As a child, vegetables were my nemesis. I remember furtively herding spinach into a long thin line on my plate and obscuring it with my dinner knife to avoid ingestion. My parents never said anything, so I honestly (and mistakenly) believed I'd fooled my mother with the cunning ruse. She gave as good as she got, though; I’m still seeking a confession about her 'butterscotch' pie, which looked and tasted suspiciously like pumpkin.
Thankfully, I grew up. By my early twenties, there wasn't a vegetable I didn't eat, but I had a new problem - my maturing tastebuds didn’t extend to the production end of my kitchen. My vegetarian fare remained the victim of a distinct lack of imagination as I struggled to shift course from my out-dated meat-loving ways.
Flavour was the issue. Meat, poultry and fish all seem to adopt flavours and spices as if they were born for them. If running short on time, I could achieve a tasty result with a quick pre-marinade, the addition of spices before cooking or even post cooking with a well-matched jus or dressing. I’d find the vegetables would sit amongst all those flavours; a nod to proper nutrition but a supporting role at best. All too often, I relegated vegetables to side-dish status, steamed nicely enough but still the uninspired ‘meat-and-three-veg’ style we grew up with and grew bored with.
So, what changed? Simple things. Once I took an interest, I tried different cooking methods and observed the different properties of vegetables. For example, roasting encourages a mildly caramelised effect, so your vegetables will taste slightly sweeter. Star performers in the flavour department? The floret varieties; broccoli, cauliflower and broccolini embrace flavours and spices almost as readily as meat.
Cassoulets, stews, soups and risottos taught me the invaluable art of 'reduction' for teasing out delicate flavours from even the most rudimentary of vege-bin dwellers. I also learned that fresh garden herbs are almost unbeatable for adding flavour at virtually any stage of cooking.
This might sound like a no-brainer (because it is), but our busy lives often mean we trade freshness for convenience - fresh is always best for taste.
Finally, my most important lesson of all: 'fat' and 'sodium' are not dirty words. These much-maligned characters might be at the small end of the food triangle, but they are vital for taste and facilitating other nutrients into our digestive system. Specifically, fat affects how the volatile compounds in our food are released in our mouths and, ultimately, how we perceive flavour. So relax; a sprinkle of parmesan, roasted almonds or fine compound-butter wafers will bring the party to your palate.
The following risotto recipe uses cauliflower in a way that illustrates my point far better than I can. Whatever you do, please don’t skip the deep fried sage; it's an unexpected and delicious treat.
Cauliflower and Taleggio Risotto with Roasted Almonds and Crispy Sage
2-2½ litres chicken stock
2 Tbsp olive oil, extra virgin
100 g butter
1/4 C fresh sage leaves
2 C cauliflower florets, coarsely sliced
1 leek, white part only, finely diced
1 medium onion finely diced
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
2 C Arborio rice
1 C white wine
200 g Taleggio cheese, 1cm cubes
1/2 C lightly roasted almonds, coarsely chopped
1/4 C parmesan cheese, shaved
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
extra virgin olive oil, to serve
Heat the chicken stock in a saucepan to barely simmering.
In a large, heavy-based pan, heat the olive oil and butter. Gently fry the sage leaves until crisp, then, using a slotted spoon, remove from the pan onto a paper towel. Set aside.
Using the same pan, toss the cauliflower, season well and fry until browned on both sides. Lift out with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Using the same pan again, sauté the leek, onion and garlic until tender and translucent, then season with salt and pepper.
Add the rice and stir the grains until well coated. Stir in the wine and simmer for 1-2 minutes until almost evaporated.
Add the hot stock, one ladleful at a time, continually stirring until all the liquid is absorbed before adding the next ladleful.
After 10 minutes, add the fried cauliflower, and continue stirring in the stock, ladle by ladle, for a further 8-10 minutes until the rice has the consistency of wet porridge.
Stir in the Taleggio, taste, and adjust the seasoning.
Pour onto a serving plate, sprinkle with the sage, almonds, parmesan and drizzle with olive oil.