Vegan for Lent – I loved it!

Preparing crumble and plantain patties

Above: preparing plantain patties and crumbles.

Prior to this Lent, I had never given anything up assuming that I would shame myself by breaking the rules and giving into a magnetic piece of chocolate or whatever else I might have attempted to give up. Otherwise, I would tell my excuse making self “What’s the point, life is short, imagine if you were hit by a bus on Good Friday and you had just abstained from eating chocolate/cake/macarons for 40 days!” amidst other such internal dialogues and woolly rationales as to why not to make the attempt.

So, this year my boyfriend and I decided to give something up. I have a mainly vegetarian diet (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” by Michael Pollan was my natural motto even before I read his) but my boyfriend enjoys meat every now and then – being French, and having lived in Mexico City and Barcelona, meat featured in a lot of dishes. But why vegan? To backtrack a little, at the beginning of the year we had met up with some friends and their friends, an Italian couple, who had decided to go vegetarian and told us about all the benefits they felt health wise, energy wise, etc and they were sticking with it. This sparked a little curiosity in my Frenchie and he was keen to try vegetarianism. “Why not do it for Lent?” I asked. But as I am practically a veggie anyway that wouldn’t be forfeiting much for me. So, I took it one step further: “Let’s be vegan for Lent!”

We went for it. I realised that for someone who had always thought she wouldn’t be able to give anything up substantial to the pleasure of eating (see above, cakes, etc) I had now given up about four dozen things! Wow! This was a self back patting moment – if I got through it.

Lent is now over, the long Easter weekend already in the past (sigh) and we made it with “vegan Lent”! Not only did we make it, we loved it! When we told friends about our “vegan Lent” we heard some pretty hilarious comments such as “So, you’re just eating beans really?”, “Well, now you’ll know what punishment feels like”, “But you can eat dairy, right?” and simply “Why?”. Mother Nature provides a bountiful selection of fruit, vegetables and grains for us to enjoy in endless combinations so why the surprise and complaints? Are we still three year olds pounding our clenched fists on tables and turning puce at the sight of a carrot, wailing at the green and daunting broccoli? I hope not and with all the trade in exotic fruit and veg in and out of season we have an even wider range of ingredients to play with. I bet that the people who are flummoxed by veganism and vegetarianism actually eat a pretty limited diet themselves albeit with meat, always going for the steak option at a restaurant for example.

My boyfriend and I love cooking and experimenting with new dishes and limiting the choice of ingredients forced us to be more imaginative. Often for brunch at home we would eat toasted muffins with smoked salmon, a poached egg and spinach. Instead we had a brunch of green lentil dal, rice and plantain patties. It was absolutely delicious and I declared I could eat it every day for a month! We experimented wildly with recipes and by limiting our ingredients (only a bit of course, remember nature’s feast of vegetables!) we forced ourselves to deviate from our “go-to” recipes and vary our meals a lot. We started varying the oils we cooked with such as using coconut oil instead of the obvious olive oil. Just the smell of the coconut oil heating up was enough to make me go doolally! We tried restaurants with vegan options which we really enjoyed such as MildredsWild Food Cafe and Sagar. We ate a lot of Indian inspired food as there are so many scrumptious Indian vegetable dishes to try. I had made vegan meals before for my vegan friends, so was familiar with alternatives to dairy ingredients, and once made biscuits with olive oil spread instead of butter. An Italian friend remarked on how delicious the biscuits were and that he could really taste the butter! I was surprised and so was he to find out that there was no butter in the biscuits! I had thought that his Italian body would have a inbuilt mechanism to recognise which region the olive oil in the spread was from, but no, he was fooled!

Other than enjoying the food during our vegan 40 days, we noticed some great health benefits. My stomach used to gurgle a lot no matter what time of day. I had read that this was just one’s stomach digesting but really, did it need to digest so loudly?!! All my colleagues could hear it! Two weeks into vegan Lent I suddenly realised: the symphony orchestra in my stomach is on sabbatical! I shot up from my desk and declared to my colleagues “My stomach doesn’t rumble anymore!!!”. “You’re right!” they chimed in with joy (and relief). But why? I don’t know. Was the previous rumbling a combination of gluten and dairy, certain grains with certain types of vegetables and fish? I need to look into it and I smile to myself at this silent benefit. Another health improvement was no heartburn for my boyfriend. He used to get heartburn several times a week, and as anyone who has had it knows it is not nice, but during the vegan period the heartburn disappeared. Maybe it eloped with my orchestra! Another difference I noticed was how awake I felt in the morning when my alarm sounded. I used to feel sluggish and press the snooze button several times but the vegan me felt wide awake instantly. Occasionally I felt tired in the morning when my alarm went off and needed to sleep a little longer but I could always directly relate it to a busy extra long working day the day before. I also did not feel hungry between meals – was this because I was eating whole foods and nothing laced with quickly absorbed sugars? When vegan you automatically cannot eat a lot of the manufactured fake food products that are out there which are made with refined industrialised ingredients. As if these benefits weren’t enough, friends even commented that we look younger!

