Tomato essence

Tomato EssenceI was fair consumed with jealousy at the weekend when I visited my friend Abby and saw her homegrown vines heaving with luscious red fruit, which I couldn’t help comparing infavourably with the massed cordons of shiny green balls dangling from my plants right now. Alas, such is the lot of the exotic tomato grower – these rare or old varieties really do seem to take so much longer to ripen. So much so in fact, that the last two years my crop has been almost a total failure, as by the time they’re due to redden the weather has turned suddenly wintery (what happened to Autumn as a season?!) and I’ve lost half to blight and the rest get too cold and stay stubbornly green. If that happens again this year I think I’ll give up, and go back to good ol’ Gardener’s Delight like normal non-masochistic growers do.

Tomato EssenceAnyhoo, if you’re delighting in plants groaning with ripe fruit, or you’re lucky enough to frequent a market (y’know – one of those places you can get ’10 mange tout’ ) that sells seasonal bounty cheap, and you’ve never tried making Tomato Essence (also known as tomato ‘tea’, or more erroneously ‘consomme’) then now is the time. It is, as the name suggests, the pure clear essence of tomatoness. The soul and heart flavour of Solanum lycopersicum, taste of the Med and balm to the soul. No, really. Stop snorting at the back. This stuff really is worth the hyperbole.

And it’s so simple! In fact, I make it not only when I have a heap of whole fruit, but any time some barmy chef tells me in a recipe to cut out and discard the seeds and pulp – you know, the bit where the flavour is!  The cores from a standard punnet of toms won’t give you heaps of essence, but even a shotglass-full is worth the minimal effort when you realise what a punch this stuff packs.

Taste. Of. Summer.

Tomato EssenceTomato Essence
Serves: Some
So simple in fact, there are no measurements. Take the skins, cores, pulp and seeds from as many tomatoes as you have. Use the tomato flesh for something else – a salad perhaps, or a fresh tomato sauce, or maybe even oven-dried tomato ‘petals’. Chop the cores and pulp roughly with a knife. Don’t be tempted to blitz them in a processor, even with a big batch, otherwise you’ll smash bitterness from the seeds into your lovely essence. Place in a muslin-lined sieve (or a jelly bag, if you have one), shake over a little fine salt and stir briefly.  Set the sieve or jelly bag over a jug into which you’ve placed a few bruised sprigs of basil or fresh oregano, and leave to drain overnight. If you can suspend your muslin from something (a fridge rack for instance) so much the better, to get maximum ‘essence’. At no point squeeze the muslin/bag or attempt to force juice through – that will make the end result cloudy. Taste the clear essence in the jug, and add salt if needed. Serve as it is, chilled or at room temperature, perhaps garnishing with a sprig of fresh herbs, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, or even a few balsamic pearls.

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Cheaty cheapy roasted tomato & pepper soup with basil oil

As much as I love tomato soup I’m often horrified by the cost of making it at home. It’s common for recipes to call for a minimum of 1.5kg tomatoes for a few portions, that’s pretty darn expensive to buy, and even when I have a glut in my garden I’ll be hard pressed to provide that more than once a season.

Tomato Pepper Soup

So to satisfy the penny pincher in me (and to acknowledge that for yet another year in a row there’ll be little to no sunshine and my tomato harvest is likely to be nil) I’ve created a tomato soup that delivers all the flavour for a fraction of the cost, the tomatoes being bulked out a little with peppers and carrots, and a shot of concentrated tomato puree gives an extra boost of tomatoeyness. The basil oil isn’t strictly necessary, but I do think a homemade soup deserves that little extra dressing up, and it means you can make this in the winter (or our ‘summer’ equivalent), with hothouse-grown tomatoes, and still feel like you’re in the Provençal sunshine.

Roasted tomato & pepper soup with basil oil
Serves 4

500g cherry tomatoes
2 red peppers, quartered and deseeded
Half a red chilli (in the piece, not chopped)
3 small carrots, peeled
a small knob of butter
1 small red onion, peeled and finely diced
2 garlic cloves, bruised and peeled
pinch of celery salt
3 tbsp concentrated tomato puree
500ml vegetable stock

For the basil oil
15g basil leaves
olive oil

Toss the tomatoes, peppers and chilli in a tiny drop of oil (just enough to stop them sticking), then roast at 200˚C/Gas 6 for 40-45 minutes. Remove the peppers to a bowl, cover with clingfilm and leave to cool before skinning. If you can be bothered, pinch the skins from the tomatoes too, but don’t be too fastidious about it.

