Vegetables

Vegetables

By
Leiths School of Food and Wine
Contains
90 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
9781849493192
Photographer
Peter Cassidy

Vegetables are diverse and offer endless possibilities in the kitchen. Become aware of their seasonality, so you can cook and enjoy them at their best. Choose vegetables that look in peak condition, with no wilting or discoloured leaves, or signs of damage or bruising. Most varieties should be washed first. You will find vegetables easy to prepare if you use a sharp knife and develop good knife skills. Don’t prepare them too far in advance and leave them immersed in water or some of their valuable vitamins will leach out and be lost. The vegetables included in this chapter are the ones we most often use at Leiths.

Celery and celeriac

Celery and celeriac are often thought to be from the same plant, which they are not, although they are from the same family, hence the similarity in flavour. With celery it is the stalks that are prized, both white and green, whereas with celeriac it is the root that’s eaten. Celery and celeriac can be eaten both raw and cooked, but they are not interchangeable. Celery works well with citrus fruit and goat’s and blue cheeses, while celeriac pairs well with mustard and garlic. Choose straight, firm stalks of celery. When selecting celeriac, avoid very large ones which may be woolly and hollow.

Oxidisation and discolouration

Some vegetables and fruit, once peeled or cut (exposing their flesh to the air), oxidise and discolour very quickly. When preparing vegetables such as celeriac, artichokes, potatoes, parsnips and salsify, and fruit such as apples, pears and avocados, use a stainless steel knife and something acidic, such as vinegar and lemon juice, to help prevent discolouring.

As soon as the vegetable or fruit is cut, rub a little acidity on the cut side or submerge it immediately in acidulated water (water to which a splash of vinegar or the juice of a lemon has been added). Potatoes, parsnips, apples and pears can be submerged in just water.

Often recipes will ask for vegetables to be cooked in acidulated water for the same reason. Lemon juice or vinegar is generally used. An alternative is to use a ‘blanc’: water to which both acid and a little flour has been added. Make a soft paste of 3 tablespoons water and 1 tablespoon plain white flour and slake the paste into 1 litre salted simmering water, before adding the juice of ½ lemon.

Globe and Jerusalem artichokes

These vegetables are not related. Globe artichokes, which are in season from June to August, belong to the thistle family, while Jerusalem artichokes, available January to February, are knobbly tubers of the sunflower family. These do not, as their title suggests, originate from the Middle East but take their name from the Italian ‘girasole’ meaning sunflower. They are prepared and cooked very differently from globe artichokes.

Cooking and serving globe artichokes whole

1. As close to the underside of the artichoke bulb as possible, score all around the stem to a depth of about 1 mm. Holding the stem over the edge of a board or table, gently lever the stem downwards.

2. Now turn the artichoke a little and repeat this action again and again until the stem can be pulled free of the bulb. This helps to remove some of the coarse fibres in the bottom of the heart.

3. Trim the top third of the bulb away. Then trim the tops of the remaining leaves to remove the spiky points. The outer, very coarse bottom leaves can be pulled away completely.

4. As you finish preparing each artichoke to this stage, put it into in a bowl of acidulated water (cold water with the juice of 1 lemon or 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar added).

5. Drain the artichokes and immerse them in a large pan of simmering, acidulated and seasoned water. It may be necessary to weight down the artichokes with a plate or to cover them with a cartouche, to keep them submerged. Cook the artichokes for about 15–20 minutes until one of the inner leaves can be pulled away easily.

6. Remove the artichokes from the water and place them upside down in a colander or on a wire rack to drain well.

7. Once the artichokes are cool enough to handle, the chokes need to be removed: turn an artichoke the right way up and gently tug on the inner purple/yellow leaves towards the centre. If you can get a good hold of all these leaves in one go, all the better. Carefully pull these leaves out and reserve them.

8. Using a teaspoon, carefully scrape at the hairy choke that lies on top of the heart. Try not to dig too deep or you will remove some of the heart.

9. Continue scraping until all the choke has been removed. Repeat with the remaining artichokes. Return the centre leaves to the artichokes. Serve on large plates, with a beurre blanc, French dressing, or melted butter seasoned with salt, freshly ground black pepper and lemon juice.

To turn globe artichokes for braising

Follow steps 1 and 2, above. Pull away the coarse outer leaves until only the pale yellow leaves remain. Cut off the top third to two-thirds of the artichoke, then, using a small, sharp knife or swivel peeler, carefully shave off any remaining outer leaves of the artichoke surrounding the heart. Take care not to shave the heart itself and try to maintain the natural shape of the artichoke. As more of the heart is exposed, work quickly to prevent discolouring. Place each prepared artichoke in acidulated water, as in step 4, above. While the choke can be scraped out at this stage, it is often removed after cooking as it is easier.

