Category Archives: Vegetables

Greengrocer glories

We have a new greengrocer! I can’t quite believe it, but there it was – a man putting up a sign above a shop in Eldon Square, Dolgellau. Did it say ‘greengrocers’? I wasn’t quite sure I’d read it properly, so changed out of my sunglasses and moved closer, risking life, limb and being run over by a 38 bus. Yup: greengrocers.

A couple of days later and I was back in Dolgellau. A friend excitedly told me that the greengrocer had opened, and we popped in after we finished work. I admit that I had to stop myself from going mad, but I did quite well nonetheless:

grocer haul

That’s a huge sweet potato (just under a kilo – really), a magnificent aubergine, a bundle of lemon grass, a bag of French shallots and a couple of onions. No idea what I was going to do with any of them, but I couldn’t resist. Planning? What planning? Moi??

I quite enjoy doing this, buying what looks good instead of buying what I need to make X or Y, and I really enjoy the trawling through the cookery books that follows. I knew that I didn’t want to make such a perfect specimen of an aubergine into a dip like moutabal / baba ghanoush (smoked under the grill and puréed), and nor did I want to lose it in something like a ratatouille or curry, though I do have a lovely dry aubergine curry I make regularly – but this was just too fat and glossy to be used like that. I wanted it to stand out. In the end I based a dish on a recipe from Nigel Slater, with added za-atar, but it was – in my opinion – a bit too oily. I need to work it.

That left me with the sweet potato as the remaining ‘main’ ingredient, and I knew what I wanted to do with that: try and make the roasted sweet potato ‘chip’ work.

The problem is that sweet potatoes are extremely difficult to get to crisp, unlike ordinary spuds. I have read several explanations for why this is, some scientific, some bonkers, some completely barking (I just cannot believe that the phase of the moon at cooking time is critical), some based on vagueness or inaccuracies such as ‘they contain more water’: no, they don’t, not significantly, and it depends on the variety – of both. Moisture is key, however.

There are all sorts of solutions online. I’ve tried some – parboiling, soaking – and have found no difference other than making them worse, but I wanted to try another. If you’ve ever tried making sweet potato chips (or wedges), you’ll know that they generate a lot of steam which does not help them crisp up at all. Some of that needs to be let out. Size is also a factor – the bigger, the less likely they are to crisp up. The edges may burn, but the middles will be really soggy. They’re never going to be like roasted ‘ordinary’ potato chips, but they can be better than I’ve managed so far. I’m not going to say that I’ve cracked it, but I think I’m as close as I’m going to get. Opening the oven door may be counter-intuitive, but…

IMG_2010Now, they need a dipping sauce, something to cut through the sweetness. Greek yoghurt with a little Tabasco stirred in is lovely; a sharp salsa is messy but good; a raita made with grated cucumber, mint and Greek yohgurt is best. Well, for me… and they were served as part of a tapas-style assortment.

Roast sweet potato chips
serves 2

1 very large sweet potato (or 3 or so smaller ones)
2 tsp oil (I used garlic-flavoured rapeseed oil from Blodyn Aur, but olive is fine)
1 tsp sweet smoked paprika
a sprig of rosemary
a sprig of thyme
lemon wedges (to serve)

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C, 180 fan, GM6. Find the biggest baking sheet you have, or get two smaller ones – the sweet potato pieces need to be spread out in a single layer.

Peel the sweet potato and cut it into long slices. Cut the slices into chips, never thicker than 1cm, and a maximum of 4cm long. Toss them in kitchen paper to dry off some of the dampness that the chopping generates.

Put the oil and paprika into a large shallow dish or bowl and mix them together. Add the sweet potato pieces and stir them gently around, making sure they are coated in the mixture. Then spread them out on the baking sheet so that they do not touch – some people have found that lining the tray with baking parchment first also helps, but don’t use greaseproof paper as that keeps the moisture in. Put them in the oven for 10 minutes.

