Time to veg out: Meet the chefs who think vegetables are the best bit of the meal

A new study suggests that eating too much red meat is 'nearly as bad as smoking'. So isn't it time we finally ditch tender sirloins and embrace the potential of vegetables?

As a young trainee chef, Arthur Potts Dawson served apprenticeships with the Roux Brothers, Rowley Leigh and at the River Café. For these long early years, he was consigned to the vegetables section of the kitchen faced with the task of scrubbing, chopping and trimming mountains of the stuff. It's a familiar story. Skye Gyngell tells of how she started out in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris, where she sat for two years, peeling potatoes.

"I spent so long working on the vegetables section in these restaurants that I developed a huge amount of respect for them," says Potts Dawson. "I see it as the engine room of the kitchen. The fact is that most chefs aspire to be either meat or fish chefs because that's where the accolades lie, but actually, I think it's vegetables that are the real workhorse. It's about time we recognised them as being the hero rather than the poor relative."

Our relationship with veg is ambivalent. We know they're good for us and that we need our five (or more) a day, and we encourage our children to eat them. But many of us regard them as more of a chore than a joy. And yet, with research published this week suggesting that "a high-protein diet... is nearly as bad as smoking for your health," perhaps it's time more of us learnt to eat up our greens with gusto.

Potts Dawson's attempt to help us appreciate the culinary possibilities of veg comes in the shape of a book called Eat More Veg, which moves vegetables to the centre of the plate, rather than on the side. "We tend to say, for example, that we're having roast chicken for dinner when actually we're having roast potatoes, broccoli and peas, too. The book is about saying love your vegetables and understand how important they are on your plate."

He sees it as a natural progression from Acorn House, London's first truly eco-friendly training restaurant, which closed down last year, and the People's Supermarket, the independent, no-waste food co-operative he set up in 2010.

What's so delicious about the way that Potts Dawson looks at vegetables, paradoxically, comes down to the fact that he's a meat eater. He believes that we should definitely eat meat, just less and better quality, which then allows the vegetables a chance to shine. As such, what we might normally call an oxtail stew becomes horseradish, parsnip and carrot stew with oxtail. And baby turnips come stuffed with ginger, chives and only the smallest bit of pork. But mainly (and there are 250 recipes here), it's pure vegetable porn, divided perfectly into seasons.

Potts Dawson isn't the only one celebrating vegetables. Last October, Bryn Williams, the Welsh-born chef at Odette's in Primrose Hill, London, published a book called For the Love of Vegetables. The idea grew out of a quarterly supper club where Williams would take one food item and serve it in different ways over four courses – pudding included. Obviously, this couldn't work with fish or meat, so it became about selecting one simple ingredient – carrots, mushrooms or tomatoes, say – and finding four brilliant ways to serve them.

"While we are all aware of the many different ways to cook meat – braise, roast, stew, grill, fry – when it comes to vegetables, we often forget and tend to just boil them," says Williams. "I wanted to show there are loads of different ways of doing veg and that they aren't just boring and good for us. They are fantastic, too."

William's ethos is born out of a childhood raised in Denbigh in north Wales, where his uncle Awyn had a farm. Williams would be regularly dispatched there to help out. "I slaved on that farm as a kid," he says. "I remember planting carrots and picking potatoes and beetroot. So I knew exactly how much back-breaking work went into producing these fantastic ingredients."

Spinach, mushroom and ricotta rotolo (Liz & Mark Haarala Hamilton) Spinach, mushroom and ricotta rotolo (Liz & Mark Haarala Hamilton)
As well as the hard labour, Williams learnt about the joy of tasting a potato within two hours of it being plucked from the ground. "It was just the norm," he says. "We'd be sent out to pick peas and have eaten more of them raw before we got them back to the kitchen to be cooked. That's where my love of vegetables comes from."

His gran, a farmer's wife, taught him that different vegetables benefit from different treatment, depending on the time of year they are harvested. "She would never eat swede until there was frost on the ground, because only then does it develop its natural sweetness," he says. "And some veg have higher levels of nutrients at different times of year, so at certain times you need to use more salt."

But how is all this different from plain old vegetarianism? "We nearly called the book '70 Per Cent Vegetarian'," says Williams. "It's a lot of vegetable dishes in there cooked by a non-vegetarian chef. I love my meat, I love my fish, but I love good, fresh seasonal veg as well. It's not a vegetarian book, it's just about making the vegetables the stars of the show."

Potts Dawson, whose next project is selling raw vegetable juice to the masses, agrees. "We're not trying to be holier than thou. It's not about saying eat more vegetables and your life will change. It's about saying you simply don't need to eat meat with every meal because there's so many incredible vegetables out there."

'Eat more Veg' by Arthur Potts Dawson (Mitchell Beazley); 'For the Love of Veg' by Bryn Williams, (Kyle Cathie)

Scandinavian beetroot with soused herrings & potato

If you can't find rollmops, use good smoked mackerel instead. I've used golden beetroot in this recipe, but red beetroot will still look brilliant and they are cooked the same way.

