Sunshine in a bottle

So, the mandarincello is ready.

After a week of steeping the de-pithed skins in vodka, most of the aromatic volatiles in the skins have migrated into the spirit, giving it a lovely sunny yellow colour and a strong aroma of mandarin.

I made a simple sugar syrup with half a cup of castor (superfine) sugar and half a cup of water, heated gently till the sugar was fully dissolved, and then cooled. I strained the spirit back into the bottle it came in, and then poured out about a quarter cup of the mandarincello to make space for the syrup. At this point, it’s still quite harsh-tasting, with a bitter back-note. Some might like it this way, but I prefer a little more fruity sweetness. So I added a tablespoon of the cooled syrup, shook the bottle gently and then tasted. Not bad, but not quite enough. Another tablespoon, and it was nearly there. So I added a final half tablespoon, and it was spot on. Yum! It both tastes and smells like fresh mandarins.

With the remaining syrup, I added the quarter cup of spirit, to give a mandarin-flavoured syrup with a small amount of alcohol in it. I’ll use this warmed, to pour over a cake, or add lots of soda water and ice for a refreshing drink with only a hint of naughtiness.

Look, give this a try. It’s not rocket science. If you have an excess of lemons, oranges or mandarins, use the skins to make yourself a bottle of sunshine, and in the case of oranges and mandarins, roast the fruit in the oven with a little sugar or honey and water to end up with delicious warm fruit to put on your cereal, yoghurt or icecream. If you don’t grow your own, I’d suggest using organic, non-waxed fruit to avoid adding wax or pesticides to your bottle.

Now, where’s my mandarin cake recipe…?

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When life gives you mandarins…

… make mandarincello 🙂

This is not normally something I’d have considered, but I was doing a bit of gentle fruit-one-upmanship on FaceTime with my brother in the UK, who has a substantial temperate fruit and nut orchard, but no tropical fruit. As well as eating them fresh and freezing juice and pulp, we were debating what best to do with the beautiful fruit on my Ponkan mandarin tree. He suggested the mandarin equivalent of limoncello. Bingo! A double reward, the fruit and the skins!

I went to our local bottle-o (off-licence or liquor store for non-Aussies) and asked for the cheapest, nastiest bottle of vodka they had. (Classically, it should be grappa, but that sort of thing is hard to find in rural north Queensland unless you make your own.) After he’d cracked up a little, the bloke behind the counter wanted to know why. Explanations followed, and I could see he was thinking about doing it himself. Spread the joy….

Anyway, one 750cl bottle of vodka later I selected 5 of the largest, most brilliant orange fruit and peeled them carefully. I took a small, sharp knife and scraped as much of the white pith from the back of the peels without pressing too hard as I didn’t want to lose any of the essential oil. The skins went into a large (possibly too large!) spring-top jar, and the vodka went on top. Into a cool, dark place for at least a week.

I couldn’t resist taking a peek yesterday. Look! The vodka is changing colour already as the essential oils in the skin migrate into the spirit. After a week, the colour will be a brilliant orange and the flavour will be intense, but possibly somewhat bitter. I’ll make a simple sugar syrup with white sugar (I don’t want to use brown as it’ll affect the lovely colour) and add as much as the flavour demands. I don’t want sweet, I just want the edge taken off any bitterness to mellow the flavour. And then into a smaller container with a screw top for storage. Possibly the original cheap and nasty bottle, which is quite a pleasing shape.

And in case you were wondering what I did with the fruit originally enclosed by those peels, I roasted them in the oven with a little water and a sprinkling of sugar. They have softened into a delicious tart and tangy sludge which goes beautifully with Greek yoghurt.

I’ll keep you posted on the progress.

Harvest

This year, it’s the turn of our mandarin tree to go bonkers.

Ponkan Mandarin fruit (Citrus reticulata)

It’s not a surprise, really, it’s a variety that’s well known for fruiting in alternate years. Last year, it was the mangoes that cropped spectacularly, but so far they’re showing no sign of flowering. The mandarin tree is smallish and tucked away in the corner, and I hadn’t even noticed flowers on it. A few months ago, I saw a load of dark green marble-sized fruit on it, and briefly thought “woo hoo!” and then promptly forgot about them again, till just a few weeks ago, when the now much larger fruit started to change colour. Usually, we wait till they start to fall of their own accord or the lorikeets start decimating them before we pick the fruit, but so far, there have been only two windfalls and no bird or fruitbat activity, so we decided to get out there and do battle with the green ants for them.

With green ants in the tree (and boy, are they IN the tree!), there’s a technique for picking the fruit without getting bitten a lot. You take a bucket half filled with water, a pair of long handled loppers and a grabby thing (you know what I mean, the doohickey you use for getting things down off high shelves). You grab the fruit with the grabber, cut it off with the loppers and dump it straight in the bucket of water, which drowns any ants silly enough to have come along for the ride. It sounds elaborate, but is a much more pleasurable experience than having the vicious little buggers run off the fruit, up your sleeve and then bite you hard on parts you can’t get at easily. Repeat till the bucket is full of fruit and water. Once in the kitchen, you remove any leaves and stalks, and then toss the water with the ants outside so the insect-eating birds can have a feed.

