Lord knows, it shouldn't be so hard to make vegetables taste good. Many cuisines do it with ease. At night, I dream of the infinite variety and subtlety of south Indian vegetarian curries, or the smack-in-the-face flavor hit of Laotian sticky rice, balled up and dipped into vinegary, charred chilli sauce. And then I awake and I am in Britain, where frozen mixed diced veg – sitting in a lukewarm pool of water – is still regularly served in schools, hospitals and motorway services. And I cry to dream again.
The only consolation is that the French aren't much better at it than us. The other day, my old boss, the Michelin-starred chef Bruno Loubet, was telling me how he had to transform his classical cooking style before opening Grain Store, the restaurant in King's Cross where he serves high-concept, high-glamour vegetable dishes. Creating dishes that didn't have meat as their focus, he said, felt like learning to cook all over again.
My own vegetable repertoire was transformed several years ago when I first ate a lunch cooked by Jane Baxter, my collaborator on this column (and on our new book Leon: Fast Vegetarian). There were five vegetable dishes on the table, each one thrillingly original and stand-alone tasty. I made notes at the table, which I later formed into some rules of thumb that I now use whenever I'm cooking veg. Here they are:
Think color. People start eating with their eyes, so explore the color palette to make veg visually appealing. Soften vibrant red chili and garlic in a little oil in a frying pan and drizzle it over a plate of bright green broccoli; combine the warm orange and red of carrot and beetroot in a roasting tray; flash-fry sweet red tomatoes and mix them with green beans, topping them with golden, fried garlic.
Think architecture. Shape and texture are critical to the way you taste. Stay that hand before it slices another carrot round! Try cutting them diagonally, or into batons (more delicate and yielding), or into rough random shapes. Visualize how they will look when mixed with your other ingredients.
Think texture. There is a fashionable notion – in our view misplaced – that one should cook all vegetables so they still have an audible crunch. Broccoli, green beans, runners and carrots will all absorb dressings and other flavors better if they are a little softer. Ripped vegetables have their place, but there is room for luscious curves as well.
Think toppings. Something a little crispy on top makes vegetables more special. We like toasted nuts (flaked almonds, pine nuts, smashed-up hazelnuts or cashews); golden, fried garlic; crispy shallots; fried breadcrumbs (with optional chopped garlic); toasted seeds; and Parmesan crust.
Think flavor enhancers. Not monosodium glutamate (MSG), but the natural ones: olives, chili, capers, anchovies, soy sauce, harissa. Don't be frightened to give your vegetables a big flavor kick.
When I asked Jane for her number one vegetable cooking tip she answered simply: if you can possibly avoid it, don't boil them. Hence her vastly superior take on classic cauliflower cheese. Its heart is British, but it is a recipe that could compete with the best vegetable dishes in the world.
Instead of a heavy bechamel (flour, butter and milk) sauce, she uses creme fraiche (a very slightly soured cream). Instead of boiling, she roasts the cauliflower, which drives off some water and intensifies the flavour. She uses strong cheeses – Gruyere and a little Parmesan – and adds mustard for extra punch.
The tiny bit of maple syrup is optional: it just adds extra depth to the flavor. Try making it once with and once without to see the difference.Cauliflower Cheese
This recipe is taken from Leon: Fast Vegetarian, by Jane Baxter and Henry Dimbleby.
Prep time: 10 minutes. Cooking time: 30 minutes.
- 1 head cauliflower
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 teaspoons maple syrup
- 1 1/2 cups creme fraiche
- 1/4 cup gruyere cheese, grated
- 2 teaspoons dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon parmesan, grated
- 1 tablespoon chives, chopped
- Salt and black pepper
1 Preheat the oven t 335 F. Cut the cauliflower into florets and toss them in the olive oil and maple syrup. Season well. Place in a gratin dish or roasting tray and cook in the oven for 15-20 minutes until just tender.
2 Combine the creme fraiche with the Gruyere and mustard in an oven-proof bowl. Tip the roasted cauliflower florets into the bowl, mix well until coated and season.
3 Sprinkle the cauliflower cheese mix with grated Parmesan and return it to the oven for another 10 minutes until golden. Sprinkle with chives.For showing off
You can create a more wintry cauliflower cheese by using blue cheese and toasted walnuts. Make a richer dish by whisking an egg yolk into the creme fraiche and drizzling the top with truffle oil. Add crunch by topping it with breadcrumbs, crushed garlic and lemon zest. Or go green and spring”'like by mixing in some cooked, chopped spinach and lots of soft herbs, such as tarragon and parsley.
Henry Dimbleby is co-founder of the natural fast-food restaurant chain Leon (@henry_leon). Get your kids cooking at cook5.co.uk
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk