Weeknight Vegetarian: River Cottage goes meatless

Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST - Baby Beet Tarte Tatin, a savory interpretation of a classic, from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s new “River Cottage Veg.”

In some ways, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall might seem an unlikely candidate to provide a vegetarian with inspiration. The British chef and farmer who founded River Cottage in 1998 has written tomes on meat (2004) and fish (2007), both of them award-winners. But for someone like me who is a relatively recent convert to a plant-focused diet, perhaps there’s no one better. That’s partly because Fearnley-Whittingstall’s work has always had an environmental bent, and he has been turning his attention to produce for many of the same reasons I have.

“The object of the exercise is, unambiguously, to persuade you to eat more vegetables,” he writes in the introduction of his new “River Cottage Veg” (Ten Speed Press). “Many more vegetables. Perhaps even to make veg the mainstay of your daily cooking. And therefore, by implication, to eat less meat, maybe a lot less meat, and maybe a bit less fish, too. Why? We need to eat more vegetables and less flesh because vegetables are the foods that do us the most good and our planet the least harm.”

VIENNA, VA, JANUARY 9, 2013: Winter salad of shaved cucumber, radish and endive with lemon vinaigrette. Dishware courtesy of Crate & Barrel. (Photo by ASTRID RIECKEN For The Washington Post)

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I couldn’t have said it better myself. But in case you’re worried about any preachiness, let me assure you that the author confines his proselytizing to the introduction. After that, it becomes clear why I’ve been finding “River Cottage Veg” so useful as I’ve been cooking through it (and marking page after page with sticky notes): Fearnley-Whittingstall delivers enticing recipes that make everyday vegetables jump off the pages.

It’s not as encyclopedic, or even as deep, as “The River Cottage Meat Book” or “The River Cottage Fish Book.” There is no guide to selecting and storing different varieties of vegetables, nor meditations on, say, the challenges faced by modern farmers. But there are other books for that. What I’ve been loving are the inventive flavor combinations, the global aesthetic, the streamlined approaches.

Perhaps most important, “River Cottage Veg” prompts me to come up with my own ideas. Take the carrot hummus, which the author whimsically calls “another delicious member of the ever-expanding family of River Cottage hummi.” With coriander-and-cumin-spiced oil for depth, a little orange juice for brightness and the requisite tahini for creamy nuttiness, this dip barely made it from food processor to serving bowl intact; I scarfed down a good quarter-cup of it on the way. Since then, I’ve made it twice more — and can’t stop imagining what other dense vegetables might take well to a similar treatment, perhaps with a change in spices: beets, of course (and there’s a recipe for such in “River Cottage Veg”), but what about parsnips? Turnips? Radishes? Maybe even asparagus! Perhaps one day soon, thanks to Fearnley-Whittingstall, I might treat “hummi” the way I do vinaigrettes and pestos: as an intuitive, flexible technique using seasonal vegetables, not a set-in-stone recipe.

His baby beet tarte tatin is another example. I’ve done the classic apple countless times, naturally, and branched out to sweet potato thanks to pastry chef David Guas. But this latest idea has me looking at beets (the recipe doesn’t even require you to peel them, a revelation) and the tart (what other high-sugar vegetables might take to it?) in a whole new light.

The headnote for the tart recipe, by the way, demonstrates another appealing thing about “River Cottage Veg,” and that’s the charming Britspeak sprinkled throughout the book: “The shallot/green onion vinaigrette finishes off the tart a treat,” he writes, “but if you fancy ringing the changes, it’s also very good topped with crumbled feta and coarsely chopped parsley.”

You might not discern his meaning, but no matter: The tart, like the other recipes I’ve made — a tahini-drizzled salad and a mushroom-orzo take on risotto — speaks for itself. I’ve made it twice, and I do think I fancy making it again.

Have questions for Fearnley-Whittingstall? He will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.

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