It is axiomatic that when a vegetable gardener goes on holiday, his or her garden immediately goes into overdrive and overproduction. Listen, I said to my neighbours, come in and help yourselves. French beans, courgettes, lettuces, beetroot, potatoes. Whatever, whenever. The result? When I got back, courgettes the size of Zeppelins, french beans like pens for arthritis sufferers, football-sized beetroot, enough lettuce to keep Peter Rabbit, Flopsy, Mopsy, not to mention Cottontail, going for a decade .
As for the potatoes - forget it. And the neighbours all saying that they had taken as much as they wanted, thank you very much, and it was all absolutely delicious but that was all they could manage. So I spend the first few evenings back picking, picking, picking, and, being loth to consign even these coarse and oversized vegetables to the compost heap - to which, to be truthful, they should have been consigned - I began experimenting with dishes that made a virtue of their coarseness and abundance.
All recipes serve four.
Coarse french bean soup with potato and chorizo Normally I would have been chuffed as anything to get a trug full of french beans, had they been the delicate, slender quills of which I dream. But these (Aiguillon, Triomphe de Farcy and Corona d'Oro for vegetable fanciers) had grown too large to be treated in their purest form, so I cast about for another form that would make use of their fresh, grassy flavour. If you can't get big french beans (difficult in sizeist supermarkets), coarse runner beans will do just as well, and usually you can find too many of those. Chorizo is one of those invaluable, highcalibre flavouring agents that gives oomph to any dish to which it is added.
1kg french beans (or runner beans)
1 litre chicken or vegetable stock
Salt and pepper
Chop the beans coarsely. Bring the stock to boiling point and add the beans. Cook until soft - about 10 minutes. Whizz up in food processor then pass through a mouli on a medium setting. This is important because you want to take out all the stringy bits, but you also want the fabric of the pods to thicken the soup. Peel the potatoes and cut into dicesized squares. Slice the chorizo into thin rounds, squares or whatever shape will fit easily into a spoon. Reheat the soup, add the potatoes and chorizo, and simmer until the potato is cooked. Season and serve. For a vegetarian variation, use vegetable stock, drop the chorizo, and swirl in a teaspoon or so of harissa.
Stuffed supersized courgettes
What is the difference between a supersized courgette and a marrow? I haven't a clue. By the time I got to my sweet Genovese and handsome, ridged Romanesco, they would have been contenders in the mega-marrow section of any horticultural show. Usually people have nothing but snooty contempt for marrow, but I have always had a soft spot for them. The cooked versions will never seduce the eye, but that soft, fibrous, squidgy flesh, soaked in yellow butter, spruced up with salt and pepper has its own subtle delights. This recipe, however, tries to do a little more than that.
1 supersized courgette (or marrow)
1 medium onion
1 stick celery
500g minced lamb
1 tbsp red-wine vinegar
2 tsp harissa
Salt and pepper
Bring a large pot of unsalted water to the boil. Cut the supersized courgette (or marrow) in half down the middle, and each side in half again but across this time, so you have four quarters that are curved on one side and flat on the other. Pop these into the water for five to eight minutes until they are part cooked. Cool, then scoop out all the seeded flesh, so there is a decent-sized trench running the length of each courgette quarter. Finely dice the onion and celery. Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a pan, add the onion and celery and fry until soft. Add the lamb and fry over a highish heat until cooked through, about 10 minutes. Add the vinegar and boil for a minute. Turn off the heat and stir in the harissa.
Place the courgettes on a nonstick or greased baking tray. Spoon the lamb mince into the trenches down the courgettes and over them if there is too much. Preheat oven to 160C/325F/gas mark 3 and reheat the courgettes for 10 minutes. This recipe freezes pretty well, too.
Cucumber and french bean salad with gari
Ah yes, cucumbers. They weren't such a problem in terms of size, but there were certainly enough of them and, true to form, they have all come in a rush. OK, you can keep slicing them into salads or turning them into salads in their own right, as suggested in the legendary (and, until recently, lost) The Centaur's Kitchen, by Patience Gray, beautifully republished by Prospect Books (£20).
'Slice two large cucumbers paper thin, sprinkle with coarse salt. Leave for half an hour. Then mix a teaspoon of sugar, a teaspoon of tarragon vinegar, add a small cup of cream, ground pepper, a dash of salt. Stir in two tablespoons of olive oil and some chopped chives and pour this dressing over the cucumber.'
Not radical, perhaps, but utterly delicious. Inspired by that I began casting around for ideas and came up with this salad that went very well with grilled mackerel. The french beans were the next generation from the coarse ones mentioned above. Gari is the pickled ginger you usually find on the platter alongside your sushi. I bought a packet some time ago in my local supermarket and have been wondering what to do with it ever since. (I tried a variation - gari with beetroot and grilled herrings a few nights later, but my wife described it as one of my less good ideas. I am not so sure. She was struggling with the bony herring at the time.)
2 short, fat, ridged cucumbers
250g french beans
Juice of 1/4 lemon
Extra-virgin olive oil
Peel the cucumbers and dice into 1cm squares. Bring a pan of water (preferably low calcium) to the boil. In go the french beans. On goes the lid. Cook fast for three to four minutes. They should be firm but not squeaky. Drain. Plunge into cold water. Drain again thoroughly. Put them into a serving bowl with the cucumber. Dress with the salt, lemon juice and olive oil. Stir in the slices of gari, making sure they are well distributed