I was alerted to the fact that today – I November – is World Vegan Day by the food writer Matthew Fort on his blog, Fort on Food. There’s a lot of vegan and vegetarian in my life at the moment: I’ve recently worked on a book about part-time vegans (which apparently is the ‘in’ thing – being vegan for part of the week but eating meat on other days), and cooking more vegetarian food for the family than usual. This is due to my daughter having recently had her first baby. She lives in Worcestershire in a beautiful (or it will be once they finish the renovation works) 16th century farmhouse with glorious views over the Worcestershire countryside. Despite being a firmly committed Londoner, it’s lovely to visit and especially at the moment to enjoy my new grandson. I’ve been taking meals with me or cooking there, to help in the early stages with the baby, and as my daughter’s wife is a vegetarian, vegetarian meals are called for … and that got me thinking about this post.
I was brought up at a time when it was thought that everyone should eat ‘meat and two veg’ a day. I guess this was a by-product of the war years when food was scarce and rationed. It took me a long time to get over this; this belief that if I hadn’t eaten meat and two veg in a day then I might starve, waste away, become ill. It sounds silly now but we are so deeply influenced by our childhood experiences and the beliefs our parents pass on to us that it can be quite a challenge to let go of them. Slowly over the years I’ve cooked more and more vegetarian meals. I’m far from being a vegetarian though and I can’t imagine ever embracing veganism, but I guess I’m a ‘part-time vegetarian’ and eat non-meat meals at least three times a week. Other nights I’ll have meat, and fish at least once. I rarely choose a vegetarian main meal when dining out though, and in truth I’m so far from being a real vegetarian that I have to confess to a deep love for an occasional very rare steak; I absolutely adore (very politically incorrect, I know!) foie gras; and have a passion for oysters – always raw and live rather than any cooked kind.
Eating less meat overall, I find I don’t really want to eat it every day. And I think my love of Italian food – so often cooking pasta dishes or risotto – means that I’ve come to appreciate the wonders of simple meals cooked with a few good ingredients, preferably very fresh and in season. A typical midweek supper will be some pasta with a simple sauce made from fresh tomatoes with maybe some spinach or tender stem broccoli added; or a risotto with mushrooms, or diced courgettes, or as simple as a handful of peas added with some fresh mint. Despite this vegetarian tendency, I’m always slightly thrown when I have to cook a vegetarian meal because I’m feeding a vegetarian! I guess that’s because when I think about entertaining and cooking for family and friends, I generally cook meat or fish dishes. However, there are lots of vegetarian dishes on the blog and here is a selection of ones that make a great warming and comforting meal as we head more deeply into autumn and long, dark nights and icy cold mornings.
Vegetable Lasagna with Aubergine, Courgette & Tomato
Lasagna is always a crowd pleaser and so comforting. It also has the advantage that it can be prepared ahead and cooked at the last minute, so especially good for entertaining. Vegetarian lasagna is every bit as good as the meat kind. Why not experiment with different vegetables but for my favourite mix, click here.
Moussaka is a big family favourite and I’ve been cooking it for as long as I’ve been cooking – going back to school days! However, having a vegetarian in the family meant I had to come up with a different version and it works so well with Puy lentils instead of meat – click here.
Grilled Cauliflower Steak on Creamy Mash with Tahini Sauce
Cauliflower ‘steak’ was popular a little while ago and is a fantastic way to cook cauliflower. It even has a kind of ‘steak’ feel when you eat it as a thick slice and really does make a good, substantial meal. Click here for my recipe.
Frittata with Potatoes, Courgettes & Parmesan
Well of course eggs are a great ingredient for the vegetarian (though not vegans, of course!) and while I sometimes love a simple French-style omelette, making a frittata with more ingredients seems more like a meal rather than a snack. For family I’ve made a huge one and cut it into slices and served with salad. Click here for recipe.
Polenta alla Cacciatora – Polenta Hunter’s Style
I’ve become very fond of polenta. I ‘cheat’ in the sense that I use a quick-cooking, instant kind that you can make in just a couple of minutes. It’s pretty bland on its own but season well and add some Parmesan and a big lump of butter and it’s absolutely glorious. It makes a good alternative to potato mash or pasta – especially for this mushroom dish – click here.
Polenta with Aubergine, Tomato & Pine Nut Sauce
And here’s another polenta topping that’s really good – click here.
Fried Polenta with Fresh Tomato, Garlic & Basil Sauce
It takes a little more time but try frying the polenta after you’ve made it the usual way. Allow it to rest and go solid, then cut into chip-sized pieces and shallow-fry in some extra virgin olive oil. It’s really delicious and needs only a simple tomato sauce to accompany the ‘chips’. Click here.
Mushroom and Chestnut Risotto
I make risotto a lot. I find it such a comforting dish to make and eat. If you’ve had a busy day, making a risotto is almost like mindfulness – you have to slow down and take things gently; be in the moment. But risotto is so versatile, working well with light, summery ingredients as well as rich, warming wintry ones like this mushroom and chestnut version – click here.
Basic Tomato Sauce for Pasta
Every cook will have a recipe for a simple tomato sauce. Nothing could be simpler than some freshly cooked pasta coated in a great tomato sauce with a generous dusting of Parmesan grated over the top. Click here for my recipe. Remember you can make more than you need and freeze some for an ‘instant’ meal another night.
Penne with Aubergine & Salted Ricotta
I do love aubergines so there are a lot of aubergine recipes on my blog. This is a version of the classic ‘Norma’ pasta from Sicily. Click here.
Easy Pasta Bake
Everyone loves a pasta bake and what could be more warming and cosy on a winter’s night? I used filled pasta in the recipe above but you don’t need to; plain pasta like penne will work well too. Click here for recipe.
Orecchiette with Sumac Roasted Yellow Courgette and Hazelnuts
I just love orecchiette pasta and this was a special way of eating it – click here.
One into Two: Butternut Squash & Tomato
Butternut squash is a family favourite and here I managed to enjoy two dishes from one squash – first with pasta and then as a soup! Click here.
Aubergine, Tomato & Chickpea Curry
It’s obvious to any regular reader of my blog that my main influence in the kitchen is Italy – I love Italy, Italian food, have Italian friends … But I also like Middle Eastern food and Indian too. This is a great curry dish – quite light and beautifully fragrant. Click here.
Aubergine & Tomato Tagine
Yes, here come the aubergines again! This is a different take on the aubergine and tomato combination with a gorgeous memory of Morocco. Click here.
Even die-hard meat eaters generally like to eat some vegetarian meals these days, whether it be for health reasons or simply because we eat a much greater variety of foods than we used to, from all parts of the world. I hope this post has inspired you if you want – or need – to cook a vegetarian meal.