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'Becoming vegan transformed my sleep pattern, my nails looked better and my skin cleared up'

 

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Vegging out: Aine Carlin

In recent years interest in veganism has soared, becoming practically mainstream, but perceptions of it as being an impractical and restrictive way of eating still linger. However, Londonderry-born cookbook author Aine Carlin, who is based in Penzance, Cornwall, with her husband and rescue dachshund Whinnie, firmly believes that anyone can get on board with veganism.

"I think we can change our habits at any time and I think that you will feel the benefits regardless of what age you are," she says.

"My mother eats primarily plant-based - I wouldn't say it's vegan because she doesn't avoid leather or anything like that - and she's in her 60s.

"When I first went vegan, I'm sure her and my dad thought it was a phase and it wouldn't last, but they then became interested themselves and my mum claims she would never go back."

Cook Eat Share Vegan is Carlin's third cookery book and the one she says she's always wanted to make. Its range of recipes caters for all cooking skills, from the entry-level vegan to the more skilled home chef.

She describes the recipes as "food that just happens to be vegan" and there are plenty of variations on classic dishes that won't scare the meat and two veg gang if they are considering dipping their toes into plant-based eating. These include a red lentil bolognese-like ragu and hearty and warming curries, pies and soups, as well as wheaten and scone breads.

There are also a lot of potato dishes. "I don't know if that's because I'm Irish. It was only afterward I realised how many there were. My mum is obviously delighted because she's actually obsessed with potatoes," she says.

At the book's core is an emphasis on sharing. "I tried to make it as accessible and as inclusive as I possibly could because, for me, food is about community as well.

"With the vegan message, that can kind of get lost a little bit. It feels like it's something you do by yourself, but with this I'm trying to open it up a little bit."

Carlin's books and her engaging blog, Pea Soup, make for an attractive argument for veganism, but she insists that she doesn't and won't preach.

"My role, as I see it, is to offer some really great vegan recipes, and then people can do with that what they will. It's not for me to prescribe a certain diet to you or tell you what you should or shouldn't be eating. I don't think that's any of my business," she says.

"My focus is entirely on the food and, regardless of my own personal views and opinions, I just do what I do and let people make their own decisions."

She herself has been fully vegan since 2011 and changed her diet after a period spent living in Chicago.

With the vegan message becoming a lot stronger in recent times, what does she think the tipping point was?

"Collectively we're just becoming a bit more conscious of where our food comes from," Carlin says.

"We're concerned about health, but we're also concerned about the environment and, from where I'm sitting I think a lot of people are sitting back and thinking, 'This isn't so great for the planet... maybe I shouldn't be eating as much meat and dairy as I currently am'.

"People are always concerned about their health and they want to mix things up and make sure they're not overdoing it in one area.

"When I brought out my first cookbook in 2014, the landscape was very different back then and you almost had to convince people that you didn't necessarily have to be vegan to cook from this book.

"Then, as things progressed, more and more people were dipping into veganism and they didn't feel like they had to commit 100%, but they were still happy to use plant-based recipes twice a week."

In terms of the health benefits a vegan diet can bring, she stresses that it depends on the individual. Carlin had suffered no major ailments before going plant-based, but she noted small and important improvements once she did and found it easier to maintain her weight.

"I probably wasn't sleeping or getting the rest that I needed and it transformed mine and my husband's sleep patterns for sure," she says.

"I probably wasn't sleeping or getting the rest that I needed and it transformed mine and my husband's sleep patterns for sure," she says.

"A few weeks into going vegan I realised my nails were looking so much better and my skin had cleared up. My mum would just say she feels lighter after meals and she doesn't feel as sluggish."

For anyone who presumes that vegan cooking calls for a large amount of unusual and difficult-to-find ingredients, Cook Eat Share Vegan's pantry essentials are reassuringly familiar. On the list are things such as canned tomatoes and beans, dried pulses and plenty of herbs and spices.

Carlin says a lot of vegan food tends to be slightly under-seasoned, so she uses liberal amounts of cumin, paprika and different seas salts such as pink Himalayan, as well as Marmite to give gravies a meaty flavour.

Living in the depths of Cornwall, she doesn't have access to weird and wonderful ingredients, so she doesn't tend to use hard-to-source items.

