Blackberry (baby) muffins

Plague has visited the household. Harry brought home – simultaneously – a vomiting bug, a chest infection and a general got-no-energy malaise. The vomit, dear God, the vomit! He’s now fine of course, but I am in day 10 of being decidedly below par. It’s also the time of year when the biting insects reach peak-feasting mode and I succumb to wearing jungle formula to bed. I know we should appreciate the warm but frankly, I am now ready for drizzle, anoraks and things-wrapped-in-pastry.

Meanwhile the harvest continues. Beans…so many beans, and courgettes, so many courgettes. And great-looking chard, cavolo nero, perpetual spinach, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and rather less-great-looking knobbly tomatoes. Plus, whilst not armfuls of flowers, enough for a few pretty vases a week. I also am gratefully receiving the fruit of other people’s labour: just look at this whopper of an aubergine!

My Dad has grown a massive aubergine

Getting two or three baskets like this a week

The sweetpeas, sunflowers, cleome, rudbeckia and cosmos are providing several vases a week

What to do with all these beans!

There’s been a good deal of batch cooking this week. Given that I’m still working and am losing about an hour a day to massive coughing fits, I’m not entirely sure how that’s happened, but there it is. Cooking on auto-pilot. I like to keep a good amount of baby food in the freezer, ready to go, to prevent meltdowns at teatime. Fruity muffins are useful and I’ve been using this River Cottage recipe from their Baby and Toddler cookbook which, in truth, taste way too much like health food to me, but Harry likes them. The purple juice stains, so you must either strip your child before they dig in, or else surrender your power to the washing machine. I choose the latter.

Substitute the blackberries with raspberries, redcurrants, blueberries or apples as the mood takes you. Cooked muffins can be frozen. Defrost at room temperature and maybe given them 20 seconds in the microwave before eating to refresh. Grown-ups may prefer these higher-sugar tayberry muffins instead.

Blackberry muffins
From the River Cottage Baby and Toddler Cookbook

125g wholemeal flour
125 plain flour
3 level tsp baking powder
75g caster sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
75g unsalted butter
1 egg
125g plain full-fat yoghurt
125ml whole milk
100-200g blackberries

Preheat the oven to 180c. Sift together the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl. In a pyrex jug, melt the butter in the microwave until just melted. Using a fork, whisk the egg, milk and yoghurt into the butter. Add the milky mixture to the dry ingredients and stir to combine (I use a wooden spoon for this). Stir in the blackberries. Dollop the mixture into muffin cases and bake for about 20mins or until golden.

Blackberry baby muffins

Also this week:

Harvesting: last French beans, runner beans, chard, perpetual spinach, cavolo nero, courgette, tomatoes, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, cleome, sunflowers, cosmos, rudbeckia, dahlia, sweetpeas. Gratefully receiving beetroots, tomatoes, peppers and aubergine from my folks.

Taking up: bolted lettuce and rocket, lots of annoying thistle weeds

Cooking and eating: Red beans and ham hock, hidden-veg pasta sauce for Harry, Peach cinnamon buns, beetroot salad, mixed veg couscous. A 15% Manzanilla, the first time I’ve enjoyed a sherry since before pregnancy and sign that my liver is improving. Cough mixture.

Reading: The legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark, a brilliant portrait of both a Scottish island (drizzle!) and the secret lives of women

Visiting: Tenbury show. Lots of trips to Coventry for work.

Strawberry cheesecake ice cream (no-churn)

We’re approaching glut season. Ten days I go a had a piddling number of quite crappy-looking strawberries, and now I’m picking by the ice-cream-tub full. Same goes for redcurrants and it won’t be long before the blackcurrants, blueberries and raspberries head in the same direction. This is not a complaint of course: loads of strawbs and loads of redcurrants mean a kitchen filled with the sweet fragrant fug of boiling fruit and sugar as I bottle up a year’s worth of jam. Need to wait until the baby’s in bed though; I can not even imagine the horror of attempting jam-making with a 9 month old whizzing around under my feet in his baby walker.

Strawberries, redcurrants, chard, rocket, lavender and sweet william

One thing that can absolutely be made with the kids is this no-churn strawberry cheesecake ice-cream, shamelessly pinched from this month’s Waitrose Kitchen magazine. It uses fresh strawberries (anything to get through the glut), those little caramelly Lotus Biscoff biscuits (I get them from the Pound Shop), and a few other store cupboard items that you’ll have lying around anyway or can pick up cheaply enough. There’s no making of custard or boiling of sugar, and no messing around with ice-cream makers, so it’s simple too AND is surprisingly good.

