sustainable food Feed

Perfect porridge: Four easy steps to nutritious and frugal oat porridge

With a little preparation (and fermentation if you are game) - a bowl of nutritious porridge can be made in minutes. Little eco footprints

A hint of cool weather has me enjoying a bowl of porridge most mornings. Porridge may seem a time consuming everyday breakfast choice. But with a little preparation (and fermentation if you are game) - a bowl of nutritious porridge can be made in minutes.

Choosing your oats can be confusing.

Oat groats 9on the left) and rolled oats (right). Little eco footprints

There's groats, steel cut, rolled, quick – and I hesitate to even mention them – quick sachets or instant.

Oat groats. Little eco footprints

All these options start out as groats – the least processed option.

  • Oat groats are whole oat grains that have had their husk removed and are typically lightly steamed to increase shelf life.
  • Steel cut oats are made by cutting groats into pieces. 
  • Rolled oats are made by rolling groats flat. They are also steamed, unless you roll your own.
  • Quick oats are similar to rolled oats – but have been rolled thinly.
  • Quick sachets or instant oats have been chopped fine, flattened, pre-cooked, and dehydrated.

So which to choose?

Stick to groats, steel-cut or rolled – and you'll have yourself a hearty, satisfying and nutritious bowl of porridge.

There's no need for the quick oats – as regular rolled oats cook just as quickly if you soak them overnight. 

Buy in bulk to save money and reduce packaging

I save money by buying our oats in bulk. I buy Australian-grown organic groats and rolled oats in 5kg bags. It sounds like a lot of oats – but they keep in the pantry well and it means I need to buy breakfast cereal only every few months.

At around 45 g of oats per serve, a bowl of organic oat porridge can cost as little as 20 cents. Or even less if you buy through a bulk-buying co-op.

Here's four steps to a perfect porridge

Step 1. Soak or ferment.

Soaking oats overnight. Little eco footprints

The night before, or a day or two before for a fully fermented porridge, measure out your oats and water. Combine in a thick based saucepan if only soaking overnight or a glass bowl or jar if fermenting for longer.

For groats and steel cut oats, add ¼ cup of oats and 1 cup of water per person.

For rolled oats, add ½ cup oats and 1 cup of water per person.

The longer you soak or ferment – the quicker your oats will cook and the creamier and more nutritious your porridge will be.

You can speed up fermentation by adding a dash of whey, spoonful of sourdough starter or milk kefir. But it works just fine without adding these cultures. 

Cover loosely with a clean tea-towel and leave at room temperature at least overnight and up to two days (or alternatively you can try the perpetual soured porridge pot method). 

Step 2. Add spices, dried fruit, nuts or seeds

My favourite mix is (per person) around 1\4 teaspoon each of ground cinnamon and ginger, one cardamom pod and a tablespoon each of sultanas and almonds.

The options are almost unlimited.

Add your favourite dried fruits (figs, dates, apricots, or apple), nuts (walnuts, hazel nuts, or bunya nuts) and seeds (sunflower, pepitas).

I add these extras prior to soaking/fermentation to soften the dried fruits, activate the nuts and seeds, and sweeten the cooking liquid – but they can also be added just before cooking. 

Fermenting rolled oars by soaking for a day or two. Little eco footprints.

Bubbling fermenting rolled oats. Little eco footprints.
Bubbling fermented oats and sultanas ready to be cooked into creamy porridge. 

Step 3. Cook.

Add more water if needed, and simmer on low heat, stirring regularly.

Duration depends on the type of oats you are using and duration of soaking.

Rolled oats will cook in a couple of minutes. Steel cut take around 10 minutes, and groats take up to 20-30 minutes. Their chewy wholesome texture is worth the wait. Steel cut oats and groats will benefit from a few minutes sitting on the bench before serving. 

Another option is to thermal cook your porridge overnight. This works particular well for groats. The night before, bring oats to the boil and then place in a thermal cooker (effectively a big insulated pot). They will be warm and cooked in the morning.

Insulated food jar porridge. Little eco footprints

Alternatively, you can do something similar for a single-serve of porridge using an insulated food jar. This is a great option if you have to race out the door to work. In the morning, bring your oats to a boil and then place in the insulated food jar. An hour or so later, your porridge will be warm and perfectly cooked. 

