Monday, 21 November 2011

Improvised jerky (or biltong)

It was only a matter of time before I started trying to dry sliced meat. I was inspired in part by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's book Meat, which I borrowed from my friends. It contains a recipe for bresaola (an Italian cured beef, served thinly-sliced like a continental ham). I saw silverside (a cut of beef we'd usually roast and served sliced in sandwiches, or maybe in a stew, on offer at the local shop, so I got some. But it was far too small for the recipe, so I decided to make jerky.

To be fair, this could just as well be called biltong, or simply dried cured beef. I love that sort of thing, but it is so expensive - a couple of pounds for a tiny packet. It's a fairly guilt-free snack as far as I'm concerned - and this recipe in particular contains no added fat, and the meat isn't very fat to start with. There is a lot of salt and sugar added, but most of that is removed. Nutritional or not, I couldn't find a recipe online that made sense - there were too many proprietary websites - so I decided to improvise.

It worked out so well, I intend to do it again, and I think it's worth posting here. Once again, it can be varied a lot, so I'll include a few ideas along with what I did.

  • beef (topside, silverside, brisket - fillet is too fine and expensive, and the meat is tenderised by the process, so these tougher cuts are ideal)
  • salt
  • sugar (I used dark muscovado)
  • spices (optional: I used lots of crushed black pepper)
  • Worcester sauce (optional: I used mushroom ketchup, which is similar)

  • If the beef is trussed up, remove the string. You can remove any fat and sinews too, if you like. Wash and pat dry.
  • Put the beef in the freezer for an hour or two - until par-frozen.
  • Slice the meat thinly with a very sharp knife or a meat slicer. Work quickly - it will start to thaw, and this makes the slicing more difficult.
  • Marinate the beef slices. I layered them alternately with salt and sugar, and poured a mixture of more salt and sugar, mushroom ketchup, and freshly-ground black pepper on top. You could use a more liquid marinade, or a dry one. I didn't measure the ingredients - just added enough to cover the meat. Refrigerate for an hour, several hours, or overnight.
  • Rinse and pat dry the meat - it should be slightly coloured if you've used dark sugar, molasses, treacle, or Worcester sauce.
  • Lay the slices on trays, not touching, and put the trays into an oven, at 40-60ºC, or as low as possible, on the fan setting if it has one.
  • Leave them for a long time - at least 6 hours, maybe as long as 24 (depending on the thickness of the slices, and the temperature). When they are dry, leathery, and dark (almost black), they are done - check them, and remove when they are to your liking.
  • Refrigerate or freeze, in a sealed jar or plastic container, or eat immediately. They should keep for at least a week at room temperature, possibly much longer - but remember, they will go off eventually (err on the side of caution).

variations and substitutions
I can think of quite a few possibilities off the top of my head, but if I don't include one, don't be put off - experiment. Try different sugars and sweeteners, like honey, maple syrup, or palm sugar. Lots of spices could be included - chilli, Sichuan pepper, five spice, fennel seeds, coriander, garam masala. I don't know if Worcester sauce (or equivalent) is essential - it does add a sharpness, so maybe try a little vinegar instead. Alcohol might work - bourbon or other whiskeys, or possibly brandy might add interest, or red wine, or maybe ale. The dried slices could be smoked, or if you can cold smoke, you could do that before drying them. You can add more seasoning at the end if they are too bland - but taste first, as any flavouring will have become concentrated as the meat dried.

October harvest: week four/monthly summary

I was waiting to post this when I had a photo to attach, but at this rate it'll never get done, so here's the text-only version.

A quiet end to the month in the garden - but busier than ever indoors. Outside, the weather has been mild, with no sign of frost (we did go down to around 5ºC a couple of weeks ago), alternating sunshine and rain.

The kitchen is taking shape, at last, and just in time - I have been drying tomatoes at just over 50ºC before bottling in oil, which is a job I wanted to do but didn't expect to have the facilities for (i.e. an oven with a low heat setting) before next year. After that, I did apple slices, which I'm filling a large jar with - a great way of using up two bags of fruit that I'd bought reduced and had sitting around for a couple of weeks. They're chewy and intensely sweet and apply - a great snack. I've also commenced a couple of projects that will keep me busy in the absence of daily gardening tasks - I've started curing bacon, using maple syrup, juniper berries, and salt, which I will then smoke, slice, and freeze, and I have a batch of ale (from a kit, as I'm a beginner) bubbling away upstairs. I'll also be making sausages, smoking more food, baking lots of bread, and making yoghurt and cheese, in addition to bottling more fruits and vegetables (mostly bought).

Totals for week 22nd-31st October:
28th: 268g stem lettuce (two plants; I forgot to weight the leaves and stems separately).
30th: 37g carrots, 17g carrot tops, 33g turnip, 71g black radish, 55g chard (day total: 213g)
Total for week: 481g
October total: 11.289kg
Year to date total: 38.372kg

The highlight of the final week of October was pulling the first carrots and black radish, which went with homegrown tomatoes, chard, and turnip in a Tuscan-style bread soup, made with leftover home-baked bread roll chunks (they had stuck to the greaseproof paper I baked them on, so I had to find a use for the tops I salvaged). The carrots were small, but bigger than any I've managed to grow before, and so fragrant - and totally perfect and unblemished. I used the tops as well.

I haven't yet picked the last tomatoes. Dozens of red 'Gardener's delight' are glowing at me from across the garden when I look out the (old) kitchen window, which is quite remarkable, given it's November. I must gather them in soon, however, and get my seed-grown onions out, along with broad beans and peas, to overwinter for an early crop next year.

I have a lot more to do indoors just now, however, so I don't know when I'll get round to it...

Monday, 14 November 2011

Drying fruit

Dried apple slices.

My new oven is great. I've hardly begun to explore its features - in particular, the steam function, which is hard to integrate into existing recipes. But one aspect is already well-tested: low temperature control. It can be held at just under 40ºC, which is ideal for proving bread dough. At 60ºC I can dry fruit and certain meat products (on which more in a future article), and that's what I've been doing. I started with tomatoes, but the most successful thing so far has been apples.

I had a couple of bags of apples that weren't doing anything. I tend to buy fruit when it is reduced in the local shops, or at the greengrocer if there is a good offer on (and this is apple season, so many English varieties are quite cheap). In fact, unless I'm buying for a recipe, almost all the fruit I get is less than full price. The advantage of this is, you can get a lot of fruit for very little money - often half or a third of the retail price. The disadvantage (if you see it that way) is, you end up with a lot of the same thing, and have to find a way of using it. I must admit, sometimes I end up composting some of it (a couple of dozen passion fruit I got for pennies earlier in the year still lie heavy on my conscience). Drying could be the answer.

A punnet of red-skinned plums, sliced, stoned, and spread on a tray, ready for drying...

...and here they are, done - they rather unsettlingly resemble mushrooms, but taste fantastic.

Of course, you could make jam. But that requires a ready supply of sugar, possibly pectin, and jars, and can be quite a messy process. Plus, I don't eat much jam. Drying, however, is almost foolproof, and aside from the initial preparation, is a process that needs no supervision. Admittedly, you do need jars or similar for storage, but they don't need to be heatproof, nor do you need to worry about sterilising them. Otherwise, you can freeze the dried fruit in bags, but it's so delicious to snack on, long-term preservation shouldn't be a worry.

For most fruit, the process is the same. You'll need a knife, one or more trays (I bought some new ones with holes in, which will hopefully increase air circulation), an oven capable of being set to a temperature less than 100ºC (the lower the better), with a fan if possible. For fruit that can go brown, you will also need a bowl and some lemon or lime juice (or citric acid).

These apples have been drying for a few hours; they are nearly ready.

