Courgette and Lemon Cake

Yesterday at the supermarket we ran into a friend who had been working in her orto and she kindly gave us some of her surplus round courgettes. So when I got home I looked at these lovely sunshine coloured globes and wondered what to do with them. Then the word, cake popped into my head and I thought: I know, I’ll make a carrot cake but without carrots I’ll use courgettes.

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So I adapted my carrot cake recipe and here’s the ingredients: I used:

350g grated courgettes. 200g soft brown sugar.  300g plain flour. 2 tsp baking powder.      3 eggs.125ml sunflower oil. 1 tsp butterscotch essence. Zest of a lemon. Juice of half a lemon.DSCF2250

First squeeze as much water out of the grated courgettes then add them to a bowl alongside the oil, eggs, sugar and lemon juice and zest. I added the butterscotch essence as I had no vanilla, but to be honest it didn’t add anything to final cake flavour. Mix together then fold in the flour and baking powder, but don’t over mix it.

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    Make sure you have the oven pre-heated to 180C (160C fan) gas mark 4. Grease and line the base of your chosen cake tin and fill with the cake mixture.

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Bake in the middle of the oven for 40-45 minutes until it’s golden coloured and the kitchen smells all nice and cakey. (that’s a correct technical term – Mary Berry told me)*

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Similar to carrot cake it’s a dense crumbed cake but unlike carrot cake I decided not to do a cheese frosting and opted for Mary Berry’s recipe for lemon drizzle, which is 50g of granulated sugar and juice of a lemon. Mix together and pour over the warm cake. Let it cool and then scoff at will.

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* blatant lie

Bayonets and Seed Trays

A friend recently asked me if I’d seen anywhere selling bayonet light bulbs like the ones used in the UK. I didn’t bring any lamps with me when I relocated so never gave it a thought. Suddenly it dawned on me that something so trivial could become a major problem, if you’ve packed up your home, had it shipped abroad only to discover all the light bulbs sold here have screw fittings. I’ve been looking ever since and enquired without success at the hardware stores and thus far haven’t been able to locate a single bayonet fitting bulb.

Also on the lamp theme, I brought some treasured lampshades over from the UK only to discover after the re-wiring of the homestead that the Italian Edison bulb holders are slighter smaller than the UK ones, so the lampshades kept falling off the fittings. In the end treasured lampshades ended up in the wheelie bin.

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Another thing that can annoy you when living here is the electricity, or rather lack of a decent amount of it. The basic electricity supply in Italy is a measly 3 kilowatts. This means it takes a while to get used to the fact that you can’t have a multitude of appliances working at the same time. For example if we turn on our oven and induction hob at the same time, which is usual when cooking, we have to turn off the hot water to prevent the trip switch cutting the supply. How often at the start did we forget and when the washing machine was on pop some toast into the toaster and ping no power, or one of us would be drilling something while the other decided to plug in the kettle – yes you guessed it – ping and no power. It is possible to pay extra for up to 6 kw, but we’re now used to it and if anything it’s made us more aware of wasting energy.10885254_10152487089332187_5949779206277870703_n

One thing that initially drove me round the bend was the lack of seed trays – Yes I know surely they can’t be so important to be a cause of madness, but yes initially they were. The reason being is practically every Italian citizen has a patch of land where they grow fruit and vegetables for the table. They can be seen in January and February buying seeds and potting compost. So you’d expect them to be able to buy seed trays, because we do that in Britain. But this isn’t Britain it’s Italy, and my local garden centre looked at me quizzically  when I asked for some. “Seed trays?” she responded, almost mocking. “Trays for seeds.” – I felt at this point that I was in a rejected Two Ronnies sketch – I mentioned the lack of these to a friend who said, “Why have a special tray? I use the polystyrene trays that meat comes in and then throw them away.” I was about to mention that I don’t think I could use polystyrene in my electric propagator, but decided that it was best to leave the conversation there.

Did I solve this problem? Yes I had some posted from B&Q in the UK.

Fusion Hot Pepper Sauce

Each year I grow hot Italian chillies and as I harvest them I sun-dry them in batches for use throughout the year. Once dried they store in an airtight jar for a year or so. Just make sure when you pick some out that your fingers are dry, a tiny drop of water in the jar will spoil them. As my chillies in the orto are almost ready to harvest I decide to use up some of last years to make way for the new crop.

I’ve also been growing some Jamaican Scotch Bonnets, the plant is in its second year and after a not so good season last year, I took advice and potted it up to restrict the roots and it’s bearing lots of bright orange fruits this year. So using these two varieties I thought I’d create a Caribbean-Italian fusion hot pepper sauce.

