Back from three days away to a noticeable change in the vegetable patch. The leaves of the redcurrant bushes have turned a translucent, russet yellow; tomatoes lie squashed across the back steps; the cucumber plant appears to have dissolved. The sun is still warm on your back and the raspberry canes continue to be dotted with both ripe and unripe berries, but there is a bracing chill at 7 in the morning and again at 7 at night. The heating thermostat has a come-hither look to it. Instead, I reach for my fleece jacket, unsure if the accompanying glow is that of the environmentally friendly homeowner or plain parsimony.
At the little vegetable stall in Bermondsey this morning, I spot a tray of runner beans that seems out of step with the autumn's buttercup pumpkins and still-green quinces. A foot long and with a matchbox roughness to their skins, they nevertheless have the crisp, clean snap of a young summer bean. It seems late to find them as good as this.
Back home, I discover mine, too, are still there, hanging long and heavy, a piercing green among the slowly browning stems. I break one in half to find it, even now, virtually stringless (and if there were strings, I would simply pull them off with a small knife, taking the stalk as I go). These middle days of September were when my family would salt their beans for the winter, pressing the finely shredded pods into large sweetie jars, each layer covered with a snowfall of coarse salt to keep them in good condition till the spring. The process worked, despite the vegetables getting softer as the winter wore on and the aluminium lid turning an unappetising black from exposure to the salt. Our squirrel store of beans was edible even in February if you remembered to rinse them thoroughly before cooking and not to salt the water in which they boiled. I like the intelligence involved in preserving one season's excess for another, less abundant day, but I am not sure of the point of salting beans since the advent of the freezer.
The thoughtful cook will always find ways to use up the last of the tomatoes from the greenhouse; the beans going cheap at the market; that culinary end-of-season bargain. The essence of the summer vegetable garden, but hardly the most versatile of crops, runner beans leave me a little weary by late September. The sliced and steamed beans have been passed around the table for two months now, in deep green bowls with olive oil and lemon juice, or tossed in softened butter and finely chopped shallots.
They have snuggled up to roast lamb at Sunday lunchtime and cheered up a plate of pickle-spiked cold cuts on Monday. I have presented them in a tomato and lemon zest sauce (Tender Volume I) and added them, too soon for their own good, to a late-summer soup. I am besieged by them, yet disinclined to waste any either.
But the runner bean will make a rousing pickle if treated in the same way as cauliflower, simmered in a thick sauce with vinegar, ground turmeric and mustard seeds and packed into jars for the winter. I use a recipe that is based on a true piccalilli, ochre yellow and sharp with malt vinegar, the texture softened with a spoonful of cornflour. A creamy, bright-ochre chutney with enough sharpness to wake up a roast beef sandwich. Salt figures here not only as a seasoning but, along with the sugar and vinegar, as a preservative. It is meant for later, but we nevertheless tuck into the scrapings from the pan, stuffing them into soft baps with a grilled patty of beef.
The French and the Flemish have more ways to use the humble leek than the Inuit have words for snow or the Lapps have for reindeer (100). The pallid and elegant vichyssoise; a savoury open tart; as a sweetener in a pot-au-feu; or cut into wine-cork-sized pieces and gently simmered in red wine.
If there are leeks to use up, I prefer the more robust notes of our own leek and potato soup, where more of the blue-green leaves are used than in the virginal French vichyssoise. It's a more common soup – you rarely see it on menus now – and seems rough and masculine when served alongside the version from over the Channel.
Today, a neighbour gave me the excess leek thinnings from her vegetable patch. Removed in order to give the rest of the crop a chance to fatten up (heartbreaking but wise), the pencil-thin roots were handed over in a damp newspaper parcel to keep them fresh. There are already a few fat leeks in my fridge looking hopefully for a supper to be part of. Leek soup is probably better suited to frosty weather but today is a rainy day. What I call a pastry day. I decide on making some sort of tart.
