Tag Archives: Tomatoes

Bean Feast

Bean feast

I can’t quite believe that I haven’t included any French (or runner) bean recipes on my blog in the nearly five years I’ve been writing. What an oversight! It’s not as if I don’t grow enough of them: every year I usually have more beans than I know what to do with, although I often start off with slow germination, or growth setbacks of one sort or another, and worry that I won’t have enough. They always come good in the end, leaving me overrun – and this year is no exception.

I stopped growing the coarser runner beans a few years back, when my sons had left home and I was essentially just cooking for one. I’ve always preferred the finer, tastier French beans, and the fact that they are less hardy than the runners really isn’t a problem now I’m living in the milder South East of England. In Scotland we used to start them off in the unheated greenhouse in late spring, but down here I’ve found they do better planted direct in the soil in early to late June, even as late as early July if the first sowing doesn’t come to anything like this year. Planted so late, they follow on neatly from the broad beans and peas, and don’t compete with the heady courgette rush in mid-summer. By late July/early August, when they start to form those long, elegant pods, we’re just about ready for a new summer crop – perfect timing. And they keep on going well into September, or even October in a good year.

This year I had a mixed pack of bean seeds, containing three different varieties: yellow (Monte Gusto), purple (Carminat) and green (Monte Cristo). I’m favourably impressed so far, although the yellow seem to be by far the most prolific (and easiest to see and harvest).

So how come I haven’t written any recipes for them before? I have no idea! I can only think it’s because this is such a busy time of year in the garden that I’m too busy cooking, harvesting and freezing to write. Definitely time to put that right and jot down a few of my favourite ways of using all those beautiful beans….

My first suggestion is a recipe I’ve been cooking for over 30 years, originally from my home economist friend Bridget in Cheshire. It makes an extremely flavourful vegetarian lasagne, or you can use the bean filling as a pasta sauce without layering and oven-baking if you prefer. I used to make this with runner beans, but French work just as well, if not better.

French Bean & Nut Lasagne – serves 4-6

Bean and nut lasagne

1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 red (or green) pepper, chopped
3 sticks celery, chopped
250g French or runner beans, chopped into 2cm long pieces
1 large can chopped tomatoes (or 450g fresh, peeled and chopped if you have them)
2 tbsp tomato purée
Handful of basil or oregano
2 tbsp pesto
150ml red wine
50g walnuts, chopped
Seasoning

45g butter
45g plain flour
500ml milk
125g Cheddar cheese
1 tsp mustard
Grated fresh nutmeg

175-200g dried lasagne

For the bean sauce, cook the onion and garlic in the olive oil for 4-5 mins until starting to soften. Add the pepper, celery and beans, stir well and cook for a further 5 mins. Stir in the tomatoes, tomato purée, basil or oregano, pesto, wine and walnuts, season well and simmer uncovered for 30-40 mins.

Make the cheese sauce as usual by melting the butter, stirring in the flour, cooking for 1 minute then gradually adding the milk, stirring until it thickens and is smooth. Season, add half the cheese and the grated nutmeg and set aside.

Soften the lasagne sheets in a bowl of boiling water, or follow the instructions on your packet (this is a very old recipe!). Assemble the layers in a lasagne dish, starting with the bean sauce, then lasagne, then cheese sauce, ending with cheese sauce. Sprinkle with remaining cheese and cook at 180°C / Gas 4 for 25-30 mins. Serve with a mixed salad.

Next up is another recipe adapted from my old favourite Dairy Cookbook from the early 1980s. Patched, chewed (puppy!) and bespattered it may be, but I still have certain recipes that I turn to now and again, and this is one of them: a comforting pancake dish with a delectable bean, apple and ham filling, finished off with a hint of wholegrain mustard and a velvety cheese sauce. True comfort food for those early autumn days… You can use chopped bacon in this dish, but I usually make it with chopped cooked ham from a weekend gammon joint, which marries perfectly with the melting tenderness of the apples and onions. It’s not unlike an English take on cannelloni, but using pancakes rather than pasta.

