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purple power: aubergines big and small for bonfire night

You couldn’t dream up a more British celebration than Guy Fawkes night, or Bonfire night as it’s commonly known. The French have Bastille Day, the United States have July 4th. Both mark the day when the establishment was overthrown, the triumph of successful revolution. In England, we celebrate the failure of anarchy, a plot foiled. Admittedly Fawkes’ intentions weren’t exactly to steal from the rich to give to the poor, entrench human rights in a written constitution or usher in democracy, but still.

Still, dubious roots aside, Bonfire night has to be the most fantabulous celebration of the year. For a start, no one has really worked out how to flog stuff for it. It’s a marketing department’s nightmare; a whole celebration with no bottom line benefit. Ha! Sure, locked fireworks cabinets appear in supermarkets, garages (gas stations) probably shift a few more bags of logs and hawkers stock up on glow sticks to flog to the crowds but there is no ‘Happy Bonfire night’ card, no big gaudy display of tat you don’t need and aren’t even sure you want. The closest you’ll get is a BOGOF deal on bangers (sausages, my non-British friends). It’s just pure, unadulterated fun, free from Hallmark sabotage and phrases like ‘bottom line’. My beloved Bonfire night flies in the face of corporate bullshit and that is why it is so special. Oh, and did I mention the fireworks?

As for Bonfire night food, it’s a time of year to indulge your childhood campfire fantasies. Sausages, jacket potatoes and marshmallows, all cooked over the fire and it’s better than a barbecue because everyone expects it to be cold and damp.

This year, inspired by a recipe Adolfo and I improvised over the ‘summer’, I thought I’d try something a little different: aubergines (or eggplants as they are known across the pond). The advantage of this recipe is that you can make it with the tiniest fire and therefore the tiniest of gardens – a disposable barbecue would work. And for very little effort and even less skill, you get something that tastes exquisite. The flesh becomes a melt-in-the-mouth smokey sensation. An explosion of taste.

Serves: as many as you need to

A selection of aubergines (eggplant) – whatever shapes and sizes take your fancy: allow 1/2 a large or 3 baby aubergines per person

A good glug of good olive oil

A sprig of rosemary, leaves stripped from the stem

2 cloves garlic, chopped

A generous pinch of sea salt

chiminea: bonfire night aubergine

Lay the fire like a good girl guide (not that I would know, I was neither good nor a guide) with a pile of newspaper swirls, covered by a teepee of kindling with a log or two poised and ready over the top (or just cheat and use firelighters!).

Come on baby light my fire: aubergines

Light and nurse to get a good flame going then let it burn until you have a bed of red-hot embers and a steady, gentle flame licking around your logs.

Gently heat the olive oil, rosemary and garlic in a frying pan until the aromas start to rise and scent the room, then set aside to cool.

Prick all the aubergines with a knife or skewer. Tear off a large strip of foil and pop an aubergine or two in the centre – I did two big aubergines per piece, or a handful of the littlies.

Test the oil to check it’s cool enough to handle and spoon over the aubergines, making sure to include some of the rosemary and garlic on each sheet. Give each aubergine a good rub to make sure it’s completely coated in oil and then scrunch the foil up and over the aubergines to make a little parcel. Pop another layer of foil over your parcel—better safe than sorry!

aubergines cooked on a wood fire

Hopefully by the time you’ve done this, your fire will be well and truly on its way. Pop the foil parcels on the embers as close to the flames as you can get them without putting the fire out and/or burning yourself. This is what barbecue tongs were made for.

I’m afraid cooking times are a little sketchy on this one. It’s really a case of size matters: both in terms of the fire and the aubergine. You should be able to hear the oil start to sizzle, and then enjoy a natter and a glass of wine something-completely-responsible-and-appropriate-for-someone-who-is-tending-a-fire before you have to worry—but do have a little check once in a while —we’re talking a ballpark of 15-30 minutes. I’d say check every 10, turning the aubergines inside the parcel if needs be. The skin should wrinkle, the flesh soften, the structure collapse. Sprinkle over the salt and tuck in!

aubergines cooked on open fire

conkers, horse chestnut

I hereby declare that it is officially autumn. For the first time in months this morning, I didn’t want to leave the warmth of my bed. There was a real bite in the air, I shivered as I pulled on my dressing gown and cast a sideways glance at the heating dial as I passed on by. (Okay, it was actually the husband’s dressing gown – why is it that other people’s cosy clothes are so much better than your own? I always nick my mum’s jumpers too!)

Jogging was too much of a shock to the system. I made Jo walk instead. All the better to take in the fallen leaves, the conkers already spilling from their prickly cases. Their shiny, smooth chestnut shells too enticing to ignore. When did this happen? I’ve been in London too long.