Asparagus

Homegrown asparagus is available for just 6 weeks of the year, during May and June. It has a superb flavour, far superior to that of imported asparagus, so don’t miss out on its short season. Both green and white varieties are available. White asparagus is pale because it is kept covered with soil as it grows. It is more tender than green asparagus and has a much milder flavour.

Choose spears that are straight and firm. With white asparagus, opt for plump stalks. Young, thin green spears don’t need peeling, but the lower half of thicker asparagus spears should be peeled.

Preparing asparagus

1. Bend the lower end of the asparagus stalk until it snaps. Discard the lower woody end.

2. Trim the spears with a sharp knife so they are all the same length.

3. If the spears are thick, peel away the skin from the lower half with a swivel peeler.

Aubergine

This vegetable is highly prized in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Indian cookery. When buying, look for smooth, shiny, unblemished skins and select aubergines that feel heavy. Aubergines must be cooked through, at which point they become creamy and delicious. Prone to soaking up water and oil, they sometimes need to be degorged before cooking. Once degorged, they are ideal for mixing with many other flavourful ingredients such as tomato, garlic and spices, whose flavours they will absorb.

Degorging is the process of salting to extract water from vegetables with a high water content. It is no longer necessary to degorge cultivated aubergines to extract bitter juices but degorging can be applied to aubergines, courgettes and potatoes to prevent excess oil absorption during cooking. To degorge, spread the vegetable slices out in a colander over a bowl and salt lightly. Leave for 15–30 minutes (just 10 minutes for potatoes or they will discolour). During this time the salt extracts some water, which drains away. The vegetables can then be squeezed to remove any excess moisture, or if you feel the vegetables may be over-salted, rinse and dry well before proceeding with the recipe.

Avocado

Depending on the variety, a ripe avocado has either green or darkish brown skin. The skin of the common Hass variety is green when under-ripe, then becomes pitted and almost black when fully ripened. A ripe avocado yields gently to a little pressure when held. Prone to bruising, avocados must be treated carefully when prepared. They also discolour (oxidise) easily, so cut sides should be rubbed with a little lemon juice if they are not being served immediately.

Preparing avocados

1. Halve the avocados and remove the stone by placing each avocado half on a board and firmly inserting a large, sharp knife in the stone, keeping your fingers well away.

2. Twist the knife, which should help to release the stone. Lift the stone out of the avocado half.

3. Drag the knife against the side of the board to release the stone from the knife.

Beans, mangetout, sugar snaps, peas and broad beans

When choosing green beans, whether fine or runner, select those that snap easily and are crisp and juicy. Mangetout and sugar snaps should also be crisp and firm. Peas in their pods, in season from June to September, should be chosen for the pods’ bright green satiny colour. They should be round and full. Petit pois are just very young peas. Broad beans, in season from May to June, should have pale green pods with a satiny bloom, and feel soft and tender.

Preparing beans, mangetout and sugar snaps

Fine green beans require topping only. If young and tender they can be left whole.

Runner beans need to be topped and the string running the length of the bean removed either by pulling or cutting off.

Mangetout and sugar snaps also require topping and de-stringing. These are both more tender than green and runner beans and only require brief cooking.

Preparing peas and broad beans

1. To pod broad beans (or peas), squeeze the pod until it ‘pops’.

2. Run your finger down the inside of the pod to release the beans (or peas) into a bowl.

3 .Unless very young, broad beans also need to have their pale outer skin removed. Blanch for 30 seconds, then refresh. Pinch the end of the skin to release the bean.

Blanching and refreshing vegetables

Vegetables are blanched for a variety of reasons – to partially cook them to reduce their final cooking time, to set their colour, to soften their texture or to remove strong flavours or bitterness. Soft fruits such as tomatoes and peaches, as well as shallots and baby onions, are blanched to make them easier to peel. Vegetables should be of the same size to ensure even cooking.

Blanching requires plunging the vegetable or fruit into boiling, usually salted, water, bringing the water back to the boil as swiftly as possible, cooking for the required amount of time (taken from the point of return to the boil), then removing the vegetables or fruit and submerging them immediately into ice-cold water to stop the cooking process and set the colour. As soon as the vegetables are cool, remove them from the cold water to prevent them from absorbing water, and leave to drain thoroughly.

