September 2009


Sun? Oven? What's the difference?

Isn’t it just the way? You wait all winter for a nice home-grown tomato and then wouldn’t you just know it? A couple of hundred come along all at once!

The greenhouse is currently the horticultural equivalent of a sweatshop, packed full of tomato plants all pumping out fruits at an obscene rate of knots. Far too many tomatoes for us to eat so we’re struggling to stay on top of things. Nice problem to have, so try not to feel too sorry for me as I moan.

I was idly making pizzas the other evening when a solution presented itself. Adding the various toppings, I opened the jar and spooned out a few leathery sun-dried tomatoes onto the dough. Ah hah!

Home-made sun-dried tomatoes ticks a lot of boxes – a good way to use up the tomatoes, should last for ages, we eat loads of them and they cost a small fortune to buy in the shops. Off we go, then.

Now I should confess, what follows is actually a way to make oven-dried tomatoes. As you may have twigged by now, South London is not exactly Mediterranean, and drying the tomatoes in the glorious sunlight would take rather a long time.

Nevertheless, the end result is the same, and it’s dead easy. Chop your tomatoes in half and put them on an oven tray. Sprinkle with salt and olive oil and then put them in the oven. That’s it.

Unless you’re planning on using the oven for something else in the near future. You see, it does take rather a long time to make these babies. You want the oven nice and low, about 50c, and you need to leave the tomatoes in for about ten hours. Which rather limits your options if you want to cook anything else, and you have to remember to start cooking these at the right time – late evening or early morning, I guess.

And I suppose the cost of leaving your oven on for ten hours would probably goes some way towards a few jars of shop-bought tomatoes.

But the good news: they taste amazing! For starters they are much brighter red then the wrinkly prunes you pull out of shop-bought jars, and you can also stop cooking them when you want. I took the ones in the pic out when they were still nice and juicy and before they dried out too much.

Once you’ve cooked them, stick them in a sterilised jar with a few cloves of garlic and some thyme. Cover them in extra virgin olive oil and they should keep for six months.

One thing to watch for: if you put the jar in the fridge then the olive oil will probably turn a bit cloudy as its temperature drops. This will have the unfortunate effect of looking like your tomatoes have gone mouldy. They haven’t – just take the jar out of the fridge, or indeed just ignore the cloudiness and carry on regardless.

Enjoy!

On the (brand new!) ipod while preserving: nothing. Still trying to figure out how to get the bugger set up properly.

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Free mussels!

A slight diversion for this week’s post: not vegetable or fruit-related, but a recipe for something I harvested and ate on holiday.

You can probably tell from the above pic where this one’s going. Still, let me fill you in on the detail. During a couple of weeks spent loafing around on the beaches of Southern Brittany I missed my little allotment (the novelty of quality time with the family Drooling was wearing off by this stage).

I began to look around for things to pick and eat. A field full of corn next to the campsite looked appealing, but also sadly illegal. However, happenstance, as so often, intevened.

“Daddy, what are these things on the rocks?”

“Go away. Can’t you see I’m busy?”

“But Daddy, they look very silly, what are they?”

“Look, this beer isn’t going to drink itself. I am on holiday you know.”

Pause. Slight sound as pair of six-year-old shoulders sag imperceptibly.

“Mummy, what are these things on the rocks?”

“Why honey, they are mussels.”

Pause. Slight sound as beer bottle falls into the soft white sand.

“Mussels, eh? Kids, grad a bucket. You’re coming with me.”

And so began the culinary adventure. The boys and I set off into the sea with buckets to look for mussels. The rocks were covered in them, albeit there were some pretty tiddly specimens hanging around.

After about 30 minutes we managed to prise 3 bucketfuls of decent-sized mussels off the rocks and bring them back to shore. At this stage they were covered in barnacles. Following a lengthy discussion with fellow holidaymakers it was decided that barnacles might adversely affect the flavour: they had to come off.

This wasn’t quite such a tedious task as might be thought. Although the boys did look a little bored after a few hours. Using whelk shells we sat happily in the sand, scraping off the barnacles and plopping the now-shiny purpley-black mussels into buckets of fresh sea water.

At the same time I tugged off the beards – the hairy tufts that stick out of the mussel’s shell – by pulling them towards the hinge of the shell.

The mussels were now clean. I popped them back in the water and took them back to the caravan.

