Classic Swiss Alpine Food Made Vegan
Classic Swiss alpine food as vegan variations: Älplermagronen, Capuns and Potato Rösti
I’ve hiked for hours to reach a hidden waterfall, or to attempt my fist suspension bridge crossing or to reach a peak with a spectacular 360° view of the Swiss Alps. Quick access to these kinds of outdoor adventures is one reason I love calling Switzerland home.
But as a vegan, I am mostly disappointed when I come upon an alpine restaurant along the way and quickly discover there is nothing for me to eat – except maybe a small salad. Now don’t get me wrong – I love a fresh salad – but after hiking for hours, carbs are what I crave.
Alpine cuisine is dominated by staple foods that are easily made or preserved by farmers. Typically, this means a lot of milk from grazing cows or goats, products made from the abundance of milk (cheese and yogurt), cereals and preserved meats (dried or smoked). These ingredients make up the vast majority of dishes that hungry hikers or skiers enjoy while pausing on large sun-soaked decks. And the fresh air is often perfumed by the smell of melting cheese.
I recall hiking up a mountain in eastern Switzerland near Davos a few years ago. The hike was demanding and I was famished when I reached the summit of our hike. Like many Swiss mountaintop locations, there was a restaurant at the peak with a large deck and an endless view of mountains dissolving into the horizon. I noticed people enjoying plates of älplermagronen – a strange combination of potatoes, pasta, caramelized onions and apple puree that defies food logic but tastes great. There was of course, rösti with grilled sausage in a dark onion sauce. There were tourists dunking bread into a fondue – mostly frowned upon by locals during the summer months. And a group of hikers enjoying a platter of capuns and steamed potatoes while working on a second bottle of white wine.
Lovely…but nothing really satisfying for a vegan to eat…and that’s a shame because I know it is not that difficult to prepare vegan variations of classic Swiss alpine food.
I accept there won’t be many vegan options for me anytime soon as I continue to enjoy the wonders of hiking the Swiss alps. I’ve learned to pack my own food for those trips but that still doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a little bit of Swiss alpine tradition at home…and that is why I’ve created my variations of some Swiss classics.
Please leave a comment below and tell me about your experiences while trying to find something vegan to eat during an alpine adventure.
I remember feeling extremely skeptical the first time a plate of this traditional Swiss mountain food was placed in front of me. It just seemed like a confused mess of carbohydrates and grated cheese. I totally discounted the heavily caramelized onions.
In retrospect, I guess my reaction was a total insult to my partner (now wife). It was also a major error in judgment.
The humble ingredients worked marvelously together to form a satisfying and rich plate of food. And those onions…well, they made the dish irresistible. The sweetness of the onions and their slightly crunchy texture acted like the perfect seasoning to balance the rich load of carbs. Every mouthful was an unexpected explosion of flavor.
Be sure to allow enough time to carefully caramelize the onions – the process will take about 30-45 minutes and is extremely important to the success of this recipe. Serve with a small bowl of apple sauce on the side – it seems strange but like the onions, the apples supply acidity and a certain refreshing break that act as a sort of seasoning. Try it…and I hope you take the time to make your own apple sauce.
Difficulty: simple- to moderate
Yield: makes about 6-8 servings
10 small- to medium-size onions
2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
50 grams (5 tablespoons) all-purpose flour
60 grams extra virgin olive oil
120 ml. (1/2-cup) oat cream
250 ml. (1 cup) soy milk
1 onion, peeled and halved
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon yeast extract
juice of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons soy yogurt
1 cup nutritional yeast
500 grams (one pound) waxy-style potatoes
500 grams (one pound) pasta
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
apple sauce to garnish
Peel the onions and slice them into thin half-moons. Heat a large pan over medium heat. Add the onions to the pan when it is hot. Add 2 teaspoons sea salt, stir the onions well until they release their water. Cover the pan and cook the onions slowly for about 15 minutes, making sure to periodically add 1-2 tablespoons of water to prevent the onions from burning. After 15 minutes, the onions should appear very soft and wilted. Add the extra virgin olive oil at this point and remove the cover. Turn the heat up to medium-high and begin to slowly caramelize the onions, stirring them often. The onions are finished when they reach a very dark golden-brown color. Remove the onions and place them on a plate. Keep them warm.
