Vegan cuisine at El Piano

Today, flicking through a food magazine, and yesterday, scrolling through Pinterest, I noticed something important. Something which has been bothering me for a while now. It’s this: ‘vegan’ used heavily as an adjective. Vegan dinners, vegan sandwiches, vegan breakfasts: ‘vegan’ bandied around lightly, tacked on to articles and descriptions to give it a little glamour. Veganism is regarded by some as a vogue, a fashion: this is a problem because it implies that it’ll pass, as ponchos and leopard-skin did, when in reality, it’s not so superficial. I’m quite tired of seeing ‘vegan’ as a way to attract consumers on the basis of its contemporary status, as something to make you look on trend: although in the short term it may spark individuals to change their lifestyles for good, it shouldn’t be advertised as ‘cool’. It’s a way of life requiring commitment and serious thought, if you want to do it properly. Yes, it’s great that the current attention veganism has in the media is inspiring larger numbers to adopt a vegan way of life – estimated numbers have increased from 150,000 in 2006 to 542,00 in 2016 in the UK – but once (I’d like to say if) this attention naturally reaches the end of its course, the less dedicated may lose interest. I’m not trying to say that vegans aren’t committed: just that for a small number, this desire to conform to trends may outweigh the desire to live an ethical and environmentally-friendly lifestyle.

I suppose that this a fairly negative perspective to take on the trend; in a more optimistic outlook, it’s fantastic that current media attention is inspiring many to change. What I’m trying to get is the worry that veganism is being trivialised, commodified, for the sake of selling. There’s a much more serious message which I feel is a little obscured.

Of course, this is probably hugely hypocritical, from the perspective of a vegetarian. But I am conscious of this hypocrisy every day. Fashion doesn’t hugely interest me, and I prefer to do what makes me comfortable in my own skin, than sacrifice my happiness for the sake of following others. This is why I see problems with recipes in a food magazine described in big letters as ‘vegan’: people ought to make decisions for themselves, rather than be guided by what the media tells them is popular.

Which brings me on to El Piano, a small vegan restaurant in York, part of a family-run trio. It’s been in business since 1997, well before veganism became fashionable. Of veganism, it says: ‘For some it’s a fad, for others an obsession, it can be a way of life, a conviction, a calling.’ This aptly sums up how I feel. I visited with two friends, one of whom is a vegan, and the other who is a determined meat-eater – justifying her choices with fact that she chooses to buy organic, ‘high-quality’ meat only. (She’s adamant that if everyone went vegetarian, farming won’t be able to cope with plant demand. Yes, perhaps if everybody transitioned all at once.)

It was a gorgeous sunny day, so we ate in the enclosed courtyard. Two of us ordered a bottle each of Samuel Smith’s organic cider, which is always difficult to come by in bars and restaurants – organic cider tastes so much cleaner, and so much crisper: it’s not sickly-sweet, and doesn’t leave you feeling parched.

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(Take note of the beautiful jug – if it’s true that food and drink tastes better out of pretty dishes, then El Piano have their tableware bang on.)

The staff are friendly, and unusually smiley underneath their turbans (apparently for hygiene purposes, should anyone need to pop in to the kitchen). We ordered a starter to share, of breads and an olive oil for dipping; the sun-coloured bread, which we presumed was cornbread, was warm and satisfying.

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The small size of the dinner menu reflects how much is invested in sourcing the ingredients: produce is local and organic whenever possible. An indicator of a good restaurant, for me, is how visually overwhelming the menu is; if it’s double-sided, serving everything with extra sauces and dips, then it’s likely compensation for a lack elsewhere. There’s a choice of platters to share, a veggie burger, or a variety from the set menu of a main dish, a fritter, and a salad. I chose an Indonesian-style tempeh satay skewer, with peppers and pineapple, accompanied by falafel and a salsa; my friend decided to try the daal. I added a side of ‘mathematical chips’ to my order, purely for curiosity’s sake.

 

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The dishes were presented beautifully, in the plates and bowls I longed to sweep into my bag and take home with me. Tempeh – an Indonesian take on tofu – was a new experience for me: it’s flatter in shape, but firmer in texture, and also packs more protein. The satay sauce was delicious, especially with the complimenting flavours of the pineapple and pepper; and the mathematical chips turned out to gain their name only from their precise form.

None of us opted for dessert, feeling heartily full from the main meal (who says that vegan food isn’t satisfying?).  I thoroughly enjoyed everything I ate (perhaps excluding the bread in the starter – a tad bland!), and I encourage anyone who is sceptical of vegan food to visit: animal products will not be missed. There is no attempt, either, to imitate meat: plant-based food needs no model to match here. In fact, attempting to compete with meat seems to be there grave mistake the veggie movement has made – it will always fall short, and really, it doesn’t need to try. Plants are plants, not meat alternatives, and form a cuisine in their own right.