First, in your food processor or blender, whizz together 235g strawberries with a squeeze of lemon juice and 1 tbsp icing sugar until smooth.

Whizz together strawberries, lemon juice and icing sugar

In a largish bowl, using a handheld whisk, beat a 200g pack cream cheese until soft and creamy, then add 1 tsp vanilla extract, a small pinch of fine salt, and a 397g can of condensed milk. Keep whisking until smooth, then add 425ml whipping cream and whisk until thick with soft peaks.

Whisk together cream cheese, condensed milk, vanilla extract, salt and whipping cream

Finally, in a another bowl, crumble up 60g Lotus Biscoff biscuits. I think it’s important to use these as their intense flavour comes through even when frozen, but you could try a different type of hard, caramel biscuit if you can’t find the Lotus Biscoff ones.

Bash up some Lotus Biscoff biscuits

Then get a tupperware box and fill to halfway with a layer of cream, then fruit and then biscuits. Swirl with a knife to make a ripple effect, then add a final layer of cream, fruit and biscuits. Give it one last swirl with a knife and then put in the freezer until firm, about 5 hours.

Layer the fruit, cream and biscuits into a plastic tub and freeze until firm

Once you’re ready to serve it’s best to leave this at room temperature for ten minutes or so to soften. Word up: this is RICH and a little goes a very long way. But it tastes great. It would also work blackcurrant, raspberry or blueberry…always thinking about the next glut, me. Serve with some more fresh fruit on the side to cut through the richness.

No-churn strawberry cheesecake ice cream

Also this week:

Harvesting: Lettuce, rocket, chard, broad beans, strawberries, redcurrants, lavender, sweet william

Also in the garden: Foxgloves are going over but the delphinium and roses are coming into their own. Sunflowers are stunted by the dry weather but beans are romping away. From my desk I’ve been watching newly-fledged magpies testing out their flight muscles whilst still being fed by their parents.

Cooking & eating: Tarragon roast chicken with broad beans, pecan brownies

Days out: Three Counties Show for Matt’s first Father’s Day and to introduce Harry to his cultural heritage of sheep, cows and men-being-daft-about-old-tractors. David Austen Roses for a cream tea on my birthday. 38 and not out!

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Chocolate sorbet

I start with a warning: when grinding steel to make a new top for the hopolisk, remember to wear goggles. Matt failed to do so, got a fleck of steel in his eyeball, and had to go to the hospital for a jab from a doctor with a sharp implement.

When grinding steel always wear a mask, else you may end up with a trip to the eye hospital

With both eyes now intact, we disappeared for a long weekend in the Peak District, which was happily imbued with Royal Wedding spirit, warm sun and abundant blossom. I had forgotten what it is to wake up to the sound of birds and sheep rather than buses – what a life affirming joy it is to be close to the land. Especially the land in May, the kindest of all months.

Abundance of apple blossom at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire

Cow parsley is at its best right now

A hangover from Christmas on a dry stone wall

Royal Wedding day, and Her Maj and Prince Philip hang out on the roses

Harry loved being away. In the last two months he’s become incredibly skilled on his walker – it’s his passport to freedom. Turn your back for a second and whoooooooosh! He’s off!

Harry tried to escape but gravel stopped play

At the end of 2012 my Dad and I went to Australia to visit my brother, who is based in Adelaide. We had a few days in Sydney, staying in an apartment-hotel directly above Bill Granger’s restaurant in the Surry Hills. I booked the hotel purely on the basis of the Bill Granger connection but ended up not eating there – the prices were so offensively expensive, no sane person can spend THAT much on scrambled egg with avocado. However by happy accident we discovered that the street was full of interesting independent restaurants and food shops including the most brilliant gelataria, Messina. There were queues trailing down the street for this little ice cream shop and when I finally got to the front of the queue I panicked at the masses of choice and asked for a cup of chocolate sorbet whilst thinking “chocolate sorbet? are you mad?”

It turned out to be glorious of course. I went back the next night for another go. I have never forgotten that chocolate sorbet and everytime anyone goes to Sydney I tell them: find Messina! It’s AMAZING! I’ve tried to recreate that chocolate sorbet a few times but never had any joy until I found this recipe, by Angel Adoree in the Vintage Tea Party Cookbook. Her trick is to use proper dark chocolate rather than cocoa, which makes for a smooth texture. I would add that it’s important to ensure that the syrup isn’t so hot as to make the chocolate seize when you mix them together. Use 70% chocolate and you’re all set.

