STEVE CUMPER TURNS A CLASSIC DESSERT INTO A PLEASE-ALL PUD.
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.
VEGAN PANNA COTTA WITH KAFFIR LIME LEAF SYRUP
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.