VEGIES – BROUGHT KICKING AND SCREAMING INTO THE CURRENT CENTURY

“We live in a society that consumes more meat than any other group in history … and most health professionals agree that eating so much meat takes a toll on us as well.” – Ruth Reichl, Editor, American Gourmet magazine.

I’m definitely showing my age, because I can remember when a request for a vegetarian option in a restaurant usually involved an offer of a pretty basic salad or a plate of vegies that were being served that day (as a friend witnessed – exactly the same as the person next to her, minus the meat). Fast forward to today and it is rare for a menu not to list a fair number of vegetarian alternatives of a serious nature.

So why such a change in a fairly short period? Sure, social media has certainly brought to the forefront pertinent facts, such as the huge amount of land needed for raising introduced animals, such as cattle and sheep, and the damage they do to the environment (without even mentioning the effect their farts have on global warming). And, we have certainly learnt that a huge piece of meat and a mountain of chips is maybe not the perfect balanced diet.

As well, the advent of kitchen gardens as part of many passionate restaurant chefs’ repertoires has certainly seen a change in their attitude towards vegies. As a chef-mate recently told me: “I didn’t realise how quickly vegies grow and I am continually waking up in the middle of the night thinking ‘what the f..k am I going to do with all those bloody artichokes, fennel bulbs, beetroot, etc., etc.?’” A bit different from my early days at Fleurie when I got so excited when my mate Boyd Piercy arrived with some just-picked baby tomatoes (still on the vine – my god!) or a tiny bunch of baby basil or mint.

Apart from that, it also has a lot to do with us all discovering that a meatless meal cannot only be bloody delicious, but exciting to boot. For example, chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi, Skye Gyngell, Sophie Grigson and Bobby Flay have reintroduced us home cooks to basics such as cauliflower, carrots, pumpkin, brussels sprouts and cabbage, as well as every grain known to man (or woman) and brought them kicking and screaming into the current century. A whole cauli baked in a very hot oven smothered in a brilliant blue cheese-spiked creamy sauce; my beloved brussels sprouts served raw, but finely shredded, in a Vietnamese slaw with lots of fresh herbs and Nam Jim dressing; Parisienne chef Guy Martin’s Pot au Feu of baby carrots; Skye Gyngell’s inspirational vegetable mezze platters or braised artichokes with fennel, tomatoes, olives and preserved lemon; or a Hewitson favourite – a Japanese red cabbage and pickled ginger ‘cake’ sprinkled with kecap manis.

And then there are more traditional favourites such as Pumpkin & Ricotta Lasagna, Eggplant Moussaka or Parma, as well as curries, chillies and even American-style spicy baked beans piled high with chopped avocado, sour cream and fresh coriander. My wife, Ruth, recently whipped up a delicious Leek, Potato & Cheese Pie with a puff pastry lid, and I will eat any variations on Ratatouille or Shakshuka, particularly if there is a good dollop of Persian feta or goat’s cheese melting over the top and good bread alongside.

Now, whilst all of these dishes sound (and are) dammed tasty, I must admit I am still not sold on the idea of becoming a ‘died in the wool’ vego. Although, I must admit, my red meat consumption has certainly declined in recent years.

What I would like to advocate is that even a passionate meat eater could benefit (as would the environment) from a slight change in our eating habits. Consider setting aside one day (at least) a week where our meals are based solely around vegetables – and, not like my niece, who at a young age announced she was not a vegetarian and, for the next few days, ate hot chips for breakfast, lunch and dinner!). No, what we want is the same effort put into your vegetable offerings as you would put into your normal meal – nutritious, yes, but above all exciting and full of flavour – something that both vegetarians and meat lovers will enjoy equally.

 

PS.

Just out of interest, the first Vegetarian Society of note was founded in 1847 in Ramsgate on the English coast. 150 members were signed up, but it had a fairly short life, as one of the other key rules was that all hot food should also be avoided, because according to the founding fathers “they acted injuriously on the teeth, debilitated the stomach and through that every organ of the human body.” What a surprise that particular society quickly disappeared without a trace.

 

PPS.

And, a few books that feature exciting vegetable recipes:

Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi

A Year in My Kitchen by Skye Gyngell

It’s All Good by Gwyneth Paltrow

Simple Recipes, Amazing Food, All Plants – Bosh! by Henry Firth & Ian Theasby

Plants Taste Better by Richard Buckley

and an oldie, but a goodie – Greene on Greens by Bert Greene
– Not 100% vegetarian (but pretty close), this books covers everything from artichokes to zucchini and almost every vegie in between. Tips on growing and purchasing, as well as hints – some super helpful, some not. For example, did you realise that the flowers of the kohlrabi, if left on the bush, keep garden pests away? Can’t say I did. And, Bert’s grandmother made dandelion liquor (not wine), which was absolutely disgusting, but was supposedly good for the digestion – if you could keep it down! Or that the name pea was the singular abbreviation of pease, which was the original name of two or more of those yummy little green numbers. Fascinating!

