Fresh & Green
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 (www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/mar/13/zilli-green-london-restaurant-review) 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.