Grant Allen: Old-style veges give new-style flavours (+recipes)

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The vege section is being overtaken by the old and the knobbly, and they are becoming the stars on the plate.

Fresh horseradish gives off a fiery fume as it is processed but the effort is worth it. Photo / Getty Images
Fresh horseradish gives off a fiery fume as it is processed but the effort is worth it. Photo / Getty Images

The saying "everything old is new again" is particularly appropriate to the expanding range of vegetables we are seeing in our food outlets. Driven by farmers' markets, as well as an interest in home gardening and vegetable missionaries such as Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nigel Slater, the vegetable section is becoming a harvest festival of odd and knobbly choices.

There is increased curiosity about the more unusual varieties. Vegetables are starting to be seen as stars on the plate, not just a back-up act. Growers are expanding their range for home and restaurant cooking.

In most cases, these vegetables are old varieties, whose fashionability had taken a tumble. In some places in the world they have always been available but, to many in New Zealand, these will be new on the shelves.

Fresh Bitter Leaves

Whitloof (Belgium endive) and radicchio can be eaten in salads as well as cooked in various ways. We don't do that much "bitter" in British cuisine, but give these strong flavours a go. Again, their taste needs a contrast - rich nuts, nut oils, citrus, sweet dressings or equally strong flavours work well.

Radicchio, Orange, Avocado and Macadamia Salad

For each serve use 4 or so radicchio leaves, half an orange (segmented), quarter of a ripe avocado peeled and sliced, macadamia, walnuts or almonds (lightly toasted and roughly chopped), 1 tbsp avocado oil and half a tbsp orange juice.

Segment the oranges over a bowl to collect the juice for your dressing. Mix in the avocado oil and season with salt and pepper. Arrange the radicchio, orange and avocado slices in a bowl. Sprinkle over the nuts and dress with the oil and juice.

Recipe: Whitloof, Bacon, Croutons with a Feta Dressing

Fresh Horseradish

Fresh is best, but the horseradish plant can be a bit of a beast to deal with. In the garden it has the propensity to invade. It's best to grow it contained in some way. I have mine in an old copper. You could also cut the ends out of a 5 litre oil can. Sink it into the soil and plant the roots into this. The twisted roots will straighten a little and make peeling easier. Every little piece of root broken off in the ground will generate a new plant. Scrub the gnarly roots with a small brush and discard any that are damaged or too fine to process. Peel as much as you can without whittling down the whole piece. Grate with a microplane or process in a food processor. This fiery produce will give off eye-watering fumes. Wearing glasses while processing will help a little. Once you have grated the roots, squeeze some lemon juice over them to stop browning. You can store grated horseradish in vinegar for future use. Keep refrigerated.

To make a beautiful cream for beef, smoked salmon or baked potatoes, mix the fresh grated root with sour cream and perhaps some grain mustard. Raw grated horseradish will give you a super hit in a salad or sandwich, but go easy until you ascertain your comfort zone in regards to its power.

Recipe: Lentils, Tomato, Sausage and Cavolo Nero

Bitter Leaves

There seems to be a lot of fuss about kale at present. Personally, I hate the stuff. It's that leaf that gives off an old cabbage smell when you open a bag of mesclun. Chard, kale, collard and chicory are all strong-tasting and slightly bitter. Baby leaves can be used in salads but older ones will need cooking.

Braising leaves in a little stock will mellow the tastes or you can shred them into soups or stews. If they're not too old, gently wilt the leaves in olive oil and season well. Many claim great health benefits from these rich-green coloured plants so I predict we will be seeing more of them around.

But I do really like cavolo nero. This has a wonderful plant form (I've heard it called cabbage palm) and I grow it for its looks as much as its use. It's a bit like the globe artichoke in that it gives a great architectural shape and height in the garden.

Loved by Jamie Oliver, cavolo nero has been an Italian darling for years. I like it cooked into hearty soups and braises. Like many of these leaves, it's a good foil for fatty flavours, sausages, pork, bacon and goes well with beans. As a side dish it complements all kinds of meat and strong flavoured fish.

Celeriac

Celeriac may not be beautiful but it has great versatility. This subtly celery-flavoured root vegetable makes a great mash, braises perfectly in slow-cooked dishes, roasts and can also be eaten raw. To prepare it, cut off the top and bottom with a sharp knife and then peel. It's a tough old vegetable to work with and needs a firm hand.

Once peeled or cut, it will quickly discolour, so have half a lemon on hand and squeeze the juice over the celeriac. Cube the root to add to casseroles or stews. Celeriac will take around 40 minutes to roast. To make a mash, peel and chop and cook until soft in salted water for about 20 minutes. Drain and mash with olive oil or butter and a good amount of fresh ground pepper and salt. It makes a great soup vegetable, either on its own or with others in pureed or chunky vegetable soups.

If using celeriac on its own for a soup, make it smooth with some cream and garnish with celery seeds and finely grated parmesan.

Recipe: Celeriac Remoulade

Not your usual capsicum

I'm noticing a whole bunch of different-sized peppers around. The various shapes and sizes of these make them good for tapas-style dishes.

I use pimientos de padron, Stavros Greek pepperoncini and yellow banana peppers. While usually not too hot (as in chilli-hot) some of these can be a bit surprising. Do a taste test to check. Sit the pimientos de padron across the base of a shallow baking dish and give them a good glug of olive oil before putting them in a hot oven (200C) for about 10 minutes. After they blister and wilt a bit, salt them well and serve with shaved parmesan.

With the little Stavros Greek pepperoncini, split them down the middle and remove the few seeds. Lie half an anchovy fillet on each one, with a shave of parmesan. Sit them in a shallow baking tray and bake in a hot oven until the cheese melts.

Split the larger yellow banana peppers in half and remove the seeds. Fill the cavities with a savoury mince mix (as you would make for meatballs or hamburger patties) or even take some sausage meat out of its casing. Cover the meat with bread crumbs, season with salt and pepper and moisten with a bit of olive oil.

Sit the filled pepper halves on a shallow baking tray, add some water into the pan (about ½cm depth) and bake in a moderate oven (180C) for 15-20 minutes, until the meat is cooked.

* All vegetables sourced from Art Of Produce.

- Herald on Sunday

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