This is the quintessential dish of Sixties vegetarianism. (Which is when my parents became vegetarians. Yes, I have been a nutcase from birth.)
Nevertheless, nut roast is quite tasty. It is also an excellent dish to serve as the “vegetarian alternative” for a main meal where most of the diners will be tucking into the meat dish, because first of all, nut roast can be happily served with any side dish you would serve with meat, and second, you can make the basic mixture the day before, refrigerate it, and stir in an egg (if you’re using an egg, see discussion below) at the last minute before you pop it in the oven to bake it, so that it inconveniences you-the-host less than many a vegetarian alternative.
As someone who has been the sole vegetarian guest at many meals, I appreciate all the hosts who went to some trouble to ensure that I could eat my fill.
The method is to fry the onions in butter (or oil) with herbs, creating a lovely greasy moist flavoursome mess, which you add to a dry mixture of breadcrumbs, chopped nuts, ground nuts, and seasonings. This makes a paste (you can make it moister by adding some vegetable stock) which you put into a greased casserole dish and bake in the oven until it’s brown and crusty. You can make the roast less crumbly when you come to slice it if you add a beaten egg to the mixture before you put it into the dish, or get a similar effect if you add some grated cheese. Or both. Live a little.
I am not a vegan, but I can see the ethical argument for not using dairy products: veal is an inevitable byproduct of the milch cow industry, and keeping cows perpetually pregnant and in milk is a form of cruelty. (Before organic free-range dairy farmers write to me to tell me that Bossie and Daisy are completely happy on the farm, I’ll tell you I love cheese and have found it impossible to mount any real tirade against the industry that brings me such heavenly delights.)
I find it impossible, however, to make a rational ethical argument against using organic free-range eggs. Well-fed chickens will produce eggs once every two or three days. A chicken fed organic food and kept in a free-range environment is neither being treated particularly cruelly nor being forced beyond their natural capabilities. (Same with honey: no one has to whip the bees on with little whips to produce honey, they just do it.) Nothing will persuade me that chickens are smart enough to miss their eggs once they’re gone, and they’d never hatch anyway.
That said, I am a heretic among vegetarians in that I don’t actually see any particular need for everyone to be vegetarian. I just think it would be better – both dietetically and environmentally – if people gave up on “cheap meat”. For starters, it’s not all that cheap if you add in the environmental costs the public have to pay to support the profits of the cheap-meat farmers. Diet-wise, humans are probably best off having meat as a treat they consume once or twice a week, not every day – and meat of good quality, not stressed, shit-contaminated, fat-filled, antibiotics-fattened meat from industrial farmers. And finally, the cruelty involved in getting the meat from birth to plate is… unbearable, if you think of animals as living, feeling creatures that also feel pain, rather than as blocks of pink stuff you buy from the supermarket.
Going back to the actual recipe, though:
Proportions, once you’ve made this a couple of times, are pretty obvious. You get to know the texture you want. The only way this can really go wrong is if you use fake orange “breadcrumb” meant for coating fish in the mix: use real bread to make the crumb. It will taste better the better the bread.
For three medium onions, take quarter of a kilo/half a pound of breadcrumb, and combine it with 125g/4 ounces of chopped nuts and the same of ground nuts. Add about 150 ml (a quarter-pint Imperial) of vegetable stock. To bind the mixture, use one egg, and/or an ounce of grated cheese. Bake for about 40 minutes in a medium hot oven. The quintessential Sixties meal plan is to eat with potatoes and two vegetables, but don’t feel obliged.
1. Don’t bother about using an exciting cheese. Just an ounce or 50 grams of any hard cheese, grated fine and mixed well in. I hate scheese and all other vegan cheese substitutes with a passion, but if you are making this nut roast for a vegan, you can use one of the new cheese substitutes that have a texture pretty much like real cheese: the flavour isn’t anything, but the result has a similar texture to that which real cheese would give.
2. The flavour is also improved if instead of using “chopped mixed nuts” and “ground mixed nuts” you use a specific nut – I like hazelnut or almond best, but try whatever you like and find available. (Peanuts are probably a bit too oily. Anyway, they’re legumes.) Make sure the nuts are fresh – if they taste stale or taste of nothing, don’t use them.
3. Recommending specific herbs or seasonings for a dish like this is frankly risky. I share Katherine Whitehorn’s feeling that it’s better to recommend “mixed herbs” on the basis that people who don’t think of using herbs in their cooking may actually buy a box of mixed herbs if they get the idea they can re-use them in recipe after recipe, while people who have ideas of their own about what herbs go best with each dish will use their own ideas. That said, I also feel you can’t go wrong with rosemary or sage in nut roast.
4. If you have no ideas about seasonings, a pinch of salt and a scrape of pepper will be fine.