With an Autumnal chill in the air at night and shorter days, the veggie garden is beginning to shut down. Somewhat annoying are the peppers and aubergines which are covered in flowers – I doubt that we’ll ever see the fruit grow but it’s a valiant last effort on their part. So, soup is back on the lunchtime menu and here’s a lovely rich combination of taste and colour.
1 large onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 carrot, sliced
4/5 large ripe tomatoes
1 vegtable stock cube or equivalent
1 cup red lentils
1 tbspn olive oil
up to ½ litre water
Salt & pepper
In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil then gently fry the vegetables and garlic for about 5 minutes until softened taking care not to let them brown. Meanwhile, skin and chop the tomatoes and add them to the pan. Rince the lentils and stir them into the vegetables with a stock cube and some water. The quantity of water required will vary according to how juicy the tomatoes are.
Bring the soup to the boil then simmer on a low heat for about 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally. It’s ready when the carrots are soft. Leave to stand for a few minutes then whizz the mixture to a smooth soup with a blender. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve with fresh bread and some grated Comté, Cheddar or parmesan cheese sprinkled on top.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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…
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.