Quick Bytes – NOT HAPPY MR LETHLEAN

John Lethlean, restaurant reviewer and culinary commentator from The Australian newspaper, is one of Australia’s few journalists who is qualified to hold such a position. (Terry Durack, you can also take a bow.)

But, reviews of Merivale restaurants in Sydney in successive weeks, Mr Lethlean! Really? Now, I have certainly nothing against the Hemmes family or their amazing ability to keep coming up with the most stunning hospitality operations, but surely John you could have put a few reviews between Bert’s and Hotel Centennial just so it seems, dare I say it, ‘fair’, even if it is hard to ignore anything new from this stunning duo – especially if the hugely talented Danielle Alvarez is also anywhere near the stores.

AWFUL OFFAL RIDES AGAIN (vegetarians & vegans keep clear)

For a very brief period in the early 70’s, I worked at Lacy’s – a very fashionable restaurant in London. Owned by highly regarded Chef Bill Lacy and his wife Margaret Costa, the Sunday Times Food & Wine Editor, it  championed offal. And, in her wonderful “Four Seasons Cookery Book”, Margaret christened the offal chapter ‘Awful Offal’, lamenting the fact that all these delicious bits and pieces, so full of nutritional value, ended up with such an awful nano – even refusing to quote the Oxford Dictionary (parts fallen or cut off”), as it may “put you off these good and nourishing foods forever”.

These days, Fergus Henderson of St John’s Restaurant in London fame is regarded as the champion of ‘awful offal’, but isn’t it time that us Aussies in, a day and age when we continually talk of no waste, jumped on the bandwagon of offal to a greater extent? In fact, how dare we even consider slaughtering a beast, any beast, and not using up every skerrick of same. Instead, we need to follow the lead of our parents and grandparents and embrace delicacies such as kidneys, liver, tongue, brains, sweetbreads and the like. Although, I must admit, my mother and grandmother almost put me off tripe for life when they smothered it in the world’s worst white sauce (cornflour thickened milk with tonnes of parsley). It was only when I discovered the joys of the French version (Tripes a la Mode de Caen), where the Bechamel was not only made correctly, but it was heavily flavoured with the world’s best apple brandy – Calvados. But, I do remember my father happily eating my mother’s version. Then again, he also loved haggis (he was a Scot). I do wonder whether it was the generous tot of single malt alongside that swayed him. Me? Haggis didn’t ever do it for me and I am, to this day, reminded of Greenkeeper Willie from The Simpsons, who described it as “the awful bits and pieces from the animal stuffed into a wee lamb’s stomach” or words to that effect.

Anyway, I digress, my Salade Nouvelle of pan seared duck livers with baby spinach, bacon, lardons and a tangy mustard dressing was always popular on my restaurant menus. As was Twice-Cooked Ox Tongue with beetroot relish and/or celeriac remoulade and a Chicken, Brain & Spinach Pate en Croute was an absolute hit.

Also, as a kid, I was pretty keen on Crumbed Brains & Bacon and Devilled Kidneys, and Lamb’s Fry went down a treat as part of our breakfast feasts, particularly if there was fried bread alongside. I will always remember Ann Taylor’s stunning Calf’s Liver with onions from her Sydney restaurant, the highly moreish salad at Leon de Lyon in (where else) Lyon, which was packed with goodies – many of which I was loath to enquire as to their origins (it was so tasty, I ordered seconds!), and then there was Jimmy Shu’s bloody wonderful crispy tripe, which I hope still features on at least one of his many Northern Territory establishments.

And, I mustn’t forget the Sweetbreads Grenoblaise from Melbourne’s Fanny’s – one of my favourite restaurants of all time, which were drenched in a foaming mix of brown butter, capers and tiny wedges of lemon – delish!

All in all, enough to encourage each and every one of you to immediately rush to the butcher’s shop and grab some offal, any offal. But do keep in mind that this is not supermarket fodder and you may have to visit a ‘real’ butcher and maybe even pre-order some of these delicious goodies.

 

PS.

For all you tripe haters, here is a recipe that will appeal. Keeping in mind how much Aussies love anything crumbed, just parmesan crumb fine slices of par-cooked tripe, deep fry and serve with a Sauce Bearnaise laden with lots of fresh tarragon.

