Watch out, Ottolenghi. Jamie Oliver is back with a vegetarian cookbook of his own

Jamie Oliver at the launch of his vegetable-friendly cookbook 'Veg' at JO headquarters in North London.
Jamie Oliver at the launch of his vegetable-friendly cookbook 'Veg' at JO headquarters in North London. Photo: Copyright 2019 Jamie Oliver Enterprises Ltd

If Jamie Oliver's confidence has been shaken by the multi-million-dollar collapse of his restaurant empire, it isn't showing.

The zeitgeist-surfing celebrity chef is doing what he does best, demonstrating a new recipe from his latest cookbook, trademark grin firmly in place.

If it feels like there can be no more firsts, in a career that's spanned two decades, 32 cookbooks and 120 countries, his latest book, Veg, has yielded a surprising quality in Oliver – patience.

Jamie Oliver's new book.
Jamie Oliver's new book. Photo: Copyright Jamie Oliver Enterprises Ltd (2019 Veg)

It's a virtue many long-time Oliver fans might have difficulty associating with the self-made multi-millionaire, who swiftly became one of the world's best-known TV chefs after being discovered in 1997.

"I wrote this book eight years ago [but] I was too early, and too early is a problem," the Naked Chef says, the words spilling out of his mouth enthusiastically as he strips a charred cob of corn of its blackened kernels for a sexed-up version of a Cobb salad that substitutes popcorn for croutons and yoghurt for oil to form the base of the zesty dressing.

Judging by the past few years of press and near-jubilation in some quarters as his beleaguered restaurant chain had its life support turned off in May, Britain's love affair with the dimpled boy from Essex has cooled somewhat as he took on new ventures and became a public health crusader, reforming school lunches, pushing for junk food ad bans and calling for the introduction of a sugary drinks tax.

Ottolenghi ... he's the primer, I'm the paint.

Jamie Oliver

Oliver readily admits to sounding "incredibly pretentious" as he explains why he put an unpublished book back in the bottom drawer instead of racing it off to print, despite forecasting, correctly as it turns out, that vegetarianism would gain popularity.

"The vegetable story, in my opinion, it's the food story of our time," he says speaking at JO headquarters in North London.

But was it a case of prophecy or catch-up?

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In 2008, London's Israeli superstar chef Yotam Ottolenghi not just defined but owned the vegetarian space with his debut cookbook Ottolenghi, which he has followed with a string of veg-forward titles.

Oliver denies he's playing catch-up with Veg, because his market is completely different to Ottolenghi's inner-city devotees.

"No, no. I think partly the problem can be you're ahead of the curve and I think on this particular story it was waiting it out.

"I needed Ottolenghi to go in and do his thing. He's primed it, he's the primer, I'm the paint. So that's the way I'm looking at it."

Veg, which Oliver describes as his most important cookbook yet "from a symbolic and nutritional" perspective, is aimed at people like his 65-year-old father and those living in the suburbs, battling the everyday pressures of the school-drop off, commutes, careers and child-rearing.

Time is critical to his success. With titles like 30-Minute Meals, 15-Minute Meals, and 5 Ingredients – Quick & Easy Food, cooking time remains top of mind, even when he's in slow-cooking mode.

When interviewed ahead of the release of Jamie Cooks Italy in 2018, Oliver alluded to pressure from his publishers to produce another blockbuster.

Instead, he produced a book based on the old-school cooking of Italy's nonnas. He was at pains, however, to remind fans that alongside the weekend mega-dishes, there were plenty of Monday-to-Thursday recipes, as he calls them.

Oliver cites research into how long people are willing to spend preparing a nightly meal. Unsurprisingly, the figure has gone down drastically in his lifetime.

"Twenty years ago, when I started Naked Chef, the average was like 48 minutes. It's kind of gone down by 10 minutes every five years.

"The last big survey done was just over 20 minutes. That was three years ago. Three years ago we didn't have the Uberisation of food [with people ordering in rather than cooking at all]."

This constant time pressure means a few new rules in the kitchen.

Key among them is leaving nutrient-rich skins on vegetables where possible, a lesson Oliver says he learned too late in his career.

"I spent years peeling bloody vegetables. It's not the best fun and it takes quite a long time but actually most flavour is in the skin.

"You'll see in the book I'm not peeling much at all. So we're leaving skins on celeriac, we're leaving it on squash [pumpkin], we're leaving it on carrots and it really is incredible. I mean, it works. I promise you."

Oliver's flavour staples include vinegar, herbs, spices, curry pastes, pesto, miso, harissa, worcestershire sauce, dried mushrooms, tomatoes, parmesan and seaweed.

Nuts also figure prominently.

Oliver, who is now clocking three to four meat-free days at home, stresses that Veg is not about trying to convert meat-eaters, including himself.

"I could probably do a couple of months [vegetarian] if I had to but I would be a really bad vegetarian – you'd catch me with a sausage somewhere."

"Me being a meat-eater and me writing a veg book is just saying, 'maybe this is the time to eat a bit more veg, to try something new and maybe cut down the meat once a week'.

"I just think it's a really healthy conversation."

Recipes below available at Goodfood.com.au until October 5. Photos © Jamie Oliver Enterprises Ltd (2019 Veg) Photography: David Loftus.

My vegie moussaka

Sweet tomato, grilled eggplant, creamy porcini and feta sauce. Sometimes I swap the feta for grated haloumi. Ribbons of zucchini grilled with the eggplant are very nice, too. It's delicious served with a simple lemony dressed green salad.

