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.

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.

Presto Pasta Nights #248 – The roundup

No sooner had the announcement been made that I was hosting this week’s Presto Pasta Nights then I had received the first entry, this stunning offering from La Caffettiera Rosa, a delicious seafood pasta with cannellini beans and mussels:

lacaffettierarosaNext up was Clarion of Preventing Culinary Amnesia with her classic Arrabbiata, a word which incidentally is Italian for ‘angry’, perfect for a dish of such spicyness:

ArrabbiataRuth, Queen Bee of Presto Pasta Nights and blogger over at Once Upon A Feast, contributed this delicious woodland-inspired ‘taste of the forest’ pasta with mushrooms, pancetta & arugula (that’s ‘rocket’ to you and me!) 🙂

Taste of the Forest Pasta Thus far all the pasta dishes have been pretty darn speedy supper recipes, but then in swept Nupur of UK Rasoi with a lovely step-by-step guide to making one of my favourite weekend meal projects: Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni:

Spinach and Ricotta CannelloniThe meatiest offering of the week came from Jules of Pictures of a princess, a spicy yet creamy Chicken Paprikash served on spätzle – the Germanic equivalent of Italy’s noodle, the name of which means ‘little sparrows’ for goodness-only-knows reason why!

Chicken paprikashShellfish got a rather glamorous makeover with this impressive entry from Tandy of Lavender & Lime – it’s time to apply for your fishing permit and do battle with the invading red signals so you can make this:  Crayfish ravioli with a bisque sauce

CRAYFISH RAVIOLI WITH A BISQUE SAUCEI’m not normally a big fan of vegan food (I do so love my cheese!) but Deb of Kahakai Kitchen might just have converted me with this scrumptious Super quick tomato basil ‘cream’ bucatini in which blitzed cashews take the place of dairy to make the sauce rich and creamy:

Super Quick Vegan Tomato Basil "Cream" BucatiniShelby, aka ‘HoneyB’ over at The Life and Loves of Grumpy’s Honeybunch broke with the so-far distinctly European vibe to produce this fabulous east-meets-west fusion of Beef & Broccoli with Black Bean Mushroom Sauce on linguine:

Beef & Broccoli with Black Bean Mushroom Sauce More globe trotting on the pasta front was going on over at Cook.Craft.Enjoy where the order of the day was a Paprika chicken stew with Pierogies – the delicious Polish dumplings that are halfway between ravioli and potato gnocchi:

Chicken Stew with PierogiesJoanne of Eats Well With Others joined in with an inspired healthy-meets-comfort food offering of Broccoli-Basil Mac and Cheese:

Broccoli-Basil Mac and CheeseWith a twist on a classic in a similar vein to Joanne, Ruth of Once Upon A Feast deserves super-praise for contributing not just one, but TWO entries for this week’s round up – her second one being her Insanely Delicious Mac ‘n Cheese with Kale:

Insanely Delicious Mac 'n Cheese with Kale And lastly, but hopefully not least, is my own contribution – an Asian cousin of ravioli – Leek and ginger pork gyoza with soy dipping sauce:

← Chili-con-Carne for even the most hardened chilli-phobe (and chilli-lover!) Presto Pasta Nights needs YOU! → Leek and ginger pork gyoza with soy dipping sauceThat’s it!  I’ve loved hosting this week’s Presto Pasta Nights and hope you’ve enjoyed my roundup.  Next week the roundup returns to Ruth over at Once Upon a Feast.

Presto pasta nights

Spaghetti with roasted cherry tomatoes and feta

Spaghetti with roasted cherry tomatoes and feta As the dominant cook in my household (hubby CAN cook, but works evenings most of the time, and besides that is a typical male cook – every pan in the house, mess everywhere, two day’s worth of washing up left ‘to soak’), I’m all too aware of how tough it can be coming up with something tasty for dinner day in, day out. Snatching time between work, social life and household chores to put something tasty on the table every night can be tricky, but it’s well worth it, and it’s something I try hard to do (the odd takeaway notwithstanding).

