Sunday, 30 August 2009

Courgettes and house guests

At this time of year my cupboards begin to groan until the weight of jars I have stacked in them so it was a relief on Saturday to offload some of them to one of my buyers. She had agreed to buy all of my strawberry, raspberry and blackcurrant jams, a batch of piccalilli and my salad and sandwich pickle. It is a useful arrangement that we have as she takes the jars unlabelled and puts her own branded label on them. I just email her all the required labelling information. I don’t mind this as she credits me in her marketing material and it means I don’t have to worry about labelling these jars – they can go straight out of the door.

Last year she asked me if I could make her some tomato ketchup but I had terrible problems with blight and had to tell her I didn’t have enough tomatoes for the job. Not to worry, she said, she could source some locally grown tomatoes if I could make the ketchup. So in the end I made two batches of ketchup for her and she had sold the lot before Christmas. So popular was it that she was keen for me to do the same again this year. I can’t say I enjoy doing it much because she has paid for the tomatoes and I feel a bit tense that I really cannot mess up and burn it or something! Still, it’s guaranteed sales so I can hardly say no. When she emailed me this year to ask if I could make the ketchup again I was just about to go on holiday so I agreed to do it but asked her to contact me about it again when I got home. As it happened our emails in the pass week had only involved arranging for collection for the jams and chutneys. Nobody mentioned ketchup.

So it was something of a surprise when she turned up on Saturday with 24 pounds of tomatoes and asked me if now was a good time to make ketchup! The first thing that went through my head was the bags of courgettes and cucumbers in my kitchen, the plums dropping off my tree and the apples ripening on the allotment. The second thing to enter my head was the impending arrival of my mother-in-law for her annual week’s summer stay. She was due to arrive in two hours. But being the sort of person I am I smiled and nodded and took the two crates of tomatoes.

In the next hour I roped in the help of my 5 and 6 year old daughters. My five year old pulled the green stalks off each tomato and 6 year old chopped each one into quarters then together we fed them into my hand cranked pureeing machine until we ran out of containers to store the puree in. Still, we managed to process and freeze 12 pounds of tomatoes before all of us ran out of energy and enthusiasm. I stacked the puree in the freezer for another day.

So my first task on Monday morning was to puree the other 12 pounds of tomatoes, then I got the tomato ketchup cooking whilst a friend popped over and took up the invitation to pick her own plums from my tree. It was 9.30am when I started the ketchup and 4.30 by the time it was thick enough to bottle. I’m not sure what my mother-in-law thought to being pretty much banished from the kitchen for the day but she didn’t say anything.

Tomato and Basil Ketchup
12 lb (5.5kg) tomatoes
1 lb (454g) onion
2 to 4 garlic cloves
1 lb (454g) caster sugar
1 pt (660ml) cider vinegar
2 oz (55g) salt
2 tablespoons tomato puree
2 to 3 teaspoons soy sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground all spice
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon ground ginger
3 to 4 sprigs of basil

Wash the tomatoes and put them in a preserving pan. Gently heat, stir and begin to break up the tomatoes. Once the tomatoes have begun to break up, finely chop the onions and add them to the pan. Crush the garlic and add it to the pan then cook the vegetables slowly for about half an hour. In batches, pour the mixture into a blender, liquidise and sieve into a clean bowl. Wash out the pan and return the liquid to it. Add all the other ingredients except the basil, bring to the boil and simmer for several hours until it has reduced to the thickness of ketchup. Add the finely chopped basil, remove from the heat and transfer into warmed bottles and seal immediately.

With that chore out of the way it was time to return my attention back to my own glut. I started with the cucumbers so made a batch of sweet cucumber pickle. This is a nice quick one to make because it isn’t strictly speaking a chutney so it requires very little cooking. Another pulse point is that my mum loves the stuff so I can mentally put a jar or two in a Christmas hamper with the pickled gherkins for my dad. I asked my mum the other day what she liked to eat the pickle with and she said cold meat, cheese, sausages, chops, egg and bacon… really any meal that didn’t have gravy with it!

Sweet Cucumber Pickle
2lb (900g) cucumbers
2 large onions
2-3 sticks of celery
1 oz (25g) salt
1 pint (660ml) cider vinegar
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 lb (454g) light brown sugar
½ teaspoon turmeric
¼ teaspoon ground cloves

Peel the onions but not the cucumber. Finely chop the vegetables and place in a non-metallic bowl with the salt. Cover and leave overnight. Rinse the vegetables and drain well. Transfer the vegetables to a preserving pan and pour in the vinegar. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 15 minutes. Add the sugar and spices and stir thoroughly until the sugar is dissolved. Return to the boil then remove from the heat and ladle into warmed jars and seal immediately.

Next I used 3 pounds of cucumbers and some of the allotment apples to make cucumber and apple chutney.

