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A-Z of Vegetables: Insalata

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Ok, I know I cheated. Insalata is not a vegetable. It’s just Italian for ‘salad’. But why don’t you try to think of a vegetable beginning with ‘I’?

I’m always stumped by articles written by ‘chefs’ who give recipes to suggest what to do with leftover vegetables that you don’t know what to do with. That half-pepper, that cabbage core, a quarter of an onion, a bag of lettuce. They give all sorts of interesting and clever solutions but never the most obvious one. Because when I hear someone say, ‘What do I do with these leftover vegetables?’, I think, ‘EAT THEM?’ Let’s face it, cooking vegetables isn’t hard (unless you’re preparing artichokes from scratch, you masochist). Even the most foreboding carrot steams into a decent-tasting side-dish. That’s the history of the vegetable: the side dish. Their flavours are specific enough to be eaten on their own. Steam that broccoli. Slice that cucumber. Fry that aubergine. Just make a sodding salad.

I promise you, there is not a vegetable under the sun which cannot be made appetising by the loving deployment of salad dressing. I mentioned when I was talking about B for Brussels sprout that the way to make boiled sprouts seem edible is to dunk them in salad dressing like a chip in ketchup and I stand by that. Heck, if sprouts can be made tasty, anything can. Shell out on special vinegars just for salad dressings and it won’t be a profligate expense, it will stop you wasting vegetables which are otherwise not going to get eaten. Sulphite-free balsamic and organic unfiltered cider are the luxury supermarket vinegars. In fact, I just cut my losses and buy posh vinegars to use in everything. I haven’t been able to afford shoes for years but at least my food is nice. 

What’s also great is the versatile bitterness of salad leaves. With the exceptions of iceberg, chicory and watercress – all of which are truly rank-tasting, especially watercress with its scum-scraped-from-the-bottom-of-the-pond vibe – salad leaves are a perfect foil to anything you happen to be eating. As a side, as a starter, as a palate-cleanser before you top up on your joie de vivre with apple crumble, they always work in the context of the meal you’re eating. My brother makes his Sunday roast with a well-dressed salad made of salad leaves and finely-sliced whatever vegetables from the fridge, and it clashes but it’s popular. (See? Just eat the vegetables with salad dressing.)

Obviously I had to include a salad recipe. I could hardly give the sort of all-rounder recipe that the above article champions, because it would read like this: ‘Prepare all vegetables in your fridge, cook if necessary, then stick in a bowl, dress, eat and feel nourished.’ So I’ve gone with this new invention of my mother’s, who, in her endless quest to convince my father that vegetables are lovely, discovered the versatility of frozen green beans.

My father’s side salad – he doesn’t make it, or even like it much, but I associate him with it anyway because it’s warm

  1. Heat up 1 tbsp olive oil in a sauté pan or frying pan and chuck 1 peeled, chopped onion or 1 washed, chopped leek into it, and fry it for 10 minutes so it stops being so raw. Remember leeks often have lots of mud in their layers.
  2. Whilst that’s happening, wash and shred 2 heads of lettuce – or whichever is your favourite/incumbent unloved salad vegetable – and put it in (or on) a big dish from which everybody can help themselves. I should have mentioned: this serves up to 5 salad eaters as a side dish. If there are leftovers, just stick them in the fridge and eat them tomorrow topped with a fried egg or something.
  3. Once the onion is softening and glassy, chuck into the pan 125g frozen green beans (and the same of frozen peas, if you want) and 1 tbsp capers in brine, drained as well as 1 tbsp of the caper-brine and the juice of half a lemon. Fry this all together for an additional 5-10 minutes until the beans are cooked and beginning to scorch. If they’re scorching but not cooking, just pour a little water into the pan to create a braising effect. Yes, cookery is genuinely this basic.
  4. When everything is cooked, ideally give it a bit of time to cool down. If this isn’t an option, simply tip this elegant but juicy mixture onto the lettuce and sprinkle over some toasted garlic granules, or serve with a garlicky salad dressing (which you have made yourself!) Doesn’t dinner look posh? Why don’t people have warm salads more often?
  5. Did you remember to also provide salad dressing? Serve the dressing separately because people like different amounts. Some people dribble salad dressing; some people drink it; some people will want gravy. You never know.

Notes: Do not fry garlic granules. Ever. They burn instantly. And you know frying pans. They burn when the food does. Don’t go there. Garnish garlic granules.

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A-Z of Vegetables: Horseradish

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The contenders for this most glamorous prize include: kohlrabi, which looks like a turnip being exorcised; chanterelles, which look like ectoplasm; morels, which look like [REDACTED]; and frisée, which looks like a 3D diagram representing entropy. But perhaps the most surprising entry for Ugliest Vegetable is the rock-hard, sinewy carrot the colour of coral-bleach known as horseradish.

What can I say? The vegetable is as foreboding as its name. Horseradish seems on a par with words like ‘mandrake’ and ‘eye of newt’, not something you’d see cheerfully shrink-wrapped in Waitrose, pretending it doesn’t look like a witch’s finger pointing towards the cowering broccoli. Its appearance foreshadows its intense and intimidating flavour too: exactly like mustard without the acidity, it sets your nose on fire the moment you try to eat it raw – like chilli but cold. But cooked horseradish tastes of nothing, so you have to eat it raw. Pleasure is pain. What you’re supposed to do is breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth to quell the horseradishy storm in your sinuses (or is it the other way around?), but if you’re dining with Grandmother she may well be disgusted to see you chewing with your mouth open.

Of course I’m being a little unkind about horseradish (although a vegetable which is such a bully on my nasal passages is surely up to this sort of lampooning). In fact, horseradish is complementary to a wide variety of vegetables, including but limited to beetroot. Golden beetroot, pink beetroot or that striped one which looks like a candy cane having a serious identity crisis, any will work with horseradish. I think it’s something to do with beetroot’s fundamental sweetness, as it tastes like an agoraphobic strawberry that was too afraid to grow above ground. It’s as if horseradish has seen beetroot’s sweetness and simply forced friendship by sheer force of personality. Horseradish sees beetroot’s candied flavour, and raises him firecrackers in their culinary poker game. Just in case you think I’m running out of metaphors to mix, let me also add that horseradish is regularly used in aid of pretending to be wasabi. This is a shock because you think a vegetable so in-your-face would be incapable of disguising itself as something else, but there you are.

