Monday, November 26, 2012

'Festive Vegetarian Classics' Cooking Workshop at The Coven

Many moons ago, my friend Jeni alerted me to a rather irresistable Living Social deal from The Coven - an award-winning Vegetarian, Vegan and Coeliac-friendly restaurant in Wigan. On offer was a cooking workshop with the restaurant's lovely owner Maria, and as I am not one to turn down an opportunity to spend the day finding out about different ways to cook delicious veggie food, two tickets for the workshop were promptly snapped up.

The time for us to attend the cookery workshop finally came the Sunday before last and Jeni and I were really excited, especially given the 'festive' theme and us getting totally into the Christmas spirit lately and all. We were surprisingly organised and were the first to arrive which gave us plenty of time to enjoy a cosy cuppa with owners Maria and Colin who told us loads about their lovely business, their love of raw food, their opinion on the latest Twilight film and the fact that they are basically by far the most popular restaurant in Wigan despite serving only veggie and vegan food.

Maria began the cooking course with a very interesting introduction that set us up for what we would be doing for the rest of the day. She explained that she rarely uses recipes and finds that you can make anything taste delicious as long as it's properly seasoned and your flavours are layered using sweetness, saltiness, acidity and some kind of spice or heat. She demonstrated this perfectly by giving us some plain tomato to nibble on, followed by another piece of the same tomato that had now been dressed with salt, honey, balsamic vinegar and black pepper. The difference was remarkable, and this is something I've really put quite a lot of thought into since, even when cooking the most basic of quick midweek meals.

Maria and Colin then explained that they would be taking us through some of The Coven's signature dishes but that these were all going to be given a festive makeover. I was quite intrigued to know how they would approach this, turns out the answer was that pretty much everything would contain a good sprinkling of mixed fruit, candied peel, nuts and dried cranberries. 

First up was a Festive Houmous, made by blending red onion, chickpeas, cranberries, mixed fruit, walnuts, sun dried tomatoes and dried sage leaves into a rough paste and seasoning with salt, pepper, honey and lemon juice and finished off with a sprinkle of cinnamon and served with slices of hot seeded toast.

I will readily admit I was dubious. Houmous with a load of fruit and candied peel in? This was too wacky. This was never going to work... was it?

OK, this was the best houmous I can ever remember eating in my entire life. It was amazing. It can only compare the sensation of eating it to being given a houmousy Christmas cuddle by Santa Claus. It managed to be  creamy, smooth, buttery and chunky all at once. It melted in the mouth and was more like a delicious pâté than a houmous and would definitely be an excellent alternative to meat at a Christmas dinner party. I didn't stop thinking about this houmous all day and have been thinking about it quite often ever since - I will definitely be making it for our Christmas party. I was so enthusiastically telling Bailey about it later that he asked if they had also put crack in it!

Next, Maria whipped up a Chestnut Pâté by frying onions with soy sauce and hot water before adding balsamic vinegar, chestnuts and dried cranberries, whizzed it up in her trusty food processor and hey presto, another delicious Christmas treat. Anyone coming to my Christmas party can also expect to see this bad boy on the nibbles table.

If you were dubious about festive fruity houmous then I imagine you will be just as dubious as Jeni and I were about Maria's next dish - Christmas Dinner Lasagna. 

This basically comprised a load of Christmas dinner veg including carrots, peas, potatoes parsnips and sprouts layered with lasagne sheets, sprinkled with the good old mixed fruit, chestnuts and cranberries concoction and topped with dollops of cranberry sauce, agave, honey and stilton. There was also a generous drizzle of Maria's lasagne sauce which she made by cooking onions with soy sauce, balsamic vinegar and soya milk. I was not only dubious about the flavours but that it would all cook - I am used to smothering my lasagnes with loads of sauce - but it was in fact well cooked through and actually really nice.

I have to admit this was a bit of a strange dish and did remind me of the sort of crazy meals my parents often come up with to use up their leftovers but I cannot deny that it tasted delicious.

Next was the Festive Burger which took The Coven's super popular Mushroom Burgers (usually made with breadcrumbs, onions, mushrooms, almonds, soy sauce, lemon juice and chilli) and Christmassed them up using walnuts, dried fruit and cinnamon. I am of the belief that a good veggie burger should have plenty of texture, taste mega healthy and be really crunchy so I was happy with these. Jeni on the other hand wasn't impressed with them and I can imagine they would have been too much for someone like Bailey too.

The last of the savoury dishes was Festive Fritters which were based on The Coven's usual recipe which Maria said she makes using rice and potato flour and whatever veg happens to be in season when she prepares the mix. 

As a general fritter recipe I think this worked really well as they were beautifully light and crispy but I wasn't a huge fan of the ginger beer, red onion, mixed fruit, cranberry, walnut and chestnut version Maria whipped up on this occasion. It was a bit too sweet and not as enchanting as the previous dishes in which the sweetness was balanced with some lovely savoury Christmas veg. I think these particular fritters would have worked better as a dessert with some kind of syrup to moisten them up.

It was now actually time to move on to desserts and Maria had three offerings for us - Festive gluten-free Muffins, a Cranberry Crumble and a Gluten-Free Chocolate Cake.

The Festive Muffins were really nice, super easy to make in Maria's food processor and I was surprised at how muffiny they were despite being gluten-free. I will definitely be passing the recipe on to my Coeliac friends.

The crumble I wasn't so impressed with as it was quite sloppy and topped with a variety of breakfast cereals which didn't have the same sticky gooey crunchiness of a traditional crumble, although I did like the idea of layering the fruit with Alpro Soya Custard - rather than having to serve separately! Although both Colin and Maria spoke of how unnecessary it was to make your own crumble topping and lactose-free custard when such good ready made versions are so readily available, I'd have been more interested to see Maria whipping up her own as the appeal of the day so far had been to see how she substituted ingredients.

Finally, the cake was a lovely end to a great day and once again we were really impressed with how chocolatey and moist a Gluten and lactose-free cake could really look and taste! I will definitely be getting my hands on some of the Christmas-tastic multicoloured edible glitter Maria used on top of the cake for my own Christmas celebrations!

Both Jeni and I really did enjoy our Cooking Workshop at The Coven and left feeling full of lovely food and Christmas spirit. We felt like we had learned a lot about not only preparing vegetarian food but also about seasoning and flavour combinations - very useful indeed. The Coven was a great little restaurant and I can see why their hearty, no-fuss food is so popular. The whole place is like a cosy little veggie haven and I really enjoyed walking through their little herb garden to go to the loo at the back! What with Wigan being quite far away I don't think we would have made the trip before but now having seen how tasty, well-made and honest the food is there, I would take some of my veggie or Coeliac friends there for a relaxed meal some time. I am so grateful to The Coven for introducing me to the wonders of festive houmous, I hope that I can make mine as addictive as theirs. Thanks to Colin and Maria for a great afternoon!


  1. I wish I had some of that humm right now. It was soooo goood.

    1. It was the stuff that dreams are made of. Incredible. I'd eat a vat of the stuff now.

  2. That’s a very creative approach and also great article, thanks.
    best ever vegetarian chilli


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