Tag Archive for: Vegetables

Though Samuel Pepys remains the diarist closest to my heart (with a dishonourable mention for the entertaining Alan Clark) it is Pepys’ Restoration contemporary, John Evelyn, to whom I consistently turn in penning my vignettes about food. Not so much to his Diaries proper but to his horticultural treatises. In my Quest for Cobnuts I invoked his Sylva (1664); while for Scorzonera it’s his Acteria: A Discourse of Sallets from five years later.

Many of those ‘sallets’ he grows in his stately country garden are salad stalwarts to this day – beetroots, spring onions, lettuces, radishes. His spellings may differ but artichaux and sparagus are no strangers to us either. Elsewhere there’s a strong interface between wild and cultivated, medicinal and culinary, and many plants mentioned (Jack o’ the Hedge, hogweed, seakale, wood sorrel, dock) are four centuries on now consigned to the forager’s domain.

That’s not the case with scorzonera – praised by Evelyn – and the inexorably yoked salsify. Not that it’s easy to buy either of these edible roots, distantly related, that are similar in appearance (long, thin, tapering) and taste (mild and sweet, a hint of oysters, some claim). Autumn is their season but they’re hardly a fixture in greengrocers or on the market. 

Three years ago Waitrose chose to stock Salsify, “both the black variety of the vegetable, grown in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk and a small amount of the white variety, grown in Ayrshire in Scotland.” The black variety is indeed scorzonera, the white the true salsify, though when both are peeled the flesh is ivory cream and must be instantly plunged into lemon water to prevent browning.

Whenever I locate either, usually from an enterprising organic grower, they’re caked in mud, making purchase a kind of Root Roulette.

Scorzonera has traditionally been reckoned the superior in taste. Evelyn’s Acteria entry is keen to stress its wellness attributes (it is indeed full of vitamins)  but he allows it place at the dining table: “Viper-graſs, Tragopogon, Scorzonera, Salſifex, &c. tho’ Medicinal, and excellent againſt the Palpitation of the Heart, Faintings, Obſtruction of the Bowels, &c. are beſides a very ſweet and pleaſant Sallet; being laid to ſoak out the bitterneſs, then peel’d, may be eaten raw, or Condited; but beſt of all ſtew’d with Marrow, Spice, Wine, &c. as Artichoak, Skirrets, &c. ſliced or whole. They likewiſe may bake, fry, or boil them; a more excellent Root there is hardly growing.

Scorzonera belongs to the Asteraceae family, a sibling of artichokes and Jerusalem artichokes. The best known species is the Scorzonera hispanica, native to southern Europe, known as winter asparagus, as it is harvested from October and throughout winter season. The plant has large green leaves and edible daisy-like yellow flowers. ‘Viper-gras’ refers to the legend that it was a cure for poisonous snake bites.

Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) boasts purple flowers and is a larger relative of the common wild plant, goat’s beard and share it hairy seed ‘clocks’. Domestic cultivation started in the 16th century in Italy and France, where it has always been more popular than in England. Until now when it has been take up by chefs such as Richard Corrigan, Simon Rogan and Michel Roux.

So what to do with these interchangeable rare treats? Boil, serve in wedges with lemon, or in fritters, tempura, puree, roasted or in  gratin (my favourite at home is baked in an earthenware pot, layered with oozing Ogleshield cheese), which doesn’t overwhelm the subtle root taste.

Still I bow to one of my favourite scholarly professional chefs, Jeremy Lee of Soho’s Quo Vadis for his superior salsify nibbles. Hugely pleased to meet him pre-Pandemic at Bistrotheque In Manchester’s Native Hotel, where he was guest chef, cooking a three-course homage to Elizabeth David. Jeremy blanches the salsify roots, smothers them in parmesan and butter before rolling them in in feuille de brick Tunisian pastry (sturdier than filo) and bakes until golden. It’s one of the sumptuous recipes in his recently published instant classic, Cooking, Simply and Well, For One or Many (4th Estate, £30), in which he devotes a whole chapter to salsify.

Ingredients: To serve 4-6 as a nibble: six sticks salsify, juice of one lemon, salt and pepper, 120g melted butter, 90g grated parmesan, three sheets of feuilles de brick pastry.

Method: Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Wash the salsify. Peel swiftly and brush lightly with lemon juice. Bring a pan of water to the boil and salt lightly. Drop in the salsify and simmer until tender, around 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from the pan when cooked and cool.

