Saturday, 15 September 2012

Indian food revisited

Anjum's Indian Vegetarian Feast

Anjum Anand

The publishers' info sheet for this appetising book says that it 'will teach us all how to eat vegetarian for life'. I'm all in favour of that. It begs the question, though, why the author isn't a vegetarian. The intro is quite careful to point this out and, very weirdly, the full page photo facing the intro shows Anjum tucking into what looks like a chicken curry. Unlikely to be Quorn, but I suppose I might be surprised. The fact that her mother was a vegetarian, that her husband is a vegetarian and that her children are vegetarians just puzzles me more. You'd have to be very attached to meat to hold on to it in a family like that. She must be a very committed meat eater and this makes me think that she is taking advantage of her experience of vegetarians by writing this book. The publishers' info sheet goes on to say that by virtue of the fact that her husband and his family are strict vegetarians, this makes her 'truly an expert vegetarian cook'. Good, I'm really looking forward to working my way through this book, but I'm so disappointed that she doesn't practice what she preaches, or enjoy her own vegetarian food sufficiently to wrench herself away from eating animals. Putting that picture of her eating meat right at the front of her vegetarian cookbook is really weird. Maybe it's bread. Tell me it's bread. 

Anyway, we start with the traditional speil about there being an awful lot of vegetarians in India. (Could one of them write a book, at all? So we could have some vegetarian recipes written by somebody who genuinely buys into the ethics? OK, I'll drop it now. Sorry, Anjum, I'm sure you are lovely.)
The first section covers breakfast and brunch, and I'm already enthralled. Why have I never considered eating Indian food for breakfast? The Blackberry-Violet Compote catches my eye, at last a good reason to buy at least one of those dinky little bottles of concentrated flavour from the Lakeland catalogue - but then I read the intro, which says this dish isn't Indian. Oh well, looks good regardless. On the facing page is a very versatile little recipe for 'Spicy, crisp chickpea pancakes' which I'm tempted to leap up and make immediately. Serve with spicy ketchup - now you're talking. Might be a good move for a food writer who doesn't want to be caught eating tomato sauce on toast. (Actually, I don't care, it's yummy and who needs bacon?) I check the ingredients and run up against Carom seeds. Never heard of 'em.  I check the back of the book to see if there is some kind of glossary - no. Interesting, I shall rock up to the Indian supermarket next door to Lily's Indian Vegetarian place in Ashton and have a root about.
One thing I absolutely love about this book is the way they've pasted in lots of extra little recipes - the pancakes come with an extra recipe for 'Coastal coconut chutney'. It's a lovely new design idea, it adds so much to the book, as if we've been let in on some extra secrets for free, as if the author just couldn't resist grabbing your arm and saying, listen, if you're going to make these, you've just gotta try them with this... It feels as if Anjum's enthusiasm is spilling out and almost imploring the publishers: oh please, can't we just squeeze this one in? Like it.
I can't get much further without mentioning the typeface used for the recipe headings and intros. It's quirky and curly, I suppose it was chosen to remind us of Indian writing, but I find it awkward and distracting. I don't like the way the ooos are stuck together like infinity signs, or the way the cs and ks, cs and hs, and random other pairs loop up and then stick together. I don't like the weird ks or the way one f is set lower than the other when there is a double f. I expect other people will think I am laughably pedantic and boring because I don't like them. But they distract me from imagining the food and that's indisputably a bad thing.
Small section of drinks, good moment to mention that I'm loving the photos and styling on this project. Really gorgeous.
Ah! This is just what I wanted, a bhel poori recipe. I've been trawling the internet for one of these, and I've bought a bag of puffed rice from the wholefood shop in readiness for the day when I can work it out. All the recipes either say 'first buy your ready-made bhel poori kit', which I find ridiculous and aggravating, because I want to know how to make it, not just how to assemble it, or they get bogged down in incomprehensible detail and masses of ingredients I've never heard of. Is this the solution? Ach, no. Look, the first thing on the list of ingredients is a bag of bhel poori mix! I read the recipe and feel better. Apparently buying a bag of bhel poori mix is the way to do it after all, but if I prefer, I can buy puffed rice, sev and papri (all of which are explained) separately. Now I understand what's in a bhel poori mix, why would I want to buy them separately? I think I thought the mix would contain all the requisite flavours and spices, and that all I would need to do would be to add some bits of chopped tomato, or a tablespoon of water, or something. OK, I can countenance this. The interesting bit seems to be the making of the two chutneys that are essential to the dish, and there are recipes for both of them here. This looks really good. I can't wait to try it. Anjum suggests optional pomegranate kernels. Not convinced, so often these seem to end up in dishes purely because they look pretty in the photo. They look pretty in this photo. Hmm.
Now I am flummoxed and about to reveal astonishing ignorance and make a right tit of myself. Here's a recipe for caper berry chutney. I've got a jar of capers in the fridge and I never use them for anything apart from putting into paella. Here's an opportunity to use them. But wait. The method says, blend coriander, mint, chillies, pistachios, water and caper berries. Then stir in some capers. What's the difference between a caper berry and a caper, or are they the same thing? I check Google images. They look like the same thing. I check the jar in the fridge, it is labelled 'baby capers'. I recall a recent conversation with Gwil which I picked up a green knobbly thing that had fallen off a nasturtium plant and told him it was edible - are they capers? We interrupt this blog to bounce over to Wikipedia.
Now I understand! Capers are buds from a plant called Capparis spinoza. Caper berries look quite different, they're proper green berries with little stalks, and they are what happens if you let the caper buds turn into flowers and then fruit. Both capers (the buds) and caper berries are pickled but capers are what's generally used in cookery whereas caper berries are served as they are, as part of a mezze, a bit like olives. And those green things that fall off nasturtiums in September are not buds, they are unripe nasturtium seeds and yes, they can be used as a substitute for capers and pickled in the same way. Oh, pardon my ignorance but at least it prompted me to fix the hole in my knowledge!
I am absurdly excited by the mini beetroot cakes even though I've explored something not dissimilar in the past. They look great but I'm not sure how Indian they are. Does that matter really? They'd fit in well with other Indian dishes, so what's the fuss? Also couldn't help thinking the Indianed up cheese on toast was a bit silly, but you know, I'd eat it, it's probably very nice.
Arriving at the steamed lentil cakes in sweet, spicy, sour rasam, I felt I had found something a bit more authentic and interesting. It looks like a bit of a faff, but I'm glad it's there. Started to get worried again when I got to the Scotch Eggs, now come on, this isn't really Indian food, is it? Or is it Indian as long as you chuck in some coriander and cumin? Hush my mouth as I read the intro and learn that Scotch Eggs were introduced (obviously) by the British, specifically to Kolkata during the Raj, and they became popular amongst the locals and still crop up on restaurant menus in that area. Fair enough then.

Salads and grills seems an awkward combo for a chapter. Not a lot of salad and quite a lot of cheese which is surprising to me and reminds me to point out that, as I am on a bit of a vegan kick at the moment, the fact that none of these recipes are labelled as vegan-friendly irks me. I have to read all the ingredients, jeez. That said, I'm slightly enticed by the info about making your own paneer, and making a PLT after marinating it and grilling it. Fig and pistachio chutney sounds like a very contemporary invention but looks absolutely perfect for the Christmas present chutney - you know, when you want to give people something they haven't already got, but you also want them to like it...
The Juhu Beach Pau Bhaji looks good - well, sounds good, no pic and I would have liked one for this. Do you really have to keep mashing the veg for 30 minutes?
Pleased to see a Dhansak recipe, and to get the chance to grind up my own spice blend rather than dash to the shop for yet another masala blend.
We are into the curries in earnest now, plenty of stuff that has the right balance of interesting and actually edible. Oh, that's a surprise - a cottage pie, with Quorn mince! Not my thing but I guess somebody will be pleased. Sunday Lunch Kidney Bean Curry looks great and it just goes to show that an imaginative recipe title can really capture your interest - probably wouldn't have looked at it twice if I hadn't been intrigued by the idea of curry for Sunday lunch. Seems like an excellent idea.
Into the grains section and I recognise that mushroom biriani from the dedication page at the front of the book. Is that what Anjum is tucking into on page 6? I think I owe her an apology, as if anybody would put a picture of her eating chicken in the front of a vegetarian cookbook. Must be mushrooms. Sorry Anjum, my mistake.

