Happy New Year! I’ve been seriously remiss in my month-long hiatus, but I plead for leniency on account of being ambushed by Christmas. Honestly, I only just got the mincemeat bottled in time for the festivities, and I was still madly baking cookies well into the wee hours of Christmas Eve. Grovelling aside, I do hope that everyone had a lovely, peaceful holiday, full of good cheer, scintillating company, and, above all, excellent food. H.I. and I did, thank you very kindly, and, as we head into the New Year, I shall relate some of the new and delicious things we experienced during the break. As a general rule, I don’t participate in the resolution game, but, for the dawning of a fresh, new decade, I have relented – to a certain extent. As a nod to the great tradition of self-deception, my oath, delivered smirkingly, is to be more adventurous, culinarily speaking. I shall sample at least one new thing a week – be it a new recipe, product, ingredient, utensil, shop or restaurant. So. Fifty-two new things. How difficult can that be?
For my first post of the year, I’m not starting with New Thang #1, but I’m harking back to Christmas. You’ll see why, if you bear with me! For me, Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without the tourtière, which is a savoury, French-Canadian meat pie, typically served at the Christmas Eve Réveillon after midnight mass. Each family has its own version of this pie – some are filled simply with spiced meat, whilst others boast a mixture of meat and winter vegetables, some use puff pastry, others rolled – and each one will passionately defend the authenticity and general righteousness of its version. I’m not here to dispute the tastiness of anyone’s Grand-maman’s recipe (although Mum’s vegetable-studded pies would rock your world), so no defensive, angry words for ol’ Nin, pretty please. No, my mission was to bring the elixir of tourtière to the uninitiated. During my years as a vegetarian, I remember feeling like such a martyr on Christmas Eve when they passed the tourtière around the table. I tried not to show it, but the smell of the spices wafting from my Mum’s flaky pastry cases drove me to distraction and nearly broke my resolve. I’m not naive – I’m sure it was all part of a carefully orchestrated covert operation to turn me back to the dark side.
Well, as I knew we’d be having Christmas lunch with a vegetarian or two, I decided that my contribution to the feast would be a meat-free version of tourtière. Most of them, if not all, hadn’t ever experienced the magnificence that is the tourtière, so I wanted to give them the opportunity to taste as close an approximation of it as I could muster. Before I plunged headlong into the task, I browsed for vegetarian versions of the pie’s filling in my cookbooks and online, but I wasn’t terribly inspired by what I found. There appeared to be an over-reliance on TVP (textured vegetable protein) as the main ingredient, and I just didn’t want to go that route. This is by no means a denigration of TVP; I completely understand why it would prove a popular choice for a veggie tourtière. As a meat analogue, TVP is cheap, versatile, quick-cooking, low in fat, and it provides a familiar, meaty texture. Not only is it an excellent protein source, but it can used to introduce non-vegetarians to meatlessness in unthreatening shapes and forms or even to offer fledgling and transitional veggies the support of familiar dishes as they learn of new ways and ingredients to cook. The people for whom I was making this tourtière, however, were rarefied creatures who no longer needed to be weaned from the texture or mouth-feel of meat. Indeed, one of our guests, the glamourous Raoeme, has never consumed an ounce of animal flesh in her life, so I didn’t feel that I could, in good conscience, set a dish made to resemble the original as closely as possible before her. No, it had to be made of lentils, and it had to be made of Puy lentils.
After much hovering, stirring, muttering and adjusting, I was satisfied with my vegetarian tourtière filling. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the brightest idea to prepare the poultry version of the tourtière filling at the same time, but at that moment, it appealed to me as good sense. If made side by side, I reasoned, the two disparate mixtures could be sampled for comparison and contrast throughout their constructions. I’d be able to adjust the seasonings of the veggie version to approximate that of the turkey one. What it actually did, sadly, was alter my perception so radically that I had all but convinced myself that the vegetarian version was a DEAD RINGER for the meat-based one. Pleased with myself, I baked up a handful of each sort and set them before Him Indoors. He chewed in silence and avoided eye contact. Heart sinking, I plunged a fork into a veg pie for a confirmation of the worst. “They are edible,” he said tactfully, “but they are nothing at all like tourtière.” Sighing, I had to agree. In terms of what I was trying to achieve, namely giving my vegetarian friends an approximation of the flavours that I loved and associated with Christmas, it was a dismal failure. Needless to say, I didn’t bring the vegetarian course to Christmas lunch; I spared the guests that much. Upon further reflection, however, we both decided that the taste was reminiscent of a store-bought vegetarian haggis made by Hall’s, which I had tried my level best to replicate in the past but never seemed able to accomplish. So, ha! I shall declare this a backdoor success! It makes a terrible tourtière but a rather nice vegetarian haggis substitute, just in time for Rab Burns’ Night on January 25th!
