In February I attended the home of the Vegetarian society to do my cordon vert chef’s diploma.
The course was led by principal tutor Alex Connell. There were only three students on the course (they will take max of 4 at once), the other two were an executive chef working on cruise ships and a private Italian chef living in London. The school is set in these lovely gardens which kind of explains why everyone working there seems so relaxed.
A tour round the school included a pretty impressive stock cupboard which was full of every spice you could imagine and various different liquors which could be used in desserts. The school’s kitchen was bigger than any professional kitchen I’ve ever been in; each student having their own work station with oven and hob..
Alex served us a fabulous 3 course Moroccan style dinner he had prepared for us. To start with we had Harrira soup with preserved lemons and harissa. This was followed by a spread of homemade flatbreads with dukka and hummus, Moroccan tagine and couscous and borek. Dessert was m’hanncha which is made from rolled filo pastry and filled with almonds and dried fruit. Included in our course packs were recipes for all the dishes.
I was staying with my mum’s cousin Sharon for the week, who joined us at the end of the evening.. Not being one to hold back, Sharon asked us ‘so can you all cook?’ Perhaps I’d failed to explain to her that it was a course for professional chefs!
Each day was split into about 4 sessions. This would often include a practical lesson on cooking techniques such as making fresh pasta, sushi and paella.
There was always a morning and afternoon session where we would each get to cook a set of 3 or 4 different dishes for lunch or dinner that day. This involved some planning and time management, figuring out which order to cook everything in and ensuring there was time to present everything nicely. For people who know me, I like to over complicate things (well don’t most chefs?) and so the end of sessions would invariably involve me running around rushing to do the finishing touches. At points I felt I was on a set of ‘come dine with me’, crossed with ‘ready steady cook’ and ‘master chef’. Although we were given recipes to follow, Alex would encourage/support us to inject our own creativity into the dishes.
Guests from different parts of the vegetarian society would join us for lunch or dinner where we would sample and critique the various dishes we had cooked. This would often amount to some 15 dishes in total.. Although we were advised not to eat everything on our plates for me, as a glutinous vegetarian who hates any kind of food waste, I found this almost impossible not to do…
Dishes included spiced roasted vegetable plait, Malaysian curry, flautas, pea and wasabi fritters, avocado and gazpacho mousse, and desserts such as baklava (see below for my own adapted nut free version), biscotti (which I managed to do an excellent gluten free version of) and chocolate roulade.
On the last day of the course we were set a ‘master chef’ type challenge. We were each given a random dietary requirement such as ‘no onion or garlic’, vegan or gluten free and given a small selection of vegetables and other ingredients. We had two hours to plan and implement a main course (to include a side dish) and a dessert to be eaten by the members of staff from the vegetarian society.
My brief was a ‘vegan’ diet. After some deliberation I decided to try out a chermoula tagine with crispy tofu, apricot and almond couscous and broccoli, pepper and tahini salad. Chermoula is a North African spice paste. I had come across it before in this Ottolenghi recipe but had never tried it in a tagine before. For dessert I went with a chocolate orange mousse. I’d wanted to do a layered dark and white chocolate mousse (using vegan white chocolate) but unfortunately I seemed to f**k up melting the white chocolate (hmm despite nearing the end of my cordon vert!). My tagine seemed to be a hit with the staff, especially the crispy tofu, which a number of people asked how I got so crispy (see cooking method below which I learnt on the course).
Overall I really enjoyed this course. It was full on (with 9 till 7pm days) but the most fun I’ve had in ages, which for me is one of the most important things about cooking (and in fact most things I guess!). As a lifelong vegetarian, the vegetarian aspects of it weren’t new to me, but the course really increased my confidence in my cooking abilities, getting me to think more about presentation, flavour combinations and menu planning.. and also helped me understand how to adapt recipes for vegan and gluten free diets.
Hats off to Alex who was a great teacher, with the patience of a saint, putting up with my bad jokes and managing to respond to the different needs of the class (this can’t have been easy since we were all from such different backgrounds in terms of skill and experience). The other staff were all incredibly friendly and helpful, and whilst there, one of the managers, who knew I was looking for work would send me on various job opportunities that he came across… One which included a woman who was looking for a vegetarian chef for her yoga retreat, which he said I may not be interested in, because it’s abroad, in Greece… Um sorry, WHAT??!