"The only ingredient that people might say 'Oh, what's that?' is agar agar and it's basically like vegetarian gelatine," she says.

"I have three panna cottas that are really gorgeous and I've used agar agar in those, but other than that everything else you can get in a supermarket.

"I think supermarkets have really cottoned on to the fact that people want these ingredients now. Things like miso, which probably would have been a little bit tricky to get your hands on, are now stocked in every supermarket."

She believes that food shouldn't come between people, and hopes to convey that veganism is something people can do as a group and that it doesn't need to be divisive.

Her other important advice is, when you sit down at the table, don't talk about veganism. "It's absolutely the one time you should not be talking about it," she says. "Enjoy your food, talk about other things and put veganism to one side."

Cook Share Eat Vegan: Delicious plant-based recipes for Everyone, by Aine Carlin, published by Mitchell Beazley, £20, octopusbooks.co.uk

Individual mushroom Wellingtons

Ready-made pastry to the rescue, this time in the form of mushroom Wellingtons - sensational centrepieces for any meal. The trick is to tuck the pastry tightly around the mushroom, making sure there are no air bubbles, so that it shrinks as the mushrooms cook and reduce. Serve with steamed green beans and a few boiled salad potatoes for an elegant supper.

SERVES 4

INGREDIENTS

2 tbsp olive oil

3 shallots, finely chopped

4 large garlic cloves, minced

200g green lentils, rinsed and drained

2 bay leaves

750ml water

1 vegetable stock cube

1½ tsp Marmite

4 large portobello mushrooms, trimmed

100g kale, leaves torn and stems removed

Juice of ½ lemon

2 sheets of vegan ready-made puff pastry, thawed if frozen

Sea salt flakes and black pepper

METHOD

1. Heat one tablespoon of the olive oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the shallots to pan, season and sweat for 2 to 3 minutes until translucent. Stir in the garlic and saute for 1-2 minutes, then add the lentils, bay leaves, measured water and stock cube. Stir to dissolve the stock cube, bring to a gentle simmer and cook for 40 minutes, or until most of liquid has been absorbed and lentils are tender and almost cooked through.

2. Stir the Marmite through the lentils and simmer for a further 5 to 10 minutes, or until all the liquid has been absorbed. Remove from the heat and leave to cool, then spoon the mixture over the mushrooms. Set the lentil-stuffed mushrooms aside.

3. Heat the remaining olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Add the torn kale, season generously and heat, stirring occasionally, until gently wilted. Squeeze over the lemon juice and set aside to cool.

4. Preheat the oven to 220°C (200°C fan), gas mark 7.

5. Roll the pastry sheets out on a floured work surface slightly to enlarge each by about a third, then use a saucer as to template to cut out eight pastry circles. Cut leaf-shaped decorations out of the excess pastry.

6. Place a small heap of kale in the centre of four of the pastry circles and lay over the mushrooms, lentil-stuffed side down. Place the remaining pastry circles on top (rolling them out a little more first if you need to for fit) and pinch the sides together with a fork. Trim off any excess pastry and tuck in any gaps as you go, ensuring there are no air bubbles around the mushrooms.

7. Gently press two pastry 'leaves' on to each Wellington and bake for 30 to 35 minutes until golden and crispy. Remove from the oven and leave to cool slightly before serving.

Quinoa-stuffed tomatoes

Tomatoes might be my favourite fruit. Endlessly versatile, they are an absolute mainstay in my kitchen and, whether canned or fresh, they form the basis of so many of my meals. Here, though, they really get to shine, becoming the vehicles for a simple but tasty quinoa filling. These stuffed tomatoes can be wheeled out for an easy lunch or served as part of a potluck dinner or buffet - tasting equally wonderful cold as fresh out of the oven makes them a great option for stress-free hosting. For a rather adorable (and delicious) starter, serve them nestled on top of some dressed leaves.

SERVES 4-6

INGREDIENTS

100g quinoa (any colour)

200ml water

2 tbsp olive oil

1 red onion, finely chopped

1 courgette, diced

Grated zest and juice of ½ lemon

100g fresh or frozen sweetcorn kernels

50g frozen peas, defrosted

1 heaped tbsp vegan pesto

30g chopped cashews

6 large tomatoes

Sea salt flakes and black pepper

TO SERVE

Small handful of mint, chopped

Small handful of flat leaf parsley, chopped

METHOD

1. Add the quinoa to a saucepan and pour over the measured water. Cover with a lid and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until all the liquid has been absorbed. Remove from the heat and leave to steam, covered, for 5 minutes, then fluff the quinoa grains up with a fork and set aside (this can be prepared up to a day in advance and kept in a suitable container in the refrigerator until needed).