Horseradish can be used wherever you want the flavour and heat of mustard but without the ulcer-scorching acidity. Therefore, I strongly recommend it in coleslaws. What’s especially useful about putting horseradish in coleslaw is the ability of all dairy and mayonnaise to bludgeon unremittingly sharp flavours into submission. In this scenario, the horseradish becomes more of a harmonious bit player to the other, uncompromisingly pink ingredients. And it’s delicious.

Sorry, what won Ugliest Vegetable? Spaghetti squash. Have you seen these things? They're terrifying.

Pink coleslaw for whimsical people. Serves 4.

  1. Get out your veg grater! Excited now, aren’t you? Grate 250g cooked beetroot, 1 tart eating apple (cored) and enough raw horseradish root to fill a tablespoon. Also finely shred half a red cabbage and add that too.
  2. Stir through 2 tbsp vegan mayonnaise or yoghurt, 3 tbsp cooked sweetcorn and some chopped dill or parsley to taste (along with extra horseradish if you want) and eat on toast. Incidentally, and I know this is controversial, if the cabbage is cooked a little before you mix it with the other ingredients, coleslaw is a truly delectable pasta sauce. Imagine creamy carbonara but bright pink with vegetables.

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A-Z of Vegetables: Garlic

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Considering that the vegetable’s strongest flavour characteristic is that of thrice-worn 100%-lambswool socks, it’s ironic that dishes which foreground garlic are invariably as bland as socks for Christmas. The most obvious instances being garlic bread and ajo blanco, i.e. garlic and almond soup. Bread is the most staple of staple carbohydrates and almonds are the bread of the nut world, so really garlic is a bit player. At its most glamorous, garlic is part of a flavour trio with the more dominant (and irritating) chilli and ginger. What I’m saying is that garlic is the Richard Hammond of the spice world. But I always liked Total Wipeout more than The Grand Tour

I imagine Mr and Mrs Allium looking over at their culinary progeny and assessing them for their future potential. It’s hard bringing culinary vegetables into the world and they could only afford to send so many to college. Chive clearly wasn’t going anyway, swaying in the breeze and trying to pass himself off as grass in order not to be cooked. Leek was busy rolling around in the mud to the point of getting it in all their orifices – clearly a little bit dim, that one. The twins, Red Onion and White Onion, were continually trying to outdo each other in the sharpness stakes, throwing acid retorts and making each other cry. Shallot had rolled underneath the kitchen cabinets and was nowhere to be found. This left Garlic: small and unassuming in her starchy white dress with the multitudinous layers which wouldn't invariably fall apart under pressure. So they packed up her suitcase and sent her off to the most prestigious university for food in the world: French cuisine. The rest is history.

Garlic’s biggest problem is, in contrast with chilli and ginger, its dryness. Whereas chilli inflames your mouth and ginger licks it with heat, garlic irradiates moisture from your mouth unless pulverised into submission and in unfortunate cases, will leave you with that sulphurous sock tang in your mouth for fourteen hours, even if you brush your teeth. I once made a cannellini mash for dipping crudités and bread soldiers, but accidentally used so much garlic that it was completely inedible, no matter how much yoghurt I added.

How to rescue a garlicky mash gone wrong. When life gives you garlic, make falafels

  1. Mash a 400g tin of cannellini or butter beans, drained and rinsed in a bowl with 5 large cloves of minced garlic, 1 tbsp dried or chopped fresh parsley or rosemary, 3 tbsp olive oil and a splash of your favourite vinegar, to make a pulpy mash. Taste it and conclude that it is TOO GARLICKY TO BE EDIBLE.
  2. Preheat the oven to 180ºC and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper. Stir 4 tbsp flour (any kind) and 3 tbsp chopped chives and/or spring onions (optional) into the mash until it becomes a sort of dough. You may need more flour, or even to add a splash of water.
  3. Wet your own hands with water, then roll walnut-sized balls of the mash and place them on the baking tray. Brush or drizzle each ball with a little olive oil and bake them for 20-30 minutes until crisp on the outside.
  4. Serve with lashings of yoghurt or, better, tzatziki-style dipping, made by mixing together 150ml vegan yoghurt, 1 tsp dried mint, 6cm cucumber, chopped and, if you haven’t learnt your lesson already, 1 minced garlic clove

Notes: If your too-garlicky mash is potato, then use it to top a tomato-based, protein-filled sauce like chilli con carne, ragù or (what the Brits call) bolognese in an oven dish, dot with vegan butter and roast at 200ºC for 30 minutes until piping hot throughout. I think cottage pie of this style is disgusting, but I hate mashed potato too, so that’s really on you.

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A-Z of Vegetables: Fennel

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There are two types of people in this world. No, I know people have said this a lot in a variety of humorous deviations (emphasis on the deviance) but I mean it this time. Because there are two types of people in this world. People who like liquorice and sad people.

Liquorice, as the most intense member of the anise flavour family, blows your socks off with a satanically sweet darkness you thought was reserved only for molasses, raw cacao and committing arson on a candy-floss factory. If you’ve never tasted liquorice before, you’re just going to have to taste it; it’s of that rare breed of flavours, along with quince and violet, which is so wholly unique that describing it in terms of other things is both futile and reductionist. Imagine crude oil but for eating and you’re not far off.

As intoxicating as liquorice is, like all sweets, it’s not something you can eat regularly. Also it has laxative properties and that’s not the most appealing thing at a dinner party. That’s why we liquorice-lovers eat it in secret, away from liquorice-haters’ sad, judgmental eyes. Fortunately, for people craving an aniseed hit without the sugar can resort to fennel which, sliced finely and eaten raw, tastes like liquorice in salad form. Being also a big fan of vegetables, this is as close to flavour nirvana as its possible for a liquorice-lover to get. Or it is until I invent chocolate-flavoured cauliflower. Watch this space.

Fennel can be stir-fried, sautéd, gratin-ed, braised, roasted, baked, souped, puréed, juiced, candied and thrown out of the window at passing seagulls but for me, my favourite way to eat fennel is simply raw, thereby preserving as much of its flavour and satisfying crunch as possible. I also realise that it’s not possible to give a recipe for eating fennel raw (wash it, slice it, chew ostentatiously because there’s no other way to chew it). So I decided to go down the extravagant route, play up the confectionery which inspired my love for fennel, and do something I’ve never done before: namely, turning fennel into a pudding. I’m candying it. This essentially amounts to boiling it in syrup. Don’t panic, it’s very easy. Not so easy that you would let a child do it, because they might lick the spoon OF BOILING SUGAR, but easy enough.

