Buying and Preparing the Vegetables Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Buying and Preparing the Vegetables

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There are many different vegetables associated with a traditional Christmas dinner. Originally the list would have only included those which were in season and readily available. Nowadays, because of modern preserving techniques, just about any vegetable can find its way onto the table.

The vegetables mentioned here have been chosen to represent a balance of vitamins, mineral salts, textures and colours. The recipes and cooking hints are taken from personal experience and many alternatives are available.

Unless stated otherwise, all these vegetables can be prepared in advance and frozen without loss of flavour. If peeled the night before, root vegetables should be placed in cold water until required.

Root Vegetables, Tubers and Bulbs

This group comprises all vegetables which, in the main, are chosen for their swollen roots or tubers developed below the soil level. They should be firm, of a good shape and colour and showing no signs of disease or decay. Money saved buying special offers is usually lost by wastage in preparation. Bring them to the boil starting with cold water unless cooking from frozen or using a pressure cooker, when boiling water should be used. Contrary to popular belief it is not necessary to salt the water.


Young carrots should just be scrubbed clean and the skins left intact as this is where all the vitamin C is stored. They can either be cooked whole or sliced lengthways or widthways using enough water to just cover them. For additional flavour substitute stock for the water or add a few strands of lemon peel. Bring to the boil, reduce to simmer and check often after 15 minutes. They should be soft inside when tested with a sharp knife, but still firm and retaining their shape. Drain immediately, place in a heated dish and add a knob of butter.

Old or large carrots should be peeled and sliced. Experience has shown that they retain a more 'earthy' taste if sliced widthways and are sweeter if sliced lengthways. Cook as for young carrots but allow 20-30 minutes after they reach the boil.

Cooked carrots may also be creamed or mashed with butter - ideal for making bubble and squeak1 for Boxing Day (sometimes called 2nd Christmas Day).


Leeks are related to the onion family although rather than bulbs they develop an edible round stem 15 to 25cms long and as much as 5cms in diameter. Because they are 'earthed up' to protect and blanch the stem, care should be taken to clean them thoroughly before use. Look for specimens with dark green leaves and a firm stem.

Cut the growing end off about 5cms above the white section. Remove the root end and any outer leaves which show signs of fatigue or toughness. Cut the leeks in half and submerge in cold water to remove any grit or dirt. Drain well and chop into 10-15cm lengths.

Plunge into boiling water, cover the pan, reduce the heat and simmer for 20-30 minutes. Remove and strain very well as they tend to retain moisture. They can either be served plain, reheated in melted butter or margarine or covered with a white or cheese sauce. If using a cheese sauce, sprinkle the top with a little grated cheese and browned breadcrumbs and brown quickly under a hot grill.


Parsnips should be firm, creamy white and free from too many brown spots. Check that they are not hard or course as these will probably have fibrous or pithy centres.

Peel the parsnips and cut into bite-sized portions. Bring to the boil in enough cold water to cover them, reduce the heat and simmer for 30-40 minutes. Check the centres are soft using a sharp knife, remove and drain. Place in a warmed dish and add a knob of butter.

This vegetable is also delicious braised or roasted. Place the cut parsnips into an oven-proof dish and douse liberally with melted butter, margarine or vegetable oil. If preferred they may be par-boiled first for about 10 minutes before roasting. Place towards to bottom of the oven and cook for one hour if raw or 30-40 minutes if par-boiled. Cover with cooking foil if they brown too quickly before the centre is soft. Serve straight from the oven garnished with a sprig of parsley.


The humble potato was, at first, a luxury item, then viewed as animal foodstuff and finally found its way back to being one of the most popular foodstuffs in the UK today.

Potatoes should be smooth, firm and free from obvious blemishes. Avoid any which appear green as these have been exposed to too much light and the discolouration is potentially harmful.

There are many different varieties for sale. Choose general purpose ones for roasting, mashing or creaming and chipping. Large potatoes are generally labelled as suitable for baking in their jackets and new potatoes, available most of the year in the UK now, are small with loose skins and usually only boiled.

Jacket potatoes should be scrubbed clean, any blemishes or eyes removed and baked in a hot oven - gas mark 7 - 220 Centigrade - 425 Fahrenheit - for between one and two hours depending on size. Cooking time can be slightly reduced by slitting the potato in half or using special baking prongs. Serve with lashings of hot butter.

