Tomato heaven

After all the hard work in planting seeds, battling against pests, coping with extreme weather and controlling weeds, the greatest pleasure from tending a vegetable garden has to be eating your own produce. This year is one of the best. Despite the heat and the drought, rain in July has given rise to the sort of lush growth I hope for and every day sees me bringing another hoard of vegetables into the kitchen.

Peppers and nasturtium flowers
Peppers and nasturtium flowers

Last week, we enjoyed Nigel Slater‘s idea for roast tomatoes with fresh thyme. Just place halved tomatoes close together cut side upwards in a dish with a sprinkle of olive oil, sprigs of fresh thyme, season and bake for 40 minutes in the oven (temperature 200 °C). They were absolutely divine. The flavour was so concentrated and the juice had almost caramelised in the dish. But now I need to get serious and preserve.
Yesterday I was processing tomatoes to make tomato and tomato and chilli sauces so we can enjoy their fresh flavour well into the winter. There are so many variations on making sauces but I’ve found that these two simple sauces are the most useful. I don’t measure ingredients, it’s largely guesswork and experience but nothing will be wasted if you find you need more or less of something, you can always adjust it the next time.
Firstly, roughly chop 2/3 onions and fry them gently until softened in a generous amount of olive oil. Add a couple of cloves of finely chopped garlic and for an arrabiata type sauce, one or two fresh chillis from the garden according to taste (powdered chilli is OK if you don’t have fresh). While the onions are cooking, skin the tomatoes and roughly chop them removing any woody core. You can remove seeds if you want, but I leave them. They’re OK in an unblended sauce, and if you prefer a smooth sauce you’ll remove them later.

Softening the onion, garlic and fresh chilli in olive oil
Softening the onion, garlic and chilli in olive oil

Add the chopped tomatoes to the onion, stir and leave them to gently simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated. Stir occasionally to stop the mixture from sticking to the pan. It should take about 40 minutes for a large pan full of sauce.

Pass the tomato mixture through a mouli
Pass the tomato mixture through a mouli

Leave the mixture to cool. Now you have a choice. According to your preference you can leave the sauce as it is or whizz it up into a delicious smooth sauce packed with flavour. Either use a mouli or whizz it in a blender and push the sauce through a seive to get the sauce to a consistency similar to passata, except yours will be a hundred times better. Don’t forget to season the sauce when you come to use it, salt and freshly ground black pepper will enhance the flavour. The sauce freezes really well – I measure portions into freezer bags but containers are better if you have them.

Smooth and tasty tomato sauce
Smooth and tasty tomato sauce

By the way, this tomato sauce, either version, goes superbly well with the delicious Savoury Courgette and Rosemary Rice Cake recipe.

Savoury Courgette & Rosemary Rice Cake

When I was small I hated spinach and I couldn’t eat mushrooms. These are now two of my favourite vegetables, but I love any vegetable, with the exception of fennel. The aniseed flavour puts me off, maybe as a result of those crazy Pernod parties we had at college but even a whiff of pastis at a bar will turn my stomach.

I love gathering veggies from my small potager to use in the kitchen. The peas have come and gone, all my good intentions about making a summer soup, a pea risotto, even freezing some for the winter, never came to fruition because as soon as they were picked we ate them greedily. And they were so sweet and delicious. I pick the chard regularly, and because Roger’s not a great fan of greens (sigh!) I tend to chop it into curries or a minestrone soup rather than serve it alone which I look forward to with pleasure when he’s not around – steamed with some butter and nutmeg or a twist of ground pepper. Fresh beans have become a staple accompaniment. They are always best eaten fresh but I freeze plenty, blanching them for a minute so they keep their colour.

The courgettes are generous and demand regular attention. It’s lucky they are one of the most adapatable vegetables and are as happy in a ratatouille as they are baked in foil with goat’s cheese, or grated and added to a cake mix.

I’ve only got two plants this year. One green, one yellow. That’s plenty for us without becoming a slave to processing them or having courgettes at every meal. One of the best ways I’ve found to use a few courgettes of either colour is in this savoury rice cake (see recipe below) which I discovered in the 2008 edition of the BBC Good Food Vegetarian summer magazine and have used frequently ever since.  Our favourite way of serving the cake is with a fresh tuna steak and a hot tomato or a red pepper sauce, or as an accompaniment to Provençale chicken. As it contains egg and cheese, vegetarians will find it a satisfying meal served with ratatouille.

Courgette & Rosemary Rice Cake
Courgette & Rosemary Rice Cake

Courgette & Rosemary Rice Cake

325g risotto rice

5 tbspn olive oil

350g courgettes, grated

2 onions, chopped

2 garlic cloves, crushed

3 medium eggs, beaten

150g strong cheddar cheese (or gruyère), grated

4 tbspn double cream

2 tbspn chopped fresh rosemary

¼tsp freshly grated nutmeg


Heat the oven to 180C and line a 20cm springform tin with greaseproof paper. Bring a saucepan of water to the boil and cook the risotto rice for 8 minutes. Meanwhile, fry the onions and courgettes in a tablespoon of olive oil for about 5 minutes, stirring regularly.

