Friday, 13 March 2009

The Occasional Vegetarian

I was one of those weird kids who really liked vegetables. Well, except Brussel spouts and lima beans, whose bitterness and squishy texture respectively really put me off. But I loved every other vegetable I tasted– even the ones most kids find strange like asparagus and zucchini. One of my favourite dinners in the summer was a plate of steamed asparagus with a couple poached eggs on top – delicious!

My husband was not that keen on vegetables when I met him, but it did not take him long to be converted to the pleasures of this delicious food group. It was no surprise that our son turned out to be a vegetable lover too. In fact, he loves them so much he actually converted my husband and I – confirmed Brussel sprouts haters – to the pleasures of this much maligned vegetable. I think I’m the only Mom in history to have stood in a supermarket with a child begging me to buy Brussel Sprouts. (Yes, it’s true and yes, I know how lucky I am!) The only vegetable my son will not eat now is eggplant, and for a sixteen year old, that is amazing.

When folks come to dinner in our house they often comment on the sheer quantity of vegetables I serve. Even if the main course is meat, there will be loads of vegetables on the side – and not just potatoes either. I usually serve at least three other vegetables and lots of them. Why? It’s because we almost always have seconds of vegetables. Frankly, my son could eat an entire saucepan of broccoli all by himself, although I hasten to add he never has.

What’s my secret? Well, I buy the freshest vegetables I can – or use frozen – and I cook them lightly. While I rarely salt my vegetables, I don’t hesitate to season them or drizzle them with a little butter or olive oil. The other thing I do is treat vegetables as far more than an accompaniment.

At least three nights a week in our house, our main meal is composed entirely of vegetables. Whether it is saffron scented paella, a rich vegetable stew or a ratatouille pasta dish, we have absolutely no need for meat on those evenings. Having said that, it took me a long time to work up my courage to cook vegetarian meals. I don’t know why as I have always cooked a wide variety of foods from many different countries. Somehow I just envisaged vegetarian cooking as being full of nut roasts (not my favourite thing) and lentils (again, not a favourite). I was wrong.

It started about ten years ago when we moved house and met a new friend who was vegetarian. We went to her house for dinner and enjoyed an absolute feast – four courses of food that were entirely vegetarian – and every one of them delicious. I wanted to invite her back to our house for dinner but did not know where to start, so I bought a copy of Linda McCartney’s vegetarian cookbook “Linda’s Kitchen”. This book was a treasure trove of delicious recipes. From her wonderful paella to her delicious chili non carne, I was hooked. Not only did I invite our friend for dinner (on numerous occasions!), I started to cook from Linda’s Kitchen quite a lot just for us.

So why not just become vegetarians? Well, the problem is we really, really like meat. I’d miss roast chicken and bacon particularly. Also, provided meat is humanely raised – I only ever buy free range meat – my ethics do not preclude me eating it. I do feel very strongly that meat must be raised ethically though. I have no patience for battery eggs, or chickens that have been raised without ever seeing the light of day. I like my meat to taste the way it does when the animals have been able to graze and roam around a farm. I know that the very act of killing animals for food is cruel, but at least free-range animals have had a nice life up till that point.

Sadly there is no getting away from the fact that free range meat is more expensive than intensively farmed stuff, and this, aside from our love of vegetables, is part of what has led us to eating at least three meat free meals a week. Actually, I really prefer the terminology “meat free” to “vegetarian”. I feel a bit of a cheat saying vegetarian when it is not a question of ethics and a life choice for me, which being a vegetarian definitely is for many people.

While I may not be a proper vegetarian, I do seek out vegetarian restaurants wherever we go and I love how this sector of catering has expanded and developed over the last few years. Café Paradiso in Cork, Ireland is a huge favourite of mine, although it is hundreds of miles away from where I live. My son says he had the best meal of his life there, meat free or otherwise. If that isn’t a testament to its greatness, I don’t know what is. Of course there is the iconic Cranks in London, Candle 79 and the Candle Café in New York and The Chicago Diner in (you guessed it!) Chicago. And when we eat in mainstream restaurants, I always want to know what the vegetarian – oops sorry - “meat free” option is.

I was pleased to read that eating meat free a few times a week is not just good for my pocketbook, it is also good for my health and the environment. Eating less meat can mean that you consume less saturated fat, which is a big health benefit. Many doctors argue that you reduce your risk of some pretty nasty diseases by consuming only moderate quantities of lean meat. Furthermore, meat production accounts for nearly one-fifth of all greenhouse gasses. The UN reported that if everyone had even one meat free day a week, the benefits to the environment would be huge. Meat production requires resources, from water to fossil fuels, and can pollute rivers and lakes.

Being “Occasional Vegetarians” really works as a lifestyle for my family and I. Although it is a choice based primarily around taste and not for reasons of ethics or health, I do feel good about how our choice impacts on the environment and how it helps to reduce our carbon footprint. It’s also a delicious way to eat more healthily. I heartily recommend embracing the “Occasionally Vegetarian” lifestyle – it’s a change you won’t ever regret.

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