Why we should love all veges, even the ugly ones

Alice Zaslavsky wants us all to love every vegetable. Picture: Ben Dearnley
Alice Zaslavsky wants us all to love every vegetable. Picture: Ben Dearnley

Alice Zaslavsky had to fight with her publishers to get celeriac included among the 50 vegetables she champions in her latest book In Praise of Veg.

"Celeriac looks like a knobbly kind of thing from another planet," she says.

"In the book I say it's kind of like the baby in the movie Eraserhead, which is such an obscure, feel-good reference.

"But for people who haven't cooked with it, it can look quite intimidating because you kind of feel like you should plant it rather than eat it.

"But flavourwise, if you like licorice, if you like the texture of slow-roasted beetroot, and you mix those two things together, then you've got celeriac, with a little bit of that celery earthiness as well.

"I think celeriac is extremely under-utilised and underrated and I'm glad I put up a fight.

"If I had to change the name of this book to anything it would be like 'In Defense of Ugly Veg'."

In Praise of Veg is a riotous celebration of vegetables, organised by colour, from white garlic to light green cabbage, full of tips for buying, storing and cooking vegetables, complete with more than 150 recipes.

In Praise of Veg: A modern kitchen companion, by Alice Zaslavsky. Murdoch Books, $60.

In Praise of Veg: A modern kitchen companion, by Alice Zaslavsky. Murdoch Books, $60.

Zaslavsky came to prominence in 2012 with a stint on season four of MasterChef where she narrowly missed out on final's week. Current judge Andy Allen was the winner that year. Since then Zaslavsky has gone on to host television and radio programs, write an award winning children's cookbook, and share her love of food through her social media @aliceinframes.

And that love extends to ugly vegetables, or ones which have a bad reputation, such as Brussels sprouts, or cabbage. She wants us to love all vegetables equally.

But it's not about pushing a plant-based diet, it's about thinking plant-forward.

"What I'm trying to do is encourage everybody to feel like they can belong in a place where they can just eat more vegetables," she says.

"If you are a meat and three veg family, add one more; if you're already there, then I've got substitutions for you that are fully plant-based, or you might use meat or fish as a bit of a garnish, rather than the main event.

"I like the idea of plant forward, I think that there's a real sense of action to it. It's not a passive way to think about vege, and it's not that you have to eat them. It's more that it propels you, when you eat more food that vibrates with life."

So what are some of her favourite other ugly vegetables?

"Poor old Brussels sprouts, I treat them as a bit of a litmus test for friends. If someone says they don't like them then I notch that in my head. If someone says they like them, and they do, those people are out there, I see that as an I'm an open-minded rebel and I like that quality in a person."

She says the best way to cook Brussel sprouts is to cook them hot and heavy and fast.

"That way you can caramelise the outside and inside is still nice and creamy and soft. They are mini cabbages, so if you boil them they do get very farty."

Silverbeet is another vegetable with a bad reputation.

"Even I found it challenging to love silverbeet so I set myself the task of really committing to finding ways to love it and I did.

"I think what I was doing was not taking enough moisture out of the silverbeet and I was under seasoning it and once I paired it with cheese and caramelised onion the love grew."

Growing up in Georgia, in the former Soviet Union, Zaslavsky was a child who ate vegetables - "meat and fish were pretty hard to come by, you ate what you grew" - but as a mother to Hazel, she understands the fights which can occur at the dinner table when it comes to eating vegetables.

"It can be a power struggle in a lot of households but the quickest way to turn someone off something is to force it on them.

"There's research coming out that says the less you're attached to your kids eating vegetables means they'll be more likely to try new things.

"Just serve them up and put them on the table, eat them yourself and make them tasty, that role modelling will have a positive impact."

Broccoli steaks with tkemali

Broccoli steaks with tkemali. Picture: Ben Dearnley

Broccoli steaks with tkemali. Picture: Ben Dearnley

Broccoli is meaty by nature, particularly when chargrilled like this. If you can find smaller heads with leaves attached, they'll make an especially dramatic addition to the table - like an edible centrepiece. I love the depth of colour of the plum sauce known as tkemali, a Georgian barbecue mainstay; be sure to use the sourest plums you can find. When I was a little girl, it was my job to go out and forage for damson plums (we called them "alycha" - uh-li-chah) on nature strips in our neighbourhood for Babuschka Zina's tkemali. I think she'd be proud of this one.

Ingredients

2 heads of broccoli

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling

1 handful of walnuts, some grated with a microplane, some finely chopped

Tkemali plum sauce:

500g Damson plums or sour equivalent, halved and pitted

1 tsp celery seeds

5 garlic cloves, roughly chopped

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

1/2 tsp ground coriander

1 1/2 tbsp red wine vinegar, plus a little extra if the plums aren't tart enough for your taste

Method

1. Cut the broccoli heads along the side, to create a flat surface. Reserve the o-cuts, then cut the broccoli into "steaks" about 2cm thick; you should get at least two to three steaks out of each broccoli. Drizzle some olive oil onto a tray, add the steaks and toss to coat. Set aside.

