Like a Rocket – summer glut-busting: wild rocket pesto

Summer days are here at last, and for those of us who grow our own fruit and vegetables, that means the summer gluts are starting, too. Wild rocket is really very easy to grow, which is great, as the sad little plastic salad bags at the supermarket cost a small fortune! Even if you only have space for a window box or a pot on a sunny doorstep, you’re quite likely to be able to grow more of this really punchy, peppery salad leaf than you can bear to eat in salad. Even better, wild rocket is perennial, which means that you only have to plant it once and it will come back, year after year. In the garden of our last house, we ended up with a big clump of wild rocket growing at the edge of the lawn which served us for many years.

A few weeks ago, I transplanted three rather sad looking overwintered plants from an exhausted grow-bag into one of the raised beds in my poly-tunnel. And look what happened!

Wild rocket

There you go, straight away – more rocket than I can possibly eat! And then, I thought – I wonder if I can make pesto with this stuff? It’s punchy, peppery, and in many respects quite like basil, so I was hopeful. A quick search around the internet confirmed my suspicions that it should be possible, so I got picking.

For my batch of pesto, which filled an average-sized jam jar with a little to spare, I used –

  • 120g of freshly picked wild rocket leaves. To give you a rough idea of how much rocket that is, the supermarket packs of rocket leaves are usually between 50g and 70g.
  • Washed & dried rocket3 large cloves of garlic
  • 50g pine kernels, lightly toasted in a dry frying pan
  • 50g good quality parmesan cheese
  • Plenty of good extra virgin olive oil
  • One lemon
  • A pinch of salt

Wash your rocket, removing tougher stems and any flower stalks, and dry it in a salad spinner (or give it a really good shake in a colander with a plate over the top).

You can make this pesto in a pestle and mortar (in fact, it’s my favourite way of making small batches of basil pesto, as you keep closer control over the texture and you’re much less likely to over process) but given the quantities I used my food processor for this batch. First, blitz the garlic cloves with a pinch of salt until they’re finely chopped down. Then add the parmesan, and reduce to crumbs, before adding the pine kernels. Aim to retain some texture in the pine kernels, you’re not trying to purée them!

Once that’s done, add the rocket, a handful at a time, adding some olive oil as you go if the mix gets a bit dry. Aim to retain a little texture in the mix.

Rocket pesto after processing

Once it looks like this, squeeze in the juice of half a lemon, mix well, and add oil until it reaches the texture you prefer. Taste – you’ll find it punchy, peppery, and pungent – and add more lemon juice if you feel it’s needed. You won’t need to add pepper – trust me on this! – but you may want to add a little more salt at this stage, too.

The pesto will store for a few days in a screw-top jar in the refrigerator. Keep the surface covered with a layer of olive oil to prevent oxidation. If you want to store your pesto for longer, you can freeze it in an ice cube tray, and take it out in single-serve portions. How clever is that?

Pesto in jar

Use your rocket pesto any way you would use the basil kind. It’s wonderful stirred through pasta or, particularly, gnocchi. Add a few little dabs to the top of your pizza before baking. Or spread it on burger buns as a punchy, peppery relish.

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Hugh’s on the Warpath – but is bin-shaming really the way to tackle food waste?

Last night the indefatigable Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launched onto British television screens with a new crusade, ‘Hugh’s War On Waste’. After taking aim in previous campaigns at factory farming of poultry and against the practice of discarding fish catches at sea, this time his target is the vast scale of food waste in our homes and in the supermarket supply chain.

Let me start by saying, first of all, that I completely agree with Hugh’s view that food waste (and waste generally in our society, whether that’s disposable fashion or indiscriminate upgrading to the latest electronic gadget) is a disgrace. Perfectly edible food is wasted in the supermarket supply chain, downgraded for failing to meet the ‘Stepford Vegetable’ cosmetic standards the supermarkets insist that the British Housewife demands, or thrown in a skip when past the sell-by date. The food that makes it home with us is scarcely better off, discarded from our kitchens by the bag-full, whether this is misguidedly premature, led by confusion about food safety advice and the best-before date conundrum, or genuinely putrid, neglected and forgotten in the back of our fridges and the bottom of our fruit bowls, the victim of overbuying and poor meal planning.

Processed meat selectionThese two things, it seems to me, are very different problems; I think naming and shaming supermarkets (and other food businesses) for abusive contracts and wasteful supply chain practices is entirely worthwhile – they’ve shown that they don’t like having daylight shone on their dodgier business practices in the past – and has potential not just to reduce waste, but also to improve the situation of their farm suppliers, but I’m not all sure that rooting through people’s wheely bins on telly and shaming them for throwing away food is likely to have any useful effect on waste from homes.

Why? Well, people throw away food essentially for one reason – because they believe it’s ‘off’, and not good to eat.

Sometimes they’re right, as the hairy, slimy green peppers that I occasionally discover at the back of my fridge bear witness. But often they’re mistaken – much the food being discarded from kitchens is perfectly sound and being discarded on a precautionary basis by worried families without the food knowledge to tell the difference or the cooking skills to make great meals from ‘bits and bobs’ or ingredients which may be past their best, but remain perfectly edible.

People up aren’t throwing away edible food because they’re stupid, thoughtless, or enjoy throwing money away. They’re wasting food because they’re afraid of it. And the reason they’re afraid of it is, fundamentally, because of a huge gap in food skills that has developed in this country (and, I suspect, in many countries in the developed world).

