Vegetarian Week gives us a chance to focus on the amount of meat we eat

Vegetables (file pic)
Vegetables (file pic)

A few years ago a friend of a friend asked me for some advice.

The plan was to open up a vegetarian restaurant in Tyrone. They had no catering experience and no money to invest. My advice was to borrow the money and throw it down the nearest grating! In recent years we’ve moved on and there are now two vegan restaurants in Belfast. Though taking a punt on an exclusively vegetable oriented restaurant would still be a big risk in rural or urban areas.

Monday is the start of National Vegetarian week and therefore no better time to focus on the amount of meat we eat. I know, and am related to, a lot of people, who think a meal is not a meal without meat figuring somewhere in the mix. The world would be a better place if we focused on eating properly reared, sustainable meat and vegetables, rather than cheap, mass produced products.

One of my pet hates in cooking is recipes for vegetable dishes that attempt to emulate meat dishes. What is the point? I saw a tweet last week with a link to a hipster blog recipe for vegan fried chicken. It made my blood run cold. Buy a good local chicken and fry it – don’t try and make tofu into a bird! One of the worst things I ever sampled in my life was a vegan cream horn. It’s a taste that will haunt me to the end of my days, never mind the texture of this hybrid fiasco.

A baked potato, split and filled with butter is vegetarian, as is, in-season asparagus, steamed and served with hollandaise or a fresh pasta tossed with chilli, garlic and good oil – all simple, beautiful and delicious without the need for meat.

For me the perfect menu has vegetable based dishes interwoven around the meat and fish ones. There should be as much effort put in to their preparation that they are equally as an attractive prospect for hardened carnivores.

Vegetarian friends more often than not are left with no choice but the ubiquitous beetroot and goat’s cheese salad with a butternut squash risotto to follow.

We are blessed with terrific produce in this country but how often are we served boiled broccoli, cauliflower and carrots as a side dish? My first recipe is broccoli based and cooked on the barbecue. Smoke adds flavour and substance to vegetables.

After grilling, the stems are topped with grilled feta cheese, and a smoked version of the classic Spanish red pepper dressing, Romesco. Broighter Gold make a smoked version of their rapeseed oil that works particularly well here.

My other dish is for stuffed baked onions. The onions are roasted until soft and then filled with lentils cooked with tomato and wine and glazed with cheese. Good on their own with a baked spud or if you’re not going down the veggie route, they’re very nice with a juicy steak.