Taking stock

It’s a funny old month, April. The days are longer and it’s warmer than it was even a couple of weeks ago (yesterday, I went out without a coat) but spring still feels a little wait away. Today, as I sit at my kitchen table writing this, I’m waiting for it to rain. It’s been forecast all morning but despite the dishwater grey skies, it still hasn’t come. All is quiet in the flat and on the street outside and I haven’t really spoken to anyone all day. Far from feeling lonely, I’m relishing it.

I’m not quite ready for my spring renewal, not just yet. In the last year there’s been so much change in my life (going freelance, moving to another city and writing a book) and now I’m ready to sit tight and take some time to rest and reflect. I’m still working, of course, but life is a bit slower while I try to assemble all the thoughts in my head into some sort of orderly fashion.

What’s next? Surely it’s what anyone asks after writing a book. It’s almost a month since The Occasional Vegan was published and I’m enjoying all the lovely things that people are telling me, but I’m also itching to start something new. I have some exciting projects lined up (including a new vegan menu at Milk & Sugar in Cardiff) and there’ll definitely be more food writing in the near future.

I had such a lovely time at the launch event for the book last week. So many of my nearest and dearest came along to support me (and to buy a signed copy of the book – thank you!) and despite my quavering voice, I managed to say a few words about why I wrote the book and what it means to me. Even though I do lots of TV and radio stuff, I feel anxious every single time so I’m glad that it went down well. In the middle of my rambling, I quoted from a review of the book, by my friend (and fellow vegan), Sareta.

“This book proves that veganism really is for everyone which is refreshing in a world of books by polished west London daddy’s girls. Sarah’s food is real food for real people.”

Now, I have nothing against anyone who’s had life handed to them on a plate (and if that helps them make a living, lucky them) but that’s clearly not me. I’m passionate about making eating well accessible and affordable to everyone and that will continue to be my ethos.

This week, I’m back in the kitchen and cooking simple meals using seasonal ingredients. I’m no purist, but the locally grown stuff tastes like heaven (and it’s often cheaper, too) and the appearance of new season tomatoes and strawberries at my local supermarket or greengrocer really does get me excited. Sometimes I do a little solitary fist pump – people must think I’m odd.

Wild garlic is all over my Instagram feed at the moment and it just so happens to be growing in the woods near to where I live. It’s free and plentiful at this time of year (although don’t pick from private land without permission and only take as much as you intend to use) and is so easy to whizz up into a quick pesto. It has a much mellower flavour than garlic, so you can afford to use a bit more of it than you would with the ordinary kind, but you’ll still get a sweetly fragrant sauce for your pasta. My other half’s not a fan of overly strong flavours (something I’ll never understand) so it got the thumbs up from him, too.

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Pasta with wild garlic pesto

Pasta with wild garlic pesto

Serves 2

For the pesto

5-6 large leaves of wild garlic, chopped finely, stalks removed

2 big handfuls of rocket, spinach or watercress

80g walnuts

4 tbsp olive oil

The juice of one lemon

Salt and pepper

 

150-200g pasta of your choice

 

Boil a pan of salted water and cook your pasta for about 10 minutes (or according to the instructions on the packet) until al dente.

Meanwhile, put all the ingredients for the pesto in a blender and pulse on high for a minute or so. You should end up with a fairly smooth paste, although a grainier texture (if your blender is quite basic, like mine) is fine, too.

When the pasta’s cooked, keep a tablespoon or two of the water and then drain. Return to the pan, stir through the pesto and the pasta water and heat for a minute, then serve.

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The Occasional Vegan

I’ve written a book! It’s not every day you can say that, is it? After months of recipe testing and writing, The Occasional Vegan is here and I’m finally feeling confident enough to blow my own trumpet, just a little bit. A hell of a lot of work went into it (what’s the vegan equivalent of blood, sweat and tears?) so yes, I’m feeling pretty happy at the moment.

Since it was published last week, I’ve been busy doing media interviews and trying to fit in all my freelance work at the same time. It’s an exciting time, although I’m a pick and mix bagful of excited and nervous about the launch event next month. If you want to come along, you can get your free ticket here.

Over the next week or so, I’ll be hopping onto other people’s blogs and, so far, I’ve been on Eat Happy and For the Love of Hygge, where I talk about taking a balanced approach to eating. That’s one of the reasons I wrote this book: to prove that being vegan can be about having your cake and eating it. It’s not all rabbit food (or ‘clean eating’, whatever that actually means) and you certainly indulge in the occasional treat, because ditching the meat and dairy doesn’t mean that you have to miss out.

