Food & Drink: A Whole New Style

The name synonymous with brown rice in the Sixties has turned to health, energy and frozen foods.
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The Independent Culture
It was way back in the Sixties when David and Kay Canter, with a friend Daphne Swann, opened their first vegetarian restaurant, called Cranks, in London's Carnaby Street. The name was self-mocking, acknowledging that vegetarians were a minority whose tenets were considered absurd. It is hard to credit today that such notable public figures as Sir Stafford Cripps, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and playwright Sir George Bernard Shaw were the butt of Music Hall jokes, held up to ridicule for choosing not to eat meat.

But Cranks was a success from the start, largely by creating a city-dweller's notion of rural simplicity. You sat at a stout, plain wooden table, reading from menus pain- stakingly penned in a comforting calligraphic hand. You ordered thick vegetable soup and supped it from even thicker hand-thrown ceramic bowls. Your fellow customers were probably wearing hand-knitted Fair Isle pullovers and open-toed sandals and reading Fabian tracts (or has mem-ory played its tricks?). Certainly Cranks customers adopted the moral high ground, identifying themselves with organic flour and organically- grown vegetables.

The food, though wholesome, was frankly no more memorable than that of an enlightened canteen or school. Without the meat. The diet was one of bean soups and bean salads. Wholemeal flour pastries weighed as heavily on the spirit as the stomach.

Young people grew out of Cranks when the new vegetarians crossed from California, spreading the macrobiotic word, opening their own wholefood stores and restaurants. Then somewhere along the line, Cranks lost the plot. The founders sold it on and among the various buyers were Guinness (under the hand of one Ernest Saunders, who planned to expand the chain, franchising Cranks around the country). Cranks started a catering operation, producing cooked meals for restaurants and canteens. In one year, says sales director Chris Elder, they had a turnover over of pounds 3.5m. Quite brilliant, except that profit did not match turnover, and Cranks went belly-up. The company survived through a management buy-out.

Since 1992 Cranks has completely re-invented itself and now, owned by the Piper Trust, is looking to expand. Cranks bread, a franchise operation, is a big seller in supermarkets. And the restaurants are keeping their end up too. If you haven't been near one for some time (there are six in London, and one in Dartington) you may be surprised. They have been given bright and breezy makeovers, far removing them from the original stripped-pine image.

The breeziest of them, near Charing Cross Station in London, has been converted into a Cranks Express - a template for the planned expansion of the group. "We call it the vitality cafe," enthuses managing director Gavin Heys, "because the idea is for people to leave here uplifted, having done some good for themselves." He claims this is a bold new concept in eating. Posters in the cafe exhort you to eat for a healthy heart (the low fat Middle Eastern potato casserole should do the trick).

Old Cranks it isn't. Gone is the word vegetarian, and the bruisingly solid wooden furniture. In are fragile plywood tables and light metal framed stools. Out is the knobbly ceramic pottery, in favour of plastic, and the sedate lighting has been replaced by burger-joint glare. Restrained autumnal browns have been junked in favour of all the poster colours of the spectrum.

But what about the food? It's okay, thanks to Nadine Abansur, the star of the show, who runs the company's test kitchens. Born into a Jewish family in Morocco, she brings a welcome breath of Mediterranean life to the food. Today's best-sellers are cous cous with roasted Mediterranean vegetables as well as stir-fried vegetables with noodles.

However, a suspicion remains that Cranks has replaced one food phobia (of eating meat) with another (of consuming fat) because other good sellers include The Low-Fat Special (cottage cheese, cheddar, chives on wholemeal - 4g fat, 240 calories); the Super Light Special (extra lean combination of low-fat fromage frais, tomato, watercress and cucumber on wholemeal, less than 2g fat, and only 205 calories); the Low Fat Revitaliser (granola, apricot and low-fat yogurt; less than 4g fat, 170 calories); and the Super Healthy Salad (cannellini, kidney and green beans; less than 250 calories).

According to managing director Gavin Heys, his figures show that most of the new vitality generation of Cranks customers are in the ABC range, aged 19 to 35. "Our research has shown that 60 per cent of young women are concerned about making a healthy, low fat choice which is also nutritious. They are intelligent people who learn about this from the magazines they read. They want to know how many calories there are, what vitamins. All our food is nutritionalised (broken down into nutritional information)."

In due course all the Cranks will be converted to the Express, fast service concept. "Young people want an appetising, healthy lunch break, but they want to do other things too."

