The vegetable front line

A new Jersey Royal. Photograph: Frank Baron

Given the news about the havoc caused in allotments and kitchen gardens by the hormone-based herbicide aminopyralid, I was shocked on Monday of last week, when I looked into the garden shed for some potting compost, to find several bags of commercial manure. Since there seems to be agreement that that is how the chemical got into some gardeners' soil, I was alarmed; but my wife, the master of our horticultural gang, says the bags are all at least two or three years old.

That doesn't, of course, mean that the manure we actually use, and buy from local farmers is unaffected, but the leaves of our potatoes, broad beans, french beans, tomatoes and chillies all look healthy. The spuds, all sexy, waxy salad varieties, are just flowering, and we've scrabbled in the loose soil with our fingers and harvested a few teeny-weeny ones. When we rinsed them, they were so pristine and shiny, and their skins so delicate and silky, that I decided to cook the first ones in a way that respects their tender age.

You simply put the cleaned, unpeeled, whole little potatoes (none of my kidney-shaped ones were more than 10cm across) in a single layer in a covered saucepan with a glug of good olive oil, a few tablespoons of water and a pinch of salt (and a clove of new garlic doesn't go amiss), bring it to the boil quickly, remove the lid, and turn the heat down to medium. When the water has boiled away, the skins will be golden-hued, and the potatoes done - a matter of minutes. This method produces spuds that taste of themselves, spectacular when they're so fresh.

A similar trick I learned years ago from Ken Hom deals with the problem of small yields, or using the first few veg before the plants really start producing, and is terrific for this peculiar season. It's a ragout of this and that - starting with olive oil and garlic or onion, sweated but not coloured, to which you add whatever veg you've got according to their cooking time.

At this time of year I'd add potatoes next, then some finely sliced baby globe artichokes (yes, they're being feeble this year, too), and a handful of podded broad beans plus asparagus - if there were any. Add a little water, bring to the boil and cover briefly, as above.

Everything's done when the potatoes are fork-tender; season with salt and pepper, scatter a few torn mint leaves and eat warm, rather than hot. Later in the season you can add french beans, courgettes, tomatoes, and use basil instead of mint. You can use vegetable stock (or even white wine) instead of water, but there's something satisfyingly pure about the taste of the un-messed-about ingredients.

This is an unusual problem to have - usually we need recipes for dealing with a glut, not a shortage of vegetables. How do other veg gardeners deal with this? It will be useful to know, as I've already noticed - and heard frightening reports of - veg prices zooming up in the shops, with end-of-season English asparagus at £5 a bundle.

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