Unctious peppers

I should be asleep. But I’m not. I should be out for the count. But I’m not. I should be warm and cosy under the duvet listening to the gentle snorts and incomprehensible sleep mumbles of my man. But here I am with cold feet and jet lag, whiling away the hours till sleep arrived from mid-Atlantic to meet me. So this is for John and Eleanor. You requested it today. Maybe it was the seed of guilt that I had not sent it to you that is keeping me awake!

This pepper dish serves you well for supper with good bread. As a starter. With tapas. Or completely whizzed and pulsed into a puree, spread onto a pizza base and dotted with dollops of mozarella and fresh basil. Or spread thickly on a bagel over some cream cheese. Or spooned over buttery new potatoes. Or pasta. It’s that versatile.

Halve as many red, yellow or orange peppers as you like. But don’t use green ones. Try hard not to break the halves, and leave the stalks on.  Remove the seeds and the white stuff in the middle.  Place in an earthenware dish. Into each pepper half, put one small tomato, one anchovy fillet, one clove of garlic, an olive or two and a leaf or two of fresh basil. Put a few tomatoes into the dish too. Add a scant spinkle of chilli seeds – or leave them out if you prefer. Generously glug golden rapeseed oil (and the anchovy oil) into each pepper, and around them. Add about 1.5ml deep syrupy balsamic vinegar to each pepper half. Season with salt and black pepper.

Place the dish in the middle of a preheated oven at 175C for at least an hour until they are soft. You want the peppers to collapse and to have a slightly charred edge. Leave in the oven for longer if they are not done. Then either serve hot, warm or cold as suggested above with a good Rioja or Barolo.

The Changing of the Seasons

I love this song by Ane Brun – listen to it here on  Youtube

“He falls asleep on her chest, The best sleep he’d ever met. Nevertheless he dreams of some stranger’s caress. He awakes and he knows maybe someone else is supposed to meet his hazy anticipating  eyes. He draws the curtains aside unfolding the first morning light. He glances at his disenchanted life. Restlessness is me, you see, it’s hard to be safe, it’s difficult to be happy. It’s the changing of the seasons he says ‘I need them’ –  I guess I’m too Scandinavian. The relief of spring, intoxication of summer rain. The clearness of fall.  How winter makes me reconsider it all. Restlessness is me, you see, it’s hard to be safe It’s difficult to be happy. And then she awakes, reaches for the embrace he decides not to worry about seasons again”.