Bean, Ham & Apple Pancakes – serves 4

French bean, ham and apple pancakes

Pancakes:
125g plain flour
pinch of salt
1 egg
300ml milk
Butter for frying

Filling:
25g butter (or 1 tbsp olive oil if you prefer)
2 medium onions, chopped (or leeks if you prefer)
175g chopped bacon or home-cooked gammon or ham if you have it
225g apple (cooking or eating), peeled, cored and chopped
225g French or runner beans, chopped into 2cm lengths
1 tbsp French mustard
Chopped parsley or thyme leaves

Sauce:
25g butter
2 level tbsp plain flour
300ml milk
125g Cheddar cheese, grated
Seasoning
Freshly grated nutmeg

First make the pancakes in the usual way by sifting the flout and salt into a roomy bowl. Break the egg into the centre, then gradually beat in the milk and incorporate the flout until all mixed and little bubbles start to form on the surface. Leave to stand for 30 minutes or so if you can, but it’s not critical if you can’t! This mixture should make at least 8 pancakes in an 18cm frying pan. Stack the finished pancakes on a plate as you make them and set aside until you’ve made the filling.

For the filling, melt the butter in a large frying pan, then fry the onion until softened. Steam or microwave the beans for 4 -5 minutes until just tender, then drain off any liquid. Stir the ham, apple and beans into the pan and cook for a further 4-5 minutes (if using uncooked bacon, you might need to add it with the onion at the start). Stir in the mustard, seasoning and chopped parsley or thyme leaves. Set aside to cool slightly while you make the cheese sauce.

Melt the butter in a saucepan, then stir in the flour and cook gently for 1 minute, stirring. Gradually stir in the milk, then bring to the boil and cook until it thickens, stirring constantly. Add grated nutmeg and seasoning, then finally 75g grated cheese.

To assemble, fill each pancake with a generous spoonful of the bean and apple mixture, and either roll up or fold carefully into quarters. Place side by side in a rectangular ovenproof dish, sprinkle over the remaining cheese and bake at 180°C / Gas 5 for 25 – 30 minutes. Serve with a green salad.

Both of these recipes are rather heavy on the washing-up, with several stages and pans, but well worth the effort – and the cooking time in the oven means you have enough time to wash up while the dish is cooking if you don’t have a willing sous-chef on hand to clear up as you go along 🙂

One last recipe, which only uses one pan and makes a super-tasty side dish for sausages, chops, or even a roast, was inspired by a recipe in an Italian cookbook I’ve long since lost. I think it originally went under the name of Fagiolini di Sant’Anna, but I’ve tweaked it over the years, as usual. Although the beans are cooked for much longer than if you steamed or boiled them, they remain deliciously tender and take up all the flavours of the cooking liquid. Try it and see. Just don’t drop the salt grinder in it as happened to me this weekend……

Italian French Beans with Tomatoes – serves 2

French beans in tomato sauce

Glug of olive oil
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
200g French beans, chopped
2-3 tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
Chopped basil
Dash of white wine
Boiling water
Seasoning

Heat the oil in a small frying pan, then add the garlic and cook gently for 1 minute. Add the chopped tomatoes and cook for a further 3-4 minutes, then add the beans and toss in the sauce for a minute or so. Add a dash of white wine and the chopped basil, then just cover the beans with boiling water. Bring back to the boil, then simmer gently, without a lid, for 25 – 30 minutes, or until the liquid has reduced. You may need to turn up the heat or cover the pan depending on your hob. Season to taste and serve with the meat of your choice.

Basket of produce

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Spring highs and lows

Hyacinths

Well, Easter has been and gone, and with it some lovely springlike weather last week. Unfortunately, I’m not quite as excited about the fact that spring has finally arrived as I would usually be. I managed to rupture my anterior cruciate ligament on a recent skiing trip in the French Alps and heavy gardening is going to be off the agenda for some while, I suspect. Not a good time of year for a gardener to be out of action!

Fortunately, two and a half weeks in, I now have my leg brace off and have started intensive physiotherapy to strengthen the muscles around my damaged knee. Gentle walking is also allowed, but I’m pretty sure this doesn’t cover long dog walks or heavy-duty gardening jobs like digging the allotment beds, creating new beds or spreading the compost around the garden at home. This last job was something I’d intended to do before going away, but the snow and constant wet prevailed against me, and it just didn’t get done. I’m definitely going to have to bring someone in to do all of that.

