[Living Within, June 2018]
I heard some mutterings recently about the lack of imagination of a more traditional omnivore crowd when asked to consider the more newly chosen vegetarian, tending to vegan, diets of a newly minted adult crew worried about the state of the food industry and of the planet; these particular mutterings centred on a general reliance on eggs and cheese with vegetarian main courses, and moved to complaint when describing a plain boiled potato offered in place of a meal. If looking to make a virtue of necessity, June seems a better time of the year than most to demonstrate that it is not impossible to exercise some imagination and come up with a main course that contains nothing but plant life, tastes like it wasn’t an afterthought, and can satisfy any hungry body.
And why not focus on the potato, given that Jersey Royals, as good as their name suggests, are currently in season, albeit a bit late this year as a result of freak climate conditions – read into that what you will. The potato may be a star ingredient here, but I am going to share the makings of a hearty stew with more than one regal component.
As with most stews, a base layer is important. Start with a sliced onion, a couple of finely sliced celery stalks (the tender ones in the middle of the bunch), a little olive oil and some finely chopped fresh rosemary and garlic; allow to soften together on a low heat for as long as it takes for the assembled throng to become soft, sweet and be starting to turn slightly golden. While they are cooking, dice an aubergine (you can keep the skin on) then put the cubes in a colander, sprinkle with salt, and leave on one side to allow to ‘degorge’ (/lose some of its water content).
Slice a red chilliand a yellow pepper into strips and add to the onion mix in the pan; allow to soften -- season gently at this stage with a little salt, and continue to season, very gently, as you add in new ingredients so that you have only small adjustments left to make at the end of the process.
While these are cooking wash some Jersey Royal potatoes (or other waxy small variety of spud), and cut into wedges lengthwise (quarters, sixths, or eights depending on the size of the potato). Skin, de-seed and dice four ripe tomatoes and prepare a little saffron (optional). Most recipes in this part of the world will tell you just to add the saffron strands and let them do their magic, but speak to those who really understand saffron and they will be shocked at the waste of this precious ingredient. In other parts of the world you would make sure your saffron is dry, you would grind it to a fine powder with a little sugar or salt, and then soak it with enough not quite boiling water to cover it, and allow it to develop its colour and its pungency protected by a lid before you use it. It’s up to you, but I believe the extra work is worth the effort and would urge anyone using saffron to heed the advice. The saffron is expensive and perhaps not essential, but the colour brings with it the sunshine, and the flavour adds rare sophistication.
Once the onions and peppers look comfortably soft together, add in the potatoes, stir them round a little in the oil and to get them starting to cook. Then add in the tomatoes and leave everything to stew, covered with a lid, on a low heat, for about 20 minutes (check the level of the liquid as it cooks – add a little water if the stew seems dry. Once the potatoes are just about cooked, add in the saffron, if you are using it, stir gently, and leave all to simmer. Meantime, dry the aubergine cubes and toss and fry in another pan in some hot oil until they are a little golden around the edges, then add them to the stew.
One more ingredient for our stew is some (cooked) white beans (cannellini for example)– you can source from a can (drain first and rinse). Add and allow to find their level in the stew. The stew will take about 10 minutes once you have added the beans, until the colours and flavours are evenly distributed throughout the mix; make sure that the sauce is nicely reduced (not too watery) – check your seasoning one last time and adjust according to your own taste, this time add some freshly ground black pepper. Garnish with some chopped parsley and sliced basil leaves, and drizzle with a little more olive oil if you like. Serve hot or at room temperature with bread and whatever else you want to add to the party, and enjoy a hearty stew that qualifies as vegan, should anybody at your table care to give it such a label.