Monday, 20 January 2014

The protein myth

I've noticed a trend that's worrying me.

I interviewed Aiden Byrne a couple of weeks after he launched Manchester House, see blog entitled 'Enemy Territory?' for the full write-up. Something came out of my chat with him that has been bothering me ever since.

I had the lovely Clarissa Hyman, a colleague from the Guild of Food Writers, with me for the ride, and she observed that the menu was very vegetable-based - perhaps not so much a vegetarian menu as a vegetable menu. Where, she wondered, were the fabulous cheeses? I took it further - where were the grains, nuts, pulses, seeds, eggs, tofu, tempeh, seitan...?

One of the first dishes on the lunchtime taster menu was a risotto of barley (which I have also seen called a barlotto) with cobnuts, topped with a blodge of smoked apple puree - very nice. One of the dishes that followed was a medley of foraged mushrooms with some salsify - great, but mainly veg... then a highly decorative plate of heritage carrots arrived, accompanied by a green olive paste, spherified, to make it look like an olive, which seemed more like a showcase of techniques than a balanced dish. All right, it's a taster menu, the individual dishes don't have to be balanced. But as a vegetarian, when a chef thinks it's OK to offer me a plate of carrots, I get a bit nervous.

I asked Aiden about how he devises his vegetarian dishes, and everything fell into place. He said that for a chef with his experience, it's straightforward. He simply devises a dish and then 'takes the protein off it'. Ah.

I might have let this pass, but a throw-away line in a recent episode of Masterchef Pro hit the same nerve. One of the contestants said 'Scallops were the first protein I learned to cook'.

Here's the issue: since when did we start refering to meat and fish as 'the protein'? I don't like the implication that only meat and fish contain protein. I don't like the way that the phrase somehow justifies the consumption of meat - it's protein, the protein. We all need protein. Finally, I really don't like the implication that vegetarian food is food without protein! Patently, that's not true. Vegetarians and vegans are not going short of protein unless they are eating very little food or imposing some very strange dietary restrictions upon themselves.

I can't help feeling that the move towards referring to meat and fish as 'protein' is something that the meat industry must be loving - possibly even fuelling. It means we don't need to look too closely at what is on the plate - it's just protein, it's necessary. I guess this is going to come in very handy when we start being offered lab meat, reclaimed/reconstituted meat and soylent green. No need to question it, it's 'the protein', eat up, you need it.

I also feel that this new terminology might be partly responsible for what is happening at Manchester House: vegetarians don't eat 'the protein', so all you need to do is take 'the protein' off the dish and hey presto, you've made the vegetarians happy.

I once received a letter from a woman complaining about provision for vegetarians at a works barbecue. Her gripe was that although she had given the organisers plenty of notice that she would be looking for vegetarian food, when the moment came, she was only offered vegetable kebabs. At first, I couldn't see what she was upset about - after all, somebody had taken some time and trouble to provide a vegetarian alternative. I came to the conclusion that either she would have preferred to blend in by having a veggie burger or sausage, or that she was peturbed by the fact that she was effectively being given a plate of vegetables to eat, not a balanced meal. No protein. Well, not an awful lot.

I have done quite a lot of teaching work with professional chefs who understand that they need to make sure that parties that include vegetarians don't walk out of their restaurants, but have a very limited perspective on what vegetarians eat. At the beginning of one week-long course I asked one chef what he thought vegetarians wanted. He said 'Vegetables?'

Thanks in part to the angry veg police, a lot of chefs are as nervous about feeding vegetarians as they are about feeding coeliacs or nut allergists. Being too demanding and difficult puts them off, and whilst a complaint might help to educate the chef and maybe ensure that the next veggie through the door has a better experience, it can also make chefs dig their heels in. As for vegans... I once worked at a vegetarian restaurant where there was a policy not to claim that any dish on the menu was suitable for vegans. In fact, the were plenty of vegan options, but the owners felt that vegans were out to find fault, and eventually decided that they would rather turn them away than keep trying to make them happy.