I want to inspire people to cook vegan dishes, whatever their budget or lifestyle, so the book is divided into four sections, which you dip and out of, depending on the occasion.

  1. The working week: quick and easy breakfasts, lunches and dinners
  2. Something for the weekend: lazy brunches, lunches and meals for friends and family
  3. High days and holidays: dishes for special occasions
  4. Comfort food and childhood favourites: think cawl, lasagne and chocolate brownies

As you’ll see when you read the book, there is so much variety in the vegan way of eating. Go forth and cook!

If you want to see me channelling my inner Nigella (I wish), you can watch a video of me making KFC (that’s Kentucky fried cauliflower), which is one of my favourite recipes from the book. It was filmed by Manon Houston, who also took all the photographs for the book. If you need a food photographer and stylist, check her out; she’s super talented and is great fun to work with.

For a taster of The Occasional Vegan, here’s an exclusive recipe from the book. This tofu dish is all sorts of delicious and the sticky lemon glaze is a dream come true. Why bother with a takeaway when you can make this instead?

 

Lemon tofu and fried rice

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Lemon tofu and fried rice

As a child, Chinese food was a big treat and every once in a while, Mum would come home with a couple of oven meals from Marks and Spencer. It was only when I got older that I tried the takeaway kind, but for me, it was way too greasy.

I loved umami flavours from a young age, so sweet and sour sauce was a firm favourite but what I remember the most is lemon chicken. This is a vegan version of that with fried rice. When life gives you lemons, make this.

50-55 minutes, plus time for preparing the tofu

Serves 2

Ingredients

 

For the lemon tofu

1 x 400g block firm tofu

1 yellow pepper, cut into thin strips

The juice of 4 lemons

1 tbsp flour

1 tbsp soy sauce

4 tsps sugar

1 tbsp sesame oil

 

For the fried rice

125g brown rice

100g peas, fresh or frozen

1 tbsp sesame oil

 

Take the tofu and use kitchen roll or a clean tea towel to blot and absorb all its water. Take a heavy wooden chopping board or a hardback book and place it on top of the wrapped tofu. This will press down on it and absorb excess moisture. Leave for 30 minutes then slice into medium-sized strips.

Preheat the oven to 200C and in an oven-proof dish, mix the soy sauce, flour and juice from two of the lemons. Coat both sides of the tofu strips with the mixture and leave to marinate for 15 minutes then bake for 25-30 minutes, turning every so often.

Meanwhile, rinse and drain the rice and add to a pan of cold water. Bring to the boil and cook for 20 minutes then drain. In a large pan or wok, heat the sesame oil and add the rice and peas and fry for ten minutes.

Remove the tofu from the oven. Mix together the remainder of the lemon juice, the sugar and the sesame oil and heat in a large pan. Add the sliced pepper and fry for a minute or two before adding the tofu. Cook for another 5-6 minutes until the tofu is glazed in the sauce, then serve with the fried rice.

The Swigg

Well, haven’t we had a strange start to March? Sub-zero temperatures and snow-covered cars aren’t quite what one expects as spring approaches but there we go. As much as I pretend to hate the white stuff, I was more than a little disappointed that it didn’t stick around in Swansea. Apparently, it never snows here. The rest of the country, however, was a different story, and Cardiff was covered in the stuff. Instagram was full of friends and their frosty frolics, giving me a serious case of FOMO and a proper hiraeth for my home city.

But anyway, Swansea’s getting more familiar by the day and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the food scene, and especially what’s on offer for us vegans. One of my favourite places is The Swigg, a cwtchy but cool café bar that’s right on the marina and serves up small plates inspired by the flavours of Wales and faraway places. It won ‘Welsh Eatery of the Year 2017’ in the Welsh Independent Retail Awards and all the ingredients are sourced as locally as possible.

While there’s plenty of meat and fish on the menu, there are also some delicious dishes for veggies and vegans: think Glamorgan sausages, quinoa sushi and houmous with roasted garlic and lemon.

There’s also a monthly vegan night where you can feast on six small plates for the bargain price of £25 per person and last week I was invited to pop over and try the menu. It may have been cold outside but it was all cosy and twinkly inside and I soon warmed up with a glass of red. The other half arrived a little late, snow swept and a little flustered. He’d walked all the way the way into town in the snow despite a heavy cold; what a wise man he is.

Anyway, let’s talk about the food. First up was the tomato and courgette ‘pizza’, a bite-sized feast of fresh flavours. This was followed by the Port Eynon sea salt baked celeriac with Gower cabbage and a smattering of pomegranate seeds. It was the night before St David’s Day so there was bit of a Welsh theme to the menu and this was sweetly salty and sumptuous, rather unlike our patron saint I’d imagine. Did you know that he was a vegetarian, though?

