The Changing of The Season

2013-09-20 13.40.50Given the reluctance with which I embarked on my gardening duties in the height of the summer, I was surprised by just how reluctant I was to admit that the time had come to cut down the plants and ready the greenhouse for winter.  But the Chief Gardener issued the order, so we cut down the tomato plants and gathered together all the green fruit, (including one over large cucumber that had been hidden by all the foliage in that corner where all the plants got overly entwined with each other) took it into the kitchen, and wondered what we would do with it all.

The large tomatoes were wrapped in paper and stored in the ripening drawer, and the partially red ones were lined up on the window sill, but that still left us with a pile to deal with.

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Now, if you search on the internet, as I did, for recipe ideas to use up all the green tomatoes, and you happen to land on blog sites, or chatty food sites, then they all preface their suggestions with comments about it being an annual question, that there are only so many fried green tomatoes any family sized group of people can eat, and that nobody much likes green tomato pickle or chutney.  All of these are true of my household too.

I decided to attempt soup, on the basis that I make a lot of soup, and it’s usually from the sad vegetables left rolling around the bottom of my fridge, and that generally tastes all right, so surely I could make something delicious out of freshly picked home grown tomatoes.  The soup recipes I found fell into two basic categories: an Eastern European inspired ham, onion and potato combination with a dollop of sour cream on top, and an Indian inspired curry flavoured one.

My first attempt was with bacon, onions, garlic and potatoes, all cooked in stock with the tomatoes and then whizzed up at the end.  While we agreed it was a lovely colour, It was surprisingly bland.  I was a bit disappointed, but at that stage it was too late to think that I should have used a more strongly flavoured smoked bacon.  Instead I rescued it with a good shake of Tabasco in the pan, and a heaped teaspoon of parmesan in each bowl, and the Chief Gardener declared it a success.

Aware, from that first experiment, that the green tomatoes somehow soak up a lot of flavour, I embarked on the curry inspired second attempt with more spices.  Fresh root ginger, garlic, cumin, coriander, a tiny touch of chilli and curry were the base, with onion, potato and tomato, all boiled up with stock, and then finally whizzed up with half a bunch of fresh coriander.  The committee agreed that this was a success, without any further refinements required. (And it was a good colour.)

(We made a cold avocado, pepper and cucumber soup with the oversized cucumber….)

The Start of the Tomato Harvest

IMG_3401The reluctant gardener is back, watering and keeping an eye on the plants.  The cucumbers are still flourishing, and it’s continues to be a rare meal in which they do not feature, however, the tomatoes will soon be rivalling their fecundity.

This probably doesn’t look like much to those of you who live in warm, sunny climates, but in the unpredictable weather of the West of Scotland these small tomatoes, all 2 and a half ounces of them, represents something of a miracle of nature, ripening on the vine, as they did.  They are the vanguard of what looks like potentially a bumper harvest, but in their reddy orangeness were a surprise discovery when I was bending down to water the plants.

Something about the flamboyance of the stalks made me photograph them, and even suggested, for a brief moment, the idea of sketching them.

Enthusiasm may flag when the crop glut comes, but for the moment, the thrill of discovery remains.

‘Constant Craving…..’

Today’s another day for a little vicarious pride on behalf of a good friend.

Sally Marlow is doing academic research into the effects of alcohol.  She has recently started developing a role as an expert for the BBC and recently hosted a programme on Radio 4 posing the question of whether or not Food Addiction exists.  It’s an interesting debate, in which, of course, widely differing opinions are the meat and drink of discourse; can you distinguish addiction from a habit or a behaviour?

A Film and A Curry

What more does one need for a good night out?

Danny Boyle is enjoying something of golden glow at the moment, feted for both the Olympics opening ceremony and a tremendous stage production of Frankenstein within the last couple of years, he has also kept his hand in making films.  I heard him say, in one of the many interviews he has given as part of the publicity for his latest release, Trance, that he made the film in London to escape from the tension of being involved with the Olympics. And the film gives a very different picture of London, a rather dystopian one at that.

Part caper, part psychological thriller, Trance, is the story of a fine art heist.  In return for the settlement of his gambling debts, James McAvoy’s character, a dealer in an auction house, agrees to be the inside man on a plan to steal a highly prized Goya as it goes under the hammer.  The theft goes according to plan, until McAvoy takes a blow to the head and forgets where he has stashed the painting.  To make him recall the location of the loot, Vincent Cassel, the gang leader, sends him to a hypnotist, played by Rosario Dawson.  And from here, the viewer is sent on a looping track of wondering what is real, what is only in the minds of the protagonists, who is the goody, who the baddie, and who’s in charge.

