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January

Tomatoes, tomatoes and more tomatoes, I've had success this summer with several heirloom varieties, most of them grown from seeds from Digger's. Green zebra, one tigerella and some black Krim are all doing well, with the fruit ripening day by day. The two varieties sent by a Seed Savers member, riesentraube (a climber) and Ailsa Craig, are still to ripen as I write this.

Last summer I learnt the hard way that indeterminate varieties (that is, tomatoes that go on growing until the weather turns cold) need very long stakes. I had some casualties thanks to inadequate staking, with laden branches breaking and falling.

I'm planning to make a store of tomato passata with my friend Jacqui. She has a plastic tomato-crushing device that she bought for $40 at Mediterranean Wholesalers here in Melbourne. I'm sure there are other types at other prices elsewhere; the neighbourhood where your local Italian population shops is a good place to start looking. The tomatoes are washed in the sink, then plunged into boiling water for a minute, then lifted onto a tray to cool a bit. Next they're fed into the hopper of this machine which sits over its own tub. One chute delivers a stream of sloppy pulp and juice, the other chute retains the skins and seeds. Jacqui provides training support to schools around Australia through the Kitchen Garden Foundation. She used the seed residue last season to propagate enormous numbers of tomato plants that were distributed far and wide. A nice idea for a school fête? (If you're planning to try this, it's best to make the passata with a single variety.)

The passata flows into a jug once the plug at the bottom of the machine's tub is pulled, and sterilised bottles are filled, a basil leaf added along the way if you're feeling romantic. Each bottle is then wrapped in a doubled sheet of newspaper secured with a rubber band and placed carefully into a stockpot. You add water to the top of the bottles, bring it slowly to boiling point, simmer for 50 minutes, then turn off the heat. The bottles are removed when they're cold and, hey presto, you've got the summer sunshine of tomato sauce for the winter.

Given the tomato glut, my lunch is often pan Catalan. Toast a slice of good bread, rub it lightly with garlic and then rub the slice hard with the cut side of half a tomato until you have nothing but the tomato skin left and a slice of damp but delicious pink tomatoey toast. Yum.

I also have a prolific crop of eggplant. Nothing from the shops compares to the creamy flesh of those shiny home-grown fruit. I have striped listada and the more usual bonica.

The capsicum bushes (in pots in my courtyard) are amazing. Each of these plants has more than 15 fruit and plenty of flowers. I have eaten a few of the green ones while I've been waiting for them to change colour. These home-grown capsicum are crisp and sweet with relatively thin skins with none of the bitterness I find in the huge green hydroponic capsicum in the shops.

This year I've found the space for two miniature sweet melons. They're yet to produce, although each plant has had lots of flowers. My two zucchini vines are producing, but happily not too much fruit. I do help them along by hand-pollinating some of the forming female fruit with a male flower as there seems to be a shortage of bees. If this is happening in your garden too, you may need to plant more bee-attracting plants. Try lavender or borage; my thyme bushes also seem irresistible to the bees.

With all of the above, the first dish that comes to mind is one of the many, many versions of a summer vegetable stew of which the French version ratatouille is the best known. In Sicily I tasted marvellous caponata which includes celery and sultanas in a similar combination of vegetables. The best versions I tasted were cooked for a very long time so that it was difficult to distinguish one vegetable from another and the stew was bronze in colour. Caponata is equally good cold as a salad, as a topping for bruschetta, or hot alongside grilled or roast meat.

I'm now about to go on a beach holiday - having thoroughly mulched the garden before I leave - and I can't wait.

Until next time.

PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY ARMELLE HABIB

This article is from the January 2011 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.

For information on Stephanie Alexander's Kitchen Garden Foundation and schools program, visit www.kitchengardenfoundation.org.au.

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