Store cupboard essentials

On yet another rainy day, Lo Jardinièr and I talked as we were eating a lovely lunch of pizza left over from yesterday when he made it, accompanied by a salad of grated carrot (not from the garden) and slices of green and yellow pepper (from the garden).  As we often do, we remarked on how easy it is to make delicious food so long as we have certain basic essentials in the store cupboard and fridge.

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There are ingredients we would never be without, some of which are so essential I haven’t included them in the photo: rice, pasta, the tomato purée we make at least 50 jars of every summer and which last us through the winter and spring until we have fresh tomatoes in the garden again……salt and pepper too, of course.  But apart from these, here are a few others: capers (although when I can find them I prefer the salted ones to these in brine); anchovy fillets; olive oil (of course); raisins or currants; chorizo; garlic (again, of course!); piments d’Espelette or other paprika peppers, fresh or dried); lemon; black olives; bay leaves (and other fresh herbs as available in the garden, thyme, rosemary, basil…..).  Even if we have no other meat or vegetables we can always make something tasty to eat with these.

And as I write this I remember other essentials we almost always have in the cupboard: red and white wine, tinned chickpeas and haricot beans, tahina, walnuts, spices – coriander and cumin especially – and so much else.  But these in the picture are the basics.

For the photo I put all these in a dish which for me is another essential as it’s been in my family almost as long as I can remember.  It was made in Sicily and my mother bought it in Benghazi soon after we moved there in the 1950s. She passed it on to me after she had used it many times especially, as I remember, for rice salads when we had big family parties.

>What a difference a year makes

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I’ve been reminded by reading this post by Michelle on From Seed to Table, that I’ve been meaning to post photos of my caper plants. It was Michelle who originally sent me the seeds in autumn 2009 from which my plants have grown.

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These are the capers sown in December 2009, as they are today. The plants got mixed up while I was away last summer, but I think the one on the left here is an Italian caper and the one on the right is Croatian. They’ve grown a lot of extra leaves just in the last few weeks and now look like ‘proper’ plants, so I’m very pleased with them.

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Last December (2010) they were like this (left) and a year ago they were seedlings in small pots (above).

And the next year’s plants….

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In November 2010 I sowed some of the seeds left over from last year and five of these have germinated. Soon I shall have to decide which of the two to remove in the pots where two have germinated, cutting them rather than re-potting them to prevent root disturbance to the other ones, because caper plants are very sensitive to this.

It will be a long time until I can harvest the weight of capers that Michelle does, but I feel that these plants are on their way!

>Winter capers

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Last autumn, Michelle at From Seed to Table in California very kindly sent me some caper seeds which I sowed, according to her instructions, and overwintered in a cold place (outside the bathroom window, which gets no sun at all in winter). In spring I brought them out into the warm, but not too hot, sun and waited for them to germinate. Four good plants were the result – two Tuscan and two Croatian – thanks, Michelle! Unfortunately, I had to leave them with a friend when I had to go away unexpectedly during the summer and they were left in a very windy place. Two of the plants did not survive this ‘holiday’ and, worse still, the survivors were taken out of the container identifying them, so I am not sure whether I now have one of each, or two of one variety or the other. But the good news is that these two survivors are looking very healthy – here they are enjoying the sun on the balcony today:

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I saved some of the seeds Michelle sent me last year and have sowed some more, which are now overwintering on the bathroom windowsill with some other seeds sent to me by another virtual friend, a blipper rather than a blogger this time, who lives in Tuscany.

Clams

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On Saturday we bought these wonderful clams from the coquillage van and cooked them very simply, heating them in olive oil, chopped garlic and parsley until all the shells opened. The flavour was really delicious. It was a very cold morning and the man who sold them said that even the salt water was freezing in Bouzigues early in the day, which must mean that the temperature was minus 6 degrees C. Since then it has warmed up quite a lot, although it’s so clear today that I expect the temperature will drop near zero tonight.

>Present and future flavours

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We’ve had only five artichokes so far this year and there are a few more to come before the weather gets too dry for them and the plants die back over the summer.  Today we picked three small ones and some broad beans and I cooked them together with sweet onions also from the garden.  Artichokes and broad beans do seem to go very well together and I posted a recipe a couple of years ago which was my version of a dish we’d eaten in a Greek restaurant in London.  There’s another version using dill, posted yesterday on the French-language blog En Direct d’Athènes.  Today, when I’d cooked the artichokes, beans, onions and a few garlic cloves in olive oil and white wine, I let them cool and then served them as a first course with some finely chopped fresh garlic, Greek oregano leaves, ground black pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice.  There’s nothing like the flavour of your own artichokes eaten on the day they were picked.

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And for the future …

The little caper seedlings which I entrusted to our neighbour José to look after while we were away look fine although they’re growing very slowly.  I expected that, though.  We’ve grown them from seeds sent to me by Michelle at From Seed to Table in California.  She’s an expert caper grower and you can see her plants and some of this year’s buds here.  I think it will be a while before we can expect to harvest any buds, but it will be worth the wait and I’m very excited about growing them from seed.

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Some of the Italian and Croatian caper seedlings we’ve managed to grow.  Soon we shall have to cut down one of each pair to allow the other to grow.  Caper plants are very sensitive to root disturbance, according to Michelle, so you can’t just pull one out or try to transplant both.  At the moment they are still in small pots and we keep them at the house on a balcony which gets the morning sun but not the hot afternoon sun, which might dry them out too much.  When they are bigger we’ll transplant them to large terracotta plants and put them in the garden, and maybe try growing one in a wall which is their natural habitat.  By that stage they will thrive in full sun.