Chickpea tuna sandwich filler

This is something I’ve been making mental commitments to try out for a while. I grew up on tuna sandwiches: most lunchtimes I’d sit with my friends to eat a tuna, mayonnaise, and pickled beetroot combination – odd, to some people’s tastes, but the tang of the beetroot went marvellously with the creamy mayo and texture of the tuna. I have a nostalgic hankering after the sandwiches of my high school years, always thickly stuffed by my dad, and rarely disappointing.

Eating this took me straight back to those lunchtime tuna sandwiches, as the texture of the roughly mashed chickpeas has the same loose, chunky feel. The red onion, carrot, and celery add a nice crunch, with the tahini adding a creaminess to bring it all together. I always preferred my tuna relatively dry, and as I’m not keen on vegan mayo, the relative dryness of this was perfect – but feel free to add mayo if you’re so inclined.

To make enough chickpea tuna for two / three sandwiches, depending on how thick you want them, you’ll need:

  • one tin / carton of chickpeas
  • half a small carrot
  • half a small red onion
  • half a small stick of celery
  • 2 tbsp tahini
  • half a lemon
  • salt & pepper
  • vegan mayo (optional)
  • paprika and chilli flakes (optional)

Drain the chickpeas and place in a large bowl. Very finely chop the carrot, onion, and celery, before adding them to the bowl, along with the tahini, most of the lemon’s juice, and plenty of salt and pepper. Mash with a potato masher to the desired consistency – chunky is best. Add paprika and chilli flakes for extra flavour.

Spread the chickpea tuna between thick slices of wholemeal bread, and top with cucumber / tomato / lettuce / pickled beetroot as desired. This also works very well in pitta breads, batons, or atop toasted bread.

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Six months as a vegan

Admittedly, six months is a mere blink of the eye in the relative scheme of things. But this period of time as a vegan is something of a milestone, and a learning curve if I’ve ever had one. I’ve made a few observations in this short duration.

  • Being a vegan can be alienating. I live with three ladies: one is almost vegan, the other two are entirely omnivorous. I watch them crack eggs and fry bacon with a strangled outrage. It’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that for most of the population, eating animal products is as normal as sunrise and Monday mornings.  My brain is hard-wired onto a different plane of thinking, and my eyes see through another lens; it is difficult to cast myself down on to the level of un-caring I used to occupy. I’m angry, but I always refrain from comments and ‘preachy’ statements. I know that I am not entitled to judge, but cannot view their dietary choices in any other way.
  • Social media can be illuminating, but contributes to this alienation. We live in a society where the information we consume is freely adapted to our own tastes: we can filter out what we don’t want to read and focus entirely on what we like. A reality confirmation bias, you could call it. My Instagram feed is and always will be a continuous stream of food, cats, and artful coffee shop snaps. Now, the food featured almost exclusively vegan, which obscures the fact that my lifestyle is a minority one, numbing me from reality. Subscribing only to vegan feeds causes me to forget what society’s norm really is.
  • There are people who just will never understand. At Christmas my grandma grilled me on why I have chosen this lifestyle. After a discussion on why grass-fed cows are still not a valid option, she said “Well, at least they’ve had a nice life.” Talking with her is probably pointless. If for seventy years, meat has been a daily feature on her table, then it would take a near miracle to persuade her to change. I can discuss the issues with her more; but it’s disheartening to accept that there are battles which may never be won.
  • My choice is empowering. I have always had difficulty in speaking out and defending my corner. With veganism, my self-consciousness melts away with fervour. I am quickly frustrated and often upset by the intransigence of others, but it’s a learning curve.
  • My health has improved. Certain bodily functions are no longer an issue; I have put on a stone, and my muscles have taken on better definition. I feel less tired, more energised. My skin hasn’t cleared up, though, but no-one said veganism cured everything.
  • Cooking has become more exciting. I try different flavours and dishes far more often than I used to. I’m more open-minded to cooking with different ingredients, and I’ve come round to tofu. Feeding myself now is more creative and experimental.

Here’s to another six months – in the grand scheme of many.

Tofu & salad sandwiches

Lunching as a student is difficult. You’re generally on the run between lectures or hunched over books in the library, so time is of the essence in your choice of sustenance. I divide my lunchtimes between my desk at work, in the Student’s Union, cramming in mouthfuls of a sandwich in quieter periods; and with a spot on the floor of the library foyer, between study sessions, or before my yoga class. I don’t particularly enjoy the rush, but such is life.

