Cooking for Friends: Vegetarian Cottage Pie

Looks just like the real thing, no? But this baby is 100% vegetarian goodness!
Looks just like the real thing, no? But this baby is 100% vegetarian goodness!

So my friend the Finn has had an adorable teeny tiny baby – no pics, because it’s her baby and it would be rude and creepy to post without permission – and I found myself wondering what the best gift was. Obviously you can take smellies, candles, various unguents and adorable toys etc – and I’ll admit I totally rocked out buying adorable babygros for Junior – but sometimes it’s the basics which count.

I’ve heard that the things that new mommas need more than anything is time – so I figured that filling the fridge was a good start. I sought some top advice from friends and family and thought I’d share it here in case you too decide to help out a pal by filling their fridge – whether it’s new baby, new house, illness or whatever.

  1. Consider variety – make sure you take into account their needs and wants food wise, and try and do something that fits with this, but is a bit different. If you are able, take a look at what they’ve already got and see what you can do differently for them. If they’re living on fresh soup, they won’t exactly be overwhelmed to have 8 more pots of the stuff.
  2. Obviously it’s nice to get some fancypants ready meals from Marksies or Waitrose, but sometimes a bit of homemade stew is just what hits the spot. Don’t be afraid if it’s not posh-looking – when it comes to making food for those in a hurry, it really is about taste.
  3. Obviously microwaveable stuff is incredibly convenient and can be really nice, but it’s always worth doing something that can go in the oven and sit there for a bit. Shepherd’s pie is a real winner here, being a meal which is basically impossible to mess up too considerably if you forget it in the oven for a while.
  4. Foil containers with lids (takeaway style) are one of the most useful things to put ready meals in, because you can write what’s in there on the lids, they stack neatly and tidily in fridge or freezer, and they hold a good portion of food for one (or curry for two).
  5. You’re not Delia or whatever, but try and give consideration to nutritional balance and make sure that there’s a good balance of protein, carbs and veg alongside the general yumminess.
  6. Whatever you do, make sure that your kitchen is SPOTLESS, that you ensure great hygiene/food safety and that you write the date of making on the top of the boxes. Poisoning your pals is not a great way to help them out. I’ll be honest, if you’re a bit laissez-faire on this, I’d stick to vegetarian food, as it’s less likely to go toxic on your pals.
  7. Always try and include a bit of dessert! A few cookies, a couple of microwaveable sponge puds or whatever can feel like an indulgent treat if you are pressed for time to cook.

I ended up buying a few bits and bobs from Marksies to go alongside a couple of batch recipes I was thinking of making for myself in any event. I went vegetarian as my pal’s hub is mostly veggie in any event, and I’m experimenting with vegetarianism this month to give myself a bit of a kick in the arse vis a vis responsible eating habits (more on this another time).

Recipe number one was this really great “perfect Chana Masala” from the ever-reliable and totally fantstic Fecility Cloake, who basically has my dream job (not that I’m bitter  *cries in corner FOREVER*).

I decided to tart it up a bit with some paneer and a few handfuls of kale to boost the protein and get some more veg in, and to make sure that it’s one of those meals where all you need is a bit of bread to mop up the sauce, as opposed to being more of a side dish.

When it comes to making it in real life, this recipe (like most of FC’s stuff) is pretty bang on. The only thing I’d watch is the quantities on the chickpeas – I found that two drained tins of chickpeas came to nearly 580g of chickpeas (as opposed to the 450g called for in the recipe), and so boosted the water and added a bit more onion, garlic, ginger and coriander to make sure it kept a good depth of flavour. I also decided to nix the lemon juice and go for a good tablespoon of tamarind paste instead, being my preferred way to get tartness in a curry.

Delicious, nutritious and done in 30 minutes. My kind of dish!
Delicious, nutritious and done in 30 minutes. My kind of dish!