The method is simple. Wash and preferably dry your fruit. You can peel it if you like, but I don't. Remove the core of apples, pears, and the like; remove the stone from plums, apricots, nectarines (by slicing in half, and pulling or prising out the stone). For apples, slice evenly - a mandoline is a useful tool, but a sharp knife will do. Incidentally, an apple corer might be helpful if you have a lot of fruit to do (I intend to get one soon). With fruit that can turn brown in air, put it into a bowl with water and lemon juice (or whatever acid you're using). I would simply halve stone fruit. Thicker slices and larger fruit will take longer to dry, of course, but has a more satisfyingly leathery texture at the end. Spread the fruit slices out (grapes, figs, and cherry tomatoes can be left whole, but prick them with a skewer or cocktail stick to allow moisture to escape) on trays, put the trays into the oven. Fan setting, 50-70ºC is perfect. Leave for several hours, or overnight; check once they look shrivelled. Thinner and smaller pieces will dry faster; you may need to remove these first. The longer you leave them, the better they may keep, but the crisper they will be - eventually they will be totally dessicated.

Washed, blanched grapes on a tray...

Storage is easy: pack them loosely into clean jars or resealable plastic storage boxes. Tie a little uncooked rice in a piece of muslin, to make a pouch, put this in the jar. The rice acts as a desiccant, absorbing any excess moisture, and keeping the fruit fresh longer (like silica gel). They should keep weeks or even months, in a cool, dry place, out of sunlight. Check them - discard any that have gone mouldy. they are halfway through - starting to brown and shrivel...

Eat them as a snack, or sprinkle into cereal, or maybe use them in baking (I'm not sure what recipes you could use dried apples in, but they're so delicious, I'm unlikely to find out!).

...and these have nearly finished their transformation into sultanas.

Friday, 28 October 2011

A break from the routine

No harvest total for this week - not because there is nothing to pick and gather, but because I have been too busy to do so, and have nowhere to store it. My parents have been staying, and we've been getting on fitting the new kitchen (which some of you may remember has been ongoing almost as long as I've had this blog).

The good news is, some of the cabinets are in place, so I've been moving stuff into them (the luxury of all that space is a joy). But most importantly, my fabulous new oven - an electric combination steam/fan oven/grill is in and it works! It will take much getting used to, but that is only a good thing. I roasted a chicken on the steam setting to begin with, to test the manufacturer's assertion that is could cook one in 46 minutes (around half the time of a conventional oven) - and it did! Of course, steam cooking doesn't crisp up the skin quite the same, so I did it on fan for a bit afterwards. Later, I baked banana bread - I was able to do two full-sized cake tins side by side - what luxury! The gas oven I've used up till now is tiny, so the extra space (and reliability, and accuracy, and functions) makes a huge difference.

But it's hard cooking for myself and my guests in these conditions (everything is in flux), so it's a bit stressful. Normal blogging will resume when it's over...

Monday, 24 October 2011

October harvest: week three

I started clearing the last of the tomatoes. I picked all the remaining fruit in the front garden first, and pulled up the plants from the ground, gathering those in grow bags together, ready to be taken round to the compost bins. A couple of days later, I stripped all the fruits from half the varieties in the back garden, and the rest I'll do in the next couple of days (I did it that way so I didn't get confused between similar-looking varieties, given they're mostly all green).

I also picked the first stem lettuce (celtuce). I was impressed - it was exactly what I was expecting. It turns out I planted them too close together - they were tiny when I put them in, but they swelled and are pressed together now they're getting mature. But they are perfectly healthy, and that's really encouraged me for next year - the oriental greens can be sown early in the spring as well as after midsummer. I need to harvest the rest of them soon, because I don't think they are frost hardy (and I need the space for other crops). I prepared the first one by discarding the lower leaves, then taking off the upper ones, washing and chopping, peeling the stem, and chopping that into matchsticks. I stir fried it with lime juice, fish sauce, and Shaoxing wine, and sprinkled with (shichimi) tōgarashi (Japanese seven spice). Despite being a mature lettuce, it was very mild with almost no bitterness.

Totals for week 15th-21st October:
19th: 205g stem lettuce (comprising 88g stem and 117g leaves), 1.984kg tomatoes (comprising 22 'Risentraube' at 130g, 63 'Jaune flammée' at 1.185kg, 1 'Super marmande' at 24g, 1 'Cherokee purple' at 171g, 6 'Costoluto fiorentino' at 140g, 7 'Sub arctic plenty' at 176g, and 19 'Cream sausage' at 158g; day total: 2.189kg)
21st: 137g baby pumpkins, 293g 'Uchiki kuri' pumpkins (largest 153g), 1.434kg tomatoes (comprising 7 'Snowberry' at 32g, 15 'Costoluto fiorentino' at 821g, 18 'Jaune flammée' at 306g, 67 'Sun belle' at 275g; day total: 1.864kg)
Total for week: 4.053kg
Year to date total: 37.891kg

The pumpkins were a writeoff. Of the two plants that I got into final positions (out of several dozen sown into pots), one produced nothing, and the other didn't have time once it had recovered from snail attacks to produce full-sized fruit. The baby fruits I took from a vine that grew of its own accord from homemade compost. It germinated in July, I think, but has spread along the whole depth of the front garden - I'll measure it before I pull it up. Sadly, the fruits were bitter. Squash cross-fertilise easily, so if you plant seeds you've saved (or allow seeds to germinate from home-grown or shop-bought fruit), they might have crossed with something inedible, like an ornamental gourd. In any case, that's probably why they tasted so bad. Never again!

I will be able to post my roundup of the tomato season in the next week or so, once all the fruit is in. Meanwhile, I've been doing a bit more preserving - pickling beetroots, and bottling tomato sauce, so I can savour my harvest into the winter.

Friday, 21 October 2011

October harvest: week two

These grapes are small, but oh so delicious.

Little has changed outside. Sunshine is a memory, and the world is grey. We've had a lot of rain, and a powerful storm, followed by a day or two of calm, then another storm. Darkness comes at half past six, dawn at half past seven; the light has gone (though it will get a lot darker in the next ten weeks, leading up to the solstice).

All this means I've had to swallow my delusion and sacrifice most of the tomatoes. All the sickly plants, those with no change of setting more fruit, and any which have been damaged by the weather will have to go - and the enormity of composting sixty plants struck me yesterday (it should yield a lot of good stuff for the spring though). The contents of the grow-bags most of them have lived in over the summer will be spread over the garden, filling new beds, and providing low nutrient, organic conditioning, which should lighten the heavy clay, improve structure, and produce better crops next year. I'll use some for planting tulips in pots, too - I want lots more of them next year.

The temptation is to leave them, because they are still flowering, and most are covered with green fruit. But with no sunshine, mediocre temperatures, and lots of rain, the chances are they will rot on the vine. And Monty Don (my hero) made a good point on Gardeners' World: the space they're taking up could now be better used. A salad or herb crop sown now, especially under cover in the greenhouse, will provide some food over the next few months. The tomatoes, like it or not, will die.

Totals for week 8th-14th October:

10th: 456g tomatoes (comprising 8 'Summer cider' at 155g and 21 'Sub arctic plenty' at 301g)
13th: 3.097kg tomatoes (comprising 1 'German orange strawberry' at 212g, 8 'Super marmande' at 1.090kg, 15 'Cream sausage' at 247g, 25 'Jaune flammée' at 707g, 5 'Great white' at 196g, 5 'Green zebra' at 77g, 9 'Costoluto fiorentino' at 207g, 25 'Sun belle' at 92g, 5 'Black cherry' at 35g, 5 'Snowberry' at 19g, 26 'Gardener's delight' at 136g, 1 'Sub arctic plenty' at 26g, 1 unidentified at 53g), 396g grapes (day total: 3.493kg)
14th: 225g tomatoes (comprising 2 'Jaune flammée' at 141g, 1 'Costoluto fiorentino' at 72g, and 1 'Cream sausage' at 12g).
Total for week: 4.174kg
Year to date total: 33.838kg

So the harvest is heavy, but this is an ending. Much of the fruit has been taken green, to ripen indoors if I do it right. There are still many outdoors, because it's such a big job, and because some plants are simply too healthy-looking to kill yet. The smaller fruits have a chance of ripening naturally before the frosts, if they come late. In any case, I always check the weather forecast, so I can keep an eye on it.

