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Drying vegetables

You can dry all sorts of surplus veg from the garden. In fact I’d go so far as to say almost anything. That’s how they make vegetable crisps, you know. Beetroot are, they say, particularly good, though don’t bother with parsnips – it’s like eating bits of bark mulch. Courgettes are brilliant, too: slice, blanch for a minute and pop in the oven for a few hours. Yummy with dips.

Drying was invented in lovely hot countries as a way of preserving food, and it does last for absolutely ages. A happy side effect is that as the water evaporates away it leaves all the flavour behind it – and since it isn’t diluted any more, it’s incredibly intense. Try drying tomatoes one day and you’ll see what I mean.

We’re a bit short on sun here, especially at this time of year, so drying can be a bit tricky (especially in the particularly damp corner of the world I live in). You can resort to an oven, set right at the lowest setting. If you’re making crisps, blanch your veg first; but for chillies, tomatoes and the like just lay them on baking trays.

Drying can take up to 12 hours, so don’t start just as the Sunday joint is about to go in; and remember to check it every few hours as there’s an all-too-brief window of opportunity when it’s just dry enough but not too dry. Any sooner and it’ll turn mouldy in storage; any later and you’ll be eating cardboard.

Better, though, is to hunt through the house for a spot that’s as dry as you can manage, preferably bright too, and where there’s a through draught if possible. It can be cool, but must be frost free: in my last house I dried my herbs hung on a wall under the skylights in a corridor between what we used to call the front-back and back-back doors. Every time someone walked through (which was often) a drying breeze ruffled the scented stems. It worked perfectly.

You could try hanging things to dry in a spare room by a sunny window, though try to open the window whenever it’s warm enough to let that all-important breeze blow through.

The kitchen isn’t usually a good choice (despite all those country farmhouse pictures in glossy magazines) because there’s too much steam in the air, and airing cupboards are too hot, too still and too dark.

I toyed with hanging my chillies near the boiler to dry: it’s in a corner of our lean-to conservatory (posh word for the dog’s room) so lots of light, and quite dry on the whole. But in the end I plumped for our inglenook fireplace, which isn’t very brightly lit but does have a nice stove going in it most of the winter so will be warm and dry: and the fire also draws air past, too.

The traditional Mexican way is stringing on rope or 'ristra' vertically, but you can also make your drying chillies side by side, in a necklace. These make rather pretty Christmassy decorations: if you’re really in the mood, tie raffia between the chillies or twist a string of sparkly lights through.

I wanted to go the old-fashioned way, though, so my ristra is now hanging prettily from the mantelpiece like a little waterfall of lipstick droplets. The peppers will go darker and shrivel before they’re done: but the beauty of air drying is they can stay there as long as you like, so you don’t need to worry about whether or not they’re ready. Just pick them off as you need them. Perfect.

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