Young adults in the UK today, if they’re unlucky, could be two generations away from the last person in their family who regularly cooked at home from fresh ingredients. Their grandmothers will have entered the workplace during WW2, and in many families, never left it afterwards. The war years with food rationing would have been inconceivably difficult, and the advent in post war years, first of domestic freezers, and then  of ready meals, would have seemed an incredible boon to these working families. As a result, many baby-boomers grew up in households where meals were rarely if ever cooked from scratch and their children, in turn, are now raising families of their own, stripped of the skills and knowledge that their grandmothers would have taken for granted, and with no obvious way of bridging the gap. It isn’t a matter of money, class, or even of general education, but rather a family-by-family lottery.

People I’ve known and worked with over the years illustrate this issue vividly. Lovely, intelligent ladies, all, and half a generation older than me for the most part. One refused to have anything in her fridge that wasn’t a sealed packet – anything, once opened and not consumed, was thrown away. My enquiries about leftovers were met with a look that I can only describe as alarm. Another fed herself, and her family, almost entirely on take-aways and what she called ‘ping-meals’ (microwave ready meals). Any jar she opened was labelled in permanent marker with the opening date and disposed of no more than seven days later – including very stable foods like jams and chutneys. Another admitted – and readers who grow their own veg might want to look away now – to furtively disposing of vegetables given to her by her allotment gardening neighbour, because they were ‘dirty, and had holes in’.

I genuinely don’t know how we solve this problem – but until we do, no amount of telling people it’s wrong to throw out food is going to make them eat something they suspect will harm them – quite probably wrongly, but nevertheless, or that they can’t see how to make into a meal. The lady with the bacon and eggs, shamed by Hugh into taking them back inside, is not, I suspect, going to eat them, no matter what she’s told. This skills gap, of course, has implications for problems beyond waste, including, most obviously, on heath.

I was incredibly lucky to have a grandmother who taught me a lot – not just about food and cooking, but in her attitude to life. Grandma, like many of her generation, considered wasting food to be almost sinful – I do wonder how we’ve come so far from this view now that we so often think of it as a normal part of life!

In the meantime, here are my top five tips for reducing kitchen food waste –

1) Buy the smallest fridge you can survive with, and the largest freezer you can find space for. And freezer baskets.

This makes sense when you think of how much perishable food goes into fridges only to be pushed to the back, forgotten, and allowed to go rotten. We have a much smaller fridge here in Cornwall than at our old house, not, initially, by choice. But by reducing the amount of fresh food we can keep to a couple of days worth of meat or fish and less than a week’s worth of green vegetables, we have dramatically reduced the amount of it that gets a chance to become inedibly past it’s best before we manage to eat it.

Sliced lemon and lime, bagged for freezingA big freezer gives you the capacity to freeze anything that you’re not going to get the chance to eat before it goes off, as well as freezing leftovers into home-made ready meals for later use. It also means you can keep a good variety of frozen vegetables which are a great, healthy, and low-waste alternative to perishable fresh vegetables.

Having access to a large freezer also means you can buy in bulk when you get the chance, and save money – but always remember to break large packs into sensible sizes before freezing – in our house packs of four chicken thighs are much more useful than trays of 20! But things can easily disappear into the back or bottom of large freezers, not to be seen for years – freezer baskets and a spot of organisation are essential to keep your frozen foods accessible and easy to find.

2) Don’t buy fresh meat, fish and vegetables from the supermarket. Definitely don’t buy ‘prepared’ vegetables.

Supermarkets sell fresh, perishable produce in pack sizes to suit themselves, not you. Then they often price them – with the help of 3-for-2 style offers – to encourage shoppers to take more home than they bargained for. The extra food may seem like a good deal, but unless it’s thoughtfully frozen, it will often end up going uneaten and ending up in the bin.

In addition to this, fresh fruit and veggies in supermarkets have sat in their supply chains for an awfully long time, far longer than you might expect in some cases – apples are stored in temperature controlled, oxygen-free warehouses which dramatically slows their deterioration, but that process cracks right on with a vengeance just as soon as the produce emerges from their enforced hibernation. Fruit and veg ‘fresh’ from the supermarket shelves often just doesn’t keep the way you’d expect.

Prepared fruit and veg – trimmed beans, peeled apples, diced mangoes, and the worst offenders of all, washed and bagged salads and stir-fry mixes – are some of the worst culprits in the food waste stakes. Despite the ‘protective atmospheres’ that these products are packed in, peeling, dicing, slicing and shredding vegetables dramatically reduces their shelf life (take two apples, slice one in two, leave the other whole, and stick them both in the fridge for a few days if you don’t believe me) making them much more likely to go to waste. And that’s without even considering the huge amount of packaging waste that also results from ‘prepared’ products.

A final reason not to buy fresh produce from supermarkets, is that their purchasing practices are pretty universally awful, full of waste and focused on supply-chain characteristics and cosmetic appearance far above flavour or nutrition.

So what are the alternatives? Well, find your local butcher and fishmonger, and buy from them. You’ll be able to get exactly what you want, in exactly the quantity you want – the quality will almost certainly be better than the supermarket, the butcher will likely be able to tell you about their origins, and you won’t end up paying over the odds, either. As for fruit & veggies your local grocer, if you have one, is ideal. That way, you can buy what you want, when you want. Veg boxes are great, but require a flexible approach to cooking and a willingness to try new things depending on what arrives in your box, so if this doesn’t honestly describe you, they may not be the right answer.

3) Meal planning

I admit, I’m bad at this one! But if you’re the organised, list-making type, it can save a lot of waste, not to mention a lot of money! If you can’t manage that, then try to keep a close eye on the contents of your fridge, bearing in mind what you’re going to eat today, and tomorrow. If there’s anything perishable in there that you’re not planning to eat in the next day or two, consider freezing it now – you can always defrost it again if you change your mind!

