Summer with substance

Sat, Aug 20, 2011, 01:00

Here are some vegetarian dishes that are light enough for summer days and chunky enough for August evenings, says DOMINI KEMP

I’M LOVING Simon Hopkinson’s new book, The Good Cookand equally enjoying the TV series. But what I often find myself doing is going back to older books, more so than those that are being celebrated for all things new.

Simon’s cooking is very butch, very protein driven. His older book, The Vegetarian Optionis exactly what it says on the cover and I’m always a fan of carnivorous chefs making an effort to use more vegetables. I’ve been eyeing up the tomato jelly for quite some time, but I’m always a bit lazy about having to do anything with yeast or gelatine, mainly because it means I have to follow instructions. But in this recipe for tomato jelly, he uses agar flakes, which vegetarians will know all about and are a bit handier to use than gelatine. They are also appreciated in fine dining kitchens, so maybe we should all be using them instead of gelatine leaves.

Agar is a type of gelling agent that’s produced from seaweed and is not just used in kitchens. It’s often used to grow bacteria in Petri dishes in laboratories. It is high in fibre and has no calories, which ensured its transition from vegetarian gelatine to diet star of the Kanten diet. Apparently the Kanten diet swept across Asia as dieters consumed a cup of tea with some agar in it, which would then expand in the stomach, meaning dieters felt full from all this roughage. Anyway, my interests were a lot tamer. I simply wanted to test out this recipe along with the aubergine one, to give me two nice Mediterranean-type dishes that seemed very summery.

This tomato jelly was incredibly easy and would be a really good dinner party dish. I did two batches, using a bit more agar in one batch to see if the end result would have better texture. To be honest, less is more with agar and the two heaped teaspoons of agar were plenty. It melts at around 80 degrees and sets at around 35 degrees, which means that when you are cooling the jelly over ice, it doesn’t take too long before you notice it becoming a bit viscous-like in texture. This is the point at which you pour it into your glasses or ramekins, as once it sets, you don’t really want to decant and ruin the pristine look of it all.

The aubergine ragu was delicious on its own. We ate it as a condiment, with some goat’s cheese on toast and it was heaven eaten with the roast lamb from last week. If you find caponata and the like too strong, you will like the subtle meatiness of this dish.

There are no capers or red peppers to seize the flavours, just lots of aubergine and slow cooking, which produce a summer dish that suits our chilly evenings.

Tomato jelly with basil goat’s cheese

200 ml water

2 heaped tsp agar flakes

500g very ripe tomatoes

1 good teaspoon flaky sea salt

1 good tsp caster sugar

Pinch chilli flakes

125g soft goat’s cheese

1 tbsp crème fraiche or cream

1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed

Few basil leaves, finely sliced

Salt and pepper

Put the water in a small stainless-steel saucepan. Sprinkle the flakes on top (as though you were feeding goldfish) and do not stir. Heat gently and bring up to a simmer. At this stage, you can gently swirl around the water so that all the flakes drown and sink.

Simmer for a few minutes, very gently, while you roughly chop the tomatoes, which you should add in, along with the salt, sugar and chillies. At this stage you can stir and mix well, bringing up to a bit of a boil again and mushing the tomatoes up. Then strain the tomato juice into a clean bowl and discard the pulp.

Allow it to start cooling, while you get the goat’s cheese mixture sorted and prepare an ice bath – just a bowl or roasting tin with some ice cubes and water, which your bowl of tomato juice can sit on to cool down.

Get the goat’s cheese mixed with the cream, garlic, basil and season really well, using a spatula. Then divide it between four glasses or ramekins. When you’re ready to go, start chilling the tomato over the ice bath, mixing with a wooden spoon.

After a few minutes, you may notice that it has become slightly viscous. Taste it and make sure you are happy with the seasoning.

When it’s getting close to tepid, pour on top of the goat’s cheese. Then chill down and serve later. They’ll only take an hour or so to set. Serve with plenty of hot, buttered toast and green leaves.

Spaghetti with aubergine and garlic breadcrumbs

Serves 6 (at least)

Don’t feel obliged to make the breadcrumbs. They taste good, but are a pain if you’re strapped for time. This is based on a recipe from a gorgeous book, Fresh from the Market, by American chef, Laurent Tourondel.

3 good tbsp olive oil, at least

4 aubergines, finely diced

Salt and pepper

2 large onions, finely diced

8 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

2 large tomatoes, roughly chopped

1-2 tsp thyme leaves

800g pasta

Zest of one lemon

Heat the olive oil in a large non-stick saucepan and fry the aubergine on high heat in batches and season well.

When it’s all got colour, set aside and then sweat the onion until soft, in more olive oil. You may need to use a big saucepan at this stage.

Then simmer the aubergines, onions, garlic and tomatoes together, adding a cup of water to help bring it together. Season well, add the thyme, and let it cook out for about 30 minutes. It will not look great, but once the water has cooked off and you let it cool down, you should taste great, meaty flavours.

Cook the pasta in plenty of boiling water, drain, toss with some olive oil, season and add some lemon zest. Mix with the sauce and serve with the breadcrumbs on top.

Breadcrumbs

3 tbsp olive oil

2 clove garlic, peeled and crushed

1 tbsp oregano

120g breadcrumbs

Mix all the ingredients together and then bake for 15 or 20 minutes at 150 degrees (gas mark two), until it is getting brown and toasted.

You’ll have to mix occasionally and you may need to cook it for longer. But cook the mixture until it is golden brown.