Purple and gold

The tasteful and weird from summer vegetables; Annie Bell, the author of Evergreen and A Feast of Flavours, writes monthly about seasonal vegetables. Main photograph by Patrice de Villiers
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The vegetable patch assumes a Peter Rabbit idyll this month. There are sweet cobs of corn, earthy young beetroots, the runner beans are still tender and tomatoes are drinking in the languorous hours of sunlight. Who needs Provence?

It is easy to feel hard done by when it comes to sweet corn. If you take your corn-on-the-cob seriously, the only way of eating it is to put a pan of water on to boil, rush out to your field of corn, pick it and then rush back to your pan. This is because something like 40 per cent of its sugar is converted to starch within the first six hours of being picked.

But do not get too despondent. The cobs I have been cooking this summer would have been unpalatable had they been any sweeter. Modern varieties have been bred to satisfy the American tooth, hence grades like "ultra sweet" and "sugary enhanced".

Getting down to a corn-on-the-cob dripping with melted butter is a treat that has arrived just in time for messy outdoor eating. Either boil and then griddle cobs, so they smoulder for about 15 minutes on a hot grid until the tips of the kernels are charred and black. Or, I am advised by American friends, you should soak the corn in its husk and then barbecue it husk-on. The cobs will literally lap up butter: flavour it with soy sauce, minced chillies and coriander; fresh ginger, lemon grass and mint or sage and garlic.

But enough of all this tastefulness, let us ponder the weird for a moment. Until I met Mr Maccioni, owner of New York's Le Cirque restaurant, my response to sweet corn ice-cream would have been thanks, but no thanks. Experience proved different: made with a puree of corn kernels and heavily flavoured with vanilla seeds, it had a luxuriously dense texture and freshness.

Buoyed up by such unlikely success I moved on to beetroot. Raw and finely grated, this worked beautifully in a carrot-style cake, specked with garnet red. I was momentarily seduced by the notion of beetroot icing, a louche shade of Cartland pink, but normality reasserted its grip and I settled for a beetroot tzatziki, and a rich pink sauce flavoured with sage and rosemary, poured over gnocchi.

And while the days continue to be long we should be making the most of all those wonderful raw tomato sauces where the juices are bled out of the flesh by sprinkling them with caster sugar and salt. In Erica Brown's excellent Provence Gastronomique (Conran Octopus pounds 16.99) there is a recipe where they are left for 12 hours, though I confess 30 minutes is all I allow.

Confused about tomatoes this year? So am I. "Grown for flavour" means nothing. "Vine-ripened" means nothing. "Grown for slicing" means rock hard. And I am faintly alarmed by what we may find on the shelves next year now that Stephen Bayley has said that pukka Umbrian tomatoes look like illustrations from an atlas of skin diseases. Surely an exaggeration? I do hope so.

Beetroot, French Bean and Hazelnut Salad with Toasted Goats' Cheese serves 4

Try to buy small individual demi-sec goats' cheeses such as Innes buttons; alternatively, Crottins de Chavignol.

1 12 lbs/670 g medium-sized uncooked beetroot (14 oz/400 g cooked and peeled)

1 tbs red wine vinegar

salt, pepper

4 tbs hazelnut oil

3 tbs groundnut oil

1 level tsp grainy mustard

1 heaped tbs finely chopped dill

12 oz/340 g fine French beans

34 oz/20 g roasted and chopped hazelnuts

6 oz/170 g demi-sec goats' cheese

Heat the oven to 160C/325F (fan oven), 170C/335F (electric oven), Gas 3. Scrub the beetroot if they are very dirty, place them in a shallow baking dish and bake for one to two hours or until a knife inserts with ease. Cool to room temperature.

While the beetroot is cooking, whisk the vinegar with the seasoning and add the oils. Separate a third of the dressing and whisk in the mustard; add the dill to the remaining two-thirds of dressing.

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil, top and tail the beans and add them to the pan. Bring back to the boil and cook for three to four minutes; drain and cool in a sink of cold water. Remove to a bowl and dress with the mustard dressing.

Remove the beetroot skins and cut the flesh into small dice and place in a bowl. Toss with the dill dressing and stir in the hazelnuts.

To serve: preheat the grill, place the goats' cheese on a baking dish and grill until it is patched with brown (a demi-sec cheese will hold its shape). Place the beans on the base of four plates or one large one, the beetroot in a pile in the centre, and the goats' cheese to one side.

Ricotta Gnocchi with Beetroot Sauce serves four


8 oz/225 g uncooked medium-sized beetroot (5 oz/140 g cooked and peeled)

1 tbs extra virgin olive oil

12 onion, peeled and chopped

1 small sprig of rosemary

1 small sprig of sage

4 fl oz/125 mls double cream

4 fl oz/125 mls water

salt, pepper

a few drops of lemon juice

Cook and peel the beetroot as in above recipe and dice it. Heat the olive oil in a small saucepan and sweat the onion, beetroot and herbs for a few minutes until the onion is translucent. Add the cream and water, season with salt and pepper, bring back to the boil and simmer for three minutes. Remove the herbs and liquidize the sauce; sharpen with a few drops of lemon juice. This can be reheated.


5 oz/140 g plain flour, or Farina 00, sifted

salt, pepper

12 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

1 lb/450 g ricotta

2 egg yolks (size 2)

To serve: mascarpone, finely chopped chives

Combine the flour, seasoning and nutmeg in a bowl. Blend the ricotta and egg yolks in another bowl. Add the flour to the ricotta mixture and work until it is just blended but do not overmix: the mixture will be sticky.

Flour a work surface, divide the mixture into five and roll out one part at a time into a long, thin sausage, half-an-inch in diameter. Cut this into slices a quarter of an inch thick. Press the tines of a fork on one of the cut sides of the gnocchi, flattening it. Lay a tea towel on a tray, sprinkle it with flour and spread the gnocchi in a single layer, then cover them with another tea towel. Do this as close to the time of serving as possible, though you can keep them in a cool place for a short while.

To cook the gnocchi, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Add the gnocchi; they will rise to the surface after a minute or two. Give them one minute longer, then strain and toss with the hot sauce. Serve with a dollop of mascarpone in the centre and a few chives scattered over.

Avocado with Double Tomato Sauce

The sauce is also delicious spooned over whole buffalo mozzarellas or served with grilled red mullet fillets.

1 34 lbs / 785 g plum tomatoes

1 level tsp caster sugar

1 level tsp salt

4 tbs extra virgin olive oil

2 oz /50 g sun-dried tomatoes in oil, minced

1 heaped tbs minced shallot

black pepper

4 thin-skinned avocados

Bring a pan of water to the boil, cut a cone from the top of each tomato to remove the core, and plunge them into the boiling water for 20 seconds, then into a sink of cold water. Slip off the skins, halve, scoop out the seeds, and cut the flesh into small dice.

Place the diced plum tomatoes in a bowl and sprinkle over the sugar and salt; leave for 30 minutes to exude the juices, then stir in the olive oil, sun-dried tomato and shallot and season with pepper.

Just before serving, incise the avocado skin into quarters and peel it off, now remove the flesh in two halves. Cover the base of four plates with the sauce and place two halves of avocado on each