Wednesday, 25 March 2015

A baked bean brunch

So here's a recipe that falls into the accidental vegan category. Home made baked beans form an excellent brunch option, and are more satisfactory than just pouring some out of  a tin (though the work of Mr Heinz has its place too). Making them means that you have the option of adjusting the levels of seasoning and adding some extra flavours and spices too. For this batch I added a little chilli, but soy sauce, thyme, and mustard have all made appearances previously (though probably not together). Using tinned cooked beans might not seem quite in the spirit of things, but it does make this a pretty excellent meal to make from stuff in the cupboard, and without the need for soaking things overnight. I think a key aspect of these beans is the chunky tomato sauce base, and with some garlic mushrooms, and sliced avocado, this made a really filling and tasty winter (vegan) brunch.

Recipe (enough for around 4 people)

1 tin (410g) cannellini beans, drained
1 tin (300g) haricot beans, drained
2 small dried bay leaves
1 medium white onion, finely chopped
1 small carrot, finely chopped (optional)
1 small stick celery, finely chopped
2 fat cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp chilli flakes
1 tin (400g) chopped tomatoes
1 fresh tomato, roughly chopped or handful of cherry tomatoes (optional)
1 tsp dried mixed herbs
1 tblsp sundried tomato puree
1-2 tsp brown sugar
1 tsp salt (or to taste)
Some generous grinds of black pepper
2-3 tblsp olive oil
Some water

Warm the oil in a medium saucepan and then put in the onion, carrot, celery, and bay leaves. Stir well and leave to cook over a medium/low heat until the vegetables are soft (probably around 15 minutes), then add the garlic, dried herbs and chilli flakes and cook for another 5 minutes or so. Add the fresh tomato if you're using any, and then the tinned toms and puree. Make sure everything is well mixed, stir in the sugar, salt and pepper, and pour in around half a tin can full of water. Leave the tomato sauce to simmer gently for around 30 minutes, adding a little more water if it ever looks super thick. Tip in the beans and simmer for another 5-10 minutes before checking the seasoning. Serve piping hot on some nice bread (I had some fancy sourdough and spelt and sunflower seed options), toasted and spread with something non-dairy (eg olive oil or a sunflower spread), and bask in the glow of being an accidental vegan.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Vegan February

I randomly decided to do another vegan month for February. I quite enjoyed it last time round, and now feel I have a lot more confidence in cooking in a vegan stylee, and not just falling back on a default option of Linda McCartney sausages and vegetables. This time round, I expanded into exploring some more vegan baking, cooked a lot more Indian food, and other food that just happened not to have dairy as a key ingredient. And I have to say I really enjoyed it again.

So here's my recipe for vegan apricot, pear and almond crumble with custard. In the depths of a gloomy February a hearty hot pudding was an essential, so I was delighted to discover that crumble and custard is very simple to veganise.

These days I usually buy ready-made, fresh custard from the supermarket, but googling revealed that the instant custard powders I remember as a kid were accidentally vegan; consisting of just cornflour, vanilla flavour, and colouring to be mixed with sugar and milk (no eggs involved!). So on this principle, I warmed a pint of almond milk with around 2 tblsp of caster sugar, until it was fully dissolved. I then made a loose paste with around 1.5 tblsp of corn flour and a little more milk, and gradually mixed that into the hot milk. Once the custard had thickened, I added 1 tsp of vanilla extract. You can just adjust the amount of cornflour so your custard is as thick or thin as you prefer. I suspect using soy milk would have resulted in a less nutty taste, but this was still very nice. Alternatively, you could just use Bird's custard powder with your plant-based milk of choice, for a fully traditional yellow custard.

The crumble was made with a fruit base of four sliced Rocha dessert pears, which did not require any advance cooking, and a tin of apricots halves (feel free to use fresh ones in the summer). The crumble topping consisted of 125g plain flour, 75g ground almonds, 75g sugar, 100g sunflower spread, and a handful of flaked almonds. Combine the flour, sugar, ground almonds and spread together and until they form loose crumbs and then stir in the other almonds. Scatter the topping on the fruit, and bake at gas mark five for around 25 minutes or until lightly browned on top, and serve with the hot custard. This should be enough for six people, or several helpings for two across a weekend.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Cooking from Persiana and hello 2015!

