The Accidental Vegetarian

January 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

As I savoured a perfect piece of medium rare hanger steak at Locavore restaurant the other week, I was struck by how unfamiliar the flavour seemed. I guess I eat steak four or five times a year at most, even when I’m my most carnivorous version of my self. This is not a lament: when I do order that New York strip I ensure it’s someplace I am really going to enjoy it. In other words, I can count on all those steaks being pretty amazing ones. But it’s not only rib-eye that I find myself eating less and less. 3 of the 5 cookbooks I currently have out on the side, a reliable indicator of my cooking trends, are vegetarian or focused on vegetables. Of the other two, one is about fruit and the other whole grains. Now, I can feel the collective eye-roll coming at me from over the interwebs (and, believe me, my 20 year old self is right there with you) so let me clarify. I love meat and am not about to become a vegetarian. And I am not dieting. The thing is, vegetables taste really good. You can do fun things with them. They typically cost a lot less than meat. They look pretty on the plate. Nika Hazelton said it better than I can: “The most depressing thing ever said about vegetables is that they are good for one”. They are, of course, but this is not a January resolution post. It’s about flavour, texture and even comfort.

As a result of this cooking spree, I have quite the backlog of slaws and soups to push in your direction. But let’s start with something as simple as a pasta and broccoli salad, from the queen of vegetarian cookery, Deborah Madison. Since her classic tome turned up in my Christmas stocking, I’ve been tearing through the recipes. I’ve stopped bookmarking things, since bookmarks only really work when you don’t have one on every page, which is where I was heading with that book. While browsing the salad chapter I was really struck by Madison’s comments on pasta salads, which she suggests only really work if the salad is on the warm side rather than cold and gummy from the fridge. It’s the kind of detail in the book that leaves me nodding vigorously in agreement and then at the store 10 minutes later picking up the ingredients for that night’s supper.

The humble broccoli epitomizes everything I love about vegetables right now. The tight buds, sitting atop the tree-trunk stems, greedily slurp up the boldest flavours you can throw at them. A mere minute or three in a steamer or pan of vigorously bubbling water is enough to turn the muddy colour a vibrant green and take off the shock of the raw without sacrificing crunch. Fast food indeed. Add in handfuls of herbs, sundried tomatoes for tartness, pasta for bulk and drench it all in a piquant, creamy mustard vinaigrette and you’ve got dinner on your hands, or a great side dish for a buffet or bbq come to that. Just don’t be boring enough to tell anyone that it’s good for you.

Broccoli Pasta Salad
Adapted from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

Yields 3-4 servings

Madison suggests cauliflower or broccoli for this recipe. I prefer the broccoli purely for the colour contrast alongside the pasta.

1 lb/500g broccoli or cauliflower florets
salt
4 sun-dried tomatoes, thinly sliced
1/2 cup/5 chopped scallions or spring onions
1/4 cup (a large handful) chopped parsley
8 ounces/225 grams pasta shells or corkscrews
fresh lemon juice, to taste

1 portion Mustard Vinaigrette, as follows:

2 tbsp red wine or sherry vinegar
2 shallots, finely diced
1 garlic clove, minced
salt and fresh black pepper
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp creme fraiche or sour cream (plain yoghurt would be another possible substitution)
1/3 cup/70ml olive oil
2 tbsp snipped chives
1 tbsp chopped parsley
3 tbsp capers

Begin by making the mustard vinaigrette. Combine the vinegar, shallots, garlic and 1/4 tsp salt in a small bowl. Leave to combine for 10 or 15 minutes then whisk in the mustard, creme fraiche and oil until thick and smooth. Season with a little pepper then stir in the herbs and capers. Taste and adjust the seasonings to your preference and leave to one side.

Take the raw edge off the broccoli or cauliflower by cooking in a large pot of salted boiling water for a couple of minutes. Scoop it out with a strainer, reserving the water for the pasta, and put in a large bowl along with the vinaigrette, tomatoes, scallions and parsley.

Cook the pasta in the reserved water until al dente, or to your preference. Drain and add to the bowl. Toss with the broccoli and other ingredients. Add fresh lemon juice to taste and serve warm.

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