Here it is, not quite round, not quite perfect, but plump to the point of bursting. At one end, where it hung on the stalk, it is green, but about a quarter way down it is streaked coral orange, turning deeper and darker towards the base, where it has already gone the glowing cardinal red that the rest will become. It is the first of this year's tomato crop, a great big bouncing Marmande.
Tomatoes in September? Of course, they are the quintessential summer staple in mainland Europe, piled high in great, lumpy hillocks in markets in Italy, Spain, France and Greece, or available all year round in their trim, antiseptic packages in supermarkets. But here, they are an autumn fruit if you grow them yourself outdoors, the emblem of mellow fruitfulness at the end of the growing season, after the asparagus and peas and broad beans and baby carrots and beetroot and all the other glories of summer. I am happy to grow them because they are bonny and jolly and explode with that sweet/acid flavour.
Good cooking starts with good ingredients. The better the ingredients, the less you have to cook them. Slice a tomato (curiously, it seems that tomatoes are tasteless until sliced, because breaking the skin releases an enzyme that acts upon the flesh to make it release the flavours), lay it on some grilled bread rubbed with garlic, add a splash of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt, a crunch of teeth, a sigh of pleasure. What's wrong with that?
I love cooking. I always have. Even when I had a regular job, I'd come back from the office, straight into the kitchen, no messing, not even taking off my jacket sometimes, and start chopping. It was therapy in those days, a way of blocking out the saturating business of office life. And it kept my family quiet and my friends around me.
Actually, I enjoy the whole process: thinking, planning, shopping, preparing, cooking, eating and, yes, even clearing away. That may make me unusual, but it does not make me a professional cook. I'm an everyday cook, not a supercook. I have disasters, forget ingredients, drop things on the floor, cut my fingers regularly, lose my temper, have crises of confidence, like most people.
But I can roast a chicken so that it is golden-amber all over and succulent and easy with juices inside. I can make an apricot tart that bounces with fruit, the pastry crumbling sweetly between your teeth. I can make a rich, grainy, tender mouthful from shoulder of lamb and a stew of lentils. I know how to slice tuna and sear it so that it isn't cold purple jelly inside, but meatily, moistly, tastily cooked through.
I spend a penitential amount at the local farmers' market every other week, but most of the time I shop in supermarkets. There are also two tiptop fishmongers nearby, a farm where I buy meat and eggs, and I know a man who grows only winter veg (organically, naturally). I also have a small kitchen garden, where I go when things get too hot in the real world.
Anyone coming to these pages looking for cutting-edge cuisine or outrageous originality is likely to be disappointed (aside from the fact that I'm not convinced that there is such a thing as an original recipe any more). It's going to be about the food that I like to cook.
Sometimes, this will be the product of deep thought and long planning, but mostly it'll be the food of the moment, of a particular day, circumstance or desperate measure. However, it will always celebrate the season, the ingredient, and the sheer lip-smacking, eye-gleaming, tummy-quivering pleasure of tucking in.
Recipes feed four.
Stuffed courgettes with fresh tomato sauce
Essentially, this is a first course or a light lunch/supper dish. The secret lies in the tomato sauce, which involves no cooking. It's rather good with fish, too.
8 large courgettes
140g basmati rice, cooked
1 large onion (or 2 medium ones), finely chopped
55g pine kernels
tsp cumin seeds
Fresh mint leaves - enough to make 2 tbsp when chopped
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 175C/350F/gas mark 4. Slice the courgettes in half lengthways, scoop out the seeds with a spoon and reserve, leaving you with a trench in each half courgette. Blanch the courgettes in a pot of salted water for three to four minutes, until half-cooked, more or less. Drain and dry on kitchen towel.
Put the raisins in a bowl, cover with hot water and leave to steep for 10 minutes. Tip the rice into a big bowl. Fry the onion in olive oil until translucent. Add the reserved courgette bits to the onion and fry for a minute or two more. Remove and add to the rice. Fry the pine kernels in the same oil until they begin to brown, then add to the rice bowl. Fry the cumin seeds until they begin to pop and add them, along with the allspice, the raisins and their water and the mint cut into strips. Season well and mix.
