Passata Preparation

In Italy the humble tomato is king.

Almost every home has a plot of land where tomatoes are grown in rows. Even people with no land have pots on balconies where they have a few plants. In the summer it’s not unusual to stumble across great patches of land that host hundreds of plants, all standing proud with fat red fruits hanging from them.

101_0400 With the lighter nights now, the countryside is alive with people getting ready for summer. Tractors, strimmers and all manner of machines buzz, whirr and squeal; the tranquillity of nature is given over to chaos for a few weeks. So thoughts turn to seed sowing.

My tomato seedlings; started in an electric propagator have been doing well and are spending their days outside in the sunshine before being brought back inside in the evening.

This year I have around 125 young plants which will be divided between my orto and friends. I’ll keep around 30-35 plants for myself and although some of the plump red tomatoes will end up in salads over the summer, most will be turned into passata and stored for use throughout the year.

101_0401There’s lots of recipes out there for passata di pomodoro and if you have a passapomodoro machine or  spremipomodoro as they’re sometimes called it’s easy to make.

The Italian way is to make the rich red sauce: a staple of Italian cooking and store it in glass jars, and it’s not unusual for families to be eating sauce made several summer’s before.

I’m not good with trusting my ability to seal the jars sufficiently no matter how long I boil them for once packed, so I freeze my stash. Now, there’s nothing worse than the freezer being so full you can’t find what you want. So we come to the point of this blog post, which is to share with you a handy little tip for storing your passata and using freezer space effectively. (Works well for soups and other liquids).

DSCF7218I start to save empty tetra packs like the milk one pictured around about this time of year. It is best to only use the same carton, the reason will become evident as you read on.

Take a sharp knife or scissors and cut the carton into half .

Discard the top half and toss it into your recycling box.DSCF7219

 

With the bottom half, wash it, dry it and store it. Keep cutting and saving until you have around 10 of them at hand, ready to use in late summer when the passata making starts with the tomato glut.

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Once you’ve harvested and made your sauce, line the cartons with clear polythene freezer bags and fill with sauce and tie the tops. Remember to leave space for the liquid to expand a little as it freezes.

Once the liquid is frozen remove the blocks from the cartons and because you only used one type of carton they’re all the same size, meaning you can now stack them to save freezer space.

Wash and retain the cartons and reuse the cartons for your next batch. Once the tomato harvest as finished toss the cartons into the recycling until you repeat the process the following year.

Recycled Indian Relish

I hate to throw anything away and last week when I had half an onion and half a cucumber I made that English classic, of cucumber and onion steeped in vinegar. As I’m in Italy I couldn’t use malt vinegar like in the UK so I used a white wine vinegar.

I grew up with this; I remember Sunday teatime having cold beef sandwiches with the cucumber and onion mix adding a sour zingy taste. It’s lovely after a day or so languishing inside the fridge to have on a cheese or ham sandwich, or as an accompaniment to a salad.

Well today I used the last of it up at lunchtime and stood looking at the vinegar, coloured pink from the red onion and rather than throw it away I thought I’d recycle it and make an Indian relish. So as the iPod shuffled and Antony and the Johnsons played Cripple and the Starfish, I started to assemble the ingredients.

Now I’m not good at measurements, as I’ve said before I tend to be a chuck in the ingredients and have faith in the cooking gods. But I’ll try my best to give you an idea of the quantities I used to make this spicy, hot relish. 100_8879

Ingredients:

7 garlic cloves. 1 medium sized onion. 1 medium courgette. 1 aubergine. 6 small dried cayenne chillies (you can use whatever you like according to how hot you want the relish to be). 1 tablespoon of turmeric. 2 tablespoons of a curry powder mix. 1 tablespoon tomato puree. 100 ml white wine vinegar. Olive oil for frying.

First chop the onion, courgette, aubergine and garlic. Add a little oil to a deep pan and fry the onions until they start to soften but not brown. Add a little more oil to the pan and then add the aubergine and courgette and after a further 3 minutes add the garlic. Stir in the chillies and turmeric and stir the mixture giving the vegetables a coating of the yellow powder. Then add the curry powder, distribute evenly in the pan and add the vinegar.

