FOOD & DRINK: VEGGING OUTVEGGING OUT
MASTERS OF MODERN COOKERY: A monthly series in which the country's best cooks share their inspirations with Michael Bateman: here, the owner- chef of the Merchant House in Ludlow on his passion, vegetables
Sunday 04 October 1998
Born in 1947, Shaun Hill turned down a place to read classics at Queen's University, Belfast, to work in kitchens. His first job was cooking in a cafe at London Zoo.
He worked for the extrovert Robert Carrier in Islington, with Victor Sassie at the Gay Hussar, and with Brian Turner at the Capital, before opening his own restaurant in Stratford but, defeated by the vatman, moved to the luxury hotel, Gidleigh Park in Devon, where he won, lost and eventually regained a Michelin star.
Three years ago he opened the Merchant House in Ludlow (to be blessed again by Michelin). He has twice been voted Chef of the Year by his peers and is also a research fellow in classics, and author of Life of Luxury, a translation of the work of the Ancient Greek food scholar Archestratus
SHE IS GONE from public scrutiny, but the memory of her iron grip lingers on. The apocryphal story goes that, dining with Cabinet colleagues, Margaret Thatcher ordered roast beef. "And for the vegetables?" inquired the waiter of the party. "They will have the same as me," she snapped.
"Vegetables have a bit of an image problem," muses Shaun Hill, whose expertise with them has brought him and his restaurant, the Merchant House in Shropshire, Michelin-starred recognition.
To him, they are the most wonderful of all foods, the most varied and the most universal. "The majority of people in the world don't get to eat beef or lamb. But they eat vegetables everywhere, thousands of kinds, with hundreds of different flavours and textures. To the cook, vegetables present much more of a challenge than meat. People think of vegetables accompanying meat, so why not meat accompanying vegetables?"
The Merchant House is a Tudor building at the foot of the medieval hill town of Ludlow, topped by a castle built against the threat of Welsh invasion. It is Shaun's second foray into restaurant ownership: his first attempt was foiled by the rigors of British taxation, although it was awarded a Michelin star (twice: the guide book found it difficult to come to terms with the non-French side of his cooking and took it away, only to return it). Now he and his Finnish wife Anja have struck out alone again. The kitchen is no bigger than that of many homes, but easily accommodates Shaun and Claire, his lone assistant cook. The back window looks out across fields to the River Teme, from which anglers pluck fresh river fish for the table here. All the produce Shaun uses is local, fresh and organic.
Shaun Hill has cooked at every level, from a fast-food joint in London Zoo to the restrained disciplines of noted establishments: for the extrovert Robert Carrier, for the legendary Victor Sassie at the Gay Hussar, for Yorkshireman Brian Turner at the Capital, one of the first Britons to get a Michelin star. But Shaun has never been a creature of fashion, be it English Fayre or nouvelle cuisine. He takes his inspirations where he will - so one should not be surprised to find a Chinese wok beside the stove. After all, the Chinese worked out how to cook vegetables about 6,000 years ago.
Every vegetable is different in character, in texture and in flavour, according to Shaun, so each needs to be treated differently. And if you want to cook a few of them together, a wok is the answer. He cuts each vegetable into its optimum size and shape (carrots will be cut thinly, courgettes into chunky cubes) and cooked quickly in the wok with a little water. "Water or stock or oil, whatever seems right."
Since hard vegetables take longest to cook they go in first, soft vegetables last. "It's like handicapping runners for a steeplechase. You hope they're all going to finish at the same time. Timing is the secret of good cooking, and most especially for cooking vegetables well."
Perhaps surprisingly, Shaun Hill is not a vegetarian. It's simply that he perceives vegetables to be the "most unappreciated of foods, and even by vegetarians. They emphasise the starch in their diet, the pasta and rice, and don't often cook vegetables well."
Professional chefs are the worst. "Cooking vegetables is considered the least im-portant job in the kitchen," he says. So, if he is regarded as one of the better vege- table cooks in the country, he says, it is by default. "It's no big thing. It's not an area where there is any competition."
