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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: Peppers

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Saturday, 11 Nov 2023, 11:30

Not all peppers are born equal. There is this general assumption that peppers, underneath the colour of their skin, are all basically the same. Nope. That’s humans you’re thinking of. The various colours of peppers greatly affect not only their flavour, but (as far as I’m concerned) how and with what you should cook them. 

For starters, chilli peppers (which we can cheerily take to cover everything from jalapeños to Scotch bonnets) should not be cooked. This is another of this instances where I share my heretical beliefs about some of the most worshipped vegetables on the planet: I think chilli is horrible. If the brutality with which it attacks lips, mouths and digestive systems wasn’t enough, their actual flavour – aside from the heat sensation and sweetness – is surprisingly insipid. This could be due to the fact that chilli quickly bludgeons your taste buds to early death before you’ve chewed it twice, but it comes to the same thing: flavourlessness. Avoid. Use black pepper instead.

Bell peppers in the UK are generally sold simply as ‘peppers’, and unlike their tightly-packed chilli cousins, release their seeds like an exploding lily anther whenever you try to cut them open. They also beg the most terrifying question in all vegetation: if they’re not flesh throughout, if they’re hollow, what gas was inside the pepper before I cut it open? Was it a vacuum? Did it contain argon? Is it like releasing a capsicum fart? What is inside those things?

Outside, bell peppers can be anywhere between Amsterdam red and Slytherin green, with all the in-between levels of fun which that suggests. Green peppers are almost prohibitively bitter, and don’t take kindly to crude treatment – or rather, crudité treatment (PUN!) That doesn’t mean they’re useless, however, because they can give overly sweet tomato sauces or curries a rehabilitative maturity. Just don’t invite them on a picnic.

Yellow peppers are the wateriest and least interesting – in fact, despite the green’s bitterness, I would say yellow are the least appetising, because they are neither particularly bitter nor particularly sweet. I suppose this makes them useful in smoothies and soups because they add 1 of your 5-a-day without upsetting the flavour balance, but all the same…

Red peppers are the fruitiest and most tomato-like in flavour, and can be used in all applications. Orange peppers, on the other hand, need TLC. Orange is my favourite colour so it’s unpredictable that orange is my favourite pepper, but as far as I’m concerned, cooking orange peppers diminishes the almost perfumey piquancy of them; orange peppers have a floral, exotic-fruit tang to them, so I like to eat them raw whenever possible. They’re also so beautiful: why would you ever want to scupper that day-brightening sunburst by braising? And why would you want to do so when you can make a rainbow-coloured couscous salad?

Rainbow couscous salad – Hurrah!

  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. As ever, non-wholegrain couscous is a waste of time and money.
  2. Now the fun bit! Dice, into equal-sized pieces, 1 orange pepper, a handful (about 7) purple radishes (usually labelled as ‘speciality’), 10cm cucumber and a handful (about 8) cherry tomatoes. For those keeping count, that’s four of the seven rainbow colours.
  3. Once the couscous is cooked, add the diced vegetables plus about 6 heaped tbsp cooked sweetcorn – canned is fine. Dress the couscous with extra virgin olive oil and a dash of posh vinegar or citrus juice of choice – start with a tbsp each and then taste to see if you want more. Avocado oil and lime juice would be good.
  4. As you can see, my rainbow couscous only caters to five colours: red tomatoes, orange pepper, yellow corn, green cucumber and indigo radishes (they get bluer upon sitting in the couscous). If your prerogative is colour over taste, then I suggest: for the blue, steamed and shredded red cabbage (which is blue), blueberries or sage; for the violet, beetroot or red kidney beans. Blue and violet vegetables will not be spot-on here, but whimsy finds a way.

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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: Lambs lettuce

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Saturday, 11 Nov 2023, 11:26

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: Carrots

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

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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