Lots of things to do with tomatoes

San Marzano tomatoes

With the beautiful weather of the past few days my tomatoes have been ripening well, and today, when I actually should have been working hard but was procrastinating wildly, I went out into the garden to pick some of the Italian San Marzano tomatoes (seeds were from Seeds of Italy/Franchi).    As procrastination is the mother of invention, I decided to make passatta and to improve on my slightly lacklustre version of oven-dried tomatoes from last week.

making passata

The passatta was amazingly simple.   I chopped up up all the tomatoes in chunks and added in a couple of sprigs of fresh basil (no quantities really – just as many as you can into a big heavy saucepan).   Then I put them over a medium heat, turning it down after about 5 or 10 minutes when they’d started to break up.   I simmered the tomatoes on a lower heat for about 30-40 minutes until they were really broken down and mushy.  When the mixture had cooled down a bit I put it through a rotary mouli to get rid of the skin and pips.  (This is what a mouli looks like if you’re not sure)  It was so much easier and quicker than putting it through a sieve.    At that point I should have simmered them down some more, gently friend some onions in olive oil with maybe a touch of garlic and then liquidised that and added it to the tomatoes.   But my daughter wanted to know what was for supper so I came up with this:

Tomato, chilli & pancetta pasta (serves 3-4)

75g diced pancetta (I used one of those supermarket packs)
400-500ml or 2 cups pureed tomatoes (or a can of tomatoes)
1 red onion, chopped
1-2 cloves of garlic
olive oil
1 red chilli
handful of fresh basil leaves
handful of black olives (without stones, halved)

In a large saucepan or frying pan  fry the pancetta in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil until slightly crispy but not too dried out.   Add the chopped onion and cook over a medium heat for about 5 minutes until translucent, add the chopped garlic and about half of your basil leaves.   Adding some of the basil at this point means that the flavour infuses into the oil.   Also add a chopped red chilli, deseeding it if you don’t want it to be too hot. Stir for a couple of minutes to soften the garlic.   Add the pureed tomatoes and the olives. Add the remainder of the basil now. Season to taste.  Simmer for ten minutes over a low heat while you boil up the pasta.

Serve with parmesan grated over the top if you want it (but its not essential).   This got wolfed down so quickly by the kids that I didn’t have a chance to take a photo, but I’m on pain of death to make it again, so I’ll try to upload a photo later.

Chilli Russian Roulette

The chilli on the right was the one that made it into the sauce.   Rather stupidly I forgot to label the chillies when I planted them out from their Jiffy 7s into proper pots.  Some were hot varieties and others weren’t, so its now a case of Russian Roulette.   Luckily these were perfect – they had a bit of a kick if you left the seeds in but were quite mild otherwise.  Fine for a slightly squeamish thirteen year old who doesn’t like hot things.

All the while the Principe Borghese tomatoes were drying in the oven.  Very slowly.  At about 110C, for about 3 hours, maybe more.   All the while the work I actually needed to do was piling up.



Posted in autumn recipes, basil, chillies, Quick suppers, seasonal food, tomatoes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Indian summer, Italian food

Simple but delicious - home grown tomatoes and basil with mozzarella

Unbelievable weather in Kent over the past few days.   My San Marzano and Principe Borghese tomatoes which I rashly decided to try growing outdoors this year, have been putting on a great ripening spurt.    The Principe Borghese are delicious with a very distinctively pointy bottom.

Ripening Principe Borghese tomatoes

The San Marzano I’ve been oven-drying at a very low heat – about 140C – for nearly an hour, with a little thyme and olive oil sprinkled over the top.  I intend to use them as a base for a pasta dish, but the first batch I did proved too tempting and I ate them just as they were with bread.   If I can resist it next time I’ll post up the recipe!