I had some vague plans of getting some blog posts out before Christmas, but obviously that didn't happen, so apologies small but select readership. However, to make up for it,  here is a post on what has become one of my favourite cook books. I am mildly embarrassed to admit that I think I got Persiana by Sabrina Ghayour for my birthday in the early summer,  but didn't get round to cooking from it until last month. After this absurd delay, I thought I'd go for it and make our entire Christmas lunch with recipes from it. This would be the first time I cooked those recipes, but I laugh in the face of pressure (and had a back up plan of crisps and biscuits in place). So I am delighted to report that everything was flipping delicious (mega-apologies for the terrible picture but a lack of proper camera and the desire to eat, further diminished my limited photography skills).

My menu was mainly vegetarian, with a bit of fish. So from the top we have aubergine chermoula, mojardara (rice with lentils and crispy onions), borek (feta pastry cigars), citrus-spiced salmon with sumac, cacik (yoghurt with cucumber, garlic and dill), and butternut squash with pistachio pesto and pomegranate.

Persiana contains recipes from the Middle East and Iran, some traditional and some with a modern take, and handily for me has loads of vegetarian-friendly snacks, sides, and main dishes, as well as a scattering of fish. It's introduced me to lots of new spice combinations that I would never have considered before, as well as new takes on some of my favourite ingredients such as squash and aubergines. Everything I cooked for the holidays was packed with flavour, fresh but still comforting on a winter's day, and also pretty straight-forward to put together.

In fact I was so impressed by Xmas lunch, that I also made broad beans with garlic, dill and eggs (baghala ghatogh) and a pistachio and feta dip from Persiana for the new year (along with various other things). So a big thumbs up for Persiana. It's always good to find a chunky hardback that justifies its place on the bookshelf, and I have a feeling that I'll be cooking a lot more from it this year.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Kalakand- the easy way

I like to think that I'm on top of the latest food trends, even if I'm not that actually interested in many of them (donut burger anyone?). However Indian sweets cooked in a microwave, have somehow passed me by, despite being around for ages apparently. I first came across this method for making kalakand, an Indian milk-based sweet, on the rather excellent Bong Mom's Cookbook blog. I have to say that I was a little sceptical about the whole thing, but this was one of the simplest Indian sweets I have ever made. Admittedly, I am usually an Ambala girl rather than a stirring milk for ages person, but this is a recipe that came nowhere near testing my limited patience.

Kalakand are a little bit like burfi or Bengali sandesh, but with a softer texture and are more obviously milky; sort of like cottage cheese combined with fudge, though that makes them sound horrible (which they aren't). These kalakand were not too heavy or sweet, and were rich with cardamom. I followed the Bong Mom recipe pretty accurately, except that I didn't bother with the chocolate topping and just used chopped pistachios and almonds instead. I also added the crushed seeds from around 4 or 5 cardamom pods to the milk mix. Here are the ingredients with UK measurements.

Recipe (enough for 20 or so pieces)

500g ricotta cheese
1 x 397g tin, sweetened condensed milk
Seeds from 4-5 cardamom pods, crushed
Generous handful of almonds and pistachios, chopped

Firstly you'll need a suitable dish that can go in the microwave, and is relatively shallow, so your kalakand aren't too thick. I have a 1000 watt microwave, and after mixing all the ingredients except the nuts, I cooked the kalakand for five minutes at full power, followed by another five minutes, stirring well in between. If it looks like it's going to boil over at any point, stop microwaving and stir again. Then microwave in one minute bursts, until the mixture thickens, but is still a little moist on top. This is likely to take another five to seven minutes, so it will have been in the microwave for 15 to 17 minutes in total. This is obviously going to vary depending on the type of microwave you have. Once the kalakand is firm (but not totally dried out), sprinkle the nuts on top and press down slightly. Let the dish cool a bit and then chill in the fridge overnight. Take the kalakand out of the fridge 30 minutes before you want to eat them, so they come up to room temperature, slice into bite size pieces, transfer onto a jazzy serving dish, and tuck in. Ideal with a nice cup of tea.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Olive Grove, Cambridge, UK

So here's a quick review of The Olive Grove, where a recent dinner put paid to any pretence of continuing to be vegan.

The Olive Grove is a relatively new (I think it opened last year) addition to the Catholic Church end of Regent Street in the centre of Cambridge, which serves Greek and Mediterranean-style food. I had visited for a weekend lunch earlier in the year, but it was more of a social occasion so I wasn't paying that much attention to the food then (though I recall it was perfectly pleasant).

The inside is functional but comfortable, and going back in the evening, there was definitely more of a bustling atmosphere than during the day- I think I spotted a large table of genuine Greek people too. This time round we ordered a selection of their smaller plates for a meze style dinner, and I have to say it was all pretty uniformly delicious. As an aubergine fan, the melitzanosalata roasted aubergine salad type thing scooped onto warm fluffy pitta bread, was a highlight for me. I guess the Greek salad could have been a bit more flavourful, but it did come with a generous amount of creamy feta. And the fried calamari and prawn sagnaki, were well cooked with a good level of crunchiness on the squid. Unfortunately, my rather crappy photo doesn't do any of the food justice.

