One of the first reminders that spring is just around the corner is that happy moment when you find the first chook egg nestled so snugly in the straw. We suspected that this would be the case judging by the sound the young Isa brown in question made when she laid this smallish, yet perfectly formed sphere. It's hard to articulate it in people-speak, but, judging by the sound she made, which woke us up thinking a fox had just got into the yard and was strangling her, it might go something like this: ''WTF? Argh!''
It certainly sounded like it was a surprise and this was the last thing she thought would happen today. Generally, we buy new pullets just before winter for this very occurrence, eggs in spring. I'm not sure why, but chickens really don't like laying their first egg until it warms up some. It is a little early this year, which relates to the very warm July, apparently the warmest on record. This also jolts me into action getting the vegie garden ready again.
As always, big plans. I lie there thinking of rows and rows of heirloom tomatoes, each more unusual that the other, corn rows swaying in the summer breeze, zucchini flowers bursting open their bright yellow blooms each morning and buckets full of raspberries in the evening.
Yes, big plans, but first I've got to see if the young chook is OK. You do feel like a king having enough eggs to give away. Four or five chickens seems to be the sweet spot for a family of four. You get about two dozen a week so there's plenty for weekend pancakes, poached eggs and then some for a bespoke cake or that noodle dish.
Having too many eggs does mean you can launch into making fresh pasta, which is the plan. I really love the process. It still amazes me that just some flour and eggs, a little salt and elbow grease turns out these soft, bright-yellow strands of goodness. I've been quite keen to go one step further this year, in my never-ending quest to make stuff from scratch.
While I haven't yet worked out how to grow wheat here, I can mill wheat with my well-used Thermomix. It's one of the demonstrations you'll get when investigating buying one of these machines that, sure, you can do without, but once you have one, there is so much cool stuff you can do. It's like having a another set of hands in the kitchen.
Also, on the theme of spring has sprung, the first vegetable to arrive at the markets that speaks of warming weather is the artichoke. Not the knobbly Jerusalem version, which is around, too, but more the globe, which you should be planting now, in a protected area for next year's flowers.
I remember my first time trying to cook this flower bud. This was a long time ago - Supertramp was on the radio, Bob Hawke took over and hair was big. I stood looking at this globe artichoke, which cost so much and it seemed impossible to achieve anything that was remotely edible. And those pickled versions in large jars at the deli really seemed to only taste of the oil they are preserved in. So it took years to work out that you are going to have to remove just about all the outer leaves and stalk to get to the soft flesh and then cook it well.
It's certainly a labour of love, but once you hit on the technique, braised artichokes are a great wedge between winter and summer. You can bung in silverbeet or kale, parsnip or turnip, bright green broad beans or peas, the first asparagus.
It's all cooked down in a stock to yield a mixture of textures and flavours and then tossed in fresh pasta. You can start to eat outside under the warmth of an outdoor heater and make plans for summer.
Fresh egg pasta with braised artichoke, silverbeet, broadbeans and asparagus
olive oil as required
3 cloves garlic, smashed and roughly chopped
1 red onion, diced
100ml white wine
2 cups chicken stock
salt and pepper
6 globe artichokes
1 bunch silverbeet, leaves removed and stems sliced thick
2 parsnips, peeled and sliced lengthways into quarters
2 bunches thick asparagus, woody ends removed chopped
handful shelled broad beans or fresh peas
200g pancetta, diced and sauted briefly
chopped flat-leaf parsley
Heat about 50 millilitres oil in a roasting tray, saute garlic and onion until soft, add wine and reduce by a third, then add stock. Season and stir in butter.
Prepare artichokes by removing thick outer leaves until they appear pale, cut across the globe to remove the rest of the thicker leaves and scoop out any fibrous material. Peel the stems from the globe down about four centimetres. Rub each with lemon as you prepare them. Place in chicken stock so that the globes are submerged and the stems stick out - you will need a pot or pan that will fit them comfortably.
Cover with foil so you end up with a tent, simmer gently for half an hour or until the artichokes are cooked through. If you pierce them just below the head, the knife tip should easily push through. Remove the artichokes, quarter lengthways and set aside, covered, until needed.
Heat the stock again, reduce a little and add the silverbeet stems and parsnips. Cook for 10 minutes and add asparagus, peas and/or broadbeans, along with the sauteed pancetta and silverbeet leaf. Return the artichokes to the pan.
The stock should have reduced down to a thick, saucy consistency. Once ready, check for seasoning and toss through the hot pasta.
Garnish with parsley and black pepper.
Fresh egg pasta
4 cups plain flour
4 large eggs
Make a mound with the flour and in the centre make a well where you can fit the eggs, season with plenty of salt and then start to incorporate the flour using a fork. The trick is to do it quickly but in a way that the flour and eggs form a manageable sticky mass of dough. With a dough scraper, gently fold in the extra flour until it becomes a firm-yet-pliable mass.
It's a good idea now to remove any extra flour, which can be sifted on to the clean kitchen counter. This removes any hard lumps that will affect the way the dough rolls out. Pass through a pasta roller with the rollers set as far apart as they can go, dust with flour, fold into a third of its size and repeat a few more times, turning the pasta 90 degrees each time until it starts to look smooth.
The process now is to stretch the dough by closing in the rollers, one notch at a time and, between each, dust with flour. This dish can handle thick-cut pasta, so you can either cut it with a pastry wheel into wide pappardelle or run through the tagliatelle rollers. Dust with flour to keep separate. Cook in vigorously boiling, well-salted water until it rises, which will only take a minute or so.
>> Bryan Martin is the winemaker at Ravensworth and Clonakilla, bryanmartin.com.au.