This festive season I am on the mission to get more into a healthier plant based diet. It means I am not going to name myself as a vegetarian or vegan, but I will limit my meat intake as much as I can. I am succeeding thus far, but in the last 3 weeks I was trying to research (thankfully I own dozens of cookbooks) and devise a plan for a truly festive but vegetarian dinner. This post is to feature my recipe shortlist and specially selected organic wines for them.
I love to cook but it seems to be a bit more difficult to construct a special occasion dish without buying an expensive animal protein (game, meat, poultry, you name it!). It is not a problem with the salads, they just don't need to be boring. Yet the main dishes for a vegetarian feast are sometimes not very inspiring. After creating a shortlist of just over a dozen dishes, I have cooked all of them to find out whether it can be truly special and this review is a practical verdict and my suggestions for a fantastic vegetarian festive dinner and of course wine suggestions to go with it.
If you create your typical range of canapes, dips and snacks, it is totally fine. I suggest making your festivities even more colourful by adding fruit to your salad. Kids would love them too!
My favourite options are:
They sound delicious, also very easy to make (recipes are in the bottom of this review) and you can easily pair them with a glass of organic sparkling wine (I recommend richer and more flavoursome red Lambrusco Venturini Baldini) or smooth and vibrant natural white wine like Angeolino Maule Masieri or Ciu Ciu Falerio Oris.
La Biancara Masieri Garganega from just outside of Venice (#2 best natural wine in the UK by the Independent!) and Ciu Ciu Falerio Oris 2016 from middle part of Italy, both are refreshing, full of character and elegance wines!
Meet and greet your guests with something unusual but rich and delicious. Italians will serve antipasti and different snacks with a high quality Lambrusco and we've got one of the best Lambruscos in the UK.
The selection of these dishes will suit your guests really well - you've got an inoffensive aubergine dish, mushroom stew, risotto, polenta cakes and a pastry dish filled with cheesy goodness.
These recipes are also located in the bottom of the post, here are just a few hints and tips to help you make up your mind.
Aubergine dish may take some time to prep, but you can do it in advance and it will cook in no time in the oven, so you can spend your time with your guests. Mushroom Bourgignon I haven't even included in my picture as it looks quite unappetising, well it is stewed mushrooms afterall, however a rich sauce with herbs will make it a truly satisfying dish. Be prepared for kilograms of mushrooms to be sliced and cooked in batches!
Risotto is probably one of the easiest to prepare as it is also not very messy to deal with, however it needs to be cooked to order, so you may want to get everything ready and then put it in a risotto maker (I used Sage appliance) when your guests are already here.
Polenta cakes are messy, but you can prep them way in advance and keep in your fridge for up to 2 days. Simply fry them and sprinkle with roast veg and sauce when you want to serve.
This wellington dish is not just a show stopper and a pretty picture, it taste just so awesome and truly festive. If you have doubts about some of the below, this should be a no brainer. Make sure you buy some additional pastry sheets as veggies are quite bulky and you'd need a bit more to cover it fully. Do not skip the step to cool it down for a few hours before cooking, I have made a mistake at first and it did not turn out as crispy and set as my second attempt when I wasn't that lazy!
Vegetarian dishes are very versatile when it comes to pairing them with whites or reds. If you prefer red wines in general, Ciu Ciu Rosso Piceno is bursting with red and black fruit flavours and made of organic Sangiovese and Montepulciano grapes, it is rich and will match perfectly with stronger flavoured dishes like bourgignon. For a lighter and juicier Montepulciano, go for our fantastic Senzaniente wine, it is made with 0 additives and sulphites and is truly amazing!
I have also added some classics - Ribera del Duero and Rioja, they should be shared with your fellow dinner party guests as they are rich, smooth and velvety! Two other reds are made predominantly from Grenache (or Garnacha in Spanish) and are both juicy, punchy but made in two different styles - French is very light and delicate, Spanish is richer, stronger and intense.
