Tag Archives: Starters

A peck of peppers, anyone?

Pepper and chilli harvest

The weather has been unremittingly awful this September so far, so much so that it feels as though it’s a good month later! Whereas normally I’d be taking my pepper and chilli plants out of the conservatory in October, I found myself emptying them today as they were covered in whitefly and the atmosphere is so damp, they were starting to cause mould growth on the windowledges and windows – yuk! I experienced this once before when I went away on holiday in late September and forgot to leave the window vents open: damp + plants breathing meant my window ledges were green by the time I got home! Nothing that a spot of bleach couldn’t cure, but still – not very nice.

Time to take out those plants that have finished (aubergines, sadly – although they’ve been super-productive this year, so I can’t complain), harvest any ripe fruit on the chillis and peppers, and spray the rest of the plants with soft soap outdoors. I had intended bringing them back in having washed all the surfaces down, but in the end, they got so wet in today’s torrential rain that I’ve left them out; it’s unlikely to freeze, I think, and I really don’t want the same problem again. This is the issue with using a conservatory for cropping plants: when they’re in full flow, it’s fine, but as they start to go yellow and die back, you really don’t want to look at them any more. Fortunately, the basil plants are still looking good and should continue for another month or so.

So what to do with all those peppers? The chillis will be dried and stored in a basket for autumn/winter use, but the peppers won’t keep for long. In the end, I decided on a roast pepper & tomato soup that I’ve been meaning to try for a while from the Covent Garden Soup Book, an old favourite of mine.

Roasted Red Pepper & Tomato Soup – served 5-6

Roast pepper and tomato soup

6 red peppers, halved and seeds removed
8 tomatoes, skinned and halved
glug of olive oil
handful of basil leaves
1 tsp sugar
1 fat garlic clove, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 litre vegetable stock
seasoning
dash of balsamic vinegar to taste

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C/Gas 5. Place the red peppers skin side up in a large roasting tin. Add the skinned tomatoes (I usually place them in a bowl and add boiling water, leave for a couple of minutes, then drain off the water, after which the skins should peel off easily), cut-side up and sprinkle with sugar, chopped garlic, chopped basil leaves, a glug of olive oil and seasoning. Roast for 50 minutes to 1 hour until nicely charred around the edges.

Meanwhile, cook the onion in a large pan with more olive oil until softened (15 minutes or so). Add the roast vegetables, then the stock and bring to the boil. Cook for 5-20 minutes to allow the flavours to meld, then cool in the pan. Liquidize in two batches and add a dash of balsamic vinegar to taste.

Another absolute classic I try to make every year when I harvest my own fruit is Delia Smith’s classic Piedmont peppers – if you haven’t experienced them, I can only recommend you to try – so good! It turns out that this is originally an Elizabeth David recipe, so has a fine pedigree. When you taste them, you’ll realise why….

Delia’s Piedmont Peppers – serves 4 as a starter
(but scale up or down as you require!)

Piedmont peppers

4 red peppers
4 medium tomatoes
8 tinned anchovy fillets
2 cloves garlic, chopped
handful of basil leaves
black pepper
olive oil

Halve the peppers lengthways, keeping the stalk on. Place skin side down in a large roasting tray. Skin the tomatoes (I don’t always bother, I must admit, but if the skin bothers you, please do!), quarter and place two quarters in each pepper half. Snip the anchovy fillets into small pieces and distribute between the peppers. Add the chopped basil and garlic, season with pepper and drizzle with olive oil (the original recipe suggests 1 dsp per pepper half, but I just pour by eye). Roast in the oven at 160°C/Gas 4 for 50 minutes to 1 hour, until starting to char round the edges.

Serve as a starter or a summer salad, with plenty of good bread to mop up the divine juices.

