romancing the sprout

Some of my best days in 2011 were spent in the wonderful west Yorkshire town of Todmorden. I wrote here about my most recent visit and about the incredible edible project. You really can’t spend much time with Todmorden folk without becoming inspired to do more with vegetables and, more importantly, be honest about how your food choices affect the world around you.

Over the Christmas break I got to thinking about how our family could eat in a way that has less impact on the environment and is more sustainable in the long term. Growing more of our own food is an obvious first step and I have some plans in that direction, but for now it is January and there’s not much in the garden.

So I decided we should go back to having a weekly veg box, something we used to do but abandoned because I had an idea that it was too time consuming. I know organic parsnips with the mud still on them are much better all round than the anaemic, plastic-wrapped variety you get in the supermarket, but back when I had just started a degree and was juggling it with work and a teenager crisis, I felt I couldn’t cope with anything extra. If anything is worse than a shrink-wrapped courgette in Tesco, it’s a mouldy organic one looking at you accusingly from the bottom of the fridge. (Though I’ll admit it’s a close run thing.)

I hope to return to the issue of time in another post. I don’t think you can get away from the fact that doing things in a sustainable way often appears to gobble more time than the convenience option and may well actually do so. But speed can be overrated, I think. Just as I’d rather pay a few pence extra for fairly traded bananas, so I think I need to be wiser about how I spend my precious time.

Anyway, the first veg box arrived from the excellent Riverford. A stunningly beautiful red cabbage and some fabulous purple sprouting broccoli sat alongside more homely offerings such as carrots, potatoes, parsnips and leeks.

No problem deciding what to do with any of those, but I have to admit I was temporarily stumped by the bag of Brussels sprouts. The two teenagers who still live at home are definitely not picky eaters, but they really do not like sprouts. In their entire lives, they have never managed more than one at a time, and that is with the Christmas dinner. There was only one option – I would have to cook the sprouts for my Friday night ‘date’ with Julian.

This Friday tradition goes back to when our children were small and we couldn’t afford to go out and pay a babysitter too. It’s a great excuse to splash out a bit on posh food. Sometimes I get sea bass or tuna steaks from the fishmonger; sometimes we indulge in home made tortellini from the Italian deli. What we do not expect to eat is anything as homely as a Brussels sprout. But I love a challenge and what’s more I knew my amazing Leith’s Vegetarian Bible (now out of print, but there is a newer edition) was unlikely to let me down.

Enter the Brussels Sprouts Gratinée. Let me tell you, this did not look promising. But I put that down to the sprouts and all our prejudices about them. In fact – and as is usual with the Leith bible – the taste was excellent. Crunchy sprouts and a crispy, cheesy topping contrast perfectly with the creamy, paprika-spiked sauce and the smooth potatoes. Add candlelight and a glass or two of red wine and I promise you the humble sprout can be transformed into the food of romance.

Brussels Sprouts Gratinée

Sightly adapted from Leith’s Vegetarian Bible by Polly Tyrer

450g Brussels sprouts

350g unpeeled potatoes

1 teaspoon paprika

a pinch of cayenne pepper

200ml crème fraîche

50g wholemeal breadcrumbs

1 dessertspoon of butter, melted

15g Parmesan cheese, freshly grated

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

Switch the oven to 200 degrees C and grease an ovenproof dish with butter. I used a round one; the base has a diameter of 21cm.

Trim the stalks and outer leaves from the sprouts. I didn’t bother making a little cross in the bottom, although I know some people say you should. Cook them in boiling salted water for just five minutes. Drain and allow to cool slightly.

Cut the potatoes into even sized shapes and cook in boiling salted water for about 10 minutes. They should be just tender. Drain and allow to cool slightly.

Cut the sprouts in half and slice the potatoes. Mix together gently and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Stir the paprika and cayenne into the crème fraîche and season.

Put half the sprouts and potatoes into the dish. Spread over half the crème fraîche. I found this a little tricky, but a bit of coaxing with a palette knife did the the trick. Top with the remaining vegetables, then the rest of the crème fraîche.

Mix the breadcrumbs with the melted butter. Stir in the cheese and parsley and spread on top.

Bake for about 20 minutes, by which time the vegetables will be hot and the crumbs crisp and brown.


What it is about dark evenings and chilly weather that makes us crave stodgy food? All day I have been thinking about hot buttered toast, warm muffins and other comforting delicacies. I’m trying really hard not to overdo it in the run up to Christmas, though, so in the end I made a pot of soup.

When I make soup I almost always use proper, home-made chicken stock. It is a habit I got from my mother, like putting every last bit of potato peel in the compost bin. I was amazed to read in a Delia Smith book recently that ‘few of us have time to make stock these days’. Honestly, it is not onerous at all and it makes a huge difference to the quality of the soup. It also makes me feel secretly rather virtuous, as if I really were a paragon of thriftiness rather than the kind of person who spends far too much money on books and coffee.

This is what I do. After stripping every last bit of meat from a cooked chicken, I stick the carcass in a large pot. Then I add an onion, halved but not peeled; a carrot, ditto; a couple of sticks of celery, including some leaves, and a few peppercorns. Next I cover the whole lot with cold water and bring it to the boil very slowly. The slow boil is something I learned from Lindsey Bareham’s fabulous book A Celebration of Soup which has an absolutely masterly chapter on making stock out of everything from vegetable peelings to tripe (not that I have ever tried the latter).

When the water comes to the boil some scum forms, so I skim that off, then cover the pan and let it cook at the gentlest possible simmer for an hour. Any longer and it starts to get bitter, whereas what you are after is a kind of delicate sweetness. I strain the stock through a sieve, allow it to cool and then stick it in the fridge overnight so that any fat can rise to the surface and solidify. The next day, after removing the fat I freeze the stock in 1 litre portions.

My basic soup recipe is as follows: sweat a chopped onion in a little oil, add 1kg of chopped vegetables, stir around a bit, then pour over 1 litre of stock. Parsnip, sweet potatoes and butternut squash are fantastic at this time of year, especially if you add some chopped fresh ginger to the onion. Boil the mixture for about 40 minutes with a lid on, season with salt and pepper and liquidise with a stick blender. Of course you can use water, or stock made from a cube instead, but I swear the proper stuff gives the flavour a depth you can’t get any other way.

I do have a picture of some stock cooking but it's not very pretty, so here's some borscht I made earlier in the year