My week of living meat free
After covering a variety of vegetarian subjects this month and tried cooking and tasting various vegetarian food, it became apparent to me that if I was truly to understand the life of a vegetarian then it would require more than just the occasional meat-less recipe, such as we might have anyway once in a while. No, I was going to have to commit to the cause of vegetarianism and spend some time eating nothing but veggie-suitable food for each meal on every day. So, for the last entry on my Vegetarian Month I did just that. I spent a week as a vegetarian. And here’s how it went.
Breakfast/lunch: Fried egg, potato, tomatoes and toast
Dinner: Spinach, tomato and mozzarella tart with boiled new potatoes
My working week this week was bookended by separate days off, one on Monday and the other on Sunday, which is never as appealing to me as having a proper semblance of a weekend (even if those two days off together are during the middle of the week). However, it does have the appealing advantage of beginning the week with a long lie-in and a cooked breakfast.
A proper fry-up is, of course, potentially one of the meatiest meals you could have, full of rashers of bacon and sizzling sausages at the very least, not to mention the likes of black pudding (arguably the least vegetarian foodstuff imaginable). Nevertheless, the finer elements of a good Full English Breakfast are often those that don’t contain animal flesh: potato, tomato, and a good fried egg. This substantial late breakfast, then, proved a pretty satisfactory way to start my veggie week and set me up well for the rest of the day.
That evening, I decided to go with something that used pastry, a staple of a lot of vegetarian main courses, so made a puff pastry tart with spinach, tomato and mozzarella. I enjoyed this, it’s the sort of thing I’d happily eat at a normal time anyway. Professor Plum, however, spent the time that I was preparing it saying things like: “mm chicken, tasty chorizo”. Whether she was already yearning for a return of a meatier diet or trying to tempt me from the veggie path I don’t know, but by the end of the meal she declared it unsuitably filling.
In contrast to Monday’s late and lazy start, Tuesday saw me working an early shift, while Professor Plum took the day off. This meant that I had to be up at 6:00 and breakfasting on nothing but a couple of slices of buttered toast before heading out for the working day. It also meant that I was back home by 3 and able to have lunch there, a lunch that consisted of further toast, this time in the form of cheese on toast.
Meanwhile, Professor Plum, at home for the day, was taking care of dinner and that dinner consisted of falafel burgers, with chips and a tomato and red onion salsa. This is the sort of thing that she would make as the vegetarian option for a barbeque or equivalent situation. Once again it feels like the kind of thing that we would quite happily eat, even if not required to be non-meat consuming. So far vegetarianism was proving relatively easy.
Breakfast: Toast and butter
Lunch: Cheddar and tomato toastie
Dinner: Lentil and tomato curry with wild rice
Once again, my working day was slightly abnormal on Wednesday as I had to work late through the evening, while Professor Plum was enjoying a day off and having to prepare dinner for us for when I got home at 9. At least I got a normal lunch break in the middle of the day. As I ordered a cheese and tomato toastie, it occurred to me that this vegetarian week was already shaping up to be very full of cheese. I guess I should count myself lucky that I didn’t decide to go for a vegan week!
Despite having claimed on these pages a couple of weeks ago that buying lentils for vegetarian curry would mean that we would just have a packet of lentils in the cupboard for years, Plum welcomed me home with a lentil curry and rice. This was fine, but, not entirely unlike the previous vegetarian curry dish we had, it definitely felt like it could have been better if it had included meat as well. By three days into the week I was starting to think that way about a lot of what I was eating.
Along with cheese, which continued to form a central part of my vegetarian diet by Thursday, I was finding myself eating a lot of bread this week. That didn’t really bother me, I love bread and tend to eat toast for breakfast and some kind of sandwich or similar for lunch almost every day. Still, I was feeling like there was a lot of bread now I was keeping a list of every meal. So, on Thursday, when I worked another early shift and came home for lunch, I had a baked potato instead (topped with more cheese, though).
That evening I decided to go with pasta, thinking that pasta dishes tend to be among those that don’t really require much of a meat element. I made a mix of asparagus, sun-dried tomato, pesto, pine nuts and mozzarella and that provided ample amounts of flavour to go with the pasta without having to use bacon or sausage or mince or any of the usual meaty accompaniments. However, I didn’t really get a perfect balance of flavour, resulting in a meal with far too much tomato.
Breakfast: Toast and butter
Lunch: Mozzarella, tomato and pesto panini
Dinner: Baked aubergine, followed by gnocchi in tomato sauce
With the week over half way done, both of us were kind of looking forward to a time when we could eat meat once again. We would definitely make terrible vegetarians in the long term. For Friday we went out for dinner to celebrate a friend’s birthday at a local Italian restaurant. This was a different aspect of the vegetarian dining experience and meant looking at the menu with new eyes.
To a certain extent Italian food offers good options for vegetarians, pasta and pizza can quite easily be accompanied with meat free toppings and sauces, but when it came to the “Main Courses” it was nothing but meat options. If I had thought that cheese, tomato and potato had come up a lot this week, then eating out wasn’t going to do anything to move me on from this position. Every vegetarian option on the menu had at least some of these ingredients and, as I ordered a baked aubergine starter and gnocchi in tomato sauce for my main, I ended up with plenty.
