I know this, just like I know a load of obscure recipes for blood oranges and red cabbage, because I’ve been signed up to the Growing Communities, an independent vegetable bag scheme in Hackney, for nearly two years. Based in Stoke Newington and with drop-off points across London, I’m not exaggerating when I say this veg box has changed everything about how I eat. Take potatoes – I spent 23 years expecting nothing more than floury mush for flavour. Salad leaves were always just going to taste like crisp water, and don’t ever expect a carrot to actually smell like carrot, because you’re gonna spend a lot of time collecting weirdo looks in the fresh produce area of Morrisons.
As you’d imagine, being able to smell carrots the second you slice into them, taste the difference between each peppery salad leaf and save all of the gorgeous Ambo potatoes for dishes where their flavour can really sing are all a major draw. But Grow Comm’s weekly updates straight from the farmers that supply the produce are another unexpected bonus of taking a more pro-active approach to what’s in my fridge. While the UK faces some of the worst storms in 40 years, you’d be hard-pushed to spot the difference in the supermarket aisles. Thankfully, Grow Comm’s emails and the vegetable bags themselves mean I’m in touch with what is actually going on in the fields, whether it’s scraping the mud off the first Jerusalem artichokes of December or finding out the entire winter crop is struggling because of so much rain and not quite enough cold.
So, back, ever so fondly, to leeks, as they’ve been the headline act for the veg bags so far this year. While adding them to soups or creamy pasta dishes is all well and good, leeks come into their own by roasting. A cousin of both onion and garlic, leeks are often relegated to the (vegetable) stock pile, when in fact their layers of flesh soak up all the olive oil and seasoning that goes anywhere near them, making them the ideal partner to a plateful of whole grains or hearty salad for February.
With a few odds and ends left from the winter crop, here’s a super-warming smoky salad that’s vegan, gluten-free, and perfect for leeks. It’s originally adapted from “Vietnamese Home Cooking” by Charles Phan, although I’ve pared down the flavours a little to allow the roasted leek flavour to come through more, and simplified the dressing. Try this as a salad for lunch, or add some puy lentils or chickpeas for a more substantial meal.
Roasted leek, aubergine and watercress salad with baked mushrooms
Makes two large portions
Half an aubergine, cut into bite size chunks
3-4 small leeks cut in half lengthways
Salt and pepper
2 Portobello mushrooms
1 garlic clove
2 shallots cut into rounds
Optional: dressing of white wine vinegar, olive oil, lime juice and salt and pepper, and chopped tomatoes to serve.
Preheat the oven to 200°C, and line two separate roasting trays with grease-proof paper. Add the aubergine to one and the leeks to the other, and cover both in a good drizzle of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast for around 20-30 minutes until the aubergine is a darker, softer colour. You may need to turn the leeks over half way through so they cook evenly, and take out when they are just beginning to crisp up at the edges.
For the mushrooms, cut a garlic clove in half lengthways and rub each mushroom all over with it. Place in another oven-proof tray with a small amount of olive oil and bake for about 15 minutes. While all this is happening, you can gently sauté the shallots in a frying pan with a teaspoon of oil so they cook slowly and retain a sweet flavour.
To plate up, cover a large serving dish with watercress. Chop the roasted leeks into chunks and add to the salad leaves, followed by some of the aubergine and slices of the mushroom. Finally add the shallots and a little salad dressing, and some chopped tomatoes for texture if you have any to hand.
Words: Ava Szajna-Hopgood