I don’t really like aubergines – but Madame does!

A week of rain has given me lots of time to work in the kitchen and I’ve employed (and enjoyed) every moment of it. I’ve written before about my aversion to ratatouille – (which Madame loves) and so one of my aims has been to work up some alternative ways of dealing with the aubergines, courgettes and tomatoes that I genuinely enjoy. The problem is always that they tend to ripen in numbers at roughly the same time, so being frugal means eating them up or finding a way of storing them.

Of the three vegetables, tomatoes are by far the easiest because they have high acidity and we can bottle them and keep them for a whole year. I’m ultra careful with bottled fruit and veg and I usually give them a decent time in the oven – say 40 minutes at 110C – before I screw the lids down. I mentioned a couple of days ago that we produce 3 kinds – straight passata, roasted passata and Hazan no 1. They’re all marvellous standbys to have in the kitchen and all taste quite different so they suit different dishes. Today I made a second batch of roasted passata using mainly plum tomatoes from the polytunnel. I was surprised just how different the final flavour and texture was – really delicious and a perfect accompaniment to the Hake we bought from the mobile fishmonger at Newton Park Farm Shop this morning. The fish will only need a tablespoon of the passata as a dressing, with some brown butter and a scattering of fried capers and served with some of our own new potatoes and a bed of spinach, all from the allotment. I’ve fallen in love with Hake over the last few weeks, but it usually turns up at the supermarket fish counter looking a bit sorry for itself. Today’s fish came up from Brixham after being landed at 4.00am. Trust me, super fresh fish is lovely!

So what about courgettes – which can grow from six inches to a seedy blimp overnight. Aside from the dreadful rat it usually gets used in some kind of bake with tomato sauce and almost always mozzarella cheese. I got my original recipe from Patience Gray’s “Honey from a Weed” – in my view one of the great cookbooks but also filled with a tantalising account of life in Puglia. Patience Gray was not one to send off to Fortnum and Mason for exotic or unobtainable ingredients; she always cooked from what was to hand. The recipe for Zucchini al forno – can as easily be used for aubergines. I think from memory that she used mozzarella cheese, torn into shreds between the slices of vegetable with tomato sauce, all cooked in the oven. I’ve cooked it dozens of times, but the cheese is always a disappointment – the supermarket versions are too rubbery and bland so you rarely find it soft and smelling of buffalo. Yesterday I worked up a new version using Taleggio cheese and home-made straight passata with slices of courgette fried quickly in very hot oil to give them colour and finished with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. The cheese turned the topping brown in the oven and it was delicious and full of intense flavour.

My other favourite way of cooking courgettes comes from Elizabeth David who pre-boiled them before dicing them. I don’t bother with that any more because they tend to get rather soggy, so I dice them and fry them in hot butter with a dash of olive oil and then chuck a bit of finely chopped parsley and some lemon juice into the pan to finish them. It’s lovely with fish. My next adventure will be to slice one of the fat ones – marrows really – laterally into thick discs and then stuff them with a risotto and bake them in the oven. We’ll see how that one shapes up.

So finally to the aubergine. Aside from rat we do stuffed aubergines to a Middle Eastern recipe from Rick Stein’s Spanish book – always good. They’re good in slices on a barbecue but they seem to respond best to some fairly strong spices. Our youngest cooked for a season in Greece and he brought back a recipe for baba ganoush which was very good. But here, marooned in a flat with no access to a gas stove or barbecue unless we cook outside, and festooned with smoke and fire detectors it’s hard to get the smoky flavour. Yesterday I prepped some aubergines halving and scoring them through to the skin and then smoked them over hickory chips in our middle sized Cameron’s Smoker for 15 mins before finishing them in the oven (still inside the smoker) for around 40 mins at 180C. The resultant puree with the usual spices and tahini and a bit of good olive oil was a revelation. There was a huge difference between burnt and smoked and although Madame doesn’t really like smoked food she said nice things about this one – so I need to scale it up a bit and learn to make flatbreads.

When I say it rained today I mean real heavy stuff; but nothing daunted we added another three pots to the little container garden outside on the pavement and got very wet in the process. There’s still work to do but we’re getting close. While we were out there it suddenly occurred to me that we should call it Gwen’s Garden after my mum. She loved flowers and was an inveterate thief of cuttings and seed heads wherever she visited. I don’t suppose her little old lady act would fool anyone, but flowers gave her, and us, such pleasure. You may find it shocking, but we’ve still got her ashes in the wardrobe at the Potwell Inn and I’ve met any number of other people who do the same thing. Can’t bring ourselves to part with them. Anyway, I haven’t asked my sister yet if she minds calling it Gwen’s Garden but she reads this blog from time to time so I’m sure she’ll tell me! I washed the trowel off in the flooded gutter when we’d finished. The water was warm. This weather is deeply troubling!

