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A-Z of Vegetables: White beans

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Friday, 24 Nov 2023, 14:06

For the penultimate blog in this series, let’s visit the chicken of the vegan world! No, I’m not talking about tofu. That’s eggs. I’m talking: white beans!

If you’re vegan, sooner or later you will be forced to encounter beans. Down a blind alleyway you’ll be cornered by a thuggish cannellini, rangy and thick-skinned, insisting you get your protein from more diverse sources than the great mono-crops of rice, corn, soya and almond. You might be met by the intimidating, necromantic eyes of black-eyed beans, chanting incantations and disappearing into pasta sauces as if they were never there (although you know they’re there because their eyes were left behind!) The friendliest bean of the lot is the butter bean, which has the flavour of butter and the smoothest texture of any legume that isn’t a chickpea cooked to death. I make beans sound quite frightening, but they’re actually by far the most versatile protein source for a vegan, because they have the starchy blandness you would expect from a potato, but with the added benefits of having nutritional benefits.

So far, I’ve only mentioned white beans. This is no accident, because although kidney beans are the highest in protein and borlotti beans the most beautiful, white beans are the best option for feeding bean-sceptics. You may not believe me, but they are out there, people who think beans make you fart and don’t do anything else for you. And as farting is unacceptable in polite society, they don’t eat beans. We must overturn this stereotype: farting is just farting and it should be accommodated in polite society to avoid trapped wind on a population-wide level. Also, beans don’t make you fart. I’ve checked.

Most people only eat beans if they’re baked beans as part of breakfast – and herein lies the persuasive power of the white bean, because baked beans are white. I believe they’re haricots, which is really just the French word for ‘bean’. If you wash off the (sickly-sweet, regurgitation-worthy) baked-bean sauce, you will discover that they are white.

The thing with white beans is that they soak up flavour. One recipe from Diana Henry is essentially white beans poached in bay-inflected extra virgin olive oil and that’s a side dish! (To pork poached in olive oil. It was something of a theme for this menu.) Therefore, if you’re making a bean broth like the one I’m recommending below, you need to make sure you choose really nice stock and really nice herbs. Like all soups, it’s not so much a recipe as a template, so you can change the ingredients to suit the contents of your fridge. Celeriac, chilli, ginger, coriander, tomato, potato, lemongrass, parsley, turnip, radish, sweetcorn, mange tout – all can go in. You just need the courage – you need to bite the bean.


Bean broth – to serve 2 because I have a very small casserole

  1. So this is how I like to make it. In a 2l casserole or saucepan with a lid, heat up 2-3 tbsp olive oil (the grassier the better) then add 1 peeled and sliced onion and sauté for 5 minutes.
  2. Whilst this is frying, dice 1 broccoli or celery stalk, slice the hardy leaves of 1 cauliflower, and chop 2 carrots and 1/4 - 1/2 swede. Add these to the pot as you go, giving a firm stir to make sure nothing catches. There’s no reason it should, but it could, and that’s the point.
  3. Peel and chop 2 big garlic cloves. Don’t cut them too small because then you won’t have small morsels of deliciousness floating in your soup – and that would be a tragedy. Add these to the pan along with 5 peppercorns, 1-2 tbsp dried herbs of your choice and enough vegetable stock to cover. I measure out boiling water with a measuring cup and then add the relevant amount of stock powder. I am not Melissa Hemsley. Bring to the boil, then put the lid on and simmer for up to 10 minutes.
  4. Add 80g wholegrain couscous and the drained and rinsed contents of 400g tin of beans (butter for preference), replace the lid and simmer for up to 5 minutes. You don’t need to worry if they don’t get submerged, because couscous steams too.
  5. Turn off the heat and chuck in 1-2 balls of frozen spinach, then put the lid back on so they defrost. Serve with a range of toppings on the side – balsamic glaze, pesto, gremolata, toasted flaked almonds, croutons, chilli oil, nutritional yeast flakes, fresh herbs – but I must warn you against adding something acidic like mustard, because swallowing acidic liquid is uncomfortably reminiscent of hangovers. I don’t remove the whole peppercorns, preferring to chew on them, but if you can be arsed to fish them out, they’re not hard to spot.

