When life gives you lemons make tom kha gai, and surface spray

The Guardian
23 May 2020
By Palisa Anderson
‘When environmental conditions are so dire, trees gear up for their demise by throwing out more flowers and then fruit.’

While humans have been relatively powerless against fire and drought, Australian citrus trees have been plotting a season of abundance

You know the universe has a sense of humour when you see the abundance of citrus now falling onto the ground, without a market. When life gives you lemons … well it certainly has, by the tonne.

On our farm in the Northern Rivers, the conditions have been perfectly ripe. In the past 18-month cycle, and longer for many areas of Australia, we’ve endured drought and then fires and now Covid-19. We humans have been relatively powerless against all three, but the citrus trees have been plotting their abundance.

When environmental conditions are so dire, trees gear up for their demise by throwing out more flowers and then fruit – they do this to ensure progeny. Even if they don’t survive there will be future generations. All the more reason to love trees, selfless and optimistic.

So the drought broke and now four months later, we find ourselves with a bumper crop that, with hospitality still struggling, we are finding it hard to sell. The irony.

At all times of the year you can find a lemon or lime being flown into your local supermarket. Sometimes you just have to pay through the nose for it. Unless you are a restaurant using citrus all through the year, the price jumps are not too noticeable when you buy a couple of pieces a week. As a Thai restaurateur, I can tell you that the price has historically ranged between $1 to $20 per kg.

A Buddah’s hand citron – one of the more usual citrus varieties grown on Palisa Anderson’s farm.

We mark our seasons and years by them – 2016 summer was particularly perturbing, too much rain at the wrong time. At the $20 per kg pinnacle I decided to grow my own for the restaurants. Citruses ranging from Tahitian limes, sudachi, yuzu, eureka and Lisbon lemons, Makrut limes, Buddha’s hands, Seville oranges, all the oranges and mandarins, pomelos – how long is a piece of string? I could go on for another paragraph just listing the varieties of lemons.

Orchardists plant a multitude of varieties from one species to ensure fruit through the whole season – or in the case of the Northern Rivers – throughout the whole year. And so, here we are, with a glut of citrus.

If you’re a home grower in a similar position,with more fruit than you can handle even after sharing it with your neighbours, friends and family – I urge you to glean all the ripe fruit off as you go. Leaving ripe fruit to drop around your garden will not only encourage fruit flies, rodents and other insects, moulding fruit also releases mycotoxins which cause can cause health problems. Taking off all the fruit from the tree will also make it easier to prune.

Take the excess to your local café and perhaps they will even barter it for a coffee with you. Another lovely community spirited thing I’ve seen is people setting out a “free to take” bucket on the verge. Paying-it-forward kindness is the only way to repay nature for her generosity.

To preserve your abundance, perhaps you’ve made marmalades, pickled whole citrus, dried some mandarin peel chenpi-style, or dried whole limes à la Noomi basra, made glacèed oranges and dipped them in dark chocolate. Limoncello anyone?

You can even use citrus to clean. Place the remaining rinds of a juiced out lemons or limes into a glass jar and pour over distilled vinegar. Let this sit for two weeks, then strain it with a muslin, wringing out any excess liquid. Pour the liquid into a spray bottle, this safe homemade concoction can be used as a cleaning agent for the entire house – as a degreaser, glass cleaner or surface wipe.

After all that, you may wish to make tom kha gai, a universally popular dish otherwise known as chicken, coconut milk, lemongrass and lime soup that has its origins in the kingdom of Siam, otherwise known as Thailand.

Tom kha gai

Tom kha Gai, Thai galangal chicken coconut soup Photograph: ThitareeSarmkasat/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Serves 6 (as a starter with leftovers that can be kept refrigerated for 3 days)

  • 800g-1kg pastured whole chicken, cut into 10-14 pieces by you or your butcher – skin on and roughly the same size
  • 500ml coconut milk
  • 1lt coconut cream
  • 500ml chicken stock (or water if you don’t have stock)
  • 2 mature galangal roots, sliced into about 2cm discs and pounded lightly until crushed but still intact
  • 200g oyster mushrooms, or banana blossom, artichoke heart, or any delicate tasting soft veg you like
  • 2 young galangal roots, still pale and pliable, thinly sliced
  • 2 lemongrass stalks, white hearts only, thinly sliced on a diagonal
  • 10 makrut lime leaves, roughly torn
  • 6-8 tbs fish sauce
  • 8-10 tbs lime or lemon juice, whichever you have access to or a glut of
  • 10 bird’s eye chilies, sliced lengthwise
  • 4 whole corianders, roots cut off lightly smacked, the stems and greens finely chopped

Into a large pot bring coconut milk to a low boil and poach the chicken pieces for 10-20 minutes – this is dependant on how large your chicken pieces are, you only want to cook the chicken a little further than halfway.

Remove the chicken pieces into separate bowl and, keeping the coconut milk in the pot. Pour in the stock, half the coconut cream, the bruised, mature galangal slices, the tender, young galangal roots, bruised coriander roots and thinly sliced lemongrass hearts then bring to a low boil for 10 minutes or, so until you can start to smell the aromas emerging.

Add the chicken, and season with fish sauce – tasting it as you go. Let it simmer for another 5-10 minutes or until the chicken has completely cooked through. Add the other half of the coconut cream, oyster mushrooms, torn makrut lime leaves and chillies, then turn off the heat and add lime/lemon juice.

Serve out into bowl and garnish with chopped coriander stem and leaves.

Do me a favour will you? Next time you order from your local Thai take-away and they are kind enough to put in that wedge of lemon or lime with your fried rice or padt thai? Use it! Squeeze every last drop in to the dish it came with!

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