A plum idea

This drizzly autumn long weekend, whilst my family is chowing down on hot cross buns, I will be thickly spreading summer on toast in the form of 'Luisa' plum jam. Mmmmmmmmm! Which reminded me that this post has been sitting in my drafts folder since, oooof, who knows when. I am posting it much too late to be of any use to anybody in the southern hemisphere this year, but perhaps it will be useful to those of you heading into spring....

When life gives you plums, so very many plums... You go through all of your cookbooks and dig out every single recipe to use them all up!

This year we've had, at a guess, a total of around 40kgs of plums from the 3 trees in our orchard (a fourth tree didn't fruit at all). I know many of you have had that amount from single trees, so we are certainly not the only ones trying to make the most of all of this fruit, all at once. And in years to come, as our trees mature and reach their full fruiting potential... oooof, I know that I am going to want to have a very handy resource of recipes to make the most of them.

So in order to keep my plum recipes in one place, I thought I would start a little list here on The Tree Diaries. I would love to hear your own favourite plum recipes or preserving methods too.

Plum jam - I have shared my standard jam recipe elsewhere on the blog, so I won't bother repeating it but it's an easy way to use fruit and be able to enjoy their flavour all year round. There are so many delicious baked goods that can be made with jam, so you don't have to spend all of winter missing summer fruits. Best of all, it only requires the fruit of your choice and sugar, which I always have on hand (plums are a medium-high pectin fruit, so you probably won't need to add any pectin to achieve setting). I made four jars of plum jam from the very last of our plums, the 'Luisa' variety. 

Plum cordial - I used the same recipe as for nectarine cordial that I shared a few weeks ago, but this time I had tartaric acid on hand so I added a small amount (1 tsp, for a batch that used 350g plums). I used the other half of our Luisa plums for cordial as they have the nicest colour.

Plum tart - this, my friends, was ahhhhhhhmazing. After spending the better part of a day looking and salivating over a million and one versions of plum crumble cakes, I found this very simple tart in The Cook and Baker cookbook and knew it was the one. Better still, we have lots of apricot jam from earlier in summer. I can not possibly emphasise enough how delicious this is. Although, to be honest, there are about thirty recipes in The Cook and Baker book that I feel I absolutely need to have in my belly! This recipe can be found elsewhere on the internet in it's original form, in case you want to skip my ad-libbing.

Ingredients: 300g plain flour (GF works wonderfully) // 150g cold butter, diced  //  250g caster sugar, plus 3 tablespoons for sprinkling  //  pinch of salt  //  2 egg yolks at room temperature  //  1 tsp vanilla extract  //  750g ripe plums  //  4 tbsp apricot jam

Method: Preheat oven to 180°C. Lightly grease and fully line a 20x30cm slab tin. Whizz the flour and butter in a food processor until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add the sugar and salt and whizz again. Add the egg yolks, vanilla and 2 tbsp of cold water. Whizz until the dough forms a ball. Press the dough evenly into the tin. Quarter the plums and place them on the dough in rows. Sprinkle the top of the tart with the extra caster sugar and then bake for 45-50 mins (until golden). Leave the tart in the tin and allow to cool on a wire rack. Gently heat the apricot jam in a small saucepan and then strain it through a sieve. Brush the plums liberally with the jam as a glaze. Serve warm or at room temperature - either way it is beyond delicious!

This one is definitely on the menu again for next summer's harvest! 

A cordial introduction

We had quite the unexpected (but very welcome!) glut of nectarines this year. As our orchard is so young I didn't hold much hope for more than a handful of fruit, but boy did those little trees outdo themselves!

We have four nectarine trees in the orchard - one 'Early Rivers', two 'Goldmine' and one that I obviously didn't write down the varietal name of way back when we planted them five years ago. We managed to harvest the fruit from all but one tree before the pesky lorikeets came and stripped it bare (under full tree netting and all!). 

Confronted with bucket loads of fruit, I spent an evening pouring over Sally Wise's wonderful book 'A Year on the Farm'. Sally is the guru of how best to preserve high summer fruit to enjoy all through the depths of winter.

The recipes that kept jumping out at me were Sally's cordials and fizzy drinks. There wasn't a specific recipe for nectarines, but the general process for cordial seemed to be fairly consistent: fruit, sugar, water, tartaric acid and citric acid. Having neither tartaric or citric acid in my pantry, I did a bit of internet searching and came up with my own version... and now we have a few beautiful big bottles of nectarine cordial in the cupboard, to drink with sparkling water on a hot afternoon, mix with champagne as a bellini alternative, or perhaps mix with a sneaky tipple of vodka and soda water.

The rest of the excess fruit I chopped up to freeze. On Sally's recommendation, the fruit was first mixed with a bit of ascorbic acid, which is pure vitamin c powder (available from chemists), used to help preserve fruit when freezing. The frozen fruit will be perfect to add to muffins and other baked treats all through winter.

So, should you wish to make your own...