Candied fennel – it’s really simpler than the length of this recipe implies

  1. Quarter 1 fennel and give a quick wash behind the thick outermost leaves in case of dirt. Often fennels don’t have this problem, but better safe than muddy. Now cut each quarter in half, keeping the core on each slice intact.
  2. Put the fennel quarters into a small saucepan so they’re all snugly tucked in. Just cover with cold water, then measure how much this water is and make a note of it. Bring to the boil.
  3. Remember how you had to measure how much water you covered your fennel with? Measure out enough granulated or caster sugar to match the weight of water, i.e. 200ml water means use 200g sugar. Add in 1 tsp fennel seeds for extra liquoriceness, heat until the sugar dissolves and simmer the mixture for 18-20 minutes until the liquorice is glassily translucent and butter-soft.
  4. Remove the fennel quarters from the syrup and lay out on some greaseproof paper – this is by far the easiest way to ‘dry’ candied food, because the syrup drips off and is absorbed by the paper, which you then ostentatiously throw in the bin.
  5. Boil down the syrup until it’s the consistency of runny honey, then pour into a clean, airtight container (a jug and clingfilm will do) and put in the fridge to use in place of golden syrup when you make flapjacks tomorrow.
  6. Eat the candied fennel, once cool, with yoghurt and grated chocolate as an elegant pudding for two, or go one further by baking a large round of shortbread for the yogurt, fennel and chocolate to sit on. Do this by beating together 50g vegan butter and 25g sugar until light and fluffy, and then gently incorporating 75g flour (not rye) until a dough forms. Pat out on a lined baking tray to a round 1cm-thick, then bake for 15 minutes at 180ºC or 160ºC fan until pale golden. Leave to cool before transferring to a plate to load up and slice like a pavlova.

Notes: I’ve cheerily kept the syrup from step 5 for a week in the fridge, and you could equally use it in tea, coffee, hot chocolate, custard, salad dressings, acidic tomato sauces, gingerbread, cocktails – wherever there’s need for sweetening liquids or use of syrups.

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A-Z of Vegetables: Edamame beans

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Who knew that tofu was a protein? My sister didn’t. ‘What do you mean, you didn’t realise it was a protein?’ I demanded. ‘I’ve been feeding it to you whenever I’ve cooked!’

She shrugged. ‘I don’t know. I just thought it was… white stuff.’

I’m horrified that she thinks I have been serving her organic polystyrene all this time.

Most people take against tofu on the grounds that it is rubbery or tasteless. Silken tofu is even more peculiar, having the mouthfeel of wet chalk and the flavour of nothing. Poor tofu. Nobody understands that once upon a time you were a glamorous vegetable. Sorry, did I say glamorous? Pardon my exaggeration. See, soya is a bean.

Sold as ‘edamame beans’ in the UK (rather than the unappealing moniker used elsewhere in the world, ‘soybean’), the beans look rather like beach-body-ready broad beans. They contain all, or almost all, essential amino acids, according to Antonio Carluccio, Jamie Oliver, Dr Rupy Aujla and others. Both their shape and high protein content make them the mesomorphic athletes of the bean world. They make skinnier (cannellini), broader (broad beans, duh), runtier (black-eyed) and spherical (peas) beans feel inadequate in comparison. Why can’t they all play along? You may notice that edamame beans never put an appearance in tins of mixed bean salads: this is because they’re too busy lounging in the freezer aisle, self-admiringly revelling in their firm bite and unobtrusive skins. It’s really no wonder that the inventor of tofu boiled them to death until their proteins flopped out of them, if just to make them less smug in their nutritional content.

Whilst tofu is more readily available than edamame beans, as well as being higher in protein for its weight, an edamame bean is still a delightful thing to eat in its own right. Whereas tofu at best has a flavour which we could describe as ‘bland’ – chicken breast without meatiness, salt without saltiness – edamame beans have a plasticine-like grassy taste with an undertow of vegetal mineraliness, which is offset quite nicely, in this popular salad of my mother’s, by peppery radishes, sweet peas and a zingy dressing.

Edamame salad dressed hot to trot with crunch, colour and contrast. Serves 4 lunchboxes. Eat with pasta or bulgur wheat to make more of a meal of it.

  1. Boil 300g frozen edamame beans and 300g frozen garden peas (petits pois are too small for this) for 4-5 minutes until they are cooked. Drain and let sit in the pot for a bit to air-dry.
  2. Wash and finely slice 4 medium spring onions (or 1 if it’s a chunky round-bottomed one). Wash and slice 100g radishes however way you like. Make a salad dressing with 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, the juice of half a lemon, 1/2 tsp chilli flakes, 1/2 tsp ground pepper and 1 minced clove of garlic
  3. Stir all the ingredients together in a big bowl, season and serve as a glamorous side dish to a Sunday roast. You could also zest the lemon from the dressing and add the zest too.

Notes: Not everybody tolerates chilli. Fortunately this, as with all recipes which use chilli as a spice, can be made just as easily without chilli and have no discernible flavour difference. After all, chilli has a nasty habit of killing your tastebuds anyway.

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A-Z of Vegetables: Mint

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In the classic cocktail party game of ‘What Would You Have Strapped to Your Face for the Rest of Your Life if You Had to?’, I would have to choose mint. Don’t get me wrong, mint faced stiff competition from wild garlic flowers, violets, my specs and Joan from Mad Men, but mint – specifically peppermint – won out. Of all herbs and salad leaves, I think it’s absolutely fair to say that mint is far and away the most fragrant; the sort of vegetable you can smell coming before you see it. 

It also has the rare distinction of being able to beat intense onion and garlic flavours into submission – who has ever eaten tzatziki and gone, ‘Oof, that’s garlicky but whatever happened to the mint?’ This is a form of culinary domination that you wouldn’t expect from such a wrinkled, floppy-leaved plant. Why wouldn’t I want it strapped to my face for the rest of my life if I had to?

