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SaltWire Dinner Party: Impress your guests with vegetarian delights and special spices

Close up of roasted cauliflower steaks. CONTRIBUTED
Close up of roasted cauliflower steaks. CONTRIBUTED

There was a time, admittedly, that I could not conceive of a plant-based diet.

As my head turns grey and thanks to the perennial battle to stop buying new, larger pants I find myself increasingly favouring vegetable-based meals. So are a lot of Canadians. According to a study by Emma Bedford there are more than three million Canadians identifying themselves as vegan or vegetarian.

While I completely respect those who choose vegan and vegetarian diets out of a respect for animal welfare or the negative implications on the environment, my journey is based less on ethics and more on a personal journey to live a healthier lifestyle.

With that in mind, I try to create vegetarian meals that don’t sacrifice flavour. As I create vegetarian fare, I find myself digging further into my spice cabinet, exploring new ways to add flavour to my meatless meals. I also find myself looking at vegetables through a meat eater’s lens. It’s easy enough to eat vegetarian mush, but I often feel unsatisfied if I haven’t used a knife and fork to eat my main course. I have provided some tips for meaty vegetables and other plant-based ingredients to fill the need for a meaty main course.

Forget the meat: vegetables and plant-based substitutes

Eggplant: What’s old is new again

I feel this is the obvious choice but, then again, I lived through the late 90s and early 2000s when if you were vegetarian going to a restaurant your options outside of stir fries were eggplant, mushrooms or tofu. With so many more options now found on restaurant menus, I feel like eggplant deserves a renaissance. Eggplant naturally comes in a steak like shape when sliced and salted (removes the bitter juices) it needs only to be grilled or pan roasted to deliver a satisfyingly rich texture and flavour.

Eggplant is a vegetable superstar. - Contributed
Eggplant is a vegetable superstar. - Contributed

Cauliflower: A blank canvas of flavour

If eggplant was the de facto choice of the early 2000s, cauliflower steaks are the same for this generation. Roasted or grilled cauliflower still has a little bit of a firm structure and while on its own can be quite mild in flavour when placed in an oven at high temperature, or pan seared, it gains a lot of nutty flavours. Cauliflower is also a blank canvas for flavour, readily and happily taking on the flavours of spices.

Try some fresh cauliflower in a recipe.
Try some fresh cauliflower in a recipe.

Beans: the new beef?

As someone who still eats meat, I can’t with a straight face agree to this phrase I found online while researching meat substitutes, but I can agree they offer a depth and richness of flavours that can appeal to meat lovers. They also provide protein and fiber. I love adding Indian and Southwestern flavours such as chile, chipotle, cumin, and coriander to black beans and chickpeas. The density of the bean, supported with a binding agent (cornstarch and almond flour is a vegan and gluten free option), will allow you to form them into patties and sear them like a steak.

Beans provide protein and fiber. - 123RF Stock Photo
Beans provide protein and fiber. - 123RF Stock Photo

The others

Meaty mushrooms such as portobellos or king oysters are vegetarian classics as is tofu and its firmer, meatier version known as tempeh but I rarely find myself craving either of the latter options. Of course, there is a new market of vegetable-based meat substitutes – famously found at some of your favourite drive-through restaurants – but I tend to prefer the simplicity of vegetables.


The menu

Roast Pumpkin and Chipotle Soup

Indian Spiced Cauliflower Steaks with Fragrant Potatoes

Vegetarian Chili Brownies


The pairings

The process of roasting vegetables brings out a sweetness and in the case of cauliflower a nutty aroma. I enjoy this style of cuisine with full-flavoured aromatic white wines such as Viognier, oak-aged white Rioja and fruit forward, and white Rhone blends, whether produced in France or elsewhere. Better embrace the nutty, sweeter tones with of the food with similar character in a beer. Reach for caramel-scented red ales and nutty brown ales.

