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A-Z of Vegetables: Yeast

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Saturday, 2 Dec 2023, 09:50

It’s time to go out with a bang! In spite of my best efforts, I could not provide you with a vegetable which began with X or Z – although I did consider calling it zalzify instead of salsify. I decided I couldn’t get away with it. Thank you to everyone (well, anyone) who read this blog. It has been fun for me to write and hopefully will lead to more exciting things, like, I dunno, the A-Z of fruit. I’ve already got U for ugli fruit, but I haven’t a clue what that is.

Anyway, our last vegetable is yeast, which we eat more of than we realise. It’s in bread, it’s in Marmite, it’s in shop-bought tortellini and pesto, it’s in beer (is that right? I’m teetotal). It’s also vital to the vegan diet, what with veganism generally not having enough vitamin B12 in it. However, this is not because vitamin B12 is found only in meat and dairy – it’s because vitamin B12 is found in the sort of microorganisms which exist in higher concentration in animal products. The solution? Eat the microorganisms. This is how we get ‘nutritional yeast flakes’ – a name for a mushroom which has been harvested off molasses and turned into a cheesy sprinkle. Why they decided to call them nutritional yeast flakes is beyond me. I don’t see anything wrong with marketing something as ‘cheesy sprinkle mushroom’.

Nutritional yeast’s unnerving similarity in flavour to Parmesan makes it extremely useful in making vegan versions of cheese – which is the thing most commonly pined for by new vegans. Macaroni cheese, béchamel and onion soup can all be livened up with nutritional yeast. I use it to make the best (easiest) cheat’s pizza ever: oatcake, tomato paste, nutritional yeast. Done.

I hope that despite nutritional yeast’s visual similarity to wizened cornflakes, it becomes much more popular with people and more widely available. The carbon footprint of hard cheese is gigantic, and hopefully nutritional yeast can be an effective substitute. The below recipe was written when I was craving something with the same sort of meaty munch quality as, well, meat, but I decided to rely on the umami found in plant products. Paprika, mushroom, miso and yeast are the best suppliers of umami in my kitchen, and when I combine them all it makes for a hearty and comforting meal. And my heart will be comforted by all the good fibre and low saturated fat in my dinner.


‘I don’t miss meat at all’ baked orzo, serves 2

  1. Preheat oven to 180ºC fan. In a small roasting tray (I use one that’s about 30cm x 23cm), stir 125g orzo pasta, 2-4 chopped garlic cloves, 1 tsp dried or freshly chopped rosemary and 1 tsp sweet smoked paprika.
  2. Drain and rinse a 400g tin mixed beans. You can also use tinned bean salad, but don’t drain it, keep the sauce! Pour the beans (with sauce if present) on top of the orzo. I do this around the edges to stop the orzo floating up.
  3. Chop 1 big onion or 2 small ones any way you like, then sprinkle this on top of the beans and orzo. Drizzle the lot with 2 tbsp olive oil and 1 tsp wine vinegar, then pour in 250ml boiling mushroom stock (made with stock cube).
  4. Put the tray in the oven for 25 minutes, by which time the orzo should be cooked in a chewy, frangible way. Stir in 3 level tbsp miso paste and 2 tbsp nutritional yeast flakes. Dish up and serve.

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A-Z of Vegetables: Violets

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Friday, 27 Oct 2023, 15:24

Roses are red, but violets are better. The classic in the world of British chocolate making is to have pink-dyed rose fondants sharing the box with purple-dyed violet fondants, but in my experience there are always too few violet ones... because they’re not all violet ones. 

Rose is far too common a flavour to genuinely feel exciting: they’re the wtf flavour of so many hand-creams and perfumes, and their gaudy can-can petals make them popular in gardens all over the place. No wonder violets shrink when confronted with so much ubiquity. If Forrest Gump was British, the box of chocolates metaphor would mean the path well-travelled (rose) versus the individualistic, hedonistically fulfilling and unexpected option (violet).

Another fascinating thing about violet flavour is that the particular scent of the flower – that is to say, what it smells like in the wild – has chemicals in it which numb the receptors in your nose. This gives violet its magical, fleeting quality, the sort of miracle you forget the majesty of, thus keeping it secret and special. Unfortunately, this forgettability seems to be driving violets out of existence, culinarily speaking. Crystallised violets, for instance, used to be a common and popular garnish for sweet things like chocolate cake or poires belle Hélène, and now you will be hard-pressed to locate it in a shop which isn’t either online or Fortnum & Mason. And since I don’t have the sort of budget which covers frequent forays into a wedding-cake-masquerading-as-a-Mayfair-department-store, I have to make do with alternatives. Namely: online shopping. Ugh (says the blogger).

In a high-stakes game of most important flavours, violet would easily be at the top. I associate it with happy holidays: the crystallised violets which my baking-fan sister got in a box of fancy cake decorations, which included crystallised roses, coloured sugars and dragées; the violet shortbread which I picked up on my very first visit to Fortnum & Mason, in its own embossed purple tube; the aforementioned violet fondants which was my introduction to expensive chocolate, when my father bought Prestat one Christmas as a special treat (and then taught us all a valuable lesson in sharing); lastly, and perhaps most importantly for me, glace à la violette, which I ate in Brittany and remains for me the very nicest ice cream flavour.