Mainly San Marzano tomatoes ripening (a few Tigerella in the background, I think)

Posted in Gardening, tomatoes | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Favourite summer salad



The summer holidays are drawing to an end, my daughter went back to school today and my son follows on Wednesday.    In the summer on my days off from work we love eating meze style lunches outside.    Our top favourite lunch – requested at least 2-3 times a week is based on mozzarella and parma ham usually with seasonal fruit.   It’s inspired by a recipe in one of the early Jamie Oliver books, which he called The Easiest Sexiest Salad in the World, but over the years I’ve tweaked it and adapted it according to what I have available.   Its stretching a point really to say this one comes from my garden – only the basil did, the rest was from Co-op, but it’s still delicious.   It’s also incredibly quick and easy.

Favourite summer salad 

Enough for 3-4

2 Mozzarella balls
4 slices of Parma Ham (also delicious with Pata Negra)
Handful of basil leaves
Bunch of Flat Leafed Parsley – optional
2-3 peaches or 6 figs or half a melon – optional

For the dressing:
Juice of 1/2 a Lemon
tsp Runny Honey
2 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Drain the mozzarella and break into chunks.    Tear the parma ham into smaller bits (this normally happens anyway automatically when you get it out of the packet) and drape artistically around the mozzarella.   If using peaches cut each peach into 6-8 slices and arrange.   If using figs (which is our real favourite version, but only really available in Sept/Oct) slice a cross in the top – you don’t want to cut them in quarters just go half way down, and then push in at the sides so that the dressing will sink down into the juicy fig.   With melon – slices rather than big chunks probably looks best.

Sometimes if I don’t have any of the right sort of fruit in the house I use flat leaf parsley like a salad leaf – I don’t chop it up, just break it up a bit into leaves and scatter over the top.    Tear basil leaves over the top liberally.

For the dressing put all the ingredients together into a jam jar and shake until the honey is dissolved.   Drizzle over the salad.    Its quite a lot of dressing but it always gets mopped up with bread afterwards.

I usually serve this as part of a very simple mezze – bread, olives, tomatoes, maybe some hummus and tabbouleh or other salads from the garden.

Posted in basil, recipes with meat, salads, summer recipes | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pickled Cucumber salad

Cucumbers and squash growing vertically

With unlimited appetite but only limited space I’ve been experimenting with growing some crops vertically.   I bought a very cheap arch from B&Q and planted the legs into the soil next to the fence.   The bench is made of a couple of piles of bricks and an old plank.   It faces south-west so its a perfect spot to sit in the late afternoon sun.    The main reason I put it in was that I was really keen to grow uchiki kuri squash (also known as onion squash).   I’d read somewhere that as they only grow to about the size of a large grapefruit it was possible to grow them vertically, and so I thought it would be worth a try.   I love squash and I think that the uchiki kuri is one of the best flavoured as well as being an ideal size.   Crown Prince is also delicious and is a beautiful greeny grey on the outside but its much larger and unless you’re careful you tend to end up with three-quarters of an uneaten squash taking up all the space in the fridge for weeks as it gradually moulders away and is then thrown on the compost.

Uchiki Kuri squash

The plants are growing well up the frame but have needed lots of twisty tie (rubber coated wire ties) to support them and to encourage the leader to grow upwards.    Some of the mini squash have started to set behind the flower only to rot a few weeks later but I’ve got at least three big healthy looking squash like this and a few others which I’m hoping will grow and ripen up more if we have a good September.

Cucumber and sweet peas

On the other side of the arch I’ve got cucumbers growing up amongst sweet peas.   They were an impulse buy at the local garden centre so I’ve got no idea what variety they are.  One is smooth and tasty, the other is prickly and has been variable – some of the prickly cucumbers were delicious but others were quite bitter.    Apparently its to do with having both male and female flowers on the plant?    As well as the obvious – chopping them up in green salads – a friend of mine made this one evening and it was so simple and delicious that I’m sharing it.

Pickled cucumber salad

2 cucumbers
100 ml white wine vinegar
100g caster sugar
sea salt

Peel the cucumbers and slice into thin ribbons using a mandolin or a vegetable peeler.   Sprinkle with salt and leave for 10 minutes to draw out the juices.