Next up was the three bean chilli which was on the just the right side of spicy and served with wild rice, a drizzle of vegan yogurt and a wedge of lime. After all those big flavours, it was time for a palate cleanser and the carrot, parsley and lemon salad did the job, but was still pleasantly fragrant.

Time for the star of the show. The miso tofu, mushroom and laverbread was next level umami and the small portion meant that this luxurious little number wasn’t too overpowering for the taste buds. We ended the meal with a the most perfect of puddings: a quince, apple and nut crumble.

It was a great way to try tasty but unpretentious food in a warm and friendly atmosphere and we’ll definitely be back. Apologies for my less than impressive photographs, but you I think you’ll agree that these are some good looking plates of food.

 

 

 

The Swigg holds its next vegan-themed night on Thursday 29 March.Visit the website for more details.

The Swigg

Swansea Marina, SA1 3RD

http://www.theswigg.net

Heartburn

The days might be getting longer but it’s still coat and gloves weather – for me, anyway. In our house, I’m the only one who feels the cold, whereas he often goes out without a jacket. So yes, we’ve argued about the central heating.

Apparently, the heating is still switched on when the flat reaches its ‘optimum temperature’ and the radiators stop being warm and go cold, as do I. Where’s the bloody sense in that?

The course of true love never did run smooth, but I know I’m lucky to have him – and my oversized house cardigan, which is one of the better investments I’ve made in recent years. He’s a good egg, really: he calms my kitchen crises, patiently waits while I Instagram our meals and brings me coffee in bed every morning, so I can’t complain.

And there’s always stew. It’s warm and comforting and the longer you leave it to cook, the richer it gets – like any great love affair. Speaking of which, Dolly Alderton’s superlatively brilliant Everything I Know About Love is the new book on the block and proper comfort food for your brain and I devoured it in just a few days. Her ode to female friendship is especially heartwarming.

Back to food. Here are two simple stews to warm your cockles. One’s rich and handsome; the other sweet but suave.

Pearl barley, butterbean and cauliflower stew

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Pearl barley, butterbean and cauliflower stew

The miso paste really adds depth to this but if you don’t have it, use 2-3 tablespoons of soy sauce instead. I used frozen spinach as it was languishing in the freezer, but fresh will work just as well.

Serves 3-4

Ingredients

1 small cauliflower, broken into florets

1 onion, peeled and diced

1 clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped

1 tsp caraway seeds

2 bay leaves

1-2 tbsp rapeseed oil

2 tsp miso paste

1 x 400g can of tomatoes, chopped or plum

1 x 400g can of butterbeans, drained

2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped

150g pearl barley

150g frozen spinach – or about 8 ‘bunches’

Salt and pepper

 

Heat the oil over a medium heat in a large pan or heat-proof casserole dish, then fry the onion and garlic for 2-3 minutes. Add the carrot and cauliflower and fry for another 3 minutes, then tip in the tomatoes (fill the empty can with water and add that too) and the pearl barley, caraway seeds, bay leaves and miso paste. Season with salt and pepper.

Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat, add a lid to the pan and cook for 15 minutes. Add the spinach and butterbeans and cook for another 10-15 (again, with the lid on).

Remove the bay leaves and serve with bread or green vegetables.

 

Chickpea stew with beetroot, fennel and orange

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Chickpea stew with beetroot, fennel and orange

A fierce fusion of flavours. Mellow beetroot (use the vacuum-packed kind if you can’t get hold of fresh) turns this a pretty shade of purple and balances the sharp but sweet fennel and orange. If you can’t find fennel, try celery instead.

Serves 3-4

Ingredients

3-4 medium sweet potatoes (r around 200g), peeled and diced

4-5 fresh beetroot, peeled and diced

1 fennel bulb, stalks and fronds removed, and diced

1 x 400g can of tomatoes, chopped or plum

1 x 400g can of chickpeas, drained

1 orange, juice only

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp smoked paprika

Salt and pepper

1 tbsp rapeseed oil

 

Heat the oil over a medium heat in a large pan or heat-proof casserole dish, add the sweet potato and fry for 5 minutes, then add the beetroot, the tomatoes (fill the empty can with water and pour this into the pan), and the spices and season.

Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and place a lid on the pan. After 10 minutes, add the fennel and cook for another 10 minutes. After this, add the chickpeas and the orange juice and cook for 5-10 minutes. Serve with green vegetables or on its own.

Goodbye to all that

And so it’s over – well almost, anyway. Today’s the last day of what many of think of as the most joyless month of the year, and it’s no wonder, because new beginnings are always difficult. Personally, I haven’t found January to be too depressing, but like anyone I have my ups and downs and I’ve really struggled with the dark, dark nights and the particularly grey days.