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Bring to the boil and cook on a rapid heat for about five minutes, then turn to a rolling simmer and add the tomato puree and stir through. Continue the cooking for a further 15 minutes until it reaches a thicker consistency. The aubergine and onion should be soft but the courgette should still have a little bite to it.

Wash and sterilise 3 x 300g jars by drying in a hot oven, (be careful when taking hot jars from an oven) Make sure the jars have a coated inner lid for the storing of vinegar, plain metal lids will tarnish. and fill them while the relish and jars are still hot, screw on the lids and let them cool down before storing in the fridge. (They should pop and seal as they cool) The relish will keep for around 6 weeks in the fridge, (2 weeks once opened) and is delicious with warm flatbread like chapatti.

Toilet Roll Parsnips

I’ve just sent messages to friends who live local, asking them to save me their empty toilet roll tubes: No I’m not collecting for a Blue Peter appeal or going on a recycling drive, I want them for parsnips.

I was reading a blog the other day that is written by a lady in France, in it she mentioned that she had never seen parsnips for sale so she grew her own. This prompted me to look into why you never see them in Italian markets. Turns out the story I’d been told previously about them needing a good hard frost to germinate is wrong. Parsnips are fussy germinators apparently and like the soil to be warm when they are sown, and once they’ve popped their heads above the ground they don’t like being disturbed until harvesting time. So I’ve decided to follow the advice of the French lady and have a go at growing my own using the toilet roll method.

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I’ve read that sowing directly into the ground can be an ineffective way of growing parsnips: the moody little rooters can be quite erratic flourishers. The toilet roll method aids the grower and generates more success. Some people first germinate the seed upon damp kitchen paper before planting, but this can be problematic as leads to possible root damage during potting on into the toilet rolls. Literally all you need to do is fill your empty toilet roll tubes with potting compost and sow a solitary seed inside it and keep it warm. Once growing water the seedling from inside the cardboard tube, don’t let the outside of the tube become soaked and when big enough plant the whole thing in the ground. This method is said to ensure all seeds germinate and there is very little root disturbance.

Parsnips need a long growing season so should be ready around mid-November, but the beauty is they can be harvested from ground to plate in minutes, as there’s no need to harvest what you don’t use, the cold earth will keep them fresh. My only word of advice is, if you have chinghiale nearby, keep them protected as the wild pigs love anything sweet.

I’ll keep you posted to how it goes throughout the year.

Animal Magic

Animal Magic

My favourite television as a small boy was, Animal Magic. I was so in awe of the presenter Johnny Morris, who was able to talk to the animals: I was around eight years old before I’d worked out it was Johnny that was doing the voices of the beasts. So taken with the show, I begged my parents for every animal book that was published, convinced I would be a zoo keeper they pandered to my every animal related whim. I grew up with an assortment of mice, pigeons, cats etc. but didn’t manage to become a zoo keeper. As I grew older my fondness for animals has never waned and I still privileged when I see something in its natural environment,

So you can understand my happiness as this week has been filled with animal sightings. Monday I was walking the dogs in the lane when we stopped to watch a huge black snake slither across the newly laid tarmac, the black of its scales shimmering like marcasite in the early morning sunshine. I do like to see these grass snakes, they’re timid and as soon as they spot a human they’re off through the grass at alarming speed. Today’s snake hasn’t seen us and we stand watching as it moves slowly off the road where it has lain warming its blood and into the olives. The oppressive August heat hasn’t crept up on us yet, so we enjoy the stroll, the fields are awash with butterflies; blue ones, white ones, multi-coloured admirals all flutter from one flower to another, sharing their space with the wild bees.

Tuesday has been very hot and in the evening, the inside of the house is like a sauna. As the temperature outside falls, inside it seems to rise. I imagine its the roof tiles and stones retaining the heat from the daytime. I sit outside with a glass of wine and allow the slight breeze to tickle me. There’s a rustle in the undergrowth, the dogs ears prick up, but it’s been too hot today and they don’t budge from the patio. Two eyes flash and it’s the fox that seems to pay us a visit most nights. Keeping a safe distance from the dogs and human, it silently creeps through the tall grass, barely a blade moves until there’s a squeal and it moves away quickly with something small and furry in its mouth.

Fox

Wednesday morning arrives, the iPod is in its dock in the living room, playing In Mysterious Ways, by John Foxx: Two foxes in one week Smile I remember that I haven’t put my neighbours recycling box out so nip up the lane and do so. My neighbours house is in an elevated position and as I descend the steps leading down to the road, I see three hares in the field opposite, they’re running and leaping about and occasionally boxing with each other.

Thursday afternoon gave me my best animal encounter of the week. I’m driving back from the bank and as I come around a bend I spot three deer. They gingerly step out from an olive grove and look up and down the road, I slow right down and they cross right in front of me. The deer in front looks like a mature doe and behind her is two yearlings. They enter the grove opposite and then dissolve into the landscape, perfectly hidden from human eyes.

What a week it’s been for animal magic.

(Italian fox image courtesy of 123rf.com. Royalty free images)

A few Shakespeare references and that pesky Italian language again

What a mad week it’s been, at times I’ve felt like King Lear howling at the wind.

Sunday 17: Well we left England just as the last of our worldly possessions headed south in Duncan’s van. I turned on my iPod and Eartha Kitt sang, Let’s Do It, My sentiments exactly as the ignition guns and we leave Tunstall en route for Abruzzo. The weather in France is awful, so we opt for a night in the car and wait to see what it’s like in the morning. It’s cold and we’re lucky to grab a few hours of broken sleep.

Monday 18: The drive is tedious and having driven through weather that Prospero would have been proud of, rain in France, sleet in Belgium and fog through Luxembourg; where no one turned their headlights on, and snow in Switzerland we arrive in Modena. The hotel is quite contemporary and geared up to the business sector, but the rooms are warm, clean and well appointed. We have a wonderful meal in the restaurant, a glass of wine and its back to the room for some shut-eye. My head hits the pillow and I’m in the realm of the dead for 8 hours straight, a sleep that Macbeth would have been more than happy with.

Tuesday 19: Breakfast is an amazing array of goodies all laid out for us to enjoy, it really is a feast, comparable to the one Ariel conjures up. The other guests are dressed in business attire, apart from us and a German man in jeans and t-shirt. A tall, handsome Italian man strides into the room and confidently orders coffee before lifting a knife and with the deftness of Tybalt he cuts a slice of bread and drops it onto his plate. He walks back to his table and glances across and smiles, my countenance betrays my lust and like Benedick I toss back an amiable yet distant smile.

We begin the second leg of our journey, as Tubeway Army play, It Must Have Been Years, we stop at the cemetery where Luciano Pavarotti is interred and say a silent hello to the big man, refusing to take photographs, as it felt wrong. We continue heading south in warm and sunny weather and after 5 hours we’re outside our friend Shelagh’s house, Lyca, her one-eyed hound100_5577 bounds down the steps towards us and greets us with that excited tail-wagging joy that only a dog can do. Like the weird sisters we catch up on gossip before collecting the new keys to our place; locks changed after break-in. We drive the few kilometres home and become pleasantly surprised, our rough pot-holed road is being resurfaced. The previous break-in has robbed us of nothing that cannot be replaced, mostly tools, kitchenware and new bedding. All our precious and personal items have been unwrapped and laid out, but not broken or stolen – who’d have ever thought I’d be grateful to a thief for resisting the mindless destruction of the property they had no respect for. As our belongings are still in Duncan’s van, we set up bed in the back of the car. It’s surprising how roomy a Vauxhall Zafira can be when the seats are moved back and a futon mattress is loaded inside. We enjoy a gin and tonic and like Richard lll we’re transfixed by the stillness of the evening, as a dog barks and wood smoke wafts by. Before long we’re too tired to talk and slip under the duvet and slumber like Titania in her bower.

