A regular supply of stock is crucial for all cookery. In meat and fish cookery, the making of stock was traditionally a key, highly organised routine in all kitchens, involving practices that the modern vegetarian will barely wish to contemplate. Animal carcasses were subjected to hacking, sawing, skinning, boiling, reducing, skimming, pulping and pounding, all of which activities can be found detailed meticulously in older cookery books.
Stock-making was also, and in a few high-quality commercial kitchens no doubt still is, very time-consuming. As recently as 1956, when huge labour-intensive kitchens had become all but historic, the eminently sensible cookery writer Constance Spry could still calmly advise: ‘Ordinary household stock … may be made twice a week, or for large households, daily.’ That activity alone would have taken a large chunk of time out of the working day of any ‘ordinary’ housewife in the 1950s.
Although the making of vegetarian stock is a much simpler process, it can still, if followed properly and by someone who uses home-made stock extensively, occupy a good deal of time. Fortunately this is not necessary. I would suggest using home-made stock when you feel it’s essential for a special dish, soup, or sauce. Otherwise, look to some of the many perfectly acceptable alternatives available.
Here, though, for a start, is the real thing. Or rather two versions of the real thing.
Vegetables should be cleaned, trimmed and cut into chunks. Strictly speaking, pretty well any vegetables will do, but if you want the end result to be largely neutral, it’s advisable not to use anything that will strongly affect the stock’s taste or texture. So, no potatoes (though some clean potato peelings are a good idea), or vegetables like beetroot, cabbage, broccoli. It’s aIso sensible to avoid, or use sparingly, vegetables with strong individual flavours like parsnips, fennel, celeriac, or swede.
For dark stock, chop a small or half a medium-sized onion, leaving some clean skin on, and peel and chop one large field mushroom. Fry together in vegetable oil or fat for a few minutes, taking care not to let it burn. Then add some or all of the following: two carrots; two sticks of celery; a small white turnip; some leek trimmings; cauliflower stalks; one garlic clove not peeled or crushed; a handful of fresh parsley plus small amounts of any other fresh herbs that are available (e.g.chives, marjoram, thyme) or, if fresh herbs are not to hand, perhaps a bouquet garni; and half-a-dozen black peppercorns, though usually not salt.
Stir all of these in with the onion and mushroom, continue frying for a couple of minutes to coat the vegetables. Then cover well with water (approximately one litre or two pints), bring to the boil, and simmer on the stove for up to one hour, making sure there’s no danger of it running dry. It’s a good idea, though not essential, to leave the cooked mixture to stand for awhile before straining the vegetables. You should end up with a pint or slightly more of stock. If not being used immediately, it will keep in the fridge for a few days. The cooked vegetables should be discarded.
For light stock, the procedure is much the same and even simpler. Omit the frying element, the oil, mushroom, and the onion skin. Put everything else into the large saucepan, add the water and continue as above.
The most valuable alternative to prepared stock, and one that is often surprisingly
neglected, is the water left over from the vegetables you cook all the time. Although vegetables such as swede, fennel, celeriac, and parsnip may be considered too strong to form part of a neutral stock, they are simply wonderful at making their own stock without any extra work from you.
The general rules to follow when boiling vegetables are: cover them lightly with water, add only a very small amount of salt, make sure you don’t overcook them, and preserve the water.
This principle applies as well to many vegetables other than the strong flavoured ones just mentioned. Carrots, for instance, cauliflowers, and turnips. Also pulses and grains, many of which produce superlative stock. For instance, the result produced by cooking about 110g (4 oz) of split red lentils in water for twenty minutes is so good that it’s worth doing for the stock alone and discarding the over-cooked lentils. Many other pulses also produce excellent stock (e.g. chick peas and butter beans), though longer cooking times are involved, and this is best treated as an incidental bonus to cooking them for their own sake. With some pulses the issue doesn’t arise because they absorb the water they are cooked in.
Which cooking water you decide to keep and which throw away is entirely up to you. It’s largely a matter of common-sense or convenience, so follow your instincts. Some cooking water you won’t want to keep because it is too starchy or pungent, or has a dingy or dirty look to it; potatoes, rice, cabbage, beetroot, kidney beans and most of their relatives, for example. But even here, if you can see a good specific use for the water and you’re sure it is safe to do so, well go ahead.
