Herbs

Herbs – the backyard or balcony gardener’s staple. And for good reason – buying a bunch of herbs for one use usually costs around $3, and if you’re like most of us, it’s hard to use up the whole bunch before it gets all funny, whereas buying a plant (or seeds) of the same herb costs around the same, and will last you many more uses!! Herbs were the first things that I started growing (before I expanded to the triffid-like vegetables!), and I try to ensure that they continue to be present in our backyard garden, as frankly, they are fairly low maintenance, and great to help flavour most dishes!

However, not all herbs are created equal, in terms of ease of growing and maintenance, so I’ll give you some of my tips, and hope that you can share some of yours! In writing this post, I have realised that I need to concentrate more on a few larger pots of herbs, to ensure our regular supply of the ones we use, so I will endeavour to do so and let you know how I go! I have also noticed that some of my herbs are looking less happy than others, so in the interest of honesty, I’ll still write about those, and aim to increase the herb portion of my garden!

Basil
This appears to be one of the hardier of the herbs – I have usually about 3 pots of basil on the go, and while they may appear to go dormant sometimes, I find they usually spring back to life and continue to give me the sweet-smelling goodness!! Nothing better than fresh pesto made from your own basil! I also tend to chuck it into anything vaguely Mediterranean that I cook, ie if there is tomato and garlic, there is basil! I usually buy basil plants as seedlings, leave them in pots and see how they go, usually angling them near my tomato plants to keep the ecosystem happy, as they are good companions. However, in around August, I planted my first basil from seed – and look at the results!!

Basil

The basil (at the left of the pot) – happy and hardy!!


This is a dwarf basil variety, which is why the leaves don’t get massive, but it tastes great, and seems incredibly cheery with limited maintenance!! I have noticed, however, that it is thirstier than other basil plants, so I put a tray under the side of the planter so that it keeps its water for longer.

Mint
Mint is wonderful – it tastes great in salads and drinks and desserts, and smells so lovely!! Mint is also the hardiest herb I have – it will often completely die, then rise, phoenix-like, from its own ashes!! This particular plant has been living in various pots for a couple of years, and it is certainly much happier since I transplanted it into a larger space! That is the warning with mint, as it is basically a weed, it will take over your garden, so keep it with other herbs (even though it will usually colonise those too!) or limited in space so it doesn’t go too crazy!!

Mint

The mint very happy in its larger pot (and seeming to play well with the basil!)

Coriander
This is a constant battle for me – I find coriander loves a good bolt, and goes to flower and seed more quickly than we use it – we sometimes go through phases of lots of Asian-style cooking, but not frequently enough to use the coriander in the 5 minutes where it is edible before it goes all spindly. So, I have also tried to grow it from seed, but with a little sad results, the multiple seeds planted led to one tiny plant, that, you guessed it, bolted before I used it!! I think I will have to take advice I saw on another blog and freeze the fresh herbs like these ones to use later, as clearly we don’t use coriander enough!! However, when I went to take these photos, I noticed that there was a bit of coriander powering away in this pot, so I will attempt to do something with it prior to bolting!

Coriander

Coriander stretching out

Rosemary
This makes me sad – I am up to what must be my 6th rosemary plant, and cannot keep it alive!!! I have tried various permutations – I know it doesn’t like too much water, so I don’t water it, then it goes all woody, and dies. So then I try to water it a little, then it dies. I try to keep it out of the rain, it dies. I leave it in full sun, it dies. It’s such a shame, I love rosemary so much, particularly in meat and potato wintry dishes, but I always seem to be doing something wrong!! I have only bought it in pots, however, so maybe the key is to plant from seed? Or something else? Any insight in the comments would be gratefully received – it’s quite galling, I know it’s supposed to one of the hardier herbs, but it is eluding me!! All tips are welcome!!