Update: I wrote the preceding paragraphs earlier in the week. By the end of it, I noticed a great many plants with what I can only assume is blight - great patches of stem and leaf brown, shrivelled, and exuding clouds of spores at the lightest touch. It's very late - for the third year I've been paying attention, blight hasn't struck here before mid-autumn - and for that I'm lucky. And in a way, it's good - it means I can no longer afford to be sentimental. The plants must go. (What's interesting is how patchy it is - not just on individual plants, but some plants are still bright green, healthy, and growing, among their withering brethren - varietal resistance?)

Monday, 17 October 2011

Tomatoes: roll call 2012 (part 2)

Continued from part one.

Jaune flammée


Yellow-orange, medium-large, round fruit, with richly-coloured, sweet flesh. Stable American cross, producing quickly on shorter plants. I love orange tomatoes, so I have added more to my list this year. Photo: sweetbeetandgreenbean

Plum lemon
Another curiosity. These really do look like lemons - they are medium-sized, yellow, and oval with points at either end. Russian, with an acid taste.


The large number of Eastern European tomatoes on my list is in part because they tend to be better-suited to the cool, wet British climate, while Mediterranean varieties are obviously selected for hotter, sunnier places. This is a red, rounded, medium-sized fruit in large trusses, from Czechoslovakia, whose flavour is highly praised, and produces in a short time. Potato-leaved, which I rather like (I don't know that it makes any practical difference). Photo: Satrina0


A classic, from what I gather. Another orange one, a little larger than cherry-sized fruit, quick to produce. A Swedish variety. Determinate (bush type). Photo: talkoftomatoes

Super marmande

White cherry
I'm comparing this to 2011's 'Snowberry', which was good, but I need to find out which works better for me. I couldn't find out much information, but it's apparently sweet and resistant to splitting.

White wonder
Medium to large, creamy white fruit. Flattened, somewhat ribbed, with very sweet juicy flesh. A 19th century American heirloom variety, which I'm comparing with 'Great white'.

Zloty ozarowski
Medium, orange fruit - a rival to 'Jaune flammée' (though I'd be amazed it could do better). Slightly ribbed Polish variety.

Many thanks to Passion tomate and Tatiana's Tomatobase for information on these varieties.

Tomatoes: roll call 2012 (part 1)

It may seem premature to be talking about next spring, given autumn is still in full sway. But we are now almost two-thirds of the way through the tomato year, partly because living by the coast affords me a long frost-free autumn, and partly because I intend to sow next year's a week or two earlier, to give me more time to get organised planting them out (which was the weakest link in my system this year).

So, we are coming up to week 33 of the 2011 season, and in 18 weeks' time, I'll be sowing the 2012 crop. And as a birthday treat, I ordered all the seeds I needed over the weekend. I have some left over from this year - so whether I liked them or not, I will grow these varieties again (I suppose the poorer-performing ones deserve a second chance). For a few I will save seeds of my own - a first for me, although given how readily they germinate in homemade compost, it shouldn't be difficult. The new ones I selected for a few key criteria - variety of colour, shape, and size; recommended flavour or disease resistance; or as replacements for under-performing varieties I tried this year (or simply to try something new).

Now I have ordered them, I can present the final list. I've split it into two parts, as there are now a total of 23 varieties. I won't describe ones I grew this year here - I have put links in to the entry I wrote about them back in the spring. Pictures are provided where a good, copyright-free example could be found.

Black cherry

Black prince

Plentiful medium-large dark red fruit, with dark red-brown/green flesh of good flavour. From Siberia, so good for cool climates. Photo: dreamexplorer

Brown berry
Dark red or brown cherry-sized fruit, greenish inside, with a good reputation for flavour. Possibly American, or Dutch (sources differ). A rival to 'Black cherry' - I will be comparing the two to see which to grow in future.


Dark pinkish-brown, large fruit with richly-flavoured flesh and few seeds. American. I will be comparing this with 'Black prince', 'Cherokee purple', and 'Japanese black trifele' - all are similar in size and dark in colour. Photo: kthread

Caspian pink

Large to very large beefsteak fruit with few seeds. Very large plants. A variety hailing, as its name suggests, from the Caspian region of Russia. Photo: summersumz

Cherokee purple

Cream sausage

Garden peach

A curiosity, this - a tomato which resembles a peach, pale yellow with downy skin. These seem to be better established in the USA, though I'm not sure where this hails from. One source claims this keeps for up to several months, but another that its shelf life is very short. I'm only really growing this to see what it is like - I don't expect it to be particularly good. Photo: fortinbras

Garden pearl
I am comparing this to 'Gardener's delight', although it is somewhat different - this is a determinate (or bush) variety, and often recommended for pots or hanging baskets, I think. It's a bit twee, but said to be very productive. Lots of small red fruit.

Gardener's delight

German orange strawberry

Great white

I have heard good things about this. It replaces 'Sun Belle' from this year, being a yellow cherry tomato, tending to oval or pear-shaped. Massive trusses of several dozen fruits each. Said to be from Sweden.

Japanese black trifele

Medium to large dark red fruit. Russian. said to be delicious. Photo: Rubber Slippers In Italy

Continued in part two.

Many thanks to Passion tomate and Tatiana's Tomatobase for information on these varieties.

Friday, 7 October 2011

October harvest: week one

Your eyes are not deceiving you - this is a strawberry, ripe, in October. I tore out the fruit patch, but the strawberries have spread around the rest of the garden. They're covered with flowers.

I had labelled this as a 'German Orange Strawberry', but I was suspicious when the fruits started forming. Its identity is now secure - 'Black Cherry'.

The heat has gone, and autumn has returned. But autumn means different things to different people, and varies a lot by location, so what do I mean by that?

Well, I live near the coast, as I may have mentioned in the past. That means it is, at all times of year, less extreme in temperature, but more so in wind, than much of the country. Autumn does not mean clear light, crisp mornings, the first frosts. No, it is more a matter of regular storms, lots of rain, and only slightly lower temperatures than the season preceding it. This year's heatwave was brief and exceptional - early September was much more typical. This blasts the leaves off the trees, brown, and turns them to mush underfoot, treacherous and unlovely. There's not much yellow, gold, red, on the trees - they don't get the chance, for one thing, nor is it hot or dry enough here in the average summer to promote the bright colours' formation in the first place.

The herbaceous plants - the shrubs, vegetables, annuals - continue, a little slower, shaggier, tireder, but little changed from July and August. My Cosmos plants have finally started flowering in earnest - they spent the summer growing to five or six feet, monsters that overfilled the space I'd allotted them. The Calendula, also grown from seed, are having a marvellous time - they've filled the garden with gold and shocking yellows and oranges for months now, and hopefully will self-sow profusely. Verbena bonariensis, which grows of its own accord every year - each time in different locations - is doing its lovely thing. The same goes for the tomatoes, beans, and pumpkins, which are all blissfully unaware of the oncoming darkness and cold. But frosts here come late, and are infrequent - I've had tomatoes fruiting outdoors well into November the past two years, although they look rather forlorn by that point. So I am not worried about the winter just yet - like the plants, I can afford to pretend everything's going on as before, though the early, more sudden, sunsets are rather cutting off my options for outdoor work in the evenings now.

Totals for week 1st-7th October:
1st: 32g chard, 10g pumpkin flowers (day total: 42g)
3rd: 139g tomatoes (comprising 3 'Jaune Flammée' at 94g, 1 'Summer Cider' at 45g)
4th: 17g runner beans, 32g strawberries, 1.01kg tomatoes (comprising 2 'Super Marmande' at 107g, 1 'Summer Cider' at 117g, 1 'Costoluto Fiorentino' at 35g, 2 'Great White' at 11g, 2 'Snowberry' at 11g, 11 'Sun Belle' at 54g, 12 'Gardener's Delight' at 80g, 6 'Sub Arctic Plenty' at 67g, 2 'Cream Sausage' at 43g, 5 'Green Zebra' at 126g, 11 'Black Cherry' at 115g, 8 'Jaune Flammée' at 244g; day total: 1.059kg)
7th: 1.341kg tomatoes (comprising 5 'Green Zebra' at 223g, 1 'Summer Cider' at 61g, 6 'Cream Sausage' at 174g, 7 'Jaune Flammée' at 211g, 6 'Sub Arctic Plenty' at 154g, 4 'Snowberry' at 23g, 17 'Sun Belle' at 55g, 13 'Gardener's Delight' at 77g, 3 'Costoluto Fiorentino' at 47g, 4 'Super Marmande' at 131g, 3 'Great White' at 185g)
Total for week: 2.581kg
Year to date total: 29.664kg

A lot of tomatoes! If I have just one day harvesting a dozen varieties of tomato in the whole year, I will have achieved a major part of what I wanted. I now have an ongoing dilemma - do I gather in all the remaining unripe fruit, and hope to get them to colour up indoors, or do I rely on the continuing mild weather, and occasional sunshine, to do it for me? I think a bit of both; some plants look very tired, and need to be laid to rest on the compost heap, while others look as fresh as they did in June. I also need to start planning my overwintering vegetables - the onions I sowed are doing well; I will order garlic sets, and sow broad beans and peas to put out in November.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Insalata caprese

The version is layered, and uses three types of tomato. I'd like to say I grew the basil, but mine was destroyed by aphids, so this is from the market. Still tastes good!

