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Cookbook Review

British chef turns from chicken to plates full of vegetables

(Jason Lowe)
By T. Susan Chang
Globe Correspondent / August 4, 2010

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‘The Vegetarian Option’’ — that’s “option’’ as in “optional.’’ You may have noticed that the new vegetarian movement has become something of a soft sell. Now along comes Simon Hopkinson, striking a solid blow in favor of the pleasures of vegetables, as opposed to the rejection of meat.

A well-known columnist and bona fide restaurant chef (he started Bibendum in London), Hopkinson is probably best known here for his “Roast Chicken’’ books. Their quirky sensibility and ingredient-centered essays charmed legions of readers, and Hopkinson kicked the chef gig to write full time. “The Vegetarian Option,’’ which began one evening when Hopkinson found himself producing an impromptu meal from miscellaneous fresh vegetables in his fridge, is his first true cookbook. A British import that’s been translated into American Kitchen English (cups and teaspoons instead of grams and milliliters), the book is quite unlike any other purportedly vegetarian volume on the market.

Hopkinson, like so many chefs, started with a French-flavored training, and he has never entirely forsaken those roots. He’s very liberal with butter, eggs, and cream, but rarely deploys them without also including sharp, savory, or sour elements. Fine beans in a cream vinaigrette are nothing more than blanched haricots draped in a becoming little dressing, but mustard and shallots give it crunch and bite. Piquant zucchini with sour cream and dill gets a surprising dressing — pureed dill pickles! — after which it melts into a swooningly delicious mass of creamy strands. And the lemon butter sauce for Hopkinson’s warm salad of asparagus and new potatoes had me shamelessly licking the pan.

Watercress and turnip soup, though new to me, has a classic sweetness that might give it a place among other famous-couple soups like potato-leek or mushroom-barley. Its smooth, creamy finish comes, needless to say, from cream.

Although the book sometimes feels as if it’s permanently housed in an English kitchen garden, Hopkinson does like to experiment with non-European flavors. His sesame paste, sweet and warm, works well in a Middle Eastern-style warm chickpea salad with sesame dressing, where it’s a surprisingly effective foil for tiny shreds of black olive and chunks of tomato. But it is equally at home in an Asian scallion, radish, and cucumber salad with cashews and vermicelli, which are cool and alive with textures. Simply toasting and crushing some coriander seed makes carrot salad with cilantro and green chili so much more intriguing than the limp, damp fluff you might associate with grated carrots.

Hopkinson’s instructions are vivid and a joy to read, but not always as clear as you would like: “whisk over low heat until limpid and homogenous,’’ “judiciously grate the egg over.’’ Occasionally these lyrical pronouncements can backfire, as when I tried orange brûlée (as in crème brûlée). There were no timing instructions, and the first time I didn’t cook the custard long enough for it to set when cool. When I tried cooking it a bit longer, it separated. (Maybe you can’t get the same crème fraîche here that you can in Britain.) Yet I have to say the rare failure was a small price to pay for memorable recipes.

Many are fussy recipes, cooked with the kind of care and attention to extra steps that one would normally only lavish on protein, if at all. You’ll need a solid two hours if you want to make three of these recipes in one night and call them dinner. Do you have to peel the asparagus? Do you have to blanch it separately from the potatoes? Do you have to make your own sesame paste? And for goodness sake, do you really have to grate, salt, and squeeze zucchini?

These are questions you will have to answer for yourself. As for the ultimate question: Are they worth it? My answer is: without a doubt.

T. Susan Chang can be reached at admin@tsusanchang.com.

THE VEGETARIAN OPTION

By Simon Hopkinson

Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 224 pp., $24.95