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Four vegetarian Christmas dishes to try

Too few at the table for turkey? Try going meat-free instead. Chefs including Meera Sodha and Anna Jones suggest their favourite festive veggie showstoppers from around the world.

By National Geographic Traveller Food
Published 5 Nov 2020, 15:16 GMT, Updated 16 Nov 2020, 15:02 GMT
Meera Sodha’s winter pilau is packed with beetroot, cauliflower, swede and spices.

Meera Sodha’s winter pilau is packed with beetroot, cauliflower, swede and spices.

Photograph by East

Christmas is likely to be very different this year, with the ‘rule of six’ meaning fewer people around the table. Many home cooks are turning away from turkey for fear of waste or endless leftovers. Some turkey farmers have seen a drop in orders for large birds, and while  chicken or goose are obvious substitutes, why not experiment this year with a meat-free main? From plant-based steaks to savoury bakes, vegetarian dishes can be scaled up or down, and often come with all the usual Christmas trimmings. We asked chefs for their favourite veggie centrepieces.

Winter pilau with beetroot, cauliflower and coriander chutney

For a standout centrepiece, try Meera Sodha’s winter pilau, from her book, East (£20, Fig Tree). Packed with beetroot, cauliflower, swede and spices, it’s a whole meal in itself, but will also work with a few festive sides. “This is a special dish, worthy of the Christmas table, in which burnished roasted vegetables are tucked under a blanket of coconut milk and coriander rice and bright bursts of pomegranate and chilli to add a little sparkle,” Meera says.

Serves: 4 as a main
Takes: 1 hr 15 mins


300g basmati rice
600g cauliflower (½ a big one), broken into bite-size florets
400g raw beetroot, peeled and cut into wedges
300g swede (½ a small one), peeled and cut into 1cm x 3cm slices
2½ tsp garam masala
rapeseed oil
1 x 400ml tin of coconut milk
6 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
2cm ginger, peeled
1 tsp ground turmeric
2 green finger chillies, stems removed
1 large onion, finely sliced
100g fresh coriander
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp caster sugar
2 handfuls of pomegranate seeds, to top


1. Heat oven to 200C fan, 220C, gas 7. Wash the rice in a few changes of cold water until the water runs clear, then leave to soak in cold water.
2. Put the cauliflower on a baking tray in a single layer and arrange the beetroot and swede on another baking sheet in a single layer. Mix the garam masala, 5 tbsp rapeseed oil and 1 tsp salt in a small bowl, then drizzle over the veg on both trays and toss to coat. Roast for 25-30 mins until tender and caramelised in places (the swede and beetroot may need a little longer).
3. Meanwhile, make the coconut sauce for the rice. Put 300ml of the coconut milk into a blender with the garlic, ginger, turmeric, 1 of the chillies and ¾ tsp salt, then blitz smooth.
4. In a large frying pan with a tight-fitting lid, heat 2 tbsp rapeseed oil over a medium heat. Add the onion and fry for 10 mins, then tip in the blitzed coconut sauce and cook for 8 mins, stirring frequently. Add the drained rice with 400ml freshly boiled water and bring to the boil. Cover the pan with the lid, turn the heat down to a whisper and cook for 20 mins until the rice is cooked through. Remove from the heat, fold through the roasted vegetables, pop the lid back on and leave to steam for 10 mins.
5. While the rice is steaming, make the chutney. Rinse the blender, then add the remaining coconut milk, the coriander, lemon juice, sugar, remaining chilli and ½ tsp salt. Blend until smooth, then scrape into a serving bowl.
6. Transfer the rice to a platter, sprinkle with the pomegranate seeds and serve with the bowl of chutney.

Anna Jones recommends the celeriac and sweet garlic pie from her book, The Modern Cook’s Year.

Photograph by The Modern Cook's Year

Celebration celeriac and sweet garlic pie

Anna Jones recommends the celeriac and sweet garlic pie from her book, The Modern Cook’s Year (£26, 4th Estate). “I’ve made this pie the last four Christmases,” she says. “It’s everything I want in a pie: a cheddar and winter herb flaky pastry; a creamy filling, sweet with balsamic garlic and roasted celeriac; and a crisp, grated celeriac roof.” The book also has a section dedicated to vegetarian festive feasts.

