Making the most of a veg box delivery (and a recipe that makes Brussels sprouts taste ace)

I’ve been meaning to sign up for a weekly vegetable box delivery for, oh, about two years now. The main reasons have been because when I’m actually faced with the rows of veg in the supermarket I tend to go for the same things over and over – regardless of season – and I never really branch out. I’m getting more and more into cooking, and really wanted to challenge myself while at the same time eating plants while they’re actually at their best.

I signed up with Riverford because of a friend’s recommendation, largely (and because last time I checked their box was better value than Abel & Cole’s equivalent, though you should always check these things). I go for the Seasons Veg Box, which is 8-10 varieties of veg, designed to feed 2-3 adults, and never contains potatoes. I have until 10pm two days before delivery to cancel or make any changes or additions to my order.

There are basically two issues with veg boxes:

– What if I don’t like that vegetable?

– What the hell do I do with this?!

(There’s also issue number three, which is “oh my God, what am I going to do with 15 onions?” after you’ve failed to use enough week by week, but honestly they last forever, so don’t worry about it.)

The answer to question one is to be inventive. Disguise it. (More about this, and Brussels sprouts, in a moment.) Or, you think you don’t like it because someone boiled the hell out of it when you were a child, and as a grown up you can approach it again with all thoughts of yellow veg cast aside. Or you can just check what’s in your box early in the week and change / cancel your order to avoid it. That’s not really entering into the spirit, though, and we’ll all be judging you just a little. Sorry.

Question two is partly resolved for me by Riverford recipe sheets that arrive with the box every week, and by their website, which is heaving with recipes. But it’s also a great opportunity to start thinking not just about the elements that go into your food – carbs, protein, fat – but the flavours.

Take Brussels sprouts, for example. I have never really liked Brussels sprouts, though I discovered last Christmas that the rumours are true: if you just, just cook the buggers they taste considerably sweeter and more pleasant than if you have those crossed-and-boiled-to-oblivion cabbage-y bullets people usually put on the festive table. The key is timing – just three or four minutes for small sprouts, up to six for bigguns – and also ensuring that you plunge them in some cold / ice water afterwards to stop the cooking process so they stay beautifully bright green and crunchy. You also don’t need to cross them; they will cook to the centre anyway. They’re not like the Earth; there are no layers of crust and magma to breach.

So, this week we got the dread mini-cabbages and I wanted to think of a way to cook them that would be not just edible, but actually yummy. Other vegetables to hand were a rather teeny Romanesco cauliflower (looks like an alien crystal, tastes like a cross between cauli and broccoli) and two week-0ld leeks. I also had a ridiculous amount of cheese – there was a 3 for 2; don’t judge me – and a 500g bag of wholemeal fusilli. All it needed was bacon lardons… you can skip to the end here, if you like.

The point, of course, is that I never would have set out to make this particular dish. But it’s huge – at least six adult-sized portions came out of it – and utterly delicious. Though veg boxes seem quite expensive, it’s a fair bet that you will use everything in them and design dishes that will last for several meals. And when you know several days earlier what you’ll be getting, it’s easy to search for recipes and make sure you have everything else you’ll be needing well in advance. You’ll also probably find that you have more meat-free or low-meat days just by virtue of the fact that there’s so much veg you’re happy for it to take centre stage.

So, here are my tips:

– Take advantage of knowing what’s coming to menu plan. One week I wrote out an entire grid of meals and stuck to it, meaning I had several fresh, quick and interesting dinners and a week’s worth of lunches with no fuss.

– Keep a good stock of staple carbs, which can be the basis for practically anything. With onions, sweet Ramiro peppers and earthy portobello mushrooms making a regular appearance at the moment, I know having garlic and cous cous to hand means a super fast meal when I’m tired and ravenous. Pasta is the other obvious helpful staple, and a can of chopped tomatoes is always handy too.

– Get your pretend MasterChef hat on, and think about nicely complementing flavours. Brussels seem a bit unpleasant? Not with cheese and bacon. Beetroot a bit stodgy and dull? Not with apples and walnuts (okay, and more cheese). Lots of root vegetables? Throw in a few sprigs of rosemary, turn up the oven and get happy with the olive oil and you have a Mediterranean feast on your hands.

Cheesy Pasta Bake with Brussels Sprouts, Bacon and Leeks

Ingredients  (you’ll notice there are vague amounts because I improvised desperately. Google is your friend here.)

Butter – around 30g
Flour – plain, around 30g
Cheese  – really, whatever you’ve got to hand. Different types of strong cheese are nice; I used small blocks of Red Leicester, Double Gloucester, Cheddar and Wensleydale; around 120g, with more for grating on top
Cream cheese (I had half-fat; with all the butter it was fine) – around three heaped tbsps
Milk – around a pint
500g pasta
A packet of bacon lardons
2 leeks, cut into medium-thin slices
Brussels sprouts – I used a net of small ones – would probably make slightly fewer next time, as it can get a bit unbalanced.
Some sort of brassica – in my case, a small Romanesco cauliflower

1. First, deal with the ingredients that need boiling. Cook the pasta until nicely al dente, and drain. Put aside. Then quickly boil the sprouts and make sure they’re plunged into cold / ice water after. Do the same with the cauli; it should only need five minutes to be just soft enough. Preheat the oven to 200-210 (fan assisted).

2. Now, the cheese sauce. Melt the butter, and stir in the flour until you have a thick paste, then gradually add milk, stirring constantly. My hand slipped, a great big slosh went in and I ended up with roughly one million lumps; that’s fine – if you stir like your life depends on it and have patience, they will melt eventually. Let the sauce thicken a bit. Add the cream cheese and crumbled lumps or grated cheese and make sure they’re thoroughly melted in. Taste and adjust, with more milk or cheese as needed. This is just enough sauce to coat the pasta but doesn’t make a thick, macaroni cheese type sauce – you’ll need more (and a decent recipe) for that. I also don’t add salt; between the cheese and the bacon, God knows there’s enough of it.

3. Fry the bacon lardons until slightly browned and then add the leeks. I didn’t add fat to the lardons because I felt vaguely guilty about the massive cheese content, but you’ll get a nicer brown if you do. Make your peace with it as you will. Let the leeks wilt and brown but retain some crunch, and then toss the bacon and leeks, sprouts and brassica in with the pasta. Put them all in a large, deep casserole / roasting dish and pour on the sauce, mixing thoroughly. Top with grated cheese / small cheese chunks in as much abundance as you can cope with.

4. Pop in the oven for 12-25 minutes until the cheese has melted and it’s as browned and crisp at the edges as appeals to you.

5. Eat three bowls of it and wonder why you can’t move anymore.

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