Wednesday, 29 December 2010

post christmas

Things haven't been going entirely to plan here. Frozen pipes, so no cold water in the kitchen on Christmas Day. Typically, I got up late, was behind and snappy before I even began. First things first, two big saucepans of potatoes! I managed to get them boiled and into the oven before being called away to help redecorate Tom's bedroom - new posters and a duvet with skulls on it. Threw together a nut roast en croute in 15 minutes flat. This year's innovation was some orange zest - possibly because I have been leafing through one of Sarah Beattie's books and found a nut roast recipe that calls for marmalade - sounds very interesting, I must remember to investigate further. Spuds turned out great because they were boiled to a pulp and then left untroubled in a hot oven without steamy pastry. Pastry was golden and crisp (basted with soya milk), and the nut mixture sliced well, hurrah, and held itself together even without eggs. Pudding was ok, we shoshed over some cooking brandy and I made vegan custard which went unchallenged. It was all fine, if a little late, but in retrospect I wish I had tried harder and done something a bit more challenging and exceptional. Trouble is, Christmas Day food is generally overshadowed by the predictable trauma of family gatherings - this year no exeception. For me, food is the most crucial bit of Christmas, but everyone's different and I guess we all have different obsessions. It was the first year for a long time that I've had to face the Christmas washing up - no cold water supply to kitchen meant no dishwasher. Funny, there's something very cosy about drying when somebody else is washing - a nice and unexpected bonding experience with my father in law!

Boxing Day was a disaster - I sent G out with a hairdryer to try to de-ice the cold water pipe undeneath the kitchen and the whole lot ruptured. We had to turn the entire water supply off, so no toilet. Then the boiler switched itself off. British Gas were closed for Christmas (so much for that service agreement). AA home emergency insurance, sold to me just 3 weeks ago with the promise that I need have no worries over the Christmas period, turned out to be useless - couldn't even get a call back from a plumber, let alone a visit. Four hours my arse. Apparently they were very busy. Ended up decamping to G's mother's cottage, East Enders by candlelight and my vegan ethics crumbled when I was offered a bit of chocolate log with my mulled wine.

Back home now, G is predictably full of cold and spending the day in a hot bath, steaming and whining pitifully to himself. Germs are massing for an attack on me, I guess, so I'm knocking up a thick tomato, sage and lentil soup and a mung bean and sage cottage pie. Because I had some fresh sage in the fridge. I seem to want sage - I believe it's supposed to be good for sore throats so perhaps there's a reason for my craving. The cottage pie is based on a recipe from Jane Sen's Healing Foods Cookbook - it's a bit dated now and I bought my copy second-hand via Amazon, quite recently. I really rate Jane Sen's vegan recipes - she did a lot of good work with the Bristol Cancer Care Centre. I wonder what she's up to these days. The book dates from 1996 although mine is a 2000 reprint. I reckon the number of vegans in the UK has increased dramatically since the book was first published. There are so few proper modern British vegan cookbooks available right now. Something should be done. I wonder if calling the book 'Healing Foods Cookbook' helped sales or damaged them? I noticed when I bought my copy of Babycakes that the newer (and more expensive) edition had a slightly modified cover and they had scrapped the vegan strapline. I wonder if the word Vegan is a help or a hindrance when it comes to selling books - and whether, if in the past it was a hindrance, that might be about to change.

My presents to myself have made me very happy - one is The Vegan Scoop by an American called Wheeler del Torro - 150 recipes for dairy free icecream with some amazing flavour ideas - and in the back, there's a lovely little section on baking vegan things to go with icecream, and I noticed a recipe for Lady Fingers which I reckon would have worked as trifle sponges - if I had bothered. The other is The Vegan Boulangerie by 'Marianne and Jean-Michel' - one of those print-on-demand books, looks to be from Canada - wish the authors had included some info about themselves and wish the book had some decent colour photos, but the content is very exciting - proper French baking without milk or eggs.