Pleased to find a recipe that uses flaked rice, I used mine up recently in an ill-judged attempt to make an interesting variation on rice pudding - ended up with an enormous amount of wallpaper paste. Now I see why - you only need to steam the rice a little. Lots of nice ricey things here. Bit surprised that breads have been lumped into the same chapter, 'Gorgeous Grains' - I would have given them a space of their own. I think making the breads from scratch lifts a home-made curry into a bit of an event. Looking forward to having a go at the paratha - really useful photos, hurrah.
Can't quite see how some of the veg didn't make it into the veg section and are in a section called 'On The Side'. To me, a vegetarian Indian meal doesn't necessarily have a middle and sides, it's just a collection of dishes that you can eat together. Just me? And yes, I am inclined to think that life is too short to stuff okra with bits of coconut and frankly I find it unlikely that the author genuinely does the stuffing whilst reading something on her computer. I wouldn't want to be throwing bits of coconut all over my keyboard, and I think I'd need to be looking at the okra while I stuffed it. Trying to do it without looking would be like something out of the Generation Game (I know I'm old).
Pleased to find that there is a desserts section - often missing from Indian cookbooks. Possibly desserts are not all that popular? If Indian restaurants are anything to go by, most Indian meals end with nasty cheap icecream encased in nasty chocolate-flavoured coating, possibly in the shape of a penguin. Kulfi if you are lucky. Note to the proprietors of Indian restaurants - you're missing a trick! Where are the sticky syrupy things and the amazing multicoloured sweets? Bring 'em on! The chapter opens with some individual souffles which I have to admit look great - pomegranate, raspberry and rose, how delightful and yes, probably fit for a Maharaja. Loving the ginger-poached pears with pomegranate and poppy seeds, and the apricots with orange blossom and pistachios. But Indian trifle, no. Surely that never happened. Pleased to see a kulfi recipe - it calls for violet syrup which was in a breakfast recipe earlier. Gotta get some, this really looks divine.
Egg-free pistachio cakes look good, perfect pud for guests... Oh, and that's the end! That was a bit sudden. Oh well. It was a very good-looking book, I rate the content pretty highly and it's carefully pitched to appeal to beginners and people looking for a bit more of a challenge. There are classics and some great new ideas. There are a few things here that intrigue me, so it's likely that we'll be eating Indian round here again sometime soon... Nice job, Anjum, sorry I doubted you. Of course you don't have to be a vegetarian to cook up some exceptional veggie-friendly dishes. But with food like this on the table, why would you eat anything else?

Sunday, 3 June 2012

There are chefs, and there are vegetarians...

The Art of Cooking with Vegetables

Alain Passard

I've recently become an 'ambassador' for a website called It's a joy to get some reviews of vegetarian restaurants published at long last. These days, everybody is an expert on gourmet cuisine, and reality TV shows have made the depressed, bitter and put-upon man in the street think that it must be great fun to be a restaurant critic - you just march into the best restaurant in town, demand their finest offering, then spit it out, scowl, swear at the staff and flounce out having publically dented the reputation of the place on the slightest of provocations whilst giving yourself a secret rush of superiority and satisfaction. There are a lot of restaurant reviews written in the same spirit, most of which never make it into print. Rude restaurant reviews can be fun to read but it all gets a bit samey after a while. Worse are the vacuous gushy reviews that offer practically nothing to the reader in terms of either information or entertainment: ooh, it was all just super, this is what I ate, this is what my friend ate, this is what we wished we had had room for. And anybody who uses the word 'mouthwatering' in any context at all should be taken out and shot. There's no excuse for it. In my opinion. Anyway, what with the fact that, firstly, everybody and their dog is writing reviews and that, secondly, the standard of most of what is written is terrible, it's small wonder that it's hard to get a newspaper or magazine editor to read an unsolicited review, much less publish one. If you want to write about a vegetarian restaurant, forget it, you've just lost the interest of the vast majority of the readership (unless you want to be rude about vegetarians and their stupid rabbit food diet, in which case, there might be a small opening available...).

Anyway, I think my reviews are better than most but, like most of the things I write, they tend to be long, and that's because I end up thinking about other things. For example...

I ate at The Bay restaurant in Penzance recently. They've built up a good business serving high-end food and catering for weddings. Nice restaurant, classy ambiance, sea view. Obviously I'm in no position to comment about whether they deliver good non-vegetarian food but it looks good on the menu (if you go in for that sort of thing). What makes this place very unusual and special is that as you leaf through the menu, eventually you arrive at a page of starters, mains and puds that are all suitable for vegans. Even better, the chef has applied all his imagination and culinary skill to working out these dishes - he seems to have risen to the challenge of plant-based cooking quite spectacularly, making it possible for not just vegans but practically anybody to enjoy a really classy meal. This is such a sensible approach, and speaks volumes about a chef who, rather adopting a snooty attitude and refusing to cook with veg (an easy get-out), has seized the opportunity to showcase his abilities, thus attracting lots of new customers who are chuffed to bits - I know I was.

Reviewing the experience afterwards made me see more clearly than ever that vegetarians have two very different eating out experiences to choose from in the UK. By far the majority of exclusively vegetarian establishments are run by people who are vegetarians but not trained chefs. The alternative is to dine at establishments that offer meat and fish as well as veg, which are run not by vegetarians but by trained chefs. There are a handful of exceptions - Denis Cotter, who runs a fantastic vegetarian restaurant in Cork, is not really a trained chef but has an undeniable gift and managed to get a life-changing apprenticeship at Cranks in London. Denis is a vegetarian who can cook really well. Alain Passard, a French chef and restaurateur who famously removed red meat from the menu of his three-Michelin-starred Paris restaurant, L'Arpege, in 2001, is a non-vegetarian who can cook vegetarian food really well. There's still a hole in the middle, where there ought to be some vegetarians who can win Michelin stars. Not much chance of that happening in Britain while we still insist that catering students have to cook meat and fish to gain any qualifications (the only meat-free route, I believe, is becoming a pastry chef). If I had a big pile of money, I'd try to set something up, along the lines of New York's Natural Gourmet School, and start training people to cook with vegetables in a completely new way, so that we can rise up, meet and welcome the wave of interest in plant-based eating that will surely be big news in the coming twenty years or so.

Which brings me quite neatly to Alain Passard's new book, 'The Art of Cooking With Vegetables'. Couldn't wait to get my hands on it. Before anybody shouts me down, this isn't an entirely vegetarian offering - it includes Parmesan, anchovies and some recommendations for French wines and cheeses that I can't be sure are 'suitable'. I hope nobody reads it and starts thinking that vegetarians eat fish - but to be fair, it's not really marketed as a vegetarian book. The idea seems to be to get people to rethink vegetable-based dishes and (forgive me) to stir things up a bit with some new flavour combinations and a painterly approach to colour on the plate. I can't go further without saying that, whilst the chef's illustrative collages are very nice, and obviously very dear to his heart ('My very first work, a Harlequin, remains forever engraved in my mind's eye')... well, I feel a bit like the little boy in the crowd who starts raving about the fact that the emperor is naked, but surely everybody, in their heart of hearts, must agree when I say that this book really needs some pictures of the food. In fact, given that so much of the impact of each dish is dependent upon how it is presented on the plate, it feels like an absolute disaster to offer these recipes without any guidance on how they might look. Add to this the tantalising introductions to each dish ('a dressing the colour of celadon - the alluring willow green of Chinese porcelain' ... 'Once again, colour leads the way in the creation of a recipe'... 'When the beetroot yields its fuchsia-coloured juice to the pumpkin it is - to the eye - something splendid'... 'in my mind's eye, I can see little pearls of juice being released, red from the strawberries and pink from the rhubarb'...) - this is beginning to feel like a cruel practical joke and frankly, even if I could see the pearls of juice in my mind's eye, it wouldn't feel entirely satisfactory. Why, why, why? Yes, put some collages in if you like, but for heaven's sake, this book is sabotaged without food photos!

