Scattered around the house are terracotta pots of pelargoniums whose leaves smell like turkish delight. The flowers vary from tiny pink stars to deep, inky petals the colour of Ribena. But what they all have in common are their scented leaves. Rub any of them and you will find yourself in a haze of rose, lemon or orange; or, perhaps less deliciously, camphor. These leaves, picked and layered with white caster, make a gently flavoured sugar for baking, or simply for tossing with autumn fruit.
The leaves need to be dry and fully open, preferably still warm from the sun. You sprinkle a thick layer of fine white caster sugar in the bottom of a jar, place a couple of leaves on top then another layer of sugar. Carry on layering sugar and leaves until the jar is full, then seal and set it somewhere warm for a day or two. (I up-end the jar now and again to ensure all the sugar is infused with the oil from the leaves.) When you open the lid, the floral, powdery smell will be reminiscent of the old lokum shops of Istanbul.
I used a few spoonfuls of mine for tossing blackberries and autumn raspberries this week, the grittiness of the sugar softened with lemon juice and a trickle of cream.
On a less sweet and frivolous note, I finished off the home-grown courgettes, bringing the remaining stragglers in from their pots and cooking them to tenderness in a pot of lentils with turmeric, mustard seeds and curry leaves. We scooped the hot, soupy dal up with flatbread warmed on the grill, though it could have been served with steamed rice. The simple dinner marked the end of this year’s back-step harvest, the now browning plants pulled up and added to the crisp tomato vines on the compost.
This is the time of year my cooking steps into a much more wintery mode, with baking and slow cooking coming to the fore. But I find I’m not yet ready to make the jump. The occasional days of autumn sunshine are so glorious, so soul- warming, that I’m resisting the move for as long as possible. There are too many good things still around. I have a feeling winter may be very long this year.
Berries with rose geranium sugar
I say rose geranium leaves, but you can use any scented variety you can get. It is essential to keep the leaves dry, so wipe rather than wash them. Once the sugar is made and the leaves removed, it will keep, fully fragrant, in a sealed jar for several weeks. The sugar is delightful on a classic victoria sponge or buttery shortbread. It works well with any berries, and is perfect with late peaches and apricots (less so with tropical fruit). For breakfast the other day, I sprinkled it over pieces of toast on which I had spread ricotta and halves of tiny Turkish apricots.
geranium sugar 2 tbsp (see below)
lemon juice a little
pouring cream to serve
For the geranium sugar:
caster sugar 250g
rose geranium leaves 6
First, make the geranium sugar. Put the sugar in a clean jam jar. Wipe the leaves, then tuck them into the sugar, cover and keep in a warm place for 24 hours. From time to time, give the jar a shake. To check whether the sugar is ready, lift the lid. If you can smell roses, it is ready. Remove and discard the leaves – they have done their work.
Put the berries in a china or glass mixing bowl. Sprinkle them first with a little lemon juice (a tablespoon will do), then shake the sugar over them. Leave them in a cool place for 30 minutes. Serve with a jug of cream.
Courgettes with lentils
I have been using a lot of lentils recently. Affordable suppers yes, and each variation (chillies, curry leaves, mustard seeds) perfect as the evenings get cooler. I alter the chilli level according to the weather and what they are to be eaten with. Once the lentils are soft, I beat the mixture thoroughly with a wooden spoon, a process that breaks them up and makes the dal particularly creamy.
onions 3, large
groundnut or vegetable oil 3 tbsp
garlic 4 cloves
mild red chillies 4, large
coriander seeds 2 tsp
black mustard seeds 2 tsp
yellow mustard seeds 2 tsp
ground cumin 2 tsp
ground turmeric 2 tsp
split red lentils 250g
curry leaves 15-20
courgettes 4, medium-sized
Peel and roughly chop the onions. Warm the groundnut oil in a medium-sized saucepan over a moderate heat, add the onions and lower the heat. Let the onions cook for 30 minutes or so till soft, giving them the occasional stir. When they are pale gold, translucent and easily crushed between your thumb and forefinger, they are ready.
Peel and finely slice the garlic and stir it into the onions. Cut the chillies in half lengthways, and then into matchstick-sized strips. Add them to the onions and continue cooking for 5 minutes. Crush the coriander seeds to a fine powder in a spice mill, then stir it into the onions with all the mustard seeds, ground cumin and ground turmeric.
Rinse the lentils then stir them into the spiced onions. Add 1 litre of water to the pan, salt lightly and bring to the boil. Lower the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes till the lentils are soft and easy to crush. Stir in the curry leaves. Beat for a minute or so with a wooden spoon to encourage them to break up a little.
Slice the courgettes diagonally into 3mm thick pieces and push them down into the lentils. Continue cooking for 5-7 minutes, until the courgettes are tender. Check the seasoning, and serve.