Monday, March 29, 2010

Double dare, physical challenge: vegan lasagne comes up trumps

Some cooks moan about how fiddly and time-consuming it is to make lasagne from scratch, but I say it should only take as long as it takes to cook the Bolognese sauce/tomato sugo down (ideally, about an hour). Oh – plus 45 mins in a moderate oven (180 degrees) to cook it all.

Homemade Bolognese and bechemal lasagne was SUCH a highlight when I was little – I requested it most years for birthday dinners, I think mostly because my dad hated it – but these days I couldn’t eat a plate if you paid me. Indigestion city. Throw some garlic bread and red wine into the mix and I’ll literally be awake all night, screaming for Quick Eze like a junkie gone cold turkey.

Vegetarian lasagne, however, is a different story. It’s such a good dinner party/communal dish because you can make it the day before and feast on leftovers for days. The highlight of my show-stopping version (even if I do say so myself…) is layers of spinach and ricotta mix – same as what you’d stuff cannelloni with – in between the pasta sheets and tomato sugo. As such, I didn’t hold high hopes for veganising this dish – the prospect of replacing ricotta with a variety of soy products seemed wrong on so many levels. Normally I’d incorporate some vegetable layers into the mix – par-cooked sweet potato and/or pumpkin slices (steam or boil), and char-grilled eggplant and/or zucchini (brush them with olive oil and brown them under the grill). But for this first crack I just concentrated on the spinach and tofu mix, with pasta sheets and tomato sauce.

What else… Oh – I picked up a tip from my mate Clare for topping a vegetarian lasagne if you’re not keen on a rich, cheesy lid – spread a layer of hand-torn breadcrumbs (you don’t want them too fine) interspersed with knobs of butter. A nice stale ciabatta or casalinga would have been preferable to the only bread we had the house – Hovis Granary original… hello, grainy high-fibre breadcrumbs on a vegan lasagne – could this be any more of a gross vegan cliché?! Anyone for gluten-free carob-chip cookie…? YUCK. I tried to explain the wrongness of this to vegan boyfriend, but didn’t get the reaction I’d hoped for: “What’s wrong with grainy bread? Sounds awesome.” Yeah. But then so does Heinz tomato sauce all over it, doesn’t it.

3 cans of tinned tomatoes
3 small onions, halved and sliced vertically
4 cloves garlic, crushed – half for the tomato sugo and half for the spinach mix
I packet (250gm) lasagne sheets
I small bowl of pureed spinach – vague, I know – if using those little bricks of frozen spinach, thaw out 8 or 10 and squeeze out any extra liquid
125gm tofu (half a block of cauldron organic tofu), chopped very finely or crumbled
2-3 tsp1 miso soup mix – to mask that manky plasticky soy smell; I’d have loved to try squirt of umami paste or a few teaspoons of red miso paste would have been ideal, but I was too much of a tighter$e to pay £4 for a little jar of the organic stuff at Sainsburys.
3 tbsp Alpro natural yoghurt
1 container Alpro long-life pouring cream
2 slices crusty white bread (e.g. casalinga), crumbed into breadcrumbs
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

1. Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees, and grease a relatively deep, small-to-medium-sized baking dish with olive oil. I found a deep rectangular dish for 67p at a pound shop; it looked suspiciously like a planter box you’d grow herbs in, but despite our fears it did the job and didn’t break in the oven. Who needs Le Creuset, I ask you.
2. Sautee onion and garlic in olive oil for 3 mins, add tomatoes, bring to boil and simmer gently for as long as you can (at least 40 mins). Season with salt and pepper. Add a little sugar if it’s a bit too sour.
3. Thaw and drain water off frozen spinach (jiggle in a sieve, not a colander, if you’ve got one). Stick in a bowl.
4. Add crumbled tofu, crushed garlic, miso powder/paste/whatever, yoghurt, and 3 tbsp of cream. You want it to be reasonable sloppy (and the award for evocative food writing goes to…) so if in doubt, add more cream. Sniff for nasty soy smell – if in doubt, add more garlic, miso, or fresh herbs, if you have them.
5. Now – the assemblage. It’s going to be tomato – pasta – spinach – pasta – tomoto – pasta - spinach… you get the idea. You don’t need too much tomato into the bottom, just a covering. Break and rearrange the pasta sheets to fit the dish, but don’t worry if you have gaps – the pasta swells and warps as it rehydrates, and noone’s going to see how neat the inside layers are.

6. Spoon and spread the spinach and tofu mix ontop of the pasta sheets, and douse with some of the cream, if you’re a fan of rich and creamy bechemal sauce. Probably a good idea to do this on every second spinach layer so it’s not too dry.

