Food: What To Do When You Buy Fresh Things By Mistake
A distinguished Ramper, who shall remain nameless to spare their blushes, was recently landed in a bit of a self-dug hole when the avocado they bought to prepare a salad with turned out, on closer inspection, to be an aubergine. Oh, the unpalatable awkwardness! A quick change of menu was the only option, but sadly, our aspiring gastronome had never cooked with an aubergine before and so was at a loss of what to create in the avocado salad’s place.
It is that culinary disaster that inspired this guide to knowing your vegetables (and vegetable-like fruits). Here in Ireland we both benefit and suffer from an overabundance of Mammies, who have traditionally not been the most adventurous with their vegetable selection. And so there is a sizeable proportion of Irish adults who, if they can cook veg, can only deal with the most ubiquitous: carrots, cabbage, broccoli, field mushrooms, shpuds. Here is a guide to serving up seven vegetables (or vegetable-like fruits) you may, like our mysterious Ramper, come home with entirely inadvertently.
Oh, and this is strictly for eejit beginners, so scorn not the simplicity of the information below. Go bother Heston Blumenthal if you feel so inclined.
Here is an avocado.
Avocados are dark green, frequently pretty knobbly, and they’re nearly always sold underripe. Like bananas, avocados only ripen after harvesting, and if the shops waited until they were just right before displaying them, you’d be hard-pressed to get ‘em home in one piece. This has created a bit of a conundrum for Irish cooks, who usually have to buy their avocados a week before they actually want to eat them. Spontaneity and avocados do not good bedfellows make.
When you get your avocados home, speed up the ripening process by sticking them in with your bananas, which, like Irish politicians, have the effect of irreparably aging everything that comes into close proximity with them.
When you’re ready to eat your avocado, you can slice it up into a salad, and it makes a very sociable salad ingredient indeed. However, there’s nothing like a good guacamole.
For every avocado in your guac, you’re going to need a clove of garlic, crushed; half a lime, juiced; a good tablespoon of coriander, chopped; a nice glug (a tablespoon or so) of olive oil; and if you’re feeling spicy, a nice, finely chopped red chilli. First thing to do is mash up your ripe avocado with a fork until it’s nice and mushy. Mix your garlic, coriander, and chilli with the olive oil, season it with salt and pepper, then add that to your avocado and give it an ould mash. Then add your lime juice, in small doses, stirring and tasting as you go. Lime juice is easy to get wrong and can totally overpower your lovely guac if you add too much. It’ll cut the taste of the chilli too.
That’s it. Serve it with some toasted pitta bread or, if you’re bold, some Doritos.
Here is an aubergine.
Aubergines are not avocados. Look at them there; they’re all purple and glossy. Aubergines are not sold underripe and don’t need any special treatment. Just pick up a nice one, making sure it’s not an avocado, and bring it home.
Aubergines need to be cooked and they’re a lot meatier than they look, so they can be an acquired taste for very unadventurous types. They’re feckin’ lovely though. A lot of chefs salt their aubergines to take the bitterness out of them, but that’s a bit of an archaic habit because they don’t tend to be bitter these days. What salting them does is dry them out so that they don’t go all mushy when you cook them. If you want to salt them, chop up your aubergine, stick it in a sieve, sprinkle with a good dash of salt and leave them for twenty minutes. The moisture will leach out.
If you’ve brought home an aubergine and haven’t a clue what to do with it, here’s a lovely little nibble.
You’re going to need a red pepper, some goat’s cheese, and some pesto to go with your aubergine. First, thinly slice your red pepper, stick it in a grill pan and give it a glug of oil. Slice your aubergine lengthways, about the thickness of your little finger. Brush each slice with oil and stick under the grill with your red pepper, giving each side four or five minutes, just enough so they’re starting to go brown on the outside. Keep an eye on them; they burn quickly and they’re useless if they’re brittle. When your aubergine is done, spread one side of each slice with pesto, put a little bit of goat’s cheese on the thinnest end, top that with a slice or two of grilled red pepper, and then roll up the aubergine slices like little savoury Swiss rolls. They go cold really fast but they’re nice at room temperature too, and they’re tasty as fuck.
Here are some sweet potatoes.
Oh, heavens, there’s nothing like a sweet potato. They’re like an unholy marriage of shpud and candyfloss, so wrong and yet so, so right. You can buy them as slim, manageable-looking spuds in pre-packed bags, or loose as massive yokes that you can barely hold in your hand. Either’s good; they last for ages.