Not every food in your fridge will lend itself to freezing, but most will if you learn a trick or two. Meat and fish will usually freeze fine as it is. Milk, cream, butter and cheese, incidentally, can also be frozen – cream will often need to be whipped after defrosting, but is absolutely fine for cooking with. Vegetables often won’t freeze straight from fresh, but many will freeze really well after simple cooking such as dicing and roasting in the oven, or par-boiling.

4) Make and grow your own

I know this may seem impractical if you’re short on time and space, but even if you only grow a few salad leaves, some fresh herbs, or a single strawberry plant in a sunny window box, there’s something transformative about growing your own food.

Once you’ve planted the seed, cared for it, and watched it grow and ripen with anticipation, the idea of letting it go to waste is almost inconceivable. I go to great lengths to make sure I use every last thing I grow in my garden and polytunnel – freezing, pickling and preserving what I can’t use fresh – because the idea of wasting any of it makes me feel awful. That feeling can’t help but extend itself to food I buy, which, after all, has been grown with care and attention by someone else.

Tear & enjoyThe same principle extends to baking your own bread – one of the most wasted items in our kitchens. Once you’ve made your own glorious fresh loaf, believe me, it won’t be wasted. And you’ll go off the spongy supermarket rubbish pretty sharpish, too!

5) Up-skill!

Take every opportunity to improve your food and cooking skills and knowledge. I don’t mean by watching celebrity chefs on telly – that’s just sight-seeing. And you don’t need to go to expensive masterclasses or kitchen-school weekends.

Indian kebabs, servedKeen cooks are usually keen to share what they know – just look at the number of food bloggers out there! They will exist amongst your friends, your family, and your colleagues, so why not ask if you can cook with them? Perhaps there’s something else you can offer to teach them in return?

Practice. Experiment. Buy a few good cookbooks. And seize any opportunity to learn from others – from your grandparents, if they’re still with you, and other peoples’ Grannies, should the opportunity arise. Seek out older members of your family and learn what you can about your family food traditions. You never know, you may learn about a lot more than food!

Have you got any top tips on reducing food waste at home? Any bright ideas on how to close the food-skills gap? What do you think of Hugh’s approach to solving the food waste problem? Please comment below!

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Elderflower Vinegar, From the Forager’s Kitchen by Fiona Bird – Cooking the Books, Week 22

No elderflower champagne for me this year (*sob*) but I refuse to miss out completely on the floral bounty of the season. Last year I made a very small experimental batch of elderflower vinegar – just stripped some flowers into a Kilner jar, topped up with cider vinegar, and forgot about it for a couple of weeks before straining it and putting it back into the bottles it came out of. I was delighted with the results, which captured the fresh elderflower fragrance remarkably – even more so, if it’s possible, than cordial or champagne do. It was a tiny batch, so I had very little to share around, but everyone who tried it seemed amazed by it.

So this year, obviously, I had to make a little more. Not as much as I would have liked, because it has to move house with us in a few weeks, but I thought I could just about justify a two litre batch… And then I thought, before diving straight in and just making it up as I went along like last year, I ought to have a look at the cookbooks…

Forager's Kitchen - page I wasn’t really expecting to find anything, but The Forager’s Kitchen came up trumps – it has some remarkable infused vinegar suggestions, including violet vinegar (which is the recipe that first drew me in to this fabulous little book), so I shouldn’t really have been surprised I guess! Fiona’s elderflower vinegar is a fair bit more sophisticated than my efforts last year, with a double-infusion and the addition of a little lime zest. So here goes!

Picked elderflowersFor a two litre batch, you will require –

  • 60 elderflower heads (30 now, 30 later)
  • Two litres of cider vinegar
  • One lime
  • A 2l Kilner jar or similar

Pick 30 your elderflowers on a warm, dry, bright (and ideally sunny!) day.

Shake off any visible insect life, but don’t under any circumstances be tempted to wash them, as you’ll flush away all the beautiful flavour. Now you need to remove the tiny little flowers from the flower heads. Yes, I know it’s a pain, but sit down comfortably, and you’ll be done in about half an hour.

All the little flower heads in a jarMy technique is more like rubbing the flowers between my thumb and fingers than picking individual flowers, and once you’ve got the knack it’s surprising how quickly you can do it. The flowers will probably be crawling with tiny little black insects – if this bothers you, try not to look at them! (We all eat bugs all the time – even veggies and vegans! – you only have to look at the FDA permitted levels of contaminants in food products if you don’t believe me!)

Top up with vinegarTransfer all your tiny little flowers to a clean sterilised 2l jar, and top up with cider vinegar. Put the caps back on the empty bottles and put them safely to one side, you’ll want them again later.

With a vegetable peeler, peel the lime zest in strips, taking as little of the white pith as you can, and add this, too. Seal up the jar and put it somewhere nice and warm, shaking occasionally, for 10 days.

Don’t waste the rest of your lime, slice it up, and put it in a bag in the freezer. It’ll still go a treat in your gin & tonic!

Peel lime zest Slice lime Bag lime for the freezer

After about ten days, pick yourself 30 more flower heads, remove the flowers as before, strain off the vinegar from the elderflowers and lime zest, and replace them with the freshly picked flowers. I wouldn’t worry about really fine filtering at this stage, a normal sieve ought to be fine. Put the jar back somewhere warm and repeat the occasional shaking for several days.

Place in a warm place, shake occasionally

You’ll see that there’s quite a lot of pollen settled at the bottom of the jar. If you want a really clear vinegar, you’ll want to filter it finely before bottling. I suggest initially straining off the flowers, before passing the vinegar through a fine jelly bag or several layers of muslin. Once filtered, return the vinegar to the bottles it came from. I don’t bother to re-sterilise these, by and large, since they shouldn’t have had a chance to become contaminated since the vinegar was poured out, as long as they’ve been kept capped. Fiona advises using sterilised bottles, though, and she’s probably right!

