Lamb Flap Salad: with carrot, rose petals, and cumin

Nice quick lunch today, Lamb Flap Salad: with carrot, rose petals, and cumin. Actually as you’ll see there are apple and fennel in there too, but they are secondary (except the apple adds a touch more sweetness. 1 Lamb goes so well with carrots because lamb ‘likes’ sweetness, the apple just adds a little more.


  • 200g 2 No, I did not measure this is a guess, but about right. precooked lamb (we used flap as we had done several in the slow cooker earlier)
  • 4 medium carrots
  • 1 eating apple (in our case since our Cox’s are small I used two)
  • several slices from a fennel bulb (then diced)
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • petals from one large or two small roses

Put your frying pan on to heat (you want it smoking hot). Grate the carrots and apple, I use a Vietnamese grater that makes thin triangular sticks which are crisper than European-style graters. Salt the lamb and fry briefly, to get just a little Maillard reaction going and enrich the flavour. Tip on to chopping board to begin cooling. Sprinkle the veges with cumin. Put lamb on and rose petals on top, mix (reserve a few petals to decorate if necessary). Serve with mayonnaise (ours was slightly lemony and mustardy).

I think the flavours work really well and the cumin and rose petal should be just discernible with the fennel almost not noticable but just adding its own notes.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Lamb goes so well with carrots because lamb ‘likes’ sweetness, the apple just adds a little more.
2. No, I did not measure this is a guess, but about right.

The trick is to pick

New year is bad for vege patches. Summer heat and late rains are ideal growing conditions, but the holidays mean less time for the garden. Weeds run rampant, and tomatoes grow too fast to “pinch out”, more like jungle bushes than productive vines.

As a resolution, “beating the weeds” is unrealistic. Growing more traditional veges also seems unlikely, when they only cost cents in the shops.

Before you despair, and decide growing your own is only for the really dedicated. Think again! Granted many crops are more trouble than they’re worth, or more work than the family pet, there are still opportunities for delicious low maintenance crops. The trick is to pick, craftily. Choose crops for return on investment.

Here’s my current list of high ROI crops:

  • Cooking apples require pruning once a year, and fertiliser when you remember, but you can’t buy them, and they make delicious deserts impressing your guests!
  • Heritage varieties of other fruits also offer a high ROI, if you have not inherited a productive plum tree planting a couple (chosen to pollinate each other) is easy fruit.
  • Jerusalem Artichokes are a thistle, so of course they grow well! Big impressive plants look great, and a thick layer of straw keeps them weed free (almost). Earn “foodie points” with a vege that’s unusual, delicious and easy to grow and cook (copy the online videos).
  • Lettuce require some weeding and lots of watering, but repay with a salad you grew yourself (almost) and far less pain than tomatoes or cucumbers. Buying “Mesclun” seed gives plants of different varieties from one packet, all year round. The straw trick works for lettuce, but grow the seedlings quite big before planting them.
  • Rocket and other herbs grow like weeds, and can be used either as a flavouring or in salad.

What are your tips for picking for high ROI crops?

Pure Butchery or a Winter’s Tale

In winter I do my food growing in the barn, with nothing growing in the garden and only pruning in the orchard. I’m making bacon, salami and prosciutto (Italian style ham) with parts of our homekilled pigs. Though not this year as we had no pigs. After a hectic start we soon had bacon brining in a barrel and hams dry-curing in the spare fridge. Home-cured bacon is a simple and fun way to make or grow more of what you eat. Our chef son adds coffee to the cure, which is basically sugar and spice.

Prosciutto is another matter. Several weeks salting, then each ham takes months to age and air-dry. The meat is hung in a cool dry airy place (the barn). Examined for unwelcome mould (anything that isn’t white and powdery) any appearing is wiped off with vinegar-soaked cloths. Like the guru at River Cottage I rub them with acidophilous powder (the probiotic in yogurt) before they’re hung. This creates a slightly acid environment, helping proper ageing. At Christmas we discover if this care has produced the expensive delight we anticipate.

Salami gives quicker results. Four weeks after stuffing the skins, the beer sticks are already delicious. Full size ones take a little longer. They are less simple than hams though, soon after we hung them suspicious moulds appeared. Vinegar removed them for a while, but they returned. Then we spotted that Hugh F-W doesn’t cover salami. He is less afraid of flies and infection, but we realised that winter temperatures (keeping our garden from growing) also keep flies away. Uncovered they dried faster with no bad moulds. We’ve tried the “plain” beersticks, delicious, next the various flavours of pure pork ones…

When to plant broad beans

When should you plant broad beans? In winter few insects pollinate the flowers, yet we hope for early beans. Too early or late and the crop is small. Dates are different in different places.

John & Jenny are sure that later planting is the best approach, giving bigger, more certain crops. But I love broad beans (Barbara doesn’t, as a child she was given leathery old beans, see below for a secret weapon for permission to plant lots 🙂 so I risked some early planting, so long ago that despite frost in May they have flowers already… now to see if they’ll set… of course I plan to have my cake and eat it too, I’ve two thirds of a packet to plant later as well!