Sad rosemary

Another one bites the dust …

Parsley
I have a couple of small pots of parsley, that seem fairly perennial, but never quite enough for the recipes I need, so I think I will try from seed/larger seedlings and see how I go. And in fact, when I went to take these photos, I discovered my parsley had entirely gone, and I have no memory of removing it, so either it’s been eaten or it died and I removed it and I have blocked the trauma from my brain – either way, clearly time to grow some more!!

Thyme
This is a great herb – it seems happy to live with very little maintenance in questionable conditions (it and the mint were the last herbs standing in a pot that had held parsley and coriander as well, and the thyme and mint had a stand-off for many months until I finally moved the mint – I don’t know if the thyme feels victorious or lonely) – it is going so well in its rather arid pot that I don’t dare move it, although I am now wondering whether it is getting too woody and may finally leave me … And in fact, when I took the photo of the coriander above, you’ll notice some woody stems in the background, that’s the thyme!! I hope it’s just sleeping, and will re-emerge victorious in a few months …

Thyme

Thyme not looking so great in the back there …

Chives
I use this herb rarely (I like to chop it up and put it in scrambled eggs or sprinkle on a hardboiled egg every now and again), but it thrives with limited intervention from me, apart from getting fairly tufty and needing a haircut every few months.

Other herbs
I don’t tend to grow other herbs, because the ones I’ve discussed are the ones we use most often, but do tell me if you have success with others that you recommend!

So, that’s my rather tumultuous herb tale – the novice gardener, as I am, will still have these trials and tribulations, it’s about finding what works, in terms of maintenance, watering and companionship, and going from there – I recommend only growing herbs that you like and will use, otherwise they will just be a pretty addition to your garden without much use!

Update: I found the parsley – poor thing, it had clearly fallen off the rack in the crazy rainy windy weather we’ve been having, and the pot had been replaced on the rack minus the little parsley plant, which was looking very forlorn and shrivelled on the ground. Alas for the parsley!! I will buy some seeds and go from there – your death will not be in vain!!

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Stretching your organic dollar further

While I would like to be entirely self-sustaining from my garden in terms of fruits and vegetables (and meats and dairy, but that would involve a cow, chickens, more space and probably some sort of ritual slaughter, which I don’t think I have the stomach for!), I am also realistic that my inner-west backyard is probably not going to provide the space and climate for all the fruits and vegetables that I like to eat!

Eating more organically and sustainably – why?
An offshoot of my gardening and interest in a more sustainable life is a focus on trying to eat more seasonally and more organically. My focus on trying to eat more organic fruit and veggies is based on the reduction of ingesting pesticides and chemicals – I’m a city girl through and through, while I like nature, I also love the convenience and bustle of the city, even with its poor air quality and toxic fumes. So, I’m a believer in trying to reduce the cumulative effect of the various ways in which we live in cities by reducing some of the toxins in what I ingest, mostly through food. I don’t think I’ll ever move to the country and have a farm, with cleaner air and paddocks (although I do like that dream sometimes!), so I’m trying to do what I can when I can for my overall health, fertility, and disease prevention – the reality from what I’ve read, heard and seen is that with the increase of population, the methods used to create enough food for the world and to keep up with our desire for instant gratification (ie I want this type of food now!) are often more chemically focused, which may not be the best thing for our bodies, and it may be contributing to the seeming increase in cancers and allergies in the population.

Now, I am not providing lots of links to the tons of scientific research and information out there to support this position, more giving you the background of why I’m trying to live more sustainably for my own health and the health of my family – please feel free to do your own research and come to your own conclusions, and share it with me – and if you come to similar conclusions to me, then hopefully this blog will also help you to in living more organically, sustainably and thriftily!

