Steve Cumper goes ve­gan this month with a recipe for panna cotta with kaf­fir lime leaf syrup.

WHEN LOOK­ING FOR IN­SPI­RA­TION for dishes to of­fer non-flesh eaters, many chefs of a cer­tain age find them­selves reach­ing for their tat­tered copy of the Moose­wood Cook­book, a col­lec­tion of recipes from a cel­e­brated veg­e­tar­ian restau­rant that opened in Ithaca, New York, in 1973. For dis­ci­ples, this cook­book was a game changer that her­alded the ac­cep­tance of veg­e­tar­i­an­ism by main­stream so­ci­ety. Scep­tics, on the other hand, con­sid­ered it a hip­pie man­i­festo. I was once in­den­tured to one such hard liner, an old and griz­zled chef whose veg­e­tar­ian reper­toire con­sisted solely of one dish — the nut cut­let. Such was his con­tempt for the few veg­e­tar­i­ans who un­know­ingly stum­bled into his shrine to an­i­mal pro­tein that he would dis­pense the prepa­ra­tion of the nut cut­let to the lowli­est of chefs which, in this case, was usu­ally me. It was a task de­void of any joy. It felt like a pun­ish­ment. As I du­ti­fully com­pressed nuts into the shape of a chop, I would of­ten won­der what mi­nor mis­de­meanour had led me to this point. So many peo­ple iden­tify as veg­e­tar­ian th­ese days that it’s hard to be­lieve that re­fus­ing to eat meat was once seen as a state­ment. In those days, be­ing veg­e­tar­ian was kind of like hav­ing tat­toos — it was as­sumed that any­one with a ‘sleeve’ was a bikie who had com­mit­ted a slew of heinous crimes. To­day it means you’re ei­ther a Pi­lates in­struc­tor or a barista. Nowa­days, meat-free op­tions pep­per restau­rant and café menus and it seems a seis­mic shift in ac­cep­tance is un­der­way. Ve­gans, how­ever, dial up the com­mit­ment con­sid­er­ably, re­ject­ing any­thing re­motely an­i­ma­lesque — and full marks to them for their eth­i­cal, hu­mane and po­lit­i­cal con­vic­tions. Rather than har­bour­ing re­sent­ment to­ward their pi­ous­ness, I tend to view them as one would a marathon pace­maker. You see, they power up to the junc­ture where our food choices and ethics are due to col­lide un­til… they wilt due to iron de­fi­ciency and come last in the race (ac­tu­ally, I may need to re­think this anal­ogy). Once upon a time, when I was head chef of a large and am­bi­tious veg­e­tar­ian café on the fore­shore of Mel­bourne’s St Kilda, I had the op­por­tu­nity to of­fer din­ers ‘mock meat’. I didn’t be­lieve any veg­e­tar­ian worth their salt would want to eat some­thing that had the look, smell and taste of meat. How­ever, I was as mis­guided as a US elec­tion com­men­ta­tor. It was tasty, they liked it, so it went on the menu. My my­opia to this is­sue also meant that panna cotta — that jig­gly Ital­ian pud­ding made with gela­tine and dairy (both of bovine ori­gin) — was some­thing I over­looked for the sweets cab­i­net. This was un­til I was in­tro­duced to agar-agar, a mag­i­cal set­ting agent de­rived from sea­weed. All I needed then was a plant-based al­ter­na­tive to milk and cream, and co­conut pro­vided the so­lu­tion. Co­conut cream im­bues the pud­ding with a trop­i­cal flavour and what bet­ter ac­com­pa­ni­ment than grilled pineap­ple? Add a nod to South-east Asia with kaf­fir lime leaf syrup and you have a con­tem­po­rary, an­i­mal-free take on a clas­sic dessert that will please ev­ery­one at the ta­ble (ex­cept those who be­lieve plants have feel­ings, too, but un­til some­one pub­lishes that cook­book, they can eat some­where else!). Steve Cumper is a chef and fun­ny­man who lives in Tas­ma­nia and dreams of one day owning a fleet of hol­i­day vans called Wicked Cumpers.


Serves 4 1 ta­ble­spoon veg­etable oil 2 cups co­conut cream 2 tea­spoons agar-agar pow­der* 1¼ cups caster su­gar 10 kaf­fir lime leaves 1 lime, juiced 1 small pineap­ple ex­tra kaf­fir lime leaf, finely sliced, to gar­nish

Grease four ½-cup ca­pac­ity dar­i­ole moulds, ramekins or teacups with veg­etable oil. Place co­conut cream, agar-agar pow­der and ¼ cup of caster su­gar in a medium saucepan over a medium heat, and stir un­til su­gar dis­solves and mix­ture boils. Re­duce heat to medium-low and sim­mer for 5 min­utes. Pour co­conut mix­ture among pre­pared moulds, then set aside for 10 min­utes to cool. Place on a tray in re­frig­er­a­tor for 2 hours or un­til set. Mean­while, place lime leaves, lime juice, 2 cups of wa­ter and re­main­ing caster su­gar in a saucepan over a medium heat, and stir un­til su­gar dis­solves and mix­ture boils. Re­duce heat to low and sim­mer for 20 min­utes or un­til syrupy. Re­move from heat and set aside to cool. Us­ing a large, sharp knife, cut pineap­ple into quar­ters length­ways and re­move core. Cut pineap­ple quar­ters into 1cm-thick wedges. Heat a char­grill pan over a medium heat. Char­grill pineap­ple wedges for 2–3 min­utes each side or un­til charred. Trans­fer to a plate. Dip dar­i­ole moulds into a bowl of hot wa­ter for 30 sec­onds, then turn panna cot­tas onto plates. Spoon over lime leaf syrup and gar­nish with ex­tra lime leaf. Serve with grilled pineap­ple. *Avail­able at health-food stores.

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