Lay the feuilles de brick sheets on a surface, cut each in half so they are half-moon shapes, anoint with butter, liberally season with salt and pepper, and strew with parmesan. Lay the salsify along the flat side and roll very tightly towards the curved side. Lay the wrapped salsify upon a baking sheet. Brush with any remaining butter and bake for 12 minutes or until golden brown and interesting.

Lift carefully from the oven and remove to a board. To serve, cut into three or four pieces, adding a little more grated parmesan.

Grow your own

If this glorious celebration of under the radar roots makes you want to access them more easily follow Evelyn’s lead and grow your own. Sow the freshest seed possible in sandy soi,l either in autumn or spring. They can also be raised in pots and planted out in spring. Contrary to the last, salsify is a biennial plant, scorzonera a perennial. 

Back from visiting a remarkable market garden in deepest Cheshire, I did three things – rewatched the Netflix Chef’s Table episode on US ‘farm to fork’ guru Dan Barber, Googled ‘Singing Frogs Farm’ in Sonoma County, California and trawled the Internet for deals on celtuce seeds. Damn you spellcheck for repeatedly swapping in ‘lettuce’.

It wasn’t instant. I didn’t actually go straight home following my exploration of sandy-soiled Cinderwood, outside Nantwich. After Arriva had whisked me and Richard Cossins from Crewe into Manchester, I stopped off at New Islington Marina for a few dishes at Flawd natural wine bar, of which Richard is co-owner. We came bearing gifts for his business partner, Joseph Otway – turnips we had picked from a polytunnel an hour before for this much-travelled chef to slice into translucent discs to shelter smokehouse mackerel.

Further Cinderwood produce followed in canny assemblies that belied the limited cooking facilities at Flawd. Particularly lovely was a halved gem lettuce topped with Garstang Blue Cheese and leek with a pungent sprinkle of crunchy stuff. Chilled juicy Gamay chosen by Flawd’s ex-Noma sommelier Daniel Craig Martin added to the ultra-fresh appeal of dining this way. Al fresco would have added but a stiff breeze subverted the Ancoats sunshine.

Many contemporary Manc restaurants are now buying from the Flawd team’s one acre growing arm 40 miles to the south. The distinguished likes of Mana, Erst, Elnecot, 10 Tib Lane, The Creameries. Honest Crust pizza king Richard Carver has placed a huge order for regular fresh basil  a. It demonstrates a burgeoning commitment to letting the freshest of ingredients tell their own story.

Which brings us back to that trio of reflex reactions I opened with. Dan Barber was Richard and Joseph’s boss when they worked at his (literally) groundbreaking restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York, a converted barn just 30 miles (or maybe a million) from Manhattan.

As with other restaurateurs/chefs of their generation, forward thinking yet respective of tradition, Barber’s 2014 book, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, is the duo’s bible.

The Third Plate champions organic flavour-driven produce as a meal focus. Shift to fewer slabs of protein, elevate the finest quality veg and grains to centre stage, respect the earth is the message. The movement has been mirrored over here by Simon Rogan’s Cumbrian farm, and the urban growing project of chef/patron Sam Buckley at Where The Light Gets In, Stockport, where Joseph Otway became head chef.

It’s all about connections. Quite dizzying connections. Richard, who worked for Rogan at his London ventures Roganic and Fera, was general manager of Blue Hill at Stone Barns when Joseph arrived as fish chef there before working at Relae in Copenhagen, where he met Daniel, then a sommelier at Noma. Sounds like a culinary equivalent of ‘Rock Family Trees’, but you get my drift.

So how does ‘Singing Frogs Farm’ (above left) join the narrative? Enter the man destined to be head grower at Cinderwood. Trained at a long-standing organic farm in Southern England, Michael Fitzsimmons (right) moved back to be nearer his native Liverpool. At one point he worked at Michelin-starred Moor Hall near Ormskirk, complete with its own walled kitchen garden. Yet it was thanks to an unlikely cheffing stint at WTLGI that he was steered back to his first love, horticulture. 

The seeds were sown at a late night wind-down in the Stockport branch of Wetherspoons when he bonded with Joseph Otway and sommelier/natural wine expert Caroline Dubois, later to be Cinderwood’s first customer through her Levenshulme cafe, Isca. All three were keen on establishing a true farm to fork link, a commercial sustainable, growing project geared to generate maximum flavour. The Sam Buckley influence was obvious and the innovative Stone Barns Center, while Singing Frogs offer practical inspiration for Michael on how to work with soil. The key? No tillage.