Other over-wintering veges have similar issues. Cabbages put in too late won’t be ready till late spring. Beetroot too soon will be past their best before the winter shortage. Timing is crucial, but up Pyes Pa Rd we know the difference a few Kms makes (or rather a few tens of meters higher above sea level). In spring, we watch the blossom spread slowly up the road. So experiment to gauge what works at your place, and talk to others to work out the best strategy. None of us have it right, but we can help each other by sharing experiences, as well as seedings (last month meeting, as well as veges, Mark & Esme offered us young peach trees 🙂

The secret to convert non-broad-bean-lovers? Just cook them and zap them up into a sort of hummus with lemon, oil and herbs. Broad bean dip is really delicious 🙂

Storing Pumpkins (and other produce)

When talking about storing produce. We face several enemies, and they need different tactics:

Temperature: too hot and ripening will turn to rot, yet if we live high enough frost can also be a problem. A garage or shed, that does not get too much sun on a hot day is good. My granddad used his roofspace, but in the Bay that probably gets too hot even in winter. Remember airflow is needed, so don’t use unventilated plastic.

Fungi and mildew: damp brings these on, so keep things dry, but keeping the produce from touching helps slow the spread. Traditionally straw was used to separate and keep dry, though some swear by newspaper.

Possums, rats and mice: These pests love pumpkin, and absolutely adore apples. Yet, since still air encourages rot, keeping them out may conflict with the need for airflow. So hanging a sack from rafters is good, and mesh or netting cages also stop pests but allow air.

One of our group suggested washing pumpkins in water with a little Janola (1.5tsp/bucket) to kill spores that may cause problems (the stalk of pumpkins is especially vulnerable to such attacks).

Asking around more widely about storing potatoes, somebody suggested a variant of the British “clamp” or earth covered pile, ideal for lazy gardeners like me. Leave the potatoes in the ground till you need them, but cover the soil with straw and tarpaulin or old roofing sheets. The straw keeps the soil cool, the tarpaulin or whatever keeps it dry, and until they are cooked potatoes are indigestible to four-legged pests. As a bonus the ground will be in perfect shape for some manure and a spring planting.

Strange fruits and varied veges

TV chefs and food columnists use veges I can’t find in the shops. Shops can only sell what growers grow. And growers grow what they are sure will sell…

Growing your own gives you a choice. As well as tried and true varieties, most vege plots or home orchards have a few fruits that are strangers to the supermarket, and veges more varied than the shop stocks.

There are several benefits to growing these “unusual” crops:

Cost: when you find fresh figs they’re expensive, I envy the people with flourishing fig trees, hopefully ours will start to crop next year…

Taste: our Bramley apple tree is also small, but we got a couple of apple pies from this old cooking variety. Their taste (with plenty of sugar, as they’re “tart”) is richer and deeper than pies made with Granny Smiths.

More productive: Esme mentioned a long necked courgette that produced big crops. I wonder if she’s saved some seed?

Being trendy: Cavolo Nero, a sort of bluish Italian kale was food columns a couple of years ago, as tasting better than ordinary kale. Barbara didn’t like kale, but loves these tasty fresh leaves steamed and salted then drizzled with olive oil or butter.

Looking good: Artichokes could fit any of the categories above, expensive, delicious (if you like them, not everyone does), perennially trendy, but often grown for the impressive giant grey-green thistle leaves.

All the examples I’ve mentioned are easy to grow, and flourish round here. What strange fruits or varied veges would you add to the list? We are now planting some Radicchio (Italian chicory) seedlings that Jenny gave us, I wonder how you eat Radicchio?

Unsustainable Backyards

When it all comes together it’s a dream. Lettuce and basil, artichokes and snow peas, beetroot and figs… well not together in the one dish in each case, but you get the picture: good fresh food that tastes way better than tired shop bought produce. When things work well that’s what it is like, weeds controlled by a thick mat of straw, watering with a hose when the rain refuses to arrive on schedule, rabbits restrained by a chicken wire fence, and possums down the offal pit after a quick humane death in the Timm’s trap.

That’s when things work well… most years though, they don’t. In spring and early summer 2011-12 we were putting the finishing touches to my book on God as mother in the Bible and Christian worship, in 2012-13 we were teaching in Sri Lanka, in 2013-14 it was lectures in the Philippines, in 2014-15 we went to the UK for mum’s funeral, in 2017-18 it was alternating storms and drought… (I can’t remember my excuse for 2016-17, sorry!) Every year something crops up, and my crops either bolt, die of thirst, or get eaten by predators. My backyard is unsustainable, unless I am there in those crucial weeks to sustain it.

Of course there is another sense in which backyards can be unsustainable. The garden centres have shelves full of specialist weedkillers, guaranteed (or at least claimed) to kill only undesirable plants and let your veges/flowers/lawn flourish – but many of which operate “systemically” and kill the bees we need to pollinate the cherries we grow for the possums to steal. More shelves of chemical fertilisers, that promote big healthy veges, but seep away into the streams and also promote invasive algal and plant growth that starves fish and crustaceans of the oxygen they need.

