Tag Archives: summer cooking

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

 

 

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Salad Days

Allotment harvest mid-June

We’ve been experiencing an unexpected heatwave here in the South of England for the past week or so, with temperatures over 30°C at their peak. Nothing unusual for many parts of Europe, to be sure, but pretty exceptional in the UK! My house has a north-south axis which works very well in these conditions, especially as my office and bedroom are on the cooler north side of the house, so working and sleeping aren’t too much of an issue.

Watering becomes of paramount importance to a gardener, though. I’m resisting watering twice a day, but trying to water pots and containers at home in the morning, and the raised beds at the allotment in the evening – to spread the load. It’s actually a very enjoyable process, as you can commune with Nature as you water and see what’s newly flowering/germinating/doing well. I’ve managed with water from my water butts so far, but two out of the three at home have now run dry and the allotment butt has been empty for a while – although fortunately water at the allotment comes from a trough and standpipe at the corner of my plot – very convenient! Our yearly subscription covers water costs too, so while it’s not metered to us (although hosepipes aren’t allowed), any huge uptake in usage could theoretically lead to a rise in subs for us all next year, as it is metered to the allotment association.

Allotment poppy June 2017

I love summer evenings up at the allotments: there are always a few people pottering around their plots, it’s incredibly peaceful (apart from my noisy dogs if people dare to walk past “their” plot – sorry, folks) and the sunsets are spectacular. A lesson in mindfulness at the end of a busy day…. This week I’ve managed to mow the grass (trying to keep on top of it so it doesn’t reach jungle proportions again!), get rid of some perennial weeds (docks, blackberries, the dreaded convolvulus) that were encroaching on the paths, do some weeding around newly planted beds and keep up with the harvesting: strawberries, raspberries and redcurrants have suddenly started to ripen at a tremendous pace, and the broad beans and lettuce are still going strong. Such a lovely time of year.

I’ve even made some comfrey tea for use as a fertiliser in three weeks’ time when it has steeped sufficiently. Having lost my comfrey patch a few years back, a healthy-loooking clump has sprung up near the communal bonfire site, so I swapped a wheelbarrow full of weeds for a barrow overflowing with comfrey leaves, stuffed them in an old chicken pellet container (with a lid to contain the stench!), covered with water and will leave to brew. It smells vile but the plants love it – and it’s free!

The strawberries have been epic this year – I’ve had enough for breakfast every day and to make strawberry ice cream, strawberry cheesecake, pavlova and Strawberry Coulis for the freezer (just blitzed in a blender with the juice of an orange and 1 tbsp of icing sugar). Yesterday there were even enough for the quintessential summer jam: strawberry & redcurrant to be precise, as the currants add pectin and make for a better set.

Strawberry & Redcurrant Jam – makes 5 standard jars

Strawberry and redcurrent jam

1.2kg strawberries
300g redcurrants (or gooseberries would work too), removed from stalks
1.5kg granulated sugar
Juice of 1 lemon

Hull the strawberries, chopping up any particularly large fruit and put in a preserving pan with the strigged redcurrants. Add the lemon juice and simmer over a low heat for 20-30 minutes or until very soft.

Strawberry jam making

Weigh out the sugar and add, stirring until it dissolves, then turn up the heat to a rollicking boil, stirring as you go. Add a small knob of butter to reduce any froth! Test after 5-10 minutes to see if it has set – I find the best test is to hold your wooden spoon over the pan and when the drips run together to form a bigger drop that breaks off sharply, the jam will be done. Otherwise, have a saucer in the freezer and place a little of the jam on the saucer, cool slightly, then push with your finger: the surface should wrinkle. You will need to take the jam off the heat while you do this test to stop the jam overcooking. Strawberry jam is notoriously fiddly to set, so test little and often. Mine was ready after just 5-6 minutes in yesterday’s heat.

When set, pour the jam into prepared jars (washed and sterilised in the oven on a low heat), cover with waxed circles and lids, then label when cool. Set aside for the perfect accompaniment for traditional Victoria sponges and scones with jam & clotted cream over the coming summer months…

When the weather is this hot, though, salads are the way to go. Quite apart from the fact that I’ve been getting back from the allotment so late that cooking isn’t an option, it’s really too hot to contemplate cooking. I love experimenting with whatever I have in the fridge or bring back from the plot, resulting in some delicious combinations. Lunch today was a refreshing Melon, Strawberry & Feta Salad served on a bed of mizuna with dill and mint to garnish – sublime! With Galia melon (not my own!), two kinds of strawberries (the large allotment variety and tiny alpine strawberries that run with gay abandon in one border at home), drizzled with a splash of extra virgin olive oil and a hint of balsamic vinegar, this really hit the spot for a cooling, yet tasty lunch. The salty chalkiness of the feta and the slight bitterness of the mizuna were a perfect foil for the sweet and juicy fruit.

