Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last, say, six months, you’ll know just how much veganism has taken off in the world of food. It’s become quite the buzzword – the new, trendy, ‘healthier’ way to eat.
Go vegan, they say, and it’s not just the planet’s furry friends who benefit. Your gut will become happier, your skin will sparkle, your energy levels will soar and your waistline is likely to shrink.
Even life-long carnivores seem to be jumping on the plant-based bandwagon. Foodie bloggers, personal trainers and at-home cooks now take to Instagram to show off their #MeatlessMonday snaps and more and more restaurants, including smaller, independent venues, are portioning up their share of vegan options – even vegan menus – to cater to the rise in pro-plants dining.
But what about turning your own kitchen into a meat-free zone? Does swapping steak for squash spaghetti really serve up the same satisfaction? And what about variety? Because, let’s face it, there are only so many ways to jazz up your broccoli, right?
Turns out, eating (and cooking) vegan grub isn’t just about upping your veggie intake and making them look fancy on a plate.
It’s about taking all those familiar fridge, freezer and kitchen cupboard staples – cauliflower, lentils, peas, peanut butter – and transforming them into something inspiring and delicious. Mixing them with fresh and fragrant herbs, blanching, sweating and roasting them in clever and inventive ways, and marrying them with a rainbow of punchy spices to keep your tastebuds on their toes.
And it’s easier – and a lot more fun – than you might think, as I discovered recently during a mini crash-course in vegan cooking at The Feather’s Inn Cookery School.
Based at Ovingham Middle School, not far from The Feathers Inn, the new, purpose-built kitchen is the place to be for a hands-on education in fuss-free, at-home-style, cooking.
Here, under the watchful eye of Rhian Cradock, the man behind The Feathers Inn’s kitchen, and tutors Pip Pedley and Phil Carr, both professional chefs, pupils (up to 20 per class) are invited to get stuck in to all kinds of culinary fun, from masterclasses in fermenting and pickling, to butchery, sensational sourdough, shellfish, seafood and more.
Stop by this summer and you might find yourself learning how to make magnificent mezze meals inspired by the sunny flavours of Greece, sizzling Mediterranean and Mexican feasts, cracking cakes and traybakes, or show-stopping plates that’ll make you the envy of your dinner party guests.
Classes, which cater to all abilities, from complete beginners, to experienced home cooks and professional chefs, all have one aim: to help boost pupils’ confidence in the kitchen.
“Setting up the cooking school was the next logical step for us,” says Rhian, who has taken a number of chefs from beginner status to pro-cook level throughout his career at The Feathers Inn.
“We love to spread our passion for great food,” he continues. “Making cooking approachable and having the chance to deliver practical courses in a beautifully-equipped working kitchen was something we jumped at.”
“All of our courses and classes are taught by professionals who have worked with us at The Feathers Inn. Each one is totally hands-on, designed to give people the skills and confidence to get cooking their own dishes at home, inspired by what they’ve cooked in class.”
Walking into ours felt a bit like stepping foot on the set of Masterchef. The classroom-meets-kitchen is spotless; the shiny, silver steel workshops sparkle, the modern ovens are toasty and raring to go, our cupboards are filled with state-of-the-art equipment, and a range of colourful and inviting ingredients, from pistachios and pomegranate to green beans and a whole head of cauliflower, are meticulously laid out in front of us.
Aprons on, we watch as Pip gives us a taster of what to expect during the next two and a half hours – a light cauliflower, pomegranate and pistachio salad, perfect for summer, followed by a Thai-style lentil soup with homemade chilli oil. Demo done, we then take to our benches, mouths watering, to give them a go ourselves.
One of the great things, we found, about the classes is the perfect balance between going at it alone, reading your way through your recipe sheets (bonus: these are provided and you get to take them home) and following the steps at your own pace, and being guided, gently, by Rhian, Pip and Phil. All three float about the room as we get stuck in, helping, answering questions and offering up expert tips and tricks.
Things like how to best sweat and fry off onions until they’re caramelised and sticky, how to work with lemongrass stalks (simply bash to an inch of their lives with a rolling pin, then pop in your pan) and how to turn a variety of simple ingredients – a slick of veggie oil, banana shallots, tomato paste, star anise and ginger, and a bit of curry powder – into a silky, aromatic oil that can be drizzled over soups, used as a salad dressing, massaged into meat or fish (in non-vegan kitchens, of course) and stored in the fridge for up to a month.
You’re also encouraged to taste as you go – another highlight, especially for those, like myself, who like their seasoning spot-on and who aren’t afraid to play about with a good kick of spice. Adapting the recipes – which are incredibly easy to follow – to suit your own taste is fully-celebrated here.
The salad-making is as easy as one-two-three, but the results have us floored. We hack our cauliflower into florets and roast them in the oven until charred, ready to be chucked into our salad for some bite and texture. The rest is grated until it resembles light, fluffy rice, tossed with juicy jewels of fresh pomegranate (Pip shows us how to tackle the fruit), roasted pistachio nuggets, ground cumin (lots for me), lemon juice, a glug of olive oil and fresh sprigs of mint, parsley and tarragon, roughly chopped.
It takes mere moments to make, but tastes like a Middle Eastern dream; fruity, earthy, spicy, zingy. Everything you want in a summer salad and definitely substantial enough for a main, vegan-friendly meal.
The soup, however, stole the show. Lusciously creamy, filling and loaded with vibrant Asian-inspired flavours. White onion, cooked low and slow until glossy and sweet, and a squeeze of zippy vegan red curry paste are mixed in pots for a quick minute, before water, lentils, lemongrass and lime leaves join the party. We then leave it to bubble away for around 15 minutes, ’til the lentils split and ooze into a comforting mush.
Once there, it’s just a case of fishing out the lemongrass and lime leaves, blitzing things up (though we opt out as we like our soup on the chunky side) and adding a few dollops of coconut milk to thicken, a splash of tamari (vegan soy sauce) and lime juice.
We garnish with sugar snap peas, a sprinkle of coriander and a few teaspoons of chilli oil, made by Pip’s own (and very talented) fair hands.
To say it’s one of best soups we’ve ever had is no lie. A total triumph, if I don’t say so myself, that hits the spot – and a dish I know I’ll be making in my own kitchen for years to come in. Whoever said vegan comfort food was far from satisfying couldn’t have been more wrong – and this food proved it again and again.
The session comes to a close with the class tasting their way through vegan-friendly chocolate pots, made with devilishly-dark chocolate (dairy-free, of course), maple syrup, silken tofu, vanilla and a drop or two of rum, which Pip quickly whips up in front of us. A quick and effortlessly indulgent after-dinner pud that has us all licking our spoons clean with glee.
Armed with a folder of new recipes to try at home, I leave the class with a belly full of treats and a brain full of ideas for next week’s dinners. Though I can’t see myself saying so-long to salmon, farewell to feta or bye to bacon any time soon, I do feel more confident, and inspired, to experiment with more plant-based dishes over the coming months. That’s the beauty of The Feathers’ fun and laid-back classes – they sharpen you up and have you feeling like a kitchen pro.
The Feathers Inn Cookery School will be holding classes and courses throughout May and June 2018, priced at £65 per person.
For more information, or to book, visit: thefeathers.net/cookery-school or call 01661 843 607.