Years ago, when I got my first allotment, friends and acquaintances used to vie and jostle for invitations to dinner, or a barbeque, especially during the summer or autumn. I am a good cook, it’s true — keen and solid rather than flamboyant — but that was not the attraction. It was the veg that would invariably accompany the meal. That’s what they wanted, and who wouldn’t? ‘I’ve never had a carrot that tasted so much like …a carrot,’ one friend exclaimed; ‘I’d pay good money for this meal in any restaurant,’ said another.
Back then, my obsession with growing-to-eat was considered quirky, eccentric, even old-fashioned. But that didn’t stop them wanting dinner, and the fruits of glut and overplanting to take home too, thank you very much.
These days, of course, it’s the height of fashion. For the first, and perhaps only time in my life, I feel ultra-trendy, in the moment, with the zeitgeist. Homegrown vegetables must be today’s ultimate in luxury goods. Even better, I think, than organic boxes; with homegrown you grow and eat exactly what you want, not whatever they give you, and its provenance and organic authenticity is guaranteed.
Now that I have a full-time, and quite stressful, job, I have had to abandon my allotment (with a little encouragement from the council). It is a universal truth that no person can manage an allotment single-handedly unless they are a) unemployed, b) retired, c) obsessed and without a life, d) a television presenter (gardening obviously) or, like a Polish bloke I once knew who had three plots on one site, e) a farmer. So now I have to rely on my kitchen garden and, as Sarah Raven wrote in last week’s garden supplement, you have to be very careful, and a tad ruthless, with what you plant.
So onions have had to go and potatoes (almost) too. Being stubborn and set in my ways, I couldn’t resist two rows of second earlies — mostly because of the sheer joy of digging buried treasure. In goes your fork, then a momentary frisson of fear (did I fork one?) and anticipation (how many? big or small? perfect or …not?) and then the scrabbling around in the rich dark earth for every last gift of the gods. Bliss.
I love shallots. As the first thing you plant in a gardening year, they hold a special place in every gardener’s heart — the beginning. (Garlic doesn’t count as you can plant it virtually all year round.) Shallots provide an excellent yield even in a relatively small space; they’re versatile and taste great and, most importantly of all, they make the best pickled onions, bar none — a great ritual in my house come the harvest at midsummer. The only trouble being that you have to peel the bloody things, having once separated the bulbs and set the babies aside for cooking with.
This is an arduous process, so I usually pick Open Championship weekend so that I can justify spending two invariably glorious summer days glued to the television. Otherwise I invite close friends to a garden party of wine and nibbles and guilt-trip them into peeling in exchange for two jars of the end product. Careful peeling must be strictly enforced — you mustn’t disturb the nodule (or stem) at the bottom of the bulb. Once peeled, wash the shallots and place in a plastic colander, salt generously with free-running salt and leave for two days (48 hours), salting further at intervals of 12 hours. After two days, place the shallots in salted water and soak for 24 to 48 hours, then wash and bottle in the normal way. (Try not to touch the onions with your hands, and never use metal utensils — only wooden.) In my jars I put peppercorns, dill seed, coriander seed, a chilli, a bay leaf and a sprig of rosemary; also a healthy pinch of sugar, salt and a vinegar/water ratio of two to one. The crunch is the critical factor — nothing less will do.
Runner beans are another vegetable I eschew. I simply don’t like them, and their indecent cropping is simply a wind-up. No, I grow broad beans (yum!), dwarf French beans and, in another defiance of the space-to-yield ratio, peas. Well, who in their right mind can resist fresh peas? — mine are lucky to make it the ten yards from garden to kitchen! Peas cooked in butter with lettuce and a touch of cream — divine.
Broad beans can be used in almost any vegetarian meal, and are always a delight. For accompaniment, I blanch them (about two minutes depending on how young they are) and sauté them with shallots and fresh mint. When they get a bit long in the tooth I boil them thoroughly and make humous — olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper — a real revelation. And the great thing about broad beans is that their early harvest time leaves the space available for courgettes and butternut squash.
Deborah Ross once asked in these pages, what is the point of cucumber? Well, homegrown makes all the difference, and where is a tzatziki without cucumber? — peeled and deseeded with yogurt, garlic, mint (optional), garnished with chilli powder. I also make a hearty summer salad of cucumber (deseeded and chunkily chopped), al dente French beans (chopped to one inch), grated carrot and lots of finely chopped raw garlic. Prosciutto or even bacon are optional, if so, I reduce the garlic content. But to really impress your guests (especially those on a diet!), finely slice your cucumber and place it in a single layer on the largest plate you can spare, squeeze on the juice of one lemon, then cover the lot with freshly ground black pepper and sea salt. So simple, and it takes your breath away.
When the tomatoes come, it’s time for homegrown salsa. I use yellow and red tomatoes, roughly chopped, garlic, onion, chilli (a cinch to grow), green pepper (I can’t manage to grow them actually, but this year I’ve bought a cold frame to try to crack it), salt, pepper, sugar, a dash of tomato paste dissolved in water, and coriander (something else that defeats me…). Delicious with those potatoes big enough to bake — always wash and salt the entire skin surface before baking and serve with tzatziki too — as a dip or with any Mexican dish.
I grow only two courgette plants, and it’s always more than enough as they’re such heavy croppers. You can’t avoid the later fruits turning into marrows, especially if you go on holiday, but fear not — here’s a recipe for stuffed marrow that you, your family and guests will eat every morsel of. Cut the marrows lengthwise and scoop out the seeds and stringy bits. Oil the marrow halves inside and out with olive oil and place in a baking tray in the oven on medium heat while you prepare the stuffing. Cook onion, garlic, diced carrots and add any other veg you have to hand — peas, broad bean, French beans, broccoli (all blanched first), spinach, anything you like. Prepare one cup of bulgar wheat (not couscous) with dried herbs, salt and pepper, mix this into the veg, add chopped tomatoes (a tin is acceptable) and season with fresh herbs from your garden. Prepare a cheese sauce with fresh parsley. Spoon the veg mixture into the half-cooked marrow shells, cover with cheese sauce and bake until golden brown — 45 minutes to an hour. You can’t beat it.
Anyway, must go, must sow — and get into the kitchen.