There’s been much talk lately in the media of a shortage of Spanish courgettes, lettuce and aubergines, with reports of panic buying. They had unprecedented snow in southern Europe that destroyed crops, leaving a gap in the market.
Meanwhile in Northern Ireland we’ve had a relatively mild winter and the vegetables grown here are flourishing. There’s an abundance of carrots, turnips, parsnips, leeks, cabbage, soup celery and beetroot.
My late grandparents grew courgettes in their garden in Tullyhogue, outside Cookstown, in the summer. They would fry them up with onion and tomatoes from their greenhouse. The courgettes were packed with flavour, kissed with summer sun (well it was the eighties) and doused with rain.
Courgettes grown in Spain at this time of year have none of the character that these local vegetables had. They’re insipid – do a blind tasting and you’d barely know what they were. Apparently iceberg lettuces are scarce too – who really cares? It’s damp, it’s February and not exactly weather conducive to eating bland salad leaves anyway. If you were given a choice of great cabbage from Comber, cooked with crispy bacon and a few scallions or a wedge of iceberg lettuce from Spain and a cold dressing, which would it be?
Supermarkets have been taking advantage of the situation and charging extortionate amounts for broccoli in particular. Apparently the cauliflower crop here, and in the rest of the UK, has been magnificent.
Rather than being dictated to by a major conglomerate retailer into “needing” broccoli, go to your local greengrocer and pick up some pearly white cauliflower instead. It’s a versatile vegetable that stands up to bold flavours. I like to blanch the florets in salted water for a few minutes then dry on kitchen paper. Heat up some oil to smoking and add the cauliflower. Cook until golden and add some fresh herbs, chopped nuts or some Middle Eastern spices like coriander and cumin with a splash of lemon.
Cauliflower cheese is a classic and I’ve included a recipe for it this week – with a crispy bacon and parsley crumb topping. Years ago we used the leaves in cauliflower cheese and I’ve included them in the recipe. That way you get even more for your buck.
Hot Pot is a great culinary tradition from the North of England. When the bread was made for the day in bakeries, women would arrive with their hot pots, a dish made with cheaper cuts of lamb, stock and topped with a layer of potato. They were then cooked in the residue heat of the ovens.
Turnips are at their prime now and work well as a topping for a pork variation on this warming dish. Add some local leeks for an extra savoury element. Forget about broccoli for a while and concentrate on our local vegetables. You’ll be supporting growers from here, there’ll be no air miles and, most importantly, they’ll taste like real vegetables!