Finely grate the carrots (use the finest side on a box grater, or a microplane), then sweat in the butter with the onion, bruised garlic, celery salt and tomato puree until meltingly tender. Add the roasted tomatoes, skinned peppers and the chilli, plus the vegetable stock. Bring to the boil, simmer for just a minute or two, then blitz and season to taste.

For the basil puree, whizz the basil leaves with a pinch of salt and just enough olive oil to form a smooth paste (using a stick blender or mini processor). Serve the soup drizzled with the oil.

Whole baked pumpkin with Comté & cream

Whole baked pumpkin with cheese & creamPumpkins are, of course, most closely associated with Hallowe’en but just as puppies are for life not just for Christmas, so I believe that pumpkins, gourds and squashes should be celebrated for much longer than a single candy-fuelled day of ghosts, ghouls and dressing up like a slutty witch (c’mon – have you seen the sort of costumes marketed at women these days?).  Most of the pumpkin/squash/gourd (for brevity’s sake I’ll just say ‘pumpkin’ from now on) genus Cucurbita is in season from the end of September until mid-December and during those months I wolf down as many as I can – I hated pumpkin as a kid, and as an adult I’m making up for lost time with this gorgeous fruit-cum-vegetable that skates the boundary between sweet and savoury.

Pumpkins are at their very best when baked – a high, prolonged heat makes the flesh meltingly tender and turns its sugary flavour into something more mellow and savoury.  Combine that with a heapload of dairy (in this case both cream and cheese) and you have heaven in a spoonful – sweet, savoury, rich, creamy, tangy – all at once.  This is another of my super-indulgent seasonal dishes (like my unctuous sauce for sprouting broccoli) that I only do once or twice a year, as the calorie count is through the roof, but believe me, it’s worth every gram of fat.  In theory this is a soup, although that hardly does justice to the rib-sticking nature of the feast involved – use your spoon to crape tender pumpkin flesh through a sea of creamy goo for every mouthful, and have some good hearty bread to go with it – wholewheat or spelt are best – you can smear spoonfuls of pumpkin on the bread and then dunk in the centre for the ultimate treat.  It’s easiest (and quickest) to do individual pumpkins for everyone, but you can also do one show-stopping large pumpkin for 4-6 people, in which case it will need to be cooked for much longer and serving is a bit messier.

Whole baked pumpkin with Comté & cream

Per person:
1 x 900g-1kg pumpkin (for a main course; go much smaller for a starter portion)
100g Comté or Gruyère cheese, grated (the nuttiness works well with the sweet pumpkin)
75-100ml double cream
salt, pepper, nutmeg

1. Preheat your oven to 200˚C/fan180˚/Gas 6.
2. Just as if you were making a carved pumpkin/jack-o-lantern, use a very sharp knife to cut a small lid from the pumpkin and use a large spoon to scrape out all the seeds (bake or fry them with chilli & salt for delicious pre-pumpkin nibbles) and any excessively stringy flesh.  Trim the flesh from the lid so it’s no more than 1.5cm deep, finely chop the spare pumpkin flesh and throw it into the cavity.  Add the cream, grated cheese and plenty of salt, pepper and grated nutmeg.  The pumpkin should be around three-quarters full (adjust the quantities to suit your pumpkin – they all vary!).
3. Replace the lid and place your pumpkin(s) on a foil-lined baking sheet in the middle of the oven and bake for around 1 hour.  To test if the pumpkin is cooked, lift the lid and carefully poke the flesh with a small knife – it should sink in as easily as into butter.  Serve whole in shallow bowls, so as to catch any spillage whilst eating.