Recently my friend Steph challenged me to come up with a selection of recipe ideas, not for herself but for her long-suffering boyfriend Chris, who as it happens is a student at Southampton alongside my own dear sister-in-law (the world is tiny, really!). Chris is a trainee doctor, so his hours are long and unsociable; and to add to the challenge he is also a fitness fanatic, running marathons and basically spending all his spare time pummelling his body in gruelly workouts and sports activities. I enjoy a challenge, so here is the first in a series of recipes I’d like to call Chris’s Dishes.

Simple to make and tasty to eat, this is the food I love to have when I get home from work, and I hope it will inspire you to try something new rather than reaching for the takeaway menu next time your dinner muse goes AWOL.  Not all of them can be done in 10 minutes, but if it can be assembled in five and then shoved in the oven for an hour, sometimes I think that’s the best of all – prep as soon as I get home, tuck it away in the oven or to the back of the hob, then get on with little bits and pieces until it’s ready (or just flop on the sofa with a glass of wine!).  We will begin with that stalwart of easy suppers – pasta.

Spaghetti with roasted cherry tomatoes & feta
Serves 1 hungry marathon runner or 2 regular people

1 pack cherry tomatoes (approx 335g)
1-2 garlic cloves, crushed
a few sprigs of fresh thyme (or a big pinch of dried will do, so long as the jar hasn’t been in the back of the cupboard for two years)
150-200g spaghetti (you know how hungry you are)
75g feta cheese

Preheat your oven to 200˚C/Gas 6. Cut your tomatoes in half and pop into a smallish baking dish or roasting tray. Add your crushed garlic and herbage, season with salt & pepper, then drizzle over a generous amount of olive oil. Toss together briefly, then chuck in the oven for 30-45 mins until the tomatoes have shrivelled a bit and charred in places.

When your tomatoes are nearly done, bring a large pan of water to the boil, salt it generously (it should taste like sea water) and cook your pasta. Most kinds will take 10-12 minutes, check your packet for timings. Remove your tomatoes from the oven and splash in a spoonful of water from the pasta, and stir gently to loosen all the delicious goo from the bottom of the roasting dish. Drain your pasta and add to the tomatoes, tossing to coat the pasta in all the delicious oil and juice. Serve with the feta crumbled over the top. Buon appetito!

Topless Tart: Roasted baby tomato and pesto tart with a Parmesan crust

Roasted tomato & pesto tart with Parmesan crustIt’s been a long time since I took part in a food blogger event, but I couldn’t resist joining in with this month’s cheekily titled ‘Topless Tarts’ Monthly Mingle, hosted by one of my favouritest bloggers, Jeanne of Cook Sister!

For me, a homemade tart is all about the pastry. There’s no end of clever and tasty fillings for a tart, and shops have sold most of them at some time or another, but where a homemade tart can beat shop-bought hands down is with carefully made, fresh from the oven, tender, crumbly pastry – there’s just nothing to beat it! The key to good pastry is twofold: keep everything cold, and work fast. For the serious cook with time on their hands, I would advise a one-to-one session with an expert, exploring all the nuances of the words ‘chopping in’, ‘pecking’ and ‘frasiering’ – pâtissiere terms for the three delicate manoeuvres used to create top quality pastry in restaurants. For the more everyday, I would recommend a Magimix. The food processor will work far faster than you ever can, and by not touching the pastry yourself you avoid the pastry getting hot and greasy. You can even chill the blade in advance (if you’re that organised!) for even better results.

With most types of pastry, chilling it before rolling, and again after lining the tart tin, protects against shrinking during cooking. The hefty amount of Parmesan in this crust means some shrinking is unavoidable as the cheese melts, so make sure you use a deep tart tin and line it all the way to the top, so when it is cooked it will still be several centimetres deep.

