The Last Parsnip

A Truly Unbelievable Dining Experience from Chef Bryce Chartwell

Ask Bryce: Choosing Vegetables

Today I have a question from Margaret Tibbets in Leicestershire. She writes: “Dear Bryce – I often struggle when selecting vegetables from my local supermarket. I agonize over their size and shape, and usually end up feeling a deep sense of under-achievement once I bring them home. What am I doing wrong?”

Well Margaret, choosing vegetables ought to bring you hope and excitement, not despair and self-recrimination.  I'll  begin with a few of the more obvious suggestions.

For starters, the mere concept of choosing vegetables in a supermarket sends shivers down my spine. I’d recommend going straight to the source – by visiting the regional farmers that you trust the most. Or, better yet, have them come to you. Organizing a private viewing day allows you to remain in comfortable surroundings while letting the farmers do all of the work.

Winter vegetables presented to me in my viewing yard.

Winter vegetables presented to me in my viewing yard.

Now, I realize that some of you out there don’t have the time, or indeed the staff, to choose your vegetables in this way. Indeed visiting an actual store may be the only option available to you. If that is the case then I urge you to at least visit one with an ample supply of organic produce, heirloom varietals and precision irradiation equipment on site.

Once you’re in front of the vegetables there are three key things to look for – freshness, purity and potential.

Freshness is critically important. Ask for a detailed log of the vegetables’ transit from field to table. Ideally you’re looking for a total time of less than one day, with a route that avoids major weather incidents or rough roads.

Purity is something that is often overlooked – even from some of my so-called peers in the restaurant industry. Heirloom varietals are ideal – but make sure you have a good sense of their provenance. Don’t be afraid to ask the difficult questions of the staff, no matter how dumbfounded or senseless they may appear. In my experience you can always escalate up through the management chain  to the CEO if necessary.

Next up - potential. What do I mean by potential? Here a bit of research on your part (or the part of your staff) comes in handy. You should be looking for varietals that have established a good pedigree for cooking, but have not become clichés in their own right. For example, I avoid Marris Piper and Yukon Gold potatoes like the plague, and instead gravitate towards more noteworthy strains such as the Yarrington Rose. The Low Counties varietals have always been unfairly repressed in my opinion.

A genetically pure brace of "Thrussock Knave" carrots.

A genetically pure brace of "Thrussock Knave" carrots.

Finally I should say a few words about selecting each individual vegetable. I tend to use a fairly scientific approach for maintaining uniformity in my recipes. Usually a highly trained eye is sufficient, though it’s always good to carry a screw-gauge micrometer just in case. Be prepared to measure each vegetable in at least two dimensions for a representative data set. 

Margaret I hope that gives you some down-to-earth, practical advice that you can act upon. Please let me know how you get on.