Saturday, January 29, 2011

Vampires begone

Braided garlic grown on the Peninsula patch. My partner made two of these braids with help from this handy video. That'll keep those pesky bloodsucking gothic types away from our place this year.

A hazel with Tagasaste and Acacia melanoxylon prunings at the base

Apart from garlic harvesting, there has been work to do on the swale. I've been pruning the nurse trees (Tagasastes, Acacia melanoxylon) that are planted around the nut (almond, hazel, and pecan) and avocado trees. The pruning is mainly to let more sunlight in, especially important for sun lovers like pecans and avocados, and it also provides mulch to keep the weeds away from the bases of the trees and adds organic matter to the soil.

It's interesting to see the difference in form and growth stage of the Tagasastes that have been browsed by wallabies. They are bushier and more compact. And, and unlike the un-browsed Tagasastes, they haven't seeded. This means that their feed value is higher: because they've been kept in the the vegetative phase, the leaf matter is more palatable and nutritious. The ratio of leaf to woody material is also higher. For more information on management of Tagasaste for grazing purposes see this farmnote by WA Dept of Ag

All aboard the trailer train.

Moving mulch with wheelbarrows is not fun - its just not. And we've been doing a lot of it lately, trying to keep the indigenous plantings on the back of the dam weed free. So my partner built this ingenious trailer train. I'm so happy, I'm humming a little trailer train song . . .
Flavours from the patches

Artichokes on the Peninsula patch
Oh the joys of summer produce from the patches - so many flavours and so many possibilities. I follow a loose rule of 'making do' - with what is coming out of the ground, and what's in my pantry and in fridge - substitution is the key.

Artichoke hearts and sorrel and gruyere tart

My father prepared these artichoke hearts following a recipe from my aunt, who learnt it while travelling overseas in Italy. The sorrel in the tart is from the Peninsula patch and the tart is a lovely rich treat. Here's the recipe. Don't skimp on the cream and gruyere.

101 (minus 95) ways with Pesto

Basil harvest always leads to pesto. This batch includes parsley, coriander, garlic and lemons from the patches, with walnuts from a Healsville farmer's market. Pesto is so easy and so forgiving. In its most basic form its just blended basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper, and lemon. But you can substitute and add ad infinitum. When I don't have enough basil, I use parsley, chervil, watercress, coriander and have even used (lightly steamed) warrigal greens. Any nuts will do. I made a great pesto with salted cashews once. And any strong hard cheese will substitute for parmesan, including tasty, provolone, and pecorino.

Pesto gives a tangy kick to so many dishes. Here are a few of my favourite non-standard uses:
  • add a couple of spoons to zuchini soup at the last minute, or for that matter pretty much any vegetable soup
  • on pizza (smear it over the base instead of brushing with oil)
  • smear it on lamb chops or steak
  • add it to salad dressing
  • add it to bolognese sauce - this is kind of like adding sweet chilli sauce - it lifts the bolognese out of the nursery food doldrums

Zucchini and potato soup is excellent with a few dollops of pesto added at the last minute.

Harvest from the inner-city patch

The staff of life
Sourdough loaf - made according to Dan Lepard's recipe for Mill Loaf (white, wholemeal, and rye flour).

Since buying Dan Lepard's gorgeous book, The Handmade Loaf, I've been experimenting with bread again.

This is expensive flour, but it is stoneground, biodynamic, and from Victoria - that's pretty good credentials.

Olive and walnut sourdough (white, rye and wholemeal flour)
More inspiration has come from this lovely blog on fermentation. I love the commitment to low-tech, low energy techniques - no thermometers or special kits or other fancy equipment. Instead an understanding of the principles of fermentation is used to refine the techniques, particularly the timing.

And I can't resist posting this photo of my Greek neighbour Elsie's amazing Christmas pastries. How beautiful are these?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Adventures with kefir

Kefir-leban (or Kefir labneh)

Back in 2006 while on a permaculture design course in Gippsland, I visited the biodynamic dairy farm of Ron and Bev Smith at Fish Creek. The class was offered a taste of kefir milk and I've never forgotten the taste. Finally this summer I got round to buying kefir grains from Australia's own kefir guru, Dominic Anfiteatro.

Kefir starter culture - although described as kefir grains, I reckon it looks more like stringy cottage cheese or little cauliflower florets.

Dominic mails out the kefir culture in a small sealed plastic package with milk. The first step is to strain it and put it in fresh milk in a ratio of about 1:7 (kefir:milk) by volume. The lid must be left slightly ajar as the fermentation process produces carbon dioxide.
Kefir culturing in milk at room temperature.

After 24 hours culturing at room temperature, you strain out the kefir culture and drink the cultured milk. Even though I like the milk, I'm most excited about kefir yoghurt, which Dominc calls kefir-leban, after the middle eastern labneh. So I hung the cultured milk in a piece of cloth (I cut up an old sheet) for 24 hours to drain. And lo and behold, I had labneh.

