Praying for clement weather …

After all the wind we have endured my tomato plants are looking far less bountiful than they usually do at this time of year. Only the cherry tomatoes are making a valiant effort to thrive against the elements. However, I’m not anywhere near “glut stage” yet, but in the hope that things will suddenly improve I thought I’d post my three favourite cherry tomato recipes for using up all the extra bowlfuls I’m willing to arrive.Image

Cherry tomato and couscous salad

300g couscous, 300ml boiling vegetable stock, several handfuls of cherry tomatoes, 2 avocados peeled and cut into chunks tossed in the juice of half a lemon, 100g stoned black olives, a handful of chopped nuts, 150g chopped feta cheese, ground black pepper.

Mix the couscous and stock and leave to cool. Gently mix in the rest of the ingredients and enjoy.

Cherry tomato and cinnamon jam

I don’t have much of a sweet tooth but of all the jams I make for the family this is my personal favourite. Take 400g of cherry tomatoes, 200g sugar, 2 sticks of cinnamon.

Wash and dry the tomatoes before halving them. Put them in a saucepan with the sugar and cinnamon. Stir and leave to ooze together for 30 minutes. Gently bring the mixture to the boil. Cook for 10 minutes. Remove the tomatoes with a slotted spoon. Boil the syrup hard for 5 minutes until it has thickened. Put the tomatoes back in and cook gently until it is thick. Pour into warmed jars and seal.

Cherry tomato and chilli chutney

500g cherry tomatoes, 1 red onion diced, half tsp salt, 1 clove of garlic crushed, 1 red chilli chopped, half a cup of sugar, half a cup of red wine vinegar, black pepper.

Gently fry the onion, salt and garlic. Add the tomatoes, sugar, vinegar, chilli and pepper. Bring to the boil. Cook until the mixture looks jammy. Put into warmed clean jars and seal.

Once sealed both the jam and chutney are quite happy in your store cupboard for a year.

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Preparing for The Good Life

Most of the Mediterranean is graced with two planting seasons due to the temperate winter climate. By now we’re well into the first one with many gardeners already having their second batch of seedlings coming up in greenhouses or various lesser-used corners of the house.

I hesitated before writing the word “greenhouse” because it turns the idea of growing-your-own into something that appears costly and requiring sizeable outlays of space, time and money. This is quite wrong.

Growing at least some of your own fruit and veg can be done anywhere. Even when I lived on a boat I would sprout mung beans for use in salads and stir-fries (put some holes in the plastic top of an empty jar, place a thin layer of beans in the bottom, cover with water for 12 hours then shake out. Moisten and drain daily until ready to use) I also used to grow a selection of herbs by placing flowerpots inside 5 litre water containers which had their tops removed. I then threaded a string through the sides to make a swinging handle when we were sailing. These adapted water containers not only ensured the plants never tipped over in a high sea but also acted as mini greenhouses when the pots were on deck.

My current “greenhouse” is an old shelving unit with bits of perspex hinged on and sealed with magnets (see photo). Clear plastic sheeting would also work or just transporting your pots inside at night and keeping them in sheltered sun patches during the day will be fine.Image

A friend of mine who lives in an apartment with no terrace still grows rocket and herbs in window boxes. The possibilities are endless and every little helps to make your family’s diet more natural and full of flavour.

A packet of seeds will cost you roughly 1.50€ and will contain more seeds than you need for the coming season however many are in your family. Easily handleable seeds like melons, courgettes and cucumbers do well being sown in individual yoghurt pots with a hole in the bottom (the photo shows this year’s yoghurt-pot watermelon seedlings almost ready for planting out). Smaller seeds like tomatoes, aubergines and peppers are simpler to sow in bigger pots and then thin out to allow the sturdiest plants to grow well before planting. Never skimp on seeds, it’s a false economy. Buy from an outlet that sells in large volume to ensure you’re getting the freshest seed possible as it’s irritating to go to all the trouble of planting only for no shoots to appear.Image

Of the above mentioned list, aubergines and peppers are far slower-growing than the others so you need to begin early if you want to ensure the longest fruiting period. The number of batches you grow will depend on what you most enjoy eating and the space you have available.

With cherry tomatoes, pear tomatoes and salad tomatoes I try to stagger 2 or 3 batches so they produce for as long as possible.

Although cherry tomatoes can be fiddly to pick they’re great in salads and when there’s a glut they make superb chutneys and jams.

Pear tomatoes are best for cooking and many varieties are very heavy croppers so I can usually grow sufficient in a couple of batches to make enough Neapolitan sauce for the year’s pasta dishes. They also make great ketchup. The number of salad tomatoes you grow has to depend on your family’s salad tolerance.

If you’re considering planting herbs and want to produce some wicked pesto, opt for the large leaf variety of basil seeds but, unless you’re keen on an aniseed flavour, avoid the seed packets with pictures of slightly wrinkled large leaves, it’s the smooth ones that make classic pesto. Coriander, parsley, dill, oregano, marjoram and savoury are all easy to grow from seed in window boxes, pots or patches of ground close to the kitchen so you make maximum use of them. However, I have only managed to grow thyme from an established plant – usually available for less than 2€ from a garden centre. If you re-pot it in a larger container and give it a bit of a trim it will soon expand and give plenty of fresh shoots.

The difference in the taste of your food when you have abundant fresh herbs at your disposal is incredible and you are unlikely to ever go back to the dried-up shadow of the natural flavour that comes in shop bought jars. Many of the vegetables and fruits I had previously thought were rather bland, such as cucumbers, melons and bananas, I’ve discovered are mouth-wateringly different when picked straight off the plant.

If you’re inspired to begin The Good Life, get along to your local garden centre or supermarket for seeds and potting compost. The time for planting your first crops is now. What have you got to lose?