So, will I stay vegan? No, not because it is boring or limiting, as some claim, but because I love food. I love food as a whole. I love eggs in pastry, buttery pain au chocolats and macarons and quiches and so on and so on. I love cheese and a good coffee with whole creamy cow’s milk. I am curious about food and different cuisines and I want to try them. However, I will make most of my meals plant based and eat animal products minimally because I believe it is healthier. I have always had a very healthy diet but I noticed new benefits to my health during my vegan period and I would be silly to ignore them. I am also suspicious of the modern production of food. I can’t grow my own vegetables or milk my own cows but I can at least go to the local farmers’ market and buy organic when possible and only proper food (not food products). I really recommend Michael Pollan’s books if you are interested in eating in the modern world. Furthermore, if you are interested in having more energy, losing a bit of weight and perhaps looking younger, go vegan! At least for a stint.

Here is a selection of the meals we prepared. Recipes on their way!

Curly kale, date, walnut, mushroom salad

Curly kale, date, hazelnut and mushroom salad.

Spaghetti, tomato, quorn and more

Faux spaghetti bolognese with minced quorn and red cabbage.

Putting rhubarb and berry crumble together

Rhubarb, forest fruits and apple ready to be topped with crumble.

Indian dishes and plantain patties

Dal, plantain and apricot patties and a variation on Aloo Gobi.

Crumble

Forrest fruit and apple crumble with pumpkin seeds.

Soup with mushrooms, ginger, kale, spring onion

Mushroom, sweetcorn, spinach and spring onion soup with grated fresh ginger.

Barley risotto with asparagus and purple sprouting broccoli

Pearl barley risotto with purple sprouting broccoli, asparagus and dry toasted pumpkin seeds.

Dry toasting pumpkin seeds

Dry toasting pumpkin seeds.

Fusili with celeriac and apple sauce

It may look like fusilli with mashed potato but it’s fusilli with celeriac and apple sauce topped with parsley and dry toasted pumpkin seeds.

Delicious and wonderful rhubarb

Rhubarb season. Glorious rhubarb!

Purple chard salad

A purple chard salad with lightly fried mushrooms, radishes, walnuts, toasted seeds and basil.

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Demuths Vegetarian Restaurant and Sally Lunn’s Kitchen, Bath

Truffled broccoli  with cauliflower pannacotta, pickled kohlrabi and tarragon dressing

I recently went to Bath for a little out of London refreshment and had the pleasure of eating at a very well recommended vegetarian restaurant: Demuths. It very much deserved its recommendation and I would return in a shot. Demuths is a vegetarian restaurant opened in 1987 by Rachel Demuth  with food that is mainly locally sourced, organic and fairtrade. It was hard to choose what to go for as everything was so tempting but we knew that whatever we opted for would be delicious. It was and I especially liked the little surprises such as pickled yellow mustard seeds! Who knew that the little seeds could be so moorish and wonderful?! Rhubarb ketchup with the polenta chips was beautifully smooth and sweet and and such a popping pink. See the photos for all the dishes.

Local leeks with hickory smoked potato, hazelnuts, apple and pickled yellow mustard

Polenta chips with rhubarb ketchup

Mike’s beetroots, cooked several ways, with smoked cheese croquettas and a citrus peel puree

Soft ricotta gnudi with cavolo nero in sage butter, thyme pesto and pickled onion squash

Orange posset with lightly stewed rhubarb

Mulled chocolate pot with orange and clove compote and candied pistachios

Next door to Demuths is one of the oldest houses in Bath with a very well preserved Georgian kitchen in the basement. This kitchen was the workplace of Sally Lunn, a French Huguenot who escaped France over 300 years ago and ended up in Bath where she gained employment with a baker and began baking a type of bread like a brioche which had a light and fluffy texture unknown to the Georgians. It was a hit and her buns became the talk of Georgian society. In the house you can visit Sally’s restored kitchen in the basement which had been covered for years and was discovered in the 30s. There is a cosy restaurant in the house which serves food “trencher style” which refers to the style of serving food on a bun or piece of bread when plates weren’t commonplace. So, we ate “trencher style” but on a plate – nouveau trencher style or trencher style with the convenience and luxury of a plate?! The piece of Sally Lunn bun which our food was served on was delicious and soaked up the juices wonderfully. The house itself has a history longer than Sally’s and in the basement you can see excavations showing the Roman and medieval foundations. Some excavations even revealed a hypocaust (the Roman under floor central heating system).