Tillage is the mechanical manipulation of soil. In its place you should: Disturb the soil as little as possible. Keep as many living plants in the soil, as often as possible. Grow as many different species of plants as practical. Keep the soil covered all the time. Incorporate animals.

According to the Singing Frogs website, “When one understands the myriad scientific reasons for each of these principles, one quickly sees how tillage in all its forms is the complete antithesis of soil health.”

There is a long way to go for for Cinderwood to match the productivity of their likeminded Californian cousins but it is early days yet. It took a further year after that Wetherspoons summit for the twist of fate that helped make the dream come true. 

Higher Ground was the new seedbed. That was the pop-up kitchen Otway, Cossins and Co launched at Kampus, the ‘garden neighbourhood’ of diverse apartments being created across from Canal Street in Manchester city centre. Their restaurant showcase in the site’s inherited ‘bungalow on stilts’ was scheduled to last four weeks but was cut short by the arrival of the pandemic. Which, as it turned out, gave them plus Michael the chance to assemble Cinderwood – via a lot of hands-on graft.

There was land to be cleared, sheds and two polytunnels to be erected, water and electricity supplies to be secured and a ton of pressure on Michael to put his horticultural principles into practice. With success he now has an assistant grower, Mike McCarten, who brings his own cheffing nous from working at Richard Carver’s Altrincham Market side-project, Little Window. The network tightens.

Yet still none of this would have been possible without the arrival of their future landlords at Higher Ground’s launch night in February 2020. Bearing steaks. Their own reared sirloin. As a kind of organic calling card. Jane and Chris Oglesby had turned over their land at Poole Hall near Nantwich to raising Longhorn, Dexter and Belted Galloway cattle in the most natural possible way.

As Richard Cossins recalls: “Chris Roberts (a chef specialising expert in cooking with fire and author of For The Love of Food) had told the Oglesbys they really ought to meet us, we’d really get on, so they just turned up out of the blue. Jane produced this pasture-fed beef from her handbag and Joseph, after opening the windows, cooked these amazing steaks.

“Jane really knew her stuff, had read The Third Plate and it had inspired her quest for regenerative beef. We bonded at once and they offered to lease us land to start Cinderwood on the estate. One acre would be enough for us to get going, though there is an option for a further four, which me might use for soft fruit. The soil is rich from being dairy pasture in the past. It was just perfect for us to work with.”

Family money from the Bruntwood property empire is behind Jane’s 120-strong rare breed herd. Few ‘farmhouses’ are as lavish as Regency mansion Poole Hall, but this is no Marie Antoinette playing a shepherdess vanity project. It’s very hands-on. On our visit I was hugely impressed by the ethical commitment of farm manager Ste Simock, proud that his beef herd benefits from total freedom to roam wild plant-rich pastures. The animals are never kept indoors, never tread on concrete even; the bulls stay with the herd; to avoid any stress in the beasts he accompanies them in pairs to Callum Edge’s small scale abattoir on the Wirral.

Twice a week Michael Fitzsimmons makes his own delivery journey into Manchester, finishing up at Flawd. En route to Cinderwood I had popped into Another Hand on Deansgate Mews for brunch and just missed his drop-off of the radishes of your dreams. The chefs there Julian and Max are huge fans of the produce.

Michael’s own dream would be of a cluster of small-scale nurseries surrounding the city, selling to and fuelling a thriving indie restaurant scene. For the moment we just have Cinderwood.

So what about my third quest – in pursuit of the elusive celtuce I saw Michael carefully tending outside polytunnel 2? That’s a story for the future. Read about it via this link.

Never known a courgette glut like it. Our raised beds are Zucchini Centrale this summer. One upside of a current disinclination to travel? There have been no transitions into the dreaded marrow. What the hell can you do with those? Answers in crayon on a hessian sack, please.

Soup has been one way to depopulate the veg rack. The Ethicurean Cookbook’s Roasted Courgette and Cobnut Soup is an old favourite even if the hazelnut’s folksy Kentish cousin is still a month or two away from ripening. As they will in that Mendip restaurant’s walled garden, which I so love. As I write I’m happy to substitute pistachios to sprinkle over the labneh I’ve been straining for 36 hours (soup recipe below).

Serendipity rules as the courgettes pile up. Italy’s a good way to go. Marcella Hazan, Giorgio Locatelli, the late Antonio Carluccio and our English Italophiles  Jacob Kenedy, Alastair Little, Rachel Roddy, all offer ways of making the green watery cylinders they call zucchini up their game.