Additional major plus points were the pitcher of tap water brought to the table when we arrived, and the incredibly friendly and smiley server who took and correctly delivered our order without apparently ever writing it down. We ordered six dishes between us, which left us nicely stuffed. And the bill for all this and a couple of alcoholic drinks was around £45, which seemed very reasonable for a sizeable dinner for two. I am rather looking forward to going back again.

The Olive Grove
100 Regent Street
Cambridge CB2 1DP

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Going vegan- the final word

So I am definitely no longer vegan. Over the past couple of weeks I have eaten some fish and a reasonable amount of cheese, but there was no huge animal protein blow out. In fact it was actually quite hard to stop being vegan. I never intended for this to be a permanent change of eating habits, but once I'd done my thirty days I was quite disinclined to switch back to pescatarian eating. I really can't rationalise this, but somehow without the 'rules' of veganism I just felt an immense sense of confusion about what I should eat. Anyway, after a period of readjustment I am now enjoying the delights of (moderate amounts of) Quorn sausages and halloumi cheese. Somewhat randomly I am still consuming a variety of non-diary milks and yogurts, mainly because they are quite nice.

So to round up these posts, here are couple of things I made in the last week or so. I was inspired by the Waitrose lentil and cauliflower salad to make my own version. It wasn't an exact flavour match, but it was damn tasty nevertheless. I ate this over several days with an assortment of courgette bhajis, aubergine stew and pesto. The bhajis were also excellent, if I do say so myself- slices of courgette, dipped in a gram flour, self-raising flour, and black onion seed batter, and then fried in hot oil- resulting in a crispy but vaguely nutritious side dish. I've included my cauliflower recipe below, but do adjust to suit your own tastes.

Cauliflower and lentil salad (enough for 2 as a generous main meal, or 4 as a side dish)

1 small cauliflower, cut into florets
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
2 spring onions, sliced
1 red pepper, chopped into small pieces
3 medium cloves garlic, crushed
1-2 tsp ground cumin
0.5 tsp chilli flakes
0.5 tbslp sun-dried tomato puree
1 tsp fennel seeds
390g tin of cooked green lentils, drained
Generous squeeze of lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
2-3 tblsp olive oil
Small handful coriander leaves, roughly chopped

Cook the cauliflower florets in the olive oil, with the onion, garlic, red pepper and spices. When the vegetables are almost cooked through, mix in the tomato puree. Once fully cooked and with some colour, take the vegetables off the heat, and allow to cool a little. While it's still warm, stir in the lentils, spring onion, lemon juice, coriander, and season to taste. Eat while warm or at room temperature.

I also tried my first bit of proper vegan baking. This was probably the area of food I was most sceptical about not working well. However, I was very pleasantly surprised by the cinnamon doughnut muffins I tried making from this excellent blog (which also turned out to be my favourite vegan/veggie cooking blog). They were light and delicious, and I'm not sure if would have been able to identify them as vegan if I hadn't known.

I tried adapting a Scott Jurek recipe for a chocolate bean bar too, which was ok if not amazing. To be fair, they are not sold as a pudding (more of an energy bar type thing) and I did a lot of subbing for the flours, etc,which may have made the final product a bit different from its intended state. They were quite chocolatey and very dense, but with a slightly strange texture from the beans; imagine a slightly not right mochi. Definitely edible (I did finish them) but not one I'd be running off to make again (unlike the muffins). Quite nice with a iced almond milk mocha coffee though.

I also found a new vegan snack from Burt's, so that was a bonus.

So the conclusion to all of this is that being temporarily vegan made me much more aware of what I was eating; and I'm still eating a lot more whole grains, legumes, and vegetables, and probably more dairy alternatives (though I'm not sure why). I've found myself eating more accidentally vegan meals, and not just chomping on cheese unthinkingly. I have discovered lots of new products (not all great) and some fab new food blogs (which mainly were fab). So I'm really pleased I gave this a go, and though the intention was not to make it a permanent change, it's somehow reassuring to know that I could if I wanted to.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Going vegan- week 4

I'm going to say it- I am quite enjoying being vegan! Though it is undoubtedly restrictive, it has made me think more creatively about food, and actually be open to some things that I've previously been a bit scathing about. And most importantly, everything I've cooked has genuinely been really tasty (I'm still quite surprised by this).

