It’s a few days past Thanksgiving and you might just be tired of turkey leftovers. What about some meals that don’t involve any sort of meat, fish or poultry? I had the chance to learn about some top-notch vegetarian cooking recently and shared the details with Jo-Ann Roberts this week on CBC Victoria’s All Points West program.
I am not a person who has ever embraced vegetarianism. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate a good meatless meal. I have just chosen to include animal protein in my diet. Vegetables are one of my favourite parts of any meal, so when I was invited to meet a famous Irish vegetarian chef traveling here to cook a special meal at Hastings House on Salt Spring Island I jumped at the opportunity.
Irish and vegetarian aren’t two words I would normally put together, and that’s the way it was for chef Denis Cotter, of Cork, Ireland, where meat and potatoes are staples. I asked him if food played a big role in his life when he was growing up, and he emphatically replied, “No.” His family ate a lot of boiled meat and boiled vegetables. Meat was occasionally roasted instead of boiled. He remembers that when broccoli came to Ireland it was “pretty exotic”.
His vegetarianism came almost as a bit of admiration; he had a vegetarian girlfriend but wasn’t vegetarian at the time, but somehow it rubbed off on him, and he was also into music from The Smiths, and Morrissey, the lead singer, was vegetarian. He started his working career as a banker who had to travel around Ireland quite a bit, and his frustration with not being able to find good vegetarian fare in restaurants led him change from banking to cooking, since once he went vegetarian, he had learned how to cook already. He moved to London for a while to work in vegetarian restaurants there. When he moved to Cork to open his own restaurant, vegetarian establishments in Ireland had a poor enough reputation, so he had to really shine. “I just found that people were seeking food that didn’t have things. Didn’t have meat, didn’t have dairy, didn’t have this and that. So there was definitely a niche to be created in celebrating vegetables, attaching them to some bold flavours, a chance to celebrate real food.”
The restaurant he opened is called Café Paradiso, he still owns it, he has published a couple of successful vegetarian cookbooks, but he has been spending more and more time here in Canada as when he was teaching at a culinary school in Stratford he met his now-wife, and has been learning more over the past few years about Canadian culinary customs. He has learned that people there certainly tend to obsess over certain food trends. “They’re very serious about local food, things like the 100-mile diet, which I certainly support, but they almost get a little anal about it. I mean in a country this size, if it comes from 150 or 200 miles away, does it really matter? And there is certainly too much celebration of bacon and pork. The idea of taking a piece of pork, and wrapping it in bacon and then frying it in bacon fat, that’s really too much. I don’t know, apparently bacon tastes good. But you know what, so does celeriac!”
And celeriac was in one of the courses he served at dinner, braised in cider and it really took on the appley flavour of the cider, and that dish came along with fresh chanterelles and buttermilk cauliflower puree, so a great blend of fall flavours. Denis was very impressed with the foraged mushrooms available here so for Jo-Ann, I made her one of his recipes that should be another fall favourite, some chanterelles with pumpkin gnocchi in a brandy and cream sauce. *Please note there is a mistake in the recipe as published in the link. It mentions grated cheese in the ingredients but not in the method. From its position in the list, I assume the cheese is to be added to the pumpkin and flour when making the gnocchi.
Denis and his wife booked extra time to stay on Salt Spring after they arrived, and there was a little bit of talk around our table that he might even consider a move out here to open a restaurant that has been in the planning stages for years. I guess you would consider that high praise. I should mention that Chef Cotter was the star of the latest edition of Chefs Across The Water program at Hastings House, a fundraising effort that donates money to sustainability projects on Salt Spring like the abattoir that started operating last year and a cold storage project now underway.