Guess Who’s Coming to (Christmas) Dinner

I have a suspicion that people fear vegetarians at Christmas almost as much as they fear forgetting a present or running out of booze.  Traditional Christmas food in the UK generally focuses around two very non-veggie ingredients: meat and suet, and people find they are often at a loss as to what to what to feed a vegetarian for Christmas dinner.  I’ve heard so many horror stories from vegetarian friends – one was given a plate of vegetables and potatoes with vegetable stock poured over the top (the gravy was made with meat juices), another was given two Quorn sausages in place of the meat and no gravy, and I have been told of people who have been served pasta with stir-in sauce without anything at all from the traditional roast.  I was a pescatarian for twelve years and was never particularly enamoured with the anaemic meat-substitute products, so would often be given salmon or a nut roast, which wasn’t at all bad.  I have often wondered, though, why so many people find it difficult to make inspiring food for vegetarians at Christmas.

One of the most common worries about having vegetarians to Christmas dinner is that cooking for them is yet another thing to do in the never-ending list of tasks in the run up to Christmas. When faced with present-wrapping, endless entertaining and precision timing of the Christmas dinner itself, it is always tempting to pick up a nut roast from the freezer section and douse it in vegetarian instant gravy.  The best vegetarian Christmas dinners are the ones where everybody, or the majority of diners, are vegetarians – I went to a vegetarian pre-Christmas dinner once and the range of meat-free dishes, including a rather delicious aubergine and red pepper strudel, was amazing.  The vegetarian main course is a great addition to any Christmas table as it can be enjoyed by all.  Meat-eaters are unlikely to want to try a slice of a Quorn roast, but they may be tempted by something a little more enticing.

Cooking the filling for the mushroom, chestnut and spinach Wellington

Cooking the filling for the mushroom, chestnut and spinach Wellington

My Christmas vegetarian dish is based around two very hearty ingredients – mushrooms and chestnuts – which create a substantial, and almost meaty, texture and flavour.  This is a mushroom, chestnut and spinach Wellington – a combination of those three ingredients with red wine, breadcrumbs and cream wrapped in puff pastry.  It is very easy to make; the filling is combined in one frying pan and, if you use shop-bought puff pastry, the entire Wellington can be prepared, assembled and cooked in little over an hour.  For extra convenience, this can be made and assembled the day before and then put in the oven half an hour before needed.

Mushroom, Chestnut and Spinach Wellington

Mushroom, Chestnut and Spinach Wellington

The filling is everything a Christmas dinner should be: festive, rich and with a big kick of umami flavour.  The contrasting textures of the crunchy chestnuts, meaty mushrooms and slightly crunchy spinach prevent it being too same-y and bland and the puff pastry gives it enough substance to make it a filling meal.  A slice of this with a sharp vegetarian gravy would make for a very happy vegetarian indeed.

Mushroom, Chestnut and Spinach Wellington

  • 25g dried porcini mushrooms
  • Olive oil
  • 3 large onions, finely sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 250g chestnut mushrooms, sliced
  • 250g Portobello mushrooms, halved and sliced
  • 200g cooked and peeled chestnuts (I used Merchant Gourmet)
  • 1 tsp dried tarragon
  • 85ml red wine
  • 3 tbsp creme fraiche
  • 100g breadcrumbs
  • Sea salt and black pepper
  • Puff pastry, either home-made or one packet of shop-bought

Put the porcini mushrooms in a small bowl and pour over 250ml boiling water.  Leave to soak for 20 minutes before draining the mushrooms, squeezing out any excess liquid, and reserving the water.

Blanch the spinach in boiling water until wilted, then refresh in cold water.  Drain and squeeze as much of the liquid out of the spinach as possible.  Roughly chop and set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan and gently fry the onions and garlic for about ten minutes on a medium-low heat until the onions are translucent – do not let them brown.  Add the mushrooms, including the drained porcini, to the frying pan and cook until the mushrooms are soft and caramelised.  Add more olive oil here if necessary.

Halve or quarter the larger chestnuts, add to the pan with the chopped spinach and cook for a further couple of minutes.  Add the red wine and 85ml of the reserved porcini soaking liquid along with the tarragon, salt and pepper and simmer until the liquid has reduced by half.  Stir in the cream and the breadcrumbs and cook for a couple more minutes, stirring until all of the ingredients are combined.  Allow the mixture to cool.

