can see the potential in a new television show based on the dog trials that were one of the highlights of my childhood viewing, but with chickens in the place of the sheep and gumbooted, straw-hatted editors taking over from the dogs.
Anyway, we got Angelina and Tilda safely enclosed and focused on their dirt-maintenance duties, but Helen had her heart set on a much more exploratory morning, around the back of the shed, over the piles of tree pruning and building supplies, and off to God knows where. She was also the first to take a dust-bathing break, rolling in the dirt like a small, demented, feathery emperor wondering where her peeled grapes are, just get with the programme already, will you, people?
So, that’s the chickens.
In gardening news, we are slowly getting things a bit tidier and I am getting to that point of house maintenance where I’m ready to stop maintaining someone else’s garden and am distilling ideas for how to make it more my own.
We have three key problems: weeds, colour and coherence. We are taking a “just deal with it” approach to the weeds; in areas where we don’t have anything we particularly want to keep, we are clearing the ground and covering it over with sacks, carpet, tarpaulins or newspapers.
Our colour woes are largely because the previous owners favoured a kind of muddy purple and a harsh orange that spectacularly fail to float my boat. We’re getting braver about taking out things we don’t like, although some of them are damn deep-rooted and hard to eradicate.
We’re also moving some things so as to free up space for more coherent planting. I’m moving swathes of sweet william from the “salad” vege patch to the “woodland” plot near the front gate. I think I’ll shift some stuff from the long strip down the side of the house there too, and my new plan — which I am pretty excited about — is to build a raised bed right along that strip and fill it with herbs.
A magnolia at the front and small fruit trees on the bank should assuage my need for more trees and spring blossom, and that just leaves the rockery between the vege patches, which is a weed-infested disaster zone. And various banks and scraggly areas, which sprout grass and dandelions to no identifiable purpose apart from giving us a ready supply for the guinea pigs.
Anyway, the top part of the rockery thing features roses, while lupins have gone from being a bright highlight of the lower part to completely crowding out both the buttercups and dandelions (great!) and all the other little pretty things I’ve planted there over the last two years (not great!). So what that leaves us with is a set of conundrums, for which I invite solutions. Do I move the roses and mass plant with something else? Do I welcome the lupins as effective ground control or do I get them the hell out of there before they TAKE OVER THE WORLD? Do I rebuild the rock wall or put in a wooden one? Do I cling to the hope I can create a beautiful French-style cottage garden or do I turn my sights to bold massed colour and easier maintenance? Who knows? Not I, said the little pen.
Where we have succeeded this year — and somewhat against the odds, not being here for most of the summer and not hoeing as often as we ought — is with productive gardening. We’ve had good crops of garlic, lettuce and potatoes, the carrots are small but ready to harvest, the tomatoes and zucchini are producing at a steady rate, we left the fennel too long but it was a good meal, we ate broad beans to our heart’s content, and we planted the yams very late, so who knows what’s going on in there. The broccoli, corn and celery went nowhere but I am nurturing small hopes of a late-season burst of growing energy from the latter two, the herbs are thriving, and we have a better sense of the timings and systems required to grow food for ourselves. Things felt out of control and under-maintained most of the time and we are just starting to recover from the panic and madness of rampant spring growth mixed with NO TIME and LOTS OF RAIN, but we have often had something home-grown in our dinner, and every now and then most of the meal comes from the garden.