Dark chocolate sorbet
From The Vintage Tea Party Cookbook

Ensure that your ice cream maker is properly frozen before you begin. In a saucepan, melt 200g caster sugar into 500ml water until completely dissolved. Turn the heat off and leave to cool for 5-10 minutes.

Make a syrup with 500ml water and 200g sugar

Meanwhile chop 200g dark chocolate into shards. I used 70% cocoa solids chocolate but it’s nothing posh, just Aldi own brand.

Chop 200g dark chocolate – I used Aldi’s own brand with 70% cocoa solids

Put the chocolate into a heat-proof jug, pour the syrup on top, then stir until the chocolate has melted. Don’t pour boiling syrup onto your chocolate else the chocolate will seize. Put the jug into the fridge and chill thoroughly (about 2 hours).

Pour the warm syrup onto the chocolate, then stir to dissolve and chill thoroughly

When the syrup is properly cold, churn to a slushy sorbet in the ice cream maker, then freeze until firm.

Churn to a sloppy sorbet, then transfer to the freezer to harden up

When you want to serve, take the sorbet out of the freezer for at least 10 minutes to soften slightly. This is really really intensely chocolatey but it doesn’t have the lingering cloyingness of chocolate ice cream. I like it with sliced strawberries and a suggestion of cream.

Chocolate sorbet – lovely with strawberries and cream

Also this week:

Allotment: Planted out sweet peas, courgette, squash, zinnia, rudbeckia, borage, chrysanthemums. Tomatoes went into the greenhouse (hard work – it was 40c heat in there). Finally dug over the sunflower patch. Went on a trip to Worcester to buy new hazel poles for the sunflowers from Worcester Coppice Crafts. With the warm weather, long days, a happy baby and the last few weeks of maternity leave, I’m finding I can get loads done….it’s like a shot of energy and enthusiasm.

Eating & Cooking: Cream tea at Chatsworth Farm Shop, chips at one of the numerous chippies at Matlock Bath. Make a lovely lentil salad rich with mustard and garlic, tossed with sausages and rocket from the garden.

Reading: Travel books written in the 1950s from the wonderfully OTT Lawrence Durrell

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Clementine Cake

I’ve been reading up on baby weaning lately and in so-doing, was prompted to revisit Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat. There’s a chapter buried in the back devoted to the feeding of babies….ten days later I’ve yet to get to said chapter for it turns out that this is the most distracting of books, a calming balm for the sleep-deprived cook.

A 1990s classic: How to Eat

Putting to one side the fact that Nigella drops into her introduction that she wrote How to Eat whilst pregnant / nursing (note, this is a whopper of a book with 500+ pages of dense prose. Already I feel inadequate, as I consider it a success if I manage to check my email in the course of a day, never mind write a classic. I suppose being monied helps), I am struck by how ahead of its time How to Eat was. The pages are full of foods that, as a student in 1998, I had heard of but would never dream to encounter: pomegranate molasses, marsala, quince. There is talk of Lebanese supermarkets and popping out for brioche and challah. Meat comes not with a dollop of mash, but with chick pea’d couscous and polenta.

At the time I felt myself to be terribly unsophisticated for not cooking like this on a daily basis (I was, but then so was 99.99% of the population). This was the food of the London sophisticate, recorded unapologetically, in a fashion that is now unpopular in the age of austerity and clean eating. I think I can thank Nigella for widening my culinary horizons… Twenty years on I can remember making some of her dishes – including walking three miles to the Co-op to try to find an aubergine (they didn’t have any) – and was beside myself the first time that I went to an actual real life Lebanese supermarket (it was in north London in about 2006 and the celery was amazing, in full leaf like the most over-the-top floral display).

In homage to Nigella, here’s her clementine cake, which I first made for a New Year’s Eve gathering in the early 2000s. It manages to be sweet but with an element of bitter, which comes from the inclusion of the whole fruit in the batter. I wasn’t so keen on it then, but I now prefer bakes that aren’t too sweet and I think it’s marvellous. Incidentally Sarah Raven has a similar cake in her Garden Cookbook, which I also turn to from time to time.

Clementine Cake
From Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat

First, put 5 clementines in a saucepan and simmer for about two hours, until completely soft. Leave to go cold, then remove any bits of stalk and pips, and whizz to a pulp in the food processor.

