With World Vegan Day having just passed on October 1, I figured I'd put in my own small contribution forward and try and get the biggest meat-eater I know – aka my brother – to eat something vegetarian. And in order to do that, I had to make “the offering” as appetising as possible. The common problem with any red-blooded meat-eater is that they either shy away from or openly shun (my brother being the latter) anything that looks green, leafy or has vegetables in it, so making a classic vegetarian dish like dosa or kolar mocha would be pointless. My strategy here was to make something that is traditionally meaty, but swap the meat with a delicious concoction of vegetables, proving to anyone interested that missing out on meat does not mean missing out on flavours.
Vegetarian food has more options to play around with because it includes animal products like dairy, and I figured I had a higher chance of convincing a meat-eater to go meatless for a day as long as I incorporated some cheese and butter. So I decided to take my chances with vegetarian lasagne.
One of my favourite vegan items that I recently discovered is soy nuggets, which are basically textured vegetable protein. Made to resemble the texture of meat, while these are bland in their basic form, once rehydrated, they turn into delightful sponges that can be infused with any and every flavour possible; the added bonus – they are super cheap and available in any supermarket.
• 8 sheets of lasagne
• 200g of button mushrooms
• 8 dried shitake mushrooms
• 1 vegetable cube
• 1½ cups of soy nuggets
• 2 medium sized aubergine/eggplant
• 1 large red pepper
• 1 large carrot
• 3 large onions
• 4 cloves of garlic
• 1/3 tsp dried rosemary
• ½ tsp dried thyme
• ½ tsp parsley
• ½ tsp oregano
• 1 tbsp paprika
• 2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
• 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
• 2 tbsp tomato paste
• 1 tin of tomato puree (about 390-400g)
• 100g of cheddar cheese
• 100g of mozarella cheese
• 50g of butter
• 500ml milk
• Salt and pepper to taste
• ½ tbsp sugar
• 3-4 tbsp olive oil
Start off by doing the mise en place, which in fancy chef lingo basically means preparing your ingredients. Put the soy nuggets and shitake mushrooms in two bowls, fill them up with water, and set aside, covered. Drying any ingredient basically intensifies its flavours, and dried mushrooms have a particular umami flavour which packs a punch and makes up for the obvious heartiness of minced beef.
Then, dice all the veggies in roughly the same size. Put the eggplant and pepper in a flat roasting pan, mix them together with a tablespoon of olive oil and paprika and spread it all out evenly. Put it in a preheated oven set at 200°C to roast for about 30 to 40 minutes.
Eggplant and pepper both have a high water content, so there is a danger of them turning mushy when slow cooked in a sauce. Slow roasting on low to moderate heat gets them nicely charred and caramelised and intensifies the flavours.
Once the shitake and soy nuggets are done rehydrating, chop them up to resemble mince meat. Discard some of the tough stalks of the mushroom, but keep the now brownish liquid they had been hydrating in, since this will be part of the vegetable stock (added flavour!).
I then moved on to the cooking. Start off by sautéing the carrots, onion and garlic in a large pot over moderate heat. Once soft and translucent, add the dried herbs, then the chopped mushrooms and soy nuggets.
Continue cooking and stirring for about 10 to 12 minutes, until all the veggies are well incorporated with the herbs, then add the tomato paste and cook for a further five minutes. Add the stock cube and tomato puree. Fill up the tin with water, swirl it around and also add that to the pot to avoid waste.
Give it all one final stir, lower the heat and cover the pot to allow the sauce to simmer for about 25-30 minutes.
If you have my luck, you'll return to find the sauce reduced down beautifully. Now take it off the heat and keep aside for later.
Now move on to the bechamel or white sauce. In a smaller pot, melt the butter on a low heat, then add the flour and stir well to create a roux (paste to help thicken sauces).
Gradually add the milk, stirring vigorously in between batches so as not to create lumps. I used a whisk to make sure everything comes together. Add half of the cheddar cheese into the sauce, and season.
Once you have all your components, move on to assembling. I start with a layer of my tomato 'meat' sauce, spreading it out evenly in the base of a flat baking dish. Spoon over a layer of the white sauce and sprinkle over some of the mozarella cheese.
Then, place the uncooked pasta sheets on top; break up some of the larger pieces to make an even layer, and then spoon another layer of the white sauce over this. Then repeat the layer of tomato sauce.
On this attempt I had three layers, until I ended with the last layer of pasta sheet and a generous layer ofwhite sauce, over which I sprinkled the remainder of the grated cheddar.
Pop this in a preheated oven to bake at 180°C for about 45 to 50 minutes, until the top turns a beautiful golden and the edges turn deliciously crunchy.
With everybody who tried it having thoroughly enjoyed my take on a vegetarian lasagna, this story, thankfully ends on a happy note.