Don’t blanch too many vegetables at one time, as this will lower the temperature of the water too much; instead blanch in batches.

Vegetables are sometimes blanched, but not refreshed, when they are added to other ingredients and the dish is cooked further, for example roast parsnips.

1. Plunge the vegetable into a pan of boiling water (usually salted) and return to the boil as quickly as possible.

2. Have ready a bowl of cold water with ice cubes added. After the required blanching time, remove the vegetables from the boiling water and immerse in the ice-cold water to refresh.

3. As soon as the vegetables are cold, remove them from the water with a slotted spoon and drain thoroughly.

Beetroot and parsnips

Like carrots, these two root vegetables are prized for their sweetness. Beetroots are, of course, commonly dark red, but they are also available in other colours, including golden yellow and pink and white candy striped. Ruby red beetroot, with its capacity to ‘bleed’ very easily, should be kept separate from other vegetables when preparing and cooking, as it will turn everything a vibrant pink.

Choose firm, unwrinkled parsnips and beetroot. When you are buying parsnips choose small or medium ones, as the larger ones tend to have a more woody interior.

Broccoli and cauliflower

These vegetables are from the same family. When choosing broccoli or cauliflower look for a firm, tight compact head and stem. Broccoli should be a deep green colour; cauliflower should be pale white or creamy; avoid any with discoloured patches. Sprouting broccoli, available during February and March, has smaller heads and a longer, leafier stem. Tenderstem broccoli, as the name suggests, has a very tender stem and a mild flavour.

It is very easy to overcook broccoli and cauliflower, particularly as their florets and stems have different cooking times. Broccoli florets tend to fall apart very easily and lose their vibrant green colour, so take care when cooking them.

Steaming broccoli

1. To prepare a head of broccoli (about 550 g), cut off and reserve the thick stalk. Trim the florets neatly, ideally at an angle. If the florets are very large, halve them. Trim the reserved stalk and cut into batons (as for carrot batons).

2. Prepare a steamer, ensuring the water is gently boiling when the broccoli is placed in the basket. Place the stem batons in first, cover and steam them for a minute or two before adding the rest of the broccoli, ideally in one layer. Sprinkle lightly with salt and put the lid back on.

3. Steam for 4–6 minutes, until the stem is just tender when tested with a cutlery knife. The florets will be cooked when the stem is tender.

Steaming

Steaming is the cooking of food in hot vapours over boiling liquid, usually so the food never comes into contact with the liquid. Steaming can be either direct or indirect.

Direct steaming is when the food, placed in a steamer basket, comes into direct contact with the steam. It is a very ‘clean’ and healthy way of cooking as no fat is required, there is no browning, and any loss of flavour, vitamins or minerals is minimal, as the ingredients are not submerged in liquid into which the flavour, vitamins and minerals can be transferred. Most vegetables, fish and poultry are suitable for steaming.

Indirect steaming involves placing the food in a container first, before steaming. This process takes longer as the heat has to penetrate the container first, before coming into contact with the food. This method is used for steamed puddings.

Boiling and simmering

In these methods of cooking, food is submerged fully in liquid, more often than not water. It is either cooked at a fast and vigorous bubbling, known as a rolling boil, or at a gentle bubbling, known as simmering.

Salting water for cooking vegetables

The ratio of salt to water when cooking vegetables is generally 1 teaspoon salt to 1 litre water.

Boiling

When quick cooking is required of a fairly robust ingredient, such as cauliflower or some pulses, then you need a high heat initially to bring the water to a rapid boil. Add the food when the water comes to the boil, then keep the heat high while the water returns to a rolling boil.

For most foods, you then turn down the heat to a gentle boil (with not quite so rapid bubbling).

For rice and pasta, you need a rolling boil throughout the cooking process, as the rapid movement of the water also helps to prevent the grains or pasta sticking together, with the surface starch rapidly washed off into the water.

Root vegetables require a lid, other vegetables do not, especially vibrantly coloured vegetables which would lose colour if cooked with a lid on.

A gentle boil, with no lid, is also used to evaporate moisture when necessary, for example when reducing stocks and sauces.

Simmering

Simmering is the continuous breaking of the surface of a liquid with small bubbles. As with boiling, the liquid is initially brought up to a rapid bubbling (a boil), then immediately the heat is turned down to low to medium, to allow for gentler cooking. Simmering is used for slow cooking, where the ingredient(s) will need a fairly long time to soften and/or develop flavour, or they are are prone to breaking up easily. Pulses and sauces, such as tomato and ragù, are simmered.