Simmer five clementines until totally soft then whizz to a pulp

Next, oil and line a 21cm springform tin and preheat the oven to 180c. Beat 6 eggs until just combined, then add 225g caster sugar250g almonds and 1 teaspoon baking powder. (If you’re short on almonds, you can use 150g almonds and 100g plain flour or, even better, a mixture of almonds and breadcrumbs. The cake will be lighter in texture but still good.) Stir in the orange pulp.

As well as your clementine pulp, have ready eggs, almonds and caster sugar (& baking powder, not shown)

Whisk eggs with the sugar and almonds

Add the clementines

Pour the lot into the tin and bake for about an hour. The cake will likely need to be covered with foil after about 40 minutes to stop it browning too much. Cool in the tin and then turn out, to be served naked or with cream and a dollop of fruit (rhubarb compote would be excellent).

Once baked – a not-too-sweet cake for tea or pudding

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Marmalade

So much for Calm January! As usual, the quiet first few days of the new year have given way to busy-busy-busyness: I’ve taken on a few small work projects to keep my hand in, and these, combined with baby-care, mean the days are disappearing. Which is no bad thing: the dark days of January drag on a bit, don’t they?

Today’s other juggling act has been the making of marmalade. Seville oranges are in the shops now and the season is short, so there’s no real time for delay. Marmalade-making is meant for a slow, pottering day in the kitchen…but in our house I had to fit it in between copy-writing jobs, during nap times and after bedtime. Note: This does not lead to a relaxing few hours of cooking. But on the plus side, I discovered an unexpected upside of having a baby in the house, namely the microwave bottle steriliser that now doubles up as my jam-jar steriliser.

Marmalade

This recipe is Nigel Slater‘s and makes 6 large jars.

Take 1kg of Seville oranges and 2 lemons. Score the fruit from top to bottom, to separate the rind from the fruit within.

Score the rind of 1kg Seville oranges and 2 lemons

Next, separate the peel from the fruit and place into separate bowls.

Separate the rinds from the fruit

Using a sharp knife, slice the rind into thin strips. In truth mine are little thick – but it depends how chunky you like your marmalade. Squeeze the fruit segments through a sieve into a bowl, reserving the pith and seeds.

Finely slice the rinds and squeeze the fruit, saving all the pips and pith

Place the pith, pips and other orangey detritus into a muslin bag and secure it tightly. These contain lots of pectin, which helps to set the marmalade.

Put all the pips, pith and general orangey detritus into a muslin bag

Then get a massive bowl, measure the squeezed orange and lemon juice, and add enough water to make up the quantity to 4 litres. Add the strips of rind and the muslin bag, then leave to sit overnight.

Make the juice up to 4 litres, then leave the rind, juice and muslin bag to sit overnight

The next day, transfer the lot to your biggest pan – ideally a preserving pan – and bring to a simmer. The rinds need to be cooked until soft, the timing of this depending entirely on how thickly they have been sliced (mine took 40 minutes).

The next day, use your biggest pot to simmer the rinds until soft

In the meantime, get on with washing and sterilising your jam jars – I used the baby bottle steriliser but 10 minutes in a hot oven will do the same job.

In the meantime, sterilise the jam jars

When the rinds can be easily broken against the side of the pan, they are done. Remove the muslin pan from the pot and leave aside until it is cool enough to touch, then squeeze it hard and return any juices to the pan.

Soft rinds!

Your windows will get steamy – enjoy!

Your windows should get good and steamy

Add 1.25kg granulated sugar to the pan. You can use golden caster sugar here, which will give you a darker marmalade, but I prefer the lightness of regular white sugar. I warmed mine in the oven, which Nigel Slater does not mention, but I understand this is an important part of making preserves and it definitely won’t do any harm. Stir the sugar over a low heat until it has dissolved.

Add your warmed sugar to the pan and stir gently over a low heat to dissolve

Now ramp up the heat and boil the mixture hard until the thermometer reaches 105c. You can also use the teaspoon-of-mixture-on-a-cold-saucer trick….but I prefer the scientific approach. It can take up to 50 minutes to get to this point.

Ramp up the heat and boil until the thermometer reads 105c

Leave the marmalade to sit for 15 minutes and then ladle into your jars. Cover, cool and enjoy!

Stand the mixture for 15 minutes and then ladle into the waiting jam jars. Cover and leave to cool.