Reserved cooking water can be usefully supplemented by the many commercial vegetable stocks which are to be found on the shelves of supermarkets and health-food shops. They come under a variety of names and forms: powder, cubes, liquids, bouillons, granules, stock pots. They can be very good, but vary considerably from each other, both in flavour and ingredients. It is worth testing them for yourself to find out which you prefer.
A simple way to do this is to put in a measuring jug about 275ml (½ pint) of hot vegetable cooking water. Stir in a stock cube or some powder. Test for taste, then add anything else you want to try. Perhaps, a small amount of some other stock powder, or a few vegetarian gravy granules, or dried herbs, soy sauce, or whatever. Taste as you go. If it’s good, note what you’ve done. If it’s not, pour it away and start again. You’ll very soon establish your own preferences, and create a stock which suits you and can be applied to specific dishes.
Adding stock cubes, powder or granules directly to dishes while they are being cooked is sometimes frowned on, though I don’t understand why. It serves exactly the same purpose as the experiment I have just suggested. I very often add a stock cube or stock pot or powder directly to a dish I’m cooking, and then use water or made-up stock to dilute as necessary, adding this or that, testing as I go along, gradually reaching the flavour I’m after. Of course you do need to be careful not to put in too much of these kinds of prepared stock at an early stage, and also to modulate the flavour of a dish as you go along.
This discussion, however, is already moving on from the question of stock, and becoming involved in the crucial, closely related issues of taste and flavour.
In meat and fish cookery, the main function of stocks and sauces is to enhance the basic taste or texture of flesh and blood, either directly or in a complementary manner. This can also be the case with certain vegetables which have very much their own flavours; aubergines, say, or fennel. You prepare a fennel stew to taste distinctively of fennel, just as you prepare a beef stew to taste distinctively of beef or baked mackerel of mackerel. You want freshly cooked spinach to have the flavour of freshly cooked spinach and nothing else. But this is not the case with a good deal of vegetarian cooking.
The basic ingredients of many vegetarian dishes are attractive in texture but faint or neutral in taste. The main function of stocks and sauces is, therefore, to create flavours for them. Even, indeed, to create dishes out of those sauces. This can be demonstrated from two of the most vegetarian friendly of world cuisines, Indian and Italian. In both cases a staple food, rice or pasta, is a fairly neutral starting point for a large
variety of very different dishes which may include meat or fish but may equally well not.
The meat or fish dishes are cooked, as already said, to bring out the distinctive texture and flavour of a particular kind of flesh, but the non-vegetarian dishes have sauces created especially for them from vegetables or pulses or other natural ingredients, enhanced by herbs and spices. The individual defining flavours of Indian and Italian food have, fundamentally, nothing whatsoever to do with meat or fish.
In many other national cuisines, for instance those of Britain and France, meat or fish are themselves treated as the staple foods, with vegetables (and everything else) being of secondary importance. In France, though, the cooking of vegetables has always been given a great deal of imaginative attention. This, unfortunately, is not so in Britain where vegetables are generally regarded as necessary though uninteresting accompaniments to a piece of meat or fish. That this needn’t be so is something that anyone turning with interest to vegetarian cookery will soon learn.
With the preparation of a good stock, by whatever method, the essential starting-point, it is then necessary to add additional flavours to supplement or change a dish; to make it taste as you want it to taste. Here are some ingredients to have ready to hand to enhance the flavour of the basic stock already discussed.
First, for everyday cooking, salt and pepper. They may may seem too obvious to list but they come in several different forms. Table, rock, sea, and crystal salt, are all useful. And, in spite of the almost universal insistence on the superiority of black pepper, white pepper is to be preferred in some dishes. Tomato purée or paste, serves to thicken as well as flavour. Keep also to hand, mushroom ketchup, vegetarian Worcester sauce, yeast extract, and a general purpose soy sauce (Kikkoman or Tamari, or any other variety that suits you or your dietary needs).
The development of flavour starts with whatever cooking oil or fat you decide to use. My most common choice is olive oil (to which I very often add an entirely optional small amount of butter). Other kinds of readily available cooking oils are vegetable, corn, rape seed, sunflower, safflower, and groundnut (now a steady favourite of mine). Alternatively, and good to use for cooking, there are many vegetable (or ‘white’) fats or lards, margarines, oils, and vegetable fat/oil blends.