Not-at-all Borscht

Not-at-all-BorschtI sometimes worry that when I write about traditional dishes that I’ve tweaked and adapted that I will offend someone if I continue to call the dish by its original name. Therefore the name of this deliciously warming broth-cum-stew is ‘Not at all Borscht’, as it’s by no means a traditional Borscht recipe, but I feel a recipe title should have something to give you an idea of what the dish contains, and beetroot-chicken-tomato-pepper soup doesn’t quite roll off the tongue in the same way.

Inspired by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall‘s Ukrainian Chicken Borscht, but adapted to fit almost the entire contents of my vegetable rack, this dish is wonderfully filling and satisfying – one for colder days – and it needs nothing more than a drop of sour cream and perhaps a hot crusty roll on the side to make it a comforting full-on supper dish.

A word of warning: wear rubber gloves when handling beetroot, and wipe down all your surfaces immediately afterwards, otherwise – in the words of Nigella Lawson – you’ll have “a touch of the Lady Macbeth’s” for days to come.

Read on for the recipe…

The great French Onion Soup experiment

The great French Onion Soup experimentHaving recently organised my ever-expanding collection of recipes cut out of magazines and newspapers over the years, I realised that of all the recipes I possess, French Onion Soup recurs the most frequently, and so the great onion soup experiment was born. Deciding it would be the height of over-onionyness to try each of the recipes in turn, I vowed to find the common denominators, prune out the extraneous fripperies and create a soup that might conceivably be called ‘the ultimate’ French onion soup. Two different Nigel Slater recipes, an Anthony Bourdain bistro version and a Gordon Ramsay creation formed the basis for the experiment, with other random bits and pieces from other food writers thrown in where extra input was required.

Firstly – the onions. Nigel calls for red onions in one, white Spanish in another, Bourdain fails to specify what type of onions he uses, as does Ramsay, though the photo accompanying his recipe shows a mix of red and white in the pan. Since Nigel is emphatic about the particular sweetness and aromatic quality of Spanish onions I choose to go with that, although what a Frenchman would make of Spanish onions in his patriotic bowl I don’t know. The amount of butter the onions should be cooked in ranged from a mere 40g to the extravagant 168g, so I took the mathematical route and work out the average weight used and went for that.

I chose to break with all the core recipes and use fresh beef stock in my soup, rather than the dark chicken stock recommended by most. My justification for this is that my parents, who spent plenty of their newlywed years eating in France, both insist that it is an intense beef stock that makes the French classic superior. I also happen to always have homemade beef stock in the freezer, so it was no great chore. One Nigel Slater version suggested vegetable stock, but I can only suppose this is in order to make the dish vegetarian-friendly, rather than out of any taste consideration, as I find it a rather insipid base for soups.

My decision to use beef stock clearly affects all the subsequent aromatics. Liquids first: what alcohol to use? Suggestions included port, white wine, sherry, and cider. I was tempted by port, as I like the depth it adds, but I decided there would be plenty of that from the beef stock. White wine and cider aren’t beef’s best partners (although I’m sure they’d work well with a dark chicken-stock base) so sherry it was, or at least a close relative – Marsala. For the solids: Bourdain suggests diced bacon, and Nigel also advocates it in one recipe, but again the use of an already rich beef stock made me think twice; if I were using chicken stock I’d definitely throw in some lardons. Almost all the chefs agreed on the need for a classic bouquet garni, so in that went (parsley, thyme and bay), and though some suggested two or more bay leaves I chose to be restrained with just one small one, as an overpowering bay flavour is what ruins many a commercial onion soup. Ramsay and Nigel suggest throwing in a little flour with the sauteing onions, but I like my soups clear and unthickened so that idea was out. Finally, onion soup isn’t truly French unless it has cheesy croutes floating on top, and this was the one point on which ALL the recipes agreed – the bread has to be a sliced French baguette and the cheese has to be Gruyère. Traditionally one would lightly toast the bread, float the croutes on top, cover with cheese and then pop under the grill, but I found it much easier to grill the croutes on their own, then float them on top of the soup just before serving – easier to do under a teensy domestic grill, and it also helps avoid the pitfall of them disintegrating en route from kitchen to table!

The result?  A rich, intensely savoury soup to warm the cockles of your heart.  One for cold crisp days when all you want to do is curl up on the sofa and keep warm. Read on for the recipe….