This is a vegetable cookbook. Whether or not it’s a vegetarian cookbook depends perhaps on your point of view and your food politics. It’s not written by a vegetarian, or with the intention of persuading you or anyone else to become a vegetarian. But in the sense that not one of the recipes here contains a scrap of meat or fish, then it is indeed quite strictly vegetarian. I certainly hope that many vegetarians will buy it, use it, and enjoy it.
And it is also, I would like to think, evangelical. Call me power-crazed, but I’m trying to change your life here. The object of the exercise is, unambiguously, to persuade you to eat more vegetables. Many more vegetables. Perhaps even to make veg the mainstay of your daily cooking. And therefore, by implication, to eat less meat, maybe a lot less meat, and maybe a bit less fish, too. Why? We need to eat more vegetables and less flesh because vegetables are the foods that do us the most good and our planet the least harm. Do I need to spell out in detail the arguments to support that assertion? Is there anyone who seriously doubts it to be true? Just ask yourself if you, or anyone you know, might be in danger of eating too many vegetables. Or if you think the world might be a better, cleaner, greener place with a few more factory chicken or pig farms or intensive cattle feedlots scattered about the countryside. Surely it’s close to being a no-brainer.
So, to be absolutely clear, all the recipes that follow are suitable for vegetarians. Since I have used dairy products and eggs, they are not all appropriate for vegans. But over a third of them are (those marked), and another third easily could be if suitable substitutes for butter and milk were used. If you’re a vegan, you’ll know what to do.
I can certainly appreciate that if you’ve used my books, you may be feeling a bit baffled to be holding in your hand a near-as-damn-it vegetarian cookbook written by that notorious carnivore Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. But if you know my work a little more intimately, if you’ve probed and dabbled beyond the recipes and into the more discursive text, this should come as no great surprise – I’ve visited this territory before. Only now I’m at the vegetable end of the meat argument, and it’s a very refreshing place to be.
But let me recap my core thinking on this subject anyway – I’ll try and keep it pithy. In my meat book, I argued that we eat far too much meat in the West – too much for our own health, and far too much for the welfare of the many millions of animals we raise for food. I believe that factory farming is plain wrong – environmentally and ethically. So it saddens me to say that, despite some recent significant gains in the UK on poultry and pork welfare, the problems associated with the industrial production of meat are, globally speaking, as bad as ever. I’ve been similarly forthright about fish. I believe it’s a wonderful food, which I like to catch and love to eat. But I have also pointed out that we are in ever-increasing danger of eradicating this amazing source of food altogether.
Good reasons, you might think, for becoming an out-and-out vegetarian. But that isn’t my plan. I still believe in being a selective omnivore, casting a positive vote in favor of ethically produced meat and sustainably caught fish. However, I now understand that in order to eat these two great foods in good conscience, I have to recognize, control, and impose limits on my appetite for them.
But why, I hear some of you remonstrating, given that I still eat meat and fish, would I want this book to exclude them entirely? What’s wrong with a soupçon of meat and fish? Perhaps, like me, you’ve already become adept at making a little meat go a long way. You’ve embraced the notion that a few shards of bacon, or a sprinkling of chorizo crumbs, or some scraps of leftover chicken, are a perfect way to give a lift to a big salad or add interest, spice, and texture to a creamy vegetable soup; and that an anchovy here and there gives a lovely salty tang (especially, as it happens, to vegetables).
So why will I not allow such sound and thrifty strategies, where a modest amount of meat is used as a perk or spice in a dish, to season and punctuate the vegetable recipes in this book? Because it would be a cop-out, that’s why! That approach, useful though it is at times, is ultimately the wrong mindset for serious change. It suggests you’re clinging on to meat; that you feel any meal is incomplete without it. And that’s the feeling I think we all need to let go of.
The way I see it, if we are remotely serious in our commitment to eat less meat
and fish, we will want to make plenty of meals – perhaps even the majority of them – completely without meat and fish. For many of us, this is quite a big concept to swallow, but I want to tackle it head-on. We may be increasingly aware of the good reasons to eat less meat, but our cooking culture is still largely based around flesh. The idea of a fridge entirely free of sausages, bacon, chops, or chicken can strike fear into the heart of many a cook – even a resourceful one.
Meat is so familiar, so convenient; it’s the easy route to something that we instantly recognize as a “proper meal.” I want to show you how straightforward it can be to embrace vegetables in the same way.
Changing your prime culinary focus from meat to veg will require a shift in attitude – but not, I would argue, a very big or difficult one. It’s true that if you eschew meat and fish, you have to look at other ingredients with fresh eyes. You have to take a new, more creative approach to them. But once you become accustomed to cooking vegetables as main meals it will soon seem like the most natural thing. This book is your starter pack on that mission.
I have to admit that when making my own commitment to cook and eat more veg, and indeed to write this book, I found it a little hard to shake off the meat lover’s niggling prejudices. But I can honestly say that my own anxieties – about cooking without meat being somehow less satisfying, less flavorsome, or less easy – have proved groundless.