The vinegar will keep in a cool larder cupboard for at least a year, if you can make it last that long!

**
Forager's Kitchen - coverThe Forager’s Kitchen, by Fiona Bird
CICO Books, 2013.
ISBN 978-1-908862-61-7
Hard cover, 192 pages, full colour. RRP £16.99.

[Full disclosure: This is my book, which I bought. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

This is such an incredibly beautiful book that it’s easy to forget what a great resource it is for wild eating! It covers a huge range of foraging habitats and seasons, hedgerow to coastline.

There are plenty of foraging handbooks out there (I’ve reviewed a couple in the past) – what makes this book remarkable is the quality, inventiveness and sophistication of the recipes, all of which genuinely seem to respect and require the foraged ingredients. There is a freshness and originality about these recipes that I’ve rarely seen elsewhere and which makes me want to make them all, just as soon as I can wrap my grubby little forager’s mitts around the required ingredients!

If you’re at all interested in wild food (with the proviso that it really is UK-focused, and probably progressively less use the further afield you might be) go and buy this gorgeous little book!

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

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Taming the Tomato Glut – Part 7: finally, putting it on ice!

Now that's what you call a glut!

In the end, there’s always the freezer…

At the end of October, I had the last few bowls of tomatoes I hadn’t managed to preserve, eat, or give away, and we were on our way to Cornwall for a week. They weren’t going to survive until our return, so it was time for desperate measures.

Freezing is a great food preservation technique – maintaining all the freshness and nutritional value of your home-grown fruit and vegetables. This comes at some cost to texture, undoubtedly, but usually in ways that are irrelevant if you’re going to cook the veggies anyway. Preparation is generally quick and straightforward – certainly compared to preserving, bottling or pickling. Of course the limiting factor is always the space available in the freezer, which for me, despite the obvious advantages, tends to make freezing my preserving technique of last resort.

Wash & trim tomatoesI needed to get these tomatoes stored with as little faff as possible – I had a holiday to get started! – so I chose the simplest of all solutions.

Wash your tomatoes and discard any which are spoiled, trimming any minor damage. Remove their little green hats. Then, a batch at a time, just pulse them very quickly in a food processor enough to break them up.

Chop in food processorYou’re not trying to reduce them to pulp, just roughly chop to release enough juice that they will freeze as a solid ‘brick’ of tomato flesh and juice.

This leaves the skins and seeds in, which I know some will disapprove of. Personally I struggle to be offended by tomato skins – really, life’s too short to be peeling tomatoes! You will hear that chopping tomatoes in a food processor will break up the seeds and release a bitter flavour – while this may be the case if you’re trying to blend to a smooth texture, I’m pretty sure hardly any of seeds are damaged with such a short chop.

Pint measureDecide on your freezing volume – I chose to freeze these a pint at a time, in retrospect that was too much for us, since I’m usually just cooking for me and Hubby, and when I do this again in future I will probably freeze at least some in half-pint volumes for greater convenience.

Bag up your tomatoes, excluding all the air when you seal the bag, label the bags and tuck away in the deep freeze until you need them.

Ready for freezing

You can use these for more or less anything, to be honest. Allow them to thaw out, and use them in place of fresh tomatoes, for example in the recipe for roasted tomatoes with chicken and pasta. Passed through a mouli, you have a batch of fresh passata ready to go straight away – and thus remove the skins and seeds, if they offend your delicate sensibilities! You can also use them directly as a substitute for chopped tinned tomatoes in chillies and pasta sauces – I used some in the puttanesca sauce I made recently, and they were excellent. I can’t however recommend trying to eat them raw – the texture is altered by freezing and while the flavour is lovely and fresh, it would be a bit like putting tinned tomatoes in your salad!

Serve!

Well, folks, that’s it for last year’s tomato glut (I know, I know…)! It’s taken me a while to finish writing these posts up – hopefully they’ll be of use to my Southern hemisphere readers pretty soon, at least! But I still have jars and bottles of passata, tomato and chilli chutney, and green tomato chutney in the larder, ‘sun dried’ tomatoes in a jar in the kitchen, and a couple more bags of frozen tomatoes in the freezer. Even in the depths of winter, I can enjoy my summer’s produce, a genuine taste of bottled sunshine, and that makes it all utterly worthwhile!

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Taming the Tomato Glut – Part 6: Grandma’s green tomato chutney

I remember my grandmother making her green tomato chutney, towards the end of the summer holidays, when it was clear that the best of the ripening days for the tomatoes she lovingly grew outdoors, on the patio, were over. After her death, my mother transcribed some of her hand-written recipes for my sister and I – including the green tomato chutney recipe.

Now that's what you call a glut!

Back at the end of last summer, I had rather a lot of green tomatoes.  So I went and had a dig around the darker, dustier recesses of my laptop hard disk, and retrieved the text files containing Grandma’s recipes, and hidden among them, sure enough, was this –

GREEN TOMATO CHUTNEY

3lb green tomatoes, 2lb cooking apples, 3/4lb sultanas. 1oz ground black pepper, 4 tbs salt, 1 quart malt vinegar, 1lb Demerara sugar, 1/2 oz mustard seeds, pinch cayenne pepper

Peel and slice tomatoes. Cut up apples. Chop sultanas. Put in enamelled saucepan with remaining ingredients. Boil gently for 2 hours, stirring constantly until chutney gets dark and tomatoes and apples are well cooked. Bottle when cool.

The main thing that struck me about this recipe was the lack of any onions – honestly, I can’t remember whether Grandma used them or not, but I expect onions in a chutney recipe! I made a couple of other, more minor modifications, too (Sorry, Grandma!), and scaled the recipe up to use as many of the green tomatoes as possible.

