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A-Z of Vegetables: Insalata

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

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: 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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