The Vegetarian Kitchen by Prue Leith and Peta Leith review: delivers simple and tasty recipes

prue leith peta leith
The book delivers simple, flavoursome recipes  Credit: Pan Macmillan

The Great British Bake Off has catapulted Prue Leith, who turned 80 last week, to national treasure status. Her work ethic (previously a restaurant owner, cookery school founder and novelist) hasn’t waned. The Vegetarian Kitchen (Pan Macmillan, £25) has special resonance, as it is co-authored with her niece, Peta.

Bandwagon-jumping? Thankfully not. Prue first wrote a (mostly) vegetarian manual in 1994 (Leith’s Contemporary Cooking), and Peta is a lifelong veggie. If anything, it’s refreshing to see vegetarian – not vegan – cooking celebrated in a culinary climate increasingly polarised between meat and plant.

The approach

Prue’s and Peta’s voices are both present throughout, balancing meat eater who admits fleshy delights shouldn’t be central to every meal, and ethical veggie who recognises she should probably be vegan if she followed her logic fully. This lends the book a sense of realism and pragmatism.

There are 10 hefty chapters; four focus on bread or desserts, which makes sense considering Peta was once pastry chef at the Ivy. Advice for veggie-cooking virgins is concise but to the point (use umami-packed ingredients like marmite, miso or mushroom for a flavour boost). I found some tips particularly helpful, learning to never add salt to the cooking water for beans and pulses, which prevents them from softening.

The recipes

I’m into hearty, mostly one-pot cooking, and this book has several good wintry stews and soups. Peta’s love of pastry shines through – and, seeing as it’s the area in which I feel least confident, I had to give it a go.

Slow-roasted tomato and goat’s curd galette

Prue and Peta's slow roast tomato galette (left), and my valiant attempt 

The main difficulty was finding goat’s curd, though a local cheesemonger advised making my own. Tempted but short of time, I opted for the suggested substitute of soft goat’s cheese. The pastry was almost too buttery, but butter equals flavour, and the flaky result was a hit. The tomatoes are roasted gently, bringing out a tart intensity; the garlic provides extra punch. An excellent starter or light meal with salad.

Fragrant laksa with tofu puffs

Puffs are undoubtedly the superior form of tofu, their chewy sponginess perfect for soaking up broth; the tofu-shunner’s tofu. The laksa, a Malaysian soup, was simple to make, with a nice, clean broth.

It was spicy, with a slightly heavy touch of lemongrass. It lacked punch, though – traditionally, dried shrimp and shrimp paste provide depth of flavour in this noodle soup. A touch of umami, perhaps from dried mushrooms or seaweed, would have gone a long way.

Lentil dhal with poached eggs and roti canai

Another dish inspired by Malaysia (where Peta’s husband proposed), the split pea dhal was earthy, mild and tasty. The poached egg on top, though not “authentic”, added a wonderful oozing yolky creaminess. The roti, a flaky version of an Indian paratha, was pretty tricky, however. Despite following the instructions to the letter, my version ended up a little stodgy. A delicious dhal nevertheless.

The verdict

While not especially groundbreaking, the recipes in The Vegetarian Kitchen are wide-ranging, from salads and curries to pies and cakes. On the whole, they are easy to follow (a soda bread was excellent), and their global reach keeps things interesting. Self-styled as “simple, rustic and flavoursome”, the book delivers on all of those counts.