This, it turns out, was a mistake – the quantity I made was totally impractical, took forever to cook down, and almost ended in disaster, more of which later. Really, I can’t recommend making more than half this batch size. Even if, like me, you have a really big stock pot. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

For my chutney, I used –

  • Cooking apples3 kg green tomatoes
  • 2 kg cooking apples
  • 1 kg onions
  • 1 kg Demerara sugar
  • 2 l malt vinegar
  • 750g dried vine fruits (I used a mix of raisins & sultanas)
  • 2 tbsp freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tbsp sea salt
  • 1 tbsp yellow mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper

Life is too short to peel tomatoes (especially 3kg of them!) and I was cooking on a work night, so it was too short to lovingly chop them by hand, too! Out with the food processor, and rough-chop all the tomatoes, onions, and apples, before putting them in the stock pot with the rest of the wet and dry ingredients.

Chopped green tomatoes  Chopped onions  Ingredients mixed at start of cooking

And now, just simmer it, slowly, for what – with a batch of this size! – will be a very very long time! I had to give up and go to bed, fitting a tight lid to the pan, and finished cooking the chutney the following evening. This is one very good reason not to make such a giant batch at once.

The other, of course, is that you will require an enormous quantity of jars (with plastic lined lids, or they’ll corrode from the vinegar – mind you, I can’t remember the last time I was an un-lined jar lid!). While I was sorting these out, I took my eye off the pot, and the inevitable  happened – the chutney caught on the bottom of the pan, and started to burn.

Finished chutneyDisaster! I panicked a bit, and then with Hubby’s help, decanted most of the chutney into any available container, leaving the burned stuff on the bottom of the pan. After a damn good scrub, we were back in business, though I remained convinced for the rest of the cooking time that I could taste the burnt flavour in the chutney. This paranoia wasn’t helped by the highly visible flecks of black pepper in the mix, which my brain kept insisting on seeing as burnt bits.

I very nearly threw the whole lot in the bin, but a bit of gentle encouragement that I’d done all the work now anyway convinced me to bottle it anyway and hope for the best. I deviated from Grandma’s instructions again here and bottled hot, into hot oven-sterilised jars, as I usually do. Now all that was left to do was to leave the chutney to mature for a couple of months.

Served-up

This (and wanting to make sure this tale had a happy ending!) is the reason for the delay in writing up this recipe. I’m really pleased with the result – after maturing I’m pretty sure it doesn’t taste burnt, and is a lovely gentle fruity chutney, with a lovely black pepper warmth, which goes brilliantly with cheese, ham, and even curries!

So this year, at the end of the home-grown tomato season, why not make a batch? But, promise me, make it a smaller one?

As for me, I’m still really curious about the outcome of making the recipe as written – so perhaps this year I’ll make a test batch of the onion-free version. Who knows, it may be a revelation?

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Taming the Tomato Glut – Part 5: roasted tomato sauce

With apologies now, to all but my antipodean readers – the tomato glut, and the long hot days of summer, seem a long way behind us, but there were a couple of recipes that fell through the cracks, for one reason or another. Hopefully they’ll be of use to you later this year!

Lay out on baking trayThis is a great little recipe for using up those slightly over-ripe tomatoes that inevitably start to pile up once the harvest really gets going.

You will need –

  • Home grown tomatoes (about 1kg here)
  • Three garlic cloves
  • Two or three bay leaves
  • Sea salt, mixed dried italian-type herbs

Trim out any obvious damage and discard any that are really ‘over’, cut the tomatoes into even pieces, and lay the tomatoes out in a single layer on a baking sheet.

After roastingTuck the cloves of garlic in amongst them, and snuggle the bay leaves underneath, sprinkle over a little sea salt and a few mixed herbs, and roast in the oven at 180 C for 30 to 40 minutes until you’re starting to see some browning to the skins.

Pass through a mouliDiscard the bay leaves and put the rest through a mouli with the fine filter fitted (or push through a sieve with the back of a spoon, if you don’t mind the labour!). This will hold back the skins and seeds and allow just the beautiful smooth sweet tomato pulp through.

Done! How simple is that?

I started with around 1kg of lovely ripe home-grown tomatoes, and ended up with about 350ml of sauce, which may not seem like much but all the flavour and sweetness is concentrated right down into that sauce. I asked Hubby to taste a spoonful and he thought it tasted like tomato soup – and certainly you could let it down with a little bit of vegetable stock, maybe add a sprinkle of fresh basil, and enjoy it just as it is! I made lasagne with it, and it was perfectly wonderful.

Finished sauce

If you wanted to make a big batch, for keeping into the winter, you could bottle and pasteurise for storage just like the fresh passata. I wish I had, now! I could just do with some roasted bottled sunshine!

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Courgette or Zucchini – this is a pickle you will relish!

Not so very long ago, though it’s hard to believe it now, the long hot days of summer were with us and the vegetable garden was in full flood. As well as the tomato glut, I did end up with a few more courgettes than I knew what to do with.

Garden-fresh courgettes

Now, I absolutely abhor the idea of wasting food I’ve gone to the trouble of growing – but I struggled a little to work out what to do with a kilo of courgettes all needing using up at once! Pickles, of course, are the almost-universal solution to making tasty preserves from gluts of vegetables. So I had a flick through some of my cookbooks, and when that didn’t turn up anything I particularly fancied, I did what we all do and turned to the blogosphere. The pickled courgettes I eventually made are based on this recipe for zucchini pickles, from Lottie + Doof.