2. Preheat the oven to 220°C (200°C fan), gas mark 7.

3. Heat one tablespoon of the olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Add the onion, season generously and sweat for 4 to 5 minutes, until translucent. Add the courgette and lemon zest and cook, stirring, for 5-7 minutes until the courgette begins to soften.

4. Stir through the quinoa, sweetcorn, peas and lemon juice and season. Cook for 2-3 minutes to heat through before stirring through the pesto and cashews. Remove from the heat.

5. Use a sharp knife to cut the tops from the tomatoes (being sure to reserve them) and hollow out the seeds and membranes using a spoon.

6. Spoon the quinoa mixture into the tomatoes, pressing down gently on the filling as you go. Transfer to a baking dish, pop the tops back on, drizzle with the remaining olive oil and season.

7. Bake for 20 minutes until lightly charred and blistered, then remove from the oven and set aside for 5 minutes to cool slightly. Divide among plates and garnish with a little chopped mint and parsley.

Polenta pizza with spinach and roasted squash

SERVES 4-6

INGREDIENTS

For the base

700ml water

175g polenta

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt flakes and black pepper

For the pizza sauce

3 tbsp passata (sieved tomatoes)

1 heaped tbsp tomato purée

1 tsp oregano

1 garlic clove, minced

½ tbsp maple syrup

½ tbsp balsamic vinegar

50ml water

Sea salt flakes and black pepper

For the toppings

½ butternut squash, peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces

1 heaped tsp oregano

1 tbsp olive oil

200g spinach

2 shallots, sliced

2 heaped tbsp freshly chopped basil, plus extra to garnish

2 tbsp pumpkin seeds

2 tbsp nutritional yeast (optional),plus extra to garnish

Sea salt flakes and black pepper

For 'cheesy' sauce:

70g sunflower seeds

1 small garlic clove, minced

Juice of ½ orange

1 tsp Dijon mustard

1 tsp maple syrup

½ tsp sea salt flakes

1 tbsp nutritional yeast

125ml water

METHOD

1. Preheat the oven to 220°C (200°C fan) or gas mark 7. Line a baking tray with baking paper.

2. For the base, place the measured water in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Generously salt the water, whisk in the polenta and cook over a medium heat, stirring vigorously for 15 to 20 minutes, or until it thickens. Add the oil, season and continue to cook, stirring until it becomes rubbery and pliable.

3. Tip the polenta mixture on to the prepared baking tray and spread it to the edges using a spatula. Transfer to the refrigerator and leave for 30 minutes to firm.

4. Meanwhile, prepare the toppings. Put the squash, oregano and olive oil in a bowl and toss to coat. Season generously and roast for 30 minutes, or until golden and crispy. Remove from the oven and set aside until needed.

5. Increase the heat to 240°C (220°C fan), gas mark 9 and bring a large saucepan of water to the boil. Add the spinach to the pan and cook until wilted, then remove with a slotted spoon and squeeze out any excess liquid before mincing to a rough pulp. Season and set aside until needed.

6. To make the pizza sauce, add the passata, tomato puree, oregano, garlic, maple syrup, balsamic vinegar and measured water to a bowl and whisk together to combine. Season and set aside.

7. Once firm, bake the pizza base for 20 to 25 minutes until the edges begin to crisp.

8. Spread the base with the pizza sauce and top with the sliced shallots, wilted spinach, basil, roasted squash, pumpkin seeds and the nutritional yeast, if using. Bake for a further 15 to 20 minutes, or until the edges are crispy and golden.

9. Meanwhile, place all the 'cheesy' sauce ingredients in a bowl and whizz together with a hand-held blender until completely smooth.

10. To serve, cut the pizza into squares, drizzle over the sauce and garnish with a little extra basil and/or nutritional yeast.

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Vegging out: Aine Carlin
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Quinoa-stuffed tomatoes
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Polenta pizza with spinach and roasted squash
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Individual mushroom Wellingtons