Also this week:

On the allotment: Pruned blackcurrants, redcurrants and raspberries. Ordered seeds for 2018 growing. Cleaning pots ready for sowing sweetpeas and broad beans

Cooking: Anything that’s nourishing and inexpensive, including sausages with lentil stew, daal, squash soup, Mexican braised beans with smoked ham hock, Chocolate brownie pudding with armagnac prunes

Sweet potato & pumpkin curry

In the two-and-a-bit months since the baby was born, the allotment has gone from high summer productivity to sodden and vaguely overgrown. The so-called compost bin is overflowing with the debris of the season, sunflower stalks, hop vines and mouldy chard. The veg patches are green with weeds and the fruit bushes are bare saved for the buds of new life, already visible on the branches. I pop down when I can for a spot of tidying – the success of this depends entirely on what mood Harry is in, and how much sleep I’ve had (or not had) the night before.

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Harry is not much help when it comes to allotmenting

I’ve covered both of the main beds with black plastic, partly to keep the weeds down over winter but also because I don’t know how much I’ll get around to cultivating next year. Left uncovered this soil becomes a carpet of weeds in a blink of an eye; this is a case of an hour’s work now saving me serious amounts of graft come spring.

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If left to its own devices, the allotment would be this overgrown all over

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I’ve put black plastic over the beds to keep the weeds down

There’s not much to pick now but the cavolo nero is still going strong, as is the kale and chard. What I do have though is a serious pile of pumpkins; having served their time as Halloween decorations, it’s time to transfer them to the pot.

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Cavolo nero still going strong, as is the kale and chard

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Pumpkins form the basis of this easy curry

This is an easy curry that I have shamelessly pinched from Nigella Lawson, though in truth it’s more the kind of dish I’d expect to find on a yoga retreat than from a ‘sleb chef. It’s vegan (shock!) and cheap (horror!), and more to the point I am able to cook up a massive vat of it in the few minutes that the baby is asleep in the afternoon. If you’re not lucky enough to have a pumpkin pile at home, use butternut squash instead.

Sweet potato and pumpkin curry
Recipe adapted from Nigella Lawson. Makes loads, about 8 portions.

1 red onion, cut into chunks
1 red chilli, stalk removed
Thumb of fresh ginger, peeled
3 fat cloves of garlic, peeled
1 tsp turmeric
2 heaped tsp whole coriander seeds, bashed in a pestle and mortar (or 1 tsp ground coriander)
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 vegetable stock cube (I use low salt)
Salt
Sunflower oil
1 x 400ml tin coconut milk
1 x 400g tin tomatoes
Water
1 large sweet potato, trimmed and cut into large chunks
1/2 pumpkin or winter squash, peeled and cut into large chunks
Juice of 1 lime

First, make the curry paste. In the food processor, whizz together the onion, chilli, ginger, garlic, turmeric, coriander, cinnamon  and stock cube, adding a splash of water to help it combine if needed.

In a large casserole or stock pot, warm the oil over a medium heat and add the curry paste with a pinch of salt. Fry for a few minutes until the oil begins to separate from the paste. Add the solid coconut cream from the top of the tin of coconut milk, fry for a few minutes more, the add the rest of the coconut milk and tomatoes. Swill both tins out with water and add to the pan.

Finally slide in the sweet potato and squash, bring to a gentle simmer, and cook until the veggies are soft – about half an hour. Some of the squash will disintegrate into the curry, which helps it to thicken. Season with more salt and lime juice to taste, then serve with brown rice and a dollop of yoghurt.

Granny’s apple scone

Life is gradually mellowing into a new rhythm. I am back to my clock-watching habit, but now it’s to calculate feed times rather than dashing to work meetings. Dare I say that the night feeds have become less hideous now that I’m getting my strength back and the baby has a more predictable rhythm to his day…but I don’t want to speak too soon, it could all change again tomorrow.

It’s good to be heading towards some kind of stability or normality; I don’t care for chaos. The other weekend we braved a visit to Quainton in Bucks to catch up with my uni friends – a whole day away from home with no disasters!

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Early evening in Quainton

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First visit to the farm (Harry, not Matt)

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We’re out in a different county…a miracle!

In other news, Matt’s Granny and Grampy (both remarkable people, blessed with long life and good health) have recently moved out of their bungalow into a care home. Granny has spent her entire life baking and I’ve been lucky enough to be given temporary guardianship of her recipe books, handwritten in neat script and with brilliant records of the hundreds (not exaggerating) of mince pies and rich fruit cakes baked each Christmas for friends and neighbours.