Even if you can't get to a new Cranks Express, you may nevertheless be getting better acquainted with their fare this year through Cranks Cuisine. This is a range of ready-cooked food that is set to appear in the freezer cabinets of a Waitrose, Tesco or Sainsbury's near you.

Those with memories of the good-for-you stodge which Cranks represented might find "cuisine" an unlikely word to link with the name. But Cranks Cuisine is proud to stand up and be judged and invited a clutch of magazine food writers to a tasting recently.

Well, I tasted a dozen dishes and have to say that only one impressed me, a courgette and barley layer (pounds 2.30 for 340g). Many sounded tempting enough, but I didn't rate the undercooked vegetables in the Mediterranean Vegetable Lasagne. Nor did Mexican Black Bean Chilli, Creamy Stilton and Leek Pie and Red Dragon Pie (with aduki beans) come up to expectations. On the other hand, I didn't get to taste other ambitious new dishes in the pipe-line - Spiced Dal with Roasted Vegetables, Tamarind Noodles, Vegetable Bourguignon or the Sweet Filo Pastry Parcels - so I'll try to keep an open mind at this stage.

Desserts were honest but hardly met the promise a word like "cuisine" generates. One such was a crumble which didn't live up to the claims (or the picture) on the packet: "A compote of redcurrant and raspberry on a crisp pastry base topped with a crunchy oat, coconut and sunflower seed crumble." Not after it had thawed from the freezer it wasn't. The "crunchy" crumble was soggy. The "crisp" pastry was wet. The ingredients, though, were evidently good quality.

But Cranks Cuisine has its admirers, among them food writer Ruth Watson, who has owned two fine restaurants in Suffolk, Hintelsham Hall and the Fox and Goose in Fressingfield. She singled out their frozen carrot cake for unstinting praise. "It's not often I rave over shop-bought cake, but this really is the ticket," she said. They had used top-class ingredients such as free-range eggs to achieve a home-made flavour with a nice, rough texture. The cream-cheese topping contrasted beautifully with the cake. "A real beauty to have tucked away in the freezer," she concluded.

Cranks Cuisine sales director, Chris Elder, tells me that they are on course for a new generation of supermarket meals, designed for the chill cabinets as well as the freezer, and these will reflect the spirit of New Cranks.

And if you don't have Cranks Cuisine in your super- market yet, here's a taste of the revitalised product from Nadine Adensur's attractive New Cranks Recipe Book, out now in paperback (Weidenfeld & Nicolson pounds 12.99).

NADINE'S PISSALADIERE

A traditional pissaladiere from the south of France is usually made with a yeast dough and has anchovies on it. Because it is said to be a cross between a quiche and a pizza, I played around with it and came up with this version which could more properly be called a quiche-aladiere. It is essential that the tomato sauce is very well reduced.

Serves 8

2 x 450g/1lb tins tomatoes

3 garlic cloves, left whole

pinch of brown sugar

50g/2oz sundried tomatoes, chopped

handful of basil, left whole

350g/12oz black olives, stoned and chopped

3 eggs, size 3

75ml/3fl oz double cream

50g/2oz Gruyere or smoked Cheddar

salt

freshly ground black pepper

For the pastry:

125g/5oz butter, diced

100g/4oz plain white flour

100g/4oz plain wholemeal flour

ice cold water

pinch of salt

For the filling:

1 large onion, peeled and sliced

50ml/2fl oz olive oil

Make the pastry by rubbing the butter into the flour and salt until it resembles fine crumbs. Add the water and bring together to form a smooth dough. Wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 425F/220C/Gas 7. Butter and flour a 25cm (10in) loose- based tart tin, roll out the pastry and line the tin. Prick all over with a fork and bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes until pale gold in colour.

Meanwhile, make the tomato sauce by frying the onion in the hot olive oil and adding the tins of tomatoes. Add the whole garlic cloves, sugar, sundried tomatoes, and whole basil leaves. Cook for 40 minutes, stirring regularly until reduced to a thick consistency with no runny liquid. Retrieve the garlic and whole basil leaves and discard. Spread the chopped olives evenly over the pastry base and follow with a layer of tomato sauce. Beat the eggs, cream and cheese together and add a little coarsely ground black pepper. Use a fork to make holes all over the olive and tomato layers so that the custard can sink in a little when you pour it over.

Return to the oven and bake for 16 to 17 minutes until the top is gently set. A little runniness at this stage is acceptable as the custard will continue to set in its own heat once you have taken the tart out of the oven.

