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A very veggie Christmas

21 Dec

“So, what do you eat for Christmas dinner?”

It’s the one question all meat-eaters want to ask vegetarians and vegans at this time of year. It’s no surprise they’re curious, food seems like one of the most important aspects of Christmas, and for many people the idea of Christmas day without a massive dead bird in the oven seems a bit weird. To answer their question, and to make a few suggestions, here are a few things I’ve had for my veggie Christmases over the years.

Nothing

I don’t mean nothing at all. What I mean is nothing extra. Pile your plate high with roast potatoes, parsnips, sprouts, stuffing balls, Yorkshire puddings, and drown the whole lot in some lovely vegetarian gravy. I’ve read comments from other vegetarians complaining about being forgotten at Christmas meals and being given a plate of side dishes, but when the side dishes make the meal you don’t really need anything else!

Nut roast

The mainstay of the office Christmas lunch has a terrible reputation, but when it’s done right it’s a fab choice. It’s tasty, satisfying and super healthy, and it’s brilliant for leftovers. Don’t go for a dull, brown packet-mix. Instead, scour the internet for a festive recipe that has things you like in it. To name just a few:

Pie

I’m the only vegetarian in my immediate family, so when I spend Christmas day with them I tend to make my own meat alternative, usually a pie of some sort. Making something different for just one person does sound kind of lonely, but I see it as a real treat, a chance to have whatever I want. Unfortunately I am a creature of habit and tend to always want the same thing – a brie and mushroom parcel. I’ve recently cut out dairy completely, so next time I’m with my parents for Christmas I’ll probably make a mushroom and something else parcel (pine nuts would be lovely). As a rough guide, 100g of puff pastry to 100g of filling makes a generous pie or pasty for one person.

Speaking of mushrooms, one of the nicest meals I ever had was a beautiful mushroom strudel. It was probably nothing more than wild mushrooms cooked with garlic, wrapped in filo pastry, but despite its simplicity it was so special.

Fake meat

I don’t eat an awful lot of fake meat. It’s high in protein but nutritionally it doesn’t have a lot else going for it. I prefer whole foods. However, it is a fun option if you fancy a nostalgic treat, and you can use it to make a very traditional-looking Christmas dinner. A fake meat extravaganza is the usual choice for Christmas dinner in the Veg household, where the vegetarians (me, Mr Veg and his little bro) outnumber the one meat eater (my mother-in-law, AKA Southern Mum). There are several brands of vegetarian chicken-style roasts now, we normally have a couple of these so there will be plenty of leftovers.

I love making veggie pigs in blankets to go with it. Just brush some vegetarian bacon slices with a little oil, and wrap around your favourite vegetarian sausages, hold together with cocktail sticks and bake in the oven for about 20 minutes.

A slightly unusual alternative to this that I’ve tried very recently is a shiitake and leek stuffed seitan roast from Isa Chandra Moskowitz: http://www.theppk.com/2011/11/seitan-roast-stuffed-with-shiitakes-and-leeks/. It’s dense and chewy and really tasty, and the best thing is you can adapt the stuffing and other flavourings to suit you.

The only bad Christmas meal I ever had

I’ve written more than once about chefs who don’t have a clue about what to cook for vegetarians and this is probably the worst experience I’ve had in that respect. The vegetarian option for the office Christmas lunch a few years ago was described only as a vegetarian suet pudding. It could have been lovely, but sadly it was suet pastry wrapped around unseasoned, mealy lentils. It probably would have been ok if there was some gravy or other sauce but sadly there wasn’t. It was dry and bland and a real disappointment.

I’d love to hear what other vegetarians and vegans have for Christmas dinner, please let me know your best and worst experiences.

Wishing you all a safe and happy Christmas and New Year!

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Totally un-posh vegetarian breakfast

11 Aug

As a vegetarian and wannabe vegan, it’s very important to me that the majority of my meals are healthy, well-balanced, and mostly plant-based. I don’t like to eat junk food too often (and I do count fake meat as junk food) but when I do, I like to go all out and do it in style.

It has been a very long time since I last went to McDonalds, but I remember that the only thing on the menu that I genuinely liked was the egg mcmuffin. It’s so easy to recreate at home, all you need is:

  • an English muffin
  • a cheese single (the nasty plastic-wrapped stuff, real cheese is too good and will not work)
  • a fried egg, preferably cooked in a non-stick cooking ring
  • either a couple of slices of vegetarian bacon, or some packet sausage mix made up into a little patty

Yes, there are much classier breakfast things you can make with a muffin and an egg (or some tofu), but sometimes only junk will do.