2. Preheat the oven to 190C. Line a baking tray with baking paper. While the oven is preheating, pop the plums for the tkemali on the baking tray, give them a drizzle of olive oil, then whack them into the oven. Pull them out after about 15 minutes, when they're blistered and softened, and are leaching out ruby red liquid; this should be roughly around the same time the oven is at temperature.

3. Pop the plums and the remaining tkemali ingredients in a blender and blitz to a purée. Taste for seasoning and acid, adding extra vinegar if need be.

4. Meanwhile, heat an ovenproof chargrill pan for at least five to 10 minutes, until searing hot. Working in batches, chargrill the oiled broccoli for two to three minutes, or until slightly charred.

5. Transfer to a baking tray and repeat with the remaining broccoli, then transfer to the oven and bake for 15-20minutes, or until a knife can go through the thickest part of the broccoli stalks.

6. To serve, spoon the tkemali sauce around a platter, then arrange the broccoli on top. Drizzle with a little more olive oil. Sprinkle with salt flakes, freshly cracked black pepper and the walnuts. Serve warm, or at room temperature.

Tip: If you don't have a chargrill, cook the broccoli in a heavy-based pan - you just won't get the char marks.

Shortcut: Oil the broccoli well and cook in a 220C oven until they start to burnish. Bonus points for leaving the baking tray in the oven to heat up, so that the florets really cop the heat as soon as they hit.

Serves 4.

Keralan fried cauliflower with coconut chutney

Keralan fried cauliflower with coconut chutney. Picture: Ben Dearnley

Keralan fried cauliflower with coconut chutney. Picture: Ben Dearnley

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.

Ingredients

1/2 head of cauliflower

1 cup chickpea flour

1/2 cup rice flour

1/4 tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt flakes

2 tsp ground turmeric

2 tsp Kashmiri chilli powder

2 tsp mild curry powder

1 cup 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

coriander leaves, to garnish

1-2 limes, cut into wedges

Greek-style yoghurt, to serve

Coconut chutney (Makes 1 1/2 cups):

100g coconut flesh (or shredded coconut)

1 1/2 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

1 1/2 tsp tamarind purée

1 tsp brown sugar, or to taste

1 bunch of coriander, chopped

Method

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

2. In a large bowl, combine the chickpea flour, rice flour, baking powder, salt flakes and one 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.

3. To make the coconut chutney, place the coconut in a bowl and cover with just boiled water. Stand for five 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 three to four 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 one tablespoon of water at a time to loosen. Season to taste.

4. Heat 3cm of rice bran oil in a wok or saucepan over high heat to 180C; 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.

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

6. Strain one-quarter of the cooking oil into a cold saucepan, leaving a 5mm (1/4 inch) shimmer of oil in the pan. Return the pan to the heat with the remaining spices and cook for one minute, or until foaming. Add all the fried cauliflower and cook, stirring, for three 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.

Serves 4-6 as a starter.

Silverbeet khachapuri

Silverbeet khachapuri. Picture: Ben Dearnely

Silverbeet khachapuri. Picture: Ben Dearnely

I couldn't publish a cookbook and not feature this recipe - arguably, Georgia's greatest gift to the world. This cheese bread (khacha meaning "cheese", puri meaning "bread") has more than 20 different regional iterations, across a reasonably small country, which should give you a sense of how seriously Georgians take their food. Silverbeet is usually reserved for mkhlovana or pkhali dip - so I hope they'll forgive its addition to this adjaruli khachapuri, which is otherwise distinguished by its gondola shape, to reflect the port city's seafaring heritage, and coddled egg in the centre.

Ingredients

1 cup milk, lukewarm

2 tsp instant dried yeast

1/2 tsp sugar

3 cups high-gluten flour, plus extra for dusting

2 eggs

1/4 cup olive oil, plus extra for drizzling

1/2 tsp salt

sesame seeds, for sprinkling (optional)

40g butter, cut into 4 large slices

lemon wedges, to serve

Filling:

1 tbsp olive oil

1 onion, diced

1-2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped

1 bunch of silverbeet, leaves picked and finely chopped, to yield about 265g chopped leaves

200g cottage cheese

200g mozzarella, grated

200g feta

1/4 tsp salt (optional)

1/2 tsp ground fenugreek

4 eggs

Method

1. Combine the milk, yeast and sugar in a bowl and set aside to dissolve. In a saucepan, combine 25g of the flour and 100ml water and stir over low heat for one to two minutes until a slurry forms. Allow to cool slightly, then add to the milk mixture, along with one egg and the olive oil, whisking to combine.

2. Sift the remaining flour into your biggest mixing bowl, or the bowl of an electric stand mixer. Sprinkle in the salt, then make a well in the centre. Slowly add the milk mixture, using a spatula or your hands to combine. Knead together with your hands in the bowl, or if using an electric stand mixer, keep it whirring until a soft dough forms; this should take around 5-10 minutes. Keep kneading the dough and pulling it apart until it stops tearing when you do this. You should be able to pull the dough apart and see some elasticity as the gluten begins to activate.