There are two ways to use this lengthy allium in a pastry case. Softened in butter and cooked with diced bacon, it will make the filling for an open tart, a quiche that will show off the leek's affinity with eggs. It is superb as a filling for an omelette. Another way is to bind the softened leeks with cheese and bake inside a double crust – a pasty capable of feeding the family. I use a milky cheese such as taleggio for this. Leeks have a delicate nature that can be smothered by something stronger, such as camembert.
Later, as we tuck into the pie it occurs to me that the precious leeks my neighbour had grown from seed were actually meant for my garden.
Tarts of leeks and cheese
Enough for 4
puff pastry 375g
egg 1, beaten with a little milk
taleggio cheese 100g
Remove the roots and tough dark green stalks from the leeks. Thinly slice the white and pale green parts and rinse very thoroughly. Grit tends to get trapped in their layers. Melt the butter in a heavy-based saucepan. Add the leeks, still wet from their rinsing, and cover them with a piece of greaseproof paper and a saucepan lid. Let them cook over a moderate to low heat for 10 to 15 minutes, until they are soft and pale. They should not colour at all, so keep an eye on them. When they are done, remove them from the heat.
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark4 and put a baking sheet in to get hot. Roll out the pastry, cut out 12 8cm discs and place half of them on a baking sheet. Brush the edges with beaten egg. Cut the cheese into small cubes and toss it into the leeks together with a grinding of salt and black pepper.
Divide the filling between six of the discs, then place a second disc on top of each. There is no need to press down to seal the edges, though you can if you want. Bake for about 25 minutes, till golden and crisp.
To make a large pie, use a 375g sheet of pastry. Cut the sheet in half, roll one half out to half its original thickness and transfer to a baking sheet. Spoon the leek and cheese filling on to it, leaving a narrow rim. Brush the edges of the pastry with the egg and milk. Roll out the second half and use it to cover the top of the pie, pressing down the edges against the overlapping pastry to seal them (I sometimes do this with a fork or by pinching them together with my finger and thumb). Brush the top with egg and milk, then pierce a hole in the centre of the pastry to let the steam out during cooking.
Place the tart on the hot baking sheet and cook for 50 minutes or till the top is golden.
Blackberrying, picking fruit for a pie, comes laden with nostalgia, guilt (we are stealing; hedges inevitably belong to "someone") and the heart-racing delight of finding food for free.
I have always been a "blackberrier". I collected them on my way home from school, from a vast, cloud-like thicket in a field complete with the menace of a ring-nosed Hereford bull. Almost at the top of Ankerdine Hill, just off a road leading from Martley (school) to Knightwick (home) in rural Worcestershire, it was the largest blackberry bush I have ever seen. It is gone now, but there are bramble hedges further up the lane. Later, there were trips through the Lake District, the lanes around Thornbury, and the occasional chance sighting you get when you have no bag in which to put your shiny black booty.
Today, berries hang over my garden wall from next door, vast, glistening skeins of them with artery-threatening thorns. It is not often I reach this point in their year without a dot-dash-dot of dried scabs on the inside of my arm.
Blackberries freeze exceptionally well. Unlike a strawberry, they are made up of lots of tiny berries, druplets, held together to form one larger berry, so they don't collapse when defrosted. I keep some in the freezer for a winter blackberry and apple crumble.
The cultivated varieties aren't bad, but are often too large and sweet to remind us of childhood hedgerow feasts. They come far behind the wild berry in terms of flavour, and somehow feel wrong – too plump, too flabby – in an apple pie. Where they are good is in an ice-cream cake, such as the one here, which comes in the form of a loaf, the store-bought vanilla ice studded with biscuit crumbs and fat fruits.
Blackberry ice-cream cake
Enough for 8
blackcurrants (fresh or frozen) 150g
sugar 1 tbsp
water 2 tbsp
shortbread biscuits 200g
shelled pistachios 6 tbsp
vanilla ice cream 900ml
You will need a loaf tin or freezer box approximately 22cm long, 12cm wide and 7cm deep, lined with a piece of cling film that overhangs the sides.