Reluctantly moving on, I still think that everybody who is engaged in cooking vegetables in any circumstances ought to buy this book and cook everything in it, as if they were putting themselves through an intensive training course. You'll learn some substantial skills, and get a kick in the backside when it comes to being adventurous about combining flavours and colours. There are just 48 dishes here and if you stick to seasonal cooking you should be able to get them all served up in a year. Starting now. I could type the whole list of recipe titles but typing doesn't give me a big thrill so let's just savour a few tastes in our imagination (and possibly take a look at them in our mind's eye...): New potatoes with rocket and raspberry vinegar. Red arrocha with rhubarb, beetroot and bay. Haricots verts with white peach and white almonds. Tomatoes and mozzarella with vanilla and mint. Red beetroot with lavender and crushed blackberries. Dizzy yet? 

My only other whines are (1) the usual: for some unfathomable reason I find myself living in North Manchester, and as a consequence, I find it hard to get Tiger bananas, black tomatoes, red sorrel. I guess that's not the chef's fault. (2) Because the book was originally written in French, we are very reliant on the translator, and he's worked valiantly to preserve the poetic turn of phrase of the chef but sometimes it does feel a bit overblown ('Once again, I am throwing into relief a hint of bitterness'... 'I imagined it in a sweet register of flavour') - well, OK, it sounds like the authentic voice of a passionate French chef, so I'm prepared to let it go. I'm more worried that some of the cooking techniques might have been lost in translation - the Red Beetroot with lavender and crushed blackberries seems to use unadulterated hot milk (albeit 'emulsified') as a sauce - can that be right? What do I know. A photo would have sorted me out... 

For the record, I predict a rush of untrained vegetarians and trained non-vegetarians pushing out some crazy flavour combinations for the veggie diner... be prepared...  

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Sticking the fork in?

The Edible Garden Show

Slightly wrong-footed when I arrived at the Edible Garden Show and realised that the venue itself was, erm, a bit meaty. I had my sister-in-law, Debbie, along for the ride. She, my brother and their two lovely daughters are all vegetarians. I'd sold the trip to her as a veggie-friendly show that would (I reckoned) be all about getting food out of your garden. And that means veg, right?

But I started to worry as we trekked from the main gate past a shanty town of small buildings, prefabs and sheds, each of which seemed to be the HQ of another organisation dedicated to parading fancy livestock. (You can't pull the wool over my eyes. I know what you're planning to do with that animal once you've finished grooming it, and it'll not be nearly so pretty then, will it?)

We bundled past the queue (lots of Barbour jackets and shooting sticks, I was getting more and more anxious that this wasn't a great place to bring one's sister-in-law), found the press office and announced ourselves as the vegetarian contingent. The woman handing out the badges guffawed. How could she forget me? Just a week ago she had sent me a press release about the show, which featured the unpleasant idea that, with recession upon us, allotment holders might fancy the idea of setting up their very own snail farms. Yuk! The funny thing was that she sent the press release attached to a standard email that said 'I am sure your readers will be interested in this'. I had sent one back saying that I was the Editor of The Vegetarian magazine and that frankly I didn't think my readers would be all that taken with the idea. She was hugely apologetic at the time, and when we met, too, but she did say that the snail farm thing had generated a lot of press coverage. Actually, strangely enough, it even made it into The Vegetarian - we have a Hot and Not column...

Thanks to tortuous queues of traffic in the country lanes surrounding the venue, it was after eleven by the time we made it into the show and I made a beeline for the area where gardening experts were giving talks. I was keen to catch James Wong's session about growing unusual veg. Didn't catch it all, but what I did hear was fantastic. James is putting out the message that allotment gardeners are stuck in a postwar timewarp, growing predictable veg that take up lots of room and are cheap in the shops anyway. He wants us to use our little plots to grow things that are difficult to find in the shops, or expensive. He is also on a mission to educate us about what can and can't be grown successfully in the UK, and it turns out that a lot of the things we consider to be exotic are perfectly easy to grow in our own back gardens. Don't bother with a bay tree, he said. How many bay leaves can you use? If you've got space for a nice glossy-leafed bush, grow green tea, and then you can pull off a leaf or two whenever you fancy a brew. He showed us photos of oyster mushrooms growing on old telephone books and told us about the goji berries that have taken root in the cracks in the paving stones outside the BBC. He pointed out that quinoa has edible leaves, and shared the wonderful news that although he has so far failed to get soya beans to grow particularly well in this country, chickpeas grow easily and yield something very similar to edamame. What's more, they're nitrogen-fixing plants so they're good for the soil. He showed us photos of tomato plants grafted onto potato roots - pomatoes! Twice the veg in the same space! He's running a trial and recommended we visit to find out how to try it for ourselves. He went away too soon. I was already prepared to part with hard cash to get his book - but there is no book yet. According to the website, 'Incredible Edibles' will be available soon. I want it so badly.

Time for a stroll around the show. It wasn't huge, and that was good. Lots to see, along the lines of organic compost, garden knick-nacks, wellies, pots, dibbers, seeds, some actual plants, some people selling things made of plants (stocked up on Womersley fruit vinegars) and quite a few businesses offering instant fool-proof vegetable gardens delivered straight to your virgin raised beds. Several new businesses are making use of the internet and apps and all that techie stuff to provide interactive support and weekly gardening tutorials. Sadly there is no getting around the fact that my small garden is dominated by two big trees, and most vegetables prefer sunshine to shade.

Pride of place was given to the BHWT (British Hen Welfare Trust who had a little pen with four surprisingly big glossy hens. They were ex-battery hens and it was lovely to see them looking so proud and chirpy. What a strange life - from a battery cage to being the stars of the show. One of the birds managed to flap its way onto the top of the fence surrounding their enclosure and Debbie and I were soon making friends with 'Nigel' (!) - the first time I have touched a hen or fed one from my hand, but far from a first for Debbie, a farmer's daughter who grew up on a small farm. I was very taken with Nigel but can't quite bring myself to commit to hens. Firstly, for the reason that I don't have any pets - they make it hard for you to go on holiday and they break your heart if (when) they die. And wreak havoc on your bank balance if they get ill. Debbie has been advised by a vet that she really ought to be cleaning the family cat's teeth with fish-flavoured toothpaste. Nasty. Secondly, because I have vegan tendencies and I'm not sure where I stand on eggs (if you see what I mean). Debbie's garden is visited by what she calls a 'friendly fox' (I guess so as not to frighten her daughters) - we took advice and although there are some pretty good fox-proof hen houses on the market, the sad truth is that hens can die of fright if a fox menaces them, and that wouldn't be good at all. While we were talking, one of the ex-bats laid a 'soft-shell' - a rather nasty grey leathery proto-egg that the other hens started pecking to bits until it was hastily cleared away. Hmm. We trotted off to admire the amazing hen mansions with their slated roofs and turrets. I think my interest in hens will remain theoretical for a while yet.

Had a quick look at the animals section but predictably it made me quite uncomfortable to see birds in cages. I think Debbie liked seeing the goats as her family had some when she was young, and I guess it would be OK for veggies to keep goats for milk and cheese, but even the white ones look a bit demonic to me. I hated seeing the pigs penned up, with half the crowd cooing over their cuteness and the other half sharpening their knives and firing up the sausage machine. As far as I'm concerned there's no earthly reason why pigs should be putting in an appearance at a show that's about edible gardens. What's edible about pigs?

Grabbed a small but scarily solid goat's cheese pie for lunch on the hoof and scuttled back to the Experts Theatre where James Wong was about to reappear. This time he was talking about growing unusual spices and herbs. He's such an enthusiast, it was a joy to watch and I got quite a rush from being given so much interesting information all at once. I hope it's OK to share it...

