Tuesday, 12 February 2008

The Vegetarian Challenge

Rob and I usually get on really well, agreeing with eachother on most subjects, and generally living fairly harmoniously together. However, on occasion he will make a statement that really irks me... A few weeks ago I was talking about what one might cook if a vegetarian friend was coming to dinner, and Rob casually said "You can't make a 'special' meal without meat".

Now, I'm an eager meat-eater. I adore steak, will happily eat meat as part of every meal, and think that the English 'roast dinner' is one of the most sublime meals of all time, but this comment really stung me. OF COURSE you can have a 'special' meal that doesn't include meat! At this point I was well into my third glass of wine, so I rashly threw down a challenge to myself - I would cook vegetarian food for an entire week. Hah! So there!

In the cold sober light of day, I began to panic. As a teenager I gave up meat for Lent for a couple of years, and remember enjoying the food I cooked for myself then. However, that was many years ago, and I only had vague memories of what I had actually cooked. We do regularly eat one meat-free meal - last Summer I bought vast amounts of beautiful tomatoes from a local grower, and spent hours chopping and roasting them. Consequently we still have a freezer full of small bags of roasted tomato sauce, which we both adore. A regular speedy supper is spaghetti with some of this fantastic tomato sauce, and a scattering of parmesan cheese. But that was about all I had to go on!

I began scouring my shelf of cookbooks and soon began to feel a little more inspiration. I then posted a question on the topic on the cookery forum to which I belong... and what a fabulous response! I suddenly had hundreds of ideas, and started the week feeling as if I could cook vegetarian food for a month with no problem at all!
I started well - a fabulous Jamie Oliver recipe for Aubergine Lasagne, which I had found in a recent edition of Easy Living magazine. It contained thyme, and a small chili, which gave it a lovely gentle heat. A real winner.

I also made a wonderful butternet squash, red pepper and cream cheese soup, having been inspired by a day of cooking soup with my friend Sarah who supplies a local village shop with her homemade goods. I had never thought of adding cream cheese to soup, but it gave it a very velvety texture. It's always great to find new uses for the fabulous local squash that are so plentiful here. The co-ordinating Le Creuset pan was a happy accident!

One of our favourite Friday night meals is an all-American classic, the burger. Good burgers, nice buns and a huge selection of toppings (including the ubiquitous orange slices of processed cheese!) make it a really decadent end-of-week feast. I thought I would attempt a vegetarian take on this meaty classic, so announced to Rob that we would be having... mushroom burgers instead. How his little face fell! I roasted the huge portobello mushrooms with garlic and butter, and put them into some lovely onion rolls I had bought. I thought it was delicious - at least as good as the meaty alternative, especially when served with lots of grainy mustard, spicy fries and the New Orleans Coleslaw from Nigella Express. I could tell Rob wasn't quite so enthusiastic.

And this is where my vegetarian project hit a small glitch... I came downstairs on Saturday morning to find Rob in the midst of preparing a distinctly meat-filled Carbonade of Beef. Rebellion within the ranks! Of course, he made a vast amount of beef casserole (and very delicious is was too) so we ended up eating it for days.

As soon as the casserole was finished, I tried again, this time making a recipe given to me by a fellow cooking-forum member: Squash-stuffed Cannelloni. This consisted of making a mashed squash stuffing, filling cannelloni (which I soon discovered was a very tedious task!), then pouring over a delicious oniony, creamy sauce, and baking the whole dish. This, I have to say, was a huge success. Both Rob and I loved it, and I even ended up making the dish again a few days later, adding some red pepper to the sauce this time.

And so, after a very brief foray into vegetarianism, we are back to eating meat most evenings. However, it did serve the very useful purpose of reminding me how many fabulous meat-free dishes there are, and how easy many of them are to prepare. I am now finding myself cooking at least 1 vegetarian meal per week from my now-large and inspired list of ideas... and I'm getting no complaints!