‘My hearse will be followed not by mourning coaches but by herds of oxen, sheep, swine, flocks of poultry and a small travelling aquarium of live fish, all wearing white scarves in honour of the man who perished rather than eat his fellow creatures.’
George Bernard Shaw, free-thinker, playwright and vegetarian, who died in 1950 at the ripe old age of ninety-four.
His longevity, Mr Shaw declared, could be explained simply by his choice of food. I imagine his tee-totaling lifestyle contributed a great deal to that too; still, it won’t stop me raising a glass to that sort of revolutionary thinking. Had he lived now, when the ethics of vegetarianism have been nudged further to the left, there’s little doubt in my mind that he would have adopted veganism with the same aplomb. Given, however, his particular passion for cream-laden cake, large wedges of which he would greet guests at the gate with, I’m not entirely certain Mr Shaw would have embraced tofu quite as readily as many modern vegetarians have. Tofu (the ‘T’ word) is, you see, one of the cornerstones of vegan cooking.
Much of what comes out of this kitchen is vegan or almost. The shores of Mediterranean Europe are brimming with ideas from which the greedy magpie cook can thieve. The flavours of India, the Middle East and North Africa offer a goldmine of vegan-friendly treasures, and all without the need for tofu. Tempeh, I love; its nuttiness and crispy, golden, pan-fried edges make it a toothsome addition to South East Asian dishes. Tofu, served in the elegant, Japanese way is high on my list of culinary loves (once, in Auckland, I ate an entire plate of Agedashi Tofu, then poked and prodded my chopsticks deftly around everyone else’s tofu too – a greedy girl, always). But tofu, Mediterranean-style, seems to this palate, wrong.
No tofu today. I’ve something better to share.
Occasionally it is necessary to suspend your disbelief when recipe reading. Skeptics (read me) may scoff at a suggestion (read Edward) that you serve your guests a platter of saffron-tinted couscous, topped with slowly braised golden shallots and sticky prunes, finished with quarter moons of spicy, fragrant orange pumpkin. But they’d be mistaken. Nadine Abensur, who transports you to her childhood home in Morocco in one breath then seduces you with her unique approach to vegetables, is just my sort of cook. Had the recipe not been hers, I probably would probably have turned the page.
The festive season is, amazingly, just around the corner. We were having a little festivity of our own in the backyard last weekend and this stunning, suitably festive meal was perfect. Can I suggest you try at least one all vegan celebratory meal this year? Serves six normal people. Or one normal(ish) person, her greedy partner and a teenage step son who’d been asking for it for months.
Moroccan pumpkin with a shallot and prune confit – for 6
There are three layers here. Start with the pumpkin, move onto the confit and prepare the couscous at the last possible moment. Nadine Abensur’s Cranks Bible was the inspiration for this – the confit is entirely hers with only slight changes by me because you live and learn. It is incredibly rich, really it is, so follow or serve with a simple green salad and some oven-warmed bread.
1 small jap (kent) pumpkin (about 1.5 kilos or 3 lbs)
1 tablespoon of coriander seeds
1 tablespoon of cumin seeds
2 teaspoons of chilli flakes
1 heaped teaspoon of ground cinnamon or ras el hanout
1 tablespoon of pure maple syrup
2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 tablespoons of tamari (or soy sauce)
Cut the pumpkin into at least 18 wedges. Scoop out and discard the seeds.
Toast the coriander, cumin and chilli flakes in a dry pan, tossing constantly, for 2 minutes, or until fragrant. Cool on a plate. Grind to a rough powder with either a mortar and pestle or a clean coffee/spice grinder. In a large bowl, mix the ground spices with the cinnamon or ras el hanout, the maple syrup, oil and tamari.
Toss the pumpkin wedges in the spice and oil mixture, arrange in a large baking dish and as best you can. Baste with any remaining spice and oil mixture and bake in the preheated oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour, turning each wedge at least twice, until completely tender, but still holding their shape.
The shallot and prune confit:
500g (1 lb) of shallots (eshallots)
2 large handfuls of raw almonds
300g (10 oz) prunes with their pits
2 tablespoons of olive oil
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and left whole
Bring a medium-sized saucepan of water to the boil. Throw in the shallots and simmer at a vigorous pace for 1 minute. Scoop them out, reserving the water, and drain. Top, tail and peel the shallots and set them aside.
Reheat the water and toss the almonds in for 2 minutes to blanch. Scoop them out, reserving the water, and drain before slipping them from their skins. Spread the almonds out on a baking sheet and toast for 8 minutes in the oven. Remove to a plate and cool.
Pit the prunes. Heat the oil in a large, heavy-based frying pan and fry the shallots until deeply golden all over, shaking the pan rather than stirring them around. Add a good pinch of salt, the garlic and the pitted prunes. Toss to coat in the oil then add a ladleful of the reserved water. Bubble at quite a rapid pace, adding more water as it is absorbed, shaking the pan as above until the shallots are golden, tender but still holding their shape, and coated in a little sauce. Some of the prunes will have broken down – highly desirable. This will take anywhere between 30-45 minutes. Stir through the toasted almonds 5 minutes before serving.
1 ½ cups of couscous
1 very large pinch of saffron threads
1 ¾ cups of boiling water
1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil
1 bunch of coriander and/or mint, well washed and roughly chopped
Mix the couscous with the saffron threads in a heat proof bowl. Pour over the boiling water and the tablespoon of olive oil and cover the bowl with a plate. Rest, covered, for 5 minutes before tossing over and over with two forks.
Arrange the couscous in a mound on a large platter or in the base of a tagine. Spoon over the shallot and prune confit and arrange the pumpkin wedges on top. Sprinkle generously with the coriander or mint, or both and serve immediately.