Cucumber and Apple Chutney
For every 1 lb cucumbers:
8 oz (225g) apples
1 large onion (8 oz; 225 g)
1 to 2 sticks of celery (depending on size)
½ pint (300ml) white wine vinegar
8 oz (225g) light brown sugar
1 tablespoon salt
¼ teaspoon turmeric
Pinch of ground allspice (Jamaican pepper)
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

Cube but don’t peel the cucumber then finely chop it in a food processor. Peel the onion and core, but don’t peel, the apples. Use the food processor to finely chop the celery sticks, apple and the onion. Place the vegetables in the bowl and place a small plate on top. Press down on the plate to squeeze the water out of the vegetables, and discard. Place the vegetables in the preserving pan and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring to avoid sticking. Pour in the vinegar, sugar and other flavourings and bring to the boil. Simmer, stirring occasionally until the liquid has almost gone. Ladle into a warmed jar and seal immediately.

By now the kitchen really stunk of vinegar and spices despite having the back door and all the windows open. Mother-in-law still didn’t comment. Nonetheless, to improve the smell and to appease my house guest I made a batch of chocolate courgette muffins. My girls are huge fans of these and mother-in-law quickly began to appreciate their light, moist texture.

Chocolate and Courgette Muffins

7 oz (200g) plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
Pinch of salt
4½ oz (125g) caster sugar
2 eggs
6 fl oz (170g) sunflower oil
8 oz (225g) peeled weight courgette
6½ oz (180g) good plain chocolate
2 oz (55g) raisins/walnuts/chocolate chips (your preference)

Preheat oven to 180°C (gas 4). Sift all the dry ingredients into a bowl. Beat the eggs into the oil and stir it into the dry mix. Finely grate the courgettes and stir this in. Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pan of boiling water and add this to the cake mix. Finally, add the raisins, nuts or chocolate chips. Combine well then spoon into muffin cases. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until a skewer inserted comes out clean. Cool in the muffin tin for 5 minutes then transfer onto a wire rack to cool completely.

These muffins freeze well so you could make a few batches to use up courgettes whilst you have them. Someone suggested freezing grated courgettes for use in cakes so I processed a few more courgettes and frozen 3 lots of 8 oz of grated courgettes. I hope it works as this takes up less space than the muffins in the freezer.

Then mid week I made another batch of piccalilli to use up the last of the cucumbers. I really wanted to make another batch of salad and sandwich pickle but it takes quite a while to reduce down and couldn’t really find the time what with taking my girls and mother-in-law out each day for various little trips.

The plan at the end of the week was to take mother-in-law home then go on to a caravan for the last 5 days of the summer holiday so with another few days away looming it was important to preserve as much possible before Friday. On Thursday I had to tackle the dropping plums. In a week’s time they will probably be either on the ground or so ripe that the pectin levels will to wrecked and useless for getting jam to set. Thursday afternoon I sat down at the kitchen table with a big box full of plums and invited my mother-in-law to help me chop them up so I could get them frozen. However, Victoria plums are surprisingly orange and an hour later we both had the hands of an 80 a day chain smoker! Mother-in-law was unimpressed by this and the broken fingernail is sustained. She left me to it and disappeared to scrub and file until she was feeling herself again. Still, between us we had chopped 9 pounds of plums. I froze 6 of these straight away and turned the other 3 into plum and orange mincemeat.

Plum and Orange Mincemeat

3 lb (1350g) plums
2 large oranges
8 oz (225g) sultanas
8 oz (225g) raisins
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon mixed spice
1½ lb (680g) granulated sugar
2 tablespoons brandy

Wash, stone and finely chop the plums and place in a non-metallic bowl. Grate the rind off the oranges then peel the orange and chop the flesh. Add the dried fruit, spices, sugar and brandy to the bowl. Stir well, cover and refrigerate overnight. Tip the mix into a preserving pan and heat gentle, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Bring to the boil and simmer for about half an hour until thick. Pour into warmed jars and seal.

So on Friday morning I banished the vinegary chutney smells from the kitchen and replaced them with the delicious and altogether more pleasing aromas of Christmas. Later that day I picked and chopped other 7 pounds of plum but this time I decided not to ask my mother-in-law to help. I think she had had her fill for at least another year!

Friday afternoon we all went for a trip to the allotment and whilst mother-in-law sat in her deck chair and watched the girls playing I set about bringing in the harvest. More French beans, the first ripe sweetcorn, a fair amount of tomatoes and… another bagful of courgettes and cucumbers. Sigh! Sometimes I feel as if I have created a monster!

We ate the sweetcorn for dinner… yum yum! I packed the beans and smallest courgettes to take on holiday with us and froze the tomatoes. I laid the courgettes and cucumbers in open boxes and placed them under a shelter in the back garden. I used to try to wrap all the surplus courgettes and cucumbers up in plastic bags and keep them in the fridge but I simply don’t have the fridge space for them all. I have since discovered that leaving them out in the air like this causes them to develop a harder skin but they keep well – unless they are damaged, where instead they quickly turn into a bag of goo!

Saturday morning whilst Steve loaded the suitcases into the car I walked round to the allotment to water the tomatoes and to empty the kitchen compost bin. A fellow allotment plot holder came up to show me a sweetcorn cob – completely eaten down to the hard core as thoroughly as a human would have done. He wondered if it had been birds or mice but he had never seen anything like it. All his sweetcorn had gone the same way. I said I thought only badgers did that but we’ve never had badgers before. I returned home and told Steve. He agreed it must be badgers and now we are wondering if any of our sweetcorn will still be standing in a week’s time when we return from holiday. I imagine there will be plenty of courgettes and cucumbers to harvest though!

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