Food: Plucked from obscurity

They may be hard to find, but courgette flowers, wild rocket and sorrel will transform your summer menu. By Annie Bell; Courgette flowers possess a sweet milky succulence and once past the petals there is a prize morsel, the juicy yellow clutch of pistles that is to a courgette what cheeks are to a cod Photograph by Patrice de Villiers
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How about a few sprigs of summer savory to braise with a little dish of mealy, late-season broad-beans? Or a punnet of dark red and spicy shiso, some lemon thyme to stuff a red mullet, a touch of lovage to add to a cream of celery soup or some bog myrtle for this Sunday's roast lamb?

Some ingredients are simply not very easy to get hold of, but occasionally it is worth making that extra effort. My greengrocer even has to order sorrel specially - a few sharp, lemony leaves are perfect for mayonnaise - as he says it doesn't sell very well. This week I ended up buying a stack of precious plastic packets of the stuff in Harrods' food hall. Whatever else you might think of this perfumed palace, it's the one place you can guarantee to find ingredients you can't get anywhere else, and if they don't have them, they will order them.

My greengrocer did, however, have a box of courgette flowers, beautiful bright blooms with small, crisp courgettes attached. They are as fey and capricious as their appearance suggests: they wilt at the slightest neglect and demand to be eaten straightaway. They possess a sweet milky succulence and once past the petals there is a prize morsel, the juicy yellow clutch of pistles that is to a courgette what cheeks are to a cod.

Courgette flowers are not so much about flavour, although this does come into it, but what is annoyingly known as "mouthfeel", a term that is bandied around by food technologists. On this subject, I am delighted to see that Tom Stobart's classic Herbs, Spices and Flavourings has just been republished (Grub Street, pounds 14.99). As well as a comprehensive alphabetical listing of herbs and spices, he explores the science of flavourings and how it works in practice. Mouthfeel, he says, can be temperature or texture - "wetness, dryness, roughness, slipperiness, oiliness, bite and so on" - or else it can be a sensation such as pain, coolness, anaesthesia, astringency or puckering of the mouth.

Next off, I turned to the entry in Stobart's book on rocket, given that there is now more than one type doing the rounds. You may, or may not, have noticed the fashionability of wild rocket - so-called, that is. Do not be deceived into thinking that a new cottage industry has sprung up employing little men bent double scouring fields and wastelands. Normal rocket - Eruca sativa - has large-lobed leaves; what is referred to as wild has searingly hot, wiry little fronds. Perusing Stobart, I discover no fewer than nine kinds of rockets (not all edible), and the one now sold as wild is in my reckoning "wall rocket" which, he says, "is used in the South of France as a flavouring herb in salads under the name riquetta, probably in confusion with the true salad rocket".

I have eaten genuinely wild rocket, which is sometimes found growing in this country and has a small yellow flower. This came from the unlikely venue of a grass bank in Finchley, north London. At the time I was with Gennaro Contaldo, Antonio Carluccio's procurer of all things wild for his Covent Garden restaurant. In fact, Carluccio's shop is probably the one place where you can guarantee that the rocket is wild - the rest, I'm afraid, is cultivated. In any case, wild or not so wild, it has a pungent charm and I am always glad to encounter it.

Braised courgette flowers with pesto, serves 4

The first time I cooked this I managed to have it ready bang in the middle of the World Cup final when the company present were more interested in pretzels and beer. This was fine by me, I don't think you can have too many courgette flowers any more than you can have too many scallops.


15g pine nuts

40g basil leaves

4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

half a garlic clove

25g freshly grated Parmesan

black pepper

Toasted crumbs (optional)

3 tbsp breadcrumbs

extra virgin olive oil

sea salt


40g unsalted butter

700g courgettes, coarsely grated

12 courgette flowers

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 onion, peeled, halved and sliced

2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced

150ml white wine

Heat the oven to 140C/fan oven 155C or 300F/gas mark 2 and toast the pine nuts for 15 minutes until they are lightly golden. At the same time, toss the breadcrumbs with a little olive oil and sea salt. Arrange them in a thin layer on a small baking dish and toast in the oven for 30 minutes, mixing them halfway through.