Saffron is, as we all know, a very expensive comodity, but it was grown in England from the thirteenth century to the early twentieth (hence Saffron Walden). Why did we stop growing it? Because the price of labour went up, and the cost of painstakingly harvesting the golden stamens from the saffron crocuses became prohibitive. That's not a problem if you grow your own - just a few bulbs will make you self-sufficient in saffron and once planted the flowers will continue to come up for something like fifteen years! James recommended a saffron martini - saffron is a mild antidepressant and slightly psychoactive so he reckons that mixing it into a cocktail is sure to lift your spirits.

Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus) is a woody shrub with fantastic fragrant bark - you harvest a few twigs and leave them in the sun to dry, and the bark peels off. Apparently it's like a cross between cinnamon and allspice. Sushi ginger (Zingiber mioga) is completely hardy with pretty variegated leaves, and you use the pink flowers and shoots wherever you would normally use ginger. Studies are showing that it is very effective against nausea. And it's slug-resistant.

Cardamon makes a lovely house plant, and rather than wait to harvest a handful of pods you can use the leaves in cooking. Chillis are quite well known as house plants but if you're a serious chilli fan you should plant a tree chilli (Capsicum pubescens) in your garden - they're hardy and huge. If you have room for big things, consider a Prickly Ash tree - and you'll soon be harevsting your own Szechuan peppercorns! Apparently the leaves are edible too - they taste like Thai Green Curry. Good heavens.

True wasabi is expensive in the UK, with specialist Japanese stores selling roots for upwards of £50. A lot of what is marketed as wasabi is in fact good old horseradish with a bit of green colouring. It grows abundantly in Japan where, according to James, it is such a popular taste that it is even possible to buy white chocolate Kitkats flavoured with wasabi. It turns out that there's nothing much to stop us growing it here.It likes cold, damp conditions. It grows like a weed in Scotland, in fact it's on the invasive side. You can eat the leaves. That'll slow it down a bit.

Hitting his stride, James told us about a plant that smells and tastes just like Coca-cola, and introduced us to Acmella oleracea, a pretty bedding plant whose flowers behave like popping candy in your mouth. Not sure how much use either of them would be in my kitchen, but it was interesting to hear about Stevia, a plant that is 300 times sweeter than sugar, with no calories at all. A single dried leaf can take the place of a cup of sugar in baking. It is only just commercially available in the UK after exhaustive testing. I'd like to try it. Could be revolutionary! We should also keep an eye out for Aztec Sweet Herb (Lippia dukis) which is 1500 times sweeter than sugar. It really makes you wonder why we aren't making better use of these things. Insert conspiracy theory here.

The show emptied out quite suddenly and there wasn't much competition for front-row seats for a talk on home cheese-making. Now, I know a fair bit about cheese and how it is made, but I've never yet been tempted to have a go at making it from scratch. That's possibly because I'm not a big fan of cottage cheese or paneer - it's not something I particularly want to eat, or to invest much time in. Or to have dripping over my sink. If I could be equipped with the knowledge and skill required to make a decent cheddar, that might be different, but I have yet to be convinced that it's simple or even desireable to make a proper, tasty, firm cheese at home. Add to the mix the fact that I am generally moving away from eating dairy and I rarely buy milk unless we have visitors and I'm on tea-making duty, and you can see why my curiosity hasn't really been aroused. Paul Peacock and his wife made a valiant attempt to show the thinning crowd that it was possible to make cheese by adding some veggie rennet to a carton of milk and letting it sit around for a while, but it didn't really work. Lumpy milk turns my stomach - that's nature's way of stopping you from getting food poisoning. Hearing the presenters describe the consistency as 'like babysick' really didn't help. I don't know - it looked nasty but apparently Paul has written a book and there are lots and lots of perfectly proper cheeses you can make in your own kitchen. OK, I was a bit curious, but at the end of the day, I'm still inclined to leave it to the experts.

The highlight of the show for me was James Wong - what a find he's turning out to be. Roll on the book and the inevitable overstretched TV series. I hope once James has told us about the strange and wonderful things we can grow, some other enterprising and gifted person will pop out of the woodwork and tell us how to make use of what we have grown...

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Feeling communal

I'm in the middle of writing some features about breakfast. That's the theme of this year's National Vegetarian Week so it stands to reason we need to talk about breakfast in the mag. I've learnt some interesting stuff about the history - the evolution of bread, the arrival of tea and coffee in Britain, and the rise and fall of the lavish country house breakfast. Also about the Kellogg brothers and the various vegetarians who brought us the joy that is breakfast cereal. (I must be missing something.)

And here I am, enjoying the morning sunshine with a cup of tea and some cold beans on toast. Shut up. It's a bit like pâté, can't you see? Only lumpier. Crushed haricots in a piquant spiced tomato jus. On Thomas bread. Which is not a distant cousin of Graham flour but the kind of horrific square white sliced goo that no respectable food writer should entertain, ever. But Thomas is in da house and Thomas bread is one of the five things he will eat. The others are plain pasta with nothing on it, oven chips, plain pancakes and, weirdly, whole boiled eggs, which you'd think would freak out most fussy eaters. Oh, and meat of any description, supplied by his mother, who presumably truly believes that it's doing him some good, although she's an intelligent woman and it's hard to understand how the grim facts about meat have slipped under her radar. Surely she's training him to eat meat because she thinks it's good for his health. Surely bloody-mindedness doesn't have anything to do with it.

Anyway, let's not let the unpleasant thought of her spoil this sunny morning. (Take deep breath. Consider going indoors and looking in cupboards for dusty yoga mat. It's the thought that counts.)

The Guild of Food Writers AGM went off well. As Secretary I have to deliver a report, which is a bit scary. We held it in a room in the Houses of Parliament, which added to the tension as it felt like a very big deal. It was fun telling people I was planning to make a speech in the House! In fact the room was in Portcullis House which is a very spiffy modern building with the biggest atrium I've ever seen. You can't get in without being x-rayed. I thought that was bad for you? What with the exposure to the rays I've had at the Vatican, the dentist and City Hall in San Francisco, where I had to be frisked and take a number before I could get married, I should think my exposure levels are getting dangerously high. Portcullis House also took a photo of me and insisted I wore it on a bit of cord around my neck. In case I forget who I am? That can happen.

Anyway, the speech went off very well, Richard Ehrlich said he was impressed and Clarissa Hyman told me she was proud of me. Result! Then it was time for drinks and nibbles, which it turns out Parliament does rather well. I expect they do it a lot. Plenty for veggies and vegans including platters piled high with onion bhajis, spicy potato wedges and some dinky fruit kebabs with a dipping sauce which I failed to investigate because I wasn't sure I could maintain grace and decorum whilst prising pineapple chunks off a skewer with my prehensile lips.

Once the speechifying is over, it's actually fascinating to find yourself in a room full of strangers who all write about food. We have something in common, but practically everybody has a specialism. I chatted to an academic who specialises in food history (checked out her views on breakfast, apparently people have been eating bacon and eggs for ages), another who writes about food-preparation devices and another who is a vivacious expert on Jewish cookery. Together, the Guild members are an amazing resource!

Frankly, I was starting to feel a bit of a fraud last year when my regular magazine column (The Vegetarian Foodie) and my column in the local newspaper both fizzled out. I'm still the Editor of The Vegetarian magazine, which sounds as if it's about food but tends to branch into animal welfare and green living - which is good, but it's not doing much for my credentials as a food writer. The good news is that suddenly at the end of last year I somehow managed to get commissioned to write two cookery books, by two different publishers. Contracts are in place and now I'm over the initial euphoria, it's down to work. One of the books is a straightforward cookbook,with 365 vegetarian recipes divided by season. We started talking about it last autumn and decided that I should deliver the book in seasonal chunks, starting with autumn since at the time I was surrounded by inspiring autumnal produce. Now it's March and it feels all wrong to be cooking up things with pumpkins and pears when I should be into rhubarb and rocket by now. Still, the pace required is breath-taking. I'll be writing 90 or so winter recipes in April, and devoting May and June to Spring and Summer respectively, so eventually I'll catch up with myself.