Step 4. Add toppings.

Nourishing oat porridge made with rolled oats soaked overnight and topped with tahini, yoghurt and honey. Little eco footprints

I top my porridge with tahini, yoghurt and honey.

Other healthy options include fresh fruit, stewed fruit, butter, ghee, cream, dairy or nut milks, molasses, maple syrup, or coconut flakes.

No two bowls of porridge ever need to be the same.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 20th April 2015.

If you are interested in learning more about soaking or fermenting your grains, I highly recommend Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon and Wild Fermentation or the Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz.

Rhonda from Down to Earth recently wrote about soaking oats - and shared childhood recolections of soaking being common practice. Somewhere along the way we got impatient and decided to skip this important step. 


Bunya nut bounty: How to process and cook Australian native bunya nuts

How to shell bunya nuts. Little eco footprints

Bunya nuts would have to be one of the most under-appreciated Australian bush foods. I’ve been enjoying an abundance of bunya nuts and have been surprised by how delicious and versatile they are. I’ve eaten bunya nuts every day for more than a week and thanks to a stash in the fridge will continue feasting for a few more weeks.

The fruit of the Bunya pine tree is full of edible and nutritious nuts. Little eco footprints

Feasting on the fruit of the majestic Bunya Pine (Araucaria bidwillii) is nothing new. Thousands of Australian Aboriginal people would gather in the mountains of south-east Queensland during bumper bunya nut seasons. Tribes came together from afar to feast on the nutritious nuts, exchange stories, trade, socialise, and resolve issues.

Tribes would leave nourished and connected after feasting for many weeks.

The last great bunya gathering was in 1887. The tradition was revitalised in 2007 and the Sunshine Coast Bunya Dreaming festival is now an annual event. I love the idea of feasts being used to build community and revitalise culture.

Despite growing naturally only in Queensland, huge old Bunya Pine trees can be found in parklands across the east coast Australia.  The ornamental qualities of this majestic giant, which can grow up to 45 m tall, saw it planted in many parklands and botanic gardens.

Jorge Tlaskal shelling bunya nuts from a tree he planted 25 years ago. Little eco footprints

Twenty-five years ago, Jorge Tlaskal planted a couple of Bunya Pines in his garden at Bulga in the Hunter Valley. He waited 24 years for his trees to produce nuts. I was fortunate to help Jorge collect and process the last of this season’s cones. 

Foraging australian native nunya nuts. little eco footprints

In late summer Bunya Pine trees drop huge cones the size of a bowling ball – and almost as heavy. So it’s best not to loiter under trees when gathering cones.

Gathering bunya nut bush tucker. Little eco footprints

How to open bunya nuts

To get at the nuts you need to pull the cone apart and peel the tough husk away from the seed. It’s best to do this as soon as you can as the husk becomes harder to remove as it dries.

The nut is encased in a super-hard shell. Nuts within intact shells can be stored in the fridge for weeks. The longer you store, the sweeter they become. Aboriginal people would store them in dilly bags placed in running water and would also ferment or sprout them by burying them in holes covered in mud or dirt (a nice overview of Australian aboriginal storage and uses can be found here).

Bunya nuts opened by boiling in water until the shell softens and splits. Little eco footprints

Opening the hard shell is a challenge. You can gently crack the shell with a hammer or rock and roast in the oven or on coals until the shell splits in two. Or you can boil in water until the shell softens and splits (pictured above).

Or there’s Jorge’s ingenious method:

Opening bunya nuts using a pair of garden loppers in a vice. Little eco footprints

Jorge quickly and easily cuts the shells in half using a pair of garden loppers held in place using a vice.

Bucket of bunya nuts. Little eco footprints

Within minutes we cut through a bucket of nuts.

Bunya nuts being removed from their cut shell. Little eco footprints

The nut can then be easily removed from the shell with a teaspoon.

Opening bunya shells with a pair of sharp garden secateurs. Little eco footprints.

A pair of sharp garden secateurs works just as well, but is a little more time consuming.