But before the cooking, comes the shopping. Fresh local produce may be best, Shaun says, but there's no shame in buying out-of-season food from far-flung climes if it tastes better. "Dutch green peppers don't. Spanish asparagus doesn't. But Peruvian asparagus is very fine, if a little expensive." Sweetcorn which isn't fresh isn't worth eating at any price. Out of a tin, it's actually a very good product - he uses it for pancakes.
Opposite, we pass on Shaun Hill's top tips to improve your enjoyment of vegetables. And overleaf, you can see (and experiment with) some of the novel combinations that make Shaun Hill a master of modern vegetable cookery.
1 Boil greens in plenty of water
I've heard it said that you shouldn't boil vegetables in too much water, because all the goodness will somehow be leached away. There may be some case as far as root vegetables are concerned, but with greens I've always found the opposite, that when vegetables are dropped into plenty of boiling salted water, there is a swift return to the boil, sealing in all the freshness and colour.
2 Don't cook carrots al dente, they want to be tender
Cooking vegetables a little longer than usual brings out more of their individual flavour but at the expense of texture. Between the extremes of crudites and the boiled cabbage of my school dinners there is an acceptable range of choices. My preference is to cook root vegetables, such as carrot, until they are quite tender, soft enough to be pierced by a knife and offer little resistance, and to keep greens like courgettes and mangetout quite crunchy.
3 If you eat with your eyes, you smell with your nose
Despite the power of food photography, the notion that you eat first "with your eyes" is worth puncturing. You smell food before you see it and it is the aromas from the kitchen or plate that either stimulate or deflate appetite. Vegetables have a poor track record on this front, because they are usually cooked plainly so there is no wine, garlic or spicing to send out those enticing gastronomic signals.
4 Some vegetables need their own jus too
It helps when draining boiled vegetables to try the following: leave a few drops of the cooking water, season with salt and pepper as you want and then add a few a drops of oil - olive, sesame, walnut or whatever suits the moment - and shake the pan for a few seconds so that the vegetables are evenly coated with an emulsion of the water droplets and the oil. It will not taste or feel "oily".
5 Boost bland tastes with a flavour-pack of herbs in oil
Blend together in a liquidiser a good bunch of fresh basil, parsley or a combination of the two, with a cup of olive oil, some milled black pepper and a touch of lemon zest. The resulting paste will keep for a fortnight or can be frozen in small batches. A spoonful of this at the last moment will lift the dish and send out the fresh aroma of garden vegetable.
6 Use herbs in spring and summer, spices in autumn and winter
Root vegetables like parsnips or swede and dread winter staples like Brussels sprouts and turnip would feel absurd with summer herbs, but take on Indian and Middle Eastern spices like cinnamon and cumin beautifully. In India they understand spices, and garam masala blends are actually designed to produce aroma. They need a few seconds' heat to bring out their flavour and to lose any raw feel.
7 Marry the rank cabbage family to the sweet chestnut and apple
Like Stilton with port and mutton with redcurrant jelly, the deeply savoury, slightly rank taste of the cabbage family partners a slight sweetness very well. Traditional couplings of Brussels sprouts with chestnut and bacon, or red cabbage with apple show the style.
8 Don't puree if you don't have to
The over-use of vegetable puree during the fad for nouvelle cuisine has led to a distaste for this treatment. The pureeing of vegetables with interesting textures such as broccoli or asparagus was silly, but not all veg has attractive textures and many suit the process well. The softening gives opportunity for some judicious spicing. Sweet vegetables like swede or parsnip take a little curry powder and butter well, while those with a sharper flavour like celeriac can even take a teaspoon of horseradish or mustard with a little creme fraiche or soured cream.
9 Stagger times for vegetables in soups
Cook vegetables in soup only until they are soft - ready to eat in fact - before blending. Once they are lifeless and limp they will impart these qualities to the finished dish.