The other book is much more complicated and involves making contact with vegetarians and vegans all over the world and writing complete meal plans so that readers can create the kind of food typically enjoyed by vegetarians in various countries, with some confidence. I'm still tracking down useful contacts but PETA and the International Vegetarian Union have been a great help. Seems to me I ought to be using Twitter to find friends in foreign places but I'm still not all that savvy - although I'll soon be going along to a Guild of Food Writers workshop on using 'new media' so with a bit of luck that will give me a useful nudge. Anyway, it has been quite exciting watching my email in-box fill up with contacts from enthusiastic vegetarians and vegans who want to contribute to the project. Denmark, Brazil, Singapore, Canada, India, Thailand... It's a joy to 'meet' all these positive, healthy vegetarian cooks - and a lot of them have already published books of their own. I feel as if I'm joining a global community of vegetarian food writers!

The sun has finally come around the side of the house next door, and I'm enjoying the short moment when it shines on me and my rickety decking before it disappears behind next-door's enormous trees. Suck up those rays. Pretty sure these are the good kind, I'm synthesising vitamin D like a thing possessed. Soooner or later I'm going to have to go back into the kitchen and work out exactly how I make the oven-baked 'risotto' that finds its way onto our table when there's not much in the house except rice and white wine. Overall I'd rather be inventing a salad on a day like this, but I'm not complaining. I hope I'm not tempting fate, but things feel pretty good today.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Storming out of Teacup

The amiable chaos that was Teacup has gone. The satellite enterprise off Piccadilly Gardens, which I thought was an expansion and a daring excursion into slightly plebeian territory, turned out to have been a 'pop-up' cafe, but now it has deflated. Over at Thomas Street, the refurb seems to have wiped out the character of the place almost entirely. Where once were mismatched chairs, wierd bits of crockery and rickety tables, we now have fake homeliness on a grand scale. Row upon row of red-legged farmhouse tables, so lots of people can gather and pretend that they are families - although, interestingly, the place is emptier than I've ever seen it. The choice of music, antique blues, is too contrived and too samey. I want to hear a playlist compiled from a box of vinyl found under a table at a jumble sale. The menu is further from vegetarian than it once was, and spattered with depressing offers of artisan toast, and an 'ambient' salad. Since when has 'ambient' been a good thing on a menu?

Studiously turning a blind eye to the new open kitchen, where somebody is dismembering a dead bird, G orders the usual veggie sausages and mash. They arrive, smartly arranged on a white plate, not bundled into a bowl in the time-honoured fashion. The sausages are smaller, in fact the whole thing is smaller, with not much more than a tablespoon of mash and a heaped teaspoon of red onion relish, on a puddle of thin gravy. Sob! What a tragedy!

He was lucky. My de-luxe cream tea fails to arrive altogether. By this time thoroughly depressed by the general faux-boho ambiance, and also by the waitresses, who no longer look as if they're trying to earn a crust by helping out friends whilst working on their doctorates, and now come in various shades of orange with alarmingly vacant expressions, I'm inclined to leave without my scone, but G demands my rights. OK, it's heart-shaped, but it's not really huge. As for lashings of clotted cream, I'd call that more of a smear. The whole thing is as dry as dust and very cold. Is it 'ambient'? It's been in the fridge for ages. I wonder why it took them so long to get it out and stick it in front of me. I don't feel particularly grateful.

What a crushing disappointment, it really feels as if the life's gone from this place. The Northern Quarter used to be a bolt-hole, a sanctuary for the broke and the quirky who didn't fit the Market Street mould, and didn't care. Manchester city centre is all style and no substance, and has been for years, and now the dead hand of the developer is starting to finger the Northern Quarter. You can't fool me - somebody's buying up the whole thing, giving it an authentic seventies style paint job, shrink-wrapping it, and trying to sell it back to us. Would madam care to purchase the bohemian look? My scone was nearly seven quid. A man walks past the window with a bag of chips. It looks like the sensible choice.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Doing it justice

The Inspired Vegan
Bryant Terry

Bryant Terry is an award-winning American vegan chef, and he styles himself as a 'food justice activist'. This is a nice looking book in that popular squarish paperback format that just falls open in your hand, and immediately hooks you in. My copy opened at a recipe for grits with broad beans, fennel and thyme, with marginalia explaining how to shell broad beans, and suggesting a soundtrack of Robert Johnson's Walking Blues, and recommended reading too - 'Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression'.

What did I learn from this? I thought, this looks like a book of traditional Afro-American home-style recipes, freshened up to please our modern tastes with some well-chosen fresh veg and herbs, and veganised. Not something I have seen before, and yes, I'm sufficiently intrigued to read more. I have seen soundtrack notes on recipes in several books now, and I still quite like it. It feels like a glimpse into the author's private world, a fly-on-the-wall view of their own kitchen (without suggesting for a moment that anybody has flies in their kitchen). Of course, you have to do the 'willing suspension of disbelief' thing and truly believe that they do listen to this music when they're cooking (or eating) - if you start to view all the musical choices through the eyes of a cynic, it'll ruin the whole book for you.

I must say, I was less keen on being given further reading. It feels like homework, as if I need to be educated about things. Perhaps I do. Perhaps we all do. Made me want to do something a bit rebellious so I flicked to the section of colour pics. That's like eating your pudding before you've eaten up all your vegetables. But what a disappointment, the photos really aren't much good. Good job they're all in one place and not scattered through the whole book. They make everything look dark and dingy, when in fact these recipes are brilliantly colourful and zingy - but I'm getting ahead of myself.

I'd normally move past the opening page of gushing praise snippets pretty quickly, but my attention was snagged by the top line, 'Props for Bryant Terry's The Inspired Vegan'. I've never seen them called that before! Does the book need propping up? I'm duly notified that Bryant Terry is a culinary muse, whose great gift is to reconnect us with the radical joy that food brings, that the recipes are exuberant, healthful and playful, and that the book is 'incredibly dope'. In the UK a dope is an idiot, it's a rather archaic term of abuse, and the word is also used to mean drugs, mainly cannabis/marijuana. Not sure how a book can be dope, let's find out. The last line of the 'props' says 'This book will stay on your kitchen shelves for years.' I can't help thinking of it lurking up there, covered in dust and cobwebs (no flies in my kitchen, spiders eat them all. No, not really, honestly, my kitchen is lemon-fresh and as sparkly as the shake'n'vac lady).

The contents pages show me that in this book, things are grouped into meal plans. Sometimes I resent that. Duh? Like, I know how to put a meal together? Starters first, am I right? However, in this case, I like it very much. This isn't the kind of food I am used to, I'm interested to see how it all fits together. I do sometimes also resent being given prescriptive formulae for food to be served during rather contrived gatherings of friends and family (maybe resent is too strong a word. Maybe it's the idea of the contrived gatherings that's upsetting me) - but again, for some reason I'm prepared to suspend disbelief and go along with it this time. I think the possibility of me presiding over a Crimson Cookout, with cherry sangria, beetroot tapenade crostini, strawberry gazpacho shooters, grilled aubergine, red onion and tomato open sandwiches, bright-black fingerling potatoes with fresh plum-tomato ketchup and raspberry-lime ice pops is very slim. Nevertheless, I'm enjoying the idea of it. What a culinary rave-up, under the dripping trees in my back garden! It would almost be worth painting the shed red, too.

Into the Intro, and I'm bracing myself for the moral of the story. Bryant Terry is a campaigner for food justice. Whatever does that mean?

First, he tells me about the foodie paradise he lives in, in California, with its health food stores, the 40,000 foot Whole Foods Market, and the Saturday Farmers' Market, with stalls from 44 local farmers, 30 speciality food producers and various local artisans. Get the picture? Living in Manchester is just so depressing.

Then comes the bit that made me stare. A mile and a half away from this foodie paradise is another community, with some 30,000 mainly African American residents. No supermarkets. Fifty-three liquor stores. Often without cars, these people are forced to shop for their food at convenience stores which rarely offer any fresh fruit or veg. This is what Bryant Terry is upset about - areas of the United States where 'people are denied the basic human right to healthful, safe, affordable, and culturally appropriate food'. He goes on to point out that these communities have some of the highest rates of obesity and diet-related illness in the world. He's on a mission to sort it out.

