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?