I've been toying with an idea for several years now. Let me start by saying that I am a committed carnivore and I will not be giving up eating meat any time soon. I was a non meat eater between 1984 and 2000 and it really didn't agree with me, giving me some health issues due to vitamin deficiency, which was a tad ironic, given that I'd stopped eating meat for health reasons. However, I do believe that in the UK and the West in general, we are eating far too much meat for both the good of ourselves and the good of the planet.
I made a compromise. I eat a semi vegan diet for 3/4 days a week and have fish a couple of days and meat a couple of days. When I eat fish and meat, I eat good quality organically produced products whenever possible. I find that buy getting great quality produce it tastes better and it is made more affordable by having 3-4 days a week where I don't eat it.
The big issue I have with much vegetarian and vegan cooking is that it is bland and tasteless. In most pubs and average restaurants, the dreaded veggie option is truly awful. It is bland slop, which only someone with a serious covid infection would say was edible, where their sense of taste and smell had been completely annihilated. In my veggie years, I got truly sick of the "vegetable lasagne". My massive love of curries came from that period, because at least Indian food does vegetarian food well. I have always enjoyed a good vegetarian Thali, preferably that has an onion bhaji, a veg samosa, some dal, perhaps a brinjal (aubergene) bhaji and some rice, chutneys and poppadoms
It opened my eyes and made me realise that vegetarian food did not have to be dull and bland. Similarly, middle eastern food has some cracking recipes. I used to work in Leman St, and I was delighted to find that they did a special falafel roll in Lemans Sandwich shop. To this day, I'd rate it up there with a bacon sarnie as the best café food.
To this day, I enjoy simple pasta's and usually will have a Penne Arrabiata as a default choice when eating in Italian restaurants. It is simple, filling and very tasty. It is easy to make, with fresh tomatoes, chillies, some fresh basil and some olive oil. Most of the recipes suggest using tinned tomatoes, but personally I much prefer using fresh plum tomatoes. Mill Hill residents will know there is a brilliant shop in the Broadway that sells amazing fresh veg, so all of these things are easy to source.
When I was growing up, my Mum was a decent cook, but like many of her generation, she was not great on cooking vegetables. Most would be boiled to death and bathed in salt. I thought veg such as aubergenes, courgettes and cabbage were disgusting. When I first gave up meat, I started to experiment. Indian restaurants seemed to prepare such vegetables in a different manner, so it inspired me to try different preparations. I found that grilling, baking, frying and barbequing such veg, especially if they were appropriately seasoned, made things I'd not been able to stomach, actually taste quite delicious.
Then there were the vegetables I'd always liked. Lets start with the most popular veg dish on the planet. The chip. Who doesn't love chips? When people say they don't like vegetables, somehow they forget about chips. It got me thinking. Why are chips so delicious? By accident and by being a tightwad and a slob, I discovered that if you keep your leftover chips and fry them up the next day, they taste even better. These days, that is called "triple cooked chips". When I thought about it, I realised that chips are great but with good quality salt and Sarsons malt vinegar, they are devine. So if the chip, the pinnacle of vegetarian cooking can be improved, surely anything can be?
It soon occurred to me that if a potato can be improved by deep frying, then it is worth trying the same approach with other vegetables. One of my favourite Chinese restaurants is The Good Earth in Mill Hill. They have an extensive vegetarian menu, and such things as aubergene and courgettes are deep fried in a tempura batter, making them highly tasty. A few experiments at home soon revealed that batter can really improve a lot of such things.
Then there was the issue of the barbecue. As someone of Aussie heritage, this was a big challenge in my veggie years. The advent of the Linda McCartney range of veggie sausages and burgers was a godsend, but in truth these never quite cut the mustard with me. I felt that the need to be all things to all men meant they really didn't quite hit the heights they could. I started to experiment, and found that I could make my own, with a bit of added spice and more discernable chunks of what I like (things such as Shitake mushrooms) and the results started to be very good. I found that lentils could also make a good base for a burger, especially when combined with chillies. Mix in a few finely chopped mushrooms, spices and peppers and you could get something very good indeed.
During my non meat eating years, I did eat dairy. I found that Parmesan cheese was a magic ingredient. I came up with all manner of recipies that involved cutting Aubergenes into burger sized slices, frying them, baking them, topping with parmesan and then finishing them on the barbecue. This transformed something I'd always associated with inedible ratatouille (one of the horrors of my youth), into a really good barbecue option.
Another veggie staple I'd always struggled with was tofu. I found that this could work really well in burgers, if you got the good quality smoked variety and mixed it with mushrooms, spices and chillies.
The question committed carnivores will always ask is "is it as tasty as meat?". To me, that is the wrong question. Firstly, although I love a good steak, if I ate it every day, I'd get bored with it. I think many of these dishes are the equal of the meat alternative, especially when cheap ingredients are used. Many a sausage smells far better on the barbie than it tastes. It occurred to me that it would be a great challenge to prepare a vegetarian barbecue for my carnivore friends and get an honest answer as to how it compared. My personal view is that the way forward is not to try and make vegetarian food have the taste and texture of the meat equivalent (as Greggs have done so well with the veggie sausage roll, which probably tastes better and less greasy than the meat version). It is to make dishes that stand up in their own right and that a carnivore may choose to have for two or three days a week, by way of a change. For me, I have concluded that I am healthier and enjoy my food far more by having a good balance of diet. I think the challenge of all of us is to eat tasty food in a healthy and sustainable manner. It is undeniable that the meat industry has played a major role in climate change and putting pressure on the environment. The challenge is for us all to make changes, this won't be a sudden, overnight change, but if we can find a halfway house, that would make a massive difference. I've found that by using fresh ingredients (many grown in my back garden), not boiling the life out of vegetables and playing around a bit, food can be tasty, healthy and fun. If I can share some of these ideas and give people a decent meal idea or two, it has to be worth trying doesn't it. Whether I'll find the viewers G-Spot in the way Fanny Craddock, Gordon Ramsey andMarco Pierre White do, I don't know, but it will be fun trying. What could possibly go wrong!