Nectarine cordial

Ingredients: 1kg nectarines // 250g caster sugar  // juice of 1 lemon  //  750ml water

Method: Halve and destone the nectarines and then blitz them in a blender or food processor. Put the resulting nectarine slush into a big pot and add the sugar, lemon juice and water. Bring to a rolling boil and then boil the mixture for a full 2 minutes. Strain the liquid through a fine metal sieve and then pour into sterilised bottles. Process the bottles using your preferred method - I use a basic waterbath method (the largest pot we own, filled with water - place the bottles into the pot - bring water to the boil and then keep boiling for 10 minutes for this cordial). Please keep in mind the risk of botulism - although the sugar helps lower the risk, you should always be really careful when preserving foods. Pour over ice, add something sparkling, enjoy!

Thank you for hand modelling husband!

The trials and tribulations of netting

I have talked about our orchard before, way back in spring when everything (or most things) was in flower and fruit was still at least one bee love-in and many months away. 

Well most of those months have now passed and the fruit is ripening up nicely. And where there is ripe fruit, there are birds determined to eat the lot of it. We have beautiful birds in our part of the world - rainbow lorikeets, rosellas, cockatoos - and we are fortunate to share our backyard with them. However at this time of year they are public enemy number one. I’m not sure what the correct collective noun is for cockatoos… I’ve seen a “cacophony” proposed elsewhere on the internet, and Christine McCabe suggested a “destruction”, which I would definitely second. Regardless, when the cockatoos sense that you have ripe fruit in your yard, they will descend and plunder and your pup and little people will cower under the couch until they have had their fill because it is crazy! 

People go to extraordinary lengths to keep the birds away from their orchards. There are the peaceful protesters who dangle old CDs or other shiny objects from branches - I honestly think that the birds just see these as a bunch of mirror balls to party up their gorging. There are the violent objectors who use air guns (or just gun-guns) - I’m guessing these guys feel tough and manly, but you’d have to be standing in your orchard all day long for this to be truly effective. Then there are the rest of us who try to keep the birds off the fruit with nets, which is a mammoth seasonal task and turns your orchard into a complete mess for a few months, but is mostly fairly effective.

I say “mostly” and temper it with a “fairly” because it is by no means foolproof. We are using two methods of netting this season: full tree nets and netting bags designed for small crops of fruit on a single branch. The full tree nets are (a) expensive, (b) quite easily torn and (c) bloody difficult to get into place and secured. But they are also really quite effective if you take the time to put them up well in the first place and we have had good experiences with them in previous years. The netting bags are cheap and easy to put into place, and I thought I’d give them a try this year for some of our trees that only have a few pieces of fruit on them - our apples and apricots. They are still on the apples and I maintain hope that they will work, but they were a total fail for the apricots :(

Our entire crop was plundered early one morning through the bags. The bags were torn apart, and the fruit was eaten. Even more annoyingly, some branches were broken off our young trees. Suffice to say that this photo was taken before that morning. 

I've seen some examples of really well maintained orchards - the trees are kept pruned to a manageable height and the polypipe supports are permanently in place and ready to net each year. Although this is the ideal, our orchard is also our backyard so keeping star pickets and polypipe up year round is not going to work for us. But keeping our fruit trees pruned and shaped ready for netting, and keeping our netting supplies easily accessible and in good condition would help... #goals.

I did manage to get in a few of the early apricots and, along with some delicious ones grown at an orchard a few hours south of us, they were turned into jam using my go-to recipe and spread on every bit of toast I’ve eaten since… and many a teaspoon has been eaten straight from the jar.  

The other day I also used some to make the Jam Drops that were made on River Cottage Australia (also in the River Cottage Australia cookbook). My goodness they were amazing! The biscuits aren’t too sweet, so they don’t take away from the jam itself, and they are absolutely perfect with an afternoon cup of tea. Given how simple the recipe is, and how moreish the biccies are, I thought I’d share it here with you in case you have twenty odd jars of jam on the shelf to use up too! 

Original recipe can also be found here

Apricot Jam Drops

125g butter (I use a lightly salted one), at room temperature // 110g caster sugar  //  1 egg  //  185g self-raising flour*  //  60g desiccated coconut  //  Apricot jam, or any other jam you need to use up

Preheat the oven to 180’C. Cream the butter and sugar, and then add the egg and mix well. Add the flour and coconut to combine. Refrigerate the dough for around 20 minutes. Roll small balls of dough (just a bit smaller than a golf ball worked well). Place on baking tray with a bit of room for spreading, and then flatten each ball slightly with the back of a spoon. Using your pinkie finger, make little indentations on the top of each biscuit, and spoon in a little bit of jam. Bake them for 15 minutes, and then spoon a little bit more jam onto each biccie as soon as you pull them out of the oven. I had to do mine in several batches as I have a tiny oven - just remember to keep the dough and jam in the fridge between batches.

* I have coeliacs disease, so I replaced with GF self-raising flour with great results.

Green green green (with just a hint of rainbow)

In the Southern Tablelands region of NSW (where we live and garden), this is the time of year when the vege patch is FULL to the brim with green stuff - spinach, mustard, rocket (arugula) and all sorts of other good things - but not a whole lot of colour. We still have quite a wait for our tomatoes, capsicum, chillis, eggplant, corn, carrots, beets and melons (in fact, some of those will really only be ready for harvest at the end of summer or early autumn). 

