Take root

Vegetables are the real stars of the kitchen, so let them steal the show, urges Annie Bell, in an extract from her new book.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
As you may have noticed, my column for the first Saturday of every month is devoted to the gustatory interests of the herbivore - I am reluctant to use the word vegetarian, with all its negative connotations, as the focus is a positive one, deriving from a fondness for vegetables. The idea for the series was born around the same time as I started writing a vegetable book, and the two have, naturally, fed off each other and grown up together.

For me, vegetables are the real stars of the kitchen, and I have always revelled in their sheer lusciousness. It is the vast array of textures, flavours and scents that attracts. Obviously, meat eaters won't agree on this point, but, in my eyes, they are infinitely more delicious, more adaptable and more beautiful than anything sliced off an animal.

I have, however, always felt that vegetarian cookery suffers from the overwhelming presence of the colour brown - a waste when there is so much natural vibrancy to plunder: the purplish red of onions, the golden orange of sauteed butternut squash, the moody green of a mass of spinach and the scarlet of red peppers.

The photography for the book set out to capture this and, to that end, all the photographs were shot at my flat in daylight rather than under studio lights. In fact, some were shot in the middle of a thunder storm with sizeable hailstones raining down, which says something of the tenacity of Lisa Linder. And there was no elaborate line-up of props, no stylist or home economist. It was simply a case of "cook and shoot".

Why are so few vegetables here considered worthy to eat in their own right when, in Italy for instance, a menu is built around whatever is fresh and alluring in the market that morning? It is a sorry failing of Northern-European culture, not only that we like to present vegetables merely as a sideshow to meat and fish. Worse, we impose a kind of class structure, discriminating against what is cheap or unexotic.

Decent restaurants seem firmly married to such status symbols as wild mushrooms or asparagus, while cabbage, cauliflower and carrots are lucky to get a bit part as an "extra" at the bottom of the menu. Contesting this contrived pecking order has been one of the challenges of the book.

But I would be hard-pushed within the thirty five I selected, to draw up a list of favourites. Every one emerged with its own strength of character and attraction. Certainly, though, to just boil a carrot is sheer injustice.

Leek Dhal with Garlic Raita, serves 3

I can think of several young children who regard dhal as a "best favourite". Yet it is inexpensive and nutritious, it can be made up by the large saucepanful, and it reheats well. You can substitute plain Greek yoghurt for the raita. Serve with warm pitta bread.

Dhal:

40g/11/2 oz unsalted butter

2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1 heaped tsp finely minced ginger

350g/12oz leeks (trimmed weight), sliced

250g/9oz red lentils, rinsed

1 beefsteak tomato (225g/8oz), skinned and chopped

2 red chillies

1 heaped tsp cumin, freshly ground

1 heaped tsp coriander, freshly ground

14 tsp turmeric

1 heaped tsp sea salt

1 tbsp lemon juice or Seville orange juice

Raita:

1 large head of garlic

2 tbsp creme fraiche

3 heaped tbsp Greek yoghurt

salt

To serve:

chopped coriander

Heat the oven to 180C fan oven/190C or 375F electric oven/ gas 5. Slice the top off the head of garlic, wrap it in foil and roast for 20-30 minutes. Allow to cool.

While the garlic is cooking, make the dhal. Heat the butter in a large saucepan, add the minced garlic, ginger and sliced leeks and sweat over a low heat for several minutes without colouring. Add the lentils, tomato, chillies, spices, salt and 1.2 litres/2 pints of water, bring to the boil, skim any surface foam and simmer for 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the lemon juice or Seville orange juice, discard the chillies and adjust the salt.

To finish making the raita, squeeze the cooked inside of the garlic into a bowl, mash it with the creme fraiche and Greek yoghurt and season with salt.

Serve the dhal hot, with a dollop of raita and plenty of chopped coriander scattered over.

Thai Coconut Soup with Roasted Sweet Potatoes, serves 4-5

In the upstairs Mezzonine restaurant at Mezzo, Sir Terence Conran's restaurant in Soho, all the dishes are Malay-based, with Thai and a little Vietnamese thrown in. This arrives as a deep, steaming bowlful of sweet and hot coconut soup; the original uses pumpkin, but sweet potato is just as good. If you have time, garnish the assembled bowls with finely sliced garlic and chilli, fried in a little oil, as shown in the photograph.

700 g/1lb 9oz orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (approx. 2 large or 3 smaller)

groundnut oil

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tsp chilli paste

2 x 400 ml/14 fl oz tins coconut milk

425 ml/3/4 pint milk

70g/21/2oz coconut cream

3 tbsp light soy sauce

25g/loz brown sugar

sea salt

175g/6oz fettucine or tagliatelle

110g/4oz beansprouts

3 tbsp coriander leaves

Preheat the oven to 200C fan oven/220C or 425F electric oven/ gas 7. Peel the potatoes and cut into pieces 5cm/2in long x 2.5cm/1in thick. Place in a roasting tray, pour over a little oil, season and roast for 40-45 minutes.

Heat the chilli paste in a saucepan. Add the coconut milk, the milk, and the coconut cream, which will gradually dissolve, and bring to a simmer. Add the soy sauce and the sugar and season well with salt. This can be reheated.

Before the potato is done, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and cook the fettucine, adding the beansprouts for the last 30 seconds to blanch them. Drain and arrange on the base of 4 soup bowls. Place the sweet potato on top. Pour over the broth, reheated if necessary; scatter with coriander leaves.

Baked Red Onions with Sicilian Crumbs, serves 4

1.35kg/3lb red onions

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1/2 tsp red chilli,

finely chopped

70g/21/oz unsalted butter

Preheat the oven to 160C fan oven/170C or 325F electric oven/ gas 3, and bake the onions, unpeeled, for 11/4 hours. While they are cooking, heat the olive oil in a frying pan, add the chilli and the breadcrumbs, and cook, stirring, until they are golden and crisp; transfer to a bowl and mix in the lemon zest, capers and mint.

When the onions are cooked, slice off one end of each, squeeze the inside from its skin, arrange in a dish and slice open. Season and dot with butter, let this begin to melt, then scatter over the crumbs and serve.

Potato and Emmental Gratin, serves 6

This is a really rich, gooey pie with a crusty golden surface. Emmental is one of the classic cooking cheeses - it melts in a particular fashion and has a very distinctive flavour. A green salad is all that is required to accompany it, with either an olive oil or a walnut oil dressing.

425 ml/3/4 pint double cream

150 ml/5 fl oz milk

50 ml/2 fl oz vegetable stock

100 ml/31/2 fl oz white wine

sea salt, freshly ground black pepper

and nutmeg

1.6 kg/31/2 lb maincrop potatoes, eg Maris Piper

450g/llb grated Emmental

10 whole garlic cloves, peeled

3 bay leaves

Preheat the oven to 180C fan oven/190C or 375F electric oven/ Gas 5. Combine all the liquids in a jug and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Peel the potatoes and slice finely (you can do this with a food processor attachment). Butter a 35.5cm x 25.5cm x 5cm/14in x 10in x 2in ovenproof dish.

You need three layers each of potato and cheese, layering as follows: first lay the potatoes in rows so the slices overlap. Season, sprinkle with cheese, and scatter over a few garlic cloves and a bay leaf. Drizzle over a quarter of the liquid. Continue with the remaining ingredients, ending with cheese; compress the layers with your hands before pouring over the remaining liquor. The garlic, however, should be used up within the first two layers so there is none on the surface - this is to avoid it burning.

Cook the gratin for 1 hour, until the potatoes are tender and the top is golden and bubbling. Serve in wedges.

The following recipes take around 30 minutes or less to complete:

Spiced Celeriac Mash, serves 4

juice of 1 lemon

900g/2lb celeriac

900g/2lb maincrop potatoes

3 garlic cloves, peeled

sea salt

5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

3/4 tsp ground cumin

pinch of cayenne

freshly ground black pepper

1 level tsp coriander seeds

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and acidulate it with half the lemon juice. Peel the celeriac and potatoes and cut into pieces. Boil for 15-17 minutes until tender, drain and press through a sieve or a mouli legumes.

While the vegetables are cooking, chop the garlic and crush to a paste with a sprinkling of salt, using the flat edge of a knife. Heat 4 tablespoons of the olive oil in a small saucepan and cook the garlic, cumin and cayenne momentarily until nicely aromatic - the garlic must not colour. Immediately stir this into the vegetable puree, adjust the salt, season with pepper, and add some of the remaining lemon juice to taste.

Rewarm the puree before serving it. Coarsely crush the coriander seeds in a mortar. Heat the remaining olive oil in a small saucepan, cook the seeds for a minute or two until they begin to colour, then spoon over the warm mash.

Sweet and Sour Red Cabbage with

Cranberries, serves 4

1 small red cabbage (approx. 800g/ 1Ib 12oz)

60g/21/2oz unsalted butter

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tbsp balsamic vinegar

40g/11/2oz brown sugar

3 tbsp red wine

2 bay leaves

50g/2oz cranberries

To serve:

mascarpone

Discard the outer leaves of the cabbage, quarter it, remove the hard core and finely slice the leaves. Clarify the butter: melt it in a large saucepan, skim off the surface foam, decant the crystal yellow liquid (the clarified butter) and discard the milk solids on the base.

Return the clarified butter to the saucepan and sweat the cabbage with the seasoning until it gives off a nutty aroma and is glossy and relaxed. Add the balsamic vinegar and the sugar and cook to evaporate it. Add the red wine and bay leaves, cover the pan, turn the heat down low and braise for 17 minutes, stirring halfway through.

Add the cranberries, cover the pan, and cook for another 10 minutes, stirring halfway through. Serve with a dollop of mascarpone.

Salad of Baby Artichokes and Parmesan, serves 4

I love the clean simplicity of this salad - it makes a perfect starter. The artichokes should ideally be the size of an egg. If they are any larger cut them open, and if the choke is visible as fine hairs, nick it out. This is not really a salad that can be tried with larger specimens.

10 baby artichokes

juice of 1 lemon

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

50g/2oz Parmesan, finely shaved

4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Pare each artichoke as though preparing a Brussels sprout: slice off the base, cut away the tough outer leaves at the sides and slice off the top. Finely slice the remaining part of the artichoke and toss with the lemon juice. If you want you can prepare these about an hour in advance - the lemon juice will prevent any discoloration.

Drain off the lemon juice and rinse the sliced artichokes in a sieve. Return to the bowl and season.

Arrange the sliced artichokes and Parmesan on a plate and pour over the olive oil.

Sesame Coleslaw, serves 4

This is a variation on the theme of coleslaw; only better than - it makes a nice change from the cabbagey versions.

600g/1lb 4oz kohlrabi

1 egg yolk (size 2)

1/4 tsp grainy mustard

200ml/7fl oz groundnut oil

1 tsp light soy sauce

1 tsp sesame oil

squeeze of lemon or lime juice

1 heaped tsp grated shallot or onion

1 heaped tsp sesame seeds

Cut the skin off the kohlrabi and grate it by hand. Place in a tea-towel and squeeze out most of the liquid.

Make a mayonnaise by whisking the egg yolk with the mustard in a bowl, and gradually whisking in the oil in a thin stream until very thick. Blend in the soy sauce, sesame oil and lemon or lime juice. Combine the grated kohlrabi, shallot or onion and mayonnaise and place in a shallow dish. Toast the sesame seeds in a dry frying pan until they start to colour, and allow to cool. Serve the coleslaw scattered with the sesame seeds

`Annie Bell's Vegetable Book' is published by Michael Joseph, pounds 15. `Independent' readers can order a copy at a special discount price of pounds 12 including P&P, by sending a cheque payable to Penguin Books Ltd, quoting reference 65264, to Annie Bell Offer, Penguin Direct, Bath Road, Harmondsworth, Middlesex UB7 ODA Offer closes 30 November .There is so much natural vibrancy to plunder: the purplish red of onions, the golden orange of sauteed butternut squash, the moody green of a mass of spinach

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