I have heard it said that the biggest temptation to a born-again vegetarian is bacon. I don’t know what it is about the smell of frying bacon, but I agree it is one of the most attractive odours known to man. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean anything; one of my favourite food smells is that of frying liver, which as everyone knows is the iron-rich slippery organ of the devil. But bacon… there’s just something about it. Like with cheese on toast, you smell it, you want it.
Bacon was, in fact, what made my wife lapse the first time she dabbled in meat avoidance. She does not do anything in half-measures, and when she relented, it was not just a nibble of a bacon sarnie – no, it was a whole pie, chock full of bacon. (My mouth is actually watering as I’m writing that!) This was some years ago now and by the time I met her she was once again a fully-fledged carnivore. This is a good thing as at the time I struggled to cook an egg and would have found it extremely difficult to embrace any form of meat denial.
This time round though, bacon is not apparently an issue. Sausages were for a little while – some of our favourite dishes previously were sausage-based – but this ebbed away, and nowadays the biggest temptation is fish. In particular, fish-and-chip-shop-fish, and deep-fried crispy-battered whitebait (as done very eminently by the Chef & Brewer chain, although we are gutted to discover that our former favourite, the Axe & Cleaver in Dunham Massey, Cheshire, has defected to another brand, and it appears one with a poorer mastery of punctuation). My wife is trying to explain her craving for fish as a pregnancy-style request by her body for some nutrient she is lacking, but I just think she really likes fish.
Now I’m sure some of you reading this are thinking “but you can still be vegetarian and eat fish”. Allow me to disabuse you of this notion. Fish is meat. It is the meat of, surprisingly enough, fish. There is in fact a good word for people who eat only the meat of fish – pescetarian. My wife is not a pescetarian, she is a vegetarian, despite her brother’s innocent enquiries before his wedding (“my aunt-to-be is having swordfish, will that be okay for you?”). Just for absolute clarity, this includes seafood, even clams. If our culture accepted the eating of insects, they would also be banned. The jury is still locked in intense discussion over green sea slugs though.
Unfortunately, despite being only part-time, I must also avoid seafood, as it gives me horrible indigestion. It has not always been thus and I would love to find a cure, but Google has so far let me down. A pity; I adore prawns, mussels, scallops, crab (stir crab lightly cooked with onions, chillies, garlic, coriander and a splash of vodka through pasta – delicious). They just don’t like me any more, and have been a blemish on many otherwise lovely evenings. My occasional revisits to all things scuttly have diminished over the last few years and I am now avoiding them completely, to my chagrin. Happily – for my wife at least – I am not fond of fish, and am therefore unlikely to create potentially dangerous situations by coming home with a bagful of cod and secret chips (if you don’t tell anyone they have no calories!).
Now, you may ask (oh go on, please, it’ll prolong the article a little longer), why it matters what can and can’t be eaten by “true” vegetarians. I mean, clearly there’s no such thing as a moral vegetarian, right? Having milk in your tea there? How do you think that was gathered – chasing down wild cattle? Honey on your porridge perhaps? Honey is made by bees for a purpose, and I’m pretty sure that evolution didn’t design it to end up in a squeezy bottle in Tesco. And are those leather shoes you’re wearing? Or (for those who do avoid wearing the outer layer of a slaughtered cow) maybe a woollen jumper? Sheep are well-known to be altruistic and I’m sure they have no problem being restricted to a square mile of land through their entire lives, and they are also pretty accepting of their lack of ability to live out their potential lifespan in full (unless we have a lot of farmers content to support geriatric sheep long past their productive prime).
Further, why is it any more acceptable to eat fish than lower-order land animals? Where do you draw the line here? At least vegetarians can claim not to eat anything that is able to move independently (which does leave the grey area of Venus fly traps, but I don’t believe they are particularly wholesome anyway so are unlikely to present any dilemma). Why should it be okay to eat cephalopods (octopus and squid), which display signs of what we would term intelligence, and more so than some vertebrates? If you’re going to draw the line at things that feel pain, have a read of this article and the bibliography at the end. The only way, it seems, to avoid causing anything pain in the contribution to your dinner is to rule out animals entirely – and the only way to be sure of having nothing that has resulted from exploitation of animals, humane or otherwise, is to be vegan.
Veganism is scary. We eat tons of cheese and butter in our non-meat diet in order to maintain a reasonable dose of fat, salt and flavour, and I really could not imagine doing without it (although I once said the same about meat). Our friend is a vegan and doesn’t like mushrooms – she subsists virtually entirely on chips. We’ve been away on cottage weekends with her and have embraced the challenge of cooking decent food for her, and actually haven’t found it too difficult – our balti veg is vegan, my fat foodie friend loves a challenge anyway, and you can (painfully for me) just leave the parmesan out of a risotto, but you need to make sure you massage the rice like crazy throughout cooking, rather than the occasional lazy stir we normally manage.
A fairly low-effort dish that works for vegans is as follows:
Roasted vegetables with couscous (serves 2)
· Three peppers of various colour
· One aubergine
· A dozen cherry tomatoes on the vine
· Half pint of veg stock
· About 200g of couscous
· Pinch of saffron
· Handful of pine nuts
· Big handful of chopped fresh parsley (or couple of spoons of dried parsley)
Chop peppers and aubergine into bite-sized pieces, sprinkle with salt, olive oil and chilli flakes to taste, and place in oven at 200 degrees for 25 minutes or thereabout, depending on whether you like your veg slightly caramelised like I do. The tomatoes will need around 5 minutes less at the same heat, with just oil and salt.
Make the stock and add the saffron and parsley to soften, then stir in the couscous and leave to absorb the liquid. Toast the pine nuts and stir through the couscous when ready. Serve the couscous topped with the tomatoes and with the peppers and aubergine on the side.