The ingredients I used are:

8 sundried cayenne chillies, 5 fresh Scotch bonnets, 5 garlic cloves, 230 ml white vinegar, 2 teaspoons malt vinegar, 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp sugar,  2 tsp red wine and a tsp of tomato puree.

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First boil a kettle and soak the dried chillies to rehydrate them. While they’re soaking trim the stalks off the Scotch bonnets and peel the garlic.

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Once the chillies are rehydrated take their stalks off and add everything into a blender and blitz until smooth. NB: The tomato puree is used purely to add colour to the sauce as the orange Scotch Bonnets have very little colour.

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Transfer to a pan and simmer the liquid until reduced by a third. OPEN A WINDOW and don’t stand over the steam and breathe it in as it’ll cause you to cough and can irritate the eyes.

Remove from the heat and using a jam funnel decant it hot into a sterilised jar and seal.

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The consistency of this sauce should be loose, very similar to Tabasco rather than a gloopy sauce. If you don’t want seeds in the sauce then it’s okay to sieve it. Like similar sauces the salt and the vinegar are excellent preserving agents so should keep in a dark cupboard for around 3 months and in a refrigerator for 6 months.

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So how was the taste test? It was hot but the sugar took away the harshness. I think it’s ideal for adding into stews, soups and sauces and good for drizzling over pasta dishes. I may even try a little on a pizza turning Margherita in la Diavoletta.

Zuppa di Zucchine e Parmigiano

OH NO!!! Not another courgette recipe.

I was in the orto this morning and the harvest included some ripe tomatoes, several cucumbers and another load of courgettes. So after sending friends messages on Facebook asking them to collect a cucumber and courgette when passing to save them going to waste, I decided to make something else for the freezer for the winter months.

I had given an Italian friend of mine my recipe for courgette and mint soup and she told me she often makes zuppa di zucchine e parmigiano. (courgette and parmesan soup). So I recalled the ingredients she told me she used and thought I’d have a bash at it.

The ingredients are:

1 kg courgette, 1 small onion, bunch of fresh basil, 2 litres of water, 200 ml cooking cream, 50g grated parmesan, 200 ml chicken stock, salt and pepper to season.

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Add the chicken stock to the water; I use it straight from the freezer. Vegetable stock can be used if you are a vegetarian/vegan, and bring it to the boil, Meanwhile, chop the courgette and fry it with the onion and basil until it starts to soften but not brown, then add to the pot of water and simmer until the pieces of courgette are soft.

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Once the courgette is soft remove from the heat and let it cool down. Once cool blend until the soup is smooth and transfer back into the pot.

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Add the cream and parmesan and stir as you reheat it slowly. Pour into bowls and eat straight away and enjoy. I expected it to be a much more robust flavour but it’s actually a very light soup, ideal for summer lunches.

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As this is the first time I’ve made this soup I’m guessing it’ll keep for a week in the refrigerator and if frozen last for 2-3 months.

The Parsnip Project Finale

I’ve rather neglected my blog for a while due to my work commitments, I’ve actually been working 7 days a week, as I’m now not only writing for the magazine, but also working with a law firm and estate agent as an interpreter and also looking after their English speaking clients. Now don’t get me wrong I’m not complaining, I’m loving life at the moment.

I do however keep to my 20 minutes a day routine in the orto and have had a brilliant first year following the house restoration. We made 42 litres of passata from our tomatoes, endless pots of soups, ranging from courgette and mint (lush) to Malaysian hot broth. We froze over a hundred olive oil and garlic cubes and so many people received the glut of Dutch cucumbers that everyone was convinced would never grow here, not to mention the many friends and neighbours who thanked me for the excess pumpkins we gave away.

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For those who have followed the parsnip project, here’s the finale. After being told they won’t grow in Italy, and many other reasons why they’ll fail here, I decided to have a go. The first trial followed a French grower’s technique and that failed miserably, so y new technique was fill barrel with compost, let it warm up and chuck in seeds willy and nilly.

So how did it go?

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I harvested this batch this morning, they may not be as big as those in UK supermarkets, but they’ll hopefully be sweet when roasted with a little honey and some chilli flakes. Next year I’ll grow them in a formal row behind the summer veggies ion a plot that I’ve dug out and removed the vast majority of stones from.

Oh those doubters will no doubt now be ordering their parsnip seeds online now.

Click this link to see my Facebook album of 2014 in the orto.

The Parsnip Project (4)

I had a message yesterday from someone asking me why I had not posted on my blog for a while and how was the parsnip project going?

I realise I have been silent here for quite a while and the reason is down to the scale of work I have on at the moment. To find just a few minutes to blog about the minutia of my day or the eccentricities of Italian life has been difficult and to be honest I don’t see my workload lightening any day soon.

But I do feel an update on the parsnip project is due.