Generally, I bring a veggie pitta, usually with avocado, and some tomatoes or cucumber. Occasionally I’ll muster the effort to make a salad the night before, always with wholemeal couscous and some form of bean. Keeping lunches varied stops me from getting bored, and succumbing to the allure of buying an expensive ready-made wrap on campus (of which vegan options have gloriously increased). I’m currently trying to broaden my sandwich horizons, and this recent tofu creation was a winner.

For one big sandwich, you’ll need:

  • 2 slices chunky brown bread, or 1 large wholemeal pitta
  • 1/3 block tofu
  • thumb-sized piece of cucumber / thin slices of salad tomato
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 tbsp tamari / soy sauce
  • 1 tsp maple syrup / agave nectar
  • 1 tsp liquid smoke / BBQ sauce
  • salt & pepper
  • 1 tsp onion powder
  • garlic powder (optional)
  • Dijon mustard (optional)
  • vegan mayo (not optional)

Begin by pressing the tofu: wrap in a clean tea-towel, and place under a heavy object, such as a bag of dried chickpeas, or a wooden chopping board stacked with tins for extra weight. Make sure it’s stable, and bear in mind that the surface underneath the tofu will be damp. Leave to press for as long as possible – half an hour will do if you’re really pushed for time.

In a bowl, mix the liquid seasonings and whisk briskly with a fork until incorporated. Add salt, pepper, onion powder, and garlic if using, and continue to mix. Slice the pressed tofu lengthways into four pieces, place in a shallow bowl and pour over the marinade – turn over a few times and leave to absorb for ten minutes.

Heat the oven to to 200 degrees celsius, or gas mark 6. Put the tofu slices on a baking tray and cook for 25 minutes, turning halfway; they’ll turn a pleasant shade of brown.

In the meantime, thinly slice the cucumber and / or tomato. If you prefer your sandwiches crispy, pop the bread or pitta into a toaster. When the tofu is ready, layer into the bread with the slices of cucumber, slather generously in mayonnaise, and add a small amount of mustard for extra flavour. If there’s space, add fresh lettuce and a little chopped red onion. Bon appetit!

Eating raw vegan at Vitao; vegan pizza at Zizzi & Pizza Express

I’ve written about Zizzi before, back in my pre-vegetarian & vegan days. But having paid them another visit to take advantage of the 2-for-1 offer on vegan mains – running Sunday to Thursday all through Veganuary – another post on the subject is due, coupled with a little review of the vegan option I recently sampled at Pizza Express.

Off-topic, but briefly, I’d like to mention my lunch-time fuel on a recent trip to London: devoured at Vitao, a little raw vegan cafe. Ideal for tourists and workers alike, a plate or box is bought prior to loading every particle of space with buffet-style food. Although I sat down to a very un-photogenic box of amalgamated salads, hummous, curries and alfalfa sprouts, the overlapping flavours were glorious. We shared a slice of raw vegan chocolate cake topped with ganache, god-sent from heaven. The whole affair was very quick, as we were starving, but it was thoroughly energising: perfect for workers on their lunch hour, or tourists keen to sight-see as much as possible. If you’re in Soho and in dire need of good food, whether you’re raw vegan or not, I would recommend Vitao for a quick fix.

So, vegan pizzas. Can I just thank Zizzi for an offer actively encouraging those who are curious about veganism? If a vegan pizza is cheaper than anything else on the menu, then unless you are a fussy eater, it makes perfect sense to save some money. To serve specifically vegan mains legitimises vegan food as a separate entity, to those who are sceptical of its worth; it is not merely omnivorous fare stripped of the meat and dairy. The only aspect I’d disagree with is the necessity to ask for the separate ‘allergens and dietary requirements’ menu, as it perpetuates the idea that veganism is a special or faddy diet for an alternative few. Why not expand the menu a little to encompass all?