More about both books very soon - G has extracted himself from bath and is now draped on sofa awaiting a cuppa...

Sunday, 12 December 2010


Thinking about Christmas dinner. Our usual, a variation on Rose Eliott's Brazil nut roast en croute that I've been serving up since the 90s, contains eggs but can probably work perfectly well without. Maybe a splash more white wine in the mix - the pastry holds it all together pretty well. It's nice if you can slice it without it falling to bits, but not the end of the world if it crumbles, esp if served with the usual red wine sauce, which it sops up a treat. Aside from the eggs, it turns out that our usual Christmas dinner is pretty much vegan already, so if I keep to the standard fare with minor tweaks, I don't think I'll draw any attention to the change of diet. Pudding is a bigger issue - I've already bought one that'll do the job, but it's not vegan. G says he doesn't mind and that he's 'not that mad a vegan'. Yet. Maybe I should make one. Cream is out, but I got away with vegan icecream (Swedish Glace) when the folks came round for G's birthday in August - in fact, they raved about it, so I can serve that again. Bought some vegan custard in a carton - tasted ok but it looks awful, greyish, blubbery and blancmangy. How slow I was to remember that Bird's custard powder was in fact invented by a man whose wife could not eat eggs - so of course it is egg free. If you make it up with soya milk then Bob's your uncle - vegan custard, just the way we have come to expect custard to be and nobody'll be any the wiser if I put that on the pudding. And do the standard setting light to it thing, hurrah.
So that's Christmas dinner sorted, I just need to make sure I don't get caught out by the annual rush on ready rolled chilled puff pastry. Will get some tomorrow.
Got my stash of old Christmas veggie mags out last night. Am I peculiar? I like to save the Christmas mags and get them out at this time of year, it makes me feel Christmassy. The recipes don't really go out of date, although it's interesting to see which celebrity chefs were flavour of the month at the time. Gosh, don't people come and go. The front cover of BBC Good Food Veg from December 1999 grabbed my attention - it's a 'Christmas Cranberry Wreath'. Very pretty - you make up a nut roast in a ring mould, then unmold it and decorate with strips of puff pastry to give the impression that the thing has been wrapped in ribbon. The stylist has gone to town with puff pastry holly and whatnot, and the nut mixture contains cranberries and apples - sounds really nice. It's made up in layers, and there is a layer of goat's cheese in there, but the recipe says it's optional and I reckon without it, the whole thing could be vegan. Very fancy - at least, compared to what my lot are used to. Whilst browsing, I also noticed a nice pie with chestnuts, spinach and mushrooms, which is wrapped in filo pastry with a crispy flouncy top - would make a pretty centrepiece. The Guild of Food Writers forum has seen some discussion about veggie Christmas options - Sarah Beattie's raised pie with red onions and chestnuts seems to have come out favourite, and the recipe looks tasty, and easy to veganise. But can I do a raised pie - do I have the skill? Will it take up too much room in my oven, and too many hours of my life? Will it be a great heavy lumpen crusty thing that will make everybody feel stuffed and grumpy all afternoon?
Have asked G about Christmas dinner and what it should consist of. His immediate response was that what makes Christmas dinner Christmas dinner, and not any other dinner, is that it is traditional - therefore it is not to be tampered with. Quite reassuring, but I pushed my luck by saying that, whilst I agreed in principle and liked the sentiment, and the vote of confidence, I had come across a few possible alternatives that looked nice. He replied that as long as it was basically a nut roast, to him that would be 'the same'. Hmm. This means that I can fiddle with the menu but also means that the fiddling is possibly lost on him. Should I bother, should I risk it? Should I serve up six potential nut roasts over the next fortnight or so, until we are heartily sick of Christmas food, to try to work out which is the best recipe to go with? Still liking the apple and cranberry thing.
There is still Chrismas day tea to worry about - usually mini quiches, pizza bites, salady stuff. Guess I can do mini samosas. Vegan sausages on sticks? Imagine pineapple and tofu on sticks! Eugh! And my forays into vegan coleslaw have been disappointing so far. And what about trifle? I can do vegan jelly, but what about the sponges that go into it - they have to be there amongst the fruit, to hold the all-important alcohol. Poss need to find an egg-free sponge recipe that will do the job. Custard, as above, not a problem but what to put on the top?