Poaching is gentler than simmering and used for delicate foods, such as eggs, fish and chicken breasts.

Chicory, leeks and fennel

More often used in salads, chicory (also known as Belgian endive) is also good braised and served with rich meats, as its natural slight bitterness helps to act as a foil to the richness of the meat. Look for tight, crisp pear-shaped chicory. Radicchio is an Italian red-leafed chicory; there are several varieties including Treviso, which closely resembles chicory in shape.

Leeks have a delicate oniony flavour. They are most often eaten cooked, and lend themselves well to chicken, fish, egg and creamy dishes. Look for firm, straight, medium-sized leeks, as larger, old leeks can have a woody core. It is essential to wash leeks thoroughly as they harbour grit in their green tops, between the tightly packed leaves. It is better to wash them after cutting as the grit between the layers is difficult to remove when the leeks are whole.

Fennel has a distinctive aniseed flavour. It is eaten both raw, in salads, and cooked and eaten on its own, or used to flavour dishes. Choose rounded bulbs that are white, with tight leaves.

Chillies and peppers

Both chillies and peppers belong to the capsicum family. Chillies can vary in heat, depending on the variety and growing conditions, while peppers, also known as bell peppers, are firm fleshed and sweet. Of the most widely available chillies, the smaller ones tend to be hotter than the larger ones, and in all cases, the heat is concentrated in the white membranes, or ribs, and seeds. When choosing chillies and peppers, look for shiny, plump ones, with no soft spots.

Deseeding chillies

Cut the chilli in half lengthways through the stem. Scrape away the seeds and pale ribs with a teaspoon and discard (if extra heat is required, leave the seeds and ribs in).

Dicing chillies

Make parallel cuts down the full length of the chilli, keeping the stem end intact. For fine dice, make the cuts as close together as possible. Now holding the stem end, slice across the chilli.

Slicing chillies

Slice across the chilli into fine julienne strips. Be careful not to wipe your face or eyes with a hand that has touched chilli as it is a strong irritant. Wash your hands after preparing chillies.

Coring whole peppers

1. Slice off the top and stem. Measure a 4-finger length towards the base of the pepper and cut off the tapering end. (Keep these pieces as they can often be cut up and used too.)

2. To remove the core and seeds, cut through the pepper and carefully slice through the inner pale ribs, removing the core and seeds at the same time.

Slicing peppers

Ensure the pepper flesh is the thickness you require. If not, you may need to trim the inside of the pepper a little. Cut the pepper into batons or fine julienne (see slicing chillies, above).

Peeling peppers

Peppers are left with their skin intact in many dishes for texture, and to help them hold their shape during cooking, but certain recipes require peppers to be peeled. This can be done simply by using a vegetable peeler. However, roasting or blistering the skin is a more effective technique and has the added advantage of lending flavour to the finished dish.

1. Preheat the grill to high. Quarter, core and deseed the pepper. Flatten each quarter and place skin side up on a baking sheet under the grill until the skins are blistered and blackened.

2. Put the peppers in a bowl and cover with cling film or place in a plastic bag and seal. As the peppers cool, the steam will help to release the skins.

3. Once cool, the skins can be easily pulled away from the pepper flesh.

Skinning a pepper whole

Place the whole pepper on an open gas flame (or beneath a grill) and turn occasionally to ensure all sides are blackened. Allow the pepper to cool in the same way as above, then rub the skin away, cut the pepper in half and pull away the stem and seeds. The pepper is now ready to use.

Note: Whole peppers can also be placed in a roasting tin and roasted in an oven preheated to 200ºC for 20–25 minutes. The skin doesn’t fully blacken, but the roasting process does help to release the skin, which can then be pulled away once the pepper is cool. This method cooks the pepper flesh and softens it, so it can be used for recipes where cooked/softened peppers are required.

Leafy greens

This group includes a large variety of vegetables. The most common are cabbages, both green and red, kale, spinach, spring greens and Asian greens. When young they can be eaten raw, but they do lend themselves to cooking, their robust flavours making them the ideal partner to strong flavours such as garlic, chilli, cheeses and bacon. As they become older, blanching helps to soften them before further cooking. It also sets their colour and often removes any bitterness.