Lab-grown meat and vegetarianism

7 Aug

Laboratory-grown meat has been in the news again lately. With headlines such as Could vegetarians eat a ‘test tube’ burger? (BBC) and Meat without Murder (Vegetarian Times), at first glance it looks like it could be great news for vegetarians. However, a recent online poll by the Vegetarian Society has shown that less that 7% of vegetarians would be happy to eat lab-grown meat.

Why, when offered a chance to eat meat from a source that didn’t involve killing an animal, do the majority of vegetarians say no? Is it because they (as they are often accused) like being faddy eaters? Or because they want to be different or special? Of course not. To answer that question you need to look at some of the most common reasons for being a vegetarian.

Animal cruelty and modern farming methods. In theory, you could eat lab-grown beef while the cow it came from is still alive. With the potential for one animal to produce much more than its own body weight in meat, it’s possible for far fewer animals to be kept for the meat industry while still producing the same amount of food. But note that I said fewer animals, not none. Livestock would still need to be kept in order to provide the stem cells needed to “grow” the meat, and if they’re kept in the same horrendous conditions they are now then it’s not much of an improvement. It still supports an industry that many vegetarians are not comfortable with.

Environment. Research has shown (BBC again) that lab-grown meat has less of an environmental impact than regular farmed meat. But until it can be proved that it has less of an environmental impact than a healthy plant-based diet, those vegetarians who cite environmental concerns are unlikely to be convinced to eat it.

Health, Religion and Dislike. Three pretty obvious reasons that probably don’t need any elaboration.

People who infer that lab-grown meat is intended for vegetarians have misunderstood the intention of creating it. The planet isn’t big enough to support 7 billion (and counting) omnivores. The current method of meat production is inefficient and this research is being carried out as a possible substitute for people who currently eat meat. Maybe if they can create meat that tastes as good as the real thing, is cheaper, and is proven to be safe it might catch on. Of course a much simpler solution would be to encourage people to eat less meat or become completely vegetarian, but is that realistic? Only time will tell.

Spanokopitta sausage rolls

9 Jul

2013-07-06 18.55.12

At the weekend, my mum asked me to bake some vegetarian sausage rolls for a family picnic. Normally I’d wrap some veggie sausages in puff pastry and get on with my day but on this occasion I was the only vegetarian there, and I wanted to make something the omnivores would enjoy as much as I would. I decided to make something based on my favourite Greek dish, spanokopitta (basically an AMAZING spinach and feta filo pie).

So here’s what I came up with. They went down really well, even with the meat-eaters. The children didn’t really like them (my two-year-old niece ate half of one and politely shoved the rest in my mouth); perhaps a milder, less freaky cheese would make them more child-friendly.

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Recipe (makes 24 mini rolls)

  • 500g puff pastry
  • 300g frozen spinach, defrosted, preferably the whole-leaf stuff
  • 200g feta cheese
  • 30g pine nuts, toasted
  • Two eggs (one for the filling and the other to use as eggwash)
  • One clove of garlic, mashed to a pulp, or a handful of finely chopped garlic scapes
  • A good grinding of black pepper and nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 200˚C.

Roll the pastry out into two long rectangles, roughly 20cm x 40cm each, about 0.25cm thick.

Mash the drained feta with one of the eggs, then add the garlic, pepper, nutmeg, and pine nuts.

Drain the spinach in a sieve, and press as much of the water out of it as you can. Stir it into the feta mixture. It should be fairly dry, otherwise the pastry will end up soggy and the filling will spill out of the edges.

Spread half the filling down the middle of one of the sheets of pastry. Brush some beaten egg along one of the edges. Roll the sheet of pastry into one long sausage, ending on the side that you brushed with egg. Cut into 12 mini sausage rolls and place them onto a greased baking sheet. Repeat with the rest of the filling and the second sheet of pastry. Brush all of the sausage rolls with beaten egg. Bake for 20-25 minutes until puffed up and golden. Enjoy hot or cold.

Cheese and caramelised onion quiche

21 Jun

A couple of days ago I updated my About page to mention that most things I cook are simple, seasonal, mostly healthy, and mostly vegan. I’ve somehow managed to contradict myself already with this recipe. It’s not simple (it’s not that complicated but I wouldn’t do something like this after a long day at work), it’s not healthy and it’s definitely not vegan. You can get onions all year round, so you couldn’t really call it seasonal, although technically it’s not unseasonal either. Don’t let any of these things put you off though, unless you’re vegan, obviously. Quiche is a great retro treat, which is well worth the effort and the extra calories.

