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Hi, I’m Auntie Bulgaria, aka Claire Ruston. In 2010, my partner and I bought a dilapidated village house in the Balkan Mountains in Bulgaria. This is our story. Find out about my freelance writing and editing services at

Thursday, 9 August 2018

170. What to do with all those courgettes

Cake. Surely the best use of a vegetable?

I’ve not yet found a great way to preserve courgettes. We recently tried fermenting courgette batons in brine (mixed with dill flowers, horseradish leaves and sour cherry leaves of all things – it’s a Ukrainian recipe). The results are currently sitting in the fridge, waiting for the flavours to develop, so the jury’s out on whether this is worth doing. It didn’t even use up that many courgettes.

And I know you can freeze grated courgette in bags, ready to use in cakes and tarts in the winter, but, honestly, who wants to eat courgettes in January? I don’t, which explains why our frozen courgette efforts just sit there taking up space in the freezer all year. Now, I prefer to try and use up every last courgette during the course of the summer and autumn.

Here’s how we do it…

Going Greek
Our courgette fritters/balls (and more balls in the background).

A big batch of courgette fritters uses up more courgettes in one go than anything else. Double the recipe if you have to. Triple it, even. You won’t regret it. Courgette fritters are amazing, and there’s no shame in eating them for two days in a row. Our favourite method is a Greek recipe from a book called Vefa’s Kitchen (they’re big, fluffy courgette balls rather than flat fritters), but you might like to try:

Serve the fritters/balls with tzatziki and salad. I also like them with a smokey, spicy tomato or pepper sauce dolloped on top.

We had a lovely courgette dish in Greece once, where the courgettes were simply cut into discs, coated in flour and deep fried. I support the deep frying of pretty much any vegetable. Again, serve with tzatziki. A nice, cold beer wouldn’t go amiss, too. Maybe a harbour view…

(And if you’re really into deep frying. Try these courgette fries with sumac salt from Sabrina Ghayour’s book Sirocco. Uses up loads of the blighters.)

Back to Greece, and I urge you to give briam a try, a simple baked vegetable dish of layered courgettes, potatoes and tomatoes. When I first came across the recipe I thought it might be a bit dull but it’s surprisingly delicious in real life. I think it’s the long, slow bake (90 minutes) that makes it so tasty.

Not that I’m obsessed with Greek food or anything, but I’m also dying to try this Greek courgette filo pie (spanakopita) recipe by Ottolenghi. A friend has made it a couple of times this summer and says it’s great.

I like colour. My wardrobe is full of clashing colours and prints, so much so that, even though I have enough items to wear a different outfit every day for probably a year, none of it sodding goes together. Anyway, I’m the same with food, and I love to see loads of different colours on the plate, so although it may sound weird, thin courgette slices work well on a homemade veggie pizza, accompanied by red and yellow tomatoes, and dollops of bright green pesto.

Again, when it comes to colour, I’m like an excited toddler with bad eyesight. So when I saw ‘Rainbow Salad’ on a menu last time I was in England, I obviously ordered it. It was made up of ultra-thin slices of raw beetroot (a mixture of red, golden and stripy), plus long, thin ribbons of green and yellow courgettes, vibrant red cherry tomatoes and green leaves, dressed with a simple oil and balsamic vinegar dressing. Imagine me reaching out a pudgy hand and dribbling ‘pretty … gimme’ and you’re not far off my actual reaction when the plate arrived.

If you’re not obsessed with packing as many colours as possible onto a plate, try making a simple side salad of thin courgette ribbons (cut with a vegetable peeler) tossed with dill and a lemony vinaigrette dressing, and left to muddle for half an hour before eating. Nice with barbecued pork skewers, I reckon.

And now we get to possibly my favourite use of courgette: cake. If you’ve never tried grated courgette in a cake, you should give it a go. The courgette kind of melts into the cake, so it’s not obvious you’re eating a vegetable (great for tricking children), and it makes the whole cake lovely and moist.

I regularly make this courgette chocolate cake (without the margarine icing) and it’s such a useful recipe to have up your sleeve because you don’t need eggs or butter. So even if your fridge is bare, you can still cobble a cake together. The batter is extremely dry and breadcrumby until you add the grated courgette. Don’t worry, that’s normal.

Also, I’ve been making my own adapted versions of a BBC Good Food courgette and orange cake recently. It’s one of those brilliantly easy, all-in-one-bowl, no-need-for-a-mixer type of recipes. The original recipe is here, but I’ve been tweaking as follows:

Chocolate orange courgette cake

Follow the BBC recipe but, instead of putting in 100g of sultanas (really? Sultanas? WTF BBC), add 100g of chopped dark chocolate. Much, much better in my opinion. It’s like a Terry’s chocolate orange but in cake form.

