Moussaka

Welcome to the courgette plank of shame. These don’t look that big in the picture, but trust me, they’re massive. Although I’ve noticed that the courgettes for sale in the supermarkets are sometimes bigger, which is clearly madness. According to Ruth Rogers of River Cafe fame, the best courgette for picking is the size of a large thumb – the problem being that it stays that size for, ooh, around thirty seconds before transforming into a monster. I’ve given up picking them now, so overladen are we with the glut.

The courgette-marrow plank of shame

Meanwhile the drop in temperature and damp weather has brought on the hops, which are now covered in these prickly little flowers. I’m on the allotment three times a week to pick the raspberries and gather the sunflowers, dodging showers (not always successfully) and noticing all the jobs that need doing that I don’t have capacity for.

The hops are beginning to flower

Harry and I got caught in a downpour so had to hang out in the ramshackle greenhouse for half an hour

Dad’s monster aubergine demanded some proper attention. These days I prefer recipes that take ten minutes here and there, leaving me free to run the business / remove Harry from the fireplace (his latest favourite place) / organise the wedding etc etc. Moussaka fits the bill perfectly.

Dad with his aubergine

Lots of recipes demand that aubergines are fried first but I dislike this approach for two reasons: 1, you use a shed load of oil, which is both too fatty and too expensive, and 2, it takes forever and is very dull. The best thing to do is thickly slice the aubergines, add a wee bit of oil, then roast in the oven until soft. I’ve added some summer squash to the mix because GLUT.

Roast the sliced aubergines and courgettes

Whilst the veg is roasting away, make a braised lamb sauce. You could use leftover roast lamb here – I think this would probably be better actually – but I only had lamb mince to hand. Simply cook together with onions, tomato puree, cinnamon and red wine until reduced and unctuous. The cinnamon is important, giving background warmth and the whisper of distant sunkissed shores. After an hour of gentle puttering it should be thick and delicious, at which point you can use it straight away or leave for a few hours until you’re ready to finish the moussaka.

The braised lamb sauce

Finally, make a simple béchamel sauce, generously flavoured with nutmeg. Once it’s done leave it to cool for a while, then stir in two eggs for that classic custardy finish.

The béchamel is mixed with eggs and nutmeg

To make the moussaka, layer up your dish in this order: aubergines, meat, aubergines, meat, béchamel. Bake at 180c for about 45 minutes, until the top is blistered and golden. Now – this is VERY important – leave it untouched for at least thirty minutes to calm down and firm up. Hot moussaka is a sloppy horrible mess, but warm moussaka holds its shape and the flavours shine through. Serve with a simple side salad.

Let the moussaka stand for half an hour after baking to allow it to firm up

Moussaka
Inspired by Felicity Cloake’s Guardian recipe. Serves 6 (I made two dishes and froze one)

Olive oil
1 monster aubergine and 1 summer squash / courgette, or 2 large aubergines
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1.5 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp dried oregano
500g minced lamb or leftover roast lamb. Use good quality if you can.
2 tbsp tomato puree
splash of water
150ml red wine
Parsley, chopped

For the béchamel: 
500ml milk
60g butter
60g plain flour
50g parmesan, grated (you could use pecorino or kefalotryi if you have it)
2 eggs
Nutmeg, to grate

Preheat the oven to 180c. Cut the aubergines and squash into thick slices, and place on a roasting tray. Drizzle with oil and season. Bake until soft and golden, about 20 minutes.

Now the lamb. Warm a lidded frying pan or casserole dish on a gentle heat. Cook the onion in a shake of olive oil and a pinch of salt until soft. Stir in the garlic, cinnamon and oregano, then add the lamb. Cook over a high-ish heat until the lamb is well browned and the mixture is quite dry – about 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato puree and cook for another few minutes to get rid of the raw taste, then add in the wine and a splash of water to cover the meat. Turn the heat right down and braise for about 45 minutes until the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the parsley and season to taste. Leave to cool and spoon off any excess oil.

Make the béchamel. Melt the butter in a saucepan, stir in the flour and cook for a minute or two, then gradually add the milk. (Recipes always tell you to use hot milk but who actually does this? I use it cold and stir like mad between each addition to remove the lumps.) Cook until you have a thick sauce and then simmer gently for five minutes to cook through. Stir in the cheese. Remove from the heat and cool slightly, then add the nutmeg and eggs.

Finish the moussaka. In a suitably size dish (or two dishes) layer up aubergine, meat, aubergine, meat and finish with the sauce. Bake for about 40 minutes until well browned. Leave to cool for 30 minutes before serving.

Also this week:

Cooking: Roast leg of lamb with garlic, rosemary and anchovy; roasted vegetable pasta (allotment veg); caramel almond sponge; runner beans braised with tomatoes.

