Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Cookbook Review: Start Simple by Lukas Volger

Some recipe book purchases take a while. I dither, I add them to wishlists, baskets, Birthday lists. Endless justification and some guilt along the way.

Others are easy. Meant to be. 

This is one of the latter.

My main criteria for buying a new book is usually the following:

  • a) is it entirely vegetarian and 
  • b) do I not have anything similar? (this stops me buying literally dozens of vegetarian Indian books, of which I already have many!). 
I also prefer books which I can cook from on a busy Monday after a long day at work (as much as I love my "for best" books, they are definitely much less used).

What made this book appeal to me initially was not only that it was entirely vegetarian (tick!) but the focus on 12 simple ingredients, and for each ingredient, a selection of recipes using them. It also helped that many of these ingredients are things I buy every week or always have in - including chapters on greens, beans, tofu, tortillas, sweet potatoes and mushrooms which are nearly always on my shopping list.

So it was a strong start even before purchase.


First Impressions


I'm a member of Eat Your Books (a service I am planning to write a blog post about because I dithered about joining for years before I actually signed up!) and around the time I ordered this book it had recently been indexed which meant I could have a look at the recipes that were inside it before the book arrived.

I really liked the variety of dishes even using the same ingredients and I quickly had a long list of recipes to try!

When it arrived, my first impression was that it was a really beautiful book. The little jacket cover was such a nice touch - so much so I was sad to take it to look inside!

One of my first realisations about the book was how perfect it was for lockdown cooking - loads of recipes involved storecupboard essentials, and the premise of "one ingredient, multiple meals" works perfectly if, like most people, you're trying to do as few food shops as possible and eke out as many meals as you can from what you already have in.

I loved reading through this and bookmarking recipes to make. There were so many things I wanted to try and many recipes seemed pretty flexible and made it easy to substitute ingredients (especially helpful right now!) and I was really, really excited to cook from it. I was quietly confident it would be a winner.

And here's what I made...

Peanut Butter and Greens sandwich


I actually wrote about this here, as I found the recipe online as I was waiting for the book to arrive. The marinated greens are a really straightforward recipe which are used throughout the "bunch of greens" section, and I've made them quite a few times since. 

I knew I would love this but I don't think I realised quite how much I would love it - I've eaten it three times over the last few weeks! Once I have a bag of spring greens or kale (something I buy pretty much every week), all I need is a few spring onions (which I'm currently growing from scraps), and everything else is storecupboard essentials (peanut butter, sriracha, bread and olive oil/butter).

I've had this twice for lunch, and even had it for breakfast. The flavours just work perfectly. It's like a satay sandwich, and the greens and spring onion give it a delicious texture and crunch. A strong start for this book!


Miso-maple tofu with melted onions


We eat tofu quite a lot and I always have a few half-blocks in the freezer for quick recipes like this. This recipe serves 4 so I halved it for the two of us because I only defrosted half a block of tofu, but I'm not sure if I should have kept the full quantities of sauce and onions for a less-dry dish.

This is pretty classic tofu recipe with miso, but the onions were a nice addition. I will say mine were definitely more crispy than melty - the recipe advises 30 minutes in the oven but I could smell mine catching after 20.

This was tasty and easy, and a good storecupboard option. I'm not sure it's my favourite go-to tofu option but I like the fact I could make it again easily without going shopping.

Carbonara with Marinated Green and Fried Capers


I really, really, really hate cream. I've said it before, I'll say it again. I hate it. And I also generally really hate creamy sauces (cheesy? Fine. But most creamy sauces are a no from me). Now I know carbonara traditionally doesn't contain cream, but a lot of recipes include it. And they also usually contain meat. So for me, carbonara is not something I'm interested in ever.

But I am married to a man who LOVES carbonara. Carbonara is a meal Phil regularly makes when I'm out or away (which obviously is non-existent at the moment!), so this one was for Phil.

This actually supposedly serves 3-4 but I looked at how much spaghetti was allowed and was like, erm, this is how much I would do for two of us, and I am very glad I didn't halve it!

I've actually never ever made carbonara before, so all of this was new. I made the marinated greens first (this time I used kale), but the whole thing came together really quickly with all storecupboard ingredients.

And it was soooooo delicious! Phil especially loved it. The little pops of caper were tangy and salty and I think helped to replicate that "meat-y" flavour (I mean I'm kind of making this up because I have no idea because I don't eat meat). This was a real winner. I'm already looking forward to making this again.

A Stovetop Lasagne


Lasagne is my nemesis. I tried to make one a few weeks ago - I had a portion of my favourite lentil bolgnese ready and I made a fresh bechamel from scratch. I was so excited popping it in the oven, and impatiently waited for delicious tomatoe-y, cheese-y veggie lasagne. Until I pulled it out of the oven. Bechamel = gone. Pasta = raw and gummy and crunchy. Lasagne = disgusting.

And this isn't the only time. I just can't make lasagne. It always comes out gummy and dry and crunchy.

So, I decided, maybe stovetop lasagne is the answer.

There are a few recommendations of "base" recipes to make for the lasagne filling - I made a batch of the roasted mushrooms and half of the roasted mashed butternut squash (the lasagne is in the Butternut Squash chapter, so this felt appropriate. Obviously it takes a while to roast a squash so you need to keep this in mind when making this recipe!).

I thought I'd be making both a white sauce and a red sauce when the recipe started with a roux, but instead it's a roux-based tomato sauce which I hadn't made before. It's pretty easy and straightforward to make.

Next was the pasta, which after my previous disasters, I was convinced wouldn't cook properly. Even in quite a big pan it's quite hard to add three layers of pasta evenly while pushing it under the surface of the sauce and I was convinced it would be raw. Instead, the opposite happened - I actually burned some of the pasta on the bottom of the pan! (It's fine I totally styled it out by pretending it's like the crispy top of a baked lasagne.)

