Friday 10 September 2010

Blackberry meringue pie

The allotment is edged on one side by a long unruly thicket of bramble plants. Looked at dispassionately, they take up far too much space and produce far too much fruit even for me, family, friends and the birds to eat. Every summer, as they send out long thorny stems across the plot and snag my clothes and scratch my skin, I say that this year I will clear them properly and get them trained on to wires. Then at the end of July, the first fruits ripen to shiny black, and after a week or so in the sun will develop that warm clove-y sweetness that makes blackberry picking such a joy.

Last weekend we gathered up friends, neighbours, their children and dogs, and took punnets, tupperware and trugs up to the allotment for a morning's blackberry picking. Two hours later, we left, containers full to the brim, purple blotches on our clothes, the children's mouths and teeth stained black. The bushes looked much as they had before we arrived: still groaning with ripe fruit.

Once you get the blackberry bounty home, it needs to be dealt with as soon as possible; the fruit don't keep all that well. If the fruits are in good condition and reliably sweet, I'll happily pile them into a bowl with a dusting of brown sugar and a dollop of creme fraiche.

This weekend's pickings were a bit knobbly and globulous after a spell of wet weather. This blackberry meringue pie is warm and mellow where a lemon meringue pie has that sweet-sharp tang, and the blackberry curd is a gorgeous rich musty pink colour.

Blackberry meringue pie

400g blackberries
225ml water

1 sweet pastry case, eg, from Waitrose

25g cornflour
25g butter
100g unrefined caster sugar
3 egg yolks

3 egg whites
50g sugar

Put the blackberries in a pan with the water, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 20 minutes or so, pressing down on the fruit with a potato masher from time to time to ensure all the juice is released. Line a colander or sieve with a muslin square and place over a bowl – tip the blackberry and water pulp into the muslin and strain off the juice. Measure the juice in the bowl and make it back up to 225ml with water.

Preheat the oven to 160 degrees Celsius.

Sprinkle the cornflour into the blackberry juice and whisk in well. Pour into a pan and set over a low heat. Add the butter and unrefined caster sugar and stir until melted and dissolved, and the mixture has thickened. Beat in the egg yolks and cook over a very gentle heat for 2-3 minutes. Don’t let it boil.

Pour the blackberry mixture into the pastry case.

Now attend to the meringue. Place the egg whites in a bowl and whisk until stiff. Add the sugar and whisk in. Spoon the meringue over the blackberry filling, making sure it’s covered lavishly.

Bake in the middle of the oven for 35 minutes – the meringue should be lightly browned on top.

Friday 3 September 2010

Some thoughts on tomatoes

I found the first couple of dark blight blotches on tomato stems yesterday evening, so cut off the stem immediately, removed the three tomatoes attached to it (one just turning orange, two still very green) and cut out also any leaves showing any sign of discolouration at all. Having looked over all the other tomato plants, it really does seem that only one plant was affected.

It's typical, isn't it? Having lost entire tomato crops at my allotment to blight for the last three years, I decided not to grow tomatoes on the plot at all, but to squeeze them into my small back garden. The results have been mixed: the early Red Alerts have been good (if only I liked the flavour better); the Sungolds are just coming into their prime now. Everything else has been a bit sulky and unwilling to ripen - and for the first year ever, I've had caterpillar damage. Interestingly, the variety affected by the caterpillars is Super Marmande, which is also the variety affected by the blight. Coincidence?

Up at the allotment, however, everyone is enjoying the first blight-free year in ages. As I go down the path to my own plot, I pass bed after bed of green-gold plants weighed down with ripe red fruits.

Next year, I think I might pass on the Red Alerts and Glaciers and concentrate the Sungolds that everyone likes to eat, plus the Marmandes and heritage varieties for cooking and turning into passata. Over the years, I've tried more than a dozen tomato varieties - then each season I cut down the number still further.

Black Russian
Very beautiful large tomato. When ripe, each fruit is an almost chocolate colour with flecks of crimson – dark and succulent. Like Pink Brandywine below , the flavour is robust and stands up well to cooking and to mixing in salads with other strong flavours: feta, Camembert, anchovies.

Pink Brandywine
I should confess that I originally grew these for the name alone, but I’ve since been won over by the huge, irregularly-shaped fruits. The flesh is dense and flavoursome: they are delicious sliced into thick slabs and fried in olive oil, or cut into wedges and tossed with feta cheese and/or raw fennel.

For my money the best-flavoured tomato of all. Bright orange cherry variety with sweet juicy flesh that when truly ripe has a honeyed taste to it. This is the tomato I put in front of children who say ‘I don't like tomatoes’ and it works every time: their expression of deep suspicion turns into a broad grin once they taste them. They are steady reliable outdoor croppers as well, although in no way blight-resistant.