A lot of vegans have political bees in their bonnets, and some of them are activists first, and cooks second. I love what they do, and long may it continue, but sometimes it feels as if the food is coming a poor second to the 'message', whatever it may be. But this guy knows food. He trained at New York's Natural Gourmet Institute and has been working as a vegan chef for ten years. Long enough to get really good, not so long that he's getting bored. It's obvious that he's still loving every minute of it. So, he starts the book with some basics - how to make stock, flavoured oils, spice blends, pesto... and this is thoughtful stuff, not just the same old routines. He puts white miso in his pesto! I'm guessing it delivers that savoury 'umami' flavour that traditionalists get from Parmesan. Got to try it. Lots of genuinely useful basics here, caramelised onion relish, oven-dried tomatoes, and a syrup made with raw cane sugar and cayenne that looks well worth adopting.

Into the recipes and there are those grits, with sparkling rosemary-grapefruit water (there are loads of nice ideas for refreshing drinks in this book), paprika peanuts, wilted dandelion greens with hot garlic dressing, and a ginger molasses cake. It's all well explained, with little boxes of tips (how to get the skin off walnuts, sort of thing). Ah! I've finally found out what a Johnny Cake is.

The menu plans are arranged by season, which is always good, and there are lots of fresh and inspiring new ideas in here. I was initially a bit surprised when the style veered away from African American and into Asian American, but it turns out that this is an integral part of the whole deal. Bryant is an African American and his wife is an Asian American - although that's possibly an over-simplification of the reason for his decision to include Asian dishes. It felt a bit strange at first, and I truly hate myself for even thinking it, but I did momentarily think that an African American might not be as good at at making Asian American food as an Asian American might be. Forgive my stupid preconceptions. This guy is a top-notch vegan chef and he turns his hand to all kinds of cooking with panache and aplomb. So we've got some curries that sound delicious, with sweet lassi and spicy chai, and later on some Mexican chocolate pudding, and then a whole Afro-Asian Jung Party! Making jungs looks fiddly, it's all about wrapping rice and veg in bamboo leaves. Have studied the recipe and accompanying diagrams and I'm still not sure if you are supposed to eat the bamboo leaves. (I've got bamboo in my garden, came through from next door, it's a menace. Doesn't look particularly edible but maybe it's delicious with a spot of spicy dipping sauce, in which case I may become delighted with its invasive tendencies.) I'm interested in the congee, although my attempt to sell it to G fell on rather stony ground. ('If I cooked up rice until it fell to bits and then kind of mashed it up, do you think that would be nice?' I guess I should have sweetened the pill by mentioning the ginger, and spinach, and caramelised onions. Might try it on him anyway. I think the gingered black sesame seed brittle would be well received...)

Each menu plan comes with a couple of pages of window-dressing at the front. Some are more successful than others. Afro-American history isn't something I know all that much about and I enjoyed some of the little essays about the key people who have made a difference. It feels cruel to criticise, but the piece that precedes that amazing crimson cookout collection really made me cringe. I can't even write about it. Perhaps if I was a proper parent, and not just a wicked stepmother. Perhaps if I was a bit less British. Read it yourself. Or dodge it and just do the cooking. The recipes look fabulous. Any chance of fingerling potatoes at the Manchester Farmers' Market?

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Accidental or seasoned?

More from the accidental vegetarian
Simon Rimmer

My vegan ravioli fell to bits. Sob. All those hours of rolling and fiddling about with teaspoons of pumpkin and leek mash. I rolled the pasta too thin. Trying to be clever. Peeved, I leave the kitchen and contemplate a new arrival, More from the Accidental Vegetarian by Simon Rimmer. According to the cover, Simon is the vegetarian world's Jamie Oliver.

Surprised to discover that this is not a hardback, and it made me wonder straight away whether I was behind the times and had missed the hardback version. Turns out this book was previously published as Seasoned Vegetarian, in 2009 - which would have come as a bit of a blow, if I had bought Seasoned Vegetarian...

Happily, it's all new to me, so in I plunge. I like the cover (lots of roast tomatoes) - the fact that it reminds me of the cover of the first cookbook from The Gate vegetarian restaurant only indicates that I've got too many vegetarian cookbooks for my own good. Stands to reason there's bound to be a bit of repetition. I like the design (big, bold text, nice solid colours, competent photography) and I really like the way the recipes are subdivided - brunch, soups and salads, small platefuls, large platefuls, spicy platefuls, add ons and puddings. How very sensible.

Into the recipes, and I'm liking it straight away. Sweet figs with ricotta on sourdough toast conjures up an implausible breakfast in bed scenario... nonetheless, it's a plausible use for my new bottle of sherry vinegar. The little bits of text with each recipe are quite jolly, but I stop short when Simon describes the white gazpacho as an inter-course. G informs me that Tom's gay uncle used to have great fun in restaurants, announcing to fellow diners that it was time for intercourse and then lighting up a cigarette. How we laughed.

The salads look nice, no wild experimentation, not too much tramping over old ground. Broad beans with Manchego and mint (a combination chosen purely for alliterative reasons? Gouda and grapes? Brie and breadcrumbs? Edam and edamame? Cheddar and chips?), Stilton with black pudding (yes, the vegetarian sort, obviously), Pears with fennel, Smoked pistachios (and where am I supposed to get those in Manchester? Harvey Nicks?) with potatoes and artichokes.

We arrive at Small Plates and I'm inexplicably pleased by the cheesy 'shortbread' with asparagus, and almost inspired by the Lancashire cheese souffles which apparently don't mind being frozen and reheated. Golly, just imagine how impressed visitors might be by my whipping out a souffle. I thought souffles were utterly unfashionable, but they seem to be making a reappearance in veggie restaurants and frankly, I'm enjoying them. Crumpets with rarebit! I found out about crumpet-making by accident when I tried to bodge up some pancakes with self-raising flour, been meaning to have a go at them in a more intentional way but haven't yet found the time.

Continuing with the small plates and whilst I enjoy contemplating the deep fried blobs of soft goat's cheese, and the baked Caerphilly with pecans, it's becoming noticeable that there's a lot of cheese in this book! No attempt to label anything as vegan, which might be just as well because vegan pickings are a little bit thin on the ground here. Parmesan puts in the usual appearance and there's no attempt to cover up with a mushy disclaimer. Oh well. Maybe Simon knows better now, after all, these are recipes from a few years back. Or maybe he just doesn't care - after all, he's not actually a vegetarian himself... Still, there are directions for making your own paneer here, which gets my approval. And to be fair, he does really seem to be enjoying some slightly artisany, kinda regional cheeses, which is nice.

'The older I get, the more I love peas...' Ah, must be my age then, I'm still failing to appreciate them much. 'There's nothing as versatile as the aubergine' - hmm. Maybe this is an age thing too. Overall I'm still enjoying Simon's recipe intros and outros, but at times the colloquialisms ('shake it around', 'pop under the grill', 'shake it up like crazy', 'bash it on a work surface', 'a dollop of pate', 'a dollop of Piccalilli', 'a dollop of cobbler') start to grate a bit. A bit self-consciously Jamie?

Into the Large Platefuls, and blow me if there isn't a recipe for squash ravioli. Well, it is, arguably, the best thing to to with squash. This one calls for 4 eggs and 9 egg yolks to make sufficient paste for 4-6, blimey. I'm still reasonably chuffed with my vegan pasta but maybe an eggy version would hold its nerve better when confronted with a rolling boil. Oops, Parmesan again.

I'm not at all convinced by the beetroot gnocchi. Firstly, frankly, I really don't like the look of it. 'Pink fluffy clouds'? Looks more like dentist's wadding, or something I've had surgically removed. Secondly, I'm growing impatient with recipe blurbs that say things like 'I love to let the kids help with this' or 'I love to knock up a plate of this late at night', or 'this is just a little something for chowing down on in front of the telly'... I don't believe a word of it. Nobody lives like that. Knocking up a plate of beetroot gnocchi to eat in front of Casualty is about as likely as me whipping out some half-baked souffles next time the neighbours pop in.