Heat together the vinegar and sugar over a low temperature until the sugar has dissolved.  Leave to cool.

Rinse the salted cucumber several times to get rid of the excess salt and dry.

Pour the cooled vinegar over the cucumber and leave to pickle for half an hour.    Turn several times during this period to ensure that the vinegar is coating all the cucumber.  At first it looks as though there isn’t nearly enough vinegar but don’t worry, the vinegar will draw more moisture out of the cucumber which will diminish in volume.       Drain the mixture and serve.     My friend served this with freshly caught and barbecued mackerel and they were delicious together, but its equally lovely in a sandwich with freshly picked tomatoes and cheese.

Pickled cucumber salad

Posted in cucumbers, Gardening, seasonal food, squash, summer recipes, vegan recipes, vegetarian recipes | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Things to do with a hill of beans

As I sit writing this, the final broad beans of the season are bubbling away in a pan on the hob.    The bed they were in was straggly and messy and I finally bowed to the inevitable and pulled them all out.

The broad beans looking a bit sorry for themselves

As well as tasting wonderful, broad beans are part of the legume family so their roots harbour the Rhizobia bacteria which converts atmospheric nitrogen into a form that can be used by plants in the soil.   So in a traditional crop rotation nitrogen hungry veg like potatoes, spinach or leafy brassicas are planted in the bed vacated by the legumes to take advantage of the nitrogen.

My gardening books told me to chop the beans off at ground level so that the nitrogen fixed in the nodules on the roots will stay in the soil, but some of my broad bean plants are big old beasts, so I pulled them up – carefully breaking off the nodules and dropping them back into the soil.   I find that once I’ve overcome the initial reluctance to change and started to do something radical it can be quite satisfying to raze a bed to the ground.

Broad beans gone - Cavolo Nero in their place

In just over an hour the beans were out, the bed was hoed and replanted.   There are three Cavolo Nero plants which have been sitting patiently in yoghurt pots and three which had been in with the brussel sprouts but had been overcrowded.   I also planted two rows of Swiss Chard and two rows of Perpetual Spinach.   I even persuaded my son to make me a cup of tea, so it really was a day of great achievements!

Back in the kitchen the shelling of the big old broad bean pods took a while.  I separated them into the huge monsters which I’m going to make into Broad Bean Hummous and the smaller tastier ones.   The smaller ones were the ones bubbling away in the pot when I started writing.   I blanched them (boiled for just over a minute and then plunged into cold water with ice cubes in to stop the cooking).   The icy water helped make the skins wrinkle so they’ll be easier to skin.   I’ll freeze most of them and save a few for one of my favourite risottos…

Broad Bean and Pancetta Rissotto (enough for 3-4)

Making risotto requires a bit of patience, and lots of stirring, rather calming at the end of a busy day, if you’re in the right sort of mood.

Broad beans – couple of handfuls – skinned if they’re big and you can be bothered
100g Pancetta
Chicken stock – about a litre
300g Risotto Rice – Carnaroli or Arborio
1 Onion
2 cloves of garlic
2 sticks of celery
Olive oil
Glass of white wine
Salt & Pepper
chives or parsley

Put a couple of tablespoons of olive oil into a frying pan and add the chopped pancetta. Fry over a medium heat until slightly crispy.  Turn the heat down slightly (add a knob of butter here if you care more about taste than your waistline), add the chopped onion and sweat until translucent and just beginning to colour.  Chop the celery quite small and chop or mince the garlic.  Add to the pan and cook for a couple of minutes.

Put your stock in a pan on the hob next to your frying pan and heat through.   It should be hot but not boiling when its added to the rice.

