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To-marrow never comes…

My courgette plants have been a disappointment, maybe even an embarrassment, this year with only four or five fruit to the same number of plants. All the recipes I collected to deal with my impending glut have languished unused. So I was beyond thrilled to visit the house of a friend of my mum’s this week and come home with two marrows instead! Two big bruisers of the vegetable patch, these mighty marrows cried out for a bit of retro style chic and simply demanded to be stuffed…

I decided that the thing that would rescue this dish from memories of soggy school dinners and rationing recipes was to use strong flavours and plenty of spicing. The sight of some leftover roast local lamb in the fridge from the previous night piqued my interest and I almost instantly decided on a sort of Middle Eastern inspired lamb, tomato and spiced couscous stuffing for my marrow. The possibility for strong flavours here made it unlikely that this stuffed marrow would be bland!

While the couscous was soaking, I stripped the remaining lamb from the bone, diced it and coated it in sumac for some zesty flavour. I added some cardamom, ras el hanout and anchovy sauce to the couscous along with a hefty grind of fresh black pepper and turned my attention to the marrow itself.

Unleash the beast!

This monster of the garden weighed about 2.4 kilos in total and took some serious wrangling to chop in half lengthways. I then hollowed out the seeds in the centre with a handy ice-cream scoop and trimmed the ends to make sure it fitted in my roasting tin before stuffing it full of the delightfully spiced couscous, studded with fresh tomatoes and juicy lamb. The tray was then wrapped in foil and popped in the oven at 200°C for around 35 minutes while I relaxed with a lovely glass of Sancerre.

Around half an hour later, I looked in the oven and realised that the marrow was nowhere cooked. In fact 35 minutes in the oven was a drop in the ocean for this behemoth. To help it along, I added two cups of water into the tin to help the marrow steam and bake at the same time and put it back in the oven for another 45 minutes.

Another glass of wine later and around 40 minutes after the marrow went back in, it was perfectly cooked. The skin was still firm, but the flesh inside was soft and easy to serve with a spoon without being watery or mushy. The couscous was slightly golden and crispy on the top and it all smelled delicious, but there was still the worry in my mind that even this extravagantly spiced mega-marrow would be as dull as this vegetable’s uneviable reputation.

First taste told me that my worries were were unfounded. The marrow itself was actually quite flavoursome, a bit like a slightly more tasty courgette. The texture was similar to swede (or what we Northern Irish and many Scots call turnip) with a firm but fibrous feel. It was less watery than turnip and a sweeter flavour, which worked well with the hints of rose petal and citrus in the couscous and was well complimented by the kick from the cloves and the black pepper. We ate one half of the marrow very quickly and both of us were happy to have seconds and thirds to finish it all up. My mum had been slightly sceptical about the forthcoming marrow-fest while it had been cooking as she remembered less than enjoyable marrow and ginger jam from childhood, but she seemed more than taken with this modern take on such a traditional veg.

So if your courgette glut gets out of hand and you end up with a massive marrow, don’t just dismiss them or bung them on the compost heap. Turn the oven on and stuff it to your heart’s content. I think lentils and fresh tomatoes would make a tremendous stuffing for this blank canvas of a courgette. Keep it veggie or add some coarse crumbled sausage meat if you fancy some porky goodness if you so prefer. Just don’t simply dismiss the marrow as something to be entered in a garden fete competition for oversized garden produce!

Do-Re-Mi-So-Fa-ttoush!

After the hale and hearty (but somewhat heavy) dishes of central Europe it’s been good to eat lighter and ostensibly more healthy food back home. Good weather, joint birthdays and football fever (sigh) all created the excuse for a barbecue this weekend. There are certain dishes I tend to fall back on for barbecue fare: for me East Mediterranean / Middle Eastern flavours are so redolent of summer, with their cooling, fresh flavours. In the last year I’ve raided the Leon cookbook for inspiration (their sweet potato falafels and sesame chicken wings have become firm favourites) but deeper in the pantry of culinary influences is another inspirational character, Claudia Roden.

There was always something very exotic and other-worldly about her recipes in the cookbook on our parent’s kitchen shelf: unfamiliar ingredients sat cheek by jowl against old favourites. Later I learned about more about her extensive writings around the Med, but it was the Middle Eastern recipes which captured my imagination the most. Her recipe for fattoush, from her book ‘Tamarind and Saffron‘, can be found on the Waitrose website, and is the template I tend to use when making this stunning salad.

The first time I had fattoush was revelatory: clean, sharp, distinct and delicious flavours jostling for attention. I think it was probably in the Cedar Tree, a Lebanese restaurant in the Northern Quarter in Manchester, and I was intrigued by the banality of the description as a ‘bread salad’. Sounds rather dull, I thought, but my assumption was duly blown out of the water on the first mouthful. The citrus-y notes of the lemon and sumac dressing enhance the cooling qualities of the leaves, cucumber and mint, and the toasted bread provides texture and crispness. Can you tell I like this dish 🙂 ?

Making fattoush isn’t challenging, but it is reasonably time-consuming. I tend to associate it with standing in a sun-drenched kitchen, radio on in the background as I get engrossed in comforting routine of washing, slicing and dicing the ingredients. Wonderfully relaxing. A note though, it really is worth tracking down some real sumac, to give this salad the necessary ‘zing’. You should be able to get it in most shops in cities which cater for Middle Eastern/Persian/Arabic customers, or buy online. I’m lucky enough to be able to buy from the inimitable Alex Med in Todmorden Market, whose imported and home-prepared mixes are quite wonderful. His sumac is Syrian, and perfectly piquant.

Stir it up…