Today’s harvest: white onion, yellow onion, red onion, garlic, green beans, eggplants, zucchini, cherry tomatoes, Roma tomatoes, San Marzano tomatoes, basil, parsley, sage.
Inspired by the amazing Josh from Culinary Bro-down (who is a knowledge-dropping genius), I decided to emulate his feat and have my blog go vegan for the whole month of July!
While I am not planning to turn to complete veganism anytime soon (well, I’m not even a full-time vegetarian, as the lovely Molly, Stephanie and several others could see when we lovingly shared a plate of greasy pork buns), many of my recipes are already vegan and taking breaks from all animal products is all sorts of refreshing.
Here’s why I decided to dedicate a full month to veganism – and why this will probably not be the last time this happens:
VEGAN COOKING IS FUN
Developing vegan recipes can be a challenge for everybody, but I find that having a somewhat restricted area of action fosters creativity like nothing else. When you find that you have to ‘make do with what you have’, you end up realizing how much you actually have that you never considered using in the first place.
I started thinking about how vegan eating is perceived by most when I realized there was a common way to think about vegetarianism amongst Italians: eating a vegetarian diet is not associated to not eating meat, but at eating only vegetables. Stop and think about this idea: ‘not eating meat’ and ‘eating only vegetables’ are two very different things.
But the truth is that there is a whole world of legumes, pulses, vegetables, fats and all sorts of wonderful, tasty ingredients that are seldom considered in the animal-eating world. I love vegan recipes because they can be colorful, varied, and just make you happy to look at with all the mix of flavors and textures. And, while many of the tastiest traditional italian dishes are vegetarian (pasta with mushrooms and truffle, anyone?) many can be easily made vegan. Knowing that all these products of the earth are not being considered drives me nuts. There is a lot to do with what most think to be nothing, even if you – like me, decide to avoid using all sorts of processed products, including soy (see point below).
BREAKING INGREDIENT CONTROVERSIES
Most people living in big cities, or in multicultural areas, certainly have the luck of being able to source many kind of ingredients, that make living a vegan life immensely easier. Unfortunately, Italy is still a place in which many ingredients are impossible to be found, or very expensive – think cilantro, rhubarb, chiles in adobo, lemongrass, and some other common asian or south american condiments. This makes the average Joe think that the only hope to survive on a vegan diet is go heavy with things like soy burgers and meat substitutes, which are full of processed crap and pretty much taste like old shoes. Italy needs to stop this. I will gladly eat good quality, fresh tofu, but, as there’s a shortage of that as well, Italy needs to stop this nonsense. My hope is to create tasty, meat substitutes-free recipes that can keep on promoting the use of good quality ingredients.
The word ‘veganism’ makes us think of many things at once (yes, I know you think these things, too): tattooed, bearded yoga loving hipsters or post-punk adolescents; animal loving, unfashionable women who dress in cotton tees all year long, or super skinny health freaks who will look with utter disgust at anyone who manifests their enthusiasm for a bacon-and-eggs in the morning and who ditch all the dinners they’re invited to with the excuse of food intolerances.
Everybody who decides to make a life choice does so for reasons that we might not be able to fully understand, and should not be judged for deciding to not eat meat. At the same time, nobody who decides to keep on eating meat should be frowned upon. Personally, all I believe is that there are good quality ingredients, and bad quality ones. I love good quality food. Vegan food cooked properly and with love is just food cooked properly and with love, with no labels attached to it.
(For example, Josh uses Tofurky but I still really really like him all the same).
A SORT OF COUNTDOWN
In exactly a month I’ll be flying out to Stockholm where I’ll be spending a good chunk of August, and I don’t think I’ll be able to resist some smoked (or not) salmon while there. Therefore, I need to use up this month to take advantage of all the incredible veggies that we have growing in the garden, and the list is long! There is no better time than this to experiment with vegetables in the kitchen.
I want to take the chance to develop my creativity in the kitchen now, so that I’ll be able to replicate vegan month for each season of the year.
