Tuesday 26 June 2007

Winter Solstice Roast Dinner

Saturday 23 June was the winter solstice down in my part of the world (well the closest Saturday to it – I think it was actually 21st June this year). Also E is fascinated by the number 23. If it was the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, we would have Christmas. But in Melbourne we get the cold and the rain without Christmas lights, parties and feasts. So I thought I would do a nice roast dinner just like my mum used to do.

When I was a child we had roast dinners on an almost weekly basis. Both my grandmothers would also make wonderful roasts. Like baking bread, they fill the house with a wonderful homely aroma. My mum still makes them frequently when I visit. So they are comfort and nostalgia to me. Her roasts are meat centred but she always makes sure there are lots of veggies for me.

She places large shallow metal trays filled with meat, potato and pumpkin in the oven to roast while she attends to her large garden. When the meat has been cooked and put on a clean plate, mum makes gravy in the roasting dish over a gas burner. I never eat her meaty gravy but I still like the ritual of stirring the bubbling liquid and watching it thicken and brown. She whips up cauliflower cheese sauce in the microwave with some rigorous stirring, and pours it over cooked cauliflower which goes in the oven. Lastly, she breaks open a bag of frozen peas and puts that in the microwave too. It all looks so effortless.

Mum says it is one of the easiest dinners for her to make. It takes me a little more energy – maybe because I am not practiced at them or because I usually make a nutroast rather than throwing a joint of meat in the oven. I find it takes hours but it is well worth it.

I hope my description of how central roast dinners were to my childhood will help you understand why I was so delighted to discover nutroasts. I was lucky enough to be made one by my then housemate, Yarrow, soon after I went vegetarian. As a person who never liked meat much, nutroast was a revelation that made me wonder why people eat meat when they can eat nutroast. It is truly the food of the gods!

My older vegetarian cookbooks (and particularly the British ones) all have nutroasts but I think it is old school vegetarian. It hails from the time when vegetarians were defensive and out to prove they were able to eat food as heavy and filling as meat. In our current health-conscious era, meat eaters want to eat meals as light as vegetarians. Ironic, isn’t it? I guess it wasn’t such fun being a vegetarian when less vegetables were available. So nutroast is yesterday's hero. But I am an old fashioned gal and still love it passionately. It is as substantial as any meat, it has the creaminess that I always loved in peanut butter, it has crisp edges as good as any pork crackling, it has all the dense yeastiness of good bread. And if I haven’t convinced nutroast virgins to try it (and I mean home made, not the stuff you buy in a tin), then you might as well return to your meat or your mock meat or whatever you love. (For more information on nut roasts go here.)

Nutloaves are great – they can do a lot of things meat once did for me – but only better. The roast dinner needs a central dish - something that is substantial and strongly flavoured - nutroast is the perfect vegetarian dish. The roast I did on Saturday was nutroast, roast potatoes and pumpkin (from my childhood), cauliflower cheese (another dish my mother perfected), gravy and sprouts. I hated sprouts as a child but have come to appreciate them for winter warmth, and for signalling the depth of winter in the UK. Peas were the green food of choice for my mum’s roasts but they have a spring in their step and a freshness that doesn’t quite sit as well with a comforting midwinter meal as sprouts. We got out the nice serving dishes, poured some wine in the Waterford crystal and lit the candelabra so it felt like a special meal.

I’ll give you a lengthy description of my roast dinner because it is so important to me. This is just a cosy chat about what I do rather than a stern recipe (except the nutloaf recipe which is a bit more dogmatic but even that can be changed hugely). Some of you can probably do this with your hands tied behind your back, but I am happy to swap tips. The menu was:

- Nutloaf with gravy
- Roast potatoes and pumpkin
- Cauliflower cheese
- Brussels sprouts

Serves 6

There are many nutloaf recipes but this is a good simple tasty one – I scribbled it in my recipe notebook 15 years ago and haven’t a clue where it comes from but I have added a few more options than the recipe. It is great with cashews but other nuts are good too.

1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 tbsp (25g) butter
4 small mushrooms, chopped finely
1 tomato, chopped finely (or 1-2 tbsp tomato sauce or paste)
1 1/2 tsp plain wholemeal flour
150ml vegetable stock
1 1/2 tsp yeast extract eg vegemite or promite
2 tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
150g ground nuts (eg 100g cashew and 50g almond OR 100g almond and 50g hazelnut)
100g breadcrumbs (about 4 pieces fresh bread or 1 cup dried)
1 egg
Seasoning to taste (I didn’t use any)

Preheat oven to 180ºC. Grease and line a loaf tin. Melt butter in a medium large saucepan. Fry onion in butter til soft – about 5-10 minutes over low heat. Add mushrooms and tomato or tomato sauce. Fry another 2-4 minutes. Sprinkle flour in and stir 1 minute over heat. Add stock and cook over medium – high heat til mixture boils and thickens. Turn off the heat. Add remaining ingredients and stir til combined. Bake for 45-60 minutes. The recipe says to cover with foil for the first 45 minutes but I don’t bother. You can tell it is done when it is firm to touch and crisped up on the top a little.

