Monday, 28 September 2009

The changing seasons

I have known about the 4 seasons at least since I was five years old. Certainly at that age I could have drawn a picture to represent the different seasons. Yet every year autumn takes me by surprise. With the warmth and light of summer it feels as if things can keep growing forever. But slowly the mornings start to feel colder and the evenings get darker and you realise that plants really aren't going to grow for much longer. In July I could fill a punnet with raspberries every 3 days, in August I could fill a carrier bag with courgettes once a week and in early September I could fill a bag with French beans every week. But at the end of September the raspberries are tiny and few, the courgettes are mere blimps behind the flowers and the French beans are tired and tough.

That's not to say that there isn't still plenty to eat and things to pick but the type of food has changed. I love to eat with the seasons (just as well really!) and summer eating has given way to autumn now. The soft summer fruit is all frozen or turned into preserves so now is the time to eat plums, apples and blackberries before they too come to an end. The summer cucurbits of courgettes and cucumbers are exhausted but the glorious pumpkins and squash are golden and ready for picking. The tomatoes are still just about managing to ripen in the shorter sunny days and maybe, just maybe, the chilli peppers will turn before the frosts.

With possible frosts forecasts for the beginning of October, we decided this weekend to bring the pumpkins in for safe keeping. This year we grew 3 Jack O'Lantern pumpkin plants, supposed to yield large fruit ideal for carving, 2 Little Bear pumpkin plants, supposed to give mini pumpkins, and 2 butternut squash plants. Pumpkin plants are fantastic the way from a tiny seed they romp away into enormous plants, produce huge or abundant fruit and then, exhausted, shrivel away to dust with just the fruit remaining. From our plants we have managed to grow (with more effort on the part of the plant than ourselves) 8 large pumpkins, 11 mini pumpkins and 7 butternut squash.

The pumpkin harvest day is something my girls have been looking forward to and nagged about for a month so it was with great excitement that my eldest took hold of the knife. And like the opening of a new building, she cut the first stem. Then we sweated in the glorious autumn sunshine as we heaved the fruit to the wheelbarrow and back home again.

Soon I'll be making things from pumpkins but for now they will keep and I'm still using up the stored courgettes and cucumbers. Later in the week I think I shall nip out and pick some more tomatoes just in case frost does arrive. Whatever is left unripe I can use to make green tomato chutney. In the meantime I shall use up the autumn bounty in mixed chutneys and relishes.

I'm sure winter will creep up on me as sneakily as the autumn did but when I'm tucking into a hot pot stuffed full of leeks and root vegetables I shall know for sure that winter is here.

This attractive relish is suitable for use as a condiment with cold meat and cheese and is ideal on hot sandwiches and burgers. The combination of vegetables is not essential as long as a good variety of colour is included so it is a good way to use up vegetables at the end of the summer season.

Ingredients (makes 3 to 5 jars)
1 lb (450 g) green tomatoes
8 oz (225 g) red tomatoes
2 red peppers
2 green peppers
2 sticks celery
2 onions
½ cucumber (peeled)
½ small red cabbage
1 cob’s worth of sweetcorn
8 oz (225 g) light brown sugar
25 fl oz (710 ml) white wine vinegar


Chop all the ingredients into small chunks and layer in the bowl with the salt. Place a small plate over the vegetables and weight down. Leave it for several hours or overnight. Drain and thoroughly rinse and dry the vegetables. Add the vegetables to the preserving pan with the sugar and vinegar. Bring to the boil and simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender and the liquid has reduced considerably. Transfer into warmed jars and seal immediately.

Sweet Sandwich Pickle

Suitable in all types of sandwiches but particularly good with hamburgers and hot dogs.

Ingredients (makes 3-4 jars)

3 lb (1350g) peeled and chopped marrow
1 large onion
12 oz (225g) apples
1 pint (600 ml) malt vinegar
8 oz (225g) tomato puree
8 oz (225g) stoned dates, chopped
1lb (450g) soft dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
2 tablespoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons of ground all spice
A dash of freshly grated nutmeg

Place the peeled and chopped marrow in a bowl layered with salt and leave to stand overnight. Rinse and dry the marrow then tip it into a preserving pan. Grate the apple and onion and add this to the preserving pan. Add the tomato puree and the vinegar and bring to the boil. Cook for about 30 minutes until the vegetables are soft. Add the dates, sugar and spices and stir well until the sugar is dissolved. Bring back to the boil then simmer until thick. Ladle into warm jars and seal immediately.

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