Monday, 28 November 2016

Sneaky Vegan Feast

A few months back Boss Laurel was making noises about how difficult it would be to put together a feast for an event that was a) entirely made of dishes/ingredients from pre-1600 recipes; b) entirely vegan; c) tasty enough that it would be enjoyed by meat eaters. This inevitably pushed my "challenge accepted" button, which I'm sure will surprise no-one. I spent a few hours poking through my cookbooks and concluded that while it would be difficult, it wouldn't be impossible.

I'd committed to cooking for Yuletide University and ran the idea of a vegan feast past the event steward. She liked the idea and gave me the go-ahead, so I set out to make it happen.

I decided to go with Arabic food embodied in al-Warraq for a few reasons. First, I just really like the food from that cookbook, and whenever I've worked from it before it's been well received. Second, I knew there was an entire chapter on "simulated dishes Christians eat during Lent" (i.e. substitutions for meat). Third, I wanted my guests to have as few expectations about what the meal would be like as possible. European food, particularly early food, tends to be very meat-focal. And medieval recipes aren't really that different to modern ones. I was concerned that if people sat down and ate something from a meat-and-two-veg cuisine, they'd be emotionally dissatisfied even if it was tasty and nutritionally complete. Arabic food is exotic enough that most of my guests wouldn't have an instinct of what it 'should' look and taste like.

At this point I sat down with al-Warraq and started marking things that sounded good. There's a lot in al-Warraq that sounds good, just as an aside.

Once I'd put together a longlist, I started pulling together a rough outline of the feast. I knew I wanted to start with an assortment of nibbly things on the tables per the chapter on "seasonal fruits and fruits served before the meal". I knew I needed a LOT of flatbread. I knew I wanted a couple of vegetable dishes, a couple of protein dishes, a sweet dish, and a centrepiece dish. I also wanted a good mix of textures and colours, as well as things served both hot and cold. My goal was to select dishes that would counter the stereotype that all vegan food is bland, boring, and full of lentils!

One of the recipes I initially passed over was a recipe for fried truffles. And then I came back to it. You see, normally two-thirds to three-quarters of a feast budget is taken up by animal products - meat, milk, eggs, cheese, butter, honey. Once you take out all of those ingredients, you have a LOT more money to play with. I decided to build this feast around a centrepiece of truffles, because how could I not?!

After a lot of feedback from an assortment of awesome people and a bunch of testing, the menu I ended up with was this:

  • Dried apricots and figs
  • Fresh green grapes
  • Olives
  • Toasted walnuts
  • Flatbread
  • Tahini
  • Cold aubergine salad dressed in sauce
  • Hot boiled cabbage dressed in [a different] sauce
  • Dish of white beans with mustard
  • Lentil stew
  • Lenten “omelets” made of chickpeas
  • Coconut milk rice pudding
  • Fried truffles with fried onions
  • Fried mushrooms with fried onions
  • Spiced apple conserves
  • Sliced fresh radishes

There were two other dishes that didn't make the final cut. One, walnut crepes, I ditched for being too fiddly. The other, a simulated shrimp paste made from lentils, was so nasty that neither Spouse nor I could eat it. No way was I serving that!

Redactions with commentary next. This section is pretty long, so if you just want the reactions and reflections, scroll down to the bottom. 

Rather than serving distinct courses, I sent out dishes in a fairly constant stream. This was deliberate - I didn't want the disruption of the break between courses to remind people of what wasn't there. The redactions are just my working outlines, as sent to the kitchen crew. Page numbers in brackets for the original recipes in the edition linked above.

Dried fruit and grapes and walnuts are on the table to start the meal, as are bowls of tahini and hummus. I also had olives and bowls of salt on the table. The olives were a bonus - the event steward had a partial jar of them she wanted to use up. The salt should really have been flavoured with spices, but all of the recipes called for asafoetida, which I'm unfortunately allergic to.

Flatbreads go out on platters throughout as needed. No change here. I used bought naan bread because making flatbread generates smoke, and the site's smoke detectors are stupidly sensitive.

Sliced radishes go out at the end of the meal as a palate cleanser. Store in water in the fridge until served. Could have skipped these. People were too full to want them!

Truffles - fry in their own oil with a little salt, coriander, cumin, and black pepper. Serve on a bed of onions fried in the same oil with some crushed almonds. (p. 343) I had a moment of idiocy while cooking the lentils and mushrooms, so the truffles just got done with black pepper. As strong as they are, it's not like they needed the extra flavour!

Mushrooms - exactly as with the truffles, but use sesame and olive oil for half the batch (in case people don’t like truffle oil.) No cumin in the mushrooms because I accidentally put all of it in the lentils. Oops. I decided to do mushrooms because I couldn't afford enough truffles to be a dish in their own right. They were a tasting dish. The mushrooms compensated for that and also allowed people who weren't into truffles to have some of the luxury dish.