For my quantities of courgettes,  I used –

  • 1kg of garden courgettes, mixed sizes (smaller ones are better, but use what you have!)
  • Two small onions
  • 6 tbsp sea salt
  • 1l of cider vinegar
  • 300g of golden caster sugar
  • 3 tsp of mustard powder (Colman’s, of course)
  • 3 tsp whole mustard seeds, lightly crushed in a pestle and mortar
  • 2 tsp of powdered turmeric

The dreaded mandolinYou will also need a mandolin (unless you’re both very patient and a remarkably precise slicer of vegetables), a mixing bowl, sterilised jars with plastic-lined lids (my quantities filled two 1lb jars perfectly), and a salad spinner (if you have one) or a clean tea-towel.

Sliced courgettesSet the mandolin about 1.5mm thick, and then use it slice up all the courgettes, lengthways or slightly on the diagonal, using the guard and taking great care not to also slice your fingers! I’m quite terrified of my mandolin (reasonably, I think!) and I really have to psych myself up to use it, but for a recipe like this there really is no alternative.

Sliced vegetables with saltThen peel the onions, and put them through the mandolin on the same setting. Once all your vegetables are sliced, mix them together in a bowl with the 6 tablespoons of sea salt (yes, I know it seems like a lot, don’t worry, it’s not staying in the finished product!), and top up with ice cold water, mixing gently until the salt is all dissolved. Add some ice cubes if needed to keep the temperature down, and put to one side for about an hour.

Pickling vinegarWhile the sliced courgettes are marinading in their brine, prepare the pickling vinegar, combining the vinegar, sugar, mustard powder, mustard seeds and turmeric powder in a saucepan, and bring to a simmer for two or three minutes.  Then allow the vinegar to cool to room temperature (you can speed this process up by immersing the pan in a sink of cold water). It’s a rather ghastly colour, but don’t be put off!

In the salad spinnerBack to our courgettes – once they’ve sat in the salt water for an hour or so, you can taste one of the pieces, which should be quite crisp and gently salted.  Drain off the salt water and then, using the salad spinner if you have one, finish getting them as dry as possible. If you haven’t got a salad spinner, dry them carefully in small batches in a folded tea towel, trying not to damage or break them if possible.

Mix the vinegar and vegetablesFinally, combine the cold vinegar with the courgette and onion in a bowl and mix carefully, before packing the mixture into sterilised jars. There may be extra vinegar, which you can discard (unless you can think of something really creative to do with it!).  Refrigerate for at least a day before tasting, but longer is better.

I started the first jar more or less straight away, in the spirit of experimentation, but the second I kept unopened for Christmas. It’s a very good pickle, pretty much immediately after making. It has a definite sweetness and I think I might reduce the sugar a little in future batches. The mustard flavour is present, but quite soft and subtle. The onion, too, is clearly present but not overwhelming, and tastes less ‘raw’ as the pickle matures. I don’t know whether I would bother with quite so much turmeric, next time, but it does give a very pretty colour to the finished pickle. It’s great with burgers and sausages, and goes particularly well in a salt beef sandwich.

Pickled courgettes on toasted sandwich

I must admit, writing up this recipe had rather fallen through the cracks until I had some yesterday with a wonderful grilled ham and cheese open sandwich. It is *just* fabulous, the icing on the cake of a wonderful lunch made from wonderful things – home-made sourdough, home-cured ham, and even our homegrown ‘sundried’ tomatoes. The mustard note takes this from comfort food to pure gourmet delight.  It’s quite wonderful.

So next summer, when you’re faced with a courgette glut, or find some lovely fresh courgettes in your local market, grab them and make this pickle. You won’t regret it!

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Pick a Peck of Pickled Peppers – home-grown pickled chillies

The blog has been a bit neglected the past month! There’s been a lot going on just recently – most of it good, but which I can’t really talk about at the moment (The mystery! The suspense!).

two-candlesA few weeks ago, the blog’s second birthday passed entirely un-marked, a fact which will come as no surprise at all to my close friends and family, who are all well used to their birthdays and significant anniversaries passing equally without notice! Anyway, a huge thank you to all of you who read and comment, thank you for taking the time and bearing with us though this quiet interlude!

Right oh, back to the hot and spicy business at hand!

Last weekend, we admitted the arrival of the colder weather and stripped the greenhouse chilli plants of all their fruit.  The result was almost exactly 1 kg of mixed home-grown chillies, mostly ‘Vampire’, a mild flavoured mid-sized dark purple to red variety with beautiful purple-green foliage and purple flowers, and ‘twilight’, a fiendishly-hot small chilli which ripens from purple to red via white & yellow on a small-leafed plant.

The home-grown chilli harvest!

Aren’t they gorgeous? Even I can’t eat that many fresh chillies before they go off, though.  I considered making chilli sauce, but in the end settled on pickled chillies as more versatile to use down the line. And with all these gorgeous colours and varieties, it would have seemed a bit of a crime to put them in a food processor!

This recipe is based on one attributed to Michael Symon, from Michael Ruhlman’s blog, with a few modifications to suit the ingredients I had available. It’s really straightforward, and the results *look* stunningly pretty – it’s too early to say how they taste yet!

Pack chillies in jarsWash your chillies carefully, inspect them and set aside any which are damaged or imperfect (you can always cook with these fresh, or process them and freeze in small batches) and then pack them into cold sterilised jars. Then fill each jar full of water, before tipping the water back out into a bowl or jug. Measure this volume – this will give you a good accurate estimate of the volume of pickling liquid required. In my case, using eight small jars and one large one, the volume was a bit over a litre.

For the brine, I combined –

  • 700ml white wine vinegar
  • 500ml water
  • 2 1/2 tbsp sea salt
  • 2 1/2 tbsp golden caster sugar (any sugar will do)

Obviously these volumes can be adjusted depending on how much pickling liquid you need! Mix these in a saucepan and start to warm, dissolving the sugar and salt, then add the following herbs and spices and bring to a good rolling boil –

  • Herbs and spicesTwo bay leaves – you can leave these whole if only making one or two jars, but I broke them up into smaller pieces
  • Three cloves of garlic, sliced up likewise
  • 2 tbsp whole coriander seed
  • 2 tbsp whole black peppercorns
  • 1 tsp whole cumin seed
  • 1 tsp dried oregano

Boiling brineOnce the brine is boiling, turn the heat down and simmer for 10 minutes.

