Mr Wilkinson's Favourite Vegetables

A cookbook to celebrate the seasons, by Melbourne chef Matt Wilkinson

By Robyn Lewis
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Mr Wilkinson's Favourite Vegetables by Matt Wilkinson

Mr Wilkinson's Favourite Vegetables by Matt Wilkinson [©Murdoch Books]

 

Seasonal is not new – it’s the way our forebears ate for millennia, until the invention of canning, refrigerated transport and the freezer.

But now we’re finding that ‘things don’t taste the same as when we were young’ – or, for those under twenty, that they are so bland you wonder what all the fuss is about. Who can get enthused about celery that tastes like fibrous water?

It’s not nostalgia; many plants are now bred for long shelf life, resistance to mould and handling (thick skins, non squashability), are pumped full of nitrogenous fertilizers and irrigated to make them grow faster, and are picked prior to full ripeness (those pesky sugars go off more easily), so they simply don’t have the taste, or texture for that matter.

Kids won’t eat their veggies? It’s little wonder when they taste of nothing. Just line up some store-bought broccoli or pumpkin with some from a garden, and you’ll quickly see, smell and taste the difference. My rather fussy daughter hated veg until we started growing more of our own.

And it seems a miracle of modern supermarket scheduling that the very day after your carefully selected perfect-looking vegetables get home, they go yellow, wilt or turn into slime. How can this be, you wonder as you scrape out your crisper yet again, when they’ve obviously made it this far from Queensland intact? Are they programmed to self destruct the instant they cross your threshold?

So when Mr Wilkinson’s Favourite Vegetables arrived on my desk, I leapt on it. This year we’ve had a bumper crop of just about everything, and I am keen to expand my veggie repertoire. I haven’t had to buy veggies from the supermarket for months; the corollary being, when you have a lot of something, you have to find new and inventive ways of cooking it, that won't be met by cries of “oh no, not …. again”.

Mr Wilkinson is not some aged garden hobbit, but a 30-something chef from Melbourne café Pope Joan, which serves breakfasts, lunches, sandwiches and cocktails to cult followers in East Brunswick.

The current menu seems decidedly carnivorous – lots of bacon and sausages, and their is little evidence online that ‘vegetables come first’ ­– but then again, I can't see their specials board, where fresh and seasonal usually features. Out the back they have a garden that showcases their own produce to customers.

As the book’s media release states “as the former head chef at …. (two-hatted) Circa, The Prince (in St Kilda), Wilkinson ushered in an era of organics and garden-to-kitchen rustic fine dining". His Yorkshire blood no doubt helps, too. He learnt his trade in the kitchens of London and Edinburgh including Michelin-starred chef Martin Wishart, who in turn trained under luminaries including Albert Roux, Marco Pierre White, Nick Nairn and Charlie Trotter and others.

Since the Western diet became dominated by protein after World War II, it’s become the norm to plan meals around the meat or fish. Cheap chickens have accelerated the trend. “What’s for dinner?” is usually answered by naming the protein first, although stir-fries and pasta are quick-cook exceptions. Not too many would answer “eggplants” or “pumpkin” even if they were stunners.

This might be about to change, at least if Matt Wilkinson has his way. The book is not vegetarian, but plans dishes and meals with the vegetable first, and the meat or other protein second. He then adds carbs if needed. It’s the basis of a balanced, healthy diet of course.

As Matt says “Thinking about the vegetables first is how I cook. I look to the season …. to get my ideas …. and there is no better way to find to what is in season that looking at the often under-rated vegetables”. Needless to say he’s often seen at farmers’ markets.

There are twenty-four vegetables in the book, and Matt says he found the final selection difficult. There is even one that he detests, but I’ll leave that to you to find out what it is – but it’s commonly found in shops and many others enjoy it.

The recipes are a mixture of chef-inspired and home-made: Blanched White Asparagus with Ricotta and Witlof vs Pickled Asparagus right in the first feature.

As a broad bean lover (and grower) I was a little disappointed in there being only one salad, nice as it is (Crushed Broad Bean and Lentils, Goat’s Curd and Pear), but when I got to B for beetroot I was totally hooked. Foil-Roasted Large Beets with Ricotta and Mint could not be easier and went down a treat in our household for a Sunday night supper.

Got some broccolini? Try it with clams or pipis and mixed grains. Brussel sprouts and not boiled to death as in the past, but roasted with Vanilla-Confit Chestnuts and Thyme, or made into salad with anchovies.

Along the way you’ll learn how to perfectly sear rare tuna (Matt shares some signature dishes from his Circa days), pickle green tomato and carrots, make kasundi and piccalilli, stretch smoked salmon in a crunchy cauliflower salad, bake your own cornbread (which my daughter now adores), mix up Polenta with Crab and Mussels, roast cucumbers and fennel, smoke tomatoes .… the mouthwatering list goes on and on.

Matt even smokes garlic, serving it with the good old roast chook, and provides a lovely recipe for horseradish in a salad with celeriac. It’s a great idea if it’s taking over your garden; there’s another for Horseradish Wafers – there’s only so much you can serve as a condiment, after all, even if it is with his Nan’s Yorkshire Puddings and Joint of Beef.

Having a fertile field of nettles, I love his suggestions for this weed: Nettle Soup is very cleansing (for centuries nettles have been used as a herbal tonic), or for something more creative, Nettle and Sorrel Soufflé Omelette with Feta; or Nettle and Crab Ravioli with Silverbeet and Samphire. (He’s a bit skimpy on the samphire details, though; hint – pick only the young tips, as otherwise it can be stringy).

Do you or your kids hate parsnips? Never again when you make them into chips, which somehow transforms their flavour from the baked offerings our mothers dishes up into something more delicious.

But his pumpkin section I find a bit light – Americans have discovered thousands of ways of enjoying this vegetable in both savoury and sweet forms, and I think it’s time we in Australia wised up to its potential. (Note to café owners and chefs, I don’t mean the boringly ubiquitous soup of the day, either – do you think we customers can’t use a blender?)

There are things to do with your summer zucchini glut, and even a dessert: Rose-Geranium-Stewed Blueberries with Creamed Rice Pudding. Not exactly a vegetable, but it looks pretty. Several of the recipes feature wine or wine vinegar, and there’s at least one with beer. A lot of fun awaits matching wines or beers with many of these dishes!

On the outside, the book is clean, sexy and tactile, with its white and lime embossed cardboard covers and black cloth spine; on the inside the pages are repro with old watermarks, spatters and fake dirt, yet somehow it all works to create a very appealing whole. The photos by Jacqui Melville are delightful and tempting, and the endpapers are works of art. Congratulations to all involved in putting this book together.

Buy Mr Wilkinson’s Vegetables even if your garden consists only of a few planter boxes on your balcony, if you frequent farmers’ markets or want to make supermarket veggies (not all of which are tired, of course) taste deliciously different.

With the trend towards less protein and more vegetables in our diets once again, this book has come at the right time, although there’s a lot of competition in this space. Matt thanks us for picking it up and reading it; I thank him for writing it.

And for those under twenty, welcome to the world of cool and tasty vegetables! I hope this will inspire you to a long and healthy lifetime of good and adventurous eating.

 

Mr Wilkinson’s Favourite Vegetables by Matt Wilkinson is published by Murdoch Books (Sydney, NSW 2012; hc, 290 pp) and retails in Australia for A$49.95.

It can be purchased online via Booko.com.au here »

 

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  • Melbourne (VIC)

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June 27th, 2012
 
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