An Urban Veg Plot

My front garden is tiny, the soil lousy and half the patch is taken up with the roots of a vigorous magnolia tree. It is, though, a sun-trap and shielded by a tall fence. Last summer, as an experiment, I planted five courgette plants, three types of French beans and five beetroot plants. There were strawberries, three tomato plants, and far too much rocket and basil in pots. In my back garden a five-year-old potted fig tree was laden with fruit and a sickly vine uncharacteristically heavy with big bunches of tiny, as yet hard grapes. I don’t claim to be much of a gardener, so can only assume that my successes are down to last summer’s record-breaking heatwave. My garden is hardly The Good Life, but it can be a challenge to keep up with gluts, so here are some suggestions:

Courgettes; flowers and all

Every morning the first thing I did was to check my overcrowded plot and almost every day was treated to the sight of bright yellow flowers attached to infantile courgettes hiding under the huge, frilly courgette leaves. These increasingly vigorous plants are so abundant that I have no hesitation in plucking their fruits very young. In fact, I dread missing a tiddler that will turn into a mini-marrow as soon as my back is turned.

Over the years I’ve grown to love courgettes; they’re such an easy veg to grow and so prolific that it’s vital to learn a few interesting ways of cooking them. The little ones attached (or not) to the flowers suit being dipped in lumpy tempura-style batter (100g flour, 1 tsp baking powder and 250ml fizzy water), any flowers first stuffed with creamed ricotta flavoured with lemon, finely grated Parmesan and chopped herbs.

Tiny courgettes are also good quickly barbecued with a smear of olive oil, then turned into salads with a crumble of feta, a lemony vinaigrette and sprinkling of flat leaf parsley chopped with new season garlic. Bigger courgettes are better cut in long slices for the barbecue. It is worth salting these bigger fruit (leave for 20 minutes and be amazed at the liquid they produce; be sure to rinse and squeeze dry) for soups, gratins and pies.

Quickly fried in garlicky olive oil, with a handful of basil or mint, they are delicious mixed with pasta tossed with butter and lemon. I often add torn ham and a dusting of flour (1 tbsp), stirring in sufficient milk to make a stiff sauce. The mixture can be made into a creamy gratin with a Parmesan and breadcrumb topping to turn crisp in a hot oven. Alternatively, wrap the mixture in puff pastry to make empanadas or little pies.


By default we grew three types of beans — green, pale yellow and deep magenta — that climbed out of their special frame towards the magnolia tree and along the fence. They produce a handful of beans every couple of days, sufficient for two portions. They too are spectacular given the tempura treatment, but elegant cold, topped with tomato salsa. Mixing quickly chilled al dente beans in a spoonful of mayonnaise mixed with Dijon mustard, lemon juice, a little olive oil and finely chopped, quickly blanched shallot is my star turn.

When I had an allotment I always grew broad beans, trying different ruses each year to cheat the black fly that can quickly decimate a plant. They don’t lend themselves to commercial growing, but during that hot summer I had no trouble buying them at sensible prices, reaching a rock bottom (£1 for 500g that yields enough for two portions). I always peel the beans inside the furry pods, but it’s a boring chore. The trick is to blanch them for a minute, cool them and then nick each bean between thumbnail and forefinger, then gently squeeze out the glossy, bright green beans. I pile them over soft goat cheese on garlicky bruschetta or add them to a simple risotto, or pasta stirred with lemon and ricotta.

Later in the season I add them to a creamy béchamel sauce with scraps of crisp bacon or ham. This is good with chicken and fish. At St Leonards, Jackson Boxer and Andrew Clarke’s restaurant in Shoreditch, east London, they mash peeled broad beans with a splash of Tabasco to stuff tacos made with slivers of pickled kohlrabi, an idea I’m itching to try.


My beetroot are having trouble establishing themselves against the courgette bullies, but I buy small beets once or twice a week from the farmers’ market. They’ve taken over from new potatoes this year, boiled or roasted (wrapped in foil with garlic and a splash of olive oil). Whip up the Turkish way of serving them doused with lemon then topped with yoghurt beaten with crushed garlic, lemon and olive oil, and finish with chopped mint or coriander, at the drop of a hat. It goes with everything and is perfect barbecue background food, lovely with tomato salad. The leaves and stalks go into summer minestrone with diced beets, beans and whatever else is glutting. Tomato concasse at the end makes a colourful addition instead of pesto.


