It looked extraordinarily tempting. Glistening with what I assumed to be the dew of a Devon morning and flecked here and there with traces of rich, dark soil, the box of organic vegetables was handed over on my north London doorstep by Nancy, the local Riverford Organic Vegetables delivery person. Eagerly, I carried it into my kitchen, donned my apron and prepared for battle. My mission? To tackle the problem that seems eventually to confront everyone who has ever taken delivery of an organic box: what do you do what that king-sized bag of curly kale?
Actually, there is a solution, of which more later. But I am using The Curly Kale Problem to demonstrate a wider issue: how do we find creative ways to cook such uncompromising and unfamiliar seasonal vegetables without making all those carbon-unfriendly shopping trips that boxes are supposed to help eliminate? And before they go off?
Personally, while admiring their underlying values, I've always felt such boxes impose a kind of house-arrest on my instincts to roam across the culinary genres - what happens when tastebuds demand, say, something tomato-ey and Italian, or a curry, when all I have is a box of English cabbages and sturdy root vegetables? Sprout curry anyone?
Similarly, how do boxes copes with modern lifestyles? More and more people are choosing box schemes as their preferred means of food-shopping. There are now more than 550 organic-box or mail-order delivery schemes around the country; we spend about £95m a year shopping this way, an increase of 22 per cent last year. Yet the days of nuclear families with mothers making soup from left-overs, and scrutinising recipes all afternoon for husbands who arrive home at 6.30pm for dinner with the children, are no more.
The number I cater for varies daily between one (myself) and four, (girlfriend and/or my two sons), hearty eaters all. Or, as Jody Fulton of Riverford said when I explained my needs: "You need the family-sized box. '' I also ordered the latest Riverford product, a meat box, a selection of organic meats designed for two people for a minimum of two weeks. I would attempt to use these boxes for my cooking needs for a week, without recourse to shopping or needless waste.
Anticipating culinary challenges, I set about unpacking the Riverford box that lunchtime. It contais cavalo nero, green cabbage, cauliflower, sprouts, potatoes, tomatoes, a butternut squash, a box of mushrooms, carrots, onions and a couple of leeks. The only imported item within is a large aubergine.
Friday evening is often curry, or possibly baked pasta, in my house. Tonight I have to feed my two sons, aged 12 and 14, and so, given the aubergine and the tomatoes, something vaguely Mediterranean springs to mind. But the single aubergine is not enough to make melanzana alla parmigiana for three.
I compromise: olive oil and bottled red peppers from the cupboard, passata and garlic from the fridge, cooked with onions, diced aubergine and some of the tomatoes produce a courgette-less ratatouille, which I bake with mozzarella and packet gnocchi topped with breadcrumbs mixed with Parmesan. My older son, Leo, 14, almost six feet and still growing, has his normal three portions and pronounces it excellent.
I discover more restrictions of box life. The organic chicken for an evening roast for four is fine but if, as I had originally intended, we had been six for dinner, I would have been forced to casserole it and keep my fingers crossed about seconds. But there are plenty of excellent roasted potatoes and steamed carrots to go with it; when the vegetables are that fresh, you really don't need to do much.
Venison steaks for dinner, with the remaining potatoes, some of the mushrooms in red wine and the cavalo nero.
Home alone late and the kind of occasion normally requiring a simple bowl of pasta, say with tomatoes, chilli and bacon. But there aren't enough tomatoes left and I still have lots of vegetables - so I go for a Sicilian variation on the Italian dish of pasta and broccoli, with anchovies, garlic and chilli.
I start scouring cookbooks and the internet for recipes somehow combining cabbages, squash and curly kale. No luck.
Half the butternut squash, cut into chunks, more carrots, some garlic and thyme, and some Riverford sausages, cooked in the oven. "A perfect midweek supper,'' pronounces Cathy, my girlfriend.
My sons are visiting again, so it's one of their favourites: chicken pie, using leftover chicken and roast potatoes, carrots, and the leek under a pastry crust. And... ta-da... the curly kale. A relative of the cabbage, the kales were, I learnt, until the Middle Ages the commonest vegetables in Europe and considered hardiest of all. Braised with rosemary, chilli and garlic, it is okay. Leo eats half his portion, announces it is "okay" but leaves the rest, while Max, 12, spits out his only mouthful.
Panic. In the real world, my next organic box is due tomorrow and there's loads left. I start thinking about making soups and freezing - it has to be used because I'm away for the weekend.
I plan to follow a colleagues' recommendation for sprout and chestnut soup - there's a vacuum-pack of chestnuts in the store-cupboard - and roast the remaining squash. But everything changes. I arrive home late with a large amount of wild mushrooms, the by-product of a story I have been working on. I am determined to make risotto with them, although I do use the last Riverfood mushrooms. It is, I have to say, fantastic, but illustrates the fact that box life can conflict with spontaneity.
And what to do with all the rest? Organisation is required: I roast the squash and carrots ready to be reheated for Sunday night, while Cathy takes the sprouts and chestnuts for soup for her freezer. The uneaten meat goes, as Riverford suggest, into the freezer. That leaves a couple of tomatoes, some onions and one lonely green cabbage. "I'll deal with you lot next week," I tell them, closing the fridge with relief. Much as I applaud the aims and produce of box schemes, I know I'm not ready to tackle the Curly Kale Problem every week. It is just too stressful - I need to cook outside the box.
Do try this at home
Curly kale (or cavalo nero) with rosemary, chilli and garlic
250g curly kale
3 tbsp virgin olive oil
1 large onion, sliced
2 sprigs rosemary
1 red chilli, thinly sliced and seeded
4 garlic cloves, sliced
Salt and pepper
Trim kale, removing the tough stems. Rinse and cut into shreds 1cm thick. Shake off excess water, don't dry. Heat oil in a wide, deep frying pan with a heavy base, over a medium heat. Add onion, lower the heat and fry gently until very tender. Now add rosemary, chilli and garlic; fry for one more minute. Pack in the kale and season. Cover with a tight-fitting lid, reduce the heat to its absolute minimum and leave to cook gently for about 20 minutes. Stir once after five minutes, then again 10 minutes later. Remove rosemary stalks, taste and season. Serves four.
Pasta with cauliflower and anchovies
1 small cauliflower
2 tbsp virgin olive oil
2 tbsp pine nuts
Pinch of saffron strands
3 or 4 anchovies, rinsed and chopped.
1 or 2 garlic cloves, chopped
Pinch of dried red chilli
Soaked raisins or sultanas (optional)
Dried or fresh short pasta
Toast the pine nuts in a hot dry pan or under a grill and set aside. Soak the saffron in a tablespoon of hot water.
Cook pasta to packet instructions. Break the cauliflower into small florets and cook by either steaming over the pasta or boiling with it. Cook both until al dente. Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large saucepan and make a sauce by melting anchovies, garlic, chilli and some of the parsley in it. When pasta and cauliflower are cooked, drain and add to the pan contents, along with saffron and enough of the water it was soaking in to loosen the sauce. Add pine nuts. Fry together for a couple of minutes, making sure the cauliflower and pasta are coated with the sauce. Add more parsley and serve with Parmesan. Serves two.