By Pete Goffe-Wood.
“The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.” Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume
Growing up you couldn’t get me to eat vegetables for love or money – the best I could muster was iceberg lettuce (provided it was doused in Thousand Island dressing) or potatoes, but even that was restricted to chips and roasted, mash at a push. I could eat tomatoes that were cooked in a sauce but would rather eat my own hand before a raw one passed my lips. I didn’t even try mushrooms until I was sixteen.
Why, you may ask – my answer would be that I have absolutely no idea – I just didn’t like the idea of vegetables. I was a very fussy eater as a kid and I guess my mother just indulged me. I remember one evening she was away, so my dad had taken on the cooking duties. Having no clue as to what we kids did or didn’t eat, he decided that blackmail was the best course of action and told myself and my two sisters (one of whom, to this day, is still a ridiculously fussy eater) that if we ate everything on our plates he would take us to the Drive-In. I realise that this seriously dates me and any millennials reading this will have to Google search Drive-Ins, but in our household in the 70s this was a serious treat, especially on a school night.
My sisters managed to oblige but I was stuck on a mound of peas that I just couldn’t bring myself to eat, Drive-In or no Drive-In. I waited until my father had left the table and managed to scoop up all of the peas by hand and stuff them in the breast pocket of my pyjamas.
Upon showing my cleared plate I went straight to the bathroom and flushed the offending peas down the toilet.
It is ironic that my early reluctance to try vegetables leads me directly into the latest progression in modern cooking. I say progression because I hate the word “trend”, it’s so … trendy. The new focus is the treatment of vegetables. There is a new-found fascination with all things floral and we are much the richer for it.
Molecular Mumbo Jumbo has meant that we have pushed meat boundaries as far as they will go. There is no more that you can do with connective tissue that hasn’t been done, whether you reverse sear it or cook it in a water bath at 10℃ for 2 weeks, we’ve done all we can with meat and now chefs have turned their attention to vegetables.
Vegetables are becoming the heroes – they’ve transcended their humble supporting roles and are being pushed into the spotlight as the leading role. Both urban and rural foraging have become de rigueur but so have kitchen gardens. Some chefs are fortunate enough to work on estates that have the time, funds and inclination to have marvellous gardens (think of Boschendal and Babylonstoren). Others have close relationships with organisations like the Oranjezicht City Farm or Harvest of Hope whereby they are in direct contact with the growers. We have become such a global market that ingredients like asparagus are available all year round provided you don’t mind if it comes from Peru or Thailand – so it’s heartening to see that seasonality has been given a new respect.
Chefs are embracing all manner of vegetables – especially during winter – that have previously been either much maligned, ignored or not deemed sexy enough.
There have been a number of stand-out dishes recently – the first that comes to mind was at Chefs Warehouse at Beau Constantia. Here Ivor Jones’ dish consisted of a tempura of kale with pickled and fermented vegetables. The noisily crisp kale served as crostini on which to eat either subtly pickled carrots, radishes and beets, or earthy fermented black beans and kimchi. This was a dish that was deceptively simple but so flavoursome and layered, and not an animal protein in sight. To my mind, the highlight of an eight-dish tapas offering.
Rickey Broekhoven at The Restaurant at Newton Johnson in the Hemel en Aarde Valley recently served me a roasted Jerusalem artichoke accompaniment to a beautiful Flat Iron steak that was meatier and more full-bodied than the steak itself.
Scott Kirton at La Colombe presents a ten-course vegetarian tasting menu consisting of dishes such as the mercurial cauliflower risotto, caramelised endive, salsa verde, bok choi and courgette – a dish that rivals anything on the Gourmand menu.
Then there was Eric Bulpitt’s sensual feast, “The Whole Cauliflower”, at Faber in Paarl – a homage to the brassica – roasted and caramelised cauliflower served on the silkiest velouté with pickled stems and dehydrated leaves. How did the lowly peasant cauliflower achieve such superstar status?
In a world where obesity has become the new urban malnutrition this is a much needed movement that is swiftly gaining momentum. Chefs are quite literally reuniting us with our roots and the age-old connection between the garden and the table is being rekindled.
Nowadays, even if there wasn’t the promise of a midweek visit to the Drive-In to tempt me I’d happily wolf down my peas – provided, of course, they were sautéed together with some fresh mint, new season’s asparagus, broad beans, Jersey Royal potatoes and baby carrots.