In June, the Borough Market Cookbook Club had a wonderful summer party. The book chosen to celebrate was Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book (published in 1978) and around 80 home cooks brought along a dish they had cooked from its pages. We feasted on tomato tarts, stuffed leeks, beetroot salad and many other delights. Esteemed food writer Felicity Cloake told the assembled foodies why she believed Jane’s vegetable book was such a gem, and the ice-breaking phrase “what did you cook?” must have been said a hundred times at least, there in the Market Hall.
When I was asked to review the new Phaidon uber-book On Vegetables, I jumped at the chance. This publisher specialises in oversized tomes that present themselves as the ultimate collection of dishes on a theme. In theory, you could get rid of all your much thumbed little second hand paperback cookbooks, and just have a few enormous Phaidon books on your shelves. France: The Cookbook, Thailand: The Cookbook and America: The Cookbook might not give you much room for anything else. But I approached On Vegetables with caution. My much admired and beautifully presented Mexico: The Cookbook has taken such a bashing on the internet over mistakes and misunderstandings in its recipes, I am too scared to cook from it.
It dawned on me before I even had it in my hand, that I could compare Jeremy’s book with Jane’s in this review, but there is really no comparison. Even before opening them, it is easy to see that they are totally different. The design of Jeremy’s cover is graphic and clean and the texture of the binding is touchy feely, like a fine hessian.
On the flip-side, I have taken an irrational dislike to the cover of my copy of Jane’s book.
I hate that woman with a cabbage in her lap. But at least the title of Jane’s uses proper capitalisation. I know that it’s very modern to use lower case for recipe titles, or even names, but my old school grammar mistress would have got out her red pen in a fury if I wrote: “on vegetables by jeremy fox” without the caps.
Jane’s book is usefully organised alphabetically by vegetable, but there are no photographs. This seems strange today as cookbooks now live or die by their illustrations. Opening Jeremy’s book, the glorious food porn photographs immediately provoked hunger pangs, and I grabbed a pad of post-it notes to mark up lots of recipes for future cooking. The picture of Cucumbers with Green Goddess made me want to fill my head with snozcumbers. Purple Haze Carrots, Yogurt and Sumac looked appealingly simple. The Grilled Corn On The Cob, Calabrian Chili Butter and Ash Salt pic made me lick my lips with longing…
But hold on a minute. Rewind. Ash salt? What is that? And what is beet soil? Horsey goat? Black olive caramel? A deeper dive into the recipes reveals a layered approach to cooking that would give most home cooks the heeby-jeebies. If say, you fancied having Kohlrabi Kraut, Dill Spaetzle, Poached Egg and Pickle Powder for your dinner (which I definitely do) here’s how you’d construct it. First make some kohlrabi kraut (page 297) – which takes between 4 days and 2 weeks to ferment. Make some whole-grain mustard (page 272) and some powdered dry pickle powder (page 291). Braise the kohlrabi kraut with some other bits and pieces. Make the spaetzle (this sounds like a lot of fun and involves pushing batter through a colander). Poach an egg and assemble. Delia Smith’s How To Cheat At Cooking this is not.
I think this type of brouhaha is called component cooking, and I do not mean to imply that this is a bad thing. It’s just probably not the kind of thing you’d want to attempt after barely surviving a brutal commute home from work, or when you are cooking with a baby on your hip. This is what I think of as project cooking. It’s stuff you have to prepare for, think about, plan for, set time aside for. But boy, would it be worth it. I admit it, I just googled to see how much a dehydrator would cost me, purely and simply to make pickle powder.
Test Cook – Charred Whole Broccoli With Miso Bagna Cauda
Best practice for a cookbook reviewer would involve testing at least three of the recipes in this weighty tome. As most of Jeremy’s dishes are built up from several components, I hope you will let me get away with just one. I decided to make the broccoli dish on page 96, which involved the breadcrumbs on page 290, and the miso bagna cauda on page 269, hence there was a lot of flippy-flippy going on with the pages as I cooked.
I don’t know what bagna cauda is supposed to look like, as I’ve never seen it in the flesh. OK, I might as well admit it, I’d never even heard of it until I picked up this book. Jeremy’s version is a gloop made from olive oil, lemons, miso, garlic, salt and chilli flakes. The bagna cauda I rustled up looked like some kind of fungal growth under a Lake Windermere of olive oil. There are very detailed instructions about how to cook the bagna cauda in a bowl, over a saucepan with clingfilm over the top. I realise that not everyone has a double boiler gathering dust in their kitchen cupboard, but I do. So I thought, why not bung it in that?
I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t the double boiler at fault, but a “combined but broken sauce” it was not. Slightly appalled at the sight of the murky depths of olive oil, I poured almost all of it off into a chunky jam jar, and used some of it for the breadcrumb stage and some for the final assembly.
As I am a slighty lazy cook, I cheated a little bit on the breadcrumbs. I liked the technique of slicing the bread, brushing it with olive oil and baking it in the oven. However, grinding it in a pestle and mortar struck me as a rather retro move, so I whizzed it up in my food processor instead. Jeremy’s recipe made two 500ml Kilner jars worth of breadcrumbs and they are now sitting pretty on my kitchen counter ready for adding to all the gratins that I will probably never make.
With the two initial stages done, the final part was easy. I did exactly as I was told and cooked and blanched the broccoli in iced water, drained and dried it, sprinkled it with olive oil from Lake Windermere, added some salt and roasted it until charred. I spooned over some of the miso bang caudal (my spell checker seems to think bagna cauda is not a kosher phrase) and sprinkled over the whizzed up breadcrumbs, sea salt and some Parmigiano.
Was this recipe a faff? Yes, a big old faff. Was it worth it? Hell yes. The final dish was absolutely delicious. I absolutely love that bagna cauda stuff. Would I do it again? Oh yes, most definitely. Hopefully next time I have a head of broccoli knocking around the place, I won’t forget all about the mason jar of oily miso and lemon gunk now residing about the back of my fridge.
On Vegetables is an inspiring and drool-inducing book for those who like a challenge in the kitchen. If your partner’s boss is a vegetarian and comes round for dinner, you should definitely cook something from this fine collection of recipes. A pay rise will no doubt ensue. But remember the scouting motto: be prepared. Be prepared to spend a very long time in the kitchen, and be prepared for everyone to think you are a Kitchen God or Goddess.
Jeremy’s book will sit next to Jane Grigson’s on my heaving cookbook shelves and I’m sure I will attempt another recipe sometime or another. I know for sure which one I’ll turn to though, when I’ve got a few courgettes going soft in my salad drawer…