Wednesday 20: The following morning with Karen Young, singing the disco classic and one of my favourite tunes, Hot Shot, Duncan arrives, we hail him, king Duncan, and begin to unload our life that’s been packed inside the white travelling box on wheels. A man from the water company pops by to explain that we’ve been misled by the geometra, who got the vicinity of our water pipe 100_5637-cropwrong, he promises we’ll have a new pipe and water before mid-April; so soon, we’ve waited 2 years thus far.   The drive to our house is steep and we have to give Duncan a quick tow to get him out and we’re left to our own devices. We quickly sort out some semblance of order and after an hour or so like Viola when she takes on the persona of Cesario our makeshift kitchen has ideas above its station. Later as Paul Young, belts out the decidedly poor track, Wedding Day from his Between Two Fires album, Dutch tackles dinner in the halogen cooker we purchased from the local supermarket 2 years ago. After a bit of suck it and see cooking we have chicken and roast potatoes and veg out of a can, and so welcome it was. I open a bottle of fizz as Querida by Vittorio Grigolo shuffles on the iPod.

Thursday 21: A shifty looking bloke in overalls drops off some coloured plastic bins and mutters something about recycling and buggers off. I’m then left to decipher the intricate recycling that the council have put into place, our euro-bin has disappeared and now we still get the daily rubbish collection but now it’ll be broken down into different types of household waste – oh joy more OCD issues for me to deal with, heaven forbid the refuse men call each Thursday for pencil shavings from Steadtler pencils.

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Friday 22: I’m having a few minutes peace outside when a man with a dog on a rope comes striding down the driveway towards me, he calls out with a cheery, “Ciao”, the man that is, not the dog, and engages me in conversation; or rather he speaks, molto velocemente and I try to keep up. He asks if I’m renting; I consider an inappropriate quip, but fear it would be lost on him, so tell him I have bought the house. He then asks about next door, “Is it for sale?” I respond telling him I don’t know, he then asks if I’ve seen anyone come to the house, I tell him I haven’t but we’ve had thieves break in a few months ago. His eyebrows raise and almost disappear into his hairline, “What you need,” he says, “when you live in the countryside, is a dog or better still,” he laughs, “A friendly wolf.” I chuckle as I recall Lear’s, Jester say, “He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf.” My visitor asks my name then is confused, “Isn’t Bari an airport?” he laughs again. He tells me his name is Michele, (pronounced Mick-ay-lea). We shake hands and he asks me where the people from next door have gone, I then go on to tell him that the old lady is hospital as she has dementia, I then say, “Marito è morto,” he looks at me oddly, then sadness crosses his face and I realise what I’ve said and quickly correct myself and say, “Marito della signora è morta.” He laughs loudly, pats me on the shoulder and says goodbye. No doubt, like Feste to my Olivia, he’s off to tell the locals about the strange Englishman who is either drunk or mad because he said, my husband has died.

Restoration Nation

During a recent walk around the ‘forgotten’ areas of the city; the parts that had been subjected to compulsory purchase orders for some new government scheme for new social housing that never came to fruition. The old terraces have mostly been demolished, Some empty streets still stand neglected and decaying, but I was pleased to see a environmentally aware project that was taking these old houses and giving them a new lease of life. The new houses use recycled materials and will feature energy saving heating systems including solar energy, they even have a small vegetable plot and composting bin. Meaning the street goes from looking like the left side of the photo below and looks like the right side now.

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I think rather than build on green sites we should spend more effort purchasing redundant land and build new homes there. I also believe that we should also look at the possibility of 100_5443restoration rather than demolition, there are many old buildings out there that would benefit from some love and attention. On a recent trip into Cheadle it was nice to see the old Wheatsheaf public house that had stood neglected for years until it became unsafe, had been restored, breathing new life and jobs into the market town. It’s a shame they chose to paint it green though.

As I write this my iPod is recycling tunes from the eighties, as Five Star sing, Rock My World.

Around town at the moment there is much activity from men on scaffolding as they insulate nearby properties, cladding the outside with what look like large Lego blocks. These blocks are then rendered and painted white. The newly insulated houses benefit from not only energy saving but also from a new up to date look.