Apple conserves - peel, core, and chop. Bring a large pot of water to the boil with white sugar and a small amount of vinegar. Add the apples. Turn down the heat and cook gently until the apples soften into mush. Throw in the pot of mixed spices Constanza is bringing over. Throw in saffron just before serving. (p. 486) The spices in question were cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, cardamom, mace, and nutmeg. There should have been spikenard, too, but it's impossible to find. I also forgot to put the saffron in, so ended up using it in the lentils.

White beans - boil tinned cannellini beans for 25 minutes. Drain and coarsely mash. Add vinegar, salt, olive oil, and fresh mustard (see recipe). (p. 295) Doesn't sound like much, but this dish is SO GOOD. It's really strongly flavoured and tastes great with flatbread. Heated the beans in the oven because there wasn't room on the top of the cooker.

Mustard - combine equal parts ground mustard seeds and ground walnuts. Moisten with vinegar until it has the consistency of mustard sauce. Add a little salt. (p. 196) Strictly speaking, after mixing the ingredients one ought to sieve them. The resulting liquid is the mustard and the solids get mixed with other ingredients to make another sauce. However, as I didn't need any of the other sauce, I just left the liquid and solid mixed together.

Lentil stew - wash and pick over red lentils. Cook lentils with chopped garlic and cumin in vegetable stock until the lentils become soft. (p. 293) One kilo of red lentils (which bizarrely turn green when you stew them), about a tablespoon of cumin, three heads (yes really) of garlic, 7 vegetable stock cubes, and a teaspoon of saffron threads. Although this was supposed to be a thicker dish, one of the kitchen crew got a little carried away adding water to the pan. It turned into a creamy thin soup, almost like a puree. Mad props to the kitchen team who convinced me that the consistency was a feature, not a bug.

Rice pudding - wash rice and soak overnight in enough coconut milk to cover. The next day, bring to boil enough water to scantily cover the rice (but don’t put the rice in yet!). Once it has boiled, add the rice and the coconut milk, along with some sesame oil and white sugar. If it dries out before the rice is properly cooked, add a little more coconut milk. It should be sticky, not runny - all the liquid should absorb into the rice. (p. 262) Due to a logistics problem, we didn't have enough saucepans and had to do this in the oven. Turned out really tasty, though. The coconut milk is a substitute for regular milk as described in the chapter on simulated dishes.

Chickpea omelets - boil tinned chickpeas until they get soft enough to mash. (Or cheat and use the wet grinder.) Add some minced boiled onion to the chickpea mash, along with a small amount of olive oil, ground almonds and walnuts, black pepper, and some xanthan gum. Pour the mixture into a frying pan and cook it in a little olive oil until it’s done and resembles a real omelet. (p. 236) Forgot to add the onions. These bore no resemblance whatsoever to actual omelets, but they were incredibly tasty. Used xanthan gum because I couldn't find any food grade gum arabic in time. The addition of ground nuts to the mixture was based on the recipes for egg-based omelets on p. 326.

Aubergines - boil, drain thoroughly, chill. Chop just before serving and dress with sauce of vinegar, caraway, cinnamon, galangal, mint, parsley, salt to taste. Add oil to dressing just before serving. (Both the aubergine and cabbage recipes are taken from the chapter on cold bawarid.) If you describe cold boiled aubergine as a salad, people will generally have a go at it. Which is good, because it's incredibly tasty.

Cabbage - Chop, boil. Dress with sauce of vinegar, white sugar, ground almonds, caraway, cinnamon. Also very tasty. Strictly speaking the cabbage should have been chilled, but I decided that one chilled boiled vegetable was probably pushing my luck, let alone two.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well the feast was received. I hadn't announced the vegan nature of the food in advance, and I'm told that some of the guests didn't actually realize it was vegan until it was pointed out to them. One person said, "I've just eaten a vegan feast and I'm not angry about it. Good work." Which is a pretty nice compliment, actually!

The lentil soup was the surprise star of the show. The serving dish came back so clean we could probably have gotten away without washing it, and the only criticism I heard was that there wasn't more of it.

I got the impression people were intrigued by the truffles, although they definitely weren't to everyone's taste. Still, the very scanty leftovers were snapped up the next day.

The rice pudding was meant to have gone out in the middle of the feast, but because it had to be done in the oven ended up going out last, accompanied by the apple conserves. Consequently, we had more rice left over than I had expected - everyone was too full to eat much of it!

If I'd known how well the meal was going to be received, I'd probably have skipped the rice pudding and apple conserves. Instead, I'd have rounded off with some of the chewy candies elsewhere in the book and possibly coffee. It would have made the whole thing more nicely balanced. That said, I was counting on the rice pudding to be something inoffensive and tasty for anyone who was too put off by the weirder stuff.

Overall? I'd say it was a complete success. I'd have liked to have spent more time practising the recipes beforehand, and at some point I want to return to the omelets. I have a plan to make some of al-Warraq's egg omelets so that I can see what I'm aiming for, consistency-wise. Once I've got that figured out I can start playing around with different quantities of liquid and gum.

Addendum - would you believe there was milk powder in the wretched naan bread I bought? Should have just dealt with the smoke detectors and made my own from al-Warraq's recipe. Bah.

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