Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Well done, Hugh!

River Cottage Veg Everyday

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

I have to admit that when I heard Hugh F-W was working on a TV series, and the inevitable accompanying cookbook, all about vegetables, I thought there was a bit of band-wagon jumping going on. What – he has spent years going on about killing animals for food, hefting dead and disemboweled pigs about and hoiking fish out the water, but now, not content with the vast adoring fan-base he has built up, he has decided to go after vegetarians? Well, it won’t wash, I thought. Firstly, he won’t get it right. He’ll talk about eating vegetables, but he won’t dare mention vegetarianism. He certainly won’t bother about little things like chicken stock or fish sauce. Secondly, vegetarians will never want to watch him after everything he has done to promote meat. Thirdly, for heaven’s sake, why can’t we have vegetarian food being promoted on prime time TV by one of your actual bona fide vegetarians, just for once?

I hereby eat my words.

Well, who was I to judge him? I’ve never watched any River Cottage shows – at least, not all the way through. Just a celebration of meat, I thought, and I don’t find that entertaining or useful. But I tuned in to the first Veg show, and I loved it. Really loved it. Then I got round to opening my copy of the book, and I love it too.

I’m just so thrilled that Hugh has done this project. I’m pretty sure that, through this book and the TV series, he has advanced the cause of vegetarianism more effectively than anybody else has done for decades. I’m absolutely delighted that he fully understands the implications of eating meat and fish, and perfectly happy to accept his position as an intelligent meat ‘reducer’. In spite of major initial reservations, I’m now a believer – he seems genuine. If in doubt, read the introduction to the book – in fact, read it, no matter what your personal preconceptions, because it’s fantastic to hear somebody who isn’t a vegetarian talking reasonably about vegetarianism. I’d like to quote it all. And I do believe that he did go vegetarian, for a while, as a deliberate thoughtful act of research and that, by doing so, he truly did learn a lot about cooking without meat.

So, having established that this is a book written by a deservedly popular and talented cook, I wondered what Hugh was going to bring to the table. A book of basics, arranged alphabetically or by season, what to do with asparagus, beetroot, cauliflower…? Would he be keeping it simple, a kind of ‘veg for dummies’ approach? First dig up your carrot…? Frankly I wasn’t familiar with Hugh’s way of going about things in the kitchen. Would he set about tarting up every dish so much as to make the original constituents more or less unrecognizable? Pebble-dashing every white plate with the weeniest snippets of veg or drenching everything in wine and cream? I didn’t know whether to expect ‘obvious’ cooking or showcasey performance cookery.

The food he cooked during the first of the TV shows gave a good clue – carrots and oranges together for a great salad, even better with toasted cashews… add a sprinkle of toasted cumin seeds – super. An explosion of taste, with juice, crunch, colour and protein.

I started reading the recipes with my usual sense of trepidation – a willing suspension of disbelief. I sat and read it through to the end, with increasing joy. £25 is a bit steep, but I’d say this is one book I’d have been very sorry to miss. Here’s a selection of highlights:

Asian-inspired coleslaw – the usual cabbage and carrots, but this time dressed with honey, ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar and a handful of fresh coriander. Inspired.

Lettuce, spring onion and cheese tart – rarely have I seen a more tempting way to use up Little Gem lettuce hearts.

Spring onion galette – why did I never think of using spring onions like this?

Roast roots with apple and rosemary – can’t believe I haven’t tried this combination, it sounds like a classic.

I didn’t just love the recipes, I loved the pics and I loved the writing style. I loved the words hummi (plural of hummus), speltotto (risotto with spelt), spouffle (a soufflĂ© with pasta in it) and stoup (quite obviously a cross between a stew and a soup, can’t think why the English language didn’t generate this word of its own accord).

These are, for the most part, very simple dishes, but somehow Hugh has found a gap in between ‘dull, predictable’ and ‘overcomplicated for the sake of spectacle’, and eased himself into it – by which I mean, the recipes are simple but inspired. And I don’t mean, he has put every veggie ingredient he can think of into a hat, and pulled out random combinations in a desperate bid to come up with something new. This is clearly the work of an extremely accomplished cook with a highly developed sense of taste and an instinctive appreciation of what works well – flavour combinations might occasionally be unusual but they never feel forced or silly. Even the two vegetable icecreams added to the end of the book as a final flourish don’t sound unreasonable – pea and mint icecream sounds like a refreshing creation and I’m prepared to continue to suspend my disbelief about the chocolate and beetroot icecream – at least until I’ve checked it out for myself. Maybe I’ll reinstate my veg box order – the beetroot was getting a bit samey, but I may get through more of it this year.