Arrange the courgette halves on an oiled baking tray, hollow side up. Heap the stuffing into each until it is all gone. It doesn't matter if some of it falls off. Cover with foil, put in the oven and bake for 20 minutes. Serve with the tomato sauce below.
Fresh tomato sauce
This is a real humdinger - it sings on the plate.
225g tomatoes (the ripest you can find)
1 pinch sugar
1 pinch salt
2 tsp red-wine vinegar
3 tbsp olive oil
Plunge the tomatoes into boiling water for 30 seconds, then remove and peel (you can omit this stage if you are really lazy). Cut the tomatoes in half and scoop out the seeds (you can also omit this stage if you are pushed for time). Put all the ingredients in a blender or food processor and whizz until liquid. Pass through a sieve if you want a completely smooth sauce. It is designed to be served cold, but of course you can warm it if you wish.
Paul Heathcote's clear chilled tomato juice with basil
A sublime dish that requires no cooking, and one lifted from Paul Heathcote's peerless back catalogue. If this turns out as it should, it is the shimmering, golden-pink essence of tomato: pure, penetrating and potent. You do need very ripe tomatoes for this recipe, maybe a little wrinkled, dodgy even, just as long as they're not actually rotten - buy a box of the ones the shop was going to throw away. If you want to make this look a bit more substantial, add more herbs and any blanched vegetables (peas, broad beans, courgettes) you feel like.
1.25kg overripe tomatoes
50g fresh basil, chopped
115g fresh chervil, chopped
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, leaves picked and chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped
125ml white wine
Salt and pepper
1 pinch sugar (optional)
Basil, chervil or tarragon, to garnish
Place the overripe tomatoes in a large bowl or pot. Add the herbs, shallot, wine, sugar, if using, and season. With your hands, squeeze the tomatoes until they are all crushed. Line another large bowl with a piece of muslin, then tip the tomato mixture into it. Tie up the muslin into a bag. If you have a sufficiently cold room, hang this up overnight over the bowl, to catch the juices; otherwise, put the muslin in a colander and set this over a bowl in the fridge overnight. Heathcote says you should also strain it afterwards, but that's chef perfection for you - I'm not sure it's really necessary. Put any herbs or vegetables you decide to use in the bottom of soup bowls, glasses, whatever you want to serve it in, and carefully pour the chilled juice over them.
Sugo con carne
In Italian cooking, there is sugo - tomato sauce without meat - and there is ragù - sauce with meat, but in Reggio Calabria, I was introduced to this third variant, sugo con carne, by the formidable Signora Cappello. It seemed so delightfully practical, so sensible and so delicious, that I now make practically nothing else. The meat politely exchanges flavours with the tomatoes, and the tomatoes keep the meat in a state of melting succulence.
2 large onions, finely diced
3 sticks celery, finely diced
3 cloves garlic (optional)
500g lean pork, in one piece
500g beef or veal, in one piece
3kg very ripe tomatoes (or tinned)
Dice the onion, celery and garlic (if using). It is a heresy, I know, but I try to minimise the amount of garlic I use in tomato sauces, if not cut it out altogether, because I find that it permeates the flavour in a bullying fashion. In a large pan, soften the onion, celery (and garlic) in the olive oil. When the onion is translucent, place the meat pieces on top and immediately tip the tomatoes on top. You can peel and deseed the tomatoes if you can be bothered. I can't.
Bring the whole lot up to simmering point and then simply let it bubble away, uncovered, very gently for three hours - and by that I mean you want just the occasional plop-plop of a bubble breaking the surface. Once cooked, strain off the tomato sauce, which you can then a) reduce to the desired concentration; b) pass through a sieve if you want a more refined sauce; or c) freeze in useful quantities for as and when you need it. And the meat you can eat hot or cold, or chop it up and use it to stuff pasta or in lasagne. At Signora Cappello's house, they'd eat some of the tomato sauce on pasta (after an antipasto) and then eat the meat after that, along with a salad.