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Exciting vegetarian cuisine from buckwheat to Chinese artichoke
Vegetarian cuisine is preparing for the future with exotic-looking tubers and seeds, some of which are now thriving in Switzerland, too. And they're easy to use. Here are a few ideas from Swiss chefs.
As plant-based cuisine is becoming more and more popular and chefs all over the country are rediscovering vegetables for dishes, we are currently enjoying something of a revolution when it comes to ingredients. New vegetables, cereals and pseudocereals are increasingly finding their way onto plates in both top-class restaurants and in the home.
On the one hand, it's exciting to see new discoveries on supermarket shelves, but on the other, they also present us with new challenges, as many people have no idea how to prepare these new foodstuffs. Swiss chefs are a good source for preparation tips – they usually receive new vegetables from their preferred farmers early on and then spend time experimenting with them.
I really love fat from meat as an intense flavour carrier – and I’m always delighted when vegetables can contribute similar characteristics.
“For us it's exciting to see everything that grows here and enhances our range”, says Jann Hoffmann, head chef at Café Boy in Zurich and also a radio and TV star. Hoffmann is someone who prepares both meat and vegetables with skill. “I really love fat from meat as an intense flavour carrier – and I’m always delighted when vegetables can contribute similar characteristics”, says the professional chef. “Buckwheat, for example, has a very intensive flavour, and we have experimented with it a lot recently.”
Hoffmann notes that, in the last few years, there has been a real boom in terms of locally-grown plant-based delicacies. “Around 20 years ago, people were still amazed to see melons from the region”, he explains. “Today it's pretty normal for farmers to be trying out new things all the time.” Today, you can even get sweet potatoes and quinoa grown in Switzerland.
But it's not only exotic species that are growing in local soil. “There is also a wealth of once widespread indigenous vegetables which were forgotten and are now being ‘rediscovered’, so to speak, as exotic varieties”, says Philipp Holzherr from the rare species protection organization ProSpecieRara. Professionals call them “neglected crops”. These include Jann Hoffmann's favourite, buckwheat, as well as turnip-root chervil, which is treated as a delicacy in culinary circles. Holzherr enthuses about that, too: “It's unbelievably delicate, with a hint of chestnut.” That's why ProSpecieRara is also working on making it easier to cultivate – something which is currently quite time-consuming.
It goes without saying that ProSpecieRara is also interested in seeing which new vegetables and cereals are the current trend. It is important to ensure that the plants cultivated here are also a good match for the climate and soil. “Here at ProSpecieRara, we only get actively involved if the exotic species become indigenous, if there are culinary traditions and if the aim is to preserve species”, explains Holzherr. Many of our standard vegetables – whether tomatoes or potatoes – were once “exotic” species.
One person who is excited about the increasing range of new and old vegetable delicacies is top chef Simon Sommer, who works in the kitchen of “Wein & Sein” in Bern: “It’s great that one tomato can taste sweet and another more tart or tangy.” He hopes that the trend towards species diversity continues and expands. And where do the pros see potential for more plants that could be cultivated in Switzerland? There is considerable interest, according to Philipp Holzherr, in the area of culinary oils: “Flax and camelina are great as oil plants, or even nut oils.” On the other hand, top chef Fabian Fuchs from “Equitable” in Zurich, who cooks using a lot of indigenous plants, believes that diversity in maize and primarily in indigenous maize flour for tortillas is sure to become a hot topic in the next few years: “Mexican cuisine is already very popular.”
There is a great deal of general openness towards “plant-based” innovations. Jann Hoffmann explains that chefs in his team enjoy working on creating vegetarian dishes these days. “Even just a few years ago, many of them saw it as a punishment”, says the chef. And the guests? “They always enjoy discovering new things”, says Hoffmann. And because there are now also a number of young, wild farmers joining the young, wild chefs in Switzerland, the guests’ – and even amateur chefs’ – desire to discover new things is not likely to diminish any time soon.
Would you also like to surprise your guests with fresh ingredients from the plant kingdom? Here are a few tips from the pros about popular veggie foods:
Buckwheat probably features most prominently in Japanese cuisine, where soba noodles, which are almost entirely made from buckwheat, have almost cult status. As buckwheat does not contain gluten, creating the noodles is an art. We have a few buckwheat classics here in Switzerland, too: pizzoccheri noodles from Val Poschiavo, or the somewhat fatter pizokels. This means that buckwheat has been known in Switzerland for a long time, but for decades it was almost forgotten. All of the professional chefs we spoke to love this pseudocereal, as it is known – buckwheat is a knotweed and is not related to wheat at all. Simon Sommer even described it as “pretty awesome!”.
