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Vegetables then and now

"Vegetarianism wasn’t just perceived as a dietary choice but a lifestyle one. If you were veggie you were a hippie." Fiona Beckett/BBC Good Food

I think this will probably be a quickie, because there's not really much to say, other than a variation on 'the times have changed'.

"An Epicurean book with exciting uses for the delights and good foods of each season" says the subtitle of this book from one of my favourite last century gurus - Beverley Sutherland Smith. It's a statement that is very retro in itself. Language is an ever-evolving thing of course, and I can barely understand the texting language of the young these days, but neither would I, or anyone else I think, express the sentiment of that statement in those words. 'Epicurean' these days is a bit obscure, even pretty specific, although really it's the way those words are put together that is old-fashioned. I mean lots of publishers and foodie writers use words like exciting and delights, 'good food' and so on. Hard to pin down - but definitely old-fashioned.

I'm beginning with the book because it was my starting point for that thought about vegetables then and now. Last week was a guru week - a week when I cook something from one of my old gurus' books. The thing that struck me most as I flicked through the book looking for something to cook for our dinner (Pork chops in mustard cream - delicious), was that virtually all of the recipes for vegetables - and there were many - was how few of those recipes were for a main course. They were virtually all side dishes. There were many, many recipes with whole sections on a particular vegetable or fruit - it was after all a book about seasonal food, and that means mostly plants. Of course meats and seafood are also seasonal but to a less obvious extent - in spite of the fact that these days we can get any vegetable at any time of year almost. However we still know that asparagus means spring and cabbage means winter.

Interestingly, many years later in 2001 Beverley Sutherland Smith published a second 'seasonal' book - The Seasonal Kitchen, which was arranged by ingredient - vegetables and herbs, not fruit, but which, like the earlier book, included recipes for meat and seafood as well. Neither book is vegetarian which is why my title was about how our approach to vegetables has changed not how vegetarianism has changed. That's a whole other topic for another time perhaps.

Maybe the biggest change which unites the two is that these days most of us probably have a meatless meal, if not at least once a week, then fairly often. Every cookbook and foodie magazine, these days whether vegetarian, vegan or just mainstream omnivore will have at least some vegetarian and vegan dishes that are meant to be a meal in themselves, not a support act, scattered throughout. Meatless Mondays are a thing. Many of the biggest names in the celebrity chef world will have an increasing number of vegetarian show-stopping dishes in their repertoire, and it is a rare restaurant these days that won't have at least one vegetarian or vegan dish on their menu.

So, as that quote at the top of the page says, back then if you ate vegetarian dishes then you were a vegetarian and considered a hippy who ate a lot of lentils and beans and smoked marijuana. The rest of us would only have eaten something vegetarian as our main dish in a somewhat haphazard way, without even thinking about whether it was vegetarian or not - a soup maybe. Or a pasta or quiche. Ratatouille is the only other deliberately vegetarian dish that I can ever remember eating. Do egg and chips count? Or beans on toast? But they're not really dinner are they? We only ate them because we had almost run out of money at the end of the month.

As to the vegetarians themselves they also didn't really experiment much:

"The emphasis seemed to be on recreating meat and two veg style meals with vegetables or pulses." looksalot/commenter BBC Good Food

Not on celebrating the vegetables themselves.

A few examples.

In A Taste for All Seasons there are not a lot of pictures of the dishes described therein, so I have probably missed out some perfectly valid, even modern vegetable mains. This is one of a very few - I think there might have been a soup as well and a couple of salads. And note the very 70s retro style of the photography as well. It doesn't quite make you want to rush out there and make it does it? Maybe it's just as well there aren't more pictures. The recipe is for stuffed tomatoes, which, depending on what you put in them and how many you have can be either a first or second course dish. They can also be delicious and I do remember eating some wonderful meat-stuffed tomatoes in France. And actually I now realise that the ones in the photo also contained some chicken - so not vegetarian. Nevertheless there would have been many examples of rice stuffed tomatoes around.

Compare with these Ixta Belfrage Tomatoes stuffed with sticky porcini and chestnut rice. Of course part of the modernisation is down to the styling and the photography - which is simulataneously more stylish and yet more haphazard. And it's just one example from a massive number that even a cursory Google search would find you.

This is an example of a rather more adventurous variation on an old and established dish - a spicier sauce, a filling which will often be some kind of fusion of ingredients from here, there and everywhere. If you stick to tomatoes however, there is much more you can do to add substance as well as innovation.

Beverley Sutherland Smith herself in her later book has several main course tomato dishes, although this Tomato tarte Tatin is the only one that is illustrated. The OTK kitchen offers Parmigiana pie with tomato sauce, and even Coles on the cover of its current magazine has a rather stunning looking Heirloom tomato galette. Indeed this dish also shows how even the supermarkets are doing their bit to improve the quality and variety of vegetables that you can buy. The tart is part of a major promotion of a new range of tomatoes from the Sundrop greenhouses in Port Augusta. No doubt they will cost heaps, but you have to admire the effort.

I salute Beverley Sutherland Smith - indeed all my old gurus for they always promoted the virtues of vegetables and of eating seasonally. Not so much vegetarianism however. Our modern gurus are helping us reluctant vegetarians to at least experiment with at least one completely vegetarian meal each week that isn't pasta or soup.



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