The heftier examples really require baking, so I profitably consult the unsung Queen of La Cucina, Anna del Conte (Milan-born, resident in England since 1949, now 96).

Amaretti biscuits and ricotta are the stuffing for this Mantuan masterpiece

From her Amaretto, Apple Cake and Artichokes: The Best of (1989) I pick Zucchini Ripiene alla Mantovano, which stuffs them with ricotta and amaretti in the method particular to Mantua (recipe below). It makes use of my store cupboard stash of amaretti biscuits, close to their use-by-date. They add a beguiling almondiness, as they do to another slightly sweet speciality of that Lombard city, pumpkin tortellini.

All this sustainable kitchen prep of my glut, though, lacks a little glamour. What the Romans call Il Fascino. The glory of growing your own courgettes is the access to their trumpet-like yellow flowers. All over Italy in season you can buy bags of them at markets. Not so in Britain. I once spotted an overpriced wilting trio of them at a farmer’s market in Marylebone. It reminded me of northern traders flogging a small bag of wild garlic for a couple of quid when nearby woods reeked of the forageable stuff. Zucchini flowers – you really have to grow your own.

Leslie Forbes’ two Seventies volumes matched her illustrations with her own hand-written travelogue

What to do with them? Not too many choices. Best to take the advice of a forgotten food writer, whose two most beautiful tomes – hand written, self illustrated, product of hands-on research – remain a fixture on the shelf of my all-time favourite cookbooks.

Leslie Forbes died in 2016 at the age of 63. By then the Canadian, originally an artist (she illustrated Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence), was most celebrated for the best-seller Bombay Ice and other literary thrillers. I couldn’t get on with them; my heart remained with A Table in Tuscany (1985) and A Table in Provence (1987). Seek them out second hand on Abe Books or the like

My original copies showing their age, well-thumbed and stained with tomato coulis and olive oil

Both have recipes for courgette flowers… or more evocatively Fiori di Zucca or Fleurs des Courgettes. I’m not one for deep-frying the stuffed flowers, so I’ll pass on the zucchini fritters San Gimignano style, ‘au naturel’ or ham-stuffed, from the Tuscan book; instead try this Provencal treatment, which Leslie sourced from the Gleize family of Chateau Arnoux. I I substitute water for the chicken stock, use canned San Marzano tomatoes and am still waiting on my second batch of chervil to come through, so omitted.

FLEURS DE COURGETTES FARCIE SAUCE POMME D’AMOUR

400g can San Marzano tomatoes

grated zest one lemon (no white pith)

3-4 basil leaves, finely chopped

1 tbsp parsley, finely chopped

1 tbsp chervil, finely chopped

pinch of powered corlander

1 garlic clove, peeled & crushed

100 ml olive oil

salt and pepper

Stuffing

3 medium courgettes, finely chopped

6 tbsp olive oil

6 fresh basil leaves, in thin strips

6 fresh mint leaves, chopped

handful fresh parsley, finely chopped

2 small garlic cloves, peeled & finely chopped

salt and pepper

generous handful fine stale breadcrumbs

1 egg, beaten

250ml water

18 large courgette flowers (picked just before you need to use them if possible)

Method

Prepare sauce at least 12 hours before: crush tomatoes with a fork, and beat in the lemon zest, herbs, coriander, garlic & olive oil. Season well with salt and pepper. Do not refrigerate. 

To make the stuffing, cook the courgettes in 2 tbsp of olive oil. When softened, remove from heat and mix with basil, mint, parsley, garlic, salt and pepper. Allow to cool and add the breadcrumbs and beaten egg. 

Remove pistils from flowers, then put a spoonful of the stuffing into each flower, tuck in the ends & lay the flowers side by side in an oven proof dish. Pour over the water remaining olive oil, cover with foil & bake for 15 minutes in an oven preheated to 350°F/180°C/gas 4. To serve, spoon a little tomato coulis onto each plate and place three flowers on top.

ZUCCHINI RIPIENE CON RICOTTA E AMARETTI

4 medium courgettes, each about 15cm

sea salt

30g unsalted butter

1 shallot, very finely chopped

2tsp olive oil

2tsp fresh thyme

3 dry amaretti, finely crumbled 

150 g fresh ricotta, drained

1 free range egg

50g grated parmesan

pinch grated nutmeg

freshly ground black pepper

dried breadcrumbs

Method

Wash the courgettes throughly and half lengthwise. Using a teaspoon, scoop out the flesh, without puncturing the skin: the aim is to get hollow, boat-shaped courgette halves. Salt them lightly and turn them upside down on a wooden board: the salt will draw out unwanted moisture and the courgette will be all the tastier for that. After half an hour, pat them dry. Keep the courgette pulp separate.