I get a weekly organic vegetable delivery, which includes 500g of onions a week (just over a pound). I love onions and use them quite a lot, but this is slightly more than I regularly use, so every few weeks or so I get the delivery and realise I’ve not even started eating the onions from the previous week. Luckily I’ve got a few onion-heavy recipes on hand to use up these occasional gluts. This is the least healthy onion recipe I have (recipe below).

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Recipe (serves 4)

For the pastry:

  • 50g margarine (check it is suitable for pastry)
  • 100g flour (white or wholemeal, I use a mix of both)
  • Pinch of salt

For the filling:

  • 500g onions, peeled and sliced
  • 100g mature cheddar, grated
  • Either two eggs plus 100ml cream or three eggs (the cream gives it an extra wobble, if you prefer a firmer set or a lower fat content then just use eggs)

First, slowly cook the onions. Put them in a small saucepan with a splash of oil, cover, and put on a very low heat, stirring every 20 minutes or so, until golden brown and reduced to about a quarter of their original volume. This will take a long time, at least an hour. Once cooked, allow to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, for the pastry, rub the margarine into the flour and salt. Add some cold water a splash at a time until it comes together in a ball. Put it in the fridge to rest for at least half an hour.

Lightly grease a 20cm / 8 inch quiche dish. Roll out the pastry and use it to line the dish. Trim the edges but not too much, be aware that the pastry will shrink a little bit when you cook it. Prick the pastry all over with a fork, then blind bake it for 10 minutes at 200˚C. You want the pastry to be slightly browned and crisped up.

While the pastry is blind baking, mix the cooked onions, cheese, eggs, cream (if using), and some salt and pepper. Pour these into the pastry case, and return it to the oven. Bake it for a further 20-30 minutes (depending on how well set you like it).

Allow the quiche to cool for 10 minutes, this helps it slice a bit better. Serve hot or cold.

Vegetarian fun with a slow cooker

27 May

I have a real weakness for kitchen gadgets. I think I might be addicted to them, I really need a bigger kitchen so I can fit them all in. I’ve always been a bit of a mad scientist in the kitchen, and I think having a lot of equipment really helps me play the part. One of my favourite kitchen gadgets is my slow cooker. Pretty much any recipe for stew, casserole, soup, curry or chilli can be adapted for the slow cooker. It’s an economical way of cooking, and with a bit of planning you can put your dinner on in the morning and spend the rest of the day feeling smug about not having to cook in the evening (I fully accept that this is slightly flawed logic, but there are some days when this can be an advantage).

When I first bought my slow cooker, I found a forum thread about them, and excitedly asked if anyone had any vegetarian ideas. I was very quickly shot down by some very condescending folk saying there was no point, slow cookers are made to soften up tough meat, and vegetables cook quite quickly anyway. Well, if you tell me I shouldn’t do something it only makes me want to do it more, so I set out to prove them wrong. Slow cookers are great for vegetarian food, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! Here are a few things you should know about vegetarian slow cooking.

The cost. Using a slow cooker is one of the most energy-efficient modes of cooking. Running a slow cooker for eight hours uses less than half the electricity of running an electric stove for one hour. Great if you’re on a budget.

Timing. So, there was a nugget of truth in what the rude forum people said, vegetables don’t take as long to cook as meat. You could cook a vegetable stew in 4-6 hours, if you include dried beans (see below) it will take at least a couple of hours longer. You can get things started a bit quicker by adding hot ingredients, by using boiling water instead of cold, for instance. Don’t do what Mr Veg and I did on the day we bought ours. We arrived home from buying it at about 5pm and were too excited to wait until the next day to try it. We put in frozen veggie sausages, green lentils, raw onion and cold stock. It was obviously a massive failure and we ended up eating slightly crunchy lentils at 10 o’clock at night.

Beans. Dried beans are a lot cheaper than tinned ones, and they work really well in a slow cooker. They absorb flavours a lot better than tinned ones too. As always with dried beans, you must soak the beans in water overnight before cooking them, and then boil them for at least 10 minutes before putting them in the slow cooker. The slow cooker is too, well, slow to destroy the toxins found in the dried beans, so you must soak and parboil them first.

Fake meat. You can cook fake meat in a slow cooker (think vegetarian “chicken” stew or sausage casserole), but I find the result a bit strange. It does take on a lot flavour, but also absorbs an awful lot of water and ends up soft and squishy.