The fruits are huge for mandarins (my hands are not particularly small), the skins are very loose and easy to peel, and while there are usually half a dozen pips in each one, the flavour and juiciness is so fresh, intense and wonderful that you really don’t care! I’ve been busily looking up recipes for mandarin gelato, I’ll be making my mandarin syrup cake (minus the apricots) the Husband’ll be taking a couple of these to work in his lunchbox each day for a while, and I may freeze some juice and purée for winter consumption.

And that’s only the first crop. We have at least six more to go 🙂

A little less plastic

I’ve been trying to reduce how much plastic I use and then have to throw away.

I do recycle both hard and soft plastics, I don’t use plastic carrier bags in supermarkets, and now, I won’t need to use those flimsy single-use produce bags any more, hurray! I’ve put together a set of netting produce bags in different sizes, with a drawstring top. Washable, light and easy to see through. They can live in my heavy insulated fabric shopping bags. They’ll be getting a test run shortly, and if all is well, I’ll make a batch more.

I had an old roll of mosquito netting which was perfect for this, being stretchy and non-fraying, and there’s still plenty left for more bags, or replacements when these get a bit tired or start falling apart. The drawstrings are shoe laces, and I used a sewing machine stitch which combines a straight line and a zigzag to finish the edges a little – they don’t need it, but I like things tidy 🙂

I got the idea from Celia at Fig Jam & Lime Cordial. She’s a bit of a green superstar and recycling warrior among her many other talents, and her blog is well worth following if you don’t already do so.

Hmm. I think I need some different shapes. Rhubarb, cucumbers, kale, stuff like that…

We’re on the road again

Miz Lizzie is packed, our schedule is planned and printed, and we’re off.

We’re heading north once again, into a fortnight of gastronomic indulgence, experimentation, and purchase. We’ll be staying at two caravan parks we haven’t tried before but which come highly recommended.

Part 1 of the trip is from Mackay to just north of Townsville, at Rollingstone, where the van park has absolute beach frontage. We’ll be there a couple of days. Part 2 is Rollingstone to Redlynch in the north of Cairns, right where the rainforest rolls down to touch the edge of the city. It’s not what we’d call a long trip. To put it in some context, it’s like driving from London to Inverness, or from the bottom of Florida to the top. It’s just far enough that we’re really on holiday, the scenery’s different and yet, it’s not an arduous journey when we have to turn for home. (And despite a recent news story from the US that left Australians giggling, yes, all that is definitely just one country, and by the way, only a bit smaller than yours… 🙂 )

I’ll be photographing, blogging, tasting, sampling, buying, eating, stitching, oohing and aahing. You’re welcome along for the ride. As always with our trips, there’ll be pictures and descriptions. We’re looking forward to it a lot as we’re both a bit tired and ready for a break. It’s been a while since we had a decent chunk of time off – May last year to be exact, when we went down to Nambucca Heads in northern NSW.

And because each road trip needs a sound track, here’s Miz Lizzie’s theme song:

Dizzy Miz Lizzie

(There’s a version with John Lennon and Eric Clapton performing this too, but I prefer the 1958 original)

Cultivating the tiny

I’m giving fermentation another go.

I’ve tried fermentation before, with zero success. The red cabbage, apple and capsicum mixture that should have been tangy and tasty… wasn’t. It went nowhere. I could not achieve a bubbly result, despite following instructions to the letter, using filtered water and special non-iodised sea salt. Zilch. I moved on.

Six months ago, I got an infection of helicobacter pylori, the bug that lives in your stomach, gives you stomach ulcers and can, if not treated, lead long term to stomach cancer. It wasn’t nice, but the treatment was worse: brutally efficient, effectively wiping out most of my colony of useful gut bacteria. Since then, I’ve struggled a bit with my internal economy, and finally, I decided it was time to repopulate.

The other day, I acquired a dried kefir starter culture. I like yoghurt a lot, and kefir has a similar flavour profile, but about a million times more good bacteria if home made. (Commercial types tend to be pasteurised, which destroys most of the bugs you want.) Having made and enjoyed my kefir, I let a small second batch over-ferment so it started to separate into curds and whey. I tipped the whey off, and this was my starter for fermented vegies. You use one tablespoon of live whey per 500ml of filtered water, and this is the liquid in which you submerge your chopped, sliced or shredded vegies. I’m not a huge salt fan, and salt fermentation produces a result I find too strongly flavoured – sauerkraut being a case in point. The mild tang of whey fermentation is much more palatable and enjoyable, in my opinion. While the salt does keep the vegies crisper, it’s a benefit I’m willing to sacrifice for a flavour I prefer.

