Flexibility was the order of the day during the six months that we spent travelling the length and breadth of the country in pursuit of gardeners and cooks with vegetable passions. But if patience was tried every now and then, it was well worth the effort. Our 40 or so contributors were some of the most generous people I have met. Not only did they willingly share their expertise on camera and off, but they also gave us armfuls of the freshest produce, straight from the plant, or doggy-bags of deliciously cooked vegetables to take home.
Even the most mundane vegetables can prove unexpectedly riveting. I held my breath as Charlie Maisey, several times UK Champion Potato Grower who tests new varieties of potato in his small garden outside Cardiff, unearthed the purple- skinned 'Heathers'. As they tumbled from the root mass, we breathed a sigh of relief at their obvious perfection.
In the kitchen, we turned to a Colombian geologist, Manuel Soccaras (Colombians are every bit as passionate about potatoes as the Irish) for the recipe for Ajiaco Bogotano, a soup-stew made with at least three different types of potato, and traditionally flavoured with 'guasca', a rare South American herb. Manuel swears blind that it grows wild in Hyde Park, central London, though he settled for a substitute of parsley and coriander the day I was there.
Cooking celery took us to a prison kitchen in Devon, and tomatoes to Valvona and Crolla in Edinburgh, probably the best Italian deli in Britain. I sampled some 20 or so varieties of radish in Shrewsbury, and discovered that you can eat the leaves (blanched like spinach), seed pods and sprouted seeds as well as the root. A performance poet sang the praises of Jerusalem artichokes, and a sculptor caressed the scarlet stems of his ruby chard.
Ages ranged from a 15-year-old prize-winning pea-grower in Kent to an 85-year-old courgette-grower on Solsbury Hill overlooking Bath, who was pulling potatoes on the same spot when the bells rang out on Armistice Day in 1918.
Edible thistles provided two of our most surprising settings. The sea of caravans that surrounds Skegness is an unlikely patch for rare, silvery-leaved cardoons, but there the cardoon pioneer, Clarissa Dickson Wright, better known to London cooks as the woman who runs the Books for Cooks shop, waxes lyrical about the delicately flavoured stems, and nurses her determination to repopularise them in this country.
And in Ireland, at another seaside location, we found the closely related globe artichoke, in one of the most beautiful vegetable fields I have seen. The artichokes, grown by Tony Lowes, an American who was seduced by the Irish landscape back in the Seventies, gaze out upon the Atlantic.
Too late for the programme and the book that accompanies it, I learnt from my local Greek-Cypriot greengrocer that the thick round stems of fresh artichokes are almost as good to eat as the heads themselves.
If you grow your own, or can buy artichokes complete with stems, try peeling off the stringy outer layers, slicing the tender inner core thinly, and dressing with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper.
Though we were blessed with 16 half-hour programmes, we were still frustrated by lack of time. There are so many vegetables, and we were forced to omit too many for comfort. The same goes for the book: vegetables offer such limitless possibilities in the kitchen that I ended up leaving out many good recipes. Here, then, are a handful of the ones that got away.
A FAVOURITE of mine from Elizabeth David's Italian Food is this dish of baked peppers. One half-pepper is just enough per person as a simple starter, though if you are feeling more generous, double the quantities and allow two apiece. For a more dressy occasion, serve each half with a flourish of rocket or watercress and some mozzarella or goat's cheese.
Peperoni Alla Piemontese
Ingredients: 2 medium red peppers
1-2 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
4 tinned anchovy fillets, chopped
salt and pepper
Preparation: Cut the peppers in half, discarding seeds but leaving stalks more or less in place. Oil a baking dish large enough to take the peppers in a close-fitting single layer. Arrange the peppers in the dish, cut sides upwards. Divide the slices of garlic among them. Cut the tomato into eight wedges and snuggle two tomato wedges inside each pepper half. Scatter anchovies over tomatoes. Season with pepper and a hint of salt, then drizzle a dessertspoonful of olive oil over each half. Bake at 180C/ 350F/gas 4 for about 30 minutes, until peppers are just tender but not soft and collapsing. Leave to cool, and serve sprinkled with a little parsley.
A MOVE away from the Mediterranean to the mountains of Switzerland and rosti, one of the best of all fried potato cakes. For an indulgent supper, serve each quarter topped with a fried egg, and accompanied by grilled sausages and tomatoes and sauteed mushrooms. In theory, your rosti should slide happily from the pan but if, as happens on occasion, some of the brown crust sticks, just scrape it out and put it back into place.
Ingredients: 2lb potatoes
2tbs sunflower oil
salt and pepper
Preparation: Boil the potatoes in their skins for 10 minutes, then leave to cool. If you have the time, chill in the fridge for a couple of hours; this will make them much easier to grate. Peel and grate coarsely. Heat the butter and oil in a 10in-wide, heavy frying pan (a non-stick pan is ideal) over a high heat. Add the potatoes, salt and pepper. Stir them to coat in fat, then flatten to form a firm cake. Reduce the heat to fairly low, cover and cook for 15 minutes. Uncover and raise the heat for 1-2 minutes to brown the underneath.
Find a plate that will just fit into the frying pan; lay it over the rosti and invert so the cake slips out on to the plate. Return the pan to the heat and, if it looks dry, add a little extra oil or butter. Slide the rosti back into the pan and cook, uncovered, for a couple of minutes to brown the underneath. Using the same process as before, invert the rosti on to the plate and serve.
IMAM BAYELDI - the imam fainted: but was it because the aubergines tasted exquisite or because of the expense of all that olive oil? If you can bear to be lavish with the oil and have an hour or two to spare, this is among the best of many aubergine dishes. Offer plenty of bread to mop up the juices.
Serves 4 as a main course, 8 as a first course
Ingredients: 4 aubergines
plenty of olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
12oz tomatoes, skinned,
deseeded and sliced
2tbs tomato puree
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp paprika
2tbs chopped parsley
juice of 1/2 lemon
salt and pepper
Greek yoghurt to serve
Preparation: Cut the aubergines in half lengthwise. Make three deep slits down their length, without piercing the skin. Sprinkle with salt, rubbing it into the slits, and leave for one hour. Meanwhile, heat 2tbs olive oil in a frying pan. Add onions and fry until tender and golden. Add garlic and fry for a further minute. Add tomatoes, spices, 1tbs tomato puree and 1tsp sugar. Boil hard until reduced to a thick puree. Stir in parsley. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Rinse the aubergines and dry. Fry gently in olive oil until they begin to soften. Arrange, cut side up, in a heat-proof dish (you may need to use two). Carefully, prise open the slits and stuff with the tomato mixture. Mix 4fl oz olive oil with an equal quantity of water, the remaining tomato puree, sugar and lemon juice. Pour around the aubergines. Tuck the bayleaves down among them. Bake for 35-45 minutes at 170C/325F/gas 3, until the aubergines are very tender, basting occasionally. Leave to cool and serve with a dollop of yoghurt on each aubergine half.
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