Stir-frying

Stir-frying is a very quick method of cooking over a high heat, usually in a wok. This provides a large surface area at an evenly high temperature over which the ingredients can be spread to cook quickly. Thus, they retain their flavour, colour and texture. A deep frying pan or sauté pan works very well too, if a wok is not available. Be careful not to overcrowd the pan, as it is essential that the ingredients have room to fry, or they will stew.

The ingredients must be moved constantly so they come into contact with the hot surface of the wok only briefly before being turned to allow another side to be heated and cooked. This helps to ensure even cooking. A wok spoon or similar large metal spoon helps to keep the ingredients moving. A wok with a handle can also be shaken.

When stir-frying meat and vegetables together in a dish the meat is often stir-fried first to achieve some surface colour, then removed before the firmer vegetables are stir-fried. The meat is then added back to cook through and the more tender vegetables are added last, along with any final seasonings.

Lettuce and other salad greens

Choose salad leaves that are fresh and crisp, not limp, and avoid leaves that show signs of discolouring at the edges. Allow 20–25 g salad leaves per person, or a generous handful.

Preparing salad leaves

It is important to wash the delicate leaves carefully so they are not bruised. Fill a bowl or sink with cold water and gently lower the leaves into it. Do not run water from the tap onto the leaves. Move the leaves through the water to remove any grit, then lift them out, drain and dry them gently in a salad spinner. The leaves must be properly dried or the dressing will not cling to the leaves and will be diluted by the excess water.

Washed salad leaves can be stored in the fridge wrapped in a damp tea towel to prevent them from wilting. To revitalise salad leaves that are just starting to wilt, immerse them in a bowl of water, chilled with a handful of ice cubes, until they crisp up, then drain them.

Smaller young, tender leaves can be served whole. Leaves should all be small enough to be eaten in one mouthful and to be easy to eat with a fork. Larger salad leaves should be picked before serving. Picking salad leaves involves ripping the leaves into bite-sized pieces, discarding large or tough stems from the leaf. If you are hoping to pile up leaves for presentation purposes, smaller pieces of leaves will hold the shape of the pile much better than larger ones.

Choosing salad leaves

When assembling a mixed leaf salad, consider the flavours and textures of the individual leaves. Some add peppery or bitter flavours while others are used for their crunch. Romaine, cos and iceberg are crisp with a mild flavour, whereas Webbs and oak leaf lettuce are soft with a mild flavour, and lamb’s lettuce (or mâche), baby spinach and sorrel are more intensely flavoured. Rocket and watercress are peppery, while radicchio, chicory and curly endive (or frisée) are bitter leaves. A combination of bitter or peppery and mild-flavoured leaves often works well. Soft herbs are added for flavour, and herby salads are good with plain grilled fish or chicken, but can overshadow the other flavours on the plate if used in excess.

Mushrooms

Many different types of mushroom – cultivated and wild – bring a savoury flavour to cooking. Cultivated mushrooms have a milder taste than wild ones. Dried wild mushrooms have a very intense flavour and should be used sparingly. The main season for wild mushrooms is from September to November. Not all wild mushrooms are edible, so only gather them from the wild if you are absolutely sure you can identify them.

Mushrooms don’t keep well, so buy them as you need them and avoid any that look slightly damp and slimy.

Preparing mushrooms

Cultivated mushrooms: Simply wipe with dampened kitchen paper, trimming off the stem end if necessary. Unless old, with tough thick skins, mushrooms do not need peeling.

Wild mushrooms: Trim off the sandy stalk end and brush with a soft brush to remove any grit and sand. If they are very gritty, quickly dunk in cold water, then dry well. Don’t leave them to soak – they will absorb water like a sponge.

Try to keep small mushrooms whole and tear large mushrooms into bite-sized pieces. Note that some mushrooms, such as pied de mouton, might need a little scraping of the fine fibres beneath the cap.

Potatoes

Potatoes lend themselves particularly well to absorbing flavours and complementing textures. There are many common varieties available through the year. Their texture on cooking varies, ranging from waxy potatoes, which hold their shape, through creamy to floury varieties, which soften and have a fluffy texture. Different potatoes are suited to different cooking methods. King Edward, Maris Piper and Desiree are popular maincrop varieties; these have a floury texture and are best for roasting and mash. Jersey Royals, the most highly prized of the new potatoes, are in season from April to June; these are best simply boiled.

When buying potatoes select those with tight skins, avoiding any that are soft, sprouting or have green patches. For new potatoes, the skin should be easy to rub off or already flaking.

Sweet potatoes have a yellowish or pinkish skin and the flesh ranges from white to deep orange. As their name implies, they have a sweet flavour and are excellent roasted with other vegetables or puréed.