There are seasons for apples?
Eating more seasonally (while also growing things) has led me to some interesting revelations, ie that apples are not in season at the end of summer, therefore harder to get organically at different times of year! I was aware of stonefruit and berries being a summer thing, as they are around more and much cheaper then, but I think growing up I had never really thought about how much other food that I regularly ate was grown or when, therefore I am enjoying learning more and trying to follow nature a little more (while still being connected to technology and the city!). I enjoy our fortnightly organic fruit and veggie box for this reason, as it shows me what is actually in season and ripe at the time- as my husband also notes, seeing the size and shelf life of organic produce makes you realise how chemically and genetically modified a lot of conventionally grown produce must be to be so big and last so long!! Also, a lot of it tastes better – stronger, richer flavours. However, I am not an obsessive purist, we still eat out a lot, have some junk food on occasion, and if I really feel like a particular vegetable or fruit or recipe, I’ll tend to buy it and use it without worrying too much about where it came from – it’s all about balance, moderation and trying your best most of the time as far as I’m concerned!

You don’t need to buy everything organic – unless you’ve got lots of cash to spare!
If you have the money and the interest you probably could buy everything organically, but I don’t think that’s going to work for our overall budget, therefore I focus my money and efforts on the things that are most chemically treated, ie fruit, veggies and meat, sometimes dairy, and I don’t tend to get all obsessive about other things like oats, nuts, breads, coffee etc. Part of this is because of the cost – unfortunately organic food is still a lot more expensive than its non-organic counterparts, which can be quite annoying – at the end of the day, while my health is important, I also love a good bargain, which can make for a contradiction! Also, I think some people confuse ‘organic’ with ‘healthy’ – it might be less chemically treated, but those ‘organic’ biscuits, that ‘organic’ white bread and too much of the ‘organic’ pizza may still not be the best nutritional choice! I may develop more organic requirements as the years go on, and hopefully things will get less expensive as more people access them, but at the moment, it’s all about fruit, veggies and an attempt at sustainable and less chemical meat, poultry and fish.

Use the peel test
One way to cut down on your costs is not to eat everything organically, but focus on those fruits and veggies that are the most chemically treated – anything with a skin or peel that you remove before eating is usually fairly good, and while it may taste better organically, I have no issue with buying things like watermelon, bananas, oranges, pineapple etc from our local fruit market (and they give us free juice!!) There is also a generally agreed upon (and updated) list of fruit and veggies by the Environment Working Group in the US (http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php) that lists which are most chemically treated – the ‘Dirty Dozen’ (isn’t that a movie?) It is reasonable to use this list for Australian produce, as the Americans use similar farming methods to us. When I looked at it, I realised sadly that most of the fruits that I love and eat regularly are on it – I’m looking at you, apples, berries, stone fruit and spinach!! So, I’ve been trying to buy this stuff organically and in season, but anything else that’s not on there, I am usually happy to still buy at the fruit market instead if we want it and it hasn’t come in our veggie box. I also focus on things I eat constantly (like fruit and spinach and certain veggies) rather than things I have once in a blue moon, to try and reduce the daily cumulative chemical load.

Reduce costs – buy in bulk and in season
Organic fruit can be crazily expensive, and I do resent paying ludicrous prices for things. Even when fruit is in season, like my great love blueberries are now, the comparison price between conventionally grown: 2 punnets for $7 at our fruit guy vs organic: 2 punnets for $12-14 at the organic place, can seem prohibitively expensive!! I am trying to think of it as opportunity costs, as well as examining what I think is reasonable for things – I might pay $12 for a cocktail on a night out without thinking about it, so why am I skimping on fruit that is probably better for me in the long run? I think we’ve been conditioned to think certain foods should cost a certain price, and anything above that is unreasonable, even if we really want it or it’s better for us – and it is certainly true that with the increasingly popularity of organic produce, there are a lot of people profiting without necessarily making it cheaper for the average bear!!

Anyway, a tip I have for making your dollar go further is to combine my love of a bargain with my love of the freezer – buy in bulk when things are cheaper (ie when they’re in season) and freeze them!! That way, I get the benefits for longer for less cash!! Our local organic place has been doing ‘specials’ for the past few months with 3 punnets of blueberries for $15, and 3 punnets of strawberries for $12. So, I buy my 3 punnets of each once a week, bring them home, wash them (cos I’m a bit of a washing fruit and veggies freak, even though I probably don’t have to worry so much about organic stuff, it’s still habit!), leave them to dry (attracting lots of fruit flies, sorry lovely husband!), then I put a punnet of each back in the fridge for eating during the week, and freeze the rest! I’ve been doing this since late December, so now I have a nice full freezer of frozen fruit!

