Top tips on getting the best flavour from your vegetable plot
PUBLISHED: 10:44 13 October 2014 | UPDATED: 15:14 13 October 2014
Thoughtful growing, harvesting and storing can yield the ultimate flavour sensation in your vegetable plot
At first glance, the act of eating is a simple process: put food in your mouth, chew it, and then swallow. But there must be, however, more to eating than this. Otherwise, how can we account for the thousands of cookery books catering for almost every type of cuisine imaginable? Credit for this must surely be given to the most sensitive of organs – the tongue – which elevates eating from an act of necessity to an activity of pleasure. It is, after all, the main taste centre, coated with tiny chemical detectors that analyse the food as it passes through the mouth. These detectors are the taste buds, and they are programmed to distinguish between five basic tastes: bitter, salty, acid, sweetness and umami. In varying degrees, these tastes add personality to vegetables, either individually or, more normally, in a mixture that is sometimes difficult to sort out.
Bitterness is a taste with a split personality. On the up side, vegetables such as swedes and turnips are rescued from the disgrace of blandness by a slight touch of bitterness, while salads can be stimulated by the addition of bitter endive leaves. In contrast, bitter potatoes and cucumbers can be unpalatable. Fortunately it is possible to exercise some control over bitterness vegetables, making them more acceptable to the palate. In the case of endives, for instance, plants can be blanched so that their bitterness doesn’t become overpowering, while older, stronger-tasting leaves can be banned to the compost heap. Because bitterness in potatoes is caused by light, you should diligently ridge up the rows to cover the tubers with soil and then store the tubers in the dark as soon as they are harvested. With cucumbers, modern varieties have had the bitterness bred out of them, so it is better to grow these varieties rather than older heritage types that might yield bitter-tasting fruit.
Salt of the earth
Maybe it’s my taste buds, but none of the vegetables growing in my garden can be described as having a salty taste. Intuitively, I feel the salt is in there somewhere, though I can’t prove it with my tongue. Until the situation changes, I will just have to rely on packaged salt as an essential seasoning ingredient in the kitchen.
An acid tongue
Acidity creates a tart or sour taste whose indispensible role in vegetables is often under appreciated. Its true value reaches a peak in tomatoes, where it comes together in a yin and yang partnership with sugar to create, in the best varieties, the perfect sweet and sour combination. Much of the acidity is found in the gelatinous mixture that surrounds the seed, while the sugar generally resides in the fleshy part of the fruit. Ignore the advice of cookery writers who suggest removing the seeds before cooking tomatoes. Their removal means that the all-important acidity would go with them, leaving behind fruit with nothing to accentuate the sweetness.
You can create zingier-tasting tomatoes in the garden by feeding the flowering plants with a fertiliser high in potassium. As simple as is it, such a practice works because potassium boosts the fruit’s acidity and increases the ratio of tartness to sweetness.
The sweetest thing
Sugar concentration determines sweetness, which oftentimes can make or break a vegetable. For example, if it weren’t for sugars, dullness would prevail in both beetroots and carrots, and sweet corn just wouldn’t exist. Additionally, the best onions are elevated to culinary heaven by a shot of sweetness, which becomes more noticeable when the flesh is caramelised by long cooking times.
Using a little strategic thinking, gardeners can manipulate the sweetness of many vegetables almost at will. In swedes and parsnips, it is just a matter of delaying harvest until the cold weather sets in – sugar production in both is stimulated by low temperatures. Tomatoes and peppers are renowned for their sweetness but must be managed to maximize their concentration of sugar. And, since the fruit get sweeter as they turn colour and ripen, the best way to do that is to allow them to fully mature on the plant before harvesting.
Desirable though they are, sugars are sometimes in the wrong place at the wrong time. Potatoes are often victims of unwanted sweetness, and tubers stored in the cold get sweeter as their starches are broken down. Unless you positively want sugar, you can reverse the trend by storing the tubers at room temperature for a few days before cooking – sugar will then be reduced to an acceptable level.
Unlike the other tastes, umami is something of a ghost that has no obvious presence. Often described as ‘savoury’ or ‘meaty’, it supposedly adds depth and fullness of flavor. Potatoes and tomatoes are reported to be umami rich, which may help explain their world-wide popularity – just think of all those chips drenched in ketchup. For more of a fix, you could also grow Chinese cabbage and cook it with soy sauce. Both apparently rate highly on the umami scale, though to be honest, I simply don’t understand how, or even if, it works.