I’m a big fan of the green stuff. I’d be quite content for most of our meals to consist of those ingredients (I, for one, truly believe that you CAN make friends with salad), but sometimes it is nice to have a bit of colour in a meal. 

Enter the jewel of the early summer vege patch in cool and alpine regions - silverbeet (Swiss chard).

Silverbeet could not be easier to grow and, for much of the country, it can be treated as a semi-perennial and planted in the ornamental garden beds (and with its white, red and yellow stems, it is certainly pretty enough to earn its place there!). In our climate we can’t grow it well over the three coldest months, so we keep it confined to The Coopermarket.

Silverbeet seeds are best sown directly into the vege patch. It doesn’t take long to get to harvest - in fact, tonight’s dinner was sown only about 5 weeks ago (they were young stems, but all the better… and sweeter).

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This is one of those fantastic cut-and-come-again type plants. You harvest only what you want to eat by cutting the stem near the soil (both stem and leaves are edible), leaving the rest intact. You will be able to eat from the same plant for months before it goes to seed. It is still worth succession sowing about once very 4-6 weeks for a continuous supply, but it isn’t quite such an urgent task as, say, with rocket that tends to bolt in the hotter months. Better yet, silverbeet isn’t really a food that you will get sick of with a glut that has to be harvested all at once (ahem, zucchini!), and there are soooooo many great uses for it.

We are a bit obsessed with the Stephanie Alexander tome ‘The Cook’s Companion’ in our house (recommended by Mickey Robertson, stolen from my mum). If you have a kitchen garden, you should really get that book. Every single fruit or vege that you grow or find in your local farmers’ market is itemised in ‘A Cook’s Companion’ and the most wonderful recipes and “recipes” (simple, rustic ways to make the most of the ingredient) are suggested.

Tonight’s dinner was courtesy of silverbeet from The Coopermarket and Stephanie’s advice to pair it with a fruity olive oil, streaky bacon and some goats cheese. Done and done. Dinner was on the table in minutes, and we both agreed that we could happily eat this for breakfast (maybe add a poached egg?), lunch or dinner any day of the week. Which is good, as we have a whole lot of silverbeet to eat before the rest of The Coopermarket colours up!

Peak Strawberry

Goodness, I didn't expect to take quite such a break from this space... in fact, I didn't actually want to be absent (I have sooooo many ideas percolating in the writer bits of my brain), but a few problems with the internets and a long fortnight of life-ing got the better of me.

First, let me jump back a couple of weeks to Peak Strawberry.

Our humble little strawberry patch was so very productive this year! I think that all-in-all we harvested about 6kgs of the most intense little strawberries you ever have tasted. They are like concentrated strawberry essence when they explode in your mouth. The varieties that we grow are never going to make it in the commercial space as they are hopelessly quick to spoil once picked... you can't leave them overnight without losing a few, and a few days on the bench or in the fridge will see the whole lot of them liquifying. But they are amazing to eat straight off the bush, or to wash and freeze for the rest of the year to use in ice creams, sauces or on french toast (our family favourite). Or, as I did with the first 2kgs that we harvested this year, make into jam.

The batch of jam I made (20 jars of it!) was by no means perfect... it is runny beyond belief, the fruit is floating all atop the jar, and the little bit of butter fat I included kind of separated out in the processing part. It's weird as I made this jam last year, following the same recipe and didn't have those issues. Not to worry, nothing a good stir can't (almost) fix. We are already two jars in to our stash and loving it!

I have now modified the recipe I used, which is a version of strawberry and vanilla jam from the gorgeous Rachael (who has also kindly shared her images here too). Hopefully the modified recipe will help you to avoid the saucy-ness that I made this time round. This recipe is fantastic for any fruit that you want to jam - I also used it for peach jam last year. Just have a think about the pectin content of the fruit you are using and consider using jam-setting sugar (high-pectin sugar) if you think it might have trouble setting.

Strawberry jam

Strawberries, rinsed, hulled and finely chopped and then weighed // Caster sugar (or jam setting sugar) to the same weight as the strawberries

Sterilise your jars by running them through the dishwasher and then immediately popping them into a 150°C oven for 20 minutes. Turn off the oven and allow them to cool a bit before you are ready to fill them.

Place the strawberries and sugar into a large pot and gently heat the mixture over low heat to dissolve the sugar completely. Once the sugar is liquified, turn the heat up and bring it to a rolling boil for 5-6 minutes. Turn the heat off and allow the jam to cool for a little while before filling your sterilised jars. Depending on how much you have made you may wish to process the jars to allow them to have a shelf life - I use a very simple waterbath method, but if you are new to preserving you may wish to study up a bit to avoid giving any of your family some horrendous food-borne illness!

Make some bread, slather it with a good salty butter and apply jam liberally! Enjoy!

{Thanks again to Rachael who so kindly let me share her jam photos with you all}