Part 1: Dressings and other things to make your vegetables sing
Eleanor Bunch (a very fitting surname for a fruit & vegetable related website) is a writer, food enthusiast and PR based in South London. I’ve known Eleanor for nearly a decade and during that time she never fails to amuse however even if her banter was to turn stale I would still continue to spend time with her as she has culinary skills which are enough to make even Nigella blush.
Eleanor is contributing a three-part series on dressings, juicing and marinades.
One of my dad's favourite stories about me when I was little is the time, aged ten, I announced I wanted to become a vegetarian. "But you don't like vegetables", was his reply. He was right, I didn't. Not all vegetables were outright enemies - potatoes were fine and I'd eat peas at a push - but none excited me. I simply couldn't understand how a floret of steamed broccoli or a plain boiled carrot could ever get anyone's juices flowing.
And to be honest, almost 30 years on, I still can't. My dad and I struck a bargain that day, that I wouldn't be forced to eat meat, if I agreed to embrace, without a word of complaint, any vegetable that was put in front of me. Sceptical as I was at the time, this agreement turned out brilliantly. My dad started experimenting with vegetables in a way that's only become fashionable in recent years, and through the months and years that followed, we discovered countless ways to jazz them up. To this day, I still use many of these tricks and I'm always on the lookout for new ones.
To be clear, this isn't about masking the flavour, colour or texture of vegetables. Quite the opposite. I firmly believe that most vegetables - especially the local, untampered ones you'll find in your boxes - are beautiful, vibrant, wholesome things. It's just that left to their own devices, they don't always sing their own praises loudly enough for someone like me - a veteran of the "food for fun, not just fuel" camp, who craves food with zing.
I've learned that with minimal effort - sometimes we're literally just talking a lick of butter and a grind of salt and pepper, or a squeeze of lemon - you can make your vegetables really come alive, turning them from side-kicks on your plate in to the stars of your meal. Take salad as an example. I love the young, floppy-leaved lettuces that come in to their own around this time of year, but eating them plain (sad little undressed leaves, as token "green" with a burger spring to mind) just doesn't do justice to something so bright and full of the promise of summer.
I would argue that lettuce should never be eaten without a dressing. And given it takes no more than two minutes to rustle up a vinaigrette that a Frenchman would be proud of, my advice is to ditch the synthetically sweet shop-bought kind and make your own.
To make a generous amount of dressing for an average sized lettuce, in a salad bowl whisk together a heaped teaspoon of smooth Dijon mustard, a tablespoon of good red or white wine vinegar or lemon juice and two tablespoons of any good oil (olive or groundnut are my two go-to’s) with a big pinch of salt and grind of pepper. For more oomph, add a finely chopped clove of garlic or a small, chopped shallot. Chuck in your lettuce and mix thoroughly, so all the leaves are well coated, and you're good to go. This is a great accompaniment to any main dish or try it as a summery weekend lunch, with some crusty baguette, gooey French cheese and a light red wine. It also works really well as a dressing for tomato salad (for this, I tend to slightly increase the vinegar to oil ratio, replace the garlic / shallot with finely sliced red onion, add a good pinch of sugar if the tomatoes aren't perfectly ripe, and add a load torn basil at the end).
I'm also a huge fan of Asian-inspired salads, which, with their balance of sweet, sour, saltiness and heat, are great for purging hangovers and are so packed full of healthy, fresh ingredients that they usually succeed in zapping the associated self-loathing too.
For a dressing to coat enough veg for two very greedy people (or four more moderate ones), combine two cloves of garlic, crushed, a thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger, finely chopped, and half a red chilli, thinly sliced (add more or less depending on how hot you like it), with the juice of two limes, and a desert spoon each of Thai fish sauce, soy sauce and soft brown sugar. Finally, add a big handful of roughly chopped coriander, and a splash of oil (a plain vegetable oil works best here, as you don't want to detract from the other flavours). Like all dressings, you can - and should - taste and refine according to your personal taste, adding more lime if it needs more zing, more sugar if it's a bit sour and more fish or soy sauce if it's not salty enough for you.
When I make one of these salads - especially if I'm feeling hungover and guilty - I pack in as many vegetables as I can find, including, but not limited to, raw sliced carrots and cucumber, spinach leaves, and lightly steamed broccoli, (great for soaking up the dressing), baby sweetcorn and mange touts or sugar snap peas. For meat eaters, strips of seared steak or salmon are a satisfying addition to this, but it works equally well served just as it is, or over a bowl of plain rice.
Another great way to add some punch to your vegetables is to toss them in a sauce or dressing when they're just cooked, as this helps the additional flavours to infuse. A current favourite of mine is roasted sweet potatoes or carrots, with chopped garlic added for the final ten minutes of cooking time, and then slathered in a mixture of lemon juice and a handful chopped herbs (a mixture of parsley and coriander works really well here) as soon as they come out of the oven.
Yoghurt based dressings are another great partner for hot root vegetables. Try tossing baked sweet potatoes in a mixture of Greek yoghurt, lemon juice and smoked paprika; or drizzle yoghurt, garlic and parsley over slices of roasted beetroot.
And as for plain boiled vegetables...we all know that adding a knob of butter or drizzle of oil and some salt and pepper after draining helps to bring out their flavour. But why not go a step further and mix them with a flavoured butter? From anchovy and garlic to red pepper and paprika, the options are endless - all you need to do is mix room temperature butter with your choice of flavouring to taste, dollop it on to a sheet of cling film, roll in to a sausage shape and chill until firm, then slice off rounds as needed.