The Forest Feast – fun for food lovers

Sharpen your carrots and peel your knives…

 …for I am mightily excited about today’s find at the bookshop!

I had to go into town with one of the short people who live in our house (orthopaedic insoles – not exciting) and received an e-mail from my friend Isobel while sitting in the waiting room.

Here’s an excerpt:

“I’m sending on this review, what do you think? You’ve made me want to buy an Ottolenghi cook book so I thought I should look for a veggie one as I won’t be making the meaty recipes. Review is pretty bad, can you give me some ideas?”

The review on the Californian food website CHOW was of the Ottolenghi cookbook “Plenty” and was, indeed, bad. In a nutshell, they said it looked pretty and made their mouth water, but that cooking from it wasn’t easy and the results unsatisfactory. Hm.

For the backstory, Isobel and I met in first year in college many, many years ago when I was still young, slim and without wrinkles (Isobel hasn’t changed a bit, so I can’t include her in my timekeeping). She lived in a townhouse five minutes from lecture halls with 7 other students who all shared a kitchen, which was challenging for several reasons, which included who cleaned up the mess, the love/hate of Marmite and the fact that Isobel was and is a vegetarian. She had a designated frying pan which was either thrown out or thrown at the person who one morning, after a night of heavy drink… studying, decided to use it to make himself a full Irish breakfast with rashers, eggs and black pudding.

As life will have it, both Isobel and I married Frenchmen and we have managed to meet up occasionally in the past decade, the last time only two weeks ago when we realized we were both holidaying within 60 kilometres of each other in Spain. We spent a few short hours together, catching up and watching our kids play on the beach. It turned out that ordering dinner was a bit of a challenge. There were no vegetarian dishes on the menu. Like everyone, I love tapas, but I have always felt that something of the Spanish way of eating eludes me for there seemed to be a general lack of greens on every menu I have looked at from Girona to Marbella, from Santander to La Guardia. Surely Spanish people eat vegetables and salads other than white asparagus and iceberg lettuce? But, that evening, overlooking the Costa Brava, when I ordered squid a la plancha with caramelized onions, that’s exactly what I got: five little baby squid on a plate, each with half a teaspoon of caramelized onion on top. No salad. No veg. Nada. Getting vegetarian dishes for the kids was tricky, too. There was a choice of fried egg with bread, pasta with butter and grated cheese or…

Isobel also mentioned how many of her friends don’t know what to cook when she is coming over for lunch. Her vegetarianism completely throws them. How can that be? There is so much one can cook! Just look at all the things Jamie Oliver comes up with on Meat-free Mondays! So, making it my mission to find a vegetarian cookbook worth its salt, I popped in to my favourite bookshop in Toulouse, Ombres Blanches, this afternoon. It’s a fabulous place spread across several buildings and with entrances in several streets that interconnect through hallways, stairways and various rooms into one amazing Ali Baba cavern of books. Lucky for me, I walked in the right door and quickly found my way to the cookbook section (after all, I still had a midget in tow who is not known for his patience).

It took me all of five minutes to zoom in on the relevant books and stood shaking my head with pinched tutting-old-lady lips. So, so many cookbooks still look dull and conventional, with sterile-looking photos and stifled-seeming cooking instructions. Where’s the fun? Where’s the generosity? And then I spotted “Un festin de nature” by Erin Gleeson (“The Forest Feast” in the original) and I knew I had found the book I needed.

“How exciting can a vegetarian cookbook be?”, you might ask. Well… VERY! Not only is the book absolutely beautiful (Erin Gleeson is an artist and a professional photographer), the recipes are fresh, fun, and easy, and Erin’s food philosophy completely coincides with my own. There’s a page of recommendations on how to use her book where she explains that Yes! she tries to cook seasonal, locally-sourced vegetables (but isn’t above buying a tomato in December if she needs to), Yes! she would prefer to use home-made pizza dough, stock and tomato sauce (but won’t hesitate to use a good shop-bought one if she’s short on time) and Yes! she worked hard to create her recipes and tweak the flavours to get them just right (but she encourages creativity and making substitutions from the larder if you’ve just run out of one of the ingredients). What’s not to love?

Erin Gleeson started a fabulous food blog when she moved to the sticks in California from New York City and, really, her photography website is a delight. Do go visit!

            So, Isobel… I have the French version here if you want to take a look. Or order the English version online. And get cooking!

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So, Isobel… I have the French version here if you want to take a look! Or order the English version online. AND GET COOKING!

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