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Classic vegan margherita at Zizzi

On offer were the classic margherita and a larger ‘rustica’ version, with a tomato base and coconut-based cheese; three additional toppings were charged at 80p each, ranging from balsamic tomatoes, artichokes, spinach, and roasted garlic cloves. I chose sun-dried tomatoes, roasted peppers and mushrooms, with a side of tenderstem broccoli. My apprehension grew as I waited for it to arrive: I was desperate to like this alternative to a food I’d once worshipped, and praying that the coconut would not linger on my tastebuds. My fears were not realised. Although definitely not much akin to the real thing, there was still an odd ring of cheesiness about the rather thin substance on my pizza. I’d have liked a thicker smothering of the stuff: but never mind. The tomato base was very defined in flavour, not like the more pitiful offering at Pizza Express, which I’ll get on to shortly. On the whole, my first vegan pizza was a pleasant experience. I didn’t feel uncomfortable or bloated after eating, and my gut did not react badly to the much higher intake of oil it was confronted with – takeaway food is something I’ve never much enjoyed, originally from a fear of fat and calories, and then more naturally from realising it’s often tasteless.

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Vegan Pianta at Pizza Express

The vegan option at Pizza Express is the ‘Pianta’, made with no cheese, and arriving with a layer of spinach over mushrooms, pine kernels, artichokes, and tomato. What is fantastic about Pizza Express is their willingness to use your own vegan cheese, brought in from home, on any pizza. Bringing in your own ingredient would normally be an imposition to a chef, but with this, vegans and the lactose-intolerant aren’t made to feel like outsiders. Next step: introduce an option of dairy or non-dairy cheese, as Zizzi has implemented. My first pizza was inferior to Zizzi’s in terms of taste; while the former was average, the latter was good. And, they kindly accepted my offer code despite it being invalid on a weekend – most definitely customer service to appreciate.

Thanks for reading!

Pan-fried red pepper & sprouts

The Brussels sprout, the divisive Christmas vegetable. I’ve always loved them, and I’ve never understood why some people hate them with an absolute passion. As a child, I ate Brussels every year with pancetta and chestnuts; this year, they were boiled and slathered in gravy – slightly less impressive, but tasty nonetheless. With a spare packet slowly withering in the pantry, I wanted to try something a little different, to prove that the traditional sprout isn’t only the derided counterpart to the Christmas roast potatoes: here I’ve pan-fried them with spices and red pepper.

 

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To serve two, you’ll need:

  • a small pack of Brussels sprouts
  • one red pepper
  • one clove of garlic
  • a thumb-sized piece of ginger
  • one small red chilli
  • dark soy sauce
  • sunflower oil, for frying

Begin by chopping off the small stalks and peeling away the outer leaves of each sprout. Finely chop the garlic and chilli, and grate the ginger. (I’ve just discovered how much better grated ginger is for frying. I can tell from the aroma released as it hits the hot oil; and there are no chunky bits of ginger which tend to overpower the other flavours.)

Slice the red pepper in thin strips, then into halves. Heat a good glug of oil in a large frying pan, and add the spices. Fry for no more than a minute, stirring constantly, before adding the sprouts. Mix to combine with the spices, fry for a few minutes, then add the pepper, with more oil if needed.

Fry for around fifteen minutes, moving everything around regularly; but leave the veg to stick to the pan to acquire a bit of a chargrilled tan. In the meantime, set some rice to boil – I will almost always opt for brown, as it’s the wholegrain – the white has been stripped of the bran and the germ, which contain all the fibre, vitamins, and minerals. Here’s a link to a useful article on the advantages (and disadvantages) of brown over white.

Once the sprouts are cooked – soft, but still with bite – add a tablespoon or so of dark soy sauce. I added this for lack of my usual tamari, but in all honesty, I preferred the richness of the dark here: helping everything to caramelise, it complimented the sweetness of the red pepper. Cook for another minute on a low heat before serving over the rice. I also added chickpeas to the pan to cook through, for extra protein. (As I’m at home, I’m enjoying the luxury of organic beans and pulses, and boy are they superior; softer, bigger, and chemical-free. It’ll be hard to shift back to bog-standard tins.) This is a good way to use up a surplus of sprouts, and would go just as well with wholewheat noodles.

Lentil bolognese

If there any purists of Italian cuisine reading this, I wholeheartedly apologise for what I have done to one of your classics. I’ve ripped the meat out, shunned the egg pasta, and given Parmesan the cold shoulder. I’m not even sure if I can call this a bolognese. Nevertheless, since it retains something of a meaty texture and still oozes a luxuriant, tomatoey sauce, this recipe can keep the bolognese as its birthright.