It would be a great shame if Aiden Byrne was on the receiving end of criticism so sustained and fierce that he stopped trying. It's delightful when chefs decide to do something that seems novel and brave, and announce that a vegetable is the 'hero' of one of their plates. It's nice to see vegetables celebrated in all their diversity of colours, flavours and textures. More and more chefs are getting wise to this, and it's a safe option because by sticking closely to vegetables and not much else, you can probably create a dish that's likely to be acceptable to a very wide range of diners. Sensible.

But vegetarians don't only eat vegetables, and we all know that there are almost limitless opportunities for innovative combinations. I would love to see a vegetarian taster menu that included some locally grown nuts, artisan cheeses, heritage grains and even a daring foray into the world of lentils and beans. Bring in some unusual takes on tofu, and other soya-based foods. Maybe even show us what top chefs can make from Quorn, which is slightly in danger of being relegated to pub grub status. Show us some new ways to present eggs and cheeses. Maybe a menu like this would attract more sales to non-vegetarians. (Although I understand that the vegetarian food at Manchester House is often gratefully received by meat-eaters who find frogs' legs a step too far.) It might also help to justify the price tag when the vegetarian menu is priced identically to the meat-based menu.

Pricing is another issue - do vegetarians want to pay less because their meals don't include meat? Or do they want to pay the same, and get food that is worth the price? Something for another blog post...

Enemy territory?

The launch of a new restaurant, headed by a Michelin-starred chef, is big news in any town. Aiden Bryne, who picked up his star in his early twenties, has just opened a restaurant in Manchester city centre which sets out to provide a very classy dining experience. 

It's situated in the Spinningfields area, which is the newest part of the city to have been fancied up, and now features shiny new towers, wide walkways dotted with designer boutiques and a sprinkling of art galleries and restaurants. Manchester House is far from obvious at street level, and perhaps that's the way the owners want it. Announce yourself to the receptionist on the ground floor of Tower 12 and you'll be spirited up to the lounge at level 12 for a drink before you dine. Floor to ceiling glass means a panoramic view of the city but a slightly chilly atmosphere if you happen to visit when it's raining. And let's face it, this is Manchester - it rains a lot.

Byrne's opening menu is not for the squeamish - foie gras, snails, frogs legs and lambs tongues are enough to make many diners nervous. As a vegetarian, even setting foot in the place was almost taboo - foie gras is pretty unforgivable, and the open kitchen was far from entertaining as far as I was concerned. 

But Byrne has wrong-footed us. Alongside his a la carte menu, six-course lunch taster menu and 14-course evening taster menus are completely unexpected vegetarian equivalents, including a 14-course vegetarian taster menu - a thing so rare as to be practically non-existent. 

I asked Bryne why he's taking the trouble to provide equal billing for vegetarian food. He told me that about ten per cent of customers order at least one vegetarian course and confessed that although in his younger days he was pretty dismissive towards vegetarians ('Give them the mushroom risotto'), he has now 'grown up'. And that means thinking less about his own ego and more about providing hospitality - to all the customers.
One member of staff also told me that some customers find the meaty menu rather scary, and are rather relieved to be offered the vegetarian alternative. 

Taster menus are about showcasing the chef's talent with a series of delectable morsels, artistically presented. Byrne describes it as 'going on a journey' - certainly the six-course vegetarian menu I experienced was quite an event. Each course had a style of its own and the plates, bowls, slates and wooden boards bearing the food were all designed specifically for the restaurant. Flavours and textures were suitably varied, and some nice seasonal veg were in evidence. Byrne has a forager on staff and also takes boxes of produce from local smallholders, so the menu is flexible depending on what comes through the door. We started with a warming onion broth with a crumbly onion bread and a scoop of soft, smooth roasted onion butter which I will be trying to replicate at home. A tasty cobnut risotto was topped with a tasty and unusual smoked apple puree, heritage baby carrots were accompanied by spherified olive paste and the finale was a chocolate fondant topped with a macaron and encased in a giant chocolate-ice bubble. It was all good fun and suitably satisfying to both the eye and the palate, although for me, the truffle oil made rather too many appearances. Never liked the stuff, and it lingers.

The menu feels a little short on protein - although I didn't go away hungry, my initial impression was that the dishes were vegetable-centric, and that some more pulses, cheese, tofu or tempeh would have been welcome. Byrne describes a creative process that involves marrying flavours, and explains that classic vegetable combinations work with or without meat, but I think his creations would benefit from the addition of some alternative sources of protein, and perhaps there is some scope for exploring ways to bring beans and lentils to the fine dining table. 