So the French lady’s toilet roll germination method failed miserably, with just one seed bursting into life, so I undertook another method. I had the half a barrel with potatoes growing inside, (which we harvested last week and jolly nice they were too) and so filled the other one that was waiting for the loo-roll seedlings that never appeared with compost and left it in the sun to warm up.

After a few days in the sun the compost was lovely and warm, so I watered it in the morning and left it until the early evening when it was still warm and quite moist and then I sowed the remaining parsnip seeds.

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That was just over 13 weeks ago and they are doing really well as you can see, so I have my fingers crossed that come November/December we’ll have some lovely parsnips for our winter dinners.

I’ve also started off my cauliflowers, a month later than I would in the UK, and they are doing really well, I have 32 planted up in a semi-shady spot and just hope they don’t die during the August heat; I think maybe I should have waited a few more weeks before sowing them.

Colourful Radishes and Pigs in the Post

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I had an allotment back in the UK and as you all know I have my orto here in Italy. Well everything is going really well, I have my potatoes peering over the top of the half barrel, that Seppe risked his family jewels to cut in half for me. My Romaine lettuce are filling out, my broad beans have some good sized pods and my peppers have fruits eagerly awaiting the sun to make them fat and juicy.

So far my parsnips have only two small green shoots above the potting compost, but everything else is on track, even my Dutch cucumber is loving it’s time outside in the Italian soil.

So I decided when we were having a salad to harvest the first of my radishes. I had a mixed packet of seeds and added some French breakfast ones to the packet and sowed them a few weeks ago. I was more than happy with the first picking, the multi-coloured peppery bulbs looked far too nice to eat, but let me tell you, they tasted as good as they looked. There’s nothing better than freshly picked food.

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I mixed my beetroot varieties prior to sowing a couple of short rows and noticed that the yellow cylindrical ones germinated first and these seemed to suppress the traditional red ones, so I thinned out the rows to give the little red ones a fighting chance this morning, and then did another sowing of just the Bolthardy variety, as they are superb for harvesting early for pickling or roasting whole with rosemary.

So with all the orto activity and fresh produce you’d think nothing could be better, but wait today the post lady arrived with a surprise package for me. I eagerly opened it and discovered my parents had sent me some English pig in the post.

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Actually it was four rounds of sliced black pudding, possibly the one thing from England that I miss most: A friend told me the other day the whereabouts of a butcher here that sells salsiccia di sangue, (blood sausage) so I’ll be giving them a try in the near future. The package came with wine gums and Malt Easter bunnies for OH, but I’m now the happy bunny, with four slices of black pudding residing in my freezer, ready for a special occasion.

Earth Wind and Fire

Monday: I’ve been working on getting my orto (vegetable garden) sorted out, following the lands many years as a wilderness. With the eventual sorting out by, Seppe of the carnage that the previous builder and his digger driving friend Toto left behind I now have a fenced off little patch to grow my veggies in. It’s about an fifth of the size of my old allotment back in the UK, but as I wont need to have greenhouses in Italy, I’m sure I can cope with less space. That said I will have a much longer growing season, and also have to adapt to what will and will not grow over here.

I have a small portion of wall dividing my orto from the land owned by my neighbour, so my first job has been to set up a walled-bed and a path, in this bed I shall start they year off with my broad (fava) beans and they’re already getting off to a good start; three sowings have taken place, five weeks apart for, hopefully  a nice amount of beans during the harvesting season. Also beans add a good deal of nitrogen to the soil so they’ll be helping to condition the earth for the following year.

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I planted a dozen garlic around the raised salad bed I built a few weeks ago and they’ve now pushed through and are growing well, taking advantage of the early sun we’ve been having.  My orto is south-west facing and after the sunrise gets the early morning sunshine and as that golden orb moves across the sky it gets the heat in the afternoon but none of the direct  sunlight, which will be ideal for water conservation and tomatoes and chillies that can split in direct sunlight.

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Tuesday: I had meant to go and cut some canes from the bamboo that’s growing down from the orto today, but I think mother nature is having ‘that, time of the month. The month being February. The wind is whipping the bamboo and the dry canes sound like witchdoctors rattling bones as they curse the elements. February is a windy month here, some say its the sirocco; which I know they get across the Po plains up north. I’m not sure we get it so far down here, but as I don’t know I couldn’t say for sure. What I can say is they’re jolly blustery and I fear for the roof tiles. I’ve just spent an half hour collecting plant pots, dog toys and various other items that have been picked up by the wind and deposited elsewhere.