The plan is, when berries go out of season and become even more ridiculously expensive again in a couple of months – I’ll be like the ant and the grasshopper, enjoying the spoils of my labour in autumn and winter!! It will also stop me having to buy imported organic blueberries (I’ve mentioned my addiction, I eat them daily!) at a ridiculous jacked-up price (both in terms of cash and cost to the planet)!! This way I get to combine my love of a bargain with my love of stocking our freezer for the zombie apolocalypse!! The trick I have found with the strawberries is hull (ie take the green bit off) and cut them up before freezing, otherwise you will find it very hard to get the green part off when they’re frozen – I speak from experience!! See below some of my freezer haul!! And according to one of my new favourite sites, Eat By Date.com, fresh frozen fruit will last 6-8 months before going funny if stored properly (hence my sealed container), therefore I should be good to go til the end of August! I also recently rotated my frozen berries to put the older ones on top so I’ll use them first, to ensure maximum freshness! You can then just pop them out and add them directly to cold things like smoothies, or if you want them in warm things like porridge, either defrost overnight in the fridge if you’re organised, or if you’re more like me most mornings, use the microwave for 10-20 seconds before adding them to things!

Bulk frozen blueberries

Here’s my container of frozen blueberries!!


Frozen strawberries

See my little bags (and container of frozen pre-chopped strawberries)

So, I’ll keep sharing other tips over the coming weeks for stretching your organic (and non-organic!) dollar further – please feel free to leave me your own tips in the comments below!

Summer breakfast ideas

I love breakfast. It’s my favourite meal of the day, and because I usually wake up hungry (I appear to have a fairly fast metabolism, which is great if I don’t slow it down by eating too much crap!), I can’t really start the day without something substantial and yummy. I try to have a good blend of protein, healthy fat and carbs, as that keeps me fuller for longer and is a good general mix for a healthy happy breakfast!

I used to be a basic cereal girl growing up, but over the last 10 or so years, have expanded my reportoire (and increased my feeling of fullness!) with some exciting options which don’t take long to prepare, but taste wonderful! I also pair breakfast with a coffee – I only have one coffee a day, which I used to have around 11am as a morning snack, but realised I prefer it with breakfast, so I have my lovely Nespresso coffee with breakfast now! I like to sit and have my breakfast at home while reading sections of the weekend paper, I find it a relaxing way to start the day. However, I also have times when I have to travel a little longer for work (or have run out of time!), so I find that the below options also travel quite well to eat on the go!

So, below are a few of the things I love for summer breakfasts – winter breakfasts are different, warmer and will feature in a later post!

Common thread – fruit!
I love summer fruit – stonefruit (peaches, nectarines, plums – no apricots or mangoes, I don’t like them, go figure!). I also adore blueberries (have to have them daily!) and strawberries. So, each breakfast features at least one of these, if not all of these! I have been trying to eat more seasonally, particularly as I am also trying to eat the majority of my fruit & veggies from an organic source, and it’s much cheaper and more available to do this if you eat seasonally!! Summer in Sydney is all about stone fruit and berries, so I eat them daily and happily!! But all of the breakfast suggestions below could work just as well with frozen fruit or other fruit that you like.

Muesli
This isn’t a revolutionary idea, but I do love muesli as my default option (I have the Morning Sun brand one with peach and pecan). This breakfast can also travel really well, just put it all in a container and it can be eaten on the bus or at work! I used to have it with just milk and fruit, but now I add yogurt instead of milk, which keeps me fuller and tastes yummier! I also add a sprinkle of cinnamon (good for the circulation!) and some flaxseed on occasion (good for healthy fats and extra fibre). The yogurt I love is Jalna, vanilla flavoured – I know that natural/greek yogurt has less calories and sugar, but I do love the sweetness of the vanilla, and it’s not too much sugar, but makes me happy in the morning – it’s all about balance!