Next, the virginia creeper that engulfs our garden wall will turn a bright, intense red. The prunus leaves will fade to burnt umber, then the leaves will wither and fall, carpeting our little garden as the blossom did in spring.

There’s a wind that whispers new boots, sparklers, woollen gloves and pumpkins. Candlelight, catherine wheels and cosy blankets. Red cheeks and noses but no more roses, autumn’s here. Autumn’s here.

But I shan’t be bowed. I’m with Keats on autumn: it’s the king of seasons. And for the record, the heating’s staying off until October.

To autumn
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
   Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
   Steady thy laden head across a brook;
   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

I dearly wish I had an excess of courgettes (zucchini, my American friends, zucchini). I wish I had an excess of anything for that matter. Unfortunately, the blimming snails ate my two courgette plants right down to a tiny stump of stalk. And the weather was so diabolical that I didn’t even get a flower on my tomatoes. This year, no greenhouse = no fruit.

Still, this is a post for my dear friend Ms Jones, because her mother has been plying her with courgettes for weeks. Yes indeed, I am happy to take requests (actually I’m just happy that anyone is actually reading this regularly enough to make a request!).

I can’t think of anything more wonderful than an excess of courgettes. They are on a par with broccoli and morning glory on my all-time favourite vegetable list. They are so versatile, so delicious. I never tire of them.

When I was a student in Florence, we used to slice them finely, sauté in olive oil until golden brown and toss them through pasta with a drizzle of panna (cream) and lashings of parmesan. Quick. Simple. Delicious.

Then there’s another of my favourite dishes, one I am currently eating no less (I’m writing this on my lunch break), which is courgette and paneer curry. This is one of the first recipes I ever uploaded to this blog. I admit, it’s not all that photogenic, but it tastes goooooood. You’ll love it Jonesy.

Of course, another courgette recipe already covered in these pages is courgette and polenta bake.

layer cake courgette and polenta bake

Then there’s the stunning courgette salad that my stepmother makes in the summer. I think it’s from Skye Gyngell’s A Year in my Kitchen. Simply shave raw courgettes into paper thin strips using the cheese slicer setting on a grater and dress with lashings of lemon juice, oil, salt and pepper, and herbs – tarragon is great with this but basil works too. Fantastic with barbecued meat.

But perhaps one of my favourite ways to eat courgettes is heavily inspired by Angela Hartnett’s stuffed marrow recipe. It’s great and versatile — I’ve made it for a one-year old girl (no salt and pepper), a vegetarian (no chorizo) and some big strapping lads and they all loved it.

Serves: 4

4 large courgettes (perfect time of year for large courgettes – but tiny ones will work if you’re patient and capable of being delicate)

1 block feta cheese, diced

1 onion, finely chopped

Half a looped chorizo, diced (substitute for a finely chopped red pepper if catering for veggies)

2 slices bread, whizzed into breadcrumbs

Half a pack pinenuts

A small bunch flat leaf parsley, chopped

Olive oil (I like to use lemon oil or basil oil for this)

Preheat the oven to 180C. Cut the courgettes in half, lengthways, then hollow out the centre by scooping out the insides. Chop the flesh finely and set aside. Rub oil into the courgette ‘boats’ inside and out and season generously, then line up on a baking tray ready to fill.

Fry the onions and chorizo chunks, add in the courgette centres, and sauté until softened. Remove from the heat, then stir in the pinenuts, parsley and half the feta. Fill the courgette boats with this mixture, then sprinkle over the breadcrumbs and remaining feta cubes. Drizzle with olive oil and bake for 10-15 minutes, until the courgette shell is soft and the topping crispy and brown.

Serve with a crisp green salad, hummus and crusty bread.

If you have a slice leftover, chop it all up and run it through some cous cous with a sprinkle of lemon juice. Delicious.

 

Top tips for surviving DIY

Kitchen closed: the frugal kitchen becomes a temporary storage unit

As regular readers will know, the husband and I have been redecorating our four-room flat. Out of necessity – no cash – we’ve done a huge amount of the work ourselves (especially the magnificent husband), which means getting home from work at eight, pulling on the work clothes, stiff with paint, and slogging away.