Preheat the oven to 200ºc / 400ºf / gas 6.  Roll out the puff pastry to a large rectangle – the pastry should be about the thickness of a two-pence piece.  Arrange the cooled filling in a rectangular mound along the length of the pastry, leaving enough pastry either side to wrap around the filling.  Slice the edges into strips and ‘plait’ across the top of the pastry, sealing the edges until all of the filling is sealed in.  Place on a well-oiled baking sheet, brush with egg wash and bake in the oven for 35 minutes or until the pastry is browned – use a thermometer to check the filling is cooked through.  Serve in slices with festive vegetables and vegetarian gravy.

Serves eight.

Sausage and Mushroom ‘Orzotto’

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The nights are gradually beginning to draw in, a little more each day. When once, just a few weeks ago, I was able to sit out on my balcony long into the evening, now I am more or less confined to the house as soon as soon as I arrive home from work.  The crisper air and dark evenings always bring with them a desire to nest, and the autumn colours in the market bring with them a particular type of food; autumnal food – shades of gold somewhere in between summer’s lightness and winter’s austerity.  Opening the fridge to these ingredients and their possibilities is enough to make you forget about the trip to the pub in favour of a warm night in.

Sausages, for me, are such a part of warming winter comfort food that, unless they are pulled, charred and smoking, from a BBQ, I find it almost impossible to eat them in the summer months.  The smoky meatiness lends itself so well to a host of other flavours that are best enjoyed whilst wearing a jumper, with the central heating on, watching all of the films you missed during the hot weather because the city gave you better things to do.  Whether accompanied by a heap of artery-clogging buttery mashed potato or plunged into a spicy bean stew, they cannot help but warm you through.  As a child, I always ate sausages on bonfire night, encased in a bun with ketchup spilling all over my gloves – they were a good and cheap way to protect us against the winter chill and momentarily distract us from the possibility of sparklers, something we would constantly harass our parents for.

This ‘orzotto’ recipe, a kind of risotto made with orzo, or risoni, pasta instead of the usual arborio rice, was adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Veg book – my go-to cookbook for cheap and healthy mid-week suppers.   Finding warming vegetarian suppers, whilst not a challenge, can often be monotonous, but this book draws upon a range of different cultures to provide enough meat-free meals to see you through the colder months.  Of course, I have done the unthinkable and added meat to this otherwise well-thought out dish.  This is not simply a carnivore’s reaction, after all, I was a vegetarian for almost twelve years, but instead a need to find a way to use up some sausages leftover from the weekend that were languishing in the bottom of my fridge.  On a trip to Brockley Market this weekend, I managed to procure some rather delicious sausages – venison, chilli and garlic and wild boar and apple.  The former were eaten at a late Saturday night BBQ, something my family insist on having each month, come rain or shine, but we could not manage the second packet.  Two made their way into a rather good Sunday morning sandwich, and I could not bear to let the rest go to waste.

When cooking with sausages in this way, as with adding them to the top of a pizza, I prefer to peel off the skins and use the meat in its rougher form – it is far easier to cook it evenly this way.  Some chunks of apple escaped from the sausage meat during frying, which was picked out and discarded and, although some small chunks remained, the flavour was very subtle and in no way overwhelmed the mushrooms.  As with any mushroom dish, the real beauty comes when you use a mixture of mushrooms to get a more interesting flavour and texture.  In this recipe I used a mixture of chestnut and oyster mushrooms.  Surprisingly, I did not include porcini as I often do in mushroom dishes as I thought the flavour too strong.  The orzo, when cooked properly, gives a velvety texture that it is difficult to achieve when using the various types of short grain rice preferred for a risotto, and the ritual of adding stock and stirring is also unnecessary, making this a somewhat lazy dish in comparison.  The sauce is similar to that of a mushroom ragout and would work just as perfectly with other types of pasta, particularly tagliatelle or pappardalle.

Sausage and Mushroom ‘Orzotto’ (serves two)

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • Four sausages, skins removed and chopped into 1-inch pieces
  • 500g mixed mushrooms
  • 200g orzo or risoni pasta
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • ½ tsp dried thyme
  • 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
  • 50g mascarpone
  • Salt and black pepper
  • Finely chopped parsley, to serve
  • Shaved parmesan, to serve

Put a large pan of salted water on to boil and cook the pasta according to packet instructions.  Once cooked, drain and set aside.

Heat half the oil in a frying pan and add the sausage meat.  Cook for five minutes until browned.  Add the mushrooms to the pan and continue to cook until caramelised.  Remove all of the contents from the pan on to a plate, heat the oil and cook the garlic and thyme.  Add the balsamic vinegar until it bubbles and return the sausage and mushrooms to the pan.

Reduce the heat and stir in the mascarpone.  Cook until it is just simmering.  Stir in the drained pasta and cook until heated through.  Season to taste and serve topped with the copped parsley and shaved parmesan.