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I can feel the season changing and although I am a summer bird, I welcome the change in the air. I love the deep red/gold of the fields of stubble in the dusk. I love the smell of big dark raindrops on dry earth. I regret and yet I love the dark furrows of the plough on the fields and the long purple shadows of oak trees stretching across grass. It entices me to get in the kitchen with piles of produce – beans, onions, peppers and apples, sweetcorn and beetroot, pots of spices and jars of vinegar.  Out with the preserving pan, dust off the mobile gas ring (much more efficient for this job than my ceramic hob) and off we go.
Pickles and chutneys are the very essence of alchemy.  Making them is not, in my house, a precise science.  Like most of my cooking it is achieved  through the senses rather than the weighing scale.  It depends how spicy, how tart, how hot, how deep, how fresh you want your preserves to taste. And the only way of knowing is to keep making them. Forget. Then remember again a couple of years later.
Piccalilli (thanks to my personal lexicographers Sue and Shirl), this year, was a wonderful blend of runner beans sold at someone’s gateway, cauliflower from my garden – slightly ‘gone over’ as we say in Norfolk – opened up and the edges just about to turn purple, onion and black podded beans.  I made some brine (3tbsp salt in a cup of hot water then mixed with about 1 litre of cold) then sliced all my vegetables into the brine and left them overnight.  In the morning I drained and rinsed them, then put a mixture of spices in the preserving pan.
This is where the alchemy comes in – and you are going to have to choose how to replicate the flavour you prefer.  For me, it was about 3tbsp coriander seed, a large sprinkle of dried chilli flakes. 3 tbsp black mustard seed, 2 tbsp English mustard powder, 2 tbsp ground turmeric, mixed with 750ml white distilled vinegar (absolutely not brown fish-and-chip vinegar) and 175g light raw cane muscovado sugar.  Bring all this to the boil, stirring gently and let it boil away for a couple of minutes. This simply lets some of the rawness of the vinegar calm down a bit.  Then take off the heat and carefully add all your prepared vegetables. Bring gently to the boil again and cook for about 15 minutes.  Lots of recipes tell you to cook for longer, but I think it completely boils the character out of the vegetables.  I prefer my piccalilli hot, yellow, crunchy and tasty, not mushy and pale green. Take off the heat and let it settle and then judge for yourself how thick is the sauce.  The idea is that the sauce is thick but not gloopy. But definitely not runny.  Remember that the vegetables will rise to the surface whilst cooking so there might be more liquid in the bottom than you think there is. So stir it around and see.
In my alchemy rule book I will always put slightly less liquid in at the beginning than I think I need – because not only will the vegetables will rise to the surface but they will also reduce in size).  If you think you have too much liquid you can remove some with a large spoon. Then, mix some of it with a couple of tablespoons of cornflour and return to the pan, bring slowly to the boil for the final time until the sauce thickens. When that happens, cook for one more minute then allow  to stand for a good 15 minutes without disturbing it.
My habit with glass jars, whether for pickles or jam, is to wash them in very hot water, rinse and dry them then put in the microwave and give them a blast on ‘high’ for a couple of minutes.
After 15 minutes you can decant the piccalilli into the jars. When they are full, give each one a sharp tap on the work surface to bring any air bubbles to the surface, then add a lid and you are done.
Green Tomato Chutney. For years – and particularly in the ’80s – my heart used to sink when I heard those words. For I was reluctantly, rather than gratefully, about to receive yet another pale annual offering in a jar from a neighbour who laboured under the illusion that her green tomato chutney was divine.  I could not refuse.  But I did not agree!
Last year, unlike this, I had a glut of tomatoes, many of which I ended up putting into carrier bags and freezing them whole. The red ones have subsequently been turned into passata, tomato soup, tomatoes braised in butter, garlic and basil etc etc. Today it poured with rain all day – a perfect day for green tomato chutney making.
Into  the preserving pan went about 1.5kg frozen green tomatoes, 2kg frozen red tomatoes, 500g frozen green plums, one chopped onion, 6 windfall cooking apples (on the small side, shaken off too soon by last night’s storm), a good sprinkle of chilli flakes, 2 tbsp fennel seed, 1 tbsp cumin seed, 1 tbsp ground cumin,  three fat cloves of smoked garlic from the Isle of Wight, 1 cinnamon stick and two knobbly bits of peeled fresh ginger (don’t chop it up – more on that later), 1litre white distilled vinegar, 1tbsp salt and 175g light raw cane muscovado sugar. Mix it all together and off we go.  Yes. The fruits were whole and frozen. No the ginger wasn’t chopped.
I brought it all to the boil and then settled it down to a gentle simmer for 2-3 hours. Chutney such as this (unlike the fresh Indian chutneys) should be dark and full of flavour.  Cooking these proportions of vinegar and sugar over a long period makes something quite magical happen to the liquid. It deepens and darkens, becomes unctious and glossy.  But – I hear you ask – what happens to the frozen fruit?  It simply reduces itself to a mush, including the skins surprisingly enough. So you don’t need to defreeze and chop. And what of the large knobbly bits of ginger, you retort?  Fish them out carefully and chop them up at the end of the cooking process, then return to the pan. That way you get a hot fresh gingery hit occasionally, rather than simply having ginger in the mix. They will be easy to identify because as everything reduces, the ginger doesn’t – in fact it plumps up in the liquid.    The plum stones also rise to the surface so simply pick them out. By the way, don’t be tempted to use powdered ginger – do you want your chutney to taste like a cake?
The same rule applies as for the piccalilli ie the solids will rise to the surface. so make sure you know how much liquid is really in that pan before you decide to pot it up. Leave it to stand for 15 minutes before you do so.
Remember – everyone’s preserves are different. You can make your mark by using the ingredients you have available and adjusting the spices and seasonings to your own taste. The key is understanding how much liquid to use, and how long to cook.   In my unwritten rulebook the answers to those two conundrums are less than you think for the first, and longer than you dare for the second.
 

1001 ways with a courgette

For years my friends teased me about my obsession with writing a cookbook on 1001 things to do with mince. I guess those times were linked to cooking on an extremely low budget and I needed to do something to lift my spirits; like writing a cookbook about mince.  I can see the irony in it now.

But here I sit with a glut of courgettes, as there is every year. And every year those same friends say ‘why dont you write a cookbook about 1001 things to do with a  courgette’. At risk of appearing both rude and crude, I have resisted.  However here are a few ideas.

COURGETTE WITH LEMON

Slice the courgettes on the diagonal, drizzle with olive oil, rock salt and black pepper.  Heat a ridged pan till it is smoking then sear the courgettes on both sides, leaving them to cook until they are only just done.  Then turn into a warm dish and add the zest of a lemon and chopped lemon balm, a squeeze of juice and some beautiful golden rapeseed oil