Rice. A slow cooker also works well as a rice cooker, so if you have trouble getting rice right you could try it this way. Put equal volumes of rice and boiling water into the slow cooker, along with any flavours you want to add, cook for a couple of hours and voila! Perfect fluffy rice. I’ve made some pretty mean Jamaican rice and peas this way.

Salt. When cooking in a slow cooker, you should always always check for seasoning and add salt at the end of the cooking time rather than the beginning, for two important reasons. Firstly, if you are cooking dried beans you shouldn’t cook them in salted water as it can toughen the skin (yuck). Secondly, during cooking the amount of water with reduce (through evaporation and absorption), and the flavour will get more concentrated. What tastes right at the start could end up horribly salty later on.

Herbs, spices and other seasonings. Some flavours go a bit flat after eight hours in a slow cooker. It takes a bit of trial and error to work this out. I’d say as a general rule, aromatic or warm seasonings, such as dried herbs or ground spices are best added at the start of cooking. Fresh or zingy flavours, such as fresh herbs, green leafy veg, ginger, citrus and chilli are best added towards the end of cooking.

Dumplings. For me, a stew wouldn’t be a stew without a few dumplings. For eight dumplings (a generous amount for two people), about 45 minutes before you want to eat mix 50g of dry fat (e.g. grated cheese, vegetarian suet, margarine) with 100g self-raising flour, any herbs or spices you like, and enough water to bring it together into a soft dough. Divide the dough into eight equal pieces, roll into balls, and pop on top of the stew. Put the lid back on and leave them to puff up in the steam from the stew. Lovely.

Adapting recipes. It’s easy to adapt favourite recipes to the slow cooker. There are three basic rules and trust me, they are very basic:

  1. the simmering part will take a lot longer than standard cooking;
  2. if the recipe says you should fry something (e.g. onions, spices), then fry them before adding them to the slow cooker;
  3. repeatedly removing the lid of the slow cooker lets all the precious heat out and slows down cooking, so try and add as many of the ingredients at once, rather than in stages.

Here’s an example. I recently made Hottie Black-Eyed Peas and Greens, one of the many excellent recipes from Appetite for Reduction by Isa Chandra Moskowitz (you can also find the recipe on the PPK website at: http://www.theppk.com/2011/12/hottie-black-eyed-peas-with-ginger-sweet-potatoes-apples/). Soak the beans overnight, them parboil them for 10 minutes. Fry the onions and garlic as described in the recipe. Put the fried onions and garlic in the slow cooker, along with the drained beans, water, tomato sauce and broth. Cook for around 8 hours. When cooked, add the greens, hot sauce and liquid smoke, and check for seasoning. Leave for a few more minutes until the greens are cooked.

Friday night pizza

15 Apr

You know the feeling. You get home from work on a Friday night after a busy week and you’re so tired you can’t be bothered to cook. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve finished work on a Friday evening full of good intentions, only to end up eating a disappointing shop-bought pizza or an expensive takeaway. It doesn’t help that as I sit on my sofa and look out of the window, my view is largely taken up by a Chinese takeaway. OK, so their bean curd in black bean sauce with noodles is delicious, but it won’t do my waistline or my bank balance any good.

I decided I desperately needed to come up with something that required little effort but was also exciting enough to justify getting off my bum and getting in the kitchen. Pizza fits the bill, especially when I added a little extra bribe to myself in there too (more on that later). The beauty of making your own is that you can have whatever you fancy, and make it as healthy or as naughty as you want. It’s also a great way of using up leftovers and things you’re not quite sure what to do with.

It sounds like a lot of effort but it really isn’t, and it’s totally worth it. The recipe looks quite long, but it’s just a basic bread recipe with a few ideas thrown in. Here’s how it fits into my Friday evening:

Step 1: make the dough, which takes about 10-15 minutes.

Step 2: the easy bit and the bribe I mentioned earlier. Chill out for an hour or so while the dough rises, and treat yourself as a reward for being so organised. I normally use this time to take my husband to the pub so we can chat about our week and unwind a bit. You could sit in the bath with a massive bar of chocolate, go to the park and feed the ducks, have a cup of tea and read a trashy magazine. The opportunities are endless!

Step 3: come back to find the dough magically risen, and turn it into pizzas. You could do this in 10 minutes if you’re super organised, longer if you still have some energy and want to turn it into a work of art. The pizzas take about 10 minutes in the oven.