This first recipe I’m sharing is one I’m really happy with. I love stuffed vegetables of all sorts! It is onions in this case, because they are really plentiful in the garden now, but you could use the same stuffing for peppers, tomatoes, round zucchini, eggplants or portobellos. They are a little time consuming to make, though not difficult at all of you can have a little patience. You can easily double or triple the quantities and freeze them, then pull one out whenever you want. Just thaw them in the microwave and maybe broil them for 2-3 minutes to give them their crispy kick again.
Chickpea and Barley Stuffed Onions
(Serves 6 as an appetizer or side, or 3 as a main)
For the onions:
3 medium onions (or 6 small ones)
1/2 cup (100g) cooked barley
1/2 cup (100g) cooked chickpeas
3 cloves of garlic
3-4 basil leaves
A few sprigs of parsley
1 1/2 tsp sweet paprika
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp cinnamon
A good grating of nutmeg
5 tbsps good quality olive oil, divided
(Extra – a small zucchini)
For the crumb mix:
1 scant tbsp fine breadcrumbs
10 almonds (or same volume of pine nuts)
2 basil leaves
3-4 parsley sprigs
PREPARE THE ONIONS
Peel the onions and remove the tougher outer layers. Cut them in half, or cut off the top if using smaller onions, and steam them until quite tender, about 15 minutes. Once cooked, let them cool for 5 minutes and scoop out the insides, which will be added to the stuffing. You should be left with onion ‘cups’ that are not too thin or too thick. If you used medium onions and you cut them in half, the top parts will surely have holes. Use a part of the onion hearts to close it.
At the same time, if using the zucchini, dice it and cook it in a tsp of olive oil and a splash of water, until very soft. Add more water if it threatens to stick. Though it is not necessary, it makes a great addition to the dish and makes the stuffing very moist. You can also use eggplant, or a heaping tablespoon of baba-ganoush.
PREPARE THE CRUMB MIX
To prepare the crumb topping, simply blitz all the ingredients together until very finely ground, or chop everything yourself as finely as you can.
PREPARE THE STUFFING
Finely chop the garlic and the herbs, then very finely chop the inner parts of the onion.
Heat a tbsp of the olive oil in a pan and add the insides of the onions. Stir-fry the onion for 12-15 minutes, until very fragrant and golden. Add the spices, a pinch of pepper, and a good pinch of salt, and keep cooking for 5 more minutes. All the extra water should have evaporated and the onions should be slightly caramelized.
Add the cooked chickpeas in a bowl, and roughly mash them with a fork. Add the cooked barley, cooked onion insides, chopped herbs and garlic, the zucchini, and a teaspoon of the crumb topping. Garnish with a good pinch of salt, pepper, and a tablespoon of the olive oil. Taste to check for seasoning.
ASSEMBLE & BAKE
Preheat the oven to 220 C˚.
Line a tray with baking paper, and grease with a tablespoon of olive oil. Arrange the onion cups on it, and spoon the stuffing into each onion, pressing it down and heaping it a little. You will probably have some leftover stuffing.
Top with a generous sprinkling of crumb mix, and drizzle the onion with the last 2 tablespoons of olive oil (if you use a tablespoon more, you’ll get even better results). Bake the onions for 40-50 minutes, until browned and very, very soft. Please note that each oven behaves differently and it might take more or less time, so keep a close eye on them around the 35 minute mark.
I prefer these warm, but stuffed vegetables are amazing cold as well. They pack easily and can be taken for a picnic or to the office. They are perfect served with any salad, and maybe a light cold soup. They could be great on a 4th of July party table, too!
MAKE IT GLUTEN-FREE
Just substitute the barley for any gluten-free grain, like millet, rice or quinoa, and only use chopped nuts for the topping. Try a mix of stuff!
If you have any experiences to share, I’d love to know your opinions and comments! Let me know if you have any favorite stuffed veggies, as well. I can’t wait to share more recipes with you!