Open the door carefully and allow the steam to escape. Then close the oven and cook for another ten minutes. Take the tray out, turn the chips over if it’s possible to do so without breaking them, and scatter the herbs over them. Return the tray to the oven and bake for a further 10-15 minutes. Serve immediately with a squeeze of lemon, salt and pepper – oh, and if you pile them up in a small dish, they’ll just go soggy again (I know this… ahem).

sweet potato

What next, I wonder? I’m going with the flow and seeing what they have in, and what looks good. For some bizarre reason the selection of fruit and veg at the Co-op in Dolgellau is rather patchy (it’s fine in Barmouth, not that far away), and the Eurospar is the other side of town – not that handy, depending on where you are. But this new greengrocer – Youngs – is slap in the middle, right by the bus stops. Worth supporting!

 

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Raving about ribollita

I’m still dealing with the great Snowdonia kale mountain, which looks dangerously as though it’s about to run to seed. So much for my ‘hungry gap’ filler. Better pick it and eat it, then. And I know just what to do with it.

ribollita in progressOne of my all-time favourite ways to use the cavolo nero which grows so well in my garden is in the Italian soup ribollita: ribollita because it’s ‘reboiled’ – cooked one day, reheated and eaten the next. And the day after that.

What am I saying? It’s not Italian, it’s Tuscan. I’ve been doing a bit of research and have come to the conclusion that there are as many versions as there are Tuscan grandmothers.

There are four constants: kale or dark cabbage, some sort of dried or canned bean, olive oil and bread. One person’s nonna used potatoes; another thought that putting them in was a crime. Someone else refused to believe that you could have a ribollita without the addition of sausage. The identity of the beans caused a debate too: borlottis, or cannellini beans? What about tomatoes? Obligatory, or an offence?

So I turned to my collection of recipe books, and found an equal variety. One has a version which includes both potatoes and sausages, and suggests using any white beans, including butter beans. River Cafe have a fabulous recipe which goes for cannellini beans, no potatoes or sausage – only it serves 10. Anna del Conte’s recipe from Classic Food of Northern Italy has chillies in it (cannellini beans; no to sausage, yes to potato, yes to tomatoes). I’ve found another which adds chard and bread to a basic minestrone, and the minestrone has bacon in it as well as pasta and wine (surely not). I’ve found a recipe from another well-known food writer which oddly has no greens. That’s definitely not ribollita, but it may be an editing error.

I give up. But not on ribollita, because if I do give up on that the kale plants will uproot themselves and come marching into the house like triffids. So I’m doing my ordinary ribollita: no sausages, no potatoes, no pasta, no chillies, no wine (well, maybe a splash), no bacon; borlotti beans because I’ve got some in, and tomatoes just because.

Ribollita
serves 4

1 small head of celery
1 tbsp olive oil
3 carrots, peeled and chopped into roughly 1-cm pieces
2 small red onions, peeled and chopped
2 large cloves of garlic, crushed
a good bunch of flat-leaved parsley
250ml passata, or 1 x 400g tin tomatoes, drained and chopped (set the juice aside)
a huge armful of cavolo nero – about 750g untrimmed, 500g trimmed
1 x 400g tin of borlotti beans

To serve: good bread – it can be a day old – and more olive oil

Trim the celery well and remove the strings with a knife, then chop the sticks finely. If the leaves look good, finely chop a few of those too and put them to one side. Heat the olive oil in a large casserole or pan (with a lid) over a low to medium heat, and add the chopped celery, carrots and onions. Put the lid on and allow the vegetables to cook until soft, but don’t let them colour up. Add the garlic when the vegetables are almost ready; it – especially – must not burn, and then add the parsley and celery leaves (if using), stir them in, and cook everything together for a couple more minutes. Add the passata and continue cooking for another half hour or so – check to make sure the soup isn’t catching during this time; add a little water if necessary.

While the ribollita base is cooking, trim the cavolo nero. Discard any thick stems and, above all, any caterpillars (eek – surely it’s too early!), and then chop it into fine strips – it looks like a vast amount but it cooks down. Drain the borlotti beans and rinse them; put half the tin in a small bowl. Add the cavolo nero and the rest of the borlottis to the ribollita, and then top up with water, but be careful – this is a very thick soup (this is where you can add a splash of wine). Bring the heat up and simmer the ribolitta for 20 minutes or so.

