I want to be Australia’s next Masterchef. This is highly unlikely for at least two reasons. First, I don’t live in Australia. Second, the Masterchef competition is extremely vegetarian unfriendly. Last week, the contestants were required to essentially butcher a lamb carcass. One of my favourite Masterchef moments occurred in the 2014 competition when nearly-vegetarian Renae Smith reacted the way I have would when she discovered a whole eel in her mystery box — tears, panic attack, and horror. It was clear she wasn’t going to be able to go through with her cook when my favourite contestant of the seasons, Colin Sheppard rode to the rescue and offered to give up some of his cook time to clean and filet the horrifying primal beast. Filleted, the meat didn’t trigger her phobia, and Renae was able to cook. I was heartbroken when Colin went home.
Which points, perhaps, to a third reason I’ll never be Australia’s (or anyone else’s) next Masterchef: Colin, 51, was referred to as “Pappa”. A similarly gentle male contestant, Richard Harris, 55, chose eel for an invention challenge because he reckoned the other contestants might find it intimidating. Richard was eliminated from 2015’s New Zealand Masterchef to questions about why he waited until it was too late in his life to pursue his dream. <sound of gnashing teeth and forehead pounding on desk> Colin and Richard: You are Masterchefs in my heart!
Masterchef New Zealand has been cancelled; so, it looks like I must settle for being an armchair master chef. When the contestants are set invention tests or mystery boxes, Simon and I play “what would you cook?” This works out nicely for me, of course, because my imagined masterpiece is always tastier and more spectacularly beautiful than anything the contestants put up.
OK. Today’s mystery box ingredient is: KALE. What would you cook?
The Kale Whisperer’s Seventh Cookbook of Christmas will help you figure that out, whether you are practicing for Masterchef, or not. Although, if you are, I would advise studying this book front-to-back and side-to-side. Karen Page’s The Vegetarian Flavor Bible (Little Brown, 2015) is subtitled “the essential guide to culinary creativity.” And it is all that. This is my second non-cookbook Cookbook of Christmas, but if I had to pick a desert island cookbook, this would be it. With this cookbook, you don’t need cookbooks at all, really.
Page’s goal in compiling this guide, which is both informative and simple to use, was to provide useful nutritional and health information for those seeking to either to become vegetarians or shift to a whole-foods, plant-based diet, with our without occasional meat. Her first two chapters — For the Love of Plants, and Maximizing Flavor — make the case for a plant-based diet and chronicle the shift of vegetarian cuisine from the counter-culture to the mainstream. Of particular interest to me were the comments from some of America’s top chefs who, increasingly, are shifting toward culinary styles that depend more and more heavily on vegetables as the focus rather than the background.
Page’s discussion of the key elements of flavour in vegetarian cooking is eye opening, even for the most experienced cook, and has vastly increased my confidence as an improvisational cook. The formula? Flavor = Taste + Mouthfeel + Aroma + The X-Factor (senses + heart, mind, spirit). She even has a handy “craving” table. Vegetarian? Craving crab dip? Add some kelp and Old Bay Seasoning to your favourite white bean dip. Miss that magic zing of anchovy paste? I know I do. Use dark miso paste. I’m not a fan of play meat, so her suggestions of tofurkey and Soyrizo leave me cold. But most of the suggestions here are at least worth a think.
All this information is fascinating, and important to know, but the part of The Vegetarian Flavor Bible that you will use often — in my case, daily — is the “A to Z Listings.” It is truly exhaustive. You won’t find some local specialties here. No feijoas but you will find their cousin, guava. So far, I haven’t stumped this list. And I’ve tried. Each listing starts with some general information: nutrient concentration, season, flavour, volume (flavour loudness), what it is, nutritional profile, cooking techniques, tips, and botanical relatives. Look up Kale, and here is some of what you will learn: kale is a leafy, green vegetable, it has an extremely high nutrient content, it’s bitter but can be sweet in winter, it’s 72% carbs / 16% protein / 12% fat, and 1 cup of raw, chopped kale has 35 calories and 2 grams of protein. Kale likes to be blanched, boiled, braised, grilled, slow cooked, marinated, pureed, eaten raw (but I’m not a fan, unless its very young and tender), sautéed, stewed, steamed and stir fried. Kale’s cousins include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, radishes, and watercress.
What you will also learn is anything and everything that matches well with kale. Page built her flavour suggestions through an exhaustive compilation of recommendations and wisdom of hundreds of American cooks and chefs specialising in cuisines from around the world. There is a ranking system for the flavour matches. Flavour matches recommended by at least one expert appear in normal type. BOLD CAPS indicate recommendations made by a larger number of experts. BOLD CAPS with an asterisk (*) are what Page calls “Holy Grail” pairings — most highly recommended by the largest number of experts. Particular types of preparations (soups, casseroles) and cuisines use of an ingredient appear in italics. Those in bold italics or BOLD ITALIC CAPS are those most highly recommended for the particular ingredient.
What will I cook with my Kale? Were it winter, I might make a hearty soup or my favourite lentil and kale spag bol. But it is early summer here in New Zealand, so I’m thinking a frittata or stir-fry. Maybe a salad. I look up kale and find that some of its strongest flavour partners are beans, chilli, garlic, lemon, olive oil, and red onions. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t care for raw kale, no matter how long you massage it. But if it is young and fairly tender, all it needs is a quick blanch. I’m thinking a salad of blanched kale tossed with a dressing of lemon juice, olive oil, some thinly sliced new season garlic, a pinch of dried chilli to give it some bite, salt and pepper. I’ll marinate some white beans in the same vinaigrette (minus the chilli) and some chopped fresh oregano from my garden and a thinly sliced red onion. Then I’ll make a composed salad of the dark green kale, the white beans and red onions, with some crispy parmesan croutons made with the end of the loaf of sourdough bread I baked last week.
I’ll let you know if the judges like it!