You don’t have to be vegetarian to enjoy the odd meat-free feast at Christmas.
The season is so abundant with delicious plant-based ingredients that it would be a shame to let meat take centre stage all the time. Think of jewel-bright pomegranate seeds, fudgy chestnuts and pungent, blue-veined cheese, sweet parsnips, tangy red cabbage and vibrant zesty clementines. All of these seasonal ingredients can be transformed into gorgeous vegetarian centrepieces using a little kitchen know-how and a few store cupboard ingredients you can keep on standby: puff pastry, nuts, spices, eggs and dried fruit. Here are a few suggestions for easy vegetarian main courses and accompaniments that will delight vegetarians and carnivores alike during the festive period, showcasing winter’s bounty to its full potential.
Vegetarian tart centrepiece
Keep a couple of ready-rolled sheets of puff pastry in the freezer, and you have an (almost) instant vegetarian main course. Simply defrost until pliable, unroll and place on an oiled baking sheet. Score a 1-inch border around the pastry with a sharp knife, being careful not to cut all the way through. Top with any of the following combinations (or your own!):
- Pesto, roasted vegetables and feta
- Crumbled blue cheese, sliced apple or pear, walnuts and chopped rosemary
- Roasted beetroot, goat’s cheese and thinly sliced red onion
- Cooked spinach, crumbled ricotta, pine nuts and raisins
- Thinly sliced pumpkin, blue cheese, cooked chestnuts and sage
- Sundried tomatoes, black olives, mozzarella and basil leaves
- Grilled aubergine slices, chopped fresh mint, crumbled feta (top with fresh pomegranate seeds after baking for a festive flourish)
Brush the border of the tart with beaten egg, season and bake at 200C for around 30 minutes, or until the pastry is cooked and golden and the filling is bubbling. You can also make smaller tarts in this way for an attractive starter.
Danish ‘food breads’
Here in Denmark we have something called a ‘madbrød’, literally translated as ‘food bread’. It’s a hearty slab of dough, rather like a focaccia, strewn with all manner of inviting ingredients on top. Simply prepare a basic bread dough (I like to add a little rye flour for a Scandi touch), then after its second rise roll it out to a rectangle around 1-2cm thick. Top with a mixture of cheese, vegetables and herbs – I particularly like sliced tomatoes with mozzarella and thyme, or thinly sliced pumpkin with blue cheese, walnuts and sage – then bake at 220C for around 30 minutes, or until the bread is cooked and golden and the topping is caramelised and bubbling. Serve in squares with a crisp salad for a delicious vegetarian main course. These reheat well in a hot oven if you have leftovers, too.
Forget squeaky, undercooked peppers filled with bland rice and cheese. Instead, whip up a vegetarian stuffing by mixing cooked brown or wild rice, dried cranberries, orange zest, winter herbs (rosemary, thyme and sage work well), crumbled blue cheese or goat’s cheese, chopped cooked chestnuts, pine nuts or walnuts and a generous amount of lemon juice (or pomegranate molasses if you have some) and seasoning to taste. Use to stuff hollowed out pumpkin or butternut squash, then sprinkle with a little more cheese and bake in a hot oven until the squash are tender. You could also roast vegetables such as aubergines, carrots or parsnips before topping with the rice mixture and baking until crispy. Serve with a side salad and cranberry sauce for a beautiful and festive vegetarian main.
Gorgeous gratin or tortilla
Everyone has too much dairy kicking around in the fridge at Christmas - unless, perhaps, you are vegan or lactose intolerant, in which case nut or soya products make good alternatives. Put it to good use by layering thinly sliced onions and other vegetables (root vegetables like swede, parsnip, carrot and celeriac are particularly good) with crumbled cheese, cream, a generous amount of seasoning and lots of winter herbs before sprinkling with more cheese and baking in the oven for a sumptuous, indulgent gratin that demands to be served with hunks of bread for mopping up the sauce. You can incorporate any other festive ingredients you have in the house, too – nuts and dried fruit add Christmassy flair. This also works well with cranberry sauce. You could use the same idea to make a hearty Spanish-style tortilla, mixing the vegetables and cheese with beaten eggs and cooking in a frying pan instead, finishing off under the grill. Serve warm in wedges alongside a salad and sauce.
Roasting a whole cauliflower then smothering it in cheese sauce updates the classic cauliflower cheese but adds the wow factor. Place a whole cauliflower upright in an ovenproof saucepan, with enough water to just cover the leaves and stem. Rub with olive oil and season with salt, pepper and smoked paprika, then roast in the oven at 200C for around an hour to an hour and a half, until the cauliflower is totally tender to the point of a knife. Meanwhile, prepare a basic white sauce, adding any odds and ends of cheese you have lying around, plus a spritz of lemon juice, a grating of fresh nutmeg and some fresh herbs – parsley, thyme and dill work well. Thickly slice the cauliflower and serve with lashings of the cheese sauce. You’ll probably want a green salad to cut through the richness.
A festive side salad
This goes with everything at Christmas and is light and fresh; an important counterbalance to other rich festive fare. Thinly slice some fennel bulbs using a mandolin or sharp knife. Toss with orange or clementine segments, fresh pomegranate seeds, toasted sliced almonds, finely chopped fresh mint or dill and a dressing of lemon juice, olive oil and grain mustard. You can add in anything else you may have in the house, too – sliced olives work well, as do slices of apple or pear instead of the orange, and you can use other nuts like walnuts or pine nuts. Crisp leaves such as rocket or watercress are good additions too. This can be made into a main course by adding roasted pumpkin wedges or some baked goat’s cheese.
Sauces and accompaniments
Good quality, thick Greek yoghurt mixed with a dash of lemon juice, lots of finely chopped fresh herbs, a little smoked paprika and a clove of crushed garlic works well with all of these vegetarian dishes, and will liven up any leftovers instantly.
I often keep a bowl of pink pickled onions in the fridge to liven up all dishes that need a little sharp freshness. Thinly slice red onions, then put in a bowl with a teaspoon of sugar, half a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of red or white wine vinegar. Toss to mix, then leave, stirring occasionally, for a couple of hours until the onions have softened into a pink, translucent tangle. These keep well in the fridge for a week or so.
Tahini mixed with lemon juice and enough water to make a pouring consistency is also fabulous with so many vegetarian (and non-vegetarian!) dishes. Add crushed garlic or herbs too, if you like.
Elly McCausland is a food writer and blogger at Nutmegs, seven. She has a passion for travel and all things gastronomic, with a particular emphasis on fruit, breakfast and proper British puddings. When not concocting recipes or planning her next cultural odyssey, she is an English literature academic, specialising in children’s literature.