It’s the butt of many a seasonal joke, but the rehabilitation of the nut roast for Christmas is overdue, says Felicity Cloake
If there’s such a thing as pariah food – a recipe shunned by mainstream menus, mocked to near extinction and consigned to niche hinterlands for evermore – then the nut roast, a dish whose very name has become a watchword for sawdusty disappointment, is surely a strong contender. One of the darlings of the early vegetarian movement (particularly in its even sadder form, the cutlet), it was on the menu at John Harvey Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium [sic], and has since become the default Sunday option for vegetarians – and a default source of derision for everyone else.
It’s a shame; not only are nuts quite ridiculously nutritious but, as anyone who’s ever shelled out (sorry) for a tiny glass of pistachios in a pub will know, they’re a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. But although I happen to have a soft spot for nut roast – an option often preferable to the meat that emerged from the school kitchen – it seems I’m in a cranky minority. A request for recipe recommendations was met with a polite silence on Twitter: vegetarianism, apparently, has moved on a bit. You don’t seeYotam Ottolenghi faffing about with nut roasts, do you? But I’m determined to revive the fortunes of this much-maligned classic. After all,Christmas isn’t Christmas without a luxury nut selection.
Lightening the load
I’m convinced that the nut’s very nutritiousness is to blame for the dish’s poor reputation. They’re so dense that a loaf made primarily from nuts would be more suitable for slicing into energy bars and selling to mountaineering supply shops – hence the main bulk of a nut roast is generally some form of carbohydrate, intended to lighten the load.
Breadcrumbs seem to be the most popular choice, but Rose Elliot’s recipe, in Vegetarian Christmas (as recommended by one of the three nice people who did tweet back, India Knight), doesn’t quite convince as the centrepiece of the festive feast. It consists of two layers of ground cashew nuts, mixed with breadcrumbs, onions, nutmeg and vegetable stock, and separated by a vibrant green herb stuffing, the main ingredient of which is also bread. Although surprisingly moist, thanks to the stock (indeed, the contrast between the crisp exterior and the squidgy middle is horribly moreish), the combination of parsley, garlic and breadcrumbs reminds me of a very fancy loaf of garlic bread – and all but overpowers the sweet flavour of the cashews.
Christmas queen Mary Berry’s aubergine five-nut roast, from her Christmas Collection, is, as the name suggests, rather more focused on the nut side of things. Breadcrumbs play second fiddle to a medley of almonds, Brazils, chestnuts, pine nuts and pistachios which, although tangy with lemon juice and garlic, is outrageously dense. A single slice of this could leave you supine in front of the Queen’s speech without even the wherewithal to reach for the remote control.
Waitrose opt for brown breadcrumbs in the recipe on their website – mixed with an off-puttingly wholesome combination of chestnut mushrooms, brown rice and grated carrot to provide the substance of the loaf. Although I can’t help feeling it’s a recipe that would go down well in a Californian commune, it actually tastes good, as well as being good for me – but perhaps would be better saved for January. Roast potatoes and buttered sprouts would just spoil the effect.
Food writer Annie Bell goes in the opposite direction in her gorgeous Christmas book, presenting “an homage to nut roast” in the form of a large, flat cake of blanched spinach, flavoured with thyme and lemon juice, filled with goat’s cheese, and topped with toasted breadcrumbs. The nuts are reduced to a mere scattering of toasted cashews and flaked almonds and, although the combination of flavours is a good one, it’s more of a warm salad than a nut roast – and not one that would be happy on the same plate as many of the usual Christmas accompaniments.
Food writer William Leigh points me in the direction of another recipe which uses vegetables to pad out the dish: the parsnip and cashew nut roast from food blogger Go-Go Vegan. The cashews are bound together with a mixture of mashed parsnips and breadcrumbs, giving the loaf a light, almost fluffy texture, and a very Christmassy flavour. While many of the others would work as stuffings, or side dishes, this is the first I can see holding its own at the centre of the Christmas table.
The chopped mushrooms add depth to both the Waitrose and the Go-Go Vegan recipe, but what gives the latter some real clout on the flavour front is a teaspoon of Marmite. Vegetarian tweeter Jessica Edmonds tells me her boyfriend likes a similar recipe because “it tastes of Twiglets!”. I’m with him – frankly, what’s Christmas without a Twiglet? – but Annie Bell’s goat’s cheese has given me an idea for something even more festive. Stilton works brilliantly with parsnips, providing a savoury richness which feels a little more special than common or garden yeast extract. Blue cheese calls to mind the chestnuts used by Mary Berry of course, and now I’m on a roll, I pop in some sage and onion too, in a nod to the classic festive stuffing.
The parsnip, stilton and chestnut combination may taste good, but it’s not terribly decorative. In fact, dull’s the word, a lingering adjectival ghost of nut roasts past that I’m keen to banish from the table. Mary Berry wraps her version in strips of chargrilled aubergine but, although it looks rather smart, I worry that something so Mediterranean will stick out like a sore thumb on the plate, given that many vegetarians want to enjoy the same roast potatoes, sprouts and sauces as everyone else. Instead, inspired by the stuffed cabbage rolls eaten at Christmas in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, I use blanched savoy cabbage leaves to wrap my parsnippy parcel, adding a touch of festive greenery to the dish.
Perfect nut roast
For this nut roast, I’ve taken my favourite elements from each roast – sweet, seasonal parsnips, chestnuts and savoury mushrooms – and sprinkled over a few festive ideas of my own. And, at an early Christmas dinner of omnivores, this disappeared even faster than the pigs in blankets – high praise indeed.
Serves 6 (with accompaniments)
2 large parsnips
Oil, to grease
1 small savoy cabbage, 4–6 outer leaves only
1 red onion, finely chopped
150g chestnut mushrooms, finely chopped
100g cooked chestnuts, roughly chopped
100g stilton, crumbled (or other vegetarian-friendly cheese of your choice)
100g brown breadcrumbs
2 tbsp chopped fresh sage
1 free-range egg, beaten
1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Peel and quarter the parsnips, and cook in boiling, salted water until tender, drain well and mash.
2. Grease a loaf tin approximately 20cm x 10cm x 7cm, then line with foil, and grease this generously. Blanch 6 savoy cabbage leaves in boiling, salted water for 2 minutes: you’ll need enough to line the tin with overlapping leaves, but how many depends on the size of your cabbage, so make sure you have enough before you tip away the water. Immediately plunge the leaves into iced water.
3. Toast the hazelnuts in a frying pan over a high heat until starting to colour, then set aside. Turn the heat down to medium, add the butter and chopped onion and cook for 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook for another 7 minutes until nicely softened.
4. Roughly chop the hazelnuts and put them in a large bowl along with the chopped chestnuts, crumbled stilton, breadcrumbs and chopped sage. Add the mashed parsnip and softened onions and mushrooms followed by the beaten egg. Season and stir together well.
5. Line the prepared tin with overlapping cabbage leaves, leaving any excess hanging over the sides, then spoon in the mixture, pressing it down well, and fold any overhanging cabbage leaves back over the top. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 45 minutes. (Alternatively, you can keep it in the fridge for a day or so before baking.)
6. Remove the foil from the top and put the loaf back in the oven for another 15 minutes, then take out of the oven and put a large serving plate over the top of the tin. Holding the tin with oven gloves, turn the plate over so the loaf inverts on to the plate. Carefully peel off the foil and cut into slices to serve.
Does nut roast deserve its reputation, or is it the long-suffering victim of anti-vegetarian prejudice? Whose recipe do you like – and, if not nut roast, what’s your vegetarian dish of choice this Christmas?