Depsite this relatively happy ending, I was left with far more “raw” filling than I knew what to do with. I wouldn’t countenance throwing it away, but I also knew I couldn’t keep offering it apologetically up to H.I. if I wanted to remain happily married, so for lunch one day, I flattened a ball of filling into a patty, coated it in breadcrumbs and sautéed it until golden. Served on a roll with spiced plum chutney, it tasted pleasant enough, but the texture was so loose and crumbly, it had the look of something that had been dragged sideways through a prickly hedge. My last salvage attempt involved the addition of some tomato paste and several more dashes of seasoning to the leftover lentil mix. I reheated the entire mess, spooned it into a casserole dish, topped it off with mashed Maris Piper tatties and a crown of grated cheddar and baked it for 40 minutes at 180C. Presto! Veggieherder Pie! It was unrecognisable as its former incarnation and it was delicious. I set the plates in front of H.I. without so much as a grunt by way of explanation and tucked wordlessly in, fully expecting him to suss out the culprit. To my surprise, he nodded appreciatively and declared whatever it was we were eating quite good. So, as I said before, it’s not a unmitigated disaster but a work in progress to which I shall definitely return.
Veggie Tourtière/Substitute Veggie Haggis/Veggie-herder Pie Base
1 1/2 – 2 cups puy lentils, soaked overnight
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup raw millet
1 cup cooked brown rice
1-2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 onions, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2-3 stalks of celery, chopped
1 cup very finely sliced mushrooms – as close to minced as one can get
1 tsp sage
1-1 1/2 tsp savory
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cloves
1/8 tsp cayenne
1/8 tsp allspice
1/2-1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
2 tbsp tamari or soy sauce
1 1/2 – 2 cups vegetable stock
1 tbsp vegetarian Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp yeast extract, such as miso or Marmite
1 large carrot, chopped/diced and cooked
1 large potato, peeled, diced and cooked (preferably a waxy variety)
(Optional! I used 2 potatoes in mine: one floury potato, peeled, cooked and mashed, to further thicken up the texture of the lentil mixture, and one waxy potato, cooked and diced, to stud the lentil mixture.)
Enough of your favourite recipe for pastry for a double crusted pie OR about 6-8 individual pastry shells
* 2 T tomato paste (only used in the shepherd’s/vegherder pie)
* salt and pepper to taste
1. Soak the lentils overnight. After their all-night bath, drain and rinse them off, cover them with fresh water in a medium saucepan and, adding the the bay leaf, bring them to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the lentils are tender. (Mine didn’t take very long at all – 20 minutes tops – but they could take up to 45 minutes. Always make with the checking!) Drain and rinse them again, remove the bay leaf, and set aside.
2. While the lentils are simmering, prepare the millet in a separate, small saucepan. Combine1 cup of water with the grain in the pan and bring it a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the millet has absorbed the water, which should take about 20 minutes. Set aside.
3. In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepot, heat the vegetable oil. Add the onions, celery and garlic and fry until the onions have softened but not started to brown. Tip the mushroom mince in next, and cook, stirring, for 1-2 minutes. Next for the pot are the herbs, spices, and seasonings: sage, savory, cinnamon, cloves, cayenne, allspice, salt and pepper. Stir well to combine, and cook the mixture for a few minutes until the spices are fragrant.
4. Now add the drained lentils, cooked brown rice and millet to the onion and spice mixture. Stir to combine all the components well. Add enough of the stock to keep the mixture from sticking to the bottom – I added the liquid in 1/2 cupsful at a time, as needed. Along with one of the 1/2 cup stock additions, stir in the Worcestershire sauce and Marmite.
5. If your carrot and potato are not already prepared, now is the time to do so. Steam, boil or microwave your diced vegetables to your desired consistency, drain them of excess moisture, and stir them gently into the lentil mixture simmering on the hob. (At this point of my own preparations, I decided to include a floury, mashed potato for a little extra thickness to the filling. It didn’t affect the flavour significantly, it was just padding and probably entirely unnecessary!)
6. Preheat your oven to 350F/180C/Gas Mark 4. Roll out your pastry to fit your pie pan, and then pour the lentil filling in. Cover with the second layer of pastry, and then pop it in the oven to bake until golden – about 30-35 minutes. Serve with winter vegetables, preserves, and a thick slice of cheese. (Some folk would have you smother it with gravy, but they would be WRONG.)