I love that he has included a section on raw food and a page on juicing, through which I learned that it is OK to juice rhubarb. Now that opens up some possibilities. I loved what he says about garnishing soup: ‘It makes the lucky person who’s supping on that soup feel well looked after. Don’t underestimate the pleasing effect on the palate of a trickle of a herb or spice oil, a swirl of yoghurt, a few gratings of cheese, a dab of pesto, or the crunch of croutons… knock yourself out. It’s all part of bigging up a good soup to give it the billing it deserves, a way of saying: ‘I love my soup. And you’re going to love it too.’

There are a couple of lovely ideas that I’m looking forward to using. The section on flatbread ‘foldovers’ makes the simplest combination of breads and fillings look absolutely delicious, and the section on tapas, which he calls ‘a plea for a way of eating’… ‘an indoor picnic’ is a timely reminder of the sheer beauty of a table covered in lots of little dishes – and the infinite variations available to vegetarians and vegans. I’m itching to try the DIY pot noodle, fabulously photographed in a Kilner jar. I’m a bit dubious about the Chickpea ketchup curry, but if it works, it could become a storecupboard standby…

Finally, the Parmesan issue. I’m getting very bored with having to go through vegetarian cookbooks looking for any reference to Parmesan. But if there’s Parmesan in there, and I don’t say ‘ooh, look, he’s used Parmesan and that’s never suitable for vegetarians, he did a bad, he got it wrong’ then somebody else will take me to task for failing to notice. I think it’s useful for vegetarians, and those who cater for vegetarians, to be aware that Parmesan is only ever made with animal rennet, and I know ‘vegetarian’ recipes that include Parmesan are only spreading confusion and misinformation – maybe it’s because I know, I know, I know, but I’m getting tired of droning on about it. In the introduction to this book, Hugh says ‘ Whether or not it’s a vegetarian cookbook depends perhaps on your point of view… in the sense that not one of the recipes here contains a scrap of meat or fish, then it is indeed quite strictly vegetarian’. Parmesan could be said to include a ‘scrap of meat’ and in the recipe section, he does suggest Parmesan as an ingredient occasionally, but never without mentioning that other types of cheese might also be pressed into service. I think it’s a reasonable compromise – and more elegant than the impossible ‘vegetarian Parmesan’ or the ugly ‘hard Parmesan-style vegetarian cheese’ that other recipe writers resort to. Also within the Intro, Hugh writes: ‘I have a lot of time for vegetarians (though apparently not all of them have a lot of time for me).’ I’m one of the few people in the country who is very interested in food and cookery but has never given HFW the time of day – I’m in the minority of TV watchers and cookbook buyers, but I think I’m in the majority of vegetarians. But respect is due – Hugh has done a sterling bit of work here and I for one am both delighted by the recipes and the entertainment, and very grateful for the service he has done to vegetarianism. I hope his considered point of view will persuade many more people to eat less meat, to eat more vegetarian food and, eventually, to commit to vegetarianism full time.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Veggie in Barcelona

Dipped a toe into Barcelona, armed with a lengthy print-out of veg-friendly eateries courtesy of Happy Cow. I’ve seen and heard many bad reports from veggie visitors to Spain over the past few years – the gist of it is that people just keep putting ham onto your plate, whether you like it or not. I was ready for it and fairly resigned to wasting some money on food that I couldn’t eat.

Turns out Barcelona, at least, is kinder to English vegetarians than expected. Practically every menu I was offered had an English translation attached. Tapas places often have boards with photos of the dishes, but to be honest that’s not a great deal of use if you’re worried about tiny bits of fish or meat stock.

Tapas is ubiquitous and when you’re footsore and weary from too much art-and-architecture gawping, and what you really need is a nice sit-down, you’ll probably agree that a few little plates of nibbles and some long cold drinks hit the spot much more effectively than a big demanding salad or a heavy hot meal. You’re never far away from a little plate of fried potatoes, which to my mind is a very good thing. We supplemented the potato feast with bits of roasted peppers, sliced courgettes and goats cheese assembled in layers, gluey but scrummy cheese croquettes (beware, most croquettes are not made of cheese) and garlic mushrooms. At meal one, the waitress insisted we order ‘tomato bread’ and she was right, we did like it. Later in our trip, I was treated to a spontaneous demonstration of how to make it when a rather demanding Frenchwoman at a neighbouring table decided to take full advantage of the fact that our waitress spoke French as well as English, Castilian and Catalan. If I had asked demanding questions perhaps I would have won the demonstration – still, I had a ringside seat as the waitress sliced a fat clove of garlic in half and rubbed it generously onto a couple of slices of toast. Next, she halved a big tomato and scrubbed the cut side over the bread. Nice wrist-flicking technique as she drizzled some olive oil and twisted some salt, and the job was done. We worked out that we should be calling it Pan Catalan, not tomato bread, and ordered it frequently. Sometimes crispy, sometimes wet and a bit floppy – always pretty good.