Moreover, it’s worth bearing in mind that there is no one mint, in the same way that there is no one potato. There is a multiplicity of mints out there, including but not limited to peppermint, spearmint, garden mint, curly mint, apple mint, liquorice mint, toothpaste and the Royal Mint (which I prefer to imagine is some sort of extra-delicious, extra-sturdy golden herb with enough menthol aroma to stun a cow at twenty paces). And for me, too much mint is too little mint. When I have something mint flavoured, I want the mint to steamroll all other flavours like a maniacal attention-grabber. I want it to be the top note, mid note and back note of the flavour profile. I want it so minty that it makes my eyes hurt. I know somebody who made a vinaigrette to pour over especially good mackerel, and she wept with how sharply delicious it was. I want mint choc chip to make me cry. If mint were a film, it’s Brief Encounter.

Now. Obviously mint isn’t for everyone (just like Brief Encounter). For many, mint sauce justifiably terrifies. (Why is it both musky and fresh at the same time? Why does it taste like blackcurrants?) Mint in milk chocolate was described by Niki Segnit in The Flavour Thesaurus as less appetising than what she finds in her dishwasher filter (amen, sister). Bendicks bittermints are the most morbidly foreboding hockey pucks I’ve ever eaten. I get it. And if you’re not ready to make mint your mantra (with melon, oh please try it with melon) then why not try the potato recipe below?

(This is not entirely a coup de recipe. I was originally planning to write M for Maris Piper Potato, but got sidetracked when I walked into a farmers market display and ended up with a bunch of mint strapped to my face. Anyway, enjoy your spuds. I’ll have mine with mint sauce.)

Sunday spuds which are just like crisps. Serves 6 but scale down if you don’t have three baking trays! Disclaimer: these are not crisps. These are no titbit. Share not with undeserving palates who don’t know what’s good.

  1. Preheat oven to 200ºC fan for optimal crispiness. If you don’t have a fan oven, then move house. Line three baking trays with silicone baking mats, or foil then greaseproof paper.
  2. Get out a big mixing bowl. Thoroughly wash 750g floury potatoes – trust me, you want the skins on for this. Using the slicer on a box grater, or a mandolin, or a sharp knife and strong grip, finely slice the spuds into 3mm-thick pieces. As you go, dump all the spud slices into your big mixing bowl and dry your eyes periodically. You haven’t even started slicing the onions yet but you’ve never done so much chopping in your life, it’s natural to cry.
  3. Remember how I mentioned onions? Peel 3 onions and quarter them through the base, then cut each quarter in half so they’re in eighths. Add these to the mixing bowl along with 1 tbsp finely chopped rosemary and 2-3 tbsp olive oil. Give everything a good oil-slicking mix and then lay out the slices across the trays, in one layer, and bake for 30 minutes, by which point the potatoes will be cooked and excitingly semi-burned.
  4. Leave to cool on the trays for a bit before scraping off the trays so the maximum amount of steam can escape. Alternatively, and if you have the table space for it, serve the potatoes on the trays as they are and encourage everybody to go in with cake forks. The logic of cake forks is their diminutive size stops people’s forks crashing into each other. Obviously use ordinary forks as Plan B. Plan C is croupier sticks.

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A-Z of Vegetables: Lambs lettuce

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I suppose a lot of people don’t feel they have time to wash vast amounts of salad leaves, which have the highest volume-to-weight ratio of any vegetable on the planet – which is where the washed-and-ready-to-eat packets of ‘designer leaves’ come in. They’re easy, and eating food out of a plastic sack gives the pleasing vibe of being an astronaut. Incidentally, they’re the easiest vegetable to eat with pizza-box-level slobbishness: simply tear open a small hole at the top of the bag, pour in salad dressing, shake the bag and then eat the salad straight from the bag with inappropriate chopsticks. You’re welcome. Careful, I think you just dropped a beet leaf on the cat.

Broadly speaking, salad leaves taste of leaves. There’s nothing very much to say about them. However, lambs lettuce is something of a special case. Compared to watercress, pea shoots, beet leaves and all the rest of the elfin salads, lambs lettuce has the brilliant whimsy of being named after an animal’s ear shape. I know! And it’s alliterative! I know! How great is that? The leaves cluster like four-leaved clovers just sprouting from the field, dancing across the platter like metal jacks (add balls of vegan feta and cherry tomatoes and you’ve edibly got yourself a game). My initiation into the ways of lambs lettuce was at Christmas, and it is quite the most party-ready instant salad you’re liable to have, by virtue of looks and name alone. But let’s talk about it’s flavour. 

Um. It tastes like leaves.

Ok, I’ll try to be more specific. Whereas watercress tastes like ditchwater, and rocket tastes like sour peppercorns, and beet leaves have a very faint flavour of beetroot, and pea shoots taste like peas, and spinach tastes metallic (try it raw and undressed and it tastes like chewing cans), I think you’ll find that lambs lettuce tastes the most appealingly green of the lot, with a sprightly pepperiness which doesn't shout so much as suggest. When all you want from a salad is for it to taste fine on its own, so you can eat vast quantities of it without feeling overwhelmed but with feeling pious, lambs lettuce is the leaf to go for. And the funny thing about lambs lettuce? It tastes like fresh grass. That’s right: lambs lettuce is exactly what you’d expect lamb’s food to taste like. Who’d have thought?

Don’t let this stop you. Are you one of those people that walks past a fresh-mown lawn and things it smells incredible? Then lambs lettuce is for you. I think that if you like a smell, then that flavour in something edible is a present from the gods of good taste. Which is why I got a bottle of jasmine-flavoured syrup. I thought maybe sorbet. But as I doubt you’ll want to do that with lambs lettuce, let me suggest an alternative.

Lambs lettuce, lemon and loveliness salad. Serves 1 but upscale once you get used to the concept.