Ah pesto. I’ve never grown basil before and was a bit too liberal with my prized Italian seeds. A pot, I’ve discovered, is a good dinner party gift. I lavish the intoxicating leaves on tomato salads, in tomato and other Mediterranean vegetable stews, and I’m making pesto like my mother used to make jam.


My tomatoes stayed resolutely hard and green until late in the summer, but my local farmers’ market and fruit and veg stall is laden with different size fruit, from the tiniest, deep red jewels to huge, ridged, green-shouldered beauties all summer long. Tomato salads with black olives and quickly pickled onion (finely sliced, covered with boiling water, drained and immersed in wine vinegar for a few minutes until they turn pink), or garnished with avocado and/or mozzarella, are daily treats at my house.

I halve and roast tomatoes for soups and sauce, but they keep, covered, in the fridge for a few days, ideal on bruschetta with white cheese, prosciutto or canned sardines. Worse for wear tomatoes — often a pound a kilo at my fruit and veg stall — are perfect for variations on gazpacho, the salad soup. It’s a luxury too to make velvety fresh tomato sauce (chopped, cooked in butter or oil till soft, then passed through a sieve to catch pips and skin. and simmered until thick and creamy) for the freezer and the winter months.

Chard and spinach

These greens grew wild at my allotment. The sturdy stalks of chard can be treated like asparagus, eaten with soft-boiled eggs or sheets of prosciutto with a swirl of syrupy balsamic vinegar and another of your best olive oil. In Nice one year I discovered they stuff a tortilla-style omelette with blanched, chopped chard (squeeze it first to get rid of excess liquid) and also a sausage-shaped gnocchi (super-smooth mashed potato mixed with boiled, chopped chard, the two mixed with egg yolks and sufficient flour to knead the mixture until smooth, rolled into sausages and poached in lividly boiling salted water, served with sage fried in butter and masses of parmesan).


After a short-lived glut my strawberries were more interested in sending out runners than producing fruit, so I must have failed them somehow because they glutting in the shops. I like them as the centrepiece for a DIY fruit platter with whatever else is glutting; figs and raspberries are favourites but anything goes. And who can resist Eton mess, very ripe strawberries mixed into whipped cream with chunks of meringue and more strawberries passed through a sieve to make a dramatic sauce?

I was surprised to see two types of gooseberries at my farmers’ market. The pink ones are sweet enough to eat like strawberries, but it’s the mouth-puckeringly sharp, hairy green ones that make the best (the only) gooseberry fool. I was brought up on gooseberry pie and crumbles, and sometimes add a splash of elderflower cordial or use half flour and half ground almonds in the crumble mix. A tart puree of green gooseberries, perhaps whipped with creamed horseradish, goes well with mackerel, goose and duck, complementing and counterbalancing the oily quality of the flesh.

Blackberries are very early and abundant when there is plenty of sunshine, free food from our hedgerows. I love them raw in fruit salads with banana, but they have a natural affinity with apples in pies and crumbles. I love them stirred into hot stewed apple, watching them ooze their gorgeous juices. They’re also good with egg, so try them instead of cherries in clafoutis (400g warmed for 5 min in a hot oven in a 1l gratin-style dish, then covered in 250g thick cream whisked with 4 large eggs, 25g plain flour and 75g caster sugar; bake at 180C/gas 4 for 30 min until puffed and just-set).


One of the perks of growing a vine, whether they produce grapes or not, is the leaves. Stuffed vine leaves are a desert island dish for one of my sons, so I make them often as a treat, blanching the leaves first and adding a tablespoon of olive oil to the stock I cook them in (boiled basmati, sultanas soaked in gin, crumbled feta cheese, masses of mint and flat leaf parsley and toasted pine kernels; rolled, lined up, enough stock to just cover, a foil lid, baked at 170C/gas 3 for 45 min). The oil, incidentally, gives them an appetising glossy finish.

According to the pre-Brexit new, though, I got it all wrong. There’s going to be a national shortage of onions and possibly potatoes. I planted the wrong things and if it’s true that there is going to be a shortage of milk, perhaps I should have got a cow.