Vegetarian and vegan food can sometimes get a bad rap for being boring and bland. Bean-filled this, wholemeal encrusted that, a few dried mixed herbs and hey presto, a filling meal. Are most vegetarians really eating like this? I don’t think so. At least I hope not.
Admittedly, if I peruse some of the vegetarian cookery books from the 70s and 80s even I, an ardent exponent of plant-based cuisine, will go ‘bleuch.’ Maybe our tastes have changed, but nut cutlets, lentil loaf and black-eyed pea rissoles don’t really do it for me. Then or now. A lot of the recipes for last century vegetarians and vegans were what I would term as penitential: a punishment for not eating like everyone else. Well, some of us did eat as everyone else did, but removed the meat from our plate (and all hope of protein); others of us made a big song and dance about the goodness of beans and shoved them in everything that tofu didn’t feature (and sometimes even if it did). Still others survived on chips, beans and macaroni cheese. I saw a lot of that in mid-80s Britain: “Oh, I’m a vegetarian, I don’t eat meat,” they would sanctimoniously declare as they stuffed their faces with a stodge fest of gooey, cheese laden carbs. Not a great advert for their lifestyle choice.
But it is so different now. Partly I think it is to do with travel. Many of us have experienced at first hand the culture and food of other countries, and brought back new ideas to integrate into our own daily eating – new spices, new foods, new cooking methods. But also, I think in huge part, change is due to the Internet. Even those of us who never travel from our own country can, with relative ease, gawp at another culture’s cuisine with the click of a mouse, or swipe of a virtual page. And from gawping and hmming comes experimenting.
My own adventures certainly stem from a combination of the two. I have traveled fairly broadly around the Mediterranean, and the traditional diet of loads of seasonal veg and fruit, olive oil, fish, grains and little meat and cheese has heavily influenced the way I cook at home, and for the Maggies Centres.
But, as with Georgia – from two posts back – I have never been to North Africa. This hiccup in my travel diary has not stopped me loving their food, especially that of Tunisia and Morocco. I love the intense but not hot spicing – the ochre and fire colours, the soft braising of meat, dried fruits and vegetables, the slowness of method. It is kind of time-standing-still cooking. Not perhaps suited to a quick midweek meal, but a productive and fragrant way to spend a few hours at the weekend. The beauty of much North African cooking is that once you’ve made it – hopefully a big batch – it tastes even better the next day, and the next. Although North Africans do indeed eat meat, they are very clever and creative with vegetables, pulses and grains. Something we can learn from. Life is too precious to spend it eating boring food. Spice up your food. Spice up your life.
Tunisian-style Chickpea and Vegetable Tagine with Apricot Couscous
This is an easy, warming stew that is easy to double and freezes well. And as if that weren’t enough, it lends itself to using seasonal vegetable (Scottish) so is economical and environmentally friendly too. In the summer, use more Mediterranean type veg and serve at room temperature. At any time of the year you can speed up the prep by using frozen vegetables.
It’s great to keep a stash of this tagine in the freezer for when you are tired but want to resist the lure of the supermarket chill cabinet. Have this with the suggested simple couscous, a baked potato, quinoa, or with steamed pitta bread. All options are good with a plain green salad topped with fresh orange slices, black olives and red onion. By the way, tagine is not only the name of this type of stew, but also the name of the conical ceramic dish in which it is cooked (here is a particularly lustful one). But you knew that already.
1 Tbsp olive oil
2 red onions, peeled and chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled (keep peel if organic) and sliced
2 tsp each ground cinnamon, ground coriander, ground cumin
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp smoked paprika (optional but very nice)
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
500g (1 lb) – or more – of favourite stewing/hard veg, peeled and diced: courgette, butternut squash, sweet potato, fennel, parsnip, swede, turnip, kohlrabi, okra, sweet corn
2 x 400g (14 oz) tins of organic chickpeas (or 225 gm dried chickpeas, soaked and cooked per directions)
2 x 400g (14 oz) tins of organic chopped tomatoes or equivalent of fresh, diced (with juices)
1 small preserved lemon, juiced and the half the peel chopped (about 1 tbsp) – optional
2 tbsps tomato puree (organic if possible) or sun-dried tomato paste
Maldon salt and black pepper to taste
Water or vegetable stock, if needed (don’t use stock if using the preserved lemon as the preserved lemon adds all the salt you need)
Cooked couscous with dried apricots (see below), optional
Fresh mint, chopped – to serve
Heat the oil in a large lidded pan over a low-medium heat. Add the onions and carrots and saute gently for 10 minutes with the lid loosely on; stirring occasionally. Stir in the spices and garlic, cooking for a further 2-3 minutes, stirring. Don’t let it burn.
Add in the vegetables and chickpeas, along with tomato puree, chopped tomatoes, preserved lemon juice and skin, and up to 100 ml of water, if you think it needs it (end result of stew should be thick with a bit of sauce). Bring up to the boil and then turn down to a very gentle simmer. Cover and leave for about 45 minutes. Do not peek more than once as the steam holds flavours that build up and drip down, helping to make this dish so tender, tasty and melt-in-your mouth. Season to taste after it cools down a bit.
Make up the couscous at the end of the stew’s cooking time. The stew should be left for the flavours to develop as it cools a little. It actually (as with most stews) tastes better the next day. The tagine freezes well too.
The Couscous: Add 100g of dried couscous, ½ tsp of salt and a handful of snipped dried apricots (unsulphured if possible) to a wide-ish bowl and pour over 225ml of just- boiled water and 1 tsp of good extra virgin olive oil. Cover with some cling film and leave for 10 minutes. Add another 2 tsp of good extra virgin olive oil, or a knob of butter, and fluff with a fork. Couscous is quick and easy to make when the stew is finished simmering and is coming down to a manageable temperature. Serve a big ladle of tagine onto a smaller spoon of couscous and top with shredded mint.
For a bit of authenticity (and a bit of a laugh) serve the stew and couscous with large Romaine lettuce leaves. Plop a bit of both into a leaf and roll up like a tortilla. Add a dash of harissa paste if you desire a bit more heat (a Moroccan spiced chilli paste). Here is a good looking recipe if you want to make your own, but I like al’Fez brand.