Pesto Paradise

Finally it’s warm enough for basil seeds to germinate outside. With the first glimpse of their little green heads, every spare pot in the house has been filled with compost and pressed into action – to say we love pesto could be an understatement.

For me, the smell of basil brings a smile, it’s an aroma that conjures up everything that’s relaxed about summer.Image

Anyway, to get down to the business of growing it: in my book, the classic large-leafed basil is the only way to go, however, if you have a passion for a more aniseed flavour buy the slightly crinkly-leaved variety. One seed packet can easily provide sufficient for pesto and salad usage throughout the summer, plus 20-30 packets of frozen pesto stacked in the freezer so that pesto-addicts need never go without.

Fill your pots with compost and sprinkle the seeds over the surface before covering with a thin layer of compost and gently firming down. Keep the compost moist, but not drenched, until you see a haze of green shoots. When the plants have produced their first crop of large leaves, pinch out the top shoot to encourage them to expand sideways and stop them from going into their seed-producing stage too quickly. As with lettuce, the trick is to keep harvesting the leaves as you need them, letting the plant rest and produce some more while you harvest off other pots.

I thought this was what everybody did until a friend of mine asked to take some basil home with him at the end of a barbecue.

“Sure,” I said, beginning to turn to go into the house for a bowl. Before my jaw even had time to hit the floor, he had snapped off four or five plants – he was a chef, not a gardener! Guillotined basil doesn’t live, but had the plants just had their leaves removed they would have continued to produce for one or two months more. While I may not talk to my plants – at least not when anyone’s within earshot – I do advocate being kind to them, it keeps them alive!

Try to remember to water your plants a couple of hours before you intend to pick leaves, then they are nice and plump, bursting with flavour and at their best for eating.

Personally I don’t like too much oil in my food which is why I always freeze pesto rather than keep it in oil in jars. Small bags take up very little space and make an easy instant meal with a bit of pasta and salad. If you are unfreezing your home-produced pesto in the microwave, do watch it carefully as it unfreezes very quickly and isn’t nearly as good if it’s “cooked”.

To make one bag (enough for about 400g of pasta)  I put a clove of garlic, small handful of pine nuts (or since they’ve become so expensive, almonds), and some ground black pepper in a small food processor. Top this with basil leaves until they’re at the top of the container without being pressed down. Place 3 or 4 chunky slices of parmesan on top of the leaves and drizzle with a little olive oil. If the mixture is too rough add some more olive oil until it is the consistency you like. Either use it immediately, or scoop it into a small freezing bag and keep for later. For variation, pop in a few dried tomatoes to the mix, it makes the flavour even “warmer”.

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Mint with pasta – great until basil comes along

Mint with pasta - great until basil comes along

It’s still a little too early for mounds of lush green basil and my store of frozen bags of last year’s pesto is now very thin. However, mint is in abundance and can make a wonderfully refreshing pasta sauce in the interim. Boil about 350g of pasta according to packet instructions. Take a large handful of fresh mint sprigs, strip the leaves into a food processor, add 3 or 4 good lumps of parmesan, a tub of creme fraiche and a good grind of black pepper. Wizz it all together and then add a couple of tablespoons of the pasta water to loosen the mix. Add either a couple of handfuls of peas, or some asparagus to the pasta a couple of minutes before the end of cooking time, or add some cherry tomatoes directly to the sauce. When the pasta and veg are cooked, stir in the mint sauce and eat!

All herbs are perfect for the mini-gardener who only has space for a few pots on a terrace, and good herb pots make a greater impact on your cooking than anything else. Try to keep herbs together that like the same conditions, for example put mint, parsley and chives in one pot and keep it in an area of partial shade, while putting oregano, thyme, marjoram and basil in areas with plenty of sunshine.

The annual “nispero” glut

ImageIn April and early May loquats, or “nísperos” as they’re called in Spanish, are in abundance. For the first couple of weeks after they become ripe enough to eat, kids and adults in my house make a daily pilgrimage to the terrace the loquat trees are on, returning 10 minutes later wiping the juice from their chins, but eventually the novelty wanes and usually there’s still half a tree heavy with fruit.

I have a bit of a phobia about waste. Any fruit that has already been attacked by insects either goes to the hens or the compost heap, but the rest has to be used.

The obvious favourite is to make jam. The loquat’s stones are perfect for jam-making so there is no need to buy artificial pectin. Furthermore, it’s a good substitute for apricot or peach jam which is frequently used for glazing cakes and sweets.