Notes: Obviously, vary the vegetables to suit what you have, and chop them up so everything cooks at the same speed. Vary the herbs as well and add spices if you so desire: you could use coriander seeds and mint, paprika and nutmeg, lemon zest and tarragon, dill and turmeric, wine and juniper. A world of flavours is open to you. Adding dried fruits with the stock will mean they plump up deliciously.


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A-Z of Vegetables: Tomatoes

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Saturday, 11 Nov 2023, 11:22

You may have noticed that tomatoes have cropped up in a few other recipes in this blog. You may have also noticed that almost the entirety of exported Italian cuisine has something to do with tomatoes. Well, in all fairness to tomatoes, they’re quite versatile, like the black pepper of the vegetable world. They can take on salty and bitter flavours in eye-wincing quantities whilst providing sweet, sour and umami tastes themselves. On top of that, you can get them all year round (tins are brilliant), grow them easily in Britain and they’re usually a jolly red colour which is always seasonally appropriate. You could equally hang them off your earlobes or a Christmas tree. Happy times!

What’s also incredible is the fact that nobody actually hates them. A person could be the most anxious eater on the planet and find tomatoes’ uncontrollable juiciness terrifying – all that uncontainedness! – but they probably like ketchup. Or baked beans. Or sun-dried tomatoes. Tomatoes have been so thoroughly deployed in recipes that we probably all eat them at some point or another, whether we like the fresh ones or not. 

The difficulty with the tomato is their tendency to a peculiar taste. Rather like melons, tomatoes can develop a watery metallic flavour not unlike lipstick – a bit like jasmine but less appealing. Others can taste like the sky in midsummer, or the promise of a flower meadow, or tomato. The sheer unpredictability of tomatoes mean that it is always worth knowing how to cook them in case they have contrived to be slightly inedible. Often a substandard or melon-like tomato can be improved by a dousing of balsamic vinegar with pinches of fine salt and dried basil, or wrapping the tomato in a fresh basil leaf like a birthday present, but otherwise you will have to roast them, fry them or make sorbet. (Weird idea, I know, but apparently tomatoes and strawberries are essentially interchangeable. Eat strawberries with mozzarella and you’ll see what I mean.)

Another brilliant thing about tomatoes is how tasty they are when they go a bit manky. Hear me out. It’s not that you simply eat a manky tomato – and heaven forfend you eat a gone-off tomato – but tomatoes which have begun to get a bit withered and old respond to cooking so well it’s almost worth buying a trugful and then waiting for them to sag like a parable for the futility of fighting time. (Almost. I still want some bouncing-ball fresh ones for my pesto panini.)


How to rescue manky tomatoes whilst still being the star of the show, serves 2

  1. Preheat the oven to 200ºC fan. Drain and chop 1 block of firm tofu, weighing approximately 250-300g, then put into a big mixing bowl along with 2-4 peeled garlic cloves. In a small jam jar with a lid, pour 2 tbsp olive oil, 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar, 1 heaped tsp wholegrain mustard, 1 tsp dried rosemary and a grind of black pepper, then put the lid on, shake it and pour this over the tofu.
  2. Peel and cut 2 onions into eighths and add to the tofu. Wash and halve or quarter 200g baby potatoes (up to you) and add those to the tofu. Wash what remains of your tomatoes and add these too. Toss everything in the big mixing bowl together so everything is coated in the salad dressing.
  3. Empty the contents of the mixing bowl onto as many roasting or baking trays as required for everything to fit in a single layer (it should be one, unless you are cooking vast quantities of tomatoes, in which case why not just boil them down to a concentrated pasta sauce with sautéed onions and celery?) Roast the lot for 30-35 minutes, by which point everything, even the tofu, will be crispy and delicious. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt.
  4. Serve with your usual suite of condiments – and a salad dressing to evoke the flavours of the tofu-soaking earlier. 

Notes: The reason I sprinkle with salt at the end and not the beginning is I find that salting potatoes before you roast them draws out their moisture and makes them damp and crispless. Which is a terrible shame, if still completely edible.


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A-Z of Vegetables: Mint

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Tuesday, 21 Nov 2023, 17:55

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: Jersey Royals

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Saturday, 11 Nov 2023, 11:27

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.

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