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Granny’s recipe book

Obviously I’m going to have a go at some of these classic recipes though I am very conscious that there is danger here – no matter how hard I try, my efforts will never be considered by Matt to be as good as Granny’s, or his Mum’s for that matter. This apple scone recipe is a case in point: Matt grew up on this and I feel I have a duty to add it to my repertoire to keep the family tradition going, though it will probably take a good 20 years of practice before I finally get it just right. Food and cooking carry with them great nostalgic value; the link between generations.

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The famous apple scone recipe

Apple scone is, as the title suggests, a scone with apple in it. In a world of red velvet cakes and beetroot brownies it’s refreshing to work with a recipe that is solidly straight-forward and, dare I say, plain.  The fruit makes the scone slightly more dense and moist than normal and pleasingly it’s not too sweet.

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My effort…not bad for a first timer!

This is a fantastically adaptable bake: Granny suggests to eat with butter; Matt’s sister Claire suggests trying it with custard or ice cream, but I’d have it plain for breakfast with the first caffeine shot of the day. My attempt used apples from Grampy’s trees.

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Have for afternoon tea, pudding, or breakfast after the morning feed.

Granny’s apple scone
8oz self raising flour
2oz unsalted butter
pinch salt
1 level teaspoon baking powder
1 large cooking apple, peeled, cored and finely diced
2oz caster sugar
little milk
demerara sugar

Sift the flour, salt and baking powder into a bowl. Rub in the butter with your fingertips until only the finest lumps remain. Stir in the sugar and apple, then add enough milk to make a soft dough.

Transfer the dough to a baking sheet lined with baking parchment. Press the dough to an 8-inch round shape and mark into 8 wedges. Brush with milk and scatter with demerara sugar.

Bake at 180c for about 20 to 25 minutes.

Favourite fresh tomato pasta

It’s 1st September which means that officially summer is over, but (I think) it’s now that the season reaches its peak. Evidence: the hot yellow of sunflowers and sweetcorn; an abundance of autumn raspberries and gnarly tomatoes; armfuls of garish dahlias and in-your-face chrysanthemums. Plus there’s still warm sunshine, as enjoyed by this new visitor to the back garden.

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We’ve got a new regular foxy visitor to the back garden

The other thing about the tail-end of August and start of September is that the entire world is on holiday, meaning that work calms down. I officially finished for maternity leave yesterday (not that I like it; it’s a difficult thing, passing one’s hard-earned contracts onto other people) and Matt’s finally found time to build a new worktop for the utility room alongside other, more creative, projects.

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Matt’s been making an Arts & Crafts-inspired mirror using a disc of Ruskin pottery

My focus for the next week or two needs to be dialling down Professional Brain and ramping up Home Brain. Time and again I’ve seen my friends go through this as they approach birth – the need to prepare for the shift in identity that comes with motherhood. The allotment might just be a helpful tool to help stay grounded.

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Proof! The sunflowers have finally thrived!

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First in-your-face chrysanthemums

I picked a few kilos of hot-red Fiorentina tomatoes this week, now piled up in an orange wicker basket in the kitchen. Together with the smooth red toms that arrived from my Mum’s greenhouse, it’s (hurray!) tomato glut time! I’ve been cooking up passata for the freezer, but my favourite recipe for these home-grown toms is to enjoy them barely cooked and tossed with pasta, brimming with basil and garlic, a dish so simple that I hesitate to call it a recipe.

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Allotment harvest basket…

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…and the same from my Mum’s veg patch

I only make this when I have really good, fragrant, fresh tomatoes that have never seen the inside of a fridge. It takes 10 minutes from start to finish.

Fresh tomato pasta, to feed one:

Bring a big pot of salted water to the boil and add a fistful of spaghetti. Whilst the pasta is cooking, roughly dice 6 or 7 fat, red, ripe tomatoes, and smash and chop 1 or 2 cloves of garlic.

Warm a decent glug of olive oil in a frying pan and gently warm the garlic through. Once the fragrance rises, slide in the tomatoes and cook over a low heat for a scant five minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

As soon as the spaghetti reaches the al dente stage, use tongs to transfer it directly to the tomatoes and add a ladle or two of cooking water to the pan. Toss together and cook for a further minute, so that the pasta, tomatoes and water emulsify and become one. You’ll know this point when you see it.

Finally, toss through a handful of ripped basil and serve with heaps of parmesan.

Optional extras: fresh red chilli, black olives, fresh hot rocket, baby spinach and king prawns are all good with this.

