Sunday, October 31, 2010

Pumpkin Soup for Hallowe'en

Yes, I know I'm the only person left in the world who still puts an apostrophe in Hallowe'en, but then I even use full words and capital letters in my SMSs...

It's crept up on me unawares this year. It's not an Italian tradition, and until recently passed unobserved. But then about ten years ago pumpkins started appearing in the shops at the end of October, as well as other Hallowe'en themed goods.

Until this year. Suddenly nothing. Not a pumpkin in sight, no witches, ghosties and ghouls... Nothing. Is it because shopkeepers found it hadn't caught on enough to make it profitable? Or have the
Catholic church's criticisms put people off? Not sure.

Oh well. Even if I've not seen any Hallowe'en pumkins in the shops, there are plenty of the edible kind around. And last night I made a pumpkin soup that came out so well that I thought I'd share the recipe - which I rather made up as I went along, so apologies if the quantities are a bit approximate.

You need :

1 medium size onion
1 leek
Olive oil
A hot pepper (optional)
Half a pumpkin
A few potatoes
A handful of borlotti beans
Vegetable or chicken stock
Curry powder (optional)
A handful of peas

1. Add the oil and the butter to a heavy bottomed pan and place over a medium heat.

2. Peel and chop the onion and the leek. Add to the pan and fry for a couple of minutes. Then cover, turn down the heat and let them "sweat" - ie they should cook slowly in the oil/butter and their own liquid, turning transparent without browning.

3. If you want to add in the hot pepper, chop and add it at this point. I did - mainly because I wanted to use the pepper's I'd grown on the balcony this summer. But I'm not a great fan of hot peppers, so I think in future I'd omit it. I felt it swamped the other flavours rather. Decide depending on your palate.

4. Meanwhile, peel and dice the pumpkin and the potatoes. Add them to the pan once the leeks and onions seem transparent, and fry for a couple of minutes - keep them covered and turn them occasionally.

5. Add the stock. I nearly always have home-made stock in the freezer, which I swear by as the base of any soup, but yesterday I found I didn't. So I added cold water and sprinkled in a vegetable stock cube. It worked.

6. While the stock is still cold, add the pumpkin, potatoes and borlotti beans. I used fresh beans, but if you use dry you'll need to have soaked them for at least eight hours previously. If you use canned (not advised) drain and rinse them first to get rid of the salt. At this point it should look like this ...

7. Add a small amount of curry powder - again this depends on how much you like it. If you're turning your nose up at the idea of ready mixed curry powder, it probably means you're into Indian spices and can produce a much better blend yourself. Feel free.

8. Simmer for about 45 minutes - or until the beans are cooked. Then tip the lot into a blender and blend until smooth.

9. Tip it back into the pan and add the peas (I used frozen). Simmer until cooked.

10. Add the milk, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook over a low heat (don't boil) for another few minutes.

11. Don a witch's or wizard' hat and enjoy with some good crusty bread.

Even with the pepper it was great, and I'm looking forward to trying it again without.

Happy Hallowe'en.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sacrificial Mint??

If there's one thing that has done well for me this year, it's these little peppers. They were an impulse buy - I found them as plug plants in a supermarket and just threw them into the trolley along with some tomatoes that I really wanted.

They weren't quite what I expected. I have to admit to having looked too quickly at the label and thought I was buying big, sweet peppers. But when I got home and read it properly - no, they were small, hot peppers.

Now, we don't usually like hot peppers, so I was more interested in them for their ornamental value than anything else. And have they paid off. They've been green and glossy all summer and are now covered in bright red fruit, which looks great against the green walls of the flat.

And unlike virtually everything else I've grown, they've not been touched by sap sucking insects or red spider mite this year. Apart from a bit of caterpillar damage, they're just about the healthiest plants I've got.

Is that because the bugs don't like them? No. These two plants came in a group of four, and the other two went on the front balcony with the tomatoes. And the insects just dived in and munched. They didn't last much past flowering.

So why the difference? The only thing I can point to is this.

Mint, growing at the bottom of the peppers. Or at least, it was.

Back in the summer I wrote a post on companion planting. Some plants will repel insects, thus protecting any other plants growing nearby. Mint is supposed to be one of them.

Now, I ask you - does this look like a plant that has repelled insects? Huh - they've had a feast.

Rather than repelling the insects, it seems to have acted as a sacrificial plant. They've enjoyed the mint so much (and believe me, a while back there was a lot more of it) that they've left the peppers alone.

Well, that's the theory. I can't find confirmation anywhere that mint should attract pests. Every website I've found so far solemnly assures me that insects can't bear it. They've clearly never met ours.

In any case, I know what's going to be growing between all my other plants next year. it's going to be tomatoes and mint, surfinia and mint, roses and mint, hollyhocks and mint, beans and mint, potatoes and mint, honesty and mint, jerusalem artichokes and mint, zinnia and mint, peas and mint, black-eyed Susans and mint, lettuce and mint, morning glory and mint, sunflowers and mint, delphiniums and mint, marigolds and mint, cosmos and mint, calendula and mint, poppies and mint, rosemary and mint, antirrhinums and mint, radishes and mint, alyssum and mint ....

So should you hear people complaining of a mint shortage in North Italy around about the beginning of May 2011, please don't tell ...

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Autumn has arrived...

Autumn has arrived on the balcony ...

We had a stupendous September. Warm and sunny, but without the oppressive heat and humidity of summer. In terms of weather, it was the nicest month I remember for a long time. But now it's October, and there are clear signs that the summer has gone for good ..

The flowers of the annuals are just a memory. Their containers are already stripped and bare, waiting for the winter bulbs to go in ..

On the Four O'Clocks, seeds have replaced the flowers, and are ready to be collected.

The peppers are ripening fast ...

And the winter flowering pansies have gone in. They may not look much now, but they'll provide the odd flower right through the dark months, and then in spring will suddenly explode again into a riot of colour. Definitely a flower no balcony should be without...

But much sooner than that, the chrysanthemums will be in flower. They're full of buds ...

Bye bye summer. Time to get the winter woollies out again.

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