We had no difficulty finding food in ‘normal’ places and I never did find any ham on my plate. However, like the good veggie foodie I am, I did make a point of checking out a few specifically veggie places. For what it’s worth, here’s what I found.

Juicy Jones

There are two branches of Juicy Jones – we went, with slight trepeidation, to the one at C/Hospital, which is close to the rather seedy area where we stayed. You can’t miss it, it’s covered with artistic paintwork in the graffiti style. Several reviews/guide books had warned that whilst this is a good vegan eatery, food might take a good while to arrive as Juicy Jones is staffed by rather laid back types. (I’m not sure what people expect from waiters and waitresses in general but I’m quite used to the standard British grumpy service – didn’t run up against anything in Barcelona that caused me any unusual problems!)

The menu is huge but mostly made up of juices – think of a combination, they’ll have a name for it. Freshly squeezed juices are mainly what this place is about – smoothies, and milky sort of things (without milk) too. Not much on the menu by way of food – lots of blackboards detailing dishes of the day. Even with English subtitles it wasn’t obvious how the meal ordering worked so we looked English and anxious and a very kind waitress pulled up a chair and talked us through it all. I had a juice (possibly they don’t let you out unless you do), a pot of hummus with bread, the daily Thali, and a dish of kulfi. The hummus was delicious but a bowlful of it was enough to fill me up. The Thali arrived on a metal dinner tray with various little compartments – traditional, I guess, but it was a bit like being in prison (not that I’ve been). Three types of curry along the top, each hotter than the last, each runny and greyish and not easily identifiable. Two blobs of chutneys, one green and hot, one red and fruity, a portion of rice and a bendy segment of poppadum. Not really my cup of tea and I was glad I hadn’t been expecting a ‘posh’ evening meal. The kulfi was a kind of orange blancmange with some damp sultanas hiding underneath it. Disappointing, as I had been hoping for icecream of some sort. G had the Thali too, but began with gazpacho, which he said was lovely, and ended with carrot cake, which ditto. Overall the experience was slightly disappointing food-wise, and not as intimidating as expected, hippy wise. Soundtrack was, surprisingly, undemanding modern jazz – think Stevie Wonder and his kind. The place wasn’t empty, but it wasn’t full either. We passed it again much later one evening and it was packed. Good for juice!

Cat Bar (Boria 17)

Another exclusively vegan venue which has attracted some rave reviews online for the punky vibe, live music, friendly staff and most of all for the unpretentious vegan nosh – bangers, burgers, home-made chunky chips and good old Heinz baked beans. We fetched up there on a Tuesday evening just in time for a bit of a concert from a sweet jazz double act – nothing much punky going on – suspect G was the only person in the place who could actually lay claim to ever having been what we Brits would call a punk! Vegan sausage, beans and chips was good but slightly strange on a hot night in Barcelona. Kind of felt a bit wrong – but I’ll bet if you live in Barcelona it would be a very welcome excursion away from the usual stuff. Not over-friendly, but I think we were a bit out of place - dumpy middle-aged English veggies hanging on to the coat tails of a place that sets itself up as a bit edgy. Nice to see some fellow diners reading The Vegan. Not a bad place to grab a sausage, if you’ll pardon the expression.

La Bascula (C/Flassaders 30)

This place appeared on a couple of online veggie lists, although not on Happy Cow – not even on the ‘veggie-friendly’ list. I spotted variations on the word ‘vegetarian’ on the menu boards as we walked past and it looked a likely place to find some good, possibly what you might call ‘artisan’ food – a dark, inviting cavern in an attractive old building that according to the books was once a chocolate factory and has recently been rescued from demolition. Lots of reclaimed sticks of furniture and chalk boards. I expected some good Catalan cooking with a veggie ‘twist’, maybe some fabulous organic bread, home-made cheese, quirky vegan chocolates... you know the sort of thing. It looked lovely when we went in – a strange central table made of battered old doors, surrounded by high stools, and lots of clutter presumably selected to provide some sort of arty ambience. The actual eating experience was weird, though. It was the first place we had been to where nobody volunteered to help us out by speaking English – possibly, as G suggested, they were being determined about being Catalans and not making too many concessions – well, good for them – but it didn’t us feel particularly welcome. I’m really, truly not one of those Brits who trots around expecting everybody to speak English, but the reception we got was cold to the point of unwelcoming. Bloody English tourists.