To prove or season a pan to make it non-stick

If you do not have a non-stick frying pan in your kitchen, it is possible to render one non-stick. Place 1 tablespoon each of salt and vegetable oil in a medium to large frying pan and heat over a medium to high heat until just starting to smoke. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Pour off the oil and salt, then, using kitchen paper, scrub the base and sides of the pan vigorously. The salt acts as an abrasive and removes particles that can cause sticking. Wipe out all the salt and your frying pan is ready to use as a non-stick pan. Don’t be tempted to wash the pan after proving or the non-stick effect will be destroyed.

Deep-frying

Deep-frying is an extraordinarily fast method of cooking small pieces of food, as the oil reaches such a high temperature. The best oils to use are flavourless, such as a peanut, sunflower or vegetable oil.

In some cases the food is in the hot oil for such a short time that it does not require a coating. However, most foods are panéed in flour, then egg and finally breadcrumbs, or coated in an egg and flour batter, to protect them from the fierce heat of the oil, preventing overcooking and spluttering of moisture into the oil from the food. While the coating cooks to a crisp golden colour, the food inside remains tender and moist.

The coating also helps to prevent a transfer of flavour from the food to the oil, which means the oil can be used again, except in the case of fish. When the oil has been used to fry fish, it must either be discarded or used only for fish thereafter. After use, leave the oil to cool, then strain it to remove any cooked bits of food before storing or using again. Oil should only be re-used 3 or 4 times.

Oil temperatures for deep-frying

If your deep-fat fryer is not thermostatically controlled, use a piece of bread to test the temperature of the oil. If a small piece of bread browns in:

–60 seconds, then the oil is moderate, about 182°C

–40 seconds, the oil is moderately hot, about 190°C

–30 seconds, the oil is hot, about 193°C

–20 seconds, then it is very hot, about 195°C

–10 seconds, the oil is dangerously hot and should be cooled down.

Safety

While deep-frying, take the following precautions: only fill the saucepan one-third full of oil and turn the pan handles inwards. Dry food thoroughly before frying where appropriate, deep-fry in small batches and lower food into the hot oil carefully. Avoid moving a container or pan of hot oil; if in doubt, turn off the heat source.

Salsify and scorzonera

These are from the same family and share a similar flavour that is often likened to oyster or asparagus, which makes them a good accompaniment to fish or for use in salads. Salsify has a pale, brownish skin and a long, thin tapering shape, while scorzonera is more uniformly shaped throughout its length and has much darker skin. Both are available through the winter months.

Once peeled, they oxidise quickly and should be kept and cooked in lightly acidulated water (ie with a splash of vinegar or the juice of a lemon added). Alternatively, they can be cooked before peeling.

Sweetcorn

Sweetcorn is delicious served steamed or boiled with a little butter. Throw corn cobs onto a hot barbecue or grill them and the natural sugars begin to caramelise, transforming the vegetable into a perfect accompaniment to grilled meat or fish. The sweet flavour works well with chilli and it is a lovely addition to Asian or Mexican dishes.

To remove the kernels from a corn cob (before or after cooking), stand the cob on its end. Take a sharp knife, such as a small serrated knife, and cut down the length of the cob, removing the kernels in strips.

Courgettes and other squashes

Squashes fall into two categories: summer and winter varieties. Summer squashes, such as courgettes, have thin tender skins and do not require peeling before cooking and eating, but can be watery. Winter squashes, including pumpkins, have a tough exterior skin that is ideally removed before cooking, and denser flesh. They are not so prone to overcooking, but are more often fibrous.

Tomatoes

Tomatoes are widely available in a variety of shapes and sizes, from large beefsteak tomatoes through plum and salad varieties to cherry tomatoes. They have endless uses, both raw and cooked. Choose firm tomatoes with deep red skins and a definite tomato aroma. In winter when homegrown tomatoes are unavailable, tinned tomatoes are often a better option for cooking than imported fresh tomatoes.

Peeling tomatoes

Tomato skins are often removed as they can be indigestible. Plunge the tomatoes into boiling water for 10 seconds (no longer or the flesh will start to cook). Drain and refresh in cold water. Once cool, remove, dry and peel the tomatoes. Use as required.

Deseeding tomatoes

Quarter the peeled tomatoes through the core and, using a teaspoon, scoop out and discard the seeds and juice.

Tomato concasse

Stack the deseeded tomato quarters, slice lengthways and then across to create fine dice. Try not to crush the tomato as you cut, to ensure the dice retain their shape and don’t turn into a mush.

