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.

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.