Guest Reviewer: Kris Pathirana
Author: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Publisher: Bloomsbury (2011)
Number of Pages: 415
How many of its recipes I’ve tried so far: 2
Where I got this book: Amazon
Like a Moth to a Flame
As a staunch and fervent carnivore, celebrated TV cook Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has always been one of ours. His free range, buy local, nose-to-tail eating philosophy has permeated many a British living room and even flirted briefly with the political realm. So it was with some hyperbolic consternation that I discovered a compendium of recipes written by the man himself, dedicated exclusively to vegetables. Et tu, Hugh? Surely this champion of farming and butchery couldn’t have fallen from our noble, pig roasting ranks and gone over to the dark side of alfalfa sprouts and pallid wafers of tofurkey? Say it ain’t so…
My favourite 5 recipes from this book are:
5. Linguine with Mint & Almond Pesto and Tomatoes (p.266)
4. Aubergine & Green Bean Curry (p.29)
3. Cambodian Wedding Day Dip (p.299)
2. Squash & Fennel Lasagne (p.33)
…and my pick for the No.1 recipe is…
1. Sweet Potato & Peanut Gratin (p.63)
Nature’s garden is a cornucopia of discovery. Add a spice to an unseasoned dish and it sparkles of life. Prepare the same ingredients using different methods and the meal changes. But to be able to appreciate their essence, we must know not only of their taste but also of their history.
New Word: salsify (noun)
Definition (Source: Oxford Dictionaries): an edible European plant of the daisy family, with a long root like that of a parsnip
Synonyms (Source: Collins Dictionary): oyster plant, vegetable oyster
Origins (Source: Merriam Webster & Collins Dictionary): 17th century; from French salsifis; from Italian sassefrica; from Late Latin saxifrica; from Latin saxum ‘rock’ + fricāre ‘to rub’); biennial herbaceous plant of the aster family native to the Mediterranean; it is occasionally cultivated as an ornamental, and its leaves, flowers, and roots are sometimes eaten in salads
As in: “Salsify Purée” (p.387)
Conversation with the Reader
While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:
“Fearnley-Whittingstall doesn’t want you to go vegetarian. Phew, that was close. What he does want however, is for you to eat more vegetables and eat less meat. He has his reasons; very good reasons. Eating less meat means less factory farming (better for the environment and better treatment of livestock), less fish means a replenishing of the sea, and more vegetables means a healthier body. Everybody wins. It’s clear from the off, that I am essentially his target audience: a myopic meat fanatic that doesn’t consider a meal to be complete without a rump, snout, or fish head.
“What this isn’t, is a book about replacing meat with a meat substitute, so thankfully there’s no call for quorn burgers or vegetarian sausages—none of which could be called a vegetable and only just hit the criteria to carry the moniker of ‘food’. What this is, is a book that celebrates the innumerable flavours and dishes that the garden has to offer. It aims to change our mindset as to what constitutes a ‘proper’ meal and to make vegetables the star of the show without the need for a soupçon of bacon or a cheeky anchovy.
“Having recently witnessed my first goat slaughter in the south of France, this issue has been at the forefront of my mind of late. I wanted to see a live slaughter to answer some nagging doubts about my rabid carnivorous nature. Would seeing a young goat killed for the explicit purpose of satisfying my desire for roasted kid with Lyonnaise potatoes and a glass of Languedoc-Roussillon, make me feel guilty? Or worse, turn me into a fanatical vegan? It didn’t. I was hungry the moment I heard the shot. It did however, clarify one issue I had been wrestling with: whether meat was a necessity or a luxury? Prior to this oddly mundane spectacle, I would have answered staunchly in the affirmative… meat is a necessity. However, despite the ritualistic killing not revealing a squeamish heart, it was very clear from the moment the kicking heels were grabbed, that meat is and should be a luxury. I was grateful to the animal for feeding us for a week (once the heart and liver had been accounted for) but my fellow diners were not exactly in a rush to mark another animal for death the moment we had finished his little friend (yet were happy to eat shop-bought meat the following day). When you see an animal literally brought from farm to table, you feel the weight of its life (as you should). Between that and this book I’m left wondering, if butchers’ didn’t exist, would I eat meat every day if it meant killing a chicken with my own hand before I’d even had my morning coffee?”
“As I delve deeper into the book, I realise I may be guilty of hypocrisy. I have been known to wax lyrical (or possibly bore) on the merits of nose-to-tail eating: the belief that if you kill an animal, you should eat all of it, primarily because it’s the moral thing to do but also because it’s the delicious thing to do. This philosophy however, has not extended to vegetables, pulses, and nuts. There are no pumpkin seeds in my cupboard, no tomatoes drying in the watery British sun, and no fresh beetroot monopolising my vegetable basket. There are however, two litres of meat stock, a dozen marrowbones and several pig’s cheeks in my freezer. Perhaps I have been guilty of the same close-mindedness of the people I chastise for not even trying a lamb’s kidney. By consistently viewing vegetables as the supporting act for meat, I have ignored a veritable cornucopia of nature’s bounty. Why do I eat kohlrabi and artichokes in a restaurant but not at home? Why do I always stuff peppers with ground meat when I could stuff a zucchini flower with ricotta for half the price and half the waistline? There are a plethora of recipes in this book with far greater variety than can be offered by the pleasures of the flesh, and I would happily cook, nay, look forward to cooking them.