Harvesting: Tomatoes, chard, rocket, beet spinach, baby cavolo nero, frills of hex, runner beans, green beans, pattypan, courgette, raspberries (loads), sunflowers, first chrysanthemums, cosmos.
Gratefully received from Mum’s veg patch: LOADS of sweetcorn, more tomatoes, carrots, peppers, dahlias
Cooking and freezing: Passata, heaps of raspberries and sweetcorn

Runner beans with tomatoes

Autumn is in the air. It’s not yet 7am but I’ve been awake for hours, it being impossible to sleep with a child kicking against the lungs as if pushing off from the edge of a swimming pool. Outside is that light mist of early autumn; warm, damp, grey. (Although some of the greyness might be related to our filthy windows.)

Every year I note that autumn really begins in August, and every year it still come as a surprise. For several seasons we’ve had a wet, disappointing late summer, then come September things perk up with weeks of warm sunshine. I don’t mind this in the slightest, for it means GREAT things for my pumpkins. This year I’ve managed, with no effort on my part, to grow at least five whoppers that will hopefully ripen into jazzy stripes of orange and green.

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We’ve about 5 of these, as big as a basketball. Hopefully they’ll turn into jazzy orange and green stripes.

Late summer is marked with shades of red and orange. The nasturtiums are rampant, climbing up the sweet pea netting better than the sweet peas ever did. They give welcome colour to salads but are also covered in the happy hum of pollinating insects. Over in the raspberry patch, the gentle beginning has given way to abundance – and the fruit is delicious, sweet and tart and floral and luscious. At this rate, we’re going to need a bigger freezer.

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Nasturtiums add welcome hot colour to salads

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The raspberry harvest has started in earnest…we’re going to need a bigger freezer.

Joy of joy, the sunflower harvest has begun! This year we have mainly bright yellow and dark brown heads, jolly as ever. I always think it is a miracle that a seed so small can produce plants as epic as this.

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And lo! The sunflowers beat the 7-foot mark!

But the stalwart of the moment is the runner bean. I’ve blogged before that our beans have not done well this year; they had a good sulk at being parched during May and June. But the runners are doing OK and on balance, I’d rather have a small crop that lasts a long time than be inundated with foot-long beans that are as tough as shoe leather. I pick them young, maybe 15cm long, and many of them have been munched raw, straight from the plant, whilst I wander up to the water butt. (Incidentally raw runner beans are delicious, as written about far more eloquently than I could manage in this article by Stephen Harris in the Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/food-and-drink/recipes/transform-runner-beans-summer-just-slice-add-salt-lime/)

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Runner bean flowers

This week has seen the first of our, admittedly modest, tomato harvest. I try hard with my toms and they never do brilliantly, but I will always persevere because homegrown tomatoes are The Best Thing Ever. Put some freshly picked runners with some home-grown tomatoes, and you have the makings of a perfect late summer supper.

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First (modest) haul of tomatoes including the ugly but wonderful Fiorentina

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Mid-August pickings

Runner beans with tomatoes

I first came across this idea in one of the River Cottage books and, interest piqued, did a bit of research. Turns out that the fresh-green-beans-braised-with-fresh-tomatoes theme can be found in most of my French cookbooks and is a classic dish. This is a great way of serving up runner or stick beans; use fresh, ripe tomatoes if you can and do not stint with either the olive oil or the garlic. The beans lose their vivid green colour, but so be it.

Extra virgin olive oil

1 onion, finely diced

At least two fat cloves of garlic, more if you like it garlicky

About 500g runner beans, topped, tailed and sliced

About 1kg fresh tomatoes, chopped. I leave the skins on but you can remove them if you prefer. You could also use a can of tomatoes if the fresh ones are no good.

Small cup of water

Salt and pepper

Put a good glug of oil into a deep frying pan or casserole, and soften the onion over a medium heat. Add the garlic and fry for a scant few seconds, until the aroma rises, then quickly add the beans and tomatoes. If you have watery tomatoes you may not need to add any liquid, but if the mixture looks dry then add a few tablespoons of water. Season well with salt and pepper, pop the lid on, and leave to putter on a medium heat for 30 minutes. Stir every now and then and add a drop more water if it looks dry. Serve when the beans are tender.

This is great on its own with hunks of bread but can also be an accompaniment to sausages, chops and fish.

Harvesting: Rocket, chard, beet spinach, frills of hex, baby cavolo nero, runner beans, aubergine, first tomatoes, courgette, patty pan, raspberries, sunflowers, nasturtiums, zinnia, cosmos, cornflower, marigolds.
Cooking: Plum, peach and blueberry crumble. Roast beef-rib with yorkshires and creamy chard. Raspberries served with fridge-cold thick cream, honey and amaretti biscuits.
Visited: Ludlow, to stock up with good meat and cheese. Ate a brilliant ham hock and leek pie at the Church Inn.