  1. Trust me. I ate something like this in a restaurant once, but it was with spinach and quite frankly, I think lambs lettuce is just nicer. However, if you can only get spinach, then you can of course use that instead.
  2. Squeeze the juice from half a lemon thoroughly. Put the juice in the fridge, you won’t be needing it. What? Lemon juice has loads of uses, just stick it in a tomato sauce or soup or something. Or drink it neat if you’re hard enough! Do step 5 in the small saucepan from step 3 if you’re low on time.
  3. Now you have a shell of lemon rind, slice it into long strips of rind (cut away the membranes for extra Brownie points) and simmer in a small saucepan for 30 minutes. Or steam until soft in the microwave. I don’t have a microwave, hence my blasé instructions in this bit. They should be as soft as a ripe pear. The lemon strips, not the microwave.
  4. Whilst the lemon is cooking, soak 2 tbsp sultanas in 3 tbsp apple juice and wash minimum 100g lambs lettuce. Of course, you may have bought washed-and-ready-to-eat lambs lettuce, which makes life infinitely easier.
  5. Toast around 15g almonds (which is 15 almonds) in a frying pan without oil, i.e. dry-fry them, stirring continuously. This should take about 5-10 minutes, depending on the obstinacy of your nuts. They should smell fragrant and be catching slightly. Tumble into a cool dish so they don’t continue cooking. Pre-roasted almonds also exist.
  6. Now everything is ready, tumble the lamb’s lettuce onto your serving plate (wide and flat is easier than tending-towards-teacup). Artfully arrange the lemon strips on top and artfully scatter over the almonds. Drain the apple juice from the sultanas (into your mouth) then artfully scatter the sultanas also. Drizzle the lot with 1-2 tsp extra virgin olive oil and 1 tsp runny honey, then sprinkle with a pinch of salt and eat. With inappropriate chopsticks, obvs.

Notes: Substitute other nuts, other citrus rinds, other dried fruit to suit the mood. Hazelnuts, lime and ginger syrup instead of honey? You can add vegan cheese (vegetarian options available) if so desired. Also, has anybody ever thought of cooking polenta in apple juice? I bet that tastes good.

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A-Z of Vegetables: Kalettes

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Friday, 30 Jun 2023, 10:09

I have a feeling that these are trademarked but OH MY GOD have you tried Kalettes? They’re so good! Steam them whole, roll them in a salty salad dressing and pull them into your mouth with a croupier stick. They’re Brussels sprouts in a ra-ra skirt, they’re kale in manageable sizes, they’re lettuces for the Borrowers, they are the most glamorous green you can put on a plate. Also, they’re expensive. Not break-the-bank-to-buy-beef expensive, a bag is only £2, but I mean – come on. They’re leaves. I could just harbour nettles from the park and eat those. But I won’t because Kalettes are THAT EXCITING!

I am not an impulse buyer. I can walk past countless displays of beautiful things that I could spend my hard-earned cash on – luxury chocolates, limited edition outfits, gadgets and gizmos galore – but I don’t, because I need that money for things like saving. But. Vegetables. Sometimes you feel the urge to buy them and you do not even know what they will taste like, so you have to cook them and offer them to your flatmate to eat them first, just in case you’re allergic to it so you want to check that they’re not allergic first, so if you are allergic, they can take you to hospital. Just me? Anyway.

The lovely thing about Kalettes is that I have never actually cooked them in my life. When I’ve been very good and not allowed any flatmate to starve (or poisoned them with questionable vegetables), I’m treated to somebody else’s cooking and it’s always a thrilling moment when the side dish is a steaming pile of Kalettes, shrieking out to be eaten and enjoyed like vegetal flapper girls.

If you’ve never had a Kalette, I imagine that you are absolutely dying to know what the flavour is. And if I have judged that completely incorrectly, it’s my column so I’m going to tell you anyway. You know how cavolo Nero or the dark bits of broccoli have this extraordinary saline, mineral flavour, like the outside of a multivitamin pill? Imagine this, but tempered into a husky floweriness which is entirely appropriate to the petticoat-like vegetable. I keep comparing this vegetable to sexy clothing in spite of the fact that I've never found clothes diverting in my life.

But. Vegetables.

What to do with Kalettes, if you happen to have bought a bag

  1. Wash the Kalettes, if the sack instructs you to do so. Simply waterboard them in a mixing bowl, then shake excess water at encroaching pets. They’re trying to get at your Kalettes.
  2. Put them in a steamer basket on top of a pan shallowly filled with boiling water. When steaming vegetables, you never want to use lots of water in the base – otherwise you might as well be boiling the vegetables. The point about steaming is it cooks vegetables ever so gently, preserving their flavour, structure and nutrient levels. And a vegetable this pretty is surely very healthy.
  3. Cook them until the bases yield to the point of a knife (I don’t know how long this takes, but they’re so diaphanous I’d be amazed if they took much more than 5 minutes). Tumble them onto a serving dish and give them the merest hint of a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a decisive spritz of lime juice. Sprinkle over some optional breadcrumbs if you’re somebody who needs to hear crunch when you’re chewing, then take yourself off to a secluded corner to eat them. Well, Nigella Lawson would approve.

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A-Z of Vegetables: Jersey Royals

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Friday, 30 Jun 2023, 10:08

Every spring, food writers from up and down the country get into spasms of rapturous excitement for the new season of Jersey Royal potatoes. Considering that it is simply the season’s first crop of potatoes – a vegetable so basic they don’t even count as one of your five a day – it always seemed to me an excitement wildly out of proportion. No disrespect meant to Jersey, I thought, but that is just a small spud.

Nevertheless, since my dad was also excited for the coming of the Jersey Royals, I thought I’d give them a go and see what all the fuss was about. Apparently they’re supposed to be boiled and buttered because they’re good enough on their own – unlike, presumably, Maris Piper potatoes. I trusted my dad that they would taste nice, but he is also the man who hates carrots and can’t eat rice properly, so he can’t really be trusted when it comes to vegetables. So I tasted the Jersey Royals.

Look. I know potatoes often taste earthy. They’re a root vegetable, to some extent they’re all earthy. But Jersey Royals don’t just taste earthy. They taste of earth. Worse than that, they taste like mud. Worse than that, they taste like soil. Worse than that, they taste like Jersey Royals. They don’t even have the virtue of being described in terms of another foodstuff – ‘top notes of rosemary and lavender, with a background of musk and butter and a final aftertaste of good, hard starch’. The top, middle and aftertastes are all of Jersey Royal and it tastes like evil if evil was a potato!