For recipe number two, I decided to try out a recipe I’d had in my head for a while. I LOVE cottage pie, it being one of the British classics and great for this time of year. My old flatmate the Designer was veggie for ages, and used to make a great version with a red aduki bean stew  replacing the meat and gravy. Digging around in my ever-reliable Rose Elliot for some ideas to help the thing in my head come to life, I paused at the vegetarian lentil bolognese and decided to try and combine the two basic ideas with a few added extras (because I’m me and because duh, why wouldn’t you try and make your pie EXTRA DELISH??).

Vegetarian Cottage Pie 

makes 1 x big pie and 4 mini pies to go in the freezer

200g green lentils, soaked for 6 hours (or you can try try a hot soak)

olive oil, for frying

1 x large white onion, finely chopped

1 x garlic clove, finely minced

1 x large carrot, chopped

1 x glass red wine (don’t worry about it being super-posh)

1 x aubergine, halved and cut into reasonably thick slices

8 x chestnut mushrooms

1 x bay leaf

1 x tin of tomatoes

1 x veggie stock cube

1 tbsp tomato puree

a few sprigs of oregano or thyme

4 x large white floury potatoes, such as maris piper or desiree, peeled

4 x largish orange sweet potatoes, peeled

a knob of butter

a splash of milk

ALL THE CHEESE (or, you know, a couple of handfuls of grated cheddar)

Always add more cheese
Always add more cheese
Ready to rock and roll
Ready to rock and roll

This is a super-easy recipe which doesn’t actually require much prep, but it’s probably a good idea to make sure that your tins and tubs for the filling are ready to go, and that you give yourself enough time for the filling to cool before the potato goes on the top – unlike a classic cottage pie, if the filling is too warm, it can melt into the topping a bit. I just use the same big pan for all of the cooking, to save on washing up a bit.

First, make your filling. Put a glug of olive oil into a large saucepan and pop over a medium heat. Tip in your onions and garlic and fry until soft and good-smelling, but try not to let it brown – about 5 minutes. Add the carrot and fry for a minute or two more, then tip in the wine and let it bubble down by at least half. Add the aubergine and mushrooms and let them soften a touch before adding the drained lentils, bay leaf, tomatoes (including their juices), puree and crumbled stock cube. Top up with about 500ml of water, then bring to a simmer for about 20 minutes. The lentils should be soft and the mixture rich-smelling and delicious, but not too wet. If it’s looking dry, add a touch more water, but be cautious – sloppy filling is no fun.

Fish out the bay leaf, add your oregano and some salt and pepper to taste, then ladle out the filling into your waiting receptacles.

Rinse out the pan then replace on the heat with enough water to boil the potatoes. Add the while potatoes first and simmer for around 6-8 minutes before adding the sweet potatoes and cooking for around 10 minutes more. I always find that white potatoes need more simmering than sweet, for some reason I’m sure someone smarter than me knows all about. When both sets of potatoes are soft, drain off and mash with butter and milk, adding some salt and white pepper as you go to taste – it’s up to you how you like your mash, so I won’t dictate to you, but I prefer it creamy. Spread, pipe or swirl onto your pie fillings and top with grated cheese. How much is up to you and your own sense of decorum. I go for broke, personally.

Bake at 200c for about 30-40 minutes, until the sauce bubbles up around the sides (make sure you put the pie dish on a baking sheet to catch drips) and the top is golden brown and crunchy. Smaller pies will only take about 20 minutes to get hot all the way through.

OH GOD DAYUM THAT LOOKS FINE
OH GOD DAYUM THAT LOOKS FINE

TOP TIPS: Simply omit the butter, milk and cheese and use almond milk to thin the mash for a vegan pie. You can also switch it up a bit – try puy lentils in the filling (no need to soak!). This would also be awesome with the following extras scattered on top of the filling before topping with potato and baking: crumbled feta, smoked tofu, some canned spicy peppers or a layer of steamed kale or spinach.

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