On the bright side, I did manage to sow some seeds in the propagator the night before we left (!): aubergines, leeks, chillis, sweet peppers and parsley, so at least they’ve had a head start. All bar the sweet peppers are showing already, and I’ve now sown some tomatoes (my favourite Sungold, Ailsa Craig and a new dark bronze cherry variety called Sunchocola from Mr Fothergill’s seeds), basil, delphiniums and hollyhocks. No problem putting my potting tray on the garden table so I can work sitting down!

I’ve also pottered around the garden dead-heading the hydrangeas now that the risk of frost should be less. I did have to restrain myself from leaping up to the back of the raised beds to the more inaccessible stems, but otherwise all quite doable – and the garden looks so much tidier as a result, plus I can now see the beautiful camellia blooms much better. Next job, also feasible as long as I’m careful, is to cut back my huge lavatera in the bed next to the garage. They need to go down to a foot or so at this time of year to encourage strong new growth and an abundance of flowers in the summer. Another job I should be able to do with a dodgy knee is potting up the dahlia tubers I ordered earlier this spring. I usually start them off in pots in the growframe, then plant them out at the allotment when they are showing strong growth and are less susceptible to slug attack. On the list for the weekend, weather permitting.

I persuaded my sons to take me down to the allotment on Sunday, not to do any work, I hasten to add – and actually things don’t look too bad due to the cold start to the year. Thursday and Friday last week had been particularly sunny, so I was thrilled to find a bumper crop of purple-sprouting broccoli ready for picking – and the first rhubarb of the year too, always a notable event! Parsley and leeks were still growing strong and completed my spring harvest, shared with my son due to the huge quantities! I’ll turn a blind eye to the rest for now, but may need to seek some help planting my potatoes in the not-too-distant future.

Spring harvest

In the meantime, a good old rhubarb crumble was just what the doctor ordered with the first crop of the season – heaven! I’ve given a recipe for a rhubarb & almond crumble elsewhere, but this is just my straightforward, basic crumble recipe, courtesy of my mum and her mum before her. I find it doesn’t work with gluten-free flour, as you lose the crispness. I usually make double the amount of crumble mix and freeze half, uncooked, for a quick pudding when I’m short of time. It can be added straight from the freezer to cooked or uncooked fruit – perfect for busy days.

Rhubarb Crumble – serves 4-6

Rhubarb

500g rhubarb, trimmed and sliced – no need to peel if fresh
3 tbsp Demerara sugar
125g self-raising flour
25g caster sugar
60g butter
1 tbsp Demerara sugar to sprinkle

Place the sliced rhubarb in a covered glass dish in the microwave with the sugar and cook for 4 minutes until starting to soften and produce juice.
Rub the butter into the SR flour and sugar until it resembles fine breadcrumbs and sprinkle over the just-cooked rhubarb to cover completely. Sprinkle over the remaining tbsp sugar and cook in a pre-heated oven at 180-200°C (Gas 5/6) for 30 minutes. Serve warm with custard or a mixture of lightly whipped cream and yogurt. Bliss….

Rhubarb crumble

In the meantime, patience is required in spades – and I’m enjoying the camellias, hellebores and spring bulbs from the window. My garden will have to wait this year…

Tete a tete daffs

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.

And more salad…

Poppy in wild flowers June 2017

The hot weather may have come to an abrupt end and the water butts are now replenished, but the salad season continues here. It fits with the burgeoning cut-and-come-again lettuce that reshoots virtually as soon as you’ve picked it – I’ve given bags away to friends and family and still have plenty – with another row coming ready soon. Even so, now, when the heat is off temporarily, is the perfect time to do some more succession sowing of salad crops. Most seeds don’t germinate well in extreme heat and dry conditions, so now’s the time to take advantage of the respite and resow lettuce, rocket, carrots, beetroot, annual herbs and other salad leaves. My parsnip seeds have failed completely this year, both sowings, so I’ll use the space for more carrots and beetroot, both quicker to germinate and grow than parsnips, which need a long growing season. I usually find parsnips incredibly trouble-free, but every five years or so they refuse to cooperate, for whatever reason – growing conditions, the seeds themselves, who knows? Other plotholders have struggled too, so I know it’s not just me.

The tomatoes aren’t quite ready yet, although they are looking phenomenally healthy this year – another couple of weeks, I reckon. I’m growing just two varieties this year, the ever-delicious Sungold and old-fashioned favourite Ailsa Craig. In the meantime, I’ll just have to use bought tomatoes for this recipe, one of my go-to summer salads. I’m not sure where it came from in the first place, as it’s now a much-used page in my recipe scrapbook. I suspect it may have been a Good Housekeeping recipe, tweaked down the line, but basically anything goes.