Bunya nut cotyledon. Little eco footprints

I've read one mention of the cotyledon in the centre of the nut (pictured above) not being edible. Most sources claim the entire nut is edible - which makes sense as there is no mention of the Australian aboriginal removing the cotyledon during preparation. Indeed, they presumably preferentially ate the cotyledon (which becomes the first first leaves of a seedling) when they sprouted the nuts. 

I removed the cotyledon the first few times I ate bunya nuts. Then I ate them with the cotyledon - and noticed no noticeable difference. I no longer bother removing the cotyledon. 

The nuts are safe to eat raw but are much tastier cooked. 

They have a unique flavour and texture, similar to white sweet potato or chestnut.

There’s a myriad of ways to cook bunya nuts

Stir-fried bunya nuts cooked with garlic. Little eco footprints

I like eating them simply stir-fried in olive oil with loads of garlic and a sprinkling of salt. Or boiled and served with a dollop of butter.

They can be baked in pancakes, biscuits, breads and cakes.

Bunya nut flat bread pikelets. Little eco footprints

I made delicious flat breads - influenced by how they were traditionally eaten by aboriginal people: ground and made into a paste which was roasted in hot coals to make a bread. To make these mini flat breads I processed raw nuts to a fine paste, added a little yoghurt, and fried small patties of the mix in a cast iron pan. Served with loads of honey they were delicious.

Buckwheat and oat groat porridge with bunya nuts. little eco footprints

Bunya nuts are also a delicious addition to porridge. I soaked the nuts overnight with buckwheat, oat groats, dates and spices and cooked briefly in the morning. Delicious. The bunya nuts reminded me of macadamia nuts. 

They are also delicious snacked on as pesto or with dips.

Or used in pasta sauce, casseroles, soups and stir-fries.

Bunya nuts served as a pasta alternative gnocci style. Little eco footprints

Bunya nuts are particularly good boiled and served as an alternative to pasta - juts like you would serve gnocci. 

Pan roasted vegetables and bunya nuts. little eco footprints

Eggs with a side of bunya nuts. Little eco footprints

They are also a great addition to a quick meal of pan roasted vegetables or as a side for eggs. 

Planting Bunya Pines as a perennial food tree

The bunya nut is so versatile I’m considering planting a few Bunya Pines - kind of like an extreme permaculture perennial food forest. I can imagine the family feast 24 years from now.

Bunya pines can live for an amazing 500 years.

I like the idea of my descendants 17 generations from now – enjoying fruit from a tree I planted. My great great-great-(you get the picture)-grandchild could collect nuts from my tree.

That’s a dream worth having.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 9th March 2015.


Foraging wild food - prickles, patience and practice

Prickly Pear fruit. Little eco footprints

Foraging is more than simply gathering free food. It can fulfil an innate urge to collect and is surprisingly rewarding. But it can take a while to get used to the unusual and variable flavours.

How to forage Prickly Pear. Little eco footprints

I've found that prickles, patience and practice are part of the process when learning how to forage food.

"Collecting wild foods is deeply rooted in our nature," wrote Adam Grubb and Annie Raser Rowland in The Weed Forager’s Handbook. For the vast majority of human history, we have been hunter-gatherers, dependent on our ability to forage. "Reconnecting with the original function of our foraging impulses helps us satiate them before they erupt into a house full of unused kitchen gadgets, shoes, or an LP jazz collection," wrote Adam and Annie.

By fulfilling an impulse to search, identify, collect and prepare, foraging can help us be content with what we have rather than yearn for more.

Foraging isn't without risks and hassles. Thankfully there are loads of resources, both online and in books (My favourite beginner foraging books include this one, this one and this one), which can help you get started (Weedy greens are a great place for beginners to start).

There’s also a long list of rules and tips that will ensure you don’t accidentally eat something that is poisonous, contaminated with herbicides or laden with heavy metals.

How to forage Prickly Pear fruit Australia. Little eco footprints

Once you make your way though the long list of rules and finally taste your previously forbidden fruit, you may discover you don’t like the taste, because the taste of wild foraged food can take a while to get used to.

"The first time you taste a new food, your tongue is naturally suspicious, especially of bitter flavours. Those of you who remember your first tastes of beer or coffee will know what we mean. It’s often only after you eat a new food, sleep, and wake up alive and well, that your tongue is willing to appreciate its nuances," wrote Adam and Annie.

