An embarrassment of riches: figs and cooking from the garden part 1

Our garden has exploded! After a fairly wet winter and spring, then a long hot summer, we are experiencing almost ideal conditions for growing all sorts of yummy things. Back in January, I wrote about the bird-plum battles; that hasn’t (thus far) been replicated with the figs, olives, persimmons, tomatoes, feijoas or strawberries, all of which are ripening about now. So I plan to post a couple of recipes over the next few days as I try to grapple with such abundance.

First up is figs. Little warm pouches of sweet deliciousness, they are perfect picked straight off the tree and eaten. But there are only so many figs any one person can eat – and the other three in my house are non-fig-eaters (though bubaloo can sometimes be tempted to take a nibble). I have been accosting colleagues, students, friends, neighbours, childcarers and random people on the street and cafes, trying to offload kilograms of figs. They also work as currency: I successfully traded a little bag of figs for a cup of chai last week!

I’m therefore also trying all sorts of recipes using figs. They are actually super easy to do things with, and pretty versatile. Here are two sweet options.

Balsamic thyme poached figs

You will need:
10 or so figs, with any yucky bits trimmed off (really, you can do it with as many figs as you like)
A few tablespoons of sugar, honey or other sweetener
About 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 cups water
Sprig of thyme (it’s also nice if you swap this for a cinnamon stick)

1. Place all ingredients in a large, deep frypan. Bring liquid to the boil.
2. Turn down to medium heat and cook, covered, for 10 minutes or so. Then remove lid and turn down to a simmer. Stir gently from time to time. When the liquid is fairly thick (however you like it), its ready.
3. Serve on pancakes, with muesli or cereal, with cream or icecream, or however you like it.

Delicious fig jam

You will need:
1 kg figs, trimmed and chopped roughly
500grams castor sugar
Peel of one lemon, pared into big strips
Juice of 1 lemon
1 cinnamon stick

1. Place all ingredients in a large pan, stir well, and sit overnight at room temperature.
2. Place over medium-high heat and bring to the boil, stirring occasionally. When it starts bubbling, turn the heat down to low and let it bubble until the mix reduces and thickens.
3. When it has gotten pretty thick, so you have about 1.5 litres of jam, test for ‘setting point’ by putting a spoonful of jam on a saucer, then sticking the saucer in the fridge for 10 mins or til it’s cool. Run your finger through the jam. If it stays in two parts, the jam is ready to bottle. Do this while the jam is hot.
4. a note on bottling: I bought a preserving kit last week which didn’t require me to sterilise the bottles. If you have a kit like this, follow the instructions! Mine was brand ‘Quattro stagioni’ made by bormioli rocco. But if you are using recycled jars (I usually do this but had run out), prepare the jars as follows. It’s best to do this while the jam cooks. Wash jars in hot soapy water; rinse in hot water. Place in a large saucepan filled with hot water; bring to the boil and boil for 10 minutes. Carefully remove jars from the water and place on a tea towel-lined baking tray in a hot oven for 10 minutes. Fill while jars are hot and seal.

We had our jam with easy cream scones. To make these, you need 2 cups self-raising flour, 1/2 tsp salt, 2 tbsp icing sugar, which you sift together into a bowl. Make a well in the middle and add 1/2 cup milk and 1/2 cup yoghurt or cream. Mix till a smooth dough forms, then lightly knead on a floured bench. Roll out to about 2.5 cm thick and cut into squares or rounds. Place on a baking tray and brush with milk. In an oven preheated to 200C, bake for 12-15 minutes of til brown. Serve with jam and cream. Too good!!!

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Rule of plum: jam, tart and kitchen disasters

Ever had one of those days where nothing goes quite right? I didn’t actually think I was having one of them until mid-afternoon today… all plum-related.

One of the great things about having fruit trees and vegie patches in your backyard is the produce, right? The only problem is that the birds and possums also think this is awesome. I’m personally quite happy if they take their share and leave some for us: 10% of the yield would be fine. But knowing that the birds are happy to share by pecking into plums and leaving half on the tree, I have been picking the plums at the not-quite-ripe stage and ripening them inside. Yesterday, I went out to do some picking and there were plenty of plums still on the tree, so I thought to leave them until they ripen. Today, nothing. Not one plum, but quite a few seeds on the ground… It seems that the possums are even worse at sharing than the birds… which leads me to

