vegan salad

Roasted butternut squash on mixed greens with crispy shallots and sage leaves is pure vegan goodness

My hometown of Los Angeles can be a bit odd at times, to say the least. It’s not unusual to overhear someone at Starbucks place an order that would make even the most seasoned barista’s head spin: “Non-fat, half-caf, half-decaf, low-fat tall soy latte with one squirt of no-sugar vanilla syrup, extra hot and served in a grande-sized cup…to go.” It’s also quite common to see menu items that sound more like rabbit food than nourishment for humans, like macrobiotic sea cake with a side of millet or heirloom-varietal organic brown rice biscuits with honey and carob chips. In the health-conscious, model-and-actor Mecca of LA, people can be certifiably obsessed with what they put into their mouths, and restaurants and even Starbucks must cater to the oft-ridiculous requests of its customers if they want to stay in business.

In Drogheda, I get a double-take when I ask for low-fat salad dressing and I once got a cup of instant coffee when I asked for decaf at a local café (I sent it back). There aren’t a lot of choices around here, especially for people who want something healthy and/or beyond the average meat-and-potatoes fare. I imagine being a vegetarian in Ireland is about as unproblematic as being an alcoholic in Kuwait.

vegan tomatoes vegan wonton cups

Slow-roasted tomatoes for the vegan pizza; wonton cones, baked: simply roll the wonton skins into cones, then stuff inside with grease-proof paper to keep them from falling. Bake for 8 minutes in 180-degree oven.

I recently got a bit of insight into the life of an Irish veggie from Aoife Barry, who writes the blog Adventures in Veg and has a vegetarian food column in the Irish Independent. Though she’s not a vegan, she doesn’t eat any meat, fish, poultry, dairy or eggs. Luckily she lives in Dublin, where vegetarian fare is more widely available than in a small town like Drogheda, but in a country that loves its rashers, sausages and steak Aoife says she finds cooking her own meals makes it easier to stick to her healthy diet.

Inspired by her blog and her commitment to healthy cooking, I invited Aoife and a few other bloggers for a full, vegan dinner at my place. When I mentioned this to one of my Irish friends, her exact response was “Yuck!” One of the biggest misconceptions of vegan or vegetarian fare, at least in my experience, is that it’s nothing but bland, tasteless vegetables or weird, fake meat products and I wanted to make a meal that would appeal to both carnivores and veggies alike. Besides Aoife, my dinner guests were Kristin from Dinner du Jour, Roseanne from LikeMamUsedToBake and Aoife from ICanHasCook? – all meat eaters (myself included!).

vegan cones

Wonton cones filled with guacamole…had a few extras that I filled with leftover cashew cheese and roasted red peppers.

The key to any good meal is balance, and since a lot of vegan food involves bread or carbohydrates this can be difficult. I knew I was making a pizza for my main course, so I didn’t want anything too bready for a starter; on the other hand, I wanted to keep things interesting and avoid more common appetizers like carrot sticks or a plate of grilled vegetables. I finally settled on baked wonton “cones” filled with a guacamole made with avocados, garlic, fresh corn kernels and yellow bell peppers. They were filling without being overly heavy and they were a hit with the whole group (whew!).

vegan dough  vegan table

Homemade pizza dough using Roma pizza/pasta flour; table ready for vegan feast!

For dinner, I made a salad of farmer’s market greens and roasted butternut squash topped with fried shallots and sage leaves all tossed together with a simple dressing of balsamic vinegar, olive oil and mustard. Earlier in the day I made the pizza dough, using the fabulous Roma pizza/pasta flour that the company so kindly sent me a few weeks before to try; the flour was lighter and less starchy than regular baking flour and the dough came together quickly and easily. For the vegan pizza I also made up a quick batch of cashew cheese, which is a creamy concoction made of raw cashews, lemon juice, garlic and water. Roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions and fresh basil topped the cheese and I’m pretty convinced that the finished pizza would have appealed to even the most dedicated carnivore!

vegan pizza

Vegan pizza with roasted tomatoes and caramelized onions…and a bit of grease-proof paper!?

Though there was one major glitch in the meal – the parchment paper that lined my baking sheet stuck to the pizza dough, so my dinner guests had to peel off bits of paper from their slices and I’m pretty sure some even ingested a bit of paper – everyone seemed to enjoy the food. Maybe it was all the wine we drank with our meal but no one seemed to miss the meat and I’m pretty sure everyone was satisfied with their dinner. For dessert we had Aoife’s incredible vegan chocolate cupcakes and Roseanne’s insanely good vegan peanut butter cookies – both as good, if not better, as any I’ve had with dairy.

vegan dessert

Absolutely delicious vegan chocolate cupcakes and vegan peanut butter cookies!!!

Am I going to give up meat and go veggie? Not likely. But I will definitely host more vegan/vegetarian dinner parties and am inspired to create more of these types of meals even when I’m dining solo. I enjoy the challenge of cooking vegan, and I think I might even invite my meat-loving Irish friends over for a little experiment sometime in the near future. If I can get them to eat and like vegan cuisine, anything is possible!

vegan pizza long

Vegan Roasted Tomato and Caramelized Onion Pizza

Pizza dough (I used Roma’s recipe; feel free to use your own!) enough for two, large pizzas

Cashew Cheese (click for recipe)

For roasted tomatoes:
4 cups of cherry tomatoes, halved
4 large garlic cloves with skins on
2 tablespoons olive oil
Maldon sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

For caramelized onions:
5 large yellow onions, sliced thinly
¼ cup olive oil

1 cup fresh torn basil

Make pizza dough the day before or at least a few hours before you need to bake the pizza; most pizza dough recipes require two rises so this takes time.

To roast tomatoes, preheat the oven to 110 degrees Celsius. On a baking sheet, lay the tomatoes and garlic out in one layer and drizzle with the olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake for three hours until the tomatoes are a little wrinkly on the outside and just slightly juicy on the inside; the purpose of roasting the tomatoes is so they are not too watery – this can make the pizza soggy!

To caramelize the onions, heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Put in the sliced onions, and cook until golden brown, stirring occasionally. This process can take anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour. Set aside.

To assemble pizza: Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Spread the cashew cheese evenly over the pizza dough crusts, then top with the caramelized onions, then tomatoes. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until the crust is golden brown. Top with fresh torn basil leaves and salt and pepper to season. Don’t line your baking sheet with parchment paper – use a silicon baking liner or just coat the baking pan with olive oil before putting the pizza dough on it!

Roasted Butternut Squash Salad with Fried Shallots and Sage

1 medium-sized butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 tablespoon olive oil plus ¼ cup (keep separate)
½ tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
3 shallots, sliced thinly
6 sage leaves
6 cups spring mix/farmer’s market greens (rocket, baby spinach, etc.)


3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 200 degrees Celsius. In a large bowl, toss together the butternut squash cubes, 1 tablespoon of olive oil, ½ tablespoon balsamic vinegar, sea salt, black pepper and brown sugar until the squash cubes are coated. Pour out onto a greased baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes, or until squash cubes are tender. Set aside.

Heat the ¼ cup of olive oil in a small, shallow sauté pan over high heat. Fry the shallot slices in batches, placing fried shallots on a paper towel to remove excess oil (I find it easier to fry in batches so I can use less oil but it’s up to you). When finished frying the shallots, fry the sage leaves and also set on paper towel to remove oil.

To assemble the salad: Make the dressing by combing all the ingredients in a jar and shake until blended. Place salad greens in a large bowl, and top with still-warm squash cubes. Add dressing and toss together. Sprinkle the salad with fried shallots and crumbled sage leaves. Enjoy!