Then, if you’re making a single large kilner-type jar of pickled chillies, you could just pour the whole volume of brine, spices and herbs over the top and seal up the jar.

I wanted to make sure the spices were evenly distributed between my eight small and one large jar, so I first strained the solids out and returned the brine to the saucepan to keep simmering.

Strained-out spices Share spices between jars Fill to the brim with boiling liquor

This made it easy go share the spices and garlic out evenly between the jars with a spoon. Then just ladle the boiling hot brine into the jars, filling them all the way to the brim before sealing tightly with plastic-lined lids.

Filled jars of pickled chillies

Once cool, refrigerate until use, or at this time of year in Northern climes you should be fine to store them in an unheated outbuilding, garage or shed. They’re ready to eat within a day or two but a few weeks in the pickle will only help develop the flavours. When you’re ready to use them, just slice or mince the chillies and use in cooking as you would fresh – obviously only in dishes that will tolerate a little bit of added acidity from the vinegar, most will – but beware, these are going to be an unpredictable bunch, and the little ones bite!

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Taming the Tomato Glut – Part 4: fresh tomato passata

Passata is a great, versatile store-cupboard ingredient. In bottles or cartons, stashed at the back of the shelf, it comes out to save the day in soups, sauces, anywhere you want lovely fresh tomato flavour but without the texture of seeds and flesh that accompanies tinned tomatoes.  Until this year, I’d never made any of my own. And then, along came the tomato glut…

This is a really really simple passata process, but does require a couple of slightly unusual bits of kitchen equipment. If you haven’t got them, though, you can work around without them – they will just save you quite a lot of time and trouble.

To make this fresh tomato passata, you will require –

  • Fresh, ripe, home-grown tomatoesA quantity of perfectly ripe tomatoes (this batch was about 2kg)
  • A few fresh basil leaves
  • A saucepan, a colander, and a slotted spoon
  • A mouli* (hand-cranked mincer / puree mill) with the fine puree plate installed, and a bowl to go under
  • Beer bottles, cleaned & dried, a crown capping tool and enough new crown caps to seal all your bottles**. (To give you a sense of the storage capacity you’ll need, 2kg of tomatoes produced about 1.7l of passata. I bottled 1.5l and used the extra fresh.)
  • A large stock-pot, big enough to contain your bottles or jars.

* If you haven’t got a mouli, you can get the skin and seeds out by pushing it through a fine-ish metal sieve, by hand. You can easily make enough for one meal, but it’s not a useful technique if you’re making in any quantity, unless you have helpful kitchen-slaves to hand!

** If you’re not a home-brewer like me and haven’t got bottles, crown caps and a capping device, you can always store your passata in jam jars. As with the bottles, no need to sterilise, just make sure they’re clean and dry, and the lids are in perfect condition. When you come to process them later (we’ll get to that bit), keep them upright in the water.

Simmer tomatoes to split skinsWash your tomatoes carefully. Now, in the saucepan, get a couple of inches of water simmering gently. A handful at a time, add your tomatoes into the simmering pan. Watch them carefully – as soon as the skins split, fish them out again straight away, into your colander. This will probably take between 30s and a minute, but will depend on your tomatoes. Watch carefully – you’re not trying to cook them!

With skins split, drainingAllow them a couple of minutes resting in the colander to drain away any excess water. Now put them into the mouli, a few at a time, and process them through. The seeds (most of them, anyway!) will be retained on the top-side of the puree plate, along with the skins, while the beautiful fresh tomato pulp passes through into the bowl below.

Pass through the mouliI should say, I *adore* my mouli. It’s a new kitchen gadget for me this year, bought with our home-grown veggies in mind, and I already can’t imagine how I did without it. I’d love to say it was my Grandma’s (in fact, I don’t remember her having one), but it’s exactly the same design as much older ones I’ve seen – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, eh?

Rinse and repeat until you’ve processed all of your tomatoes through this very simple two-step chain. You may find you need to disassemble your mouli every so often to wash off the plate if it gets clogged with tomato skin – you could of course peel your tomatoes by hand before you start, to avoid this problem, but really, life’s too short. Just be careful, when you’re doing this, that you don’t waste any beautiful puree or drop skins or seeds into the bowl underneath.

Passata produced, along with 'waste'By the end of the process, you’ll have a surprisingly good yield, as you can see from this picture, the total ‘waste’ in seeds and skins amounted to about half a pint, with the rest of the tomatoes processed very efficiently into gorgeous fresh tomato passata. It’s orangey in colour, compared to what you might expect from a commercial tomato product, but that’s because it hasn’t been cooked down at all, or coloured artificially! Taste some, it’s beautiful, fresh, fragrant tomato nectar. You could drink this stuff.

Fill your bottlesSo now you have some lovely fresh passata you could certainly use to make bolognese or lasagne this evening. The final step is bottling & pasteurisation to allow it to be stored for a considerable time in a cool dark place. Using a funnel and ladle – or a jug, or whatever suits you really! – transfer your passata into your beer bottles, leaving about 5cm airspace in the bottle necks. Into each bottle, also add a single, carefully washed fresh basil leaf.

Seal the bottles carefully with your crown caps, using a capping tool. If you’re using jam jars, ensure they’re in perfect condition with no cracks, chips, or faults in the lids (consider buying new lids, if necessary) and seal them carefully.