Reading matter this weekend started with Babycakes, the new(ish) vegan baking book. I'm very intrigued. Vegan baking is really weird. You have to do things with vinegar and Xanthan gum. I've been baking for so many years, I kind of know instinctively how to put things together - but vegan baking is a very different proposition. It's also important to try to crack it, I think, if I am going to manage to stick to veganism. One thing I have noticed about the vegan diet is that it's really hard to find treats and luxuries. I go shopping with plans to treat myself and I'm lucky if I find some floury dairy free chocolate. It's rubbish. What I want is cake. Overall, vegan food seems to be kind of old fashioned - stews and pies. I think what I am missing is the fatty, unctuousness of melted cheese - stuff that you know is bad for you but you eat anyway. Maybe that's the problem with vegan food - I'm missing the enjoyment of eating something that I know isn't doing me any good. Bloody vegan food is so healthy, I'll probably live forever. The Babycakes book is full of cakes (and so on) that are not only vegan but also sugar free (they do a lot with agave nectar and 'roasted apples') and gluten free - hence the Xanthan gum which apparently one has to mix with gluten-free flour to achieve a workable consistency. It is fascinating, and it would be nice to discover that one can get proper visceral enjoyment out of vegan cake. It would be nice to become as adept at baking without eggs and dairy as I have been with them in the past - knocking up a batch of muffins was so easy in the old days. So, last night I had a go at the first recipe in the book, the Apple and Cinnamon muffins. Not a great success, but to be fair, the person who wrote the Foreword to the book advised following the recipes 'to the letter' - and I didn't, because I was feeling super enthused and I didn't have everything on the list of ingredients and I didn't care. Who puts 75ml of batter into each muffin mould? I didn't have enough of the right sort of apples so I used a mixture. You have to 'roast' them in the oven with agave nectar, cinnamon and lemon juice. No lemons, but plenty of little Christmassy orangey things (clementines? satsumas? mandarins?) so I bodged with their juice. Not quite enough agave nectar, but it seemed like loads, most of the bottle, so I reckoned it would be OK. Cooking took ages, and the apples didn't all mash down at the same rate because of the different varieties. I probably shouldn't have been surprised that the final apple mixture wasn't particularly sweet - I know I didn't put in enough agave nectar but it was all I had. Then I read the rest of the recipe again and discovered it required yet more agave nectar. Considered using honey (which would make the muffins non vegan and rather defeat the object) or maple syrup, which I love but which is hellishly expensive. Discovered some vegan honey substitute in the back of the cupboard (can't remember what it's called - 'I can't believe it's not honey?') so used that instead. No gluten free flour in my stores so used standard flour and omited gum. Possibly a bigger issue was the fact that I only had self raising flour, so I used that in place of plain flour, but used the baking powder and bicarbonate of soda too, so the whole thing was fairly fizzing by the time I had scrubbed out my silicone muffin cases (which slut put them away dirty?). The whole thing took ages and the resulting muffins were hard on the top, wet underneath, not very sweet and tasted of baking powder. I may try to rebake them or possibly serve hot and slosh over some custard and some warm golden syrup. I did test them with cocktail sticks as suggested - not sure if the apple puree is responsible for the wetness or whether my oven technique is at fault. Book said bake in the middle of the oven - my shelf was admittedly on the high side. Book said bake for 22 minutes - honestly. I've heard of recipe testing but this is ridiculous - nobody's ovens are that accurate, as they? Mind you, if each of my muffin cases had contained 75ml of mixture... I'm more than willing to believe that the disappointing result is down to my slap-dash approach but I'm so used to making it up as I go along, playing by the rules doesn't come easy to me.