This case of 12 wines will not only give you a very broad range of styles and flavours, but match your vegetarian feast perfectly as well!
The following salads are very straightforward. Get the ingredients as fresh as you can and simply slice and arrange nicely on a serving plates. Dressing will make a lot of difference here.
Strawberry, avocado and feta salad with walnuts
Try a spicy dressing to make a contrast with sweetness of strawberries and saltiness of feta.
Tarragon, strawberries and goats cheese salad
If you are not making a previous salad, consider sprinkling this one with some chopped walnuts for an extra crunch. Try a classic dressing with balsamic vinegar of Modena. Tarragon and balsamic strawberries are a heavenly match!
Mozzarella, kiwi, avocado and rocket salad
This salad screams for spice, you should contrast its mellow flavours with a generous teaspoon of chopped chillies; try jalapeno for a mexican twist.
Roasted chestnuts and butternut and crunchy kale salad with a quick tahini dressing
You will need to roast your butternut squash pieces (I have used a bit of chopped chillies to spice it up); then separately your kale (approx 5-6 minutes), so it is still green but cooked and will turn crispy when dry. I then quickly warm up chestnuts with butter and assemble it together. For a quick tahini dressing simply mix 1 part of tahini paste, 1 part of freshly squeezed lemon juice and I also like to sprinkle with a light soy sauce. The colour may be not the best, but it adds another dimension of flavour. Sprinkle with a seed mix for an additional crunch.
Melanzane alla Siciliana
Ingredients to serve 6 people:
First fry your sliced aubergines and when browned on both sides, set aside.
Start making your tomato sauce by cooking garlic, celery and chilli for a few minutes. Add olives, oregano, capers and cover with passata. Allow to slowly simmer.
Preheat your over to 200C and start assembling your dish. Lay 1/3 of your aubergine slices in a baking dish. Top each with a small slice of mozzarella. Cover with another slice of aubergine (another 1/3). Top that with a slice of hard boiled egg and then again with a remaining aubergine slices. By that time your sauce should be ready so you can go ahead and pour it all over.
Bake it for 20 minutes or a bit more. The trick is with checking how it is going after first 15 minutes. Your goal is to get to a consistency of bubbling and cheesy sauce. Don't overcook it, it will be dry and quite uninspiring. I have perfected my Melanzane from a third attempt, but I am easily distracted, so just keep your eye on the oven!
Mushroom Bourgignon with gougere
Ingredients for 6 people:
For the gougere:
The prep can sound like a lot of work, but the main thing is to cook your mushrooms. Start heating some oil with butter, add onions (I love them whole), garlic and celery. After a few minutes start adding batches of mushrooms. It may take a while! After you are done and it is all there, add veggie stock pot, wine, bouquet garni and water. Season and after bringing to the boil, simmer for around 25 minutes.
French people will knead butter and flour together to make a paste that they will thicken the sauce with. You can do that too or, alternatively, you can use a tablespoon or slightly more of a cornflour mixed with a part of water.
When you are waiting for your mushrooms to cook, you can start prepping your gougere. Put your butter and water in a pan and heat until it is combine but do not allow it to boil. Tip all the flour and stir quickly. You will need to have both patience and steady hands to make it work. It should start resembling a soft ball and not sticking to the sides of your pan. When's done, remove from the heat and beat in the eggs and then the mustard.
Preheat your oven to 200C. Spoon or pipe the mixture over the mushrooms. Sprinkle generously with cheese and then bake for 15 minutes. Check that your gougere is puffed and golden. Serve straightaway.
Leek, blue cheese and walnut wellington
Ingredients to serve 6:
Heat the oil or butter and start frying onions, leeks, garlic and, when it is all beginning to colour, add mushrooms. Cook for about 7-8 minutes and stir frequently. Add sage and wine and cook for further 2-3 minutes. Stir chestnuts, walnuts and season well. Cool the mixture well.
