Rachel shares a few of her top tips for cooking up mouth-watering meat-free fare…
What to do with a cauliflower? If your first instinct is to douse it cheese sauce, read on. We’ve tracked down one of the South West’s most reputable vegetarian chefs to gather some tips and tricks to demystify your veg box.
Rachel Demuth is a name known to most residents of the stunning city of Bath. Her eponymous vegetarian restaurant was an institution for 25 years and, while she’s recently handed the reins over to head chef Richard, who now runs Acorn, Demuth has by no means hung up her chef’s hat. You’ll find her pottering around the kitchens of Demuths Cookery School, tracking down local farmers and grocers for the freshest produce and whizzing from place to place at food festivals.
When we spoke, Demuth was in the throes of The Great Bath Feast, an annual festival that she has been actively involved with since it began three years ago. ‘This year there have been 150 events packed into one month,’ she exclaims, ‘and there are quirkier events popping up every year. I wish I’d had chance to take part in the Italian Job last week. It involved a troop of Mini Coopers touring around all the Italian restaurants in Bath, and sounded like a real riot.’
What’s in the kitchen larder today?
I’ve just bought myself three enormous cauliflowers. You can’t tell me that being vegetarian is expensive as these were cheap as chips. Cauliflower is a vegetable that can be overlooked but I’m finding that more and more people are interested in learning about what they can do with everyday, seasonal vegetables, and they’re not necessarily all vegetarians. There’s a movement that’s turning its nose up at bland boiled veg to discover more exciting methods of serving them up. So I’ll be taking these cauliflowers down an Arabian path; I’ll roast them and dress with pomegranate and tahini sauce and serve alongside roasted carrot and falafel and beetroot mahammara (beetroot and walnut dip). I much prefer to roast falafel rather than fry it. Yes, it’s healthier but I also find that if you ask a class of cooks who deep fries anything at home, you’ll be met with silence. No-one does, and it’s quite wasteful. I like to find ways of making things as healthy as possible.
What set you on the vegetarian culinary path?
I never set out to be a vegetarian or had a particular turning point. My mother had a vegetable garden and was passionate about growing things and gardening, so I grew up eating and loving vegetables. When I went to university beans were very ‘in’, so my diet was predominantly pulses and vegetables and, to be honest, I didn’t really think about eating meat.
After I left university I landed a job at Neal’s Yard which was entirely vegetarian and that I guess that’s what set me on the vegetarian career path. It’s was all very natural. My parents wanted me to get a ‘proper’ job. I think they wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor or something like that, but from then on cooking was my career and I loved it so much it didn’t cross my mind to do anything else.
I’m a vegetarian but my boyfriend is a meat eater and sometimes we struggle to agree on what to have for dinner. Any tips?
The last thing you want after a day’s work is to be making two separate dishes. The trick with this is to reverse the focus of the dish. Cook some really gorgeous vegetables and put them in the spotlight. You can use those cauliflowers as an example. If he wants a portion of meat or fish, just serve it as an aside. He can still have it, but it saves you cooking two different meals and eating together is such a lovely experience. Just taking some time out to enjoy a meal is important. Enjoy cooking it and enjoy eating it.
It’s for that reason I think the evening courses are really special. As an extension of dinner, it’s a chance to concentrate on your food in a way you don’t normally do. You turn up at 6.30pm and have a cup of coffee and wind down from the day before heading into the kitchen. A couple of hours later we all take a seat around a big table and enjoy the fruits of our labours with a nice glass of wine. It’s really sociable and you get a real mix of people, so it’s a good place to ask questions, and help each other too. One girl on a recent course said she had a whole fridge of cabbages and no idea what to do with them.
What do you do with a whole fridge of cabbages?
Cry! [Rachel laughs]. No, cabbages are great when shredded and added to stir fries, especially with crystallised ginger, soy and cumin. Cabbage is friends with both sweet and sour flavours. But the one thing you don’t want to do is boil it; that’s in no way thrilling. Red cabbage is a great vegetable too, lovely and rich and robust.
You’ve travelled extensively over your career. Do you have a favourite destination?
I love travelling. I don’t travel as much as I used to but I still relish the adventure of visiting other countries. I’m off to Nepal next week, but my real love is India. As a vegetarian, India is such a wonderful place to be because vegetarian food is the norm there; you can eat wherever you like. The attitude to food is almost the reverse of the UK. When in India, I enjoy the freedom of being able to taste my way round the country and not worry about being a ‘fussy’ eater. When you utter the word ‘India’, immediately it conjures images of bright, vibrant spices, and spice combinations is definitely a skill I’ve picked up from my travels. So, going back to those cauliflowers, I’ll be dressing them in a Middle Eastern spice mix comprising thyme, oregano, cumin, coriander and sesame before roasting.
