Last summer the three of us spent our holidays in Ireland. Me and Daniela both love this island, with exception of the weather maybe :-). We drove a bit around the west and south, enjoying the landscape, views, the great people and also the food. Oh, and also the great radio show "The Full Irish". I was positively impressed by the food and style of the Irish restaurants we visited. These places were almost always friendly and with a cosy atmosphere, food prepared with nice local ingredients in an Irish/international cooking hybrid style, and most important of all unpretentious. For this very reason I think they wouldn't have a chance to win a Michelin star but would certainly make my "eating-out places to visit often" list if they were in the neighbourhood.
Sadly we didn't manage to try one restaurant I had been hearing about a lot: Cafe Paradiso in Cork. I'd heard great things about this vegetarian restaurant. Since my previous vegetarian dining experiences had all been depressing (one in Naples probably the worst) I was ready to try what is by some considered "maybe the best vegetarian restaurant in Europe". But alas I couldn't. Cafe Paradiso was closed on the two days we spent near Cork. To make up for the disappointment I bought Dennis Cotter's (Paradiso's chef) The Cafe Paradiso Cookbook. I've not been cooking from this book for a while but it still is one of my favourite ones. I really enjoy the way it is written, the recipes are explained in an easy way and it breaks all the prejudices one usually has about vegetarian food.
Let me start with the recipes. These are divided into four sections: pantry, appetisers, mains and sweets. Most recipes have a Mediterranean or Asian feel to them. If you think vegetarian recipes include loads of barn, millet, tofu and so on, think again. There are many pastas, risottos, salads and tarts, between others and all sound delicious. All are well described, in some cases the history (or some anecdote about the origin) are included and possible substitutions pointed out. This last point is a quite smart addition since when you cook with vegetables, seasonality is really important. A vegetable dish will taste best when the starting ingredients are at their best, so better change the ingredient the get stuck on literally reproducing a recipe. This also means that you have a starting point for playing around and developing a set of your own recipes, which IMO is always nice. The part I like best is the pantry section. Here you have a more of a list of cooking tools, or a sort of painter palette, than recipes. Flavoured oils, basic vegetable preps, pestos, spice mixes and so on. Just using these you could play around for ages and not only with vegetarian recipes.
This in itself would be enough to make a great cookbook but the comments from Cotter makes it even better. Many of the recipes, as I mentioned, start from Mediterranean classics. Cotter clearly admits what he makes is not the "authentic" stuff: he uses the original recipes to develop his own. I find this nice and a sign of respect for those traditions: more then once I've happened to stumble upon "Italian" recipes from British or American chefs presented as "the real thing" even if they were clearly not. I also really appreciate Cotters humble attitude. Many celebrity chef books I've seen make no mention of all the people who play a fundamental role in making a restaurant what it is, they're often a big ego-trip. He instead has no problem, for example, in admitting that all the sweet recipes are from Megs Curtins, their pastry chef.
Cooking from the book's recipe is not too difficult. They're almost all quite straightforward (there are one or two "mountains" to be climbed). I've tested a few and have always been happy with the results. Also, starting from the "pantry" section I mentioned before, I've played around to "create" one or two personal favourites. You can see one of them above: an Autumn salad I prepared some time ago. It is essentially a mixed green salad with balsamico vinaigrette served with chilli-roasted squash (squash segments tossed in butter and chilli and oven-roasted) and grilled polenta (made as usual, plus oregano as flavouring) with some rucola pesto (standard pesto with rucola substituting the basil). I use this as a starter or, increasing the serving, as lunch when I feel like a somewhat more elaborate salad.