Divide the pastry, so 1/3 is being used for the bottom part and 2/3 you will use to cover your mixture with. Lay the bottom layer out on a baking parchment. When your filling is totally cooled down, simple arrange it on the pastry like a thick sausage. If you have more than enough, leave it in your pan. You can use it for something else, but just don't make it ridiculously big so it tears your top layer apart later on (yes, I have cooked this thing a few times before I got the point!). Sprinkle some water on the edges of your bottom layer and then gently cover with the top layer, press the ends together. Trim the excess pastry. Brush the whole thing with the beaten egg. Cut your pastry trimmings into strips and decorate your wellington.
Top tip! Do not forget to cool your wellington for 1-2 hours in a fridge before cooking (it is OK if you prep it in the morning and leave it for half a day in a fridge by the way).
Bake for 25 minutes until really crisp and golden. Serve sliced, it should be juicy and moist with veg and cheese inside.
Blue cheese and chestnut risotto
Whilst I love the above wellington recipe, you may be looking to cook for less people or simply pastry is not your thing. In that case this risotto recipe is a winner! It uses leeks, blue cheese and chestnuts too and easy to prep.
Ingredients to serve 6:
I do not cook risotto in the oven as my original recipe suggested, but I also have my own tiny shortcut. I use Sage risotto maker (it is also a steamer and a slow cooker by the way). It allows you not to stay there and stir all the time, but you still need to be fairly present to stir and see how it is going. You start by melting your butter and softening your leeks, add your rice and make sure it started soaking up the butter first. Add white wine (I am using Catarratto for extra dimension of flavour). Cook until half of the wine is absorbed. Add hot stock to your rice, slowly and cook until it is still wet and rice is still al-dente.
I love adding chestnuts which were previously quickly fried in butter. Do that and them to your rice together with blue cheese, parsley and black pepper. Serve within a few minutes.
Polenta cakes with goats cheese, spinach and roast vegetables
For a totally gluten free treat, choose polenta but make it very rich and flavoursome.
Ingredients for 6 people:
For roast veggies:
It would be probably the most difficult prep of all the above dishes, but you can make these cakes in advance, keep them in your fridge until they are ready to be fried.
Wilt your spinach first, dry it and set aside, you will need bits of it to use in your cakes but also to assemble you final dish.
Make sure you have a quick cook polenta, so bring your stock to the boil and then stir polenta in a steady but slow fashion. This will make sure you avoid lumps. Cook for 5 minutes stirring all the time. Add butter, Parmesan, half of your spinach (chop it nicely if it is rather big), nutmeg and plenty of seasoning. Leave it to cool.
Wait until your mixture is cool and fairly thick, you can now assemble your cakes. Your goal is to make burger-shaped polenta cakes with a large slice of goats cheese in the middle. Simply put them on a cling film, tighten firmly and leave to cool in your fridge for a few hours or even few days!
When you are almost ready to serve it is time to roast your veggies. I have selected beetroot and butternut squash for their colour and nutrients. For a glossy effect I suggest you first cover them with melted butter in a pan, brown for 4-5 minutes and then roast for 25-30 minutes depending how big are those chunks. I love my roast veggies fresh however if you are cooking for many people or you are worried that you'd need your oven for something else, you can cook your veg in advance, cover with foil, keep at room temperature during the day and then re-heat it for 15 minutes. I don't like my veg mushy, so in this case you need to cook them ever so slightly less in the first instance.
When you are ready to serve, about 10-15 minutes prior, fry your cakes for 5 minutes each side. You will need warmed plates to serve and a juicy dressing.
I love a simple French dressing (2 parts of good quality olive oil, 1 part of red wine vinegar ad a teaspoon of mustard).
I once again hope you enjoy this cruelty-free festive dinner and find these recipes celebratory and delicious to be shared with your friends and family. Our wines will make an absolutely gorgeous addition to this feast, but your kindness and life enjoyment are paramount to have a very Merry Christmas!