Personally, I don’t bother to make the cream cheese frosting from the recipe. Not because I don’t like frosting (I could happily eat a bathtub of the stuff); sometimes I just want a nice, plain cake. But if I was feeling decorative, I might be tempted to melt down some extra chocolate and splatter it over the top, Jackson-Pollock style.

Lemon and poppy seed courgette cake

There are lots of recipes for this sort of cake online but, buoyed by my chocolatey orangey success, I decided to adapt the recipe myself. Here it is:

  • 150g sugar (I used brown, but caster sugar would be fine)
  • 125ml sunflower oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • Grated zest of 1 lemon, plus juice of half a lemon
  • 2 small or one medium courgette (around 300–350g), grated and squeezed to extract as much of the liquid as possible
  • 2 tablespoons poppy seeds
  • 300g self-raising flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • Pinch of salt

  • Heat the oven to 180°C. Grease and line a cake tin, either a loaf tin (mine measures 30cm x 11cm) or a 20cm round tin – either is fine.
  • Beat together the oil and sugar in a large bowl. Add the vanilla.
  • Gradually beat in the eggs, and add the lemon zest and juice.
  • Stir in the grated courgette and poppy seeds.
  • Gradually and gently fold in the flour, baking powder and salt.
  • Pour into the prepared tin and bake for around 50 minutes. (In our woodburning oven, it can take anywhere between 45 and 70 minutes. Sometimes, if the cake is starting to brown too much near the end of the cooking time, we have to cover the top of the tin with foil. Oh the joys of baking in a woodburning stove.)
  • It’s a moist cake so when you test it with a skewer or knife, you might get a few crumbs sticking to it, but there shouldn’t be any wet batter coming out on the knife.

You could top this with a cream cheese frosting, like the BBC recipe (using lemon zest in place of the orange zest). But I like to make a runny glaze by stirring some icing sugar into the juice of one lemon, and adding lemon zest plus a sprinkling of dried thyme leaves. Simple and pretty.

I’ve also made this cake with a syrup instead of any kind of icing. If you fancy trying that, bring 100ml water and 75g of sugar to the boil in a pan, add the zest and juice of half a lemon, and boil for five or 10 minutes until it starts to thicken. As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, prick it all over with a skewer and pour the warm syrup over the top.

I think both cakes are nicer (as in, moister) the day after they’re baked, so keep that in mind if you’ve got the vicar coming over for afternoon tea.

Finally, the original recipe says to store the cake in the fridge, but I don’t bother if it’s only sitting around for a couple of days – I guess it’s more important for the frosting rather than the cake. But I’m pretty cavalier about these things. Last weekend, I ate a week-old piece of the chocolate-orange version, even though it was starting to develop a bit of a mouldy fuzz. (What? Only a very slight fuzz, which I scraped off. And you know what? It was still really moist!)

Thursday, 2 August 2018

169. Fritters

I love vegetables. No, really, I do. We only eat meat once or twice a month as a treat, so vegetables, grains and dairy make up the bulk of our diet. (After watching some eye-opening documentaries lately about intensive farming and the impact of dairy on our bodies, I keep thinking about going vegan. Then I think ‘BUT CHEESE!’ and instantly dismiss the idea. I mean, I’m English – cheese is my birthright.)

But as much as I love vegetables, there’s one thing that makes any vegetable better: frying. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves since coming to Bulgaria (such as, we’re thankfully well-suited to being in each other’s company 24/7, Rob can build anything, and I can live without a daily Costa). One particularly unexpected talent we’ve discovered? Our ability to fritter pretty much any vegetable.

It all started with courgette fritters. A sensible and delicious solution to having six (six!) productive courgette plants in our first idiotic year of gardening. For our courgette fritters, we always use a recipe from Vefa’s Kitchen, this huge Greek cookbook that I’ve had for years, but this alternative recipe should work well. I’d trust Felicity Cloake with my life.

Then came broccoli, barberry and chilli fritters – perfect for those winter months when we missed stuffing our faces with deep-fried green things. (Recipe not available online but it’s from Sabrina Ghayour’s brilliant book Sirocco.)

After that, well, these cauliflower fritters were the natural next step.

Then we got dirty. These were our aubergine fritter days. (Yotam Ottolenghi, in his recipe for aubergine ‘croquettes’ – which sounds fancier than they are – tells the story of living in Amsterdam and becoming addicted to these auberginey-cheesy-grease-balls that came out of a vending machine. A recipe that mentions the words ‘vending machine’? I just had to try it.)

