A vegan can have everything at Christmas
16 December 2018 09:25
There’s no denying that Christmas is a time to uphold traditions, and according to a song which you can never escape at this time of year, ‘everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe help to make the season bright’. I’m more than happy to hang a sprig of berries in my house and loiter under them until I get a peck on the cheek, but turkey hasn’t touched my Christmas plate for more than two decades.
One in eight Britons don’t eat meat, so if, like myself, you’re one of them, then someone has probably asked you what you are going to eat on Christmas Day. It’s a fraught question. If your answer sounds less than mouth-watering, expect a pitying look. It should a liberating choice, though – if your meal doesn’t revolve around a roast bird, you can cook whatever you like on 25 December. One of my guests this year has told me he would be happy with pizza. That’s not my way, though. I like to cook a proper Christmas dinner. Being vegan shouldn’t exclude me from a festive feast, and it never has done before.
If you’re celebrating with friends and family, you probably don’t want to opt out of the traditional lunch altogether, either. A plate of risotto is not very festive. Despite what you may have read in cookery books about goose-fat roast potatoes and pancetta in the Brussels sprouts, all the accompaniments to roast meat can be made vegan and delicious. Groundnut oil makes for excellent roasties. And if you don’t like the taste of sprouts, don’t serve them, or pep them up with chestnuts or garlic instead. Vegans can roast carrots and parsnips with maple syrup instead of honey, and the fact that certain shop-bought gravy granules are accidentally meat-free is something of a Yuletide vegetarian’s secret weapon.
Even stuffing and Yorkshire puddings can be made without animal products – and Morrison’s is selling vegan pigs in blankets this year. There is no need for the vegetarian at your table to be palmed off with an Iceland No Turkey Christmas Dinner – a bag of frozen ‘mushroom and soya protein with butternut squash, kale, chestnuts, wild mushrooms and sage gravy’ that can be warmed up on the hob. Though if that’s your pleasure, don’t let me stop you.
As a guest at other people’s houses, I have often been treated to some creative and very tasty turkey alternatives – spicy lentils or tarts with herbs and roasted vegetables. Occasionally I have been asked to bring my own ‘main’ – something to replace the turkey. Of course, I’m happy to take the pressure off the host, but, frankly, with all the side dishes on offer, I’d be more than happy to go without, or simply grill a couple of Linda McCartney sausages. That’s hardly in the spirit of the day, though, and tends to make your host feel guilty. One year, in a hurry, I grabbed a couple of vegetarian ‘escalopes’ topped with sickly cranberry sauce and insipid goat’s cheese from the supermarket freezer. ‘Are these a favourite of yours?’ inquired my host, hopefully. I jabbed the lump of protein on my plate with a fork and replied as brightly as I could: ‘No, a new treat.’ Not a treat I felt the need to indulge in again.
Like it or not, the vegetarian or vegan alternative you provide will have to compete with the main event, at least on appearances – even though turkey is famously dry and bland. I’ve never tried goose, but I wonder how tasty it can be if people don’t eat it all year round. The obvious choices may not cut it. Nut roast, made well, can be full of flavour, but raises a snigger at the lunch table. Meat replacements such as Tofurky or homemade seitan are too obviously an attempt to compete with the roast.
Instead of trying to up the ante each year, I have created my own tradition, in the form of a dish which I have made for several years either to eat at home or to take with me to other people’s tables. It’s a simple recipe which I found in a magazine, but, to me, it’s festive and delicious – and I enjoy the careful preparation of it the day before Christmas as much as I do hanging baubles and making crosses on the Brussels sprouts.
I have been baking some variation of a mushroom and chestnut filo pie each Christmas for the past ten years, and now it’s just as traditional to me as cracker jokes, Wham! and a morning glass of Bucks Fizz – even when I couldn’t find chestnuts in the shops one year, and had to substitute cubes of smoked tofu, or the time I ordered Japanese enoki mushrooms by mistake and the pie was unexpectedly exotic.
I’m no great shakes as a cook, but I have managed to tweak the recipe to make it vegan (blended cashews in place of cream, and olive oil in place of butter) and I always crinkle the filo pastry on top, which makes it look a little grander than it is. The meat-eaters who try it are always pleasantly surprised, which is why I need to make more than I could possibly eat. This year I will be sharing with two other vegetarians – and everyone else who wants a taste.
Now, when people ask me what I am going to eat on Christmas Day, I say ‘everything’, because my dinner will be every bit as traditional and generous as anyone else’s. Only shame is, the pie leftovers are no good on a Boxing Day sandwich with mustard and stuffing. But it is heavenly with roast potatoes.