The winter months are always hard, especially after the fun and fizz of Christmas but as every day inches closer to longer days and brighter skies, I feel hopeful. I know we’re feeling the cold snap at the moment but the sun is rising just that little bit earlier which means that soon I’ll have no excuse not to jump out of bed – in theory, anyway. Daylight is so important and even thirty minutes a day can make a real difference to your physical and mental wellbeing. My daily walks really help my mood and the light always makes me feel brighter – funny that.

Tomorrow’s the first of February (and the day before my birthday) and two years since I started this blog. I never imagined back then that I’d end up writing a cookery book but here I am. Happy February to you all. It might be short and dark but it’s a step closer to spring and that for me is cause for celebration – plus there are some lovely things to eat right now.

Bittersweet blood oranges aren’t around for long and they’re so prettily perfectly Instagrammable so snap them up while you can. They’re nice as a light dessert, cooked with rhubarb (which is also coming into season), added to salads or even sliced and served in a G&T. Tenderstem broccoli has also made an appearance and is lovely lightly steamed and drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil. Make the most of these winter wonders with a salad that bursts with colour and crunch.

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Quinoa and brown rice salad with tendertem broccoli and blood orange

Quinoa and brown rice salad with tenderstem broccoli and blood orange

Serves 2

Ingredients

75g brown rice, rinsed and drained

75g quinoa, rinsed and drained

8-10 stems of tenderstem broccoli (about 125g)

1 and a half blood oranges

1 medium-sized avocado

2 large handfuls of spinach

A handful of fresh dill

25g whole almonds (optional)

1 tbsp rapeseed oil

Salt and pepper

 

For the dressing

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

The juice of half a lime

Salt and pepper

 

Bring a pan of salted water to the boil, then reduce the heat and cook the rice for 15 minutes, then add the quinoa to the same pan and cook for another 10 minutes. Drain and set aside. Meanwhile, heat a large heavy based pan over a medium heat and add the rapeseed oil. Fry the broccoli for 3-4 minutes, turning occasionally, then add the almonds and fry for another 2-3 minutes. Turn off the heat.

Take a large serving dish and add the spinach leaves. Make the dressing by mixing all the ingredients, then spoon half of it over the spinach and massage. Spoon over the rice and quinoa and pour over the rest of the dressing. Add the broccoli and the almonds then peel and segment one of the oranges and remove the skin and stone from the avocado and slices in thin slivers. Add these to the salad, then roughly chop the dill and add that to the bowl. Cut the other orange in half and squeeze over the salad, then season with salt and pepper and serve.

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Milgi

This January has been exceptionally grey and gloomy and on these dark, dark nights we seek comfort in food and a perhaps a cup of cheer, too. Luckily for me, I’ve eaten very well this month and when I was invited to try Milgi’s new menu, I pencilled the date in my diary (I don’t do digital) with great excitement.

Milgi is Cardiff’s cool as a cucumber café, restaurant and bar, and sisters Gabrielle and Rebecca have been feeding the city’s veggies and vegans for nearly 12 years. During this time, it’s been perennially popular and has notched up lots of awards for its food and commitment to sustainability. It was one of the runners-up in the Best Ethical Food Project in last year’s Observer Food Magazine Awards and nominated in the South Wales Echo Food and Drink Awards 2016-17.

It’s obviously a bit of a plant lovers’ paradise but the healthy but hearty dishes here will please even the most die-hard of carnivores, too. The kitchen cooks up pretty platefuls of food and everything is seasonal and organic. There’s a real flair for flavour and not a mushroom risotto in sight, although you can enjoy traditional favourites with a twist: think battered halloumi and chips and nut roast with vegan cauliflower cheese and all the trimmings.

I’ve been coming to Milgi for a long time because the food and drink is so good and because it fits the bill for every occasion. During the day, it’s bright and airy and I guarantee you that a Milgi breakfast will ease even the hardiest of hangovers.  After dark, everything is cosy and intimate so it’s great for a romantic meal or some cocktails with the gang.

We visited on a windy Thursday evening with tired heads and rumbling tummies but all that was forgotten as we were ushered to our table by our friendly waitress. After she’d talked us through the new menu and taken our drinks orders, we sat back and soaked up the atmosphere. There’s an open kitchen and crates of fruit and vegetables dotted around the place so it’s nice to know that what you see is what you get.  They make their own sauerkraut and kombucha on site, too.

Everything on the menu looks seriously good, especially the vegan seafood platter, which I’ll definitely be trying next time I visit, so it took us a while to decide what to have. Once we ordered though, our food arrived pretty quickly.