Next add the rice to the pan and stir for a minute or two to coat the grains with the oil.   Don’t be tempted to add the stock immediately, you need to briefly saute the rice in the oil at this point until it goes slightly translucent but doesn’t colour.   Next add a glass of dry white wine and stir until fully absorbed.   Add the hot chicken stock, a ladle at a time, stirring throughout as the liquid is absorbed.   Don’t pour all the stock in at once.   After each ladle, allow it to be absorbed before adding the next ladle, but not dry and sticking to the bottom of the pan.  The stirring helps the rice to release its starches to make the risotto creamy.   The whole process will take about 15-20 minutes, during which time you shouldn’t really do anything else except stirring, although you should be able to wash some salad leaves for a salad.     After about 10 minutes add your broad beans so that they will cook with the rice in the stock for the last five minutes.

After the last ladle of stock is in, turn the heat down low so it doesn’t dry out.  Add a knob of butter and grate over 2-3 tablespoons of parmesan cheese.    Season to taste.    When serving add more grated parmesan and a little chopped chives or parsley on each plate.   Serve with a crisp green salad


Posted in broad beans, Cavolo Nero, recipes with meat, seasonal food, Spinach, summer recipes, Swiss Chard | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Actually the bad, the good and the ugly...

If you plant courgettes (or zucchini for the non-UK gardener) no matter how careful you are, no matter how assiduously you check underneath those large spiky leaves, sooner or later a courgette will, like the Incredible Hulk, change from a mild mannered courgette into a disgusting woody watery marrow.   There’s no excuse for marrow, I’d certainly never grow one deliberately.   When I was little my mother used to do stuffed marrow. Through the rose-coloured spectacles of nostalgia I remembered it quite fondly, so I tried cooking it myself a year or two ago.  Frankly its not really very nice at all.   You might disagree.   You might have the most wonderful recipe for stuffed marrow.   Tell me about it, I’d love to know.   But be honest, wouldn’t it be even better without the marrow?

In spite of the dangers I do still grow courgettes.   Mainly because of the fabulous leaves and flowers.   They give a bit of stature and structure to a mini-potager like mine. This year I grew three courgette plants – A yellow variety (can’t remember which), a standard green courgette (Defender F1 hybrid from Thompson & Morgan), and, purely on a whim, I also picked up a Rugosa Fruilana plant from a local nursery.

Courgette - Rugosa Fruilana

Next year I shall only grow the Rugosa Fruilana (seeds from Franchi/Seeds of Italy).   It may be ugly but its so much more tasty and less watery than any other courgette I’ve ever grown.   It’s delicious oven roasted or chargrilled.   Even when it’s scarily large and warty it still tastes pretty good.

This is my favourite way of eating it:

Marinated Courgette Salad

2-3 courgettes depending on size
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)
1/2 Lemon – zest and juice – preferably unwaxed
Basil leaves
Flat leafed parsley – small handful
Feta (optional)
50g Bulghar wheat (optional)

Add a couple of tablespoons of good EVOO to the juice of half a lemon.    Add a little lemon zest – I find a microplane grater by far the best way to do this.  They are expensive, but brilliant.   Finely chop some basil and add. (I often use the small leafed Greek bush basil which sits in a pot by my kitchen door, its quite intense so I only use about a teaspoon, but if you’re using the larger leafed stuff you get in the supermarket you might need a bit more)

If using bulghar wheat cover with boiling water and leave for 5-10 minutes to swell.

Using a vegetable peeler (or a mandolin) slice the courgette into very fine ribbons.   Add to the dressing and toss allowing to coat.   Add the bulghar wheat if using.  Leave for a few minutes to marinate and soften in the dressing.  You need quite a high dressing to veg ratio.   Just before you want to serve add some chopped flat leaf parsley and the feta.

I often have this for lunch with crusty bread and so I add the cubed feta and bulghar wheat to make it a bit more substantial, but its also good without either.   Season to taste (if you’re using feta you probably won’t need salt).


Marinated courgette salad

Posted in courgettes, seasonal food, summer recipes, vegetarian recipes | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Quest for the perfect Mint Tea

I drink much too much coffee, very strong coffee and for the last two weeks I’ve been trying to cut down.   I went cold turkey for a week, and its astonishing how hard it is to fill the working day without regular coffee breaks, so when I’ve been working from home I’ve been drinking a lot of mint tea.