Strawberry and melon salad

Other salad combinations have included Baby Broad Beans & Griddled Halloumi with toasted pine kernels and rocket, with a chilli, mint and lemon dressing, and my perennial favourite, Bauernsalat (farmer’s salad), inspired by one of our best-loved holiday hotels, the Tennis Hotel in St. Wolfgang, Austria, which simply consists of crispy fried bacon and potatoes scattered on a bed of fresh salad, with a herby yogurt dressing to accompany. So good – worth cooking extra new potatoes especially to make this! Anything goes – experimenting is half the fun. If something doesn’t work particularly well, just leave it out next time – but with fresh and homegrown produce, chances are it will all taste sublime.

Allotment sunset

Arise, Sir Basil

I don’t know whether it’s just me, but the mere mention of the herb Basil always makes me think fondly back to the 60’s children’s TV programme of my childhood, The Herbs, featuring who else but Sir Basil and Lady Rosemary – alongside Parsley the Lion and Dill the Dog, of course! Basil is rightly known as the King of the Herbs and I certainly can’t imagine my summer cooking without it.

Herbs TVI grow it from seed each year, starting it off in late March in my propagator. It usually germinates quickly, but it’s important to let it grow on in the seed pot until it is large and sturdy enough to handle – pricking the seedlings out too soon inevitably results in failure. I pot the sturdy seedlings on into their final terracotta pots, about 4 plants to a 6-8” diameter pot, using a mix of John Innes soil-based compost (preferably not peaty) and horticultural grit, then top-dress with more grit to ensure good drainage. I leave my basil plants growing in the conservatory, but I imagine they would be happy in a sheltered spot outside in a good summer or in a greenhouse of course, where they also make perfect companion plants for tomato, the distinctive smell allegedly deterring whitefly. I have to confess that the proximity of basil didn’t deter whitefly on my aubergine plants last year in the conservatory, but I’ve grown my aubergines from seed this year, so we shall see!

If you haven’t got your own propagation facilities, you can also grow your own basil either by pricking out the growing plants you can buy in supermarkets, or, even easier, placing a few stems of basil in a jar of water, where they will quickly form roots, then you can pot them up and keep your supply growing – running out of basil doesn’t bear thinking about!

BasilLast week came the moment I’d been waiting for – the first pesto of the year. Often it coincides with the first broad beans from the allotment, but the cold spring has delayed their arrival in sufficient quantities for Broad Bean Pesto, so I resorted to my favourite standard pesto recipe, from Delia Smith’s original Summer Collection. It’s simplicity itself and sooo much nicer than bought pesto.

Delia’s Pesto

Pesto2oz fresh basil leaves

1 large clove garlic, crushed

1 tbsp pine kernels

6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1oz Pecorino or Parmesan cheese, finely grated

Salt & black pepper to taste

Put the basil, crushed garlic, pine kernels and olive oil in a food processor with the seasoning and process until you have a smooth purée. You may need to stop and push it down the sides every so often. Then add the cheese and whizz again until blended. Transfer to a jar (if not intending to use it all straightaway) or a serving bowl. It should keep for a week or so in the jar if kept covered in the fridge – great with pasta or in a rice salad.

Last week I served it with bacon, onions, asparagus and linguine and added the pesto to a cream sauce. Tonight I simply added the pesto to softened onions, bacon and mushrooms, then tossed in the linguine – delicious!

Pesto pastaI also love basil simply chopped with quartered cherry tomatoes, preferably home-grown, a clove of garlic, crushed, seasoning, a pinch of sugar, splash of olive oil and a dash of balsamic vinegar. Allow to infuse for a while at room temperature then serve on toasted, garlic-rubbed sourdough or ciabatta bread, possibly with a smear of soft, mild goat’s cheese (our local Stonegate Dairy goat’s cheese is sublime here) between the bread and the tomato mix, for the perfect Tomato Bruschetta. The tomatoes aren’t ready yet, although they have finally gone outside, but a girl can dream….

Summer has finally arrived!