10 Deep-fry in batter (think Japanese tempura, French beignets)
The Japanese do it. The French do it. Or visit Spain to remind yourself how good deep-fried vegetables and fish can be. Late courgettes and aubergine deep-fried in good batter in hot sunflower oil need only some relish or dip to serve as light starter or lunch (my favourite) - two tablespoons of beer, plus one tablespoon of olive oil mixed with four tablespoons of self-raising flour and the whisked white of one egg.
SHAUN HILL'S RECIPES
FILO PASTRY PIE WITH SPINACH & FRESH GOATS' CHEESE
Pastry cooks in Greece have been making similar confections since Old Testament times.
Filo pastry dries very quickly if exposed to air, so always keep it wrapped either in its original plastic or else between damp cloths.
8 sheets filo pastry (about a quarter of a standard packet)
a little olive oil
450g/1lb fresh spinach
nutmeg, salt, pepper
175g/6oz fresh goats' cheese, eg Perroche, Cabri, Chevrefeuille
Preheat the oven to 425F/220C/Gas 7. Brush each sheet of pastry on both sides with olive oil. Lay the sheets so that they overlap, four deep, in a 25cm (10in) tart case. The pastry should spread well beyond the rim of the tart case for you are going to fold it back across the top of the filling to form the pie's top crust.
Boil the spinach briefly and press out as much moisture as possible. Season with a small amount of salt and plenty of nutmeg and pepper (remember that the cheese will be salty).
Put half the spinach into the pie and spread it over the base. Next, arrange a layer of goats' cheese slices on top. Spread the remaining spinach on top, then tuck in the pastry across the top of the pie. Cut off any excess.
Bake in the oven for 20 minutes, or until golden brown and flaky.
SPICED RED CABBAGE
1 small to medium red cabbage
1 onion, peeled and sliced
a little vegetable oil
120ml/4fl oz each of red wine and orange juice
salt, pepper, ground cinnamon and nutmeg
Red cabbage will temporarily discolour your fingers as you are chopping it. If this is a problem, wear rubber gloves. Cut the cabbage into quarters and cut out the hard white core.
Shred the cabbage, either cutting it into strips or in a food processor.
In a heavy-based saucepan, fry the onion in a little oil for two minutes, then add the shredded red cabbage. Pour on the red wine and orange juice. Season with plenty (a teaspoon of each) of cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid and when the pot comes to the boil turn down the heat to a steady simmer.
Cook gently for around 15 minutes or until done. The cabbage will cook fairly rapidly because of the steam created by the evaporating wine and orange juice. Stir the cabbage occasionally to make sure it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan.
SWEETCORN PANCAKES WITH BAKED TOMATO
Sweetcorn is one of the few ingredients better tinned than frozen. Fresh isn't bad, but is only sold on the cob and really that's how it's best eaten.
1 large egg
300ml/10fl oz milk
50g/2oz plain flour
2 tablespoons melted butter or vegetable oil
salt and pepper
225g/8oz sweetcorn kernels
4 tomatoes, halved
1 teaspoon each of olive oil and wine vinegar
Preheat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6. Make a batter by whisking together the egg, milk, flour, and half the butter or oil. Season.
If the corn is fresh or frozen, drop it into boiling salted water for five minutes to cook. If it is tinned, you will just need to drain it. Coarsely chop the corn kernels and add to the pancake batter.
Place the tomatoes on a baking dish. Drizzle with the olive oil and vinegar and season. Bake in the oven until soft, about 10 minutes.
Use the remaining butter or oil for frying the pancakes. You want small pancakes for this dish, so drop a tablespoonful of batter at a time into the pan, leaving room between each pancake. Frying for two or three minutes on each side will cook them through and give a pleasing golden colour. Stack the cooked pancakes on a hot dish in a warm place until you have used up all the batter.
Serve hot, accompanied by the tomatoes.
Soft vegetables are good when deep-fried, when there is a contrast of texture between the soft interior and the crisp shell.
1 large cauliflower
1 egg, separated
2 tablespoons olive oil
150ml/5fl oz lager
150g/5oz plain flour
salt, pepper and nutmeg
oil for frying
Divide the cauliflower into florets and boil in salted water until cooked. Don't overcook: around 10 minutes is enough. Drain and leave to cool.