A friend of mine served such a dish to his kids without appraising them of the fact that it wasn’t chicken or fish. It’s alright, I’m not advocating such behaviour, but they scoffed the lot.

 

PPS.

Another of my father’s favourites – the unfortunately named faggot. Originally a Cockney working class creation, the faggot is a simple sausage of ground bits and pieces wrapped in caul fat (lining of a pig’s stomach) and baked until golden brown. Absolutely delicious, it’s other claim to fame is that a tray in a faggot shop in London’s Pudding Lane, which caught fire in 1666, started the Great Fire of London. The moral of the story – don’t flame the blessed things.

 

And, there’s more … for plenty of new recipes, log onto my YouTube channel – Huey’s Fabulous Fast Food For One (or Two) – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCmvDLNrITNG0Gyhpz6350FA

Move over Gordon f…ing Ramsay and Jamie Boy, a true English super chef arrives in Oz (and I bet you he doesn’t have any problems keeping his doors open!)

I’m enjoying the new Fairfax Good Food sections and, in particular, was very interested in an interview with English chef, Alastair Little, which revealed that he is to take over the late Jeremy Strode’s CBD Restaurant in Sydney. Excited because, to my mind, Little was the star of those heady days in London (the eighties) when ‘young Turks’ such as him, Simon Hopkinson, Rowley Leith and Marco-Pierre White showed the world that English boys could actually cook. Although, the early days from this self-taught cook were not all beer and skittles.

“My cooking career was launched at the Old Compton Wine Bar. ‘Launched’ is perhaps the wrong word – kick-started is more like it, in that the Chef left and I volunteered to have a go. The very next day I was cooking 80 lunches armed with a copy of Elizabeth David’s ‘Provincial Cooking’ and a self-confidence that can only be viewed as foolhardy. My first ever review followed soon after. The Times Diary made several pleasant comments about the wines, the quality of the breads and cheese, but observed that ‘the only cooking he noticed was by a young man who was preparing lamb chops by the simple expedient of setting fire to them on the grill.”

Fortunately, by the time I came across Chef Little, he had honed his skills a little and was heading the kitchens at L’Escargot in Soho, which was owned at the time by wine guru Jancis Robinson and her husband, Nic Lander. Interestingly, also ensconced in the kitchen was one of our most talented produce-driven chefs, George Biron of Sunnybrae at Birregurra fame (now Brae). The food was marvellous – simple and fresh, yet highly skilled cooking.

After a stint at the highly rated and influential 192 Kensington Park Road, Little returned to Soho and opened his own eponymous restaurant in Firth Street.

I ate there a number of times (my brother Don owned wine bars nearby) and it was actually those visits that encouraged me to return to Melbourne and open a 40-seater – Fleurie – following the Little (and, dare I say it, Biron) principle of ‘keeping it simple’. In fact, I think it was a wonderful Tortino of crisp potato topped with the most perfectly cooked, spotlessly fresh anchovies and a scattering of what the Italians would most probably call ‘poor man’s Parmesan’ that tipped me over the edge. Sadly, I could never find, at that time, anchovies of the quality that would make such a recipe proud, so my dream dish never made it onto the Fleurie Carte. But, hopefully, Mr Little has more luck and the dish will feature in Sydney – I will certainly be keeping my fingers crossed. But, no matter what, I will be looking forward to more inspired cooking from the master.

PS.
Alastair Little and I, seemingly, have another thing in common – we both taught ourselves to cook (or at least to appreciate great produce) with the help of Elizabeth David and, in particular, her book “French Provincial Cooking”, pub. 1960. I will always remember, at a time when commercial tomatoes were pale and insipid, her tale of the joys of eating just-picked tomatoes with good bread and the best butter from Normandie. Little was obviously also impressed, because he talks of presenting an entree of a great tomato with mozzarella and the best olive oil, and gobsmacking the locals who had been brought up on Italian restaurant fodder of salads dressed with the oil from the chip fryer.

PPS.
I also noticed that his new restaurant will feature freshly shucked oysters with tiny spicy sausages. A wonderful flavour combination – the salty brine of the oysters and the hot spicy sausage. This recipe also featured on Jeremy’s menu, as it did on a number of my restaurant menus.  Although, I must admit, I didn’t pinch the idea from Little, but instead first encountered the dish in Bordeaux (circa 1970), where it was always washed down with a glass of crisp, flinty Muscadet – yummy!

And, there’s more … for plenty of new recipes, log onto my YouTube channel – Huey’s Fabulous Fast Food For One (or Two) – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCmvDLNrITNG0Gyhpz6350FA