Taking the sunshine outside

The tomatoes are ripening, writes Nigel Slater, and that can mean only one thing — it’s time to take dinner outside.

We have just eaten the first outdoor lunch of the year and I feel I have reached some sort of a turning point: that moment in the calendar has arrived when as many meals as possible will be taken in the shade of a tree. The point when my cooking is less about the store cupboard and becomes even more reliant on vegetables.

Right on cue, luminous pink silverbeet (Swiss chard) arrived in the vege box this week. The leaves, emerald green with a road map of magenta veins, were briefly cooked in as little water as possible then tossed with sherry vinegar and olive oil. We ate them on rafts of toasted ciabatta. The stalks were chopped into small nuggets and fried with celery and parsley — a sort of contemporary mirepoix — to scatter over an open tart of puff pastry and creamed feta. It was a pretty dish that begged to be eaten in the open air.

A bargain box of tomatoes were immediately baked for their glorious sweet-sour juice, which we soaked up with fat balls of chewy mograbia, pearl couscous. Tomatoes, like melons, are things I tend to start using immediately when our eating moves outdoors, despite the fact neither is quite at its best yet. But there is an impatience to my cooking right now and they are good enough for me. I can eat them, full of hope, just metres away from my own little tomato plants. 

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Silverbeet and feta pastries

It is often tempting to make a dish well in advance of serving it, and sometimes it is advantageous to do so. This is not one of those recipes. To be at its most enjoyable the pastry needs to be hot and crisp and the filling cool and creamy, so this is one to put together shortly before it is served.

Makes 4 small tarts

1 rib celery

2 Tbsp olive oil

270g young silverbeet

small bunch parsley

250g feta

200g strained natural yoghurt

2 tsp thyme leaves

1 clove garlic

320g puff pastry

Method

Cut the celery into long strips and then into small dice; warm the olive oil in a shallow pan, add the celery and cook over a low heat.

Remove the silverbeet leaves from their stems and set aside. Finely dice the stems and add to the celery. Roughly chop the parsley and stir into the silverbeet and celery, season with black pepper and a little salt, then, when the stems are tender, remove from the heat.

Put 100ml of water into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add about 70g of the reserved silverbeet leaves, turn them over a couple times in the water, then drain and lightly squeeze to remove any water.

Roughly chop the leaves and put them in a mixing bowl. Crumble the feta into the silverbeet, then gently stir in the yoghurt. Finely chop the thyme leaves and add them with a few grinds of the pepper mill. Peel and crush the garlic clove to a paste, then stir into the mixture and set aside.

Heat oven to 220degC. Roll the pastry into a rectangle measuring approximately 32cmx24cm, then cut it into 4 equal pieces. Put the pastry on a metal baking sheet, then score a rectangular rim on the surface of each piece of pastry about 2cm from the edge. When the oven is hot, bake the pastry for about 15 minutes until golden.

Remove the tarts from the oven. Using a teaspoon, press down the scored central rectangle of each tart to create a hollow in which the filling will sit.

Spoon the feta filling into the hollow centre of each tart, then scatter the silverbeet and celery over the top and serve.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Roast tomatoes with za’atar and mograbia

I sometimes replace the plump pearls of dough known as mograbia (often sold under the name of giant couscous or mograbiah) with the smallest pasta I can find, such as orzo.

Serves 3

2 medium onions

8-9 Tbsp olive oil

3 cloves garlic

6 bushy sprigs thyme

200g mograbia

9 medium tomatoes

2 Tbsp za’atar

1 tsp red wine vinegar

Method

Peel the onions, halve them and slice them thinly, then cook them slowly in 3 tablespoons of olive oil over a low-moderate heat until they are soft and a deep golden brown. I never hurry this, letting the onions cook for a good 30 to 40 minutes, stirring occasionally so that they colour evenly. As they start to soften, peel and thinly slice 2 of the garlic cloves and stir them into the onions. Pull the thyme leaves from their stems and stir in. Remove from the heat.

Put a deep pan of water on to boil and salt it generously. Rain in the mograbia and let it cook for 20 minutes or until tender, but with a little bite left in it, then drain it and put it in a bowl with the merest splash of oil to keep the beads from sticking together.

Heat the oven to 200degC. Take a slice from the top of each tomato, then place each tomato in a roasting tin. Trickle a little olive oil over each one and bake them for 30 minutes until tender.

Finely chop the tomato slices you have removed and put them in a small bowl with 4 tablespoons of olive oil, the za’atar, the remaining clove of garlic and the red wine vinegar. Remove the tomatoes after 30 minutes, spoon the za’atar mixture over the top of each, then return them to the oven for a further 10-15 minutes, until sizzling.

Put the browned onions back over the heat, stir in the drained mograbia, check the seasoning and transfer it to a serving dish. Remove the tomatoes from the oven and settle them into the mound of mograbia, spoon over their juices and serve.

— Guardian News and Media

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