The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - The Telegraph Magazine
The Telegraph’s award-winning food writer Diana Henry on feeding a crowd of friends with ‘grand’ vegetarian fare
My cooking so far this year has had two aims – to warm me and to anchor me. It’s amazing how single-minded you become about warmth. You can’t do much if you’re freezing, including think. Last night I came home, put a pot of stock from the fridge on the hob and added chopped leeks, potatoes, carrots and lentils. There was no sautéing or sweating of vegetables, no attempt to make anything beyond basic. I stood at the hob in my coat, willing the soup to cook faster. After 20 minutes, I crushed the vegetables with a potato masher and hugged a warm bowlful. Stews and soups have sustained us this year and I haven’t wanted anything more complicated. But I’m beginning to miss food that’s a bit more luxurious, that’s taken a little effort.
Valentine’s is coming up, but I don’t celebrate it these days. I haven’t had butterflies in my tummy over what the postman might bring since 1981. It was thrilling to study postmarks and handwriting – even taste in cards – guessing the identity of the sender. More recently, I’ve gone out for Valentine’s dinners but never really enjoyed them.
Cynical though I may be, Valentine’s Day is, at least, something special. We’re still enduring long dark days with nothing significant in the calendar until Easter. Valentine’s is a celebration of love; it might be romantic love (the kind that breaks your heart) but it’s love, nonetheless. I think we need a day that celebrates love between friends. Friendship is now seen as a factor in our physical as well as our mental health. I keep reading pieces about how Covid is still affecting our ability to be sociable (I have not been untouched by this), so I’m taking the bull by the horns. Instead of celebrating Valentine’s Day I’m going to throw a dinner for friends, for the people who sustain us as much as a real fire and a big bowl of soup.
I don’t want to make a dish for meat eaters and a different one for vegetarians, so I’m doing what I think of as ‘grand’ vegetarian. I know a mixture of vegetable dishes can constitute a meal and, in many cultures, does. I also know one ‘statement’ vegetable dish is easier to make than lots of smaller ones. The dishes I offer today are luxurious. Two of them are built, literally, of layers; you experience contrasts as you eat. The lasagne on p41 is primarily bosky, then there’s the nutmeggy sweetness of bechamel and the umami hit of strong cheese. If you offered me this dish or steak with a creamy peppercorn sauce, I’d take the lasagne for the layers and the melting softness of pasta.
The winter pie is inspired by strudel, coulibiac and beef wellington. These are all wrapped in pastry – enclosed in buttery richness – and built on layers. Traditional coulibiac has salmon as the star with layers of mushrooms, rice, eggs, onions and dill. I first made the pie overleaf only recently, and the contrasts and alliances hiding inside have made it a favourite. I think there are just enough elements, but if you want a slightly sweet layer, add pumpkin.
The pumpkin dish below – there’s no pastry, its beauty is boldly on show – doesn’t depend on layers but has contrasts: sweet, spiced pumpkin; cold, smoky yogurt; hot paprika butter; and robust, slightly bitter leaves.
A celebration of friendship, a dish that’s worthy of it and your favourite people at your table. It’s the best way to survive February’s gloom. And you don’t even need to buy a card.