Warm Mediterranean Chicken Salad (serves 6)

Med chicken salad

200g couscous
300g cherry tomatoes, halved
1 red pepper, chopped
50g black olives, pitted and chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 tbsp capers, drained
2 tbsp pesto ( I use homemade broad bean pesto, or Delia’s basil pesto, but bought works well too)
9 tbsp virgin olive oil
1 small, hot cooked chicken (or use 3 chicken breasts, fried in strips for 5-10 minutes)
100g feta cheese, chopped (or use goat’s cheese)
Handful fresh basil leaves
Seasoning
Lettuce or salad leaves to serve

Put the couscous in a bowl, then add 225ml boiling water. Cover and leave to one side for 10 minutes or so.
Mix together the chopped tomatoes, pepper, olives, garlic, capers, pesto and 8 tbsp olive oil in a large bowl. If using a whole chicken, strip the meat from the bones and cut into bitesize pieces, then add to the bowl containing the tomato mixture. Toss gently together and season.
Add the remaining 1 tbsp olive oil to the couscous and mix lightly with a fork. Combine with the tomato mixture, and finally add the chopped feta or goat’s cheese. Sprinkle basil leaves on top. Arrange in a large salad bowl lined with salad leaves and serve so the chicken is still slightly warm, although it tastes good cold too the following day.

Another favourite salad for summer days is a Roasted Vegetable Salad, again served with couscous, although you could use rice instead. Simply chop courgettes, peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic into chunky pieces (aubergines work well too), sprinkle with fresh basil leaves (or rosemary works well too), drizzle with olive oil and season, then place in a roasting tin and roast at 180°C fan/Gas 5 for 45 minutes or until just starting to brown. Meanwhile steam the couscous as above (100ml of boiling water per 60g couscous per person is my rule of thumb), leaving to stand for 10 minutes or so. Stir in 1 tbsp pesto, then spoon into a serving dish. Top with the roast vegetables, still warm if you like, and sprinkle over some feta or goat’s cheese. Delicious 🙂

Roast veg salad in bowl

Autumn Glory

ratatouille-ingredients

I can barely believe that September has flown past and here we are in October, summer definitely over, yet the gardens are still overflowing with beautiful produce. The weather is still being kind to us, at least down here in the South-East, so my (late) sweet peas are still going strong, as are the dahlias, and the courgettes are still producing chunky fruit every couple of days! There’s definitely a chill in the air, though, certainly in the morning and evening, and the leaves on my scarlet Euonymus alatus are just starting to turn – a sure sign that autumn has arrived.

euonymus-alatus

The late start to the growing season this year has meant that some crops haven’t done as well as usual: my squashes are very small, for instance, and the runner beans have been sketchy, although the French beans have been magnificent! My two plum trees were cut back hard last year and tend to be biennial in any event, so I haven’t had vast amounts of fruit, but the later Marjorie variety has come up trumps with a few bowls’ worth of sweet and juicy plums.

With all the ingredients for ratatouille to hand, it seemed sacrilege not to make some for the freezer – something you really appreciate in the dank. dark days of winter. In recent years I’ve been oven-roasting the standard veg for a baked ratatouille, but this time I’ve reverted to the traditional method of cooking slowly on the hob – delightfully simple, yet delicious. I used courgettes, aubergine (two types), tomatoes, basil, red and green pepper, red onions and garlic, but the specific vegetables are not set in stone. In fact, I actually used a couple of tins of tomatoes, and a squirt of tomato purée, as my own tomatoes are not particularly prolific this year – that late Spring again! The Sungold and Gardener’s Delight have done well, as usual, but you never get enough to cook with on a large scale as they are cherry tomatoes, after all. The Black Russian, though extremely tasty and fleshy, have fruited very sparsely and I won’t be growing those outside again. Back to the drawing board next year for a larger outdoor tomato…

ratatouille_prep

Starting with the sliced onions, garlic and pepper, I gradually add the remaining veg as I prepare them by chopping roughly, then simmer for an hour or so. The taste of summer… Freezes beautifully, of course.

ratatouille

After the last couple of chillier nights, I removed all the remaining tomatoes from my outdoor plants this morning and have left them in baskets to ripen on the conservatory windowsill. I’ve done the same with some of my triffid-like chilli plants too. This year’s variety, the jalapeno-like Summer Heat, has been very tasty (if pretty hot!), but with very large fruit and leggy plants – not necessarily ideal on the conservatory window ledge!

