Taking sides

Whatever happened to those good old-fashioned vegetable dishes? Simon Hopkinson champions the return of his favourite accompaniments
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Indy Lifestyle Online

There was a time when it seemed perfectly normal to sit down for lunch or dinner and expect the principal course to appear as just that: a few slices from a roast, a joint or two of chicken, a piece of fish, each placed upon a warmed plate with either sauce, gravy or, sometimes, nothing at all. And, incidentally - but most importantly, as far as I am concerned - the latter is now quite impossible to find in this overfussed country of ours.

There was a time when it seemed perfectly normal to sit down for lunch or dinner and expect the principal course to appear as just that: a few slices from a roast, a joint or two of chicken, a piece of fish, each placed upon a warmed plate with either sauce, gravy or, sometimes, nothing at all. And, incidentally - but most importantly, as far as I am concerned - the latter is now quite impossible to find in this overfussed country of ours.

I had to travel all the way to Amsterdam recently to experience the long-lost pleasure of a superbly poached fillet of turbot (initially cooked on the bone), presented all pearly white and steaming with a sauce-boat of immaculate hollandaise, accompanied by a silver dish of plainly boiled potatoes and a small bowl filled with halved lemons. I ate this delicious lunch at a long-established fish restaurant called the Oesterbar and it is, as far as I am concerned, the best place to eat in that city (some may say this is not saying much). Furthermore, it's open all day long and also offers the finest "plate" oysters (the same as our "natives") I have tasted for many a moon.

Mildly concerned as I am with this worrying dish dilemma, I reckoned that the time was ripe to think again about this style of eating. Truly, are we not all a little bit fed up with ordering a restaurant main course, to find it fully over-garnished with shreds of this and dice of that - most often mangetout and green beans artfully slivered, caramelised button onions or shallots, a sprinkling of wild mushrooms, diamonds of tomato flesh and all set upon a swirl of creamed potato (this usually further flavoured with something or other quite unfitting)? And, finally, all awash with a sticky brown jus? Well, you know, I for one am fed up with this.

For those of you who agree with me, here is a useful list of vegetable accompaniments to suit both the traditionalist and the many who are surely ripe for conversion. Incidentally, I promise shortly to move on from this obsession I have recently had with vegetables. Next week it'll be the dog's bollocks.

All recipes serve two.

Saffron mashed potatoes

This is an old favourite of mine - maybe even an original. To accompany: fried fillets of fish, especially cod; roasted joints of rabbit; grilled shellfish.

600g floury potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks

salt

generous tsp of saffron threads

1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped

4-5tbsp milk

75-100ml virgin olive oil

Tabasco, to taste

Boil the potatoes in salted water until cooked. Meanwhile, warm together the saffron, garlic, milk and olive oil in a small pan. Cover and infuse for 10 minutes. Drain the potatoes well; dry out in the oven if they seem excessively wet. Pass the potatoes through a mouli-légumes or potato ricer and then into a roomy bowl of an electric mixer. Beat together with the saffron mixture until light and fluffy. Scoop out into a hot serving dish and serve straightaway.

Courgettes in white sauce

Hmmm, yes, sounds really appetising that, doesn't it? Well, I only remember it as prepared by my mother, using marrow. Nothing wrong with marrow as such (see later), but I recently thought how very nice it would be if made with young marrows: less water, tastier and, let's face it, these days, a damn sight easier to find than a marrow. Most definitely a sad sign of the times, vegetable-wise. To accompany: above all, a roast leg of spring lamb or grilled chops.

2 large or 4 small courgettes, peeled, topped and tailed

salt

For the white sauce

250ml milk

2 cloves

1/2 onion, peeled and chopped

1 bay leaf

salt

25g butter

25g flour

2-3tbsp single cream

freshly grated nutmeg

freshly ground white pepper

a sprinkling of grated Parmesan (optional)

Slice the courgettes in half lengthways and sprinkle with salt. Leave for 30 minutes to drain while making the sauce.

Heat together the milk, cloves, onion, bay and a little salt. Simmer for a few minutes, cover and allow the flavours to mingle for about half an hour. In another pan, melt the butter and stir in the flour. Make a roux and gently cook the butter and flour together for a minute or two, but on no account allow it to colour. Strain the milk into the roux and vigorously whisk together until smooth (this always gets rid of lumps). On the lowest possible heat, with the diffuser pad, set the sauce to cook for about 10 minutes. Add the cream, nutmeg and pepper, mix in thoroughly, check for salt and simmer for a further five minutes. Keep warm, with a lid on.