Make the thick and enriched béchamel sauce while the onions cook. Heat a pot over medium heat. Add the oil when the pot is hot, then immediately add the flour and mix to create a thick paste. Add the oat cream and whisk until smooth. The sauce will thicken rapidly at this point. Add the soy milk and whisk rapidly to remove any lumps that may form. Add the peeled and halved onion and the bay leaf. Cook over medium-low heat for about 20 minutes. Stir often to keep the sauce smooth. Add 60 ml. (1/4-cup) water at a time to loosen the sauce a bit while it cooks. The finished sauce will take 30 minutes to complete and it should have the thickness of pancake batter. Strain the sauce into a clean pot. Discard the onion halves and the bay leaf. Add the yeast extract, lemon juice, soy yogurt and nutritional yeast. Stir to combine the ingredients, then gently heat on low until the mixture is warm. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
Peel the potatoes and portion them into bite-size pieces.
Heat a large pot of water until it begins to simmer. Add enough salt to the water so it tastes a bit like the sea. Add the potatoes to the simmering water and stir well to prevent the potatoes from sticking to the bottom of the pot. The potatoes usually take 15 minutes to cook, depending on the size. Add the pasta to the cooking potatoes after a couple of minutes and cook until the pasta is done – about 11 minutes (be sure to check the timing of the pasta you use and adjust your cooking times accordingly – the objective is to cook the pasta and potatoes in the same pot until they are both cooked).
Drain the potatoes and pasta. Add the warm enriched béchamel sauce and combine well. Serve individually or family-style on a platter. Top with the caramelized onions. Enjoy hot with a garnish of warm apple sauce.
Tips and Variations
Substitute equal amounts of soy cream for the oat cream. Additionally, most non-dairy milks work with this thickened béchamel sauce – choose one with higher amounts of fat and neutral flavors for best results.
The oil plays an important role in this recipe. It helps to keep the onions moist while they caramelize and it adds flavor and mouthfeel to the dish. The oil is necessary to mix with the flour to create the béchamel sauce. Use either extra virgin olive oil or an unprocessed rapeseed oil.
Use 2 tablespoons of white miso to replace the yeast extract. Marmite will also work as a replacement to the yeast extract – substitute in equal amounts.
The traditional style of pasta used in this recipe is macaroni – or thin tubular pasta about 5-cm (2-inches) in length. Penne pasta works well as a substitution.
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I’m not sure when I first ate Swiss capuns but I guess it was somewhere in the Alps – probably the eastern part of Switzerland where this delicious recipe comes from.
The original recipe (or more or less original, because there are probably well over 130 different Swiss versions) makes use of common alpine food available to peasant farmers: flour, milk, cheese, smoked meat, basic vegetables and large collard greens (chard leaves).
The filling is often rich with chopped pieces of meat and vegetables, which are rolled within lightly blanched green leaves, and then braised for about 15-20 minutes. Perfect mountain food to share with friends and family…and a drink or two.
I found it is simple to make a vegan version of this classic. I combine flour, starch, chickpea flour, soy milk and a bit of aquafaba to help bind everything together. Then, I add simple vegetables with a selection of mixed herbs to fold into the dough. That’s pretty much it. Once the dough is made, it is only a matter of filling the softened leaves and finish cooking the capuns in the oven. Roughly 20 minutes later and the capuns are ready to serve.
I like to serve capuns on a sharing platter with a big basket of steamed potatoes and plenty of white wine…ideally on a mountain crest with a wonderful view.
Difficulty: simple- to moderate
Yield: makes about 24 capuns
20-25 collard leaves
sea salt to season
1 carrot, chopped fine
1/2 onion, chopped fine
1 fennel bulb, chopped fine
4 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs (see tips below)
160 grams (1 1/3 cups) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon chickpea flour
10 grams (1 tablespoon) egg replacer
60 grams (1/4 cup) aquafaba or water
100 ml. (3 ounces) soy milk
extra virgin olive oil to coat the capuns (optional)
100 ml. (3 ounces) non-dairy milk
100 ml. (3 ounces) water
Start by getting the leaves prepared. Trim away the larger portion of the stems. Chop the stems fine and reserve for the filling. Bring a pot of water to a boil, then add a good amount of salt to the water once it has boiled (about 1 tablespoon of salt per liter/quart of water). Reduce the heat to keep the water at a gentle simmer. Slip about 1 or 2 leaves into the water and remove after 5-10 seconds. The leaves just need to slightly soften. Place the blanched leaves on a towel and continue working with the remaining leaves.
Now, let’s get the filling done. Heat a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the chopped carrots, onion, fennel and stems from the collard greens. Make sure the vegetables are finely chopped. Once the vegetables are added to the pan, add about 1 teaspoon of sea salt and mix. Cook the vegetables over medium heat until they soften – this takes about 10-15 minutes and you may need to add some water (1-2 tablespoons at a time) to prevent the vegetables from sticking. Remove the pan from the heat once the vegetables soften. Cool about 20 minutes, then add the chopped herbs.