There must be thousands of versions of this online and in books. But it's one of my all-time favourite dishes, and now's the perfect time to make it, with an abundance of ripe tomatoes coming from the garden.

It's hardly a recipe at all - which is probably why I like it so much. It's just a matter of combining the six ingredients, more or less prettily, and eating them. The simpler a recipe, the more important the quality of each ingredient - there's nowhere to hide. So, indulge yourself and buy the best you can (homegrown produce is even better).

Insalata caprese (Capri-style salad)
  • the best-quality tomatoes you can find, at the peak of ripeness
  • buffalo mozzarella (the fresher the better), brought to room temperature
  • fresh basil leaves
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt (Maldon, or another coarse sea salt is perfect)
  • black pepper, freshly cracked
  • slice the tomatoes, or cut them into chunks - whichever you find more appealing. Slice or tear the mozzarella into chunks about the same size as the tomato.
  • arrange the cheese and tomato on a plate, or in a bowl, roughly mixed together, or layered alternately.
  • tear the basil over the top, or layer the leaves between the slices, if using.
  • sprinkle over salt (if using coarse sea salt, crush it between your fingers as you sprinkle) and pepper to taste, and drizzle as much oil as you like.

It's pretty, not terribly unhealthy, takes no time to make, and is delicious at any time of year. If I had the money, and access to the best ingredients, I would eat it every other day.

Incidentally, the price of the plateful above works out around £1.25. I used bocconcini (small mozzarella balls), which are a little more expensive than full-sized cheeses; I used around 1/3 of a pack. The basil was 99p a pack, of which I used no more than a fifth. The tomatoes were free, and the oil and seasonings were a penny or two each, at most.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

September harvest: week four/monthly summary

The greenhouse 'Jaune Flammée' has reached its end, but outdoors, several other plants have started producing even larger fruits recently. This variety continues to impress.

We've been having a heatwave, along with the rest of England and Wales. It's been perfect, with light winds, mostly clear skies, and temperatures in the mid twenties by day, mid teens at night. So the summer crops have continued to flourish - I have have left them be for now.

Totals for week 22nd-30th September:
23rd: 37g turnips, 21g turnip tops, 60g chard, 46g runner beans, 390g tomatoes (comprising 2 'Sub Arctic Plenty' at 54g, 3 'Jaune Flammée' at 76g, 3 'Cream Sausage' at 74g, 14 'Gardener's Delight' at 90g, 4 'Snowberry' at 30g, 6 'Sun Belle' at 36g; day total: 554g)
24th: 1 'Sub Arctic Plenty' at 17g, 2g French beans, 7g runner beans (day total: 26g)
26th: 41g turnips, 39g turnip tops, 8g pumpkin flowers, 17g runner beans, 197g tomatoes (comprising 1 'Black Cherry' at 17g, 6 'Sun Belle' at 41g, 1 'Green Zebra' at 37g, 4 'Gardener's Delight' at 19g, 3 'Snowberry' at 14g, 2 'Sub Arctic Plenty' at 13g, 1 'Super Marmande' at 56g; day total: 302g)
27th: 221g tomatoes (comprising 3 'Sub Arctic Plenty' at 107g, 5 'Jaune Flammée' at 114g)
28th: 24g runner beans, 290g tomatoes (comprising 1 'Summer Cider' at 146g, 3 'Green Zebra' at 69g, 2 'Jaune Flammée' at 32g, 6 'Sun Belle' at 43g; day total: 314g)
29th: 17g pumpkin flowers, 191g tomatoes (comprising 2 'Jaune Flammée' at 80g, 3 'Costoluto Fiorentino' at 111g; day total: 208g)
30th: 132g mizuna, 12g runner beans, 2g French beans, 280g tomatoes (comprising 2 'Costoluto Fiorentino' at 65g, 4 'Jaune Flammée' at 135g, 1 'Sub Arctic Plenty' at 12g, 12 'Gardener's Delight' at 68g; day total: 426g)
Total for 8 days: 2.051kg
September total: 5.605kg
Year to date total: 27.083kg

Two kilos in just over a week is good - the tomato harvest has accelerated. All but three varieties ('Riesentraube', 'German Orange Strawberry', and 'Great White') have produced something, and I'm confident even these will give some fruit before the end of the season. Mizuna has rebounded from its first proper cropping, and I'll let it grow back once or twice more. Stem lettuces are huge, but suffering in the heat a little; chard is growing well; swedes were thriving but have been ravaged by caterpillars; turnips likewise, but with slugs. I'll need to tidy the whole garden pretty ruthlessly as things start to wind down through the rest of autumn, but for now, I've been getting more outdoor joinery done (this time, building a shed).

Many more harvests to come!

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Some thoughts on beer

Not the kind of Belgian beer I favour.

The weekend before last I had the great pleasure to attend my first-ever beer festival. There are no breweries in my town, and hence no beer festivals, but the next town north has one (sadly, it took place while I was in Reykjavík), and the next town south, which is the one I went to. I hadn't thought to look up when it was happening, but fortuitously, it was on the very day I was planning on going down there to mooch around the shops (there's an excellent greengrocer where I bought quinces a few weeks ago, and an independent kitchenware shop that sells the flip-top bottles I use for homemade liqueurs). When I mentioned it to my friends, they told me about the beer festival - so we made a date (we're all partial to beer, but they tend to shop for value, so their house is filled with mass market swill).

I've never been to either a food festival or a beer festival before - indeed, my town lacks even a farmers' market, it's so divorced from local producers. So I had no idea what to expect. I downloaded the list of beers, and organised them in order of the distance between my house and the brewery - since there were dozens, I had to decide which to try, to get my priorities straight in advance. I was told they would sell beer in 1/3 pints, as well as halves and whole pints - since I wanted to try the most possible, and not get drunk, that was ideal. Even so, I was unlikely to get through even the ones from the five counties of Northwest England (Lancashire, Cumbria, Cheshire, Greater Manchester, and Merseyside). In fact, the extremely useful website Quaffale informed me there are 108 operating breweries in the region - each producing several beers, sometimes dozens. Although the beer festival didn't have anything like all of them, it had enough to stretch a determined taster for its three days' duration. We were only going for one session, so I needed to be picky.

A large hall was filled with tables and chairs in the middle, a long bar down each side, and a smaller one in a corner. After paying entry (£3), you could buy cards of £10 or £5 value, divided into 5p, 10p, 20p, and 50p (I think); the bar staff would then cross off the amount you spent on each drink - a clever way to avoid their needing tills. You hired a glass - either a pint or a half (with a marking for 1/3) for a £2 deposit. Then you could pick whichever beer you wanted. There were around 70 domestic ales (mostly local), over 40 international bottles beers (half of them Belgian), and maybe 20 draught "farmhouse" ciders and perries.

I began with the brewery in the town holding the festival. Then one just a couple of miles from my house. My friends chose more or less at random, but we soon started splitting international beers between us - so we could try the most possible, and because they were more expensive on average. So I never got much further than 20 miles away, but I managed to try 23 beers and a single cider (I hadn't intended to, but it was a good palate cleanser, and I was intrigued that they made cider in my county - I'd never heard of such a thing).