To serve 4-6

12 rollmop herrings
500g cooked waxy potatoes, cut into 3cm cubes
1 large Bramley apple, cored and cut into 3cm cubes
500g cooked golden beetroot, cut into 3cm cubes
3 free-range eggs
1 white onion, very thinly sliced into rings
Dried red chilli flakes, to garnish

For the dressing

3 tablespoons wholegrain mustard
3 tablespoons caster sugar
2 tablespoons herb vinegar
3 teaspoons chopped dill, plus extra sprigs to garnish
500ml double cream

Root of the problem: beetroot with soused herrings and potato (Liz & Mark Haarala Hamilton) Root of the problem: beetroot with soused herrings and potato (Liz & Mark Haarala Hamilton)
Unroll the rollmop fillets and cut them in half lengthways. Put the potato, apple and beetroot into a serving bowl and mix well.

Bring a saucepan of water to the boil, carefully add the eggs and cook for 8 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and place it under a slow-running cold tap until the pan turns cold. Drain the eggs, shell and cut into quarters.

For the dressing, put the mustard, sugar, vinegar, chopped dill and salt and pepper into a small mixing bowl and whisk together until well combined. In a separate mixing bowl, whip the cream until it forms soft ribbons when you let it fall from the whisk, then pour in the vinegar mixture and whisk to combine.

Divide the salad mixture between serving plates and drizzle the dressing over the salad. Arrange the rollmop fillets on top, followed by the onion rings and egg quarters. Finish this dish with a small scattering of chilli flakes and some dill sprigs.

Spinach, mushroom & ricotta rotolo with sage butter

To serve 4-6

150g butter
1 white onion, finely chopped
4 tablespoons chopped marjoram
800g cooked and seasoned spinach, chopped
65g dried porcini mushrooms, soaked in hot water for 30 minutes
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for oiling a chopping board
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
225g girolle mushrooms
400g cheddar cheese, grated
65g parmesan cheese, grated, plus extra to serve
Whole nutmeg, for grating
600g pasta sheets
'00' pasta flour, for dusting
50g sage butter (see recipe)
Salt and pepper

Heat the butter in a saucepan, add the onion and cook over a medium heat for 5 minutes, or until soft, stirring frequently. Drop in the marjoram and spinach. Stir the mixture well to combine the flavours and season with salt and pepper. Leave to cool.

Strain the porcini, reserving the liquid. Wipe them with a damp cloth and trim off any hard bits. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan and fry the garlic gently, stirring, until it turns a very pale golden, then add the girolle mushrooms and cook over a high heat for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the porcini, then turn down the heat to medium-low and cook for 15 minutes, adding a little of the reserved porcini liquid occasionally to make sure the mushrooms don't dry out. Season with salt and pepper. Leave to cool, then roughly chop. Put the spinach mixture in a bowl and grate in 6 or 7 strokes of nutmeg.

Roll out the pasta sheets. Position side by side on a clean tea towel to make a square, overlapping the edges that meet, brushing with water and pressing down gently to join. Use a fork to arrange the mushroom mixture 2cm away from the edge of the pasta closest to you, keeping the mushroom strip about 4cm wide. Cover the rest of the pasta sheet with the spinach mixture in a strip 8cm wide and sprinkle with the cheeses. Starting with the mushroom edge, gently roll the pasta into a large cigar shape.

Wrap the roll tightly in a tea towel, then tie each end with kitchen string to hold the shape. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil. Lower the rotolo into the water and simmer for 20 minutes. Use a metal skewer to pierce through the towel into the centre of the roll – if the skewer is hot to touch when removed, the rotolo is ready. Unwrap the rotolo, place it on a lightly oiled chopping board and cut into slices 2.5cm thick. Serve with parmesan and the sage butter (gently fry 12 sage leaves for 4 minutes in 50g butter).

Cream of celery soup with smoked cheese

To serve 4-6

50g butter
50ml olive oil
1 white onion, chopped
1 garlic clove
2 heads of celery
1 thyme sprig
1 large potato, cut into 2–3cm cubes
1 litre hot vegetable stock
150ml double cream
2 teaspoons celery salt
100g smoked cheese, cut into small cubes

Melt the butter with the olive oil in a large saucepan. Add the onion and a pinch salt and cook over a medium heat for 4–5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the whole garlic clove and cook for 5 minutes, until softened. Meanwhile, chop the celery, including the leaves, widthways at 1cm intervals. Wash and drain the celery. Reserve a few leaves for garnishing.

Add the celery and thyme to the pan of onions and cook gently for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the potato, then pour in the hot stock and season with pepper. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes, or until the potato is tender.

Leave to cool, then transfer to a blender in batches and blend until smooth. Pour into a clean saucepan and stir in the cream and celery salt. Check the seasoning and reheat gently. Ladle the soup into bowls, then drop in the smoked cheese cubes and the reserved celery leaves. Serve with toasted crusty bread, if you like.

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