He particularly likes salad with aubergines and buckwheat marinaded in lemon juice. “Parsley goes perfectly”, says Sommer. He also loves spaetzli which have some buckwheat flour in the dough. Or even crisps, for which he mixes buckwheat flour with water. “You spread the batter thinly on a sheet of baking paper and bake the crisps in the oven – simply amazing”, says the chef. Jann Hoffmann is similarly enthusiastic. He uses the pseudocereal in risotto, for example, and at the end mixes in a little fried buckwheat. He stirs in boiled buckwheat that he fries slowly in the pan with a little butter. You can also fry buckwheat in the pan without boiling it first. One dish that is always on Café Boy's menu is a kind of meatloaf made from buckwheat. Jann Hoffmann: “To make this, we boil the buckwheat, mix half with eggs, herbs and spices, then add the rest of the buckwheat. We bake the mixture in a tin in the oven.”
There was real hype surrounding quinoa just a few years ago. Most recently, Swiss farmers have also started growing quinoa, which originates from South America. Just like buckwheat, quinoa is also a pseudocereal which does not contain gluten. Fabian Fuchs likes quinoa in warm salads, for example: “It's a good alternative to couscous, as quinoa has a firmer texture.” Jann Hoffmann, too, explains: “When it comes to quinoa, it's important not to overboil it.” One of his favourite dishes is boiled and then lightly fried quinoa, refined with vanilla oil, with slices of slow-fried cauliflower on top, all garnished with chopped, marinated parsley.
Fabian Fuchs also likes puffed quinoa: to make this, boiled seeds are dried and fried. “The important thing is to retain a little moisture after the drying process so that the seeds can pop.” Puffed quinoa gives a great crunch to quinoa salads.
China is the native country of Stachys affinis, which is known by several names, including artichoke betony and crosne. The most common name, “Chinese artichoke” refers to both its origin and its flavour. The plant is hardy and its root tubers that look like tiny Michelin men can be harvested all year round. Simon Sommer enjoys his Chinese artichoke “raw, grated over salad”. He also blanches them while crunchy and then fries them whole in the pan. Fabian Fuchs also swears by this: “The great thing is that Chinese artichokes can be cooked more al dente than, for example, potatoes.” Incidentally, the leaves are also delicious. Christoph Hauser, head chef and co-owner of the popular restaurant Herz & Niere in Berlin makes a juice with the leaves that he uses to marinate the fried Chinese artichokes briefly in the pan.
I became acquainted with sweet potatoes decades ago in the USA, where, for example, Thanksgiving just isn’t complete without them. For a few years now, Swiss farmers have also been growing them. Sweet potatoes belong to the bindweed family, while potatoes belong to the nightshade family. Unlike the potato, the leaves of the sweet potato are also edible and are even prepared traditionally in Africa, for example. According to Jann Hoffmann, the tuber needs something to offset the sweetness, such as spiciness. Hoffmann therefore prepares an oil using garlic and chilli and mixes this in with puréed sweet potatoes. “The purée makes an amazing accompaniment for pork belly, for example”, says the chef.
Fabian Fuchs cuts round medallions out of the vegetable, which he initially boils, then fries on both sides until crispy. He uses the offcuts to make a purée. For a long time I had only ever eaten cooked sweet potato. In the last few years I have come to occasionally enjoy sweet potatoes raw, too, as prepared by Matthew Orlando, the former head chef at “Noma” and owner of the gourmet restaurant Amass in Copenhagen. He served finely grated sweet potatoes as a salad, on a sweetcorn jus. Jann Hoffmann also tells me about a rather bizarre way to prepare them: “My wife cuts them into slices and puts them in the toaster.” You can find corresponding recipes in a whole host of blog entries. But if you’d rather stick to conventional ways of preparing them, you can also dice them, toss them in a little oil, salt, and lemon juice or chilli – as you fancy – and then roast them.
My wife cuts them into slices and puts them in the toaster.
Other columns by Esther Kern
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