“We live in a society that consumes more meat than any other group in history … and most health professionals agree that eating so much meat takes a toll on us as well.” – Ruth Reichl, Editor, American Gourmet magazine.
I’m definitely showing my age, because I can remember when a request for a vegetarian option in a restaurant usually involved an offer of a pretty basic salad or a plate of vegies that were being served that day (as a friend witnessed – exactly the same as the person next to her, minus the meat). Fast forward to today and it is rare for a menu not to list a fair number of vegetarian alternatives of a serious nature.
So why such a change in a fairly short period? Sure, social media has certainly brought to the forefront pertinent facts, such as the huge amount of land needed for raising introduced animals, such as cattle and sheep, and the damage they do to the environment (without even mentioning the effect their farts have on global warming). And, we have certainly learnt that a huge piece of meat and a mountain of chips is maybe not the perfect balanced diet.
As well, the advent of kitchen gardens as part of many passionate restaurant chefs’ repertoires has certainly seen a change in their attitude towards vegies. As a chef-mate recently told me: “I didn’t realise how quickly vegies grow and I am continually waking up in the middle of the night thinking ‘what the f..k am I going to do with all those bloody artichokes, fennel bulbs, beetroot, etc., etc.?’” A bit different from my early days at Fleurie when I got so excited when my mate Boyd Piercy arrived with some just-picked baby tomatoes (still on the vine – my god!) or a tiny bunch of baby basil or mint.
Apart from that, it also has a lot to do with us all discovering that a meatless meal cannot only be bloody delicious, but exciting to boot. For example, chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi, Skye Gyngell, Sophie Grigson and Bobby Flay have reintroduced us home cooks to basics such as cauliflower, carrots, pumpkin, brussels sprouts and cabbage, as well as every grain known to man (or woman) and brought them kicking and screaming into the current century. A whole cauli baked in a very hot oven smothered in a brilliant blue cheese-spiked creamy sauce; my beloved brussels sprouts served raw, but finely shredded, in a Vietnamese slaw with lots of fresh herbs and Nam Jim dressing; Parisienne chef Guy Martin’s Pot au Feu of baby carrots; Skye Gyngell’s inspirational vegetable mezze platters or braised artichokes with fennel, tomatoes, olives and preserved lemon; or a Hewitson favourite – a Japanese red cabbage and pickled ginger ‘cake’ sprinkled with kecap manis.
And then there are more traditional favourites such as Pumpkin & Ricotta Lasagna, Eggplant Moussaka or Parma, as well as curries, chillies and even American-style spicy baked beans piled high with chopped avocado, sour cream and fresh coriander. My wife, Ruth, recently whipped up a delicious Leek, Potato & Cheese Pie with a puff pastry lid, and I will eat any variations on Ratatouille or Shakshuka, particularly if there is a good dollop of Persian feta or goat’s cheese melting over the top and good bread alongside.
Now, whilst all of these dishes sound (and are) dammed tasty, I must admit I am still not sold on the idea of becoming a ‘died in the wool’ vego. Although, I must admit, my red meat consumption has certainly declined in recent years.
What I would like to advocate is that even a passionate meat eater could benefit (as would the environment) from a slight change in our eating habits. Consider setting aside one day (at least) a week where our meals are based solely around vegetables – and, not like my niece, who at a young age announced she was not a vegetarian and, for the next few days, ate hot chips for breakfast, lunch and dinner!). No, what we want is the same effort put into your vegetable offerings as you would put into your normal meal – nutritious, yes, but above all exciting and full of flavour – something that both vegetarians and meat lovers will enjoy equally.
Just out of interest, the first Vegetarian Society of note was founded in 1847 in Ramsgate on the English coast. 150 members were signed up, but it had a fairly short life, as one of the other key rules was that all hot food should also be avoided, because according to the founding fathers “they acted injuriously on the teeth, debilitated the stomach and through that every organ of the human body.” What a surprise that particular society quickly disappeared without a trace.
And, a few books that feature exciting vegetable recipes:
Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi
A Year in My Kitchen by Skye Gyngell
It’s All Good by Gwyneth Paltrow
Simple Recipes, Amazing Food, All Plants – Bosh! by Henry Firth & Ian Theasby
Plants Taste Better by Richard Buckley
and an oldie, but a goodie – Greene on Greens by Bert Greene
– Not 100% vegetarian (but pretty close), this books covers everything from artichokes to zucchini and almost every vegie in between. Tips on growing and purchasing, as well as hints – some super helpful, some not. For example, did you realise that the flowers of the kohlrabi, if left on the bush, keep garden pests away? Can’t say I did. And, Bert’s grandmother made dandelion liquor (not wine), which was absolutely disgusting, but was supposedly good for the digestion – if you could keep it down! Or that the name pea was the singular abbreviation of pease, which was the original name of two or more of those yummy little green numbers. Fascinating!