Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Vegetarian cooking for the heartbroken

Deborah Madison’s ‘New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone’ has arrived at the perfect moment and done me a power of good. Frankly, 2014 has been the year from hell so far. After 14 years, I’ve finally had my job as Editor of The Vegetarian magazine taken off me – can’t convey how distraught I was about it. Utterly destroyed. Sitting here symbolically burning my business cards and wondering if there is anybody else in the world who has need of a highly experienced and totally dedicated vegetarian magazine editor. Hearing that my dad was in intensive care in a hospital 200 miles away, then getting my very own trip in an ambulance with a suspected miscarriage, followed by a really painful biopsy, topped off with a minor car crash and witnessing a suicide … it’s a mix I could never have dreamed up. Kudos to whichever malign spirits worked out how best to hurt me, job done.
Anyway, although I do tend to mash bits of my life into the blog mixture, that’s as much as I can bear to talk about it right now.

So there I was, all cried out and without any appetite for food or life in general, when this beauty of a book arrived. Really, it’s a very pretty thing. (Note that I’m inclined to be more impressed by good type design than by indifferent food photography.) Yes, I know it’s a re-issue of an oldie, but what an oldie. There are apparently 400,000 copies of ‘Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone’ dotted around the globe – naturally one of them is mine, and working my way through the new edition was a wonderfully comforting and grounding experience. It took me right back to the thrill I was feeling about cooking in the late 1990s, when I was really getting into teaching myself new techniques and having a lot of fun in the kitchen. It’s full of the kind of food that I really like to cook. Not fancy, but thoughtful. Lentil and caramelized onion croquettes with a red wine tomato sauce might sound boring or old-school to some, but to me, it’s like going home.
This is quite possibly my desert island book choice. 1,600 recipes over 670 pages and every one’s a winner. It’s the kind of book that has me curled up on the sofa for hours when I ought to be actually cooking something for tea. I seem to be able to live on just the idea of food, sometimes. I wonder if my brain thinks I’m eating.

It covers everything – there are ideas for every vegetarian foodstuff imaginable, including types of bean and varieties of tofu that have yet to make it to the UK. Tantalising. What really made me feel safe and cosy were all the ideas for homely extras – I’m talking about chutneys, relishes, pestos, mayos, flavoured butters… the little extras on the side that make a plate of food into a loving offering. The things that ought to be in every enthusiastic cook’s fridge. The little touches that really make food lovers smile. I galloped through the veg sections but lingered for a long time over the earlier chapters, savouring the idea of hot and spicy olive tapenade, lacquered almonds and a relish made with dried fruit, tamarind, fresh coriander and mint. (I’ve made the first two already. Will knock up the third later… if I can tear myself away from the book.)
If I started picking out things from this book that I want to cook, this would be a very long blog. I had to read the book in two sessions (and I’ll probably have to go through it again with some post-its). The second half of the book covered tofu – loads of good ideas including caramelized fried tofu and some great fruity dipping sauces to go with it – some interesting variations on breakfast and a really inspiring section on quick hand-made breads which broadly covers anything a bit bready that might appear alongside a plate of food. So lovely. I loved the snippet of info on shrubs and switchels – syrups made with fruit and a dash of vinegar, perfect diluted with iced water on a hot afternoon. There’s endless scope there to experiment with herbs and ‘botanicals’ all summer long, and still have them in the cupboard when the nights start drawing in. And I also loved the long section on fruit-based desserts – inspiring, especially the sauces. My (very random) prize goes to the cream cheese mousses with rose geranium leaves. I’d quite like to stay on the sofa with this book until somebody brings me one of those, on an antique saucer with a teeny silver spoon and another cup of tea… but I guess I’ll have to do it myself.

I’ve always found cooking to be a therapeutic activity. Losing my will to cook was a bit like losing my will to live. Thankfully, now that I’ve had a hug from Deborah, I’ll be able to gather myself up and get back into the kitchen to show myself a bit of love.

Temptations (and more haggis)

More shocking temptations from the Lakeland demons. Can’t even look at the back of the envelope without getting the urge to spend money. A home candyfloss maker! OMG. Imagine being the only mummy in your little girl’s class equipped to whip up candyfloss at parties. I see it’s made by a company called Gourmet Gadgetry – clever things. I’m getting a lot of email about gourmet gadgets at the moment, mostly plugging ideas for Father’s day. (What is it with men and gadgets?)

Open up the envelope and, would you believe it, they’ve invented a whole new genre of cake. Cake, for me, is mainly a cold weather thing, comfort food, sweet and dense after a cold walk. But look at this – a cake baked in a silicon mould shaped like a sandcastle. They’ve invented a beach cake! You can even buy a silicon mould to make little sea shells out of icing!

Now, the floodgates are open. A beach cake is a simple sponge… it must be given a flavour, surely. Especially because we’ll all have a worrisome thought at the back of our minds that if it looks like a sandcastle, it might taste like a sandcastle. Having eaten sand at the age of about three (it looked like sugar), I have no urge to repeat the experience. So, what flavours would suit a beach cake? Is there any scope for introducing some carefully controlled sea salt? This would be enough to trouble my brain while I slept* if I wasn’t distracted by the fabbie ice cream van cupcake stand on the facing page. Imagine the cheery family scene. Almost justifies giving birth. Good job I didn’t see it when I was in my twenties.