Breakfast bruschetta
This is a recipe that I took from the Michelle Bridges 12 Week Body Transformation – I did this program in 2012, found it a great success for me (lost 10 kilos!), and while I haven’t necessarily continued the strictness of the regime, I have kept using a number of the recipes and the general eating ideas and focus on working out regularly!
This delightful breakfast (which can actually be winter or summer, but I’ve been eating it a lot recently!) requires bread, ricotta and fruit, and only takes a couple of minutes to make.

Recipe – Breakfast bruschetta
2 pieces bread (sourdough or fruit or raisin)
Around 80-100 g of ricotta (light or full-fat, I use the Perfecto Italian brand, but anything works!)
Fruit of your choice, cut up – I tend to cut up a peach or nectarine, and add a handful of blueberries or strawberries at this time of year, but in winter, when apples and pears are more in season, I sometimes grate up an apple and put it on, or have some stewed fruit.

1. Toast your bread
2. Spread your ricotta across the toast – the more the better, it will keep you fuller longer if you don’t skimp, you want a thick amount rather than a light smear!
3. Put your fruit on top.
4.Sprinkle cinnamon or cacao/cocoa on top.
5. Enjoy!

Peach, blueberry and strawberry breakfast bruschetta

Peach, blueberry and strawberry breakfast bruschetta

Ncetarine bruschetta

Ncetarine bruschetta

Overnight oats
This is something that I have been recently introduced to from the lovely Kath of Kath Eats Real Food (http://www.katheats.com/?page_id=3889), and I love the ease of it (because you prepare it the night before, so it’s all ready to eat in the morning!), the softness and creaminess of the taste and the fun of eating out of a jar! (I’m kinda hipster in that way, I do love the jar eating – you can of course just put it in a bowl, but it feels more fun in a jar!) I don’t put the banana in, as in the original recipe, because I find it a bit overwhelmingly banana-flavoured, and I find it plenty filling without it, but experiment!

Recipe – Overnight oats
1/2-1/3 cup of rolled oats
1/3 cup of yogurt
1/3 cup milk
Pinch of cinnamon
Fruit – blueberries, strawberries, stonefruit

1. At night, measure your oats, yogurt and milk, pour into jar/bowl.
2. Add fruit and cinnamon – I add the blueberries at this stage, not necessarily the other fruit.
3. Stir to mix.
4. Cover (if a jar, put on the lid, if a bowl, cover in clingfilm or similar), and then place in the fridge.
5. The next morning, open, stir, add additional fruit if wanted, and then enjoy!

Top view of overnight oats!

Top view of overnight oats!

It's all about oats in a hipster jar - like being in your own cafe!

It’s all about oats in a hipster jar – like being in your own cafe!

So, I hope I’ve given you some new ideas for yummy healthy breakfasts – please share some of your favourites in the comments below!

Update: A couple of people have asked about the jar featured above – I did buy it, because I liked the look of it, and use it often, but I have also tried making overnight oats in empty used jars, based on suggestions from other blogs. I did one in a peanut butter jar, so there were still bits of peanut butter in the oats, which didn’t really excite my tastebuds.

Peanut butter jar overnight oats

A top view of overnight oats made in a used peanut butter jar, with bits of peanut butter still in it!

peanut butter jar overnight oats

Inside view – peanut butter jar overnight oats


However, yesterday I did one in a honey jar, and it was lovely!! Word of caution, though, I managed somehow to get honey on my sleeve, which went on my watch, which I didn’t notice until the end of the day, and gave my colleague a laugh by finding the honey, musing aloud where it came from and then trying to wash it off, I looked a little loopy to say the least!! Oh well, that’s pretty normal for me!!
Honey jar overnight oats

External view – honey jar overnight oats

Inside overnight oats honey jar

Inside the sweet sweet honey overnight oats jar! Yummy!!