The impression I got was consistent and rather disappointing: I much prefer Belgian beer to anything produced in the UK. That is not to say every UK ale disappoints - some are superb, and I would like to source some from the nearest brewery for future festivities (such as my birthday) - nor that Belgian beers are always good. Of course, it's a matter of taste - but mine seems to favour the Trappist styles, especially lambics, which are invariably more complex, fruity, with larger, more persistent heads, and usually higher alcohol levels. The difference, I suspect, is in the yeast - British brewers tend to employ standard brewing yeast (mostly Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or for lagers S. pastorianus), whereas many Belgian beers are brewed with wild yeasts (such as Brettanomyces spp.), native to the region, which produce more more varied aromatic compounds.

In fact, some homebrew shops now sell "lambic yeasts", which will probably match fairly closely those strains found in the old Belgian breweries, but I am not aware of any such beers made in this country (I am very happy to be proven wrong on that matter, however). I intend at some point, perhaps over the winter, when the garden is not a priority, to start making beer at home, so I will give it a try myself. However, I am left with the slightly annoying conclusion: I prefer Belgian beer. This means two things: most pubs do not serve the kind of beer I like (though having any real ale on tap is preferable to the standard international conglomerates' industrial products), and to drink what I like will cost more than the average pint. Ah well, one must suffer for quality sometimes...

I should point out, one style of beer I adore is not Belgian, namely IPA (especially so-called "American-style" IPAs, whether made in the US or over here). And I've had many enjoyable craft beers from the United States in other styles, and from other places too.

Addendum: I joined CAMRA at the festival. I'd considered it in the past, but £20 seemed a bit much for tenuous benefits. Well, this time it made sense. They refunded the £3 entry, gave you a £5 drinks voucher card, and promised £20' Wetherspoon vouchers. I appreciate the image this organisation has (for those who don't know, it's the CAMpaign for Real Ale, which seeks to support traditional brewing and pubs), but I support its aims, and share its dismay at the direction beer, brewing, and pubs had taken in recent decades (before the micro-brewing renaissance of the last few years).

Saturday, 24 September 2011

September harvest: week three

I started taking portraits of my ripe tomatoes, one variety at a time. Sadly, I used the wrong camera settings for several, so they weren't good enough to be uploaded to Flickr, but they are alright reduced in size for use here. Clockwise, from upper left: 'Cherokee Purple', 'Gardener's Delight', 'Sun Belle', 'Jaune Flammée'.

Tomatoes are rolling in (if you'll excuse the awkward metaphor) now - a few hundred grammes every couple of days. I tend to ripen them indoors (picking them when they are ripe enough to come off the vine, but less than fully coloured), because if I don't, they get nibbled. Sadly, some have elected to go mouldy before becoming fully edible, especially 'Costoluto Fiorentino', whose ribs must provide an ideal hiding place for fungal spores. Still, their colours gladden my heart, and I've started photographing them so I have a copyright-free record (and because they are pretty).

Totals for week 15th-21st September:
15th: 1 'Jaune Flammée' tomato at 6g, 12g pumpkin flower (day total: 18g)
16th: 350g tomatoes (comprising 1 'Jaune Flammée' at 22g, 1 'Costoluto Fiorentino' at 12g, 2 'Super Marmande' at 164g, 1 'Cherokee Purple' at 152g)
18th: 5g pumpkin flower, 21g runner beans, 6g French beans, 326g tomatoes (comprising 11 'Gardener's Delight' at 61g, 1 'Costoluto Fiorentino' at 68g, 3 'Jaune Flammée' at 58g, 2 'Cream Sausage' at 52g, 7 'Sun Belle' at 52g, 5 'Snowberry' at 35g; day total: 358g)
20th: 4g French beans, 2g runner beans, 426g tomatoes (comprising 1 'Cherokee Purple' at 180g, 1 'Costoluto Fiorentino' at 28g, 4 'Jaune Flammée' at 47g, 4 'Gardener's Delight' at 28g, 8 'Sun Belle' at 60g, 1 'Snowberry' at 11g, 4 'Green Zebra' at 172g; day total: 432g)
Week total: 1.158kg
Year to date total: 25.032kg

More than a kilo is respectable, and passing the 25kg mark is pleasing, if not especially significant. As a spoiler to the following week's harvest, I've got chard, turnips, and many more tomatoes and beans, so I'm pretty happy with where the garden is right now.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Making liqueurs


A few years ago I got hooked on cocktails. It began when I ordered a box of assorted premium spirits from an online retailer. I still have the email, so I can say it contained 3 bottles of premium plain vodka, and one bottle each of berry- and lime-flavoured vodka. Throughout my sixth form and university years, my tastes for alcohol changed, as you would expect. When I was a teenager, I drank tequila, alcopops (which were still quite new then), and whatever else was cheapest. Then vodka and orange (again the cheapest I could find) took centre stage, before I gave up drinking almost entirely for over a year. When I resumed, I started taking advantage of the good wine shops in the city, and tried numerous whites and rosés (red was still rather too challenging on a daily basis).

In France, where I spent a lot of time in my third year (I studied French, see), I drank more wine (I have fond memories of the chain Nicolas's budget rosé range, where you could get a very decent bottle for €2.50, which in those days was a pittance), and kir, which was invariably the cheapest drink in bars (white wine, traditionally Bourgogne aligoté, with crème de cassis - blackcurrant liqueur). Returning to the UK afterwards, I started enjoying the odd Long Island iced tea, and vodka. So by this point - not long before I finished - my tastes were broad, and I was eager to learn more.

I also liked absinthe, but that's another story.

When I finished my degree, I had a lot of spare time, and I started reading books on cocktails. You might be surprised - but a food-lover is likely to enjoy reading recipe books, and cocktail formulae are merely simple recipes. What I started to do was make lists of drinks I wanted to try, and the ingredients I needed to buy in order to make them. By the end of this period, two or three years later, I had a personal collection of well over 100 spirits, liqueurs, bitters, and many more syrups and mixers. I've since drunk, given away, or disposed of them all - my house no longer regularly contains alcohol at all, as it's too much of a temptation. However, I do enjoy making my own, and recently I've begun making liqueurs again, from seasonal fruit - sometimes home-grown.

The issue at hand

The beauty of this is, they are useful as straight drinks - Amalfi limoncello is beautiful over ice - but particularly good in simple, delicious cocktails. The fruit syrup is great too, of course, but its keeping qualities are much poorer. The alcohol in a liqueur should keep it fresh for many months, especially if unopened.

You can flavour liqueurs with almost anything. And I should say, before I continue, that by 'liqueur' (not to be confused with liquor), I mean a syrupy, sweetened alcoholic drink made from fruit, herbs, spices, nuts, and the like, combined with sugar and spirit alcohol, usually 15-25% alcohol by volume (though some commercial ones are stronger). I'll leave out cream liqueurs here, which include the addition of dairy products, and sometimes eggs, because they are rather different in production and keeping qualities.

This week I've made two, with a third in production - quince, plum, and pear. These fruits are ripe now, so are perfect for transforming into things that can be enjoyed later, but almost anything can be used - though some are easier than others.