BAKED VEGETABLES IN PARCHMENT

This is an unusual way of serving root vegetables with their sweetness gently brought out. Opening the bags to reveal the different vegetables is a real treat and especially pretty because the beetroot weeps some of its vermilion juices over the other vegetables.

Serves 6-8

250g/8oz celeriac

250g/8oz carrots

250g/8oz beetroot

250g/8oz sweet potato

250g/8oz Jerusalem artichokes

250g/8oz new potatoes

250g/8oz baby onions

250g/8oz parsnips

50ml/2fl oz olive oil

15ml/1 tablespoon white wine

15ml/1 tablespoon tamari (optional)

12 cloves garlic, left whole

salt

freshly ground pepper

6-8 sheets of baking parchment 20x20cm/8x8in wide

To serve:

250g/8oz quark

3 cloves garlic, crushed

handful of basil or other herb, finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 375F/190C/Gas 5.

Scrub all the vegetables clean and cut all but the potatoes and the baby onions into 3cm (112in) cubes. Mix in with the olive oil, white wine, tamari and salt and pepper as well as the whole peeled baby onions and the whole unpeeled garlic cloves. Divide the vegetables equally between the sheets of baking parchment, wrap around, folding the edges tightly together to form a bag and place closely together on an oven tray. Place in the preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes and serve at once with a bowl of quark, richly seasoned with crushed garlic, salt and pepper and herbs and let people spoon some over their vegetables as needed.

SALADE CUITE

CHOUCHOUKA

This recipe is from Nadine's mother. The original is cooked slowly and for a long time and turned almost into a confit. I cook this recipe for far less time which gives a much lighter result, but try it out both ways. In either case, do not stint on the garlic.

Serves 6

50ml/2fl oz olive oil

500g/1lb ripe tomatoes, cut into quarters

dash of Tabasco or cayenne pepper

5 cloves of garlic, chopped

1 red, 1 green and 1 yellow pepper, charred, peeled, deseeded and cut into strips

Heat the oil in a frying pan and add the chopped tomatoes. Fry for four to five minutes until broken down into a sauce. Add the Tabasco or cayenne pepper and the chopped garlic. Fry for a further two to three minutes, stirring regularly, then add the pepper strips and continue to cook for three to four minutes or for a more authentic result, 10 to 12 minutes so that practically all the juice is evaporated and you are left with a thick sauce. Eat as part of an antipasto, served with several other simple salads and chunks of warm bread of any nationality.

CARROT CAKE

Carrot cake is as much a part of the fabric of Cranks. Try removing any of them from the menu and there is an outcry. Customers threaten never to return and staff are up in arms. Modernisation has gone a long way but these are the foundation stones and they now hold an almost hallowed place.

Serves 8

150g/6oz carrots

2 eggs, size 3

100g/4oz raw brown sugar

75ml/3fl oz sunflower oil

100g/4oz wholemeal self-raising flour

5ml/12 teaspoon ground nutmeg

50g/2oz desiccated coconut

50g/2oz raisins

Grease and line the base of a 18cm (7in) square cake tin. Preheat the oven to 375F/190C/Gas 5.

Finely grate the carrots. In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs and sugar together until the mixture is thick and creamy. Whisk in the oil very slowly, then add the self-raising flour, the nutmeg and the dessicated coconut and the raisins and mix together to combine evenly. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin. Level the surface and bake in the preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until firm to the touch and golden brown. Cool on a wire tray.

BAKED WINTER FRUIT

This is a sugar-free desert, simple to make so ideal for entertaining because it can be left to bake slowly in the oven while you attend to the rest of the meal.

Serves 6

3 Coxes apples, large

3 pears, preferably Comice, just ripe

18 prunes ready stoned

12-18 figs, dried but moist

18 apricots, dried but soft and moist

juice and zest of 1 orange

100ml/4fl oz apple juice

1 small piece ginger, finely grated

pinch of cinnamon

25g/1oz flaked almonds, toasted

50g/2oz soft brown sugar, optional

zest of 1 lime

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4.

Cut the unpeeled apples and pears into quarters, first removing the cores. Place in a large glass or other ovenproof dish and add the prunes, figs and apricots. Remove the orange peel with a zester and set aside. Squeeze the juice over the fruit and mix with the apple juice, ginger and cinnamon. Cover with foil and place in the preheated oven for one hour. When baked, remove the foil, stir the fruit around to coat with juice and place the dish under a hot grill for a couple of minutes, so that the fruit slightly chars in places. Garnish with the almonds and orange and lime zest, reserving some of each to garnish the Greek yoghurt. Serve hot or cold.

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