FOOD & DRINK / Upward mobility for vegetables: Once they were the side order, today they're stars of the show. Michael Bateman on the rise of courgette, aubergine and friends

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The Independent Culture
IF THE Chinese had a Year of the Vegetable (they have a Year of the Pig and a Year of the Chicken), this would surely be it. Vegetables are on a rolling boil; sales are booming, especially of the fancy ones.

These do not include the carrot, cabbage or Brussels sprout, or even the stalwart potato, which is in decline thanks to pasta and rice. (Rumours of the death of the spud are somewhat premature, however, since it still makes up 58 per cent of the vegetable market.)

It is the sale of 'convenience veg' which is growing, explains the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Bureau, which monitors figures. Cauliflower and broccoli are considered convenient, and they are climbing steadily, while salad leaves are soaring. 'It is an explosion,' says the bureau; the salad sector has grown by 37 per cent over the last decade. This is partly due to the fashion for designer leaves such as radicchio and feuille de chene, but mostly because of the pre-packaging which saves the customer time washing and drying leaves.

Mushrooms are mushrooming. They are up 80 per cent over a decade. 'They owe their success to skilful advertising,' says the bureau. 'Mushrooms have been positioned as an ideal convenience choice for salads and cooked meals.' Courgettes, aubergines, green peppers and mange-touts are all on the up. It's hard to credit that a few years ago they were considered 'exotic'.

The new standing of vegetables must surely relate to the improved status of vegetarians, who are no longer a mute minority. Up to six million people in Britain do not eat meat, says the vegetarian writer Colin Spencer, yet this is against the backdrop of more meat consumption than at any time in history.

Until recently, those espousing the vegetarian cause endured much ridicule for their beliefs, Spencer points out, from the poet Shelley to Wagner (he preached but did not practise it), Tolstoy, George Bernard Shaw, Gandhi, Sir Stafford Cripps (the 1940s Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Hitler.

'Vegetarians hate the idea that Hitler was vegetarian, and are always trying to prove that he wasn't. But it was well documented, although Hitler didn't mind other people eating meat - which was funny for a dictator. Vegetarians don't like it because it proves the fallibility of the claim made since ancient times that, if eating meat led to aggression, the converse was true and vegetarians were therefore peaceloving, gentle people.'

Spencer has just published a history of vegetarianism, The Heretic's Feast (Fourth Estate pounds 20) - vegetarian publishing, too, is booming. There were hardly any vegetarian titles in the 1920s and 1930s, and only 183 published between 1960 and 1980 (35 were in the UK). In the 1980s the trickle of books became a flood, and now hundreds are published each year. 'Vegetarian books are even written by meat-eaters,' Spencer observes, 'a strange anomaly that would have struck the founders of the movement as immoral but which now arouses no comment.'

But supermarkets must take a share of the credit for changing our perception of vegetables. When Safeway, then American-owned, introduced pick-and-weigh vegetable sections in its Bedford store in 1962, it was the first step towards freeing the shopper from the tyranny of the high-street greengrocer. No longer did you have to stand and suffer the outrage of watching your bag being filled with bruised rubbish from behind the counter, while you stared at the rosy still-life of ripe produce at the front of his stall.

Fresh fruit and vegetables have always been the first things you see when you enter a Sainsbury's. The company still thinks this makes good business sense, though nowadays the emphasis is shifting to pre-packed salads, the real profit area, and pre-packed vegetables which can go straight into the microwave.

Marks & Spencer is the master of this genre. It brings in state-of-the-art baby veggies all year round from Kenya, New Zealand, Colombia, South Africa. These imported goods have higher profit margins than the more humble natives. Alas poor carrot, we knew you well, at 14p a pound. Hello there, pre-packaged baby sweetcorn from Thailand at pounds 4.20 a pound.

Restaurants, too, have helped to shape the changes in fashion. The humble vegetable was first rescued from oblivion by those nouvelle cuisine chefs who trimmed veg into tiny shapes, then arranged them like jewellery around meat and fish courses. But more recently they have been emerging as courses on their own.

The latest meat-eater to write a cook book on vegetables is foie gras-eating Shaun Hill. He is chef of Michelin-starred Gidleigh Park in Devon and the current Egon Ronay Chef of the Year. Until recently, it was quite unthinkable that such an elevated chap would put his name to a book of quick, easy vegetable recipes. He says the recession has jolted fancy chefs like himself into reality.