My bubaloo has just started having one nap, for around 2 hours, in the middle of the day. This is great because it means I get lots of time to do stuff with my eldest. The other great thing about the long nap is that it provides an opportunity to make, or at least start to make, something that requires labour. So I thought I’d make a basic plum jam using an familiar recipe. The only problem was, I’d picked the plums when they weren’t quite ripe. I tried a few while preparing the fruit, which were soft, juicy and delicious, and had deliberately thrown in some less ripe plums (for the pectin, you see). At the same time, I had some eggs that needed using as they were past dates, but had passed the floating test, so I decided to make a plum tart at the same time (at this point, I was still under the illusion that there were plenty of plums on the tree, so plenty of recipes to try…). After 2 or so busy hours in the kitchen – popping out to the lounge room to play with H – I ended up with perfectly set sour plum jam and sour plum and blueberry tart. Both still edible but not as I had envisaged. As I’ve made both of these things before, on countless occasions, with success, I’m posting the recipes here – with a caveat: ensure your fruit is ripe!

Simple plum jam

2 kg plums, quartered and with the stones removed

1 litre or 4 cups water

1.3 kg sugar

1/3 cup lemon juice (or juice from about 2 lemons)

In a large saucepan, place plums and water. Place over the heat and simmer for about an hour.

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Once things have been happily bubbling away for an hour, add sugar and lemon juice then simmer until the jam has reached the setting point. This occurs when the jam has thickened and reduced to about 2 litres or 8 cups worth. You can tell by placing some jam on a saucer and putting it into the fridge for a few minutes. When it’s cool, run your finger through the middle of the jam splodge; if the two halves remain separated so that you can see the saucer where your finger went, then it’s ready. If not, simmer for a bit longer, until this setting point is reached.

At the same time as the jam is cooking, you need to prepare (sterilise) your jars. I don’t have anything fancy, so I do it by: washing the jars in hot, soapy water and then rinsing them under hot water. Then I place them into a stockpot full of boiling water and, with the lid on, boil for about 10 minutes. Next I take them out of the stockpot – be careful, as this is when you are likely to get scalded (I was so lucky; my friend was here and she kept Bubaloo and H in another room so I could do this. My biggest fear is not scalding myself but accidentally getting one of them) – and placing them onto a baking tray lined with a clean dry tea towel. I then put this tray into a moderate oven for about 15 minutes or until the jars are well and truly dry.

Once the jars and jam are ready, use a ladle to scoop the jam into the jars. It’s extremely hot (molten), so be careful. I always make a mess doing this, as the photo shows. But once it’s all in the jars, seal while hot – either use a cellulose sheet (Fowlers make them) or your sterilised lids.

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Even though mine has ended up a bit sour, it’s not unpleasant; I think it will go nicely with scones, sponge cake or in a jam slice – the sourness should cut through the sweetness nicely. Less fortunate was the sour plum tart… I like to halve the sugar in these sorts of recipes, and didn’t realise about the sour-factor until later. Oh well, we’ll just have to eat it with icecream (what a sacrifice!).

Stone fruit and berry tart

This recipe is adapted from one by Donna Hay. Years ago, when I was doing my doctorate, one of my student friends and I lived near to each other, and would visit regularly for dinners. One time, her housemate made this using tinned plums. It was so lovely – the juice from the plums made the base deliciously moist.

In the decade or so since, I’ve made it hundreds of times. Recently, I was visiting my family and ended up making this almost daily as a way of using up fruit that was nearly too ripe to use – and also as a compromise morning tea for the kids. You can use any combination of stone fruits and berries or, like my friend’s housemate, tinned fruit. Even with only half the sugar, it keeps until at least the next day (but will it last that long?!).

You’ll need:

125g butter or margarine (butter is best, as it can be crumbly)

1/2 cup castor sugar (the original recipe calls for 1 cup but I find that too sweet)

2 eggs

splash of vanilla essence

1 1/2 cups self-raising flour

2 peaches or equivalent (you need enough to cover the top of the tart)

1/4 cup berries (they can be frozen; raspberries are very yummy)

Preheat oven to 170C. Grease a 20cm square or round baking tray (I find it works best in a smaller dish, which I line with baking paper).

In a bowl, cream butter and sugar together. Add eggs, stirring in well, and vanilla essence. Stir in flour. Combine until mixed.

Spoon into prepared tray. Smooth over the top. Place slices of peach (or other stone fruit; apricot or plum halves, nectarine slices) so that the top is covered. Sprinkle berries over the top of this. If you are using tinned fruit, then drizzle 2 or 3 tbsp of the juice over it too.

Place in the oven and bake for 55-60 minutes, or until brown on top. This is nice hot or cold, as a dessert or as a cake.

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Please note that I probably should have put more fruit on the top; given the sour situation, I’m glad I didn’t. Usually, however, the more fruit, the better! If you do end up with sour fruit, or even if you just feel like it, sifting icing sugar over the top can do wonders.

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