3. When the dough comes away from the sides of the bowl, turn it out onto a floured bench and give it some more kneading if needed. You'll know you've kneaded it enough when you poke a fingertip in lightly and it springs back. More is more here - you can't overwork this dough.

4. Sprinkle some flour into the bottom of the bowl and use this to scoop out any left-over dough bits - if they're crumbly, discard them; otherwise, incorporate them into the dough, folding it over itself a few times to ensure the bits are fully embraced.

5. Wipe the bowl out with paper towel or a tea towel. Now splash a bit of extra olive oil into the bottom of the bowl and pop the dough back in, turning to coat in the oil. Cover with a tea towel and leave to prove in a warm spot for one hour.

6. Meanwhile, make the filling. Warm the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-low heat and sweat the onion for a few minutes, until it starts to break down. Reduce the heat to low, pop a lid on and sweat the onion for another 5 minutes or so, then remove the lid and sweat for a further 2-3 minutes, until translucent and glossy.

7. Stir in the garlic and silverbeet, mixing thoroughly. Pop the lid back on and leave them to get to know each other and get steamy for 5 minutes.

8. Tip the mixture into a fresh bowl. Add the cottage cheese and mozzarella to this bowl, then crumble in the feta and mix together well. Taste and season if need be. Divide into four equal portions and set aside.

9. Once the dough has doubled in size, preheat the oven to 240C. Line two baking trays with baking paper.

10. Turn the dough out onto a floured bench and knock it back, by giving the squishiest bits a few satisfying fist bumps. Divide into four equal-sized blobs and shape into balls. If you're going down the sesame seed route, here's where you sprinkle some seeds under the dough, too.

11. Use a rolling pin to roll out the balls into oblongs about 17 x 35cm in size.

12. Imagine a football or rugby ball, and make a shape big enough to wrap up the sides of it.

13. Pop two oblongs on each baking tray. Scoop one portion of filling onto each oblong, to about 1cm from the edge, then use your fingers to fold and press the pastry over to form a "fence", folding some mixture underneath it to create a stuffed crust. Pinch, pull and twist the top and bottom of the oblong so that it forms a boat shape. Cover with a tea towel and leave to prove for a further 15 minutes.

14. Lightly beat the remaining egg in the reserved milk-mixture bowl from earlier (to mop up any left-over liquid from before) and brush it over to glaze the dough crusts. Sprinkle the filling with fenugreek and salt, and the edges with more sesame seeds if desired.

15. Pop the trays into the oven. Reduce the oven temperature to 180C. Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until the crusts are just starting to get a glow and firm up, swapping the trays halfway through for even browning if needed.

16. Crank the oven temperature up to 200C.

17. Use the base of a 1/3 cup measuring cup to create a well for the egg in the centre of each khachapuri. One at a time, crack the eggs into a glass, sliding one into each well.

18. Bake for a final 10-15 minutes, until the eggs have just set and the crusts are golden brown. Top each hot khachapuri with a slice of butter and serve with lemon wedges, if you'd like ... though my dad categorically disagrees with the lemon!

Tip: The khachapuri can be baked in advance, minus the eggs. Just before serving, crack the eggs in and bake in a preheated oven at 200C for 10-15 minutes.

Shortcut: You can pop the same filling into shop-bought puff or filo pastry with equally delicious results - and leave the egg out for an even quicker zoom to the table.

Extra: The just-baked khachapuri is traditionally topped with a slice of butter just before serving.

Makes 4.

Swede spiral tian with balsamic glaze

Swede spiral tian with balsamic glaze. Picture: Ben Dearnley

Swede spiral tian with balsamic glaze. Picture: Ben Dearnley

This is such a visually arresting dish, and frankly, such a fabulous way of making use of a veg that is so often seen as a bit drab. You can also get creative with what else you layer up into a tian - from ratatouille combos of zucchini, eggplant, tomato and summer squash, to borschy tian with beetroot, carrot and turnip. A mandoline will come in handy, but some of the fancier food processors will do the job, too.

Ingredients

1.2 kg swedes or turnips, thinly sliced with a mandoline

3/4 cup olive oil

1 1/2 tsp salt flakes

1 1/2 tbsp caster sugar

1 tsp freshly cracked black pepper

100ml vegetable stock

Caramelised balsamic, to serve

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 190C.

2. Put the swede slices in a bowl. Drizzle with a few tablespoons of the olive oil, then sprinkle with the salt, sugar and pepper and toss until well coated.

3. Arrange the swede slices in a round baking dish in a spiral pattern, starting from the outside and working your way in.

4. Drizzle with a little more olive oil, then pour the stock into the bottom of the pan. Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes, or until the swede is knife-tender.

5. Remove the foil from the dish. Glaze the swede

6. Slices with the remaining olive oil and bake for another 30-35 minutes, or until burnished on top.

7. Drizzle with the caramelised balsamic and serve to gasps at the table.

Serves 4-6.

This story In Praise of Veg: why we should love all veg, even the ugly ones first appeared on The Canberra Times.