Kingsley Amis famously declared that the most depressing three words in the English language are “red or white?” That’s all very well when you’re at the dinner table being plied with wine. When you’re in the kitchen about to serve supper, the most depressing three words in the English language are “I’m a vegetarian” — especially if you’ve been marinating beef cheeks for two days and they’re now braising nicely in the oven, thank you very much.
Now look, I’ve got nothing against vegetarians. Lovely people. I even tried quinoa myself once. But when you’re cooking at home, discovering that one of your guests only eats mung beans can be a right royal pain in the rump steak. There was a time when they could be palmed off with an emergency plate of pasta and pesto. Not any more. The vegetarians are revolting. They will no longer lie back and let you tickle their tummies with chives. They want restaurant-quality food prepared with the same care and attention as the fancy stuff you’re serving the carnivores.
I have even seen my otherwise mild-mannered herbivore chums get apoplectic with rage in restaurants if the vegetarian option is too predictable. (Apparently, there is nothing that makes a vegetarian see red quite like “something-something goat’s cheese” or “something-something beetroot” on a menu. I mean, talk about ungrateful, right?)
Of course, you might argue that vegetarians have the moral upper hand at the moment. With more and more health scares concerning flesh (mad cow disease, the horsemeat pies scandal) and its consumption (heart disease, bowel cancer), now is a very good time to cut down on the cutlets and beef up on the beans.
If vegetarians aren’t quite having the last laugh, they are certainly enjoying the penultimate chuckle. And with your New Year health kick, January might be an opportune occasion to start eating less meat. But let’s get back to that dinner party. How are you going to keep the persistent vegetarian happy? Well, my suggestion is to go hardcore. Play them at their own game. Make the whole meal a veggie feast. Huge bowls of hearty salads. Tasty beans and pulses. Classic mirepoix lentils. And, as a centrepiece, this deceptively simple home-made malfatti (dumplings) recipe that has deep umami flavours and plenty of theatricality, too. You could even get everyone to help you spin the glasses. After a few bottles of “red or white”, what could possibly go wrong?
Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed a slight change to the name of this column. After eight months as The Reluctant Cook, I realised that the last thing I experienced while preparing and writing these monthly missives was apathy or indifference. Quite the opposite, in fact. So, to mark the beginning of 2016, here’s to a new year, new start, new title, same bad attitude and hangdog expression...
Spinach and ricotta Malfatti
• 520g baby spinach leaves, washed
• 250g ricotta cheese
• 200g grated Parmesan cheese (or rennet-free Twineham Grange)
• 100g butter
• 200g semolina
• 50g “00” flour
• 1 large free-range egg, beaten
• ½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
• Flaky sea salt
• Ground black pepper
• Handful picked sage leaves
1 Steam the spinach for 3mins, drain the excess water and chop the leaves very roughly. Set aside.
2 Mix the flour and ricotta in a large bowl until it resembles lumpy, moist breadcrumbs. With a wooden spoon, stir in the egg and three-quarters of the Parmesan. Add a good pinch of salt,
a decent twist of pepper, the nutmeg
and then the spinach, and combine
3 Take a large, stemmed wine glass and drop in a dessertspoonful of semolina. Using a separate, clean dessert spoon, dollop a glob of the ricotta mixture into the glass. Swirl around for a few seconds until you have a walnut-sized dumpling. Lay onto a generously semolina-dusted tray. Repeat until all the mixture is used up. When you have finished, you should have 24 or so little malfatti.
4 Fill a large pan with cold water and bring to a hearty boil. Drop in the malfatti as quickly as possible, bring back to the boil and then continue to simmer for about 3mins. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan over a medium heat, melt the butter and add the sage leaves. When it bubbles, reduce the heat to very low. The malfatti will have floated to the surface when they are ready.
5 Turn off the heat, remove the malfatti with a slotted spoon and drain away the excess water on a clean tea towel. Evenly distribute onto four warmed plates, pour the butter and sage over the top, and finally, scatter the remaining Parmesan.
Russell’s new book Spuntino: Comfort Food (New York Style) is out now, published by Bloomsbury