Vegetables are often the unsung heroes of a meal. They support the main protagonist, usually a meat or fish component, but without them said protagonist would be on the stage alone. No supporting cast, no one to bounce off, no one to talk to, no one to fill the stage when they need a break. Once the meat (or fish) has gone – what’s left?
At The Providores and Tapa Room, our restaurant in London, and also at dine by Peter Gordon, my restaurant in New Zealand, we treat vegetables with the highest respect. In fact, it is often the vegetable that determines the final nature of the main course dish. In spring and summer, there is a plethora of ingredients to choose from, but in the cooler months it tends to be the hard root vegetables that we have to be more inventive with, as well as the brassicas that benefit from frost (cavolo nero, Brussels sprouts) and the onion family – laid down since late summer.
For vegetarians, of course, this may seem a little over the top, but for those of us who like to eat flesh with our meals, the vegetable needs to be given a new-found respect and proper recognition. In this book, the recipes are primarily vegetarian main courses, but they can also be served in smaller portions as side dishes, or as accompaniments to the aforementioned protein. Inside, you’ll find fritters, soups, salads, casseroles and curries, wok- and deep-fried dishes, roasts, gratins, bakes and braises, pies, tarts, frittatas and quiches, noodles and rice-based dishes, and pickles and preserves. Plus, there are even a few vegetable-based desserts.
As the world becomes more switched on to exotic vegetables (bitter melons, plantains, kumara, etc), while also appreciating regional ones (heirloom potatoes and tomatoes, autumn squash, etc), the shopper is now able to use and experiment with an exciting array of vegetables. Make for a farmers’ market to see what’s regional and locally sourced, or head to your nearest ethnic food store – and even some of the larger supermarkets – to see what’s being cooked in your neighbourhood and that you’re probably not too familiar with.
Properly grown vegetables are healthy – and by that, I mean vegetables that have been grown with little or no pesticides or phosphates. As part of a balanced diet, they’ll keep your body in fine form and your mind equally athletic. Vegetables play a major part in almost every diet and they are used in numerous ways, depending on the regime; from the raw food diet through to the juice diet, they’ll be there looking after your body’s needs. When buying vegetables, however, you need to be aware of what is fresh and what is past its best. If you’re in a position to handle the vegetables, then you’re off to a good start – although in some shops they wrap everything so tightly in plastic that you’d have to open the packets to check it. Vegetables are mostly made up of water – much like us humans – and, when they are young and healthy, they will be firmly plump, hard, vividly coloured and turgid. A firm, crisp, dense vegetable is ideal.
Courgettes and marrows should be almost bursting from their skins. A limp bean or asparagus spear is a thing of sadness – well past its prime. If you’re able to bend them backwards and they snap with a clean sound, then you have very fresh examples; if they bend flexibly, then don’t bother with them. Broccoli and cauliflower should have tight florets, not flaccid ones that are beginning to flower – a sure sign they’re way past it. Squash and pumpkins need to sound hollow when you tap them and need to be heavy – although there are some pumpkins that are mostly a thin layer of flesh surrounding a hollow centre, but these tend to have little flavour, so I’d avoid them anyway. Potatoes should be neither green-skinned nor sprouting. While you can pick the sprouting eyes off, the skin tends to give the potato a metallic flavour. Wild mushrooms can sometimes be full of worm-like insects – while these won’t kill you, they don’t look so great. The best way to see if your mushrooms have these is to split the stalks across and lengthways – you’ll soon see any unwanted creatures.
When storing vegetables, cool and dark are best. Bright sun and too much warmth are the enemies of vegetables once they’ve been pulled from the earth – they may like it when growing but not after. You don’t need to keep veggies in the fridge, except in the height of summer, but remember that as a fridge chills your food it is also desiccating it. So when storing vegetables in the fridge make sure they’re kept in a plastic bag with a little hole in it, if you don’t have a special vegetable compartment in yours.
Mushrooms, especially wild ones, can sometimes go slimy if kept too long in the fridge, so try to eat them as soon as you can after buying them – you can even clean them and cook them, then eat them a few days later. Never keep potatoes in the fridge, as they tend to soften; just store them in a paper bag in a cool dark place, such as a kitchen cupboard. Bearing all this advice in mind, you may prefer to avoid buying your vegetables from shops that display their produce in the sun-drenched window or on the pavement. But if you can’t, take them home and give them a soak in cold water, pat them dry and place them in the fridge to crisp up.
Regarding preparation of vegetables, the nature of their upbringing will determine how you treat them once home. Organic vegetables will have no pesticides used on them, so the whole thing – skin, stalks and all – can be eaten. Vegetables grown with the assistance of sprays and pesticides will always need peeling or scrubbing – especially root vegetables. I wash any vegetable before cooking it – more often than not, it will have picked up dust and dirt from being transported from field to shop, and that’s not what I like to eat. Wild mushrooms need to have all the twigs and grit removed from them (a laborious job but worthwhile), and a firm pastry brush is ideal for this. They will absorb water very easily, so if you get fed up trying to clean them and dirt still sticks, plunge them into a bowl of cold water, swirl it around for 10 seconds, count to 5, then pull them out and drain in a colander (don’t pour them and the water into a colander as all the bits will end up on top of them). Pat them dry between layers of absorbent kitchen paper or a cloth, then cook immediately, or they can go slimy and begin to lose their flavour.
When it comes to onions and the tears they evoke, there are many suggested ways to avoid this, but here is mine. Place them in the fridge an hour or two before you’re going to prepare them. Cut the stalk end off, keeping the root end intact, and peel the skin off by cutting vertically through the papery layer and pulling it off. If you breathe through your mouth, not your nose, you are less likely to weep. An easy way to do this is to hold a toothpick between your front teeth – it keeps you breathing properly. I’ve also heard it said that wearing sunglasses helps!
To peel a lot of garlic, break the head into individual cloves and pour on plenty of tepid water, then leave for 6 hours. When the time comes to peel them, the skin will slip off much more easily. If your garlic has a green shoot inside, then it’s wise to cut it vertically and pick the shoot out – otherwise it will taste a little bitter and give you wind.
Enjoy your greens... and reds, and other coloured vegetables – and remember they are not just lovely flavours and textures to cook and eat, they can do you the world of good and they will enhance any meal.
© 2007 Peter Gordon. All rights reserved.