Rooting out great ways to enjoy vegetables
Sybil Kapoor laughs easily, especially when she's talking about a subject she loves: vegetables. Her new book, the Great British Vegetable Cookbook, hits the shelves this month. Sybil was determined to make the best of seasonal eating with fresh modern recipes – and also, finding a few standbys in the National Trust recipe collection.
"As a cook, what I love eating most is vegetables," said Sybil, 55. "I'm an omnivore, but I love them. I had a rural upbringing, and to me, vegetables are a way to be in touch with the seasons."
As a girl, Sybil remembers picking beans, pulling up beetroot, and hanging up shallots to dry in her home in rural Sussex.
"Of course it was a bit of a battle with the rabbits," she laughs. "Most of my memories are of picking, not planting, so maybe I wasn't entrusted with anything so important. Although I do remember digging a lot."
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Sybil remembers home-grown baby beetroot roast with the Sunday lunch, "like sugar lumps".
"We were very traditional eaters in the 1970s. I remember my mother growing courgettes and my father refusing to eat them, because they were so new and foreign. Even garlic was still a bit adventurous in those days."
Sybil was a professional chef for 13 years, and started writing her own recipes. This dovetailed nicely into a new career as a food writer, a role she thoroughly enjoys. "I love giving people inspiration," she said. She is married to an Indian husband, Raj, and said that flavours of India, so integral now to the British palate, is another inspiration for her recipes.
Indeed, British cooking is an altogether more cosmopolitan prospect today, and people expect more exciting flavours, especially to liven up a veg box.
"If vegetables are cooked in a traditional British way, it tends to be very simple – boiled or steamed," she said. "What I have found is that it helps to research recipes where the vegetables actually originate, and they tend to be better suited to them."
Sybil happily plunders a variety of cooking traditions: for instance, with her fried aubergine recipe, she adds cumin and other Eastern spices. "The recipes are inspired from around the world, and shaped for my taste, which is a very British taste," she said. She even snuck a few in under an assumed name for cautious eaters like her father – her pokhara dish she refers to as "fritters".
"My husband has to try everything, we eat the recipes for supper," she said. "The only thing he doesn't like is Brussels sprouts."
Her new book features various National Trust properties, where Sybil has been inspired by the many food programmes underway. This includes Killerton in Devon, where the estate-produced cider, chutney, and flour from Clyston Mill are used in the café and restaurant, along with produce from local farms and allotments.
"The National Trust is very involved in all these different ways of growing vegetables. There are community allotments, schemes that include disabled people, entire families, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) schemes – it's just great.
"I do feel that today everybody needs to ask where their food is coming from. Most consumers have lost touch with that, just going to the supermarkets. Even if we make only a small commitment to shopping once a week at a farmers' market, or trying to grow a few things, it's a first step."
Sybyl's book is organised into seasons, and follows the vegetables as they crop throughout the year. There is also a handy chart to tell you what vegetables are at their peak and when.
It is truly educational: each vegetable has its own introduction talking about its growing habits and notes, followed by culinary notes, and finally, recipes.
"If you take cauliflower for instance, I've got some recipes for cauliflower Carpaccio; a gorgeous picallili; salads; and stuffed parathas, a kind of Indian bread.
"The idea is to give people lots of inspiration when they have a lot of one thing, which is what tends to happen with seasonal eating.
"When I first started writing this book, a lot of people came to me and said, 'please can you tell us what to do with chard!' They all had it in their vegetable boxes, and you do need some variety after a while.
"I am definitely a modern cook, but I have taken traditional recipes that I love – I have chosen the ones I think are best for that vegetable."
And what of her own vegetable productivity? Here she laughs most of all. "Alas! In London, I have no chance to grow vegetables – but I would love to, I would really love to.
"Luckily my mother and my brother are still in the country, so I can get my fix when I need to. Other than that, it's the farmers' market."