Mash the remaining borlotti beans up with a fork and add them to the pan; cook for a further 10 minutes. If you want to be authentic – and it’s worth it for the depth of flavour – take the soup off the heat and leave it overnight, in the fridge if your house is warm (if you can’t wait, cook it down until the soup is very thick). Check for seasoning before reheating, then cook it until there is very little liquid left. Break up some stale-ish bread and stir it into the ribollita just before serving. Ladle the soup into bowls – it should be too thick to pour easily – then add a good drizzle of olive oil and serve.

ribollita ready

And it’s yummy. Especially on a day like today when the mist is down, the drizzle is persistent and yesterday’s promise of spring was a cruel joke from the weather gods.

For the love of kale

There’s something so dreary about the word ‘kale’. Trying dragging it out – kaaaaale. Depressing. Boring. Dull. Virtuous. Farty. Tough.

Wrong, it’s none of those*. And at this time of year, it’s a godsend to the vegetable gardener. We’ve had a couple of sharp frosts and right now it’s trying to snow – again – so my kale is in prime picking condition.

IMG_1332This year, I grew it by accident. Almost.

It’s a toughie: it withstands conditions like these in 2010 (the kale is the leafy lump, foreground, right), and shrugs off the worst effects of the weather, laughing all the while. It can be eaten to the stalk by caterpillars during the summer but spring right back in winter. Nothing, but nothing, kills it. And as a result, I’ve suffered from kale-glut syndrome.

The symptoms are easily recognisable: a freezer full of frozen kale, a tendency to put kale in everything, to contemplate making kale ice cream and flavouring chocolate mousse with it, a desire to be really close friends with everyone and give them presents. Of kale. So last year I decided I wouldn’t plant any, and stuck to my resolve. (Shh. I missed it. A bit.)

Earlier this year I was inveigled into taking home some small cavolo nero plants at the Green Fair and plant swap in Penrhyndeudraeth. I didn’t want to, but I most emphatically did want to get rid of some tomato seedlings in exchange, so I took a tray. I shoved them in a corner of the veg plot and left them alone. The caterpillars didn’t; they had a fantastic time. But I remembered that a bare kale stalk can mystically regenerate, and left them in. They’re now the only thing standing, and they are DELICIOUS.

cavolo neroBut what do you do with kale, even if it is the sophisticated cavolo nero, given that the kale ice cream was not a hit?

This little lot is being shredded and added to a stir fry this evening. It’s also been in stews and baked with pasta, and it’s been in a lovely Tuscan ribollita in the past, though not yet this year. There are lots more possibilities, too, and of course it can take really strong flavours and stand up to them, face them down, even. Watch this space.

My latest favourite is a pasta sauce. The recipe came from an Italian neighbour and was scribbled on the back of a receipt from the local farmers’ co-op (once my shopping receipts urged me to try perfumes; this one’s slogan informs me that ‘quality bull semen is now in’). It was pinned on my kitchen noticeboard for ages but has finally made its way safely into my notebook. It serves one, due to unreasoning prejudice in the kale stakes.

Orachietti con cavolo nero
Serves 1

80-100g orachietti
a big handful of small cavolo nero leaves
half a tsp olive oil
1 clove of garlic, crushed
6 anchovies
chilli flakes, to taste

Put a large pan of slightly salted water on to the boil. As soon as it boils, add the orachietti. Time it – when the water returns to the boil, allow the orachietti to cook for half the time specified on the packet (this usually means about 5 minutes). During this time, chop the cavolo nero and discard any tough-looking stems. Add the leaves to the orachietti once the 5 minutes have elapsed, and allow it to cook for the rest of the specified time – generally 10-12 minutes in total.

Warm the oil in a small frying pan over a gentle heat. Add the garlic and the anchovies, and break the anchovies up with a wooden spoon. Add the chilli flakes and stir – cook very briefly.