Pull the blackcurrants from their stalks and put them in a small saucepan with the sugar and water. Bring to the boil, lower the heat and cook for 2 or 3 minutes, till the berries start to burst and the sugar melts. Set aside.
Put the biscuits into a food processor with the pistachios and blitz till the biscuits are reduced to coarse crumbs – this will be just a matter of seconds.
Take care not to over-process; stop while you can still clearly see the pistachios.
Let the ice cream soften slightly, then tip it into a mixing bowl. Add the biscuit and pistachio crumbs and the blackberries and mix gently but firmly, without over-mixing; the ingredients should be clearly defined.
Transfer a third of the mixture to the prepared loaf tin, pushing it firmly into the corners but without flattening it too much. Spoon in half of the warm blackcurrants and their juice, then add another third of the ice-cream mixture followed by the rest of the blackcurrants. Add the remaining ice-cream mixture. Wrap the overhanging film over the top and freeze for a minimum of 4 hours. Turn out and slice with a warm knife.
My courgettes, Striato d'Italia or the golden, slightly softer Gold Rush, are grown in large pots on the kitchen steps. Sometimes grown from seed, sometimes bought as a tiny plug plant, they survive my seesaw treatment of overbearing love and neglect.
This year is no exception and they have kept me supplied with fruit from July until now. They don't mind their feet in recycled compost either, as long as you feed them every two weeks with tomato food and lavish them with plenty of water, but not so much that their roots get soggy for long. I give them a bit of gravel or broken brick in the base of the pot, so the water drains away.
Two plants are enough for most families and too much for this kitchen. The plants, whose leaves tend to be smaller when they are pot grown, produce an almost endless supply till the first frost, when they will lie exhausted and squishy stemmed.
I have written much about courgettes, which I like to call zucchini just because it is such a beautiful word to say, in Tender Vol I, but I use them less than I would like to. My problem with the courgette is the way it comes at you non-stop. I feel besieged. Another day, another courgette recipe.
This summer I have bowed to the Italians and their heritage of deep-frying. First the male flowers, then the fruits themselves. The point is the courgette's ability to turn unremarkable flesh into luscious, juicy flesh once it hits the hot oil (that said, I quite like a newly picked, creamy-fleshed courgette in a salad with lemon and basil). Trap that steaming, deep-fried flesh inside the thinnest and crispest of batter shells and you have something worth eating for the contrasting textures alone.
And if anyone tells me they find courgettes taste of very little, and sometimes that is indeed the case, then I serve them with a salty, highly savoury sauce such as the one I made tonight, with the deep southern Mediterranean flavours of rosemary and anchovy. Stopping just short of pungent, it teases out the courgette's delicate flavour rather than masking it.
Courgette fritters with tomato and rosemary sauce
Enough for 4
oil for deep-frying
courgettes 2 large or 4 small
For the batter
plain flour 100g
sunflower oil 2 tbsp
sparkling mineral water 175ml
egg white 1
For the dressing
anchovy fillets 6
olive oil 3 tbsp
rosemary a small sprig
garlic a single clove
cherry tomatoes 16
Make the batter. Sift the flour into a large basin, then add the oil and water, beating slowly to a thick paste. Set aside for 30 minutes. Don't be tempted to skip the resting time; this is essential for a light batter. Just before you plan to fry the courgettes, beat the egg white till almost stiff and fold it gently into the batter.
For the dressing, pat the anchovy fillets with kitchen paper to remove the excess (excessively fishy) oil. Chop them finely, then put them with a tablespoon of the olive oil in a shallow pan over a moderate heat.
As they cook, remove the needles from the rosemary (you need about a heaped teaspoon) and chop them finely. Add them to the anchovies. Peel and slice the garlic and add it to the pan. Quarter the cherry tomatoes and stir them in, letting them cook for 5 minutes till soft and squashy. Pour in the remaining olive oil, season with black pepper but no salt and leave to simmer for a further 10 to 15 minutes till all is soft. Check the seasoning. (You can keep this warm for a while, with a last-minute stir before serving.)