Seal bottles with crown caps

Fill your big saucepan or stock pot half to two-thirds full of cold tap water. Place a tea towel in the bottom, and then put in your bottles, in layers, lying on their sides. If you’re using jars, they can sit ‘upright’.

Bottles in the stock potMake sure the water completely covers the bottles or jars. Now get some heat under the pot, and slowly it to a gentle boil, bottles / jars and all, and keep it boiling for 30 minutes before turning off the heat. Leave the bottles in the pot until everything has cooled back down to room temperature. This boiling process essentially sterilises the contents of the sealed bottle or jar, rendering it shelf-stable. Once cool, you can fish out your bottles, dry, label them, and stash them in your pantry until needed.

[I based my passata process, in great part, on this lovely blog about traditional family passata-making by Italian-Australian cooks – it’s well worth a read!]

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Taming the Tomato Glut – Part 3: ‘sun’ dried tomatoes

Today we decided to call ‘time’ on the tomato growing season, and clear out the greenhouse. As a result, I have a kitchen quite literally overflowing with tomatoes. Don’t believe me? Here they are!

Now that's what you call a glut!

But, sun-dried tomatoes? In the UK? In *October*? Some kind of witchcraft, surely?

A couple of weeks ago, I finally caved in and bought a dehydrator.  Some of those little beauties you can see there will be making their way into it very soon. I’ve made two batches already, and I’m extremely pleased with the results. The process is a little time-consuming, and slightly faffy in the preparation, but the final product is amazing, and hugely rewarding.

To make these ‘sun’ dried beauties, you will require –

  • Some lovely ripe tomatoesA glut of home-grown tomatoes, perfectly ripe but not over-ripe and going soft. I used cherry-sized tomatoes and above, since they’ll shrink anyway.
  • Sea salt
  • Mixed dried Italian herbs
  • Citric acid
  • A large bowl, colander, slotted spoon, measuring jug, and a sharp paring knife
  • A dehydrator. I selected mine on the basis of extensive background research. Erm,  hang on, no, that’s not right. I bought the cheapest one on Amazon.

Halved tomatoesWash all your tomatoes carefully and remove their little ‘top-hats’. Now, get a really sharp little paring knife, and slice the tomatoes in half. Honestly, this is my single important top tip here, if you’re slicing tomatoes, you want a really really sharp knife. Otherwise it’s all nasty hard work, and if you’re unlucky the knife will slip on the tomato skin and you’ll lose a finger. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Tomatoes soaking in acidulated waterIn your large bowl, put a litre of fresh cold tap water and add a teaspoon measure of citric acid, and dissolve by stirring energetically. The citric acid improves the preservation of the tomatoes, and enhances their colour retention as they dry. If you don’t have any, you can sometimes get it from pharmacies, and always from home-brew suppliers.

Acidulated tomatoes, dryingPlace your halved tomatoes in this acidulated water and leave them for ten minutes (you can get on with chopping the next lot meanwhile) and then remove them with the slotted spoon and place them in the colander to drip for a bit.

Arrange halved tomatoes on traysOnce you’re happy they’ve stopped dripping, arrange them on the dehydrator tray, with the skin sides down. Just touching is fine but don’t overcrowd them or let them overlap.  This takes a bit of time first time and is really fiddly, but once you’ve done it a few times you’ll find a technique which makes it a lot faster. Carry on until all your dehydrator trays are filled. Mine seems to take about 2-3kg of fresh tomatoes.

Sprinkle with salt & herb mixBefore ‘firing her up’, sprinkle a mix of sea salt and dried herbs sparingly over the cut surfaces of your tomatoes. I used a half-and-half mix, and just an ordinary dried herb mix from the shops, but if you have gorgeous fresh herbs then by all means chop those up finely and use them! Sprinkle over sparingly, but do try to make sure each piece of tomato has at least a flake of salt and a piece of herb on it.

Stacked up in dehydratorNow stack the trays up in the dehydrator, set your temperature if your dehydrator has a thermostat – I used 55C, but consult any instructions that come with your machine. While the dehydrator is running, rotate the position of the trays every few hours so that they dry evenly (the bottom of my machine, where the warm air comes out, was about 20C hotter than the top, when I checked it with a temperature probe, so this is a real factor).

As they dry, the house will fill with a beautiful sweet tomato smell. (Hubby dislikes this because he says it makes him think of pizza. Takes all sorts!) You’ll notice the tomato pieces shrinking, wrinkling, and darkening in colour.

At the end of the drying processMy tomatoes were dry after about 36 hours, but this will vary hugely depending on the temperature you use, the characteristics of your machine, size of your tomatoes… You get the idea!  Aim for the smaller pieces being really, plasticky-dry, the larger pieces will still have a bit of flex in the flesh but shouldn’t have any wetness (check for this in the middle, under the seeds).

Now remove your greatly-shrunken tomatoes and put them in a large Kilner jar, or something similar. Whether you’re planning to keep your tomatoes as they are, freeze them for longer storage, or store them in oil, you’ll still want to put them in a jar for a few days, as this helps them ‘condition’ – effectively, it allows the less-dry pieces to donate their excess moisture to the more dried out ones, so that the humidity of the dried tomatoes evens out.  Give the jar a shake a few times a day for three or four days. Of course, you’re not going to be able to resist having a taste, so dig in.  They’re amazing, sweet, little flavour-bombs. I’ve been munching on them like sweeties!

Finished 'sun' dried tomatoes

 

From a glut-busting point of view, you’ve transformed a massive bowl of fresh tomatoes 2 – 3 kg in weight, into less than a litre volume of dried tomatoes, *and*  they’re going to keep. Really, what’s not to like?

That’s it, simple, no? Of course, there’s so much else you can do with the dehydrator, too..!

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