Seasonal boxes: Thinking outside the box

Karen Hardy
Chard and new potato curry from <i>River Cottage Veg</i>.
Chard and new potato curry from River Cottage Veg

Is it possible to get stuck in a fruit and vegetable rut? Apples for the lunch boxes, carrots and zucchinis and beans for meat and three veg, bananas on the breakfast cereal. I think it is. I know I should be eating seasonally too. Just because the kids like strawberries on their ice cream doesn’t mean I should be buying them every week. And when spinach comes on at such a great price I know I should be thinking outside the box.

And speaking of boxes … I decided to lash out a few weeks ago and order a seasonal box from my fruit and vegetable delivery service, Vegies to Your Door.

In my rut, I usually go with their Do It For Me service, where my regular order comes in every week without me having to think about it.

A seasonal selection from Vegies to Your Door.
A seasonal selection from Vegies to Your Door. 

But what would happen if I did have to think about it? About what different meals I could serve up if I was presented with different produce?

I know this is how we should all be cooking – seeking out what’s fresh and cheap and using that as the inspiration for our meals rather than what I know the family will eat.

So I did. As you can see from the list of what was in the box, there was really nothing out of the ordinary. No celeriac, no brussels sprouts, no root vegetables like parsnips or swedes, all in season now. Indeed, this box could have fitted well into the rut and no one would have noticed but that wasn’t the point.

Mandarin creme brulee from <i>Bill's Everyday Asian</i>.
Mandarin creme brulee from Bill's Everyday Asian

I wanted to get my cooking out of the rut as much as the eating. So I headed to another online service I subscribe to, Eat Your Books.

Eat Your Books is a godsend. It’s a website where you can index your cookbooks and magazines, favourite blogs and websites, enabling you to search your collection for recipes. It’s not a recipe website, although if the recipe is online there will be a link, but it makes it incredibly easy to find the recipe you want, rather than having to browse through all your books. (Mind you there is time and a place for browsing cookbooks.) Given I have close to 32,700 recipes on the shelves I’ve begun to use it more regularly.

So I typed in "spinach". Nine hundred and nine recipes on my shelves for spinach. Spinach, melted cheese and lightly burned toast from Nigel Slater’s Tender. Chicken and spinach patties from Donna Hay’s Fresh and Light. Gozleme of lamb, mint, feta and spinach with lemon, from Cook with Love by Pete Evans. This was going to be fun.


For the spinach I settled on a River Cottage Veg recipe, spinach with new potato curry. (That used the chats and the onion from the box as well.)

The celery was something different. We could have just eaten it with peanut butter but I felt it might work in some soup. Fortuitously there was some blue cheese in the fridge ready to be used so Nigel Slater’s soup of celery and blue cheese was an indulgent weekend lunch I didn’t share with anyone else.

Another self-indulgent recipe I made was "Big baked mushrooms", from River Cottage Veg. Again, there was a little leftover cheddar, and with garlic and butter sprinkled over the mushrooms and baked, just lovely.

I could have just sent the mandarins to school but was surprised I had 34 recipes using mandarins ready to go. Cakes, a soda recipe, trifles … finally settling on an easy Bill Granger mandarin creme brulee from Bill’s Everyday Asian.

I wanted to do something different with the sweet potato too. This vegetable was one of the kids’ favourites when they were babies, pureed of course, and we don’t eat it enough. From the 336 recipes on hand I went with a River Cottage Veg sweet potato and peanut gratin that went well with some chicken. It uses red chilli and a bit of peanut butter to give it a satay-like flavour and will be back on the menu.

So too will Granger’s stir-fried noodles with beef and sugar snap peas from Simply Bill. The whole family loved this one and it was on the table in less than 30 minutes. A perfect mid-week meal.

Yes, there were plenty of things that I just used as I would normally: the apples, the bananas, the zucchini and carrots. I couldn’t get too carried away. And while I found myself using the same books, I earmarked a few others.

What the whole exercise proved is that if you’re willing to think outside the box about what’s in the box, there’ll be some delicious meals on the table, and your enthusiasm for cooking will be a little rejuvenated. And whatever the season, that’s not a bad thing.

The Vegies to Your Door story

Will and Sharon Long founded Vegies to Your Door about seven years ago. Their son Ryan, four at the time and now about to turn 11, was diagnosed with a genetic disorder PKU, which means he is unable to metabolise the protein in his diet. Because of Ryan’s condition his parents wanted to source the freshest fruit and vegetables for him. Will had a background in the delivery business, Sharon in IT, and together they set up a business that continues to go from strength to strength. They deliver four days a week to all suburbs in Canberra on different days.

As well as fruit and vegetables they also deliver products from local area farmers and other local businesses, including the award-winning Country Valley dairy range, bread, coffee, nuts, muesli, honey, olive oil and have recently added meat from Erindale Meats to the menu.

The seasonal boxes come in large ($80), medium ($50) or small ($30), suitable for different sized families. There are also fruit boxes (for home and office) and vegetable boxes available in different sizes.

