River Cottage Veg! Has Hugh revitalised the humble potato?

By Monica Shaw •


Fearnley-Whittingstall caused a bit of a publicity storm when promoting his new book & Channel 4 TV Series River Cottage Veg. He said that in principle puppy farms were OK and that if we ate pigs we shouldn’t be averse to eating any animal. Great British Chefs’ guest blogger Monica Shaw watched the first episode of his show (which aired on Sunday night) about living on nothing but vegetables for a whole summer.

Roasted Pink Fir Potatoes with Harissa
Roasted Pink Fir Potatoes with Harissa
All photography by Monica Shaw

Has the Potato Taken Vegetarian Cookery Back to its Roots?
By Monica Shaw

Sunday night saw the first episode of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s new series,River Cottage Veg. While the episode aired, tweets with the #rivercottage hashtag poured in, most of which expressed one clear message: people were inspired to cook more veg.

Sure, a lot of this had to do with the celebrity factor of Hugh and his team of chefs (whose collective lack of hair did not go unnoticed by tweeters). But the food got people talking, too, particularly the tumbled potatoes and new potato and halloumi kebabs.

Could it be that the humble spud is the way to win the world over to vegetarian cuisine? Why did the tumbled potatoes (basically roasted potatoes with a few extras) inspire viewers while the beet top and ricotta tart went mostly unnoticed?

There’s a simple answer: we’re familiar with potatoes. They’re a classic comfort food. We know we like them. And it takes very little effort to make them delicious.

Beautiful pink fir potatoes
Beautiful pink fir potatoes

So why not use the potato’s near universal appeal to convince people to eat more veg?

Of course, for many people, part of the spud’s appeal is its effectiveness for sopping up meaty gravy. But as River Cottage Veg proved on Sunday, even without a traditional Sunday roast to go with it, the potato can still inspire. The trick is to make the potato less of delivery device for gravy, and more of an event in itself.

If you can roast or boil a potato, then it takes very little extra to make them stand on their own.

For example, try topping your roast potatoes with spicy harissa as they do at the Vegetarian Cookery School. Even a whole baked potato can become extraordinary with the addition of a simple mustard dressing and a couple handfuls of arugula, as vegetarian chef Heidi Swanson does in her sea salt baked potatoes. If you’re feeling more ambitious, use boiled potatoes to create a lively potato salad such as Yotam Ottolenghi’s crushed new potatoes with horseradish and sorrel..

Hugh was right to use the potato in River Cottage Veg. The potato illustrates the basic premise of learning to cook with more vegetables: start with what you know, use good ingredients and cook it simply. After that, it takes little more than a few fresh herbs, spices, salsas and sauces to turn humble vegetables into something inspiring, delicious and beautiful.

Did you watch River Cottage Veg on Sunday? Will you be cooking more vegetables as a result?

Blog post for Great British Chefs by Monica Shaw

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Monica Shaw

Monica Shaw is web consultant working with chefs, restaurants & food producers, to help them make use of the internet to improve their businesses. She's also a freelance writer, her credits include The Daily Telegraph, Chef Magazine and food mag. Monica enjoys experimenting with vegetables & creating delicious & healthy dishes, a topic covered on her blog SmarterFitter.com. She is working on The Healthy Vegan Breakfast Book, due to be published in March 2013

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