COURGETTE FRITTATA

Buried somewhere on this blog are a couple of versions of this summer staple.  Grate 2 large courgettes and lay them on a clean tea towel. Sprinkle with salt and leave for 10 minutes. Then wrap the grated courgettes in the teatowel and squeeze hard over the sink. Loads of water will come out. You want to get it as dry as you can.  Then soften shallot  in oil in a pan the pedigree of which you can trust in the oven – my trusty  copper frying pan is the one I use most often. It looks dead posh but actually came from Sainsburys about 12 years ago.  I digress: when the shallot is soft, add squeezed garlic – as much as you like – stir it around a bit then add a little more oil and then the courgette.  Season with pepper but no more salt, then add about 200g feta or goat cheese or goat curd and a really big handful of chopped fresh mint and chives. Then beat 4 eggs with 80ml plain yogurt (or you could use cream, or milk) and pour over the courgette and cheese mixture (keeping the heat fairly high). Move the mixture around a bit to make sure the egg is well distributed and  keep on that high heat for 5 minutes – the purpose of this is to seal the bottom so it will easily turn out of the pan.  Then clamp on a lid, turn down the heat and cook on low to medium for about 10 minutes. After that just put it under the grill till the top is golden brown. Then invert onto a plate and serve, you can eat this hot or cold. However there’s never enough left to eat it cold in our house.

COURGETTE TEMPURA WITH GARLICKY TOMATO AIOLI

Slice courgettes  on a broad diagonal so you get plenty of surface area.  Beat one or two egg whites (depending on the size of the eggs) till really stiff, then fold in 75g cornflour, 50g plain flour, a pinch of salt.  Then add the essential ingredient – about 190ml very cold carbonated water. Mix it all together, dip courgette slices into cornflour till lightly coated, tap them on the side of the plate and then into the batter and immediately drop into very hot rapeseed oil. They will pop and hiss and fluff up and will be ready in 2 minutes.  Drain on kitchen towel.  For the aioli, take 6 tablespoons of excellent mayonnaise mixed with some tomato puree and crushed garlic to your taste.  Or you can make it yourself with a stick blender.  The trick is to keep the blender flat on the bottom for 10 seconds then slowly lift it up.  It will turn the ingredients into a beautiful emulsion 100% – every time. Use 2 egg yolks, a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a pinch of salt, 15ml white wine vinegar and 250ml rapeseed oil. Then add a tablespoon of tomato puree and a crushed clove of garlic. I found this really easy method on the BBC Good Food Youtube clip and it is completely failsafe.

COURGETTE IN NUT ROAST

Use my usual recipe for nutroast already on this blog, but instead of using tomato and cheese in the middle, use grated courgette. Treat it to the salt and teatowel method described on this page, then mix with fresh herbs like lemon thyme or marjoram, and add a 1.5 cm layer in the middle of the nut roast. If you add more than than then I suggest increasing the cooking time.

INSIDEOUT NUT ROAST

Cut the courgettes in half then scoop out the seeds in the middle till you have a channel along ithe length. Lay the courgettes on a thick bed of seasoned de-seeded chopped tomatoes and spring onions, then lay the nutroast mixture on top of the courgettes.  Season well and cover with more chopped tomatoes and spring onions. Bake covered in foil at 180 for 20 minutes then uncovered for 10 minutes.

SWEET TREATS

COURGETTE MUFFINS

Think of carrot cake. What’s the difference using a courgette? Not a lot is the answer. Essentially the carrot/courgette/whatever adds some texture but mostly it adds moisture.  So any cake recipe which calls for grated carrot can also use grated courgette.  For this recipe grate 2 large courgettes (about 200g) and treat as before. Then add them to 225g wholemeal flour, 1 tsp bicarbonate soda, the zest of an orange and 100g sultanas.  Whisk 2 eggs, 175ml rapeseed oil and 4 tablespoons of orange juice into the mixture.  Pour into lined muffin tins or greaseproof cups and cook for 25 minutes at 180C. bet there won’t be any left by tomorrow!

CHOCOLATE COURGETTE CAKE

OK so beetroot and chocolate is de rigeur.  But I prefer courgette!  Grate 500g courgettes and prepare as before.  Mix 150g self raising flour and 200g wholemeal flour with 1 teaspoon of mixed spice and 300g raw cane sugar. I advise not using muscovado, which makes a lot of liquid in the cooking.  Whisk together 3 eggs with 175ml rapeseed oil, two teaspoons of good vanilla extract. Then add the courgettes and the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix carefully.  Finally add 140g toasted chopped hazlenuts, or even better in my view, pine nuts.  Pour this into a lined 24cm springform tin and bake for 40-45 minutes.  When it is done, let it cool completely, remove from the tin then carefully melt 200g 70% cocoa solids chocolate  in the microwave and add 100ml hot cream.  Mix well and it will thicken.  Leave it 5 minutes then pour this ganche onto the cake.  You can keep your devil’s foodcake.  This is the one for me – light, deeply chocolatey, studded with nuts and a gooey topping. I dare you to eat only one slice!

Marsh Pig Salami

Heavenly produce from Wymondham Farmer’s Market. Everything a Farmer’s Market should be – small, great range of food, plants, meat, bread,chutneys, eggs, fish, charcuterie.  Here’s my favourite combination. Sourdough and salamiMarshPig salami with fennel, a glass of cold beer on a hot day and Tour de France on the TV.