I often muse over the changes in Irish eating habits in recent times. I don’t have the statistics to hand, but I assume, for example, that the consumption of potatoes has fallen dramatically. Certainly, no meal of my youth was complete without potatoes, while nowadays they so often appear on menus as an optional extra. In Ireland of fifty years ago, piazza and pasta were also unheard of and Chinese and Indian cuisine smacked of the exotic. Today, together with many other foreign inputs, they form part of our regular food intake and we should rejoice in this development. By and large, the food of the past on this island was bland to the taste, lacked variety and was poorly cooked. Eating out was also not part of our culture. Yet in the space of one generation, all that has changed. Even in remote parts, supermarket shelves speak volumes about the huge variety to our diet and every town in the country now boasts at least one or two restaurants.
All that said, perhaps the most remarkable transformation to have taken place lies in our attitude to vegetarian food. In the 1950s and 1960s, a decision to forego the eating of meat would have been looked upon by many as “cranky” and scratch my head though I have, I cannot recall ever having met a vegetarian while I was growing up. Now, it is commonplace to encounter people who are to one degree or another vegetarian. For example, I had a daughter who didn’t eat meat (she later lapsed and reverted to being a full-blown carnivore!) and my daughter-in-law doesn’t eat red meat. For cooks of my mother’s generation, nothing was more terrifying than catering for guests, who didn’t partake of meat and indeed, I still find it challenging, as my repertoire is limited.
This month I propose to share with you my two favourite vegetarian recipes. Both were culled from newspapers many years ago and although an unrepentant carnivore, I regularly cook them for myself.
1 large onion, chopped
3 tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
450g small courgettes, cut coin thin
Handful of flat-leaf parsley
60g long-grain rice
2 handfuls of freshly grated Parmesan or Gruyère
Salt and black pepper
Heat the oven to 180C°. Gently sauté the onion in the oil until softened and translucent, adding the garlic midway through the process.
Toss in the courgettes and chopped parsley (and some tarragon, if you like) and continue to cook gently until the courgettes have softened but still retain some texture.
Throw in the rice and stir, allowing it to absorb the liquid and cook for 10 minutes. Season, add the eggs (beaten with the cheese) and turn into an oiled earthenware dish.
Bake in the oven until bronzed and bubbling (30 minutes), then allow to cool before eating. As with so many of my dishes, I serve this with a crisp green salad.
Lancashire cauliflower cheese
I suppose this recipe could be described as a posh cauliflower cheese. I love it, both because of the flavour given by the two cheeses and because the cauliflower is always al dente. It is a far remove from the soggy dish, which I associate with poor cooks of the 1970s !
800g cauliflower, broken into florets
1 pinch of grated nutmeg
1 bay leaf
1 heaped tbsp butter
1 heaped tbsp plain flour
60g Cheddar cheese, grated
30g Parmesan cheese, grated
Blanche the cauliflower florets in boiling water for about five minutes and drain. Refresh with cold water.
Heat the milk to boiling point with nutmeg and bay leaf. In another pan, melt the butter, add the flour and cook until the texture becomes sandy.
Add the hot milk in a steady stream, whisking.
Continue to whisk until the mixture boils and thickens. Add the Cheddar cheese and season with salt to taste. Fold in the cauliflower and transfer to an oiled gratin dish. Scatter the grated Parmesan on top and bake until golden on top (about 25 minutes).I often prepare this dish in advance and just pop it into the oven half an hour before eating.