The taste of wild foods can also vary between plants. Wild foraged food isn’t predictable like the cultivated food you’ll find in the supermarket. As Adam and Annie say: "Be persistent. Don’t be put off by one experience with a weed that’s been too tough, sour or bitter for your taste. It may taste quite different growing in a different spot."

How to forage Prickly Pear fruit. Little eco footprints

I've experienced this variation when foraging Prickly Pear fruit. I’d read that its flavour is like a cross between all-natural bubblegum and watermelon, or like raspberries and watermelon with kiwifruit. But each time I tasted the fruit, I found it bland and definitely not worth the prickles. However, prickly pear is abundant in my neighbourhood, so I persisted. Then finally, I harvested some delicious fruit without getting a single prickle. My persistence and practice paid off.

Prickly Pear weed Australia. Little eco footprints

Preparing foraged Prickly Pear pads nopales. Little eco footprints

I've had a similar experience with prickly pear pads. Known as nopales, prickly pear pads are popular in Mexican cuisine.

How to prepare nopales Prickly Pear pads. Little eco footprints.

IMG_5994

The first time I tasted them, I didn't like their sour flavour and slimy, mucilaginous texture. The meal wasn't worth the laborious process of carefully picking and preparing the prickly pads. But again, I persisted and practised and discovered that boiling in water is the key to reducing their slimy texture.

Cooking Nopales. Prickly Pear pads. Little eco footprints.

Nopales con huevos. Prickly Pear pads with scrambled eggs. Little eco footprints.

I recently made a classic Mexican meal – nopales con huevos. Or scrambled eggs and prickly pear. It was edible.

I wouldn't say I love prickly pear pads, but I'm going to persist. There’s still a long list of Mexican nopales recipes to try. Tortillas with cactus and cheese is next.

I'm pleased that I'm fulfilling more than my appetite when I serve foraged foods because otherwise I’d likely stick to scrambled eggs sans the prickly pads.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 16th February 2015.


How you can help Shepherds Ground grow

I’ve been watching with interest the progress of a proposed rural land sharing community here in the Hunter Valley.

The Shepherds Ground Village and Farm is forging ahead and provides an inspiring model for how communities can live and produce food sustainably.

Port Stephens Council has granted development consent and almost half of the 29 memberships have already sold.

Shepherds Ground members (from left) Marco Forman, Leonore Bastow,  Lucie Bruvel and Lucie's son Angelo. With the Sheherds Ground site in the background. Tricia Hogbin-800x534

This project makes me almost disappointed I already own a rural property.  Otherwise I’d be buying a membership. For less than what we paid for our nine-acre powerless property with no home and no water, members get a brand new sustainable home overlooking more than 200 acres of productive farmland and restored bushland. 

Members will also have access to their own large garden plot or can be part of the co-operative that will establish a diverse and sustainable biodynamic farm. There’s also a community hall, commercial kitchen, and plans for a bakery, apiary and market garden.

The village lifestyle is one of the main attractions for Lucie Bruvel (pictured above, second from right), one of the key drivers of the project. ‘‘I’ve lived in communities and small villages in Europe and love the sense of connection and co-operation that comes with village life. There’s always someone to share a meal with or mind the children,’’ Lucie said. 

Shepherds ground village and farm plans

There’s a diverse range of people and ages joining as members, ‘‘all with a common willingness to become part of a greater movement towards a simpler more healthy and connected way of life’’.

They already have half-a-dozen families with children and Lucie tells me they are considering getting a community bus to transport the kids to nearby schools.

One of the most exciting aspects of the project is that it will facilitate the restoration and sustainable farming of a heavily grazed and degraded piece of land that would otherwise be beyond the financial reach of most farmers.

Without the Shepherds Ground project, the property would most likely be  bought by a wealthy tree-changer and become a picturesque weekender. 

The 29 village sites help to fund the purchase of the farmland so that it can grow food and support the dreams of aspiring young farmers. 