My recipe for aubergine and crispy tofu chermoula tagine (serves 4) (vegan)
Chermoula paste ingredients:
- 1 tsp chilli flakes
- 1 garlic clove
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp sweet paprika
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- tblsp of preserved lemon or juice of half a lemon
- 1 tsp salt
- 100ml olive oil
- 1 onion chopped
- 1 aubergine cut into 1 inch cubes
- 1 stick of celery sliced
- 1 smallish sweet potatoe peeled and cut into 1cm cubes.
- 500g of passata or chopped tomatoes
- 200 g firm tofu drained and cut into slices 1 cm thick
- Vegetable or sunflower oil for frying.
1. Start by frying the tofu, since this tastes best fried on a very low heat for approximately half an hour. Heat up 1 tbsp of oil and add tofu. Leave to cook on a gentle heat and turn over after about 10 or 15 minutes until it is golden brown on both sides. Once cooked remove and cut the slices into smaller 1 inch pieces.
2. In the meantime blend all paste ingredients in a food processor or with a hand blender and set aside.
3. Fry onion in 1 tbsp of oil on low heat for approximately 10 minutes until translucent but not brown. Add the celery and sweet potato followed by all the chermoula paste. Cook for approximately 2 minutes, stirring all the time so that the paste covers all the vegetables. Add the tomatoes/passata. Once boiling simmer for approximately 20 minutes or until sweet potatoes are tender.
4. Whilst the tagine is cooking heat up 1 tbsp of oil in a large frying pan or saucepan. Add the aubergine and fry until browned and well cooked on all sides. It is best to cook the aubergine separately from the tagine so it doesn’t disintegrate or break up in the tagine. A less labour intensive method would be to roast the aubergine for about 30 minute in the oven (180°). Add the aubergine and the tofu pieces to the tagine 5 minutes before serving, being careful not to break up the pieces.
5. Served with fluffy couscous with toasted flakes almonds and/or apricots or brown rice with crispy onions. It is also really good with Greek yogurt, or Greek yogurt mixed with a tablespoon of tahini.
Date and sesame baklava (vegan): I recently catered for a lunch party where there was a guest that had a nut allergy and so I adapted the vegetarian society’s baklava recipe to make it nut free. . I have replaced 150g walnuts with 150g of chopped dates and 50g sesame seeds, however it would also work well with any mixed chopped nuts and date combination
150g chopped pitted dates (or 100g chopped nuts such as walnuts, hazlenuts and 100g of dates)
50g of sesame seeds (plus 2 tbsp extra for decoration)
25g breadcrumbs (optional)
1 tbsp light brown sugar
pinch ground cinnamon
pinch ground cardamon
50g butter or vegan margarine (melted)
1 packet of filo pastry
For the syrup
125g of caster sugar
2 tbsp greek honey or maple syrup or agave for vegan option
1 tbsp lemon juice
Piece of cinnamon
1. Heat all syrup ingredients in a small pan and boil gently for approx 20 mins (stirring occasionally) until syrup has reduced to half. Leave to cool before
2. Mix chopped dates with the sesame seeds, brown sugar, breadcrumbs, cinnamon, cardamon
2. Brush a metal tin or oven dish ( approx 7 x 7 inch) with butter or marg. Lay out one sheet of filo and brush with melted butter. Repeat for 6 layers. Sprinkle half the date mixture over the filo. Repeat with 3 more layers of filo and butter. Sprinkle on the remaining date mixture. Repeat with another 6 layers of filo and butter. Fold the ends of top sheet under the bottom to neaten up. Brush the top with melted butter. Using a sharp knife cut through the top layers in a diamond pattern before cooking.
3. Bake in pre-heated oven for 2o minutes (190c). Turn temperature down to 180 for 10 minutes.
4. Remove from the oven and leave to cool for 15 minutes. Spoon over half the syrup on top. Leave for 5 minutes and poor over the other half of the syrup. Sprinkle over sesame seeds (if using).