I was very fond of Simon Hopkinson’s books, Roast Chicken And Other Stories and Second Helpings of Roast Chicken, before I ever cooked from them. I just have a weakness for smaller books, on heavy paper and nicely bound, perhaps with tasteful small illustrations, but no garish color photographs. And when such a book comes with blurbs from food luminaries such as Nigella Lawson and Deborah Madison, as does Roast Chicken And Other Stories, I simply cannot resist. I not only bought these books for myself, but also gave several copies away as gifts. But until recently, I had no idea whether or not these were actually good cookbooks. Now, after cooking from these two books and Simon Hopkinson’s vegetarian cookbook, The Vegetarian Option, I can affirm that these are not only pretty books, but also have some good recipes.
The problem for me, though, with Roast Chicken And Other Stories and Second Helpings of Roast Chicken, is that both books are very meat oriented. The books are arranged alphabetically by section, with each section focussing on a particular ingredient. To give as idea of what the vegetarian is up against, of the 40 sections of Roast Chicken And Other Stories , thirteen feature meat and seven feature fish or seafood, and the remaining 20 sections, although highlighting a non-meat ingredient, still have plenty of meat recipes, and sometimes only meat recipes. I was making my task of finding recipes even more difficult by deciding to cook vegan recipes. Nevertheless, I did find recipes that I could use. All the recipes were enjoyable, although none were truly stunning. Let us first consider recipes from Roast Chicken And Other Stories.
“Pickled Endives” (page 91) are simple enough to make. The pickling liquid is just vinegar, spices, and a lot of sugar (I used slightly less than in the written recipe). You simmer the vinegar mixture for half an hour, then pour over the sliced endive. These are refrigerator pickles, and can be stored in the refrigerator for a month or so. This is as good away to eat endive as any, but these pickles were not the taste sensation that some of my previous pickle tries were.
For a very attractive company dish, try “Roulade of Peppers and Eggplant” (page 150). This recipe is a little fussy to make, and the taste is not overwhelming, but the roulade slices on a plate look very impressive. To make the roulade, you first fry slices of eggplant. Then you make a layer of eggplant on some spread-out plastic wrap, sprinkle on some garlic, then add a layer of roasted red peppers and a layer of basil leaves. Carefully using the plastic wrap to shape, you roll this all up into a firm cylinder and put in the refrigerator overnight. You will need a sharp knife to slice the roll the next day so that you don’t squish everything.
I did stray from the vegan approach when I made “Cilantro and Coconut Soup” (page 45), since this soup uses fish sauce and cream. The soup itself consists of a broth flavored with, among other things, lemon grass and cilantro. After straining, the broth is combined with fish sauce, coconut milk, and cream. I was not going to use the cream at first, but without the cream the soup tasted too salty and harsh. With the cream it was transformed: tasty and a little mysterious. [Go to the recipe.]
Simon uses a lot of olive oil in “Roast Potatoes with Olive Oil, Rosemary, and Garlic” (page 163), which I do not think is strictly necessary. He also uses lots of garlic, which is what makes this dish somewhat magical. He precooks two pounds of russet potatoes in water, then adds the potatoes and whole cloves from two heads of garlic to one cup of hot olive oil and rosemary sprigs, then roasts all of this in the oven. He uses a 450º oven, but I was afraid that the oil might catch on fire, so turned the temperature down to 425º. After they are cooked, you drain off most of the oil; I think using less oil in the first place would still have yielded good, maybe even better results. The potatoes were good, but the garlic cloves were wonderful! I tried not to be too obvious with my attempts to snag as many garlic cloves as possible when I was serving myself these potatoes.
The sequel, Second Helpings of Roast Chicken, does not at first glance seem to be as meat filled; only 13 of the 47 sections have meat, fish, or seafood as the featured ingredient. But the other sections still have plenty of meat recipes, and vegan recipes are few and far between. Still, there were a few good offerings to be found.
“Pickled Pears” (page 182) are quite similar to the pickled endive; the only significant (and obvious) difference is that pears are used instead of endive. Ginger and star anise are still floating around in the very sugary vinegar picking liquid. I think that all the sugar works better with the pears. The pears also made a more satisfyingly crunchy pickle. Simon tells us to wait a week before using the pears, but I munched on them after a day and served them after only a couple of more days. [Go to the recipe.]
“Spinach and Coconut Dal” (page 82) is a standard issue dal, but that is still exactly the sort of food that I like. This recipe uses red lentils, which are readily available without having to visit an Indian grocer store, and also have the advantage of cooking to a mush in a very short time. The dal is combined with all the predictable spices, as well as coconut milk, and spinach. Simon says to serve with naan or pita bread; I served it with brown rice (inappropriately short-grained).
I have made cabbage before, in the cooked to death style, that transcended its lowly cabbage nature, and so I had high hopes for “Stewed White Cabbage with White Wine, Thyme, and Juniper” (page 45). Alas, there was nothing transcendental about this cabbage. It wasn’t bad, it was just cabbage, despite the white wine. Since I like cabbage and noodles so much these days, I may enjoy more what is left of this cabbage mixed with noodles.
One of the appeals of veganism is that it should lead to better health and weight loss. However, if one practices veganism by consuming Pepperidge Farm puff pastry, one will neither achieve health nor weight loss. It is a bit of a mystery why this stuff tastes as good as it does with its hydrogenated cottonseed oil instead of butter. Since I was trying to be vegan, this is what I used instead of some homemade puff pastry or good frozen butter puff pastry to make “Tarte Fine aux Pommes” (page 9). The tarts consist of sliced apples mixed with some lemon juice and sugar, spiraled on puff pastry rounds. Simon uses butter also, but instead of butter, I brushed the tops of my tarts with apricot preserves. These could not help but be good, and I gave my guests the option to deveganize by serving whipped cream.
