By guest blogger, Nadia Holmes
Where would we be without our fondest food memories? One whiff and we’re back in our nonna’s home, the aroma of sugo wafting through the air. Food nostalgia is linked to our cultural heritage. And for me, a vegan Italian, it has been an adventure trying to recreate my family recipes.
The concept of Vegan Italian cuisine often elicits a puzzled look. ‘Italian vegan?’ ‘How is that possible?’ ‘But what about cheese?’
It’s a fair question and a cooking challenge that seems on shakier ground than an erupting Mount Vesuvius. But through my cooking classes and most recently, the SBS reality cooking show, The Chefs’ Line I have set out to prove that it can be done. With just a little imagination.
The biggest secret that many fans of Italian food don’t seem to realise is that southern Italian cooking is what I like to call, ‘accidentally vegan.’ At its core southern Italian cooking isn’t reliant on meat or dairy. Ingredients such as olive oil, tomatoes, basil, vegetables, beans, pasta and pizza are all celebrated and form the foundation of the best dishes.
I grew up in a family where meat wasn’t the star of the show. There was macaroni with pomodoro sauce, stuffed artichokes, chunky potato and roasted capsicums, pizza, minestrone, to name a few. We were from a family of farmers who emigrated to Australia to escape economic hardship, where cucina povera wasn’t a modern rustic cooking style but a diet born out of necessity.
Not eating meat and dairy as a moral choice instead of an economic one is largely unfamiliar to Italians, including my own family. When I first went vegan 17 years ago this was unheard of. It took a little while for my family to catch on that it wasn’t a phase. But eventually even my nonna started writing ‘N.M’ for ‘No Meat’ on containers of pasta sauce she sent home with me. I’m sure she still doesn’t quite understand why I don’t eat meat but like most grandmothers, she expresses love through food. And that means the world to me.
The older I get, the more I care about my food heritage. I love exploring the plant-based recipes of Italy. When I come across a dish that isn’t vegan, I love finding creative way to veganise it. Whilst tofu isn’t an ingredient that would normally step foot in an Italian cucina, it certainly makes for an impressive substitute for ricotta. If you’re craving something meaty, walnuts are a great stand-in for the richness and texture of mince for polpette.
Aside from creating innovative vegan alternatives, Italian food shines at its simplest. Al dente pasta with a flavourful pomodoro sauce. You can’t beat that.
You won’t need that dairy version anymore – a block of tofu, a few flavourful additions and you can create your very own creamy dreamy alternative.
250g firm tofu
2 heaped teaspoons nutritional yeast flakes (optional)
1 tsp salt
2 teaspoons vinegar or lemon juice
½ tsp garlic powder
½ tsp onion powder
¼ cup full fat soy milk
generous glug of extra virgin olive oil
cracked black pepper and drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, to serve
Add all ingredients into a food processor.
Process until it reaches a ricotta consistency, smooth but with a touch of graininess.
While the blender is running, add a dash more soy milk for extra creaminess.
Use for a ravioli, cannelloni filling or press into a ricotta cheese mould, wrap and leave in the fridge for 3 hours to overnight, then un-mould for an authentic ricotta.
2 cups walnuts
2 slices bread
1 ½ tablespoons Massel ‘beef’ stock
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast flakes
1 tsp garlic powder
¼ cup water
handful of fresh parsley
generous dash of liquid smoke
Into a blender or food processor, pulse walnuts and bread briefly.
Add remaining ingredients except the water and process until it begins to resemble mince.
Now with the blender still running, add the water. The mixture should now be moist and malleable.
Roll into balls and place on an oven tray lined with baking paper.
Bake in a preheated 180C oven for 25 minutes. Turning over carefully half way through.
Allow to cool slightly and stir gently through a simple pomodoro pasta sauce and simmer for a few minutes so the balls soak up some of the liquid.
Enjoy with pasta or on their own as a starter.
Nadia Holmes first went vegan 17 years ago and loves sharing her passion for veganising traditional dishes through her blog and social media pages, The Road Not Taken.
Most recently her ingenuity at adapting Italian Cuisine led to her competing on the SBS reality TV cooking show, The Chefs’ Line.
When Nadia is not delving into foodie adventures or running a cooking class or two, she is a secondary school teacher and creative writer, with travel articles featured in Vegan Lifestyle Magazine and Vegan Travel.
Read more from Nadia on her blog The Road Not Taken
Or on Instagram @the_road_not_taken_vegan