Super Marmande
I love the way these grow in folds and knobbles and bulges and I love the taste of a properly sun-ripened outdoor-grown Marmande tomato. This is something of a rarity, though, and usually I have to make do with ripening the fruit off the vine in the kitchen. These are the first of the 'big' tomatoes to ripen this year.

Red Alert
Reliably the first tomatoes to ripen – I can usually count on eating the first Red Alert before the end of June, and these are tomatoes grown outside, not under cover. They are nowhere near the best for flavour though and I tend to grill or roast them with sugar and seasoning, or use them in sauces – though you need rather a lot of them to make sauce compared to, say, the Brandywines or the Marmandes.

First In The Field
This year, the FinF plants, sown at the end of January, are heavy with tomatoes which are still resolutely green. Not so much First In The Field as Some Way Off The Pace.

Livingston Golden Queen
A heritage variety with large round yellow fruits. I’ve never been able to try these tomatoes at their best: in fact I’m not sure if in four years of growing them I’ve ever tasted a properly vine-ripened fruit, as each plant turns brown and keels over at the first sign of blight.

Gardener’s Delight
A lovely sweet cherry tomato which I used to grow; Sungold, above, has rather taken its place.

I’m still searching for my ideal medium-sized salad tomato and Tigerella is very nearly it. It’s very attractive with its striped flesh and when ripe almost to bursting, the flavour is good. But its lack of blight resistance means that many of the fruits get picked early to ripen indoors which means I rarely get the full flavour.

Tumbling Tom
A compact bushy plant which is ideal for hanging baskets and doesn't require all that tedious pinching-out of side shoots. The petite plum fruits lack depth of flavour for me.

Broad Ripple Yellow Currant
A heritage variety which was apparently ‘discovered’ growing out of a pavement in Indiana in the US. It’s a prolific bush bearing lots of tiny yellow fruits with a long season – they carry on producing into November if the frost holds off and are comparatively blight-resistant. The flipside to all this is that I don’t think they taste particularly nice. I have some seed saved if anyone would like to try them.

Thursday 2 September 2010

Green chicken curry

At this time of year, the chillies are beginning to ripen on the plants. Caldero fruits turn from pale green, to cream, to orange, to red - like a Tequila Sunrise of the chilli world. Black Hungarian darken from green to, well not black, but a deep aubergine purple. It reminds me that if I want to cook anything that specifically requires green chillies, then I only have a limited time left.
With several aubergines ready to pick as well, I've been thinking about a green Thai curry. With home-grown shallots, garlic, lemon grass, and Kaffir lime leaves, I can put together a fresh and zingy Thai spice paste just by stepping outside the back door.

Serves two

Spice paste
Half a teaspoon of coriander seeds
Quarter teaspoon cumin seeds
Quarter teaspoon (about 5-6) green peppercorns
3 fresh green chillies, trimmed and deseeded
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 shallots
2 stalks of lemon grass, trimmed
2 large Kaffir lime leaves
Half an inch of fresh ginger
3-4 coriander roots and lower stalks - reserve the leaves, see below
Pinch of salt
Half a teaspoon shrimp paste

Grind the coriander, cumin and green peppercorns to powder in a small food processor. Add the remaining ingredients and pulverise until you have a smooth green paste.

1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 chicken breasts, cut into bitesize chunks
Handful of French beans, trimmed
1 large or 2 slim purple aubergines, trimmed and cut into 2cm cubes
2 Kaffir lime leaves, chopped
150ml coconut cream
Half tablespoon fish sauce
Half teaspoon sugar
2 tbsp stock/water
Handful Thai basil leaves
Coriander leaves, see above

Bring a panful of water to the boil, add the French beans and blanch for 2 minutes. Drain and rinse in cold water. You can save the cooking water to use in place of the stock/water in the ingredients list. 
Heat the oil in a wide pan or wok. Add the garlic and saute for about 30 seconds. Throw in the green curry paste and stir until well mixed. Add the coconut cream, and heat up until it bubbles and thickens. Add the chicken and aubergines, stir well and bring to the boil. Simmer gently for 5-10 minutes. Add the fish sauce, sugar and stock/water and stir well to mix. Keep simmering until cooked through - this could be just a couple of minutes more. Add the French beans and chopped lime leaves, stir well.
Taste the curry and adjust the fish sauce/sugar if necessary. Chop the coriander leaves roughly - add these and the whole Thai basil leaves. Stir well to mix, bring back to simmering, and then serve.