 

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Pasta pepperonata

Having spent most of my life in an urban town where the only health shop for miles is Holland & Barrett, I was very excited recently to set foot inside York’s Alligator Wholefoods, on Fishergate. A little store offering fresh local produce, meat and dairy alternatives, health foods, and specialist products, it’s easy to spend ages wandering round and taking stock of the sheer variety. On my first visit, I left with smoked tofu (returning the next week for its marinated counterpart), miso, organic tortillas, and vegan chocolate (which unfortunately left less of an impression).

I also picked up a stack of recipes from Suma, an ethical UK wholefoods cooperative. Over an iced mocha in the sun by Lendal Bridge, I flicked through them and made a mental note to try all of them: my first – this pepperonata – was simple, satisfying, and very easy to make.

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As I was only cooking for myself, I used one courgette, half an onion, half a red pepper, and cherry tomatoes. As per the recipe instructions, you’ll need the following to serve 4:

  • 2 red and 2 yellow peppers
  • 2 red onions
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • a tbsp of olive oil
  • 2 handfuls of parsley
  • 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 2 handfuls grated cheese
  • 2 heaped tbsp crème fraîche
  • 455g penne (or fusilli)
  • salt and pepper

 

Begin by deseeding and slicing the peppers relatively finely, along with the onions. Chop the garlic and the parsley leaves, retaining the stalks.

Heat the oil in a large lidding frying pan, add the peppers, season, and cook slowly for fifteen minutes. Then, add the onion and cook for another twenty minutes.

Put in the parsley stalks and garlic, and keep moving for a couple of minutes. Season again and splash in the balsamic vinegar, mixing well. Add a handful of parmesan and the crème fraîche, then turn the heat down to low as the pasta cooks.

Drain the pasta when cooked to perfection, and reserve a little water. Put in a bowl and pour the vegetables elegantly on top with the parsley leaves, water to loosen if needed, and a glug of olive oil. Sprinkle over the remaining cheese (and a little extra) and eat.

I served mine over a bowl of Tesco’s high-protein fusili (containing 16.8g of protein per 70g cooked portion!). Slow-roasting peppers is something I’d not attempted before, but in comparison to roasting, they don’t shrivel the vegetable as much, leaving it with more bite: and the smell is heavenly. In fact, I enjoyed this so much that I made it the next day, serving instead over rice.

Black bean and feta burgers

This is my fiftieth blog post which, appropriately, falls about a year after the first. In my twelve months of blogging, I’ve come to realise the importance of having some form of creative outlet: before, the only words I wrote were for purely academic purposes, and I struggled to consistently keep a diary. This blog has pushed me to explore and experiment with food, and I’m proud of it.

 

I love a good veggie burger, and I’ve always preferred them to meat. Granted, there’s a spectrum of burger quality, but my own personal tastes leant towards the texture of beanburgers. Eating many times in Nandos taught me this, as did barbecue season: the real highlight of the grill, for me, was the halloumi and veggie skewers, not the typically overcooked quarter-pounders. However, I’m not a fan of the mushroom burger: my first (and last) at Byron in York left me heartily disappointed.

A few months ago, I made these beetroot and lentil burgers, and thoroughly enjoyed them: but until I can find a suitable replacement for the egg used to bind them together, I’m on the hunt for other egg-free varieties. Flicking through my Hemsley and Hemsley cookbook, I decided to give these black bean and feta varieties a try.

 

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To make eight patties (I halved everything), you’ll need:

  • 2 tbsp ghee (I just used olive oil – I’m sceptical of the Hemsley sister’s lauding of ghee)
  • a medium onion
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 2 tins of black beans, or 500g homecooked beans (200g dried. ‘Activate’ overnight – i.e., soak.)
  • 100g chestnut or buckwheat flour (I used plain)
  • a tsp dried oregano or thyme (I also used a tsp of dried rosemary)
  • 170g sun-dried chopped tomatoes
  • a handful of fresh parsley, or coriander
  • a tbsp chopped jalapeños or fresh chilli
  • 100g feta cheese
  • salt and pepper

 

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Finely chop the onion, garlic, chilli, and sun-dried tomatoes, before chopping the parsley.

Gently cook the onion over a medium heat until coloured. Stir in the garlic and cook for a couple of minutes, before adding the drained beans.

Mash the beans roughly with a wooden spoon or fork, and let the excess liquid evaporate. Transfer the beans to a mixing bowl and incorporate well with the flour.

Add the rest of the herbs, sun-dried tomatoes, chilli and feta, season with salt and pepper, and, using your hands, fold everything together. When the patty mixture has cooled down a little, divide it equally into eight rounds.

Place each burger on a lined baking tray, and pop in the oven for fifty minutes. They’re ready when golden brown and slightly crispy: slide straight into wholemeal buns or onto the plate, and eat as desired.

This is a fantastic recipe: hands-on but not particularly time-consuming, and yielding some very tasty burgers. The burgers are light, with a delicious saltiness to complement the herby notes. I served mine with sweet potato wedges, homemade hummous, tomatoes, and salad – perfect.

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