Recent statistics estimate that there are about four million vegetarians in the UK or about 7% of the population.
A vegetarian is someone who doesn’t eat meat or fish. We are being encouraged to embrace this way of living as the answer to world hunger. The fact is, for future generations, there won’t be enough meat based protein to sustain us. Meat Free Mondays is an initiative that encourages us to forgo meat for just one day in the week, and this week also happens to be National Vegetarian Week. Both these campaigns want to make us more aware of what we eat from an ethical and health point of view.
From a chef point of view, you have to put in at least twice the effort to make vegetable based dishes tasty and attractive. Chefs often dismiss non-meat eaters and palm them off with the ubiquitous beetroot and goat’s cheese salad to start, followed by butternut squash risotto. In reality they should make diet specific dishes attractive to meat eaters – vegetables are more profitable than expensive fish or prime cuts. The best menus have veggie-centric items interwoven throughout and not a food note at the end.
At the Balmoral Show last week, Philip Conway of Conway Farm Produce outside Lurgan, gave me some beautiful new season white turnips. The small, perfectly white turnips came with their tops. I boiled the actual white orbs and then fried them in Abernethy butter with a generous shaking of cracked black pepper.
The tops I blanched in boiling water, drained well and then cooked with some of Peter Hannan’s pancetta, garlic and onion – it transported me back to Italy where the turnip top is revered. In context, the pancetta isn’t vegetarian but a little goes a long way in the flavour stakes. These beauties are in season now and should be celebrated. My niece pronounced them “juicy” which must have been a compliment as she ate quite a lot...
Another local vegetable in season is the leek. We dismiss this fine stem in favour of imported French beans and other such fancy things. When you drive out of Newtownards, towards Castle Ward, Roy and Sheila Lyttle’s farm is on the left, with land sloping down to the lough.
The proud, green leeks sway in the breeze and are as much a part of the landscape as Scrabo Tower. They’re lovely cooked gently in butter but for a more robust dish, I split them in half through the root and gently cook them in water flavoured with garlic and thyme.
When they’re just done I pat them dry, brush with oil and cook them on the barbecue to within an inch of their lives – not burnt but not too far off it. Make a good vinaigrette with a teaspoon of Dijon whisked with a tablespoon of vinegar and four tablespoons of oil and brush over the cooked leek. Crumble over some local blue cheese or feta and a few crushed toasted hazelnuts for crunch.
My recipe this week should appeal to meat eaters – a proper pie filled with spuds, mushrooms and leeks, bound with creamy mascarpone and cheddar. Baked until crisp and golden and served with a gravy you’ll never guess has no meat juices. The key is to roast onions and carrots and add a couple of teaspoons of marmite to the mix. Don’t worry if you usually don’t like this often maligned larder jar – it’s not by any means overwhelming but does add depth to the finished sauce. Serve with a good dollop of mashed potatoes and it’ll convert even the most ardent carnivore!