Unlike accountants who have their year end in April, and the rest of the country who have their year end on New Year’s Eve my year end is the day the kids go back to school in September. Day One, I clear the surfaces in the kitchen of the summer-holiday-detritus-build-up. Day Two, I tackle the non-urgent emails that have disappeared off the bottom of my screen in my email list. Day Three, my desk, which always uncovers some dreadful un-replied-to invitations and other failures. And then I get together with the team and look at what we’ve learned during the St Clere year, and tweak things to try to ‘perfect’ things for next year. It’s also time for reflection and introspection and checking that the direction we’re heading is one we’re choosing to steer towards, rather than being battered towards by ill winds. That’s when the real work starts for the year, I always think that I am pretty much entirely reactive from April until September and really only proactive from September until April.
Alongside all this, each year in September we have the most difficult of decisions to make; when is the right time to call it a day for the tomato plants. They’re starting to look decidedly less perky, many of the tomatoes split on the vine, and you have to wonder whether the green ones are ever going to get adequate sun and warmth to go red. In the same way as sending the kids back to school, part of me knows it’s time to admit the summer is over and it’s time to get cracking, but there’s such rosy memories there’s a real poignancy when that moment arrives.
My tomato memories from this year… sigh. They start with the first few tiny cherry tomatoes that can only be eaten straight from the vine. Once the salad tomatoes ripen, I am straight into tomatoes-for-breakfast season. I don’t eat breakfast at any other time of year, but a tomato picked fresh that morning on a piece of toast with a slick of mayo (Mum prefers the more saintly olive oil) and a good grind of salt and pepper is just the ticket, not too sweet, not too oily, just right.
Then we really hit gold-dust when our giant tomatoes ripen. They are of course perfect sliced as a salad, but might have been designed for stuffing. Because our spinach never seems to be out of season, we eat our new-favourite stuffed tomato recipe at least once a week during giant-tomato season. At this point, recipes come out, rather than following my instincts after rummaging in the fridge. None of my favourite tomato recipes are hard work at all, as it’s the upgrade over shop bought tomatoes that I’m really trying to appreciate when I’m trying new recipes. But if anyone’s interested, I’ll put my favourite tomato recipes at the bottom.
The next step is to wait impatiently for my single cucumber plant to bear fruit. Cucumber is clearly the devil’s food and the only reason I have a plant at all is firstly for my children, and secondly for my seriously sumptuous and scrumptious summer snack; Gazpacho. I discovered the most amazing recipe which I can make almost entirely from a trip to my greenhouse and now make it at least weekly as it takes less than 5 minutes. I throw tomatoes, a cucumber and a pepper into a blender with a couple of other store cupboard ingredients and am in heaven. The ONLY problem with gazpacho is that you can’t drink it straight from the blender, patience is non-negotiable. It’s got to be chilled, no buts about it.
I could go on and on about our most used recipes, there’s the tomato summer pudding recipe which is as good an idea as it sounds, and is just what you feel like for lunch on a summer’s day, there’s the old favourite of avocado, tomato and mozzarella sliced with basil on a plate, there’s guacamole made with avocados and tomatoes in the mix, left a bit chunky. Probably the best of all, and that’s saying something, is a Nigella recipe; Egyptian Tomato Salad. The recipe looks too easy to be anything special, but it’s one of those recipes, you know, the ones that takes four ingredients and allows nature and sprinkle of magic to turn them into food of the gods. To me it tastes like summer should taste.
Yesterday, I stripped the remaining tomatoes (red, green and in between) off the plants to make tomato chutney, and tomato and chilli jam. As I looked at that pile of goodies in my trug, I had to acknowledge that the time had come to send the tomato plants to the great compost heap in the work yard; summer is over and it’s time to get down to work.
Stuffed Tomatoes (Ready, Steady, Cook)
1 beef tomato
1 handful spinach leaves, chopped
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp olive oil
25g/1oz ham, chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the cheese sauce
55g/2oz Wensleydale cheese
150ml/5fl oz double cream
freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4.
For the tomato, slice the top off the beef tomato and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Discard the seeds and place the tomato on a baking tray.
Mix together the remaining stuffed tomato ingredients and spoon into the hollowed out tomato. Bake in the oven for 5-7 minutes, or until the stuffing is golden-brown.
For the sauce, place the cheese and cream in a pan and bring to a simmer, stirring until the cheese is melted. Season with freshly ground black pepper and stir in the parsley.
Serve the tomato with the cheese sauce spooned over the top.