We really struggled with the menu – even when we found a handy glossary on the back – we must have looked pretty stumped because eventually one of the cooks came out of the kitchen to offer some reasonably kind advice. Turned out the menu was mostly hot and cold sandwiches, and, horror of horrors, tuna and salmon were on offer. It wasn’t clear to me whether the place was marketing itself as a veggie eatery, or just veggie-friendly, but there’s nothing more irritating to me than people who think vegetarians eat fish. Realising that we were now just as likely to end up with fish on our plates as we were in any of the non-‘veggie’ eateries in the town, making a choice from the untranslated menus and boards became a bit of a damage limitation process – just order something unlikely to contain fish. I opted for spinach ravioli with a tomato sauce – a bit of a pedestrian choice really. I didn’t think it could go too badly wrong, but it was pretty poor. Nicely cooked home-made pasta but hellishly disappointing, tasteless filling and a weeny blob of sauce. White wine came in a tiny plastic pot – the girl sitting opposite me at the communal table got a much more generous measure, so I guess our dithering and general anxiety might have rubbed them up the wrong way. G went for a salad, which was huge and not particularly experimental. The oddest thing was that the drinks were served in plastic or paper cups, the plates were disposable polystyrene and the cutlery was disposable plastic. I couldn’t get my head round why they were making such a big deal about the reclaimed furniture and yet doing such un-green things with the plastic disposables. Maybe it’s greener to recycle plastic than it is to wash up? I’m not convinced. Friends of the waiter turned up while we were eating – actually, waiter is not the word, as he stayed behind his counter and never really made any attempt to engage with us, explain the food or take an order... anyway, he didn’t seem keen to stop chatting with his friends so we decided not to attempt dessert. Don’t go if you mind about eating fish or you’re looking for a waiter who’s at least prepared to meet you half-way...

Overall Barcelona is not a city that will cause too many problems for vegetarians. Vegans might struggle, I think, but there are a good number of veggie and vegan eateries listed online. If you’re on a tight budget, the falafel chains are probably worth checking out, and there are also lots of little independent greengrocers where you can pick up fruit, and quite a few nice bakeries where you can get bread along with naughtier things. The big market that’s just off the top of the Rambla is worth a look if you can turn a blind eye to the meat stalls with their horrible tripe and tongues. The fruit and veg displays are absolutely beautiful and the candied fruit in particular looks fantastic. You might struggle to find a shady place to eat what you’ve purchased and if you’re hoping to get through a meal in the open air without being asked for money by musicians, acrobats, flower sellers, puppeteers or flamenco dancers, think again. Happily, most buskers and beggars will go away pretty quickly after you have said no – they’re nowhere near as pushy as they are in Rome... but that’s another story. Hold on to your handbag.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Vegan baking disaster

As promised, I set about baking a cake from the Sinfully Vegan book. Complete disaster. I rarely throw food away but this stuff was hopeless. I don't blame the book, not at all. I blame myself for bodging. Everybody knows you shouldn't bodge when it comes to baking - looks as if this is especially true when it comes to vegan baking. The recipe called for orange essence, didn't have any, but I had some overtired oranges, so I substituted some finely grated orange zest. It called for a massive amount of maple syrup, which almost certainly would have improved both the taste and the texture, but didn't fit in with my policy of using what I had to hand and trying not to spend too much. I used Agave nectar, languishing at the back of the cupboard, and topped it up with golden syrup. By this stage I knew I was taking some silly risks. Got blase with the mixture, whacked as much orange juice into it as I thought fit, had no choc chips so roughly chopped some dark chocolate - this has worked nicely for me in the past, chocolate is much more exciting in chunks than in chips.

Baked it for an hour or more, couldn't get it to firm up and ended up with a cake that was so dry as to be unsliceable. I even contrived to burn it a bit - and it's a long long time since I burnt a cake.