Preheat an overhead grill. Rinse the courgettes and gently squeeze dry in a tea towel. Steam, preferably, until tender. Lay out into an oven-proof dish and blanket with the sauce. Sprinkle with a very little cheese (if using) and place under the grill until bubbling and burnished in patches.

Braised lettuce

A dish which is often neglected, but deliciously delicate. To accompany: pot-roast pigeon; roast pheasant, steamed white fish.

4 little gem lettuces, not over-trimmed of outside leaves, but thoroughly washed

salt and freshly ground white pepper

50g butter

Simply melt the butter in a deep, lidded pot, put in the lettuce and season. Turn the lettuces through the butter and gently stew. Once the water from the lettuce is beginning to leach out, put on the lid and cook over the merest thread of heat for about 20 minutes, turning the lettuces over from time to time. Remove to a heated serving dish and reduce the juices over a high heat until lightly syrupy. Pour over the lettuces and serve very hot.

Roast onions

Possibly one of the most satisfying of winter vegetables and also one of the easiest to cook. But, does anyone roast an onion these days? I don't think they do. To accompany: all roasts; grilled calf's liver; grilled pork chops.

10 small onions (large golf ball size), peeled

salt and pepper

1tbsp balsamic vinegar

40g butter

Preheat the oven to 375°F/ 190°C/gas mark 5. Put the onions in a bowl, season them and add the balsamic vinegar. Leave to marinate for 10 minutes or so, turning them around occasionally. Melt the butter in a small, solid frying pan that will also go directly into the oven. Add the onions and coat all over with the butter. Once all is a-sizzle, pop into the oven and roast for 30-40 minutes, turning them over two or three times and taking care that they don't burn. (Depending on your oven, you may need to turn the temperature down a little towards the end.)

Roast parsnips with ginger

In this case, ginger syrup. This is a most useful ingredient if you want to impart a piquant sweetness to all manner of things. The only problem I have found, however, is that once you have discovered just how useful it is, the kitchen cupboard soon becomes overrun with endless jars of dried-out stem ginger. But then these are very good eaten whole, on a spoon, covered in double cream and possibly in the dead of night. To accompany: all roasts, but particularly pork; venison stew.

4 small parsnips, peeled and sliced in two, lengthways

salt and pepper

2tbsp ginger syrup

40g butter

Preheat the oven to 350°F/ 180°C/gas mark 4. Parboil the parsnips in salted water until half cooked. Drain, cool and place in a bowl. Season them and coat with the syrup. Melt the butter in a small frying pan that will also go into the oven. Add the parsnips and coat with the butter. Place in the oven and roast for 40 minutes or so, turning once or twice, until golden and shiny.

Mashed carrots and swedes

For me, an absolute must with any winter roast at home. To accompany: roast pork, beef, lamb; a nice and sticky braised oxtail.

1 small swede, peeled and chopped into large chunks

2 large carrots, peeled and thickly sliced

salt and freshly ground black pepper

much butter

a little chopped parsley

 

Boil the vegetables in salted water until very tender. Drain thoroughly. Either pass through the coarsest blade of a vegetable mill or use an old-fashioned hand-masher (the "plunging motion" sort). Season with plenty of pepper and a little more salt if necessary and then beat together with as much butter as you dare. Pile into a heated serving dish, dab with a touch more butter and sprinkle with a little parsley - just, you know, to pretty the thing. And why not?

Marrow with dill and sour cream

Originally, I think, a Hungarian recipe. To accompany: a hearty beef stew; roast belly pork; grilled salmon.

 

1 small marrow, peeled and deseeded

salt

50g butter

1 large dill pickle, grated, and a little juice from the jar

freshly ground white pepper

1 heaped tbsp chopped dill

150ml sour cream

paprika

a little extra chopped dill

Grate the marrow, put it in a colander and mix together with a little salt using your hands. Leave to drain for 30 minutes. Thoroughly squeeze dry in a tea towel. Melt the butter in a roomy pan and tip in the marrow. Stew gently over a low heat until tender, stirring occasionally. Stir in the grated dill pickle, a little of the juice, the pepper, dill and all but one tablespoon of the sour cream. Turn up the heat and allow to bubble and thicken. Spoon into a hot serving dish and top with the remaining sour cream. Sprinkle with a little paprika and some more chopped dill.

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