Read on for the recipe…

Oven-dried tomato and Blue Vinny tart

Oven-dried tomato & blue vinny tart There are many myths revolving around the making of arguably Dorset’s finest cheese – the Blue Vinny. Tales abound of orders placed by moonlight, deliveries made in secret and (rather less palatably) – the use of old horses harnesses being dragged through the milk to give it its characteristic flavour. Whatever the history, Blue Vinny is now a well-renowned cheese, quite hard and crumbly, with a beautiful mellow blue flavour. It is one of my favourite cheeses (much better than Stilton!) and as much as I love to eat it on its own, I also love to cook with it.

My two favourite recipes for Blue Vinny are both inspired (or taken from) TV chefs. Sometime back when River Cottage was still a small holding dream, rather than the enormous enterprise it is today, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall had a little competition with a local cheesemaker’s daughter to see who could come up with the best Blue Vinny accompaniment to some purple-sprouting broccoli. The two sauces they chose as the victors – and took to the local farmer’s market – were a creme fraiche, honey & thyme one, and a hot blue cheese and bacon one. The hot sauce won overall victory in the end, but it got me thinking – why not combine the flavours? After a little kitchen experimentation I came up with a delectable hot sauce – crispy bacon lardons fried with thyme and seasoned with honey, stirred together with handfuls of grated Blue Vinny and a dollop of cream. The result is divine, but as it is clearly so calorific merely writing about it has made me gain a pound or two, I save it for special occasions, and only make it when I have an obscene glut of purple sprouting broccoli on my hands.*

My other favourite recipe for Blue Vinny comes from Mr Rick Stein. Continue reading for a yummy recipe of tomatoes and Blue Vinny….

The Great British Waste scandal

LovefoodhatewasteHere in Britain we throw away a staggering 8.3 million tonnes of food and drink every year**. There are lots of reasons for this: over purchasing, cooking more than you can eat, and slavish devotion to – frankly misleading – ‘use by’ and ‘sell by’ dates on food. We seem to have lost the ability to tell with a sniff and a prod whether food is still safe and good to eat, which in itself is a terrible shame.

As sad as this is, the BBC’s Great British Waste Menu, which was aired earlier this week, showed a far more troubling source of all this waste. Growers and suppliers to the supermarkets are discarding colossal amounts of their produce, before it even reaches the stores, in order to meet the rather arbitrary specifications the supermarkets demand. The show filmed one lettuce grower where what seemed like half his crop was left in the fields, because the salad leaves were either too big or two small; and in the polytunnels at a soft fruit farm, the pickers were simply dropping onto the floor the strawberries which were slightly misshapen, too large, or two small.

What troubled me particularly about this was the repeated claim – from growers and shop managers – it is the consumer who is driving this demand. Can this be so? Who amongst us is going into stores and declaring that your strawberries must be precisely between 3-4cm in size? That your lettuce must be no more than 24cm in diameter? That your eggs weigh precisely 57g? A knobbly potato tastes as good as a perfectly smooth-sided one. A box of tomatoes which has a variety of sizes inside has infinitely more appeal, once sliced and plated as a salad, than one made of identically sized toms.

I have been growing 5 different varieties of tomatoes this year, though the changeable weather has meant that few have yielded a decent crop. But take a look at this little beauty:

Marmande tomatoMarmande TomatoGlorious, isn’t he? A giant, oversized, gnarly Marmande. This little guy would never make it off the grower’s land, never mind make it to a shop, but I can promise you it tasted better than any polystyrene-textured supermarket ‘perfect’ tomato. Bitten into much as you would an apple, the marmande has sweet-sharp juice and a lovely firm texture, and all the curves, lumps and bumps just add to the mouth-feel and character.

The vast majority of us still shop in supermarkets for at least some of our groceries. Some of them are testing the water right now by selling, in their basics/value lines, produce which wouldn’t normally make it into store – the mini strawberries, or the oversized potatoes. They’re from the same growers, and they’re the same as their ‘perfect’ cousins on the shelf above, they’re just a damn sight cheaper because they don’t meet the specs which we, the customers, are apparently demanding. This is our chance to prove them wrong – and to provide the growers with much-needed revenue for what would otherwise be a totally wasted product. And we’ll make a dent in that rather terrifying pile of waste too…..