Also to be kept in mind are oils made from fruit and nuts such as hazelnut, walnut, plum seed, and avocado. They have very individual flavours, and although usually associated with salads (where they are excellent) rather than frying, they can also be used more generally in vegetable and other dishes. They are worth experimenting with. So are the many more specialist oils infused with vegetables or herbs, such as garlic, fennel or chillis. Better still, make them for yourself. Sesame is also generally thought of as a specialist oil, being best known from Asian cookery, though it can be used more generally as well.
Vinegars come in the same kinds of variety. They can be important for vegetarian diets. Malt vinegar is very strong and used mainly in pickles and chutney both of which, in a vegetarian kitchen, benefit greatly from being homemade. Red and white wine vinegars and cider vinegars are also used in some chutneys, and, being more adaptable than malt, in marinades, sauces, and salad dressings. As with oils, there is a wide range of specialist infused vinegars. In a class of its own among vinegars is genuine Balsamic from Modena, Italy.
On herbs and spices lie the main responsibility for imparting flavour to vegetarian dishes. Fresh herbs, home-grown if possible. If not, it is well worth the extra expenditure to buy the pots and packets of fresh herbs which are now conveniently available from supermarkets, in and out of season.
When fresh herbs are not obtainable or affordable, and even sometimes when they are, dried herbs are indispensable. It’s usually better, and cheaper, to buy these from a specialist health or real food shop rather than a supermarket and always to have a good variety of them in the cupboard. Small amounts of them are best stored in sealed glass jars and their use-by dates carefully observed.
For quick use, there are ready prepared ‘Mixed Herbs’. These are popular because they offer a quick route to flavouring, but the mixture consists of common herbs (chiefly parsley, marjoram, and thyme),which you can easily, and more subtly, put together for yourself. Or better still, separate them out to decide whether you actually want to use this particular combination. Much the same is true of a bouquet garni which is, admittedly, more fragrant than mixed herbs and does add to the flavour of stews and casseroles. Similarly effective, as well as being less easy to reproduce for yourself, are dried-herb mixtures that go under the names of ‘Herbes de Provence’ or ‘Fines herbes’.
All of these serve useful enough purposes, but they do tend to take the choice out of your own hands. The only way to learn when an individual or less familiar herb such as rosemary, say, or dill or tarragon, can be used effectively with this or that dish, is by experimenting with them.
This is even more true of spices which often have more powerful flavours than herbs and can easily overwhelm a dish. Some, such as mustard, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, caraway, and saffron, have long been used in British cookery. They are now being joined by more exotic, or rather once exotic, spices from all over the world. These are, of course, essential for Indian, other Asian, Far Eastern, and Mexican and South American dishes which, contrary to common belief, can often be successfully cooked at home. But there is no need for the use of spices to be restricted to any one cuisine. They are often surprisingly adaptable.
As a general rule, it can be said that unless a specific effect is being aimed at – lots of fenugreek or tarragon, basil or cumin, say – it is sensible to go sparingly on all types of flavouring mentioned here, especially dried herbs. In my experience salt is overused to a ridiculous extent. It’s necessary all right, the body needs it and so does food, but use only a pinch of it when cooking vegetables or flavouring dishes. I’ve given up using a salt cellar, and instead use sea or rock salt crystals in a bowl and my fingers rather than a spoon. That ensures, literally, a pinch. It also raises an issue worth considering briefly in its own right.
There is no disagreement that recipes should carry fairly exact, reliable measurements for their main ingredients. That kind of guidance is obviously essential. Even so, too much emphasis can be be placed on a precision that is really not crucial, or perhaps even possible, in cooking.
One specific illustration of this arises all the time in the use of imperial and metric measures. I have followed the now accepted practice of giving priority to metric measures, followed by approximations in imperial. It is theoretically possible to give exact equivalents but it would look silly, be fussy, and is anyway unnecessary. As far as I can see, most cookery writers are happy to make do with approximations simply because being a few grammes or an ounce out, as far as main ingredients are concerned, doesn’t generally matter one way or the other.
It can matter greatly, though, with flavourings. It has been said, to take the question of salt I mentioned earlier, that a pinch is a rather silly direction because one person’s ‘pinch’ is very different from another’s. Fair enough, but then one person’s (or one cook’s) judgment is also very different from another’s. Measuring out half or quarter teaspoons of ingredients is cumbersome and not, of itself, any more reliable. It seems to me that a pinch (of salt or herbs) involves, or should involve, personal judgment and is therefore a perfectly sensible direction. It can also be easily modified when necessary as it will be in these recipes.