It was around this time we wondered how far we could push the vegetable fritter thing. Turned out, our limit was a tomato and bread fritter recipe that was just too greasy for us. And we’re the sort of people who are tempted by the words ‘vending machine’. I’m not even going to link to a recipe. Just don’t do it.

After that, we pulled back from the greasy precipice and turned to beetroot and lentil fritters. Overall, we probably make these ones the most. I mean, obviously the courgette fritters rule the roost in the summer months, but it’s the beetroot and lentil fritters we turn to throughout the rest of the year.

Here’s our trusty beetroot and lentil fritter recipe, something we just made up ourselves and keep evolving. They’re a bit like small lentil burgers – the colour and texture of the beetroot gives them a pleasing meaty quality – and I’d be lying if I said we’d never put cheese on top and stuffed them into white baps. They’re also very nice wrapped up in a flatbread.

Feel free to bung in whatever veg and spices you like. We tweak the recipe slightly every time, adding fried mushrooms, turmeric, curry powder, fresh herbs or whatever we’ve got lying around. It’s a forgiving recipe.

Trusty beetroot and lentil fritters

  • 2 cups lentils (we used to use only red lentils as they mush up nicely, but now we use a mixture of red and black or green lentils for a balance between mush and bite)
  • 1 large or two small beetroot (raw), peeled and coarsely grated
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 carrot, peeled and coarsely grated (you can leave this out if you like, it’s not essential)
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup breadcrumbs
  • 1 egg
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon baking power
  • Chilli flakes or powder to taste, if you want to add a spicy kick (sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

  • Plus sunflower oil for frying

  • Cook the lentils according to the instructions on the packet. Drain.
  • In a large bowl, combine the lentils with the rest of the fritter ingredients and mix well. You’re looking for a consistency that’s like a firm-ish thick paste. Mmmm, firm-ish thick paste. If it looks too sloppy, add some more breadcrumbs.
  • Heat a tablespoon or so of the oil in a frying pan.
  • Spoon a heaped tablespoon of the mixture into the pan and flatten slightly to make a fritter shape. Repeat with another five or so spoonfuls. You don’t want to crowd the pan.
  • Cook the fritters for a few minutes each side until nicely browned. Remove and drain on some kitchen paper.
  • Repeat with the rest of the mixture, cooking in batches and adding more oil as necessary.
  • Serve warm with whatever dips and salads you like, plus flatbreads. Works especially well with a honey-mustard dip, tzatziki, chilli sauce, tahini sauce or baba ganoush.

Do get in touch and tell me what you like to fritter. What? That’s not a weird request at all.

Finally, as we have a lot of courgettes cluttering up our kitchen counters, next week’s post will be about all things courgette. I know, right? You’re so excited you don’t think you’ll be able to sleep between now and then.

Friday, 27 July 2018

168. July roundup

The first half of July was dominated by the World Cup and a visit from family. If you’re wondering how Guardianista snowflakes like us who live nowhere near a proper English pub watch the footie, it goes like this:

Watching the match on the sofa while eating courgette fritters, fattoush salad and cacik dip,
and drinking homemade cider. So Guardian it's painful. God, I miss Wetherspoons.

We didn’t venture far with our visitors. We just made the most of the local countryside and (temporary) hot weather. (It’s since returned to being stormy and wet most days – we’re not having a stellar summer.)

Armchairs dumped at the local lake. #FuckingRubbish

On the plus side, we saw some wild turtles living in the lake...

...and a stork on one of the nearby houses. Here, seeing a stork on your house
is supposed to bring good luck.

The sunflower fields are stonking this year.

Sweet little chapel in the Heavenly Pastures park.

A grown-ass man on a woodland swing, loving life.

Sometimes our cats do weird things when we have visitors. Like that time Pepper refused to eat her food if Rob’s parents were in the same room. Or that time Pepper moved into the cupboard under the sink for a week. (She’s not the most sociable lady cat.) This time, Iggy took to ignoring our laps and sleeping every evening in the small wicker basket we use to dump our phones/bits and bobs in.

This does not look comfortable.

Meanwhile, in veg news, I harvested my first ever lettuce from the garden. I repeat, my First. Ever. Lettuce. After five years of trying and failing, lettuce is no longer my nemesis.

I literally made our visitors coo over this salad before they could eat it.

We're roasting down surplus tomatoes every week to blitz up and store in the freezer.
These yellow tomatoes make the most amazing golden passata, which I think
will look (and taste) great in curries.

The courgette plants are ramping up nicely.

And, finally, the back terrace is finished, giving us a swish area right outside the back door to enjoy a pot of tea and survey our empire. Life’s good.

Before, obviously.

Work in progress.

And after!

Rob's homemade table. I'm so lucky he's a carpentry genius...