Vegetarians dining in 'mixed company' will need a steady nerve, although there's a lot to be said for taking meat-eaters to a restaurant where vegetarians aren't treated like second-class citizens. I applaud Bryne's willingness to respect vegetarians, and I hope the vegetarian menus attract enough support to make them a permanent feature at Manchester House. But even a 14-course vegetarian showcase couldn't quite divert me from my personal disquiet over the non-vegetarian food on offer. It was interesting, but it didn't feel right, and I doubt I will go back.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Under pressure - but still cooking on gas...

From Silver Linings: The magazine of the Hawkins-Universal pressure cooker users' club
Calculated to torpedo my New Year frugality vows, the Lakeland catalogue has arrived and I am trying hard to ignore the electric mini pie maker, decorating spoons and crumpet rings. I half convinced myself that buying crumpet rings would save me money by enabling me to make crumpets, but reluctantly concluded that I already have various metal cooking rings which would serve should I ever want to give it a go. Here's the deal - if I ever make crumpets with rings that aren't fit for purpose, and really want to make them again, then I might be allowed to buy crumpet rings. But I'm not allowing myself to buy them on the offchance.
The same goes for the decorating spoons. I used a couple of these in the photographer's studio when we were doing the pics for The Adventurous Vegetarian and they were great. I didn't know such things existed. I badly want to own some - but have reluctantly decided that I might be able to buy them if I get offered any food styling work and could actually use them for any purpose other than making myself chuckle. With the proviso that if I'm working at Graham's photography studio again, I can just use his. 
The electric pie maker has the strongest draw. I can just envisage myself knocking out perfect little pies at the drop of a hat. That's how it works, of course, I'm not really buying the product so much as buying the lifestyle. Naturally they would be filled with delicious food scraps and left-overs. That would save me money, wouldn't it? Please say it would. The machine is £30. 

The new Lakeland catalogue is very strong on food saving and money saving gizmos. I can well believe that the mini oven uses less electricity than my full-sized one, but maybe rather than owning two ovens, the best thing to do is to try to cook several things at once. On this principle, last night I rapidly asembled an apple and oat flapjack/dessert which went into the oven with two dishes of puff pastry topped left overs (spicy lentils and broccoli in cheese sauce, respectively) and a baked potato that I 'd pre-blitzed in the microwave. Result - lots if left over apple pudding. The trouble with cooking too much at once is that you end up eating things cold the next day, or reheating them. Either way, they're probably past their best. Meh. 
The cost of cooking things is always the missing piece of info in so-called money saving recipes, and I think it's probably because nobody on earth has a clue about how much electricity it takes to heat up a pie, much less how much that electricity costs. (As it stands, it could be costing every person on the street a different amount as we are all paying different rates for fuel.)  It's an annoyance that has been nagging away at me for years - as a student I wrote to Friends of the Earth to ask them which was best for the planet - an electric kettle, or one I could use on a gas hob. No useful reply. Poring over the bills won't help, I suspect - they're renowned for being impossible to understand, and (oddly) mine have suddenly gone down which makes me suspect that either I have been overpaying like crazy for years, or there is a mistake happening right now and sooner or later I'll be required to make up the shortfall. They keep coming at looking at the meters, and my usage must be pretty predictable, so ... ach, let's not go there.
So I don't know how much it would cost me to use an electric mini pie maker to bake a batch of six pies, or how that compares with doing them in the oven (where in theory I could probably bake about forty mini pies at once, which would be pointless as the freezer is rammed and I'd only end up cooking most of them twice...).
I'm also hopelessly confused about the Lakeland gadgets on offer. The machine to seal left overs into plastic bags isn't fooling me, even I can see that I would have to save an awful lot of left overs to justify the £160 price tag (and extra bags are £17!). To be fair, it's not just a thing for sealing bags, it's an intelligent vacuum sealer capable of creating those plastic parcels that you can then cook 'sous vide' if you also buy the sous vide machine (£250). We've all seen the harassed contestents on MasterChef Pros using the sous vide machine to do exciting things with unpromising bits of meat, but as a vegetarian I think it would be wasted on me... I may of course be making a fool of myself and missing the point.
The machines that I'm really at sea with are the pressure cookers and the slow cookers. Again, perhaps this is because the bottom line is that these are machines for rendering cheap meat into a reasonably tender state. Irrelevant to me, so maybe that's why I've not applied myself before. What do pressure cookers do? They feel like something from wartime, and I think my perception of them is coloured by apocryphal stories about them blowing up. Why would I want to cook something under pressure? It's obviously dangerous. Is it quicker? Does it take less fuel and is it therefore a cheap way to cook? Or is it all about dealing with gristle? And what is the difference between a pressure cooker and a slow cooker? I can see the obvious. But what's useful about a slow cooker? Is it a really cheap way to cook? Just a way to keep something on a low heat for a long time while you are out? Why would I want to keep something warm for hours? Is this just another gristle tenderising gizmo?
Most fascinating is the Remoska electric cooker. The write up seems to imply that I'm hopelessly out of touch if I have never heard of it. Apparently everybody has been using them for years. It bakes, roasts, defrosts and reheats... like an oven... but is 'positively miserly with electricity'. Sounds interesting, but I wish there was a way to find out more - would it really be worth investing £150-170? And what's the difference between the Czech Remoska and the North American Crockpot on the next page (£65)? And what's the difference between the Crockpot and the Lakeland Slow Cookers which are only £20 or £30? I'm hopelessly confused. Maybe I need a kitchen energy consultant to advise me. (And, should I buy a pressure cooker, to sell me some insurance.)