Wednesday: Today the wind has dropped, so as Time Bomb by Jamie Tracy plays on the iPod, I start to build a fire on the land at the side of the house. I love a good fire, as my friends on Facebook can verify as there’s always a photo of me with some bonfire throughout the year. My neighbour Domenico has pruned the two olive trees he owns next to my house and has stacked the trimmings neatly. I asked if he wanted them and he said no, so I thought I’d tidy up and burn them. Now I have never burned olive before, but as others around are burning their pruned branches I know the green wood burns… Oh boy does it burn, it goes up like someone has thrown petrol onto the flames. What is normally a gentle campfire becomes an inferno with the addition of olive wood. The smoke is noxious. black, choking stuff which surprises me, you’d expect it to smell nice like pine does when it burns. I guess the tree’s natural oils must be like throwing cooking oil onto a fire.

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O.H. hands me a glass of fizz and the iPod shuffles and Toni Basil starts to sing, Time After Time as the latest addition of wood crackles, and sparks dance like malevolent imps in the evening air.

Deal or No Deal

At the side of our house is a tiny scrap of land barely 60msq that belongs to Domenico; who also owns the ruin out front: Domenico’s Ruin. On this land stands two skinny olive trees, now the only way to these trees is through my gate and down the steps attached to the side of the house. A few weeks ago Domenico told me he’d need to strim the land in readiness for harvesting the olives in November. Being a good neighbour I told him we’d clean his land and strim it for him, which we did today: or rather Seppe did with his strimmer with chain attachment. I’d mentioned to Seppe that I’d like to put a fence around the edge of the land joining it to ours to keep the dogs from running down into the olive groves owned by other people, but would need to speak to Domenico first.

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So today we’re finishing off filling the frame for the patio with rubble from the restoration and clearing Domenico’s land of weeds, when he appears. Seppe asks him if we can put the fence up to keep the dogs in, and at first he’s against the idea, “It’s my land,” he says. We explain that we know that, and we just want to make it secure. He asks what we are doing and we explain that we are building a patio, a gravelled area and a vegetable plot. “I used to grow my vegetables on this piece of land,” he tells us pointing to his 60msq patch. “Maybe you can buy it from me?” We ask how much and the price starts at €2,000 and we say no, €500 and so on until he says €1,500 and we say no more than €1,000 and we’ll think about it.

We agree that he can come to work on the land any time he wants and we’ll unlock the gate, “Oh, I only want the olives.” he shakes his head, “I don’t want to work this tiny piece of land.”  We then say to him that we’ll keep it clean for him and not let it get overgrown. “Well, why don’t you use it for your vegetables then?” We are a little confused by this. “Shame to waste it, the soil is good, so why don’t you work the land?” We thank him for his generosity and he responds by saying, “And think about if you want to buy it.”

Buy it and turn it into an allotment, or grow on it for free… Deal or no deal?

Shy Vegetables

The dogs are outside playing with a tennis ball they’ve shredded playing Tug of War I sit watching as I enjoy a cool iced lemon tea. The iPod shuffles and, Kids in America by Kim Wilde plays as a huge dragonfly skips over the pumpkin flowers that are in bloom. I glance over and spot a swollen fruit amid the orange flowers, I’m sure there was no burgeoning pumpkin there yesterday. One thing about growing vegetables here in Italy, is they seem to appear overnight, especially the courgettes (zucchini). I’m sure the courgette is a shy vegetable, because you spot the flowers and in amongst the huge leaves you see a tiny green fruit and no matter how often you check nothing seems to happen then one morning you just happen to notice a great, green baton sticking out, as if it’s swollen overnight.

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I’m particularly pleased with my tomatoes, I’ve only planted two plants this year; a bush variety that produces the typical long Italian fruit, known in the UK as plum tomatoes. For a while due to the cool spring they didn’t do very much, but now that the weather has been good both bushes are laden with fat fruits, that have only just started to redden. This year I won’t have enough to make passata, but I’ll have steady supply for salads and home-made pasta sauces. I may even combine them with some of my sundried chillies and store some pots of arrabiata sauce in the freezer, for a winter warmer later in the year.

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I have been harvesting basil as it’s been flourishing and have frozen it, although the leaf tends to darken during freezing and once defrosted looks dreadful it still tastes good in sauces. I’ve been very disappointed with the purple basil I’ve sown. It’s been very slow growing and hardly any of them have flourished into productive, bushy plants. The two things I’m looking forward to harvesting are the figs from the huge tree outside and the pomegranates that are swelling upon a bush we have inherited. Once the house is complete we shall begin work on restoring our land from a unproductive tangle of green into a fully functioning orto/allotment that will cater for most of our fruit and vegetable requirements throughout the year. Michele has already given me the benefit of his advice regarding the sowing of fava (broad) beans and I wonder, as cabbages do so well here, will Brussels sprouts hack it in the Italian countryside?