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An Abundance of Aubergines

Leo over the fence Aug 2017

Apologies for the long absence: as some of you may know, it was my son’s wedding at the end of July and life was rather put on hold in the run-up. After a fabulous weekend of celebrations, it’s taken me quite some time to come back down to Earth and catch up with myself…

Needless to say, the garden and allotment have continued apace throughout, but I’m gradually starting to restore order, even if the grass isn’t as neatly mowed as it could be. Cropwise, it’s been a fantastic summer so far, with even my carrots putting on a good show and the pumpkins looking promising for autumn. In the conservatory, my aubergines are flourishing, as ever, and maturing faster than I can cook them. Such a satisfying problem to have! Last night I made the walnut-stuffed aubergine dish from my Spanish yoga holiday at Las Chimeneas – still delicious, and equally good heated up for lunch today. Earlier in the week I made Nigel Slater’s scrumptious baba ganoush, a heavenly, yet oh-so-simple take on an aubergine dip, and tonight I’ve made an old favourite from my ancient Sainsbury’s wholefood cookbook, lentil moussaka. Meat really does fade into insignificance in my summer diet.

Baba ganoush – serves 2

Baba ganoush

I large aubergine
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tbsp tahini paste
1 – 1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
Seasoning

Prick the aubergine with a fork, then bake in the oven at 200°C/Gas 6 until the skin is charred and the insides are soft – about 40-45 minutes. Leave to cool, then scrape out the flesh with a spoon into a bowl. Mash with a potato masher, then beat in the lemon juice, crushed garlic, tahini, and olive oil until you get the right consistency. Season and serve with good bread (I used courgette, lemon and sultana bread, lightly toasted, which went beautifully) for a middle-Eastern-inspired lunch or as a decadent starter.

As for the moussaka, well, this is a delicious vegetarian twist on a classic Greek dish that I first tried in a Greek restaurant in Bolton, of all places, in the late 70s, way before I ever travelled to Greece and sampled the real thing. I seem to remember it was pretty good then too, and my mum, never a particularly adventurous cook, even included it in her repertoire: very avant garde in those days! These days, I grill the aubergine slices rather than frying them beforehand, as the original recipe suggests, but which uses up gallons of olive oil. In fact, my mum says she now cooks her oil-drizzled aubergine slices in the oven, as suggested by Mary Berry, for 20-25 minutes at 180°C/Gas 5. Now that’s definitely worth a try as the grilling method still requires you to stand over them, getting hot and bothered, even if they don’t take up anywhere near as much oil as frying.

Lentil Moussaka – serves 4-6

Lentil moussaka

2 large aubergines, sliced crosswise (you can salt them beforehand if you like, but I don’t think it’s necessary these days)
Olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 celery sticks, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 can chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato purée
250g green lentils
Fresh thyme (or basil), finely chopped (optional)
2 tbsp soy sauce
Black pepper
900ml water
2 eggs, beaten
150ml fromage frais
100g Cheddar cheese, grated (or use Parmesan if you prefer)

Heat a glug of olive oil in a large pan and cook the chopped onion until softened, then add the garlic and celery. Cook for a further 5 minutes, then add the tomatoes and their liquid, tomato purée, green lentils, soy sauce, herbs if using, black pepper to taste and water. Bring to the boil and simmer, covered, for 50 minutes, removing the lid towards the end if it still looks very liquid.

Meanwhile, arrange the aubergine slices on a grill pan (or baking trays if you’re trying the oven method), brush with olive oil and either grill on both sides until starting to brown and soften, or bake in the oven at 180°C for 20-25 minutes. (You may need to do this in two stages if using the grill, whereas you can cook two trays at once in the oven – I must try it!) Either way, you will need to turn them halfway through. When cooked, drain on kitchen paper.

When the lentil mixture is ready, spoon half into a rectangular ovenproof dish and arrange a layer of aubergines on top. Repeat with the other half of the lentils and the rest of the aubergines. Mix the eggs and fromage frais for the topping, season and pour on top of the aubergines. Sprinkle with cheese and cook in a hot oven at 200°C/Gas 6 for about 30 minutes.

Serve with a green salad and be instantly transported to the Mediterranean…

This also freezes beautifully – sometimes I think the flavours meld together even better once it has stood for a while, which chimes with the way such dishes are served in Greece: cooked in the morning to be served just warm at lunchtime. Yum!

Oh and the wedding? It was amazing, such a joyful day. I can’t resist leaving you with a picture of the happy couple. Have a fabulous bank holiday weekend!

Happy couple