Also, in my defence – this is delicious. It’s hearty, healthy, and tasty, everything a bolognese should be. Yes, I’ve added peppers, to add more fuel to the fire; but in my opinion, they gave the sauce another layer of sweetness. If you’re looking for a healthier alternative to a meat-based bolognese, or, if you’re veggie, or a vegan like me, this is the way to go.

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To serve two generously, you’ll need:

  • 150g dry green lentils
  • two small peppers, red and orange
  • one medium carrot
  • two large sticks of celery
  • one medium brown onion
  • two cloves of garlic
  • one tin of good quality chopped tomatoes
  • tomato puree
  • chilli flakes
  • balsamic vinegar
  • dry spaghetti

Begin by putting the lentils on to boil (not too vigorously) for forty minutes, or until tender. Drain and rinse well in a sieve.

Roughly chop the onion, carrot, and celery. Heat a glug of olive or rapeseed (canola) oil in a large saucepan or crockpot (frying pan is too small!). Cook gently for ten minutes, until softened.

Add finely chopped garlic, and cook, stirring, until aromatic. Tip in the finely sliced peppers, and fry for a few minutes – you’ll probably need to add more oil. Add a good squirt of tomato puree and stir until incorporated. Cook for another minute.

Pour in the chopped tomatoes, adding a little water to clean the tin out. Give it all a good mix, seasoning well with salt, pepper, and chilli flakes, and leave to simmer for half an hour. Then, add the cooked lentils, and 3/4 tbsp balsamic vinegar – this will give it a lovely sweetness – and simmer for another ten minutes, while your spaghetti is cooking.

Drain the pasta, reserving a little of the water. If you’re serving two, add the pasta to the pan and incorporate loosely with tongs, adding a splash of the water if it needs loosening up. If you’re serving your own lonely self, transfer half the bolognese to a plastic container to cool down before putting in the fridge or freezing, and combine spaghetti with the other half.

Serve in bowls, with a sprinkle of nutritional yeast. Delicious!

 

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Christmas dinner: vegan-style

We are all fond of celebrating special occasions through food: from birthdays, visits, achievements, to holidays. Christmas evidently falls in the latter category, with the hotly-anticipated dinner celebrated as the day’s crowning glory. In general, the whole affair is a massive slog: preparing days in advance, cooking for most of the morning, facing the Everest of washing up in the aftermath. But it is tradition, nonetheless, and Christmas Day wouldn’t be the same without it.

Tradition – a handy notion any omnivore could use to justify meat-eating at Christmas, not just in general. Turkey, stuffing, pigs-in-blankets – all essential components of the meal. Gravy must contain animal substances, and potatoes gain ultimate crispness from duck fat. Take away the animal products, and it’s not Christmas dinner. But from anyone’s perspective, it shouldn’t be what you sit down to eat that matters, but the act of sitting down to eat itself. The very essence of Christmas (in a secular view) is goodwill and enjoyment: and the traditional Christmas dinner, in its bare basics, occludes all vestiges of those. Call me a kill-joy, but there’s a bit too much kill thrown into the mix.

 

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Despite this, the veganised Christmas dinner I shared with my housemates was modelled on the one we’ve all eaten throughout our lives: the meaty main, potatoes, veg, gravy. So to an extent, tradition still reigns supreme; but any tradition can be open to interpretation. My vegetarian housemate and I spent an afternoon making a nut roast from Bosh, and she took immense pride in preparing Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s vegan gravy. We parboiled our potatoes before roasting them in plenty of olive oil (in absence of vegetable), salt, pepper, and rosemary; there were parsnips and vegan stuffing balls; carrots, broccoli, peas. Movement was difficult after. And although I’m not a hugely sentimental person, the food took backseat to the actual occasion, even to the 99p bottle of Shloer.

My point is that Christmas dinner is so much more than the food, although a McDonald’s on the day is pretty blasphemous – but if that’s what you want, so be it. Doing it as a vegan doesn’t make it in any way sub-standard; in all honesty, I never particularly liked turkey anyway, and usually slathered it in sauce to detract from its dry texture. The nut roast, on the other hand, was glorious, and not one bird had their life cut short for it. And when you can make enough stuffing for four people from a 20p pack, you know the veggie option’s at least got cost-effectiveness going for it.

What do I really want? For more people to try a vegan Christmas. Spread that festive goodwill beyond men and women. You wouldn’t stuff your dog’s interior with herbs and serve that as your centrepiece, so there is no reason why you should a bird: a turkey wants life just as much as we do. Merry Christmas!

 

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