Serves: 8-10
Takes: 1 hr 45 mins


For the pastry
250g plain spelt flour, plus extra for dusting
125g cold unsalted butter, cubed
½ teaspoon fine salt
a few sprigs each of rosemary, thyme and sage, leaves picked and finely chopped
1 unwaxed lemon, zested
25g good cheddar, grated
1 medium egg yolk

For the filling
3 heads of garlic, cloves separated and peeled
olive oil, for frying and drizzling
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp runny honey
2 sprigs each of rosemary, thyme and sage, leaves picked and finely chopped, plus extra to finish
1 kg celeriac, peeled and quartered
220g Lancashire or good cheddar cheese, crumbled
150g creme fraiche
½ lemon, juiced
1 tbsp wholegrain mustard
small bunch of parsley, chopped
Worcestershire sauce
2 organic eggs, beaten


1. Tip the spelt flour into a mixing bowl. Add the butter and salt and rub gently with your fingertips until the mixture is like fine breadcrumbs. Stir through the herbs, lemon zest and cheddar.
2. Beat the egg yolk with 1 tbsp cold water. Add to the flour mixture and combine to form a dough. Add more cold water, 1 tsp at a time (around 50-70ml), until it comes together into a smooth dough. Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge while you make the filling.
3. Put the garlic cloves in a saucepan, cover with cold water and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook for 2-3 mins, then drain.
4. Wipe the saucepan dry. Add the garlic to the pan again, along with 1 tbsp olive oil, and fry on a high heat for 2 mins. Pour in the balsamic vinegar and 100ml water, then bring to the boil and simmer gently for 10 mins.
5. Add the honey, most of the rosemary and thyme (reserving the rest, with the sage) and a good pinch of salt. Cook on a medium heat for a further 5 mins, or until most of the liquid has evaporated and the garlic cloves are coated in a dark syrup.
6. Meanwhile, set aside 300g of the celeriac and slice the rest into 2cm-thick pieces. Tip them into a saucepan, cover with hot water and boil for 7-10 mins until they’re soft and have turned slightly translucent.
7. Drain and tip into a big mixing bowl. Add the cheese, creme fraiche, lemon juice, mustard, parsley, eggs and a splash of Worcestershire sauce. Add a good pinch of salt and grind of pepper and gently fold in the cooked garlic cloves.
8. Heat oven to 180C, 160C fan, gas 4. Dust a work surface with flour, then roll out the pastry to a thickness of 3-4mm. Line a 20cm round cake tin with the pastry, ensuring a little hangs over the edge.
9. Pour the filling into the pastry case. Coarsely grate the reserved celeriac and pile it on top. Finish with the reserved rosemary and thyme, all the sage, and a drizzle of olive oil. Bake for 45 mins, or until the filling has set and the top is golden brown.
10. Remove from the oven, leave to cool a little, then remove from the tin. Serve warm.

Karoline Jönsson’s sunflower balls are a plant-free alternative to classic Swedish meatballs.

Photograph by Happy Vegan Christmas

Sunflower balls

You could try a Scandi-style option, Karoline Jönsson’s sunflower balls — a plant-free alternative to classic Swedish meatballs. In her book, Happy Vegan Christmas (£14.99, Pavilion Books), she writes that this was ‘the first dish on the family’s combined Christmas and Easter buffet that was wholly replaced with a vegan version’ and recommends serving with potatoes and gravy. 

Makes: about 25
Takes: 30 mins


2 tbsp psyllium husk
140g sunflower seeds
1 large brown onion, finely chopped
30g day-old fresh breadcrumbs
1 tbsp tamari
½ tsp white pepper
1 pinch ground allspice
oil, for frying


1. Mix the psyllium husk and 150ml water in a bowl and leave to swell for 10 mins.
2. Meanwhile, blitz the sunflower seeds in a food processor or blender to form a flour, then add the remaining ingredients with 1 tsp salt and quickly blend together into a firm mixture (alternatively, you could blitz the sunflower seeds, then add the breadcrumbs, tamari, pepper, allspice and 1 tsp salt and whiz together before transferring to a bowl and stirring in the onion). 
3. Roll the mixture into even-sized balls, around 25 in total.
4. Heat a generous amount of oil in a large frying pan set over a medium heat. Cook the balls in batches for 3-4 mins, turning once, until nicely coloured all over. Drain on kitchen paper, then serve.