Still, it seemed to me last night that I had discovered a mission in life - to become the person who will show the world that it's possible to be vegan and love food. It shouldn't be about abstinence or denial. It should be about getting the very best out of what nature has to offer - and there's not much that's natural about using cow's milk, to be fair. Mini rant: talking of denial - I used to say that I felt that people were only entitled to eat meat if they were prepared to kill it themselves. How many of us could really kill a cow? But to do otherwise means paying somebody else to do your dirty work and averting your eyes from what really goes on. Similarly, people who ate fish might be OK if they were prepared to kill a fish - personally, I am not really prepared to knowingly kill anything (although some wasps are asking for it). I felt that eating cheese, milk and eggs was OK because it didn't involve killing. But I've come to see that that isn't strictly true, because to get milk, you have to get a cow pregnant and then take away the calf that should be suckling from her. And to keep the milk coming, you have to do that again and again. All the calves end up dead, one way or another, whether they are allowed to mature or just killed for veal and supple leather. The males certainly have less chance of survival - they're never going to be dairy cattle and the calves that are produced by dairy cows are not looked upon favourably as good animals for beef - not the right breed. Similar thing with eggs. When I visited a large scale free range egg 'farm' I was taken into a warehouse where hundreds of tiny chicks were huddled together, scuttling around like a fluffy yellow cloud. Apparently they arrive as eggs or very newly hatched chicks. It made me really sad to see that they never know their mothers, and that they never even see grown-up birds when they are growing up. Of course, every single chick in the warehouse was female - males don't lay eggs. So, what happens to the male chicks? Mostly they're unceremoniously despatched, by crushing or gassing. So now, when I think about eating milk or eggs, I have to ask myself, if I had a cow, would I be prepared to kill its calf so I could have the milk? If I wanted hens, and took delivery of a batch of chicks, would I be prepared to kill all the male ones and just let the females live on to maturity? Rant over.
Reading matter last night was the Millennium cookbook, from a very high class vegan restaurant in San Francisco which G and I visited 18 months ago, just after we were married. I was desperately looking for proof of the existence of vegan food which could justifiably be called gorgeous. (I'm increasingly thinking that that quality of gorgeousness, or lusciousness, is linked to a gooey fatty unctuous texture and mouth-feel that is mainly associated with cheese and cream, and cannot easily be replicated in a dairy-free diet.) Found quite a few things I'd like to try cooking - they're good at adding sauces and extras to make a dish fancy. Two complaints - firstly, the usual one, which is that practically all the vegan cookbooks I own, and certainly all the ones that are illustrated with decent photos, are American. Nobody in the UK looks to be prepared to put any serious money into publishing high-end vegan cookbooks. Naturally the result is that the best recipes available to me are peppered with ingredients that it is nigh on impossible for me to get. I shall make it my mission to figure out what they're going on about. Second complaint is about the huge proportion of vegan recipes that contain mushrooms. Not content with making life difficult for myself with the vegan lark, I'm afraid I'm making it ten times harder because I don't like mushrooms. I'm sorry. I don't mean to be fussy, but don't we all have things we're not keen on? I'm not at all keen on turnips, parnsips or swede - possibly because I am in love with potatoes and all these other things are cruel impersonations. Horse food. I'm not mad keen on celery. And mushrooms - I just don't get it. Where do they come from? Springing up in the night like that, growing in manure. Aren't lots of them poisonous? Nasty colour, nasty texture. Not for me, and if they're being used in veggie cooking to try to replace meat then I wish the recipe writers wouldn't bother - I don't miss the flavour or the texture (or the nasty grey colour) of meat and I don't need to eat fungus in its place. The Millennium recipes are really really mushroom heavy. They also use seitan. I tried it once, in Israel at a world vegetarian conference, and spat it out. I don't like fake meat and, specifically, I don't like the firm-spongy, resistant mouthfeel of seitan. But I'm willing to give it another go, if I can find any that's not already been processed into 'food' and is suitable for my experimentation...