Loquat Jam: 1kg loquats, seeds removed but not peeled; 200ml water; finely grated rind and juice of 2 lemons; 1kg sugar.

Wash the fruit, remove the stones and wrap them in a piece of white cotton, tie the material to make a bag and suspend the bag in the pan. Chop the fruit to the size you like if you do not wish to use a blender on the jam. Simmer the fruit in the water until soft (about 20 minutes). Blend if you wish. Add the juice, rind and sugar. Boil rapidly until a little of the mix forms a “skin” on a cold saucer.  Warm your clean jars in the oven. Pour the jam into the jars and seal. I always use button-top jars from pasta sauces etc. which can be reused many times. Any jar where the button hasn’t sunk in hard needs to be kept in the fridge and used first. If the jar is correctly sealed, the jam can be kept in the store cupboard for a year.

However, there’s a limit to the amount of jam I can use so here are a couple of other ways of disposing of a nispero glut.Image

Loquat Upside-down Cake: 25 loquats; 2 eggs; 125ml natural yoghurt; 100ml milk; 250g butter; 250g self-raising flour; 100g brown sugar; 100g white sugar; 2tsp baking powder; 2 tsp vanilla extract; half tsp salt.

Heat the oven to 200ºC. Line a 22cm cake tin with baking paper or a cake liner. Melt half the butter with the brown sugar in a small pan. Cook for 2 minutes. Pour into the lined cake tin. Wash the loquats, cut them in half and remove the stones. Arrange them cut side down over the sugar/butter mixture. (I like to remove the skins to make the cake extra gunky, but you don’t have to). Mix the flour, white sugar, baking powder, salt, yoghurt, other half of the butter, milk, eggs and vanilla essence. Whip well. Pour the mixture gently over the loquats and bake for about 50 minutes until a knife comes out clean. Cool and then gently turn upside down onto a plate and remove the baking paper. Scrumptious hot, warm or cold.Image

Tropical Loquat Crumble:  1kg loquats; 100g sugar; 1 tbsp lemon juice. For the crumble: 50g plain flour; half tsp ground ginger; 75g rolled oats; 50g desiccated coconut; 25g ground almonds; 50g brown sugar; 75g melted butter.

Wash, halve and de-stone the loquats. Put them in a pan with the lemon juice and sugar. Cover and simmer gently for 25 minutes. Mix all the dry ingredients for the crumble and then stir in the melted butter. Spread the fruit in an ovenproof dish, top with the crumble and bake in the oven for about 20 minutes until the top is slightly browned.

If your family is unable to face another loquat by the end of the month, prepare the fruit as if you were making a crumble. Cool. Then place in plastic bags and freeze for use in pies and crumbles later in the year.

Spinach in disguise

My spinach did rather well this spring, just looking at a clump of plump green leaves poking out of the ground is enough to make me square my shoulders and feel the goodness of Popeye. Unfortunately, the kids don’t have the same reaction and it takes constant vigilance to ensure this vegetable is well disguised, so that all the nutritious zinc, potassium and a multitude of vitamins finds its way into their growing bodies in sizeable quantities.

The two best disguises in our house seem to be Tuna Layer – where the presence of a few crisps and a handful of grated cheese on the top distracts the eye from the bunch of green leaves below – and Spinach Flan which, admittedly does lead to a general chorus of: “OMG Mum, that’s very green!” but the nutmeg in it seems to sooth them into colour-blindness, and a second helping.

Tuna Layer: Ingredients: 300g to 500g of spinach (washed), 2 large tins of tuna, a large onion (chopped), a tin of chopped tomatoes, a carton of natural yoghurt, a couple of handfuls of grated cheese, a packet of salted crisps.

Method: Heat the oven to 200ºC. In an ovenproof dish place the spinach in the bottom. Top it with the chopped onion, a handful of cheese and the flaked tuna. Pour over the tomatoes and top with blobs of yoghurt. Smash up the crisps and press them over the top of the mixture before scattering over the second handful of grated cheese. Cook for 25 minutes.Image

Spinach flan: Ingredients: Either buy pastry or, if you prefer to avoid all those preservatives, make it with half fat to flour, I reckon 60g of fat to 120g flour is about right although you may wish to double that and freeze the other half for another day. Rub the fat into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs and then add a couple of tablespoons of cold water until it forms a solid lump, leaves the sides of the bowl clean, but is not sticky. Chill in the fridge while you make the filling. Filling: 300g spinach, 200g cottage cheese, 2 eggs, 75g parmesan, 150ml milk, half a teaspoon of grated nutmeg.

