My decreasingly-fat foodie friend mentioned in his recent blog post that he was really missing butter, and that got me thinking about what I miss as a part-time vegetarian. The list is, slightly surprisingly, not all that long. Perhaps it’s just that I’ve become used to the diet – it’s been over two years, after all – but I think it also speaks volumes about just how much of what people eat is about habit.
Before my wife’s conversion, we had meat in the majority of main meals. As I’m not keen on fish, and have become frustratingly intolerant of seafood in recent years, this typically meant two or three chicken dishes a week, a couple with minced beef or lamb, regular sausage casseroles and the occasional steak. In total we probably had around 15 dishes that we rotated with varying regularity, with a couple of occasional flashy additions for when we had company or were just feeling a bit extravagant.
Today I would quite happily reprise any of those 15. In fact a couple of them still make the odd appearance, as we build up stocks of little meals for our boys to take to their childminder: the aforementioned casserole is a guaranteed plate-cleaner, lasagne and shepherds’ pie are very popular, and Bolognese still makes an occasional welcome appearance too. The ironic thing is that all of these dishes are normally prepared by my vegetarian wife, underlining the fact that there are no ethical grounds for her decision whatsoever.
Chicken dishes, however, have not appeared in our home since the conversion. It took us a year of mopping up vomit from random surfaces to fathom out that my eldest has a double allergy, which is why it took so long to isolate the culprits. It turns out he is allergic to fish – common enough in children, and often grown out of – and, unusually, chicken. One side effect of this is that when we go out to eat, I now have a whole range of additional dishes I can choose from – I would never eat chicken out previously because of the regularity with which we had it at home.
But the odd thing is, I look at our menu now and don’t see anything that I would replace if we were to go back to meat. In fact, as I’m also watching my weight now, I tend to share my wife’s view that the vegetarian option is the healthy option, so I suspect that, were we ever to backtrack, we would still keep 75% of our menu vegetarian.
That doesn’t stop me missing certain things though. Watching Masterchef is a masochistic torture as I salivate voluminously over yet another perfectly-cooked piece of venison being half-eaten and then ditched for some confection containing too much fruit. And someone recently mentioned to me how they’d just discovered the delights of home-made burgers, at which point I went out and immediately bought some Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference herby steak burgers (other own-brand quality burgers are available).
I’d forgotten how much I used to enjoy burgers. The key to a good homemade burger is in the onions – you have to chop them very, very small (1mm square is ideal but should be no bigger than 2mm). Squidge a thusly-dissected onion into a pound of minced steak and add seasoning, plain flour and an egg, and you have the perfect burger mix, all ready to shape into patties and stick in a frying pan for 15-20 minutes (depends on the size of your burgers – mine were always enormous). I used to add similarly tinily-chopped red chilli and various spices to the mix for a spiky alternative; or instead I’d top it with a good dose of youfatfoodie’s chilli jam from his wonderful Christmas hampers (see link above). So, loving burgers as we did, one of my top priorities when going veggie was to try and find a good veggie burger so that we could continue to enjoy the whole burger experience.
I quickly realised that there is no such thing as a good veggie burger. I tried a nice-sounding spicy spinach and chickpea burger which turned out to have the consistency of a cow pat, the colour of a scout’s uniform and all the flavour of something with very little flavour. I’ve seen various recipes using meat substitutes like Quorn – I vowed though when agreeing to assist my wife’s crusade never to sink to the level of needing meat substitutes. So I am still looking for a good veggie burger recipe – if you know of one, I’d be ever so grateful if you could share it with me, as I’ve got three pots of chilli jam in the cupboard that I don’t know what to do with.