Life

Vegan Christmas: The chef who says plant-based doesn't have to mean non-traditional

If you are one of the growing number of non-meat eaters, you might be surprised to know that you can still have 'turkey' with all the trimmings. Prudence Wade meets Gaz Oakley, author of a new vegan festive cookbook

Vegan chef Gaz Oakley – this will be his fourth Christmas as a vegan

THE meteoric rise of veganism isn't exactly new news anymore. Between 2017 and 2018 participants in Veganuary (people pledging to go plant-based for the month of January) grew by 183 per cent.

Since then, the animal-free movement has gone from strength to strength, with shops and restaurants rushing to offer more meat and dairy-free options than ever.

But there's one time of year that has remained firmly meat-full in many of our minds: Christmas. Pigs in blankets, roast turkey, egg nog... the endless list of festive delicacies is far from being plant-based.

That's why chef Gaz Oakley has created a special festive cookbook. "Christmas is quite a difficult time to be vegan," he explains. "Maybe you're going to a house where people really don't know what to cook for you and it gets awkward, or you've just gone vegan and used to really enjoy cooking a big dinner. It's easy to get stuck for ideas and just go to the supermarket and get a nut roast, which isn't very exciting."

What started as a few plant-based festive recipes soon grew into a long list of alternative dishes, and Oakley knew he had to put it all together into a book.

December 25 is steeped in tradition, and changing the things we're used to seems almost unconscionable. With this in mind, surely a vegan Christmas is no Christmas at all?

People tend to fall into three broad categories: Grinches, those who quite like Christmas and those who absolutely adore the festive season. A few minutes into our conversation, it's clear Oakley firmly falls into the final section, and could probably wax lyrical about Christmas for hours. This is why he's tried his hardest to find a way to enjoy the festive season with all the trimmings, while still being plant-based.

The first thing he did when creating this book was coming up with his own versions of the classics. Take the centrepiece of any festive lunch: The turkey. "That was the first thing I really needed to master," Oakley sighs.

"I managed to come up with a recipe using wheat gluten, also known as seitan," he says. "It's actually very popular in Asian cooking and has been picked up by the vegan scene, but I've never seen anyone make a stuffed vegan turkey before."

Because seitan doesn't actually have much of a flavour (if anything, you want to mask its flavour), Oakley had to work even harder to make it Christmassy.

"I've tried to make sure that every flavour and element I'm adding to my recipes has a traditional taste – my dinner last year tasted more Christmassy than any non-vegan Christmas meal I've had in the past," he laughs. "I made sure it had all the traditional elements in it like cranberries, rosemary, sage and chestnuts."

There's no doubt the centrepiece is hugely important to Christmas dinner, but the sides are an essential supporting act.

Brussels sprouts, roast potatoes, cabbage – it's all delicious, and Oakley argues these are key to making or breaking a good meal. His advice? If this is your first vegan Christmas and you don't quite have the confidence to tackle seitan yet, focus on nailing the accompaniments.

"If you have rubbish potatoes you're not going to enjoy the meal," Oakley says. "Or if your vegetables aren't cooked right it could ruin everything." Sure, it might sound a bit hyperbolic, but this the biggest meal of the year we're talking about – its importance can't be over-exaggerated.

Even if you're not vegan or even vegetarian, you can work towards making a few more of the dishes on your table cruelty-free.

Oakley is coming up to his fourth Christmas as a vegan, and for him it's a particularly poignant time of year to be plant-based.

"I really do think Christmas should be a peaceful time," he reflects. "And hopefully people's dinner tables start reflecting this by having no animals on them."

So many of us aren't yet fully committed to a vegan diet but are increasingly eating more plant-based meals. Even if you aren't ready to take the meat-free plunge this Christmas, you can still do your bit for both animal welfare and the environment by replacing the old classics with the same dishes – but cruelty free.

:: Vegan Christmas by Gaz Oakley is published by Quadrille, priced £15. Below are three recipes from the book for you to try.

VEGAN STUFFED SQUASH ROAST

(Serves 6)

1 large butternut squash, washed

A little olive oil

For the glazed onions:

2 red onions, finely sliced

3tbsp balsamic vinegar

5tbsp organic coconut sugar

For the Christmas rice:

150g wild rice, cooked

150g whole cooked vacuum-packed chestnuts, roughly chopped

75g dried apricots, chopped

150g mixed nuts, chopped

Pinch of cayenne pepper

Pinch of paprika

Juice of 1/2 lemon

Pinch of sea salt and pepper

Pinch of dried sage

For the sauteed mushrooms:

160g fresh mushrooms (I used girolles)

1tsp roasted garlic powder

Sea salt and pepper

5tbsp cranberry and orange sauce

4 peppers, roasted, skin removed

6 sun-dried tomatoes, re-hydrated

2 handfuls baby spinach

Method:

Preheat your oven to 180C. Split the squash in half lengthways, place cut-side up onto a baking tray and bake for 45 minutes, or until just soft. Meanwhile, make the glazed onions. Heat three tablespoons of water in a non-stick saucepan, add the sliced onion and sweat for five minutes. Add the vinegar and sugar, then cook for a further 10 minutes over a low heat, stirring occasionally, until caramelized. Set aside.