I’ve got four different varieties of mint in my garden.   Garden mint is very invasive so they’re all planted in large pots sunk down into the ground.

Moroccan Mint - Mentha spicata var. crispa 'Moroccan'

Moroccan Mint is probably the variety I use most.   The flavour is excellent in salads and Middle Eastern food – which is the backbone of a lot of what I cook.  I used it in the Broad Bean Hummous too.

Tashkent Mint - Mentha spicata 'Tashkent'

I use it almost interchangeably with Tashkent Mint, which has slightly larger more serrated leaves but a similar flavour.

Both varieties do make excellent mint tea, but Jekka McVicar the guru of herbs says that Eastern Mint, also known as Desert Mint  (Mentha longifolia subsp schimperi) makes the best Mint Tea so I was keen to give it a try.   Even my local herb specialists Iden Croft Herbs which has dozens of mint varieties doesn’t have it so I tried to order it directly from Jekka’s Herbs by mail order.    It was out of stock for months, but eventually arrived in a couple of weeks ago.

Desert Mint - Mentha Longifolia subsp schimperi

The leaves are much longer and thinner and barely serrated at all.   The smell is far more intensely minty with a hint of eau de cologne and the flavour of a raw leaf is almost too much.    It is brilliant in mint tea, but the flavour is so intense that whereas if I were using a Moroccan Mint I’d use two or three sprigs in a cup, you only need one per mug.   Adding sugar or honey is something I’d never normally do in teas or herbal infusions but it does actually work with this sort of mint.

I also ordered some Lemon Verbena at the same time which makes an equally delicious herbal tea.

The plant itself looks beautiful and is growing like crazy.   I’ve been waxing lyrical about it to so many people that I’m currently trying to propagate it from cuttings to share with friends.  Hopefully I’ll be more successful at that than I’ve been at staying off the coffee.

Posted in Gardening, herbs, mint, vegan recipes | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Gluts and Gluttony

Every vegetable gardener or allotment owner knows about gluts.  In spite of your best attempts to plant successionally and sensibly, sometimes you just can’t avoid having a shed load of the same vegetable ready for eating at the same time.   Some sell their excess at the garden gate, some donate theirs to eager (or not so eager) recipients, others chuck it on the compost heap.   My preferred option is to eat as much, and more, than is humanly possible.   Currently I’ve got lettuce bolting to the heavens faster than I can eat them, courgettes threatening to turn into marrows and french beans growing like topsy.

My beloved broad beans are nearly ready to be cut down to make way for autumn plantings of swiss chard and cavolo nero (which have been waiting patiently in old yoghurt pots for their rightful place in the garden).   It sums up the bitter-sweet appeal of trying to eat as seasonly as possible: the sadness of another a favourite vegetable finished for the year, but the reassurance of the changing seasons reminding you that next spring you’ll have the anticipation and pleasure tasting a new season’s crop.

Every time I come up with a new recipe to make use of all this wonderful abundance, I’m sure I’ll remember it for next year, and then of course I don’t, which is the main reason for jotting all of these ramblings down.

Broad Bean and Lettuce Soup

Many soups are rather wintery but this one’s decidedly summery.  I’d heard of Pea and Lettuce soup, so wondered how it would turn out with broad beans.  This isn’t a hearty filling soup and the flavour is quite gentle and mild, but I eat so many big punchy flavours that sometimes I crave the more subtle charms of something like this.

1-2 Little Gem lettuce
1 onion
knob of butter
Olive Oil
250g broad beans
10-12 mint leaves – Moroccan or Tashkent preferably
Stock – chicken or vegetable 

Wash the lettuce leaves to remove soil and slugs, neither of which will much improve the soup. Chop the lettuce up a bit.   Melt the butter and a tablespoon of olive oil in a large saucepan.    Soften the chopped onion in the pan and then add the lettuce stirring it gently while it wilts.   Add stock, broad beans and mint and bring to the boil.   Season and simmer for about 10 minutes.