And it was so so delicious! Much more saucy and cheesy than a regular lasagne - it naturally lacks structural integrity (although it does firm up the next day) so it does feel a bit more like a bowl of pasta than a lasagne. I would definitely make it again, however, I felt the butternut squash was a bit lost and not quite worth the effort, so next time I'd either not bother at all with it, or add another filling. A real winner!


Lentil Skillet Bake with Spinach, Tomatoes and Eggs


This is a bit like a Roasting Tin recipe except you start it on the hob. I don't have an oven-safe skillet so I had to move everything to a tray - which is fine, but it isn't super clear in the recipe.

There's a "trick" to caramelising onions quickly according to the recipe, but mine ended up burned so I didn't quite get that right!

We had this with pitta and houmous and it didn't make loads - Phil had to have two pittas - so it was a good indicator that portion sizes are small in this book.

My first not-quite-successful recipe from this book - not sure I'd make this again.

Garlic-sesame kale and avocado salad


In one of the reviews I read for this book someone wrote "it's worth the price of the book for the avocado and kale salad alone", which was good enough a review as any for me!

I looooove kale salads and of course, avocado, because I am nothing if not a basic millennial. 

It's not super clear if this is a side (I mean I hope it is otherwise the serving would have been a serving for ants) so we had this alongside leftover stovetop lasagne,

It's so easy, so delicious - like guacamole salad! I am definitely going to be picking up extra kale and avocados to make this as a side salad more often!

Baked Squash risotto


I used the other half of my butternut squash to make this baked risotto - very Roasting Tin style! I grated the butternut squash in the food processor because butternut squashes are bad enough to cut, let along grate.

I halved this to serve 2 (and checked how much rice I normally do for risotto to make sure I didn't end up with tiny portions!) but was a bit worried the rice wouldn't cook properly.

I'm still confused about the recipe asking for 4 cups of water, requiring you add 2.5 cups and then never telling you what to do with the remaining 1.5 cups, and I'm still not entirely sure what I was meant to do with the spinach (see picture), but this was pretty tasty and Phil in particular loved it. I tend to make risotto in my Instant Pot (see this post) but this was another good option.

Brothy Beans

Around the time I got this book, Bon Appetit did a post about "brothy beans" and an accompanying video and I was really excited to make them. I decided to do a half portion, so I soaked my butter beans in the morning ready to make in the afternoon.

I had Carla's video on to accompany me while making these beans, though I didn't add any extra flavourings as I wanted to make the recipe with the polenta and greens (below). I added the salt, and then on Carla's suggestion, a bit more, and checked them every half an hour.

After an hour they were done but veryyyyyy salty. Carla's video had led me to believe there was basically no such thing as over-salting your beans (she adds salt by the handful in the video) but apparently, if you half a recipe but forget to halve the salt, and then add extra salt, you end up with pretty salty beans...

(I want to add this is 100% my fault and nothing to do with Lukas' recipe!)

However, I totally saved them...

Spicy Beans and Greens over Polenta


So, salty beans and broth ready, I made the polenta and greens. I've noticed a few times when cooking American polenta recipes that polenta in the US is definitely different from the stuff we get here in the UK, as this recipe said to simmer for 15 minutes and mine was definitely done after 5.

I used some frozen spinach as the greens and added the harissa and garlic and served up the beans atop the polenta with the greens, surrounded by broth.

And it was... salty. Very salty. So salty in fact that I kind of panicked. Had I completely ruined my beans and therefore my dinner? 

Fortunately, the blandness of the polenta is perfect if you've accidentally oversalted your beans, and once everything was mixed in, it didn't taste too salty at all, but I was already pretty scarred from the experience. While this was tasty, I wouldn't make it again.

Ribolitta


I actually wasn't planning to cook from this book again after the beans and polenta, but I'd intentionally saved a couple of portions of the beans and broth to eat through the week and realised I was going to have to water them down quite a bit to be edible, so I decided to make soup. I searched my Eat Your Books account for recipes I had for bean and greens soup, and as luck would have it, there was a ribolitta recipe in this book!

It ended up being absolutely perfect for my needs. I had beans and broth, a couple of bendy carrots, some leftover marinated greens and some homemade bread which was starting to go stale. I didn't have any celery but I threw in a few mushrooms that needed using up, as well as the rest of the ingredients.

And this was sooooooo delicious! I'm so glad I made it because it's been getting better every day for lunch this week. With the saltiness of the bean broth and my extra portions of greens I was able to water this down quite a bit to get 4 good portions (I'd initially halved the recipe) and while I went a little off-piste, I think I can definitely thank Lukas for the flavours and the inspiration. I would definitely make this again when I next need to clear out the fridge.

Final thoughts

This is an absolutely brilliant book which I cannot recommend more.

It's perfect for the veggie in your life, but I also think it would be an excellent purchase for meat-eaters looking to eat more plant-based, as it makes vegetarian cooking easy and not at all overwhelming.

Like I said in the intro too, it's also a great choice for lockdown cooking. The multiple options for each ingredient mean you can buy a big box of mushrooms or a butternut squash or greens and know you have loads of options for how to use them. Lukas talks about the book being ideal for people who don't meal plan as once you have the main ingredients you can just grab whatever you need depending on which recipe you fancy, but it also works perfectly for people who meal plan, as you can plan your week around the individual ingredients without getting bored. It's also perfect for batch cooking, especially things like the brothy beans and marinated greens.

I know this is going to be a book I turn to over and over again and take inspiration from - I've already made the peanut butter and greens sandwich three times, and I really fancy that carbonara again!

Let me know if you give this book a try!

Charlotte x

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