1 in 8 people now choose to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. Many are completely happy with this choice and they do it for ethical reasons, environmental ones, or for the much talked about health benefits. However, adopting and maintaining a totally plant-based diet is often easier said than done. A great many more of us want to eat less meat- but struggle to make changes. It’s particularly difficult in a British food culture where for centuries, meat has very often been the principle element of a dish. These are hard habits to break.
I love foods of all types and recognise, for all the reasons previously mentioned, that I really should eat less meat. I want to. But being honest, the veggie moussaka has got to be absolutely spectacular to make me swerve past the flank steak. I’m not alone – many of us know that we have to approach things differently but need a bit of help.
Losing the labels is the first step. All too often these vegetarian dishes occupy their own special place on the menu. It’s usually somewhere near the bottom. Despite recent massive improvements in quality and efforts at re-branding to ‘plant based’ or ‘meat-free’ for instance, the vegetarian option still hasn’t yet shaken off the stigma of being the food that plays second fiddle to the ‘hero’ meat dish. It needs to be brought into the mainstream offering.
Just as important is not to change too much too quickly. As contract caterers we often say that our main competition is the high street – and yet we are not the high street. The key difference is that in many of our restaurants we have served the same customers every breakfast and lunchtime for years. They won’t thank us for doing away with the buttermilk fried chicken and bringing in the funky new seitan alternative overnight.
As with most things, incremental changes are a way to go. In many favourite dishes (soups, stir fries, rice and noodle dishes), it’s perfectly possible to replace some of the meat element with enhanced vegetable content. It’s not deception – we have to lose that mindset, it’s just a really great nutritious plate of food. Although it’s not completely meat free, it’s lessening our reliance on animal protein, and that’s what we’re trying to achieve.
Most importantly, eating less meat requires catering companies and cooks up and down the land to believe the message. It’s a fundamental cultural shift that needs to happen in many of our organisations. Those of us who have cooked for many years and consider ourselves ‘old school’ need to re-wire our brains and think differently. Delicious meat free foods have to be front and centre of our concept developments and we have to give them pride of place in our restaurants alongside everything else we serve.
It might take a little while to change old habits – not least our own but, as contract caterers, if we believe it, we will bring our customers with us.
Roasted tomato and summer vegetable Balti (serves 4)
1 x onion
5 x large ripe tomatoes
3 x cloves garlic
1 x courgette
1 x Aubergine
1 large carrot
25g grated fresh ginger
½ tsp chilli powder
½ tsp garam masala
½ tsp cumin
½ tsp ground coriander
20 dried curry leaves
1 x birds eye chilli, split down the middle
100ml coconut milk
20ml lime juice or tamarind concentrate
Rather than make the sauce on the stove top, I find it simpler and quicker to roast the ingredients together. It concentrates the flavour of the tomatoes much better and it’s far less messy. Runner beans are a very unfashionable veg these days but they are relatively cheap, plentiful and have great flavour, perfect for this sort of dish.
Roughly chop the onion, large ripe tomatoes and cloves of garlic and combine with the grated fresh ginger, turmeric, chilli powder, garam masala, cumin, ground coriander, dried curry leaves and birds eye chilli. Add to an ovenproof dish, drizzle with oil and sprinkle with salt. Roast at 180 degrees for about 30 minutes until the tomatoes are pulpy and lightly charred. Add a splash of water if needed – be careful not to let them burn. Set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, chop the courgette, aubergine and carrot and sauté over a high heat until browned. Put these vegetables in a bowl and add 150g sliced and blanched runner beans.
When cooled slightly, put the sauce ingredients into a blender with approximately 200ml water and pulse to desired texture and consistency. Add 100ml coconut milk (more if you like) and 20ml lime juice or tamarind concentrate. Bind the veg with the sauce and season to taste. Add this vegetable mixture to a pan and heat very gently for 5 mins before serving.
Garnish with fresh coriander and serve with rice.
By Chris Ince, Chef Director at Atalian Servest