Henry Firth and Ian Theasby's latest vegan cookbook, Speedy Bosh!, features a plant-based roast, including pan-fried seitan steaks, maple-roasted root veg and other elements.

Photograph by xxx

Vegan roast

“A traditional roast dinner is one of our favourite meals — we just have ours without the meat,” say Henry Firth and Ian Theasby. Their latest vegan cookbook, Speedy Bosh! (£22, HarperCollins), features a plant-based roast, including pan-fried seitan steaks, maple-roasted root veg and other elements. 

Serves 4
Takes: 30 mins


90g plant-based butter alternative
olive oil

For the sweet potato & pecan pie
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 tbsp oat milk
50g oats
20g demerara sugar
40g pecans

For the maple-roasted roots
2 carrots, peeled, if you like, and quartered or halved lengthways, or cut into thin batons
2 parsnips, peeled, if you like, and quartered or halved lengthways, or cut into thin batons
1 tbsp maple syrup
handful of fresh thyme, leaves picked if the stems are woody 
1 lemon

For the buttered corn & parsley
1 x 165g tin sweetcorn
whole or grated nutmeg
handful of flat-leaf parsley

For the red cabbage & cranberry dressing
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tbsp cranberry sauce
¼ red cabbage, finely shredded

For the pan-fried seitan
1 tsp dried oregano
300g seitan steaks
80g vegan 'bacon ' rashers (optional)

For the greens
drizzle of olive oil
2 large handfuls of collard greens, kale or spring greens, trimmed
½ orange
dash of red wine vinegar
whole or ground nutmeg

To serve
instant vegan gravy
cranberry sauce


1. Heat oven to its highest temperature. Line a baking tray and boil a kettle.
2. Start with the sweet potato & pecan pie. Place the sweet potatoes in a saucepan, cover with boiling water, add a pinch of salt and set over a medium heat for 10 mins. Place a steamer or colander on top, ready for the other roots.
3. Melt the plant-based butter in a small saucepan and set aside.
4. For the maple-roasted roots, place the carrots and parsnips in the steamer, put on the lid and steam for 5 mins. Remove and spread over the lined baking tray. Cover with 2 tbsp olive oil and the maple syrup. Scatter the thyme leaves over the veg and drizzle with a squeeze of the lemon. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Roast on the top shelf of the oven for 15 mins.
5. For the buttered corn & parsley, set a small saucepan over a low heat. Tip the sweetcorn into the pan with a third of the melted butter and add a grating of nutmeg. Heat on low for 10 mins, stirring occasionally.
6. Return to the sweet potato pie — the sweet potato should be very soft. Drain well and put back in the pan. Add the oat milk and a pinch of salt and mash until smooth. Taste and season with more salt if necessary, then scoop into a baking dish or roasting tin. Mix the oats, sugar and pecans together in a bowl with another third of the melted butter, then tip over the top of the mash. Put in the oven next to the root veg.
7. Next, make the red cabbage & cranberry dressing. Add the soy sauce, red wine vinegar, cranberry sauce and 1 tbsp oil to the bowl you’ll be using to serve the cabbage and whisk together. Tip the cabbage into the bowl and toss to coat.
8. Move on to the pan-fried seitan. Set the frying pan over a medium heat, then add the final third of the melted butter and the oregano. Once the herbs are sizzling, add the seitan and vegan ‘bacon’ rashers, if using, and fry lightly on both sides. Remove and set aside to drain on kitchen paper. Return the pan to the heat.
9. Now start on the greens. Drizzle some olive oil into the frying pan, then add the greens. Turn the heat to high and squeeze over the juice of the orange half and pour over the red wine vinegar. Fry for a few minutes, then add a grating of nutmeg and season with salt and pepper.
10. Make the gravy according to packet instructions. Check on the roasted veg and the pie and, if not yet browned to your liking, pop under the grill for a couple of minutes. Add the parsley leaves to the corn. Carefully remove the root veg and pie from under the grill. Take all the dishes to the table and let everyone dig in.

Published in Issue 10 (winter 2020) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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