The call went out. Which of my friends and neighbours could recommend a wondrously warming, hale and hearty winter dish, cooked by someone other than myself? The catch – it needed to contain no meat.
My own go-to – the classic spaghetti aglio e olio, heavy on the aglio – gets a little tired when rolled out too often. I love a baked spud, done with an Annabel Langbein sauce of tomatoes and chipotle peppers, then loaded with coriander and black beans. But I was seriously lacking inspiration for anything more imaginative than packet pasta and red jackets.
Ashley Jones, executive chef at Elephant Hill, says the trick to a satisfying vegetable-based meal is really much the same as for any other. “Simplicity, quality and consistency are key,” he says. “I start with three flavours and then build around them, adding textures and colours and playing with it until it tastes good. It’s about the feeling you get from the food – so it’s lighter in warmer months and more deeply satisfying using pastas or risotto in winter.”
The restaurant meal: Ricotta Tortellini at Elephant Hill
His ricotta tortellini certainly fits the brief – it’s outstanding, There are creamy, nutty notes from the filling, the sharp flavours of pickled pumpkin and savoury onion, depth from smoked butternut, and toastiness from a scattering of seeds and hazlenuts. And, a sweet surprise on top – hokey pokey, adding crunch and that dash of quirk that Ashley’s offerings are renowned for. Special mention also goes to the wonderful housemade bread – complimentary with each meal and served with the most exquisite Aquiferra olive oil.
The café snack: Gozleme at Hāpi
What could be more comforting than pastry? Napier café Hāpi is beloved by locals, who flock to the tiny store on Hastings Street to try their café fare, ferments, soothing winter broths, and range of nut cheeses and milks. As someone who has always adored gozleme – that salty, juicy little parcel of ground lamb with a smattering of spice and feta – I was interested to try the vegan version Hāpi produces. Wrapped in a short, mealy pastry, the filling is a bright combination of silver beet and vegan sour cream, perfect warmed through and with a dollop of relish on the side.
The take-home dinner: Sri Lankan Tofu Curry from Mylk Food Store
When Kristy Isaacson shows up at your door in her Mylk-mobile, good food follows. Kristy runs a heat-and-eat meal operation with outlets in both Napier and Hastings, and delivery for larger orders. Her vegetarian options range from a pumpkin lasagne, to a mushroom risotto, and various soups and curries. The stand-out? Her Sri Lankan Tofu Curry – delightfully yellow and turmericky, with chickpeas and plump cubes of silky tofu, ideal with a naan or a little pile of steamed rice. Kristy says increasing numbers of her customers are requesting veg and vegan options as Kiwis turn to plant based diets. “It’s dramatically increased in the past 12 months,” she notes. “Customers want tasty meat-free alternatives that are interesting and appeal to everyone in the family.”