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

New Year's Day

... made them!

Once again, Christmas has come and gone, and New Year's Day is looking blurry and forbidding. Nothing ground-shaking to report, Christmas dinner was the now traditional nut roast en croute for which no recipe remains. Sloshed in some red wine and it was great, good colour, firm and moist and nicely sliceable.

One small triumph occurred just before Christmas when I decided to try making my own mincemeat (yes, first time, but I have never really liked mince pies much so never felt inspired to try harder than just making some sweet pastry and buying a jar). The best bit was realising that I didn't need to go out and buy any ingredients - everything I needed was already in my kitchen cupboards or fruit bowl. I even had half a box of vegetarian suet - not an ingredient I normally have knocking around because until recently I've never had a use for it.

I happened to have some because I needed it to make some Chilean potato cakes which appear in my book The Adventurous Vegetarian. The way it behaved was really interesting - the recipe involves mixing some cooked, mashed potato with some very finely grated raw potato, along with the little suet pellets, shaping into cakes and frying in fairly deep oil. As the potato cakes fry, the suet melts and little holes with sizzling edges appear. The potato cakes end up crispy all the way through. Potato cakes are generally a good thing as far as I am concerned, as long as they are hot and more potato than flour, and these were particularly good in terms of texture. Now I've used up all the left over suet in my mincemeat but having remembered those potato cakes I might need to get some more in.

I managed to create one very big jar of mincemeat which so far has only gone into mince pies, but there were two other ideas that appealed to me - I think both of them were in BBC Good Food over Christmas. One is a variation on Chelsea or cinnamon buns, nice spiral shaped yeasted breads with mincemeat rolled in, and a drizzle of white icing. If there isn't much cinnamon in evidence I might add some to the icing, because I like cinnamon. The recipe also appealed to me because I have some live yeast in the fridge waiting for me to have the patience for some slow bread-making. Knocked up some nice plain white rolls yesterday and a pretty good soup with some near-dead tomatoes from the bottom of the fridge and some of the brave basil on my kitchen windowsill, so that's half the yeast gone, the rest is definitely ringfenced for mincemeat swirly buns. 
The other recipe was a mincemeat 'amandine' which appears to be a close relative of a Bakewell tart (and here I am referring to the flat slices that are despised by the townsfolk of Bakewell). I was drawn to it because at the time I had accrued a lot of ground almonds - but since then I have used almost all my stash making little chewy star-shaped biscuits with a meringue topping which were pretty good and made me want to experiment with coffee flavoured meringue topping. The amandine might have to be shelved.