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.