Sweet potato is absolutely amazing roasted. Peel your potato and cut it into chips, glugging over some olive oil and salt, and roast in the oven for about three quarters of an hour at 190-200 degrees, depending on your oven (neither ovens nor spuds are an exact science). You’ll know they’re done when the ends of the chips are starting to caramelise; the ‘sweet’ in ‘sweet potato’ is no misnomer. They’ll taste like marshmallow. Or, you can bake smaller sweet potatoes whole, just as you would with a normal baked potato. They get really squishy and they’re ready when they’re practically bursting out of their skins. Mix in a dollop of butter and eat ‘em, skins and all.
Here is some asparagus.
Asparagus is probably the nicest green vegetable ever. Ever. It’s stunning stuff, and more versatile than it looks. Many recipes that use asparagus as an accompaniment will recommend you cook the spears in boiling water until tender (only a few minutes), but there’s much more to the stuff than hugging the corner of a meat n’ two veg plate.
Asparagus is fun to prep. You have to get rid of the woody ends (fnar) of each spear before you cook, and the way to do that is catch each spear and gently bend; it’ll snap at the right place. Get rid of the woody ends (fnar); they’re not nice to eat (fnar fnar).
Here’s a really delicious way to eat asparagus. Prep your spears, then place on a grill tray, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with sea salt. Grill until the tips are starting to turn brown and crisp up; you’ll probably notice the stems are getting all wrinkly too. While the asparagus is grilling, boil up an egg, and eat with your grilled asparagus soldiers.
Your wee might smell a bit funny afterwards, but IT’S WORTH IT.
Here are some butternut squashes.
Butternut squash is an odd vegetable-like fruit, because it’s actually quite bland and comforting, so really the Irish should be gorging on the stuff. You’ll often read recipes for butternut squash risotto, or soup; if you haven’t tried either and think you’re in for a taste sensation, you’re wrong. Squash is lovely, but a homely kind of lovely. It’s especially nice in the wintertime. Mmm, butternut squash.
This is another one that works really well roasted up. Easy peasy; peel your squash, cut it in half, scoop out the seeds (this might take a couple of minutes because they are WELL held in there with what looks like a trap spun by a very festive Shelob ), chop up your squash into chunks, slap in a roasting dish, coat with oil and salt and a bit of fresh thyme if you have it, bung in the oven at 180-190 for about 35-40 minutes, giving it a couple of shakes during the roasting to make sure it stays nice and coated. It’s really nice with pasta and p’raps a bit of crumbled goat’s cheese or some parmesan. You could throw some squashed but unpeeled gloves of garlic into the roasting tray with it, if you fancy. Just make sure it’s nice and soft and that you can stick the point of a knife right through it before you serve it up – there’s nothing worse than underdone squash.
Here is a leek.
Think of leeks as really pretty onions. They are not just for making leek and potato soup or placating Welsh people; they’re fantastic veggie things in their own right. When you get ‘em home, the most important thing is to wash them really well, as they tend to be FILTHY. Seriously.
To prepare leeks, you’ll need to chop the roots off, and the top, dark green ends, and you’ll need to strip the first couple of layers and discard them, too. The next thing to do is to cut each of the stalks lengthways, so you’re left with two long halves. Now chop each of those up into chunks, maybe a couple of centimetres thick – you’ll know yourself depending on what you’re up to. All chopped, throw the leeks into lukewarm water and give them a bath, then transfer them to a colander and rinse them out with cold water. All clean! It’s a bit of a pain in the hoop but leeks are nice, so never mind.
Here’s a nice idea for eating them. Fry up some chopped bacon in butter until you can just about stop yourself tipping the pan right into your mouth. Take out your bacon and leave to one side. Pour out any really blubbery bits left in the pan, then add another knob of butter and fry your leeks gently until the kitchen smells like France. Then tip your bacon back in, toss some cream on top, reduce it a bit, and serve with pasta. You could even fry up some garlic breadcrumbs first (crushed garlic in with oil, then add some lovely crumbs and fry till they’re crunchy) and scatter them over the top. Bacon’s great and all, but the leeks are the star of this dish. Go on, you’ll love it.
Here is some spinach.
Do not cook spinach. Oh, ok, so you can and all, but that doesn’t mean you should. You can give it a quick – and I mean quick – blanch in boiling water until it wilts up, then smother it in butter, or better still, garlic butter. You can wilt it at the last minute in a pan with a nice creamy white wine or blue cheese sauce, then serve it with pasta. But what you should do is give it a good wash and use it instead of lettuce in your salad or your sandwiches. It is really a delicious little leaf when eaten raw. If you’re going to do that, then you need to buy baby leaves and you need to be absolutely sure that they’re not slimy around the edges. When buying a bag of spinach, check it for any hint of The Slime. Spinach turns quicker than a foxtrotting Corkman.
So there you have it. Some fresh things you might buy by mistake and nice things to do with them in just such an emergency. Nom? Nom.