Now and then, when the organic vegetables are coming in vividly fresh and young, we put a selection of them on as a starter, to give them a chance to show themselves off at their finest. Rather than a jumbled salad, which this potentially is, I like to present the different vegetables in separate piles to give them room to shine. This is really a grower’s dish, and the most important thing for the cook to do in such fine company is to have respect, pay attention to the qualities of each vegetable and then decide how best to prepare each one. The combination below is on the menu this week as I write in early summer and includes one grilled vegetable, one boiled, two barely shown the water, and some raw leaves and garlic flowers. I include slices of Knockalara sheep’s cheese from Cappoquin in Co. Waterford because its fresh, mildly tangy flavour is redolent of early summer in the same way as the vegetables are. But you don’t need a cheese, and a lot of other vegetables would love the chance to shine: roasted young beetroot and fennel bulbs, new potatoes, fresh young cauliflower, beans and peas of all kinds, fresh sweetcorn and plum tomatoes. The only requirement is that they are in peak condition. The asparagus used here would be delicious grilled or roasted, and the artichoke would be fine just boiled and tossed in oil; I don’t really like more than one grilled flavour on the plate, it can detract from that hardly touched effect you want the vegetables to have.
TRIM ALL LEAVES FROM THE ARTICHOKES and remove the hairy choke - rub lemon juice all over the revealed artichoke bottom as you work, to prevent discolouring. Boil the artichoke bottoms in water to which more lemon juice has been added for 10-20 minutes until they are just done test with a knife. Sometime within half an hour or so before serving, brush the artichokes with olive oil and place under a hot grill or in a hot fan oven, until lightly browned. They’re best eaten at something between warm and room temperature.
Snap the coarse ends off the asparagus, then drop the spears into boiling water until they are just tender. Rinse briefly in cold water to stop the cooking without actually making the asparagus cold. Both the baby carrots and sugar snaps are edible raw, so how much you cook them is up to you. I would give the carrots a minute at most in boiling water, and either leave the sugar snaps raw or drop them in boiling water for as long as it takes to do a slow pirouette. To make a dressing from the basil pesto, simply dilute with olive oil, then add lemon juice to taste.
Place a small pile of salad leaves use only two or three types at most in the centre of each of four plates, dressed in a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar, maybe, then arrange little piles of the various vegetables and cheese around. Scatter some garlic flowers and chopped leaves over the plate and pour a thin stream of the dressing over the cheese and vegetables.
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