Tonight, I am excited to be having people over to eat at the house, but these aren’t just any people. They’ve upped the culinary ante. These are vegans. I’ve never cooked for vegans before, and as a native Southerner, I have an intense love for butter and cheese. This was going to be a challenge.
Vegan or not, I wanted the meal to look elegant, but be simple enough to either prepare in advance or throw together last minute.
Okay so I wanted something that looked pretty and tasted even better- that’s hardly new. Truthfully, Walker and I have been trying to cut back on meat for a while. We both believe meat is currently being sold too cheaply (The dollar menu at McDonald’s should not be able to include a hamburger for 99 cents. That’s just terrifying, and to think, it includes transportation costs too.) and so we’ve been trying to make at least one of our dinners each week completely meatless. It’s not much, but you have to start somewhere, and when you love bacon as much as Walker does, cutting out the meat for one dinner a week is a big first step.
The vegan restriction was another thing entirely. Most of my vegetarian dishes include cheese or eggs or milk or at the very least honey. After inviting a vegan friend for dinner, I started to read up on veganism, and with each article I became more and more afraid that I wouldn’t be able to infuse any flavor into a dish.
Working under veganism’s constraints, though, actually proved to be a helpful tool. By limiting myself in adding animal products, I had to carefully choose my ingredients so that their natural flavors played well off of one another, but at the same time, I was hoping not to be cliche. It made me really think about each addition and what it would bring to a dish. Here’s what I came up with.
Serves 4 hungry diners
1 small red onion, sliced thinly lengthwise
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
4 cups peeled, seeded, and diced pumpkin (1/2-inch dice), plus two halved pumpkins to serve (optional)
1/2 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pound asparagus, ends trimmed, then chopped into bite sized chunks
Two big handfuls of spinach, with stems
1/2 cup fresh Italian parsley leaves
4 cups cubed bread
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
1. Preheat oven to 400°F, or if you’re like me with a broken oven that deals only in Celsius, 150°C.
2. Halve the two pumpkins, de-seed (setting aside the seeds for another purpose) and scoop out a round bowl, reserving the pumpkin meat. Place on a baking sheet, skin side down and roast for 2-3 hours, depending on how much meat you left. You’re looking for a slightly browned and slightly soft pumpkin. While the pumpkins are roasting, prepare the panzanella.
3. Soak the sliced onion in the sherry vinegar and a pinch of salt for about 15 minutes. Set aside.
4. Toss the pumpkin with 1 1/2 tablespoons of the olive oil, sage, salt, and pepper. Arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake until the squash is still a little tough and starting to caramelized, about 30 minutes. Add the bread to the same sheet, toss to coat the bread in the residual oil and return to the oven to finish up for 10 minutes. Let cool.
5. Steam the asperagus until just barely tender, set aside in a chilled bowl to cool. Steam the spinach in the same way, until just barely wilted. These two veggies will be cooked again, so don’t let it cook too long. Toss all roasted vegetables, chick peas, and parseley leaves together gently, so that the pumpkin doesn’t start to break down.
6. Into the reserved red onions and vinegar, whisk in remaining 1/2 cup olive oil. Season with pepper.
7. Pull out the roasted pumpkin halves, and portion out the panzanella. There will be more than enough, so heap it in. Drizzle the filled pumpkins with the vinegrette and return to the oven to heat through, about 20 minutes.
8. Serve with a raw spinach and brown rice and a sprinkle of feta cheese for those who want it.
Critic’s Comments, Guest Edition
“The pumpkin dish was a feast for the eyes to begin with, and the combination of the textures, the crunchy bread, the soft pumpkin, the dense chickpeas, was incredible. The onion was like, perfectly caramelized in it. Seriously, it was incredible. And the spinach and rice balanced it out by cleansing the palette in between mouthfuls of the rich roasted mixture.”
Yay it was a hit! I loved this dish because it was presented in half a pumpkin which absorbed the flavors of all the roasted vegetables and the vinegrette as well, so as you reach the bottom of your “bowl” you end up scooping up bits of the roasted pumpkin instead of licking your plate. The feta is nice, but not necessary, and it really only speaks to Walker’s excitement over anything cheesy. This dish was time consuming, only in that the oven needed to spend a lot of roasting, though you could do it all absent mindedly on a slow Sunday afternoon.