It wasn’t a restaurant that we had been to before, so it’s hard to judge objectively against all the other places where we’ve been and eaten meat, but the meal was a little uninspiring, bland and a bit flavourless. Whether this says more about vegetarian options when dining out or about the quality of that particular restaurant is up for debate.
By the weekend, we were filled with enough desire for meat in her diet that we were willing to try some sort of vegetarian meat substitute. While the likes of Quorn mince or bacon or some such were discussed, Professor Plum suggested, since it was Burns Night, that we had a go at tasting vegetarian haggis, which she bought from a local deli and prepared with mashed potato and gravy.
I don’t know what goes in a vegetarian haggis and, perhaps even more confusingly, I don’t know what they put it in to hold it all together without access to intestines (it looked like plastic and wasn’t supposed to be eaten, so it may well just be plastic). All that I can say is that it tasted like not very good stuffing. If this is what meat substitution is like then I’d much rather be the kind of vegetarian that just eats vegetables.
By the final day of our Vegetarian Week, we were mostly happy for it to be over and looking forward to being able to eat something made from an animal on Monday. Nevertheless, before we got to that, we had the little matter of a Sunday roast. Even when we’re both working on a Sunday we like to have a go at a proper, traditional Sunday roast, so we weren’t going to let a little something like a lack of meat stop us now.
First, though, I was able to enjoy another day at home. After my lunches during the work week taught me nothing so much as the fact that chain coffee shops have an extremely limited selection of vegetarian suitable sandwiches (some variant on cheese and tomato is about it), I was pleased to be at home and making a spanish omelette and some salad.
When it came to the evening, Professor Plum had some specific desires for something that would make a suitable Sunday dinner. She wanted something that could be “carved” into slices and served with gravy and the traditional roast veg. Although when putting together the ideal Christmas Dinner for her, Plum preferred her roast potatoes cooked in meat fat, using vegetable oil still produces pretty good results. When it came to the main element, however, there weren’t going to be many options beyond a nut roast.
Nut roast is something that is often maligned and rarely thought desirable, typically viewed as much too dry. Taking inspiration from a recipe from British Bake-off queen Mary Berry, I used thin strips of grilled aubergine to provide a sort of skin that would seal the rest of the ingredients in. I melted butter and softened shallots and garlic in this and then added a mix of pistachios and the various nuts that we already had in the cupboard (pine nuts, almonds, walnuts) along with egg and breadcrumbs to bind it together.
On the one hand, the eventual result, that I served with an onion gravy that was a bit of a grey colour thanks to the use of a vegetable stock cube, was unsatisfying in the sense of not being meat. On the other, it was far nicer than the haggis of the day before (perhaps because I made it from scratch rather than bought it pre-made). It was far from the dry blandness that I had expected, but it’s probably going to be roast beef next week!
So, what have I learnt from my week as a vegetarian?
Apart from that I’d make a terrible vegetarian? Really, I was pleased that I had the commitment and willpower to see it through for a week, so I doubt I could have managed more. It’s mostly taught me, though, that I don’t necessarily have the cooking or eating style that would work best for vegetarianism. Most of what makes my food interesting, as it turns out, is the variety of meat and flavours that can be given to meat. Without that, my food is quite repetitive. I guess if I were to become vegetarian full time then I’d get better at veggie food. As it is, I’m happy to be back to eating animals.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: I didn’t really doubt I could be a vegetarian for a week – I thought suggesting as much was patronising to my vegetarian friends (and wondered whether the whole experiment was slightly fetishizing a vegetarian diet) – but I did question whether we could maintain our usual level of variety. As it turns out, we did pretty well at the variety, but I missed meat considerably more than I expected. We usually have a few leftovers or cold cuts in the fridge to snack on after work, so I missed that, but also using meats like bacon and chorizo to flavor dishes.
Most culture have a few standard veggie dishes, whether it’s a pizza, an omelette, a curry or a mezze selection. We could probably have gone two weeks without eating the same cultural cuisine twice. We never got around to the weirder meat substitutes (vegetarian lamb chops are the sort of food I can only imagine sells to vegetarian parents feeding their kids’ meat eating friends), but the veggie haggis was quite a sad affair compared with the real thing. There was a noticeable uptick in our use of herbs and spices (already pretty common) and my cheese consumption, though frankly I’ll take any excuse to eat more cheese. Lunches were harder – I had leftover lentil curry with rice or potatoes three times – though I did okay for breakfasts, because I love eggs.
The most disappointing meal was at the Italian restaurant (unlike Mustard, I’m more than prepared to blame that on the restaurant than the lack of meat – I had spinach and ricotta cannelloni, which is one of my favourite Italian dishes normally), while the most pleasant surprise was the nut roast; I’d definitely have that on a Sunday again. I’ve done the falafel burgers before (the original recipe is vegan, but I filled mine with mozzarella!) so I was confident about them, and I used the leftover salsa in the lentil curry. Some of our earlier experiments in the month had given us dishes that felt like a collection of sides (something I’m sure veggies dining out have had to put up with!), but I think this week we did achieve main meals which felt complete, even if it was hard to get out of the meat-eaters habit of plating the food up with a star ingredient and satellite veg.
Overall, I enjoyed the week, and we should include more veggie dishes in our usual cooking. I did miss meat, but we definitely got our five a day every day. It shouldn’t take banning meat for a week for us to experiment with dishes like these, and hopefully from now on it won’t.