NOTES: I have to rave about nutloaf again. It is wonderful in roasts but can be used in so many ways. I love having leftovers. I serve it sliced thinly on toast with tomato and cheese. I chop it into chunks and put it into spag bol or chilli non carne (instead of mince). You can cook the mixture as burgers or nutballs (to have with spag bol). And of course it can be heated and served with most vegetables and salad.


Because I usually don’t have my mum’s meaty gravy, it is a treat to make gravy. A lot of recipes seem to strain or puree the gravy but I like chunks of onion in it. So the way I make it is to fry up a chopped onion in a little oil or butter til they go brown. The I add flour (a spoon or two) and stir over low heat so the flour browns. Then I add some water, maybe some red wine or port, some soy sauce or promite (yeast extract). Taste to check seasoning. Bring to boil. Once it boils it should have thickened but if it hasn't, then just simmer til it thickens. It should be able to pour easily. I have a gravy boat I can serve it in – that always makes me happy!

Roast potatoes and pumpkin
The longer they roast the better, so get them on early. I used red skinned potatoes (desiree, red rascal, etc) and a wedge of pumpkin such as kent, jap, queensland blue. I chop up the potatoes (medium potatoes will make 2 – 4 pieces), put them in a saucepan with about an inch of water, cover and place them on medium to high heat. It will take about 5 minutes for them to come to the boil.

Meanwhile, heat a tablespoon or two of oil in a large roasting dish in a hot oven (I usually use olive oil). You might need two dishes if you have lots of veggies. Then chop up the pumpkin. When the potatoes have come to the boil, drain them. Take the dish out of the oven and place the potatoes and pumpkin in it. I think the theory is that the oil seals rather than soaks in if it is hot. I sometimes put on cold oil but with time and patience, I think hot oil is better. The potatoes are a bit wet so might sizzle a little as the water and oil meet, but this is ok.

Both potatoes and pumpkin become so meltingly sweet and soft when roasted for a long time that they don’t need any additional flavours other than some seasoning to taste. I don’t even bother to peel the skin off – it tastes delicious and is nutritious too. Big chunks are better than small, provided you have time because the larger they are the longer they take to roast. Save the small chunks for when you are in a rush. Sprinkle some salt or pepper if you desire. I put in rosemary and garlic cloves on a whim on the weekend but neither are necessary.

Brush the oil over the veggies (I use a silicone brush). Place in a hot to very hot oven – I often go up to 230ºC but sometimes lower. I would recommend at least 2 hours. Actually you can get away with less but the longer they are in the more they crisp up on the outside and soften inside. Check every 20 – 40 minutes – give the pan a shake to loosen them from the tin, I usually just use a spoon and fork to turn them over but you can use an eggflip or spatula, and I try and make sure they are still covered with oil – this is usually taken care of by turning them but you may need to brush it on again. After a while, they dry out and crisp up so don’t worry too much if the oil dries up. And don’t worry about bits that stick to the bottom of the dish and float around getting really crisp – they are some of the best bits.

You can roast lots of different veggies – parsnip, carrot, turnip, corn on the cob, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, beetroot, garlic – the list is endless, although cooking times may vary. I chose to do potato and pumpkin for a traditional meal because that is what my mum always did.

Cauliflower cheese
In posh circles this is called Cauliflower Au Gratin but calling it Cauliflower Cheese is good enough where I come from. To make this as my mum makes it, I first put on cauliflower to boil, steam or microwave til tender (I boiled it for 15 minutes). Drain when cooked and set aside in a shallow casserole dish.

Then I make a cheese sauce. I often avoid making cheese sauce because it is heavy and likely to be either lumpy, too thin or too thick but it is wonderful comfort food. To make it I take a small or medium size saucepan and melt a couple of dessert spoons of butter or margarine. Add 2-3 dessert spoons of plain flour – the sauce should be quite thick (NB my sister, Susie, uses gluten free flour for her white sauce and it tastes fine). Stir the flour into butter and stir over low heat for a 1-3 minutes. This part (known as making a roux) is the bit I don’t like but I have been told is important – it just seems to go greasy and be likely to stick to the pan.

