Start with the veg

Australian cook, food writer and broadcaster Alice Zaslavsky. PHOTOS: BEN DEARNLEY
Australian cook, food writer and broadcaster Alice Zaslavsky. PHOTOS: BEN DEARNLEY
Alice Zaslavsky is not joking when she calls her cookbook In Praise of Veg a "hefty tome".

In nearly 500 pages, Zaslavsky has produced 50 of her "all-time favourites" as well as plenty of information on what makes the vegetables she uses in them special.

THE BOOK: In Praise of Veg, by Alice Zaslavsky, published by  Murdoch Books, RRP $70.
THE BOOK: In Praise of Veg, by Alice Zaslavsky, published by Murdoch Books, RRP $70.

Zaslavksy, an Australian cook, food writer and broadcaster, who aims to expand people’s cooking and eating horizons, describes her family’s way of eating as "plant forward" in that they start with the vegetables and build dishes around them.

"I believe most of us have a desire to flex our flexitarian muscle — to grab more greens, reduce the load we put on the environment and take more care with the proteins we choose. But often we don’t know where to start."

Her dishes occasionally include some flaked fish or bacon as a secondary element although she also includes substitutions for those going vegetarian.Eating a vegetable-heavy diet comes naturally to Zaslavsky — she grew up in Georgia in the former Soviet Union, where fresh produce was the basis of their diet out of necessity and culture.

The book is broken up into colour-coded chapters based on the vegetable’s colour, for example red for capsicums, radish, tomatoes and rhubarb.

"Part of what makes vegetables one of nature’s wonders is the available palette of colours to tantalise the palate."

She also includes plenty of tips on ways to use leftovers, shortcuts or ways to use a dish differently, which usually take the form of soup, sauce, stew, salad or sandwich.

Gajar makhani — Indian-style butter carrot

Curries are always better the next day, or even a few days afterwards. Most vege curries, though, start to get mushy after a day or two — except this one.

Carrots are the ideal density to last as long as you need them to, and soften just enough with heat to be perfectly al dente.

Make your carrot chunks bite-sized, serve with steamed rice and naan bread and leave the cutlery in the drawer — this is hand food!

Any leftover gravy is good enough to mop up with naan or roti bread. Or try mixing in some picked charcoal-roasted chicken meat for a quick and easy butter chicken, before or after the carrot is all gone.

Serves 4-8

50g butter

2 Tbsp vegetable oil

1 cup (150g) raw cashews

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 Tbsp finely grated fresh ginger

1 Tbsp brown mustard seeds

4 curry leaf branches, leaves picked  (about 35-40 leaves)

1 bunch of coriander (cilantro), leaves picked, stems and roots washed well and finely chopped

3 tsp garam masala

1 tsp ground turmeric

1 tsp ground cardamom

1 tsp mild chilli powder

1½ cups (375g) Greek-style yoghurt

800g carrots, peeled and cut into

3cm pieces on the diagonal

1 Tbsp brown sugar

700g tomato passata (pureed tomatoes)

1 cup (250ml) coconut cream, plus

extra to serve

To serve

steamed basmati rice

naan or roti bread

Method

Heat the butter and oil in a wide saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the cashews and toss for 3 minutes, or until toasted and golden.

Add the garlic, ginger, mustard seeds and curry leaves and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes, or until aromatic. Set aside half the cashew mixture for serving.

Add the coriander stems and spices to the pan and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute, or until fragrant.

Stir in the yoghurt until combined, then add the carrot and stir to coat. Stir in the sugar, passata, coconut cream and 1 cup (250ml) water and bring to a simmer.

Cover the surface of the curry with a cartouche (see tips) to stop the sauce cooking down too quickly — or you could partly cover the pan with a lid. Simmer over low heat for 45 minutes, or until the thickest piece of carrot you can find is fork-tender, and the gravy has thickened and reduced slightly.

Serve drizzled with extra coconut cream and scattered with the reserved cashew mixture and coriander leaves, with rice and naan or roti bread.

Tips: Creating a "cartouche" out of baking paper encourages even, gentle cooking without sweating. It’s handy for gentle poaching and low-and-slow broth-making. Make a cartouche by folding a square-ish piece of baking paper into quarters, then cutting a rounded edge with scissors, to fit the diameter of your pot. Cut a little bit of the middle out, too, to make a little blow-hole for air to escape.

Fantastic naan and roti bread are readily available at supermarkets. Look for ones with a short shelf life and not too many ingredients. Try popping them over some heat to take on an almost-authentic tandoor char, or into the toaster to crisp up a little.

Keralan fried cauliflower with coconut chutney

Puffy popcorn pieces of cauliflower, warmed and wonderful with the spices of South India, complete with a quick and easy coconut chutney. These are already gluten-free and can easily be turned vegan by using coconut yoghurt for dipping.

Serve as a stunning share-plate, or turn into a killer breakfast by popping a runny fried or scrambled egg or two alongside.

If this book isn’t smattered with curry-leaf-oily fingerprints within the next hour, I’ll be quietly disappointed.

