I have a lot of books about food. I have books about nutrition, books about the socio-political implications of food, collections of essays about food, books of poetry about food, musings from MFK Fisher and Elizabeth David, and slim vintage manuals that sit on my shelf to serve as art rather than instruction. I have cookbooks that are dog-eared, food-splattered and marked up the way any well loved, good cookbook should be, and I have beautiful cookbooks from which I have never made a recipe but which I find in my lap on a regular basis for inspiration.
Nigel Slater’s book Tender, falls into the latter category. It is a thick, 618 page, beautiful beast of a book centered around the vegetables the author loves and grows in his backyard in London. The book is heavy on text and when pictures do appear they are simultaneously lush and cold, inviting and a bit austere, rich in hue but suggestive of a damp grey just outside the border of the page, evocative of London itself. I love Slater’s narrative tone which is conversational, at times equally poetic and snarky, and always confident. He breaks the book into chapters by vegetable, gives a brief introduction, discusses the vegetable “in the kitchen” and “in the garden” and then gives general suggestions for flavors that work well together. Finally there is a picture or two and a few recipes showing how these flavor combinations might manifest.
Whenever I tire of how I am preparing a vegetable I turn to Tender for some new suggestion of a spice or preparation I haven’t thought of. We have a lot of cauliflower in our garden right now. I have made “rice” with it. I have made soup with it. I’ve thrown it into salads and stir fries and dipped it in hummus. I ate it every couple of days for weeks and finally got sick of the stuff, wished it gone, and felt as Slater does that “Sometimes I think it wouldn’t bother me if I never saw one again.” Still, the dense heads of crinkly florets continue to thrive outside–some white, some an almost pale purple. I opened to Slater’s chapter on the brassica about which he says, “Its chaste, slightly coy presence makes this a vegetable that would never shout its qualities.” I have to agree. It can be borderline dull when mistreated and sublimely subtle given the right circumstances. Among his recipes for cheese or bechamel-smothered cauliflower, I found a simple dish of fried cauliflower with salsa verde. With plans to grill lamb chops that night it seemed the perfect first recipe to test from the book. We have a small kitchen with poor ventilation so I opted to roast the cauliflower at high heat until just tender. I collected the herbs from our backyard, chopped some garlic and 10 minutes later had a bowl of piquant, emerald colored sauce that is not only delicious on cauliflower but also on lamb, on salmon, on chicken, on roasted potatoes, mixed into quinoa……you get the idea.