“Damn you, Hugh. Damn you. Your softly, apolitical approach seems to be coaxing a balanced argument out of me, which you should know, I hate. Vegetarians are often terrible at eating. Having grown up with a vegetarian mother and having the subsequent misfortune of dating several awful vegetarians as a teenager (‘Hello, Dr. Freud? Yes, I’ll hold.’), I know full well the culinary and intellectual perils that come with abstaining from meat. But eating vegetables shouldn’t be about abstaining from meat or being a martyr on a cross made of tofu; in fact it shouldn’t be about meat at all. It should be about celebrating the incredible variety of delicious vegetables on offer. For that, we (probably you, definitely me) need to change the way we think about vegetables; to stop viewing them as Ringo and start calling them Paul. The book returns time and again to the theme of family, how best to get the kids to eat more veg and how to condition them to view vegetables as the main and not the side dish. Fearnley-Whittingstall suggests eating vegetables as the event instead of the accompaniment, embracing this as a state of mind that needs fostering. Perhaps it’s not only children who would benefit from such a ruse.
“Unfortunately I still love my grilled asparagus next to a bloody, fatty rib eye. I’ve tried to change. I very much like the idea of change. But alas, a dinner sans meat or fish still feels like a worthy one off act rather than a lifestyle choice. It’s going to the gym once a week or not drinking: in my interest but unlikely to stir the kind of lasting passion that say, a daily commitment to bacon would invoke. If nothing else, this book has at least created an awareness in me, that if I can go the odd meal without any meat or fish, I definitely should. So while ‘VEG: Everyday’ as the book posits is perhaps a little too ambitious for me, ‘VEG: Every week’ is well within my grasp. Baby steps…”
Sweet Potato & Peanut Gratin
Ingredients (Serves 4)
1 kg sweet potatoes
2 tbsp. sunflower oil, plus a little more for greasing
1 red chilli, de-seeded & finely chopped/1 tsp. dried chilli flakes
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
250 ml double cream
150 g crunchy (no added sugar) peanut butter
Finely grated zest of 1 lime, plus 2 tsp. lime juice
Sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 190C/Gas mark 5 and lightly oil a large gratin dish. Peel the sweet potatoes and cut into thin slices of about 2mm. In a large bowl, toss the sweet potato slices with 1 tablespoon of oil (I used olive instead of sunflower), the chilli flakes, garlic, cream, and a healthy pinch of salt (Maldon sea salt flakes if you can) and pepper freshly ground in a pestle and mortar.
Arrange half the sweet potato slices evenly and flatly in the dish. Beat the peanut butter with the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil, the lime zest and juice. Spread this mixture in dollops over the arranged sweet potato in the dish. Cover evenly with the remaining sweet potato slices and ensure that the top layer is presented attractively. Pour over any cream remaining in the bowl.
Cover the dish with foil and bake in the oven for 20 minutes before removing the foil. Bake for a further 30 minutes, until the sweet potato is completely tender and the top is browned and crisp. Finish under the grill for a few minutes if you prefer extra crispiness. Serve with a simple green salad dressed with balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil to cut the sweet richness of the gratin, and a chilled glass of Chablis.
“I chose this recipe because there is something quintessentially winter-y and restorative about sweet potato and also because they’re currently in season till March. It’s a vegetable so unctuous, rich, and delicious, it feels substantial enough to be the principal player in a main meal and like many tuberous roots, is not necessarily improved by the addition of meat.
“The dish was simple to prepare, though fairly time consuming at around 45 minutes. The peanut butter, lime, and chilli offered a pleasing aroma and as I popped it into the oven, I had high expectations that the flavour of this dish would resemble that of grilled satay. The final result was, in truth, some way below that. With the exception of the oil substitution, I followed the recipe to the letter, which in retrospect was perhaps a mistake. My instinct during prep was that the peanut butter and lime mix was too thick and this proved to be the case.
“Though the dish was tasty, it was arguably too rich, even for someone who spent the majority of his twenties trying to get gout. It was easy to pick out the individual flavours of sweet potato, lime, and peanut but they didn’t marry together to be more than the sum of their parts. If I did choose to make this again, I would add the peanut butter and lime to the cream before tossing the sweet potatoes, which would give the dish an even peanut flavour, as opposed to a giant concentrated peanut butter globule in every mouthful.”