  • Cono Sur Viognier (NSLC, $13.49)
  • The Wolftrap White (NLC, $17.28)
  • Les Jamelles Viognier (PEILCC, 750 ml, $16.99
  • Breton Brewing Redcoat Irish Red Ale (NSLC, 473 ml, $4.19, PEILCC, 473 ml, $4.49)
  • Smithwick’s Draught Irish Red Ale (NLC, 4 x 500 ml, $15.99)

Pair with an aromatic white wine.
Pair with an aromatic white wine.


The recipes

Roasted, toasted & smoked pumpkin soup

1 small pumpkin, quartered, seeds removed

1 tbsp olive oil

Pinch salt

Pinch pepper

Pinch cumin

1 large onion, peeled, quartered

2 cloves garlic, skin on

2 chipotles in adobe

1/4 cup honey or brown sugar

Pumpkin seeds, toasted, for garnish

Directions: Preheat oven to 400 F. Halve pumpkin, remove seeds*, and then halve again. Brush pumpkin with 1 tablespoon olive oil and season with salt, pepper, and cumin. Place on roast baking sheet. Toss onion and garlic with remaining oil and place on baking sheet along with pumpkin. Bake for 35 minutes. Remove from oven and remove pumpkin skin. Warm vegetable stock. Remove skin from garlic and place in pot along with roasted onion and pumpkin. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and puree until smooth. Serve warm topped with toasted pumpkin seeds.

*Set an oven to 300 F. Toss pumpkin seeds in a couple of tablespoons of almond butter and a generous pinch of salt. Bake on for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

**Mark’s Tip: Ramp up the heat by adding a pinch of chile flakes

Cauliflower steaks

Cauliflower, sliced lengthwise into ½-inch thick pieces*

1/3 cup olive oil

1 tsp cumin, ground

1 tsp coriander, ground

Pinch salt

Pinch pepper

1 lemon, juice

Directions: Preheat oven to 400 F. Mix olive oil with cumin and coriander. Place cauliflower on baking sheet and brush both sides of cauliflower steaks with oil. Season with salt and pepper. Place in oven and roast for 15 minutes. Flip and roast for a further 15 minutes. Finish with lemon juice. Serve steaks over our Fragrant Potatoes with Cauliflower recipe and finish with cilantro sauce.

*Use any remaining cauliflower florets for our fragrant potatoes dish.

Fragrant potatoes with cauliflower

3 tbsp vegetable oil

1 onion, peeled, diced

½ lb. yellow fleshed potatoes, cubed

1 tsp cumin, ground

1 tsp coriander, ground

1 tsp garam masala

1 tsp turmeric

3 vine ripened tomatoes, diced

Cauliflower florets

¾ tsp salt

1 tbsp brown sugar

Directions: Set a pan over medium-low heat. Add the onion and potatoes. Sauté until browned. Add the spices and sauté until fragrant. Add the tomatoes and cauliflower. Bring to a boil then reduce to simmer. Simmer for 15 minutes. Finish with sugar and salt. Stir to mix.

Cilantro sauce

1 bunch cilantro, stems included, chopped

1 clove garlic

1/3 cup olive oil

2 limes, juice

½ tsp cumin

½ tsp salt

Directions: Place all ingredients in a blender. Blend until smooth.

Chili spiced vegetarian brownies

1 cup oats, ground into flour

2 cups almond butter

1/2 cup cocoa powder

1/4 cup dairy-free dark chocolate (dairy free), chopped

1 cup honey

Pinch salt

1 tbsp chili flakes

1 tbsp baking soda

Chili sugar, for garnish

Directions: Preheat oven to 325 F. Combine ground oats, almond butter, cocoa powder, chocolate, honey, salt, chili flakes and baking soda in bowl. Mix well. Transfer to a greased 8 x 8-inch baking pan. Bake for 20-25 minutes. Check doneness by inserting a toothpick. If it comes out clean, the brownies are done.

Mark DeWolf is a connoisseur of all things food and drink. He's a creative director with SaltWire and local fare is his specialty. You can subscribe to his Follow a Foodie newsletter here.

Watch Mark whip up seasonal plates in his video series, In a Jiffy, and go deeper with food trends and kitchen challenges weekly 

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