Quite a few stews later, we reach the spicy stuff. That'll be curry, then. Ooh, spinach and prune stew! You know, I think that's almost worth trying. I can believe it works. Oriental Cottage Pie, nope, not for me. Potato pancakes with spiced beetroot, yes please. White chilli also looks well worth further investigation.

Add-ons I guess is a section of side dishes. Green beans with vodka sounds like fun although Simon looks as if he is covering his back when he says they tend to be a bit grey... Fennel flatbreads, nice but I use a similar recipe which is either in Rose Elliot's Veggie Chic or Celia Brooks Brown's Entertaining Vegetarians (both are good). Simon's version includes grated root ginger and I have to admit that the little story that goes with the recipe, about the chefs at Greens using these to wrap around chips and chilli sauce for their lunches, made me smile.

Carrot jam! Now you're talking! A possible contender for 'best thing to do with a carrot'. If I make anything out of this book, it'll likely be this. Seriously.

And we've reached the puddings. Apple and elderflower cobbler, nice, ticks the 'home-grown/foraged', and 'traditional British' boxes. Doughnut bread and butter pud with butterscotch sauce looks like a challenger for my previously preferred version made with hot cross buns. Hate the phrase 'the tip with these monkeys' used against the chocolate and hazelnut meringues, recipe blurbs should not, ideally, make you wince. But liked the blurb with the Stollen which points out that it's not just for Christmas and suggests serving it up with some Pimms whilst watching Wimbledon. 'A Load of Old Balls Cheesecake' is a chocolate cheesecake with profiteroles and choc sauce on top - well, why not. 'Very Naughty Baked Alaska' pimps up the usual recipe with liqueurs, chocolate brownies and chocolate ice cream. Looks like fun. Raisin, pistachio and honey cheesecake is a serious contender for best recipe in the book. Nearly at the end, and I ain't never seen an Eccles cake like that, but then, I may be in the north but I'm no northerner...

Monday, 20 February 2012

Cordon Vert - teaching and learning

Enjoyed two days at the Cordon Vert cookery school last week. On Friday I attended the Flavours of Spain course as a bit of a secret shopper - didn't want to reveal my tutor status to fellow students for fear of either intimidating them or being asked to demonstrate my knife skills...

Ended up with a nice collection of Spanish veggie recipes including a really grown-up, simple, moist, buttery cake flavoured with aniseeds and a glug of Pernod. The classiest use for Pernod I've found yet. Never been keen to be around Pernod - the aversion probably dates back to when I was a student and my room-mate staggered home in the early hours with regurgitated Pernod and blackcurrant all down her front. Yum. If I can just keep that memory in its box, the cake is very nice.

Also enjoyed a dish of baked rice with sundried tomatoes, chickpeas, fried potato slices and whole cloves of garlic. The garlic softens during cooking and each diner squeezes a clove onto their portion and mashes it in. Not as overpoweringly garlicky as I had feared and a nice bit of performance eating. Other highlights of the day included some croquettes with gooey cheese innards and some fantastic deep-fried aubergine slices topped with paprika, golden syrup and sea salt. Love it when I learn about new combinations like this - must be one of my top three things to do with an aubergine...

How lovely to spend a few hours cooking new dishes with new people, with no pressure to perform, plenty of entertainment and some nice food at the end of it. Happy days. Next time I'll be teaching it.

Back to the Cordon Vert Kitchen the very next day, this time in my chefs whites, to teach a vegan day. Pretty hectic! I managed to demonstrate some vegan pastry, vegan pasta, cheeseless pesto, a tomato sauce and a vegan mayonnaise in quick succession, students then picked up the reins and rustled up some cupcakes, pancakes, sweet creams and muffins before coffee break. Pancake wedges went down well over coffee with everybody declaring that Pancake Day (this coming Tuesday) would henceforth be vegan-friendly.

Bit of a glitch when I discovered that my pasta sheets were too dry to put through the pasta machine, but it gave me a chance to point out that you don't necessarily need a pasta machine to make pasta - a rolling pin and a sharp knife will do the job at a push. After all, which came first, pasta or pasta machines? This gave rise to a discussion about kitchen gadgets and I was deeply impressed to hear of one student's soya milk machine. Apparently it looks a bit like a kettle? Naturally I want one.

We settled down for a two hour cooking sesh after coffee, and between us we turned out a lovely light paella, some tofu meatballs, a very tasty 'quiche', a sweet and sour tofu dish and a very acceptable vegan cannelloni complete with freshly made pasta, vegan cheese sauce and vegan 'ricotta'. The cupcakes were iced, and a couple of chocolate cakes were knocked up. Took lots of pics before we ate lunch, will see if I can move them from my camera to my computer using sheer force of will.

Nice days, nice people, nice food. Enough blogging, I feel the need to stuff some dried dates with cream cheese and lemon zest...

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Hot Knives

The Hot Knives Vegetarian Cookbook: Salad Daze

There are a few scenes in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where they're being tracked by a posse of unknown but highly skilled bounty hunters. Butch and Sundance try every trick in the book to shake them off, but they just keep on coming, and, reluctantly, our boys are more and more impressed. Squinting at the cloud of dust on the horizon, they keep trying to make out who the riders are, and asking each other, 'Who are those guys?'

So, Hot Knives. Who are those guys? Never heard of them, and yet suddenly here they are, with not one but several books, a defunct radio show and a blog that apparently has cult status in Oregon. A pair of geeky, bearded, checked-shirted, youngish men who recommend a different beer and a different (and rather noisy) soundtrack for each recipe. Not vegans. Not particularly interested in healthy living. There seems to be some deep-frying going on, and they're not ashamed to enjoy cheese in public. And they know their cheeses. We're talking about the serious stuff.

And they betray a rather educated interest in drugs. (What's that young man on the back cover up to? No, not the one with the hip flask, the one with the lighter... ooer.) Tried to find out more about them online and ended up watching an instructive video on YouTube about hot knives, which turns out to be a method of taking drugs. Heavens, I hope that doesn't show up on my browsing history. And the language! 'Should we try frying the capers?' 'Oh fuck yes.' Gosh, they are enthusiastic. There's more unrepeatable language in this book than in any other cookbook I've seen, and I've seen a few. Phew, what a scorcher. Putting the crude into crudités? I'll say.

So we've established that I'm well out of my comfort zone. (And as my sado-masochistic self-styled pervert of a father-in-law pointed out shortly before his theatrical and much applauded death, Jane doesn't like to be outside her comfort zone. Damn right.)

Bundling my courage into both of my tiny fists, I selotape the book into a plain brown wrapper and venture to read the recipes. First impression - they look amazing, inspired. Second impression - they look intense, loaded with complications. What certain men like to do in garages or garden sheds (is it called tinkering?), these two are doing in the kitchen. I'll bet they're in there for hours, drinking and dancing about, making a hell of a mess and cutting their fingers off and laughing like drains.

These are recipes for people who get more fun out of cooking than they do out of eating. Frankly, I'm amazed by some of this stuff. 'Magic shroom dust' is their antidote to bacon, what they call the 'gateway meat' that so often lures plant eaters 'back into the blood'. Oyster mushrooms are torn, tossed with olive oil, smoked salt, black pepper, smoked paprika and maple syrup, and baked to a crisp. Then they're blitzed with some toasted pumpkin seeds, and the crumbs go back into the oven to achieve serious crispitude. Blimey, move over, Bacos.

The 'Seven Layer Trip' involves cooking pinto beans with chillies and making a layer of them in a bowl. Then making a cheese sauce (with chillies) and putting a layer of that on top. Then making a fresh tomato salsa (with chillies) and adding a layer of that. Then slicing some avocados, mixing them with mandarin juice and olive oil, and adding a layer of that. Then putting some creme fraiche (which naturally you've made yourself), some chopped spring onions and coriander, and a handful of the aforementioned magic shroom dust on top. This is supposed to be something you might nibble casually whilst sitting in front of the Superbowl. Honestly, however long would that take to make? But, to be fair, I think I'd be pretty pleased to find it in my lunchbox. If I had a lunchbox. If I found their Psychedelic rice in there, I'd be inclined to hide it. Forbidden rice, red quinoa, beetroot, pistachios, that other-worldly looking Romanesco broccoli and a kiwi gremolata? Yup, it's making my head spin.

