A recent lunch re-affirmed two things I already knew: Helen Lawrence from The Vegetarian Cookery School is one of the best vegetarian chefs of all time ever, and Silvana de Soissons really knows how to pick ’em.
The occasion was The Foodie Bugle Contributor’s Lunch Party, hosted by Silvana, who wisely chose Helen to create, cook and serve the meal. The end result was the smorgasbord of my dreams (veggie or otherwise). Get a load of this menu:
- Roasted red pepper soup and harissa
- Wild mushrooms with pinenuts and herbs
- Imman Bayaldi
- Roasted butternut squash and haloumi salad with tahini yoghurt and spices
- Castelluccio lentils with beetroot & caramelised fennel
- Tomatoes slow roasted tomatoes with fregola and herbs
This is my kind of food, and reading the menu filled me with promise. But it was in eating the food itself where I was reminded why Helen rocks my world.
I’ve known Helen for the past few years in my work with The Vegetarian Cookery School and Demuths Restaurant (where Helen used to be head chef). Helen is happy, fun and spontaneous. She works hard but never stresses. She loves ingredients. She loves to play. She loves to cook. All of this results in some amazing food, often with flavour combinations that surprise and inspire, and always beautifully presented as if each dish is an homage to the vegetables themselves. I’ve been a (mostly) vegetarian for the past 20 years and every time I take one of Helen’s classes or am treated to her cooking, I leave saturated with new ideas for how to make vegetables extraordinary.
Case in point was her lentils with beetroot and caramelised fennel, where the fennel was roasted on a very low heat over the course of two days to make the lentils absolutely soft, tender and sweet. Add to this deeply roasted beetroot and red onion, pomegranate molasses and edible flowers and you have something for which the phrase “lentil salad” simply doesn’t do it justice.
The other revelation came in her rose harissa – take your usual spicy harissa past and add rosewater and rose petals. The result: a world-rocking addition to roasted red pepper soup, bread, salad and pretty much anything that takes well to a bit of heat. (Following its positive reception, Helen has graciously shared the rose harissa recipe for all to enjoy.)
It wasn’t all fireworks and surprise flavours – Helen knows when to hold back and let great ingredients speak for themselves. Her sauteed wild mushrooms were going to be wrapped in filo and served with pine nuts, but in the end she served the sauteed wild mushrooms as they were – another example of Helen’s spontaneity resulting in beautiful results.
I asked Helen what her favourite dish was to make. Her response: “that’s like choosing your favourite child.” This was right before she commandeered the mint tea, opened the pot and threw in some fresh sage leaves: “let’s put some of this sage in there because it’s just so lovely.”
Like I said, Silvana knows how to pick em’, and that goes beyond chefs – she knows how to pick her friends, too. The lunch party was full of the coolest, friendliest and most talented foodies around. Authors, chefs, cookery teachers, food and drink “artisans”, journalists… mostly small business owners who have the freedom of life to disappear on a weekday afternoon into Silvana’s countryside wonderworld – the crockery, the linens, the Aga, the dogs, the wine, the food, the people – it’s all straight out of the “Make Life Awesome” handbook. It’s a sure sign that things are headed in a pretty swell direction.
I’ll finish this post the same way we finished the meal: with dessert. Semolina cake with roasted quince alongside rosewater and pistachio meringues, blackberries and vanilla labna. There are those roses again, kickin’ ass and takin’ names. I need to get some.