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.

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