Planting to cook

After a cold winter the spring is arriving!

18 MARCH 2015,
Tomato passata
Tomato passata

Spring time has finally arrived! And what a welcome too. After a cold winter, a little bit of snow and frosty winds, spring has been well received. Old and young have begun to emerge from hibernation (and their pajamas) and attend to flowers and vegetables. Last year, the Italians were met with a dismal summer consisting of 3 months rain and the occasional sunbeam - if they were lucky. Tomato plants around the country caught diseases or were wiped from their stems by hail.

The average family made 5 bottles of passata. A disastrous year for the veggie gardener. Hopefully this year will be a different story! You may be a vegetable garden novice or have the greenest thumb in your neighborhood. Yet, regardless of skill level, the satisfaction of caring for and collecting your own produce is much more rewarding than a trip to the supermarket. For those of you that have not yet planted a little vegetable garden, I have listed below some of my favorite things to add, along with simple recipes for those who are looking to preserve some foods to use within the winter months. What I will be planting:

Herbs

The first to be planted - all herbs. I will be planting a collection of rosemary, parsley, thyme, mint, oregano, dill, coriander and marjoram. These are necessary in the garden for last minute additions to any meal or dish. Remember to keep trimming your herbs so that they continue to produce new and tasty leaves. Last year I collected many herbs to dry. I simply cut small bunches of the herbs, and holding them together with string, I hung them upside down in a cool place until they dried out. It will take you 5 minutes and is very easy to do at home. Once the herbs are dry you can either break them up with your hands (remove the stalks) and put them directly into jars, or leave them in their bunches and just squeeze the dry leaves directly over your cooking. These are perfect in winter. Change your dried herbs each year.

Basil

One of my favorite herbs, so much so I had to write about him separately. Basil is delicious! I find that the first leaves the plant produces are more flavorsome than the next. This year I am learning from last years mistake (one whole packet of basil seeds, poured into one pot. Told you - novice). I am staging my planting, each two weeks I am planting one or two seeds in separate pots to have a steady production of basil. However, you can never have enough, so an enormous pot of basil would not only look pretty but it will be perfect for some fresh pesto!

Pesto
3 good bunches of basil
1 plump garlic clove
1/4 cup of pine nuts
a good pinch of salt
approximately 150 grams of quality parmesan cheese
lots of extra virgin olive oil

Put the basil into a food processor with a drizzle of oil and whizz for 30 seconds, then add the pine nuts (I heat mine in a pan beforehand, but watch they don’t burn), garlic, salt and some of the parmesan (grated or in small chunks), some more olive oil and whizz. Slowly add olive oil until the pesto is a consistency that you like. Continue to taste the pesto, you may need to add more salt or parmesan, depending on your taste. Store the pesto in sterilized jars and keep in the fridge once opened.

Tomatoes (the faithful tomato)

Tomatoes can be used as the base to so many recipes, eaten raw in salads (with their beloved basil) or preserved for the winter. If you are a novice gardener (like myself) go for the cheery tomato option. He will grow in a bush and is basically like a weed, he will keep coming back! This year we have planted many cherry tomato seeds in small cans and pots to live on our windowsill. For bigger tomato varieties you will need more space. If you like tomato bases in your cooking, I recommend planting plenty, you can never have too many tomatoes.

Tomato Passata
This recipe is perfect straight from the bottle on freshly cooked pasta or as a base for pizza. Use some very over ripe tomatoes. Cut the tomatoes into quarters and put them in a heavy based pot. Add a good amount of garlic, a herb bouquet from the garden (I use anything I have on hand, rosemary, oregano, thyme, sage, marjoram, basil) and some salt. Put the pot on a low to medium heat, stirring occasionally, until you see that the tomatoes have broken down. Turn the heat off and let the tomatoes cool slightly. Use a hand blender to whizz everything together, making a sauce. If your sauce is slightly runny, turn the heat back on and let the tomato sauce thicken slightly. Store the warm sauce in warm sterilized sauce bottles, the heat will help seal the bottle. Adjust this recipe to your liking, you can also soften some carrot and celery separately and add it at the end of the cooking process.

Oven-dried Tomatoes
If you have an abundance of cherry tomatoes, this is one of my favorite uses for them. Perfectly served with a piece of cheese before dinner, or on crunchy bread as an afternoon snack (with a glass of wine), try this recipe [1].

Zucchini and Eggplant

Zucchini has many different uses, you can boil it, fry it, grate it, or twirl it into a lighter alternative to pasta. On the other-hand Eggplant is one of those vegetables that gets left at the vegetable shop, certainly not a favorite for everyone. I was one of these people, until I was introduced into the world of pickling. Slice your eggplant and zucchini lengthways, the thinner the better. Meanwhile boil a pan of water and add a good amount of vinegar, you can alter the vinegar to your liking. I use almost all vinegar and little water, while others use a small dash. Once the vinegar is boiling, drop in your sliced vegetables - you may have to do this in batches - and let them boil until just tender. For thin slices you may only need to blanch them quickly. The hot water sterilizes the vegetables and the vinegar will add lots of flavor! Once ready, take the vegetables out and lie them on some clean tea towels, pat dry. Add the prepared vegetables to sterilized jars, add some salt and peppercorns, and top with oil. Seal well and leave for two weeks before opening. These will last for a year stored in a cool, dry place. Make sure to top the olive oil up to the top of the jar to stop any air from entering.

Lettuce

Lettuce is perfect for a small space as it has shallow roots, you could put some on your window sill instead of flowers! To always have a plant on the window, don’t cut the whole plant off when you think it is ready. Instead, pick only the leaves you need from the outside of the plant, and watch him continue to grow!

Onions and Garlic

I don’t have a specific recipe for these two ingredients, but I use both onions and garlic as the base to most of my cooking. Planting a few onions every couple of weeks will give you a steady and fresh supply. As for garlic, you may notice that during this time of the year, many heads of garlic are starting to sprout, break your garlic up into separate bulbs and plant them. You will gain a head of garlic for each bulb. These are great to have in the garden if you have a small space but love cooking.

[1] http://wsimag.com/food-and-wine/11648-when-italy-met-provence