Make the dough while your vegetables cook. Sift together the flour, chickpea flour and egg replacer. Add the aquafaba and soy milk. Mix well, making sure to gently knead the dough with a spatula for just a minute or two. Combine the cooked vegetable mixture with the dough mixture.
Fill the leaves by placing one leaf in front of you on a clean surface or towel. Make sure the stem portion of the leaf is facing up and the shiny portion is facing down. Have the wider end of the leaf facing you, and place about 1 tablespoon of the filling in the center of the leaf. Fold the bottom half of the leaf over the filling, then fold in the two sides. Fold the top half toward you to complete the capuns. Place on a tray lined with some baking paper. Complete the remaining leaves in the same way.
Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).
I like to coat the capuns with some extra virgin olive oil, but this is not mandatory. Mix the non-dairy milk and water together. Place in a small pot and heat just to simmering. Pour the hot liquid into a pan large enough to hold all the capuns. Add the capuns, cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake covered for 20 minutes. Enjoy right away.
Tips and Variations
Substitute other large greens if you can’t find any collard greens. Chard leaves are the next best option but be sure to remove most of the thick stalk. Very large spinach leaves, romaine lettuce leaves and savoy cabbage leaves are other options to consider. In each case, it is important to blanch the leaves in salted water. Be sure to keep the leaves in the boiling water just long enough to soften – normally around 10-20 seconds.
I like to use a nice variety of chopped herbs: parsley, wild garlic, tarragon, chives and basil. Use what you have on hand and feel free to mix and match to create your own flavor combination.
Keep leftover cooked capuns refrigerated. They are simple to reheat in a microwave oven or in a steamer. You can also add a few tablespoons of water to a small sauté pan and bring to a boil, then add the capuns and cook covered for about 3-5 minutes.
Cooked capuns can be frozen. To reheat, allow the capuns to partially defrost then place in an oven-proof container. Add a couple tablespoons of water, cover the container with aluminum foil and reheat in a 160°C (325°F) oven for about 15 minutes. Check the interior to make sure it is hot before serving.
Once the capuns are cooked, you can quickly cool them in the freezer to help preserve the green color of the leaves (in the Alps, cooks would go outside and put the entire pan on a pile of snow).
Rösti is serious business throughout the German-speaking regions of Switzerland. Most people have strong opinions as to how to prepare this simple dish – what potato variety to use, using raw or precooked potatoes, what type of pan to use, and of course the fat. I’ve learned to keep my opinions to myself and just make the rösti the way I learned while working at a top Zürich restaurant.
I think the ideal rösti should be no thicker than 2-cm (about one inch), have a crispy crust and a light interior that is not soft like mashed potatoes.
To achieve these goals, I begin with a potato classified as mostly waxy, although any waxy variety will work. Mealy potatoes are great for purees or baking because they tend to fall apart when heat penetrates their interior. This would create an interior that is too soft for rösti. I partially pre-cook the potatoes 4-6 hours ahead of time – or even a day in advance. The cold converts the uncooked starches in the potato to sugars, which help create a crispy and golden exterior. Cold potatoes are also easier to grate than warm potatoes. I use extra virgin olive oil to cook the rösti instead of more traditional butter or lard – the taste is much cleaner when using oil instead of butter or lard.
Yield: makes enough for 2 rösti
1 kg. (2,2 pounds) mostly waxy potatoes
4-5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
freshly grated nutmeg
Place the potatoes in a large pot and cover them with cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook until the potatoes are half cooked – 8-10 minutes depending on their size. Drain the potatoes and set aside to cool completely. Refrigerate the cooked and unpeeled potatoes for one night.
Peel and grate the potatoes using the large holes of a grater (or box grater) and place in a large bowl. Season the potatoes with sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and grated nutmeg. Taste the potatoes and adjust the seasoning as necessary.
Heat about 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a small non-stick pan (about 15-cm) over medium heat.
Add half of the potato mixture to the pan and shake it a bit, then gently press the rösti down to fit the mold of the pan. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the edges are golden. Add another tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil around the sides of the pan and rösti as needed to prevent the rösti from sticking in any way…it should gently slide around as you swirl the pan. Flip the rösti by covering the pan with an inverted plate, turning the rösti over onto the plate. Don’t hesitate…just flip it confidently. Slide the rösti back into the pan – cooked side facing up. Add another tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil as needed and cook gently for 5-10 minutes. Flip the finished rösti onto a cutting board or plate and cut into wedges. Repeat with the remaining potato mixture to make a second rösti.
Tips and Variations
You can make your rösti ahead of time and reheat it in a hot oven around 200°C (400°F) or simply put the rösti back in the pan and cook over moderate heat, making sure to flip once.
Don’t refrigerate cooked rösti – the cold temperatures will destroy the flavor and texture.
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