I had the green burger, which is indeed a vibrantly verdant hue thanks to its combination of butter beans, spinach, coriander, parsley and a special spice blend. This comes with a fresh and zingy salad and chunky sweet potato fries, and because they’d run out of wholemeal buns, I had the baked polenta which made a nice change and also happens to be the gluten free option. This is probably the healthiest ‘burger and chips’ I’ve ever had and I enjoyed every bite.

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The green burger

My other half is a big halloumi fan so naturally he plumped for the masala battered halloumi and triple-cooked chips with a pleasingly tart nigella seed chutney.

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Masala battered halloumi and chips

For pudding, we shared the cinnamon doughnuts with apple compote and vegan ice cream (not for the faint hearted!) and the ‘mostly raw’ cacoa and berry cheesecake with vanilla yogurt. Both were sweet without being sickly and the perfect end to the meal.

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Doughnuts

 

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Raw cheesecake

We washed everything down with a margarita and a glass of red wine (for me) and a couple of beers (for him) and left feeling warm and just nicely fuzzy. If you need some light during these cold winter months, get yourself down to Milgi.

You can find Milgi at 213 City Road, Cardiff CF24 3JD.

https://milgicardiff.com

Season’s eatings

January is far too dark and cold a month to go on a restrictive diet, but I am trying to be a bit more mindful of what and how I eat – and how it makes me feel. Although I didn’t really overindulge over Christmas, my lifestyle changed quite a bit during 2017 and I don’t feel as bien dans ma peau as I did this time last year.

It’s not surprising that I can’t do my up my jeans because writing a cookery book takes no prisoners and I’ve tested a lot of recipes. I want to do something about it so that that means lots of walking (even in this grey weather, getting some daylight is a godsend for my mental wellbeing), the occasional trip to the gym and lots of veggies, pulses and grains. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy a little indulgence once in a while (if you haven’t tried Greazy Vegan yet, you simply must) but I’m choosing my treats more wisely.

There’s more:  I think I might have a food intolerance.  As someone who loves food and writes about it, giving up the gluten seems somewhat sacrilegious, but let’s just say that it’s not really agreeing with me. I’m going to cut back on the bread and biscuits for a while to see if it makes a difference (we’ll see how long I last with that one) so I’ll keep you posted.

Anyway, gluten-free or not, eating well doesn’t have to be time-consuming, bland – or expensive – as you’ll see with my recipes for a simple seasonal salad and a fast and filling curry with cauliflower rice.

 

Jump for joy salad

Let me introduce you to January’s finest: sweet but mellow russet apples, ravishing Romanesco cauliflower, and my favourite, the humble sprout. One of the cheapest ways to get this winter’s veg is at your local market, although you can use any variety depending on what you can find. The sumac in adds a lovely hit of zesty heat but use ground cumin if you don’t have any. Using tinned lentils makes this a really quick and easy dish (I’m lazy, so sue me) but boil up some dried ones if you prefer.

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Serves 2

Ingredients

For the salad

1 head of Romanesco cauliflower, broken into small florets (keep the leaves for cooking, so roughly chop these, too)

12 sprouts, ends and outer leaves removed and chopped finely

4 large handfuls of kale or spinach, roughly chopped

1 russet apple, cut into thin slices

1 x 400g can brown or green lentils, rinsed and drained

2 large handfuls of parsley, chopped

The juice of half a lemon

Salt and pepper

For the dressing

1 ½ tsp sumac

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 tbsp white wine vinegar

Put the cauliflower, sprouts and kale in a large bowl then mix the ingredients for the dressing on a glass or jar. Pour over the vegetables and massage with your hands, then season with salt and pepper.

Heat a large frying pan or wok over a high heat, then stir fry the vegetables for 3-4 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the lentils and cook for another minute. Remove the pan from the heat and tip everything back into the bowl. Add the apple and parsley and stir though, squeeze over the lemon, then serve.

 

Pea and aubergine curry with cauliflower rice

This quick curry is more fragrant than spicy and ready in about 20 minutes. You can find galangal in larger supermarkets but if you come away empty-handed, just leave it out. I’m not suggesting for one second that carbs are bad but if you fancy something a bit lighter – or you just fancy something different – cauliflower rice is rather nice, especially with the tiniest bit of almond extract. I’ve started cooking with rapeseed oil as it contains good cholesterol and omega fats but use any kind you have in the cupboard – although not extra virgin olive oil!

