Life

Áine Carlin debunks the myth that vegans can't have fun with food

From barbecued cauliflower and deep-fried tofu to vegetable curry and vegan pavlova, Derry girl Áine Carlin is putting the zing into vegan cooking. Jenny Lee finds out more

Derry girl Aine Carlin is doing her bit to make vegan foods look and taste great

SHE admits to having starred in a television commercial for frozen yoghurt but Derry native Áine Carlin has left the world of dairy desserts behind her after an experiment with going vegan transformed both her health and career.

The former actress, turned food blogger and now the UK's bestselling vegan author, has forged a unique niche for herself in the world of plant-based cooking with her refreshingly fun and easy approach to veganism.

It may be almost six months since a record number of people signed up for Veganuary – forswearing meat and dairy for January – and interest in veganism continues to grow.

Currently living in Cornwall, Carlin recalls her own reasons for becoming a vegan in 2011.

"I was a lifelong meat and dairy consumer and never thought about being a vegetarian, yet alone a vegan," she tells me. "But my husband and I had been feeling stressed, lethargic and had been having sleep troubles, so we decided to do a three-week vegan trial."

The results were so immediate that it made her decide to ditch meat and dairy for good. "Our sleep patterns were revolutionised, we felt less sluggish and even the condition of my hair and nails improved," she explains.

Carlin started her food blog, Pea Soup, as a hobby and a place to store her recipes. But after developing a huge following, she was approached by a publisher to write her first vegan cookbook.

Three books later, the 37-year-old has no plans to open her own restaurant, but through her new book, Cook Share Eat Vegan, aims make vegan recipes more accessible and to get everyone sharing the same dishes.

"Creating beautiful, colourful, nutritious food that never fails to raise an approving smile is absolutely at the core of my cooking. And yes, it just happens to be vegan too. Veganism has a very solitary image, but cooking and eating should be about enjoying the company and the kinship."

Watermelon Wedge Party Cake

With her emphasis on great flavours and fresh and seasonal dishes that don’t rely on hard-to-source ingredients, Carlin believes everyone can simply introduce some plant-based meals into their diet – even on a part-time basis.

A regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour, she will take part in a number of food festivals this summer, including the popular River Cottage Festival in August. She is also organising a week-long wellbeing and food retreat to Spain this winter with fellow vegan food writer Lee Watson

And what of her former career as a theatre actress?

"Once you're an actor, you're always an actor, so if the right thing came up I would consider it. However, I enjoy the performance elements of doing food demonstrations and connecting with people through my cooking."

And could that dream role be a part in the hugely successful sitcom Derry Girls, which is loosely based on life at her old school, Thornhill College?

"The series is fantastic and really reminds me of being at school. I was actually in the same theatre studies class as the show's writer Lisa McGee," laughs Carlin, who still has nightmares about her home economics classes.

"I didn't start cooking until I went to university in London. My home economics teacher probably wouldn't believe what I am doing now as I didn't have a clue when I was younger. I remember we were making a ragu in class and I brought a jar of Dolmio sauce, rather than the fresh ingredients."

When it comes to the nervous cook, Carlin's advice is "have a go" and "don't be afraid to make mistakes". Among her new recipes, Carlin has a number of indulgent treats including chip-shop vegetable curry, polenta pizza, all-out chocolate honeycomb loaf and vegan pavlova.

"I try not to place too much (if any) guilt on such treats because, really, life's too short. If sugar is consumed in moderation than I don't think we should be overly concerned."

Having experienced the health benefits of a vegan diet herself, Carlin is passionate about using vitamin-rich greens, protein boosting grains and herbs – her favourite being tumeric.

"Fresh turmeric is an obsession of mine. That nubbly little root, boasting a list of anti-inflammatory and medicinal benefits the length of my arm, can basically do no wrong. I pop it in smoothies, oatmeals and stews – although I especially adore it in soups."

Polenta pizza, one of the many recipes in Áine Carlin's latest book, Cook Share Eat Vegan

And what of that often-feared protein alternative, bean curd, or tofu?

"Tofu is delicious when marinated, as it will soak up a lot of flavours. I tend to use tofu in stews and curries, and my favourite thing to do is dip it in a beer batter, fry it and have it in a taco.

"Many people hate the texture of the silken tofu but it is perfect for desserts and for making vegan mayonnaise."

She also encourages vegans not to shy away from the barbecue this summer.

"Beyond veggie burgers, you can cook aubergines flavoured with orange marinade, cauliflower wedges and sliced pineapple."

:: Cook Share Eat Vegan: Delicious plant-based recipes for Everyone by Áine Carlin is published by Mitchell Beazley and is out now. See Peasoupeats.com

WATERMELON WEDGE PARTY CAKE

(Serves 8 – 10)

1 small seedless watermelon

250ml carton coconut cream, chilled

grated zest and juice of ½ lime

3 tablespoons agave nectar

50g toasted coconut flakes

4–5 strawberries, halved, to decorate

Method

Slice both ends off the watermelon and place it cut-end down on a chopping board. Using a sharp knife, cut away the remaining rind to create a loose cake-like shape, trimming the sides to square things up a little. Transfer to a serving plate.

Place the chilled coconut cream in a stand mixer; add the lime zest and juice and agave nectar and beat on a high speed until thick, fluffy and cloud-like (alternatively, put everything in a bowl and beat together use a hand-held electric whisk). Refrigerate for 10 minutes to chill and firm.

Once chilled, dollop the whipped coconut cream on top of the watermelon and ease it down the sides with a spatula to coat – don’t worry if it slides off to begin with, just work it up the sides until it adheres. Scatter over the toasted coconut and decorate with fresh strawberries.

TURMERIC AND GINGER SWEET POTATO SOUP, WITH ROASTED TAMARI TOFU PIECES

(Serves 2-4)

1 tablespoon groundnut oil

1 onion, finely chopped

2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and roughly

chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 thumb-sized piece of fresh root ginger,

peeled and grated

1 thumb-sized piece of turmeric, grated

(or 1 scant teaspoon ground turmeric)

1 vegetable stock cube

750ml water, plus extra if necessary

sea salt flakes and black pepper

Roasted tamari tofu

200g firm tofu, cut into 2cm cubes

2 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari

2 tablespoons groundnut oil

½ tablespoon sesame oil

1 tablespoon maple syrup

juice of ½ clementine

To serve:

1–2 teaspoons dried chilli flakes

1 tablespoon chopped chives

Preheat the oven to 220C (200C fan), Gas Mark 7. Heat the groundnut oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat, add the onion and sweat for 2-3 minutes until it begins to soften. Add the sweet potato to the pan along with the garlic, ginger and turmeric and cook, stirring, for a further 2–3 minutes until nicely aromatic. Add the stock cube and measured water and stir to dissolve, then bring to a gentle simmer and cook for 20-25 minutes, or until the sweet potato pieces are nice and soft.

Meanwhile make the tofu. Place the tofu in an ovenproof dish. Whisk the rest of the ingredients together in a small bowl until smooth, pour over the tofu pieces and toss to combine. Cover with foil and roast for 20 minutes, then remove the foil and roast for a further 5–10 minutes until golden and glistening. Set aside until needed (the tofu pieces will continue to firm as they cool).

Transfer the sweet potato mixture to a blender and blitz until completely smooth, then return to the pan and gently heat through, adding a little extra water if you feel the soup needs thinning out a little. Once heated, divide the soup among bowls and top with the tofu pieces, a sprinkling of chilli flakes and some chopped chives.

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