Ah, nut loaf. Not the sexiest-sounding main dish, but that hardly matters once you've taken a bite. Rich, chewy, umami-loaded and very satisfying, nut loaf has won the hearts and palates of many people — even non-vegetarians. Here is my favorite recipe for this classic dish, along with alternative serving suggestions and, of course, ideas for leftovers.
I first encountered nut loaf when I had Thanksgiving with a community of Buddhist vegetarians, where it is a special occasion treat. It works very well as a "turkey alternative," served up with the usual sides: mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, cranberries sauce, and so on. I've also had it tucked into hollowed-out delicata squash and roasted until the squash is soft. Yum.
Many of the steps can be prepared in advance. Certainly the brown rice can be cooked, the cheese shredded and the nuts chopped. In fact, the whole mixture can be made a day in advance and refrigerated. Just be sure to add a few extra minutes on to the oven time if you're baking it straight from the fridge.
I really loved revisiting this tried-and-true favorite recipe! I found that I did very little differently than my original recipe. A few notes:
• If you have a food processor, you can make your life much easier by using it to chop the mushrooms (just pulse until they are roughly the size of peas), the nuts (ditto), and the cheese. You don't need to clean the bowl and blade in between each item, and yes, cheese can be shredded in a food processor using the "S" blade!
• I didn't have dried sage on hand, but I did have some fresh from the garden so I mixed a few leaves in with the fresh herbs. I also didn't have any cashews, so I substituted almonds, which did the trick quite nicely. Hint: you don't have to purchase whole nuts for this recipe, since you will be chopping them up. Nuts sold as 'pieces' are often less expensive and will work just fine here.
It bears repeating: This recipe is very flexible in regards to flavors. You can use different mushrooms, different herbs, and different cheeses to your liking. - Dana
Classic Vegetarian Nut Loaf
Serves 6 to 8
1 onion, medium chopped
1 tablespoon butter or oil
2 cups finely-chopped mushrooms (See Recipe Note)
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried tarragon
1 teaspoon dried sage
Red wine or sherry
2 cups cooked brown rice
2 cups walnuts, finely chopped or pulsed in a food processor
1 cup cashews or almonds, finely chopped or pulsed in a food processor
1 cup cottage cheese
3/4 pound grated cheese: Parmesan, Gruyere, cheddar, fontina, smoked or any combination
1/2 cup mixed fresh chopped herbs such as parsley, oregano, thyme
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Sauté the onion in oil or butter until it begins to soften. Add the mushrooms and a pinch of salt and pepper, and cook until the mushrooms release their juices and become soft. Add the garlic and dried herbs, and continue to cook. When the pan begins to dry out again, add a good splash of red wine or sherry and cook until it is reduced. The contents should be moist but not swimming in liquid. Remove from the heat and let cool a little.
While the mushroom mixture cools, butter or oil a 9-inch loaf pan and line with parchment paper or foil.
In a large bowl, toss the brown rice and nuts together. In a separate bowl beat the eggs with the cottage cheese. Add the egg mixture to the rice/nut mixture, then stir in the cooled mushrooms, grated cheese and fresh herbs. Mix well. Taste for seasoning and adjust. (If you're worried about the raw egg, you can fry up a little patty to taste.)
The mixture can be kept, covered, in the refrigerator at this point for no more than a day.
Fill the loaf pan with the nut mixture, rap a few times on the counter to get rid of any air bubbles and smooth the top with a spatula. Decorate with slices of mushrooms, slices of bell pepper, or whole walnuts if desired. Place loaf pan on a baking tray.
Bake for about an hour or until the loaf is firm (slightly longer if the mixture was refrigerated). Remove from the oven. Rest on a cooling rack for ten minutes, then lift the loaf from the pan using the excess parchment paper or foil. Peel off the parchment or foil and serve on a platter, garnished with fresh herbs.
Serve with a mushroom gravy, accompanied by your favorite autumn vegetables.
• Nut loaf is a very forgiving recipe. You can add more mushrooms or less cheese if you want to lighten it up, for example. You can use ordinary button mushrooms for a wonderful classic nut loaf, or you can substitute some or all of the buttons for fresh shiitake. I've never used the more exotic wild mushrooms because I imagine their flavor would get lost, but if you have the spare cash, they may be worth experimenting with.
Alternative Serving Ideas:
• Besides the delicata squash mentioned above, I've seen nut loaf stuffed into other small squashes such as Acorn or Sweet Dumpling.
• For a retro-look, use a ring-shaped mold instead of a loaf pan, unmold onto a round plate and fill the center with mashed potatoes. Decorate with curly parsley.
Crumble leftover nut loaf into a pan of already sautéed onions, carrots, parsnips and/or turnips. Turn this into a casserole dish and dollop the top with mashed potatoes to cover completely. Run a fork over the potatoes to create ridges. Drizzle butter over the top and bake it in a 350° oven until the filling is bubbly and the potatoes have started to brown. Viola! Vegetarian Shepard's Pie.
And of course, there's always the nut loaf sandwich.