As mentioned, I liked these two books when I first got them, but even before cooking from them, it was obvious how meaty they were. Thus I was very happy to see The Vegetarian Option when it appeared on bookstore shelves. This book is still on bookstore shelves: a stack has been sitting, copies unbought, on the remainder shelves of our local Barnes and Noble for almost a year. I am not sure why this book was not more popular. It is a solid vegetarian cookbook, with the color photographs that spoiled cookbook consumers want. The recipes are not too complicated, and range from good to great. This book is also arranged by ingredient, but not with the randomness that alphabetizing bestows; instead, ingredients are lumped into larger sections of types of ingredients: vegetables, herbs, pasta, and so on. I found lots of inviting dishes in this book, which quite made up for the dearth of possibilities in the other two books.
“Mario Batali’s Almond & Jalapeño Relish” (page 99) was well received by my guests, but I was not impressed. The recipe was simple enough that I assumed that it just had to be good: process almonds, jalapeños, a red onion, olive oil, a teaspoon of salt, and a pinch of sugar until you have a chunky not-quite purée. My problem was that this relish wasn’t very exciting. It didn’t taste like much of anything. With five ounces of jalapeños, the only way that I can explain this is that the peppers themselves must have been strangely mild and without any flavor.
Simon’s “Caponata” (page 106) is a little different from other caponatas that I have had in that it is essentially tomato-less, with only a dab of tomato paste. All the other ingredients are there, though: eggplant, celery, onion, peppers, raisins, capers, and olives. Like all caponata, this was yummy, and I think it makes sense to do without tomatoes if perfect tomatoes off the vine in one’s own backyard do not exist.
The prize recipe of this cooking session was “Beet Jelly with Dill & Horseradish Cream” (page 130). The beet jelly is simplicity itself: cooked beets are grated, then simmered in stock with a little bit of sugar for ten minutes. The beets are then drained out, and the now brilliant pink stock is jelled with agar flakes. I used jaggery instead of the superfine sugar mentioned in the recipe, since jaggery adds a subtle, delicious, and otherwise unobtainable flavor. I initially thought that I would have liked the jelly to be more jelled, but when I finally ate some, I found its semi-jelled state to be quite satisfactory. I skipped the horseradish cream, and just served this with a dollop of horseradish. Beets and horseradish being, perhaps, a flavor combination put together in the last few minutes of the sixth day of Creation (along with the first tongs), horseradish alone was all that was needed to craft this recipe into the perfect first course. [Go to the recipe.]
I made the almond and jalapeño relish in order to decorate “Chili con Carnevale” (page 103), as suggested by Simon. Perhaps because the relish disappointed, this chili did also. The chili was made with bell peppers, celery, mushrooms, and standard vegetarian chili ingredients. I decided that it was not worth the work to chop up vegetables and measure ingredients when instead I could open six cans and a jar and get a much better chili.
When I was planning my menu, it was not clear how successful it would be, so I searched for a recipe that was not too unusual and that would fill people up if they did not care for the other offerings. Thus I made “Baked Barley ‘Pilaf’ with Provençal Vegetables” (page 176). The combination of vegetables from sun-drenched Provence and barley, a staple of Tibetan cuisine, and with Russia the main producer of this grain seemed somewhat improbable, but workable. This dish turned out not only edible, but ended up being my favorite of the hot dishes I served, and a dish that I am now appreciating as leftovers.
Adapted from Simon Hopkinson, Roast Chicken And Other Stories
2 cups vegetable stock
2 inch piece of unpeeled ginger, roughly chopped
4 dried hot red peppers
2 stalks lemongrass, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 bunch cilantro, cleaned and chopped
Juice of 1 lime
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1 14-ounce can coconut milk
½ cup cream
Simmer the stock, ginger, scallions, peppers, lemongrass, and garlic for 30 minutes. Add the cilantro, lime juice, fish sauce, and coconut milk, and simmer for another 5 minutes. Strain, add the cream, reheat, and serve, or let the concoction steep for a while, then strain, add the cream, reheat, and serve.
Adapted from Simon Hopkinson, Second Helpings of Roast Chicken
4 large, firm pears
Juice of ½ lemon
1 cup taragon vinegar
6 tablespoons sugar
2 star anise
1 inch piece unpeeled ginger, sliced
Peel, core, and thinly slice the pears. Combine with the lemon juice. Simmer the vinegar, sugar, anise, ginger, and cloves, covered, for 30 minutes. Let the vinegar cool for another 10 minutes, then pour it over the pears. Stir the pears for the first few hours until they are all under liquid. Store in the refrigerator and eat over the next month.
Adapted from Simon Hopkinson, The Vegetarian Option
1 pound beets
3 cups stock (Better than Bullion recommended)
1 teaspoon sugar (jaggery recommended)
4 heaping teaspoons agar flakes
Prepared horseradish, for serving
Cook the beets, either in the oven or in water on top of the stove: about 45 minutes in a 400º oven, or 45 minutes in simmering water to cover. When the beets are cool enough to handle, peel and grate. Add the grated beets and the sugar to 2 cups of the stock and simmer for 10 minutes. Strain the grated beets out of the stock. Dissolve the agar in the remaining 1 cup of stock, then combine stocks. Put the beet liquid in a smaller bowl, and place the smaller bowl in a larger bowl filled with ice water; stir as the beet liquid cools. When it starts to thicken, pour it into individual serving containers; I made five servings from t his amount of beets and stock. Put in the refrigerator to finish jelling. Serve with horseradish.