Serves 4-6 as a starter

½ head of cauliflower

1 cup (150g) chickpea flour

½ cup (75g) rice flour

¼ tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt flakes

2 tsp ground turmeric

2 tsp Kashmiri chilli powder

2 tsp mild curry powder

1 cup (250ml) very cold soda water

1 garlic clove, finely grated

1 tsp finely grated fresh ginger

rice bran oil, for shallow-frying

3 curry leaf branches, washed and patted dry

To serve

1–2 limes, cut into wedges

Greek-style yoghurt

To garnish

coriander (cilantro) leaves,

Coconut chutney

Makes ½ cups

100g coconut flesh (or shredded coconut)

1½ Tbsp coconut oil

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp black mustard seeds

1 tsp chilli flakes

20 curry leaves, washed and patted dry

1 green chilli, chopped

1½ tsp tamarind puree

1 tsp brown sugar, or to taste

1 bunch of coriander (cilantro), chopped

Method

Remove and thinly slice the core from the cauliflower and set aside. Cut or tear the rest of the cauliflower into small florets about 3-4cm in size. Pick the leaves and keep these for frying also.

In a large bowl, combine the chickpea flour, rice flour, baking powder, salt flakes and 1 teaspoon each of the turmeric, chilli powder and curry powder. Create a well in the middle, add the soda water, garlic and ginger, whisking out any lumps. Add the cauliflower florets and mix to coat. Chill for at least 15 minutes, or up to 1 hour.

To make the coconut chutney

Place the coconut in a bowl and cover with just boiled water. Stand for 5 minutes to soften. Meanwhile, place the coconut oil, cumin and mustard seeds, chilli flakes, curry leaves and reserved cauliflower core slices in a frying pan over medium-high heat and cook for 3-4 minutes, or until the mustard seeds begin to pop and the cauliflower is softened.

Transfer to a blender, along with the remaining chutney ingredients and drained coconut. Whiz until smooth and combined, adding a tablespoon of water at a time to loosen. Season to taste.

Heat 3cm of rice bran oil in a wok or saucepan over high heat to 180degC — a little batter added to the oil shouldn’t take longer than 30 seconds to turn golden brown.

Carefully add the well-dried curry leaf branches (they’ll make a loud noise!) and cook for 30 seconds, or until crisp. Drain on paper towel.

Working in batches, add the cauliflower florets and leaves to the hot oil after shaking away the excess batter and cook for 3-4 minutes, or until golden. Drain on a paper towel.

Strain one-quarter of the cooking oil into a cold saucepan, leaving a 5mm shimmer of oil in the pan. Return the pan to the heat with the remaining spices and cook for 1 minute, or until foaming. Add all the fried cauliflower and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes, or until coated and golden. 

Transfer to a serving platter and scatter with the crispy curry leaves and coriander. Serve with the coconut chutney, lime wedges and yoghurt.

Four ginger parsnip sticky date pudding

Sticky date pudding is my go-to winter dessert, and the four-way layering of warming ginger only serves to solidify it as a seasonal stayer. But it’s the addition of parsnip that really makes this a show-stopper.

Serve with a syrup moat of salted caramel, plus cream and ice cream, thanks! Any left-over salted caramel sauce makes the BEST topping for ice cream ... or any dessert, really.

Serves 4-6

300g medjool dates (see tip), pitted and roughly chopped

2 cups (400g) grated parsnip, plus 1 peeled and thinly sliced parsnip to garnish

2 Tbsp freshly grated ginger

1 cup (190g) crystallised ginger, sliced

2 tsp ground ginger

2 tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)

1 cup (250ml) ginger ale, boiling hot

250g butter, melted

2 cups (370g) loosely packed dark brown or demerara sugar

2 tsp natural vanilla extract

4 eggs

3 cups (450g) self-raising flour

¼ tsp salt flakes

Salted caramel sauce

1 cup (185g) loosely packed dark brown or demerara sugar

300ml thickened (whipping) cream

1 tsp natural vanilla extract

50g butter

½ tsp salt flakes

Method

Heat the oven to 180degC. Grease and line the base and sides of a 12-cup (3-litre) cake tin or high-sided baking dish.

Pop the dates and grated parsnip into a mixing bowl, along with the grated, crystallised and ground ginger and the bicarbonate of soda. Pour the boiling ginger ale over. Leave for 20 minutes to soften and cool.

In a large mixing bowl, introduce the melted butter, sugar and vanilla to each other using a wooden spoon. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Mix in the parsnip and ginger mixture, then fold in the flour and salt until just combined.

Spoon the mixture into the cake tin. Arrange the parsnip slices over the top of the pudding with some artistic flair. Bake for about 1 hour, or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the pudding comes out clean. If the top looks like it’s colouring up too quickly, cover with foil for the last 15 minutes or so. Leave to cool in the cake tin on a wire rack.

Combine all the sauce ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until the sauce comes to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for a few minutes until it thickens and turns from blonde to bronde. Spoon the warm pudding into serving bowls, then pour a generous ladleful of warm sauce over the top.

Tip: Medjool dates are bigger and softer than the regular dates found in the baking section.

Shortcut: If you can’t wait for the whole pudding to bake, you can zap a bit of the batter in a mug in the microwave at 30-second increments until cooked through. Scoop a blob of vanilla ice cream on top and get back to whatever show you’re binge-watching on the couch.

No judgement.

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