Drain the pasta and cavolo nero well, and return them to their warm pan. Tip in the contents of the frying pan, stir everything together and serve immediately, with plenty of black pepper. Enjoy!

kale

* Confession time. Honesty makes me admit that kale can be difficult. Pick the wrong variety and cook it wrongly, and it can be every single one of the negative things listed. I once sowed an obscure heritage kale out of interest and respect for generations of north-of-Scotland crofters, and it was possibly one of the toughest things I’ve ever grown. It was beautiful to look at, very prolific, and shoes, it would have been fine for. Eating – meh…

Farewell then, broad beans

I’ve just dug up the last of the broad bean plants. It’s something I’ve been putting off – they get chopped up and added to the compost bin which is a bit hard on the (injured but recovering) hands – but it is done now, and that’s it until late spring next year. Sigh.

beansBroad beans are normally my first serious crop, my first seasonal treat (and usually my first brush with excess). When you grow a lot of your own veg, seasonality – inevitably – plays an enormous part: and that’s an enormous part of my enjoyment in growing vegetables. I find I really look forward to the first baby broad beans, the slim courgettes, the crunchy mangetout, in a way I wouldn’t if I went down to the Co-op and took them out of the freezers or picked them off the shelf.

If you can have anything, any time, do you really value it in the same way? I’m not sure, but for me the answer is ‘no, not so much’. As the year starts, I plant up my seeds and wait for the little shoots to appear, watching for hints of green in an ever-so-slightly obsessive manner. I coddle them along, let them spend time outside the greenhouse until they’re big enough to be allowed out all night, then plant them out… You definitely don’t get that level of anticipation from Bird’s Eye.

In preparation for my normal – and quite ridiculous – level of overproduction I drew up a master list of recipes. Hm – that sounds rather more preplanned than it was in reality. When I totted up the surviving plants and realised I’d got over thirty, all of which would produce pod after pod, beans after beans after beans, I trawled through my old notes, my cuttings and part of the first section of one of the bookcases (I lost the will to live after I’d found broad beans + bacon to the power n) and wrote down some ideas.

The very first were eaten raw, at the prompting of an Italian neighbour. Delicious, and I’d not tried that before. She said that as a child she’d never have dreamed of eating a raw pea though her family ate broad beans raw all the time, and that she’d been quite disconcerted to find it was the other way round in the UK. We stood by the plants and chomped on raw beans while she told me all about her early life. You don’t get that with Bird’s Eye, either.

After that, I went into salads. Broad beans do have a stunning affinity with piggy products, and a spinach salad with broad beans and crispy bacon can be a real treat, despite almost every book including a version of it. Keep it simple, and it’s stunning. But I rather overdid that one last year, as I did a chorizo version, so this year I branched out and made salads with warm baby broad beans and salame finocchiona from Lidl (pretty good, not surprised it won an award last year). Goat’s cheese made another delicious companion, a change from feta.

After I’d had so many salabeans 2ds that I could barely face a lettuce leaf, I branched out into risottos (yum), pastas, toppings for bruschetta – great for the bigger ones; the ones I missed because they were lurking at the back – and, star upon star, a wonderful frittata.

That was an accident; it was just supposed to be an ordinary omelette but I needed to make room for another egg box and therefore used more eggs than I normally would. Served with a tomato salsa and some sauté potatoes – by that time the spuds were beginning to come on stream too – it was one of the simplest and best BB dishes I’ve ever cooked.

Another absolute hit was meatballs with broad beans and lemon, from one of my favourite recipe books of all time, Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (you can find the recipe here, as it was also published in the Guardian). I particularly loved the mixture of skinned and unskinned beans, and the lemony tang. The recipe worked beautifully; my one quibble was that the cooking time was a bit too long for my just-picked beans; when I made it again – it was that good – I added the unskinned ones at the end of cooking.

Ah yes: shelling broad beans. I always, but always, unless specifically told not to, skin my broad beans unless they are the size of my little finger nail. Get fresh beans. Pan of boiling water. Broad beans out of the pods into bowl. Empty bowl into water. Boil a minute or so. Drain into sieve. Run cold water over beans; skins pucker. Easy to pop the bright green, tender, appetizing, succulent beans out of their skins, which do just fine in the compost bin.

And at the end of the season, when I’m left with monster beans – well, not too monstrous, because I don’t let that happen – it’s time for a BB purée with lots of garlic. Great on sourdough – back to bruschetta – or with pitta, like a hummous.

But now – nothing. Niente. Rien. Zilch. Diddly squat. Because yet again I got carried away. Yet again I have failed to freeze any; yet again I have forgotten to save some for next year’s seed. There’s an upside to that though – I can try another variety. I’m going to try a heritage bean, one with red flowers, and see how it compares to my beloved Aquadulce Claudia. Roll on next May – and now for the courgettes.

