If you are a gardener you will know that gardens are a constant source of delight and surprises....although I have to admit that the surprises are not always good ones!
Over the past couple of weeks I've had both lovely and infuriating surprises from my garden. Often the surprises are not totally unexpected, you know that flowers will open and fruit will form imminently, you just don't know exactly when. I walked around the corner to the vege garden the other day to see this poppy, the first of the season, in all its glorious, brilliant pink, frilled beauty. It made my day.
That same day I noticed that the first of the season's capers were ready to pick. About six years ago I imported eight caper plants from a grower in South Australia. After going through customs and sitting at our mail depot for over a week in the December heat they weren't in great condition when they finally arrived. In fact, only two survived -just. These I tied a bow around and presented to my dad for Christmas. Under Dad's TLC they recovered and went on to thrive, producing great quantities of capers and caper berries. After much trial and error Dad managed to propagate many plants from seed, four of which I now have growing in my own garden. I have noticed that you can buy caper bushes from nurseries these days.
Capers are actually a very hardy and heat tolerant plant. If the buds are left on the bush, rather than plucked and pickled, their white flowers are elegant and orchid like. Tough and drought tolerant, caper plants are worth growing as an ornamental even if you're not inclined to make the salty little flavour bombs we know as capers. If you are planning to brine your capers I highly recommend planting your caper bushes in a raised bed because picking the buds daily is a bit of a back breaking job if they are at ground level.
Capers can be salted or brined. I know most chefs like the salted version but I find they lose too much plumpness and prefer the brined version. What I do is this;
For each cup of water add 5 teaspoons salt (ordinary cooking salt is fine) and stir until the salt is dissolved. Pour this into a screw top jar with a plastic lid (plastic doesn't corrode with the salt) and sit it on the bench. Just keep adding each day's pick to the jar until it is full. How many capers you add each day will depend entirely on how many plants you have. You may need to pour off a bit of the brine to fit the capers in. Leave the jar for about a week after the last lot of capers goes in before you use them. It's that easy!
In this photo the ones at the bottom of the jar are ready, the top ones are fresh picked.
Capers are a traditional accompaniment to corned meat but they also go really well in salads. The Italian bread and tomato salad, panzanella, gets a pleasing salty hit with the addition of capers but probably my favourite salad that contains them is the following one, which came to me originally from my step mum Jan and now makes a regular appearance at our table....and is great for lunch boxes! I'm sorry, I don't have a photo right now.
Red Lentil Curry Salad
Keeps well in fridge for a week
600 grams dried red lentils
140 grams currants
1/3 cup capers
1 red onion finely chopped
½ cup chopped parsley
Rinse the lentils, put in a pot, cover with water plus 2cm and bring to the boil. Boil for approx one minute then test. You may need a bit longer but be careful not to turn to mush. Strain and rinse. Pour into salad bowl and add capers and currants. Add finely chopped red onion and parsley. Pour over dressing while lentils are still warm.
250ml good olive oil
70ml red wine vinegar (I have used white wine vinegar with a splash of balsamic)
2 tblsp sugar
2 tsp sea salt
Ground black pepper to taste
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp mustard powder
1 ½ tsp curry powder
¼ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp cinnamon
So, on to the not so pleasant surprises...because it is so dry in the bush at the moment the animals (mainly sheep and kangaroos) are coming into the garden, lured by green lawn and, it seems, petunias and parsley! I woke up one morning last week to discover that a colourful tub of cascading petunias had been desecrated overnight :( The next day my parsley patch, which self seeds and grows abundantly under a lemon tree, was wiped out! The offenders, two ewes with three lambs between them, are now securely behind bars in the sheep yards and eating hay.