New potatoes can be scrubbed and the skins left intact (a rich source of vitamin C) or scraped. Place in cold water, bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes or until the centre is just soft when tested with a sharp knife or skewer. For a different flavour add a sprig of mint or a teaspoonful of mint jelly to the water during cooking and serve in a warmed dish with butter.

Creamed or mashed potatoes are a must at Christmas to soak up all the gravy. Peel and slice the potatoes into cubes, place in a pan with cold water and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes until they start to fall apart. Drain well. Gently melt a large knob of butter or margarine and 5 fl oz of milk until the milk almost boils. Remove from the heat, add the potatoes and mash until smooth and creamy. An extra rich mash can be made by adding a couple of tablespoons of double (thick or heavy ) cream. Serve piled high in a warmed dish with a generous knob of butter and a few sprigs of parsley. As a variation either add finely chopped raw onion, shallots or chives before mashing.

Roast potatoes can be cooked from raw or par-boiled for 10 minutes first. You may also boil the peeled, chopped potatoes for 5-10 minutes and freeze them a few days before required. Be careful to exclude all air from the container to avoid too much frost forming which will cause them to spit when roasted.

Peel and cut the potatoes into halves or quarters. Place them into a roasting tin containing hot dripping, fat or cooking oil and baste (spoon the hot fat all over them). Sprinkle with salt and pepper, if desired, and place in the top of the oven on gas mark 7 - 220 Centigrade - 425 Fahrenheit - for about one hour if cooked from raw and half and hour if already par-boiled. Check they are cooked through by testing with a sharp knife or skewer. They should be soft in the middle and crisp and brown on the outside.


The skins of swede can range from cream through golden to purple. Avoid buying ones with large green patches or obvious cracks and blemishes. Most shops offer them for sale either whole or halved

It is easier to peel swede if you cut them into pieces first. Use a potato peeler or a very sharp knife as the skins can be quite tough. After peeling, chop them into small cubes and bring to the boil in a pan of cold water then reduce the heat and simmer for 20-30 minutes until soft. Drain well. Add a very generous knob of butter or margarine and, for a spicy treat, sprinkle with cayenne pepper. Mash until the swede is smooth and fluffy. Any bits which refuse to mash are probably too woody and should be discarded.

Green Vegetables or Brassicas

This vegetable family includes cabbages, brussels sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli. Traditionally it is the brussels sprout which is cooked at Christmas although cauliflower, broccoli or cabbage is often substituted.


The head or curd should be firm and dark green in colour. This should be prepared and cooked in exactly the same way as cauliflower although some younger plants may need a reduced cooking time.

Brussels Sprouts

Choose sprouts which are dark green, compact and not 'blown' or opened up too much. They always improve after they have experienced a good frost so are a good candidate for preparing in advance and storing in the freezer prior to use.

Remove stalks and wilted layers and cut a cross in the end of each stalk. Cook them in boiling water for 8-10 minutes and drain well.

For a delicious alternative try combining sprouts with chestnuts. Take 350 grams - 12oz - of fresh chestnuts. Make a small cut on the flat side of each chestnut and bake them for 20 minutes in the oven set to gas mark 6 - 200C - 400F. Peel them while hot then add the sprouts and toss in butter over a high heat until the butter has melted and the mixture is hot. If using ready-cooked chestnuts plunge them into boiling water for a couple of minutes before combining them with the sprouts. Serve hot.


Choose a cauliflower with a firm, white curd and strong dark green leaves.

Cut off the stalk and all leaves2. Wash well and break the curd into manageable florets before plunging into boiling water. When the water reaches boiling point again, cover the pan and reduce to a simmer. Cook for 10-20 minutes until just tender. Drain well and serve.

Legumes or Peas and Beans

Although most of this family of plants will have come to the end of their season before the winter, imported fresh beans are available, at a price. There is, however, an excellent choice of frozen green peas, Broad beans, runner beans and French beans, not to mention the more exotic varieties such as sugar snap peas. If you are not using broccoli then any of these would provide an extra splash of colour on the dinner plate.

1A mixture of cold mashed potato and left-over vegetables fried in oil or butter.2A few of the small light green leaves may be cooked with the cauliflower if preferred.

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