Hot weather soups

Today the title of this post seems a little optimistic, but I’m hoping I can entice the warmer weather back by stating it as a fact. Well, it might work…

I am, without any doubt, a soup addict but at this time of year even I go off them a bit. After I abandoned a bowl of mushroom soup the other day I decided I needed an cold alternative, and one that wasn’t gazpacho. So I turned to one of my favourite books, Lindsay Bareham’s Celebration of Soup, and there were a few interesting suggestions, though not a lot – but many of them foundered on the fact that I’m lactose intolerant. I have to avoid milk and cream, and though I could now take a tablet which would enable me to digest lactose, many years of white liquids making me ill means I contemplate them with distaste (but yoghurt is fine; the bacteria in yoghurt help generate enzymes which digest lactose; go yoghurt).

cold soupThen I went back to some of my other, often older, books. An obvious choice, and a version of which does appear in Soup, was a Middle Eastern one, a classic which crops up in many sources: cucumber, yoghurt, garlic, mint. A lot of the versions I found used cream, like Lindsey Bareham’s, so I decided to go back to the absolute basics and see if it was really necessary…

Cold cucumber, mint and yoghurt soup
(serves 2, generously)

a sliver of butter
1 tsp olive oil
2 shallots, peeled and chopped
1 cucumber, peeled, deseeded and chopped
1 clove of garlic, peeled but whole
a good handful of fresh mint, chopped
500ml natural yoghurt
salt and white pepper

Melt the butter with the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan over a gentle heat. Add the shallots and allow them to cook – without browning – for a few minutes and then add the chopped cucumber. Cook for another 5 minutes, stirring and checking that there’s no hint if browning, and then add about 300-400ml of water – enough to cover. Cook, very gently, for 5 minutes more. Keep checking that there’s enough liquid and add a little more if necessary. Add the chopped mint and cook for another 10-15 minutes, or until the shallot and cucumber are really soft and the liquid has cooked well down.

Put a sieve over a large bowl and empty the vegetables into it; remove the garlic clove and discard it. Work the soup through the sieve with a wooden spoon. Discard any bits which won’t go through – there shouldn’t be much – and scrape any pulp off the bottom of the sieve into the bowl. Test the soup base; by now it should be tepid. Add the yoghurt and stir it in (a whisk is useful) until it has a texture similar to single cream; thin with a little water if necessary. Check for seasoning, cover the bowl and chill in the fridge for a minimum of 2 hours.

(Removing the garlic after cooking is optional. Including it can make the soup taste overwhelmingly garlicky, but if it’s mild you could leave it in – chop it roughly before cooking, though.)

mintI grow a lot of herbs, and currently have six different mints; for this soup I used a mixture of spearmint, garden mint and a Moroccan mint, plus something described as ‘chocolate mint’ on the label. Happily, it doesn’t taste remotely of chocolate…

I also grow lovage, and that gave me an idea for another soup, made along the same lines:
celery and lovage soup.

I won’t bother to write out all the method again, as it’s essentially the same. For two, I used a whole head of celery, including the leaves, and 4 shallots; no garlic. I trimmed the celery but didn’t de-string it before chopping. I cooked these gently down, this time using a neutral rapeseed oil, and needed to add more water so they didn’t catch; they also took longer. I added a good handful of chopped lovage leaves after 25 minutes, and cooked the vegetables for another 10. The pushing through the sieve produces more pulp for discarding – mostly celery strings as far as I could see – and I had to be careful when scraping the pulp off the bottom of the sieve as some of the strings worked their way through at the end. I didn’t need quite so much yoghurt to get the right texture this time. This celery and lovage soup has a delicious, almost lightly curried flavour, and I ground some black pepper over it before serving rather than adding white pepper before chilling. Yum.

Very refreshing, and doubtless there’ll be more experimenting before the summer (HINT, weather gods) is over. I can’t do without my soups.

I can do without some things, though. Several of the authors of the older recipes I uncovered in my ridiculously large collection of cookery books obviously felt that subtle colour wasn’t good enough. Personally, I don’t see lots of green food colouring as a necessary soup ingredient (eek)…