At the risk of hurting the feelings of the fruit and vegetables concerned – there are those whose appearances are so odd, undistinguished or just plain ugly that they are frequently overlooked. Shoppers’ fingers reach instead for slender glossy zucchini, plump plum-coloured eggplant, the wax-like crescent of a moon-coloured banana, a tangelo like a jewel. The unspectacular colours of lumpy, bumpy, knobbly, nubby specimens camouflage them among flamboyant displays of infinitely more glamorous produce.
I could feel sorry for them except I know that disguised within are such great delicacies. Often it isn’t enough, anyway, that the vegetable is too unprepossessing for purchasing: it also looks challenging to prepare and thence to cook. Take the artichoke, for example, one of the most blissful vegetables in the world but, at least in this country, often ignored. A friend told me recently that she simply did not know what to do with that bunched-together dome of tightly packed leaves looking like an over-size thistle. In fact a thistle it is, and fervent admirer Jane Grigson rhapsodises thus: ‘The artichoke above all is the vegetable expression of civilised living, of the long view, of increasing delight by anticipation and crescendo. No wonder it was once regarded as an aphrodisiac. It had no place in the troll’s world of instant gratification… It is first for admiration then each leaf has to be pulled away for eating and dipped in sauce…’ Really, there is nothing daunting about it, and whether or not you eat it raw as she describes it, or as part of the Italian raw vegetable mix called pinzimonio, or prepare it for cooking, the treatment is simple. Snap off all the tough outer leaves until you are left with the pale lemony lime of the firm inner heart, and with a strong knife chop off the top third. Cut vertically into quarters and simmer in olive oil, garlic, chicken stock and white wine until meltingly tender; season with salt and pepper and freshly chopped parsley and eat just like that, with bread.
Then there is the quince. Though related to apples and pears it is impossible, virtually, to eat this fruit raw – it must be cooked , and cooked long and slow. Even before you cook it – and generally speaking it is best either poached or baked – you must rid it of its exceedingly tough skin. Cooking quinces is one of those glorious acts of alchemy whereby the change is so dramatic that magic has taken place, the chunked pale flesh transforming into ruby translucence. Custard apples are another example of an unbeautiful fruit whose interior yields so much pleasure. There are two varieties, Pink Mammoth and African Prides, the latter the more prevalent in this region and the former, as its name suggests, weighing up to as much as 3 kg per fruit. You don’t even need to cook custard apples either – simply halve them and spoon out the luscious white flesh whose large smooth seeds are effortlessly removed. More a creamy watermelon flavour than custard, they may be blended and folded through yoghurts for smoothies, ice creams and mueslis, cream to fill cakes or meringues. Just make sure when you gently press a custard apple that, like an avocado, it will gracefully yield.
As for celeriac! This bulbous root, a member of the celery family, hides beneath its uncomely exterior an earthily delicate flavour with a hint of heat. Its most common representation is as a French remoulade when it is very finely shredded (peeled first, naturally, and often blanched to retain whiteness) then folded through a mustard- flavoured mayonnaise – but it is as lovely roasted with other vegetables or turned into a soup. As with artichokes, if you do not plan to cook the vegetable straight away you should drop it into water made acid with a cut lemon or a tablespoon of vinegar, to prevent the sort of unsightly discolouring which may be as off-putting as its appearance.