Vegetables just picked and covered in natural dirt always taste better

editorial image

When I ran a restaurant in Manchester in the nineties, a taxi driver supplied me with vegetables, all year round, from his allotment.

In the summer he would arrive with boxes of beans, peas, tomatoes, chillies, potatoes and greens.

Winter would see root vegetables, pumpkins, leeks and onions. Vegetables just picked and covered in natural dirt will always taste better than washed and packed ones. Planning a menu around what’s seasonal and available is one of the great gifts to any cook. I’m no gardener but in the past when I’ve grown tomatoes and courgettes, the satisfaction has been immense. When I’m travelling and spot gardeners hunched over a spade, surrounded by bean poles, leafy greens, multicoloured flowers, jewel like ruby tomatoes and leafy herb tops, in a shared space it makes me yearn for a more settled existence. It reminds me of the movie “Steel Magnolias” and the quote from the character Ouiser, played by Shirley McClaine who says: “I’m an old Southern woman and we’re supposed to wear funny hats and ugly clothes and grow vegetables in the dirt!” I’m a third of the way there.

Taste Causeway, the food network on the North Coast has been shortlisted for the Irish Foodie Destination award (we’d appreciate your vote at www.foodiedestinations.ie) and the judges visited the region last week. Part of our showcase was of vegetables grown in the area. Ocho Tapas restaurant in Portrush hosted part of the event and had a stunning display of locally grown produce. The display included Padron peppers and rainbow chard grown in Garvagh to new season carrots from Magilligan and potatoes from the Causeway. Padron peppers are the green ones you get on holiday in Spain that have been deep fried and tossed in sea salt. The Garvagh ones were a taste of the Mediterranean with a local spin. With a polytunnel you can have a go at growing pretty much anything.

If Italy or France had a vegetable as sweet and juicy as the new season carrots we have here, they’d dedicate a five day fiesta to them. My recipes this week focus on carrots. My first is for a carrot and ginger chutney so you can capture the essence of summer to have later on in the year. Sweet carrots, gently spiced with coriander and sultry hot ginger are perfect with grilled chicken, cheeses, pork or oily fish. Add some chilli to pep it up even more and some yoghurt to cool it down.

My second recipe is for a classic carrot cake, cooked in terracotta pots, filled with a caramel and topped with a chocolate soil. It’s a quirky way of serving it or you could just bake the cake and enjoy it without the trappings.

When you buy big bunches of dirty carrots you get lush, verdant leaves. Rather than chuck them into the compost bin try using them instead. Chimmichurri sauce is a traditional Argentian condiment, made with parsley, coriander, garlic and vinegar that’s perfect with grilled meats. Use the carrot tops instead of the parsley and serve some on the side as a garnish.

As our population increases, available space for growing decreases and this is where allotments come in. There are advantages too with support and camaraderie from other growers and the option to barter and share fruit and vegetables. In a world where food safety has never been so pertinent, having control of your food is priceless. You can grow food without pesticides successfully by matching with plants that repel insects naturally. This is National Allotment week and the perfect time to celebrate our local vegetables.

I’ll be at the Moira Speciality Food Show today and tomorrow at the Demesne at the edge of the town, cooking dishes that put vegetables in the spotlight. The show starts at 11am each day.