Reflections on farm life (inc. festive summer salad recipes)

Any day now the zucchini will be in full flight. Each dark green sprawling plant near as tall as my waist and covered in an armour of spikes. Oliver's arms are littered with scratches the likes I've not seen since the last time we foraged for wild blackberries. The fruit is prolific and if we happen to miss one beneath the canopy of leaves the size of elephant ears it will have grown too big to sell by the next time we harvest, often only a day or two later. Chefs prefer their zucchini on the smaller side and I don't blame them - they're sweeter and the flavour and texture can't be compared with powdery larger fruit full of water.

We pick the female flowers with the fruit where possible and have enjoyed stuffing them with breadcrumbs, anchovies, Parmesan, thyme and an egg to bind them before frying them in a light batter. Sometimes, on an early morning harvest, we discover an unsuspecting bee has been carried away in the vegetable crate, still enjoying its taste of pollen. It usually finds its way free before it makes it into the back of our delivery van. 

Stuffed zucchini flowers make a great appetiser and are not as fussy to prepare as you might think. Baby golf ball carrots and celtuce make lovely sides.

Stuffed zucchini flowers make a great appetiser and are not as fussy to prepare as you might think. Baby golf ball carrots and celtuce make lovely sides.

This season we're growing a variety of heirloom and more standard zucchini and squash, although we've foregone the Tromboncino variety we grew last year. This variety grows long and curling at one end and bulbous at the other. Our Italian farmer friends say that if you leave them long enough on the vine they transform into pumpkins - so it's not just fairy-tale carriages at the stroke of midnight! We experimented with one large Tromboncino last year and it did turn pumpkin-like. Sadly for us we just don't have the conditions for good pumpkin growing and ours lacked the sweet intensity and deep burnt orange of a good pumpkin.

Grilling young zucchini and squash on the BBQ is a quick and easy way to achieve a healthy warm salad. We've added red onions and drizzled with olive oil. 

Grilling young zucchini and squash on the BBQ is a quick and easy way to achieve a healthy warm salad. We've added red onions and drizzled with olive oil. 

Learning curves seem more pronounced when you live and work in conjunction with nature. When growing on a small scale it's not possible to rule over Mother Nature. We must work with her in order to understand and make the most of our situation: the soil, temperature, rainfall and length of seasons not to mention pests and native wildlife. We won't undertake a full assessment of what's worked and what hasn't until the close of autumn when we truly wind down for winter, but the few days we take off over Christmas will give us pause to reflect.

I feel it may be too early for me to wax lyrical on the benefits of getting back to basics and living closer to nature but even in these early days I can appreciate there are many. A quiet mind, a healthy body. I've learnt the importance of being organised and preserving food in the abundant times so we can enjoy them during the leaner months. It will give me such pleasure to open the freezer in winter and find raspberries or rhubarb to add to my porridge or broad beans for a pasta dish when there is little else green growing.

Perhaps patience is something gardening and cooking from scratch has also taught me this year, along with the ability to appreciate good things when they come to me. My lavender hedge may only flower for a few weeks a year but when it does I'm mesmerised by the beauty of the deep purple haze, the calming scent buoyed on the breeze. It's worth the wait. It's not always an easy life but the satisfaction gained from growing or making something yourself far outweighs the convenience of buying it off a shelf.

One new discovery that's delighted us this season is the herb Salad Burnet. Its pretty fern-like leaves have the most refreshing cucumber scent. A few sprigs would be delightful in a gin and tonic and adding it to salads creates the added bonus of filling your kitchen with this fresh scent. It's not easy to find in shops but would grow easily in a small raised bed or planter box if you want to give it a try. Harvesting couldn't be simpler. Just trim the stalks with scissors and watch them grow back again. The green of the salad burnet and mint combined with ruby red pomegranate seeds make my couscous salad below rather festive too! If you can't find any in your local markets and decide not to grow it then you can always replace the burnet with parsley.

This year's delightful discovery - Salad Burnet

This year's delightful discovery - Salad Burnet

Couscous and pomegranate festive salad

Serves 4 as a side

Ingredients:
1 cup couscous
1 cup boiling water
1/2 pomegranate, seeds removed
1 small Lebanese cucumber, diced
1 cup roughly chopped fresh mint leaves
1 cup roughly chopped salad burnet leaves or flat leaf parsley
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup roughly chopped hazelnuts, toasted
2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted
pinch or two of salt to season

Method:
Place couscous in a large bowl and add boiling water. Set aside until all the water is absorbed. Once absorbed, use a fork to fluff the grains and separate them before setting aside to cool. Now is a good time to toast your hazelnuts and sesame seeds if you haven't done so already as they will also need to cool.

In a large serving bowl, combine couscous, cucumber, mint, salad burnet or parsley with hazelnuts and sesame seeds. Remove pomegranate seeds over the bowl to catch any juice then add the olive oil and salt to taste. Gently toss to combine and serve. Enjoy!

All the best for a safe and happy holiday season. Thank you again for reading and for all your support this year. To receive email updates when a new post is published please add your details here. My book Yes, Chef! would make a fab Kris Kringle gift or stocking filler for the foodie or romantic comedy lover in your life. Available from all good bookstores and currently discounted online through Booktopia. Read and extract here.