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Serves 3-4

Ingredients

For the curry

1 medium aubergine, cut into small chunks

200g frozen peas

4 large handfuls of kale, roughly chopped into small pieces

1 tsp chopped or grated fresh ginger

1 tsp chopped or grated galangal, fresh or dried

1 tsp ground cumin

½ tsp salt

2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped

1 x 400g can tomatoes, chopped or plum

1 tbsp peanut butter

1 tbsp rapeseed oil

1 small lime, cut into wedges

For the cauliflower rice

1 large cauliflower

1 tsp coconut oil

1 tsp chopped or grated fresh ginger

A drop of almond essence (optional)

Heat the rapeseed in a large pan over a high heat. Add the chopped aubergine and pour over the salt, then fry for five minutes, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned. Turn down the heat and add the shallots, ginger, galangal and cumin, then fry for another five minutes. Now, add the tomatoes plus a little water and bring to the boil. Tip in the peas and the kale and add the peanut butter. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pan with a lid and cook for 5-10 minutes.

Make the ‘rice’ by grating the cauliflower using a box grater – you can use a food processor but I find that a grater takes less washing up. Heat the oil in a pan over a medium heat, then add the cauliflower and the ginger and cook for 4-5 minutes, stirring frequently, until lightly browned. Add a drop of almond essence if using.

Serve with the curry and a squeeze of lime

Viva la Veganuary

Happy new year! The Yuletide season is almost over and on Saturday, we must all take down our trees and tinsel. After feeling decidedly curmudgeonly about Christmas, I finally got into the spirit of things and had a jolly good time.

Now, it’s January, which despite being dark and more than a little depressing after all the festivities, is actually not that awful a month. Ever the optimist (no, really), I think of these first few days of January as an opportunity to take stock and think of the year ahead. Not that I’m one for making resolutions – and I’m definitely not going on a health kick, detox, cleanse or anything else that sounds remotely like a torture method.

That’s why I don’t understand all the slack that Veganuary has received this year. The annual month-long vegan challenge has been accused of promoting itself as just another January diet. That’s not fair. Just because the campaign endorses the health benefits of eating less animal produce and more fruit and veg doesn’t mean it’s a trigger for eating disorders. Yes, we need to be careful about the language we use and no, changing the way we eat doesn’t work for everyone, but listen up, folks: green eating ain’t clean eating. As Veganuary actively promotes on its website and social media, there’s a whole load of cruelty-free junk food out there to be enjoyed.

In the last couple of days, I’ve heard some tired tropes (and frankly, a lot of bull) about eating vegan, so for the record, here are some truths about veganism, Veganuary and anything else that encourages people to treat animals and the environment with love and respect.

It’s not a diet

OK, veganism is a diet in the literal sense of the word: it’s a way of eating. But it’s not a ‘diet’ of deprivation just because it doesn’t include meat, dairy or eggs. Eating more pulses, grains, fruits and vegetables is good for you but most people, although not everyone, choose to eat no (or less) animal produce for ethical reasons. I understand that some people use veganism as a way to control their diet (and that this can potentially be very dangerous) but why is the media criticising Veganuary, which promotes a balanced approach to eating, and not Weight Watchers or Slimming World, organisations that actively encourage its members to obsess over calories and ‘points’ in order to lose weight?

It’s not expensive

Look at the price of meat and dairy and then compare that to how little you need to spend on pulses, grains, fruits and vegetables. It’s hardly rocket science, is it? Yes, some vegan substitutes, like ‘chocolate’ and ‘cheese’ can cost a little extra but these shouldn’t make up the bulk of what you eat so save them for a treat.

It’s not elitist or classist

See my point above.

It’s not difficult

I’ll admit that changing the way you eat may at first be a challenge (been there, done that) but cooking without meat and dairy is actually a hell of a lot easier. For a start, you’ll almost certainly never give anyone food poisoning. There’s so much support and advice about cooking, eating out, nutrition and everything else you need to know about being vegan.

It’s not boring

I can’t believe that I still have to tell people that vegan food isn’t bland. Any meal prepared badly will taste terrible whatever it contains. Taking meat and dairy out of cooking means that you need to be more creative and experiment with flavours and textures. Look at all the amazing stuff that Avant-Garde Vegan makes – is that boring? While we’re at it, if you’re eating out, most places will be lovely and accommodating and will try their best to give you something tasty to eat (it’s always worth phoning up in advance), but beware the ‘chef’ who offers you an undressed plate of leaves and charges you a tenner for it. Don’t stand for it. Everyone deserves a decent meal at a restaurant – yes, I’m looking at you, Giles Coren.

It’s not self-obsessed

Thanks for that one, Richard Littlejohn. How is reducing your impact on the environment and saving animals from a life of misery a bad thing? Why shouldn’t we celebrate eating tasty and (mostly) healthy food? What’s wrong with sharing that on Instagram so that we can inspire others to enjoy this kind of food, too?

