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Vegetables and curry

Is October the best month to be a cook in the Maltese Islands? I love the produce available now.

On the road down the valley from Xagħra to Marsalforn, ripe pomegranates glow like Chinese lanterns among the glossy leaves. There are more and more olive groves and the olives are ripening. (Who was that first brave person to eat an olive and decide that despite the bitterness they could be made palatable?)

Friends and neighbours have put up jars and jars of polpa, tadam and kunserva, to see them through until the next tomato season, but also to give as generous presents.

The chickens are laying again and I, for one, do not mind the dawn crowing of the cockerel if it means that my neighbour is going to give me some newly-laid eggs that have not come from battery chickens, excuse me, ‘enriched cages’, to use the EU parlance in force since last January.

These are cages offering a laying hen a whole 750 square centimetres each instead of 550, plus a little more height (45cm), access to a perch, a scratching area and a nesting box, as well as the usual feed trough and drinking system. The code stamped on the shell of commercial eggs from this system is still 3, followed by the country initials. But my neighbours’ eggs have no such stamp and are the best I have ever tasted.

This appears to be a slightly better season for lampuki than last year, but even so bears no relation to past years when I devised so many recipes for all the lampuki we were eating.

Fried in oatmeal for breakfast, marinated, ceviche, carpaccio, tartare, lampuki as roll mops, tea-smoked lampuki and potted smoked lampuki, steaks and fillets fried in olive oil for dinner and the left-overs for next day with tomato and mint salad for lunch.

So in the absence of a glut of lampuki, we hunt out the occasional tub of sea urchin roe. Rizzi with pasta is a favourite, but I also spoon a little on top of an egg before making coddled eggs, or stir into scrambled eggs.

Into the square early in the morning, as well as fresh cheeselets, and a few pepper cheeselets for cooking, I buy sweet red peppers, aubergines and marrows, for grilling and serving as antipasto.

A single cauliflower will keep us going all week, some of it roasted, some in soup and finally cauliflower cheese, to which I add some chopped chorizo.

A large slice of orange pumpkin is hard to resist, even if I have no immediate plans for it.

Half a dozen marrows are a must, for my version of stuffed marrows with grated cheeselet, chopped herbs, lemon zest and plenty of fresh breadcrumbs.

Never are the melons sweeter than at this time of year, and my favourite smoothie of the moment is melon, kiwi, banana and orange juice.

For an easy dessert I make a fresh ginger and lemon syrup to pour over balls of melon, served not too chilled in a glass bowl; over-chilling melon dulls its perfumed flesh. A few ruby beads of pomegranate scattered over the melon look good.

With all those pomegranates, I squeeze and freeze the juice. Fabulous in cocktails, it also makes excellent sorbets, and is a fine cooking medium for fish and poultry if you do not want to use wine; just the right touch of acidity, and the cooking juices reduce to a sweet savoury glaze.

Indeed, you can make your own pomegranate molasses by cooking down the juice, and then using it to glaze a pork roast or duck breasts.

At some point, with a selection of these glorious vegetables, I will make the house curry. I first made it to go with a bottle of Gewürztraminer left in the fridge by a kind friend. It is not a wine we drink very often, and usually serve sparkling wine, champagne or beer with home-made curry, but with a rather delicately flavoured vegetable curry, the wine showed well.

If you are in the mood for a meat- and fish-free meal, I highly recommend the curry. Some very nice curry pastes are now available in the shops, and if you are nervous about chilli-hot food, I suggest you start with the subtly-spiced korma paste.

Cooking sauces are something else entirely, and I do not recommend these.

The pastes are almost as good as starting from scratch, roasting, grinding and frying your own spices, and are utterly authentic in flavour and texture.

Today’s recipes capitalise on the fabulous vegetables and herbs available, for an authentic curry dinner.

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