So much for cooking and blogging. No photo of this one. By the time I'd scraped it out of the tin it was looking disastrous, covering it with orange icing would not have saved it. I'd have done better to eat the chocolate and drink the freshly squeezed juice. At least I didn't spend a lot of time over it. The last time I had a disaster like this was with some cupcakes from the Babycakes book - you have to bake some apples and turn them into apple sauce with a load of maple syrup before you can even start. Took forever, cost a fortune, yielded little rubber cakes. Bah. To hell with baking, I shall go back to raw food and just eat apples.


Tuesday, 6 September 2011


I'm tweeting!

vegan cookbook review

Sinfully vegan: More than 160 decadent desserts to satisfy every sweet tooth

Lois Dieterly

Lots of people still equate veganism with misery and self-denial. Vegan baking is actually pretty straightforward, once you have let go of the notion that eggs and dairy products are essential to the process. I’ve played around with a lot of vegan recipes. As a person who has baked a lot of cakes, vegan cupcake recipes that use vinegar just don’t feel right. I took up the challenge and tried it out – strange, it works, but it still feels wrong, as if I’ve had to resort to some kind of scientific experiment to create a cake. My understanding was that you needed to use vinegar to curdle soya milk before using it in the recipes. I’ve never understood why, and the act of pouring lumpy curdled milk into a cake mix is indisputably nasty. Glad to see that this author apparently sees no need for it! The recipes generally use much more predictable ingredients, and don’t rely over-heavily on processed foods that are only generally available in the US.

More than 160 recipes… I can’t say I’ve read them all, but skimming through is enough to make me want to bake. This is serious coverage – Cookies (including gluten and sugar free), cakes and quick breads, cupcakes and muffins, kids stuff, dessert tapas, Boston cream pies, pies and tarts, cheesecakes, puddings, doughnuts, candy and ice cream, beverages and smoothies, frostings, toppings and crusts. I was pleased to see the kids stuff section – always keen to get kids to join in with the cooking. (Watched a little boy at the pub on Sunday, his Sunday lunch appeared and the first thing he did was grab a piece of broccoli and start munching away. So sweet! Shame he was eating meat, but he cleared the plate – all the veg, Yorkshire pud, gravy, the lot. I should have had the nerve to go over and congratulate his mother. Back to the book.) I was pleased to see that the author has tackled cheesecakes head on - 15 varieties! Vegan cheesecakes are a minefield. She’s going with a mixture of silken tofu and vegan cream cheese – in my experience, it can work, as long as the other flavours are strong enough to mask the slight beanyness of the tofu (or if you enjoy the taste of tofu). She’s added a whole section on Boston cream pies which I guess will be very welcome amongst US vegans. As a Brit I was a bit disappointed with the ‘puddings’ section – to me, a pudding is a kind of rich, moist, hot sponge cake drenched with something like golden syrup, chocolate sauce or a lemon goo. In the US, a pudding is more like a bowl of instant whip (do they still manufacture that? I was brought up on it – that generation whose mums were led to believe that adding colourings and flavourings to food was a wonderful innovation, especially if you could use the resulting alchemic powders to trick your kids into consuming more milk). For me, the most exciting section was the dessert tapas – great idea, and the section is far too short. It deserves a book in its own right – author and publisher, take note. No need really for me to spell out what it’s all about – lots of little desserts on one plate, hurrah!

I haven’t (as our American cousins would put it) ‘done the math’, but I suspect the author is right when she says that it’s still far cheaper to make your own vegan sweet-stuff than to buy it. I was however a bit surprised by some of the quantities she’s suggesting we turn out – the first few recipes produce 6 dozen cookies or so. Good if you’re running a bakery. Not good if you’re stuck at home with a fussy step-son and a fat husband.

Glad to see the metrication section included – really, I only need one copy of this info but it’s undeniably useful to have it in the back of every single American cookbook. That said, I’ve caved in and bought some cups, anyway. I still don’t know what they mean by a ‘stick’ of butter – but that’s not really an issue with a vegan cookbook. There’s a surprising amount of info in here about nutrition and fats – given that it’s a book that’s mainly about treating yourself. For me, treating myself has tended to be about digging in and to hell with the consequences. I guess the treat might feel even better if you knew that it was cholesterol free (etc, etc). Or maybe it’s more of a treat if you know it’s wrong, wrong, wrong. Interesting. Good info about DIY veganising of recipes, with lots of helpful info on using pulverized fruit in place of butter, and xanthan gum or powdered flax seeds in place of eggs. The section on crusts, toppings and frostings will also empower those who are inclined to go their own way. Personally, I’m not yet confident enough to go ‘off-piste’ when it comes to vegan baking, and with this book at hand, there’s not much need to take any chances – I’m sorted for vegan sweetness for the foreseeable.