Both kinds of unsustainable need tackling… now, what in my diary for next spring?

Town and country growing

Living in town is like living on another planet! Fruit and vege growing faces different pests and problems. In town the main pests are insects, and poor soil quality is the commonest problem.

Our main pests have four-legs, not six. Rabbits devour seedlings like locusts in Egypt, they also strip the bark from young trees. Possums not only decimate bush (compare the lush forest filled with birdsong at Otanewainuku, with bush where the possums are less well controlled), overnight they can strip our fruit trees of a not-yet ripe crop. And, when sheep, cattle or pigs (yours or your neighbours) get into the garden…

Our friends Jenny and Perry live on a hundred acres in Oropi. They have Red Devon cattle, some sheep from an Ag Research breeding program (our new ram comes from their flock, like our last one who produced ‘too many’ twins), and some cute cross-breed pigs. They are farmers from way back, and well-used to country living. They are diversifying into a variety of animals to feed themselves now. They are also starting a beautiful vege patch. The raised beds are arranged in concentric circles bordered by macrocarpa sleepers milled from trees at their previous place. The day we visited things were less orderly than they’d planned – the piglets got into the vege garden! They have also lost hundreds of seedling natives they planted as a shelter belt. Rabbits have decimated them, they have been bad this year despite everyone’s efforts to control them.

The pests are different in the country, and we deal with them differently, instead of sprays and powders, we use good fences, possum traps and guns… For a hobby I read and animate Beatrix Potter stories, but I never thought I’d become Mr. MacGregor!

Sauerkraut: or grow your own bacteria

We’ve been growing our own bacteria. Not nasty ones from slovenly cleaning, but useful “probiotic” ones, giving a pleasant sour taste to pickles without using vinegar.

I’d assumed making non-vinegar pickles was difficult, needed special equipment and possibly dangerous. Kitchen stores, sprouting as fast as cookery programmes on TV, have fancy, expensive German crocks (with weights to press the cabbage “right”).

A free e-book from dispelled my excuses. I used big jars, cleverly weighted with small jars fitted inside, water-filled, as weights).

The recipe is simple:

  • 1 tight cabbage (red or green)
  • Salt 2.5%, or 25g per kilo of cabbage

The method is nearly as simple. Put aside outer leaves. Remove the core, slice fairly thinly. Sprinkle with salt and mix, pound it. I used a wooden mallet we hadn’t found a use for since I stopped making Chicken Kiev, but you could use a jam jar or a rolling pin. This softens the cabbage allowing the salt to penetrate. Once it looks damp, pack the cabbage into the big jar, pushed down to exclude air. When it’s fairly full, cover with bits of the outer leaves, forming a “lid” inside the jar. Put your little jar full of water in, to press the “lid” down. Cover with a plastic bag, to keep unwanted bugs out. Soon you’ll have mysterious, bubbling jars on the workbench (on a tray to catch any spills).

After a few days (depending how sour you like your Kraut, and on weather, the precise mix of bacterial flora on your cabbage, and even perhaps phase of the moon) it will be ready: crunchy and sour, the ideal accompaniment to sausages and lentils, or salads with salami and other cured meats. For colour contrast I made both plain and red-cabbage kraut and cauliflower florets coloured yellow with turmeric (which take twice as long to mature.

Stories Food Growers tell


In wintery April weather, we chatted over a prolonged afternoon tea. As well as asking each other’s advice, like Chris wondering about planting chokos, we also shared surplus produce and stories.

Some were proper food-growing tales, like Jenny J’s disaster when two heifers got out of the paddock and into the veggies. Apparently, they walked delicately down the paths, causing minimal damage to the infrastructure, despite their half ton weights, yet in their hunger devastated the veggies all the same. Our White Face who loved to jump never got close to the veggie patch, though several times she visited the neighbour’s steers after achieving a clear round, not even nicking the top bar of the gate.

Talking of clear rounds, the other Jenny is an accomplished equestrian, but it seems riding camels is not the same as riding horses. She took an early tumble on her first camel experience. She hastily remounted, so her host would not see her indignity. How does one hastily mount a camel? They seem such unfriendly creatures, and I thought camel rides required the handler to make the beast sit before inexperienced riders attempted mounting. I guess that’s the difference between a real farmer and an ex-townie, real farmers can make even camels obey!

The White Face heifer I mentioned earlier, Freckles, was not at all obedient the day we tried to load her on the truck. Although our little yards are over 5 feet high, she managed to get her forequarters out in her bid for freedom. We had to stand guard, “persuading” her back, or I am sure she’d somehow have escaped and eaten our veggies.

The prize for the oddest job recounted that afternoon goes to Tim and Joanna, deconstructing their orchid houses. Often harder work than building them in the first place. Their little orchard already produced so many surplus Beurre Bosc pears that after the group took what they wanted there were still more for me to share more widely.