An interesting fact about the Georgians: they raised the street level in Bath so ground level floors in buildings all became basements.

Sally Lunn's kitchen

 

Sally Lunn’s kitchen

Sally Lunn's kitchen, Bath

Stalagmites and stalactites seen from Sally Lunn’s kitchen

Steaming Roman baths

Steaming water at the Roman Baths

Paradise House, Bath

Paradise House where we stayed. Beautiful rooms and great views.

View from Paradise House over Bath

Circus – a circular Georgian terrace with enormous very old trees in the centre. When we went to the Fashion Museum we saw a reproduction of a print showing Circus originally with a paved central area so this lawn and trees were planted later.

Amsterdam and Sprinkles Sandwiches

I first encountered schprinkles sandwiches in Indonesia in ’99. They were on a tray outside my hotel room for breakfast. I took the cover off and beheld before me ….. white slices of bread with colourful sprinkles dotted about on the butter! Sweet, I thought, what a funny thing. It turns out that this is a funny Dutch thing. I do believe that Holland has gained more culinary wise from Indonesia than Indonesia from Holland (cue plug for the Bumbu Pecel recipe). However, I do not knock sprinkles. They are not just for children -hurrah! (Why does all the cool stuff happen for children when you are no longer one? Such as going around a gallery with a special guide for children on a Nintendo! Although I suppose I was pretty happy with my sketch book.) They are known as hailstones or sprinkles “hagelslag” (which sounds like an insult in English, yoooo hagelslag yoooo!), and mice “muisjes” which usually refers to a blue or pink non-chocolate version often offered to guests after a child is born. They come in several forms: plain chocolate strand sprinkles, mini chocolate curl sprinkles, and colourful sugar strand sprinkles.

I recently went to Holland to visit the Dutch side of my family so had sprinkles for breakfast. I recommend heating a croissant, splitting it open, slathering a modest amount of butter in it and shaking sprinkles inside, then devouring. Mmmm! Back home I just use cake decoration sprinkles, they aren’t as good quality though as proper sandwich sprinkles. I love Holland. It is such a neat small country with so many great things in it: stroopwafels (caramel waffle biscuits), runways for bicycles (not half a metre’s width on a busy road full of vehicles as in London), Moooi (I think my favourite product/ furniture design company. I have now learnt the correct pronunciation. It is not “moo-ey” but “moy”), Droog (close behind Moooi for design. I have also learnt the correct pronunciation for this, not “Drooog” but “Drog” – so Amsterdam!),  furry seat covers for bicycles, beautiful bicycles, everyone speaks perfect English in really great accents too, bridges, canals, Rembrandt, blue and white ceramics, rabbits in parks, windmills, you get the picture. To give you an idea of just how small and neat it is, I flew there in 45 minutes, met a cousin at Schiphol airport, got on a train to Alkmaar (45 minutes), then grabbed two bicycles there and cycled to the beach in Bergen (40 mins mainly because of my pitstops for photos) to meet the other cousins and all before 3pm. Wonderful!!

I have a new favourite thing to add to my list of favourite things: my cousins’ uncle’s raft. He is not my uncle in case you think I’m being thick like hot chocolate. He is the brother of my aunt who is related to me through marriage (they are two of fourteen siblings, all the same mother, no twins, triplets or quads. Impressive!) So, during the trip my cousins had been saying that we should go on Uncle Adri’s raft one day. I thought “the raft” was a nickname for a boat. The day of the raft came and I went to the edge of one of the central canals, peered over to see a row of floating planks with a motor at one end. A raft! It really was a raft! It turns out that being on a raft is a lot more exciting than being in a boat. A boat with sides and seats and a steering wheel, how boring! So we spent the whole day motoring down the waterways, Uncle Adri kicking a football over the bridges and collecting it in the water on the other side, then kicking it to people on the banks and having them kick it back. Now I see what the fuss is about football, it really is fun! We collected friends, were told off for mooring at the sculling club (we did not ask in advance!), floated to the widest part of the Amstel and dived in. The water was brown and dull but quite warm and lovely. I also managed to master the art of changing twice on a raft with no one seeing anything to compromise my modesty at all. We made a pit stop to go to the supermarket for food and found a sofa on the street (in good condition, I hasten to add!) so that came with us and was plonked on the raft. We carried on until it became dark and we were stopped by the water police because we had no lights on. We had no lights at all so everyone who had an iPhone downloaded the flashlight app and held it up high. Neat! To finish we found a restaurant with a terrace by the water, moored, ordered hot chocolates and sat on the sofa drinking them. It really was a fabulous day and shall have to become a summer staple.

You can read about some of the Dutch design I saw and loved on my design blog here

The raft.