A Sunday (nut) roast

WHEN did you last have a nut roast? If you are a life-long vegetarian, you might say maybe 20 years ago.

The best nut roasts were served at Cranks restaurant in Covent Garden, and the most reliable recipes were in the two Cranks cookbooks, which still deserve a place on the shelves of any keen cook with vegetarians in their circle of family and friends.

As part of our occasional retro food series, we decided it was time to revive the trusted nut roast, and to remind ourselves (and all of you) just how good a really well thought-out nut roast can be.

It’s not the dry (and often dusty) boring brick that is still the butt of bad jokes, nor is it something that tastes overwhelmingly of Marmite (a common fault in the past).

It’s the right time to look at the nut roast again. It is years since Cranks put nut roasts on the menu and then the dish was abandoned in favour of the colourful, exotic and, yes, delicious vegetarian and vegetable creations of Yotam Ottolenghi, Anna Jones, Nigel Slater, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and other inspirational food writers and chefs.

In those decades, many ingredients have become readily available that were not previously known – let alone available at Waitrose or Sainsbury. Spices such as zaatar and sumac are now familiar from Ottolenghi. The availability of different grains, such as quinoa and spelt, has extended the range of textures available. And the wider variety of nuts, including pecans and macadamia, offers subtly different tastes.

Even the side dishes are more interesting – a warm salad with rainbow chard and good extra virgin olive oil, a tart and fresh salad with rocket and chopped preserved lemons or a home-made fresh tomato and orange sauce … all add piquancy, colour and interest to the brown loaf that is the centrepiece of the meal.

We aren’t giving recipes with this series, because the fun is in finding what works for you. The idea is to go back to some old classics and see just how delicious they can be with today’s readily available world flavours.

Our nut roast had hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts and ground almonds, as well as spices, fresh herbs, eggs and a generous topping of grated cheese. It wasn’t a quick mix – it took quite a lot of work and preparation. We all agreed it was worth it – and one vegetarian friend enjoyed it so much that she intends to make her own version for her family’s Christmas lunch.

When you look at the long lists of ingredients – many of them unpronounceable chemical compounds – in so much ready-made vegan food, you have to question the validity of the health claims for a plant-based diet (such as those made in the EAT: Lancet report, supported as it is by some of the world’s biggest food companies).

Preparing your own food, buying ingredients from your local supermarket or suppliers you trust – locally-grown fruit and vegetables from a farm shop or farmers market, or responsibly sourced, welfare-friendly meat or poultry from a proper butcher – is the best way to feed yourself and your family. It is also, almost always, cheaper than ready meals and processed food, better for you and your family and for the planet. And it doesn’t have to take a lot of time, just planning.

The tomato and orange sauce is very easy – either a kilo of fresh tomatoes (ideally from a local grower, greengrocer or your own garden and not tasteless imports) or a couple of tins of Italian chopped plum tomatoes, sautéed in olive oil with a crushed clove of garlic, the zest and juice of one or two oranges, a couple of tablespoons of tomato purée and water or vegetable stock as required. If you use fresh tomatoes, don’t waste time peeling them, because it’s all going to be puréed to a smooth sauce. The better the ingredients you start with, the better the taste.