Make the pesto by placing the basil, pine nuts, olive oil and garlic in the food processor. Reduce it to a puree, incorporate the Parmesan and season it with black pepper. If you need to store it, seal the surface with a thin layer of olive oil and keep it in the fridge.

Melt the butter in a medium-size saucepan, add the grated courgette and season with salt and pepper. Sweat it for 10-15 minutes, by which time you should have a dry, textured puree. Gently prise open the courgette flowers and stuff each one with a couple of teaspoons of the wilted courgette, twisting the tops of the flowers to secure them.

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan and sweat the onion until it is soft and translucent, without colouring it. Add the garlic and, moments later, add half the courgette flowers and turn them in the oil. Pile them to one side of the pan and repeat with the remainder. Pour in the wine and season, bring the liquid to the boil, cover and braise the courgettes for 8-10 minutes until they are tender. Carefully lift the courgette flowers on to a platter, trying not to separate them from their courgette in the process. Stir about half the pesto into the juices and spoon these over the courgettes. You can either eat them warm, scattered with toasted crumbs, or cold.

Salad of new potatoes, French beans, peas and wild rocket with lemon dressing, serves 4

I like this best, freshly tossed, just as the vegetables are cooling. If you want to leave it sitting around, then toss the rocket in at the last minute.

1 lemon

700g new potatoes, peeled

225g fine green beans

500g fresh peas in the pod

2 tbsp white wine

sea salt, black pepper

8 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

70g wild rocket

2 spring onions, trimmed and finely sliced

Cook the lemon for 30 minutes in boiling water. Bring another pan of salted water to the boil for the potatoes and cook until tender, then put them in a bowl. While the potatoes are cooking, top and tail the beans and halve them, and pod the peas.

To make the dressing, cut open the lemon, squeeze the juice and pulp into a bowl and pick out the pips. Finely chop an eighth of the lemon shell and add this to the pulp with the wine and some seasoning. Whisk in the olive oil. Pour the dressing over the cooked potatoes.

Add the beans to the potato water and boil for 3-4 minutes, adding the peas a minute before the end. Drain into a sieve and cool with water. Mix them into the potatoes. Discard the lower, tough stems of the rocket and cut the leaves in half. Toss this and the spring onions into the salad and serve.

Artichoke hearts in sorrel mayonnaise, serves 4

Try to find nice big artichokes for this so that the hearts are generously proportioned. A salad purely of artichoke hearts is incredibly luxurious, but you may like to spin it out by adding a handful of cooked and sliced asparagus spears, peas or skinned broad-beans.

75ml vermouth

50ml double cream

50g sorrel, sliced

sea salt, black pepper

1 large egg yolk

12 tsp Dijon mustard

300ml, approx, groundnut oil

white wine vinegar

6 artichokes

sweet paprika

To make the sorrel mayonnaise, place the vermouth in a small saucepan and simmer until it is reduced by half. Add the cream and cook for a minute longer, then add the sorrel, which should turn a murky green almost immediately. Puree this in a liquidiser and then season. Leave to cool.

Beat the egg yolk in a bowl with the Dijon mustard and whisk in the oil in a thin stream until the mayonnaise is seriously thick. It may take a little more or less oil than specified. Stir in the cooled sorrel puree. Check the seasoning.

To pare the artichokes, bring a large pan of water to the boil. Equip yourself with a sharp paring knife and a bowl with a little vinegar in it. Break the stalk off from the artichoke and starting at the base, cut away the coarser outer leaves, dipping the exposed flesh in the vinegar as you work to prevent it discolouring. Cut around the sides and then slice off the top to about 1cm above the choke. Reserve the artichokes in the vinegar as you pare the others.

Tip the artichokes and the vinegar into the boiling water and cook for 20 minutes or until a leaf pulls out with ease. Cool them in a basin of cold water. Remove the inner artichoke leaves by running your thumb between the choke and the heart, then use a teaspoon to tidy up the cup. Trim the hearts so they look tidy and cut them into segments. Mix them into the mayonnaise. Spoon into a clean bowl and dust with sweet paprika