Make the batter by whisking together the egg yolk, olive oil, lager and flour. Season with salt and then whisk the egg white in a separate bowl until stiff. Fold the egg white into the batter.
Season the cauliflower florets with salt, pepper and nutmeg and dip them in the batter. Deep-fry until golden brown, around four to five minutes, then drain on kitchen paper before serving.
SWEDE & CHEDDAR SOUFFLE
450g/1lb swede, peeled and cut into approximately 1cm/12in pieces
50g/2oz unsalted butter
40g/112oz plain flour
salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 large eggs, separated
14 teaspoon cream of tartar
175g/6oz mature Cheddar, grated
Preheat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6.
Butter or oil a one-litre (two-pint) souffle dish. Butter or oil a double folded strip of silver foil long enough and wide enough to fit around the dish and rise 5cm (2in) above the rim as a collar. If the foil isn't stiff enough, an elastic band may help to keep it in place.
Boil the swede in a lidded saucepan until tender, around 25 minutes. When cooked, drain the water into a bowl or jug and keep it for later.
Wipe the saucepan clean, then melt the butter over a low heat. Stir in the flour and cook gently for one minute. Measure out 350ml (12fl oz) of the cooking water and pour this, a third at a time, on to the flour and butter mixture. Stir until the sauce reboils each time.
Mash the swede and season. Add the sauce which you have made using the cooking liquid, together with all six egg yolks. Mix well.
Whisk the egg whites with a quarter teaspoon of salt and the cream of tartar until stiff.
Turn the swede mixture into a bowl. Stir in a quarter of the whisked egg white - this will make the mixture slacker and easier to handle. Fold in the remaining egg white and the Cheddar.
Spoon the mixture into the prepared souffle dish and bake it in the middle of the oven for 45 minutes until golden brown and puffed up.
GRATIN DE JABRON
This is my favourite version of gratin dauphinois. It is also the least difficult.
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
salt and freshly ground black pepper
300m/10fl oz each of milk and double cream
Preheat the oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4.
Try to select potatoes of an approximately equal size: you are going to boil them in their skins, so if they've been graded they will cook more evenly. Give them a good wash.
Boil the potatoes until they are just cooked, about 12 to 15 minutes. If they are a floury variety and overcooked, they will be difficult to handle. Drain off the water and peel off the skins.
Cut the potatoes into 5mm (14in) slices. Melt the butter and garlic together in a frying-pan. When the butter is hot - but before it starts to colour - add the potato slices and turn them over so that they are coated with the butter and garlic mixture. Unless you have a particularly large frying-pan, you will need to do this in two or three batches. Season the potatoes with salt and pepper. This stage can be done anything up to a day in advance if the tossed potato is kept covered in the fridge.
Spread the potato on to a greased, shallow ovenproof dish. Pour on the milk and cream and bake, uncovered, for 20 minutes until the top is golden brown.
CHESTNUT BROTH WITH SOFT SPICES
You can buy chestnuts ready-peeled in vacuum packs, which saves the tiresome business of roasting and peeling them. Should you find only tinned chestnuts, make sure that they are unsweetened.
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 leek, chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
a little vegetable oil for frying
12 teaspoon each grated nutmeg, ground cinnamon, ground coriander and mace
900ml/112 pints water
1 ripe tomato, chopped
225g/8oz peeled chestnuts, roughly chopped
300ml/10fl oz milk
a few drops of lemon juice
salt and pepper
Fry the carrot, leek and celery in the vegetable oil until they start to colour then stir in all the spices. Let the spices cook for a few seconds, then add the water and tomato. Stir well.
Add the chestnuts and boil till soft (around 20 minutes). Add the milk and lemon juice and season. Puree in a liquidiser or food processor. Return the soup to the pan to heat through before serving.
! Shaun Hill's books include 'Shaun Hill's Cookery Book' (Macmillan, pounds 12.99) and 'Shaun Hill's Quick and Easy Vegetable Cookery' (BBC, pounds 5.99) from which these recipes are taken
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