There are better baby potatoes. Charlotte. Annabelle. Vivaldi. Maris Peer. The generic ones in that big sack from the health food shop. You don’t have to shell out the extra money to buy Jersey Royals when fundamentally, a potato is a potato is a potato. You could be throwing a May Day garden party for your spouse’s family and when your draconian mother-in-law, wearing a dead peacock on her head and a twinset spun from unicorn hair, jabs your bowl of spud salad and snootily asks, ‘I say, are these Jersey Royals?’, you can just lie when you know that they’re tinned ones from the corner shop and she’d be none the wiser. ‘I say, these Jersey Royals are unusually delicious, are they not?’ Yes they are, you silly bint, because they’re not Jersey Royals*.

I’m not claiming to be an authority on the Jersey Royal. Like all food preferences, mine is completely subjective. However, to prove to you that Jersey Royals are a waste of your time, here is a recipe for a different kind of potato salad to make for your friends which simply would not work with the rambunctious flavour of Jersey Royals.

Green potato salad, serves 2 for a healthy but indulgent late-night dinner

  1. Wash, halve and boil 300g baby potatoes in barely salted water for 15-20 minutes until they are the texture of firm butter (test by prodding with a knife). For the last 4 minutes of cooking, chuck in 100g broccoli florets and 100g frozen peas. Pour away the water but leave the vegetables in the steaming, empty pot.
  2. Separately and straight away, mash 1 ripe avocado with 100g vegan pesto (M&S Plant Kitchen is good) in a small bowl and add a spritz of water or lemon or lime juice if it’s too thick to dress the vegetables – because that is what you will be doing with it next!
  3. If not vegan, add 3 slices good prosciutto, shredded (prosciutto is always expensive so you might as well get something decent) to the hot vegetables and give it a stir before adding the avocado mixture. Otherwise, just add the thick avocado mixture to the vegetables, stir to combine, pile into tall bowls and eat on the sofa whilst wearing fluffy socks.

Notes: I’ve never tried this, but my recommended vegan substitute for the prosciutto would be stirring in some white miso and a generous pinch of smoked paprika to the avocado and pesto. Then again, it’s not vital.

*Use of the word 'bint' for the comedic sound of the word only.

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Shaun Paul Varey, Tuesday, 27 Jun 2023, 12:24)
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A-Z of Vegetables: Dill

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Tuesday, 27 Jun 2023, 10:29

What’s that? You want a herb which smells like disinfectant and looks like a feather duster? Yes please.

Dill is such a ludicrous herb. Unlike the rest of the culinary soft herbs (basil, parsley, mint, tarragon etc.) it doesn’t even have any leaves! It opts instead for fronds which, if planted in a herbaceous border, make it look like something Alice would find in Wonderland, with a label saying ‘Eat me, I’m a turnip’. It's one of the most improbable vegetables I've ever seen, and if you try to chop it, it goes everywhere. Imagine the culinary equivalent of a dog shredding a down-filled pillow, and you're not far off.

Dill tastes so clean that it’s like taking your mouth to the car wash – garlic in reverse (and both garlic and dill go nicely in tzatziki). But don’t let this stop you. Whilst I wouldn’t necessarily recommend eating it on its own (which I do anyway, because yum), its nasal-cleansing properties make it incredibly useful in a range of dishes – either for giving the sprightliness you would except from, say, lemon juice, or for scaring small children. I am massively keen on putting cucumber in every sandwich because its ability to blandly cut through fatty/salty/tart flavours, and dill does something similarly without making your bread wet. And as we all know from picnics, nothing is sadder than a wettened sandwich.

On flexitarian days, few sandwiches are more satisfying than ones made with dill, cucumber, vermilion Scottish smoked salmon and the sort of German rye bread which looks like it’s used for building houses instead of sandwiches. Whilst this black bread is historically ‘peasant bread’, this sandwich tastes luxurious and, in the grand scheme of animal products, cheap. Unless you have an allergy to salicylates, fish or gluten, you have no excuse not to try it.

Nevertheless, in keeping with the veganism of this blog, I shall share a risotto recipe with you. I credit the combination of tomato and dill as a flavour bomb to Rukmini Iyer and The Green Roasting Tin cookbook, but I have edited the recipe to reflect my own preferences – not least because I don’t like the chewiness of pearl barley. If I wanted to sit at the table chewing until my fillings fall out, I’d eat the placemat. Eating pearl barley is satisfying in its way (like all exercise), but if I’m eating a huge bowl of grains, I really want them to be more yielding.

Tomato and dill risotto, which tastes nicer than it sounds. To serve 2

  1. Set the oven to 160ºC fan and make sure you have some laundry hung up to dry near the oven. You have two options: use a pan and a foil-topped roasting tin, or make life easier and use a lidded casserole throughout. I prefer the casserole option.
  2. Boil 750ml water in the kettle. Heat up 1 tbsp olive oil in the casserole (or pan) and sauté 2 sliced onions with a pinch of salt for 5 minutes until softening and glassier. Easy peasy. Next, add 2 minced or sliced garlic cloves and 150g risotto rice to the pan and stir until the rice grains are all slicked. This is so easy! Sprinkle over a bit of your favourite vinegar and stir that in.
  3. Turn off the heat and, if using sauté pan instead of casserole, empty the sauté pan into the roasting tin. Add the following to the casserole/roasting tin: 200g tomatoes (no need to chop and small ones are ideal), the 750ml boiling water, 11/2 stock cubes or 3 tsp stock powder and 1 tsp dried mixed herbs. Dot the top of it all with 1 tsp vegan butter or margarine, then cover with the lid/foil and bung in the oven for 40 minutes. Make sure the washing is drying near the oven!
  4. Take out the risotto, add 100g frozen sweetcorn, put the lid back on and roast for another 10 minutes.
  5. Wash and chop about 15g fresh dill. Add this to the risotto along with some lemon juice if desired and serve.

Notes: If you have leftover supermarket dill, wash and chop it then freeze it in ice cubes. Add frozen dill to this recipe as you would the sweetcorn.

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A-Z of Vegetables: Carrots

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Tuesday, 27 Jun 2023, 10:30

As a toddler, in a time of micro-chopped Birds Eye vegetables, one rose above the others. From amid the snot-evocative yellows and greens rose sunshine-orange shards of vegetable, to become recognised as… CARROTS.

Carrots are my favourite vegetable and orange is my favourite colour. One of those facts is dependent on the other but to this day I’m not sure which. They are the torch of the vegetable world, batons of intense brightness which, unlike most vegetables, don’t diminish in colour no matter how long you cook them. Lifting them out of a slow-cooked hotpot, they look like nuclear rods being lifted from decontamination liquid. (Yes, I really do think of hotpots as decontamination liquid.) 