It’s an intriguing set up, and many of the surprise swerves and switchbacks of the plot kept me guessing and puzzled, and it is filled with the swoop and sway and visceral violence which is such a Danny Boyle trademark, but I never quite felt that the final resolution  fully satisfied all the complications along the way, especially as it relied on a fairly long explanation direct to camera by one of the characters to put us all in the picture before the end of the movie.  But it is always a pleasure to see James McAvoy, and especially when he can use his natural Scottish accent.

And after the film we went for a curry, starting off with that traditional Scottish dish Pakora (basically deep fried batter made from chick pea flour) .  I have no idea if this is served anywhere in India, or why it is so popular in the west of Scotland and virtually unavailable in England.  Perhaps it’s because the people who opened the first Indian restaurants in Scotland came from a particular part of the sub continent, or perhaps more likely, if, when they did arrive here, they worked out the Scottish taste for fried things and set about satisfying it.

For me it is a taste from adolescence, from bags of carry out pakora from the local restaurant, eaten on bright summer evenings sitting on a bench on the front overlooking the river with a friend.  So if I’m ever in a curry house in Scotland, it simply has to be part of the order…..
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I Didn’t Want a Small One

IMG_2933We were walking up Rue de Rivoli heading towards the idea of a cafe in the Marais, and the perfect pain aux raisins I had promised myself as my perfect taste of the city , when we realised we were walking past Angelina’s.  We nearly went straight by, as without the habitual long queue outside, this Pairs institution was unrecognisable.

Delightful as this place is, I’m generally allergic to waiting in line; but it was an easy choice when we could walk straight in.  The tables have marble tops, the chairs brown leather padded arms, and the decoration is something from the turn of the 20th century.  So popular with tourists, they offer set breakfast and lunch menus: the breakfasts generally involving a selection of mini viennoiserie of pain au chocolat, croissant and pain aux raisin.  But I didn’t want that. I wanted a single, proper sized pastry, so I turned to the small print at the back of the menu and took my chances.

When this monster arrived, I realised that my bluff had been well and truly called.


The Smell of School Dinners in the Morning

A couple of days ago walking through Old Street underground station in London, I was assailed by what I can only describe as the smell of school dinners; that unique combination of cheap mince browning, cabbage and slightly warm milk that greeted me every morning of my school career.

It was unique to both the place and era, as school food was unlike anything I’ve ever eaten either before or since: overcooked vegetables, boiled potatoes like bullets, with black bits on the skin and steamed puddings with watery custard and skin on top.

At junior school the meals were actually cooked on the premises, by dinner ladies who wore unflattering nets on their hair and blue checked uniforms.  The mother of one of my friends was a dinner lady and each morning we went to wave at her through the kitchen window where she would be paring vegetables or washing up, and she would write a clue as to what was coming for lunch with her finger in the condensation on the glass.  I was always impressed by her ability to write ‘mince’ or ‘fish’ backwards, so that we could read it on our side of the window.

I suspect though, now, that my association of the aroma of stewed cabbage with school food dates me irrevocably.  What do dinner halls smell of these days?

It’s a topic of frequent discussion these days amongst the great and the good, what should children be given to eat at school. First there was the campaign by Jamie Oliver over the pre prepared junk food that was being served in schools with subsequent stories of either its success or failure, and then a quiet hiatus, until some new life was brought to it by the reporting of the banning of a child’s blog about her school lunches by the local council.  I caught a bit of the Food Programme on the radio in the car on this very subject.

It dawned on me that if these tales of meals are true, then children today aren’t met in the morning with the smell of  boiling vegetables, and that the aroma of the dining hall must be of chips and burgers frying rather than cabbage and custard.  And the smell of chips isn’t unique, you can catch a whiff of it on any street corner, whereas, at least for me, that of the meat and two veg school dinner from the 1960s and 70s was an aroma linked exclusively to school, it didn’t exist anywhere else.


(Except perhaps Old Street station every now and again…..)

Exotic Vegetables

I was looking for some fennel because I like a little of it chopped up in a salad to add both a bit of crunch and an interesting aniseed-y  flavour to the usual lettuce, cucumber tomato combination.  But Morrisons in Dumbarton clearly wasn’t the right place to be looking.