Preheat the oven to 190°C/375°F.

Melt half the butter with half the oil, add the shallot, salt it to stop it browning and fry it gently, with the lid on. When it is soft, raise the heat, add the chopped thyme and the courgette flesh, diced. Stir and then cook until fairly dry.  Mix together the ricotta, the parmesan (minus one tablespoon), the egg, amaretti and the cooked courgette pulp. Add nutmeg and black pepper.

Smear the bottom of an oven dish, preferably metal, with the remaining oil and tuck in a single layer of courgette shells. Stuff each shell with the filling, sprinkle with dried breadcrumbs, mixed with parmesan, and dot with the remaining butter and drizzle with the rest of the olive oil.

Bake until a light golden crust has formed, checking after the first 40 minutes. Eat warm or at room temperature.

The Ethicurean’s walled garden base at Wrington near Chew Magna is a remarkable foodie mecca

MAKING A SUMMERY POTAGE FROM A WALLED GARDEN

Like the nature writer Richard Mabey, folk singer/nightingale devotee Sam Lee, Robert ‘Lost Words’ Macfarlane, there are some national treasures that speak for the real England and its glories. A world away from the nasty jingoism festering and now erupting in the wake of Brexit. 

Whenever I get angry about this rampant intolerance and the way our Cabinet of Fools have handled the pandemic I return to the ultimate therapy – growing my own and cooking.

I am not alone in making that essential plot to table connection. A whole new generation of professional chef/growers is in the vanguard of championing our food heritage. In my own North these include Sam Buckley of Where The Light Gets In, Joseph Otway of Higher Ground/Cinderwood Market Garden and Alisdair Brooke-Taylor of the Moorcock at Norland.

And down in the Mendip Hills outside Bristol The Victorian Barley Wood Walled Garden provides inspirational, seasonal produce for the on-site Ethicurean, winner of Best Ethical Restaurant in the 2011 Observer Food Monthly Awards. We loved eating there, with accompanying tumblers of their home-made vermouth. Like Simon Baker, chef patron of the stalwart Gimbals Restaurant (like the Moorcock in my home territory of the Calder Valley), I am a huge fan of their The Ethicurean Cookbook (Ebury Press, £25). Highly recommended.

The Ethicurean stuff their courgette flowers with ewe’s curd and cobnuts, accompanying them with a wild fennel sorbet. They make the most of our native cobnuts, nearly extinct 30 years ago but making a comeback in likeminded restaurants. They feature in my final recipe, taken from The Ethicurean Cookbook. In season you can buy cobnuts mail order from Kent. My obliging Calderdale greengrocer Valley Veg have a supply on request.

That exquisite Ethicurean courgette soup with labneh, toasted cobnuts and English mustard dressing

ROASTED COURGETTE AND COBNUT SOUP WITH LABNEH AND GINGER TURMERIC AND MINT DRESSING

1kg small firm courgettes, sliced into 2cm pieces

rapeseed oil

500g onions finely sliced

250g carrots finely sliced

250g celery finely sliced

1tsp salt plus more for final seasoning

40g fresh cobnuts, chopped, thenlightly toasted

For the labneh:

500g Greek yoghurt

½tsp salt

1tbsp chopped marjoram

1tbsp chopped oregano

For the dressing:

85ml rapeseed oil

50ml cider vinegar

1tsp English mustard

½tsp ground ginger

¼ tsp ground turmeric

1tsp chopped mint

Method

Make the labneh a day in advance. Line a sieve with muslin and put the yoghurt in it, stirring in salt. Wrap into a bundle over a deep bowl to drain overnight. Next day discard the liquid. To make the dressing blend all the ingredients together.

Heat the oven to 200C/Gas Mark 6. Toss the courgettes with a little rapeseed oil, then spread on a roasting tin. Roast in oven for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, heat a film of rapeseed oil in a large saucepan and add onions carrots and celery; sweat for 10-15 minutes until tender. Stir so the veg doesn’t colour. Add roasted courgettes and sweat for 5 minutes longer. Add water to barely cover and bring to a simmer. Add salt and after five minutes blitz in a blender (in batches if necessary). If too thick for you, pas through a fine sieve to create a more velvety mouthfeel. Now season to taste, reheat gently and serve in bowls topped with a tablespoon of labneh, a scattering of chopped cobnuts and a drizzle of mustard dressing.