Fortunately, the allotment is still full of veg for the coming months: leeks, brassicas, beetroot and parsnips are all yet to come – the joys of growing your own! My new autumn raspberries have taken well in their new bed and I’m picking a handful every couple of days – perfect with my breakfast muesli and yogurt. Apples are looking plentiful too and one of this weekend’s tasks should certainly be to harvest as many as I can for storage in the garage before the first frosts. Such a lovely time of year….

Oh, and those plums? Delicious eaten straight from the tree, of course, but this is one of my favourite recipes for a plum-based dessert/cake:

Plum and Almond Cake

plum-and-almond-cake

9 1/2oz caster sugar
7oz butter
10-12 plums, halved, stones removed
2 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 1/2oz self-raising flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
3 1/2 oz ground almonds
4 fl oz milk

Grease an 8″ solid-bottomed cake tin – I use a heavy tarte tatin tin.
Put 4 1/2oz sugar and 3fl oz water in a small pan and simmer gently until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and cook to a golden caramel colour, watching like a hawk so that it doesn’t burn! Remove from the heart and add 2oz butter, stirring well. Pour into the prepared cake tin and place the plum halves on top, cut side down.
Beat the remaining butter and sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy, then gradually mix in the beaten eggs and vanilla extract. Add 1-2 tbsp flour if it shows signs of curdling. Then fold in the dry ingredients, alternating with the milk.
Spoon the mixture onto the plums and bake for 45-50 minutes at 160°C / Gas 4 until golden brown, spongy to the touch and a skewer comes out clean.
Cool for a few minutes, then, while still warm, run a knife round the edge of the cake, place a large plate on top of the tin and firmly but gently turn the whole plate and tin upside down. Shake a little and the cake should just turn out of the tin onto the plate. If any plums stick to the tin, just gently transfer them to their position on the cake.
Sprinkle with toasted flaked almonds if you like.
Serve warm with cream or crème fraiche for a delicious dessert or cold as cake – delicious either way!

Incidentally, I’ve also made this with gluten-free self-raising flour (Dove’s Farm) and it worked a treat – worth remembering!

Gardening Crescendo

Back garden 2016 June

May/June is the time of year when a gardener’s activity levels reach a crescendo: tender plants to be transplanted outside, frames and supports to be constructed, late summer veg seeds to be sown, containers to be emptied of their faded bulbs and tired spring foliage, then rejuvenated with bright new summer bedding colour…. Inevitably there just aren’t enough hours in the day, especially when you’ve been delayed (again!) by a cold, late spring, and only have the weekend to get on in the garden.

And yet, somehow, it all gets done. Not quite yet, here at least, but it’s getting there. Last weekend I potted on my tomatoes and put up the bamboo frame that supports them against the sunny back of the house. Aubergines, peppers, chillis were all potted into bigger pots and returned to the conservatory. I sowed brassicas: calabrese, cavolo nero and purple-sprouting broccoli, plus a new one for me, cauliflower (Snowball). Last year’s Romanesco experiment was disappointing – very small heads and not much taste, so I thought I’d try the more traditional cauliflowers instead. Wallflower and sweet william also went in for early flowers next spring.

I had intended to plant out my tender courgettes, squash and sweetcorn up at the allotment, but a combination of a bank holiday, family around and other things going on meant I didn’t get chance – and just as well! Temperatures plummeted on Monday and we’ve had the most horrendous cold, wet and windy weather this week, most untypical for June. Judging by the state of my allotment neighbour’s young bean plants, any plants I had dared to plant out would have been whipped to shreds! Instead, they’ve been hardening off in the cold frame and went out in the more seasonal 20°C of this weekend. Second sowings of peas and finally time to erect the bean frame and sow French, runner and borlotti beans direct in the ground.

