Rescue your veg from the sidelines and put them centre stage
Take inspiration from around the world – you can even create a Sunday roast
Often vegetables are a last-minute addition to a meal, but with a little imagination they can be a main course in their own right. Photograph: Thinkstock
When the iconoclastic American chef Amanda Cohen, of Manhattan’s Dirt Candy restaurant, spoke at this year’s Food on the Edge festival in Galway, she hit on a fundamental truth about our diets in the western world: “There is an elitist attitude in cooking which means people don’t value vegetables. Only moms value vegetables, and that’s why they keep telling kids that ‘vegetables are good for you’.”
That may sound strange coming from the chef who runs America’s only all-vegetable restaurant, but Cohen’s point holds true for the way many of us cook and eat.
We [vegetarians] think of the meat protein first – “Will we have chicken, pork, beef or lamb?” – and then we fit the vegetable bit around the edges, with some carbohydrate in the form of a wodge of spuds.
Vegetables are the afterthought, the also-ran, the frozen green beans, or the sweetcorn, plunged into boiling water at the last minute as dinner is just ready.
We do this, even though we know that it is good for our health to eat lots of vegetables, pulses and grains, that we need to get our five-a-day, and that eating too much meat, especially heavily processed meat, is bad for our health.
For Cohen, the culprit is the education system for chefs, where they are taught to value French cuisine, and to pay only token attention to those noble cuisines which venerate vegetables – Indian; Japanese; Thai; Middle Eastern; Native American; Vietnamese.
As we take lessons in eating from the way chefs cook, and the dishes their restaurants serve, vegetables rarely make it to the spotlight in our homes. And it’s not just our health that is losing out: when Amanda Cohen writes her menus, she says that “vegetables give me a playground”. Who doesn’t want a playground of vegetables in their diet?
But then I managed to get a table in Bastible, Barry Fitzgerald’s new Dublin restaurant, and it struck me that maybe the tide is turning in favour of vegetables.
For Sunday lunch, Fitzgerald offered two main course choices. There was sirloin and featherblade of Black Angus beef. Quintessential Sunday roast.
And there was roast onion squash, served with chestnuts and a warm egg yolk.
Teased out with pickled mushrooms, crisp sage leaves, fresh curd cheese and pesto, the dish was a triumphant statement of how the Sunday roast can belong to the vegetable kingdom. It was a playground for vegetables.
Another Irish chef making a playground with vegetables is Mark Moriarty, recently crowned San Pellegrino Young Chef of the Year, at the tender age of 23.
Moriarty’s winning dish took a humble root vegetable – celeriac – and elevated it to world champion status by using the swings, slides and roundabouts to produce celeriac baked in barley and fermented hay with cured and smoked celeriac.
When vegetables are cooked like this, they are not just good for us. They are thrilling, addictive and the equal of any other ingredient you could put on the plate.
If chefs are headlining vegetables, we need to do the same, borrowing ideas from India (if you make chicken curry, pair it with a lentil dahl) and the Middle East (make sure to add both spinach and chick peas into that bowl of lamb meatballs) – and everywhere else.
Treat that dirt candy right, and put it smack in the centre of the plate.
John McKenna is editor at guides.ie