Over the years the Longs have found that what works best for their customers, when making up the boxes each week or fortnight, is to stick with staples such as carrot, potato, pumpkin, broccoli, bananas, apples, oranges, and then top the boxes up with more seasonal produce. At the moment you might find things like silverbeet, parsnips, cauliflower, celery, leeks, sweet potato, turnip, mandarins, grapefruit, passionfruit, kiwi fruit. This combination of the familiar and some not so familiar produce works a treat – allowing their customers to be comfortable with the familiarity and ease of use of the produce in the box as well as challenging them to step outside their comfort zone.; Twitter: @Vegies2YourDoor ;

The Eat Your Books story

Eat Your Books is a small, privately owned company of cookbook and cooking enthusiasts based in the United States. After the US, Australia is the biggest market and there are almost 7000 Australian cookbooks indexed. In total there are 131,813 books indexed, almost 2000 magazines and 74 blogs giving a total of more than 1 million recipes and new sources are being added all the time.

You can have a free membership of up to five books or choose monthly (US$2.50)  or annual (US$25) premium subscription.

You then select your own cookbooks from the library, adding them to your bookshelf, enabling you to search your recipes.

As well as this function there is some quality food writing on the site and a forum where you can chat with other members about all things food related. Twitter: @eatyourbooks

What's in the box

½ bunch celery
4 field mushrooms
4 small Pink Lady apples
4 oranges
½ rock melon
crimson grapes
2 pears
1 sweet potato
2 zucchinis
1 cucumber
bunch of spinach
sugar snap peas
1 lemon
1 brown onion
wedge pumpkin
3 carrots
1 red capsicum
2 bananas
4 mandarins
chat potatoes


Mandarin Creme Brulee

Serves 6

In the last 15 years I think I’ve seen every variation of creme brulee possible on restaurant menus around the world – I’m surprised I haven’t come across a beetroot one! Mandarin is a lovely foil to the sweetness of the vanilla flavour in the baked cream.

600ml thickened cream

4 wide strips mandarin peel, white pith removed

6 egg yolks

65g caster sugar

extra caster sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 140C. Place the cream and mandarin peel in a saucepan over medium heat and bring to almost boiling point.

Remove, cover and set aside to infuse for 15 minutes. Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in a large bowl until pale.

Remove the mandarin peel from the cream and discard. Add the hot cream to the egg mixture and whisk until well combined.

Using a large spoon, scoop off any excess foam on the surface of the mixture and discard.

Place a folded tea towel in the base of a large deep roasting tray. Place six 150ml ovenproof ramekins in the tray. Strain the mixture into a pouring jug and then divide equally between the ramekins.

Pour enough boiling water in the base of the tray to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins, then loosely cover the tray with foil.

Bake for 55-60 minutes or until the custards still have a slight wobble in the centre. Carefully remove the ramekins from their water bath and set aside to cool. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

When ready to serve, sprinkle about 2 teaspoons of the extra sugar over the top of each custard and spread to cover with the back of a spoon. Use a chef’s blowtorch to melt the sugar evenly until it caramelises, then allow to cool. Alternatively, preheat a grill to high, place the custards in a tray filled with ice cubes (to prevent them melting) and grill for 3-4 minutes or until the sugar dissolves and caramelises.

From Bill's Everyday Asian by Bill Granger (HarperCollins, $49.99)

Chard and new potato curry

Serves 4

This hearty curry is fantastic in late summer or early autumn. If you want to make it ahead of time and refrigerate or freeze it, leave out the yoghurt and add it at the last minute, just before serving.

about 500g Swiss chard

2 tablespoons sunflower oil

1 onion, halved and finely sliced

3 garlic cloves, peeled

1 green chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

3cm piece of ginger, peeled and chopped

1 teaspoon garam masala

½ teaspoon mustard seeds

½ teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon ground turmeric

3 cardamom pods, bashed

350g new potatoes, quartered

250g plain (full-fat)

1½ tablespoons tomato puree

A small bunch of coriander, roughly chopped

A small handful of almonds, cashews or pistachios, toasted and chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Separate the chard leaves from the stalks. Cut the stalks into 2–3cm pieces and roughly chop the leaves.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat, add the onion and fry until just golden. Meanwhile, pound the garlic, chilli and ginger together with a pinch of salt to a paste. Add to the onion and cook, stirring, for a couple of minutes. Tip in the rest of the spices and stir for a minute or two.

Add the potatoes and chopped chard stalks and fry, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes, so that they are well coated with the spice mixture.

Pour in about 400ml water – enough to just cover the veg. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook for 10–12 minutes until the potatoes are just tender. Add the chard leaves, stir and cook until just wilted.

In a bowl, whisk together the yoghurt, tomato puree and some of the hot liquid from the curry. Remove the curry from the heat, stir in the yoghurt mixture, return to the heat and warm through very gently (if it gets too hot, the yoghurt will curdle). Stir in most of the coriander.

Taste and add salt and pepper if needed. Scatter over the toasted nuts and remaining coriander, then serve with rice and naan or chapatis.


Spinach and new potato curry: Use 600–700g spinach in place of the chard. Remove any tough stalks and add the leaves to the curry once the potatoes are done. Cook for a minute or two before adding the yoghurt mixture.

Winter kale and potato curry: Use maincrop potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-sized chunks, rather than new potatoes, and replace the chard with kale. Discard the kale stalks, roughly shred the leaves, and add them when the potatoes are nearly done. Simmer for 2–3 minutes, or until tender.

From River Cottage Veg Everyday! by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (Bloomsbury, $55)