Method: Heat the oven to 190ºC. Grease the flan dish and roll the pastry so that it lines the dish. Wash the spinach and drain. Put the damp leaves in a large pan with a pinch of salt (don’t add water). Cover and cook gently for 5 minutes. Drain and place in a bowl with the rest of the ingredients. Season with salt and pepper then blend into a smooth mixture. Pour the mixture into the flan case and bake for 35 minutes. Delicious hot or cold.

Although spinach will come to an end in the next few weeks as the thermometer goes higher, the plants can last far longer than many vegetables so it’s worth starting seedlings off as early as the end of August to get the maximum cropping time for your healthy leaves.

Lemons galore!

The great thing about lemon trees is that certain types, such as Cuatro Estaciones (Four Seasons), will fruit several times a year so you will almost always be prepared for friends to drop in for a gin and tonic! Furthermore, citrus trees are perfect for the mini-gardener who only has space for trees in pots. Even small trees will regularly be bowed down with copious quantities of fruit on our island where the climate is so ideal for lemons and oranges.

In general, lemons keep better on the tree than off it, so there’s no need to rush to pick them every time they turn from green to yellow. However, if they are beginning to reach their sell-by date or a friendly neighbour hands you a large bagful over the garden wall, as mine regularly does, don’t panic. There are many ways of making use of even the biggest glut and not waste a drop of that wonderful vitamin C.Image

The quickest way of using the whole fruit is to remove the outermost layer of zest with a potato peeler and leave the thin strips to dry on a plate before converting them to powder with a blender and storing in an airtight jar. A spoonful of powder in hot water makes a refreshing drink and can also be added to herbal infusions.

Juice the lemons and freeze the juice in an ice tray for use with hot or cold water. A daily dose of lemon juice improves the immune system, is great for combating skin problems and is said to aid digestion and be helpful to those who want to lose a few pounds. However, don’t overdo it as the one unwanted side effect of excess vitamin C is increased flatulence.

If you also have some fresh dill or parsley available, you may wish to fill ice cube sections with chopped herbs and then top up with lemon juice for an instant dressing to be used on fish or salads.

For easy storage, pop the lemon cubes into a bag once they’re frozen.

If you enjoy lemon curd, nothing can beat making it fresh. Any of the jars that have button tops are suitable to wash out thoroughly and reuse. So long as the button “re-seals” and is hard when the curd cools, it will keep for several months in your store cupboard. Once opened jars should be refrigerated. Lemon curd is very versatile and can be used on toast, as a filling for cakes or as a speedy cheat when making lemon meringue pie, it’s also delicious stirred into natural yoghurt.

To make about 4 small pots you will need: the finely grated zest and juice of 3 lemons (for lime curd replace the lemons with 4 limes); 200g white sugar; 115g unsalted butter; 2 large eggs; 2 large egg yolks.

Method: place a Pyrex bowl above a pan of boiling water.  Put the lemon zest and juice, sugar and butter in the bowl. Stir occasionally until the sugar has dissolved and the butter has melted. Beat the eggs and yokes thoroughly until completely blended. Add the eggs to the lemon mixture while whisking. Stir slowly with a wooden spoon over a low heat and allow the curd to cook until it is thick and coats the back of the spoon. Meanwhile warm your clean jars and lids either in a low oven or weighted in hot water (so that the insides remain dry). Pour the curd into the warmed jars to within half a centimetre of the rim. Tighten their lids immediately and wait to hear the satisfying “pop” when they seal as they cool.

No blog on lemons would be complete for me without adding my friend, Beth’s, recipe for lemon snow. It’s been a favourite in our household for more than 30 years, for me, because it’s so quick and easy, while for everyone else it’s because it melts in your mouth.

Beth’s lemon snow has just three ingredients: A can of evaporated milk (chilled in the fridge for a few hours); a sachet of lemon jelly; 2 lemons.

Method: Dissolve the jelly in 250ml of boiling water. Leave to cool for 20minutes. Finely grate the zest from both lemons and add it with the juice to the jelly. Whip the evaporated milk until doubled in size then tip in the jelly/lemon mix and whip until fully blended. Pour the mixture into a glass bowl and chill until set.

Lemon trees require minimal attention on Mallorca. Trim out any dead wood and give them an iron-rich feed if the leaves begin to look pale in places. Although pot-housed trees require more frequent watering, once established in a garden, lemon trees only need extra water in the most extreme dry summers. Many other sites detail a myriad of ways you can employ the fruit to clean metal, negate unpleasant fridge smells and a host of other uses in addition to the culinary ones. A true super-fruit.