Germination has been sketchy on salad crops like lettuce and rocket – or more likely the slugs have been feasting yet again, despite frequent applications of organic slug pellets. In desperation I’ve ordered and applied (in the pouring rain, as recommended!) a nematode solution, both at the allotments and at home. Last time I tried, I found it singularly ineffective, but I suspect the soil temperature wasn’t warm enough. This time, that shouldn’t be an issue, but of course these biological pest controls take time to infest the host pests and can’t be expected to work overnight. Cue more slug pellets in the interim…

So what’s left to do? Just the mere task of emptying my old oak barrels of their spring planting schemes and replacing them with new barrels, bought earlier this year, drainage holes drilled and raring to go. The existing ones have been rotting gently for a couple of years now, so about time too – and hopefully getting rid of the decaying wood should eliminate some of the slugs and vine weevil grubs undoubtedly skulking in their depths. That’s next weekend’s job, though – or perhaps one a night in the evenings next week, work and weather permitting? We’ll see…

Strawberry

In the meantime, the first strawberry of the year was a welcome treat yesterday – as was the delightful open gardens tour in my village today: all the best gardeners deserve time off for inspiration! Weather, views and gardens to die for – and delicious tea and cake in the village church too. A gardener can but dream….

Wadhurst open gardens June 2016

 

Tomato Soup, Three Ways

Tomato soup has to be my all-time favourite. I think it goes back to the Heinz cans of tomato soup of my childhood, delicious on a cold winter’s day, even out of a Thermos flask. We never had home-made soup when I was a child, yet I’ve always prepared my own ever since I first started cooking in earnest and there really is no comparison! It’s so easy too, just a case of browning off your vegetables, adding (good) stock and away you go.

I love to stock up the freezer with tomato soup, as the tomato season here in Britain is so short, especially when you’re growing them without a greenhouse. I confess I do cheat and make tomato and lentil soup or minestrone with tinned tomatoes in the winter months, but for me the best tomato soups are those made in the fleeting months of August and September, when fresh, juicy tomatoes come straight off the vine. I don’t have a huge crop of tomatoes these days, and I do favour the cherry varieties like Sungold and Gardener’s Delight which I love to eat just as they are for their incomparable, sweet taste. This year, like last, I’ve also grown the stripy Tigerella, a small standard tomato, which is delicious cooked in soups and sauces, and lends itself to growing outside too. However, I don’t grow nearly enough for full-scale soup production and I’m very lucky this year to have been given bags full of huge, ripe tomatoes by friends with a smallholding and a very large and productive glasshouse!

I can never decide on my favourite tomato soup recipe and have three in contention – so I usually make all three at some point and fill the freezer accordingly for the darker days ahead. They are Delia’s Roasted Tomato Soup, which has a divinely rich and concentrated flavour, but uses a lot of tomatoes for a relatively small end quantity; Tomato, Apple & Celery Soup, another of Delia’s recipes, which originally came from the legendary John Tovey of the famous Miller Howe restaurant in the Lake District; and a simple Tomato Soup made in the slow cooker, originally taken from my very old Tower Slow Cook book. I’ve adapted them slightly, as ever. See which you prefer!

Delia’s Roasted Tomato Soup – serves 6

Roast tomatoes for soup1.5 kg ripe tomatoes

1 large onion

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

Handful of fresh basil leaves

200 – 250g potato, peeled and chopped

1 litre boiling water or vegetable stock

1 tsp balsamic vinegar

Olive oil

2 tbsp tomato purée

Seasoning

Cut the tomatoes in half and place cut side uppermost in a large roasting tray with the onion cut into chunky wedges. Sprinkle the roughly chopped basil leaves and chopped garlic on top, season and drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Roast at 180°C fan (Gas 5) for 50 minutes to 1 hour until starting to brown at the edges. In the meantime, place the chopped potato in a pan with the boiling water or stock and tomato purée, and simmer until the potato is cooked – about 20 minutes.

When the tomatoes are ready, scrape the contents of the roasting tray into the potato pan and purée the lot in a liquidiser in several batches. I’ve doubled Delia’s recipe here, as I found the original only ever made enough for three – perhaps I’m just greedy or maybe we have bigger appetites these days?

You can now sieve the soup if you wish, or leave it as it is if you don’t mind the slightly chunky texture. It will be even chunkier if you use a hand blender or food processor rather than a liquidiser, but none the worse for that.

Serve with good bread and savour the deep, rich taste – mmmmmm.

