30 August 2011

I am the very model of a modern vegetarian

I was watching Reeling in the Years last week, possibly the only justification RTE has for its licence fee, and was somewhat dismayed to see that the year being reflected upon was 2000. For those of you outside of Ireland, the show is a 30 minute retrospective of a single year in Irish history comprised entirely of archival footage, pop music and the occasional narrative subtitle, and that's it. No talking heads or z-list celebrities waxing lyrical about stuff that happened when they were two years old or a parent's friend's cousin's dog once told them about, no sarcastic voice-over and only the tiniest hint of hindsight and/or foreshadowing in the narrative subtitles. Its an amazing program that has an unexpected ability to well me up with teary nostalgia, or at least it did until it hit the year 2000.

You see, the seventies, eighties and nineties are the Past, a different country where everything glows with the rosy-hue of forgetful remembrance. Days were longer, summers were warmer and the music was far, far better. The naughties, on the other hand, were barely yesterday and in fact may still be technically part of today. It is hard to shed a tear for something that feels as mundane as a walk to the shop to get some milk, the naughties are altogether too fresh and not enough distance is between them and us to enable us to no longer feel their impact.

Nostalgia can only arise when the beatings have actually stopped.

Still, seeing the year 2000 flash by in a series of well-timed vignettes reminded me that it has now been over eleven years since I became a vegetarian. The last meat that I ate was a pork and wild boar sausage dish cooked by a good friend, Mr Keith, possibly the single most epicurean individual I know. I had been planning on turning veggie for some time but I held off because I knew Mr Keith was planing a dinner party, and I figured that a) I might as well go out with a bang and b) it would be added incentive to stay on the veggie wagon, saying to myself that I wouldn't eat meat again until I found something as good as this last carnivorous supper.

Becoming vegetarian was easy enough, for many of my friends were also veggie at the time, but in the last eighteen months a surprisingly large number of them have returned to the world of the omnivore, mostly for health reasons, some as part of a fitness regime, others on medical advice - in fact I myself have been advised by two different doctors to include fish and chicken in my diet, even for a few weeks, as part of my weight and muscle-gain program following my recent (and ongoing) illness.

This is not something I am about to do, though I have given it some considerable thought, more so than at any time in the previous eleven years. It just is one compromise too far in a cornucopia of concessions that illness has forced upon me.

Thinking on all this brought me back to Mr Keith, a man who has been known to spit venomous acid at the sight of vegetables and take out restraining orders that bar them from approaching any nearer his cookery than 100 meters. He has an occasional blog on which he posts some of his own recipes and reviews of his dining experiences, and it was here that I was somewhat astonished to find a recent review of, deep breath, a vegetarian cookbook, (dum-dum-duuuuuum) with an accompanying veggie recipe.

The book in question is one that graces my own shelves, Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty. Ottolenghi is a London-based chef and columnist in The Guardian, writing their The New Vegetarian series, and what is so interesting about him is that neither he, nor his restaurants, are vegetarian. While most omnivorous chefs can cook passable veggie dishes, few want to. In most restaurants you may have a token veggie dish beyond a salad, normally a stodgy risotto, tomato-based pasta or a hodgepodge stir-fry of whatever vegetable sides accompany the steak. Ottolenghi's dishes, however, are fantastic and imaginative, breaking out of the 'meatless-version of a meat-dish' mold and being unique creations that stand up on their own merits. He brings the same care, attention and imagination to his veggie dishes that most chefs only bring to their meat dishes.

It was also interesting to read Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of River Cottage fame extolling the virtues of a mostly vegetarian diet in Friday's Guardian. He hasn't given up meat and fish entirely, just scaled them back drastically, and he seems to love it. His road-to-Damascus experience appears to be mainly based on concerns over the sustainability of a meat-based diet, the impact on the earth of excessive industrial-scale cattle farming, factory-ships and dwindling sea stocks and the general cruelty inherent in animal rearing and slaughter, and has joined the growing chorus of folks urging others to give up meat for at least one day a week.

The difficulty in convincing people to eat less meat is that a) folks love the taste and texture of meat, something which veggie dishes can't, and shouldn't, compete with and b) making interesting veggie dishes takes a lot more effort than slapping a steak in a pan for a few minutes. Many vegetarians fall at the first hurdle when attempting to woo their carnivorous friends to the Light Side by talking about things like Tofu, Tempeh and Seitan, thinking that what meat lovers want is a meat substitute, when the simple fact is that there is no such thing as a meat substitute; there's meat, and then there is stuff that will never in a million years taste like meat, so stop trying (and I say this as someone who loves a good veggie-burger or soy-rashers)!

What Ottolenghi and Fearnley-Whittingstall (who just happens to have a new veggie cookbook coming out) have done is approach vegetarian dishes like an omnivore, not a vegan, and the lack of accompanying ideological baggage (lets face it, no-one likes tofu except Asians and vegetarians) make their dishes far more imaginative and accessible for the general populace.

My go-to vegetable cookbook is a worn and battered copy of A World of Vegetable Cookery by Alex D. Hawkes, from 1968. I picked this up secondhand in the US and for the last eight or nine years it has been my first stop when encountering a mystery vegetable in the market and wondering what the hell to do with it. Written as an encyclopedia of vegetables in alphabetical order, with line drawings instead of photos, it hails from an age where vegetarian lifestyles were still largely non-existent in the western world, and as such the author is most definitely an omnivore (more than a few times I've been halfway through a recipe when I realise that the next ingredient should be pork). A more recent addition to my shelves has been Maria Elia's The Modern Vegetarian; Elia, from a Greek Cypriot background, trained in El Bulli and Arzak and again is most definitely not a veggie, but some of her recipes (particularly a mushroom, beetroot and lentil parcel) have become my default potluck dishes when I know the audience will be mixed.

Of course my favorite cookbooks still come from a few spectacular veggie restaurants that I have been to, and they serve both as reminders of great meals and aspirational notations that occasionally prod me into trying to cook something more exotic. Dennis Cotter, owner/creator of Cork's Cafe Paradiso, has a good few books out which I find great for making use of seasonal Irish vegetables, the two that we have are The Cafe Paradiso Cookbook and Wild Garlic, Gooseberries and Me, which is far more than just a cookbook, more a history of his love-affair with cooking. My absolute favorite book is, ironically, the one that I have cooked the least from, and that is Pietro Leemann's Joia, named after his Milanese restaurant that is without doubt the best vegetarian restaurant I have been to in the world. This is food to be eaten, not cooked, as the level of work required often far outstrips anything that you yourself could accomplish, but even if you fail the results are often amazing in their own right. The presence of soy and tempeh in a good few of the recipes won't be to every omnivore's taste, but for vegetarians it is nothing short of heaven. Unfortunately I think you need to actually visit the restaurant to buy the book, but that might not be as ridiculous as it sounds, Joia really is that good.

The point here is that for vegetarians attempting to cure their errant carnivorous chums, a subtle approach should be adopted. Going in all tofu-guns a blazing with a war cry of "Meat is Murder!" will hardly win you any friends and/or influence people, but judicious use of recipes from the likes of Messers Ottolenghi, Fearnley-Whittingstall and their ilk could be just the gateway experience your friends need to start them down the path of eventual tempeh-righteousness, or at the very least make them more comfortable with 'Meat Free Mondays' in the staff canteen.

Links

Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi
A World of Vegetable Cookery by Alex D. Hawkes
The Modern Vegetarian by Maria Elia
The Cafe Paradiso Cookbook and Wild Garlic, Gooseberries and Me by Dennis Cotter

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4 Comments:

At 10:00 am, Blogger 2BiT said...

That HFWhittEtc article wound me right up actually...he really does come across as more 'wholesome-than-thou' sometimes (and this is from someone who actively practices the lifestyle/diet he's preaching and agrees with what he's saying!).

Cool cabbage suit tho :)

And as for amazing (concidentally veggie) dining experiences...Terre-a-Terre in Brighton (second place?)

 
At 4:00 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

Terre-a-Terre is damn good, I've been there a few times now and have always been impressed. Candle Cafe in New York was up there on my list but I wasn't as sold the last time I was there. Millenium in the Hotel California in San Francisco is not too shabby for fine dining veggie style, but my favourite after Joia would be Hangawi, a Korean veggie place in NY - rocks my socks off every time (literally, you need to take your shoes off before they let you sit down)

 
At 9:46 am, Blogger Keith said...

I'd agree with the Cotter choice. It's a vegetarin cuisine where the main ingredient, the vegetable, is at the heart of the cooking. He's a superb technician with a genuine passion for his food, characterised by deft skill, and not compromise. It takes real skill, and dedication to quality ingredients to do what Cotter does.

Sophie Grigson has a nice book - Vegetables - which covers how to select good produce, and has excellent recipes.

HFW is, prmarily, a meat, poultry and fish cook. So, I'm not too confident that his recipes are going to feature the food as the centre piece. I'm guessing it's going to be about the sauce.

Looking at his Guardian recipes, the first recipe features a quarter of a litre of cream, and half a jar of peanut butter. You'll taste them, and nothing else, apart from the chilli.

The second is a quite spiced curry, with a qquarter of a litre of yoghurt. Garlic could survive this, my mother's boiled cabbage, and raw onion. But not much else.

The next recipe has a pile of passata.

We might be raising beef and hogget next year. Well treated. Grass fed, free range, additive free. Lean, but with deep taste. Possibly the best you've never had.

I'm still curious about whether a really good, ethically produced meat, prepared by someone to whom it's preparation means somnething (it's a difficult thing to kill something, and sobering) might be tempting to you.

 
At 2:29 pm, Blogger Sir Ludwig Rhinoceros III said...

Even though I am a meat eater, I own most of the veggie books you refer to in your post. I always said that the only thing stopping me becoming a vegetarian is meat. I adore meat, and although I can gladly do without it, I would hate to HAVE to do without it permanently.

I often cook vegetarian meals, choose the veggie options in restaurants and indeed my favourite Dublin cafe is Cornucopia (though I do have a soft spot for weekend brunch in No Name).

I also found my dinner in Cafe Paradiso in Cork beat my meal at Patrick Guilbaud's hands down for quality, tastiness and atmosphere.

 

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