Tender stems of steamed sea-kale are offered on the menu at Gidleigh Park, but not in his book. Swedes are certainly not on his haute cuisine menu, but he has created a swede and cheddar souffle for the new publication.

Potatoes have a special place in his heart, and he has fond memories of the potato dishes of his Ulster childhood - potato bread, champ (potatoes and spring onions) and colcannon (potatoes and greens). Here are two of the maestro's recipes from his Vegetable Cookery (BBC Books pounds 5.99).

WATERCRESS AND POTATO SOUP

Watercress's main role used to be as half the standard garnish for any steak or mixed grill in restaurants, the other half being a grilled tomato. The potential for this peppery, almost bitter plant is more exciting. Watercress soup has a clean springlike taste with body and texture provided by the potato. Take care when buying watercress. Once the bottom leaves of a bunch start to yellow, it is fit only for the bin.

Serves 4

10oz watercress, well washed

3oz butter

1 medium onion, peeled and chopped

8oz potatoes, peeled

1 pint water

salt and pepper

15fl oz milk

2 egg yolks

5fl oz double cream

Pick out about one-fifth of the best watercress leaves. Chop them, and keep them to one side as garnish.

Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the onion and let cook gently for a minute while you cut the potato into dice. The size of the dice is not crucial; however, the larger the potato pieces the longer they will take to cook. Add the potato pieces to the pan.

Roughly chop the watercress and add this also. Let it cook gently, without taking on colour, for 5 minutes. Add the water and season with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil and simmer until the potato is cooked, around 15 minutes. Add the milk and then liquidise the soup in batches in a blender. If the soup has become too thick, add extra milk.

Return the soup to the saucepan and bring it back to the boil. Meanwhile whisk together the egg yolks, cream and the watercress reserved for garnish. Remove the soup from the heat and stir in this mixture. Check the seasoning and serve.

If you don't intend serving the soup straightaway, leave the last steps (the addition of the egg and cream) until you are ready to eat. The egg yolks will tend to curdle if subjected to prolonged boiling or careless reheating.

TIAN OF AUBERGINES

Tian is part of that collection of words such as timbale or casserole, which defines a dish by the pot in which it is cooked rather than some aspect of the flavouring or cooking process. A tian is an earthenware dish from Provence with a wide rim tapering quickly to a narrow base, thus giving a good ratio of crisp gratinated topping to rather less filling.

Serves 4

2lb aubergines

salt

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1lb sun-dried tomatoes, chopped

1 bunch fresh basil, chopped

8oz Gruyere cheese, grated

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4. Slice the aubergine into rounds and sprinkle with a good pinch of salt. Bring a saucepan of water to the boil. Add the lemon juice and aubergine slices and boil for 1 minute. Drain well.

Layer the aubergine slices alternately with the tomatoes in a greased ovenproof dish. Use a tian-shaped dish if you have one, but other shapes will also work. Top with the basil and the Gruyere cheese, then bake in the oven for 40 minutes. Serve hot.

SWEDE AND CHEDDAR SOUFFLE

This may not be everyone's idea of a quick dish. With a little care, though, it is not difficult and the swedes may be prepared and cooked in advance as long as you remember to keep the cooking water, or else substitute it with milk.

Serves 4

1lb swede, peeled and cut into approximately 1/2 in pieces

2oz unsalted butter

1 1/2 oz plain flour

salt and freshly ground black pepper

6 large eggs, separated

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

6oz mature Cheddar cheese, grated

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6. Butter or oil a 2-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 2in above the rim as a collar. If the foil isn't stiff an elastic band may help keep it in place.

Boil the swede in a lidded saucepan until tender, around 25 minutes. When cooked, drain the cooking 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 1 minute. Measure out 12fl oz of the cooking water and pour this, a third at a time, on the flour and butter mixture. Stir until the sauce reboils each time.

Mash the swede and season with salt and pepper. This can be done by hand but is easier in a food processor. You can also do the next stage in one. Add the sauce which you have made using the cooking liquid, together with all 6 egg yolks. Mix well.

Whisk the egg whites with 1/4 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. Then fold in the remaining whisked egg white and the Cheddar cheese.

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. Serve immediately. -

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