Baby vegetables

Baby vegetables are simple to cook and prepare. Served whole, they often require nothing more than a quick scrub, as their skins tend to be thinner, and therefore don’t need to be removed. Baby courgettes are delicious served steamed, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with shredded mint and crumbled feta cheese.

Herbs

Herbs add flavour, colour and aroma to dishes. Whenever possible use fresh herbs, which have much more fragrance and vitality than dried. Their flavour comes from the essential oils in the leaves and stalks, which are released by heat or bruising.

Chopping herbs

1. Wash the bunch of herbs under cold running water and dry well. Pick off the leaves; the stalks can be used for infusing dishes. Place the leaves on a board and gather them together gently, without bruising, into a tight pack. Slice across them to start to reduce them in size.

2. Then, holding the knife in one hand, with the fingers of your other hand resting on the top third of the knife closest to the point, use the knife in a lever action to chop across the herbs.

3. Keep doing this, and scraping the herbs together, then chop across again. Continue in this manner until you have chopped the herbs to the required fineness.

To chiffonade herbs

This technique of finely shredding herbs is most successful with large soft herb leaves, such as basil or sage.

1. After washing and drying the herbs, pick the leaves and pile them on top of each other.

2. Then roll them up as tightly as possible, but without bruising them, and cut across the leaves to create a fine julienne of herb.

3. The herbs may need to be unrolled a little.

Herb oils

Herb oils can be used to flavour a dish and/or used as a garnish providing a little colour on a plate. Herbs will need to be blanched and refreshed to maintain their colour. Suitable herbs are chives, parsley and basil.

Spices

Spices are dried seeds, roots or other vegetative substances that are used to flavour food. Generally pungent and highly flavoured, their addition can entirely transform a dish, giving it a unique personality. They are often used in combination, and different cuisines have their own particular spice mixes. In Indian, Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern cookery, spices are often cooked with the base ingredients of a dish, to provide a rounded flavour, and fresh herbs or aromatics are added at the last minute, to provide a burst of flavour before serving.

Using spices

Some recipes call for whole spices but where ground spices are required, for optimum flavour it is preferable to freshly grind whole spices yourself rather than use bought ready-ground spices. Grind them finely in a spice grinder (or a coffee grinder works just as well, but keep it purely for grinding spices). If all you can buy is ground spices, buy small quantities and use them relatively quickly, as their flavour intensity decreases over time.

Warming/toasting spices

Most recipes call for spices to be added at the beginning of a cooking process, whole or ground and either dry-fried/toasted in a frying pan or often sautéed in a little oil. This warming or toasting draws out the flavours of the spices and begins to reduce their ‘rawness’. It ensures the flavours of the spices have time to develop and infuse into the other ingredients. Spices added at the end of cooking often leave the dish with a slightly bitter, raw spice flavour. However, there are some dishes that benefit from this.

Quantities

Spices can be very strong in flavour so follow recipes carefully when measuring to avoid over-spicing, which results in harsh, pungently flavoured dishes. Spices are used to complement, enhance and often to provide subtle warm overtones to a dish, but always keep in mind that the amount of spice can be varied to taste.

Onions

Onions are included in many savoury dishes. Yellow onions are the most versatile; white and red onions are valued for their mildness. Shallots and spring onions (also called salad onions) are members of the onion family too. Shallots are valued for their mild, sweet flavour and are used whole in casseroles as well as sliced and chopped for all manner of dishes. Choose firm onions with a thin, papery skin.

Preparing onions or shallots for slicing and dicing

1. Cut a small slice off the top of the onion so it can stand upright. Trim a little off the hairy part of the root but keep the root intact (as this holds the onion together when you are cutting it).

2. Stand the onion with the trimmed top surface down. Using a large, sharp knife (for onions, a small knife for shallots), cut down through the onion to halve it.

3. Peel each onion half and discard the skin. It is also a good idea to remove the first of the inner pale leaves of the onion as these tend to be leathery and do not break down during cooking.

Slicing onions

1. Place the onion rounded side up on the board with the root end furthest from your chopping hand. With your hand in a claw shape and the tips of your fingers bent, hold the onion lightly. Your thumb will support the root end.

2. Slice the onion in a rocking action, keeping the tip of the knife in contact with the board as you draw it down to cut through the onion.

3. As you reach the root end of the onion, turn the onion onto the largest flat side and slice again, ensuring no onion is wasted.