Now add milk very gradually (I think I added 1½ cups) – if I add it too quickly it goes lumpy, so I add a little and when it is incorporated, I add a bit more. This is probably the white-sauce-for-dummies route – my mum adds milk in much larger amounts and never has these problems! I usually add a handful of grated cheese and a tsp of seeded mustard but you could just season the sauce which I think is what my mum does.

Pour cheese sauce over the cauliflower. Sprinkle with grated tasty cheese and breadcrumbs to barely cover. Bake in moderate to hot oven about 30 minutes or until cheese is melted and golden (ie pop it in with the roasting veggies).

Brussels sprouts

I hated Brussels sprouts as a child, but thanks to Rose Elliot and my friend Yarrow, I now love them. He made them a few years ago, using Rose Elliot's method and I have been hooked ever since. The trick is not to overcook them. E even eats them quite happily (and it has been a Christmas tradition for his dad and him to complain about the sprouts). I never realised how important sprouts were in a British winter til I lived in Scotland – last time I visited I lived on sprouts!

Rose Elliot in Vegetarian Christmas suggests you trim the base and the outer leaves. Then cut the sprouts in half. Boil 4-5 minutes or til just done – they should be still bright green but tender (not grey-green and soggy). Drain and serve tossed with a little butter, salt and pepper. You wont look back!

On the Stereo: 
Son of Evil Reindeer: Reindeer Selection


  1. Sounds absolutely delicious, particularly your gravy recipe. I've had nut roast once, even though I'm not vegetarian (I often cook vegetarian, as you said, just because it's healthful), and it was quite delicious. Thank you for reminding me of that--I must have it again. :)

  2. Drool! It's just after mid-summer here and, though I should be enjoying lots of light June dishes, it's so very very cold and wet I am constantly craving hearty winter food. I've never tried nut loaf before. Sounds delicious.

  3. A very impressive meal! I have only tried to make a nutroast once, it took a lot of effort and the baking paper fused to it but it tasted great. It might be time to try again with your recipe. :-)

    I have never read that trick of roasting veges in already-hot oil before! Must trial it too.

  4. Johanna, I enjoy your post a lot. I will have to try your nut loaf sometimes.

    You know I eat meat, but I do appreciate good vegetarian meal. It's just very good if done with care. My grandma made a lot of good vegetarian dishes, and I always enjoy eating them.

  5. Wow, this was such an informative post. i loved going back to your youth with you and seeing what life was like (at least food-wise). And how great for you to find something you like that is sort of "meat-like," especially having not been a "real" meat fan before... fascinating.

    Old school vegetarians knew what they were doing... and isn't it funny how nowadays, meat eaters are so eager to eat lighter... irony, irony...

  6. Impressive stuff!

    You know, I've never made a nut roast. Ever. Think I'll have to change that now.

  7. glad to remind you of a fine dish, heather. I am never sure of how healthy some of the richer vegetarian foods are compared to meat but provided you don't eat too much it can't be that bad

    wendy - I sympathise with your lack of summer - in Edinburgh I found summers quite depressing because they never got properly hot - but at least it means you can still enjoy wintery food

    Cindy, I too have had baking paper become part of a nutroast - but the taste is worth trying it again - I will try and put some other nutroast recipes on my blog as there are lots out there.

    thanks Anh - I know most onmivores enjoy good vegetarian food - even my family who turn up their nose at the idea, have to have a little of my nutroast when I have it at a family dinner.

    kleopatra - nutroast was indeed a fortuitous discovery - sometimes vegetarian dinners don't have central dishes like meat dishes can - especially those I remember from my youth - so this helps to replace that centre in the meal

    Lucy - you will probably know by now that I hope you will sample the delights of nutroast - they are truly delicious.

  8. Johanna, what can I say? Your nutroast is brilliant.

    What was I missing out on?!? Look, being a born tinkerer the only change I made was to use 1/2 teaspoon of smoked paprika and fresh breadcrumbs made from olive bread.

    Off to get another slice...

  9. glad you love it, Lucy - I like the idea of smoked paprika - will have to try some time, and of course I think good bread crumbs can only improve it - if only they were always available...

  10. Wow this is truely a wonderful post! I am thinking of a recipe you would probably love, but I can't quite remembner it, but it was a carrot loaf, made from carrot pulp after the carrot had been juiced. It was delicious! I will see if I can find it for you!

  11. OH MY GOD that was the yummiest nutroast.. thanks jo, i have always heard you talk about it and have always LOVED meat loaf.. but to be honest i think this is way better withouth the meat.. the nuts were delicious.... John loved it too, i made the nutroast with roast veggies and made your gravy which was also a hit.. also had brussel sprouts, which i too once hated as a kid, but I LOVE THEM NOW, i have them all the time..... just had to say how wonderful this post was... have great day, it's raining here in orange xx


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