What do Chefs Eat? II Recipe: Caponata

Vegetarians and vegans are often the much-maligned forces that harass the conscious, well-being, patience and knowledge of a chef and in retribution for their malignance, the vegetarian option is the necessary footnote to a menu – given little thought or care, it must merely exist. There is a reason why risotto features so heavily as the vegetarian option at many restaurants – it requires no thought beyond deciding on a variant that is suitable to what the season may offer, is adaptable throughout the year and can easily disguise the more nefarious acts of a chef with little conscience towards their customers who may use butter, cream, parmesan or chicken stock to flavour it.

Dan was such a chef who justified his immorality in the most abstract of ways that defied all logical reasoning, so much so that I’m positive that while making his nonsensical claims he could barely believe his own bullshit. “Whatta ‘bout the water cycle? Water’s been through me, you, fuckin’ dinosaurs.” His deluded point being that water has gone through him and many others, through animals, through rivers and oceans, through fish, through some more animals; drunk, digested, pissed out by humans, animals and dinosaurs; used and re-used through a continuous cycle and because water has been through people and animals, then drinking water cannot be vegan. I assure you his argument did not make sense to me either.

I believe one major issue about vegetarianism in Britain is that we do not have a strong history of vegetarian cookery. British cookery is synonymous with the term “meat and two veg” putting vegetables in their place as something to accompany protein and not much more. Indeed, the definition between a side dish and a vegetarian dish is still something that is blurred. In summer months the words ‘med veg’ will spring up across restaurant menus showing the excellence of vegetables grown and used so regularly in Mediterranean cuisine, their warmer climate better suited for the aubergines, tomatoes, onions, courgettes and peppers that typically fall under the term ‘med veg,’ whereas our cooler and less predictable weather is better for root vegetables – delicious but with none of the glamour. The same could be said for Asian cuisines but for impoverished reasons rather than climate, where the bastardisation of soy beans into tofu and tempeh are for the necessity of getting protein from a diet that cannot afford meat rather than for enjoyment or taste.

Rather ironically the first Vegetarian Society was founded in Britain in 1847 but for the wrong reasons – their motives being neither gastronomic nor for animal welfare but religious instead. The Bible Christian Church were one of the main forming members of the society and believed in a meat-free diet as a form of asceticism because there really is no room for fun in a dogmatic religion. Thankfully things are different today and the vegetarian society has moved on from the misery of religious asceticism to the more pressing concerns of animal welfare in the face of mass production. Only an imbecile could not agree that we demand too much meat and therefore too many animals are produced solely to be slaughtered, butchered, processed and lined up in plastic shrink-wrap along supermarket aisles across the country. Maybe we could all refrain from meat at times or at least educate ourselves on meat production and demand high welfare of our animals rather than view them as a raw material for mass production. Demand for lesser cuts too and more varied breeds so we do not just receive ‘commercial’ breeds that are designed for higher yields instead of flavour. Maybe just more respect for the animals we kill.

Caponata

This is one of those summer med veg dishes that is neither side dish nor main but is excellent nonetheless. It is Sicilian and similar to ratatouille but with a sweet and sour punch. Evenly dice vegetables including aubergine, red onion, peppers, celery, courgette and preferably ripe summer tomatoes. Heat a pan large enough to accommodate all of the vegetables and fry gently in vegetable oil until soft and everything is well-acquainted with one another. Add a dash of red wine vinegar for sharpness, season well and a pinch of sugar for balance. Stir in olives, capers, pine nuts and raisins and simmer gently until all the ingredients are quite happy. Check for seasoning and then add fresh herbs, mint works well as does parsley which has the unique characteristic of bringing everything together in so many dishes. A quick, delicious, vegetarian dish that can be enjoyed in the sun overlooking the Mediterranean Sea or in your back garden.

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