Incorporating vegetarians into the dinner plans needn’t be a chore, writes Caomhan Keane.
It might even provide some new treats Vegging out for Christmas
WE MIGHT sing about roasting chestnuts on an open fire but, for most, a culinary Christmas is not complete without a gamey bird spitting in her own fat roasting in a fan assisted oven.
But, while carnivores are spoilt for choice when it comes to their Crimbo dinner, isn’t the meal just a reenactment of the Last Temptation for those who have sworn off meats red, white and foul?
Not so, says Nicola Graimes, author of The Part-Time Vegetarian who thinks we need to move away from our antiquated take on the meal.
“I think people still see the hole where the meat is instead of seeing it as an opportunity to create something delicious that stands on its own two feet,” she says. “A vegetarian Christmas can be more than just a few vegetables and potatoes on a plate with maybe a meat substitute thrown in.”
Rather than mourning or mocking the absence of Bambi or Mother Goose, those cooking for vegetarians should approach the task with the ceremonious zeal the meal deserves.
“You should make sure you get an arrangement of flavors, colours, and textures. Visualise what the dish looks like at the end. Don’t just see it as a component to slot in instead of the meat,” says Graimes.
“The knife and fork element is important. You shouldn’t be eating gloop,” says Dennis Cotter, founder of Café Paradiso in Cork. “You are eating nostalgia so you need to
include the flavors that stimulate that, winter flavors like braised cabbage, caramelised onions, chestnuts, roast pumpkins, things spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon. They all evoke Christmas.”
So much of what is traditional Christmas food is vegetarian anyway. With a tweak, the veg, at least, should be prepared in a way that they can be eaten by everyone at the table.
“Duck and goose fat are prolific this time of year so I would look to eliminating those first,” says Aine Carlin, author of The New Vegan and Keep It Vegan. “There are lots of alternatives such as olive, sunflower and rapeseed oil and I’m particularly keen on roasting my tatties in coconut oil, that won’t flavour them unduly, simply leave the exterior perfectly crisp.
“Swap butter for a good glug of olive oil and a swirl of soya, oat or other plant-based cream in mashed potatoes while replace honey with maple syrup when roasting veg.
“Many shop-bought varieties of gravy have some sort of animal stock included, so I always think it’s best to make your own. Boost the ‘meaty’ flavour with a spoonful of marmite and don’t forget to balance the salty with the sweet.”
Cotter says vegetarians should be as little nuisance as possible when visiting. “You are going to someone else’s house, don’t be banging people over the head with your newfound principle or ethics,” he says. “Plenty of conversation should be had before hand to reduce any chaos on Christmas morning. Mammy might be happy to replace the butter in her mash, but she might not be. Maybe some of the stuffing can be made in a dish rather than inside the turkey.”
One way to contain tension is to offer to bring your own main course “A pie always looks quite spectacular, with a nice variety of colour on the alternate layers,” says Graimes, “and you can decorate it with berries and leaves. It can be produced up to three days before the dinner and while the meat is resting you can reheat it so that you are eating with everybody else.”
Carlin has suggestions for anybody determined to make a vegan centrepiece: “You can’t beat the wow factor of a stuffed pumpkin. I also think the humble nut roast has gotten a bit of a bad rap over the years. My version is packed full of grated veg, crumbled chestnuts and sage, and has an unnervingly meaty texture — so much so, even the non-vegans have been known to fight over the last slice. Present it on a rocket filled platter and adorn with bay leaves and bunches of crimson redcurrants for a surprisingly elegant main.”
There are also plenty of things that can be bought to ensure vegetarians are not just catered for, but indulged. Butters flavored with herbs and spices, tins of Cajun or fajita blends, miso minced into soy sauce or sesame oil and finely chopped garlic and lemon juice in chipotle are just some of the things Graimes suggests.
For vegans, Carlin says there is nothing that can’t be enhanced by a spoonful of chutney or a gherkin or two. While toasted nuts and seeds bring a wealth of texture and crunch to proceedings.
“Typically people tend to under-season vegan food because they’re used to animal products doing most of the work… so ramp up the flavour in the form of herbs, spices and a smidge more salt for extra oomph.
“Lemon is also my secret weapon in these instances. To make things easier for the host
I always like to bring my own wine and sometimes I also bring dessert… anything to make the evening go without a hitch.”
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