Now at this stage I msut confess a little trepidation. I’d never caught or prepared mussels before, and shellfish in general generate a fair few scare stories, not to mention alimentary disasters. My head was telling me that these mussels were fine, freshly harvested from clean sea water, what could go wrong? But still…

Anyway, on to the recipe. A simple Moules Mariniere: cook a chopped onion and some garlic in a big saucepan. Add a glass of white wine and a glass of cream. Stir and then tip in all the mussels that have closed shells (very important, that bit – if the shells are open, the mussels are dead. Not good.).

Put the lid on. The heat and steam will make the mussels open up, whereupon the wine and cream will cook them deliciously. Give it 5-10 minutes. Toss in a load of freshly chopped parsley.

At this stage it will look amazing. All that is needed is a little Dutch courage and a large baguette, and you’re off! (oh, and only eat the ones that have opened!)

Needless to say, the mussels didn’t kill me. They tasted delicious and no after-effects whatsoever. Add to that the smug warm glow of catching (well, catching is maybe a rather grand word for something that sits motionless on a rock) them ourselves, and you have a very nice meal indeed.

I should probably add some disclaimer that you might want to read a more professional guide on how to eat mussels before attempting to do the same thing yourself. But hey, still alive…

On the radio while cooking: Je Ne Regrette Rien / Edith Piaf. Hear, hear!

Aubergines. What do you mean, "aubergines?!?!?"

First of all, an apology: I’ve been loafing around on foreign beaches for a few weeks and have consequently been a little lax in updating the blog. Thank you, however, to those of you who have emailed – in your thousands! – expressing concern for the silence and frustration at the lack of epicurean bons mots to help you through the humdrum existence of your lives.

Panic over. I am back!

And what better way to celebrate than with a cake? Chocolate, of course. So without further ado, and while Mrs Drooling struggles to load four suitcases of lightly soiled clothes into the dishwasher, to the kitchen!

Unfortunately post-holiday supplies have not been replenished, and there is no butter in the fridge. And no sugar in the cupboard. Could cause a few problems if we are to rustle up a decent cake.

In all times of crisis you could do worse than look in the garden for inspiration, so (rather than go to the corner shop) I pop down to the vegetable patch. And there we stumble upon the perfect solution. How could I have been so stupid! Of course! We don’t need sugar or butter to bake a cake. The greenhouse is full of aubergines!

Yes!

(And for US readers, yup, aubergines really are eggplants, and not some weird limey name for butter-and-sugar trees).

I realise that at this stage you might be thinking that all that French sun has affected Drooling in more ways than just the deep mahogany tan, but bear with me here.

Before we set off I bought a rather odd cookbook, Red Velvet and Chocolate Heartache, after reading a review in The Guardian. The basic premise is you can bake most sweet things by replacing the butter, and to some extent the sugar, with vegetables. The natural sugars and other stuff in the veggies will do the same job, but will be much better for you: think carrot cake.

I should say at this point that the book is written in eye-wateringly winsome prose, but a few recipes in and I can confirm that the principles are sound. The above cake was kncoked up using aubergines and honey instead of lardy butter and sugar. And it tasted delicious!

The cake comes out of the over looking remarkably glossy – not the dull  matt brown of your average sponge – and it’s very moist. Harry Eastwood notes that there’s no point in sticking a skewer in your cake to check if it’s done, as the vegetable intrusion means you get a moist end product, and she’s not wrong.

But this doesn’t give you a soggy, leaden lump. Instead you’re left with something more like the lovechild of a Victoria sponge and a Chocolate Mousse. Hard to resist, huh?

Anyway, without further ado here’s the recipe:

Chocolate Heartache Cake

Ingredients

400g aubergines

300 dark chocolate

50g cocoa powder

60g ground almonds

3 eggs

200g runny honey

2tsp baking pwoder

1/2 tsp salt

Cook the aubgerines in a covered bowl in the microwave for 8 mins. Drain and skin them and puree the squishy stuff. Add the chocolate to the warm aubergine and drool while it melts. Whisk everything else up in a different bowl. Add the chocolate-and-aubergine mixture to this and mix well.

Pour it all into a 23cm diameter cake tin (ideally loose-bottomed) and bake in the oven (180c / 350f / gas mark 4) for 30 minutes. Let it cool in the tin for 15 mins and then stick it on a cake rack. Eat.

On the ipod while cooking: Nothing. It broke while on holiday. Boo hoo.