Mix the Christmas rice ingredients in a mixing bowl until fully combined, then set aside. Saute your mushrooms. Heat two tablespoons of water in a non-stick frying pan over a medium heat. Add the mushrooms, garlic powder and seasoning. Saute for five minutes.

When the squash is cooked and cooled slightly, scoop out the seeds, then scoop out a 2cm (1in) channel of flesh and mix that into the Christmas rice mixture. Spoon the cranberry sauce into one of the squash halves, followed by the rice. Top with the peppers, onions, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes and spinach. Place the other squash half on top, tie together in three places and roast for a further 15 minutes. Carve and serve straight away.

VEGAN KEBAB FROM YOUR CHRISTMAS LEFTOVERS

(Serves 4)

For the 'meat':

200g slow-roast 'beef', shredded

1tsp smoked paprika

1/4tsp cayenne pepper

1/2tsp ground cumin

1/2tsp ground coriander

1/2tsp dried garlic powder

2tsp dried mixed herbs

Pinch of sea salt and pepper

3tbsp vegetable oil

For the mint yogurt:

285g dairy-free plain yogurt

Handful of fresh mint leaves, finely chopped

7.5cm piece of cucumber, deseeded and finely chopped

1 garlic clove, crushed

1/2tsp paprika

1tsp sea salt

Juice of 1/2 lemon

2tbsp extra virgin olive oil (optional)

For the salad:

2 baby gem lettuces, shredded

2 medium tomatoes

1/2 red onion, finely sliced

Handful of fresh coriander

4-6 pickled chilis, from a jar

To serve:

Toasted pitta bread or flat breads

Hot sauce

Lemon wedges

Method:

Mix all the ingredients for the 'meat' together in a large mixing bowl. Cover and set aside to allow the flavours to mingle. Meanwhile, put all the ingredients for the mint yogurt in a bowl and stir well to combine. Cover with cling film and chill in the fridge until you're ready to serve.

Heat a large, non-stick pan over a high heat, then add the 'meat' and cook for four to five minutes. Stir often and try and get lots of colour on the 'meat'. To serve, fill your pitta breads or flat breads with generous amounts of the 'meat', the various salad elements and a dollop of mint yogurt. A drizzle of hot sauce adds a nice kick and a squeeze of lemon juice brings all the flavours together.

VEGAN JAFFA CAKES

(Makes 24)

For the sponge layer:

Coconut oil, for greasing

120ml soy milk

55g vegan spread

1tsp orange essence

120g plain flour (can use gluten-free)

100g unrefined caster sugar

1tsp baking powder

1/4tsp fine sea salt

1/4tsp ground cinnamon

1/4tsp ground nutmeg

For the orange jelly:

2tbsp agar agar flakes

120ml cold water

240ml freshly squeezed

Orange juice

2tbsp caster sugar

For the chocolate topping:

2 x 100g bars dairy-free chocolate, finely chopped

Pinch of sea salt

Method:

Make the jelly first as it needs two hours to set. Line a baking tray with cling film. Heat the agar agar and water in a saucepan over a medium heat. Bring to the boil, whisk until the flakes disappear, remove from the heat and add the orange juice and sugar. Whisk until combined, pour onto your lined baking tray and place in the fridge until set.

Preheat the oven to 180C. Grease two non-stick muffin trays with coconut oil.Put the soy milk, vegan spread and orange essence into a saucepan and set over a low heat until the spread has melted and everything has mixed together. Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and spices in a mixing bowl. Make a well in the middle and pour in the orange-milk mixture. Stir well until you have a thick batter. Spoon a couple tablespoons of the batter into each hole in your greased tray. Smooth the mixture level, then bake for eight minutes until lightly golden. Allow to cool slightly in the trays before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

Put the chocolate into a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water. When melted, lift the bowl off the pan, allow the chocolate to cool slightly, then stir in the salt.

Remove the set jelly from the fridge and use a round cutter (just smaller than the cake bases) to cut the jelly. Lift the rounds onto the top of each cake base, then spoon over the chocolate. Spread the coated jaffa cakes out on a plate and allow to set completely in the fridge. It should take about one hour. They will keep for two to three days in the fridge.

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