Any omnivore sceptical about reading a book on vegetables will be reassured by the introduction to John Tovey’s work on the subject.
In A Feast of Vegetables, the British author writes, “I was asked on several occasions while being interviewed during the writing of this book whether it was purely for vegetarians, and whether I had become a vegetarian. To which the answer is emphatically, ‘no, no, no’.”
Further examination of the book will make the omnivore even happier: Tovey uses (sparingly) animal fat, meat stocks and meat in some of the recipes. Vegetables, naturally enough, are the main focus of the book, but if meat – and/or plenty of cheese, cream and butter – can make them taste better, then he isn’t afraid to use those ingredients, too.
As I read the book, I began to wonder if it was a reissue of a volume from a long time ago. Tovey reminisces about “celery men at northern markets”, one of whom “wore a khaki tropical suit and an old-fashioned pit helmet”, and the “noble trade” of the celery washer – a profession I had never heard of. Finally, when I got to the “about the author” page, I read that Tovey had “spent nine years in the Colonial Service in Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe].” I looked to see when the book had originally been published: 1985! It’s no wonder I detected a somewhat old-fashioned air.
That’s not to say the recipes aren’t relevant today. Tovey warns against overcooking vegetables to the point of mushiness (something the Brits had a reputation for doing back in the bad old days). For some recipes he gives three cooking times, which vary according to how one likes their vegetables: crisp, firm or soft. The book is full of useful advice about basic preparation of vegetables: kohlrabi, for instance, should be peeled “rather deeply”; and when buying fresh corn, we should buy ears with pale yellow kernels, instead of darker ones.
There is an easy-to-consult alphabet of 200 recipes including for deep-fried kohlrabi matchsticks; grated courgettes with fresh lime; Jerusalem artichokes fried with bacon, onion and garlic; sliced leeks cooked in Noilly Prat; purée of parsnips with toasted pine kernels; pumpkin and saffron soup; baked onions stuffed with cheese; celeriac and courgette cake; and grated carrots with orange and walnut oil.