Step 4: sit back, relax and enjoy!

Here are our creations from this weekend.

Image

Left: Mr Veg chose veggie sausage, olives, capers, red jalapeños (from a jar), kale, basil and feta. Right: I had mushrooms, veggie sausage, kale, olives, capers, feta and an egg.

This recipe makes two large (approximately 10 inch), thin-crust pizzas. The base is just a rushed version of my basic bread recipe, halved. If you prefer a thicker crust, it is easy to scale up.

Base

  • 150ml warm water
  • ½ teaspoon of dried yeast
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • 250g bread flour – white, wholemeal or a mixture of the two. I prefer to use a 50:50 mix as it’s easier to work with and you can kind of pretend it’s a healthy meal.
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

If using regular dried yeast, you need to wake it up by stirring the yeast and sugar into the warm water in your mixing bowl and leaving it for 10 minutes or so, until it starts to foam on top, then stir in the flour and salt. If you’re using the instant active yeast you can skip this bit and throw it all in together. Mix everything with a spoon until it starts to come together as dough.

Spread the oil over a clean surface, tip the dough out onto it and knead it in the oil for up to 10 minutes (if you’re kneading to music, which I thoroughly recommend, this is about three songs).

The dough should be a tiny bit sticky, if it’s dry then add more water a little bit at a time and work it in, if it’s really sticky you might want to add some more flour.

Once you’ve kneaded it, the dough should be nice and elastic. An easy way to check this is to prod it in the middle with a clean finger. If it slowly bounces back up again it’s ready, if your finger leaves a hole then it needs a few more minutes work.

Return the dough to the mixing bowl, cover with clingfilm or a damp tea towel and leave in a warm place to rise for about an hour. It should double in size. This is the point where you can leave it and do what you need to do (in my case, a pint of ale and a packet of crisps in the local with Mr Veg).

Once risen, knead the dough for another minute and divide it into two roughly equal balls. Lightly oil two baking sheets or pizza trays (pizza trays aren’t essential but the holes in the bottom do help keep the base from getting soggy). Roll the dough with a rolling pin or stretch it by hand until it’s roughly the right size and shape for the trays. Pizza dough is really difficult to get perfectly round but don’t sweat it, if it has slightly wobbly edges just call it rustic. Leave the dough to rise in the trays while you get all of the toppings together.

Toppings

Neither tomato sauce nor cheese is essential for a pizza. If you go to Italy you’ll see plenty of pizzas without either. In fact, I had a potato and herb pizza in Italy and it was bloody lovely. Anyway, as they’re the two most common pizza toppings, here they are.

Tomato sauce. On this occasion we used a thin spread of sun-dried tomato paste. Here are a few other easy options:

  • Half a tin of chopped tomatoes, reduced by half over a low heat with a few herbs and seasonings, then either blended or left chunky.
  • Passata or tomato sauce from a jar.
  • Good quality fresh tomatoes, sliced. If you grow your own and you have a few that are dark red and overripe they’d be perfect. The anaemic-looking basic tomatoes you get from the supermarket wouldn’t be great for this.

Cheese. I find that one ball of mozzarella, drained and finely chopped, is plenty for two pizzas. Any other cheese would make a great addition to this, I particularly like a few lumps of oozy camembert, strong blue cheese or spicy pepperjack.

As for everything else, anything goes! Here are a few ideas.

Vegetables. We get a weekly vegetable box delivery, so we never know what we’re going to have in the house, and often end up with quite random combinations of veggies on our pizzas. Pretty much anything will work, here are a few suggestions:

  • Leftover roasted squash, carrots, beetroot, aubergines or peppers.
  • Any green veg, e.g. spinach, kale, broccoli. Asparagus is particularly good. Green veg work best if you zap them in the microwave for a minute beforehand.
  • Raw sliced peppers, courgettes, mushrooms.
  • Sweetcorn.
  • Caramelised onions.

Strong flavours. I like to jazz it up with olives, capers, jalapeños, some herbs, or a few splodges of pesto.

Protein. Fake meat (or real meat I guess) is an obvious choice. I prefer a few slices of flavoured tofu, such as smoked or basil flavour. An egg cracked in the middle is great, but will usually be slightly overcooked. Pine nuts or a sprinkle of seeds would add some crunch and be good for you too.

I’d love to hear your weird and wonderful ideas on pizza toppings. Please add a comment below and let me know!

Cook the pizzas in the oven at about 220˚C for about 10 minutes, until the cheese is bubbly and brown.

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