When I was asked to look after this column while Meera Sodha takes a well-deserved break, I was both nervous (those are some big metaphorical shoes to fill) and excited, but I won’t pretend I wasn’t also slightly apprehensive of the fact that this is a vegan column. Not because I don’t love vegetables (I do!), but because I didn’t want to come across as disingenuous (let it be known that I’m very much an omnivore) and also because the idea of being limited by the ingredients I could use worried me. I’m happy to report, however, that this has been a welcome challenge and that, in the right circumstances, limitations can push the boundaries of creativity.
Scotch bonnet chillies are very hot. If you prefer less heat, use one or two mild red chillies instead, or leave out the chilli altogether; there’s plenty of flavour coming from other directions here. The coconut milk is all but undetectable – it just helps create a creamy base for the sweet squash.
Prep 10 min
Cook 40 min
For the butternut
1 large butternut squash (1.2kg), peeled, halved, deseeded and flesh cut into 2½cm cubes (800g net weight)
1 scotch bonnet chilli (optional)
1 mild red chilli (or 2 if not using the scotch bonnet; optional)
50g plant butter, cut into cubes
4 tbsp olive oil
40g white miso paste
2 tbsp maple syrup
2 tsp rose harissa
2 cinnamon sticks, or ⅛ tsp ground cinnamon
For the orzo
250g dried orzo
300ml full-fat tinned coconut milk (at least 70% coconut extract)
Fine salt and black pepper
½ tsp saffron threads
Freshly grated nutmeg
5g fresh parsley leaves
5g fresh basil leaves
½ small white onion, very thinly sliced
2 tsp olive oil
1 lemon, halved
Heat the oven to 240C (220C fan)/475F/gas 9. Put all the butternut ingredients and a half-teaspoon of fine salt in a 32cm x 36cm high-sided baking tray and toss to coat. Cover tightly with foil, bake for 15 minutes, then remove the foil and bake for another 18 minutes, stirring once halfway, until soft, golden brown and bubbling. Discard the cinnamon sticks, if using. Lift out the chillies, if using, then deseed, finely chop and set aside.
While the butternut is roasting, put the orzo in a bowl, pour over just-boiled water to cover and leave to soak for 10 minutes. Drain, then rinse under cold running water to separate the grains.
When the butternut has about 15 minutes to go, put the drained orzo in a 28cm saute pan or similar with the coconut milk, 300ml water, three-quarters of a teaspoon of fine salt, the saffron and a generous grating of nutmeg. Mix well, then put the pan on a medium-low flame, and cook, stirring often, until the orzo is cooked through and the sauce has thickened to the consistency of a loose risotto – this will take between six and 14 minutes, depending on the brand of orzo you use.
Stir plenty of black pepper through the orzo mix, then spoon on to a platter and top with the roast butternut mix. Toss the parsley, basil and onion with the oil, an eighth of a teaspoon of fine salt and some or all of the reserved chopped chilli, to taste (and if using). Scatter this over the orzo and squash, squeeze over plenty of lemon juice and serve immediately, because the orzo will start to set as it cools.