Dicing onions

1. Halve and peel your onion. With the flat side down and the root end away from you, slice through the onion vertically, towards the root, but not right through it (to keep it intact). For fine dice ensure the cuts are close together.

2. Slice horizontally through the onion once or twice, again not right through the root, but very close to it, keeping the knife slightly angled towards the board for safety.

3. Now move the onion so that the root end is on your left and proceed as for slicing an onion. It may be a little more difficult, but try to hold the onion together in your other hand ‘claw’ to protect your fingertips and fingernails.

Cooking onions

When onions are used to flavour a dish, they are usually cooked gently at first in a little butter or oil (ie sweated). We lay a greaseproof paper ‘cartouche’ on top of sweating onions to minimise evaporation. Similarly, we place one over braising vegetables and poaching fruit to keep them immersed in the liquid or fat. Dampening the cartouche helps to maintain a moist environment. Dry cartouches are used too, when baking pastry blind, for example.

Making a cartouche

1. To make a cartouche, cut a square or round of greaseproof paper and fold into segments, the shape of an elongated triangle. Trim the triangle to a fraction larger than the radius of your pan.

2. Unfold the paper into a circle that should fit snugly inside the saucepan on top of the onions.

3. Crumple the cartouche and dampen under cold water before use. The crumpling helps the greaseproof paper hold a little more water. Lay on top of the ingredient(s) to be cooked.

Sweating onions

This technique describes the cooking process of softening an onion and drawing out its natural sweetness without allowing it to take on any colour. The onions are gently sweated in a little oil or butter. Using a dampened cartouche helps the sweating process and seals in the juices.

1. In a suitably sized saucepan, melt a nut of butter or a little oil. Put the onions in the saucepan and place a dampened cartouche on the surface, in contact with the onions. Cover with a tight-fitting lid, place over a very gentle heat and allow the onions to ‘sweat’.

2. Check the onions occasionally, especially if a lot of steam is escaping. If the cartouche is dry, re-dampen it and return it to cover the onions. If any onions have browned on the bottom of the pan, don’t stir them in. Discard them and use a clean saucepan to continue sweating.

3. After 10–15 minutes, check the onions again. They will be ready when they have lost volume and become translucent. If you squeeze a piece of onion between your fingers there should be no resistance. If you taste a piece, it will have a sweet, mild flavour.

Caramelising onions

Follow the same procedure as for sweating onions, and when the onions are almost soft, remove the lid and cartouche and turn the heat up a little to medium to evaporate the water from the onion juices. What will be left will be the butter or oil and the onions’ natural sugars, which will begin to caramelise to a rich colour and flavour as the onions are cooked further. Do not be tempted to turn the heat up too much as the onions may scorch, resulting in a harsh, burnt flavour.

A note on sweating and caramelising other vegetables... Other vegetables can be sweated and caramelised in the same way. Once they have been sweated, a little sugar can be added to aid the caramelisation process.

Carrots

This versatile root adds sweetness to stocks and stews; is steamed, sautéed or roasted as a side dish; or served raw grated in salads. Carrots work well with parsley and thyme, and aromatic spices such as cumin, coriander and cinnamon. Choose firm, unblemished carrots.

Blocking carrots

Wash and peel the carrot and trim off the top end. Cut the carrot into 4 finger-width pieces. Cut off a side of the carrot. Turn it and repeat on all other sides to create a rectangular block of carrot. (Reserve any trimmings for stock.)

Batons

Cut the blocked carrot into batons or sticks, 5–6.5 cm long and approximately 1 cm square. For smaller batons, or allumettes, cut each large baton lengthways into 4 thinner sticks, about 5 mm square.

Julienne

Cut the blocked carrot into very thin slices (1–2 mm thick) and stack them neatly. Slice through the carrot as uniformly as possible to create julienne.

Dice and brunoise

Cut across batons to form uniform dice; the carrot should be perfectly square in shape. Cut across allumettes to form brunoise. Cut across julienne to form fine brunoise.

Turning carrots

1. Peel and block the carrots. Remove each corner, then holding the carrot in your hand, insert a small, sharp knife quite deep at the end of the block, then draw the knife gradually up towards you until you reach the middle of the block, then down and away towards your thumb.

2. Trim the remaining sides in the same way to create the basic 5- or 7-sided barrel shape. Use trimmings in stocks and soups. Turned vegetables are consistent in size for even cooking and elegant presentation. Any firm vegetable can be turned and with some (such as courgettes), the skin is retained on one side to provide colour.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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