Chorus line of veg moves centre stage
My good friend Frank Corr loves to tell a story about a European friend of his who was present when Frank and a bunch of people were discussing what they might do for dinner.
“Don’t worry about dinner, it’s all taken care of,” said Frank’s friend. “I’ve got a lovely cauliflower.”
The story pokes fun at we Irish, for who among us would believe that you can make dinner with a cauliflower as the centrepiece?
“Where’s the beef?” we would be asking. “Where is the meat protein?”
Our focus on the prime cut – the chicken breast, the beef fillet, the tranche of salmon – is encouraged by the way in which restaurants cook for us. For restaurant chefs, the dish is built around the centrepiece ingredient: you have got to have a diva on the plate, you have got to have a leading man.
And, meanwhile, the potential of the chorus is neglected. The vegetables never, ever get a starring role. They wind up as wallflowers, as also-rans, bit players in the grand drama of dinner. Often, the most they can hope for is a back-handed compliment: “Eat your spinach: it’s good for you.”
But, I have a suspicion that things are changing for the chorus line of veggies. And the good news is that the dynamic is coming from the very people who have been taught to venerate the prime cut: our chefs.
If you eat at the new Ox restaurant in Belfast, for instance, chef Stephen Toman weaves tightly knit plates of food where the prime cut is just one player among many.
There are sweetbreads served with his dish of Comber carrots, wilted chicory, pearl barley and nettles, for example. But the sweetbreads aren’t the focus of the dish. Instead, it is the carrots that steal the show, with a lovely note of umami coming from . . . the chicory.
In Dublin’s Nede restaurants in Temple Bar, you might opt for a main course of purple sprouting broccoli with grains and hazelnuts, having started dinner with a dish of turnips, seaweed and yogurt.
Both Ox and Nede show the vast international influence of the cooking at Copenhagen’s Noma, where you might eat 20 courses for dinner, but only find meat protein in two or three of the dishes.
But Noma isn’t alone in embracing a style of cooking where the cooking celebrates a democracy of ingredients. What is most praiseworthy in contemporary cooking is how the selected ingredients interact and complement one another. There is no diva, no leading man – the chorus of ingredients is what counts.
This abolition of a hierarchy of ingredients is good for us. Balance among the food we eat is the best way to eat for health, and bringing vegetables out of the background helps us to cut down on our excessive meat consumption.
To help you get your head around this way of thinking about cooking and eating, I want to suggest you take a look at Deborah Madison’s elegant and beautiful book, Vegetable Literacy.
The book divides vegetables into their respective botanical families – the carrot family, cabbage, nightshades, and so on – and weaves knowledge and lore and delectable dishes from them. If Madison was cooking dinner with just that cauliflower, we could expect cauliflower salad with goat havarti, caraway, and mustard-caper vinaigrette, or cauliflower soup with coconut, turmeric and lime, or cauliflower with saffron, pepper flakes, plenty of parsley and pasta.
So, it’s time to move the vegetables out of the background and into the spotlight.
John McKenna is author of The Irish Food Guide guides.ie
Vegetable Literacy is published by Ten Sped Press.