FOOD – Have a Merry Meatless Christmas

Been busy. Been thinking about shopping for Christmas gifts and not doing much about it. Noticing my blog-lag, my friend Hwee Hwee Laurence has kindly sent suggestions for easy dishes, especially appreciated since I don’t eat meat.

Christmas is the season for turkey, goose or chapon (capon in English – cockerel or rooster castrated to improve the quality of its meat for food.  Serious!)  For animal-lovers or those who have vegetarians on the guest list, it might be difficult to come up with a few substantially satisfying menu dishes other than the usual veggie sticks with dips.  Of course, wine and cheese is always an elegant option, but then the average Singaporean might not be adventurous enough  to enjoy a cheese platter.

To help you with this problem, I have selected a few of my family’s favourite French vegetarian dishes.  They all taste good, but most importantly, they are easy to make and almost foolproof.  They are also good accompaniments to a selection of roast meats and sausages should you make these available to your carnivorous friends.

Some of the dishes can also be prepared in advance so that it leaves you time to be with your guests, which to me, should be the purpose of the party.

Many Singaporeans do not use the oven often, but I think it is one of the easiest (and least messy) ways of cooking.  You can prepare everything (in the roasting dish which can also be used to serve) in advance, cover with cling-wrap, keep refrigerated overnight, then bring to room temperature before putting it into the oven.  The other utensil that is most handy is a hand-held blender (with interchangeable attachments of whisk and grinder).

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Zucchini and Tomato Bake

Tian Provençal – a centuries-old dish that gets its name from the shallow casserole dish, tian, in which it is traditionally cooked.

(My 10-year old son can make this all by himself – it’s that foolproof).

1 large onion, sliced

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

300g tomatoes, sliced thickly

300g zucchini, cut into 1 cm-thick rounds

1 teaspoon dried herbs of Provence

4 tablespoons grated Swiss cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil

Preheat oven to 200 °C.

Spread the onion and garlic over the base of a shallow baking dish.

Arrange alternating rows of zucchini and tomatoes over the onions.

Sprinkle with herbs, salt and pepper.

Drizzle over olive oil.

Sprinkle cheese all over and bake for 30 min until vegetables are tender and cheese is golden-coloured.

Best served hot, with crusty bread to mop up the juice in the baking dish.

(This dish can be assembled beforehand and popped into the oven about 30 min before serving. You can also use a mixture of zucchini, tomatoes and aubergine).

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Cheese Puff Ring

Gougére – a savoury pastry from Burgundy, traditionally served with red wine.

(This is like the cream puff that I used to know in Singapore, except that it is savoury.  Do not be intimidated by this relatively unusual way of making the dough.)

300 g flour

½ teaspoon salt

Pinch of pepper

Pinch of ground nutmeg (optional)

200 ml water

50 g butter

3 eggs, lightly beaten

150 g Swiss or cheddar cheese, cut into small cubes

2 tablespoons fresh chives or spring onions, chopped

Preheat oven to 200 °C.

Line a baking sheet with non-stick paper.  Sift together flour, salt, pepper and nutmeg.

In a saucepan, bring water and butter to a boil.  Remove from heat and add dry ingredient all at once.

Beat with wooden spoon for 1 min until the mixture is well-blended and starts to pull away from the sides of the pan.

Place pan back over low heat and cook for about 2 min, beating constantly.

Add beaten egg, one tablespoon at a time, into the dough, beating thoroughly after each addition.

Continue until dough looks smooth and shiny and when you drop it from the spoon, it should pull away and fall slowly.

Add cheese and chives and mix well.

Using 2 large tablespoons, one to scoop and one to scrape off, drop adjoining mounds of dough onto the baking sheet to form a ring (this is the traditional way – I prefer to make individual puffs).

Bake for about 25-30 min until puffed and golden brown.

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Cauliflower Gratin

Gratin au choufleur – a classic vegetable supper dish in French homes.

(My younger sister loves gratin but finds it too much effort to try to beat the batter to smoothness only to be disappointed when it still ends up ugly and lumpy.  That is, until I showed her my magic handheld blender.)

1 medium cauliflower, broken into large florets

25 g butter

4 tablespoons flour

400 ml milk

½ teaspoon ground herbs of Provence

Pinch of ground nutmeg (optional)

Swiss or cheddar cheese, grated, to scatter

1 chicken or vegetable stock cube (optional, but it does make a difference in taste)

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 180 °C.

Boil cauliflower florets in a large pot of salted water for 8-10 min until just tender.  Drain then arrange in a shallow baking dish.

Melt butter in a heavy saucepan over medium heat, add flour and cook until just golden, stirring constantly.

Pour in half the milk and stir until flour is just moistened.  It will be lumpy but do not panic.

Reduce the heat, and using the handheld blender, stir until the flour mixture becomes smooth, then continue to stir and blend while adding the rest of the milk.

Add herbs of Provence, nutmeg, stock cube, salt and pepper to taste.

Continue cooking and stirring with the blender for about 5 min, adding a little more milk if you want your white sauce to be more fluid.

Pour the white sauce evenly over the cauliflower, sprinkle cheese over the top and bake for about 20 min until bubbly and golden brown.

(Other variations include using broccoli florets instead of cauliflower. Gratin of sautéed leek with hardboiled eggs arranged on top, or chopped spinach with hardboiled eggs make good one-dish meals.  This can also be prepared half a day in advance and baked when needed.  If you find the white sauce becoming too dry, carefully poke a few holes and add a little milk before baking).

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