It’s not bullying

This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard about veganism this week. One journalist criticised PETA for an advert that showed a dog’s head served on a platter and asked if you wouldn’t eat your dog, why eat a turkey?’. Apparently, this campaign was ‘bullying’. Graphic, yes, but let’s just take a minute to think about how turkeys (and all the other animals killed for their meat) are treated – who do you feel sorry for? If you can’t face the unpleasant truth about the meat, dairy and poultry industry, you’re welcome to turn a blind eye and tuck into another bacon sandwich. It’s your decision. Contrary to popular belief, we’re not trying to convert you.

 

So, three cheers to Veganuary for doing a fantastic job this year. Over 140,000 people have signed up to try it in 2018 compared to 5,900 in 2017 and 1,500 when it launched in 2014. It’s friendly, welcoming and fun and gives you all the help you need if you’re a bit stuck.  Just remember, no one is forcing you to become vegan. Just try it, see if you like it and if it works for you, bravo. If it doesn’t, you’ll hopefully decide that you want to stick to eating veggie or vegan a couple of times a week.

I’ll just leave this here…

 

It wouldn’t be a blog post without a recipe so here’s my version of that comforting classic, spaghetti carbonara. Proof that veganised meals aren’t fiddly, faddy or flavourless – and they don’t have to rely on expensive substitutes. Cauliflower and sprouts are cheap and plentiful at this time of year and are a good way to disguise veggies if you’re cooking for fussy people – big or small. I like to use oat milk (which is £1.25 a litre in Morrisons) because it makes a really creamy sauce but any plant milk is fine. Nutritional yeast is a genius product as it gives dishes a deliciously cheesy flavour and you can buy it from most health food shops. If you can’t find it, though, you can use a few tablespoons of soy sauce or a little Marmite instead.

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Spaghetti carbonara

Serves 2

Ingredients

1 small cauliflower (around 300g), broken into small florets

200g sprouts, outer leaves and stalks removed and cut into half

100g mushrooms, roughly sliced

2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped

1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped

1 tbsp olive oil

400ml oat milk

The juice of half a lemon

3-4 tbsp nutritional yeast

1 tsp miso paste

A liberal grating of nutmeg

Salt and pepper

150g spaghetti

 

Bring a large pan of water to the boil, then add the cauliflower florets and sprouts and boil for 7-8 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, over a medium heat, fry the shallots and mushrooms in the oil for 5 minutes, then add the garlic and fry for another 2 minutes. Set aside.

Bring another large pan (if you want to save on washing up, use the same one as before) to the boil and add a pinch of salt. Cook the spaghetti for 8-10 minutes.

While the spaghetti is cooking, put the cauliflower and sprouts in a food processor with half the oat milk and and pulse until smooth. Pour the mixture into a pan and add the rest of the pat milk, the nutritional yeast, lemon juice, miso paste and a grating of nutmeg. Stir together and heat on a low heat for 2-3 minutes, stirring frequently.

Drain the spaghetti (keeping a little of the pasta water) and return to the pan. Pour over the carbonara sauce, then stir in the mushrooms and shallots and the little bit of pasta water. Stir together and serve.

 

Scrooged

Bah humbug. It’s three days until Christmas and I’m not feeling at all festive. I’ve done all the things you’re supposed to do at this time of year: I’ve put up the tree, had a go at making mince pies and I’ve been out for the ‘office’ do. Yes, they were jolly but I’m still feeling decidedly Scrooge-like.

I’ve been to see festive films at the cinema – ones that, in a couple of years, will be Boxing Day staples. I fell in love with Paddington 2 (well, who wouldn’t?) and the newest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is a reliably good yarn, although Kenneth Brannagh’s Poirot is distractingly identical to Fred, the maître d’ from the First Dates restaurant. Even reading Nigel Slater’s The Christmas Chronicles (a bounty of beautifully written anecdotes and recipes for the winter months) hasn’t helped and neither did watching Nigella’s Christmas.

Am I doomed to be a misery guts this Christmas? I’m sure that once the presents are wrapped under the tree and I pop on some carols, I’ll get into the spirit. I know how lucky I am to be spending the holidays with the people I love because Christmas is a really difficult time for many of us. This year, I’m giving money to Crisis and The Huggard Centre, excellent organisations that are doing their best to look after homeless people this Christmas. If you, like me, are feeling a little lacklustre and jaded, helping someone else is never a bad thing to do.

