Broadening the Repertoire

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As we are now coming to the end of Marge’s chemo treatment (5 down, 1 to go) I have been looking back and reflecting over the recipes I have cooked over the last 15 weeks or so. All of them Marge has enjoyed, all I would make or have already made again (whether my ‘meat and two veg’ Farge would say the same I’m not so sure…) and all of them have taught me something. Aside from the vast amount I have learnt about the nutritional qualities of the ingredients I am using, I feel that my cooking itself has benefited from my blogging journey too. In some cases, I stumbled across new and exciting flavour or texture combinations, in others I found out different techniques or ways to cook ingredients to get the most out of their nutritional qualities (see Rooting for Other Causes), and sometimes it was as simple as discovering a fantastic new food writer or blogger, who now firmly has a place in my recipe repertoire.

However, by far the biggest and most surprising revelation has been how incredibly versatile the humble vegetable is and how satisfying, varied and extraordinarily delicious vegetarian and vegan cooking can be. This is by no means to say that I have turned the whole family off meat and fish (I am not sure I am ready to wave goodbye to steak just yet, be it in beef or tuna form) but a lot of the recipes I have gravitated towards when trying to ensure Marge maintains a healthy and nutritionally varied diet throughout her treatment have just so happened to be either vegan or vegetarian.

I am sure that part of this is down to taste; Marge has always been a big fan of the green stuff, a trait which has been passed down and adopted (admittedly slightly over-enthusiastically) by me. Yet I am also certain that a lot of it comes down to learning, to knowing just how many different flavours can be created by one ingredient, how you can manipulate one single food to create glorious, contrasting textures that excite and delight the eater. Take cauliflower for example, a vegetable once condemned to soggy Sunday roasts or masked by the heavy, salty charm of a cheese sauce. In recent years there has been an astounding U-turn in this unassuming brassica’s fortunes and it has made somewhat of a cauli-comeback. This is simply down to increasing knowledge of what can be done with it: roasting, ricing, stir frying the leaves, barbecuing the whole head and drizzling with tahini… (those who have not yet gone to Berber & Q please sort this, you will be in fluffy, cauliflower cloud heaven). I am convinced that this is why I seem to be cooking so many meatless dishes – the veg are simply the stars of the show.

One chef who I have always admired for the magic he creates and the attention he gives the honest vegetable is Yotam Ottolenghi. Perhaps one of my all-time favourite things to eat is his Roast Butternut Squash and Red Onion with Tahini and Za’atar. Made for me for the first time by a friend a few years back, it is a dish that never left my memory. The subtle nuttiness of the tahini gently lifts and exaggerates the sweetness of the squash and the onions, and the floral, herby notes from the za’atar then follow, dancing across your taste buds to create the most delightful and multi-faceted culinary experience. It is simple, natural ingredients cooked in an exceptional way. In my opinion, this is what great cooking is about.

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Ottolenghi is also very knowledgeable on how he can use vegetables to ‘replicate’ the properties of meat and fish that we are looking for in our dishes. One of the meals I cooked this week, his Saffron and Broad Bean Paella, demonstrates just that. Underneath a tougher, peppery skin, the inner broad bean is a sweet and juicy delicacy that ‘mirrors’ (albeit with its own unique flair) the sought after texture and flavour of prawns. This dish is soul food – wholly satisfying and completely delicious. Though I am not going to delve into the long list of reasons why both us and the world would be more healthy if we ate less meat, the fact that vegetables can be just as enjoyable and perhaps more versatile than their carne counterparts gives us one less excuse to always look to meat as being the main element of our meals. Expanding your repertoire and basing dishes around vegetables will force you out of your comfort zone. Experiments lead to revelations and if you just research a few new techniques and recipes, you will soon be (veget)able to create nutritional but also show-stopping meals.

Healthy Ingredients

Saffron is a potent antioxidant, containing crocin, safranal and picrocrocin, which can help prevent age-related loss of vision, hardening of the arteries and inhibit the growth of cancer cells. It may also help treat insomnia and lift depression. As a stimulant, it can help improve circulation and its anti-inflammatory properties may be useful in treating asthma and allergies.

Recipe: Saffron and Broad Bean Paella

Serves 4.

  • 450g podded broad beans (fresh or frozen)
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 onions, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 1/2 tsp sweet smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp saffron threads
  • 3 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
  • 300g paella rice
  • 150ml dry sherry
  • 750ml vegetable stock
  • 300g cherry tomatoes, cut in half
  • 5 strips finely shaved lemon skin, plus 2 tsp lemon juice
  • Salt and black pepper
  • Handful of flatleaf parsley leaves, roughly chopped

Method.

  1. Bring a small saucepan of salted water to a boil, blanch the beans for a minute, then drain, refresh and remove the papery skins (I know this is a lot of effort but it will be worth it!).
  2. Heat the oil in a large saute pan (or paella pan) on a medium-high flame. Fry the onion for seven to eight minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft and caramelised, then add the garlic and fry for a minute.
  3. Add the paprika, saffron, thyme and rice, stir for a minute, to coat all the rice, then add the sherry and reduce for 30 seconds.
  4. Stir in the stock, 150ml water, the tomatoes, lemon skin, a teaspoon of salt and plenty of pepper, bring to a boil, then turn down the heat to medium.
  5. Simmer for 20-25 minutes – don’t stir! This gives it that gnarly, crisp bottom (the bits everyone wants) – until the liquid is absorbed and the rice cooked. Lift out and discard the lemon strips, spoon the broad beans on top of the rice, scatter on the parsley, drizzle with lemon juice and serve immediately.
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