Marco Forman, one of the young farmers that will create a sustainable and diverse biodynamic farm at Shepherds Ground. Tricia Hogbin-800x534

Being able to farm, without taking on a huge financial burden that forces unsustainable farming practices is what attracted biodynamic enthusiast Marco Forman to the project. He  is looking forward to being part of the team that establishes a sustainable mixed farm. ‘‘There’s enough space for multiple small farming enterprises that can grow food, not only for the village, but the broader community as well,’’ Marco said. 

We can all help this worthwhile project suceed

I love that the Shepherds Ground team are generously allowing everyone to be involved in this exciting project.

I’ve signed up as a Friend of Shepherds Ground and have also donated to their current crowd-funding campaign.

The campaign closes at the end of February and is the final push to raise the remaining funds to buy the land and make this dream a reality.

If we all donate a little, we can give this worthwhile project a big boost.

Donate to this not-for-profit project here.  

(Long-time readers will know that I rarely suggest ways for you to part with your money.  I'm making an exception for this project because I believe it will be a valuable model for how we can grow food sustainably and also live meaningful and healthy lives). 

The Edwards in Newcastle is hosting an evening get-together 21 February to help raise funds for the current campaign. It will provide an opportunity to find out more about the project and meet like-minded people. Anyone is welcome.

For more information and to contribute to the funding campaign visit shepherdsground.com.au. 

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 9th February 2015.


Understanding the true cost of cheap food

Our roosters Limpy and Roostie. Understanding the true cost of cheap food. Little eco footprints

It's easy to not appreciate the true cost of our food when it’s so cheap. The full ethical and environmental costs aren’t included in the "Cheap, cheap. Down, down" prices you’ll find at the supermarket or fast food outlet. This undervaluing of our food causes a cycle of increased food waste, continued environmental degradation, and far from ideal farming practices. Thankfully, once you become more connected to your food, cheap undervalued food becomes easier to resist. 

Australian households waste more than $5 billion worth of food each year. This waste is not only costing our hip pocket, it’s costing the environment.

Greenhouse gasses are being emitted, land cleared, and water guzzled – to grow good food that ends up being tossed in the bin. 

Most of us know that food waste is wrong – yet plenty of us still waste food – and feel guilty about it.

It’s easy to find tips for reducing food waste. We can meal plan, write a shopping list, store our food properly, and embrace leftovers. But behaviour change can be challenging if your heart isn’t in it.

Truly understanding where your food comes from can provide the motivation needed to avoid cheap food and reduce food waste.

Bethany Turner,  a researcher from the University of Canberra, studied the food waste behaviours of consumers and found that "people who grow some of their own food go to great lengths to prevent food waste.  These consumers speak of the time, effort and care that underpins food production,  and are motivated to avoid waste out of respect for the food itself as well as its producer". 

Processing our rooster. Understanding the true cost of cheap food. Little eco footprints

I felt this strong motivation to avoid food waste at all cost when I recently processed one of my roosters.  The value of chicken meat in my mind has increased exponentially. 

We raised our two roosters from eggs, and despite my original plan being to process the roosters for meat, I chickened out. I fell in love with both of them.  "Soup" and "Stock" were saved from the pot and were renamed "Roostie" and "Limpy".

But then the crowing competition began. They were trying to out-crow each other – all day – from 4 am.

So in the interest of being a good neighbour we decided one of them had to go. Roostie, the most frequent crower, reverted back to his original name – Soup.

So almost a year after learning how to process chickens at Buena Vista Farm, I finally found the courage to process one of my own chooks. Kind of.  Daddy Eco thankfully did the deed and I managed the plucking and gutting.

Given the effort we put into raising him from an egg, feeding and eventually butchering him, I made the most of his nutritious and delicious meat.

He became four meals. 

Connecting with our food. Rooster coq au vin. Little eco footprints.

The first meal was a coq au vin inspired casserole and I served leftovers the following day.

Making rooster bone broth. Little eco footprints

Then I used his bones (plus feet and gizzard) to make a super healthy bone broth which became a delicious chicken and vegetable soup that fed us for two more meals.

I’m not suggesting you go out and grow your own roosters to process. Perhaps you can grow a pot of carrots or lettuce. If you do,  I’m sure you’ll be less likely to toss slightly floppy carrots and you’ll be carefully storing your lettuce so that it stays crisp as long possible.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 2nd February 2015.