Italy for lunch: Magic’s kitchen garden journal

Mini-strone

Wednesday, 22 January 2015 (one year anniversary in the new garden)

After a hellish few weeks of freezing conditions, thick frost, half an inch of ice on the water in the big bucket by the polytunnel, and personal plague of one sort or another….moan, moan, I finally made it to the polyhaven to check on everyone.

Well, even without the new hot composting system I am about to install to give everything a boost…all appears to be thriving in there. Round carrots with lush green tops, (pause for pesto slaver), purple sprouting in progress, lotsa spring onions, embryo leeks, and a plethora of watercress and Italian parsley. The garden mint I allowed to snuggle in under the corner is three feet high and covered in lush leafage. There is also a pot of misbuna and one of giant land cress looking quite happy.

Outside, under draped double fleece the New Zealand spinach continues to flourish, if a trifle crispy in the wintry conditions. Ditto the Nepal broccoli in big polystyrene boxes I converted into extra growing space. These do keep the roots well insulated. Last year one of these hosted a crop of pink chard which kept going all winter with no top protection at all.

Even the back door herb garden still has lots going on, including parsley, celery leaf and some walking onions still putting up green spikes. I built this as a mound based on the keyhole garden principle, with a rotting tree stump in the middle and a cane and hessian compost basket inset into the centre. It seems to generate a microclimate and has a lot of healthy looking lavender and two kinds of rosemary in it, along with sages (still producing), and thymes and oregano, finally dormant.

So scratching head for inspiration in time for a swift lunch before frostbite set in, I seized a goodly bunch of watercress and some flat parsley, pulled a few spring onions, and headed rapidly for the kitchen.

In the fridge were a quantity of past-it vine tomatoes, an unstarted cucumber that was looking a bit translucent from the cold conditions. There was plenty of garlic from the home-grown store. Ditto shallots, which keep forever and grow more next year because there are always a few lurking somewhere, come spring.

The secret of a good tomato anything is always to include some cucumber. There’s a taste synergy here that not many people, including Heston Blumenthal, seem to know about. Cucumber, in small amounts, lifts any tomato dish to dizzying new heights of epicurean experience. Trust me on this…

So, some of the salted organic butter (bought in error – moral: always read each of the labels when shovelling them 6 at a time into the basket), into a non-stick saucepan. Add olive oil. Add smashed and chopped garlic, chopped shallots and spring onions, peeled and chopped cucumber and halved squidgy ripe tomatoes. Add chopped watercress and chopped parsley stalks (save the tops for garnish). Sweat and simmer with lid on till mushed enough to liquidise with stick blender This nicely integrates the pips and skin – they just disappear into the puree. Add some bouillon powder (you know which one…) and a dash of black pepper and crushed Maldon salt. Bring back to simmer with addition of enough water to make a couple of bowls of soup. Chuck in Orze pasta – that’s the tiny stuff – looks like little ears of wheat and cooks fast). Simmer 5 minutes till pasta is cooked and soup thickens. Check seasoning. Serve topped with chopped parsley and finely grated parmigiano or whatever mousetrap is available. This is a great way to use the last knockings of a piece of parmesan – you can get right down to the outer rind.

Sensational, low-cost gastronomy, or what? And a taste of Italy in the depths of a Welsh Marches winter. Now, to make a first anniversary complete – read book in front of log stove, and snooze gently as the light begins to fade.

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