As Buddy the Elf says: ‘the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear’. My Christmas cheer for you is this festive alternative to nut roast. I call it a higgledy piggledy pie because it’s a bit messy but it’s surprisingly easy to make (you can obviously use ready-made pastry if you’re short of time) and tastes just lovely thanks to the combination of chestnuts, mushrooms and apple. Of course, you could add cranberries to this but it’s not always a crowd-pleaser, and I live with fussy eaters so I should know. My secret ingredient for this is marmalade (guess what I’ve been watching?) but a squeeze of orange juice works just as well.

Whatever you eat on the big day, I hope you have a very merry Christmas.

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This is no humble pie

Higgledy piggledy pie

Serves 6-8

Ingredients

For the pie filling

150g green lentils, dried or tinned

1 packet (150g) of vacuum-packed chestnuts, sliced in half

100g mushrooms, roughly sliced

2 shallots, peeled and diced

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and grated or finely chopped

2 apples, cored and roughly chopped into small chunks

1 tbsp olive oil

2 heaped tbsp. tomato puree

2 tbsp marmalade

A few sprigs of fresh thyme (or ½ tsp dried)

2 tbsp balsamic vinegar

1 tbsp maple syrup

Salt and pepper

 

For the pastry

350 g plain flour

1 tsp baking powder

100 g vegan margarine or vegetable fat

175 ml water

1 tsp salt

Some plant milk or vegan margarine for glazing

 

First of all, rinse the lentils in a sieve and drain, then add to a pan of cold water, bring to the boil and cook for 20-25 minutes or until tender. Drain and set aside. If you’re using canned lentils, you can skip this step. Meanwhile, add the oil to a pan over a medium heat and fry the shallots and mushrooms for 2-3 minutes, then add the chestnuts and apples and fry for another 2-3 minutes. Add the balsamic vinegar, the thyme, tomato puree and half a mugful of water, then season with salt and pepper and simmer on a low heat for 10 minutes. Now stir through the lentils and add the maple syrup and marmalade plus some extra water if you think the mixture is a little dry. Simmer for 5 minutes then turn of the heat and allow to cool slightly while you make the pastry.

To make the pastry, sieve the flour, baking powder and salt into a large bowl and mix. In a pan, heat the vegetable fat and water until it comes to the boil, then pour into the flour mixture and mix. When it has cooled, form the mixture into a large dough ball (if you think it’s a bit dry, add a few drops of water, but no more or it will become tacky) and divide in half. Take one half, roll onto a floured surface and place at the base of a greased springform cake tin or pie dish – use one that’s about 10 inches in diameter. On top of this, spoon over the pie filling.

Now, roll out the rest of the pastry, making it a bit bigger than the pastry base so that it can fold over the top and use this to cover the pie filling. Try to do it as neatly as possible and make sure that there are no gaps or holes for the filling to come through. Use your fingers to seal the pastry then brush over a little milk or margarine and place on the top shelf of the oven and bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown.

Serve with roast potatoes and parsnips, green vegetables (sprouts are my favourite) and red cabbage.

 

Tis the season to be sniffly

Magical it may be, but the lead-up to Christmas and its non-stop carousel of shopping lists and office dos means that it’s also the season to get the sniffles. It’s no wonder, really, that if you add large amounts of fizz and frivolity you end up feeling a bit feverish. We’ve all been under the weather at our house this week so I’ve made lots of this soup. It’s light on the tummy and packed with nourishing root veg – and even if it doesn’t make you better, it’ll certainly lift your spirits.

If you can, slip into your PJs and eat this under a blanket while watching a sickly sweet Christmas film on Channel 5 or Netflix. I hear that The Christmas Prince is so bad it’s good – perfect comfort viewing.

I’ve got two parties this week (one for grown-ups, then a slightly more sober affair: a kids’ birthday bash) so I’m loading up on the vitamins. Until then, you’ll find me on the sofa.

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Soup for the soul. That’s vegan cheese, if you’re wondering.

A soup for sickness

Ingredients

Half a swede, peeled and diced

3 large potatoes, peeled and diced

1 large parsnip, peeled and diced

2 large carrots, peeled and diced

2-3 stalks celery, ends removed and diced

200g red lentils

1 tsp chopped fresh ginger

Half a red chili, thinly sliced

1.5 litres vegetable stock

1 tbsp olive oil

Salt and pepper

 

Heat the oil over a low heat in a large pan, then add the potatoes, parsnips, swede and carrots and fry for 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the celery, ginger, chili and lentils and fry for another 2 minutes, then add the stock, season with salt and pepper and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat, cover with a lid and simmer for 20-25 minutes, or until the vegetables are all cooked, stirring occasionally.

Serve with crusty bread.