If your broad beans are very large and the skins are tough, ideally you should remove them and de-skin, but it is a faff, and to be honest I rarely bother especially since you’re going to liquidise the soup.

Blend the soup in a liquidiser.  Reheat if you deskinned the broad beans before liquidising.  Serve hot.

Broad bean and lettuce soup

Posted in broad beans, frugal food, lettuce, mint, seasonal food, summer recipes, vegetarian recipes | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Sugar snap, bean and feta salad

Sugar snap, bean and feta salad

When I got home from work I was feeling too bone idle to walk to the supermarket, which is pretty lazy considering that it takes me less than 30 seconds to get from my back gate to the supermarket entrance.  Instead I pottered about the garden picking a few handfuls of bits and bobs that took my fancy.    Although the peas are definitely past their best, the sugar snaps which I planted a bit later (probably mid May) are in their prime, and I also got the very first climbing french beans.   I thought I’d only planted a purple podded variety but obviously I was wrong.

I also picked some Little Gem and Lollo Rosso leaves and a small bunch each of Moroccan Mint (which I think is the best flavour in things like salads), flat leaf parsley and coriander leaves.   Last week when I looked the coriander was still too small and weedy to pick, this week its all going up to seed.  I think there must be less than a day when its just right.

Sugar snap, bean and feta salad (for 2)

100g Giant Couscous (wholemeal variety) or Bulghar wheat
100g feta cheese – cubed
1 small courgette
small handful of french beans
handful of sugar snap peas
handful of broad beans (podded)
small bunch of fresh herbs – eg mint, parsley, coriander
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/2 fresh red chilli

Boil the Giant Couscous according to the time on the packet, but about 5-7 minutes.  You want it to have a bit of bite left.   Drain and set to one side to cool for a minute.

I have to admit that the reason I used the Giant Couscous was that I’d bought several packs a couple of months previously and the kids wouldn’t touch it – they said it looked and tasted like frog spawn.  I like it, but I think that the dish would work just as well with bulghar wheat.

Blanche the broad beans, french beans and sugar snaps in boiling water for about a minute and then drain and refresh in cold water so they keep their lovely green colour. Chop the courgette into thin julienne/matchsticks.   Don’t cook the courgette.   Chop the herbs.   I always use the parsley and coriander stems too, finely chopped, which are delicious, but not the mint stems.

When it’s cooled down a bit, drizzle about a tablespoon of Extra Virgin Olive Oil over the Giant Couscous.  Season with sea salt and pepper to taste.  Add the beans and sugar snaps, courgette and herbs.   Add the cubed feta and the lemon juice.   Gently toss together to coat the herbs and feta with the oil and lemon juice.   Chop a little fresh red chilli and sprinkle over the top.   Serve.

It’s also nice to add some gently toasted and crushed hazlenuts to the top at the end.  If you’re doing this you could substitute the olive oil for hazlenut oil or, even better, the delicious Kentish Cobnut Oil from Hurstwood Farm which won Supreme Champion at the 2010 Great Taste Awards.

What I did with the herbs, Little Gem and Lollo Rosso I couldn't fit in the other salad

Posted in broad beans, courgettes, french beans, herbs, mint, parsley, seasonal food, sugar snap peas, summer recipes, vegetarian recipes | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sunflowers and structure


The broad beans and peas are beginning to give a bit of structure to the garden but I decided that it needed a bit more height and few more focal points to I bought a couple of very cheap arches from a local garden centre.   Rather a wet misty day when I took these photos as you can see.

One of the arches is at the side where you can’t see it very well, and has cucumbers and squash (Onion Squash aka Uchiki Kuri) beginning to grow up it.     I’ve planted sweet peas and sunflowers (Claret from Thompson & Morgan) at the base of the main arch.

With the heavy rain we started to get in June and early July everything has really started racing ahead.



Posted in Gardening, No recipe | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment