February 12, 2009
When we were snowed in recently and I was at a loose end, my thoughts turned, inevitably, to food, and I began to wonder why so many people think vegetarian food is bland and heavy.
It can be, of course, judging by what’s dished up in many restaurants, where anything vegetarian is a poor second cousin to the real deal, meat. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Here are a few tips to ensure you don’t go down the road of stodgy vegetarian lasagne or gloopy mushroom stroganoff, or any other excuses for a meal that you’ll find in your local pub.
1. Depth of flavour
You have to work much harder to create full sensuous tastes when you don’t have meat. This comes partly from using herbs and good stock, but also from the cooking processes themselves. Lightly frying vegetables, from broccoli to potatoes, before you make them into a soup or stew, will bring out their flavour like nothing else can. Or slow roast aubergines, peppers or cherry tomatoes, with olive oil and herbs, before you add them to a casserole. Combining different cooking methods like this gives variety and adds fullness of taste and texture.
2. You don’t need fancy ingredients.
This is not what we’re taught I know, but good cooking is more about how you do what you do in the kitchen, than splashing out on expensive and exotic ingredients.
If your corner shop is anything like mine, you won’t always be able to get the crispest of lettuces, the plumpest of tomatoes, or even good potatoes.
What matters is what you do with what you buy. Make a good dressing and that lettuce will perk up magically. Mash those potatoes with lots of butter and pepper and they turn into wonderful comfort food. Cover tired cooked vegetables with dressing as you would a salad and they transform – that’s what they do in the Mediterranean and their food is revered all over the world.
3. Be simple.
It’s fun to go to town on some ornate dessert, but you don’t need to, even for guests who you want to impress. Simple is good too – what better pudding can there be than fresh strawberries with cream?
For the best fast lunch go for ripe cheese, pickle and bread (though here I am fussy and I do think that the bread must be really good, crumbly on the crust and warm and fresh within. Perk up suspect bread with a few drops of water and ten minutes in the oven.)
Above all, be imaginative and don’t sweat. Don’t let TV chefs make you believe it’s all about tears and heated tempers. It really isn’t. Good vegetarian food, like all culinary delights, is born out of having fun in the kitchen.