Since originally publishing this post, one of my readers asked for a picture of the
underside of Rob's table, so that he could see how it was made. Apologies to everyone
who isn't interested in the underside of a table.

Hope this helps, Bobby!

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

167. Out in the garden

Veg garden recovery
The courgettes, rhubarb and beetroot are springing back to form after the heavy storms. It always amazes me that really delicate things like dill and asparagus ferns are totally unharmed by bad weather, while the big ole brutes look (temporarily) very sorry for themselves.

Getting back to normal.

So many tomatoes in the wonky polytunnel.

Courgettes have righted themselves, and even the dreaded powdery mildew
(which we get every year) looks a little better.

Beetroots back to normal.

We left a few leeks to flower and don't they look pretty among the dill heads?

Lettuce watch: I'm still managing to keep a few alive. Victory will be mine!

Project Mad Old Lady Cottage Garden 
The flowers have greedily guzzled up all the rain we've been having (we're very stingy waterers), so most things in the cottage garden look better than usual! Saying that, we've had hardly anything in flower for the last few weeks, after the aquilegias, irises, carnations, foxgloves and snapdragons went over. I need more plants for that awkward in-between period, straddling the spring flowers and the main summer glory. But things are starting to burst into life. 

The newest bed is filling up nicely. Lots of gladioli and sea hollies in here.
Btw, sea hollies smell horrific in hot weather. Like donkey.

Echinacea, (smelly) sea hollies, gladioli and alliums. 

A new place to perch and enjoy the smell of hot donkey.

Gladioli starting to pop.

We got a few cannas for silly cheap last year and can't wait to see how
they flower. I reckon this one's going to be a beaut.

Bees enjoying the alliums.

LA living
Most of our garden is pretty, er, rustic (read: unruly), and we were desperate for a small area that felt really crisp and smart, whatever the season. Somewhere calming to sit without looking at weeds/mud/building projects in progress/Rob's tool shack (we still don't have a proper shed). So we're in the process of giving the back terrace a modern-ish makeover. It's looking really cool. Quite 'LA Instagram wanker', but in a good way. I think. Pictures to follow next time...

Thursday, 28 June 2018

166. Things I do during a(nother) power cut

My 'oh goody, ANOTHER power cut' face.

Just as VAR is fast becoming my favourite thing about football (the drama as the ref jogs off the pitch to look at that telly!), electricity is fast becoming my least favourite thing about Bulgaria.

Today we had no power for over two hours. Yesterday it cut out just briefly, but as my laptop battery is knackered, it was enough to lose some of my work. Last week we had three afternoons without electricity.

Is it just our village, with its awkward nestled-between-mountains position? I can’t believe towns suffer this much disruption. How would anyone get anything done? How would an actual business (not a working-in-my-joggers freelancer like myself) serve its customers with this shitty infrastructure?

It’s always been unreliable, but it seems particularly bad lately. Tiny bit of rain? Power cut. One clap of thunder? Power cut. Perfectly sunny Tuesday in June? Power cut. I think about a power cut? Power cut. A butterfly flaps its wings in China? Power cut.

Perhaps we should get a generator or solar power. I don’t know. I’m so rigid with frustration and anger that I can’t think sensibly about how to solve the problem, let alone whether we could afford to. (All I can think is ‘Aaargh, not a-fucking-gain. Aaargh. Balls. Aaaaaaargh.’ And so on.)

How’s a gal to amuse herself when she can’t work, stream the radio, watch a movie, or do any gardening (to add insult to injury, it’s raining loads – England has stolen our weather)?

Here’s what I do:
  • Quickly send two emails on my phone, then hope no one replies because I probably don’t have enough battery to deal with them
  • Cook a leisurely lunch, even though it’s only 11am
  • Eat lunch, sloooowly
  • Pace around the kitchen table a bit
  • Decide I need to have a shower
  • Roast some peanuts for tonight’s match
  • Have a shower
  • Hand-write this blog post in a fuming, scrawling spider script that’s barely legible when I come to type it up hours later
  • Wish I hadn’t already spunked my one daily coffee at 8am because that would totally kill 15 minutes
  • Organise my to-do list, shopping list, any other list I can get my hands on, and my recipe folder
  • Bored lunges
Sometimes it’s hard to believe we’re in actual Europe and not some far-off developing nation run by a mad general in gold braid. But we are. We’re in actual Europe. I mean, this is the continent that launched a man into outer space in 1961, and I can’t switch a fucking light on in 2018.

As an eternal optimist (*cough* bullshit *cough*), I live in hope that next week, next week, we’ll have a whole luxurious week with uninterrupted electricity. Place your bets now, please.