Basic liqueur recipe
Fresh, ripe, seasonal fruit
Spirit (vodka, brandy, and rum are best, but whisky and gin are possible)
Optionally: citric acid, lemons or limes, water
basic method
  • First the flavour of the fruit must be extracted. There are three main ways of doing this. First, you may juice them directly. This works well with firm, watery fruits, like apples and watermelon. Use a domestic juicer. The second method, which is suitable for all types of fruit, is to gently heat the fruit in a pan, with a small amount of water. The third is to steep the fruit, whole or chopped, in the spirit, but I'll say more on that below.
  • Take the juice, or the heated pulp, and strain. The best way to do this is using a sieve lined with muslin. If there is a lot of pulp, skin, etc, you may be best sieving it without the muslin first, to remove most of the solids. Gently press the mass wrapped in muslin if you like - but the result may be a slightly cloudy liqueur.
  • Then, put the clarified juice in a pan, and add sugar, lemon, and citric acid to taste. I only started using citric acid recently, but find it excellent for correcting the acid/sugar balance. It's a white powder, used in many types of cooking, and sold in some supermarkets, ethnic food shops, and home brew suppliers. A little goes a long way, but it really perks up the juice, and can help bring out the flavour of less than perfect fruit. It's also great if you add too much sugar, as it brings the mixture back into balance.
  • Once it tastes right, add the alcohol. The strength is up to you - I'd say no more than 50/50. Then readjust the sweetness and acidity - remember, the alcohol will have a certain kick, or burn, and the final sugar and acid levels will be higher than in a non-alcoholic syrup in order to carry this - unless you use very smooth, expensive alcohol, which is a bit of a waste anyway.
  • Once it is to your taste, pour into clean, sterilised bottles. Store in a dark, cool place. The flavours are often said to "mature" over several months - possibly due to slow chemical reactions between the alcohol, sugar, and acid - but I am not sure if there's any real difference (unlike, say, in a wine, where there's a much more complex interplay with dead yeast enzymes, etc).
The colours can be beautiful - I don't understand why most commercial examples are still coloured artificially, since fruit and herbs have so much of their own. Of course, if you use golden sugar, or brown spirit (like brandy), or honey (a little of which makes a lovely addition to some), then it will be darker.

The third way is more traditional. Take a large jar, and place alternating layers of sugar and fruit into it. Add the spirit of your choosing to cover. Ideally, you would fill it, otherwise the fruit will often float to the top - but you can weigh it down (this is how a "Rumtopf" or rum pot is made - but in that case, mixed fruit is usually used). Leave for two weeks up to several months, until the liquid is fruity and coloured. Strain. The problem I have with this method is there is no easy way of adjusting the sweetness until the end. It is, however, easier, and you end up with alcohol-soaked fruit, which can be useful as a dessert in itself (although it's not really my cup of tea). This method tends to produce a stronger finished liqueur than those above.

Ways to serve

A good liqueur is excellent served straight, in a small glass especially for that purpose, or a sherry schooner, small wine glass, or even a brandy snifter. Over ice can work well, and sparkling water can be added for a long drink. A simple cocktail can be made by shaking a measure or two of spirit over ice with at least as much liqueur, and possibly a little lemon or lime juice, or the juice of whatever fruit is in the liqueur, or a complementary one, and possibly sugar syrup. It's all to taste, so I can't specify - I prefer much more sour cocktails than most people. Experiment!

It goes almost without saying that this is an excellent way of dealing with a glut of fruit, and makes a lovely handmade gift for those who like a tipple. At the very least, the bright, jewel-like colours are likely to gladden the heart, especially deep in winter.

The picture above shows, in the bottles left to right, plum (also in the glass), banana, pear, and quince liqueurs, all made this month.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

September harvest: week two

Tomatoes, large and small, ripe and unripe. A good impression of the range of colours and forms the varieties I've been growing have taken.

This week was all about tomatoes. Finally! Sadly, many of the ones I picked were not yet ripe, but I had to save them from my mollusc enemies - the recent wet weather hasn't harmed the plants directly (I'd say it's been too windy for blight conditions), but has encouraged the slugs and snails to gorge - and they often take a little out of the side of an unripe tomato. They will ripen adequately indoors, though they'll lack the intensity of flavour you get when they reach full ripeness on the vine. Still, on the basis of weight alone, I should be happy.

Totals for week 8th-14th September:

8th: 12g pumpkin flower, 156g tomatoes (comprising one each 'Cream Sausage' at 21g, 'Super Marmande' at 45g, and 'Summer Cider' at 90g; day total: 168g)
9th: 74g tomatoes (comprising 1 'Super Marmande' at 67g, and 2 'Gardener's Delight' at 7g)
11th: 5g French beans, 77g tomatoes (comprising 5 'Sun Belle' at 28g, and one each 'Super Marmande' at 21g, 'Cream Sausage' at 10g, 'Jaune Flammée' at 11g, and 'Snowberry' at 7g; day total: 82g)
14th: 15g French beans, 1.083kg tomatoes (comprising 2 'Cherokee Purple' at 236g, 2 'Costoluto Fiorentino' at 108g, 7 'Jaune Flammée' at 91g, 2 'Sun Belle' at 21g, 2 'Snowberry' at 12g, 12 'Gardener's Delight' at 81g, and 7 'Super Marmande' at 534g; day total: 1.098kg)
Week total: 1.422kg
Year to date total: 23.874kg

In the next couple of weeks, I'll get another picking of mizuna, possibly the first kohl rabi (some have started to swell), more runner beans (they had a second flush of flowers), and hopefully many more tomatoes. I can't say this is the harvest cornucopia I'd pictured back in the spring, but I've learned a lot through my failures - most importantly, patience.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

September harvest: week one

A plate of mixed tomatoes.

Here they have been put into an ovenproof dish, drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. The larger ones have been chopped.

And this is what they look like after being roasted in a medium oven for over an hour.

The weather this week has not been kind to the tomatoes, but it has suited the autumn vegetables. We've had a bit of everything - sunshine, rain, wind - alternating rapidly. Currently, I'm awaiting the second major storm of the season, this time the remnants of a hurricane, which means outdoor work (such as fencing, painting, repairing previous wind damage) is on hold. The only minor concern is the newest addition to my garden, a quince tree, which has gone in the front. It's a pretty exposed position, though very sunny and with good soil, so I need to stake the tree today to stop it rocking about in the ground, preventing the roots settling. Other than that, ripening is slow. Too little sun has made this a summer of disappointment for many - comparing notes with family who've been visiting recently, confirmed it wasn't just a northern problem. But I have successfully ripened green tomatoes indoors with a banana in a bag (a traditional method, which never ceases to amaze, despite its simplicity) - and I suspect more fruit will go through that process than will ripen on the vine.

Totals for week 1st-7th September:

1st: 11g French beans, 11g runner beans, 193g tomatoes (comprising 3 'Jaune Flammée' at 57g, 1 'Costoluto Fiorentino' at 61g, 2 'Snowberry' at 8g, 6 'Gardener's Delight' at 35g*, and 5 'Sun Belle' at 32g; day total: 215g)
2nd: 28g summer squash, 2g French beans, 45g tomatoes (comprising 4 'Gardener's Delight' at 17g, 1 'Jaune Flammée' at 21g, 1 'Snowberry' at 7g; day total: 75g)
4th: 13g pumpkin flowers, 1g runner beans, 15g radish, 49g tomatoes (comprising 6 'Sun Belle' at 20g, 5 'Gardener's Delight' at 23g, 2 'Snowberry' at 6g), 483g apples (day total: 561g)
6th: 30g French beans, 30g tomatoes (comprising 2 'Snowberry' at 14g, 3 'Gardener's Delight' at 14g, 1 'Sun Belle' at 2g; day total: 60g)
7th: 2g French beans, 61g tomatoes (comprising 3 'Jaune Flammée' at 47g, 2 'Gardener's Delight' at 12g, 1 'Sun Belle' at 2g; day total: 63g)
Week total: 974g
Year to date total: 22.452kg

Still, nearly a kilo of produce in a week is not bad - around half of that apples, from the smallest 'tree' in the world (a tiny, knee-high standard my grandfather passed over to me a couple of years ago; last year it carried no fruit at all, this time it had nine, though all were very small). Enough tomatoes for a few meals, enough to gladden the heart and give me an incentive to grow more next year (as if I needed one). Their taste is incomparable.

Meanwhile, I've had a lot of bought produce to deal with. It's a time of plenty, with fruit and vegetables very cheap in all the shops, so I've been making liqueurs, and have plans for more preserves and frozen desserts. Stocking up for winter!

*I couldn't remember exactly how much, between 30 and 39g, so I split the difference.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Banana bread

I have Nigella Lawson to thank for this one. Well, her and the local chain of posh supermarkets, which has a habit of bagging up old bananas and selling them off cheap. A kilo or more for 50-60p. Now, I'm not a fan of overripe bananas. Until recently, I didn't even like ripe ones - my preference was for those large, perfect fruits that were still blushed with green. Not unripe - those have a mouth-drying character bordering on the tannic - but not yet fully yellow. I've since moved on to those whose banana aroma is fully developed, but whose flesh is still firm, and not at all mushy. Anyway, I still won't eat these reduced bananas, but they are a wonderful resource for cooking.

