Eastern promise

vegetarian food : Exotica to ease the winter blues
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The Independent Culture
I cannot lie to you that my mother-in-law's potager is looking its usual green and glorious self. She assures me things are not quite as dismal as they appear, in fact she has both delicacies and greenery. One happy story is her Chinese artichokes.

Some years ago I acquired a large bag of these artichokes, or crosnes as the French call them, after the town where they were first grown in 1882. They lay forgotten in the vegetable rack until I discovered they had sprouted. So I shipped them down to granny.

If you have ever come across Chinese artichokes you will appreciate just how extraordinary they are: like tiny Michelin men or sea shells, and no more than two inches in length. When you pull them out of the ground a multitude of artichokes attached to fine roots emerges, which in Chinese eyes resemble jade. They are murder to clean but just a few plainly boiled can be mixed in with another vegetable or can garnish a soup.

Jerusalem artichokes on the other hand get easier to peel every year, and seem to have had their knobbly bits bred out of them. My first taste of stoved Jerusalem artichokes was a turning point. In 20 minutes they were golden and chewy on the outside, and melting within, rather like roast potatoes in a fraction of the time.

The difficulty with boiling artichokes is that it is very hard to catch them at the point where they are cooked and tender, before they collapse. Purees are a better bet, but acidulate the water with lemon juice or white wine vinegar to prevent them from discolouring.

We have now entered the official SAD season (seasonally affected disorder), a syndrome I fully sympathise with. Personally, I refuse to change my lightbulbs or read in front of one of those blinding lightboxes and prefer the notion of edible treats: like a nice, big bowl of pasta with parsley sauce. This is an injection of warm weather goodness, a green we associate with long summer days. Amazingly parsley does survive the winter, even though it may need the comfort of a cloche hat during very cold patches.

During those patches, I dream of roast onions. Actually make that roast shallots, the pink, torpedo-shaped variety; as they roast the kitchen starts to fill with the smell of caramelised, burnt sugar and you know they are done. The papery puffed out husks collapse as you cut into them to extract the slippery, sweet morsel at the centre.

This love affair began in France where the shopping list went "cheese, wine, banana shallots" and a batch was faithfully roasted every evening. Once slit open, they would be spread with a slur of the fresh butter bought sliced from a whole, or with a spoonful of aioli, or light Nicoise oil with chopped parsley and lemon zest. And always with bread - the meal of "an honest, laborious country man", as John Evelyn would put it.

Stoved Jerusalem artichokes with Provencal herbs, serves 4

700g/112 lbs Jerusalem artichokes

12 garlic cloves, peeled

4 bay leaves

8 sprigs of thyme

4 sprigs of rosemary

5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

salt, pepper

Peel the artichokes, and if you are not cooking them immediately reserve in a bowl of acidulated water. Arrange all the ingredients in a saucepan so the artichokes are in a single layer. Heat over a high flame until the oil is sizzling, then cover, turn the heat down low and cook for ten minutes, turning halfway through.

Uncover the pan, turn up the heat and cook for another ten minutes until the artichokes and garlic cloves are golden on the outside and tender inside - again turn them halfway through. Take out the soft inside of the garlic cloves and eat with the artichokes.

Jerusalem artichoke and Stilton souffle, serves 4

When I mentioned souffle to Patrice, the photographer, she said "well that's one to avoid". Don't worry, this is the "faux" version. It began life as pancakes and ended up halfway between a souffle and a batter pudding, and as long as you can whisk an egg white it is foolproof. The result is exquisitely tender, and the Stilton is added in chunks which melt as it cooks.

450g/1lb Jerusalem artichokes

110ml/4fl oz double cream

1 heaped tbsp plain flour

2 eggs (size 2), plus 2 egg whites

28g/1oz unsalted butter, melted

salt, pepper, nutmeg

110g/4oz Stilton, diced

for mould

unsalted butter

breadcrumbs

Bring a pan of water to the boil and acidulate it with vinegar. Peel the artichokes and boil them for 10-15 minutes until tender. Drain them and place in a liquidiser with the cream, flour, whole eggs, butter and seasoning, and puree. Butter an 18cm/7in souffle dish and dust with breadcrumbs. You can prepare the souffle to this point in advance.

Preheat the oven to 200C (fan oven)/210C (electric oven)/425F/gas mark 7.

Pour the batter into a large bowl, whisk the egg whites in a separate bowl until they are stiff and fold them in two goes into the batter. Fold in the diced Stilton and pour into the prepared mould. Allow plenty of headroom and bake for 25-30 minutes, turning the oven down to 160C (fan oven)/170C (electric oven)/335F/gas mark 3.5 after five minutes. Serve immediately - I like it runny in the centre, so don't worry if you cut into it and find this is the case.

Tagliatelle in parsley sauce with a poached egg, serves 4

This parsley sauce is almost instant. Three of the 50g bags of parsley you find in supermarkets are about the right quantity. Obviously you can poach your eggs in a poaching pan if you have one.

for the sauce

175g/6oz curly parsley (tough stalks removed)

85ml/3fl oz single cream

150ml/5fl oz vegetable stock

generous squeeze of lemon juice

salt, pepper

2 heaped tbsp freshly grated Parmesan

12 garlic clove

1 level dsp pine nuts

310g/11oz green tagliatelle

4 large eggs

freshly grated Parmesan to serve

Bring a medium-sized pan of water to the boil. Plunge in parsley, bring back to the boil and simmer for five minutes. Drain and place in a liquidiser with the remaining ingredients for the sauce. Puree: adjust lemon juice and salt and sieve into a small saucepan.

Bring two large pans of water to the boil, salt one, and acidulate the other with a slug of vinegar. Add the pasta to the salted water. Reheat the sauce. In the other saucepan poach the eggs so they are ready at the same time as the pasta - allow around four minutes for this: stir the water into a slow whirlpool, then break the eggs one at a time into it. Trim them of ragged tails of white as they rise to the surface: the eggs should be set on the outside and runny within.

Drain the pasta, but not too thoroughly, and toss with the sauce. Nestle a poached egg into the centre of each serving of pasta. Serve with additional Parmesan.

Roasted shallots with gremolata, serves 4

900g/2lb banana shallots, or small red onions

2 heaped tbsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

finely grated zest of 2 lemons

1 garlic clove, peeled and minced

salt, pepper

4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 200C (fan oven)/210C (electric oven)/425F/gas mark 7.

Place the onions on a tray and roast for 40 minutes. Combine the parsley, lemon zest, garlic and seasoning in a bowl and leave for 5-10 minutes, then stir in the oil. Serve the onions in their skins so diners can help themselves; slit them open, slip out the inside and dress with the sauce as eating. Serve with bread

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