I have actually found it all to be very liberating. I think the kind of vegetable cookery I’ve embraced here is more democratic – there’s no longer a tyrannical piece of meat dominating the agenda, making everything else feel like a supporting act.
In contrast, the recipes that follow are often a harmonious blend of several different vegetables; a meal based on veg often gives equal weight to several different dishes. Much as I enjoy the generous one-pot or one-plate vegetarian curries, hotpots, or lasagnes (of which plenty are coming up), I find there’s something particularly enticing and satisfying about a meal made up of several “small” dishes, such as you get with Middle Eastern meze or Spanish tapas. Vegetable cookery really lends itself to such delicious, mix-and-match spreads, where you can try a little (or a lot) of whatever takes your fancy. I love the slight lawlessness of this way of eating. It’s all so much less predictable and more fun than being a slave to meat.
If you are a vegetarian and a keen cook, I’m sure you’ll already have your own repertoire of favorite dishes. Perhaps you’re wondering whether this book is for you. Well, I hope I can offer you something new, too. My view is that vegetarians have not been as richly served in the cookbook market as they deserve. Ironically, I think there’s been a little too much emphasis (consciously or unconsciously) on replacing meat, whereas I think that when we turn our attention to veg, we should feel pretty relaxed about simply ignoring meat. Then we can get on with the life-enhancing business of enjoying the extraordinary range of fresh seasonal vegetables we can buy (and indeed grow), by cooking them in a whole range of new and exciting ways. Much as I see the vital food value and great culinary potential of legumes and grains, I’ve little time for veggie patties and textured vegetable protein. I’d rather break that mold and muddle my chickpeas, kidney beans, and quinoa with fresh leaves, crunchy roots, and sun-ripened fruits: squashes, peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes, to name but four.
The truth is, I really don’t need to be talked into a conversation with vegetarians. I’ve been having that conversation, and enjoying it, for years. I have a lot of time for vegetarians (though apparently not all of them have a lot of time for me), and that’s because I respect anyone with principles about food. One of the silliest spectacles I have ever seen in the brash world of TV chefs is that of colleagues who really should know better than to goad vegetarians as if they were somehow not to be taken seriously in the kitchen. (Or even out of it – one chef actually said that if any of his children grew up to be vegetarians, he’d shoot them. I’m secretly hoping that one of them does, so I can see their dad eat his words.)
In some quarters, it’s even been assumed I might harbor similar feelings toward vegetarians. Of course I don’t. In fact – and I can’t say this without smiling – some of my best friends are vegetarians. When it comes to the recipes in this book, I hope it’s very much a two-way street, not least because I learned some of my favorite dishes from my vegetarian friends. I also feel I am a better cook now than I was when I set out to write this book. I feed my family better – with more vegetables – than I did before. I am less reliant on that freezer full of homegrown meat and self-caught fish (fantastic as those ingredients are) than I used to be. I enjoy my cooking, and my eating, more than ever. And that feels wonderful.
So here you are: more than two hundred River Cottage veg recipes. And for those who just love to get on and cook, here’s the best bit: the philosophizing and moralizing is done. I’m climbing down off my soapbox. Because this is not a book of caveats and cautions. It’s not an argumentative case for not eating something bad, or rare, or threatened. In fact, it’s not a book about problems at all. Quite the opposite: it’s full of solutions. And the main solution is, quite simply, to eat more vegetables!
------------------------------------------------------------ Cauliflower and chickpea curry
This beautifully simple, light curry is closely based on a wonderful recipe from chef Angela Hartnett. It’s always preferable to use some carefully selected ground and whole spices in a recipe like this, but if you’re in a hurry, use
a ready-made curry powder instead of the dry spices.
SERVES 4 to 6
1 medium-large cauliflower
(about 13/4 pounds / 800g), trimmed
2 tablespoons sunflower oil
3 onions, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
A large pinch of dried chile flakes
2 star anise
1 (14-ounce / 400g) can plum tomatoes, chopped, any stalky ends and skin removed
1 (14-ounce / 400g) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 teaspoons garam masala
A good handful of cilantro, chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cut the cauliflower into medium florets. Put into a large pan, cover with cold water, add some salt, and bring up to a rolling boil. This will partly cook the cauliflower. Take off the heat right away, drain well, and keep warm in the pan.
Heat the oil in a second large saucepan over medium heat. Add
the onions, garlic, and ginger and sauté for about 10 minutes,
Add the ground coriander, cumin, chile flakes, star anise, and some salt and pepper and cook for a further 5 minutes.
Add the tomatoes with their juice and the chickpeas. Stir well, then add the parcooked cauliflower. Pour in enough cold water to almost but not quite cover everything (1/3 to 3/4 cup / 100 to 200ml) and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring once or twice, until the cauliflower is tender.
Stir in the garam masala and half of the chopped cilantro, then check the seasoning. Serve scattered with the remaining cilantro and accompanied by rice, flat breads (see page 176), or naan.