Heat the oil for frying in a deep pan. Wipe the courgettes, cut them into 3cm lengths and then into halves. Test the oil to make sure it is hot enough – it should send a cube of bread golden in a few seconds – then dip the courgettes into the batter and lower them a few at a time into the hot oil. Hold them under the oil by pushing down with a spatula. Fry for 3 or 4 minutes, till the batter is pale gold and crisp, then lift out and set briefly on to a piece of kitchen paper to drain. Eat the fritters with the dressing while they are hot and crisp.
You could measure my life in summer puddings, those bulging, gloriously juicy globes of raspberries and currants held prisoner by slices of bread.
I used to make them daily at a cafe a hundred years ago and can't get out of the habit. The first one of the year is always a traditional raspberry and redcurrant, but then I get into a more contemporary mood and swap the fruits around. In the past it has appeared in my kitchen made with gooseberries (Tender Volume II, and so good with thick, yellow unpasteurised cream), or with lots of blackcurrants in with the raspberries (serve with vanilla ice cream) but I have always wondered if damsons – as you probably know, a favourite fruit of mine – would be a worthy addition for when the currant season has finished. With the exception of the slightly fiddly task of removing their stones (and we must), it is a pudding of serious pleasure and inky sour-sweet juice.
A pudding for autumn
Enough for 6
caster sugar 100g, or more to taste
sloe gin 100ml
white bread 10 or so slices
You will need a 1.5 litre pudding basin or 6 individual ones.
Put the damsons in a stainless steel or enamelled pan with the sugar and water and bring to the boil. You can add more sugar if you wish, depending on how sour your fruit is. As soon as the fruit is thoroughly soft, about 15 minutes, remove from the heat and leave till it is cool enough to handle. Squeeze the stones from the fruit and discard. This is messy but shouldn't take longer than 10 minutes. It is certainly quicker than trying to stone the damsons before cooking. If you skip the stoning process you will, I promise, regret it later. Place the pan back on the heat and tip in the raspberries, blackberries and blueberries. Add the sloe gin and continue cooking, but now at a low simmer, till the fruit has started to burst and the juice in the pan is a good rich colour. About 10 minutes.
Cut a disc of bread to fit the bottom and top of the dish, or of each individual dish, then cut the rest into thick, crust-free fingers. The exact measurements will depend on whether you are making one large or six smaller ones. Dipping them briefly into the warm juice as you go, tuck the smaller of the discs in the bottom of the pudding basin. Press the fingers of bread, again briefly dipping them into the juice, all round the sides of the dish, carefully butting them up together so there are no gaps where the juice can leak out. When the basins are lined on the base and sides, fill them with the fruit, spooning the juice right to the top. Place the second disc of bread on top, then cover tightly with cling film. Place on a plate (to catch any stray juice) in the fridge with a heavy weight on top to compress the fruit and bread. Leave overnight.
To serve, turn out on to a serving dish or individual dishes. Running a palette knife around the sides, between bread and basin, then turning it upside down on to a plate and giving it a good hard shake will make it easier to turn the pudding out complete.
I come home from the shops with four neat fillets of lemon sole. I had no intention of buying sole, they just grabbed me when I tried to walk past the fish shop. Sparkling fresh, slippery as a bar of wet soap. This is the fish that has very slimy, rust-brown skin speckled with pink and coral. I particularly like the sweetness of its white flesh and the fact that it is in relatively good supply.
I grate the zest of a small lime into about 50g of butter, mash in the juice (easiest to do when the butter isn't too cold), then fry the fillets in a little oil in a non-stick pan. The fish is turned just once, some of it breaks up a little (this fish is so fragile), then I serve it with the lime butter melted on top. On the side, frozen peas.
A slightly lazy meal tonight, comprising some rice I cooked for lunch, thrown into a pan in which I first softened 4 chopped spring onions in a thin film of oil with a spoonful of shop-bought red curry paste. A head of broccoli, snapped into florets, then a quick fry before chucking in the rice. A seasoning of fish sauce and a scattering of basil leaves and that was it. A one-pan, rice-based broccoli main course.
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