How does cheffing compare to teaching?
I think of cheffing as a young person’s sport. I spent ten years in the kitchen and absolutely loved it. You’re working at such a fast pace to get the dishes out to diners and you get such a buzz from the adrenalin. It’s like being actor; you get a real high from constantly being on your toes, and it feels amazing. But it is a profession you have to live 24 hours a day. It truly becomes your life and all your friends have to be in the profession otherwise you simply wouldn’t get to see them. I definitely get more time now that I’m teaching at the cookery school. It’s not as intense as being in a restaurant kitchen. You’ve still got to work hard mind, but it suits me.
What kind of people do you see on your cookery courses?
We get a wide of range of people. Cookery courses are often bought as Christmas and birthday presents, or anniversary or leaving presents, so you get a wide demographic. We also run classes for children between ten and 14 years old and classes for students – teaching them how to utilise ingredients and fend for themselves in the kitchen before flying the nest. Courses that feature chillies are always more popular with men – funny that! The Thai, Mexican and Indian courses are really popular with the guys.
Then there are the longer diploma courses. The kinds of people we see on these are those who have a business that involves food. So it’s not necessarily restaurant owners or chefs, but people like bed and breakfast owners and tour companies. At these places, food is a part of the business but not the entirety so they’re looking for some exciting tips and tricks.
What is your favourite season?
My favourite season is the one we’re in now. September and October offer up such a rich variety of produce like squashes and kale. At Demuths we source vegetables as locally as possible, so everything we use reflects the seasons. One of our main suppliers is Eades in Bath; a greengrocers that has been going for generations. They supply all the best restaurants in Bath and that’s testament to the quality. Everything that comes through the kitchen doors is just wonderfully fresh and seasonal. They have their own market garden, so everything has been grown on their own lands. That’s the beauty of nature: she dishes up ingredients entirely suited to the time of year, so, now the weather is cooler, we’ll all be cosying up with the robust and comforting flavours that are harvested at this time of year. For that reason I’m also fond of spring, and all the light, fresh flavours it brings. Just thinking of it now brings to mind fresh, crisp asparagus and venturing out to collect wild garlic.
What’s your veg of the season?
Squashes are in season at the moment, and the most easily available is the butternut squash. This kind of squash is the easiest to cook with too, as it’s really easy to peel. But I find that you don’t need to peel it at all, you can eat the skin. Unless you’re using it to make something smooth, like a soup or a dip, peeling it is unnecessary. One of the tastiest and easiest ways to use this veg is to simply slice it up (with the skin on) and roast it with some garlic. You can leave the garlic in the skin too. Squash goes best with what I call ‘hardy herbs’, like sage and rosemary. My personal favourite is a squash called an onion squash. It’s bright orange, so if you want to create a particularly good Halloween dish, I suggest getting your hands on one and sprinkling some pomegranate seeds and a bit of pomegranate syrup over it for a really autumnal meal.
Who has been the greatest influence on your cooking?
Without a doubt that would be Yotam Ottolenghi. He’s a bit of a celebrity now with two TV programmes behind him, and his third book Plenty More was released this month. This Israeli-born chef taught a cookery course at Demuth’s and he was truly inspiring. His creative approach to vegetables had a real impact on everyone, including myself. He was the one who introduced me to the use of pomegranate syrup and its brilliantly sweet and sour flavour. People still ask if he’s doing another course even now. Maybe he’s reading this and he’ll come and visit again.
Do you see any emerging food trends we should keep our eyes open for in 2015?
Food trends are so hard to keep track of and, as we deal with vegetarian cuisine, it means we’re in a slightly different realm. I heard this morning that South American (so Peruvian and Brazilian) food was the upcoming ‘thing’ but to be honest I thought we’d only just had that. What we can see picking up is a growing focus on vegan food and in particular raw vegan food. Raw cakes seem to be popping up all over the place. You’ve just got to watch with these cakes, as they might be raw but they can be stacked with calories.
What will you be cooking for Christmas dinner this year?
I am a huge fan of pies. A pie is great option because you can make yourself an individual portion to take to other people’s houses over the holidays. You can make it advance – always a plus at Christmas – and just pop it in the oven to heat it up. I’ll be looking to make a layered pie in shortcrust pastry: a layer of squash, mushrooms and chestnuts; then a layer of kale and cheese; then a layer of beetroot and walnuts. It will end up containing all those festive colours so it will look superb when it’s cut open. The beauty of a pie like this is that it will go perfectly with all the traditional veg of the classic Christmas dinner.
Bristol and Bath are fast becoming hotspots for great vegetarian food. Here are some places to try:
Stay tuned for more of Rachel’s top cooking tips on the blog next week.