As I look at this now I’m thinking that it would be lovely to have a Banksy portrait of my mum on the wall behind.

Too old to start smoking?


The photo on the left started off way bigger than this, but I needed to edit it because frankly the state of the worksurface on the left of the hob was – well – pretty filthy, and while I don’t mind being a bit of a slob in the Potwell Inn kitchen, I’m not sure I want to share it with the customers! I’m assuming there are (at least) two distinct types of the readers, and the first – on seeing the unedited photo – would say “where’s the Dettox?” whereas the second would be saying “what kind of thermometer is that?” I tend to fall into the second category. Anyway I’ve spared anyone the trouble of worrying about my overflowing coffeee stains so we can concentrate on the topic in hand, which is smoking.

Madame and me tend to take a different line on the subject of preserving. She’s absolutely fine with jams preserves and pickles, but we are divided on the others – namely salting, fermenting and smoking.  With the exception of smoked haddock, where we stand as one in our enthusiasm for the real stuff, (not the pickled dayglo yellow stuff), smoking and fermenting are solitary pleasures which I share guiltily with my sons. I say guiltily because about 100 years ago, when I was a student, I got a summer job at Harris’s, the huge bacon factory in Calne, Wiltshire, when I worked in the stores and where I discovered that “smoked bacon” was not smoked at all in any accepted sense, but anointed with a kind of creosote so powerful that we only took occasional deliveries in jerry cans covered in hazard signs. So that probably means that most of the so-called smoked foods I’ve ever eaten are nothing of the kind.

Therefore, I say, why not have a go at the real thing? Some foods are simple to make but difficut to source –  sausages for instance – need casings and casings come in boxes of ten miles worth at a time, unless you can persuade a friendly butcher to sell you some. Black pudding is difficult to source for the same reason, but more so because you can’t just ship up to an enormous slaughterhouse with a 5 litre bottle and ask for a bit of pigs blood. And even if a friendly slaughterman did feel sorry for you and fill it up, you’d then be lumbered with a long drive home trying to agitate it with your left hand while driving with the right hand.  I’m really sorry for any vegetarian who’s offended by all this talk (Mags and Caroline especially) but I promise I’ll shut up right now.

However real smoking is easy and cheap to do and adds a real zing to the bland and the ordinary.  You don’t even have to buy a ‘proper’ smoker because a wok and a rack will do it just as well. Mine is a purpose built hot smoker which is the only type I can use in our flat with its built in smoke alarms. A cold smoker is generally a hefty looking thing the size of a filing cabinet, so that the smoke can cool down and do its work without heating up the food. For me that adds a whole “Russian roulette” frisson to the idea of smoking. I’m a belt and braces kind of man and killing the bugs with both heat and smoke works better for me than sitting down at the table and checking next week’s diary in case I get campylobacter (again).

I’ve always known that my fascination for procedures with their own special languages and arcane literatures probably marks me as an eccentric but so be it, that’s the way I am, and – oh joy – smoking is preceeded by brining, and that can involve a list of possible ingredients longer than the index of an Ottolenghi book. Today’s couldn’t have been simpler though – three hours in a brine flavoured with honey and crushed black pepper followed by overnight in the fridge to dry out and firm up, and then 30 minutes in the smoker with a thermometer to make sure it all gets over 75C. My chef sons laugh at my caution and say 65C is OK but I’d rather be safe than sorry. What you get (what I got) at the end is a couple of smoked chicken breasts that will be delicious in salads where a little goes a long way, or in a sandwich, and at a fraction of the cost.  However you use it, it’s economical and assists in our aim of eating less meat and more veg. If you’re looking for a steer [sorry – terrible pun -], Diana Henry’s book “Salt, Sugar, Smoke” is full of great ideas.

Rain has been keeping us away from the allotment so I’ve been choosing veg varieties for the seed order. Yesterday I spotted a hazel catkin in amongst the leaf waste that the council dumps at the site, and that combined with scanning the seed catalogues has brought an almost tangible sense of spring around the corner. Is it 17 only days until the solstice? Soon that great explosion of life and growth will begin again and we shall be celebrating the lengthening days at the Potwell Inn.

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