I have vivid memories of the first really good vegetarian restaurant I went to. It was in York and it was called Rubicon. I went there only once; on its opening night, back, if my memory doesn’t fail me, in 1991.
Until that point every veggie place I’d been to was either a branch of Cranks or a close copy. They were little outposts of the Sixties; lots of pine and posters and brown rice.
Rubicon was really grown up, sophisticated even. They had chairs rather than benches, and table cloths. Yes! Table cloths and napkins and proper cutlery and wine glasses. I suspect they even had a wine list.
I don’t remember what I drank but I do remember what I ate. It was aubergines cooked in red wine.
There’s something about cooking vegetables in wine, especially in the French manner, that counterbalances every puritanical vegetarian stereotype. Finally, aged 25, I found a restaurant where I could be veggie and be treated as an adult.
Unless of course one was a smoker. My then girlfriend, Anna, was a smoker. The fact she wasn’t allowed to smoke inside wasn’t an issue until it came time for coffee. At that point her evening was totally derailed by not being allowed to lean back, digest her food and have a ciggie with an espresso.
We ended up having our coffees on the restaurant’s steps. You see, as a veggie I could only be treated as a grown up for so long before reality kicked in and mummy, in the shape of Rubicon’s management, wagged its finger at me.
There was something about Anna’s ire, her indignation, that I loved. It was, in a small way, a heroic moment. Now I’m not a smoker (though I always found passive smoking a very cost effective alternative to buying my own) but a wholesale ban on smoking indoors in public places, as opposed to having rooms set aside for smokers, always stuck me as fundamentally illiberal. Yes I know the smoking ban had an astonishing impact on emergency admissions for smoking related diseases. I’d have preferred a concerted effort to stop tobacco companies targeting young teenagers. It’s the 12-16 year olds they chase, concentrating their promotions in newsagents near schools. It’s astonishingly cynical and it hasn’t stopped. But this is where we are, collectively infantilised by government and prevented from gathering, by choice, in smoky places.
Well if you can’t smoke at least you can eat. This is my take on another recipe from the late, great Jean Conil. Poireaux au Muscadet (leek and Muscadet stew) used to be a regular favourite of mine. Like that fondly remembered aubergine in red wine, this too combines vegetables and wine to good effect.
The accompaniments are important; hard boiled eggs and good bread (yeasted and not sourdough – sourdoughs, for all their joyous texture simply don’t absorb the sops as well).
8 small to medium, tender leeks (2 per person)
400 ml Muscadet
200 ml olive oil
400 ml water
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon aniseeds
1 good twig, or small bundle thyme
1 hard boiled egg per person (do I have to say non battery please)
Salt and pepper
One lemon, cut into wedges, to serve (assuming it plays tennis of course).
Mostly this is very simple.
Put the wine, water, oil, herbs and spices into a saucepan and simmer, for about 10 minutes, covered.
Hard boil the eggs.
Chop the tops off the leeks. Trim the bottom but cut only just above the roots. Now run a knife down the length of the leek. Do not cut all the way through. (Apologies for the bold bits but when I read things I need the important bits highlighted so I don’t skip over them in my haste). Cut through to the heart of the leek all the way down and stop. This is to allow you to clean the leek properly. Now wash all the dirt out, shake off the water and tie them back together with a piece of thread or string so they keep their leeky shape in the stew.
Bung (a French culinary term) the leeks into the simmering wine/water/oil/herbs. Simmer for 20 minutes, again covered.
Lay the leeks in shallow soup bowls. Run the liquor through a sieve to strain out all the seeds and the thyme, add seasoning to taste and divide between the bowls. Pop a couple of hard boiled egg halves next to the leeks, resisting the temptation (if you’re a chap stuck in a pre-teen phase of emotional development) to arrange them in a suggestive manner that will make female companions look at you pityingly.
Serve with lemon wedges and slices of good bread, preferably wholemeal – not because it’s worthy but because it has texture and flavour and complements the leeks better.
Bingo, as The Beatles used to say.
A couple of thoughts. Don’t go overboard with the quality of the olive oil. So long as it has a robust flavour it’ll work. If you went on holiday to Crete and came back with some rustic, peppery stuff in plastic bottles, as it was once possible to do, use that. The flavour will work well.
Muscadet – an ideal choice. It’s generally cheap and cheerful and has a flavour that cuts through. Should you use the better ‘sur lie’ appellations such as Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine? Well if you use 3-400ml of wine in the stew then you’ll have half a bottle left over. You’re going to have to drink it so decide whether you want to save a few extra pennies or not. Cheap Muscadet can be rough. Would it work as well with anything else? Well nothing much else of note uses the same grape, Melon de Bourgogne, so you’ll have to cast around for an alternative. Perhaps a.n.other Loire white. Don’t use anything you’d be pleased to be offered at a dinner party. It’s a waste.
When you’ve wiped the bowl clean grab a black coffee and a cigarette in solidarity with everyone who has ever craved a smoke after a good meal.