Eating: Pizza at Baked in Brick, Cronut from Medicine bar, Chandigarh veggie samosa and curries

Harvesting: Sunflowers, cleome, dahlia, sweetpeas, cosmos, rudbeckia, last runner beans, loads and loads of raspberries, last blueberries, courgette, squash, cavolo nero, chard, spinach beet. The tomatoes that we’re getting are great and gnarly and red and delicious.

Also: Trying to balance work projects (festival organising, website writing) with baby care with organising a wedding with general life stuff. Re-reading The Summer Book by Tove Jansson and disturbingly obsessed with Say yes to the dress on Quest Red.

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

Courgette, fennel and lemon pickle

We snuck away for a late summer holiday last weekend, albeit one that felt distinctly autumnal. The Lake District in September lies on the cusp of the seasonal turn, with golden bracken, reddening leaves and low afternoon sun. We had a day of culture in the brilliant Blackwell Arts & Crafts house, then a day of fresh air in the Borrowdale valley. Matt was transfixed by agile fleet-footed fell runners…and I reflected that love makes you do strange things (a few years ago I never would have gone out of my way to watch a running race).

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Fell-racing in Borrowdale

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Sheep amidst an abandoned mine building

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Water heads down the fell

I am grateful for the newly chilly days. It’s not cold as such, but the dreadful heaviness of August has been replaced with a more sprightly energy. On the allotment, the courgette glut has slowed down and the tomatoes are pretty much over, though there’s no end in sight to the late summer blooms.

In this September is-it-summer-or-is-it-autumn period, cooks and gardeners traditionally get down to pickling, chutneying and jamming, an activity that does indeed deal with the immediate problem of gluts – except that, in our house, we struggle to make a dent on even a few jars of preserves. I have several pints of ‘glutney’ from several years ago gathering dust in the bottom cupboard; they’ve now moved house twice. Undeterred, I still rustle up a few jars every year, transfixed by the knowledge that veg/fruit + sugar + vinegar = longlife food.

Anyone who eats out regularly knows that there’s a new fashion for pickles, inspired by the Scandi food craze. The fresh crunch of raw, pickled vegetable is everywhere, from a gherkin on your dirty burger to the chili-spiked carrot that adorned the pastrami bagel I enjoyed in Rotterdam back in May. Pickles are so much easier than chutneys or jams – there’s no boiling or finding setting points, it’s merely a question of brining some veg, making a vinegar-sugar pickling liquor, adding one to the other and hey presto, job done.

So when the courgettes were in full glut mode a few weeks back, I got busy making this fennel, lemon and chilli scented pickle. First I cleaned and sterilised my Kilner jars by washing in soapy water, rinsing, then putting them in a hot oven (200c) for 20 minutes. In the meantime, I chopped courgettes into batons, tossed them in salt and left them to drain for two hours.

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Take courgettes and a jar…

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Salt the courgette batons and leave to drain

Loads of water comes out of the courgettes, meaning that the end pickle has a pleasing crunch. The salt also begins the preserving process on the veg.

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Alot of liquid will seep out…

The courgettes were then rinsed and drained on kitchen paper to remove any excess water.

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Rinse and drain the courgettes

Now for the fun bit: the liquor, which both preserves and flavours the pickle. I used white wine vinegar, sugar (not shown), fennel seeds, lemon juice and peel, garlic and a red chilli.

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White wine vinegar, fennel seeds, red chilli, garlic and lemon

Simply heat the sugar, vinegar and lemon juice until just boiling, so that the sugar dissolves.

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Heat the vinegar, lemon juice and sugar

In the meantime, push the courgettes into the jar along with the fennel seeds, lemon peel, whole garlic (no need to peel) and the whole chilli. The hot liquor is poured over the top, pop the lid on and that’s it! The pickle cools in the jar and is then stored for a month or two to soften the vinegar flavour. I’ll report back in a few weeks as to if it’s any good or not…

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Pour the hot liquor onto the courgettes along with the fennel, garlic and lemon peel, then leave to cool

Courgette, fennel and lemon pickle

500g or thereabouts small courgettes

25g sea salt

250ml white wine vinegar

65g granulated sugar

1 red chilli (or more if you like it hot)

1 unwaxed lemon, juice and pared peel

1 tbsp fennel seeds

3 garlic cloves, unpeeled

1 or 2 Kilner jars or jam jars

First prep your Kilner jars: wash them thoroughly, rinse, then put into a hot oven for 200c for about 20 minutes.

Trim the courgettes and chop into sizeable batons. Toss them in the salt and leave to drain in a colander for at least two hours. Rinse under the cold tap then drain on kitchen paper.

In a small pan, heat the sugar, lemon juice and vinegar until the sugar has dissolved and it is just boiling. Remove from the heat. Layer the courgettes in your jar(s) with the fennel seeds, garlic, lemon peel and chilli. Pour the hot liquor over the top to cover the veg. Give the jar a tap to get rid of any air bubbles, put the lid on and leave to cool.

Leave for at least a month in a dark place before eating. Will last for months.