Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Veg: 200 Inspired Vegetable Recipes is 1/3 cup richness, 1/3 cup indulgence, and 1/3 cup pizzazz.
The introduction explains that “this is a vegetable cookbook”. It depends on your politics and your point-of-view whether it’s a vegetarian cookbook, he maintains.
For his point-of-view? “I still believe in being a selective omnivore, casting a positive vote in favor of ethically produced meat and sustainably caught fish. However, I now understand that in order to eat these two great foods in good conscience, I have to recognize, control and impose limits on my appetite for them.”
The recipes are divided into Comfort food & feasts, hearty salads, Raw assemblies, Hefty soups, Bready things, Pantry suppers, Pasta & rice, Meze & tapas, Roast, grill broil and Side dishes.
“Just ask yourself if you, or anyone you know, might be in danger of eating too many vegetables. Or if you think the world might be a better, cleaner, greener place with a few more factory chicken or pig farms or intensive cattle feedlots scattered about the countryside. Surely it’s close to being a no-brainer.”
Each of the sections opens with a couple of solid pages of text, discussing the contents and various related subjects (from the importance of a quality peeler to the process of selecting top-notch veggies).
The first, Comfort food & feasts, explains that these recipes “are the first to turn to if you want to eat less meat but are a little bit wary about the prospect — perhaps because you can’t help feeling some degree of sensory deprivation may ensue. It needn’t.”
There truly is a sense that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is striving towards another perspective. And, sure, he might now believe that cooking more often with vegetables is “…more democratic — there’s no longer a tyrannical piece of meat dominating the agenda, making everything else feel like a supporting act” but it would appear that he believes his audience needs convincing.
“It’s also how we like to feed our extended family and friend. Of course, it isn’t always a meat-free table. But it often is.”
Almost every pair of pages includes a full-page photograph (the photography is by Simon Wheeler), but the pages are not glossy, so the 400-page cookbook remains a reasonable price. It’s an oversized volume (not suited to take to the market with you) and begs for a shopping list (because the ingredients are in an even smaller font than the instructions).
Even the salads are beautiful.
“In a ‘hearty salad,’ a well-tuned mixture of the raw and the cooked, the chunky and the leafy, perhaps the nutty and the cheesy, creates an enticing, self-contained plateful. Big, gutsy salads like these are fun to eat, full of color, with lots of different flavors and textures competing for attention. You can taste the ingredients one at a time, or make each forkful an original cocktail. Each mouthful will be different, but all will be good.”
Aesthetically, River Cottage Veg is lovely. Each chapter has a new colour theme, and the ingredients and title and illustrations (the illustrations are by Mariko Jesse) are all in synch.
Depending on the cook’s preferences, this might be viewed as being as the expense of use-ability. The theme is attractive, but sometimes one recipe nestles in with another on the same single page; the font is appealing but slightly cramped, text-heavy.
The recipes are followed by sections for the Pantry and Veg on the go, for simple recipes.
“There will always be occasions when you’re really pushed for time, or tired and hungry, and you crave something filling and satisfying but simple and quick. When you are in that frame of mind, the temptation can be strong to reach for the sausages or bacon. But really, you don’t have to default to meat just because you’re in a hurry.”
There is a single index, with a V for Vegan marking the salient recipes. (Many of the recipes do contain dairy, the typical new-to-veggie cookbook approach, meaning drown-it-in-dairy-instead.)
The measurements appear in imperial first (metric second), are more often to include generous amounts of oil and cheese and less likely to include generous amounts of garlic.
(This makes for a flavour appreciated by the masses but, in our family, we prefer more rather than less when it comes to garlic.)
Shaved summer vegetables (100)
Radishes with butter and salt (102)
River Cottage summer garden soup (132)
Curried sweet potato soup (166)
Green beans, new potatoes, and olives (222)
Cambodian wedding day dip (299)
Patatas bravas (322)
Steamed veg with a hint of garlic (372)
Leeks (and greens) with coconut milk (378)
Cheat’s cauliflower cheese (378)
The recipes call for common ingredients, no substitutions required. They turned out as they appear in the photographs (although the serving ware and place settings are nicer than anything in our family kitchen – we spend on ingredients, not decor).
Even those with only Basic Vegetable Experience are likely to succeed. This really would make a fine introduction for those omnivores who are freshly interested in some cozy moments with vegetables.
Note: This is the fourth of a series of posts in my new Friday Fugue, which will focus on a series of books working towards A Fainter Footprint (on the Earth).