Carrots are famed for improving night-sight (carrots are rich in Vitamin A which benefits the eyes) and so bright you could use them to light your way down a dark alleyway – and if somebody tried to mug you, the carrot doubles as a defensive bludgeoning instrument. As one of the few vegetables which is always in season, they lend vibrancy to dark wintry days and a celebratory aspect to summery ones. It might interest you to know that I come from a long line of carrot-haters on my dad’s side, which is probably the greatest evidence that I’m adopted.

Another incredible thing about carrots is their versatility. Sweet or savoury, roasted or baked or boiled or steamed, raw and plain or shredded and dressed, soups and mash and smoothies and even porridge (if Jack Monroe is to be believed). They can be a bit player, as in soffritto-based cooking (onion, celery and carrot), or the main attraction, as in carrot and coriander soup. I think it’s fair to say that carrots are simply the best vegetable, and that has absolutely nothing to do with any obsession on my part. 

In celebration of this fantastic and cheap vegetable, I’m going to offer two recipes. One for lunch, one for afternoon tea. The couscous is not really a recipe (couscous never is) but as a flavour combination, mint and pomegranate are unsurpassed. This is an example of carrots as an irreplaceable back-note. The other is a recipe which my maverick-baker sister came up with when she was improving on chocolate chip cookies, scones and rich shortcrust pastry without using eggs. Normally, I don’t like vegan cakes with a fudgy texture, but here it’s just right for me. If you hate it, don’t tell me because you’ll simply destroy all my nostalgia for the cake and you wouldn’t want to do that to another person now would you?

Carroty couscous with pomegranate and mint, serves 2 packed lunches

  1. Cook 80g wholegrain couscous according to your packet instructions. This usually involves soaking in twice the volume of boiling water for 5-10 minutes.
  2. In the meantime, grate 160g-worth of carrots (although I rarely measure), drain and rinse the contents of one 400g tin chickpeas, de-seed 1 pomegranate and wash at least 65g fresh mint and no I’m not joking. Pomegranates are rarely in season at the same time as mint so the mint you get is unlikely to be very minty, so you must use lots. Lots. Especially if you like mint, in which case you could easily boost the mint to 100g.
  3. When the couscous is ready, stir through 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil and 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar, before adding the carrots, chickpeas and half the pomegranate seeds. Shred the mint into the couscous (I finely chop the stalks with kitchen scissors and use those too) and mix all together. Taste. You might need to add more pomegranate and more mint, and sunflower seeds.

Notes: It’s rare that I condemn substitutions in any recipes, but variations on these ingredients are just not as delicious, and I think it’s a crying shame to do so. Nevertheless, you can substitute the pomegranate with dried cranberries, the fresh mint with dried mint or even the contents of peppermint teabags (except use 1-2tbsp only), and the balsamic vinegar with lemon juice. It won’t be as good, but at least you’ll be eating carrots. Do not substitute wholegrain couscous for ordinary, it’s a waste of time.

The carrot cake my sister always made, serves 12 but refrigerates easily

  1. Preheat the oven to 180ºC fan. Prepare two 20cm-wide sandwich-cake tins by greasing and flouring the sides, and lining the base of the tin with a circle of greaseproof paper. Or buy these fantastic cake-tin liners, which look like supersized cupcake cases. They’re awesome.
  2. Grate 250g carrots. Put these on some sheets of kitchen or baking paper out of the way.
  3. In a bowl, combine 250g wholegrain flour, 150g soft dark brown or muscovado sugar, 1 tbsp baking powder (yes, really) and 1 tbsp ground cinnamon or mixed spices.
  4. In a separate bowl or jug, whisk together 150ml plant milk (aim for one high in fat or protein, or partially substitute with vegan yoghurt), 80ml olive oil, 2 tbsp runny honey and the zest of 1 lime or lemon (or indeed satsuma).
  5. Combine the wet and dry ingredients (it doesn’t matter into which bowl they all go) with the whisk, along with the grated carrots, until it’s an amalgamated batter. Plop the mixture into the cake tins and bake for 30-40 minutes until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean.
  6. When the cakes are out, leave them to cool in their tins on a wire rack and make the icing. Beat together 300g vegan cream cheese with 3 tbsp thick but runny honey and the zest of 1 lime. Spread on top of each cooled cake then put one cake on top of the other one. If you must decorate it, you can make confit carrots or marzipan rabbits but the easiest thing is to drizzle over 100g melted cooking chocolate, dark or white, in Jackson Pollock-style swoops. 

Notes: You can make these as cupcakes too. It will make 24 of them though and the sponge will be a less satisfying texture which, considering this cake is vegan, is very important. You’ll notice I don’t put dried fruit or nuts in the mixture. That’s because I don’t like that, but if you want to include fruit and nuts, I’d recommend prunes and hazelnuts (for darker, broodier flavour) or dried apricots and pecans (for something lighter and fresher).

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A-Z of Vegetables: Brussels sprouts

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Tuesday, 27 Jun 2023, 10:31

I could have chosen any vegetable for the B. There are so many. All manner of bean, beetroot, borage, butternut, bell peppers, not to mention bamboo and bean sprouts and of course, the royal vegetable dynasty that is the brassica family. Leafy green vegetables are one of the healthiest things you can eat and their broadly generic flavours make them appropriate sides to everything. I want to teach the world to sing the praises of red cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale and all the other brassicas (except kohlrabi, that’s foul) as some of the finest foods money can buy, and cheaply. So I decided to go with the most hated brassica of them all: Brussels sprouts.

Considering the British penchant for midget vegetables (baby leeks, baby corn, baby carrots), I don’t understand why what is essentially a cabbage in miniature is so despised. Brussels sprouts are adorable, like marbles for eating. Just watch the little children flick them across their plates – they’ll grow up to be bowlers. But then I realised why people hated sprouts so much. They’re eating them wrong.