Courgette humble-pie

My life has been consumed with creating the brochure for Birmingham Weekender. At this point in time I genuinely ask myself which is harder: delivering a major festival, or delivering a baby. I suspect the baby will win but at least labour is over within a day or two…. Brochure creation for festivals goes on for WEEKS, requires significant skills in diplomacy and organisation (there’s A LOT of people involved with festivals), and a level of attention to detail that provokes 3am wakefulness and a several-day-long headache (though this might all be good practice for the life-changes ahead). Every summer, without fail, I ask myself why on earth I work on festivals…and then the event happens, everyone has a great time, and the pain is forgotten. Incidentally, anyone spotting the typo on this sample page gets a proofing high-five from me.

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This has taken over my life but the end is in sight

Brochure is booked onto the presses Monday morning, after which I fully intend to get a bit more balance in my life. In the last week or two there’s been some rain (hurray!) and the allotment is actually perking up! The cornflowers and borage are beautiful, attracting a hum of bees, and we have the first zinnia and sunflowers.

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The cornflowers and borage attract a constant hum of bees

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Sunflowers are finally perking up

It’s the start of the courgette glut season so there’s several of these every visit, plus tubs of blueberries and enough greens now to keep us going.

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Despite my winging there are pickings!

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This is what happens when you plant courgettes too close together

I do need to eat some humble pie however. Every year my parents manage to grow some insane courgettes, at least a foot long, and every year I mock: “How do you let this happen?!”. Well. Work is preventing me from doing a daily courgette check and the result is this: veg as long as my foot, and pattypan bigger than my hand. This is not ideal: courgettes need to be small, in my view, about the length of my palm (and I have small hands). The big ones quickly turn mushy and are nowhere near as good.

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Courgettes on the left are a perfect size; courgettes in the middle are what happens when you ignore them for 48 hours! Plus a few patty-pan with the same issue

Thankfully the Greeks have a solution to the insane-courgette-glut: PIE. When I mentioned to Matt that I planned to make a courgette-based pastry he screwed up his nose and winged that he didn’t want to eat anything vegan. Fear not. This pie involves eggs, cream, cheese, butter…all the greats. It’s a bit like spanakopita, but made with slow-cooked courgettes rather than spinach, and it manages to be fresh and rich all at the same time. Eat is warm for dinner with a tomato salad and then have the leftovers cold during the week. They’re clever, the Greeks.

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Greek courgette pie

Greek Courgette Pie

From Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook

First, take a kilo of courgettes, grate them into a big bowl, add a good pinch of salt and leave them to sit for an hour or so. This helps get rid of excess moisture. Tip the courgettes into a colander and give them a good squeeze until they’re as dry as you can get them.

Meanwhile, chop an onion and fry gently in a little olive oil until soft. Tip the courgettes into a pan and cook for about 15 minutes until soft and the excess liquid has evaporated. Tip the veg into a bowl and leave to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, chop a small bunch of parsley, a small bunch of dill, a small handful of mint leaves and 3 spring onions, and add to the courgettes. In a separate bowl, whisk 3 eggs with 100ml double cream, and add to the courgettes. Crumble in 200g feta cheese. Season with pepper and a little salt, and stir gently to combine.

Now it’s time to make the pie! Melt about 100g butter and have ready a pack of filo pastry. Preheat the oven to 190c, and line a small roasting tray with foil and baking parchment, to make the pie easy to remove when it’s cooked.

To assemble the pie, lay a sheet of filo into the lined roasting tray, brush with butter, then top with another sheet of filo. Keep going until you have 4 layers of filo.

Gently tip the courgette mixture into the middle of the pastry and spread out slightly, leaving a good margin of pastry around the edges. Fold the edges of the pastry up over the courgettes.

Now top the courgettes with another 3 or 4 layers of filo, brushing each layer with butter as you go. Top the pie with another layer of butter and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Bake for about 25 minutes – it may need longer. It’s done with the pie feels firm and is golden brown. Leave to cool for about 30 minutes before eating.

Also:

Harvesting: Courgettes, pattypan, lettuce, chard, oregano, sweetpeas, cornflowers, lavender, borage, blackcurrants, blueberries

Also cooking: Nectarine & blueberry muffins