The best thing to do is, as soon as you get them home (or, in my case, a day or two later), peel and chop them, lay them out onto trays lined with something non-stick, and freeze them. Then, the next day, split them between freezer bags, and keep them until needed. A handful in a smoothie provides richness, body, and a cool sweetness without the need for ice cubes. They can be softened in the microwave and added to porridge. Best of all, however, they make banana bread - a simple luxury, rich and warming.

The original recipe (or, I should say, the previous iteration, since Nigella explains hers is but a refinement of another recipe) is in How to be a domestic goddess, but the first time I had occasion to make it, I was lacking a couple of ingredients. Now, many banana bread recipes I have seen call for nuts, as hers did (walnuts, to be precise), but I rarely have any in - I do, in fact, like nuts now (as a child I hated them), but they are so expensive, I must reserve them for very special occasions. As it is, I don't see that they add much beyond a crunch in this context. By all means, add some if you have them to hand, but they are not essential.

The other missing ingredient was alcohol. Ms Lawson does so revel in rich food, and she recommends poaching the sultanas in bourbon or rum before incorporating them into the cake, but this is another ingredient I rarely have. I have a little too much love for liquor, so I don't keep it in the house (or perhaps I should say, I buy it, but it never lasts long). I don't see that an alcoholic tang would sit well with the other ingredients, so I'd advise leaving it out, even if your drinks cabinet is fully stocked.

So, my version of this recipe is pared down, simplified, but no less indulgent for it. A word on the name - this is, quite clearly, a cake, not a bread. But 'banana cake' lacks a certain cadence, and besides, it conjures up an image of something with a layer of caramelised, possibly semi-dried, whole fruits - like a pineapple upside-down cake. This is rather different (and often baked in a loaf tin).

Simple banana bread
makes one large loaf
300g bananas (peeled weight), as ripe as you like - even very bruised fruit will do
150g sugar (a golden sugar, as in so many things, adds extra richness)
125g butter, melted
175g plain flour
100g sultanas
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
a dash of vanilla extract
a pinch of salt
I've found it really doesn't matter what order you do this in; mash the bananas until mostly puréed (a few lumps are no problem), add the butter, eggs, sugar, vanilla, and sultanas, and mix together thoroughly. Combine the dry ingredients, then mix with the rest, until you have a batter (make sure no lumps of flour remain). Pour/spoon into a loaf tin, or cake moulds, or even muffin cases; note that the smaller the cakes, the shorter the cooking time, so I'd advise rather than a set length, just keep your eye on them, and test with a skewer when they look done - if the (metal) skewer comes out clean, they are ready. Bake at gas 3/170ºC until done.

You can do this in a food processor - but in that case, reserve the sultanas and stir in at the end (or they'll get pulverised).

Friday, 2 September 2011

August harvest: week four/monthly summary

Say hello to mizuna pesto. I harvested so much I had to find a recipe that required a lot. It's such a vibrant green - though I don't yet know whether it will be delicious.

I'm continuing the practice of lumping together the final part of the month, even though it exceeds seven days - it doesn't make sense to have a 'week five' post for three extra days. So the figure below can't be seen as a week's harvest, but given the low figures this month, I don't suppose it will matter. Ultimately, my totals will be for the whole year (when it's over), so there's no need to nitpick.

Growth may have slowed in some areas (the tomatoes are putting more energy into swelling existing fruit, than getting much bigger or setting a lot of new ones), but is still fast elsewhere - windowsill herbs, and autumn-cropping leaves and roots are racing ahead. However, I'm still very much waiting for the harvest. I've all but given up on my 50kg total tomato haul, although my attitude goes from positivity to pessimism almost daily. It depends largely on how much the larger fruits weigh - the 'Cherokee Purple' have grown quite fat, though ripening is nowhere to be seen. The smaller varieties are well underweight - in fact, everything I've picked so far has been less than a quarter the lower expected average weight, which means my sums will be all wrong. To put it in context, I'd assumed the average weight would be 50g per tomato, and so far only two or three fruits has exceeded that. At this rate, unless I harvest several times more fruits than I estimated, I will miss my target by an order of magnitude.

Totals for week 22nd-31st August:

22nd: 89g tomatoes (comprising 2 'Cream Sausage' at 30g*, 4 'Snowberry' at 24g, 2 'Jaune Flammée' at 23g, 2 'Gardener's Delight' at 7g, and 1 'Sun Belle' at 5g)
24th: 6g runner beans, 5g French beans, 34g tomatoes (comprising 4 'Gardener's Delight' at 24g, and 2 'Snowberry' at 10g; day total: 45g)
26th: 43g tomatoes (comprising 1 'Jaune Flammée' at 22g, 2 'Sun Belle' at 11g, and 3 'Gardener's Delight' at 10g)
27th: 6g runner beans, 2g French beans, 32g tomatoes (comprising 1 each 'Jaune Flammée' and 'Snowberry', both 5g, and 3 'Gardener's Delight' at 22g; day total: 40g)
28th: 40g mizuna, 25g radish, 3g chives, 54g tomatoes (comprising 1 'Jaune Flammée' at 11g, 2 'Snowberry' at 15g, 2 'Gardener's Delight' at 8g, and 4 'Sun Belle' at 20g; day total: 122g)
30th: 16g runner beans, 39g tomatoes (comprising 1 'Snowberry' at 9g, 1 'Jaune Flammée' at 12g, 1 'Sun Belle' at 6g, and 2 'Gardener's Delight' at 12g; day total: 55g)
31st: 3 'Cherokee Purple' tomatoes at 266g**, 408g mizuna (day total: 674g)

Total for 10 days: 1.068kg

Total for August: 2.536kg
Year to date total: 21.478kg

Over a kilogramme! Mostly tomatoes and mizuna. The latter has been an unexpected star - it was ready before I expected, based on average cropping time, and it regenerated in just a few days after its first cutting. I've had it in salad, stir fry, and will use the biggest batch for a kind of pesto.

I suppose September will be the month for tomatoes. I can see signs of ripening on dozens of fruits now, inside and out. The kohl rabi, turnips, black radish, swede, and beetroot are beginning to swell, so I might get some by the end of the month. The carrots are slower, so they may be an October crop. The stem lettuce have swollen alarmingly, but I don't know the crop well enough to know how long they will take to mature. There's still time for more sowing, so I hope to have a lot more in the ground in a few weeks - it's easy to think of September and October as autumn months, but the average temperatures aren't much lower than summer, so the harvests should continue for weeks to come.

*These were suffering from blossom end rot, but ripened regardless.
**A large truss split, and three fruits snapped off, unripe. I'm hoping to ripen them indoors with the aid of a banana.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Planning ahead

I think this is 'Super marmande'. In any case, many of the larger tomato varieties are now swelling, promising a reasonable crop, though none show signs of ripening just yet.

I have tasted fewer than half the varieties of tomato I am growing this year - although I think I will be able to try at least one of each before the frosts.

However, seed fever has taken me again, and I have planned next year's list of varieties already. It is subject to change, but only addition - a few of those I have at the moment have not yet proven themselves, but they may be redeemed later in the season. Some seeds remain from the purchases of 6 months ago, so obviously I will start with these. Then, some which I do not have spare, but which have done so well already, I will gather the seeds from. Finally, I have chosen a few varieties that either come highly recommended, or which fill gaps in the size/shape/colour/habit combinations, or whose names I like, or which duplicate 2011's attributes, but might be even better. I'd set my limit at 20 varieties - which sounds like a lot, but in fact, I'd say it's no harder to grow 60 of 20 types than 60 all the same. I knew I'd overshoot a little, so here is the first draft, amounting to 23.

Varieties in bold will be making a return appearance after this year; asterisks denote those whose seeds I will have to collect myself.

