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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: Nuts

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Look, I know nuts aren’t technically vegetables! But name me a vegetable that begins with ‘N’ and I will show you a seaweed. There’s nothing wrong with eating seaweed – it’s a way to get some iodine into your diet if you’re vegan – but it’s not something I use much. I get my iodine from choice plant milks and tofu. So with that established, let’s talk nuts.

As is right, most people first encounter nuts in the rather enticing coating of chocolate – be that Nutella, the Brazil in Quality Street, Toblerone or, if you’re really fancy, gâteau d’opéra, that multilayered French confection of almond, coffee and chocolate. Yes, I have done my research. And no, I’m not counting Snickers because a ‘peanut be not a nut’ (try saying that after a glass of Frangelico).

But once you have grown up and moved on from an overwhelming obsession with chocolate (when is that supposed to happen, by the way?), you begin to mix nuts in more savoury contexts – which is just as well, because the relatively restricted range of proteins available to a vegan requires forays into the worlds of nuts and seeds – and we can’t eat chocolate morning, noon and night. Even if the little voice inside us tells us it would be a lovely idea. 

One of the most useful things to know is that nuts don’t all taste similar. Those big bags of mixed nuts are a trick to lead the hapless connoisseur astray, even if they are fantastic value for money. I do not consider it beyond the realms of decency to sift patiently through the bag to differentiate the nuts into ornamental bowls. If you’re including nuts in a meal, you have to check that their flavours complement what you’re cooking.

Almonds are easily the most versatile. They are almost the only nut which can pair with tomato harmoniously, and I can recommend flaked almonds sprinkled on top of risotto or pasta sauces if you want a slightly cheesy edge – although Tom Hunt also suggests grating walnuts. Almonds are also incredibly cheap and can be grown in Europe, so you don’t need to support ecologically devastating mono-crops of almonds in California if you want organic Portuguese ones instead.

Pecans are one of the least versatile. They’re slightly peculiar in flavour, rather like maple syrup, sawdust and shoes, and they’re almost inevitably stale when you buy them. I wonder if I'm going to list all the nuts there are?

Oh hang on! There is a nut which is a vegetable! Butternut! Awesome – here’s a recipe for a hot lunch if you’re home alone in autumn. It uses lentils; sorry. What do you mean a butternut is a squash?


Roasted butternut lunch with miso lentils, serves 1

  1. Preheat oven to 200ºC fan and get out a small roasting tray. An ovenproof dish for soufflés and crèmes brûlée will also do the trick.
  2. Wash and chop 150g butternut squash and 1 stick of celery (use cauli leaves if allergic or phobic) into 2cm cubes and tumble into the designated roasting tray. You don’t have to peel butternut because the skin is edible, which is an enormous relief because peeling those bastards is really difficult. 
  3. (Sidebar: those butternut seeds are edible – remove the frondy bits and simmer for 10 mins, then roast for 10 mins with a piece of greaseproof paper on top of the seeds so they don't pop over into the darkest recesses of your oven. Stick in a jar once cooled and sprinkle with abandon. They taste like popcorn.)
  4. Anyway, back to the squash and celery. Sprinkle over 1 tsp dried or chopped fresh rosemary and 1 tbsp olive oil, and toss to mix, then roast for 30 minutes.
  5. Drain and rinse one 400g tin green lentils. Stir together 1 tbsp brown miso, 2 tbsp water and 1 tsp your favourite vinegar or citrus juice into a runny paste. When the butternut is ready, pour the lentils in and around the veg in the tray and pour over the miso dressing and roast for another 5 minutes. It is a lot of lentils, but it’s supposed to be a meal in its own right.
  6. Time to eat! Sprinkle over some nutritional yeast flakes (optional) and tuck in! If you’ve chosen a decorative enough roasting dish, you could just eat straight from that and cut down on washing up. It’s not slobbishness, it’s economy. If it's good enough for brûlées, it's good enough for butternut.

Notes: If you can’t bear lentils, small tinned beans like haricot or black-eyed would be good too.


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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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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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