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.

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Corn and Sweet Potato Soup

January 23, 2009

corn

I’m sure corn must be a sacred vegetable in some part of the world or some ancient civilisation. There’s something intriguing and symbolic about those nuggets of gold nestling within the deep green leaves.

And they taste good too. Best of all is corn roasted on a barbecue, lightly blackened and smoky, lavished with salted butter. There is no way to eat a corn cob delicately. You have to get to get down to it with both hands and you always end up satisfyingly messy, butter dripping onto your chin and down your forearms.

Sweetcorn kernels are formidable in fritters too, making a sweet crunchy heart to the deep-fried batter. Again this is moreish unpretetentious food, something you might buy on a street stall, that demands to be eaten the moment the fritter is ready, hot and crisp, with a scoop of sour cream or a dollop of spicy tomato relish.

Corn also makes the nicest soup I know. It’s not fancy or grand in any way, but it tastes earthy. Perhaps it’s because however much you blend the soup it never loses its grainy texture.

Some cooks add sherry. My preference is for a couple of tablespoons of Ginger Wine (Stone’s Original), not really for the alcoholic kick but for its gentle heat, as if something warm were stroking your throat.

Corn and Sweet Potato soup, for 4
300g sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped, like chips
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 red chilli, chopped
4 tbs olive oil
25g butter
1 x 340g tin of sweetcorn
1 tbs brown sugar
1 tbs soya sauce
1 tbs barley miso
1.2 litres stock
200 ml milk
100 ml cream
chopped fresh coriander, to garnish

Melt the butter with the oil over a low heat, stir in the onion and fry gently until it begins to turn translucent.  Add in the garlic, the chilli and the sweet potatoes and fry over a low heat for about 15 minutes, stirring often to make sure the potatoes don’t stick nor the garlic blacken.

Add the sweetcorn, sugar, miso and soya sauce, heat them through, and then pour in the stock. Bring the soup to the boil and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender.

Add the milk and liquidise the soup in batches. If you are going for the ginger wine add that in now, too. Reheat.

Serve with a little curve of cream on the surface of each thick and hearty bowlful, along with a sprinkling of coriander.

Leek and Potato Soup

November 27, 2008

There are winter soups and summer soups. Cold ones and hot ones. But how many soups, I ask you, are this easy to make? This tasty? This nourishing? How many are this comforting, hearty and warming-to-the-very-bones?

I could go on but I’m sure you get the idea. There you are, you’ve been watching the news about all the terrible events in the world today. The attacks in Mumbai. The insurrection in Thailand. The dire state of the pound or dollar. And it’s raining outside. Not even a very interesting full-pelt kind of rain, just a dull, grey drizzle.

And you think to yourself – maybe you mutter it aloud – ‘I know. I’ll make some soup’.

So you wander into the kitchen and find a few leeks and few potatoes. You chop them up and add some stock. You notice it’s raining a bit harder now.

And then, before you know it, something really rather remarkable happens.

It happens just when you’ve ladled out a big bowlful of deep browny-green real food, and you’ve sat down in front of it in your favourite chair. It happens right then.

You weren’t expecting it. Perhaps you were half hoping it might happen but you hardly dared think it might do so for real. But it does. A small thing perhaps, but enough to change your world…

Just this. That everything – all that stuff that stressed you so much – it all goes a little bit out of focus.

leek-and-potato-soup-011

Out-of-focus soup. Made just for you. Is there any better way to soothe away cares?

Leek and Potato Soup, for 4
3 leeks (when trimmed these should weigh about 500g)
500g potatoes, peeled and chopped quite small. Or you could par-boil these.
50g butter (this brings out the flavour better here than oil)
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1.5 litres stock
100ml cream
dash lemon juice
1-2 tsp sugar
seasoning

In a large saucepan melt the butter and fry the leeks and garlic for a couple of minutes. Add the potatoes and cook for 5-10 more minutes until the leeks are translucent and the potatoes just cooked.

Pour in the stock, bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 10 minutes or so, until the vegetables are completely tender. Add the sugar and lemon juice.

Blend the soup. You can do this in batches in a food processor or with a hand-held blender, as I did.

Stir in the cream and add any seasoning you like. I sprinkled my soup with some chopped parsley.

Relax. Enjoy. Become a blur.