My mum is a great cook so it’s hardly surprising that I was a bit chubby growing up. Mum makes mean meals and has instilled in me a real love for food and cooking.
Not that there was always time to cook meals from scratch, of course. One of Mum’s specialities was the simplest of suppers: a pasta bake, which she usually made with a jar of sauce. It was one of those Homepride sauces which, despite Fred the flour grader (and there I was thinking he was a chef) and his cheery demeanour, definitely wasn’t as wholesome as it looked. Oh, I remember that creamy sauce, the little shells of pasta and the melted cheese on top. Put it this way: there was always room for seconds.
Fast forward a fair few years and I’ve made a vegan version which takes a slightly more grown-up approach by using wholewheat pasta, a silky vegetable sauce and crushed walnuts for a crunchy topping. OK, it’s not the speediest of meals but it’s well worth the wait. This is very much comfort food but it’s rather nourishing too, especially if you serve it with vegetables. If you want a little more decadence, you just add a tin of coconut milk.
I used pumpkin for the sauce as I still had some leftover from Halloween but butternut squash or even sweet potatoes would do the job too. The cauliflower isn’t essential but it does add a nutty sweetness to the sauce. Use the leaves to thicken the sauce and add extra goodness.
Serves 4-6, depending on how greedy you are. Takes about an hour and a half to cook.
One large pumpkin or butternut squash (around 350g)
Half a head of cauliflower (around 300g), broken into florets, and its leaves, chopped coarsely
250g wholewheat pasta
Can of tinned tomatoes (400g)
2 garlic cloves
3-4 sage leaves, chopped coarsely
Two big handfuls of walnuts, crushed
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 200C. Slice the pumpkin or squash into wedges (keep the skin and seeds on until later) and place onto a baking sheet (you may need to use two), then add a few tablespoons of water and season with salt and pepper. Place onto the top shelf of the oven and after 20-25 minutes, place the cauliflower onto a separate baking sheet (again, add water and salt and pepper), move the squash to the bottom shelf of the oven, and cook for another 25-30 minutes, or until all are soft. In the last ten minutes of cooking time, place two cloves of garlic in with the cauliflower. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Keep the oven switched on.
Cook the pasta in salted water for 8-10 minutes, drain and spread evenly across the base of a large oven dish. Once the pumpkin or squash has cooled, remove the skin and seeds and place in a large bowl with the cauliflower and its leaves. Stir in the tomatoes and fill half the empty can with water then add to the bowl. Then stir through the sage and garlic (skin removed) and a generous grating of nutmeg, and blend the mixture in batches. If you don’t have a blender, simply heat the sauce on a low heat for about 10 minutes and use a wooden spoon to gently crush the cauliflower and pumpkin/squash as you do. Bear in mind that by doing this, you’ll end up with a slightly chunkier sauce.
Now, spread the sauce evenly on top of the pasta. Crush the walnuts in a pestle and mortar or using the base of a mug or small bowl and scatter evenly on top of the sauce. Add another grating of nutmeg and some salt and pepper, then place the dish onto the top shelf of the oven and cook for 25-30 minutes. Serve with green vegetables – or on its own.