Warning - controversial content follows.
Do vegans cook? Can vegans cook?
We were eating recently at our favourite Thai restaurant, Soi.38, in Adelaide. We started with a plate of Sago Peanut Dumplings with salted coconut sauce. These were apricot-sized balls of sticky steamed tapioca, stuffed with both finely chopped mushrooms and peanuts. They sat in a shallow sauce of coconut milk and were topped with a ring of sliced red chilli and some coriander. They were amazing and delicious, like nothing I’ve ever had or imagined before.
Then it struck me. They were inadvertently, unselfconsciously, quite naturally made with no animal product at all. I guess you’d say they were vegan. I type this word with a tremor in my hand. Why?
This brought to mind another “vegan experience”, in particular a dish of steamed whole zucchini, served as is, with no enhancement. Let’s be brutally honest here, the zucchini is not the wildest little veg on the block. Apparently it has some food value hidden in its fibre and is certainly a flavour carrier but plain, steamed…?
The worst part of the experience was that the hosts/cooks commented at every bite “Yum. Isn’t this delicious!” Now I love sitting around a table and will enjoy practically everything I’m offered (and I don’t have to wash up). But, I’m the guest here guys and it’s my role to comment on any deliciousness, not yours.
I’ve found a recipe/explanation for the sago balls above, on the great Google cookbook in the cloud (and I’ll try that later) but my mind is buzzing. I know I can do a fantastic, delicious, exciting, meal where no-one misses the eggs, cream, honey or meat. I would have to put in a little effort, of course and that raises the question. Do vegans cook? Are they interested in flavour? Are they interested in texture variation? Are they committed to honouring the produce of this beautiful earth? Are they interested in exciting the senses or is that too base a desire?
Above - steamed asparagus and poached leeks (à la grec) topped with a toasted mix of chopped walnuts, olive oil, coarse breadcrumbs and parsley.
I'm thinking of a menu starting with gazpacho or chilled avocado and count milk soup. (Tetsuya offers a nice carrot and soy soup in his eponymous cookbook.)
We could follow with the dish above (1910 Wedgwood)...
or perhaps red capsicums, halved, stuffed with cherry tomatoes, garlic, marjoram and roasted just short of caramelisation...
or tofu fritters on a bed of pickled seaweed...
or... or... or...
Vegan cheese? Don't go there! We'll finish with orange segments, dates, cinnamon and caramelised zest with perhaps an orange sorbet or...
Help me out here. Comment and suggestions below.
My Smørrebrød with prawns, egg, spring onion & mayonnaise, then herring, red onion, apple, dill & sour cream. Below some suggestions...
(Plate - Aluminia Sonja, c.1950 a subsidiary of Royal Copenhagen, cutlery by Arne Jacobsen 1957, as seen in a Space Odessy.)
We finish here, in God’s own country. We have been generously lent a small “town house", in an enclave surrounded by farmland and forest. This community placement seems quite common in Denmark. Here I spend a week pretending to be Danish. I have Danish muesli, Danish blueberries, Danish milk, Danish tea…The Danes have not learnt how to make bad bread. Danish pastries are called Viennese pastries. I drink lots of elderflower water. The food is very good.
Just going to the nearby shopping centre is a thrill. Have I mentioned that I love supermarkets? You learn so much. The language is difficult - I take photographs then look up words on "Google Translate" (the traveller’s friend). These ginger shots I learned were not for making dessert or cakes. The Danes also do "healthy" by adding them to their kale & chia smoothies.
Iceland has its Hákarl – fermented shark that has an underlying smell of ammonia
Sweden has its Surströmming – a salted, fermented, canned herring so fetid one is advised to open the can under water in a bucket.
Norway has its Lutefisk – whitefish soaked in lye. Left for too long the fat turns jellied and saponification takes place. (It’s the same method as making soap.)
Denmark just has the glorious pickled herring, seen at their best with sour cream, potatoes, egg perhaps, and there’s no better way than as a smørrebrød.
There are restaurants that specialize in smørrebrød such as the well-known Ida Davidsen (who boasts as patrons everyone from Danny Kaye to American presidents). It’s simply any delicious combination piled on bread (as distinct from the Swedish smorgasbord, which is a buffet). The bread is a delicate platform, generally a crumbly rye which in no way overwhelms the topping.
Left: Traditional /old-style restaurants are often underground. They're very "woody" and serve lots of herring, dill, beer and aquavit. Café & Øle-Halle is in the cellar of the "Workers Museum". As well as butter, they serve a smoked lard, studded with crispy bacon bits. Bliss.
Centre: Contemporary restaurants all seem to claim someone who did time at Noma (the Danish restaurant at the top of the world's best list for many years). Here, a very "on-trend" dish of haddock terrine, pickled vegetables and foraged beach-side herbs sits on a "soil" of smoked rye.
Right: We have a light lunch in the palm-filled atrium of the Glyptotek museum - a salad with blue dressing and a brioche filled with a massive heap of tiny prawns (locally sourced, fresh and hand peeled), topped generously by a cap of rich tomato mayonnaise.
We spend a couple of days trawling through acres of vintage, mid-century modern furniture and hardware where the "big names" fetch eye-watering prices. They are proudly displayed and curated, redolent of tung oil and turpentine, in particular in Frederiksgarde, the street that runs through to the museum of decorative arts. We calm our longing with a visit to the Kunstindustrimuseet to soak up chair upon chair upon chair and rooms full of porcelain.
At the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Museum, I am pleased to make the acquaintance of Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783-1853). He is seen as the father of the Golden Age of Danish Art. He studied abroad, in particular with Jean-Louis David, in France. One painting was particularly mesmerizing. With neo-classical perfection, the delicious, tactile flesh is juxtaposed against blocks of cold marble... but I did wonder why he had no clothes on, only his hat.
But it was the title of this 1812 painting that left a smile on my face all day.
Danish: En ung skytte, som sliber sin pil ( 1812)
English: A young warrior sharpens his spear. (ROTFL)
Smørrebrød are a great way to feed friends, with several compilations, one after the other. The bread should be less than the piled topping, in fact shouldn't be seen. Use thinly sliced whole grain rye (dark or light depending on the topping). This is crumbly and therefore light with no hard crusts. In the opening image, dressing is served in a plastic half egg - cute. Only in Denmark! (Save your eggshells and make your own.) You can Google suggestions but you can't go wrong with...
Herring, egg, red onion, prawns, dill & cucumber, blue cheese & fresh pear, roast beef.
Go cross-cultural with asparagus & humous, prosciutto & mortadella...
Be generous with dressing and herbs. Eat with knife and fork. Offer chilled beer, aquavit or schnapps from the freezer.
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Left: The waterfall, Gullfloss
Centre: Harpa - the Concert Hall and Convention Centre at Reykjavik.
Right: Angelica, growing wild around Stokkseyri.
We are finally in Reykjavik. It is busy with tourists, very noticeable in primary coloured anoraks. We walk around Harpa, the stunning concert hall, sitting right at the water’s edge, made like a honeycomb of glass. The anoraks are everywhere – red, blue, yellow, lime green – and I remind myself that we too are tourists filling the space, albeit dressed in tasteful black.
He’s got the hand-knitted cardigan now, in natural dark brown wool, he’s had a brunch of skyr (served with lingonberries) and I’ve had the pickled sheep’s head (deliciously served as a terrine or brawn) with mustard and dark bread, so we decide to scarpa, hire a car for two days and head to the country.
The first day we drive north east to Gullfoss, a massive waterfall (OK it’s not Niagara but it’s pretty spectacular and very loud). We have lunch at the nearby visitor centre and “family” restaurant, where the food is surprisingly good. RTV has the roast lamb (lots of sheep in Iceland) and I have a traditional dish – plokkfiskur - cod and potatoes in creamy white sauce with a dark brown “bread” cooked in the steaming hot earth. (I’m sure they’ve now found easier ways of cooking rúgbrauð!) Once home, I try out the recipe given to me in Iceland (see below) and find that it is indeed good with smoked salmon, lamb pâté, cheese, pickled herring or simply buttered for a tea or coffee break.
The next day we have a magical drive south to the sea. We stop at Stokkseyri, population 400, watch birds dive for fish in the shallows, take a break at a little café in a charming wooden house. Here we discuss books with the lovely proprietor, in particular the Icelandic “noir” crime genre. She continues to knit between frothing cappuccinos.
Travel for me is generally about food, traditions, art museums and shoe shops. (Shallow? I feel no shame.) Iceland however, is about landscape and puffins.
Interesting trivia (from Wikepedia) -Each square km is shared by 3 people, 8 sheep, 100 puffins.
It’s a sane country despite building plans being changed to accommodate settlements of elves (trolls) because some of the population believes in them - (democracy in action). It’s an ethical country with a VAT of 24% (except on food) which is noticeably spent on the comfort of its people. (The roads are a dream to drive).
The financial crash of 2008 saw many stranded by dodgy deals and predictions. (Fishermen left their nets hoping to make billions.) Bankers and Financial Advisors complicit in the disaster were jailed, whereas in our country they would be retired on substantial "packages".
(Rye bread, a touch of sweetness, no yeast . VERY easy and delicious and keeps for days!)
1 1/2 cups dark rye flour
3/4 cups wholemeal or plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 cup buttermilk*
1/3 cup treacle or molasses
1 small loaf tin approx. 250cm x 100cm
Prepare the tin by buttering it or using a baking spray.
Stir together the buttermilk and treacle.
Mix together all the other ingredients.
Pour the milk mixture over the dry ingredients and blend everything together for a sticky dough.
Fill the loaf tin. The tin should be deep enough to allow the bread to rise.
Now for the tricky bit. The bread used to be cooked in a closed container for eight hours, buried in hot earth, giving it a dense crumb. You do not have a spring nearby. To create a sort of steamy atmosphere, cover the loaf tin with foil, crimping it loosely around the rim. Put the loaf tin in a baking dish half-filled with water (like a bain-marie). Bake at 120˚C for 4.5 hours. Remove from oven, un-mould and cool on a rack.
*If you can't find buttermilk at the supermarket, plain milk will be fine. The acidity in the buttermilk works wonders with the baking soda as a raising agent.
You must be impressed by my mastery of and Þ- þ and Ð - ð. These are old runic letters once also used in old English and Norse.
Þ– þ (upper and lower case) - The letter Thorn is always used at the beginning of a word but since it doesn’t exist outside Iceland and the Faroes, it’s hard to look up a town on Google maps that begins with Þ. It’s the sound of “th” as in Thor.
Ð - ð (upper and lower case) is the letter Eth. It’s never found at the beginning of a word and is a “soft th” sound. (I can't actually tell the difference!)
G in the middle or end of a word is not really sounded so with this information, can you pronounce Rúgbrauð? Good luck!
Comments or suggestions below...