The Bircher muesli, and salad and bean based lunches are still going strong during the week, as are snacks based around nuts, crisps (one of the most delicious vegan foods), and fruit. Dinners during this week have been particularly successful though. I made a vegetable and cashew nut stir-fry with one of those bags of supermarket ready-prepped veg, a Japanese-style aubergine nasu dengaku, and leftover black pepper tofu. I've only ever eaten nasu dengaku in Teri-Aki before but it looked pretty simple to make. Just fry (or cook by your preferred method) pieces of aubergine, make a sauce by gently heating some miso paste, mirin, and sugar, mix together, and ta-dah- Japanese deliciousness results! The only slight flaw in the plan, was that the Sainsbury's miso paste I picked up was not a 'pure' one and had stuff like ginger in it too. It was still perfectly nice, but I'll make sure I purchase an unadulterated version in the future. I also toned down the amount of sugar I used, as some recipes seem to have loads. I added 1tsp of brown sugar to 2 heaped tblsp of miso and around 4 tblsp of mirin. This suited me, and was plenty to coat my medium aubergine, but you can of course adjust to taste. The sweetness of the aubergine was just the right antidote to the burn of the tofu, and a generous amount of nuts in the stir-fry added texture (and some more protein).

Aubergine made an appearance later in the week too, when I cooked a very simple tomato sauce/stew to go with courgette 'spaghetti', and a cheese-free rocket and walnut pesto.  Courgette spaghetti is just courgette cut into fine strips with one of those julienne peeler things. I must have bought one on a whim years ago, and it's actually pretty handy. It's obviously not essential to have your vegetables resemble pasta, but there is something psychologically beneficial about being able to twirl your food round on a fork. I have made this before, but looking back I definitely over-cooked the courgettes. So everything tasted nice, but the veg had a not brilliant, watery texture. I've learnt my lesson though, so once my two courgette was julienne-ed up, I cooked them in two batches for no more than 3 minutes in some olive oil. Courgettes can basically be eaten raw, so mine were just slightly softened, and cooking smaller amounts at a time meant they they didn't release loads of liquid. The tomato sauce was a basic mix of onion, garlic, and aubergine sautéed in olive oil until soft, and then simmered with a can of chopped tomatoes, some water, a sprinkling of dried mixed herbs, a tablespoon of sundried tomato purée, and finished with some fresh basil.

For the weekend, I thought I'd try and put together some sort of vegan roast dinner. As I don't eat meat anyway, this wasn't actually much of a leap from the type of thing I'd make for a hearty, winter lunch (just with more sunshine). Quorn products aren't vegan, so mini sausages were out, but I instead ramped up my nut roast efforts, made an onion gravy, roasted potatoes and parsnips, sautéed Savoy cabbage, and steamed some broccoli.

Nut roast (enough for 4):

1 170g pack Paxo sage and onion stuffing, made up with water
1 medium red onion, sliced
4 fat cloves of garlic, crushed
Around 250g chestnut mushrooms, sliced
Around 70g Brazil nuts, roughly chopped
Around 70g walnut pieces
1 tsp mixed, dried herbs
1 or 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
2-3 tblsp olive oil
Generous grind of pepper and a little salt

Cook the onion in the oil until soft and starting to caramelise, and then add the herbs, garlic, mushrooms, and nuts. Season well, and fry until the mushrooms are nicely browned. Make up the Paxo stuffing mix with hot water, and then combine with the mushrooms. You could of course just use an equivalent amount of fresh breadcrumbs and sage, but I genuinely think the Paxo mix (with its extra dried onions, garlic powder, and herbs) adds a flavour boost as well as bulk. The nut roast is basically all cooked, but I assemble it in advance, put into a shallow baking dish, drizzle the top with a little olive oil, and pop into the lower part of the oven at gas mark 6 for around 30 minutes (when the roast vegetables are in). The top should be browned, but be careful not to let it dry out. I have to say that this resulted in an excellent roast dinner.

I also thought I'd try my hand at some vegan baking, but started small with some flapjacks. I took inspiration from this really rather fab food blog, but reduced the amount of syrup (to around 4 tblsp), and added dried cranberries (a generous handful), and around 50g of mixed seeds. I was definitely concerned about using sunflower margarine, rather than butter, and specifically that it would taste strongly of marg. But actually I don't think I would have known the difference. Anything with lots of sugar in it tends to taste mainly of that, and I also had fruit and seeds too. Reducing the amount of syrup did make the flapjacks a bit more crumbly than I imagine the originals were, but there were still robust enough to cut up into pieces. It's also a super-simple recipe, but pretty damn good.

I thought this was going to be my last vegan post, but actually I have a few additional things to write about so there's one more coming!