There's a lot to take in, here, and I can't help feeling a bit overwhelmed, as if I've stumbled into the wrong sort of party and accidentally inhaled. I was expecting a book about salads. Turns out that 'any fresh veg that doesn't take the back seat to rice, noodles and cheese fries we consider salad'. OK then.

'We're still nerds who just wanna work on our kitchen tricks in dirty cut-offs while drinking lukewarm twelve-percent-alcohol ales - and try to find some time to write about the new and fucked up things we've conjured up to do with vegetables. Prime your gullets, say a prayer, and celebrate our Sabbath with us.'

I bow to their awesome obsession. I've never before witnessed this level of kitchen-based fetishism in the generally placid and modest world of Vegetaria. They're capering devils. We may need to call in an exorcist. But let's get them to write down a few more recipes first.

Friday, 10 February 2012


Fresh & Green
Aldo Zilli

Burnt myself twice in the kitchen this morning. Once when I put my thumb on the frying pan whilst attempting to turn a celeriac rosti (burnt the rosti too, but it's still the best way I know of getting rid of celeriac) and once when getting a loaf out of the breadmaker. Guessing the planets are against me so I'll settle for a pot of coffee, the smell of fresh bread and a determined look at the latest arrival, Aldo Zilli's vegetarian offering.

Zilli generally pays good lip service to vegetarianism but his vegetarian restaurant, Zilli Green, attracted a truly scathing review from Matthew Fort in The Guardian back in 2010 ( and has since closed. Fort reckoned that the restaurant was a fairly cynical attempt to cash in on the vegetarian market in Soho, without really caring about either the food or the customers, and said that the enterprise was 'Zhameless'.

Since getting his fingers burned on that project, possibly Zilli has found himself with a pile of marketable veggie recipes and no restaurant to sell them in. A few of the dishes in the book were on the menu when I went there... Nothing wrong with that.

First impressions are that the book is pretty pedestrian, nothing surprising here. Lots of photos of the man himself, guffawing over a frying man, applying a big sharp knife to a fennel bulb in mid-air, and, oops, grating some Parmesan (which, as we all know, isn't suitable for vegetarians, but is used incessantly by chefs who worry that their vegetarian offerings might be tasteless without it). Really, it's about time that 'proper' chefs swallowed this uncomfortable truth and learned to live with it. Putting Parmesan on the menu immediately sends out a message to vegetarians that you either don't know what you're doing, or you don't much care. I may as well issue a heartfelt plea to all food writers and editors at this point, too. Parmesan isn't suitable for vegetarians and although it may be enjoyed by the vast majority of people, vegetarians won't thank you for encouraging its ubiquity.

Hold your horses. I've reached page 9 and discovered a Parmesan disclaimer. 'When I mention Parmesan in the recipes, I am referring to vegetarian 'Parmesan style' cheese.' Oh, that's OK then. With a bit of luck people will read the intro and not come away with the impression that Aldo Zilli says it's OK to serve vegetarians Parmesan...

Recipes are arranged by season (natch - you can't do it any other way at the moment, the country is obsessed with seasonal eating. Last night on TV a man in a camper van in Wales told me that because he wasn't familiar with the area, he wasn't sure what foods were in season. Come off it, Britain's not that big. I'd have thought what was in season in south Wales would not be dissimilar to what's in season in London... As an aside, Nicola Graimes and her publishers made a valiant attempt to buck the trend last year by arranging her veggie recipes according to cooking technique, but frankly it seemed a bit forced.) Zilli's recipes are arranged by season, and that's super. A piece of text styled in a 'hand-written' font exorts the reader to 'Greet the spring' - probably just me, but that font has the unfortunate effect of making the word Greet read as Erect - 'Erect the spring...'? OK, maybe that's just me.

Into the recipes and it looks as though first impressions were pretty accurate - no surprises. Watercress soup, asparagus with goats cheese, stuffed courgette flowers, chilli. Tofu makes an early appearance and if this is a book of basics for people who only own one vegetarian cookbook, then it's good news to see tofu (and, yes, tempeh!) getting treated as if they're OK for 'normal' people to eat. No challenging ingredients or techniques whatsoever. Nice to see nettles in a risotto, and spelt putting in a few appearances. A recipe called 'The Zilli Salad' apparently owes everything to the dressing, which consists of olive oil, white wine vinegar, garlic, Dijon mustard - am I missing something? Pancake lasagne sounds ghastly, layers of pancakes interspersed with balls of couscous and veggie mince. Sorry, that one's not for me.

Struggling to maintain interest I've arrived at page 40 and found out about a Swedish product called seaweed caviar. Sounds weird, I've never eaten caviar and actually am not keen on seaweed as it tastes fishy to me. Still, sounds interesting, I wonder if you can get it outside Kensington. Do Ikea stock it? Plantain skewers - good, interesting and easy use of a vegetable (don't tell me, it's a fruit...) that's not widely used in standard British cookery. Zilli burgers have that combination of veggie mince and couscous going on again, hmm. Maybe it would work for kids. Somebody out there will probably think its a godsend. A vegan mayo, nice. Cappuccino mousse served in cups, it went out of fashion but possibly it has gone retrograde and is making a comeback. Can't forgive the copy-writer for putting 'it doesn't get better than this' on top of this recipe. Next you'll be telling me all about your passion.

Struggling into the summer section, here's Aldo again in a pink shirt, looking tickled about something in a colander - wait a minute, is that samphire? Ooh, that's pretty fashionable. I do hope he's going to do something interesting with it. In the meantime, gazpacho, halloumi salad, ah, here's the samphire and, heavens above, he is whacking it into a bowl of batter and deep frying it along with some artichokes. It seems sacrilegious but I guess it could be good, deep fried veg in batter is hard to get wrong and it would be nice to find something different underneath the crispy bit. What else? Pasta alla Norma calls for troife pasta, a helpful footnote says this is hard to get in the UK but that you could always ask your children to make some for you. A terrine, stuffed tomatoes (this is really getting a bit retro)... A strawberry roulade! I rest my case. (Why do publishers insist on including puddings in vegetarian cookbooks? As far as I can see, there's only a point to this if you're doing something unusual, like making vegan meringues or playing with agar agar.)

Autumn. Sweet potato soup. Tofu skewers - better in the summer department? But look at me getting fussy about seasonality. Vegetables wrapped in pancakes. Soya bolognese, blimey! A tofu cheesecake laced with Limoncello. Now that's worth having a bash at. Calls for coconut cream and agar agar, sounds like fun. Apple pavlova and a carrot cake.

Winter. Season of comfort eating. Will I find comfort here? Squash gnocchi, sounds sensible. Potato gratin, obviously a favourite and something that has wreaked havoc with my waistline, but again, something so old-fashioned and predictable... Mind you, Hugh FW included one in his River Cottage veg book and I didn't see any need to complain. Maybe it's just that, at this point in the book (p145) I'm starting to flinch every time a vegetarian 'classic' (or a vegetarian cliche) turns up. Christmas crepes? Just because they're made with chestnut flour, that doesn't make them Christmassy in my book. I guess the truffle cream sauce snazzes the whole thing up a bit. Vegetable crumble, my lord! Ratatouille! Poached pears! Creme brûlée! Well, welcome back to the seventies, everybody.

I've reached the back cover blurb. It says these recipes are sensational. Sounds a bit like Tony Blackburn on Top of the Pops. It says Zilli is on a mission to prove that vegetarian food can be fabulously creative. Sorry, no. Old-fashioned, undemanding, almost entirely devoid of anything creative, challenging or unusual. Not a spark of genuine enthusiasm. This looks to me like a 'zhameless' rehash of some pretty tired material. Sorry.