There has been an ad running of late on Irish radio for a new play. The ad includes an excerpt from the play, which runs something like this:
They eat nut roast… Nut roast? …the only nuts I want roasted at Christmas come covered in chocolate and wrapped in shiny paper…
This says a lot about the bad rap that the classic vegetarian Christmas main course of nut roast gets, and sometimes with just cause. Food for the token vegetarian at the Christmas table very often comes in a distant second to main meat event and, to quote Alice Waters, can be the kind of stridently vegetarian food that leaves us “feeling somehow punished by dishes most memorable for their meatlessness”.
Fortunately, my own experience in this department is quite the opposite, having been shaped by this glorious cheese and nut loaf recipe from Edward Espe Brown’s Tassajara Recipe Book (from where the Alice Waters quote also comes). I first had this at Thanksgiving many years ago with my friend Tim’s family in Boulder and have been making it as a special occasion dish ever since. It’s rich and satisfying and works really well with the rest of the non-meaty trimmings on the Christmas table. I now can’t imagine Christmas dinner without it!
Tassajara Cheese and Nut Loaf
The Veg Mix:
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 small green pepper, cut into small squares
- 125g mushrooms, chopped
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 1 tsp dried marjoram
- 1 tsp dried savoury
- 0.5 tsp dried sage
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
The Cheese, Nuts and Other Stuff:
- 150g walnuts, chopped (or substitute brazil nuts, hazelnuts or a mixture)
- 60g raw cashews, chopped
- 175g cooked brown rice (about 70g uncooked weight)
- 350g grated cheese: choose a mature cheddar or gruyere or a combination of both, plus some parmesan
- 4 eggs, beaten
- 150g cottage cheese (or substitute natural yoghurt)
- 1 fistful of chopped fresh herbs: I use flat leaf parsley and thyme, you could include some oregano or marjoram also
- Preheat the oven to 180C (or see below for an alternative microwave method)
- Heat some oil or butter in a pan over a medium heat.
- Add the onion to the pan and cook until it starts to soften.
- Add the mushrooms, green pepper, garlic, dried herbs and a little salt and black pepper to the pan and cook until the mushrooms and pepper are soft.
- Place the cooked veg in a large bowl and add all of the remaining ingredients and mix well.
- Check the seasoning. Leave it a bit undersalted as the saltiness of the cheeses will become more apparent later.
- Cook using either the conventional or microwave methods below and serve with a mushroom or yeast-based gravy and your choice of vegetables. Makes around 8 servings.
To Oven Cook:
- Line the bottom and sides of a 9in square baking tin with two crossed rectangles of baking parchment or foil, leaving about 3 inches overhanging on each side. Liberally butter the lined tin.
- Add the cheese and nut mixture to the tin, rap sharply to remove any air bubbles and smooth with a spoon or spatula.
- Fold the overhanging paper over the top and bake in the preheated oven for about an hour or until firm to the touch.
- Cool on a wire rack for 5-10 minutes before turning out onto a serving platter.
The Alternative Microwave Method:
- Discovered through a combination of necessity and desperation at Thanksgiving one year in a friends house, when none of the assembled cast of characters could figure out the trick of getting the conventional oven turned on… This method is convenient if you don’t want to cook the full loaf all at once.
- Divide the cheese and nut mixture between 4 microwave dishes.
- Cook each individual dish at full power until the edges start to brown and the loaf is firm to the touch. Depending on the oven and the mixture, this could take somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes.
- If you don’t need to cook all of the mixture straight away, you can freeze the individual bowls of uncooked loaf mixture and then cook in the microwave from frozen (though it will obviously need more cooking time in this case).