The west of Scotland is renowned for its distant acquaintance with fresh vegetables in general, although it is much more broad minded in this regard than when I was a child, so it is rare to wander around the fresh produce section in a supermarket and be assailed by that feeling of green and abundant plenty that can be so overwhelming in the South of England.

You’d have been well supplied if you were looking for potatoes, pre-mashed turnip, or tomatoes and bananas, but there’s not the 15 varieties of lettuce, or ten types of green beans that tend to confuse me in London.  Instead I was left scanning every shelf for things I might add to my salad to spice it up.

The most fascinating section was the rack of what might best be described as the ‘exotic’ produce.  Along with cassava, baby chillis, root ginger, coriander, lychees and plantain, and a few rooty looking things that I recognise but don’t know the names of, there were also baby corn, mangetouts, aubergine and English asparagus.  ‘Exotic’ clearly depends on what you’re used to.

But no fennel.

Caught by Surprise by Yet Another Food Photo

I’d forgotten I’d taken this photo until I was scrolling through a few photos on my phone deciding whether to keep them or not.  It caught me at a moment of feeling a bit hungry too, and really set my tummy rumbling, as I remembered how tasty it was.  So much of the enjoyment of food is its appearance, the colours and textures and the presentation, and this scored highly on that measurement scale.

It’s the vegetable antipasti at Carluccio’s in the Brunswick Centre in London.  My friend S and I shared it after we’d been to the Grayson Perry exhibition at the British Museum and before we went to see ‘The Deep Blue Sea’ at the cinema.

The most striking thing about it is, however, that I seem to have turned into the person who takes photos of food in restaurants: the blog has done that.  I’m not entirely sure that it’s such a good development.

Although I’d forgotten about the photo, as soon as I saw it I remembered stopping S from digging in until I’d taken the shot.  My excuse was that I never know when I can find a use for a random photo.

‘Of course,’ she responded.

And at that moment I understood that sometime in the last 11 months I have turned into a person that my friends expect might take a photo of restaurant food, which might at some point appear on the internet, at the drop of a hat.

That is a very strange realisation indeed.

Autumnal Vegetables

Even though it’s unusually mild for the time of year, I satisfied a craving for warming autumn food by cooking up a pot of red cabbage this last week.  It’s such a beautiful warming colour, with such an intricate interior and best of all it’s so simple to cook: everything in the one pan, the only thing requiring any level of attention is to stir it occasionally to make sure it doesn’t all stick to the bottom.

Of course a whole cabbage is too much to eat in one sitting so there’s quite a lot of it left over, so there’s more for other days in the freezer as I write.


It was a moment of nostalgia that led me to buy two bags of broad beans in their pods at the supermarket last week.  Well, strictly speaking the nostalgia inspired the purchase of one bag; the two for the price of one offer led to the second one going in the basket.  (And while I’m at it, the blog led to the picture, as I have rarely before photographed pulses.)

As the child of a gardener it was frequently my job to shell peas and beans during the harvest season.  Everything would be ready at the same time, and all hands were required to lend a hand to the picking and preparation of the produce for the freezer.

From being very small I always enjoyed sneaking into the vegetable patch to check to see if the peas were ready, and would often pick the pods well before they were anywhere near ready, popping them open and nipping out the tiny little buds of not quite peas inside.  Nothing is as sweet.

I was generally happy to help shelling peas, sitting on the steps outside the back door, operating the ‘one for me, one for the bowl’ principal.  Broad beans were less enticing as they’re not so nice raw, but I did like them cooked, usually, then, with a touch of parsley sauce.

My parents are quite evangelical about gardening and growing their own vegetables, believing it important that we all know how things grow.  I have a memory of a city child visiting once and my father taking us outside to witness the lifting of a root of potatoes, and the visitor not believing that the potatoes you bought in plastic bags in the shops were the same thing as these ‘home made’ vegetables.

I still like to know how things grow – new vegetables or spices used in foods in foreign places; I want to know, is it a root, a seed, the stalk ?  Does it grow on a tree or straight out of the ground?

We have become so habituated to seeing everything washed and shiny, of uniform length and width, in plastic bags and containers in the supermarkets, stacked neatly for us to pick up easily without a moments thought.

They require little preparation when we get them home and the waste material is all plastic and cardboard.

The waste from my beans was the pods, and it’s true that the beans to pod ratio is on the low side; but it was the oddest feeling to have to put the discarded pods into the normal rubbish.  At my parent’s home everything like that would go into the compost, but that option isn’t available here.

By the way, the beans were very tasty.

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