How to eat more knockout delicious veg (and less meat)
I’m not usually a fan of a ‘national day or week’. National mulled wine day on March 4th anyone? And I’m always torn between celebrating national carrot cake day (3rd Feb) and international carrot cake day (4th April). But to me any day/week that shine the light on eating more veg is a good thing.
Every year, National Vegetarian Week encourages us to put a spotlight on delicious vegetable-centred meals. We all know we should be eating more vegetables and less meat, fish and dairy, for both our bodies and the planet so here are ten things to help you become a better veg cook.
Treat veg like meat
Lots of vegetables are much better when hit with some serious flavour or put on the grill as you might a steak.
A bit of char and smoke can complement a beloved vegetable or boost a neutral cheese, such as halloumi or feta. An aubergine is an obvious one – baba ganoush is a friendly blend of vegetables and smoulder, as is a halved aubergine grilled and basted in white miso. Onions, too, work well grilled slowly then tossed through plump pearl barley grains. Even halved Little Gems are transformed when quickly charred and simply dressed in oil, vinegar and chopped herbs.
Using the right amount of seasoning in your dishes is often what sets apart a good veggie cook from an excellent one. One of the most common mistakes is when people only add salt at the end of cooking – add it in stages, and keep tasting as you go. Yes, often a sprinkle at the end is a good idea, but seasoning from the start – when boiling pasta, roasting tomatoes or stir frying veg – makes an enormous difference to the flavour.
Brining is also a game-changer when it comes to some veg – from corn on the cob to many root veg – as it seasons them from the inside out.
Umami – the fifth taste – is that deep savouriness that you get from things like parmesan or sundried tomato. One of my favourite ways to get this satisfying flavour in food is through miso.
Miso is a paste made from fermented rice, barley or soya and adds an incredible umami depth to just about anything. I use it to roast veg (carrots are especially good), in dressings, broths and dips. Miso comes dark, white, and a number of shades in between.
Use fresh herbs
I use herbs in almost everything I cook, picking bay, rosemary and lavender from the garden and softer herbs from my window sill or from the herbs I store in a little water in glasses in my fridge door.
It is a rare dish that won’t be enhanced by herbs – whether it be a gremolata, quick pesto, chopped parsley or some delicate fronds of dill – they add freshness and flavour to veg-based dishes.
There is something so joyful about eating ingredients when they are at their very best, and it goes without saying that eating local, seasonal foods is better for the environment. Damsons as the nights draw in, apricots when the nights are at their longest, strawberries on a searing hot day, squash at Halloween. It is about an ingredient at its peak, the apex of its flavour, but more than that it’s about a time, a place and the memories of summers, Christmases and days past that are wrapped up in every bite of food we eat.
A top note
I almost always finish a plate with a final spoonful of something. A slick of yoghurt to top a chilli spiked dahl, a drizzle of quick herb oil on a bowl of chilli, some toasted hazelnuts strewn on a bowl of soup. To me, it’s these final considerations that set a good meal apart from a great plate of food.
Usually the quickest thing to do, these finishing touches layer flavour, add colour and create a contrast of hot and cold. These top notes make food look more thought out, they give a final boost of taste and they make you look like a bloody good cook without really having done anything at all.
Tofu and tempeh
Look to small producers who are making tofu (and tempeh) in the UK – their produce is head and shoulders above supermarket stuff. I think part of the reason many people turn their noses up at it is because they haven’t had the good stuff.
Try Miso Tasty for amazing tofu, Tempeh Meads for tempeh, or have a go at making your own (I even have a recipe for chickpea tofu in A Modern Way to Cook) The brilliant thing about tofu or tempeh is that they are vehicles for a serious amount of flavour – try marinades or cures before putting them in sandwiches, stir fries or noodle salads.
These are often forgotten in cooking but to me they are just as key to a good plate of food as flavour, particularly in vegetarian food. I think about how children respond to food – we are tuned into texture just as much as flavour. Toasted seeds tossed into a salad; charred, oil-drizzled bread next to a bowl of soup; the crunch of some peppery radishes inside a soft taco. It’s texture, just as much as flavour, that hits the taste buds and tells your brain that this is delicious and helps you to feel satisfied.
A smoky flavour is often what’s missing in veggie dishes. Cooking veg on a griddle pan is a good way to get these smoky notes – or simple things like cooking flatbreads directly on a gas ring.
Smoked paprika or chipotle are friends of plant-based dishes too – if I can find any excuse to shake some of the sweet smoky stuff on to my food, I will.
A few years ago I visited my holy grail: the chilli fields of La Vera in Spain. Over the years I have been lucky enough to tour a bunch of different artisans and producers, but this was my favourite one of all – fields and fields of brave red chillies, picked by hand and carted to huge kilns in a beautiful old smokery in the middle of the fields, where fires were lit below ceilings made of wire racks holding thousands of chillies, to smoke them and get that wonderful taste.
Look at the dish as a whole
For many years in the UK, our cuisine revolved around meat and two veg – and if you took away the meat then you weren’t left with anything very exciting. Things are different now, and a lot of this is down to being very positively influenced by other food cultures. A fragrant curry, spread of tacos or bowl of pasta offer us infinite possibilities.