The next soup is ideal if you don’t have huge amounts of tomatoes to play with, as it uses equal quantities of apple and celery and gives a really fresh and vibrant flavour as a result. I always have plenty of windfall apples lying around at home and at the allotment this time of year, so it’s definitely on my must-cook list. Once again, I’ve doubled the original quantities – it’s really no effort to make more, fills my trusty Le Creuset casserole and makes plenty for the freezer. This soup is a much lighter colour than the other two, probably because of the apple and celery content.

Tomato, Apple & Celery Soup – serves 6-8

Tomato, apple and celery soup250g onions, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

4-500g tomatoes, quartered (leave on the skins and stalks)

350g apples, dessert or cooking, quartered (remove any damaged parts if using windfalls, but otherwise leave stalks and cores)

350g celery, including leaves, chopped into 3cm lengths

60g butter

120 ml dry sherry

Freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 tsp ground ginger

1 tsp chopped fresh thyme

1 tbsp tomato purée

1 litre home-made chicken stock

Seasoning

Melt the butter in a large pan, then add the chopped onions and garlic and cook gently until golden – about 10 minutes. Add the prepared fruit and vegetables, sherry, spices, thyme, tomato purée and seasoning, then place a double thickness of greaseproof paper, dampened with cold water, over the contents, cover with a lid and simmer gently for 1 hour. This method of cooking keeps in the flavours and allows the vegetables to cook really slowly; I’ve never found that it sticks, but you might like to check from time to time in case your heat source is particularly fierce!

After 1 hour, add the stock to the contents of the pan (removing the paper first, of course!) and stir thoroughly. Bring back to the boil for a few minutes, then allow to cool. Liquidise the soup in batches and then you will need to sieve this soup, as it contains all the stalks, pips, etc! Return to a clean pan and reheat.

Serve with good bread or cheese & apple scones. So fresh!

My final tomato soup recipe is made in the slow cooker for convenience, but you could equally well cook it on the hob for 45 minutes – 1 hour after the initial preparation. I often make it overnight, then it has time to cool before being liquidised for lunch. In my original recipe book I’ve noted down to add flour – how times have changed! I wouldn’t dream of adding flour to a soup recipe these days, but tastes were obviously different back in the early 80’s. Another sign of the times was the addition of dried mixed herbs – I really can’t remember the last time I didn’t use fresh herbs in a recipe, but they just weren’t as available in the shops 30 years ago… It works perfectly well with dried herbs if that’s all you’ve got to hand, of course, but fresh are definitely better. This recipe also includes bacon, which I think gives it a nice savoury flavour, but you could always leave it out and use vegetable stock if you’re cooking for vegetarians. It makes quite a thin, but delicious soup, since most of the vegetable content is rather watery; if you’d prefer a thicker soup (and trust me, flour is not the way to go!), just add a medium potato, peeled and diced, with the rest of the vegetables. Alternatively, you could add cream at the end for a cream of tomato soup.

Traditional Tomato Soup

Tomato soup50g butter or olive oil

2 medium onions, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

1 large carrot, chopped

3 sticks celery, chopped

(1 medium potato, peeled and diced if you prefer a thicker soup – optional)

4 rashers streaky bacon, chopped

1.4kg tomatoes, quartered

1 tbsp tomato purée

1 bay leaf

1 sprig rosemary, chopped (or herbs of your choice – basil, parsley and/or thyme are also good)

1 litre home-made chicken (or vegetable) stock

1 tsp sugar

Seasoning

If using a slow-cooker, pre-heat on high if necessary.

Heat the butter or olive oil in a large pan and cook the onion, garlic, carrot, celery and bacon gently for 5 minutes until starting to soften. Stir in the remaining ingredients apart from the stock and cook for a further 5 minutes, then add the stock and bring to the boil.

Transfer to the slow cooker if using and cook for 8 – 10 hours on Low – or overnight. Otherwise, turn the pan down to a simmer and cook for 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Remove the bay leaf, allow to cool, then liquidise in several batches. (I say this advisedly – I once asked my teenage son to liquidise some soup for me, but he didn’t read the instructions, didn’t allow it to cool and poured it all into the liquidiser in one go. Result: one extremely messy kitchen – not a pretty sight!) Again, you can sieve if you feel it necessary, but I don’t usually for this one.

Once again, serve with good bread and enjoy the taste of summer!