Other common terms raise similar problems. I always use an ordinary round-ended knife to add, say, ‘some’ butter or yeast extract to a dish. That seems to me a practical form of control. It means just as much as you want to add and no more. At least it works that way for butter, but with something like yeast extract, which certainly does needs to be be used sparingly, I will try to indicate more specific amounts in terms of teaspoons.
‘Some’ or a ‘dash’ of liquid or semi-liquid flavourings (soy sauce or mushroom ketchup, or tomato puree) are surely also primarily matters of common-sense. Admittedly there are possible complications caused by the danger of adding too much to a dish if you are adding a ‘dash’ directly from a bottle or, come to that, a ‘squirt’ from a tube. So, here again, if additional guidance is needed, a fairly meagre level teaspoon would be about right.
But the main thing to remember with all such ingredients is that they have the power to improve a dish if used moderately and to ruin it if over-used. To my mind the best way to learn how to discover the amount that best suits you is by using pinches and dashes and squirts rather than trying to measure out spoonfuls. And anyway, the most obvious practical point to make is that this way you retain the option of adding a bit more of anything if you suddenly feel it’s needed. Reducing the effect of an ingredient after too much of it has been put in a dish is not impossible, but it’s far more complicated.
When I say something like ‘cook in oil or fat’, I mean whichever, among the various options discussed here, most suits you. If I feel a specific dish is better suited to one kind of oil or fat, I’ll say so. And I will, of course, specify particular herbs or spices when I think they are the best to use, and amounts or quantities too if they seem necessary. But if your own taste is carrying you along a different path, well follow it. That’s the only effective way to take control of your own cooking.
No doubt in common with many other people, when we have guests coming for a meal we ask them whether there are things that they don’t like or are advised not to eat. On one such occasion, a few years ago now, the question was put and the answer given. It was ‘No onions, or members of the onion family.’ A follow-up query confirmed that that covered leeks, spring onions, and garlic.
I can still recall the astonishment I felt. Never before had I come across anyone with this kind of dietary restriction. What meal could you possibly cook within such limits? Garlic I could understand. That’s always a very specific ingredient, to be included or not. But the whole onion family? Didn’t most recipes begin with the advice to gently fry an onion, and then add everything else? They seemed to do in the cookery books I possessed.
Nevertheless I went ahead without using onions, leeks or garlic. The meal was cooked, served, eaten, and thanks and congratulations dutifully given.
For some time after I wasn’t sure what to make of the experience, but since that moment, I’ve been placed more generally in a situation where onion-free diets are involved. I personally remain someone who likes onions and garlic and believes that leeks are a marvellous vegetable, but even so being obliged to cook without onions has had quite an effect on me.
I’m now convinced that the widely accepted habit of starting off so many dishes by frying an onion is nonsense. Sometimes, yes, but very often it is not only unnecessary, but can actually be detrimental to other flavours, coarsening or destroying the subtlety of some vegetables, herbs, and spices. What I now do is treat the onion like any other vegetable or flavour, and not allow it what seems to me the unjustified priority it has attained over the years.
So, in the recipes that follow, some dishes which you would usually expected to begin with an onion will not do so. This means that I think they are better without. But if you feel I’m wrong on this, do just go ahead and reinstate the onion. Or, anyway and more often, I’ll hand the decision back to you by pointing out that ‘onions are optional’. Garlic is, surely, always optional.
To draw finally a more general lesson from all of this, the tendency by professional cooks to add ever more and more ingredients to their recipes I regard as both pointless and counter-productive. In the more fancy areas of vegetarian cookery I think it is done to make something look complicated that is essentially very simple, or to claim a culinary adventurousness that is unjustified.
Some dishes do justifiably call for a fairly large number of ingredients (spices especially). If in these cases, all of the named ingredients are necessary and blend harmoniously together, then well and good. But to my mind such cases are relatively rare. It is more likely that the inclusion of large numbers of ingredients will lead to them fighting against each other rather than combining to make a flavour of character and individuality.
In vegetarian cookery, simplicity is not always necessarily best, but it usually is.