Its hard to describe the taste of kefir labneh - it is 'peakier' than normal yoghurt or labneh, but that is offset by a unique freshness and texture. Labneh can be made by hanging normal yoghurt as well - I like this stuff better.

One of the most gratifying things about the process is how straightforward it is. You don't need to sterilise equipment, just keep everything reasonably clean, including your hands. This is, in general terms, because the organisms in the starter culture compete so effectively for resources relative to the spoilage organisms.

You can use any type of milk: homogenised and pasteurised, unhomogenised and you can even use low-fat milk or any of the other 'enhanced' milks on the market, although I would recommend you keep it as unprocessed as possible and go for organic and/or biodynamic unhomogenised milk, or if you can get it (lucky you), truly fresh straight from the cow/sheep/goat.

The kefir culture is like sourdough in that it needs to be fed regularly. When you're not culturing a product, you store it in milk in the fridge. If you want to take a break from culturing it, the starter culture apparently lasts in the same milk in the fridge for over a month. As you continue to culture the kefir to make products, it increases in volume, and therefore so does your end product. When you think you have too much for your needs you can store it according to Dom's instructions or give some away to friends.

Like sourdough, kefir culture is a mixture of yeast and bacteria and like sourdough the particular species vary by location. A section on the microbiolog of kefir and lactose digestion is included below.

Kefir labneh with herbs (chives, parsley, tarragon, watercress). If you stir vigorously with a fork, you can make the texture like cream cheese.

I've only just scratched the surface of what can be done with kefir labneh. In addition to the herby cream cheese concotion above, I've also put it in a veggie curry as a thickener, added honey to it for a sweet snack, smeared it on sandwiches and toast instead of butter and, my favourite so far, added homemade horseradish (see June 2009 post) to it and served it on steak. Dominic's site includes recipes for all sorts of goodies, including soft and hard cheeses. Think I might try a soft cheese next.

Homemade horseradish: dig around the roots of your horseradish plant, cut off a piece of root, wash, grate, add vinegar, enjoy.

Much of the non-scientific literature about kefir refers to its reputation as suitable for people who have trouble digesting lactose. I did some research on this and found that the scientific literature is clear that lactose digestion is improved from fermented dairy products in general, such as yoghurt, as compared to milk. While it seems clear that kefir is equally as effective as yoghurt in terms of aiding lactose digestion, the evidence for it being better than yoghurt is probably inconclusive.

A microbiological diversion

For those of you with an interest in the microbiology of kefir and lactose digestion, here is the lowdown. An article on kefir in the Journal of the American Dietetic association describes its composition and fermentation action as follows:

"These grains are mass of bacteria, yeasts, polysaccharides, and other products of bacterial metabolism, together with curds of milk protein . . . . Kefir typically has a larger and more diverse range of microorganisms in its starter culture than does yogurt. For example, the kefir used in this study contains the following cultures: Streptococcus lactis, Lactobacillus plantarum, Streptococcus cremoris, Lactobacillus casei, Streptococcus diacetylactis, Saccharomyces florentinus, and Leuconostoc cremoris. The dual fermentation by the lactic acid bacteria and yeasts in kefir results in the production of small amounts of carbon dioxide, alcohol (0.01 to 0.1 g/100 g using starter cultures), and aromatic molecules that give kefir distinctive organoleptic properties compared with yogurt. Kefir typically has a tart flavor, is slightly carbonated because of the naturally occurring carbon dioxide, and is somewhat thicker than milk." (

Lactose digestion is attributed to the activity of the enzyme p-galactosidase which is present in our intestinal mucosa (interestingly, the level of activity of this enzyme varies with ethnic origin). When there is low mucosal P-galactosidase activity, lactose is poorly digested and reaches the final section of the small intestine (the ileum), where it is fermented by the native bacteria there. The volatile end-products of bacterial fermentation of this undigested lactose (i.e. volatile organic acids, carbon dioxide, methane and hydrogen) cause the symptoms of poor lactose digestion.

Lactose digestion is enhanced if it is consumed together with fermented milk products such as yoghurt. This enhancement is attributed to the presence of β-galactosidase in the starter culture bacteria for yoghurt, particularly the lactobacilli species (lactobacilli are bacteria that convert sugars, including lactose, to lactic acid). Because yogurt has good buffering capacity, it allows some of the bacterial cells to survive the gastric acid in the stomach and reach the first section of the small intestine (the duodenum) intact. At that point, it is thought that bile acids play a role, either by causing the breakdown (lysis) of the bacterial cells, thereby releasing β-galactosidase or by altering of the permeability of the cell membrane so that lactose can easily enter into the cell. Whatever the mechanism, the β-galactosidase gains access to the lactose substrate. Thus yoghurt is said to have an "autodigestive capacity".

Neat eh?

Marie Antoinette