INGREDIENTS

40g dried porcini mushrooms

2 onions

8 cloves of garlic

olive oil

½ a cinnamon stick

1 bunch fresh oregano (30g)

2 tbsp red wine vinegar

2 large eggplant (400g each)

1kg potatoes

2 x 400g tins of quality roma tomatoes

200g feta cheese

2 large free-range eggs

500ml semi-skimmed milk

1 whole nutmeg, for grating

METHOD

Step 1

Cover the porcini with 500ml of boiling water. Peel and finely slice the onions and garlic. Drizzle two tablespoons of oil into a large casserole pan over a medium-low heat, add the cinnamon and fry for 1 minute, then add the onion and garlic.

Step 2

Pick and add the oregano leaves, pour in the vinegar, then simmer with the lid on for 20 minutes, or until soft and lightly golden, stirring regularly. Meanwhile, slice the eggplant lengthways 1cm thick, then chargrill in batches on a griddle pan.

Step 3

Scrub the potatoes and slice 1cm thick, then add to the casserole pan with just the porcini water, reserving the mushrooms. Scrunch the tomatoes into the pan, then pour in 1 tin's worth of water and leave to tick away on a medium heat for 30 minutes, stirring regularly. preheat the oven to 200C.

Step 3

Place the mushrooms in a blender with half the feta and the eggs. pour in the milk, finely grate in half the nutmeg, then whiz until smooth. Season the tomato sauce to perfection with sea salt and black pepper, then spoon half into a 25cm x 35cm baking dish. Cover with half the eggplants, drizzle over 4 tablespoons of creamy sauce, then repeat, finishing with the remaining creamy sauce. Crumble over the rest of the feta, then bake for 40 minutes, or until golden and bubbling.

Serves 8

Energy 311kcal; fat 11.6g; saturated fat 5.2g; protein 14.6g; carbs 40g; sugars 13.4g; salt 0.8g; fibre 5.6g

Vegie pad Thai

Crisp fried eggs, special tamarind and tofu sauce with peanut sprinkle. If you want to make this dish vegan, remove the eggs and serve with extra cubes of tofu, marinated in soy and lime juice.

INGREDIENTS

150g rice noodles

sesame oil

20g unsalted peanuts

2 cloves of garlic

80g silken tofu

low-salt soy sauce

2 tsp tamarind paste

2 tsp sweet chilli sauce

2 limes

1 shallot

320g crunchy veg, such as asparagus, purple sprouting broccoli, bok choi, baby corn

80g beansprouts

2 large free-range eggs

olive oil

dried chilli flakes

½ a cos lettuce

½ a mixed bunch of fresh, basil, mint and coriander (15g)

METHOD

Step 1

Cook the noodles according to the packet instructions, then drain and refresh under cold running water and toss with 1 teaspoon of sesame oil. Lightly toast the peanuts in a large non-stick frying pan on a medium heat until golden, then bash in a pestle and mortar until fine, and tip into a bowl.

Step 2

Peel the garlic and bash to a paste with the tofu, 1 teaspoon of sesame oil, 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, tamarind paste and chilli sauce, then squeeze and muddle in half the lime juice.

Step 3

Peel and finely slice the shallot, then place in the frying pan over a high heat. Trim, prep and slice the crunchy veg, as necessary, then dry-fry for 4 minutes, or until lightly charred (to bring out a nutty, slightly smoky flavour). Add the noodles, sauce, beansprouts, and a good splash of water, toss together over the heat for 1 minute, then divide between serving bowls.

Step 4

Wipe out the pan, crack in the eggs and cook to your liking in a little olive oil, sprinkling with a pinch of chilli flakes. Trim the lettuce, click apart the leaves and place a few in each bowl. Pop the eggs on top, pick over the herbs, and sprinkle with the nuts. Serve with lime wedges for squeezing over, and extra soy, to taste.

Serves 2

Energy 593kcal; fat 19g; saturated fat 3.8g; protein 26.4g; carbs 83.5g; sugars 10.7g; salt 1.3g; fibre 8.3g

Greens mac 'n' cheese

Leek, broccoli and spinach with a toasted almond topping. Swap spinach out for any kind of exciting fresh or frozen greens, discarding any tough stalks. I also sometimes add breadcrumbs to the top for bonus crunch. Tasty! To make vegetarian: swap parmesan for vegetarian hard cheese.

INGREDIENTS

1 large leek

3 cloves of garlic

400g purple sprouting or tender stem broccoli

40g unsalted butter

½ a bunch of fresh thyme (15g)

2 tbsp plain flour

1 litre semi-skimmed milk

450g dried macaroni

30g parmesan cheese

150g mature cheddar cheese

100g baby spinach

50g flaked almonds

METHOD

Step 1

Preheat the oven to 180C. Trim, halve and wash the leek and peel the garlic, then finely slice with the broccoli stalks, reserving the florets for later.

Step 2

Place the sliced veg in a large casserole pan over a medium heat with the butter, then strip in the thyme leaves and cook for 15 minutes, or until softened, stirring regularly. Stir in the flour, followed slowly by the milk, then simmer for 10 minutes, or until thickened, stirring regularly. Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large pan of boiling salted water for 5 minutes, then drain.

Step 3

Grate the parmesan and most of the cheddar into the sauce, and mix well. Tip into a blender, add the spinach and whiz until smooth – you may need to work in batches. Season to perfection with sea salt and black pepper, then stir through the pasta and broccoli florets, loosening with a splash of milk, if needed.

Step 4

Transfer to a 25cm x 35cm baking dish, grate over the remaining cheddar and scatter over the almonds. Bake for 30 minutes, or until beautifully golden and bubbling.

Serves 6

Energy 619kcal; fat 25.1g; saturated fat 12.4g; protein 29g; carbs 75.1g; sugars 12g; salt 0.9g; fibre 6.4g

Veg by Jamie Oliver. Photography: David Loftus. Published by Penguin UK. © Jamie Oliver Enterprises Ltd (2019 Veg). RRP $49.99.