7 Keep layering until you build it to a reasonable height, and finish with a tomato layer.
8. Spread the breadcrumbs on top and, in lieu of butter, drizzle with olive oil (do it fast and from height so you get a very fine line) and cream, and salt and pepper.
8. It’s handy if you have leftover tomato sugo – you can always heat it up and serve it with leftovers to make them extra saucy. Or, like, you could just be a total bogan and squirt Heinz tomato sauce all over it...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

"I said Pet, I said Love, I said DHAL..."*

A post on utterly gorgeous food blog The Spice Spoon piqued my interest – I know my way around a biryani and could eat pappadums and customised relish (aka from the shop with extra bits and pieces) every day of my life, but Indian dhal is one thing I’ve never really fancied. I figure only boring hippies or really broke dinner party hosts would ever whip up a batch of what is basically porridge with dried peas, right? The Spice Spoon's post on Afghan/Pakistan dal (not "dhal", evidently) as the ultimate comfort food sounded like an easy peasy vegan challenge.
A tutorial in lentil/pea variation will have to wait for another time. Buying the lentils proved confusing – there were at least three types of dried yellow thingies at my local Indian grocers (I jokingly commented they “they probably all taste the same, right?!” which was met with aghast silence – humour FAIL).

Cook’s notes:
I started with best intentions but predictably got a bit haphazard with quantities and flavouring, as is the case whenever I cook anything remotely Asian (that covers Middle East to Japan, FYI): if in doubt, chuck in a tonne of fresh chilli, coriander and salt (it’s slightly more cosmopolitan that eating tomato sauce on everything, ya know?). So yeah – probably as authentically Afghani as a KFC zinger burger, but it was pretty bloody moorish. God knows the possibilities from adding onion, root veggies and tarka into the mix. Tarka, I’ve recently learnt, is a spice-infused oil that you drizzle on top for a real sense of occasion… Western equivalent being a blue cheese sauce over pumpkin soup, perhaps?

Ingredients - admittedly vague, but just as long as you use the same cup for measuring, it's all cool:
2 cups red lentils
1 cup yellow mung dhal lentil thingies. Look for "yellow" and "mung". It worked for me with the Indian grocers (actually, it was far more comically complicated than that, but here's not the time nor place).
1/2 tsp tumeric
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (ok so I used paprika and chilli powder -but what the hey, it's all red and spicy, right?)
1 fat tbsp of tomato paste
2 garlic cloves, smooshed
1 big red chilli, finely sliced (don't bother removing the seeds, it'll give extra spice)
8 cups boiling water
1 handful of fresh coriander, chopped stalks and all

Method (hold onto your hats, kids):
1. Chuck everything (EXCEPT THE CORIANDER) into a big pot, bring to the boil, then simmer with the lid slightly off for 40 mins or so.
2. You'll know it's ready when all the lentils have pureed into the water.
3. Add some boiling water or let it boil away to your preferred consistency.
4. Mix in the coriander just before serving.

Cook's postscript:
If you're confident enough with Indian and middle eastern spices, follow your nose and put together a flavour base that suits your tastes. Even with a laissez faire approach, you can't really go wrong, unless you completely over season the dhal... in which case, turf it, and start again. You'll have probably wasted a whole 40 cents in ingredients (not that we condone food wastage, but seriously - it's not like we're dealing with grain-fed fillet steak...). I'm starting to understand why half the world's population subsists on this stuff.

* Give it up for some old-school Sharon Strzelecki

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Going vegan: a culinary challenge

After spending the past year and a half as an increasingly picky and guilt-ridden vegetarian, my boyfriend has recently bitten the tofurkey bullet and gone full vegan. My close friends have been supportive. It’s clearly more of a big deal to me than him. I do feel like a mother who leaves FHMs around the house for her newly de-closeted son in the hope that he’ll snap out of it. But waxing lyrical on the healing power of from-scratch chicken stock or melt-in-your-mouth sashimi garners no reaction, and he’s not phased when he has to pick bits out of the one vego-friendly dish on a menu. Crazy, I know.

Funnily enough, apart from a weakness for gourmet smallgoods and Vietnamese pork, I rarely eat meat and haven’t touched cow’s milk for five years, meaning I can’t even taste ice cream or a non-soy coffee without my gut swelling like a hot air balloon. Since the BF and I started co-habitating in London with ample freezer space and Tuppaware, I had developed a nice repertoire of soups, curries, tagines, lasagne, moussaka and other vego-friendly dishes. But now? There’s nothing too celebratory about a mixed mushroom risotto without the parmesan (and, let’s face it, half the wedge would be consumed along with half the wine bottle during the cooking…).
I’ll readily admit I’m a kitchen control freak and I’m not about to forsake my place infront of the hob for pre-packaged falafel balls (check the ingredients – some contain egg?!). So I’m considering this gastronomic development a challenge to try new recipes and cuisines, veganise old favourites, and discover whether the new world of nut spreads really compare to melted butter (I think the odds are 1/100, we’ll see though…).

Skate your week off to a good start

It's official: Monday nights are more fun on eight wheels. Roller disco tragics or roller derby wannabes who just want to get down to business should check out London's quirkiest skating venue at Manor House.

There’s something a little peculiar about warning signs outside a venue forbidding knives and weapons on the premises, when you’re lined up amongst young women in casual corporate wear, and it’s 8.15pm on a Monday night. The scene gets altogether more bizarre once you’ve paid three quid to the man at the entrance who’s thoroughly checking all bags (“you can’t take your water bottles upstairs, sorry ladies – we’ll hold onto them down here if you’d like”).

Read the rest of my review published on UK news and entertainment portal here.