Having just got to grips with cooking gluten-free food for my elder son’s fiancée and her mum over the past year or so, my younger son set me a new challenge this weekend when he announced he was coming home, en route to France, and bringing with him some vegan friends. Could they stay the night and have dinner?
Now, cooking vegetarian poses no problems for me; in fact, I virtually become vegetarian in the summer months when the allotment is in full production. I still enjoy meat and fish, but if someone said I had to do without from now on, I think I’d cope. Doing without eggs and dairy products is an entirely different ball game, however….
I do a range of vegetarian curries and casseroles, but knew my son had cooked my standby lentil curry for these friends when he entertained them to dinner recently. Then I remembered the Squash, Beetroot & Puy Lentil Wellington I’d cooked for the family over New Year. In its original incarnation in the BBC Good Food magazine, this had been a vegan recipe, so this was an ideal time to revert to the initial ingredients, missing out the goat’s cheese I’d added to the Kale pesto, and remembering to brush the finished Wellington with almond milk rather than beaten egg. I nearly made a rookie error in using a butter paper to grease the tray, but remembered just in time and used olive oil! I also added a handful of wild garlic to the Kale pesto as it’s just coming into season – made for a delicious dairy-free pesto that’s definitely worth serving with pasta just as it is.
Not quite as brown as when brushed with egg or milk, perhaps, but delicious nonetheless – and the non-vegans amongst us loved it too. Plenty of flavour and texture, served with homegrown purple-sprouting broccoli (still in abundance!) and oven-roasted Vivaldi potatoes with garlic and rosemary. Make sure the puff pastry is vegan-friendly – I used Jus-rol and it was perfectly tasty, even though not quite as good as the all-butter pastry I’d favour if suiting myself.
Dessert posed more of a challenge as most puddings in my repertoire use eggs and/or butter and I didn’t want to serve fruit on its own, although I had a fresh pineapple on standby just in case… I remembered reading over Christmas about so-called vegan meringues, made from the liquid from a can of chick peas. Whatever next? Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I found a promising-sounding recipe online and had a go. Much to my surprise, they worked – and tasted pretty good too, if I say so myself. Don’t ask me how the chemistry works (just protein, according to a chemist friend!), but to all intents and purposes these looked and tasted like meringues, if perhaps slightly less stiff.
Vegan Meringues with Coconut Cream and Rhubarb & Orange Compote
Liquid drained from 1 x 400g can of chick peas (in water NOT brine)
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
125 g icing sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tin of full-fat coconut milk, chilled overnight in the fridge
3 tsp agave nectar
750g rhubarb, chopped
Juice and rind of 2 oranges
4-6 tbsp demerara sugar
Preheat the oven to 100°C (Gas 2) and line a baking tray with baking parchment.
Pour the water drained from the can of chickpeas into a large bowl and use an electric hand-held or stand mixer to whisk for approximately 5 minutes until it’s more than doubled in size, white and frothy. Add the cream of tartar all at once and whisk again for another minute. Slowly and gently start adding in the sifted sugar, whisking until the mixture forms stiff, glossy peaks. Stir in some vanilla, if using. (I found the mixture didn’t hold its stiff peaks for quite as long as egg whites, but this didn’t affect the end result.)
Pipe the meringue mix into nests on the baking tray. Mine made nine, but if you can manage to work quicker than I did and keep the mixture stiffer, you could probably make 10 – and neater than me too! Next time… Alternatively, just use a spoon to create mounds and use the back of the spoon to hollow out the centre.
Bake for 2 hours. Do NOT open the oven! After 2 hours, turn the oven off and leave them to cool in the oven for at least another hour.
Meanwhile, cut the rhubarb (unpeeled unless really thick and woody – shouldn’t be necessary with early-season produce) into small dice, halving the stems first if really chunky. Place in a shallow, rectangular baking dish and sprinkle with the brown sugar (to taste), orange rind and juice. (You can add chopped preserved ginger and a few tbsp of ginger syrup as well as or instead of the orange if you like; Amaretto is also a good addition!) When the meringues are out of the oven, cook the rhubarb at 160°C (Gas 4) until tender, but still in distinct pieces, for about 30-40 minutes. Leave to cool.
Whip the pre-chilled coconut milk with 3 tsp agave nectar (or to taste) to create a thick double cream consistency – incredible as it may seem, it really does whisk up quite thick!
To serve, place the meringue nests on dessert plates, add a dollop of coconut cream and then a spoonful of rhubarb compote. Garnish with an edible flower if you have any – I used a primrose from the garden.
Eat and wonder! I wouldn’t cook these rather than traditional egg white meringues and double cream if I wasn’t catering for vegans, but they were a pretty good approximation to the real thing. And my guests said that desserts are one of the most difficult things for vegans, as so often they are just offered fruit.
We finished with the fridge fruit & nut bars I made this time last year, using coconut oil, seeds, fruit, nuts and cacao powder. It’s amazing what you can do if you set your mind to it….