It seems, like so many other foodstuffs, that we have to rely on the French for the continued availability of violet flavour. In order to continue the use of violet in my sweets, I buy concentrated violet flavour or the more accessible violet Monin syrup, which I use in the recipe below. You can also use the Monin syrup to make no-churn glace à la violette: just whip 300ml double cream, 50g icing sugar, 2 tbsp lemon juice and 125ml violet syrup to firm-to-stiff peaks, then stick in a tub and freeze. It helps to whip the first three ingredients whilst pouring in the fourth in a steady stream.


Violet and chocolate shortbread

  1. This recipe is adaptable! Hallelujah! Preheat the oven to 160ºC fan and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.
  2. Cream together 100g vegan baking block and 50g white sugar. This means beating it until its light and fluffy – I must have read that phrase a million times when researching baking as a teen.
  3. Carefully incorporate EITHER 3 tbsp violet syrup OR 6 drops concentrated violet flavour. Obviously, concentrated violet flavour varies by brand, so you will have to taste-test this now, before you add other ingredients. Therefore, it needs to be stronger than you would want, but not so strong that you go ack before you add the flour. Don’t be tempted to add more syrup if you’re using syrup though, because otherwise your biscuits will have no structural integrity.
  4. Slowly and carefully incorporate 175g flour, until you have a shortbread dough. 
  5. Incidentally, if by some miracle you have actual violets you can cook with, add these now. Don’t use crystallised violets, they will go burned and horrible. 
  6. Chop up 50g chocolate and add this in, being unafraid to knead a bit. I won’t tell you not to use milk chocolate but I only ever use dark or white with violet: dark because it’s a classic combination, white because the violet might be shrinking and the diminished intensity of white chocolate coddles it back into excitement. In this scenario, white is my favourite.
  7. Just using your hands, make little balls of dough and press them down into the tray to make rounds. Aim to get them all the same size. Bake the biscuits for 15 minutes – they won’t colour much, but shortbread is meant to be pale. Leave to cool on the tray for at least 7 minutes, then move to a wire rack to cool down.

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A-Z of Vegetables: Tomatoes

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Saturday, 11 Nov 2023, 11:22

You may have noticed that tomatoes have cropped up in a few other recipes in this blog. You may have also noticed that almost the entirety of exported Italian cuisine has something to do with tomatoes. Well, in all fairness to tomatoes, they’re quite versatile, like the black pepper of the vegetable world. They can take on salty and bitter flavours in eye-wincing quantities whilst providing sweet, sour and umami tastes themselves. On top of that, you can get them all year round (tins are brilliant), grow them easily in Britain and they’re usually a jolly red colour which is always seasonally appropriate. You could equally hang them off your earlobes or a Christmas tree. Happy times!

What’s also incredible is the fact that nobody actually hates them. A person could be the most anxious eater on the planet and find tomatoes’ uncontrollable juiciness terrifying – all that uncontainedness! – but they probably like ketchup. Or baked beans. Or sun-dried tomatoes. Tomatoes have been so thoroughly deployed in recipes that we probably all eat them at some point or another, whether we like the fresh ones or not. 

The difficulty with the tomato is their tendency to a peculiar taste. Rather like melons, tomatoes can develop a watery metallic flavour not unlike lipstick – a bit like jasmine but less appealing. Others can taste like the sky in midsummer, or the promise of a flower meadow, or tomato. The sheer unpredictability of tomatoes mean that it is always worth knowing how to cook them in case they have contrived to be slightly inedible. Often a substandard or melon-like tomato can be improved by a dousing of balsamic vinegar with pinches of fine salt and dried basil, or wrapping the tomato in a fresh basil leaf like a birthday present, but otherwise you will have to roast them, fry them or make sorbet. (Weird idea, I know, but apparently tomatoes and strawberries are essentially interchangeable. Eat strawberries with mozzarella and you’ll see what I mean.)

Another brilliant thing about tomatoes is how tasty they are when they go a bit manky. Hear me out. It’s not that you simply eat a manky tomato – and heaven forfend you eat a gone-off tomato – but tomatoes which have begun to get a bit withered and old respond to cooking so well it’s almost worth buying a trugful and then waiting for them to sag like a parable for the futility of fighting time. (Almost. I still want some bouncing-ball fresh ones for my pesto panini.)


How to rescue manky tomatoes whilst still being the star of the show, serves 2

  1. Preheat the oven to 200ºC fan. Drain and chop 1 block of firm tofu, weighing approximately 250-300g, then put into a big mixing bowl along with 2-4 peeled garlic cloves. In a small jam jar with a lid, pour 2 tbsp olive oil, 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar, 1 heaped tsp wholegrain mustard, 1 tsp dried rosemary and a grind of black pepper, then put the lid on, shake it and pour this over the tofu.
  2. Peel and cut 2 onions into eighths and add to the tofu. Wash and halve or quarter 200g baby potatoes (up to you) and add those to the tofu. Wash what remains of your tomatoes and add these too. Toss everything in the big mixing bowl together so everything is coated in the salad dressing.
  3. Empty the contents of the mixing bowl onto as many roasting or baking trays as required for everything to fit in a single layer (it should be one, unless you are cooking vast quantities of tomatoes, in which case why not just boil them down to a concentrated pasta sauce with sautéed onions and celery?) Roast the lot for 30-35 minutes, by which point everything, even the tofu, will be crispy and delicious. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt.
  4. Serve with your usual suite of condiments – and a salad dressing to evoke the flavours of the tofu-soaking earlier. 

Notes: The reason I sprinkle with salt at the end and not the beginning is I find that salting potatoes before you roast them draws out their moisture and makes them damp and crispless. Which is a terrible shame, if still completely edible.


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