Drain the rice and put it into a large bowl with the crushed garlic, the remaining olive oil and the onion and courgette mixture. Stir well and leave to cool while you prepare the remaining ingredients. Lightly beat the eggs and add the cream. Grate the cheese. After about 10 minutes, add the egg mixture, grated cheese, nutmeg and seasoning to the bowl and mix thoroughly. Put the mixture into the prepared tin and press down with the back of a spoon. Bake for about an hour until the top is golden and the cake is firm to the touch. It might need a bit longer if the mixture was a bit wet. Allow to cool slightly, then release from the tin and serve on a plate.

I usually halve the above quantities ( one egg is sufficient), providing four ample portions.

Recipe – Raspberry & Almond Tart

This is a delicious tart that could be served up any time of year. It’s an idea that came to me when I was trying to think how I could use a bowlful of fresh raspberries and a packet of feuillettée (puff) pastry from the fridge. Although I always make my own shortcrust pastry, having puff pastry to hand means I can always put something together quickly. My favourites are a simple fruit topping on a base of crême fraiche and an egg whisked together with a little sugar and maybe some spice if it’s apple. Alternatively, I make savoury parcels for dinner with a piece of salmon and some spinach, or simply  vegetables in a creamy sauce.  Today, I thought about making a kind of Bakewell Tart using fresh fruit instead of jam but putting the fruit on the top. The result is a gloriously light and colourful dessert which can be served warm or cold and it really doesn’t need anything else other than a glass of chilled white wine.

raspberry and almond tart
Raspberry and Almond Tart

100g margarine

100g caster sugar

2 eggs, lightly beaten

100g ground almonds

fresh raspberries, (cherries or blackcurrants would do equally well)

some flaked almonds

icing sugar (optional)

Remove the pastry from the fridge and leave to one side to soften. Beat together the margarine and the sugar until light and fluffy then add the eggs a little at a time keeping back a small amount to brush onto the pastry. Gently fold in the ground almonds.

Unroll the pastry onto a large shallow flan tin with a loose bottom. Spread the almond mixture over the base but not going right to the edge. Put the fruit on top, more or less covering the surface and sprinkle with flaked almonds. Taking the edge of the pastry between your fingers, lightly roll it inwards over the edge of the almond mix and brush the folds with the remaining egg. Bake for 30-35mins at 180C until the filling is golden brown.  Sift icing sugar over the flan just before serving.

What’s round and juicy?

Despite the back garden still looking like a ruin (see my last post), I’ve been at my most ambitious to date with my veggie planting.  Thanks to the unseasonal warmth throughout April, all the plants and seeds are now in, with one or two spaces left for latecomers and irrestistible varieties of tomatoes I might spot at the market. Much to Roger’s despair, my method of choosing tomatoes is to just go on instinct, with one or two words of advice from the seller, and to get as many different types as possible. I never label them and never make a note of their names so it’s impossible to know which to buy again if one proves to be outsandingly successful. The truth is that in this part of France you can’t really get an unsuccessful tomato. A few years ago, we had a sort of mould which spread through the plants, causing them to yellow and wilt. I took off all the leaves in the hope that I could save the fruit but it was an untypical, lacklustre harvest.  This year, I’ve noticed a lot more ‘heritage’ tomatoes in the garden centres – lovely shapes and colours with old-fashioned names, but four times the price of common varieties like Pyros and the fleshy Coeur de Boeuf. Maybe I’ll find space for a little jewel of a pear-shaped yellow or one with an enticing tiger stripe…

Potimarron will store well for a couple of months in a cool place.

We love pumpkins and I find them exciting and rewarding to grow. We especially like the bright orange potimarron, whose hard flesh seems to melt into a soup made with nothing more than leeks sweetened in a little butter then simmered in a vegetable stock for about 20 minutes. Whizzed up into a thick orange cream, I add a swirl of crème frâiche and then all it needs is a hunk of fresh bread and butter. Its  bigger sibling, the  potiron, promises fine things but I find it too watery for a soup and therefore best roasted among some winter roots with garlic and rosemary. I’ve planted them both along with a newcomer called Musquée de Provence after inspiration by Nigel Slater in his book ‘Tender’ , and the ever-so-useful butternut squash.

Nearly a month ahead, the roses are already at their best. Each flower is appreciated during our daily tours of the garden, the most perfect bud commented upon and closely observed as if it were the first and only one we’ll see. Congratulating ourselves on how at least we did the right thing in one area, we’ll be equally regretful at not having done something differently elsewhere. A few short showers of heavy rain later, plants go into overdrive, putting on several inches in a matter of hours and producing buds and flowers overnight.  What an extraordinary time.