The only way to save a boiled or steamed Brussels sprout from sulphurous-flavour hell is to douse it in sharp salad dressing; but if you want a tasty Brussels sprout to start with, you have, have, have to roast it. Cooked this way, they are like the popcorn of the vegetable world. Roasting sprouts rather reminded me of how tofu is so broadly hated, but again, it must be roasted to be likeable. The combination of the two led me to create this light, wintry dinner, which is simply my favourite thing to cook. Do it in November-January, when all the sprouts, pomegranates and hazelnuts are in season. The dish has the added bonus of looking almost unbearably kitsch and festive, with all of those Christmas-tree colours. It sounds like a crazy flavour combination, but trust me. And remember to add some bulgur wheat or something if you want more of a meal.

Winter tofu traybake, to serve 2

  1. Set the oven to 190ºC fan. Use the fan to ensure maximum crispiness. Line a baking tray with foil. Use foil to ensure maximum crispiness. Nobody wants a soggy sprout, so let's focus on MAXIMUM CRISPINESS instead.
  2. Drain then chop 1 block of firm tofu weighing about 250-300g, and put in a big mixing bowl along with 4 whole, peeled garlic cloves (optional). In a small, clean jar with a lid, pour 2 tbsp olive oil, 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar (or other sweet, fruity vinegar), a drop of runny honey or other syrup and 1/2 tbsp wholegrain mustard. Put the lid on the jar and shake it, then pour this dressing over the tofu and toss the tofu to slick the lot. Put to one side.
  3. Begin the long-winded but undemanding task of thoroughly washing and peeling away dead leaves from 400g or so Brussels sprouts. (It sounds like a lot, but they are the main thing in this meal. Anxious sprout-eaters can start with half that amount.) Halve all the sprouts and arrange on the baking tray, making sure as many as you can be bothered to flip are cut-side up.
  4. Scoop the tofu and garlic cloves onto the tray, then pour the remaining salad dressing over the sprouts. Roast for 20 minutes.
  5. Whilst the sprouts are roasting, de-seed 1/2 a large, heavy pomegranate into a bowl and get out 50g hazelnuts. Incidentally, my preferred method of de-seeding pomegranates is ripping it apart over a bowl and flicking the seeds from the pith. Yes, this is a handsy recipe, but so worth it.
  6. Take the tray out the oven, sprinkle over the hazelnuts, and roast for a further 10 minutes.
  7. Dish up the traybake, topping each portion with half of the pomegranate seeds. This is not a garnish, but an important flavour component. Don’t substitute it for anything else.

Notes: If you really do have to substitute the pomegranate seeds because pomegranates are just too hard to buy and you don’t live in the Med, I suppose you may roast 150g cherry tomatoes with the sprouts, but use almonds instead of hazelnuts. Hazelnuts and tomatoes are not happy bedfellows. I also like to serve this with carrots – watch out for my next post on those!

Permalink 2 comments (latest comment by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Friday, 16 Jun 2023, 12:17)
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A-Z of Vegetables: Artichokes

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Artichokes are weird. Don’t get me wrong, I like artichokes. But blimey, are they weird. Can you imagine how they were discovered? I can imagine a hungry Italian looking at this enormous vegetable with sharp-edged leaves, like rocket on steroids, and a viciously spiky ball with a violently purple fringe on top of a sturdy, straight stem thinking to themselves: ‘I reckon I can eat that. Not the big scary leaves or the big scary stalk or the big scary ball on top. But just the middle bit. That bit. I reckon I could eat that.’ What makes this story even more mental is that the Italian was right. If you’re feeling brave, you can fight through this plant which looks like a cross between Day of the Triffids, Audrey II and Timothée Chalamet in a tutu, and cut off its head, then take it back to your kitchen where you keep all the plasters you’ll need for your hands.

Now you have claimed your artichoke, you must put it on your chopping board and wonder how on earth you’re going to get into it. You can’t eat the outside bit, remember – the hungry Italian told you not to. But it’s like a flower, you need to remove the blade-like petals one by one saying, ‘He loves me not, he loves me less than the bastard artichoke’ in order to get to the centre which you are allowed to eat. Congratulations, you now look like you ran hands-first through a threshing machine, but you have now uncovered the very romantic-sounding 'artichoke heart'! It’s so beautiful you could kiss it. It smells like petrol and you want to eat it. (Don’t eat petrol, folks. Only vegetables which smell like petrol.) But wait! First, you must choke it.

Don’t worry, it is dead. In the very centre of the artichoke heart is a toxic choke, a growling hairy section which you must remove lest you eat it by accident. Baby artichokes will be too innocent to have developed such grains of evil in their hearts but if the artichoke in question was mature, you must defeat it once and for all. Oh, and by the way, if you don’t do it quick enough the artichoke will oxidise and go brown.

Your partner comes home and discovers you consuming gin via intravenous drip as the artichokes simmer in water with lemon slices in it lest it oxidise. They pat your shoulder and dry your tears and then give you what they picked up from the supermarket: a jar of artichokes in olive oil, ready to eat and perfumed with parsley. You want to cry when you realise that the brand of jarred artichokes is owned by the hungry Italian that discovered how to dissect them in the first place.

Bolshy potato salad, to serve approximately 4 

  1. Before you begin assembly, wash 300g baby potatoes, such as Vivaldi, Charlotte or Season’s Gold, then boil them in lightly salted water for 15-20 minutes until the consistency of firm butter. Poke them with a knife to make sure. Then tumble them into a big dish and wander off to do something else as they cool down.
  2. When you’re ready to start, drain the oil from a 280g jar of artichokes in oil (or the tinned equivalent) into a jug. Put the oil in the fridge and use for frying, dressing and roasting other things later in the week.
  3. Chop the potatoes into quarters (or bite-sized pieces, depending) and add the artichokes, along with 1/2 diced red onion or banana shallot, 1-2 tbsp sultanas and 1/2 teaspoon toasted caraway seeds (optional but blimey do I love them).
  4. Blob on top of this 4 generous tbsp vegan mayonnaise or yoghurt, 1 tsp smoked paprika, 1 generous tsp wholegrain mustard (optional), 2 minced garlic cloves and some lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste, then stir together until well-amalgamated. Taste for seasoning, then chop a green herb of your choice to sprinkle on top and serve as is. (Unless the company you keep is too precious to eat out of a mixing bowl.)

Notes: What to do with the remaining half onion? Easy. Whack the onion in the fridge to be cooked within 24 hours.

Permalink 2 comments (latest comment by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Friday, 16 Jun 2023, 12:16)
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