Friday, 6 May 2011

The Veg Box Cookery School

I signed up to a veg box delivery scheme just over two years ago and it amazes me how much effect it's had on my cooking. It's been absolutely worth the initial period of adjustment and I really believe I've become a much better cook because of it.

It was hard at first, you have to give up following recipes almost completely and learn the mystical art of substitution instead. You don't get to go to the market / grocers / supermarket and choose what you fancy all the time - you have to learn to work with what you've got. That can be intimidating with veg you haven't cooked before (kohl rabi, black salsify) and also offputting if you don't know of a way to turn what you have into what you want.

This week's box contains asparagus, vine tomatoes, cucumber, fennel,
lettuce, green pepper, spring greens and white onions

The box can be a great inspiration though, it forces you to try new veggies and cook dishes you might never have made otherwise. It also makes choosing seasonal food easy, no arrays of tasteless produce flown in from timbuktu to tempt you, which means you get both the best nutritional value and tastiest flavour out of what you eat.

I'm not saying that I never buy produce from the supermarket, nor do I claim to never pick up a non-organically farmed fruit or vegetable. If I need, or really want, a top-up ingredient I will certainly pop to the supermarket and pick it up. I look for organic from the UK or Europe first, and if that isn't there then I prioritise the country of origin and accept the non-organic. Veg, and fruit, flown in from far flug places are usually my last choice, although with some ingredients (daikon/mooli for example) it's hard to avoid.  

When I first signed up to the veg box scheme, it was the hardest time of year to get into cooking this way - I joined in February, right at the start of that period in farming known as "the hungry gap": we're running out of all the overwintered veg but not many of the spring crops are ready to eat yet.

Saying that, my scheme imports some produce from Europe (Spain, Italy and France) during this period with zero airmiles, so I do get to enjoy lots of variety even if it can't all be British. I also get the gourmet box now so they include more of the unusual veg which provides some fun - and surprises.

You can order extra items to come with your veg box, all of it sourced with the same principles in mind.

Expense is an interesting topic. I'm pretty well off these days, although this certainly wasn't always the case - I worked hard from the bottom rung of my career, without higher education, to get the wage I do now. Even in the days when every penny counted I still sought out the free range eggs and chicken, and when organic farming was in its infancy, I would find the organic section (a tiny stack of shelves hidden at the back of the shop). 

It's far nicer to eat better quality, more ethical ingredients and make up for the additional expense by eating meat and fish only when you can afford it. I've been told time and time again how meat used to be a real treat for people, something to be savoured because it was so expensive. These days we can buy whole chickens for just a few quid in some supermarkets and many consumers expect to be able to eat this kind of food at almost every meal. I'd very much like to see a change in this attitude.

I get to feast on some of the best and freshest British produce around, all of it organic, so I can stand smugly in my kitchen knowing I'm not eating (or feeding anyone) loads of pesticides or chemicals and that the farmers who lovingly grew my ingredients are paid a fair price for their goods, freeing them up to show respect for the environment, any animals in their care and any workers employed by them.

Smug and delicious, what's not to like?

Substitution Ideas
  • Leeks, red onions, white onions, spring onions, chives and shallots are all alliums, so they can stand in for each other
  • Garlic, garlic chives, wild garlic leaves and white truffle oil all have that sort of garlicky taste - they aren't the same, but they can work in each other's place
  • Cabbages, spring greens, spinach, kale, pak choi, broccoli, purple sprouting broccoli and lettuces are surprisingly interchangeable
  • Potatoes, black salsify, sweet potatoes, squashes, kohl rabi, jerusalem artichokes, cauliflower, parsnips, even carrots and aubergines all bulk out a dish in the same filling way
  • Celery, celeriac. Yep. Also celery salt.
  • Lemon juice, lime juice, vinegar, alcohol (wine, vodka etc not sweet liqueurs), nam pla. Sour, yum.
  • Tomatoes, miso paste and seaweed all make a dish taste "meatier" - that umame taste Heston keeps banging on about. Parmesan does the same thing, add an old rind of it to soup and you're onto a winner
  • There are no substitutes for bell peppers, they're just too awesome.
  • Throw away the idea that if you don't have what a recipe suggests then you can't make it. Think about what you do have that would give the dish a similar taste or texture and go for it. Mix and match, pick and mix: it makes cooking more fun and less stress. The principle applies to herbs and spices, seasonings, sauce ingredients... almost everything has at least one possible substitute.



  1. I like what you say about the 'initial period of adjustment', changing your mindset. I go through phases of ordering the organic veggie boxes (from Abel & Cole), but now that there's such brilliant variety of individual veg, I just order what I need as and when. But one thing I would never go without is my weekly delivery of juicing vegetables. I get 2kg of beetroot, 2kg of celery, 5kg of carrots and 300g of ginger. I've got into a routine of drinking a couple of glasses of fresh veg juice everyday. And if I go away for a few days (and have to leave my juicer behind) I really notice the difference.

  2. Hi irnaqureshi, I had a phase of ordering specific veg too but it came down to laziness in the end - I'm happy to let them do it for me! I do top up my orders with things I particularly want, but it's handy to always have the box on standing order - especially when I've been busy and haven't had time to choose what I want.
    I've never tried a juicer before, I'm trying to imagine what that mix of veg would taste like as a juice! I have a weakness for Innocent smoothies, it would be fun to make them at home.