This is my setup: a large 2 litre glass spring-top jar, filled in this case with shredded red cabbage, small cauliflower florets and thinly sliced carrot batons. I tried the old folded cabbage leaf on the top trick to hold things under water, but the mixture was too lively, and when I came downstairs in the morning, the jar was sitting in a large puddle of pink liquid and the leaf was high and dry. So now I have a small glass jar filled with water as a weight. It’s just slightly less in diameter than the mouth of the big jar, so it will let the fermentation gases escape around the outside, but it’s heavy enough to keep everything down under water so nothing nasty can start growing. As the mixture ferments and air bubbles are released, the weight slowly sinks and liquid escapes. Once it reaches the flavour I like, I shall cap the jar and keep it refrigerated to slow everything right down. The liquid from the jar can be used as a starter for the next brew, or I can start fresh with whey from my kefir.

I’m happy to report that my insides seem to be enjoying the new regime now that my biome is being restored.

Amazing what a difference such tiny creatures can make.

 

Barbecue pulled pork, double quick

A while ago, I wrote extolling the virtues of my Schlemmertopf clay pot.

Sadly, a few months ago my $3 purchase cracked and fell apart when I put it on a surface that wasn’t quite insulated enough. Conflict between screamingly hot Schlemmertopf and room temperature metal trivet = catastrophic breakage. I’ve learned my lesson: the clay pot and its lid should always be put down on a thick layer of folded towel/oven mitt/pot holder. Having experienced the joys of clay pot cooking, I wasn’t prepared to do without one, so eBay to the rescue, and I’m now the proud owner of a Römertopf, the gold standard of clay pots. It’s much the same creature, except that it has the virtue of a glazed interior in the lower half so is much easier to clean, and it doesn’t retain odours so much as liquid from the inside doesn’t seep into the clay.

Well. We had the family coming round on Saturday night. What to feed them? I’d seen a Food Channel program on various US Southern-style barbecue dishes which didn’t actually involve a barbecue. It was all about flavour: rubs, sauces, long slow cooking. I wondered if some of the long and slow bit could be reduced by using the Römertopf.

That’ll be a yes… Result: tender, juicy, tasty pulled pork in 2 hours rather than 4. I did a Memphis-style version, using a dry rub rather than coating the meat with a wet marinade. On the side I served a home made barbecue sauce which, incidentally, is da bidness with ham, chicken, cheese, sausage…. well, you get the idea.

Oh, and the bread roll is home made, too…

Memphis-style pulled pork:

1 x 2kg (4½ pound) boned pork shoulder with all the fat and skin
¼ cup smoked sweet paprika
2 tblsp packed dark brown sugar
salt & pepper, good grind of each
½ – 1 tsp finely chopped red chilli, to taste
2 finely chopped cloves of garlic
Mix all these ingredients together. Take your boned pork shoulder, and fillet off the skin, reserving it for later. Score the remaining fat, then rub the meat all over with the seasoning mix. Put in a dish, cover with a lid or plastic wrap and leave in the fridge for at least 4 hours or preferably overnight. 2½ hours before you serve, soak your Römertopf in cold water for half an hour, and remove the meat from the fridge. Place the meat in the soaked clay pot, fat side up. Put it in a cold oven, then set at Gas 6/200°C/400°F for 2 hours. Remove from the oven, shred with 2 forks and leave to absorb the juices while you prepare the rest of the meal. Serves 6, with leftovers if they’re not too greedy.

I scored, oiled and salted the skin and roasted it in the oven on a rack, over a tray of white and sweet potato, pumpkin and carrot. The rendering fat basted the vegies and the crackling was thin, blistered and mega-crispy. Oh man…

Barbecue sauce:

½ cup packed dark brown sugar
½ cup tomato sauce (ketchup)
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
2 tsp smooth French mustard
2 tsp smoked sweet paprika
salt & pepper
½ – 1  red chilli, finely diced, to taste
½ small brown onion, finely diced
1 tblsp pomegranate molasses*
knob of butter
Sauté the onion and chilli in the butter. Add the sugar and tomato sauce, the mustard, paprika, salt and pepper and blend together with a wooden spoon. Add the apple cider vinegar and pomegranate molasses and stir in. Simmer for 5 minutes. Set aside to cool for 10 minutes, then place in the goblet of a stick blender and blend on full power till smooth. If the mix is too thick, you could add a teaspoon of water or sherry to slacken it. You want a consistency that will stick to the spoon and need to be shaken off, rather than a runny sauce. Serve on the side with the pork. It will keep for a good while in the fridge in a jar, due to the amount of sugar and vinegar in the mixture, which act as natural preservatives. But I can tell mine isn’t going to last, judging by how lavishly it’s getting used on just about every meat and sandwich right now…

*You could leave this out if you don’t have any, but it adds a tremendous tangy sweetness. Worth hunting out for all sorts of uses.

Anyway, the meal was enthusiastically consumed, and best of all, I still have leftovers of both the sauce and the pulled pork. You could do it the long way, in a roasting pan with the meat tightly covered with foil, roasted long and low. That’d be just as tasty.

It’s just that I prefer a slightly more instant gratification…