But by far the worst part of doing DIY in a small apartment is that there is nowhere to escape. To paint a room, you need to empty it, and that means piling everything into another room. Paint two rooms and the majority of the flat is out of commission and there’s a constant danger of being buried by your own possessions if you make a false move. If I ever needed an incentive to declutter…

Of course, during the works, our budget continues to apply, so we can’t just go out to escape the chaos. We have to live around it. So, for fellow gung-ho DIY-ers, I thought I would share my thoughts preserving both your sanity and your marriage…

1) Don’t fight fire with fire (aka take turns to be ‘the strong one’)

Neither the husband nor I are renowned for our patience. We both have quick tempers, we love a good rant and above all, we both love getting our own way. However, through trial and error and one very explosive kitchen refurbishment, we’ve learnt that if one of us is at the end of their tether, the other one has to stay calm, lend a sympathetic ear and talk them down from the ledge.

2) When the going gets tough… Beat a hasty retreat

We’re lucky enough to have a courtyard garden out back, and I have turned it into my very own DIY-denial space. Here we can sit and have a cup of tea in peace, eat at a table like civilised people and just relax without being constantly confronted by all the work that still needs to be done.

3) Don’t let it all hang out

As a general rule, squalor breeds squalor. When the whole house is a tip, suddenly, it doesn’t seem worth wiping the kitchen surfaces. Why find a bin when there’s rubbish everywhere anyway? And I might as well just leave my dirty socks balled up on the floor since the laundry basket is in another room…

Don’t let yourself be dragged be down, reader. Trust me, it’s a vicious cycle. I aim for organised chaos, that way it’s not such a gargantuan effort to restore order once the work is done.

4) But sometimes you have to let go

Admittedly I am one of life’s control freaks but I’m learning to embrace the chaos. No, you can’t access your sock drawer, just wear flip flops. Yes, someone will daub paint on the sofa or use your best towel to wipe up a leak. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that they didn’t do it on purpose. And then hide all remaining clean towels…

5) Beware of the dust

Gah, the dust! Sometimes, it seems that you just have to look at a toolbox and the whole flat is suddenly covered in a fine, yet inexplicably clingy layer of plaster dust. Close all doors on rooms where work is not taking place. Then put a ‘no entry’ sign on said door. If you can, tape it closed. If you can’t, illustrate said sign with graphic depictions of just what will happen to anyone who dares cross the threshold.

6) Keep calm and carry on

In my experience, there is a point during every DIY project when you start to wonder why you started. Those chipped seventies kitchen cupboards weren’t that bad, were they? Surely we could just put a rug over the carpet stain, plus no one ever looks at the hallway ceiling anyway, so who cares if there’s a crack stretching half way across and a gross brown water mark up there?

Reader, you did. If your resolve fails, you just can’t bear it for another second and you begin to consider cutting corners to bring the DIY hell to a premature end, then go to your special DIY denial space, close your eyes and give yourself a stern talking too. And if your partner is having a wobble, remember the first rule of DIY. Yup, it’s your turn to be the bright cheery one – whether you feel like it or not.

For when it’s all done, you will wonder around your little abode sighing with pleasure at the gleaming paint work and pristine floors. And as the smell of new paint fades, so will the memories of the few weeks you spent weeping with frustration at the dirt and mess and grit that is part and parcel of any DIY project. And at that point, you’ll probably start looking at houses on Rightmove that ‘have potential’… Good luck!

eating outside al fresco dining

Apologies for the radio silence: every spare minute (and I don’t get many) has been devoted to either DIY or the sunshine this week and the camera has been trapped in a drawer behind the bedframe. Normal service will resume very shortly.

eating outside

Still, I have braved a potential avalanche to share this with you… we’re eating outside tonight and I have even laid the table like a civilised person with flowers from the garden. Admittedly I haven’t ironed the tablecloth but hey – no one’s perfect!

eating outside al fresco dining

 

wild strawberries

One of my earliest memories is pilfering wild strawberries from the garden before school. The plants were concealed, nestled under bushes and, being only little, I had the advantage when it came to spotting these tiny jewel-like berries.

A flash of red, a darting hand, a burst of sweet, nectar-like pulp on the tongue and then it melted away; the juicy rush all too quickly replaced by the dry, resinous scent of pencil sharpenings and the growing anxiety as morning break approached and the dreaded carton of lukewarm milk loomed.

Today, my dad may have a different garden but I am still the littlest—all the better for tracking down a smultronstallet…

lemon balm CUTTING

Last night I got some quality cuddles with my gorgeous god-daughter as I helped put her to bed. Bliss. Then I had red wine and chocolate with her folks, and I went home with a lemon balm cutting and instructions on how to turn it into my very own plant. Pretty much the perfect evening I’d say.

There will be a brief pause to normal service on LoveRichCashPoor as I’m about to jet off on a jolly very important work trip (clearly, I am not paying for it)… we’ll be back as soon as we can, thank you for stopping by.

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