I leafed through the rest of the catalogue as fast as I could – trying to pick out anything unusual without lingering long enough to start an obsession. I’m still feeling the lack of crumpet rings in my life. Past the baking tins, into the expensive bits of kit, trying to keep moving… and then I came to a shuddering halt when I got to the perfect pinwheel pastries. Look! £4.99 gets you a really nifty pastry cutter – just add a blob of practically anything, sweet or savoury, to act as a filling, fold the points into the middle and hey presto!

If I had one of these I would be making pinwheels out of everything. (Look, I know I don't need a pinwheel pastry cutter to make pinwheel pastries. But I want one.) Literally every jar of jam in my cupboard, and every scrap of leftover veggie haggis, would be pressed into service. It would be like that fairy story where a man is promised that whatever he is doing as the dawn breaks, he’ll be doing all day. Cunningly, he plans to be counting his money when the sun comes up. Then he realizes that he will need lots and lots of money bags. He runs up as many as he can – and slightly miscalculates, so he’s sewing money bags at dawn. He spends the day tearing up his clothes, his curtains, his carpets, and making money bags out of them. So it would be with me and the pinwheel pastry cutter. I’d be feverishly making them all day long. Rarely have I seen anything I want so badly, no joke.

By the way, I cooked the big scary veggie haggis. Possibly I didn’t take it out of the oven on time because it burst. Thankfully it didn’t plaster the whole of the inside of the oven with matter. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the consistency was far firmer (nay, crumblier) than the burger-shaped version. Having located the elusive pine nuts I did make the sausage rolls – I’ll paste a picture in to prove it. They were pretty good. Next time I’d up the seasoning even more so that a little bit of filling holds its own against a mouthful of puff pastry. Really glad I pushed on with the experiment, it was only the texture of the burger-shaped version that I didn’t much like, and the texture of the big brother is quite different (with the proviso that the experience might have been different if I hadn’t cooked it to bursting point…).

* PS - Last night I dreamed of a new sort of chocolate called an 'ocean whisper'. It had the texture of a Wispa bar, with tiny bubbles, but included a dash of sea salt. Somebody make me some.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Arrived at haggis, late.

By way of proving that the year is getting away from me, I find myself eating vegetarian haggis. It's April, and the moment may seem to have passed (unless there's some tradition of eating haggis at Easter that I've missed) - but the whole of 2014 is momentous because it turns out that Macsweens have now been manufacturing vegetarian (vegan, in fact) haggis for thirty years. 

Haggis has never been something I find appealing and I was slightly bemused to have it sitting plumply in my fridge. But thirty years is long enough to ignore it. The fact is that plenty of vegetarians swear by the stuff - it's a really versatile ingredient. 

I'm fairly sure I ran into it shortly after it made its debut in 1984 - that was around the time when I started dabbling with the oddities on sale at my local 'health food shop', Hull Foods. Why didn't I have a go with it? Perhaps because I've never eaten a 'real' haggis - it wasn't something I had previously enjoyed, or felt the need to replace. Perhaps because I couldn't see the potential in it - my cooking skills were only just emerging, I would have been flummoxed. And way back in 1984, we didn't have the internet and all those tasty-looking recipes to encourage a bit of experimentation. 

The packaging has changed, too. As well as the slightly daunting haggis-shaped article, you can now buy the mixture shaped into handy burgers that can be grilled, fried or microwaved. They seemed like the entry-level option, so I took a lead from a serving suggestion and fried one up to boost my beans on toast. It would be interesting to look at the protein quotient in that plateful - wholegrain toast, too much butter, good old beans and a veggie haggis burger that boasts 6.4g of protein per 100g - that's not bad, and if I ditched the butter it would have been vegan. The haggis's main constituent is oats, but there are lentils, kidney beans, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds in there too. 

And how was it? Easy and super-fast to prepare, for a start, with an impressive shelf-life. Taste-wise, the rumours turn out to be justified - there's plenty of savoury flavour and a nice herby background. The herbs aren't detailed on the pack but I think it tasted of sage, with plenty of black pepper. No idea if it tastes like a haggis. Doesn't really figure. The texture, though, I thought could be improved - again, maybe it's the authentic consistency of haggis, but for me, it was rather soft and smooth. Might be the inveterate experimenter coming out in me, but I reckon it would benefit from some chunkiness - some roughly chopped roasted hazelnuts or a handful of toasted pine nuts would really add something nice. Of course, the haggis in either form is there to be played with and once I have had a go with the haggisy-looking version to see if the consistency is the same, there will still be plenty left for me to experiment with. I fancy adding the pine nuts and a blodge of sundried tomato paste, and making some mini sausage rolls with it... well, if a haggis needn't contain meat, surely it needn't be Scottish either...? Maybe it can be a bit sunnier... I'll investigate.