This January I decided to go vegetarian. This is not a permanent change for me, more a personal challenge, to see if I could stick to it and a chance to give my body a break after the incessant indulgence of the Christmas period. For the first week or two I was really enjoying it, I was getting more experimental with my meal plans, felt less bloated and my shopping bill reduced significantly. However by the third week, I have to admit, I found it more of a struggle, missing some of my favourite dishes and running low on new ideas for the meal plan. I‘m looking forward to a good Bolognese come February, but I‘ve definitely learned something from this experiment and I think going forward I will cut my meat consumption significantly. I‘ve cooked some things that didn’t work out so well but also discovered and developed recipes that will definitely be making their way into my regular rotation. Including this one.
Sometimes the best dishes come about by accident. Planning on making a tasty courgette and ricotta dish that’s one of my vegetarian staples, off I trotted on Saturday afternoon to my local Sainsbury’s to get everything I needed to cook dinner for my sister who was coming to visit in the evening. I arrived in the vegetable aisle only to discover an entirely empty stack of crates where the courgettes usually live… I took a moment to consider my options. Did I have time to go and visit another supermarket? Not really. Should I pop back home and scour the cookbooks for different ideas? No, that would take too long… I’d have to improvise. So I considered what other veg I could use for a layered bake and bought a selection of aubergines, butternut squash and sweet potato. I figured anything leftover could make a stew or a curry on Sunday. I then arrived in the cheese aisle to find a gaping hole where the ricotta should be! Some sort of higher force must be working against me! This was a slightly easier swap and I picked up mascarpone instead, even though it’s slightly creamier.
As well as being a particularly frustrating trip to the shops, it was a good lesson in understanding ingredients and working out what would make good substitutes. I finished up my shop and walked home with my fingers crossed that I wouldn’t just end up with a random pile of layered veggie mush. To my relief, my improvised dish turned out pretty well and even The Boyfriend, who‘s never too enthusiastic about a meat free dinner, really enjoyed it and asked for seconds. The leftover portions were also ideal for a few days worth of packed lunches or make great freezer dinners for lazier days.
Serve with a simple rocket salad dressed with lemon juice.
For the tomato sauce:
400g butternut squash, diced
1/2 onion finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 green chilli, finely diced
1tbsp tomato purée
2 tsps smoked paprika
For the layers:
1 sweet potato, peeled and sliced into thin rounds
2 large aubergines, sliced lengthways
For the cheesy sauce:
250g mascarpone cheese
1 tsp nutmeg
Salt and pepper
125g mozzarella pearls
Coconut oil for cooking
1. Preheat oven to 180ºC.
2. Lay the aubergine slices out on a board on top of a layer of kitchen. towel, sprinkle salt over the aubergine slices and leave.
3. In a pan on a med-high heat melt the coconut oil and start to fry the onions. When they have begun to soften throw in the chilli and the garlic. Gently fry for 2-3 minutes. Season generously with salt and pepper.
4. Add the butternut squash and fry for a minute or two before adding the tomato purée and paprika. Stir through until everything is fully coated.
5. Add the passata and the water and bring to the boil. Once bubbling, cover and reduce the heat. Leave to simmer for 15 minutes.
6. Pat the aubergine down with more kitchen towel to remove excess moisture.
7. In a large frying pan, melt a little more oil and fry the aubergines for a minute on each side in batches. Set aside on a board until you‘re ready to assemble the bake.
8. In another bowl add the mascarpone, egg, nutmeg and salt and pepper, whisk together until thoroughly combined.
9. In a large oven proof dish, cover the bottom with a layer of aubergine slices. Spoon over some of the butternut squash, tomato mixture. Top with a layer of sliced sweet potatoes. Spoon over a couple of spoonfuls of the mascarpone mixture and scatter in some mozzarella pearls.
10. Keep layering the squash and tomato mixture with the sweet potato and aubergine and continue to randomly scatter mozzarella pearls. Reserve enough of the aubergines for the top layer. Then spread over the mascarpone mixture, covering the whole dish. Scatter over any remaining mozzarella pearls.
11. Place in the oven and bake for 45-50 minutes.