Black cherry
Black prince
Brown berry
Caspian pink
Cherokee purple
Cream sausage*
Garden peach
Garden pearl
Gardener's delight
German orange strawberry
Great white
Japanese black trifele
Jaune flammée*
Plum lemon
Super marmande
White cherry
White wonder
Zloty ozarowski

A few notes. I will not save seed from this year's crop of 'Gardener's delight', because although they have grown well, the fruits are small, and I am not convinced I have a very good strain (the seeds, if you remember, came free with a magazine a couple of years ago). 'Brown berry' will grow alongside 'Black cherry' - they are very similar, and I want to know which I prefer. 'White cherry' will be compared with this year's 'Snowberry', which has not yet earned a place in the lineup. 'Garden pearl (Gartenperle)' will stand as comparison with 'Gardener's delight'; 'White wonder' with 'Great white' (although the former is smaller); I suppose 'Ildi' is next year's 'Sun belle'. 'Sungold', 'Zloty ozarowski', and 'Jubilee' are there because I realised my favourite tomato colour is orange - and I want to see if anything matches 'Jaune flammée', my absolute favourite of the year so far. 'Garden peach' is a peach tomato - namely, one that has a slight furriness, a fuzz, on its surface, and can look very much like its namesake - a type I nearly tried this year. Finally, all were selected from their peers on the basis of earliest ripening - since my garden clearly isn't hot or sunny enough to get fruit to harvest in the standard number of days (all have been around five weeks behind this year - not always due to incompetence).

So, exciting times. I don't yet know how many plants in total I will grow - 100 seems a nice figure, but it depends on how much I get this year - my goal of 50kg hangs in the balance; if I make it, a hundred will be too many. Of course, if I get an allotment in time, I will grow more.

I'll return to this subject in a few months, when I have finished assessing this year's varieties, and when I've bought the seeds I need.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

August harvest: week three

The mizuna is ready! I snipped one third of the catch crop I sowed in the first raised bed, which was plenty! The odd tiny slug and snail were dealt with by soaking in salted water and thorough rinsing. I'll pick more in the next day or two.

Slim pickings again, but I've had a little of something more than every other day. The tomatoes are ripening gradually, giving me enough for a salad here, a pasta sauce there, but nowhere near the quantities I need for preserving. Another variety came on-stream this week: 'Sun Belle'. I'll obviously be doing full summaries of each variety later in the year, but my initial impression was, it's sweeter and less acid than its near-twin 'Snowberry' (the former not as golden as expected, the latter not quite as pale). Delicious, anyhow.

Totals for week 15th-21st August:
16th: 70g tomatoes (comprising 2 'Jaune Flammée' at 38g, 3 'Snowberry' at 15g, and 4 'Gardener's Delight' at 17g)
17th: 9g French beans
20th: 2g French beans, 34g runner beans (day total: 36g)
21st: 121g tomatoes (comprising 2 'Costoluto Fiorentino' at 76g, 3 'Gardener's Delight', 3 'Sun Belle', and 2 'Snowberry', each at 15g), 80g mizuna (day total: 201g)
Week total: 316g
Year to date total: 20.41kg

So, I didn't manage another 500g. Not to worry - I have been doing other things (including building the side gate, finally - a key step in securing the back garden, which has not had a lockable gate for two or three years, and has never been private). The raised beds in the front garden are growing so fast, it fills me with pride, and spurs me on - I want more like that! I'll do another tomato update very soon, but I will just mention here that there is a lot of fruit coming - including some rather large 'Cherokee Purple' (outside!). I might get to 21kg by the end of the month.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

The height of summer

There have been a few large butterflies hanging round my front garden this summer, but only one at a time. This red admiral kept startling me today.

Another garden update? Aside from the tomatoes (which I wrote about a few days ago), so much is going on right now, I thought I'd do a summary. What's coming up to harvest, what's just germinating, what's yet to be sown.

I started this post over a week ago. This is what the seedlings in my first (shallow) front garden raised bed looked like...

...and here it is today. The mizuna has lived up to its reputation as a good catch crop, being ready now, long before the beetroot (left) and kohl rabi (right).

This is the other (deep) raised bed. In one half, carrots, swede, and radishes are just appearing, while here, I have transplanted stem lettuce (celtuce; above), and rainbow chard (below).

First, the old. The beans and squash aren't doing too bad, considering my earlier neglect and worries! Okay, so 95% of what I sowed went to waste, but what I did find space for has burgeoned. The runner beans have just started showing signs of setting pods - so maybe there will be a crop, after a few dozen failed flowers. They have been pretty, and not defoliated by snails as they have been in previous years. The French beans, on the other hand, have been problem-free since I sowed them. They have lovely, rich purple flowers, purple-tinged stems, and it seems, purple-blushed pods. They're actually ahead of the runners, even though they were slower to get started. They lose their colour when cooked, so it's best to just quickly steam them, or pick young and eat raw.

Finally - baby runner beans! And lots of them. They should be ready in a week or two.

The squash were a bit of a disaster. I sowed dozens, of around ten varieties. But most I allowed to die - I just didn't have the space or soil for them, and I was concentrating on tomatoes. I planted one in a large container on the terrace, where runner beans had been. It had been thriving in the greenhouse, but almost immediately was attacked by snails in its new home. I thought I'd lose it - but it fought back. Now I think it will survive. One more (a different kind) went into the large runner bean pot - it has grown well, straight up the sturdy supports. This week, I spotted the first, tiny, embryonic fruit - so there's hope. Actually, I've been overrun with self-sown squash - wherever I've spread homemade compost, they have sprung up. I've left a few, around the place, where they aren't harming other plants. Their identity, and whether they will produce anything, I can't comment on.

After my tomatoes, this might be my greatest achievement so far - a tiny pumpkin! It's 'Uchiki Kuri', a (one-day-to-be) red Japanese "onion squash".

Now the new. All but two of the things I sowed at the start of the month have germinated (the two that haven't are year-old red perilla seed - it may be one that loses viability quickly - and mixed salad leaves, which were several years old, and had come free with a magazine - there are plenty more where they came from). The ones that have grown are rainbow chard, stem lettuce ("celtuce"), Chinese cabbage, mizuna, mibuna, mispoona, kailaan, tsoi sim, heading lettuce, green perilla, fennel (herb), and sage indoors, and turnips, beetroot, more mizuna, black radish, kohl rabi, and mesclun (mixed salad) outside. Parsley and namenia, both also sown outdoors in trays, were destroyed by slugs and too much sun respectively - they will be restarted indoors. In the last week or so I've also sown carrots, cheeky late summer squash, swede, and radishes outdoors, and several kinds of basil (Thai, holy, purple, cinnamon, and Genovese) and bulb fennel inside.

This is perilla. I sowed green and red, but only the green has germinated. It's perfect for sushi and Japanese-style pickles.

And sage! You can grow it from seed, and it's so easy, why would I ever buy plants again?

And here is another aromatic herb - basil. This is standard ('Sweet Genovese'), but I also have several other kinds. Still tiny!

The near future holds a little more sowing - spring cabbage, more basil (Greek, maybe giant-leaved), kale, cavolo nero, more carrots, more radishes, more turnips, perhaps some cheeky late chillies - I can overwinter them indoors or in the greenhouse if they take. Then it's over for a few months - until November probably, when the greenhouse will be cleared of tomatoes and repopulated with winter salads and oriental vegetables, and outdoors I can attempt overwintering broad beans and peas. I'll also plant some garlic and shallots, maybe onions too - since most of what's going in now will be harvested by then. I've found an exciting mixed multipack of garlic sets, nine different varieties, for £17.99. Pretty expensive, you'd think, but that will easily provide enough garlic for a year - 10 bulbs and 5 extra cloves, let's say 8 cloves per bulb, could make as many as 85 bulbs by next summer. They sit out during the winter and spring, so they're not competing with other crops for at least half their lifespan, and they can be planted quite densely - I'll only need a couple of raised beds for them. I eat a lot of garlic, so it makes sense. As for shallots, I will plant some next spring as I did this year, but some (especially Japanese varieties) can go in before winter, and I'd like to see if they're worth it. As for onions, I have a pack of 'North Holland Blood Red' seeds, which I got for spring onions, but they are a dual-purpose variety, which can be grown as full-sized red onions. I might see how that goes.

Plenty of seedlings on my windowsill again! In the foreground, heading lettuce 'Pinares'.